Thursday, July 15, 2010


Almost every time I teach a text I've taught before, I discover something new in it. This year, while working through Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," the Psalmanazar character, mentioned briefly by Swift as a proponent of cannibalism, slowed me down.

Let me stop for a second and give the briefest summary of "A Modest Proposal" for those who haven't read it. Swift's fictional persona pitches his solution to poverty in early 18th Century Ireland: encourage the poor Irish to sell their infants as meat for the elegant tables of the (mostly English) landlords. In this satirical essay, Swift criticizes the relationship between landowner and peasant, the attitude towards the working class of the time, and even some of behaviors of the people for whom he was fighting. Swift lied to tell what he believed to be the truth. Or, at least I thought parts of his story were lies.

For years, I'd been happy enough picturing the George Psalmanazar character as a figment of Swift's vivid imagination, but this year, something struck me; Swift starts with truth throughout the whole essay. While he mocks and exaggerates and creates a dense double-layered persona that is tough and takes more time to sift through than most people allow, small truths are the starting point that he twists in order to tell a bigger truth. As I researched his allusions, I discovered that he didn't just invent characters to people his essay. Instead, these people were real.

However, Psalmanazar is a little different than some of the other "experts" that populate "A Modest Proposal." Psalmanazar, though he existed, was a lie, a lie Psalmanazar created himself. This blond, blue-eyed man may have been French—it's hard to tell because most of what we know about him is what he chose to tell about himself—but he certainly learned early in his life that being French wasn't going to be enough to get him where he wanted to go. And so, he began to tell lies to open the doors through which he wanted to pass. Eventually, he told everyone he met that he was a native of Formosa. Formosa, the Portuguese name for Taiwan, was perfumed with mystery for the Europeans and British he met on his travels. When disbelieving persons asked Psalmanazar why he was so fair and light-eyed and different-looking than they expected, he had a ready answer: the upper classes lived underground and were therefore pigmented like him. He invented a language, traditions, an entire culture that nearly everyone he met believed was true. So successful in his lie was he that he received appointments to translate the Bible into Formosan, accepted invitations to the choicest tables in Britain and Europe, and wore the velvet fame of exoticism. For years, few doubted him and entire nations believed him. But time, opium, and arrogance eventually got in the way, and he began to falter in his lie. When people around him finally outed him and his deceptions, he left the gilded halls to choose the life of a religious academic. When I recounted this story to a friend of mine, her eyebrows raised, and she said, "So, he was three different people in his life."

The story of Psalmanazar fascinates me, not only because of his incredible genius to build an entire identity based on the ignorance of multiple cultures, but also because of the seemingly willful ignorance of the duped. In the early to mid 17th Century, both the Dutch and the Spanish had presences on Taiwan. Though both the Dutch and the Spanish lost their footing on the island by the end of the 17th Century, there still had to be plenty of people around who had actually seen "Formosans" while Psalmanazar was initiating his lie at the turn of the 18th Century.

Perhaps people chose to believe the lie because it was fun to do so. It was entertaining and silly and Psalamanazar sounds like he must have been a mighty fine story teller. They chose to believe his tales of cannibalism and ridiculous clothing because it was easier to believe what was titillating than what was true. And maybe that is why Jonathan Swift includes Psalmanazar in that one paragraph of his essay. Maybe he isn't just making a joke and pointing out that, of course, he doesn't believe in eating children by citing a debunked liar. Maybe he is reminding his readers that what one wants to be told isn't necessarily what one should be told, that what one chooses to believe isn't necessarily the truth, and that the realities of life can be just as hidden through story as exposed by it. Believing Psalmanazar meant not having to think, and by using Psalmanazar in his essay, Swift is asking his audience to throw off the stories we've chosen to believe for so long and accept the truth about the role the we play in the problem.

Monday, July 12, 2010

My Garden is a Battlefield

A quick break from painting the kitchen to show you the troops and the bounty.

My Army

My Conquest

From top to bottom: a Kosovo tomato, Black and Brown Boar tomato, Guernsey Island Pink Blush tomatoes, another Kosovo tomato, Goldie groundcherries.

If you'd like to see what others are growing, stop by Daphne's Dandelions for the Harvest Monday roundup.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Hahamongna: Something Precious That Needs Saving

The canyon on which I live is divided in three parts. In the bottom is the Lower Arroyo Seco, an area hosting the Rose Bowl, huge parking lots, a golf course, an aquatic center, and many, many playing fields. In the top is the Upper Arroyo Seco, a canyon that becomes increasingly narrow the farther in one wanders, and is mostly protected by Angeles National Forest. And in the middle, of course, is the Central Arroyo Seco, also called Hahamongna Park, named after the people that once lived along the canyon, who once lived right where I live now.

I've talked about this canyon a couple times before. In the time that I've lived here—two years in September—I've grown more and more attached to the place. It's hard not to. Here is what a year looks like in the Central Arroyo Seco.

But, the City of Pasadena wants to change this look, at least for a big swath in the southwest corner of the Central Arroyo Seco. Instead of what you see above, if the city's plan goes through, it will be a solid, flat, perpetually green field of turfgrass.  On July 12th, Pasadena will decide whether or not it will install soccer fields where herons hunt.

Soccer fields need to be watered, mowed, maintained, fertilized, lit, monitored, pampered. In its current state, the most maintenance Hahamongna needs is occasional dredging after storms. Pasadena Unified laid off 164 school personnel—teachers, nurses, librarians—and the city wants to pay for soccer fields in a place that needs nearly nothing to maintain itself. The City of Pasadena is facing severe budget cuts that eliminated 14 police positions, limited library hours, removed all security presence at Robinson Park, and led to other painful wounds. Financially, does this seem ridiculous to anyone else? And if the funds for Hahamongna are already allotted and unable to be moved to other needs, can't we hang on to the money and parse it out through the years for dredging after storms instead of building the fields? Can't we save money?

And, while we save money, can't we save Hahamongna? The City of Pasadena, in its Green City Action Plan sets out to "protect critical habitat corriders and other key habitat characteristics from unsustainable development." The Central Arroyo Seco is clearly a critical habitat corrider; just ask the hawks and coyotes and herons that live there. And maybe (let's hope), there are a few of the Arroyo toads left down in there worrying about their futures too. I know, I know, that is getting emotional and anthropomorphizing, but I think we can all agree that a giant swath of lawn is unsustainable, no matter how "green" one tries to go about keeping it.

There aren't many places left like this in LA County. In this one little wedge of the world, tucked between Pasadena and Altadena on one side and La Canada on the other, we've been able to keep something relatively car and asphalt free, something that welcomes both nature and the wanderer, something ancient and connected to the people who once lived here but still flexible with us and our encroachments. That's pretty miraculous. Pasadena, please don't kill the miracle.

There are many locals who have something to say about this.  Please take the time to read more:
Altadena Above It All
Altadena Hiker
East of Allen
Finnegan Begin Again
LA Creek Freak
Mister Earl's Musings
My Life With Tommy
Pasadena Adjacent
Pasadena Daily Photo
Pasadena Latina
The Sky Is Big In Pasadena
Webster's Fine Stationers Web Log
West Coast Grrlie Blather