Saturday, May 14, 2005

Things I think about while blowing my nose

Having escaped having a cold during the cold weather, I have acquired one now. So I have been sitting out in the hot spring weather in my yard, by the sundial, off and on during the day blowing my nose and listening to the mockingbird in the pecan tree. Mockingbirds are said to mimic other birds' songs, but that is true only in the sense that glossolalia mimics actual speech. Mockingbirds are like a person having a manic episode, unable to finish a sentence before rushing into another one.

I made the sundial myself. I have always been fascinated by these instruments, and I learned enough of the lost art of hand engraving to actually make them for sale at one time in my life, though the better I got at it the more I became discouraged in my awareness of how good the old dialmakers were at their craft with their engraving tools. I stopped doing that about the time I stopped being a hippie. I only have one engraved dial left, one of my earlier ones. It tells what is called local apparent time, which seems to me to be a more natural way of dividing up the day--assuming you are going to divide the day up at all. Maybe there is nothing particularly natural about our time-telling project at all.

I have engraved the equation of time on the dial, which is a correction for tilt of the poles and ellipticalness of the earth's orbit. Using it, and making a longitude correction (for the difference between Austin and the center of our time zone), and for daylight savings time, all of which you can do in your head, you can come up with the time, as we usually speak of it, accurate to within a couple of minutes. Picture below, but not much detail at blog-resolution.

I prefer to simply be aware of local sun time, which the dial tells directly.

It will also tell you the biblical hours, if you want to know what time of day it was when someone talks about the third hour or the sixth hour in the Bible. And it tells you the time of year, accurate to within a few days, assuming you know the zodiac months.

I started making sundials in El Paso, maybe because it was so sunny.

Spring in El Paso, though, was very different from Austin, or any other place I have ever been. So maybe I will tell you about spring in El Paso.
In some ways it was like winter in other places in that bad weather forced you to stay indoors for days altogether. The hostile element was the wind that came down off the mountains at 40 or 50 miles per hour steady, and then rose to blasty crescendos like someone firing a shotgun against the side of your house. It jiggled the Spanish tiles on the roofs, and a spring headwind once blew my old Volkswagon to a dead halt as I was driving up Trans-mountain Pass. You could oftentimes actually see wind in the desert in the spring. It was not a solid flowing sheet uniformly bending all the yuccas like the tide bending seaweed, but instead traveled in bursts like riptides in the air 50 or 100 yards wide, full of dust. You could see one coming toward you, skipping sand off the ground, and when it hit the gust would last a couple of minutes, and when the wind slowed a little you could make out another wind packet coming if your eyes were not full of grit.

In the early spring we would have the first premonitory winds, usually coming up in the afternoons, promising excitement, bull-voiced, looting the alleys, sucking throaty through the mountain passes; billowing out great fanshoals of yellow dust in the dry unpaved city of Juarez visible from my distance of 4 or 5 miles, blowing up a whole winter's worth of settled powder; later on in the spring the wind would blow the dust away, blow harder and move heavier particles. The air stung your face.

Some of El Paso's old graveyard tombstones had been sandblasted nearly clean by a century of wind. John Wesley Hardin was becoming more anonymous the longer he was dead--although now the old sandstone slab has been replaced by a marker for tourists put up by the State of Texas.

Other experiences of El Paso wind, closer up. Your lungs would decompress a little as you stepped into the slight vacuum behind windbreak buildings and walls, and your ears felt funny. You had the impression of a huge undertow of enormous, almost audible, low frequency decibels underlying everything, like a big cathedral organ if you were deaf and turned off your hearing aid.

In El Paso, downtown, only the pigeons would function normally, massed in the square; in the sudden breathless moments between gusts you heard their regular, guttering, jerky, hysteric mumbling. Flocks on the ground would applaud themselves thunderously into the air with an explosion of clapping wingbeats, and overhead in squads they would dazzle in the sunshine like confetti in a whirlwind, enjoying unseen tornados and wind tunnels.

I once climbed up Mt. Franklin in such a spring wind, and when I reached the top I was nearly blind, and the wind, already strong and cold, burst over me like a shower of freezing light, and I could not distinguish light from wind from cold, and I was nearly blown off the ridge of the mountain.

Thoreau advises not taking binoculars to a mountain top, on the grounds that if you want to see small things, stay below. Well, I saw nothing, large or small, for a few seconds or minutes, I don't know how long. Everything was pure perception, pure reception. But then I wished for the binoculars, wanting to see the tree-protected house where I lived, five miles away. On the way down the mountain, when my eyes cleared, I could see the snowy peak of Sierra Blanca 110 miles away in New Mexico.

When a gale of wind would come up, it would strand all the migrating warblers, all the trees in town were full of them. One day I saw a warbler let go of its heaving, windy bush and get blown downwind like an agitated leaf. You have to admire them, migrating across those huge winds, up the long glimmering loops of the Rio Grande flyway, up to their Rocky Mountain summer forests, tiny eyes alight with a purpose carried in their cells, moving inexorably against the gong pulse of wind through the great stone continent.

Maybe I got rhetorically carried away there.

Warblers here in our central flyway are not as heroic.

My backyard sundial

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