Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Anglers and Honest Men"

Gentle Anglers --

Flyingfish is pleased to report that she is back to skimming the surf after a few weeks running deep and quiet.

I'd like to be able to say that I was busy with something particularly exciting or worthwhile during these last few weeks, but, though I did meet with some excitement of a modest sort down on the ocean floor -- auditing a lecture on World Literature at Peking University, for example, and finally finding out what wildherb dumplings taste like after over a decade of unsatisfied curiosity -- the main reason for the protracted silence was nothing more than writer's block.

Here's the way I look at it, though. We are given to understand that writer's block from the desk of Ted Sorensen once saved the entire planet from total annihilation. I don't mean to suggest that my writer's block has anything like that much going for it, but at least while I've not been running my computer I've been saving electricity. And that, in the shadow of the local cooling towers, seems rather worthwhile after all.

It seemed particularly worthwhile a couple of days ago, when I paid a visit to the Purple Bamboo Garden. While I was there, I met a pair of young women who turned out to be quite knowledgeable tea-fanciers. They were seated on a balustrade in a hillside pavilion overlooking a lake. They were enjoying some tea, and when I came to explore the pavilion they very civilly offered me a cup. As we discussed its flavor and aroma, one of the young women remarked that the water was rather hard and slightly brackish. This led to a rehearsal of the various sorts of water used in making the best tea: water from rivers, from lakes, from wells and springs, and, best of all, water swept as snow from the branches of the winter-flowering plum. This last was my contribution to the discussion, recollected from a favorite passage in Cao Xueqin's famous novel The Dream of the Red Chamber:

黛玉因問: "這也是舊年的雨水?" 妙玉冷笑道:「你這麼個人,竟是大俗人,連水也嘗不出來。這是五年前我在玄墓蟠香寺住著收的梅花上的雪,共得了那一鬼臉青的花瓮一瓮,總捨不得吃,埋在地下,今年夏天才開了。我只吃過一回,這是第二回了。你怎麼嘗不出來﹖隔年蠲的雨水那有這樣輕浮,如何吃得。」

Dai-yu asked, "Is this last year's rain-water as well?" Miao-yu gave a withering smile. "Can you really be so vulgar? Fancy not even being able to taste the difference in the water! This comes from snow I swept from the branches of a winter-flowering plum tree when I was living at the Coiled Incense Temple on Darkbarrow Mountain five years ago. I stored it in that demon-green jar and, as I couldn't bring myself to use it, buried it in the earth and didn't open it till last summer. I have only drunk it once before; this is the second time. You really can't taste the difference? Whenever did last year's stored rainwater have this sort of lightness and effervescence!"

(Gentle Anglers will please note that I owe my translation of 鬼臉青 as "demon-green" to the late David Hawkes. I do not have his remarkable translation Cao Xueqin's novel before me, but, if memory serves, that was the way he rendered it. As I felt his choice could not be bettered, here it is before you.)

My companions in Purple Bamboo Garden agreed with me that tea made with swept snow is indeed the height of refinement -- or rather, the idea of it seems to be the height of refinement, for, as one of them pointed out, such pure tastes are beyond us now. Our water is polluted. It is dirty even as it patters down from the sky; it is dirty, even when it settles in white, crystalline flakes on the branches of the winter-flowering plum.

As I left the park and caught the number 534 bus home, I thought about how often I had encountered the idea of a life close to nature presented as a literary aesthetic, and how often this aesthetic had been linked with the ancient world. I suppose this is partly because, years ago, I wrote an undergraduate thesis about the description of trees in a selection of antique poetic traditions, and a central element in this thesis was a discussion of the various ways in which the relationship between nature and culture emerged in those traditions.

And, no doubt, it is partly because I am attracted by the aesthetic itself. Of course this is scarcely surprising, since more or less everyone from Vergil to Tao Yuanming to William Bulter Yeats has professed himself terribly keen to cast off the madding crowd and get down to planting some beans. I don't mean to say that I plan to go in for the material culture associated with this aesthetic. The realities of the rural life are probably not for me. I can't stoop and I can't be in the sun, so gardening is pretty much off the table in any case. But the poems are nice. I've always liked them, especially when hungry (that is when it is particularly pleasant to read about vegetable gardens), and I suppose I always will.

That my frame of reference is largely confined to the ancient world does not mean, of course, that I suppose this aesthetic to be missing from the modern world. Quite the contrary. Just last Saturday I was invited to hear a lecture on eco-poetry at Peking University's Institute of World Literature. I wasn't able to go, but, even without having heard the lecture, I know for sure that one particular difference between the aesthetics of then and now would have emerged. The literary value of a life lived close to nature used to lie in its simplicity, its deliberate rejection of ambition and strife. The personal refinement associated with choosing such a life was based partly on an ideal of finely-tuned sensibilities and a keen awareness of pure beauty. But now the natural world has become problematic -- not just in real terms, but as an aesthetic. A keen awareness of beauty has been supplanted -- or at least supplemented -- by a keen awareness of fragility. Whether or not a "nature" poem is about the earth that crumbles away beneath the poet's feet, the crumbling earth is its inescapable context.

As I thought these things, I was reminded -- not for the first time -- of E.B. White's remarks on a related subject in his essay Sootfall and Fallout:

These nuclear springtimes have a pervasive sadness about them . . . The rich brown patch of ground used to bring delight to the eye and mind at this fresh season of promise. For me, the season has been spoiled by the maggots that work in the mind. Tomorrow we will have rain, and the rain falling on the garden will carry its cargo of debris from old explosions in distant places. Whether the amount of this freight is great or small, and whether it is measurable by the farmer or can only be guessed at, one thing is certain: the character of rain has changed, the joy of watching it soak the waiting earth has been diminished, and the whole meaning and worth of gardens has been brought into question.

When I think of this passage, I always find myself picturing President Kennedy standing by the window in the Oval Office, watching the poisoned rain slanting down outside and soaking the White House lawn. I don't know where I saw this picture. Perhaps it was at the Kennedy Library. Or perhaps I just imagined it after reading a description or hearing an interview.

It is not possible to reach either Mr. White or President Kennedy now, or I would try to offer them some words of comfort. What I have to say is not much, but sometimes a little is enough.

On Saturday (when I failed to attend the lecture on eco-poetry) I taught a lesson on modes of transportation. It was rather heavy going after a bit, so, to keep the conversation rolling, I asked my students what they thought the vehicles of the future would look like. Well, that got plenty of action. Apparently there will be lots of electric cars and hybrids, cars that run on solar power, other (new word) "eco-friendly" cars, and -- the piece de resistence -- a solar-powered robotic flying unicorn. When I asked the student who made this last contribution "Why a unicorn?" she responded, "It's aerodynamic." (Not that she knew the word either in English or in Chinese -- hey, she's seven -- or even paid attention to the word when I taught it to her, but she's sure thinking about the concept. As well she ought: she plans to be an inventor.)

Both Mr. White and President Kennedy spoke of the blight our activities would one day bring down on "generations yet unborn." Earlier in Sootfall and Fallout, Mr. White remarked that the Cold War was being fought with the lives of future generations, rather than with those of living, existing young men. It is a ghastly thought. I don't deny the truth of it, but I offer this observation: perhaps those future generations are up for the fight.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

"The Sport of Truly Chastened Things"

Last weekend I joined the Beijing Hikers on an excursion through some of the hills that that lie just outside the edges of the city. It was wonderful weather for a ramble, with a skyful of grey, woolly clouds puntuated by the occasional shower of fine rain.

The instructions on the website said we should bring something to eat for lunch. I like taking curried dal on picnics, so I prepared a great heap -- fiery hot and hauntingly sour --and bought some steamed rolls made of a stiff cornmeal mixture (just the thing to take on a hiking trip, as you have to be famished to find them at all attractive). The preparations took a long time, but I was sure it would all pay off in the end, once I was halfway up a mountain and needed feeding.

Well, all I can say is, I'm never taking curry on a hike again. It is delicious but spilly. Next time I'm taking something self-contained, something you can eat standing up. Some kind of filled bun or pancake, for example.

When meeting for one of their weekend excursions, the Beijing Hikers set off from the Starbucks cafe on the first floor of the Lido Holiday Inn. I was afraid of arriving late (transportation in Beijing can be surprisingly time-consuming) so I got up at five and took a taxi and arrived at the cafe with a good hour and a half to spare.

Well, it was a nice breakfast. Normandy need not worry about its laurels, but even an indifferent croissant makes a pleasant change from rice and mung-bean porridge.

While I was sitting in the nearly empty Starbucks cafe waiting for the other hikers to appear, I noticed that the background music was not the sort of canned, featureless stuff I had expected. It was Frank Sinatra singing Cole Porter. "What Is This Thing Called Love?" to be exact. The really funny thing is, although I recognized the song right away, I wasn't entirely sure it was Frank Sinatra doing the singing. Since it has always seemed to me that the Mozart rule (if you think it's Mozart but you're not sure, then it's Haydn) can be adapted to apply to old blue-eyes as well, I sat there for a good long while trying to work out how to "tell the dancer from the dance." Then old Frankie dropped into one of his quiet and beguiling first-cold-pressed-extra-extra-virgin lower registers. Of course after that there was nothing more to be said.

It was a pleasant feeling, sitting in a cafe with the rain misting down, listening to the echoes of another America. Not the one in the news, but the other one. The one my mother's older sisters grew up in. The one everyone fell in love with, all over the world. The one people loved even more than France, perhaps, or at least differently from France. That America.

Just who can solve
its mystery?
Why does it make
a fool of me?

You might think it would just be heart-wrenching -- that it would be impossible to avoid crushing comparisons between then and now -- but actually, as I say, it was a pleasant feeling. I suppose I just didn't do any comparing, or even any thinking. I just sat and listened. Well, it was early and I was kind of dozy.

The hike itself presented me with a curious mix of experiences. The hills were small but spectacular, with great jutting chins of red-grey rock above narrow, viney gorges. Some of the hillsides were wooded in a mixture of pine and deciduous forest, both old growth and new. Others were covered in long, tough grasses of the kind one finds near the bluffs at Point Reyes. There were small purple flowers of the aster kind, with upturned faces on long slender stems. There were tangles of white daisies and a bushy yellow thing like a sort of wild phlox. From various eminences and promontories we could see the hills around us pooled in mist -- a wonderful sight.

It was gaining the eminences that was the problem. The climbs were long and steep. Though the hike was described as "reasonably easy," it seemed to me just at the near side of impossible. I climbed and climbed, soaking in sweat and dizzy as a whelk. It was hard to imagine the sturdy little mountain goat I used to be, twenty-odd years ago and half a world away!

No one else seemed to find the hike difficult. I was the last to round each curve and the last to gain each hilltop. Everyone had to wait for me. Even the guide, who was supposed to bring up the rear, went on ahead.

After a while, this experience produced some bitter reflections. They grew and swelled and welled up. I thought of how well acquainted with loss I had become over the last fifteen years. Too well acquainted, I think, for someone my age. The losses rounded themselves up into a kind of tally -- so much strength and health, so many years of youth.

I also thought of how familiar this kind of experience had become, the sense that what I was trying to do was too hard for me. Too hard for me, but not too hard for the people around me.

These reflections reminded me of the time a former classmate telephoned to tell me of her plans to spend a few months serving as an attending physician in a Nepali hospital. She said that she wished I were coming too. When we were in high school, we often spoke of hiking in the Himalayas together one day. After we hung up, I cried for many hours. Then I wrote a poem, which I called Admonition.

(To an old schoolfellow departing for the mountains of the East, there to practice her profession and indulge her taste for the far away.)

You do not owe me this, but still I charge you:

In the name of common cause
between all fellows,
kith of every kind

— yoke-mated in formation,
axle-paired, aligned in step,

or scattered as the Pleiades,
flung piecemeal, cast haphazard —

think of me.

Ringed azure
by the mountain sky,

do this:

watch the sundial;
let it tell a quarter-circuit;
while you wait, reflect;

think of my days.

You will be far from me.
your mind’s eye should
fetch forth a picture:

no sundials where I am;
there never will be.
No ridge, no blaze of blue,
no crack of rock.
No slow sigh of moss
beneath a lizard’s
winking patter-weight.
None of these things.

Healing is your business.

But, while you watch the sundial,
do this:

think humbly on wounds.

Think on loss and ravages.
Think on what is gone.

For a quarter-circuit,
think of me.

Then, when the wheel of things has called you home,
look at me.

Pale gold with upland air,

come to me and look me in the face.

I thought of this poem, and of the circumstances that had occasioned it, while I scrambled down the last slope. I was alone. The other hikers were still far ahead of me.

At the bottom of the last hill the other hikers had gathered around a small beck with a bridge of stepping stones. There was a praying mantis on one of the stones and they had stopped to admire him and to meet a local farmer. The farmer gave me a squash. Just me, nobody else. It was a very attractive little squash, shapely, pale green and remarkably weighty for its size.

I don't know if it was the squash, or the tea we had at a farmhouse-turned-restaurant just over the beck, or what, but, long before we had climbed into the bus that would take us back to Beijing, I felt something loosen inside.

At that time, I thought of the signature couplet in James Taylor's "Shed a Little Light:"

There is a feeling like the clenching of a fist;

There is a hunger in the center of the chest.

This was the opposite feeling. Opening, loosening, warming, easing. One of the other hikers was cold and I lent her my mittens. As we rode in the bus back to the city, I thought of all the people I have known over the years who would not even be able to think of climbing any hills at all -- people for whom doing what I had just done, even with as much difficulty as I had done it, would be quite as out of the question as hiking in the Himalayas is for me.

It's not that these are new ideas for me. I often think, as many of us do, of those who are less fortunate than I am. But usually, when I think of them, it is with pity, and pain, and guilt. This time, the feeling was quite different. I don't quite know what to make of it myself, but I am pretty sure some people would say it was love.

This leads me to another reflection. Though I do not doubt the squash and the praying mantis helped, I think it was the hiking that really caused me to open, and loosen, and warm. Isn't it written:

I will lift mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"Basic Common Link"

What is more agreeable than the discovery, in a strange land, that the means of supplying all one's essential wants lie ready to hand -- if not in a familiar guise, then in a style that is only the more pleasing because of its unaccustomed character? In particular, what is more likely to give rise to the reflection, "What a good place the world is!" than a little foreign trafficking in nice things to eat?

I think Dorothy Dunnett understood this. In the historical imagination she unfolds for us, it is traders who make "the whole world to hang in the air." Though she does not exactly identify it as the best end of the best men, commerce does seem to provide fuel for that which is best and most constant in the best and most constant among us -- that is, the instinctive and persistent search for truth, as a compass searches out the pole. Of course, truth takes various forms, but, as Dunnett remarks, "God hath eighteen thousand worlds," each turning on its own "bright axle-tree."

And one of these, certainly -- perhaps more than one -- is made up of the fellowship found in common wants. It is essentially a fellowship born in a great metaphysical mess-hall, where we inspect one another's rations amid the steam and cabbage-smells, and where we gather together to be filled and made easy.

Thus Dunnett summons a malediction based precisely on the annihilation of this fellowship:

Je prie a Dieu, le roi de Paradis
que mendiant, votre pain alliez querre
seul, inconnu, et en etrange terre
non entendu par signes ni par dits.

I pray to God, the King of Paradise,
That you should be a beggar, seeking for your bread
Alone, unknown, in an unfamiliar land,
Not understood; not by speech, not by signs.

(My translation; apologies to those of my readers who actually, you know, speak French.)

Anyway, I found myself particularly susceptible to this sort of material comfort when I ran across it yesterday. It happened like this.

As my students have a break from lessons for the national holiday, I had planned to spend a good part of the day visiting the Summer Palace. The slanting autumn light on Kunming lake with its fringe of yellowing willows, the groves of massive cypress and the long, interlocking galleries painted in a happy mixed aesthetic -- chalky Indian pinks and yellows and the deep, clear crimsons and forest greens that would be at home as far east as Japan -- are all among my most cherished recollections from my last sojourn in Beijing, more than ten years ago.

But when I woke up yesterday I was conscious of a familiar sort of uneasiness and disorientation, and these vague symptoms soon gave way to nausea, stumbling and miserable chills (I put on two layers of wool and one of silk and I still felt them, though the weather here is warm for the beginning of October), so I was obliged to postpone my sightseeing and return to bed. When I woke up a few hours later I felt considerably better -- enough better, anyway, to think that a pancake would do me some good. So I went out in search of one.

I hoped the nearby supermarket to be open, but didn't really expect anything of the kind (it was a national holiday, after all). But it was open. I bought a fennel bun and a cabbage pancake, seaweed salad and steamed peasant rolls for dinner. Also some bottled peach juice, which was undoubtedly loaded with sugar but tasted delicious and was a very pretty pink. Also some scallions, slender as stalks of sourgrass, some cilantro, three limes, a sack of green bell peppers, a knob of ginger, some ready-made curry powder, some ground cumin and some ground red pepper.

Then I went home and ate the bun and pancake and a good bit of the seaweed. Also some of the peach juice.

While I was walking home, I was quite laden with things, and some of my layers of clothing began to feel thick and hot. Nonetheless, I felt quite buoyed up, as if my purchases had actually lightened me in some way. And, in fact, I think perhaps they had.

I think part of what made these purchases so heartening was that they did not consist entirely of ready-made foods, but also included ingredients that I would use in my own preparations. Still more to the point, I was planning to use them not to prepare a meal that would conform to the local style, but a dish of my own design, a vaguely Indian curry, which I like to have with hot buttered toast and strong tea, either as a sustaining breakfast or a comforting sort of high tea or supper.

For curious readers, here is how you make it:

Boil some lentils until they are just done. Drain them, reserving a little of the water. Then stir-fry some chopped onion, minced fresh ginger and, if you like, a little garlic, in either flavorless vegetable oil or clarified butter. Add a dry masala prepared to your own taste. I generally use a combination of cumin, coriander, cayenne sometimes turmeric and sometimes black mustard, or just a good prepared curry powder, such as the kind sold by Dean & DeLuca. Even when I use a prepared curry power I always add quite a bit of cayenne, as I like my curry very hot. Stir the masala into the onion mixture. Also add some salt -- pure sea salt or kosher salt is best. Then add some chopped vegetables, such as peppers (sweet, hot or both) and celery. Cooked cauliflower is good here, if you have some left over. Cook all these vegetables till they are nearly done, then add the lentils, water and the juice of a lime. If you have some cubes of paneer, they make a very good addition to this dish. Serve hot, topped with a heap of chopped cilantro.

This dish goes very well with crisp toast, English muffins or crumpets. Sometimes I have it with milky tea, sometimes I have the tea straight up. Sometimes I add sugar to the tea, sometimes not. It's always good.

In my Beijing version of this dish, I think I will have to substitute mung beans for the lentils at least some of the time. Mung beans are readily available, but I may have a bit of a job finding lentils.

Well, anyway, I didn't get to prepare my curry right away. After I returned home and ate my bun and pancake and seaweed I was so tired that I just went back to sleep for the rest of the day and well into the evening.

But perhaps tomorrow I will have a chance to make the curry. I am planning to join the Beijing Hikers club on a little ramble outside the city on Saturday, and it strikes me that this curry might be just the thing to bring along as a packed lunch. It is very sustaining, even without hot tea. (Of course, I might be able to bring the tea in a flask.)

While I was lumbering home with my satchel of nice things, a memory struck me. The event to which the memory referred had occurred only a week before, but somehow I hadn't quite paid attention when it happened. Last week, while I was out hailing a cab, a man with a wife and child in tow drove to the side of the road. The man got out of the car, walked up to me and asked me for directions.