Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Lakes Basin

Aidan and I managed to snag the last vacant campsite in the Gold Lake Campground, one of several rustic little campgrounds in the Lakes Basin Recreational Area of Plumas National Forest. Is there a prettier place to stake your tent? Directly across the rutted dirt track from awesome Gold Lake and a family of robin fledglings and a short hike to any a number of other lovely mountain lakes and wildflowers, not to mention proximity to Frazier Falls, Butterfly Valley, and the Feather River canyon. And if you failed to catch any trout or are not in the mood for camp cooking, you can take a short drive down to Graeagle and find a quite acceptable restaurant, with distanced outdoor seating, naturally. Dad called that "living off the land."

Monday, August 3, 2020

Darlingtonia and Drosera...

... are the genus names of two of our bog-dwelling California native carnivorous plants. The more conspicuous Darlingtonia californica is a pitcher plant also known as the cobra lily, for obvious reasons once you have seen one. And Drosera rotundifolia is the lovely if smaller and prostrate native sundew. The pitchers entice insects into their bright green vase, from which they cannot escape and are digested; the sundews employ sticky red droplets to hold and then envelope their prey. 

Up in the far northern mountains of California, such as the Trinity Alps, you can find these wonderful plants in various locations, but they are rare in the Sierras. The best place to check them out is the Butterfly Valley Botanical Area, not far from scary Keddie, CA. I try to make a stop there every time I am in the Feather River canyon or Lakes Basin areas north of Tahoe.

On this visit, one of the dirt roads that used to cross the top of the boggy meadow had been closed off and is being restored (see last two photos below), connecting a pitcher-filled drainage ditch with the sprawling meadow below. The strange, waxy flowers of the Darlingtonia were a bit past their prime, but the meadow was still vigorously soggy during a very dry season, and the sundews were abundant. A very special place: Do check it out, but tread lightly. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Annie Ross, RIP

I'll just refer to my previous post. Here's the NYT obit.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Reading round-up

You'd think being cooped up in the house for several months might facilitate getting some reading done, but not really. Still I've managed to take in a few novels, in addition to the eels.

East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee
Younghill Kang

Published in 1937, East Goes West is a pathbreaking autobiographical novel about a young Korean man's attempts to make a life in America. It begins with Chungpa Han's arrival in New York City, with nothing but a few dollars, a couple of contacts and references, and a love of literature and learning. Between his traditional family's expectations and the Japanese occupation, he envisions no future in Korea, but a world of possibilities in the United States. Much of the novel revolves around what it might mean to be "westernized," and Han's closest Korean immigrant friends serve as alternative models: George Jum, the wannabe playboy, always on the make, and To Won Kim, the cynical aesthete, who cannot feel at home in either culture.

It is altogether a wonderful novel, for its singular depiction of the immigrant experience from an uncommon perspective, its vivid descriptions of pre-Depression New York, rural Canada, and Boston, its cast of flawed, lifelike characters, and its nuanced vision of the foibles, bigotry, and possibilities of life in the west. It is full of humor and pathos. Some of the best set pieces revolve around Han's various employments– as a traveling salesman, a farmhand, a waiter, and a domestic. Kang writes with an observant eye; his outsider's perspective makes him particularly empathetic in his portrayal of African-Americans and other minority groups. His women, although mostly secondary characters, are fully formed agents.

For all his experiences, Han never seems to settle on his own vision of the American dream or assimilation. Without giving too much away, the ending is indeed unsettled and sad, but not without some measure of optimism. 

William Gibson

The latest from Gibson is a sequel/prequel to his previous novel, involving a future civilization that has figured out how to access parallel histories ("stubs"), thereby allowing it to meddle with the past without bumping up against logical contradictions of time travel. Between at least one of those pasts and the future's present (!), there was some kind apocalyptic event that we'd like to avoid if possible. In another stub, Hillary won the election. In our real-life stub, of course, Hillary lost, and the victor is eagerly advancing the cause of apocalypse. Isn't it nice to think there could be an alternative path in which the future people will come back and fix things up?

The Mirror & the Light
Hilary Mantel

Fans of the first two installments in Mantel's Cromwell trilogy– and I am emphatically among them– had to wait a long time for the finale, and as the wait grew longer, I worried that she might suffer from writer's block and never get it done, or, perhaps as bad, that she was writing a mountain of words, unable to bring herself to end it by killing off her hero, one of the greatest literary creations ever, her Thomas Cromwell. Well, she got the deed done.

The book is a long one, weighing in at 753 pages. The reviews were mixed, and I'm sorry to report that The Mirror & the Light disappoints. As one would expect from Mantel, stylistically the writing is exquisite, and there are many compelling scenes. But the book meanders and lacks the dynamism of the first two. In part, it seems that history itself is to blame. History, after all, provided Mantel with the key dramatis personae of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies– Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, respectively– and the key dramatic problem for our hero: how to eliminate each of them. Both are the most worthy of adversaries, from a literary point of view. And there's much more to both novels, including Cromwell's rise from humble origins to nearly the pinnacle of power, the events of his domestic life, the management of a great house and a court, the details of trade and diplomacy, Cromwell's secret support of protestantism, his generosity and earthiness, and always, the King. But these two killings– their calculation, their evil, but also their necessity– drive both stories.

Another execution of course marks the culmination of The Mirror & the Light. The series must end there, because the light glowing in the narrator's soul is extinguished in the act. Unfortunately, by Act 3, the compelling momentum of Cromwell's narrative has slowed. Commerce and organization building have given way to the tiresome workings of bureaucracy (even when it is the bureaucracy of execution); religious conflict has come down to delicate power struggles. And in the end, Cromwell's demise is the consequence of what seems like a most mundane power struggle, over money and political access as much as religion, in which he finally gets outfoxed and earns a taste of his own medicine.

Cromwell remains Cromwell, but the rest of the characters here are less vividly drawn. Henry has become a caricature– though a dangerous one, to be sure. Cromwell's entourage of young men, whom he has pulled up by their bootstraps, turn out to be both unreliable and, increasingly, indistinguishable. Symptomatic of the problem here is that some of the most interesting characters are invented: an illegitimate daughter, Jenneke, and Cromwell's profane and rough-and-ready French servant lad, Christophe.

Oh, am I suggesting you not bother reading it? No, I am not. The novel is still rich in history, intrigue, and language. And you've come this far with Crumb; you owe it to him to find out how it all ends, don't you?

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Koda family grows rice

Given California's water problems, it probably doesn't make sense to grow rice in the San Joaquin Valley, but if someone is going to do it, I'm glad it's Koda Farms. Founded in the 1920s by Keisaburo Koda, who had managed to slip around the Gentlemen's Agreement and arrived in California in 1908, the family company suffered a setback with the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, but they returned to the business after the War and made a go of it. They produce various varieties of rice, some of which they sell at my local farmer's market. May I say that the organic short-grain rice is just about the best rice I have ever had? It is the starchy kind that benefits from a couple of rinses before being simmered (5:4 water:rice ratio) for 12 minutes after reaching a boil. Then let it rest a few before fluffing. They don't give it away, but trust me you'll be happy to pay.

Two books about eels

Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish 
James Prosek
The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World
Patrik Svensson

I suppose if you are like most people, reading one book about eels would probably be enough; so between these two recent entries, which one to choose? Having now read them both, I can help. I praised James Prosek's wonderful book when it came out nearly a decade ago; it does a good job with the natural history of the eel itself, but it is especially good on the cultural and economic aspects as well. He knows about fish, he admires the eel, and he admires the people who admire and depend upon the eel.

Patrik Svensson's much-hyped recent addition to the eel canon is, sadly, bad, though, mercifully, short. It commits what would have to be the cardinal sin in any a book about eels: rather little of it is actually about eels. Ostensibly, the book alternates chapters of memoir and eel-business. The memoir part involves Svensson eel fishing with his dad as a kid in Sweden. The depiction of father, son, and their relationship is not the stuff of KnausgÃ¥rd, I'm afraid. There is also some description of eel-fishing methods, which I found mildly interesting, but not much about the European eel itself, which remains, as Svensson reminds us repeatedly, mysterious. The eel chapters do provide an overview of eel natural history at a decent Wikipedia level– most notably, the eel's catadromous life cycle and migration, and the mystery at the center of eel existence: their reproduction, which presumably takes place in the vast Sargasso Sea but has never been observed.

Along with a little bit about eels, we learn that Sigmund Freud spent some time in college studying eel sexual biology. That is intriguing, but after noting this, Svensson moves on to a superficial overview of Freud's ideas, including the concept of the uncanny (unheimlich), which Svensson likes to think (without any supporting evidence whatsoever) may have been inspired by Freud's experience studying eels. I would at least have thought something Freudian could have been made of the eel's flaccidly phallic nature, but Svensson's biographical speculations don't go there.

There are other digressions, including a long one about Rachel Carson, who at least did write something significant about the eel in her first book; but most of what Svensson has to say about her is well known and not very enlightening when it comes to the eel.

I suppose I should add that Svensson's prose is pedestrian, but perhaps some blame lies with the translator.

To summarize: If you want to learn about the eel– or its place in human culture and society– Prosek's is the book for you.