Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Hatchling Season

While driving a busy thoroughfare last week, I saw an oncoming delivery truck straddle both lanes and stop, purposely blocking all traffic behind it. The driver jumped out and herded a mother mallard, with her half dozen or so ducklings, across the street to safety. Horns beeped in tribute to the deliveryman's husbandry.

This is the hatchling season. We are reminded of that by pictures of threatened rookeries on gulf islands. Brown Pelicans are Louisiana's state birds. DDT almost made them extinct, but they have recovered and were taken off the endangered species list just last November. Now they are imperiled again as oil mires their plumage and washes onto their eggs.

Each hatchling is fed about 150 pounds of fish, shellfish, and amphibians, before it can fend for itself. When birds dive, their eyes are protected only by a nictiating membrane so that they may see their prey. Many have gone blind after diving into polluted or infected waters.

Pelicans can live in the wild up to 30 years. Whether their environment has been ruined, and whether that ruin is permanent, might remain an open question for decades.

Brown Pelican, watercolor by John James Audubon. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Advice From Sundry Sources

Abraham Maslow, the man who codified our hierarchy of needs, is credited with an important witticism: "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." It is a good answer to idealogues such as the new Republican candidate for senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul.

Dr. Paul has been bloodied in interviews, following his victory last Tuesday, for his libertarian views of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and of minimum wage, and for his denunciation of the Obama administration for criticizing BP during the environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. It seems that for Libertarians, as for the Antinominians of old, belief in the right dogmas relieves us of duty to our fellow man and to the earth we share.

Perhaps Rand fortifies himself with Ralph Waldo Emerson's observations that "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist," and "To be great is to be misunderstood." However, Emerson also wrote: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

This morning, Rand did the unthinkable: he backed out of an appearance on Meet the Press, potentially a major forum from which to expound his creed. I hope it was the advice of Dirty Harry that finally penetrated: "A man ought to know his limitations."

Photo of Emerson with his grandson, Ralph Emerson Forbes. Photos of historic figures usually make them seem more contemporaneous, but this one, with a boy wearing a ruffled dress, makes me think otherwise. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Mountain Mornings

My third day in the San Bernadino mountains and I'm getting wise to the pattern. The skies have clouded up in the afternoons, permitting sunlight on one grove but not on its neighbor. Momentarily, rain falls--hardly enough to spot my car. But again today the dawn is clear, and the morning sky, crystalline and blue. The water's surface faithfully reflects the trees; the lake is still asleep. And the air...well it is what I came here for.

I thought of William Carlos Williams' gorgeous poem: Dawn.

ECSTATIC bird songs pound
the hollow vastness of the sky
with metallic clinkings--
beating color up into it
at a far edge,--beating it, beating it
with rising, triumphant ardor,--
stirring it into warmth,
quickening in it a spreading change,--
bursting wildly against it as
dividing the horizon, a heavy sun
lifts himself--is lifted--
bit by bit above the edge
of things,--runs free at last
out into the open--!lumbering
glorified in full release upward--
songs cease.

Changing Colors, gouache by Shirley Cleary. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Present Eye Praises the Present Object

Shakespeare cast his bitterest comedy with Greeks and Trojans. Troilus and Cressida travesties Homer and takes down all conventional notions of what Poe would later call "the glory that was Greece." The play anticipates the Theatre of the Absurd by over three centuries, and the financial crisis facing Greece, by four.

The Greek government, having winked at wealthy tax cheats and lied to its Euro-zone partners, now must impose austerity upon those whose lives are already austere. "Debt restructuring" looms.

Bankruptcy was once a renunciation of oneself, one's past, one's hopes, and one's good name. Today it has lost its disgrace; people do it all the time and even solvent banks and corporations walk away from mortgages and contracts. Credits and debits, after a few years, are indistinguishable.

Breaking with the past is the theme of Troilus and Cressida's best passage, spoken by a Machiavellian Ulysses to a vain and cowardly Achilles who asks why his past deeds are forgotten:

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for Oblivion,
A great-siz’d monster of ingratitudes.
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devour’d
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done...

Then what they do in present,
Though less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours;
For Time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by th’ hand,
And with his arms outstretch’d as he would fly
Grasps in the comer. Welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing...

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,
That all, with one consent, praise new-born gauds,
Though they are made and molded of things past,
And give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o’erdusted.
The present eye praises the present object.

Al Hirschfeld's drawing of Sir Tyrone Guthrie's production of Troilus and Cressida. Click on the picture for a look at the caption. Also, see if you can find where the artist hid the name of his daughter, Nina.