30 June 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/8

Starting off with a random rose this week: this is Flower Girl, which produces billows of these classically simple flowers, massed together like pink clouds, nodding with the passing breezes. That plant has done quite well; sometimes you just stick a plant in a fortunate spot and it thrives. You also need a healthy plant to start with, of course.


I was taking pictures of the lavender in front of Flower Girl when a white butterfly fluttered through. I managed to get it in one of the photographs before it flew off. The lavender is planted by the side of the house, which gets a lot of afternoon sun at this time of year. That's why the flowers are all bending forward – that's where the sun is. I've also noticed that one of the trees on the front lawn gets its leaves earliest and loses them last on the side that faces that afternoon sun, leaving it with a lopsided look in spring and autumn.


We've had some hot days, of the sort in which my only consolation is to think, Well, it's good for the tomatoes, and also some overcast days, but those have been muggy rather than cool. The tomatoes are doing quite well so far with the reduced watering schedule (roughly two days a week). Once again, in the photo below Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple on the right. You can see that they're both looking quite healthy, and Michael Pollan (34 inches this week, up from 30 last week) seems catching up in bushiness with Cherokee Purple (roughly the same height this week as last, 31 inches).


I'm in the middle of an extremely busy stretch of days and that was one reason I decided not to count blossoms this week. The other, more compelling reason is that while new buds are appearing on both plants the older flowers are starting to drop off and form fruit. I probably should have counted anyway, and now I'm thinking it's going to bother me that I didn't, but as I said: extremely busy stretch of days.

Here are some flowers on Michael Pollan:


And here are some on Cherokee Purple:


And look what happened to Cherokee Purple while I was off being extremely busy!


To give you a sense of scale, the larger tomato is 2 1/2 inches wide. You can see the interesting pleated shape that is one of the reasons heirloom tomatoes were abandoned by large growers (they're harder to ship and their fruit is not "picture perfect" unless you have a taste for grotesquerie and baroque pearls). I also noticed a little green oval fruit forming on Michael Pollan, so it's keeping up with Cherokee Purple on that front as well.

29 June 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/26

Little Lyric (Of Great Importance)

I wish the rent
Was heaven sent.

Langston Hughes

Some Langston Hughes to mark the halfway point of this year. There is an old tradition, going back to the Greek and Latin poets and no doubt even predating them among now-lost oral cultures, of the epigram, a concise and well-turned expression of a universal truth (sometimes in the guise of a personal jab). Hughes gives us an excellent example, combining his interest in colloquial speech – you can easily imagine someone actually saying this – in social justice, and in poetic form. I think we don't need much explication here; I'm sure we've all said or sighed the same thing. Hughes really hits home here (home, as long as you can pay the rent!).

I took this from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad, editor, and David Roessel, Associate Editor.

24 June 2015

fun stuff I may or may not get to: July 2015

BART Update
As I've been noting every month since April, BART had announced a track shut-down between Coliseum and Fruitvale, scheduled for several weekends a month from April to August. The good news is that they seem to have finished early. The I'm raising my eyebrow at you, BART news is that they didn't bother with more than a cursory announcement of that fact. You'd think they'd have something up on their website, if only to pat themselves on the back for finished ahead of schedule. Such an announcement would also be reassuring to people who have been thrown by BART's capricious way of suddenly announcing and then quietly changing the shut-down dates.

I did actually take the bus bridge one Sunday afternoon, because I had a ticket for a matinee I didn't want to miss. The bus bridge was, how shall I put this, surprisingly endurable? On both ends the buses were there waiting, and there seemed to be enough of them for the crowds, which was good because many people had no idea this was going on (and this was a month into the project) so ridership was probably close to normal Sunday levels. I don't know if I just got lucky with the buses – I definitely got lucky on the return trip, because if I'd reached the San Francisco station two minutes later I would have had to wait at least another twenty minutes for a train, though that is not really due to the shut-down problem and is more in the nature of just one of BART's regular problems, which is that they don't run enough trains. I also have to say: people move so slowly I cannot believe it. I'm not talking about elderly, very young, or disabled passengers, I mean adults who should be able to walk on an escalator or at least know enough not to block them. In the event of (God forbid!) some disaster striking, I am just going to shove people out of my way. Seriously. Or at least scream at them to speed up their strolling. Slow-moving is a particular problem in the many stations that have narrow staircases/escalators and not enough of them. Which is most of the stations.

In short: the bus bridge worked surprisingly well, but added enough time and trouble to the trip so that I would not want to deal with it late at night.

I think I was correct in guessing in my initial remarks on this situation that BART was going to be randomly announcing such track shut-downs for the next few years, because we have another one coming up, and since it involves the crucial area between the West Oakland station and the Transbay Tube, it is going to have an even bigger effect on riders. There will be buses between the 19th Street Station in Oakland and the Temporary Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco, but BART is presenting them as a last resort for desperate riders and is basically hoping you'll figure another way to do whatever you need to get done. The currently announced dates are the first weekend in August and all of Labor Day Weekend – but as repeatedly noted, and complained about, BART does have a history of changing their dates with little to no fanfare, so check their site as necessary and consider yourself warned.

As usual, July is a fairly quiet month for performances, but there are some fun things out there, particularly for opera fans.

Operatic
San Francisco Opera closes out the second half of its season with a few performances in July: one more of Berlioz's Les Troyens (1 July) and two more of Mozart's Nozze di Figaro (3 and 5 July; the 3 July performance is simulcast at Major Phone Company ballpark; the simulcast is free but you need to register).

San Francisco Opera's Merola Program for young artists starts up when the regular season ends; there is a concert (presumably of opera arias, though no specific program is given on the website) on 9 July at the Conservatory of Music and a repeat on 11 July (matinee) at Yerba Buena Gardens; then on 23 and 25 (matinee) Merola presents Puccini's Gianni Schicchi on a double-bill with Menotti's The Medium at Cowell Theater at Fort Mason (from a public transportation point of view, this is a difficult location; I'm not sure why they moved from the lovely auditorium at Everett Middle School that they have used the past few years). Click here for more Merola information.

At the other end of the month (and mostly into August), West Edge Opera holds its second summer festival, again presenting three operas – Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, Berg's Lulu, and Laura Kaminsky's As One, a new chamber opera exploring the life of a transgender woman. Each is in a separate and intriguing location: Lulu is in the abandoned 16th Street train station in Oakland on 25 July, and 2 (matinee) and 8 August; Ulysses is in the American Steel Studios at 1960 Mandela Parkway in Oakland on 1, 7 and 9 (matinee) August; and As One is in the Oakland Metro.

I have conflicting feelings about these venues. On the one hand, they sound potentially exciting and even glamorous in a sort of necrotic Norma Desmond way, with lots of site-specific possibilities. On the other hand, they are not public-transportation friendly (and please note that some of the dates coincide with BART's latest track shutdown, as noted above). I have walked to the Oakland Metro (near Jack London Square) from the 12th Street BART station; it's a bit of a schlep but do-able, though I would not scoff at anyone who did not feel comfortable walking it alone at night. For the other two operas, West Edge will provide a shuttle ($10 round-trip; free if you buy a "gold" ticket) to the West Oakland BART station (again: BART's latest shutdown will effect the 1 and 2 August performances, and it's possible West Edge doesn't even realize this yet). But honestly – and this is more the fault of our inadequate public transportation than of West Edge Opera  – the thought of waiting up to twenty minutes late at night at the West Oakland station really does not thrill me. What is West Edge's fault is their persistence in starting evening performances at 8:00, even as more tradition-bound organizations (like the San Francisco Opera) bow to reality and start performances at 7:30. I'd be a little more open to the wait if I thought it wouldn't be approaching midnight and the final possible train. There's also the horrifying thought of having to wait in a crowd of opera patrons while they gather themselves, slowly oh so slowly, to get on the shuttle. And then having to listen to their so-called "thoughts" on what they saw! I'm impatient enough already without dealing with that! Well, at least West Edge did add the shuttle option; when I checked their site a few months ago, there was no information about public transportation at all. Too bad there's only one matinee per opera, since that seems like the best time for this particular adventure.

Symphonic
As a lagniappe to the San Francisco Symphony's June Beethoven festival, and as part of its summer programming of popular concerts, you can hear Edwin Outwater conduct an all-Beethoven program – the Leonora Overture No 3, the First Symphony, and the Violin Concerto with soloist Liza Ferschtman – on 11 July. Outwater also conducts the other program that looks particularly interesting, when Awesome Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye and his jazz quartet join the Symphony for variations on some old favorites; that's on 9 July. Both those concerts start at 7:30 rather than 8:00, an innovation that I would welcome during the regular season.

Theatrical
Shotgun Players presents Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, directed by Delia MacDougall, from 2 July to 2 August.

San Francisco Playhouse presents Sondheim's Company, directed by Susi Damilano, from 7 July to 12 September.

No Nude Men revives William Marchant's 1955 comedy The Desk Set, directed by Stuart Bousel. Yes, this is the play that was made into a Tracy/Hepburn film, and it's about four women researchers who are losing their jobs to technological advances. Gee, can't imagine why they'd revive that now! The show runs from 9 to 25 July at the Exit Stage Left Theater.


23 June 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/7

Nothing overtly dramatic, like a rainy night, happened this week. The usual early morning fog has been burning off fairly early. This is good for the tomatoes, if not for me. Due to the rain last week I've watered the tomatoes even less this week. It doesn't seem to be harming them or even slowing them down, which is making me think about how to water tomatoes in the future, assuming this drought ever ends (meteorologists are predicting an El Niño year, which should mean adequate rain, but there's quite a deficit to make up, and we still need to see if the predictions come true). Since I plant most of my tomatoes in pots I've always assumed they need more water, but perhaps enough gets retained in the pot to provide healthy tomatoes. I guess we'll see what the fruit is like when it appears. Certainly the only green spots in the back are circling the tomato pots, so there is water running out through the drainage holes.

Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple on the right. This is another big growth week: both were 23 inches high last week; this week Michael Pollan is 30 inches and Cherokee Purple 31 inches (measurements are from the soil line to the top of the main stem). So they're roughly equal in height, but Cherokee Purple is bushier.


Paul Robeson, the tomato behind Michael Pollan, is actually taller than either, and just as bushy as Cherokee Purple. Yes, I often buy plants based on their names. Or not: several years ago I saw a beautiful pink rose, and that's not my favorite rose color to start with so it had to be extra lovely to catch my eye, and I was going to get it until I realized it was named Sexy Rexy. Uh, no. It must be a fairly old rose, too – I mean, not an official old rose, but dating from decades back when Rex "Sexy Rexy" Harrison was a star. And still sexy. Just couldn't do it, based on the name. On the other hand, Betty Boop is a fantastic rose, and even looks good once the flowers have blown. I'd put up some photos but it's not doing too well this year.

Below you can see the shadow of Paul Robeson behind the pale blue sheet.


Below is one branch of Michael Pollan. You can see the blooms. Last week there were about 46 (I'm combining blossoms and buds this week); this week there are about 50. The clusters of blossoms are spread around a bit more than before, but one stem with about six blooms on it has snapped. Not sure what brought on the breakage. I have not had problems with birds or suchlike eating my tomatoes (the birds head for the apricot and fig trees), but they do like to land on the tomato cages. And there are several cats that like to prowl around my yard, and squirrels that like to bury nuts in the pots, though come to think of it I haven't seen any squirrels this year, which is odd.

I had some Silas Marner-type thoughts about bonding with some of the cats, and a few times I left out bowls of milk for them, which something drank. But they all still bolt when they see me, though you'd think they'd be used to me by now. They're quite agile at jumping up on the walls.


Below is the Cherokee Purple solo shot. There were about 111 blossoms on it, up from about 60 last week.


Apricots are starting to drop from the tree, but they're not actually ripe enough to eat yet. Frustrating!


Below is a bonus shot of the passion flower vine – part of it, anyway. It seems to have recovered quite well from the cutting-back I had to give it a few years ago, when I realized it was doing what vines do and starting to choke everything in its path. But it does it so beautifully!

22 June 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/25

Crustacean Island

There could be an island paradise
where crustaceans prevail.
Click, click, go the lobsters
with their china mitts and
articulated tails.
It would not be sad like whales
with their immense and patient sieving
and the sobering modesty
of their general way of living.
It would be an island blessed
with only cold-blooded residents
and no human angle.
It would echo with a thousand castanets
and no flamencos.

Kay Ryan

From the first line you can see the speaker's mind heading towards what fancifully could be rather than what is: not just the usual island paradise of our humdrum daydreams, but one dominated by crustaceans, a category that includes crab, shrimp, and even barnacles, but here seems to be mostly that decorative and delightful creature, the lobster. Part of the poem's playfulness is Ryan's expert use of rhymes, slant rhymes (that is, words that almost rhyme), and other sound-echoes; for example, the way echo in the penultimate line comes partly back in the -encos of flamencos. We also have prevail / tails / whales and sieving / living.

The speaker swiftly gives us both a vivid picture of lobsters and a reminder that she has put them in a fantastical situation. The lobster lives generally on the ocean floor, a fact which puts this island in the land of make-believe. The island air is filled with the sound they make: click click, a sound that would be muted underwater.  The lobster as a specific, actual creature is brought to vivid life with a few incisive details. She cleverly highlights the details that make the lobster appealing and picturesque (over-sized claws, curling tail) while eliding their potentially creepier aspects (the tiny bulging eyes, the waving spider-like legs). She evokes their large front claws, those coupled thick and thin pincers that do look like mitts, and the hard exoskeleton that makes those mitts like china, and the articulated tails. In this context the main meaning of articulated is having sections connected by a flexible joint but the word can also mean clearly spelled out in words and when it modifies tails it's impossible not to sense a pun on tales: whatever their story (and it remains unspoken; we are given no reason why these creatures have emerged from the sea, and little indication of how they subsist), it is likely to be as crisp, as clear, as unambiguous as their clicks and their china mitts.

The speaker further defines her island paradise: it would not be sad. She has switched from the potential could to the more definite would as her island takes shape. She defines sadness: it is like whales. (It's interesting to reflect on the cultural shift in the image of whales, from the ominous ambiguity of Melville's Leviathan to the dullness of these monotonous beasts.) She makes them sound like the beaten-down bourgeoisie of the oceans: they live by immense and patient sieving, they live lives of sobering modesty. The sieving would refer to the species of whale who survive by straining the plankton from seawater through their baleen. Immense here refers to the patience required for these huge animals to get enough of the tiny swarming plankton to survive, but it also helps us visualize the whales themselves. The patience of the whales is indicated even in the line breaks: after their immense and patient sieving comes the break, and the conjunction and starts the next line in an orderly way. Contrast this with the impatient rush forward of the line ending with and in the first lobster section: with their china mitts and / articulated tails, as if the line couldn't wait to jump on to the next item.

Then the speaker returns to her crustacean island, again using the would be construction, only this time it is positive: it would be an island blessed. What does this blessing consist of? It is that the residents are cold-blooded. Not only does this imply no humans, we are even explicitly told that there is no "human angle" here – the cold-blooded calculations of the warm-blooded are banished. That is how far removed this island paradise is from us and our concerns; indeed, that very removal is what makes it an island paradise. We are left with the sound evoked earlier, the click click of the claws, sounding and re-sounding like castanets. But there is no accompanying flamenco dancing, with its passionate erotic fire, to go with the echoing sound.

In its fantasy and inventiveness and humor (as well as its keen sense of play with the natural world), this poem reminds me of Victorian "nonsense" verse by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll (perhaps what specifically evokes this for me is memories of Carroll's Lobster Quadrille). And as with Lear and Carroll, the playfulness has a strong undercurrent of sadness, fear, and loss. Why does the speaker feel that paradise must specifically exclude warm-blooded creatures, their dances, their interests? The sad whales are also warm-blooded, and therefore excluded; the speaker turns away from the gray drudgery of their subsistence living as well as from the multiple angles (of self-interest, of ignorance, of insistence and ambiguity, of so many things, including of friendship and of love) that make up the human angle. The lobsters come as a relief from all that, they are clear and sharply defined: and yet there is something brittle, even fragile about them; the "articulated tails (tales)," so unambiguous in their separate sections; the staccato clicking, echoing endlessly over and over,without development or answering sound; the china (that is, easily chipped or broken) mitts of their claws; the static tableau of their island lives. Despite the speaker's attempt to ward off sadness in the shape of whales, sadness surrounds this island. What unmentioned event has led her to imagine this world, and to imagine that this fantastical cold and click-click-clicking world is what paradise must be?

I took this from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan. I see she has a new collection, Erratic Facts, coming out in October, so that is good news for her fans. Several years ago I heard her speak at City Arts & Lectures; my account of that can be found here.

19 June 2015

16 June 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/6

Surprisingly, we had actual rain this past week, enough to collect in the bottom inch or two of the various empty buckets and bins that I keep in the back of the yard. It's late in the year for rain in California, but this didn't feel like a California rain anyway; it felt like an eastern rain – a discharge from an atmosphere overloaded with humidity – rather than our regular winter rains, not that I'm sure I remember those all too well anyway. I lived in Boston for eleven years and even at the end of that time, after more than a decade there, it was deeply strange to me that it rained in the summer – that it could be stormy, pouring rain, with dark clouds piled up and not a spot of blue in the sky, and yet 90 degrees.

Our rain last week woke me up around 4:00 AM, which is roughly an hour before my alarm goes off anyway. I enjoyed hearing it fall, though I did get up and shut several windows before getting back under the covers and listening. I love the sound of rain falling. I had a conversation recently with someone who implied, if I understood her correctly, that she disliked the sound of falling rain. I sound uncertain because this seems so improbable to me. But I do know that there are people unbothered by sounds that drive me crazy. Barking dogs, for example: I detest the sound, have had many nights' sleep damaged by it, and would gladly silence every dog in the vicinity. Other people don't even notice it.

The rain meant that I skipped an extra day or two of watering. Things still seem to be progressing nicely, though, and the soil levels in the pots are dropping as the plants expand and use it up. So this week I augmented the compost in the pots with some potting soil (left over from last year). Towards the end of the season I just let the soil levels drop, but this early I try to keep the dirt levels up. Tomatoes are one of those plants that will develop roots out of the stem as up as the soil goes, so it's advantageous to keep them in fairly deep dirt.



I also put some mulch in all the pots, hoping to retain water, cut down on weeds – all the usual mulching reasons. I use cocoa shells, mostly because I like the smell. San Francisco's famous Ghirardelli chocolate, by the way, is actually processed here in San Leandro, and some mornings when I leave my house the air smells like chocolate.


Below we see our duo. Again, Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple on the right. The plants are getting large enough so that these double-portraits may not be working anymore.


Below is a closer view of Michael Pollan. Last week he was 18 1/2 inches, measuring from the dirt line to the top of the main stem. This week he shot up to 23 inches, and I measured after adding soil (thereby raising the soil line), so the increase is even greater than the numbers indicate.


There were no blossoms on Michael Pollan last week, but this week there were 13 flowers and around 31 buds. It's actually kind of difficult to count them, and maybe I'm making things pointlessly harder by making a distinction between "blossoms" and "buds" – the dividing line can obviously be vague and a matter of personal judgment. This reminds me of one of the most illuminating science lessons I ever had: in high school biology, we had to take a drop of our own blood (I've been informed this is no longer allowed), put it under the microscope, and try to determine our blood type, using the illustrations in our textbook as a guide. Our smeary slides were much, much harder to figure out than the dapper drawings. The lesson taught me a lot about how blurry real-life science can be, and increased my respect for (as well as, to a certain extent, some skepticism towards) what scientists do and how they do it. I mean, it's tough to make some of these calls, and they're often less definite than the clear-cut sound of the results might make you think.


Above are some of the blossoms on Michael Pollan. I'm trying to figure out how to get clear close-ups with my camera. I think this one came out OK (with some cropping), but I'd like to get closer close-ups.

Below is Cherokee Purple. Last week it was 12 inches high, again measured from the soil line to the top of the main stalk. This week it was 23 inches, and, as with Michael Pollan, that was after raising the soil line. This seems like an improbable increase, but I'm not complaining. It's a much bushier plant than Michael Pollan, with more vines and tendrils, so there's also the possibility that some height has been added because "the top of the main stem" is in a different branch this week. I'm trying to be consistent, but I'm also figuring some of this out as I go along, so . . . I'll just try to keep the errors and variations to a minimum.


The blossoms on Cherokee Purple are even harder to count than on Michael Pollan, because on the latter they're all clustered in one place (so far), whereas they're on several different branches of Cherokee Purple, all over the bush. I counted them twice, so I think I ended up with a fairly accurate count: 30 blossoms, and about as many buds. Last week there were nine blossoms. The photo below was one of my attempts to take a close-up of Cherokee Purple's flowers; as you can see, it didn't quite come out, but I liked the looks of it, so here it is. Kind of a bug's-eye view of the plant.


The flowers on both plants look pretty similar. All my tomatoes have always had similar yellow flowers, and I've noticed when I've grown squashes and peppers (or attempted melons and pumpkins, which never have come out well) their flowers have always been yellow too. What gives? Something to do with a common origin to all these plants? Is there some advantage to them in having yellow blossoms?

Below is a view of the cocoa hull mulch. This tomato is Black Prince, which is flopping out of one side of the pot, thereby providing a better view of the hulls than do the two we're tracking. Frankly, a number of my other tomatoes seem to be doing better than either Michael Pollan or Cherokee Purple – taller, fuller, even starting to bear fruit – but we have to stick with the ones we started with.


Let's get a closer look at those cocoa hulls! Too bad you can't smell their delicious aroma. Yes, I also need to be more vigilant about weeding the pots, as you can see by looking to the right of the photo below.


Remember the heirloom "Freckle" lettuce from two weeks ago? Look at it now! I guess I'd better gather it before it goes to seed. I have a bad habit of growing stuff and not actually consuming it. I'm trying to get better about that.



Here's another random rose. This is Joseph's Coat, named after the Biblical coat of many colors because of the variegated colors streaking the flowers: reds, oranges, yellows, whites. These are past their prime, but I liked the way they all seemed lined up on the right.



And the apricots are ripening!



I'm glad that tree is producing, because the one that used to be the big producer seems to be dead, as you can see below. I've already cut off about half of the branches. If it doesn't revive next year after being trimmed back, I'll chop it down and put something else there. It didn't seem diseased, and the wood I've cut off hasn't been rotten, so I'm not sure what went wrong. Plants can be very unpredictable. Sometimes it's the plant itself, other times it's just that their position is slightly out of the sun, or in the sun, and that does them in. And of course there is always the slow, sometimes underground damage of this long drought.

the rosy buds all gone brown

So Thursday sixteenth June Patk. Dignam laid in clay of an apoplexy and after hard drought, please God, rained, a bargeman coming in by water a fifty mile or thereabout with turf saying the seed won't sprout, fields athirst, very sadcoloured and stunk mightily, the quags and tofts too. Hard to breathe and all the young quicks clean consumed without sprinkle this long while back as no man remembered to be without. The rosy buds all gone brown and spread out blobs and on the hills nought but dry flags and faggots that would catch at first fire. All the world saying, for ought they knew, the big wind of last February a year that did havoc the land so pitifully a small thing beside this barrenness. But by and by, as said, this evening after sundown, the wind sitting in the west, biggish swollen clouds to be seen as the night increased and the weatherwise poring up at them and some sheet lightnings at first and after, past ten of the clock, one great stroke with a long thunder and in a brace of shakes all scamper pellmell within door for the smoking shower, the men making shelter for their straws with a clout or kerchief, womenfolk skipping off with kirtles catched up soon as the pour came. In Ely place, Baggot street, Duke's lawn, thence through Merrion green up to Hollesstreet, a swash of water running that was before bonedry and not one chair or coach or fiacre seen about but no more crack after that first. . . .

And another Happy Bloomsday to my mountain flowers.

15 June 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/24

I Sit Carefree in My Drifting Boat

I sit carefree in my drifting boat,
a line cast into the green waters.
In the evening sun I delight in the rain
that patters on the bank of the clear river.
Let me get a willow branch
and skewer the fish I've landed.
We'll head for the wine shop in the village.

Cho Hon, translated from the Korean by Jaihiun Kim

I've never been fishing, which may be why I find it such a soothing and fulfilling activity; no doubt its present-day reality would rapidly disillusion me. This poem by a sixteenth-century Korean official, soldier, and poet shows fishing's appeal: what a pleasing pastoral interlude! The fisherman is carefree, his boat is drifting in the green waters (green is the only color mentioned here, and it spreads its calming sense of a generously healthy natural world through the whole poem). We can infer that the fisherman has some other occupation in life that makes this day on the river a relief for him: if he were dependent for his livelihood on what he catches, he probably wouldn't be letting his boat drift, nor would he feel so carefree. He might reflect on his hard luck when the rain starts to fall, instead of delighting in its gentle pattering on the banks of the river. The mention of the willow branch helps fill out our mental image of the scene (I wonder if the weeping willow as an image of sorrowful love, frequent in the English poetic tradition, also exists in the Korean? if so, perhaps – especially since it skewers the recently killed fish – it acts here as a reminder of the underlying sorrows of life, from which this day on the river is a momentary escape).

Fish are a frequent subject in Asian art for a number of reasons besides their natural appeal: the Chinese word for abundance is similar to the word for fish, so they suggest prosperity; they are also symbols of fertility, perhaps because of their numerous fry, or because some species travel in schools. Due to their scales, whiskers, and life in the water, some fish are associated with the powerful Dragon (which, in Chinese culture, is associated with good fortune and water, unlike the European dragon, often associated with evil and fire). And there is a famous Taoist text in which Zhuangzi and Huizi debate whether fish are happy and whether we can know it (for one version of this exchange, see here, and also click through to the interpretation, and see here for another interpretation, as well as more information on Zhuangzi). Although most of these fish connotations spring from Chinese culture, and this poem is Korean, they were spread to other Asian countries through literature, painting, and religion, so I think it's fair to see this poem in the context of these rich and multiple possibilities. On the surface the poem conjures up a pleasant idyll in the country, but given the connotations of the fish – its suggestions of bounteous Nature, of continued vitality, and of philosophical inquiry – we can see deeper implications: a suggestion of the restorative powers of contemplating Nature in solitude. (Yet there's no suggestion of loneliness; the day ends with a promise of conviviality, as the fisherman heads out of the gentle rain and for the village wine shop to share his catch).


Since I'm talking about my Platonic idea of fishing, let me recommend Izaak Walton's famous fishing manual, The Compleat Angler, which I read recently. It's as refreshing as a vacation by a lake, which is especially nice for me because I can't afford actual travel. Walton was born in England in 1594, a couple of years after Cho Hun was killed in battle on the other side of the world. Walton himself lived through the Puritan Revolution and the execution of King Charles I (a royalist, Walton found it prudent to retreat to the country). So both men lived in troubled, war-torn times, and found refreshment and meaning in fishing. Walton's book is a wonderful compendium of very specific information on how to catch different varieties of fish, what the fish are like, and how to cook them. He was an early father of Nature writing, recording the specific rhythms of Nature in his locale, with as keen an observant eye for weather and rivers and plants as for fish; and he interlards his text with poems and religious and philosophical thoughts. He has the appreciative but unsentimental view of animals common to people who live in the country, and death takes its place as part of the natural cycle. Here's a sample paragraph:
The gudgeon is reputed a fish of excellent taste, and to be very wholesome: he is of a fine shape, of a silver colour, and beautified with black spots both on his body and tail. He breeds two or three times in the year, and always in summer. He is commended for a fish of excellent nourishment: the Germans call him groundling, by reason of his feeding on the ground; and he there feasts himself in sharp streams, and on the gravel. He and the barbel both feed so, and do not hunt for flies at any time, as most other fishes do: he is a most excellent fish to enter a young angler, being easy to be taken with a small red worm, on or near to the ground. He is one of those leather-mouthed fish that has his teeth in his throat, and will hardly be lost off from the hook if he be once strucken. They be usually scattered up and down every river in the shallows, in the heat of summer; but in autumn, when the weeds begin to grow sour and rot, and the weather colder, then they gather together, and get into the deep parts of the water, and are to be fished for there, with your hook always touching the ground, if you fish for him with a float, or with a cork; but many will fish for the gudgeon by hand, with a running line upon the ground, without a cork, as a trout is fished for; and it is an excellent way, if you have a gentle rod and as gentle a hand.
Izaak Walton, from The Compleat Angler, Chapter XV

Walton combines very specific instructions (use a small red worm, on or near the ground) with acute observations of the fish's behavior (when the weather grows colder, they gather together and move into the deeper parts of the water) and physique (he's a leather-mouthed fish, with his teeth in his throat), along with an aesthetic appreciation of its appearance (beautified with black spots on both body and tail) and evocative descriptions of the natural world (the weeds beginning to grow sour and rot as winter comes). There's also the rhythm of the prose, which works its magic; when I first read this passage, I kept reading the perfect ending over and over: and it is an excellent way, if you have a gentle rod and as gentle a hand.


If you find that passage as satisfying as I do, you will probably want to read the whole book. I have a beautiful Folio Society edition with the Arthur Rackham illustrations (you can't go wrong with Arthur Rackham illustrations), but I bought it quite a few years ago and it seems to be unavailable now, so I'd head for the Oxford World's Classics edition. Cho Hon's poem comes from The Art of Angling: Poems About Fishing, edited by Henry Hughes, one of the many excellent anthologies in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series. The first photograph is a detail of Fish and Waterweed, painted by Lai'an in ink on a paper scroll in late thirteenth-century China, now in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The second photograph is of a dead trout from Costco.