Monday, December 14, 2015

IT IS WHAT IT ISN'T – Does a Vacuum Really Suck?

      In Nature, as in life, we can see more if we notice not just things, but 
      the spaces between things; not just sounds, but the silences they frame.
      Far from empty, these inhalations in the song of creation are what 

      make each note so clear, so sweet.
       From Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder, by Jeffrey Willius
When is the absence of something more powerful than its presence? It's not a trick question. In fact, Nature provides many answers: the colossal explosion of a lightning bolt; the swirling core of a vortex; the mind-boggling power of a cosmic black hole.

I’ve written occasionally here about the interplay between positive and negative space. As I’ve tried to capture in that quote from my book, Under the Wild Ginger, it can have a profound effect on how we see the world and life.

It’s knowing the whale’s down there without even seeing it. It’s the void, the potential, in the human experience an entrepreneur or inventor sees and then fills. It’s the hurtful implication of a friend’s hesitation when you ask them what they think of something you’re just nuts about.

Whether it's the inescapable laws of physics or the often-less-clearly defined rules of human dynamics, seeing and appreciating the spaces between is one of the great little secrets of being truly aware and in the moment. And it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. At least in western society, most of us are raised and educated quite literally. We’re taught to see what’s there, and completely miss what’s not.

            To twist the old axiom a bit, 
            you have to believe it to see it.

Allowing existence to something most people would say isn’t there takes a little practice. What’s perhaps most difficult for many folks is the irony that, the harder you try to do this, the less likely you are to succeed.

My best teacher has been Nature, with a dash of faith, instilled by my parents, thrown in. If you can simply BE in Nature—no agenda, no schedule, no expectation, just pure, simple presence—Nature will eventually show you both what is and what exists right next to that, behind it...even in the space it now occupies, but once didn’t.

Sounds a bit metaphysical, a little new-agey, right? That’s where the faith comes in. To twist an old axiom a bit, you have to believe it to see it. And how does one unaccustomed to it come by that faith? It helps if you want to—something I’m not sure many millennials do, addicted as they seem to be, to all the predigested information and virtual experiences available to them at the tap of an icon.

The other key to hearing the inhalations of Nature's song lies in what I like to call seeing generously. It’s the attitude, the belief, that truly seeing—even what may not seem at first to be there—is more like giving than receiving. Far from the competitive, materialistic fervor our culture seems to believe drives our economy and makes us all happy, it is not an act of acquisition. It’s an act of surrender.

              So how do you embrace what's left 
              of life's sweet spaces and silences?

We live in a culture that does not easily abide empty spaces and times. We find even the briefest silences awkward, filling them with "ahs" or "ums" or silly small talk. We allow others to dictate our schedules—not just bosses or clients, but loved ones who, with the best of intentions, pounce on what's left of our "free" time as if we could not say no—and too often we do not.

And don't get me going on all those silly little screens that spoon-feed us information, entertainment and advertising wherever we go, whatever the time, and which we find so hard to turn off.

So how do you embrace what's left of life's sweet spaces and silences? By staying in your seat a few minutes, still listening, after the concert is over? Watching the way the brook flows between two rocks? Finding your deepest inner space and letting it merge with infinity? Can you think of other ways?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

CUBA – Orchids of Soroa

(You can find some of my Cuba posts on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento.)

It’s November 11, and I’m heading a couple of hours southwest of Havana to Artemisa Province and the tiny spa/resort village of Soroa. It will be a relief to claw my way out of the gritty, claustrophobic street-canyons of Old Town Havana for some peace and fresh air.

I hook up with my Spanish school compañeros, Meg, Suzanne and Charles, in the tiny plaza in front of La Floridita—reputedly Hemingway’s bar of choice whenever he craved a daiquiri´. There we meet our driver for the day, Lazaro, along with his pride and joy, his nicely restored 1956 Chevy Bel Air.

(Lazaro finished medical school, but hasn’t yet found a job. What’s more, at a doctor’s salary of 1,060 Cuban national pesos—about $40 usd—a month, he didn’t seem to mind driving tourists around for $75 a day!)

Turning north off the Autopista Este-Oeste (Route 4), we wind our way up a long, narrow valley to El Salto Park, where we pick up the climbing trail up to El Mirador (Overlook) de Soroa. It’s a hot, sweaty climb, but the rewards along the way—flora, fauna and even the rocks’ and trees’ amazing forms, colors and patterns—are well worth the effort.

After the beautiful half-hour trek we’re looking out over a broad sweep of the lush hills and plains of Pinar del Rio—and down on the backs of soaring vultures.

Once we’re back down, Meg and Suzanne decide to pay the three-peso (CUC) admission to cool off under the wispy, 20-meter salto (waterfall) while I play with some of the amazing touch-me-not plants (Mimosa Pudica) that furl up when brushed with a finger.

        Some orchids are so playful and animated 
        as to conjure characters from a fairy tale.

From El Salto we head down the road to the Orquideario Soroa, the largest botanical gardens in Cuba—and, some claim, the second biggest orchid gardens in the world. Built by Spanish lawyer Tomás Felipe Camacho in 1943 in memory of his wife and daughter, the lovely eight-acre grounds feature some 700 orchid species, including many endemic plants. Though Camacho died in 1960, the Orquideario, now supported by the University of Pinar del Río, continues to thrive.

(Admission to the Orquideario costs three pesos (CUC) for a person—plus an additional peso for a camera!)

Our knowledgable guide explains the origins, preferences and significance of each specimen—though I must say I’m distracted by the sheer visual impact of such gorgeous flowers, some so playful and animated in form as to conjure characters from a fairy tale.

Unfortunately, not all orchids bloom at the same time. Alas, Cuba’s splendid national flower, the mariposa (butterfly) orchid, (Hedychium Coronarium), with its intoxicating, gardenia-like fragrance, is among the absentees. But the other amazing orchids of Soroa fill in nicely and will forever decorate the sultry alcoves of my happy place.

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...

(You can find some of my Cuba posts on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento.)

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 clearly 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.”