Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Nature Is Your Guide

            I’m reading a delightful little book by Harold Gatty called Nature Is Your Guide: How to Find Your Way on Land or Sea by Observing Nature (1958). Dover found that title unwieldy and retitled it Finding Your Way without Map or Compass. Neither title does justice to what Gatty gives us. He describes navigation by the Polynesians, the Arabs, and the Scandinavians using migratory routes of birds as guides—and sometimes the birds themselves, as in the land-finding bird releases described in Gilgamesh and Genesis—as well as observations of stars, the use of sea movements such as swells, and the construction of a pre-compass directional device called the pelorus, like a compass card without the needle, that could be oriented by the stars and used to steer a very accurate course over long distances.
            Gatty emphasizes observation more than its practical use in navigation. He praises the lifetime habit of seemingly aimless poking around and looking that turned Gilbert White into the prototype of the naturalist and Charles Darwin into the preeminent biological thinker of the nineteenth century. Baden-Powell and the whole scouting movement also come in for admiring notice. This section reminded me of Russell Hoban’s character Tom, who just looks around and messes around and eventually beats the professionals in Hoban’s delightful children’s classic, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen (1974).
            When Gatty is describing all of the methods one can use to keep from traveling in circles when in the wild, he mentions a navigational trick long-distance flyers can use when their destination is on a natural line such as a river or coastline. The method is one of intentional error: purposely steering to one or the other side of the target far enough to overcome an error that might occur through wind, for example. Then, when the river or coast is reached, the flyer turns the other way along it and soon encounters the target. This reminded me of a harrowing experience Ernest Gann describes in Fate Is the Hunter (1961): he and a copilot were flying toward Corumbá in Brazil using a map with few details over jungle that had no landmarks anyway. They headed straight for the city, which is on the River Paraguay, knowing that winds could push them off course one way or the other. Short of fuel, they come upon the river, but see no town or airfield. Which way to turn? They have fuel enough to explore only one direction. They choose, for no particular reason, south, and they land safely at Corumbá. The episode illustrates Gann’s thesis, expressed in the book’s title, that only fate kept him from joining the 400 dead flyer friends to whom he dedicates the book; listing their names takes four pages at the beginning.
            Why didn’t Gann use the intentional error technique Gatty describes? Gatty was Wiley Post’s navigator in their 1931 round-the-world flight and used the technique to find an airfield on the Amur River in Siberia, where they needed to refuel. Gann’s flight was some years later. Wouldn’t he have known about the method? Or perhaps he did know about and used it, but thought the “which way?” narrative had more suspense and more of the fateful in it.
            Gatty’s book will tell you about the orienting power of shrubs and trees, hills and rivers in ordinary terrain, as well as how to read ocean swells and the color of the sea, finding direction from sand dunes in deserts, and a good deal more particular information. He has a detailed section on sea birds, especially the pelagic ones, complete with pictures. My favorite part of the book is its last chapters, devoted to what can be learned from the moon and the sun, as well as how to find your way around the night sky.   

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Brave New World, finally

            I finally read Brave New World after resisting it for many years. I found a good deal of it dated, not surprisingly, but also jejune, although the latter reaction might have had something to do with Michael York’s reading with its audible chewing of the scenery. There’s too much whining and not enough of the humor I found in Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point Counterpoint, all books that I loved and have reread.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Didion on the South

            A very quirky little book by Joan Didion, called South and West: From a Notebook (2017), is mostly about the South. Her “Notes on the South,” taken during a 1970 visit, reveal some strange impressions about the region, which she formed during a road trip starting in New Orleans, continuing along the Gulf Coast as far as Biloxi, up to Hattiesburg and Meridian, on to Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, back to Oxford, and then down the delta and back to New Orleans. “The idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan,” she writes about the trip she took with her husband John Gregory Dunne. Her general impression of the South might be summed up in her peculiar, repeated reaction to the light there: New Orleans “is dark…the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects it but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.” And on the Gulf Coast “the light is odd…light entirely absorbed by what it strikes.”

            New Orleans is preoccupied “with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.” She does nail that feature the deep South shares with fundamentalists everywhere: “the solidarity engendered by outside disapproval.” And yet, she believes that the South, not California, is for America “the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”

            But her method is to present in detail her observations of the backwardness, prejudice, ignorance, and squalor of each tiny gas station-cum-eating joint in rural Mississippi and Alabama where they stopped—and then to record interviews with the country-club set, which in this case includes Hodding Carter III. The method leaves out the whole huge middle, and she acknowledges it.

            In the very short “California Notes,” Didion uses an informal commission to observe and write about the 1976 Patty Hearst trial to ignore the trial and look at some of her own misapprehensions about her class and its tastes, which she absorbed growing up in California. Though she does not say it expressly, she must have realized that she could not look at Patty Hearst and her background with the objectivity she had once imagined she possessed. Her account of the trial was never written.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dead Friends

Sitting on the terrace of the Monterey Court on a recent mild February evening in Tucson and listening to my neighbor John Coinman finish a song about the loss of an old friend, my attention turned inward. When you lose a friend who was the companion of your youth, your blood brother with whom you shared all the hope and determination of conquering the world with your art—when this happens to you and you are my friend John, you sing a song about it.
            My friendship with Pat Kent, dead these twenty-five years now, was like John’s with his friend: hitchhiking together through the Southwest, dropping out of college together, getting as far from home as we could, dreaming of being writers. What happens when you lose a friend so close you finish each other’s sentences? You finish your own sentences, I guess.
            It’s an old, old story, older even than the Greek epics. Gilgamesh’s friendship with Enkidu, the tamed wild man of the forest, begins with a fight that ends in their sworn fellowship. Together they kill the Bull of Heaven sent by the vengeful goddess Ishtar. Together they tackle the most fearsome creature imaginable, the Humbaba. Gilgamesh strikes the first blow, Enkidu the second. We are not told who strikes the third blow that fells the monster; thus does the poet indicate the closeness of their cooperation. To find the creature, Gilgamesh and Enkidu have braved the fearsome wood that stretches ten thousand leagues in every direction. But Enkidu has a dream: the gods have decided that one of them must die. Enkidu knows that Gilgamesh is the hero of this poem, so it is Enkidu who sickens and dies. The author of the Gilgamesh epic, writing at the end of the third millennium before Christ, knows the varied feelings the death of a friend engenders and how these are mixed.
            When my friend Pat died he and I were in our late forties. The bloom of youth was off, but there was plenty of world left to conquer. Pat had increased the number of languages for which he did technical translations to twenty-two—he was a remarkable linguist. I had published my fourth book and was a couple of years from being named chair of my college department. His cancer had already metastasized when he was diagnosed and took only about a year to kill him. This death brought me stinging grief followed by the emptiness of loss. But other feelings forced themselves into the grief. The bloom of youth was off for sure with the realization of my own mortality. Pat’s death was the closest that had yet touched me. A kind of futility replaced my anticipation of the future.
            Montaigne’s great friend Étienne de La Boétie was only thirty-two when he died, and Montaigne was thirty. He celebrates their comradeship in one of his first essays, “On Friendship.” Astute readers, including Virginia Woolf and Montaigne’s translator Donald Frame, have written about his need to write to preserve his mental health, and the fact that the first series of essays was written in the half dozen years after the death of his friend. He tells us himself that his first idea about the form his writing should take was letters written to La Boétie. But he happily settled on a form which, if he didn’t invent it, certainly traces its modern origin to him. For Adam Gopnik, the form of the essay itself reproduces the wish to communicate in this personal fashion: it says to the reader, “You’re my best friend.”
            Gilgamesh experiences a profound fear of his own death following that of his friend. He goes on a quest for eternal life. After a number of adventures, the futility of the quest finally gets through to him, and he returns to the city of Uruk, whose walls he built himself, and, in the words of one of his translators, Nancy Sandars, he “engraved on a stone the whole story.”
            Grief, thoughts of one’s own mortality, and a stab at immortality for ourselves, our dead friends, and our friendship. Sing the song, build the city and preserve the story in stone, write the essay.