Nature’s roughest production

Three centuries ago, risking one’s life to climb a mountain would have been considered tantamount to lunacy. The notion barely existed, indeed, that wild landscape might hold any sort of appeal. To the orthodox seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century imagination, natural scenery was appreciated largely for the extent to which it spoke of agricultural fecundity. Meadows, orchards, grazing fields, the rich sillion of crop lands — these were the ideal components of a landscape. Tamed landscapes, in other words, were attractive: landscapes which had had a human order imposed upon them by the plough, the hedgerow and the ditch. As late as 1791 William Gilpin noted that ‘the generality of people’ found wilderness dislikeable. ‘These are few,’ he continued, ‘who do not prefer the busy scenes of cultivation to the greatest of nature’s rough productions.’ Mountains, nature’s roughest productions, were not only agriculturally intractable, they were also aesthetically repellent: it was felt that their irregular and gargantuan outlines upset the natural spirit-level of the mind.

— Robert McFarlane

A sillion is a furrow made by a plow.

Good Criticism

The injunction “Resist not evil but overcome evil with good” may in many spheres of life by impossible to obey literally, but in the sphere of the arts it is common sense. Bad art is always with us, but any given work of art is always bad in a period way; the particular kind of badness it exhibits will pass away to be succeeded by some other kind. It is unnecessary, therefore, to attack it, because it will perish anyway. Had Macaulay never written his review of Robert Montgomery, we would not today be still under the illusion that Montgomery was a great poet. The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.

— Auden

A Survey of Eden

All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes. So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgments.

— Auden

He then goes on to provide a questionnaire, to be administered to all literary critics, which seeks to define their definition of paradise. Text in bold is the question itself, followed by Auden’s own answer to his question, which he provides in the interest of disclosure.

  • Landscape
    Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small regvion of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast.
  • Climate
    British
  • Ethnic origin of inhabitants
    Highly varied as in the United States, but with a slight nordic predominance.
  • Language
    Of mixed origins like English, but highly inflected.
  • Weights & Measures
    Irregular and Complicated. No decimal system.
  • Religion
    Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints.
  • Size of Capital
    Plato’s ideal figure, 5004, about right.
  • Form of Government
    Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot.
  • Sources of Natural Power
    Wind, water, peat, coal. No oil.
  • Economic Activities
    Lead mining, coal mining, chemical factories, paper mills, sheep farming, truck farming, greenhouse horticulture.
  • Means of transport
    Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, canal barges, balloons. No automobiles or airplanes.
  • Architecture
    State: Baroque. Ecclesiastical: Romanesque or Byzantine. Domestic: Eighteenth Cneutyr British or American Colonial.
  • Domestic Furniture and Equipment
    Victorian except for kitchens and bathrooms which are as full of modern gadgets as possible.
  • Formal Dress
    The fashion of Paris in the 1830’s and ’40’s.
  • Sources of Public Information
    Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers.
  • Public Statues
    Confined to famous defunct chefs.
  • Public Entertainments
    Religious Processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical Ballet. No movies, radio or television.

It does end up being pretty revealing. I wonder if any other critics ever filled out the questionnaire.

The Value of a Dictionary

Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some readings are obviously “truer” than others, some doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiefce imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways.

— Auden

Good taste

Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.

— Auden

Too High & Too Steep

I found a lot to remember from David Williams’ history of Seattle, and its interminable battle with topography, Too High & Too Steep. One thing is that the tideflats which used to make up all of Sodo and the South part of the city, including both stadia and Harbor Island, were not (as I’d always been told) made up of fill from dredging out the canal at the North end of Lake Washington, or even the Denny regrade. In fact, this area was created with material from a failed and scandalous attempt to cut a channel through Beacon hill, in order to unite South Lake Washington with Elliot Bay.

Although the value of made land in the former tideflats had increased at least tenfold since Semple’s project began, not everyone supported the South Canal. Opponents claimed that Semple actually had no plan to build his canal; instead, he was misleading the public and only blasting away at Beacon Hill to create material to fill the tideflats, which he intended to sell. Ironically, those who opposed the canal supported filling in the tideflats; what they didn’t approve of was that Semple used a public project to benefit himself. In addition, many of Semple’s opponents, including Burke, supported and owned property near where a north canal could be built (where the modern ship canal now exists).

Yielding to public opinion and the north-canal plan’s powerful supporters, the city council voted to turn off the supply of water that Semple needed to run his hydraulic cannons. By the end of 1904, notes Semple’s biographer, weeds were growing in the chasm on Beacon Hill. Semple’s decision to try to cut through Beacon Hill ultimately had been his downfall. IN may 1905, he was forced to resign as president of the Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company, though the company continued to exist and, by 1917, had filled in 92 percent of the tideflats. No more work would be done ever again on the proposed South Canal through Beacon Hill, but if you look, you can still find two infrastructure elements from Semple’s misguided scheme.

To see the first, go to the spider’s web of ramps and overpasses that connect the Spoke Street Viaduct and Interstate 5 to Columbia Way and Beacon Hill. Engineers chose this spot to build the interchange because it is where Semple had started his canal, creating a large, unoccupied gap that eventually provided the easiest access up to the hill. The second is down on the flats. In contrast to the typical blocks measuring more than seven hundred feet long, South Hinds and South Horton Streets are just three hundred feet apart. They are so anomalously close because they mark the north and south boundaries of what was to be Semple’s Canal Waterway, which would have run from the East Waterway to his canal through Beacon Hill.

Habitations for Mice and Vermin

Books would be precious things indeed, if the mere possession of them guaranteed culture to their owner. You rich men would have it all your own way then; we paupers could not stand against you, if learning were a marketable commodity; and as for the dealers, no one would presume to contest the point of culture with men who have whole shopfuls of books at their disposal.

What is your idea, now, in all this rolling and unrolling of scrolls? To what end the gluing and the trimming, the cedar-oil and saffron, the leather cases and the bosses? Much good your purchases have been to you; one sees that already: why, your language — no, I am wrong there, you are as dumb as a fish — but your life, your unmentionable vices, make every one hate the sight of you; if that is what books do, one cannot keep too clear of them. There are two ways in which a man may derive benefit from the study of the ancients: he may learn to express himself, or he may improve his morals by their example and warning; when it is clear that he has not profited in either of these respects, what are his books but a habitation for mice and vermin, and a source of castigation to negligent servants?

— Lucian of Samosata, from Remarks Addressed to an Illiterate Book-Fancier

Attention as a resource

From the human point of view, a filter focuses content. But seen in reverse, from the content point of view, a filter focuses human attention. The more content expands, the more focused that attention needs to become. Way back in 1971, Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning social scientist, observed, “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Simon’s insight is often reduced to “In a world of abundance, the only scarcity is human attention.”

— Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable.

Two quotes for the price of one.

Trains, National Character

The trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar, with its gadgets and passengers, represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical.

— Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

Ranch Life, Consolation

There were few sounds to break the stillness of summer. From the upper branches of the cottonwoods — whose shimmering, tremulous leaves if there was the least bit of wind rustled and quivered and sighed all day long — came now and then the cooing of the mourning dove, whose voice always seemed far away and expressed more than any other sound in nature the sadness of gentle, hopeless, never-ending grief. The cattle, that had strung down in long files from the hills, lay quietly on sand bars, except that some of the bulls kept traveling up and down, bellowing and giving vent to long, surly grumblings as they pawed the sand and tossed it up with their horns.

No life could be pleasanter than during the months of fall. The weather was cool and inviting. In the evenings and on the rare rainy days we were glad to sit by the great fireplace, with its roaring cottonwood logs. But on most days not a cloud dimmed the serene splendor of the sky. The fresh pure air was clear with the wonderful clearness of the high plains. We were in the saddle from morning until night. The fall was the time for riding. In the keen, frosty air neither man nor beast would tire, though out from the dawn until the shadows had again waxed long, warning all to push straight for home without drawing rein. Then deer-saddles and elk-haunches hung from the trees near the house, and one could always have good sport right on the sand of the river bed, for we always kept shotgun or rifle at hand to be ready for any prairie chickens or passing waterfowl that might light on the river.

When the days had dwindled to their shortest, and the nights seemed never-ending, then all the great northern plains were changed into an abode of iron desolation. Sometimes furious gales blew out of the north, driving before them the clouds of blinding snow-dust, wrapping the mantle of death round every unsheltered being that faced their unshackled anger. They roared in a thunderous bass as they swept across the prairie or whirled through the naked canyons. They shivered the great brittle cottonwoods, and beneath their rough touch the icy limbs of the pines that clustered in the gorges sang like the chords of an Aeolian harp. Again, in the coldest midwinter weather, not a breath of wind might stir. Then the still, merciless, terrible cold that brooded over the earth like the shadow of silent death seemed even more dreadful in its gloomy rigor than in the lawless madness of the storms. All the land was like granite. The great rivers stood still in their beds, as if turned to frosted steel. In the long nights there was no sound to break the lifeless silence. Under the ceaseless, shifting play of the Northern Lights, or lighted only by the wintry brilliance of the stars, the snow-clad plains stretched out into dead and endless wastes of glimmering white.

Then the great fireplace of the ranch house was choked with blazing logs, and at night we had to sleep under so many blankets that the weight was fairly oppressive. Outside, the shaggy ponies huddled together in the corral, while long icicles hung from their lips, and the hoarfrost whitened the hollow backs of the cattle.

A ride in midwinter was fascinating. The great white country wrapped in the powdery snow-drift seemed like another land. The familiar landmarks were so changed that a man must be careful lest he lose his way. When the sun was out of the glare from the endless white stretches dazzled the eyes. If the gray snowclouds hung low and only let a pale, wan light struggle through, the lonely wastes became fairly appalling in their desolation.

There were few moments more pleasant than the home coming, when, in the gathering darkness, after crossing the last chain of ice-covered buttes, or after coming round the last turn in the wind-swept valley, we saw, through the leafless trees, or across the frozen river, the red gleam of the firelight as it shone through the ranch windows and flickered over the trunks of the cottonwoods outside, warming a man’s blood by the mere hint of the warmth awaiting him within.

The long winter evenings were spent sitting round the hearthstone, while the logs roared and crackled, and the men played checkered or chess, in the firelight.

Rough board shelves held a number of books without which some of the evenings would have been long indeed. As for Irving, Hawthorne, Cooper, Lowell, and the other standbys, I suppose no man, East or West, would willingly be long without. For lighter reading there were dreamy Ik Marvel, Burroughs’ breezy pages, and the quaint, pathetic character-sketches of the Southern writers — Cable, Craddock, Macon, Joel Chandler Harris, and sweet Sherwood Bonner. And when one was in the Bad Lands he felt as if they somehow looked just exactly as Poe’s tales and poems sounded.

— Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt had two ranches in North Dakota: Maltese Cross and Elkhorn. After his wife and mother both died on the same day, of unrelated illnesses, he wrote “the light has gone out of my life,” and retreated to the Badlands to for a period of strenuous self-direction he reference for the rest of his life.

I appreciate the gentleness of the description, and how he ends his portrait of a year on the frontier with a list of the authors who kept him company.