Saturday, June 30, 2012

You eat what?!?

I previously mentioned one of my some-time hobbies – "some-time" because I no longer have time for it but hope to again sometime – growing carnivorous plants. They're not that rare, you know? There are nearly a thousand different species and they're found on every continent except Antarctica. But I thought I'd explain a little about the different species. They can be divided into two different kinds: active traps and passive traps. Active traps are less common and actually move to catch their prey, like Venus flytraps. Passive traps just sit there and catch bugs, which doesn't sound as exciting but they're usually better at it and frequently much more beautiful. (For info on Venus flytraps, please see my prior post.)

First of all, my favorites: the pitcher plants, particularly the American pitcher plants (Sarracenia). They're native to the American East and Gulf Coasts and they grow in wet and boggy places – not swamps, but bright and sunny wetlands. Most of them have a funnel-shaped leaf (they're sometimes called "trumpet plants") with the opening at the top and can be as tall as 3 to 4 feet or low and horn-shaped. Bugs are attracted by the colors and a nectar the plants secrete and they fall into the tube where they die and are digested. It's that easy, and it happens a lot! The plants I grew often caught dozens of bugs, and I'm told in the wild they'll fill all the way up till the leaf falls over with the weight. I think they're the prettiest, both the leaves and the flowers, and I would love to see them in the wild!

There's another American pitcher plant that grows in Northern California and Oregon, the Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia). It's similar to the Eastern pitcher plants, but the top is hooded with a small opening underneath. It looks a bit like a snake and is pretty cool, but it's moderately difficult to grow. Darlingtonia doesn't have digestive enzymes like Sarracenia, but uses bacteria to break down what it catches.

There are also tropical pitcher plants from around the world, the most well-known (and most likely to be offered for sale) are what is sometimes called Monkey Cups (Nepenthes). They can grow into huge vines and produce pitchers on the ends of their leaves. Some are fascinating and amazing, and some grow large enough to catch rats and even birds (although that's uncommon). Nepenthes grow mostly in Indonesia, the Philippines, and south-east Asia. There is also the Sun Pitcher (Heliamphora) from the Venezuelan highlands and the Australian Pitcher plant (Cephalotus), but I didn't grow either of them.

Sundews (Drosera) have tiny little hairs on their leaves called tentacles with sticky droplets on the end of each hair. They are especially good at catching smaller insects, and sometimes the leaves will even curl around the prey, but slow enough that you won't see it. They grow worldwide but again, they're wetland plants. Charles Darwin was so fascinated with the American Round-leaf Sundew that he wrote a book about his experiments proving they actually ate what they caught. Some of the most impressive species come from South Africa and Australia. One type I especially enjoyed growing were the Australian pygmy sundews which could be smaller than a dime.

Similar to sundews are the butterworts (Pinguicula) which usually have bigger leaves but smaller hairs. You'll often see numerous dead gnats on their leaves and they have a greasy feel to them. Some are exceptionally pretty, especially their flowers, but they're not as flashy as other species. The Mexican butterworts are some of the most commonly-grown. I once dropped a mosquito that was full of my blood onto a leaf and over the next month the plant doubled in size – it sounds gross but it was really cool!

Other than flytraps, the only active traps are the bladderworts (Utricularia) and the waterwheel plant (Aldrovanda). Most of the bladderworts are aquatic with lightning-fast little round traps which suck up insects in less than 1/1,000th of a second! The only problem is that they're tiny – only a couple millimeters and their prey is almost microscopic. Their best attribute – in my opinion – is their almost orchid-like flowers. The traps of the waterwheel plant are similar to a flytrap, but only a few millimeters – but they're fast like the bladderworts, closing in 1/50th of a second.

There are a few others but they're uncommon and mostly similar to the plants above. At any rate, carnivorous plants are a lot cooler than regular old houseplants! Occasionally I've seen them in stores like Home Depot, but there's not much variety unless you buy online from specialty sellers. I'll explain how to grow them and list some good books about them in another post. (And thanks again to Barry Rice's excellent photos – I looked through mine but they were pathetic in comparison.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Can't breathe #1

Over the past two years I've reviewed several books about some famous and not-so-famous explorers, including those who explored icy oceans and steamy jungles. But those were older history. To wrap up my armchair exploration theme – and as I prepare for a backpacking trip to climb Mt. Whitney this summer – I thought I'd share a couple of books about more recent history and explorers who went to frightening extremes.

I first came upon Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer about 10 or 11 years ago while we were spending a week at the beach house. I had already finished the book I'd brought with me (I think it was Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, which wasn't very good) when I found this one on the shelf. I was still more interested in fiction than non-fiction, but it was the only thing that looked half-way interesting. It only took a few pages though, before I couldn't put it down. (Incidentally, our vacation ended before I could finish the book and I was sorely tempted to "borrow" it from the beach house – but I found it at the library instead when I got back home.)

In May 1996 a number of climbers and guides found themselves caught near the summit of Mt Everest during an afternoon blizzard. Five of them died in the worst disaster in Everest climbing history (at least I think it's still the worst; I think 4 people died in a storm just this last May). Krakauer, a writer who was one of the climbers who managed to summit the mountain early, tells the events of the ill-fated expeditions and the people involved. Additionally, he gives a bit of history on climbing Everest and discusses – in chilling detail – the effects such high altitude has on the human body. From the details of altitude sickness to the account of the tragedy itself, this book is gripping and a real page-turner. Krakauer comes across as objective and believable in his telling of the events as he places the blame on too many people on the mountain and in particular on Scott Fisher, the main guide of another expedition group, for not turning around early enough (Rob Hall, the lead guide of Krakauer's group, also died trying to help Fisher's group).

But... there's always more than one side to every story. I later found Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest by Beck Weathers, another member of Krakauer's expedition, who was 'left for dead' by Krakauer and another climber when they decided Weathers wouldn't make it and would only endanger their lives if they helped him. Weathers later wandered into camp on his own and eventually lost his nose and parts of his arms and feet to severe frostbite. His account, although not as compelling or well-written, was critical of Krakauer's version of events – and he's not the only one. So, while I recommend Into Thin Air as an exciting read, I wish to emphasize that there was a fair amount of controversy surrounding the tragedy and Krakauer's best-seller probably shouldn't be taken as the definitive history.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Missing the mark

Recently I reviewed American Gospel by Jon Meacham, which I found to be a good book about the place religion holds (or ought to hold) in American society. In my opinion it effectively argues for tolerance for the beliefs - or disbelief - of others, while explaining the significance of religion in our history. I don't mean to overstate the significance of the book or make it sound perfect, but it was much better than some others I've read on the topic.

In Forged in Faith: How Faith Shaped the Birth of the Nation 1607-1776, Rod Gragg writes to show the religious underpinnings of the United States of America. He says that the majority of settlers, both the Pilgrims and those at Jamestown Colony, came for religious freedom and that their charters and organizations were designed around their religious beliefs. He also discusses the "Great Awakening," the religious revival in the mid-1700s led by important but seldom remembered names as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, that brought the colonists back to their religious roots. Finally, he wraps things up with a look at the religious influences that crafted the Declaration of Independence.

While I don't disagree with Mr. Gragg's premise, I think he's preaching to an audience that has already made up its mind and I doubt skeptics will be impressed. I agree and believe that religious beliefs were key in forming the concepts that led to the creation of the United States (and not simply "Enlightenment philosophies"), and that most of the influential voices in establishing the nation held strong religious beliefs even when dissatisfied with the religious institutions of their day. But I also think he overstates things and was bothered with the heavy and frequent use of terms like "faith-based" and "Judeo-Christian worldview" (a term not even coined until around 1900), and the use of selective quotes and summary information on individuals (Squanto, Washington, and Jefferson, among others) that gives a very misleading view of their beliefs. And Gragg is clearly cherry-picking the stories and events he uses to support his argument. And it's the kind of argument that makes me worry as much about the "religious right" as the "secular left."

In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, Stephen Prothero argues that, despite what we may think, America is a very religious nation. He explains that our history is entwined with religion and how modern-day politicians frequently invoke religion when they speak. Furthermore, most Americans report that they regularly attend religious services and pray, but not many of those people actually have much religious knowledge (an assertion supported by many surveys). Few can name all Ten Commandments or any Apostles, not to mention even cursory knowledge about Eastern religions. Contrast this with Europeans, who have broad religious knowledge but don't attend church or pray. Mr. Prothero explains how religion factored in early American life, the affects of secularism and how America shifted away from valuing religious knowledge, and discusses the confusion over the legalities of teaching religion in public schools. He also makes a case for the need for greater religious literacy without showing favoritism.

I don't disagree with his history or even his conclusions, but the problem for me is that the title is misleading: it infers that this book will tell us what we NEED to know. It doesn't. I did better than average on the quiz in the book and it sounds like I know more about my own church than most people do about theirs, but I know very little about other churches and wanted to learn some basics. All the book has to offer is a "dictionary" with cursory information, when more in-depth essays or information on the different religions would have fulfilled the promise in the title. Mr. Prothero complains that many churches today teach only broad "touchy-feely" concepts like "love" and "Jesus" but fail to impart a deeper understanding, but I think his book is guilty of the same sin.

At any rate, just a couple of books which 'missed the mark' in my opinion, and that I can't recommend. (I received Forged in Faith from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Feed me

I've mentioned before how much I like gardening even though I don't have much time for it. I guess it's an interest I got from my dad. He always kept a beautiful yard (still does), and there were a lot of trips to various nurseries and gardening stores when I was a kid. I remember going places like the annual Home & Garden Show at the old Salt Palace, the County Extension garden in Farmington, and even the Peace Gardens at Jordan Park. I remember my dad listening to the KSL gardening program on Saturday mornings on the radio. I have especially fond memories of Brown Floral (where my mom worked sometimes) and the long greenhouses that stretched behind the storefronts (and their incredible Christmas displays! Actually, I still think of Brown Floral every year at Christmas.). But somewhere in all the gardening-related activity I saw some plants that were amazingly exotic and different from the ordinary houseplants, flowers, and vegetables. They were plants guaranteed to snare the attention and interest of boys because they trapped and ate bugs.

Sure, you've probably seen little Venus Flytraps for sale and maybe you've even bought one. The first one I got as a kid came with a clear plastic cup over the top of it to keep the humidity higher. I assumed something so strange must come from an equally strange place, like maybe the Congo jungle, and I tried to give it the conditions I imagined existed in a hot and steamy jungle. All my efforts probably only hastened its demise. But eventually I found a book that taught me how to grow them, and it turns out that flytraps actually come from North Carolina!

A Flytrap is an amazing plant - a leaf with a trap on the end that can snap shut in less than a second. Look closely at the two halves of that trap and you'll see 3 tiny little hairs on each side. Touch one and nothing happens, but touch it again (or a second hair) and it closes with rows of outside hairs forming a cage, trapping a bug or spider inside. If the bug gets away it'll open again in a day or so, but if it was successful it'll keep closing and form a seal. After a week or so it'll reopen leaving only the dried out shell of the bug.

But why would a plant catch and eat bugs? Carnivorous plants (or CPs, as they're called by people who grow them) are native to boggy areas where the soil is very poor and highly acidic. The nutrients needed to grow and reproduce just aren't available in such wet and swampy areas, so the theory is that they evolved the ability to attract, trap, kill, and digest the most available source of nutrients - insects. (Most of their prey are insects, but some plants are known to occasionally catch worms, frogs, lizards, birds, and even small mammals like mice and rats. But don't worry, man-eating plants are only the stuff of legends and sci-fi movies.)

But there's a lot more than just Flytraps. At one point I had a nice collection of several dozen different kinds of CPs, but it's a hobby that requires more time and attention than I'm able to give right now. Still, it's something I'd like to start up again if I could, so I keep it as a dream in the back of my mind. In the meantime though, I'll have to content myself by writing a little about them here - and maybe I'll make some time to write about the different kinds and maybe how to grow them, and whatever else comes to mind. (And thanks to Barry Rice and his excellent photos.)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Ray Bradbury 8/22/1920 — 6/5/2012

As both an avid reader and an aspiring writer I thought it appropriate to note that Ray Bradbury died last Tuesday. He was 91 years old.

The first story of his I read was probably “The Veldt” in an elementary school textbook. It's a futuristic story of two children who have a playroom with video walls that show whatever they want. They usually pick an African grassland (a "veldt") scene, a fixation that worries their parents. Eventually it's not just the visual scenery the parents notice but a hot breeze and strange smells, and eventually the lions look more and more hungrily at them when they look in on the kids. Frankly, I'm still creeped out and traumatized by that story!

The second time I remember was in high school when we read a chapter from a book and then had to write the next chapter. I didn't remember the name of the book or the author but it was about some women coming home from the movies and talking about a local murderer called "The Lonely One." They plead with their friend to stay the night with them, but she insists on going to her own house – even though she'll have to cross a ravine. In spite of her bravado, she becomes very frightened by strange sounds and just reaches her door ahead of what she thinks is the Lonely One. As she locks the door behind her, she hears someone inside her house clear his throat...

Years later I came across that chapter again while reading Dandelion Wine. It's about 12 year-old Douglas Spaulding of Illinois in the summer of 1928 when he realizes for the first time that he is alive – truly alive. He keeps a list of all the "firsts" of the summer – first new pair of sneakers, first batch of dandelion wine bottled for the winter months, putting up the porch swing, etc. But with his new awareness of being alive comes the realization that he will also one day die. And this is a most difficult book to explain and describe. The writing is incredible, almost poetic and dream-like in some ways, and it creates powerful visual images and feelings, especially with the sometimes disconnected and snapshot-like chapters. The beginning is very moving when Douglas becomes aware of everything around him, but it gets rather dark toward the end when he begins to recognize his own mortality. It's some of the most amazing writing I've ever read, and a book I'd like to read again sometime.

I also enjoyed the spooky Something Wicked This Way Comes about best friends Will Holloway and Jim Nightshade who were born 2 minutes apart (Will a minute before midnight on Oct 30 and Jim a minute after midnight on Oct 31), and it's an interesting and insightful look at what it's like to be 13. But Fahrenheit 451 is probably Bradbury's most well-known book, also about a future where homes have rooms with television screens that cover entire walls and viewers interact with the characters, and firemen don't put out fires but instead burn books. Readers usually think it's about censorship, but Bradbury said it was "a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature."

I actually got to hear Mr. Bradbury speak several years ago at the Woodland Hills Library. Braiden and his friend Nick went for extra-credit in their English class, but the overflow crowd was mostly adults. He talked about how lucky he was to have made a living and a life from writing, and shared stories of how he spent evenings at the library and how he got started and how much he loved books and reading, and it was actually really fun and interesting. I wouldn't call myself a "fan," because there have been a number of stories I really didn't like, but there were a few that amazed me and made me wish I could write like he did.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Arthur Bowen's unhappy fall

Twenty years ago the L. A. riots caused fear and destruction in parts of the city. I remember seeing the Rodney King video and being shocked by it, but just as shocked by something a co-worker said. She'd recently moved from L. A. where her husband had been on the LAPD, and after seeing the video he'd told his wife "Yeah, I've done that before." I won't speculate on the situations he might have been in and whether or not it was warranted, but Jamie and I were engaged at the time of the riots and we drove down to L. A. so she could attend a bridal shower. Her parents lived in the San Fernando Valley but the shower was down in Orange County, and the riots were going on in between. But Los Angeles is a big city, so the only effect it really had on us was that they had to hold the shower early so everyone could be home before the police-imposed curfew at 6PM. While she and her mother, grandmother, and sister drove across town I stayed at her home and watched the news coverage on TV, which was scary enough!

Unfortunately, race riots are nothing new in American history. In between the War for Independence and the Civil War calls for the abolition of slavery began to grow in number and volume, but few people could imagine whites and former black slaves living peacefully side-by-side. Some favored re-settling freed slaves in Africa or the Caribbean, but understandably most blacks viewed America as their home and didn't relish the idea of being shipped off to a land they'd never known. But it didn't stop a few abolitionists from agitating in southern states, and scattered reports of slave uprisings caused fear and anxiousness among those who owned such "human property."

Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 by Jefferson Morley tells the story of combustible race relations in the American capitol. Arthur Bowen, a young slave owned by Anna Thornton (widow of William Thornton, designer of the U. S. Capitol) who enjoyed a fair amount of liberty, came home very drunk late one night. What is known is that he picked up an axe and entered his mistresses' bedroom where his own mother also slept, and mumbled some drunken threats. His actual intent isn't known but the women panicked and Arthur was eventually arrested and charged with attempted murder. In the already charged atmosphere, mobs of white men quickly formed and threatened to take Arthur to "Judge Lynch."

At the same time a former slave named Beverly Snow (a man, not a woman) ran a popular and successful restaurant in Washington. Unlike Arthur, Beverly did not mix much with those pressing for emancipation, but was very forward and cheeky in promoting himself and his restaurant (which bothered some people). Rumors quickly spread that Snow had made offensive comments about white women, and the two situations combined to feed mob riots which came to be known as the "Snow-Storm."

Morley has written an interesting account of this long forgotten episode of history. He adds in the story of F. S. Key, whose song "The Star-Spangled Banner" was later adopted as the national anthem, and who as District Attorney prosecuted Bowen and Reuben Crandall, a white man who was allegedly circulating abolitionist newspapers. It's not a deep or dry history but is instead very readable, including dialog as it was recorded at the time ("edited for clarity") and it mostly avoids moralizing or making too many judgments. It's interesting to see the atmosphere and tensions in society as slavery began its long and painful death, and even though we've come a long way in race relations since then we can still do better. Personally, I agree with Rodney King when he said "Can't we all just get along?"

(I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher and it will be sold in bookstores beginning July 3, 2012.)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

On becoming a...

As a kid I sometimes thought I'd be a writer when I grew up – at least when I wasn't thinking I'd be a professional baseball player. It wasn't because I wanted to be famous or that I thought myself especially creative – but I enjoyed reading good books so much that maybe I saw my life being connected with them somehow. It wasn't really a conscious thing either – I don't believe I ever said aloud that I wanted to be a writer – it was just sort of how I imagined my older self in some corner of my mind. But in the 80's, Business was portrayed in movies and television as the cool thing to do (remember Alex P. Keaton?). The work was easy, the money was good, and it looked exciting and important, and I guess I was swayed by that image.

Okay, so it hasn't turned out quite like that, but I had an aptitude for accounting and for the most part I have really enjoyed it. Still, there's that corner of my mind that thinks I should write... and about eight years ago I started. Obviously, when you work full-time and have a family and all the responsibilities of a grownup it doesn't leave much free time, and it turns out that writing – making stuff up – is a lot harder than I thought. But I've kept at it and I think I might actually be getting close to the end of my novel. Just the first draft, unfortunately.

But sometimes I read books about writing, like On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner. Apparently, Gardner was a "famous novelist" who wrote several "critically acclaimed" books – none of which I'd heard of though – and he taught a lot of prestigious writing classes at prestigious schools (he died in 1985). But as I started reading the book he sounded like a very cranky (and intimidating) elitist who says the only thing worth writing is "serious, honest fiction... the kind of fiction likely to survive." He frequently references writers like Faulkner and Joyce and Dostoyevsky, and sometimes even criticizes them! I thought about calling my review "On becoming an arrogant fat-head" or something like that, but got tired of him and quit reading...

... until I started it again, and realized that some of the things he said made sense. Even if you can't write like Dickens it's only "honorable" to write the best you can. And some things he said really resonated with me, like when you re-read what you've already written and it sounds like junk or how important encouragement is and how hard it is to find time to write and why character is important and how difficult it is to just make stuff up and how it feels when your characters come alive or when you write something where you finally get it just right! And I began to feel a connection with him, because I've actually been through some of the same struggles and felt some of the same emotions that he talks about. There's practical stuff too, like how to get the most out of a writing workshop and what to avoid, and how to find a publisher or agent, but most importantly he talks about having faith in yourself and not giving up.

And after eight years or so, I think that's what I needed to hear.