Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Avian Garden: Peregrine on the Beach

            The peregrine falcon escapes me again. I wake listless and without enthusiasm. Later, some way recovered, I go down to the salt marsh in search of the falcon, a great big bird perched in a skinny tree, but the bird has absconded. This time I have my camera. He must have known I was coming. (Photo borrowed from the web.) 
            The bird first made an impression on me a couple of weeks ago when we saw him on the sand at Wollaston Beach. A rather thin strand of beach with the tide up high, and some of the ice from one of our cold spells scattered at the various wrack lines of wind and tide. He was easy to spot because two photographers were already paying him considerable attention. They were good enough to stay far enough away not to drive the bird away from the sight of the rest of us. Anne and I were the only other passersby who stopped to look.
            The bird, grayish winter coat, large head and beak, appalling killer eye, barred a lighter color, some beige maybe, across the breast, was finishing a measured repast of something that, judging from the feathers at its feet, had once also been a bird itself. Now it was lunch.
            The bird did not appear disturbed by the two men, one of whom stood on the sand and had settled in for a good, long observation. This one was obscured behind an enormous photographic enterprise. Tripod supporting a barrel lens so long it looked like some sort of new weaponry, something between a flare gun and a mortar. I have no idea what it looked like to the falcon.
            Nothing happened while we watched. The man behind the camera on the sand may have been focusing, massaging his lens, waiting for just the right light, waiting for the bird to do something special: raise a wing and give him the finger with his claws, maybe. I wouldn't want anyone to watch me stand over the remains of a meal of feathers and airy bones, gull maybe. Our beach has plenty of gulls to spare.
            The other man, young, quiet, with the intensity of birders who do not appear to wish to share the experience, held a good looking but more modest-sized camera. I presume he'd already taken his shots.
            Since I didn't know what kind of amazing bird these two were staring at -- I thought it might an osprey because of its impressive size, and because an osprey had blissfully ignored our staring in Florida last spring -- I asked this man what kind of bird it was. He spared me a word: "Peregrine."
            This is what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, an impressive online source, says about this creature. "Peregrine Falcons are the largest falcon over most of the continent, with long, pointed wings and a long tail. Be sure to look at shape as well as size—long primary feathers give the Peregrine a long-winged shape. As with most raptors, males are smaller than females, so Peregrines can overlap with large female Merlins or small male Gyrfalcons."
            I said, "I didn't know the peregrine was so big."
            Their measurements are given in centimeters. To the best of my conversion ability, they can be two feet long. The wingspan is between thee and five feet. Simple translation: they're big.
            Two days ago I saw him (or her) again, on a brittle-cold steel-gray afternoon when I was feeling so bad about my decision to take a walk that I was already contemplating turning back after a hundred yards. I looked up at the thin bare trees between the side street and the salt marsh, thinking, well I'll never see anything moving in there today when there was the big, gray, roundish mass of raptor.
            Peregrine, I said, why don't I ever have my camera when we meet?
            I was about a dozen feet away from his tree. He was up in a branching about fifteen feet from the ground, singularly uninterested in my presence.
            I came back the following afternoon, the day not much warmer, with the camera in my pocket. I saw a jay in the tree. No peregrine.            


The bird sits in his tree with a deadly eye upon the world
It has nothing to lose
It is, not the Stoic we sometimes imagine,
But Epicurean, pursuing happiness
Death is nothing to you, bird
Happiness, or its pursuit, is all we ever have

The falcon stands on the sand of Quincy Shore
Feathers of its prey at his feet, or claws
Gull, maybe. It pursues medium-sized birds, I read
I pursue large ones
Two men take its photograph,
One with the world's longest telescope lens
Other birds flee us
Peregrine stays for lunch

Days later, a cold week feels longer,
I find him again, perched not very high
in a tree neither tall, nor far from the road
None can see you, bird
You are safe with us
We're the killers here
One day you will take us to
 Bird Spirit Land

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Winter Garden: My Own Private Antarctica

            How many degrees do we have tonight? Eight? Six? How low is it supposed to go? Four, two, zero? These aren't temperatures, they're hockey scores. 

            This weekly descent into nether region, or northern regions, or arctic regions, has already happened a few times this winter. Here it is again this week, and a repeat performance of this descent into Negativity is predicted for next week as well.

            Polar vortex? It feels more like the collapse of civilization is just around the corner -- what happens when the fires go out? Have we all been trapped in some dystopian fantasy? Is nature trying to show us what it would be like to be characters in some spectacular, special-effects, scare-'em-to-death disaster movie that plunges us into a new ice age? Or maybe some bad-trip extraterrestrial adventure story that strands its victims on a very inhospitable planet. If so, it's working. I'm freaked.

        Hey, Earth!, we used to get along better than this. I used to like it here.

            Too much really cold weather for us southern New England softies feels distressingly like the end of the world. And that end of days will be a cold day in hell if this trend keeps going.

            It was a sign when a phalanx of snowy owls from the Arctic found their way south in early December, turning our barrier beaches, golf courses and school playgrounds into tundra moments. The puffy white picturesque fowl apparently had a hunch they were going to feel perfectly at home in New England in a couple of weeks. If there's a small rodent shortage for the foxes, coyotes and native owls next spring, we'll know why.

            When I hear daily predictions for the kind of temperatures and strangers on a train (or, more likely, social media) pile on with the wind-chills, I think we must be talking about distant, less peopled places. Single digits are for other places: Single digit land. The world's famous cold places. Russia, Siberia, Alaska, the Arctic Circles, and OK (let's be honest), states I've never been to, North Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, almost all of Canada -- and, frankly -- some scarily remote parts of New York and New England. But not eastern Massachusetts; not the balmy South Shore.

            Naturally (perfectly awful timing), even my escapist entertainment options, an essential for getting through even ordinary winters, are going south this winter. Not "south" as in sunny, but as in that frigid circle at the bottom of the earth. TV, for instance, is nothing but cold comfort. My own private Antarctica.

            Public Broadcasting has chosen this moment to share a closely observed documentary account of a bunch of hairy fellows, old enough to know better, who decided to dress up in Edwardian cold weather clothing and replicate the premier cold climate adventure of the early twentieth adventure: British explorer Ernest Shackleton's miraculous rescue of his Antarctic voyage of exploration that set off in 1914.  

            Shackleton's survival heroism is legendary stuff. The ship carrying his ambitiously named Trans-Antarctic Expedition got caught by an earlier ice-over than expected (though what can you expect in the Antarctic Ocean?). Trapped by an expanding ice islands, his ship The Endurance was crushed by ice and plunged below the icy depths while the crew stood on the ice and watched. Shackleton then made the decision to take a few of his best sailors on a desperate small boat voyage across hundreds of miles of freezing, storm-tossed water in the hope of reaching a tiny island -- easy to miss these tiny islands in a vast ocean -- where a whaling station might provide help. He left the bulk of his 27-member crew behind with most of the food and supplies to shelter under lifeboats and whatever else they could rig up from the stuff they saved from the ship.

            The voyage was impossible enough; then when they land on the island they had to climb across a glacier with a vast, steep crevice to reach the whaling station. There, the climate trapped them. In all, it took them 500 days to return with a rescue ship for the rest of the crew.

            The heroism is in the leadership: Shackleton's entire crew survived.

            PBS's 21st century re-enactment explorers were not doing quite so well. They got blown off course trying to reach the island. One guy was later injured on the climb and had to be flown off by helicopter.       

            I'm not passing out medals to PBS for sharing these chilly scenes of Antarctic experience with viewers in the midst of a serious cold spell. How about a skinny dipping party at Downton Abbey instead?

            The other piece of my private Antarctica is my own choice to listen to Patrick O'Brian's masterful adventure-literary novel "Desolation Island" on CD. It's one of the near 20-book British naval series based on the earlt 19th century exploits of a fictional capatin Jack Aubrey and his friend, surgeon, scientist and master spy Stephen Maturin. When Aubrey and company, in the midst of the long voyage to Australia, suffer a murderous pursuit from an enemy man of war, guess where they have to go? Straight into the frigid waters at the bottom of the earth, to encounter harrowing storms, deadly icebergs, a bare escape from the guns of the enemy, shipwreck from collision with submerged ice; after which they are forced to seek succor from a place called Desolation Island.

            This is the kind of book where you encounter sentences such as "He was chilled through and through" with distressing frequency.

            I'm no hero when it comes to cold. Next book I choose will definitely have to take a walk on the warm side.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Poetry Garden: We're All Living in 'The Guest House'

            This poem arrived two days ago, entirely unexpected, out of the ether, like a message from the gods.

                        The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
    translation by Coleman Barks

            The poet often known simply as "Rumi" to English speakers must be one of the most widely quoted poets in America today. The thumbnail bio refers to him as a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic. (Turks claim him too.) People who don't read poetry in English know about Rumi. His words appear on calendars, or wherever a concise observation or pithy words of wisdom, especially on the spiritual side, are required. My former yoga teacher used to read Rumi poems to us during the "quiet time" of the practice. They always worked, sounding like just what we needed to hear after we'd stretched all our muscles and tendons and turned our knotted sore spots to jelly. When it comes to food for the spirit, everybody's menu should make room for Rumi.
            I think this translation of this poem, "The Guest House," is excellent, especially the brilliant line at the start. "This human being is a guest house" sounds like it could have been written last week; very 21st century.
            The idea of being "grateful for whatever comes" is an ideal we'd all like to achieve. Clearly it's an easier job when things are going reasonably well as opposed to -- per the world news on any given day -- disastrously awful, as we know life always is for some human beings somewhere.
            But the rest of us have no excuse. And the poem's examples of difficult guests -- "the dark thought, the shame, the malice" -- suggest an emphasis on the events of the inner life.
            I would add, less spiritually, that these guests are all part of our story. Each guest at the door is an opportunity to address life's unfinished business. And just as they have a part to play in our stories, we have a part to play in the world.
            This is the perspective of the interrelated narrative -- someone's story, but everyone's story as well -- in some of the best fiction I've encountered in recent years. The novel of interrelated characters, who do not necessarily interact often but are related as part of a story that is partly their own and partly "owned" by a wider a circle, including the larger society we're all are a part of, appears to be a creative launching pad for a growing number of literary novelists. Eventually we'll come with a trendy term for this genre, style, or school.
            It's modern, but something more. It's arguably an outgrowth of postmodern, the school of Thomas Pynchon and John Barth. Today, an outgrowth of that standpoint, we see the literary classics of the past "retold" from the point of view of some other, often minor, character. We have "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." We have Jane Austen's novels retold, modernized, re-imagined every which way.
            But the books I'm thinking of, such as the novels of David Mitchell and Colum McCann are of a higher order. McCann's fiction connects the lives of people we have not met anywhere else and in telling their story tells us a lot about the rest of us who share their world.
            Eventually all the stories in "Let the Great World Spin," his big prize-winning book, connect up, though you're generally not aware of the connections as you read the deep, involving novella-length stories of a series of engaging characters. In the end the stories lean on each other morally, intellectually; you can reflect on the impact of one upon another. The judge who's married to one of the main characters destroys the last hope of another central character when he sends her to prison. She's a street-walker, a prostitute "on the stroll"; one of dozens of similar cases he'll see each year. But we've come to know this woman from the inside. The world is a sadder, more tragic place without her.
            McCann recently followed this masterpiece with "Transatlantic," a novel about the connections between Ireland and America, a book I very much enjoyed, though it lacks the heft, in all senses, of "Spin." It begins, like its predecessor, with an account of a great public adventure, a dare-devilish expression of individual talent and, in the new book, of a new technology coming into its own.
            The author puts us on an airplane in 1917, a world war still going on, the plane adapted from military to civilian use, as it's flown from Newfoundland to Ireland, a first flight across the Atlantic. It's a feat lost to the popular memory of 20th century history that still remembers Lindberg.
            As the two pilots lose the ability to communicate with each other and the rest of the world, McCann tells the story through minutely depicted physical details. Pieces of equipment fly off the plane, others ice up; the men lose all sensation in their feet. They cope with the cold, the isolation, the deprivation of food, drink, equipment losses. As they fly into the void of a dark cloud, the adventure culminates in a crisis and a last-minute evasion of disaster.
            It's a magic carpet ride. It's also the piece of the book most likely to stay in our minds. Other sections are less successful even as we see them flesh out the theme. African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglas visits Ireland on a fund-raising tour (who knew?) during a starving year and is unable to cope with the poverty and hunger he sees there; or to confront his hosts with the question of how they can ignore the suffering of their own lower class while hailing his fight for freedom.
            Later we follow American peace negotiator George Mitchell as he waits out the last days of the Protestant-Catholic negotiations that led to the epochal "Good Friday" peace agreement. Unfortunately, all we really see him do is wait; we learn nothing of how or why this history-making agreement is arrived at. I think this slightness -- the details here are Mitchell's clothing choices and how he misses his young wife and daughter back in New York -- may come from the difficulty of writing novelistically about someone still alive and prominent. You're stuck with what he gives you.
            After the airplane section, the piece of the novel that most resonates with me is the story of the Ireland-born Civil War nurse, whose limited servant's life in the old country had been overthrown by a brush with Douglas, sending her to America. She arrives in time to birth a son who will die in the Civil War. But from there we learn the story of the rugged new life -- by turns prosperous and tragic, filled with gains and losses -- she builds in postwar America. Her descendants carry us to Canada and back to Ireland.
            The characters in this book greet each guest at the door. McCann's 19th century immigrants and their 20th century successors, many whose names history will not remember, deal with shame and malice, bad fortune, and ill treatment by others, taking the bad with the good. I don't know if, as the poem says, they "laughingly" let these " guests" in, but they kept holding up their end in "this human life" we are all part of.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Scientific Cosmology: The Dark Gardens of Space

            Professor Ted Bunn, a physics professor at the University of Richmond, recently came to Boston to speak to us about the latest thinking on the nature of the physical universe and related questions. The program took place in Emmanuel Church in Boston, and since we needed to exercise our brains, as all the health latest advisories say we should -- though why this entails playing brain-exercise games on the Internet I'm not sure I understand -- we trotted like good seekers of knowledge down to the church on Sunday, arriving just as the church's coffee hour was turning into the science presentation.

            Professor Ted did a great job of pointing out that most of the universe, according to the latest scientific thinking, consists of either dark matter, or dark energy. About 96 percent in total. That leaves 4 percent for the plain old ordinary matter and energy, or as he put it, "atoms." So only 4 percent of everything there is consists of anything we can know anything about; and the names given to the other components, "dark" matter and "dark" energy are not encouraging to the idea that we will come to "know" these ingredients any time soon. We are very much "left in the dark" about the contents of the universe.

            Why is this 96 to 4 percent ratio not entirely comforting? What else are we potentially missing out there? That's a lot of weight in the "unknown" or even "unknowable" category when you try to address one of the deepest of the traditional cosmological questions: What is the nature of the universe?

            So currently, it seems to me, if you wish to go on believing that regiments of angels can dance on the head of a pin, or that a near infinity of "multiverse" universes are dwelling unseen among us, there is plenty of space in our largely "dark" universe to carry on that order of speculation.

            The 28 percent, or so, that is currently billed to the dark matter column is necessitated by astrophysicists to account for the gravitational effect required by the current theories to explain why the universe is not pulling apart any faster than it is.

            For, yes, everything in the "universe" -- a term I take here to mean everything we know by our senses to exist or have observed by some instrument -- is moving away from everything else in the universe, according to the now widely accepted expanding universe theory. This is possible because... well, this is what our instruments and our equations are telling us.
           And the question raised in my mind by this current scientific tenet is: what is this universe expanding into?

            Second question (or observation): How lonely is that?

            An expanding universe raises the common sense consideration, not discussed in the professor's talk, of how all those other sentient races out there with their presumably advanced civilizations are going to contact us? Distance is a barrier to travel; even to communication in the Einsteinian universe where the speed of light is a constant. Fact is, so the current thinking tells us, we're just getting farther apart.

            From some "imaginative" points of view of course, distance doesn't matter. But we call those points of view "science fiction."

            Worse, our expanding universe would be running away from itself at a much faster rate if something -- the professor called it "dark matter" -- did not exist to add its "mass" to what we can observe in the universe (call it "atoms") to provide the gravitational brake on universal expansion. That is to say, dark matter is a hypothesis.

            But why do rely so much on "gravity," this child of the Newtonian universe whose other lineaments we have left behind so long ago, to hold our picture of the universe together? Is there something else out there -- some principal, or force, or law -- we just don't know about yet?

            Doesn't it make as much sense to believe that the universe is riding on the back of an enormous tortoise? Maybe we just haven't figured out how to "see" the tortoise.

            I am sorry to confess that I make even less sense out of "dark energy," that indefinable something current scientific thinking posits to fill some 68 percent of the universe. Dark means we can't observe it; our instruments can't. So it's a hypothesis.

            So, the Wik tells us that "in physical cosmology" dark energy is a hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and accelerates the expansion of the universe. That's "dark," all right. By comparison, dark energy turns that archvillain The Lord of the Rings into a jumped-up schoolyard bully. Despite its domination of the universe, the theory goes, it's not much of a force within our own solar system, weighing a mere 6 tones in total, about the size of one our neighborhood SUVs. However, according to current thinking, dark energy dominates "the mass-energy" of the universe because it spreads uniformly throughout space. Remember, there is a lot more "space" than there are solar systems.

            The universe is, measurably, expanding, this reasoning goes. Some force must drive it; must overpower the universal gravity that holds us together. Since we know nothing about this force, except there must be a lot of it, we create another hypothesis: "dark energy."

            And so, since this picture of the universe gives me almost nothing with which to address the basic cosmological questions:

            What is the nature of the universe? (or "the world"? or "life"?)

            How did the universe begin? If it began in "time," what was there before the universe?

            Is the universe finite? Infinite? If it is finite, what exists outside the universe? If it is "expanding," what is it expanding into?

            And why is there being rather than nothingness?  Or, in another common formulation, why do we exist? ...

              .... I turn, as I have done before, to the poem by Walt Whitman that best sums up for me the difference between what science can deliver to benefit the always restless human mind and what the human soul requires:

                        When I heard the learn’d astronomer

      When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

      When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

      When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

      When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

      How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

      Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

      In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

      Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.