It is not a topic of particular interest to me. If I’m stuck in a hotel room, I’ll watch reruns of NCIS or one of the other crime shows that—as they will nowadays—tend to dwell on ample scenes inside the forensics lab with corpse (in whatever stage of decomposition) lying face up on the table. But death has always fascinated the living, and, coupled with transgression, I suppose it supplies a winning formula for television.
The book is a memoir of Bill Bass, a true life practitioner in the field, with a focus on work-related vignettes. What I suppose the “Body Farm” to be is a laboratory for investigating the rates of decomposition of human (and possibly animal) bodies. I have not read far enough to confirm that, but his story “The Unsavory Uncle” suggests as much: “We do not know of any method by which you could tell the length of time since the cow has been killed,” he wrote to an investigator who needed to know, “I can tell you the age of the cow at death; however, I cannot tell you how long it has been since the cow was killed.”
The book is well written. I was thinking about what Ford Madox Ford wrote in the letter quoted in my last post: “I have always been mad about...the way writing should be done.” This does not describe me; but I have always enjoyed coming upon a well-turned sentence or paragraph. I did so in Bass's story:
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that bones in a creek will tend to wash downstream. The tricky part is figuring out how far downstream. Generally the smaller, lighter bones get carried farther than the skull or long bones. Complicating the picture slightly is the fact that the father downstream a bone gets carried, the farther to either side it can drift as well. If you plot it on a diagram, the scatter pattern tends to look like a skinny teardrop, with the sharp end farthest upstream. The larger the stream and the faster the current, the bigger that teardrop area gets.
I went about fifteen yards downstream from the point where the skull and most of the bones had been found, so I could work my way upstream against the current. By starting beyond the boundary of the expected scatter, I’d be less likely to step on a bone and break it or mash it deeper into the mud. Working upstream also meant that the mud I stirred up as I walked and felt around in the streambed would get washed away from the direction I was heading, rather than into it. It’s simple once you think about it, but you’d be surprised how often untrained searchers wade around at random, muddying up the water in more ways than one.
I’ve written—slightly—about my high school journalism class. This was in lieu of sophomore year English. We studied Julius Caesar and A Tale of Two Cities, which I believe formed some kind of a state requirement, but otherwise no literature; which explains how, in high school, I managed not to get any English literature at all (save these two exceptions), but only—mostly—American. (Freshman year we did read a translation of The Odyssey, and although I have exceedingly bad memories of that class, in her own way and inadvertently my teacher provided a pivotal inspiration in the course my literary life would run.)
Journalism class was useful, in that you learned a lot of standards about how things were supposed to be done that are generally not adhered to anymore (“Put the most important information first, etc.”). But it was not a favorite class of mine or pleasant (to me) in the least. When I say I can imagine having been in the class with Daniel Pearl, I can easily see him as being our teacher’s star pupil, whereas I was considerably “out of the loop” when it came to study, preoccupied by the tailspin into my own teenaged emotional angst. We would not have been pals—unless he was exceptionally generous and gregarious, which, by all accounts, he was, or at least did become later in life.
Our teacher was preoccupied with a lot of technical detail—like style, weights, widths of fonts—all things which have become common knowledge in this PC age but which were considered arcane and specialized back then.
There was one mechanical exercise related to writing which stands out in my memory. I failed miserably, but did learn from it.
Each student was (in secret) given the name of an object in the room, and told to write a description of it—a visual description, excluding reference to function—well enough so that other students would be able to identify the object based solely upon the writing. I was given “the stapler,” and mind you, was forbidden to say “it is used to fasten together multiple pieces of paper,” so came up with a rather lengthy description of something that was “metallic, and rounded on the top” and so forth. I don’t really remember what I wrote; but it was long-winded and impossible for anyone to figure out. As it turned out—and I recognized this at the time—the quality of the description and whether it could be guessed or not more generally relied on the object which had been assigned, less on the writer’s individual skill, so the person who had been assigned “the wastebasket” had an easier job of it than someone who had something less rudimentary. But nevertheless, I understood the purpose of the exercise. (As I recall—though this may be fanciful too— Michelle Slatalla was the unlucky recipient of my description and was not shy about expressing her befuddlement.)
Still, it instilled in me an appreciation for well-appointed phrasing, as in the above description of hunting for teeth in a stream. When I write, I aim more for precision in the telling than for, say, beauty, though I understand such an objective has become popular these days. It is why one of my critics will tell me, “I’ll try to remember you don’t give a f*ck” when I explain that “I work with the material at hand, shape it as best as I can, then move on and never look back.” I look for the word to do the job—adequately is good enough for me—and I don’t think twice about it. Of course, we were discussing poetry and not “rocket science,” and my defense remains, “Alas, alas, who’s injured by my [method]?”
For me, the point is, that bad writing, at least in the field of poetics, is not a crime—a friend of mine remarked about my poem about a shipwreck, that it was "[a]lmost as dreadful as the disaster itself"—but that it is something which can be studied, plausibly even along with the good. Poets are fond of telling each other, "Time will tell," and (as Yeats famously reports of himself having said) "None of us can say who will succeed, or even who has or has not talent. The only thing certain about us is that we are too many."
Wouldn't it be interesting if we had something of a "Body Farm" for literary works, where we could study the effects of time upon them? (Obviously, none of us will live so long as to really get a handle on things—even as Yeats declared.)
My friend felt I was striving to rival "The Tay Bridge Disaster" by William McGonagall. In the literary "tit for tat" that you would imagine to ensue between friends after such a criticism, I naturally opined that the McGonagall poem should be studied for what it did right. Generations have come and gone raising it to mockery, and yet the poem stands, and the subject of the verse is remembered for it (as well as manifold treatments touching the subject).