The Casual Blog

Tag: Rome

Snow geese and tundra swans, Roman history, and another wall problem

Tundra swans at Pungo Lake

Each winter thousands of migrating tundra swans and snow geese stop in eastern North Carolina for a while to collect themselves and eat what’s left in the farm fields.  For a human, all that bird life is a thrilling sight.

In addition to the thrill, I was hoping to capture some images of the birds in flight.  In preparation, I did some research on optimal settings and customized some of my camera buttons.  This process was involved and confusing, and I thought it possible I would end up with a hard-to-repair mess.  I also decided to try wielding my Sigma 150-500mm, a beastly large lens, free hand (no tripod).

Pungo Lake, where I saw most of snow geese and most of the tundra swans, is about 2.5 hours east of Raleigh.  For part of the time I traveled with other members of the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association, including some friendly and very well-traveled shutterbugs.  I got to hear some of their stories and picked up some helpful tips.

I saw thousands of big white birds, as well as several species of ducks, waders, and one black bear.  We had good weather until Saturday afternoon, when the rain came in and the temperature started to drop.  I was happy with some of the shots I got before then.

On an ordinary day, I check the digital news headlines frequently, which  rarely puts me in a more relaxed, pleasurable state of mind. So it was good to unplug for the weekend and concentrate on the beauty of the natural world.  

I also spent some of the driving time learning about the classical world.  I finished listening to a series of lectures titled The Rise of Rome, by Gregory Aldrete, from the Great Courses series.  It traces the rise of Rome from a settlement to the Western world’s first superpower.

Aldrete is a good teacher and a good story teller, and mixes broad themes with interesting anecdotes.  The Romans were certainly great engineers and organizers, as well as fearsome warriors. In the late Roman Republic, the levels of corruption, extreme inequality, and political dysfunction were even worse than our own, which I found somewhat comforting.  Leaving aside the lives and civilizations destroyed by Rome, life went on.

Snow geese coming in for a landing near Pungo Lake

I’ve been trying to avoid spending too much time obsessing over the latest Trump conflagration, since it does little or no good.  But I have been keeping a sharp eye on the presidential approval poll numbers, hoping to see a change in the national mood, and possibly our direction.  Even though Trump has been generally unpopular almost since day 1, his Republican base has been mostly steadfast.

I know some sane, well-informed, thoughtful, kind and generous Republicans, and have found it hard to understand how people like them could support a President with none of those virtues.  Trump, it seemed, might have been right when he said that no matter how crazy or heinous his acts, his base would never abandon him. But in the latest polling, after his reckless government shut down and non-stop nonsense about the Wall, the polls indicate some of his loyalists may be rethinking their position.

Although Trump has a gift for bringing out the worst in people, at times he inadvertently brings out better things.  For example, his racist language encourages the no-holds-barred racists, but it also makes others think more and talk more about the hard-to-see realities of our longstanding, everyday privileging of whiteness.  His climate change denialism is getting harder for the base to swallow as they face more frequent droughts, floods, fires, hurricanes, and other storms.

Even the Wall discussion seems to have crossed a threshold.  For many, it seems to have gone from being primarily a fun slogan to yell at a Trump rally to looking like a nutty and wasteful boondoggle.  There’s an aspect of the Wall idea that hasn’t gotten much attention, which I was glad to see noted in the  news  recently: the harmful effects on non-human life. The 650 miles of wall already in existence is very bad for the hundreds of species of animals and plants that live in the vicinity. Many of these need to travel north and south for food, water, and mating.  We need to take their needs into account.

Our week in Tuscany


Sally and I got back on Sunday from our first trip to Italy, where we saw the major tourist sites of Rome, Siena, and Florence, as well as five medieval cities in central Tuscany. We took in a ton of Renaissance art and architecture, wandered for miles through narrow streets, and drank some wonderful wines. We also had our share of minor travel tribulations, such as lost luggage, lost car, and just plain lost. We got soaked by a sudden downpour on the way to the Vatican, but for the most part the skies were blue and temperatures were mild.

Hearing about other people’s vacations is usually either frustrating or boring, and I will therefore spare you a blow by blow of the beautiful places and fine food. But I will say, if at all possible, you should go. It was an amazing feast for the senses and the mind.

It was also a time machine. The antiquities of Rome, like the Colosseum and the Forum, are awe inspiring. I asked myself, would I have enjoyed gladiators fighting to the death or religious dissidents being fed to the lions? Probably not, but who knows? The Romans’ appropriation of Greek art, followed by the Renaissance reappropriation of those same ideas, all made sense. But the hard phyical facts were also mildly shocking. There were a lot of statues of nude people! I get that they decided to glorify the human form, but faced with all those bare bodies, it seems fairly obvious these were highly sensual people.

With the benefit of some education in art history, I was looking forward to many great masterpieces, and they were certainly there. We made a particular point of seeking out the paintings of Caravaggio, which are amazingly powerful, and the great sculptures of Michelangelo. I will also note that the Sistine Chapel ceiling was awesome. There were so many other master works that I looked at hard and was touched by.

At the same time, I was struck at how many fine examples of Renaissance and Baroque art were connected, using the same subjects, the same gestures, the same costumes, and so forth. So many Annunciations, so many Adorations, so many Crucifixions, with so many similar arrangements. Clearly artists were borrowing from each other all the time. On the trip, I finished reading The Knock Off Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, by Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman. It makes the case that creative endeavors in certain fields, including fashion, haute cuisine, and football, develop through copying unconstrained by intellectual property law. Looking at art in terms of what is shared rather than what is original to the artist goes against the grain of art history as I learned it, but it helped me think about the art without getting completely overwhelmed. The art tells us about the community of people that it grew out of, and connects us with those communities.

There did come a point each day when I reached then saturation point, and could not stand to look at on more beautiful Madonna. But looking at these ancient objects had affected my perceptions. As I emerged from the last 12th or 14th century church of the day, I had the impression that the people around me were unusually vivid. Their faces seemed brighter. And they moved!

The Italians are not intent on your being a great art scholar. I was surprised at museums and churches generally gave little information about their treasures. They also are not much concerned with providing public restrooms. I finally figured out that it’s accepted to duck into a bar. Even so, there were further challenges, like finding water, soap, and paper towels all in one place. It is really disheartening, after a long search for a WC, and a moment of sweet release, to soap up your hands only to find there is nothing to rinse with.

But these things pass. After two days in Rome, we spent two days based in Siena, a marvelous Medieval city, and ventured out by car to see the Tuscan countryside and taking in the beautiful ancient towns of San Gigminiano, Volterra, Montelcino, Pienza, and Moltepulciano. It was a great pleasure to drive the winding roads among vineyards and olive orchards. Seeing so much land devoted to wine gave me a new understanding and respect for the place of wine in this culture.

I’ve long had a fascination with medieval architecture. Walking along the narrow streets gives a window into a different kind of community. Somehow these people of several centuries ago organized themselves to produce a kind of hive that worked very well and endured. Their walls and battlements prove that fear and violence were part of their world, but their churches show that they had moments of peace and transcendence. By the way, the streets in these hill towns can be unbelievably steep. Montepulciano was especially challenging. Our work outs finally paid off; we were in good enough physical shape to walk them.

We also adored Siena. We we disconcerted at first that cars zoom down the narrow streets dodging pedestrians, rather than pedestrians dodging cars — the pedestrians seemed at high risk — but we got used to it. We developed a taste for gelatos. A high point was climbing the circular staircase of the spectacular cathedral to look out over the city at sunset.

Arriving in Florence was another jump in the time machine, this time to the high Renaissance. It’s beautiful, and also easier to walk in. And the old part of the city thrummed with people. We did the famous churches and museums, including the Duomo, the Uffizi,the Accademia, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novello, and San Marco. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio at sunset and sipped wine at an outdoor table at Piazza de Signoria. What a beautiful place! We agreed that Florence goes on the list of our favorite cities.