Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Thursday, February 26, 2015

First-Rate Writing: Aldo Leopold

Several passages from Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (Oxford Univ. Press, 1949) have become widely known:  the one calling for a land ethic, for example, and the one about watching the fierce green fire go out in the eyes of the wolf he had shot when controlling predation.  But the passage that resonates most for me involves the "quality" of cranes (quality here carrying its Latinate meaning of what sort of thing something is) from "Marshland Elegy" in Sketches Here and There.  Not only do we begin to appreciate the quality of cranes in this wonderfully modulated passage, but we come to mourn their absence.

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.

This much, though, can be said:  our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history.  His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene.  The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills.  When we hear his call we hear no mere bird.  We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.  He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.

And so they live and have their being--these cranes--not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time.  Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock.  Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction.  Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun.  The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes.  Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.

National Invasive Species Awareness Week

This week is National Invasive Species Awareness Week.  According to USA Today (2/25/2015), Chris Dionigi, director of the National Invasive Species Council, commented that invasive species are "one of the leading factors in the decline of species and the loss of biodiversity."  They can also damage crops, the fishing industry, and individual property, he said.

All too true.  But what this statement overlooks is that Homo sapiens is the most invasive species in the 3.5 billion year history of our planet.  We have migrated and established successful populations in every continent except Antarctica.  Our ever-expanding population has passed the seven billion mark.  As we devastate the earth, as we deplete species through over-fishing in the oceans and create dead zones with pollution, our destructive impact is well on its way to becoming comparable to the mass extinctions that have punctuated the history of our planet.

As Walt Kelly's Pogo remarked, "We have met the enemy, and it is us."  In the last chapter of Blood on My Hands* I suggest some steps we might take to save the planet before it's too late.  The first, of course, is to recognize that there is a problem.  Let us hope the National Invasive Species Council soon perceives the true dimensions of invasive species, especially ourselves.
*The link to Amazon is http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_7?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=cox%20blood%20on%20my%20hands&sprefix=cox%2C+bl%2Caps%2C270

Sunday, February 22, 2015

First-Rate Writing: Gertrude Harris

First-Rate Writing features a passage from one writer, a passage that I believe done so well  that I want to share it.  At age 40, going through a divorce, I realized the blindingly obvious fact that I would have to learn how to cook.  Back then, my English professor's salary wouldn't have permitted the contemporary, urban solution:  take-out or eat out.  Cooking was a craft employing tools, I soon realized, and, like any craft, good tools made a difference.  So I began to read not only cook books but books that described the equipment one needed to cook.

One of the most informative accounts I found was Pots & Pans etc. by Gertrude Harris (101 Productions, 1975).  For the most part, Harris is practical and down to earth, but she can also conjure up another mode at once informative and imaginative.  One passage that I've remembered for over thirty years concerns saucepans made not of copper but of silver:

In a booth at the famous flea market in Clignancourt in Paris, I once found four silver saucepans in heavy gauge in graduated sizes.  They had come, the dealer told me, from the kitchen of a "princely house," and I could well believe it.  In a long life of active coveting, I don't think I ever coveted anything more than those silver saucepans I simply could not afford to buy.  Some time later I asked a friend, the proprietor of a renowned Paris restaurant, about them.  His grandfather had two, he said; they had disappeared during the war.  "Ah, oui, Madame, silver saucepans . . . " he mused.  "To make a sauce in a silver pan is never to forget it, like one's first ride in a Rolls Royce!  The heat comes on so evenly--so evenly.  And it comes rapidly to a boil, not here and there, but all over at the same time, and as one stirs, it is like making music, for the sauce thickens almost imperceptibly, gradually, gradually, and just as it should, as one always hopes it will.  And the flavor, Madame.  It tastes only of the ingredients one has put into the silver saucepan.  Do you understand?  Just of the ingredients you want to taste, nothing else . . . une cocotte d'argent---"  A long pause, and I remembered that a cocotte was many things besides a saucepan:  a child, a little chicken, a darling, a sweetheart, and a "fast woman,"--all these, and perhaps more.  His tongue moved delicately over his lips, as did mine, I found.  "Copper, now, Madame.  Well, copper is superb.  A heavy copper pan is  . . . "   Gallic shrug.  "Yes, copper is superb.  Superb, Madame, but it is not silver."  

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Turpin's Custom Rifles: David Miller Co.

The slightly awkward title of Tom Turpin's Custom Rifles:  Mastery of Wood & Metal David Miller Co. (Gun Digest Books, 2012) suggests that this volume on the David Miller Company may be the first of a series on custom gunsmiths.  If so, David Miller and his associate Curt Crum are a good choice to lead off:  a David Miller rifle has become synonymous with the highest quality. 

Turpin's book has an abundance of photographs documenting "all aspects of their work."  The difficulty is that this abundance ultimately leaves this reader wanting something rather different.  Crafting a custom rifle involves what David Pye* has called the workmanship of risk, for the quality of the rifle is continually at risk during the process of making it. To minimize this risk, Miller and Crum have devised a number of jigs or fixtures.  Turpin comments, "David once told me that he really felt empathy for a new guy who is just coming into the business.  His reason had nothing to do with the trials and tribulations of dealing with the public, or looking for business to earn a living.  His real reason was all the work ahead for the young man in just developing and crafting all the fixtures and tooling that he needed to succeed."

One problem Turpin faced in doing this book is that photographs of any one of these fixtures--the one to create a fore end tip with a widow's peak, let's say--doesn't have a great deal of intrinsic interest.   Turpin can show the tooling block created for the complete set of parts used for this task.  He can show a cutter about to cut the recess in the fore end and follow that with a shot of a mill squaring off the end of the stock.  But the static nature of photographs can't capture the dynamic process of crafting a rifle--as would, say, a video.

An even larger problem involves the actual subject of Custom Rifles.  Ostensibly, this book is about the mastery displayed by David Miller and Curt Crum in making rifles.  Having known Miller and Crum for many years, Turpin apparently felt no need to formally interview them.  The result is unfortunate:  we learn nothing abut how they feel about what they do, about how their sense of craftsmanship has evolved over the years, or about the challenges they still face after so much success.  The highest form of craft results from the harmony between hands and soul.  Turpin is content to photographically document the rifles that Miller and Crum have made, but he fails to explore their joint vision of craftsmanship embodied in their rifles.  If other volumes do follow this one, let us hope that Turpin will remedy this deficiency.

*David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, rev. ed. (Cambium Press, 1995).