Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day 2015: A Personal Journey

Father Mississippi                            Walter Inglis Anderson, American, ca. 1955

I don't mind celebrating Earth Day.  In some way, in fact, a celebration of the planet takes place in our home every day.  And it happens in spite of the full-on seizure of environmental themes by the radical left - the green movement - that came with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. Even the unhinged need an anchor but it's sad they selected such a universal idea. In the last generation it's even sadder because the New Media Age often isolates us even more from the outside, making it more difficult to experience, understand, appreciate, and protect our planet. All of my adult life, I've fought hard to erase that isolation. These words 
were the inspiration, more at revelation, first heard in 1971:

...we divide our spirit in two parts, what we do and what happens to us. This is the great illusion. There's really no difference as the joyous ones in the heavens know. What happens to you as well as what you do is fundamentally your doing. And when we say it's your doing, it's not the ordinary you that you call your ego or your conscious mind, it's a deeper you than that. It's the you at which you are one with nature for man and nature form a single pattern of activity, one process, just that man is a little bit more complicated than the trees. But he goes with them and the whole thing is one single process. It isn't that nature pushes you around or that you push nature around. If you are awake, if your eyes are wide open and you look at things freshly instead of with your ordinary patterns, ordinary ways in which you have been taught to think, you see that the whole process of life is something that just happens. The Buddhists call it tathata. We translate that "suchness," "just like that."

If you think that the world is going somewhere, that there are certain things that are supposed to happen and there are certain things that are supposed not to happen you never see the way it is like music. Music has no destination. We don' play it in order to get somewhere. If that were the way, the best orchestras would be those who got to the end of the piece the fastest.  Music is a pattern which we listen to and enjoy as it unfolds. In the same way, "Where is the water going?" Where do the leaves go? Where are the clouds going? There not going anywhere because nature understands that the point of the whole thing is to be here, to be wide awake to the now that is going on. So when you listen to music you don't try to hold in your memory what is past or to think about what's coming. You listen to the pattern as it unfolds and so watch it as it moves now. It's a dance. And dancing is like music for when you dance you dance just to dance. You don't aim at a particular place on the floor that is your destination of the dance. You listen to the music and you move your body with it [as if] your eyes are following the patterns of the water.

The secret is to spend some time every day in which you don't think but just watch, in which you don't form any ideas about life but look at it, listen to it, smell it, feel it. And when you get rid of all the talk in  your head, all the ideas about what I do as distinct from what happen to me or what's the difference between man and nature or between what's mine and what's yours it all goes. and it's just the dancing pattern, what the Chinese call "li," the word that originally meant the markings in jade, the grain in wood, or...the pattern on water. When you let go of the definitions, of the attempt to try to pin down nature, to pin down life in your mind so that you can feel you are completely in control of it, its all based on the idea that you're different from it, that you have to master it. When you don't pin it down anymore, when you don't try to cling to it as if it was something different from you then your whole life has about it the sensation of flowing like water. It always goes away. but it always comes back because away and back are two sides of the same thing. Let it go!

And here is the foundation upon which that revelation took place:

Psalm 104 
1 Praise the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty. 2 He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent 3 and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. 4 He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. 5 He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. 6 You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. 7 But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight; 8 they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them. 9 You set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth. 10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. 11 They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. 12 The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. 13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. 14 He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate-- bringing forth food from the earth: 15 wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart. 16 The trees of the LORD are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. 17 There the birds make their nests; the stork has its home in the pine trees. 18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the coneys. 19 The moon marks off the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. 20 You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. 21 The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. 22 The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens. 23 Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening. 24 How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25 There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number-- living things both large and small. 26 There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. 27 These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. 28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. 29 When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. 30 When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. 31 May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works-- 32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke. 33 I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. 34 May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD. 35 But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more. Praise the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD.
Earth Day 2015 may be ending shortly in my community, but these passages where East meets West tell us that every day is an Earth day. For me the celebration indeed flows like water. It is a joy to be immersed in nature. Everyone should experience it and I hope these words move you to that realization.   

First quotation, Buddhism: Man and Nature, Alan W, Watts, Hartley Films, 1968
Psalm 104, The Bible, New International Version, 2011

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

John Muir: A World In Sand And Heaven In Wild Flowers

John Muir in his beloved Yosemite Valley in 1890

Today marks the birthday of the great American naturalist and conservationist, John Muir (1839-1914). Through his efforts and the movements he supported with such fervor - he founded the Sierra Club - we can enjoy the spectacular wildness that is Yosemite National Park. His efforts also help establish the national park movement that today provide us with more than 400 units administered by the National Park Service. In addition, there are more than 6500 state parks and thousands of local parks and preserves to enjoy. Although Muir focused on the preservation of wilderness his work was a model for cultural preservation, a movement begun largely with Civil War commemorations late in the 19th century. 

By nature, Muir was a wanderer physically and emotionally building upon his studies in botany and geology as he traveled. In 1868 he saw Yosemite Valley for the first time and soon realized he had found his calling in the world of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is how he described the revelation in his autobiographical notebook:

There are eight members in our family....All are useful members of society - save me. One is a healer of the sick. Another, a merchant, and a deacon in good standing. The rest school teachers and farmers' wives - all exemplary, stable, anti-revolutionary. Surely then, I thought, one may be spared for so fine an experiment.
... the remnants of compunction - the struggle covering the serious business of settling down -gradually wasted and melted, and at length left me wholly free - born again! I will follow my instincts, be myself for good or ill, and see what will be the upshot...As long as I live, I'll hear the waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.

We should all be so lucky.

To learn more about John Muir. Visit the John Muir Exhibit at the Sierra Club website. Yosemite National Park has a fine tribute to Muir at this link.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

San Francisco Earthquake: 109 Years Ago

San Francisco is my favorite West Coast city and, as cities go, the museums, restaurants, and parks make it one of the best anywhere. For me, what makes the city really special is its natural setting, a splendid combination of its bay, the coastal mountains, and mediterranean climate. But there is a more subtle nature to that setting and one that was completely unknown on the early morning of April 18, 1906 when a great earthquake shook the town. On that date earth science was a very young science. The idea that San Francisco sat astride two massive and drifting plates, one of which was moving toward Alaska, would have been laughable. Fifty years later, such thinking was widely accepted in the theory of plate tectonics. 

On that morning 109 years ago and in the days that followed, "theory" wasn't on the minds of San Franciscans. They wanted to survive. This is how the opening paragraphs of the National Archives entry describe the event:

On the morning of April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake shook San Francisco, California. Though the quake lasted less than a minute, its immediate impact was disastrous. The earthquake also ignited several fires around the city that burned for three days and destroyed nearly 500 city blocks.

Despite a quick response from San Francisco's large military population, the city was devastated. The earthquake and fires killed an estimated 3,000 people and left half of the city's 400,000 residents homeless. Aid poured in from around the country and the world, but those who survived faced weeks of difficulty and hardship.

The survivors slept in tents in city parks and the Presidio, stood in long lines for food, and were required to do their cooking in the street to minimize the threat of additional fires. The San Francisco earthquake is considered one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

You can read the rest of the article and view scores of historic photographs and documents related to the event here.  The National Park Service has a fine resource newsletter on the quake. The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle has a few commemorative articles as well as a new archive of photographs. Below are several stereoscope cards from the family archives showing the scene following the earthquake and fire.

If you want to see remnants of the earthquake first hand and learn a bit more about it, plate tectonics, and continental drift there's no better place in my opinion than the Earthquake Trail at Point Reyes National Seashore. [Point Reyes is a spectacular resource in the National Park Service. Plan two or three days minimum to explore all of it.] The Seashore is accessible from Highway 1 at Olema about eighteen miles north of the Golden Gate.  The trail - an easy half-mile - is at the Bear Valley Visitor Center.  The trail's focal point is the famous old fence displaced eighteen feet by the quake.

I have experienced just one earthquake - Alaska in 2000 - that really concerned me. It lasted about thirty seconds and was strong enough to keep me swaying in my seat in a dark theater while the sound of thunder and rock slides rumbled outside. Our guides told us not to worry - they happened all the time at the site. Easy for them to say. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Charlie Chaplin: "A Day Without Laughter Is A Day Wasted."

In his 88 years, he graced the world of entertainment as a performer, director, producer, businessman, and composer. His concern for everyday people and their often difficult lives was a common theme in virtually all his films as well as his private life. Such humanitarian sympathies led him to ally with well-known leftist in the U.S. and eventually leave the country in the early 1950s. Through it all, his endearing, bumbling, yet refined tramp brought laughter and awareness to millions.

We are of course talking about the irrepressible Charlie Chaplin, born on this day in 1889 in London. On a tour of the United States in 1913 he caught the eye of film producer Max Sennett. In was in preparation for his second film that he stumbled upon his persona as the "Little Tramp" a role that would become his signature. Today, if you took a photograph of the "Little Tramp" to almost any corner of the world touched by Western culture, chances are someone would recognize it. That's a powerful statement given that the character hasn't appeared in a film for almost eighty years. We should be pleased that such greatness persists. 

Take some time today to visit Chaplin's official site. The biography page is especially useful, providing information about nine "masterpiece features" and a complete filmography. Chaplin has three films on the American Film Institute's Greatest Films of All Time" list. They are: City Lights (1931) at #11, The Gold Rush (1925) at #58, and Modern Times (1936) at #78. It's important to keep in mind that Chaplin was the director, producer, writer, star, composer, and editor for all of these films except Modern Times which was edited by Willard Nico.

My personal favorite among all of his films is The Great Dictator (1940). Interestingly, this film was Chaplin's first "talkie." In it Chaplin portrays two characters, the "Little Tramp" variation of a Jewish veteran of World War I attempting to reestablish his life as a barber, and  Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomainia.   Any resemblance between Adenoid Hynkel and Adolph Hitler is completely intentional. The film is a masterful piece of political satire made as an appeal to Americans and their leadership to wake up to the threat of Nazi Germany. If you have not watched The Great Dictator (1940), add it to your queue today. You won't regret it.

Here is a 25 minute, French documentary on The Great Dictator produced in 2003. I normally do not link to long videos here but this one is exceptionally well-made. It's packed with important background information and features several scenes including the "globe scene" [19:26] rightfully described as "one of the most brilliant scenes in all of cinema." 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

American Composer Philip Glass Wins The Glenn Gould Prize

As loyal readers know, Philip Glass and Glenn Gould are favorite subjects on this blog. I certainly acknowledge their birthdays each year and often post their music and performances. It was a double treat this week when the Glenn Gould Foundation announced in Toronto that Glass was selected as the eleventh winner of The Glenn Gould Prize.  Leonard Cohen, Sir Andre Previn, Yo Yo Ma, and Oscar Peterson are among the previous winners. The prize, often described at the Nobel Prize of the arts,  is given every two years to "an individual for a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts."

Here is an example of the enrichment brought to us by the genius that is Philip Glass:

I doubt that Canada will ever produce another legendary pianist like Glenn Gould. His eccentricities often left producers and recording engineers at the edge of madness. His technical perfection left the world astounded:


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

One Hundred Fifty Years Ago: Abraham Lincoln And Ford's Theatre

Ford's Theatre, 514 10th Street, NW, Washington, D.C.

Today marks the sesquicentennial of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington. He was taken across the street to the home of William and Anna Peterson where died shortly after 7:00 a.m. the following morning. The theatre remained closed for over a century. It reopened in 1968 as a performance venue and national historic site that included the Peterson House. Today it is owned by the National Park Service and operated through a partnership agreement with the Ford's Theatre Society. 

There will be much written and broadcast today about this tragic event but I think there is one program tonight at Ford's that will outweigh them the stories. It is Now He Belongs to the Ages: A Lincoln Commemoration, a Society centerpiece of their commemoration programming. All of the tickets are long gone for this event but thanks to the Society's efforts you can watch it streaming live online at 9:00 p.m. tonight.  The program includes "readings of Lincoln’s words and stories, Civil War-era music, excerpts from Lincoln’s favorite theatre and operas, and more. The event seeks to remind us that we not only lost a president; we lost a man who treasured his family, his friends and his country with a love so strong it could hold the Union together."

Abraham Lincoln and son, Tad, February 5, 1865

Ford Theatre photographs, Ford's Theatre National Historic Site
Lincoln photograph, Alexander Gardner. Abraham Lincon with his son Tad (Thomas), February 5, 1865. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (140) Digital ID # cph-3a05994

Monday, April 13, 2015

Eudora Welty: Life And Legend Amid The Honeysuckle

Today we celebrate the great Southern writer Euroda Welty on what would be her 106th birthday.

In memory of Eudora Welty, we celebrate her 106th birthday today. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author penned novels and short stories about the American South from her home in Jackson, Mississippi.

Welty lived and died in Jackson, Mississippi. Although she attended college in Wisconsin and New York, and traveled abroad, she always returned to the house on Pinehurst Street that she had called "home" since high school. Her skill as a writer enabled her to transform observations of life in Mississippi into a body of literature including novels, short stories, reviews, letters, and an autobiography. Over sixty years she received a host of awards including the Pulitzer Prize for her 1973 novel, The Optimist's Daughter.

Here is a short CSPAN BookTV production exploring Welty and her home in Jackson:

For four years toward the end of the Great Depression (1929-1939) Welty was employed by the Works Progress Administration to document everyday life in Mississippi. Her photography from that period has become well known as an expression of her powers of observation. Smithsonian Magazine produced this short documentary on her photography on the occasion of the centennial of her birth in 2009.

Our final video is a brief look at the story behind Welty's portrait - detailed above - on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

For more information on Eurdora Welty readers should visit the outstanding website maintained by the Euroda Welty Foundation.