Category Archives: the language

You have to understand vagueness.

The work of the philosopher is a marshalling of remembrances for a specific purpose.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

Last week someone I know used the phrase, “The marvelous clouds,” and I immediately remembered a book by that name that I bought a couple of years ago and wrote a very short post about, before it had even arrived in my mailbox. Recently I had moved that book from an upstairs shelf to a downstairs one, seemingly at random, so it was close at hand and I looked inside today. How surprising to see that back then I had read the introduction. I can tell because many passages are underlined 🙂 It is comfortingly full of references to the material world and other real things, which of course the title would lead you to believe, but the subtitle, about media theory, sounds… um… scarily theoretical. Here is my first post on the book:

“Ralph Waldo Emerson once declared that language is fossil poetry. Many words that we use carelessly have, embedded within their amber-like exterior, the remnants of long lost perceptions and intuitions. When received thoughtfully and with some delicacy, words have the capacity to allow us to travel back in time, to imagine how and what the world meant to our ancestors. But unlike the insects, or dinosaur DNA fixed in amber, the meanings within words are changing, evolving, as human perceptions change.”

-Ken Myers on Mars Hill Audio Journal, introducing his interview of John Durham Peters about his new book, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media.

I listened to this interview and have ordered the book, though I fear it will be above my head, like clouds. The author was not hard to understand when he was talking, and he spoke of so many things that I would like to “hear” him discuss further, after I get the book and can read the words on paper, and flip back and forth and underline a phrase here and there of his meaningful prose. How can I resist a book that contains all together in its title the words Marvelous, Philosophy, and Clouds?

(Originally “Words have skins like amber.”)

Albert was one of several commenters in 2016 who were inspired to put this book on their To-Read list, and he shared what he found in his research:

‘Wondering if I could benefit from reading The Marvelous Clouds, I looked for information about the author, and found a rather detailed interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

‘Here is John Durham Peters talking about why a book on media would use clouds as its chief metaphor: “Clouds illustrate media ontology. [They] exist by disappearing. They exist in time. . .  their dynamic materiality is suggestive for media under volatile digital conditions.” And,

‘“Clouds bear significance, but without any code to clarify what they mean. Their meanings are essentially vague. . . .  [They] are the original white noise.  . . . The ability to represent the indefinite is one of the great achievements of modern mathematics and media, and clouds were at the vanguard here too. If you want to understand how meaning works, you have to understand vagueness, and clouds are a chief example.”

‘At this point I almost gave up — his ideas were too cloudy for me — but I pressed on. Half way through, when the questioner brought up the possible negative effects of limitless storage and quick retrieval of data, a new idea was discussed as “something more insidious, a kind of existential de-orientation, in which presumptions of universal storage alter our relation to loss and death.”

‘Now I was interested.

‘It turns out to be a really good, comprehensive interview. By the end I could see better. My clouds were dispersed, somewhat. For a person whose book budget is limited, Brian Hanrahan’s interview is well worth reading. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-anthropoid-condition-an-interview-with-john-durham-peters/’

Speed forward to August of 2019, and I read the Intro again, gleaning the quote at top, and have continued into Chapter 1!! I thought some of you might be interested in the author’s introductory outline of the scope of the book, in this paragraph:

“In the first chapter I outline my intellectual debts and sketch the relevant landscape of media theory. In chapters 2 and 3, I examine sea and fire media, and in 4 and 5, the two main kinds of sky media. At first such realms as ocean, flame, and the heavens would seem to be unpromising realms for human creativity or technical handling, each being hostile to our works in its own way. But in spite of their resistance, or rather because of it, such elements are seedbeds of arts and crafts, many of them so basic that it took eco-crisis and the digital shakeup to make them obvious. Hostile environments breed art. Enmity is the mother of invention. In chapter 6 I explore the earthy media of body and writing, and chapter 7 tackles the would-be ethereal medium of Google, each medium also having its own productive meditations. Finally, I offer a few concluding meditations.”

Chapter 7 is titled “God and Google,” and the last chapter, “A Sabbath of Meaning.” My goodness, but I wonder how the meat of the chapters will satisfy my appetite that has been whetted by so many provocative phrases. But it does sound fun, especially from chapter 2 on, to make a philosophical journey through sea, fire, and sky, going on to explore “earthy” media… God will surely balance out whatever about Google might bore me in Chapter 7, and if I’m exhausted by the end, well, Peters has wisely put a sabbath right there in a helpful place.

A ramble like this doesn’t lend itself to a good ending, so I’ll close with one more quote from The Marvelous Clouds:

Einer Hilfe bedarf der Mensch immer.
(The human being always needs a help.)
-F.W.J. Schelling

But you don’t need to read the book to know that.

Les papillons et les fleurs.

When I got home from church this afternoon I baked a cheese tart from Trader Joe’s and ate it outdoors, and as the sun did not go behind a cloud, I read the Heritage Farm Companion and did some Spanish lessons. The Companion is a little magazine for members of the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization that I’ve loved for more than 25 years, though I’ve never participated by contributing seeds that I save.

Today I learned two interesting things from that issue: 1) People are growing rice in Vermont, and 2) Hoverflies/syrphid flies are attracted to the flowers of sweet alyssum; they also eat aphids, so planting alyssum as a companion to whatever you want to protect from aphids — in my case that would be milkweed, and several other plants — can be very helpful. This photo showing how that might look I found online, from the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Before my garden makeover, I had alyssum everywhere, but I haven’t let it grow since I re-landscaped. Alyssum used to sprout up everywhere, but now I see that situation as benign, whereas the aphids are a plague. Maybe there is a connection?

Three different people had been watching over my garden while I was in DC greeting the new grandson. Plus I have automatic irrigation, and drought-tolerant plants. So I should not have been surprised that it looked great, even better, when I got back — all the plants were bigger, and various things were in bloom, like the coreopsis that I had only set out the day before I departed.

Several times in the last week I’ve been able to sit in the warm garden, usually in the early afternoon. The morning is often overcast and around 55°; dinner times a cool marine breeze often drives us indoors. Today after I finished my tart I glanced behind me and saw that the toadflax is finally in full bloom. It looks pretty weedy most of the year, and even now 🙂 but the flowers are so cheery… I’d say it never looks better than today.

And what do you know – I just found a photo in my files of a hoverfly on toadflax. I also have a shot of one sipping at lavender, and lately they are really busy with the lamb’s ears; that actually seems to be their favorite flower around here. Come to think of it, there are blooming lamb’s ears right next to the aphid-infested milkweed… ? …but the hoverflies are mostly in the front yard… ? I need to think about this some more.

Cabbage white butterflies were dancing all over the garden the whole time I was out there. I assumed it was a kind of mating dance. I tried taking still shots, and even a video of their choreography. Against the blue sky, where one loses all perspective, they look like some crazy white birds. I read that “A male finds another butterfly of the same species by sight, then determines its sex by flying close to detect chemical pheromones—a process that often makes them look like they’re dancing around each other in the air.”

I could never get close enough to get any good pictures, still or moving, but here is a video I found of cabbage whites mating. Butterflies are so delicate and fairy-like, they make me feel that I am a character in a folk-tale where anything magical might happen. Even the name butterfly is charming, yes? Did you ever read my post about the words for butterfly in different languages? In French it is papillon. And in Spanish, mariposa. Those are beautiful, too! The Germans call them the fantastic schmetterling, which gives me almost as much joy to say, as it does to see a butterfly schmettering from flower to flower.

A year or so ago I decided to study Spanish. In much of California it’s kind of crazy not to know Spanish, but I chose French in high school, and several other languages since then. I’ve had close friends who were Spanish majors, and four of my children studied Spanish for two or more years. When I started doing 5-minute lessons on my phone using the Duolingo app I discovered that I already knew quite a lot. It’s been more like play than work, because are no humans to see my work, no shame in goofing up. I get points for doing the lessons no matter how many times I get something wrong. For six months I managed to do at least one five-minute lesson per day.

When I was at Kate’s for three weeks I didn’t have any gardening or housework or church work to do, and I was able to do so many Spanish lessons one day that my brain grew weary. It occurred to me that there would be no harm in checking out the French course, to brush up on my French; in my youth I studied it first and the longest, so it’s probably stuck deep in the recesses of my mind… While mom and babies were napping, I did quite a few French lessons, and they were even more fun than Spanish. On Duolingo the first lessons of a language are short so you whip right through them — especially if they are ones you did when you were 13!

So the next day what did I do? Turkish! I’ve had very little Turkish instruction, but I did spend six months total in that country, living with Turks, and it has been pure delight to do Turkish lessons. You may ask, what about my work, now that I am home again? It is mostly not stuff that anyone else cares if I do or not. And I’m still in a kind of limbo about my remodeling project, which makes it hard for me to know just what thing is the Next Thing. So I behave as though the maid is going to show up soon, and I am a woman of leisure with nothing more important to do than to read about seeds and learn a useless language.

And it is Sunday afternoon!

Lotus seed for the world.

One package I picked up at the Indian market was a large bag of phool makhana or puffed lotus seed, a sort of popped-corn form of the seed of the lotus plant Nelumbo nucifera. When I was in India one restaurant that specialized in salads sprinkled a few of these puffs on top of one concoction that I loved.

I read about lotus seeds online, where there is a wealth of enthusiastic promotion of the food item as a cure-all, physically and spiritually. Unfortunately much of the prose resembles the spam comments I get on my blog, and gives me the giggles.

“… eaten as a fasting food in India as it considered a very pious. And, is also used to worship God.” Well, of course. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31)

Even Wikipedia seems to gush: “Lotus seeds can be processed into moon cake, lotus seed noodles and food in forms of paste, fermented milk, rice wine, ice cream, popcorn (phool makhana) and others, with lotus seeds as the main raw material. Fresh lotus seed wine has thirst quenching, spleen healing and anti-diarrheal advantages after drinking.[40][41] Lotus seed tea is consumed in Korea, and lotus embryo tea is consumed in China and Vietnam.”

One website that sells various flavors of puffed lotus seeds has this to say: “Focusing on ‘co-creation’ at all levels, we aim to bridge the gap between nature and consumers… to create an offering by combining the natural foods with modern techniques so as to enable the human kind to rejoice these gifts. POPMAK … is a healthy munching solution for all ages… which can add values in your life. We are just four years old company, aiming big to deliver and in this endeavor we will remain child like enthusiast for ever. Expect more surprises from us soon!!!!”

I must mention here a couple more Indian snacks that are in the house right now. Kareena bought these flaky fenugreek biscuits that she often eats for breakfast and shares with Raj.

I’ve eaten a few of them myself and they are really nice — crispy and subtly flavored.

We bought some bhakarwadi which I have already eaten all up. They are like a cross between a barely-sweet cookie and a cracker with Indian spices, mildly hot.

Bhakarwadi

The popped lotus seeds straight out of the bag were pretty bland and had the texture of stale popcorn. I roasted them in a pan with ghee, salt and spices, which transformed them into another light and crunchy, addictive Indian snack. Rejoice!

I sip nectar with the tiniest.

I sat in my garden reading Penelope Lively, who when writing about garden fashions that come and go, kept using the word “rill.” I picked up my phone to look up that word and see what the British might mean by it, and quick as a wink a tiny fly, almost too tiny to see without reading glasses, lit on the screen, with its wings open for about one second, a flash of shimmering rainbows.

Then it fell off, on to my book. Was that the fly, merely a black gnat? I got him to crawl on to my finger and back on to the screen, where he was kind enough to display his bright wings again for a moment, and then took flight.

On my walk yesterday I saw just one insect in a sea of catsear blooms. And I worked hard to get a picture of a flower with him on it. Not like most years of my photography, when I tried to avoid bugs on blooms, and would be disappointed if my flower were spoiled by a spider or something I hadn’t noticed when I clicked. But most of those critters had come out blurry anyway. No, getting a sharp image of an insect is not easy with a little phone camera. But I have time, don’t I? And a lot of digital storage, too, in case I don’t get around to deleting all those blurry pictures.

I started looking for flowers with insects, and of course, there were bees! It was so warm by this time, they were flying fast and furious, and couldn’t decide which of many privet or blackberry blooms to drink from, like kids in a candy store. The best shot I got was of one flying away with her loot. And I found a near relation to catsear beetle closer to home, descending a wide staircase of rose petals.

Obviously, I also am a kid in my own candy store, and can’t choose just one or two pieces of ambrosia to gaze upon or aim my camera at or share with you. If the temperature were constantly mild when I sit out in that paradise, I think I would fill to bursting with the joy of the place. But usually I get too hot or too chilly or find a task to do, so I don’t get dangerously stretched.

In my front garden many insects are buzzing back and forth and not lighting on any flower. I think they are just hanging around, or more precisely, swooping around — coming back to check every few minutes, so they can be the first to drink at the ocean of teucrium flowers that are going to start opening any minute now. I’m not sure that walkway will be wide enough for human feet to walk without colliding with honeybee wings.

Many of the cistus, Jerusalem sage and helianthemum already need shearing! Alejandro my sometimes gardener was here yesterday and we moved one of the big pots that hold olive trees, and found two salamanders underneath! How they ended up in this droughty place I don’t understand, but I didn’t think about that at the time.

I grabbed the two of them, who looked like Mama and Baby, and put them to swim in the fountain for a minute while I ran into the house for my camera. Then I released them near a faucet with good luck wishes. Maybe I should have carried them to the creek? (Which reminds me, a rill in a British garden is a water feature.)

 

Back to the insect kingdom and their food… The word nectar carries a heady meaning. Drink of the gods – delicious. But the origin of the word is also pretty tasty if you like words: The first step back is to the Greek nektar (we’re talking about Greek gods, after all), “which is perhaps an ancient Indo-European poetic compound of nek- ‘death’ + -tar ‘overcoming,’ ‘cross over, pass through, overcome.'” No one used this word for the sweet liquid in flowers until about 1600.

Those links to the thought of overcoming of death could lead to an intellectual/writing exercise about how it’s all connected, but I’m not willing for that kind of workout today. I just want to join my fellow creatures in imbibing the sweets.