Scherpstekendevliegs, Anticipation, and Unreadable Books

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July 9, 2022 by libroshombre

            Anticipation can be excruciating, but also sweet, as A.A. Milne illustrated in writing “‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”  That sort of moment occurred while my son showed me how to properly sharpen knives using a sharpening kit of some complexity.  Honing the right way takes time and allows anticipation to build over how fine the blade is becoming.  It also permits general conversation, including a NY Times article by Derrick Bryson from last April titled “A Wooden Knife Sharper Than Steel?  Scientists Say So.”  Bryson reported that in 2021 “a group of researchers announced they had developed wood that they say is 23 times harder than its natural counterpart. They used the hardened wood to make a table knife that their study shows is nearly three times sharper than commercial table knives.”  

            Knives are older than any other human-made object and date back 2.5 million years.  One reason our predecessors made their knives from stone and then metal, but not wood: wood doesn’t hold an edge for long.  University of Maryland researchers “used a process involving a chemical treatment, water rinsing, and both cold and hot presses on basswood. They then soaked it in food-grade mineral oil to increase its water resistance and carved the material into knives.  Basswood … was selected for its high performance after processing.”  But since all wood expands and contracts more than metal, a senior curator at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Yao-Fen You, said, “I am skeptical” of the applicability of wooden knives. “That tends to be the problem with wood handles.,” she said, “they will deteriorate over time.”

            “Daddy said, life is 95 percent anticipation,” according to Gloria Swanson, and Alaskans’ anticipatory skills are well honed by our radical climatic differences.  Few can top our craving for the onset of summer, and something many of us anxiously anticipate is the arrival of fleets of mosquito-devouring dragonflies.  Known as the “wasserjungfer” (“water maid”) in Germany, and “scherpstekendevlieg” (“sharp stinging fly”) in Holland, our fellow northerners, the Swedes call dragonflies “trollslandor” (“supernatural lander”), and yesterday a big blue darning needle landed on my shoulder and gave me the once over.  “Darners are the biggest dragonflies, and we have seven species in Alaska,” according to biologist John Hudson, who co-authored “A Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Alaska” with Bob Armstrong.

            Years ago I helped my son find sources for a middle school dragonfly report.  Having a librarian dad can be a blessing, but also a minor curse, since I knew to consult the proper article in our 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  The 1911 is iconic in library circles for its lengthy, detailed articles and its important writers, like Bertrand Russell and John Muir.  A Victorian Englishman, Robert McLachlan, wrote the Britannica’s nearly 5,000-word dragonfly article.  Many 1911 Britannica authors wrote passionately, but few more than McLachlan, particularly when it came to dragonfly “pairing.”  I’ll leave his in-depth description of that event to your imagination, but his description which is available free online, included words like “very crooked,” “sinuous,” and “accompanied by sheaths and external hooks.”  It’s no wonder that the title monster in the movie “Alien” was based on dragonfly nymphs.  I mused on this as the darner and I eyed each other, for “The lake darner is a big, purple-blue dragonfly with a dark background.” Hudson wrote.  “It will fly all night long in the Arctic and it can fly in the rain, which is very unusual for dragonflies. It will actually generate and maintain body heat.”

            Speaking of heat, this summer two fireballing Army servicemen are pitching for the Alaska Goldpanners, whose season is an annual harbinger of high summer, when a batter’s anticipation at facing hard spheres thrown very near their persons is considerable.  In one of Roger Angell’s classic New Yorker baseball essays, “Buttercups Rampant,” he described how the Pittsburg Pirate pitcher Dock Ellis “decided early in the 1974 season that the Cincinnati Reds had somehow established dominance over his club, and he determined to set things right his own way.”  Pete Rose led off, “and the first pitch from Ellis was at his head – ‘not actually to hit him,’ Ellis said later, but as a ‘message to let him know he was going to be hit’.  He then hit Rose in the side.”  The next pitch hit Joe Morgan in the kidney, and the batters became increasingly jumpy.  It took two pitches for Ellis to plunk the next batter, Dan Driessen, in the back.  “With the bases loaded, Dock now threw four pitches at Tony Perez (one behind his back), but missed with them all, walking in a run.  He then missed Johnny Bench (and the base) twice, whereupon Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh came out to the mound, stared at Ellis with silent surmise, and beckoned in a new pitcher.”

            Bibliographic anticipation’s been taken to a new level in Norway according to a BBC article, “The Norwegian Library with Unreadable Books,” by Richard Fisher.  Last month he described the recent dedication of the 2022 Future Library outside Oslo as “a 100-year art project created to expand people’s perspectives of time, and their duty to posterity. Every year since 2014, the Scottish artist Katie Paterson – along with her Norwegian counterpart Anne Beate Hovind and a group of trustees – has invited a prominent writer to submit a manuscript, and the commissioning will continue until 2113.”  Until then the manuscripts are residing inside individual “illuminated locked glass drawers in a hidden corner of Oslo’s main public library, within a small, wooden repository called the Silent Room. In 2114, the drawers will be unlocked … and 100 stories hidden for a century will finally be published in one go.” Margaret Atwood wrote the first one, and other authors have been drawn from Turkey, Iceland, England and elsewhere around the world.  The “commissioning will continue until 2113. Then, a century after the project began, they will all finally be published.  By then the small spruces planted at the dedication ceremony will be old enough to provide the paper the books will be printed upon.

            Libraries have anticipation in their DNA – of readers, ideas, enlightenment –but Noel Wien Public Library has a special kind.  Around 2000, as she was dying of cancer, one of the wonderfully creative children’s librarians there, Cheryl Bidwell, conceived of turning the grounds outside the Berry Room into an “playground for the imagination”.  She anticipated a place that included features to stoke the imagination: whisper dishes, hidden fairy houses, finger mazes, and much more, and a year after her passing in 2002 the Cheryl Bidwell Story Garden was opened.  It’s one of Fairbanks lesser-known treasures, though that’s changing as more families have discovered it this summer.

            All sort of programs and concerts take place there.  Today I took a “Story Walk” in Cheryl’s Garden that featured a fantastic “picture” book, B.J. Novak’s “The Book with No Pictures” in which the reader has to say all the words, regardless of how silly they are.  The NY Times Book Review called it “conceptually radical . . . making the refreshing and contrarian case that words alone have sensory and imaginative vibrancy to spare.”  Kirkus gave it a coveted starred review, and said, “it’s sure to inspire lots of conversations—and laughs . . . A riotously fresh take on breaking the fourth wall,” and the Boston Globe called it “A perfectly-pitched tool for parental humiliation and childish glee.”  Now, if that doesn’t foster a rise in parental anticipation and their kids, they aren’t breathing.

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