Monday, November 30, 2009

Winters on the Pee Dee

Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forward.
-Soren Kierkegaard

Looking back from 2009, it is easy to trace the creation of the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge to Lockhart and Hazel Gaddy’s farm pond.

But when they started building it in 1933, that pond was pretty much the same as hundreds of others in the Carolina countryside. The Gaddys could not have imagined what was ahead.

Today, the Pee Dee NWR contains about 8500 acres in Anson and Richmond Counties, North Carolina and provides wintering habitat for migratory waterfowl. During an all-too-brief visit there a couple of years ago, I saw what a beautiful place it is, with bottomland hardwood forest, upland pine forest, crop lands, old field and river frontage on the venerable Pee Dee. I can’t wait to get back there.

When Lockhart Gaddy completed the pond in 1934, he was a hunter, and kept a pen of six Canada Geese that he used as live decoys. That same year, the use of live decoys for hunting was prohibited. The caged geese next to Gaddy’s pond were joined in the fall of 1934 by nine wild geese that arrived from Southern James Bay, Canada.

For whatever reason Gaddy decided to stop hunting and start protecting the birds. The next fall, returning geese and newcomers totaled 14. In 1940, the flock at Gaddy’s pond numbered 192. By 1944, several thousand geese were wintering there.

By this time, Gaddy’s Goose Refuge was attracting visitors who paid a small fee to help cover the cost of the many bushels of grain devoured by the birds each week.

James Bay, Canada, the summer home of Gaddy's geese

In 1947, the Gaddys drove to the Jack Miner Sanctuary in Ontario, Canada to learn more about the geese and observe them being banded to track their long journeys. When Jack Miner’s son , Jasper, visited the Gaddys the following year, he was amazed at how tame and trusting the geese were. It was, and it remains, a mystery because the same geese at Miner’s Sanctuary were so wary they would not allow humans to get within three or four hundred feet. (More on this in a later post.)

On the afternoon of February 19, 1953, Lockhart Gaddy died suddenly while sitting by the pond, with Mrs. Gaddy by his side. The funeral was held at the pond and it is said that the geese were silent during the service. (Anyone who has visited the pond knows that silence was out-of-character for those geese.)

A goose-eye view of Gaddy's Pond, just east of US 52

In the 1950s, and estimated 18,000 Canada Geese were wintering in Anson County each year and many hunters were coming great distances to take geese from unprotected areas of the county. Seeing the area’s potential as a winter home for migratory waterfowl, the Department of the Interior started making plans for a wildlife refuge on the Pee Dee.

Many landowners, and even Hazel Gaddy, opposed the plans. Despite local resistance, the Pee Dee NWR was established in October 1963. In the fall of 1964, large military maneuvers were conducted in Anson and surrounding counties. Flights by fighter planes and helicopters coincided with the arrival of the geese from Canada, and the disturbances were blamed for reducing the wintering population to around 6000.

Over the subsequent decades, the bird count at Pee Dee NWR has fluctuated. Even with active conservation measures, the numbers of Canada Geese have taken a disturbing decline in recent years.

At the Pee Dee NWR, a covered bridge is dedicated to Lockhart and Hazel Gaddy and includes an exhibit and photos of their life work to protect the geese.

For this post, I’ve borrowed liberally from Buck Wheless’ “Memoirs of Gaddy’s Goose Pond” written in 2003. In addition to being the most thorough history I’ve found on the Gaddys, it recounts the work of Wheless and many other volunteers who set out in 1990 to restore the pond.

Buck Wheless

The memoirs are online at:

I'm not done yet. More to follow.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Flowers of November

All month, I've been enjoying the gentle surprise of flowers continuing to bloom around my perch on the mountain. And I'm not the only one to take note of the persistent burst of blossoms. In the New York Times last week, Andy Newman wrote "I’ve never noticed as many flowers blooming so late in the year before." ( See "The Flowers of Late November." )

Even so, I wasn't expecting to see ornamental trees in full bloom on the day after Thanksgiving.

These are at the Jackson County Justice and Administration Center in Sylva. Though I'm not very good at identifying ornamental plants, I believe they are flowering cherries. (I know I got the "flowering" part right!)

They look very similar to trees pictured and described by blogger and plants person Susan Mertz, who posted the following from Kansas City on November 11:

While out tagging trees for an order shipping tomorrow, I saw this wonderful Autumn Flowering Cherry. The clusters of blush pink flowers look so beautiful against the blue sky. Autumn Flowering Higan Cherry, Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis', actually flowers heavily in the spring with an occasional lighter flowering during a warm period in the fall. The green summer leaves were orange and bronze earlier this fall. It is a fast growing tree that will mature 30 x 30'.

I have no idea if the Justice Center bloomers are Autumn Flowering Cherries. but to read more about that variety, follow this link:
It sounds like a desirable variety to plant (at least for anyone who wants to plant things they can't eat).

Traditional Japanese literature has an entire genre of "sakura" or "cherry blossom" poetry going back fifteen centuries or more. Here are some random examples from the verse devoted to the blooms:

are they falling, not falling? this I would ask
of him who has seen them, and returns homesick
from that country steeped in flowers

from what lofty heights
come so many blossoms to my hut?
first as if held back – then,
unforeseen, this sudden cascade!

the radiance of cherry blossoms, their scent,
ever fresh with every passing year –
so man grows old, eternally

who knows the dwelling-place
of blossom-scattering winds:
if some one told me
I’d go to him and complain

in this hamlet I’ll spend the night –
the cherry blossoms falling thick
have made me stray from my homeward path

alas, dark gusts of mountain wind
have stripped the cherries naked;
may the flowering dew of sunrise
spread across my sleeves

spending the spring night in the foothills
I slept, and deep inside my dream
blossoms fell without cease

More at:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Panic in Japan! The Rise of the Herbivores!

I was on my way to work yesterday, listening to a story on National Public Radio, when I had to turn up the volume. It was the first I had heard of a cultural phenomenon in Japan called “herbivorous males.”

How refreshing! I love it.

Here’s the link to the NPR website, where you can stream the story:

And here are a few excerpts from Louisa Lim’s story, “’Herbivore’ Boys Subvert Ideas of Manhood:”

The sensitive New Age man has finally arrived in the land of the salaryman. But there is a catch — a particularly important one in Japan, where the declining birthrate has caused alarm: The new Japanese man doesn't appear to be interested in women or sex.

In Tokyo on the weekends, the trendy area of Harajuku is a melting pot of urban tribes: Lolita goths bat their fake eyelashes, while the punks glower.

Away from the strutting are the retiring wallflowers, a quiet army of sweet young men with floppy hair and skinny jeans. These young men are becoming known as Japan's "herbivores" — from the Japanese phrase for "grass-eating boys" — guys who are heterosexual but who say they aren't really interested in matters of the flesh.

They are drawn to a quieter, less competitive life, focusing on family and friends — and eschewing the macho ways of the traditional Japanese male.

Japan's top expert on herbivores, Maki Fukasawa, believes they were born from the lost decade of economic stagnation. She christened the tribe in 2006 and recently wrote a book called The Herbivore Generation, which breaks herbivores down into 23 distinct subcategories. She argues that the herbivores are rebelling against the salaryman generation of their fathers, consciously turning away from the macho mores and conspicuous consumption of that era.

Multiple recent surveys suggest that about 60 percent of young Japanese men — in their 20s and early 30s — identify themselves as herbivores. Their Sex and the City is a television show called Otomen, or Girly Guys. The lead character is a martial arts expert, the manliest guy in the whole school. But his secret passions include sewing, baking and crocheting clothes for his stuffed animals.

"I will hide my true nature," he vows in the first episode, as he sews secretly, shut away in his living room. "At all times, I will be a man — a real Japanese man," he says.

This past summer, Slate featured an Alexandra Harney article, “The Herbivore's Dilemma. Japan panics about the rise of ‘grass-eating men,’ who shun sex, don't spend money, and like taking walks:”

Ryoma Igarashi likes going for long drives through the mountains, taking photographs of Buddhist temples and exploring old neighborhoods. He's just taken up gardening, growing radishes in a planter in his apartment. Until recently, Igarashi, a 27-year-old Japanese television presenter, would have been considered effeminate, even gay. Japanese men have long been expected to live like characters on Mad Men, chasing secretaries, drinking with the boys, and splurging on watches, golf, and new cars

Today, Igarashi has a new identity (and plenty of company among young Japanese men) as one of the soushoku danshi—literally translated, "grass-eating boys." Named for their lack of interest in sex and their preference for quieter, less competitive lives, Japan's "herbivores" are provoking a national debate about how the country's economic stagnation since the early 1990s has altered men's behavior.

In Japan, "real men" don't eat pudding.

Shigeru Sakai of Media Shakers suggests that grass-eating men don't pursue women because they are bad at expressing themselves. He attributes their poor communication skills to the fact that many grew up without siblings in households where both parents worked. "Because they had TVs, stereos and game consoles in their bedrooms, it became more common for them to shut themselves in their rooms when they got home and communicate less with their families, which left them with poor communication skills," he wrote in an e-mail. (Japan has rarely needed its men to have sex as much as it does now. Low birth rates, combined with a lack of immigration, have caused the country's population to shrink every year since 2005.)

Fukasawa contends that while some grass-eating men may be gay, many are not. Nor are they metrosexuals. Rather, their behavior reflects a rejection of both the traditional Japanese definition of masculinity and what she calls the West's "commercialization" of relationships, under which men needed to be macho and purchase products to win a woman's affection.

Young Japanese men today are choosing to have less to prove.

An article in The Independent took a more sensationalized approach:

Coined by columnist Maki Fukasawa, the term soshoku-danshi (herbivorous male) has become one of those cultural buzzwords that hijacks the Japanese media every couple of years. With its implied disdain for vegetarians, the term has been popularised in a bestselling new book called The Herbivorous Ladylike Men (who) are Changing Japan by Megumi Ushikubo, president of Tokyo marketing firm Infinity. Her company claims that roughly two-thirds of all Japanese men aged 20-34 are now partial or total grass-eaters, and a very long way from the classic twin stereotypes of 20th-century Japanese masculinity: the fierce, unyielding warrior and the workaholic salary-man.

The blurring of gender boundaries has been highlighted by stories appearing to demonstrate that once proud alpha-males are being symbolically castrated in the home. Toilet-maker Matsushita Electric Works reported a survey this year suggesting that more than 40 per cent of adult men in Japan sit on the toilet when they urinate – a figure that is rising year by year.

Nagging wives are also blamed for the rise of the Tenshi no Hizamakura, or Angel's Knee Pillow, a kneeling stool with an unfortunate resemblance to a church pew that brings men closer to the bowl when they pee. Designed to stop splashing around the bowl – women after all still do the vast bulk of household cleaning – the product's arrival prompted the following headline in one media outlet "Men brought to their knees by angry housewives".

Japanese actor Tsuyoshi Kusanagi wears lipstick and make-up at a Korean television awards ceremony

Men are now leading purchasers of hair products, make-up, fashion accessories and manicures. A Tokyo-based company called WishRoom is even selling men's bras, some to middle-aged salary-men.

"They were the generation we had been told were 'manly' – they led Japan in the post-war period," WishRoom president Masayuki Tsuchiya told the Japan Times this month. He said the company had sold more than 5,000 of the bras to men who are probably reacting against the classic stereotype of stoic, silently enduring male. "They said wearing a bra just made them feel more calm, relaxed and revived."

True carnivores sigh in disgust, but could the grass-eaters be merely the latest flowering of an old tradition? Japanese culture has long had a strong element of androgyny: During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), men played women and women dressed as men for the theatre, while erotic art celebrated bisexualism and transgender role-playing. The traditions live on in the Takarazuka Review, which features women performers in dress suits playing men, and in Kabuki theatre.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.

I feel a very unusual sensation - if it is not indigestion, I think it must be gratitude.
-Benjamin Disraeli

"Yes, Chief, they're homemade." For more on the First Thanksgiving:

Not what we say about our blessings, but how we use them, is the true measure of our thanksgiving.
-W.T. Purkiser

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.
-Richard Dawkins

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Federal Prosecution on Big Ridge?

The following story appeared in the St. Petersburg Times this week.

Prosecutors open investigation into N.C. project's loans

Published Monday, November 23, 2009
CASHIERS, N.C. — Attorneys for 13 people who bought land in a controversial Big Ridge subdivision say federal prosecutors in Miami and Pittsburgh have opened a criminal investigation into loans obtained from SunTrust.

The 13 buyers have asked a federal judge in North Carolina to delay action in a civil fraud lawsuit filed against them by SunTrust.

"Defendants understand that they are more than material witnesses in the government's investigation and have not been ruled out as targets of the criminal investigation and/or potential defendants," lawyers argued in documents filed in U.S. District Court in Bryson City.

The buyers, from Florida and Pennsylvania, bought lots in the development in 2006 and later obtained mortgages of more than $1 million apiece from SunTrust. The bank alleges that all of them falsified their income to obtain the money. SunTrust is seeking repayment of more than $19 million.

In an affidavit filed in federal court, Michael P. O'Day Sr., a Pittsburgh lawyer, says he represents one of the 13 defendants in the criminal investigation and has been in contact with federal prosecutors in Miami and Pittsburgh.

O'Day said the SunTrust transactions are part of a broader investigation of the development and "certain individuals" involved with it.

"I have been advised that the U.S. government believes some and/or all of the individuals involved with the development potentially committed criminal acts," O'Day said.

Most work in the development started by Domenic Rabuffo is at a standstill as SunTrust and other banks foreclose on lot after lot. Partially constructed houses sit abandoned on more than 15 lots.

Rabuffo, a native of New York and part-time resident of Miami, was convicted of mortgage fraud in New York in the late 1980s.

The only recent activity in the development, initially named Hampton Springs, occurred last week when workers moved a mobile home from one lot to another after a mortgage foreclosure suit was filed on the lot where the mobile home had been located. The name of the development has since been changed to Spring Ridge Vista.

Foreclosure suits have been brought against owners of most of the lots in the development as well as individual lots Rabuffo purchased in the name of his ex-wife, Mae.

Sylva, N.C., lawyer Jay Pavey is fighting his own battle with SunTrust, asking a federal judge to quash the bank's effort to subpoena his files on the land purchases and mortgages he handled for the 13 buyers.

Last month Magistrate Dennis L. Howell ordered Pavey to surrender some of the documents SunTrust has requested. Last week Pavey argued that the subpoena is overly broad and would put an undue burden on his law firm.

Attorneys for SunTrust oppose any effort to delay proceedings in the civil suit and want to question Pavey under oath on Monday.

Pavey prepared all of the deeds and mortgages for Rabuffo's development over the last few years. He says he was not aware of anything improper.

Welcome to Wawa

I intend to linger at Lockhart Gaddy’s Goose Refuge for a while, so I should address a couple of matters now.

Canadian Mounties?


Canadian Rockies?


Canadian Geese?


Those big honkers are CANADA geese, let there be no mistake. I thought I remembered reading that they were named for a Mister Something-or-other CANADA, but that might be my memory inserting things that were never there.

One wag claims they were named for the Canada Tribe of Indians, but that theory doesn’t get much traction.

Here’s an excerpt from one linguistic analysis I’ve found on why they’re called Canada Geese instead of Canadian Geese:

Remember, the official name for any bird is its Latin name. So the "real" name for this creature is Branda canadensis. That's because the bird probably has 200 different names in 200 different languages, based on its colors, its sounds, its habitat or many other reasons.

No, not exactly a definitive explanation.

Had things worked out a little differently, we might be calling them Wawa Geese.

There’s a chain of eat-and-get-gas stores up north called “Wawa” and their official corporate website weighs in on the story:

“Wawa" is a Native American word for the Canada Goose that was found in the Delaware Valley, that's why we use the goose on Wawa's corporate logo.

Perhaps that diminishes, but doesn’t entirely dismiss, an alternate theory that the term "Wawa” is onomatopoeia for goose noise.

Ground zero for the Wawa-Canada Goose connection, however, is found in Wawa, Ontario, where the town’s webpage tells us:

With Wawa meaning "Wild Goose or Land of the Big Goose" in Ojibway, it makes perfect sense to have a goose welcoming visitors at the entrance of town.

Perfect sense, indeed. I've never heard anything more perfectly sensible.

The huge monument came about after construction of the Trans-Canada Highway linking Wawa to Sault Ste. Marie:

The folks in Wawa fought long and hard to see the road completed and although they were glad to see it reach their front doors, local businessmen were a bit disappointed that the highway actually by-passed the downtown core of the community.

So one of Wawa's local entrepreneurs of the day, Mr. Al Turcott, a very creative and ingenious man, felt that Wawa needed something that would stop highway travelers and invite them to come into town. You can imagine the reaction of some of the townsfolk to his idea of a huge statue of a Canada Goose made of plaster. Well, the fact is that this has become Wawa's "Claim to Fame" and our famous goose has welcomed millions of visitors.

The friendly folks in Wawa, Ontario invite you to come by anytime to see their fair city:

Take a "gander" at our famous goose during your visit. You can't miss it at the junction of Highway 17 and 101, right next door to our beautiful Tourist Information Centre with the red roof!

The goose of steel welcoming travelers to Wawa, since 1963, is at least the third bird of giant proportions to fly over the town, replacing an earlier plaster goose, which has been relegated to a less lofty position:

An old postcard reveals another Wawa goose (at least I believe it's a third goose):

I’d like to think that some future archaeologists will unearth those giant effigies in Wawa and concoct elaborate theories about the strange cults that venerated the statues of the mighty Canada Goose.

More to come...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sundays at the Goose Pond

I just came across an old postcard that stirred some long-lost memories.

When I was a little kid in the North Carolina Piedmont, my family would sometimes go for a drive after church on Sundays. One of our destinations in the fall and winter was “Gaddy’s Goose Pond” in Anson County.

I thought about those visits several years ago, but wasn’t able to turn up much information on the place. That was then, this is now. During my current explorations, I’ve learned some things I never knew about the Lockhart Gaddy Goose Refuge.

The cover of the December 14, 1953 edition of LIFE magazine featured a beaming Richard Nixon and the title, “Nixon, A Vice President Who Is Making Good.”

But inside, that issue featured a color photograph from Gaddy’s. It’s a nice shot, and the caption reads “Wild geese from this year’s flock of 10,000 fly up over Mrs. Gaddy’s homestead in North Carolina on their way to a meal in the cornfields.”

The rest of the story describes the place remember:

For thousands of wild Canada geese a fishpond in Ansonville, N.C. is regular winter quarters. Every October since James Gaddy decided 19 years ago to give up hunting geese and shelter them instead, he --- until his death last winter --- and now his wife have been host to increasingly huge flocks of migratory wild fowl.

Although the feathery guests get free run of wheat and cornfields planted for them, Mrs. Gaddy supplements their diet by scattering 140 bushels of shelled corn and 100 loaves of stale bread at pond’s edge every week. She meets expense for her refuge by charging visitors 25 cent admission.

In April, when geese go north again, Mrs. Gaddy complains, “It’s so quiet around here it hurts.”

Now, whenever I see a V formation of wild geese flying south I count it a special day. The very first time I ever saw wild geese migrating, though, I was standing in the school yard at East Albemarle Elementary, and the birds were on their way to Gaddy’s.

More to tell.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Thomas Hart Benton, Ploughing It Under, 1934


by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.


Thomas Hart Benton, Shocking Corn, 1945

Thursday, November 19, 2009

True Sight

At length I rested on the most elevated peak, from whence I beheld with rapture and astonishment, a scene of power and magnificence: a world of mountains piled upon mountains.
-William Bartram, describing his journey to the Nantahalas (and possibly Wayah Bald)

Everything becomes enchanting with true sight.
-Richard Rohr

The view from Wayah Bald

I almost skipped the big Book Fair in Sylva over the weekend. With so many stacks of unread books throughout my house, I can’t justify any more binges of book-buying.

Despite my reluctant frugality, I enjoyed the Fair. To have the literati of this region convened in one room is something special. For just a minute, I slipped over to a corner and surveyed the scene. Observing the authors, one by one, I considered the many places they’ve taken us and the many characters they’ve brought to life. I appreciate that kind of magic.

That exercise in memory at the Fair reminded me of a recent trip to Wayah Bald. I’d not been to the lookout tower there in years and had forgotten what a unique, and tremendous, view it provides. The mountains that ring the horizon enclose a rough bowl of land more than 40 miles across. From the tower you can see the better part of the Little Tennessee, Nantahala and Tuckasegee valleys.

Every direction I looked reminded me of the past. People and events from long ago crowded the scene. Memories of my own lifetime rushed back, born and borne upon the geography stretching out from Wayah.

If you had the sharp eyes of a hawk and the patient endurance of granite, what a show you could have seen from here.

The John B. Byrne Memorial Tower on Wayah Bald

I focused on Cowee Mountain, a little protuberance of earth between the Tuckasegee and the Little Tennessee. Closing one eye and extending my arm, I could conceal the entire mountain with my thumb. I looked at Cowee Mountain again and saw the ancient road connecting Kituwah, a center of spirituality, with Cowee village, a center of commerce. I pictured that same road, busy with hundreds of British soldiers crossing the mountain in 1761. I recalled my own time on that road, this past summer, bicycling through a reverie of wildflowers. From Wayah, the mountain looked impossibly small, too small to hold all that history.

Scanning the horizon, my eyes paused at one prominent feature to the northeast, Balsam Gap. Only from this distance does its significance become clear. Balsam Gap was, and is, the natural portal to this province. Sometimes, topography shapes history. What began as a deer track on Balsam Gap became a hunters trail, a traders path, the Rutherford Trace, a drovers route, the Western North Carolina Railroad, a blacktop road and a four-lane highway.

In the distance, Balsam Gap

As I look out from the tower, centuries run together, human accomplishments appear small, and the people themselves are imperceptible. The panorama from Wayah is an unfamiliar perspective on the world I know and, at first, seems absurdly distorted.

But on second thought, my everyday prospect on life might be the distorted perspective, while a trip to the tower at Wayah Bald offers a rare moment of clarity.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Habits of Happiness

Biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard says we can train our minds in habits of well-being, to generate a true sense of serenity and fulfillment. Happiness cannot be found through fleeting pleasures, Ricard suggests. It can be found through seeking the well-being of others, and minimizing suffering by practicing moderation and meditation.

After training in biochemistry at the Institute Pasteur, Matthieu Ricard left science behind to move to the Himalayas and become a Buddhist monk -- and to pursue happiness, both at a basic human level and as a subject of inquiry. Achieving happiness, he has come to believe, requires the same kind of effort and mind training that any other serious pursuit involves.

His deep and scientifically tinged reflections on happiness and Buddhism have turned into several books, including The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet.

At the same time, he also makes sensitive and jaw-droppingly gorgeous photographs of his beloved Tibet and the spiritual hermitage where he lives and works on humanitarian projects.

His latest book on happiness is Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill. The book's emphasis is on how to develop inner resources for a sense of happiness and fulfilment that is not dependent on outer circumstances.

His latest book of photographs is Tibet: An Inner Journey.

"Matthieu Ricard, French translator and right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, has been the subject of intensive clinical tests at the University of Wisconsin, as a result of which he is frequently described as the happiest man in the world."
-Robert Chalmers, The Independent

More at:

Whangdepootenawah / Wang Dang Doodle

Koko Taylor

I'm not sure I understand this entry from The Devil's Dictionary, but Ambrose Bierce had a way with words. I don't know if the Wang Dang Doodle had anything to do with the Whangdepootenawah, but Koko Taylor had a way with words, too.

n. In the Ojibwa tongue, disaster; an unexpected affliction that strikes hard.

Should you ask me whence this laughter,
Whence this audible big-smiling,
With its labial extension,
With its maxillar distortion
And its diaphragmic rhythmus
Like the billowing of an ocean,
Like the shaking of a carpet,
I should answer, I should tell you:
From the great deeps of the spirit,
From the unplummeted abysmus
Of the soul this laughter welleth
As the fountain, the gug-guggle,
Like the river from the canon,
To entoken and give warning
That my present mood is sunny.
Should you ask me further question —
Why the great deeps of the spirit,
Why the unplummeted abysmus
Of the soule extrudes this laughter,
This all audible big-smiling,
I should answer, I should tell you
With a white heart, tumpitumpy,
With a true tongue, honest Injun:
William Bryan, he has Caught It,
Caught the Whangdepootenawah!

Is’t the sandhill crane, the shankank,
Standing in the marsh, the kneedeep,
Standing silent in the kneedeep
With his wing-tips crossed behind him
And his neck close-reefed before him,
With his bill, his william, buried
In the down upon his bosom,
With his head retracted inly,
While his shoulders overlook it?
Does the sandhill crane, the shankank,
Shiver grayly in the north wind,
Wishing he had died when little,
As the sparrow, the chipchip, does?
No ’tis not the Shankank standing,
Standing in the gray and dismal
Marsh, the gray and dismal kneedeep.
No, ’tis peerless William Bryan
Realizing that he’s Caught It,
Caught the Whangdepootenawah!

Ambrose Bierce

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chickening Out on the Chimney Tops

The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Matthew 26:41

The flesh indeed is able, but the mind is weak.
Gulahiyi 11/15/09

The Chimney Tops, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Dawn broke on this gorgeous November day and I imagined the adventure ahead. By the time the sun reached its zenith, I would be sitting on top of the world, enjoying my peanut butter and blueberry preserves sandwich along with a proud sense of accomplishment.

Alas, it was not to be.

Instead, I would choke down my lunch with a large dollop of fear and shame.

Before setting out to any new place, I like to do my homework. I study my maps. I look up trip reports. I find photographs on Flickr. That way, I have some idea what to expect.

But in the case of a hike to the Chimney Tops, I got more than I bargained for despite my prep work. While the distance is “only” two miles from the trailhead to the summit, I knew that an elevation gain of more than 1300 hundred feet could make it strenuous. Actually, that part wasn’t so bad. After scaling the Appalachian Trail en route to the Albert Mountain Tower this was a piece of cake, by comparison.

When I was growing up, one of the little tidbits of family folklore was that my Mom and Dad had climbed the Chimney Tops back in the 1930s, long before I was on the scene. This was held up as quite an achievement, and I was always impressed. But as I hiked up the trail myself, I began to wonder about the hoopla. This was not such a big deal.

I had read enough to know that the final approach to the Chimney Tops required a climb over a few rocks. And when I rounded a bend and got a closer look at the first chimney, it still looked attainable. I finally reached the end of anything you could call a trail. Nothing but jagged rocks separated me from my destination, and they weren’t all that bad. It wasn’t like scaling a vertical cliff or a rounded mound of granite. This anakeesta rock formation offered an abundance of handholds and footholds.

Watch your step, mister.

Physically, there was nothing to it. Mentally, though, I was starting to have some problems. I was all alone and thought I might be overlooking the trail to the top. So I waited for the next group of hikers. I'd watch how they got it done.

As soon as some hikers arrived at the base of the rock, though, they were expressing the same doubts that had been reverberating in my head. Nevertheless, bolder ones in the group proceeded up the rock and I decided to follow.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is my fear of heights. I prevail over it on occasion. I can force myself to the top of a twenty-four foot extension ladder. I can shingle the roof of a two-story house so long as the pitch is not much steeper than four in twelve. I can walk up two or three flights of a lookout tower. (I made it even farther up the Albert Mountain Tower, but the gale winds distracted me too much to dwell on my fear of height. Go figure…)

It doesn’t make sense. I’ve never had a bad fall. I never got stranded on the ferris wheel. But even at the age of six or seven, standing at the top of a stairway gave me the willies.

On this beautiful November morning, disappointment was starting to set in. Physically, there was nothing to keep me from reaching the top. The only obstacle was in my head. I did push myself to climb a little, maybe a quarter or a third of the way up.

“So far, so good,” I told myself. But I knew I was in trouble when I heard the people behind me chickening out.

“This is it for me. I can't go any higher”

“I’m not so worried about going up. Coming back down is what bothers me.”

Murmurs all around.

I tried to forget what I’d read about the spectacular 360 degree views from the top. I knew I was wimping out and wouldn’t reach that point today.

I made it this far. La de dah.

How disappointing!

Even from my niche on the side of the rock, the view was awesome, but I wasn’t enjoying it very much. I was just feeling disgusted with myself. I hung on for a while, and then began my ignoble descent.

Don't look down.

They were right. It was worse coming down.

Damn it.

Reaching the trail again, I decided the time has arrived for me to overcome my acrophobia. So I’ve been surfing for answers. Millions are afflicted, but the condition can be cured, according to what I have read. Several courses of treatment address the fear of heights.

Since I didn't get to the top, it is very difficult for me to look at this photo...the intrepid souls who made it. God bless 'em.

One possibility is psychotherapy. “Great,” I sighed, “here we go with one of the big scams of modern psychology. I wish I had a hundred bucks for every hour of my life I’ve spent listening dispassionately and nodding ‘uh-huh, uh-huh.’” But these days, you can’t find many people who listen dispassionately and nod appropriately unless you do shell out a hundred dollars an hour. Anyhow, when it comes to curing acrophobia, psychotherapy has a low success rate.

This brings us to another great scam, pharmaceuticals. The strategy is to get doped up with some drug that will eliminate physical symptoms like rapid breathing and muscle tension. Might as well self-medicate, if that's what you're after. Getting drunk or stoned might help some people scale that pile of rock, but it wouldn’t do the trick for me. Scratch that.

Next on the list of possible remedies is behavior therapy. Now this one actually makes sense, in theory. Gradual desensitization can be achieved by taking frequent rides in glass elevators, according to one reference. But where would I find a glass elevator in Cullowhee?

A more drastic type of behavior therapy is called “flooding”:

…immediately introducing one of the patient’s most fearful situations without gradual steps. After literally surviving their worst fear, the smaller steps are not so traumatic. This approach may be used if time is limited or the patient is eager to “get it over with,” and may involve visiting the observation deck of a skyscraper or top level of a parking garage. Flooding is based on the idea that a fear response – the fight-or-flight response to a phobia – cannot last forever, and as the effects wear off, the patient realizes that they had nothing to fear all along. This type of behavior therapy is less common than desensitization, and naturally is unsuitable for patients with a heart condition or other medical concerns that could be aggravated by their reactions to their fear.

I think they call it “flooding” because that is exactly what would happen. No good. No good at all. Those rocks on the Chimney Tops are slippery when wet, and the other climbers would get grossed out.

Virtual reality technology is in the works as yet another treatment, but that might be a while.

Let's try something else. This is a lousy video, but somewhat on point. According to the blurb for this clip, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is the key. NLP is cool. NLP I’ve done. NLP I like. But I don’t see any NLP in this video. I do see people who are attached to ropes. And that strategy is one way I might make it to top of the Chimneys.

It turns out that YouTube has dozens of videos on “fear of heights” so I’m going to be busy for a while.

After the first trailhead sign promising "The View is Worth the Climb," the Park Service posts this warning. But the photo didn't induce vertigo when I saw it. Thanks for the warning. Nice try.

Maybe when it’s all said and done, my brain will be working right, and I will conquer the Chimney Tops.

One final footnote - until today I had no idea my Mom was such a trooper.

I am impressed!

So how in the hell did I end up with acrophobia genes?


It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.

-Sir Edmund Hillary

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Panther Watch Update!

In June 2008, a wave of excitement rippled across the Cashiers area when a photo of a panther made the email rounds.

We were told that “James Snipe” (I urge you not to go hunting with him) had hit the 260-pound cat with his car on US 64 west of Cashiers.

It wasn’t long before the whole thing was revealed as a hoax. In the months prior to June 2008, the same photo was identified in emails as a cougar killed in Arizona…Kentucky…Arkansas, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Michigan, Kansas, and Pennsylvania.

Regarding the Cashiers incarnation, Highlands resident Richard McConnell made a full confession to the Cashiers Chronicle, which had published the photo:

I am the guilty party. I took the article off the Internet and changed details to put it on US-64 West near our house there then sent it as a joke to a couple of friends in Highlands & Cashiers. I never dreamed they would think such an outlandish story was true. If such a cat was really in the area, for the many years it would have taken for him to reach this size, he would have been spotted long ago.

On the one hand, I was disappointed that we did not have a substantiated panther sighting in Jackson County. On the other hand, I was relieved that the rare feline had not been killed here.

Recently, a friend forwarded me a photograph of a panther in significantly better condition, dragging a deer through (supposedly) Rhea County, Tennessee, near Knoxville:

It didn’t take much searching to find other appearances of this photo, including a larger uncropped version of the same scene:

According to comments on a couple of hunting websites, the various emails that accompanied the picture placed the incident in:

Houston County, Georgia
Pinos Altos, New Mexico
Warren County, New Jersey
Oden, Indiana
Dinwiddie, Virginia
Batavia, New York
Clay County, Florida
Hope, North Dakota
Old Fort, North Carolina
Cornell, Wisconsin
Trumbull County, Ohio
Murray, Kentucky
North River, West Virginia
Ava, Missouri
Northeastern Iowa
Santee, South Carolina
Franklin County, Pennsylvania
to name just a few

However, Chet Markgraf insisted:

That pic came off my ranch in south Texas. If you need more proof, I have the camera pics before and after in order. And also, me and a buddy found the deer head about six weeks after the kill. I have a number of pics that are at the same feeder location that are just as clear.

You can believe Chet.

Or not.

Now and then, I receive comments from readers reporting their own close encounters with panthers. Many of these sightings are from the middle Tennessee area. While I am happy to receive these comments, I cannot vouch for any of them. Personally, I would like to believe panthers are still roaming the Southern Appalachians, but I am anxiously awaiting some convincing physical evidence to confirm their presence.

Until then, here’s what I’ve been told by readers of this blog. They can't ALL be mistaken.

Can they?

Anonymous said...
About 20 years ago, when I was a little girl, there were black panther sightings near my home in Crossville, TN.

On November 14, 2007, my sister-in-law, who leaves close to me, heard the tell-tale scream of a panther just outside her window about 8 pm. Then, about 4 am, I was awakened by what sounded like dogs being attacked. They were yelping and sounded distressed. The following evening, I came home from work to find a beagle pup on my doorstep. I located his owner, and found that he had just brought home two pups the night before, which had escaped their pen. The second pup never returned. I am sure that it was taken by the panther my sister-in-law heard earlier that night.
November 25, 2007 7:50:00 PM EST

John said...
I was just watching a show on NatGeo about mythical creatures. I was shocked to see the black panther on the list, because my wife and I have seen one. We also live in Crossville, TN, which is weird because I noticed some one else from here posted on this topic.

The night we saw the big cat, we were inside when we heard something making a lot of noise in the garage. Our cat was going nuts, we went outside and saw this huge black cat standing in the road under a street light. It was about three feet tall and looked like it was eight or ten feet long. I was scared to death. It saw us and just turned and walked down the road and into the woods. We called TWRA Fish and Game, but they thought we were mistaken. There was no mistaking this thing, and I'll never forget the way it walked off down the road. The only picture I've seen that looked close to it was a picture of a Jaguar from South America.
I've heard people around here talk about these cats all my life, and I know for a fact that they are real.
My name is John Hall and my email is
December 12, 2007 11:24:00 PM EST

Anonymous said...
Two cats sighted in North Mississippi

I live in Booneville Mississippi and was working late one afternoon near a creek that runs through town here. I saw two big cats, one black and one a light brown or dirty white. They were as big as a large German Shephard dog with long tails. They looked just like the mountain lions you see on tv.

I only saw them that one afternoon and often looked for them in that area but never seen them again.
My name is jlesley at
October 4, 2008 12:55:00 PM EDT

Anonymous said...
I am 50 and can say with all certainty there are Black Panthers in this country. I would like to know of any sightings no matter where they are. Jamie Maurer
December 11, 2008 7:26:00 PM EST

Anonymous said...
yes im from alabama and i see the panther quite regular...something doesnt seem quite right about it but im sure someone else out there has noticed certain unnatural about there sightings but if you have questions ore any other abnormal experiences with the "panther" then feel free to contact me at
December 19, 2008 12:39:00 AM EST

Anonymous said...
They all over middle and west TN. Some even in rural areas of metro Memphis and Nashville.
My son and I were camping Jan 07 in Shelby Forest in Millington TN (borders MS river) whe we heard one SCREAM about 30 ft from ourcampsite about 10 pm.
We were the only campers in the park and I was thankful for my sturdy camper!! Oh, the rangers said it was screech owl.
December 27, 2008 4:20:00 AM EST

Anonymous said...
Yesterday morning I was following a backhoe on the new part of wolf river Blvd. It was across the road from the dump and right past the wetland area. There is a plot of land for sale that has been built up. As I was travelling at a snails pace I was looking intently for deer commonly seen in the area. At first sight I thought I saw a black lab walking across this grassy plot. Having the time to get a good look I realized that is was a Cat by the way it walked and that its tail was much longer and had that cat like curl and swish. I got a good look at the head then and clearly saw the ears and profile. I know it was a black panther. The time was about five til ten in the morning on Friday.
It was really cool!
February 3, 2009 5:23:00 PM EST

NanaB said...
About 10-12 years ago my husband and I were in Pigeon Forge, TN, staying at a motel high on a hill on the north side of Hwy 441. About 8 a.m. that sunny morning we saw something moving farther up the hill from our third floor window. It was definitely a cat. A really BIG cat. And solid black. It was very calm and walked up and looked down at all the development that was Pigeon Forge at that time. Then it turned and walked away. We looked down at our car -- where the camera was. When we asked hotel management about this they told us -- no way. Later we asked rangers from the Nat'l Forest about it and laughed and dismissed us as a couple of Georgia nuts! It was a black panther. I'll believe that to my grave. It was HUGE. I wish that camera hadn't been in the car.
February 8, 2009 9:59:00 PM EST

Anonymous said...
I totally agree with all you guys. I just moved back to SC from eastern TN. It was not an uncommon occurrence to hear stories of large cats and people crossing paths. It's just yesterday I 100% positively had the rare chance at catching a glimpse at a large black cat about 3-4ft body length w/out the tail walking across my neighbor's horse pasture. I got such a good look at it I sat there trying to dismiss what I had seen. I had convinced myself it was just an optical illusion and it was merely a house cat until a horse stood in the exact spot where I had seen the big cat and instantly I realized that the cat was as long as the distance from front to hind quarters of a full sized mare. Theres no getting out of this one. There is a large black cougar in the upstate of SC.
March 26, 2009 9:18:00 AM EDT

Anonymous said...
about 20 years ago when i was 13 we were having a party and we heard an awful scream like a woman, and at the time my family was renting a trailer about 200 yards from the house and after the scream we saw a black panther jump from a tree onto the top of the trailer.we lived on a farm and since then we have had calves missing and one of our dogs got scratched up bad.and latly about a month our so ago one of my parents dogs went missing.From:Jefferson County, Tennessee
June 29, 2009 10:05:00 PM EDT

Anonymous said...
In 1999, one evening in the spring I happened upon a mountain lion sized black cat at the head of the Big Dry Run finger of Watauga Lake. I had just left my lake place on Sugar Grove Church Road heading home at about 8:30pm. It was just getting dark. As I started around the curve at Big Dry Run Road and Dry Hill Road I saw Huge eyes on the right reflecting my trucks headlights. I slowed wondering if it could be a deer. When I reached within 30 feet of the animal, it looked as if a huge black hole sat on the shoulder. The animal reflected absolutely no light from my headlights except the eyes. The most unusual thing about the eyes was the wide space between them, much further apart than a dog or deer, and large. Within 4 or 5 seconds the animal stood and turned to jump off the road bank into the brush down by the lake. When I saw the shape of it with the huge long tail, I knew there was not doubt as to what it was. It had to be either a black cougar or black panther. Since that time I have read and been told of the possibility of the cat being actually a black jaguar. My email address is
September 19, 2009 8:49:00 AM EDT

Anonymous said...
i live the southern alabama, and about 4 years ago me and a buddy of mine were riding our 4wheelers 2 go check my game camera for some deer pictures and when something caught our eyes up in a tree about 70ft up at first we thought it was a black bear but after getting closer we knew it was a black panther it was such a weird feeling of it watching us with his bright yellow eyes. if i were 2 guess i would say he was around 100lbs
October 9, 2009 3:45:00 PM EDT

Anonymous said...
I live in Lookout Mountain, TN, and on October 25, 2009, at 9:20 pm, I was letting my dogs out at the corner. My two year old suddenly froze and his hair went straight up in a way I'd never seen before. I looked down the street and there was a large, black creature about 6 feet long that leaped across the street, only touching it once. I didn't know much about them, but after researching I made 2 reports. I was still shaking from fear 3 hours later, and I'll never again feel safe walking the dogs at night.
November 1, 2009 11:26:00 PM EST

Anonymous said...
I am a fifty three year old female grandmother from upper state South Carolina. My daughter called and asked me to pick my granddaughter up from school one day in October of 2009. She attends Tigerville Elementary. The route between my home and the school is very rural and hilly. ON the way I spotted a huge black panther walking on out next to a small pond. I stopped my car an observed because I had never seen one. I told my friends and family and they told me I must be mistaken because no such creatures exist around here, but, I KNOW WHAT I SAW!
January 17, 2010 1:48:00 PM EST

A sincere thanks to all for these comments.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Caught on Camera

I've talked to some folks who had not seen this video yet. A major rock slide earlier this week closed US 64 in Polk County, TN, just west of Murphy, NC. News crews were already there for a much smaller slide and captured some cool footage of the big slide as it happened. This was a very, very close call for several people who had been working on the road a few minutes before:

This news report has more context and higher quality video:

One reporter called Ocoee Gorge "ominous" and that's a good description based on what I recall from a drive through there several years ago. I was amazed to see how a railroad had been constructed through that gorge long ago.

Lots of people are now too young to remember what it used to be like around Ducktown and the Copper Basin (near the rock slide) but it made a deep impression on me when I traveled through there on vacation circa 1960:

Copper Basin has greened up since then but the place is still eerie.

The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture explains what happened:

Perhaps the greatest environmental disaster occurred in the forty-square-mile Copper Basin of Polk County. Mining of the copper deposits near Ducktown began approximately 1850, but the worst environmental damage occurred between 1890 and 1907. The open-roasting process used to remove copper from the ore required acres of timber to fuel the smelters, clearing the forests for miles around the basin. The release of sulfuric dioxide created during the extraction process added greater insult to the environment, as the corrosive gas mixed with rain to settle sulfuric acid on the land, killing all remaining vegetation and the marine life of the Ocoee River. The red clay hills, barren as the moon, eroded further with each downpour. In 1908 a process to capture the sulfuric acid through closed smelting was put into place, but visible aspects of the damage remain after ninety years, despite past (and partially successful) conservation efforts by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Back in 1988, the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation published M. L. Quinn's article, "Tennessee's Copper Basin: A case for preserving an abused landscape."

He made an unusual proposal, as suggested by this excerpt:

SOCIETY preserves certain landscapes by designating them as parks or by some other means, thereby maintaining them in their existing state as much as possible. This is done for several reasons, but often because people deem the landscape particularly scenic; because it is an unusual or spectacular natural phenomenon; or because it is significant historically, culturally, or both. Few question, for example, the scenic attributes of the Grand Teton Mountains, the spectacular nature of Crater Lake, or the historical significance of Gettysburg Battlefield. Preserved or protected landscapes possess what society has determined are unique qualities that distinguish them from other settings, and a general consensus often exists regarding these qualities.

For some landscapes, however, various groups of people perceive them very differently, or society's perception of them changes over time Tennessee's Copper Basin serves as a case in point.

The Copper Basin is located primarily in the extreme southeastern corner of Tennessee. Mountains surround the 60,000-acre basin on the west, north, and east, creating a bowl-like feature. Copper mining and smelting began in the area in the 1850s....

With the pines having reclaimed those hills, it looks like we missed the opportunity to preserve a bit of Martian landscape in the middle of the Southern Appalachians.

I wonder what Professor Quinn would say about mountaintop removal...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Edgar Allen Poe, Media Hoaxster

One of the nice things about Halloween is that it resurrects Edgar Allen Poe from unwarranted obscurity. Among his lesser known work, Poe wrote several pieces that could be labeled as “science fiction” and which also happened to be journalistic hoaxes. In the realm of media hoaxsters, I would rank Poe far above the “Balloon Boy” family of recent fame, but I’m not sure that he deserves a place among pranksters like the Yes Men and Alan Abel.

Even so, Poe pulled off a good one in 1844, with his report of a transatlantic balloon flight. On April 13, 1844, The Sun (New York) carried this headline:








Poe’s deadpan article described in considerable detail Monck Mason’s hot air balloon flight from North Wales to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina (near Charleston). Although the flight was originally intended as a crossing of the English Channel, and nothing more, a sudden gale shortly after launch blew the craft out over the Atlantic.

An illustration from Monck Mason's book

Poe included entries from an alleged flight journal kept by Monck Mason:

We soon found ourselves driving out to sea at the rate of not less, certainly, than 50 or 60 miles an hour, so that we came up with Cape Clear, at some 40 miles to our North, before we had secured the rod, and had time to think what we were about. It was now that Mr. Ainsworth made an extraordinary, but to my fancy, a by no means unreasonable or chimerical proposition, in which he was instantly seconded by Mr. Holland -- viz.: that we should take advantage of the strong gale which bore us on, and in place of beating back to Paris, make an attempt to reach the coast of North America. …

We passed over innumerable vessels of all kinds, a few of which were endeavoring to beat us, but the most of them lying to. We occasioned the greatest excitement on board all -- an excitement greatly relished by ourselves, and especially by our two men, who, now under the influence of a dram of Geneva, seemed resolved to give all scruple, or fear, to the wind. Many of the vessels fired signal guns; some displayed flags and in all we were saluted with loud cheers (which we heard with surprising distinctness) and the waving of caps and handkerchiefs. We kept on in this manner throughout the day, with no material incident, and, as the shades of night closed around us, we made a rough estimate of the distance traversed. It could not have been less than 500 miles, and was probably much more.

“ Mr. Ainsworth” scribbled an entry of his own in the alleged journal:

The last nine hours have been unquestionably the most exciting of my life. I can conceive nothing more sublimating than the strange peril and novelty of an adventure such as this. May God grant that we succeed ! I ask not success for mere safety to my insignificant person, but for the sake of human knowledge and -- for the vastness of the triumph. And yet the feat is only so evidently feasible that the sole wonder is why men have scrupled to attempt it before. One single gale such as now befriends us -- let such a tempest whirl forward a balloon for 4 or 5 days (these gales often last longer) and the voyager will be easily borne, in that period, from coast to coast. In view of such a gale the broad Atlantic becomes a mere lake.

I am more struck, just now, with the supreme silence which reigns in the sea beneath us, notwithstanding its agitation, than with any other phenomenon presenting itself. The waters give up no voice to the heavens. The immense flaming ocean writhes and is tortured uncomplainingly. The mountainous surges suggest the idea of innumerable dumb gigantic fiends struggling in impotent agony. In a night such as is this to me, a man lives -- lives a whole century of ordinary life -- nor would I forego this rapturous delight for that of a whole century of ordinary existence.

By the time the craft came within sight of Fort Moultrie, on the South Carolina coast, the winds had died down and the craft landed without incident.

The balloon as shown in The Sun article

Poe included technical information on the craft that made the alleged flight across the Atlantic:

The balloon (an ellipsoid as represented in our engraving of the model) is composed of silk, varnished with the liquid gum caoutchouc. It is of vast dimensions, containing more than 40,000 cubic feet of gas; but as coal gas was employed in place of the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen, the supporting power of the machine, when fully inflated, and immediately after inflation, is not more than about 2500 pounds. The coal gas is not only much less costly, but is easily procured and managed.

In his report for The Sun, Poe concluded:

This is unquestionably the most stupendous, the most interesting, and the most important undertaking, ever accomplished or even attempted by man. What magnificent events may ensue, it would be useless now to think of determining.

Poe delighted in the excitement generated by his "news" account of the transatlantic flight and claimed the Sun was besieged with requests for copies of the paper. "I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper," he wrote.

Two days after publishing the story, though, the newspaper was forced to print a retraction:

BALLOON - The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England, the particulars of which from our correspondent we detailed in our Extra, we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous. The description of the Balloon and the voyage was written with a minuteness and scientific ability calculated to obtain credit everywhere, and was read with great pleasure and satisfaction. We by no means think such a project impossible.

Monck Mason

Thomas Monck Mason (1803 - 1889) was an actual person who had achieved fame for his ballooning. In the 1830s Mason, along with Charles Green and Robert Hollond, traveled the record distance of 500 miles in 18 hours. Mason also composed operatic works and was a professional flautist, but is best known today as the subject of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1844 media hoax.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Changing Our Stories

We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
~W.H. Auden

Telling tales the old-timey way

This morning, while listening to NPR, I heard a reference to a Ben Macintyre article from the Times [London], “The Internet is Killing Storytelling.” Below that online headline is this lead-in:

Narratives are a staple of every culture the world over. They are disappearing in an online blizzard of tiny bytes of information.

Turmoil over new media is nothing new, of course. On the one hand, I’m guilty of a cranky resistance to what I perceive as threats to the sanctity of narrative, namely the disjointed snippets that represent much of the content of the new media. For those of us keeping score, it is one more sign of the coming apocalypse.

On the other hand, I admit that I might not grasp the roles that digital technologies can play in transmitting stories to people who experience the world differently from me.

In an earlier time, we would have bemoaned the advent of the printing press for undermining the richness and the vitality of the oral tradition, and with good reason.

Here's a bit of the Macintyre article:

Last year Hollywood veterans and scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology teamed up to create a laboratory aimed at protecting the traditional tale from oblivion: the Centre for Future Storytelling. However ludicrous that may sound, they have a point. Storytelling is the bedrock of civilisation. From the moment we become aware of others, we demand to be told stories that allow us to make sense of the world, to inhabit the mind of someone else. In old age we tell stories to make small museums of memory. It matters not whether the stories are true or imaginary.

The narrative, whether oral or written, is a staple of every culture the world over. But stories demand time and concentration; the narrative does not simply transmit information, but invites the reader or listener to witness the unfolding of events.

A modern storyteller keeping narrative alive

Stories introduce us to situations, people and dilemmas beyond our experience, in a way that is contemplative and gradual: it is the oldest and best form of virtual reality.

The internet, while it communicates so much information so very effectively, does not really “do” narrative. The blog is a soap box, not a story. Facebook is a place for tell-tales perhaps, but not for telling tales. The long-form narrative still does sit easily on the screen, although the e-reader is slowly edging into the mainstream. Very few stories of more than 1,000 words achieve viral status on the internet.

Meanwhile, a generation is tuned, increasingly and sometimes exclusively, to the cacophony of interactive chatter and noise, exciting and fast moving but plethoric and ephemeral. The internet is there for snacking, grazing and tasting, not for the full, six-course feast that is nourishing narrative. The consequence is an anorexic form of culture.

The entire article is at:

Three years ago, I started blogging simply because I was curious about the technology. I really didn’t have an agenda for stories I wanted to tell or causes I wanted to champion. Things just happened the way they happened.

Every storyteller's dream, a rapt audience

I know it is tempting to blame the Internet for the death of narrative. But is it really that simple? Any loquacious blowhard can satisfy the desire to tell stories…without the assistance of new technologies. But for a soft-spoken recluse such as myself the Internet provides an opportunity to share stories that would otherwise go untold. If it weren't for this computer screen, I'd just be talking to the walls. Some might count that reason enough to condemn the Internet. It’s not for me to say.

Like it or not, change happens.

Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.
- Bertold Brecht

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mr. Tut-Tut's Guide to Mountain Living

A popular seventeenth century Chinese book of jokes, anecdotes and proverbs was attributed to a “Mr. Tut-Tut.”

The book has been compared to Poor Richard’s Almanac, by Benjamin Franklin. Lin Yutang, who collected and translated One Hundred Proverbs by Mr. Tut-Tut, said of them:

There is often a touch of cynicism in these maxims, but that can hardly be a fault. An idealist who has outgrown his idealism is a danger to society, but a cynic who has outgrown his cynicism is one of the kindest persons on earth.

Several of Mr. Tut-Tut’s proverbs mention mountains:

There are four rules for living in the mountains: let there be no formation in trees, no arrangement of rocks, no sumptuousness in the living house, and no contrivance in the human heart.

Talk not of arbitrary opinions in your mouth, hang not sorrow on the tip of your eyebrow - this is to be a human fairy. Plant flowers and bamboos where they belong, keep fish and poultry to suit your own pleasure - this is economics of living in the mountains.

To stay up in the mountains in a fine thing, but the slightest attachment turns it into a market; the appreciation of old paintings is a refined hobby, but the slightest greed of possession turns one into a merchant; wine and poetry provide occasions of pleasure, but the slightest loss of freedom turns them into hell; generous hospitality is a magnanimous habit, but when one is surrounded by common fellows, it is again like entering a sea of distress.

When wild geese cry in the sky, the mountain clouds touch your tower, and a thousand peaks bid the rain proceed, you approach a couch for an afternoon nap, and even your dreams will partake of poetry.

It would indeed be an ideal world if warriors did not have the air of the army, scholars did not have the air of bookish dogmatism, mountain recluses did not have the smell of mists and clouds and monks did not smell of incense and the altar.

Pass famous mountains as you read rare books, a few steps at a time if you are tired, or going a hundred miles when you are feeling fit. One does not go by a schedule, but only stops at what pleases the eye and delights the mind.

Living in the mountains has eight advantages over living in the city: no strict conventions, no strange visitors, no mulling over wine and meat, no fights over property, no concerns over the treacherous human heart, no quarrels over right and wrong, no pressing for literary articles, no gossip about officials.

[Photographs - early morning on the Blue Ridge Parkway, October 2009]