The Casual Blog

Tag: Eno River

The Eno at the end of fall, meditating, a piano lesson, and a list of thought-provoking books

With a big winter storm on the way, on Saturday I drove over to Durham and hiked along the Eno River on the Cole Mill trail. The colors were muted, and I was reminded of that melancholy tune by the Mamas and the Papas:  “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.”  It was quiet, except for the noise of the fast-moving water.  

I’d brought along my camera equipment, planning to make some landscape images, but struggled to get inspired.  Things didn’t seem at all scenic, and in fact seemed kind of sad. But after a bit I slowed down and started noticing spots of unusual energy, like tree roots and branches, decaying stumps and pale lichens on boulders.  The shots here are what developed.

Taking in smaller wonders is one of the lessons I’ve taken from my efforts at mindfulness meditation.  Over the last few months, my 15 minutes of daily sitting have helped with managing stress, and also has given me some meaningful, though humbling, insights into my own unruly thinking processes.  I’m looking forward to learning more.

On Saturday afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina over at the N.C. State music department.  As I’ve noted before, I usually think of my piano playing as music therapy, providing personal balance, flow, and happiness, without many connections to my professional or social life.  But Olga always reminds me that piano playing is also a serious undertaking, with long traditions, deep musical questions, and technical challenges that are not easily surmounted, as well as the potential for personal expression, communicating feelings, and transcendent beauty.  

This week I played a well-loved Chopin waltz (c# minor, Op. 64, no. 2).  I arrived with a good mastery of the notes and a decent understanding of the architecture.  She wanted me to incorporate some new gestural elements to improve the sound, and explained to me how she uses the legs and core for fine keyboard control.  I also played Debussy’s beautiful Bruyeres from Preludes, book 2. We talked about varying tone colors and voicing (both horizontally and vertically), and specialized pedaling challenges.  The lesson was almost two hours, and I was exhausted at the end, but also inspired.

Last week I was telling a friend about rereading (actually, re-listening to) Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He noted that in the last couple of years I’d mentioned several books that relate to his interests in evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy, and asked if I’d mind making a list of favorites.  

So I looked over what I’d read involving science topics and other big ideas in the last couple of years, and realized, it’s a lot!  For whatever it’s worth, here is a selection of books I found worthwhile and would be happy to discuss with other readers. I have not attempted to rank them, but they are roughly grouped by major subject.  

Science matters, mainly in the areas of physics, biology (including neuroscience), and psychology

The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far:  Why Are We Here? By Lawrence Krauss

Origin Story:  A Big History of Everything, by David Christian

The Big Picture:  On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by Sean Carroll

I Contain Multitudes:  The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

The Moral Animal:  The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright

How Emotions Are Made:  The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Behave:  The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky

Before You Know It:  The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, by John Bargh

The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, by Jonathan Balcombe

Other Minds:  The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben

Half-Earth:  Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson

Assorted Other Interesting Ideas

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent

The Shape of the New:  Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott Montgomery and Daniel Chirot

Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder

The Doomsday Machine:  Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg

Why Buddhism Is True:  The Science and Philosophy of  Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright

The new engagement, wildflowers, and consciousness

 

At the Eno River, near the old pump house

Jocelyn and Kyle are engaged!  He popped the question on the Williamsburg Bridge, after they’d done a run together.  The wedding will be in New York in the fall of next year. Jocelyn quickly shifted into bride-to-be mode, and is considering many logistical and atmospheric issues. She checked to see if I minded if she and I did the second dance, rather than the first.  I did not see that as a problem. We started kicking around the question of what love songs the DJ would need to play.

A trout lily at Swift Creek Bluffs

It warmed up this weekend, and I got out in the woods to look for wildflowers.  You have to be attentive to find these little guys, and the effort puts me in a good mental place.  I got down on my knees in the forest mud,  using a 105mm lens on my Nikon D850 on a tripod, very low to the ground, with focus, aperture, and shutter speed set manually, and a cable release.  I usually take several shots of a subject, changing the settings for each one, experimenting. It’s a labor-intensive way to make an image, but the extra steps also leave room for looking carefully, and allows for the possibility of a subtle shift in the light that is golden.  These are very small flowers, substantially magnified.

Spring beauties

On the ride over to Eno River State Park on Saturday, I listened to an audiobook titled Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright.  I recently finished Wright’s The Moral Animal, a lively and at times unsettling take on evolutionary psychology, and was curious about how he could fit Buddhism into his framework.  Wright’s Buddhism is largely secularized (no extended discussions of reincarnation) and focused on mindfulness meditation, which is ground well-trodden by others, like Stephen Batchelor.

But Wright has some stimulating ideas about the nature of consciousness and its relation to the external world.  He posits a modular model of the mind in which conscious thought is a product rather than the producer. Conscious thought, in his view, serves various purposes, including public relations, but the primary drivers of activity are feelings.  He sees our emotions as evolutionary adaptations that we can understand and shape with the tools of meditation.

In other consciousness news, this week’s New Yorker has a lively piece by Larissa MacFarquhar’s on the philosopher Andy Clark.  Clark takes issue with the idea that the mind is simply the brain, and argues that it extends outside the body. A homey example is using a pad and pen to keep notes, which augments mental capacity.  He sees our relationships to objects and to each other as essential, rather than optional. Like Feldman, Clark has modeled human activity in terms of constant predictions based on probability estimates from our experience, rather than an orderly reaction and consideration of external phenomena.     

Precancerousness, Eno hiking, Dolci paintings, some Debussy and Liszt, and support for a plant-based diet

The Eno River, by the Eno Trace trail

This week I got a one page report that said the polyp removed during my recent colonoscopy was precancerous.  I’m not exactly sure what that means.  It sounds better than cancerous, but definitely not as good as non-cancerous.  Do they really know when something will become cancerous, or is it more like, we aren’t exactly sure, and don’t want to say there’s nothing to worry about?  The net seemed to be, it’s good they removed it, because it might not have been harmless.  In any case, it’s gone.  But instead of the usual ten-year interval for the next colonoscopy, they want me to come back in five.  So I’m twice as valuable as the usual  patient.   

On Saturday morning I drove over to Eno River State Park and hiked in the Fews Ford area.  There was frost on the grass, and some ice on the river, but it was sunny and calm.  A flock of robins was hunting for breakfast.  I stepped carefully on the rocks and didn’t get wet or twist an ankle, and got these pictures.  

Afterwards I stopped in Durham at the Nasher Museum to see the Carlo Dolci exhibit.  Dolci was a favored court painter for the Medicis in Florence in the 1600s.  Apparently he fell out of favor among art critics in the 19th century, and this is the first major exhibit of his work.  Dolci apparently was a pious Catholic, and in his work mostly focused on the popular religious subjects of the time, usually with close attention to two or three figures.  He had a great color sense, and fanatical attention to detail. And amazing commitment and endurance:  some of these paintings took several years to paint.    

Self portrait of Carlo Dolci

The Nasher also had a fascinating exhibit of the large bird’s eye view of Venice made in 1500 by Jacopo de’ Barbari.  The general accuracy of the aerial view has been confirmed by satellite imagery, so we know this work as a stunning feat of imagination and technical wizardry.  The Nasher did a state-of-the-art presentation using several large touch screens that allowed further exploration and play.  

Dolci’s St. Matthew Writing His Gospel (1640s)

That afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga.  At her suggestion, I’ve been working on Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, and contrary to her suggestion, I’ve continued working on Liszt’s Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude.  The Debussy work is about atmospheres, and has some unusual technical challenges, but I can already see that with practice it can be played.  The Liszt piece is a labor of love — lots of labor that could only be justified by love.  The harmonies are deliciously rich and full of surprises, but it requires a big investment of practice time.   

It being the holiday season, we’ve been eating more with friends recently, and the subject of why we’re eating a plant-based diet comes up regularly.  It’s always a bit awkward to discuss this at meal time, since the background facts are likely to produce a less cheery vibe for the animal eaters in the group.

But I continue to think a lot about the relation between our food, our ethics, and our health, and I’m always glad to find others willing to discuss those issues.  There seems to be growing awareness of the extreme cruelty of industrial animal farming, of the enormous environmental damage this system causes, and of the damage that eating animals and animal products does to human bodies.  We recently saw two documentaries on these issues on Netflix, and found them well worth watching.  Live and Let Live is a pithy overview of the ethical and health issues involved in eating animals.    What the Health focuses on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, and the seemingly willful silence of mainstream health organizations regarding the health problems associated with animal products.  

Eno River wildflowers, a good spin, and some favorite podcasts

The Eno River, near the ruin of the old pump station

On Friday, I had a mini-adventure exploring Eno River State Park.   I asked a friendly staffer  at the park office for a good place to look for wildflowers, and so found my way to the pump station trail.  

It was a lovely calming place.   I walked slowly, looking for tiny blossoms, some of whom are shy and easy to miss.   Sometimes I got down on my belly for an extreme close up.   I heard the river and a  number of migrant warblers singing, though I couldn’t see them in the new leaves.  

On Saturday morning I did a 45-minute spin class at Flywheel, which I’ve been trying to do once a week.  As usual, it was hard.   I met my objectives of getting 300 points ( though barely, with 301), and staying out of last place.  In fact, I finished first in the class.  I also set a new record for my average heart rate, with 158, and a peak of 168.  And I didn’t die!

Eno flowers-3Most mornings I’ve been getting up at 5:05 and heading to the gym.  I’ve been swimming one day a week, and on the others I do a combination of various aerobic machines (stairs, treadmill, elliptical, bike, row) and weights.

During the non-wet workouts I’ve been listening to some stimulating and fun podcasts.  I usually start with some news in Spanish (Voz de America) and French (RFI), and then explore some history, science, or other interesting domain.  Here are some recent favorites.

S-Town.  I finished the seventh of seven episodes last week, and loved it!    This was done by  some of the same creative folks that did Serial and has a similar format.  It starts out being about a crime in a small Alabama town, but ends up being about a quirky and mercurial guy and his community.  Parts of it are shocking and tragic, but it’s also funny and compelling.     

Radiolab.  These folks focus on science and social issues, and sometimes they’re very lively.  I particularly liked their recent episode on our nuclear command structure, which gives the President complete and unconstrained control of a nuclear force that could end the world as we know it.    That is, we put the question of whether the human race survives or not in one person’s hands.  I learned there’s a pending bill that would add some congressional oversight, which could mitigate this existentially risky situation a little.

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Common Sense.  From time to time, Dan Carlin does long form podcasts on public policy matters, and they are well researched and thought-provoking.   His most recent one concerns America’s health care system, which he points out is not by any measure the best in the world, but is far and away the most expensive.   Carlin has some ideas on how we got to this absurd state of affairs, and how we might get out.

Rationally Speaking.  The format here is Julia Galef interviewing smart people about social and philosophical issues.  This week I went into the archive and listened to her conversation with Peter Singer about ethics and animal rights, and liked it a lot. 

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Waking Up.  This is another podcast where a smart person, here Sam Harris, interviews another smart person.  The most recent one is a conversation with Lawrence Krauss, which covers a wide range, from quantum physics to the under-appreciated nuclear threat to the overhyped threat of Islamic terrorism.

The New Yorker Radio Hour.  Somehow David Remnick manages to edit the New Yorker, read everything, watch a lot of television, and do this podcast. Each episode has several segments, which usually include an author talking about a recent piece in the magazine.  Those are usually goods, though just as with the magazine, there are some that I would skip.  

This American Life.  Even after all these years on NPR, Ira Glass and company are still almost always fresh and original.  

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