Back in May, I heard a rather intriguing and disturbing story on radio. The nub of it is that researchers at Yale University were able to induce brain activity in detached heads of pigs obtained from a slaughterhouse four hours after death. They accomplished this with a technology called “BrainEx.” A system of pumps, heaters and filters perfused the dead brains with an artificial blood solution. After six hours of treatment, the brains showed cellular activity. At least one scientist commented that if the treatment had been continued, some level of consciousness may very well have been achieved .
My first thought: Fans of Frankenstein and Herbert West will love this! My second thought: I wonder what’s in that artificial blood. What colour is it — lurid green? Or maybe purple?
Seriously, though, this experiment raises a lot of disturbing questions, about time of death, when it’s okay to “harvest” organs for transplant, about animal experiments, and when is the spark of consciousness finally extinguished. The scientists took measures to make sure the brains did not attain full consciousness and stood by with anesthesia, just in case. (That was nice of them.)
The intent is to use the results of this study to learn more about post-mortem brain cell death and how damaged cells may be repaired. But there’s always the possibility that the unscrupulous will cite the experiment to prey upon the desperate, promising a form of immortality (for a large fee, no doubt) by hooking up brains to a pump full of magic solution. (This actually reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Whisperer in Darkness.”)
Fiction is a give and take between speculation and reality, the point where they intersect. These brain experiments may furnish material for ethicists, doctors, scientists, and for writers of speculative and horror fiction as well.
This post from February 2012 (with highlighting and strikethroughs added) gets another outing while I strip old paint, sand freshly exposed old wood, and brood over paint colour chips. (“Window Pane” or “Rainwashed” for the walls? “Morning Fog” for the trim?) The garden has received 40 mm (1.58 inches) of rain in the past two weeks, something for which I am thankful.
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.
I originally posted this somewhat quirky set of thoughts about the word “only” back in June of 2014.
In the fourth of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories serialized under the title “Herbert West, Reanimator,” West tells the narrator that a traveler collapsed and died while asking for directions at his door — presenting him with an opportunity for a really fresh specimen for one of his reanimation experiments. When the fellow comes back to life, he reveals to the narrator that West murdered him. But before that, the first words he utters as life returns to him are “Only now.” Unfortunately, with the return of full consciousness, the subject remembers his murder and never completes that intriguing sentence. Only now… what? Since H.P.L. was an atheist, it was probably not a secret of the afterlife. But “only” is an interesting word.
1. Only I can help you now.
2. I only can help you now.
3. I can only help you now.
4. I can help only you now.
5. I can help you only now.
Five sentences with quite different meanings. The wording is identical except for placement of one word — only. A slippery little word, sometimes redundant, occasionally powerful, as in #1 above. (Sentence #2, in my opinion, is problematic, but I included it for the sake of completeness). A warning before you read any more — I am no grammarian. Like a musician who doesn’t read music, I write by ear.
“Only” is an adverb, derived from Old English “anlic,” meaning “one-like.” But it’s also used as an adjective (“This is my only chance”) and a conjunction (replacing “but,” as in “I wanted to do it right, only I failed”). It can even be a noun, as in “You are my one and only.”
People are often careless in their use of “only,” especially in conversation, tossing it into sentences without much concern as to where it lands. “I’ll only be a minute,” one says, when “I’ll be only a minute” is more precise. There is a tendency to put “only” near the beginning of a sentence, often immediately before the verb. (Makes sense when it’s an adverb). The verb is the action word in a sentence, and “only,” intended here to convey brevity or insignificance, is applied to the action word rather than to “minute,” the word that really conveys brevity.
This use of “only” is as a “softener,” a word that tones down the impact of a sentence, turning it from a demand to a request. In such a situation, you may wish to use “just” rather than “only.” “Just” is a kind of throwaway word, and often a sentence is improved by throwing it out.
If you want a rule, it might be this: put “only” right before the word it applies to. Move it around until the sentence conveys your intended meaning.
“Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” Indeed she does.
“God only knows.” He isn’t talking, but someone else might, unless only God knows, in which case prayer is your only option.
Remember The Ice Cream Truck from Hell? That serial story is almost ready. Part 1 will roll out on May 1st!
“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. “Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!” Kenneth Grahame The Wind in the Willows
A while ago, I wrote a post about a special place that made a big impression on me when I was a kid. My name for this place at the time was “Mossy Mountain,” because of the (you guessed it) mosses that grew all over the rocks and added a kind of magic to the area. I still love moss.
On a cold and sunny day early in March, the Spouse, the Dog, and I took a delightful day trip to Salt Spring Island. Right after getting off the ferry, we drove the island’s narrow, winding roads to a nursery that sells rare and unusual plants, where I bought three hellebores and two blue poppies. Then we turned southward, toward the quasi-urban central part of the island, where I lived in the late 1960s. In many ways, the place hasn’t changed that much. The school I attended is still there, and the layout of the streets was familiar.
We followed roads I had noted on my virtual visit via Google Maps and Street Views, aiming for a major electrical transmission line I remembered. (It’s visible in the image at the top of the post, a view looking northeast across the north half of Salt Spring Island toward the distant Coast Mountains on the B.C. mainland.) There was only one problem — the snow that fell in mid-February hadn’t left this area. In fact, there was still close to a foot of it hanging around — hard, icy, crystalline snow. It certainly made the place look different from my memories, which were of sunny May or June weekends.
But the topography and vegetation were much the same. So was the conglomerate bedrock, which I had forgotten all about, until I recognized it underfoot in spots where the snow had melted. The mosses were still there too, as well as the arbutus and fir trees, the ocean spray shrubs, and the leathery leaves of salal. I heard hummingbirds making their sizzling sounds and other birds singing. In an encounter with a fellow who lives nearby (now that’s new — in the ’60s, there were no houses up there), we heard a cougar had recently killed a deer, a chicken, and a duck. I actually thought this was encouraging. Even though development has crept up the mountain, at least there is enough natural environment left to support a cougar, deer, and wild birds.
Because of the snow, it wasn’t possible to explore beyond the road, but a return visit is in order, most likely in May or June.
Fifty years ago (Fifty! How did that happen?) a school friend and I discovered a marvellous place, quite literally in our back yards. Well, somewhat beyond our actual back yards. We started out at the house my family lived in then, an old, rambling and somewhat decrepit place we were renting while my parents built our new house nearby. With bottles of water and apples as provisions, we crossed a hayfield behind the house and entered a wood in which vanilla-leaf plants were in bloom (it was May).
We emerged from the wood onto a road leading uphill, following it to where it turned away in a switchback. Leading in the opposite direction was one of those magical little nameless roads — two wheel-tracks with plants growing down the middle. It led uphill too, taking its time.
After several kilometers and one or two steep climbs, we came to a place typical of the southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia — a hillside sparsely treed with Douglas firs and arbutus, and scattered clumps of juniper, hairy manzanita, and bearberry. Moss was abundant on the rocky outcrops and cliffs, with licorice ferns growing from it. The place was completely natural but looked landscaped. No, more than that — it looked magical, as though inhabited by nature spirits. And indeed, we heard an unfamiliar sound at times, a distant, rhythmic wheezing, like someone sawing wood with a hand saw. I now suspect it was made by male grouse flapping their wings as part of their spring courtship routines. Every now and then, we heard the strident double whistle of a pheasant, but we never saw anyone else there, either human nor animal.
I can’t remember how many expeditions we made to this delightful place. At least three, but probably no more than half a dozen. By June, my annual pollen allergy (which has since vanished, one of the benefits of growing older) made outdoor activities miserable. Then summertime holidays and activities took over, and for whatever other reason, we never went back.
I’ve made a couple of tourist-type trips to that island in the past few decades, showing the sights to visiting friends, but until now haven’t made a systematic search for this special place. Recently, I revisited the area by way of Google Maps and Street View, zooming in on the locale, navigating by names of roads I remembered, finally switching to satellite and Street View. I followed various roads, floating along like a ghost, turning this way and that, looking for the familiar.
It was a weird and dreamlike experience, and ultimately not satisfying. Although invisible, I couldn’t trespass on private property or go beyond the point where the car with the cameras stopped. Any number of inviting little roads had to remain unexplored. Frustrating but compelling. Eventually I stumbled on a photo someone had taken that looked a lot like the terrain I remembered.
Now I’m planning a real life visit. It’s not that far from where I live, and would make a pleasant day trip. I’m telling myself to temper my expectations for such a sentimental journey. Because what I really wanted to do on my virtual visit was to zoom in, press a button, and be back there, half a century ago, a child of twelve or thirteen, enchanted by the beauty I had discovered. But the eyes and brain are different now, shaped by the experiences of fifty years, and that means any new experience will be different as well.
I’ve been a gardener for thirty-five years, during which I’ve learned a few things. These thoughts recur regularly as I work in the garden, so I decided to write them down, in case other gardeners may find them helpful.
When in doubt, clip the lawn edges. Nothing spruces up a garden (at least the lawn-plus-perennial-beds kind) faster than this. Even a “yard” with a lawn and a few sad shrubs can be made to look like a garden in the making by defining some edges and fluffing up bare soil. Spreading compost around is the finishing touch.
Before stepping into a bed or planting, decide exactly where to put your feet. Those size 8s can snap and squash innocent plants. Pick spots where they’ll do the least damage, both to plants and your body, especially if you need to hold a position while tying, digging, or pruning. Balancing on one foot while twisting yourself into a pretzel shape is not recommended.
In summer-dry places, delay watering as long as you can, to encourage plants to grow deep roots. Once you do start watering, make a schedule and water each area regularly, abiding by local watering restrictions. Keep a record of what area was watered and when.
Learn how to deadhead the plants in your garden and do it regularly. Deadheading extends bloom time and prevents excessive self-seeding. It also forces you to pay attention to the forms and structures of your plants.
Learn how to propagate plants from seed, cuttings, and divisions. These are cheap ways to increase desirable plants, and doing this stuff is a great way to really know plants, way more than buying nursery-grown specimens.
Learn how to prune. It’s not brain surgery (since plants don’t have brains, and you do). If in doubt, cut less. You can always cut more, but once you’ve cut something, you can’t stick it back on. When in doubt, stop, look, and think.
If a newly-acquired perennial or shrub shows suckering or vigorously spreading tendencies (I’m looking at you, Mahonia aquifolium!), decide right away if that’s okay with you. If not, either remove the plant and get rid of it, or make an effective management plan. Hoping the plant will change its ways isn’t an option.
Don’t try to change your garden into something it isn’t. You’re stuck with the fundamentals (climate, soil, topography), so you may as well live with them. If you’re determined to turn your sandy seaside garden into a mountain meadow, be prepared to labour endlessly. (Gardening involves enough labour as it is.)
Accept that the garden will change, no matter what you do, and not always as you intend. That 2010 picture at the beginning of the post is a good reminder of this truth. Some plants will die out and others will thrive. Not always the ones you want, of course.
Don’t believe all the advice you read, even this post books and articles by writers you esteem. Every garden is different, and gardening is a hands-on business. Learn by doing. On the other hand, reading about other gardeners’ thoughts and experiences can be a comfort and a joy.
Keep in mind that your garden is a place in which to engage in gardening (i.e., digging, planting, weeding, deadheading, edging, watering, and gazing in wonder). It’s not a status symbol, contest, or race. But your garden is also a home for various creatures — birds, squirrels, insects, etc. Think about that before making drastic changes, such as tree removal.
Cultivate the habit of noticing beauty, no matter what happens in your garden. Even in the bleakest, deadest, driest seasons, even after the windstorm, there’s something beautiful to be seen. You just have to find it and recognize it.
Dateline – 1105, on the morning of 11 November 2018.
So – here in London, England it’s gone eleven, and we’ve ‘Remembered’. Now we’ll go out and sell more guns and bombs to Saudi. And to anyone else who’ll listen.
Remembering is easy. Putting a stop to the carnage is harder. In fact, it’s proved so hard since 1918 that we’ve never actually stopped. We’re still at it. Families are torn apart, men, women and their children maimed and killed. But they’re not British bombs and guns, we say. You see, we stipulate that our bombs and guns are not used in life-threatening scenarios. So imagine – two Saudi air force men are loading a bomber with weapons for a raid on The Yemen. “We haven’t got enough bombs to fill her up, mate, this time,” one says to the other. “What d’you mean?” his colleague replies, “there’s a…
Has anyone ever wondered how much the physical environment in which a book is written influences the finished product?
My first four books were written under these conditions: basement room with closed door, no company except one cat, specially selected music, and totally offline. The computer I used was not connected to the internet; it was essentially a glorified typewriter. I did my research using real books, except for snatched opportunities for internet fact-checking in my workplace. (That’s another thing — I had a full time job then.) Writing sessions were at least three solid hours almost every evening, with the World’s Best Cat nearby. I wrote the entire Herbert West Series between November 2000 and late 2006. Then in the winter of 2007-2008 I wrote another, unrelated novel (which remains as yet unpublished).
Zeke the Cat (1997-2017)
The conditions under which my latest book (now available in print on Amazon, ebook still on pre-order) was created: shared office in the main part of the house, with spouse and large dog coming and going, and talk radio or randomly chosen music. Almost all research was done on the internet, and the book was written on an internet-connected laptop (after the handwritten “proto-draft,” of course). Writing sessions were spasmodic, some as short as five minutes (between checking emails, reading blog posts, and looking things up). Some were as long as a couple of hours, circumstances permitting. No wonder it took a whole year to produce a 100K-word first draft, and the best part of a second year to edit, rewrite, and format. And I’m retired now! Finally, most of this book was written without feline company, since Zeke (the WBC) died in January 2017.
It’s tempting to wonder if these differences in the environment of creation are discernible in the finished work. I’m hoping my writing skills have improved since the early years of the millennium. Despite distractions and interruptions (or maybe because of them?) the new book is shorter and (I think) gets to the point faster. I’ll have to speed up my output if I want to finish — no, wait — if I want to start the projects I still have in mind.
The early decades of the twenty-first century saw a great flowering of the literary arts, due in large part to the advent of self-publishing on the Internet. The writers called themselves Indie Authors. Many of them were members of the so-called Baby Boom generation, born between the end of the Second World War and the nineteen-sixties. With a high degree of literacy and egos inflated by the conviction that they were the first humans to experience anything worthwhile, many of them used their retirement years to write. Literary agents and publishers were overwhelmed by a flood of submissions from these eager wannabees. Mail rooms overflowed with manuscript boxes, fat brown envelopes and SASEs. Rejections issued forth, provoking incredulous disappointment. Technology came to the rescue, providing online publishing platforms that allowed the indies to elbow the weary gatekeepers aside and publish. Millions of ebooks and POD print books issued forth. Savvy entrepreneurs stepped up to provide services to the indies. Blogs multiplied and online literary salons proliferated.
Every now and then, I wonder what future scholars of literature might say about us indie author/publishers. The mainstream of traditional publishing gets lots of attention, but over the past decade, vast numbers of writers have been quietly publishing, blogging, debating, opining, reviewing, interviewing, and ultimately creating a Thing.
Will anyone, in the future, study, write about, and analyze our Thing? What will they call us? The Early 21st Century Indies? The Tsunami of Crap? Boomers Unbound?
Really, though, think about it: we create, we connect, we write and publish. We’re serious and sincere. Aside from the fact that most of this activity is carried on via the internet, there isn’t much difference between the current phenom and the literary movements of history. Salons, pamphlets, feuilletons, little magazines, and literary societies all have their online equivalents. This blog on which I’m holding forth right now continues the tradition of writers and thinkers using whatever means are at hand to share their thoughts.
Who knows what posterity will make of us? We may represent only the very beginning of a larger phenomenon. Or we may be a brief spark that vanishes into the current of history. Will our works be curated and preserved, or will their survival depend on pure accident amid some global catastrophe? To us, right now, it really doesn’t matter. The true value of the indie author movement to us indie authors is the connections we’ve made with one another by creating and sharing our works and ideas.
Let’s keep on creating our Thing, whatever it is!
Book & Brains image created with Canva
Hammer and anvil image courtesy of Pixabay
The Indie Author Manifesto by Mark Coker at Smashwords