Tag archive for nature
In Night of the Iguana, a play first performed in 1961, but evolved out of a short story over a period of about fifteen years, Tennessee Williams expressed anger at our species for ruining our planet.
In the movie of 1962, starring Richard Burton as a disgraced priest, his character, at the end of his rope, spits out his frustration at "Man's Inhumanity to God."
The pain that we caused Him. We poisoned his atmosphere, slaughtered his creatures of the wild, polluted his rivers. We've even taken His noblest creation, man himself, and brainwashed him into becoming our product, not God's. Packed, stacked, and canned.
Fascinating that Williams chose that metaphor to describe our destructive actions. Occurs that this is one industrial practice that has become a word in our language. "Canned" refers not just to fish, but to music, too, and thought — the fact has become a verb. Become a past tense.
Thought of this when just yesterday I came across a passage in Thomas Pynchon's pretty hilarious recent novel, Inherent Vice, on pretty much the same theme, in a completely different style:
Let me set it up. Our anti-hero is a mediocre long-haired private eye named Doc living in Southern California in the l970's. He isn't afraid and might have Sam Spade potential if he would just stop smoking so much weed. He like Spade of course is after a complicated woman who might have a thing for him but is trouble. But she's hard to find, and meanwhile he's hanging out with an attorney friend who happens to like a particular soap opera. An ad for a brand of canned tuna comes on the televison. Our anti-hero's buddy, Sauncho, who's a little obessive but not stupid, kind of flips out. Doc happens to be in the bathroom pissing. He hears Sauncho screaming and comes out.
"Everything cool?" [Doc says]
"Ahh…" [Sauncho] collapses on the couch. "Charlie the fucking Tuna, man."
"It's all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, so desperate to show he's got good tase, except he's also dyslexic so he gets "good taste" mixed up with "taste good," but it's worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, like obsessive death wish! Yes! He wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumper capitalism, they won't be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it…"
"Saunch, wow, that's…"
"It's been on my mind. And another thing. Why is there Chicken of the Sea, but no Tuna of the Farm?"
Might help to see the character from the commercial:
Pynchon's novel, by far his funniest in my experience of his work, will be on a few movie screens this year, in a film directed by P.T. Anderson, featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, and Benicio del Toro, who might deliver the rant above. Could be fun.
Sometimes the computational powers that be conspire to foil a post. That yet-to-be-posted item might have been trail inspirational: this one I found thought-inspiring.
From a medical blogger flying under a banner headline: Embrace the Mystery
This distinction between puzzles and mysteries is described in a powerful new book by Ian Leslie: Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. As Leslie tells it, puzzles and mysteries have radically different characteristics. Puzzles are orderly and have definite answers; once we’ve solved a puzzle, we’ve reached the end of our inquiry and our curiosity. Mysteries, on the other hand, offer many possibilities for exploration and experience. They offer something richer and far more relevant to the messy reality of actually living in the world. Mysteries can’t be answered definitively; they keep us poised in ambiguity and force us to create our way forward. Mysteries offer us multiple paths to success.
Whole mini-essay makes one think about our scientific approach to medical research. Worth a look.
Alex Ross of The New Yorker is by acclamation the most loved of classical music critics today. This spring he gently lauded a new pianist, Igor Levit, for his playing of Beethoven at his most natural.
In his words I heard an echo of an idea from Carl Jung about the connection between introspection and nature. In a previous post I quoted a passage from Jung's memoir in which he revealed how he found himself, or, to be exact, a part of himself. He found "Personality #2," a character he liked more than his social self, when alone in nature. Ross discusses a fascinatingly similar idea in the context of this pianist's performance of a solo piano sonata from Beethoven, a composer who voiced nature as much as any other.
The New Yorker site is a nightmare to work with as a blogger, for reasons I am too hick to understand, even as a registered subscriber who knows his password. Lord knows why this is necessary for a publication as rich in resources as this pre-eminent magazine, but let forge on as best we can, for those who would search to understand the experience of nature in prose:
For context, here's a portrait of Levit, a publicity still, which I will frame with Ross's eloquence.
A few months ago, the arrival of a debut recording…had me in a skeptical mood. The cover showed a well-dressed young man leaning over a piano, languidly dragging his fingers along the keys. The program contained the last five sonatas of Beethoven: two hours of sublime riddles, the realm of…erudite masters such as Maruizio Pollini and Mitsuko Uchida. What prematurely hyped whippersnapper would introduce himself in such a fashion? After a few minutes, I was transfixed. Here was playing of technical brilliance, tonal allure, intellectual drive, and an elusive quality that the Germans indicate with the word Innigheit, or inwardness.
In the ethereal theme-and-variations movement that ends Opus 109, Levit revealed a…gift for cantabile playing, for spinning out a long, lyrical line. Younger performers often have troubling falling into the kind of mood that Beethoven describes as "Songful, with innermost feeling." It is the tempo of walking in the woods, of humming to oneself, of finding the slow pulse of nature. Whether or not Levit indulges in such antiquated behavior — his tweets make no mention of it — he has an uncanny ability to let the music amble away into a summery haze.
Surely Jung would understand. And although Igor's performances of this sonata cannot be found for free on the web, justifiably, here's a very nice live playing of Beethoven's PIano Sonata #30 in E Major from Aaron Wajnberg on Soundcloud, to give you an idea of the piece. Above Ross talks of the third movement.
During the entrancing performance, which began on the drums, moved to the east for a soft thudding playing of the gongs, to the south, to the west for xylophones, and then back to the drums, the composer Adams walked around and listened from various spots on the low hill where the performers, from a percussion group based at UC San Diego called red fish blue fish.
According to the program notes, this piece grows out of "the overwhelming violence of nature…a violence at once both terrifying and comforting, transpersonal and purifying." That description evokes cacophony and danger, which the piece itself only hinted at, with soft drums rolls set against sharp snare banging, and the sounds flowing out into the fog as the sun came up.
After the performance I told Adams I thought the piece was wonderful.
I asked him about the gongs, and he said he didn't have a good word for that sound a gong makes as it is hit softly, and brassily expands without pealing, but he said the piece was about resonance. Resonate it did, throughout the upper valley.
"I used to be a hopeless romantic. I am still a hopeless romantic. I used to believe that love was the highest value. I still believe that love is the highest value. I don’t expect to be happy. I don’t imagine that I will find love, whatever that means, or that if I do find it, it will make me happy. I don’t think of love as the answer or the solution. I think of love as a force of nature – as strong as the sun, as necessary, as impersonal, as gigantic, as impossible, as scorching as it is warming, as drought-making as it is live-giving. And when it burns out, the planet dies. My little orbit of life circles love. I dare not get any closer. I’m not a mystic seeking final communion. I don’t go out without SPF 15. I protect myself. But today, when the sun is everywhere, and everything solid is nothing but its own shadow, I know that the real things in life, the things I remember, the things I turn over in my hands, are not houses, bank accounts, prizes or promotions. What I remember is love – all love – love of this dirt road, this sunrise, a day by the river, the stranger I met in a café. Myself, even, which is the hardest thing of all to love, because love and selfishness are not the same thing. It is easy to be selfish. It is hard to love who I am. No wonder I am surprised if you do." –Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping
Elbert Ventura in Slate argues that The Descendants is a great movie, despite its too-pretty-to-be-true Hawaian setting.
Don’t let the soothing uke and sun-dappled sadness fool you—The Descendants is no less interested in the cosmic than that exegete’s delight The Tree of Life.
He argues that we overlook its soaring depiction of the natural world, with nature's implicit comment on the fairly pathetic squirmings and upsets of our human counterparts, because the director Alexander Payne has no tolerance for the sheer bigness that is so much apart of great filmmaking, from Welles to Bergmann to Malick.
Allergic to grandiosity, his movies depict losers, schlubs, and schmos dealing with domestic turmoil and personal crises in a nondescript, lived-in America. Across those movies, Payne has carved out an authorial identity defined by career-making performances (Reese Witherspoon in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways), adroit tone shifts, and the pitch-perfect rendering of life in these United States.
In this climactic image, it's hard to deny Ventura's point. But maybe we overlooked the nature in "The Descendants" precisely because the characters in this movie, as in seeming all his stories, are "losers, schlubs, and schmos." If all his people are like that, why should we find special meaning in nature in this movie? It's no more meaningful than the prettiness of the wine country in "Sideways."
In the best speech I have read since the last Vaclav Havel speech I read, Haruki Murakami reflects on the tsunami that hit Japan a year ago and "mujo" — the fading of beauty.
If we think about nature, for example, we cherish the cherry blossoms of spring, the fireflies of summer and the red leaves of autumn. For us, it is natural to observe them passionately, collectively and as a tradition. It can be difficult to find a hotel room near the best known sites of cherry blossoms, fireflies and red leaves in their respective seasons, as such places are invariably milling with visitors.
Why is this so?
The answer may be found in the fact that cherry blossoms, fireflies and red leaves all lose their beauty within a very short space of time. We travel from afar to witness this glorious moment. And we are somehow relieved to confirm that they are not merely beautiful, but are already beginning to fall to the ground, to lose their small lights or their vivid beauty. We find peace of mind in the fact that the peak of beauty has been reached and is already starting to fade.
The speech is called As An Unrealistic Dreamer.
If we think of Rachel Carson, we probably remember her for alerting us to the massacre of the birds by DDT in Silent Spring, and overlook her earlier, more poetic works, such as her bestseller The Sea Around Us, which was excerpted in The New Yorker, won the National Book Award, and numerous other prizes.
Yet in her era, Carson was criticized by some of her scientific peers for the poetry she mixed in to her science. Here's an early passage from a draft of her next bestseller, The Edge of the Sea.
There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; responding to sun and moon as they have done for millions of years; in the repose of the folded bud in winter, ready within its sheath for spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature, the assurance that night after night, dawn comes, and spring after winter.
At the time — l951 — Carson had need of healing: She was dealing with the discovery of a tumor in her breast.
From Linda Lear's l997 biography, Witness to Nature, pp213.
At a lecture attended recently by a thousand or so people at UC Santa Barbara, the great E.O. Wilson was asked an open-ended question about introducing children to nature.
Wilson took it as a "how to" question.
He mentioned that he was "one of two living persons who worked with Rachel Carson," and made a joke about about it being one of the few advantages of his decrepitude.
Unfortunately, he had a frog in his throat, and although I recorded the talk, I can't make out the exact words. But he did go on to describe briefly what Rachel Carson thought was the way to introduce kids to nature, which deserves its own prominence:
[This picture, from an interesting Conservation Heroes site, discusses Carson's years with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and identifies the older figure, evidently, as Rachel Louise Carson.]
This is what Carson said:
Take a child to the seashore. Point out a few tidepools. Give them a bucket. Tell them to go see what they can find, and let them come to you with what they find. And then you tell them all about what they’ve discovered…