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. 

Harvest Moon

Time to gather, time to put away.

It’s a Harvest Moon, the old woman announces. Then she tells me: it means that now is the time to reap what’s been sown. 

I am wondering what else. 

Consider the goddess who rides a white mare across the sky.  Also, this: did you know that the Celts would count their days from sunset? The first day of a week began at night to end in the morning. Now here are true dreamers.  They measured time in moons, and there were thirteen in a year.

Elsewhere, they saw not a man’s face, but the body of a hare, the harbinger of good fortune and fertility.

There’s a black-winged creature who eats the orb slowly until its all gone. The moon disagrees, and the creature vomits it back. The cycle repeats.

Perhaps you’ve wondered why it affects the tides. You need to understand: the moon kidnapped the sea god’s daughter for her impertinence.  Now you know.

Aine, Aylin, Esther, Hanwi, Io, Mani: she’s the waxing maiden, waning crone. She was romantically involved with the sun god, you know. A dramatic pursuit is what caused the great flood. Now they are a couple. When there’s peace at home, weather is good. But when there’s trouble between them, look out!

Some say she’s captured every night by a hostile tribe. When the antelope go to rescue her, coyote foils the plan, tossing her into the river. And what about the dark marks on her surface?

That’s another story, from when the moon was a wily hunter, outsmarting rabbit, and blinding him with his great light. That’s why rabbit’s eyes are pink-rimmed and squinty, why his lips tremble. He was terrified and blinded by the size of the light. He reached his paw in the river and flung clay at the source.

Now it lights the harvest. Time to gather, time to put away. This from the old woman again. Store the good fruits, she says, and toss away the bad. Patch the walls against the draft, take stock of what you’re storing, and of the hands around the table. Hold, dance. Longer nights are coming soon.

World in a Grain of Sand

Celebration of wonders that are easily missed by habitual lenses, and of the transcendent potential of the the act of looking closely enough.

Reading about the father of microbiology for yesterday’s post inspired me to return to one of my favorite forms of photography, the extreme closeup, which has been a fascination of mine for some time, most likely because it so aligns with other perennial fascinations: the unseen world, the right-before-the-eyes wonders that are easily missed by habitual lenses, and a belief in the transcendent potential of the the act of looking long enough and closely enough, with a willingness to appreciate unseen wonders, bowing to them over a lens, in postures of awe and reverence––for the wonders themselves, and for the artists who knew how to look, who took the time to wait, sore necks bowed over lenses, so that others might see: not what might or can be, but what already is.

Such as?

Look!

Sweep of obsidian, the curved form of a new age creature, the decorated ponytail extending from an avian head, the fine grain of its surface, the smooth luster of the skin. Where is it looking, so made up, and what is this creature?

That is the hind leg of a beetle.

What can I make of this glowing-red canopy from Alice’s wonderland, bright orbs giggling on top of it, a party of yellow puffer fish around the birthday cake?

Anther of hibiscus.

What is this now? Jungle of Pleistocene Forest, before the age of leaves, where the burgeoning woods are a viscous pink, part fiber and part gel, growing up and across like the storms of Jupiter, cooling in a mold, catching globs of supernovae?

That is cotton fabric, pollen grains.

Now a dreamscape: cloud bands fertile with wheat fields, above the twilight river, bodies of unborn fruit floating in it, their impish sweetness like thumbnail fairies?

Cross section of agate. Think you know rocks? Look at this.

That isn’t rock, but concentric circles of prism: green, blue, pink, suspended in snowflakes, but I don’t have the words right; the colors themselves are not even colors, but light in translation.

Check out this guy. He’s looking at you.

Look at this ant, his face grizzled with three-day-old whiskers and his Whatchou doing there? look, wearing the attitude of the widened trickster on the corner, the crazy uncle calling out the trouble you’re about to get into before you’ve even thought about it. He looks like he started in early on the rum punch and he’s cornering you with what you can already tell is going to be a long story.

These close-ups are really something, but look at this. Is this a lost Rothko, or an arial view of the ruins of some ancient cousin to Babylon’s gardens? Yes, it must be the gardens; look at this rich wood, these leaves, translucent gold petals of gossamer fabric. This must have been what the seraphim wore to blow trumpets; it must be–– 

That is a table salt crystal, and there is the vein and scales of a butterfly wing. 

But what is this wild celebration of light, like a Van Gogh vision of Mardi Gras after the absinthe kicks in, like a pointillist’s version of stained glass?

That is a brain tumor, laced with a virus.

Even this?

Even this.

Oh, this world.  

It’s almost too much.

To take in.

How does anyone ever do anything but look?

And wonder.

And take the hand of the next person, hold it and say, Look, look!

There it is. 

There it is.

This reflection was inspired by a feature in The Atlantic on the winners of Nikon’s 2021 Small World Photography Competition.

Arts of the Mind

Magic: the art of reframing what appears to be happening.

For the past two months, the pace of things and the hectic, noisy nature of a given day has been, to put it mildly, strenuous. Or, to put it more forcefully, profoundly difficult.  It’s what has me longing for silence, considering life underwater, and imagining journeys to cat island. This and staring at walls and their respective shelves, which is what I was doing this morning while I sipped coffee through bleary eyes, trying to prepare for the day. It was because of this stare that I noticed a gem of a strange book that I had bought along with some other magic books year ago. I had a minor character who was into magic, and although I was able to develop much of what I needed without needing to get bogged down in research, I keep the books on my shelf and turn to them from time to time. Doing so never fails to enlighten me in some unexpected way––which is, after all, what one wants when dealing with anything magical.  The book I noticed this morning is 13 Steps to Mentalism, by the English mentalist Tony Corinda (1930-2010), who is widely considered to be an expert in the field. 

My first question, when opening this volume was, “What is mentalism, exactly?” I had placed it in the family of magic, but I realized that I couldn’t exactly define the term. I quickly learned that Mr. Corinda wasn’t a fan of offering explanations to outsiders, as the book came with no preface, no introductory overview, and a table of contents that a newcomer may find inscrutable. For example, the opening page dives right into techniques for using an apparatus known as the “Swami Gimmick Writer” without any explanation as to what one of these devices actually is, or why someone who practices mentalism would want to know how to use them––or, needless to say, what it is that a mentalist is actually supposed to doing. 

Perhaps the point was to get me to develop my capacity for conjuring hidden meanings. With this challenge in mind, I was inspired to interpret that the device in question, which has some lead in a point like a pencil tip, attached in a subtle manner by a tiny device that fits on the tip of an index finger, is used––I think–– to make surreptitious markings on paper. This can be useful, I imagine, in the event that a participant has just revealed that the number they were thinking was six and you mean to show that the number you anticipated they would be thinking when you pretended to write one earlier was actually also––“Tah-dah! Six!”

So, with slight help from ability to use context clues, and much greater help from Wikipedia, I now understand that mentalism is a performing art in which its practitioners, known as mentalists, appear to demonstrate highly developed mental or intuitive abilities. Performances may include hypnosis, telepathy, clairvoyance, divination, precognition, psychokinesis, mediumship, mind control, memory feats, deduction, and rapid mathematics.

And who couldn’t use more of this? So, in case you are wondering, I thought I would harvest a few pearls of wisdom regarding these various and related arts, because it is hard to imagine that such a wide range of skills would not be almost universally applicable to anyone in any field. 

This proved harder than I thought, because in Corinda’s own words, “I am not a fan of teaching anything to anybody at any time, except if they are one of us.” Given that teaching is my stated profession, I was moved to appreciate the bald-faced, albeit somewhat pessimistic nature of his honesty. By around page 275 of the volume, in the Chapter “Mediumistic Stunts,” I found a few clues that I am choosing, by exercise of will, to deem immensely useful. Who couldn’t benefit from some mediumistic stunts?  I read on eagerly, thinking as I considered the day ahead: Sign me up, Tony. Sign me up.

Here are some preliminary findings. First, the most important part is the dramatic delivery of speech. The element of surprise is always our friend, and some may be surprised to know what one can get away with in a setting like a séance. Note the importance of word choice. Instead of mind-reading, say Telepathy, or ESP. Rather than sight, refer to Clairvoyance. Instead of hearing, refer to your Clairaudience, and regarding matters of feeling, Clairsentience evokes the ineffable je ne sais quoi that any performer of mental–– um, Events (never, ever call these tricks) ––depends upon.  

These people are not the audience, but The Gathering! Not Ladies and Gentlemen, but Sitters and Friends! Not tools or thingies, but Psychic Appliances with specific names: auragoggles, spirit trumpet, gazing crystal.  Not Ghost, but Spirit; not Assistant, but Guide. The living are On the Earthplane, and the others are Beyond the Veil

To vanish is to Dematerialize, and Apportation is when something is apparently brought into the room my supernatural means.

There’s more to be explained––much more, but after hunting so long for something I could understand, I am going to rest on my laurels here. On days like this, in times like this, when I’m acutely aware of the need for some magic or divine assistance with the details of the day, I am refreshed by the reminder that sometimes what is needed most is the opportunity to reframe a situation through language.

It is not overwhelming, but sensorily and spiritually fertile; not soul-crushing, but soul-strengthening as with an athlete’s weight routine; not desperate, but ready to transform.

Whisper Songs

Longing for the living silences.

The silent places are gone now, but––I hear–– there are these anechoic chambers accessible through three sets of thick doors, behind three layers of thick walls, with fat grey foam over every surface. It’s so quiet inside that the hiss of blood in your ears is deafening.  So quiet that if you should say something, the sound has nowhere to bounce, and what you hear will feel like needing to pop your ears in a plane.

––Too much, I think. A body wants space, too; a sense of safety within the actual, living world, without having to be in a cell.

There’s the empty concert hall. Imagine an upper corner, a blanket and pillow. In there, you won’t even hear a bomb detonating in the city outside.

It’s not the grave I want, but living silence. Not outer-space, either, with its weightlessness and no air molecules to carry the sound of a scream. Please, just no rumble of truck over grave, no mid-morning leaf-blower.

In the Hoh Rainforest, in Olympic National Park, there once was a small square inch of space not yet affected by the noise of air traffic. It may be gone now.

There are underwater caves in the Yucatan, the Kelso Dunes at twilight, the volcanic patches throughout Iceland; a blanket bog in England, a crater in Maui, parts of Alaska, Big Bend.

The salt flats of Botswana are quiet too, they say. Except that I think the image of the lost lake must pain what is already sore with loss. 

Some are trying to designate refuges where the sound of natural noise buffers the sound of machine. There’s an Urban Quiet Park outside Taipei; there is Eduador’s Zabalo River. Let us hear water noises, squirrel, wren. A church at midday during the week. The low murmur of people chatting in a café would be fine, minus the blenders, the espresso machines, the crash rumbling of trucks on the street. 

They say you can hear the blue magpie in one of these urban parks. I don’t know the sound by name. I had to look it up. They say that deep in the jungle, a canopy of leaves and mosses can make the sound of water echo all around. 

When I was small, I would sometimes curl beneath a blanket on the couch in my grandmother’s living room. She had a garden with hummingbirds and blue jays around, and she’d exclaim over the occasional cardinal. She’d be quietly moving things in the kitchen, in the sink. I would hear the shuffle of her feet, the opening and closing of drawers, cabinets, the birds outside. I would close my eyes just to feel it better, like the tickle of breeze in the late afternoon, the soft sweep of kitten fur against skin, the sudden landing of a butterfly on a nearby surface.  I would hold as still as I could, knowing that I would eventually have to leave her space, and her, and do whatever it was that the adult world demanded. This posture was not unlike the one I would hold in the car while going anywhere I did not want to go, especially school, when I would press my face against the glass as the miles moved too quickly toward the approaching noise, thinking, Shhhhhhhh.

Badger in the Window Well

There is a badger in the window well. He appears to be stuck. What do you do?

Look here. There’s a badger.

They’re nocturnal.

No, in the window well.

Is that an omen?

No, that’s the wolverine, but some of the details of the old stories got mixed up in translation. 

What’s the badger, then?

He’s in the window well. Can you call––? I think he needs help.

Sure, but I mean, what does it mean?

That he followed something and got trapped, I guess.

No, I mean in the stories.

Hardworking, protective. They’re generous providers. The Lakota have a story.

Hello? Yeah, we have a badger in the window. He’s stuck. Can you–– okay. Hello?

Are they coming?

I think so. I think that guy was in the middle of something involving a large snake.

Well, hopefully not in the middle. Anyway, in the Lakota story, Badger hunts with arrows and he’s so successful that his lady is in the kitchen all day making the next feast for the den of chubby babies. Then one day a mangy, hungry bear shows up, eyeing the racks of meat drying in the yard.

And then what?

What do you think? Badger says he doesn’t look so hot, offers bear a meal. Bear eats his fill, goes away happy, comes back the next day. The badgers welcome him. Lady of the house even sets a rug out each night for the bear, so he has his own place.

Awwww.

Yeah, but the bear is greedy. The whole time he’s eating at the badger family table, he’s eyeing the bags of arrows, the stores of dried meat, the home.  One day he says to badger: You have what I want, and throws the whole family out, tossing them like feathers with his fat paw. 

Then what?

They howl, they cry. Badger begs for mercy. For the children, he says, but Bear won’t hear it. The Badgers build a new shelter, but they have no arrows, no stores of dried meat. The babies are starving. Badger goes back to bear, begging. He gets tossed away. Bear laughs and mocks.

But on the way out, Badger finds a bit of buffalo blood in the grass. He takes it back to the shelter, offers a sacrifice, begging divine intercession. And who do you think shows up?

I can’t imagine.

A human brother with arrows and means. They head back to the old home, which the bear family has been ransacking and getting fat on, and the bear doesn’t even need an explanation for their arrival. He knows what this is. He had it coming. He sees the magic arrow. He shouts to his family, Let’s go! and they flee. 

Did the human stay with them?

The avenger left the badger family then, to do other work. The badgers resumed their lives, and the bear never bothered them again. 

So, what’s this then, the badger in the window?

Is help coming?

I think so.

Well. Just a reminder, then. I hope.

Of what?

To help who you can whenever you can. To resist the impulse, I guess.

The impulse to what?

To focus on whatever you think you need.

Okay, well they should be here soon, to help. I’m gonna make a sandwich.

What did you say?

I said–––

?

I’m going to wait right here, until they come. 

This morning I came across the headline, “Wildlife Officials Rescue Badger Trapped in Colorado Window Well,”  which inspired this post.  And, in case anyone finds themselves wondering, as I was, about the exact nature of a window well, here is an explanation: “A window well is a U-shaped, ribbed metal or plastic product available in most home hardware stores. It’s designed to fit around basement windows, providing a space between the window and the surrounding earth to allow light into sub-grade structures” (squarone.ca).

Lightning

A flash, a bolt, a vision before the thunder: lightning conjures images of celestial warfare, but that isn’t all.

A bolt can be an inch wide and ninety miles long.

More people are hit while fishing than any other outdoor activity.

The heat can cause a sudden expansion of sap­­––or blood––exploding a tree, or blood vessels. 

New York’s Empire State Building is struck twenty-five to one-hundred times per year.

There was an orthopedic surgeon in Albany, who was struck in a phone booth in the mid-nineties. He had just finished a call to his mother. His heart stopped. He was revived but changed. He no longer had interest in medicine. What he did have was a sudden urge to play the piano, along with visions of musical notations. Although he had no prior musical experience, he became a classical musician, began touring. 

How? Some of the remaining doctors speculated that the neurons were rewired, providing access to areas of the brain that were previously inaccessible. 

Many cultures saw it as the choice weapon of divinities, but the Navajo had a different take. They considered it a healing power, a wink in Thunderbird’s eye. 

House of Bones

Considering the first known examples of human architecture: dwellings made of mammoth bones.

They found them in the Ukraine in one of the Vietnam war years, in the year of Selma and the teenage sniper on the 101 and the launch of the world’s first in-space nuclear reactor. There were troops in the D.R. and the burning of draft cards and Muhammed Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in a rematch.

Phantom punch?

Right. It was Beatlemania and Watts and the Stones and Vatican II that year.

How did they find them?

It was just a jawbone at first. A farmer was expanding his cellar when he uncovered it. Then there were more bones.

How many? 

Hundreds, then thousands. They thought at first it was the site of a mass slaughter.

All mammoth? 

Yes. Then they noticed the patterns, the arrangement. Then they found more, and they figured that what they were looking at was one of the earliest known relics of human architecture.

People lived in the bones?

The tusks made an arched entryway. They created domes with the rest, covered them with skins. There were sometimes multiple domes in one area. Each could hold ten to one-hundred people. It is likely that there were ritual gatherings inside.

Day-to-day living, also?

Definitely. They would have to. Consider the cold. 

So, they were sheltered in the bones of the mammoth they had eaten?

And the bones they would gather.  

I am trying to imagine the quiet of that space, the uncompromised elegance.

Of living in the remains of the dead.

Of no one pretending otherwise.

Where everywhere you looked, there they were.

The remains, and you inside them.

Except it would be us, always us.

Always a group, breathing for a short time.

In the shelters assembled by living hands, from the remains.

As if to say, come in. Stay for a while.

As if to say, we are all going soon. 

As if to remind, this is shelter. Foxes have holes, birds their nests.

But the sons and daughters of men?

Only this.

For more about the 1965 discovery of the oldest surviving architecture, Jeremy Norman’s History of Information provides more information and a short video.