Who are we? What are we made of? And why should we care?
With the advent of DNA kit testing, the question takes on new complexity, but as with many new inventions, we may end up putting far too much stock in the science of self-identification.
I’m annoyed by the ancestry.com commercials showing people discovering their heritage and then drawing immediate conclusions about behavior, temperament, or what traditions they should celebrate, ignoring other possibilities DNA cannot explain.
For example, the guy who trades in his lederhosen for a kilt because he discovers he’s more Scottish than German. Ridiculous. If you have celebrated an existing ethnic tradition for years, you don’t need to change it because of blood line discoveries. And the woman who discovers her Nigerian heritage, though it’s one of the smallest fractions of her genetic make-up (the rest being white European), and automatically concludes that her inherent courage must have come from the Nigerian element.
Yes, white Europeans have a history of being selfish, imperialistic bastards and, yes, your Nigerian heritage may have been underrepresented and, thus, underappreciated, but I think behavioral characteristics and personality traits are less genetically driven than those profiting from genetic testing would like us to believe. Moreover, statistically, I don’t believe your courage is more likely to have come from the 17% component than from the 55%, to paraphrase the commercial’s numerical details.
As the age of social media has proven yet again, people are notorious for getting stupid about “smart” technology.
However, the fact that many DNA kits also test for health concerns helps to offset some of the folly in a process that involves and sometimes encourages faulty reasoning and false conclusions.
But what about DNA in dogs? Little boys may be made of snails and puppy dog tails, but what are puppy dog tails made of? And why should we pay to have the helix of our dog’s genetic identity unwrapped?
Health and healthcare are a factor, but curiosity is probably the main driver. So, after receiving a coupon in the mail for one dog DNA service, we found ourselves investigating our dog’s ancestry. We know he’s a mutt, but many of his traits suggest, to me at least, that there’s a greater chance of high percentages of only a few breeds rather than lower percentages of a longer list. However, I base this belief on assumptions that are, in all likelihood, wrong.
Four years ago, I wrote a post as the mom of our first family dog. In a critique of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, then in its 139th year, I confessed to the event’s power to draw dog lovers to the screen, but I was less than enthusiastic about the program’s style, approach, and canine eugenics-oriented purpose.
“A sucker for the mixed breed, I can’t help cringing inside at the sight of enthroned purity, even as I’m drawn to watching the Westminster Kennel Club 139th Annual Dog Show (2/16 on CNBC, 2/17 on USA). The more dog shows I watch, the more I want to watch, and yet, as each event wears on, so grows the sense that I’m watching a travelling circus freak show.”
Neither my tone nor my comments improved much from there.
“I detest the way animal health and well-being seem to have been compromised long ago for the sake of handicapping aesthetics. Such tailoring has made Dachshunds and corgis prone to back problems, Shar Peis more likely to develop skin irritations, toys and some terriers so tiny and fragile as to break bones easily, and very large dogs subject to shortened lifespans.
Not to mention all the breed-specific genetic diseases of the organs and other inner workings. . . .”
Looking back, though, I realize some of my views were unfounded and some comments unfair, that I didn’t understand the seriousness with which recognized professionals in the dog breeding industry preserve pedigrees and safeguard canine health. Genetic diseases derived from all the original cross-breeding, while still a problem in dogs, are largely perpetuated outside the spotlight of the show dog community, who hates those practices as much as I do: profiting from pure breed popularity using impure pedigrees, puppy mill facilities, designer breeds blended from the same, and so on.
It’s not all about perfection in the American Kennel Club (AKC), Westminster Kennel Club (WKC), and similar organizations. It’s also about perfect sustainability, which necessarily means ensuring really good health to perpetuate generations of good quality dogs, inside and out.
So, it is true that one of the purposes of dog shows in America and around the world is preservation of breed standard characteristics. But while this is similar to the goal of conservation of species in the wild, it is not quite the same. The domestic dog breeding ecosystem is almost entirely human generated, the benefits of registration are focused more on breeds than on the dog species as a whole, and the system is highly controlled by humans.
Excluding thoughts on my personal aesthetic preferences among dog breeds based on appearance and movement, other criticisms from the earlier post were equally valid.
“. . . As with any collector society turned obsessive, there is much to satirize.
“The meticulous, yet highly subjective nature of the judging of these animals as the best of the best in their breeds, groups, and shows not only flies in the face of common dog-owner instincts and preferences (for instance, the golden retriever has never won a best in show) but also, due to breed stereotypes, [overly] restricts people’s sense of the quality and value of any given dog as a pet.
“These factors combine both to weaken the genetic hardiness of dogs through excessive, subsidized, and poorly managed and imitated pure-breeding, and to warp pet industry, dog owner, and service provider perspectives of what constitutes a dog worth having.”
In a word, it’s the snobbery that galls me most. This is not to say, as I suggested in the original post, that dog shows and breed preservation are a waste of time, and at least there is no cash prize for the handler, owner, or breeder winners of best in show. That would mar their purity of purpose. However, many rescue organizations hold exactly that view and worse in their distaste for the breeder community. The rationale of this kind of rescuer? “Why breed when there are already so many dogs that need good homes?” “Rescuing saves a life; breeding does not.”
As I’ve said, this view is a bit short sighted in terms of breed longevity and preservation, but it is the very specializing nature of the breed type that lies at the heart of what I see as an elitist mentality. Despite their deep love of dogs, breeders who might otherwise have rescued mutts, which are referred to, granted with some dignity, as “all-American” dogs at the dog show (agility only), won’t touch rescued animals with a ten-foot pole.
The peer and internal pressure of perfecting show performance, reproducing superior pedigrees, and gaining the reputation of owning the perfect dog for its breed leaves little room in house, heart, budget, or calendar for adopted dogs.
Pride and vanity in handlers, breeders, and owners whose dogs excel in competition also shift the focus away from breed preservation and onto the use of individual dogs to give humans status among their peers and fame in the televised show ring. As I said in the previous post, the competition becomes “more about the show-ers than the shown.”
One could argue that using dogs as athletes, workers, and even companions is just as selfish of humans as using them in conformation competition is. It’s true that we crossed long ago the line of exploitation with dogs, but some people push farther beyond it than others. And now, who knows all the system-focused uses dog breeders, both reputable and suspect, are making out of dog DNA testing?
Rescue organizations aren’t perfect either. In their desperation to save every animal in their chosen breed, variety, or circumstance, in hard economic times in particular, some rescuers can prove less than honest and straight dealing with prospective adopters. You think you’re getting one thing, and you end up with the likes of Elyse, our first family dog whose health and pain problems accompanied what we only later learned was a more advanced age than the rescue organization had portrayed.
In our case, the family of the rescue coordinator wanted to keep a puppy we had our eyes on for themselves as well, leaving us with fewer, more complicated options among adoptees. For breeders and pure breed seekers, the main issue with rescuing is that you do not know the history or family heritage of the dog you’re getting, which carries with it higher risk of behavioral and medical problems.
We believed we owned a rescued, presumably pure-bred Brittany a few years back, but given all her health problems, her miniature size, and other factors in our adoption, I would be much more curious to learn the truth of that assumption than I am to learn my new dog’s data. Elyse is buried in the backyard, and I’m not digging her up just to satisfy a curiosity that will likely result in greater anger at the situations that created her.
Now, with more joy and a lighter heart, I go in search of the pedigree of our current dog, Ethan. We did get our wish for a better situation with this second dog than we received with our first. After a rough first year of adjustment for all of us, Ethan has come through happy and confident. He is smart, healthy, mellow, young, athletic, just as beautiful as Elyse was, and also a rescue.
We have wondered about his make-up since we got him, sometimes going up to him and playfully asking, “What are you, Mister?” but he never answered. So we’ll get to scratch the itch with science. With help from family, we ordered a DNA kit, which was actually more expensive than the human kit some relatives ordered. Any day now the results will arrive.
Meanwhile, the dog show offers a chance to make some educated guesses as to his breed make-up. My current hypothesis follows.
Ethan was advertised as a Vizsla/Labrador retriever mix, and the Vizsla characteristics are demonstrable. However, I’m not as convinced of the Lab content. He does have the oilier, coarser short-haired coat of a Lab on his back and tail, he sheds like a Lab, his skull shape bears some resemblance to a Lab’s, and his tail is Lab like when he’s relaxed.
But he’s also wirier, more aerodynamic, uninterested in retrieving, and less water friendly than a Lab or any retriever. Instead, he likes to sprint, climb, tear the stuffing out of animal toys, destroy rope toys, and rip cardboard boxes to shreds. He naturally scent-tracks very well, and he likes to sunbathe, avoiding water at every turn.
So, some of those facts changed, for me at least, Ethan’s advertised type from “Vizsla/Lab” to “Vizsla/??”. But I assume nothing at this point, not even the Vizsla content, seeing as I have recently how wrong owners can be about the heritage of their mutts.
First, Ethan came from the U.S. Virgin Islands, not known for its Vizsla strays. The islands tend to be much more rife with pit bull mixes, as one would expect. Ethan’s an anomaly in that sense. Based on the smidgeon of what we know of his background and the tiny bit that we can guess, it seems unlikely that he would also contain hound, though some characteristics suggest it.
Therefore, if he does have Vizsla in him, setting aside the Lab question for now, the most likely additional higher percentage group present in Ethan’s blood would be terrier, based on the more common incidence of terriers compared to hounds. In order to narrow that down further, I’ve been studying the appearance and movement of the sporting, working, and terrier groups prior to the best in show round of the Westminster competition this week. Admittedly, despite my prejudice against Ethan’s having Lab in him (too boring?), it is still possible that Lab or some kind of retriever or other sporting breed is present.
Second, if he does NOT have Vizsla in him, the mixture could be quite substantial and surprising. Behaviorally, Ethan’s actions say “hound” to me more than they say “terrier.” Keen scenting, lower energy, slightly less mischief, and legginess are strikes against the terrier group. On the flip side, smaller stature, slender limbs, and a curly tail together work against the hound group. Independent thinking/disobedience or orneriness is a characteristic of many terrier breeds as well as hound breeds, and although he is not bad in this regard, there is some stubbornness in Ethan.
All from the lay perspective, having no knowledge of minute genetics, and now that I’ve looked at them more carefully, I’ve ruled out the following previously considered possibilities as of this week:
among hounds: beagle (too thick boned), foxhounds (too stocky), redbone coonhound and other coonhounds (too stocky and tall)
among non-sporting: shiba inu (entirely wrong shape and coat despite similar coloring and tail curl), spitz breeds (entirely wrong shape, coloring, and coat despite tail curl)
among herding: most herding breeds, including the Canaan dog, despite its curly tail, except border collie and similar shaped medium-sized shepherd breeds
among terriers: most terriers, including the more common bull, staffordshire bull, pit bull (too powerful, wrong face shape, build), and all the large-headed, small-bodied terriers of the British Isles (too confident)
toy group: highly unlikely, hardly worth mentioning?
Still in the running to be part of Ethan’s DNA for me are the following.
Vizsla – body shape, coloring, wiry build, narrow chest, deep-set chest, high pelvic tuck, ear shape, forehead/cheek wrinkles, crown shape, eye position and almond shape, pink/liver nose, sitting shape, tail thickness, musculature, cat-like paws, muzzle length/shape, athleticism, shyness/softness. Ethan’s traits NOT typically seen in the Vizsla: curly tail (usually docked), ample shedding, dark brown eye color (light, yellowish), oily medium-short coat (extremely short, sleek).
Labrador retriever – coat length/quality, tail, head shape, brown eyes
other sporting breeds such as Weimaraner (very similar to Vizsla), pointers (but half of the build is quite different), spaniels, though the coat is wrong (springers, Brittanys, but probably not cockers), and some retrievers, such as Nova Scotia Duck Toller, but due to its rarity that’s less likely; less so setters
Basenji – facial wrinkles, curly tail, overall size, sometimes similar coloring
Dachshund – more of an honorable mention since I have strong doubts; likely only a sliver (such as some part of his size and coat) if anything; shape is way off
less likely: sight hounds – too delicate and with much pointier, more slender heads and tapered noses with bulging side-set eyes, though Ethan has similar build and high stepping trot to some
even less likely due to rarity, despite physical similiarities: Ibizan hound, Pharaoh hound, Cirneco dell’Etna
Rhodesian ridgeback – mainly for their wrinkled forehead and squared crown in relation to the muzzle, along with short hair
Doberman and German Pinschers – eye position, sleekness, overall shape, face shape
German shepherd – coat only
some shepherds and border collie – actually rather unlikely the more I think about it . . . but I know genetics can be sneaky.
Manchester – similar to a Doberman in appearance but small
Parson Russell – face shape and he jumps rather high
maybe a bit of border terrier for face shape
Best guess from analysis assisted by WKC dog show and AKC website:
If I were to pick the largest number of possible ingredients going into the oven that made my dog, it would include but perhaps not be limited to:
springer spaniel or Brittany
and some terrier blend
If I were to pick the smallest number of possible ingredients, it would include one of the following:
Vizsla, German shepherd
Vizsla, Labrador retriever or
Vizsla, retriever (non-Lab)
I told my husband we should take bets before the results arrive, but he declined. He knows I’d win, or at least come closest. (Spoil sport.)
Stay tuned for Ethan’s DNA results and our reactions to his pedigree!
It’s Burns Night, the traditional celebration of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most iconic poet. Often with a traditional Scottish meal, songs, and poetry reading, Burns Night is celebrated across the Scottish diaspora every year on January 25th.
Although I won’t be partaking in a Scottish meal (though I do love me some haggis . . . not really; it’s okay, but I prefer black pudding), I celebrate by sharing with you excerpts from Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis,” written in 1787.
Related posts on this blog involving Robert Burns’ poetry, language translation, and definitions include:
“Adapted Bawdy Lyrics,” a dissection of the Outlander STARZ TV show’s adaptation of Burns’ rendering of the bawdy song “The Reels o’ Bogie”
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race! Aboon them a’ yet tak your place, Painch, tripe, or thairm: Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace As lang’s my arm.
fa’ (v.) – fall sonsie (adj.) – good, honest, lucky (said esp. of women) Aboon (prep.) – above, higher than a’ (pron.) – all tak (v.) – take painch (n.) – paunch, belly, stomach tripe (n., adj.) – tall, thin, ungainly person; slovenly, gangling thairm (n.) – gut or bowel weel (adj.) – well wordy (v.) – worthy grace (n.) – grace-drink, taken at the end of a meal after grace is said lang (adj.) – long
The groaning trencher there ye fill, Your hurdies like a distant hill, Your pin wad help to mend a mill In time o’ need, While thro’ your pores the dews distil Like amber bead.
trencher (n.) – round or square plate or platter of wood or metal (i.e., flatware) hurdies (n.pl.) – buttocks, hips, haunches of humans and animals wad (v.) – would
His knife see rustic Labour dight, An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight, Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like onie ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin’, rich!
dight (v.) – clothe, deck or adorn onie (adj.) – any reekin’ (adj.) – reeking
The next 3 stanzas share delicious language about competing for a portion of the food, defying foreigners to disdain their feast, and the unpleasant consequences after supper awaiting those who ate too well.
The last 2 stanzas frolic with the feaster as he makes his bloated way home until at last we see the final statement of haggis’s superiority to other refreshments, such as porridge and milk.
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, The trembling earth resounds his tread, Clap in his walie nieve a blade, He’ll make it whissle; An’ legs an’ arms, an’ hands will sned, Like taps o’ thrissle.
walie (adj.) – fine, excellent; big, strong nieve (n.) – fist, grip whissle (v.) – spend? (as in explode?) sned (v.) – chop (off) taps (n.pl.) – tufts, as of bird crest feathers thrissle (n.) – thistle
Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care, And dish them out their bill o’ fare, Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware That jaups in luggies; But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer, Gie her a haggis!
wha (pron.) – who mak (v.) – make auld (adj.) – old nae (adj.) – no skinking (adj.) – pouring, pitcher jaups (v.) – dash, splash, ripple luggies (n.pl.) – small wooden dishes or vessels used in serving milk, porridge gie (v.) – give haggis (n.) – “A dish consisting of the pluck or heart, lungs and liver of a sheep minced and mixed with suet, oatmeal, onion and seasoning and boiled in a sheep’s maw or stomach.” (also used as an insult, a term of contempt for a person – blockhead, stupid)
And so, what is Burns Night to a haggis? Complete annihilation.
For a recipe and more information, see “What Is Haggis Made of?” at The Spruce Eats. Of course, Burns Night isn’t complete without bagpipes and whisky. Nae bother, we’ll be better organized by next January.
Happy Burns Night–and weekend. . . .
Speaking of weeks and ends, catch the Season 4 finale of Outlander, Sunday, January 27, at 8pm Eastern on STARZ. Episodes guide here.
Dictionary of the Scots Language. / Dictionar o the Scots Leid. (n.d.). A database supported by the Scottish Government and hosted by the University of Glasgow. Retrieved from http://www.dsl.ac.uk/
Waverley Books. (2011). The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. Glasgow: The Gresham Publishing Company Ltd. pp. 194-195.
Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?
It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.
O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!
No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.
East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.
On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.
Premise and Opening
A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.
The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.
Summary and Genre
The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.
Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.
Point of View and Characters
Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.
On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.
Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.
That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.
So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.
The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.
Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.
In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.
Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.
Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.
Plot and Structure
Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.
The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.
They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.
Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.
A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.
Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.
Central World and Theme
The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.
East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.
Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.
Peers in Literature
East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.
As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.
Flaws in Storytelling
This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”
Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.
There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.
The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.
Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.
Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?
Flaws in Thinking
One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.
In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .
He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.
Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.
Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.
Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)
At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.
With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.
Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.
Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.
Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.
What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.
Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.
However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.
Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.
My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with deliciousturns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic,smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in loveadmire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”
Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.
I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.
I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.
On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.
In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.
After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.
Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For
If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.
If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.
If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.
Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.
As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.
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After a few weeks’ rest, massages, and chiropractic adjustment, I recovered from a spinal arthritis flare-up in early September. Despite the pain, my strenuous photographic efforts to capture speedy, high-flying objects at the Cleveland National Air Show paid off with a post of my best shots from the day.
In early October, my husband and I took a refreshing vacation to California, visiting my brother’s family, some wine and hard cider makers, Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and, for the first time, Yosemite National Park. I fell ill during my last trip out there in April 2015, but I made it through this one and the rest of October virus free. Health and sense of mission restored, I’m on to the second half of this series.
In text, maps, and photos, Part 1 started with how the Outlander book and TV series inspired and triggered our Argyll adventure; the first post then showcased our dynamic drive toward the Argyll coast. Part 2 featured highlights of our first stops upon reaching the sea: Crinan Canal, the Paps of Jura, and Kilmory Knap Chapel.
The Outlander Season 4 premiere starting November 4th at 8pm EST on STARZ brings long-awaited relief from Droughtlander and takes the saga into the New World. While I’m eager to follow Jamie and Claire on the next phase of their on-screen adventures, my own travel in Scotland still calls me back. Scotland is, after all, the seed of Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular Outlander book series phenomenon, which last month took the number 2 slot of the Great American Read‘s top novels.
Venturing farther inland for Part 3, this post shares some of my most cherished moments from our long day in Argyll with Àdhamh Ó Broin, Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books and their STARZ TV adaptation.
Late Morning in Mid Argyll
We had taken East Loch Sween Road into Kilmory, drove south to Kilmory Knap Chapel, and returned on the same path. It was a single-track road, known by road management officials as C42. A Scottish government guide explains that “C-roads, like B-roads, are minor, local routes but are not signposted or shown on maps.” However, OpenStreetMap.org was my source for both names of the road because it’s awesome. Score one against the web of Old World secrets.
Road C42 becomes Achnamara Road toward Barnluasgan, where we tracked back to the southwest on B8025 and soon reached our destination. Kilmory Oib township ruins are the moss-eaten traces of a settlement abandoned in the 19th century. Online satellite maps, even OpenStreetMap.org, indicate no name for the site, though a zoomed-in satellite view on Google Maps offers such age-old markers as a low, road-side fence and two discernible standing stones. It seems you can find the settlement itself only by knowing its name and location beforehand. So much for blasting through Scotland’s secrets.
Of course, we had a secret weapon. Our native Scottish guide Àdhamh brought his insider’s knowledge to our discovery of Kilmory Oib. After reading the placards at the clearing’s opening, I then researched further to inform the visit.
What’s left of Kilmory Oib lies within North Knapdale Forest, planted 100 years ago in the heart of North Knapdale. Most of the area is managed by Forestry Commission Scotland. On the ground, two lochs and a bed and breakfast neighbor the former township: Loch Barnluasgan to the northeast where the Knapdale Scottish Beaver Trial successfully reintroduced beavers to the area, Loch Coille-Bharr to the east, and the White Rock Bed & Breakfast to the north-northwest. Kilmory Oib is closest to Loch Coille-Bharr, but Loch Sween and the Sound of Jura are also not far away.
From the parking lot, we walked south up a dirt- and grass-covered path over the modest grade of a hill. At our feet I pointed out a large black beetle scurrying in the direction we headed. Like a child discovering nature for the first time, Àdhamh stopped to inspect it, as if he were stopping to smell the flowers. A true nature lover.
Portion of placard at the Kilmory Oib site, courtesy of the Dalriada Project
The path opened onto a clearing in the forest bathed in the rising sun. An early autumn, late morning light in the northern half of the Northern Hemisphere, its brightness shone high enough to illuminate and low enough to dazzle. The sun’s position in the clear sky made a pleasing contrast for photos, and it gave this Ohioan the impression of an earlier hour than it was. A peaceful scene unfolded when we met the clearing strewn with ancient and modern relics.
After my extensive map research for the trip and before we arrived on site, I had never seen a Scottish or Gaelic place name quite like “Oib.” Even Scottish people will pronounce names slightly differently across regions and time, but some guidelines assist the non-native Gaelic speaker. The consonant is simple: “b” here is pronounced like “p.” The vowel in “Oib” is something either like “up” but with a slightly rounded vowel into the “o” in “hop,” or “oip” as in “voip” but with a bit of a slide toward the long “i” sound in “hi.” In sum, close to “Op” or “Ipe” in English.
The Forestry Commission explains the meaning: “Usually referred to simply as Kilmory, the township is part of the estate known as Oib, or Oab, meaning bay or inlet in Gaelic” (Source: “Kilmory Oib,” Forestry Commission Scotland (current owner); contents menu includes links to information about a dozen other historic townships). The closest water body is Loch Coille-Bharr, neither bay nor inlet, but Scotland can be such a moist place, I suppose it matters little. A canal, river, burn, or sea, and precipitation, are frequent encounters. See my discussion on the variable labeling of place names in the sections “Dividing a Nation” and “Notes on Area Names” of the post “An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3.”
In 2016, the ground brushed with dew and waterlogged besides, its dense green things slowly swallowed and partly camouflaged many of the decrepit stone structures in the morning sun. Some shapes from the low piles of flat stones suggested old livestock pens, now carpeted with moss. Other forms announced cottage or barn walls, spattered with lichens. Ferns and bracken, a russet brethren showing fern its future, rounded out the signs of growth. The layers of life blanket these landmarks of bygone people and preserve the dark, damp earth underneath.
The Campbell clan owned Kilmory in the 1800s, but due to bankruptcy, ownership passed from Neil Campbell to Neil Malcolm of Poltalloch in 1785. Forestry Commission Scotland is the current owner (“Kilmory Oib”). During our visit, only two other visitors walked nearby and were on their way out when we arrived, but more than plant and fungal life stirred on the site. As it scooched slowly across the jagged stone surface atop a wall close to the trail, a little curl of motion attracted our attention. Again our guide picked up and examined the creature—a fuzzy grey-blue caterpillar with thin white striping and russet-orange bands across the stripes. It wore its own clan’s tartan. With visible signs of fertile land over the buried strata of past farming and fishing communities, could the insect’s glossy wings emerge to echo the plaid? And would it be Campbell, Malcolm or just Clan Butterfly?
Do you know this species? The caterpillar, not the hand. That’s Àdhamh’s.
Across the grounds, enclosed on one side by a crest of evergreens, some of the narrower end walls of the dwellings remain intact to the apex, like a peppering of stone arrows pointing skyward. They are evidence of the roofs’ gable style of only two slopes, a Dalriadian feature from 18th-century architecture of the southwest Highlands (“The Deserted Townships of Kilmory Oib & Arichonan and Kilmory Mill,” p. 6). Although similar sheltering can be supposed across this collection of buildings, the dearth of surviving walls and roofs leaves mysterious precisely how the structures must have appeared when last they were whole.
Now, one large tree that appeared to be in the cypress family twists its way up through the center of a building space, snug against the west-side escarpment. A fruit tree, too, sidles up to a smaller jagged wall remnant on the township’s opposite end.
Àdhamh asked me if he could have copies of my snapshots for a story about the site. I was happy to oblige and, from that point, diligently recorded the scene.
Before leaving, Àdhamh and I became photo subjects for my husband. Leaning on either side of an ancient cross slab (standing stone with a Christian cross on it) next to a water well filled to the ground surface, we struck a handful of cheeky poses.
It wasn’t the Colosseum, nothing so imposing as Linlithgow Palace or other crumbling Scottish castles. Instead, it was an intimate look at the shadows cast by a deserted set of humble communities. Kilmory Oib is an example of not-uncommon displacement from a not-so-distant Scottish past. It is only one of thousands of places where Scottish tenants were forced out by Scottish landowners, their own clan chiefs, or left from threat of clearance when they had no land rights, funds, or legal recourse. These Highland Clearances occurred over an extended period, lasting from after the final failed Jacobite Rising of 1745 at Culloden Battlefield until well into the 19th century.
To varying degrees for about 100 years, Scottish landlords evicted their tenants, whose families had farmed or fished there for centuries, to make room for more economical sheep farming. Known as infamous by someand controversial by others, the Clearances helped destroy clan culture, shrink the rural population of Scots in the Highlands and Islands, and push them into the Lowlands, out to the coast, or, if they could afford it, out of Scotland altogether. Today, land rights, property ownership, resource management, and conservation remain salient issues in Scotland, especially in rural areas.
Although the exact reasons and timing for Kilmory Oib’s end are uncertain, recent excavation and study of the site have shed some light on the context.
The Kilmory Oib settlement may have been abandoned “not long after the [nearby] Arichonan clearance . . . . [, which] took place in 1848 [as] part of the reorganisation of the estates owned by the Malcolms of Poltalloch, the Oib Estate purchased by them in 1798. The active role played by . . . surrounding settlements, including Kilmory, in the disturbances that accompanied the Arichonan clearance, suggest that this opposition was triggered by the threat of a wider clearance programme in North Knapdale” (Source: conclusions section of The Dalriada Project’s“Kilmory Oib, North Knapdale: Data Structure Report,”Roderick Regan, 2008, pp. 11-12, Kilmartin House Museum).
More about the former township’s particular story can also be found at Forestry Commission Scotland’s page dedicated to the site. Tucked away without a landmark on the road nearby, like many long-abandoned settlements, the modesty of Kilmory Oib belies its complex, and partly ancient, history in Argyll.
Reflecting on our visit stirred my foreigner’s sense of intrigue at a sight so rare in the U.S.: overgrown ruins made of stone. We, too, have ghost towns and run-down urban neighborhoods, but the American city version means exposed rebar, toppled concrete, rusted steel, and broken asphalt. Besides the obvious uniqueness of castle ruins, rural Scotland’s fragments are usually different. The age of Kilmory Oib and its quiet country setting add an irresistible pastoral romanticism to my view of its loss.
But what really is the ruin of a community, a nation, of a dream, an idea, a belief? While the result of misfortune, remnants cultivate a fortitude in shared memory, the roots of a people’s hope for a better future, a way through the challenges that tempt us greatly to give up. Something survives on which to build again. Without those seeds, a glimpse of real alternatives, we capitulate easily.
Without seeing ruins for the living past they represent, our sense of history is stunted along with our capacity for empathy. Our souls are diminished by the very erasure of signs of endings from the past. Without a tangible record, we may doubt, misremember, and completely forget historic events. It may follow, then, that preservation of all sorts of ruins help keep willing hearts awake to see, understand, and consider the needs of others as we prioritize peace and justice alike.
By marking our losses, ruins call us to create a more reasonable and compassionate world. “To all those we have lost . . .” toasts Claire Fraser with a dram of whisky in Outlander STARZ episode 304, “Of Lost Things.”
Loch-side lunch in Tayvallich
Cutting across mid-Argyll, the Crinan Canal serves as northern border to Knapdale, Tayvallich’s surrounding home, and divides Kintyre Peninsula from the mainland. The canal connects salty Loch Fyne to the Sound of Jura, and Tayvallich lies just south of these intersections, near the middle of the peninsula. See lower left on map below.
Like Crinan Coffee Shop, Tayvallich Coffee Shop gave us a lunch-time view of the inlet, docks, and boats. We could also see the other side of Loch a’ Bhealaich, at the edge of which dwells the village.
Clockwise from lower left: Tayvallich, Kilmory Oib township ruins, Crinan, A’ Moine Mhòr (The Great Moss), and Dunadd Fort. Yellow bubbles mark my account’s saved locations. Snapshot from Google Maps; darker text added using photo editor program.
Vessels were plentiful as for a busy day but not quite a special event—some at anchor, some docked, of sail and of motor. As I learned from Gazetteer for Scotland, along with the area’s forestry tradition, both fishing and tourism have made up the life blood of the village.
Loch Sween, another sea loch, feeds the inlet from the east. Though subject to tides, Sween with its castle of the same name is substantial enough to spread its wealth into nooks and crannies like Tayvallich’s. Anglicized from Taigh a’ Bhealaich, the Gaelic name translates into something like “house of the pass” or “house in the valley,” depending on which source you consult. In that valley house’s coffee shop, I ate a lovely omelet before we left for our next destination.
Àdhamh and I discussed place names and poetry along the way. I would ask him to repeat the Gaelic names he rattled off as we passed, and then pronounce them in my turn. At other times, I took more careful note, gathering spellings as well.
Hear Àdhamh and me pronounce and spell the Gaelic name for Tayvallich:
In asking my husband and me about our jobs, Àdhamh opened a path to more of our shared interests. He and I are both educators, both artistic in some way, and both happened at the time to be working on a project involving Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland novels. I told him how I’d just started a spin-off novel based on Through the Looking-Glass, and he told me about his work to translate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Scottish Gaelic. Writing a book is hard; I can’t imagine having to translate an entire novel.
At any rate, the three of us all love learning, and Àdhamh and I work with language, literature, poetry, and song. Next time we meet, we’ll have to have a sing-along or something. Later in the day, toward evening, I discovered I would not be equal to a duet with such a voice.
Two years later, I’ve followed a referral he made to a famous Scottish Gaelic nature poem “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain” (“Praise of Ben Dorain”) by Duncan Ban MacIntyre. Like the mountain it praises, the poem, Àdhamh said, is something special. I investigated to find out why and how.
Originally written in Gaelic, published in Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s collected poems (1751), the poem tells the pastoral story of a beloved mountain in what was once northern Argyllshire and Perthshire, the poet’s home region. Today, you can see Beinn Dorain’s almost perfectly conical shape grow larger in your windshield driving the A82 north from Tyndrum toward Bridge of Orchy, as we did on the way to Glencoe two days later.
In the poem, through a first-person speaker, a deer hunt occurs on the mountain, but for sustenance, not sport. The piece is highly descriptive and reads well in a good English translation. I’ve also heard it spoken in Gaelic, which was quite beautiful.
According to a 2016 article in The National, self-described as “The Newspaper That Supports an Independent Scotland,” the poem has rather complex form and soulful content. Like much Scottish poetry, it was constructed to be played and sung rather than simply spoken. An unnamed author declares, “Its shape is essential to its meaning. Composed in the musical structure of a pibroch – in Gaelic the spelling is piobaireachd – the classical music of the Highland bagpipe.”
Identifiable sections of the poem include a main theme in three parts, a second movement that develops each of those, repetition of the main theme, another movement, and so on. Three journeys occur between themes, then a synthesis of all prior elements–a climactic deer-killing scene. The song moves in circles as new material comes into the chronological plot, establishing a reader expectation of renewal and drama.
The prevailing mood, The National argues, is a question for Scottish readers and listeners. Exultation is there, but so are sadness and violence, suggesting wrath. What are the sources and the objects of those emotions? Answers may help decide the role of “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain” in Scottish literary history and politics.
Passionate writers tend to fixate, and in the article they speak with a unified voice. Its title claims a premeditated “manifesto for land reform” on MacIntyre’s part, but The National also admits this is “not explicitly depicted in the poem,” but rather “its historical context implies it.” That’s quite a leap of logic. If every historical context played the predominant role in all of literature, there would be little need or inclination to study it through any other lens, including solely by its own merits and content.
Literary criticism moves us beyond such a limited perspective for 21st-century analysis. Besides, among other relevant facts, Duncan Ban MacIntyre fought on the Hanoverian side of the ’45 Rising, not the Jacobite side. So, historical context argues at least partially the other way in this case. The article then claims an environmental conservationist purpose to the poem, as distinguished from a work praising human or religious subjects. While the content of the poem does focus on nature and wildlife, plus the destruction and loss of a piece of it, Ban MacIntyre also wrote a poem praising the king.
Literature can be interpreted to mean what we wish it to, but perhaps first we must read for ourselves to determine whether a message exists, waxes inherently political, or just depicts such things as the human experience of the interplay between life and death.
Excerpted from Alan Riach’s translation posted at Kettillonia, the cyclical rhythm of the “chorus,” or main theme, is reinforced with internal rhyme in “Praise of Ben Dorain”:
Praise over all to Ben Dorain – She rises beneath the radiant beams of the sun – In all the magnificent range of the mountains around, So shapely, so sheer are her slopes, there are none To compare; she is fair, in the light, like the flight Of the deer, in the hunt, across moors, on the run, Or under the green leafy branches of trees, in the groves Of the woods, where the thick grass grows, And the curious deer, watchful and tentative, Hesitant, sensitive: I have had all these clear, in my sight.
Whatever else the poem may be or mean, however we may appropriate it, at least Àdhamh was right. It is special and deserves more recognition by a wider audience.
As a musical man himself, Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant Àdhamh Ó Broin would have to be keenly aware of Duncan Ban MacIntyre and his iconic song-poem. At our next stop, our host shared some other tunes in the Scottish tradition by playing his bagpipes for us, which he brought along for the occasion.
Mid-Day in Mid Argyll
After lunch in Taigh a’ Bhealaich (Tayvallich), and on more than one occasion that day, I was trapped. As the guys left the vehicle, I remained locked in the back seat of our rental car like a child mistrusted with her own safety. Despite calling out, I had to wait a beat or two for them to realize my plight and then for my husband to figure out the lock situation so as to set me free.
It seems the back doors automatically lock on the 4-door Vauxhall Corsa when the driver closes his door. An odd feature to set as a default, I thought. The first time it happened, I suspected my husband of jumping the gun on locking up before I had a chance to get out, but after the second time he swore he didn’t do it, the nature of the issue became clearer. After my release, it was smooth sailing–almost.
Dunadd Fort, ancient seat of Dalriada Scots
Not quite fit for munro bagging (climbing mountains of a certain height in Scotland), I climbed up Dunadd Fort hill and felt my lungs fighting before I reached the top. It’s not really up that high, but the rugged terrain requires the climber’s legs to stretch farther for most steps than on a smooth grade.
Fortunately, the plant specimens among the uplifted rocks made for a convenient excuse to take photo breaks. The creases and sloping shelves in the rock were lovely, adorned with tufts of still-blooming heather, fern, and wild grasses.
Once the center of the Gaelic kingdom of Dàl Riata, or Dalriada, the artifacts of Dunadd Fort monument tell the tale of the first Scots and the first kings of Scotland, 8th century A.D. But the site was in use as early as the 5th century A.D.
Archaeological research conducted in the early 1980s helped stretch the history of its use as far back as the Iron Age, and further evidence suggests its importance persisted through the 1500s, the late medieval period. All told, therefore, Dunadd was something more than a monument for 2,500 years.
Dunadd Fort, fellow visitors with dog
Fence and gate to Dunadd Fort hill
The hill rises in isolated elevation from its flat surroundings. On the cluster of rocks clothed in moss, painted with lichen, and crowned in heather garlands, we could see evidence of human use, described and mapped on the placards labeling the fortress site.
“An Dùn Rìoghail” – “The Royal Fortress.” All placards on site provided under stewardship of Historic Environment Scotland.
In early medieval Scotland, Dàl Riata leaders became kings when they stepped into a stone footprint, still discernible today. This “inauguration stone” is shown in these pictures as item 3.
The hilltop features of some ramparts (2) and a citadel (5), or upper courtyard, loom over the “traces of buildings” (4).
From there, steep cliffs on the far side from the parking lot plunge into the surrounding farmland with cattle and sheep on the plain.
A’ Moine Mhòr
As we looked out over that plain, known as the Moine Mhòr (Great Moss) bog, also a designated national nature preserve, Àdhamh played a few tunes on his bagpipes for us, including “The Piper’s Warning.”
The story goes: A piper is imprisoned at a castle and by playing his pipes warns his beloved son to stay away, lest he too be captured.
Àdhamh shared the lyrics in English for us, noting that the Highland Scots had no embarrassment about calling fellow men “my love” because they’re so “[expletive deleted] hard.” That is, Highlander men are so manly in the sense of having impervious strength that they fully own what, say, the Sassenach might consider effeminate endearments between them.
Whether this really explained the choice of phrase or Àdhamh just wanted to dispel any suspicions of sexual overtones, I do not know. But it was clear, because he was barely audible and did not smile, that Àdhamh was proud of the Highlander reputation for “hardness,” or hardiness, this bit of his cultural heritage. It made us smile in turn.
As the sunshine beamed on, visible in the distance from atop Dunadd Fort was an isolated, ruined cottage Àdhamh admired and dreamed of owning on the Moss. Beyond were lochs and hills; behind those, the west coast. A wide, winding stream reflecting bright blue sky ran through the farmland below the remnants of Dàl Riata’s royal center.
Starting in the northeast and proceeding past Dunadd and beyond the Moine Mhòr National Nature Preserve, the River Add bulges again, running roughly parallel to the Crinan Canal, as it finds its way to the Sound of Jura at Loch Crinan, a wide-mouthed inlet just east of Crinan Harbour.
Dunadd was one of my husband’s and my favorite parts of our day. Fellow visitors, one of whom Àdhamh recognized and greeted, and his humble piping at the cliff’s edge made our time at the ancient site extra special.
From the Trossachs to the seaside and curling back inland, so far that day, we had gone to places that offered wide sweeps of panoramic views. Whether from loch side, coastal perch, forested enclave, or ancient hilltop surrounded by vast plain and winding river, we saw the beauty and brushed the mystery of a quiet Argyll countryside.
Next Time: Part 4 of 4
The final post in this series follows late afternoon into night of this magical day: from the intrigues of prehistoric stone structures in Kilmartin Glen to the singular charms of our host and Cowal Peninsula’s small village, Clachan of Glendaruel; and from the perils of single-track night driving to a night view over the Kyles of Bute onto the city lights of the mainland. Plus, a surprise encounter from the day after. I hope you’ll join me for the finale.
Duncan Ban MacIntyre and “Praise of Ben Dorain” / “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain”
“#7 Seat of all seats.” (2016 June 17). Mountain: a podcast about adventure [podcast]. Includes excerpts of “Praise of Ben Dorain” read in Gaelic and English. Interviewer: Christopher Sleight. Readers: Siobhan Anderson, Anna MacQuarrie. http://mountainpodcast.com/episode/7-seat-of-all-seats/
Find out more about how the tourism industry, as well as British and Scottish governments, have labeled things; see the first footnote ofAn Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3, under the heading “Notes on Area Names.”
After several years of writing novels during November, I’m finally starting to get more organized about the online guides I rely on to keep trying to make it work. Note that this post doesn’t explicitly include print books or other print materials, of which there are many excellent examples. And one caveat for you: Start with a good story idea. Brainstorm if you need a well-developed idea or premise to start with. It will help to visualize your idea in the context of the following developmental helpers for story writing.
Featured Resource: The Write Practice
The website Thewritepractice.com is quickly becoming my go-to NaNo prep resource this year. I’ll spare you the effort to recall exactly how I happened upon it. The point is I’ve found it really helpful, full of a-ha moments. Here are some of the particular a-ha moment articles I recommend so far, whether you’re a planner, a pantser, or aren’t sure what kind of approach you take yet but just might want to try writing a novel.
I find each article engaging and digestible, and each ends with a writing prompt exercise. I’m using them to recall and dive deeper into the principles of story writing as I figure out what my novel will be about this November. I hope you find something insightful in them.
A handful of other great materials I’ve found useful since 2011, my first year of NaNoWriMo:
A Compendium of Novel Structure Resources – Just during drafting of this post, I found from Storm Writing School what might be the mother lode. It captures and links to 7 of the story structure systems and resources I’ve consulted or used in the past (Syd Field, Dan Wells, Christopher Vogler, Larry Brooks, Blake Snyder, K.M. Weiland, and Dramatica!), plus many I’ve never heard of! The article addresses the nature of acts (Act I, Act II, Act III) and organizes the resources into three aspects or types of structural frameworks–named stages, plot point outlines, and process guides. Check it out!
I just discovered earlier this month the devastation of the famous Pioneer Cabin Tree, or Tunnel Tree, a sequoia in the North Grove of Calaveras Big Trees State Park in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of central California. My husband and I were visiting my brother and his family for the first time in several years and visited the park on October 6. The last time I was there was in 2015 with my mother, when we both walked under the tunnel of the now-fallen icon.
I thought I had pictures of it still standing, certainly, but I am unable to find them as of this post. The photos below of its erect status are borrowed as indicated. I took the other pictures.
Photo courtesy of howstuffworks.com
Photo courtesy of Calaveras Big Trees Association FB page.
There is a handful of other iconic sequoias in California and elsewhere, but this one was pretty famous. In the 1920s, cars used to drive under it after lightning strikes hollowed out the base, which was then squared off. About a year ago, heavy rains followed by a storm washed out the base, and the tree’s descent downed a nearby cedar tree.
These trees are incredibly tall and impossibly old, and they grow only in certain areas, including the west slope of the Sierra Nevada and in a portion of Yosemite National Park.
Unidentifiable from a distance, the pile of wood attracted us by the signs before it. It wasn’t until I read them that I realized what I was looking at. Aided by the shock, I was so sad to learn of this special tree’s falling, I almost teared up at the sight of it, especially since my husband had not seen it in person while it was still intact.
While all things end, and the tree’s condition made its position more precarious, it is no less poignant to see it flattened. As with a recognizable mountain, the traveler expects such a tree to be standing as it first existed, long after the visitor has sunk through the earth. It marks the land in a unique way, suggests a whiff of permanence in the world, enlarges our experience with its largeness, its resilience, and connects our lives in shared familiarity.
A New Yorker and World War I soldier, poet and journalist Joyce Kilmer likely never met the Pioneer Cabin Tree. The simple celebration of his famous if sentimental poem “Trees” effectively thanks God for making them. If the poem described any particular tree, there could hardly be a worthier candidate than the Pioneer Cabin Tree at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Sentiment, if genuine, has its place where the tree once stood.
Farewell, old timer.
To learn more about the Pioneer Cabin Tree, or Tunnel Tree, at Calaveras, and other sequoias, the California parks department posted a brief, informative official release at the time of its falling.
We’re enjoying our dog Ethan, now a year and a half old, who just met my nephew’s new puppy at a family party. So you know I couldn’t let the opportunity pass by to present a collection of dog-related posts on my blog from over the years, for National Dog Day.