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One of England’s Freedoms

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — an amused defense of sacred measures such as the foot, yard, and acre — against the atheistic and idolatrous metric system ]
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You can trudge uphill, you can run up hill and down dale as the saying goes, you may march from pillar to post, church spire to spire, you may follow ancient foot- or bridle-paths or ley lines — all these, if pursued on foot, are covered by the word rambling, and in England, if you follow well-trodden or half forgotten paths, it’s your right. It is one of England’s freedoms.

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Sam Knight, in the New Yorker a couple of days ago, The Search for England’s Forgotten Footpaths:

Nineteen years ago, the British government passed one of its periodic laws to manage how people move through the countryside. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act created a new “right to roam” on common land, opening up three million acres of mountains and moor, heath and down, to cyclists, climbers, and dog walkers. It also set an ambitious goal: to record every public path crisscrossing England and Wales… [ .. ]

Between them, England and Wales have around a hundred and forty thousand miles of footpaths, of which around ten per cent are impassable at any time, with another ten thousand miles that are thought to have dropped off maps or otherwise misplaced. Finding them all again is like reconstructing the roots of a tree.

Now that’s all numbers, and numbers are, d’oh, quantitative. The thing is, walks in the English countryside are primarily qualitative affairs, with mud, styles to clamber across, flash thunderstorms and after-storm greenery, oaks with mistletoe or a thousand rooks high in their branches, willows, snails, birdsong, conversation with a friend or two.. Plato, Brahms, Ann Patchett, Feynmann, Hitchcock, .. with picnics and sandwiches along the way..

Freedom!

Qualitative beats quantitative all to smithereens.

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If you look at the photo that accompanies Sam Knight‘s New Yorker piece [above], it belies the “unremarkable walk in the English countryside” mentioned in its caption — clear on the horizon is Glastonbury Tor, hardly an unremarkable location for English walkers.

Ever since my friend the late British hedgerow philosopher John Michell [above] — hedgerow and British Museum Reading Room philosopher, that is — wrote his startling best-seller The View Over Atlantis [below] —

— ever since that book appeared, new-agers and ramblers have rambled along ley lines and in search of standing stones — I was one such rambler, along with Michell himself and our mutual friend, the photographer Gabi Nasemann, though I fear I was the slowest and most complaining in our small party — where was I? — Glastonbury Tor has been a sort of seekers’ central for those whose imaginations project ley lines — equivalent to Chinese dragon-paths — across the actual lay of the land.

Another friend, Lex Neale, penned this piece, Glastonbury: King Arthur’s Field, giving an overview of Glastonbury and the supposed zodiac spread out around it —

for my then guru’s in-house magazine, lo these many years ago. By then I was in America. And we were young.

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Why do I so love my memories of John Michell?

He was a William Blake returned, wrong by the mechanical standards of the age, right in imaginative reach.

It was in the Spring 1978 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly that I first read the text of John‘s A Defence of Sacred Measures. He’d published it as a pamphlet — the first in a series of “Radical Traditionalist Papers” to which our mutual friend the recently deceased Heathcote Willians also contributed — Heathcote {below] —

do watch this clip, it’ll only take three minutes of your lifetime, and they’ll be three minutes well-spent! —

— and Stewart Brand must have snagged it for CoEQ. Anyway, you can get the gist from the full title, in the format the pamphlet gave it, as you may have seen at the head of this post:

I’m deeply grateful to Zenpundit friend Grurray for pointing me to that cover and the full text of John‘s essay, which my own web searching hadn’t turned up. Grurray took particular pleasure in this excerpt:

the use of the foot locates the centre of the world within each individual, and encourages him to arrange his kingdom after the best possible model, the cosmic order. The ancient method of acquiring this model was not astronomy but initiation

For myself, it’s John‘s description of the cubit and sundry other measures — and their rationale — that gets me:

Cloth is sold by the cubit, the distance from elbow to finger tip, and other such units as the span and handbreadth were formerly used which have now generally become obsolete. Of course no two people have the same bodily dimensions, and the canonical man has never existed save as an idea or archetype. These traditional units are not, however, imprecise or inaccurate. Ancient societies regarded their standards of measure as their most sacred possessions and they have been preserved with extreme accuracy from the earliest times. A craftsman soon learns to what extent the parts of his own body deviate from the conventional standard and adjusts accordingly.

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Oh, you may think this all a pretentious, anachronistic attempt to revive a moribund system. But consider this, from the LA Times in 1999:

NASA lost its $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter because spacecraft engineers failed to convert from English to metric measurements when exchanging vital data before the craft was launched, space agency officials said Thursday.

A navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the metric system of millimeters and meters in its calculations, while Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, which designed and built the spacecraft, provided crucial acceleration data in the English system of inches, feet and pounds.

As a result, JPL engineers mistook acceleration readings measured in English units of pound-seconds for a metric measure of force called newton-seconds.

In a sense, the spacecraft was lost in translation.

The Times assumes the correct procedure would have been “to convert from English to metric measurements” — but who says? One might equally argue the translation should have gone from metric to English.. the mother tongue, so to speak.

John Michell would lead us along that path..

A murmuration — not a tweet but a simurgh

Friday, January 4th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — from ornithology, via mystical poetry to the sheer joy of language ]
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Here’s a murmuration of starlings, beautifully videographed near my home town of Sacramento:

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Thousands of starlings can explode from a single tree — an impressive sight — but atill photogrphers tend to capture their images when the murmurations appear to resemble something — in this case, a bird of some sort, but not a starling..

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The Simurgh:

Which brings me to the great Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, whose Conference of the Birds opens with the hoopoe, wisest of birds, taelling the world’s birds in assembly that they must cross seven perilous valleys to find their true sovereign, the Simurgh . These valleys are the valleys of the Quest (Talab), of Love (Ishq), of Knowledge (Ma’refat), of Detachment (Isteghnâ), of Unity (Tawhid), of Wonderment (Hayrat), and of Poverty and Annihilation (Faqr and Fana). You can read something of the meaning of each valley in this page, or here

Some birds die simply hearing what each valley demands, others as they traverse the valleys — but finally, thirty birds survive and arrive at the Simurgh’s throne:

ust 30 birds arrive at the home of the simurgh where they realize a startling truth: they are themselves the simurgh. In fact, the word in Persian means “30 birds.” Finally, the birds understand that the Beloved is like the sun in that it can be reflected in a mirror. In other words, we all reflect God because we are God’s shadow and reverberation: nothing is separated from its creator.

Or otherwise told:

Out of thousands of birds, only thirty reach the end of the journey. When the light of lights is manifested and they are in peace, they become aware that the Simurgh is them. They begin a new life in the Simurgh and contemplate the inner world. Simurgh, it turns out, means thirty birds; but if forty or fifty had arrived, it would be the same. By annihilating themselves gloriously in the Simurgh they find themselves in joy, learn the secrets, and receive immortality. So long as you do not realize your nothingness and do not renounce your self-pride, vanity, and self-love, you will not reach the heights of immortality.

You know, there’s a parallel between the Simurgh, comprised of thirty birds, and the Church as body of Christ, constituted by the disciples with whom he broke bread with the Words of Institution, Matthew 26.26:

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.

— and not forgetting the Great Prayer of Union of John 17.11:

And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.

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Translations:

  • Sholeh Wolpé, The Conference of the Birds
  • Penguin Classics, The Conference of the Birds
  • James Lipton, An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game
  • From that last:

    An “exaltation of larks”? Yes! And a “leap of leopards,” a “parliament of owls,” an “ostentation of peacocks,” a “smack of jellyfish,” and a “murder of crows”!

    Punch counter punch

    Sunday, November 25th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — a perfect two-snake pattern from the WaPo headline writers ]
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    As patterns go, this one is hard to beat:

    Source:

  • Washington Post, John Roberts counterpunches the counterpunching president
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    As you may have gathered, the human propensity for patterning is an enduring interest of mine, and my collecting of such things as ouroboroi, parallelisms, paradoxes, moebius formats and mirrorings is effectively a small pattern language study after the example of Christopher Alexander‘s Pattern Language. Mine, drawing its materials from verbal and visual exemplars rather than architectural ones, perhaps reveals more about the workings of the human mind, aka consciousness.

    The “outer world” has yet to catch up with the significance of these studies..

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    At a time when my worldly goods in book form consisted of fifty or so over-thumbed, used science fiction paperbacks and one hardback — I no longer recall what it was — I won a minor poetry prize of $50 and decided it was better to splurge it on one thing I’d really treasure than to dribble it away, a coffee here, a sandwich there.. much though I like my coffees.

    Henbce, for about $45, I aacquired my copy of Alexander’s book — hardback #2!

    An I Ching for the West! Nobel-worthy! A Master’s Masterpiece!

    Speaking in two tongues — at least

    Monday, August 27th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — sacred tongues, the split tongues of serpents, gestural languages, the languages of conflict — language itself fascinates, ne? ]
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    Here’s the language of Psalm 139 in the King James Version:

    If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

    And here, as recorded in The Atlantic‘s Mike Pence’s Outer-Space Gospel, is the VP’s language at the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council:

    As President Trump has said, in his words, “It is America’s destiny to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the great unknown.” And today we begin the latest chapter of that adventure. But as we embark, let us have faith. Faith that, as the Old Book teaches us that if we rise to the heavens, He will be there.

    and again more recently:

    And as we renew our commitment to lead, let’s go with confidence and let’s go with faith — the faith that we do not go alone. For as millions of Americans have believed throughout the long and storied history of this nation of pioneers, I believe, as well, there is nowhere we can go from His spirit; that if we rise on the wings of the dawn, settle on the far side of the sea, even if we go up to the heavens, even there His hand will guide us, and His right hand will hold us fast.

    So that’s our destiny — our clear and manifest destiny you might say, although it’s not clear whether drilling for oil, fracking, strip mining, or mountain top removal qualify for our destiny also, making our bed in hell..

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    And our President?

    His language is seldom Biblical; he prefers mob talk. Let’s begin here, with the actual and admitted prosecutor / mob analogy:

    Last November, a person close to the Trump administration speaking to the Washington Post invoked a chilling metaphor. “This investigation is a classic Gambino-style roll-up,” the source said. “You have to anticipate this roll-up will reach everyone in this administration.” This turns out to be a perfectly apt and quite literal description not only of the investigation, but of Trump’s own ethos and organizing principles.

    So many people have been dissecting Trump’s mafia-like language recently that I’ll confine myself to one headline:

    One cluster:

    One TV header:

    One image:

    and the cuttingest insult of all:

    Trump may imagine that he’s Michael Corleone, the tough and canny rightful heir—or even Sonny Corleone, the terrifyingly violent but at least powerful heir apparent—but after today he is Fredo forever.

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    Language games, Witty Wittgenstein would have called them, and they’re played semi-consciously at best..

    Here’s another language, that of the gentlemanly art of boxing as photographed by Muybridge, Eadweard Muybridge:

    and as verbally captured by the Marquess of Queensbury Rules:

    1. To be a fair stand-up boxing match in a twenty-four foot ring or as near that size as practicable.

    2. No wrestling or hugging allowed.

    3. The rounds to be of three minutes duration and one minute time between rounds.

    4. If either man fall through weakness or otherwise, he must get up unassisted, ten seconds be allowed to do so, the other man meanwhile to return to his corner; and when the fallen man is on his legs the round is to be resumed and continued until the three minutes have expired. If one man fails to come to the scratch in the ten seconds allowed, it shall be in the power of the referee to give his award in favour of the other man.

    5. A man hanging on the ropes in a helpless state, with his toes off the ground, shall be considered down.

    6. ..

    and so on and forth.

    Gentlemanly, I said — and with the approval of the Marquess, maybe Noble even.

    Metaphors v, We use sports terms all the time

    Sunday, August 12th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — I’m not the only one thinking sports metaphors are important, though I’ve been collecting a whole lot more examples ]
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    There’s a NYT article — We Use Sports Terms All the Time. But Where Do They Come From? — as you see, tucked away in the Sports section, which I’d really like to transport over here whole, because it’s a sports metaphor article, not a sports article, and sports metaphors are a specialty du maison here at ZP.

    Let’s see if I can ferret out the gist:

    We’re talking about sports idioms, those everyday phrases ingrained in our lexicon, handed down from generation to generation. We use these terms all the time, without really knowing where they came from. Some of their origins are pretty clear: front-runner, on the ropes, the ball is in your court. But there are many others whose provenances are not so apparent.

    The world of sports is a particularly fertile ground for such terms, said Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. “Sports are written about and discussed a lot, and so have generated a great deal of colorful, specialized vocabulary. And competition exists in many other spheres of life, so sports terms are well suited to be borrowed into other domains, such as business or politics.”

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    As I’ve suggested, the whole piece is a rich trove of materials for the sort of exploration I’ve been working on. Just a few minutes ago, as it happens, I heard someone on TV say in regard to the 2020 presidential election:

    If Michael Avenatti wants to throw his hat into the ring, great.

    As it happens, throwing one’s hat into the ring is one of the examples the NYT piece explores a little deeper. Their example:

    In The New York Times: Mr. Mahathir threw his hat in the ring in the recent national elections. Opinion, May 12.

    Their comment:

    Back in the days when boxing was a quasi-legal, rough-and-tumble affair, fighters and even spectators who had an interest in getting into a bout would signal it by tossing in a hat. It’s mostly used now in the rough-and-tumble field of politics to announce that one is running for office.

    Its first use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came in The London Times in 1804, in its literal sense: “Belcher first threw his hat into the ring, over the heads of the spectators.”

    Throwing in the towel would be, I suppose, the equal and opposite phrase..

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    Other examples they went into in similar detail:

    Wild-Goose Chase

    We need to get a little lost, pursue “productive and instructive disorientation, distraction, wild-goose chases, dead ends.” Book Review, June 4.

    Throw in the Towel

    Anthony Barile, the owner of this wood-oven veteran where other pizza-makers honed their skills, said he was tired and throwing in the towel after nearly 26 years. Food, March 27.

    Out of Left Field

    It was so out of left field and something so different than anything I’ve done. Movies, July 6.

    Hands Down

    Sue is, hands-down, the best at this. I would marry her in a minute. Television, June 21.

    Wheelhouse, Strong Suit, Forte

    One of the many subspecialities within Wright’s wheelhouse is Italian glass. Arts, April 17.

    and so forth, Back to Square One, Across the Board, and my favorite as a Brit:

    Sticky Wicket

    But ad-driven nostalgia is a sticky wicket. Australia, Feb. 7.

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    That last quote, under the Sticky Wicket header, was from Australia, a little far from New York. The writer Victor Mather writes, almost as an apology for straying so far afield:

    “Cricket is the U.K.’s baseball,” when it comes to the lexicon, Ms. Martin said. It’s beyond our purview to get into British English too deeply here; there are British alternatives for many terms in American sports.

    I don’t know, however, that any American can suggest a baseball term or phrase as beautiful as the British cricketer’s triple pun:

    bowling a maiden over

    Over and out.


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