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Mom and cosmology March 12, 2009

Posted by Jenny in memoir, nature, philosophy, poetry.
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Barbara Bennett

Barbara Bennett

Many people remember my mother as a nice little old lady.  And they are right—she was nice, she was little (she grew steadily smaller over the last 10 or 15 years of her life), and one certainly can’t dispute the fact that, at the end, she was old.  When she departed on July 3, 2007, her age was 84.

It was just that when you chatted with her over a cup of tea, she might want to talk about the philosophy of science or a new development in astronomy rather than Florida vacations or grandchildren.  This was not only an unusual interest;  it was one that she had come to relatively late, in mid-life, in the course of her perpetual exploration of the world of ideas.  Her interest could not be explained by the usual determinants of childhood experience, college education, or any circumstance involving friends or acquaintances.  There was, perhaps, a larger proportion of philosophers than usual within the extended family—my uncle was a philosophy professor—but by and large she came to the subject independently.

In her 50s and into her 60s, she attended university courses in the philosophy of science, eventually publishing a paper about epistemological realism in the context of quantum physics.  And, having a mind that always sought connections—those shining moments of insight that come from linking things never before thought of together—she made a connection between the philosophy of science and the subject of nature, her other enduring interest.  And she wrote poems about that connection.

Some who read her poems did not like the way she connected the concrete and the abstract.  I think the real problem was that those readers simply had no taste for the abstract.  They told my mother that she would do better to write about personal experiences—something more confessional, perhaps.

I am glad to say that she rejected that advice.

I would like to share a poem written by my mother.   It is called “A New Cosmology.”

By the pulsing light of Cepheids

lucid as in crystal micro-time,

shocked astronomers weigh the age of the farthest

stars and find in wild illogic they

are older even than the universe.

What stars are these that pass like fossil seeds

ambered in archaic time between

extinction and rebirth?

The world collapsing

into darkness, a new time, another

universe will gather up the seeds

of stars, and over eons open out

and flower to become a painted cosmos

never dreamed before.  Then what frail

language will be scribbled on the sky

to read the enigmatic stars anew?

Galazy clusters seen through Hubble telescope

Galaxy clusters seen through Hubble telescope


The Ardennes plateau November 20, 2008

Posted by Jenny in history, memoir, military history.
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The ArdennesCertain places are known as a battleground of two weather patterns: one bringing moisture and the other bringing cold.  The Ardennes plateau is such a place.  It is also of course known as a battleground in the military sense.  My father fought there in the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945.

The official Dept. of the Army history states, “The Ardennes lies directly on the boundary between the northwestern and central European climatic regions and thus is affected by the conjuncture of weather moving east from the Atlantic with that moving westward out of Russia.”  The terrain consists of a high plateau from which rise higher ridges and irregular tablelands covered with a patchwork of deep, dark evergreen forests.  The area is cut by winding rivers that flow through deep canyons.

A picture in the official Army book shows the village of Baraque de Fraiture, which sits at an elevation of 2,139 feet, one of the highest points in the Ardennes.  It is little more than a crossroads, and in the picture, which was taken around December 1944, drifting snow nearly covers the roads.  Wide snowbound fields form sharp-edged geometric shapes bordered by forests of pointed trees, either spruce or silver fir.

Dad gave me a written account of his experiences in the Battle of the Bulge.  He had never talked much about it.  He and his comrades had tramped along the snowy roads in bitter cold, and he struggled with the weight of the ammo box he carried: 30-caliber, for a water-cooled machine gun.  They walked through the forest by day and slept in the snow by night, coming once under bombardment, but no one was injured.  After three days they emerged from the woods at Baraque de Fraiture and faced the fire of German artillery and light machine guns.  Company D—the heavy weapons company—dug in and fired back for most of the day.  As dusk fell they ran pell-mell through deep snow down a long, gradual slope into the village of Bihain.  Dad’s company holed up in an unheated farmhouse, forbidden even to light up a cigarette that could reveal their presence to the enemy.  When dawn came, they saw the bodies of many of their fellow soldiers in the battalion’s rifle companies lying scattered across the snowy field behind the house.

Soon thereafter, Dad was evacuated with a high fever and a severe case of trench foot.  He always seemed to feel that his contribution to the war was not worth mentioning, but I felt that he was brave.  He mentioned in his account that he had grown up entranced by movies like “Gunga Din” and “Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” and he wore the badge of a British regiment, the East Yorkshire, on a chain around his neck as a lucky charm.

He told me that the run into Bihain was the most frightening experience he had in the war.  I can’t possibly imagine it clearly:  just a dim picture of the darkening blue dusk punctured by the lightpoints of enemy fire, a shapeless slope that never seemed to end, the panting for breath and that heavy ammo box banging against the strap across his chest where he had clipped it.

A long-attention-span kind of thing October 30, 2008

Posted by Jenny in memoir, travel.
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Spend three and a half days driving to get from Gloucester, Mass. to the Rockies, when you could fly?  It’s hard to explain.

After writing my last post, which was about a hike in August 2004, I started feeling nostalgic not only for the Rockies but for the whole road trip experience.  Bob and I have done big road trips together twice, and he also did a six-week solo journey in 2000 that truly deserves the title of “Great American Road Trip.”  The solo trip featured an old red Tercel.  The 2004 trip starred a silver Echo (“Filbert”), and the 2006 trip put the companion red Echo (“Filomena”) through her paces.  In all of these trips, the back seat and trunk were completely filled up with camping and hiking gear.  These undersized road warriors penetrated into places where compact cars with Mass. plates are seldom seen.  For instance, the Cinnamon Pass shelf road near Lake City, Colorado, or the Stevens Gulch road up to Grays and Torreys.  We enjoyed our gas mileage, in the range of 43-45 mpg.  One day, with a persistent tailwind, we got close to 50.  (No, these aren’t hybrids.)

From Gloucester, the goal is to get somewhere near Akron, Ohio, the first night.  The second night is spent somewhere near the 92nd meridian, for instance Stuart, Iowa, or Independence, Missouri.  On the third day the 100th meridian is crossed, and that is when I feel that I am really getting out west.  A mysterious transition occurs somewhere in the middle of the tier of states that are stacked north of Texas.  On the 2004 trip we had spent the night in Missouri and drove for hours across Kansas.  Somewhere out at the west end of the state, near Colby or maybe Oakley, it was time to stop for lunch.  We pulled up to a convenience store and stepped out of the car into hot, dry, swirling winds.  The temperature was in the upper 90s, and grit was flying through the air.  A geezer got out of his dinged-up pickup truck.  He had cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, and it wasn’t a costume.  The air smelled like livestock, and the ditch was full of sunflowers.  I was happy.

We look for where the Queen Anne’s Lace stops and the sunflowers start, for our first prairie dog of the trip and our first antelope.  We go out to the Ponderosa pines, up to the Douglas firs, and down to the red rock canyons.  We admire vast forests of black spruce by Lake Superior, and perpetual-motion black oil rigs in Wyoming.  The transitions happen very gradually, as is enormously appropriate for the gigantic spaces of our huge United States.  We tune into Kansas public radio and hear a feature about deep-fried Snickers bars.  We drive through hailstorms in Pennsylvania and snow squalls in Utah.  We see the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, and use the 11,312′-elevation rest rooms at Monarch Pass, Colorado.

It’s a long-attention-span kind of thing.  Like I said, hard to explain.

The mighty roadster

The mighty roadster