Monday, November 20, 2017

Entering the Land of the Morlocks

Biosphere 2, Technosphere Hallway
@2017 Tina Quinn Durham
Our tour of Biosphere included a tour of the “Technosphere” - the 3.14 acres of ductwork, pipes and machinery which allow life within Biosphere 2 to breathe, get moisture, and in general survive.
As soon as I stepped through the door into the tunnel, I immediately thought of H.G. Wells, and started looking for dangerous little humanoids that were clever with machines but might want to eat me.

None appeared, and our guide seemed well-fed enough for me to continue the tour, despite my misgivings.

For the engineers among us, a few facts:

The technosphere includes 26 air handlers that can control moisture and humidity as well as oxygen and C02 levels, and of course heat or cool the air as required.

Having so much control over temperature and humidity allows scientists to discover what happens if a rainforest experiences several weeks of drought. They cannot control the ocean, but at the coral reef in Biosphere 2, they can study corals respond to increased levels of CO2 or higher water temperatures.

Our guide told us about an interesting experiment in the rainforest. The biome was flooded with CO2, and it turns out that increased CO2 levels don’t lead to more and more plant growth. Instead, there is an upper limit to how much carbon that plants can absorb and sequester - and it is possible for Earth to go beyond that limit.

Not only that, but other studies have shown that increased levels of carbon dioxide can actually reduce the nutrient value of important crops like rice and wheat.

Scary, huh?

"Biosphere 2 Gives Up Some of its Secrets" - an informative article about the technosphere from The Green Valley News.

Fast Facts - Biosphere 2.

More Carbon Dioxide in the Air Makes Some Crops Less Nutritious

Thursday, November 2, 2017

No Diversity - No Survival

The ocean & coral reef at Biosphere 2 - "the world’s biggest controlled marine research facility"
@2017 Tina Quinn Durham
How much of the world can you squeeze into 3.14 acres?  Biosphere managed to fit an ocean, a fog desert, a rainforest, a mangrove wetland, a savannah, and agricultural areas that included rice ponds with tilapia, vegetable gardens, and grain fields.  Not to mention living space for humans and a variety of agricultural animals including pigs, goats, and chickens.  An impressive microcosm of large, complex planetary systems.

The Rain Fog Desert at Biophere 2
@2017 Tina Quinn Durham

One detail particularly impressed me:  the planners included a fog desert specifically because the plants there are actively producing oxygen in winter, when flora in other biomes are dormant and not producing the oxygen we need to survive.  Suddenly, I realized why we need two hemispheres with winter in one and summer in the other, and how important it is that global weather patterns act like a planetary fan to mix all that oxygen up and move it around.

The Rain Forest at Biosphere 2
@2017 Tina Quinn Durham
The inhabitants of Biosphere 2 suffered a debilitating shortage of oxygen despite the careful planning that went into creating Biosphere when exposed concrete absorbed both carbon and oxygen.  There were other setback too, when the pollinating insects died and the cockroach and ant populations exploded.  Even their bodies had to adapt to a low-calorie, high-nutrient diet, and the Biospherans literally felt hungry for an entire year until their metabolisms adjusted.

We cannot predict what effect climate change and altered weather patterns might have on our larger biosphere.  We already know that bees are in trouble, and flying insect populations are decreasing.  How that will affect the quality of human life and the success of our food production remains to be seen.

However, one fact is painfully clear:  humanity cannot survive without biodiversity.  To live, to breathe, to have potable water and survivable weather conditions, we need diversity.  Everything matters from the smallest microbe to the largest apex predator.

We do not exist in isolation from Biosphere 1.


Wikipedia. “Biosphere 2.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Oct. 2017,

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Future of Arid-Land Farming: Aquaponics at Biosphere 2

I was thrilled to see an aquaponic garden at Biosphere.  The basic idea is that fish poop in the water, the water is pumped up to the planting beds, the plants filter out the nutrients, and the water is returned to the fish tanks to be replenished with more organic nutrients from fish poop.  You can grow a variety of herbs and vegetables, and you can use different fish species too, depending on your climate.  In central and southern Arizona, most people seem to be use goldfish, koi and tilapia because it’s too warm for trout.  Catfish are a possibility too, but I haven’t seen much about people using them in Arizona.  That may have something to do with their water and filtration requirements compared to less demanding species like tilapia.

As human population continues to grow and demand for water increases, we will need innovative methods of food production - especially in desert regions like California and Arizona.  Locally grown produce and fish that’s organic and uses less water than traditional farming methods?  I’m all for it!

When humans begin to colonize other worlds, aquaponics will almost certainly play a role in their food production too.

By the way, our guide mentioned that one of his friends grows hops - an essential ingredient for home-brew beer - in his aquaponics garden.  Yep, there is definitely a future for aquaponics!

For more information on aquaponics, a good place to start is the National Agricultural Library (online) at the USDA.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Not Mutually Incompatible

© 2017 Tina Quinn Durham
© 2017 Tina Quinn Durham
When you think about science, it’s easy to imagine a sterile laboratory with glass petri dishes, neat rows of test tubes and mysterious machines tended by people in white coats. It’s harder to imagine scientific discovery happening in a stunningly gorgeous natural setting, but that is exactly what is happening at Biosphere 2. Nestled among the rugged southern edge of the Rocky Mountain ranges are bee houses, flowers, trees, and even a sculpture garden. Paths lead you past boulders and rocks meant to educate the mind - and delight the eye. Biosphere 2 even has an artist-in-residence program.

Science and beauty can exist side by side, and strengthen one another. The order and beauty of nature are not inimical, but rather, intrinsic to the mission of Biosphere 2.

(This reminds me of a poem - I feel a song coming on..... "Ode to a Grecian Urn" by John Keats....)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sightseeing in my own backyard
(well, sort of)

Biosphere 2 rises out of the landscape like a futuristic cathedral.
Photograph © 2017 Tina Quinn Durham
Biosphere surprised me.  My memories of it, from the ‘90s, were of sensationalism and a vague sense of science gone bad. 

I suppose that one ought to expect failures when attempting to do something incredibly difficult for the first time.  After all, no one had ever before attempted to simulate an interplanetary mission to colonize another world.  “No material in, no material out” for two years was a truly ambitious goal.

The logistical problems encountered and solved in those first Biosphere attempts will probably save many lives in the future.  Scientists learned a great deal from those experiments, including the surprising fact that concrete can absorb oxygen and threaten the stability of a closed ecosystem. 

Nevertheless, I had casually dismissed the Biosphere project as irrelevant, a mere tourist attraction from a by-gone era.

Then I found a book in a thrift store about Biosphere, and flipping through it rekindled my desire to see the actual Biosphere project.  Yet years passed, the book sat on my shelf unread, and we did not take a day to visit Biosphere.

The book that spurred me into action.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma struck the Caribbean island we were supposed to visit.  The hurricane removed the fourth floor from our hotel and radically changed our travel plans.  We decided to stay closer to home and to explore the state in which we live.

The journey shaped itself around one destination:  Biosphere 2, in Oracle, Arizona - 120 miles from our home.  Sixteen years after its inception, we were finally visiting Biosphere 2.

More About Biosphere 2

 “Life in Biosphere 2.”  In her TED talk, Jane Poynter talks about what it was like living for two years in Biosphere 2, and advises Tucsonans to throw away their rakes.

Biosphere 2 - the official website

The Wikipedia article on Biosphere 2 - a nice overview, with lots of history

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Spring Food from the Sonoran Desert

Cholla Blossoms, McDowell Mountain Regional Park.  © 2017 Tina Quinn Durham
Cholla - the same cactus that modern hikers hate and fear - actually sustained Native Americans in the past.  After a winter of dried foods, the Tohono O'odham would carefully gather the cholla buds just before the cactus flowered in the spring.  Then they would carefully clean off the spines, and boil or roast the buds, which are low in calories but high in calcium.  And of course, they were careful not to harvest all the buds, because they understood that sustainability is critical to a society’s long-term survival.

Today, people use tongs to harvest the buds, and clean off the spines with a screen box, rolling the buds across the screen with a whisk broom, and then pulling off the remaining spines with tweezers.  This is definitely not fast food!

Cholla buds could be cooked fresh, or dried and cooked later.  But raw cholla buds contain oxalic acid which irritates the throat of any human unfortunate enough to eat a freshly picked cholla bud.  Fifteen minutes of boiling will remove the acid, and then the cooked buds can be added to other dishes.

However, javalina, jack rabbits and pack rats can all digest oxalic acid, and so eat the fruit of the cholla and the prickly pear without damaging their esophagi.  Which is fortunate for them, because they don’t have access to a kitchen!

Works Cited

Acoba, Elana. “It's Harvest Time for Cholla Buds, a Subtle, Versatile Native Food.” Arizona Daily Star,, 8 Apr. 2012,

Engols, Kimberly, and Season Eggleston. The Incredible Edible Desert. Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Dept., University of Arizona, 2010,

Tohona O'odham Community Action. “Ciolim: Cholla Cactus Buds.”, Tohono O'odham Community Action, ND,

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Surprised by a Sahuaro

Sahuaro, McDowell Mtn. Regional Park, AZ.  ©2017 Tina Quinn Durham
I was going to write a post about sahuaros that was replete with intriguing scientific facts about this unique cactus which grows only in one desert in the world - the Sonoran desert of the American Southwest and northern Mexico.  Instead, I ended up writing a poem about sahuaros which might actually be a publishable piece of work.  When it hits a small press magazine, I'll let you know.

Meanwhile, a couple of fun facts about sahuaros:

You may have known that Lesser Long-Nosed Bats are a primary pollinator for sahuaros, which bloom at night.  What you may not have realized is that the flowers stay open until the following afternoon and that the white-winged dove is an important pollinator of sahuaros.  This dove actually times its migration to coincide with the flowering and fruiting of the sahuaro cactus ("Migratory Pollinators," Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum).

Another surprising bit of information:  a sahuaro cactus may weigh up to 8 tons, and its roots can absorb 200 gallons of water during a single rainfall.  That's over 1600 lbs. of water! ("Sahuaro Roots," National Park Service).

Here's the last weird thing about sahuaros:  they have shallow root systems.  Although the roots may extend several feet in all directions, they're only a few inches deep (ibid).  You'd think something as tall and heavy as a sahuaro might be more like mesquite trees, with tap roots that reach down a very impressive 200 feet into the soil (Dimmitt, "Plant Ecology of the Sonoran Desert Region").  But no, three to five inches deep is all a sahuaro needs to survive for over 100 years in its desert environment.

Which just goes to show you that there's more than one way to live in harmony with your surroundings, and to thrive even in harsh conditions.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Just another amazing Arizona sunset

McDowell Mtn. Regional Park.  ©2017 Tina Quinn Durham
When we got to McDowell Mountain Regional Park and set up camp (inasmuch as one ever sets up camp in a motorhome), the first thing I did was put on the hiking boots and head down the spur toward the Granite Trail. It was a spectacular sunset and a lovely, peaceful hike.

Moments like these are why we live in Arizona!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Another Road Trip - Arizona Oct. 2017

Sabino Canyon, near Tucson, AZ.  ©2017 Tina Quinn Durham
Okay, this was kind of a weird vacation for me because it was more or less unscripted in that we knew what places we wanted to visit, but didn’t have reservations or a fixed timetable.  Also, because we were camping in various state, national or regional parks, it was different from any RV’ing I had done before.

DAY ONE: TUCSON AND SABINO CANYON.  Sabino Canyon is one of the places I’ve always wanted to visit, and I’ve rather envied Jeff the opportunity to hike there as a teenager.  Having two kids within two years of getting married really cramped our style when it came to hiking, or doing anything that required money.  Now, however, the kids have been grown for a long, long time, and we're finally getting around to some of the items on my bucket list.

The National Forest Service website says that "over a million visitors a year" come to see the "soaring mountains, deep canyons, and the unique plants and animals" in Sabino Canyon.  The rugged landscape and the sahuaro cacti are definitely worth the visit.

I was impressed with the quality of the narration on the tram ride.  The driver knew the plants and animals in the area as well as the natural and human histories of the canyon.  Not only that, he could get across the narrow stone bridges without falling off!

We didn't do much hiking because of the heat.  Yes, even though it was mid-October, the afternoon was still too hot, and it didn't matter that it was a dry heat.  It was just too hot. Nevertheless, we got off at the last tram stop, wandered around a bit and enjoyed the amazing vistas before heading back to civilization.

The other high point of our day was lunch at Brushfire BBQ in Tucson.  Pulled pork sandwiches with a sweet, hot BBQ sauce, topped with fresh creamy coleslaw and washed down with Prickly Pear Iced Tea.  What could be better than that?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

2017 Road Trip: From Bomb to Art

We saw this V2 Rocket Engine at the New Mexico Museum of Space History, and I couldn't resist photographing it.  Such wonderful geometry inside such a deadly object.

I couldn't resist playing with the image in Photoshop Elements either.

You might find this as an abstract print in a hotel room somewhere, or hanging in a museum.  I could have an artist's statement about the vital role of art in transforming images of death into images of beauty, hope or life.  I could make some reference to the Bible, and turning swords into ploughshares.

But I think I'd rather just leave you with this evocative image instead.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

2017 Road Trip, Day 2: Alamogordo, NM

New Mexico Museum of Space History
Our original plan was to drive through El Paso and see the Border Patrol Museum — which, if you look their website, seems to be pretty campy and is rumored (by them) to be "one of our Nation’s best kept secrets."  However, the museum was closed on Mondays, so we went through Alamogordo instead.

Our alternate route brought us to the New Mexico Museum of Space History instead, and three flags waving proudly in the wind.

If you've never crouched down on the sidewalk while your significant other walks in circles around you, sighing impatiently as you try repeatedly for the perfect shot, you cannot truly appreciate the effort that went into this photograph.

Don't worry - my DH got over his grumpiness when he got to explore space junk!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

2017 Road Trip: Day One, Mesilla NM Cont.

These images seem twinned to me, somehow. It's not just the visual similarity of two slender white vertical objects; it's also that I took the two photos one after the other without remembering the prayerful figure from the previous shot  When I loaded the photos into Aperture and saw them for the first time side by side, they just resonated.  Our subconscious minds are sometimes wiser than we know!

Downtown Mesilla is really lovely, BTW.  After wandering through the streets and shops, we had a great dinner at La Posta, which Google describes as a "New Mexican restaurant in an 18th century stagecoach station also features a piranha tank & aviary."  I loved the food - best Mexican cole slaw ever! - but of course the macaws, cockatoo and Amazon parrots stole my heart.

Friday, August 18, 2017

2017 Road Trip: Day One, Mesilla, NM

The old church in Mesilla is supposed to be one of those must-stop destinations for tourists, but we found the doors locked.  We wandered around outside dutifully, and I got some nice shots, but it was actually rather depressing, with all the memorials for those lost in war, and the little memorial for those lost to abortion.

We knew it would be a long day of driving, which it was.  I think that sometimes I want to make New Mexico something other than it is, which is gloriously empty, dry land.  It makes sense to an Arizonan mind.  But it's also got these lovely mountains, and slightly different flora because it's a different desert with a different rainfall pattern.  Water is everything, especially when you get less than 19" of rain every year.

So what do I remember from that long day of driving?  Nothing except a sense of happiness.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Novel Writing Tips: How to Introduce Your Main Character

Because I am trained primarily as a poet, I am always perplexed by attempting to critique fiction. So today's question is:

 Do experienced, published authors (as opposed to aspiring authors) actually introduce their main characters by first and last name immediately?

I have a gut feeling that good writers don't do this, but I don't have evidence to back this up. I do have two novels here in the motor home with me: Explorer and Destroyer, both by C.J. Cherryh, plus some Kindle books. So I can do some research on this even without access to an entire library.

 EXPLORER BY C.J. CHERRYH: “Steam went up as the shower needled Bren's back….” NO for example #1

DESTROYER BY C.J. CHERRYH: Two ¶'s about spider plants aboard the starship, mention of another character (Narani) by first name only, and finally, mention of our main character's name, but not in direct reference to him. Rather, “Bren Cameron's devoted staff had by now offered spider plants to every colonist in the deck above…”. So I'm going to say a QUALIFIED NO for example #2.

ROLLING IN THE DEEP BY MIRA GRANT. Opens with dialogue: “Captain Seghers, permission to come aboard?” End of next long ¶, we discover her full name in this sentence: “Deaths were unlikely, given the number of precautions in place, but Jovanie Seghers had been working the ocean long enough to know that nothing could be ruled out.” I'm going to call that a NO.

FRANKENSTEIN BY MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT SHELLEY: Narrator is writing a letter to his sister, and signs it R. Walton. NO

DRACULA BY BRAM STOKER: Chapter heading “Jonathan Harker's Journal” - so no clunky introduction in the text. I'm calling this a NO.

FOLLOW YOU HOME by Mark Edwards. First-person narrator, identified only as Daniel when kissed by Laura. NO.

WAR BRIDES by Helen Bryan. In the first sentence of the prologue, we have our first example of full name and title for a main character: “In the departure lounge of the Atlanta airport on an early May evening, Alice Osbourne Lightfoot, the trip's organizer, smiled at everybody and said, "Hey! How you doin' this evenin'?” As she ticked their names of her list of their London-bound party.“ Finally, a YES. 

TAKE ME WITH YOU BY CATHERINE RYAN HYDE. "August Schroeder stood at the rear door of his broken-down motor home, looking out through the small, square window.” A second YES.

WAR AND PEACE BY LEO TOLSTOY. One paragraph of dialogue, then “It was in July, 1805, and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honor and favorite of the Empress Maria Fedorovna.” YES #3.

CHIMERA BY MIRA GRANT. Opens with a transcription of a video recording. “DR. CALE: My name is Dr. Shanti Cale.” I think we have to call this YES #4.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN BY PAULA HAWKINS. First-person narrator, so NO.

2030: THE REAL STORY OF WHAT HAPPENS TO AMERICA BY ALBERT BROOKS. “It was a normal day, or so it seemed. Actually, nothing in 2030 seemed normal, not to Brad Miller anyway.” YES #5. 

I think I can stop here, and say with certainty that yes, main characters are usually introduced by their first and last names, but their names are rarely (if ever) the opening words of the novel.

Friday, January 13, 2017

What Does "The Great Code of Art" Mean

Northrop Frye's book, The Great Code:  The Bible and Literature, draws its title from the words of poet William Blake, who said, "The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art" (quoted by Frye xvi).

Here's the context from which Frye draws the quote:

 Around his engraving of the famous Roman sculpture, Blake included (as you can see in the image above) a LOT of text, which reads in part:
Jesus and His Apostles and Disciples were all Artists. Their Works were destroy’d by the Seven Angels of the Seven Churches in Asia, Antichrist, Science.

The Old and New Testaments are the great code of Art.

The whole business of Man is the Arts, and all things, common.

No secrecy in Art.   

Art is the Tree of Life.

God is Jesus.

Science is the Tree of Death.

For every pleasure Money is useless.*
A quick Google search reveals hundreds of attempts to decipher Blake's idiosyncratic theology; I have no desire to go there.  What fascinates me is the idea that these sacred texts are difficult, that they are encoded, and that when you decode them, what emerges is not a bloodless theology, but vibrant, living Art.

You, and I, and every human being, have been created in the image of a creative God.  Our creativity is therefore potentially holy and definitely meaningful.

Whenever I feel discouraged, I need to remind myself of this larger context against which our brief, tiny, creative lives are played out.

Our lives are not meaningless, and we are not alone.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Thirsting for New Water

The Bible "has had a continuously fertilizing influence on English literature from Anglo-Saxon writers to poets younger than I, and yet no one would say that the Bible 'is a work of literature' " (Northrop Frye, The Great Code, xvi).

Waterfall, Cloud Forest, Costa Rico.
©2017 Tina Quinn Durham

At what point is a treasure trove of inspiration exhausted?  Will the Bible always be a source of creative inspiration?

When we keep draw upon the myths of the past for our fantasy, our movies, and our serious literature, we don't merely copy them. We re-vision them – that is, we consciously attempt to see the past in new ways, from new perspectives.

At the Gethsemane Encounter (a Buddhist-Christian conference at a Trappist monastery), Fenton Johnson talks to a Buddhist nun named Dr. Yifa.  She tells Fenton Johnson: “I joined the sangha [the community of monks] to make it richer and more attractive to others. A pond is dead water unless it has a stream of new water coming in” (Keeping Faith:  A Skeptic's Journey 13).

Perhaps this applies, not merely to monastic communities or communities of faith, but to everything.  In agriculture, cross-pollination occurs when a plant pollinates a different variety of the same species.  Sure, you could end up losing good qualities of a commercial hybrid or strain, but you also might up with greater genetic diversity and resistance to pests or diseases.  A more productive variety could emerge from this chance encounter.

Nations benefit from an influx of hard-working, highly motivated immigrants who bring new foods, new ideas and necessary skills.  Their cultural influences revitalize art, music, and literature.

It's not just the Bible that "has a continuously fertilizing influence on English [and American] literature."  We have been blessed by "new water" from every people and every culture that has come to our shores.

When we cease to embrace the Other, we will embrace Death.

Durham, Tina Quinn.  Image "Waterfall, Cloud Forest, Costa Rico."  Used by permission.
IAC Publishing, Inc. "What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Cross Pollination?" Reference. IAC Publishing, Inc., 2017. Web. 11 Jan. 2017. <>. 
Rhoades, Heather. "What Is Cross Pollination - Learn About Cross Pollination In Vegetable Gardens." Gardening Know How. Gardening Know How, 01 May 2016. Web. 11 Jan. 2017. <>.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Bible's Disregard of Unity?

Have you ever been in church and heard your pastor talk about the amazing unity of the Bible, a book written by "40 authors... over a period of 1500 years" (  You may have heard him say something like this:

All 66 Books of the Bible Agree

But here is the wonder of it all: When the 66 books of the Bible with their 1,189 chapters made up of 31,173 verses are brought together (KJV), we find perfect harmony in the message they convey. As the great scholar F. F. Bruce noted: "The Bible is not simply an anthology; there is a unity which binds the whole together."
The Bible writers gave God's messages by voice and pen while they lived, and when they died, their writings lived after them. These prophetic messages were then gathered together, under God's leading, in the book we call the Bible (

You may also have heard about the evils of "higher criticism," which fundamentalists regard with the deepest suspicion and hostility, as if the inspired word of God would not withstand the assault of "literary historical-critical methods"and analysis "based on reason rather than revelation" ("Biblical Criticism").  They appear to see the world as being at war, with the central conflict being faith v. reason.

After half a century of living under such teaching, I was truly surprised when I read what Northrop Frye so casually wrote:

"...the Bible's disregard of unity as quite as impressive as its exhibition of it" (The Great Code xvi). 

Frye doesn't question his faith; he just says this.  Like the boy in the fairy tale who proclaimed that the emperor had no clothes, Frye isimply reports his own observations, without making judgments beyond what he sees in the text itself.

Like the townspeople in the fairy tale, I too find myself agreeing with the man who honestly tells me what he sees.  I've been reading the Bible or memorizing it daily for about 40 years.  I've noticed both the "disregard of unity" and the "impressive... exhibition" of unity within the Bible.

However, this is the first time I've said it out loud.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Proven Cure for Ignorance and Prejudice

In this post-truth America, where so many are stuck inside political echo chambers and the prisons of their own biases, a true liberal arts education matters more than ever.  Why?  Northrop Frye's comments on academics are equally true for all of us.  Education is transformation!

Academics, like other people, start with a personality that is afflicted by ignorance and prejudice, and try to escape from that personality, in [T.S.] Eliot's phrase, through absorption in impersonal scholarship.  One emerges on the other side of this realizing once again that all knowledge is personal knowledge, but with some hope that the person may have been, to whatever degree, transformed in the meantime" (The Great Code, xv).

It's interesting to me that Frye describes scholarship almost as a descent into the underworld, in the hero's journey.  In some ways it is a journey to the realm of the dead, because the disciplines of the humanities are our only time machine.  Through art, literature, music, philosophy, history and religion, we can engage the thoughts and emotions of people from the past, and reach out to people from our future.

Does scholarship truly take place in Hades?  During finals week, most college students would probably agree. The semester that I had 12 units of 400-level literature classes definitely felt like a trip to Hell.  But I did emerge with heightened knowledge, and a real awareness of how the novel has evolved over time. 

Was I transformed by my experiences at the university?  I believe that I was.  Through reading poetry, I learned to value diversity.  Elizabethan revenge tragedy taught me that creativity can flourish with few props and even under conditions of censorship.  Attempting to write fiction for actual readers brought me humility.  Encountering living authors and scholars opened up a new world of thought and experience for me.  I realized that one can actually live the life of the heart and the mind.

If I master the eschatalogical defeat of death through scholarship on my hero's journey, I'll definitely let you know.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Into the Fray!

What can you do with a B.A. in English Literature and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, Poetry?  I am an expert in my own arcane field, but sometimes feel unprepared to write about anything else.

Famed literary critic Northrop Frye felt something similar when he undertook to write a book about the Bible:
A scholar in an area not his own feels like a knight errant who finds himself in the middle of a tournament and has unaccountably left his lance at home.  In such a situation he needs encouragement as well as help" (The Great Code ix).

Frye's strategy for success in this challenging endeavor was to re-frame his task as a writer.  He says:
All of my books have really been teachers' manuals, more concerned with establishing perspectives than with adding specifically to knowledge" (xiv). 
Although Frye calls this "inadequate" and"secondhand scholarship," he also recognizes the importance of passing on existing knowledge to less skilled learners:
The teacher may do some of his work as a scholar on a popularizing level, retailing established information to less advanced students (xv).

I am not an expert on much of anything, but my training in critical thinking, close reading and analysis of a variety of texts has prepared me to present a thoughtful perspective on almost any topic.  I am capable of "retailing established information" to people who don't know much about a topic, and I can correlate information from multiple sources and disciplines in a way that makes sense to non-experts.

In a post-truth America, I may indeed be a knight errant, but that makes me no less essential, and I have not left my lance at home.

 "Sometimes you just need to put your head down,
grit your teeth and run into the fray."

Boss, Jeff. "10 Inspirational Quotes from Navy SEAL Training." Entrepreneur. Entrepreneur, 2017. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Tackling "The Little Books"

Every January, we want to commit ourselves to a fresh start on something.  For many Christians, that includes reading the Bible from cover to cover in a year.

Personally, I am way too ADHD to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations.  About the only plan I ever tried that worked at all was the one devised by Robert Murry M'Cheyne in the 19th century.  It will take you through Psalms and the New Testament twice, and the rest of the Bible once, while averaging 4 chapters a day.  Not bad for those of us with short attention spans.  You can try it yourself by clicking here.

Northrop Frye gave me an insight into why it's so difficult to read the Bible straight through:

One reason for this is that the Bible is more like a small library than a real book:  it almost seems that it has come to be thought of as a book only because it is contained for convenience within two covers.  In fact, what the word "Bible" itself primarily means is ta biblia, the little books (The Great Code xii).

Monday, January 2, 2017

Poetry 101: Sacred Prerequisites

From my first reader-response journal entry on Northrop Frye's The Great Code, because Frye's Bible reading, in some ways, mirrors my own:

"This book attempts a study of the Bible from the point of view of a literary critic" - "not a work of Biblical scholarship, much less of theology; it only expresses my own personal encounter with the Bible, and at no point does it speak with the authority of a scholarly consensus" (xi).

I liked the humility of that approach, a famous scholar saying simply that he could "only express" his "own personal encounter with the Bible."  I was curious to see where Frye, who did not claim to be a theologian, was headed next.  Why would a literary critic be writing a book about the Bible AND literature?

Frye's justification for teaching the Bible, not as literature, but in relation to literature is that the Bible has inspired much of the literature that makes up our canon:

"...a student who does not know the Bible does not understand a great deal of what is going on in what he reads:  the most conscientious student [of English literature] will be continually misconstruing the implications, even the meaning" (xii).

When I was a freshman at Arizona State University, the poet Richard Shelton strode into class with a worn leather-bound volume and flung it onto the desktop.  "This is the most important book you will ever read!"  he announced.  "It's inspired poets for centuries.  You can't become a poet without reading this."  He glared at us over a Bible that had been read almost to the point of dissolution, daring any undergraduate in the room to contradict him.

I'd not yet read Milton or Shakespeare's contemporaries; I had just barely discovered the Bard himself, much less Dante, Cervantes, Tolstoy or Dostoyevksi.  As far as I knew, the King James Version was poetry (it featured unicorns, which was always a plus), and you had to know the Bible if you wanted to get to heaven - but it was a prerequisite to writing serious poetry too?

Shelton knew something I was yet to learn: when you appropriate a sacred text, you're not just borrowing an image or a phrase - you're imbibing power.  And that's pretty heady stuff, for a freshman with aspirations to literary greatness.

Northrop Frye and Richard Shelton were both right: whether you are a student of English literature or a novice writer, you have to know the Bible. 

I'm not sure that either of them would have said that you really have to believe it.