by Richard Nilsen

The other day on TV, I saw someone who had the perfect solution to the zombie problem. Why no one had thought of this before, I don’t know. It is so obvious. 
 
If your community is plagued by brain-eating zombies, all you need to do to survive is to dress up like a zombie yourself, dress up in some rags, put on the whitish, ghostly makeup, with some ketchup drooling from the corner of your mouth. Zombies don’t attack other zombies. I don’t know why, but they don’t. So, act like one, and be let alone. Of course, you will also need to avoid the living human population, who have a dismaying tendency to blow the heads off zombies with shotguns. But other than that, home free. 
 
The established conventions of zombiehood have changed over the years, as have the zombies themselves. But rules are what make monsters. Ask any 12-year-old boy; they will be able to recite you chapter and verse, the way a Supreme Court clerk can quote the Constitution. Silver bullets, wooden stakes, wolfsbane, mirrors, the whole concatenation of parameters that define the world inhabited by the undead, the re-dead and the soon-to-be-dead. 
 
I know this because when I was 12 years old, I had a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland, a fan magazine about horror films put out by noted monsterologist Forrest J Ackerman. It was still early days of television, and local independent TV stations, with no network to support them, had to scramble to fill air time. They found old cartoons, old Westerns — and horror films. I must have seen Frankenstein, Dracula and all their permutations, from Son of … to Abbott and Costello, maybe, a hundred times. 
 
 
And I knew then, all the rules — the defining conventions of each genre. The Frankenstein monster couldn’t talk; Dracula was terrified of crosses; the Wolfman turned hairy with the full moon. If a vampire or a werewolf bit you, you turned into one; if Frankenstein’s monster bit you: nothing. You got a tetanus shot.
When they first made their debut in celluloid, zombies were Haitian and they were essentially sleepwalkers. They were derived from popular understandings of voodoo, where a bogon, or sorcerer, could raise the dead to act as slaves. In 1929, author William Seabrook published The Magic Island, and described a sensationalized version of vodou and zombies. In 1932, Hollywood produced White Zombie, in which Bela Lugosi is the evil sorcerer who puts the heroine under his spell when she visits Haiti. Lugosi’s character, “Murder” Legendre, uses zombie labor to operate his sugar plantation. 
Plantations worked by enslaved Africans gave rise to zombie mythology in Haiti and the Caribbean, but many of the Hollywood versions feature non-African zombies, although one of the best, I Walked with a Zombie, sets the zombie back into its proper African-Caribbean context. Still, its main victim remains a White woman. 
But zombies were a minor subshoot of the monster movie, giving pride of place to Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman (and perhaps the Mummy). Only a few zombie films in the ’30s and ’40s (the heyday of the classic monster) were made, and they never really cracked the nut of cultural ubiquity. That didn’t happen until George Romero reinvented them in 1968 in Night of the Living Dead and rewrote the rules for the genre. Now, they were ghoulish undead that shuffled along in rags and killed and ate the living. A bite could turn you into one of them. Tetanus shots didn’t help.
The prototype for Romero’s shambling zombies can be found in the “Wandering Sickness” in Things to Come, a 1936 movie made from the H.G. Wells novel. Zombies are now allowed to be fast-moving, which makes them harder to avoid. And zombies en masse are in practice unkillable, as shown by the never-ending 10-year run of The Walking Dead on the AMC network. 
 
With Night and its many sequels and rip-offs, the zombie became the primary movie boogie-man. The rules have been tweaked by subsequent writers and directors, so that now the popular conception is of a reanimated corpse who eats brains. Why brains? I don’t know. Nothing wrong with liver and a nice chianti. 
 
This changing of the rules is common, as creators need to find ways to freshen up the cliches, only to make new cliches. Eventually, each monster genre ends up in parody. Young Frankenstein, Teen Wolf, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
With Hammer Films in the 1960s, monsters were given a new garish color makeover, with lots of bodice ripping and jiggles to entice the young testosterone-soaked adolescent males. And the classics have never really left. Wikipedia lists 236 werewolf films made since the silent era; 119 of them just since 2000. I couldn’t fully count the number of vampire films, including the astonishing number of naked lesbian vampires that came out of Italy. 
A few of my favorites (I can’t help but list some of these titles): Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966); Dracula’s Dog, aka Zoltan … Hound of Dracula (1977); Uncle Was a Vampire (Italian, 1959); The Vampire and the Ballerina (Italian, 1960); Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell (1992); A Polish Vampire in Burbank (1985); Mom’s Got a Date With a Vampire (2000); and My Babysitter’s a Vampire (2010). 
Vampires have gone through four major transmogrifications. Originally, in folklore, they were ghouls, ugly monsters. But after Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the vampire became a seductive man with hypnotic charms over beautiful women. Or, in a kind of reverse ploy, sex starved women in heavy makeup craving the blood of handsome men — or in the lesbian vampire films, pneumatic young women. 
(The subgenre of lesbian vampires is extensive. Wikipedia lists more than 50 such films, beginning with 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter and continuing through Vampyros Lesbos (1971); The Hunger (1983), a classy film with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve; and Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009), a genuine turkey that starred late night TV’s James Corden. While many monster films have been adopted by the LGBTQ world as metaphors of queerness, the lesbian vampire is more transparently so.)
 
The canonic vampire persisted in the Hammer Films pictures with Christopher Lee. Sunlight could kill them; they couldn’t be seen in mirrors (or photographs); wolfsbane or garlic was a prophylactic; they slept in coffins; they could be killed with a wooden stake through the heart, or more garishly, with the wooden stake and a quick beheading. 
Then, of course, it all changed with Ann Rice. She took the side of the vampires — “these elegant, tragic, sensitive people,” she called them. Oh, they suffered, cursed as they are with immortality. Rice’s vampires are “loquacious philosophers who spend much of eternity debating the nature of good and evil,” according to Susan Ferraro of The New York Times. “Rice turns vampire conventions inside out.”
 
She also transports them from England and Germany to New Orleans, which adds its own patina of the gothic. Goodbye Transylvania, hello red blood and Rice. 
None of which prepares us for the latest incarnation of teenage moony-eyed vampires by Stephenie Meyer. They have no trouble with daylight, indeed they sparkle. But it is so hard being a vegetarian vampire. 
 
There are also werewolves in the Twilight books (and films), but it is hard to tell the difference between the paired vampires and werewolves of Twilight and the Sharks and the Jets of West Side Story
 
From the very beginning, horror movies have been aimed primarily at the young and prepubescent. Which is the age where the fascination with regalia and insistence in genre rule consistency become hardened like old cheese left out to dry. It is the motivating impulse of cosplay, Comic-Con and arguments over whether the Batman outfit should have nipples or not. 
If you want to start a fight, just complain about the Marvel Universe versus the DC Universe. Each is a self-contained cosmos with its own physics and set of back stories. And woe to him who mixes up Marvel’s Sub-Mariner with DC’s Aquaman. Or cannot tell the difference among Green Arrow, Green Lantern and Green Hornet. 
In the CBS sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, the minutiae of competing comic book universes is often a plot point. Which makes it fun how often fans like to point out inconsistencies in the Sheldon Cooper Universe between BBT and Young Sheldon. Can’t these writers keep their stories straight? 
 
When young men are trying to figure out the rules of life, it must be comforting to find these worlds where coherence and consistency is part of the deal. One of the reasons that superheroes have overtaken monsters in the movie world must surely be that the DC and Marvel universes are so absolutely clear, even hide-bound, about their rules. The monsters have their laws of physics, but the rules tend to morph over time. Adolescence craves something more permanent to depend upon. 
Young women have their say in all this, too. But the monsters they fantasize about tend to be more like Beauty and the Beast: Can the rough monster be tamed by love? Their guiding genius is not Bram Stoker but rather, Jean Cocteau. Their corollary is not the Marvel Universe, but the land of Romance Novels. In each one, a monster is tamed by love. Underneath is a prince of a guy. 
 
In the case of either gender, there is comfort in the consistency of the conventions, of the rules. 
 
There is a great literature around the psychology of attraction we have for monsters. I leave that to the experts. Is it the metaphor for the Id? The recognition of the threat the outside world presents? A parable of the societal outsider? The Aristotelian projection of terror and pity? Probably all these things at various times. But I am suggesting that one of the pulls of the genre is its suggestion of stability, that the monster itself will abide by the rules, and that, after the stake through the heart or the silver bullet, things will always go back to normal — until the sequel.
 

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

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by Richard Nilsen

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I grew up in an era of vast cultural change. We went from Eisenhower warning us about Pentagon power to Allen Ginsberg levitating it. If you are a certain age, perhaps you remember. Certainly, in the Sixties, we wanted to correct all the social evils that beset our society, and the world. We were up against racism, sexism, ageism, different-ism — to say nothing about the Military-Industrial Complex. 

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And with the belief that societal ills could be corrected, if only our elders would listen to us, came the belief that it could be fixed by simply re-training the misguided. Surely, it was just that they didn’t know better. Their minds and personalities had been formed in unfortunate circumstances.  

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And one of the bedrocks of our belief at the time was that “it’s all cultural.” I can’t remember how many times I heard that phrase. No one was destined to be a certain way; it was all how you were brought up. If you were born to a racist family, you learned prejudice; if you were raised by a macho father, you became a patriarch. Blank slate. Genetics be damned. 

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Such beliefs were in part a reaction to a horrific century in which genetic inheritance had been the excuse for so much death, destruction, and genocide. We rebelled against the notion that your DNA was in any fashion your destiny. We relished personal freedom and free will was essential to that. An entire generation of parents with this belief tried to get their boys to play with dolls and their little girls to play with trucks. But, of course, the boys turned their dolls into hand grenades, and the girls held the trucks in their arms and rocked them back and forth. 

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Well, I was part of an inadvertent biological experiment that took place over a period of nearly 50 years. It was not part of a CIA covert program, but set in motion by my own indefensible immaturity and selfishness. 

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In the late 1960s, I got married and we had a child. It was not a good marriage; we were both too young. Before our son, Lars, was even a year old, I left. I went on to my own life, my ex-wife went on to hers, as a single mother. I am, of course, mortified and shamed now, but then, it all just seemed the way a bohemian poet-to-be expressed his freedom and unwillingness to be tied down. No excuses, though, I was a beast. 

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For the next 45 years, I had no contact with either mother or son. None. Period. Then, one day at the office, I got a phone call from Texas. “Are you the Richard Nilsen who had a son named Lars?” “Yes.” “Hello, I’m Lars.”

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He called because he needed some medical background information, which all worked out fine. But we decided we should meet and so, my second wife and I drove to Austin to meet him. It was a revelation.

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It should be said here, that we have been in touch ever since, and have re-formed a meaningful relationship. But on first seeing my son Lars, I almost laughed. It was like looking into a time-machine mirror: I was seeing myself 40 years ago looking back at me now.

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He was tall, like me; had long hair, like I had four decades earlier; he had the same scraggly beard; wore the same kind of thick black-frame eyeglasses I used to sport; wore the same kind of flannel shirt that was once my uniform. 

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Some of that was expected. While the belief that our personalities were merely learned still hung in the air, everyone knew we inherited certain physical traits from our ancestors. That Lars was tall was hardly surprising. But what was more striking was his choice of thatch and habiliment. 

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As the visit went on, more things uncovered themselves. At the time, Lars worked in a used bookstore, in charge of the Classics section. He said his favorite book was Homer’s Iliad. Bingo: That has been my fave for ages.  Lars now makes his living programming and writing about movies; I have a page to myself on Rotten Tomatoes. Lars often talks on stage to audiences while introducing films, and he interviews filmmakers; I often talked to audiences, also, as some Spirit of the Senses members may recall, and for a while I introduced films to the series. And, of course, interviewing people was part of my job as a journalist. Music is also essential to Lars, and I don’t think I could live without my Mahler and Bach. Our tastes, however are very different. Very different. On a recent radio interview, Lars made the case that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an art film. But the point is that he has chosen, as I did a half century earlier, a life of art and culture.

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When we got to his house, it was filled to the brim with books and CDs and movies. Anyone who has visited me knows wherever I have lived, the walls are lined with bookcases, filled with thousands of books and DVDs. 

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Then it turned out he was living with a young woman with the same name as my first wife and from the same North Carolina county as the wife I finally wound up with. This could be mere coincidence, and probably was. But, it was getting a bit spooky. 

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Then came the clincher. 

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On his desk, piled like my own, higher and deeper with papers and books, there was a world globe. He had disassembled it and put it back together with Antarctica at the top — a world turned upside down. I did a double-take: On my desk at home, back in Arizona, I had long had a globe I had turned upside down, in order to break habit of seeing the world only one customary way. I venture to guess very few people have done the same. But there it was.

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The two of us had had not contact whatsoever for four decades plus, and yet, so much of our behavior was eerily similar. And I had to come to the conclusion that some of this had to be genetic. Did Lars inherit from me, without any consciousness of it, a love of Homer, movies, music, flannel, an easy, laconic manner, and — a need to turn his globe on its head? 

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Where else could it have come from? I don’t want to imply that Lars is just a mini-me. We are very different in many other ways. Even physically, his nose and the thickness of his hair come from his mother, not from me. He revels in pop culture in a way I have never been able to enjoy.

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His knowledge of movies tends toward the lesbian vampire movies and drive-in exploitation films — indeed, he is writing a book on such films. He doesn’t have the high-low art bifurcation that I grew up with. That doesn’t mean he can’t cite chapter and verse on Fellini or Angelopoulos, but that he can also teach his old man an appreciation for Johnnie To and the Hong Kong gangster genre. 

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Still, my reacquaintance with my son Lars has persuaded me that it is not merely noses or hair colors that may be transmitted through DNA, but that certain personality traits, even preferences, may be coded in those double helixes. 

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A series of so-called “twin studies” have compared identical twins separated at birth to see how closely they matched. The results have been equivocal, but some information is hard to dismiss.

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A 1979 study by the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research found one pair, separated at birth and reunited at 39. “The twins were found to have married women named Linda, divorced, and married the second time to women named Betty. One named his son James Allan, the other named his son James Alan, and both named their pet dogs Toy.” 

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Other anecdotal evidence includes twin sisters meeting for the first time as adults, both wearing identical dresses. Such evidence may seem too tidy. And some skepticism is always called for. After all, the very first twin study was conducted by Greek stoic philosopher Posidonius in the 1st Century, who attributed similarities to the twins’ shared astrology. Conclusions may be jumped to through faulty theory. 

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But there is still that upside-down globe. 

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The Minnesota Center’s co-director, Kelly Klump makes the case that “What they show is that we we enter the world not as random beings or blank slates.”

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When I was reviewing movies for The Arizona Republic, I had assumed it was just acculturation that led me to recognize myself in Bergman films rather more deeply than in Fellini films. I loved Fellini greatly, but I felt completely at home with Bergman. I grew up around Scandinavians and knew their reticence, dourness and love of bad coffee. My entire chromosomal grab bag is Norwegian; I may be the whitest man you’ve ever met — But since facing my time-shift Doppelgänger in Lars, I now think there may be a purely genetic component in my taste for Scandinavian cinema over Mediterranean.

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Any faith in the “blank slate” has truly evaporated for me. Clearly in the “nature vs. nurture” debate, it is both. But the strength of genes has been drilled home to me for once and all by that time-shift mirror I call my son. 

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

by Richard Nilsen

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The more I learn the less I know; the more I know the less I learn.

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I have existed on this planet for seven decades and if there’s anything I have had to discover for myself — despite so many others knowing it before me and telling me over and over — it is that the more I learn, the less I know and its corollary, the more I know, the less I learn. 

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1940 LaSalle

 

And I say that as someone who has always been prideful of how much I knew — or thought I knew. By the time I was four, I could ID any car on the road, including Kaisers and LaSalles. My uncle would parade me around as a curiosity, like Mozart before Maria Theresa. By third grade, I could name any dinosaur known to science. By 13, I could name everything my parents did wrong and by college I could tell the president how many kids he killed today and further, I instructed the dean on changes to the curriculum. God, I was a prat. 

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In my 20s, my girlfriend took bets from coworkers that when I came to pick her up after her shift, I could answer any question. “Who was the first secretary general of the U.N.?” “Trygve Lie.” And she would collect her winnings and we’d go home. What a racket. 

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At any rate, my ambition in life was to know everything. I can’t say I came even close. 

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It is distressing how much we have to discover for ourselves. Libraries are filled with books overflowing with wisdom, but even if you were to read everyone of them, what you gather is only book-learning. Your parents and grandparents tried to tell you what they had learned, to try to save you from the pain, frustration and humiliation that is everyone’s birthright. But being told is the equivalent of book-learning — it cannot really teach you to swim or ride a bicycle; you have to learn by doing. And these two truths of knowing and learning have come hard and slow to me. Hard to acknowledge because I have spent so much of my life being smart and knowing stuff (ask anyone who has had to listen to me), and slow because I have spent so much of my life being dumb as a pumpkin. 

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The Firesign Theatre produced an LP in 1974 titled Everything You Know is Wrong. (Weird Al Yankovic put out a song in 1996 with the same title, and more recently, in 2004, British band Chumbawamba released their song with the selfsame name.) How right they all are. 

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Everyone knows that Socrates once claimed to be the wisest man of all, because, he said, he knew nothing. Except, of course, he never said that. In the Apology, Plato has him saying that Socrates queried a wise man  but came away disappointed. “Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know” (Benjamin Jowett translation). Close, maybe, but no cigar.

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Life is full of things we all know but that ain’t so. Napoleon was not short. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow did not start the Chicago Fire. Einstein did not flunk math and John Kennedy never said he was a German pastry. Anti-war protesters never spat on returning Vietnam War vets. Sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children (that doesn’t make it OK, although my wife used to say eating cake is good for you because “sugar is a preservative.”) The Great Wall of China is not visible from the moon. All that right-brain, left-brain stuff is mostly hooey. And water does not circle the drain the other way in Australia. Everything you know is wrong.

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Some is wrong because the common knowledge is just a story someone made up; some because we used to think so, but science has progressed and now we know better; and some is wrong because we misunderstood something. But most is wrong because things are just more complicated than that.

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I grew up with an image of the atom being like a tiny solar system, with electrons spinning in orbit around the nucleus. Turns out that is a bad analogy. Maybe like a cloud of possible electrons, but can’t quite put your finger on them. It is only understood mathematically, the quantum physicists tell us. Too complicated to make a simple picture. 

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We tend to fit our facts into a coherent whole that we take as our “Umwelt,” that picture of reality we manufacture from experience. But these things can become ossified. When we learn more, we discover we know less — we were mistaken, or only half right, or maybe just confused.

And now that I am old, I am confronted by the fact that learning only lets me know how much more there is I don’t know. As I say, my knowledge grows arithmetically but my ignorance grows exponentially. 

 

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I like to take the example of the common tomato. When I was two or three, a tomato was just something we ate in a salad or on a burger; I gave it no more thought. But when a little older I learned to classify. A tomato was a vegetable. The world was divided into animal, mineral and vegetable and the tomato fit the third category. 

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A little later I learned — was told, by some pedant — that a tomato is not a vegetable, but a fruit. I scratched my head, but then went about repeating this Cliff Clavinism. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. 

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Well, it isn’t animal and it isn’t mineral, so a tomato must be vegetable. Simply put, a fruit is a vegetable, isn’t it? This turned into a lesson in philology. The word “vegetable” has multiple meanings. Our definitions must be examined. I learned the difficulty of matching language and reality. This came as an uncomfortable truth to me as a writer, whose faith in words was, at one time, unshakeable. Now, I say, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, “I know nothing.” 

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Of the things of this world, those that are vegetable can be divided into the edible and the inedible. The botanist can divide comestible plants into those with seeds and those without. One we call fruits and the other, vegetables. The cook divides the same into those sweet and those savory. There is no single “right” way to think of them. The knowledge changes as we learn more. It doesn’t matter how many facts I warehouse in the noggin, they are likely to be superseded or just plain wrong.

 

 

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Alfred Wegener

But those facts can be mulish, which explains my corollary: What you know prevents learning. That Umwelt is hard to nudge. If your sense has been for millennia that the sun revolves around the Earth, then you cannot accept what Copernicus tells us. If you know that continents are fixed and permanent, then Alfred Wegener comes across as an unmoored screwball. If you are used to bleeding ill patients, then Joseph Lister is a crackpot. 

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Isaac Newton’s physics ruled the world until Albert Einstein gave us Relativity, but even Einstein could not fully accept probabilistic quantum physics, saying God “does not play dice.” 

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If we still think of all history in sequential steps, then progress makes sense. But experience proves that we don’t keep heading for a Utopia. Rather we lose just as much as we gain. Art historians used to think that they could predict where art would go next by analogizing what had gone before. Arnold Schoenberg knew that the line of musical harmony went from diatonic to chromatic to atonal. It had to: History teaches. He almost made it work, but no one still writes dodecaphonic music anymore; what was produced in academia through the 1960s was barely even music; no one wanted to listen. Karl Marx assumed history had a rightful completion in true Communism. Francis Fukuyama gave us a different “end of history.” 

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We are a stubborn people; we know what we know until we don’t. The only way to see what is in front of us is to forget what we already know about it. I call this “volitional ignorance” — trying to forget what I know — or believe I know — in order to see with fresh eyes, with baby eyes. Of course, I’m not in favor of actual ignorance: Let Shiva dance over its body. (According to Hindu mythology, Apasmara — Ignorance — must be subdued, not killed.) But you can attempt to forget temporarily what seems fixed and certain in order to see what doesn’t fit into the accepted schema — the odd bits that contradict your assumptions.

 

 

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Mary MacLane

That’s how Einstein saw the holes in Newtonian physics. It’s how Mary MacLane broke the impenetrable “fourth wall” by speaking directly to her audience (in title cards) in her 1918 film Men Who Have Made Love to Me (now lost). It’s how Bobby Lee came to divide his army against all accepted principles of war and beat the pants off the Union forces. 

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It’s the only decent way to overcome the sad premise that: “What you know prevents learning.” .And so my two assertions are mirror images. The more I learn the less I know; the more I know the less I learn. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Why are there four seasons? In some places there are hardly any seasons at all, in others you can pretty well count only two: either the wet season and the dry season, or, as in Arizona, a long season of unbearable heat and a brief season of relief.
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But the traditional four seasons, you say, are governed by solstices and equinoxes, which divide up the year into quadrants. Yes, summer officially begins near the end of June, but for most of the U.S., it has already been summer-hot since May. Dec. 21 may be the start of winter, but for most of us, it feels more like the midpoint. Solstice and equinox may tell us where the sun is re the ecliptic, but it hardly tells us anything with the accuracy of our skin, which is either goosebumped with chill or sweaty with heat.
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What is more, where I live now, in the mountains of North Carolina, there are seasons that don’t have official names, but are as clear as can be. Early spring is “mud season,” as the frozen soil thaws into a goo that can suck your shoes right off your feet as you walk. The is midwinter spring, Indian Summer, and that brief moment when “Nature’s green is gold, its hardest hue to hold.” And there is what we are going through right now, “late summer.” It is still hot during the day — it’s been in the 80s for weeks now — but you can look out the window and see that the trees know it is only a matter of weeks before it is time to let go.
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The leaves have become leathery; there are insect holes in them; some are infected with galls. The dogwood leaves have become frilled around the edges. The effusive growth of full summer has become defensive. The green has grayed out ever so slightly and the cuticle of leaf surfaces has become a bit more stiff and inflexible, almost plasticized, like the parched skin on the back of an old woman’s hand.
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The brambles have occupied as much of the field and forest floor as they have conquered, the vines and kudzu have reached their zenith. The season is as full as it will ever be, a cup filled to the brim and just over.
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The appearance is not so changed that you pay much attention to it. It is still summer, after all. But if you do pay attention, it is obvious: The earth has circled its parent sun once again. Life is getting ready to begin hibernating for the coming months.
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What I find interesting is that the change is subtle and slow moving, and most of us never really notice it. But the older I get, the more obvious these things become. As time moves more quickly with age, the changes that took years to happen when I was a child now come and go with the rapidity of a hummingbird wing. Months go by the way weeks used to and weeks become mere hours.
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Which makes the world into a kind of time-lapse experience. And that speeded perception makes the seasons dynamic — daily changes can be noticed — rather than the static thing they were when I was young: Summer’s school vacation lasted forever. Summer was a thing, not an action.
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But beyond the sped-up time, age has conferred a lifetime of experience. I don’t mean wisdom: That is a word I hate; it implies a superiority that I don’t believe in. But the piling up of experience means that many things register with earned familiarity, even unconsciously. You recognize the way the trees look and know, without saying it, what that look means. There is much that seven decades has buried in your psyche that can be understood without having to say out loud.
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“Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,/ Their ancient, glittering eyes” see more than they speak. They have seen it all before. It has become the gesso layer of life, the one on which everything is painted.
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And it is one of life’s truths, and its regrets, that this layering of experience cannot be conferred. We have to watch our children learn the same slow lessons we learned. We cannot save them from the pain, the heartbreak, the wrong turns, the dogmatisms that we endured in ourselves. Yes, we can tell them, and they might even believe us, but it will be as mere book-learning, not as felt under the skin, in the blood.
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That lifetime of accreted experience will end when we end, a full bucket tipped over and emptied. I watch now my twin granddaughters and see them with the love and forbearance that I now understand my grandparents saw me. Every generation must relearn the lessons, just as they slowly come to see the seasons turn from day to day, even occasionally, from hour to hour.
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Those years teach us not just the seasons, but how to read the eyes of our friends, to recognize the look of illness, the body language that contradicts words, the worn spots on the trouser knees, the sound that changes ever so slightly when we start the car. These are knowledges of piled years. It is what I see when I look at the late summer leaves.
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There are a few yellow and red leaves fallen from the maple tree in the front yard. My beard is gray.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Is there anything left to say? After 4,000 years of putting it all down on clay, stone, parchment and paper, is there anything that hasn’t been said? It is something every writer faces when putting pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard. Or even thumbs to smartphone.
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And it is something I face, after having written something like four million words in my professional lifetime. Where will the new words come from?
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It is also something newlyweds often fear: Will they have anything to say to each other after 20 years of marriage? Forty years? Surely they will have talked each other out.
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What we write comes from a deep well, a well of experience and emotion and sometimes we have drawn so much water so quickly, it dries, but give it time and it will recharge. If no new experience enters our lives, our wells remain dry.
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One friend has offered this: “That each generation thinks they know more than anybody else who has ever lived.  In a way, that’s a good thing because it allows for new ideas.”
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But how new are those ideas? “I guess we have to live with a certain amount of repetition under that system,” she says. “Relying on what previous generations wrote would be so boring. Our ego demands that we pick and choose from past works if we heed them at all.”
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I have a different interpretation. We never quite hit the target of what we mean; words are imprecise, concepts are misunderstood. One generation values family, the next understands family in a different way and builds its family from scratch with friends.
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As T.S. Eliot says in East Coker:
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Every time I put word to word, I come up short, leave things out, use phrases sure to be misinterpreted, have my motives doubted, and — as I learned many times from my readers, they read what they think I wrote and not always what I actually wrote.
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And so, there is the possibility of endless clarification, endless rewriting, endless apologizing. And new words to be written.
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As someone once said, all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato (who, by the way, is a footnote to the pre-Socratics), and all writing is an attempt to get right what was inartfully expressed in the past. It is a great churn.
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All writing is an attempt to express the wordless. The words are never sufficient; we are all wider, broader, deeper, fuzzier, more puzzling and more contradictory than any words, sentences or paragraphs can encompass.
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Heck, even the words are fuzzier. Consider “dog.” It seems simple enough, but includes great Danes and chihuahuas, Scotties and dobermans.  As a genus, it includes wolves and foxes. It also describes our feet when we’ve walked too much; the iron rack that holds up fire logs; the woman that male chauvinist pigs consider unattractive; a worthless and contemptible person. You can “put on the dog,” and show off; you can “dog it,” by being half-assed; you can call a bad movie a “dog;” at the ballpark, you can buy a couple of “dogs” with mustard; if you only partly speak a language, you are said to speak “dog French,” or “dog German;” past failures can “dog” you; if you are suspicious, you can “dog” his every move. “Dog” can be an anagram of “God.”
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Imagine, then, how loose are the bounds of “good” or “bad,” or “conservative,” or when someone tries to tar a candidate as a “socialist.” Sometimes, a word loses meaning altogether. What, exactly do we mean when we talk of morality or memory, or nationality or the cosmos?
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And so, every time we pick up pen to write, we are trying our hardest to scrape up a liquid into a bundle.
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And so we rework those words, from Gilgamesh through James Joyce and into Toni Morrison. We rework them on the New York Times editorial page and in the high school history textbook. We rehash them even in such mundane things as our shopping lists or our FaceBook entries.
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We will never run out of things to write or say, because we have never yet gotten it quite right.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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When I cross the border from Detroit, Michigan to Windsor, Ontario, I flash a passport. There is a clear demarkation, a borderline, between the two nations. This is true for almost every nation. And we tend to think of such borders between most categories: Good and evil; Liberal and Conservative; Boys and Girls. But the real world is more ambiguous, more nuanced. Take colors. Where is the delineating line between green and blue? We may think we know when something is clearly green and when something is distinctly blue, but one slides into the other and any thought of drawing a line evaporates.
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Unless someone is colorblind, there is little trouble distinguishing individual hues. The problem is not in the color, but in the name. What do we call “green,” what do we call “blue.”
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The whole issue of color names is fraught with inexactitude. What an artist means by “red” may be what a printer calls “magenta.” Where is red no longer red, but something we recognize as violet? There is no surveyor to set his theodolite firm and draw a line, setting the deeds for red and violet or blue and green.
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And even if we who speak English feel secure that we know the bounds, even if we can’t prove it in court, those who speak other tongues have other ideas. When approached worldwide, the entire question of color names becomes a quagmire. Something that seems so simple we take it for granted with hardly a thought, turns out to be queasily ambiguous.
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It is more akin to the question of where is the Middle East. Does Iran count? At least since the Arab conquest, Egypt has always been considered part of it, but then, how about Libya? And if we include Libya, should we include Algeria? What are the boundaries of the Levant, of the Maghreb? Somewhere the Middle East turns into North Africa; but where? Likewise, which states are Midwestern? Some people count Oklahoma as a Southern state. But the South is a region, not a nation. Shall we split California between the desert Southwest and the conifers of the Northwest? And so, Green is a region, too. And blue, and red, and yellow.
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In English we have 11 or 12 color names that signify such regions, names that are not metaphorical or compound. (Even that has some question, because names that are no longer thought of as metaphorical originally entered the language through metaphor: The word-root for “Blue” once meant “shiny” or “glittery,” even if the shine were copper-colored.)
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These basic names are often thought of as “primary.” Red, blue and yellow are one set of primary colors. But other colors are also so basic as to be linguistically primary: Green, purple, brown, white, gray, black, orange, pink, tan. Other names we commonly use, such as “turquoise,” “teal,” “beige,” “aquamarine,” “fuchsia,” or “indigo,” fall under one or another of the larger umbrella terms.
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But no matter what language, the division of sheep and goats into their categories is a matter of convention. In English we tend to think of red and pink as separate colors. They need not be: Pink is really just a tint of red, but we have separate primary words for the two shades. In many other languages, such as Russian, the same distinction is made between light blue and dark blue. Not two shades of the same color, but two distinct colors.
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In Russian they are “goluboy” and “siniy.” In Moroccan Arabic, a similar distinction is made between “sibi” (light blue) and “zraq” (for the darker). In Albanian, the two are “kalter” and “blu.” In Polish, “blekitny” and “nieblieski.”
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On the other hand, other languages, among them Japanese, fail to make some distinctions at all, even between green and blue. Until recently, in Japanese, “ao” means both the color of the sky and the color of grass. (Now there is “midori” adapted for use as “green,” but which is still thought of as a shade of “ao” rather than a separate color on its own.) Vietnamese uses “xanh” for both colors.
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In English, we have a primary word for “green.” But at least one color theorist divides up the color wheel with names for two distinct greens: sea green and leaf green. They are both clearly green, but also clearly distinguishable. Why do we not have separate names for these two? It’s just the way our language works.
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When I first learned to name to colors of the rainbow, I was taught the mnemonic “Roy G. Biv” — Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. But dividing the spectrum up into seven colors was just a relic of the Middle Ages when seven was a magic number and we divided up the world in sevens, such as seven tones in the musical scale, seven planets, seven deadly sins, the seven wonders of the world and the seven days of creation.
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What, pray say, is the difference between “indigo” and “blue?” And even “blue” is ambiguous. When engineers and scientists define blue as a primary color in the additive system, the blue they mean is closer to violet than to cerulean.
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The mention of the rainbow or of the spectrum is problematic. A prism divides white light into its component hues, and that is all nice and scientific, but we don’t “see” spectral colors, scientifically, but rather we interpret colors through a kind of differential analysis, comparing which sensors (cones) in our eyes are activated by the light hitting them. And so, our perception of color is not a one-to-one correspondence with spectral wavelength.
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The spectrum may be an objective reality, but color vision is entirely a subjective experience, taking place in our brains. We can even see colors that don’t exist in nature as wavelengths of light. While the spectrum is divided up into wavelengths of light, red on the longer end, blue on the shorter, violet, for instance, is not a wavelength at all, but rather a mixture of lights translated through the optic nervous system and perceived as a singular hue. It does not exist in nature, only exists in our brains.
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And when we perceive the color yellow, it is almost never because a yellow wavelength of light is bombarding our retina. We see yellow when both red and green light hits the back of the eye. We see violet when both red and blue strike together. Again, the perception is created in our minds.
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The acute human eye can distinguish about 16,000 colors, or shades and tints of colors. But each of them is really only a buzzing on nerve endings in the eye that distinguish between red, blue, and green light — or in a more recent theory, between light and dark (black and white); blue and yellow; and red and green. The pile of wavelengths are blended together in our brains and we perceive color.
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But we cannot have names for the 16,000 varieties of chroma (although sometimes it seems we’ve named millions). And even if we tried, our divisions would be different from the divisions in Chinese or Greek or Swahili.
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The Zuni language classes yellow and orange together, which means that once they have coded it in language, say, as if to tell a friend what they have seen, the friend decodes the word into his trove of experience and comes up with something quite different. It may be orange; it may be yellow. That is a distinction that our language makes, but his does not.
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The tomato is a whole lot closer to the orange end of the red category and the stop sign is closer to the magenta end. Yet we call both red, and if we tell a friend about something we have seen and say it is red, the friend will decode the term the same inexact way the Zuni friend decodes orange-yellow.
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And there are aspects of color nomenclature that English doesn’t have, or has only vestigially.
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There are languages in which the surface reflectivity of an object changes its color name. We have that in English, where a metallic version of grey is called silver, and a version of yellow that maintains specular reflections is called gold.
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In certain languages there are names for colors that are descriptive in terms of surface, as a wet black or a dry black There is a big difference between a box merely painted black with glossy house paint, and a Japanese lacquer box. The lacquer is a blacker black.
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The distinctions of hue turns out to be a historical process. If you’ve ever wondered why Homer calls the Mediterranean Sea “wine dark,” (oinopa ponton), it is because ancient Greeks did not have a name for blue or for green. This is not as surprising as it might seem.
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In 1969 scientists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay theorized that languages adopt color names in a recurrent pattern. First comes the distinction between light and dark, or black and white. In such languages, blue is a subset of black and yellow is a subset of white. Context determines the meaning of “light” and “dark.”
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( Berlin and Kay explain: “The terms black and white appear in this hierarchy with a meaning close to the general panchromatic English terms dark and light or dull and brilliant rather than equivalent to the specific achromatic terms black and white.”)
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The two noted that if a language has a term beyond light and dark, it will be “red.” There are many languages that have only those three color terms: white, black and red. If there is a fourth term, it will be either green or yellow. I.e., if a language has a word for green, then you can bet it will also have a word for red. The third stage is when a language has both green and yellow, and it isn’t until then that “blue” enters as a recognizable name for a hue.
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In Stage VI, a word for brown is included. Again, if a language has a word for brown, you can count on it also having words for blue, yellow, green, red, black and white. Finally come words for purple, pink, orange or gray.
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Ancient Greek had no word for blue, but it did have a word that covers both green and yellow (chloros). Which means, it also had a word for red and for black. Hence, “wine dark.”
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Once this basic palette is set in words, all added color terms are metaphorical, or literary — or commercial.
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Think of all the many shades and tints that have names in English — lavender, chartreuse, scarlet, ivory, lilac, sepia — literally thousands of them. They are all derivatives and fall into subgroups of the primary 11 colors.
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And beyond the metaphorical, there are the qualified names, in which a basic hue is qualified by an adjective, such as “brick red,” or “sky blue.” Thousands of such qualified names exist regularly in English and understood as distinct shades of color. Or we think of them that way. But not so fast.
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Although we all know what “green” is, or “red,” and are willing to assume a wide and indistinct definition of them, these secondary and tertiary names can seldom be agreed on with any exactitude. One person’s scarlet is another person’s crimson.
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Commercial advertising makes great hay with this ambiguity, and has habitually invented seductive names for shades to sell product, but, again, who actually can pin down what exact shade of amber counts as “Autumn Gold?”
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I remember a page from the old Evergreen magazine in which 30 or 40 color chips were printed, and every one exactly the same, but under each was another name. Not just Autumn Gold, but Aztec Sunset, or Sunflower or Buttercream, and so on. Not a hairsbreadth difference between the actual color, but names carting along boatloads of emotional linguistic baggage. (Not one paint chip was called “Baby Poop” or “Jaundice.”)
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Beyond the basic 11 terms, humans have tried to express precise shades of hue in many ways. A box of 64 Crayola crayons is a vocabulary treasure trove of color names: cornflower, chestnut, peach, salmon, periwinkle, goldenrod, olive green, raw sienna.
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Being precise is hard. Consider Myrna Loy in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, explaining to her contractor what colors she wants her walls painted:
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“Now, first, the living room. I want it to be a soft green. Not as blue-green as a robin’s egg, but not as yellow-green as daffodil buds. Now, the only sample I could get is a little too yellow. But don’t let whoever does it get it too blue. It should be a sort of grayish yellow-green.
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“Now the dining room. I’d like yellow. Not just yellow —  a very gay yellow. Something bright and sun-shiny. I tell you, if you’ll send one of your workmen to the grocer for a pound of their best butter and match that exactly, you can’t go wrong.
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“This is the paper we’ll use in the hall. It’s flowered. But I don’t want the ceiling to match any colors of the flowers. There are some little dots in the background. And it’s these dots I want you to match. Not the little greenish dot near the hollyhock leaf. But the little bluish dot between the rosebud and the delphinium blossom. Is that clear?
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“Now, the kitchen’s to be white. Not a cold, antiseptic, hospital white. A little warmer, but still, not to suggest any other color but white.
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“Now, for the powder room in here, I want you to match this thread.        And don’t lose it. It’s the only spool I have and I had an awful time finding it. As you can see, it’s practically an apple red. Somewhere between a healthy Winesap and an unripened Jonathan.”
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She ask him if he understands.
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“Yeah, red green, blue, yellow, white.”
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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I finished college 50 years ago, and I’ve changed a great deal in that half-century, and I don’t just mean the issue of losing hair on the top of my head and gaining it in my ears.
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But much has remained the same. And what has remained is what I take as the essence of my self, who I am. For most writers who tackle the subject, the self is defined by memory: The continuous thread of remembering from our earliest recollection to the moment an instant before this. This continuity is our self. It remains separate from what others believe about us or their perception of our who-ness.
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There is something very insubstantial about this thread of memory. After all, the past doesn’t exist; it is a reconstruction, not an actuality. And so, for many thinkers, the self is also a construction — a back-construction. We are reminded of this when we meet old friends and talk about “remember when,” and discover that our friend’s remembering is different from our own, or that they remember things we have long forgotten.
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Surely the self is more than our own cogito ergo sum, recalled in memory. It is also our behavior, the sense we make of the world and how it is constructed and how it functions. It is not simply our past, but our expectations of a future. And there should be some outward manifestation of our selfness, not solely the interior rattling around of snippets of memory, strung together like a necklace of remembered events.
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I began to think of such things when I woke one morning and sat on the side of the bed, facing the bookshelf on the wall in front of me. I happened to spot the slim volume of The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyard, an ancient paperback that I had in college. It is a book I’ve owned for more than 50 years. It is where I first encountered the idea of the “Great Chain of Being.”
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Then, I gazed over the shelves to discover if there were other books I’d owned that long, and saw Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I attempted to cook from during my first marriage, when I was still in college. Are those two books as much a part of my selfness as the memories of the old school or the failed marriage?
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As I wandered through the house later that day, I pored over the many bookshelves to seek the books I’ve owned the longest, through divorces and break-ups, through four transcontinental relocations, through at least a dozen homes I have rented in five different cities. Nine cities, if you count homes from before college, which I didn’t rent, but lived with parents.
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The oldest book I still have is my great-grandmother’s Bible, which was given to me when I was four years old. I also have my grandmother’s Bible, in Norwegian, and the Bible my parents gave to me when I was a boy, with my name embossed on the cover in gold. I am not a religious man and don’t believe any of the content scribed therein, I also have to recognize that the culture that nurtured me is one founded on the stories and strictures bound in that book, and more particularly, in the King James version, which I grew up on and which has shaped the tone of the English language for 400 years.
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Surely, completely divorced from doctrine, the KJV is a deeply embedded part of who I am.
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The second oldest book is one my grandmother gave me on my eighth birthday, a giant-format Life magazine book called The World We Live In. It was a counterbalance to the Holy Writ, in that it was a natural history of the world and gave me science. At that age, I was nuts about dinosaurs (many young boys are in the Third Grade), and The World We Live In had lots of pictures of my Jurassic and Cretaceous favorites. It also explored the depths of the oceans, the mechanisms of the weather, the animals of the forest, the planets of the solar system, and a countering version of the creation of the world, full of volcanoes and bombarding meteorites. I loved that book. I still love it. It is on the shelf as a holy-of-holies (and yes, I get the irony).
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Both the Bible and The World We Live In are solid, tangible bits of my selfness that I can touch and recognize myself in, as much as I recognize myself in the mirror.
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I pulled down Tillyard from the shelf, and gathered up the several Bibles and began piling by my desk, and went through the bookshelves finding the many books that have defined me and that I kept through all the disruption that life throws at us, with the growing realization that these books are me. They are internalized and now their physical existence is an extension of my selfness into the world.
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The pile beside my desk slowly turned into a wall, one stack next to another, building up a brick-foundation of me-ness. They were cells of my psyche very like the cells of my body, making up a whole. And they began to show a pattern that I had not previously noticed. The books I’ve held on to for at least 50 years sketched a me that I knew in my bone.
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I’ve kept books from 40 years ago, from 30, from 20. I’ve got books that define me as I am at 72 years old that I have bought in the past month. But the continuity of them is a metaphor for the continuity of my self.
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When I was just out of college, a neighbor of my parents died and left my a pile of old books, printed in the 18th and early 19th century. There are three volumes of the poetry of William Cowper, a History of Redemption by Jonathan Edwards, a fat volume with tiny print collecting the Addison and Steele Spectators, and a single volume of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature. I have Volume IV of five volumes, which contains descriptions and illustrations of birds, fishes and “Frogs, Lizards, and Serpents.”
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And while my great-grandmother’s Bible gives me a sense of roots running four generations deep, these older books take those roots deeper into the culture that made me. I see myself not as a single mind born in 1948, but as part of a longer-running continuity back in time. A reminder that any single generation is simply a moment in a process: seed, sprout, plant, flower, fruit, seed. Over and over. My self grew from my mother’s womb and she from her mother’s. And my psyche grew from all the books I’ve read, and all the books that have shaped the culture that produced those books. It is a nurturance that disappears in the far distant past, like railroad tracks narrowing to a point on the horizon.
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I am not here making an argument for nurture vs. nature. I am not simply the sum of the books I’ve read. Rather, the books I’ve read that have remained with me — and there are many times more that haven’t stuck with the same tenacity — have not only nurtured me, but are the mirror of who I was born, my inner psyche, who I AM. They are the outward manifestation of the inward being.
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I have books left over from college, such as my Chaucer and my Shelley, my Coleridge and my Blake.
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I have the poetry I was drawn to when first discovering its linguistic and cultural power, such as all the Pound I gobbled up.
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There are the two volumes of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, edited by Artur Schnabel. I could never be without them. I read scores for pleasure just as I read words. I still have piles of Kalmus and Eulenburg miniature scores that I have used over the years to study music more minutely than ears alone can permit.
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Books that have turned the twig to incline the tree stay with me, such as Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, or the Daybooks of photographer Edward Weston, or The Graphic Art of the 18th Century, by Jean Adhémar.
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I still have the Robert Graves two-volume Greek Myths that I had when taking a Classics course my freshman year, and the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Milton that I took with my in my backpack when I tried to hike all of the Appalachian Trail (“tried” is the operative word), and the photographic paperback version of the Sierra Club book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.
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My many Peterson Guides and wildflower books have only multiplied, but the basics have been with me for at least five decades.
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The Thurber Carnival I still have was actually my mother’s book that I took from home when I went off to school. The catalog from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is now browned out and tattered and the Hokusai manga is another holy of holies.
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All these have stuck to me like glue all through a life’s vicissitudes, many with ragged and torn covers, as I have myself in a body worn and torn by creeping age.
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I could name many more, but you get the idea. And it is undoubtedly the same for all of us. For you, it many not be books; it might be a shirt or blouse you have kept, or maybe a blanket that comforted you when you were an infant, or your first car. These are the outward signs of an inner truth. The you who is not separate from the world, but embedded in it, connected to it, born from it and in some way, its singular manifestation.
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NB: The books illustrated are all some of them I’ve lugged with me for at least 50 years; anyone who knows me would recognize me in them. 
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Click on any image to enlarge.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

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by Richard Nilsen

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Think of Persia. Then think of Iran. Very different places occupying the same geographic location. The names of places carry a kind of emotional scent that surrounds them. Persia has an exotic perfume; Iran rather stinks to American minds as moldy bread.
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Persia is a land of legend of djinn, of harems, and magic carpets; Iran rather has its mullahs, its chador, and its Revolutionary Guard. Persia had its Omar Khayyam and his “The Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter — and the Bird is on the Wing.” Iran has religious fundamentalism and “Death to America.”
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Certainly the political situation has changed radically over time and that contributes to our different perceptions of the same country, but the names we use conjure up very different associations, too, and not just for Iran, but the names we use around the world and especially, over time. Most locations on the globe have born a variety of monikers over the ages. Some of these names are better for journalism, some for poetry.
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The same land that we now know as Iran was once called Parthia. Once called Media — land of the Medes — once called Ariana, at another time, the Achaemenid Empire. In the Bible, it is Elam. (The borders are never quite the same; borders are notoriously fugitive.) There are other names, too, all accounting for parts of what are now The Islamic Republic of Iran: Hyrcania; Bactria; Jibal; Fars; Khuzestan; Hujiya; Baluchistan.
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Some of these names, such as Baluchistan and Bactria, have a kind of exotic emotional perfume and remind us of the Transoxiana of folklore and half-remembered, half-conjured history. Samarkand and Tashkent; Tales of Scheherazade or Tamurlane, stories recounted by Richard Halliburton or Lowell Thomas. One thinks of old black and white National Geographic magazines.
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Countless Victorian paintings depicted a romantic Orientalized version of seraglios, viziers, genies, pashas, with the women often in various states of undress.
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I have long been interested in this nomenclatural perfume, and how the names of places conjure up emotional states. And how often those aromas and scents are ambiguous as to be unplaceable. Where, for instance, is Bessarabia? What about Saxony? I have written before about how borders change over time, and the names of places change along with the borders, but here I am writing about the emotional resonances of those place names.
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Saxony, Westphalia, Silesia, Franconia, Pomerania, Swabia, Thuringia: These are names from history books, but we are quite unlikely to know where to spot them on a map. They are all sections of Germany and Eastern Europe that have been subsumed by more modern nations, but a few centuries ago were their own kingdoms, principalities and dukedoms. Some reappear as regions or counties in larger nations, but some are pretty well evaporated. Saxony, for instance, as it exists now as a part of Germany, was originally a separate nation, and not even in the same place where the current Saxony lies.
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The older names often have a more exotic connotation than the current names. Siam brings to mind Anna and Yul Brynner; Thailand may elicit thoughts of sex tourism. Abyssinia is a place of Solomonic apes and peacocks; Ethiopia is a nation that went through the Red Terror and famine of the Derg. Burma had its Road to Mandalay, its Kayan women with their elongated brass-coiled necks or even George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” but Myanmar brings to mind military rule, extreme xenophobia and Rohingya genocide.
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Sri Lanka used to be Ceylon, but it was also known as Serendip, from which we get the word “serendipity.” “Ceylon” derives from the ancient Greek word for the island, Sielen Diva. And according to legend and literature, it was originally named Tamraparni, or “copper colored leaves” by its first Sinhalese king, Vijaya. That name becomes the more common Taprobana.
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The older names are almost always more resonant, more perfumed, which is why they show up so often in poetry and literature. Where have you heard of Albion, Cambria, Caledonia, Hibernia or Cornubia, but in verse? England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall just don’t have that literary heft. It’s hard enough for non-Brits to keep straight the difference between England, Britain, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom or UK.
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If you’ve ever wondered what the ship Lusitania was named for, that was the former name for what is now Portugal. When James Joyce talks about Armorica in Finnegans Wake, he is using the old name for Brittany. Firehouse Dalmatians are named for the former Roman province located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy and now part of Croatia.
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Eastern Europe is a coal bucket of forgotten or half-remembered toponyms. These places don’t translate one-for-one with modern nation-states, but across the map from Poland through Ukraine and down to Romania you find such redolent names as Pannonia, Sarmatia, Podolia, Wallachia, Pridnestrovia, Bohemia, Moravia. All of which makes the region a fertile spot to locate a fictional country when you want to write a spy novel or film comedy. Just make up a name that sound vaguely plausible.
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Of the following, only one has ever been real. The rest are made up. Can you pick the genuine from the bogus?
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If you picked Ruritania, a slap on the wrist for you. You have probably heard of it, but it is the fictional country that Anthony Hope used to set his 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. It has since been used myriad times as a stand-in for any small nation in a movie or book.
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(Other fictional countries that show up on celluloid: Freedonia and Sylvania from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup; Tomainia, Bacteria and Osterlich from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; Moronica in the Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy. There are many more.)
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The ringer in the question is Ruthenia, which was a real name for a real place in Eastern Europe, now parts of Hungary and Ukraine. As for the others: Brungaria is from the Tom Swift Jr. series of boys’ books; Estrovia is from Charlie Chaplin’s film A King in New York; Lichtenburg is from the 1940 film, The Son of Monte Cristo; Pontevedro is from operetta and film, The Merry Widow; and Grand Fenwick is from the Peter Sellars film The Mouse That Roared.
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There are names for mythical places, too, and they really carry their exoticism well: Atlantis; El Dorado; Shangri-La. Less well known, but once more current are the lost continents of Mu and Lemuria, both popular with cultists, and the sunken Arthurian country of Lyonesse and the drowned city of Ys.
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But even real places have their exotic past. What we now call Mexico was once Aztlán. Iceland was once the almost legendary land of Thule. What we know as Xi Jinping’s China was to Marco Polo, Cathay. There is more incense to that than the more modern smog-choked superpower. Properly, Cathay was the northern part of modern China during the Yuan dynasty; the south was called Mangi. Shangdu is the modern name once transliterated as Xanadu. It has gone the way of Ozymandias.
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Ruins of Xanadu

Turkey wants to be part of the European Union and is a NATO member, but in the far past, we knew the part of it east of the Dardanelles  as Asia Minor. But even that part was originally known by its regions: Anatolia in the east; Bithynia in the northwest; Cilicia in the southwest; Pontus in the northeast; and Galatia in the center (that’s who the New Testament Galatians was addressed to). The nation’s current capital is Ankara, but how much more soft and silky is its earlier incarnation as Angora?
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The Middle East is now divided up in a jigsaw created after the world wars. What was The Holy Land is now Israel and its surrounding lands, which used to be aggregated as Palestine. But that whole end of the Mediterranean used more commonly to be called the Levant. I love those old terms: The Levant east of the sea and the Maghreb along the sea’s southern coast west of Egypt.
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Hawaii used to be the Christmas Islands, counterweight to Easter Island. But speaking of counterweights: Tonga used to be the Friendly Islands and to their east is Niue was once Savage Island. (“Niue” translates as “Behold the Coconut”).  Back in the Atlantic, the Canary Islands were latterly the Fortunate Islands.
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Nations like to attempt to make their own emotional perfume, with more or less success. Some nicknames are quite familiar: Japan is “The Land of the Rising Sun;” England is “The Land of Hope and Glory;” Ireland is “The Emerald Isle.” Norway is “The Land of the Midnight Sun.” Some nicknames aren’t particularly glorious. Italy is “The Boot;” France is “The Hexagon.” Some are just descriptive: Australia is “The Land Down Under;” Canada is “The Great White North;” Afghanistan is “The Graveyard of Empires.”
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States have nicknames, too. Alaska has a bunch of them: “The Last Frontier” is printed on license plates. But others are less chamber-of-commerce-ish: Seward’s Ice Box; Icebergia; Polaria; Walrussia; the Polar Bear Garden.
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Among the odder state nicknames: Arkansas is the Toothpick State; Colorado is The Highest State (which now has added meaning); Connecticut is both The Blue Law State and “The Land of Steady Habits;” Delaware is The Chemical Capital of the World; Georgia is The Goober State (for the peanut, please); Massachusetts is The Baked Bean State; Minnesota is “Minne(snow)ta;” Nebraska is The Bugeating State; New Jersey is officially The Garden State, but many call it “the Garbage State,” none too kindly; North Carolina used to be The Turpentine State; South Carolina used to print on its license plates, “Iodine Products State;” Tennessee is The Hog and Hominy State.
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Cities have their nicknames, too. Some are in universal parlance. Paris is The City of Light, Rome is The Eternal City. In the U.S. we can drive from Beantown to the Big Apple to the City of Brotherly Love and through Porkopolis on to the Windy City and head south to the Big Easy and then out west to the Mile High City (again, now a double entendre), and finally to The City of Angels or more northerly to Frisco. (The full name given to Los Angeles is El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles or “the town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.” Put that on a Dodgers ballcap.)
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But there are less common and less polite names for cities, too. And some real oddball ones. Albertville, Ala., is The Fire Hydrant Capital of the World. Berkeley, Calif., is “Berzerkeley.” LA is also “La-La Land.” Indianapolis is “India-no-place.” New Orleans is also the “Big Sleazy.” Las Vegas is “Lost Wages.” Boulder, Colo., is The People’s Republic of Boulder.
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You can string together toponyms and almost make poetry, or at least a song: “Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty/ You’ll see Amarillo/ Gallup, New Mexico/ Flagstaff, Arizona/ Don’t forget Wynonna/ Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino/ … Get your kicks on Route 66.”
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“I’ve been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota/ Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota/ Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma/ Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma/ Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo/ Tocopilla, Barranquilla, and Padilla, I’m a killer/
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“I’ve been everywhere, man/ I’ve been everywhere.”
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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Seattle police during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918

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by Richard Nilsen
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It’s a strange time. Few of us have been through anything quite so comprehensively threatening. I lived through the 1960s and remember the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and serial assassinations. There was the hovering blackmail of being drafted to go and die in the jungles of Southeast Asia. But that was aimed at only a fraction of young men at the time. This aims at all of us. And all of us on the whole planet.
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So, I wanted to take a look at how it all compares with past plagues. First, I rooted around to see how many pandemics have been recorded in history. Surely, many occurred before the invention of writing and history. I imagine disease decimating prehistoric populations, although the number of people on the globe was so much smaller, that although people didn’t practice social isolation, there was enough isolation between groups of people that disease probably didn’t spread as efficiently as it does today, with bugs riding ticketless on jet planes to “cover the globe” like Sherwin-Williams paint.
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There is some evidence that plague caused what is called the “Neolithic Decline” about 5000 years ago. In 2018, a skeleton of a 20-year-old woman was found in Sweden that contained DNA traces of Yersinia pestis, the pathogen that caused three other major outbreaks of plague through history.
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Two plagues of Egypt

 

The first recorded plagues I could find were probably fictional — the Ten Plagues of Egypt — but the fact there was a biblical word for “plague” indicates that such things were well known then.
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But the historical plague that enters the record first is that of Athens in the Fifth Century BCE. It was described by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. It comes just after Pericles’ Funeral Oration and lists the symptoms of the plague that carried off something like 100,000 people, or a quarter of the population of the city. It is gruesome reading, but then, so are descriptions of all the plagues of humankind. Thucydides wrote:
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“Suddenly, without any apparent cause preceding and being in perfect health, they were taken first with an extreme ache in their heads, redness and inflammation of the eyes; and then inwardly, their throats and tongues grew bloody and their breath noisome and unsavory. Upon this followed a sneezing and hoarseness, and not long after the pain, together with a mighty cough, came down into the breast. And when once it was settled in the stomach, it caused vomit; and with great torment came up all manner of bilious purgation that physicians ever named.
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“Most of them had also the dry heaves which brought with it a strong convulsion, and in some ceased quickly but in others was long before it gave over. Their bodies outwardly to the touch were neither very hot nor pale but reddish, livid, and beflowered with little pimples and whelks, but so burned inwardly as not to endure any the lightest clothes or linen garment to be upon them nor anything but mere nakedness, but rather most willingly to have cast themselves into the cold water. And many of them that were not looked to, possessed with insatiate thirst, ran unto the wells, and to drink much or little was indifferent, being still from ease and power to sleep as far as ever.
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“As long as the disease was at its height, their bodies wasted not but resisted the torment beyond all expectation; insomuch as the most of them either died of their inward burning in nine or seven days whilst they had yet strength, or, if they escaped that, then the disease falling down into their bellies and causing there great ulcerations and terrible diarrhea, they died many of them afterwards through weakness.”
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Scholars disagree over what caused the Athenian Plague, Most often it is blamed on typhus, but more recent study leans toward a variety of the ebola virus.
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The numbers jump with the next major pandemic (there have been smaller outbreaks), beginning in 165 CE, was the Antonine Plague that swept the Roman Empire and killed off something like 10 million. It is guessed to have been an outbreak of smallpox.
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But that paled compared with the Justinian Plague of 541-542 CE, that wiped out between 40 percent and 50 percent of the people of Europe, meaning ten times the toll of the Antonine Plague — 100,000 million souls. Again, likely smallpox.
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We can add 2 million dead, or almost half the population of Japan in the smallpox epidemic of 735-737 CE.
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Of course, the granddaddy of them all is the Great Mortality, better known by its later name, the Black Death that first crippled Europe in 1348. It devastated not only Medieval Europe, but Asia and North Africa and wiped out something like half the population of Europe. (These are all estimates: No precise figures were kept at the time).
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Plague mask from the Black Death

Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about the plague in Florence in words that sound oddly familiar: “The plague had arisen in the East some years before, causing the death of countless human beings. It spread without stop from one place to another, until, unfortunately, it swept over the West. Neither knowledge nor human foresight availed against it, though the city was cleansed of much filth by chosen officers in charge and sick persons were forbidden to enter it, while advice was broadcast for the preservation of health. Nor did humble supplications serve.” He goes on to describe the symptoms and the public panic. Much of which also sounds prescient.
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Over and over, there is a single place on the map where the number of people getting sick and dying increases dramatically. Those elsewhere take little notice. But the contagion spreads and other places begin to follow suit. The death tallies rise and the affected areas grow, but those in unaffected areas feel only that such disturbance is distant from them and their concerns. As the contagion spreads, the authorities attempt to downplay the seriousness of the problem, until the map is filled in and everyone is affected. They stay closed up in their homes, hoping to remain safe.
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This is a story from the Third Century, from the Sixth Century, from the 14th Century, 17th Century, 18th, 19th, 20th and now our nascent little century. I mean this month.
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Bubonic and Pneumonic Plague, caused by Y. pestis, probably began in Mongolia and swept west until it engulfed all the Old World. And it returned on average, although in less virulent form, every 10 or 15 years until the 17th century. The last major outbreak was the Great Plague of London in 1666 that was chronicled in the diary of Samuel Pepys. Some 100,000 died in that wave, in the city alone.
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But the New World had its chance, too. Blame the conquistadors. About 40 percent of the native population of central Mexico died in 1520 of small pox, that being 5 to 8 million dead. Twenty-five years later, the Cocoliztil Epidemic, also smallpox, wiped out between 5 and 15 million, or 80 percent of those who had survived the first wave. In 50 years, the native population went from 30 million to 3 million.
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In North America, the 1616 New England Epidemic wiped out as much as 90 percent of the Wampanoag people. It may have been a breakout of leptospirosis, although other guesses include yellow fever, plague, influenza, smallpox or hepatitis. Estimates of pre-Columbus Native American populations in North America range from about 3 to 18 million people. Most recent estimates favor the higher numbers. By 1890, that had been reduced to 250,000. Some of that destruction came by military action, but the vast majority was caused by disease.
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Smallpox was the greatest of the villains, and many of history’s worst epidemics have been of that now-extinct disease. But it is plague that gets all the glory. There have been three great waves of plague, each coming in an initial burst and reappearing intermittently for centuries. The first is the Plague of Justinian. The second is the Black Death and the third began in Yunnan, China, in 1855, and spread through Asia, taking out some 12 million people, mainly in India and China. Deaths from this wave continued into the 20th century.
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Plague also killed some 2 million in Persia in 1772.
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But joining smallpox and plague is cholera, which killed a million victims in Russia in the mid-19th century. That century finds cholera outbreaks all over the globe, popping up first there, then here.
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Temporary influenza hospital at Camp Funsten in Kansas in 1918

 

Now, in the 20th and 21st centuries the great threat is influenza. The first notable outbreak was the pandemic of 1889-1890, that killed 1 million worldwide. But then, the Spanish Influenza killed something like 100 million between 1918 and 1920. (That is five times the number killed in World War I, both military and civilian). That influenza was caused by the H1N1 subtype of Influenza A.
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The flu has returned in various forms several times. The Asian Flu killed 2 million in1957-1958; the Hong Kong Flu took out another million in 1968-1969; the London Flu in 1972-1973 killed 1,027, which may seem a small number, but it was big enough to put a scare in the populace.
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The most recent million-death pandemic was HIV/AIDS, which first became known about 1980 and has since then killed more than 32 million people.
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I have shoveled a lot of numbers into this essay and it is easy to think of them merely as numbers. The quote attributed to Josef Stalin is apt. Talking to a group of commissars about the starvation in Ukraine, he is reported to have said, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”
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To get past the mere piling up of numbers into haystacks of meaninglessness, there are many notable works of literature that humanize the pestilences. The first one you should read is the introduction to Boccaccio’s Decameron. It reads like modern journalism, with an accumulation of observed detail and a lack of sentimentality. The Decameron is a collection of short stories ostensibly told by a group of refugees hiding from the plague in Florence. But the introduction is blank fact and beautifully written.
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The Great Plague of London was covered by two writers. Samuel Pepys was an eye witness and he wrote about it in his Diaries. For Jan. 30, 1666, he wrote, “This is the first time I have been in this church since I left London for the plague, and it frighted me indeed to go through the church more than I thought it could have done, to see so many graves lie so high upon the churchyards where people have been buried of the plague.”
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Great Plague of London, 1666

 

The other, written some years later by Daniel Defoe is his A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, more than 50 years after the event. The author of Robinson Crusoe was just 6 years old when the plague hit London, but he carefully researched the event and although his Journal technically fiction, it very closely hews to the journalistic truth.
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He describes the weekly and daily numbers of reported dead, which sounds eerily familiar, and the sequestering of families and the quarantines. He also chronicles the quack cures being touted.
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“It is incredible, and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.:
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“ ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Never-failing preservatives against the infection.’ ‘Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ etc”
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All of it sounds familiar, now that there is talk of drinking bleach or silver. But he also brings the individuals to life: “I wish I could repeat the very sound of those groans and of those exclamations that I heard from some poor dying creatures when in the height of their agonies … and that I could make them that read this hear, as I imagine I now hear them, for the sound seems still to ring in my ears.”
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He describes the cart bringing the corpses to the graveyard, “a becloaked, muffled figure comes in to view, ‘oppressed with a dreadful weight of grief indeed, having his wife and several children all in the cart … no sooner was the cart turned round and the bodies shot into the pit promiscuously … but he cried out aloud, … the buriers ran to him and they led him away to the Pie Tavern, over against the end of Houndsditch, where it seems the man was known’.”
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The fear struck everyone. One man, self-quarantined in the second floor of his home, took precautions with his mail: “His letters were brought by the postman, or letter-carrier, to his porter, when he caused the porter to smoke them with brimstone and with gunpowder, then open them, and to sprinkle them with vinegar; then he had them drawn up by the pulley, then smoked again with strong perfumes, and, taking them with a pair of hair gloves, the hair outermost, he read them with a large reading-glass which read at a great distance, and, as soon as they were read, burned them in the fire; and at last, the distemper raging more and more, he forbid his friends writing to him at all.”
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There is simple fiction, too. Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, wrote in 1826 a novel called The Last Man, about an apocalyptic world ravaged by a plague. Poe’s Mask of Red Death tells of the wealthy and aristocratic hiding in luxury from the pestilence until “a figure arrives wearing a mask made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have difficulty in detecting the cheat.” The visitor is the Red Death itself and all die.
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The Red Death is taken up by Jack London in The Scarlet Plague, from 1912, in which a survivor in postapocalyptic America of 2073 recalls a pandemic from 2013.
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There is a whole trove of more recent postapocalyptic narratives, including Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, Stephen King’s The Stand, Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse. Most are meant as thrillers, but there is a deep moral core to Albert Camus’ Le Peste (“The Plague”), published in 1947, which it is hard not to keep in mind when you watch doctors, nurses, paramedics and other hospital workers risk their lives in the current Covid-19 pandemic. It should be required reading for everyone.
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And holed up in your homes, there is plenty of time for good reading until this current angel of death passes overhead and moves on.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

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by Richard Nilsen

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I’ve been on many pilgrimages, although I have never really thought to call them that. You probably have, too.
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The line between what constitutes pilgrimage and what can be called merely travel is impossible to draw in ink. Each of us must decide where one endeavor shades into the other. There are many who walk to Santiago de Compostela merely for the adventure of it, and there are those who may vacation in some spot that has developed, for them, the quality of a shrine.
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I am not religious and subscribe to no doctrine, but there is still something deeply satisfying about going somewhere, away from life’s everyday concerns, to discover something bigger, more important and more meaningful. That is how I define for myself the nature of a pilgrimage.
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In some sense, nearly all travel I have taken has functioned as pilgrimage. I go to see something, or I go to learn something, or just to be near something that has meaning. “Meaning” is a squishy term, difficult to define. In this sense, meaning cannot be translated; you can’t always say what something “means,” it cannot be paraphrased, but you feel that it has meaning. Like a dream you cannot parse, but won’t leave you; you know it is meaningful. You don’t always understand meaning, but you recognize it.
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Some call this meaning “spiritual,” but the word, for me, has too much incense around it. I leave it to the New Age conjurors and the church-goers. I think of it rather in Jungian terms, as our subconscious mirrored in the world at at large.
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You will have your own meaningful travel; I recommend to you that you consider why some places seem important and others are insignificant, perhaps because of something that happened earlier in your life, perhaps because of something you read and admired, perhaps because of religious belief. Perhaps, even, because it matches some undefined longing deep in your chest.
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It was such a longing, or empty space in my experience, that led me to Chartres cathedral. It was certainly more pilgrimage than tourism that led me to Chartres the first time. It overwhelmed me. It led, a few years later to a more traditional pilgrimage: An intentional voyage from shrine to shrine, as I traveled west to east in northern France from Mont Saint-Michel to Saint-Samson in Ouistreham; to Chartres again; to Paris for Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle, Saint Denis, and several smaller churches, such as Saint Séverin, Saint Germain l’Auxerrois, Saint Eustache; then north to Rouen, Amiens and Beauvais; and east to Laon, Reims and Noyon.
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And despite my utter lack of religious faith, there was no denying the power of this architecture and the meaningfulness of its vast interior space as metaphor for both the infinite heavens and our psychic interior — both of them larger and more important than our puny day-to-day lives.
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I’ve also made the pilgrimage three times to Monet’s garden at Giverny — which is one of my holy-of-holies — first in the spring and then twice in the fall. My life is infinitely alive for my having spent time there.
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In my freshman year at college, my friend shared his enthusiasm for Cape Hatteras and I’ve been back too many times to count. My first official wife and I took our honeymoon there, although I’m sure she would not remember it as fondly as I do. We camped in the dunes directly under the lighthouse and at night the surf misted the air with a salty haze. The nighttime sky with the roar of the ocean was another mirror turned simultaneously inward and outward.
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When I have been back, it has usually been in winter or early spring, before the hordes descend. When I first went, much of the barrier islands were empty; now, except for the protected National Seashore, it has become a Manhattan of the coast, with three- and four-story condos lining Route 12, which runs down the curve of the Hatteras Island like the vein on the back of a shrimp.
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One can make pilgrimage not only to claim something new, but to pay homage to what has become sacred. Every time I visit Maine, I go to Schoodic Point where the waves crash over rocks and wash back into the sea in torrents. It is pilgrimage in so far as each visit reassures me that the world I know survives — both the interior and the exterior. I reabsorb what it gives me and I am remade.
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With my second unofficial wife, I hiked a good portion of the Appalachian Trail in the mid-1970s, in a more traditional pilgrimage on foot. We never finished that one, giving up because we discovered that unlike what we had imagined — leisurely enjoying the beauty of nature —  the reality was driving ourselves to the next lean-to by nightfall and not losing track of the paint blazes that marked the trail. A trudge rather than a Thoreauvian saunter. Nevertheless, even incomplete the hike has informed who I have become in profound ways.
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Other pilgrimages I have made include driving the the length of the Mississippi River from its source at Lake Itasca to its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. I have also traveled the length of the Appalachian mountain cordillera, from Alabama to Percé Rock at the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec; and have driven from Mexico to Canada up the fold in the middle of the map of the 48 states — along the 100th Meridian.
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Each of these, and several others, have been journeys of intent, that is, trips made with an end in mind, as opposed to a vacation trip, whose whole point it to avoid the work involved in achieving a goal.
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Another repeated pilgrimage is to Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. I first went there more than 50 years ago, after having read pretty much everything Henry David Thoreau ever published, including his 14 volumes of journals. I fell in love with Thoreau’s prose style, with its biblical heft and Shakespearean metaphor.
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“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.” How can you write better than that? You can’t.
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I read it all, from Walden to The Maine Woods to The Dispersion of Seeds. But not the poems. Gott im Himmel, not the poems. Thoreau wrote the most poetic of prose, but the most prosaic of poetry.
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Walden, of course, chronicles his time spent in a cabin he built on the glacial lake of that name, where he lived for a year and a half in an attempt to leave civilization behind and grow his own beans. Thoreau became the patron saint of environmentalism in the 1960s, when I was reading all this, and that despite the fact that in 1844, he personally destroyed a whole forest by, like Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon, “doubtless being careless with matches.”
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I can not accurately recall the number of times I have made it to Walden Pond; they all blur together. I’ve been there in spring and in fall; I have had the place all to myself, and I have had visits I had to share with busloads of tourists; there were moments when I felt I was communing with the eternity that Thoreau found there, and moments that were bound by the clock — I had elsewhere to get to before dark.
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But the climax of a visit is circumambulating the pond, i.e., walking the perimeter of the water, a distance of roughly a mile and a half. At the one end is the swimming hole beach used by the residents of Concord, Mass., and at the other end are the railroad tracks of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Fitchburg Line commuter train.
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On the way, you pass the site of Thoreau’s cabin, marked by stones where the tiny building used to be (a modern replica can be see on the other side of the highway that passes the pond, at the parking lot; yes, there is now a parking lot.)
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The pond is just another kettle lake in a landscape made by their number into Swiss cheese on the map of New England. But it has a resonance built into it because of its adoption by Thoreau, a resonance that is now felt by countless acolytes for whom Walden is, if not a holy book, then at least a baedeker for self-discovery.
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As he sat in his cabin, from 1845 or 1847, he spent his time writing a book about his own pilgrimage, 10 years before. He and his older brother, John, rowed and sailed a dory down the Concord River and up the Merrimack. When John died only a few years later, Henry composed the book as a memorial to his brother. It is a discursive volume, mostly about the boat trip they took, but also about pretty much everything else the young writer could pack into it.
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He had it published at his own expense, and when it failed to sell, he wound up with all the remaindered books delivered to his home. “I now have a library of nearly nine-hundred volumes,” he said, “over seven-hundred of which I wrote myself.”
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I suppose I did not always think of travel as pilgrimage, but it does not matter what I planned. In that sense, there is but a little difference between pilgrimage and vacation. Perhaps the most salient difference is the goal: For a pilgrim intends to change, while the vacationer usually purposes only to recharge the batteries and come home feeling more himself. But leaving home and passing through the unfamiliar will always change who you are.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.
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