Same Field, Different Year

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Field near my house.

Field near my house, same view as the one in the previous blog.

Same view from the same spot, different autumn. I had to hustle down the road to get this image today because I saw the guy with the tractor out there getting ready to give the field its seasonal haircut. There must be a good reason for erasing all this stunning beauty. Given time I’m sure I’ll figure it out. I hope not. Anyway, it got me thinking….

In fiction writing, some waggish observers will tell you, there exist only X number of plots (that number varies, but the concept remains the same). In other words, same storyline, different characters/situation. In the movie business that certainly seems the case, as stories are continuously recycled to be regurgitated onto home video in a seemingly endless cycle of inanity. Though at times something good accidentally comes of it.

I remember reading The Hours in grad school and feeling increasingly irritated, especially considering that the tale, much of which was lifted directly from another story, garnered a 1999 Pulitzer for the author. This was in many ways a recasting, for the AIDS era, of Virginia Woolf’s great tale of high-society angst, Mrs. Dalloway.

So why was I bothered that someone would snag a classic tale and cobble it into another? I had recently read the original, admired it greatly, and felt a bit indignant that a writer (noble souls all…) would basically lift that icon of a story, reshape it, add new stuff, and call it original. Even though the writer, Michael Cunningham, was actually quite straightforward about his novel being an “homage” to Woolf’s work. And The Hours was pretty damned good. So maybe I should lighten up. But you’re not supposed to lighten up in blogs, right? You’re supposed to inflame, to agitate. Is that right? Am I doing this right?

Wow. I just had it both ways….

Robert Bly sketches out a somewhat parallel concept when he describes his notion of one brand of storytelling, insisting that every successful epic hero tale involves a process that is ancient and quintessentially human: there are defined steps in the hero’s journey, beginning with complacency and comfort and moving into denial and then to grudging acceptance, followed by gradual mastery and self-discovery and, eventually, triumph.

Is Bly’s rather rigid plotline so different from re-using the “beats” of a thousand existing stories? (Sure it is, you say, but I wasn’t asking you in particular, because you’ve already decided). I’ve heard there’s a script recipe widely used in Hollywood that involves plotting out each move, each change, each scene, each step, down to the page, to the minute (hero does this, then that, then on page 14 she loses hope, then there’s a shift on page 15 -1/2….)—that, if followed, guarantees! success. Is that essentially the same process?

Of course, we don’t expect Hollywood to be our arbiter of ethics or original thinking. Or do we? I sometimes wonder if the film industry, money-obsessed and so often creatively bereft, hasn’t somehow tainted the minds of otherwise original writers to the point that they honestly believe the blatant cadging of others’ ideas is a legitimate way to do creative business.

Do you have an opinion on this?

Mrs. Dalloway still resonates nearly a century later not only as a prominent artifact of an experimental movement to plumb the depths of the stream of consciousness approach, but as a reflection of the way we careen toward our tragic fates in our disjointed, rambling, in-the-moment ways, stumbling insensate with our choices to carry us through what is an essentially senseless world, making random turns and eventually suffering our wretched fates apparently at the whim of unknowable gods and/or hyper-controlling imps who laugh at us from on high, or low.

Or maybe that’s just me.

And The Hours resonates, too. So what do you think? Are there only X number of plots? Did Shakespeare really gobble up all the stories? Is it okay to take a tale, rewrite it with different characters, and sell it on the square? Is it cool to sample a Beatles song for your rap symphony? Maybe you can clear all this up. I’m obviously confused.

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In the Neighborhood

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A field of Bee Plants near my N. AZ home.

A field of Bee Plants near my N. AZ home just beyond the line of houses. Not so evident: a wildfire a few years ago scarred much of the (visible) east face of the mountains in the background, which are sacred to area tribes. The fire stripped the slopes of Ponderosa Pine and launched a multi-decade succession process that begins with aspen and scrub growth. Scarred, but still beautiful.

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Habit-Forming

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Tufted Flycatcher.

Tufted Flycatcher.

They say (and they definitely know) it takes several weeks of doing something to make it a habit. I guess that implies that not doing something for several weeks will a) also create a new habit or b) undo an established habit. This is my cerebral way of saying, “sorry” for getting away from posting for so long. It’s so easy to just not.

On the other hand, I have been dieting, if I may share that personal detail with friends and strangers. I’ve lost 30 pounds over the past 3 months. Loving it. I didn’t really need the extra pounds–like carrying a huge lens around and never taking a photo with it. Feeling good and fit these days. But I figure if I’d been blogging that whole time, all the finger action would have meant I’d have lost 40 pounds. So…my loss/gain.

Enough of this. Just talking to make a blog. Apologies. Please don’t stop reading.

Above is a bird I found a few weeks ago (with extensive help from the Arizona New Mexico online birding list, on which its initial sighting and many more thereafter were noted). It’s a Tufted Flycatcher, a little guy who lives in the mountains of Mexico and has only been seen in the US a few times. I found this guy/gal after an intense 2-mile hike into Ramsey Canyon in southern Arizona. Turns out this was one of a pair nesting up there in the tall trees. Advantages of climate change, I suppose.

It was a good hike, and a wonderful preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy. A stunning piece of nature, with bears. Saw a bear right off the trail about 30 feet away, minding its own business when I walked up on it. Got two shots before the camera battery died, then, as I fumbled to get the other camera, I started thinking, “I’m gonna dig in my bag and look up and that bear is going to be in my face.” So I gently said, “I’m over here.” The bear looked up and ran for its savage life. Glad it wasn’t Alaska.

"Cinnamon" black bear, Ramsey Canyon AZ, 6-15.

“Cinnamon” black bear, Ramsey Canyon AZ, 6-15.

The novel continues, still in revision but getting there. I’ll have it soon and hope when it’s out you’ll take a look. Meanwhile, I fully intend to get back to this travel-fiction writing-photography-art blog more faithfully. Been on the road a lot since the last time we visited, to Michigan, Ohio, S. Arizona, the Sierras, and some other places. Lots to share. Will post. Please stop back by soon.

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A Tourist at the Revolution

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Close to 100,000 people gathered on the Zocalo on Nov. 20, but this time not so much to celebrate Dia de la Revolution as to protest their government's callousness and inaction on the murders of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, and their lack of action on the plague of cartel violence that has cursed their nation.

About 100,000 people gathered on Mexico City’s main plaza on Nov. 20, but this time not so much to celebrate the yearly Dia de la Revolución as to protest what many see as government inaction after the murders of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, and the plague of cartel violence that continues to curse their nation.

Not quite a revolution, really, but people I spoke with on the street in Mexico City said, “It could turn into one.” I was there doing some final research on my next novel (first draft finished, now revising!) and got caught up in this amazing series of events.

The protests took place on Dia de la Revolución, Nov. 20, when people gathered to express their outrage over the 43 murdered students in Guerrero—they’re fed up with the cartels, the corruption, and their sense the govt. is doing little to nothing to change things. Here are some photos of several protests, one on the streets, one by students in Santo Domingo Plaza, then the main event: 100,000 people on the main square (zocalo), with speakers denouncing the violence, including families of the victims, federal riot police moving in, clearing the square, and one of many monuments to the victims.

I felt hugely privileged to witness and take part in this. The people of Mexico believe in and demand true democracy despite all the efforts to steal it from them. They’re fearless, and I can hardly express the depth of my admiration for them.

A first wave of protests in the centro historico, heading for the main plaza.

A first wave of protests in the centro historico, heading for the main plaza.

More protestors commanding the downtown streets.

More protestors commanding the downtown streets.

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Students from many of the politically engaged polytecnicas mounted their own protest at the Education Secretary's building.

Students from many of Mexico City’s politically active politecnicos mounted their own protest at the Education Secretary’s building.

Mama, I went to defend my people. If I don't return, you know where I am.

Mama, I went to defend my people. If I don’t return, you know where I am.

Students built a wall blocking the Ed. Secretary's door to express their grievances.

Students built a wall blocking the Ed. Secretary’s door to express their grievances.

On a platform that stood in front of the National Palace, speakers and family members exhorted the people to stay engaged, the govt. to do something, and, in heartbreaking voices, to return them their children.

On a platform erected in front of the National Palace, speakers and family members exhorted the people to stay engaged and for the government to act. In heartbreaking voices, family members begged for whomever abducted their children to let them go.

Grieving the violence that has savaged their country.

Grieving the student massacre and the violence that has savaged their nation.

Genocide against anyone, anywhere, is a crime against us all.

Genocide against anyone anywhere is a crime against all of humanity.

Less solemn but also a powerful statement. This one tells Pres. Pena Nieto what he can do with his "reforms."

Less solemn but also a powerful statement. This visual pun taunts Pres. Pena Nieto, instructing him on what he can do with his “reforms.”

A tribute artist dons Zapata gear and carries a cross-shaped sign expressing his anger for inaction and corruption.

A tribute artist dons Zapata gear and carries a cross-shaped sign expressing his anger over inaction, corruption and repression.

I felt nothing but admiration for the people of Mexico who came here, knowing the police were poised to shut this thing down.

I feel nothing but admiration for the people of Mexico who came here, knowing the police were poised to shut this thing down.

And they were. Here, hundreds of riot police wait for their signal.

And they were. Here, hundreds of riot police wait for their signal. This group, which runs back nearly a hundred yards, is only a portion of the total number of police who invaded the square.

When that signal came, they swept into the plaza, battling "anarchists" who confronted them with bottles, sticks and fists. They cleared the square of most all the 100,000 protestors in less than 10 minutes.

When the signal came, they swept into the plaza, battling “anarchists” who confronted them with bottles, sticks and fists. They cleared the square of most all the 100,000 protestors in less than 10 minutes. Nearly everyone in this image is a federal or city police officer.

An ironic view of the scene: Riot cops putting down a lawful protest as the LED images of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa look on.

An ironic view of the scene: Riot cops putting down a democratic protest as the LED images of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa look on.

A shrine to the 43 dead students and the sense that the Mexican government is callous, at best, to the needs of the people.

A shrine to the 43 dead students and an expression of the widespread belief that the Mexican government is callous, at best, to the needs of the people.

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Stay Tuned

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Hello. I know it’s been awhile, and I’m sorry to be slacking, but I’m not, really. I’ve been in Mexico City, and once again I’ve been having trouble loading photos from an iPad to the blog. Please check back soon. I’ll have a ton of stuff to share with you from the trip: ancient history, revolution, art, culture, food…hope to see you in a few days.

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The Art of Equipoise

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Michale Grab stands behind one of his gravity-only stone sculptures. Flagstaff Square, Sept. 2014.

Michael Grab stands behind one of his gravity-defying stone sculptures. Flagstaff Square, Sept. 2014.

In late September I happened on a rock star. Rock star….heh, bet he never heard that one before. This is Michael Grab, an accomplished member of a small collective of Zen-ish artists known as “stone balancers.” Yes, there is a job called Stone Balancer, and this is what stone balancers do—they stack rocks in unlikely ways that make people say, “Wow, would you look at those rocks, stacked up like that!”Mgrab2

I’m convinced there is a true and viable place in the world for stone balancers. We need more stone balancers, I think, especially if it means fewer buyout artists and people with epaulets on the shoulders of their jackets. Watching Michael as he… focused…only…on…the…stone…to create these ephemeral wonders made me forget for a moment what a hurry I was in. I suspect reactions like mine are a big reason he does what he does.

I was especially touched to watch his face when, with the slightest breeze, the sculpture he’d spent so much time perfecting collapsed in a gnashing heap. To me it felt kind of like election night 2004. But Michael is tuned to a more elemental rhythm. He didn’t so much as grimace. He just smiled gently to himself, then to his audience, and then he started gathering up rocks for another meditation.

You can see more of Michael’s work and philosophy at gravityglue.com.

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Sweeping Vision

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North wall of Sainte Chappelle Cathedral in Paris. Finished in 1248 c.e., the towering walls of this spectacular church are constructed almost entirely of stained glass.

North wall of Sainte-Chappelle in Paris. Finished in 1248 c.e., the towering walls of this spectacular church are constructed almost entirely of stained glass. Image is distorted by use of panoramic function; the wall is actually linear.

Time to get back to the topic of writing, which I admit I’ve neglected for awhile. I was going through some photos recently and happened on a folder filled with panoramic images from various places and times. For me each image holds powerful memories. The images got me thinking about perspective in fiction. That brought me to John Steinbeck, master of perspective and a long-time favorite of mine.

Coconino County Fair midway, northern AZ.

Coconino County Fair midway, northern AZ.

Steinbeck never skimped on setting, and they were often as powerful an element as the people and themes he explored. Many times he launched his tales from the broadest possible view: the geographic sweep of a region, down to a valley and its rolling green hills, off again to mountains jutting on the distant horizon. His settings served almost as “characters” in the epic tales he told, the body of which would earn him the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature.

View of the crowd at the Globe Theatre, London, June 2013. Fun fact: Standing by the stage, obscured here by other groundlings, was Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Records/Airlines and numerous other adventures.

View of the crowd at the Globe Theatre, London, June 2013.

Here’s the opening to East of Eden:

“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

     I remember my childhood names for the grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

   I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother.”

Much of this three-paragraph opening carries an essay-like tone, the approach a naturalist like Annie Dillard might take. Steinbeck’s story-spinning magic is subtle, hypnotic: As he describes geography and natural history he is also assuring you, the reader, that the people and places he will describe for you are as real as the land you inhabit and the life you live. He accomplishes that task in a simple, brilliant way, by telling you, “I remember everything, down to the smallest details.”

Panoramic view of a portion of Grand Canyon from the South Rim.

Panoramic view of a portion of Grand Canyon from the South Rim.

After he gains your trust as an astute observer, he draws theme into the mix, describing the Gabilan Mountains, noting their far-off beauty and allure, a magnetic pull that beckons on an almost cellular level. This narrator, who remembers everything, thus sets the stage for a sweeping, biblically inspired tale of good and evil, exile of the heart, freedom of choice, fall from grace and individual redemption.

Low Rider, Flagstaff AZ.

Low Rider, Flagstaff AZ. This image is not technically a panoramic as it’s cropped rather than shot in panoramic format, though it does have some of the feel of one. And it’s a cool image, I think.

Napoleon's Tomb, Paris.

Napoleon’s Tomb, Paris.

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Beauty in Ruins

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Lomaki Ruin, Wupatki National Monument, N. Arizona.

Lomaki Ruin complex, Wupatki National Monument, N. Arizona.

Wupatki National Monument lies just twenty minutes up the road from my house, and the place keeps calling me back, as it did on a recent morning. The tail end of monsoon rains in the West bring cloud formations that lie stark against blazing blue skies and seem at times solid enough to touch. Such a waste to just let them blow by without recording some of their ephemeral beauty.

Of course, the complex of 900-year-old Ancestral Pueblo ruins here is a landscape photographer’s dream in any season. Like a fiction writer who returns again and again to the same theme—lost innocence, the impossibility of true union, Maurice’s pompousness of love—a dedicated photographer could make a life’s work of this stunning landscape. Here are a few images I was graced with during my recent visit.

Lomaki Ruin, Wupatki National Monument, N. Arizona.

Lomaki Ruin, Wupatki National Monument, N. Arizona.

Lomaki Ruin, Wupatki National Monument, N. Arizona.

Lomaki Ruin, Wupatki National Monument, N. Arizona.

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Choose Your Poison

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Couch's Spadefoot, Southern AZ, 2014.

Couch’s Spadefoot, Southern AZ, 2014. I learned more than I wanted to know about this guy’s toxic properties years ago, when I handled a few on a desolate Texas road. Twenty minutes of gasping for breath until I regained equilibrium. The experience definitely taught me to respect their personal space.

The desert is a world of rarified beauty. It can also be a tough place to stay alive—everyone seems to want to eat each other. Desert inhabitants employ a variety of survival strategies to keep from getting et, among them camouflage, flocking, running as fast as possible, and mimicking more-dangerous species—several nonpoisonous snakes resemble Coral Snakes, for example, and Gopher Snakes and other species buzz their tails in leaves to mimic rattlers.

Some have evolved to be the Lucrezia Borgi of the realm, using poison as a defense, though often incidentally to it being used for other purposes, like homicide & digestion. Here are a few examples of toxic desert denizens.

A diamondback, sizing you up.

A Diamondback, sizing you up. Note the flattening of its body—it’s soaking up the lingering road heat on a cool desert night. Sonoran Desert, Sept. 2014.

Giant Crab Spider (approx. 5" total diameter). Sonoran Desert, AZ, 2014.

Giant Crab Spider, Sonoran Desert, AZ, 2014. Not dangerous to humans, though a bite would certainly make you think twice about hanging on. This guy, measuring close to 5″ from toe to toe, feeds on insects, baby mice, and whatever else it can snag. Has likely caused more heart attacks than allergic reactions to its bite. Its best defense is probably staying low and out of sight—I’m sure in some circles it’s considered a delicacy.

Sonoran Desert Toad, southern AZ, 2014. In the 70s there was a toad-licking craze, allegedly as a pathway to psychedelia. Never licked a toad. I mean, look at this guy. In the quest for enlightenment, I'll only take things so far.

Sonoran Desert Toad, southern AZ, 2014. In the 70s there was a toad-licking craze, allegedly a pathway to psychedelia. Never licked a toad. I mean, look at ’em.

Black-tailed Rattlesnake. This is gonna hurt.

Black-tailed Rattlesnake. That’s gonna hurt. Few other creatures want a piece of this guy, though I’ve been told there’s good eatin’ on a Blacktail. Something like half their bites can be “dry,” with no venom injected. Hawks nab a few, along with raccoons, nimble coyotes and other brave and hungry souls. Myself, I stick with a longish lens.

Gila Monster, southern AZ, 200?. Neurotoxic and potentially lethal, but there are few if any deaths recorded. Maybe its looks and ferocious aggression display serve to discourage folks from getting too curious. Hurts like fire and won't let go without the help of a crowbar. I actually known someone who got nipped by one; his skin got numb and he felt "funny" for awhile.

Gila Monster, southern AZ, mid-2000s. Neurotoxic and potentially lethal, few if any deaths have been pinned on this guy. Maybe its snarly looks and ferocious aggression display serve to discourage folks from getting too curious. I know someone who got mildly nipped by one. His skin got numb and he felt “funny” for awhile. But he did live to tell the tale.

I don’t have a photo handy of a pest control guy with a canister and a nozzle, or a crop-duster sweeping low over a field of desert cotton. Such an image would fit well here to depict the ultimate desert poisoner, humankind. Defensive? That could be debated (literally) ad nauseam.

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