Plenty of gloom and doom but also gratitude, reasons to believe, and occasions to ponder the strange and wondrous vagaries of human nature
In the Review section of this past Sunday’s New York Times, there was a goodly helping of admonition and dire prediction, chiefly prompted by the destruction recently visited on the New York metropolitan area by Hurricane Sandy.
First, James Atlas warns of the coming submersion of New York City in Is This the End? An appropriately scary title, especially for those of us who know and love the place. (Venerating the city’s cultural riches, my mother could never understand why a person would want to live anywhere else.)
In Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines, Benjamin Strauss and Robert Kopp paint a disturbing picture of the effect that rising sea levels will have on this country’s coastal regions. To begin with, the authors offer up this astonishing statistic: “More than six million Americans live on land less than five feet above the local high tide.” Even granted that Strauss and Kopp are describing eventualities that may be several centuries down the road, their projections are extremely disturbing. Click on What Could Disappear for maps. I did, and it just about broke my heart. Among the places slated to become a latter day Atlantis is Miami Beach, Florida, where I attended junior high and high school. Alas, farewell to the land of bougainvillea, hibiscus, cocoanut palms, and rampant overdevelopment…. (For additional searchable maps, go to Surgingeas.org.)
Finally, Erwann Michel-Kerjan and and Howard Kunreuther tackle the subject of Paying for Future Catastrophes. They begin with this statement: “Hurricane Sandy could cost the nation a staggering $50 billion, about a third of the cost of Hurricane Katrina — to date the most costly disaster in United States history.”
In the November 26/ December 3 issue of Newsweek, David Cay Johnston tallies the dangers inherent in our aging and inadequate infrastructure. Johnston goes on to suggest “12 ways to Stop the Next Sandy;” however, his ambitious manifesto will require a colossal act of will on the part of the citizens of this country, not to mention an equally colossal outlay of funds. Can it be done? Will it be done? (As Newsweek prepares to go digital, I’d like to express a personal sense of loss. I’ve been a subscriber since my college days in the 1960s.)
All of this would seem to portray a nation in a heap of trouble. In his book Too Much Magic, published in June of this year, James Howard Kunstler writes the following:
The British Petroleum company’s 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico tempered the public’s zest for risky deepwater drilling projects. Oil is back in the $100 range. The Fukushima nuclear meltdown in the following year sobered up many nations about the prospects for the only well-developed alternative energy method capable of powering whole cities. Whether you believe in climate change or not, or contest that it’s man-made or is not, the weather is looking a little strange. In 2011 tornados of colossal scale tore through the American South, hurricane-induced five-hundred-year floods shredded Vermont, and Texas was so drought-stricken that Texans wondered if ranching there would even be possible in the years ahead. People have begun to notice a number of signals that reality is beaming out.
All this is enough to send a person running for the nearest bunker. But wait – there is hope, and it has been proffered by people with vigorous minds and open hearts. I’ve already written about the solace and encouragement to be derived from the works of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rev. Timothy Keller. And now I’m cheered by the prospect of reading Anne Lamott’s new book: In a recent interview in the Washington Post, she explains its rather piquant title:
I think sometimes we don’t know that what we’re doing is a form of prayer. “Help” is the main prayer. “Help” is the prayer of surrender and having a real shot at things beginning to change because you’ve finally run out of good ideas. “Help” is the hardest prayer, and it’s the most poignant. It’s a person being humbled. People say “Thanks” all the time in so many ways. Even people who don’t believe in God or in any kind of higher power notice when their family catches a break: The diagnosis was much better than it could have been; it really isn’t a transmission, it’s a timing belt; it’s something manageable instead of huge and awful. “Wow” is the praise prayer. I think every time you see a night sky full of stars, you say, “Wow.” It was so cold here today, I had to get up really early, and I stepped outside, and I was like, “Whooooa!” which is a cousin of “Wow.” It was so crisp, so beautiful. It’s like getting spritzed with a plant mister. It kind of wakes you back up.
I love The Once Born and the Twice Born, an essay by Gertrude Himmelfarb that appeared in the September 28 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Reading her cogent and graceful explication of William James The Will To Believe, I felt as though I’d been given a very special gift. (This sense was amplified by the fact of my recent immersion in the life William’s brother Henry, courtesy of Michael Gorra’s magisterial work of criticism and biography, Portrait of a Novel.)
His 1896 lecture “The Will to Believe” was prompted, James said, by the “freethinking and indifference” he encountered at Harvard. He warned his audience that he would not offer either logical or theological arguments supporting the existence of God or any particular religion, ritual or dogma. His “justification of faith” derived instead entirely from the “will” or the “right” to believe, to “adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James knew this would not go down well with the students and philosophers in the eminent universities. To the obvious objection that the denial of the “logical intellect” is to give up any claim to truth, he replied that it is in defense of truth that faith is justified—the truth provided not by logic or science but by experience and reflection. Moral questions, he pointed out, cannot be resolved with the certitude that comes from objective logic or science. And so with religious faith….
Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, an intellectual among intellectuals, turned ninety in August.
I never ceased to be moved by the trouble to which people will go to render aid to animals in distress. A particularly impressive instance of this compassionate response is recounted in a recent Washington Post article entitled Injured Owl Is Rescued in Mount Vernon.
I deeply appreciate the sentiments voiced with wit and warmth on the occasion of Thanksgiving by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. In Family, Friends, Health and Freedom, she asked a number of friends and family members what they were thankful for. At one point, she pressed a friend to be more specific; she received this response:
“Buddy the cat. He literally came out of nowhere one night, and has never left since. He sleeps in the window most of the time, and looks in as if to say: ‘I’m home.’ He always lets the others in the pack eat first. ‘Slow down,’ I say to myself. The world on my screen may be spinning and sizzling, but Buddy’s ends up being the preferred reality.”
Speaking of matters of a feline nature, there was recent post-election news in the Metro section of the Post concerning an illustrious member of that community:
Finally, from the November 26 issue of the New Yorker, the recent travails of General David Petraus and others elicited this wry observation from Adam Gopnik:
Petraeus, and his defenders and attackers alike, referred to his “poor judgment,” but if the affair had had anything to do with judgment it never would have happened. Desire is not subject to the language of judicious choice, or it would not be desire, with a language all its own. The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power. As [Philip] Roth’s Alexander Portnoy tells us, “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd”—a Yiddish saying that means, more or less, that when desire comes in the door judgment jumps out the window and cracks its skull on the pavement.
“What seems clear is that his Sierra summer awakened the deepest and most intense passion of his life, a long moment of ecstasy that he would try to remember and relive to the end of his days. His whole body, not his eyes alone, felt the beauty around him. Every sense became intensely alive. He bounded over rocks and up mountains sides, hung over the edge of terrifying precipices, his face drenched in the spray of waterfalls, waded through meadows deep in lilies, laughed at the exuberant antics of grasshoppers and chipmunks, stroked the bark of towering incense cedars and sugar pines, and slept each night on an aromatic mattress of spruce boughs. Each thing he saw or felt seemed joined to the rest in exquisite harmony. ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself,’ he wrote, ‘we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ Nature was all one body, beating with a heart like his own, and more intensely than ever before in his life he felt his own heart b eating in unison. He experienced, in the fullest sense yet, a profound conversion to the religion of nature.
John Muir was a marvelous writer; his biographer, equally so.
In Greene on Capri, Shirley Hazzard describes Villa Fersen, a deserted estate on the island:
“Inexpressibly romantic in its solitude and decline, it was cared for by a custodial Caprese family who for years intrepidly occupied the kitchen quarters at the landward rear of the building, while the haunted drawing rooms, shedding stucco and gold leaf, teetered ever closer to the limestone brink. The damp garden tended by the housekeeper was ravishing: suitably overgrown, encroached on by a cloud of ferns, creepers, acanthus, agapanthus, amaryllis; shadowed by umbrella pine, and by cypress and ilex; lit from within by massed colours of fuchsia, hortensia, azalea, and all manner of trailing mauves, blues, and purples–wisteria and iris in spring, solanum and ‘stella d’Italia’ in high summer; in autumn, plumabago and belladonna lilies. Geraniums were the size of shrubs, and of every red and coral gradation. The different jasmines flowered there, on walls and trellises, in relays throughout the year.
In September and October, crowds of wild cyclamen, small fragrant flowers of Italian woods, sprang from the crevices of the rock face in which the house is virtually framed….Fersen’s in those years was a garden of mossy textures and dark dense greens, with impasto of luminous flowers: a place of birdsong and long silence; of green lizards and shadowy cats, and decadent Swinburnean beauty.
I read Greene on Capri because I am headed for Naples and the Amalfi Coast next month. As part of the tour, a day trip to Capri is planned. Shirley Hazzard is a writer whose style has posed difficulties for me in the past – I barely got through The Great Fire. But I was enchanted by this slender little memoir detailing the friendship that Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, shared with Graham Greene on that magical island during the postwar years.
Villa Fersen, near and distant:
By the time I finished A Passion for Nature, I had encountered so many fascinating stories and so much superb writing – by both Muir and his biographer, Donald Worster - that the book was positively festooned with myriad of the multicolored post-it flags with which I am currently enamored.
Oh, dear, I can’t very well quote the entire book! What I can do, though, is to present various highlights from this epochal tome. I propose to do this in serial form, interspersing these posts with those on other subjects. Actually, I’ve already begun this little project. (See “Literary Musings” from February 7.) What follows is the second installment.
In 1867, John Muir undertook to walk from Indianapolis, Indiana, to South Florida. From there, he planned to take ship to Cuba. At the time, he was 29 years old.
“After scaling the Cumberland Plateau, [Muir] began his ascent of the Appalachian Mountains south of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In all directions he could gaze on spectacular forests crowning ridge after ridge, with mountain mists drifting through the valleys, the most sublime picture his eyes had ever beheld.”
Muir poured out his rapture in his journals:
“‘Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain beauty and grandeur…Oh, these forest gardens of our Father! What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture! What simplicity and mysterious complexity of detail!’
Adds Worster: “Autumn was approaching in the mountains, summer green was beginning to fade to fall browns and yellows, the air was cold at night, and Muir was in heaven.”
At the same time that he was glorying in nature, Muir was encountering humans who were both destitute and desperate:
“The higher he climbed, the more backward and benighted the people became, and the more dangerous. It was in the delightsome mountains that Muir met a roving band of outlaw whites who lived by marauding and plundering. They let him pass because he looked like a poor, hapless collector of herbal remedies. Never before in the Midwest or Canada had he known real danger in his travels, but the South was a land where men regularly carried guns and where officers of the law were often far away, a condition that seemed to increase with the grandeur of the surroundings.
Despite contracting malaria in Florida and nearly dying, Muir eventually made it all the way to Cuba.
Several days ago, I awoke to this delightful sight out our back windows:
The above three photos were taken with a Panasonic FZ-20 digital camera with a 12x zoom lens. The two below were taken with the same camera in the optional wide screen mode. Be sure and click to enlarge; these look beautiful in full resolution.
All pictures were taken by my husband Ron.
So: What is happening in Your Faithful Blogger’s reading world? Well may you ask; this is, after all, called BOOKS to the Ceiling, n’est-ce pas? Here’s the deal: Until quite recently, I was reading these three very meaty tomes simultaneously:
I’ve already reviewed Philip Hensher’s exceptionally fine novel. I finally finished Home several days ago. Although shorter than either of the above titles, it seemed longer – much longer. I read it for a book club discussion which was set for last evening. When earlier this week the meeting was nearly canceled due to scheduling conflicts, I’m afraid I reacted rather strongly, to wit: “Hey, I fought my way through this book, and now I wanna talk about it – no excuses!” So we were back on for last night. The outcome surprised me. More later on this subject.
Finally, it is hard to know what to say about Donald Worster’s magisterial biography of naturalist and conservationist John Muir. (And isn’t that a great cover, with the “Old Man of the Mountains” pausing at the Merced River to take in the wonders of Yosemite.) I’ve gone on record as believing that many biographies are too long and that at most, we often just want a general sense of the subject’s life and work – not every minute detail of his or her existence. Well, I have to say, A Passion for Nature is filled with just such detail – and I drank in every word and wasn’t bored or impatient ever.
I am deeply grateful to Donald Worster for this book. Reading it has made me fully appreciate the greatness of John Muir, a tireless advocate for the preservation of this country’s natural beauty and the humane treatment of its animals, both wild and domestic. Alas, these battles have by no means been definitively won. John Muir, thou shouldst be living at this hour; America hath need of thee! (Although the very concept of, say, a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation – the nefarious, notorious CAFO’s – would probably give him a heart attack.)
In the course of Muir’s long. productive, and edifying life, he hiked, rambled, and climbed mountains, often with the most minimal of provisions. Here’s a description of his 1877 excursion into the San Gabriel Mountains. At this time, he would have been just shy of forty:
“Leaving his immigrant friend behind on Eaton Creek, he sauntered on for several days, sometimes walking in open sunshine, sometimes forced to crawl through dense underbrush, always keeping an eye open for snakes, wolves, bears, and cougars, until at last he stood on the peak of Mount San Antonio. That night he bedded down between two fires for safety from dangerous predators.
After getting back safely to Pasadena, he exclaimed, ‘I had a glorious view of the valley out to the ocean, which would require a whole book for description. My bread gave out a day before reaching the settlements, but I felt all the fresher and clearer for the fast.’ That too was vintage Muir–seeing more than he could describe, neglecting his food supply, but returning with a clarified mind and a fresh heart. His moment of regeneration he wanted to share with everyone on earth, and characteristically generous of spirit he became a trusting child of nature and a prophet of hope for humanity.
There are many photographs of John Muir, but this one may be my favorite. He looks like a cross between an Old Testament prophet and Leo Tolstoy – though judging from Worster’s book, he was far more companionable and easygoing than either of those worthies!
What an elemental cry of pain is contained in the pages of this beautiful book! Montana’s Yaak Valley, located in the northwestern corner of the state hard by the Canadian border, has no legally binding protection as wilderness. Along with the Yaak Valley Forest Council, Rick Bass has been ceaselessly advocating on behalf of this region for over twenty years. Let him tell you:
“For a long time now I’ve been an environmental activist up here, working hard for two basic causes: to promote local and sustainable small-scale selective logging practices rather than the industrial clearcuts of the past, and to seek permanent wilderness designation for the last fourteen little roadless up here, the last fourteen little wild gardens where we have not yet built logging roads into the furthest and farthest heart of the forest. Fourteen little gardens, ranging in size from 1000 to 38,000 acres. Fragments and crumbs.
And where has this passionate and principled advocacy got him? Cheerful product of the suburbs of Houston that he was, “I had no inkling or imagination whatsoever that I would grow up to be hated, or that my name would be reviled not just among my neighbors but by those who’d never met me, who’d never sat down to ask about my goals or values, and worst of all, who did not know the creeks, ridges, and drainages in question.”
All he ever wanted to do, Bass asserts repeatedly and plaintively, is to write fiction and poetry while living in a beautiful place. Instead, he has become embroiled in an intractable battle that appears to have drained much of the joy from his life. He wants desperately to withdraw from the fray. But he cannot. The Yaak is too beautiful and too fragile. The stakes are too high. The loss would be too great.
Bass is clearly in awe of his surroundings:
“In this dark, low, forested swampy jungle of a mountain valley, the shadows of things seems as real and distinct as the ‘things’ themselves, so that sometimes you can’t really say which is shadow and which is shadow caster. It’s not just the way the mountains blend in to the fog and clouds of the Pacific Northwest, but something less noticeable, and less definable.
This is a sentence I particularly cherish (the “Cabinets” referred to are a mountain range):
“During the retreat of the last glaciers, while the Cabinets were stealing the show – grinding, rearing, shouting, creaking, rasping, squeaking amid the thinning islands of going-away ice – the Yaak country…lay sleeping beneath several thousand feet of blue ice, like some mythic princess.
Why I Came West surprised me. I was expecting lots of lyrical, effusive description – abundant passages like the above. But mostly, this is a book about a war being fought to protect a pearl of great price. The Yaak Valley teems with wildlife: elk, moose, wolverine, and severely endangered grizzly bears (and will I ever forget the thrill of coming so unexpectedly upon a mother and her two cubs in Yellowstone this past June?) It still possesses pristine forests, rivers, and lakes. And those mountains! But the Yaak remains vulnerable to depredation and despoliation: by developers, by the extractive industries, by fun seekers on ATV’s and snowmobiles. There is only one way to save it permanently for posterity: obtain wilderness designation as provided by the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Toward the end of the book, Rick Bass holds out a ray of hope. He and his colleagues on the Forest Council were finally able to meet with their erstwhile opponents and hammer out an agreement that covers conservation practice, forestry management – including judicious logging in certain specific situations – and recreational use. They have crafted a proposal that they hope will be looked upon favorably by the U.S. Congress.
What hard, grinding work this must have been! Bass admits that his immersion in what sometimes felt like “an tedious argument of insidious intent” nearly drove him around the bend. And he still doesn’t believe that the agreement offers sufficient protection for his beloved Yaak Valley. But he also acknowledges that it will have to suffice for the time being.
Bass suggests ways that the rest of us can help. One is by writing in support of the protection of Yaak Valley to Montana’s representatives: Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Rep. Dennis Rehberg. You can also write to the representatives of your own state. Bass reminds us that we are within our rights to take up this cause no matter where we ourselves reside: these are public lands, owned in common by all Americans. (Also included here is a pitch for the Yaak Valley Forest Council, which is ” a tax-exempt, 501-(C)-nonprofit community service organization.”)
Rick Bass ends this book with an apology “to the reader who might have picked up this book hoping, perhaps, for lyrical descriptions of a fantastic and mythic landscape, only to find a disproportinate amount of caterwauling.” To that I respond, No need to apologize. I salute you, and thank you for your efforts on behalf of all of us. And thanks too for this moving, superbly written testament.
I would like the author to have the last word:
“For me, wilderenss areas are a place to walk into, while I am still able, and to rest — a place where the ever-dramatic and ever-increasing problems of the world are always, gently and miraculously, placed back in their divine and proper scale — and upon my reemergence, i always feel better equipped to deal with them.
They are a place that absorbs and tempers my own fear and anger, a place for restabilization. If I go into them joyous, I return joyous. If I go into them fretful or angry, I return becalmed. What magnificent alchemy, magnificent grace, is this? Given that each of us is here for onlly a very short time, what huge value is this? Surely it is immeasurable.
On this overcast morning, the entire out of doors seems suffused with the most intense green. You only see this in the early Spring. It made me think of the above line of verse, from Andrew Marvell’s poem:
The Garden, by Andrew Marvell
How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays ;
And their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid ;
While all the flowers and trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.
Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men :
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow ;
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.
No white nor red was ever seen
So amorous as this lovely green ;
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name.
Little, alas, they know or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheresoe’er your barks I wound
No name shall but your own be found.
When we have run our passion’s heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat :
The gods who mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race.
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow,
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine ;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach ;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit-tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide :
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets and combs its silver wings ;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.
Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate :
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there :
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.
How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flowers and herbs this dial new ;
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run ;
And, as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!
[Photos above of Stourhead Gardens, Wiltshire, England]
Poitou donkey with Annie Pollock, a retired veterinarian who has worked tirelessly on her Hampshire farm to save the breed from extinction.
I’ve already written about “Living with Geese” by Paul Theroux; now, I’d like to recommend several other pieces that are included in this outstanding anthology. (Where possible, I have linked to the stories that are full text online.)
“Murdering the Impossible” by Caroline Alexander (National Geographic) is a riveting profile of mountaineer Reinhold Messner. Messner was born in northern Italy’s South Tirol, a region that identifies almost as strongly with Austria as it does with Italy. Writes Alexander: “To non-climbers it may be difficult to convey the extent and grandeur of Reinhold Messner’s accomplishments.” He is especially famous for climbing Mount Everest without oxygen, a feat he achieved in 1978 with his longtime partner Peter Habeler. Messner’s life story is studded with similar triumphs – and one terrible tragedy.
[On its website, National Geographic has posted an excerpt of "Murdering the Impossible." I found the full text of the article on the proprietary database Academic ASAP, available through many public and academic libraries.]
In “Russell and Mary” (The Georgia Review), Michael Donohue literally stumbles on a box of papers belonging to his newly deceased landlady. The papers pertain to her long dead husband, Russell. From these fragments, Donohue reconstructs an entire life. At first, I wasn’t sure why I should care about Russell – there were aspects of his personality that were repugnant and unsavory. But this essay has a cumulative power, and by the end, I found myself immensely moved by Russell’s sad story.
“Inside Scientology” by Janet Reitman (Rolling Stone). I don’t want to say say much about this piece except that Reitman was granted unprecedented access to the inner sanctum of scientology. Her fair-minded report back to the rest of us is a real eye-opener.
On a lighter note, I thoroughly enjoyed “Rhymes with Rich” (The Atlantic Monthly), in which Sandra Tsing Loh takes cheerful aim at well-to-do wives and mothers who bemoan the logistical challenges of their lives, all the while consoling themselves with high-end brand name purchases and other perquisites of the monied classes.
There were two essays that I found immensely provocative and disturbing: “Our Oceans Are Turning into Plastic…Are We?” by Susan Casey (Best Life) and “Prairie Fire” by Eric Konigsberg (The New Yorker). In the first, Casey describes the discovery, in 1997, by California sailor and sportsman Charles Moore of an enormous accretion of junk in an area of ocean called the North Pacific subtropical gyre:
“It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could not believe his eyes. Out here in this desolate place, the water was a stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.”
This spot in the Pacific, presently called the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” is now roughly twice the size of Texas.
Casey goes on to describe the deleterious effect that an enormous quantity of non-biodegradable plastic is having on other aspects of the environment – and on us, as it insidiously infiltrates our own bodily systems. Very, very scary.
In “Prairie Fire,” Eric Konigsberg writes about the death of child prodigy Brandenn Bremmer. Brandenn, whose IQ was measured at 178, “…liked the musician Yanni, medieval history, making jewelry, baking cheesecake, lifting weights, playing video games (especially SimCity, SimFarm, and the Command and Conquer series) and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He was intersted in animals, gross-out humor, and science experiments that he could devise at home.”
But that immense vitality was extinguished by a single violent act. Brandenn was fourteen years old when he died. “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…”
[As with "Murdering the Impossible," only an abstract of "Praire Fire" is posted on the New Yorker site. It too is available full text on Academic ASAP.]
From the depths of sadness engendered by “Prairie Fire” to the exalted heights of artistic brilliance, from one prodigy to another: in “The Storm of Style” (The New Yorker), Alex Ross shares with readers his wonder at the fireworks display of Mozart’s genius. Along the way, he treats us to some verbal pyrotechnics of his own, and more of the same by other Mozart scholars. To wit:
“The scholar Scott Burnham recently observed that Mozart offers the ‘sound of the loss of innocence, the ever renewable loss of innocence.’ There is no more potent subject for an artist, and it explains why Mozart remains so vivid a presence. As ever, the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 23 sends us into a wistful trance; the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony wakes us up into a uniquely Mozartean kind of intelligent happiness; and the apocalyptic climax of Don Giovanni stirs our primal fear of being weighed in the balance and found wanting. The loss of innocence was Mozart’s, too. Like the rest of us, he had to live outside the complex paradise that he created in sound.”
[That finale of the Jupiter Symphony is incredibly sublime. Get the recording made by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in the early sixties. By all means, listen to the entire symphony. Then brace yourself for the incandescent conclusion]
Alex Ross seems to have ready just about every book ever written about Mozart. Even more impressive: he has worked his way through virtually all of Mozart’s oeuvre. In 1991, the Philips label issued the complete edition of the composers works on 180 CDs; we are informed that the set has recently been reissued “in a handsome and surprisingly manageable array of seventeen boxes.” Ross transferred all of it to his iPod and informs that “Mozart requires 9.77 gigabytes.”
Alex Ross is a terrific writer on a subject – music – that is very hard to write about. His book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century made several Best of 2007 lists. I very much look forward to reading it; meanwhile, I’ll continue to enjoy his columns in the New Yorker.
I particularly appreciate what Ross has to say about Don Giovanni: “In a jubilee year, when all the old Mozart myths come rising out of the ground where scholars have tried to bury them, the usefulness of Don Giovanni is that it puts a stake through the heart of the chocolate-box Mozart, the car-radio Mozart, the Mozart-makes-you-smarter Mozart.”
This splendid essay concludes thus: “Don Giovanni, which is many people’s choice for the greatest opera ever written, ends with something like a humble gesture: it dissolves its own aura of greatness.Having marched us to the brink of Heaven and Hell, Mozart abruptly pulls us back, implying that, in the manner of Shakespeare’s epilogues, all is show, a pageant melting into air. ‘I’m just the composer, I don’t have any answers,’ he seems to say. ‘Life goes on!’ And he walks away at a rapid pace, his red coat flapping behind him.”
One of the pieces included in the fine anthology Best American Magazine Writing 2007 is by one of my favorite writers, Paul Theroux. “Living with Geese” originally appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine. In it, Theroux describes his ten years’ experiencing breeding and raising these singular creatures. His powers of observation are astute, as anyone who has read his novels and travel narratives can attest. He does, however, expend what seems to be a rather inordinate amount of energy critiquing E.B. White. I didn’t know this, but White also raised geese, but in Maine, rather than in Hawaii, where Theroux lives. White too wrote on this subject, in an essay that’s apparently held in affectionate esteem by many readers. But not – definitely not – by Theroux.
He complains that”…E.B. White patronizes his geese, invents feelings for them and obfuscates things.” This incessant tendency to anthropomorphize, Theroux contends, gets in the way of understanding the true nature of the animal in question. I can agree with him there. But then he goes on: “E.B. White is never happier that when he is able to depict an animal by humanizing it as a friend. Yet what lies behind the animal’s expression of friendship? It is an eagerness for easy food.”
I sighed deeply upon reading this. Whenever folks want to denigrate us doting pet owners, they trot out this argument. Well, okay, “easy food” is a major benefit for dogs and cats who share their dwelling space with humans. But if you’ve lived with these wonderful creatures for any length of time, it becomes increasingly evident that, at least to some extent, your affection for them is reciprocated in kind. Many little gestures on their part serve to reinforce this conviction. And naturally, at this point, I just have to slip in a picture of a certain cat…
Theroux makes one assertion in this essay that I find even more troubling: “Animal lovers often tend to be misanthropes or loners, and so they transfer their affection to the creature in their control.” The examples he cites are Joy Adamson of Born Free fame,Timothy Treadwell, who was the subject of the documentary film Grizzly Man, and Dian Fossey, who did groundbreaking research on the mountain gorillas of Central Africa. Fossey, Theroux states, was “a drinker and a recluse.”
I remember reading articles about Dian Fossey in the 1980′s, both before and after she was killed in Rwanda in 1985. I did not recall reading that she had a problem with alcohol. Theroux’s remarks brought to mind “The Woman Who Loved Gorillas” by Alex Shoumatoff. This piece first appeared in Vanity Fair, but I read it in African Madness, a collection of four long essays by this author.
I read this book when it came out in 1988. As luck would have it, there are still two copies owned by my beloved Central Library! I brought one home because I was looking for a particular passage that I did recall. Here it is:
“In general, people who are drawn to nature and become animal lovers fall into two groups, which might be described as the Shakespearians and the Thoreauvians. The Shakespearians consider man and his works to be part of nature; while loving animals, they have warm, positive feelings toward people, too. The animal love of the Thoreauvians, however, is inversely proportionate to their compassion for their own kind.”
(The description of the Shakespearians put me in mind of these lines from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar;
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal. )
Shoumatoff goes on to theorize that Throeauvians, who often have “extraordinary empathy with animals,” are often the product of a lonely, isolated upbringing. Such indeed was the case with Dian Fossey.
Although I obtained a copy of African Madness so that I could find that passage, I found myself reading “The Woman Who Loved Gorillas” in its entirety. Once again, I was riveted by this sad, compelling story. Fossey was a difficult, complicated woman; as the years passed, her relations with the students at Karisoke, the research station she had established, became increasingly strained. Relations with the native population went from bad to worse. She became a fanatic where poaching was concerned, and some of the actions she took against those she suspected of this crime are, in retrospect, pretty shocking. One gets the picture of a woman going off the rails. And yes, she was drinking.
But, as with so many complicated situations involving complex personalities, ambition, and bruised egos, there is more to this story. There is Dian Fossey’s tremendous contribution to our knowledge and understanding of those magnificent creatures, the mountain gorillas. There was her Herculean effort to preserve their habitat and their lives, work which one desperately hopes will not prove to be all for nought.
The government of Rwanda eventually charged the man who discovered Dian’s body, American primatologist Wayne McGuire, with her murder. Most observers considered the charge baseless. Although McGuire needed more time to collect data for his doctoral thesis, he left Rwanda on the advice of the American consul. The murder has never been solved.
Shoumatoff’s piece concludes with a visit to Dian’s grave in Africa. She is buried at Karisoke, near her cabin, among the gorillas who died before her.
“Hers was a pure, selfless love, forged in the pain of loneliness, like an artist’s love, which doesn’t feed or heal your soul, and takes a lot out of you. A damaged, driven person, herself a victim of unlove, she had this extraordinary love, without which there would probably be no gorillas in the Virungas. It was her love that she will be remembered for.”
Oh – and by the way, “Living with Geese” concludes with Theroux moving Heaven and Earth to aid and comfort an aging gander in his flock. Having in recent memory endured the pain – always so much greater than you think it will be – of losing an animal companion, I understood why he was going to such lengths. When his efforts proved successful, I was happy for him.