Conserving our self-image

I like birds, as you may notice if you read much around here. I find them fascinating. I’m alternately amazed by and fearful for the complexity of habitats and migratory patterns; I worry about the impact on them of things like wind farms and urban lighting and even overzealous tree-pruning. The brown-headed nuthatch may not be most people’s idea of charismatic megafauna, but I like them.

brown-headed nuthatch
Photo by Anne Davis licensed Creative Commons.

So, not surprisingly, among the many other emails I get from the many other subscriptions I’ve long since come to regret, I get emails now and then about bird science and bird conservation.

This morning I got an email from the Audubon Society with the subject “Preserving America’s Conservation Legacy.” Note the wording: not “conserving America’s natural places” or its natural beauty or natural heritage or even preserving conservation itself but preserving our conservation legacy. Not about protecting birds, but about our proud history of protecting birds, which is not quite the same thing. Continue reading “Conserving our self-image”

The specificity of good wishes

I ran across this quotation this morning, with which I’d like to agree if it didn’t irritate me so much:

…When a festival goes as it should, men receive something that is not in human power to give. This is the by now almost forgotten reason for the age-old custom of wishing one another well on great festivals. What are we really wishing our fellow men when we send them ‘best wishes for Christmas’? Health, enjoyment of each other’s company, thriving children, success—all these things, too, of course. We may even—why not?—be wishing them a good appetite for the holiday meal. But the real thing we are wishing is the ‘success’ of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth. Nowadays, to be sure, all this can barely be sensed behind the trite formula: ‘Happy Holidays.’

Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (St. Augustine’s Press)

I haven’t read the book from which the passage is taken and know almost nothing of Josef Pieper, so my criticism may be less of the author than of the person who quoted him, but the jab against “Happy Holidays” seems a tad overwrought — as if a two-word cliché constituted a magic formula for the bestowal of divine grace, or were meant to be. And it fits far neatly into a certain kind of good-old-days thinking that I will admit I find tiresome. Back in the days when people wished a Merry Christmas to strangers over a store counter — say, a quarter century before Pieper wrote this in in 1999, which is just about the earliest reach of my memory — did they really have all that in mind? Renewal, transformation, rebirth? I wouldn’t venture to give people quite that much credit, even when the store counter was replaced by a folding table at my small-town church bazaar, even when they might have had the necessary theological grounding. Certainly it’s possible to pack all that meaning into “Merry Christmas,” and perhaps that’s what people ought to have meant, but I don’t believe they’d thought it through quite so carefully.

Then again, the possibility of meaning is not something to be lightly dismissed. Continue reading “The specificity of good wishes”

A loss for words

This week I had to deal, second-hand, with someone deeply, personally, angrily offended by the indiscriminate use of vulgar language — not mine, and the circumstances really aren’t all that interesting, but it got me thinking in a meandering sort of way about why someone might or might not reasonably be offended by vulgar and obscene language. There are far more important things to be offended by (poverty, homelessness, random violence, endless war, greed, hatred, sex trafficking, the casual abstraction of human beings for profit, pleasure, politics and convenience), and language formerly known as “bad” is so ubiquitous that I’m not sure where anyone would escape it long enough to remain offended by it.

And yet, on reflection, I decided that that is precisely the problem: that words meant to be extreme are ubiquitous — and as a consequence it becomes more difficult to express ideas that really are extreme, even really important and good ones. I’m not arguing against any word or words, or even against “strong language” that transgresses the limits of what’s allowable in polite society. What bothers me the more I consider it is the normalization of that transgression. It seems to me a problem for two reasons. First, which ought to be fairly obvious, without some common ground of language strangers can’t safely have a conversation without fear of giving or taking offense. But second, and to me more interestingly, because normalizing transgression makes transgression impossible. If “strong language” becomes conversationally standard, there’s no way to express strong feelings. There is now no longer a word capable of expressing the sort of outrage that certain choice words once could.

Take a safely literary example: Victor Hugo’s retelling of the Battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. As the day wanes and the tide turns inexorably against the French a legion under the command of “an obscure officer whose name was Cambronne” sees the end nigh but will give up neither the field nor the Empire: Continue reading “A loss for words”

Lost in translation

I promised myself I wouldn’t buy a painting at Centerfest. I would just stroll through for a couple of hours, enjoy the art, maybe get a funnel cake. But I wasn’t going to spend any real money. Nope, no sir. Saving that money.

So, of course, I bought a painting. Watercolor and ink in a traditional Chinese style, two birds perched in a scarlet-blossoming tree while snow falls softly around them. Minimalist and very elegant, but there is something in the birds’ expressions that suggests that the one is enjoying the lovely snowfall while the other is pointedly irritated by the whole mess. I can ignore this and just enjoy the peaceful elegance of the piece, or I can wonder what the birds are thinking, and it’s a different story every time. Continue reading “Lost in translation”

Cheap poetry: A manifesto

Last Monday was my daughter’s birthday, and the Birthday Troll came again this year, in the night, to steal her presents, hide them in the woods, and leave riddles as clues to their whereabouts. He’s like Santa Claus for curmudgeons, and considerably more entertaining, not to mention one isn’t bound by the Byzantine mythology of popular culture and corporate marketing. The riddles are after the fashion of old English rhyming riddles, like the ones Bilbo Baggins traded with Gollum in the slimy dark under the Misty Mountains, and so I spend half of August looking at the stuff in my yard and woods through the eyes of a grumpy itinerant poet with a twisted sense of humor1 and trying to find metaphor, simile, pun, any sort of literary device to obfuscate the quotidian.2 Continue reading “Cheap poetry: A manifesto”

  1. As opposed to my usual eyes. I admit it isn’t much of a stretch.
  2. “Obfuscate the quotidian” being an example of the thing to which it refers. Is there a term for that? It’s like onomatopoeia, only different.