Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Gatsby phenomenon

It's easier for women to be be upwardly mobile by being beautiful; than it is for a man to do it by becoming overwhelmingly rich in five years. This is just one of the conclusions to be drawn from The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald's early twentieth century classic, recently released with Leonardo di Caprio as Jay Gatsby; Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Tobey McGuire as Nick Carroway.

The plot of Fitzgerald's story is simple. Jay Gatsby has been carrying a torch for Daisy since their romantic entanglement five years before, when they were both poor. The war took Gatsby away. After the war, chance put him in the way of a lifestyle change aboard a yacht owned by Captain Cody whose life he saved.  After Cody's death, he was still destitute but with airs which drove him to make a fortune through drugstores and bootlegging. Daisy was lovely and lively enough to attract old-moneyed Tom Buchanan - from the first, she is aware that she doesn't hold him and he constantly wanders off to a mistress; although he confesses, "I've always come back to you." They have a daughter of whom Daisy says, "I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool."

The story is told by Nick Carroway who is Gatsby's neighbour. The telling is both intimate and objective; in the recent film Nick sees himself "within and without." He is Daisy's cousin and Gatsby's confidante who brings her back into Gatsby's life. Within, because he does take a side - that of romance, and admiration for the only person he's ever met who is eternally optimistic. Without, as he relates the story and its impact on him, unvarnished and truthful as he can be.

Gatsby's accumulation of wealth has only one purpose - to win Daisy back to him. This licenses the Baz Luhrmann written and directed (2013) version to feature orgiastic parties thrown in Gatsby's mansion. All are welcome, as he hopes to draw the Buchanans who live across the bay, and bring Daisy to his house. When this doesn't work, he befriends Nick - Daisy's distant cousin - and arranges for him to bring her to tea.

The movie - as the book - dwells in contradictions and contrast, such as still exist in societies a century later. In the "golden age" of the American dream, there is wealth without work; waste in the face of destitution; the belief that pleasure is an end in itself; and that we can reach and take what our hearts desire. The unworldly suburbs connect with the shining city of  New York through a valley of squalid industry and dim ignorance. And it is here that all stumble and fall - Tom Buchanan to take another man's wife because he can afford to; Daisy who doesn't see it as a place to slow down; and Gatsby himself confounded by his own dream and desire.

In the end, people don't trust sudden wealth. And old money can be carelessly used by people like Tom and Daisy: they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness...

The Gatsby lifestyle blows away like leaves at the end of that summer. His greatness - like a light, like the green light across the bay which was his beacon - memorialized only in the waking-from-the-dream recollection of Nick Carroway: He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A bit about Beebe

William Beebe's first job was as Curator of Birds at the New York Zoological Park (Bronx Zoo). Born 1877, he began in 1899 as assistant curator. His interest and skills (many self-taught - such as taxidermy) took him around the world in search of specimens. One of his first birding expeditions, taken with his first wife Mary Blair Rice, is documented in the 1905 book, Two Bird Lovers in Mexico. 

Another more technical book, The Bird - its Form and Function, was published in 1906. It includes his famous quote: "The beauty and genius of a work of art may be re-conceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."

Together, Will and Blair also travelled to Venezuela, Guyana and Trinidad. And these expeditions are captured in their book, Our Search for a Wilderness.

By the end of 1909, the couple set out - with sponsorship - on the defining birding expedition of their life together. The study of pheasants in their habitats took them around the world. It is estimated that "the Beebes traveled about 52,000 miles and visited 22 countries (UK, Egypt, Ceylon, India, Sikkim, Burma, the Yunnan Province in China, the Malay States, Java, Borneo and Japan)" for primary research. (See the official website: This was followed by reading and analysis in the natural history museum capitals of the world. Will and Blair's monograph, The Pheasant, was subsequently published in four volumes, illustrated by the most notable wildlife artists of the day.

By the 1920's, following an expedition to the Galapagos - a review of Darwin's process and progress in his theory of evolution - Beebe "discovered" helmet diving. In the preface of Beneath Tropic Seas (1928) Beebe writes "The diving helmet, hose and pump, with which all the research was done, are as inexpensive as they are simple in operation," and he encourages anyone who can, to explore the underwater world. Despite the outmoded equipment, and methods - blasting fish out of the water to collect specimens - Beebe's observations are lucid, factual and entertaining, and certainly worthy of being read a century later - providing a 100-year baseline for life in the same places. Beneath Tropic Seas is a record of the tenth expedition of the Department of Tropical Research of the New York Zoological Society. It is a study of the coral reefs and fishes in the Bay of Port-au-Prince Haiti.

At any given time, Beebe's view might be single focused but it's never tunnel-visioned. One of the most delightful chapters in Beneath Tropic Seas, "When Night Comes to Water" is a poet's record of phosphorescence, the stars and city lights. And certainly the most surprising - for being unexpected in a book on the underwater world of coral reefs - is his overview, with many fine details of behaviour - pugnacity - their habitats, life cycle and stamina, of hummingbirds.  He writes, "No person of real worth ever forgets the first hummingbird he has ever seen, and if his fate has cast him in cities or deep in mines or other doleful hummerless places, then a certain cell in his brain should always hold the thought of hopes for hummingbirds." 

"It is more important to me to be able to see a hummingbird next year than to cross the ocean in two days instead of six," he declares.

Here is a man who spends his life in awe of the natural world; who after the most thorough scientific investigations never loses that enthusiasm for the individual or the species. That is possibly his lasting gift to the world, so open heartedly expressed in all his books and documents. William Beebe writes with immediacy but not a solely scientific approach. His sense of wonder and the generosity to share his findings with anyone who might listen are infectious and engaging. Nearly a century later, he exudes "the supreme joy of learning, of discovering, of adding our tiny facts to the foundation of the everlasting why of the universe; all this makes life for us ... one never-ending delight."

Wonder what Beebe thought of the Cobo

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Moments from a wedding weekend

What's life but a sequence of moments, some memorable but many simply settling to the floor of the mind, lurking to rise when called. The best weekends are made of many moments - some mere sensory flickers to pass over; others that catch and spark in the quiet soul.  Here are a few from mid May 2013, to be known as the mothers day wedding weekend.

Travel is tiring: even one short international flight. That the wheelchair route through one of the largest international airports could be invigorating! Where is she going? The petite hispanic attendant points with her mouth when it looked like the travel companion was wandering away.  A shorter domestic flight. Then the midnight cab ride - longer than the last flight - to a cottage on the Georgia coast at Sea Island. Loving hugs from two sleepy girls complete this memory.

Roses at the front
Wake to the light creeping down from the tops of the tallest pines and palms. Here are other frames for this waking moment: the flaming rose bush behind the glass door; wet grass rising up to a crest; a dark beach exposed at low tide; the placid ocean surging below.

The weekend house
This beach house sits low on its lot. The palms and pines tower above. It's the least of the grand plantation mansions that evoke the old South, spreading trees festooned with old man's beard.
"Best dog" for the bridal party

Dogs don't speak. It's likely the only thing that separates them from us. Their exuberance matches ours when we are happy. They too like quiet comfort, and to snuggle near a body they love. The groom's golden lab pitbull is no exception. She romps and runs like a puppy. Run run run, she stumbles for an instant, rises and runs some more, even though one foreleg is gimpy. She's learned a new trick, someone shouts, to run on three legs! Oh no, someone will kill us if she has to limp in the procession. But dogs can do something else we have unlearned, and that is heal themselves - with a little help from acupressure.

At low tide, the beach draws you. Walk, ride or run for miles. Large globes of jellyfish are dying on the beach. The helmet crab is another victim. Round the boulders some putrid smell rises. Eeewww, stinks like a body! Look over here, she says. The scream is sudden and rising, chills to the bone. Wedged in the boulders is a body. A turtle on its back, its eyeball round, beak open rigid, foul and unfair death. It must have been there for over a week. The screamer says she had a flash of human remains, police, coroner, witness, delays. Never a dull moment, the beach!

No better place to relax than the beach

No presents said the bride, just your presence. Instead, tears are shed - of joy - over love tokens that come with stories and blessings for the good marriage. The jade butterfly for the mandarin's daughter. Crystal hummingbird tells of the meeting in Trinidad. A Gnome, Nordic symbol to ward off trolls. The mezuzah (Jewish prayer scroll) in its decorated box to bless the threshold. A menagerie of Lladro - frog,  elephant, cupid, panda. And from the rabbi's wife, a sexy apron, clean up gloves, a cookbook and underwear. Celtic knots. Finally, a reproduction of Gustav Klimt's Fulfillment gilded painting.

Cousins are everywhere. The supporting cast in all the weekend festivities: making light of every task. But a professional chef makes a lot of difference - moist juicy burgers, ribs and chicken done to a turn - and pulls the casual barbecue meal together.

Chef Jason kept the grill firing!

Chilling at the barbecue

The day of ceremony begins. The bride and her party are kept apart from the groom and his. The Jewish marriage contract is read and signed. Everyone gathers to witness the knitting together of two families along the single seam of this boy and this girl. It is a confluence also witnessed in other lands - thanks to modern technology.

Littlest cousin Grace

A cousin helps with long distance congrats
Just married
Maid of Honor and Best Dog
Cousins at the fete!
If all goes a little crazy in the end, well, that too makes a memory.

No presents, the bride said, but everyone brought something. Best mangoes from a brother's tree, sweet as young love and full of sunshine.
Sweet as young love, full of sunshine