Wednesday, August 28, 2019


My ears perk up a bit when a somewhat familiar word pops up in different contexts over the course of a few days. "Linden" came up in a crossword puzzle--not uncommon--and then I noticed it coming up several time in the book I'm currently reading, The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Not really a surprise there either, as its a book pretty much devoted to trees. But then it came up in a Swedish folk song at a concert I was at the other night and I finally became curious enough to learn exactly what a linden is.

Bruce Martin, Morton Arboretum, Chicago
Let's start with a description from The Overstory:

Now the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree, as different from an oak as a woman is from a man. It's the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety--a tree that cannot be mistaken for any other, for alone in all the catalog of a hundred thousand earthly species, its flowers and tiny hard fruit hang down from surfboard bracts whose sole perverse purpose seems to be to state its own singularity.

It's quite possible that you are living near a linden tree and don't even know it. This is partly because, as Powers expresses many times in his book, humans in general don't pay enough attention to the trees they live alongside of. I certainly don't, though maybe by the time I finish his long novel, I'll be a little better at it. But another reason is that 'linden' isn't the only name we know these trees under. In England, apparently, they are frequently referred to as lime trees, even though they aren't the trees that grow the citrus fruit we call limes. (Don't even get me started on what the name of the tree that grows limes is.) In America, they may also be called basswood. Or you might hear one described by the genus name, Tilia.

There are about thirty species in the Tilia family, but Wikipedia tells us that the leaves of all of them are heart shaped and tend to be irregular.

What really got me going in Powers' description though, were those 'surfboard bracts'. I couldn't quite visualize them. Turns out that the 'surfboard' is really another kind of leaf.

                              by Virens
The linden tree turns out to be too big a subject for one blog post, so I'm going to take it up again in a subsequent one. But I thought I'd leave you for now with that Swedish folk song I heard-- 'Maj Vare Valkommen' or 'May Be Welcome'.

The lyrics in English are HERE, but you can actually hear them mention the linden tree in the first verse. Although one of the translations I found referred to it as a lime...

Friday, July 26, 2019

A Cautionary Tale

Given all the news about released funding for the Wall, I thought I'd put up a very short story I wrote a couple of months ago. Regular broadcasting to resume shortly.

La Barrera
Mexico did end up paying for the wall. Looking back, it was inevitable. After only twenty years, the wall that the U.S. had finally managed to cobble together through a variety of governmental and not so governmental schemes had already begun to fall apart. Mexico had hoped to defray expenses by rehabilitating this structure, or at least salvaging some of its parts, but most of the wall had been put together with a truly inferior grade of concrete. The Mexican work force that demolished it enjoyed filming each other punching through the wall with their bare fists and laughing as they did it. Some cost cutting officials then looked into at least using the supporting structures within, but water had gotten in at many locations. The wood had rotted, the iron rusted. There was little they could do but just haul it all away.
For a brief period, Mexico considered returning to the whole open border concept again. There were people who still felt some compassion for U.S. citizens, reasoning that you couldn’t tar them all with the same brush. But there were a lot more who thought you could. Should. Kids in cages, after all. No one was going to forget that, much less forgive it.
The new wall, la barrera, the one Mexico had paid for, was gorgeous. Some parts were marble, and many famous Mexican muralists had contributed art to the less costly surfaces. It was popular for honeymooners to spend a few days traveling along its southern face, posing for photos with the various artworks. As part of the original design, viewing platforms (later enclosed in bulletproof plastic) had been installed at certain scenic lookout points. Gazing off into that once great country to the north—now known ironically as ‘Los Estados Who Need Us’—could be exhilarating. But at first, so many people were afraid to climb up to these ramparts, having heard such terrifying stories of los gringos by now, that the government launched a campaign to assure its citizens that it was quite safe to take a look from these secure positions. Gradually, people grew less fearful. Some even had the thrilling if petrifying experience of spotting wild bands of los gabachos scavenging in the desert. Everyone agreed that with a good camera you could catch some amazing shots of these brutes, even from such a distance.
For a time after the wall went up, U.S. citizens could sneak down across the border quite easily. Many of them still had good clothes that spoke of former affluence and, with the help of forged passports, could usually pass for Canadians. But as time went by, it became easier to pick them out. Their clothes were no longer new or in fashion, and los ilegales were thinner than other people. Their teeth, too, got steadily worse. For a while, some Mexican communities would turn a blind eye, because they had made a tidy profit on giving these people medical care in the past. The Americans’ own doctors, at least the more successful ones, had largely managed to flee to better climes, even if people had been able to afford them. To Mexico, it became obvious that the future now lay south of it, with younger and growing markets in newly affluent Centroamérica and even further south. Gradually, Mexican doctors stopped accepting American patients altogether. It just wasn’t worth the hassle or the risk of penalties and public censure if they were caught.
And in fact, they might have forgotten about the U.S. entirely in time, turning their backs on it and looking resolutely south, if it hadn’t been for Canada. The Canadians and Mexicans had become good friends, bonding in the way people often do when they share a disagreeable neighbor and have to work together to figure out what to do about it. Los Canadienses had eventually built their own border wall against the U.S. Even they admitted that it was more serviceable than aesthetically pleasing, but then, they’d had a lot more of it to build than Mexico had.
Canadians and Mexicans loved to visit each other’s lands, but what to do about the big no-fly zone in between? During the U.S. coup, insurrection and the following chaos, people had been justifiably afraid to fly over that great intervening landmass. They’d had to travel around it, which was time-consuming and irksome. Cruise lines had attempted to seize the opportunity to connect the two democracies, but it came as a nasty surprise how quickly the disbanded Coast Guard had turned to piracy—marauding their own former coastlines, to be sure, but happy enough to take a foreign tourist vessel as booty if one was foolish enough to cruise into these now ungoverned waters.
After a time, braver souls in single engine planes would risk a flyover. Occasionally there were shots fired from below, but not powerful enough to hit a plane at any great altitude. And soon enough, even the yahoos on the ground must have realized that they might need to save their ammunition for something a little more practical, like food. For by now the great agricultural holdings had withered away, due to lack of migrant labor for the harvest.
Cautiously, the major Mexican and Canadian airlines began to fly over the country again. At first people were genuinely curious, peering down and trying to see signs of its vaunted former greatness—but often failing to see any evidence of human life at all. Although now there was a wide variety of birds in vast flocks that the pilots had to be careful to maneuver around. And everyone agreed that the buffaloes were making a comeback. But after a time, even the children grew bored with peering out to look when there was actually so little to observe, and people pulled down the shades on the small plane windows, returning to their in-flight approved games and films, or otherwise passed the time until they reached their more exciting destinations.
                                                                    --Seana Graham

Monday, June 10, 2019


"Saltpeter" is a word  I mainly run across in crossword puzzles and, occasionally, older novels. It's hard for me to think of it as anything but some special kind of salt, but I associate it also with military expeditions. Maybe an explosive. In the puzzle I was doing this morning, its meaning was revealed to be "niter." Not too useful, since I don't know what niter is either. It's high time I found the answer to this mystery.

                                                                    image by Walkerma

"Saltpeter" (sometimes spelled saltpetre) and "niter" are just other names for potassium nitrate (KNO3.). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word saltpeter goes back through French to the Latin sal petrae, "salt of the rock," apparently because it looks like salt when it is encrusted on stone.

                              by Bobamnertiopsis

I was surprised to learn how many different ways we use this substance. According to Wikipedia, it's used in fireworks and rocket propellant, but it's also used in processed meats, extending shelf life and giving the meat a pink color. It's used to remove tree stumps. I'm not quite sure why it speeds decay when poured into a stump, but prolongs shelf life when processing meat, but that's what they tell me.

Turner Army Airfield Mess Hall, 1943
As I looked up the word, I came across many articles questioning whether saltpeter was put into army grub in order to dampen sexual desire in the new recruits. There is a fascinating article in Snopes that debunks this myth, while at the same time explaining why it is unlikely to die. Apparently it is quite common for soldiers attending boot camp to experience a dampening effect on their sexual desires. Rather than attribute it to some of the more logical reasons, like exhaustion and fear, the rumor that makes the rounds is that their meals have been doctored with saltpeter.

This need to believe that an outside force is deliberately working to keep things down fuels the saltpeter myth. Such a construct works to reassure the woodless recruit that there’s nothing wrong with him — it’s all the sneaky doings of those in charge. The myth is every bit as empowering as it is reassuring; it says “We are such rampantly virile men that those in command fear us and what we might do if left unchecked.” It thus works to build pride in the unit by helping to establish an internalized reputation for being such wild men that the group as a whole has to be drugged into docility if its commanders are to have any hope of keeping it under control.

So, although Snopes has fact checked this, as have others, such an ultimately comforting belief is not likely to succumb to the truth any time soon. 

Still another important use for saltpeter was in the manufacture of gunpowder, which was formed by mixing saltpeter with charcoal and sulfur. Much to my surprise, it turns out that gunpowder plays a key role in the history of Santa Cruz, California, the town I live in. According to Wikipedia, the West began to experience shortages of gunpowder after the Civil War led to the disruption of supply lines. So in 1861, California Powder Works was incorporated and became the first American explosive powder company west of the Mississippi. 

The powder works was about three miles up the San Lorenzo river from the city of Santa Cruz itself. But the mailing address on the poster here is a location not at all far from me here on the west side. Apparently they imported crude potassium nitrate from Chile and manufactured gunpowder from it here. (This gets a little confusing, as there is also something specifically called Chilean saltpeter, which is actually nitratine, or sodium nitrate. So I am not entirely sure which form of nitrate they were using, but it's still some form of saltpeter.) 

This company was here in the Santa Cruz area for fifty years, was a major employer and provided company housing and even a school for a time. But I'd never heard of it. Nor had I heard of the disaster at the Powder Works on April 26, 1898, when the town was rocked by a series of explosions that killed 13 men at the site and injured many more. (Although this was after the Powder Works had stopped making gunpowder from saltpeter and moved on to the smokeless powder common today.) 

California Powder Works eventually became a subsidiary of Dupont, which after the completion of the Panama Canal, ended operations in Santa Cruz and consolidated their business in New Jersey. There is not much evidence left of the old Powder Works, as the mills were dismantled and the mansions of the superintendents were razed in the thirties. But the California Powder Works covered bridge still stands, luckily maintained by the Masons, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2015. Maybe some day, I'll even manage to get up to Paradise Park to see it. (Although I think I might still have to ask the Masons for permission.) 

California Powder Works Bridge

Thursday, May 16, 2019


Sometimes you've heard a word in various contexts for a long time and, in the moment, you think you essentially understand it. It comes up  in another context, and once again, you think you've got it. The only problem is that the word seems to have very different, even opposite kinds of meanings in the two examples. If you're like me, you tend to just sort of scratch your head and then forget about it until it comes up somewhere else. But just this once, let's not forget about it and see what happens.

When Roger Stone was recently at the top of the news cycle, I heard him described several times as a gadfly. I assumed this to mean something like a self-aggrandizing person who always manages to insert himself into the conversation in an annoying way. I get the image of a fly buzzing around one's face.

But even with the most rudimentary look into the term, I discovered that there is a more famous gadfly--Socrates. And his role as a gadfly is viewed in a positive light. So what gives?

First, we have to go back to the original meaning of gadfly, in its non-metaphoric sense. It turns out that a gadfly is not a specific fly, it is a general category of fly. The Oxford Pocket Dictionary says that it is a fly that bites livestock, especially a horsefly, botfly or warble fly. Some bite to implant their larvae, others, like the female horsefly, do it to extract blood.

Horse Botfly, Wikipedia

However, when you dig into the etymology of the word, as you can do at the Online Etymology Dictionary, an interesting thing emerges. It seems that the "gad" of gadfly probably comes from the 13th century noun meaning a goad or a sharp-pointed stick used to drive oxen.

But it also appears to have become entangled with (the Etymology Dictionary's phrase, which I love) the verb '"gad," which, although it too goes back in a convoluted way to the pointed stick idea, has come to mean "to rove about." Hence the word "gadabout," meaning a person who wanders around restlessly or aimlessly, especially in the social sphere. It can also mean a traveler, a pleasure seeker. And my sense is that Roger Stone can be described as much by this meaning of 'gad' as he can be of the former.

Socrates at the Louvre

Now, Socrates is another matter. Here is the context in which Socrates described himself as a gadfly, according to Plato in his The Apology of Socrates in the Jowett translation.

I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God, and they will never have another, if they kill me. And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.

However, not everyone believes that 'gadfly' is the correct interpretation of the Greek here. In a paper by Laura Marshall called "Not a Gadfly: When a Crucial Reading Goes Wrong," she makes the case that Jowett's translation isn't the right one in this instance. She thinks that in this instance, the word μύωψ is more correctly translated as "spur."

When Xenophon uses the word μύωψ, it is in the context of training a sluggish horse to jump; this fits better with the pedagogical goals Socrates’ sees for the god in the Apology: the god is using Socrates to teach the Athenians, not merely to annoy them.

Let's wrap up our excursion into the world of gadflies by a little quote from a novel I discovered in the course of looking into all this, The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller, which is described as a New England prep school novel that is one part The Dead Poets' Society, one part Heathers. (I'd read it.) Here's the quote:

“Do you know what it took for Socrates’ enemies to make him stop pursuing the truth?”


Hemlock, or Conium Maculatum

Friday, March 2, 2018

Why ax?

I've often thought about why some people say "ax" instead of "ask", and I think I even began to research it for this blog at one point, but a friend just posted this to Facebook, and it goes so much further than I would have that I'm just going to post it.

Saturday, January 6, 2018


No, it's not a word you're going to run across much nowadays, but if you happen to be working your way through Gibbon's  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, you may be surprised at how much it comes up. I have a good enough grasp of the sense of it (in context) to know it means something like property or grounds or land, but I thought I should probably get a little clearer idea of it, because I suspect it's not the last time I'm going to run across it while reading this multivolume work.

Castletown House and demesne, County Kildare, Ireland

If you look up a word's definition on Google, you can also find a chart on its historical and current usage, and demesne's drop has been pretty steep over the years. (Gibbon published his work from 1776 to 1789, so the chart doesn't even quite cover his period.)  But the word does show up in other older works, so it's good to have a handle on it.

"Demesne", which is pronounced di-MAYN or di-MEEN, comes to English by the very standard route of Anglo-French (demesne or demeine) from Old French demaine, meaning 'land held for a lord's own use', which eventually leads us back to the Latin dominicus, "belonging to a lord or master", which stems from dominus "master", and domus, "house." I liked this uncharacteristically humorous explanation from the Online Etymology Dictionary, which explains that Anglo-French legal scribes changed the spelling under the influence of the Old French word mesnie, meaning household, "and their fondness for inserting -s- before -n-."

Medieval Manor--mustard color for demesne

"Demesne's" meaning has grown to be pretty broad. It still retains the sense of being an estate or part of an estate that is occupied and held by and worked for the exclusive use of its owner. It can simply be the land adjoining a manor house. But it can also mean the dominion or territory of a sovereign or state, or it can just mean a district or region.

Now, the funny thing is that the Online Etymology Dictionary ends up by telling us that "essentially", it's the same word as "domain." That's because after "demesne" made its way into England around 1300, the term came in again through Scotland, from Middle French domaine, though tracing back to the same Latin roots.

This got me to wondering what the French was for "domain name". Could it be nom de demesne? Unfortunately, though reasonably, it is simply 'nom de domaine'. At least they got back their beloved final -e-.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Guam-Part 2

I've been thinking about Guam again, not just because I had already planned to write more about it, but because of Puerto Rico. And I've been thinking about Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Irma. What Puerto Rico has in common with Guam, apart from being an island, is that both are unincorporated territories of the United States.

The Mariana Islands in a regional context

In my previous post, I visualized Guam as being a very small island out in the middle of nowhere. But this isn't really the right way to think about it. It's actually the southernmost island in a string of islands. Geographically, if not politically, it belongs  with the Northern Mariana Islands. They are all part of a submerged mountain range. According to Wikipedia, the northern ten islands are volcanic and are currently uninhabited, while the southern five are made of coralline limestone and are inhabited. But though once united culturally, history has divided Guam from the others.

Guam and the other Mariana Islands

In my last post, I had gotten to the point in history when Spain had colonized the islands, used Guam as a refueling site and reduced the native people to a fraction of their former size both through warfare and the inadvertent introduction of disease. But how did Guam end up becoming a U.S. unincorporated territory?

In an excellent article from the Smithsonian Magazine called "A Brief, 500-Year History of Guam", which  happened to come online on the same day that I was starting to look into Guam for my first post about it, Doug Herman describes the strange way in which Guam became separated politically from the other islands. The Spanish-American War was in full swing, but isolated Guam had no idea about that. As Herman tells it:

The Spanish troops and officials stationed in Guam were at first glad to have visitors when the USS Charleston arrived. They didn’t know that war had been declared between the two nations, and mistook their cannon fire for a salute. A peaceful transfer of power ensued.

U.S.S. Charleston in Manila Bay, 1898

But the Americans missed a trick in the 1898 Treaty of Paris because while solidifying their possession of Guam, they failed to ask for the other islands in Micronesia that Spain held in its portfolio. One account I read says that they just weren't all that aware of them, but a probably more accurate report  has it that America didn't want to appear too greedy, and knew that the German Kaiser was looking for prestige.So Spain sold the rest of their holdings to the Germans, including all the other Mariana Islands. Germany apparently ruled in a fairly relaxed fashion. But enter World War I. The Japanese were allied against the Germans in that war and captured all of Germany's colonial territory, continuing to rule the region for thirty years thereafter.

Apra Harbor at the U.S. Naval Base

Guam, however, underwent a different fate. In a poignant bit of Doug Herman's article, he tells us that after the U.S arrived, the leading families of the native Chamorro got together and set up a legislature, expecting to be forming a representative government like the rest of the U.S. But this was not what the American powers were thinking. Instead, they placed the island under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the U.S. Navy and basically treated the island as a military base. In his words, "Guam was run like a well-ordered battleship under what was essentially martial law." 

Apparently, the holding of territory involved the U.S. in some odd mental gymnastics. Again, from Herman:

In a series of Supreme Court rulings known as the Insular Cases of 1901, it was decided that new territories might never be incorporated into the union and were to receive only unspecified ‘‘fundamental’’ Constitutional protections. They were to be governed without the consent of the governed in a system that lacked the checks and balances that underlie the principle of limited government.

This would seem to be bad enough, but perhaps the real tragedy for Guam was that it ended up on the wrong side of the war, at least from its people's perspective. They suffered a different fate with the Japanese than their northern neighbors. From Herman:

While the bombing of Pearl Harbor still lives on in infamy in American memory, the bombing of Guam—four hours later—is virtually forgotten. In a brief but locally well-remembered air and sea attack, Japanese troops seized control of the small American colony and began an occupation that lasted three years. More than 13,000 American subjects suffered injury, forced labor, forced march or internment. A local priest, Father Jesus Baza Dueñas, was tortured and assassinated. At least 1,123 died. To America, they are forgotten.

And if all that wasn't bad enough, history had an extra terrible twist in store for them. Because according to Wikipedia, the Japanese brought down Chamorro people from the Northern Marianas to act as translators and in other capacities. And not under duress, because these people thought of themselves as on Japan's side. So, to this day there is bad feeling between these two groups of people, because the Guamians Chamorros felt they should have been treated with more compassion by the Northern Mariana Chamorros.

Herman cites a Chamorro scholar named Keith Camacho who points out that:

 in military narratives of World War II’s Pacific theater, Pacific Islanders play no central role. Instead, military historians tend to envision the Pacific Islands as “a tabula rasa on which to inscribe their histories of heroism and victimization,” forming “a body of discourse in which only Japanese and Americans constitute the agents of change and continuity in the region, erasing the agency and voice of indigenous peoples.”

Battle of Guam, 1944

As I began learning about Guam's northern sister islands, I thought, okay, the Germans don't rule the Marianas anymore, and the Japanese don't rule the Marianas anymore, so who governs them now?Naively, I thought that they had probably been granted their independence after the war.

But no. We, the United States, govern the Northern Marianas. But even though they are part of one island chain, they are governed as a separate entity than Guam. Guam is an unincorporated territory, while the Northern Marianas are a commonwealth, which makes their position more like Puerto Rico's, though I haven't been able to pin down exactly what the precise difference in governance is. 

Which brings me back to my initial associations here. As we watched Hurricane Irma roaring across the Caribbean, people didn't seem to be talking about the fact that as it lurched toward Puerto Rico, it was actually heading toward a part of the United States. We didn't have to wait till it hit the Florida Keys to be worried about American citizens. Yet in a poll taken as recently as earlier this year, 41 percent of people did not believe that Puerto Ricans were U.S. Citizens and another 15 percent weren't sure. This despite the fact that anyone born in Puerto Rico is automatically an American citizen, which has been true since 1940. If people don't know that Puerto Ricans are citizens, I am pretty sure that very few of them know that the Guamians are. And never mind about the Northern Mariana Islands.

But since I began thinking about this Hurricane Irma has come and gone, and I now feel that the U.S. Virgin Islands might be even more parallel to Guam. The U.S. Virgin Islands are also part of an island chain colonized by different European countries (the U.S. territory was originally colonized by Denmark and the U.S. bought them in 1916). Though underreported elsewhere, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell have pointed out on their respective MSNBC shows that the American islands of St. John and St. Thomas have been severely damaged by the storm. As Rachel emphasized, the residents are American citizens, and it is the responsibility of this country to help them. 

The Virgin Islands
A U.S. territory is not just ours when it's convenient to us to remember it.