The Casual Blog

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Some photography, a piano lesson, and the pain of golf

The weather here is getting hotter, but the last few days have been pleasantly mild.  I’ve been getting out early with my camera most mornings to see what’s going on in our local parks and gardens.   In the last few days I’ve been to Shelley Lake, Durant Park, Lake Johnson, Lake Wheeler, and Yates Mill Pond, as well as Raulston Arboretum and Duke Gardens. I didn’t see any uncommon animal or plant life, but I thought some of the dying flowers looked pretty.  As is my usual procedure, I’m sharing here photos I made this week that were my favorites for the week.

I had my first post-retirement piano lesson with Professor Olga Kleiankina at her studio at NC State on Sunday.  I’ve been working on Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2, with its thundering intensity and exotic lyricism. Olga coached me on touch and sound production, including more use of the back muscles, but she also diagnosed a fundamental problem: I was hearing things as I imagined them rather than as they were.  She thought I had failed to completely and fully listen. She noted that this is sometimes true of professional musicians, and further observed that if ever I learned to truly listen, I would no longer need a teacher.

As I told her, the idea of full on listening reminded me of a central aspiration of mindfulness — being fully present and attentive — which is also difficult to achieve.  Anyhow, I found helpful her ideas around listening and practicing slowly and carefully. She suggested that rather than a two hour lesson once a month, we meet for an hour every other week.  I was grateful that she doesn’t think it’s hopeless to try to help me, and am looking forward to climbing up to the next level.

I also took a golf lesson with Mike Sullivan at 401 Par Golf.  I hadn’t seen Mike since last fall, and in the meantime had developed a fairly bad case of the yips in trying delicate shots close to the green.  Mike is a very upbeat guy and knows a lot about golf.  He had some good ideas for chipping, and I’m hoping to see improvement now that I have a more time to practice.

My feelings about golf are certainly mixed. It is, of course, associated with privilege and elitism, and so sits uncomfortably with my concerns for fairness and social justice.  It is far from eco-friendly. It is generally expensive. It’s frustrating. And it sounds like a sad cliche for a guy to be retiring to play golf.

But, that said, there are things about the game that are worth defending.  Like every sport, it has its moments of drama and humor. Unlike most sports, it has as an essential component the values of honesty and integrity.  It can help build friendships and cooperation. It is beautiful, both in its landscapes and kinetic arcs.

And at every level of play, it demands of the player a mix of intellectual, physical, and moral qualities.   It poses challenges that potentially make us better. It’s unfortunate for the game that the current American President is such a golf lover and super-sized example of dishonesty, immorality, and stupidity, but let’s just consider him the exception that proves the rule. 

Gabe and I have been getting out for a game most weekends, and it’s been inspiring to see him dramatically improve his game.  With some putting improvements, he may soon be breaking 80.  For me it will be a longer, tougher journey, but still, I look forward to it.

Canoes at Umstead Park

 

Resetting in retirement, new animal photos, new music, and reading The Uninhabitable Earth

A white-tailed deer at Lake Wheeler

My transition from a corporate schedule to a non-corporate one has been fairly undramatic.  I find myself smiling more and carrying around less stress. But it’s been sudden, and a little disorienting.  On Sunday night, I found myself starting to think about getting up early to get to the gym for the start of a new corporate work week, when there wasn’t going to be one.  Old habits die hard.

But I’m starting to develop some new routines that I like.  Instead of rushing out early to the gym, most days I’m starting with 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation.  Then I head out to one of our local forests and lakes with my camera and look about for animals and plants in the gentle early light.  After a couple of hours of looking, I head to the gym for various types of cardio activity, resistance training, core work, and stretching.  If it’s not a swimming day, I either read or listen to podcasts while I sweat.

Back home, I get a shower and make a green smoothie for a late breakfast.  Then I’ll download and process my latest photographs. I’m experimenting with various software tools, including especially Lightroom and Photoshop, and also Topaz, Nik, Aurora, and Helicon Focus.  

When my eyes and neck start to ache from photo processing, I usually practice the piano.  Currently on the workbench are Chopin’s first Impromptu and the Op. 27, No. 1 Nocturne, Liszt’s third Consolation, and Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2.  

I’ve also been working on a couple of dozen jazz standards, like Misty, Stardust, and All the Things You Are.  I got reasonably proficient at playing some of the great American songbook before law school, but afterwards put that music it in storage for most of the last 30 years.  Now I’m getting the dust and cobwebs off and enjoying it again.

A gray squirrel with a hot dog at Lake Wheeler

Speaking of music, I finished reading the new biography of the Robert Schumann by Judith Chernaik, which I found worthwhile.  Schumann (1810-1849) was a great composer, who adored and married Clara Schumann, a great pianist, and had several children. He struggled with mental illness for much of his life, but left an enduring legacy.

I also finished reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me.  It’s a sometimes funny but ultimately serious book set in the recent past but with a futuristic premise:  the protagonist buys an expensive new home gadget, which is a completely realistic super intelligent humanoid robot.  There are various practical problems with having this device, and even more moral problems. I find the trajectory of advancing artificial intelligence fairly worrisome, and McEwan gave me some new grounds for worry. 

Although I finished The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, I immediately began re-reading it.   I would not recommend this book to anyone struggling with depression. The unvarnished accounting of the global-scale disasters that, to a high degree of probability, are coming our way are hard to process.  But I’m hoping there are many healthy people who will read it and be inspired to action. As much as Wallace-Wells makes vivid and real the possibility of cascading climate disasters, he also explains that, just as this is a situation that humans have created, it is one that humans have it in their power to address.

A great blue heron at Crabtree swamp

This week there was a good Ted Radio Hour podcast on this same subject.   It was inspiring to hear 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and get some ideas about carbon capture, animal agricultural redirection, and addressing climate change denial.  I’d like to think the dire reality of our situation is starting to sink in to public consciousness, and we may be starting to pull out of our death spiral.

In E.O.Wilson’s recent book Half Earth, on preventing more species extinctions (which I’m also re-reading), he points out another possible name for the coming era.  Instead of the Anthropocene, which emphasizes a biological world existing “almost exclusively by, for, and of ourselves,” he suggests calling it “the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness.”   On our current trajectory, the earth will have fewer and fewer non-human species. This is, of course, disastrous for non-domesticated animals and plants, but also tragic for the humans who remain.

Carolina wren at Yates Mill Pond

It’s always seemed to me a simple thing to enjoy being outside in nature, but it’s starting to seem less common and more worthy of attention.  Now that I have more time to get out to our local parks, I’m spending more time with our still common animal neighbors, like deer, squirrels, and birds.  The ones here are from the past week. The deer at Lake Wheeler seemed shy but interested in having a good look at me. The squirrels there were having an after-picnic picnic.  The great blue heron at Crabtree swamp spent a long time hunting, standing still for periods, moving slowly, and striking quickly. It had several little fish for breakfast.

Retiring, learning nature photography, and reprioritizing, with a lesson from my mom

 

Barred owl in a cypress tree with Spanish moss

Last Friday was the one-week anniversary of my retirement, and the start of the next phase of my education in  nature and photography. I drove down to Charleston, SC for a workshop sponsored by the Carolina Nature Photographers Association.  The workshop included two one-day courses, with one led by Jamie Konarski Davidson on garden and macro photography, and the other led by Eric Horan on bird photography.  With Jamie’s group at Magnolia Plantation I battled heat and mosquitos, and with Eric’s I hand held a big lens on a rocking boat in Charleston Bay. It was challenging. I took many not-very-good pictures along with a few that I liked, including the ones here.  

Oystercatcher parent and child in Charleston Bay

My plan for the next several months is to learn a lot about nature photography and see if I can make better pictures.  I’ll be traveling both in and out of state and getting coaching from some master photographers. I’ll also be reading and watching videos on post-processing techniques, and doing a lot of trial-and-error experimenting.  We’ll see how it goes.

Osprey in Charleston Bay

Anyhow, I enjoyed the Charleston trip and got some good tips.  I traveled with Barry Wheeler, a fellow retiree with a long resume and the same camera as me (the extraordinary Nikon D850).  He posts some of his nature photography on his blog, Travels of an Old Guy, which I find well worth following.  During the drive, we had some great conversation on camera equipment and life in general.  

Great egret on a shrimp boat

As I told Barry, as I’ve started my post wage-earning life, I’ve been reflecting on some important things I learned from my mother, Zola Tiller.  She had a major hand in directing me toward the life of an intellectual, though of course I didn’t perceive that at the time, and also for a long time afterwards.   She often spoke admiringly about Albert Schweitzer, a French theologian, philosopher, humanitarian, musician, and physician. She must have read his biography.  I assumed from her account he was extremely famous, though I doubt I’ve even heard his name for at least 40 years.  

Black skimmer

Anyhow, according to mom, he was a good role model.  From these and other examples I absorbed a value system that placed great weight on high intelligence and professional achievement.  For most of my career, I did business where smartness was the coin of the realm, with other human qualities valued much less. And my mom was never an intellectual.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but when I was a young man this bothered me.

It wasn’t until near the end of her life that I realized she was exceptionally gifted in another way, which was relating to people with kindness, compassion, generosity, and love.  I used to think that those qualities were common, but I’ve come to see them as relatively rare, and worth noting and extolling. I suppose it would be good to be a Schweitzer, a formerly famous humanitarian.  But it would also be good to be a Zola Tiller — a person who gave warmth and caring to those in her circle and others fortunate enough to cross paths with her.

Hydrangea at Magnolia Plantation

On Wednesday, Sally and I celebrated our anniversary — the 37th!  She has made me the happiest of men! She gave me a very sweet card, and we had a good dinner at Bloomsbury Bistro.

Orchid at Magnolia Plantation

The eaglets fell but are OK, as am I, having retired

The eaglet last week at Shelley Lake

Last week one of the two eaglets at Shelley Lake fell from nest and was rescued.  The following morning I got some pictures of the remaining youngster and the storm-damaged nest, and caught up on eagle family news with other eagle fans.  I went up there again yesterday, and learned that the other eaglet had also been found on the ground and also got rescued. I saw one of the eagle parents fly to the nest site and perch briefly, with its back to me, before flying out again.

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Jocelyn and Kyle came down from New York to visit and help with a surprise party dinner for my retirement.  Yes, this week, after 32 years as a licensed attorney and 11 years as vice president and assistant general counsel at Red Hat, Inc., I came to the end of that chapter.  Mainly I felt happiness and excitement, but there were other complicated feelings, including regret that I won’t be as close on a daily basis to my work friends.  

But I’m looking forward to new adventures.  I’ll be the father of the bride in Jocelyn’s and Kyle’s wedding.  I’m planning on learning some new dishes to cook for Sally, and getting some golf coaching from Gabe. Also, in the next several months I expect to be traveling, studying photography, and making photographs of various living things, including flowers, fish, and grizzly bears, and lots of birds (like puffins, cranes, snow geese, and penguins).  

I’ll be exploring new piano repertoire, including more Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Debussy, and also reviving my jazz studies, which have been sitting in storage for quite a few years.  I’ll be sketching with pencil and paper, and also with an iPad. I’m hoping to improve my language skills in French, Spanish, German and Italian. I’ve also got a long English-language reading list — mostly history and various branches of science and philosophy, but also poetry and fiction.

My retirement dinner at Caffe Luna. Left to right: Jocelyn, Kyle, Sally, me, Gabe, and Clark

First off, though, I’m taking a few deep breaths.  When I left Red Hat on Friday, I went up to Raulston Arboretum to check on new flowers.  Then I stopped for coffee at Cup A Joe’s and sat for a while with a new e-book (Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan).  It was a new thing for me to sit reading well after I finished my beverage, with no urgency to get to the next thing.  The next day, I went to our rooftop pool area with Jocelyn and Kyle to chat and read, and for the first time since we moved here almost 10 years ago, I got in the pool.  For such a hot day, it was surprisingly chilly and refreshing.

The eaglets test their wings, and I finish The Overstory

The eaglet siblings and their nest at Shelley Lake

I went up to Shelley Lake last Saturday morning hoping to see the two bald eagle chicks and take some photos.  I put my long lens (a Sigma 150-600 mm zoom) on a tripod, and watched the nest for a couple of hours.

It wasn’t boring!  There were quiet periods, but I found them peaceful.  The eaglets were dark, and from about 70 yards away, I couldn’t see a lot of detail.  It wasn’t until the next day when I processed the images with Lightroom and other tools that I understood what they were up to:  waiting for their mama, flapping their wings and getting ready to fly, and eating.

The eaglets looked to be about three-quarters as big as the adults.  Each spent some time standing on the edge of the nest, probably thinking about taking off.  But when mama eagle returned from the hunt with food, they opened their beaks wide to be fed like little baby birds.

 

I was looking at the nest a little differently this week, giving more consideration to the pine tree that held it.  I had just finished The Overstory, a novel by Richard Powers, which has at its center the complex lives of trees.

Powers has a lot of human characters, who gradually converge, and he draws on recent scientific discoveries about trees’ social behavior and responses to their environments.  His characters struggle to come to grips with the slow motion disaster that humans are wreaking on the planet. It’s a big novel in every sense, with a lot of beauty and urgency.  

Birds and alligators, and our extinction problem

A snowy egret at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine

Week before last, Sally and I drove down to St. Augustine for the Florida Birding and Photo Festival.  We saw a lot of birds, and I took a lot of pictures, of which these are a few.

Tricolored heron with eggs

We were especially delighted by the Alligator Farm, a zoo that hosts nesting migrant wading birds.  Dozens of families of egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and storks build nests and hatch their chicks in trees above dozens of alligators.  There’s a boardwalk through the area, and some of the bird families are very close to it. The parents fly back and forth bringing nesting material and food for the noisy chicks.  

Wood stork

It was both beautiful and strange to see all those birds and reptiles together.  Apparently the birds like to nest there because the alligators protect their broods from predators.  Of course, there’s an inherent danger for those new chicks: if they fall out of the nests, it’s curtains.  

We also saw a lot of shorebirds during a couple of boat trips on the Intercoastal Waterway and hiking Anastasia State Park.  I attended nature photography workshops by some highly accomplished pros, including Charles Glatzer, Lewis Kemper, Roman Kurywczak, Scott Bourne, Jack Rogers, and Joe Brady, and learned a lot.  

A roseate spoonbill

The more time I spent with the birds at the Alligator Farm, the more I saw, and felt.  On the first day, I was excited just to get a good view of several species that weren’t familiar to me.  But after a few hours, I started keying into family relationships — expectant and new parents, nestlings, and fledglings.  The nests of different families and different species were close together, like high rise apartments, and I watched as the birds worked out conflicts over space.  They spent time grooming themselves, working on their nests, and flying out and back with food for the little ones. The nests were busy places.

The birds seemed not at all bothered by the humans watching them and taking their pictures.  They must be used to it.

A great egret family

It’s encouraging that there are places like the Alligator Farm where humans are devoting some resources for the benefit of non-human animals, and where we can learn about their world.  But we need to do a lot more. Last week I finished reading (actually, listening to) Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction.  I was glad to find it not all gloom and doom; there were various lively characters and stories.  But the overarching story of what homo sapiens have done, and are still doing, to the planet is deeply troubling.

Planetary destruction ought to be a big news story, though it seldom makes the front page, and I’m afraid there are a lot of people who still haven’t got the message.  Maybe that’s changing. Just yesterday, the leading newspapers reported at length on the new United Nations report on the global threats to biodiversity and the critical need for conservation efforts.  The full 1500 page report is not yet available, but the summary is out and the key findings were reported in the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal , the Washington Post, and the Guardian. As they all noted, the UN report says that more than one million species are at risk of extinction in the near future.  

The UN panel connected various interacting threats to biodiversity, including  habitat loss, water pollution, soil exhaustion, over-logging, overfishing, transportation of invasive species, and burning fossil fuels.  It emphasized that these human activities together are threatening the basic natural resources (like food and water) on which humans depend.

The report didn’t seem to give much weight to the inherent value of non-human species.  The idea that the only purpose of nature is to serve humankind is deep-seated, and arguing against it might sound strange, if not treasonous. So the report’s authors could well be hesitant to argue against the idea that humans have an inherent right to kill everything that’s not human.  Anyhow, if the only thing that will mobilize humans to stop destroying the natural world is raw self-interest, the report authors should be thanked for making an effective appeal to that self-interest.

I’ll just note briefly that there are alternative views.  Of course, we’re strongly conditioned to think of nature as our inferior and our enemy in a war for survival.  But it’s dawning on us that this line of thought has taken us to the brink of disaster, and that we ultimately rely on the natural world for life.  In place of a war footing, it’s possible for humans to regard themselves as connected to and part of nature.

It’s not easy to let go of the idea that we’re in all regards superior to nature and entitled to exploit it without limitation, but it can be done.  This opens up a vista of nature in its beautiful complexity and ourselves a part of that. The challenge is to discover balance and harmony within this constantly changing reality.  

Meanwhile, there’s the problem of eating.  I highly recommend checking out the Times’s recent feature on how our eating affects the environment.   It explains that our food system is an enormous contributing factor to our environmental problems, and that eating more plants and less meat would help.  

The growing eagle family, and the consciousness of other animals

Papa eagle at the nest

On Thursday afternoon I went up to Shelley Lake with my camera equipment to check on the nesting eagles.  The walk to the nest is close to a mile along a paved path on the east side of the lake. It was clear and mild, though breezy.  When I got there, papa eagle was perched in the pine tree beside the nest. A fellow eagle watcher said there were two chicks in the nest, and mama was off hunting.  Forty-five minutes later, she flew in with some food in her talons and disappeared in the nest. When she emerged, she spent a few minutes perched with her mate, and then flew off.  

Of course, I was excited to see the birds, but there was also something calming about being near them.  The wind sometimes blew the pine branches in front of them, or blew them aside for one second, just enough for a picture.

Speaking of animals, I’ve been reading two good books — Mama’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal and Beyond Words, by Carl Safina.  Both books explore animal social organizations and thought processes. Dr. de Waal’s primary subjects are chimpanzees and other primates. De Waal explains that when he was a young scientist, the orthodox view in academia was that animals did not have emotions.  He’s devoted his career to testing this view, and has succeeded in thoroughly debunking it.  In exploring non-human animal emotions, he shows us more about our own minds.

Dr. Safina focuses on elephants, wolves, and killer whales, and closely observes a few of their social organizations and personalities.  The stories are moving, and raise absorbing questions about the consciousness of these animals. Some of the human behaviors, including killing elephants for their tusks and killing other creatures merely for pleasure, raise uncomfortable questions about human morality.

 

Notre Dame, Our Planet, and some very small scenes

Like millions of others, I was shocked and saddened by the devastating fire yesterday Notre Dame Cathedral    I lived in Paris for a few months right after college, and visited the church many times. I loved the beauty and majesty, but there were other, quieter aspects that also moved me.  I liked to think about the anonymous builders who carved and laid the gray stones starting in 1160.  It was built to last!  It showed the strength of human creativity and of what communities could achieve together.  

It will take some time to mourn and process the terrible damage to this historic treasure.  For now, I find it helpful to remember that communities can be amazingly resilient, and they are capable of remarkable feats of restoration.  There are many examples in Europe of unique buildings destroyed in WWII that have been miraculously recreated. It may be that this loss will inspire another such effort, and demonstrate again the power of communities.

We’ve started watching the new nature series on Netflix, Our Planet, which I highly recommend.  Narrated by the legendary David Attenborough (now 92!), it sets a new standard for beautiful nature photography, including footage of rare and wonderful animals and habitats.  But, as the Times critic pointed out, it departs from the usual conventions of nature documentaries by being both richer in its ecological vision and more frank in its damage assessments.  It recognizes that the smallest life forms are inextricably linked to the largest, and all are part of a dense interconnected web that humans and other animals depend on.  

The series faces up to the harsh reality that humans have already wreaked enormous damage on the planet, and are continuing to do so. In the series, and also in public statements, Attenborough and producer Alastair Fothergill have communicated that as dire as the situation is, there’s still hope, and a lot of nature that we can still save.

Last weekend I went to Durham for a workshop led by Mike Moats on macro (that is, close-up) photography.  Mike gave our group a lot of tips and ideas, and brought along groups of little objects for us to shoot. I’m generally much more interested in using my camera to explore the natural world, and I approached these subjects with low expectations.  But back home after I sorted and processed the images (using Lightroom, Photoshop, and Topaz Studio), I found there were several I kind of liked, which I’m sharing here.

 

At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

This week Sally and I went back to the Full Frame Film Festival in downtown Durham, and watched 15 or so documentary films.  As in prior years, it was an amazing, enriching experience, like a quick trip around the world. Full Frame is one of the best, or perhaps the best, documentary festival in the country, pulling in filmmakers and fans from far and wide, and we’re fortunate that it’s so convenient for us.  

As usual, we saw a few Raleigh friends there, but we’re always surprised not to see more.  Part of the reason may be lack of knowledge.  It isn’t entirely clear from Full Frame’s publicity what it is.  From the Festival’s point of view, this doesn’t seem to be a problem, since they seem to sell out most of their showings. But for those missing this amazing experience, it’s worth knowing a few things.

For example, the 70 or so films shown are selected from many hundreds.  They are all, in effect, contest winners. There are many subjects and styles.  Production values (filming, animation, music) are typically high. More than with typical movie going, it requires a slight leap of faith to buy tickets, since most of the films are new and almost unknown.  But we’ve learned through experience that the programming committee knows what it’s doing, and we can trust that almost everything they show will be invigorating.

Another fun aspect of Full Frame is the people.  For many of the films, the filmmakers and subjects come to the screenings and answer questions afterwards, and hang around to talk after that.  And the audience members are a varied, interesting lot. While waiting for the next movie, many people like to talk about what they’ve been seeing, what they’re about to see, and their lives.  We’ve had many uncommonly enjoyable chats.

Anyhow, we love it.  As usual, we booked a room in the downtown Marriott, which is physically connected to the Convention Center where most of the films are shown.  We only went outside to eat or wait in line for the screenings in Fletcher (the largest hall). It took a certain amount of commitment to do five screenings on Friday and Saturday, starting around 10:00 A.M. and ending around midnight.  And it was emotionally challenging, with some of the subject matter evoking strong feelings of regret and loss. But there were also moments of humor and a lot of rays of hope — examples of love, compassion, and organizing to do something about serious problems.  

Here are a few notes on my favorites.

F/11 and Be There.  This was a film about Burk Uzzle, a photographer who worked for Life Magazine and went on to a distinguished career in art photography and portraiture.  He had a lot of interesting things to say and show about photography, including the primacy of emotional content and the connections to making music. He’s still going strong at age 80, and answered questions at the screening.  

Meeting Gorbachev.  This is a bio documentary by Werner Herzog about Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev had a lot of intelligence and humor, and said some very timely things about stopping nuclear weapons.  

Human Nature.  This was about gene editing with CRISPR-Cas9 technology.  It’s a challenging but really important subject, comparable to the internet, just starting to change the world.  The film does a great job at teaching the science basics and raising some of the difficult questions about where this technology might take us.  

Kifaru.  This one treated the extinction of northern white rhinoceroses and humans trying to save them.  I was amazed to see that these ancient and fierce-looking animals form bonds with their caretakers and play with them.  The tone was gentle and elegiac, and the photography beautiful. We talked with some of the filmmakers and one of the Kenyan caretakers afterwards.  It won the Festival’s Audience Award and the Environmental Award.

Ask Dr. Ruth.  There is only one Dr. Ruth, famous for her talk show on sexual problems, and this is her documentary biopic.  As a child, she barely escaped the Holocaust, and her family did not. Now, at age 90, she’s incredibly warm, upbeat, and peppy.  She spoke after the showing and made people laugh. I caught up with her as she was leaving and thanked her for the film and for making America a little less prudish and a little more joyful.  She thanked me with her terrific smile.

Hail Satan?   This one is about the Temple of Satan and its leader, Lucien Greaves.  The group is in part a satirical theatre challenge social conservative positions on religion and social norms, including their placing Ten Commandments statues on public property and restrictions on abortion and gay rights.  It will upset fundamentalists and some others, and entertain others.

Mossville:  When Great Trees Fall.  This is about the destruction of a thriving black community in Louisiana with the pollution of enormous industrial plants.  The existence of environmental racism is not new but perhaps not widely understood, and this film does a great job in framing the problem on a human scale.  It won the Festival’s Human Rights Award.

The eagles at Shelley Lake, looking for wildflowers, finding conspiracies, and new music

Things are blossoming like crazy here, and I’ve been itching to spend some time outside with the beautiful plants and animals.  In the last few days, I’ve succeeded, and had both good luck and bad luck with my camera.    The good luck was at Shelley Lake, where the two adult bald eagles came out of their nest and posed nicely for pictures.  There may well be a couple of eaglets in the nest, as someone said. The area near the nest has become a little social center for nature photographers, bird watchers, and assorted other humans.  It was fun chatting about the birds, and seeing the excitement when people saw them for the first time.

On Friday morning I took a vacation day and went over to the UNC Botanical Garden to see what was blooming and to get a special pass for Mason Farm Biological Reserve.  I was hoping to find unfamiliar wildflowers. When I got there that my camera battery was almost dead (due to taking many eagle shots), and I’d forgotten my backup battery.  The creek was too high to get well into Mason Farm. So, bad luck, but I did find a few interesting wildflowers, which I admired and photographed.

Later I met Gabe Tiller in Chapel Hill for lunch at the Mediterranean Deli.  The falafel, hummus, and baba ghannouj were all delicious! We caught up on family and work news, and I walked him back to work.  Then I made my way to the UNC Arboretum. Traffic on Franklin Street was busy, and I was lucky to find parking at the planetarium.  There were a lot of blossoms at the arboretum which inspired photographic ideas, but my battery gave out after three shots.

On Saturday morning, after visiting the eagles, I drove over to Durham to see the flowers at Duke Gardens.  I’d seen on Instagram that the tulips there were blooming, and that spectacular collection always brings me joy.  But lots of other people had the same idea; the traffic was crawling. After some slow poking through the various lots, I admitted defeat and drove sadly home.

On the way back to Raleigh, I listened to an episode on This American Life about conspiracy theories.  It’s a timely topic, with Donald Trump declaiming loudly that there was no conspiracy involving him, but there are plenty of conspiracies involving his foes.  As one of the program’s segments noted, for fans of anti-government conspiracy theories, everything Trump says makes perfect sense.

Not being such a fan, I’ve assumed that such ideas, however nutty, are mostly harmless.   But my harmlessness hypothesis  was shattered by reports this week by reporting on Alex Jones and others who have decided to believe that the murder of 28 school children and staff  at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a hoax. In a podcast of This American Life,  I learned that these people have conducted sustained harassment of the parents of murdered children, including sharing their addresses and personal information and threatening them with violence.  

I have a hard time conceiving of how anyone could get disconnected enough from reality and human decency to attack people based on their being the parents of murdered children, but I’ll try.  1. Humans have a deep-seated drive to find explanatory patterns, and a deep aversion to uncertainty and disorder. 2. Finding a group of people who share your beliefs is satisfying, for it is our nature to want friends and allies.  3. It is surely satisfying to believe you have grasped an obscure truth that only a few can fathom. 4. You may get into a feedback loop: those who resist your conspiracy theory are part of the conspiracy, and their efforts to unpack your theory are attacks on your group and proof of the theory’s validity.  

At any rate, I’m guessing that’s part of how people get to believing in a flat earth, UFOs, the Illuminati, and any number of other fantasies.  But for most of those, I’d expect there’s some hedging. If it came to actually doing violence, physical or psychological, in support of the theory, many people would say, hmmm, I might be wrong, and that germ of uncertainty would hold them back.  It probably takes a big mouth con artist like Alex Jones or Donald Trump leading the charge to overcome those doubts. That may take the group over the edge.

This is sick and scary stuff, and it shows no signs of going away soon.  But some good news: as reported in the NY Times and Washington Post, some of the targeted parents have sued Jones for defamation.  As flawed and error prone as our system of justice is, it’s good to think it’s still there, and may well shut down this particular madness.

This is one of the things I like about spending time with non-human animals and plants:  at a fundamental level, they’re truthful. This week I started another book about animal feelings and intelligence:  Moma’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal. De Waal is a psychologist at Emory University, who wrote Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? which is a good overview of recent research that is transforming ideas about the limits of animal intelligence.  His new book contends that the emotional lives of some animals are not so different from ours.  Most dog owners already think this, and it’s interesting that science is catching up.  

At my lesson that afternoon with my piano teacher, Olga Kleiankina, she invited to be an audience of one for her run through of most of the program she’ll be performing next week at the Smithsonian Institution, and after that at the N.C. Museum of Art.  The works were all by living composers, including Ligeti, Salonen, and Crumb. The music was challenging for both the performer and listener, requiring great virtuosity and intense attention.  Lacking the traditional binding agents of tonality, performer and listener had to find other orientation points. I didn’t love everything, but I really liked most of it. As she noted, the music could open things up, and make you listen to other things with new ears.

That evening, I discovered on Spotify a wonderful recording of Mahler’s ninth symphony streaming performed by the Essener Philharmoniker led by Tomas Netopil.  It was an excellent orchestra, and Netopil (Czech, b. 1975) was brilliant. And kudos as well to the gifted recording engineers. I’ve enjoyed this music for decades, but felt like I was hearing it for the first time.  I knew nothing of that orchestra, but checked: Essen is the ninth largest city in Germany. Interesting coincidence!