Thursday, February 27, 2014

John Bradshaw: Cat Sense

John Bradshaw
Cat Sense
Basic Books, NY

This is one of the best books I've read on cats.  Bradshaw is the Foundation Director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of  Bristol.  He is also the author of an earlier best selling work, Dog Sense, in which he does for dogs what he does here for cats.

He provides what little is known about the cat's early history, its likely ancestors, and its incorporation into human society, such as it is.  Little really is known about the cat's early involvement with humans since it never really was taken over as was the dog.  The cat's first encounter with humans was probably when humans noticed that cats provided a defense against rodent raiders of their storage facilities for grain.  Since agriculture was developed relatively recently, the cat's involvement with humans began much later than the dog's involvement.

However, this initial contact required nothing from humans except to allow the cats access to the surrounding area and, no doubt, the facilities themselves.  Nobody had to train the cat to hunt rodents, whereas dogs require training by humans to accomplish their numerous tasks which therefore brought about considerable interaction between the dog and humans.  In fact, Bradshaw argues that cats are not yet fully domesticated to the same extent as dogs, cows, sheep, etc.

Bradshaw also provides information about the physiology and the psychology of the cat, which he says is incomplete at present because while dogs have been studied for many decades, it's only recently that researchers have decided to take a closer look at the cat.

He has an interesting chapter on the way cats perceive the world.  While they have the same senses--vision, hearing, smell, etc.--these are not identical to human senses.  For example, cats' hearing has a higher range than human hearing, such that cats can hear bats' echo ranging cries which humans cannot detect.  This may explain why my cat at night sometimes acts as though she hears something which I am unable to detect.  As most people, I suspect, already know, the cat's vision is superior to humans at night, but human vision is superior during the day.  Humans who have a cat's color vision capabilities would be considered as suffering from red-green color blindness.

Other chapters focus on the social relationships of cats, both with humans and other cats.  While cats are perceived as loners as far as other cats are concerned, this is not strictly accurate.  Recent studies have shown that cats can gather together in groupings which are often comprised of mothers with daughters and grandchildren, and some males.  Males, though, tend to be the loners. 

Cats do not normally accept humans, but instead they must have contact with humans during the first two or three months of life.  Cats who are never handled by humans within the first three months generally never form any sort of relationship with humans, even if captured later and attempts are made to gentle it.  Kittens on the other hand are very tolerant of other critters, which is why we see photos of kittens snuggling up to a variety of feathered and furred beings, including featherless and furless bipeds.

There are also chapters on the cat's personality as well as its relationship to wildlife.  Bradshaw ends with a chapter in which he discusses what he sees will be necessary changes in cat behavior if it is to  
continue as the most popular pet today. 

Highly recommended for those who want to learn more about the cat.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and some like-minded poets


Hundred-foot trees produced by Heaven
get sawed into giant planks
unfortunate building timber
gets left in a hidden valley
its heart stays strong despite the years
its bark falls off day after day
if some astute person took it away
it still could prop up a stable

-- Han-Shan (9th century?) --
from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
trans and edited by Red Pine

"Kwang-tsze was walking on a mountain, when he saw a great tree with huge branches and luxuriant foliage. A wood-cutter was resting by its side, but he would not touch it, and, when asked the reason, said, that it was of no use for anything, Kwang-tsze then said to his disciples, 'This tree, because its wood is good for nothing, will succeed in living out its natural term of years.'"
-- ChangTzu --

Han Shan refers to the "unfortunate" building timber left behind. It should have been chopped down and turned into something useful for humans.  Why?  Is a tree's only value that of being useful to humans?  Doesn't the tree have value in being a tree?

ChangTzu is a legendary Taoist sage, second probably only to LaoTzu in his importance in the Taoist ethical system.  He seems to think differently about the tree.  Since it was fortunately not useful to humanity,  it is able to live "out its natural term of years."

Is that what's important about the plants and animals that precariously share this planet with us?  If they are not useful, then they have no value in themselves. It seems to me that in this immense universe, there may be other life forms, but chances are that life forms found on this planet are unique and unlikely to be found anywhere else, just as life forms found on other planets will also be unique and one-of-a-kind.  Moreover, it seems unlikely that we will find any life forms in our own solar system; again, if some are found, they will not be similar to those of earth.  Again, that points out the significance of life in all its variety found here on earth: it is important in itself and this is far more meaningful than merely being useful to us.  If humans are of value in themselves, then I would argue so are those life forms we share this planet with.

This, however, is a side issue from the original theme of this post, which is a lament, in a sense, for those beauties that blossom unseen or dwelt in untrodden ways, or at least so I thought it was.  Now.  .  .I don't know.

The Wild Honey Suckle

Fair flower, that dost so comely grow,
Hid in this silent, dull retreat,
Untouched thy honeyed blossoms blow,
Unseen thy little branches greet:
    No roving foot shall crush thee here,
    No busy hand provoke a tear.

By Nature's self in white arrayed,
She thee shun the vulgar eye,
And planted here the guardian shade,
And sent soft waters murmuring by:
    Thus quietly thy summer goes,
    Thy days declining to repose.

Smit with these charms, that must decay,
I grieve to see your future doom;
They died--nor were those flowers more gay,
The flowers that did in Eden bloom;
    Unpitying frosts, and Autumn's power
    Shall leave no vestige of this flower.

From morning suns and evening dews
At first thy little being came:
If nothing once, you nothing lose,
For when you die you are the same;
     The space between, is but an hour,
     The frail duration of a flower.

-- Philip Freneau  (1752-1832) --
from The Norton Anthology of American Literature

I think that Freneau in the first three stanzas stays with the flower, but read that last stanza again--

From morning suns and evening dews
At first thy little being came:
If nothing once, you nothing lose,
For when you die you are the same;
     The space between, is but an hour,
     The frail duration of a flower.

--especially the last four lines.  From the Rubaiyat, 1st edition, Quatrain XLVII--

    "Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be--Nothing--Thou shalt not be less."

The following is a stanza from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."  It also talks about beauties that blush unseen and "waste its sweetness on the desert air." These unfortunate flowers "waste" their sweetness because there's no human around to appreciate it.  From what I understand, flowers did not develop their odors to benefit humans but to attract pollinator which would help to insure the next generation of these flowers.  It's attractiveness to humans is secondary and, frankly, unimportant to the flower.  It has its own agenda, which doesn't include humans.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

-- Thomas Gray (1716-1771) --
from Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

We move now to a human who lives in an isolated area.  She too is ignored by all except for the poet.  And she, too, must die, unknown by all, and missed only by the poet, an unfortunate circumstance.  I wonder if the poet ever thought to ask Lucy how she viewed her situation. 

She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
     Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise
     And very few to love;

A violet by a mossy stone,
    Half hidden from the eye,
-- Fair as a star, when only one
    Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
    When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
    The difference to me!

-- William Wordsworth  (1770-1858) --   

I began this simply by reading a poem by Han Shan, a ninth century Chinese poet,  and then remembering poems with similar themes by two English poets and a US poet from the 18th and 19th centuries, over a thousand years later.  But then, something else struck me, and I think I've wandered off from my original thought.  I think I shall come back to this point again. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Langston Hughes: two poems

Empty House

It was in the empty house
That I came to dwell
And in the empty house
I found an empty hell.

Why is it that an empty house
Untouched by human strife
Can hold more woe
Than the wide world holds,
More pain than a cutting knife?

Is he really talking about an empty house?  What is "an empty hell"?   How could it be empty if it was filled with woe and pain?

Minstrel Man

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter 
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter,
You do not hear
My inner cry?
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know
I die?

 -- Langston Hughes --
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

I think "Minstrel Mancould have been included in a previous post of mine, Congruence (Jan. 29, 2014).   On the other hand, it also shares the idea of hidden grief with another powerful poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, "We wear the mask."  This is the last stanza (the complete poem is posted on June 27, 2009).

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
- Paul Laurence Dunbar -

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Loren Eiseley: In the Tales to Come

In The Tales To Come

"I have met the echo people, coyotes,
once in my youth, deep in a badland canyon, coming
upon them unaware.  They vanished
before I could speak.  Esahcawata, Old-man-coyote's people
quick of foot, hunted by all, surviving
traps and poison bait, surviving
where the great wolves have vanished, admirable
tricksters in an endless war.  I would have spoken
peace, but my kind know it not.  They did well
not to trust me--the trap-shy scurriers at midnight.
Their songs are few now.  They live by the thoughts
of Esahcawata and no other thinking is
                                             possible for them.
Their songs echo the wind.  They are echo people
                                                                      but all
under the sky  are echoers and the millennia listen
                                                        and are silent.
It will be so with us.  I have remembered
all my life how fast they scampered.  We the laughers
do not understand fear because of our numbers
                                                and when we vanish
no one will tell stories about our cleverness, the night wind
will not long echo laughter for Old-man, the trickster
married the whirlwind and myth will have us
as part of the singular spinning of a dust-devil
on a dry prairie.  They are the echoers, we
a jumble  of leaves and dust
quickly gone by.  Lovers of form we will be formless
in the tales to come."

-- Loren Eiseley --
from Another Kind of Autumn

 Eiseley's poem, I think, can be seen as prophetic--a prophecy of the differing fates of the coyote and humanity.  The coyote will be remembered because it is part of the natural world.  In spite of all we can do, the coyote is flourishing, in spite of  "traps and poison bait" or hunters with guns, be they on foot or on horseback or in a helicopter.  According to the Nationale Geographic article,  "These members of the dog family once lived primarily in open prairies and deserts, but now roam the continent's forests and mountains. They have even colonized cities like Los Angeles, and are now found over most of North America. Coyote populations are likely at an all-time high."

Humanity can claim credit for this for it is likely that wiping out large predators, such as the wolf and large cats, allowed the coyote to move into the vacancy thus created.

The poet surmises that in the future the coyote's call will be echoed long after the coyote has disappeared (I suspect that the coyote will outlive humanity if it can avoid being completely exterminated by civilized humans).  On the other hand, humanity is busily working on cutting its link with the natural world (destroying the natural world might be more accurate) and eventually will live in a digital, virtual world, electronic bits of 0s and 1s.   Humanity is like a dust devil which appears suddenly, rushes about with great energy, causing disruption where it goes, and then just as suddenly disappears, leaving no sign of its passing.

"They are the echoers, we
a jumble  of leaves and dust
quickly gone by.  Lovers of form we will be formless
in the tales to come."

Friday, February 7, 2014

Some great books I read in 2013

As I had mentioned in my previous post, I lost considerable information regarding books I had read.  This will therefore be a partial list of some interesting books I had read during 2013 and some I might read again.

Nevada Barr: Track of the Cat
This is actually the second book I had read by Nevada Barr.  The first was The Rope, the prequel that was published in 2013, which I read for a f-2-f mystery group.  It wasn't bad, just highly improbable I thought,  but other members assured me that many of her other works were much better.  So, I grabbed this one which had been the first in the series.  I found it to be a much more enjoyable read and consequently I will go on to read others in the series.  I also found that being familiar with the park the book is set in just adds to the fun.

Harry Beston: The Outermost House
This is from my post last year about this book: "Beston had had a cabin built on Cape Cod, not far from the Atlantic shore of the peninsula.  In September of 1924 he went to the cabin, planning on spending only a few weeks there.   Instead he found himself reluctant to leave.  His two-week stay eventually lasted a full year, in which he took copious notes about the seasonal changes occurring there to the beach, the weather, and the birds, plants, and animals that were his neighbors.  The Outermost House is the result of that unplanned year on Cape Cod."   This was my second reading of The Outermost House, and I doubt very much that it will be the last.

Giles Blunt:  Until the Night
Until the Night is the sixth in the Canadian police procedurals in his series featuring Detective John Cardinal.  It's hard to find Blunt now in the US, so I have to check his website and hit the internet to buy his books.  Blunt is one of those few whose books I always buy, if I can't get them in the library.  He does include some issues that involve Cardinal away from his job, but he doesn't let them intrude into the main flow of the work, which is a police procedural.  His plots tend to be complex.  Occasionally we are told the identity of the killer(s) early on, and the focus is then on Cardinal and his fellow officers' attempt to solve the crime and the killers who are trying to remain hidden.  If we don't know who the killer is, then the plots are complex, and I don't remember guessing correctly until later on near the end. 

Joseph Conrad:  The Secret Agent  
Contrary to many of Conrad's earlier works, The Secret Agent is set in London England.  A foreign government, which appears to be Russia, attempts to influence the English government to rescind its policy of being a safe haven for those suspected of terrorist acts against other governments. One of the foreign government's tactics is the use of an agent provocateur to encourage the terrorists to become active in England and thereby eliminate England's tolerance of them.  Verloc is one of those employed by the foreign governments, but they are unaware that he is a double agent, for he is spying on the local anarchist group for the London Police.  It all goes wrong when he is persuaded to blow up the Greenwich Observatory.  (The novel is based on a true incident.)

Joseph Conrad: Mirror of the Sea
One of two autobiographical memoirs by Conrad that relates to his years as a seaman, officer, and captain.  He talks of various ports, captains, storms, and perils of the sea.  In Conrad's own words, "I have attempt here. . . to lay bare with the unreserve of a last hour's confession the terms of my relation with the sea, which beginning mysteriously, like any great passion the inscrutable Gods send to mortals, went on unreasoning and invincible, surviving the test of disillusion, defying the disenchantment that lurks in every day of a strenuous life;  went on full of love's delight and lover's anguish, facing them in open-eyed exultation without bitterness and without repining, from the first hour to the last."  He writes for us landlubbers, with little technical terminology.  It's an eye-opener from a seaman's point of view.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky:  The Demons or The Devils (aka The Possessed)
This novel is Dostoyevsky's satire of  various political ideologies and specifically of Turgenev's earlier novel Fathers and Sons.  Turgenev is satirized by Dostoyevsky in the character of the writer Karmazinov, who attempts to win the favor of  the Russian Western/European-leaning social critics.  The novel, published in 1872, is almost prophetic as it depicts the revolutionaries as favoring the use of terror to cow the population and the creation of three person cells to protect themselves from government infiltrators.  The contrast of conflicting ideologies of social democracy and radical totalitarianism is depicted in the differences between Stepan Verkhovensky, the idealistic social democratic reformer, and his son Pyotr Verkhovensky, the nihilist terrorist (the descendents of the social reformers), and therefore Dostoyevsky's version of Fathers and Sons.   

Karin Fossum: The Caller
A disturbed boy plays mischevious and sometimes malicious tricks on his neighbors.  For example, he sneaks into a neighbor's house and spills blood on a sleeping infant.  The parents, of course, are panic-stricken until they learn it was a hoax.  Now, they are angry.  The boy commits a number of these acts as a self-appointed messenger attempting to disturb their complacency. However,  some of his victims are determined not to let it pass, once his identity is known.  This is where Inspector Sejer gets involved.  Again, a great novel from a author whose works I get without even thinking about it. It's automatic.

Hermann Hesse:  Magister Ludi
Hesse, who, in his previous novels, argued for the superiority of the  spirit, the mind, the intellect, creates a small province in which certain inhabitants are able to live the life of the mind, the intellect, without concern for the necessity of earning a living.  They are supported by a government subsidy and the only requirement is that they provide teachers for the rest of the country.  But, here in what should have been the Eden that characters in his previous novels had searched for, Hesse turns his back on his previous beliefs and argues that the life of the intellect must be meshed with the material world, the world of striving and getting, of achieving and earning, and of greed and power. 

Drew Magary:   The Postmortal
The following is from my post last year about The Postmortal:   "Drew Magary's  The Postmortal is probably the best SF novel that explores the theme of an extended life span that I've read in decades, if not ever.  It attempts to realistically depict the effects of the development of an anti-aging medical treatment on society.   A researcher accidentally discovers a gene that controls aging and eventually comes up with a treatment that shuts down the gene.  Those given the cure (as it is popularly known) immediately stop aging and remain at whatever physical state they were in when given the treatment.  It is not immortality.  They can still die from accidents, disease, etc., but they will remain physically the same for an unknown length of time.  I read it twice last year and will read it again.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.:    A Canticle for Leibowitz
This is another reread and one of my favorite post-holocaust novels. It is really three novellas, which focus on a religious order of monks who initially were followers of Leibowitz, a scientist.  Leibowitz gave his followers the task of preserving whatever scientific knowledge they could find. Like the monks of the Middle Ages, they spent their lives copying out whatever written materials they could find. The three novellas take place several hundred years apart, going from a subsistence level of existence in the first part, to a society that is now rich enough to permit some of its members to do something other than bring in food in the second section, to a society that has developed science once again to the point that they now have nuclear weapons.

Leo Tolstoy:   Anna Karenina
A very complex telling of an adulterous relationshipA: the initial stages, the emergence of the relationship into the open, and the gradual disintegration resulting from the characters of the two people,  and the effect on them of the responses of the people about them.  This is my third reading, and it well repays the time spent.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Kenko: inevitable change

No. 26
"When I recall the months and years I spent as the intimate of someone whose affections have now faded like cherry blossoms scattering even before a wind blew, I still remember every word of hers that once so moved me; and when I realize that she, as happens in such cases, is steadily slipping away from my world, I feel a sadness greater even than that of a separation from the dead.  That is why, I am sure, a man once grieved that white thread should be dyed in different colors, and why another lamented that roads inevitably fork.  Among the hundred verses presented to the Retired Emperor Horikawa one runs:

mukashi mishi                                           The fence round her house,
imo ga kakine wa                                      The woman I loved long ago,
arenikeri                                                     Is ravaged and fallen;
tsubana majiri no                                       Only violets remain
sumire no mi shite                                     Mingled with the spring weeds.

What a lovely picture--the poem must describe something that really occurred."

-- Kenko --
Essays in Idleness
trans. Donald Keene

When I first began reading this essay, I thought it was a traditional essay about a loved one who no longer loved him.  That is there, of course, but as I read further, it seemed as though something else was going on.  He mentioned several examples that didn't seem to fit:  his grief that is stronger than if she had died, the white thread that is dyed, and the road that must "inevitably fork." And the poem, just how strong are the references to his lost love?

The underlying theme, I think, is that of the inevitability of change.  The following quotation is a note provided by Keene to the references to the silk thread and the road:

"The passage comes from the Huai-an Tzu:  'Yang-tzu saw a forked road and grieved that ti would branch south and north.  Mo-Tzu saw raw silk and wept at the thought the some would be dyed yellow and some black.  Kao Yu said, "They were sad because what originally had been the same would now be different."'" 

Those which at one time were similar now change and become different. Nothing is permanent; all must change and become other than they were.  He feels a greater sadness now than if the separation happened because of death.  This seems strange unless this drifting apart was just one example of a greater issue--that all things change and that which had been similar now becomes dissimilar.   The poem contained in the essay speaks more, I think, of the change of the house and grounds than of his lost love.

In a past essay, Kenko had said that everything in the past was better.  This again, I see, as a lament against the fundamental law of this world--all things change--which is the main point here, I think.