Monthly Archives: August 2007

South by Southeast

It was July 5, 2006 the last time I was in the Mojave. September 5, 2007 will be the day I return. I have picked a typically unlucky time to visit. The nighttime low temperature in Needles has plummeted nearly to 80 degrees every night for the past month, reaching 78 on August 8. My campsite at Cima Dome, 4500 feet farther from sea level than the weather station in Needles, will likely be even colder than that. But I will be prepared: I will take clothes. What worries me is the daily temperature change, with such lows coming after cool, comfortable afternoon temperatures in the three digits. I hope I don’t catch cold.

It is only a few days, true. Not even long enough for the comment spam to pile up here, and besides there will be a magical blog guardian here, an e-faun, who will wreak a terrible, Daphnean vengeance on spammers and trolls. Which is good. We could use the bay leaves. This e-faun is a shy one, but there are those who claim they have heard a strange music emerging from the intertubes when no one is looking, a siren song that lures unwary surfers to their doom or to posting at Democratic Underground, whichever is worse. If you are very very lucky while I am gone, and if you set out the proper offerings of wormwood ashes, and dried chicken strips for her consort, the e-faun may sing for you here as well. Just lash yourselves to the mast is my advice.

Hmm. On second thought, “blog kobold” has a kind of ring to it too. Maybe set some cookies out there with the bitter herbs and jerky treats.

I expect to spend a significant amount of time sitting. This trip, I am hoping, will serve as a lens to focus me. The Mojave is a place where the skin of the Earth is stretched taut, crazy jumbles of mountain ridges chockablock with saline hotspring valleys, the turmoil of the mantle there to bleed through with a scratch, and so it is the place for me. These days I have been asked by more than one person what I want to do with my life. I have had no answer, and my life at least half over. Inchoate feelings rise in me like subducted batholiths, approaching the surface only by increment, until my skin is stretched taut as well. I could use some slack in that skin, some room to store water or words. Something else other than this mix of urgency and doubt in equal portions.

It should be interesting. The neotropicals will be at least checking their watches, thinking of flying back to Costa Rica, but summer still blankets the landscape. If the Scott’s orioles are there when I arrive it will officially still be the hot season. I may awake at four, use a few temperate hours to watch the sage sparrows and cactus wrens and whoever else shows up, and do the same in the evening with a long siesta between. There are worse ways to focus.

Duende

The Theriomorph is reading Lorca:

I share Lorca’s passion for bearing witness with specificity, grief, and love, to disappearing peoples. Sometimes deep listening is the most powerful activism there is; it keeps alive what nothing else can.

Lorca’s beloved “cante jondo” — the deep song to which Ms. T’morph does her deep listening — informed and nourished a life’s work spent chasing a thing that can be described succinctly in Spanish, but in English only with dissertations:

Duende.

“Thus duende is a power and not a behavior, it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master guitarist say: ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action.”

— Lorca, La Teoria y Juego del Duende, lecture given in Havana, 1930

There are attempts to reduce the translation to one English word. Inspiration. A demon. A goblin. Authenticity. My understanding of the concept is limited, but it seems that all of the above apply, as one might give separate names to each facet of a carved onyx. The definition that seems most apt to me is the one I heard first, a long time ago, words burned into my memory by dark eyes and dim candles, from a pianist who fairly brimmed with the stuff herself. It was three hours before the sun rose, and we were idling, and we were talking about flamenco, and she called duende “the memory of the homeland the Gitano never knew.”

That seems like a good take to me.

I feel sometimes as though all of history and physics demands my attention in an instant, the nervous system of the earth surging up through my soles, all the grief and terror of a billion years charging each breath, each swallow, with beauty the result. This may seem an odd assertion in a time when the word “sublime” is used to praise a slice of cheesecake, but those who remember its older sense of “wondrous beauty of which terror is a crucial component” will understand. The Tetons in winter are beautiful. The Tetons in winter as the ice cracks beneath your feet crossing a half-frozen lake? Sublime.

If Whitman turned up no “foul meat” with his plow and spade, it was only for lack of seeing what was plainly there. Authenticity comes of burying what you love in the ground, a connection that cannot be rent through years of exile. A deep song lived here with me and is buried now, its component notes feeding the apple trees and we will eat them in the coming year. And then what is left when you lose that loss?

Duende is what is left. It does not translate precisely into English, but there are languages that will serve better.

Cynicism

I grow tired, again and after some rethinking, of what is sometimes called “edginess.” Or “attitude,” or “snark.” Three fine traditions, these, and well-placed in the rhetorician’s bag of tricks, each of them the precise and fitting tool for one task or another. And yet we rely on them too heavily. Maslow’s dictum about hammers turning everything into nails is relevant here. When the only rhetorical tool you have is an insult, everyone you talk to begins to resemble an idiot.

And I recognize the irony (sensu stricto) in my saying such a thing, of all people. I have flung sarcasm from one end of the political world to the other, it seems at times. Sarcasm is the weapon of the angry and powerless. I am, more than is comfortable, angry. I am, to a first approximation, powerless. I have been one acquainted with “yeah, right.” Who among us has not? It is a normal reaction to seeing your comfort stripped away, your water poisoned and your family endangered, to seeing the thousand little things that make up a good day sold off, one by one; to seeing the Orwellian equation of Freedom and Slavery embraced unambiguously by those around you, provided the freedom involves shopping and the slavery is confined to Saipan factories. Who with a healthy soul would not be outraged to the point of chronic sarcasm?

And yet that sarcasm corrodes the soul.

Stale sarcasm left pooling too long in the heart congeals, clots, becomes cynicism. The cynic hears a full-hearted cry and he resents it. The cynic insists the cry comes from a heart as clotted with sick sarcasm as her own. Open your soul, limn carefully and fervently the extent of your wound, and the cynic will ask what your angle is.

The cynic will accuse you of all the sins in his heart, of self-centered obstruction and circular firing squads. It is the cynic’s suspicion that sincerity conceals sabotage. The cynics will doom us. “Forward movement comes from relationship,” a friend told me this week, and she was right, as she usually is. No coalition comes without shared vulnerability. No victories come without mutual honesty.

And yet the cynic strategizes, wondering how best to manipulate his allies to his best advantage, and counts himself “tough-minded” and “pragmatic.”

I long these days for a pragmatic honesty, a tough-minded vulnerability. Strategy is easy; comity is hard.

Failure to observe

There was a full lunar eclipse last night.
I missed it. All her rutilance in view
just one craned neck from where I slept, immersed
in caffeinated dreaming of my own;
I did not see the moon. I did not see
the shadow fall across her face, did not
see the livid, angry blush grow dark
and fume. A world entire stepped in between
her and the light, and me upon that world,
a vanishingly small part of that world
but on it nonetheless. Such privilege
to dream contented, unaware that she
the luminous had darkened, to assume
that she, withal, would mind the daily tides.

Who says the 1970s were a total waste?

S

That’s one of the wall cards from “Black ABCs,” a 1970 attempt to provide positive modeling for African American kids in US grade schools. Becky brought home a pamphlet with low-res versions and I just had to share them. The whole set’s here.

This, kids, is what multiculturalism looked like when I was in grade school. A little earnest, a bit sappy perhaps, but upbeat and relentlessly positive despite plenty of important and outrageously profound reasons not to be. This was before the backlash, before crack, before the Rockefeller massacre at Attica, when people could — without being considered insane — think that things would keep getting better, that the civil rights and Black Power movements might actually keep winning social change on an ever-rising trajectory.

Burning Man

It’s Burning Man time again, that season of bacchanal for the affluent in a desert declared arbitrarily irrelevant to the proceedings, and I have as yet found no reason to revise my opinion of the whole deal.

The gist of that 2004 post:

Faced with one of the last truly wild landscapes left in the US, their response is to build a city. This is not creativity: it is dreadful, dull conformity. Finding one of the last sublime remnants of the unpopulated West, they want nothing more than to pack it with tender urbanites in a glorified tailgate party. This is not an alternative way of life: it is standard American operating procedure.

Read more.

Plot holes

Just in case any of you were wondering whether I’m hopelessly out of touch, here’s your answer: I finally got around to watching Serenity.

(Spoilers: “Holy SHIT! NO! Argh! What the? A harpoon? But he was my… damn. Whedon, you suck.”)

Most of the way to the end of the movie, the film sequel to the stupidly canceled Joss Whedon TV space opera Firefly, a scenario was presented that made me groan, even though — knowing Whedon — it was probably written into the script with ironic intent. The scene involves a good guy and a bad guy, with the good guy intent on reaching An Important Switch and the bad guy intent on stopping him. Sadly, the engineers who placed the Important Switch did so, for some reason, on a pedestal in the center of an Impossibly Deep Shaft. In order to reach the Important Switch, the good guy must walk on a catwalk suspended perilously above the Impossibly Deep Shaft, providing him, as he fights the bad guy, with many significant opportunities for plummeting.

If you have watched more than one Science Fiction movie, you will likely have seen a variant of this scene. The most famous one, I believe, is actually a number of scenes — spread out over a few movies — that take place in the reactor core of the Death Star in the Star Wars franchise. But this trope predates the 1970s. It certainly dates back at least to 1956, in an almost throwaway scene in Forbidden Planet, revealing the ancient Krell civilization’s twenty-mile-deep utility shaft on Altair IV. Nothing bad threatens to happen in the Krell’s Impossibly Deep Shaft, unless you take it as a semi-Freudian metaphor referring obliquely to the later-mentioned monsters from the Id. As a literal matte-shot backdrop Impossibly Deep Shaft, it’s there solely to induce a brief moment of vertigo as Dr. Morbius shows his unwanted visitors around the Krell complex.

I’m not well-read enough in SF moviedom to know whether there’s an Impossibly Deep Shaft fight scene in any movie made in the twenty years between Forbidden Planet and Star Wars, and despite my somewhat greater familiarity with 1960s-70s television SF, I’m failing to recall one there either. Aside from an episode of Batman, that is, but in that one the shaft is pitch-black — hence non-vertiginous — and the bad guy, Catwoman, is the one in danger of falling in. I won’t spoil the ending for you.

But the trope resonates so. I think there must be 1960s-1970s examples of it in pop culture — TV, movies, cartoons, comics, what have you — that I’ve missed. Readers?

The Will Smith movie I, Robot, which I was the only person on Earth who liked, had probably the most over-the-top version of the Impossibly Deep Shaft. The central computer core of VIKI, the mainframe robot, occupied the center of the 100ish-story U.S. Robotics building, and the only way to disable it with nanites — and one could write an English Masters thesis on nanites, I think — was to crawl on catwalks over the yawning abyss to the platform in the center. Scary enough, even without an Imperial buttload of robots breaking the glass above you and trying to throw you down the shaft. Smith edges into satire in the scene, asking sotto voce “What is it with you people and heights?” It’s been a couple years since I saw Galaxy Quest, a nice satire of a lot of silly SF movie tropes, and I don’t remember whether the Impossibly Deep Shaft made a token appearance in the flick. True, much of what could be said about the ridiculous design of the Impossibly Deep Shaft applied, in Galaxy Quest, to The Chompers, a superfluous and deadly and stochastic gauntlet of pistons obstructing a crucial passageway. Namely, faced with the gauntlet, the Sigourney Weaver character summed up the Chompers, the Impossibly Deep Shaft, and lots of other questionable plot devices thus: “This episode was badly written!

The Chompers have their own silly history, a literary catalogue well worth exploring, and it’s tempting to spend some time here examining them. But I’m talking about Shafts.

Serenity didn’t mark the first time Joss Whedon had resorted to the Impossibly Deep Shaft as a plot device. In the Firefly episode “War Stories,” the crime boss Adelai Niska, who I’m pretty sure I had as a grade school teacher, has situated his space station’s torture room with a convenient non-safety-glass window looking out over his own Impossibly Deep Shaft. At some point during the torture of the Good Guys, the window breaks and a fight ensues with the brink as a venue. I won’t tell you how that one ends either.

BAD server.

I am just noticing that some comments have been eaten, and I think it dates back to the server switch in June. I’ve noticed missing comments that had been commented by Sherwood and The Theriomorph in particular, but there are likely others.

Not my fault, I apologize, and I have the archive in email, so if you notice some of your epochal words missing and want a copy of them, lemme know.

Also, “Sherwood and The Theriomorph” sounds like something you might find in Prokofief’s back drawer in the “unfinished” folder. That is all.

Crackpot thug Stuart Pivar sues PZ over book review

I’m having the weirdest sense of deja vú.

From Boing Boing:

PZ Myers, Ph.D., Division of Science & Math, University of Minnesota, Morris, says:

I’m in an interesting situation. I wrote a very negative review of two versions of a book [Lifecode: The Theory of Biological Self Organization] by Stuart Pivar here and here. He claims to have a revolutionary idea for how evolution works, but his ideas have no connection to reality, and these lovely elaborate drawings he made look nothing at all like actual embryos. The bottom line is that I said his work was more about the evolution of balloon animals than biology.

His response is to sue Seed Media and Paul Z. Myers for “Assault, Libel, and Slander.”

One of my tasks on taking the job at Earth Island Journal was to repair the magazine’s reputation: a number of ill-advised articles had given EIJ a reputation for extreme credulity in matters pseudoscientific. I did my best to repair the damage, though I got complaints, like the one from the woman whose article on homeopathic treatments for radiation sickness I’d rejected. A legacy: the Journal had a fair following of people who would send me their fringe-science books, articles, and fifteen-minute voice mail messages.

I tended to smile and shine such folks on: life’s too short to argue with people who’ll never admit they could possibly be anything but the next Galileo. (Though I did let myself take out my frustrations on one guy who called me with a pitch about the nefarious link between Judaism and dioxins.)

But I always wanted to run stuff like that, with commentary added inline. If EIJ had been a blog rather than a 48-page magazine, I might have given in to the temptation to do so.

You have to wonder what Stuart Pivar was thinking, if indeed he was thinking at all, which is doubtful. The self-delusion involved, for anyone who knows about Pharyngula, in thinking that PZ would treat your New Grand Unifying Theory of Biology And Donuts as rosy-glow-suffused received wisdom? Just staggering. Add thuggery to the mix, being willing to sue (for assault!) over a bad book review, and the condemnation from the net is certain to be swift and uniform. Pivar should have left well enough alone: it’s almost certain at this point, given the way the internet operates, that “Stuart Pivar” and “whiny little thug” will become more or less synonymous. But that’s the crackpot fringe for you: only tenuous contact with reality.

Also, I really want to get my book finished now so that PZ can review it.

Field guides

Just finished reading Ronald Lanner’s Conifers of California, which we picked up at Donner Memorial State Park a week ago. It’s a wonderful book, one of those guides that is at once field guide and literature and coffee-table artwork. Few people know as much about California’s conifers as Lanner, who’s written a few other notable books on trees and their animal cohorts, and it’s almost tempting to find a way to pack this two-pound book in a more or less waterproof place on my next Klamath backpack trip.

Of course, if I made a habit of taking along fieldguides just because they might be useful, I’d have to rent a mule. I can just barely stand to carry Ertter and Bowerman’s The Flowering Plants and Ferns of Mount Diablo, California on day hikes, and that book only weighs a pound and a half. I carry sandwiches that heavy. And it’s not like Ertter and Bowerman wouldn’t come in handy. It’s almost certain that any Diablo hike I might take will involve seeing a plant I’d like to identify. Sure, there are some local field guides that cover living things you’re unlikely to encounter on a typical hike. Oddly, though, I find that it’s the more specialized guides I most often find myself wishing I’d brought along on a trip. (Admittedly, that may be because I’ve already often brought Kaufman’s book on birds and often his guide to butterflies as well. Those two guides, the second co-authored with Jim Brock, are likely the most useful field guides I have.)

The last few trips I’ve taken out of the Bay Area, for instance, I’ve found myself wishing I’d remembered to pack Tamara Hartson’s Squirrels of the West. I picked it up almost as an afterthought a year or two ago from a shelf of review books sent me at the Earth Island Journal, and have found myself referring to it more often than I could have imagined. Makes sense: what kind of mammalian wildlife do you see more often than squirrels and chipmunks? You can be camping for days looking for an elusive warbler or flycatcher, and meanwhile the local endemic species of Tamiascurus might be rifling your backpack for granola bars. Hartson’s excellent descriptions and detailed range maps make identifying your local pilferer easy and fun, and there’s more diversity among these tree rats than you might think, especially in the western mountains.

Also highly useful in the “stuff that’s there whether you notice it or not so you may as well identify it” category is Pinau Merlin’s Field Guide to Desert Holes, which is exactly what it sounds like. One of the little secrets of desert wildlife watching is that most desert wildlife is nowhere to be seen until it’s too dark to see them. It’s cooler at night, and only crazy things like ravens and hikers are generally out during the day. Everyone else has found some shade, and the most dependable source of shade in the desert is the kind you dig yourself. Being able to distinguish between badger holes and desert tortoise burrows becomes useful if you want to know who your neighbors are. Besides, once you read Merlin’s book you start noticing things like wolf spider and ant lion holes that might once have blended in the the stony surround.

The University of California Press has been updating and re-releasing many of their historic publications, probably the most specialized of the lot being Pests of the Native California Conifers, which either you need or you don’t. There’s very little middle ground there. Another in their series is the arguably slightly more mainstream Introduction to Horned Lizards of North America, which is charming and probably the kind of book best left at home for later use in case you happen to see a horned lizard. That is, unless you regularly hike in a place with more than one species common there. At 180 pages, and with just 13 named species of horned lizard in existence, you might guess that this guide contains a bit more information about the genus than just terse descriptions of identifying features. (The Horned Lizard guide is not, however, the UC Press guide with the best pages-per-species ratio: that honor goes, I think, to their 288-page Introduction to the California Condor.

Clearly, the UC Press guides attempt to be something more than mere identifying tools: many of them attempt to provide information about the context in which the organisms being discussed make their livings. (Some of the guides are about geological topics, so just mentally edit that previous sentence as appropriate for them.) While providing context is a laudable goal, every square inch of real estate devoted to discussions of ecological interrelationships or scientifichistory or what have you is room not available for describing rarer species, so that some of the guides provide at best an approximation of the diversity they cover. Trees and Shrubs of California, for instance, will certainly get you an identification to the genus level for diverse groups like Ceanothus or manzanitas,  but you’ll likely have to turn to some other text to get to the species level.  (You did bring your Jepson Manual, right? It’s only six pounds.)

Sometimes this has its drawbacks, as we found out this past weekend turning to Jameson and Peeters’ Mammals of California for help in determining what the bats were that flew over us last Sunday night, eating mosquitoes above the Truckee River. Each bat species was well-described as to range, habits, coloration, bone structure, hair patterns, ear length, eye color, and whether they part their hair on the side or down the middle. What we needed were simple silhouettes of the bats as they’d be seen in flight: dark outlines against an illuminated background. No such luck, and there are enough bat species in the Tahoe Basin that we couldn’t use range as the identifying factor. If I ever find a dead bat in my campsite, Jameson and Peeters will no doubt aid me to identify it precisely. (“Do its ears fold down to reach the tip of its nose, Becky? Well, I’m not touching it either. Use a stick.”) Incidentally, it’s Jameson and Peeters pictured in the thumbnail cover included in this post, and that handsome fella on the cover is a golden-mantled ground squirrel.

Exhaustive accuracy isn’t always the most important aspect of a field guide. Take Ronald Taylor’s Sagebush Country, a guide to flowering plants of the Great Basin. It’s printed in a style you used to see a lot in the 1970s and 1980s: arranged by plant family in alphabetical order (rather than by flower color or with related families listed together), and if you’re not adept at using dichotomous keys that often depend on descriptions of plant parts you may not have on hand (such as flowers in the off-season), you will likely need to leaf through Sagebrush Country to find a plant if it’s utterly unfamiliar to you. The book, at pocket size, is of necessity incomplete, especially in contrast to works such as the University of Nevada’s exhaustive and wonderful and unbackpackably heavy Max C. Fleischmann Series in Great Basin Natural History. In his grasses section, Taylor says “The grasses constitute the single most important group of plants in the sagebrush steppe,” and then goes on to describe just 11 species for the whole Great Basin, only six of them with photos.

But that doesn’t matter. It was Taylor I carried with me on my first trip up through the Owens Valley 20 years ago, and it was Taylor who helped me learn such Great Basin commonalities as rabbitbrush and prickly poppy and firecracker penstemon, and when Sharon left my copy in a rain puddle overnight ten years ago I went out and got another, and I’m likely to take it with me in a couple weeks when I head to the Mojave, just in case.

Though Plants of the East Mojave really is the better fit, what with its author Adrienne Knute living a fifteen-minute drive from Cima Dome and all. I’ll take that one too.