THE DESERT

by John C. Van Dyke (1856-1932)

With horse, dog (named Cappy), rifle, bedroll, and some food, John crossed the San Gorgonio pass in the southern California Sierras, in 1899, and began his long association with the Sonoran Desert.  He ranged from Texas to Oregon, from the headwaters of the Colorado river to Guaymas, half-way down the gulf of California, covering the vast area by horse, foot and train in his three-year investigation.  He was a lawyer, although he never practiced, and a known authority in the classical arts, having published works on the paintings of the Old Masters.  Feeling down in dumps because of a lingering case of asthma, he decided to immerse himself in the so-called wastelands of the west.  This book is a collection of his essays on the physical features of the desert.

His descriptions included grey wolves, snakes, antelope, rabbits, Belding ground squirrels, the blue vistas, the canyons, lomas, and mesas. The reader discovers that the appreciation of beauty is not innate but learned.  Over long periods of observation, Dyke came to recognize the elements that combined to create the “land of fire” and to perceive and understand the incredible natural wonder of the arid land…  The colors stunned him at first.  Later he came to realize that their great variation resulted from changes in the dust content of the air, in the differential layering of atmospheric strata above the vast valleys, and the actual color of the land itself.  Syenite, rhyolite, basalt, andesite, and all the various granites, quartz monzonites and marbles with their different textures and shades, reflect the native hues into the sky and the astonishing brilliance of the reds, blues, greens and purples, when split into layers by the heat and moisture layers, turn the long vistas into kaleidoscopic displays. The dazzling visions are most intense at dusk, when the distant views are manipulated and transformed by the setting sun.  The  red and orange light waves, being at the long end of the spectrum, travel far distances, trapped between sheets of water vapor and are colored by dust held in suspension;  they impinge upon the eye with a powerful intensity, illuminating the entire scene in a reddish glow.  After the sun has gone down, the alteration is to a uniform shade of grey, pervading every crevice and canyon, causing the landscape to convey an impression of imminent Gotterdamerung.

Dyke goes into some detail in describing the Salton Sea, a very large depression in Southern California… It’s a flat playa, 300 feet below sea level, a salt pan with apparently no life.  But Dyke, observing patiently and closely, sees reptiles, a few lichens, and some dry sticks, which, in the presence of the rare cloud-bursts,  are fueled into growth that turns the dry alkaline beds into a riot of color.  He uses the opportunity to discuss mirages, the different sorts, and how the heated air, stratifiying the minuscule amount of moisture into layers separated by varying widths of gas, carries far-off images to the eye. Quite often, there is a camera effect, in which the atmospheric layers invert the distant image before it reaches the eye, so that the object is seen to be upside down.  Dyke cites stories of sailors, after storms, seeing distant ships sailing upside down in the sky, or upside down palm trees from distant islands.

The Colorado river begins as a bubbly, rushing mountain stream, cascading through the Rockies, picking up sediments and washing away it’s banks and benches, grinding down through the overlying earth to form the Grand Canyon, and finally covering the delta above the Gulf of California in a wide plain of sand and particulate matter gleaned from a thousand miles of surrounding waste land.  Dyke describes the prismatic light in glowing color, emphasizing the incredible variation in the exposed hues revealed by the relentless river in it’s constant erosion of banks, islands, shores, and bed.  He doesn’t say a lot about the revealed geology in the Grand Canyon, which tells the story of millions of years of tectonic change and erosion, and the vast alterations in climate and biological evolution experienced by the river;  but Dyke was an artist, and was interested in the artistic reality of what he was seeing.

Toward the last chapter, he returns to the Sierras, and depicts the abrupt wall as seen from the eastern prospect, rising tier upon tier into the high peaks, covered with snow even in late spring and summer.  He notices the biomes, the changing vegetation that flourishes only at ordained heights, altering as the elevation increases, and disappearing altogether above timber-line.  I can’t but help recall John Muir’s ecstatic descriptions of the same area, and his joy in discovering the true wonder of the high Sierras.  Dyke notes the increasingly blue-to-purple sky overhanging the severe and naked stone edifices surrounding his position, and compares it with the far distant view of the Pacific ocean, some hundred miles away and remarks on the desert valley between the two.  At that time the San Fernando valley was undeveloped compared to the present day, and was classified by Dyke as part of the desert he was studying.

I really liked this book but it wouldn’t do for some readers, i’m afraid, as it is mostly a study and descriptive analysis of the land, creatures, and waters of the area.  Van Dyke went on to write many more books, all having to do with wild places, and none of which i’ve read;  i hope to alter that situation in the near future.  He had a most perceptive eye and his observations were, and are, insightful and fascinating…

 

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THE GREAT STONE OF SARDIS

by Frank Stockton (1834-1902)

Roland Clewe is returning to America.  For the last two years, he’s been in Germany, using their facilities to perform research on several different problems.  The ship he’s traveling on is the Euterpe-Thalia;  this is a double-hulled liner with one hull super-imposed over the other.  The lower is full of batteries and electric engines and provides the motive force;  the upper is designed for passengers and is equipped with gyroscopes and automatic levelers.  The two are connected by one giant ball-and-socket as found in the front end of modern automobiles.  The net effect is that the upper hull rides perfectly level and smooth regardless of storms or tides, while the lower hull can attain speeds up to fifty knots.  When the ship reaches New York, it slips between two parallel stone piers and the passenger section is lowered until it rests on the upper surfaces of the dock;  then the lower section backs away and is ready for another trip, with another passenger container.  (As you may have guessed, this book is a fantasy).

Roland, together with his rich lady-friend, Margaret Raleigh, is the founder and operator of Sardis Laboratories, a private research institution with several major projects on hand.  One is a trip to the North Pole to claim it for the United States.  Another is his lens house in which the machinery for the utilization of “photic forces” has been developed.  This construct produces the “Artesian” ray, three feet in diameter, that penetrates the ground and lights it up, allowing observers to see to the bottom of the hole, analyzing the strata, and identifying sources of minerals and water.

Old Sam, caretaker of the facility, and his wife, Sarah, are aged retainers of Clewe and Raleigh, and are two of the passengers that will be traveling to the North Pole on the submarine, “Dipsey” along with Captain Jim Hubbell and the crew.  Sarah doesn’t really want to go;  it makes her feel “as gloomy as a black handkerchief tied over your head.”  The submarine is powered by electricity;  the chief electrician is Mr. Gibbs, who says the batteries are sufficient to last fifty years or more.  Built with windows above and below, and supplied with many home-like comforts, the submarine has been designed for extensive travel under the ice.

After the Dipsey has left, Roland invents the “automatic shell”:  an auger-like drill three feet across designed to penetrate anything.  It’s unique feature is located at the tapered end, which consists of metal rings that gradually decrease in size at they approach the point.  The internal structure is such that the rings collapse as the shell encounters greater density material, and that collapse increases the penetrating force of the shell, so that any hardness of matrix can be drilled through.

Using his photic force machine, Roland creates a hole fourteen miles deep.  At this point the ray encounters a white mist and stops.  Adjacent to the hole (still on the surface), the automatic shell machine has been set up for preliminary testing.  The stand on which it is mounted turns out to be too weak, as one night it crashes to the ground, and the shell falls off, point down, and penetrates the earth to a depth of fourteen miles, the same depth reached by the photic force ray.  Roland moves the ray over to the new hole and discovers that the shell lies at the bottom with the nose broken off, surrounded by a white misty looking substance.

Meanwhile, the Dipsey has sailed to Greenland, where it submerges and pushes onward toward the pole.  Unbeknownst to the crew, though, an interloper has contrived to be hired as one of the hands, and he (Rovinski) has dastardly intentions as regards the possession of the pole region.  En route, the boat discovers Lake Shiver, named by Sarah because it’s cold there.  After some barriers have been dealt with, they all reach the North Pole (which is surrounded by a another large lake), establish a base camp and take measurements and observations.  When they first arrived, Rovinski was the first out of the Dipsey:  he dashed forward intending to claim the discovery for himself, but the crew caught him and threw him overboard.  Then they chained him up in the bottom of the ship.  After spending a reasonable amount of time erecting a buoy, and a small house with provisions for the next visitor, should there ever be one, they all set out for home.  The channel they had arrived in was closed up, so they resorted to dynamite to blow open another one.  Progressing in this fashion, they soon came to a very large iceberg blocking the way.  Adapting one of the structural members into a very long spike, they climb to the top of the berg and stick it point first into the ice.  Then they install a shaped charge on top of the spike and set if off from the safety of the ship.  They spike penetrates the berg, it splits into two pieces, and the Dipsey continues on its journey, back through Lake Shiver, and eventually, home.

After returning to Sardis, they turn Rovinski over to the authorities who place him in an institution, as they consider him a danger to himself and others because of his driving ambition to be first at something, no matter what…  One night he escapes and sneaks back to Sardis.  Poking around at night, he finds that an elevator has been built to explore the bottom of the large hole, in which the remains of the shell still lay.  Not being aware that Roland had already visited the bottom, found some strange chunks of rock, and returned, Rovinski climbs into the cab and grins with delight at the probability of being the first to discover what lies on the bottom.  He’s in such a hurry he forgets to engage the brake and plummets to the bottom, destroying the elevator and himself.  Next morning, Roland, saddened at the miscreant’s undoing, causes the hole to be filled up and abandoned.  He and Margaret get married, and live happily ever after, mainly because the rocks that he’d recovered from the hole turned out to be diamonds, the largest of which they named “The Great Stone of Sardis”.  Roland’s theory was that in the early days of the solar system, a large comet with a diamond core was caught in the sun’s gravitational field and in the process of achieving orbit, was burned to such an extent that the ash coated the outside of it and turned to earth and rock, leaving the core, fourteen miles down, to be bumped into by his Automatic Shell.  The astute reader, doubtless, would possibly have his own theory about that…

I really like Frank Stockton’s work…  There’s a lot of fun and joy to be had in his books,and he had a remarkably inventive, albeit child-like, imagination…

The Lost Art of Walking

Geoff Nicholson

Geoff was walking down a steep road in the Beverley Hills region of Los Angeles when, for no good reason, he slipped and fell.  Trying to arrest his imminent collision with the pavement, he caught himself with his right hand and broke three bones in his forearm.  Over months of recovery, he became depressed and out of shape and so decided to write this book.  A lot of research went into it, the history of walking, famous walkers, the perils of walking, the science of walking, and more.

During the late nineteenth century, in America, long distance walking was a spectator sport, of a sort….  Walkers, for a specified sum, would try to walk a given distance in a given amount of time.  Some made their livings doing it.  For instance, Edward Payson Weston(1839-1929) got into long distance walking by trying to win a bet that he couldn’t walk from Boston to Washington (500 miles) in ten days:  in time to attend the inauguration of President Lincoln.  Unfortunately he was a couple of hours late for the ceremony, but was allowed to attend the ball that evening.  Weston liked to walk, so he began more ambitious projects.  In 1867 he walked from Portland, Maine to Chicago and made $10,000.  In 69, he made $25,000 by covering 5,000 miles.  And when he turned 70, he bargained to walk from New York to San Francisco in 100 days.  He was four days late, and so, in a fit of pique, he walked back to New York in 76 days.  Longevity couldn’t slow him down, but when he was 88, he was knocked down by a taxi in New York and the injuries and complications put him in a wheelchair and he only lasted another two years.

One of the sillier developments (according to Nicholson) was the invention of Psychogeography.  Guy DeBord (1931-94) published a paper called “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography”, about “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”.  The idea being that urban walkers’ reactions to the shape and size of their personal perambulations can be predicted and quantized by studying what streets they walk on.  There was actually a conference in New York, called the Conflux Project, at which various speakers promulgated their theses in a series of lectures.  “There was Paul Harley’s “Pansy Project”, in which he revisited city streets planting pansies where he has received verbal homophobic abuse.  These self-seeding pansies act as a living memorial to this abuse and operate as an antidote to it, each pansy’s location is named after the abuse received then posted on his website.”  Having imbibed a bit too freely at the after-conference party, Nicholson found himself walking off the effects in a martini-glass shape, designed from the streets he followed during his peregrination.  (I think he was kidding…)

The book cites some extraordinary acts of heroism achieved through necessity, as when the Bennett-Arcane party, trekking via a short-cut in its attempt to reach California, became lost and helpless in the middle of Death Valley.  Two of the party members, William Manly and John Rogers decided they’d walk out for help.  They covered 250 miles over the Panamints and the Sierras, to San Fernando Valley, an incredibly arduous feat.  They had horses on the way back, but the horses died from thirst and exposure.  Manly and Rogers carried water and food sufficient to rescue the strandees, and led them to safety over the same route.  Manly wrote an account of the affair, entitled “Death Valley in ’49”;  according to Nicholson, Manly says, “Walking became pretty tiresome.  Great blisters would come on our feet, and, tender as they were, it was a great relief to take off our boots and go barefoot for a while when the ground was favorable.  This valley was very sandy and hard to walk over.  All the way had been hill and very tiresome walking.”

I was an avid walker.  I completed several marathons, and did some solo hiking and camping in the Columbia gorge, so it was fun to read this book.  I liked Nicholson’s easy and comfortable approach to his subject, and, while it was a bit like listening in on a chatty conversation, the book was well written, and full of interesting anecdotes and descriptions.  I’d read another of his;  he has published twenty books so far.

A final note:  one point i thought was very interesting was from one of the long-distance walkers cited by N to the effect that the best stance for a long distance walk was slightly bent over.  The knees can absorb the shock from the foot-fall better than the ankles.  A way to avoid fatigue and joint damage…

OXFORD MOUNTAINEERING ESSAYS

Arnold Lunn, Editor

The flickering light of a gas lantern illuminates photographs projected onto a sheet hung up a bit precariously on the roof of New College Hall, Oxford University.  Surrounding are a collection of athletic looking undergraduates staring at the sheet with rapt admiration.  We are present, at the turn of the nineteenth century, at one of the regular convocations of the Mountaineering Club.  In the interest of preserving some of the finer comments of various enthusiasts, Arnold Lunn has agreed to publish a pamphlet of collected essays by some of the older members of the club.  The anthology follows:

1:  An Artist of Mountains by C.J. Holmes:  Mr. Holmes leads off with a brief description of the history of PLEIN AIR painting.  Initially, up to about thirty years ago, mountains were regarded as a waste of space and dangerous.  They took up farming acreage and were hard to cross over, thereby separating areas of civilization and culture.  The Dutch were the first to intuit flow and synthesis as belonging to the ranges.  Millet, Cezanne, Turner, Corot, Crome, Wilson, and the earlier Oriental artists began to represent mountains and hills in a more abstract but realistic way, depicting them as having a presence and authority unique in landforms.  The attempts to elicit the natural forces behind the existing reality gained momentum with the efforts of the Impressionists.The culmination of such efforts arrived with the works of CJ. Holmes, whose interpretations achieved the ultimate in rhythm and synthesis, adapting the visions of Hokusai to a western aesthetic.  (Note the author:  i don’t know whether he’s bragging or just being tendentious…)

2:  Chamois Behavior by Julian Huxley:  His interest in the animals occurred as a result of observing, while he was cutting steps up a large glacier, one of them leaping down the ice at speed, covering 80 to 100 feet at a bound.  Noting the surrounding landforms at the time, he realized that, given a different time scale, the mountains could be seen as waves crossing the face of the earth, being eroded away and built back up over millions of years.  Deposition in valleys and river deltas would weigh down the earth until an upheaval occurred, thereby initiating another cycle of mountain building.  The human imagination alone,  was capable of perceiving the awesomeness and grandeur of the process, using observation and reasoning to comprehend what the mountains were conveying in the evidence to be seen on every hand.

3:  The Mountains in Greek Poetry by Norman Young:  Homer and Hesiod noted the existence of mountains but didn’t say much about them.  The early Greeks tended to ignore them, save as yet another difficulty, impeding travel and commerce.  They wrote about the sea a lot more, it’s storms and tides, and the problems involved in crossing it.  Atlas was the only mountain described in any way;  the Greek Hero suffered petrification when Perseus showed him, possibly at his request, the head of Medusa that he’s just removed.  Theocritus noted the life-giving springs and cool streams running down from hills and heights.  Pindar wrote five lines in praise of mountains, particularly in their changeability…  Movement and brightness were integral elements of the Greek concept of beauty;  mountains, being visibly inert, didn’t attract much attention except when the wind blew clouds and rain over and around them…

4:  A Journey by Hugh Lunn:  Studying German in Dresden, and vacationing in Oberkreuzberg, Hugh wanted to travel to Switzerland.  He borrowed some money, walked 15 miles to the train station and rode in discomfort to Saas Fee in the Swiss Alps.  Sneaking into the Hotel du Dom, he avoided the festival crowds that were celebrating in the streets;  he also managed to evade Cynara…  The End. ?

5:  The Mountaineer and the Pilgrim by H.E.G. Tyndale:  “A pilgrim goes to meet his higher self”.  Tyndale cites Chaucer and Bunyan and obliquely enlists vaguely Buddhist ideas in his proposal that long journeys made by religious or idealistic groups are inherently spiritual in nature, as opposed to those who climb mountains for the thrill, pleasure, or technical challenges.  The satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult ascent and overcoming physical hardships is the chief motivation of the latter.  Also, as Tyndale states, they enjoy “the privilege of being dirty”.  Being the first to explore mountainous regions also adds a soupcon of fun to any expedition, labeling prominences with one’s own cognomen, as it were…  Climbers experience anxiety when facing danger;  pilgrims travel with a sense of peace and serenity;  hence, the former tend to be cranky and the latter exude calmness.  Pilgrims are free from the round of hardship and repose experienced by mountaineers.  They loll more.

6:  Passes by N.T. Huxley:  As a child following streams and creeks up to their sources, Huxley became fascinated by the mountains in general and the spaces between them in particular.  Valleys and passes seemed to demarcate mountains, separating and locating them so that they didn’t stray over the boundaries.  He describes at length several trips over the Great Scheidegg via the Reichenbach Falls(well-known to S. Holmes fans), and up the Ruinette from the Val de Bagnes for a first view of enigmatic Italy.  “Turning a watershed”  was one of his favorite traverses:  solving the mysteries of what might lie over the top, on the other side, was a constant source of curiosity for him.  The road over the pass connects the known and the unknown in a Wordsworthian sort of way, following the natural flow of the land and investigating the “other”.  Without explaining the reference, Huxley ends his paper with note about “the peaks of Krophi and Mophi”, supposedly mentioned in Herodotus.

7:  British Hills by H.R. Pope:  Heather clad hills were described, commonly, as disgusting by 18th century Scots.  Little did they realize that Pan and the Oreads lurked in hidden byways and crannies found in the depths of the wild.  These occupants disappeared, though, when rock climbing and fell-walking became popular in the next century.  The hills seemed lower and dwindled into familiar vacation spots as more adventurers trekked into the hidden nooks.  To those at home in the wilderness, civilization can appear as a sort of fungal over-growth upon the natural world, erasing the magic and eliminating the joy of achievement offered by rocks, burns, and nesses.  To experience the totality of what nature has to offer, the explorer should travel alone, suffering the pains and pleasures of solitude, interacting with the environment in a spiritual manner.

8:  Roof-Climbing at Oxford by anonymous:  Part of the challenge is evading “the punitive wrath of indigenous authority”.  Ascending lamp-posts as a lead-in to traversing tile summits or bell towers is fully as rewarding as rock-climbing in the Welsh hills.  Finding holds while crawling up a drain pipe offers it’s own peculiar challenges.  Statues of Faith, Hope, Charity, and Mathematics decorate the top ridge of the chapel and are only reached by a spread-eagle traverse past the clock base, 30 feet up, and dealing with the “anfractuosities” involved in pulling up to the balustrade and chimneying up the final drain pipe.  Part of the pleasure thus attained is gained from imagining the grimy effort of the studious trolls below, ensconced in their mundane cloisters.  Breathing the free air of truth and observing the hedge-hogs in the Wadham Gardens in their nightly forays;  enjoying third story snow-ball fights with the enemies on the next roof; and escaping over the postern roof while eluding a pursuing porter;  all these delights belong to he who dares and succeeds.  Besides, it’s good training for the Dolomites.

9:  The Mountains of Youth by anonymous:  “Mountains bind us by their indifference to suffering”.  So begins a short memoir of one enthusiast’s early experiences in the Grindelwald (a climbing center in the Interlaken area).  Overcoming fear was not a problem in those days, when the author scrambled around boulders and the bases of mountains every summer, getting acquainted with the local geography and geology, meeting older experienced guides, essaying a first attempt with a clothes-line and an old pick-axe.  Some pitches seemed antagonistic to the nascent climber and others open and friendly.  The expertise gained was put to use in climbing increasingly difficult slopes and faces.  The learning curve included the familiarity with pain, pride of accomplishment, satisfaction, and a gnostic understanding of the terrain, underlining the connection between pain and the pleasure of success.  With Clint Eastwood, the young climbers came to understand their limits in various ways:  getting lost and overtired on the ice, and the unfortunate consequences of using whiskey as a stimulant, the ever-present chance of accidents.  At one point, the author, without being specific, slips off a wooden water flume and spends four months on his back as a result…  Upon recovery, once again in the mountains, he realizes that the “unconscious joy”  of childhood has disappeared, submerged in the greater comprehension of adulthood.

It was enjoyable reading these literary ventures from a vanished age.  The writers were the first crop of English climbers who throughout the twenties and thirties made extraordinary progress in ascending almost all of the Alpine peaks, established rock-climbing as a national sport, and even made the first tentative steps into the exploration of the Himalayas.  It was kind of like seeing youthful enthusiasm through a stained glass window:  faint echoes and distant visions of a simpler past…

 

THE UNFORTUNATE TRAVELLER

Thomas Nashe (1567-1600)

Jack Wilton begins his somewhat sordid career while living in a military camp bent on the siege of Tournai and Terouanne (somewhere in France).  A pepper-pot personality, untroubled by conventional morality or laws, he first tells the local barkeep that he’s heard that Henry VIII has accused him of using empty beer barrels as a means of conveying messages to the enemy, placing secret plans in them as they’re returned to the local breweries.  He convinces the man that he has the power to ameliorate the accusation of treason through his special connection with members of the royal court.  Blubbering thankfully, the barman follows Jack’s suggestion of compensation by allowing Jack and his friends free food and ale.  Soon the whole camp has driven the poor man out of business, and he leaves, broken in heart and purse.  Unfortunately the authorities discover Jack’s trickery and have him roundly whipped.  Somewhat later, one of the captains begins appropriating Jack’s gambling winnings in order to keep him out of trouble;  Jack talks him into deserting the army, and persuades him that he should enter the enemy camp, do a bit of sleuthing, and return with details of their gunnery deployments.  Being a simple-minded person, the captain agrees and finds himself in the hands of the enemy who want to put him on the rack.  But soon they realize that he is just a fool, and return him to Jack’s camp, the laughing stock of the whole army…

Continuing his reign of con-man-ship, Jack dresses up like a girl and swindles a Swiss soldier out of all his savings, which he and his friends use to purchase new clothing;  swaggering around becomes monotonous about the same time as an epidemic, causing sufferers thereof to sweat copiously until death releases them, runs through the whole camp.  So Jack leaves and spends a bit of time near Milan, watching two armies annihilate each other, then returns to Munster, where he becomes involved in the siege of the town.  John Leiden, the leader of a sect of Anabaptists, has been under attack for a year, and finally he and his followers, armed with shovels, wrenches, rakes, and other ineffectual implements of war, leave the town to face their enemies and are slaughtered to a man by the Imperial forces.

Jack, eyes opened to the horrors of war, returns to England, but meets an old friend on the way, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey on the road.  Henry has left England because of his overwhelming and hopeless love for Geraldine, one of the Queen Catharine Dowager’s handmaidens.  They hit it off and Jack takes service as Henry’s aide and page.  They spend time in Rotterdam and Wittenberg, conversing with Erasmus and Cornelius Agrippa on sundry topics.  Agrippa has a library of 2000 volumes which he knows by heart.  Jack reads a sentence from a book selected at random and Agrippa continues from memory, reciting the text until interrupted.  Leaving Germany, they travel on to Italy.  During the journey, Henry and Jack decide to switch identities, just for the fun of it.  Arriving in Venice, they fall victim to a panderer and madam, Frego and Tabitha, who manage to get Jack and Henry thrown in jail for counterfeiting.  This occurred as the result of a blackmail attempt instigated by Jack, through which a substantial amount of gold coins were mulcted from the pair, and which turned out to be hand made.  Languishing in prison for quite a time, they were finally rescued by Russell, the local English ambassador.  At this point, a new traveling companion is acquired, Diamante,, formerly employed by Tabitha, and who is the mother of Jack’s child.  In his spare time in jail, Jack investigates the works of Aretino, the local chief of police and philosopher.  Known for his polemical and fiery prose style, Jack has nothing but praise for the writer’s skill and style.  This is what Jack had to say about Aretino (and also is an example of Nashe’s characteristic writing style):

“His pen was sharp, pointed like a poniard.  No leaf he wrote on, but was like a burning glass to set on fire all his readers.  With more than musket shot did he charge his Quill, where he meant to inveigh.  No one hour but he sent a whole legion of devils into some herd of swine or other.  If Martial had ten muses (as he said of himself) when he but tasted a cup of wine, he had ten score when he determined to tyrannize.  Not a line of his but was able to make a man drunk with admiration.  His sight pierced like lightning into the intrails of all abuses.”

Jack and Diamante leave Henry in Venice, enjoying the company of Russell, and journey on to Florence.  Jack is still pretending to be the Earl of Surrey but, later, when the real rejoins them, he “is so scared his limbs almost fall off”, because he’s afraid the Earl will resent Jack’s imposture…  All is well, however, the real Earl regarding the situation as a joke.  Henry, visiting Geraldine’s house in Florence, is so inspired by his love that he sponsors a joust, calling upon every knight to recognize his overwhelming love.  Hundreds of knights attend, described in the most flowery, detailed, extravagant language, and dressed to resemble the oddest figures:  mountains, trees, jewelry boxes, and every outlandish imitation imaginable.  Of course Henry wins over all of them.  At this point Nashe’s prose style seemed very much like some of the writing to be found in Don Quixote, in it’s floweriness and adjectival elegance.

Henry is called back to England by the King, and Jack and Diamante go to Rome.  Where further coils are encountered, involving Jewish and Catholic merchants and priests, the plague, banditti, and the Pope.  The plague kills about 100,000 people, but the pair escape, only to be separated by devious plotters and later reunited.  One of the most extraordinary descriptions is of a planetarium located in a rich merchant’s house.  With crystals for stars, blue ceiling tiles, automated birds by the hundreds, flowers and trees contrived by master craftsmen, and realistic scenes painted on the internal walls, the entire creation resembles a paradise appropriate to the wealth of a monetary magus.  Further events include poisonings, torture, treason, and homicide…  Finally, Jack and Diamante, upset and discouraged by the evil and clandestine dealings representative of the Catholic city, meet an Englishman on the street who rants on about the horrors and malevolences inherent in travel;  they decide to go home.  Well, as far as the Ardennes, anyway, where they find Henry and the royal army.  And their travels are over.

Nashe was noted for his polemic pamphleteering and was commonly in trouble for inciting the populace.  He was thrown in jail, along with Christopher Marlowe, for a play they wrote and produced entitled, “The Island of Dogs”.  Unfortunately, not a copy has survived, so we don’t what all the fuss was about.  But we can guess.  Nashe’s great enemy was Gabriel Harvey, another Cambridge graduate(as well as Nashe), with whom he conducted pamphlet wars until Nashe died.  As might be noted, people in those days were a bit more hot-tempered than they are today.  Lots of duels, fisticuffs, and swearing.  Still, it was exhilarating, i suppose, though brief, individually speaking:  Nashe died at 33.  Harvey lived quite a bit longer, but he was a more peaceable sort.  It’s interesting reading the old language and syntax;  challenging sometimes, but quite comprehensible for the most part.  I enjoyed it.  Well, except for the gruesome parts, which i should say, are rather horrendous;  they come mostly at the end.

UP THE RHINE

Thomas Hood (1799-1845)

Richard Orchard is a hypochondriacal land-owner in early nineteenth century England.  Three or four times a week, he experiences dying fits(reminiscent of Redd Foxx) after which he is severely disappointed to discover himself still among the living.  As his personal physician, Dr. Carbuncle, persists in giving him no encouragement in his iterated attacks, he decides to undertake a final excursion. In order to either recoup his health, or suffer the final indignities, he plans a journey up the Rhine river.  His nephew, Frank Somerville, agrees to accompany him along with his sister, Catharine Wilmot and her maid, Martha Penny.  Crossing the channel they encounter a major storm that juggles the passengers about like nine-pins, tossing the luggage around, and blending the cabin constituents all together, like a salmagundi.  Once the seas have calmed, two other passengers, John Bowker, a short fat Cockney, and a tall, skeletal, yellow-skinned, un-named American, have a conversation in which the latter, not having gotten sea-sick, offers to instruct the former how to avoid being sick altogether, offering said advice for the inconsequential price of one sovereign.  The deal being struck, the American, laconically, informs Mr. Bowker that the secret is “to spend thirty years of your life at sea”.  Being of a ruddy and rubescent complexion, Bowker loses his temper and stomps off in a pet.  Later in the trip, after passing through the Netherlands(the beauty of which every member of the party appreciates, except for the overwhelming stench), the tall American, whose name is never revealed, once again fools Mr. B when they are disembarking from a hotel along their route.  Dashing aboard the barge at the last minute, he informs B that he has by mistake appropriated Mr. American’s bags, and proceeds to grab up every piece of luggage in view and scampers off the boat just before it leaves.  Later it’s unveiled that this has been nothing but rampant thievery.  Mr. Bowker does recover his baggage, later, when it’s discovered still at the hotel.  They send it after him.

Events of this nature, in addition to occasionally lovely bits of doggerel, interspersed with admonitory tales illustrating quirks of the German character, constitute the balance of the book, for the most part.  Martha causes trouble when she spontaneously decides to adopt the Catholic faith, to the horror of her employer, Catharine.  Later, after engaging in a penitential parade, carrying a heavy candle, Martha reverts back to her Protestant ethic as a result of sore feet.  Upon another occasion, Catharine is horrified at the parents of an 8 year old child, who apparently view with no alarm that their son is drinking with relish a large flagon of gin.  Catharine throws the offensive liquid overboard, only to discover that the child was actually a 29 year-old midget, one of a large number that live in Germany.  Catharine might be compared to Chaucer’s Prioress, a mild and tender-hearted person with an engagingly soft view of the world.

Barging up the river, the party delights in the passing scene:  the fresh fields with waving grain, skylarks frolicking in the sun, colorful peasants in their native dress working the fragrant soil…  All this description is somewhat tongue in cheek, however, as Hood also expatiates at length on the dire poverty and dirt, the ramshackle living quarters, and the ever-present clouds of smoke to which the large peasant class is addicted.  Smoking is omnipresent and pollutes all the interior spaces, except in the cathedrals.  Arriving in Cologne, Hood commends the city on it’s many fine churches and cathedrals, monuments and museums, but the whole party is aghast at the horrible reek that covers the town;  apparently a sewage disposal problem that is ignored by the inhabitants.  So they cut their visit short, and continue on through the Rhine gorges, examining the high castles and low villages, philosophizing on the era of the robber barons who preyed upon the lowly, periodically decimating the surrounding countryside with their feuds and thieveries, and subjecting the villagers to their tyrannies and rapacious taxations.

They arrive at Coblentz, where they rent a house for a month, planning a longer stay because it’s a delightful town in a picturesque setting on the Moselle.  Having experienced all along the way his hypochondriacal attacks, Mr. Orchard suffers a real attack at last, one which he barely survives.  Frank receives a letter from Richard’s lawyers condoling him upon the demise of his uncle, advising him that his will has been probated and proven, and congratulating him upon his inheritance.  In high dudgeon, Richard writes back excoriating his lawyers but finally comes to realize it has been his own fault. Henceforth he changes his ways and quits his hypochondria, becoming a warm and generous older gentleman, more or less normal in his demeanor.  Frank leaves the party of four to join a friend who is a captain in the Prussian army and is engaged in traveling home through northern Germany and Poland.  He comments on the small, remote villages, their poverty, and on their steadfast generosity to travelers, offering bed and board for mere pennies…  although this might have had something to do, he infers, with the presence of forty thousand soldiers marching through the environs.  According to Frank’s account, Poland is constituted mainly of sand.  Slogging through the endless plains gets to be a trial, so he decamps and returns to Berlin, where he tours the major sites and describes them in sketchy detail.  Returning eventually to Coblentz, the four friends travel back to England.

T. Hood was a humorist and editor of several literary magazines.  He loved puns(the book is filled with them) and practical jokes.  He published a few collections of poetry, notably “The Song of the Shirt”, and “The Bridge of Sighs”, and was a popular essayist.  His children, Tom and Frances, were both writers.  Tom was a well-recognized illustrator.  But all of them suffered poor health and died more or less prematurely.  The book is funny and odd, but well worth reading, if only for the window it opens onto the nature of early 19th century humor…

In My Own Way

Alan Watts (1915-1973)

An iconic figure in some circles in the 1960’s, AW influenced a lot of people, young and old, and was a distinctly emotive force in the American decade of flowers, love and VW buses.  Man walked on the moon, a president was assassinated, computers took off, and the man you wouldn’t buy a used car from became was elected as POTUS.

Chislehurst, just south of Greenwich, England was a nice little town surrounded by commons, fields, bushes, trees, old architechture and old-fashioned pubs.  Until seven years old, AW explored, played, and thrived in the semi-rural environment.  His parents taught him about butterflies, blackberries, animal life, and about the seriality of things:  that everything around him was moving through time, changing constantly, in a kind of merry-go-round that had no end. His mother, in particular, taught him about the ubiquitousness of life;  that animals were alive, vegetables had their own sort of existence, and that even rocks had a place in the ongoing parade.  Even at this early age, he started to understand the duality of things:  that phenomena existed because of what they weren’t;  in another way, an object’s surround had a role in identifying what the object was or represented.  When he was sent away to boarding school at seven and a half years of age, his former life, much loved, ended and he found the resources within himself to prosper and succeed.  He had a natural gift for expository narration, which he learned to use in public speaking and that served him well in his whole life.  This, in addition to a veritable rage for learning, made him a great scholastic success;  so much so, that he eventually grew bored with the formal educational process and quit school in order to devote his time to studies that centered principally on the literature of the Orient.  He became friends with Christmas Humphreys and joined the London Buddhist Lodge at fifteen.  Due to his social expertise and fluid style of conversation he became known to many world-class Orientalists such as D.T. Suzuki, Joshu Sasaki, Francis Cranshaw, Ronald MacFarlane, and many others, all of whom aided AW in his progress in Buddhism, poetry, and philosophy.  His first book, The Spirit of Zen, was written when he was twenty, after a period of intense study with Suzuki.  As the second World War approached, life became inharmonious what with the curtailment of foodstuffs, the scarcity of petrol, and the gradual emigration of many of his friends, so he left England and moved to Chicago where, after networking with some of the local religious Priests and Bishops, he entered the Seminary of Northwest University from which he was ordained as an Episcopalian Priest.  He had a diocese in Evanston, Illinois for five years, then quit that position, as he was growing uncomfortable with the ritualistic  repetitiveness, and became interested in developing some his ideas on the non-seriality of consciousness.

So he move to San Francisco and began teaching at the Academy of Asian Studies there, and at the same time expanding his interests to include Zen, Taoism, and related Oriental practices, Haiku, architecture, and gardening…  Two of his students founded the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where AW visited and held seminars for years;  he also was involved in the establishment of the Zen monastery in Ojai, and also the one at Tassajara.  The ensuing years saw AW establish friendships with many of the significant poobahs in philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and religion.  Joseph Campbell, John Cage, Jean Varda, Gary Snyder, and many others came to value his friendship and frequently visited for long sessions of intense conversation.  He eventually left the Asian Academy when it foundered from lack of financial support and purchased a house in Mill Valley, at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais, which became the center of a sort of beatnik community, populated by various types of free-thinking artists, dancers,  philosophers and Zenners.  In constant demand for public speaking, seminarial work, consultation, and occupied in the in-between bits by writing and publishing books, he passed away at the age of 58, in 1973.

AW was an early influence on me.  I found his ideas fascinating, but never really pursued the Ox(in Zen, studying and meditating in the interest of achieving satori) until i had a job working in the woods in NW Oregon.  That position provided the opportunity to think about consciousness, life, the universe in new ways that were enhanced at the  time by my interest in Haiku…  Suffice it to say, that i began to understand what AW spent his life trying to teach others:  that the universe is one thing;  that people are part of it and not separate…  that much of what we think about is illusion, and that reality is a four-dimensional experience, not comprehensible by serial thinking…  and that having fun is good, worrying is bad, and that people should try to enjoy the moment…  and at the same time to respect the opinions of others:  there is room in the universe for every belief;  what causes comfort or assurance cannot be wrong, and that everyone needs a supportive background in order to survive…