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Non-podcasts

News Pause

One of the benefits of “getting away from it all” is the blessed respite from news. Given the political situation these day I suppose that’s a rather risky proposition since the government is now based on presidential moods rather than any kind of policy or strategy. I worried as I got onto the plane home whether regulations might have changed when I was in the air and whether I’d be landing in the same country as the one from which I’d taken off. Maybe it was more than just time zones that we were changing. Being a child of the ‘60s I couldn’t help thinking about the Twilight Zone—getting onto a plane and then something happens. Quite a few episodes deal with that theme. Only now it’s real time. Real fear.

I have to wonder about the impact of constant news. Since November I’ve been obsessed with frequent updates—scanning headlines for any sign of hope that what began as a joke might have finally reached its punchline. Instead, the press has fallen into normalizing Trump, writing and reporting as if this is what happens in a democracy. It should be illegal to elect a dictator. It’s one of those logical conundrums, but it is a real one. Democracy shouldn’t be just those people who feel like they should getting out to vote. It should be a legal obligation. We know that if votes were counted straight up Trump could not have won the election. Since politicians like to play games we now live in the Twilight Zone of government. Every day Trump is allowed to remain in office the more credibility in government erodes. The knock-on effect will continue for years.

Since stepping off that plane I’ve been wondering what has changed over the past week. Has some basic fact of life been overturned by a presidential temper tantrum? Is what I’m doing now illegal? Has a horse been made a senator? Anything is possible. When I last paid attention it seemed we were well on our way to becoming the United States of Russia. I’m afraid to look at the headlines. The glow of getting away from it all hasn’t faded yet. It’s a hazy, dreamy reality that makes government seem like a bad dream. What would happen if they privatized air traffic control when I was in the air? The results are just to scary to contemplate. I think I need a vacation.

Fishy Business

There’s bound to be a logical explanation for how it got there. After all, this is private property and people have been here all day long. Somebody would have noticed if fishermen had stomped up this boardwalk, dropping their catch along the way. There’s no place to dock a boat. And yet here it is in all its Fortean glory. A fish out of water. Literally. It’s a perch, I think. About eight inches long. Forty yards from the nearest water. Other than the flies all over it, it looks in good shape. As if it were out for a swim in the dry air and lost its way back to the nearby lake. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation, but I can’t help but think of Charles Fort and his witty takedown of conventional reasoning.

In addition to fish, this lake also hosts ospreys and bald eagles. Just yesterday morning I saw one flapping above the water looking for breakfast. And one of my relatives saw an eagle struggling with a fish the other day—an issue of maintaining air-speed velocity when fully laden, I think—only to have to catch and release. Could that have happened twice? Raptor drops the slippery, heavy fish and can’t fit under the pine trees with that wingspan to pick the thing up. Possibly. It’s not the most fun explanation, but it will do when logic’s non-negotiable.

Charles Fort, the great anomalist, is perhaps most famous for his irrepressible insistence that rains of fish had a more exotic explanation than a tornado sucking them up only to drop them far from water. In his puckish way, he wrote how such “damned facts” were explained away by convention. Fort liked to hold the door open for the wider possibilities. Meanwhile we’re stuck here with the unarguable reality that there’s a dead fish by the boardwalk, far from water and a logic that makes me ask, if it fell from a bird’s talons why does it look so perfect? No twigs or pine needles picked up from its heavenly plummet. No obvious injuries to its piscine flesh. Even had some disgruntled fisherman rowed up unobserved and flung a perch as far as he could, the thing would’ve had to’ve had quite a spiral on it to’ve made it this far from the lakeshore. Science works by sweeping the facts outside the norm off the table. I’m not saying there’s anything paranormal about this fish, I’m just wondering what Fort would’ve made of it, beyond a free lunch.

No Place to Hyde

“I was driven to reflect deeply and inveterately on that hard law of life, which lies at the root of religion and is one of the most plentiful springs of distress.” These words occur near the beginning of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s confession, the very manuscript that closes Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Upon reading the book, along with the preface and afterword clearly meant to pad out the thin volume, I realized that I was not alone in having known the story all my life but never having read it. Western culture is steeped in the idea like so much strong English tea. The story of the divided self. The eternal question of who I really am. Like Frankenstein’s creature, Jekyll and Hyde found immediate resonance in the pantheon of monsters. Here was something with which we could all identify, but which we all would deny. Or would we?

Jekyll notes that the root of religion—proper behavior, moral living—is a source of distress. And this before the era of Nones and non-believers. Religion has that reputation. “Be good or else!” Or fire insurance, as some call it. Religion, in the popular imagination, isn’t so much about sublimity any more. Or transcendence. Somewhere along the way it got fixated at about the level of our genitals and what we should never, ever do with them. Hyde’s sins, as commentators frequently note, are anything but explicit. He tramples a young girl and kills an old man. Beyond that we know nothing of his monstrosity. Is it so hard to believe the restraint concerns his sexuality? After all, his friend Utterson—well, Jekyll’s friend Utterson—enjoys his wine. Both respectable men seem to have hearty appetites. Apart from violence, what other dissipation is there?

Like many first-time readers I can’t recall how I first learned of the mad scientist and even madder thug that make up the namesake of this story. For some reason I never made—even remotely—a religious connection with it. It was a monster story, after all. Innocent fun for a Saturday afternoon. The experience of reading the book was a bit more jarring than that. Jekyll’s confession isn’t exactly easy to read. It is like going to the confessional with the curtain drawn and all the lights on. And yes, the implications are religious after all. It is a little book with a big point to make.

Berrying Perspective

Two people looking at the same thing see something different. Since we’re living with a government of distorted perspective this truth appears refreshed daily. I was reminded of this while picking huckleberries. Huckleberries, according to the local edible berry guide, are called many different things. In this part of the country you know them when you see them. And if you see them you pick them. They appeal to the frustrated hunter-gatherer left in us city-dwellers. As I was trying my best to fill my bucket, I kept thinking of those who only see nature’s bounty as a means of turning a profit. In my mind they’re meanies—those who take all the fun out of the few freedoms we have left—although I realize that it’s a matter of perspective. Consider the huckleberry.

I’m a mere seasonal visitor to these parts. Since not too many of my own species make this location their permanent domicile, that’s perfectly natural. Many of the berry pickers I’ve encountered have been seasonal guests as well. There are the more “industrial” pickers, though. In a good year huckleberries can command fifty dollars a gallon on the local market. Unless you know an unfrequented secret site, a gallon can take several hours to pick even in a promising location. Overall, you need to arrive before anyone else and get the most productive bushes so that you don’t have to wander around the mountainside in search of a more lucrative locale. Not to mention that, like most berries, they have a limited shelf life. Nature prefers sharers to hoarders.

While I’m picking I generally think of bears. Unlike my species they don’t have the grocery store option. These berries are their survival, I suppose. Nature does provide. That’s how evolution works—we form symbiotic relationships with our environment. The meanies, however, can’t see beyond the self. What nature provides must be accumulated for my own benefit and not that of others. There are never enough huckleberries to go around, the industrial mind thinks, and so I’d better control the availability and set my price. You don’t even have to like huckleberries to do it. Ironically we call this having a gift. Standing here on this isolated mountainside, bent over a bush offering nature’s abundance, I believe that I’ve found a gift. I have to remind myself, however, that this too is a matter of perspective. It is a perspective that tastes right to me.

The Unliving

Western Pennsylvania, from which I hail, has few claims to fame. One, still largely forgotten, is that it was the birthplace of the petroleum industry. Remains of the early exploitation of the fossil fuel still lie scattered carelessly in the woods. Another claim to fame is that the region was the adopted home of George Romero and served as the setting for his groundbreaking film, Night of the Living Dead. Unintentionally, Romero created what continues to shamble on in the form of the modern zombie. Although the movie doesn’t call the living dead “zombies,” it established the trope of their endless hunger for human flesh and their rabid bite. So it was with sadness that I read of Romero’s death a couple of days ago. Although he wasn’t from Pittsburgh, he established the city as zombie central. It’s nice that he gave something back.

Zombies have, due to their protean nature, become a fixture among the monster constellations. They represent the worst of what people can be—selfish and brainless, without empathy, their own cravings being the only matters of importance to them. Sounds kind of like the Republican Party. The rest of the world calls them monsters. Night of the Living Dead shocked audiences of the late 1960s with its graphic portrayal of cannibalism and thoughtless destruction. Interestingly, the choice of a strong African American lead for the movie was, according to interviews with Romero, simply a matter of his being the best actor, not an intentional racial statement. (That too reminded me of western Pennsylvania; there were racial tensions where I grew up, but many of us befriended those who were “different” without any clue that it should matter at all.) Duane Jones carried off the role of Ben with conviction and energy. He died young but he never became a zombie.

To make an impact intention need not be present. While Romero denied for the rest of his life that the movie was “about” the Vietnam War, and that his choice of a black lead was a racial statement, both of these factors became facts about the film. Concepts, in other words, like zombies, may rise from the dead. Beyond the shock and gore, the movie made a powerful, if unintentional, statement. It helped to define Romero’s future career. A success in a difficult industry may indeed decide one’s fate. George Romero would go on to make many other monster movies. Western Pennsylvania would become a zombie haven. You never know what you might find scattered about in those forgotten woods of your childhood home.

Nature Watching

Whenever I travel in the northwest, I keep an eye open for what one colleague calls “charismatic megafauna.” You know, the big animals that are so rare to see that they develop a charming, if imaginary, persona. Not that I’ve ever seen much of it here. It’s rarity is part of the charm. My usual hope is to see a moose—something that happens every three or four years. Black bears are even rarer. Grizzly bears, which still inhabit this area, and mountain lions I’ve never seen. I know they’re there, but their agenda is not to be seen. My first full day here I was sitting outside working on an academic paper. My time off work is rare, and when I get a moment, even in the wilderness, I try hard not to waste it. I had the feeling of being watched. Not the creepy kind of feeling, but the kind where you think an animal might be keeping a wary eye on you.

I looked over the top of my book. Several yards distant I could see a head bobbing up and down. Then I noticed a black patch on a nearby lodgepole pine. It took a few seconds for the red head to register. A mated pair of pileated woodpeckers. Not exactly huge, but they are large birds. And since they are the personality behind Woody Woodpecker, well, I guess you can call that charismatic. Charismatic enough for me to put down my Ugaritic mythology and go inside to fetch a camera. Of course they were gone by the time I’d returned. I decided to take a walk down the track in a vain hope of finding them again. Once in a while charismatic megafauna cooperate. There they were, one going after ants on the ground, the other perched above pecking wood.

Most of our large fauna we’ve driven to near extinction. Humans can’t stand not to be the biggest thing around. The megafauna remain, however, hidden though they may be. An online site for this area posted a photo of a cougar snapped last summer. I’m not sure when the last time a grizzly might’ve wandered down from Canada, but since last November I’m not sure why they’d even bother. Even the moose seem coy. Animals don’t do what we want them to do. Those that we can’t domesticate follow their own agendas and calendars we can’t hope to comprehend. As they flap away I can swear these woodpeckers are laughing at me.

Photographic Evidence

All photographs are lies. That moment preserved, formerly on celluloid but now with electrons, is gone for good as soon as the shutter is snapped. The camera doesn’t see as the eye sees. I was reminded of this during a mountain thunderstorm. I awoke early, coated with jet lag and the residue of my regular early morning schedule. It was still dark, but the reddish sunlight soon wrestled through a valley fed by a creek across the lake. The color was impressive, but my camera washed it out to a diluted Creamsicle orange. In reality the clouds were roiling overhead and lightning was streaking through a thunderhead like synapses firing violently in a massive brain. Thunder in the mountains can’t be photographed. Nor can it be forgot.

My work used to require quite a bit of travel. Before I would visit a campus I would spend some time on faculty pages, trying to put faces together with names. Impressed with how young these professors were, I’d knock on doors armed with foreknowledge of who might greet me. I wondered who these older people were when the door actually opened. It’s disconcerting to see someone age before your eyes. I would think back to the photographs online that had assured me this person would be much younger. The picture was a fossil. A moment frozen in time. The very next second after the photo capture that smiling face had changed. The best that we can hope for is a gross approximation.

Perceptions of reality, as all religions teach us, contain a healthy dose of illusion. While it contains ethereal beauty, this vision I’ve captured in my lens is only part of the picture. There is something deeper, more meaningful behind it. Photographs enhance memory. In the days before Photoshop they could be submitted as proof of an occurrence. They are a form of art. Whatever else they may be, they are also lies. Lies need not be of evil intent. Religions try to explain what some privileged individual realized was the truth. These who found a way of looking behind the photograph. The streaking lightning outside evades the slowness of my finger on the button. The thunder rolling and re-echoing through these valleys will remain in my head long after the sound waves cease to reverberate. Reality is more than it seems. Even my experience of this mountain thunderstorm is that of a single individual seeking enlightenment. Elsewhere others are up early, observing it too. What they experience may be something very different from me indeed. I have a photograph to prove it.