Monday, November 30, 2015

POOR, RICH AND RIGHTEOUS – Top 25 Images of Cuba

Cuba is like that weird uncle no one ever sees any more. Once the life of the party—an anything-goes spree destination for well-heeled American socialites, celebrities and the mob—the exotic country just 90 miles south of Key West suddenly became persona non grata.

So close, yet so far away.

While visiting Cuba the first two weeks of November, I was struck by the obvious effects, not just of the half-century US embargo, but of the influences of other countries—especially Russia and China—stepping in as allies. Given such connections, one wonders how the communist government, though providing certain first-world benefits like free health care and education, has managed to deprive so many of its citizens, for so long, of any broader sense of prosperity.

No sooner do the airs of one lively salsa or rhumba band fade than those of another two blocks ahead rise to the ear.

But Cubans count assets other than a high standard of living as it is understood elsewhere in the world. The flavors of their diverse heritage—European, African and Indigenous—blend in a savory stew of cultural energy. A distinct pride of survivorship keeps the great Revolution on low simmer, still evident in folks' erect bearing and in defiant propaganda splashed on walls and billboards. And Cubans are nothing if not resourceful, scrimping, saving and improvising to make do with their limited resources.

The country's lush, tropical landscapes, from jungle to beach to highland coffee plantation, are breathtakingly beautiful. There's a surprisingly strong sense, even when one is beyond sight of the ocean, of this being an island—something, I suppose, about how the air feels and smells, and how close even a distant thunderstorm seems to loom.

Even gritty La Habana Vieja, old-town Havana, though at first glance a ruin, holds its own charms. Through the structural decay shine glimpses of grander days. Some landlords have managed a bit of restoration, even if it's only a fresh coat of paint. Here and there, vibrant art delights and challenges the eye, and music is everywhere—no sooner do the airs of one lively salsa or rhumba band fade than those of another two blocks ahead rise to the ear.

While a people can hardly be characterized by a tourist's limited impressions, I found the Cubans I met on the streets and in the countryside to be friendly, welcoming, curious…and surprisingly optimistic. Most are excited about the thaw in relations with the US, looking forward to new opportunities and reunions with long-separated family members living there.

I can't share all the warm smiles, the welcoming handshakes, the tastes and smells, the music's beat. Those you will have to experience for yourself.* But I can offer a few of the images I captured with my camera. Of the 1,000-plus I snapped, here are my best 25.
* Keep an eye here and on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento, for my upcoming post on how you can spend a couple of amazing weeks in Cuba—legally—for less than $1,500, about a third the price charged by most tour companies.

Friday, October 30, 2015

OFF TO CUBA...Stay Tuned...

For the next couple of weeks I’ll likely be incommunicado here and on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento. Not because I’m nobly foreswearing all distractions digital, but because they’re being foresworn for me. I’m going to Cuba.

PHOTO: Agencia Braxil via WikiMedia Commons

Besides the assumption that access to the Internet will be all but impossible, I’m hoping to be so busy—between several hours every day of Spanish lessons, group excursions around and beyond Havana, lots of good music, food and rum, and a few adventures on my own—that I won’t have much time to post.

But I will keep a journal and take lots of photos, which I can later edit down to manageable installments and share on my blogs and Facebook.

It should be a real adventure, a solo trip to this enigmatic little country—so near (just 90 miles from the US), yet so far away for its half-century of near isolation from its anti-social northern neighbor. Besides taking another small step toward Spanish fluency, I hope to see some of city and countryside, meet some interesting people and find a unique reporting angle on the experience.

PHOTO: Pixabay

The state of the arts in Cuba / Signs of US influence that’s managed to filter into the country through visitors from other parts of the world / Where is the line to be found between “old Cuba” and the inevitable new Cuba to come? / How to experience Cuba on $80 a day. These are just a few of the themes I’m considering. I suspect others will reveal themselves as I jostle and jot around La Habana.

So please think of me; wish me a good ear for the particularities of Cuban Spanish; and pray for no more western Atlantic or Caribbean hurricanes this season. And please keep an eye here and on El Viajero Contento for a series of trip reports when I return.

Gracias y saludos…

PHOTO: Pixabay

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears. Tears never seem far away because both their pain and their joy are always so close to the surface.”
BRIN-JONATHAN BUTLER – The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway's Ghost in the Last Days of Castro's Cuba

Friday, October 23, 2015

ASIAN CARP, SCHMASIAN CARP! – Meet the Meanmouth

I’ll never forget the first fish I ever caught on the St. Croix River. I was seven years old. My dad and I were trolling one warm summer evening. He kept our seven-and-a-half-horse Evinrude putt-putting along at its slowest possible speed. Still, my little Mirro-lure vibrated more than swam as it bucked the current.

I got a strike. It could have been any of seven or eight species of game fish commonly caught on lures in the St. Croix. Whatever it was, at that tender age I was sure it was a monster. After a minute or two of awkward pulling and reeling I lifted the splendid barely-one-pound specimen out of the water.

The fish’s glistening flanks were surprisingly dark. The sun, about to settle into the bluff treetops on the Minnesota side, brought out olive-gold highlights and muted vertical stripes. I thought it was the most beautiful, exotic creature I’d ever seen. I knew it was a bass, but my dad, grinning proudly, made sure I knew exactly what kind of bass. “That, son, is a keeper!—a beautiful St. Croix smallmouth black bass.”
     I still caught a few bass. But this time, some-
     thing was radically, shockingly, different.

Smallmouth black bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
In 60-plus years since that magical moment, I've caught at least a thousand more smallmouth black bass in the St. Croix. It’s the species the river is best known for, perfectly suited to its clean, cool currents, sandy-to-gravely bottom, rocky crags, eddies and deep pools—one many credit as, pound for pound, one of the scrappiest game fish in the world.

Many of my favorite fishing spots lie along a secluded slough that diverts for a mile or so into the Wisconsin-side woods before rejoining the river. I'd been noticing that for some years, with the water level reaching its customary late-summer low earlier and earlier, it’s been getting harder to float into it after
late June.

One early-July day a few years back, I found the slough already cut off from the river's flow. I had to drag my canoe over sandbars and through muddy shallows to get in. The backwater’s now-stagnant waters were murky, and weeds I'd never before seen on the river thrived.

I was concerned about whether the bass would still be there—usually only carp and a few intrepid pike tolerate these unappealing waters. Surprisingly, I still caught a few bass. But this time, something was radically, shockingly, different.

Largemouth black bass (Micropterus salmoides)

These were all largemouth bass. Or at least they seemed so to my unskilled eye. The extension of the jaw's upper, maxillary, bone to a point behind the fish's eye, and a dark swath running lengthwise along each side (rather than the vertical-stripe pattern typical of smallies) both suggested it.

So where did these “bucketmouths” suddenly come from? Where did the smallies go? How could such a changeover happen so fast? Was this an irreversible trend—perhaps yet another close-to-home sign of global climate change? Had I seen the last of this handsome, valiant breed—the fish that had defined piscine beauty for me a half century ago?

     I caught seven little bass in the slough. 
     But this time I couldn’t tell what they were.

In the past few years, I’ve once again caught smallies in the slough, but also the occasional largemouth. The difference hasn’t seemed to depend strictly on water level and quality, so I’m still wondering what’s going on.

This summer of 2015 has been an extraordinary one for this part of Minnesota—relatively cool temperatures and plenty of rain. For the first time in memory, my favorite slough has been navigable all summer long—and well into the fall. I’ve been fishing in there seven or eight times, and have delighted in catching lots of smallies, many of them that amazing dark color that so struck me when I was a boy. And good-sized ones at that.

Yesterday, on my latest outing—likely last of the season—I caught seven little bass in the slough. But this time something was quite different. I couldn’t tell what they were. Every single one had some of the characteristics of a smallmouth and others of a largemouth. Some of those traits fell halfway in between.

Black bass caught and released in St. Croix River, October, 2015

Smallmouth and largemouth black bass

Instead of the maxillary extending back to the middle of the eye’s pupil (smallmouth) or well behind the eye (largemouth), it extended just to the back of the eye. Rather than a compound dorsal fin (smallmouth) or one with a distinct break between the forward, spiny part and the rear, softer part (largemouth), there was something halfway in between.

Instead of vertical stripes and bronze highlights (smallmouth) or a mossy green hue with a dark horizontal stripe (largemouth), these specimens had fairly uniform gray-green coloring with reddish dorsal and anal fins and tail.

   If the meanmouth is really here, what does that 
   say about the health of our beloved St. Croix?

So, have I been witness, in the course of just three or four years, to the evolution of a new, hybrid black bass species on the St. Croix? This cross has been noticed and documented elsewhere; it’s called the meanmouth*. More commonly considered the offspring of a smallmouth and a spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus), meanmouths of the small-/largemouth version do exist, though they are thought to be “extremely rare due to the difference in habitat preferred by the respective parents.”**

But that would clearly support the case for meanmouths evolving in the St. Croix, because both habitats are present: clear, cool, flowing smallmouth waters during half the summer; still, murky, warm largemouth waters the rest of the summer. Wouldn’t that be the ideal habitat for a hybrid?

While we St. Croix River aficionados tremble at the thought of an impending invasion of Asian carp—bigheads, silvers or both—here, sneaking in under the radar, comes the meanmouth. Not invasive, nor destructive (that we know of), but of concern nonetheless.

If the meanmouth is really here, what does that say about the health of our beloved St. Croix? I don’t know if the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs are aware of these apparent changes in the river's black bass population, but perhaps more observations from other fishermen—preferable some with more ichthyological knowledge than I possess—would help them at least to quantify and track the extent of the changes.

*The origin of the name "meanmouth" is recounted in this quote from In-Fisherman:
“The term “meanmouth bass” was born when Childers observed a school of largemouth-smallmouths attacking a female swimmer. “The bass leaped from the water and struck her on the head and chest,” he wrote, “and drove her from the pond.” On another occasion, he watched meanmouths attack a dog that ventured into shallow water.”


Friday, October 9, 2015

VIRTUAL “REALITY”…REALLY? – How Nature Can Save Us From Ourselves

“When I listened to developers talk about their eagerness to “immerse” audiences in multisensory experiences, I thought I detected a less savory desire 
to imprison them in programming — to leave them with no sensory exit.”
VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN – Virtual Reality Fails Its Way to Success – New York Times Magazine, Nov. 14, 2014

A vacuous reality star has managed to sucker the American media and a lot of citizens into paying attention to him as a possible presidential candidate. The Real Housewives of Fill-In-the-Blank continue to garner astounding cable TV ratings. Our kids and grandkids, exposed to advertising on every surface from the ubiquitous glowing screens, to supermarket floors, to people’s bodies, can identify hundreds of corporate logos, but not the trees and animals living on their own block.

We're being lulled, surely but not so slowly, into a kind of consumer torpor. We're allowing corporations—some would say machines—to not only decide what we see and how and when we see it, but in a very real sense control our comings and goings, the very tempo of our lives.

     They lure us ever closer to the end-game…
     making us think it's all our idea.

One social scientist recently asserted that the sci-fi plot line of computers taking over the world isn't really so far beyond the realm of possibility. They lure us ever closer to the end-game, all the while making us think it's all our idea.

Okay, so maybe that outcome’s a bit over the top, but the steps we’ve already taken in that direction are troublesome. In too many cases, something more or less tangible we once knew and loved has been stolen and stripped of at least one aspect of its reality, replaced, in a kind of Faustian bargain, with another quality the trend-makers would like us to think we asked for.

Among their cynical promises: convenience and other creature comforts; saving time and money; a competitive edge; safety; control; “connectedness.” And what are we left with? More time glued to screens and buying stuff we don’t need—a surrender we’re promised will make us happy, but which ends up doing just the opposite.

  It’s not reality; it’s entertainment. And we’re 
  raising a generation of kids who will no longer 
  be able to tell the difference.

Whether it’s information, entertainment, connection or inspiration, they’ve taken reality, with all its color, depth and imperfection, all its challenges to reflect and ponder, and repackaged it under a different definition of “reality.” Thing is, the new version was never meant to serve human needs, but those of the corporations and czars who control all that “content.”

Sped up, dumbed own, flattened, sterilized, lowest-common-denominator-ized, what remains is simply an illusion. From vapid sitcoms to children’s programming, to the news, it’s not reality; it’s entertainment. And I’m afraid we’re raising a generation of kids who will no longer be able to tell the difference.

What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, like pushers of other addictions, the trend-setting, faux-reality machine is no dummy. Start ‘em on a few seemingly harmless free samples; get ‘em hooked; they’ll come back.

It’s not until you step back and look at the big picture that you see the scope of the deception. Everywhere you turn there are examples of things and experiences folks are passively choosing no longer to actually experience or control first-hand:
  • Fantasy football
  • Virtual reality headsets and games
  • Automatic bill-paying
  • “Crowd-sourced” information and opinion
  • The cloud
  • Twitter-speak (communication reduced from something that once had tone and color—a heart and soul if you will—to the equivalent of primitive grunts.)
  • Apps (For watching TV; ordering dinner—even when your wait person is within eye- and earshot; for dealing with your plumber…I could go on.)
  • On-line dating
  • Virtual medicine
  • Telecommuting
  • “Friending”
  • Twenty-four-seven “connectedness”
  • Seven-and-a-half hours a day on-screen* 
  • Self-driving cars (and a bourgeoning field of other robotics)
For these activities and many more, we are now completely at the mercy of our computers and their ability—or willingness—to continue operating at our beck and call. It would take only one thing for any of these pursuits to simply quit and leave us helpless: the corruption of the vehicle.

We’ve already seen, albeit on an as yet less-than-apocalyptic scale, the signs of such betrayal. Power outages, air traffic control breakdowns, stock market crashes, data security breaches, service denials and an untold number of other hacks & whacks happen all the time, yet somehow we fail to put two and two together. Are these just tests, one might ask, of how much we’re willing to give up for our end of that Faustian bargain?

       The more technology-driven our lives 
       become, the more vitamin N we need to 
       balance the virtual with the real.

Who are we? Where are the patience, the reflection, the curiosity, the heart and soul, the nuance, the character that have defined honest, self-aware, hard-working cultures for so many great generations? Where is the healthy tension between risk and reward?

In this age of Belviq and Botox, of Simbalta and Cialis, of more cures than there are maladies, there must be something we can take for this atrophy of mind, body and spirit that threatens to brainwash us. Right?

Turns out the remedy already exists. Always has, right under our noses. It is Nature. Or as Richard Louv so famously calls it in his best-selling book, The Nature Principle, vitamin N.

Louv never says—nor do I—that we should simply quit technology like a bad habit. What he does say is that the more technology-driven our lives become, the more vitamin N we need to balance the virtual with the real.

Nature is hard-wired into us from birth. So we can never turn off the fundamental connections between us, the earth and other living things, our need for our senses take it all in and be nurtured, taught and inspired by it. But we can and do forget how vital those influences are to our physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

For each excuse one might have for not turning off the incessant virtual-reality deceit and actually getting out there in Nature, the potential benefit outweighs manyfold our tendency—or should I say our conditioned response—not to. Because Nature does not exploit; Nature cares for and teaches human beings—especially little ones—in the most amazing ways:
  • By facing risk, we learn caution, creativity, patience…
  • By learning about our environment, we learn about ourselves.
  • By facing new experiences, we get in touch with the timeless.
  • By surrounding ourselves with the vast, the complex, we learn of our true place in it all, at the same time insignificant and scary-powerful.
  • By tackling challenges we didn’t think we could overcome, we learn about our capacity.
  • By learning how little control we have, we learn about letting go.
  • By escaping our culture’s complex, hurried, embattled, often alienating influences, we discover the timeless, boundless, totally-authentic original community to which every living organism on earth shares an equal claim.
Before we willingly concede yet more of our own reality to this media-mad, “connected,” “content” culture, let’s stop, take a deep breath and think deeply about what remains in our lives that still is real, and decide—before it’s decided for us—where we draw the line.

“The sensory cacophony (of virtual reality experiences like the Oculus Rift headset) is so uncanny and extraterrestrial to suggest to the organism a deadly threat.”

* Sources   /  BBC

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

ART OF THE AGES – Lichen Painting on the St. Croix

The canvas: eons-old basalt. The medium: lichen, some of whose individual organisms may well have been here when the first European laid eyes on these cliffs. The artist: well…the Artist was here before there was a “here.”

It takes a moment of reflection to grasp the age of these rocks. They date from the Precambrian Eon, somewhere between 500 million and a billion years ago.

         The brushwork...looks wild and free 
         for work rendered so patiently.

This bluish-gray, Keweenawan altered basalt is the hardest basalt-type rock in America—so hard that boulders of it were used by NASA to test the drills employed on the moon probe. Since this type of basalt is found almost entirely on ocean floors, these terrestrial outcroppings in the Upper and Lower Dalles of the St. Croix River (which forms 169 miles of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin), are considered quite rare, if not unique.

Some lichen species*, incredibly, are nearly as old as these rocks. First appearing on earth some 400 million years ago, they are here represented in at least five colors—including jet black. (Since there are hundreds of varieties documented along the St. Croix Valley, I won’t pretend to identify them.)

The brushwork—ranging from broad splashes, to wispy dry-brush, to seemingly random spots and drips—looks wild and free for work rendered so patiently. For that trick of time, for the composition of form and color and texture, the technique is breathtaking.

I am in awe.

* There are more than 10,000 species of lichen. They are composite, symbiotic organisms often comprising both a fungus and an alga. The former provides structure; the latter, sustenance, through photosynthesis. Most species grow less than a millimeter per year, and, given a durable substrate like this primordial basalt, can easily live for centuries.

Monday, September 21, 2015

COMPOUND INTEREST – Seduced by Hydrangea

Tiny closed-fist buds festoon hydrangea’s translucent, pale-green stems. From bottom up they pop open in precious, fertile, ivory florets. 
Their stamens outstretch expectantly. Here, here, look at me!

But someone else has stolen the show. The much larger, neuter flowers, like crisp, white-linen butterflies, flutter 'round, perhaps overselling to the thirsty those scant nectar sips below.

(I spotted this spectacular compound flower of the “pee gee” hydrangea – hydrangea paniculata grandiflora – on my neighborhood walk this morning.)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

CHASED BY ROOTS – A Snapshot of Survival

Maples usually don’t mind wet feet, but the roots of this twin-trunk beauty—spotted along the Wisconsin bank of the St. Croix River—tell a different story. Like an elderly couple, one’s frail arm wrapped tenderly around the other, they seem to have turned their backs to the water, struggling to escape up the bank.

Decades of repeated flood and drought, freeze and thaw, waves and current have clawed at the tree’s footing. Storm gusts, funneled up the valley along open water, seize its leafy crown, twisting, levering at the old couple’s tenuous grip on wet, sandy ground.

       Like twisted arms and legs, they reach 
       and strain. Among them, anguished faces 
       peer out of the shadows.

To the generous eye, those gnarly roots reveal the extent of the torment. Like twisted arms and legs, they reach and strain. Among them, anguished faces peer out of the shadows.

How many more storms and floods will this denizen of forest's edge abide? Will it be these battle-worn roots that first give way…or will they hold while aging trunks snap?

I'm struck by the parallel to the human condition, to how we of warmer flesh and blood bear life's torments and burdens, and persevere. How those who best survive are those able to put down more roots, deeper roots. For, tormenting as those challenges may be, they are the very legs we stand on.