Weather Station “Kurt”, officially
WFL-26 (Wetter-Funkgerät Land-26) was an automated weather station installed in Northern Laborador on October 22,
1943, by a team from the German submarine U-537. It was the only German armed military operation on mainland
North American during World War II.
Northern tip of Labrador. Location of WFL-26
At the outset of World War II, Germany could no longer receive important weather information from the Arctic from
international weather services, and so began a program of installing manned and automatic stations across the
region. These were important for planning air missions over the Soviet Union and northern Europe.
U-537 anchored in Martin Bay, Hutton Peninsula, Northern Labrador
In order to disguise the purpose of the station should it ever have been come across, the crew scattered packs of
American cigarettes and labeled the equipment for the (non-existent) “Canadian Weather Service.” They apparently
needn’t have worried as the station was completely forgotten about. Its existence was not rediscovered until a
historian for Siemens Corporation, who had built the equipment, found it in the company archives. An expedition
to the site was then undertaken in 1981.
The Bibliothèque nationale de France houses a particularly strange manuscript of Guillaume de Lorris’ and Juen de Meun’s Roman de la Rose: BNF fr. 25526. It is famous for its extensive bas-de-page
images, several of which are of an explicitly erotic nature. One image in particular often serves as an exemplar
of strange medieval marginalia - that found on page 106v, of a nun gathering the fruit of a phallus
Nun at Phallus Tree. BNF fr. 25526, 106r
This single image is part of a series on pages 106r and 106v showing a nun and a friar engaged in erotic play.
These same figures appear again on pages 111r and 111v.
Interestingly in her book, “Roman de la Rose and its
Medieval Readers”, Dr. Sylvia Huot of Pembroke
College, Cambridge points out that all of these images are part of a single bifolium; that is, a single double
page that is folded in half and sewn into a quire. From the perspective of the illustrator working on the
bifolium, all eight individual images form one extended series:
111v : 106r
106v : 111r
Because the bifolium if folded in half, the images on the top right (i.e., 111v, Copulation; Mule with phalluses)
becomes the final scene in the series:
This manuscript was produced by the professional husband and wife team of Richard and Jean de Montbaston working
out of their shop on the Rue Neuve Notre Dame in Paris.
Highlight of 14th century Paris. Rue Nueve Notre Dame, center left
In their book, “Manuscripts and their makers: commercial
book producers in medieval Paris, 1200-1500”, Richard and Mary Rouse, show that the wife, Jean de Montbaston,
was responsible for virtually all the illustrations in fr. 25526 and that interestingly, she was most likely
illiterate(!). Book makers such as the Montbastons worked as speedily as possible and devoted little if any time
for literary interpretations. Often in fact, their cursory view could result in illustrations that completely
misrepresent the text.
As specific and unambiguous as the tale appears to be, unfortunately, there is no known story which explicitly
describes a friar and a nun as depicted in the bas-de-page images. The Rouse’s remark that the best that could be
said is that they reflect some “bawdy tale” that Jean had perhaps heard during the course of her work.
That actual layout of the story is even in question. Many of the illustrations in the book are temporally out of
order. For example, in the interleaving stories of the Passions of Christ and St. Margaret, Montbaston seems to
be aware that the left side of the bifolium will come after the right side when folded and so puts the left side
Descent from the Cross : Crucifixion
Burial : Resurrection
Here the illustrator understands that the Descent from the Cross occurs after the Crucifixion, and so puts that
image to the right, thus when folded, Descent (53v) comes after Crucifixion (52r) . But then, oddly, she
puts the Burial and Resurrection on the other side of that bifolium. This results in a confusing series of
Given what is known about Jean de Montbaston’s literacy and the speed with which she worked, the best I think can
be said is that she managed to get the ordering “correct” this time. Still, what ultimately is the source of
these strange images? Unfortunately, the answer is probably unknowable.
Images have phallus trees have appeared in other contexts, e.g., The Massa Marittima Mural, but any attempt to find
meaning of them seems to result in series of circular references to the few examples that are known.
A map showing the population distribution of Massachusetts based on the 1810 Federal census. It shows how
remarkably and evenly distributed people were across the entire breadth of the state prior to industrialization.
Massachusetts Population Distribution, 1810
The US Census of 1810 counted 421,040 inhabitants, with 79% of them dispersed in rural areas or in villages of
under 2,500 people. Counties with the largest populations were Essex (71,888), Worcester (64,910), and Middlesex
(52,789). The four western counties had a quarter of the population of the state (112,182), the greatest
proportion that region ever achieved. The largest citIes were Boston—33,250 (4th in US), Salem—12,613 (7th in
US), Newburyport—7,634 (12th in US), and Nantucket—6,807 (14th in US). In 1810, one in 15 Americans lived in
Notker Labeo (c950 - 1022) used the Old High German cognate of “twitter” for the Latin “susurrare”
in exactly the same place as Chaucer in this own translation of Boethius in the early 11th century.
This is from page 118 of the manuscript. The Latin appears first followed by the translated OHG. Where Chaucer
translated “susurrat” as “twitreþ”, Notker used its cognate “zwizeron”.
Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 825: Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae
The original and translated sentences are then,
Boethius: “Sylvas dulci voce susurrat.”
Notker: “in uuálde uuíle er zuízerôn.”
Chaucer: “Twitriþ desiryinge þe wood wiþ her swete voys.”
“zwizeron”, pronounced “tswitseron” shares the same West Germanic antecedent as “twitter”. In fact, before the
2nd phase of the Germanic Consonant Shift
(t→ts), it would have been pronounced “twiteron”. Old English did not participate in the Shift and so kept the
Chaucer undoubtedly did not coin the word “twitter” as it must have existed in Old English; it is pure
happenstance that it was not attested in any other surviving document. The English “twitter” is in fact closer to
the original West Germanic version of the word.
Yet nevertheless, if such a bird springs out of her tight cage, sees the agreeable shadows of the woods, she
befouls with her feet her scattered food, and seeks mourning only the wood and twitters desiring the wood with
her sweet voice.
Chaucer was translating Boethius’s original Latin. I was interested to see what word he attempted to capture. The
original sentence was:
De Consolatione Philosophiæ, Liber III, Metrum II, 21-25
The last line is “whispers to the woods with her sweet voice”, so the word in question here is “susurrare”, “to
whisper or murmur”
Chaucer was also consulting Jean de Meun’s 13th-century
translation written in Old French to guide his own. Meun’s translation was:
Other than “douce voiz”, i.e., “sweet voice” there is nothing there alluding to the timbre of this voice. It
seems to be an affectation that Meun ignores and Chaucer retains.
The next most recent attestation to “twitter” according to the OED is from John Trevisa’s translations of Ranulf Higden’s Prolicionycion (1387)
In town as it longes (lounges)
The osel (blackbird) twitters in merry songs
At night for dread
Truly no song does he grede (cry out)
The original Latin here reads:
Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Monachi Cestrensis, p. 236
So, “pulchris zinzitat”; or “chirps beautifully”. So Trevisa was translating the rarer word “zinzitare”.
It’s interesting that “susarrare” and “zinizitare” both have a dual constant sound “s-s”, “z-z” similar to
“twitter”, “t-t”. In all cases they are onomatopoetic. Also, recent scholar ship has Chaucer writing ‘Boece’ in
~1380, not 1374 as the OED lists, and Trevisa started writing is translation in 1385 bring the dates of their
usage closer together. It’s impossible to say if Chaucer actually coined the word and Trevisa made use of it, or
if it was in usage during that time.
The OED gives the etymology of “twitter” simply as: “Of imitative origin: compare Old High German zwizirôn ,
-erôn”. There’s no indication of any Latin derivation, but I can help but noticing the similarity between
“zwizerôn” and “zinzitare”. Ultimately it may be that Chaucer simply was groping for a more poetic word with
avian connotations given the context and chose one with both a direct influence from the low countries and had a
close analogue in Latin.
Scientists at the University of California recently announced
the discovery of a star with the shortest known period orbiting around the black hole at the center of the Milky
Way (Sagittarius A*) at only 11.5 years. The new star
has been designated “S0-102”.
A diagram accompanying the announcement shows the orbit of both S0-102 and S0-2, the star with the previous shortest known period (as well as the
orbit of various other stars buzzing around the black hole.)
To provide a sense of scale, I added a small sub-diagram showing the relative size of the orbits of Sedna and Pluto.
Sedna has the largest known aphelion of any body orbiting the sun other than some long-period comets; still, this
shows that the neighborhood of Sagittarius A* is comparable in scale to that of the Sun, though of course with
far greater gravitational intensity.
Some basic trigonometry indicates that the .2 arc seconds shown on the diagram represents about 8.8
light days. Which is amazingly compact given the usual distances associated with stars. (Or course, that is
over 140 billion miles, so it is only relatively compact.) Computing the relative sizes of Senda’s and
Pluto’s orbits are equally straightforward, coming out to
.1277 arc seconds and .0103 arc seconds respectively.
To get a sense of the enormity of the Milky Way’s black hole, consider that Sedna orbits the Sun in about 11,700
years. Sagittarius A* pulls S0-102 through its orbit in only 11.5 years. S0-102 reaches over 1% the speed of
light at perihelion.
David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon and the Brockengespenst
There is an incident in David Foster Wallace’s “Infinity Jest” (1991) that is a direct reference to Thomas
Pychon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973). I believe though that this is actually part of a chain of references going
back to Goethe.
In this scene from Infinite Jest, two characters on a mountain top are making shadows in the rising sun:
Marathe watched a column of shadow spread again out east over the desert’s floor as Steeply got a hand under
himself and rose, a huge and well-fed figure tottering on heels. The two men sent together a strange
Brokengespenst-shadow out toward the city Tuscon, a shadow round and radial at the base and jagged at the
top, from Steeply’s wig becoming uncombed in his descent.
Infinite Jest, p. 89
The allusion is to this scene from Gravity’s Rainbow 1:
… Here are Slothrop and the apprentice witch Geli Tripping, standing on top of the Broken, the very plexus of
German evil, twenty miles north by northwest of Mittelwerke, waiting for the sun to rise. …
As the sunlight strikes their backs, coming in nearly flat on, it begins developing on the peal cloudbank; two
gigantic shaows, thrown miles overland, past Clausthal-Zelterfeld, past Seesen and Goslar, across where the
river Leine would be, and reaching toward Weser. … “By golly,” Slothrop a little bit neros, “it’s the Specter.”
You got it up around Greylock in the Berkshires too. Around these parts its is known as the
… They are enormous, dancing the floor of the whole visible sky. He reaches underneath her dress. She twines a
leg around one of his. The spectra was red to indigo, tidal, immense, at all their edges. Under the clouds out
there it’s as still, and lost, as Atlantis.
Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 335
A few pages earlier there is this bit of conversation between Geli and Slothrop:
“Have you been up to the Brocken yet?”
“Just hit town, actually.”
“I’ve been up there every Walpurgisnacht since I had
my first period. I’ll take you, if you like.”
Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 326
In the introduction to his book of short stories, “Slow Learner” (1984), Pynchon mentions the book, “The
Berkshire Hills” (1939), which was produced as part of Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress
Administration for Massachusetts. That book contains a mention of the Brockengespenst:
Thirty years ago, at the end of the summer season, a Berkshire man was bringing down the piano from the little
recreation house atop the mountain. Suddenly he saw himself, his horse and wagon and the piano standing upright,
outlined in monstrous design against the sky. Unable to decide whether he had quaffed too much from the “cup
that cheers,” he is said to have fled in haste from the mountainside to the minister, and taken the pledge at
The phenomenon of a gigantic shadow of an object reflected in a cloud is so well known as to have a German name,
the Brockengespenst (Specter of the Brocken) from Brocken, the highest peak of the Hartz Mountains. As
Greylockgespenst would be a bit unwieldy for Berkshire, here it is simply called the Specter. C. H. Towne tells
more about it in his Autumn Loitering. 2
The Berkshire Hills, p. 42
It’s clear that Pynchon initially found the reference to Brokengespenst from his fascination with Berkshire book,
but note the occult aspects he introduces: Geli being a witch; satyric entwinings; Walpurgisnacht, etc. These
elements are not part of the Berkshire Hills background story.
Pynchon is known for his wide-ranging references, so it’s impossible to say exactly where he was introduced to
the German mythology surrounding the mountain. I believe there is a connection to Nabokov however.
There is a oblique reference to The Brocken in Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” (1961):
During the fortnight that I had my demons fill my goetic mirror to overflow with those pink and mauve cliffs and
black junipers and winding roads and sage brush changing to grass and lush blue flowers, and death-pale aspens,
and an endless sequence of green-shorted Kinbotes meeting an anthology of poets and a brocken of their
wives, I must have made some awful mistake in my incantations, for the mountain slope is dry and drear, and the
Hurleys’ tumble-down ranch, lifeless.
Pale Fire, p. 141
Here the protagonist, Kinbote, is in essence comparing Shade’s wife - a rival for his affections - to a witch.
As a student at Cornell, Pynchon attended Nabokov’s lectures while he was teaching Russian and European
literature. There is speculation that his
character Blodgett Waxwing from Gravity’s Rainbow is a reference to the famous opening line of Pale Fire’s poem
3. Could Nabokov’s reference to The Broken have induced
Pynchon to dig deeper into its inherent paganism?
Nabokov was obviously aware enough of The Broken to produce such an arcane neologism with its biting implication
of witchcraft. It is understood that this is a direct reference to Goethe’s “Faust”. Even the use of the
word “goetic” (~Goethe) in the same paragraph referenced above hints at this.
Goethe described the Brocken in his “Faust” (1808), as the center of revelry for witches on Walpurgisnacht.
Now to the Brocken the witches ride;
The stubble is gold and the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Squire Urianus will come to preside.
So over the valleys our company floats,
With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.
Note: I was tempted to try and find a link to Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” (1924), and its references to
Walpurgisnacht, through there was nothing obvious, it is easy to imagine that it influenced Pynchon or even
Nabokov, despite his noted criticism of him.
1 Wallace himself confirms this in an interview from 1997:
“That thing in Infinite Jest where two representatives (Steeply and Marathe) of two countries are on a
cliff-side and are making enormous shadows and playing with it — and there’s even the use of the word
Brockengespenst, which comes out of Slothrop and Geli Tripping (from Gravity’s Rainbow) fucking on the
Brockengespenst— that’s an outright allusion.”
2 I could find no reference to this book anywhere.
Even though I probably know better, I can’t help
but view the Arctic romantically. So, while some
of the hooting, “extreme sport” carrying-on in this clip from The
Asgard Project is a bit annoying, the visuals look great:
The film has won several awards, so I really
want to see it eventually.
The views of Asgard shown in the clip don’t really do
justice to just how dramatic the mountain can appear. It looks like something you imagine could only be located
Mt. Asgard, Baffin Island, 1994
I set up my camp in a snow storm and didn’t have any real idea where Asgard was when I settled in. In the morning
the skies had mostly cleared and this is the sight before me when I opened my tent. Awesome.