Sunday, November 29, 2015

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Source of book: I own this, but borrowed an audiobook from the library for our trip.

This is the second audiobook by Jules Verne we have listened to together. Previous Verne books reviewed are:

It has been quite a few years since I first read this book. It must have been in my teens, probably late teens, as I purchased my copy of the book some time after I got my own room at age 16. It is kind of weird to re-read a book after that long of a gap, because one may well remember the outline of the plot, but forget some details that were not as memorable then as they are now.

The plot of the book is pretty straightforward. The eccentric and impetuous professor Lidenbrock drags his reluctant and timorous nephew Axel to Iceland to seek a passage to the center of the earth, based on a cryptic (and encrypted) note he discovers in an old book. This note purports to be from a fictional Icelandic alchemist, who claims he had been to the center of the earth - and gave directions to the path.

When they arrive in Iceland, Lidenbrock procures the services of Hans, a reticent and stoic hunter, to guide them to the entrance. Hans is convinced to accompany them further. Provided he gets paid at the end of each week.

After they enter the crater, they must find their way down the path, encountering various obstacles and dangers. Eventually, they reach a vast underground sea, which they sail across on an improvised raft, before a catastrophe results in their being returned to the surface thousands of miles from their starting point.

This book was written in 1868, a time in which a great many discoveries were being made. Verne is commonly considered to have established the genre of Science Fiction - although credit for the first Science Fiction novel really should go to Mary Shelley, for Frankenstein. A mere five years prior to Journey to the Center of the Earth, the geologist Charles Lyell had published his second revolutionary work, Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man. This built on his work, Principles of Geology, which had established that the earth was very old indeed, and not a mere 6000 years old. The later book brought together three ideas that had revolutionized the study of science in the preceding decades. First was the discovery of past ice ages (hat tip to Louis Agassiz), Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and questions about how long mankind had existed. Lyell had previously been skeptical of both ice ages and an ancient origin of humans, but in the second book reversed his opinion, based on the wealth of scientific evidence that had accumulated in the decades since.

Both of Lyell’s books appear to have strongly influenced Journey to the Center of the Earth. On the one hand, Verne disputes the idea that the center of the earth is hot and molten. (This idea has proven to be true, making Verne wrong, in a surprisingly rare misstep.) On the other, the journey is just as much through time as it is through inner space. Early on, the travelers traverse rock layers filled with fossils, placed roughly in the order of the geological column. Later on, they encounter extinct flora and fauna by the underground sea. A modern scientist might wonder how these creatures largely escaped the forces of evolution, but we’ll cut Verne some slack here. After all, he was writing not too long after The Origin of the Species and a few years before The Descent of Man. This was all fairly new, and Verne explores the ideas with a sense of wonder, rather than a true devotion to accuracy.

In that sense, that is Verne’s best skill: asking “what if?” and following the ideas that came to him through the course of an adventure.

The general consensus (which I believe is correct) is that Verne’s best works are 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. Both of these books have the most coherent plots, and the most memorable characters. My wife prefers the latter, and there are solid reasons for loving that book. As one significant factor, it is the rare Verne novel that has a female character who is more than a passing reference. On the other hand, it is the most “realistic” book, one which indulges little if at all in an imagination of the future.

Journey to the Center of the Earth, on the other hand, has the classic Verne speculations on both science (with a particular emphasis in this book on geology but also electricity.)

Where the book loses momentum, though, is at the end. It seems as if Verne got tired of writing the book, couldn’t figure out how to end it, so he rather suddenly engages a deux ex machina of the natural sort to complete things. The reader may be forgiven for feeling left suddenly at the end without a sufficient explanation.

The other disappointing things I noticed from this reading were Verne’s casual sexism (which isn’t always as noticeable due to the lack of females), and the whininess of Axel, who narrates the book. Verne generally chooses his narrator to be a foil to the true protagonist, usually the bold scientist. In some cases, such as Passepartout, this person is a memorable character in his own right. Axel is a bit disappointing in that he is memorable mostly for worrying and complaining, rather than for more pleasant traits.

I should also mention that a common issue with Verne novels is the poor quality of early translations in many cases. Since these are in public domain, and already well known, they have tended to endure, despite the slipshod work. One can only hope that more of these books will be given a truly excellent translation which is more faithful to the original.

In any case, despite these faults, Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of Verne’s most memorable books, full of adventure and imagination.

Note on real life places and people:

The book in which the note is found is a real work by Snorri Sturluson - a real life Icelandic historian and poet. He is one of the sources we have for the Norse civilizations of the past, as he wrote down many of the legends for future generations. He was also notable for idea that the “gods” were originally real people, who became mythical later as time passed. At the time (the 1600s), this was a bit revolutionary in his own culture, and he got a bit of grief from the political sorts for it. Some things never change.

The volcano which the explorers enter is also a real place. I couldn’t determine whether Verne actually visited it, but he must have at least had a detailed description to rely on, because the portions of the book set in Iceland fit well with the actual facts of the places described. In any event, the Snæfellsjökull is really quite lovely, as this picture attests.

Photo by Axel Kristinsson  (used under the Creative Commons license)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

True story: one of my wife’s co-workers complained about someone spoiling the end of the film, Lincoln. (In case you weren’t paying attention in elementary school, Lincoln dies.) Obviously, this is pretty funny, in a disturbing sort of way, because Lincoln is pretty famous. Not so famous, though, was James Garfield, the second American president to be assassinated. 

This book tells that story, with a particular focus the actual cause of Garfield’s death: medical “treatment.” In 1880, the United States was at a turning point in medical practice. A decade and a half prior, British surgeon Joseph Lister perfected sterilization, which drastically reduced infections and the subsequent deaths. However, doctors in the United States were largely resistant to the new knowledge, clinging to their encrusted aprons, and washing wounds with unboiled water. Not long after, John Harvey Kellogg would build an empire on the theory that all ills could be cured by a bland, vegetarian diet and enemas. Oh, and by giving up masturbation, which he claimed had killed more people than war or disease. So, he was pretty much a distillation of the American obsession with diet, medical quackery, and sexuality.

Candice Millard tells enough of the background of the assassination to set the events in historical and political context. She is a bit of a pro-Garfield partisan, but one can see why she would go that direction.

The post-Civil War United States was an interesting place. One key fight was over the policy toward the South, and also toward the former slaves. This was also the time of the Railroads, when widespread corruption led to a looting of the public treasury by the Robber Barons. (My review of Railroaded can be found here.) Crucial to this corruption was the “Spoils System.” As in, “to the victor belongs the spoils.” Government jobs were given as a reward for service to the candidate rather than for merit, and “machines” like Tammany Hall essentially ran local - and even national - politics. Two movements within the Republican Party battled. On the one hand, reformers such as James G. Blaine (who would later run for president) sought to eliminate the Spoils System and replace it with a Civil Service law granting jobs on merit. On the other was Senator Roscoe Conklin, a party boss and thoroughly corrupt defender of the Spoils System.

At the 1880 Republican convention, no clear winner was to be found. Blaine, John Sherman, and former president Ulysses Grant were those vying for the nomination. After days of wrangling, a movement arose to nominate Garfield, who didn’t even wish to run. Nominated, he was, however, and he felt compelled to accept.

Garfield seems to have been a decent guy in person. He was well read, having a house where the books spilled out of the library into stacks around the house. Even in the bathroom. (Actually, I worry that my house will be like that by the time I reach my 50s.) He was a supporter of full civil rights for African Americans, and was a friend of, and supported by Frederick Douglass. But he wasn’t much of a politician. I consulted one of my reference books, They Also Ran, by Irving Stone - a great book about those who lost presidential races - for more information. Stone wasn’t a fan of Garfield, in large part because he didn’t do much during his Senate career, and lacked a vision for his presidency. I think these criticisms are valid, as is the one that he tried to placate the Conklin faction by appointing people of dubious honesty to posts on his cabinet. Whatever the case, Garfield didn’t get much of a chance to govern, because he was gunned down by Charles Guiteau a few months into his administration.

Guiteau was an interesting character, and his story takes up a good portion of this book. Always a bit of a ne'er-do-well, he bounced from “career” to “career” without making much money. He primarily survived off of a combination of charity from relatives and fraud on his creditors. At one point, he became involved with John Humphrey Noyes, who founded the Oneida utopian colony and coined the term “free love.” Yeah, the late 1800s in America were weird times. In a really surreal twist, the Oneida colony eventually became the Oneida silverware company we know today. From utopian socialism and wife swapping to flatware. Who predicted that?

After leaving the colony - largely because they expected him to work - he spent time as a “preacher,” with a very limited audience, and then as a lawyer, never really making a success at anything. Narcissistic and self absorbed, he appears to have believed the world owed him a living, but somehow didn’t recognize his genius. He believed that he had been the person responsible for getting Garfield elected, and expected to be given a patronage in thanks. When that didn’t happen, he turned against Garfield, and shot him, expecting that he would be hailed as a hero. The turning point came after Guiteau survived a horrific steamboat accident (almost like the one fictionalized in Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age), and decided that God had given him a divine mission to assassinate Garfield.

The bullet that struck Garfield in the back clipped a minor artery, broke a couple of ribs, fractured the tip of a vertebra, but didn’t hit anything vital. In our modern times, he would probably have been treated and released after a day or two at most in the hospital. In his own times, had he been shot on the battlefield and received little to no treatment beyond food and water, he likely would have survived. In fact, many Civil War veterans survived worse, and were still walking around with bullets in them 20 years later.

Unfortunately for Garfield, he was attended to on the scene by Dr. D. Willard Bliss. Bliss was one of the surgeons who attempted to save President Lincoln years earlier, and was eager to have a success to go with that failure. Perhaps because the "D" stood for "Doctor." His parents were ambitious. Bliss stuck his finger into the wound - and then a series of probes designed to find the location of the bullet. Rather than do so, they merely opened new wounds and introduced bacteria. Furthermore, Bliss would railroad the family into putting him in charge of Garfield’s care, and drove away any physicians who did not agree with him.

Garfield would linger for two and a half months after the shooting, eventually succumbing to a massive septic infection. Guiteau may have been delusional about most everything else, but he did have a point (which he made at his trial for murder) that the doctors did more to kill Garfield than he did. One great point the author makes is just how similar Guiteau and Bliss were. The both were amazingly self confident and self absorbed, impervious to the opinions and desires of others. The Garfield shooting was viewed by both as the way they were going to make their fortunes and reputations.

One does wonder what would have happened had chance gone the other way. Had Garfield been shot earlier, when Guiteau lost his nerve, Bliss would not have been on scene, and he may have been cared for instead by Mrs. Garfield’s personal doctor, Susan Edson. (Bliss refused to let Edson do anything more than give nursing care. Sexist much?) In addition, a number of younger doctors had embraced Lister’s techniques, and would have insisted on sterilizing things before probing Garfield’s wound. Had any of these happened, he likely would have survived.

There was one progressive person who was allowed to assist with Garfield, and that was Alexander Graham Bell. Newly famous for his telephone, Bell was determined to find a less invasive way of locating bullets than the knife and probe. “Science should be able to discover some less barbarous method,” he said.

Bell did in fact invent a metal detector that could have done the job. But Bliss again interfered, forbidding Bell to use the device freely. Bell was permitted only to scan where Bliss believed the bullet was, rather than the other side of Garfield’s body. (Can’t allow one’s self to be proven wrong…) Needless to say, Bell’s experiment failed. It was not until the autopsy that the truth came out, and Bell realized that it wasn’t that his device had failed, but that he had been prevented from using it effectively.

It is easy sometimes to forget, living in the times we do, just how recently medicine has been revolutionized. Germ Theory was first proposed in the 1500s, based solely on observation of disease transmission. However, the great breakthroughs of Semmelweis, Pasteur, Lister, and Koch didn’t occur until the middle of the 19th Century. Really, we have had a mere 150 years of understanding of a seemingly basic reality.

One small biographical detail really drove this home. Garfield lost two children to disease during their infancy. His first daughter died of diphtheria, and his youngest son of whooping cough. Both of these used to kill thousands of people - mostly children. But now, they are preventable. However, efforts to eliminate these and other diseases are hampered by many who seem to prefer to follow the Kellogg approach. The more things change…

There are some other details which are really intriguing in this book as well. For example, Garfield was extremely popular with African Americans because of his support for civil rights. Thus, when Guiteau was being held in jail, one of the lynch mobs that tried to have at him was largely African American.

Another bit that the book discusses is the legal rule regarding insanity. Guiteau never had a chance, of course, of proving his insanity. The nation would have lynched him if the justice system didn’t execute him. But in hindsight, he does appear to have suffered from a significant disconnect with reality. While this book discusses the legal side of things, a much more detailed look at the neurobiological side of things can be found in Sam Kean’s outstanding book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons.

It was also interesting to see what happened after the assassination. Vice President Chester Arthur was considered to be Roscoe Conklin’s errand boy when he was elected. However, Arthur somehow grew a spine after he became president, largely through the letters he received from Julia Sand, an invalid woman who encouraged him to be better than everyone expected him to be. Inspired by this encouragement, he rebelled against the machine, cutting Conklin off completely. Even worse, he supported and signed into law the Pendleton Act, which established the Civil Service Commission, effectively making government jobs the merit-based employment they are today. No more would a postal worker be out of a job when his party lost power. Say what you will about the bureaucracy, but it is far better than the Spoils System. Ironically, it was Garfield’s death that paved the way for civil service reform. It was widely (though wrongly) believed that Conklin had masterminded the assassination. When Guiteau shot this suggestion down, the belief switch to one that the Spoils System itself had given Guiteau his motive. And thus do unintended consequences make vast changes.

One more historical bit deserves a mention. Garfield had the support not just of African Americans, but of the large immigrant population, who saw in his hardscrable beginnings a bit of their own lives. When we think of immigration, we often forget the massive immigration between 1850 and 1930. This is the period when my own ancestors came to the United States. (In my case, between 1880 and 1895.) By the end of that period, there would be no fewer than 14 million living in America who were born overseas. Not only is this more than the number now, but when adjusted for population is incredible. In fact, the greatest immigration by percentage of the population occurred between 1845 and 1855. And there was a lot of bigotry and panic then too. Something to keep in mind when discussing the issue today. 

As I mentioned earlier, I found Garfield to be personally quite likeable. He rose from poverty to become highly educated across a wide range of disciplines, from literature to mathematics. (He even published an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, to the astonishment of everyone that someone in Congress could do it. Politicians haven’t changed much either, apparently…)

Garfield had a great affection for science as well, believing that it had done more good in the world than any other study. He has my respect for being both devoutly Christian and yet open to new discoveries, even when they changed longstanding religious superstition and tradition.

The scientific spirit has cast out the Demons and presented us with Nature, clothed in her right mind and living under the reign of law. It has given us for the sorceries of the Alchemist, the beautiful laws of chemistry; for the dreams of the Astrologer, the sublime truths of astronomy; for the wild visions of Cosmogony, the monumental records of geology; for the anarchy of Diabolism, the laws of God.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

This is a fascinating and well written book. It is a good example of how even forgotten details of history can hold unexpected interest and truth.

Candice Millard also wrote The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt’s ill-fated South American trip, which also sounds interesting.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Truelove by Patrick O'Brian

Source of book: I own this.

The Truelove is the 15th book in O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series. I have already introduced the author and the series in previous reviews. I began the series some years before I started blogging, so my reviews start rather in the middle. While some series, like the Hardy Boys can be picked up anywhere, these books need to be read from the beginning and in order, or the plots make little sense. In many of the books, the plot will arc across at least three books. Here are the previous reviews:

The Truelove picks up where the previous book left off. Jack is back in command of the Surprise, and has just shoved off from Australia, headed east once more. Stephen has recovered from his near-fatal run in with the platypus, and is once again at work with his fellow doctor, Martin, and his servant, Padeen, who he has sprung from the penal camps.

All is not well, however. One of the young officers-in-training has snuck a woman aboard - another escapee with a mysterious past. For the first part of the voyage, Jack has no idea what is wrong with his crew, who seem to be at odds with each other and disrespectful to him. When he finally does figure out what is going on, he must figure out how to restore order on the ship, and deal with his least favorite scenario: a woman aboard.

This also isn’t just a pleasure cruise. The ship has been sent on a mission to a remote south Pacific island. For the first time in many books, this is a purely military assignment, rather than one driven by Stephen’s job as a secret agent. Indeed, Stephen is not made privy to the orders, because of his political leanings in favor of Irish independence and his Catholic religion.

In essence, two rival tribes on the island are at war with each other, but are now being made into proxies for the colonial aspirations of the French and English. Jack’s job is to make sure the “right” side wins. That is, the one who will pledge loyalty to King George.

This is a morally dubious goal, at best, but it is unfortunately necessary, as the French have already interfered. Worse yet, the Frenchman who is interfering apparently has his own goal of setting up a utopian community - with the natives as servants, naturally. As a bonus, there is the potential rescue of the Truelove, a British merchant ship taken captive by the French.

As usual, O’Brian tells a tale full of moral challenges, of the bonds of friendship and the bonds of duty. The characterization is as excellent as usual, with few clear villains or heroes. Everyone has human failings, even the best of men - and women.

Likewise, O’Brian never candy-coats the past. The limitations of the medicine of the time are on full, awful display. Including the use of mercury as the closest thing they had to an antibiotic at the time, at least in their minds. Not only that, but the realities of sex and gender. O’Brian writes about the Regency era from a thoroughly 20th Century mindset, so there is no Victorian delicacy, shall we say. I wouldn’t say that the writing is particularly graphic, but it is unflinching. There are no lurid sex scenes, but sex is noted - typically by Stephen, the doctor - in clinical and matter-of-fact fashion.

In this book, there is particularly the matter of the woman, Clarissa Oakes, who isn’t eager to tell of her past. Except to Stephen. What is more, she is shockingly unembarrassed of her body - a peculiar thing for the time. As Stephen learns, she was raped by her guardian from childhood, and ended up, as “sullied” women of the time usually did, in prostitution. And yet, she was educated, and upper class. And so, she is both far more sophisticated than most on board, and yet emotionally detached from the sex act. Her treatment of her own body is a striking parallel to the way that Stephen treats - and indeed must treat - the bodies of those he attempts to cure. Just flesh. O’Brian slowly brings this analogy to light gradually as the plot unfolds. His pacing is superb, giving just a little information, then a little more, always keeping the frisson in the background.

In addition to the ethics of the Prime Directive (Star Trek reference…), the other dilemma that faces Jack is that of the means of maintaining discipline. Jack has the reputation as a humane captain, one who can run a tight ship without resort to violence. This particular case, though, forces his hand. The insubordination finally reaches the point where he must act - and in accordance with the law of his time. Which means that the lash is used. One of the best books I read in my teens was Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s epic non-fiction work, Two Years Before The Mast. That book, with its graphic description of the beatings common in the time actually led to the outlawing of the practice a few decades later. (Dana, a lawyer, was instrumental in this.) But back in the day, it was still very much the thing. (Churchill was supposed to have said that naval tradition was nothing more than “rum, sodomy, and the lash,” although the sentiment probably predated him.)

O’Brian’s books also have plenty of humor, of a delightfully dry sort. If you are into puns, Jack is simply awful, even by pun standards. Stephen has a wry way of observing events which is amusing. But in many places, there are little sparkles, such as the following exchange.

“Upon my honor, ma’am,” he [the awkward Mr. Adams] said when it was his turn to greet her, “I have never seen you look so well. You fairly light up our dim and shabby dining-room.”
“Dim and shabby dining-room,” said the gunroom steward to Killick in a sea-going whisper, “Did you ever hear such wickedness?”
“That is what we call a genteel compliment,” said Killick. “Which it ain’t meant to be believed.”

The cantankerous Killick, Jack’s steward, is one of the best characters in the series, and his acid remarks pepper this book.

One bit that one can either take to be humorous, or disturbing, depending on one’s point of view, occurred near the end, when Jack is choosing the members of the crew for combat with a French sortie. He is careful not to choose any “ancients,” meaning anyone under 35. Yet another reason I am glad to live in the 21st Century, when my middle aged self is still useful - and not “ancient.”

One final bit. Clarissa is as non-squeamish about most things as she is about her body. To Stephen, this is a real plus, as he collects specimens - as did other “amateur” scientists of his time, the ones who used their leisure time to further knowledge. Chief of them all is Sir Joseph Banks, a real person who appears in the series thinly disguised as "Sir Joseph Blaine." In fact, the real-life Banks was one of the greatest scientists of all time, although there is no evidence he was part of the intelligence community for Great Britain as "his" character is in the books. In any event, Stephen needs to send some important information to Blaine, and he uses Clarissa as his courier. Along with a letter with national security information in it, he sends some beetles he has collected on the voyage, both as cover for the real message, and as a genuine gift to Blaine. 

[A great book on Banks and other scientists of the era is The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, reviewed here.]

Stephen expresses his gratitude that Clarissa doesn’t shy away from the insects.

“Very good. I do hate women that cry out ‘Oh beetles! Oh serpents! Oh mice or centipedes!’ and long to knock their silly affected heads together.”

Fortunately, I am married to a woman who has no such affectation. And my three daughters are likewise fond of things that creep and crawl.

The Truelove is another thrilling installment in the series, which is, in my opinion, one of the finest modern adventure stories.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart

Source of book: We own this

My kids loved the first book in this series so much that they requested the second be read right away. You can read my review of The Mysterious Benedict Society here. 

This book continues the adventures of the four children (Reynie, Kate, “Sticky,” and Constance) and their mysterious and eccentric mentor, Mr. Nicholas Benedict. A few things have changed since the last book. Kate was reunited with her father, Milligan; Constance has been adopted by Mr. Benedict; and Sticky has been reunited with his parents. Reynie is the only one for whom status quo applies. He remains living with his teacher, Miss Perumal, who had (for all intents and purposes) adopted him prior to the beginning of the first book.

The book kicks off with the children being reunited for a party at Mr. Benedict’s house, but there is a huge problem: Mr. Benedict has been kidnapped by Mr. Curtain (Mr. Benedict’s evil twin). The plan had been for the children to follow a series of clues to join Mr. Benedict on a voyage, but with him incapacitated, the children must decide how to proceed. Unsurprisingly, they decide to slip away quietly and continue the quest as if nothing had happened, hoping to rescue Mr. Benedict in the process.

Thus, as in the first book, the children spend most of the book fending for themselves and living off their own wits. In this case, however, the children aren’t simply trying to solve a mystery, but are following deliberate clues left by Mr. Benedict. For me, this changed the character of the book a bit, because the reader is encouraged to solve the clues before the children at each stage. The other book seemed significantly open-ended in comparison, even if the plot was ultimately determined by the author in each case.

There is no sense in spoiling the plot, naturally. One can safely assume that the main characters have to survive to feature in the next book in the series, so that isn’t much of a spoiler.

For me, there were some disappointments, but also some things I liked about the book.

First, the one thing I felt ambiguous about. The original book is set in a fictional town which could be anywhere. I mean, it was culturally familiar as the 20th Century in a Western country - or the fairyland equivalent - but it wasn’t tied to a real-life location. In contrast, the second book pretty clearly places the setting in the United States, and the action primarily in western Europe. Nothing wrong per se about that, but I’m conflicted. On the one hand, the clues are easier to solve with real locations in mind, but on the other, I kind of liked the imaginary world of the other book. This book seemed a little less like fantasy than the other.

As before, the characterization is pretty decent. The children continue to have their personalities and roles, but Constance in particular is a more complex character in this book than the last. If anything, this book shifts from a primary focus on Reynie to a more balanced examination of the thoughts of the other characters as well.

On the other hand, we had much less of Mr. Benedict, which was disappointing because he was a strong character that added to the narrative. Likewise, it would have been interesting to see more of Rhonda and Number Two. At least we got more of Milligan this time.

In any case, the series is a worthy modern addition to the universe of Children’s literature. This book, while different from the first, is still an exciting adventure, full of danger and mystery.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Arches National Park

It’s been a half a year since this trip, and I finally getting around to writing a blog post about it. Our visit to Arches National Park was part of an extended trip where we saw Capitol Reef National Park, and Canyonlands National Park. This is part of my ongoing series on National Parks and Monuments. We are attempting to visit as many as we can before the kids start leaving home.

In my opinion, the very best thing about Arches is the campground. It is set in the middle of the Devil’s Garden area, right among the “fins” of rock that birth the arches themselves, thus providing a myriad of places for children to play and climb. Unlike Capitol Reef, which does not permit reservations - and is thus perpetually full even during the week - Arches allows one to reserve online. Canyonlands is an easy drive from Arches, so it makes sense to stay at or near Arches or Moab to see both.

One thing that the National Park Service is quick to tell you about Arches is that it has true arches, which are not the same thing as natural bridges. You can see a picture of a natural bridge in my post about Capitol Reef. A natural bridge forms when water undermines an obstacle, allowing the watercourse to go below the bridge. These are pretty cool, of course. But they are not a true arch, which forms when rock falls from underneath the top span.

Utah is full of natural bridges and arches. However, in most places, the arches formed are “blind arches,” with solid rock behind the arch, leaving it open to only one side. These form naturally in many different sandstone formations. Likewise, there are plenty of bridges formed wherever weakness in the rock allows water to get through and carve a channel.

To make a true arch, one needs narrow bands of rock, so that the arch can penetrate all the way to the other side. It is the presence of these “fins,” as they are called, at Arches, that allow literally hundreds of arches to form.

There is some disagreement about exactly how the fins formed, but the prevailing theory is this: sandstone formed millions of years ago at the bottom of a shallow sea that covered what is now the southwestern portion of North America. This much is pretty universally accepted. The second part of the theory is that there was a layer below that of salt, which was deposited during a previous era. This is at least plausible, as there are a number of salt deposits in Utah (and elsewhere in the world) that appear to have been formed this way. Later, water seeped through the sandstone layer and entered the salt, which caused it to swell, cracking the stone. Because of how it was placed, the cracks ended up largely parallel. Later, the salt was dissolved, the sandstone subsided, but remained cracked. Many years later, erosion of the upper deposits exposed the sandstone layer, allowing arches to form on the fins. As I said, this is the dominant theory, but there are some others that attempt to explain the parallel cracking in the sandstone.

(For what it’s worth, the giant sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park are believed to be petrified sand dunes. Thousands of feet tall. Seriously cool.)

In geological time, then, Arches is actually both oldish and young. Oldish in the sense that the deposits were laid down a long time ago - although not as long ago as the rocks in a number of other parks I have visited. Young in the sense that the arches themselves are fleeting features in geological time. One might arise in a mere thousand years, live for a few tens of thousands, the collapse, leaving pillars behind to collapse in their turn. On the scale of life, though, only a few trees like the Bristlecone Pines can even begin to approach the same lifespan, and we humans are a flicker of light that is barely noticed in comparison. And yet, because the arches change, we can observe. There are spots on some of the arches where rockfall has occurred in recent times. Double O Arch lost a spot a couple of years ago, and Landscape Arch, the longest in the park, had a substantial thinning a couple of decades previously. In fact, for Landscape Arch, the rock has thinned enough that it may well fall completely during my lifetime.

Arches is a fairly compact park, although the road is curvy, so it takes a while to drive from one end to the other. Still, like most places, there are only a few things one can see from the road. To really experience the park, one must venture out on foot. The kids, my parents, and I put on between 10 and 15 miles in three days we were there. The best known (and thus most crowded) trails are worth it, but I probably enjoyed the extended hike in Devil’s Garden with my older son even more, as we explored some side trails where we were the only hikers.

Our last evening there, we watched a fantastic thunderstorm pass overhead, with most of the lightning less than a half mile to the northeast.

Pictures to post:

The Three Gossips

North and South Windows
This reminds me of "Kilroy Was Here." 

 Double Arch

The Le Sal Mountains Framed through fins. 

Ted, Cora, and Me in Delicate Arch, the most iconic arch in the park. 
Not always appreciated is the 50 foot drop on the other side. 

Ted in Partition Arch

Lightning Strike. This was taken from the doorway of my trailer. 
It took several dozen shots to get this one.

For those who care, the vast majority of my pictures were taken by me, with a few taken by my mom or dad so I could be in them. My primary camera is a Sony Cybershot DSC-WX-350 subcompact. Occasionally, I will take a picture with my Nexus 7 tablet. In the future, I will probably get an SLR, but for now, I find something easy to carry and maneuver with a kid hanging on to me is more useful.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Poetry of Robert Burns (Part 1)

Source of book: I own the complete Robert Burns

One positive thing about modern poetry is that it is typically published in manageable individual books, rather than fed out in individual poems before being collected and published in a single volume. I say this in reference to a few of the books in my collection, but I might specifically mention Percy Bysshe Shelley as an example of the latter, as well as Robert Burns. My books make no divisions whatsoever, other than to group all the poems and all the songs together with each other. Still, this can mean that it is difficult to figure out where to stop. Perhaps a more intrepid soul would be fine reading all 260 pages of Burns’ poems straight through, but I am not, I confess, up to the challenge. I suppose I could simply look for more “best of” collections, but there is something so satisfying about a hardback Complete Works volume on my shelf. Particularly if I find it for 50 cents at a library sale.

So, in light of this, what I have had to do was to divide my reading arbitrarily, stopping either at a big, round number of pages, or simply when I felt like it. In this case, I was aiming for 50 pages, but stopped at 47, because the next one was well over a dozen pages.

That said, because the book isn’t particularly organized, I am not entirely sure when these were written. A few have dates (by the author, I believe) but most are simply there with a title. 

Robert Burns is one of the poets who wrote a few extremely memorable poems which everyone knows, even if they don’t know who wrote them.

For example, we often say, “The best laid plans of mice and men,” not entirely thinking of the original - or knowing where it is from.

In this case, it is from Burns’ poem “To A Mouse.”

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Also well known are “Sweet Afton,” and Burns’ adaptation of a folk song to what we know as “Auld Lang Syne.” So yeah, we even sing Burns.

My favorite, although it wasn’t in this particular selection I read, is “A Man's a Man for A' That,” a paean to the egalitarian view of society.

Burns is considered to be one of the early “romantic” poets, in the sense of “Romanticism,” the emotional reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the urbanization of the Industrial Revolution. I have a soft spot for the Romantics, both in poetry and prose (and in music), and have reviewed a few of them here: Sir Walter Scott, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth for the poets; and Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, and Alexandre Dumas for the novelists. 

Burns is a bit of a complicated character. He was largely self taught, as his family was impoverished. Nevertheless, he accrued a rather broad range of literary knowledge. His later formal schooling increased this, and his poems show the work of a skilled poet. On the other hand, he deliberately writes many of them in Scottish dialect, perhaps a bit plebian, particularly for the time. He remained rooted in the earth, so to speak.

He also had a bit of a tendency toward womanizing, particularly with servant girls. His first child was born to one of these, Elizabeth Patton. He wished to marry her, but family objected. He paid her off with a settlement, and she later married another. Nearly simultaneously, he seduced another girl, who he eventually was able to marry. And later, yet another servant girl was seduced and impregnated. Burns was thus a bit of a rake, but all accounts agree that he was kind and generous to the women who bore his children, not exactly one to abandon them or deny his role in the affairs. While many of his children died in infancy (as did most in those days), Burns is known to have over 600 living descendents today.

One of the best poems of the ones I read in this round is one that he wrote to his first child, by Elizabeth.

A Poet’s Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter

Thou's welcome, wean; mishanter fa' me,
If thoughts o' thee, or yet thy mamie,
Shall ever daunton me or awe me,
My bonie lady,
Or if I blush when thou shalt ca' me
Tyta or daddie.

Tho' now they ca' me fornicator,
An' tease my name in kintry clatter,
The mair they talk, I'm kent the better,
E'en let them clash;
An auld wife's tongue's a feckless matter
To gie ane fash.

Welcome! my bonie, sweet, wee dochter,
Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho' your comin' I hae fought for,
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for,
That I shall swear!

Wee image o' my bonie Betty,
As fatherly I kiss and daut thee,
As dear, and near my heart I set thee
Wi' as gude will
As a' the priests had seen me get thee
That's out o' hell.

Sweet fruit o' mony a merry dint,
My funny toil is now a' tint,
Sin' thou came to the warl' asklent,
Which fools may scoff at;
In my last plack thy part's be in't
The better ha'f o't.

Tho' I should be the waur bestead,
Thou's be as braw and bienly clad,
And thy young years as nicely bred
Wi' education,
As ony brat o' wedlock's bed,
In a' thy station.

Lord grant that thou may aye inherit
Thy mither's person, grace, an' merit,
An' thy poor, worthless daddy's spirit,
Without his failins,
'Twill please me mair to see thee heir it,
Than stockit mailens.

For if thou be what I wad hae thee,
And tak the counsel I shall gie thee,
I'll never rue my trouble wi' thee,
The cost nor shame o't,
But be a loving father to thee,
And brag the name o't.

(Thanks to for the links to the different Scottish dialect words.)

Burns did have reputation as a radical (for his time, of course), both for his sexual foibles and for his rather irreverent view of the supposed piety of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. One such poem is his “Holy Willie’s Prayer.” According to the introduction, “Holy Willie” was a dour elder in the church, much concerned with all the liquor that others were drinking. In this prayer, he does his duty and acknowledges his own unworthiness, and so on, but it doesn’t appear he really means it. More to the point, he thinks he is pretty hot stuff:

Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I'm here a pillar o' Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a' Thy flock.

O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, an' swearers swear,
An' singin there, an' dancin here,
Wi' great and sma';
For I am keepit by Thy fear
Free frae them a'.

He does confess he loves the ladies a bit too much, but then plunges right in to all the people he wishes God would hurry up and damn.

Lord, in Thy day o' vengeance try him,
Lord, visit them wha did employ him,
And pass not in Thy mercy by 'em,
Nor hear their pray'r,
But for Thy people's sake, destroy 'em,
An' dinna spare.

But, Lord, remember me an' mine
Wi' mercies temp'ral an' divine,
That I for grace an' gear may shine,
Excell'd by nane,
And a' the glory shall be thine,
Amen, Amen!

Yep, grace for me, but judgment for them! In this vein, it is particularly useful to note that Scotland was barely past the days of burning heretics at the stake, and that the question of Calvinism versus Arminianism was literally a life or death issue. As Sir Walter Scott brilliantly showed through his characterization in The Heart of Midlothian, for the Calvinist Presbyterian Scotsman, being an Arminian - and thus believing that salvation was a matter of choice, not a matter of divine selection - was about as bad as being a murderer. Probably worse.

So Burns here isn’t just poking fun of a hypocrite, he is digging at the entire edifice of Calvinism as manifested in his world.

The other satirical poem in the selection I read that is pretty funny is “Death and Dr. Hornbook.” The narrator chances upon Death out on the heath, and engages him in conversation. Death, it appears, is rather put out by a certain Dr. Hornbook. The doctor has two faults. First, he has somehow discovered how to resist death, and thus cannot be killed. Second - and this is even worse - he is so talented at killing his patients that Death is feeling the competition. He fears he may be out a job if this keeps up.

After reading these selections, I am inclined to recommend that those not already familiar with Burns start with the better known poems and songs rather than diving in randomly. Still, these are quite worthy in their own right. My own book has an extensive glossary in the back, which helps, until one gets the hang of the Scottish dialect. The website referenced above also has a good glossary. Once one has read a few poems - and perhaps one of Scott’s novels containing dialect - it is possible to start reading without breaking up the flow.


Well, because Sweet Afton is a beautiful poem, and Chris Thile is always outstanding.