Craig Nagel, columnist
Ever get a word in your mind that won't go away, but which you can't remember the meaning of? I had that happen the other day, and it nearly drove me crazy till I finally looked it up. The word I had in mind is "phenology," which has to do with observing the natural world and keeping a record of it. Specifically, it is that branch of science dealing with the relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena, such as bird migration or plant flowering.
Author's note: This column first appeared in the Echo many years ago, and was later revised for publication in my book, "A Sense of Wonder." I offer it here, again with some revisions, following another heated discussion with a disbelieving friend. Ignorance dies slowly. For hundreds of years after Galileo proposed that the earth circled the sun, most folks "knew better." Scarcely more than a century ago, taking a bath was considered bad for one's health.
"Poor Richard's Almanack" was a yearly almanac published in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin, writing under the name of "Poor Richard" or "Richard Saunders." The publication appeared continually from 1732, when Franklin was 26, until 1758, when he was twice that old.
Admit it. We're at that point of winter where some of us need help. Between the recent bouts of fuel-gobbling cold, roof-threatening snow and mood-numbing cloudiness, we find little to lift our spirits, short of a paid-for ticket to someplace south or possibly a three-month nap. But there actually are alternatives to despair, some of which you might consider.
Kids come by it naturally. A stone, a leaf, a snowflake - any object, no matter how ordinary, can be transformed by the mind of a child into something special and full of mystery. Seen this way, the world teems with wonder and delight. Years pass and the child outgrows such silly notions. In place of mystery there comes boredom, and with boredom the urge to be entertained. The everyday things lack novelty; what's needed is something outrageous, way different, really new. New sounds, new clothes, new games, maybe new adornments.
"Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us. An ambitious urban entrepreneur who rose up the social ladder, from leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings, he seems made of flesh rather than of marble." So begins the dust-cover blurb on Walter Isaacson's biography of Franklin, who, during his long life (1706-1790), was America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical political thinkers.
Two months ago, for her birthday, my wife received a lovely gift from a dear friend. The gift, a book, is titled "Norwegian Wood" and subtitled "Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way." "I suppose you'd like to read it," said my wife, handing it toward me. "Go ahead. I'll read it when you're done." Thus it was I learned all sorts of interesting things.
Every so often a book comes along that changes the way we think about the world. Charles C. Mann's 1491 is one of them. Subtitled "New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus," Mann's book turns our understanding of history upside down and inside out. I recently read it a second time, and found myself wishing it could be required reading for us all. In case that sounds far-fetched, consider the following so called "facts," most of which we all learned in grade school, and which underlie the way we think about what's gone before us, and why things are the way they are.
Each year it gets a little harder to set aside one's skepticism and enter willingly into the yuletide spirit. In the face of relentless advertising, bombarded by endless special programs on TV, driven near to madness by the broken-record litany of Christmas songs on the radio, I wait sour-faced hoping for humbug to melt into mellowness. Then, sooner or later, I encounter a rerun of "A Christmas Carol," and feel my cold heart begin to thaw.
By most measurements, English is a wonderful language. It's enormous, for one thing, containing somewhere between half a million and a million words, depending on whose count you accept. It's very much alive and it keeps getting bigger, growing on average by some 4000 new words each year.