Monday, August 31, 2009

Wild Animal Rescue

So, today Feanor caught another goldfinch. This is the second time this month, and a Bad Sign that, having tasted predatorhood, he's going back for more. We need to work out a few things that'll make it easier for the birds who come to the feeders to get away, and harder for him to get close enough to them for that final fatal pounce. For one thing, from now on he's wearing a collar with a bell whenever the cat door to the balcony is open.

I wasn't able to save the last one, but though this one was badly injured (having lost ten feathers from one wing) and couldn't fly it didn't seem to be in danger of immediately dying. I put it in the wide plate that holds some of the birdseed (finch mix from Wild Birds Unlimited) so it wouldn't starve at least, and later added a little dish of water and moved it into the shade so the sun wouldn't be too much for it.

After a few hours it was clear it wasn't about to die right away --I even saw it eat a little-- but also was too injured to survive without help, which seemed a hopeless proposition. So when I stopped by my local vet's (McMonigle's, who I highly recommend) to buy some of the diet catfood for our oversized cats, I asked if they could give me any advice. They did better: they told me about Sarvey Wildlife Rescue and gave me the phone number of the nearest vet who does pickups for them. I called the clinic (Renton Veterinary Hospital, on Rainier near the Renton airport) and they said to bring it in. I did, holding it while Janice drove, and was encouraged to find that it seemed much more alert in the small box with a loose lid I put it in for transporting in the car; I think it felt less stressed and vulnerable than it had when in the open on our balcony. After some brief discussion and filling out a form, I left it with them, along with a small donation. I called back the next morning, as they'd suggested, and found out it had survived the night. Its main injury was, they said, a broken wing, wh. they had set (or were about to set; I forget which). Later that morning the Sarvey people were due to drop by to take it to their rehab center/shelter.

So, I'm grateful that so far this story has a more hopeful outcome than the last one, which only survived an hour or so after the attack. I'm also glad to find out about the Sarvey Wildlife Center, which is v. much the kind of organization I can support. For an overview of the kind of work they do from a typical month, see the latest issue of their newsletter, available online here:

Also, if you're an animal lover it's well worth poking around on their site for the many pictures and stories thereon. I particularly like the picture of the stellar's jay helping himself to some watermelon seeds:

So, here's hoping that little goldfinch makes a recovery. At any rate, she's in better hands than mine right now.

--John R.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ridin' the Train

Today, we took the new commuter train (Sound Transit) down to the Market. 

As I may have mentioned before, this was not our first attempt to check out what the new train system is like. But since it doesn't run as far as Kent--at least not now, in its earliest phase--we had to drive to the nearest station (Tukwila). The last time we tried this, the park & ride was so much  more than full that after ten minutes or so of futile circling we gave it up as a bad job and decided to try again another day. Later we realized that there must have been a game or something that day. So, this weekend we decided not to try for it on Saturday (when we heard there were not one but two games downtown), as had been the original plan, but instead to shoot for Sunday.

The plan worked. The friendly, helpful guard at Tukwila Station wasn't able to show us how to buy an Orca card apiece (a re-usable rail pass you simply keep charging up) from the vending machine,  so we eventually just bought normal round-trip tickets instead. The train, which runs every fifteen minutes, had a fair number of people on it (this would have been about two in the afternoon) but wasn't crowded. I thought I might have some bad moments, since where we got on it's very much an elevated train, running along raised tracks a good two-three stories in the air (the reason I've never ridden the monorail), but it wasn't as bad as I expected. And soon it worked its way down to the valley floor, running not along I-5 but pretty much parallel to Martin Luther King drive for most of the way, until it turned west in order to pass near the stadiums and then back north to reach downtown. 

We got off at the end of the line, Westlake Station, and walked the few remaining blocks west to reach Pike Place Market.  Our first stop was by Mesker's Maps, where I looked at their spyglass as a possible replacement for the monocular (verdict: v. neat, but the magnification seemed to be less than what I had already). It'd been a while since we were down here, so we most hit the usual suspects: a stop by Market Spice for me to stock up on Northwest Breakfast tea, along with trying three others (one we'd had before, the other two experiments); Janice bought a salt cellar. From there we went to the chocolate shop just south of the main market to buy some sugar-free chocolate. Then it was on to the cheese shop (Quality Cheese), where I picked up seven different cheeses, mostly English (Wensleydale, Cheshire, Double Gloucester, Cotswold, Red Leicester, that 'five shires' cheese, and a little Camembert). A final stop by the nearby vegetable & fruit stands completed our business, but we stopped in at a little bookstore for a poke as well. 

After that, it was a short walk back (uphill this time, though) to Westlake Station, then a short wait for the train, then a pleasant ride back to the carpark. All highly satisfactory. I imagine once they complete the next link, so that the train runs all the way from downtown to the airport, business will pick up considerably. Now if they'll just run a line out to SouthCenter Mall, and another one up to the University District, we'll really be in business.

So: public transport that doesn't take up space on the highway. It's kind of like 19th century trolley technology come again. Hooray. 

P.S.:  The Market wouldn't be The Market without folks selling Real Change, an always-interesting glimpse into how the other half lives (it's sold by the homeless so they can earn money rather than panhandling); the topic of the month, not surprisingly, seems to be the health care debate (i.e., why do we have the thirtieth best health care system in the world, not the best?*). But I also picked up another free paper from a stack in the market, the September 09 issue of NEW SPIRIT JOURNAL, and skimmed its article on angelology, from which I 'learned' that in addition to familiar archangels such as Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, folks are now claiming to have contacted Purlimiek, archangel of Nature, and Fhelyai, the archangel "who looks after the animal kingdom" -- the reason being that "Our frequency has become faster and . . . we can [now] tune into the faster frequency angels". Well, that explains that. 

Finally, there's always a variety of buskers at the Market; I had to give a little to the guy in the fez playing "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter". To play Herman's Hermits, on a ukulele, in a fez, in public: now there's chutzpah.

*I suspect the answer will be simple: we're not willing to spend enough money to have the best when thirtieth best will do.

Friday, August 28, 2009

We Visit the Kilns (but not C. S. Lewis's Home)

So, the next day (Wednesday), we started off with an amazing breakfast at our B&B that included one (okay, two) of the best scones I can remember having. We also, among other things, had an oddish fruit that was new to me: toad-skinned melon. By now we'd made ourselves at home, having discovered that our hosts were v. friendly in the matter of providing hot water for tea (and I drink a lot of tea) and also had their shelves stocked with interesting-looking books, including an Ogden Nash collection (in which I found one of my favorites, The Strange Case of the Girl of Mr. Spoonerson's Dreams), Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS, & STEEL (wh. Janice just finished reading on her Kindle), and BEES IN AMERICA: HOW THE HONEY BEE SHAPED AMERICA by Tammy Horn (turns out Amish bees aren't affected by Colony Collapse Disorder, or hadn't been by the time this book was written [2005]).

Afterwards, we went out and explored the farm a little, feeding the alpacas carrots (twice). Janice got sneezed on by an alpaca -- she thinks by accident; I wonder if instead of spitting, like camels, an annoyed alpaca sneezes instead. We also wandered over to watch the sheep for a while, saw some barn swallows (swooping in and out of the barn), and almost got to pet a small black snake, but he was a bit too quick for me. 

Our morning excursion took us up to the northern part of the island, where we visited English Camp. This is one of the two legacies of the so-called 'pig war' [circa 1859] between the British Empire on the one hand and the United States, in which the only casualty, luckily, was a hog owned by an English settler that got shot by an American squatter. The other relic, of course, is American Camp, which is located at the southern tip of the island. We both agreed that British Camp was a much more pleasant spot to actually live in, as the soldiers stationed here did for twelve years. There were some wonderful old trees, a re-created flower-garden (originally planted and maintained I think by officers' wives), a few (reconstructed?) buildings, and a telescope trained on an osprey's nest atop a distant tree. I got to see some AmeriCore workers; a first for me. A side-path led us to some strange contraption that was clearly some kind of weather device; I'll see if the photo we took of it comes out.  A walk up the hill led us to The Kaiser's Monument, erected in honor of Wilhelm the 1st, we mediated the US/UK dispute, eventually awarding the islands to the Americans.  I was glad no one had climbed up and toppled it during the Great War, when feelings in this country ran so high that it was actually illegal to play Beethoven (yes, the proud stupidity most recently expressed by "freedom fries" has a long and ignoble history). We also visited the encampment's cemetery, where seven British soldiers are buried (is there any country on earth where British soldiers haven't fought and died somewhere at some point during The Empire?), all of whom have tombstones, some of which told interesting stories (not always grammatically). The nearby sign says there are eight people buried here, with the eighth body being that of a civilian, but there's no marker or indication of who he or she might be.

Next, we drove over to Snug Harbor (more or less on the island's northwest corner), where Janice embarked on three hours of sea-kayaking (her second time in a month) while I drove back to Friday Harbor to explore a bit. Two best stops were at Harbor Books, where I picked up the fascinating-looking book MEETINGS WITH REMARKABLE TREES by Thomas Pakenham (I wonder if this is one of the famous Pakenhams, and thus a great-nephew or something of the sort to Lady Dunsany). And, somewhat to my regret, passed on the graphic novel THE RABBI'S CAT.*  Also, I stopped in at 'The Doctor's Office', a tea house/coffee shop in an old house overlooking the harbor right by the ferry dock that served hot tea and ice cream. It was an altogether satisfactory spot, and I regretted not having allowed myself more time to enjoy it. 

After meeting back up with Janice again, we drove down the west side of the island to the Lime Kiln lighthouse. The lighthouse itself -- another of the tiny Puget Sound lighthouses I was beginning to get familiar with by now (Mukilteo, Ft Casey, &c) was locked up, like so many historic buildings in San Juan Island's parks, but they did have a spot outside where you could listen to underwater sound from offshore. 

Next we walked along an uncomfortably high & narrow path leading north from the lighthouse to the Kiln -- basically a huge square brick oven in which they used to melt down limestone chips. There's still a noticeable white streak down the cliffs on that side of the island which we'd seen from the sea the day before, left behind by discarded lime. I would have liked to have carried away one of the discarded bricks piled nearby, but it Wouldn't Do. 

Retracing our steps (nervously, hugging the cliff, on my part), we then went on past the lighthouse a little further south (i.e., more or less in the middle of the island's west coast),to the whale-watching lookout. It was a peaceful spot, where we enjoyed watching one shy harbor seal appear and disappear among floating seaweed. After about forty-five minutes and still no whales, we decided to move one. Luckily, someone in the parking lot told us the whales were on their way, so we returned and took up our post again. And sure enough, not too long afterwards . . . 

Whales. Lots of whales. Many more than we'd seen the day before from the water, coming from roughly the same spot but moving in the opposite direction. The appeared from further out to sea to the left, coming in closer to the shore as they passing slowly to the right out of sight in the golden glare of the sun on the water. At least three whale-watching boats hovered around them (not too close) -- one of them v. probably the next day's cruise of the same one we'd been on twenty-four hours earlier, and another of which we thought was the Zodiac out of Victoria. They kept coming and kept coming, for a good forty-five minutes at least; by the time the last of them slipped by, all the whale-watching boats had departed and it was just a few of us left on the shore to enjoy the show, which only ended near twilight. They were so close we could hear them take each breath. Wonderful.

Just before it got dark we headed back to Friday Harbor for another try for the Syrian restaurant, only to find it closed yet again, and (since it was getting late) settled on another only minimally successful substitute.  And after that, it was back to the Inn, where there were yet more stars upon thars in the night sky. And then, sleep.

THURSDAY. Started with another fine, fine breakfast, with good food and good company among our chance fellow guests. There were scones again, but the other kind of scones (the ones that look like sweet biscuits, rather than the triangular kind of the day before) -- v. good indeed, but not as good as Janice's. After two more visits to feed the alpacas, we departed, highly gratified that our choice of lodgings turned out so well. 

We'd debated whether to take a mid-day ferry home, which meant we'd need to go directly to Friday Harbor but also would get home well before dark, or to take a later ferry home so we'd have more time on the island this final day but wd arrive back in Kent fairly late (the next day, Friday, being a working day for Janice). Eventually we decided we'd come to see the sights, so we might as well stay a while longer and see them. 

Accordingly, we drove down to  American Camp, at the island's SE corner. I rather amused the museum guard, I think, by actually reading all the informative posters and all the labels on the archeological relics in the glass cases. I was v. taken with his confirming our naturalist's report of the other day that this area had a lot of foxes (brought over to control the rabbits, which were brought over because somebody'd thought it was a good idea at the time). I regretfully said the foxes were probably pretty shy of humans and he said no, they knew that picnic-ers brought food and would sometimes come close enough to see what scraps might be in the offing. Some are red but others are black, and a few a muddled combination of the two colors.

Alas, despite my wishes we saw no foxes, but we did get to walk around the bare, windswept grassy plain that was once American Camp -- as Janice pointed out, you got a better view than at English Camp, but it'd be a fairly unpleasant place to stay month after month and year after year. It was high atop the cliffs because the Americans were (quite rightly) afraid of what guns aboard English ships could do, so they set their Engineer, a fellow named Roberts, to work building earthworks for gun emplacements near the post. The six cannon are long gone, but Roberts' Redoubt is there still.  It was amusing to learn that this forsaken little outpost was briefly home to not one but two famous officers. In addition to Roberts, who later wrote ROBERTS' RULES OF ORDER, the commander here was a Col. Pickett, made famous or infamous just four years later for Picket's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, having resigned his U.S. Army commission at the outbreak of the war and joined his fellow Confederates.**

After a walk down to and nice walk along the beach below American Camp (a nice sandy beach, not at all like the ones on Whidbey Island), on which I picked up a fairly odd shell, it was back to Friday Harbor one last time. After parking the car in line for the ferry, we went over to The Whale Museum, which I enjoyed but Janice found rather depressing, what with all its mounted skeletons and pickled dolphin fetuses on display. We'd heard from our naturalists two days before that a contest was underway to name baby whale #42 from K-pod. Janice came up with the I think inspired name "The Answer" (cf. THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY for the explanation why this is the answer to Life, The Universe, And Everything).  Alas, they simply had four pre-selected names for you to choose among. Too bad.  They did have an interesting  'sponsor a whale' program that we're going to look into; basically your contributions fund the whale-monitoring that constantly goes on. You could buy pictures of individual whales, but I didn't see a folder for sale of all the current whales.  The little film that showed in one corner of the museum had a fascinating bit about a gravelly beach where the killer whales like to rub on the gravel, rather like birds taking a dust bath. There was the story of Luna, who wandered off on his own and fell in love with people, and a great deal about the orcas captured in the Sound and shipped off to sea worlds and the like, a practice from I think the 50s through the 70s; only one captured whale is still alive, and people in the area are advocating for her release -- a forlorn hope, I suspect, but still a good cause.  I was more saddened to learn that the Sound had once been home to a pod of about a hundred other whale  (I forget which kind; minke whales, perhaps?. At any rate, ones not too much bigger than orcas or belugas), the entire pod of which was  wiped out, in I think 1907.  Alas for the massacres of the past, and the damage that can never be undone. Decimated populations can sometimes rebuild themselves, but once they're altogether gone -- like the recently (within the last ten years) Chinese River Dolphin -- there's no return.

My notes for the final part of our trip are sketchy, and this travel report has run quite long already, so I'll just add that we finally did get to eat at that Syrian restaurant, and it was indeed v. good.  After the Whale Museum we stopped at Doc's for ice creams and teas (chai for Janice).  Then it was time for the ferry ride, then the longish drive home down I-5. We got back home about ten o'clock, where we found the kitties reproachful that we'd been away but happy to welcome us back.

It was a great trip.

--John R.


*where the rabbi comes home one day to find the parrot's cage empty and the cat suddenly able to speak: it tells him the parrot had to leave. he said not to wait for him. To which the rabbi replies: my cat can speak -- but he lies!

**I picked up a little book on Pickett's career which confirmed the answer I'd come across second-hand to a question that'd bothered me for years: how did Pickett survive Pickett's Charge? The answer: he didn't charge himself; he stood at the Confederate line and urged them onward. I also learned that one of the very last acts Robert E. Lee did before surrendering at Appomattox was, the night before, to cashier Pickett for cowardice and incompetence during the retreat from Richmond.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

We Visit San Juan (but not the one in Puerto Rico)

So, last week we took off three days in the middle of the week (Tues, Wend, Thur) to visit San Juan Island, the largest in the San Juan Islands group in the Puget Sound, between Vancouver Island and Bellingham. This is a spot I've been wanting to get us to for several years now, but after three failed attempts that had all fallen through for one reason or another had about given up on. As it turns out, it was well worth the wait.

Rather than battle rushhour traffic going north on I-5 Tuesday morning, we drove up the night before as far as Anacortes (famous, according to wikipedia, as the spot where Burl Ives spent his final years), which turned out to be a pleasant little town with an interesting approach to murals. Rather than a single more or less cheesy mural of ye olde bygone days somewhere on the town square that you get in many small towns, Anacortes has broken theirs up into individual images -- a person, an antique car, a former shopfront, and the like; more than a hundred in all -- and scattered them all over the downtown, particularly the 'Old Town' section. We stayed at the Anaco Bay Inn, a v. welcoming spot I'd be happy to visit again, and had dinner at Adrift, a nice place that features local-grown produce and fresh-caught fish. On the way back to our car afterwards we saw a shy but determined small black cat making its way carefully through the downtown.

The next morning, Tuesday, was both leasurely and hurried, when we learned, round about what wd have been breakfast-time, that you needed to be ready and waiting in line at the ferry an hour and forty-five minutes before its scheduled departure. A hasty packing and anxious trip got us to the other side of town, where after passing through the slowest line in the world we cd settle down for the long, uneventful wait; the most interesting thing we saw over the next hour were a half-dozen or so herons clustered together on the tidal sands. And, once we were aboard the ferry, the discovery that the pilings of the ferry terminal were rookeries to more cormorants than I have ever seen gathered together in my life.

After about an hour-long ferry ride, which was uneventful, just as you'd want a ferry ride to be, we arrived in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island's only town. After getting a quick lunch (marked mainly by one of the other diners at a nearby table's having the exact same accent as our friend Christina), we went ahead and booked places aboard a whale-watching boat for a three-hour excursion,* departing at 5 o'clock. That left us with time to drive half-way across the island and check into our B&B, the States Inn & Ranch (so called because each of its rooms is named after a state -- for example, we stayed in the South Carolina Room). In addition to being a B&B (and a v. fine one at that), this is also an alpaca farm, which kindly keeps little baggies full of chopped carrots as alpaca snacks for guests to feed the resident fuzzy little camels.

Then it was back to Friday Harbor and to sea aboard San Juan Safari's The Sea Lion. We traveled clockwise around the island, starting from the middle of the eastern side. We had a wonderful time, not least because the resident naturalist aboard handed out some excellent binoculars, though I mainly stuck with our little monocular, since I couldn't see out of both sides of the binocular at once anyway. Besides such sights as Mount Baker looming in the distance behind the Cattle Point lighthouse (as I think it was called), we got to see a pair of Dall's porpoise early on and, towards the end of the trip, a private island stocked with Sitka deer, moulan sheep & rams, a bald eagle that glared at us from atop a dead tree and seemed to feel we shd move along and leave it in peace, a number of harbor seals near the rocks along the shore. One of the less flashy but still interesting sights were the red Lion's Mane jellyfish thick in the water -- our guide turned out not to know about the Sherlock Holmes story featuring this creature (in which it sounds as if Conan Doyle departed from fact, neither the first nor the last writer of detective fiction to have done so). 

And of course, best of all, the orcas (or, as they used to be known, Killer Whales), which came smack dab in the middle of our boat trip and was by far the best part of it. Our boat came across a group of them a little to the south of Deadman Cove,** where we watched them for the better part of an hour (at least forty-five minutes). They travel all in a line, making them hard to count: first you see a fin, then it breathes (and you can usually see the spray of mist from its blowhole, and sometimes hear it exhale), then you see the tail. But if you're new at this, as we were, just what part belongs to who is hard to work out. I tried to count the breaths and thought there were six of them in all; afterwards our naturalist said there were ten. To my surprise, she could identify them all (the fin-markings on each whale are slightly different to the practiced eye)  as belonging to L-pod, the largest of the three in the Sound (the others being J-pod and K-pod -- there are only about seventy-eight whales in all three pods combined). The eldest two we saw were Ocean Sun (L25, b.1928) and Alexis (L12, b. 1933) -- and yes, it was disconcerting in itself to find out that these two whales were about the age of our parents [according to the whalebook we saw later in the Whale Museum they said the eldest in the Sound was born in 1911]. The ones we saw the most of were L41 (Mega) and his sisters Matia (L77) and Calypso (L94); she said Spirit (L22), her brother Onyx (L87), and her sons Skane (L79) and Solstice (L89) were also there.

Hard to beat something like that, so we thought we'd just have supper and then head on back to the B&B. We stopped by Maloula's (a Syrian restaurant in Friday Harbor? sounded interesting), but they were closed, so we had to settle for a somewhat unsatisfactory supper elsewhere (something that was to become somewhat of a theme with this vacation). I forget what Janice had, but my soup turned out to have the consistency of grits and the appearance of grey applesauce.

By then it was late, so back we went to the States Inn & Ranch. Parking the car, we were reminded what a night sky can look like without big city light pollution: there were a million million stars. I didn't think to take my star chart, but even so I could make out  both dippers, Cepheus, Casseopia, Arcturus (& thus Bootes). Best of all, the Milky Way was better than I've ever seen it except on Mauna Kea.

to be continued . . . 
*[and if the words A Three Hour Tour don't immediately come to your mind, you belong to a different generation than mine].

 **[where, according to our Deception Pass guide of last month, the bodies of Chinese immigrants dumped overboard by their smugglers in the Bad Old Days used to wash ashore. I was of course reminded of Wm Hope Hodgson's story FIFTY DEAD CHINAMEN ALL IN A ROW, but I'm probably the only one to ever have that reaction.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


So, in my recent forays in Egyptology I was struck by a curious resemblance between the Quenya word KEMEN, meaning "Earth, soil" (as in the Ring of Earth, one of the Three Rings of the Elves in the LotR Mss), and KMT or Kemet, the ancient Egyptian name for their own land,* which means pretty much the same thing (soil, black earth). 

Now, is this mere coincidence? A Tolkienian borrowing from an uncharacteristic source? Whatever the case, it's not ephemeral but a long-established, long-lasting word in Elvish, appearing not just in the LotR drafts and the Etymologies  (HME.V.363) but going all the way back to the QENYA LEXICON of circa 1920 or before (PARMA ELDALAMBERON XII.46).

If anyone has looked into this before, I'd appreciate being pointed to a link.


*"Egypt" is the Greek name for KMT, just as "Greek" is the Roman word for the folks who called themselves Hellenes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


So, today I finally finished a forty-eight part lecture series, on two dozen cds, in four slipcases, courtesy of an extended loan from Jeff Grubb. It's one of the offerings from The Teaching Company, and a nice follow-up to the last one of theirs I borrowed, a joint history of Greece and Rome. I'd thought the lecturer of that series 'hearted' Greeks & Romans, but it was as nothing to Professor Bob Brier's enthusiasm for All Things Egyptian (ancient that is -- he covers the three thousand years from prehistory up to Cleopatra but ignores the last two milennia).  If you're interested in ancient Egypt but don't have an expert's knowledge, listening to this series is a good way to get sorted out who's who and what happened when, though I question Brier's judgment on some points (for example, his claim that Elizabeth Taylor's movie CLEOPATRA is extremely faithful to history). His enthusiasm is such that he ends by recommending mummy movies, mummy novels, tourist spots, societies you can join, and magazines to subscribe to to learn more.

My main take-away from this, oddly enough, is the fact that our word chemistry derives from Egypt: chemistry > alchemy > al-KMT, 'the Egyptian art'. That is, the best way the Greeks (and later Arabs) had for describing what we think of as chemistry was as that-thing-Egyptians-do. 
This is all the more interesting, because I just went back and re-read the chapters in BLACK ATHENA REVISITED (anti-Bernal) and BLACK ATHENA WRITES BACK (pro-Bernal) about Science. In the first book, Robert Palter tries to demolish the idea that the ancient Egyptians knew much about science, math (aside from some geometry), or astronomy -- certainly, he argues, far less than the Babylonians and incomparably less than the Greeks. Bernal counters that this was certainly not the Greek's opinion, and produces his own evidence of Egyptian achievement. 

Out of all this, the things that impressed me the most was the discovery that (1) our 12 month calendar of 365 days was an Egyptian innovation and (2) the Egyptians had a sign for "zero" (nfr, meaning 'beautiful') -- not a place-holder like our zero, but a tally-up-together sign signifying satisfaction when all the numbers in a column balanced and came out right (it was also used in architecture to mark a leveled surface). It was also rather nice to learn that Imhotep, who designed the world's first stone building, was incidentally the inventor of blueprints, which makes sense.

I was also struck by what seemed to be an impossibly high standard of evidence on Palter's part. For example, in one case, we have a statement by Aristotle that both the Mesopotamians and Egyptians compiled astronomical records of conjuctions. By great good luck, some of the Mesopotamian records (on baked clay tablets) actually survive. Rather than conclude that this shows Aristotle knew what he was talking about, Palter concludes that it shows the Egyptians never had any such records, since no astronomical papyri survive.

That in the end is what the whole argument comes down to: what do you do in situations where absolute proof is not possible? Rule out anything you can't document beyond a doubt? Construct a plausible scenario that fits the known facts but extrapolates beyond them? Establish a grey area which takes into account second-hand evidence? Here's Bernal's take on the matter:

"I contend that the demand for [absolute] proof is inappropriate in academic debate on such distant periods*. . . I believe that all that is required . . . is . . . not proof  but competitive plausibility".

In any case, I find myself hankering for a visit to a good museum's Ancient Egypt section.

--John R.

*[say, Minoan borrowings from Egyptian religion circa 1400 BC]

Monday, August 24, 2009

TolkLang Review

Thanks to Johan, I've now learned of another review of THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT back in September 2007 that I'd missed. It appeared on the Tolk Lang list, which evolved out of Julian Bradfield's legended Elven language journal of the early 80s, QUETTAR. The full review (or rather the fullest of his series of posts*) can be found at . For those who aren't interested in the minutia of Elvish  -- a fascinating topic, but v. much an acquired taste -- I excerpt some of "Lalaith" (Andreas Moehn)'s comments below.


Although 'Lalaith' starts by saying that "I think we have to be thankful to him for publishing Tolkien's material", she finds my efforts sorely lacking:


"For the linguistically minded, Rateliff  . . . has not much to offer: His tentative glosses . . . reveal rather his ignorance of Elvish languages than actual insights."


regarding my comments on the dating of Durin's Day, she says

"Rateliff . . . further blurs the issue by reading English manuscripts through American glasses . . . he critisizes Tolkien for calling the solar solstice "Midsummer's Eve" though in fact it was the beginning of summer - but actually, the only problem here is Rateliff's profoundly American ignorance"


Nor does Tolkien himself escape her censure:

"Tolkien . . . at his worst: Despite his acclaimed romantic love for nature and his mental fatherhood to the Green party, he reveals himself here as a city-person who has hardly even LOOKED at the Moon, not to mention understood its celestial motions"


". . . This is not the only one of Rateliff's wrong accusations. Also he blames Karen Fonstad for silently shifting the Unexpected Party from 27th to 26th, overlooking that the latter date is established by Tolkien himself in "The Quest of Erebor"."


"Rateliff may have had honest intentions, but the results fall dramatically short against Christopher Tolkien's HoMe volumes and do neither Tolkien nor Taum Sandoski justice who was originally determined to publish "The History of the Hobbit"."


". . . Vol. II at last provides the Index that I direly missed in Vol. I. Alas, its level is sadly reminiscent of the original "Letters" Index."


"the whole corpus thus deteriorates into a sad but fitting postscriptum to a well-intended but occasionally too sloppy editing. As a read, the two volumes of Hobbit History are certainly worthwhile, as a reference, they are too often a failure."


Of all these, I'm glad to have the point about Fonstad drawn to my attention, and will craft a piece of errata to address the issue. The point about the disjunction between astronomical autumn (Sept 21st to Dec 21st) and colloquial British usage (August, September, October), which Christina Scull had earlier suggested to me, is more complex and needs to be written up as a separate post. I can bear up to the charge that my Index is as good as the one prepared by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien for the original edition of LETTERS with equanimity, but I do object to her sneers at Tolkien for knowing nothing about astronomy and calendars -- a simple glance at the appendices of THE LORD OF THE RINGS and the draft material at Marquette shows that's nonsense.**


As for Moehn's other charges, it's a little late in the day to set the record straight on all points. The one line that I find really stings is her invocation of Taum Santoski.  I don't suppose that 'Lalaith' ever met Taum (given that she misspells his name), but he was my closest friend, and the thought that I failed the task he entrusted me with is bitter indeed.


Other than that, I'm sorry she didn't enjoy my book, but frankly it's hard to get worked up over a negative review almost two years after the fact -- it's kind of like finding out that someone you don't remember from high school wrote something dismissive about you in a classmate's copy of your yearbook. Somehow, life goes on.


--John R.


current reading: THE PLEASURES OF A FUTUROSCOPE by Lord Dunsany [written 1955; published 2003]


*see also her posts of July 21st (#46.82; Bladorthin), July 22nd (#46.83; Fang), July 26th (#46.87; Radagast), July 31st (#46.88; Dorwinion), & Sept. 3rd (#46.94; Bladorthin again).

**For my own thoughts of what's going on with Tolkien's ultimately unsuccessful struggle to reconcile the events in THE HOBBIT to a real-world calendar, and what it reveals about the pictorial element in Tolkien's drafting of scenes, see my piece "A Kind of Elvish Craft" in the current issue of TOLKIEN STUDIES.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Some people's money is merited
 And other people's is inherited."

--Ogden Nash

Sunday, August 16, 2009


This post is just a test to see if we have indeed properly figured out how to post images here.

The image that should appear is a photo I took last week of our little mimosa in the yard.

Let's see how it comes out.


Howard Hanson's Musical Dam

So, the day after I made the post updating the news about the Howard Hanson Dam, we got our informational packet from the King County Flood Control District, warning us about the possibility of "several feet" of flooding if we get a lot of rain this autumn. They provided a checklist (buy emergency kit. buy flood insurance NOW. purchase a battery-operated radio. study the evacuation routes. learn how to use sandbags. &c) and warned of possible evacuations. The areas affected include "Auburn, Kent, Renton, South Seattle, and Tukwila". Those interested can see some of this information at a website they recommend we monitor: Luckily, the local paper continues to reassure us, recently stating that fixing the dam was among the Army Core of Engineers' top projects. Perhaps they've forgotten about the fish tower.

So, while we're being told on the one hand that flooding is really, really, really unlikely, on the other hand we're being told to learn the evacuation routes and be ready to head out at a few hours' notice. Mixed messaging, methinks.

That same day I came across the name again in a totally unrelated context. I was returning some cds of old music from the 1920s and 1930s to the local library when I saw an album devoted to the work of composer Howard Hanson, recorded by the Seattle Symphony. What's more, one of the works featured on the cd was "Lament for Beowulf". So I checked it out. After a few listenings and having read through the liner notes, I don't think Hanson had any connection with this area and think his piece being recorded locally might just be coincidence. Still, I wonder if the dam could have been named after him, or if it was some other Howard Hanson. As for the music itself, one piece here (Symphony No. 4, "Requiem") sounds in places very like THE RITE OF SPRING, while "THE LAMENT FOR BEOWULF" (Opus 25, 1925) turns out to be a nineteen minute piece for orchestra and chorus based on the Wm Morris translation, part of which is reproduced in the liner notes, complete with glosses explaining what the archaic words Morris made up for his "translation" mean.

In any case, juxtaposition of the two Howard Hansons, or the two v. different tributes to the same Howard Hanson, amused me, so I thought I'd share.


current reading: THROWN TO THE WOOLFS by John Lehmann [1978/1979]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Sound of Rain

So, today I woke up to a sound I haven't heard much lately: a soft steady shower. Accordingly, the song of the day is The Beatles' "Rain".

This little spell of rain has been a long time coming and is thus all the more welcome. Yesterday's sprinkles, at one point late in the day accompanied by a truncated double rainbow, I think marked only the third time it's rained here this summer. And of those the middle time (the only thunderstorm and good heavy rain) came when we were on Whidbey Island and apparently didn't hit Kent at all, or at least not our part of it. The creek than runs past our place ran dry weeks ago, reduced to a few hollows. The nameless lake that gives 'The Lakes' development its name is so low that I've discovered for the first time that it's what the Clampetts would call a cement pond -- that is, the lake-bottom, or at least the parts I can see of it, is rough poured cement, like the smaller nearby pond they emptied a few months back for some fountain repair.

I've started to see trees up and down the streets shedding all their leaves as if it were an early fall, but it's actually established trees dying from the drought. We've been lucky: I've been able to keep the plants on the deck and the little mimosa* in the yard alive, and the wysteria that got cut down last year has made a comeback. The birds can fly to where there are still shrunken ponds, but what the little rabbits and the like have been doing to get by during this drought I can't imagine.

So,here's hoping that the current bit of wet is not an anomaly but presages the onset of autumn weather. Normally I like summer to hang around, although autumn is my favorite time of year, but this year the sooner the drought ends and the record-setting high temperatures with it (hello, global warming), the better.

On a more positive note, yesterday we stopped to snack off a few blackberries while walking home from Janice's office. When I reached to pick one, I disturbed something small and green that hopped onto another leaf. I thought at first it was a grasshopper, which for whatever reason you don't see too many of around here (as opposed to the other side of the mountains, where they're at every rest stop), but a closer look revealed that it was a little green frog. In fact, there were a lot of them, leaping from leaf to leaf. Clearly they did not feel the need to keep a wary distance, just moved just out of reach when we got too near. Unlike the Puerto Rico tree frog we'd seen in Hilo, these were absolutely silent. I don't know if they'd been brought out by that rain or if I just hadn't noticed them before the other times we've been at that particular patch of blackberries. Nor am I sure whether they were eating blackberries or, perhaps, waiting to eat the things that came along and were attracted to the blackberries. In which case, D&Der that I am,** I'm glad we're the size we are and they're the size they are.


*I now have a nice photo of the little tree which I'll try to post here, as soon as I figure out how to post photos. Bear with me on this; there are also some good ones of the standing stones and dolmen on Whidbey Island I'd like to share.

**I'm looking at you, VILLAGE OF HOMMLET's moathouse.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Dam, Again

So, the Howard Hanson dam has been in the news again, and not altogether in a good way.

First there was the news that they'd decided on a temporary repair (a 'grout curtain'), costing eight million dollars, that they felt might help with the leak that's undermining the dam's earthen abutment. It won't fix the problem, but with luck it might slow down the rate at which things are getting worse.

Then, the Army Core of Engineers makes a surprise announcement that they're planning to spend two hundred million dollars on a fish tower -- essentially a big fish trap where fish swim in and not be able to swim out. Once collected, they'll load the fish onto a truck and drive them around the dam and dump them back in several miles downriver.*

And now today a warning was sent out about "higher risk of flooding" in the Green River Valley, particularly in Auburn "north of 22nd Street NE and those areas immediately bordering the Green River and Mill Creek."

My favorite part is that along with this warning came the reassurance: "It is important to note the Army Corps assures us there is no risk of the dam failing. Renters, homeowners, and businesses are advised to review their insurance policies to ensure they are covered for flooding, landslides, sinkholes, and other issues commonly associated with significant rain events."

So, the official word is no worries, but get that flood insurance right away. How reassuring. Almost as reassuring as discovering that the Army Core of Engineers, who have done untold damage to the whole river system in the Puget Sound region, is more focused on a fish tower than halting the ongoing damage to the dam holding back a considerable reservoir upriver of us. I'm glad Kent is repairing its levees rather than trusting that All Will Be Well.

--John R.

P.S.: By the way, there's a pretty good picture of the dam here:

*or so the article said. I suspect they'll actually be trucking them UPriver to get them past the dam, since the stated goal is to restore salmon spawning grounds cut off a half-century ago by the dam.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Award Arrives!

So, Friday a big box arrived on the doorstep. Looking at the return address (Oklahoma), I was pretty sure what was inside, and waited till Janice got home for us to open it together. Inside was my 'Aslan', or Mythopoeic Society Award.

I'm sure I must have seen one before, as I've been to several of their award banquets before -- e.g., at the Barfield/Lewis centenary in Wheaton -- and also visited and stayed with various MythSoc Award winners over the years, but if so I still couldn't remember what they actually look like. It is indeed a model of one of the famous lions in front of the New York Public Library, and is (a little on-line research tells me) made of marble dust and high-quality resin. But the question arises: which lion? Apparently the two in front of the Library are called "Patience" and "Fortitude", though whether these are official names or merely nicknames I have no idea. Mine seems to be looking very slightly to his right, so I assume he's a model of the one on the right as you go in.

Given how long it took me to finish the book, I suppose 'Patience' wd be the more appropriate original. Plus of course the Middle-English poem PATIENCE, the Gawain-poet's hilarious take on the Jonah legend, wd be a nice indirect Tolkien tie-in. But I truthfully have no idea.

In any case, I'll try to have a photo of it up on the website as soon as I can manage it.

--John R.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Tale of Two Criminals

So, I saw two unrelated stories today that, juxtaposed, tell us a lot about the US and UK.

The first was that Manson Family member and would-be presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme is being released soon after serving thirty-four years of a life sentence. Vincent Bugliosi, in HELTER SKELTER, indicated that he believed Fromme had taken part in several more murders, but there was never enough evidence to charge her.
So far as I can tell, there's no outrage that Manson's successor as the leader of The Family will soon be out again.

The second was that the mastermind of The Great Train Robbery from forty-six years ago is about to be released from prison,* over the strong objections of the train driver's union. Apparently a member of his gang knocked a person out during the course of the robbery. The criminal in question is bedridden and terminally ill, not to mention eighty years old.

I think the disparity of the response says a lot about the relative violence levels between our two countries.

--John R.

current reading: the 'Science' chapter from BLACK ATHENA REVISITED, ed. Lefkowitz & Rogers [1996]

*I shd point out that he hasn't been in prison all these years, having escaped early on and fled the country, only returning a decade or so ago to voluntarily be re-imprisoned.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


So, a few days ago I picked up a copy of the magazine SKEPTICAL INQUIRER (July/August 2009 issue), the cover story of which, about the Flores hominids, had caught my eye. The article itself ("Pathology or Paradigm Shift?: Human Evolution, Ad Hominem Science, and the Anomalous Hobbits of Flores" by Kenneth W. Krause, pages 31-39) turns out to be a nice summary of the claims, charges, and counter-charges about the early human remains discovered on Flores, one of the Indonesian islands, a few years back. Scientists are divided into two camps, those who believe these represent a new species of early human that tell us a lot of surprising things about the hominid family tree, and those who think the remains belong to relatively modern humans suffering from some deformity (microcephaly, cretinism, &c). For now the evidence seems to be leaning towards the first lot, who maintain that homo floresiensis are a genuine population that split off very early and survived a very long time (i.e., we're much more closely related to Peking Man than either Peking Man or homo sapiens are to H. Floresiensis).

I was particularly fascinated by the arguments that, despite much evidence to the contrary, the Flores People couldn't have used the stone tools found in their cave home alongside their remains because their heads were too small; only large-brained hominids could make tools and use fire. It reminded me strongly of my favorite Steven Jay Gould book, THE MISMEASURE OF MAN, a large part of which is devoted to 19th and 20th century obsessions with brain size and false equivalences of brain-size to Intelligence.

But what impressed me even more, as a Tolkien scholar, was to realize that what had begun as a nickname of calling these little people 'hobbits' has now stuck -- not only does the article use Hobbit as the colloquial equivalent of the technical H. florensiensis, but so do several of the papers cited in the bibliography -- or so at least I wd judge from their titles. And these are not newspaper articles but pieces in journals such as SCIENCE and the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY, not to mention three books, one of which I'm definitely going to have to get: THE DISCOVERY OF THE HOBBIT: THE SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGH THAT CHANGED THE FACE OF HUMAN HISTORY by Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee [2007].*

What would Tolkien have made of all this, I wonder?


*I admit I rather like the idea of putting "The Discovery of the Hobbit" on the same shelf with "The History of The Hobbit"