Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 30, 2020

At the Cataract. Why Is an Eye Like a Waterfall?

I wish I could remember what book I was reading when I first encountered the word “cataract.”

That is, as you likely know, another word for “waterfall,” like this one, St. Mary Falls, in Glacier National Park.

2766 St Mary Falls 680

I remember it was an adventure story, set in some impossibly remote wilderness.

I suspect the book may have been Bomba, The Jungle Boy, at the Giant Cataract.

Published between 1928 and 1936, there were 20 Bomba books: pulp knockoffs intended to capitalize on the popularity of the series of “Tarzan” adventures penned by that prodigious provider of pulp power, Edgar Rice Burroughs (who deserves more credit for all the ideas George Lucas lifted from his “John Carter of Mars” series to write “Star Wars”).

I would have read one of ten of the Bomba books reprinted in the 1950s, tie-ins to a series of of Bomba movies starring young Johnny Sheffield, who played the orphaned Caucasian Bomba in the jungles of Africa, following Sheffield’s screen debut as “Boy” in the popular Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller.

That confluence represents some degree of a wheel-within-a-wheel-within-a-wheel that invites some degree of contemplation I’ll avoid here.

The same publisher produced those perennial favorite Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery series. I’ve read my share of Hardy Boys books, and I’m still waiting for the day when, like Frank and Joe, I have my own speedboat and aeroplane and all that other cool stuff those kids had.

But I digress.

How that book came to occupy a spot in my upstairs room in the little house in Ohio is a mystery, but it was probably a Christmas gift, because everyone knew young blaknissan loved to read.

Eventually, that young reader figured out that a “cataract” was a more dramatic word — possibly lifted from one of the Burroughs books — for something he knew: a waterfall.

Here’s one of the iconic cataracts of the American west, Bridal Veil Fall in Yosemite National Park. Photographed in a dry midsummer, it’s barely perceptible as a thin stream of water falling more than 600 feet into the valley.

Yosemite Bridal Veil Falls Brad Nixon006 680

Another notable cataract is Multnomah Falls, one of an impressive string of waterfalls that plunge into the gorge of the mighty Columbia River on the northern edge of Oregon.

IMG_0037 Multnomah 680

Now I ask why the word “cataract” has entered my life, representing an occlusion over the lenses of my eyes. It came up recently after a visit to the optometrist.

What does an optical cataract have to do with a waterfall?

Cataracts in the eye and waterfalls are, as it turns out, two entirely different words, although spelled and pronounced precisely the same way, and with identical etymologies. A waterfall signifies one thing, an optical cataract is another. The difference is a matter of application: not unique in our hodge-podge English language.

We’ve used the term in English since at least 1430. In Middle English, it was cataracte, from Old French, via Latin cataracta, from Greek katarraktes: downrush, waterfall, portcullis, probably from katarassein, to dash down.

And there, in that Greek verb, is the origin of the optical cataract.
Not only does a waterfall “dash down” the face of a cliff, it obscures whatever’s behind it.
That’s what an optical cataract does: It “drops down” to obscure light from passing through the lens of the eye.
At some point, lost in time, a medical terminologist did the typical thing, looking to Greek or Latin terms for a word to describe a medical term to describe something falling over one’s vision and came up with “cataract.”
All I can say is that if you have a cataract in your eye, think of some noble cataract, like this one: Willamette Falls, in Oregon. Bigger, more dramatic, and some consolation.
What’s your favorite cataract? Please leave a comment.
Willamette Falls Brad Nixon 4826 680
© Brad Nixon 2020
Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 22, 2020

Traveling with Mr. Twain: The Innocents Abroad, Continued

In a previous post, I wrote about a steamship journey the writer Mark Twain made in 1867, which he related in regular newspaper dispatches. Those pieces were collected in the book, The Innocents Abroad. My focus in the first article was on the prodigious energy, ingenuity and — sometimes — luck required for Twain and his fellow travelers to carry out the ambitious itinerary that took them from New York to Europe, the Middle East and back.

The current pandemic has many of us constrained or entirely prohibited from traveling far from home. It’s an excellent time in which to travel vicariously by reading travel accounts.

How does The Innocents Abroad hold up as travel writing a century and a half later? How does it compare (or contrast) with travel journalism today?

The Young Journalist

Known today principally for his novels and short stories, Twain — 31 years old in ’67 — was then a journalist, still several years from his first novel, The Gilded Age, 1873, followed by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876.

As a reporter/editor for a series of newspapers in Virginia City, Nevada and then San Francisco, Twain made a successful first foray as a travel writer, filing accounts of a trip from California to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866. In regular letters published in the Sacramento Union newspaper, he reported and commented on the culture, landscape, climate, cuisine and history of the islands. His account — interspersed with both humorous and critical portraits and anecdotes (not all entirely factual) — proved popular.

In 1867, Twain received an assignment for a journey on a larger scale: a voyage of several months that would visit numerous ports and cities in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, present day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, returning through Egypt and the Caribbean Islands.

Below, a photo of Twain as he appeared on the voyage, made in Constantinople in the studio of the accomplished Abdullah Frères.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens September 1-2, 1867, Pera, Constantinople

A General Approach to Innocents Abroad

It helps to bear in mind that Twain was writing to entertain at least as much as to inform. He wasn’t writing a travel guide; his dispatches are accounts of a first-hand experience. He states more than once that he assumes travelers will consult one or more printed travel guides. He doesn’t provide tips on places to stay, dine, how to arrange for transportation or any of the day-to-day business of traveling.

Twain assumed readers expected a point of view, interesting observations, anecdotes, and some insight into what those far-flung places were like.

As a result, instead of travel tips and “be-certain-not-to-miss” guideposts, we get what he thought of his travel experiences.

What Twain Says

The results can be highly informed reflections on the history of a place (despite having only a fifth-grade education, Twain was enormous well read), extraordinarily critical and prejudiced perspectives about the people and cultures he encountered, and they can also be hilariously funny.

Twain is almost never an objective commentator. Don’t expect only Mark Twain, humorist.

Religion is a good example of what I mean.

The greater part of the trip involved travel through Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim or Jewish cultures. Twain had a severe distrust of all organized religion. At the same time, he came from a Protestant American tradition, and he could in adjoining paragraphs write harshly about religions outside that sphere, then write just as scathingly about Protestantism. One long section about the Italian portion of his trip is nothing short of a diatribe against the influence, wealth and power of the Roman Catholic Church over the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Italian believers.

Not Politically Correct

The same sort of duality applies to Twain’s descriptions of the people he encountered. Unless you’re American or at least, from the former British Empire — you should arm yourself for The Innocents Abroad. Mr. Twain’s judgment can land harshly on every race, religion, culture, nationality, ethnicity, persuasion or world view. Even while appreciating that he was a visitor in another culture, he could be blatantly dismissive —derisive — of cultures that were not his own, simply for being different. Few, if any, travel writers today could do that and expect to be published in the regular press.

At the same time, it’s impossible not to admire how Twain could be simultaneously harshly judgmental and uproariously, piercingly funny in skewering how the wealthy of the world oppress those with less advantage — how governments, kings, religions enrich themselves at the expense of their citizens, subjects or believers. He spared no one, using every rhetorical trick he knew, and he possessed a wide range of them. In one sentence, he could lampoon a local governor or small-time potentate for amassing enormous wealth that impoverished the local populace, then mock those same locals who begged him for pennies at the dock or the train station.

It certainly must have been entertaining reading at home, and is, still. But it’s not a variety of travel writing to which we’re accustomed.

Looking at the Landscape

Perhaps one of Twain’s greatest gifts was his impressive ability to describe a landscape of impressive grandeur or beauty. He relished and helps us appreciate the mountains of the Alps, views of sunsets, moonlight on the ocean, picturesque prospects of ancient towns. He commanded a large vocabulary, and almost never resorted to cliche. Those passages, throughout the book, are some of his most memorable bits.

Then, true to form, he could in the next sentence heap derision on a travel writer who stood in the same spot, and whose guidebook fails miserably to appreciate the beauty before him. Twain sometimes could do that for great comic effect: mocking the irony that a respected travel writer failed to appreciate. He could also take the opposite tack, and heap scorn upon them. The unpredictability of how Twain would “come at” something is one of the pleasures of reading The Innocents Abroad.


The Innocents Abroad is a book that might not still be in print were it not by Mark Twain. There’s some incomparable writing, capturing a world that in many instances no longer exists as it was.  The reading audience of 1867 no longer exists; Twain’s work is a look at another era of “travel culture.”

I’m pleased I read The Innocents Abroad. I recommend it, and hope that my caveats aren’t so strongly stated that you don’t give it a try. And then, yes, I expect to read Huckleberry Finn again, which will likely stand for all time as Twain’s masterpiece.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Photograph of Mark Twain by studio of Abdullah Frères, September 1-2, 1867, Pera, Constantinople. U.S. Library of Congress, public domain.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 12, 2020

My Little Pony: Literary Text Edition

The first time I remember noticing the ponies in class was in second year of high school Latin. They may have been present in Latin I, but it wasn’t until we started reading portions of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War that they proliferated.

For generations, Caesar’s been responsible for the presence of ponies in countless classrooms.

Of course, any student who takes a pony into class does his or her best to hide it.

Riding a Pony Through Gaul

First, the basics. Our English word pony arrived in the mid 17th century from Scots powny. It stemmed from Middle French poulenet, little foal (French still retains related words), before that from — ironically, in the present context — Latin pullanus, the young of an animal.

At some time — which I cannot find documented — the term pony became associated with a translation or “crib” used by students to fake their way through texts like the Commentaries, The Iliad, etc. One was, essentially, “riding a pony” instead of having to translate those unfamiliar noun cases and sentences with mystifying word order.

Where Did They Get Those?

To this day, I don’t know where so many of my classmates secured those ponies. In at least one case, a guy had the one handed down from an older brother. As for the others, perhaps they were simply cleverer and more resourceful than I, seeking out translations of Caesar in some bookstore. Lacking imagination, I didn’t think of that.

In any event, I did not ride through Gaul with Caesar and the legions; I walked: slowly.

The Present Case

Why this comes to mind is because I have, at this moment, a couple of ponies on my desk to assist with deciphering not a text in Latin or Greek, but English. English, at least, of a particular stripe.

I’ve determined it’s time to try seriously to re-read James Joyce’s Ulysses. I did it once — after a fashion — not quite 50 years ago.  After dithering endlessly, I’ve decided not to go it solo, but to ride a couple of ponies.

Joyce ponies Brad Nixon 8979 680

One need not necessarily follow a guide. Ulysses is, after all, written in English … mostly: except for a number of Irish place names, words, phrases and songs in some other languages, including Latin. Educated by the Jesuits, Joyce probably made it through Caesar without a pony. Not to mention words Joyce invented, sometimes adaptations or portmanteau words, other times purely onomatopoetic words or … well, there are some challenges.

Joyce’s book is densely packed with multiple layers of meaning, inference and association, with a reputation for being somewhere between difficult and impenetrable. It is difficult, but not impossibly so.

One bit of background to know is that the book’s structured on a framework deriving from Homer’s Odyssey, describing the hero, Odysseus, as he spends ten years making his way back from the Trojan War.

Opening my copy of the book for the first time in decades, I encountered the document below.

Ulysses chapters 680

Produced in a now obsolete technology called mimeograph, that’s a list of Joyce’s 18 chapters, with the corresponding names of the episodes in Homer. I must have gotten that from one of my professors. Don’t worry, even the most basic summary of Ulysses will give you that information without relying on some ancient artifact.

The Big One

The primary challenge for one who aspires to get as much as reasonably likely out of Ulysses is the way Joyce adapted a dizzying amount of personal experience into his book.  He packed it full of actual people, events and places he knew from his early years in Dublin. One can still appreciate the book without knowing all these details, so one’s approach to Ulysses is a matter of weighing how much effort to invest in background vs. story..

One way to get at an overview of those references is Richard Ellman’s authoritative and deeply researched biography, James Joyce. You won’t come away from Ellman knowing all the Ulysses references, but you’ll gain some familiarity with how Joyce wove his own experiences into the fabric of the novel.

Send in the Ponies

One could read Ulysses with a certain amount of help from dictionaries, online resources. In the end, I’ve decided to have two guides handy. One, which I’ve seen before, is Anthony Burgess’ Re Joyce — in the UK titled Here Comes Everybody. A longtime student of Joyce’s work, Mr. Burgess isn’t encyclopedic in his approach, but a reliable guide.

The second, I’m exploring for the first time: The New Bloomsday Book, by Harry Blamires. More of an episode-by-episode, event-by-event explication of the characters, action and themes, I hope it’ll prove useful.

Off to the Horizon

How will I do? I’ll let you know. Saddle the ponies.

© Brad Nixon 2020. James Joyce, New and Revised Edition, © Richard Ellman, Oxford University Press, New York, 1982. Re Joyce, © Anthony Burgess 1965, W.W. Norton, New York. The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses, © Harry Blamires, 1988, Routledge, New York/London. I’m reading Ulysses, James Joyce, Vintage Books, New York, 1986.

One of the guiding principles of Under Western Skies is that one doesn’t have to travel to distant places or exotic locales to find things worth seeing.

Now, if ever, is the time for me to live up to that premise.

Constrained by the pandemic, we’re not hitting the road for the traditional midsummer trip to … somewhere. We’re staying at home and going — not precisely nowhere — just not very far.

A few miles from home, at the head of the Port of Los Angeles, is Wilmington, California. Founded in about 1858 on land acquired by the ambitious Phineas Banning, it got its name from Banning’s birthplace, Wilmington, Delaware.

Once a bustling harbor town, Wilmington still boasts its share of once imposing 19th and early 20th century structures, as do many American towns. No longer an independent city, it’s part of greater Los Angeles.

I’ve written before about a few of Wilmington’s historic sites, including the last remaining Civil War era military installation in Los Angeles, which I wrote about here, the Drum Barracks.

Drum Barracks Brad Nixon 8341 680

My objective this week was to see what remained of another local landmark in downtown Wilmington: the Granada Theatre movie palace. Built in 1928, it seated nearly 1,000 patrons in an interior — reportedly — in Art Deco styling typical of the era.

The old house closed in about 1956. After that, it reopened for a time as Teatro Granada, showing Spanish language films.

At some point — a familiar repurposing for old theaters everywhere — it was home to a series of church congregations.

Here, in an undated photo, probably from the 1980s, as the Iglesia Universal. Pare de Sufrir means “End the suffering.” Good enough.

Iglesia Universal Cinema Treasures

Los Angeles — movie capitol of the world — is replete with these old showplaces, although many others have met the wrecking ball. I’ve written about a number of them, not only in L.A., but in towns all over the American west.

Here’s one example, not far from Wilmington, in San Pedro. The Warner Grand, which opened in 1931, has been restored and hosts films and live events.

Warner Grand Brad Nixon 3308 680

Here’s another, in another part of L.A., The Academy, from 1939. Last time I was there and shot this photo, it was a church.

Academy Theater LA Brad Nixon 0198 Academy (593x640)

I knew in advance I’d only see the exterior of the Granada. It’s been shuttered for a number of years. There are few photographs of the interior available, although eyewitness accounts indicate some amount of the Art Deco interior decor is intact, if worn.

Here, according to Google Street View, and a site devoted to the Granada on Facebook is about what I expected to see.

11791913_890622961012864_1211881137674702201_o 680

Nothing lasts forever. Here’s what I saw in early July, 2020:

Granada Theater Brad Nixon 8976 680

All things must change. The old marquee is gone.

That, however, is not necessarily bad news. It may, in fact, be good news.

For some years, an organization named Friends of the Wilmington Granada — that link takes you to their Facebook page — has been devoted to restoring the Granada. Does the removal of the marquee — perhaps for restoration, perhaps merely for safekeeping — indicate they’re making progress?

I don’t know. There are no recent posts on that FB site.

We’ll have to wait. If this post comes to the attention of someone involved with a pending restoration, I invite you to contact me.

Is there an old movie palace in your town? Or, if yours is gone, what do you remember of those halcyon days when the lights went down? Where were you? Balcony? Back of the house? Down front? Who else was there? Leave a comment.

Roll ’em.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Iglesia Universal photograph retrieved from, July 8, 2020. “For Sale” photograph © Hunter Kerhart, retrieved from on July 8, 2020.




Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 5, 2020

A Letter to Smokey Bear: 70!

Dear Smokey,

This is my first letter to a bear. I’ve met a number of bears over the years — both black and brown ones — from coast to coast, across the U.S., although not many here in California. Our state flag pictures a California grizzly bear. Unfortunately, they’re extinct here. We’re sorry about that. Nothing personal. We hadn’t quite figured it out back in the 1800s when we exterminated them. We humans are slow learners.

Here’s a grizzly, browsing on berries in Denali National Park. One of a number of notable bears I’ve encountered.

Denali NP grizzly Brad Nixon 018_7

I’m writing to congratulate you on the 70th anniversary of your run as the symbol of fire prevention in the forests and wild lands of the United States. Great job, Smokey. Thank you.

I know you didn’t create the role you ended up playing, but you stepped up. The U. S. Forest Service created a symbolic bear, named Smokey, in 1944, as part of a public awareness campaign to promote wildfire prevention.

In that sense, “Smokey” has been around for more than 75 years. But, then….

After a fire crew found you, about three months old, clinging to a tree in the Capitan National Forest of New Mexico in 1950, your paws and legs burned by a fire, you became the living symbol of the erstwhile Smokey the Bear. You’ve been our Smokey since then.

I know you spent most of your life in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I hope the 26 years you spent there were good ones.

Today, Smokey, things are tough here in the west.

Out here, I’m sorry to say, we’re struggling with the wildfire issue. Since you left, things have gotten worse. In the mountains of southeastern New Mexico, where you’re from, it’s dry. The towns of Ruidoso, Lincoln, your own home town of Capitan, have all grown, expanding into places your parents and generations of bears used to roam. There and pretty much everywhere, we’ve created a pending firestorm of problems from the low desert down near Las Cruces to far up in the high Sierra, in California, the Cascades in Washington: everywhere.

Still, we’re trying to pay attention. You keep reminding us. Every time I drive into a national forest, whether it’s low desert scrub — mesquite, sage, ironwood — high plains — grasses, ranging up to juniper and oak — or far up at some elevation with ponderosa pines in the Santa Catalinas above Tucson, even redwoods in northern California and southern Oregon, you’re there.


You’ve been around for my entire lifetime, welcoming me to national forests — from Maine to Florida, the Carolinas to Oregon — but always looking at me with that way you have.

You’re looking good for a seventy year-old. Keep your paw on that shovel.

We’re hard up against fire season here in the west. We had a reasonable amount of rain in the late winter and into spring. Good news for bears: plenty of blackberries, huckleberries. Everything’s drying out, though. Darn it, Smokey, we’re careless, despite your persistent admonition.

Some years ago, The Counselor and I passed through your home town: Capitan, New Mexico. You’re still pretty much Citizen Numero Uno there. Just down the road, Lincoln has Billy the Kid. But Capitan has you. I’d trade a bear for an outlaw any day, even up.

Here’s the Counselor with you in Capitan, the Capitan range behind you, not far from where you shinned up a tree to escape that fire.

Smokey MSV Scan 680

Smokey, since you’re there in Washington, I’d like to ask a favor of you. Would you wander over to the White House or the Capitol and advise our administrators and legislators that they shouldn’t turn your wild lands over to the loggers and miners without even thinking about it? We really like it out there, pretty much the way things are. Take your shovel. You’ll need it.

Best regards, your fan,


Note: In 1950, a fire crew of about 30 forest rangers, local crews from New Mexico, —including volunteers from Taos Pueblo — Texas, and the New Mexico State Game Department survived by lying face-down on rocky ground while a fire swept over them. Soon after that, they found a 3 month-old black bear clinging to a tree: Smokey. A year older than I am.

Smokey died in 1976. A reasonable span for a bear. His legacy will outlive me. Good enough. Only you can prevent wildfires. What Smokey says. Do what he says.

© Brad Nixon 2020; Smokey Bear image © U.S. Forest Service.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 4, 2020

Independence Day: Wear the Mask

In the United States, today, July 4th, is Independence Day. Many of you readers live in other free nations, where you rightly celebrate your own day of independence. Still, I hope you’ll celebrate with us.

In other countries — too many — “freedom” is compromised. There are places in the world where I wouldn’t be at liberty to write this blog without passing review by some censor. My blog, however innocuous its content, is not available in some portions of the globe, including the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Compromises to liberty are ongoing as I write, including one of the most compellingly wonderful places I’ve ever visited, Hong Kong. The hammer is falling there. Would that it were not.

One more reminder that freedom is precious, often hard won, sometimes even harder to retain.

All of us consider that worn old phrase, “The price of freedom.”

In my opinion, part of that price is the responsibility to be a good citizen. Stop at stop signs and red traffic lights, respect your fellow citizens. Simple.

Sometimes, demonstrating that respect imposes limitations on one’s personal freedom. It seems simple enough, on the surface. If there’s something one should do to preserve the social order, the rules of a civil society require one to do it.

Don’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater if there’s no fire.

Don’t drive your car on a sidewalk to get around a traffic accident.

In a time of national emergency, wear a mask to preserve the fabric of the union.

Wear a mask to represent that you own your personal responsibility to care for your fellow citizens.

In most countries of the world, that’s a widely accepted practice. Here, in what our national anthem declares to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” the notion of donning a mask has become — for some — not a matter of civic responsibility, but some perverse statement of individual right versus the common welfare.

Well, citizens, now we have a choice. We can do whatever we want to do, within certain limits. We still shouldn’t drive through intersections when the light’s red, we shouldn’t drive on the sidewalk, and we should wear the mask: an emblem now of a civil society where the greater good takes precedence over minor inconvenience.

Wherever you live, we invite you celebrate independence with us.

Thomas Paine, a leader of the American Revolution wrote in his pamphlet, The Crisis, in that memorial year, 1776:

The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. 

Brothers and sisters, our freedom to choose is not lightly bestowed, easily won, nor maintained without some effort. Let us take care of one another. This is Independence Day. Let us celebrate it by joining together to mark the downfall of tyrants.

The virus is — if ever there were — a tyrant. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.

Wear the gosh-darned mask. Wearing it signifies that you respect your fellow citizens and promote the social order, wherever you live. As citizen Paine said, “It is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

This year, instead of parades, fireworks, we have a rare opportunity: a national holiday for introspection.

Let tyrants remember the day.

Play the music:

The final verse reads:

Let tyrants remember the day
When our fathers with mighty endeavor
Proclaimed as they marched to the fray
That by their might and by their right
It waves forever.

© Brad Nixon 2020; Performance of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” composed by John Philip Sousa, recorded by the U. S. Army Field Band, link retrieved on July 3, 2020.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 28, 2020

Sumer is Icumen In

Although most of us around the world are constrained in our celebrations of summer’s advent to one degree or another, we can, at least, sing its praises.

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed
and bloweþ med
and springþ þe wde nu
Sing cuccu

Awe bleteþ after lomb
lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc sterteþ
bucke uerteþ
murie sing cuccu

Cuccu cuccu
Wel singes þu cuccu
ne swik þu nauer nu

Sing cuccu nu • Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu • Sing cuccu nu

After its relatively well-known first line, some of that 13th century song challenges us.

One Note on the Calendar

Medieval notions of “summer” were different than our astronomically oriented determination that summer begins on the estival solstice. Their “summer” probably began closer to the spring equinox or the first May. Hence, we still have a habit of referring to the solstice as “midsummer.”

No Dictionaries

The nonstandardized state of English spelling in the days of hand-copied manuscripts accounts for much of the difficulty we have reading “Sumer Is Icumen In.” Most of the words are still in use.

Those of us who had at least some exposure to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — written about 150 years after this song was copied down — have encountered some of this now-obsolete spelling.

The song is in a dialect of English from Wessex, west of Chaucer’s London, and much closer in time, vocabulary and grammar to the transition from Old English. The spelling represents local pronunciation, as well as whatever conventions were used by the scribe who recorded it. It was centuries before “standard” English became a notion.

One character, þ — named thorn — was a survival from earlier Germanic roots, including runic writing, and was widely used in Old English. It represents “th,” giving us “groweth,” “bloweth” and “springeth” in the first stanza, then elsewhere.

Pesky Vowels

Spelling vowel sounds has always been problematic in English. To this day, the non-native speaker despairs over distinguishing between, for example, the various pronunciations of “ough” in bough, though, through, rough and so on.

“Sed” is “seed.” You got that, along with its rhyme-word, “med/”mead. “Mead,” though, means a meadow, not a fermented beverage, and “bloweth” means “bloometh.” An “awe” is a ewe, which bleateth for its lamb. “Murie,” of course is “merry.” That may represent a different pronunciation of the word in 13th century Wessex.

Odd Problems

But what do we make of some truly odd words and phrases?


If summer is coming/arriving, why is it icumen? In Old English, verbs often (scores of them) began with an unaccented ge-, with the G pronounced as “Y.” Typically — not always — that indicated a form of emphatic statement or the sense that the verb had been completed. Generally, that ge- faded out of usage. Our song has a barely surviving unaccented I, a holdover from an Old English word, gecumen (yeh-KOO-man), meaning precisely what we already knew: arriving.

Sprinþ þe wde nu

Read, “Now springs (as in leaves emerging) the woodland.” W, U and V were problems for centuries. They were both consonants and vowels. In this case, W is pulling double duty, and there’s no vowel as we consider them for “woods.” We still call W double-u, and it was often spelled that way, UU. Pronounce the final e on wde: WOOD-eh.

lhouþ after calue cu

Here, we have almost as much fun as we’re going to have in this post — not quite. Read the line aloud as “loo-eth after cal-veh koo.”

The word order isn’t our standard subject-verb-object. In that order, we would write cu lhouþ after calue: “The cow lows (loweth) after its calf.” The poet needed a rhyme for nu, so put cu (cow) at the end. Writers still pull that trick, with mixed results. The line has more of that scribal use of U for V, giving us the unfamiliar form of calf. Cu is an ancient word, present in the earliest known written English.

ne swik þu nauer nu

The next-to-most-fun we’ll have. Almost dead-on Old English, both vocabulary and structure. We just learned nu is “now.” The entire construction’s archaic for us. Today, we’d say, “Now don’t ever stop,” literally, “nor stop thou never now.” More U for V.

Fun With Animals

One charming aspect of the song is that it’s told in terms of nature waking up as summer arrives: cuckoo, ewe/lamb, cow/calf; you’ve figured out bullock and buck — likely a male deer.

The bullock sterteth, meaning leaps; good enough. The buck, however, uerteth. You guessed it, the scribe meant V, verteth. (Read bucke BOOK-eh to make it scan.)

What doth one do when one verteth? Now the fun.

The Big Controversy

Believe it or not, that single word, verteth has generated a considerable amount of scholarly debate. It seemed to a number of scholars that it must be a previously unknown word, something like sterteth: the buck was leaping or “cavorting.” There was, however, later, a “consonant shift” — the sort of thing that happens in many languages over time.

By the time I was studying Middle English a number of decades ago, the discussion was more or less resolved. Consonant shift made that initial V our present day F sound, from a voiced labio-dental fricative to a voiceless one. That gives us a slightly recognizable word, ferteth.

Yes, friends, in spring, the bucke farteth. Many scholars resisted that reading, but it dates from a more elemental time.

Note: Original 13th century music exists for this song.


It is a form of Rota, or round, for several voices. See the Wikipedia link below for other versions, but here’s one recorded by the inimitable Richard Thompson.

I hope you enjoy a safe and happy sumer. Wear your mask, keep your eye on those swimmers in the water at all times, and if you’re out in the wde, don’t feed the animals, including the bucke.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Facsimile of the work held and digitized by the British Library, Harley MS 978. This version public domain via the Creative Commons agreement. No commercial use permitted without express permission.

Sources consulted include The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin, New York 2000; Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971; A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, J.R Clark-Hall, Wilder Publications, 2011. The Middle English Dictionary lhouþ citation at this link; © 2018 Regents of the University of Michigan; Medieval English Lyrics, © R.T. Davies, ed., 1963, Northwestern University Press, 1972 printing. An overview, including notes on the music for this piece, is at this Wikipedia link.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 25, 2020

Looking at Statues: Public Protest or Vandalizing?

I have one more thing to say about the attention being focused on statues of historical figures.

In my previous post, I described an act of public protest/defacement (your choice) of  the statue of the Spanish explorer, Juan Cabrillo, who commanded the first European exploration of the coast of California in 1542.

Cabrillo statue Brad Nixon 1997 sm

About a hundred yards from that molded concrete statue is a later one, less stylized, cast in bronze: Stephen M. White.

Stephen M White statue Brad Nixon 1594 (440x640)

You almost certainly won’t recognize that name.

Born in San Francisco in 1853, White studied law, was admitted to the bar and moved to Los Angeles, where he became the county’s district attorney.

In the 1890s, White led what became known as the “Free Harbor Fight.” Downtown Los Angeles is a number of miles inland from the Pacific. It lacked a port, which left the city unable to compete with San Francisco to the north and the small town of San Diego to the south, both of which were perched at the edge of easily accessible ocean harbors.

Railroad baron, Henry Huntington, began building a huge wharf into Santa Monica Bay, due west of Los Angeles. His goal was simple: If he owned the port, he and his railroad could collect fees on every ton of freight in and out of the growing city.

Twenty-five miles south of downtown, San Pedro Bay offered the prospect of an equally accessible, larger port. Already the home of the region’s nascent tuna and mackerel fishing industry, the bay served as the focus of an effort White directed with other civic leaders to establish it as the Port of Los Angeles. Here’s a small slice of the port today.

LA Port Brad Nixon 5805 (640x472)

To cut to the chase, White and the Free Harbor proponents prevailed. Today, there’s no sign of of the massive railroad wharf Huntington built in Santa Monica. The Port of Los Angeles, protected by an extensive breakwater begun early in the 20th century, originated by White, is now the busiest container shipping port in the United States.

I wrote more about White and the Free Harbor Fight at this link.

That statue of White looks out at the harbor he helped create.

LA Breakwater Brad Nixon 8386 680

On the night of June 21, 2020, protesters who defaced the nearby statue of Juan Cabrillo — presumably in protest of an oppressor of Native Americans, which he was — also dumped red paint on the White statue. Here, in a still from a fuzzy video from an eyewitness, posted on the website of The Daily Breeze newspaper.

White Screen Shot 2020-06-24

That surprised me. Local hero? Founding father of the port? What’s THAT? Why? Mob violence? We’re spray painting the Cabrillo statue: Let’s paint all the statues?

Mr. White’s career progressed from being L.A. district attorney to a seat in the California state senate. Eventually, he served one term as California’s first native-born U.S. Senator. During his time in the California senate — I now know — he argued in favor of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That act prohibited citizens of China from entering the United States, and denied Chinese citizens already resident here from attaining U.S. citizenship.

That’s likely the reason his statue was smeared with red paint.

His motivation? It’s probably impossible to say. It may have reflected some portion of his point of view. It may, though, have been a point of political expediency.

Anecdotal evidence from his life indicates Senator White had a considerable degree of empathy with Chinese immigrant families. His own state, California, was almost literally built on the backs of Chinese immigrants. Thousands of Chinese laborers  — “coolies” was the derogatory term, imported from British colonial India  — as well as other immigrant Italians, Irish, Poles, built the railroad grades, tunnels that opened California to the rest of the world, under almost impossibly severe conditions: freezing cold, broiling heat, short wages, near-starvation rations. At one point, approximately one-fourth of the daily laborers in California were of Chinese descent.

A wave of anti-immigrant fervor (read: anti-Asian; immigrants from Europe, including Poles, Czechs, Italians, Irish were streaming to the U.S., working at the same time on railroads, meat packing plants, for the same starvation wages) promoted president Arthur to put forward the Exclusion Act.

It’s one component of a long and notable career.

Looking at a statue? I’ve seen Mr. White’s statue, and the port he helped build. I’m there all the time. Looking, thinking. I think I’ll go take another look.

Across the main channel of the port from White’s statue is Terminal Island, once home to several thousand citizens of Japanese origin. The center of the biggest fishing industry on the west coast; 400 boats went out every day, the canneries worked 24/7. In 1942, we sent ’em to concentration camps, bulldozed their town, which they charmingly called “Furusato,” something equivalent to “home sweet home.”

There’s a statue there, helping us remember.

Japanese memorial M Vincent 2137 680

Welcome to Manzanar, Poston, Tule Lake, Lordstown, citizen. We’re all part of the melting pot, aren’t we?

Manzanar Brad Nixon 3668 680

The characters on the monument in the photo above, in the cemetery at Manzanar National Monument, read, approximately, “Soul Consoling Tower.”

What does a statue, a monument say? Nothing. It just stands there.

What do we say? That’s up to us. History is complex. It’s not one thing. It’s everything, all together, at once. Let’s use this opportunity to consider what statues say … and what is up for us to say.

I invite your comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Video still © George Matthews, San Pedro Caring Proactive Residents Clean Up Crew, The Daily Breeze, June 21, 2020

One dictionary definition of “statue” is “a three-dimensional form or likeness*.”

English is an inherently slippery, deceptive language. I think most of you may agree that there is a considerable difference between a “form” and a “likeness.”

Once we leap from impossibly abstract discussions about “what is a ‘likeness’?” we get down to the issue that’s in the news.

What if a statue depicts a historical figure? Why is a statue of that historical personage standing in or in front of a public building, or in a park? 

History, after all, is already written. Whether or not a statue commemorates or merely acknowledges history, facts are facts.

Aren’t they?

That is precisely the discussion — an often heated one — current both here in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“Facts” are facts, but how we interpret and represent them is complex. That’s the messiness inherent in being such complex creatures. If we were birds, lizards or spiders, statues might simply be convenient places on which to perch, warm ourselves in the sun or build nests. For humans, statues aren’t simply random objects: they signify, commemorate, memorialize.

Ah, there’s the rub.

What does a statue signify?

One statue, a few miles from me, is a case on point in the current “discussion.”

It’s a stylized depiction of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, commander of the first European expedition to explore the coast of what is now California in 1542. I wrote about the statue and its setting at this link.

For historical context, Cabrillo sailed into San Pedro Bay 22 years before Shakespeare was born, and five years before the birth of Miguel de Cervantes. Another world.

Cabrillo statue Brad Nixon 1984 sm

The heritage of California is different than that of the eastern United States. Here, the land was “settled” not by colonists of Dutch, English or French origin, but Spanish ones.

I live a few miles from where Cabrillo landed in what he named Bahía de San Pedro, now the harbor of Los Angeles. In 1542, the area had been occupied for between eight and 10,000 years by a number of indigenous inhabitants.

Cabrillo, the Spanish Conquistador, was the first European to arrive, followed by an ambitious wave of successors. They encountered a number of scattered but highly successful societies with distinctive cultures, religions, world-views.

Those communities, though, lacked certain attributes the Spanish — and their European contemporaries far to the east — possessed in abundance: metal tools, horses, cattle and sheep, gunpowder, a highly evolved military command-and-control  hierarchy and — impossible to quantify — a will to dominate.

Within a few decades, the Spanish on the coast of what is now California, Oregon and Washington had subjected local native populations to participating in establishing Nueva Espagna. The term for it was encomienda. In Spanish, that means, literally, “commissioned.” Locals were “commissioned” to work in building Spanish missions, farms, vineyards, manufactories. When the “commissioners” are holding guns, the connotations of that term are, at best, questionable.

Now, we’re left with a statue, erected in the 1930s, commemorating Cabrillo’s arrival.

What does it represent? What does it signify?

That’s the question that’s left to us.

Somewhere between sunset on June 21, 2020 and the next morning, someone spray-painted the word, “Colonizer” on the base of the Cabrillo statue, and spread red paint on his statue.


A dialectic that has been ongoing for some time has risen to the top of the news.

The question, even on the surface, doesn’t lend itself to simple answers.

Does an “observance” of Cabrillo’s arrival represent something that signifies more?

Does placing a statue near the place Cabrillo set foot on land not only commemorate the occasion, but enshrine it as something to be honored?

We cannot rewrite history. History has been recorded. We can’t change the past. We can, however, consider how we regard the framework from which we view it.

This event was reported in The Daily Breeze, a reputable newspaper that covers suburban southern Los Angeles, at this link:

Is the act of painting the Cabrillo statue vandalizing, or demonstrating? Have the actors involved defaced a monument, or raised a question we should ask?

The purpose of public protest, ultimately, is to ask the question: Why this, and not something else?

I admit, this act has caused me to ask the question.

I invite comments. Let us talk to one another. Who are we? What do statues represent, and what do they signify?

© Brad Nixon 2020

*American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language; © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. News photograph © George Matthews, San Pedro Caring Proactive Residents Clean Up Crew, The Daily Breeze, June 21, 2020

Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 19, 2020

Sleepless in Paris: When Marcel Met Jimmy

In my previous post, I marked the annual observance of Bloomsday — June 16th — the day on which all the events in James Joyces’ novel, Ulysses, occur.

In Paris, on May 18, 1922 — three months after the publication of Ulysses — Joyce arrived late for a dinner party in honor of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, who had just debuted a new ballet. Somewhat later in the evening, a Parisian native who hadn’t been expected showed up, despite a recent illness. Members of the Paris arts community were accustomed to unannounced appearances by that dark-haired, mustachioed man in his trademark fur collared coat: Marcel Proust.

One can play this sort of “what if” game ad infinitum: what if two famous contemporary figures, both either famous or eventually to become famous, had met?

Despite living in Paris at the same time, acquainted with more than a few of the same people, this was the only documented encounter between two writers who were simultaneously reshaping 20th century fiction.

Joyce, 40, was quickly gaining attention for Ulysses, on top of a certain standing in literary circles for his earlier Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

At 51, Proust was a highly recognizable figure in Paris. The first three (possibly 4: yours truly is not certain) of the eventual 7 volumes of his In Search of Lost Time were in print, and both Monsieur Proust’s work and his idiosyncratic lifestyle were widely discussed.

The hosts introduced the two men, who promptly sat next to one another.

What did James Joyce and Marcel Proust say to one another?

Accounts vary.

According to one account, as told at second hand to William Carlos Williams, Joyce complained about headaches and his failing eyesight. Proust — allegedly — countered by complaining about his (perennially problematic) stomach condition. Both writers, it’s true, endured a long litany of physical ailments. According to this story, both men decided their failing conditions required them each to get up and go home immediately. In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellman* considers this anecdote probably apocryphal.

One person present claimed that Proust declared he didn’t know Mr. Joyce’s work, Joyce said the same about M. Proust’s, and the conversation ended there. [It is entirely possible that both statements may have reflected the truth at the time, but it’s not certain either man said that. Years later, Joyce claimed to have read the first two volumes of A la recherche, but didn’t elaborate.]

Joyce, himself — ever the re-embroiderer of his own legend — gave several different accounts to various people, saying to one that Marcel asked his new acquaintance, Jim, if he liked truffles, and Jim said he did. To another, he said Proust asked repeatedly if Joyce knew one or the other “Duchess so-and-so,” but the Irishman knew none of the Parisian’s aristocratic circle.

Editorial opinion: One might regard anything Mr. Joyce said with at least aliquid salis: a pinch of salt.

In her account, the evening’s hostess said the party ended when Proust invited his hosts to his own apartment, and Joyce came along. However, Proust reportedly repaired to his bedroom to recover from exposure to evening air and taxi ride, soon after which Joyce left. Later, Joyce stated that he would have enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Proust in that quieter setting, but he had no patience — given the late hour — to await the reappearance of the notorious night owl, Marcel.

According to William C. Carter’s biography of Proust,** “Proust, presumably unimpressed with Joyce, never related the encounter to anyone who recorded it.” Carter relies for his account of the evening on Mr. Ellman’s biography, repeating most of the above anecdotes, and has nothing to add.

Two titans talk of truffles? Dublin lad and Parisian boy compare ailments?

Sorry, that’s all we have for that evening in Paris, May 18, 1922. Eight months later, James Joyce attended the funeral of Marcel Proust, who died November 18, 1922.

We do, however, have their books. Now they must speak for the authors.

What meeting of two famous figures would you like to have witnessed? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020

I recommend both the following biographies.

*The primary source for this blog post is James Joyce, New and Revised Edition, © Richard Ellman; Oxford University Press; New York, 1982.

**Also cited: Marcel Proust, A Life, William C. Carter; © Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2000.

Photos in the banner of this post are public domain. Both represent their subjects at younger ages than they were in 1922.

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