Commonplace Book: October 2007 Archives


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from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Barbara Kingsolver

In summer a young rooster's fancy turns to . . . how can I say this delicately? The most ham-fisted attempts at courtship I've ever had to watch. ( And yes, I'm including high school.) As predicted, half of Lily's chick crop was growing up to be male. This was dawning on everyone as the boys began to venture into mating experiments, climbing aboard the ladies sometimes backwards or perfectly sideways. The young hens shrugged them off and went on looking for bugs in the grass. But the three older hens, mature birds we'd had around awhile, did not suffer fools gladly. Emmy, an elderly Jersey Giant, behaved as any sensible grandmother would if a teenager approached her looking for action: she bit him on the head and chased him into a boxwood bush.

Ah, the ever-sensitive, ever-refined, ever-genteel male of the species.

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Bewteen Truth and . . .


from Puragatorio
Dante, tr. John Ciardi

[Virgil speaking to Dante]

But save all questions of such consequence
till you meet her who will become your lamp
between the Truth and mere intelligence.

How many aspire to the Truth by means of human reason alone. And I don't refer to the scholastics or their followers but the benighted Dawkinses and Hitchenses of the world who claiming liberation from the hoary old ties that bind, bind us in new and more severe chains, because within these we could easily be cast into the Hell of our own making. Human intelligence is faulty and frankly, in my experience, often not much interested in the Truth so much as in making a display of itself for others to admire.

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At Home (or in Vegas) with Dante


from Purgatorio
Dante, tr. John Ciardi

The loser, when a game of dice is done,
remains behind reviewing every roll
sadly, and sadly wiser, and alone.

The crowd leaves with the winner: one behind
tugs at him, one ahead, one at his side--
all calling their long loyalty to his mind.

Not stopping, he hands out a coin or two
and those he has rewarded let him be.
So he fights off the crowd and pushes through.

Such was I then, turning my face now here,
now there, among that rout and promising
on every hand, till I at last fought clear. . . .

When I had won my way free of that press
of shades whose one prayer was that others pray
and so advance them toward their blessedness. . .

What Dante is promising is to remember those who approach him to those who love them back home and to remind all to pray for the poor souls in purgatory whose progress toward heaven is sped by the prayers of those in a state of grace. As we approach the days in which we recall the Saints and all the dead, Purgatorio is perfect reading--a reminder always to bear in mind those who suffer now for eventual glory. And a reminder to us to cut our suffering hereafter short by living a life that has as its goal an ever nearer approach to God in the life of this world.

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No Rash Promises


Shall I make today about how much Kingsolver I may post.

As I have said continually--there is unquestionably a strong agenda behind this book, but Kingsolver writes with such aplomb, humor, grace, and to some extent, even humility that one is invited in, not scolded (although some passages particularly in the sidebars can take on that tone.) For all who would approach it, I simply give the warning. I am not a partisan of much of the agenda, but I find it very easy to overlook amidst the glories of some of the story.

from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Barbara Kingsolver

The steer that had contributed itself to the meatballs on our plates had missed the sign-up.* Everything else on the table was also a local product: the peas we'd just shelled, the salad picked ten minutes earlier, the strawberries from their daughter. I asked Elsie how much food the needed from outside the community. "Flour and sugar," she said, and then thought a bit. "Sometimes we'll buy pretzels, for a splurge."

It crossed my mind that the world's most efficient psychological evaluation would have just the one question: Define splurge. I wondered how many more years I'd have to stay off Belgian chocolate before I could attain Elsie's self-possession. I still wanted the moon, really--and I wanted it growing in my backyard.

When a narrative is peppered with such delightful personal asides, it is easier to take the main stream of the argument seriously--because one can see that the author does not take herself over-seriously. No dour, frowning, scolding, finger-shaking here--just story--how I did it, how you could do it, and why.

*The sign-up referred to is something that initially I had difficulty believing until my sister-in-law told my wife. It appears that the USDA for reasons known only to the bureaucracy has ordained in its wisdom that every chicken, cow, pig, duck, whatever found any any farm anywhere in the United States shall be fitted with an ID number and a GPS tag to be entered into the federal database of livestock. We've lived for centuries without knowing the whereabouts of every animal in the world, I wonder what emergency has ordained that we must know now. Refer back to Mark Twain--Ms. Kingsolver's farmer certainly does.

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As True Now as It Was When Spoken


"Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it."

Mark Twain

I'll leave the veracity decision up to you.

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A Dantean Invocation for the Day


from The Inferno--Canto XXIV (46-51)
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"Up on your feet! This is no time to tire!"
my Master cried. "The man who lies asleep
will never waken fame, and his desire

and all his life drift past him like a dream,
and the traces of his memory fade from time
like smoke in air, or ripples on a stream. . . ."

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From the Wood of Suicides


I am certainly glad that understanding of the human condition has improved through time and the scene in the Wood of Suicides that results in the mark below would be viewed with greater compassion today. Nevertheless, it is interesting what Dante has the suicide say, and it is interesting how far this applies to all the ways we can choose to sin--for any sin of the flesh is, in some way, throwing away a great gift.

from The Inferno
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

Like the rest, we shall go for our husks on Judgment Day,
but not that we may wear them, for it is not just
that a man be given what he throws away.

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Ms. Kingsolver's Amusing Moments


In this book, there are many. As the book is unabashedly about changing the way one chooses to eat, and because it relates so well to The Omnivore's Dilemma I'm finding myself enjoying it more and more as I read.

Like so many big ideas, this one was easier to present to the board of directors than the stockholders. Our family now convened around the oak table in our kitchen; the milk-glass farmhouse light above us cast a dramatic glow. The grandfather clock ticked audibly in the next room. We'd fixed up our old house in the architectural style known as recycling; we'd gleaned old light fixtures, hardware, even sinks and a bathtub from torn-down buildings; our refrigerator is a spruced-up little 1932 Kelvinator. It all gives our kitchen a comfortable lived-in charm, but at the moment it felt to me like a set where I was auditioning for a part in either Little House on the Prairie or Mommie Dearest

Throughout there are moments like these interspersed with observations about growing or raising food, what and how to eat, and simple facts about farming in America and, as I will detail in a future post, one serious danger of genetic engineering that never occurred to me.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from October 2007.

Commonplace Book: September 2007 is the previous archive.

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