Archive for December, 2011

Happy 2012!

December 31, 2011 2 comments

The World is Music–Happy 2012!       RT

Photo: Earth Night; Guilane Nachez; MorgueFile; License: MorgueFile NoStandAlone Use.

The Elephant Bird

December 29, 2011 6 comments

OK, it was big. Our feathered friend weighed in at almost 900 lbs (more than an adult male grizzly bear) and stood more than 10 feet tall (higher than a basketball hoop). It laid eggs a foot long and 3 feet in circumference. We’re talking about the biggest bird that ever lived.

The Elephant Birds were a family of ratites that ranged across the island of Madagascar. They’ve been extinct since the 1600’s.

The bird resembled one of its relatives, the ostrich; it had hair-like plummage, powerful, thick legs, and vestigial wings. The EB was vegetarian and likely had no predators. Its enormous beak and large, clawed feet were more than adequate to fend off its hungry neighbors.

Despite its size and strength, the EB was surprisingly vulnerable. It was not a fast runner (unlike the ostrich, which can outrun a horse) and it most likely produced only a single egg at a time. Several causes for the bird’s extinction have been proposed, including hunting and egg-gathering by humans and infection by diseases common to chickens and other birds brought to the island by people.

What is most compelling about the Elephant Bird may be the place it held in the mosaic of Madagascar’s endemic species; not only the island’s long isolation from Africa and India (160 million years), but the diversity of its landscape (seven ecoregions) have produced what many consider to be a biodiversity hotspot. More than 100 species of lemurs; a predator related to mongooses,  the fossa; eight species of flowering plants; and the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach (up to 4 in long) are found nowhere else.

And this does not include the wildlife that has vanished since people first arrived 2000 years ago: 17 species of lemur (including the Giant Lemur, which was as big as a gorilla), a species of pygmy hippopotamus, a species of giant tortoise, and the Giant Fossa.


Interested in supporting Madagascar’s remaining wildlife? Gerald Durrell and the organizations he founded are one place to consider.


Illustrations: top: Photo of Elephant Bird Skeleton and Egg; Monnier, 1913; WikiCmns; Public Domain. middle: Reconstruction of a Live Elephant Bird; Acrocynus; WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported; bottom: Sloth Lemur; Smokeybjb; WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported.

Seven Ingredients of Good Writing

December 28, 2011 1 comment

It’s always the right time to brush up on the basics…


Seven Ingredients of Good Writing.

Back to the Village

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment


An end-of-year escape…St Mawes, a beautiful village in England. Enjoy!


Back to the Village.

A Poulter’s Dozen: RT’s Selected Posts, 2011

December 26, 2011 4 comments

Remember this little guy? He appeared all the way back in February as a kind of tropical antidote to winter. Now it’s nearly 2012, and soon (but don’t quote me on this), WordPress will be sending us our annual stats & list of most popular posts. It’s a great service, and an e-mail I’ll be posting, but I’m not sure that it’s completely representative of a year that saw more than a hundred posts added to The Rag Tree.

RT’s solution? Make my own selection of 2011’s best, and in particular, those posts that won’t make WP’s Top Five. So here are twelve posts, chosen from across the months, that I have a soft spot for–and think deserve a second viewing:

1. Print, Applause and $$. January. Perhaps a bit argumentitive, this essay defends my claim: Writing isn’t about getting published; writing is about community. A consideration of the larger issues at play in the writer’s life.

2. Sappho. February. She defined the lyric poem in the West, is perhaps the greatest woman poet who ever lived–and her poetry survives mostly in fragments. Here is my translation of one of her most intense moments.

3. Gliese 581. February. You couldn’t say that it’s a next-door neighbor, but the star Gliese 581 has a mind-boggling solar system, and Gliese 581-g is the most earth-like planet discovered so far. What a vacation!

4. Did Jacob Climb his Ladder? March. For centuries, scholars have been working to identify the sources that were compiled to create the Hebrew Bible. This post introduces the Elohist, the most mysterious of the Bible’s four main sources.

5. Sor Juana. March. A consideration of a woman who has been called Mexico’s greatest poet–and of the more enlightened side of Spanish colonial rule.

6. The Tax to Ceasar. April. Over the centuries, this episode from the Gospels has been used to define Christianity’s relationship to political authority. RT thinks the Tax is just one of the most extraordinary moments in Jesus’s life.

7. The Novgorod Codex. July. The discovery a decade ago of a hyper-palimpsest–a document that contains hundreds of pages of over-written text–has spurred one Russian scholar to extraordinary lengths in deciphering the material.

8. How to Eat an Essay. July. Ladies and gentlemen: tuck in your napkin, pick up your fork and knife, and dig in!

9. A Global Trust Bank? August. It could help track funds used in relief efforts–and other monies, too.

10. Idiolects. September. A big topic, a surprising answer.

11. Pitman Shorthand. October. Working on your first novel? Lighten the load.

12. Confessions of a Disorganized Poet. November. Paper, paper everywhere! I mean, what do you do with all this stuff?

& now for the extra eggs:

13. The Thunder Throne. January. An amazing work of art–created by a black janitor.

14. Ni L’Un, Ni L’Autre. August. OK, OK, it’s one of RT’s own poems; on the other hand, it’s pretty good!

& here’s to a productive 2012!   RT


Photo: Microcebus Rufus. Photographer, Alex Dunkel; Camera, Freddie Barber; Modifications, WolfmanSF. Source: Wikipedia; License: CC 3.0 Unported.

Peace on Earth

December 25, 2011 Leave a comment


   Peace on Earth

        Goodwill to All Men 

Image: The Nativity (Byzantine Icon); WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported; User: Tetrakys

Mystery & Perfection: The Sombrero Galaxy

December 23, 2011 3 comments

Sometimes things just work out right. We’ll never understand all the reasons, and sometimes there’s no need to. Mystery and perfection…  Happy Holidays!!   RT


Photo: The Sombrero Galaxy; Source: Hubble Telescope, NASA; WikiCmns; Public Domain w/ attribution.

Tea Time with the Dragons of Grammar (A Drama)

December 23, 2011 5 comments

Tea Time with the Dragons of Grammar

(A Romantical Comedy in Three Acts)

Just when you thought the Dragons of Grammar couldn’t get any sillier, here we are to prove you wrong. To be sure, there will be a certain element of competition (and perhaps even a little back-scratching) in the conversation that follows, but all the dragons have promised to be on their best manners, so we can expect to see more cucumber sandwiches perched precariously on claws than dead-dragon looks (and if you don’t know what a DDL is, how lucky for you! ;))

A. Our Mise-en-Scene

So where were we? Ah yes, imagine we’re inside a large, airy cave with a view–a dramatic one, of the ocean and exotic lands far away. Next, let’s reintroduce our company of grammarian daredevils: 1) Morphology (the Chocoholic Dragon); 2) Syntax (the Aviator Dragon); 3) Phonology (the Absent-Minded Dragon); 4) Phonetics (the Dragon with a Tape-Recorder); 5) Semantics (the Acupuncturist); and 6) Pragmatics (the Fuzzy Dragon).

And lest any of our readers have (gasp!) forgotten the Dragons’ respective bailiwicks, here they are: a) Morphology: the classification of word- and language-types; b) Syntax: the construction of sentences and languages; c) Phonology: the link between sound and meaning; d) Phonetics: the mechanics of language; e) Semantics: the shades of meaning; and f) Pragmatics: the real-world approach to language, or the poetry of language).

B. Act One: A Critical Question!

Our dragons are all seated in a circle, each holding his (or her!) cup of tea. A large, elaborate oak coffee-table sits in the center of the circle; on the table is an ornate Victorian tea-service, including scones, frittatas (a modern concession), six very large porcelain pots of tea, and enough cookies to give even an active sweet-tooth second thoughts. Morphology (or Morfilene) is wearing PJs and a bathrobe, with curlers in her hair and a large box of Godiva chocolates on her lap; Syntax (or Capt. Sopwith)  is wearing a leather aviator jacket, a white silk scarf, and a pair of goggles; Phonology (or Prof. GrumpyChuckle) is wearing a tweed jacket, a large pair of round glasses, a rumpled white shirt with a rather natty plaid bow-tie, and has red string tied around one finger–he is supposed to be our process monitor!!); Phonetics (or Ranger Eagle-Ear) is dressed in a no-nonsense khaki uniform and dark-brown field-hat; Semantics (or Dr. Silverneedle) is wearing light-blue scrubs, sandals, and a yellow ribbon in her dark hair); and Pragmatics (or Ms. CoolStuff) is wearing designer jeans, a mohair sweater, and bangle earrings. (Next to GrumpyChuckle is an enormous standing gong).

1. RT starts the ball rolling by asking: How are the Dragons of Grammar related to each other? A sensitive question this, and accompanied by many an arched eyebrow, many a set of pursed lips. No one wants to be the first to make a comment, and some minutes pass before Ranger Eagle-Ear pipes up and says: “It all starts with a sound! The important thing is to have a tape-recorder with you.” Capt. Sopwith snorts at the remark and says, “Hogwash! You must have a plan first, a plan!” Things look like they might degenerate into a shouting match, but Ms. Coolstuff intervenes with a bright smile and “Get over yourselves! The man didn’t ask us who was first; he wanted to know how we’re related.” Sopwith and Eagle-Ear momentarily look indisposed (having failed to think of a sharp retort), and then the group sinks back into silence.

2. At length, Prof. GrumpyChuckle restarts the conversation with “By gosh and golly, there is no real distinction between us; we exist as a team, a department, everyone acting in harmony.” Several Bronx cheers greet this remark, and GrumpyChuckle reminds the dragons that this is supposed to be a polite conversation. More Bronx cheers.

3. A fragile silence follows, soon broken by Morfilene, who says, “What you are obviously failing to see is that grammar is An Art, involving taste and the ability to understand distinctions, say, the difference between a Royal Coconut Bon-Bon and a Cherry Explosion Truffle.” Morfilene temporarily disappears behind puffs of steam blown at her by the others (who want some of the chocolates she is so zealously hoarding).

Indeed, tempers are beginning to fray, so RT thinks it the better part of valor to call a time-out. The curtain descends.

C. Act Two: A Desperate Duel!

The curtain rises on our dragons engrossed in an appalling spectacle: Eagle-Eye and Sopwith are dueling with sabres; they have offended each other’s honor, and as gentlemen dragons, they must fight to the death! All eyes are rivetted on the pair as they dance around each other, assuming threatening poses and exchanging DDLs. Then Eagle-Eye dashes in and scores a direct hit! Green dragon blood dribbles out from Sopwith circles round and slashes EE’s arm. But it is too late; EE takes his sabre in his left hand and rushes at Sopwith, slashing away. Sopwith is overwhelmed, hit multiple times, and crys out “Forsooth! I am struck a grievious blow!” before falling to the ground. But GrumpyChuckle saves the day, banging on his gong so loud that EE’s ears explode with ringing, he loses balance, and falls to the floor, unconscious. Silverneedle (who has always had a crush on Sopwith) rushes to his side, and before long her magic needles have revived him. Morfilene (who has always had passionate feelings for EE), feeds him her secret hemp-and-soybean bon-bons, which heal his ears of all hurt.

Bravo, GrumpyChuckle! The curtain descends.

D. Act Three: All is Fair in Love and Food!

Our curtain rises on a tragical scene–our dragons are divided into two camps, one on either side of the stage. The tea table and service are gone, as are Morfilene’s chocolates.

RT’s final question: If you had a choice, which would you rather do: go to a lavish banquet or read a book on grammar?

An uproar ensures, as dragons raise their hands, jump up and down, and make faces at the opposing side–the sole exception being Morfilene, who rolls her eyeballs. At last she jumps up and shouts down everyone else. “Where are my chocolates! I want my chocolates!”

In response, Eagle-Eye roars out: “Balderdash! Why are you worried about food when more important matters are at stake?”

But now CoolStuff is getting angry: “Why do dragons waste time on duels? If we change grammar, we can change the way people think and get rid of this nonsense !” To which Eagle-Eye huffs and puffs and says: “And how are we going to do that?” GrumpyChuckle then proceeds to bang on his gong, an enormous sound, and everyone sits down.

By way of reward, GC waves to unseen lizard helpers, and they run onto the stage with the table, service, and a new supply of tea, sandwiches, cookies–and chocolates! A few satisfied minutes follow as the dragons sip and munch away. Then Silverneedle gets bored and starts throwing crumbs at Sopwith (he never does pay any attention to her!). Sopwith responds with a volley of strawberries, and before GrumpyChuckle can do anything, the tea party has degenerated into a food fight. As four of the dragons chase each other around the room, Morfilene holds on tightly to her chocolates and GrumpyChuckle bangs on his gong. Exeunt the four dragons stage left,  followed by GrumpyChuckle and Morfilene.


(and the Dragons of Grammar will be back to provide further insights–and settle their differences)


Photos: Top:  Tea Colors; WikiCmns; User, Haneburger; Public Domain. BottomTea Cup With Dragon Motif; WikiCmns; User: Yunomi; Public Domain.

A Holy Tradition of Working

December 21, 2011 3 comments

A Holy Tradition of Working, a compilation of writings by the sculptor, artist, and thinker Eric Gill, is one of those books I keep coming back to. Gill, most famous for his design of the Gill Sans typeface (the lettering used on the London Underground), was (among other artistic achievements) a successful sculptor who, after a long intellectual quest, converted to Catholicism as an adult; his thinking was much influenced by Catholic views on art and labor, and Tradition collects his insights, scattered throughout his writings, on these subjects.

What attracts me most is the introduction’s fine summary of dissenting thought on industrialism, stretching back to Blake and Carlyle, and Gill’s plain, acerbic style. Though he can sound a bit like a schoolmaster, there is no denying that accounting a society’s worth only by its material production leaves out something profound. I agree with his claim that only when people are fully committed to their work, both intellectually and emotionally, are they capable of producing superior results. In this regard, I think of the quality of William Morris’s textiles (and not just their gorgeous patterns), workmanship that must have originated at least partly in their weavers’ delight in producing something genuinely beautiful. Where the heart is at home, the hand will follow…

We must all seek out and find that work which is most meaningful and satisfying to us.    RT


Photo: The North Wind by Eric Gill; WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Generic; Photographer: Andrew Dunn.


December 17, 2011 2 comments


form with a twist (and a photo hard as the year’s death)…bravo to Emma!