Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 31, 2021

Sir Gawain on the Big Screen, Part Two

Welcome to part two of my annual revisit of the Middle English verse romance, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (SG&tGK). For a summary of the primary plot points of the story, read Part One here.

This year, instead of focusing on the poem, as I usually do, I’m commenting on the 2021 film, “The Green Knight,” which is based on the poem.

There are film spoilers ahead, so please be advised.

Many Tales, Many “Gawains”

It’s important to note that this poem is only one of hundreds of Medieval stories in which Sir Gawain appears — sometimes as the principal character, more often as one of the numerous knights in Arthurian and chivalric tales. In some, he’s recognized as the epitome of knighthood: courageous, strong, courteous, honorable. In others, he’s portrayed as selfish, violent, even vicious, and sometimes he’s a laughable parody of knighthood.

In SG&tGK, Sir Gawain appears as the perfect knight. As the story begins, he’s seated in a place of honor at the head table next to Queen Guinevere, near his uncle, King Arthur.

Anyone writing a poem or story about Gawain, from the dawn of European literature to the present, can draw on innumerable aspects of this iconic figure, and you’ll find some of that at work in the current film’s retelling of SG&tGK. That’s how stories work: They evolve, and each tale-teller provides their own perspective.

Bringing the story from page to screen requires some changes in its telling.

I hope my comments will help you follow the film, which doesn’t spend much time explaining its background.

We Begin with Gawain

The film opens with a young, rambunctious Gawain — not yet a knight — visiting his girlfriend in a brothel. A stark contrast from the accomplished, highly regarded Sir Gawain we meet in the poem. According to writer/director David Lowery, he wanted to give Gawain more of a “journey” of development. The film is, then, a coming-of-age story.

It’s “Christmastide,” and King Arthur is presiding over two weeks of feasting at Camelot. 

At the feast on New Year’s Day, young Gawain takes his place amongst the throng of revelers at the castle. The king, his uncle, invites him to sit with him and the queen on the dais. 

A towering figure of a knight, eight feet tall, with skin, clothing and gear all green, surprises the partiers, riding his horse into the hall. He issues a challenge, daring anyone to exchange blows with him.

The untried, uncertain but proud Gawain accepts. Not yet a knight, he lacks a sword, and when he appeals to the gathering that someone lend him one, someone does: Arthur holds out the world’s most legendary blade, Excalibur.

In the poem, Gawain wields the enormous ax the Green Knight carries. As Arthur’s eldest next of kin, Gawain is the king’s likely heir, and there are Medieval tales in which he inherits Arthur’s realm, along with Excalibur, so there is a precedent for this departure from the poem.

Intercut with the scenes in the hall at Camelot, we’ve seen Gawain’s mother, Morgause, Arthur’s sister. She does not appear in the poem. In the film, Morgause is a witch, and it is she who has summoned the supernatural Green Knight to test the mettle of her brother’s Round Table. In the poem, the Green Knight materializes through the witchcraft of Arthur’s aunt, Morgan le Fay, who appears later, both in the film and in the poem.

While Gawain circles warily, brandishing Excalibur, the green knight dismounts, bares his neck and placidly awaits the blow. Gawain beheads him with one swing.

Magically, the headless body of the Knight rises and picks up its severed head by the hair. The head instructs Gawain to be at “The Green Chapel” on the next New Year’s Day to have his turn. The knight then remounts and rides away, swinging his head by his side.

Just as the poem says, one year later, Gawain girds himself with armor, sword, shield, and the Green Knight’s ax. On his trusty horse, Gringolet, he rides north out of Wales into the wilderness of Wirral in search of The Green Chapel, although he has no idea where it may be.

The poem describes — in compelling language no film could relate without a voiceover in Middle English — Gawain’s travails in that wild land. In the film, he does encounter some dire circumstances. Though they don’t match the poem’s adventures, they do equate with some hardships Gawain endures in a number of other Medieval tales, primarily one in which he’s overcome by bandits who take his armor, break his shield, and ride away with Gringolet, leaving Gawain on foot in the harsh winter landscape.

The Castle

As he wanders, Gawain comes upon a large castle, whose lord, recognizing Gawain by reputation as one of Arthur’s knights, welcomes him with warm hospitality. There Gawain meets the lord’s beautiful lady, as well as an aged, blindfolded woman who never speaks, and is never introduced.

That mysterious woman is Morgan le Fay in the poem, although she is never named in the film.

As in the poem, the lord informs Gawain that the object of his quest, The Green Chapel, is but a few hours’ ride from the castle. Gawain can take his ease until New Year’s Day and still keep his fateful appointment with the Green Knight.

His amiable host also proposes a game. Each day, he will go hunting, and whatever his hunt produces he will give to his guest. In turn, Gawain will give his host whatever his day in the castle yields him.

As in the poem, the game becomes problematic.

As films often do, this one compresses three days of Gawain’s stay into one. The character of the lady of the castle is greatly expanded into an intriguing woman who is clearly flirting with Gawain.

While the lord is out hunting the next morning, the lady invades Gawain’s bedroom and there’s a scene that is far more erotically charged than anything the poet would have written in the 13th century: She tempts Gawain to do something a dedicated knight’s code of conduct strictly forbids with a married woman. 

She also gives him a magical gift that she says will protect him from any harm. That would be an asset he could use, since he’s honor-bound to have the Green Knight cut off his head on New Year’s Day.

Then, Gawain flees the castle — something he does not do in the poem — rather than endure further the temptation the lady represents.

In his flight, he encounters the lord of the castle who’s just back from the hunt. 

Something important happens here. The lord knows Gawain has something the rules of the game require Gawain to give him — that magical gift — but Gawain keeps it, thus breaking a trust. That will cost him.

The filmmaker does something interesting in this scene: He has the lord give Gawain as the fruit of that day’s hunt a fox he caught, still alive. This fox has already followed Gawain during his long slog on foot to the castle, and now replaces the human guide the lord in the poem sends with Gawain to show him the way to the Green Chapel.

To the Green Chapel

As Gawain nears the Green Chapel, the fox speaks to him. He admonishes Gawain to go home, to avoid the deadly encounter he’s facing, and promises he’ll never say a word if Gawain turns away.

The talking fox is part of the magic theme that runs through the film, but is less overt in the poem.

Gawain, bound by his vow, continues, and reaches the forbidding Green Chapel.

There, on New Year’s Day, he kneels and bares his neck for the ax blow from the fearsome Green Knight.

In the poem, the Knight does bring down that ax, but only grazes Gawain’s neck. It’s a lesson in ethics: By relying on the magic of the Lady’s gift and not keeping to the rules of the lord’s game, Gawain has failed as an exemplar of knightly honor. 

The film stops just short of that final fall of the ax. It leaves us to wonder what judgment will fall on Gawain. Those who know the poem have a fair idea of what’s to come. The filmmaker gives us a hint.

Yes, movies are different than poems. Stories can be told in many ways.

I recommend “The Green Knight” film as I do the poem. At this writing, the film is available on some streaming services. I watched on DVD, courtesy of my local library.

As I say every year at this time, happy New Year, and Hony soyt qui mal pence.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. Photos copyright A24 Productions 2021.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 30, 2021

Sir Gawain on the Big Screen, Part One

Each year as New Year approaches, I celebrate by re-reading the Middle English poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (SG&tGK), composed in about 1400.

Over the years, I’ve written about numerous aspects of this old poem, from the language, the characters, to problems of translation into modern English, and just what it is about a 14th century poem that still might speak to us 700 years after its composition.

This year, I have a new way to examine this favorite story of mine: a review of a 2021 motion picture, “The Green Knight,” based on the poem.

One of my personal interests is how filmmakers adapt works of literature. Movies, obviously, are inherently different than words on a page. 

While it follows the narrative framework of the poem, this new screen version of “Gawain” is notable for the way in which it’s not a mere representation, but what I’d call an imaginative retelling — or interpretation — of SG&tGK. It’s interesting.

I’ll do this in two parts.

First, for the benefit of film viewers who may not know the poem, I’ll outline in this post the primary events of the poem that the movie incorporates.

In a following post, I’ll discuss how the film treats this core narrative, how it extemporizes on it, and provide my opinion on how well the movie “works.”

Your “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Outline

It’s Christmastide, and King Arthur presides over 15 days of merriment, jousts and feasting at Camelot. Present are all the noble knights of the Round Table, ladies of the court, and an army of servers, courtiers, musicians, etc.

At the feast on New Year’s Day, Arthur keeps to his personal code, declining to eat not only until all are served, but until he’s heard some marvelous tale, or witnessed some joust, game or entertaining diversion.

At that moment, a thing beyond the experience of any of those battle-hardened, far-traveled knights occurs. In through the hall door rides a man on a horse. Not just any man. He’s eight feet tall, on a horse of equal scale. The man, the horse, and all their apparel and gear are green. In his hand, this uncanny figure holds a bough of holly, a sign of peaceful intent.

The apparition rides into the midst of the throng and issues a challenge. In his hand is an ax of inordinate measure. Whosoever of those present is willing will exchange blows with that weapon. Any challenger gets one swing at the Green Knight with the ax. One year thence, the Green Knight will return the blow to the challenger.

Silence falls in the hall. Ultimately, Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, accepts. The Green Knight dismounts, bares his neck and placidly awaits the blow. Gawain beheads him with one swing.

Miraculously, the headless body of the Knight rises, picks up its severed head by the hair, and the head instructs Gawain to be at the Green Chapel on the next New Year’s day to have his turn. The Knight remounts, carrying his head, and rides away.

One year later, Gawain girds himself with armor, sword, shield, plus the Green Knight’s ax. Astride his trusty horse, Gringolet, he rides north out of Wales into the wilderness of Wirral in search of The Green Chapel, although he has no idea where it may be.

On the way — according to the poem — Gawain encounters innumerable challenges and hardships: there’s a fierce foe at every bridge or ford; he fights with dragons, wolves, wild men, bulls, bears, boars and giants.

Worse, though, is the icy, rainy winter that freezes him in his armor in that hostile land.

By chance, on Christmas Eve, he encounters a marvelously large castle, where he’s welcomed by the lord, who knows Gawain by reputation as one of Arthur’s knights. As an honored guest, Gawain is given the run of the castle, warm clothes, sumptuous meals, accompanied not only by the lord of the castle, but also by his beautiful lady, as well as an aged, wrinkled woman who never speaks and is never introduced by name.

Better still, the lord informs Gawain that the object of his quest, the Chapel, is but a few hours’ ride from the castle. Gawain can take his ease until New Year’s Day and still keep his fateful appointment with the Green Knight.

In the ensuing days, the lord engages Gawain in a game. Each day, the host will ride out hunting, and whatever his hunt produces he will give to his guest. In turn, Gawain will give his host whatever his day in the castle yields him.

This becomes problematic.

Each morning, once the lord has gone hunting on horseback with a host of retainers, the lady invades Gawain’s bedroom and engages in some erotic teasing of this worthy knight, tempting him toward something a dedicated knight’s code of conduct strictly forbids with a married woman.

Suffice it to say that Gawain manages, barely, to adhere to his knightly standards, returning to the lord the kisses he’s received from the lady, but he does get something else from his hostess which he should then — according to the game — give in turn to the lord, but does not. (It’s something magical that will, ostensibly, protect Gawain from any harm — for example the edge of an enormous ax — and Gawain keeps it for himself.)

On New Year’s Day, the host sends one of his retainers to guide Gawain, and they set off for The Green Chapel. The guide takes Gawain far enough to point the way, but indicates he has no intention of going further because the Chapel is a perilous place, inhabited by a fearsome man of indomitable strength who shows no mercy to any intruder. He advises Gawain to go home, and promises he’ll never say a word if Gawain simply turns away.

Gawain chooses to fulfill his vow, continues, and reaches the forbidding gloom of the Green Chapel. There, he kneels and bares his neck for the ax-blow from the fearsome Green Knight.

In the poem, the Knight brings down his ax, but only grazes Gawain’s neck. It’s a lesson in ethics: By relying on the magic of the Lady’s gift, not keeping to the rules of the lord’s game, Gawain has failed as an exemplar of knightly honor. 

How does the film version end? That’s what we’ll learn in the next post at this link.

Copyright 2021 Brad Nixon

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 19, 2021

Life in the Supply Chain: Supplemental

In my previous post, I provided a high-level survey of some challenges facing the world’s ports as they scale up to clear away an unprecedented backlog of ships laden with cargo, many of them stalled off the coasts of nearly every continent, while demand builds. That’s what’s been called the “supply chain” problem,” if you’ve been following the news.

My example — because it’s just down the street from me — was the combined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Together, those ports manage nearly 40 per cent of the maritime shipping in and out of the United States.

With only minor variations, the story is the same at all ports, not only in the U.S., but worldwide: That kitchen gadget, your hoped-for refrigerator or bottle of olive oil is packed into a 20- or 40-foot shipping container, which — along with 20,000 other containers — is sitting on a ship that’s parked outside a port in Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, Galveston, Savannah, Norfolk or … anywhere.

The photo above shows only one portion of one of the many freight terminals at the combined southern California ports. Tens of thousands of containers are being shifted daily, to and from ships, onto trucks and railroad trains.

How can it even be possible to move one container from a ship to land, then to the correct warehouse or distributor in order to show up on the shelf in your store?

At one level, the answer is simple: Every container has a unique number. Somewhere, in some database, someone knows the contents of that container and where it should go.

The trick, of course, is to get the right container onto the correct truck, train or ship to get it to your store.

How good are they?

From a vantage point above that freight terminal, I watched one forklift operator for about five minutes.

In the photo below, I’m looking at the far right side of that mass of containers in the photo above.

The fork lift operator has set a container measuring 20 feet by 8 feet (6.1m x 2.44m) on a stack of similar boxes.

Take a moment to look at that field of containers. Someone — not I — knows not only where each one of them is, but what’s in them.

Then, by means unknown to ordinary mortals, the forklift operator knows precisely where to go to place the NEXT 20-foot container onto the NEXT stack.

There, just in time, as the management handbooks advise, a truck pulls up with precisely the container that should be exactly there.

The forklift operator picks the container off the chassis and places it where it belongs.

Someone knows it’s there. It may be your olive oil. Or it might be 10,000 boxes of Legos, bound for toy stores.

On the comms channel, a dispatcher sends the truck driver back into the queue to pick up another container. Another dispatcher sends the forklift operator to the next spot to offload another container.

The dance goes on, and never stops. Ships float in and out, lifts and cranes, trucks and railroads roll, and we have our shopping lists in hand. Furniture? A new laptop? A new car? No! I need olive oil. Where’s the darned olive oil? The one from Italy, not Spain, Portugal or Greece.

Meanwhile, in a thousand ports across the globe, from Tianjin and Shanghai to Tacoma, San Diego or Savannah, a million other containers are being offloaded from ships, stacked up in freight yards, taken off trucks or placed onto other trucks or railroad cars and moved across continents.

Eventually, you pull that bottle of olive oil off the shelf in your local grocery store.

How did it get there?

Looking out at the port, I have to admit, I have no idea where to find the olive oil.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. One photo courtesy of M. Vincent, copyright 2021. All rights reserved.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 18, 2021

Life in the Supply Chain: At the Port

You know about the ongoing troubles in the world’s shipping, distribution and delivery industries. The phrase, “supply chain” is ubiquitous in the news.

Just two miles from where I sit, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest ports in the United States.

Today, the ports are jam-packed. Due to a cascade of causes, approximately 70 oceangoing freighters are waiting — sometimes for many days — in holding areas outside the ports.

Below is a display showing vessels currently in the ports as I type.

Green symbols are cargo ships. Most of those are container ships, although there are also petroleum tankers, automobile carriers, bulk carriers (chemicals, etc) and a variety of other large vessels.

Dark blue icons are passenger boats, including cruise ships.

Light blue dots are tugboats and a variety of other work boats, and the clusters of pink dots are private boats gathered in marinas.

It’s a busy place.

The next graphic shows ships at anchor outside the breakwater or seawall.

As you can see, the anchorage is full of those green dots. That view, however, doesn’t show dozens more ships holding positions farther offshore, waiting for a spot in the anchorage.

Here’s a photo of a portion of the anchorage, looking from approximately the upper left corner of the above graphic, across the breakwater.

Long Beach has recently amped up to run 24/7, and L.A. is preparing to do so.

Why, you ask, didn’t they do that sooner and move freight through at a faster rate?

It’s not Simple

The cargo terminals are enormous enterprises. This is one of scores.

Adding shifts requires more than bringing on more skilled operators to run those towering gantry cranes.

Before I address loading and unloading of ships at a faster rate, there’s the issue of moving more ships in and out of the ports.

The equivalent of “air traffic control” for the port is the Marine Exchange.

Operating around the clock, the Exchange tells ships when they can enter or leave the port, when and where they should anchor if they’re waiting (it’s assigned seating only in the anchorage), or if they need to hold between 20 and 100 miles offshore.

Ultimately the U.S. Coast Guard has to be satisfied that traffic levels in the port are within their scope, because ships are subject to a variety of safety, security, immigration and environmental regulations. Here’s U.S. Coast Guard Base Los Angeles/Long Beach.

A number of federal, state and municipal agencies have some jurisdiction over the loading and unloading of cargo, and all of them need to have the resources available if traffic multiplies. Take, for example, the Los Angeles and Long Beach fire departments, which have a number of stations, crews and both land based and waterborne vehicles. They include LBFD’s mighty Fireboat Protector.

(I wrote about LAFD’s equivalent big fire boat at this link.)

Ready to Bring in a Ship? Not Quite.

No large commercial ship moves through these ports (or any of the world’s large ports) without a Port Pilot. Navigating 1,000 foot-long ships through narrow, busy channels is a highly specialized skill. Pilots are specially trained, certified and engaged by their ports to guide commercial traffic in and out. There are a finite number of pilots at any port, so they have to be scheduled in advance if the rate of traffic increases.

Here are pilot boats at the Port of Los Angeles that ferry pilots to and from ships entering or leaving.

I wrote more about port pilots at this link.

In addition to skill and knowledge, Pilots use one extremely powerful tool to help navigate ships through the port and in and out of their berths: tugboats.

Cargo ships aren’t highly maneuverable. With their enormous mass and great length, they require supplemental power to navigate in often crowded, narrow ports. Tugboats represent one more resource a ship requires before entering — or leaving — port. The tugboat in the above photo is literally tugging on a line from the stern of that ship to help the Pilot steer it through the channel.

Bring in the Boat

Finally, once there’s an available berth, a ship enters the harbor, docks and begins unloading. I’ll describe a container ship. The cargo aboard other types of ships requires different handling, but is equally as demanding.

A container ship may have 20,000 containers aboard. The initial work is done by those towering gantry cranes, as shown above.

Once containers are off the ship, they have to go … somewhere.

A variety of specialized haulers move the thousands of containers on land. One workhorse is the mobile crane. Some move freely on tires, others move back and forth along rails.

There are smaller mobile cranes, specialized forklifts, small trucks and multiple railroad lines.

Eventually, the containers leave the port. Some go onto other ships, more go onto freight trains (the port has its own railroad with more than 80 miles of track), but even more are hauled away on over-the-road trucks.

Thousands of trucks queue up around the clock at the port’s terminals.

Add to these demands the requirement that ships be maintained, refueled and resupplied while they’re in port, all services that have to be in place to handle additional traffic.

People!

Obviously, those cranes, machines, railroad engines and trucks don’t operate themselves. Add another shift? Add more people: a lot of people. Truck drivers are in especially short supply, not just in the U.S., but in many global economies. Without enough trucks, cargo of all sorts is accumulating at ports everywhere, with limited space in which to stage it.

I shot the photo below 24 hours ago: a portion of one of the port’s many terminals. That suggests the scope of how much freight has to be unloaded, sorted and shipped, in a never-ending stream.

The Port of LA, alone, employs something on the order of half a million people, directly or indirectly.

There are armies of clerks, traffic managers warehouse staff, security personnel, in addition to the resources mentioned above.

That’s an oversimplified look at why you may not find every shopping list item already on the shelf. The work goes on: soon, around the clock.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. Truck photo courtesy M. Vincent, copyright 2021. Port traffic graphics retrieved from marinetraffic.com on Nov. 16, 2021. All rights reserved to contributors.

It’s time again to celebrate the ultimate American contribution to world cuisine, chili.

November is National Chili Month.

Cooking at Under Western Skies is typically a collaboration. For this year, my creative fellow blogger at My Eclectic Cafe also proposed the visual approach, in addition to consulting on the recipe. See below for more about that.

This recipe includes three staples of the southwestern Native American diet.

First, the ingredient that is de rigeur — without which a dish is simply not chili — a chile or pepper of the genus Capsicum. In this case, I use a variety of C. annuum, the guajillo chile.

Guajillos are widely used in a wide range of Mexican and southwestern Native American cuisine. You may have encountered them if you’ve had mole. They’re dried forms of the mirasol chile. Guajillos are moderate in heat, and have a dark, mildly smoky flavor. The international section of your grocery probably has a rack of packaged spices and peppers, and that’s the best place to look for them.

The major ingredient in this recipe is either hominy or posole, almost-identical versions of corn (maize, to some readers). I’ve taken the simple route, using canned hominy. Posole comes in dried form, and requires considerable cooking time.

The other native food in this recipe is beans. Beans were a reliable source of protein in prehistoric times, and still today, especially when cooking a vegetarian dish, as is today’s. The native Mesoamericans would have used what we call an Anasazi bean. Because I’m going for a lightly golden color, I’ve used Great Northern beans.

I added some winter vegetables, but this is an eminently adjustable recipe, and vegetable add-ins are up to you.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons of olive oil or other vegetable oil

3 guajillo chiles. Cut the ends and get the seeds out.

1 medium onion, diced

2 or 3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 Anaheim or Fresno (green) pepper, diced

Approximately 3 cups of vegetable broth. Preferably as clear as possible.

1 large can of hominy, approximately 25 – 28 ounces, drained and washed

1 medium turnip, sliced into 1/2-inch cubes

2 carrots, orange, yellow or white, sliced into rounds

1 14-ounce can of white beans, drained and washed

Approximately 1 tsp salt, to your taste

Cooking

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed cooking pot. Sizzle the onion for several minutes, add the garlic, mix it in, then add the green pepper. Saute until onion is translucent and chile is tender.

Add the broth, hominy and guajillos. Gauge how much liquid you prefer in your chili. Some cooks prefer a soupier chili. Here at UWS, we prefer one that’s thicker. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

Add the turnips, carrots, beans and salt. Taste the chili. At some point you may determine it has enough flavor and heat from the guajillos. At that point, remove them. Tastes differ. Here at UWS, we like our chili spicy. Cover and simmer for another 30 minutes.

Now, you’re tasting for chile flavor, heat and salt, as well as to make certain the hominy is cooked: toothsome, not mushy or too chewy. (I removed 2 of my guajillos after 30 minutes, the 3rd after 1 hour.)

Once you’re satisfied, you have chili.

One final step you can consider is to puree a portion of the chili. That gives the chili a thicker texture, which some chili fanciers (including us here in the UWS kitchen) prefer. It’s your call. I used a “wand” or “stick” to puree the chili in the pot.

To Serve

Garnish your chili as you wish, for both flavor and color. We went multimedia, using slices of radish and chopped cilantro. Cheese is always a chili standby, but it’s all up to you.

You’ll want a crispy salad to round out the meal. Accompany your chili with some crusty bread, warm tortillas or — as we did — piping hot corn muffins.

Results?

The UWS Test Kitchen chefs were pleased with the result. Your chili will inevitably be different as you tailor it to your taste.

How a dish presents is also important. Here is our plating, courtesy of my collaborator and food stylist.

There are a number of things to be said about the above photo. For one, it’s an homage to one of the most accomplished contemporary American painters of the past century, who’s still painting as his 101st birthday approaches on November 15th.

His art was the inspiration my collaborator and consulting chef on this project followed in styling and photographing the chili. To learn more, I refer you to her photos and comments at My Eclectic Cafe. Please click on that link to see more photos and learn about our featured artist.

Prep time @ 30 minutes. Cooking time 1-1/2 – 2 hours. Serves 4 hungry people as a main course.

Happy National Chili Month.

Note: If your favorite cookbook or recipe website has a recipe for posole, it will almost certainly be, by definition, a form of chili, since most posole recipes use a variety of chile. Improvise on mine above, or take off from theirs. Comer con gusto.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. Chili bowls photo courtesy M. Vincent, copyright 2021.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 4, 2021

Twelfth Anniversary: My Most Immemorial Year

If the phrase in title the seems familiar, it comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s “To – – – Ulalume: A Ballad.”

The skies they were ashen and sober;
      The leaves they were crispéd and sere—
      The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
      Of my most immemorial year;

Granted, it’s November now, not October.

Twelve years ago, on November 4, 2009, I began Under Western Skies. This is blog post 901.

“Immemorial” is an interesting word. Poe had a reasonably thorough education in language, and knew that it didn’t mean what seems the simplest definition: “not memorable.” It means something rather more like “reaching beyond memory” or “from time out of mind.”

Of those past 12 years, this one has been the most immemorial, insofar as my blog memorialized little of it, making it seem like a time now beyond memory. I can count only a dozen blog posts during that span: scarcely one per month.

As I look back on my least productive year as a blogger, I’m hard pressed to explain why it is I had so little inclination to write more.

It has been — if anything — a most memorable year: a changing of the guard in the United States; gradual turning of the tide of awareness about climate change; not to mention the continuing, compelling crisis on a worldwide scale of the Covid-19 pandemic.

All those topics not only concern me; they also interest me. Why didn’t I write more?

Keeping Track

I can’t say that it was a “lost” year, beyond memory. In fact, by April 2020, as we and the rest of the world shifted the patterns of our lives inward — staying home unless necessary, taking extraordinary precautions to avoid casual contact with other people — I realized that it would be possible to lose many days in a repeating pattern of being home-centered. I began logging what occupied each day, to validate that The Counselor and I were, indeed, busy, doing a variety of things.

While many of the log entries are quotidian — What was the weather? What did we cook? What were we reading? — we were, that log demonstrates, actively engaged. We embarked on a number of household projects, we both pursued our interests in photography, took interesting walks, even expanded our bread baking skills.

No, the year is not beyond memory, nor was there any lack of potential blog post material: lines of shoppers on dark, early mornings in search of scarce commodities; walks that took us past interesting locations in the city, down by the port or along the ocean.

I simply didn’t write them.

No Lack of Things to Write

I even skipped writing a few of the mainstay topics that have regularly appeared here for more than a decade. I reported on a scant few local sights of interest. I wrote no mid-year or end of year summary of books I’d read. There was no celebration of National Library Week nor — for the first time ever — did I comment on my annual New Year’s reading of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

Did that pandemic-driven inward focus — “hunkering down” became a popular English phrase — predispose me not to project my observations? That’s the most reasonable explanation I can contrive.

Still masked in Los Angeles, we may have some latitude to cautiously venture out again, with dawning hope that the levels of coronavirus infection are declining. I’ll take that as my cue to — I hope — write more regularly. I should, for example, observe November as National Chili Month, post haste. It’s been a favorite topic for me.

A Note to Readers

On each anniversary of this blog, I acknowledge one of the greatest pleasures I’ve derived from maintaining it: contact with readers all over the globe. For those of you still with me, or those visiting for the first time, I hope you’re experiencing some similar sense that we may yet emerge from beneath this cloud. Thank you for reading. Although our losses have been great — including millions of lives — we go on.

Oobop Shebam

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 20, 2021

Me and Algy

Back in ’99 — 1899, that is — Algy and I used to cover wide swaths of London, back in those years in which he’d retired with Watts-Dunton to The Pines, down in Putney, not at all a particularly prestigious part of the city.

It was an odd time to be in London.

Rosetti, Burne-Jones, and William Morris had died within the past few years, and the town felt empty.

My acquaintance, Sherlock Holmes, had just invited our mutual friend, John Watson (Holmes being rather pressed for funds) to share his digs on Baker Street. I knew John from our student days, and I’m sorry Holmes and and Algernon never met, because who knows what might’ve come from that encounter. Algernon never expressed any interest in meeting the consulting detective, despite my best effort to make it happen.

We did occasionally cross Putney Bridge to drop in to see Lord Tennyson. He always detested that I addressed him as “Al,” preferring the “Lord” title Victoria had bestowed on him, despite the fact that he was simply another middle-class kid from Lincolnshire.

“Hey, Al” I’d say. “Been out to Windsor lately?” and Lord Tennyson would level a fierce look at me, then turn to Algy.

“What about you?” he’d ask. “Written anything shorter than 10,000 lines lately, or are you still suffering from logorrhea? Someone has to be Poet Laureate once I’m gone, and all fingers point to you.”

I have to admit, Lord Tennyson did serve an admirable cup of tea, but our visits there tended to be brief. The guy was insufferably proud of his Poet Laureate status, and never failed to rub it in with ol’ Algy, and there was always a certain edge to those conversations.

Only once, I managed to lure Swinburne out of London. Watts-Dunton collaborated with me, arguing with Algy that if we didn’t do it then, we’d miss our chance. I met them at Paddington Station, Ed and I (although he hated being called that, and insisted on “Theodore”) got Algy hauled into a carriage and we were on our way to the Lake District.

John Ruskin’s estate, Brantwood, on Coniston Water (not far from where my own grandfather was born) was as idyllic a place as one could dream of. Once we were seated, in front of me were two of the masters of the English language (not to mention Greek and Latin), Swinburne and Ruskin.

And I waited.

Mr. Ruskin, I’m sorry to report, was near the end of things, and I’m not certain he knew Mr. Swinburne had been pointed to (although not appointed) as the likely future Laureate.

Algy, after all those hours in the train, looked as if he needed a pint, or perhaps several of them. Having personal experience of what a pint or two elicited from the potential Laureate, I said nothing, and the day drew down to anticlimax.

A dozen years later— with both Algy and Ruskin gone — Marcel got my name from John Watson (by then dissociated from Mr. Holmes) and made contact with me via the then still novel invention of the telephone. 

He was then translating Ruskin’s “Amiens Bible,” and asked me if I had any personal recollections, since he knew I’d met Mr. Ruskin. He was particularly interested to learn about what he understood to’ve been a meeting between Mr. Ruskin and the English poet, Algernon Swinburne.

“Ah, je regrette, Marcel. It was not very notable. There was one odd moment, though, which you might find interesting.”

“Eh, ca c’etoit quoi?

“It seems odd to relate after all these years, Marcel, but Algy told this story about dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea. It seemed to’ve made a significant impression on him. He said it was the one thing he always thought of, attempting to recapture some lost time. Does that even make sense?”

“Eh, peut-etre. I will think about that. Thank you for talking to me.”

That was the last time I heard from Marcel. I don’t know whatever became of him.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. And, no, I never spoke with Marcel Proust, nor walked around London with Algernon Swinburne, however much I’d’ve liked to, and this is a work of fiction.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 12, 2021

Only Collect

Human beings, it seems, are inherently prone to collect things. It must originate from our earliest days as a species, when we sought and collected food for survival: Existence depended on our success as food collectors. Later, we gathered wood for fires, stones and bones to use as tools (or weapons), and so on.

Once we developed some technology, we made and collected first plants for basketry and then clay for pottery in which we could collect food and water. We learned more sophisticated things to do with stones, and ended up with prized collections of scrapers, arrowheads, axes, grinders and even sewing needles.

Today, some people collect those ancient stones, tools, baskets and pottery, not to use them, but to enjoy looking at them and — yes — occasionally to sell them for more than they paid.

Sometimes, though, things just pile up, without having been actively gathered or garnered.

Dust accumulates, as does worn-out clothing, old magazines and ideas for great stories or blog posts that simply don’t play out. Ahem.

I’ve actively collected my share of things: rocks and fossils, old rulers and measuring tools, vintage dinnerware, books, and have the storage boxes to prove it.

It occurred to me recently that there’s a classification of things here at Under Western Skies HQ which seem to have accumulated on their own and — without any effort from me — have formed a collection: bookmarks. In fifteen minutes of searching around the manse, I found these:

You can see they came from a variety of sources: libraries and bookstores, publishers, philanthropic organizations, museums.

Very few of them came here intentionally. They simply arrived and took up residence.

In other words, “collect” can be both transitive and intransitive.

One can actively collect bookmarks (which people do), in which case the verb has an object: That’s a transitive verb.

On the other hand, dust, old shoes and bookmarks simply accumulate in the intransitive sense: they collect.

Which seems to’ve happened with our bookmarks. Yes, I’ve intentionally picked up a few of them along the way, but they’ve also arrived in the mail or shown up in books acquired in yard sales or library used book sales.

Some of the earliest bookmarks were vellum, fabric or leather, often attached to the binding in order to protect books, which were — in early times, inexpressibly valuable.

Some books, like the one below from the Modern Library, still have that feature.

Heaven forbid that you mark where you fell asleep with some casual slip of paper. This is Willa Cather, after all!

Investigating the business of collecting bookmarks, I’ve learned there are serious collectors of the genre. Bookmarks apparently showed up soon after the first manuscripts were sewn into codices, right around Zero A.D., and there are extant examples from at least the sixth century.

Admittedly, the Under Western Skies library includes few manuscripts or bookmarks from the sixth century.

At various times in the past century and a half, and still today, decorative bookmarks have taken a variety of forms, made of fabric, leather, even precious metal — sometimes enormously elaborate.

Why not have an attractive, well-designed bookmark while reading a great work of literature? It can only enhance the experience.

I have at least one bookmark in that category, an embossed leather one with an Art Deco design I received as a gift. Here it is paired with a work of literature that was one of the first subjects of this blog, a dozen years ago: Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” marking that memorable passage: the madeleine episode.

The mass-produced, printed bookmarks that accumulated here are something else. They are, strictly speaking, promotional pieces. The word for items like this in the collecting biz is “ephemera.”

In the serious world of marketing, everything depends on identifying a target audience and sending them a message that induces (incites? motivates? compels?) them to buy or do something.

Who defines readers of books as their audience?

Obviously, as those bookmarks demonstrate, publishers and book stores print bookmarks. So do museums, assuming their clientele are readers. There are theaters, arts organizations and so on.

A bookmark makes a difference. No one wants to get a book from the library or — worse — loan a book to a friend to find the corners of the pages turned down. Use a bookmark! Even if it’s a playing card, colorful autumn leaf or a theater ticket.

Have a favorite bookmark? How’d you acquire it? Any collectors of bookmarks out there? Please leave a comment.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 7, 2021

On Leaving Facebook

A few weeks ago, after years of being one of its ever-growing number of participants, I resigned from Facebook.

There are a lot of reasons to be a Facebook subscriber — good and bad, positive and negative — depending on your point of view.

I had excellent reasons to be part of The Social Network. There are all these siblings, cousins, friends; not to mention the sons and daughters of those people, and Facebook let them tell me — and most of humanity — what was happening at some human level, once removed.

One of the reasons to subscribe was that a few people saw this blog posted there.

There are also plenty of reasons to quit.

Like most subscribers — or so I think — I’d weeded out (“unfriended”) the irritating people who inherently opposed whatever it is I believe to be so. Some of them — as I thought more than once — would never have wanted their sainted mothers back in Iowa to see the horrific things they posted there. But their mothers are either gone to their eternal reward or don’t subscribe to Facebook.

As a result, I occupied my own bubble of siblings, nieces and nephews, friends and former colleagues who are more or less of one world view as I. With — I must say — really cute photos.

Still, it wasn’t enough for Facebook.

Yeah, yeah, okay, I did sign up to belong to a few groups with interests in things like old neon signs and pictures of iridescently colored birds that live in tropical climates.

Why, then, did that subject me to an incessant barrage of promotional messages from companies that wanted to sell me water filtration systems or ways to improve my quality of life by ingesting drugs not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration?

That, in the end, was what did it.

No, we cannot be responsible for every act or lobbying effort by every company included in our IRAs or 401Ks, try as we might. But, really, Facebook, does every other message that shows up have to try to sell me something I neither want, need nor care about?

I wearied of clicking “not relevant,” because there was always some other pitch Facebook’s algorithm thought might be “more relevant.”

So I quit.

I miss seeing the photos of kids who are now 65 years younger than I am, and will only see a limited number of times again. Send ’em to me in an email.

It’s unfair, of course, to invoke people who lived in another era, long before the concept of “social media” existed as avatars.

Still, somehow, Tolstoy wrote compellingly about Napoleon’s march on Moscow, and wrote a book about it, years after it happened.

Had there been Facebook, Tolstoy followers would’ve inundated his author page, second-guessing his description of how it was that Napoleon, whose troops burnt down a considerable portion of Moscow, had to retreat, and — in the course of things — lost a third of a million humans to frostbite and starvation.

Dante imagined hell, and had there been social media in Florence in the 14th century, well ….

Even earlier, once Beowulf had knocked off Grendel, one can only imagine what Grendel’s mother’s followers (and, I point out, no author in the history of the language has ever written “Grendel’s mother’s followers”) would’ve warned her about Beowulf’s superhuman ability to hold his breath under water while wielding a mighty sword.

Still, one can imagine ol’ Beowulf, hunched down there in Heorot, once he’d dispatched Grendel and his mother, paging through endless dross on his laptop, clicking “Not relevant” to endless appeals for the latest: “We Make Your Viking Funeral a Snap,” or “Call us if you need dragon-slaying gear.”

If only he had known.

And even earlier, one can only imagine Agamemnon’s followers, after ten years, camped there outside the besieged city of Troy:

“Ag, baby. Forgive Achilles and let him go out there and face Hector. And sign up for our no-risk one-year warranty on all armor at a special introductory rate!”

And, at the end of the string of western literature — after Agamemnon, Beowulf, Dante and Tolstoy — we have Jake and Brett in that cab, rolling through the streets of Madrid. Brett is paging through her iPad and shows it to Jake.

“Look at this,” she says. “One of your followers. She says you should forget all this nonsense and live with me.”

“Ah,” Jake says. “Yes. Wouldn’t it be be pretty to think so?”

And so I (and Jake and Agamemnon, Dante, Leopold and Beowulf) left Facebook.

Copyright Brad Nixon, 2021

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 2, 2021

Fire! Grab Your Pulaski.

As you must know, we’ve been sweltering in the midst of a blazing summer here in the American southwest.

In recent months, fire has burned more than two million acres of forest land, and driven hundreds of people from their homes.

“Fire” is an interesting word.

Compact, only four letters, “fire” has — for most of the English-speaking world — two syllables.

It’s an old word, recorded in the earliest versions of English, when it was “fyr,” and may have been pronounced as a single syllable, still extant in some parts of England and currently in the southern United States as “fahr.”

A word to reckon with. Wherever you are, don’t cry “Fire!” and not expect a response.

As I type, wildfires are consuming hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, grassland and chaparral across the American west and southwest. That is not hyberbole. If anything, it’s an understatement.

Some of the world’s largest and oldest trees — Sequoias — are at the absolute edge of catastrophe.

In this new world of an overheated planet, fires are also burning in Sardinia, Turkey, Siberia and … too many places to count.

Ignited by lightning, sparking power lines, human carelessness, they’re burning. Some of this season’s fires — and “fire season” has become a nearly year-round event — are, as in most years, in some of the most rugged, remote terrain imaginable.

Tens of thousands of firefighters are at work in heat, low humidity, sometimes nearly surrounded by flame, smoke and blowing embers. That’s not an exaggeration. A single fire in northern California currently has more than 6,300 members of fire teams at work. They work in demanding conditions, with different strategies and tactics than the emergency crews who staff your local fire station. Their primary task is not the standard image of extinguishing structure fires — although it sometimes comes to that.

Instead, they work in steep, rugged back country, clearing fire-breaks, intending to stop or at least slow the advance of what can only be called walls of flame, some of them so intense that they create columns of heat that generate weather of tornadic power.

Both sorts of firefighting require skill and training, not to mention daunting physical labor.

Battling wildfires, crews carry the tools they use into those forbidding environments.

I grin in a self-effacing way when I say that I’ve hiked on trails across the west and southwest in some of that country. Hiking a trail and looking at the untracked wilderness to either side of me, I can only imagine the labor it requires to cut across canyons and climb slopes across unforgiving terrain.

Those crews don’t carry the hoses and ladders of urban firefighting, but shovels, axes, chainsaws and a tool specifically developed for back country fire-fighting: the Pulaski.

Often called — not quite correctly — a pickaxe, the Pulaski combines two functions critical for wild land firefighting. The horizontal blade — technically an “adze” or “mattock” — is a digging tool, while the vertical blade is an axe for chopping.

Versions of this tool have existed for several hundred years. Adopted by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) early in the last century, the tool’s current form is credited to Ed Pulaski, an assistant ranger with the USFS, who served for nearly twenty years, much of his time after having his lungs and eyes burned during a disastrous wildfire in Idaho in 1910.

Digging fire lines is an essential, back-breaking component of wild land firefighting, hence the mattock. Only in desperation does one use the axe to actually fell a tree. More commonly, that edge is used to chop out burning embers from standing or fallen trees. Chopping down a standing tree by hand is the most severe labor imaginable, but fire crews are sometimes driven to do it, if there’s no chain saw within hailing distance.

Sharpen your edges. Fire is coming to a warming planet. As I write, crews are working to keep the KP Complex fire from burning into the heart of California’s Sequoia National Park. As a last resort, “General Sherman,” the world’s largest tree, and others, have been wrapped in protective foil.

Start no fire. Smokey said it best.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021

Note: There’s an enormous amount that’s been written about fire and the American west. I’m not an authority. Still, if you start somewhere, I encourage you to read “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean. You may know him as the author of “A River Runs Through It.” I consider it one of the great books of the 20th century. There, if ever, you’re given a glimpse into the dire conditions of fighting fires on inhospitable terrain.

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