My grudge against Rome


It occurs to me that I have never fully explained my grudge against Rome. It’s because I’m a Celt.

Back in 2006, I signed up for a DNA test. I learned a great deal from it, including the fact that I do indeed have common ancestors with the notorious Dalton Gang, though that’s a story for another time. The thing I learned, though, that affected me even more than that is that my genetic haplogroup is R1b-M222. So what does that mean?

A haplogroup can be thought of as a clan, or an extended tribe. In the old world, members of the same haplogroup occupied the same territories and tended to migrate together. Geneticists use haplogroups to study ancient human migrations. Haplogroups persist across thousands of years.

The haplogroup R1b-M222 is still very much being studied by geneticists. It is a Celtic group identified with the La Tène branch of the Celts. The La Tène Celts flourished around 450 B.C. in a large area of Europe focused around Switzerland. They migrated to the British Isles and were well established in England and Scotland by 200 B.C. They migrated into Ireland and became one of the dominant haplogroups in parts of Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland and the northern counties of the Irish Republic.

In 2006, geneticists at Trinity College, Dublin, publicized research which they said showed that living humans of the R1b-M222 haplotype were descendants of the 4th century Irish king known as Niall of the Nine Hostages. Niall was extremely powerful. In fact, he is the Irish king who is said to have brought Saint Patrick to Ireland, as a captive. He was so powerful, geneticists thought, that he was able to consort with a great many women and thus father a great many children. However, later research discredited that theory, because the R1b-M222 haplotype seemed to mark early migration into Ireland as well as later migration out of Ireland. Niall of the Nine Hostages was certainly an R1b-M222, but he’s not fully responsible for spreading the haplotype. Geneticists now think that the R1b-M222 haplotype is instead the La Tène marker.

What this boils down to is that, because of my genetic markers and because of the research done by today’s geneticists, I can know with high confidence where my ancestors were centuries ago. In 200 B.C., they were almost certainly in northern Britain. In 400 A.D. by the time of Niall, they were probably in the northern parts of Ireland.

There is something very powerful about knowing with high confidence where one’s ancestors were many centuries ago. This is not abstract to me. They are my grandmothers and grandfathers. If they were abused and oppressed, I take that very personally.

Rome committed all sorts of atrocities against my grandmothers and grandfathers. Though it may offend many people for me to say this, I also hold the Roman imperial religion, Christianity, in contempt. Its theologies and texts are weak, and all the nice parts of its theologies and texts were borrowed (don’t take my word for it — ask a theologian). Historically, the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity are worse, if that is possible, than the atrocities of the Romans. To me, it’s scarcely surprising that Rome chose Christianity as the state religion. They were a perfect match. I am unimpressed by what Christianity claims to be. I have tried to cultivate a long memory, so I am only concerned with what the historical record shows it to be. The long research that went into Fugue in Ursa Major, and which continues for the sequel, has only strengthened my views.

The Celts were warlike people. There’s no doubt about that. In that era, if you didn’t wage war you didn’t last long, and the Celts lasted for centuries. And no doubt there were elements of the Celtic religion that today we would find offensive. But they honored nature, and they were some of the nicest, most creative, most knowledge-loving people in the ancient world, as far as I can tell.

If there are vestiges of Celtic culture to found today, of course that would be in Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, Wales, and Brittany. Fifteen centuries of Christian domination have certainly changed Ireland, but I believe the spirit of the Celts can still be detected in the Irish love of music, of poetry, of love for the land, of simple and peaceful rural life. The Irish never conquered anyone, never sought empires and great wealth. In many ways, in spite of growing Catholic domination (and some help from Irish Catholic monks who were barely Christianized for centuries), Ireland kept the lights on during the Dark Ages. The Irish have been obliged to fight repeatedly for their way of life, and they never sought to impose it on others. What about Britain, you might ask. Isn’t Britain Celtic? Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland — yes. But the imperial English, I would argue, got their spirit from the Saxons, Germanic conquerers from the north who occupied England. Even today, the enmities between England and provinces such as Wales are remnants of the old Celtic-Saxon hostilities. It is a miracle that the old Celtic languages still have a toehold in those places.

The Celtic peoples who remain today — the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Cornish, not to mention the Bretons — have always wanted, more than anything, to be left alone. I am proud to have them as my grandmothers and grandfathers.

Julius Caesar against the Gauls

Wikimedia Commons: The Dying Gaul, Roman, circa 200 B.C. The sculpture preceded Julius Caesar by about 150 years and is based on earlier wars with the Celts.

Now that Fugue in Ursa Major has been sent out into the world to seek its fortune, I am already well into the research needed for the sequel. In the sequel, we will use some of the tools of science fiction to probe history, the better to understand how we got to this sorry state and to look for lost ideas that we might do well to recover.

A major turning point in Western Civilization, as I see it — if not the turning point in Western Civilization — was Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, a critical first step in bringing essentially all of western Europe (except for Ireland) under the control of Rome. This insured the near-extermination of the Celtic cultures and prepared the soil for the Roman imperial religion, Christianity. If one believes, as I do, that Western Civilization sucks in pretty much the same ways that imperial Rome sucked, then one must try to understand how we got to the state we’re in. Science fiction is a wonderful way to explore these themes. Good science fiction ought to be carefully grounded in its histories and in its science, and then it is free to ask, in plausible ways: What if?

I have dreaded the work, but one of the sources I needed to digest was written by Julius Caesar himself. It is hundreds of pages long, and it is mostly about boring military strategy. The book is The Gallic War. Caesar describes the conquest of Gaul in his own words. All the military stuff (at least to me) gets old really fast, so I speed-read through that to pick out the parts that contain other nuggets of history. One must be careful here, however, because Caesar was a propagandist. Part of his intention is to glorify himself, to glorify Rome, and to paint the conquered peoples as barbarians to help justify Rome’s treatment of them. The conquest of Gaul (the area of modern France, more or less) was almost a genocide. The language of Gaul became extinct within a couple of hundred years after Caesar’s military conquest. Latin morphed into French.

One thing that greatly impressed me was Caesar’s quoting a speech by a leader of the Celts, Critognatus, at great length. Caesar does this because he wants to show the speech’s “remarkable and abominable cruelty” (singularem et nefariam crudelitatem). Strangely enough, to me, the speech doesn’t sound cruel and abominable at all. It sounds pretty heroic, a cry for help and justice poignant enough to be heard and lamented two thousand years later. This is just an excerpt:

For wherein was that war like this? The Cimbri devastated Gaul, they brought great disaster upon us, yet they departed at length from our borders and sought other countries, leaving us our rights, laws, lands, liberty. But the Romans — what else do they seek or desire than to follow where envy leads, to settle in the lands and states of men whose noble report and martial strength they have learnt, and to bind upon them a perpetual slavery? ‘Tis in no other fashion they have waged wars. And if ye know not what is afoot among distance nations, look now on Gaul close at hand, which has been reduced to a province, with utter change of rights and laws, and crushed beneath the axes in everlasting slavery.”

I hear you, Critognatus.

Note: The translation is by H.J. Edwards and is from the 1917 Harvard edition.

Another note: Whenever I use the phrase, “Western Civilization,” I think of what Mohandas Gandhi said when he was asked what he thought of Western Civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Ragweed and other saints of nature

Ragweed. Note the brown grass behind it. The wildflower patches did poorly this year, but water-frugal species grew valiantly.

One of the good things about living in a place like the abbey is that, instead of fighting with nature, one gradually begins to cooperate with nature and to learn from nature’s experience. This summer has been miserably dry, the driest summer since a La Niña summer a few years ago. I haven’t cut the grass for a month, because the grass isn’t growing, and much of it has turned brown. The clover shriveled up, and rabbits that were young enough to squeeze through the garden fence ate the tops off young sweet potatoes. I forgave them. They have to eat.

Drought is hard on everyone. The day lily bank usually makes an extravagant show. This year, because of the drought, the blooms were scant, and a doe and her fawn ate most of the bloom buds, returning nightly. I put up with it. They have to eat. Last year’s 70 inches of rain produced a huge crop of rabbits and deer. This year, I’m sure, the populations will be way down.

Ragwood is one of the most hated of weeds, not least because its pollen is a powerful allergen. But this year I saw the virtues of ragweed. Where the grass was brown, ragweed sprang up. I would not dare to cut it until we’ve had some good rain and the grass is growing again. Roots in the soil and green leaves in the sun are always a good thing. In a drought, one can’t be choosy.

The chickens had done a lot of damage to the orchard during the winter, scratching bare spots in the grass. With good rain, the grass would have quickly recovered. But this year, it was only ragweed that could step in to defend the soil. The ragweed completely covered the worst of the bare spots. The chickens left it alone. Not only was it roots in the ground, it also was dense enough to shade the soil and keep the soil a little cooler.

Driving around the foothills, one frequently passes plots of land that were timbered during the winter, leaving a Mordor-like plain of barrenness and disruption. But who shows up to hold the soil and get life going again? Weeds, the tried-and-true native species who have had a million years and more to learn their job.

I haven’t been here that long. What do I know? One learns to let things live and seek their own balance — weeds, rabbits, deer, even the snakes. The abbey has a no-kill rule. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The chicken is standing in a patch of ragweed. A couple of months ago, the area was bare dirt, scratched clean by the chickens during the winter.

More garden pasta


It’s spooky how much tomatoes like cream. This is linguini with fresh tomatoes in a creamy parmesan sauce.

Flash-sautée the tomatoes in a hot skillet (but not hot enough to smoke). Cook the tomatoes for only one to two minutes, just until they’re hot. Put them in a bowl and set them aside. Add some butter to the same skillet. Add cream, salt, pepper, and about a teaspoon of vinegar. Boil gently and stir with a whisk until the sauce thickens. Add grated parmesan and stir with the whisk until the parmesan is melted into the sauce. Add the cooked pasta and the tomatoes and toss it in the skillet until the pasta is covered with the sauce.

I did not peel the tomatoes. The skins curl up when the tomatoes are heated. I skinned the tomatoes at the table, as though I was peeling shrimp.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do with all the tomatoes. I ought be in the garden right now picking yet more more of them instead of sitting here in front of the computer.

Next surplus: tomatoes


For the new gardener, just getting things to grow is a triumph. But an art of gardening that must take a lifetime to refine is stretching out the seasons. That is, not only does one want the earliest possible fresh food in the spring and the latest possible fresh food in the fall, one also wants to stretch out (say) the tomato season for as long as possible, instead of having all the tomatoes come ripe at once.

If the object is canning and freezing, then having everything come ripe at once is not a big deal. But, for a kitchen garden, it’s a different matter.

The abbey tries to stick to old-fashioned ways when the garden is in. If it’s not in the garden, you don’t eat it. And if it’s in the garden, you eat it. In the spring, if the garden is going well, I pretty much stop buying produce except for things like garlic and bananas. In the early spring, we ate so much lettuce that it’s a wonder our hair didn’t turn green. By the time the squash crush arrived, the lettuce was gone. The tomatoes came a couple of weeks behind the squash. Soon there will be corn, though I’ll have to fight the raccoons for it, and the raccoons will almost certainly win.

I had pasta two nights in a row. Tonight’s linguini was made with fresh tomatoes. There’s a lot more where that came from. Maybe the tomatoes will turn my hair red.


Squash again (and again, and again … )


A couple of days ago, I sent a friend home with about eight pounds of squash and other garden vegetables (which he thoughtfully picked for himself in the brutal heat). He has been reporting on his use of the squash, and he made a great observation. That was that onions in his squash casserole was a kind of cliché. His squash casserole was very good, he said, but the onions reminded him of all the bad, runny squash he’s ever had.

I thought that was a brilliant insight. The trick is to look for different, unexpected flavors to go with squash. I’m still thinking about that, but while thinking about it I used tarragon.

A standard sauce at the abbey is what I call faux Bérnaise sauce. True Bérnaise, of course, is made with Hollandaise. I am very much out of practice with Hollandaise, and it’s a peck of trouble. Faux Bérnaise is much easier. I use it often for salmon. It’s astounding over mashed potatoes.

If possible, use a skillet that was just used to cook something else, so that there is some glaze and flavor in the pan. Deglaze the skillet with a little vinegar or lemon juice. Add some butter. When the butter is melted, add some cream. Stir it with a whisk and boil it gently until it thickens into a proper sauce. Add salt and pepper and a pinch of tarragon.

The squash in this dish I cooked according to the quick-sear method described in a post a few days ago. Stir the linguini, the squash, and the sauce together at the last second, just before serving.

I confess that I always have heavy cream in the refrigerator. Both Ken and I had our cholesterol checked a few months ago and it was excellent, so the heavy cream is not a problem if you otherwise eat sensibly.

First tomato sandwich of 2014


One of holiest of white trash sacraments is the first tomato sandwich of the season. Around here, that means that certain nasty foods are temporarily allowed into the house. For this year’s bread, I chose Merita Old-Fashioned, just because it had a better squeeze on the store shelf than Bunny. The chips, as always, are Wise chips. Wise once made a New York Times top-10 list of best regional potato chips. Mayonnaise on both sides of the bread. Milk would be a proper accompaniment, but this year I had Coke from a commemorative bottle, over ice.

The remaining bread will go to the chickens. I hope it doesn’t hurt them. I’ll finish the chips.


Peter Rabbit: As of 2014, he belongs to all of us

Beatrix Potter’s work is now in the public domain

Authors write to make a living. Eventually, authors get old and die, but their work lives on. Books, paintings, even movies — all become part of our historical and cultural heritage. Imagine how we’d all lose if someone still held a copyright on Shakespeare’s plays, or Beethoven’s music, or the paintings in the Louvre.

But how long should an author’s heirs be allowed to profit from an author’s work? On that there is no agreement. In past years, it is profit that has been winning, and copyrights have been extended for longer and longer.

This year, the work of artists and writers who died in 1943 came into the public domain. That included the work of Beatrix Potter. Current copyright law in the U.S. keeps copyrights alive for 70 years after the author’s death. Peter Rabbit was first published in 1902, so that means that Peter Rabbit was private property for about 112 years. That’s a long time.

Copyrights were extended again (by the U.S. Congress) as recently as 1998. Mickey Mouse, Gone With the Wind, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue are still private property. Those who opposed copyright extension complained that the intent of the law was to protect lucrative franchises such as Mickey Mouse that corporate owners want to keep locked down.

This is a major conflict in our culture at present — the conflict between private property and “the commons.” For example, owners of beachfront property are in conflict with those who maintain that beaches are a natural resource that belong to all of us. For years and years, defenders of the commons have been losing. This means that a few people are much richer. But the rest of us are poorer.

Why is this on my mind at present? Partly because I wanted to use an excerpt from a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay after the title page of Fugue in Ursa Major. I waited too long to check on the rights to Millay’s work, assuming that her work was now in the public domain. I was wrong. A foundation owns the rights to Millay’s work. To avoid any pesky legal risk, I had to apply to the foundation for permission, and I had to include a special credit line on my book’s ISBN page. This held up the publication of Fugue in Ursa Major. If I’m doing the math right, I believe we have to wait seven more years for Millay’s work to enter the public domain.

However, the publication of Fugue in Ursa Major is getting close, and I will be able to keep to the July 14 release date. The revisions are done, the type is set. Everything is in the pipeline. I’ll have much more to say about Fugue in Ursa Major as July 14 approaches.

P.S. If you haven’t seen the 2006 film “Miss Potter,” about the life of Beatrix Potter, I encourage you to put it on your must-see list.

Squash: make it a sin


Squash is coming out my ears. I couldn’t bear another bit of it without turning it into something sinful. Solution: pizza.

The sauce is a pesto sauce made from garden basil. The squash is masquerading as pepperoni. It didn’t fool me. There is — no joke — half a cup of garlic in the pesto sauce. At the abbey, garlic is a vegetable, not a seasoning. The crust is homemade, though I have to admit that I have never learnt the knack of making a truly sophisticated pizza crust. I need to study up on that.