Monday, June 27, 2011

Appreciating Local Aviation

Some of the Airplanes on Display in the Antelope Valley

I suppose every town has the attraction that they take for granted—old graveyards in England, or those pesky peacocks cluttering up the fields in India. (Yes, there are places in the world where the peacock still lives free and wild, and indeed thrives—that is, besides the L.A. Arboretum and surrounding neighborhoods in the San Gabriel Valley.)

In Cairo, this policeman was so bored by the Pyramids, he couldn’t stay awake.

For us, besides the delightfully Martian strangeness of Joshua trees, I think many of us take airplanes more or less for granted. I know that I do at least, so my daughter and I tried to make a survey of planes on display that nobody ever stops to appreciate. After all, they represent a mix of scientific achievement, military heroism, and just plain aesthetic coolness. Yet we see them so often, it’s hard to see them.

To start closest to my daily routine, here is the too-often-ignored Douglas Skyrocket, located on the center of the AVC campus.

The marker says that this was just one of three in this series, and that a sister plane was the first manned vehicle to go twice the speed of sound. As I recall that was 1953, and one of the charming aspects of this plane are the swept-back wings and the pointed nose cone, reminding me of hours of “spacecraft” doodling that I made on the margins of my school work all through the Cold War (the early part of which coincides with the classic era of Science Fiction).

In case anybody is tempted to ignore this plane, its sister vehicle (the one that went Mach 2 first) is on display in Washington D.C. at the National Air and Space Museum. Do a Google search for this series of three planes and Wikipedia lists AVC as a place to see one.

It was not always appreciated for its glorious history. During the Vietnam War this part of campus was a protest site. I have been told by older (now retired) faculty that they used to stage middle-of-the-night raids to paint flowers and peace symbols on this plane, much to the anger of the then-administration. Now neglect, not protest marches, is its biggest problem, and as the campus trees mature, it serves more as a roost for pigeons than it does as a site for the contemplation of America’s race for space.

One of the local tribute displays still in good shape is the prototype for the F-18 Hornet that seems about to burst off its plinth outside of Jethawks Stadium.

This one has a very detailed narrative plaque which mentions that after being retired from flight tests by the US Navy it came to Edwards as a research vehicle, where it made another 500 flights. When you look at the design, it seems as if you should be annoyed (or at least confused)—are the darn wings pointing up or down or what? Yet it coheres, visually, into an overall impression of muscular, vigorous flight. These seems like the kind of plane that wants to point at the horizon and have the afterburners kick on full bore.

It makes a better impression than another connection to the Vietnam War, the F-4 Phantom on display at the corner of Sierra Highway and Lancaster Blvd.

I think I like the view from behind best:

The story about it is a bit hard to make out. Even though this was just installed in 2002, already the plaque has weathered in such a way it is hard to read all of the words. I remember this plane because I grew up during Vietnam. The marker mentions a fact that I knew already: this plane was unusual in that it was in use simultaneously by the U.S. Marines, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Air Force. Probably only the .45 side arm, certain brands of chewing gum, and foil-wrapped contraceptives share that unique overlap.

AVC’s other plane seems to be a bit of a let-down, since it’s a model only, much smaller than the real thing.

All of us must have seen these in flight around the Valley, and as far as my own personal opinion, I just want to say WOW. I just think the B-2 looks way cool. True, if I wanted to be an irate taxpayer (or a liberal) (or both), I might point out that a single one of these cost more than AVC’s budget for fourteen and a half years. No wonder Congress cut the order by something like 80%. They look fabulous and I will assume the claims for stealth are justified, by o mama, the cost, the cost.

An overlooked model, more impressionistic than literal, is at a hotel on Sierra Highway now called Shadow Park Inn. This art installation is titled “Flight” and is credited to Alan Stubbings and Dion Wright.

It is easy to drive past this without noticing it, but this is one of those pieces that has been so well conceived that even the shadow it casts is interesting. I am not quite sure about the bird, though, which more or less resembles a peregrine falcon with an extra-long tail, though it also has kind of an air about of the seabirds called gadfly petrels (genus Pterodroma), a bird which one sees off the continental shelf flying like the proverbial bat out of hell. A subtitle on the plinth says “inspiration and imagination,” so I assume that the literal bird is giving birth to the airplane bird. So far, if we are just doing a comparison, the average sparrow still beats the pants off us, and when you think about birds like albatrosses (animals that can circle the globe for years) or the Arctic Tern (which migrates from the Arctic the Antarctica every year, following the endless summer), our planes that lumber along spewing out contrails of exhaust and need thousands of dollars of aviation fuel just to go from here to Sacramento—well, they’re just not there yet. The frigate bird which is commonly seen in the Sea of Cortez or parts of Hawaii has a wingspan of seven feet yet the skeleton just weighs about as much as a summer paperback. God or the Master Designer seems way ahead of us in the strength to weight ratio stuff. This albatross below that I photographed in New Zealand will spend five or six years at sea, sleeping on the wing and never bothering to stop on land until it needs to breed. Wouldn’t you love to have a car that only needed to be taken to the gas station in odd numbered years, or that could be driven night and day without stopping?

No bird can fly from New York to London two hours, though. The SR-71 Blackbird is one hell of a fast airplane—try a top speed of several thousand miles per hour. My uncle worked at the Skunk Works and once the details were classified, had stories to tell me about it. The basic idea is that if those pesky Ruskies launched a surface to air missile to shoot it down, the Blackbird would just fly so fast it would outrun the enemy missile. In 1990, a Blackbird went L.A. to Washington D.C. in under an hour. Heck, I have to wait that long sometimes just for them to find my checked luggage.

In this shot, the production model is on the left and the prototype on the right. The starter cart to crank over the engines on these machines had in them two Chevy V-8 454 engines, used to get the pre-ignition burn. Supposedly as the tetraethyl borane lit up, green flames came out the back. Sounds like beauty to me. These planes are of course at Blackbird Park in north Palmdale, near the now-defunct public airport. In the same collection as the SR-71 is this engine, below.

I am ready for Ed “Big Daddy” (aka Rat Fink) Roth to customize it a bit: maybe a touch of chrome, maybe stick a VW bug cab on top, some fuzzy dice, then light the fuse and bingo—shoot down the 14 before your favorite CHP officer can say “license and registration.”

Up, up, and away.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Why Shakespeare Never Wrote a Sonnet About Chocolate

brief thoughts about where food comes from

If we were to take the magic time machine trip back to hang out with Shakespeare, a number of things would feel very strange indeed. Spoken Elizabethan English would sound to our ears not like posh British English but more like a four-way cross between Appalachian hillbilly English, bad pirate movie English (sort of an “aarggh, mateys, shiver me timbers” kind of sound), Spanglish (“Digame the truth, mija”), and some dialect form of Klingon. (For those who are curious, yes, there is an edition of Hamlet that has been translated into Klingon. It will not be on next year’s Honors syllabus though, not even if Scott Covell teaches the class.)

Elizabethan English is rich and exciting, though to many modern readers, seemingly distant. It is not, really. William Shakespeare did not speak (nor write in) “Old English,” despite that common expression, but instead in what linguists formally call “Early Modern English.” His English is our English, just sort of the preliminary moonshine and chitlins version.

After a few days in Shakespeare’s London, most of us would adapt to this earlier version of English and would, for example, be able to order a beer—and be able to curse the bartender if he short-changes us. (Any mug of ale that costs more than a penny is vastly overpriced.) You could pass the time at cockfights or waiting for a public execution, but there would be no Starbucks to go to: coffee and tea are not yet known either.

On the street, the Elizabethans would stare at us—so tall, so fat, and with such white teeth—but after a while, after we stopped noticing the stench of unwashed humanity and got used to using outhouses (or just the open street), we would begin to miss the little things. Shakespeare never ate fish and chips, since the potato had not yet made it from the Incas to the English yet. If he had pizza (unlikely), it was made with olive oil, not tomato sauce. There were no tacos, but if there had been, there would be no salsa and no guacamole, since the avocado, like vanilla and tapatío sauce and ears of corn and chocolate, comes originally from Southern Mexico and Northern Central America. Of all of the genocidal and ecologically disastrous consequences of the European “discovery” of the New World, one thing is true: for those of us who survived, our dinners became a heck of a lot more interesting.

Take, for example, chocolate.

The word comes to us through Spanish via the Aztecs, unless of course it doesn’t, and it is instead a Mayan word that got to us some other way. As usual, the experts are not quite sure.

The plant itself has been in cultivation for three thousand years.

Here is how to make a candy bar. First, go to a hillside near the equator and cut down the rain forest.

Next, plant cacao trees. These will need a few years to grow tall, mature, and produce fruit. The cacao pod while growing on the tree looks like a dangling kind of squash, about twice the size of a grapefruit, in shades of streaky green and yellow. Some turn bright red. One person in Ghana compared them to the gentleman parts on a bull. The pod is slightly grotesque and yet almost ornamental: Tim Burton as botanist.

Let the pods ripen. Harvest them with a machete. For the tall ones, you will need a medieval pole-ax. Next, cut the pods open and scoop out the seeds. (So far, it’s a bit like making a jack-o-lantern.) Next the seeds need to ferment. It won’t taste like chocolate without this step, but instead, more like deeply bitter coffee grounds. As soon as they have fermented, we need to rush the cacao pod seeds out into sunlight, to dry, or else they will begin to mold. This is the tropics, after all, where even a pair of wet socks can turn into a stinking green mess in just a few days in the back of the car. On a small farm, the drying is just done in the front yard.

In the photo above, this woman in Ghana was very proud of her crop, and wanted me to take her picture.

Her friend looks like she is off to help Henry V defeat the French at Agincourt. Apparently she was known in the village as the Bruce Lee of machete harvesters, and she let us handle her tools: these blades were strong, straight, and perfectly honed.

After the seeds are dried, they go into gunny sacks and enter the modern industrial process. Along the way, sort of like coffee, they will be graded, roasted, and processed into various forms that all will end up—with varying amounts of milk, sugar, butter, and monosodium glutamate—in a celebrity endorsement (or just at toddler-eye-level next to the check-out line at Wal-Mart).

Note the drawing of the quetzal bird, a kind of brilliantly colored, long-tailed trogon. This is the name of the unit of currency in Guatemala but shouldn’t be on the wrapper of a candy bar, since in the interaction evolution of fruit, pit, and dispersal agent, quetzals may have helped God to invent the avocado. The trick is to invent a product that is so good to eat that birds will come from miles around to gorge on it, and then, as they fly off, your seed pod (too big to digest) will pass through and be dispersed. The Christmas sprig of mistletoe works this way: in the wild, it is a parasite, often on sycamores, but the seeds get pasted onto branches after the berries are gnoshed on by cedar waxwings and other flocking birds, who eat the berries and then “plant” them, incidentally, along the tops of branches. Cacao seeds I will assume were meant to be distributed by forest-dwelling and ground-feeding rodents like the agouti, but this is, the blog hosts want to rush to explain, wild speculation on Charles Hood’s part. Perhaps they had no other purpose than just to wait for Willy Wonka to come along and make magic happen.

So pity Mr. Shakespeare. He inherited an English so fresh and malleable that he could invent a thousand (some say 3000) words and nobody would mind. All of his food was organic and beer cost one cent. On the other hand, he had lice and bedbugs, people often died in their twenties and thirties, and there was not a single chocolate bar anywhere in Great Britain, not from the back alley alchemists' shops to the most lavish dinner table laid out for Queen Elizabeth. The royal drink of the Aztec court—enriched with vanilla and chili and other still-secret ingredients—was unknown to him. If only history would have been different, we might have had a sonnet that started, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Well, then, how about to something sweet and delicious from Trader Joe’s?”

Lit classes and Valentine’s Days would have turned out very differently.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Gorillas in the Mist: the Nature of Nature Art

...with a note about LMAG’s next “Wiki Night” (and why you should go)

Despite the widespread and often mistaken belief that there ain’t nawthun to do in the Antelope Valley, at least nawthun that does not involve tagging walls or dumping sofas at the ends of dirt roads, I am increasingly impressed by all that DOES go on.

One example is the event that has come to be called the “Wiki” nights, sponsored by the Lancaster Museum and Art Gallery. Once a month in a free event six speakers each gives the world’s fastest, most interesting introduction to an extended idea of her or his choice. In a strictly enforced limit, each speaker has a suite of just 20 images, and of those, each image can only be shown for twenty seconds, then the pre-programmed computer advances to the next slide. By the end of the night you’ve had a chance to hear half a dozen provocative, well-illustrated mini-lectures—some of them funny, some a bit odd, and all of them worthy of thinking about later.

Previous Wiki Night topics have considered experimental art techniques, gender roles in the Internet site called Second Life, maps as art, the ways in which modern comic book “speech bubbles” originated in Medieval manuscripts, and my favorite—though probably just because it was mine—the impossibility of nature art ever being able to capture nature.

The delicious irony of course is that I own a lot of nature art—some of which I paid hefty prices for—and a lot of my own photography, such as these gorillas in Uganda, could be labeled as nature art. And certainly, I will vouch for the reality of this image. These are wild animals, and the all-day hike up and down mountains through trackless jungle to find them and spend time with them counts as both a never-to-be-repeated hike from hell and as one of the absolute high points of my ego-driven quest to see all the major animals of the world in the their natural habitats. (Next on the list? A polar bear search via a two-masted sailboat in the Norwegian Arctic this coming July.)

In the case of these gorillas, in Uganda and Rwanda, small family groups have become habituated to human contact, and can be visited, but only under strict guidelines. At first light, each day trackers go through the forest looking for them, and, if they find a known group, tourists who have paid $500 a day for one of the quota-restricted hiking permits trek into the mountains and are escorted to the site and then allowed half an hour with these amazing creatures. It may be hard to see, but there IS a gorilla in this picture.

Sometimes the gorillas just are not in a social mood and will move on, but other times they eat and play and chase and copulate and nit-pick and even scurry past within touching distance as you crouch in the undergrowth, acting submissive and trying not to make sudden movements while at the same time trying to think, “hmm, f/5.6 at 1/60th might work in this tricky light.”

In this photo the guides are helping people climb through vines on a 40 degree slope. Are there poisonous snakes in these bushes? Let’s hope all the stomping and crashing has chased them away. Let’s also hope that Africa doesn’t have poison ivy.

As a side note, I think the gorilla thing is in my blood. Here is my father in 1957 at the San Diego Zoo. I have not been born yet, but he’s already priming me for my life’s passions.

The best “nature” countries to visit have a mosaic of vegetation types. In East Africa, it’s not just jungle and mist . . . Uganda has classic savannah habitat, too. Here, in this photo, some lions doze in a fig tree, hoping to catch whatever slight breeze will cool them off.

And of course not all of the interesting animals in Uganda are found in nature preserves. These cattle are similar to Texas Longhorns, but longhorns that have had a dose or two of some kind of Barry Bonds performance-enhancing drugs. This breed of cattle is called Ankole or sometimes Ankole-Watusi. Clearly nobody will ever convince this herd’s owner that size does not matter.

Ever go on the Jungle Boat Cruise at Disneyland? The history of that ride (and the semiotics of its design elements) will be the subject of a future blog posting, but part of the ride’s pleasure is the supposedly dangerous encounter with the ear-wiggling hippos and other natural threats. Well, let me tell you, if you interrupt an elephant while he’s drinking and you yourself are in a very small canoe, that Disneyland ride suddenly seems a lot more convincing. If you suspect this fellow below looks ticked off at me, you would be correct.

The problem is that for all of these shots, as postcard-friendly as they are, they are telling just a small part of the story. What about the blurry animals that you just see dashing in front of the jeep, or the injured ones, or the ugly ones, or the ones that won’t pose clean and nice for your camera?

This leopard was large, close, gorgeous—and, ultimately, camera shy. In the dim light, as it showed us just its butt and tail, even my fancy Nikon lenses couldn’t get a decent shot. No postcards from this guy.

In fact, most creatures don’t want their picture taken under any circumstances. This ostrich at an educational center in Entebbe certainly wasn’t shy about telling me his opinion of me.

This is a question this blog has asked before, but which of these is the “real” picture of a chimpanzee, the first one, of the animal itself, or the second one, showing beetles thriving in its dung? The second one may contain more important information—be a more complete and accurate representation of the chimpanzee as a vital part of the forest ecosystem—than the first one does, which could have been taken at a somewhat mangy and overgrown zoo. The first one is the expected shot of a chimpanzee but the second shot may have a fuller, deeper sense of nature in it. It may be the better example of nature art...good luck though trying to sell it as a postcard.

Is this shot below, taken an hour or two later, in some way a good nature art shot? Back at the lodge I am wet to the waist and too tired even to take off my soaked boots. The caption might be, “I fought nature and nature won.” At least Africa does not have leeches, not on the trails, anyway. (The classic movie African Queen is correct in claiming that there are aquatic leeches.)

Would a shot of leeches be good nature art? If this shot above had been taken on some of my Asian trips, the photo would show blooms of bright red blood where my pants, socks, and shirts revealed the places the leeches had been sucking away. Not to be indelicate, but they do get up your legs and down your trousers, and even inside your undershorts. A leech has no respect for your most intimate body parts.

Nature art has lots of pandas and bull elk, but nature art shows never include, say, a full color photo of a leech attached to your willy. That might be a good boundary never to cross (certainly for me, personally, some incidents I would gladly forget), but that boundary also limits options. After all, other kinds of art make space for the graphic and the confrontational. Some of the most powerful news photographs are not records of the happy, benign moments, but testimonial such as scenes like the Hindenburg going down in flames, visual surveys of post-atom-bomb Hiroshima, or an honest assessment of what New Orleans looked like in the months after Katrina.

In contrast, as pretty as this cheetah by Robert Bateman is, and as admirable as are his skills as a painter, I do have to wonder, where are the flies? Where is the reality? Nature can be sublime, so much so you want to weep. But it also can be dirty, sweaty, evasive, and ugly. It limps. It defecates. Nature is complicated and uncooperative. It gets down your shorts and leaves blood stains in embarrassing places.

Nature also is inexplicable. Look at this:

This is an undescribed species of jellyfish in the Maldives, off the coast of India. (I had gone there to see sperm whales, which I never found, which is a separate story. Nature is also expensive.)

So much of the natural world is beyond our understanding. Is global warming happening, and if so, what does that mean? How many species of butterfly are there? When will the next earthquake come? Nature art often implies a calm certainty that actual biological honesty might not support. Here’s something bright pink and the size of a Frisbee, yet it has no formal scientific designation. How can we have nature art if we can’t even begin to identify nature’s components?

Another aspect of all of this is the (limited) way that nature is catalogued and kept in museums. Here AVC’s Christine Mugnolo sketches tiger specimens at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.

There are answers to these questions of course and I am skating rather rapidly over about a thousand ethical and philosophical issues. My point is not that a jellyfish needs a Latin binomial before it can be art, nor even that the Maldives could use a squad or two of grad students to help get the taxonomy up to date. This all is an extended example of the kinds of discussions going on in the Antelope Valley every week. I had fun doing my nature art wiki and I hope to be invited back, to do some other equally indefensible intellectual survey of my latest whacked idea.

So is this a dead zone, culturally? Heck no. We have symphonies, we have cafes showing art, we have open mic poetry readings, we have photo clubs and quilting bees and Bible study groups and this great local institution, LMAG, hosting provocative and fun (and free) evening events. Things are happening all over the Antelope Valley, every day of the week.

The next wiki night is this coming week. It will be Thursday, June 16, 2011, from 6 to 9 pm in the Lofts Gallery, 661 W Lancaster Blvd.

One of the speakers will be AVC’s Dr. Rachel Jennings, who is going to talk about the “Green Man” tradition in European art and culture.

Carved in stone on the cathedrals of Europe we all know there are lots of saints and Bible scenes, and we also know there are gargoyle drain spouts, such as the famous ones on Notre Dame.

That is not the only kind of carved church art though. Other mysteries occur as well, such as elegantly carved faces of men out of whose open mouths erupt complicated leaves and vine stalks, covering their cheeks and spreading outward like some kind of “it’s alive!” horror movie death vine from outer space. That “green man” cathedral art tradition ties in with Jolly Green Giant brand vegetables and the comic book hero, the Incredible Hulk. Where the druids enter in to this will be something I will let Dr. Jennings explain. She also will give a perspective on botany and regeneration that will make you think about plants in an all-new way.

You will definitely want to come hear her—and all the other presenters this month.

I will end with a shot from the Zambia / Zimbabwe border. We have talked about copulating gorillas and charging elephants and those nasty boxer-short-lurking leeches. Hood’s final comment about nature? ALWAYS WEAR YOUR SEATBELT.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

from A to Z in the Antelope Valley

a picture alphabet from our dusty, lovely, surprising Valley
From jockeys to kayaks, from ice cream to elections, from motels to wine, you can find it all here. No text this week, just images, in the usual alphabetical order.