n. the sort of people who read too much
n. the sort of people who read too much
In a 1778 letter, English naturalist Gilbert White captured the characteristic movement of almost 50 birds:
Owls move in a buoyant manner, as if lighter than air … herons seem incumbered with too much sail for their light bodies … the green-finch … exhibits such languishing and faltering gestures as to appear like a wounded and dying bird … fernowls, or goat-suckers, glance in the dusk over the tops of trees like a meteor; starlings as it were swim along.
Biographer Richard Mabey writes, “What is striking is the way Gilbert often arranges his sentence structure to echo the physical style of a bird’s flight. So, ‘The white-throat uses odd jerks and gesticulations over the tops of hedges and bushes’; and ‘woodpeckers fly volatu undosu [in an undulating flight], opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising or falling in curves.”
(From Mabey’s Gilbert White: A Biography of the Author of The Natural History of Selborne, 2007.)
In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore some curiosities and unanswered questions from Greg’s research, including a novelist’s ashes, some bathing fairies, the mists of Dartmoor, and a ballooning leopard.
We’ll also revisit the Somerton man and puzzle over an armed traveler.
Quotations from André Gide:
Nothing prevents happiness like the memory of happiness.
Understanding is the beginning of approving.
The color of truth is gray.
At times it seems that I am living my life backward, and that at the approach of old age my real youth will begin.
Only fools don’t contradict themselves.
Do not do what someone else could do as well as you. Do not say, do not write what someone else could say, could write as well as you.
It is easier to lead men to combat, stirring up their passion, than to restrain them and direct them toward the patient labor of peace.
Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.
To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him and travel in his company.
Most quarrels amplify a misunderstanding.
Fish die belly-upward and rise to the surface; it is their way of falling.
Our judgments about things vary according to the time left us to live — that we think is left us to live.
Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.
The most decisive actions of our life — I mean those that are most likely to decide the whole course of our future — are, more often than not, unconsidered.
In her 1929 autobiography Cradle of the Deep, silent film star Joan Lowell revealed a dramatic childhood aboard her father’s trading vessel: She’d seen a man eaten by sharks, performed an amputation, and, when the ship caught fire and sank, swum three miles to the Australian coast with “drenched kittens” clinging to her shoulders:
I was conscious of only the pain caused by the salt water on my bleeding cuts and scratches. Each stroke I took was like a knife cut, and I couldn’t shake the drowning kittens off. Perhaps to those cats I owe my life, for the pain made me so mad I fought on and on, toward the lightship which seemed to go farther away instead of closer.
When it was published, sailing writer Lincoln Colcord identified 50 inaccuracies and called her to account. It turned out she’d made the whole thing up: Her father had worked on the boat for about a year, and she’d made one trip on it. Simon & Schuster reclassified the book as fiction and released a statement saying it had been “published in good faith, not as a literal autobiography but as a teeming yarn, fundamentally a true narrative but inevitably … embroidered with some romanticized threads.”
A letter from 14-year-old Jim Nicholson to Wonder Stories, February 1931:
Some time ago you asked us (the readers) what our opinions on time-traveling were. Although a bit late I am now going to voice four opinions …
(1) Now, in the first place if time traveling were a possibility there would be no need for some scientist getting a headache trying to invent an instrument or ‘Time-Machine’ to ‘go back and kill grandpa’ (in answer to the age-old argument of preventing your birth by killing your grandparents I would say: ‘now who the heck would want to kill his grandpa or gandma?’) I figure it out thusly:
A man takes a time-machine and travels into the future from where he sends it (under automatic control) to the past so that he may find it and travel into the future and send it back to himself again. Hence the time machine was never invented, but! — from whence did the machine come?
(2) Another impossibility that might result would be:
A man travels a few years into the future and sees himself killed in some unpleasant manner, — so — after returning to his correct time he commits suicide in order to avert death in the more terrible way which he was destined to. Therefore how could he have seen himself killed in an entirely different manner than really was the case?
(3) Another thing that might corrupt the laws of nature would be to:
Travel into the future; find out how some ingenious invention of the time worked; return to your right time; build a machine, or what ever it may be, similar to the one you had recently learned the workings of; and use it until the time you saw it arrive, then if your past self saw it, as you did, he would take it and claim it to be an invention of his (your) own, as you also did. Then — who really did invent the consarn thing?
(4) Here’s the last knock on time traveling:
What if a man were to travel back a few years and marry his mother, thereby resulting in his being his own ‘father’?
Now I ask you, do you think traveling in time, in the manner most of your authors put it, is possible? (Now please don’t get the idea that I think it can’t be done, to some extent, because it might be done through Suspended Animation).
Editor Hugo Gernsback responded, “Logically, we are compelled to admit that he is right — that if people could go back into the past or into the future and partake of the life in those periods, they could disturb the normal course of events, as Mr. Nicholson has pictured it.”
In 1917, two young cousins carried a camera into an English dell and returned with a photo of fairies. When Arthur Conan Doyle took up the story it became a worldwide sensation. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Cottingley Fairies, a curiosity that would remain unexplained for most of the 20th century.
We’ll also remember a ferocious fire and puzzle over a troublesome gnome.
I was in a house I did not know, which had two storeys. It was ‘my house.’ I found myself in the upper storey, where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in Rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house and thought ‘not bad.’ But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs, I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older. I realised that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were mediaeval, the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another thinking ‘now I really must explore the whole house.’ I came upon a heavy door and opened it. Beyond it, I discovered a stone stairway that led down into a cellar. Descending again, I found myself in a beautifully vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls, I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks, and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this, I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it, the stone slab lifted and again I saw a stairway of narrow stone steps leading down to the depths. These, too, I descended and entered a low cave cut into rock. Thick dust lay on the floor and in the dust were scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old, and half disintegrated. Then I awoke.
Carl Jung had this dream in 1909, during a voyage to America with Freud. He took it to be an image of his psyche … but it also bears a striking resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s 1924 short story “The Rats in the Walls.”
Writing isn’t so bad really when you get through the worry. Forget about the worry, just press on. Don’t be embarrassed about the bad bits. Don’t strain at them. Give yourself time, you can come back and do it again in the light of what you discover about the story later on. It’s better to have pages and pages of material to work with and off and maybe find an unexpected shape in that you can then craft and put to good use, rather than one manically reworked paragraph or sentence. But writing can be good. You attack it, don’t let it attack you. You can get pleasure out of it. You can certainly do very well for yourself with it … !
— Douglas Adams, “General Note to Myself,” found among his unpublished writings after his death in 2001
This passage, from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, is often cited as a masterpiece of rhythm — the length of the phrases diminishes with the motion of the swing:
Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied over the north doorway. At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder into the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot, so that it served as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down let somebody else try it.
“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world,” White wrote. Though Eudora Welty called Charlotte’s Web “just about perfect,” White never revealed his reason for creating it. “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either,” he wrote to his editor. “A book is a sneeze.”