Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Real Devil's Tower

In the Devil's Tower KOA campground, guess what movie they play every night under the stars at 9:30 sharp. Of course.

To show a movie to an audience that is basically a random selection of humanity and to do so out of doors on a wide screen TV with mosquitoes buzzing around -- that may be the ultimate test of a movie's ability to entertain. And this one passed it beautifully. The audience clearly enjoyed it and so did I. It was a reminder of the good old days before Steven Spielberg decided he was an Artist. (A friend of mine describes him, perfectly I think, as the best second unit director ever.)

One thing that struck me on seeing it again is that this may be the one movie in which the composer is most important. The aliens and the humans communicate by means of a musical phrase, and there is that stunning sequence in which John Williams has to convey the impression of a human musician communicating with (so far) unseen aliens by playing a duet of variations on the original five note phrase. A sort of Dueling Banjos between galaxies. You have got to admit that he does it brilliantly. Interesting that to create the feeling of sense of alien-and-weird-but-beautiful he uses a modernist idiom that is not typical of him. (Any morals to draw about the aesthetics of modernism? And from the fact that the idiom used wasn't too modern -- nothing more remote than Hindemith?)

The other thing that hit me was something that I've never seen anyone else point out. The images of the Tower in the movie are all distorted. Often what we see is probably a model. In the internet screen grab to the right it is probably an altered photograph of the real thing, made in front of the KOA campground at the entrance to the national monument. Above and to the left you can see a shot I took from the rear of the same campground. It seems to me that the Tower in the movie is deliberately elongated. The two profiles compare like "Before" and "After" in a weight loss ad. The movie image of the tower seems obviously to have been artificially elongated. The real tower seems to me much more beautiful than the movie version. It looks, to switch metaphors, like a broad, powerful sumo wrestler among geological formations. The movie one looks, well, sort of stupid.

Miles of Wonderful Nothing

So far, we've gone 1,443.8 miles, through two time zone changes, sojourning now at the southwest corner of Wyoming. We dropped from I-90 to I-80 by taking I-25 South and two secondary roads, to re-emerge on Eisenhower's "interstate net" at Rawlings. In the meantime we were staggered by the vastness, vacuity and forbidding beauty of this section of the country where no one seems to live, and the few who do keep voting for people like Bush and McCain. It's like a planet where humans haven't landed yet. Nothing but prairie grass as far as you can see, except for distant mountain ranges, snow-capped in the middle of summer. "The Empty Quarter," one writer calls it, naming it after an area in the Arabian desert.

Who lives here, and what do they use this land for? Anything? Nat said, "It's almost a shame no one lives here." You could say the land is going to waste. It's not fulfilling its potential. Ah, but on second thought, it is doing what we should all do. Being itself.

Tonight, into the wild!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Travelling in the West

Nat and I are traveling to the far west, to contemplate Nature in the Ruby Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. But we aren't very close to our destination yet. To the left you can get a rough idea of what we saw from our tent doorway this morning. It, as you know, is in eastern Wyoming.

Anyway, that's why I haven't been blogging. And may not for a while. We will be completely out of touch for days at a time. Why shucks, that's the whole point! Out of touch!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Prairie Dogs: A Story With No Moral

I was almost there. The jeep road to the prairie dog town I came here to visit was just about three miles over the next hill. I drove past three guys by the side of the road who I soon realized were observing a prairie dog town by the side of the road. They had some fancy equipment -- big binoculars on a sophisticated stand and what looked like maybe some kind of directional microphone. Good, I thought. It's about time the Bureau of Land Management has begun to monitor a species that they and other branches of the government have done so much over the years to decimate and destroy. As my jeep flew past them, though, it occurred to me that they didn't look like rangers. Why not? That's it, they're not in uniform. Well, maybe they are scientists. Funny thing, though, they don't look like scientists either. Scientists aren't usually as chubby as these guys are, at least ones that do field work. Suddenly, bang!, I heard a detonation behind me. Then I realized that the thing I thought was some kind of directional mike was actually a high-powered rifle with a scope. These guys were waiting for prairie dogs to stick their heads out of their burrows and then blowing those same little heads off, for fun. Like playing whack-a-mole with real brain splatter.

Can you imagine a less sporting "sport" than this? Or a more perfect symbol of pointless, cowardly meanness? In South Dakota, licensed hunters are permitted to kill prairie dogs without limit. And since these Yankees don't eat prairie dogs, nor indeed any squirrel species, they just leave their exploded bodies to rot on the slopes of their burrow-domes.
PS: For those who might be wondering about the answer to my two earlier questions: Yes, I was still able to get into the Indian Creek area. I guess having something declared a "wilderness" is not so easy. And, yes, my favorite prairie dog town is still there, and more or less as prosperous as it was last year, though still well below its peak.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Thomas M. Disch, RIP

I'm still on the road, so I have no time to write anything elaborate. I was very saddened to find that classic science fiction author Thomas M. Disch died by his own hand shortly before I left home. (Hat-tip to 2 Blowhards here.) I have been a fan of his ever since my old friend Marc Kummel (alias Treebeard) loaned me his copy of Camp Concentration, circa 1972. One thing that blognotes about Disch sometimes fail to mention is that Disch was a delightful poet -- and that, always the contrarian, he wrote poems that scanned and rhymed. He was an ardent champion of "the new formalism" (ie., poems that scan and rhyme). A delightful example is this parody of Kilmer's Trees.


I think that I shall never read
A tree of any shape or breed -
For all its xylem and its phloem -
As fascinating as a poem.
Trees must make themselves and so
They tend to seem a little slow
To those accustomed to the pace
Of poems that speed through time and space
As fast as thought. We shouldn't blame
The trees, of course: we'd be the same
If we had roots instead of brains.
While trees just grow, a poem explains,
By precept and example, how
Leaves develop on the bough
And new ideas in the mind.
A sensibility refined
By reading many poems will be
More able to admire a tree
Than lumberjacks and nesting birds
Who lack a poet's way with words
And tend to look at any tree
In terms of its utility.
And so before we give our praise
To pines and oaks and laurels and bays,
We ought to celebrate the poems
That made our human hearts their homes.

Monday, July 07, 2008

I'm In South Dakota

I'm sitting at a picnic table in a private campground in South Dakota -- one with free wireless internet, believe it or not. I'm headed for Indian Creek Valley in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Every time I go there I am worried about two things.

First, I am not sure I will be able to stay there at all. For years a certain evil corporation (ie., the Sierra Club) has been pressuring the Bureau of Land Management to prohibit all motorized travel there. As I explained earlier, this would mean that it is impossible for people without horses to explore this beautiful tract of lonely, rugged terrain to any significant extent. Not being a local rancher or a rich guy, I don't have a horse.

Second, I am never sure that the the prairie dog colony next to my favorite campsite will still be there. Since the early 'nineties, when I started taking notes, the prairie dog population has fluctuated violently. I don't know why exactly, but I do remember a time when the BLM was encouraging people to shoot them. They eat some of the grass that the local ranchers want their cows to be able to eat, don't you know. Also, ranchers in the nearby Conata Basin have been pressuring the government to "do more" in the way of deliberately killing prairie dogs on public land at taxpayers' expense.

Well, here goes!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Independence Day!

I just read a blog post that ended: "For those inclined to celebrate America’s independence, enjoy the holiday weekend." Boy, that was a new one on me. So if someone thinks independence was a big mistake, he's not going to to wish him a happy holiday weekend? (Go here to see a very different sort of sentiment.) Of course, that's not what he meant. He probably mean that the Fourth should become like Xmas: because it means something, and doesn't mean the same for all, we should be very cautious and conditional in our well-wishing, lest we foist our meaning on others.

That would put me in a awkward position, since the Fourth has a peculiar sort of meaning for me. For me, its not a celebration of a flag or a government, but of independence from a government. It celebrates a brief period, ending in the counter-revolution of 1789, in which America was a free country.* It is thus one of the very few holidays in our culture (Passover and Bastille Day are the only others I can think of) that is really about freedom.

I guess I'll wish you happy Independence Day and figure you can just ignore it if you want. You are free to celebrate Dependence Day, if that's what you wish.

Me, I'm making a special dinner because Nat is coming home from his first IHS Summer Seminar. On the table: Deconstructed Tacos with Grilled Skirt Steak and Charred Tomato Salsa! __________________________________________
* Well, if you ignore the terrifying and shameful time-bomb of slavery.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Kinderarchy: It's the Thought that Counts

Joseph Epstein published a piece about a month ago that seems to have reverberated sympathetically with a lot of people. His main idea is that kids grow into little tyrants because they get too much attention from their parents. Parents nowadays make kids the center of their lives, a thing that his own parents certainly did not do. The result is kinderarchy, rule by children

I see a fallacy here, and I see the same fallacy in some discussions of "helicopter parents." These of course are parents who hover over their kids even in a doomed effort to prevent them from ever failing or suffering. It is sometimes discussed as if the root of the problem is that the pay too much attention to them: they email them or talk to them on their cell phones ever week if not (gasp!) more often than not, and some of these kids even go to a college in the same town their parents live in (oh no, not that!).

I agree that there is a problem here to be addressed. As an anarchist, I am opposed to every sort of _archy -- including kinderarchy. Some kids -- and many adults (many of whom vote!) -- think they are entitled to the fruits of other people's pains and exertions and to massive amounts of self-esteem. But is the cause of this the attention they get from their parents?

There is a simple, logical distinction, which these arguments ignore, between quantity of attention and quality.

As to quantity: I am convinced, both by theory and my own experience, that, for kids, especially for small children, there is simply no such thing as too much attention. Nor can there be too much love or affection. Of all these things, the more the better. And as far as making them "the center of your life" is concerned, if you weren't prepared to do that, why did you bring them into the world in the first place?

It's not the quantity of attention that is a problem, but the quality. That might seem to mean that good parenting is something that is impossibly subtle. What kind of attention is the right one, and how do you monitor it? But it's not really all that subtle. The right kind of attention, I would say, is the kind that is given, automatically, by someone who thinks everyone has rights that are not to be violated -- including not only the kids but the kids' teachers and the parents themselves. When I say "thinks everyone has rights," I am not talking about some superficial political opinion, but about how you live your life from day to day. Good attention is the kind you get from someone who treats everyone -- including themselves! -- as persons with rights that have to be respected. If that is your mindset then go ahead and love your kids and make them "the center of your life." They will grow up to make you proud.

Parents who do not have this mindset, I predict, will often have children who think that the world owes them everything they desire -- because that's what their parents think! Where's the mystery there?

In either case, it is the thought that is the active ingredient, not the sheer brute quantity of attention or affection. Humans are very good at reading other humans, starting at a very early age. Your kids can sense where your actions are coming from, and that is what makes the big difference.