Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Garden of the Wild-- John Vaillant's "The Tiger: a true story of vengeance and survival"

    John Vaillant's "The Tiger: a true story of vengeance and survival" is a bigger book than any handy category. It's a page turner, with a strong narrative hook that sinks into your mind in the first pages. But it's not just the story of a single tiger, in a single place, the particulars of the animal, the men who hunt it, or compete with it, and the time and place and circumstances in these acts take place; it's also an account of the commonality, the nature of the species, what Platonists would call the ideal form of "tiger." 
    The story takes place in a part of Russia few us realize exists. Vaillant calls it "Russia's Far East." It's beyond Siberia; how's that for far? It's as far from Moscow as Australia. Russia's Far East is a Pacific coastal region below Kamchatka, a name known to many only as a region on the Risk board. At its southern tip, the ocean port Vladivostock is the one place in the region Russia really cares about. One of the Czars took the region from China when the taking was good. Not surprisingly everything screwed up about Russia, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet collapse of the economy plays out in this part of the world, to the detriment of Russians trying to live there. The book is a good deep fascinating history lesson just for these reasons... But then the place's rugged environment is home to tigers too, some of them, not nearly as many as there used to be, but more than in China, where the hunger for animal parts in hideously superstitious "folk medicines" has completely wiped them out. Vaillant points out that if the czar hadn't taken this province form China, no tigers would be alive there today.
    The climate place's is bizarre, with subarctic winters of 40 below (Celsius), deep snow, and nothing to eat for man or beast except, on occasion, each other. But summers fill the landscape with a subtropical forest foliage and killer mosquitoes. The book's description of the climate and environment sounds like a fantasy novel, but apparently the place is very real and is no place for sissies.
    The tigers that thrive there are immense. Their coats are bundles of natural insulation with R-factors through the roof. They sleep in snow. And their minds and emotions -- and personalities, no other word will do -- cause one book reviewer to term them "passionate souls."
    Vaillant begins with an account of a hunter's return to his tiny cabin in a frigid winter landscape. He is hunting in midwinter in the "taiga" (the Russian for this deep forest landscape) because the Soviet economic collapse has deprived everyone in his village of regular employment and government checks. When all else fails people turn to "mother taiga," so men like Markov, a stalwart ex-soldier, an admirable figure in a desperate community, go there to bring meat to their families. Markov "is on foot and on his own in a dormant, frozen world save for a single dog, which runs ahead, eager to be heading home at last." But just as they arrive home, "the hackles on the dog's back and his own hair rise... they hear a rumble that seems to come from everywhere at once."    
    A few remaining pieces of the hunter are found in the snow a day or two later. Why the tiger chose to track and kill this specific hunter in a particular fashion -- and all the complex unwritten rules that govern human and tiger interactions-- provide the structure for a nonfiction work sparkling with dramatic narrative writing.
    We learn how tigers think. We learn of the deep-time evolutionary partnership and competition between solitary predators and human pack-hunters. We hear of current studies in Africa that show that predators as fierce as lions back off in the face of human arrivals, even when the pride has numbers. That humans evolved over time from prey when they developed weapons and big brains into predators the big cats learned to respect. Sometimes you leave something for the big cat; sometimes the cat leaves something for you.
    You learn that the hold of the tiger, its strength, intelligence and vitality,  over the human psyche remains so strong that product name "Viagra" derives from the Sanskrit word for tiger.
    Rules exist, the oldest taiga hunters tell us, that govern human-tiger interactions in the survival situation offered by the taiga. Vaillant's non-fiction epic carefully examines whether Markov broke those rules, and what other factors may have come into play.
    And in the end you may agree with the almost metaphysically argued conservationist lesson drawn by many of the book's readers that if you kill a tiger, you have not only destroyed a magnificent animal but "extinguished a passionate soul."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Golden Days at the Arnold Arboretum

Golden Larches (not arches) are the perfect symbol of the season at the Arnold Arboretum, Boston's great museum of trees. It's autumn, and we can't get enough of our trees, their foliage, their annual insistence that while money may not grow on trees almost everything else of ultimate value does. (Ask Adam and Eve.) 
     To open and sensitive minds -- to me, the ultimate authority -- our world is filled with trees of both life and knowledge.
     The autumn seasonal peak has receded in northern and western New England, but it's just landed on eastern Massachusetts, given our milder coastal climate. The maple tree outside our house turned orange just last week (top photo).
     Located outside the central city in Jamaica Plain and Roslindale, the Arnold Arboretum is the jewel in the crown of Harvard University's Boston possessions. It was designed, as I learn by checking the website, by Frederick Law Olmsted. Why am I not surprised? The arboretum, a collaboration by man and nature on a design for paradise, is the second largest "link" in the so-called "Emerald Necklace," the linked series of green spaces set aside over a century ago to ring the city.
            Only in the arboretum would we walk through the gate (Bussey Street entrance) and be confronted by golden larches -- an "evergreen" tree whose needles turn a bronzey orange in autumn (second photo). The specimens are tall and the tree's full canopy of needles are not turning colors because the tree is sick or dying, they're just doing their regular autumn thing. According to an online references the golden larches are actually a special single-type genus of conifer in the family Pinaceae (meet the Pine family). The species's scientific name is Pseudolarix, and while it's not truly a larch, it is truly awesome.
            The Golden Larch is native to China. That puts it in a large class of exotic specimens from China, Japan, Korea and anywhere else in northern Asia found not only in arboretums but anywhere else on the North American continent where people love trees. These imports thrive here because the climate is so similar.
            Among these is the Ginkgo (third photo), an old friend I also found waiting for us in the Arnold Arboretum. They still look to me like trees planted in some fantasy novel because of their precise, almost formal symmetry of branches and the unique shape of their leaves. The leaves turn a uniform rich golden-yellow in autumn as if somebody had painted them. They look like charms hanging from the necklace of the gods.
           Despite appearances, they were not invented by JRR Tolkien. The Ginkgos are also native to china, where some grow over 150 feet tall. Even the youngest, newest specimens are distinctive.
            We also noted a good selection of tall sturdy trees that have puzzled me in the past because they look like oaks in their size and sturdiness and structure, but their leaves are not oak-shaped. I learned from the label on the arboretum's trees that these are called "chestnut oak."            
            Looking this up, I find this tree is in fact an oak of the white oak group. And sure enough its name comes from the appearance of leaves that resemble the leaves of the chestnut.
            The chestnut oak tree is a native to America, commonly found from Maine to Mississippi. You can literally see a world of trees in the Arnold Arboretum.
            And if you can't make it there, just look around.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Garden of Film: "Inheritance"

The film is set in Lebanon. The writing on the screen says "another war" has broken out between Israel and Lebanon. The members of the big Palestinian family at the center of the story dress entirely like Westerners. Most of the time it looks like they're in Florida; floral patterns, light-colored clothing, too much sun. Nobody wears a head scarf; none of the women cover their hair in any fashion. The only scene in which modest dress is an issue comes when a mother vetoes a tight bare-shoulders dress her teenage daughter wishes to wear to her sister's wedding; the same interaction could take place in the US or anywhere else. And in this border country village in the Northern Galilee you can't tell who's Muslim and who's Christian.
            All this makes "Inheritance" a perfect movie for Americans to see because so many of the superficial button-pushing symbols are absent. We saw it as part of  the Palestinian Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, one of the cultural delights of the fall season. One final superficial observation about the meaninglessness of appearances: in this film all the Palestinian men look Jewish.
            This said, "Inheritance" is a film about family relationships in a traditional society under cultural pressure from Western influence. It's not a film about war in the Middle East, but the war is real and makes everything in daily life harder. A business man can't get a loan; his workers leave a building site to go home to their families because jet planes are screaming by overhead on their way to drop bombs in Lebanon. Sometimes rockets fall too near the family's village in the borderland between the warring parties and everybody scrambles.
            Because the people in the film look and for the most part act just like us when the family's patriarch insists that the marriage of one of his daughters go on as planned, the reality of war has more sting than depictions of foreign disasters "over there" ordinarily do. That could be any of us panicking to get our loved ones into the car in a jammed-up parking area to race off to someplace we think is safe when rocket fire begins shaking the earth.
            The wedding scene, the film's set piece, is worth the price of admission alone. The family's youngest daughter, torn between her love for her family and desire to "live her own life " and travel in the West doesn't want to go, but nevertheless is dropped off at the wedding party by her English lover into the hands of her "protector," the cousin who wants to marry her. The cousin, who (other family members point out) "speaks perfect English" tries in a sensitive, non-bullying way to ask her about this English boyfriend. Her older brother, the over-extended businessman, takes the opposite tack, calling her a slut and saying he will kill her to protect the family honor while the wedding band makes merry. Everyone else, including the father she loves, warns her that if she follows her own path she will lose her family.
            Meanwhile, the "good" traditional, likable sister is modeling the satisfactions of sticking with the family. Everyone joins in the ritual dances in a natural, unstudied way, enjoying the sense of knowing who they are and valuing their place in the world. Everyone in this lighthearted but profound moment knows they belong. The scene feels completely unstaged -- everything else, as the saying goes, is for mastercard.  
            Meanwhile number two, however, the politician brother who's running for mayor slips off for an adulterous tryst.
            And then rockets start landing and a couple hundred guests rush to their cars in a panic to try to flee.
            The war the film intentionally fails to name -- in order to broaden the relevance of its story and avoid particular political circumstances -- is the 2006 "July war" when Israel bombed throughout Lebanon in response to Hezbollah's capture of a single Israeli soldier. The film, the directorial debut of Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, avoids politics in the narrow sense to treat deeper, everyday issues. Should we keep our children home, safe in the old ways, even though opportunities are few and some at least wish to fly away to "live their own lives" with the freedom the products of fortunate backgrounds enjoy in the West?
            All the portrayals, even the settings, are shaded. The main character's eldest sister lives with a do-nothing husband who pretends to drive a taxi cab but finds no business. But whenever we see her, she is enjoying the shade of her beautiful semi-tropical garden.
            A good movie has that quality. However stressful and challenging its subject, the truth of art has its balm, its solace.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Rabbit in the Bush; the Bird in the Water

A beautiful day, spring-like in October, and the waters are high in the salt marsh. A rare super-high tide, a moon tide, floods the marsh grass. This water comes from the sea; we've had no rain to speak of.
            Birds are chirping, the trees and the thickets ringing with calls I haven't heard for months. Not just crows or jays. Sparrows, chickadees, swifts, phoebes.

            A scurry at the top of the path alerts me to a small animal presence. I've been hearing a lot of squirrels this time of year when they're in food collection over-drive. But this sudden retreat has a different rhythm. I pause, look into the shrubbery, the thicket off the path. The leaves in the low brush have fallen and the skeleton of the underbrush reveals a hidden presence: curve of back, piece of legs, ears laid back. Rabbit. He thinks I can't see him. I snap a photo; he still doesn't move.

            I leave the main path for the narrow passage through the marsh grasses. To focus my binoculars I scan a distant tree line. No movement. With glassed down I stand still and survey the grasses. I am about to start walking when a shape just inches above the thick elder brush lining the path, a liminal zone between higher ground and marsh grass, separates in  my vision from the top branches of the elder. Slender, thin as the top handle of an old-fashioned cane, it can only be the blade-sharp head of a heron. It doesn't move, or react, even when I look directly at it. I step one way or another to try for an angle for a clear shot. It takes me a while to realize that he's standing in water, one of the many pools that form in the low-land marsh when the water level is unusually high. He doesn't move because he's not afraid I'll get any closer. He knows I won't go splashing into this water.

            The high water makes my usual path impenetrable, as I discover when I round the first bend, unless I want to soak my feet. I know where the holes in my sneakers are.

            So I slip up the bank to the higher ground overlooking the marsh. Under trees, I have no uninterrupted sight line here. But I move along to the curve in the marsh's expanse and find a path through the underground that will take me down to my usual route. Peering between branches where trees are thin I see a great white egret, perched in a welcoming pool of the flooded marsh. Then, using the glasses, I scan horizontally to one side and find another egret. I backtrack, find another path to follow down. From there I can see the marsh and notice yet another couple of white egrets closer to the shore, four altogether. Unruffled by my appearance, they don't fly away on seeing me.
            I snap photos of these birds, many of them. One egret stretched tall or horizontally extended, its rapier beak poised above the water. Two together; the other pair; three together. But I'm looking into the sun. So eventually I backtrack. 'It's all right guys', I call out, 'I'm walking backwards, not towards you. Go about your business.' Their business is standing still; then leaning forward and stretching out those brontosaurus necks in the predatory inspection of the possibilities of the moment until the entire body becomes a horizontal plane. The bird doesn't strike dramatically, so I can't tell if it finds something or not.
            Back on the hilltop I walk further along, roughly parallel to the path below, then find another cut downward... and drop myself on the other side of my targets, now "ahead" rather than "behind" the egrets. One flies past just as I am on the way down, having decided on his own to move his fishing hole. With the sun behind me now, I try to get closer to the poised egrets to take photos. They tolerate this for a while and then one, then another launches into a flight across a flat wide sector of the marsh to far side, where I usually see them. I snap photos while they're in flight.

            Having decided I've bothered them enough, I move along on my usual path -- who else knows what will pop up next?; though nothing big does -- but my way is flooded almost at once. This time I go back up and stay. I have to take the high ground to complete my loop walk through the marsh.

            It's a beautiful day. Cool, as predicted in the a.m., but by mid afternoon up to seventy, much warmer than I expected. And the marsh is alive, totally alive with bird calls. Is it the water, the sun, the everything?

            It's as if we've been favored with another little spring. When I work myself around to get a good angle on the pools of shining water in the marsh, a familiar voice I haven't heard in eons rings out from hiding: mockingbird.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Taking the Road Less Traveled By

The sign said Mount Everett State Park. Finally after years of driving past that sign on a beautiful stretch of high country road, we make the turn, a left off of Mount Washington Road. I expected to see something high profile from the size of the sign, at least a little headquarters building and a human being. But in fact the official presence at the so-called state park consists of little more than a few largish brown signs stuck like children's stickers on the surface of miles of wooded upland country. 
            The official state park color in Massachusetts is a muddy brown that seems to have been distilled from wood and earth. Its management policy is benign neglect. 
            We drive slowly past a mini couple-of-cars parking area and an arrow for a trail; roll by a ladder of horizontal signboards promising something like "picturesque nature area" and "picnic area." The second of these was our desired activity as it happened, so we continued down what turned out to be a narrowing dirt road. No further signs -- (A sign, lord! Give me a sign!) -- or indications of park presence and I begin to wonder, a touch anxiously, where I would find a turn-off spot if another car came down the other way. As I articulate the first words of that thought another vehicle does in fact come down the road from the other way. Happily I have just noticed a bit of roadside; I pull over and let the other guy pass.

            We continue. Up and down and then around a bend. I worry where those mud "signs" are leading us, but a strip of water glows in the polished autumn light and beside it pull-off space with room possibly for two cars. We pull in beside the one already there.

            "A picnic area," Anne says. A sure enough sign (lord). A bare brown regulation picnic table wedged into a shady spot under trees. The temperature up here was about 15 degrees lower than it had been down in the lower, high-sun elevation where we walked earlier in the day. Sitting down to our backpack munch at the table, I listened to the birds including an unseen woodpecker until some cars and people came and scared them away.

            The picturesque nameless lake in the hills attracted more visitors than seemed likely at first. We heard the voices of a group of four working their way down a path coming down from the hillside above the water. A fit-looking hiker and his obedient female dog (they struck me as a devoted couple) came down the road. The van parked next to our car belonged to him. We chatted on what a wonderful site this was, the whole area was, the shutdown of the national park ("let's not talk politics"), and he told us that we could hike up the hill for an hour to a summit and then we -- or some ideally eager individual -- could pick up the Appalachian Trail.

            When he drove off another car took his place. A really large vehicle rolled slowly down from the top, an RV with its sliding door open -- a vehicle I could not imagine driving to a Walmart parking lot let alone up a dirt road to a mountain -- so we could hear the laughter of its female passenger as the thing jounced slowly over the bumps.  

            Then when we started on the loop trail around the lake we passed another ordinary-sized car tucked off the side of the road and discovered another couple on the trail ahead of us. They were a singular pair, both propelling themselves at a glacial pace with the aid of two ski poles, one in every hand. They were dressed for cold weather and wore woolen Snoopy style elf hats, adding to the impression that they expected winter sports to break out around them at any moment.

             The trail was one of the more rigorous ones we've encountered recently. Narrow and never flat for more than two steps because it was cut through a hillside with sizable trees, large boulders, and roots to step over and around. We crossed a mountain rill on a halved log. When it was clear that our pace would not improve  -- and having already walked a few miles over easier ground before our picnic lunch -- we reversed course and headed back.

            We passed our ski-capped couple on the way back. They were pretty much in the same place where we left them and appeared content to spend the rest of the day in the same manner, leaning on their sticks, exchanging occasional observations,  and waiting for the snow that from the day's high skies and autumn leaves appeared about three months off.

            They were taking the path less traveled by, I realized. It wasn't our path. But then we weren't taking anybody else's path  either.