Second Looks

The trick is to learn how to look from a distance while close to the pieces, and to account for the movement of light.

Huh.

What?

There are faces.

I don’t see any. 

Look here. You can’t see them as a collective. Go one at a time. 

All I see is wallpaper.

Step back. There is a face.

I’m not––

It’s in the shadows.

The face is?

The shadows make the features. It only works at a distance.

Like memory?

Exactly.

I read something about mosaics recently, just like that. By someone who was learning the art. How the trick is to learn how to look from a distance while close to the pieces, and to account for the movement of light.

There’s a little winged man in the garden sometimes. 

––The art of broken parts, she said.

In the clouds, a giraffe. The lights in the sky, like a bird in flight.

There’s a green haired man in the rocks.

Madonna in a gourd, toast Jesus, the grilled cheese miracle.

There’s a rabbit on the moon. Or a man.

A man, you think?

Well, a face anyway. Like this. Step back a little more. Right here. Relax your eyes, like a cat.

I ––oh. Wow.

Yes.

It’s there.

Right there.

I almost missed it.

Keep looking.

Notes:

This piece is inspired by an article about artist Lee Wagstaff’s recent work, in which “hidden faces” emerge from canvases of repeating geometric patterns, and also by an article about the human tendency to see patterns.

Margherita Cole’s September 29th article in My Modern Met: “Hypnotic Portrait Paintings are Based on AI Generated Faces.” 

Larry Sessions’s Earthsky article, “Seeing Things That Aren’t There? It’s Called Pareidolia,” (November 2020)

The reference to mosaics is inspired by Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World

Listening to Lepidoptera

We appreciate the beauty of butterflies, but what else? What of the moths disguised as tree bark, and what do they say with those wings?

For most, a typical response to a tray of specimens can be a ranking in order of beauty. This because, what else? Butterflies and moths cause no marked aversion; they do not sting or make terrible pests. We do not eat them.

What, then? Initially, we have no other means, beyond the appeal of their colors, to appreciate them. 

In North America, there are more species of butterfly on the endangered list than any other insect. Not everyone gets field experience, so look.

Why are the wings so large? They speak with them.

Consider these canvases, painted differently on each side, according to audience.

Where are the moths in daytime? In the day, they become tree bark, lichen, twigs.

Consider one hundred caterpillars, wrapped or naked; cylindrical or bulging, immaculate or marked. See the chrysalis, head down, unclothed, posing as a leaf.

Some ride mice to safety, to lay eggs in an underground den.

One makes no sound, but what about a chorus of millions?

Here is a waterfall.

Patience now. A more complete discussion will be possible after secrets are revealed.

Notes:

This morning’s post is assembled from found phrases in the opening chapter of 100 Butterflies and Moths: Portraits From the Tropical Forests of Costa Rica, by Jeffrey C. Miller, Daniel H. Janzen, and Winifred Hallwachs. I came across it in the used bookstore adjacent to the library in the year before the pandemic, and was taken by the color images. It seemed like the sort of book to keep on hand for future inspiration.  Waking especially groggily this Wednesday morning, I pulled it from the shelf to see what I could find. 

Flight Paths

Considering the migration patterns of birds, and the instincts that teach a body when and how to move.

As weather cools and light shifts, I am remembering the late summer geese. They were molting, apparently, which is why spent several weeks doing nothing but walk around and honk. They were regarded as pests, but I admired their swagger.

Later I learned that they had been hunted to near extinction around the turn of the century. Some measures were taken to protect them. Meanwhile the geese got wise to the fact that hunting didn’t happen in the cities and the suburbs. They liked the lawns. 

When did they fly south for the winter? Many stayed put, but some would have started this month. This is what you learn to do. You can either adapt when things change or fly elsewhere.

The arctic tern goes farthest. At just under fifty-thousand miles per migration year, one of their journeys, tallied over thirty years, is the distance of three trips to the moon and back.

They store fat for the journey. Some birds will nearly double their weight. 

I wonder about those times when they get it wrong, about the ones that think they are adapting while miscalculating either the food or the poison in it. I wonder if there is a sudden moment of collective consciousness that makes some groups suddenly move, and about those times when the impulse comes just a little too late. Consider the flocks falling whole from the sky, researchers scratching their heads the next day. Often no known event can explain these falls––not directly, anyway. How often we want to blame the knowns. This is why we give children books with monsters in them, for the comfort of the danger with a face. That isn’t what gets you in the end, though, is it? It’s almost always what you can’t or won’t see, until it’s too late.

Sometimes the young ones will get confused. I don’t mean just the geese here. I’m thinking of snowy owls, wrens, wheateaters, hummingbirds, godwits, ducks, raptors, and countless species I can’t name. 

When the little ones get lost, or read the signs wrong, they can sometimes start migrating in reverse. These renegades live alone, belong to no known group of birds, and have to rely on their own instincts afterwards. They may struggle in mating season. 

Not all of the ones flying in reverse are lost. Some know exactly where they are, and how, and they know they haven’t stored enough fat to make it. But what internal gauge is telling them when they don’t have enough to make it all the way? How did they learn to hear it, and what happens when two impulses, both related to survival, demand opposite actions? How does it know? I wonder if the most necessary of the two somehow manages to be so loud that it drowns the other one out, the way it is possible–– for the hungry body on another species on edge of exhaustion, to forget food in favor of sleep’s relief.  

Notes

The Migration of Birds – from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) website

Misplaced News

There is a turquoise parakeet out there somewhere, and a young girl missing him. He goes by Morris.

Today’s news comes from the lost and found pages on my favorite online message board.

The white cockatiel is still missing; the wedding ring, too.

But found are the kayak paddle, swim fins, and the Madonna with child.

Someone is specializing in the finding of white furry pets. It is unclear whether this particular focus has to do with the white ones being easier or harder to find, or if some deliberate effort is made to ignore pets of other colors in order to preserve some measure of brand identity in a niche market. 

A male husky in the southeast once was lost, but now is found.

Today’s top story involves the finding of money. Or rather, that whoever found seems to be a large sum is now trying to give it back. Please respond, the message says, with exact details of what you lost.

In related news, someone else wants it known that the couple that saved them when their kayak capsized has restored their faith in the ability of people to do right by one another.

Meanwhile, there is a turquoise parakeet out there somewhere, and a young girl missing him. He goes by Morris, also Moe Moe, and the absence of his ongoing conversation is felt in a now-quiet household of three. There is an open cage in the front yard, waiting for his return. 

There is hope and a plea: Cash reward, please call––

and a child at the window, waiting, repeating a familiar refrain: Please, come back.

More Craigslist-inspired dispatches:

News of the World

Seeking Anon

Lost and Found

I’ll Meet You at the Lost and Found

Counting Losses

Faith and Apple Seeds

John planted apples in nurseries. He headed west barefoot. He listened through lies and went on loving, gently.

Until this morning I considered Johnny Appleseed to be one of those figures I associated with made-up stories like George and the cherry tree or Casey at the bat, which are told to distract children from larger questions about what is really going on here. I remember a cartoon image: goofy-looking barefoot guy in a straw hat, Scandinavian features, strolling barefoot over hills, munching on an apple he held in his left hand while he tossed apple seeds from a satchel with his right. A folksy song played in the background, the lyrics no doubt including something along the lines of, Here comes Johnny Appleseed. . .  Something, something apple trees!  But this morning I learned that he had another name, and it was John Chapman, and that he was born on this day in 1774. In 1840, someone took a photograph of him (or was it a daguerreotype then? I don’t know). He has the face of a man who is kind and serious, who has seen through the ways of men and will not be easily fooled. How different he looks, from the cartoon fool they made him into.

He was eighteen when he left home. He took his half-brother Nate with him. Nate was eleven. They went West, as one does. For thirteen years they lived as nomads. John’s mother had died when he was two, while his father was away, fighting redcoats, so he was used to it. 

He wasn’t tossing seeds or even planting orchards. It was nurseries he planned and built, tended, and left in the care of someone he hired, with promise to return. 

He almost died in a tree while picking hops. He fell and his neck was caught in the fork. It was his eight-year-old help that cut the tree down to save him. 

Near the end, he was moved by a sermon, although not in the manner intended. The preacher went on and on, eager to make a point, asking again and again, where is the primitive Christian, barefoot in coarse raiment? ––Alluding, it seemed, to the original disciples, and some perceived spiritual distance between then and now.

The point had something to do with indulgences. Calico was one; tea was another.

Chapman grew weary of the obvious play for power by guilt and so he approached the podium, which at that moment was a tree stump. He put his bare foot on it, said Here is your primitive. Now what? The congregation was dismissed.

Later, he preached to anyone listening, not of a vengeful God, but of the one who came after. Killed for his simplicity, John suspected. His blessings on the merciful, the poor, the grieving, the hungry, the persecuted. After all of that, who would be left to save, but the rich, who wanted no salvation unless it came on their own gilded terms?

His leader was the one who washed the feet of his brothers, who was gentle with women; who saved harsh words for the moneylenders and thieves in the temple, and for the robed men who used religion like a sword. 

Where is it, anyway, someone asked John, with regards to the kingdom of God.

Right here, John told them. Right here, only look.

And they sat barefoot among the trees, and the wind moved them, and they knew. 

Dancing with Poets, Among Reindeer

On Shel Silverstein’s birthday, I happen to reading news of the petroglyphs, and also of the magic mushroom people hunting whales.

Yesterday’s post on the potential revival of ice age creatures unearthed from the tundra’s melting permafrost is what made me aware of The Siberian Times, which seemed like an excellent addition to my small collection of regularly visited sites. It was here that I learned of the mushroom people, which happened to be very shortly after I learned it was Shel Silverstein’s birthday, and found myself reminiscing about laughing with my daughter over pages in Where the Sidewalk Ends and other volumes, his brilliant sense of delight in wonder and dark humor, the electric hilarity of morbid details delivered in singsong (“I’m being eaten by a Boa Constrictor/ And I don’t like it one bit…  Oh gee, it’s up to my knee. . . Oh heck, it’s up to my neck . . .”).  So, when I read the article about the mushroom people, it is only natural that I heard it as follows:

The reindeer are crossing the river, and dogs are out chasing a bear.

We drew them above the cold sea, with the wind and the salt in our hair.

Who were these artists, these dreamers up there––

so far away from any known where? 

Bearded men rubbing away at their their faces, 

with bald-faced ones wishing they’d sooner found traces

of places where no beards were looking,

and no one was daring to tread.

We dance in these paintings, large mushrooms on heads. 

The music is gone now, and we are all dead. 

We had stems for our legs, and mushrooms for hair, 

but as for our music, they heard it nowhere. 

And that was our joke, how nobody knew 

anything of us or what we could do. 

When you cross over, the music invites you to dance, 

with winds on the tundra, in leaves of those plants. 

And no one is there, recording a show;

few stories on record, and little to know. 

This is bad for museums, but what was it to them? 

For the living, the point is to dance to the end.

Mammoth Questions

Considering the possibility of a mammoth return, and other questions about life on this planet.

Do you think when the mammoth return, they will know where they are?

You must have better questions. Ones that might actually relate––

They’re bringing it back, in Siberia. The mammoth.

Why? Is this an Elon Musk endeavor?

No, a biotech company. To break up the moss, restore the grasslands on the tundra.

How?

Well, they are very large. They stomp around, knock over trees, fertilize. It helps––

No, how are they going to bring them back?

They’re working on a hybrid DNA. Apparently, the Asian elephant is a distant cousin. 

But why?

The idea is that there will be more.

Mammoths? 

No––well, yes, but what I mean is more extinctions. The thinking is that we need to intervene.

What about the wooly rhino, then?

Well, they’re not just going to start making creatures up. I mean, this isn’t a game––

No, they’re real. You have to see the baby one they found almost perfectly preserved. Named Sasha. He’s very cute.

That explains some of those cave paintings.

But what about the little mammoths they’re making? You have to wonder––

I told you. It’s a hybrid.

No, I mean what about them, really? 

You mean–––

Who mothers those little guys?

You mean if the others don’t recognize them?

And how will they know where they are?

This post was inspired by this morning’s reading of My Modern Met, which led me here:

Biotech Company Raises $15 Million to Bring the Wooly Mammoth Back to Life

Extremely Well-Preserved Woolly Rhino is Discovered in Siberia’s Melting Permafrost

On the Night Train, with P.D.

A “Real Talk With Dead Folks” installment featuring French painter Paul Delvaux, who would have been ninety-eight today.

Today is one of those days for Real Talk with Dead Folks, an occasional Breadcrumbs feature. I knew it this morning when I learned it was the birthday of French painter Paul Delvaux, and I spent my coffee silence with his work.

Joyeux anniversaire, Paul Delvaux. You would have been ninety-eight today.

You are known for your nude women, your long shadows, your anxious isolation.

I like your Break of Day, the topless figures gathered in what is either a palace courtyard or its ruins. At first I think they are women, then I see what appear initially to be the finned tails of mermaids. 

But that is mossy bark, not scales, and those are roots, not tails. And then I look closer: the faces, the pose of their hands, their stiff necks. These are not women, exactly, but statues of flesh and trunk. 

I consider the roots, how tight they look, not quite spread and not quite rooted, and so close to one another. It seems impossible for them to make it very long like that, in such arid land. Behind them, a clothed woman is running, the desert floor behind her. 

Mountains congregate in the distance, under sky. 

Elsewhere, Gestapo were making arrests, Stalin was enforcing his Great Purge––mere preludes to the next world war. Your skeletons were often more animated than your fleshy counterparts. 

The home of your childhood was burned during the war years. What became of your beloved trains? Desire and horror met on your platforms. You studied music in the museum room, while skeletons in a glass cabinet appeared to watch.

You knew the anxious city, haunted with skeletons. You called it the climate of silent streets, with shadows of people who can’t be seen.

Mirrors, moon, candles, books: these were your favored elements. Around the nudes and the flute players, your skeletons danced.  Always in your paintings, this sense of waiting: of separation, this terrifying emptiness; this ongoing cycle of arrivals and departures.

It’s the little girl in the dress I am wondering about, the one with her back to the viewer. She is watching the trains by moonlight. What else does she see?

Always in your paintings, there she is: the beautiful but inaccessible muse. You painted her anyway, unable to keep from looking. 

It is for this that I bow to you. The way you saw death everywhere, and still looked for something else. The way you seemed to know your salvation to be just out of reach, while you reached anyway–– seeming to accept, by your actions, some unspoken contract. We all sign it to live here, but most are afraid to read the fine print.  It’s enough sometimes, to live for the unseen, the untouched. I like to think that this is what makes your skeletons move the way they do.

More about Paul Delvaux’s work:

Metropolitan Museum of Art

More Real Talk with Dead Folks

Real Talk With Galileo

Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work

Here’s to W.G., absurdist O.G.

Finding the Deep Sky

Patience will help, when it comes to learning where you are, where you are going.

When I First Posted “Deep Sky Observing” several months ago, based on the opening chapter of one of the books I’d been meaning to open, I thought I might do a series with subsequent chapters. A few hours after doing this, my daughter noticed the book on my bed and took an interest, so then it was hers.

This morning, none of my usual ways of finding an idea were working, probably because I am exhausted. For these reasons, it seemed like a good time to return to the question of how to observe the deep sky, so I retrieved the book (just for a bit). Today’s post is assembled from phrases found in a chapter entitled, “How Can I Find All These Deep-Sky Goodies When the Sky is So Huge?” which seems to me like an excellent phrasing not just for the issue of the burgeoning stargazer, but for any soul beneath the vast canopy. This morning’s findings offered me some much-needed perspective at a critical time. I share in the spirit of knowing that most of us can use some re-alignment from time to time, when it comes to remembering how to look.

Being confronted with finding your way around can take the fun out of things very quickly.

Fear not! Being able to point accurately will define your joy.

After all, it is written: no find, no fun. Start with your eyes, observing how it moves.

Remember: don’t just glance.

Remember:  with a centerfold chart and a red flashlight, much can be observed.

Another thing. Leave the city, watch it dance around.

A finder will really help, but you have to align it during twilight.

You can use a distant object, like a hill. 

Calculate the size of the field of view. 

You can count the seconds it takes a star to drift through a field.

Then there’s the issue of finding directions––no easy skill.

Patience will help, when it comes to learning where you are, where you are going.

Put a crosshair eyepiece in the scope. 

Keep in mind, there are a variety of names for these objects.

Don’t give up. Now find a galaxy. Describe it.

Inspiration (and found words/ phrases) from:
Coe, Steven R. Deep Sky Observing: The Astronomical Tourist. Springer, 2000.

Volcano

Reading about recent volcanic activity has me wondering: what’s really going on here?

Reading about recent volcanic activity of Cumbre Vieja on the on the Canary Island of La Palma has me wondering: what’s really going on here? I remember the story of Pele, the fiery-tempered volcanic deity, but what else?

In one story, a sky spirit caught cold. He decided to drill a hole in the sky, to push out the snow and the ice. What happens then, do you think?

It piles up. 

Exactly. So he steps down, looks around. While he’s at it, makes trees, rivers, animals, fish.

Birds?

Them, too. Brings the whole family down. They live in the mountaintops, of course, because they are more comfortable in altitude.  They gather around a fire. Smoke and sparks from the fire blow out the top of the lodge. Sometimes he needs to throw another big log in, to feed it. That’s when the sparks fly and the earth trembles. 

The Masai know about the Mountain of God, where Engai will appear from time to time. That’s why you don’t sleep on the slopes, as a matter of respect. Only the prophets can visit its craters. The point of going is to listen, to hear the message. And then, to take it back to the people.

You know that’s not smoke you’re seeing, but shards of glass. What you’re seeing now is rock shattered by heat, into countless tiny pieces. 

This is why you don’t want to breathe it in. The fluid in your lungs, mixed with ash, will make a very sturdy cement. 

And don’t even think about taking any of that lava rock off the island! ‘Less you want bad luck to follow you everywhere you go for the rest of your days.

Right. What about that big one, though? The really big one? 

That was thirty million years ago, in what is now Eastern Nevada, Western Utah. Makes anything since look like barely a blip. The big one threw magma over an area of about twelve-thousand square miles. In some areas, the deposits of debris were over two miles deep.

What’s up with those sharks, who hang out in the waters of the submerged volcanoes? Isn’t it–

Acidic? Hot? Filled with ash and gas? Yes and yes, and yes. Goes to show, there’s something for everybody. 

Speaking of which, ever surfed one?

You’ve got to be kidding.

No really. There’s a guide. The thing is, you’ve gotta be ready to hike. That, and wear shoes you don’t mind melting. 

Then what? 

Well, hopefully you brought a toboggan with you. Something coated at the bottom with plastic laminate works best. 

People do this.

Yeah, but don’t forget goggles. And you don’t really want to stand up. More like an ice luge approach, where you lean back on the board.

Wow.

And don’t forget––

What?

Shut your mouth!

I’m just asking!

No, I mean really. Shut it. There’s gonna be a whole lot of debris flying in on the way down. Hot.

Something for everybody.

Does that look like smoke?

No, that looks like a cloud of glass.

That’s the spirit.  Let’s go.

Mental Floss article about the extreme sport of volcano surfing inspired the last portion of this post.