Ouija Season Already?

I originally posted this back a few years ago. It seems to be even truer today. People want to know the future, they want a sense of control even more now than when I wrote these lines. Too, more people seem to be scrambling for something that will give them meaning and knowledge, gnosis, leading to some things that make me shudder. “Do not summon what you cannot send back” is one of the rules of a LOT of magic systems for a very, very good reason. Along with, “Beware of dialing wrong numbers.”

Oh dear. It is that time of year. The odd-stuff catalogues are adding witch costumes, Goth stuff, and variations on divination tools such as Ouija boards and the Tarot. And I get my annual “I wonder what mess people are going to get themselves into this year?” mood.

I don’t play with magic. Yes, I write fantasy stories and novels, and there is a great deal of magic in them. There are spells and lost knowledge and familiars and oracles and other things. But in the here and now outside my imagination, I won’t even touch a Tarot or divination deck, and I mean that literally. I’d probably get a broom and dustpan if I had to move a set of divination cards or little rune-stones.

Yes, I am strange. Continue reading


Games on the Radio

MomRed is a Houston Astros fan, as was her father before her. Papa played minor league baseball for the original Texas-Louisiana league in the 1920s, and never lost his love of the game. He’d sit in the back room of the house in Houston, eating pistachios and listening to the games on radio. He either watched in person, or listened. The game on TV never interested him all that much.

Due to a spat between one of the cable channel distributors and the satellite system my folks went with, the channel with the World Series currently showing is not available. After an hour of much frustration last night trying to find a back door to the game, MomRed gave up and listened to it via on-line radio. I was reading something that didn’t require too much concentration, so I was half-listening. Aside from too much chatter and boring commercials, what I noticed the most was that I could visualize the game very easily. I’ve watched so much baseball over the years to be able to see in my mind’s eye what is going on, and who’s where, especially when you have a GOOD reporter or announcer calling the game, one who describes the action.

I teasingly asked Mom if I should bring her some pistachios. She smiled and winked. Since her hands were full of needlework (embroidery), it wasn’t really a good moment.

Odd-Shaped Niches

I was visiting friends in their new-to-them house. They’d already done a number of needed updates and improvements. All older houses need something, especially when the former owner has lived there for a handful of decades or so. One of my friends opened the pantry door and said, “Eventually we’ll shift some of this around. And there’s this.”

A waist-high, narrow, nondescript door covered something just beside the pantry door’s hinges and frame. My friend opened the little door and revealed a shallow space that would be almost invisible unless someone really looked for it.

“Shotgun cubby,” another friend stated. “A relative had one.”

The idea makes perfect sense. These houses were in the country back when they were built, and coyotes, rabid skunks, and other things posed a serious problem. As did the possibility of two-footed predators. Those who needed to know where the shotgun was would know. Other people would be distracted by the canned goods and other pantry things, and given the dimmer indoors light back then, would probably never see the shotgun cubby’s door. It’s a great concept, because what woman wouldn’t retreat toward the kitchen, a place she knew well? And intruders would probably assume that she’d go to the bedroom and the shotgun or pistol there, but the kitchen? Mostly harmless.

I’ve been in a few other houses like that, where an oddly shaped or located door reveals an excellent idea. I’d love to have a shotgun cubby, or handgun drawer, in my office. Lockable would also be good, although at the moment that’s not as great a concern as before (no small people who open things they shouldn’t.) Or it held a certain size of canned goods, one that’s not made now. I saw one kitchen that had a hundred small pegs, like cup-holders but too many of them. The home-owner, the great-granddaughter of the man who built the house, smiled and said, “Canning rings.” When not needed, the rings hung on the pegs. If you looked closely, there were differences in the distance between the rings, top to bottom, for quart and gallon sizes. As cans got used, the rings went on the pegs so they weren’t lost. Brilliant!

RedQuarters has a small door in a hallway by my office. A nondescript square with trim that matches the rest of the molding in that part of the house opens to reveal plumbing. It’s an access hatch for cleaning out a trap and checking fittings. Someone decided they didn’t want to ruin the wall and so made a nice little door instead of leaving the wall plain.

The Pleasure of Finding: A Lost Joy

Dictionaries. Thesauri. Encyclopedias. Card Catalogues.

I used to have a large dictionary in my classroom, one that I inherited from the previous resident. The students disliked when, after they asked to use their “device” to look up a word, I’d hand them the dictionary, then teach them how to use it. That was work! It was so much easier to have $SEARCHENGINE$ do it. The dictionary vanished last year. I don’t know if one of the English faculty borrowed it and accidentally added it to her reference shelf, or if a student smuggled it out so that later generations might be spared the pain of looking up words in a heavy book.

I suppose link-hopping or WikiWandering are how the curious spend time, instead of reading what is around the desired dictionary word, or encyclopedia article. Both waste time, sort of, although learning isn’t always time-wasting. I suspect most of my readers grew up occasionally browsing dictionaries and encyclopedias and wandering through card catalogues out of curiosity. How much did we absorb as we drifted from the officially-sought topic to other intriguing (or useful “ooh, I can call someone this and he won’t have a clue that it’s an insult”) information. Grab a random volume off the shelf, or open the tome to a random page, and start browsing away. Yes, the information might be out-of-date. In a few cases, that’s the strength of older reference books. If you can get your hands on a pre-1920 set of the Encyclopedia of Islam, you have a goldmine of accurate information. After that? Well, there’s been some selective alteration and gilding, let us say. Likewise certain other encyclopedias and reference works. And people seem to retain what they read on page far more than what they read on screen.

I’ve written before about the advantages – for some things – of card catalogues. Those who had to maintain and update the files would disagree, as would most modern librarians. Especially in the early days of electronic library catalogues, the old system was far more forgiving of error and uncertainty than the hyper-precise systems. A keyword might not be enough – you had to know Boolean systems and terminology in order to enter what you hoped might lead to the book or journal that you sought. Some of us were not taught that, making finding things an exercise in unproductive frustration. Most modern library catalogues are better, or at least easier to start using, but it depends on how things are searched for and logged. One example: I was looking for books on Gypsies, or Roma. Using Roma led to romance novels, not the Library of Congress Subject. Romania? Also romance novels, or Roman history (and historical novels about Rome). I told the reference librarian, who sighed and added it to the list of complaints.

I don’t want to go back to the world of “we have to go to the library to find that,” not really, no matter how much I enthuse about things. And the electronic search systems are faster, and can lead to things not usually found in the older versions (like magazine and journal articles). There needs to be a balance, one I’m not sure we can easily find. The genii is out of the bottle, and making younger people go back to the paper versions of Dictionary DOT com could lead to rebellions. But I think some kids are missing a true pleasure, the thrill of discovery and exploration some of us get thumbing through reference books, never knowing what gems we might find.

Peak – Sylphium? Tree? Whale? Oil?

A fellow environmental historian noted the other day that no-one really talks about “peak resource” anymore as part of their arguments for conservation and moderating use of natural resources. That was a big thing in the mid to late Twentieth Century – the world would run out of iron, or oil, or aluminum, or copper, or coal, farmland, or other things. Thinking about it, I’ve not heard that argument used for at least a decade, I think since global warming/anthropogenic climate change became the greater concern. As is my wont the idea sent me down a bit of a research rabbit-trail. Have we humans, globally, ever run out of a resource completely? Not local shortages or failures, but the entire world?

The Roman plant called sylphium (or silphium) might be one of the few resources that westerners used to extinction. And that’s a maybe because a Turkish botanist thinks that the plant might have survived in Anatolia. (Not the genus, but the specific plant). The plant contained chemicals in its resin and sap that affected female hormones, causing abortions or temporary infertility depending on the woman’s condition when she took it. Given what Roman patriarchs did with unwanted children (ordering them exposed after birth) and the risks of pregnancy and maternal death, it’s easy to see why the plant – per tradition – got used up and vanished.

When I came through school the first time, I was taught that the reason for the Industrial Revolution and the switch to coal was because England (and the rest of Europe) ran out of trees. They’d reached peak wood, forcing the shift, which led to the first Industrial Revolution. Or, they ran out of big trees for building and looted North American forests, then ran out of fuel wood, and so on. Well, it turns out that the first one wasn’t true, and the second one was partly true. Managed woodlands in England and Wales provided wood for iron smelting and other uses well into the 20th Century, as it turns out. Cost had more to do with it, both the cost per ton of hardwood charcoal vs coal, and the cost of transportation. Coal measures and seams near water were far cheaper, and provided a steadier, more intense heat, and could be worked more quickly than waiting for wood to grow, season, and then be converted into various fuels. The English had been using coal since at least the Tudor days (1400s), to the point that London passed rules about burning coal in order to preserve air quality. Ship timbers were a slightly different story, because the Royal Navy wanted live-oak and other timbers that had grown in the proper shapes and didn’t need to be pieced, carved, or spliced. England and Ireland were running out of those, and with the mess in the Baltic [thanks Sweden and Russia!] that supply of mast timbers had gotten both expensive and somewhat precarious. So off to North America they went. If the government owns it, you don’t have to pay for it, if you’re part of the government, na ja? And in theory, there was no competition or risk of wood theft.

Whale oil was another resource that almost disappeared. Whale oil and oil lamps were better and cheaper than candles, were more reliable than olive oil lamps, and whale oil could be used for mechanical things that required a very light oil that wouldn’t go rancid as quickly as walnut, olive, and other plant-based oils. It was lighter and less viscous than olive oil, so it could be used in much colder temperatures. Whale oil had a distinct scent (bad) and the odd knack of bleaching fabric that it got on – sort of the opposite of used engine oil. [Or so I’ve been told. Really.] Baleen whales had a different chemical composition to the fat in their blubber, making it much better for most purposes than the blubber of toothed whales. This led to the hunting-out of many whales, to the point of near extinction. However, the search was already on for a replacement for whale oil, preferable something as good as the oil but without the stink-and-stain properties. Rapeseed (canola) oil, petroleum oil, and other things also came into use, and peak whale became less of a worry for everyone except corset makers. They needed the baleen, the ling, flexible filters baleen whales used to separate krill and larger fish from seawater. Then cheap, thin steel appeared on the market, and corsets also switched from baleen to metal for stays.

Then it became peak petroleum, and peak aluminum, and . . . Humans keep finding replacements, or work-arounds, or new sources, or what have you. I suspect that’s partly why we don’t hear about “peak resource” anymore. It doesn’t sell what the environmental activists are trying to do. I firmly believe in recycling what can be recycled, and not wasting things. But I also believe that people will find a solution.

The Shadows Are Black

Yes, this is self-evident. Except this year, having trees and other things cast black shadows is a novelty. Allow me to explain.

Going back to June, I noticed one afternoon, as I glanced out my window on one of our many sunny days, that the shadows had soft edges and a reddish cast. The sky was not obviously smoky, as sometimes it has been, but soft blue and just-a-whisker hazy. The sun cast reddish shadows where black ought to be.

And so it continued all summer. With a few exceptions, usually the morning after a storm, reddish shadows stretched and contracted as the sun crossed the sky. No air-quality warnings (except when fires in CO and NM sent smoke right over us), no red skies (like 2019 and 2020), but the light lacked the usual edge that cut crisp lines of black and white, or black on green. Something muted the sunlight, which also explains why tomatoes and the like failed to truly thrive. High smoke and a solar minimum dimmed the light and the plants just didn’t thrive. We had heat, but not clear light.

That began to change three weeks ago, and really shifted this past week, when a very strong cold front and rain lumbered through, drenching everything in one of those cold, damp weekends perfect for curling up with a good book and hot tea, and not doing outdoor chores. (So you can guess who needed to take out the garbage, and do outdoor chores.) On Tuesday, as I drove home, I was gazing at the brilliant orange and gold trees rising above their still-green cousins, and thought, ‘What’s different about the light?” It wasn’t just that the colors are so striking and richer this year than last, or that everything seems to be changing all at once. No, the very light and sky struck me as harder, clearer, sharper than before. I’d gotten so used to the smoky sun that undimmed light surprised me.

No smoke. No dust. The shadows had crisp edges and pure black centers. Light poured down from a clean-washed lapis blue sky that faded to turquoise, not hazy white-blue. Feathers of white touched the heavens here and there, but didn’t block the light.

Fire-season’s not over, not until snows start to fall into Colorado, but the air has cleared. Even with masses of high clouds blanketing the sky, the light remains white, not reddish-tan. The world is a little closer to High Plains normal, for now.


The humanistic geographer Yi-fu Tuan popularized the term “topophilia” after observing that people from all sorts of cultures around the world tend to identify one sort of landscape as the ideal, and that people do best when we have access to that landscape. One of his observations was that when given their choice, people preferred a gently rolling, well-watered (but not swampy), grassy landscape with scattered copses and clumps of trees. A savanna, in other words, but not flat. The presence of good grass and trees appealed to both herders and farmers, because it shows good soil and steady grazing. The scattered trees provide shelter but don’t block the view, and people like views. They like to see what’s around them, what’s coming.

People relate to our landscape in various ways. We sort out what is good from what is less good, and what is downright dangerous. This over here would be a great farm, that over there should probably stay managed woodland, and avoid that boggy place that smells bad. We fall in love with landscapes, or reject them for a host of reasons. I grew up on the High Plains, which are semi-arid steppe grasslands. The first summer I lived in the Midwest, I boggled at the thick, black soil and the lush grass even in mid-July. Green ditches are not natural. Ditch grass is brown. But in that part of the world? It is a wonderful landscape that has to be maintained by people, or large areas revert to wetland and marsh. Other parts would become forest. The landscape today is flat to gently rolling, with clumps of trees, large swaths of domestic grasses, and semi-managed watercourses. Sound familiar? It’s beautiful, fertile, prosperous, and a bit rough during winter, with the occasional tornado, derecho, and giant hail in summer.

One of the things that Yuan tried to impress on people, especially urban planners, is that people need greenspaces. I remember reading an account from LA, where well meaning urban planners descended on a ghetto/barrio area with designs for a community center and pool and other amenities that would benefit residents. The residents informed the planners in no uncertain terms that they did NOT want another swath of cement that happened to have a pool and community center. They wanted trees, and grass, and growing things. This was in the ’60s, when the concrete and steel school of urban landscaping and city planning was still hanging on. In this case, the planners listened, and after to-ing and fro-ing, a new urban greenspace appeared in the form of a park with some trails and sports fields and trees. A savanna, in other words.

All people related to our environment in some way. We may reject it and seek another, we may sample a variety of landscapes and decide on a particular one where we want to dwell, we change our current surroundings in order to better fit what we prefer. Some people try to shape landscapes (notably urban ones) in order to remake society in the image they prefer. Others attempt to put the environment under glass, to preserve a perfect “pristine” world that never actually existed, and that is not stable. If there is weather, and sunlight, and the occasional plant, you cannot have an unchanging “climax state” in the ecosystem. In fact, the idea of climax states has gone out the window. We may prefer the land to be a certain way, but often we have to keep it so by burning, or irrigating, or draining, or adding trees, removing trees . . . We’re as bad as beaver and bison, except we have thumbs.

Book Review: Defenders of the West

Ibrahim, Raymond. Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes who stood Against Islam. (Bombardier Books 2022) Kindle edition

I’ve read Ibrahim’s other history book, a study of battles, so I picked this one up as well. I’d heard of El Cid, both from the movie and from a (very hagiographic) older young reader biography I read a long time ago. Richard the Lionheart? Crusader and the good guy in Robin Hood, who was dumb enough to think irking the Duke of Austria was a good idea and then trying to sneak through the duke’s home territory. Jan Hunyadi? The not-a-king king of Hungary. I’d crossed paths with a number of the individuals highlighted in this book, which spans the years 1000 to 1600, more or less. However, other individuals are less well known, or are strangers to the western tradition (Skenderbeg), or have an afterlife unrelated to their real life (Vlad III).

Ibrahim is blunt about where his preferences are. He also uses primary sources from all sides in the conflicts, giving a good view of what the Berbers, Arabs, and Ottomans thought about the different men. He frames each mini-biography with the events of the time, giving the reader context often skipped in modern studies. This can make for odd reading, because often the primary sources are far more laudatory than modern accounts can be, or dare to be, or are supposed to be. Dispassion and balance were NOT considered critical attitudes for historians to have in the Middle Ages or early modern era. That lack of distance might be offputting to some readers. It took me a bit to adjust my mental frame, so to speak, to get past my Historian’s Bristle at effusive descriptions of people’s virtues (and vices, although that’s not something lacking from many current works.)

The biographic chapters are in chronologic order, from Godfrey of Bolougne and Rodrigo de Vivar “El Cid” to Skenderbeg and Vlad III. One thing Ibrahim points out on a regular basis is that these men fought defensive wars. The First Crusade and subsequent were launched in answer to the conquest of the Levant by the Seljuk Turks and the enslaving, robbing, and killing of native Christians (and Jews) and pilgrims from Europe. El Cid and Fernando de Leon y Castile (descendant of El Cid) fought to regain land occupied by the Berbers since the early 700s. Hunyadi, Skenderbeg, and Vlad III challenged the Ottoman Conquest of southeastern Europe, pushing back against Ottoman attacks and aggression. It’s easy today to forget that until 1689, Western Christianity fought a defensive war against Arab/Berber/Turkish forces.

The stories are great reads. Ibrahim lets the material speak for itself, with some additions to clarify places and to put events in the larger context of European politics. He’s not unbiased, but he is upfront about that, so you know what you are getting. I found his reminders about “yes, this lord/petty king turned his coat to survive, but that was normal. What Skenderbeg/Hunyadi/Vlad did was the exception” to be useful.

I’d recommend this to people interested in the various military figures, those curious about primary sources and where to find more (the bibliography and notes are extensive), and people looking for solid role-models for boys (and girls, but now days, especially boys.) Ibrahim does a good job working with the primary sources, and the book is quite readable once you get used to the various styles of the original material. I found his defense of Vlad III a bit intense, but then I remembered that I’ve read the books, and I know the history and politics of that region. Normal people don’t. They know either novel-Dracula, or Vlad the sadistic b-stard of an impaler.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use, and received no remuneration or consideration from either the publisher or author for this review.