Saturday, February 28, 2009


8 handwritten letters (matched last month's; two a week on one of my days off seems doable. Would you like one? Leave a comment and this year it will work out better than this. Knock wood.

6 Čapek posts. (same as last month, but I'm a bit ahead of the game; only four or five next month to keep us on target)

At this point I've posted more in 2009 than either of 2008 or 2007.

0 100+ word posts (I'm not sure if I have the patience for fiction that's not translation, and they were just turning into non-fiction anyway. Food for thought.)

just the one meta-post.

Monday, February 23, 2009

At the End of Winter

     It is true that February does not enjoy especial popularity among the months; it is too brief for that and gets the short end of the stick, smashed between the broad-shouldered giants of January and March. You might like it to imitate the one or the other, but where on earth would that get you? It delivers us frosts and blizzards, but no longer has that great and grave majesty of winter; its frosts are only nipping, its snow is raggedy, its freezes are light and crisp; the longer the light has to work the more you can see its wrinkled, rimed, spiteful and mottled face. Or it eases up and seems as though spring is in the making, a south or west wind comes up, the ground softens and streamlets and rills gurgle everywhere; the sun shines on all of this and the earth is swathed in an almost cleansing heat; you sniff to see if it is a true thaw, but no! The earth is hard again the next morning until it crackles underfoot, and the living water goes blind in icy opacity; it’s not quite the turn of spring; that divine grace is yet lacking in it.

     As I’ve said, there is not too much granted to the month of February; it is such a halfhearted month, neither winter nor spring; but there are phenomena that distinguish it from all the other months of the year. Most importantly, the dusk is born again in February. There’s no true dusk in winter, no wavering procession between day and night, but the night just pours in and that is that; and you turn your lights on and go about your business. But in February a moment of dusk quietly steals in—perhaps it is because there is more daylight, maybe that everything is soaked in just a little more light and glows from within at just the right time: simply put, there is a secret and sweet moment when it seems that things are quietly and privately…outlined of their own accord, of their own quiet light, and right then you can renounce your own vain toil, put your hands in your lap let yourself be carried along in the lingering passing of the day, turn off the lamp with a sigh and say good night.

     You have to have good eyes to see the second change: February has its own color. The grass is still rust-brown, the earth is still pale with frost, and the earth is still pale and unempurpled1 by moisture and aeration, but something more than a breath of color already flickers and lingers on the branches and twigs of the bare trees. There aren’t any buds yet to give off a yellowish, verdant, blushing haze in the spreading shoots of the trees and underbrush; it is unusually discreet, a scarcely-perceivable colored touch on every bare twig. Simply put, in February the sap has already begun to flow into the branches; the green phloem swells, shrunken bark stretches, smoothing its winter wrinkles and glows with succulent life, and brown, scarlet, and yellowish shades appear on the emaciated brush; gold shows on the willow, a fine violet appears on the birch, the fruit orchard blooms in a secret scarlet. What was black as ink during the winter plays out in the faintest outlines of color, and sooner than we expect a spray of glowing buds,the silky softness of catkins, and the fresh green grass will come along. I know we’re not that far along; but something new is already afoot in the universe which falls to the small month of February: the naked branches have begun to glow in excitement, working towards the onset of spring.



1 [Eight hits on google, so I didn't quite make it up. Czech nezbrunátněla is from the adjective brunátný "dark purple, ruddy," Verbing that with the inchoative prefix z- gives us zbrunátnět "become purple/ruddy," the ne- is a negative prefix and the -la replacement at the end marks past tense and gender (feminine). Pardon the vanity footnote, but I am incredibly happy at un.em.purple.d to translate ne.z.brunátně.l(a) at the level of each transmissible morpheme, and am happy to have a platform to explain that out in excruciating detail.]

Friday, February 20, 2009


     When you get right down to it, I was just afraid for my plants. I was worried about my Japanese anemones and chrysanthemums, my roses, my freshly-planted Abies concolor,1my common broom and my new phlox and everything else which grows and blooms in this part of the universe which I call my property. Such a dry winter with no protective layer of snow, the cold, the hard frost, a black or barren winter is worthless; the soil cannot rest and stay warm under the snow and hold in its moisture, the exposed plant bulbs will freeze and the roots will break and the buds will get blasted with frost and it will all turn into a wasteland. It is so, and for that reason every gardener says that it should snow, and he worries from November to March, and makes regular trips to the barometer to summon huge drops in pressure. And when the winter is bare and desolate, black, dry as a bone with expanses of nothing, then the gardener—

     Here’s the thing: a gardener does not turn beseechingly to the heavens and say: “Lord God, if only some snow would fall on my garden, on my anemones and roses, and if not on them, at least on the rows of tulips, they’re right over there, and on the other beds too! I say no one does that to settle their own account with the weather when there are other people around, and so we complain about the prevailing weather, saying:

     “If only I didn’t have the flu! The flu always goes around when the winter is so dry. You’d see, if the snow fell then we’d all get over the flu—the bacilli would all get trapped under the snow and die, and besides, when it snows the air gets refreshed and that’s that for disease.”

     Or: “That’s that, then—it should snow.”

     Or: “Unemployment! If only there were no unemployment! If the snow fell they’d have to clear the streets and there would be work like crazy. But when the winter’s so miserable…”

     Or: “And what about the children? They can’t even go sledding this winter, they can’t make snowmen—how is that at all healthy? But if the snow fell the children would look completely different, hale and hearty, with their little apple cheeks all rosy."

     Or: “I mean, in my childhood it was different: snow up to the knee every year, icicles to the ground—my, those were beautiful winters! Everything sparkled with purity and beauty. Now people can't help but be sad and devastated when there are such dark, foggy, miserable winters! As I say, its such a dirty business—”

     Or even: “They always call it the age of sports, but not if it doesn’t snow. [Skiing under the crematorium?] Not all of us can go to Switzerland or Jilemnice2 with our gear. If I had my way the snow would fall so people had enough for their sports, and everything would be in order.”

     And so I have fulminated this way or that again a dry and black winter, perhaps not to demand compassion for my anemones, or maybe because it is in human nature to couch one’s own interests and needs in the interests of society—in short:

     I swear, (I have an elevated notion that at this moment fifty thousand readers are placing their hands over their hearts3); is it not the same with so many societal questions both local and universal? Do we not make heavenly declarations under the banner of society and democracy for our own interests, private pain or personal dreams? Are our common ideals and protests and agendas not only masks with which we conceal a longing from ourselves for some private and egotistic satisfaction?

     Maybe so; and let it so be. And look, snow has fallen, and I confess my egotism; I cast off my hypocrisy and discover my true face. And while I admit my own ego, the children whistle and shout outside on their sleds, the shovels of the unemployed scrape the streets, the world is beautiful and people look happier leaving footprints in the snow.

     And once more (while we’re on the subject) hand on my heart: is there not something in our egos that is wishes good for the world? It’s not just about snow any more, but politics and other big selfish things. We might all feel selfishly, but maybe there is some desire in it, even unawares, to make the world more beautiful and our individual spheres happier; and for the buds of things yet to be born to thrive.



1 Abies concolor-the white fir, brought to our lands from North America, appears in parks and gardens in a variety of decorative forms.
2 [Jilemice-Wikipedia's paucity of information aside, assumedly it is (or was) a ski town.]
3 [I'd settle for five!]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Return To Nature

     Lest there be any doubts, lest anyone think me unwilling, I wish all of you headed to the mountains this winter forty centimeters of clean, fresh powder, fantastic downhill runs and everything else pertaining to the matter. May it be so.

     But when I see this movement of nations over the holidays and weekends, these processions of young men and women with skis on their shoulders, the jumbled and feverish flight to the white majesty of the mountains, at first I think that all these pilgrims are just headed out to experience telemark, Nordic skiing and whatever else these disciplines are called as they tumble out, pack together and enthuse rabidly like dogs. Not all of us is given that measure of grace which is necessary to do it everything there is. I am also certain that a burning need to give oneself to the white majesty of the mountains and venerate its divine cleanliness drives all of these devotees into the foggy distance; for if ever there were such a powerful mass movement towards beauty, majesty and cleanliness we would see more of it in our cities, or even in our customs and institutions. Grumpy and obstinate people would say that this wintry pull of the mountains is not the one thing or the other, but just fashion. As far as it concerns me, I think that it is something blinder than fashion. That it is something like an instinct. An atavism. It is a return to nature.

     Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.1 Drive nature out the door and it will come back in the window. Drive it from the city and chase it to the mountains. It had to come to this. Since the snow on our streets was blocking traffic we have to find circumstances in which snow can just be snow or even the snowiest snow of all. The more we advance the less we live in the forest primeval, and so we make pilgrimages to camp in the woods. We chase the sun and the water because we are no longer farmers or fishermen. We even rediscover the sun and the water in some way with an inexhaustible and unaccustomed excitement. By sitting for so long we have discovered our own legs and begun to use them in fantastic ways which we call sports. This discovery is an appreciation, first and foremost. We appreciated the snow and the water, the sun and the air and the movement, we rendered the world more beautiful and valuable. Subjugating natural forces is very advantageous; but so too is appreciating them. The child who goes sledding and makes snowmen and licks icicles has a greater connection with the cosmic phenomenon of winter than the office in charge of snow removal. I’m not saying that such an office isn’t useful or necessary, but I am happy that kids are going sledding.

     We still are not ready for all discoveries. Perhaps we will yet discover and appreciate the moon and the stars, maybe we’ll get a taste for the rain (building little streams or something) and discover something good in the rain, something like children and their kites—and plants and animals yet remain. Maybe then the time will come when we discover our own roads and cities as a piece of the universe and discover people to be an old and good part of nature, and begin to cultivate them with communal desire and passionate excitement. May it be so.



1 [Glossed anyway in the next sentence; a more literal translation is "You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, but it will come running back." (Horace, Epistles 1.10.24)]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Own Your Town

Get as large-scale of a map as you can of your town and a writing implement. Bike a street, draw it in.

I started this in Santa Cruz last May, and by the end of that month had been to probably 99% of the streets west of the river. (More than the above picture, which was as of May 25th.) If you're like me, you'll get a compass and draw circles in half-mile increments from critical points. I could (and will) talk more about the theoretical underpinnings of the project because let's face it, it's in my nature, but it's still a fun way to figure out how your environment fits together, where the shortcuts are, and to know where the most random little corners of your world are--or at least as far as the road network can take you in pursuit of those goals.

I've got to get going on the east side once the rains cease.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Winter Butterfly

     O green caterpillar, I came upon you on a twig in July; I fed you blackthorn leaves (which you ate so seriously and ardently, as though they were the only task at hand), and with such unceasing appetite; finally you were fat, pretty to behold and golden as a pear. Then you hung yourself up by a thread on the branch and focused yourself inwardly; giving yourself to stupor, immobile, inert towards everything—you had one goal before you. And one morning it was all ready: an angular chrysalis hung on the branch which resembled a knight’s shield.

     I am recalling this all now because I had completely forgotten the green chrysalis stashed since summer in cotton batting until he began to rustle in his box just last night. You have come out, beautiful swallowtail, you emerged fitfully and shook your dapper wings. Perhaps you might not want to take wing in the middle of the Czech winter? You tremble in excitement, unfold your delicate wings, run about, flap those wings sharply and impatiently and fall. Aren’t you a weakling! If I had wings… I’ll start again. Your little wings quivered, all awhirl as you ran along the edge of the table, and rose up bodily on your gallant little legs, headed for that electric Sun, O little Icarus!1 You fell to earth like a dried leaf, like a discarded scrap of paper, like a wisp in a storm.

     The butterfly sits on my finger, newly born. He unfolds his antennae, exercizes them in a game of perception, stands on his legs and studies; his golden-black wings beat uncertainly and steadily in the exciting moment just before takeoff. The little body is rising, the legs scarcely touching my finger, it only has to let go and —are we flying? The whole delicate figure of the butterfly’s body shakes with zeal. The wings jerk, and this golden leaf crumples passively to the ground.

     A butterfly was born to me yesterday and taught me how to fly. Now it sits facing the window, mangy, wings battered. This big four-cornered thing might be the sun. The big hot thing in the corner might also be the sun. The swallowtail knows nothing except the desire to fly. I found him on the ground twenty times. His wings do not tremble any more with the fever of flight. It is an agony of enthusiasm. He only occasionally tries to take off and falls down in a somersault. Such a tiny instant of flight! Now it is sad to watch a butterfly learn. He sits, impatiently walking at times, beating his wings, but he seems resolved. “The weather’s not right. You can only fly when it is nice out, when the sun is shining on butterflies. I’ll wait for the sun.” This morning he will lie on his side and be done for.

     It is true, little butterfly, that the weather is not right even for us, (you know, for people, who are only just large and gluttonous caterpillars). Perhaps we are as confused in the date as you are, and have suddenly begun to beat our wings enthusiastically, by the thousands, in the middle of the Czech winter. We all have such wings in ourselves — you, called Psyche in classical language,2 must understand this. We feel wings in ourselves and want to soar in flights of freedom. We even tremble in anticipation. And we we have fallen so many times that your little legs are not enough to count them all. It wasn’t the right weather for flying and you can only fly when it’s nice out.

     One more moment, little butterfly, before you lie on your side. It isn’t the right weather, and it isn’t even that flying is so hard—on the contrary, it is such a natural thing. Discussing things, however, is not flying, and if that sentence doesn’t quite hang together, it is because we have fallen on our heads. Must we wait for better weather? Must we renounce everything as you have? Many caterpillars have done so, but I think that they are not right. You’re alone, and have no friend, no female, but there are so many of us big caterpillars, so very many, that we can do something. We cannot fly any more, but we can begin to make better weather. If every caterpillar spins out one sunbeam, then what a large sun we would have! And what then would be easier than spreading one’s wings—

     The winter butterfly falls on its side.



1 Icarus (Ikaros) -- Hero of a Greek myth, who boldly flew to the sun on wings of feathers and wax.
2 [The original has "in Latin" where "psyche" is Greek. I feel more kindly disposed towards Čapek than translating precisely and tossing in a (sic)]

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


One of the truly fun things about the internet, from my perspective, is the possibility for collaborative work. The DIY approach to molecular biology, esp. gel electrophoresis (through a drinking straw!) is something I've been reading about recently: it's interesting to see where people can go on a shoestring budget. They can't amplify fragments of extracted DNA and transillumination without toxic dye remains difficult...but it's exciting to see people considering these problems.

(via Boing Boing)

Monday, February 09, 2009

Can't match January's pace, but that's probably for the best.

And this is where the pre-prepared Čapek runs out and I have to start creating blocks of time to get this done if I want it to get done. No more excuses? That's the exciting part.

I'll try to keep the meta-posting down--there's some DIYBio stuff I've been excitedly perusing for a bit (homemade electrophoresis setups are the most engaging crowdsourced science I've seen since Foldit), not to mention the nascent garden project.

To work.


     So one day I looked at the newspaper first thing to see what was new (and bad) in the world, and then out the widow to see what was new under the sun; during that second glance I noticed in surprise that there were twelve icicles lined up in a neat row in my garret window. The largest and prettiest at the ell was as big and strong as an arm; the others were all smaller and weaker, perhaps to show that there was no parity even among icicles. I don’t mean to claim that my twelve icicles were an unusual or rare phenomenon; the only strange thing about them was the horrible joy I experienced out of the blue. And while I wondered why I was grinning and rubbing my hands together I realized: that like many other things (snow, caterpillars, mussels, rabbits, and marbles, for example) that icicles too were inseparably linked with childhood memories.

     I swear, only a small child can properly appreciate an object so interesting as an icicle, for as soon as a child encounters their first, they discover to their pleasant surprise:

     1. That an icicle can be broken off, the process of which produces a pleasant glassy tinkle.

     2. That an icicle can be licked, and though it is horribly cold and children’s wet little hands numb easily, it is an exquisite delight as a seasonal treat.

     3. That they make excellent targets to throw snowballs at, especially when there are no nearby windows. Knocking down a good-sized icicle which shatters dryly on the ground into crystalline fragments, that is undoubtedly one of life’s greatest delights and greatest successes, and whoever has not gotten their icicle does not know what youth is, nor winter nor the beauty of the world, and above all, does not know what a proper icicle is.

     Yes, that is it: the icicle has much to do with childhood; you see, sir, don’t you still look at things in enchantment, smile excitedly, and get the impression that the whole day is somehow prettier and happier when it is framed by twelve icy stalactites? And you see that you could reach out with your hand and see what a pleasant glassy sound it would make to break one off, but you don’t; it seems to you that it would be a waste of an icicle. You could break off a piece and suck on it, but even that desire seems vastly remote. How on earth has your childhood curiosity weakened to try and find out what an icicle is good for, or for that matter anything in the world you come across? No, perhaps it has not weakened, for I now notice something I hadn’t noticed before—how icicles grow. They are composed ring by ring, layer by layer being laid down until a great big stalactite is formed. It looks just like the icicle were flowing down from the roof: truly it is an act of patient arithmetic. When one looks properly one can see the horizontal segments, and that isn’t all—for example, which way the wind was blowing as the icicle grew. That makes a little ball on the other side of the icicle where freezing droplets of water are blown; the whole icicle is articulated by these little layers like the little spindle on a spinning wheel. And before I had thought this all through, my biggest icicle had grown by a whole new layer; now I can say I have seen an icicle grow.

     And perhaps it is so with all aspects of human knowledge; perhaps in all cases humans are first interested in whether or not something can be broken or licked or used for something else; only hundreds or thousands of years later does anyone start to be interested in how these things are and what laws they follow. It’s possible that humanity is very young, and still only trying to see how things can be used—to eat or to wage war with. When we grow up, we may look more lingeringly, more closely at how things are, how they arise, and what morphological or genetic laws constrain them. We may as yet only be at the stage of licking or curiously breaking a great many things.



Thursday, February 05, 2009

Frost Flowers

     They are called “flowers,” and the old descriptions of nature assure us that Jack Frost "conjures numerous enchanted flowers on windows.” Well, I looked at them carefully, and I saw that Jack Frost has fantasies of being some sort of tinsmith, as a rule, and takes special care in conjuring something that looks like barbed wire. As far as vegetative elements are concerned, shapes are constrained to those resembling thistles, holly, brambles and prickly branches, or some sort of braching fern, spiny leaves, foliage lined with horribly spiked thorns, jagged moss, slender needles, stinging prickers—in short, something very sharp and prickly, far removed from flowers. A window overgrown with frost flowers in no way resembles a bower lush with flowers; it resembles an abatis instead, horribly spiny fencing, which surrounds us as if we were a besieged fortress. The window is a hole in the wall; when the frost comes, the hole is barricaded by icy pikes, daggers and blades. It is no flowering and lush pleasure garden, but a rich, flowering blockade with horribly sparkling swords and bayonets.


     But when fresh snow falls something miraculous happens; the streets somehow seem wider than they did before, and the houses seem farther apart, and what had seemed confining and narrow in the world before recedes into the width of that uninterrupted white growth. All areas seem much freer; the world has much more clearance, as we might speak of overhead clearance in a pipe.
If I wanted to depict it beautifully, I would have to write it out in lines that were widely separated from each other, leaving the clean white paper between them, but the reader’s eyes would have to wade through the lanes that I left between the lines, as though you were strolling along through freshly fallen snow.


     It is no accident that we always use both systems of temperature on thermometers: Réaumur1 and Celsius. If one wants to complain that the heating is poor in his house and that Lord, it’s cold, he proclaims (according to Réaumur) that it is “only twelve degrees;” had he said that it was fifteen degrees (Celsius) the weight of his protest would be weakened. If on the other hand he wants to claim that it is madly hot in his room, of course he will say that it is twenty degrees (Celsius) and never fifteen degrees (Réaumur).2 If he wishes to prove it is terribly cold he will of course use degrees Celsius, if he wishes to prove that it is too hot he will give the temperature in Réaumur. So it is entirely normal, that thermometers are manufactured with both scales, with a humane consideration for people’s needs to exaggerate a bit.


     When there is snow on the ground, there is yet another way to measure the temeperature, and that is acoustically. If the temperature is just a little below freezing, the snow crunches nicely and deeply underfoot; if it is five below, it starts to creak with a rather high pitch; if it is ten below, is scrapes and resounds with a high, clear tone; but if it is fifteen below (Celsius), it whistles and cries in a terribly high tone, like a grasshopper rubbing the violins of his legs together. One might even say “Today the snow is two octaves above middle C." Snow is indeed so squeaky and shrill, it is like scraping a knife across a plate.
The nicest thing about snow is that it returns the inhabited world its virginity. The busiest and most disagreeable street has those short moments in the snow where not a human foot has trodden, and the first pedestrian steps out onto it like a sailor onto a new and virgin continent.

     It is possible that snow is white out of physical or chemical reasons; I would rather believe that it is white so our northern nights are not so terribly black. Perhaps it is only white to be the frozen light of the longest nights.



1 [Réaumur scale. Simple conversion with Celsius: [°Ré] = [°C] × 0.8]
2 [sic] (20 * 0.8 = 16] But so it is in the original. Perhaps he's just being fuzzy with the math.