Mar 05 2013

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This blog has moved!  See new posts (and old ones) at

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Feb 11 2013

Are trees always good?

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Scientific American has just written about the research on mountain meadows of OSU’s Harold Zald.  Harold was one of the featured participants in Alpine Environment workshop I organized last month.

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Sep 22 2012

Sendak and Hoban

Filed under History

Within the past year, two of my favorite authors died, Maurice Sendak and Russell Hoban.  Sendak was undoubtedly the better known, author of picture books such as the wonderful Where the Wild Things Are and my favorite, In the Night Kitchen, as well as an illustrator of many more books.  Hoban also wrote children’s books, the wry and gentle series about Frances the Badger (mainly illustrated by the inimitable Garth Williams, who created Charlotte the spider).  He wrote adult novels as well, which I have not read, and the extraordinary Riddley Walker.

            Riddley Walker (1980) is a post-apocalytic story about a twelve-year-old boy who has the power to interpret myth – to riddle.  He lives in southeast England some centuries after a nuclear war has ended Western civilization.  Odd remnants of it remain in the form of a legend known as the Eusa story and in a traveling Punch and Judy show that serves as what government there is in the rough settlements of what used to be Kent.  All of this sounds strange, and it is; but what makes this novel extraordinary is its use of language.  When civilization collapsed, so did language.  Riddley speaks and writes a phonetic, garbled patois.  Hoban’s imagining of this shattered language gives this novel its power.  I recently read Cloud Atlas and its central post-apocalyptic story is also written in its own half-collapsed language.

Like Hoban, Sendak dealt with myths and half-remembered fears.  His books all have that quality of dreams which bend and distort reality.  Max sails for a year and a day, and Mickey falls through the floor (and out of his clothes) into the kitchen.  Goblins steal babies (I found Outside over There too dark to read to my toddlers).  He too played with language, slipping in and out of meaning as his images slipped between waking and dreaming.

To Sendak, technology is toy-like and playful: Max’s boat could be folded of paper, and Mickey’s airplane is made of bread dough.  Technology is much more ominous to Riddley Walker.  As in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (written two decades earlier), the remnants of techno-civilization are mysterious and awe-inspiring.  Riddley marvels at the remains of a power plant in Cambry (Canterbury).  But the awe elides to a pervasive sense of loss, as Riddley recognizes how much knowledge has disappeared.  No one knows how any of this might have worked.  Many seek the secret of the Little Shyning Man the Attom.

When Riddley finds a stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral dedicated to St. Eustace, this myth mingles with the Eusa story.  Hoban explores history and language, how our stories develop and change over time, and how we need stories to tell ourselves.  Like Max and Mickey, Riddley reaches deeply into the half-slumbering core of ourselves to find what meaning he can.


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Sep 22 2012

um, I think you got the wrong Colbert …

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…although I’m sure Charles would have loved to have met Claudette

Charles Perrault

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Aug 31 2012

Interview with Stephanie Hersh

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A recent interview with Stephanie Hersh appeared here.  Stephanie was Julia Child’s assistant for sixteen years.  I took a pastry course with her at Santa Barbara City College in 2003; she moved to New Zealand shortly after Julia Child’s death the following year.  She is both a trained chef and a food scholar, and a wonderful teacher.

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Aug 27 2012

Knowing the eighteenth century

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I wrote this fifteen years ago, when I had just finished my book on the Scottish diet doctor George Cheyne.  I still agree with what it says, so I thought it was worth posting.

How about the historian’s knowledge?  How do we know what we know?  Is it all just texts?  Well, of course it’s all just texts – we deal with the written word, and little else.  I thought about this a lot when I was writing my book on George Cheyne.  How could I expect to get a handle on the life of an 18th century Scottish physician?  I have always been bemused by the fact that Cheyne and I are physical opposites: he was huge, tall and over 400 pounds; I am not.  I have always loved detective novels, and doing history is in some ways like solving a puzzle – except the pieces are scattered all over the place.  In Cheyne’s case, I put together what he said publicly with what he said privately in correspondence.  With that went what other people thought of him, publicly and privately.  On top of that I looked at his setting – what was happening around him, the political and cultural milieu.  I looked at his material circumstances, which I became very conscious of when writing for the Oxford DNB and looking at numerous wills.  On the basis of all this, I came to some conclusions about what Cheyne was like, what he believed, and what it was like to live his life.  Of course I could be all wrong, but that’s why history is an ongoing enterprise; it’s never finished.  When I was in college I read Quentin Skinner’s essay on meaning and understanding in the history of ideas, and it made a deep impression on me.  He argued that the text could not be separated from its context, that you had to have both to understand an idea.   I could worry forever about the Russian doll of the reader reading the read text and what it means, if anything.  I would rather assume that the writer (who in the 18th century, I think, was not as self-conscious as most writers today, except for Sterne) meant something and that maybe I can find out what that something is.  It is true that I will never really “know” the eighteenth century, I will only know it from the twentieth.  Since time travel is not yet a viable possibility, I guess that will have to do.



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Aug 12 2012

Anatomy vs natural history?

Filed under Anatomy,Animals,History

“…Anatomy… differs essentially from natural history. ….natural history dwells upon forms, upon the exterior qualities of bodies, and is restricted, in whatever guise, to skimming their surfaces. Anatomy goes further: it penetrates bodies, divides them, isolates the parts of which they are composed, and seeks to lift the veil hiding the secret of their organization.”
Francesco Atommarchi, 1826A jar of moles

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Jun 14 2012

Maybe I’ve read too many student papers

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May 18 2012

Evolutionary History

Filed under Environment,History

I was one of several contributors to the H-Environment Roundtable on Edmund Russell’s book Evolutionary History. You can see the entire roundtable discussion here.

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Apr 30 2012

Of Books and Google Books

In the summer of 1979, I helped to proofread Never at Rest, the biography of Isaac Newton by my graduate advisor Sam Westfall.  Being the meticulous scholar he was (a trait I hope he conveyed to me), he also had me check all of his footnotes.  I marveled at the number of archives and libraries he had visited in his quest to see everything Newton wrote; only an obscure library in Geneva had denied him access, and in his preface he “wished them the joy of their possession.”  I can hear Sam’s inimitable voice in those words, not that I ever dared to call him Sam until I was safely a Ph.D.  That same summer I worked at the Lilly Library at Indiana as a receptionist, a job I held through graduate school.  I learned most of what I know about rare books from Josiah Quincy Bennett, the Lilly’s legendary rare book cataloguer.

In my own research over the past thirty years I’ve visited my share of libraries and archives.  But increasingly over the past few years, I’ve also gone to Gallica or Google Books or EEBO or ECCO and downloaded what now number hundreds of PDFs onto my laptop.  Were I still working on Newtonian matters, I could go to Rob Iliffe’s or Bill Newman‘s excellent websites and read Newton’s manuscripts online.  I love Tim Hitchcock’s Old Bailey website.  I can read the minutes of the Paris Academy of Sciences in my study in Corvallis, Oregon with my cat in my lap and no jet lag.  I can find that stray page number within a few minutes.  In one of her books, Natalie Davis thanked a library’s staff for staying open late on a Saturday night so she could squeeze out that last bit of research, and as a parent whose research has often taken place in manic slots of a few days, I find it unimaginably luxurious to have access to so much that was previously locked up far away.

And yet there is something lost in depending on digital copies for my primary sources, and I don’t just mean access to restaurants in Paris.  I’ve talked elsewhere about what I see as the limits of “culturomics,” the Google n-gram tool. Culturomics sees books as simply units of text, bricks in an edifice of words.  My time at the Lilly made me very conscious of the book as an object and an artifact.  Recently Gallica digitized the Paris Academy’s 1671 Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux.  I have been reading this book for the past decade, in at least four different libraries.  I am thrilled to have it so easily accessible.  But on the screen, the physical presence of “le grand livre” (as the librarians called it who hauled it out for me in Salle Y at the Bibliothèque nationale) is completely lost.  It’s an elephant folio, over two feet high, almost too big to fit in a book cradle.  Most of the copies that I have seen have been bound in red morocco with gold tooling at the corners and Louis XIV’s  fleur-de-lis in the center of the cover.  At the British Library in the summer of 2010 I looked at five copies, all different, including Hans Sloane’s own copy, which was bound in blue cloth.  I propped them up side by side on giant book rests, monopolizing two desks in the crowded rare books reading room.

Of course all books don’t have such presence, but recent studies of reading and note taking should remind us that reading and writing in the pre-digital age were deliberate acts that involved a number of physical objects, sometimes now referred to as “paper technologies”:   loose sheets, notebooks, ink, pens, books, presses, engravers, later perhaps typewriters and carbon paper.  The differences between a broadside and a textbook are not simply in the number of pages but in the quality of the paper, the typeface, the size, even the shape, none of which is conveyed very well by a digital copy.   Likewise a manuscript is not only the words on the page but the page itself.

My second concern, one that I find ample evidence to confirm in my students, is that if a book is not digitized it ceases to exist.   I fear the increasing loss of the physical book to the electronic copy as library budgets continue to contract; we already can see the wholesale unloading of periodical collections.  Wide scale digitization would, it seems, make a project like Never at Rest much easier to do.  But I wonder if in fact the opposite might be true, and that by trusting in the digital we increasingly overlook that other world of print and paper, diminishing our range of vision rather than expanding it.

Perhaps my concerns are unfounded, and I’m not going to delete all those PDFs from my laptop.  But I still go to libraries and archives as often as I can.

This essay also appeared in the April issue of the History of Science Society Newsletter.

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