Wednesday, May 31, 2023

How Writers Work

The things we lack the courage to do are transformed into stories.

–Georgi Gospodinov, Time Shelter

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Tao Yuanming, "Substance, Shadow, and Spirit"

Tang Dynasty poem and quick primer on Chinese philosophy.

Substance speaks to Shadow:

Heaven and Earth exist for ever:
Mountains and rivers never change.
But herbs and trees in perpetual rotation
Grow and are withered by the dews and frosts:
And Man the wise, Man the divine—
Shall he alone escape this law?
Appearing by chance for a moment in the World
He suddenly departs, never to return.
How can he know that the friends he has left
Miss him and think of him?
Only the things that he used remain;
Friends look upon them and their tears flow.
Me no magical arts can save,
Though you may hope for a wizard’s aid.
I beg you listen to this advice—
When you can get wine, drink it.

Shadow replies:

There is no way to preserve life.
Drugs of Immortality are instruments of folly.
I would gladly wander in Paradise,
But it is far away and there is no road.
Since the day that I was joined to you
We have shared all our joys and pains.
While you rested in the shade, I left you a while:
But till the end we shall be together.
Our joint existence is impermanent:
Sadly together we shall slip away.
That when the body decays Fame should also go
Is a thought unendurable, burning the heart.
Let us strive and labour while yet we may
To do some deed that men will praise.
Wine may in truth dispel our sorrow,
But how compare it with lasting Fame?

Spirit expounds:

God can only set in motion:
He cannot control the things he has made.
Man, the second of the Three Orders,
Owes his precedence to Me.
Though I am different from you,
We were born involved in one another:
Nor by any means can we escape
The intimate sharing of good and ill.
The Three Emperors were saintly men,
Yet to-day—where are they?
P’ēng lived to a great age,
Yet he went at last, when he longed to stay.
And late or soon, all go:
Wise and simple have no reprieve.
Wine may bring forgetfulness,
But does it not hasten old-age?
If you set your hearts on noble deeds,
How do you know that any will praise you?
By all this thinking you do Me injury:
You had better go where Fate leads—
Drift on the Stream of Infinite Change,
Without joy, without fear:
When you must go—then go,
And make as little fuss as you can. 

– Tao Yuanming (c. 365-427). Translated by Arthur Whaley

Medieval Chess Sets

The game we know as chess originated in Iran or India or somewhere thereabouts around 500 AD. The names and identities of the pieces changed over the course of the next several centuries; the details of the rules probably did as well, but that is hard to show, since we don't have any written rules from that time. 

Most older chess sets look like this, with the pieces largely abstract. The value of expensive sets came from using expensive materials, like rock crystal or jade. This is the Ager chess set, the oldest in Europe, from 11th-century Catalonia.

Here is an ivory piece from medieval Persia, showing that the identity of the figures was more often suggested than worked out in detail.

Two ivory pieces from Iran, 11th century.

For the most part, the habit of elaborately carving chess piece into human or animal shapes seems to have developed in Europe, sometime around the year 1100. All but one of the oldest dozen elaborately carved chess sets is European. The exception is this one, which was excavated in 1977 at Afrasiab near Samarkand in central Asia and dated to c 700 to 760 AD. No source I have seen explains how the dating was done, so I am skeptical, but the excavation report was presumably printed in Russian and resides only in a few ex-Soviet archaeological institutes, so for now we are going to have to take the excavators' word for it. Anyway this reigns as the oldest dated chess set.

One of the Afrasiab pieces. Elephants commonly appeared in medieval sets, probably in the slots we know as bishop and rook.

This means that the Lewis chessmen, excavated in the Hebrides in 1832 and dated to the 12th century, are not just wonderful but also one of the oldest chess sets carved into recognizable figures.

The Lewis find contained pieces from at least four sets, so in the 12th century these must have been fairly common. Historians in Spain and France have found traces of chess sets in the wills of rich nobles, which confirms that carved sets in valuable materials had become standard luxury items.

The other really famous carved set from medieval Europe resides in Paris and goes by the name of the Charlemagne chessmen. It seems to date to around 1100 AD. As you can see, this set was very elaborate indeed, with pieces so large as to be an impediment to play. And since they don't look very worn, they were probably not played with all that much.

Still with elephants, as you can see.

The queen. Chess historians are fascinated by the rise of the queen, which replaced the Grand Vizier in European sets, probably in the 11th century.

Knight and bishop.

Here is another early queen, from Spain, dated to the early 12th century. From then on the number of surviving pieces gradually increases. I was surprised to find, though, that there are few surviving sets from before around 1500. After 1500 production seems to have exploded, both within Europe and in Asia, where many elaborate sets were made for sale to Europeans who like to play with sets that suggested the exotic east.

 Here is a 15th century king, from Germany.

A Scandinavian bishop from around 1200.

A 12th-century bone piece, which can stand in for thousands that have been found in archaeological digs across Eurasia. Chess sets are cool because they allow artists to explore a fixed theme in any imaginable style, something modern artists are still doing.

Monday, May 29, 2023

In the Woods

Patapsco State Park, this week. Above, mountain laurel.

Wild iris on the river bank.

Feral flowers along the mill race trail. Our "wild" roses are the descendants of bushes planted as cow-proof hedges. 

The jungle along the river. Below, southern catalpa.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Tale of Jacob and Josephina

Interesting story:

This touching scene in Roermond, Netherlands, reveals two final resting places nestled within separate cemeteries. The reason? Jacob Werners Constantinus van Gorcum, the husband, was a Protestant, while Lady Josephina Carolina Petronella Hubertina van Aefferden, his beloved wife, was a devout Catholic. Their differing faiths meant they could not be interred side by side in a single graveyard. 

They married in 1842.

When Jacob passed away in 1880, his resting place was designated against the wall. Eight years later, as Josephina breathed her last, her final wish was not to join her family's tomb but to be laid to rest against the same wall as her cherished spouse. Their custom headstones stand as a testament to their enduring bond.
Wonderful. Since anyone could change religion in nineteenth-century Netherlands, I wonder why neither one of them converted to the other's faith? I first supposed that there must have been strong family, inheritance, or professional issues, but then I thought it is possible they may just have been committed to their own churches. None of the online sources about them says.

Kiso Valley

Today's place to daydream about is the Kiso Valley, an oasis of Japanese tradition along the old post road from Tokyo to Kyoto. The road is called the Nakasendo. The modern road through the valley sometimes follows the old post road and sometimes takes a different route, and the unimproved sections of the old Nakasendo are now popular routes for walking between historic towns. 

Most popular of all is a 5 mile (8 km) hike from Magome to Tusmago. Magome is a delightful-looking little town with many traditional buildings.

More Magome.

The trail climbs up over a significant ridge between two river valleys, and parts of it look like this.

The ridge is national forest land.

You'll also pass numerous Buddhist monuments, because this whole valley was and is a site of Buddhist and Shinto pilgrimage.

Toward the end of the trail is a famous old tea house.

And then down into Tsumago, another delightful town.

Working water wheel in Tsumago.

The other popular section of the Nakasendo runs between Narai and Yubahara. Narai is the largest of the historic post towns.

It has a two old houses still furnished in nineteenth-century style and a museum folklore and history, and you can stay in a traditional inn.

Along the trail to Yubahara you will cross this modern bridge, built in the traditional style with no nails or bolts.

But if those trails are too tame for you, you can take on a much more difficult challenge: hiking the pilgrimage trail to Mount Ontake, a route that goes back to the 9th century. You can do this either as a pilgrim or as a tourist on a guided hike; if you don't feel like walking the whole way you can even do much of it by tram. Assuming that my audience is more likely to be touristing, I caution you that you will meet pilgrims in various depths of spiritual study and you should probably leave them alone.

The scenery on the way up the mountain is spectacular, with several waterfalls.

A famous winter site is the Shirakawa ice pillars, a cliff where trickling water forms an enormous sheet of ice.

You will pass several shrines.

These stones are called reijinhi; each commemorates an ascetic sage who trained on the mountain top.

Trail marker from the nineteenth century.

Besides being beautiful, sacred in Shinto, and suggesting to Buddhists a way to reach Pure Land, these waterfalls had the practical function of providing very rigorous showers for ascetic monks.

View from the top, a spiritual experience for almost everyone.

And then, you know, you're in Japan, so you're never really far from civilization, and you can hike back down for dinner