5/30/2008

Just a weedy memory...

Never again, I tell you. Never again! Get out while you still can. (It's time to move on). A relic of the petroleum age, somewhere in north-central Pennsylvania.

5/29/2008

Prehistoric Marketing


We're thinking this purveyor of America's arterial fluid needs to update its logo, or else fully embrace the irony of selling gasoline under the sign of the brontosaurus. Found in abundance (these gas stations, not the brontosaurii) in a wide swath of the west, from Montana all the way to Wisconsin, these guys take the selling of fossil fuels seriously.

People in the developing world are starving because the demand for grain crops to make ethanol, and the land on which to grow them, has already doubled the cost of rural third world staples like rice, corn and wheat. Even if this fact alone were not enough to eradicate ethanol's spurious claims to "greenness" and sustainability, it turns out the demand for ethanol crops is encouraging further Amazon rainforest destruction, as more irreplaceable forest is cleared for planting. Perhaps Sinclair, without having to rebrand itself or change its cute "brontie" logo, might reposition themselves for success (however short-term) as the only company selling 100% petroleum, 100% percent of the time. "Pure Fossil Power" has a certain ring to it.

5/26/2008

Transcontinental Gas Guzzle, part 3: High Plains Drifter edition



East of the Marais Pass and the continental divide, Route 2 follows the railroad tracks of the Hi-Line right the way across northern Montana, from one small single-stoplight town to another. Only the grain elevators stabbing up into the sky beside the tracks mark the skyline above the expansive plains of this endless state. At Glasgow we turned south, tempted by a remote campsite mapped on the shores of Fort Peck Lake, the enormous reservoir created by the first of the dams exploiting the power of the Missouri River.

Delightful lakefront solitude. Not another camper was to be found. The new tent has now survived two nights of use without being blown away or forgotten.

Grasslands on the shores of Fort Peck Lake, at Camp 5 inside the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge

North Dakota is said to be the least visited state. This is perhaps unsurprising, as only the true plains addict would appreciate its charms. Apart from the legendary hospitality: In Fargo, butted hard up against Minnesota at the state's easternmost edge, we stopped for a night with Allan and Hazel Ashworth. Allan is the geology professor who was kind enough to share his antarctican field camp with our film crew a year and a half ago. Despite those two months in the frozen wilds submitting to the indignities of sharing an open-air toilet, not to mention being filmed daily, Allan invited us, after a last minute call, to stay the night. We had a lovely dose of plains hospitality, ate our first Thai meal since Queens, and saw our first black people since Portland, the latter two things suggesting just how far Fargo has come since Allan and Hazel first arrived here, from Surrey, England, in 1969. Culture shock is too mild a term to describe their reaction to landing in what was then a diminutive, provincial, ice-bound town, something like a transplanted outpost of northern Scandinavia, with all its racial diversity. But Fargo is slowly changing for the better. At the restaurant the adjacent table held a large extended family of Indians, as in people from India, and a sizable population of resettled refugees from the horn of Africa now call the city home.

The story of the drive across North Dakota is one of a grueling three-hundred-mile battle against a constant forty-mile-an-hour headwind. Despite stops at the Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge and a few other select patches of preserved prairie, almost none of the ornithological specialties of this endangered habitat, once the natural state of huge areas of the plains, showed themselves. No surprise, since the few birds which lifted up off of the grasslands at our approach immediately wheeled off downwind, flapping as hard as possible to avoid being slammed back down into the matted grass by the gusts. With the bird trip list suffering from a distinct lack of prairie birds, Allan suggested a sort of last-chance stop just over the Minnesota border at a postage-stamp sized patch of Nature Conservancy land, Bluestem Prairie. He served up breakfast, scribbled a map on a sheet of notebook paper, and we said au revoir to Fargo.

Shortgrass prairie may not be everyone's idea of a must-see sort of a habitat, resembling as it does an unkempt, unmowed field. It has no majestic Redwoods, no epic stands of conifers or rafts of ducks to be glimpsed dabbling on shimmering lakes. Few people have seen pristine shortgrass prairie, not only because it is perhaps perceived as unspectacular, but because only one-tenth of one percent of the former prairie still exists. One out of one thousand acres of the vast western midwest. The other 999 are now used to grow corn, or wheat, or run cattle, or have been paved over to make Wal-mart parking lots. These various concentrated monocrops have gravely diminished the biodiversity of the region, for healthy, unaltered shortgrass prairie like the Bluestem preserve, harbors up to three hundred species of wildflower and many special birds.

Bluestem Prairie, near Glyndon, Minnesota

Violet Wood Sorrel Oxalis violacea

The delights of the prairie, varied and unexpected, but modest in scale, are to be found nestled in amongst its diverse grasses. Spring has come late this year, but purple, yellow, red and white wildflowers were blooming in clumps everywhere between the windblown stems of sedge. Mauve Pasque flowers, like tiny tulips; Marsh Marigolds, more like buttercups than marigolds, growing right out of puddles and the watery ditches; and Swamp Lousewort, a bizarre conate spiral protrusion dotted with yellow petals. A long-sought bird, the Sedge Wren, was common in the brushier patches of prairie, and another, the Upland Sandpiper, nests in its tall grasses. We found five of the latter patrolling the stubbly chaff of an adjacent field.


Not yet blooming: Prairie Smoke, Geum triflorum, aka "Old Man's Whiskers." When the plant flowers, clumps of hairy white tendrils emerge to wave in the breeze.

Heading for Duluth, the prairie and the plains imperceptibly receded in the rearview mirror, until, without quite noticing how it had happened, we found ourselves surrounded once again, for the first time since crossing the Rockies, with forest.

Plant identification consultation provided by L. F. Harmon.

5/24/2008

Transcontinental Gas Guzzle, part two

Glacier National Park rorschach.

Camp 3 at Glacier NP. One night under the stars was enough, and the missing tent has been replaced. Just in time,too, as it poured all night. Late May and the park still wasn't really properly open for the season. Remnant piles of snow (not pictured) and an endless carpet of lichen, branches and leaf litter gave a sense of how long and violent the northern Montana winter must be. There is now a fifty dollar fine levied for leaving any items of food or even items which may have "food odors" out unattended, since this place is wall to wall with grizzly bears. We didn't see any.

Calypso bulbosa, a diminutive but spectacular solitary orchid of the evergreen forest floor.

An intensely beautiful forest, rather like the Maine woods on steroids.

Camp 4. A second successive night huddled under the blue polytarp, cooking ramen over a bunsen burner was deemed rather too much adventure, so we retired in comfort to the Hi-Line motel, named, like almost everything else along Route 2, for the legendary trans-Rockies train line it follows. Here, as opposed to the rest of the country, where paved roads soon made the train tracks all but obsolete, the rail line is still a focus of town life and commerce. Enormous lengths of freight, mostly extra long containers, piled double, in snakes of hundreds of cars, chugged by at all hours. This was in Havre, Montana, where the waitress at the casino-restaurant (a designation which means that one can play Keno while eating, or stop at one of a dozen or so video one-armed bandits on the way to the toilet) told us "Havre is the biggest town on the Hi-Line, which is kind of sad, really."

5/20/2008

Transcontinental Gas Guzzle, part one

Flew out to Oregon to help Laura drive her trusty pickup back east; I've never driven all the way across the country in one go before. The trip started auspiciously, as we headed out of Portland late in the afternoon on the day of Obama's record-breaking political rally. Yesterday's newspapers showed a sea of bodies crushed together, eagerly listening to what he has to say. He is looking more and more like a lock for the nomination; it seems like only a matter of days, or even perhaps hours, before Hil throws in the towel. Already she must be alienating more voters, former supporters and superdelegates than she could possibly be attracting, and so we hope that for her own sake she moves quickly, in the painful process of decisively losing, from denial to acceptance.

Camp One, At Beacon Rock, in the Cascades, in the spectacular Columbia River valley, a spot Lewis and Clark passed as they were nearing the end of their journey. Although they could not yet see the Pacific Ocean, the sight of the seagulls patrolling the upstream reaches of the mighty river must have warmed their hearts.

Wild Bleeding Heart, a typical understory wildflower of the Cascadian Douglas Fir forest.

Round Lake rorschach, Idaho Panhandle, dawn. The eerie calls of breeding Red-necked grebes gabbling in the marshy verges of the lake accompanied our dinner of couscous and grilled asparagus. The site of Camp Two.

Camp Two. But what's missing from this photo? You noticed? How lovely, you may be be thinking, it was such a wonderful, starlit night, and the temperature so mild, that they dispensed with the claustrophobia of the tent altogether, sacking out al fresco. How mistaken you are! While unpacking the truck beside mosquito-infested Round Lake I discovered that one of us had left the bundled-up tent on the picnic table at Camp One, four hundred miles back down the road. I'm far too gallant to tell you who was responsible for this calamity, but she later claimed to have been distracted from packing by some wildflowers that needed urgent collecting. Something similar happened to me once before, in Africa, but that time, there was no one else to blame.

Camp Two, detail. Harmonian mosquito avoidance strategy. Note the crisp, brand-new blue polytarp we purchased only fifty miles back down the road at the Coeur D'Alene Walmart, "to protect the bottom of the tent."

Skunk cabbage. One hoped that the upside of setting up camp next to a pungent, stinky patch of this gigantic swamp-tobacco would be diminished mosquito activity. Sadly not.

Thank goodness it didn't rain, although that might have kept the bugs down. Apparently Mrs. Clinton still hasn't capitulated.

5/09/2008

Reading: My Colombian War by Silvana Paternostro

“…even if Colombia is a failed state that scares me to the point of blindness, that angers me to the point of blindness, that hurts me to the point of blindness, it is where I come from.”

Colombia remains for most people just another banana republic, source of cocaine and druglords. That the country has more recently become the easiest place in the world to be kidnapped is just one more of the factoids that keep the country far down at the bottom of most lists of fantasy vacation spots.

Little considered is that the kidnapping, and to a large extent the drugs, are really just footnotes to Latin America’s longest running conflict, a blurry and muddled war that has seen decades of intermittent slaughter and positively Darfurian waves of “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs, as the UN refers to those refugees who haven’t managed to make it outside their country’s borders.

Pitting the “conservatives” against the “liberals,” this war, which has been simmering literally longer than anyone alive can remember, has its roots in the post-independence opening up of the country, when an enterprising few became overnight land barons, clearing, or seizing massive tracts of land that became the foundation for the sorts of multi-generational fortunes that are the stuff of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epics.

This is Silvana Paternostro’s Colombia, from which she became a different kind of refugee, she tells us, when sent as a more or less oblivious teenager to the United States for the prestigious North American liberal arts education marking a right of passage for the children of the world’s elites.

The experience turned her into a liberal, or maybe even worse, and soon, working as a journalist and living in New York, she finds herself sympathizing with Sandinistas and at ease with the EZLN. She draws the line at fraternizing with the FARC, Colombia’s largest left-wing insurgent army, only through a state of almost willful denial until, with a commission from the New York Times Magazine in hand, she at last confronts her tortured relationship with her country of birth and returns to Colombia.



Generically, her people are conservatives, bloodstained landgrabbers, a latifundia family so famous that the guerilla has vowed not to stop until they have kidnapped every last one of the Montblancs. But individually, Paternostro rediscovers, they are beloved, churchgoing grandmothers, great-uncles and cousins, kind, funny, quirky upright citizens living in Barranquilla, people with whom she shared rights of passage who she now finds vacillating between denial and horror at the outrages being perpetrated upon Colombian civil society. Stuck in Barranquilla, getting up late and scandalizing her grandmother with her New York night-owl lifestyle, she is unable even to visit the family farm of her childhood memories. It is unsafe to go anywhere near it, and the family have left its operation in the hands of acceptably proletarian managers.

Visiting that farm becomes the cornerstone, both of the article Paternostro hopes to write for the New York Times Magazine, an article she does eventually write, and of the book. The final visit itself is brief, not much more than a luncheon, really, and secured by the army, but the dramatic conceit of the outing succeeds in holding our attention because of Paternostro’s ability to make us care—about Colombia, yes, but also about her feelings.

The Colombia which emerges is a vast, jungled land only nominally ruled by Bogotá's oblivious and absurdly centralized political elite. This transplanted European city barricaded away somewhere up in the Andes comes across as an entirely different country from the hot, fertile lowlands, where century-old land disputes are contested with the latest military hardware by freelance armies. Both the FARC and its allied acronyms on the "left," and the paramilitary errand-boys of the "right," fund their bloody self-fulfilling military prophecies by taxing, enforcing, securing or otherwise participating in the narcotics business. It is the ancient liberal versus conservative conflict, now fueled by drug money, with the hapless rural population caught in the crossfire.

At the end of her journey, back in New York, Paternostro seems to have found, at least, her own personal emotional closure. She takes down the map on which she had traced the many massacres and battlefields and packs away the photo album of childhood memories, treating the failed state of Colombia like a failed relationship. There are memories good and bad, and one hopes to have learned something, but ultimately, it may be time to move on.

5/07/2008

Polar Geekfest

In Oslo our busy shooting schedule had no free days built in, but I was very much hoping that somewhere I would find a moment to sneak across the harbor and visit what might best be described as the "Museums of Norwegian Pride district." There, beside the bay in a tranquil neighborhood of rolling pastures and rocky coastline, a cluster of small museums celebrate Vikings, Norse seafaring, Thor Heyerdal’s silly Kon-Tiki expedition and two of the world's pre-eminent polar explorers, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, commemorated in a building housing the legendary Fram. Commissioned by Nansen, the Colin Archer designed expedition ship was in 1936 hauled out of the water on log rollers, and parked permanently ashore. An A-frame building (or perhaps an A-fram) was then built around her where she sat on the grass.

To me the Fram is the most legendary of all ships ever to sail in polar waters, and I wanted frantically to prowl her decks. Built to order for Nansen's mind boggling journey, begun in 1893, on which he sailed north from Christiania (Oslo's name at the time), the ship was intentionally frozen into the pack ice in the hope of drifting with slow but inexorable flow of the ice-cap, toward and over the north pole. That the ship survived this three-year ordeal and returned unscathed to Oslo is incredible enough. Nansen then lent her to Amundsen, who sailed her to the Ross Sea en route to his successful assault on the South Pole. So when a morning opening in the schedule presented itself, I rose early and leapt on the number 30 bus to Bygdoy.

Inside this humble yellow structure lurks the Fram, masts and all

In a building built to fit around the ship as tightly as possible, it was difficult to capture the entirety of the vessel

A dangling, taxidermied albatross decorates the rigging

Mr. Personality: One reason Roald Amundsen may have had trouble getting his due in the annals of exploration is that even the statues commissioned of him, which one might imagine would err only in exaggerating his natural charm and winning good looks, depict him as a surly, taciturn and eagle-beaked bundle of grouchiness. No wonder the handsome Scott, who arrived at the South Pole late and then froze to death for his pains, epically failing, is more famous.


Two stories of walkways lined with glass cases allow the visitor to observe the Fram while drooling over all the various claptrap one would have expected to find on board an expedition ship a hundred years ago. In one case an unannotated emperor penguin egg nestles up against the bow of a violin. (This rather an unfair display, since Apsley Cherry Garrard, "Birdie" Bowers and Edward Wilson risked their lives to become the first to successfully collect one of the former, well before Amundsen's journey south). An adjacent case holds Amundsen's boxy wooden film camera. Stuffed auks from the north share a diorama with penguins and seals from the south. Here are tin pots, cutlery, weapons, desks and bookcases, touched by the greats. Incomparable vicarious pleasures are here available to the polar geek.

The original "bunny boots," as the white rubber monstrosities now issued to McMurdo visitors are known.


"Session too complex." The Norwegians are very fair and evenhanded. An orgy of indecipherable color-coded squiggles demarcate the movements of just about every ship ever to sail into the Ross Sea.

Arriving moments after the opening of the museum, I found myself all alone on the deck of the Fram. It took some time, but I was as persistent as any polar explorer and finally managed to figure out how to use the self-timer mechanism on my camera.

A first effort, in which I was a bit slow to respond to the captain's order to take over the helm.

My second attempt. Determined to remedy the tardiness illustrated in the first photo, I failed to pay attention to what was perhaps an even more important shortcoming...

That's more like it, but does this steering wheel make me look fat?

Moments later a busload of German tourists arrived, quickly casting doubt on the originality of my concept.

The actual plates from which actual explorers ate their hoosh!

The gift shop carries a full line of replicas. At 38 euros fifty for a cheap enameled tin teapot, however, the visitor could be forgiven for imagining that he was purchasing an original. Oslo makes Tokyo look like a bargain paradise; it is by far the most expensive city I've even been in, particularly with the US dollar following Zimbabwe's in a savage tailspin. How about a grilled cheese sandwich for twenty dollars? Cup of coffee? $7. Ten block taxi fare: $30. Thank goodness I'm on the job!

My Norwegian is no better now than it was when I arrived in Olso, but I was able to deduce that some one hundred years ago, Amundsen successfully reached the South Pole.... Alt vel that endt vel!

5/01/2008

Where the fat lady Sings


What people do lately on Saturday afternoons in Oslo is go to the Opera. Not that anyone is singing there. The Norwegians just want to check out their latest architectural jewel, a seven-hundred-million dollar granite and marble theater that literally slides into the harbor, just a stone's throw from their quaintly diminutive stock exchange.


I first walked by early on Friday morning on my way to work, but as I was at the time having a paranoid episode involving a possible failure to correctly adjust my clock to the local time, I didn't stop to explore its imposing, then-deserted, white surfaces. Convinced that I was an hour late for a twenty-minute interview with George Soros, I hurried on.


Luckily, and as usual, I turned out to have been deluding myself. When I returned on Saturday's lunch break I found the place thronged with people. There were literally lines to get into the building, and its vast external expanses of public space were crawling with blonde, Scandinavian humanity.


Immediately, I could see why. It is a splendid structure, preconceived as a post-apocalyptic edifice; with its exterior spaces just as useful and appealing as its interior ones, the place, for it is as much a place as a building, is constructed as if it had already collapsed and begun to slide into the sea. Oslo has suddenly poured itself a vast white sand beach, where no tropical waterfront existed before, and many will be the bathing beauties who come to baste here in the lunch-hour rays of the summer sun.


The building is, deservedly, a crowd pleaser. Walkers willing to do a bit of steep climbing may circumnavigate a central glass wedge, which shields the theater proper. In the winter, radiant floor heating warms the sloping granite surfaces, preventing an icy condition. Nonetheless, this is a building that would never reach the construction stage in the United States, not so much thanks to our lack of architectural vision, but because of our enthusiasm for litigation.


Integrated into the harbor because of the way the building slides into the water, as if global warming had already caused the sea level to rise (one wonders if the rising yet to come was considered in the rest of the construction), the opera house also fits seamlessly into the city landscape, thanks to its many expanses of reflective glass. Glimmers of the goings on in the darker interior compete with exterior reflections of the skyline, so that the windows, viewed from outside, make a constantly shifting, multilayered artwork. This is one of those buildings where it is difficult to take a bad photograph, an attribute I find is a strong indicator of good architecture.


Inside, the performance space is defined by a spiral decorated in classic Scandinavian style; from the lobby it looks rather like an organic version of the original New York City Guggenheim, but made out of strips of blonde wood.


Despite many complex and exciting surfaces, including the black Venetian plaster in the bathrooms, the braille-like aluminum exterior cladding, and this backlit wall of diamond shaped tiles mixed in with their own voids, the overall effect is of a simple and desirable Nordic sparseness. It is a big structure, but because so much of its exterior is essentially camouflaged as a beach, it is no way imposing or bombastic.


For once, in our era of big-name, ego driven architectural commissions, here is an important building designed by a firm, not some would-be artist forging a personal style so that he can put his name on the building as if it were a brand of sneaker. I had never heard of Snøhetta, but they spent far more time thinking about how people might use this building than they did about worrying whether anyone would immediately know who built it. [Warning, link is to vicious, Adobe Flash 9 website--perhaps Snøhetta should have kept their web design in-house.]


The attention to detail only adds to the pleasure. Here, each tree of this forest-like collection of coathooks in the open-plan cloakroom doubles as an invisible lamp, projecting a soft white light up onto the ceiling from within the column.


Along the lines of the visual coincidences outlined in Lawrence Weschler's spectacular book, Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, it was impossible, looking at the reflections in the glass, not to think of Pieter Brueghel.