A place of dangerous wonder. Or, the alembic of me.

Have you ever or do you now own this album?

Every once in a while, I get a bee in my bonnet about this quote from Emerson's Nature: "Thus is Art, a nature passed through the alembic of man," but I can never remember the word "alembic." I think and I think. "Limbic?" I wonder. "Lambic?" And knowing that it means somethin about straining or distilling I go on a search for synonyms of these words or I try to comb my way through Emerson until finally I find it. (An alembic is a kind of still used in the Middle Ages.)

I think I first encountered the quote in an undergraduate classical rhetoric class, but why my professor brought it up I'm not sure. Perhaps the point was the rhetoric was part of the distilling process? I'm not sure that's what Emerson was getting at, but I'll go with it.

The quote occurs to me when I am trying to figure out why artmaking matters. This can be a position of despair. Human ugliness overwhelms me and I wonder what possible good art can do in the face of it. More often though, this springs from a place of dangerous wonder that edges toward annihilation. A feeling I think must have been at least somewhat familiar to Emerson. Struck by something beautiful in the natural world, I think "What could humans possible do that would be better than this. Why don't we just stop all our busyness and let the world be?" But we are here and we are busy, and we persist with this distilling of Nature into Art.

That "alembic" has an alchemical association by dint of its medieval origins makes this concept even more appealing to me. So art isn't just nature distilled - made more concentrated - through human perception, thought, experience, creativity, what have you. It is nature transmuted into something else. Sometimes I even believe this.

A glance in the OED also tells me that Nabokov used the word figuratively in Lolita: "Fate..mixed within its alembic the car and the dog and the sun and the shade." (See it for yourself, in context, here.)

And then, I start thinking about how pleasant this "mb" in the middle of the word is, and I go looking for other words with mb in the middle. Words like "adumbrate" and "akimbo" and "circumambulate" and "flamboyantly flambeed" and I find that I can peruse and entire list of them here: http://www.morewords.com/contains/mb/

I fucking love the internet.

Reading: Continuing with the Dillard. Also reading Gatsby, in preparation for seeing the movie. 

Writing: Yes! The goal for the weekend was to finish the North Beach scene, and I did it. I hope when I go back to it I think it's OK. Next, I need to spend some time with macro level stuff so I can figure out what to break off and work with on the micro level. But first, I have promised myself a writing session devoted to food writing as a reward.

Dinner: This weekend there was a potluck, to which I took lemony green bean salad, and a cookout with friends, to which we took mango-banana-orange-raisin-marshmallow salad (made by David). Tonight I made a white pizza with smoked sausage, broccoli, capers, and fresh roma tomato and a mixed lettuce salad with fresh avocade-lemon-cumin dressing, and a yummy California malbec.

Soundtrack: 80s compilation CD made in 1993. It includes "The Jam was Moving" (Listen) by Debbie Harry from her KooKoo album. This sort of surprised me because I live with the weird fantasy than I am the only person who ever owned this album. 

Random thing: I wrote in my last post about the robin's nest by my driveway and how I could hear the chicks "cheeping." Allow me to clarify. Robin chicks don't really "cheep." The make a strange high-pitched shimmer of sound as their mother approaches.

Also, I've seen several red tailed hawks soaring above my neighborhood and nearby Forest Hills Park, but Sunday morning, I spotted what I think was a red *shouldered* hawk, identifiable by the appearance of white bar-like marking on the underside of its wings.

more images on the photographer, Bill Hubick's site..


  1. Thanks to the fantastic website you posted, I can end a nearly 20 year search for the three words in the English language that end with the letters -gry--a challenge posted by a past boyfriend, who unfortunately didn't know the third word. We were able to quickly identify hungry and angry, but were unfamiliar with puggry--a light scarf wound around a hat or helmet to protect the head from the sun.


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