28 May 2009

Bark undersides

The underside (inner side?) of bark is often more interesting than the outside. While still on the tree but not quite attached, it attracts many spiders such as the huntsman (one of whom appeared on this blog a few days ago, in a space that should have been devoted to beetles) to attach egg sacs. The small space between bark and wood makes a perfect nursery, and prized shelter for many. But even as forest detritus, bark undersides are worth prizing.

This piece (5 cm x 2 cm) has been shed by a coastal banksia, a genus of 76 species and innumerable surprises. Banksias have spectacular bark all the way through, no matter which species. The woods are quite unusual, too. Some, such as that of B. integrifolia, if the bark is shed, look as if they are covered with fine netting. The heartwood is pulpy and could remind you of a cycad.

Every banksia tree and bush is a character, especially the "old man banksias". These gnarled trees have enormous flower heads that invite imagination, to say the least. They don't feel as if they could be made of anything but 1960s plastic. But the "fruits" could give you dreams. They make the trees look inhabited by hairy many-eyed creatures with heavy eyelids and no shyness – they stare. They always look friendly to me, but "big bad Banksia men" star in some of the most beloved stories and illustrations by May Gibbs.

23 May 2009


Case moths feelings and feltings

Their faces are incapable of registering disgust that we can recognise, but this case moth caterpillar has picked up house to move from the top of a balcony railing to the underside. It measures less than 5 mm (3/16 inch) to the top of its tower.
from one of my favourite books,
Life Stories of Australian Insects by Mabel N. Brewster, Agnes A. Brewster, and Naomi Crouch, Dymock's Book Arcade, Sydney, 1946:
FAMILY PSYCHIDAE (Case Moths) These are moths whose larvae live within silken causes, covered either with pieces of stick or leaves, attached or just more or less smooth. In walking, the caterpillar has only the head and three pairs of horny legs without the case, and this part of the body is consequently hardened, and is much darker in colour than the rest of the body which is protected by the case. It drags the case along as it walks. The method of constructing the case is worth observing. We reared some larvae of the large case moth from the egg. At first they resembled tiny black threads, but when they moved we saw that each had a slender web attached to itself. The spinning commenced at once, till a tiny bag was made. This increased in size, but the larva worked along the upper edge, much as one proceeds in knitting a sock. The growth of the case keeps pace with the growth of the larva. The upper edge is always loose, so that it can be attached to any object. To strengthen the case, pieces of sticks, leaves, pine needles, etc., may be woven in.

Everyone has noticed these case moths and the wonderful arrangement of the 'sticks' or leaves. The inside of the case is smooth and silky. If the caterpillar be placed in a box with a glass lid, one will soon see regular transverse lines of short silken threads, not unlike railway sleepers, all over the surface of the glass. These are the 'foot-holds' of the caterpillar to enable it to move over the smooth surface of the glass. It does it so quickly that one can hardly see the placing of these threads.
The larva pupates within the case, and then a beautiful, soft, white, silky 'blanket' is made to protect the pupa. The female never leaves the case—she is wingless and lays the eggs within it. The male emerges from the end of the case, the pupal shell being pushed right out, and hangs from the tip of the case. The male moth is winged and is not very conspicuous. The tiny larvae let themselves down from the case by long silken threads.

Oeceticus elongata,
the largest case moth, the larva of which forms a very large case, with pieces of stick sewn in, is of orange-brown and black colour. There is the faggot case, leaf case, and the beautiful little ribbed case. The 'moths' are popularly named from the type of case woven by the larvae. Interesting experiments can be made to show the weaving powers of the larvae. We cut the case of the Oeceticus from end to end. Almost instantly the larva drew it together at the upper end; then wove the edges so neatly and so closely that it was hard to detect where the incision had been made. It is curious, too, to find that there are careless individuals who just cobble their cases together; we came across this three or four times. Another time we made a case of flannel in the form of the Oeceticus case. We removed the larva from its own case and left it overnight. In the morning we found it was comfortably within the flannel case. Then we placed its own case back again. It vacated the flannel one and went back to its own case. We split open the flannel case and found it was lined with a layer of silky threads . . . The Oecticus elongata has a very long existence as a caterpillar—a year, and they can live without food supply for months.

The occupants of these cases were gone when I found them. They are a faggot case and an Oeceticus elongata.
It's no wonder that its own case would be far preferred to anything we could construct. As a feltmaker, for years I've made what to our touch, is a very soft fabric from fine Merino wool.

Imagine the silken luxury inside. Even the most pea-under-a-dozen-mattress-sensitive princess is a lout with skin as thin as cork bark compared to the demands of these rather common caterpillars. And every one of these larvae spin and weave finer than the most enchanted princess.

21 May 2009

A dung beetle's performance art

Dung beetles often fly into water troughs in the wee hours, and come day, are still treading water. They, like this * fiddler beetle nectar-eater who was almost fatally charmed by a water gauge,have strong legs, thank beauty!Though they might not have the egos they should have in the modern world, these Australian fiddler beetles could brag about the time they won "Bug of the Month" ("the first Bug of the Month not found in the U.S.") on the splendid What's That Bug site produced by "Lisa Anne and Daniel". LA and D have great taste, for they say: "The truth is, the site is an art project."

Art lovers everywhere, unite!

* This common name must have changed from "fiddle" to "fiddler", though why we should support the change is a mystery to me. I agree with the Chews of Brisbane who call it the "fiddle beetle", as they also know the pipe from the one who plays the tune. What the Eupoecila australasiae isn't is the rose chafer (a sloppy name for quite a few beetles, it seems, including Cetonia aurata, C. floricola and also Macrodactylus subspinosus), though some call this beetle a rose chafer too. "Fiddle" is a most accurate descriptive name, until such time that evolution changes its looks to resemble a fiddler. Or say, a gardener who rubs roses.

What should a fiddle crab look like, and a fiddler beetle? Then there is the infrequently seen Welsh rarebit beetle vs. that common introduced pest to Australia, the Welsh rabbit beetle.

20 May 2009

Burma doesn't have to be an example of "the more things change..."

"It was sad, was the general opinion, but what can one do!"

"Diplomats set to meet with Suu Kyi"
"Burma had allowed diplomats from all 30 foreign embassies to observe the trial on Wednesday but the move was for one day only, the diplomat said." - RTE News

"I discovered with horror that the people who where gathered here to build a better, nobler, more beautiful (and so on) world, stank of the old and rotten one. They were the same statesmen and diplomats who had forced the world into its present lethargy, pompous representatives of sovereign states. The same old methods. The same holy traditions and noble intrigues. The same beautiful, sanctimonious speeches."

It's been years since this.

"I beg of you, how could the mighty nations of the world who have inscribed on their banners the rights of man, democracy and other rights and freedoms, intervene in the sovereign internal affairs of another country?"
"They did not want to realise that our world had become one and indivisible."
NOTE: All the italicized quotations are by B.N. Jubal, from The Smile of Herschale Handle, Currawong Publishing Co., Sydney, 1947. Jubal was a new Australian, having escaped from Austria.

16 May 2009

Giles Watson's poetry–"little celebrations of the secret"

Carrion beetles Ptomaphila perlata
hunting maggots on a dead rat
These pictures have been posted here as inspiration for Giles Watson and others, not excluding the world auto industry (Imagine an all-terrain war/disaster transporter with this armour and cab-chassis independence).

"All of these reactions of the recently initiated are, of course, so much better than the indifference of the many, who for the most part are unaware that the mysteries even exist. These poems have been written not in an attempt to decipher the code or unravel the mystery, for this is largely impossible. They are merely little celebrations of the secret."
— Giles Watson

Giles Watson's subjects and his poems are very much alike—wonders too little known. Some of his poems (plus "source material" commentaries as intriguing as his mind) are on his site:
Cryptogams Poems—The Secret Lives of Spore-Bearing Plants.
Some accompany his stunning pictures here on Flickr.

He writes not only of what he sees, feels, and has often tasted—
I remember them so well, still sizzling in their buttered bath,
In a white dish, and the way their pink-white flesh slithered through my lips,
A paroxysm of sense. The melting in the mouth of my first initiation.
but of the soil that clings to these things—soil composed of tales about them, dense, ancient and complex as peat; history that surrounds them, be they small as a spore or large and unmapped as the insides of a certain tree; reputation fearsome, musty, and beloved. Always, and unusually for one who writes, he stands away from the centre of attention, even when he says:
There is more flesh
here, than in many louder tongues.
I asked Giles to write a poem for my recent post,
Bryophytes and grandmothers and many other things
and his response is too good for this blog. One day I hope to own a book by him—a type of book that as a class, is more viewed with horror (the look away or flight reflex) by most people than any scene of carrion beetles feasting: that most overrated, undersold "slim volume" (when written by a manufactured poet).

A book of poems by Giles Watson, however, would be as surprisingly beautiful as a carrion beetle, as irresistible as something glittering in a hole. A collection by him would remind me of another of my favourite books-to-save-if-I-could-only-save-a-bagful—Alan L. Mackay's A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (Institute of Physics Publishing, Bristol and Philadelphia, 1991)—not to mention another small and powerful volume that influenced Mackay.

A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations is a unique, idiosyncratic collection that includes many great, witty poems that I've never seen anywhere else. From the Preface to the First Edition:
". . . after work in industry, I was able to join Bernal's crystallographic laboratory at Birkbeck College, London. The years in which Bernal was active were immensely stimulating. Besides the revolution in biology all kinds of social, scientific and political movements had their base there and the decrepit buildings which housed the laboratory were an important international and intercultural crossroads . . . Bernal's example of the excitement and wholeness of life remains an inspiration. However, it is to my father, whom a book of poetry helped to carry through the Great War, from September 1916 to the end, that I would wish to dedicate this selection."
- Alan L Mackay, Department of Crystallography, Birkbeck College, London
Are all your favourite poems, too, written by people obsessed by the curiouser—mathematicians, accountants, physicists, school teachers, trash collectors . . . ? Anyone but a certifiable poet?

At the moment, we cannot pack a volume of Giles Watson's poetry, and must settle for the web. Since he also left some "little celebrations" in the comments section of another of my posts, I'm reprinting them here so you might notice them:
Three poems by Giles Watson

I'm glad you have written an ode to the dung beetle. Life would be a lot poorer without them. I hope you don't mind me posting three poems at once, but here are three more insects whose reputations have, I am sure, been unjustly maligned:


It doubled as our larder,
This horse turd where we grew;
One day we pupated
And another day we flew.

We have hairy legs,
Dung-coloured are our bristles,
We fly and look for fresh new piles
Among the grass and thistles.

When you walk by we’ll gad about,
A merry cloud of yellow
Where the dung is steaming
Or where it has grown mellow.

When we were grubs, we gobbled dung
Like all the other flies,
But now we’re homing in on them
Fixed in our compound eyes,

And all the scatophagic flies
We’ll gobble where they sit,
For now that we are fully grown
We’re sick of eating shit.

Source material: Despite its scientific name, the adult dung-fly Scathophaga stercoraria does not eat dung, but preys on other species of fly feeding on it. The larvae develop in the dung. The males, yellow in colour, are the most commonly observed; the females are rarer and greyer. This song was inspired by observation of their habits on Port Meadow in Oxford, where there is a ready supply of horse dung. They are equally partial to flies which feed on cow-pats.



I am of fine lineage; my forebears
Skulked in the crevices of London
In 1670. Aristophanes knew them too.

To prevent our coming is impossible;
A greatcoat holds enough of us,
In its hems, to stock a house.

We keep to the cracks by day.
Or secrete ourselves in old socks;
By night we suck your blood.

You can stop every nail hole with putty,
Every crack with plaster of Paris,
Smother the ceiling with white lime,

Dip the bedstead, disassembled
In turpentine or corrosive sublimate,
And sprinkle the sheets also, to no avail.

Though your house reeks and drips with spirits,
I’ll crawl the crack between your legs;
You’ll be scratching by the morning.

Source material: Curtis’s British Entomology, 569.



Sylla the dictator fell to our host
As Pliny’s discourse will tell you -
He scratched and he groaned
And he gave up the ghost -
And if that’s not enough to repel you:
We have lobster claws
We have bloodsucking jaws
For tapping our guts to your pulses,
And our dinner’s apparent,
For our bellies transparent
Make it easy to watch peristalsis.

Source material: Pliny records that Pherecydes Sirius and Sylla the dictator both died phthiriasis, a disease caused by louse infestation, and Quintus Serenus adds: “Great Sylla too the fatal scourge hath known;/ Slain by a host far mightier than his own.” See G. Shaw and F.P. Nodder, The Naturalist’s Miscellany, 1789-1813.
Thank you, Giles Watson.

NOTE: All poems and commentary by Giles Watson are copyright © Giles Watson and are not to be reprinted without his permission.

14 May 2009


The weakness of her flesh starts it. Forget passion. This is bones, ligaments, nerves, viscera, screaming in anarchy. Sickness--funny word to sum up complete subjugation. Pain, that overwhelming force, the only exercise her brain experiences--finally subsides, leaving a preoccupation with its existence as real as the damp of a tidal flat. She walks an empty beach of self-absorption.

Thunder clouds appear, and turn into a season of storms, perpetually pounding the beach to pocks. She writes letters. Not belles lettres, but hell's letters. Anger gives her a sense of impending doom, a prescience of wrongness of the ways of progress. She sees this wrongness everywhere, as the grains of sand.

She flings her thunderbolts everywhere. Her beach looks like a mined field, but her bolts are piercing as red jelly frogs.

One day between storms, she labels her state: Crisis of irrelevancy.

Letters become more strident, take on a full, old-fashioned clarion tone. She is a suffragette chained to the Hyde Park gate with no policemen to carry her off, no photographers and the only onlookers: pigeons. No martyrdom possible when the campaign is a private one, and the non-engagement of others as easy as dropping a piece of paper.

Then there are the faces of those she visits after not seeing them for a year. In the phone calls that she doesn't know how to end, she next labels her state Totally Confirmed when she hears the nails pounding the coffin lid down on an Interesting Person. Evelyn taps on her keyboard hm'ing to the handset on her desk, Chris slurps spaghetti, the dwindling others just wait for a decent time to say they are late for the same appointments she always enlisted at certain times.

The metamorphosis is complete. The result is panic, an old horror of hers: being trapped by a bore.
She begins to explore the types of bores, and writes:
  1. Drug bores. Nasty when refused companionship/audience. Foodies included.
  2. Sick bores, whose physical or mental pain makes sickness the abiding interest in pre-death life, a length of time which is always interminable.
  3. Religious bores. Fanaticland, from evangelists to tennis and film verbal replay machines.
  4. Has-been bores. Historical achievers, whose achievement is history.
  5. Bore holes. Those who never had a substance of their own, so suck it from any popular source. The quicksand of boreland.
  6. . . .
This defining of bores becomes engrossing. She identifies The Twelve Major Types. She elaborates on the myriad of variations. She draws charts and devises quizzes to track the Stages of an Interesting Person to Ten-Point Bore.

So involved does she become in observation and research, and writing, that she becomes too busy to communicate with anyone else until she finishes, when her work has become a Book; and she finds publishers.
In the USA, the book is launched as The Poison Personality: How to Stop Being a Bore in 7 Days.

The Poison Personality reaches the New York Times Bestseller list in less than thirty days and then sits in number 3 position as if the list is stuck, until a challenge is made that three points of the Ten-Point Bore and all of the trademarked behavior modification Plan are in essence, translations from G. J. Taylor's 1984 paper in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, "Psychotherapy with the boring patient". See for instance, a few sentences from Taylor's abstract, and the brilliance of the little book that tops the charts will be clear:
Boredom is an unpleasant affective state which may be evoked by monotonous sensory input and reduction of an individual's internal instinctual and fantasy activity. Certain difficult patients have the capacity to evoke boredom in their psychotherapists and unless technical modifications are used, therapy quickly reaches an impasse and may be terminated on the grounds that the patient is 'not psychologically-minded.' Chronically boring patients have an impaired capacity for symbolization and can be identified by their non-symbolic communicative style. This reflects an inner struggle with primitive mental states due to fixation at, or regression to, the paranoid-schizoid developmental position.
The week after the Taylor controversy, the New York Post quotes "an unsubstantiated source" to reveal that the author of The Poison Personality was the ghost writer of the EZYreed Uplift Bible™, and sales rise to Number 1.

"A triumph of insight .... Exposes a raw nerve string of insecurity in everyone." - The New York Times

"Updike should read this." - The Village Voice

"A threat to all people of sincere faith who have a duty to spread the word." - The Watchtower

"If only it worked." - Rowan Pelling, The Independent on Sunday

Though there were a few scathing reviews, they must have only spurred sales. The book has now been translated into 125 languages and is sold in 132 titles. In Australia it is titled: The Bore Well. In Canada, a committee is still deciding the title, but the book is widely available upon request in certain chemist shops. In the UK, it was first sold thirteen months ago as The Well of Boringness. There the launch was picketed by a new group, Sufferers from VUPS (Very Uninteresting Person Syndrome). They call anything with "bore" in the title, "pre-enlightened" and want it banned; and they used the launch opportunity to issue a press release calling for NHS funding and an end to job discrimination, especially where they say "prejudice is most deeply entrenched: in the arts", a point hotly disputed in a subsequent op-ed piece in The Times that caused incalculable offense to many.

Perhaps because of that incident, Bore Identification (B-ID) has now become an international "sport".

For her, life is now a blur of book signings, interviews, talk shows, so much time in planes that she longs for a quiet day to collect her thoughts again, because there are so many projects she's involved in now. Her publishers are pushing her to finish the next book, Decorating for Joy. And then there's the ghosted cookbook, Recipes for a Relevant Life—and of course, the autobiography that made Publishers Weekly for the size of the advance: Coming out Famous.

Her old friends are universally worried. She hasn't rung them in years. Each one now knows why. She wrote the book about me.

10 May 2009

The fruit for people who don't eat fruit

To many, a piece of fruit is as welcome as a piece of good advice. And it's true that many fruits are as unpalatable and just plain bad, as Philip Dowling recently complained in the whinge columns of the Fairfax newspapers, Australia:
A floury apple a day keeps the children away

I KNOW my children are overweight and that I am a terrible parent because I do not encourage them to eat enough fresh, healthy fruit . . . I have tried buying apples that are labelled crisp and fresh but the children tell me next evening that they had to throw them away because they were so floury . . .I have tried buying fruit that is in season. Often I find that half are crisp and fresh and the other half are floury . . . Nectarines, peaches and even plums can be floury, too. Even watermelons . . .We have charities telling us that Australia is throwing away more than 3 million tonnes of food a year. I'm surprised this figure is so low. My children are obviously contributing more than their fair share to it because they have an obsessive father who keeps buying fruit in the forlorn hope that most of it will not be floury from shops highlighting the word "fresh" in their advertising.
I have written before about the "fresh" fruit problem in Australia, in Fresher than that from the "fresh food people" But since that had to do with the superiority of wasps to supermarkets, and Mr Dowling can never aspire to being a wasp mum, I suggest he become the next best thing: a planter of a persimmon tree.

Persimmons are not only for people who hate fruit, but for people who love fruit. They are not only for people who don't garden, but for gardeners who love to look out their window and see a tree that is a marvel of beauty, economy, and stoicism. It thrives without care. It gives without being given unto. Its fruit isn't Revlon fruit, all cosmetic. It is a fruit that is so good that X, who HATES fruit, looks forward to a bowl of unadorned sliced persimmons after dinner, every night in the season, which has just ended.

This picture is of the last one of two persimmons, both of which I kept just a little longer than I would have if there were still a feast of them left. The other one, even more bletted (kept till soft) was squished into a bowl of oatmeal made with creamy milk, pinches of nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, a little glob of butter, and some honey (or dark brown sugar, if you like). What a comfort meal!

There are many excellent recipes for persimmons, but when persimmons are cooked they taste so much like pumpkin that unless you've got a glut of them, in my opinion they're better enjoyed fresh. Having said that, they do enhance if given the chance: cakes, rice dishes, seafood, fruit salad, cold platters of anything including meat, cheese, and sharp salty olives—and although I'll hate myself for the sacrilege, I have to admit that a squizz of lemon or even better, lime, doesn't hurt fresh persimmons one bit. It's delicious, as is a sprinkle of cracked pepper.

Better than cooking if you have more persimmons than you can eat fresh, is drying persimmon slices. There are special varieties, such as Tanenashi, that have been developed for drying, but all persimmons dry well. The best dried fruit I ever ate was sliced dried persimmon from a farm in California, but the Chinese have dried whole persimmons for thousands of years, and dried persimmons are popular throughout Asia as a snack, a cough treatment, and an ingredient in other foods, such as a Korean drink made from dried persimmon. Chinese dried persimmons usually have coats of sugar and other additives on them, so if you make your own, you can dry yours naked. I can't imagine any child not liking dried persimmons, as they have great chewy texture in addition to concentrated sweetness. But I still think the best way to eat a persimmon is fresh sliced so you can see the inside (with its beautiful star) and outside (with its skin) at the same time—eaten all by itself, as it is so extraordinarily fine.

The perfect children's fruit
Persimmon is so easy to like, it's a perfect children's fruit. It's so much fun to decide when to eat, that choosing which to eat when makes a perfect children's game.

Persimmons are sweet without being bland. They are never floury. Ripe persimmons never have the complexity of a good apple (the kind children who "don't like fruit" just hate). But while persimmons have no acid bite, they are still complex enough to be delicious to people like me—acid addicts, so they are also the perfect family fruit. Astringency is another factor that puts people off some fruit. Some varieties of persimmons are astringent until ripe (just like bananas). These must be eaten when they are quite soft. The skin of my astringent-variety persimmon then turns translucent and the persimmon feels like a filled water balloon.

Different varieties have different shapes—round, squat tomato, pointed acorn—all beautiful. But the subtle variations of colours—skin and insides—are indescribably beautiful between one persimmon and another, and even in one persimmon. They make the paintings of Bonnard look like black-and-whites. Persimmon colours—fruit (and the extraordinary fruit-imitating-leaves!)—are all the reds and oranges and flames in the kind of dream that gives you a face asleep that awes a watcher—for whatever it is that is happening to you in that mysterious dream, it would be a crime to tear you from it. The skins of these persimmons are very thin, their taste adding to the flavour of the soft flesh inside, much like the flesh and skin of a perfect pear (something very hard to find, and only lasting about ten minutes).

There are also varieties of persimmons that don't have to ripen past the astringency phase, because they are never astringent. My non-astringent variety can be eaten when crunchy, like apples. Even X, the fruit hater, likes these too. They ripen to the same soft lusciousness as the "astringent" variety, but they have rather tough skin. I prefer the astringent variety, not only for the taste of the flesh and skin, but for the beauty of the translucent colours and the feel of the fruit in the hand. I'm surprised it hasn't been banned. But both are delicious, and the picture is of the non-astringent.

My non-astringent tree is a very heavy bearer, even through these years of drought. Neither gets any water other than what the sky tosses down. Both trees are so small, the two of them could fit in many city gardens. My astringent variety ripens first, and only after its fruit is consumed does the non-astringent tree make its fruit ready to pick. If only restaurant staff had that kind of sensitivity! We must pick both trees before the fruit is ripe or there would be none left for us once the crows, king parrots, rainbow lorikeets, and rosellas choose their fruit during the day and the fruit bats, wallabies and roos pick at night. Instead we share fruit every year, leaving some on the trees so that everyone can feast. The best way to ripen a persimmon is to sit it on its gorgeous calyx on a sunny windowsill.

The trees themselves demand nothing, and give out beauty as if it grows on trees. Thinking merely selfishly, plant a persimmon tree, not for what it can do for your kids, but for what it can do for you. A persimmon tree is inspiring. My two inspired me so much that they appear in my story "Valley of the Sugars of Salt"— and though their extraordinary qualities don't extend to reading, I'm sure they would not cease to give generously, even if the story is not at all to their tastes.

07 May 2009

Ophelia Keys, on being in the zone

If you don't already know about Ophelia Keys, this interview on Horse Equinest: Entertainingly Equine is a perfect introduction, though horses are only one of her interests. Some time ago I featured her Horses and Others on Paper in my Virtuous Medlar Circle, so it's a joy to see that her reputation is spreading around the globe.

Ophelia is an artist in the true sense(s) of the word. She is not only a graphic artist of images that touch whether you are into *horses or not, but a writer and editor of non-fiction and fiction. She continually challenges herself, and has never lost the joys of observation and contemplation.

"It’s important to shut out critical voices and to simply get out of the way of the muse (or of your own inspiration, however you prefer to see it). You know you’re in the zone when the picture starts to paint itself, like putting paper over a coin and rubbing with charcoal - the picture materialises!" - O.K.

Ophelia's graphics blog

Ophelia's fiction blog
"I don’t believe that writer’s block comes from a lack of inspiration. I believe it is a form of self-censorship, a deliberate blocking of the flow of inspiration that is always available to us." - O.K.

* I'm secretly hoping that one day Ophelia will wake up from the mass illusion that she suffers from along with zillions, and see horses for what they are—Cinderella's sisters. Those tiny ears perched like silly derby hats, and their feet! Even the most hard-driven donkey has a foot so dainty, the glass slipper would fit sloppy as a gumboot. But I forgive Ophelia, taking as my example, the lot of donkeys since those days so long ago, of bling and chariots.

06 May 2009

Adverb apoplecstasy

"Indubitably. No mean word, that, Bayliss, for the morning after."
—P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim

It was day four of the conference, and there was hardly an eye that opened willingly, but now one after another sprang to attention—as one diplomat panelist put a quiet question to the last speaker, another star in the diplomatic firmament. This was answered at the same low decibel. The questioner replied even more softly, to the almost whispered reply. In another 30 seconds, the fight was full on and even the snorer in the back of the room now sat forward, his hands pushing his ears forward to hear the clash of the verbal blades.

Thrust, parry, etc.. The opponents smiled tightly, looking only at each other—till one parried with sloppy arrogance, and the adrenaline of passion rose in the other till his eyeglasses actually flashed, and he delivered a coup de grâce so thrilling, it made swordplay dull. His opponent's response? A jaw that literally looked unhinged. And the crowd? If you'd been there, the sound of your own heart beating.

"Oh," the panel moderator said brightly, looking to the back of the room. "It's time, is it? Such a shame." The two overbooked speakers rose and said how sorry they were to have to leave before the conference was over. Their ride ushered them out, to drive them in the same car to the same plane that would eventually link to other planes going to different destinations.

"Well," said the panel moderator, once we could no longer hear their footsteps. "That was something." And that summed up the hit of the conference perfectly.

The killer blow?
Dick Cheney considered it to be "Fuck you," which sums up his finesse. I won't tell you what it was here, except to say that the one who struck the blow is French. Now, the French have a reputation for disarming by the simple tactic of being elegantly infuriating. It's hard to fight a French shrug and win, but it is known. I did it once, and with kitchen French. But it is impossible (in French, English, and most likely Martian) and this diplomat knows as well as all successful diplomats, and any journalist—
It's impossible to beat an adverb—a precisely targeted and apropos adverb, that is.
"… the Foreign Affairs Minister bravely adding an adverb to his repeating of the Prime Minister's remarks."
- Macleans, 29/04/03

"Obama, as hinted at above, also needs to watch his right flank -- especially in relation to questions of foreign policy. That adverb cannot be emphasized enough."
- P.M. Carpenter, Buzzflash

She and Felli did use a wider variety of superlatives and laudatory adjectives in Chicago than they did in Tokyo, where the praise varied mainly in the use of a different adverb to modify the word "impressed."
As in "most impressed" and "very impressed."

Maybe the commission's verbal enthusiasm already is flagging after the second of four physically demanding and mentally intense trips, with visits to Rio de Janeiro and Madrid upcoming over the next three weeks.

So El Moutawakel simply used an unadorned "impressed" to describe the commission's view of the compactness in the Tokyo plan, which she said "would make it easy for the athletes and the spectators."

Philip Hersch, Chicago Tribune
In the real world, adverbs are so important that they often appear as the only word in a sentence. And sometimes an adverb becomes so much the answer that a transcript isn't complete without it used more than an eye blinks, a person breathes, more than "you know".
"Absolutely." In cases like this, they lose power, just as "fuck" does in its most common uses: in the place of a comma, or a coherent thought.

Adverbs in fiction?
"Do not use adverbs! Especially not in dialogue attribution."— Stephen King On Writing.

"Kill adjectives and adverbs" is typical advice, telling us that "it is important to cut out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can." But we are also told, "show, don't tell", so this teacher shows bad and "good" writing:
Sample One: The Elementary School Story
Greg, a brown-haired and brown-eyed man, about five foot eight and chubby, walked slowly down the street. He was coming to pick up Pam, his blonde-haired, buxom
girlfriend who was sitting calmly on the cement steps in front of her red brick home.

Sample Three: Good Descriptive Writing
Greg strolled down the street, the wind ruffling his shaggy brown hair. A smile lifted his cheeks when he spotted Pam waiting for him on her front steps. She flicked her long blonde hair over her shoulder and Greg sucked in his gut as he walked, once more amazed that such a beautiful woman wanted to be with him.
That might be a precocious youngster, but it figures that a teacher like this would cut the tits off a woman. Eighty years ago Willa Cather described this sort—people who unfortunately love to donate the benefits of their knowledge. (Well, I'm doling out advice, too, but that's different! I don't pretend to make you a good writer. If you're a bore, nothing can. )

Writing fiction - Adverbs be gone at "Helium - where knowledge rules" begins by being less bloodthirsty; but by the end, is a manual for torture followed by many:
Adverbs - a dirty word in fiction writing circles! Working on your adverbs can really improve your writing - but it's not true that you have to banish every single one... Adverbs have a bad reputation because it's so easy to use them in a lazy way. Instead of taking the time to think of words that really describes what's happening, it's too easy to grab a plain ordinary verb and add an adverb . . . The most obvious solution is to choose a more descriptive verb that encapsulates the meaning of the plain verb and adverb combined - but be careful, it's not always the answer. If your new verb is old-fashioned, too obscure or too flowery, it may not fit your style. For instance, you could use 'he enunciated' for 'he spoke clearly', but how many people know what 'enunciated' means these days? If your new verb is going to make your average reader stop and go 'huh?', don't use it! To get around this one, you may have to change the sentence structure around completely, e.g. his words were clear. You may even have to write two or three sentences to replace the original one ...
"I have a pet peeve," Meghan Fatras writes in another how-to-write article"as a reader, as an editor, and as a writer. I would love to take all adverbs and march them out of town pied-piper style. To steal a quote attributed to Mark Twain, 'Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer." I couldn't agree more."

People who quote Mark Twain on adverbs should instead, read Mark Twain.
She was going by as indifferently as she might have gone by a couple of cows.
—Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
The only advice about writing worse than that from writer wannabes, is that from successful fiction writers. Yet this Twain quote and the equally famous one ("The road to hell is paved with adverbs," courtesy of that other "great" writer, the Dickens of our time, some say) Stephen King, are glory-halleluyahed in more evangelizing tent camps of writing advisers (most of them people who want to "be a writer") than I can mention here. But these people who quote on how to write don't do the only things worth teaching: Read, and observe, and if you want to follow rules, be a swimmer. Story-telling doesn't deserve you or your narrow-mindedness, your prohibitionist zeal, your refusal to hear others, to see, not to mention your lack of love for reading. You don't even see the deaths you cause—to language used in all its power to incite.
The soup arrived, and George set about it with a willing spoon. His companion became hideously involved with spaghetti.
—P.G. Wodehouse, The Small Bachelor
Colonel Pollard snorted, apparently to clear his mind."
—Reginald Brettnor, "The Gnurrs Come From the Voodvork Out"

He was fully dressed except for the fact that he only wore one shoe. The other one was placed carefully and precisely in the center of his bureau top. "It would seem," said Doan to himself, "that I was inebriated last evening when I came home."
—Norbert Davis, Holocaust House

My mother coughed. My father slowly pushed the top half of the window shut, his gaze still level with mine.
Joe Hill, "My Father's Mask"

Last spring all that changed overnight. Literally.
Delia Sherman, "Walpurgis Afternoon"

Then he drew back, two steps, and looked me in the eye. His voice had nothing in common with his face: baritone and beautiful, melodious and carrying. I leaned forward, abruptly entranced.
Elizabeth Bear, "Follow Me Light"

The strength of the English language lies in the multiplicity of ways that we can say things. English excels in nuance. Furthermore, English has a history of anarchy and democracy, yet we gave this precious freedom away, for what? The advice of people who say, but don't do. If I were a teacher (and I'm not. I'm only a meddler) I would make my students read this article and follow its advice, or have their hands flayed:
5o Years of Stupid Grammar Advice by Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Chronicle of Higher Education
. . . Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them, but that is not true of the grammar stipulations . . . The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules . . .
Rules rules rules
One interesting aspect of adverbs (and adjectives) is that the USA seems to be more uptight about them than the British (And Australians and New Zealanders, and who else?). "Importantly" is an example. "Tut tut!" said the USA. The correct way to say it is: "Of importance". The same prissy loquaciousness has shoved "with" in front of other perfectly good adverbs after docking their tails (with no anaesthetic).

More rules than just for words
Jeffrey Ford—a writer who revels in what English can do, not to mention story-telling—in his recent praise of "Robinson Crusoe" said, "That's the beauty of it, there weren't a lot of rules to worry about, so he just went for it."

You can read his writing with no worries that he has his mind clotted by rules. No wowser runs his mind, or the way he tells a story. But then we get to the run of the bookstore. And that is the problem for would-be readers of most modern fiction. Rules have been taught, and unfortunately, followed unfortunately. Instead of hearing stories in their heads and writing them down in the voices of the stories and their thrilling tones, they hear the rules—dulling as a bang to the head.

Writing is not like cooking
Throw an egg on an unprepared pan, and you have a welded piece of garbage. Learn some rules, and even without inspiration, you can be an excellent cook who can fool people into thinking you're inspired. But thankfully, Chaucer never had story-cooking lessons.

If Justine Larbalestier had been good, she might have turned into a welcome mat, or a supermarket medium-thick-'n-thirsty anti-bacterial sponge. Instead, she was very bad. Most certainly, her stories would never have had a chance to enthrall so many readers, especially the young, if she'd done as she was told. Read her recent call to arms: "Write what you know, NOT!" Please! In some anthologies by people who really haven't had much of a life beyond too much education, the "by __________" (author's name) is the only different element between stories. But even in "fantasy", which you'd think would enjoy anarchy, rules seem to apply, so much so that I was shocked, actually, when I accidentally walked into a teaching session on how to write a fantasy trilogy. The panel was discussing when in book 3 the hero should do x, in their template for the genre, a word I think is so obscene that I'm also shocked that it is taught to minors. Indeed, so uniform is much fiction output that any day I expect PETA to cry foul over the chains, the battery conditions.

Steve Aylett, often my favourite living writer, wonders whether there is a taboo against originality. Aylett might suffer from this, as Norbert Davis did. Sometimes Time is the ultimate satirist. Scrappy Norbert Davis paperbacks are snapped up for over US$110 if you can find them at all, while most of the best-sellers of his time are what most manuscripts become quickly, and most best-sellers published ten years ago+ are: substrate. Paraphrasing Dorothy Parker, the published are slicker, the unpublished get there quicker, but both end up sharing nematodes. Yet the writers who really do thrill (and often spawn imitators and "genres") don't write for the publishing fad, the passing norms. They transcend them. They follow the stories in their heads, telling them as they hear them and see them. And they never stopped being readers, though they do keep away from reading certain things. Every great work has its own voice, though that is hard to remember when styles are taught as "good writing", just as cubism once was taught as "art".

The road to hell is paved with writing guides
Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.
—Raymond Chandler
The worst thing about all this learning is that the fun gets lost
Fun to write and fun to read. Recently, a review of a book peeved me by its use of the royal "we" and the words arguably, indisputably, and undeniably for what, I argued, were the opinions of the reviewer but not the world. Jeff VanderMeer — who wields words (including adjectives and adverbs) with great dexterity, and makes you see with his words what he sees in his head, which is invariably (horrors!) out of this world — pointed out another reason not to use these words there. "Arguably, indisputably, and undeniably shouldn't appear in the review because they are artery-clogging adverbs."

I would argue that in the case of this reviewer, they belong as much as the adverbs in a diplomat's s/word play. I think they were deliberate, and that they suffer from prejudice not because of what they are, but because of their misuse, and the frequency of this crime. We see them all the time, in all the worst places. Well, one could say the same about "said", but it's still considered not only healthy, but prescribed. So, though VanderMeer is a writer who is a rarity—successful and original, with books and stories that live in the reader's mind—I beg to disagree with him on this point, partly because I'm sure he has used all these words himself, with style, purpose, and power. One day just for the fun of it, I must use the artery-cloggingly rich adverb that VanderMeer's visceral reaction spawned.

For more fun
This is the first line of the plot synopsis of Stephen King's upcoming Under the Dome, taken from his official site. It is rather a delicious example of adverbs used badly.
On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day in Chester’s Mill, Maine, the town is inexplicably and suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field.
A short story
The elephant and the raven were sorting favourites in their library.
"We must not forget," said the elephant, putting aside one book for reading aloud. "Bulwer-Lytton was the Stephen King of his time."
The raven shook his head sadly. "Absolutely."
"Cheer up," said the elephant. "The reverse isn't true. In a hundred years, even I won't remember anything King penned."

04 May 2009

Bryophytes and grandmothers and many other things

Bryophytes remind me of my grandmother. She always insisted that she liked burnt toast. They are so tough and uncomplaining that if they were human, they'd bathe with a teacup of water and think they were luxuriating.

"I'm crazy about cryptogams," rolls off the tongue easier, but I cannot lie to you. Cryptogam, though a word as romantic and mysterious as a monogrammed scrap of silk, includes those other delicate non-flowers, the ferns. Lovely to look at when they're happy, but with rare exceptions, if they don't get their slatherings of moisturiser and flattering dimmed light, watch out! There's nothing your average born-to-be-coddled fern likes better than to die flamboyantly enough to cause another guilt.

It's the bryophytes amongst the cryptogams—fungi, lichen and algae—that really get my awe. They understand the value of wrinkles, the character-building virtues of starvation—and they get drunk (and spectacularly beautiful) on a drop.

These tough lovelies were photographed today, a week after a few rare showers camouflaged our drought.

I've just updated the Anna Tambour and Others site, and the peek at the upcoming Lovecraft Unbound inspired another picture of cryptogams.

Amongst the Others, a quote and link to Giles Watson's delightful poems about their secret lives. (Giles, I'd love it if you responded here with another inspired work—and possibly other poets, too?)

Also, and very apropos in this day of "not enough face masks" is Charles Tan's short story "A Retrospective on Diseases for Sale", a reprint with permission from the newest edition of Philippine Speculative Fiction, edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar, an anthology so good that if you are still with me, let's go down a different road:

This series stays fresh and unexpected. In this issue, No IV, I liked Charles' "A Retrospective on Diseases for Sale" (and how apropos now!). that I asked to pinch it for my own site.
The first story in the book, Andrew Drilon's "The Secret Origin of Spin-Man" caught me by surprise in all the best ways, even to a frisson that made me feel like what a steak must, the moment it hits a grill. This story should win some international prize and I hope it's anthologised. I was obliviously impolite, I was so noisy, while reading Monique Francisco's "The Day that Frances, the Copywriter, Became God". Even thinking of it now makes me smile, and I hope to read much more by her. This story does confirm something I first thought while writing Spotted Lily. There are many paths to becoming God.

So again with this anthology, I think it's a bloody shame that international postal charges are so great that the feasability of this having international distribution has never been seriously considered. But this is what the average anthology is. A clubhouse print run and fuckall distribution even in the home country, if Australia is typical. There are many anthologies that should be read internationally, and translated so that they can be read. Turkey, for instance, frustrates me no end. Thriving anthologies and magazines packed with tempting stories, but they're not only in Turkish, but only available in Turkey. Then there's Finland, and another thriving 'community' of readers, and writers. It would be great if there were more stories from everywhere that us people everywhere could read. It's a bummer for everyone else that the default language is English, but couldn't we have some place where there were reprints in the original language, and a translation into English and possibly other languages? If there were an online portal for anthologies that have already sold out, then sales wouldn't be impacted, and possibly sales would increase if there were a place on the portal to subscribe or pre-buy the next volume of, say, Trevidiumskolania's Best Speculative Fiction 2080.

And the road turns
Other irresistibles on the updated Anna Tambour and Others site include a chance to interfere with Marianne Delacourt's newest creation, Tara Sharp, one fast, funny tough babe who drives a car from hoon; a link to a bittersweet true story by Nathan Ballingrud that would qualify for my Love Letters from D_____s except for the lucky-to-us fact that he shared it publicly; an after-picture of the creator of Emma's dress—And the only site in the world that says:
"Ittibittium Houbrick, 1993 (mollusc) These are smaller than molluscs of the genus Bittium."

Go get fascinated.