Monday, May 26, 2008

Pink Lady's Slipper

As a child I was told that lady's slippers were very rare and never to be picked. They may indeed be rare, but I saw about a dozen of them flowering in this one spot in the woods. When you see that many of them together they cease to seem rare. (Still didn't pick any though.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hear That Whistle Blow

There's a railroad near my house -- not so close that I can see it, but close enough for me to hear the train whistles, especially at night.

What is it that makes trains so cool? Is it the whistle saying "I'm going somewhere far away" (although most of the trains on this line in fact don't), or their purposeful unstoppingness?

I don't often get to ride the train, but when I do two of the things I enjoy are going through the railway crossing and seeing the cars that have to stop for us; and the amazing sight of how different my neighborhood looks from the train. It's another perspective.

I wish there were more trains, and that they were cheaper, so I could ride them more.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Double Tree: Another Metaphor

They say that the root system of a tree extends as far under the ground as its branches do above the ground. So the visible tree is really only half of a tree.

I've been contemplating a theory that the human mind is like that. The subconscious mind is a set of roots, extending into the dark, deeper than we can imagine. The conscious mind, however, is not the visible half of the tree. It's only a slender cross-section, at the point where the tree meets the ground, where the two halves of the tree become one. The conscious mind is a tiny part of the mind itself. I'm becoming more and more convinced of that.

What then is the visible half of the tree? I'm currently speculating that it is . . . the set of all actions and reactions that we perform in the waking world, our interactions with the world and its interactions with us. Every connection that we have with another living being, or with the world, forms a branch or a twig of the tree.

Yes, I'm starting to think that a person's mind, a person's self, exists in the world, as well as inside one's own head. I mean, we all have an inner self and an outer self, and often they are very different. Certainly they do very different things. The inner self spends a lot of time thinking about itself. (Very few of these thoughts, I suspect, are ever shared with another person.)

The outer self is "in charge of" interacting with the world. It takes in information from the world, and sends it to the inner self. And they say that we never really forget anything. All our memories are stored in the unconscious mind -- the mind duplicates our experience, the same way the root system of a tree duplicates the structure of the branches above.

I'm naturally an introverted person. That means that I feel much more interested in the subterranean half of the tree than the sky-inhabiting tree. The invisible world, what some people perhaps consider to be a nonexistent world. But for me it is real.

My previous metaphor was the ruined house.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A Visit to the Cemetery

There is a fairly large cemetery near my house, which apparently has always been a sort of tourist attraction. But not in a tacky way. It is known for its landscaping. Many of the trees and plants are labeled, so you know what you're looking at, which is a very helpful feature. Everything in nature should be labeled.

I saw a witch hazel bush, which I have never knowingly seen before, and an "alumroot" plant. Does alum come from plants? They have a couple elms, which were planted in 1998. When I was growing up, all the elms one ever saw or heard about were dead. These must be a new disease-resistant kind. I also saw some trees labeled "plane trees," but which I would call sycamores.

I do not know if the cemetery is still accepting reservations, as it were. But we saw one tombstone which is reserved for two people. One was born in 1923 and died in 2002. The other was born in 1920 and has not yet arrived at his final resting place.

At the center of the cemetery is a hill, and upon the hill is a tower. No one is buried there. You can go up to the top and look out over the landscape. There are 95 steps in the tower (which is spelled "ninty-five" on the informational placard) and when you get up to the top of the stairwell the walls of the tower curve inwards over your head.

I find cemeteries to be very peaceful places. There is no rational reason for it, but irrationally speaking, it's enough to make me wonder if death is not what we suppose it to be.

Friday, May 02, 2008

All Fantasy is Urban Fantasy (Charles Williams)

Okay, I don't really believe that all fantasy is urban fantasy. But I do believe that the genre we now call fantasy is about ordinary life, ordinary people, crossing over into "the other world," or about the other world (or its inhabitants) coming here. As Tolkien put it, "Fairy-Stories" are not about fairies, but about the land of Faerie, and our fascination with extraordinary worlds.

Most fairy tales start off as "an ordinary day when something strange happened," such as meeting a talking animal in the woods. That was back when woods, and animals, were part of everyday life for most people.

Now, in modern times, ordinary life for many people is urban, and so urban fantasy came into being. I gather that the term was first used in the 1980s, but one suspects that urban fantasy is probably as old as the urbs themselves, and certainly examples of it can be found throughout the late 19th and early 20th century.

One of my favorite writers of premodern urban fantasy is Charles Williams. He seems to be forgotten today, which is a shame, but during his lifetime he was extremely popular. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were friends of his -- in fact, he was a well-known writer while they were still bumbling about at Oxford.

The first book of his that I read was All Hallows' Eve. It may be the most popular, because it's the only one that I've ever seen in two different editions. After reading a friend's copy, I saw this and two other books by Williams in a bookstore and bought all three without even glancing at the two I didn't know. I was sure they would be good, and they are, but I also think I was lucky because I've read part of another that I didn't like as much.

These are the books of his that I know best:
  • All Hallows' Eve. This book was written during World War II, and set in London just after the end of the war. (Sadly, Williams died in 1945.) The two main characters are a young woman who discovers that she is a ghost, but still has some influence on the living world; and an ambitious man who has strange magic powers.
  • Many Dimensions. First published in 1931, this book is still topical in a way, because it deals with a conflict between the Muslim world and the West. Except in this case the treasured possession is not oil, but the Stone of Solomon. An unscrupulous Englishman steals it, and then finds out that not only can it grant practically any wish, but if you cut a piece off, the original stone gets no smaller, and the new piece has all the powers of the original. Meanwhile, the Muslims who had been guarding it (and not daring to use it) naturally want it back . . . but the English government is not inclined to let them have it. An English Chief Justice who takes his job title seriously also gets involved.
  • The Greater Trumps. This one might be my favorite. It's about the Tarot -- specifically, about a deck of Tarot cards which is supposed to be the very first Tarot, and therefore to have special powers. It's come into the possession of a man who knows nothing about the occult and doesn't want to know. But other people feel differently. (As you can see, the theme of these two novels is rather similar. But I tend to prefer the Tarot imagery.)
Aside from the magical elements, what makes these books fun to read is the sheer ordinariness of most of the characters. Like I was saying, that's what fantasy is all about, stirring magic into ordinary life. Some of us never get tired of it.