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Posts Tagged ‘Oxford

“When wombats do inspire/I strike my disused lyre”*…

 

Wombat

Rossetti mourning his wombat

 

“‘The Wombat,’ Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote in 1869, ‘is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness!’ Rossetti’s house at 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea had a large garden, which, shortly after he was widowed, he began to stock with wild animals. He acquired, among other beasts, wallabies, kangaroos, a raccoon and a zebu. He looked into the possibility of keeping an African elephant but concluded that at £400 it was unreasonably priced. He bought a toucan, which he trained to ride a llama. But, above all, he loved wombats…

It isn’t difficult to understand Rossetti’s devotion. Wombats are deceptive; they are swifter than they look, braver than they look, tougher than they look. Outwardly, they are sweet-faced and rotund. The earliest recorded description of the wombat came from a settler, John Price, in 1798, on a visit to New South Wales. Price wrote that it was ‘an animal about twenty inches high, with short legs and a thick body with a large head, round ears, and very small eyes; is very fat, and has much the appearance of a badger.’ The description implies only limited familiarity with badgers; in fact, a wombat looks somewhere between a capybara, a koala and a bear cub.

Despite the fact that they do not look streamlined, a wombat can run at up to 25 miles an hour, and maintain that speed for 90 seconds. The fastest recorded human footspeed was Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint in 2009, in which he hit a speed of 27.8 mph but maintained it for just 1.61 seconds, suggesting that a wombat could readily outrun him. They can also fell a grown man, and have the capacity to attack backwards, crushing a predator against the walls of their dens with the hard cartilage of their rumps. The shattered skulls of foxes have been found in wombat burrows…

Katherine Rundell urges us to “Consider the Wombat.”

* Christina Rossetti  (Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister)

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As we ponder pets, we might wish an elfish Happy Birthday to John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who was born on this date in 1892.  A philologist and professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, Tolkein is better known for the series of books of which he said “my work has escaped from my control, and I have produced a monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and rather terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody).”

(Tolkein’s friend and fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis, when told by Tolkien of a new character with which he was populating The Lord of the Rings, reputedly replied “Not another f—ing dwarf!”)

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Bust of Tolkien in the chapel of his alma mater, Exeter College, Oxford. He was later a don down the street, at Merton College

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“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness”*…

 

Forest

 

Consider a forest: One notices the trunks, of course, and the canopy. If a few roots project artfully above the soil and fallen leaves, one notices those too, but with little thought for a matrix that may spread as deep and wide as the branches above. Fungi don’t register at all except for a sprinkling of mushrooms; those are regarded in isolation, rather than as the fruiting tips of a vast underground lattice intertwined with those roots. The world beneath the earth is as rich as the one above.

For the past two decades, Suzanne Simard, a professor in the Department of Forest & Conservation at the University of British Columbia, has studied that unappreciated underworld. Her specialty is mycorrhizae: the symbiotic unions of fungi and root long known to help plants absorb nutrients from soil. Beginning with landmark experiments describing how carbon flowed between paper birch and Douglas fir trees, Simard found that mycorrhizae didn’t just connect trees to the earth, but to each other as well.

Simard went on to show how mycorrhizae-linked trees form networks, with individuals she dubbed Mother Trees at the center of communities that are in turn linked to one another, exchanging nutrients and water in a literally pulsing web that includes not only trees but all of a forest’s life. These insights had profound implications for our understanding of forest ecology—but that was just the start.

It’s not just nutrient flows that Simard describes. It’s communication. She—and other scientists studying roots, and also chemical signals and even the sounds plant make—have pushed the study of plants into the realm of intelligence. Rather than biological automata, they might be understood as creatures with capacities that in animals are readily regarded as learning, memory, decision-making, and even agency.

Plants communicate, nurture their seedlings– and feel stress.  An interview with Suzanne Simard: “Never Underestimate the Intelligence of Trees.”

Pair with: “Should this tree have the same rights as you?

* John Muir

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As we contemplate cultivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1602 that The Bodleian Library at Oxford formally opened.  (Sir Thomas Bodley had donated over 2000 books in his personal library to replace the earlier Duke of Glouchester’s (Duke Humphrey’s) Library, which had been dispersed.  Bodley’s bequest was made in 1598; but the full collection wasn’t catalogued and made available until this date in 1602, when the Library reopened with its new name, in honor of its benefactor.  Eight years later, Bodley made a deal with the Stationer’s Company– which licensed [provided copyright] for all publications in England– that a copy of everything licensed should be sent to the Bodleian…  making it a Copyright Depository, the first and now one of six in the UK.)

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The Bodleian’s entrance, with the coats-of-arms of several Oxford colleges

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Written by LW

November 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit … a mobility of illusory forms immobilised in space”…

 

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Three months ago, I was a normal person. Now all I think about 24-7 is the dinkus. Did you know that dinkuses is an anagram of unkissed? I did. For the uninitiated, the dinkus is a line of three asterisks (* * *) used as a section break in a text. It’s the flatlining of an asterism (⁂), which in literature is a pyramid of three asterisks and in astronomy is a cluster of stars.

The dinkus has none of the asterism’s linguistic association with the cosmos, but that’s why I love it. Due to its proximity to the word dingus, which means, to define one ridiculous word with another, “doodad,” dinkus likely evolved from the Dutch and German ding, meaning “thing.” To the less continental ear, dinkus sounds slightly dirty, and I can confirm that it’s brought serious academics to giggles.

For me, a writer and reader, its crumbiness is its appeal. I need some crumbs to lure me down the page…

Daisy Alioto‘s “Ode to the Dinkus.”

* James Joyce, Ulysses

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As we separate our sections, we might recall that it was on this date in 1248 that The University of Oxford received its Royal Charter from King Henry III.   While it has no known date of foundation, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s second-oldest university in continuous operation (after the University of Bologna).

The university operates the world’s oldest university museum, as well as the largest university press in the world, and the largest academic library system in Britain.  Oxford has educated many notable alumni, including 29 Nobel laureates, 27 prime ministers of the United Kingdom, and many heads of state and government around the world.  Sixty-nine Nobel Prize winners, 4 Fields Medalists, and 6 Turing Award winners have studied, worked, or held visiting fellowships at Oxford.

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Written by LW

June 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I believe in looseness”*…

 

Robert Greene as pictured in the frontispiece to John Dickenson’s Greene in Conceipt (1598)- the only known image of the dramatist, poet, pamphleteer

Known for his debauched lifestyle, his flirtations with criminality, and the sheer volume of his output, the Elizabethan writer Robert Greene was a fascinating figure.  Ed Simon explores the literary merits and bohemian traits of the man who penned the earliest known (and far from flattering) reference to Shakespeare as a playwright: “Robert Greene, the First Bohemian.”

* Willie Nelson

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As we frolic on the fringes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1750 that the first issue of the first college student magazine, Student, or the Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany, was published.

Cover of a 20th century collected reprint

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Written by LW

January 31, 2016 at 1:01 am

Advent-ure…

It’s that time again:  your correspondent is headed into his annual Holiday Hiatus.  Regular service will resume early in the new year.  In the meantime, with great thanks for your kind attention through this last year, and high hopes for the next, a little something to occupy one until the Big Day:  from the incomparable Bodleian Library, their treasure-filled 2012 Advent Calendar.

(And for a somewhat wonkier– and wonderfully weirder– Christmas countdown, see The Economist‘s “Graphic Detail” Advent calendar.)

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As we pause to spare a thankful thought for libraries, we might note that this is the date– this very date, this year– that, for better or worse, the world is not ending.

Written by LW

December 21, 2012 at 1:01 am

The Oxford Comma…

The Oxford Comma– AKA, the final serial comma– has come in for some harsh criticism.  Indeed recently, the storied punctuation mark suffered the ugliest of indignities:  the “Writing and Style Guide” in Oxford University’s own “Branding Handbook” (the internal guide to usage meant to be consistent across all University publications) instructed: “As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’.”

The Prose Police did carve out an exception:  “when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used…”

Good thing too.  Language Log demonstrates with examples both hypothetical:

…and actual:

Your correspondent operates, as readers may have noticed, on the compositional principal “better safe than sorry”…

As we disagree with Vampire Weekend, we might recall another example of linguistic mutability:  it was on this date in 1966 that Jimmy Hendrix changed his name to Jimi Hendrix.  Hendrix had a good bit of Experience, if readers will forgive the pun, with name changes…  He born was Johnny Allen Hendrix, but his father changed his name to James Marshall Hendrix (in honor of the father’s dead brother).  Hendrix performed as a sideman as “Maurice James”; he led his pre-fame band, The Blue Flames, as “Jimmy James”; and when confronted with confusion of having two Randys in the group– Guitarist Randy Wolf and bassist Randy Palmer, he dubbed the latter “Randy Texas.”  The former, anointed by Hendrix as “Randy California,” later joined his step-father Ed Cassidy to form Spirit.

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There *will* always be an England…

From Offbeat Earth:

As both books and classic red phone booths are becoming a thing of the past, a village in Somerset, England has merged the two rare commodities.

The bright red old phone booth was purchased for just 1 pound and remodeled as the smallest library in the world. Residents line up to swap their already read books for new ones left by other patrons. Over 100 books and a variety of movies and music CDs are available at this tiny library.

As we cull our collections, we might recall that, though teaching is known to have been done there since 1096, it was on this date in 1214 that the University of Oxford received its charter (and the head of the University, until then “magister scolarum Oxonie,” became the Chancellor).  The document, delivered buy a Papal Legate to end a dispute between the school and the town, legitimized the institution, provided for the appointment of the Chancellor, and  commanded the town to feast a hundred poor scholars annually.

The Charter (replete with Papal seal)

Source: Oxford University Archives

Happy Father’s Day!

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