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Crocuses and Faith

As we said in an earlier post, the first sign of spring is often winter aconite, not crocuses. And that’s good for winter aconite, because if it came to blossom later, it wouldn’t really be looked at or cared about, because it’s a rather meager flower, a kind of small version of a butter cup. But even before the aconite has melted away, crocuses appear, delicate chalices of color that steal the show. Here are some crocusesCrocuses 9 violet

The only way to have crocuses in the spring is to plant crocus bulbs in the fall. Now, planting in the grimness of fall when the garden is a bedraggled mess, when the days are short and chill, and the nights long and cold, requires faith.  But in this instance, halleluiah! The saints and angels will dance and your faith will be rewarded! Unless you’ve planted the bulbs in soggy soil, so they rot, or planted them where squirrels can eat them for lunch. We know this sounds like theology but it’s really just gardening.  Now relax — your test of faith doesn’t come until the fall. For now, enjoy the display. It’s transient. Like a lot of things.

Winter Aconite

Winter aconite, not your usual buttercups

Crocuses are often the flowers that announce the sure arrival of spring to the suburban gardener. But an earlier herald is winter aconite. These brilliant, miniature butter-cup-like flowers pop up, seemingly overnight, about the same time as snowdrops. In the photo above you can see winter aconite, hunched up and shivering among the remnants of a snow shower. When the sun shines a bit longer and warms them up, the flowers will expand into loose, cup-like shapes, as in the photo below. You can plant winter aconite and then forget it; it’s a hardy flower and it spreads easily. Winter aconite is said to be deer resistant. Those must be deer that live far, far away from our flower beds and vegetable patch. The deer around here will eat anything you’ve taken care to plant and to nourish.

Winter aconite in blossom

Sugar Maples & Maple Syrup

Sugar maple & sap bucketsNow is the time to tap your sugarbush. Obviously, this isn’t a post for big producers with miles of plastic tubing and a forest of sugar maples. This is for anyone who has a couple or even a solitary sugar maple, and would like to have some true maple syrup.

Most innocents who drive to the supermarket for maple syrup  return with a bottle of “maple flavored syrup” or “pancake syrup” containing, at best,  a mixture of maple syrup and something else — most likely high fructose corn syrup. Whatever it is, the syrup is dark, has a maple flavor and pours nicely on waffles and pancakes. But if you tap your own tree and boil down the sap, you’ll discover the taste of true maple syrup. You’ll produce a range of colors and you may decide — it’s a matter of taste, of course — that a light golden syrup has a taste even finer than an amber or topaz color.

As you can see in the photo above, the bark of the sugar maple, though rough and irregular, has distinctive flat plates. If the tree is at least 10 or 12 inches in diameter, you can make one tap hole, and you can make another tap for every additional 8 inches in diameter. If you’re not so good at estimating diameters, run a tape measure around the tree and if it’s more than 32 inches around, you can take sap from it.

Drill a hole at a convenient height and go in about 2 or 3 inches,  using a 7/16 inch bit.  Next you put in your spout, called a spile, and hang a bucket to catch the sap that drips out. You could use any old piece of pipe, but you’ll probably be happier if you buy a  few spiles from a sugaring supplier. And while your at it, you can buy a sap bucket with a cover to keep out falling rain or snow.

Now it does take a lot of sap to make maple syrup. In fact, as you boil down the sap you’ll discover that it takes about forty measures of sap to make one measure of syrup. But it’s worth it. If you’d like to try, you’ll find a number of websites with more information than we have room for.  You’ll also discover that there’s a difference of opinion as to where, exactly, to place those taps and how to boil down the sap.

There’s probably a science to tapping sugar maples, but  when you’re doing this as an amateur you enter a world of lore and legend,  and when you meet another  amateur, you immediately begin to discuss what kind of sugaring season this has been, how sweet or not the sap was, what color was showing when you decided to stop boiling down, and so forth.  What we’ve described is  simply the way we do it. Some hobbyists insist on boiling down the sap in big flat pans on a wood-fed fire  out of doors. We just empty our sap buckets into  our biggest pot and boil down on the kitchen stove.

We like this spring ritual and have a lot of fun doing it. We’re not in the recommendation business, so just go to your favorite search program and plug in the words,  maple sap + maple syrup, or maple supplies.  Good luck.Maple syrup 4 jars

Atomic Theory In 50 B.C.

De Rerum Natura 1675Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2011, and at the same time brought popular attention to another book, the two-thousand-year-old On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.  Greenblatt’s book is an engaging account of Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of one of the few surviving copies of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ philosophical poem, and that discovery,  at least in  Greenblatt’s view, altered the course of intellectual history in Europe and “made the world modern.”

To the contemporary reader, the most astonishing thing about Lucretius’ philosophy is that it is based on an atomic theory of physics. Certainly it’s a marvel that a Roman poet writing around 50 B.C.  should understand the natural physical world as being the result of atomic interactions, but Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, himself an inheritor of the atomic theories of Leucippus and Democritus, all of them believers that the basic unit of the material world was the atom —  meaning “un-cutable” in Greek.

Whereas our contemporary atomic theory is based on experimental evidence, the Greek and Roman philosophers arrived at their theories entirely through reason and speculation.  Seeing the world as composed of complex structures built up by aggregates of simpler elements (look around you; you’ll see the same)  those thinkers worked down to a theoretical solitary building block  and down below that to nothingness.  That’s where Lucretius begins: there’s the void and atoms falling endlessly through it, occasionally swerving to hit other atoms, and over time those atoms hook together to build up the material world we live in. Furthermore, says Lucretius, the void is so large and atoms so numerous that other worlds have also arisen, many other worlds, in addition to our own.

And that is all there is to life, to this world, to the cosmos, to anything. Lucretius’s materialistic vision was intended, he wrote, to rescue people from belief in the intervention of gods and the fear of death. Gods exist in De Rerum Natura, but they exist off at some distance, rather diaphanous beings, with no interest in the world they didn’t create and the humans who inhabit it. As for death, don’t fear an after life, says Lucretius; you are only your constituent atoms and death merely frees those atoms to regroup, perhaps, in some other form. Not everyone will find freedom from fear or any comfort  in Lucretius.

De Rerum Natura is a long, long poem of some 7,400 lines. Even though it’s apparently unfinished, Lucretius gets around to explaining everything from how sound manages to get through walls to how it is that adolescent boys have wet dreams. Nothing is beyond his interest, from the grandest, such as the evolutions of human society, to the smallest, the infinitesimal wearing down of a statue by the touch of innumerable hands.  Lucretius himself comes through the lines as a man interested in just about everything, a man who apparently loved the things of this world and loved writing about them. The work is, after all, a vivid digressive poem about this world.

Teachers of Latin and their more advanced students are well aware of Lucretius’s book – six books as Lucretius assembles it — and they’re also aware that much of it is difficult Latin. If you had Latin in high school only, you’ll find Lucretius somewhere between exceedingly difficult and impossible. Say Catullus is easy and Ovid is easy, admit Quintillian is not easy and Horace is hard. If so, Lucretius is hard. Happily, there are translations.

Unhappily, translations of Latin poems aren’t wonderful. Yes, Arthur Golding’s translation in 1567 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is admired and is probably the best translation of that work, even after four centuries, but we nowadays read it not to get a sense of Ovid but to relish the wonderful rush and verve of the brash translator’s Renaissance English, a marvelous vulgate.

The Nature of Things by Lucretius, trans by A.E. StallingsThe most recent translation of Lucretius’s hexameters is by A. E. Stallings and she, like Golding, uses “fourteeners” — lines of fourteen syllables, usually seven iambics — linked in couplets. Indeed, her translation gives De Rerum Natura a certain liveliness and bounce – and possibly a classicist finds the same spirited animation in the original.  None of us here at Critical Pages can read Latin like a classicist, but maybe you guessed that already.  We favor the Loeb edition  of De Rerum Natura  published by Harvard University Press with the Latin on the left-hand page and the plain English on the right. But we admire A. (Alicia) E. Stallings translation. She’s a remarkable poet all on her own, as her many prizes attest.

[The original posting of this article had a number of typographical and spelling errors for which we apologize.]

Looking back at the snowshoe trail


This is a good a time to take a look at the wonderfully descriptive opening lines of “Snowbound” by John Greenleaf Whittier.  (We do this every winter.) Here they are.

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite, shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.

"Snowbound"Yes, it’s only simple couplets. And each line has only four beats, which means it isn’t like virtually all the great poems in English. Instead, it uses the rhymes  and rhythms of children’s verse.  Here’s a poet who has fallen far from the high esteem and great popularity he once enjoyed. No one reads Whittier’s poems now. But “Snowbound” was an astonishing success. It blessed the author with more money than he had ever had, giving him the ability to provide his beloved niece with a suitable education and allowing him to expand his old house and to live the rest of his life without financial worries.

The long poem — and it’s very long — was first published in book form in February of 1866, became an amazing success, sold out the first printing by spring and by summer 20,000 copies were gone. It continued to be read and enjoyed for about fifty years, its jingling couplets easy to remember. The opening stanzas give us a wonderfully accurate and detailed picture of the snowstorm, the excitement as it whips around the house for two days, the changted landscape afterward, and the pleasant work of digging out.  Whittier dedicated the poem  To the Memory of the Household It Describes, the  household he remembered from his rural childhood. That rural lifestyle, so lovingly described in the poem, was rapidly disappearing and certainly one of the reasons the poem was so popular was that it brought to life a lost time that many readers fondly remembered. The people described in the poem were drawn from people Whittier knew and many of them, like the life described, had passed beyond recall.

“Snowbound” is far to long to quote here, but if you’d like to take a look at the entire poem there are other pages on the Web which have it whole.   Now take a look at those opening lines again. Recite them once and you’ll discover how easy they are to memorize. Commit them to memory and you’ll have them forever, even if you don’t have your computer, your i-pad or your phone with you.

Galileo and Pendulums

Mathematical equations can be beautiful, or they can be ugly and messy. When we find a simple, elegant equation, we can rightly say it’s beautiful. Most people are familiar with the simple and elegant equation on the left. E=MC etcIt’s sometimes called Einstein’s equation and it expresses with admirable mathematical succinctness the relationship between energy, matter and the speed of light — a deep and astonishing fact of nature expressed in three letters.

Not so many people are acquainted with the equation on the right. It’s a humble formula, having nothing to do with the speed of light, atomic power plants, or thermonuclear bombs. Pendulum equationIt’s about pendulums. This equation expresses the relationship between the time it takes a pendulum to swing back and forth, the length of pendulum and the acceleration of a falling body due to gravity. The equation is associated with Galileo, and to some it’s as beautiful as the one about mass and energy.

According to one of Galileo’s students, Galileo was attending a religious service in Pisa when he noticed that a breeze caused very slight, very slow back-and-forth motion of a chandelier suspended in the great cathedral. Galileo’s mind was not focused on the sacred service being performed that day; instead he kept looking at the slow and gentle motion of the chandelier and he noticed that even though the breeze stopped and the back-and-forth distance traveled by the pendulum shrank, yet the time it took the chandelier to make the back-and-forth trip seemed to remain constant. There were no clocks back in 1582 — he’d invent one later – so he timed the swinging of the chandelier by the regular beating of the pulse in his wrist. He was right; no matter the distance traveled, the time it took was always the same.

Galileo by DomenicoLater, Galileo experimented with pendulums and discovered that the remarkably regular period of the pendulum (the uniform time it took to make a full back-and-forth sweep) was proportional to the square root of the length of the pendulum. The pendulum bob (the weight at the end of the pendulum) had no effect on the length of time or its regularity. The only things that mattered were the pendulum’s length and, of course, gravity that caused the pendulum to swing once it was released.

If you want to express time in, say, seconds, and you know that it’s the result of a mix of length and gravity, you have to compose an equation such that the units of length get removed and only seconds remain. If the acceleration of gravity is expressed as, say, centimeters per second per second, and the pendulum’s length is expressed in centimeters, then by dividing the pendulum’s length by the acceleration of gravity you get rid of the centimeters and are left with seconds per seconds. And if you take the square root of that, you re left simply with seconds. So the relationship between the  time T and the length l and gravity g looks like the proportional formula below. Pendulum equation proportionalThe two times pi, as in the  in the equation at the top right, turns the proportional expression into a true equation — but that involves a mathematical maneuver that Galileo didn’t get around to. The simplicity of the equation, with or without the 2pi constant, is striking, as is the curious fact that the swing of a pendulum is constant, even as the length covered by that swing becomes less and less. The recognition of that fact resulted in the invention of the pendulum clock, a timepiece that endured as the best method of marking time from Galileo’s era into the 20th century.

(By the way, the portrait of Galileo is by the artist known as Domenico, the son of the more famous Tintoretto. Galileo was himself the son of the famous musician Vincenzo Galilei, a performer, composer and theorist of music. From his father, Galileo learned  the mathematics of musical harmony and with that as a start it’s not surprising that when deep into the physics of the natural world he declared that the language of God’s creation was mathematics. )

November and Jupiter

November is a month that starts off rather well — misty soft mornings, blue noontime skies, brightly colored autumn leaves, and a cool clean feeling in the air — but it ends badly with leafless trees, gray skies and freezing rain.

Planet Jupiter

The Planet Jupiter

In addition, this November we have a national recession, an unemployment rate that averages over 8 percent, bankers who want to charge you for access to your own money, and half a dozen argumentative Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for the presidency. So we’re turning our attention to the night-time sky. It’s far less depressing.

The brightest star in this November’s night isn’t a star. It’s the planet Jupiter. Jupiter is the fifth planet from the sun, our Earth is the third, and as the planets revolve around the sun there come times when we’re between the sun and Jupiter and the sunlight reflected at us from that planet is remarkably bright. This November is one of those times.

Jupiter was named after the Roman king of the gods. Yes, yes, we know you knew that. But did you know the name Jupiter derives from Iove and pater, meaning father Jove? OK, maybe you knew that too, if you remembered your Latin. In any case, this king of the gods planet is not only big (and by big we mean it’s more massive than all the other planets combined) it’s also composed mostly of gas. Frankly, we think it’s fitting that the giant king of the gods turns out to be a gas ball.  (OK, maybe we’re more depressed about politics than we knew. )

Jupiter has a lot of moons. Jupiter was an amorous god and astronomers began naming the moons after those he wooed* [That’s an asterisk, indicating a footnote.]  Now, that might strike you as sexist — Jupiter encircled by his sexual conquests.  If there were more women astronomers, maybe the moons would be named after his children. No matter how many satellites they discover around Jupiter, they won’t run out of names if they choose from among his offspring.

Speaking of names, the name Jupiter was given to the day of the week in Latin that we English speakers call Thursday. That’s why countries whose language derives from Latin, the Romance language nations, call it giovedi (Italian) or jeudi (French) or jueves(Spanish) and so on. Old English, deriving from Anglo-Saxon, imported the Northern god Thor, hence Thursday.  I think we can leave this topic now.

Ganymede by Rubens

Ganymede by Rubens

*We’re being prissy polite when we use the word woo here. And we’re hiding something when we say “those he loved.”  One of the moons is named after Ganymede, a male youth whom Homer called the most beautiful mortal. In fact, Ganymede was so beautiful that Zeus/Jupiter abducted him to serve as cup bearer to the gods on Olympus, where he also served as sexual consort to the  king of the gods.  On the right is Rubens’ painting of Ganymede being abducted by Zeus who’s taken the form of an eagle. The word catamite is derived from the name Ganymede.  You knew that, right?

Nasturtiums 2011OK, we admit it, we’re fond of nasturtiums.  The hardy mums for sale at the grocery store are bright, but their  remarkable uniformity of shape and color makes them look, well, you know, rather fake. So we pulled the cork from this old medicine bottle and used it for a vase. Added water and nasturtiums. Nice bit of color on the window sill.

Stop Slouching!

You know that your mood and your thoughts affect your posture. Now we’ve learned that changing your posture, even as briefly as a minute or two, can change your mood and your thinking in astonishing ways. And this change can be measured.

Harvard's Amy Cuddy

Harvard's Amy Cuddy

Researchers have reported remarkable changes in the hormone levels of 42 males and females when researchers placed those men and women in different poses for a bare minute per pose. Harvard’s Amy Cuddy, along with Dana R. Carney and Andy J. Yap (both of Columbia), first measured the hormone levels of their research subjects, then placed them  in two high-power or low-power poses for a minute per pose, then re-measured their hormone levels 17 minutes later. (Leaning back in your swivel chair with your feet on your desk, would be a high-power pose.  Sitting in a low chair with your  hands folded in your lap would be low-power.) A brief two minutes in high-power stances caused testosterone to rise; two minutes in low-power posture caused testosterone to decrease and cortisol, associated with stress, to rise.

Are you still slouching? Remember, this goes for women, too.  We bet Amy Cuddy doesn’t slouch.

The researchers also offered the men and women an opportunity to roll a die in order to double a two-dollar stake. Those who had been in high-power poses were more likely to gamble, in other words to take risks, a trait associated with dominant people. Indeed, the research subjects who had been placed in high-power stances reported feeling more powerful. (This didn’t work for us when we tried it, but  maybe that just says something about us.)

It’s been known for some time that expansive high-power postures that take up more space correlate with testosterone and cortisol levels in primates of both sexes. (And, yes, even you deep thinkers are primates when it comes to this.) The high-power individuals have higher levels of testosterone; the low-power people with their contractive postures, taking up less space, have lower testosterone levels and higher cortisol, meaning they are more subject to stress and more likely to succumb to diseases. And up until now it had been believed that primates who were at the top of the pack were there because they had been born with the right hormones for the job. Now it appears that getting into the high position, through whatever means, brings about the associated levels of testosterone and cortisol.

The research by Amy Cuddy, Dana Carney and Andy Yap, “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance,” was published in the influential journal Psychological Science. That was about a year ago. We’re slow readers and never got to it.  But we did get to the  very interesting profile of Assistant Professor Amy Cuddy, with an informative review of other research she’s done,  and that’s accessible online at  Harvard Magazine.  The photograph of Amy Cuddy was taken from the magazine’s cover story; we think her posture is neither high-power nor low-power, but  just friendly.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.