Month: February 2012

Gardening and Original Sin

When I was young and brilliant, it occurred to me that agriculture was the original Original Sin. I was studying archaeology at the time, specifically the origins of agriculture in the Middle East 10,000 years ago. Some of the earliest sites with evidence of early crop domestication are in the Zagros Mountains, which are in the same region where the Garden of Eden may have been. Aha! Two plus two equals… whatever you like, if you have enough imagination. At the time (the ’70s) I was also an environmental idealist aflame on the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. (Better to be an inhumanist than a misanthrope, perhaps. But that’s another topic altogether).

When human beings began to manipulate their environment in order to favour the growth of particular plants, I reasoned, they broke a contract with the earth. They no longer simply took what was given to them, but thought they knew better and wanted to make things for themselves. Once begun, that process had its own logic. The initial improvements to species of grain-producing grasses and the environments in which they grew demanded further improvements and changes — permanent structures for storage, water diversion for irrigation of crops, roads and vehicles for transportation — civilization, in effect, which led to the internal combustion engine and the consumer society. Onward and upward, and look where we are now!

Human beings managed to exist as hunter-gatherers for many millennia, their tools made by bashing stones with other stones, and with fire a fickle servant, sometimes an enemy. Stones, fire and a way of life that changed very slowly. A mere ten thousand years of agriculture-based civilization has had a profound effect on the earth. And it all began (my youthful self reasoned) with the first gardens.

Why were the first ornamental gardens made, I wonder? I’ll bet it was when someone thought to arrange the plants grown for food in a visually pleasing way, or to include among them plants whose only purpose was to be beautiful. The grape vine in the mud-brick courtyard, with the perfume of roses and the sweetness of ripe figs — we who garden now can still appreciate that ancient image.

The present-day ornamental garden, some will argue, can hardly be blamed for environmental destruction. Suburbs were not built so that people could make gardens around their three bedroom bungalows. Many gardeners are keen to be green, especially if they also produce some of their own food. True, but what about all the chemicals and fertilizers dumped on that suburban feature, the perfect lawn? Not to mention all the drinking-quality water used to water it, and the gasoline-consuming, pollution-generating lawn mowers used to maintain it. Then there is the issue of invasive plants growing rampantly in ecosystems where they don’t belong — purple loosestrife, for example, which was brought to North America as an ornamental. We gardeners cannot consider ourselves collectively blameless, especially since most of us are also consumers and involuntary participants in the civilization that resulted from those first gardens in Eden.

Now that I’m older, things seem less neatly black and white than they once did. Original sin may indeed be a metaphor for agriculture, and by extension for gardening, but working the earth (as distinct from exploiting it) is a human activity with nuances of the sacred. The first farmers wove into their cultures ceremonies and sacrifices to appease the divine powers offended by their presumption. Our religions retain traces of these practices, and if cultivation of plants once set us on a path that distanced us from the earth, real farming and gardening may be ways to return.

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The Mad Scientist — Villain or Hero?

This week’s post was inspired by a series of drawings I found when trolling through results of a search on “Herbert West,” H.P. Lovecraft’s corpse re-animating physician. Anyone who has seen the Re-Animator movies starring Jeffrey Combs knows Herbert West as a syringe-wielding wacko, but a different, rather light-hearted view is presented by animator and illustrator Tealin.

HPL tells us that West is a total rationalist, unmoved by emotion or superstition.  Here he may be delivering a lecture.

The Rational Dr. West

In H.P. Lovecraft’s story, the nameless narrator tells us that West is convinced that life can be restored to dead bodies, and, despite the prohibition on such experiments by Miskatonic University, where both he and West are medical students, West is determined to try it.

The first order of  business is to obtain a suitable experimental subject…

(Check out those spats on Herbert!  I’ve always thought of him as a sharp dresser).

So now we’re in the lab, preparing to start the experiment.

They get results, but…

Alive, But Not Happy

In fact, most of Herbert’s experiments with corpses yield somewhat unsatisfactory results that lead to further “procedures”…

…and have a less than salubrious effect on the two experimenters.

Fear and Loathing in the Lab

But the scientist in Herbert wins out, and…

In Corpse-Revivifying as in Cookery, Freshness Is All

Here we go again!

Of course, my interest in Herbert West is prompted by the fact that I have written three four novels in which he is the protagonist, exploring just this question:  why would someone want to revivify corpses? Starting with Lovecraft’s character, I constructed a past for him, a family background and experiences that may provide answers. I named the nameless narrator “Charles Milburn,” making him a cataloguer at Miskatonic University’s Library. The result was my first novel, The Friendship of Mortals.
I recently published Volume One of its sequel, Islands of the Gulf.
And subsequently, two more, to form the Herbert West Series. More info here.

It’s been fun to put together this post. My thanks again to Tealin, who agreed to let me use the drawings, and who expressed this opinion about HPL’s Herbert West: “…he’s definitely the most engaging, interesting person I know of in Lovecraft’s canon, probably not least because he actually drives his own fate rather than being a hapless pawn for cosmic horrors to happen upon.”

I quite agree. In my rendering of Herbert West, good and evil are definitely intertwined, which makes him endlessly fascinating.

Herbert West — Villain or Brooding Hero?

More of Tealin’s Herbert West drawings, and many others as well, can be found here.

 

Refugee Plants

Spring approaches, and being an inveterate list-maker, I have lists of things to do in the garden. One of them is called Plants to be Moved.

In my garden, there are two reasons for a plant to be moved. The obvious one is that it’s not doing well in its present spot, usually because of encroaching shade and tree roots. Like an invading army, they make life inhospitable for any plant that can’t put up with their coarse ways. Blue poppies, delphiniums, lilies, even hostas have succumbed in the past, unless I, the gardener, provide another option — moving to a better spot. If I detect signs of decline, such as decreasing size and fewer flowers, I make a note to move the sufferer, usually the following spring — if it survives that long.

Then there’s the just-in-case, or insurance move. The idea here is to move divisions of a valued plant to different spots, in case things go bad with the original one. I have a patch of gentians in the front garden which has done amazingly well, considering that gentians are reputed to be fussy and death-prone. Thinking that their success has been due to an extended run of beginner’s luck, I moved a small section a few years ago. It has slowly increased in size and even bloomed a little last year. This spring I will move another couple of divisions to a spot near the original one where these eye-catching (when in bloom) plants can be better seen, also replacing some weedy things such as violets and California poppies. The trick will be to make sure that the gentians are unmolested until they become established. After that I hope they will spread just as the parent clump has done.

Another type of move is when volunteer seedlings appear in places where I don’t want them, even though they are desirable plants. Mulleins are a good example. I identify spots where single mulleins would be good, and move selected seedlings. Although tap-rooted, mulleins can be successfully transplanted when young. This year there are about a dozen young plants of Verbena bonariensis in the middle of the ex-vegetable patch which I intend to turn into a herb garden. I may leave a few in place, not being as much of a purist about what constitutes a “herb” as was the venerable Henry Beston. But I will move the rest to other spots in the garden where these slender plants are sure to be an asset. I’m actually happy to see all these seedlings, as I had great and unexplained losses of V. bonariensis last winter.

The fate of refugee plants varies. Some do well in their new homes, others, already weak, die soon after the move. Still others survive but fail to thrive, and so are moved yet again. There is a plant of Digitalis ferruginea in one of my front garden beds that has managed to bloom only once — and somewhat stingily at that — in the 5 or 6 years since I acquired it. I have moved it four times, and have reason to hope that its current spot is to its liking.

The hardest part of all these plant moves? Finding the Better Spots in my rooty, shady garden. I will have to start creating them by moving a few of those happy, hearty tough plants that need no coddling at all — to the compost heap.

The Rules of Writing: Fun to Make and Break

Recently CBC Radio issued a challenge to its followers to write sentences breaking Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. I suspect the assumption was that the results would be examples of really bad writing, and therefore chuckleworthy.

Setting the challenge aside here, I wonder if that assumption is justified. Surely it depends on what kind of thing a writer is writing. Rules that apply to gritty, hard-boiled urban fiction may be totally wrong for romance, or fantasy, or Literature with a capital “L.” There may be a few fundamental rules that apply to all writing, but I’m not sure that Elmore Leonard’s list qualifies.

I have to admit, this topic of Rules of Writing is one that I find hard to leave alone. It’s like salted nuts, or maybe like a burr, because I find such rules irritating. Never mind whose rules they are; as soon as I perceive that someone is pontificating to writers (even other writers), I go into combat mode, or at least argument mode. A year ago the Guardian newspaper published writing rules by a large number of writers. Some are quirky, or just funny. From Canada’s own Margaret Atwood:  take two [italics mine] pencils with you on planes, in case one breaks and you can’t sharpen it because no one can take a knife on a plane any more. (But are those little stick-it-in-and-twist pencil sharpeners confiscated by security, I wonder?) See what I mean about arguing?

So what about Mr. Leonard’s rules? I agree with a few of them, such as the one about avoiding adverbs (words that end in “ly,” including “suddenly”) — and not just to modify “said.” Ditto exclamation points and dialect.  Also, I would add, italics.

But I think some of the rules are too restrictive. Yes, it’s best to carry dialogue with “said,” but sometimes you need another word, as when a character doesn’t just say something, but splutters, groans, sighs or mutters. Words like these add texture and juiciness. They should be used sparingly, like spices, but not banished from a writer’s vocabulary.

Come  to think of it, Mr. L. uses “never” way too many times in his rules.

Weather and description. Mr. L. says never to start a book with weather and to avoid descriptions of people, places or things. I think it’s a matter of degree. Having your character stand there like a dummy while you give a verbal snapshot of their clothing, hair and accessories doesn’t work. But readers want to know something about your main characters, including what they look like. The trick is to create vivid images of them by slipping details into sections of action or dialogue, so people don’t even recognize the descriptive bits as such. As for weather and places, these can be opportunities for “beautiful writing,” the kind that gives the writer a frisson when he or she reads it over at the end of a writing session. The trouble is that readers don’t always share those frissons and often skip over those sections to find out what happens next. Sad  but true, at least for plot-driven books. Writers of the literary type may get away with beautiful writing, because they attract readers who enjoy that sort of thing.

Rule #10 is one of those sneaky lines that gets remembered and quoted; it’s also guaranteed to induce anxiety in the insecure writer (and just about all of us are insecure at some point). “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” So what parts are those? Here is my quick top-of-brain list of what to look for in your never-ending revision sessions:  1. Long paragraphs that contain extended descriptions or backstory, even though the writing is beautiful. Consider cuts or moves. 2. Extended sections of dialogue with no action, especially those where the speakers are not identified. 3. Long action sequences of the sort where all hell breaks loose for several pages. They may be crammed with verbs, but when they go on and on, the little movie-maker in the reader’s brain gets tired and wants a break. Have your characters go for a drink and talk about the weather.