Reading (and writing) apocalyptic fiction

November 11, 2014

When I was a kid, I read a ton of DC Comics. I started with Batman because of the 1960s TV show, moved on to Superman and other superheroes, and along the way read a short-lived comic book series called The Atomic Knights about a band of post-nuclear-holocaust survivors.

Atomic_Knights_h3

That was my first taste of post-apocalyptic fiction. I occasionally read other end-of-the-world novels like On The Beach and even wrote my own nuclear-survivor short story in junior high in which a research crew in Antarctica return and discover that all of New York City has been levelled except for the rotating animal chimes in the Central Park Zoo. Of course two of the researchers realize amidst the debris that they are in love and vow to create a new better, civilization together.

Shut up. I was in junior high, okay?

Several years ago I read The Road and its uncompromising bleak vision blew me away. Probably among my top five favorite books of all time.

stationeleven

This fall I’ve read a string of new dystopian novels, spurred by a New York Times story about the genre. The Times contended that The Road opened the door for “literary” apocalyptic fiction.

(Background: The publishing world has its own self-constructed silos where novels are slotted into marketing categories such as romance, crime, chick-lit, fantasy, literary fiction, and so on. The Road’s success meant that well-written novels with an apocalyptic theme didn’t get automatically locked into the “science fiction” silo. They could be marketed both to science fiction readers and to people who like thoughtful, character-driven general fiction.)

I’ve read three of the books mentioned in the Time story – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, California by Edan Lepucki, and most recently, The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber.

I was regretfully disappointed by the first two. They were well-written, with fully drawn characters and nuanced relationships. But…

Station Eleven seemed weirdly bland for a post-apocalyptic book. It mostly takes place more than 15 years after a super-contagious virus has devastated the world’s populations, and the few survivors seem pretty happy and well adjusted amidst the ruins. Many don’t even remember the details of the cataclysm. There is one power-hungry madman but he kind of fades away and there is never a real confrontation with evil. Everyone lives happily ever after in a suburban airport that has been turned into a refuge.

Station Eleven’s author is Canadian, and (sorry, Canadian friends!) I couldn’t help thinking: Take out the unrelenting evil, the hopelessness, the cannibalism on which Cormac McCarthy built The Road… this is a Canadian view of the apocalypse.  ;-)

california

California follows one young couple who leave L.A. to homestead in the wilderness in the wake of societal breakdown. They eventually encounter a utopian-type settlement nearby, and get enmeshed in drama with the leaders of the settlement. Again, this was unsatisfying for me. At times, the whole apocalyptic setting seemed merely a vehicle for Lepucki to write about the challenges of two people alone in a marriage. And then the machinations of the the settlement got tedious. The stakes seemed low and boring. I didn’t care about power struggles in the settlement – I wanted to know what had happened in imploding L.A.!

Which brings me to The Book of Strange New Things, which I have just finished.

I LOVED it.

Like Lepucki’s book, it centers on a marriage. Peter, a former addict turned committed Christian, has signed on to be pastor to the alien residents of a distant planet where a mysterious global corporation has set up a human colony. His equally devout wife Bea stays at home, where it turns out that natural disasters and social disruption are starting to doom the earth.

It is SO well done. I love that Peter and Bea are thoughtful, intellectual Christians whose faith you can respect, something you rarely see in contemporary fiction. There is tension and drama on multiple levels – Will the aliens be friendly? Will the mysterious corporation turn out to have an evil agenda? What happened to the previous pastor who mysteriously disappeared? What will happen to Peter and Bea’s relationship with all those billions of miles between them? What will happen to Peter’s faith and his sobriety?

strangenewthings

And it is all realistic, consistent, and believable within the universe that Faber has created. There are no unexpected monsters lurching out of volcanoes on the planet, no cataclysmic rocket explosions, none of that Hollywood-type stuff.

This is all of particular interest to me right now because the novel I’m currently working on is also a work of speculative fiction. It’s not apocalyptic, but it does something similar. It takes parts of our culture and uses them as the base for a completely different reality – a world that is not our world, but has recognizable elements of our world. It’s a novel that starts with the premise, “what if such-and-such were to happen…

So I ask myself: What is it that succeeds in books like The Book of Strange New Things, The Road, and The Time-Traveller’s Wife (another favorite of mine that bridges the divide between science fiction and literary fiction)?

Some thoughts:

  • Internal logic. These created worlds and scenarios have rules and logic. They may be completely different from the science and logic of our world, but they are consistent within themselves. Once you accept the premise of the book, the things that happen all make sense. No deus ex machina resolutions where friendly aliens suddenly descend and make everything right, no unbelievable coincidences where the man in the mask turns out to be the hero’s long-lost brother.
  • Character development. They center on characters – people’s relationships to each other, their existential choices. There is nuance, ambiguity. Unlike a Hollywood sci-fi movie, the question isn’t “will the hero save the universe” but “will the hero understand herself, how will she respond when her belief system crumbles etc.”
  • Larger issues. They raise provocative larger issues about our future as a society, how we relate to each other, the purpose of our lives, and human morality. They leave us thinking about our current world in a new way. Why bother creating an alternate universe if you’re not going to use it to explore large issues and look at our world differently?
  • Unflinching. For me, at least, these books need to go to a dark place to be fulfilling. They need to confront our worst selves – our mortality, evil, the limits of human love — and see what happens. No sugar-coating things.
  • High stakes. These books convey high stakes and urgency. That needs to happen on an individual level; it can happen on a societal level too but the individual level is paramount. As readers, we have to really care that something important is at stake here. With The Book of Strange New Things, I felt that so much was at stake – Peter’s entire life as a recovered addict, his faith, his marriage, his ability to go on living with some sense of purpose and integrity.

Right now, with my own manuscript, I am struggling to keep things character-driven and consistent and not slip into action-movie melodrama. There’s a kind of gravitational pull to the action movie, like driving a car where the wheels are out of alignment and it keeps veering to one side.

It would be very easy to add lots of hustle and bustle and battle and magic. But that’s not what I need to do. I need to keep hold of the steering wheel and stay with the characters and with the internal consistency of the world I’m creating.

What do you think? Those of you who are writers? Those of you who are readers?

A century since the last Passenger Pigeon

August 27, 2014

Note: I wrote this post for the Golden Gate Audubon blog.

This Monday September 1st will mark the 100th anniversary of the death in captivity of the last Passenger Pigeon.

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Taxidermied Passenger Pigeon in the Royal Ontario Museum

Several months ago, I read Richard Rhodes’ fascinating biography of John James Audubon and was struck by Audubon’s description of the arrival and slaughter of a massive Passenger Pigeon flock in the midwest around 1816:

“The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea…. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men. The birds continued to pour in…. The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches all around. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading….

The Pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in there number of those that arrived. The uproar continued the whole night…. Towards the approach of the day, the noise in some measure [having] subsided, long before objects were distinguishable, the Pigeons began to move off… and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears, ands the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears…

It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying and the mangled. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder….”

 

Such massive flocks were not unusual: The largest known nesting site was documented in 1871 in Wisconsin with 136 million birds covering 850 square miles.

Their large flocks and communal behavior made the pigeons easy prey for hunters. Faced with massive commercial hunting and loss of habitat, their numbers dwindled. Then, a century ago, they were gone.

Juvenile Passenger Pigeon (left), male (center), female (right), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Juvenile Passenger Pigeon (left), male (center), female (right), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

A 19th century Passenger Pigeon shoot

A 19th century Passenger Pigeon shoot

The Passenger Pigeon’s story is particularly cautionary for us these days because, with climate change, we may be on the verge of witnessing a tidal wave of similar extinctions.

In September — by coincidence about a week after the sad anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon’s loss — National Audubon will release a very comprehensive scientific report on North American birds and climate change that has been years in preparation.

Which species will face significant habitat loss? Which ones are likely to adapt and survive? Which are at risk of extinction?

We’ll share the news here with you as soon as we get it, along with steps we can take to protect the Northern California species most at risk due to climate change.

Meanwhile, please consider doing one small thing on Monday to mark the death of Martha, that last lone pigeon in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Talk to one non-birder friend about why you care about preserving species…

Write a letter to one elected official in Washington…

Take a young person out to a park and help them spot an egret in the marsh…

Post a Passenger Pigeon image on your Facebook page, and ask your friends to share it…  

Replace the energy-hogging incandescent bulbs in your house with LEDs or compact fluorescents, and think of Martha while you do it….

In 2114, will our grandchildren or great-grandchildren be writing blog posts commemorating the anniversary of the death of the last Tricolored Blackbird? Ashy Storm-Petrel? Yellow-billed Cuckoo? Burrowing Owl? Snowy Plover?

Or might there be so many losses that they won’t even know where to start?

Visiting Auschwitz

August 4, 2014

We took an overnight train with a first-class sleeper compartment from Prague to Krakow. Starched white sheets on the bunk beds; bottles of water by our private sink; the conductor promising a wake-up call and our choice of coffee or tea before we arrived.

I lay in my cozy bunk, feeling the rhythmic rocking of the car, and I kept thinking:

We are Jews on a train to Auschwitz.

Oswiecim – the Polish town that predated the camp and gave the camp its infamous German name – was one of the stops around 4 a.m. on our very-local train route. Of course the contrast couldn’t have been greater. We were American tourists, buoyed by our almighty credit cards, free to move where we chose within the borderless EU, free to fly home to California when we were done.

We were also Jews on a train to Auschwitz.

With help from the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, we had arranged a private tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps for our third day in Krakow. The camps are about a 90-minute drive from the beautiful medieval city center. On our way, we stopped in the town of Oswiecim to visit its fairly new Auschwitz Jewish Center, a museum and education center that preserves the only remaining synagogue in the area.

This was new to me. Like most American Jews, when I hear “Auschwitz,” I think of the death camp that killed over a million Jews from all corners of Europe. What I didn’t know was that before this, there had been a thriving Jewish community within the small town of Oswiecim itself.

Jews arrived in Oswiecim in the 1500s, fleeing persecution in nearby Bohemia and Moravia. They flourished during Poland’s brief window of independence after World War I: By 1939, Jews made up an estimated 50 to 60 percent of Oswiecim’s population of 14,000. There were 20 synagogues in the town!

Like elsewhere, Orthodox and more modern Jews jockeyed for influence. Jews served on the town council, which provided food and other relief to both poor Jews and poor Catholics. The Jews were careful never to court ill-will by serving as mayor, even though they were a numerical majority: They typically served as vice mayor, under a Catholic mayor. Some Jews were successful industrialists. Among the museum items on display that fascinated me were glass bottles and marketing brochures from businessman Jakob Haberfeld’s very successful vodka and liquor factory.

 

Jakob Haberfeld distillery items in the Auschwitz Jewish Museum/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Jakob Haberfeld distillery items in the Auschwitz Jewish Center/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Hashomer Hatzair youth group members in Osweicim, Auschwitz Jewish Museum

Hashomer Hatzair youth group members in Osweicim, Auschwitz Jewish Center

But on to the camp.

In retrospect, I realize that I approached our visit with trepidation. Like most American Jews, I’d heard about the death camps from a young age. I’d read Elie Wiesel’s Night as a teenager; bought Art Spieglelman’s Maus for my own daughter; visited Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington DC; seen Schindler’s List and The Pianist and so on. Although my family came to America in the mid-1800s and I lost no known relatives to the Nazis, the Holocaust was always more real to me than much of American history. Even today, I can name more concentration camps than Civil War battlefields. Many times over the years I had played the mind-game with myself: Of all my non-Jewish friends and co-workers, who are the ones I could truly trust to protect me if something like the Holocaust happened again? 

And Auschwitz represented the dark core of all this to me for 40 years – symbol of what Europe did to Jews, what it would have done to me, the worst that human beings can do to other human beings.

I was worried about what it would be like to visit.

I wasn’t worried that I would be overcome by anguish, but that I would not be overcome enough.

I feared that it would seem mundane. That I would not experience an epiphany worthy of the place. That I would not be changed.

Wouldn’t that be the individual equivalent of the world looking aside as Jews were gassed? To visit Auschwitz and not be changed?

How could the actual Auschwitz live up to everything I’d read and thought about it?

But I wasn’t conscious of this at the time. I only felt a vague nervousness. Thus the dark jokes about Jews on trains.

We met our guide in the parking lot. (Already it felt surreal. I could imagine a short story titled “The Parking Lot at the Death Camp.”)

Our guide was terrific – a youthful non-Jewish Pole in his 40s named Wojtek. He knew the history of the camp inside out. He understood Jewish culture and history. He explained things, but not too much: It would have been horrible to have someone chattering non-stop through the visit, but he knew to leave a lot of silent space.

I asked him what motivated him to choose work as a death camp museum tour guide, and he answered that his parents had both worked at the camp museum since it opened shortly after World War 2, so he grew up around it. I imagined them as nearby residents looking for a paycheck, maybe staffing the ticket booth or maintaining the grounds. Only later did someone tell me that Wojtek’s father had been a prisoner in the camp for five years, and was the first director of the camp museum.

There are two parts to the preserved camp – Auschwitz and Birkenau. We started in Auschwitz, which began its life as a Polish army base and was the earlier and smaller section, where Polish political prisoners were placed after the Nazi invasion. It’s a series of very neat, very rectangular two-story red brick buildings lined by rows of poplar trees. If you disregarded the barbed wire and electric fences, it looked from the outside like a cheery colonial-Williamsburg-style restoration – imagine a 19th century New England textile mill turned into a historical park.

The original section of Auschwitz, formerly Polish military barracks / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The original section of Auschwitz, formerly Polish military barracks / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Inside, the buildings contained some very low-key historical displays. No touch-screens or videos or holographic projections; it was more like a museum presentation from the 1950s. There were historical photos as well as opportunities to walk through cells, barracks, and the camp’s early gas chamber and crematoria. Here’s what struck me the most:

The Relics

One of the brick buildings held a series of large glass display cases, like you might see holding a diorama of stuffed zebras at a natural history museum, only much bigger. They were filled with relics of the dead. One display case was filled with two tons of hair shorn from gassed women, and sold to German industry for 50 Pfennig per kilo.

Hair from Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Hair from Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Another case was filled with tallitot (prayer shawls), and another with eyeglass frames. There was a displaycase the size of a swimming pool filled with metal pitchers and platters – people’s prized household possessions, which they had brought on the train with them to their “new home.”

There was a case filled with crutches and prosthetic limbs. A case filled with women’s shoes. A case filled with baby shoes.

There was a room-sized case filled with suitcases – brown leather mid-century suitcases – all carefully labelled with their owners’ names and addresses so they could reclaim them after their “delousing.”

There were thousands upon thousands of these items. And these were just the remnants that had been recovered after the camp was liberated – the bits that had not been shipped to Germany or destroyed in the bombing. The tip of the iceberg.

Eyeglasses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Eyeglasses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Crutches and prostheses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Crutches and prostheses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Children's shoes in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Children’s shoes in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Suitcases with names and home addresses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Suitcases with names and home addresses in Auschwitz display case / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The Photos

Another brick building had a long corridor lined with ID photos of prisoners, from the early days before they started tattooing numbers on arms for identification. Most of the prisoners before 1942 were non-Jewish Poles.

Our guide told us that the photographer was a non-Jewish Pole of Austrian descent. When the Nazis invaded, they offered him German citizenship due to his background. He refused and was imprisoned, where he had to take all the ID pictures. He survived the war but never took photos again.

What struck me were the dates alongside each photo – the date each person entered the camp, and the date s/he died. Three weeks. Five weeks. Two months….. I kept looking at one face after another, and realized that most were dead within three months.

Most of us have learned about the camps from stories and memoirs by survivors – Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel etc. Those memoirs are essential and powerful. But they are by necessity the stories of people who survived. Even if they describe friends, relatives and barrack-mates who died, the focus remains inevitably on the writer, who lived.

The photos and their dates in this corridor brought home to me the reality that most, most, most, most people didn’t survive. They didn’t live a year. They didn’t even live a half year. They arrived, they starved, they sickened, and a few weeks later they were dead.

Photo of twin sisters who died in Auschwitz / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo of 15-year-old twin sisters who died in Auschwitz. They entered the camp on Feb. 5, 1943. Maria died on May 23, and Czeslawa died on July 23.

Practicing for mass extermination

One of the brick barracks included rooms in the basement where the Nazis practiced for mass extermination. They experimented there with Zyklon B to see how much gas, for how long, it would take to kill a room full of people. They tried different doses and different time intervals until they got it right.

That was another of the takeaways from Auschwitz for me – it brought home how methodically, scientifically, the Germans approached their Final Solution. To me, this does set the Holocaust apart from other genocides of the past 150 years. It’s of course terrible to massacre any “other” in a frenzy of religious intolerance, a pogrom, a riot. But there is something worse about the rational, deliberate approach that the Nazis took. No one in Rwanda or Serbia or Turkey/Armenia spent years doing scientific studies of the most efficient way to kill their targets.

 ———————————————–

We finished with the brick barracks of the main Auschwitz camp. All three of us felt a little disoriented – it hadn’t looked like we imagined. The barracks were too well-built, too tall, too landscaped, too…. normal. Even the “Arbeit Macht Frei” over the main gate seemed thinner and flimsier than what I had imagined.

It was also a gorgeous summer day outside – grass green, sky blue, jackdaws pecking for snack crumbs in the parking lot.

“People think it’s always winter here,” our guide said. “They see the black and white photos, they think the sun never shined. Of course the sun shined.  I had a survivor on one of my tours who said, ‘You can die in a place of beauty.’ ”

We took the short drive over to Birkenau. This was the larger camp – the one built explicitly for extermination, with gas chambers and crematoria that could kill 525,000 people per year, and barracks that could hold 100,000 people.

This looked more like what we had imagined. Long low buildings, mostly wooden on a treeless field, filled with wooden shelves that slept four people each. This was where the famous photos of emaciated prisoners had been taken upon liberation.

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Barracks at Birkenau / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Birkenau was sprawling and massive. We started at the back of the camp, with an abstract stone memorial erected in the 1950s or 60s – 22 plaques, one for each of the languages spoken by people killed here. We passed the site of the crematoria and gas chambers, but they had been blown up or bombed toward the end of the war and today are just fields of rubble.

People’s ashes were often sold as fertilizer. Our guide told us that local farmers still find little unburnt body pieces in their fields.

We walked to the debarcation area – where the trains unloaded their passengers, and people were lined up and sorted for immediate death or imprisonment. There was no waiting around, no bureaucratic delays, no grace period. Those chosen for death were taken to the gas within minutes.

Where prisoners were unloaded from the train and selected for the gas chamber or the work camp / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Where prisoners were unloaded from the train and selected for the gas chamber or the work camp – train track on right, front entrance to Birkenau in the distance / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Displays showing the selections by the railroad track / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Displays showing the selections by the railroad track / Photo by Ilana DeBare

In retrospect, I wish we had stayed at the unloading site longer. We saw it, we took photos, we lingered a little, we moved on. It was hard to think at that point in the afternoon. We were all somewhat numb. In retrospect, I’d like to have sat on the grass and reflected quietly or sketched or written poetry or said Kaddish. Something slow and reflective, something that in my non-religious way would acknowledge the sacredness of all those lost lives.

Instead I took notes. Throughout the tour, I jotted notes in my little spiral book. After twenty-plus years of being a reporter, taking notes is like breathing for me. I take notes in meetings even if I’m not the organization’s secretary. And I sort of had a reason, in that I’d been toying with the idea of writing a travel article about our trip to Poland. I asked our guide lots of factual questions and wrote down lots of factual answers.

But really it was a displacement activity. It was a way to keep myself busy in the face of this terrible place. I could take something unmanageable and manage it, treat it like a routine City Council meeting. I processed it into notes. I locked it down on the page, like Harry Potter locking a boggart back into its cupboard.

It’s taken me three weeks to feel ready to write something about visiting Auschwitz. I wasn’t sure what I had to say. All the important things have been said already – the banality of evil, the importance of bearing witness, the systematized, industrial character of Nazi anti-Semitism, etc. And honestly, I’ve learned much more about the Holocaust and the death camps from years of reading than from this three-hour visit.

Auschwitz – together with the rest of our trip to Poland – did spur me to revisit the uncomfortable question of what would have happened to me during the Holocaust. We all like to imagine ourselves as the rare survivor – the one who finagles false papers, who joins the resistance in the woods, who has the luck to survive and even help others.

In reality, I would most likely be dead. I’m not particularly cunning. I’m not particularly strong. I tend to follow rules. I would have ridden the train and, if not sent directly to the gas, would have starved and gotten typhus and died.

And if I’d been a non-Jewish Pole? Would I have risked automatic death for myself and my entire family – the official penalty – for helping a Jew? I don’t know. I hope I would. I fear I wouldn’t.

So…. no great epiphany. No piercing new insights to give the world. Yet I’m glad I was there.

Auschwitz is important as a pilgrimage site, a place to go to honor those who died and to try to take in the sheer scope of their murder.

I do believe that is one of our moral obligations – to try to take in the scope of the Holocaust, to make it as real to ourselves as possible.

And of course to prevent it from happening again.

As strange as it sounds, I would actually like to go back sometime. This initial visit allowed me to see the physical structures, the size, the layout. Now I know what it looks like, I know what is there. I don’t have to get those questions answered.

On the next visit, I would go and reflect. I would skip the tour and just go sit in the field where people disembarked and were sorted, the green summer field where over a million people died in a place of beauty.

Why do we take vacation photos?

July 19, 2014

For twenty years I was the family vacation photographer. I bought the cameras, I packed the cameras in my luggage, I was the one who thought to stop in the middle of a museum or a park and say, “Hold on a sec! Let me get a photo!”

Then my husband Sam got an iPhone. He realized how easy it was to snap a photo and upload it to Facebook.

So now we both take photos. We returned last week from a vacation in Central Europe during which we often ended up taking photos of the exact same things.

We’d be standing in Budapest looking across the Danube to the old castle on the Buda side of the river. Sam would take a picture of the castle with his iPhone. Two feet away, I’d take a picture of the castle with my point-and-shoot.

And the kicker is: There were already about two zillion photos of that same castle, taken from the same angle, on the web.

Sam's photo of the Danube and castle

Sam’s photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

So why do we take those photos? Why capture an image that has already been captured countless times, often with higher resolution or better quality?

The simple answer is that we want mementos of our trip. We want to remember where we’ve been. But that desire could be satisfied by just one person taking photos, or even by buying old-fashioned picture postcards.

Another answer is that we love our gadgets. We feel compelled to use them constantly. But that doesn’t fully nail it either.

There are also less charitable possibilities. We are sheep: We take photos on vacation because we believe we are supposed to take photos on vacation. Or we are status-grubbers: We photograph ourselves in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Colosseum or the Budapest castle  to show our neighbors and our Facebook friends how worldly and fantastically happy we are.

Blech. That may be true for some people, but I think it is still more complicated.

For me at least, taking vacation photos is an attempt to engage with the things I’m seeing. As tourists visiting places briefly, we are typically spectators. We are outsiders watching a world that other people have shaped and are living in. But we want more than that.

So we engage with the places we’re visiting by eating the food, meeting the people, or… taking photos.

Sam's photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam’s photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

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My photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam's photo of a communist-era status in Memento Park in Budapest

Sam’s photo of a communist-era statuse in Memento Park in Budapest

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park status

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park statue

Choices: I can stand by  the Danube, look briefly at the castle, and then walk on to the next site specified in my guidebook. Or I can pull out my camera and engage. Frame the picture. How much river, how much sky? Focus on the dome or the facade? Which part seems most interesting? It’s bringing a little bit of artistic judgment and creativity to bear. It gives me a sense of ownership and personal connection to a place. That’s not the same level of engagement as getting to know local residents, but it’s something.

“Taking photos forces you to look at what you’re seeing,” someone told me the other night.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Taking photos can also be a substitute for truly looking at what we’re seeing.

Scenic vista point! Get out the camera. Frame the shot. Move on. 

I fall victim to this, no question about it. I don’t try to commit a scene to memory because I assume it will be preserved by my camera. Instead of paying attention to the details of this interesting place – the color of light on the roofs, a boat’s wake on the river, the funny zigzag path taken by a small child running near the water — I think about framing the photo. Once I’ve pressed the shutter, I feel like I’m done.

Now let’s ramp up this scenario to the Nth degree – Auschwitz.

Our recent trip included a tour of the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. I’ll write more about that in my next blog post. But what’s relevant here is that I took photos.

I took photos of the room filled with hair shorn from thousands of Jewish women en route to the gas chamber for use in German wigs. I took photos of the room filled with shoes from dead children. I took photos of the bombed ruins of the crematoria, of the gathering spot where people were unloaded from boxcars and directed to either barracks or gas chambers. Our guide described each section of the camp, and we looked, mostly silent, and took photos, and moved on.

In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time looking, thinking, and imagining. I would have liked to stay in the unloading spot for maybe an hour, to sit cross-legged on the summer grass and just think about what had happened there. Maybe try to sketch it or describe it in writing. But definitely do something slower and more mindful than pressing a shutter.

I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with photos as a way to engage with important places – places of particular historical meaning or natural beauty. I’m not a visual artist, but sketching or painting a scene seems to require so much more attention and involvement. Writing a description also forces you to engage more deeply and attentively.

I wonder what it would be like to take a sketch pad or pocket journal on our next trip instead of a camera. When we come to a point of particular interest, I could sit there for a half hour drawing or writing.

Of course that would slow things down – it’s harder to hit six different churches, museums and monuments in one afternoon if you keep stopping for long blocks of time!

But maybe it is useful to start thinking of “slow travel,” like we now think of “slow food.”

And tapping into ways of engagement that are deeper than snapping photos.

A shaggy owl story

May 16, 2014

Why do we (well, some of us) feel compelled to air our most embarrassing moments on the public square of the Internet?

It was dusk on a Friday evening, and my husband and I were winding our way down Panoramic Highway towards Stinson Beach. The western sky was still light, but the woods along the road were in shadow. Fidgeting in the passenger seat and trying not to feel carsick, I suddenly saw two faces flash past in a tree – round faces, big forward-facing eyes, one large dark face and one smaller light face.

If I were an eight-year-old boy in my Star Wars phase, I would have thought: Ewoks. 

But I’m a 50-something-year-old woman who works for Golden Gate Audubon, so I thought: Owls. 

Maybe it was because it was that owlish time of day. Or maybe I was subconsciously thinking of a great photo I’d seen that day by Glenn Nevill of the huge-eyed, white Peregrine Falcon chicks on the PG&E building.

“Stop! I saw something!” I shouted at to my husband. To his spousely credit, he actually stopped, without getting us killed, and did a u-turn onto an area of shoulder.

I dug my binoculars out of the overnight bag in the back seat and peered through the increasing darkness. There was a big mess of sticks in the crook of a tree, and sitting in it, a large bird. “I think it’s an owl.”

My husband took a turn with the binoculars. “Great Horned Owl. In profile. Great job spotting it! But that’s kind of a weird place for an owl, so low down and close to the road.”

We watched for a while. It wasn’t moving much. I couldn’t see the second face that had flashed past. But how amazing would it be to see a nestling? This called for a better look. We drove back up the hill, did another u-turn, and parked about 20 yards away from the tree, now with a direct frontal view of the nest.

Yes, there was that second small white shape. Fluffy, kind of gumdrop-shaped, no pointy ears. “A chick!” I exclaimed quietly.

We watched. Neither bird moved. I started to have a bad feeling about this.

A car passed us, travelling fast downhill past the nest. The birds didn’t move.

Two bicyclists struggled up the steep slope past the nest. The birds didn’t move.

“Okay, I’m going closer,” I said. I crawled out of the car, closing the door gently and taking just a few steps so I could get a better view without spooking the birds. It was getting seriously dark now.

And yes, that bad feeling I’d had was justified.

The two shapes in the tree were… stuffed toys. 

Aak!

I wondered if whoever had placed them there had also installed a hidden camera. Of all the drivers who passed by, how many others actually stopped their cars? Were there any other suckers who got out and stood there staring through binoculars?  I wondered if I’d end up in some viral video of “America’s Dumbest Birders.”

“Well,” my husband said generously as he revved up the car and I slouched as low into the passenger seat as a human body could slouch, “it was still good that you could notice something in the dark when we were driving past so fast.”

Thanks, Sam.

But really, why do we (well, some of us) post our most embarrassing moments on the web for all the world to see?

I don’t think it’s masochism. Picture a dog or cat, facing a clearly alpha animal. It doesn’t want a fight. It wants to be friends. It rolls over on its back, paws in the air, tender belly exposed.

Present your vulnerability and you won’t be attacked. Make fun of yourself and people will laugh with you, not at you.

On the other hand, maybe some of us just can’t resist telling a good story. Even when we are the punch line.

Losing a magical lagoon

February 11, 2014

Three years ago we joined my brother’s and sister’s families for a weeklong vacation in Puerto Rico. We rented a house near the beach together and did all the usual touristy stuff – a day in Old San Juan, a hike in the El Yunque rain forest, a boat trip to a snorkeling reef.

The outing I remember most vividly was a nighttime kayak trip into the bioluminescent Grand Lagoon in Fajardo, on the northest corner of the island.

Photos of Pure Adventure, Fajardo

The bioluminescent bay at sunset / Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

Here’s what bioluminescence is, scientifically:

Millions of tiny, invisible single-celled organisms that light up as a self-defense mechanism when disturbed.

Here’s what it is, experientially:

Magic.

You paddle at dusk through a narrow, mangrove-lined channel into the open lagoon. Night falls. Sweeping your paddle through the black water, you create a Milky Way of light. The wake behind your paddle glows, it swirls as you swirl, then it dims as you move on.

You run your hand in the water and create more trails of light. A million little lights switching on, shining against the dark, at just a touch.  It’s like being God at the Creation. It’s like being Harry Potter – no, it’s better than Harry Potter, because you don’t even need a wand.

biobay

Bioluminescence as a foot touches the water in Fajardo

Waving hands through the water produces light -- b8t these photos don't do it justice / Photo by Thomas Wiewandt, wild horizons.com

Waving hands through the water produces light — b8t these photos don’t do it justice / Photo by Thomas Wiewandt, wild horizons.com

Then I learned last week on NPR’s Science Friday that the Fajardo lagoon had gone dark.

This happened back in November. Suddenly there was no more bioluminescence.

No one was able to identify the specific reason. It could have been any one of a number of things – toxic runoff from construction of a nearby wastewater treatment plant, removal of too many mangroves around the bay, changes in temperature or wave action or ????

This made me deeply sad. We are living at a time when large numbers of creatures are on the edge of extinction, due to loss of habitat and climate change. Many of these threatened creatures are bigger and better known than the invisible Fajardo micro-organisms – leopards, polar bears, Monarch butterflies, coral reefs. But these in the Fajardo lagoon were ones that I’d personally experienced.

It’s one thing to know that polar bears – which I’ve only ever seen behind the walls of zoos — may go extinct.

It’s another to lose something that I have seen in its wild home. That I have actually touched. And that is so stunningly magical.

What kind of legacy are we leaving for future generations? Is my generation going to be the dividing line – will history say that in our time, there were snow leopards and Monarch butterflies and bioluminescent bays, but forever after they were limited to  pictures in natural history books?

Will my daughter tell her children, “When I was ten, I snorkeled in a coral reef – back when there were coral reefs?”

I circled around and around in this depressing line of thinking all weekend. Then today I did a little Googling, and it turns out the story of the Fajardo bay may not be as dismal as I thought:  The biophosphorescent lights went dark just temporarily in November. They are apparently back now, at least somewhat.

So I breathed a sigh of relief.

But how relieved should I be?

Just this month, another bio-bay on the nearby island of Vieques went dark, according to Science Friday.

And we are only beginning to see the effects of climate change on our world…. the subtle changes in water temperature, rainfall, or length of a season that can mean the difference between survival and extinction for a species.

The Fajardo biobay is back for now. But for how long?

And what other magical parts of our natural world are we going to lose because our “leaders,” in thrall to the petrochemical industry, continue to quibble and deny?

WTS Birding Trip – Postponed

February 8, 2014

If you were planning to come on the Women of Temple Sinai beginning birdwatching outing on Sunday Feb. 8th, it has been cancelled since the latest forecast is for 100% chance of rain.

We are rescheduling for Sunday February 23 (two weeks from now), 9:30 to 11:30 am. Hope you can make it!

I’d say I’m sorry for the cancellation… but we need the rain so badly that it’s hard to be sorry! :-)

Meanwhile, if you’re one of my blog readers and have no idea what I’m talking about… this was a bird walk I was co-leading for our temple. I hope to have a “real” post for you soon!

Anna's Hummingbird / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Anna’s Hummingbird / Photo by Ilana DeBare

 

Ilana’s Little List of Superfluous Words

November 11, 2013

Hallelujah! I’m almost at the end of my latest round of novel revisions.

And once I’m done with the substantive revisions, I’m going to try something new — a Microsoft Word “search” for superfluous words.

Noodling  around in the manuscript, I’ve noticed that there are certain words that add little or no value. Sometimes they are “hedge” words that undercut what I’m saying. Other times they state the obvious. Or they are just a flabby cliche.

cliche-t

I don’t notice these words when I’m writing a first draft; they roll easily off my pen. They seem so natural that I don’t notice them on reading the completed manuscript, either. Thus the computer search.

Prime example: suddenly. 

I use a lot of suddenlys!  My characters look up suddenly. They put down their forks suddenly. They hurl chairs suddenly.

(Have you ever seen a chair hurled in a non-sudden manner? Now that would be an adverb worth using: “He hurled the chair gradually.”)

So I’m starting a list of superfluous words that should be weeded out. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • suddenly
  • somewhat, some
  • sort of, kind of
  • little
  • simply
  • just

Here are a few examples from different sections of my manuscript:

“What does Marta have to do with this?” her mother asked with some bewilderment.

There were more stars in just one small corner of the sky than you could see over all of Manhattan.

I felt suddenly uneasy. 

I jerked my head around, suddenly paranoid, and shoved the boa back inside the bag.  (Well, maybe I should keep that one. I’ll think about it.)

Talking with my lawyer friend Beth yesterday, she described routinely excising certain words when editing her colleagues’ briefs. In her case, they are legal jargon like heretofore.

I suspect every genre of writing – every profession – needs its own unique blacklist of superfluous words. Every writer should probably have her or his personal list too: The flabby words that slip into my draft may be different from the ones that slip into yours.

How about you? Any words that routinely roll off your pen that should be rolled off to the landfill?

Underground France

September 29, 2013

We just returned from a two-week vacation in France where you could say the theme turned out to be “underground France.”

Not as in underground cinema, or underground resistance, or anything so metaphorical.

Literally underground.

We started in Paris where we took a self-guided tour of the city’s sewer system. You know how in Les Miserables, Jean Valjean carries wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris? That’s where we were. Below the sidewalks but above the Metro, walking through  some of the vaulted tunnels that stretch for 2,100 kilometers under the city. Yes, we watched the dark water coursing along a few feet below our walkway. Yes, it smelled like sewage.

Paris is the only city in the world that designed sewers large enough for people to walk through. The sewer network was a major 19th century technical feat, a reminder that the French have a history of superb engineering as well as superb wine, food and fashion.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Parisian elite took tours of the sewer system. You can still do that today at the Musee des Egouts de Paris.

An earlier era of sewer tourism

An earlier era of sewer tourism

Not content with sewers, we ventured deeper underground — 20 meters deep, about the height of a five-story building — to Paris’ catacombs.

These were originally 13th century quarries for limestone, the stone used in Notre Dame, the Louvre and countless other Paris buildings. In the late 1700s, as Paris’ population outpaced the ability of its cemeteries to hold the dead, the abandoned limestone tunnels were repurposed as a storehouse for skeletons — some 6 million of them. Blessed by priests and supervised by engineers, centuries worth of bodies were dug up and carted ceremoniously across town for storage in the catacombs.

A resourceful public works administrator in the early 1800s added snippets of morbid Romantic poetry about the transience of life. And yes, it became another tourist attraction — there was even one midnight concert held in the tunnels in the late 1800s. You can find out about touring the catacombs here.

Paris catacombs/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs with sign, "Stop! Here is the empire of death." / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs with sign, “Stop! Here is the empire of death.” / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs / Photo by Ilana DeBare

We weren’t doing all this underground touring on purpose. It just turned out that way. We did spend time in the fresh air, like strolling along the Promenade Plantee — an old railroad aqueduct turned into an elevated tree-lined walkway between Place de la Bastille and the Gare de Lyon, a Parisian precursor to New York’s High Line park.

But that night we somehow ended up underground again, at a jazz club located in a 12th century dungeon.

Listening to jazz in a dungeon / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Listening to jazz in an underground 12th century dungeon / Photo by Ilana DeBare

And when we left Paris for the second half of our trip — a bike tour through the Dordogne and Bordeaux countryside — one of the highlights was a visit to the prehistoric art within the Dordogne’s limestone caves. Back down into the dark and cold, but this time even further into the past — 15,000 years back.

We visited the Rouffignac cave, with over 250 engravings and drawings of  mammoths, bison, horses and other figures.

Entry to Rouffignac cave / Wikipedia

Entry to Rouffignac cave / Wikipedia

Rouffignac Cave

Rouffignac Cave

The French cave art was something I’d read about since I was a little girl. It was stunning and humbling to see it in person, one of my “bucket list” experiences. Archeologists don’t know what the drawings meant to the society that created them — were they part of a spiritual ritual? a social history? any theories are only speculative fiction — but there they were, just feet away from us, crisp and clear despite 15,000 years.

We biked from the cliffs of the Dordogne into the rolling vineyards around St. Emilion, and visited a winery where the bottles of wine are stored underground… in (you guessed it) limestone caves that were once quarries. In this particular winery, Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot, the caves also served as a hiding place for wealthy families during the French Revolution, who lived there for years and built a tiny chapel underground.

Entering the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Entering the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Wine in the cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Wine in the cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Chapel inside the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Later we visited a quarry/cave inside the town of St. Emilion that has been made into an underground museum of pottery. They lent us shawls to wear during our visit since the temperature dropped some 20 degrees in the tunnels. And we visited St. Emilion’s famous Monolithic Church, a church painstakingly chipped and carved out of a single giant limestone cliff in the 12th century. This was not just a little chapel carved into the rock, but a serious, humongous cathedral-sized church.

Monolithic Church, carved into the rock / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Exterior of Monolithic Church, carved into the rock / Photo by Ilana DeBare

In nearly all of these sites — the 12th century church, the 15,000-year-old cave art galleries — we saw evidence of visitors there before us. There was graffiti carved or etched into the walls.

At first I was irritated: Why can’t these stupid teenagers limit their graffiti to subway cars and modern buildings?

And then I looked more closely at the graffiti. These were names and dates from the 1700s. 

Graffiti near entrance to St. Emilion's cave from 1767 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Graffiti near entrance to St. Emilion’s cave from 1767 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

So what’s with all of this underground France? A couple of things, I guess. Many parts of France — in particular the areas around Paris and the Aquitaine, where we spent this vacation — are limestone plateaus that were formed eons ago when covered with shallow seas. Sea organisms died and decayed and were compressed into limestone. Limestone is a soft, porous rock, easily eroded into caves by water, easily carved into quarries by humans.

And then France — like the rest of Europe  — is an old civilization in comparison with the United States. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy traveling there — the ease of transporting yourself back into different eras.

People have been living continuously in France for tens of thousands of years. The 15,000-year-old cave drawings that we saw in Rouffignac are in fact among the most recent examples of neolithic art; others in the Dordogne region go back 30,000 years.

And in 30,000 years, there’s a lot that people can find to do with caves.

Seek shelter. Create art. Dig for building materials. Worship gods. Bury the dead. Hide from enemies. Store wine. Play jazz….

And tomorrow what?

If humans still exist 15,000 years from now, will our subways and sewers, our museums and music clubs, be as much of a mystery to them as the Rouffignac cave paintings are to us?

This is the "Mirror of Water" along the Bordeaux riverfront. Photo by Ilana DeBare

Now for some above-ground daylight! This is the “Mirror of Water” along the Bordeaux riverfront. Photo by Ilana DeBare

Biking the new Bay Bridge

September 9, 2013

It only took 24 years, but Caltrans finally completed and opened the new Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland to replace the one that partly collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The new bridge includes a bike/pedestrian trail from Oakland to Treasure Island, a former military base that is about halfway to San Francisco. The trail doesn’t go all the way to Treasure Island yet — the old bridge is in the way — but by 2015 the connection to the island will be complete.

New bridge / Photo by Ilana DeBare

New bridge / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Me on the bridge / Photo by Sam Schuchat

Me on the bridge / Photo by Sam Schuchat

This weekend Sam and I rode our bikes down to the trail entrance in Emeryville and as far as you can bike on the bridge.

Us and about two zillion other people.

It was terrific!

We were among a cross-section of Bay Area humanity — middle-aged bike geeks on $5000 titanium frames and century-ride jerseys; little kids wobbling on their first two-wheeler; walkers, joggers and skaters; people of all ages, races and physical abilities. It was one of the warmest, sunniest days of the year and the views were beautiful.

The old bridge stood empty alongside the new one. It has been out of use for only about eleven days, but already it looks like a relic from another century —  some dark, rusting remnant from a time of railroad barons and steel factories. In comparison, the new bridge looks like a shiny white iPod.

Heading to the bridge,  I felt like a tourist in my own city in the best possible way —  on an adventure, knowing I would experience something new and intriguing.

Of course, the question now comes up more loudly than ever: How can Caltrans build only half a bike trail? Even in 2015 when the trail is complete, it will stop at Treasure Island — a nice place to picnic but not to do much else. Shouldn’t the trail go all the way into San Francisco?

There would be engineering challenges in adding a bike/walk path to the remaining span of the old bridge between Treasure Island and San Francisco. But surely there is a technical solution. I suspect that people will love this new partial trail enough that they’ll start pressuring Caltrans to build the other half.

It would be a wonderful day trip… a great way to commute… Caltrans, are you listening?

——————————–

Want to try the trail? You can find a map on the East Bay Bicycle Coalition web site. We entered the trail from Shellmound Street in Emeryville, across the street from Ikea. After biking as far on the bridge as we could go, we backtracked and exited the trail in the other direction, Maritime Street near the Port of Oakland. If you’d like to add to your excursion, it’s a quiet, flat ten-minute ride from the Maritime Street entrance to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park inside the Port of Oakland. (Take Maritime Street to 7th Street and turn right; follow signs for the park.) This is an undiscovered gem inside the industrial no-man’s-land of the port — green lawns, picnic tables, great views of SF, and often a lot of shorebirds. Take binoculars.


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