Saturday, March 28, 2009

Buzz Off

Else Olsen was upset for days after the car in front of her hit a squirrel. Before dying, the poor rodent thrashed around for longer than Else could see it in her rear view memory. For days afterward she couldn’t eat much of anything. For a frail woman over 60, that was downright dangerous.

This morning, though, she had a different problem. It presented itself in the form of a fly as she sat daintily in her Queen Anne recliner nibbling a chocolate bar. Her thin fingers, just faintly arthritic, held the candy precisely between the outstretched tips of her thumb and forefinger.

Her perfectly even teeth had just removed a semicircular morsel when the insect alighted and began probing the chocolate with its proboscis. Else’s meticulous cleaning habits usually kept pests out. The fly’s abrupt appearance startled her. She thrust her hand over her breast while her heart thumped against her ribs. Her last morsel was left half masticated on her tongue. It was with remarkable control that she avoided dropping the candy bar altogether.

Chocolate was one of the few pleasures this small woman ever allowed herself. Now it would have to be thrown out. The little beast would have to go. So with accustomed delicate precision, Else lowered the candy bar onto a spotless sham and lifted herself from the couch. Her paltry, femininely distributed pounds hardly moved the pillow case as she rose.

Her small slippered feet made no noise as she walked to the front door and opened it wide. Then returning to the couch she found the fly still feeding on a crumb. She waved at it but the insect flew away from her bejeweled hand, buzzed around the lamp shade and promptly landed back on the candy.

“Hmmph.” muttered Else in frustration, whereupon she took a step closer to her antagonist and waved her hand twice as fast and three times as long as she had before.

This time the fly made it straight for the ceiling and waited - well out of reach of the glowering women. “You won’t stay there very long,” said Else, unaware how foolish it was that she fully expected the fly to understand what she was saying.

Fortunately there was a newspaper on the stereo. She picked it up, rolled it into a weapon, and swung at the fly on tiptoes. To her surprise, the insect flew away. In fact it flew over to the front door and landed on the doorknob.

“What luck,” cried Else, “now you’re out the door.” But she was wrong. As soon as she got closer to scare the thing outside, it buzzed into the air and flew back to the candy on the couch. Else then noticed another fly on the front porch. It was looking straight in at her.

“My goodness,” she exclaimed. “I can’t let any more of you in here.” She then wiped the doorknob clean with her skirt and closed the door. Now she was really getting angry. This fly would have to pay for its effrontery with its life.

It had been a long time since Else had been so mad. She had forgotten how much fun it was. Now she was no longer playing a defensive game. She was hunting and so passed without a sound into the laundry room full of revenge. Decades of practice being quiet made tiptoeing easy. The swatter hung on the wall, exactly where she had left it the last time she had used it. At first she wondered if it might need disinfecting. “No matter,” she muttered to herself and then grinned. “It will certainly need cleaning today.”

Back on the couch, the fly buzzed and walked across the candy. Else returned just as one of the creature’s back legs caught a wing and slid over it as if it were a comb.

“How dare you?” she said trying to be intimidating, “cleaning your filthy body on my food.” Her voice was touched with a polite Southern drawl that didn’t faze the fly at all. It merely began wiping its other wing. This apparent apathy only made Else feel half helpless. Ever since her husband Harold died, nobody took her suggestions seriously. Now this noisome insect wouldn’t even flinch at her harshest threat. It was exasperating.

“You’ll regret this,” she warned, then lifted the plastic mesh to within striking range. Then, taking a deep breath, she thrust it at the fly with all the finesse of a manicurist drying her nails. The faceted eyes of the fly saw the attack long before it landed and flew away. The swatter only smashed chocolate all over the pillowcase.

“Ooh,” fumed Else, inspecting the damage. Then, momentarily conceding defeat, she sunk into the upholstery and picked at the candied orts, watching as her antagonist resumed its feast.

A moment passed and a small shadow, no longer than a dime, descended from inside the lampshade beside her. It moved so slow that Else didn’t notice it until it was nearly to the bottom. Then it jumped onto the table and began swinging its front legs back and forth, like a magician casting a spell.

“A spider,” she gasped, as the fly buzzed near her head. “Look how red it is.” Then, almost on cue, the woman and the insect moved closer for a better look. No sooner had the fly approached then the arachnid backed up with short jerky pantomimes. Before long, its eight hairy legs were dancing across the polished glaze of the table. The fly, half hypnotized, followed.

Else, overcoming angst, sat up straight with her hand over her mouth. Then the spider jumped forward and caught the fly. It happened so quickly that Else flinched and nearly fell to the floor.

Soon the buzzing of the fly became muffled and then stopped altogether. The spider, grasping its prey, inched its way backward up the base of the lamp and out of sight.

“My goodness,” managed Else, now carefully placing chocolate pieces onto the fly swatter. I’ve never seen anything like that before, serves the pesky critter right.”

Back at the kitchen, she began running hot water into the sink. Without looking she reached under the counter and retrieved the detergent. She wiped it with the washcloth and squeezed three practiced squirts into the running water then returned it to its proper place.

Just outside the window there was a shuffling of leaves. Else looked up, and into, the stare of a fox squirrel nibbling on an acorn. She was beginning to feel better already.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Richard Weaver and Hugh Nibley on Rhetoric

Richard Weaver was a Southern conservative writer during the middle of the 20th Century (and one of the original Southern Agrarians from Vanderbilt University). Most of what he wrote was motivated by a regard for and an appeal to tradition. He is mostly recognized for Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1948. Liberty Fund has also recently (2000) published many of his shorter writings (In Defense of Tradition) and his essays on the South (The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, 1987).

Weaver taught English at the University of Chicago for many years before his untimely death in 1963. He also taught rhetoric and wrote an important introductory text on the subject (The Ethics of Rhetoric, published in 1953). He is generally recognized as one of the five or six leading rhetorical theorists of the 20th Century (see T. Smith’s introduction to Weaver’s rhetorical essays,in In Defense of Tradition).

Rhetoric was not really a subject that Weaver saw differently from his other research interests. He was deeply concerned about the fracturing of traditional values and saw the demise of rhetoric, from a highly respected role in the humanities to a moribund remnant of prior prestige, as just another example of our current troubles. He followed Cicero in esteeming rhetoric as a significant force in a just society.

Hugh Nibley, by contrast, was a scholar of ancient history and religion at Brigham Young University where he taught throughout the last half of the 20th Century. He was a pathfinder in many areas of Mormon studies and ancient scripture. His influence as a Mormon apologist has been immense. Today a small army of scholars continue the work he began on many subjects. His primary study of rhetoric is the essay, Victoria Loquacitas: The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else (originally published in Western Speech in 1956) although rhetoric shows up in many of his other writings.

Given Nibley’s understanding of history and the number of comparisons he made between a wayward modernity and the ancient world, one might expect that he would largely agree with a defender of tradition like Weaver. No doubt there would have been many things that they agreed on. Weaver’s address at BYU in May, 1961 (entitled, Reflections of Modernity) certainly met with campus approval and was published later that year in Speeches of the Year. His argument about finding the nature of man in history instead of in science reflected many themes common in Nibley’s work.

But on the subject of rhetoric the two men had very different ideas. They never seemed to have crossed swords on the subject (Weaver may not have even been aware of Nibley’s work) but one certainly comes away from their writings aware of important differences.

Both men, following Quintilian, understood rhetoric to be the art of persuasion. But whereas Weaver saw it as a tool in defense of truth, Nibley saw it’s long historical abuse as one of truth’s greatest enemies. Weaver was certainly aware of the abuses and chose to make distinctions to clarify the difference. His recognition of propaganda as a corrupted rhetoric is an example of this.

Weaver’s interest in rhetoric is an awareness that much has been lost since it’s decline; or rather its transformation, in American life. His examples of rhetorical excellence include “Parson” Weems, Daniel Webster, Tom Paine. These were clearly persuasive and opinionated men, but for the most part, they also stood for virtuous principles.

Weaver sees Weems as part of a “fortunate class of persons whose way of looking at the world makes it impossible for them to be dull.” And, in fact, Weems’ exuberance (verging on hero worship for his subjects such as Washington, Franklin, and others) is sometimes hard to resist. But this flowery expression and hyperbole make him hard for an objective modern reader to believe - and so Weems has been banished from our classrooms. In fact almost nobody has even heard of him anymore.

An example of Weems’ rhetorical style is this comment about religious persecutions: “they were common in those dark and dismal days, when the clergy thought more of creeds than of Christ, and of learning Latin than of learning love.”

There is no doubt that this is writing with a clear motive. But it isn’t writing that pretends to be objective - at least not objective in the sense that one approaches opposing positions equally. Weems’ loyalties are baldly apparent from the start. He accepts that truth exists and uses his craft to defend it. He understands very well that human beings have passions and that they respond to emotional appeals. And Weems is writing for human beings.

But modern readers would be myopic if they ignored the potential for abuse in this sort of writing. A gifted rhetorician, it seems, could easily use his skill to promote many causes that are not worthy - causes that are false. In fact, these abuses have been apparent from the very beginning.

Nibley gives the example of Gorgias, a contemporary of Plato and participant in his dialogues. Gorgias began his career seeking truth and became convinced that it could never be found - at least not in its purity. So he decided on a path of rhetoric which was much more practical. It was also more profitable.

It isn’t difficult to find, even from this early period, individuals who sell their persuasive talents to the highest bidder or otherwise use them for causes other than truth. If Weaver and his sympathizers hold fast to a virtuous rhetorical high-ground, they certainly can’t deny that the history of rhetoric has as many, if not more, bad examples as good ones.

In order to avoid this, Cicero, like Weaver, insisted that rhetoricians be men of honesty and the best examples of virtue. It was their lot to make important, if not subtle, distinctions between apparently contradictory positions. Murder itself could at times be justified, but only by someone with enough understanding to make truthful distinctions.

Much depended on the rhetorician himself. But in the end, more depended on his audience. If the audience were uneducated or lacked understanding, the rhetorician could get by with being lazy. But there was worse, as Nibley quite persuasively shows. It was more common for the rhetorician to use his practiced skill for whatever profitable or desirable argument came his way. If his audience was not well informed, so much the better.

Today’s situation is obviously similar to this degraded form of the art. We seem to be at our rhetorical best when selling something - whether that be items for profit; or ourselves, for promotion. Manifest as blatant advertising we might see how tendentious it all is. But in our school books, newspapers, and much of popular culture, we usually fail to notice.

Another important argument against rhetoric is that it lacks the precision of a scientific algorithm. And in our technologically advanced society, precision is expected. Scientific manuscripts are regularly rejected for publication if an author extrapolates too far from the data. Accuracy is expected and is the measure of excellence. This is, of course, as it should be in the sciences. Many of us owe our lives to this attention to detail. Where we err is on assuming that because such tools serve science so well, they can do the same for our souls. Clearly this is a mistake that we are paying the price for now.

Weaver is convinced that there is an important relationship between the decline of culture and the decline of rhetoric. “Eloquence in disfavor,” he writes, “signifies a crisis of the human spirit.” Nibley, on the other hand, thinks that rhetoric itself is a critical cause of cultural decline. Although he basically ignores the high points of the art - the examples that Weaver wishes to recover. (Yet in fairness, Nibley was certainly not ignorant of or unaffected by classical literature - much of which is rife with rhetoric.)

It’s hard not to appreciate the position of both scholars and I have no intention of taking sides of one against the other. It’s true enough that when words lose their meaning that people lose their liberty. And rhetoric, for sure, has a long history of corrupting the meaning of words. But too much empiricism isn’t good for us either. There is a certain sterility of the spirit that comes from too much science. I, for one, am certainly in favor of a bit more eloquence on this, our overly objective orb. I personally think that Weaver and Nibley were both right - and in that order.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Egyptian Alfalfa Weevil

Right now in the Central Valley of California, alfalfa leaves are being skeletonized by little green worms. They are about a fourth of an inch long and are proportionately plump. Much of the feeding is done at night if it doesn’t get too cold, although they were out in numbers last week (here in Fresno) in the middle of the day when the sky was overcast.

These little worms are larvae of the Egyptian alfalfa weevil, Hypera brunneipennis, and they’ve been in California and Arizona since the spring of 1939. How they got here is anybody’s guess. Originally they’re from the Middle East. But they seem to like America a bit more - at least they‘re a lot more abundant over here.

Lawrence Wehrle was the first to discover them. He was working on a farm at the University of Arizona in early April when he saw feeding damage on the fenugreek (a clover-like legume). He soon discovered the small worms responsible but supposed they were alfalfa weevil (Hypera postica) larvae. Alfalfa weevils were known to cause damage further north (having first appeared in the US near Salt Lake City in 1904) and Wehrle feared that they might have made it all the way to Arizona.

Unfortunately he was wrong. The sample he sent to Washington DC was identified as the Egyptian alfalfa weevil - a related species. This was unfortunate because the Egyptian alfalfa weevil has done a lot more damage than the alfalfa weevil in many parts of the Western US. Seventy years later, we still have a hard time keeping it under control.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t options. Fairly early on, entomologists discovered that if the first alfalfa cutting were done a bit earlier than normal (just before flowering) that some of the weevils (adults and larvae) would die. The larvae didn’t have anything left to eat and they ended up getting cooked in the heat without places to hide. Even some of the vulnerable newly emerging adults died too.

Some creative farmers went a step further and pulled a brush or wire drag through their fields. This not only dislodged any remaining larvae but it also kicked up a lot of dust that killed even more (dust is one of the oldest and most effective ways to kill many kinds of insect pests). Other ways to kill the weevils included spraying with lead arsenate or zinc arsenate. These chemicals, of course, are not available options today but other insecticides often work well. Sometimes it isn’t necessary to treat at all if the infestation is light and if the first cutting can be made soon enough.

The reason for this is that the weevils only go through one generation a year. This is not generally the case with arthropod species that become key pests. Often they become pests because they can go through multiple generations a year and several pesticide applications become necessary. With the Egyptian alfalfa weevil, the damaging larvae only occur in the spring. If they can be controlled then (now) they no longer present a problem.

But there are a few things to watch out for. To start with, it’s not a good idea to let the cut alfalfa sit around for very long. Windrows can hold moisture underneath where the larvae can survive and cause problems to new growth. Many of the little worms will pupate and ensure a healthy pest population the next spring.

Another thing to watch out for are the beneficial insects. They will be building up in the field about the time of the first cutting. If a late insecticide application is made, you might wipe them out and have a big aphid problem later on.

This doesn’t mean that beneficial insects will help you much with your weevil problem. They won’t. There is a little wasp that lays eggs in alfalfa weevil larvae and is pretty good at keeping their numbers down but it has a hard time with Egyptian alfalfa weevil larvae. For some reason, the haemolymph (insect blood) is able to prevent the little parasitoid wasps from developing.

Right now is the time to go take a look at your field. Chances are, you’ll find something out there enjoying a free lunch. Of course, depending on where you live, you might find other things instead. Alfalfa weevils are also active now. So are clover leaf weevils, clover head weevils and the lesser clover weevil. They all look pretty much alike. In fact they like to eat pretty much the same things - clover-like legumes. Let’s face it. This is a weevily time of year. We and our legumes had better get used to the fact.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Heritage and Careers

Careers are important. They last decades. They’re the means we have of making a living. If we enjoy them, life can be very rewarding. Of course the opposite is also true. To a large degree, we are judged by how we make a living. It’s also true that we’re judged on how lucrative this living is. This is all quite obvious and so it often comes as a surprise to learn that careers have not always been so important as they are today.

It used to be that heritage was much more important than careers. Who you were was more important than what you did. Our names reflect this. Last names are known to genealogists as surnames. They represent - at least they used to - a multi-generational family.

The other day at church, someone asked me (being a relative newcomer to the congregation) if I were related to the Wellses from the area (of California). I am not. My paternal ancestors did come from England (like other Wells families in the US) but they migrated to Utah, where my father’s family primarily resides.

I only mention this incident because it only happened once. For the most part, people are much more interested in my career (I’m an entomologist) than in my last name. This is true even though the California Wellses are fairly well known and respected.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Societies that are based entirely on family influences, such as inheritance, can be onerous at times. It can happen that fortunes made by one generation are passed to subsequent generations that don’t deserve them at all. It can also happen that the memory of notorious individuals can plague a family for a long time.

America, on the other hand has always been somewhat different. It is a place were these problems virtually disappeared. If you were hardy enough, industrious enough and smart enough you could make it on your own. You didn’t need to rely on the virtues of your name to get ahead. You did it yourself. America was founded by this kind of people. They largely define our American culture. This is something that we are proud of - at least I am.

But somewhere along the line, we lost something important. We lost a sense of being grounded - a sense of who we are. It might seem at first glance that it was our adventuresome spirit that caused this. But this is not true. Striking out into the wilderness, taking ownership of and responsibility for the land and teaching our children the faith of our fathers was not a repudiation of heritage. It was an extension of it. But what happened next was not. We began to migrate to cities.

Once our pioneering spirit led us from the farm to the city, we started on a course that led inevitably to where we are today. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the pioneering spirit is to be blamed for this. I would be a hypocrite to do so. But I do mean to point out that by leaving our land and our faith, we are losing our heritage as well; and when we lose our heritage, we no longer have an accurate sense of who we are. In such a condition, only our careers seem to matter.

Many of us are good at our careers and take satisfaction in doing quality work in a profession that benefit’s the world. In spite of this, we wonder why we aren’t happy. Maybe we think that we just need more things and all will be well. Then we wonder, after we have acquired them, why happiness continues to elude us.

Another symptom of our disease is the epidemic of diffidence that plagues us. It might seem ironic that a society so overcome by pride, can also be so burdened with self doubt, but it is nonetheless true. It’s sad that so many good people live out their lives without a sense of self-worth. Or, just as troubling, live out their lives with a false sense of self worth.

I don’t presume to have discovered the way to make everybody happy. I don’t think such a possibility even exists in the world we currently live in. Tragedy is often our lot and joy is all too fleeting. Nonetheless, there are several universal truths regarding happiness that should be more fully appreciated. In particular I refer to the important relationship between happiness and sustainability. In a selfish world, this relationship is usually ignored. Selfish people want to be pleased immediately and are never completely satisfied. Such an attitude is hardly concerned with replenishment. Instead, it lives in a world dominated by acquisitiveness: of objects, of influence, of diversion, and even of love. Responsibilities to children may or may not be ignored, but responsibilities to parents, grandparents and unborn descendents almost always are.

I don’t mean to imply that selfishness is a disease solely of career-minded inhabitants of cities. Rural and religious people alike can be just as selfish. But it isn’t selfishness that I’m considering so much as happiness. In this light, cities and careerists do not have a very good record.

A truly unfortunate circumstance often occurs when highly motivated careerists seek to find fulfillment in religion. These individuals often frame their lives around an assumed personal destiny and live zealously to fulfill it. All too often this leads to disenchantment and despair when happiness does not materialize or if the destiny turns out to be no destiny at all.

I don’t mean to be flippant about this, and I certainly don’t wish to disparage destiny. My point is that lives that become separated from the human requirements of heritage and faith are handicapped when it comes to happiness. This can happen even with a solid grounding in traditional mores.

On the other hand, lives that focus on family - especially inter-generational families - are not handicapped in this way. The selfish draw of careerism looses its pull, and excellence is turned inwards to emerge as a quiet faith and a life of service. Of course we have to make a living. Hopefully we will be so fortunate as to find a satisfying career. Let’s just not make the mistake of forgetting who we are.