Thursday, September 28, 2017


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Last week saw the beginning of a brief account of the history of the Columbia River. This week the story brings us to 1804 and the arrival of Merriweather Lewis (with his dog, Seaman) and William Clark at the river.

Watershed, Columbia River
(By Kmusser - self-made,

Early travelers may have populated the river 20,000 years ago. The Clovis culture, dated about 13,500 years ago, is more certain. The native Americans the Corps of Discovery found along the Columbia were linked to these early groups. By the 1700s, this heavily populated area was already in decline. Smallpox, brought by traders to the mouth of the river, had spread quickly and taken a heavy toll on the tribes.

The expedition to the Pacific Northwest led by Lewis and Clark, came down the Snake River and entered the Columbia at the confluence just opposite of where Pasco, Washington now sprawls. They camped on a point of land that has become Sacajawea State Park. 32 miles downstream from this spot is the imposing edifice of McNary Dam.

To the north, the river extended into Canada several hundred miles, then made a 180° turn to the south running 200 odd miles to its origin in a lake nestled between the Rocky Mountains and the Selkirks. The river drains 260,000 square miles, is about 1250 miles long, and its average measured flow is over 240,000 cubic feet per second.

Wallula Gap

16 miles south of Pasco is Wallula Gap. Created by the many Bretz floods (1000 feet high walls of water moving at 65 miles an hour), the Gap will be the eastern terminal of our narrative as we voyage downstream with the Corps.

From the journal of William Clark [these journals are best read in their original format even though the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation are all problematic. The annotation is added.] :

"... the river passes into the range of high Country at which place the rocks project into the river from the high clifts which is on the Lard. [larboard or left] Side about 2/3 of the way across and those of the Stard. [starboard or right] Side about the Same distance, the Countrey rises here about 200 feet above The water and is bordered with black rugid rocks ..."
William Clark, October 18, 1805

According to Robert Hitchman1 Wallula is a Nez Perce name and apparently just a different rendering of Walla Walla, meaning "place of many waters." The river behind McNary Dam is over 300 feet deep, and a good deal of imagination is needed to recreate the early river.

In ascending the river fifteen miles from this place, the land on either side rises to some fifteen hundred feet above the level of the river which occupies the entire bottom from rocks to rocks on either side; when the land suddenly drops from this high plain which extends from the Blue Mountains on the east to the Cascade range on the west, forming, as it were, a great inland dam across the Columbia River, fifteen hundred feet high at the place where the river has broken through the dam. As you pass out of this gap, in looking to the north and east, the eye rests upon another vast, high, rolling plain, in the southeastern part of which lies the beautiful valley of the Wallawalla ...2

Next week: the Musselshell Rapids

Please leave a question or comment. Click on the Comments prompt below. Use an email or Comment as Anonymous, Preview if you wish, then Publish. Thank you.

1Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington, (Washington State Historical Society, 1985)

2William Henry Gray, A History of Oregon. 1792 - 1849 (1870)

Monday, September 25, 2017

H. W. TILMAN Part 2

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With the last edition of the weblog, I began a series of observations on writers and how character, or the lack of same, stamps its mark on their work. This edition is Part Two on the explorer H. W. Tilman.


From The Ascent of Nanda Devi1:

I have always admired those people who before ever reaching a mountain, perhaps even before seeing it, will draw up a sort of itinerary of the journey from base camp to summit---a complicated affair of dates, camps, loads, and men, showing at any given moment precisely where A is expected to be, what B will be doing, what C has had for breakfast, and what D has got in his load. It always reminds me of the battle plans an omniscient staff used to arrange for us in France, where the artillery barrage and the infantry went forward, hand in hand as it were, regardless of the fact that while there was nothing whatever to impede the progress of the barrage, there were several unknown quantities, such as mud, wire, and Germans, to hamper the movements of the infantry.

Tilman with his baked loaf

What does one make of the man from this snippet of his writing? The first step, perhaps, should be to consider style, generally, and its several characteristics. Then one might apply what was learned to assess both the writer and his writing.

Begin with a definition (so we have some idea what we are talking about): Style consists of the way a writer uses grammar, syntax, and vocabulary to embellish or compress his work to fit a specific context, purpose, or audience.

Grammatically, the selection above is both formal and precise. Parallel structures---four elements of the 'complicated affair' followed by four specific examples---suggest Tilman's preference for an orderly syntax. This structure is also the means by which he embellishes the piece. His audience, he expects, is one that is well educated. Words such as 'omniscient' with an etymological root from Latin pepper his work.

What offers the clearest insight into his character is his use of humor, typically British, dry as dust. He ends the selection with a flippant description of the horrors of the trenches of the first world war as merely so many 'unknown quantities.'

Where does this leave us? Tilman was a man both orderly and precise, well educated with enough experience of the world to give substance to his ideas. He was a laconic man, often described inaccurately, I think, as shy. He had no more use for slang and 'sloppy syntax' than he did for the hypocrites and slackards of the world.

Finally, another man's opinion. The following abridged quote is from David Warren's weblog 'Essays in Idleness' (

[He] communicates a masculine nobility almost gone from this world---a form of incorruptible flippancy which we correctly associate with those knights of old, who dared without hesitation, and laughed at everyone, especially themselves.

1Tilman H W., The Seven Mountain Travel Books (Diadem, London, 1983), 222.

Thursday, September 21, 2017


Dawg Sez 18

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Stella the Waterdog returns. She has some thoughts on her home in Cascadia, a more romantic name, she thinks, than Pacific Northwest. The Columbia River defines the region, and the delta that forms the confluence of the Sandy River and the Columbia is one of her favorite places to play.

Stella came to Oregon just a year and half ago. She learned of the big Newfoundland named Seaman who explored with Lewis and Clark on their expedition from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Needless to say, she quickly became enamored with Seaman.


At her suggestion, what follows is a brief history of the Columbia River.


Volcanos created the Columbia River. A geologist would quibble. Technically, the lava flowed from linear fissures, or vents, and reached as far the northern Willamette Valley, breaching the Coast Range and pouring on to the continental shelf. Flood lava kept flowing and filling the river's ancient channels; but the river kept finding an easier path, moving steadily to the north. So, rather than debouching into Yaquina Bay at Newport, the mighty River of the West ends its long journey at Astoria.

We struggle with numbers we cannot imagine. 100,000 people fill a football stadium, and gives us a notion of this number. A million years leaves a blank. Geology seems rife with such numbers. 4 billion years ago the planet came to be. 62 million years ago came the extinction of the dinosaurs. Several million years ago, Oregon began to look, geographically, as it does now. One exception to this view, of course, is the Columbia River Gorge and the river that runs through that gorge.

20,000 years ago, the Columbia had carved a deep V-shaped channel through the basalt flows. Its banks rose gradually up through the high plateaus to glacier covered peaks. No evidence of a native people exists for this period; but some anthropologists and other scientists think a date of 20,000 years before the present is not impossible. The climate was 6 - 8 degrees colder for the last ice age still held most of North America in its grip.

A gradual warming of the planet that ended that age began to erode an ice dam in Montana. That dam held back a body of water nearly the size of Lake Erie. The collapse of the dam and the sudden release of such a large body of water created the greatest flood the planet has ever known. Not just a singular event, massive flooding of this type happened many times over several thousand years. Named the Bretz Floods for Harlan Bretz, the geologist who first proposed the idea of such floods, these great flows created the Columbia River as we know it today. The V-shaped river valley was scooped and dredged by a rush of water 800 feet deep, and the U-shaped gorge we see today resulted.

USGS photo / Westby, Liz (2014-4-26)
Flood basalt lava flow in stacked layers viewed eastward across the Columbia River

Monday, September 18, 2017

H. W. Tilman

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With this edition of the weblog, I begin a series of observations on writers and how character, or the lack of same, stamps its mark on their work.

H. W. Tilman
(Born February 14, 1898, Wallasey, England; died 1977, at sea, Atlantic Ocean)

The way one lives colors every aspect of one's behavior. Irresponsibility breeds the accident prone man. Attention to detail fosters the dauntless woman. The athlete's dictum is that one plays as one practices. There is just no escaping the fate that comes when one's character lacks backbone.

Bill Tilman lived a full life through eight decades. He fought in both the first and the second world wars. A Himalayan explorer of the first rank during the 1930s, he summited Nanda Devi (25, 363') in 1936. At that time, the ascent was the highest ever accomplished. By the 1950s, Tilman decided he was too old for the Himalayas, so took to ocean sailing and climbing lower peaks in remote places. All his adult life he wrote.

In his biography of Tilman, author David Glen wrote:

He was a man whose basic shyness and reticence to boast of his astonishing achievements belied a great sense of honor in the way he conducted his life.1

And whether in the mountains or at sea, Tilman was always more than willing to do the hard work. First off in the morning on the trail; first to volunteer for the night watch at sea, he was a man who tolerated no slackness. Ready with praise for those who had done well; upbraiding to those who had succumbed to laziness.

He had this to say about writing:

Apropos of writing books, Dr Johnson's [Samuel Johnson, 1709 - 1784] opinion was that "any blockhead can write if he sets himself doggedly to it." I should like to alter that and say, "any blockhead can write a book if he has something to write about" ...

Tilman had a life well lived; and his books and the style of his writing are obvious reflections of that life. He noted the commonality of sailing and climbing; and his comments on the two apply equally well to writing:

Each is intimately concerned with elemental things, which from time to time demand from men who practice those arts whatever self-reliance, prudence, and endurance they may have.

Next time: The words we write are the life we live: The words of H. W. Tilman

1 David Glen, Warrior, Wanderer (Visual XS, LLC, 2003)

Thursday, September 14, 2017


Dawg Sez 17

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The Z Dawg is on vacation, off to Curaҫao. Stella the Waterdog returns. She has some thoughts on shallow water.

James Fenimore Cooper, 19th century writer (The Last Of The Mohicans), had this to say about that simple little word creek:

'Creek,' a word that signifies an inlet of the sea, or of a lake, is misapplied to running streams, and frequently to the outlet of lakes.

The 1934 Webster (last of the handbound dictionaries and a proper size for a dog my size) has 'creek' as a narrow inlet in the shore of a bay or cove winding through a low coast.

A fellow named Worcester, a competitor of Webster and the flag bearer for the English those erudite fellows at Harvard spoke, had a 'creek' simply as a small inlet. He was the first to note that "... in the Middle, Southern, and Western States, the word might well mean a 'small river" or a "rivulet."

Here in the Pacific Northwest no one would call the Columbia River a creek. In my backyard, a small stream of running water is named Boulder Creek. It runs into the Salmon River to the Sandy to the Columbia. This a common usage in this part of the world.

Now some folk use 'crick' instead of 'creek.' This is especially so in the Midwest and south. Them boys at Harvard would scoff at such usage. But it was good enough for Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), and William Faulkner (Flags In The Dust.) Good enough for me.

                Stella in the crick with her buddy Edgar

Monday, September 11, 2017


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tongue and cheek by jowl through the little gray cells

If quantum physics must supplant Newtonian physics, what are the implications for biology (and all the other sciences, for that matter, not to mention philosophy, ethics, and whatever else you care to name ... linguistics, anyone?)? At some point physics and biology must agree. (Or not. For those who know, things are just as they are; for those who don’t know, things are … just as they are.) If atoms come together to form molecules that come together to form both diamonds and dogs, the same process (processes, if you wish) must act on both. If matter is energy and energy matter, if nothing has substance, then substance is nothing, neither dogs nor diamonds. All and everything is naught but potentialities, possibilities.

Metaphors, analogies, analogs take on more important roles in this unified notion of science. Dawkin's notion from The Selfish Gene that humans are "gene machines" must yield in the new order of things. Mechanistic metaphors add a simplicity that is misleading to the proceedings and fatally misstates the nature of organic things (inorganic things as well no doubt). Newtonian physics does the same.

If the static view of the process of atoms and universes is adopted, this stasis underlines the dramatic quality of both planets and peanuts. They become tangible items, objective, 'real'. Understood as a dynamic process, however, these peanuts and planets (and all that other 'real' stuff) become something if not intangible at least less substantial, merely an energy blip, say; and a 'solid' then becomes more like electricity or water (or like the spinning rotor of a helicopter, 'acting' rather solid, but not solid at all).

A solid that is a solid, but that is not a solid, sounds a bit like one hand clapping. Allow me to turn to linguistics now to deal with this business of words and the meaning of words and so reach some conclusion about reality.

Language, like particle physics, is not a static business. Language is nothing, in my view, if not a dynamic process. A story told of T.E. Lawrence is that he spelled the names of his Arab characters in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom using a variety of letter groupings. When an editor called Lawrence to acquaint him with his various misspellings, Lawrence replied, Perfect. The names, in T. E.'s view, were not static entities, but changed in accordance with situational demands: emotion, location, inclination, and a host of others. English speakers do much the same thing. Tommy becomes Thomas becomes T-dog.

Most studies of language generally use various categories to create a more manageable subject. The four most common are phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. More, no doubt, have been added. We are pattern seeking folk and where a group of two might do, a group of four will do even better, and a group of eight better yet and a group of ... hair splitting ad nauseam. Be that as it may, the basic group stands. Phonology is the study of the sounds of the language (and the human physiology necessary to make those sounds). Morphology studies the grouping of those sounds into intelligible groupings of sounds (not, technically, 'words', though 'words' certainly gives the flavor of what morphology is about). Syntax is the organization or structure of words, the rules concerning how they can be grouped. Semantics is the study of the meaning of words.

Wittgenstein's theory from the 1930's that meaning is derived from use seems to be holding its own. Given that, the meaning of words (and phrases and sentences and paragraphs and entire well crafted essays) remains a slippery slope. 'Solid', as we have already seen, can be used a number of ways. Clearly, Mr. Johnson's rock was a solid. Mr. Einstein's rock was not.

The question that arises is, so what? Does it matter? Can we ignore 'solid' and take a shortcut through the bank walls picking up some spending money on the way? No problem. Well, some problem. Physically, nothing changes. Hit the wall, raise a bruise. Intellectually, everything changes. To give but one example: To understand that nothing has substance is to understand the subjective nature of all prejudice, whatever the -ism. No basis for differentiation exists. Value systems, ethics, morals will have to be reexamined. (A counter argument is, of course, that anyone who can understand the argument made here will understand the folly of prejudice. To add one more loop, reason explicates the argument; emotion feeds the bias: A logician might still be a racist.)

So, what?

Any attempt to write a cogent Unified Theory combining all the sciences---primarily particle physics and biology---might require a team comprised of a competent batch of evolutionary biologists, a competent batch of nuclear physicists, a few generalists from other scientific endeavors, a mathematician or two, a linguist (only one would be best for no two can agree), and a tolerant metaphysician. If Merlin became available, he would be perfect for the job. The various roles of the scientists and the mathematicians seem self-evident; the job of the linguist is less obvious. He or she would be needed to clarify possible meanings of words and to help construct an appropriate metaphor. The metaphor would be, from where I sit, the critical piece. (Spare me, please, the computer.

Any semblance of a resemblance between organisms and binary systems is naught but smoke and mirrors. Ask this question: Is language a binary system? Might it be? One hundred muscles and a dozen or more physical components [lips, teeth, tongue tip, tongue body, tongue base, epiglottis, larynx, to name just the most obvious] produce the sounds of the language. All of these 'parts' have to work together nearly simultaneously in order to do their work. All of these 'parts' seem to be networked with groups of neurons in the brain that initiate the process. To say, 'Yikes! There's a worm in my apple' begins with perception [we see the worm in the apple, neurons fire, a message is sent to the amygdale and, if we had first taken a bite, we might spit before we apprehend the message about the worm)]. Perception leads to messages to various neuron groups; a word is formed, or words, and we say: Yikes! There's a worm in my apple. And this explanation is probably simplistic. At least three rather complex networks work to produce the words. A binary system? Doesn't seem so to me.)

Before one generates a theory of what language is and how it works, perhaps a theory of what perception is should be offered. Language seems to begin with simple pattern recognition: Perceive a pattern (Yikes! There's a worm in my apple.). After perception, comes language; and the rules for symbolic representation of perceptions (commonly, for English, using some expandable notation such as NP + VP + Obj or Subject-Verb-Object) can be applied to explicate what is said. Most linguistic studies work at expanding the model to be all-inclusive. The object might be defined as a NP with a prepositional phrase embedded that contains a NP and on and on. This is usually known as a recursive system (loops looping within loops) and allows for an infinite number of unique expressions.

If one begins begin with the notion that the human animal is a pattern-seeking creature (before language or ideation, there is organization and differentiation), and that this pattern-seeking must precede language, then some form of symbolic representation is needed to explicate the pattern-seeking. The proposal here takes the form of an either-or-proposition. The statement proposed seems applicable to everything organic from amoebae to aardvarks (not just the human animal; and, as we‘ll see, to the inorganic 'creatures' as well). The statement is:

either:     P = aHA

where P = seek pattern, and aHA = stop at harmonious array.

or:    P = pp » ppp » pppp .…. A

where P = seek pattern, and pp » ppp » pppp = continue seeking pattern, and A = analysis that leads to theory.

The second part of the statement indicates a comprehensive search for fundamental particles (some harmonious array), a search that continues infinitely, or ends when analysis yields to theory. This is science. Occasionally one might have an aHA moment when analysis and intuition merge to some conclusion, an ending fraught with potentiality.

a harmonious array

Thursday, September 7, 2017


Dawg Sez 16

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Zen Dawg dreams of medium size bone. Aummmmm ...

1974 Richard Stine (

'Course, size is relative ... well, everything's relative (except yer relatives), thanks a heap, Albert E. And to create distinctive comparisons, we all use figures of speech. Meaner than a junk yard dog, for example.

Circuitously, I arrive at similes and metaphors. (Stop me if you've heard this one.) A metaphor, as we all know, is a figure of speech with an implied comparison usually to something that cannot be literally true. Wallowing in self-pity.

Similes, on the other paw, are comparisons with a clue. They use 'like' or 'as' to signal the reader that what follows is not really true, but are used to suggest with a bit of emphasis. Similes are used to make a phrase more vivid or to add color without straining the reader's credulity. Sly as a fox is one.

Problems arise with metaphors when they become mixed. Some rather famous folk have come to grief with this one. Shakespeare, in Hamlet's off quoted soliloquy, uses this: " ... or take arms against a sea of troubles". One does not, of course, arm oneself against the onslaught of the sea. Works for Mr S, however. But unless you be him, best to keep yer metaphors consistent.

Or stick to similes. You'll be happy as a pig on ice.

Recommended website: the original Zen Dog

Monday, September 4, 2017


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SEMIOTICS, or what if the hokey-pokey was really what it's all about ...

Walker Percy was a brilliant fellow. He spent a lifetime trying to solve "...the dislocation of man in the modern age." Language was both his bete noir and his abettor. Both a scientist (earned a medical degree from Columbia in 1941) and a philosopher (steeped in existentialism), his notions are often larded with both science and metaphysics.

He embraced semiotics, which is simply the study of signs and symbols and their interpretation, and wrote several books on this subject. He recognized that the essential problem of language is the fact that we must use language to study language.

Since symbolization is the very condition of our knowing anything, trying to get hold of it is like trying to get hold of the means by which we get hold of everything else.1

Percy was known for his determined argument (see Message In A Bottle, 1975) to establish the unique position of both language and homo sapiens in the cosmic scheme of things. He relies heavily on cause and effect (dyadic) relationships for all things external to humans; and posits a triangular relationship (triadic) for our interaction with our environment. We become the sign-user (internal event) witnessing and labeling the cause and effect universe around us. This Percy called the Delta Factor (delta, or 'D' in Greek, is represented by a triangle, Δ).

Unfortunately, I believe he has begun with a false premise. Cause and effect has been in some disrepute for some time. Quantum physics has turned it on its ear. In the weblog 'Quantum Diaries', a useful discussion entitled 'Cause and Effect: A Cornerstone of Science or a Myth' provides the basic information on the subject.

The other issue is that all cause and effect relationships must be observed and so labeled. Who is it that does this business? The sign-user, is it not? We cannot separate ourselves from our environment. We are our environment.

My purpose here is to suggest, again, that language is in fact our bete noir, our bad boy, serving to alienate us from all other entities, be they organic or inorganic. Our dislocation is a function of this language. To 'find ourselves', shut down the concept factory in your head and listen to your heart beat. Start by not making judgments. If you walk outside in the morning and say, "Sure is cold this AM", then that is what it will be. Stop labeling (names call !!!), and your concepts will dry up. Or whistle while you work. The whistling (or singing) takes your mind off the drudgery (same as drying up the concepts).

Here's a tune to get you started. It's been around since the early 19th century. Let's all do the Hokey Pokey!

1 (from 'Naming and Being', Walter Percy. 1960.)