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Which World War destroyed Ruritania? May 31, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, literature, military history.
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Austria-Hungary was broken up by WWI

The Austria-Hungary coat of arms has Ruritanian elements

The post that I wrote February 8 about Ruritania has proven to be one of the most frequently visited posts of this blog, seeing multiple visitors nearly every day.  I have to admit I am surprised but pleased by the interest in my discussion of the nation of castles and swordfighting created by the novelist Anthony Hope.  I now pose to my readers a question: which of the two world wars could truly be said to account for the destruction of Ruritania?

As earlier noted, the Ruritanian capital of Strelsau might have been modelled on Prague or on Dresden, putting it inside either Bohemia or Saxony, and one visitor recently put forth the idea that it was based on Breslau, the city now known as Wroclaw in Poland—which would put it in Silesia.  Of those three cities, Prague made it through WWII intact, while Dresden was virtually destroyed, and in a simplistic sort of way Breslau splits the difference, having been first designated a “festung” (fortress) by Hitler and then roughly half

Surrender of German troops in Breslau

Surrender of German troops in Breslau

destroyed in 1945 when it was besieged by the Soviets.

Yet it could be argued that the physical destruction of large parts of these “Ruritanian” cities in WWII was only the logical working out of the defeat of Germany and the breakup of Austria-Hungary at the end of WWI.   The stylistic extravagance, the pomp and the splendor, of the Central European empires (exemplified in the coat of arms above) never came back after 1918.

The question of which world war destroyed Ruritania is in one way kind of a silly one (after all, it’s a made-up country) and in another way fairly deep, having to do with a huge chunk of 20th century history.  I will leave it as an open question for the moment.

Leaders of the WWI Central Powers: "In struggle there is unity," it says

Leaders of the WWI Central Powers: "In struggle united," it says

40,000 headmen on Mt. Davis May 29, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, White Mountains.
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The east side of Mt. Davis is carpeted with moss

The east side of Mt. Davis is carpeted with moss

It was my birthday hike in 2007.  Bob and I had a tradition that I would get to pick the destination for an outing sometime around August 25 each year (since his birthday is December 23, he always got shortchanged in that department).  I had decreed that we would climb Mt. Davis, a 3840-ft. elevation point on the Davis Path that is considered a shoulder of Mt. Isolation because it doesn’t have the required 200-foot prominence.  No one climbs Mt. Davis as a destination, though it is sometimes passed along the Davis Path by backpackers.  Yet the AMC guide says it has “perhaps the finest view of Montalban Ridge and one of the best in the mountains.”

The route: Rocky Branch trail from Rt. 16 to where it makes a right-angle turn and the Isolation trail comes in.  There we would leave the trail and bushwhack on a course close to due west toward the summit.

As we drove to the trailhead, we were listening to a “Best of Traffic” CD.  The song “40,000 Headmen” was playing as we pulled into the parking lot.  It tells a peculiar dreamlike story:

Forty thousand headmen couldn’t make me change my mind
If I had to take the choice between the deafman and the blind
I know just where my feet should go and that’s enough for me
I turned around and knocked them down and walked across the sea

Hadn’t traveled very far when suddenly I saw
Three small ships a-sailing out towards a distant shore
So lighting up a cigarette I followed in pursuit
And found a secret cave where they obviously stashed their loot….

The song was still going through my head as we started our climb up the Rocky Branch trail.  The air felt a bit soupy, but the sky gleamed like a polished piece of metal and the temperature was not too warm.  As we crossed over the height-of-land on Engine Hill, we passed by large numbers of white turtleheads in bloom, a wildflower I’ve seen often in the Smokies but rarely in the Whites.  Asters were interwoven with the turtleheads in shades of pale blue and pale purple.

We rockhopped the crossing at Rocky Branch with no difficulty, and soon we left the trail and plunged into our off-trail assault on the majestic peak of Mt. Davis.  We moved easily through open moss-covered forest, working around small boggy areas that fit together like pieces of a puzzle.  Above 3300 feet the climb grew steeper and we got into some spindly spruce and fir, but the going wasn’t too bad.  We aimed to hit the ridge a little to the south of the summit so that by turning to the right when we reached the Davis Path we would be sure to hit the spur trail to the top.

When we crested the ridge, the altimeter showed us by our exact elevation that we were indeed south of the top.  So now all we had to do was drop down less than 200 vertical feet to the Davis Path.  But as soon as we broke through to  the windward side of the ridge, the going got predictably much worse through wind-carved scrub evergreens.  I had a slight alarm when a stubby branch knocked my glasses off and sent them sailing into the brush.  Luckily, I found them in a minute.

We felt as though we could have been miles from any trail, but we kept telling ourselves the Davis Path had to be very close, and we finally touched the ground on the trail.  We had been bouncing from branch to branch for about 15 minutes.  Then it was only a short stroll up the path to the spur trail and the summit.  We gazed into the vastness of the Dry River valley and up past the bump of Mt. Isolation to Mt. Washington, which looks like a monarch from this subsidiary ridge to the south.  The sky had a glimmering, pearly look.  The song was still going through my head, following the adventure of the mysterious loot-seeker:

… Filling up my pockets, even stuffed it up my nose
I must have weighed a hundred tons between my head and toes
I ventured forth before the dawn had time to change its mind
And soaring high above the clouds I found a golden shrine…..

After taking a leisurely break at our tiny rock outcrop surrounded by oceans of wilderness, we continued on to the north for a return via Mt. Isolation and the Isolation trail.  As usual, we found the headwater area along the upper Isolation trail to be meandery and slightly confusing, but we got down into the stream valley, made the multiple stream crossings, and took a last look at the glittering waters of Rocky Branch before steeling ourselves for the climb back up and over the height-of-land.

It was as we approached the broad saddle that the 40,000 headmen started coming after us.  We could hear thunder rumbling off to the west, but it sounded distant.  Then it started to sound closer.  And closer.  The headmen were right on our heels.

We had just begun the descent when the heavens opened with a mighty crash of thunder and a sizzle of lightning.  It seemed as though the air itself had turned into water.  A quick stop to put on raingear, but that was a pathetic gesture.  We were going to get nailed.

The lightning was so close that I could smell the electricity.  With a lot of melodramatic banging and rumbling, the dense  raincloud lingered overhead, emptying its full contents directly on our heads. It poured, and poured, and poured.  And finally the worst of the storm passed.  By that time the sun was starting to go down, for it had been a very long day.   The trees grew larger, and darker, and eerier, and the forest grew slimy and slippery.  We got out our headlamps.  Following the tiny white lightbeams through the drizzly air, we stumbled along.  Without the headlamps, I have no doubt we would have been forced to spend the night in the very black woods.

We made it out to tell the tale—and truly, it was a great adventure.  Time to get back on the road and find something to eat.

Laying down my treasure before the iron gate
Quickly rang the bell hoping I hadn’t come too late
But someone came along and told me not to waste my time
And when I asked him who he was he said, ‘Just look behind’

So I turned around and forty thousand headmen bit the dirt
Firing twenty shotguns each and man, it really hurt
But luckily for me they had to stop and then reload
And by the time they’d done that I was heading down the road

Reading for landscape May 23, 2009

Posted by Jenny in literature, memoir.
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I wrote the following post back in February, and I decided I didn’t like it, but I saved it as a draft.  I  took another look at it today, and I think  maybe it isn’t so bad.  The odd thing is, since experiencing the upheaval that I described March 24, I have been absolutely, utterly unable to read.  I know it will come back eventually.

Last month, after I finished reading R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, I was in a mood to keep reading about the moors of southwest England, so I turned to Thomas Hardy.  His fictionalized Wessex overlaps with Exmoor.  I read Mayor of Casterbridge and I’m nearly finished now with Return of the Native.  They both have transported me to the villages and the strange customs of people out on the wild, wind-blasted heath.

I’ve always loved books, but there have been certain times in my life when I have been especially intent in my reading.  I’m not counting college—I read a lot then,  but it was assigned, not freely chosen—but there was one time in my early 20s when I read all I could get my hands on (mainly European and South American authors), and another time when I was around 30  (I read Proust. Yep, Proust).  Then not again until my long spell of pneumonia in 2004, when I read nothing but military history  (it’s hard to explain).  Now I seem to be reading nineteenth-century English writers.

I’m not a literary sort of reader.  I wasn’t an English major in college, I don’t keep up with the gossip of the book world, I don’t enjoy reading literary criticism.  I’ve looked at literary blogs, and I’m not interested, and I’m pretty sure they’re not interested in me, either.  What it comes down to is that I read like a child, for the simple magical purpose of living in another world.  Like a child, I feel forlorn when I finish a book and I have to leave that world.

Many years ago I read Middlemarch by George Eliot and decided it might be the best novel I’d ever read.  Since it fits with the nineteenth-century English theme, I picked up my old copy of it the other day and thought that might be the next thing, to re-read it.  I skimmed through the first couple of chapters.  The idealistic Dorothea Brooke, spurning the attentions of a handsome young man to bury herself in a marriage to the hideous Casaubon!  The whole psychology of it—the characters—the turns of fate—done so perfectly!

But I won’t re-read it after all, I’ve decided.  Why not?  Because it has no landscape.  It takes place entirely indoors.  For whatever reason, right now, I can’t read a book that has no landscape.  I must, I absolutely must, have some sky over my head as I read.

"The Reader" by Fragonard

"The Reader" by Fragonard