Swimming In The Wild

A man in natural water

Thanks to Anelise Chen, for this story in the Atlantic, for signaling that summer is here for those in the northern hemisphere:

Swimming in the Wild Will Change You

One man’s journey through public waterways—whether sparkling or dirty or algae-filled—challenges us to look differently at the commons.

Some months ago, as the weather was first turning warm, I was out walking along the Mill River in New Haven when I saw a young man emerge from the water. He appeared to have gone for a swim wearing nothing more than boxer briefs. The sight was shocking; the river had barely thawed, and I’d always thought the unspoken rule about urban rivers was that you didn’t get into them (especially not half naked). This particular stretch at the base of East Rock Park looked idyllic enough, with willows and elms growing along its banks, but around the bend, the water passed through an industrial area with rotting factories and massive dunes of road salt. Continue reading

Weavers at Hand

This video expresses the concept of artisan ethos in almost too many ways to count: from the centuries old traditions of weaving in India , to creative communities coming together to rebuild cultural patrimony in the face of natural disasters, not to mention the well-crafted visual storytelling of the piece itself. (Kudos yet again to Anoodha and her Curiouser team for their own style of weaving.) Continue reading

Ithaca Dreams

Olive trees along the shore of Dexa Beach on the Ionian island of Ithaca, thought to be Odysseus’ homeland, as told in Homer’s eighth-century B.C. epic poem “The Odyssey.” Credit Alex Majoli

Odysseys (not to mention, The Odyssey) are a fundamental aspect of our family’s peripatetic lives. Having lived in 5 countries on 4 continents, there are places that continue to draw us back with roots that run wide and deep. Greece is one of those places, for multi-generational reasons. It strikes me as strange that we’ve never been to Ithaca, at least the one that Pico Iyer writes about here.

The Ithaca we’re tethered to in many ways is the Ithaca of the new world: the birthplace of our sons, the home of Cornell University, the place that draws us back to a 3rd generation, still.

The strength of stories is as powerful as the bonds of love for family and for motherland, and I thank Pico for continuing to share his with us all.

One writer chronicles his voyage to the island of Ithaca, where Odysseus was once reputedly king.

I STEPPED INTO a taxi on my arrival in Athens and mentioned the name of one of the city’s most central five-star hotels. The driver was thrown into a frenzy, and not only because he seemed to speak no English. As we zigzagged at high speed through the jampacked streets, he tapped frantically on his smartphone and started calling friends, none of whom were any help at all. When, finally, we pulled up at the entrance, I was greeted by a wild-haired, gesticulating front-desk man who said, “We’re so sorry, sir. We have a problem, a big problem, today. So we have made a reservation for you in our other hotel. Half a block away.”

The problem, the taxi driver conveyed, was that every toilet in the hotel had flooded.

In the fancy new place where I ended up — it took us 20 minutes to go around the corner thanks to narrow, one-way streets — I walked into an elevator to be confronted by two thickly bearded Orthodox priests in full clerical dress crammed into the same small space, cellphones protruding from their pockets as they wished me, in easy English, “Good evening.” The mayhem of the little lanes I’d just come through, the sunlit dishevelment of the buildings, which seemed to be collapsing as much as rising up, the graves in the middle of the city: I felt, quite happily, as if I were not in Europe but in Beirut or Amman.

The real antiquity in Greece, I thought — and this is its enduring blessing, for a visitor — is its daily life; on this return trip, retracing a course I’d followed 35 years before, from the classical sites of the Peloponnese (ill-starred Mycenae and healing Epidaurus) all the way to Odysseus’ storied home on Ithaca, I was noticing that it’s precisely the slow, human-scaled, somewhat ramshackle nature of arrangements here that gives the country much of its human charm. Yes, you can still see Caravaggio faces around the Colosseum in Rome; along the ghats in Varanasi, India, you’re among the clamor and piety of the Vedas. But in Greece, it’s the absence of modern developments — of high-rises and high-speed technologies — that can make you feel as if you’re walking among the ancient philosophers and tragedians who gave us our sense of hubris and catharsis.

Forget the fact that the Klitemnistra hotel is down the street from Achilles Parking; what really gives Greece its sense of being changeless is that the Lonely Planet guidebook gives you a cure for the evil eye, and a man is crossing himself furiously as he attempts to double-park. The Grecian formula that keeps the place forever young — and old, and itself — has less to do with the monuments of kings and gods than simply with the rhythms of the day: Fishing boats are heading out before first light and the shepherd’s son is leading the priest’s niece under the olive trees in the early morning. Black-clad women are gossiping in the shade and donkeys clop and stop over ill-paved stones in the siesta-silent, sunlit afternoon. At night, there’s the clatter of pots from the tavernas and the sound of laughter under lights around the harbor.

All in a landscape where the deep blue sea surrounds you on every side, and the indigo and scarlet and orange flowerpots are bright with geraniums and begonias. It’s not just that you feel the presence of a rural past everywhere in Greece; it’s that, amid this elemental landscape of rock and cobalt sky and whitewashed church, you step out of the calendar altogether and into the realm of allegory.

Continue reading

Memento

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When we lived in Paris, weekend grocery errands inevitably led us through informal markets where people sold all kinds of old things. One favorite distraction was the vendor of postcards. There was at least one person at any given marketplace who had cards like the ones above, mostly from early 1900s, some going back to the previous century. Usually they were in shoe boxes and never were they organized in any way any of us could understand.  Most but not all were from French travelers sending mementos back to people in France. In just five minutes flipping through the cards we could be transported.

What made this a favorite distraction was as much professional as anything else. Having spent several years studying a place from which countless postcards had been sent starting in the 1870s, I developed an affinity for the choices made by illustrators and photographers in different eras about how to represent a place.

There is also a personal dimension to this affinity, which is that my father was a photographer who in addition to a portrait studio had a postcard business. From 1972 until 1978 if you sent a postcard from just about anywhere in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, it was probably one of his postcards, which means one of his photographs. Starting when I was 10 years old until I was 16 I would accompany him on road trips through that region when he was restocking postcards at hotels and other venues where they were sold. That might explain my favorite distraction in Paris.

Stacked Stones Had Nothing To Do With It

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After writing yesterday’s post I got a message from the “new friend.” She is the one on the right in the photo above. I am the one on the left. My two childhood friends are in the middle. The new friend’s name, Amie, will be familiar to regular readers on this platform. After reading my post yesterday she sent me these three old photos. Above is at the top of the gorge, just as the sun is coming over the mountain. Dawn’s rosy tipped finger, someone among us surely said. By late morning, time for a fruit break, below is the place where I might have started thinking of stacking stones, in the figurative sense of wishing something of the future. But I did not then, nor do I now, believe in totemic powers of objects, or good luck.

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I believed that a new friendship was sufficient good fortune, and being in that natural setting was the closest I got to worshiping things.

SamariaC&A2.jpegNo need to stack stones. As we made our way down to the bottom of the gorge, to where those sky-high rock walls allowed single file passage to the black stone beach, conversation was the thing.

The black stones were a surprise because they seemed to bear no relationship with the geology of the gorge. And I do remember now, playing with the stones, and surely stacking them while we sat there looking out to the sea, continuing the conversation. But I was not stacking stones in the way Sophie Haigney’s story refers to.

Really. I can say that with confidence because Amie reminds me that the oblong oval-shaped stones were not stackable. So I tried my best, but could not get one to rest upon another. That said, I am also confident that while not superstitious I was still able to make wishes, and then take actions to fulfill them.

Stop Stacking Stones

 

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The steep downhill path starting from Xyloskalo

If I have done it, it would have been once. And hopefully less of an issue than the examples given in this story below. It was a day in September, 1983 and I had traveled to Greece with two childhood friends, all of us now in early adulthood. With us was one new friend, who we had met in JFK airport just prior to departure.

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The peaceful river crossing Samaria Gorge

On the island of Crete, we left Xania well before sunrise to hike from the top to the bottom of Samaria Gorge, as far south in Greece as you can get and still be on land. With every switchback of our descent, I was getting more and more lost in conversation with our new friend, so that by the time we reached the bottom of the gorge I wondered where the day had gone. After a full day of hiking, lost in conversation or otherwise, the stones of the gorge play on your mind.

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The impressive Portes in Samaria Gorge

At this point you pass through one last formation that is so stunning that if you had not been thinking of playing with stones until now, you had not been paying enough attention. And that was my case. I remember walking silently through this last section and not talking again until the very end, when you spill onto a beach formed by smooth black stones, facing south, nothing but water until you reach Africa. There, in Agia Roumeli, you can get a cool drink before a boat takes you back to Xania. And while you wait for the boat, if you have something to wish for, you may find yourself stacking those smooth black stones.

My photographs from that day, somewhere in storage, would show the beginning, long middle sections, and end of that day. If I did stack stones the evidence will be in those photos, and I will find them. For now I have linked to photos from the blog of a Cretan travel consortium to give a hint of what the place looks like, and as a recommendation to others to visit. Sophie Haigney, writing on the New Yorker website, gave me reason just now to think about my own culpability in what can now be described as a dangerous, destructive form of travel footprint, and I thank her for bringing this to our attention:

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An Instagram trend that’s littering national parks with towers of carefully balanced stones, #StoneStacking can cause erosion and damage ecosystems. Photograph by Sam Oakes / Alamy

People Are Stacking Too Many Stones

The photograph in the Facebook post is pretty: piles of red rocks balanced at the edge of a cliff, suggesting a miniature mirror of the jagged rock face opposite. The stacks look like small shrines to mountain solitude, carefully balanced at the edge of a precipice. But when Zion National Park posted the photo, in September, the social-media coördinators for the park included a plea: “Please, enjoy the park but leave rocks and all natural objects in place.” The post noted the “curious but destructive practice” of building small stone towers, and said, “stacking up stones is simply vandalism.” Continue reading

A Story That May Make Your Day

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FMBeets.jpgThe view above is a stretch of Continental Divide passing through Costa Rica’s central valley. The snapshot is taken from the road close to our home. I hike these mountains most mornings. On Saturdays I visit the farmer’s market in the town square. Beets were on my shopping list this week. One of the very few culinary banes of my youth, beets are now a favorite. A single shot glass of borscht, served to me in Leeuwarden, Holland solved that problem for me in 2004.

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Pejibaye, a fruit from one of the many palm varieties growing in this region, is considered a local staple. We find that it has a resemblance to chestnut, so we use it to prepare stuffing to accompany the roasting of something or other on the fourth Thursday of November.

FMDragonFruitThis time of year dragon fruit appears and if it is a sunny morning their color is motivational. That is, I find their color energizing.

But something about the name must explain why, as with beets in my youth, I have not been motivated to eat this fruit.

I am waiting for someone to demonstrate the best way.

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I listen to a mix of music and podcasts during the mountain walks. Music energizes the steep uphill grinds while podcasts fill the downhills and straightaways, where I can concentrate. I recommend clicking on the My Ames Is True tab here and I also recommend not reading the blurb describing what it is about. Enjoy the surprise. This podcast is best listened to with no introduction, except for the fact that it is told by Michael Lewis on This American Life. It may make your day.

Two Op-Eds Arguing The Same Powerful Case In Two Different Ways

23Englander-superJumbo.jpgNathan Englander came to my attention nearly six years ago. A novelist who lives in Brooklyn, he got me thinking about story-telling in a way that was very important to me, two years into our residency in India. He did something important for me again this last week, focusing my attention on an act I would normally ignore. But his point resonated with me because of the subject’s connection to the state of nature. So I thought about how to link to his op-ed in a manner consistent with our objectives on this site.

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Credit Lan Truong

Four years ago Richard Conniff, who writes about wildlife and human and animal behavior, started a long series of regular appearances in our pages. The day after Nathan Englander published the op-ed I mentioned above, Richard Conniff published an op-ed referencing the same act, a day in advance of Earth Day. And it is powerful. So I knew how to proceed, and with this excerpt you may be inclined to read both op-eds in full:

I was thinking about Mr. Buckel and about despair a few nights later, over a drink with Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society. As director of that organization’s worldwide field conservation work, Mr. Walston routinely comes face-to-face with the dark forces of human overpopulation, mass extinction of species, climate change and pollution. But he is also the co-author of a paper being published this week in the journal BioScience that begins with the uplifting words of Winston Churchill to the British nation in June 1940, under the shadow of the Nazi conquest of France: “In casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye,” Churchill declared, “I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.” Continue reading

Thinking About What Matters

9781328661593_custom-98a5c984a54b82218a0fc4bb11b82f1021da6b56-s400-c85The author does not frequently show up in these pages. But when she does, it is worth noting because she says things that matter, and that gets us thinking. In the case of this book she is stating the obvious, that there is no time to spare. But sometimes it is good that someone of her stature states it anyway. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this review:

Ursula K. Le Guin’s mastery of fiction has remained so consistent throughout her decades-long career, it’s easy to overlook her accomplishments in other forms. Sure, she’s the author of iconic, award-winning science fiction novels such as 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness and 1971’s The Lathe of Heaven, not to mention the beloved fantasy series The Earthsea Cycle, which began in 1968. But those distinct works share Le Guin’s firm grasp of poetic language, science, and history. Accordingly, she’s a brilliant poet, albeit a less recognized one. Even further down on her résumé are her wins as a nonfiction writer. Her 2016 collection of essays and reviews, Words Are My Matter, won the Hugo Award for Best Related Work in 2017, despite the fact that the book did not focus exclusively on science fiction — nor do her other nonfiction collections, including The Wave in the Mind from 2004 and now, No Time to Spare, a new book that assembles some of her most cogent ruminations on everything from gender politics to anthropology to, yes, science fiction and fantasy. Continue reading

The Craft Speaks

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His craft is based in the notion that things of quality are meant to be fixed, even repeatedly, rather than discarded and replaced. Photograph by Martin Parr / Magnum

Thanks to the New Yorker and especially Anna Altman for this little picture:

There were the hiking boots I’ve had since high school, so battered that one Sunday, near the Delaware Water Gap, the rubber sole started to crumble off in chunks. There were the short brown riding boots, perforated like brogues, that remained beloved even with a gash worn through the leather at the heel. There were the teal-blue pumps with a decorative buckle on the toe, made by an upscale French designer and borrowed, without total permission, from a friend’s sister, for a twenty-first birthday party. Those came home flecked with my roommate’s vomit, a peel of leather dangling from the toe. Continue reading

Odyssey’s Everlasting Allure

Illustration by Golden Cosmos

The title had me at Father, and again at Odyssey (Final, not so much). My first encounter with Homer was in an advanced literature course in my last year of high school. As a father now, with a son who found his way back home to another Ithaca, after his own odyssey, I could not resist jumping right into this story. But half way through, I stopped reading it. I will not say why I stopped, but I mentioned it to Amie, who I consult on matters of an aesthetic nature, especially when they intersect with matters of a familial nature, and she had already read it to the end. She said it was important to read it all the way through. I now understand why, and must recommend the same now, whether or not you have read the Odyssey:

A FATHER’S FINAL ODYSSEY

My octogenarian dad wanted to study Homer’s epic and learn its lessons about life’s journeys. First he took my class. Then we sailed for Ithaca. Continue reading

Images Of Immigrants’ Things

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The C.B.P. considers rosaries to be potentially lethal, non-essential personal property, and agents dispose of them during intake. THOMAS KIEFER / INSTITUTE

This story, and these images, would maybe have less impact at another time, but during what seems like an assault on all immigration (hidden behind the veil of fighting illegal immigration) in the USA this exhibition is exceptionally moving:

Tom Kiefer was a Customs and Border Protection janitor for almost four years before he took a good look inside the trash. Every day at work—at the C.B.P. processing center in Ajo, Arizona, less than fifty miles from the border with Mexico—he would throw away bags full of items confiscated from undocumented migrants apprehended in the desert.

Shopping Bags

In addition to backpacks, shopping bags are used to transport food and belongings. Many are durable though non-biodegradable and adverse to the desert environment. THOMAS KIEFER / INSTITUTE

One day in 2007, he was rummaging through these bags looking for packaged food, which he’d received permission to donate to a local pantry. In the process, he also noticed toothbrushes, rosaries, pocket Bibles, water bottles, keys, shoelaces, razors, mix CDs, condoms, contraceptive pills, sunglasses, keys: a vibrant, startling testament to the lives of those who had been detained or deported. Without telling anyone, Kiefer began collecting the items, stashing them in sorted piles in the garages of friends. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he told me recently. “But I knew there was something to be done.”

Toilet Paper

Personal hygiene items such as toilet paper is disposed of during intake.When migrants are apprehended, Customs and Border Protection agents dispose of personal-hygiene items such as toilet paper during intake. THOMAS KIEFER / INSTITUTE

Kiefer, who is now fifty-eight, had moved to Ajo from Los Angeles, in 2001, hoping to simplify his life, purchase a home, and focus on his passion: taking pictures. (Previously, he’d been a collector and dealer of antique cast-iron bed frames, and, before that, a graphic designer.) He took the C.B.P. job, in 2003, for purely practical reasons: it paid ten dollars and forty-two cents an hour, and it seemed unlikely to steal mental space away from his photography projects. Now he began photographing his C.B.P. collection in his studio, arranging and rearranging items, sometimes putting Continue reading

Island Life Is Always Different

611_200px2006-2007 was among my favorite stretches of time, both for our La Paz Group work and for life with my family. We were living on an island in the Adriatic Sea where the only other residents were fishermen and their families. Besides learning how blissful life can be on an island, I learned that island people are somehow different from mainlanders. It seems to be a cultural phenomenon worldwide. So when I heard this story about life on an island in Hawaii, I was expecting to hear about differences; this is about as different as I have ever heard of:

That’s Just How I Rule.

A family that owns a private island in Hawaii sets rules for the people who live there. But when the rules are administered in an unpredictable way, the islanders get upset. Sean Cole and Adia White tell the story. (22 minutes)

Support The Story

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Credit Emilia Lloret/Native Agency

We will all be the beneficiaries, no doubt:

Nurturing New Storytellers in Africa and Latin America

By David Gonzalez

For some people, the idea of “serious” photography conjures up dramatic scenes of suffering, violence and poverty. This can be especially so in parts of Latin America and Africa, where careers have been made by foreign journalists who go in looking for drama. While no doubt there are pressing issues in these regions, there are also scenes of daily life, or less dramatic situations, that go unnoticed, slanting how a global audience sees people and places. Continue reading

Dr. Seuss, Champion Of The Unusual

drawing5_smWe were led to this by a news/feature story, but the background material is even more interesting than the feature in the news. Here is a note worth a moment of your time:

Dr. Seuss was a storyteller in the grandest sense of the word. Not only did he tell fantastical tales of far-away places but he also gave us a unique visual language that carried his stories to new heights of artistic expression. Surrealism provided the foundation from which he built his career, but like a launch pad sitting idle just before liftoff, surrealism was soon to be engulfed in the flames of ridiculous fun and its launch tower thrown to the ground with each new editorial cartoon, magazine cover, painting, or children’s bookContinue reading

A Place To Reflect, To Reconnect, To Recharge

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This past week I have been at Villa del Faro with Seth and Jocelyn, reviewing plans for 2017. It was a week in which the thought came to us: people need time to reflect (among other important things). I took this photo of the Stone Beach Cottage at about 5:30 p.m. yesterday and I can visualize many friends, colleagues, and plenty of as yet unknown folks who would benefit from some reflection time there. Continue reading

Birds, Family, Bonds

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Australia has a uniquely down under way of delivering powerful stories about man’s relationship with nature:

Penguin Bloom: how a scruffy magpie saved a family

The Green of Baja

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Green is not the first color I associate with Baja California Sur and as the coastal outline slowly became clearer through my plane window I was stunned by the vibrancy of color I was witnessing. The “rainy” season of Baja, which only means a few inches of rain in a span of three months, had transformed the dry, craggy landscape into a verdant, blossoming oasis. In my previous trip to Baja, I had been informed of this phenomenon but I was unprepared, nonetheless, for the volume of greenery and pop of pink and blue flowers.

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Smart Reading, 20 Years On

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-10-09-24-amThere is a 5-10 minute read in the upcoming issue of the New Yorker that helps put two decades into a narrow but interesting perspective. 20 years ago I was in the process of moving my family to Costa Rica for a job I had accepted one year earlier. I remember the period described below, which could be considered the transition to life online, as we now know it. Odd to think it was happening just as we moved to a kind of Garden of Eden. Slate has been a part of “life online” ever since. I was mainly drawn to Kinsley, one of the sharpest of thinkers and communicators. He is long, long gone from Slate. But the experiment was fruitful; Slate is alive and well even as the media landscape is oversaturated with copies of copies of copies:

TWENTY YEARS OF SLATE

The digital magazine’s founding editor-in-chief and his successors got together to survey its history and its contributions to online journalism.

It’s been twenty years since Michael Kinsley, the former editor of The New Republic, undertook a novel adventure: the creation of a magazine, underwritten by Microsoft, that was to exist primarily in what was then known as “cyberspace.” “There will be efforts to update it, perhaps on a daily basis,” the Times noted, in a report that appeared below the fold on page D1 of its issue of Monday, April 29, 1996, two months before the launch of Slate.

Recently, Kinsley, who was the editor-in-chief of Slate from 1996 until 2002, and his three successors—Jacob Weisberg, David Plotz, and Julia Turner—gathered in Washington, D.C., to record a podcast: a five-way conversation with Josh Levin, the magazine’s executive editor. It was a nostalgic and forgivably self-regarding celebration of what Turner characterized as Slate’s “smarty-pants, curious journalism, opinion, and analysis.” The editors posed, grinning, for a group photo. Continue reading