I went this weekend to Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeria at Seattle Opera. Aside from the carry of mezzo Stephanie Blythe’s voice, my attention was most caught by the yellow green sheen of a blue black skirt as the same woman walked in front of me both before the performance and at the end of the intermission. That same silken sheen reflected from the dried grasses along the highway as I drove home today. It’s always a long drive home from the opera. There was rain as I left Seattle and snow at Snoqualmie Pass. East of the Cascades, there was wind. The stiff grasses—so unlike fabric after the dehydration of summer—bent in waves in the gusts of wind. They bent from the base, and the rigid culms as they leaned in the wind caught the morning light. The flexing waves of ochre grasses had the same silky reflectance as the fold of skirt.
About 11.30 last night I began rearranging my library. Actually, it was only the European literature. Much of the library is arranged geographically by country—as in the author’s place of origin for fiction or the setting of the book for nonfiction. Exiles and other geographic mongrels have their own section. Travel writing that is unrooted and placeless also gets its own section.
I’ve been short on shelf space in the library since returning from sabbatical, and this had left an eruption in the middle of Europe. For the past few months, French writers and literature about France had stood in piles on the floor (in French do books stand or sit?). Over the weekend, I had added a shelf, and last night, after brushing my teeth, I faced the dilemma of what to do about the French. This dilemma extends also to the British. I have a large collection of books by British authors. British were already stacked in piles on top of other Brits on the shelves. They needed more space; indeed, they needed some open inches of shelves for anticipated expansion.
The Scandinavians, Russians, and those of the former ‘Eastern Europe’—once again, after the interregnum of the Iron Curtain, better considered as Central Europe—were also part of the problem. An economy of space had earlier demanded that I box the end of the British with Scandinavians and Russians who were followed by Central Europeans, including the Germans and Swiss. I began by moving-out the Swiss in order to get all of the British on the shelves. The Swiss joined the French piles.
With the removal of the Swiss, I began simply to put the French on the new shelf, which geographically had them following the Germans. The Swiss then went on shelves after the French, which seemed reasonable enough, and I could put the Italians after the Swiss. It was very pleasing, except that I have several large books of photographs of Switzerland, and in this scheme these big books were in the middle of a shelf, creating a formidable massif that separated much thinner volumes by the French and Italians. The aesthetics were bad.
I removed the French and the Swiss back to their piles to face again the Scandinavians, Russians, and eastern Central Europeans. I dawdled with alternatives for the Russians but could come up with nothing satisfying. The Scandinavians and Russians went back to the end of the British despite the apprehension this gave me. The Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Yugoslavs (whomever they might now be) went to the new shelf. I left them with some expansion space. Just below, I brought in the Austrians, Germans, and Swiss. The big Swiss books again sat near the middle of a shelf, but I was growing tired and decided that they didn’t look as overwhelming placed against the Germans as they did when placed earlier against the Italians. What was to lie beyond the Swiss mountain this time? The stack of Rousseau. I had been allowing Jean-Jacques Rousseau a place with the French and suddenly realized that he was the perfect transition. He could lie back against his Swiss place and look out to France. The French went on the shelves: Voltaire, Stendhal, Constant, Zola, Proust, Radiquet, Gide, Genet, Duras, and on. And next? The Spanish fit the space so in they went. Then the Italians, Greeks, and their neighbors the Turks, and I was on to Asia.
* * * The photograph is a statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau taken on a gray day in the city of light during a December many years ago. The photograph is a bit of an homage to Laura, who has been posting paintings and sketches of Paris's statues, cafes, bridges, dresses, and miscellany over the past few weeks.
This was a lecture writing day. At 9.00 this morning, I put a fresh cup of tea on my desk, pulled out relevant papers, Stewart and Rothwell’s paleobotany text, and Gifford and Foster’s morphology text, as well as my old notes to begin constructing tomorrow’s lecture on horsetails. I looked first at the old notes, and, tentatively, made a couple of Powerpoint slides, which was followed by indecision. I don’t like indecision when I start writing a lecture so I sat back and drank some tea. I began again. Horsetails—the genus Equisetum—fascinate me mostly because they were much more diverse in terms of numbers of species, varieties of forms, and importance in communities a couple of hundred million years ago than they are today. Horsetails have diminished from trees to spindly stalks. Something more than a dozen species remain, and they are common in moist environments—creek margins and roadside ditches—in much of the world. They just aren’t the trees they were 250 million years ago.
I began the lecture by placing Equisetum in the evolutionary tree of plant diversity, which is the way I set-up our exploration of each plant group discussed in the course. I wrote about the ecology, form, and reproduction of our extant horsetails. Then I looked back to ask about the earliest ancestors of this lineage that had horsetail-like traits. Those earliest relatives of the horsetail lineage are fossils known as Ibyka that date from the Devonian. Ibyka stood at a time when land plants consisted of little more than bifurcating stems, a time before leaves, when there was an evolutionary radiation of the simplest forms.
The fortunate early horsetails were well adapted for so-called coal swamps, the tropical wetland environment that may have been the most productive of its day. The coal swamp communities appear to have been relatively diverse, and, fortunately, it was an environment that fostered fossilization. From the coal swamps we have not only compression fossils that show shapes and surface details but also permineralized fossils in which three-dimensional forms and the internal structures have been retained, allowing intricate details of development and anatomy to be examined. Those coal swamps had tree-like relatives of Equisetum. I’ve seen some of the largest horsetails that are alive today—they are the species Equisetum giganteum. You can find them in northern Chile where the plain of the Atacama desert is broken by steep river valleys. The giant horsetails grow in the tangle of vegetation that holds tight to the riparian margin. Those giant horsetails are hardly thicker than a finger but are 12 to 15 feet tall. They seem slightly absurd—wobbly and too tall—and compared to the thick stumps of Carboniferous Calamites, the fossil tree-like horsetail of coal swamps, they seem to have taken a wrong turn.
Perhaps not, however. The huge arborescent Calamites are gone, now extinct for millions of years, but the thin, teetering contemporary horsetail remains. Indeed, while not rich in numbers of species, the extant horsetail seems to do well and can spread itself so well that it presents problems for farmers who work moist lowland fields where horsetails can be weedy.
I made Powerpoint slides over the course of the day. Typing text on slides and then scavenging the Internet and my slide collection for images that would help to demonstrate the ideas more fully. I took a break at lunch for salad and soup and read the food section of today’s New York Times, then returned to work on the lecture. The lecture, except for text on the last couple of slides, was finished by 5.00, when I wanted to walk home in the warm light and make a trip to the grocery store before dinner.
There was one image that I couldn’t fit into the lecture. I posted it above. In the photograph, there are tiny ball-like drops of water at the tips of the horsetail’s branches. The horsetail is guttating. Guttation is a water transport phenomenon in plants that happens usually on cool, moist days when evaporation from the plant surface is very limited. On those occasions water diffuses from the soil into the roots, where it enters the water conducting cells. Water pressure, on those cool, moist days, builds-up in the roots, forcing the water upward through the plant body—the effect of which is that water droplets are pushed outward through openings at the surfaces of leaves. Those emerging droplets are called guttation. Those moist, creek-side environments where we commonly find horsetails are good places for guttation.
I read today in the New York Times of the death of Eric Newby and recalled one of my most enjoyable weekends. That memory dates from 1991 when I lived in Duluth, Minnesota. It was Halloween, a Thursday, and the first snow of the season had begun that afternoon. When I left my office at 9:00 that evening about four inches of snow lay on the ground. The next morning the telephone rang at 6:30—it was an undergraduate who worked in my lab. She had called to say that classes had been canceled so she wouldn’t be at work. Why, I wondered with drowsy frustration, couldn’t she have waited until at least 7:00 to call instead of getting me out of bed? The radio reported that nine inches of snow had fallen and a foot was expected by the end of the day. DJs on the radio interviewed a newspaper boy about the problems he’d had delivering papers that morning. Despite the closure of campus for the day, I walked down the hill to work—when I left that evening after dark, the snow was shin deep except in the drifts where it covered my thighs. It snowed still when I went to bed.
The next morning I found four feet of snow drifted against the sliding doors to my deck. A high ridge ran down the middle of the driveway. Cars were snow hills. A larch, still with ochre leaves, had become a white bottle-brush. I watched the falling snow through the bay window of my living room, watched through the day from my warm couch, while I read Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Newby was a buyer of women’s fashions, and the book began in London at the showing of the 1956 Spring Collection in a blizzard. He bagged the job for the idea of climbing a 25,000 feet high peak in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush. Newby had not climbed mountains so he went to Wales for a weekend of training before departing for Asia. Eric Newby must have loved pathos for he built his story upon layer after layer of ill-preparation and beleaguered failure, but he told it with adventure and well-stated, if subtle, humor. I laughed out loud through the day, page after page. It was beautiful travel writing. I read the book in one sitting, taking breaks only to fix tea and to watch the snow fall. It remains one of the most wonderful, vivid days in my memory.
When I finished the book at the end of the afternoon, the radio reported the snow depth was at 36 inches and the wind chill at -20º. Hard, gusting wind through the day had drifted the snow to five feet deep in my driveway. I went out in the evening in the intense cold to begin shoveling. I could hear the scrape of other shovels and the groan of snow plows. The cloudy sky was brightly lit by street lights that reflected from the snow. It was a glowing night. The snow had stopped. I thought about Eric Newby stopped at an ice fall at an elevation of 18,000 feet in the Hindu Kush. Lacking experience with ice, Newby took from his pack a book on technical climbing and followed its instructions on chopping steps—“there was nothing else to do,” Newby wrote—“It was far harder work than I had imagined . . .”
The radio this evening forecast that we would have our first snow flurries tonight on the hills and valleys of eastern Washington. I’d like to reread Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Perhaps tonight’s snow will be deeper and longer than expected. It’s a short walk to my wood pile, and a day before the fireplace with tea and the great pleasure of Newby’s story-telling would be welcome.
Leaves of ninebark are curling. I stop for one of the shrubs where a sheet of light lies across its top. The forest is well shaded. There is a ridge just above me to the south. The ridge has ponderosa pine, and what light I have comes as beads between the branches and trunks of the trees. That’s the light that lies on the ninebark’s leaves.
Fall light is odd. It is richly blue, and the backlit ninebark has a blue glow. It is sallow, too; but its yellow is soft. The yellow offers a simulacrum of life in the intercostal spans between the ochre veins of the papery leaves. The yellow light gives what green remains the wisp of old memories.
That’s fall light. It falls like backlight, the light of memory. Blue and yellowing.