Saturday, September 23, 2017

Sun and Moon Together

It might have been 9 a.m. when we arrived at Sugar Farms. Two young boys emerged from a very small tent as we pulled up. Just beyond them I could see tents and trailers in the pastures, amply spaces and uniformly enveloped in a thin cloud of radiant mist. Bright blue porta-potties punctuated the scene here and there. One of the boys called his mother, and we met up with her at a shed we'd passed on the way in. Tim and I forked over our twenty dollar bills and she scratched our names off a hand-written list.

"They call our place 'sugar ranch' because we fatten up our livestock real well," she told us, "but some people call it "disabled acres." That's because we like to buy disabled cows, fatten them up real good, and then eat them ourselves."

Looking out across the field behind us, I asked her about the condition of the terrain.

"Oh, I drive my Nissan all over the place out there. It's all pretty firm, though there are bumpy patches. The ground's a little higher over there by the fence."  

Indeed, the area by the fence looked good, and we headed over, skirting a shallow pond along the way. One trailer stood fifty yards to the north, and a gravel road cut through the property twenty-five yards to the south.  To the east we could see the distant roof of a ranch building half a mile away. 

There was still dew on the grass, and it sparkled in the hazy morning light. We parked the cars next to one another, but far enough apart to give us plenty of room between them to sit. For the next two hours, this enclave became our little home, office, laboratory, and lounge.

And it was perfect. Carol got out her knitting; Gayle and Hilary made a pin-hole camera out of a paper plate. Tim pulled out an umbrella, to protect his sensitive Irish skin from the glare. I read a few pages out loud about Lawrence Welk's early years in North Dakota from Ian Frazier's Great Plains.

I was totally entranced by the scene; I had never seen vehicles, mobile homes, tents, and people spread out with greater intelligence and taste across the countryside. But our only near neighbor didn't share that opinion. The first time I looked over his way, he made a gesture with upturned hands that meant "What? Are you going to park there?" As if we were blocking his view of the sky. His dog had started baking the moment we arrived.

"Yes, we are," I nodded, adding those facial gestures that mean, "Why not?"

The dog eventually quieted down. Hilary and Gayle went over to chat a few minutes later and learned that the man had been parked in that spot for three days. I guess by now he was feeling a little proprietary. I was happy when I saw his wife and daughter emerge from the trailer. It suddenly seemed less likely that he'd unleash the dog on us or pull a shotgun out of the cab.

For the next hour we chatted, goofed around, took some posed photos that I later photo-shopped into a group picture, wandered over to the porta-potty, and watched bands of clouds appear, pass overhead, and continue on to the southeast. Both Gayle and Carol consulted their phones repeatedly for the latest weather report.

Right on schedule (surprise, surprise) the disc of the moon took a very slim bite out of the sun. Distant voices cheered and whooped. A half hour later the fields started to look pale, then a little shadowy, then fairly dark. Clouds passed across the face of the sun from time to time and drifted on.
It took about an hour to complete the meal. One moment the moon had largely covered the sun, and the next it had popped completely over it, creating a fiery golden doughnut overhead.

What can you say? It was cool. People cheered in the distance. We opened a bottle of wine. The sky above our heads was a rich, deep blue, while the horizon was lit as if by a purple sunset in every directions. Hilary noticed that most of the cattle on the far side of the road were lying down.

But such moments are impossible to seize. Photos of fiery rings or leaping coronas don't come close. The effect is largely environmental rather than astronomical. It's simultaneously rare and insignificant. There is no way to wrap your head around it, and due to that fact, such events are often infused not only with awe and a giddy kind of joy but also with nostalgia. Instant nostalgia. 

Then it's over. Here comes the sun again. We just saw this movie, except in reverse. Twenty minutes after that brief two-minute span of totality, the light was merely pale and strange again, and all the cows were back on their feet. Ten minutes later, with the eclipse still unwinding itself, our neighbor had already packed up his chairs and his family and driven off.

We lingered in the after-shadow, looking up occasionally with the specially designed glasses from NASA, decorated with an American flag, that Gayle had distributed to everyone back in March. It had been an event to remember.

Two hours later, as we drove into Chadron State Park, we spotted a couple we often see at concerts in Minneapolis. Turns out they're eclipse chasers. This was their eleventh. They had gathered that evening with friends from the Netherlands and Australia they'd met at previous eclipse events.

I don't think I'll ever become an eclipse-chaser myself. It was a marvelous excuse for an excursion, but if I had to chose between the eclipse itself or the four day road trip with old friends, I'd forego the two minutes of midday darkness, awesome though it may be, and keep the trip. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Eclipse Overture

Our second day involved less highway grinding and more pleasant touring. I'm tempted to call it our wildlife day. After making a few stops at pullouts along the upper rim of the Badlands, we took a gravel road twelve miles to Sage Creek Campground. Along the way we saw a big horned sheep, hundreds of prairie dogs, and a ferruginous hawk—a species I'd never seen before. It was probably looking for a careless prairie dog to eat for lunch. At the spur leading to the campground the other car spotted three red-headed woodpeckers in a small grove of cottonwoods, while just ahead, we were coming upon our first magpie, which it hopped into the shade under a hippie van as we approached.

It was hot in the noon-time glare of the treeless campground, and I was glad we hadn't spent the night there. A few tents were scattered over the dusty expanse, but one of the women hanging out in the shade of a ramada said, "Last night this place was packed!"

On our way out we were stopped by a herd of buffalo desultorily crossing the road. I should have been admiring them but I was impatient to get going, and I started to wonder if the two cars bollixed up ahead of us were enthralled by the beasts or simply too timid to make their way through.

Studying the map a few minutes earlier, we had decided to have lunch in Farmingdale. When we arrived we discovered there was nothing in Farmingdale. We next chose Hermosa as a rendezvous, but the most appealing place we could find there was a deli in a casino-cum-truck-stop called the Flying J.

It was 2 p.m. and we were glad to get in out of the sun for a while.  I got a ham and cheese sandwich in a cellophane wrapper and a plastic container of baked beans. They both would have been better if I'd micro-waved them—the bun was on the verge of being frozen—but with loads of mustard and mayo and a big bag of bar-b-que potato chips, the "meal" was satisfactory.

Tim and Carol, more adventurous, purchased a chicken-fried steak sandwich, with the thought that if it was good, they'd buy a second one. They each took a single bite and then, by mutual consent, tossed it in the garbage. Hilary, going further out on a limb, bought a sausage wrapped in pastry dough with jalapeños and cheese that was sitting under a heat lamp —a glorified pig-in-a-blanket, one of the specialties of the deli.

I think the do-it-yourself root beer floats oozing out of a big do-it-yourself machine may have been the hit of the occasion. "We're going to get one of those for the house," Tim said.

Just south of Hermosa we turned west on Highway 36 and were almost instantly engulfed in a wonderland of rising hills, green pastures, and shadowed pine woods. The sudden contrast was extraordinary, and welcome. We forked over the entry fee at the park gate—$20 per car—and made our way along the narrow and winding road through the open woods to the Needles and on to Sylvan Lake.

At one point we spotted some mountain goats on the rocks just above the road. And at the Sylvan Lake Lodge we ordered drinks and sat on the terrace in the late afternoon shade discussing whether there might be a limit to how many birds could bear a single individual's name. For example, after the Swainson's hawk and Swainson's thrush, does the ornithological union cut Swainson off? But what about the Wilson's phalarope, the Wilson's thrush ... and Wilson's warbler!

The subject came up because I'd mentioned that I was surprised there weren't any Clark's nutcrackers anywhere nearby—it seemed like perfect habitat—and went on to say, in case anyone was interested, that the bird was named after William Clark of "Lewis and Clark" fame.

The lodge is small but nice—a large field stone lobby with timbered furniture, a quaint bar, and a well-lit dining room beyond—but the terrace doesn't have much of the view. And they were piping pop music out past the ponderosa pines! I think the Sons of the Pioneers or Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen would have been more appropriate.

On our way back to the car I spotted three big whitish birds attacking the cones in a tree alongside the parking lot.

"What are they?" Carol shouted. (They were parked on the other side of the lot.)

"Clark's nutcrackers," I replied.

"Next time, we should bring up the subject of ivory-billed woodpeckers," she said.

It was a ten-minute ride south to Custer, the attractive tourist town where Gayle had booked a "family suite" of rooms at the Rocket Motel six months ago. It was actually a single long room with the bathroom placed in the middle, which made the two sleeping areas more private. The rooms were immaculate, and the tile work in the narrow bathroom was superb.

The receptionist had only a single key to give the five of us, which proved to be a problem later. But the motel's great strength was its covered terrace, where, as the sun went down, we could sit at wrought-iron patio tables and watch the world go by on Main Street just below us.

A winsome couple from San Diego sat down at the next table to eat a pizza they'd picked up in town.
"This isn't the pizza we ordered," the man said as he opened the box, though he didn't seem very upset. "There's no pineapple on it."

"That means someone else got our pizza," his son said astutely. "Well, I guess we might as well eat it."

"So, you're here to see the eclipse?" the man called over to us. "Where ya from?"

We told him. He and his wife had flown to Denver from San Diego with their two kids. "Did you hear they banned double-semis from the freeways in Colorado and put construction projects on hold to alleviate congestion on the freeways? They say a million people are headed this way. We decided it would be easier to drive north of the totality line and ease back into it from this direction."

They had been hearing stories as they passed through the small towns on the path of totality. "In Agate," the woman said, "they've been discussing such things as what kinds of ordinance is in place to respond to someone who wants to sacrifice a chicken during the eclipse. Is that legal? These towns aren't used to all the attention. They've been preparing for years."

The outdoor terrace and hot tub
The eclipse had been calculated to commence at 10:30 the next morning (mountain time) and we were two and a half hours away according to Google Maps. I had been thinking that under normal conditions we'd have plenty of time if we got up at 6, but after a bit of discussion we decided to set our alarm clocks for 3:30 and try to leave Custer by 4. Carol located an all-night convenience store in town on her phone—the Corner Pantry—where we could get some coffee before setting out, and we spent a few minutes relaxing in the hot tub adjoining the terrace, confident that all the pieces were falling into place nicely.

It was at this point that we inadvertently locked ourselves out of the room.

*   *   *

I love the muffled sounds of early, early morning, when your mind is like cotton and your body is stumbling around on "safe" mode, not yet fully booted. Get up, get dressed, get packed, and get out: that's all you have to do.  Stepping outside into the cool night air, I noticed that on the street below, someone had driven a big white pickup truck up onto the curb. (I think he may have been delivering papers to the corner news stand.) We were soon headed downtown on Mt. Rushmore Blvd. to the Corner Pantry, which turned out to be a well-lit Conoco gas station stocked with plenty of sugary donuts and rubbery breakfast burritos. The coffee pots seemed to be empty, however.

The magic before dawn

"I'm making some more right now. It will be ready in a second," the manager said. She was thin as a rail, heavily tattooed, and looked to be about sixteen. Several of us noticed that the cream dispenser squirted cream sideways, and when I mentioned it to her, she said, "I clean that every hour. It just sticks out of the bag funny." She was definitely on the ball.

We headed out of town going south at 4:15 (I looked at the clock on the dash). The main drag soon turned into Highway 385, otherwise known as the Gold Rush Byway, which would take us all the way to Alliance. It was pitch black, and there were very few cars on the road. The landscape was shrouded in fog. The tail lights of our companion car soon disappeared around the bends ahead of us, only to reappear on the straightaways, growing ever smaller.

Rounding one bend, we came upon an elk standing in the road, but he moved aside into the ditch a split second before I tapped the horn.

The town of Hot Springs seemed to go on forever in the dark, and it struck me that many of the limestone buildings whizzing by in front of the headlights as we wove our way through it might have been worth looking at more carefully in daylight.

Semis caught and passed us occasionally, but as light came gradually to the sky and the fog lifted, the tone remained hushed. Gayle, who was in the other car, texted Hilary as we approached Alliance, and we pulled into the Conoco station on the outskirts of Chadron where they were already parked.

We were now an hour north of Alliance. Traffic continued to be very light, almost nonexistent. As the sun rose it transformed the fog itself into a thin diaphanous blanket.  At one point four large dark birds flew across the highway ahead of the car. My first thought was cormorants, but then I got a better look at the bills. "Hey, look," I said, "Ibises!"

That was the only unusual thing we saw until we passed a makeshift sign pointing the way to Carhenge. At the next intersection three men were ushering cars into a field. The fee: $10. It was easy to see that the "guests" were being lined up like sardines in anticipation of a big turnout, but the field was less than a quarter full. It was not an appealing scene. 

We turned left on the gravel road past the makeshift gate and continued east, passing several similar pay-and-park operations, and turned south on the next section road. We were looking for Madison Road, which sounded important but was no different from the other gravel roads in the vicinity. A mile or so east and we arrived at Sugar Farm.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Before the Eclipse

It all started in February, with a morning email from our friend Gayle:

There's going to be a total eclipse crossing the U.S. in August. Wanna go?

By the end of the day, everyone she'd notified had come on board, and Gayle had reserved the "family" room at the Rocket Motel in Custer, South Dakota. This would be our springboard to the typically open skies of western Nebraska, across which the zone of eclipse totality lay.

The small group of friends who made up the ensemble have travelled together in various permutations since the 1970s. We'd been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon together, and we'd been to the bottom of Dark Canyon, Utah, together. On our first trip to the Boundary Waters, Tim and Carol had been expecting their first child, and that child is now expecting her fourth child. We'd been to summer cabins on the North Shore, where we once spotted a Hudsonian curlew (now widely referred to as a wimbrel) wandering along the roadside, and established the Curlew Club in honor of the occasion. More recently we've been to winter cabins north of Grand Rapids together, though the allure of cross-country skiing seems to be fading for some of us.

One or two things had changed over the years, but here we were again, heading out together on a big adventure.

Thirty years ago, we would all have clambered into a single car. This time, we took two.

Thirty years ago, we might have planned a few meals  and bought groceries. This time, we decided to wing it.

A few days after the initial proposal was bruited, I suggested that we take an extra day going out to make the nine-hour drive less onerous and give us time to explore the Badlands and the Black Hills a little. The notion met with approval and I booked two of the four remaining campsites in the Cedar Pass Campground.

At some point it dawned on me that we might need somewhere to stay after the eclipse and I booked a campsite at Chadron State Park, forty miles north of Alliance, Nebraska, the locale where we'd decided to view the big event.

As the big day approached, the hype surrounding the event intensified. A half a million people would be coming to Nebraska, we were told. The governor would be flying in to Alliance from Lincoln to give a speech at Carhenge, a few miles outside of town. We began to imagine roads clogged with tourists, state highway patrol officers combing the back roads to ticket or incarcerate tourists who had simply pulled off the road to view the eclipse. (In fact, most of the roads out that way have no shoulders.)

The town of Alliance had been planning for the event for two years, and they'd developed a website to describe all the activities associated with it: food trucks, rock'n'roll bands, games, educational events. We didn't care about any of that stuff. But when you're six-hundred miles away, it's hard to imagine how big the town really is or how many people will show up. In short, we didn't know quite what kind of a mess we were getting ourselves into, and imagination runs rampant.

The Alliance website identified no less than 46 camping or viewing sites in the vicinity. I called up one near town, but he wanted $50 for a parking spot. I called another one who wanted only $10, but he didn't have porta-potties and would only take people with trailers. Then I called Sugar Farms, three miles north and east of town. The woman who answered the phone, Lexi, wanted $20 for the privilege of parking in her pasture. She took my name and said, "Just pay me when you get here." 

Fair enough.

We got to the Badlands after a full day of driving. Having crossed the Missouri River, we were now  in "the West": harsh, largely empty terrain, the land of coyotes and golden eagles, buffalo and pronghorn, sage brush and wide open spaces. There are badlands scattered here and there throughout the west, of course—heavily eroded but graceful landforms with colorful strata and (smetimes) sharp peaks—but the Badlands of South Dakota deserve their capital B. Dry and forbidding in the noonday sun, they're often gorgeous when clothed in the glancing light and deep shadows of sunrise or sunset.

The campground had nary a shrub or tree for privacy, but it did have picnic tables and slabwood ramadas for shade; with the flanks of the Badlands rising a few hundred yards to the north of us, it struck me as great, somehow.

Our only near neighbor was a family of four from Seattle who were situated across the road. I met them by chance as I was wandering around, oblivious to my surroundings, trying to determine if the bird on a nearby post was a mountain bluebird or a western bluebird. Lowering my binoculars, I noticed I was standing in their campsite.

The neighbors
"Oh, pardon me," I apologized."Do you know birds? I think that's a mountain bluebird. We don't have them in Minnesota."

"We don't have them in Washington, either," the man replied, with a bemused grin on his face. (So he did know a little something about birds.)

In time I learned he was a research biologist. He and his family had come out to see the countryside and also the eclipse. They were planning to intercept the historic event near Casper, Wyoming, on their way home. I promised him we would be quiet. "I hate noise in the campground," I said, as if to convince him of our benign intentions.

And we didn't make much noise that night. The wind was coming in so strong from the west, it often rose above the voices and the banging pots and pans. It was too warm to have a fire, but we ended up singing a few cowboy songs—"I Ride an Old Paint" and "Singin' His Cattle Call" among others—as the box wine continued to flow. We heard coyotes twice, high-pitched but distant, over the fluffle of the wind on the tents.

As night descended, the landscape had the feel of a gypsy camp, with individual couples and families minding their own business as they cooked, ate, chatted, headed off to the toilet building or the evening lecture at the amphitheater a quarter-mile away, or got ready for bed. One after another, the light from lanterns and hi-tech flashlights punctuated the darkness.

The wind blew for most of the night. The rainfly, just outside our tent but roughly a foot from my ear, went wuff-wuff-wuff incessantly, but at irregular intervals, seemingly forever. I might have woken up twenty times during the night, but they all seemed like the same time, so the damage was minimal.

The next morning Tim told me their tent, quite tall but lacking the support of rainfly guywires, sometimes bent over so much that it was flat to the ground with the three of them inside it. Yet the poles never snapped, and a few seconds later, the tent would bound up again, like one of those stove-pipe man-balloons you see on the roadside in front of a car dealership.

We ate breakfast at the restaurant of the nearby Cedar Pass Lodge. Hilary had spotted a sign on the door on our way in, advertising a buffalo butchering that we could attend at ten that morning. I asked our waitress if she was Oglala. "Yes, I'm from Kyle," she replied.

"Are you going to go to the buffalo butchering this morning?" I said. (Stupid question. But it gets the conversation going.)

"No, I'll be working," she replied, "but a few weeks ago my parents were given the honor of butchering the buffalo for our tribal powwow."

"Really. What kind of knives do you use?" I said.

"Different knives. We often use fillet knives. It's a ceremony."

"I suppose it's just for the tribe," I said.

"No, it's open to the public. You should come."

"We're the kind of people who  just might," I said. "Where did you say you were from again?"

(to be continued)

Monday, August 14, 2017

River Rambles

Casting decades of tradition into the dust heap, Hilary and I cancelled our BWCA reservation, which would have entailed a six-hour drive north into three days of likely rain, and headed south at a leisurely pace along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi—no plans, no reservations, just maps, a trunk full of camping gear, and a back seat full of cheese, nuts, Oreos, and freeze-dried meals.

The little towns that cling to the hillsides below the bluffs can have a quaint, nostalgic feel, but they look suspiciously like junky, dying villages sustaining themselves on motorcyclists, a few weekends of summer tourists, and the more reliable custom of well-healed exurbanites with summer homes nearby. Stockholm has perhaps succeeded as well as any of its neighbors in elevating itself to the level of genuine charm, and we turned inland onto its prominent side street to get a few sweet rolls at the bakery. 

I rang the bell on the counter and a few minutes later a young woman came rushing in the screen door from the café across the garden courtyard. There were maybe twelve loaves of very attractive bread sitting on a counter, with a hand-written sign nearby that said Please Don't Touch the Bread.

As we sat in the car eating our mid-morning snack we watched two elderly ladies wandering very slowly from one side of the street to the other, taking pictures of the art gallery, the pie shop, a local museum, and a few of the private homes. 

Back on main street, we stopped into a used book store that I'd never seen before. The door was open but the front room was illuminated only by the dim light coming in through the window. A few of the shelves were lined with old books sitting at oblique angles, but the room was so dank I felt no desire to examine the collection carefully. Many of the shelves contained old paint brushes, light bulbs, and other pieces of junk.

"Have you seen enough?" Hilary said almost immediately, eager to escape the miasma. I had.

Back on the sidewalk, we looked across the street at the beautiful stone facade of J. Ingebretsen, where sparkling Swedish imports were no doubt artfully arranged along the shelves. But we pushed on, lured by the wildflowers along the roadsides—Queen Anne's lace, knapweed, sunflowers of several stripes, and wild chicory. The highway rises and falls, narrow but largely free of traffic, with Lake Pepin often in full view down below to the west. Gray skies moving in from the northwest. That's the weather we're trying to escape from.

In Alma we stopped for lunch at Pier 4, which has a screened-in porch overlooking the lock and dam and also, right under the terrace, the railroad tracks. Four trains went by while we were eating. Very LOUD.

I felt obliged to order the specialty of the house—a sandwich called the Horseshoe ($7.95). They put a piece of grilled toast on a plate and load it with pulled pork, then a heap of french fries smothered in good ole Wisconsin cheese mixed with Spotted Cow beer.

By this time you can be sure that piece of toast is as flat and soggy as an antique insert in a tennis shoe.

"I'll have the Horseshoe," I said when the waitress arrived. "But can I have the french fries on the side?"

She gave me a friendly smirk. "Well, you could...but that would defeat the purpose." (Which was what?)

"Don't worry. I'll mix a few of them back in."

"Well, in that case, I guess it's O.K."

Hilary ordered the lunch platter that included ribs, pulled pork, and three sides ($8.95).

The baked beans weren't bad, but the meat was chewy, to say the least. (So much for regional cuisine!)

We stopped at a folk art park on Prairie Mood Road south of Cochrane, but I was more impressed by the shape of the hills behind the farm across the highway. It's gorgeous countryside. 

Birding is unlikely to be exciting in early August, though we'd seen a raft of a hundred-odd pelicans floating just off shore from the landing in Maiden Rock. Yet when we arrived at Trempealeau National Wildlife Sanctuary, we were rewarded with the sight of a bird I'd never seen before: four or five common gallinules were frolicking amid the lily pads twenty yards out from the dock at the visitor's center.  

At nearby Perrot State Park I rigged up a tarp at our favorite campsite (#25) just before the drizzle set in. 

I say "our favorite" because we camped in the same spot in May, and were entertained by a cardinal who battled his image in the side-view mirrors of our car all day long. He was still there. But now that mating season was over, he was content merely to look at the mysterious intruders rather than attacking them. He also hopped across the campsite a few times, perhaps looking for a handout.

"Remember me?" I said.

The next morning it was bright, clear, and cool. We rented a canoe and took a two-hour paddle up one branch of the Trempealeau River and down the other, which allowed us to get out into the midst of the bluffs without exposing ourselves to the breadth or force of the Mississippi itself.

In search of the opposite effect, we then climbed Perrot Peak. The view from the top was superb but it had been a steep scramble and we didn't want to return the way we'd come, so we continued along the ridge, not quite sure where we were headed. As luck would have it, the trail eventually wound its way back to the path we'd arrived on.

The nature center by the canoe landing has a fine little museum chronicling the history of human habitation in the vicinity going back to the paleolithic. Indian mounds are scattered throughout the park. Nicholas Perrot built a fort here in 1685--the first such European outpost in the region.

Later that afternoon we came upon the Mississippi's largest paddlewheeler, the American Queen, in Prairie Du Chien. There's nothing like a river boat to evoke the colorful history of the region. The boat had been docked there all day, and a few elderly couples were sitting on their balconies reading magazines.

One member of the crew, a young black man, was leaning over the rail looking bored, and I asked him where their next stop would be. He didn't know. But when he answered, I noticed that all of his lower teeth were capped with gold.  

We got to chatting with a man from San Antonio who was reboarding the vessel.

"I've been a "black powder" expert since 1984," he told us. He and his wife had been on similar trips up the Columbia River and on the Mississippi north of New Orleans. "Down there the levees are so high, you can't see the countryside."

He told us how wonderful the accommodations were, and quite reasonable! He and his wife were paying $3 thousand apiece for the seven-day trip from Minneapolis down to Keokuk and back. Entertainment every night.

"And the food is outstanding," he added.

I told him we had been canoeing out in the river that morning ($15) and had flushed six kingfishers, one sandhill crane, and quite a few bald eagles. Then we'd climbed to the top of the bluffs. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and we had no idea where we were going to spent the night. 

I wasn't bragging. But we were swapping stories, weren't we?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Shooting the Breeze

I call it an idle afternoon, though I know I ought to be doing something productive. One onerous task that I've started to work on is to finish off the leftovers sitting around in the fridge. I compounded the challenge the other day, when it suddenly occurred to me that summer was vanishing and we hadn't yet made a supply of pesto.

It was a beautiful day, as I recall, the sky was clear, the air was very cool. I'd gotten up early, and the thought suddenly popped into my head—pesto time. Not the time to eat it, but to make it. This would entail a trip to the downtown farmer's market, a mere twelve minutes away, to pick up a few big clumps of fresh basil. Well, Friday is a very good time to visit. You can park right next to the stalls and crowds are non-existent, though quite a few growers and vendors are there.

I left the house at 7:55, made a brief stop at the bridge over Bassett Creek to measure the water clarity (100+), and continued down Plymouth Avenue with the delicate piano sounds of Emannuel Chambrier completing the scene. (It occurred to me, as I drifted past Homewood Studios, that Chambrier has touches of Poulenc's zip, Satie's dream-like atmosphere, and Ravel's classic structure. He ought to be included among that stellar group of younger composers: the Godfather of Les Six.)

Weaving my way into the parking lot between a Metro Mobility driver who was helping a passenger disembark and a fork-lift driver unloading a pallet of potatoes, I pulled into a spot alongside the flower stall that's been occupied by the same cheerfully spacy merchant for as long as I can remember.

As I climbed the concrete steps to the middle aisle I looked up and found myself face to face with some of the most attractive bundles of basil I'd ever seen, bright green and glistening, no doubt from a recent spray of water. Though I usually wander a bit, evaluating the various products, I didn't hesitate to purchase three bundles for $1 apiece.

All would have been well, had I not lingered, coming upon some nice eggplants  and a carton of red onions. (I love red onions in salads, but do we really need five of them?) Then there were the sweet potatoes...

I made the pesto later that day, spooned it into ziplock bags, and tossed them into the freezer. We took care of the eggplant over the weekend by breading and baking them, then topping them with a tomato sauce that made use of some yellow onions. (Another purchase that I neglected to mention.)

So here I sit, wolfing down the remains of a quinoa salad from CostCo while thumbing through Thoreau's journals. It's his 200th birthday, more or less. We are sometimes given the impression that Thoreau was a woodsy loner who looked upon hardworking farmers as deluded materialists, but in fact he took a interest in all aspects of village and country life, and had a healthy respect for anyone who attended carefully to nature's ways whether wild or domestic. On February 22, 1852, he wrote:
"After having read various books on various subjects for some months, I take up a report on Farms by a committee of Middlesex Husbandmen, and read of the number of acres of bog that some farmer has redeemed, and the number of rods of stone wall that he has built, and the number of tons of hay he now cuts, or of bushels of corn or potatoes he raises there, and I feel as if I had got my foot down on to the solid and sunny earth, the basis of all philosophy, and poetry, and religion even. I have faith that the man who re­deemed some acres of land the past summer redeemed also some parts of his character. I shall not expect to find him ever in the almshouse or the prison. He is, in fact, so far on his way to heaven. When he took the farm there was not a grafted tree on it, and now he realizes something handsome from the sale of fruit. These, in the absence of other facts, are evidence of a certain moral worth.
The beauty of Thoreau's Journal is that you can dip in anywhere and are likely to find thoughts of poetic or philosophical interest, well expressed but not diluted by the desire to embroider or inflate to a loftier level.  

If I were taking ten books to a desert island, the Journal would be one of them. I'm grateful that New York Review Books has issued a splendid paperback edition, edited by Damion Searls, that runs to a mere 667 pages. I doubt if it contains one tenth of the original, but it will do me for a lifetime.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Love and Death - Brahms' Requiem

Friends who attended tell me that it was a good performance. I wouldn't know. I was there, too, but I was standing up high, in the back, with the sounds moving away from me at every level. From that vantage point the performance seemed rich, nuanced, profound. But in the intensity and alertness of the moment, suddenly everything sounded better and more interesting.

We'd been rehearing the piece twice a week for four weeks--150 singers, seasoned veterans and novices alike--and we'd also rehearsed with the orchestra that afternoon. Like everyone else, I'd been going over my part at home, working on those elusive German vowels, straining my voice in pursuit of the very high notes, trying to match the words to the notes in the furious fugal sections, penciling in the moods here and there: "consoling," "scornful," "scary but march-like."   

The reality remained unmistakable: there were too many things to lasso and corral at the same time. We'd leave the hall on the West Bank after every rehearsal—Hilary and I along with friends Becca, Debbie, and Emma—in a state of mild elation, having focused our attention as well as we could all evening, but the talk as we crossed the foot bridge to the parking lot was always the same—things we needed to work on, things we couldn't keep up with, notes we couldn't find, much less hit.

It was a feeling akin to guilt. Mom asked you to take out the garbage, but you didn't. But you meant to. Maybe later. Yes, but later it will be too late.

Director Matt Mehaffey knows all the ins and outs of motivation, and the lack thereof. He tactfully (and sometimes not so tactfully) implored us to improve our diction, learn our parts, open our jaws, and attend to the dynamic markings, sugar-coating the bitter pill of criticism with amusing references to Darth Vader, "Stairway to Heaven," The Swedish Chef (a character on the Muppets, a friend told me later) and other lowbrow cultural icons.

On another level of interest, he also urged us to familiarize ourselves with the texts Brahms had chosen. Though drawn from Biblical sources,  they offered a grave and sophisticated handling of the grieving process and the hopes the faithful might entertain. There were fiery passages and plaintive passages, beatific sections and hell-bent-for-leather romps. In short, the Requiem was a cornucopia of emotions if not a game-plan for salvation.  
A glance at the translated texts served to underscore the truth of these remarks. But would probing those depths (which would take a long time) really improve the pitch or quality of my voice?

I asked myself more than once: "Am I really enjoying this? Am I really contributing anything?" My answer to the first question was always yes, albeit a qualified and reluctant yes. And as for the second, I couldn't believe I was that much worse than some of the other singers who had signed up for the four-week program. I just needed to work harder.

During the course of the regimen, I drew support from a succession of singing companions—that is to say, whoever happened to end up sitting beside me in the back row. At the first rehearsal I met Alan, an optometrist from Brookings, S.D. Though an experienced singer, he hadn't sung in a choir in recent years.  On another occasion it was Jordan, a student from Brainerd who also sang in Matt's choir during the school year. And during the last week, I landed next to a gentleman of Dutch extraction named Ben who had just moved to town from NW Iowa, where for many years he had been not only the choral director, but a professor of choral directing, at a small college.  

During our final week of rehearsals, two thoughts often crossed my mind simultaneously: a) things are really starting to come together, and b) I have never seen these pages before in my life. Yet that couldn't be true; my pencil marks were all over the score. The effect was uncanny. 

The final trial (as if this were some kind of medieval contest out of the pages of Chretien de Troyes!) came during the afternoon rehearsal with the orchestra on the day of the performance. It was a long rehearsal. The lights were hot. Many of us in the back row had no place to sit down, and were forced to stand, largely motionless, during long stretches when Matt was discussing details with members of the orchestra. As we finally marched off the risers, I felt that I was coming off the trail from an arduous backpacking trip. 

During the two-hour gap between rehearsal and performance a bunch of us sat out on the terrace talking about anything but music. Debbie and her husband, Jim, were leaving the next day on an extended road trip that would take them eventually to Newfoundland. Dave showed me some photos he'd taken on his phone of the new freeway bridge over the St. Croix River. We discussed the creative environment at nearby House of Balls, where his wife, Lisa, would be playing the saxophone, perhaps at the very moment that we were intoning "All flesh is grass..."

We finally made our way back to the rehearsal rooms, where people were knitting or huddled in small groups muttering like passengers in the hold of a ship making its way to a new world, or like soldiers in a landing craft about to meet their fate on the beach.

The calm before the storm
The performance itself was the opposite of an ordeal. The robust sounds of the orchestra reminded us that we were parts of a very large ensemble, where the quality of our singing would probably count for more than its volume.  And during the thunderous sections Matt urged us on with a force far more dramatic than anything he'd exhibited during rehearsals, as if he were wrestling with an imaginary lion. No stopping, everything forward, I heard harmonic relationships that I'd never heard before. I felt that I was singing inside the piece. It was a good feeling. And with all the sound moving away from me toward the audience, I was hearing a slightly subdued and etherealized Requiem, a personalized version, tenors only admitted.

Many details from my part continued to surface at odd moments in the days that followed. For example, I often found myself humming a gentle passage from the fifth movement that goes like this:

It sort of flutters out of nowhere at the end of a measure, like a bleating lamb, descends pleasantly, pauses, comes to rest at a lower level. In a later iteration an additional murmuring off-beat landing is provided. No one would call this passage the heart and soul of the Requiem. And the altos have the same line a little earlier. But it's a good example of the deft poetic touches Brahms has distributed throughout the voices, which for the listener can easily become obliterated by the more dramatic parts of the composition.

Just this morning I deleted the emails I'd saved from the Oratorio Society carrying titles like "more home practice resources" and "Concert Day Coming!" Parts of my brain are now drifting free or being reassigned in new directions. It's refreshing.

I'm tempted to give the Requiem another listen—I mean the professional version with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the solo roles and Otto Klemperer at the podium—but I'm afraid it might discombobulate the little angels still fluttering around in my head.  

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Soo Vac Gallery - Liza Sylvestre

It was a glorious evening to be outside—or inside. Our niece's new show was opening at the Soo Vac gallery. We went.

So many new buildings have gone up in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood since we lived there that I had no idea where, or what, the Soo Vac Gallery was. To judge from the address, it seemed to be on an alley at the edge of the greenway, behind Bryant Bowl, and I imagined that we'd end up parking several blocks away, maybe right in front of our old apartment on 32nd and Aldrich! (Our rent at that two-bedroom place was $185/month, which should give you some idea how long ago that was.)

I was shocked to discover when we arrived that  the gallery has a parking lot. And it was largely empty! We pulled up right next to the front door and went inside. We said hello to some friends and relatives, but I soon found myself engaged by a drawing on the wall consisting of a text in minute handwriting, some of which had been deliberately crossed out.

I knew what it was immediately—the visual representation of what a deaf person hears. Some things, but not others. The drawing itself, considered as an artifact, was attractive, but I knew that to get the intended effect, it would be necessary to read the whole thing. Only by doing so would I move beyond the obvious "point"—when you're deaf it's tough to get by, much less engage in meaningful personal interactions—and get a sense of  the endless challenge and fatigue and discouragement and exclusion that such a condition engenders. And while reading it, I would no doubt struggle to resist the ever-present temptation to simply tune out and start thinking about something else.

But several elements were working in my favor. Unlike a genuine conversation, I could read at my own pace without ever having to say, "What? I didn't catch that? Could you speak more slowly?" And because my interlocutor wasn't actually present, there was no pressing need for me to comprehend the speech well enough to respond. Most important of all, perhaps, was the fact that, as near as I could make out, the text was interesting.

Liza seemed to be describing aspects of her personal life, her love for her boyfriend Luis, swings in emotion. Were little of it came through clearly enough to comprehend. At one point I spotted the words hypodermic and prednisone. I asked Liza about it later and she told me it referred to a treatment she took as a teenager to reboot her autoimmune system, which seemed to lie at the root of her continuing hearing loss.  

As I began my journey through this fractured narrative landscape I was reminded of a remark my brother, who at that time was involved in cyber-cryptanalysis, once made: the English language is 65 percent redundant. What he meant, I guess, was that if you gave him 35 percent of a message, he could figure out the rest. I wasn't finding that to be the case. But I was soon thinking about the work of the Greek poet Sappho, also emotional, also evocative, also a bundle of fragments for the most part, though not intentionally.

                                if that is permitted to mortal women.
                                now this in your heart ... would free me from all my worries
                                                ... dewy banks  ...  all night long

Amid Liza's script I came across "Painful"... "held way, way down"... "really edit my writing critically" and occasionally a longer passage, for example: "I keep meeting people lately, usually women, who are so tense that if they relaxed something inside of them would fall apart."

Near the bottom of the page I came across a phrase that surprised me momentarily: "I am in love with my own story and the drama of it, even if melancholy..."

As it appears here, in isolation, that remark might sound narcissistic, but considered in the context of the entire piece, and of Liza's life and career, it struck me as naked and deeply honest. It's the motive for metaphor, the root of artistic expression--love, drama, life, melancholy.

The room was filling with people, some chairs were set up, Soo Vac executive director Carolyn Payne said of few words of introduction, and Liza gave a brief talk about her work, and about herself. Her central point of concern, she said, was that she lost her hearing only gradually, and therefore doesn't identify with the deaf community, yet the difficulties she experiences communicating with "normal" people—difficulties that her interlocutors can hardly imagine—set her apart from them, too. The works on display, which also included several sophisticated video pieces, were attempts to help others gain a better sense of what it feels like to be forever scrambling to pick up nuances of expression that most listeners take in without the slightest effort.

But if Liza's work were merely informative or didactic, it would be useful, perhaps, but not deeply engaging. It seems to me that alongside the drama of exclusion and the desire to connect, another internal conflict can often be felt, between the manual dexterity and formal sophistication that allow Liza to create beautiful things, and a deep-rooted anguish that rejects anything that's merely pleasing. As I listened, I was reminded of a remark Monet made in one of his letters late in life:

I have to work a lot in order to manage to convey what I am seeking ... and more than ever, easy things achieved at one stroke disgust me.

No one with the slightest familiarity with Liza's work would accuse her of skimping on strokes. On the contrary, her work displays remarkable and seemingly effortless line control. A series of black-and-white line drawings hang on the wall in another part of the gallery. I suppose they were inspired conceptually by aspects of hearing loss, but they look like landscapes to me. Yet they aren't the kind of hills and dales you'd be comfortable cavorting across. They might just as easily be arctic glaciers riddled with crevasses...

As I sat in the car after the show, waiting for my riders to complete their Minnesota-style goodbyes, I enjoyed watching the crowd milling around on the landing outside the gallery. There was Liza's dad, Paul, chasing her son Ellis up and down the handicap ramp, and her sister, Sarah, holding her own new daughter, Ester. Young people I didn't recognize, Liza's friends and also friends of the gallery, no doubt. It was a colorful scene. The cool evening air was just arriving, and I suspect the only melancholy Liza was feeling was due to the impossibility of giving each and every one of her well-wishers the personal attention they deserved.  
(Thanks to Richard Sennott, Asli Falay Calkivik, and Hilary Toren for photos.)