The Casual Blog

Tag: wildflowers

The beautiful Blue Ridge, and our racism, continued

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Last week I went to the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains  of western North Carolina, where I took a photography workshop with Les and Janet Saucier.  The main subject was macro photography, and we shot a lot of wildflowers. We also did some vistas off the Parkway and a particularly gorgeous waterfall called Eastatoe.  I was standing in ankle deep in chilly water for my waterfall shots, and it was totally worth it.  

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Les and Janet were good teachers.  Les had a kind of zen master vibe — not saying too much, but somehow making us look and think harder.  We shot in some tough conditions at times, including rain and wind, which Les encouraged us to appreciate as opportunities for new perspectives.  

To find macro subjects, he advised that we pay attention to what caught our eye and made us feel something.  This mapped well onto my mindfulness meditation practice, part of which involves learning to pay better attention to what’s going on in your head and heart.  

 

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I did one hike on my own from the Parkway up to the top of Mount Pisgah.  It turned out to be steeper and longer than expected, and I was in quite a lather when I got to the top.  There was a good view of the mountains and valleys, as well as a plug ugly communications equipment tower.  

Just as I started back down the trail, I heard a loud thunder clap, and soon after it started to rain.  I’d brought my trusty Nikon D850 camera, but no rain gear, and I was very worried that the camera would get damaged.  I put it under my sweaty tee shirt and scurried downward. Fortunately, it didn’t rain too hard, and my beloved D850 weathered the storm.  

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Along with a lot of natural beauty, from our beaches to our  mountains, North Carolina has some old and stubborn problems.  While I was at the workshop in Brevard, Trump held a rally in Greenville, NC, where the ralliers chanted “Send her back.” The code wasn’t hard to decipher:  they were saying this country is for white people, and minorities and women who get uppity will not be tolerated. This is ugly, ignorant, and sad, but also interesting.  It could serve as a kind of an acid test for just how racist a country we are now.  

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Jamelle Bouie wrote a perceptive essay in the NY Times about how our racial caste system has historically used public violence, including lynchings, to intimidate minorities, which at the same time reinforces the concept of white supremacy.   Trump’s rallies aren’t lynchings, of course, but the threat of violence at his rallies keeps getting more obvious.  Bouie highlights how such raucous gatherings not only scare minorities but also build a sense of white supremacist community.  For these folks, expressing high intensity hate involves ecstatic joy, as the crowd feels united against the Other and reaffirmed in their traditional white identity.

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This is pathetic and ignorant, but it’s exciting, at least for a particular subpopulation.  Trump appears to have made a judgment that scapegoating minorities with raucous circuses will distract from his personal and policy shortcomings, like his incompetence,  dishonesty, cruelty, and corruption;  his failure to deliver on most of his promised domestic programs; his stupid and dangerous blundering in international relations; and his driving us headlong towards environmental catastrophe.   

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Here in North Carolina, there’s no denying that we’ve got some 100-proof racists, who truly hate black people, and who believe that white people are both superior and wronged victims.  We’ve also got a lot of people who are appalled at such notions and are committed to the values of tolerance, diversity, and equality.  And there are many people, including some of us who support racial justice, who also carry around a strain of subtle racism that they don’t even realize they’ve got.  

American racism is  part of the air we breathe, and those accustomed to white privilege can go for periods without even noticing it.  One good thing about Trump and his true believers is that their bold expressions of hate make it harder to ignore. They should make us less complacent, and inspire us to be more honest in recognizing and fixing our own prejudices.  And they should make us take a closer look at our politicians to see which are aligned with our better angels for a fairer, more just society, and for those who are not, stop playing footsie and firmly give them the boot.  

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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.     

My trip to Grandfather Mountain

 

A blackberry flower at Grandfather Mountain

Our mountains in  western North Carolina aren’t especially imposing, compared to the Rockies or the Alps, but there’s something moving about them.  They roll out to the horizon in waves, covered with thick forests, and topped in places with jagged cliffs and wildflowers,  They’re full of life and, for me, memories of long ago summer camps and family vacations.  

This weekend I went to Grandfather Mountain for its annual photography weekend, a gathering of perhaps 100 photographers with several lectures on techniques and time to hike about and take pictures.  

I’d always thought of Grandfather Mountain as kind of a tourist trap.  Though relatively large for the neighborhood at 5,945 feet, it isn’t much more beautiful than its surrounding mountains that don’t have names and charge admission  I always had imagined it as overrun with tourists, and so had never visited it before this weekend.

It was a big mistake to disrespect Grandfather Mountain, and I promise to never do so again. I had more fun than I expected, but also had a somewhat harrowing episode due mostly to my hubris and lack of preparation.  

I started my visit at the mile-high Swinging Bridge, a suspension footbridge that you must see if you’re there, just as if you go to Paris you must see the Eiffel Tower,  It was windy, and the bridge was squeaky, but not terrifying.  On the other side there were rocks to climb on and pretty vistas.  The red rhododendrun were in bloom, along with other wildflowers.

After doing the Swinging Bridge, I noted that that was a trailhead close by for Grandfather Trail, which was described on the sign as “advanced.” This was catnip to me, and off I strode.  In retrospect, I should have planned better for equipment (including warmer clothing and a map) and provisions (like water and food).  Once I got a good look at McCrae Peak, I wanted to climb it, and after pressing on for another hour, I mounted the various ladders and guide ropes up the rocks and saw a  beautiful vista.  

But I got lost on the way back.  The hiking was rugged, over rocks and boulders, requiring careful placement of each foot for each irregular step, and lots of hoisting up and lowering down.  There were almost no other people around.   I never had a fall, but I got some bruises on my legs, and a little bloody when I banged my hand on a rock, and a blister on my big toe.  

I got cold and thirsty and hungry.  Happily, I did not get leg tired — my early morning gym workouts, with all those squats, lunges, and step ups, paid off.  But I started to get a bit anxious by 5:00, and worried about whether I would have to break the rule about getting to your car 6:00.  I even started thinking about spending the night with the bears  Obviously, I survived, but it took almost 6 hours of hard hiking.  

The photography lectures were at a good level for me, and I learned a lot.  I decided to enter one of my shots in the competition.  It turned out that there were many highly skilled photographers competing, but after looking at some of the work, I thought I was competitive in the wildflower category.

 As the winners were announced, I thought my blackberry flower (the first one above) was stronger than the honorable mention.  It also seemed stronger than than the third place finisher, and the second place.  So for a second I thought I was going to win it all!  But  no, I didn’t, though I still liked mine quite well.  

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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