Since some time in the early 80s I’ve laboured delightedly and intermittently to catch up with Ursula K. LeGuins oeuvre. I’ve covered her collections of short fiction and essays, and I will soon have her novels done, leaving the poetry and short kids’ books.
Apart from her latest novel, I’ve yet to read 1980’s The Beginning Place. In fact, I’m reading it now. And it’s a good read so far, a critique of modern US society foreshadowing Always Coming Home. But there’s one curious bug in the logic.
Imagine a gate to another world. When you pass the gate your perceptions continue without break: you can move and act and take in your surroundings, you eat and shit and sleep as usual. But when you return through the gate you find that no time has passed in primary reality. This is standard fantasy fare.
Now imagine that you place a large clock outside the gate and wear a wristwatch. Entering the gate, it seems to me that your watch would continue to run during your stay in the other world, just like the machinery of your body goes on. If you observed the clock through the gate, it would seem to stand still, or no photons would reach you at all. An observer outside the gate however would see no pause in the movements of the clock: she would just see you enter the gate and then immediately exit it again.
LeGuin makes the wristwatch stop when you enter the gate, then start again when you exit. For some reason, this particular little contraption remains linked to primary reality, while her characters’ bodies do not. I’m geeky enough to find this to be an irksome blemish in the story.
Drove yesterday to the village of San Giovanni d’Asso (Sw. Sankt Hans pÃ¥ Dass). Stopped on the way at an excavation, the church site of San Pietro in Pava, where as yet poorly known Roman activity gave way to continuous church use from the 6th through the 13th century. Nobody was on site because of the siesta, put I read the signposts in Italian as best I could and showed the kids two recently uncovered skeletons in the churchyard. Tricky conditions, earth hardening in the baking sun, many fresh breaks and trowel abrasions on the bones. I would prefer myself to work at night or under an awning. One of the skellies subadolescent, kids intrigued.
On to the farmstead of Podere Cavargine, which former London stockbroker Paul and his Angie have converted to a luxurious country villa (guest rooms in the pig sty). This is home to the awesomely scenic annual mini-festival of Music Tuscany. Three evenings of outdoors opera bits and chamber music and food, all provided by a dozen top soloists flown in from Stockholm and a Michelin-starred local chef. 95 euros per evening and head, and they seat up to 120. Nobody really makes any money off of it: a labour of love.
We were in fact lured to Tuscany by our friends Semmy and Isabelle who perform violin and cello duties at the festival. Semmy Stahlhammer is a renaissance man; heads the first violins at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, has a klezmer band, records solo CDs and writes books on Jewish family history.
I like to come early to festivals. Talk to the performers while they’re still in jogging pants and feeding their kids, help arrange chairs, move the grand piano, put cloths on the tables, clear away everybody’s swim pants hung to dry around the pool. And we had a lovely evening: two sets of an hour and a half each, with dinner in the intermission, while the sun set and the stars came out.
I was particularly happy with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances played charmingly on a shared piano by TerÃ©s LÃ¶f and Johan UllÃ©n, excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen sung by Kristina HammarstrÃ¶m, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played quite hauntingly by TerÃ©s LÃ¶f, and a pair of oboe pieces by Schumann played on the clarinet by Per Johansson. (He’s amazing, tone like a flute, and he plays standing up like a jazz clarinetist, dancing like a snake charmer.) The pieces I mention are all golden oldies, great selections for a non-jaded listener like me. All unplugged to a soft background of crickets, doves and the occasional pheasant squawk from the valley below. Unreal! Food less thrilling though.
Got up early this morning, six thirty, and slipped out for an hour’s walk. The sun was already pretty high but still veiled in mist. I walked past vineyards and olive groves toward a farmhouse until yapping guard dogs made me turn on my heel, and then I left the road.
The area is heavily altered by agriculture, but still there is quite a lot of woodland and brush. I descended into the valley of a little stream, dodged bushes and a large spider web, and found water trickling at the bottom of a deep-cut little channel, like a ditch among the bushes. Stepping over, I entered untouched greenery. Little recent pits got me thinking of foraging boars. Some ways up the other side of the valley a long yellow-and-black viper was sunning itself. It lay still for a long moment and then made itself scarce when I started fiddling with my camera.
I couldn’t find a way over the lip of the valley that wouldn’t involve using a machete, so I returned the way I’d come, brambles clawing at the back of my hand. A brief spell of fieldwalking in the red earth of a field garnered me only some modern tile. Home for breakfast and reading. Photographs soon, including some pretty good flower close-ups in morning sunlight, on a Flickr stream near you.
Swam with the kids, daughter dog-paddling happily with her arm pontoons, then cooked tortellini for lunch. The afternoon’s outing took us to the lovely Romanesque abbey church of Saint
Antimus (never heard of him, gotta read up), whence much of the area was once controlled. Very good sculpture and bas-reliefs. Then alley-haunting in tiny nearby picturesque-overload Castelnuovo dell’ Abate, and ice cream in the village bar while the septuagenarian proprietress played cards with her regulars. Finally back to Montalcino and the diocesan museum of church art, with a remarkable collection of fine Late Medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculpture of the Sienese school. (Though I doubt that any of the sculpture retains its original paintwork — it’s largely lurid ottocento refinishings, with one particularly unfortunate John the Baptist looking as if the painter were usually employed to finish cult statues of Ronald McDonald.) One thing I’d never seen before was 14th century statuary in white-glaze terracotta, looking a lot like bathroom furnishings.
What otherwise occupies the thoughts of my family is our ant infestation. Tiny black ones beyond all tally. My wife had the idea that salt might drive them off. Didn’t work, got really messy. Then the landlady gave us perfumed talcum powder, for some placebo reason, and it didn’t work either. Quite fascinating to study the long busy ant road across the white wall from one of the rafters to the kitchenette.
I write this sitting in a rental car near the Cathedral of Montalcino, a small Medieval fortified hilltop town in the heart of Tuscany’s brunello wine district. Sweat is running freely down my forehead and nose, no matter that the windows are open and the car is in a shaded alley. Wife and children are shopping for groceries while I have saved our vehicle from a parking ticket.
Montalcino is a maze of terracotta masonry and grey stucco, steep narrow streets, and glimpses of amazing vistas across the vineyards and valleys far below. A guide leaflet in Babelfish English informs me that the place started as a stronghold of the nearby monastery of St. Anthemius, was made a diocese by Pius II, and received town rights in 1462 as an outpost of the city-state of Siena.
I love my children to nutterhood, but travelling with them is such a drag. On vacation, I like to take long scenic walks, study art and architecture and regional history, read for hours, haunt museums and libraries and ruins and cemeteries, attend concerts, eat well and buy nothing. This is diametrically opposed to what the kids want. They want to swim in the pool (which demands parental attention) and have a lot of ice cream, period. And any other activity sets off the Whine.
The places we’re travelling to with the kids, I feel like I’ve only been there provisionally — seen them briefly through a blurry set of ice-cream-smudged baby-pink plastic goggles. “Tuscany? Yeah, I’ve sort of been there. Missed most of it. The pool was OK, as I recall.” Still I have this sense of duty that a good dad brings the kids along, even if all they really remember afterwards is some candy bag or playground. And a clenched-jawed father trying vainly to alert them to details of the surroundings that they will learn to appreciate shortly before leaving for college.
The beavers are rallying in Sweden, multiplying and repossessing old habitat. The other day I rode my bike to Lake KÃ¤lltorpssjÃ¶n and photographed some beaver work.
Over at Podcastle, I just heard an amazing reading/performance of an amazing surrealist love story, “Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery“. It was written by John Schoffstall, first published as text two years ago, and read by Heather Lindsley at Random Jane. It’s got some gore and a few naughty words, it’s nerdily intellectual, it’s lyrically written and it’s really, really funny.
The European Council of Skeptical Organizations (ECSO) has set up an on-line forum.
Explains ECSO chairman Amardeo Sarma,
“The purpose of this forum is to promote discussion with ECSO and other Skeptics Organisations. So if you have some question or a suggestion to a particular Skeptics Organisation and do not have direct access to them or do not speak their language, here is where you can ask. If someone from that organisation is reading this forum, you should get an answer or reaction. If possible, ECSO members will point responsible people from that organisation to this question or suggestion here, especially if that organisation is a member of ECSO. The forum may also be used by Skeptics Organisation to get readers reaction on their questions …”
If you’d like to chat with European skeptics, why not have a look? And if you know Scandy, the Swedish Skeptics have a very lively forum too.
[More blog entries about skepticism; skepsis, skepticism.]
The forty-third Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is on-line at Paddy K’s Swedish Extravaganza. Archaeology and anthropology, and all regulated by the rota system!
The Rota System, from the Old Church Slavic word for “ladder” or “staircase”, was a system of collateral succession practiced (though imperfectly) in Kievan Rus’ and later Appanage and early Muscovite Russia, in which the throne passed not linearly from father to son, but laterally from brother to brother (usually to the fourth brother) and then to the eldest son of the eldest brother who had held the throne. The system was begun by Yaroslav the Wise.
The next open hosting slot is on 16 July. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me. No need to be an anthro pro. But you must be either the fourth brother or the eldest son of the eldest brother who has held the throne, or the wife of such a man. Like I am.
Looking closer at this cover of a Chinese pirate edition of Disney’s 1937 animated feature Snow White, we find a couple of fine Engrish phrases.
“Latinum Edition” is pretty good. But wouldn’t you agree that “Still the Fairest of the Mall” takes the cake?
It’s been almost a year since the last de-lurk. Aard currently has over 150 returning visitors daily (out of about 800 uniques). Since not everyone checks in every day, this translates to several hundred — possibly a thousand — regulars who read the blog at least once a week. So, everybody, please comment away, as briefly or verbosely as you like, and do consider telling us a little about yourself!