Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Lone Observer

I finally read Admiral Richard Byrd’s Alone (1938) a few days ago, and November suddenly got colder for me. But I began thinking about other books in which a lone observer takes careful note of what he or she sees, hears, feels, and thinks, with the result of producing a memorable book. Among such accounts Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) stands out, not just for the passages calculated to please would-be naturalists, where she describes a shed snakeskin she found tied in an undoable knot and a tree full of afternoon light, or where she muses about the remarkable near-identity of chlorophyll and hemoglobin molecules and stalks the banks of Pilgrim Creek for a Green Heron or a muskrat. Other observations are not so peaceful or inspiring, as, for example, those of a predatory water beetle sucking the life out of a frog, or other insects that also seem to be determined (pun intended) to “do one horrible thing after another.” Annie Dillard is not just a happy naturalist; she continually asks the darker questions about why nature seems so unmindful of the individual in any species, and why the world proclaims that if there was a Creator here, he seems to have long since left his work to run on its own, with billions of creatures needing to die to keep the wheels greased.
She says her book is what Thoreau called a “meteorological journal of the mind, and the comparison with Walden (1854) is inevitable but not very close. Certainly Dillard knows her Thoreau, and they both set out to record a lived year project of a sort not possible for most of us leading lives of quiet desperation. Thoreau’s interest, though, is not primarily in nature, but in how he can simplify his life, while Dillard has no interest in such an economy. She does seek “a reduction, a shedding, a sloughing off,” but it is of the spirit. The most interesting comparison may be with Montaigne’s “Defense of Raymond Sebond” (1569) and with the treatise it introduces and undermines, Raymond Sebond’s Natural Theology (1436), which, like other such works of the sort sometimes called physico-theology, argues for the existence of a benevolent God from the evidence provided by the natural world. Dillard’s book is a kind of physico-theology while at the same time giving a counter to that philosophic view. Dillard never questions the idea that the natural world is of such profound intricacy that it argues a creator—though, in truth, she begs this question by always assuming a creator rather than presenting one as the conclusion of an argument. But she also asks often what kind of a creator makes a world whose working is based on cruelty and death—is he a God who has made the world and then absconded?  did he make it in jest? She suggests the problem might be her own squeamishness and finds compensating beauties, but “something,” she writes, “is everywhere and always amiss.”
            A lighter touch is given by Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire (1968). Abbey spent two park seasons—spring into fall—working as a ranger at Arches National Monument in the mid-1950s.  He talks about the joys of solitude in the austere desert landscape he had come to love in his early adulthood. He gives a once-over-lightly treatment of many rocks, plants, snakes, small mammals, erosion patterns and water sources in canyons and water courses both dry and running.  Yet he insists he is not a naturalist. Nor is he an environmentalist, and he is not above crushing the skull of a rabbit with a well-pitched rock just as an experiment on surviving without resources. But the book is full of polemics about preserving wilderness.
            Though the debt is unspoken, both Dillard and Abbey have another precursor aside from Walden: Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928). Beston describes a year he spent in a house he had built for him on the dunes above the beach on Cape Cod.  He goes there in September to spend a couple of weeks, but ends up staying a year.  He begins with the beach itself, and then describes the autumn birds migrating through.  He spends a chapter on waves and surf.  In a chapter called “Night on the Great Beach,” Beston suggests it was not primitive peoples who were afraid of night and the dark, but we.  “With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea.”  And he says “civilization is full of people . . . who have never even seen night,” an amazing observation for a time when there were still dark skies to be found all over the northeast. In this chapter he also describes sand fleas eating phosphorescent protozoa or bacteria on the beach and becoming completely luminous, then dying from the infection. Though he does some surprisingly inventive things with language (“luke-cold” by analogy with lukewarm, “a scatter of houses”), his style is deceptively simple; for example, he says of the spring migration of geese that he hears but cannot see overhead, “a river of life was flowing that night across the sky.”  The new color that appears on the dunes in spring “is a tint of palest olive . . . born of the mingling of pale sand, blanched grass, and new grass spears of a certain eager green.”
            Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes a very different account of a seaside sojourn in Gift from the Sea (1955). On vacation on Captiva Island by herself, Lindbergh writes about learning from her time there and from seashells such as the channeled whelk, the double-sunrise, and the argonauta what she calls her “island-precepts” about simplicity, awareness, and balance. Lindbergh is writing primarily about pressures, tensions, and distractions of a woman’s life at mid-life and she talks about “a room of one’s own” (without mentioning Woolf by name) and the activity of feminists. But the desire to avoid fragmentation (she uses William James’s word Zerrissenheit) and to achieve a modicum of grace, “inner and outer harmony,” is not gender-bound. Though she has a tendency to write at a high level of abstraction and generalization, Lindbergh counters the tendency with homely metaphors like those of the shells.
            Books whose main characters have not chosen their solitude include Robinson Crusoe (1719) where, since Defoe had never been to a desert island, we are not surprised to find essentially no nature observation. What we get instead is a book about resourcefulness and bourgeois piety, with a lot of gratuitous biographical detail invented about Crusoe. Xavier de Maistre did not choose his solitude either, when he was confined to his quarters as a punishment for dueling. The remarkable A Journey around My Room (1795) was the result. De Maistre’s description of the features of his room include many digressions that he defends in a manner reminiscent of Laurence Sterne in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), making clear that his subject is himself rather than merely his furniture. Like Sterne, too, de Maistre incorporates sentimental passages that sometimes contain double-entendre.  In advising “any man who can do so to have a pink and white bed,” he tells about these colors in his mistress’s face when she had run up to the top of a mound.  This gets him so excited he has to stop, and the next section contains only blank lines interrupted by the words “the mound.” De Maistre incorporates popular eighteenth-century literary forms such as a dialogue between the body and the soul and a dialogue of the dead. He addresses his readers directly and suggests that if they don’t like something they tear the offending passage out or even throw the book into the fire.
            To return to Alone, Admiral Byrd’s idea was to have three men at a weather recording station at the South Pole over the winter of 1934, from April to October. Because of various difficulties with tractor transport from his semi permanent exploration base, Little America, on the edge of the Ross Barrier ice sheet on the Ross Sea in Antarctica, the Advance Base could not be located closer to the Pole than 80 degrees south latitude, 123 miles from Little America, and the stores he and his men succeeded in transporting there would only support two men. Byrd vetoed the idea of two men for psychological reasons and felt he could not ask one of his men to man the station alone, so he did it himself.
            Byrd’s account is most interesting among these books for its sharp delineation between observation of his strange environment and his necessarily abrupt turn inward toward the subjective. He makes observations outside his hut of the sky, the horizon, and the Barrier ice he stands on. On clear nights there are “numberless stars” and the constellations—Hydrus, Orion, and the others visible at this latitude—are anchored by the Southern Cross. The sun hugs the horizon during the short days of March and early April; then in mid-April it disappears. In the darkness and ice fogs he almost loses his way outside at the end of April. He describes atmospheric phenomena such as mirages, “ice crystals falling across the face of the sun,” and effects of light such as parhelia or sun dogs and the frequent aurora australis. There are quakes on the ice sheet from subsidence, and the wind makes wavelike ridges called sastrugi, with hard ice on the crests and soft snow in the valleys. Byrd also muses about spiritual matters: the harmony of the cosmos and how humans fit into it. Then in May he begins to discern the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning from his stove. His condition rapidly worsens and he has to confront a terrible choice: he must either use the stove and continue poisoning himself or not use it and freeze to death. He tries to strike a balance, but he sickens and becomes weaker, his appetite disappears, and he eventually loses a third of his starting weight. Byrd’s attention in his narrative turns from the station’s task and the outside world to his own condition and then to the rescue mission his men at Little America have mounted without telling him their real purpose—just as he has concealed from them the truth of his worsening health for fear they will endanger their lives in a rescue attempt. The successful attempt comes, finally, once the Antarctic spring has begun. Four years later, Byrd conquers his distaste at what he fears is “an unseemly show of my feelings” and writes Alone.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Playing Golf vs. Reading About It

          Bill Matthews has a poem, “Foul Shots: A Clinic,” that talks about how instructions like standing “perpendicular to the basket” are “already…perilously abstract” and how other advice about making the shot can “grow spiritual” and probably deserves to be ignored. There’s no substitute for just shooting 200 foul shots every single day. I know he’s right, and that the point carries over to other games. Mine is golf. And I have read plenty of golf books. The first one I read, Tommy Armour’s How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time (1953), really did teach me something about playing golf, but I had just picked up a club and any advice about grip and stance and swing could only be useful. The Silver Scot scolds his readers for not realizing that golf is a simple game, an assertion that is repeated by many writers—Arnold Palmer is one—but is irritating to high-handicap players. Golf books can be useful beyond any specific instructions if they encourage a player to think about what she is doing. Bobby Jones famously said that golf is a game played on a five-inch course: the distance between your ears. A thinking golfer will always beat a non-thinker of equal athletic ability.
            The titles of the most famous golf instruction books tell us a great deal about the people who wrote them and their attitudes toward the game. Tommy Armour’s title puts the emphasis on you, the reader. Bobby Jones on Golf (1966) suggests the talented amateur writing about one of the things he liked to do. Arnold Palmer’s My Game and Yours (1965) manages to give the optimistic idea that some of Arnie’s prodigious confidence and mastery might be transferable to the hacker. But Ben Hogan’s book is forbiddingly called Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf (1957) and is illustrated with analytical drawings convincing me that unless I had been built like Hogan I couldn’t master the very technical aspects of his swing. With Jack Nicklaus’s Golf My Way (1974) we may be reminded that he is, so far, the greatest player who’s ever competed; I have to ask, how can I possibly make his way my way? And finally, Tiger Woods’s title is simply, How I Play Golf (2001). A ghostly subtitle seems to glow under it: Do you really think you can do this? Some writers are a little more inviting. Corey Pavin, one of the half-dozen most inventive shotmakers in golf’s history, calls his book Shotmaking (1996). Nick Faldo takes the long view of why you’re playing in A Swing for Life (1995). Many of these books use almost identical words to describe the easy pressure you should use to grip the club, the temperate speed you must use to take the club back, and yes, how simple the game is. No one adds that it is simple only if you hit 200 range balls every single day.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Flying Books II

            Mark Vanhoenacker’s book made me think back to others by people who are able to describe the peculiar joys of flying, or some part of the experience, with grace and accuracy. My favorites include the aviation classics as well as some recent books. An almost inevitable place to start is Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis (1953), a description of Lindbergh’s nonstop flight from New York to Paris in 1927.  Lindbergh was competing for the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first heavier-than-air craft to fly between New York and Paris nonstop.  He flew a custom-built Ryan monoplane with a Wright Whirlwind engine, a cockpit behind an enormous gas tank, heavy-duty landing gear, and no forward visibility.  The key to Lindbergh’s success, aside from some luck, probably lay in his attention to detail during the design, the building, and the testing of the plane as well as his realistic assessment of wind and weather as he flew.
            Because Lindbergh’s hourly log of the flight was stolen by someone in the huge crowd that rushed his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, at Paris’s Le Bourget airfield, he had to reconstruct it using memory, his maps, the engine’s performance curves, and whatever other information he could recover, and the log entries form chapter heads of the long middle section of the book, about the flight itself.  Lindbergh narrates in a clear style in the present tense, which keeps us in the moment as he encounters squalls, climbs to avoid weather, and fights sleepiness. The only trouble with Lindy’s book is that it is so matter-of-fact one can forget what a tremendous accomplishment his dead-reckoning crossing of the Atlantic was.
            In the 1920s and 30s, Antoine de Saint Exupéry flew mail and passengers for Latécoère, which became Aéropostale, flying from Toulouse into Spain and across to French West Africa and later flying in South America.  He describes these flying experiences in Wind, Sand, and Stars, which was published in 1939 and translated the same year.
            The most remarkable part of the book describes a 1935 Paris-to-Saigon flight St. Exupéry attempts with his mechanic, Prévot, in a Caudron Simoun, one of the fastest planes of the time.  They lose landmarks in clouds and encounter adverse winds in Libya.  They crash at full speed onto a gentle slope covered with “round black pebbles which had rolled over and over like ball-bearings beneath us.”  Their water tank is pierced and they survive for days on a couple of oranges and a tiny amount of water, hiking away from the plane by day and building signal fires near it by night.  Eventually they are rescued by a Bedouin caravan, and next day they are in Cairo.  About flying, as about other human activities, St. Exupéry concludes that “What all of us want is to be set free.” 
In North to the Orient, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who married Charles in 1929, describes a flight the couple took through Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Japan to China in 1931, flying a Lockheed Sirius low-wing monoplane with a 700 horsepower radial Cyclone engine, pontoons, and enough fuel capacity to extend its range to 2,000 miles.  Anne learned to send and receive Morse Code and operated the radio on board.
            After several days in the Northwest Territories, the Lindberghs push on to Point Barrow, at the northern tip of Alaska, then to Nome and into the Soviet Union, where Lindbergh enjoys her brief encounter with Russians.  Flying on to Japan, they are forced by fog to land in the Chishima archipelago, where singing sailors from a Japanese fishing boat befriend them.  As they are about to leave Osaka, they find a stowaway in the baggage compartment, an unhappy teenager who thought they were on their way back to America.  But they were headed to China, where they find the Yangtze in flood and assist in aid and rescue efforts.    Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s is the book that Rinker Buck (see below) thought was “the best flying memoir of all.” 
Beryl Markham’s West with the Night (1942) impressed Hemingway with its style.  Markham was flying an Avian biplane as a free-lance pilot in 1935 in Nairobi; she believed herself to be “the only woman professional pilot in Africa at that time.”  Markham grew up in Kenya, where her father raised thoroughbreds, and she trained horses for a living before she learned to fly.  In 1936 Markham became the first woman to fly from east to west across the Atlantic, and ended by crash-landing her Vega Gull in Nova Scotia.
In Last Flight, Amelia Earhart describes her various trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights, as well as each leg of her around-the-world flight except the last one.  On July 2, 1937, she and Fred Noonan, her navigator, took off from Lae, New Guinea, in their two-engine Lockheed Electra. They never reached their destination of Howland Island in the Pacific.  This book, which also contains Earhart’s reminiscences about growing up and learning to fly, was put together by her husband, George Palmer Putnam, from narratives which she worked up from notes and sent Putnam at each stop in her flights. 
In Fate Is the Hunter, Ernest K. Gann writes about his decades of flying with various airlines and with the Air Transport Command during World War II.  Throughout the book he lists the names of pilots killed in various mid-air collisions, flights into mountains during instrument conditions, mishaps during storms, equipment failure, or the mistakes of ground crews.  His last chapter is a story designed to make his point about fate choosing favorites: Gann survived a flight even though an elevator securing rod had been left off his airplane, while the same day two fellow pilots died because of the same problem in theirs.  But the book is more than a cautionary tale about the risks of flying: it’s a memoir of a life in aviation and of the life of aviation itself, from DC-2s and DC-3s to modern jumbo jets. 
Beyond these classics, there are many good flying books on my shelves. More recent books have the advantage of talking about a kind of flying that is likely to be nearer the reader’s experience than the flights of the Lindberghs, Markham, and St. Exupéry.  
            In 1966, Rinker Buck was only fifteen and his brother Kernahan just seventeen when they set out to fly a Piper Cub across the country from New Jersey to California.  More than thirty years later Rinker Buck wrote the story of that trip in Flight of Passage: A Memoir (1997).
            The fourth day of the six-day flight is the most exciting as the boys take on the Rockies at Guadalupe Pass, a narrow ravine between two 8700-foot peaks, coaxing the Cub to its service ceiling of 10,000 feet and higher, through midsummer heat and low-density air.  At each stop from El Paso to their California destination, reporters and cameramen make much of them, sometimes comparing them to Jack and Bobby Kennedy, whom they resemble slightly.  Because Buck is writing this memoir in the 1990s, the whole book has the feel of an elegy for simpler flying times and less crowded skies. 
            You would think it would be easier to teach a poet to fly than to teach a pilot to write poetry, but poet Diane Ackerman had a lot of trouble in the early stages of her flight instruction, as she recounts in On Extended Wings (1985), and it took her thirty-five hours to solo.  She is very good at remembering what instruction was like, how learning comes in plateaus of achievement, and how instructors talk (“dance the rudders . . . fly the plane to the ground”).  Just as Ackerman is getting ready to take the written, her instructor is killed in a plane crash.  She stays on the ground for a month.   Finally the dead instructor’s friend gets her flying again, and she goes on to get her license.  Ackerman’s book will take every pilot back to the experience of learning to fly.
            Henry Kisor was the book-review editor for the Chicago Sun-Times until his retirement.  When he was fifty-three, he decided to learn to fly.  In Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet (1997), Kisor describes his retracing of the New York-to-California flight of Calbraith Perry Rogers in 1911, the first transcontinental flight.  He flies into small airports and an occasional larger one, and he reports on the sometimes languishing, often flourishing state of general aviation in America.  Because Kisor is completely deaf, he usually flew in and out of non-towered aiports, but prearranged light-gun landings and take-offs let him use larger ones as well.   He narrates his adventures with a zestful, if-I-can-do-it-so-can-you style.
            Another journalist, Mariana Gosnell, was working at Newsweek as the medicine and science reporter in 1977 when she took three months leave to travel around and take the notes that eventually became Zero Three Bravo: Solo Across America in a Small Plane (1993), named for her Luscombe Silvaire 8F, N803B.  She flies a huge circle around the United States, down the East Coast into the deep south, to the Gulf Coast, to Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, then north and across the northern tier of states and down through Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and back to Spring Valley Airport near New York City where she keeps her Luscombe, which a refueler along her way calls “the perfect vagabond airplane.”  She stops at small airports, meeting many characters, describing the details of cross-country flying in a small plane, and revealing the mixed feelings of apprehension and joy that flying inspires in her. Few other writers ever bring up the apprehension, but a certain element of fear is a healthy ingredient in a pilot’s makeup, keeping the edge on the preparation that is called, accurately, “risk management.”
Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight (1998), is a collection of essays by William Langewiesche, the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, who wrote one of the classic books about the mechanics of flying, Stick and Rudder (1944).  William is a staff writer for Atlantic Monthly.  Early in the book, Langewiesche declares his belief “that flight’s greatest gift is to let us look around,” and he illustrates by describing the view from various kinds of airplanes—paragliders powered and unpowered, jets, and small airplanes flown just high enough.  “The best views are views of familiar things,” he writes.  Langewiesche points out the irony that flying does not become possible until the Wright brothers figure out how to turn an airplane, but an airplane’s turn is strange and can confuse instincts and perceptions, even in experienced pilots.  He describes flying in bad weather, straightens out some misconceptions about air traffic control (“controllers don’t guide airplanes”), and considers the possibility that in very complex systems such as commercial air travel, accidents may be inevitable.
William Kershner died in early 2007.  Logging Flight Time (2001) is a collection of his short pieces that talk about his fifty years of primary flight instruction, military flying, flight testing, and aerobatics instruction.  Most of these chapters were published in the magazine of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, AOPA Pilot.  When I was taking lessons for my private certificate, a Tucson flight instructor asked me what book I was using for preparation, and when I said Kershner’s The Student Pilot’s Flight Manual she said, “Oh, he’s the technical one.  He’ll give you graphs and tables for everything.”  I was grateful for the graphs and tables, being a person who thinks more information is always better.  But Kershner entertains as well as informs.  One previously unpublished chapter here describes a night launch and landing on a carrier.  In the military, Kershner flew Corsairs, Bearcats, Hellcats, Panthers, Cougars, and Banshees.  Once out of the service, he started a flying school and an aerobatic school in his native Tennessee.  After you’ve read Ernest Gann and William Langewiesche on the risks of aviation, William Kershner will remind you that flying is fun, and sometimes funny as well.
Some books, like Osa Johnson’s I Married Adventure(1940), are fascinating in their own right, but have only a small portion devoted to flying (Osa and Martin Johnson flew their Wasp-powered amphibious Sikorsky planes in their travels all over Africa).  A whole shelf of fascinating books concerns wartime aviation from 1915 to the present.  Here you’ll find Richard Hillary’s account of being shot down over the channel in the Battle of Britain, Falling though Space (1942), Peter Townsend’s definitive book on the whole of the Battle of Britain, Duel of Eagles (1970), books about dogfights between MiGs and Sabre Jets in the Korean war, and many more.