Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Internet Birding

There is no way to go birding on the internet, because birds can't survive for long in the ether. You can look at photos of birds online, or play Angry Birds, and you can find all sorts of info online about what birds people have seen, and where.

The other day, a friend of mine passed along the web link to the Great Backyard Bird Count. Between February 17 and 20, we were all supposed to keep an eye on the feeder or head out into the field, keeping track of our sightings and tallying the results at the official web site. This has been going on for years, and it always struck me as odd that such an event would take place in the winter, when there aren’t many birds around. On the other hand, I didn’t know how easy it was to join in.

On President’s Day Hilary and I left town on a field trip and ended up at Spring Lake Regional Park a few miles west of Hastings. This under-used park occupies a bluff overlooking Gray Cloud Island and the Mississippi. It’s one of the most spectacular panoramas in the Twin Cities, and the drama is enhanced by the contrast between the strips of white ice, blue open water, and gray leafless island trees that drape themselves across the river landscape.

We hiked along the edge of Scharr’s Bluff, where Indians camped eight thousand years ago as the raging torrents of Glacial River Warren flooded past below them. Then we drove down to a second section of the park and took a hike through a hardwood forest past a long succession of archery stands to the banks of the Mississippi.

As we emerged from the woods we spotted a cluster of ducks—scores of mallards, a few golden eye, and four mergansers that I took to be the red-breasted sort, due to the distinctive top-notch on the female. A few minutes later a genuine birding party arrived and one of the men asked us what we’d seen.

“Were they common mergansers or red-breasted mergansers?” he wanted to know.

“My understanding is that the female red-breasted has that distinctive top-notch. Isn’t that so?”

“Actually, the common can have that, too," he corrected me politely. "A better sign in the female is whether the head coloring ends abruptly or in a blurred muddle,” he kindly explained.

“Yeah, I think they were red-breasted.” I held to my story. (Please note the two species depicted here, and decide for yourself which is which.)

As we made our way back to the car, the group was probably ruing the fact that the birds they’d come to see had been spooked by novices who didn’t know their winter ducks!

The best sighting we had was on the way out, when we spotted a pair of red-tailed hawks sitting one behind the other on two branches at eye level, maybe five feet apart, as if they were posing for a fiftieth wedding anniversary photo. Sweet.

Back home, I took a look online at the merganser issue and came across such remarks as

“…Another point is the chin and throat. On the common merganser, there is a well defined oval patch on the sides of the chin. On red-breasted it is more blended as seen here. Also, the common merganser has a larger body with bigger tail, but that can be hard to judge. One point that's not usually mentioned is the extension of maxillary feathering on the side of the bill. It forms a wedge or triangle on Red-breasted. On Common the feathering comes straight down and doesn't project into a point. However, this only works in North American populations.”
Somewhere along the way, I was reminded of the link to the Great Backyard Bird Count, and though we had not been counting or tallying anything, I filled out a report, including a few species we’d seen recently in the back yard: Canada Goose (80), Mallard (60), Common Goldeneye (4), Red-Breasted Merganser (4), Wild Turkey (6), Bald Eagle (4), Red-Tailed Hawk (2), Red-bellied woodpecker (1), Downy Woodpecker (1), Black-capped Chickadee (20)…and so on.

Here’s where the internet begins to strut its stuff. Once I’d submitted my list, I took a look at what other Minnesotans had seen. It’s a fascinating collocation that you can reference by species. One birder in Duluth had seen 10 red-breasted mergansers. That was it. On the other hand, observers in Hastings, Rosemount, Fridley, Burnsville, Minneapolis, South St. Paul, and Bloomington (all Mississippi towns) had seen common merganser.

The handwriting was on the wall. I resubmitted my tally, changed red-breasted to common…and downgraded my skill level from “excellent” to “good.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tourist St. Paul

One of the under-appreciated benefits of living in the Twin Cities is that on any given winter weekend, if you’re hungry for vacation or escape, you can simply take a drive across the river to your sister city—whichever direction that might be.

Yesterday we hopped into the car at 9:45 and were pulling into one of those coveted street-side parking spots near the Como Park Conservatory by 10:10. A few minutes later, having slipped a fiver down the donation slot, we entered the steamy glass confines of the place. Ferns and bromeliads and banana tress everywhere in the central court. The moisture and heat hit you immediately. It’s like stepping off the plane in San Diego.

Like everyone else, we made a bee-line for the south wing, where all the colorful flowers are now in bloom. Lilies and cyclamens. Coy in the pools, lily-pads, parents with their toddlers, and huge SLR cameras everywhere!

I whipped my Canon PowerShot SD1200 out of my shirt pocket, and not to be outdone, I switched to the “macro” programmed setting for a few close-ups of the blossoms. That was a mistake. The camera also happened to be programmed for tungsten light. Well, let’s settle back and enjoy the blooms themselves.

Hardly less interesting, in my view, is the opposite wing of the conservatory, where spice-bearing plants from the East Indies and South America, Borneo and Brazil, are on permanent display. All-spice, black pepper, ginger, all of which conjure thoughts of lunch: Indian? Thai?

We moved on to the brightly-colored frogs in the tropical rainforest, and then the anaconda. Lovely ferns, dripping springs, yellow and orange birds flittering in the rafters, and a wonderful exhibit of intimate black bear photos by long-time local expert Lynn Rogers.

As we departed the building Minnesota suddenly felt very cold again. We returned to the car and circumnavigated Lake Como in a clock-wise direction—not as easy as it sounds. Then we headed down Como Avenue toward downtown St. Paul, through semi-industrial neighborhoods that I hadn’t traversed in ages. Spotting a spire to our right, we veered down Western and pulled up in front of the notoriously conservative St. Agnes Church just as some characters were emerging with violin cases in tote. We stepped inside and caught the tail end of a Mass from the lobby. Rather airy paintings on the ceiling. I grabbed a brochure on the way out; it might be worth attending an evening Monteverdi service someday…in Latin.

Our thoughts were of neighborhood spaghetti for lunch—was Costello’s on Snelling still open, or maybe a joint on Payne Avenue?—but we ended up in the Wild Onion on Grand. I thought it might be a “family” place, they had spaghetti and meatballs on the menu—but when we stepped inside it looked like Chammps. I asked the hostess, “Is there anywhere we can sit where a TV won’t be visible?” Her frank response was, “Actually, no.” She gave us a booth by the window, which was the best she had…but we were out of there in no time.

We wandered across the street to Brasa, and I’m glad we did. I like the food at the Minneapolis Brasa, but find the interior unpleasantly cramped and drafty. The St. Paul Brasa is warm and spacious. Same tasty soul food. I’d go back in an instant.

Re-energized by the pulled pork and huevos rancheros, we took that long drop down Grand Avenue to West Seventh, then snaked past the hordes heading to the Wild hockey game, and arrived at last at Mounds Park, where the view is superb and the artifacts are 1500 years old. (But I forgot the shovel.) Mounds Park is one of the few places where you can see St. Paul and Minneapolis at the same time.

We arrived back home five hours after having set out, and felt like we’d been on a vacation. We took a nap on the floor with the sunlight streaming in from the west and woke up to find a flock of wild turkeys wandering through our back yard.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

From Iran: A Separation

A Separation is an unsavory gruel of overheated conversations, long-standing resentments, deep familial affections, hopes for a better life, unshakeable religious faith, and economic desperation. The plot thunders on like an express train that’s jumped the rails, and though the violence, in the end, amounts to little more than a few slaps and shoves, every frame carries an uneasy current. The two-hour film, shot with natural light in apartments and on the streets of Tehran, goes by in a flash. It’s Iranian, but as we leave the theater we’re likely to have Aristotle’s theory of poetic catharsis running through our heads: a sense of purification after the release of pent-up or horrific emotions.

As the film opens, eighteen months have passed since the Iranian couple at the center of the action applied for a visa to leave the country. The visa has now, finally, come through, but Nader is unwilling to leave without his father, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. His wife, Simin, considers it imperative to leave Iran for the sake of their daughter, Termeh, a bright and seemingly docile adolescent who’s obviously taking in every angry work exchanged in the apartment.

However, Simin doesn’t want her father-in-law to come along. Though it’s never mentioned, this is probably another reason she’s so eager to leave Iran: she’s the one who takes care of him, morning, noon, and night, though he doesn’t recognize anyone and seldom speaks.

It’s a tough situation, and it becomes tougher when Simin leaves the apartment to move back in with her parents. Most of the film deals with troubles that ensue when Nader is forced to hire a stranger—a very orthodox working-class woman with a hot-headed husband—to take care of his father in Simin’s absence.

Having emphasized the crackling energy and relentless distress of A Separation, let me add that in many ways it resembles any number of quiet, talky films by the Swiss auteur Eric Rohmer. In the first place, two children are near the center of the plot. And much of the second half of the film focuses on whether or not people are telling the truth—one of Rohmer’s favorite themes. (Remember Pauline at the Beach?) We in the audience are not quite sure who’s on the level as a court inquiry into an incident at the apartment mushrooms out of control, but Termeh also wants to know if her parents are lying, and if so, why? An even younger girl, the daughter of the family’s newly-hired female attendant, also stirs the pot by guilelessly offering a few timely revelations, without giving it much thought.

Whether A Separation is a truly great film is a question we can leave for others to decide. It’s certainly a griping one, though largely devoid of humor or romance. It’s a drama of bad communication and bad luck, pride and desperation. Anyone who cared to could easily find parallels to the current political stand-off between Iran and the United States. But the film also carries a simpler message: for better or worse, Iranians are in many ways just like us.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Art Shanty Village

On a gray and gloomy Sunday morning, we toddled over to Medicine Lake to see the Art Shanty village. The brightly colored buildings cheered us up. The spirit of “let’s build a fort” is clearly alive and well, regardless of the electronic devices that clutter our lives, and the idea of gathering the “forts” together into a little community on the ice is brilliant. A spirit of child-like fun pervades the place. But the word “fort” isn’t quite accurate to describe the various buildings set out at random along the east shore of Medicine Lake.

At the center of the community is a Nordic Village Bridge, a project created by the staff of Concordia Language Villages. From the top of the bridge you can look down on the other structures below, though a troll sometimes lurks under the span, jabbing people above with his walking stick. The bridge’s stated purpose is “to challenge visitors' assumptions about what it means to bridge cultures in our global community.” Weddings are held in the vicinity regularly, though I suspect most of them are of the “renewing vows” variety. So if you want to tie the knot, Sami-or Sicilian-style, this is the place to come.

The Sashay Shanty is so full of vintage clothes you can hardly get inside the door.(They hold runway-style fashion shows from bygone eras periodically.) The Dance Shanty is an empty building facing out toward the big lake where people can dance, often jiving to music from headphones provided at the shanty. (Don’t want to upset the neighbors.)

The more contemplative Reflection Shanty is lined with mirrors but open on one end, so you can sit and ogle the beauty of Medicine Lake in “infinite reflection.” The Robo Shanty is a giant tin man that can accommodate up to eight people within its limbs and torso. It’s mounted on runners and can be pushed back and forth across the ice.

The Solar Ark Shanty has a wall tipped at an angle and designed to take in the sun’s rays through tiny slits. If you lay in a hammock and look up you’ll see a marvelous array of glittering lights—I’m sure it’s better when the sun is out.

One shanty, fashioned from an old aluminum streamline trailer, contains a functioning sauna. Another has a letter-press on which the village newspaper, the Shantiquarian, is printed. It gives new shades of meaning to the concept of cold-type printing.

The village has a one-room schoolhouse where lectures are given and a “capitol” building with a Wall of Dreams inside. Among the many dreams posted there on scraps of paper, two that Hilary noticed were “I want to marry James and have three beautiful children” and “NO PUBLIC FUNDING FOR THE STADIUM!”

We wandered the ice for an hour at least, though things had not really gotten started by the time we left. The dance hall remained closed, and just as we were leaving we passed the members of a jug band heading out onto the ice with their instruments.

Though T-shirts and hotdogs were on sale at the Social Shanty, the spirit of the village was largely uncommercial. Most of the shanties hold only a few guests at a time; the acrid smell of smoke from the wood-burning stoves (which I love) drifted by, and everything was pretty casual. A few adults were shooting baskets, others were pedaling ice-bicycles in the shape of fish and foxes back and forth.

Out in the center of the village, near the bridge, an old-fashioned boom box sent music wafting—James Taylor or Swedish fiddling—whenever anyone was willing to pedal the stationary bicycle that powered it.

We took a whirl in an egg-shaped Sit-and-Spin, but skipped the big black Monsters-Under-the Bed Shanty, which you reach through a low-hung sliding door. It looked far too crowded for grown-ups to enter.

Next year we'll come later in the day. I wouldn't want to miss the Beckett play performed on ice skates!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Best Film of the Year

I wish, now, that I’d seen The Tree of Life in the theater. On the other hand, after a winter of rabid movie-going, it’s a thrill to see a film that has so much going for it that it clearly stands out from the pack.

The Tree of Life is a rendering of childhood in the 1950s, in Waco, Texas. It’s also a visual history of the universe. Through much of the film three brother shout, torture frogs, wrestle in the weeds (Can’t you hear the crickets chirping?), hang out with their deviant friends, play the guitar, obey their domineering father (Brad Pitt), fall in love with their charming mother (Jessica Chastain), go to church, go down to the creek, challenge and test one another, climb trees. Most of the time their conversation consists of murmurs and mumbles. Much of the time it seems we’re hearing what they’re thinking, rather than what they’re actually saying.

There is also quite a bit of whispered voice-over.

To add to the mesmeric effect of experienced childhood (rather than narrative, plot-driven stories about childhood), in The Tree of Life director Terrence Malick brings the jump cut to the level of fine art. (A “jump-cut,” I ought to mention, is a cut between two shots of the same character or scene that have almost, but not quite, the same angle, rather than a reverse angle or a cut to a distinctly different scene or character. This technique, in effect, reminds us of the presence of the camera, but also seems to convey the fluid yet stop-and-go nature of life and memory. After a while you cease to notice it and a dream-like atmosphere develops. It’s the Cubism of cinema.)

Malick frames this central focus on childhood experience between two specific events, one small, the other large. The “small” event is that one of the brothers dies. (We don’t see it and we never learn how, and the event comes so early in the film that I don’t mind mentioning it here.)

The “large” event is actually a sequence of events—the creation of the universe and the development of life on the planet Earth. There is extended footage in the first half of the film of cosmic events—nebulae expanding, volcanoes erupting, micro-organisms developing—with ethereal religious music sounding in the background. It all seems a bit like a cross between that BBC series Planet Earth and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It's interesting to note that for the “creation” sequences Malick turned to Douglas Trumbull, who created the spectacular effects in 2001, but hadn’t worked on a film since Blade Runner. Avoiding computer-generated effects, they mixed liquids of varying viscosity in a tank and filmed the reactions, arriving at an effect that resembles the images sent back from NASA exploratory spacecraft.

But astronomer Volker Bromm, associate professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin, also played an important role. He commented later:
When I had the first meeting with Terry Malick he said that he wanted to get it right…he didn’t want to just make up stuff—say you have visual effects in Star Trek or Star Wars—he wanted to do the real thing. The closest we can come is a computer simulation of the universe because at this point we cannot directly observe it; therefore, having a computer simulation is the closest thing to how it really was at that time. He wanted to tell the history of the universe with as much realism as possible. Then we translated our simulation into a visualization. The question was always—Does it look right? Does it catch the scientific idea behind it? The visual effects people were very accommodating in trying to get it right and to make me happy.
The Tree of Life is better than 2001, perhaps, because it remains rooted in organic development rather than the esoteria of space travel and super-human computers.

Well, no need to compare. It’s a different sort of film altogether. What 2001 and The Tree of Life have in common is metaphysical ambition. (In fact, due to the presence of Brad Pitt in the cast, some theaters felt it prudent to post disclaimers warning viewers that they were about to enter a philosophical experience and not to demand their money back if they didn’t like it.)
Kubrick may be asking where life is going, but Malick is asking us to consider what life is really like. Why are men and women so different? Why do kids act out? And most importantly, why is God so unjust?

Music plays a large role in the film. Brad Pitt, in the role of Mr. O’Brien, is a largely unsympathetic character, and the fact that he finds solace and inspiration in playing and listening to music seems to make his authoritarian insensitivity that much harder to take.

On the other hand, his middle son plays the guitar angelically. (Malick’s own younger brother studied classical guitar with Segovia in Spain, later willfully broke both his hands and then committed suicide.)

The soundtrack is loaded with classical gems that sometimes border on cornball, from Smetana’s The Moldau to G√≥recki’s Third Symphony, along with Mozart, Brahms, Couperin, Berlioz, and an assortment of obscure and atmospheric tone-poems that establish an indelible atmosphere of mystery—alluring or sinister, we’re not quite sure.(To see the complete list, and hear some of the numbers, click here.)

Sean Penn seems like a duck out of water in his role as one of the grown-up brothers, and cynics may chuckle at the Hallmark Greeting Card nature of some of the imagery, especially of the final celestial scenes on the beach. I bought the whole package. I was raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which might be worth mentioning. But the estimable Roger Ebert remarked, “I don't know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of The Tree of Life reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me.”

So, is this a film about boys, and for boys? When the movie was over, my wife Hilary, who was raised in Minnetonka, Minnesota, said, “That’s my childhood.”