The Casual Blog

Happy Native American Heritage Day!

Happy Native American Heritage Day!  Here are a few more pictures from my recent visit to the Four Corners area.  Monument Valley (above) is a Navajo Tribal Park, and the people that live there are almost all Navajos.  One morning a Navajo guide drove us out on the red dirt to see more of the strange rocks.  He was a friendly guy, and he was happy to talk about his culture, including their food, festivals, and clan system.

As we passed by little camps of people who lived in that harsh climate without electricity or running water, I wondered how they managed.  But it occurred to me, of course, they help each other when they need help.  And our guide helped me understand, they don’t feel like they need a lot of things.  They like being there, in that land with their families.  

As a schoolchild I learned the story that Thanksgiving was a holiday that everyone liked and no one could criticize.  It is hard to take issue with conscious gratitude, or getting together with loved ones for a celebratory feast.  

But I’ve learned more recently that Native Americans have good reason to dislike the myth of the first Thanksgiving, which makes it hard to spot and understand the greed and violence of many of the Europeans who colonized North America.  I heard a good Post Reports podcast this week that included reflections from Wampanoag descendents of those who helped the Pilgrims grow food for the prototype Thanksgiving, and who ultimately became victims. 

A Wampanoag woman interviewed in the podcast said she always thought America’s having a single day for giving thanks was a bit strange.  In her tradition, people were taught to be thankful every day. 

For those brought up, as I was, to view Native Americans as interesting but backward, and the taking of their lands as divine manifest destiny, it’s not easy to hear  that many colonial Europeans were merciless pillagers.  But it’s definitely worth replacing the myth with actual history, since we get connections to real people, including living Native Americans and their ancestors, rather than fantasy superheroes and supervillains.

On the history front, I started reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow.  The book is a new synthesis of current archeology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and other research bearing on the development of humans and their institutions.  It’s long, but I’ve already encountered some exciting ideas.  

Graeber and Wengrow argue that the concepts of freedom and equality that we thought were developed by the intellectuals of the Enlightenment were actually first worked out and shared by Native Americans, who discussed them over a period of decades with the first European traders and missionaries.  Leading eighteenth-century European theorists described these ideas and practices as coming from America, but for later colonial generations, committed to extirpating Native cultures, dissonance made it impossible to entertain the notion of  those cultures as intellectual pioneers and leaders. 

If recent developments are any guide, it may be a while before these ideas make it into our childrens’ history textbooks.  I’m still trying to understand parents disrupting school board meetings around the country in protest against the teaching of what they call “critical race theory (CRT).”  I finally figured out that this crowd has redefined the term to have nothing to do with its original academic meaning.  For certain angry white parents, CRT now means “teaching history related to American slavery and its aftermath in a way that includes the physical horror and moral shame of it.”

Now Republican-dominated legislatures across the country are banning the teaching of CRT and other efforts to educate children regarding racism. This is disturbing, as are death threats against educators, but this is also educational, in a way.  We might have thought everyone understood at least the basics of the American slave system and agreed it was wrong.  We may have further thought that no one would feel threatened by a fuller understanding of how that system shaped our country.  But now we know that for some of our fellow citizens, this is definitely not the case.

Widespread ignorance about our racial history could be viewed as a failure of our educational system.  But to some extent, it has quietly been the status quo for many years.  New light is being shined on this shameful history, and for many, and probably most of us, that’s something to welcome and reflect on.  Deeper understanding may help us improve our institutions and our communities.

Ancient cliff dwellings at. Mesa Verde


At the same time, it’s definitely frightening when angry anti-CRT parents and Republican politicians start talking about burning books and attacking educators.  

This is a wake-up call.  Scholars are continuing to make new discoveries, and we’re getting new opportunities for exploration of fresh ideas.  But we also have new threats that we better treat seriously.  We cannot allow provocative ideas to be banned, books to be burned, and educators to be terrorized and silenced.  Our democracy is in trouble, and it needs us to lift our voices.

Things to be thankful for:  red rocks,  animal cultures, and leaving Afghanistan

Monument Valley sunrise

I took these pictures a couple of weeks ago in the Four Corners area, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah come together.  With a group of photographers led by a master photographer, Joe Brady, I explored Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods, Goosenecks State Park, Mesa Verde, and other remarkable areas.  We didn’t see much wildlife, but there were epic rocks and scraggly plants that manage to survive in the red rocky desert.

But animals were on my mind, as I finished reading Carl Safina’s new book Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace.  The book has three main sections concentrating on species we may feel like we know something about:  sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees.  

Safina shows the beauty and intelligence of these creatures, and provides a window into their complex social lives.  “Animal culture” is not a well-settled concept, but Safina demonstrates that these species all have developed elaborate systems that they use to regulate their social lives and teach to their young.  He thinks we can learn from them.

Apropos of lessons that might be learned, I also finished reading Craig Whitlock’s new book, The Afghanistan Papers.  The book is largely based on a secret U.S. government study regarding what went wrong in our longest war.  In the study and in later interviews, various generals, civilian defense officials, diplomats, and soldiers described what they experienced, and what conclusions they drew.

I took away two main points.  First, the U.S. government lied over and over about what was happening in Afghanistan.  Generals and presidents alike kept saying that the situation was improving, that we were turning the corner, and we would win.  However, from early on, the situation in most of the country was a hopeless quagmire, and those with the relevant information knew it.

Second, and even more disturbing: almost no one involved in making decisions about U.S. policy in Afghanistan knew or cared to know much about the country’s history, politics, and culture.  Those in charge reduced the situation to simple black and white — good guys and bad guys — and vaguely imagined that success consisted of removing the designated bad guys.

The long American tradition of seeing violence as an all-purpose solution, rather than a deep problem, accounts for some of the tragedy of our misadventure in Afghanistan.  Our cultural blinders contributed to our collective self-deception, and extended it over two decades.

Even now, it appears that many people know nothing about how we worsened the violence and corruption in Afghanistan, and think we should have stayed the course for additional decades.  It is ironic and disturbing that an act of true political courage by President Biden — confronting our entrenched collective delusion and stopping our part of the war — has few defenders.

With so many pressing political and social issues at hand, it’s unlikely we’ll have a quiet period of collective reexamination of lessons to be learned from our Afghanistan mistakes.  We may never get to a remorseful pledge to never again inflict so much death and chaos on another unfortunate country.  But hope springs eternal, and so I recommend Whitlock’s book, which is quite readable.  Here are some other thought-provoking recent articles with useful perspectives on the disaster:

Michael Massig in the New York Review of Books:  The Story the Media Missed in Afghanistan.  Massig points up the role that a compliant mainstream media played in creating the widespread delusion that the war was worthwhile and successful.

Fintan O’Toole in the New York Review of Books:  The Lie of Nation Building.  As part of a review of Whitlock’s book, O’Toole argues that the Afghanistan experience was a dark mirror showing deep flaws in American democracy.  The trillions of U.S. dollars spent on the war created new frontiers of kleptocracy and corruption in Afghanistan, not to mention new fortunes in the American military-industrial complex.  O’Toole doesn’t go into all this, perhaps because it’s obvious:  this wasteful disposal of mountains of taxpayer money also meant lost opportunities for addressing American inequalities and improving our healthcare, education, transportation, and other systems.

Anand Gopal in The New Yorker:  The Other Afghan Women. In this extraordinary piece, Gopal takes us into the world of some rural Afghan women, including those who found the brutality they experienced from the Taliban less abhorrent  than the brutality of the local warlords who the U.S. brought on as proxies.

New Jersey epilogue: revisiting Roth and Nabokov

Philip Roth’s childhood home in Newark (the yellow house)

While we were in Jersey City last month seeing our marvelous new granddaughter, one afternoon we drove over to Newark to pay homage to one of our greatest writers, Philip Roth (1933-2018).  We found the street where he grew up and parked across from his old house.  Back in his day, it was a working class Jewish neighborhood, and now it’s a working class Black neighborhood. His boyhood home had a plaque honoring him, but otherwise it looked like the other houses. 

We also went to the Newark Public Library to see the new Philip Roth Room.  The writer bequeathed a significant sum and his own books to the library where he spent many hours as a young reader.  We enjoyed looking through his collection and inspecting various personal items, including his manual typewriter.  The curator was a pleasant woman who knew a lot about Roth and his books.  There were no other visitors on the weekday afternoon we were there, but she was hopeful that visits would pick up after the pandemic.  

The Plot Against America, the unexpectedly timely HBO series about fascists who try to seize power in the U.S., is based on Roth’s novel.  It probably inspired some new readers to try Roth, and I hope more will do so.  His books confer the out-of-body travel pleasures of good realist fiction, along with arresting honesty, naughty humor, and a fierce passion.  The physical Newark he grew up in has changed almost beyond recognition, but the sweet, quirky, hardworking place can still be visited in his books, like The Plot Against America and American Pastoral.

On our trip I also finished re-reading Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov.  I hesitated to re-engage with this famous book, which makes an uncomfortable proposition: that we sympathize with an unrepentant child molester.  There’s moral risk, to say the least.  It casts a hypnotic spell that feels exhilarating as it drowns our sensibilities.  The monstrousness of the narrator is almost obscured by the beautiful and hilarious language.  Nabokov’s close observations of our consumer culture and hypocrisies  cut to the heart.  The book is hard not to love, and also hard to feel entirely good about.

Sally tries to read the plaque. The Roths lived on the second floor.

Having not read Lolita for forty years, I was surprised at how much I remembered, but still, I’d forgotten a lot.  Plus there was a lot I just hadn’t processed initially.  For example, without belaboring the matter, Nabokov makes clear that Humbert H, in addition to being a scholar and old world aesthete, has a history of mental illness, alcoholism, and obsession with violence. 

Side note:  It’s curious how we systematically and unconsciously overestimate the capabilities of language.  Those most accomplished in language may be the most prone to overlooking the vast realm of experience where language is irrelevant, and even counterproductive.  Likewise, intellectuals with strong verbal skills often view  abstractions as superior to the simple and concrete, and easily mistake them for reality.  Thus our leaders zealously pursue reasonable-sounding but impossible goals, such as defeating “terrorism” or “drugs,” at horrific cost.  

But the great works of Roth and Nabokov are a reminder that language can also expand our conceptual world.  Great writers make us question our preconceptions and see new possibilities.  

Visiting Lady Liberty, welcomer of immigrants

The Statue of Liberty, dedicated 1866

We’ve established a temporary base in Jersey City in an Airbnb near our new granddaughter, and are starting to feel less like aliens.  Traffic is more intense than we’re used to, and people beep their horns a lot more, but it has its good points.  One of those is Liberty Park, which is about a mile from us, and has a great view across the harbor of lower Manhattan and  the back of the Statue of Liberty.

Lower Manhattan from Ellis Island

Despite years of living in and visiting New York City, we’d never taken the ferry out to visit Lady Liberty or Ellis Island.  We picked a clear, mild day last week, bought tickets, waited on line, cleared security (very like an airport), and set sail.  There was a sweet breeze, and fluffy clouds.

Immigration to the U.S. peaked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Ellis Island was the primary intake spot.  Millions of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere went through its procedures and began new lives in the states.  The large complex of buildings has been partially restored to serve as the National Museum of Immigration.  

Ellis Island

It was moving to be where so many brave and hopeful people had landed with their dreams.  We also learned a lot from the exhibits about the various national groups who eventually became the people of the United States.

Most of the exhibits required some reading, but it was worth it.  The curators had made a real effort to give the context of some of the sad realities of our past, including slavery, war with native peoples, and exploitation of workers.  We also learned about some of the desperate conditions that led millions of Europeans and others to take their chances in America, including crop failures, discrimination, and overpopulation.

At the same time, there were great success stories, as many immigrants prospered and built a foundation for our prosperity.  We were surprised to learn that the largest single group of immigrants prior to 1900 was Germans, followed by Irish. The people known as Pennsylvania Dutch were not Dutch, but rather Deutsch (German).  The melting pot apparently melted some letters.

Part of the story of American immigration, in addition to the acceptance and assimilation of millions of immigrants, was constant hostility to immigration.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, large political movements organized around the idea that immigrants were threatening to destroy existing American culture.  

Panic over a takeover by people with different complexions, languages, and customs, is of course very much with us today.  That sort of fear seems to be partly responsible for the Trumpist movement.  It was reassuring, in a way, to find that this mass delusion has been around in some form for the last couple of centuries.  We got through it then, so perhaps we can do so now.

My main impression of the Statue of Liberty was:  she’s big!  From base to the tip of her torch, 305  feet.  I also learned why she’s green:  her copper layer reacted with oxygen and other chemicals in the air, and the resulting oxidation forms a green patina.  

Her island had some nice trees and pleasant sidewalks, but otherwise she looked as expected.  Even though she’s been a bit over exposed, it was good to see her, and to keep hoping we can hold on to the values of freedom and compassion that she symbolizes. 

Augusta, our new granddaughter (a first!)

Hail Augusta!  Our first grandchild, Augusta Quinn Tiller-DePew, was born this week, amid great excitement.    

People say that all newborns look the same, and I’ve even said such things myself.  But I’ve changed my view.  Little Augusta is especially beautiful, and also talented.  She already knows how to eat, sleep, and wiggle.  Her heart, lungs, colon, kidneys, and other systems and subsystems clearly know what they need to do, and they’re all hard at work.  And she knows how to let everyone know when there’s something she doesn’t like — she cries!   

Sally and I drove up to Jersey City to greet the new arrival and try to be helpful.  Holding her for the first time was wonderful.  I felt hopeful for the future.  It also made me think a bit about our responsibility to possible future generations.    

When I was in Alaska recently, I talked with a nice woman whose grown children had vowed not to have children, because of concerns that the world was already too awful a place for a new child, and more people would just make it worse.  I can understand and even respect this stern view.  But I would argue for another position.

The world has no shortage of horrors, but it’s still possible to find a lot of beauty and joy.  It all may end badly, with horrific climate change,  nuclear apocalypse, or a giant asteroid, but not necessarily.  Human activity accounts for a lot of our dire situation, but that also means there’s a possibility that humans will work out rescue plans.  At any rate, we’d better give it a shot.

I was cheered this week to learn that a number of megarich people are joining Jeff Bezos to dedicate a very large sum ($5 billion) to an effort to save 30 percent of the earth’s natural areas and prevent the extinction of a large number of species.  As the latest IPCC report reminded us again a few weeks back, our climate crisis requires immediate action, and this message is starting to resonate.

This could be the beginning!  We may be on the verge of new ways of understanding ourselves, our relationships, and our environment.  Some of the problems that have seemed intractable have to do with the way we were educated, and specifically with the way we were trained to think about our relations to each other and nature.  Just seeing some new perspectives could make our hard problems easier to solve.  

One example, which I mentioned in my post last week, is how we’ve been trained to think about animals as, if not dangerous, always inferior and morally insignificant.  Maybe we’ll try understanding them better, dialing down the fear and cultivating respect for them and their communities.  It would surely change us for the better.

Similarly, we’ve long been schooled in questionable assumptions about human nature, which make it difficult for us to question social relations based on greed and violence.  We even doubt our own eyes when we happen to notice successful communities based on empathy, peaceful cooperation and loving support.  With a bit of effort, we may find more such relationships, and learn to cultivate still more.

Changing our thinking at this level may sound impossible, but it’s not.  Some people are definitely there already, and their numbers seem to be growing.

What animals say

I wasn’t planning on sharing any more of my Alaska brown bear pictures, but changed my mind.  Processing the pictures took me to a happy place.  I really enjoyed being with these animals (at a respectful distance, of course), and learning a little about their lives.

This has been a particularly sad week in animal news.  There was a huge bloody slaughter of dolphins in the Faroe Islands.  The U.S. government has authorized hunters selected by lottery to kill some of the few remaining bison at the Grand Canyon.  And as usual, with no headlines, hundreds of millions of farm animals were killed to provide human food. 

The way we think about non-human animals obviously affects the degree of brutality we’re prepared to inflict on them, but it has less obvious effects on how we think about ourselves.  We generally see them as distant and inferior, with no concerns as important as our own, and lacking in our intelligence and cultural achievements.  We attach great significance to their lack of human language.   

But animals teach us something about human language without needing that language.  First, they get along without it just fine.  That is, in the wild they manage to do the same things that are our highest priorities — get food, shelter, reproduction, friendship, community — without human language.  Indeed, it is likely that homo sapiens got along well enough for many tens of thousands of years without the language abilities that we now think of as setting us apart.

So animals demonstrate that language is not really as fundamental to our lives as we tend to think.  Of course, at times language is very useful, and also fun to play with. But while it helps us solve problems, it also creates them.  One example is how easily it creates the illusion of a vast divide between humans and other animals, and how easily it justifies human domination of other groups and forms of life.   

We often forget that words are only symbols, with no fully reliable connection to objects or actions.  No matter how beautifully and elaborately they are grouped together, they can never completely and fully reflect reality.  At their very best they are heuristics, practical shortcuts for thinking and getting things done.  

A merganser family

This shortcutting utility also accounts for a lot of problems.  Our word choices direct focus our attention in one direction, so that we have trouble seeing in another.  Once we’ve got firmly in mind the definition of humans as superior creatures, it’s difficult for us to think about the significance of, say, bears to other bears, or chickens to other chickens.  

A similar problem occurs with racial categories.  Once we’ve concocted a definition of racial characteristics and decided which ones are desirable, we have a hard time not favoring the ones we initially desired.  Language around race is part of how we built our racial caste system, and it also makes it very hard to dismantle it.

This is a problem inherent in the way we usually think.  But it helps, I think, to recognize that language is flexible, not fixed, and our intuitions can help us modify or work around linguistic limitations.  Some part of us already knows, despite the limits of our received language, that our cruelty to animals is wrong, and we have the capacity of finding new ways of communicating and acting on that.  

Bears and a whale, and where bad ideas come from

I finally finished going through the pictures I took at Katmai National Park and the Alaska coast, and I wanted to share a few more that I liked.  Katmai has one of the densest concentrations of brown bears in the world, but there aren’t really very many there — about 2,200.  Each one is unique.

Along with bears, I am particularly interested in whales.  I’ve had the privilege of seeing them in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and I’ve been learning more about them in recent books by Carl Safina and Rebecca Giggs.  Humans have just started understanding the intelligence, social structures, and cultures of whales, but for centuries, we’ve been mindlessly killing them.

So during my Alaska trip, I had mixed feelings about seeing a fin whale that had died from unknown causes and washed up on the beach.  The poor creature had been there for a few days, decomposing, and had become food for other animals, including a lot of brown bears.  Despite feeling sad for the whale, I was glad it could provide calories for the bears and other  creatures.  

David Brooks is a NY Times columnist I generally respect without getting particularly excited.  He’s a sensible conservative who loathes Trump — a nice but usually predictable guy.  However, last week in his column on contemporary currents in neuroscience, he briefly pulled together some powerful ideas that I’ve been mulling over but hadn’t imagined he’d ever entertain.   

According to Brooks (and various scholars), we’ve all learned to think of seeing and imagining as entirely separate things.  But they aren’t.  Neuroscientists are finding that the brain structures and processes involved are much the same for both.  That is, from the perspective of the internal physical operation, we can’t reliably distinguish between seeing and imagining.  Seeing may be believing, but believing may also be seeing.   

Similarly, the distinctions that we draw between brain and body, between memory and experience, and between reason and emotion are nowhere near as clear and clean as most of us have assumed.  Indeed, it may not be possible to box off any half of these pairs as independent.  Like yin and yang, they are starting to look interdependent.

Even starting to think about these ideas may be disorienting, since we’ve long understood these distinctions to be rock solid.  But they may explain some widespread-but-wrong notions.  With this new perspective, we can start to understand how some people can truly believe that covid vaccines are dangerous, a newly fertilized egg is fully human, scientists are lying about climate change, and a liberal cabal is trying to take away personal firearms and legalize child abuse.

It’s probable that we all have sincere beliefs that have no basis in reality, though some of us seem to have a bigger collection.  When we’re part of communities with extreme views and bombarded with media that confirms our biases, we can dig into some sad and dangerous positions.  

There’s no simple solution here, I’m afraid.  But I find it helpful to remember that we’ve all got imperfect brains, and even the kookiest of us is not entirely personally responsible for his or her terrible ideas.  Also, people do sometimes change, and might one day be grateful for our helping them to change. 

Alaska natives, more bears, and Safina’s Becoming Wild

At Brooks Falls

These are in many ways dark and difficult times for both humans and other animals.  Humans get most of the headlines, so I’m focusing here on other animals.  I’m still processing my recent experiences with brown bears in Alaska, and still working my way through their pictures.  Some of these moments were shocking, and some were wonderfully peaceful.  

Also, when I was in Anchorage, I learned a bit about the native Alaska cultures.  I discovered that there’s no single simple story, but a lot of complex and still evolving stories.  At the Alaska Native Heritage Center, I took a tour and got an overview of the many distinct indigenous groups with their own languages, customs, and cultures.  

A disagreement near Brooks Falls

At the Center, I  got a taste of traditional music and dance, and the various kinds of houses and tools that the different groups used.  The music used drums and voices (no other instruments) along with choreographed dance to tell stories.  The music was not my preferred style (lots of close repetition), but I was glad to know that native Alaskans made and enjoyed music.

I also enjoyed the Anchorage Museum, which had exhibits of traditional crafts and documentary videos about native village life.  It turns out that there were quite a few different strategies for surviving and creating community in pre-industrial Alaska.  

In addition to coping with the harsh reality of their climate, when Europeans arrived, the indigenous people got horrific epidemics, violence, and oppression.  And native communities have many serious problems today, including poverty and substance abuse.  But the fact that these cultures weren’t entirely destroyed is strong proof of their fortitude and resilience.

I’m certain I only scratched the surface of Alaska cultures, and have a lot to learn.  But one thing I definitely got:  the term Eskimo has a lot of baggage, and is considered by many a nasty slur.  As a schoolboy, I was taught that the word referred generally to the native people of Alaska.  But like a lot of my early lessons on other cultures, this was both wrong and misleading.  Some Alaskan natives still use it to denigrate other Alaskans, but probably the best course is to avoid the term. 

Cubs get a swimming lesson at Katmai Preserve

I’ve been reading more of Carl Safina’s new book, Becoming Wild:  How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace.  As in his previous book, Beyond Words, Safina teaches about the abilities and accomplishments of different animal communities.  Beyond Words concerned elephants, wolves, and killer whales, while Becoming Wild focuses on humpback whales, macaws, and chimpanzees.  

For these various creatures, Safina pulls together recent scholarship as well as his own observations.  At times it drags a bit, but there are moments of great beauty and insight.  Safina shows that these non-human animals have personalities, communities, and cultures, and their lives have inherent value.  This is message is not complicated, but directly contrary to what most of us were taught, and it takes time to get it.

I hope Safina, or someone with similar commitment and talent, does a similar study of brown bears.  Even just a few days with them was enough for me to start seeing that they were individuals, with their own personalities and customs.  They seemed to have friends, and to be devoted to their children.

These animals have gotten only slightly better PR than sharks.  In the popular imagination, they are mindless killing machines, rather than mostly peaceful co-inhabitants of the planet.  Even in this sparsely populated area of Alaska with abundant food sources, the bear population has greatly declined, and the bears continue to be threatened by humans.  

I was very disturbed to learn that in Katmai Preserve, the government grants licenses to hunt them for pleasure.  Humans are twisted in many different ways, but still, it’s hard to understand how people would find such killing to be fun.  

It would not be surprising if the bears were angry at humans for taking their territory, food sources, and the lives of friends and children.  But I didn’t observe this.  Some were leery and careful to keep their distance, while others were curious.  A few times they approached us, but speaking to them in a firm voice was enough to direct them away, and they went on with their lives.

My first Alaska trip, with brown bears and Emma

Brown bear at Katmai Park, Alaska

My Alaska trip in mid-August was fantastic!  True, American Airlines lost my bag on the trip home, but they eventually found it.  Also, there was a major Covid outbreak at the lodge where I stayed, but I didn’t get it.  There were anxious moments, and as with every adventure some minor disappointments.  But all told, it was an amazing, life-changing experience. 

Alaska is beautiful and really enormous, and impossible to take in all at once.  My prime objective for this trip was to photograph brown bears (sometimes called grizzlies).  This time of year they normally feast on migrating salmon and get extra fat for their winter hibernation.  My small group of photographers stayed at the village of Iliamna and traveled several times by float plane to Katmai National Park.  There we saw dozens of bears fishing in the river, playing on the tundra, and living their lives.  

For me, it was quite moving to spend time close to these powerful and resourceful creatures.  Their lives made a lot of sense.  When they felt hungry they waded into the water and went fishing.  When they felt sleepy, they lay down and took a nap.  Mothers nursed their new cubs.  Young ones playfully sparred with each other.  

At some point I’d been taught that bears were solitary animals, but this is not how they seemed when I was there.  Some of them seemed to be friends, and played together in groups.  Occasionally there were disagreements.  A massive bear would warn another to back off by growling and shoving, but I didn’t see any fights that involved bloodshed.

It was a big show, slow at times (such as nap times), but even then heart filling, and I could watch a long time without taking pictures.  But I also took a lot of pictures.  I’m still working my way through the digital trove, but I thought the ones here were worth sharing, and hope to have more next week.   

During the trip I had no internet or other news source.  As a long-time news junkie, I felt unsettled at first, but soon adjusted.  When I finally got back on line in Anchorage, I found that the world was turning pretty much as before.

During the trip I re-read Emma, by Jane Austen, for the first time since my college days.  I remember thinking it was wonderful then, but this time it seemed richer.  Austen is often treated as a brilliant rom-com miniaturist.  But in addition to her polished and gently humorous surfaces, she unveils darker aspects of an intensely social world.  Underneath the careful manners there’s an unremitting struggle for dominance.

We know, or at least could know, a lot more than Austen did about the slavery and imperialism that provided funding for her genteel characters.  Her degree of complicity is unknown, but even assuming the worst, she bequeathed to her readers a great gift.  Somehow, within her narrow confines, she managed to create an absorbing world and at the same time call that world into question.  Emma Woodhouse is undeniably marvelous, but addicted to deception, including self deception.  Like stage magic, Austen keeps us absorbed and curious by seeming to reveal emotional secrets, and then letting us see that bigger ones may still be hidden.

New York, Showy Florentines, Black Egyptians, and the Ghost Forest

Ghost Forest, Maya Lin, Madison Square, New York City

Last week we visited our old stomping ground, New York City, for the first time since the pandemic.  It was a little strange to wear masks for the flight, but not bad, and certainly smart, given the persistence of the clever and dangerous Covid virus.  We were pleasantly surprised to arrive at the finally completed  Terminal B at LaGuardia, which was full of light, with whimsical tile walls.  When we left , we saw a performance there by the new fountain, which made dancing patterns with lasers and thousands of gallons dropping from the ceiling. 

The prime objective of our trip was Jocelyn’s baby shower, celebrating with friends the soon-to-arrive little girl.  Our old friend Kathryn created a feast with many delicious vegetarian options, and we enjoyed chatting with other friends of the happy couple.  It was sunny and mild, a very pleasant day.    

We stayed in the West Village, parts of which have not changed much, though we noticed storefronts that had been vacated and graffiti and garbage that had arrived.  It was certainly not depopulated!  On Friday night the crowds of young folks made it challenging to stroll on the sidewalks.  But we managed, and had an excellent Thai meal.  

We spent most of Friday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I’ve spent many happy hours there in years past, and know parts of it well.  But the collection is truly gargantuan, and there’s always something new.

We started with the current exhibit on the art of the Medici in Florence in the 1500s.  The paintings were mostly portraits of the ruling elite of that period.  I could appreciate the craftsmanship, but was more interested in the meta message of the portraits, which was, roughly translated, this person is super successful and powerful, and you’re not.  

Art history as taught to me was mainly about aesthetics, but now I’m focussing more on what the art is trying to communicate about its culture, as well as what it conceals, intentionally or unintentionally.  I was grateful for the bits of history in the exhibit’s labeling.  It gave some helpful background about the ruling Medici princes and Florence’s battles for wealth and dominance.  

I also spent some time with the Met’s collection of ancient art.  Recently I’ve been listening to lectures from Audible on the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, as well as those of Greece and Rome. We take for granted a lot of the ideas and inventions of these cultures, and sometimes forget that there’s so much that even specialists don’t know about their world.  Anyhow, while wreaking havoc on competitors, they left behind a lot of beautiful objects, and it’s fun to try to figure out what they might be saying.

I also visited the Met’s enormous Egyptian collection for the first time in many years.  The ancient Egyptians were amazing builders and artists, and created a remarkably powerful and resilient culture.  Looking at their art this time, I was struck by something I hadn’t registered before:  they looked Black.  

Of course, our American ideas of race were not theirs.  But once I focussed, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before:  the facial features of the ancient Egyptians looked like many of our Black brothers and sisters.  

From some quick Google research, I gather there’s vigorous scholarly dispute on the race of ancient Egyptians.  My evidence is subjective, and plainly I am no expert.  But it would not be surprising in our culture if there was unconscious resistance, even by scholars, to acknowledging that Black people were the creators of this impressive civilization.  More research is called for.

Finally, I visited and took some pictures of a thought-provoking art project temporarily in midtown by Maya Lin called Ghost Forest.  Lin is best known for her Vietnam War Memorial in D.C.   Ghost Forest features 49 cedars that lived in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and died from climate change.  Lin brought them to Madison Square Park, which is a green oasis just north of the Flatiron building and south of the Empire State Building, and arranged them into a little forest.  

Part of Lin’s message is easily decipherable:  humans have heedlessly destroyed entire ecosystems, including beautiful forests, without even noticing.  But I was surprised to find other messages.  The dead trees made me look at the lush and healthy trees of Madison Square and the life around them with new gratitude and affection.