Thursday, July 22, 2010

"It was a nun they say invented barbed wire."

It's surprising what comes up.

Mark Twain, for instance, has knights of the Round Table out selling barbed wire as part of a push to civilize England (A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, 1889):

. . . their penchant for wandering, and their experience in it, made them altogether the most effective spreaders of civilization we had. They went clothed in steel and equipped with sword and lance and battle-axe, and if they couldn’t persuade a person to try a sewing –machine on the installment plan, or a melodeon, or a barbed-wire fence, or a prohibition journal, or any of the other thousand and one things they canvassed for, they removed him and passed on.

And a character in James Joyce's 1922 Ulysses, after thinking for a while about advertising, makes a startling suggestion about the origin of barbed wire:

A procession of whitesmocked men marched slowly towards him along the gutter, scarlet sashes across their boards. Bargains. . . . Doesn't bring in any business either. I suggested to him about a transparent show cart with two smart girls sitting inside writing letters, copybooks, envelopes, blotting paper. I bet that would have caught on. Smart girls writing something catch the eye at once. Everyone dying to know what she's writing. . . . Wouldn't have it of course because he didn't think of it himself first. Or the inkbottle I suggested with a false stain of black celluloid. His ideas for ads like Plumtree's potted under the obituaries, cold meat department. You can't lick 'em. What? Our envelopes. Hello! Jones, where are you going? Can't stop, Robinson, I am hastening to purchase the only reliable inkeraser Kansell, sold by Hely's Ltd, 85 Dame Street. . . . That was a nice nun there, really sweet face. Wimple suited her small head. Sister? Sister? I am sure she was crossed in love by her eyes. Very hard to bargain with that sort of woman. . . . It was a nun they say invented barbed wire.

From the beginning, barbed wire has been used to control both man and beast, so it's not surprising to think that a pedagogical nun might have invented it. In fact, it's downright funny. Later in the novel, the connection between religion and barbed wire is enhanced:

what do we lack with your barbed wire? crucifix not thick enough?

Flannery O'Connor's 1952 novel Wise Blood continues in this ascetic religious vein when Hazel Motes wraps himself in barbed wire after blinding himself to prove himself worthy.

So what does barbed wire mean? We're working that out, step by slow step, but it obviously has to do with how the wire is used in literature and advertising and not just with how it was used on the range.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mysterious Observations: Fairbanks, Alaska

It's true, Alaska is big, especially when you reach it by driving through British Columbia and the Yukon.

A little more than 3000 miles from our home in Utah to Fairbanks, where Lyn's sister Michele and brother-in-law David live, and where my son Ben is a graduate student. Ben's wife Rachel and my granddaughter Ingrid, along with my son Sam who is working on a riverboat this summer, round out the family reasons to visit a place crawling with tour busses this time of year. The deepest pleasures of the trip were, naturally, family related, but I'll write of them on the family blog.

So, back to the beginning: it's a big state with a big mountain and big rivers and big animals and a big-mouthed ex-governor. But in the end, it was a couple of smaller things that caught my fancy.

First, David and Michele's outhouse.

Constructed of cedar and smelling like a cedar chest, clean and comfy, airy and light, it was a

pleasant place to pass time.

Flowers in the window.

Aspen and birch rustling outside.

And improvements to come. I suggested piped-in jazz, and David's thoughts jumped to an 8-track system he thought he could install.

In the meantime, there's plenty to contemplate, including a print of "animals carrying the hunter to the funeral" -- a translation of the original Slovenian phrase.

I did some looking and found that the image was from a panel of a beehive -- thus the notch in the bottom -- and that the practice of painting sometimes satirical scenes on beehive panels is common in Slovenia.

1876 must be when the panel was decorated.

Why the print is in the outhouse is somewhat of a mystery, since it was left there by the previous owner.

For some more bee-hive-panel painting, click

Besides the outhouse, I was most intrigued by a skull and antlers hanging high on the wall of John Holmgren's machine shop, overlooking a specialized ice-coring bit John had made for a scientific project and a set of bright metal "snow pillows" for remote sensing of snow depth and a hand drill John was making for a scientist to use atop a 20,000-foot Peruvian mountain. The main mechanism for the drill had been pilfered from a bicycle bought on the internet, pedals and a direct-drive shaft removed from the brand-new bike, the rest of which was still in the box. A $400 bike saves me a lot of work and the scientist a lot of money, John said.

But back to the antlers and skull.

Lyn and I having been writing about barbed wire for the past year, about the actual invention and about how its meaning has been constructed over the past century. It's a dance back and forth between the wire itself and what it means.

What John had hanging on his shop wall was a study in wire and the natural world it disrupts.

Smooth wire, not barbed, but still, obviously, dangerous.

John was riding his snow machine one winter from the Toolik Research Station north of the Brooks Range to Prudhoe Bay. About 45 miles south-west of the bay, he saw a caribou antler sticking up out of the snow. When he pulled on it, he got the antlers, skull, and tangle of wire.

How the caribou became entangled in the wire is a mystery.

Two mysteries, then, from an outhouse and a machine shop in a big state