Octopus Life

A while ago I asked for recommendations of natural-history and science books to read.
The Soul of an Octopus
Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus was heartily recommended by several people, and very much worth my time. The book is so beautifully and transparently written that it can be read quickly, which for me heightened its effect. Like an octopus using all eight arms to take in everything it can all at once, I wanted to gorge on everything the book has to offer: wonderful science writing on these utterly bizarre creatures; learned considerations of how humans can connect to wild creatures and, especially, what forms animal consciousness might take; and wonderful stories about her own relationships with several octopuses in a Boston aquarium.

The book contains too much of all that and more to summarize, so let me just say that anyone interested in animals or a nature beyond humans should read it. The closing passages were as moving as anything I’ve read this year, but every other page contained astounding stuff like this litany of octopus mythology:
Octopus Religion

I’m gonna party like it’s 1999

Two quick Prince stories.

I think the first time I really liked a song of his was when I started hearing “Raspberry Beret” on the radio while traveling by bus to a Catholic youth camp in Wisconsin in 1985. Prince was big by then, and I knew some of the classics off “Purple Rain” and earlier albums, but “Raspberry Beret” stood out. “If it was warm/she would be wear much more” seemed so *dirty* to twelve-year-old me. And to this day I sing “In through the out door out door” whenever I see a door marked for exit only. Wait, was that line dirty too?

Second story: On New Year’s Eve 1998, Shannon and I went to a party thrown by my grad school friend Michael and his then-girlfriend Julie. It was probably the first time I’d ever had whiskey – knowing Michael, probably Maker’s Mark. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

A drink for Prince

At midnight, I was still tipsy when Julie put Prince’s “1999” on the stereo, because can there be a more perfect moment than NYE 1998 to sing along to “I’m gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety-nine”? No, there cannot. Listening to the song, my buzzing mind went back to that bus trip in 1985. Two loops of my life tied together with Prince.

I’ve still never seen *Purple Rain*, though.

Whatever Floats Your State

Vivi’s fourth-grade social studies project was a “report” on one of the United States of America. Kids could choose among various forms for this report, and she chose to make a “float,” which is in principle and reality a pretty cool alternative to a poster or even a paper. For whatever reason, she selected Idaho as her topic, which was nice since – after two trips out there – I feel like I know a little bit about the Gem State. It’s called the Gem State, for instance.

Predictably, the effort of assembling this float was a bit overwhelming for my smart little perfectionist. Some tears were shed on the way to making the final product resemble the image in her head. I tried to avoid doing much to help her, and wound up mostly just scaling back some of her overly ambitious ideas. But the final product was pretty neat, displaying all the required info (capital, date of joining the Union, nickname, state bird, etc.) as well as some other cool stuff about Idaho and a very realistic paper potato.

Idaho Float
Idaho Float

The Pitchy Blackness

I’m finally reading *Danny the Champion of the World* by Roald Dahl, which both family and friends have said is great. It is, not least because the book includes paragraphs like this one, which stopped me as cold as an unrideable hill in the middle of a fatbike race.

The Pitchy Blackness
The Pitchy Blackness

Scareading

For several months now, the girls have been encouraging me to read some Neil Gaiman books. Okay, maybe *luring* me into etc. etc.
Creepy Tomes

Earlier this week I finally picked up *Coraline*, expecting to read a few chapters before bed. Three hours later I finished it, thoroughly creeped out.

After giving myself a few days to recover, I started *The Graveyard Book* on Friday evening. I was able to stop reading at midnight, which gave me the pleasures of some creepy dreams that night and of enjoying a little whiskey while finishing it tonight. If anything, Bod’s ordeals were even scarier than Coraline’s, though nothing can top this exchange between Coraline and her eye-buttoned other mother:
I Put Her Back

*Shudder*.

Blue Monday Art (Guest Post by the Girls)

**JULIA**: What a great morning: Muffins and art and snagging the window chairs at Blue Monday. It made me appreciate how pretty and quiet Northfield is on a Sunday morning. The red Raleigh outside the window had “Townie”written all over it. Northfield is a bike town, even in January. I have to admit, that bike is nice, but the owner would get more admiring glances if she rode a Salsa Beargrease. 🙂

Julia's version

**GENEVIEVE**:
A perfect morning always starts with a sketch, and a beautiful Northfield scene in the background lit a match of ideas. And so my drawing began there. The bike immediately caught my interest. It was my kind of challenging sketch: complex and not too colorful. Of course, I would have put more effort into the art (although I put plenty into this one) if it were a green and black Salsa Beargrease!

Genevieve's version

Jumbo Wild

Wednesday, I watched Jumbo Wild, an accomplished and moving documentary about the ongoing fight to keep a developer from building a massive ski resort in a pristine valley in the Canadian Rockies. The place took its wonderfully odd and fitting name from a failed late-1800s mine.

The film is gorgeous, full of jaw-dropping vistas of the mountains in all four seasons. And while from the first the filmmakers are arguing against this particular project – which would, let’s be honest, ruin any wildness in the Jumbo Valley – they are also pretty good at respecting the perspective of the developer. (They are markedly less respectful of Canadian provincial and national government officials who seem weirdly eager to advance the project almost no matter what.)

Against that perspective, the film advances at least* three separate but interconnected points of opposition. White Canadian locals don’t want to see big money come in and permanently alter the valley where they live. Scientists – represented principally by a grizzly-bear researcher – think that the project would irreparably damage the region’s ecology, fragmenting one of the last big chunks of wilderness in the Canadian West. And members of First Nations oppose the project for the way it would literally profane a sacred space where they’ve lived for generations.

All of these views are woven artfully and engagingly together in a film that concludes just where you thought it would: in a vigorous call to defend wild places. Jumbo Wild a wonderful film that anyone interested in wild areas will love.

 

* I say “at least” because a) the film is sponsored by an outdoor-clothing company with a vested interest in wildlands recreation in places like Jumbo and b) the landscape is present in the film in such a way that the mountains, snow, and trees offers powerful opposition of their own.

Damn Immigrants

Even here at the windswept edge of the prairie, a patriot can find stubborn pockets of unassimilated immigrants.
Stubborn Anti-Americanism

This crude flag, seen today on an excursion southeast of my home town, speaks volumes about the recondite nature of the immigrants who dwell in the run-down compound of which this building is just one part.

Who knows what un-American spirits animate these immigrants. One can assume they’ve stubbornly retained the surnames they brought with them over the wide Atlantic – names full of ugly consonants and unlikely vowels that confound the American tongue.

Do these immigrants even know our Constitution, or recite our Pledge of Allegiance? Perhaps they – like their countrymen who never fled their rocky homeland – still follow the dictates of their king. Certainly, their farmstead suggests no interest in a Jeffersonian ideal of the citizen.

Whatever their political views, however, we can be sure that these immigrants adhere to the 16th century teachings of a raving Teutonic priest who sought to overturn the social order and who achieved decades of bloody religious warfare. As mute proof of their religiosity, a temple dedicated to this madman’s sect stands but a short distance from the compound, its minaret-like steeple looming over a think line of trees.

And what of more quotidian interests? Judging by the state of repair of the several motor vehicles in the compound, the immigrants can only with difficulty venture to the markets in town. Do they wear our clothes? Do they read our books? Do they eat our food? A patriot might reasonably wonder whether they have ever enjoyed the truest American delicacies such as hamburgers, pizza, or tacos. Until they do, that patriot should fear for the wholeness and unity of the Republic.

“Still Alice” and Technology

Tonight we watched Julianne Moore’s Oscar vehicle, Still Alice. The film is very much worth your time. Playing an Alzheimer’s patient in cruelly early decline, Moore was outrageously good, of course; she won the Academy Award for her performance. The movie is a complete tearjerker, and tears were jerked on our sofa. But I was surprised that end of the movie was much less depressing than I expected, given both the movie’s plot and much of the material to that point.

Though very much a family drama (albeit one in which the central character gradually dissipates), the film handled technology in an interestingly compelling way. Apple laptops and phones are everywhere. Alice uses her laptop to talk via video with her daughter and to deliver lectures in her day job as a professor at Columbia. (Though: the idea that she would be teaching a lecture course? ha! And that her lecture slides would project automatically? ha ha!)

Even more than her MacBook Air, Alice loves her iPhone. She plays Words with Friends on it against another daughter, she gets in trouble with her husband when she doesn’t answer it, she tries to make it part of a suicide scheme, and she finally misplaces it and then never really picks it up again – her electronic brain gone like her actual mind. The parallel was quite affecting and humanizing, and testament to the power of the story.

Homing Instincts

Northfield Geese
Northfield Geese

Bernd Heinrich’s Homing Instinct was a great book to read in the early fall, when Northfield’s skies are full of geese and ducks wending their way south – after long, leisurely stops in our ponds and creeks. The book’s subtitle – “meaning and mystery in animal migration” – suggests that Heinrich will explore animals’ instinctual seasonal movements, and indeed much of the book does deal with that topic. In the first section – “Homing” – Heinrich tells staggering stories about how various birds, insects, and mammals find their way over distances that are extraordinary on both their own scales (bees that thoroughly master acres and acres of forest and field) and on global ones (eels that breed in the Sargasso Sea but live most of their lives in coastal waters in North America and Europe).

The science that underlies human understanding of these animals’ movements is amazing, but the animals’ own comprehension of the world is far more so. Loggerhead turtles apparently navigate incredibly long distances by reading tiny changes in the earth’s magnetism. I was impressed by the Heinrich’s stories, by scientists’ efforts to comprehend animal migration, and by the animals’ own skills, but I was also depressed by the realization that by wrecking the planet, we humans are directly and indirectly destroying animals (and of course plants and other kinds of life) that are so much more complex and mysterious that we do or perhaps ever will know. (Here my wonderings ran to bison, which in their herds before the Great Slaughter may or may not have migrated seasonally or on another schedule across hundreds or thousands of miles of North America.)

The book’s subtitle is misleading though in that much of the second half of the book concerns animals’ homes, not their movements. Here, Heinrich deals with all kinds of birds’ and insects’ nesting behavior and structures as well as a few mammals (pointing out that very few “higher” mammals actually build homes!). The center of this second section – “Home-making and Maintaining” – is a long, engrossing description of Heinrich’s own efforts to understand the spiders that lived in his Maine cabin. Their web homes are both shelters and tools, which – as Heinrich shows – the spiders used in sophisticated and, frankly, terrifying ways. This chapter – like the “Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Compass” chapter in the first section – are standout natural-history essays.

In the book’s third and last section, Heinrich changes register dramatically, writing at length about his own “homing instincts” for what sounds like a gorgeous patch of Maine woods. I was at first put off by this change from animal to human life, but gradually, Heinrich shows how his drive to live there, and not somewhere else, is continuous with the instincts and drives of the animals he’d discussed earlier in the book. This section is a lovely way to bring the book home.

More Maclean…

Friday night – after stopping several times to put off the ending as long as possible – I finally finished Norman Maclean’s "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," the third story in the collection that my friend Julia bestowed on me a couple weeks ago.

"USFS 1919" is shorter than but at least as good as the collection’s lead piece, "A River Runs through It," Maclean’s most famous story (which I blogged about when I finished it a few days ago). Where "River" was a meditation on familial bonds and loss, "USFS" is a funny slow-motion adventure story about the young Maclean’s service on a U.S. Forest Service crew in the high Rockies near Hamilton, Montana, in summer 1919. Like "River," this story includes some wonderful sketches by R. Williams:
Bill Bell Heads Back Out

I wish the book had more of this visual art, but I am glad that "USFS" is full of literary art, especially beautiful passages of writing in which Maclean vividly describes the mountains and the woods and makes me wish I could there right now:

To a boy, it is something new and beautiful to piss among the stars. Not under the starts but among them. Even at night great winds seem always to blow on great mountains, and tops of trees bend, but, as the boy stands there with nothing to do but to watch, seemingly the sky itself bends and the stars blow down through the trees until the Milky Way becomes lost in some distant forest.

After a surprising August (!) snowstorm during a short stint as a fire watcher:

When I looked, I knew I might never again see so much of the earth so beautiful, the beautiful being something you know added to something you see, in a whole that is different from the sum of its parts. What I saw might have been just another winter scene, though an impressive one. But what I knew was that the earth underneath was alive and that by tomorrow, certainly by the day after, it would be all green again. so what I saw because of what I knew was a kind of death with the marvelous promise of less than a three-day resurrection.

Even before I got back to camp it had begun to melt. Hundreds of shrubs had been bent over like set snares, and now they spring up in the air throwing small puffs of white as if hundreds of snowshoe rabbits were being caught at the same instant.

As he rests during a long walk back from camp to Hamilton, he muses in a way that I recognize from racing in the winter:

When you look back at where you have been, it often seems as if you have never been there or even as if there were no such place.

(Two things about these passages: Maclean writes a great deal about pissing in the woods, an activity to which I can personally relate, and he is a masterful user – or non-user – of commas. He saves his commas like scarce nails and pounds them into his sentences only where truly needed.)

Into these passages of superlative nature writing, Maclean offers some glimpses of how he came to understand his mountain adventures as key phases of life and, eventually, as the raw material for literature:

I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.

Unlike "River," this piece has a big cast of more and less crazy characters, including Maclean himself – a 17-year-old kid with far more responsibility than he needs or merits but an excellent ability to make very poor decisions, like the choice to walk straight through from camp to town. The central characters though are the titular ranger and cook. Much of the story concerns how these two guys conceive of a scheme to end their season of work with a hell of a night on the town in Hamilton. I won’t ruin the story’s ending, which like the story’s landscape has several peaks (Maclean early on says he’s serving in an "ocean of mountains") but it’s amazing as prose, as story, and as life.

The only bad part about the ending of the story was that it came at the end. The good thing is that Julia has also sent me Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, his longest book and one that – she says – is as good as "River" and "USFS."

Rivers Run through It

At my friend Julia’s recommendation, I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” today – a gorgeously warm fall day that seemed perfectly suited to the action of that incredible, indelible, devastating story.

I made sure to finish the “novella” with the girls in the room so that the ending – stupidly given away by my edition’s foreword – didn’t make me cry. I won’t spoil that ending here, except to say that MacLean knows exactly what he’s doing with and to his reader.

Even without knowing much about the story, I knew that fly fishing featured prominently in it. I’m no fisherman, with flies or live bait, but while reading the book, I had fixed in my head two scenes from my trips out west to race in the Fat Pursuit this and last winters. Rivers run through my experiences with those races.

Looking north up the Henry’s Fork in Island Park, ID. Supposedly the best fly-fishing river in the world.
Henry's Fork in Island Park, ID (March 2014)

Looking north up the Gallatin River from Greek Creek Campground along US 191, south of Bozeman, MT. If you had the full file you could see bighorn sheep on the left and fly fishermen downstream.
The Gallatin River south of Bozeman, MT

I’ve only been to these rivers a couple times, but I love them. If or when I see them again I’ll think of Maclean.

Montage of Heck

Last night, I finally watched Montage of Heck, the recent documentary about Kurt Cobain by Brett Mogren. The film was moving, as I expected (or worried), and pleasingly focused on Cobain’s and Nirvana’s music. (The dude could shred on the guitar.) The music was in fact the centerpiece of the film: album and live tracks of classic Nirvana tunes, rarities and covers by others (a plinking, nursery-rhyme version of "All Apologies" early in the film gave me chills), and – surprisingly to me – actual pages of lyrics from Cobain’s own voluminous notebooks. Seeing the original lyrics to "Frances Farmer" magnified the impact of that amazing song, which is maybe my favorite. The animations of the notebook pages, and of key scenes in Cobain’s life, were a nice touch, highlighting the fact that Cobain was a talented visual artist – something I didn’t know about him.

Frances Farmer

Of course the film is also and maybe mostly about Cobain’s life, and incidentally about his death, which is treated far too abruptly. I wished that the Mogren had dealt even more with Cobain’s biography. After an excruciating look at his childhood, the film switches over almost entirely to the band just before Bleach. I can understand that choice, but given the detailed examination of Cobain’s youth, I wanted even more about being Courtney Love’s husband and Frances’ father. (Courtney does not come off well from the film.)

Cobain
Maybe I was just falling prey to the tendency of a fan to also be a voyeur, which Cobain himself loathed in his ugliest moments and which he tried to redirect to his art in his best. Midway through the film, some journalist asks Cobain why he can’t or won’t explain his songs to his fans. "There’s nothing to be said, man," Kurt replies, visibly exhausted by the question. "It’s all in the music, man, it’s all in the music. It’s all in the meat… I’d like to hear what they have, have in mind, you know, like, how they interpret it."

It’s a simple notion, but a profound one. Even if he were still alive, I could never explain to Cobain just what his music – Bleach, Nevermind, In Utero, Unplugged, From the Muddy Banks, and all the rest – meant and means to me. It’s literally too much. Too much noise, too much rage, too much humor, too much beauty, too much feeling. Maybe, finally, Cobain is a kind of sacrificial lamb for me. The feelings that poured out of him created a kind of hole where I could and can stuff my own feelings. For that, I have to thank him – even if I also wish he were still around to make more music for me, and for us, and for himself.

Carleton College Senior Art Show

I lost myself in the Carleton College senior art show, Composite, last week. I’ve visited a couple times now, and have only gotten more impressed by the quality of the work. Every piece is worth savoring, and the pieces in the gallery fit wonderfully together. Here are a few of the more easily-photographed pieces.

Paintings by Soren Hope
Paintings by Soren Hope

 

Graphite Drawings by Avery Johnson
Graphite drawings by Avery Johnson

The artist says these pieces, “are a reflection on a human’s physical relationship with technology, especially the mobile phone. By creating huge drawings of human hands grasping for and poking at the viewer as though they were a phone, I hope to evoke a the sense of greed and desire that we feel when interacting with something designed as a multipurpose, interactive tool.”

Metal Body Ornaments by Zoe Abdel-Moneim
Metal body ornaments by Zoe Abdel-Moneim
Hanging sculptures by Ellen Louise Kwan
Hanging sculptures by Ellen Louise Kwan

And then there were Chloe Mark‘s amazing oil on Plexiglas paintings. She sliced them up and hung them in such a way that you could walk through them and watch some of them move almost like a video.

Chloe Mark
Paintings by Chloe Mark