Didn’t know lettuce is a member of the daisy family? Lots of people don’t. And there is much else that is surprising about this enormous plant family. But even so, so what? Well, I got interested, and when I’m interested, I explore and write. Butwhy read this blog? Because writers can bring plants into their work in any number of ways.
as a character’s hobby
as a character’s work
as a reflection of a character’s character or personality
as a reflection of a character’s aesthetic taste (or lack thereof)
as factoids characters can drop into conversation to amaze and astound
The big picture. Technically, the daisy family—also commonly known as the sunflower or aster family—is the Asteraceae family. It’s huge.
32,913 named species
for size, it’s rivaled only by orchids. Which is larger is unknown.
mostly annual or perennial herbs, it also includes shrubs, vines, and trees
this family grows worldwide, except Antarctica and the extreme Arctic
Many daisies are known primarily as food. Dandelions head this section for a reason. They were introduced into the New World by European immigrants who ate the greens—but now are more often considered a weed than a food.
Besides lettuce, important food crops include endive, chicory, artichokes, sunflowers, and safflower.
Daisy species are used as culinary seasoning: tarragon, salsify, and stevia, for example.
“Daisies” such as camomile are used for herbal teas. Also included here are pot marigold, and echinacea, which is used in medicinal teas. In fact, many species are used as traditional anti-parasitic medicine.
Species such as ragweed cause allergic reactions such as so-called hay fever. Other varieties cause contact dermatitis—as many who work with flowers can testify.
Many of us think of daisies first as flowers, but many varieties are important for the flower industry. Besides dahlia, think Gerbera daisies, calendula, zinnia, chrysanthemum, and many others.
And, BTW, chrysanthemum as well as several less familiar species have useful insecticidal properties.
Marigolds serve important industrial purposes. It is used in commercial poultry feeds, and it’s oils are used in colas and in the cigarette industry.
Several varieties of daisies are copious nectar producers and are thus important for beekeepers. These include sunflowers, knapweed, and some species of goldenrod. Goldenrod in particular has a high protein pollen which helps honey bees winter over.
Bottom line: just imagine all the ways a little knowledge of the daisy family might season your writing!
On Saturday I attended a great launch party for Deadly Southern Charm. Since then, I’ve mulled over what made that event such a success. Yes, there were refreshments, but that was just the icing on the cake, so to speak.
Before the main event. This book is an anthology, with stories by eighteen authors, so there was lots of online hype leading up to the event itself: Facebook, Twitter, etc. In this case, the authors did guest blogs as well. One way and another, invite anyone and everyone you know! The book’s contributors were actively engaged in this, and most were present to celebrate their success.
This launch was held at Libby Mill Library—just the right venue: not too big and cavernous, not cramped, with plenty of free parking. Libraries seem an obvious place for book launches, but depending on the book and author(s), it could be a school, bookstore, rented space, or private home.
Door prizes, while not strictly necessary, added to the party atmosphere. If I am recalling correctly, all of the giveaways were books, mostly by the authors who contributed to the anthology. The prizes were handled by Frances Aylor, president of the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime. As it happened, my name was the first one drawn, and I came away with a mystery by Lisa Scottoline that I’m greatly looking forward to reading.
Actually, for me, the meat of the event was the prepared remarks. In this case, it wasn’t the author(s) saying a bit about the work—although that’s a classic program. It was a panel of three experienced, successful writers examining the length of the work as it relates to publication.
Left to right: Lynn Cahoon focused on novellas and shorter novels; Barb Goffman discussed short stories; and Mary Burton addressed issues of longer novels. They provided lots of insights and shared experiences, everything from creating series characters to whether one needs an agent to how productive one must be to earn a living as a writer. Cahoon and Goffman contributed to the anthology and Burton is a co-editor.
The panel was well organized. Kris Kisska, program chair for SinC/CVA, moderated, presenting each panelist with questions appropriate to the area she was presenting. Between the great questions and the thorough answers, there were few questions left for the audience to ask! She also recognized and thanked everyone who worked behind the scenes to make the event such a success.
There were plenty of books availablefor purchase. Fountain Bookstore is an indie here in Richmond that’s well-known for supporting local writers. They handled book sales at the launch. The most in-demand book was, of course, Deadly Southern Charm, but they also had other books by SinC members.
Last but not least, signing tables were set up around the periphery of the room so that all the contributors present could comfortably participate.
Bottom line: there you have it, a model for a successful launch party!
And if you want more options, including on-line book launch, just Google it.
June 8 marks the celebration of the 70th anniversary of 1984 by George Orwell, published in 1949. It will be a day to celebrate this classic novel, its impact over the last several decades, and the important lessons it teaches us.
Originally titled Nineteen Eighty-Four, the novel now goes by its more popularized title, 1984. For those who were not assigned this book to read in school:
Among the seminal texts of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff’s attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life—the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language—and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell. Required reading for students since it was published, it ranks among the most terrifying novels ever written. [Goodreads]
In the novel, Great Britain (called “Airstrip One”) has become a province of a superstate named Oceania, which is ruled by “the Party,” who employ Thought Police to persecute independent thinking. The Party’s leader is Big Brother, who may not even exist. The protagonist of the novel, Winston Smith, is a Party member. Although Smith is an outwardly diligent and skillful worker, he secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebellion against Big Brother.
Since 1984 has been published, it has introduced several words, terms, and concepts into the English language, such as:
Since its publication, 1984 has won numerous awards, been translated into at least 65 different languages, and has been listed as one of the most important historical novels in history by such organizations as Time magazine, Modern Library, and the BBC.
During my nature writing class, I started looking more closely at plants and animals—mostly animals, at least in the beginning. It’s only to be expected, I guess, given that animals are animate. They do things, and seem to have personalities. They often communicate vocally. But the factoid above eventually led me to explore plants a bit more. In the lists below, I’ve italicized those facts that might be of particular interest to mystery and other writers.
The Big Picture: A few facts to put plants in perspective
Over 300,000 plant species have been identified so far
Plants are the only organisms that make their own food in a process called photosynthesis. They turn carbon dioxide into food while cleaning the air.
More than 20% of the world’s oxygen supply is produced by the Amazon Rainforest.
Bad news: 80% of the earth’s original forests have been cleared or destroyed.
Only 10% of the world’s plant-rich areas are protected.
Of the plant species that have been studied, 68% are in danger of going extinct.
More than half of all plant species are native to just one country.
Although the earth has more than 80,000 species of edible plants, humans use only around 2000 different plants as food. Indeed, 90% of the foods humans eat come from just 30 plants
Nutrition doesn’t factor into the choice of plants chosen for mass production.
Some 70,000 plant species are used for medicine, both traditional medicine and modern pharmaceuticals. Only 1% of rainforest plants have been studied for medicinal potential.
Plant species are going extinct about 5,000X faster than they would without human intervention.
More than 85% of plant life is found in the ocean.
Trees are the longest-living organisms on earth.
Ginkgo biloba is one of the oldest living tree species, dating back to 250 million ears ago. The Dawn redwood dates back 150 million years.
The world’s oldest-growing tree is a bristlecone pine.
Dendrochronology is the science of dating a tree’s age b its rings.
The world’s tallest-growing tree is the coastal redwood, which is mostly along the Pacific Coast of California.
A notch in a tree will remain the same distance from the ground as the tree grows.
Tree resin, when fossilized, becomes amber—sometimes containing bits of plant or animal
Quinine—one of the most important drugs out there—is obtained from the dried bark of an evergreen tree native to South America.
Oak trees don’t produce acorns till they are 50 years old.
Lightning strikes oak trees more than any other variety.
The African Baobab tree can store 1,000 to 120,000 liters of water in its trunk.
Evaporation from a large oak or beech tree is from 10 to 25 gallons in 24 hours.
Brazil is named after a tree.
The average-sized tree can provide enough wood to make 170,000 pencils.
The first type of aspirin, painkiller and fever reducer, came from the bark of a willow tree.
Baseball bats are made from hickory while cricket bats are from willow.
During the 1600s, tulips in Holland were worth more than gold.
In 1634, a collector paid 1,000 pounds of cheese, four oxen, eight pigs, 12 sheep, a bed, and a suit of clothes for single bulb of the Viceroy tulip.
Tulips can continue to grow as much as an inch a day after being cut.
Some 600 species of plants are carnivorous. For example, the Venus Flytrap ingests various small insects.
One carnivorous plant in the Philippines can devour a full-grown rat alive.
Torenia, a shade-loving annual, is called a wishbone flower because they have tiny wishbone-shaped stamens.
Poinsettias were brought to the U.S. from Mexico in 1825 by the first U.S. minister to Mexico, Joel Poinsett.
The largest unbranched flower in the world is the titan arum, which can reach 15 feet tall. It’s common name is corpse flower because in bloom, it smells like rotting meat. The smell atracts flies for pollination.
All parts of the flowering shrub oleander are poisonous. Eating leaves can cause gastrointestinal, cardiac, and central nervous system problems and possibly death.
Iris means “rainbow” in Greek, and Iris is the goddess of the rainbow in mythology. Wormwood (artemesia) was named for the goddess Artemis. Milkweed (Asclepias) was named for the god Asclepius, and Hebe after the Greek goddess Hebe.
May l is the festival of the lily-of-the-valley. People give bouquets of them to each other, wishing them health and happiness.
Snapdragon flowers resemble dragons, and if you squeeze the sides, the dragon’s mouth will appear to open and close.
Each head of a sunflower is composed of hundreds of tiny flowers which ripen to become the seeds. Ditto for daisies, yarrow, goldenrod, asters, coreopsis, and bachelor’s buttons.
No species of wild plant produces a flower or blossom that is absolutely black, and so far, none has been developed artificially
Peaches, pears, apricots, quinces, strawberries, cherries, almonds, and apples are members of the rose family.
Asparagus is a member of the lily family, which also includes onions, leeks, and garlic.
Vegetables and Fruits
Tomato juice is the official state drink of Ohio.
The tomato family includes tobacco, peppers, eggplant, and deadly nightshade
From a botanical standpoint, avocados, pumpkins, cucumbers, and tomatoes are fruits rather than vegetables. Avocados have more calories than any other fruit, 167 per hundred grams.
Rhubarb, on the other hand, is a vegetable.
Strawberries have about 200 seeds. It’s the only fruit that carries its seeds on the outside.
Archaeological evidence indicates that grapes were grown to make win about 8,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (Iraq, today) but the first records of how to make wine were set down by Egyptians about 5,000 years ago.
Pineapples were so named by explorers because they look like pine cones with flesh like an apple.
Pineapples are the only edible member of the bromeliad family of flowering plants. Technically, a pineapple is a berry.
Potatoes were first cultivated in Peru about 7,000 years ago. Today residents of Peru eat one of more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes with almost every meal.
Tomatoes and potatoes share 92% of their DNA.
Cranberries, Concord grapes, and blueberries are native to North America.
Small pockets of air in cranberries, when fresh, cause them to bounce and float in water. Apples, being 25% air, also float. (I’m not sure how this is reconciled with being 84% water, but that is a mystery to solve later.)
Water makes up 84% of a raw apple, 96% of a raw cucumber and 91% of cabbage..
The difference between nectarines and peaches is the fuzzy skin.
Cutting onions releases sulfuric gasses, bringing tears to the eyes. According to the National Onion Association, chilling the onion and cutting the root end last reduces this problem.
Onions contain a mild antibiotic that fights infections, soothes burns, tames bee stings, and relieves the itch of athletes foot.
Eating lots of onions can make you sleepy because it can act as a sedative.
Banana is the Arabic word for fingers.
A cluster of bananas is known of as a hand and consists of 10-20 bananas which are known as fingers.
Bananas contain a natural chemical that makes people feel happy.
Peanuts are not nuts. They are legumes, related to beans and lentils. They have more protein niacin, folate, and phytosterols than any nut.
Peanuts are used as an ingredient in dynamite.
Arrowroot powder (also known as cassava flour) is a thickening agent valued for being tasteless, colorless, and gluten-free.
Arrowroot is also an antidote for poisoned arrows—so if you are going to be shot with a poisoned arrow, be sure it’s in the kitchen.
One bushel of corn will sweeten more than 400 cans of pop.
Apples, onions, and potatoes actually have the same effect on taste buds. They are differentiated by smell.
Herbs and Spices
Rosemary repels mosquitos.
Saffron is harvested from the stigmas of a type of fall-blooming crocus.
Garlic mustard is a member of the mustard family, not garlic. It is highly invasive herb.
Nutmeg is extremely poisonous if injected intravenously.
Vanilla flavoring comes from the pod of an orchid.
Turmeric, rosemary, thyme all can be used to treat dandruff.
Thyme, rosemary, sage, lavender, and marjoram all help relieve cold symptoms and congestion.
Several herbs are traditionally used as abortifacients.
Any good herbal will give guidance on using herbs for home remedies.
Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew marijuana (cannabis sativa) on their plantations.
Bamboo—the largest of the grasses—is highly invasive. Some types grow as much as 3 feet a day.
Plants at the bottom of watery areas, such as swamps, can eventually turn into coal.
Caffeine acts as a pesticide in a coffee plant.
There are more than 1000 chemicals in coffee and at least 19 of them are carcinogenic.
Chemicals released by freshly-cut grass is highly effective to relieve stress
England’s Alnwick Garden has The Poison Garden, filled with plants that can kill you.
All teas (black, green, and white) come from the same plant, only the processing makes them different.
The first product to have a barcode was Wrigley’s gum.
So, how closely are we related to plants? Are we really 1/3 daffodil?
No. In actuality, humans and daffodils share 35% of our DNA.
Humans and mustard grass share 15% of their DNA.
Humans and bananas share 50% of DNA.
Humans have 3 billion DNA pairs; the Norway Spruce has nearly 20 billion.
Even onions have more DNA than humans.
Tomatoes have 7000 more genes than humans.
All of the bits and pieces gathered together above are just the tip of the iceberg. Writers, choose a plant—any plant—and work it into your plot, setting, or character traits. You’ll love it!
Today is What You Think Upon Grows Day. It’s a day to remind oneself and others of the power of positive thinking. Studies have shown that there is a major difference in the lives and health of optimists and pessimists.
Positive thinking doesn’t mean that you keep your head in the sand and ignore life’s less pleasant situations. Positive thinking just means that you approach unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way. You think the best is going to happen, not the worst.
Positive thinking like this does lead to health benefits, such as:
Increased life span
Lower rates of depression
Lower levels of distress
Greater resistance to the common cold
Better psychological and physical well-being
Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
If you consider yourself a negative thinker, it’s a good idea to identify those negative thoughts and begin to reprocess them as positive. For instance, if you think to yourself, “There’s no way this will work,” you can rephrase the thought to say, “I can try to make this work.”
Remember, these thoughts and actions do not go away overnight. It takes time and practice to become a positive thinker. Why not start on What You Think Upon Grows Day? It might be the perfect start to a new, healthier lifestyle.
Keeping a nature diary has spotlighted how often I look for and at birds. Bird feeders just outside my kitchen provide many opportunities as I eat breakfast or lunch. Until now, my focus was mostly on beauty, dominance, and learning the names of the locals.
Now, it seems I have a very narrow window on birds of the world: there are approximately 10,000 different species worldwide! They have a few things in common, however: they have feathers, wings, lay eggs, and are warm-blooded. They are thought to have evolved from theropod dinosaurs. They have hollow bones which help (most of them) to fly. (Kiwis are an exception. They are flightless. And, FYI, they lay the largest eggs relative to their body size.)
About 20% of bird species migrate long distances every year. And birds have the same five senses as humans: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
Butamid these commonalities are enormous variations.
Sight: birds use sight for flight, evading predators, and finding food. They are especially good in perceiving motion and detail—2 to 3 times better than humans. Those with more widely positioned eyes have a wider field of vision, including being able to see directly behind themselves. (Think evading predators and evading attacks.) They have an inner eye membrane to help protect their eyes and clean them often. During flight they often spread their wings to protect their eyes, and when attacking they go for the eyes of their adversary. The owl, famously, has to turn its whole head to see.
The ostrich is the largest bird in the world, and they have the largest eyes of any land animal. They are approximately the size of billiard balls, and are actually bigger than their brains. Also, FYI, ostrich eggs are the biggest and they have the fastest maximum running speed (97 kph, just over 60 mph).
But in spite of eye size, other birds (e.g., murres) have been shown to see, and recognize, it’s partner several hundred meters away out at sea.
Compared to mammals, birds have relatively large eyes. In general, bigger eye means better vision. In fact, bird eyes are bigger than they look, because all but the pupil is covered with skin and feathers.
Diurnal birds that become active at dawn have larger eyes than birds that become active later after sunrise. Nocturnal birds (with the exception of kiwis) have relatively larger eyes.
People have three types of photoreceptors in the retina: red, green, and blue. Birds have these AND ultraviolet—which they use to find food as well as partners.
Birds use their right and left eyes for different tasks. Domestic chicks use their left eye to approach their parent. Male black-winged stilts are more likely to direct courtship displays toward females seen with their left eyes. When peregrine falcons hung, they rely mainly on their right eye. New Caledonian crows show individual preferences for one eye or the other when constructing tools or prying prey out of crevices. The stronger the preference for one side is, the better the bird is at problem solving, foraging, etc.
So far it is know that songbirds, ducks, falcons, and gulls can sleep with one eye open. A study of mallard ducks showed that those sleeping in the center of a group were more likely to have both eyes closed, whereas those on the edge were more likely to keep the eye facing outward from the group open.
There is also evidence that birds can sleep on the fly, e.g., swifts and glaucous-winged gulls.
Hearing is the second most important sense. Their ears are located behind and below the eyes and are covered with soft feathers for protection. The ears are funnel shaped to focus sound. Here again, owls are special. Their face plates (facial discs) help direct sound. Surprisingly, so called “ear tufts” of owls and other birds have nothing to do with hearing.
Birds’ hearing is much more acute than humans for sound recognition, though with a smaller frequency range than humans. They are especially sensitive to pitch, tone, and rhythm changes. They use this sense to recognize other individual birds, even in flocks. Birds use different sounds, songs, and calls in different situations to identify predators, mark a territory, or offer to share food. FYI: owls simply devour small prey whole (think insects, mice, etc.) and regurgitate indigestible bits like bones and fur.
Bats and oilbirds (and perhaps others I haven’t read about) use echolocation. Bouncing chirps and clicks off solid objects is used to navigate through dark caves.
Touch is more important to people than to birds. Even so, birds are very sensitive to changes in air temperature, pressure, and wind speed, changes which are transferred down the feather to nerves in the skin. Some have special feathers around their bills that seem to serve a purpose when feeding.
Mutual preening—which involves manipulating one another’s feathers—is important in courtship for many bird species. On the other hand, they have fewer nerves in their legs and feet, which makes them less sensitive to extreme cold. Shore birds have extremely sensitive touch receptors in their bills, aiding them when feeding through mud, water, etc.
Taste is not well defined in birds. Depending on the species, they have fewer than 50 or as many as 500 taste buds, compared to 9,000-10,000 in humans. Birds can taste sweet, sour, and bitter, and can identify suitable and most nutritious food sources—but this is less important than sight and hearing. For those of us who hope to discourage squirrels and raccoons from a particular food source, birds are impervious to spicy-hot, as in cayenne pepper infused birdseed.
Smell is the least developed bird sense. They have small olfactory centers in their brains. Therefore, some claim this debunks the myth that nesting birds will reject a fledgling that has been handled by humans. In fact, songbirds cannot detect the human scent.
That generality aside, vultures, kiwis, honeyguides, albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters all use keen senses of smell to locate food, often from treat distances or when the odor is not noticeable to humans.
And now to some interesting (to me) facts about birds.
Hummingbirds can fly backwards. The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest living bird in the world, with a length of just 2 inches. Larger hummingbirds, on average, weigh less than a nickel. The smallest ones weigh closer to a penny
Chickens are the most common species of bird in the world.
Homing pigeons are bred to find their way home from long distances, and have been used as messengers for thousands of years. During WWI and WWII, Pigeons were used in this way, but also for reconnaissance.
Pigeons can learn to play pingpong, among things.
They are excellent at visual signal detection and other similar tasks.
A great tool-making bird is the crow. Not incidentally, they (along with ravens and rooks) have large brains compared to other birds. They mainly make probes out of wood, twigs, or wire to catch or impale larvae. But crows are among the only that create their own tools.
Tool use in other birds is mostly shown in intricate nest building.
Although not making tools, other birds use them. For example, a parrot may use a tool to wedge to crack nuts. Gulls often drop shellfish in front of cars to crack them open.
Although parrots are renowned for being able to talk, ravens in captivity are even better at mimicking human speech, as well as the sounds of car engines revving or toilet flushing. In the wild, they sometimes imitate other animals, such as wolves or foxes as a way to get them to make carcasses bird edible.
Acorn woodpeckers store acorns in holes they drill in trees or other wood items. They have been known to store up to 50,000 acorns (each in its own tiny hole) in a single “granary” tree
While on the water, the black and white coloring of penguins camouflages them both from above and below by blending with the surround.
One bird I especially like is the northern cardinal. It’s one of the most popular birds in the U.S. Indeed, the cardinal is the state bird for seven states: Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and North Carolina.
Although male cardinals are brighter, females have more elaborate songs. One cardinal may have more than two dozen song variations. Both sexes sing, and sing year round.
Cardinals are territorial—the territory defended against competitors by the male—and are noted for trying to fight their reflections in mirrors, windows, and other reflective surfaces. Cardinals are monogamous while together, and may mate for life.
They eat various seeds, fruits, berries, grains, and insects depending on what’s available.
Another favorite is the bluebird. They can be found throughout North America, including my back yard. Bluebirds, too, are monogamous throughout a breeding season, and may breed together for more than one season. Also like cardinals, they are territorial. The male tends to defend the outer territory while the females defend the nest.
A bluebird can spot caterpillars and insects in tall grass at a distance over 50 yards. They especially like live mealworms.
In my experience, bluebirds tend to come to the feeder in pairs—sometimes more than two pairs at a time. I think of them as family birds.
My backyard aviary is alive with goldfinches, purple finches, titmice, mourning doves, robins, grackles, starlings, house finches, and sometimes mocking birds, hummingbirds, crows or hawks. Right now, I know less about many of these birds. Sufficient unto the morrow.
Bottom line for writers: Nature writing can enhance any genre. Consider bird details for your next story.
Today is International Tiara Day, a day when all women embrace and celebrate their powers of leadership. Real or virtual tiaras are encouraged!
History of Tiaras
The word tiara (Persian in origin) is used interchangeably with its predecessor, diadem. These were head ornaments worn by both men and women of high status in several different countries. Once we reached the 18th century, tiaras became a typically female accessory, inspired by the wreaths worn by Greek and Roman leaders. Currently, Queen Elizabeth II is said to have the largest and most valuable collection of tiaras in the world, many of which are heirlooms of the British royal family.
Tiara Symbolism and Use
According to London jewelry expert Geoffrey Munn, “Any woman may wear [a tiara], but ancient tradition has it that they must be a bride or already married. The tiara has its roots in classical antiquity and was seen as an emblem of the loss of innocence to the crowning of love.” Tiaras do not represent the rank of people who wear them (like a crown would); rather, they represent the importance of an event (such as a royal wedding).
Bottom line: You don’t need to be royal to wear a tiara! Celebrate this day with whatever degree of opulence suits you.
On the first day of my Nature Writing class, we were assigned to read a book of our choice that had a strong nature theme. It could be anything, from fiction to poetry. I chose Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods (1998) for several reasons. From the time I read Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, I’ve been a Bryson fan. Then, too, my roots are in Appalachia. Last but not least, I had the book on my shelf—still unread. Now that I’ve read it, I want to share.
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is approximately 2100 miles. If you read the book, you will understand why the exact length is unknown, but for my purposes, it is sufficient to know that it’s hugely long and stretches from Georgia to Maine. Bryson (not a hiker) starts with a chapter describing his almost whimsical decision to walk the AT and the buying frenzy of assembling the necessary equipment. And right away I was drawn in. As a reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times said, “Bill Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and still make us laugh out loud.”
It’s difficult to cite representative funny passages because (1) there are so many of them; and (2) often the humor is in a whole situation, scene or exchange, not a succinct quip. He started in Georgia in March, intending to end in Maine in October, a timetable intended to avoid suffocating heat in the south and New England winter. In the even, that March brought a record cold snap, and the first day of spring came in the midst of a blizzard. And that’s pretty much the way the hike went: never quite what was planned.
Bryson’s writing is take-you-there-with-him vivid. For example, “…we were half-blinded by flying snow and jostled by gusts of wind, which roared through the dancing trees and shook us by our backpacks. This wasn’t a blizzard; it was a tempest.”
I like the insights he shares. “Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way. . . .The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know.” This is true only for those of us living the typical American life or a similar one in another developed country—but that’s true enough for most of his readers.
Reading a Bryson book is always a learning experience. A Walk in the Woods is packed with history, geography, and botany. The idea of the AT started with Benton MacKaye in 1921, work actually started in 1930 under the auspices of Myron Avery, who mapped it out, extended it from 1200 to over 2000 miles, supervised construction, and convinced hiking clubs to provide volunteer work crews.
Bryson is a skilled observer. The details he notes allow the reader to see how the trees of the north differ from those in the south, identify denizens of the flower-strewn meadows, and quake beside sheer drop-offs. And he is wonderfully in touch with real people—people who can cite statistics about the rarity of a hiker being attacked by a black bear, and the greater rarity of one being killed, but still have anxiety attacks because “It does happen!”
The only thing that put me off a bit about the book was a somewhat stereotypical disdain for fat people and hillbillies. Perhaps that’s where the book’s age came into play. Bur it never tipped into meanness. In any event, it didn’t keep me from enjoying the book overall. There are moments of tenderness, and a budding awareness of the danger to our environment.
I’ll end by mentioning his walking companion, Stephen Katz. It wouldn’t have been the same book—and probably not as good—without Bryson’s unexpected fellow traveler. It’s a feel-good book from beginning to end. Other than that, I won’t tell you how it ends—except to say, “They both lived to tell the tale.”
Bottom line:Read this book—or any Bryson book—and be prepared to be drawn into non-fiction.
As you may recall from my previous blog about pigs, the relationship between humans and pigs has been all over the place, from despised as filthy animals to being eaten by the millions. Actually, pigs and humans have so much in common that live tissue can be transplanted from one to the other, pig insulin is a boon to humans, and pigs are often the surrogate of choice when testing potential new drugs. According to some South Sea cultures, pigs were created so humans wouldn’t have to eat each other!
Experts guess that pigs were introduced to Papua New Guinea (PNG) from elsewhere, maybe as long ago as 10,000 years. Whether they have thrived or not is a matter of definition. PNG pigs are distinctive, and scrawnier than pigs with which we are more familiar. Wild pigs in PNG are slaughtered for food, but domestic pigs are eaten only when no other protein is available. Mostly they are kept for social and political uses, and are particularly important among tribes in the Central Highlands.
My interest in PNG pigs was triggered by my reading about pigs in general. I came across the fact that in Papua New Guinea, women sometimes nurse piglets. I had to know more! It turns out that in Papua New Guinea pigs have enormous economical, political, and mystical importance. They are used to buy brides, and to pay debts (for example, compensation for killing members of another tribe). Pigs are killed for important ceremonies, such as cremation, marriage, initiation rites, and to appease ancestral spirits. Pig killings are often followed by days of celebration. An exception is pigs that are sick or stolen, which are eaten as quickly as possible.
A man’s wealth is judged by the number of pigs in his household, and every few years, huge pig-giving festival are held to impress other tribesmen. The importance of pigs can scarcely be overstated. They are the only domesticated animal. And the care and feeding of the pigs falls to the women—along with virtually all the other work of the family, such as gardening, cooking, hauling water, gathering firewood, caring for children—and pigs! The men hunt or fish occasionally and protect against enemy attacks.
Someone named Adam, who reports working in PNG, posted the following online: “. . . And I have seen the women breastfeeding pigs. And there is a simple reason for it. Pigs are worth more to the tribe than children. You cannot eat or sell or trade children. . . A child eats your food, which in ten, leaves less on your plate.” Pigs must be kept alive until needed at all costs.
The women have very close relationships with pigs. The pigs accompany the women everywhere. Sometimes they spend the night in specially built sties, but others sleep in the same huts as the women and their children. They eat with the family. They are often given names and are treated as pets are here, being stroked, fondled, and cajoled in tender voices. Although women are the caretakers, the pigs are the property of the men. I can’t help wondering about what happens when a man decides to kill a woman’s favorite pig.
Although some people recoil in disgust at the thought of women nursing piglets, others cite more familiar examples of cross-species care throughout the animal world—for example dogs nursing kittens—and point out that people are animals, too.
The idea of a woman nursing a piglet is strange to us, at the least. But This has been the culture in Papua New Guinea for centuries. Who are we to judge?
You may know from previous blog and FB posts that I’m enrolled in a class on nature writing. As a result, I’m even more aware of nature around me—of plants, birds, and squirrels in particular. But I’ve also been reading more about nature—particularly plants and animals, but I may move on to weather or geology at some point. But tonight, let’s talk pigs.
I grew up in farm country, with friends in 4-H who took their project pigs to the county fair, and uncles who butchered hogs on their farms. But most of us grew up hearing pig doggerel:
To market, to market
To buy a fat pig.
Home again, home again
To market to market
To buy a fat hog.
Home again, home again,
This little piggy went to market.
This little piggy stayed home.
This little piggy ate roast beef.
This little piggy had none.
And this little piggy went wee, wee, wee
All the way home.
Virtually everyone knows the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” If not that classic, there is always Porky Pig, and even more recently, Miss Piggy—who is cited as saying, “Never eat more than you can lift.”
Pigs have been all things to all people throughout history.
From the 11th through 13th centuries, the sow and the boar were symbols of all sorts of vices in the Bestiaries, collections of fables involving animals meant to provide morality themes for sermons, or personal reflection. Pigs in 16th century art often represented sins of the flesh.
Pigs as unclean: both Islam and traditional Judaism forbid eating pork. Hindus eat no pork, while Sikhs eat very little pork.
The contradictory roles of pigs in Greek mythologyis beautifully illustrated by the legend that a sow was supposed to have suckled Zeus and a wild boar killed him. In ancient Egypt a pig represented the spirit of Osiris when crops were planted and the spirit of Seth when they were harvested. Nevertheless, they were considered unclean, and drinking pig milk was thought to cause leprosy. Tantric Buddhists worship Marici the Diamond Sow. The Kaulong section of Papua New Guinea is a pig culture—which is fascinating, and too much to go into here, but there is a saying there: “Pigs are our hearts.”
On the positive side: 2019 is the year of the pig in the Chinese zodiac. It comes around every twelve years. In 2007, it was the Year of the Golden Pig, especially auspicious because a Golden Pig year comes only once in every sixty years. The personality of Pigs is supposed to be kind and understanding, an able peacemaker. Pigs are excellent conversationalists, truthful and to the point. A Pig believes in justice and law and order, rejects all falsehood or hypocrisy.
Pigs for sport.
Greezed pig contests
Pig races at the Michigan Spree Festival
Pigs are the most ancient of nonruminant mammals, existing forty million years ago—long before humans.
Pigs exist in one form or another in every part of the world.
In three months, three weeks, and three days, a sow can produce a litter of eight piglets. With competent treatment, they can be ready for market in six months.
Toothbrushes were invented in China and originally used boar bristles; today, industrial and consumer products are practically limitless, from plywood adhesive and dye to glue and bone china.
Beyond bacon: because of similarities to humans, pig heart valves, insulin, and porcine bur dressings. These are just examples of pharmaceutical uses, which rank second only to meat in importance.
You can’t sweat like a pig because pigs don’t sweat.
Pigs put on one pound of weight for every three pounds of feed they consume.
If there is an option, pigs do not wallow in their own waste.
Pigs can be housebroken.
Pigs in phrase and fable:
don’t cast pearls before swine
don’t buy a pig in a poke
can’t make a silk purse from a swine’s ear
graceful as a hog on ice
hogging the (x)
eat like a pig
eating high on the hog
living high on the hog
sweat like a pig (see above)
going whole hog
going hog wild
looks like a marzipan pig (i.e., prosperous)
fat as a pig
happy as a hog in shit
in a pig’s eye
hogging the road
pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered
being a porker
Bottom line: Pigs are ubiquitous. Is there a place for pigs in your writing?