Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A dolphin lies dead on the sand ...

"Infant dolphins were found dead at six times average rates in January and February of 2013. More than 650 dolphins have been found beached in the oil spill area since the disaster began, which is more than four times the historical average. Sea turtles were also affected, with more than 1,700 found stranded between May 2010 and November 2012 – the last date for which information is available. On average, the number stranded annually in the region is 240."

Sea animals in the Gulf seem to be responding to high levels of toxicity in their environment. By dying. And vast as the ocean might be - we are constantly reminded that it's 70% of earth's surface - it cannot wash away quickly enough the 4.9 million barrels of crude oil, followed by 1.8 million gallons of dispersant dumped in the Gulf of Mexico since May 2010. The very vastness of the ocean fools us into believing that we who live on dry land have less. But we air-breathers enjoy all of the thick blanket of atmosphere which surrounds the earth, with even the worst smogs and pollutions cleansed by the 70% in the cycle of evaporation and rainfall. (On the other side of the great mother ocean, Fukushima spills 300 tons of radioactive water every day into the Pacific, where we may never see a dolphin dead on the sand.)

Now that the stats are being collected, how should we regard beaching dolphins and high infant dolphin mortality? These are animals with intelligence matching our own. Beaching is a deliberate act. Imagine this: creatures whose natural environment has become so intolerable that they swim or throw themselves out of it; seeking escape from the very medium supposed to give life and sustain them. 

Is it possible? That an animal will commit suicide if it is unable to survive and thrive in its habitat. That it might refuse to fight for life; or that its struggle to live leads it to attempt the unthinkable. A deliberate act, not different from the person who fills her pockets with rocks and walks into the deepest part of the river; the man who runs his car into a bridge; the mother who hangs herself in the bathroom.

Is it a weakness to die like this? To let yourself go, back into the great churn of rank and fetid soil, to return your atoms and molecules to be re-ordered, into a tree, perhaps plankton, morsels for crabs to chew on, for worms to feast. 

Is there not a weakness too, in holding on, longevity a virtue, past productivity, past feeling useful, past joy, proving only the trick of survivability. Truth is, we who have caused the deaths of species - of millions of millions of individuals of other kinds, floral and faunal - we are afraid to die. Indeed, we live in the belief of a god-given right to dominion over the biodiversity of the earth. As if our species - alone - is beyond ecological retribution. As if we are children of the stars, with another home to return to.

Yes, we may be children of the stars, but why should we think that dolphins and whales, the turtles and fish, hummingbirds and dung beetles, bachacs and great trees, corals and all, are any less star-born. But that's always been our problem, that - even acknowledging that all the forms of life have the same origins - we believe we are more equal than any.

A dolphin lies dead on the sand. How did he die? 

Did he fall from the sky? Was he washed up with a wave? Were there marks of a predator on him? Were there signs of disease? Did he become disoriented? Was he chased by a shark? Did he take poison?

How did he die?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Last Mango

My mango tree produced a crop this year. It is now seven years old, and about 12 feet tall, naturally rounded in the way that trees will grow if there are no other trees close by. Because it is on a hill, it leans a few degrees southward. The crop might have been bigger except that on a particularly dry and windy day in April, several lime-sized fruit were blown off the tree. But many still held on to become the cricket ball sized fruit in maturity, and just as hard as a cork ball.

Stone mangoes on the tree 
This tree that I call Stone, I've heard others call Buxton Spice. I've looked for images on line, and while it does bear resemblance to the shape of Buxton Spice, there are some differences. There's no spicy taste or aftertaste, just a bright sweet flavour. It is firm fleshed and ripens from the inside out, so while the outside may still be firm and tart, around the seed is orange and sweet.

This year, I noticed what I thought was a jep nest - they turned out to be black sugar wasps - growing on the tree. It appeared around the same time that the mangoes were "full" and starting to ripen. Through the season, at least one mango at a time would be abuzz with these black wasps following it to the ground to finish the fully ripened fruit. They always know - before us - when the mango is ready. It is a neat arrangement not to have rotting mango lying under the tree. The bees or wasps didn't bother me, and I was allowed to pick enough fruit every day to keep me happy.

Wasp nest in the heart of the tree
Now that the "season" is over, the wasps are gone.

Inside the Stone mango
I seem to remember that the other Stone tree on the farm had other patrons to keep the ground free of rotting mangoes too. July 1990 was a particularly fruitful season - lucky for us curfewed on the farm - but Valoroso (ex racehorse) was also with us. We would hear the mangoes fall, then the swift thud of hooves as Val cantered over. He would stand under the tree chewing, his big horsey teeth in a kind of smirk. Then he would spit the seed out. If we wanted to collect mangoes, we would have to pick them off the tree, or search around for those that the horse didn't particularly want - he chose the ripest and sweetest.

But Stone wasn't the only mango on the farm. Thirty years before, we met the Zabico tree there. It was a pale jade fruit that was crisp yellow inside when ripe. It was about the size of a pommerac, with a slightly elongated shape. It was a very tall tree at the end of the row of pommerac trees that marked the boundary of the big hatchery. We didn't like it very much - its flavour we thought watery, a bit too subtle. But the Zabico was my mother's favourite; she found pleasure in whatever the delicate aroma and taste reminded her of.

We all loved the Rose - another tall (oh, easily fifty feet) tree - and the windfall of hundreds of mangoes in season. We didn't know what to do with all of them. Some went to the pigs. Others were allowed to germinate for rootstock to graft Julies or other hybrids onto. But children adore Rose: a crunchy chow with garlic, pungent shadon beni and a stinging pepper. And whose mouth doesn't water for the aroma and taste of curried mango just picked from the tree? My own introduction to Rose was as a child - maybe four or five - on a bird catching trip with my father in Wallerfield. The traps were set with laglee, while the caged picoplat sang his heart out. It was while waiting for the untamed birds to come that the wild Rose tree would be raided. The memory of that stolen secret mango Rose chow shared among a carload of bird-catchers was the standard against which every other chow would be measured.

Inside the wall on the farm was the Starch tree. People walking along the road knew about this tree before we ever did. Mowing the lawn, we would clear the stones that littered the ground nearby. All the mangoes on the side nearest the road were picked first. Sometimes, it felt like a battle to get our own Starch mangoes. Only late in life - as an adult with two children - I discovered Starch, with its chemical smell - turpentiney and invading the house - and under the skin, tangy creamy sweetness. One Starch can never be enough, but if it was all, you could suck flavour out of the same stringy seed for hours.

The king of mangoes on the farm was Graham. There were three or four trees planted in a row near the house. Their canopy kept the area underneath cool and damp; and a great bachac nest thrived there for years; nothing would persuade these ants to leave. How they must have loved those mango leaves. Nothing prevented the Grahams from growing to whatever the full size and bounty might be. Some were the size of a hefty barbadine. Many were grapefruit size. We gave these away by the box load. I had a friend who ate them bruised, over-ripe or bird-pecked. Those were the most delicious to her. The year my mother passed away - 1998 -  gave us a bumper Graham crop. Some days, it sounded like it was raining footballs. Boop! Boop! Bo-dup! That year, a passion fruit vine had found its way above the Graham canopy to bask in sunshine. Underneath, you couldn't step without mashing mango or passion fruit. When the fruit was fresh, you could taste the essence of passion fruit in those Grahams. It was the year I learned to make mango sorbet, freezing litres of mango puree.

And Julie. Ah Julie - the inhabitant of every Woodbrook yard, together with the breadfruit and West Indian cherry trees. It seems that Woodbrook Julie mangoes bear all year round. Even in December, my uncle would offer a mango to any special visitor. The Julies on the farm in Santa Cruz ripened with a green skin. You had to know by feel and smell (especially!) when the Julie was ready to eat. But certainly the best Julie tree was the one planted by my godmother in her garden in Diego Martin in the fifties. By the time I made its acquaintance, it was a 50-year old, alone in its spot in the yard, soaking up sunshine and delivering fruit that would turn yellow rose and orange-gold, like a sunset. This was mango to feed gods - the skin tissue-thin, the aroma heady, and the flesh firm but pliant, sweet as my godmother's famous "sweet han'", running with nectar. No wonder the vagrant woman would jump the five foot fence, risk the barking dog rushing at her, for a mango or two.

Other mangoes that were abundant didn't interest us. We would pass basins of dou-douce on the road to Toco - apricot size fruit that you would roll to soften and then suck through a tiny hole in the skin. La Brea Gal - a near cousin of Starch - on the way to Point Fortin. Cutlass - shaped like a blade - is still an exotic, without a distinctive flavour.

And now, it's mid August. The wasps have left their nest - I don't know where to. The last mangoes high at the top of the tree have fallen to their nibbles. There's just one left, sitting on my counter. I turn it around at least three times a day. I notice the paling of the green with the hint of yellow emerging. I sniff at the skin like a dog, but Stone has very little smell. Others are eyeing it too. So I have to gauge when it is ripe enough for me, before someone else decides it's ripe enough for him. I know the flavour may be less than those at the prime, the plump fruit bursting like a midday sun, seeping sweet juice. But I will slice it and savour it. I will close my eyes and suck the seed dry. Another eleven months must pass before we enjoy another.

And so, if I call you the mango of my life, know that it is with affection and wonderful associations, and love that grows, ripens and is enjoyed in its season.

Stone mango = sweet sunshine! Plant your favourite mango tree today!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Writing from Life

Two images remain after reading Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life” (published by Harper since 1989).

The first is of a man in a skiff, tethered to a log which he is bringing ashore against the tide. The place was somewhere in the northwest Pacific coast of America. He spotted the log drifting offshore, parallel to the shore, and rowed out to get it. He underestimated the gamble of bringing it in while the tide was still slack. By the time he secured the log, the tide was running south to the shore. He rowed and rowed and rowed just to stay in place. As the tide grew stronger, he rowed to remain parallel to the shore.  Sometime in the night, the sea calmed, and he took the opportunity to turn and row north again. Soon the tide turned, and it was all he could do to keep himself afloat, to keep the precious log bobbing along with him. It had taken him a night and most of a day just to get back to the place where he set out from.

The second is of a skilled stunt pilot turning tricks in his airplane; you might call Dave Rahm an artist in air and metal.  He would usually be the last flier at the airshows, the star, performing dips and rolls, stalling and spinning in mid air before pulling up and flying away to rising applause, which he certainly could not hear. Rahm drew lines in the air like graceful calligraphy. You would think that he enjoyed the acrobatics, like a gymnast or a bird might do. Until Dillard went up with Rahm, she could believe that the effortless grace of the airplane echoed something in the pilot. So she took off with Rahm in his single engine plane, to feel his art. His aircraft flew through cloud and banked close to the mountain slopes of steep valleys. Inside the plane rattled, the whine of the engine was terrifying and uncertain. “We felt flung,” Dillard wrote, “… parts of our faces and internal organs trailed pressingly behind on the curves.” The vertigo and the force of many g’s deadening the brain, the face flattened back on the skull, was the tremendous effort it took to make art with an airplane, to follow a line of graceful arcs, lovely vining curlicues, suspended in the sky. Rahm practiced daily.  Later, he was living in Jordan and performing for King Hussein when he dove straight into the ground.

Dillard describes her own writing life. It is the life of the artist in a windowless room; in a cabin in the woods. You have to love words, she says, to read everything, to read the best of everything. But of course, she says much more; and better than a review might do.

It’s worth reading, Annie Dillard’s slim book, “The Writing Life” whether you are a writer or any other kind of artist. It does not glorify the process, the many starts, the best words and phrases and paragraphs that you throw away in order to find what you are looking for, and which you don’t actually know that you are seeking.

Of course, not every writer has the same technique or goes through the process. But if you are a writer or want to write, Dillard knows what you're up against.

“When you write,” she writes, “ you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Mighty Scream

Angelina Jolie's scream - it lasts at least 30 seconds - is the most heart-wrenching moment ever captured in film. The scream - its futility and anguish, deep irreparable pain and the torment of living - becomes the defining scene of the movie, A Mighty Heart. Her character Mariane Pearl has just been told that the father of her unborn child, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl has been killed by his kidnappers. Days of gut-wrenching tenuous hope disappear in a moment. This moment requires an aside, a time out, the interval in which her life is shattered but she's still alive.

Mariane leaves the room where police chiefs, federal agents, friends and investigators are standing about helplessly, concern etched on their faces, hearts full of useless pity. She closes the door to her bedroom. She screams. Again and again and again. The "no, no, no" mounts to an inarticulate howl. Tears stream. Then she gathers herself, cradles her pregnancy, and returns to the other room, composed but not consoled. With a gesture, she apologises.

In what must be her most powerful role to date, Jolie presents Mariane Pearl with grace and restraint that makes her riveting to watch. The performances of Jolie, Dan Futterman (Daniel) and Archie Panjabi (Asra) make this film more than an account of a kidnapping of a journalist by terrorists. It is a love story, about being in love with life.

In early 2002, Daniel Pearl disappeared on his way to interview Sheikh Jilani. It was to have been his last assignment before leaving Pakistan. The film tells of the events and the investigation to find Danny and to bring his killers to justice. In 2003, after the birth of their child, Mariane wrote "A Mighty Heart." It was made into the film and released in 2007. Mariane - of Dutch-Cuban ancestry, and living in Paris - wanted her character to be played by Angelina Jolie.

One of the greatest benefits of a film like A Mighty Heart is that it can lead you back to the book. In the prologue to her memoir titled A Mighty Heart The Brave Life and Death of my Husband Danny Pearl, Mariane explains: "I write this book for you, Adam, so you know that your father was not a hero, but an ordinary man. An ordinary hero with a mighty heart."

Even though it will take me a lot longer to read than the two hours to watch the movie, I am certain that the book will provide greater insights to Mariane, Danny, Pakistan and the "war on terror." It will also certainly need a more studied review. Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Cloud Atlas - simultaneous and sequential

Cloud Atlas (2102), the video club manager assured me, was rubbish, rubbish. And even though I depended regularly on his advice, I was intrigued. Don't bring it back to pelt me, he warned. Well, prepared like that, I steeled myself, and stayed entertained, surrendering cynicism and logic to the power of the story. In this case, six stories are lightly linked by literary references and other clues. They are powered along by the energy of the cast, each actor carrying several distinct roles in widely divergent eras.

What could possibly have ended up a tedious compendium of strange and separate stories, gels in the repertory performances of a relatively small cast of actors - among them Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, the relatively unknown Ben Whishaw and David Gyasi, and others. Aided by the artfulness of masque and make up; and finessed with editing for split-second sequencing. In three hours, we shuttle in time and tension, back and forth across 500 years.

Based on the novel by David Mitchell, the stories are shared between the directors (Andy and Lana on one team) Wachowski, and Tom Twyker. Each directs three stories; some are filmed simultaneously.

Over more than a hundred years of movie-making, we have learned how to make movies with more technology, greater complexity, with a grasp of simultaneity that matches the synapses in the brain. No longer restricted to linear sequence and plot, we have learned to perceive and order the story that loops and returns upon itself - like a DNA strand. Cloud Atlas is six strands intertwined, each affecting the others, snapping and sparking off each other. It is a seminal movie that matches the way modern humans - and cinema goers - respond to information from multiple stimuli.

There have been other movies about co-influencing human action and emotion. Crash (2004), with its cast that included Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton, Matt Dillon, Terrance Howard, takes place in a day and two nights in Los Angeles. In this sprawling city that's a rich mix of culture, class and ethnic diversity, there is coincidence as human emotions spill over to generate misunderstanding, ill-will, prejudice, racism, death; and to a lesser extent, communion, hope and joy.

Even earlier, the movie Six Degrees of Separation (1993) proposed that every human being on earth is separated from every other by only six persons; perhaps no longer an existential view twenty years later.

Babel (2006) hangs on a thread that runs from California to Mexico, Morocco to Japan. "The single gunshot heard around the world" - as its tagline -  brings tragedy to the lives it affects. Babel might be a multitude, but it is a single tower, as we are a single species, on a single Earth. Our senses have been trained by multimedia as much as by movies - Inception with its many levels of reality - to accept simultaneity.

Cloud Atlas condenses the human story into a single strand: action and non-action; going with the flow or standing up to the fight; living before dying. At least two of Tom Hanks' characters summarise, "One governing principle that defines every relationship on God's green earth: The weak are meat, and the strong do eat." We cannibalise our kind. We build the future upon the bones of the past. We rise again, cells re-assembled. Everything is connected.

Somni 451, the clone that ignited the revolution, becomes the icon generations later: "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future."

At every turn, there are those who uphold the system, however heinous, being met by those who refuse. Adam Ewing, who took pity on a slave bring whipped, turns his back on his father-in-law's business, refusing to become rich on the slave trade. "There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well," he is told. "This movement will never survive; if you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you will exist a pariah to be spat at and beaten, at worst, to be lynched or crucified. And for what? For what? No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean."

To which Adam responds, "What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?"

We are connected. We may even be the same. As the poet Tagore wrote: "The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers."

Our sameness comes from the common impulses of the human heart, and manifests in good as well as evil, in joy and sorrow, conflicts and complacency, greed and liberation, revolution and evolution. It instructs that we live before dying. Somni 451 said, "I believe death is only a door. When it closes, another opens."

And from Robert Frobisher, the composer of the musical score that is called - in the movie - the Cloud Atlas Sextet, "I believe we do not stay dead long."