Railroad Ties

Metra electric, on Chicago’s South Side, has been doing track work lately. I can’t be certain whether these will be added to the tracks or have just been removed, but they look weathered, like they have reached the end of their primary life. If so, they will likely be designated for use in landscaping projects. There is apparently a brisk secondary market for them; even the big-box home improvement stores sell them used, even though there has been some concern in the past that they are treated with creosote, a carbonaceous chemical that can cause cancer.

The railroad tie is one of those technologies that should inspire admiration for its simple persistence. Railroads have been going over 200 years, and this essential part remains mostly unchanged. Arguably it is not valued enough: in the U.S. rail travel and transport are an underutilized technology.

How much discarded technology also finds a second life? Most technological waste goes into landfills or is simply dumped, wherever, into the surroundings. A small part is concentrated in recycling facilities. Almost none of it becomes a simple tool, an ornament, that renaturalizes itself into an everyday object.

Tags transit simplicity


Mertensia virginica seedpods after dispersal

Tags plant wildflower


The Importance of Readers (to Writers)

I have a standard answer when interviewers ask me about literary prizes—this question invariably comes up, whether in Japan or abroad. “The most important thing,” I tell them, “is good readers. Nothing means as much as the people who dip into their pockets to buy my books—not prizes, or medals, or critical praise.” I repeat this answer over and over ad nauseam, yet it doesn’t seem to sink in. Most often it’s completely ignored.

When I stop to think about it, though, interviewers may simply find my answer boring. There may be something about it that sounds packaged for public consumption. I sometimes get that feeling, too. It certainly isn’t the kind of comment that sparks a journalist’s interest. Nevertheless, since the answer reflects what I see as the honest truth, I can’t really change it, however boring it may be. That’s why I end up saying the same thing time and again. Readers have no ulterior motives when they shell out twenty or thirty dollars for one of my books. “Let’s check this out” is (probably) what they’re thinking, pure and simple. Or they may be full of anticipation. I am eternally grateful to such readers. Compared to them…no, let’s just drop the comparisons.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is literary works that last, not literary prizes. I doubt many can tell you who won the Akutagawa Prize two years ago, or the Nobel Prize winner three years back. Can you? Truly great works that have stood the test of time, on the other hand, are lodged in our memory forever. Was Ernest Hemingway a Nobel Prize winner? (He was.) How about Jorge Luis Borges? (Was he? Who gives a damn?) A literary prize can turn the spotlight on a particular work, but it can’t breathe life into it. It’s that simple.

- Haruki Murakami, Novelist as a Vocation

I can see why some people might find this banal, but it stopped and moved me when I read it. Maybe this is one of those points that is more obvious to people who have never published (or attempted to publish) something for others. They are not as close to the danger.

One of the preconditions for writing is to become more involved with one’s subject than the audience. To write anything, you almost have to get in your head a little bit; concentration requires losing track of others. This is true for any writing that is original and difficult–especially literary writing. When a writer publishes, it is always a little surprising to finish and discover that one’s writing has been read: that there was another phase to this game, that it has an effect on someone.

Sometimes I think that the main reason graduate schools in the humanities (Masters and Ph.D.) remain as big as they are–still– is because they create a pool of “good readers” for the faculty. Given that graduate students are more numerous than professors, and the size of the average non-specialist audience for scholarship is zero, graduate students must be the single largest set of readers for academic writing.

Today the ratio of writers to readers may be closer to 1:1 than ever. I want to say–not without a healthy doubt for my own answer–that perhaps more people have discovered the pleasure of writing, for its own sake, than at any point ever. But this also makes readers more scarce than ever. There is simply more writing, chasing an only marginally expanded pool of readers. What makes Murakami’s tribute to the reader worth ruminating on is that it speaks to a condition of all writing– even the professionals at the very top of the recognition hierarchy.

To write is to risk not being read, to risk looking self-absorbed because you have taken care to craft an object that no one will ever use. This is why prizes for writing can look like an attempt to perform an audience into existence (aren’t prizes awarded on public stages? with an audience?). So often when a prize is awarded, the media coverage notes that the prize is “prestigious.” But prestige does not imply readers–only readers do.

Tags writing craft reader interaction effect


Yesterday's Blooms

It’s always nice to know the name of the flower that is blooming right now; another challenge is to look for the wildflowers that have faded back to greenery. From a plant cultivator’s standpoint, the action ramps up when the bloom fades. It is then that you have to watch for the seedpods. These can be tiny–dispersed within a day–or large, ostentatious and long-lived, as in many species of milkweed.

Milkweed pods left on the stalk during winter

I’d say we’re past early spring by now. The first round of squill that appeared all over the neighborhood have faded. I realized that I had never observed these flowers after they lose their blooms. Hard as they are to miss against the grey background of late winter, I forget about them and their distinctive colors as the season goes on. But even though we are two weeks or more past their blooms, the plants are still above ground. I went hunting and found the seedpods of one squill variant, Puschkinia scilloides

Tags seeds spring color


Loss of Words

In L.M. Sacasas’ latest The Convivial Society newsletter, he notes

…a shrinking lexicon of words related to sense experience. I’m relying here on an observation Ivan Illich makes in “Guarding the Eye in the Age of Show,” and, by extension, the sources he cites. “Dozens of words for shades of perception have disappeared from usage,” Illich notes. “For what the nose does, someone has counted the victims: Of 158 German words that indicate variations of smell, which Dürer’s [d. 1528] contemporaries used, only thirty-two are still in use. Equally, the linguistic register for touch has shriveled. The see-words fare no better.”¹

I would add to this, on a strictly anecdotal basis, a similarly diminishing lexicon of names for natural phenomena such as flora and fauna. Generic categories do a lot of work in ordinary speech: birds, bugs, trees, etc. More specific names seem to elude many of us.

Relatedly, while language tethered to the material world appears to diminish, language tethered to the virtual realm endlessly proliferates and fragments.

While the overall trend wouldn’t surprise me–you can say best what you do, and even then you have to practice saying it–I would be interested in confirming this phenomenon in a modern empirical setting. No one could go back and verify how many words for the birds and bees a medieval everyman would have used, but trends over even the last few decades might tell something.

And I would be surprised if all the senses suffered equally. As John Berger teaches, much of the modern world is an intensely visual culture, and even if we most people today see differently than their ancestors, there is an argument that the “ways of seeing” have proliferated.

And perhaps there are fewer words for, say, things smelled, because the range of things to smell has diminished in post-industrial modern settings.

Tags trends sense sight smell


Tags shiny electric tunnel


A Recommendation: The Appalachian Trail Reader

There’s a virtuous interchange between hiking culture and intellectual/book culture. People who spend lots of time outdoors–walking, or just observing–tend to be on the more contemplative end of the spectrum. Those traits also make good writers, and foster the patience and introverted concentration necessary to actually produce a book. For this reason there is a lot of detailed writing in publication about naturalistic exploration, usually written out of attachment to a specific place. The genre is not well-defined, and encourages DIY eccentricity with respect to organization: topics include what to do and where to go, amateur botany and biology, old-school naturalist appreciation, human history, and exquisite reflections on simply being there. Some of the best books are indifferent to genre and quite uncharacterizable, and tend to be written at the end of an author’s life, as an attempt to crystalize decades of on-the-ground life. Publication with a small or specialty press (of which there are fewer and fewer), or even self-publication, often makes these works possible. Michael Frome’s Strangers in High Places: The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains comes to mind. As a result these books are rarely in publication for very long; usually they fall out of print and into obscurity as soon as they appear. I’ve taken to collecting books in this space that I find particularly worthy of preservation, especially if they cover a region that I have long experience with like the Appalachians. The big centralized online booksellers like Amazon and its affiliates are often, for all their problems, the only sources for a few old copies of these books.

I was delighted to discover David Emblidge’s The Appalachian Trail Reader, which was published by a major university press (Oxford, 1996). I don’t know if there was something else about the Appalachian Trail that brought it to prominence in the mid-to-late 1990s, but it’s worth noting that this book came out the year before Bill Bryson’s much better-known memoir about the trail, A Walk in the Woods

As I wrote above about this weird genre, the book is a lot of things, but is in essence an attempt to preserve stories about the area the trail covers. Some of its sources are canonical (e.g., Benton MacKay, Aldo Leopold, Thomas Bartram), but most of its dozens of authors are ordinary unknowns, people reflecting on the trail in more transitory sources (trail bulletins, long-defunct magazines, regional newspapers, etc.). Its topics range from the deep pre-American backstory of Appalachian lands and peoples, to musings from “thru-hikers” who walked, or attempted to walk, the entire 2000+ miles of the AT from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Here’s the TOC:

Tags hiking outdoors nature reflection books culture preservation


Computing: An Opening

Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1984)

Children use the computer in their process of world and identity construction. They use it for the development of fundamental conceptual categories, as a medium for the practice of mastery, and as a malleable material for helping forge their sense of themselves. The computer is a particularly rich and varied tool for serving so wide a range of purposes. It enters into children’s process of becoming and into the development of their personalities and ways of looking at the world. It finds many points of attachment with the process of growing up. Children in a computer culture are touched by technology in ways that set them apart from the generations that have come before. Adults are more settled. In the worst of cases, they are locked into roles, afraid of the new, and protective of the familiar. Even when they are open to change, established ways of thinking act as a braking force on the continual questioning so characteristic of children. Family and work responsibilities and the very real constraints of social class can make it too risky to cast doubt on certainties. But there are events and objects that cause the taken-for-granted to be wrestled with anew. The computer is one of these provocations to reflection. Among a wide range of adults, getting involved with computers opens up long-closed questions. It can stimulate them to reconsider ideas about themselves and can provide a basis for thinking about large and puzzling philosophical issues.

(Opening to chapter entitled “Personal Computers with Personal Meaning”, 165)

We already have the first generations in which there is no “getting involved with computers,” in which everyone is always already involved with them. Turkle was writing at a moment in history when, for her place and social milieu, the personal computer was becoming for the first time a realistic possession (and aspiration). In this period, which appears to have been far more self-aware about arriving at computing than the present moment, she writes that the computer was experienced as a tool of freedom, a liberation for the imagination.

It strikes me that, for all the ways in which many people recognize that computers have become a necessary utility–everyone must learn to use them, perhaps will learn to use them without realizing it–the ethical language around computing has flipped. Yes computing skills are in-demand, you can do well in material terms by getting good at them. But the term “algorithm,” by which is usually meant an instance of computer logic, covers so many ways in which computers are understood to limit freedom. Surveillance, profiling, control, manipulation: this is the activity that accompanies computing in the present.

Tags computing beginning freedom


Tags flower spring ephemeral bloom cold


Mammatus Formations

Thunderclouds passing out of the area, east over Lake Michigan, yesterday. I believe these unusual extensions on the underside are a somewhat rare variant known as mammatus (it means what it sounds like), which often form at the tail end of thunderstorms when unstable air falls beneath the bottom layer of the cloud, creating the whispy outgrowths visible here.

Tags clouds