Monday, January 26, 2009

dead envy

Not everyone who lives in the country likes to decorate with Death, but we do. If a person (or a family) appreciates natural objects and has a sense of humor that is both wry and dark then all the many fascinating, quirky, beautiful-in-an-odd-or-dour-way dead things in the great outdoors are just waiting out there to be found and imported to the indoors.

At our house we don't don't just bring in the dead. Not one of us can go on a walk without dragging back some rocks or feathers - even if I have moments ago composted a previous bunch of feathers that had been doing nothing but gather dust or recently tossed back outside (when no one was looking) piles of curious rocks, reservoir driftwood, beaver-chewed sticks, half-rotten river teeth, and balls of lichen and moss. After a major (for us) housecleaning event a few weeks ago, Matthew, Ronan, Sophie (the dog), and I all went for a walk along the top of the dam and then came back through the lowlands below the dam; this path took us past a gravel pile ... where we sat for nearly an hour sifting that damn pile for agates the size of baby teeth (human baby teeth). Now we have a small bowlful of fresh agates, seeds with which to sow a new season of growing clutter and ripe dust-gathering. On a different walk, just after a feather removal maneuver on my part, Ronan found a dead female wood duck, which had to be hauled home (at arm's length, held between forked sticks) and plucked of all the prettiest feathers before the body was layered into our Skeleton Processing Heap. That pile of wood chips and decomposers is pretty much full to capacity now. (Coming up soon: a list of what's in the pile. Although that may wait until it warms up and Ronan and I have an archeological expedition on it.)

The way some people think that others have nicer grass on their side of the fence, I think some people have way more cool dead things. On Christmas Eve, Ronan and I went sledding with some friends who live closer to the ass end of nowhere than we do; they also do lots of hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, etc., - all the activities that up your chances to collect dead things. After sledding and before dinner I wandered around their little house and admired Valerie and Bruce's collection of expired art.

Here's sculpture 1: Not only have I never (yet) had the luck to come across a pair of nighthawk wings, it also had never occurred to me to braid shed snakeskins. but then I also don't think I've found three shed skins of similar length. This piece is also nicely set off by a sparing arrangement of scouring rushes and a dried lizard (upper right). There's also a moth, but you can't see it very well.

Sculpture 2 (a gift sent by a friend). Not only have Val and Bruce inspired their friends to send them dead things in the post, but this person lit upon a dessicated permutation of goose (skull) l'orange as well as the idea of enfolding the piece in a cozy
background of blue fabric and tree bark.

Here's one I'm particularly envious of: the bobcat skull. Their bobcat skull still has both its canines. Matthew found a bobcat skull with all its teeth but it didn't occur to me to immediately glue them into the sockets and several have dropped out, never to be seen again, despite dedicated searching. One of the teeth that fell out was a canine. Arrgh. You don't come across bobcat skulls every day.

Piece #4. Beaver rocking chair seat pillow.

Piece 5. "The lineup." Besides the snapping turtle shell (if I'm wrong about the species I'll correct this later), Valerie and Bruce have both a European Otter skull and an American Otter. There is also a raptor skull, some rodent or another, and either another weasel-family entry or a raccoon skull. Again, I'll have to update those later.

And what is the creme-de-la-creme de Bryce Creek Croft? (That's the name of their farm.) It's that photo at the top: a black bear skull. Oh, to die for!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Les Travailleurs de la Mer

I'm reading Victor Hugo's The Toilers of the Sea. Mostly because when I thought - as I have from time to time and usually to little avail - that it might be a good idea to read some works of the giants, and then I went to the library to get a copy of Les Miserables (because I had fond, if hazy, memories of the story as a late-night b&w movie on television at my parents' house), I found that there were no copies of Les Miserables and this copy of Toilers had the best and most evocative cover. (Yep, that's how I choose books.) Also this book was of the perfect heft and construction for reading in bed. I've become a firm fan of trade paperbacks.

I've also become a faithful reader of introductions, whenever provided. The introduction to Toilers was written by a fellow who won the 1997 Whitbread Biography Award for his bio of Victor Hugo. This point is going to be significant. Victor Hugo was a learned man from a very good family (his dad was an officer and then a general and that means he was born to the upper classes). He also hit it off right from the start as a writer, so one must admire that he turned from being a royalist to a populist and that he wrote of such people as Jean Valjean. Still as I read the introduction to him and to the book and came upon the sentence: "'Nineteenth century novel' was not yet synonymous with dainty drawing rooms and etiquette, although, even in 1866, a novel about an illiterate sailor ... was considered somewhat eccentric[,]" I was impressed. What a feat of the imagination it was for Hugo to get into the head of someone so extremely different from himself. I could hardly wait to see how he handled it. Especially after I read about the "house" he lived in while he was exiled on Guernsey: "a typical Georgian townhouse" later described in the same paragraph as "a homemade Gothic cathedral" and "a seven-story poem in bricks and mortar." Seven stories! Typical? I googled the house right away and found that it was only a typical Georgian three-storey (and then the lookout or cupola as a not-quite fourth), but BIG, and when I saw the inside (Google: images: Hauteville House) I was blown away by the opulence that seemed to mirror and mimic ... royalty. So, even more, I wanted to see how he cast a character so seemingly different from himself - without ever forgetting his character's boundaries. (Just try writing about an illiterate character today. Words so infest and guide our lives, we read phrases, directions, etc., so habitually, that it isn't that easy to block them out as they would be for an illiterate character.)

But ...

... I noticed in Hugo's 55-page introduction to Guernsey, its natural history and the culture of its human inhabitants, that he stressed at some length how literate and how well-read just about every blinking peasant on the island was. I thought, ho! is he going to make his main character even lower than the average cattle drover? Wow! Cool! I love underdog stories and this is sounding more and more underdoggy by the page.

And then ... I was finally introduced to Gilliatt, the fisherman, and the very first thing he does is read his name written in the snow (NOT with pee, shame on you!) by the hand of his future love interest. Then ... a few short chapters later Hugo makes it plain that Gilliatt can read much more than just his name. He has many books. He cannot read Latin, however; he is illiterate in Latin. He is not from Guernsey, though. (Hugo hints heavily that Gilliat's mother was from Paris, and from the monied classes.) Nor is he poor. In fact, he has cash to burn that he inherited (he buys birds from people in order to let them go - something any decent peasant would see as beyond merely daft) and seems to fish as a sort of hobby. By page 126, I got to watch Gilliatt spend the ENTIRE summer - the high work season for Guernsey fishermen because the seas around the Channel Islands are so notoriously violent - hanging around outside the garden of this young woman who wrote his name in the snow. Obviously this is not a story about a poor and illiterate working man.

I really must wonder if the biographer of Hugo who wrote the intro to Toilers of the Sea ever even read this book (or counted the stories of Hauteville House). As for others who have come up with the same notion that this is a story about a poor fisherman who prevails (if he does, I haven't finished it yet) against man and sea, I don't know what book they're reading. At the moment it seems safer to me to cleave to a different interpretation: that this is a symbolic tale about a fictional Victor Hugo and his battle against the abyss (whatever that turns out to be) and the men and politics of his time.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

rounding the horn, beating into the wind

Yesterday I once again thought I had finished revising a story. At least enough to have it workshopped with one of the writing critique groups I'm a part of. I still wasn't happy with the storm-at-sea scene. I had talked with two fishermen already - much of their information pattering right over the top of my oceanic ignorance like the skittering feet of storm petrels - but I did get a lot of help. One fellow also gave me the final key-word clues I needed to dig up a song on the internet that I had been looking for all the time I'd been working on the story. That song, about a selkie and her fisherman and his lug-sailed dory, had an multi-verse intermezzo involving the fisherman's battle with the wind - including a fair amount of dialog between the wind and the man. I mapped out the progress of what the wind did (changing quarters and suchwhat) and what the fisherman did, battling alternately with sail and oars, then redrew it all again because my fisherman was on the west coast of Ireland and Tommy Makem's was on the east coast.

But I still didn't feel good about it. I still felt marooned on the Island of Secondary Sources - or tertiary if I count that I have not personally been on a small sailboat in a storm. To my reading, the scene was neither tight not tense. I needed (gulp) to go back to my fishermen.

I was still wrestling with my awkward shyness about approaching people when I picked up Jack London's "The Pearls of Parlay" (now there's a guy working from primary sources) and read it over my morning tea. The introduction to the story praises London's grand achievement of writing about a typhoon from a boat inside it with accuracy and grandeur. I picked up a few more secondary-source bits (sigh) I can use for my story and one other thing: his story didn't make my pulse quicken either. In London's case maybe the problem is this: all the main characters typified everything great and wrong about humanity, with the wrong inextricably woven into the great. Absolutely inextricably. I was routing for the typhoon from the outset, and the typhoon didn't win. After the hurricane blows past the atoll, there are a handful of humans left: the very worst, most evil one (described as a perfectly conformed and perfectly self-assured specimen of a man), and some of the best ones of the bunch that went into the storm. But every last one of them was there in the path of the typhoon out of mankind's insatiable hunger to acquire (in this case, pearls), a hunger that could never, ever, be sated and that would not be turned aside by any danger (not the approaching hurricane that they had all been warned was coming and not by accounts given of how many men had died - from murder or from the screaming agony of the bends - to get those pearls). I could go on - there are as many sub-themes to be found as there are layers of hardened oyster spit in a pearl when you (gasp!) slice one open and look close - but you should read it yourself. "The Pearls of Parlay" could be seen as a symbolic literary snapshot of this very moment of human history in this world.

Oh, but to get back to what my own greedy need to acquire got from the story, which was, as I said above, a few more details I need to transport and adapt to the other side of the world, and the still monumental task of talking to Damon and Dean again (two people who aren't even strangers but that doesn't make it any easier), and a flotsam memory blown ashore from another book I read. That book was Rounding the Horn: Being the Story of Williwaws and Windjammers by Dallas Murphy. (Read it! It's great and, aside from the fate of the Yaghan Indians, not entirely depressing.) I am feeling very much like the ship Murphy wrote of in one section of the book, a ship that spent a month or so trying to round the horn of Tierra del Feugo. The ship was big and powerful (and badly captained) and had spent so much of that month being pushed backwards as well as blown forwards that it made no progress or negative progress at the end of thirty days of work and terror and dead sailors.

Okay, so maybe I exaggerate my own plight. A little. But after one shipwreck and a lengthy careening and a great many fiddly repairs to the rigging and sails, I just want to get this story in the water ... and now, What is this? ... A hole in the keel below the waterline? Arrrgh!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

doing it wrong: down pillows

I'm sure that if I had bothered to google "how to make a down pillow" one of the more important instructions would have read: "Stuff your pillow outside on a dry day."

But it's winter in Western Oregon and I wanted to knock off at least one unfinished project. Last time we had a goose slaughter, which was three summers ago, Ronan wanted to save all the down and make pillows. At the time of the dirty part of the deed I did at least look up something somewhere about down and so I knew to wash the breast feathers in knotted pillow cases and then put the pillow cases in the dryer. That worked great. ... And then four pillow cases of goose down
sat on some shelves for a very long time.
I sewed the pillow ticking by hand over the course of several meetings (if you can't knit at meetings, sew) but got bogged down by some neighborly advice that I would need to sew the pillow around twice to keep the down from escaping. I had already used maddeningly tiny stitches; twice just got to be more than my attention span could handle. So there the project sat, acting just like an abandoned project and popping up from time to time like a revenant - always at times when I'm doing something else, like making space for the Christmas tree, and don't have time to finish it off and lay its restless unfinished-project soul to rest.

But Ronan (wasn't this her project?) started nagging me about the pillow the other day - probably because I was nagging her about something she had left lying around unfinished. As if an enchantment had been broken I suddenly didn't care if the damn down escaped, or that, as I said, it's rainy and wet. I stuffed the pillow in the house, better yet, I did it next to the wood stove. Soon enough, the room looked like the aftermath of a pillow-fight scene in a feel-good movie. Ronan enjoyed pretending to walk slowly through the middle of the room so as not to stir up the fluff but not really doing it and then saying "Sorry," as the white down danced around in clouds in her wake. For me, it did feel good to finally get that pillow done. Wasn't that my New Year's resolution for last year ... to get projects finished? It was. Also I have a Compac vacuum, which is the most unkillable and therefore awesome vacuum short of a shop vac, especially when you get it for $10 dollars at a yard sale. I will someday do a product review on the thing. The Compac had no trouble at all hoovering up all the feathers.

The down side to all this? I have still have down left over. Fluffy dregs of down in four pillow cases that may never be down free. I'm keeping the stuff around for a while longer, cluttering up the shelves, to see if the pillow crushes down much with use.