9/11 Tribute in Light: bird monitoring.


Ramble

You can see them from sixty miles away: twin beams of light reaching from lower Manhattan into the highest visible reaches of the sky. The beams burn through the night on September 11th, a memory, a tribute in light made from 88 7000W xenon bulbs.

Also in the New York skies in mid-September: hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. From afar, the beams look to the birds like…we don’t know…perhaps moonlight, or a gleam of sun out of place, or a streak of magnetic weirdness across the birds’ inner eye. The birds are drawn to the beams, then snared by the light. Look up from the ground and you see hundreds of circling birds. Through binoculars, the higher parts of the beams are so full of birds that the clouds of illuminated bodies look like the Milky Way in motion. Thousands of warblers, orioles, woodpeckers, and thrushes, each turned to a…

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North of Atlanta


When I travel, my love is for exploring. So when asked to come down to Atlanta’s northern suburbs, without a plan, but with my girlfriend Yvonne,  I figured, sure why not?

Now there’s some options more in keeping with what most of this blog will be. I’d wanted to kayak on the Chattahoochie River, but given it was raining, we did indoor stuff.

Travel can be about things that to a local may seem mundane. H-Mart a franchise of big box Asian stores, focusing on Korean and other East-Asian grocery products, about as mundane in some places as Target is for an East Tennessean, but for us, it was new and therefore, worth a trip. We don’t have it in Knoxville.

In the evening we stopped by Cafe 290, a jazz, funk and R&B club, and what for our region (Knoxville area) would be an elaborate seafood restaurant for a bar of its size. I’ll admit I can’t really judge Atlanta by its own standards.

The music varies a bit by night, but I can say the local performers the night we showed up were talented and the service and food were superb. It was set up more as a listening venue than a dancing venue, but we danced anyway, because we dance anywhere, including Starbucks. And no one stopped us.

Dayton: A new statue and an answer to a challenge.


[June Griffin] wants to debate Darrow supporters publicly, face to face, she said.

“No lawyers,” she said, “only personal confrontation. Engage them in the debate right there.”

Chattanooga Times Free Press

Yes, I will debate you, June Griffin. Though face to face may be hard to arrange, I’ll lay out my point here.

First, an explanation, because we’re dealing with frequently misunderstood history.

The trial of John Scopes

June Griffin is an opponent of a privately funded statue of Clarence Darrow being put up in front of the old Rhea County Courthouse. She opposes it because, in her view,  and the views of others, it promotes secularism.

Darrow’s connection to Dayton comes from a near century old event.

The town of Dayton put its high-school football coach and science teacher on trial in 1925, attracting the big name lawyers Clarence Darrow for the defense and former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution.  The crime? Teaching that humans evolved from “lower” animals. It was against the law at the time, but no one had enforced it before then. Or after.

I say, “put on trial” because “arrested,” while technically right, would give the wrong idea. In my experience, people in small Tennessee towns would never so much as sneeze in front of their football coach, let alone put him in jail. Scopes was no exception.

A group of businessmen and notable locals, including  the awesomely named Dayton Coal and Iron president George Washington Rappleyea discussed an ad from the ACLU offering to serve for the defense of anyone tried under the law over sodas at a drug store, because that was how small-town people did things in the 1920s. Along with wearing silly straw hats all the time.

Scopes and Rappleyea
Photo from Smithsonian Institution. Scopes, left and Rappleyea, right,  looking like they were on their way to a Harry Potter convention.

The mining industry, which founded the town in the first place, was failing at the time, having had much bad luck including deadly explosions, the worst killing 29 people. But now they could get the town on the map for something bigger: hosting the trial of the century.

Some of the businessmen supported the law, some of them opposed it like Rappleyea who said he wanted it to go on trial in order to be repealed, but they mostly just wanted attention for their town.

So, a boy ran over and found their man, out playing tennis. He came into the drugstore chatted with the folks there, and while it wasn’t clear whether he’d ever taught much about evolution, it was in the textbook the school assigned. The drugstore sold it, so they could easily check. To be fair, schools didn’t have many creationist textbooks to choose from back then. Anyway, Scopes never spent a single day in jail and never even testified in a trial that became more about Bryan and Darrow debating each other. That debate and evolution vs. creationism overshadowed all of Dayton’s previous history, including union strikes, the mine explosions, a company president’s suicide and its also awesomely named British founder, Titus Salt Jr.

The trial led to the founding of Bryan College, named for William Jennings Bryan, in Dayton. So, naturally, Dayton’s old courthouse had a statue, not of Scopes, Rappleyea, the copperhead who bit Rappleyea and forced him to stay in Dayton (leading to the trial), or Titus Salt Jr. but of Bryan, just by himself. Then, this year, they’ve added a statue of Darrow.

Scopes, 24 years old at the time, agreed to go on trial because his father said it was a good idea. I can relate. At about the same age, my own father, coincidentally a strong believer in evolution like Scopes’, convinced me to stay in Tennessee and work with him on a book.

My book, a collaboration with my father, called “Wildly Strolling Along” is about hiking, nature and history along the Cumberland Trail. A side branch of that trail goes past some ruins which include a mine ruin connected to the company that would become Rappleyea’s. I mistakenly identified as a coke oven for processing coal in my book. But I still stand by most of what I said about Dayton’s mining industry, unless anyone else has any corrections. Please send them to bpounds97@gmail.com if you do.

The museum and why the statue fits

Because that history peaked with the Scopes Trial, it led to me visiting the museum at the courthouse back when it had just one statue of Bryan as I mention in the book. I was impressed by the fact that the museum, while focusing on the trial, had displays portraying creationism and evolution accurately and a great timeline of mining company history, to which I owe a chapter of my book.

The museum already had Darrow’s straw boater hat (yup, another one) so it wasn’t like it ignored him. The courthouse is known for its accurate reenactment of the trial based on transcripts, which serves as a correction to the fictional and never-intended-to-portray-reality play and movie “Inherit the Wind” which has shaped far too many people’s perceptions.

While Griffin’s statements as reported in the media have been provocative and sensationalist, a good statement of her side’s views can be found here by someone who spoke at Griffin’s rally. Note that he never mentions the real background of the trial (coal mining and a struggling town economy) focusing on the “clash of ideas.”

While I do believe in evolution and have endorsed it in my book, I also admire Bryan, and many of his positions were ahead of their time. Neither of those opinions, however, really matter here.

The structure is a museum. It’s meant to tell people an unbiased truth about what happened, which is what it does so well. Having both lawyers in front lends credibility.

People from both sides of the debate can come there and learn accurately what happened after admiring the representatives of the different sides. Darrow’s statue is in keeping with the spirit of the museum as it was when I was there and the spirit of its general mission. That, to me is more valuable than endorsing either side of the debate: endorsing learning.

So, yes, I welcome the new statue, even as I wish there might have been more information about the coal company history. I support a place where people of different views can come together. To me, that’s the real issue here. That and promoting my own book. Because after all, what could be more in keeping with the original trial than shameless promotion?

 

 

“Top Girls” at Clarence Brown Review


I am, last time I checked, not a woman.

So, whatever I have to say about women or women’s issues may be wrong, I suppose. Us guys have been notoriously unreliable about that kind of thing.

What I can say is that I liked “Top Girls” at the Clarence Brown Lab Theater. It’s my kind of play: distinctive, interesting characters, interesting twists, non-realistic symbolic elements– including  a dinner party with fantasy guests, a thought provoking nature.

But what is the play trying to say? Without giving too much away, the play, set during Thatcher’s rule in the U.K., is a feminist play criticizing other feminists.

It seems designed as a critique of capitalism generally, of getting ahead at the expense of others, even if you are a woman. Apart from the present day characters, that theme is most embodied by Isabella Bird, a woman who explored the world but expressed those travels through prejudiced lectures on other cultures’ inferiority.

I won’t give too much away about the plot, which seems to exist more for the characters to have something to do than anything. It lacks the craziness of “Cloud 9,” the other play by Caryl Churchill I’ve seen. But still, I found myself amazed at a play about a subject matter which could, theoretically, leave me cold, the soap opera-ish setup of a daughter bonding with her true mother, the debates about work v.s. family, which I’ve never faced — and make it enjoyable to watch, with all of the characters feeling, as played by their actresses interesting and enjoyable to watch, without making any of them clear heroes or villains.

The play has run its course. Next up on the Clarence Brown Schedule: “Around the World in Eighty Days,” a main stage show. A little less deep or is it? I will see.

The nature of “The Beast” and Kong Skull Island while we’re at it.


So, what did I think of the 2017 “Beauty and the Beast”?

First my actual review: It was enjoyable. I recommend it to people who liked the original cartoon and want to see different actors and designers take it on, allowing people to see it in live action. It’s a bit like seeing one of Disney’s stage plays or even any stage play with a different cast than you’ve seen before: a chance to revisit old friends doing something just a little, not a lot, different.

My problem, and I’ll admit, I got over it, is what the movie represents.

I don’t hate Disney or modern mass-produced pop-culture in general. Neither shouldn’t be the only thing that’s out there but neither is. There’s always stuff for other tastes if you know where to find it.

No, I’m talking about the movie’s problem, which also its greatest strength: It’s very much like the cartoon.

Sure they add some new songs, add extra scenes including backstories for some characters, use a somewhat different design to avoid anything too cartoony, but much of the dialogue, plot, characters costumes, etc. are exactly what you’ve probably seen bef0re. For the most part, it’s not a re-adaptation of an earlier version of the fairy tale. It’s a remake of their own. Nothing is too different.

“Certain as the sun/Rising in the east,” indeed.

Now that’s what people came to see. I’ll admit that the whole nostalgically etched-in-my-mind lines, moments and songs have a certain appeal to me because by this point they have to. But shouldn’t we want something different from what we’ve already seen?

It’s rather odd that right now one of the other less-successful blockbusters out there is Kong Skull Island, which I also enjoyed, deliberately avoids this problem in favor of keeping only the title character and setting while avoiding any direct analogue to the original’s iconic Empire State Building scene. Its most interesting character, played by John C. Reiley, d0es not correspond to anyone in the Peter Jackson movie and probably not in the original either (full disclosure: never saw the original). Kong Skull Island did, however, have everything I wanted in a big monster flick, with plenty of action scenes and monsters. If you want that, Kong Skull Island is for you.

As a side note, nowadays Disney is more original than they ever were at the height of their Renaissance, as people call the 1990s era. Would Renaissance era Disney have ever made a completely original (apart from some allusions) story about a police rabbit in a city of racist animals?

Somehow, and this is rather strange: Beauty and the Beast at first when I heard about it seemed a bit too soon. Which is downright weird because of how old it actually is.

What happened was that my family owned it and my sister, being a big fan 0f it, and I liked it too as I recall, in spite of it being considered a girls’ movie kinda ran it into the ground. But I haven’t seen it in ages. So that’s the backstory here. I assumed before seeing it the movie would come off as clichéd, then, when watching the movie, realized I hadn’t seen the older movie recently enough for it to come off that way.

I should hate those semen-scented Bradford pear trees


“Although it’s difficult to describe, the most accurate description of the Callery’s budding flowers would be something like a pungent whiff of freshly excreted semen. Sure, you could euphemize and say it smells like a wet, dirty mop dipped in floury fish guts, but isn’t that much more disgusting than likening it to a natural bodily fluid?”

Westworld.com.

1024px-pyrus_calleryana_callery_pear_blossom

Among the earliest of my area’s spring flowers, the Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), just finished its little white explosions and started opening its leaves. My house’s lawn came with a row of them, and I’ve grown to like them, even though everybody hates them and I should too. I’m working on it.

Heck, I even like their little white explosions out on the edges of fields, although, again, I shouldn’t.

Probably the best source on the subject is this scholarly paper, although I’m just summarizing it here.

It’s an ornamental tree from Asia, popularly known as the “Bradford,” although the “Bradford” is just one of many cultivars (varieties created by grafting). It wowed Americans with its ability to stand up to droughts and disease. However, Bradfords split in half easily, so they’re really not as hardy as people thought.

All the varieties of  Calleryana we have are cultivars, meaning they have to be grafted and can’t self fertilize like other trees. However, different cultivars can cross pollinate, and the trees have gone wild.

Tennessee Invasive Plant Council considers it an invasive species, meaning that it pushes out native plants. My Dad, plant ecologist Dr. Larry Pounds agrees and told me some feral varieties can get pretty thorny.

I doubt, however, we’ll ever see the Great Smoky Mountains covered in white round trees that smell of semen however. Dad told me he hasn’t seen them growing in forests and it’s easy to see why. Like many ornamental trees, they don’t exactly tower. They stay at a pretty small size.

Review: Poodle Springs, Chandler and Hardboiled Detectives in general


Yes, I’m late getting on this bandwagon. Poodle Springs is  a 1950s novel, by Raymond Chandler finished in the 1990s by Robert B. Parker. And I liked it. That’s coming from someone who has read “Red Wind” and “Danger is my Business,” which I apologize for not reviewing on this blog. I confess I never read “The Long Goodbye” which would have been the better book to read before judging this one. I have also seen the movie version of “The Big Sleep.”

All of them feature a classic hardboiled private detective of a kind more familiar to my generation thr0ugh parodies, such as in “Calvin and Hobbes” than serious works. His name is Phillip Marlowe, a man frequently threatened but not above joking when threatened.

Parker, jumping into that same universe, one of threats, twists, witty descriptions of characters and the like, seems to be enjoying himself rather than just imitating Chandler’s style. I won’t give away too many plot spoilers in this post, possibly saving them for another one. Having Phillip be married to Linda, rather than single as in other novels gave Parker a chance to have Marlowe explain his own obsessions, making the novel a far more self-conscious study of hardboiled detective norms, which actually made it more accessible to a modern audience.

But what is that hardboiled genre? It involves a detective, but the mystery itself isn’t always something there for the reader to figure out, although sometimes it is. It doesn’t start out with the murder, usually, but rather some other kind of case and the murder(s) happen midway. The plot can get convoluted. Although it’s not action on the level of a modern blockbuster, a hardboiled detective usually gets plenty of threats too and is pretty decent at shooting at punching.

Chandler popularized, though he did not create the hardboiled detective genre, which he explained in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” an artistic manifesto as interesting as it flawed.

In it, he declared why he wanted to break free of the more genteel mystery style popularized by Agatha Christie, although he uses A.A. Milne’s work as his main example.

The manifesto’s effects were wonderful and defined a genre, but its premises make little sense. So rather than give spoilers about any of the above book, I will discuss that manifesto, a little bit here, possibly returning to it.

Right off the bat he makes a small mistake:

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.”

In reality, fiction runs the full gamut. There have always been people trying to write realistically, but there have also been people who intended to portray something bizarre and unlike reality. Some of the best fiction combines the two. In fact, Chandler’s world of a private eye taking on murders and surviving frequent threats on his life isn’t particularly realistic either to the average modern reader, even if it might be enjoyable. Reality contains implausible many things, however, and Chandler stories could happen, as, theoretically, could “Murder on the Orient Express,” which he picks on and which I have also read.

At a later point he almost contradicts himself: “There are no dull subjects, only dull minds,” he says at one point and yet earlier he says “The cool-headed constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing-board.” In other words, he seems to hold that science is a dull subject. And besides which, go ask Joseph Bell how to combine observance of people with observance of say, medicine and as a result inspire Sherlock Holmes, who, as a side note, Chandler faintly praises as a trailblazer for being the first to popularize detective writing. It’s hard but can be done.

But what he was getting at, and this is probably more important than his superficial and confused pronouncements was a desire to speak to his own time period with a style that broke free of what some authorities considered the “best” style, with a different style, that of his contemporary Hammett, which he took and made it his own, although I’ll admit, I have not read Hammett and do not know how much the two resemble each other.

Having a different style, rejecting the established “good” style and speaking to the concerns of your own times: That is a worthy goal.