Some Travel Writing

The Brits– and those who have totally embraced their internal (imperial?) Brit– have a certain sardonic yet deadpan style I admire. First, the late great master Norman Lewis, from his 1951 A Dragon Apparent, about a totally- vanished Indochina:

“These Chams were aboriginal Malayo- Polynesians, the only group of that race to have accepted the civilization of Indian colonizers in the remote past. They made a great impression on Marco Polo, but judging from the account of the Dominican, Gilbert de San Antonio, who visited them in the sixteenth century, there was a nightmarish element in their civilization.It was brilliant but psychopathic, like that of the Aztecs… Stone age beliefs, like grim Easter- Island faces, were always there in the background. On certain days, San Antonio says, they sacrificed over six thousand people, and their gall was collected and sent to the king, who bathed in it to gain immortality.

“…The metaphysical appetite of South- East Asia is insatiable and its tolerance absolute. The modern Chams find no difficulty worshipping the Hindu Trinity,the linga, the bull of Siva, a pythoness, Allah– who is believed to have been an eleventh century Cham king– plus Mohammed and a number of uncomprehended words taken from the Muslim invocations and regarded as the names of deities, each with its special function.They are inclined to give their children such names as Dog, Cat, Rat to distract them from the attentions of evil spirits. For this reason there were several Cham kings named excrement”.

Next, American Paul Theroux, who has read the masters.

“I bought four oranges at the station, made a note of a sign advertising horoscopes that read MARRY YOUR DAUGHTERS BY SPENDING RS. 12 ONLY, shouted at a little man who was bullying a beggar, and read my handbook’s entry for Nagpur (so called because it is on the River Nag:

“Among the inhabitants are many aborigines known as Gonds. Of these hill tribes [sic] have black skins, flat noses and thick lips. A cloth around their waist is their chief garment The religious belief varies from village to village. Nearly all worship the cholera and smallpox deities, and there are traces of serpent worship”

This passage was so reminiscent of Norman Lewis (except for, possibly, the shouting) that I searched for it in his A Goddess in the Stones before finding it pasted into my commonplace book for 11 June ’98, apparently from a (?) NYTBR.

(If you are intrigued enough to check out Lewis I suggest you start with this volume, which contains his early Indochina volume mentioned above, his recent Indian “Goddess”, and a book about Burma. They are my favorites, though he wrote MANY others on subjects and locations from Spain to Sicily. Come to think of it, better read the Sicilian ones too, at least…)

Are all non- native species bad?

Ron Bailey doesn’t think they necessarily are. He also deplores the fact that you aren’t supposed to talk about it.

” “That kind of information is dangerous,” scolded Jodi Cassell. Cassell, who works with the California Sea Grant Extension program, was speaking at a symposium on “Alien Species in Coastal Waters: What Are the Real Ecological and Social Costs?” at the February American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, D.C. She wasn’t alone in her alarm. “We have members of the press here,” warned a member of the audience. “I am very concerned that they might think that his view is the dominant view.”

“The target of this shushing was Mark Sagoff, a philosopher from the University of Maryland who has worked with Maryland’s Sea Grant program to determine how the Chesapeake Bay’s unique ecology defines a sense of place. Sagoff’s sin? He’d had the temerity to point out the benefits that the much-loathed zebra mussels had brought to the Great Lakes.

” “There has been a striking difference in water clarity improving dramatically in Lake Erie, sometimes six to four times what it was before the arrival of the zebra mussels,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. “With this increase in water clarity, more light is able to penetrate deeper allowing for an increase in macrophytes (aquatic plants). Some of these macrophyte beds have not been seen for many decades due to changing conditions of the lake mostly due to pollution. The macrophyte beds that have returned are providing cover and acting as nurseries for some species of fish.” What’s more, zebra mussels provide food and habitat for all sorts of native fish and ducks”.

Bailey is provocative, though he hardly has the last word. For a more detailed examination of the state of the art, check out Out of Eden by Alan Burdick, a good and even- handed book about the ecology of biological invasions. (On the cover is an unquestionably bad invader, the brown tree snake that wiped out Guam’s birds).

Writing Life 2: “Long Tails”

Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading has an examination of the publishing world’s current obsession with what we might call Big Safe Books, and why it is not the best or only business model.

“I suppose that all this reflects the dominant business-model in commercial publishing right now: Put all your eggs in one basket. Publishers seem to prefer to have one megaseller that saves them from 10 bad investments instead of 10 modest-sellers and 1 bad invesement that doesn’t hurt that much. This strikes me as bad business sense, a system that produces books and marketing that are out of whack with what most readers want”.

Read. The. Whole. Thing!

Writing Life #1

It has been a rough week– we lost Libby’s father Ken (see “Ken Adam” below) and a good friend, Bill Smiley, this week, so blogging has taken a back seat. But we are home now and things are returning to as close to normal as they ever get here at Casa Querencia.

In that spirit: first, Annie Davidson sends word that the results on this year’s Bulwer-Lytton contest– the one in which writers attempt to construct first sentences of imaginary novels at least as bad as those of the legendary author of The Last Days of Pompeii– “It was a dark and stormy night”– are up. She also sent this relevant entry separately:

“Inside his cardboard box, Greg heated a dented can of Spaghetti-O’s over a small fire made from discarded newspapers, then cracked open his last can of shoplifted generic beer to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his embarkation on a career as a freelance writer”.

(Lawrence Person,
Austin, TX)

Ken Adam R.I.P.– and a few thoughts on Yosemite

Ken Adam, my father- in- law, died yesterday at 87, at home, surrounded by his loving family. He had a long and adventurous life. Among his achievements were many pioneering climbs in Yosemite.

To quote from Steve Roper’s A Climber’s Guide to Yosemite: ” Although as long ago as 1886 Hutchings, in reporting the relatively easy ascent of Grizzly Peak, claimed that the last `unclimbed summit’ of Yosemite had been ascended, nevertheless the Cathedral Spires, the Church Spires, the Church Tower, the Arrowhead, Split Pinnacle, Pulpit Rock, Watkins Pinnacles, and the Lost Arrow still stood forth without even an attempt ever having been recorded against them. In addition to these summits, there was a field, practically unexplored, of route finding on faces, aretes, gullies, and chimneys. Among these may be mentioned Washington Column, Royal Arches, Panorama Cliff, Glacier Point, Yosemite Point Couloir, Cathedral Chimney, and the arete of the Lower Brother. Ropes, pitons, and trained experience in their use were the keys to these ascents, which were later to become so popular. Climbers, profiting by the achievements of their predecessors, added still more ascents to the growing list of Yosemite Routes . . . ”

Roper continues:

“During the eight years between the 1933 trip and the entry of this country into World War II, about forty first ascents were made. The most active climbers of this period were Kenneth Adam, David Brower, Jules Eichorn, Morgan Harris Richard Leonard, L. Bruce Meyer, and Harvey Voge.

Now the climbers of Yosemite, Ken’s heirs, are under seige. In the crowded park, they receive no special privileges, and cannot spend more than seven days there in the summer. But they have some excellent arguments against the park’s one- size- fits- all rules.

“Seven nights are barely enough for climbers to get their bearings in Yosemite, much less to climb the big routes that draw them here in the first place. Although climbing conditions can be good in April and in the early fall, the weather is less predictable than in the summer; witness the deaths of two climbers — and the rescue of five others — on El Capitan last October. So playing by the seven-night rule is a little like an Olympic athlete agreeing to experiment with his chosen event only seven times a year. So nobody does, which makes things difficult for the rangers”.

Aaron Young, a climber, staes the wishes of the climbers succinctly: “We’re trying to say we should be grandfathered in,” Young says. “We’ve been here this many years; we should be allowed to stay all summer. Even people in the Ahwahnee Hotel have a one-week limit, but what is a tourist going to do for more than a week? There’s only so many waterfalls, so many stores to go in, but climbers have a 7-mile stretch on either side of just solid rock.”

We have strange ideas of privilege in this society. Too often we grant it to those who haven’t earned it, and deny it to those who have. I think I know whose side Ken would be on.

Oh all right…

… something cool. This is a photo of two aboriginal hunters with matchlock rifles and a Laika dog in the Tunguskaya region of Siberia in 1926, part of a great archive compilied by Russian census takers in 1926 (you can “back” into the larger archive). As my friend Vladimir Beregovoy, who sent this to me, wrote:” These pictures were taken at a very last time of relatively free life in Russia, 1926- 27. Communist government was just about to start turning life upside down there. They conducted population census in the North and Siberia. Members of the crew had a keen interest beyond their government’s duty and took a lot of pictures, the last pictures from Communist- free Siberia”.

“Spleen” by Beaudelaire

I’m like the King of some damp, rainy clime,
Grown impotent and old before my time,
Who scorns the bows and scrapings of his teachers
And bores himself with hounds and all such creatures.
Naught can amuse him, falcon, steed or chase:
No, not the mortal plight of his whole race
Dying before his balcony. The tune,
Sung to this tyrant by his pet buffoon,
Irks him. His couch seems far more like a grave.
Even the girls, for whom all kings seem brave,
Can think no toilet up, nor shameless rig,
To draw a smirk from this funereal prig.
The sage who makes him gold, could never find
The baser element that rots his mind.
Even those blood-baths the old Romans knew
And later thugs have imitated too,
Can’t warm this skeleton to deeds of slaughter,
Whose only blood is Lethe’s cold, green water.

—Charles Baudelaire (translated by Roy Campbell)