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Biosphere 2

Posted on 2015.09.14 at 13:21
Current Location: Cambridge, MA
Biosphere 2 was built as part of the space program.

There are a lot of science experiments going on out there in the world, but not so many engineering experiments, at least not many bigger than what can be done by one or two people in a suburban garage. What I mean by experiment is a carefully controlled endeavor designed to answer a question. In the case of Biosphere 2, the question was "Can we, using the knowledge we have now, in the 1980s, build human habitats that can be placed in orbit that will be self-sustaining, with inputs from Biosphere 1 (a.k.a. Earth) no more than once every two years?" The obvious way to answer the question was to build such a habitat, seal it off from the rest of the ecosystem, and try it out.

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The American Indian Capital of the World

Posted on 2015.08.09 at 19:29
Current Location: Florence, CO
The Gallup Inter-tribal Ceremonial, the part I attended, anyway, reminded me of nothing so much as the New England Folk Festival. Instead of sampling pierogi and dolmas, listening to New Bedford sea chanteys, watching little Chinese girls in pastel silk cheongsams and trousers perform a simple dance with giant fans, and participating in an Argentine Tango workshop, I sampled Zuni sourdough bread baked in a traditional earth oven, listened to the story of how Little Snake got his fangs and rattle, watched Maricopa Pima teenage girls in long appliquéd skirts perform a simple dance with shallow handwoven baskets, and participated in a round dance with... I'm embarrassed to say I forget which tribe that particular dance group hailed from. The Ceremonial attracts Natives from all over North America and one of the things they do is demonstrate the traditional arts, especially the dances.

There's also a rodeo, a powwow, two parades through downtown Gallup and a "beauty contest" (the announcements about it point out that there is no bathing suit competition; instead, the emphasis is on historical and cultural knowledge and the talent portion, which has been divided into Traditional Talent and Modern Talent, although of course the contestants also have to be pretty) leading to the crowning of a Ceremonial Queen. The Southwestern tribes seem to have really gone in for this beauty pageant thing. During the Night Parade, I learned that even local elementary schools elect princesses, and every one of them was invited to march. I think half the parade was girls and young women in fancy dresses, each waving to the crowd while walking or riding behind a banner giving her name, her school or other electing body (Miss Indian New Mexico was there, as was Miss Native Arizona) and, usually, a sponsoring local business. Bigger deal for the locals who knew at least some of these kids than for out-of-towners like me. I did notice that the way they were distributed through the parade separated the dance groups well enough so that the drum rhythms didn't overlap. It was the dancers, of course, that got the big cheers from the crowd. Groups ranged from a sedate, dignified line of Zuni women with ceramic pots (made the traditional way and worth hundreds of dollars each) balanced on their heads, to Aztecs in dramatic headdresses performing downright athletic choreography. I wasted entirely too much of the parade taking photos in which the hair of the spectator in front of me was in better focus than the dancers. I had a great time.

I passed up the powwow. Even though I knew I'd be one of many white tourists there, it just seemed too intrusive. I've never been much of a fan of the rodeo, or of beauty contests. But I did pass through the rodeo grounds on the way to turn in my key to the campground shower house, as my last step in breaking camp. (The Ceremonial is such a big deal that the rodeo facilities are actually part of the state park.) It was very early on the first day of the rodeo, and all around me were people unloading horses from livestock trailers, grooming horses, riding horses. And I felt envy. I felt an unfamiliar longing: to be part of a community based on a symbiosis with beautiful animals.

The modern fascination with the tribal is partly ordinary human curiosity, partly appreciation for a good show, but also partly species nostalgia. It reminds us of the price we've paid to be modern. Before the machine age, our ability to form enduring bonds, with each other, with members of other species, and even with particular places, was a big part of our success. More than ability, actually; it's a desire, like the desire of well-fed housecats to stalk and pounce, a desire that modern life doesn't automatically satisfy. In many cases, satisfaction is expensive. The horse culture is a perfect example. A lucky few can make their living in it, but the overwhelming majority of horses in this country are luxuries, owned by the same kinds of people who can give their kids brand new cars for their 18th birthdays. The more ordinary of us make do with little apartment-sized dogs, with a mortgaged condo, with a small circle of family and friends that hangs on precariously in a sea of strangers. But the real thing pulls at us. We're fascinated, even while we know that the price is beyond us.

How It Feels to Be a Minority

Posted on 2015.08.06 at 18:42
Radio broadcasts in languages I don't know a word of are generally not my favorite things, but this is different. I'm on the section of I-40 that passes along the southern edge of the Navajo reservation and I'm listening to the Voice of the Navajo Nation.

Not that there's no English at all. Most of the ads are in English. There's one for a pawn shop, one for a car dealership ("We value our Native American customers"), one for a jewelry supply store (not a bead shop, but a store for professional jewelry makers) and one mostly in Navajo but with occasional bits of English: "New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange", "managed care", "behealthynewmexico.com" and a phone number. I've actually found three stations coming out of the rez, although two of them might be the AM and FM outlets of the same broadcaster. In any case, there is also music ranging from rigidly traditional chanting and drumming to intermixtures between Native and various Anglo styles to ordinary pop and country songs that happen to be performed by Natives. It's a real education.

Gallup, New Mexico, the American Indian Capital of the World, is a small city in a river plain surrounded by dramatic dry-country cliffs, like Sedona and like Durango, Colorado. Originally a coal mining town and railhead for coal shipments, it now depends on the Mighty Tourist Dollar. The Historic Route 66 passes through, and there is, of course, remarkable natural beauty, both of which bring in out-of-towners. Mainly, however, this is where the Navajo, Apache, Zuni and Hopi do most of their interfacing with the worldwide capitalist economy.

Now, I've been eating local cuisine, including the occasional Native American meal, and enjoying it, but one thing all these Southwestern cuisines have in common is a scarcity of vegetables. It's started to catch up with me. So when I got to Gallup, I ended up eating at the King Dragon, the fanciest of at least three Chinese restaurants here, although the buffet is quite reasonably priced. It seems to have a lot of Native customers. During the course of my first lunch there, the crowd went from about half Native to three-quarters to "Looks like I'm the only white person in here." A white couple came in as I went out, so I'm sure this was a statistical fluke. The staff were Chinese and the host had a Chinese accent.

Aside from him, most of the people I saw working behind counters were Native. I went to a laundromat and I really was the only non-Native in there. I was outnumbered in the supermarket, at the public library and on the street. Even at the Nightly Indian Dances, which I was sure would be a total tourist hook, half the crowd was Native. One night, a Hopi group performed, with a young Hopi woman announcer. One of the three dances they performed was the Turkey Dance. The announcer talked about the significance of the turkey in various local Native traditions and asked for correction from any Navajo in the audience if she'd mispronounced the Navajo word for turkey. There were several who assured her that she'd done fine.

It's not like being in a foreign country. Everyone speaks English and wears tee shirts and jeans or dresses or other ordinary modern clothes. There's a supermarket instead of a mercado. And I certainly haven't felt any hostility. In fact, it's the friendliest town I've just rolled into, not expected by anyone, in a long time. Certainly there are lots of shops and galleries and restaurants eager to do business with me. It's just that I get the clear sense that this is their town in a way that it can never be mine, even if I were to spend the rest of my life here and make friends with everybody.

It's a real consciousness-raising moment.

Phoenix at the wrong time of year

Posted on 2015.07.30 at 14:11
Phoenix seemed to be all about upsetting my expectations.

I mean, I expected the heat. Sedona is in the mountains; even at this time of year, it's only marginally hotter than this same season in, say, Worcester, Massachusetts. Phoenix is the desert. There are saguaro cacti here. The heat is pounding. If I park in the sun, my steering wheel gets so hot that it's painful to touch. When I drive, the heat coming up from the road, through the floor of the car, makes me worry about the engine overheating. When I'm outdoors in daylight, my hat and my water bottle are always with me.

So it makes perfect sense that the main public library here should have part of its parking lot covered with sunshades that are also solar panels. My first thought was, man, they should cover the whole town with these.

Then I got inside. It didn't smell like a public library. At first I though the climate control might be malfunctioning, but then I got to the end of that first hallway and I saw it. The pond.

What on Earth is a pond doing in a library? Especially under a staircase, one of those modern, minimalist staircases held up by a few sturdy steel rods, separate from the rods that hold up the railings so that the ascending space isn't enclosed, and the steps are connected to one another only at the ends. Somebody drops a book on that staircase and, splash!

Then I went to the Whole Foods. It had a bar. With about eight kinds of beer on draft. And returnable growlers if you want a quart of draft beer to take away with you. And a TV. It gave me a serious case of cognitive dissonance. I mean, a bar in a health food store?

So I decided to spend the heat of the day at the hostel. Now, every hostel has its own personality. The Grand Canyon Hostel in Flagstaff, for instance, is at the edge of the hipster entertainment district and tends to draw wilderness jocks. You know the type I mean: they do river rafting, mountain biking, challenging hikes, that sort of thing, so they're in top physical condition, but they also party fairly hard. The Road Runner Hostel in Tucson is more internationally focused and it's bookish. Got little bookshelves here, there and everywhere, with a selection ranging from old New Yorkers to the usual hotel-room Bible to popular science stuff to a collection of Kipling's short stories which I greatly enjoyed. There were also some ancient historical guidebooks. In one of them I learned that certain local cacti are fruiting right about now and that it's a traditional part of the native cuisine. I love new food, and I immediately wanted to try cactus fruit.

In Phoenix, the HI-PHX Hostel and Community Center is a little island of college town leftie alternaculture in the great sea of golf-playing, Scotch-drinking, football-watching libertarian and neoconservative culture that is the Phoenix mainstream. At HI-PHX, there are posters that say “Honor the Treaties” and “End Internalized Oppression.” There is a weekly poetry slam. There is a Saturday open mike night. And on Sunday afternoon, the hostel kitchen is turned over to the local branch of Food Not Bombs. In case you hadn't heard of it, this is a national movement that “rescues” merchandise from local food stores (including the Whole Foods) and restaurants that is too old or damaged to sell but is still edible if used promptly, that would otherwise get dumpstered. Some of it is ready to eat as is. The rest, they cook up into stews and salads and so forth, which they then serve for free in a public park to whoever shows up. Their target demographic is the homeless, but they end up feeding a lot of ordinary poor people, too. I happened to be in the hostel when they rolled in around noon. Suddenly the place was full of boxes of day-old bread, spotty produce, cans and bottles with stained labels, and enthusiastic volunteers. I hadn't planned to, but inevitably I got drawn into the food prep process. I cut spoiled bits off onions and found utensils for people and just generally made myself useful. It was actually fun, and by the time they all rolled out with the finished food, I was completely socialed out. So I didn't go with them.

The next day I went off for my little side trip to Tucson, about which more later. When I got back, I had not found a source of cactus fruit, so I asked Katy, the front desk person who checked me in, whether she knew of a source for it. She recommended an outfit called Ranch Market.

Some of you, my Massachusetts readers, will be familiar with H Mart, the big Asian supermarket and food court out on Route 3 in Billerica. Ranch Market on Roosevelt Street in Phoenix is like H Mart but for Mexican food. There were a half-dozen types of produce I'd never even heard of. There were organ meats I'd never seen for sale. There was a salsa bar. There was a deli, ye gods, that deli! Wandering the aisles of this amazing store, I found myself thinking for the first time about what it might be like to actually live in Phoenix. I'd try all those new foods, one by one. I'd slow-cook the organ meats in the solar oven. If I got to feeling ambitious, I could build a solar stock-pot that would simmer three gallons at a time. The power of the sun here is definitely up to it.

However, I'm still inclined to take seriously that reading I did the other day. Tomorrow I will collect my mail from General Delivery and attempt to write about my Tucson experience. After that, I'll start out for home.


Posted on 2015.07.26 at 21:54
The sign at the entrance says “Welcome to Arcosanti. An Urban Laboratory.” Which seemed ironic given that I was on a dirt road, about to drive over a cattle guard. There wasn't a building in sight.

There's Arcosanti the vision and then there's Arcosanti the reality. The vision was born in the mind of Paolo Soleri, an Italian architect who came to this country as a young man to study under Frank Lloyd Wright. Seeing American-style suburban sprawl for the first time, he was kind of horrified, not just at the waste of land and resources, but at the isolation. It seemed to him a way of life built for cars, not for people. His sense of the human way to live had been formed in the compact traditional towns of Italy with their short walking distances and mixed use of space. Naturally, he connected right up with the budding environmental movement, which was anti-sprawl and anti-car for its own reasons. Combining his ancestral traditions and the latest technology of the time, he designed a town that could, in theory, house and employ five thousand people in pleasure and comfort while using a fraction of the land, water, and other resources that a typical suburb of the same size would. In 1970, with the proceeds from a business he'd started crafting artistic bronze wind bells, he bought some acreage in the sagebrush scrub, gathered a crew and started building it.

It's still not finished. Paolo Soleri died in 2013. Maybe 10-20% of the place is built. The reason I couldn't see it from the front gate is that it's built into the south face of a hill which visitors approach from the north. Even at the parking lot, only a couple of concrete buildings are visible. I followed the “Visitor Entrance” signs into the larger of the two and was directed down. Below the level of the parking lot, I discovered a complex of concrete buildings, done in the style of the early 1970s but still capable of startling with their beauty, uniqueness and cleverness. The ongoing Arcosanti construction project tends to attract artistic types, so the place is dotted with random art: little sculptures and colorful tiles and of course the bells, which are still sometimes made here and still the main source of income for the community.

In theory, this is a construction project. People join by being hired. They get paid for their work. That pay includes a place to live with all utilities, but the (quite good) food in the little cafeteria has to be paid for, along with personal incidentals like cell phones and car insurance. However, it's not like a conventional job where you get hired after one or two interviews and a background check, with the decision to hire you being made by one or two or at most a handful of managers. Instead, you come for a five-week workshop in which you basically pay them to orient you, train you, feed you and house you, plus they provide side trips to relevant local sights such as Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's western headquarters. They also put you to work, and in the process of working you get to know a number of the residents. If you decide you want to stay on and be a long-term member of the team, everyone on the team gets to vote on whether to hire you.

By that feature alone, Arcosanti goes from being a project to being an intentional community, like Twin Oaks and Lost Valley and the communities that branched off from Drop City. By that feature, too, I suspect that it will never grow much beyond its historic maximum population of roughly 200. (Current population is around 70.) Dunbar's Number, you know. Soleri intended it to be a small city, but even small cities have factions. They have police, because they need them. The people who are happy there now would probably hate it. In terms of meeting the social and emotional and value needs of its occupants, a small city would be a step down from what it is now. For Arcosanti to be an example that influences urban planning nationwide and maybe even worldwide, as Soleri intended, it will have to stop being a community small enough that everyone knows everyone. So I think Arcosanti is already at its peak.

It's also, like the long-abandoned cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, an artifact of a time now lost. When the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect in 1979, the parts of Arcosanti that were already built and not in compliance were grandfathered in. There are a lot of stairs, not many ramps, and no elevators at all. The climate and the scale make this an ideal retirement locale, but the stairs kind of kill that. One of the things the tour guide pointed out was a wall of sloping steps about two feet high and at odd angles. He explained that it was designed to facilitate lying back and looking at the sky. He said Soleri called it “our connection to the cosmos.” Then he demonstrated. It worked for him because he is, as Soleri was, about six feet tall and capable of getting into and out of the position. In a way, that wall is representative of both the positives and the negatives of that time. There was a lot of iconoclastic re-thinking going on regarding Man's needs and values and his place in the larger picture, but it was still about Man, the able-bodied male adult; the rest of the species tended to get forgotten.

Natural beauty in an unnatural environment

Posted on 2015.07.25 at 09:40
I'm beginning to think there's no place in Sedona that doesn't have its charms.

I'm at the recycling center. I came here because, yes, I'm the kind of hair-shirt environmentalist nutball who accumulates empty containers in the car until I can find a place to recycle them. I've also got a couple of containers I picked up from the side of the road. You see, before my myofascial release appointment at Therapy on the Rocks, I was walking along the strip of tourist traps that is the main drag in Uptown Sedona and, on impulse, I went into one of the New Age shops. This one, like most of them, is heavy on the minerals, mostly raw or tumbled crystals from wherever in the world they're currently being found. Among them, however, I saw this.

That's right. It's the ordinary red rock this valley is made of, the kind that rolls into the road in the falling rock zones, that you can just pick up off the ground. Somebody picked up a few that were more or less round, and now this store is selling them for eight to ten dollars apiece. They probably sell pretty well, too, to overly citified visitors who think picking rocks up off the ground is yucky, as if that isn't where they all came from.

So after the appointment, I noticed that Therapy on the Rocks is across the road from one of those falling rock zones, a high red cliff with vertical cracks, some of which had small shrubs growing out of them. And, yes, there were plenty of fragments lying at the base, in a suitable range of sizes. Only thing is, there was some trash there, too, as there generally is beside busy roads, and I got to feeling like, if I was going to take some of those red rock fragments, I really ought to clean up a little, do some giving as well as taking. So I ended up carrying away some trash, including two recyclables: a Monster energy drink can and a beer bottle from a brand ironically (or perhaps inevitably) called Red's. The passenger side footwell was pretty full already, so my next stop was the recycling center.

It's on a side street in West Sedona, across from the DPS impoundment yard. Not the kind of neighborhood where you'd expect to see anything pretty, but in the ditch along the edge of the parking lot there are some trees. There's a lone ponderosa pine which, being lone, still has all its branches. Pines in forests generally lose their lower branches because the crowding shades them, but this one has live branches almost to the ground. Its needles, dropped over the years, have provided a handsome mulch. There are two aspens, a big one and a little one, some random low shrubbery and a bush that is mostly green but seems to have a few leaves in the red-to-yellow range... No, wait. That's a small peach tree. I kid you not. It's a peach tree and those non-green bits aren't discolored leaves. They're fruit.

They're not quite ripe or I'd have harvested. This is the only instance of urban edible landscaping on public property that I've seen here, and I strongly suspect that it wasn't intentional. Someone just ate a peach and threw away the pit and it grew. What it shows is that this land is just naturally inclined to manifest beauty and pleasure, even when humans are being thoughtless.

Spooky stuff in Sedona

Posted on 2015.07.21 at 20:45
Current Location: Flagstaff, AZ
When the gods want something to happen, they can get right down to business.

The first thing I did in Sedona is the first thing I usually try to do when I arrive in a new town during business hours: I went to the Visitor's Center, used the bathroom, refilled my water bottle, got a free map or two (in addition to the tourist map, which just shows the commercial parts of town, I always want the realtor's map that shows everything) and a few brochures for likely local institutions. I also asked one of the friendly volunteers how to find the public library, since the VC didn't have wifi. The volunteer was eager to tell me all about the library and how it gets no government money. Someone donated the land. A fundraising campaign put up the building, bought the books, etc. As for staffing, it seems that there are a lot of retired librarians in Sedona, so the potential volunteer pool is wide and deep.

I could probably make friends here pretty easily. If I could afford the place, I mean. Sedona is ruinously expensive. Between the natural beauty and gentle climate, the easy proximity to the city of Flagstaff to keep it from getting a case of small town insularity, and the constraints on growth/sprawl imposed by the canyon setting, being outrageously pricey is more or less a given even before you factor in the reputation for New Agey energetic woo-woo.

It's technically two towns, divided by a county line. Uptown Sedona is Tourism Central. It's where you go to arrange a Jeep tour of the red rock country, buy souvenirs, and rent a hotel room for about what you'd pay for the same square footage in downtown Boston. The library was on the other side of the line, in West Sedona, along with the grocery stores, the schools, and just about everything else that serves the needs of locals.

The directions were straightforward, but somehow or another, I couldn't find it right away. At the division between the two towns is a pair of rotaries. Now, having lived in Greater Boston for decades, and especially having intimate knowledge of the double rotary at Fresh Pond in Cambridge which is part of the route to my brother's, you'd think I could handle this pair with no problem, but I got turned around somehow and ended up on a side street, not entirely sure where I was. I decided to park, get out, walk around and look for a street corner with signs, to help me get oriented. No such luck. About a thousand feet down the hill, the sidewalks and the stores petered out into sagebrush without intersecting any other streets. I walked up to the rotary and turned right, but all I found was a pair of long walls as the highway passed between two high-end destination resort type places, the Hilton and one called the Cedars. I went back to my car. The walk had done me good, but I was still frustrated and achy from the drive, and I still didn't know where I was. Looking back on it, I should have been able to figure it out. The streets of Sedona really aren't that confusing. But when the Cosmic Forces want you to do something, probably the easiest way for them to get you to do it is to mess with your mind.

Finally, I noticed what They wanted me to notice: a New Age store offering, among other things, massage. Deciding that I could use a massage right about then, I went in and asked. It was about 11 a.m. at that point. I walked out with a massage appointment for 1:30.

I found lunch in Uptown, at a booth called the Doner Empire. It offered "German-Turkish street food", basically gyros with red sauerkraut. It was good. I ordered it on salad instead of in bread, so it wasn't too filling, which was also good; an overfed belly is not what you want when you lie down on a massage table. 1:30 found me back at the New Age store, which I had found to be one of many. They're not just a tourist thing in Sedona. They're everywhere. I don't think there's a three-block stretch of retail without one. My massage therapist's name was Claire. She looked like my fellow grey-haired German-American, and she really knew what she was doing. In fact, her massage had an effect that I used to feel regularly on the massage table, but which I hadn't felt in many years: I released sadness. Bawled like a baby. It was tiring, but it felt good.

She asked me about my regular massage therapist back in Massachusetts. I explained that he hadn't been available because his other job is as a PCA for a friend of mine, a writer who is disabled and who has been doing a lot of author tours this past several months, so the two of them have been on the road a lot. She asked what this writer friend wrote. Before I knew it, I was telling her all about Raven, of whom she had not heard. She was looking, it turns out, to explore her Norse ancestral spirituality, and she liked the fact that he is kind of controversial.

She also explained the technique she'd used on me. It's called myofascial release. It was developed right here in Sedona at a place called Therapy on the Rocks, which still exists. A lot of my symptoms, she said, could be explained by unexpressed emotions being held in the body. Which made sense to me. I never had the experience of deep grief that I'd been expecting after my mother died. In fact, my thoughts and feelings about her seemed to be the same ones I used to have when she was alive. So the loss of range of motion and increase in pain that I've had in the almost five years since then might be eased by finally letting those emotions out.

After the massage, we exchanged sticky notes. The one she gave me said www.myofascialrelease.com. The one I gave her said www.ravenkaldera.org. That was Saturday.

Monday morning. I was packing up camp. (What's a cheapskate to do in Sedona? Why, camp out, of course. Much of Oak Creek Canyon, between Sedona and Flagstaff, is part of a National Forest, and the Forest Service operates campgrounds there, which charge a very reasonable $20/night.) I had just about everything back in the car when I noticed that my campsite was getting a lot of attention from ravens, a species that is endemic to the Southwest. Two of them buzzed the place, swooping through the air. Then one settled on a branch and the other lit on the ground next to the picnic table. It picked up some pale thing (I later concluded that it must have been a rind from the cheese I ate as part of breakfast) in its beak, held it cross-wise for a moment, then turned it 90 degrees and ate it. Then it flew up to join the other -- two? Where'd that third one come from? And shortly there was a fourth, flapping around the campsite. Then they dispersed, flying off through the trees.

An experienced ornithomancer might be able to deduce the whole message the Gods were sending me, just from that. All I knew was that there was a message. I got out my rune tiles and my I Ching.

The runes I got were Ehwaz, Sigel and Mannaz. Travel, Victory, Community. The interpretation that immediately came to mind was that the purpose of my journey was fulfilled and now I should get back to my community. The I Ching reading started with number 7, Earth over Water, Acting Together, with the image of a group gathered together like water in an aquifer. 6 was in the 4th place, advising that when the odds are overwhelmingly against you, retreat sensibly. 7 turned over into 40, Thunder over Water. Before a storm, there is tension. Thunder above and rain below clears away the tension. When a problem is overcome, it is best to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

So it looks like I'm not going to be getting an apartment in Flagstaff or anything like that. I'll do a little touristing around, maybe do a course of treatment at Therapy on the Rocks, but then I'll be heading back to New England.

Colorado Gators

Posted on 2015.07.15 at 17:00
Current Location: Durango, CO
Being in southwestern Colorado, I'm now in the area covered by the Southwest USA guidebook my brother and sister-in-law gave me. It strongly recommended the Great Sand Dunes National Park, accessible from Mosca, Colorado. Well, I've done the dune thing at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan. I know from experience that getting around on dunes requires a lot of energy. I don't have a lot of energy right now. I went to Mosca, but with no intention of seeing the dunes or the Wildlife Refuge. I went to Colorado Gators.

The Colorado Gators Reptile Park is so low-rent and uncool that the guidebook didn't even mention it. It's like what you'd get if you turned the reptile house at a big city zoo over to a bunch of rednecks who promptly moved it to the country and turned it into a business. It's scruffy, ungroomed, jerry-built and, well, among the signs out front (most of them hand-painted with housepaint on sheets of plywood) is one that says "This is a working farm it does smell," and that was perfectly accurate. I loved it.

I paid the $15 admission, stepped over the tortoise barrier (about knee high, it confines the roughly foot-high tortoises that wander around that first building) and immediately a staff member held out about four pounds of live snake, asking if I'd like to wear Sandy around my neck. I said yes, of course. Sandy was a ball python, beautiful, docile and, while snakes don't exactly have facial expressions, I got the sense that she was enjoying this.

"Oh. My name is Sandy," said the woman behind me.

"Sandy, meet Sandy," said the staff guy and somehow, I'm not sure how, Sandy was persuaded to wear Sandy despite being, by her own admission, terrified. The man and two boys (ages about 9 and 13) who came in with her offered no morale support but instead got out their phones and, in unison, took pictures. I think the snake was posing.

The walls of the room were lined with terrariums (terrarria?) containing smallish snakes and lizards. Next to the name of each species was a rating system for how good a pet they are, using alligator paw prints instead of stars. Five paw prints meant Great Pet. One meant Terrible Pet (Dangerous). Many of the snakes got five, but the lone iguana (which was molting, so it looked particularly decrepit) got one, with a long page of text under it about how ferocious iguanas can be. Then there was a newspaper clipping telling the story of a woman who needed plastic surgery after her pet iguana bit her on the face, accompanied by a rather gross picture. Okay. I get it. No pet iguanas for me.

Next up was another petting zoo experience: a man with a baby gator about two feet long. He took my phone, showed me how to hold the critter, then took two pictures of me with it, one with my own phone, one with the company's much better camera. Then he asked my name, wrote it on a pre-printed "Certificate of Bravery," and put the edge of the paper in the little gator's mouth in such a way that it bit down, "signing" my certificate with its tiny teeth. Then, this being a business, he ushered me over to a desk where another staff person displayed the company-taken photo of my with the gator and tried to sell me a print-out. It was a good picture. If I had a refrigerator to put it on, I might have bought it.

Then there was a bigger room full of tanks and terrariums (including one made out of an old TV). Every critter had a name, usually a very ordinary name like Joe or Annie, although there were some pairs named after celebrities. There were a pair of snakes named Lucy and Desi, another named Bonnie and Clyde. There was a green-lipped tree frog, a frilled dragon, a piranha, rattlesnakes with tiny rattles in proportion to their size, several adult turtles and a couple of monitor lizards that looked big enough, and fierce enough, to eat a chihuahua. And there were two big tanks in which gators floated, along with a swimming turtle and various fish, with windows in the sides so you could see the underwater activity.

Then the path led outdoors to the main gator corrals. There must have been an acre of chain-link-fenced pens containing ponds containing alligators of various sizes. Only a few had names, such as "Morris, the movie star alligator," On his pen there was a list of the movies he'd been in before he got too big and hard to control. Because there were many kids who had bought the two-dollar buckets of alligator chow and were throwing the round, brown lumps to the gators, many of the animals were active, eagerly chowing down on the handouts while tilapia swam around them, ignored and fearless.

Did I mention that this place is a tilapia farm? They got their first gator to eat the trimmings after they found the market was better for fillets than for whole fish. The proprietors turned out to be really good at taking care of gators and their relatives, so much so that they are now a shelter for illegal or abused large reptiles that the authorities have confiscated as far away as California, but reptiles aren't their main business. Fish farming is. There are long, winding canals where young tilapia are released to grow to market size. And there is a hatchery, located indoors in what they describe as the "Tropical Ecozone and Inflatable Biodome," a kind of rough approximation of the tropical habitat room at the aforementioned hypothetical redneck-run zoo reptile house.

In the center of the habitat are the hatching tanks, three round pools with fountains for aeration and pumps that pump water to plants on upper levels. The plants extract fish emulsion, which is nourishing to them, and release plant by-products which are nourishing to the fish, into the water which drips back down into the pools. Around these pools, the edges of the greenhouse are crowded with plants, from Swiss chard and kale (for the tortoises to nosh on) to fig trees and tomato plants to a gigantic cactus that rivaled the Fern Green Tower at Corning. (I'd have included a picture of it but, with all the other foliage, it was impossible to get a good shot.) There were also some more animals on exhibit. There were four albino alligators. (Duh, of course albino alligators can't be outside with the others. They can't take the sun.) They, like the normal gators outdoors, had fish swimming around them, but the huge (about 100 lbs) snapping turtle was in a pool all by itself.

There were also alligator eggs, resting in straw in a glass tank. The sign explained that Colorado is too cold at night for the eggs to hatch, even in summer, so they have to be kept in the tropical habitat. Did I mention that the only reason tilapia farming or gator farming is possible here is that the whole place is built on a warm spring? It comes out of the ground at a constant 87 F. That's also why there's no danger of the farmed non-native critters getting loose and establishing a feral population the way that, say, horses have. Escapees would probably be killed by the cold nights and would definitely be unable to reproduce. They can only live right here, and only with human intervention.

That's not to say there's never been an escape. Here's a story I heard at the Alamosa Valley Food Co-op, where I went to buy some tilapia after I found out they didn't sell it themselves. Jim, the main gator wrangler, brought one of the gators into town to do a talk. He needed to stay overnight and he thought he'd arranged for a suitable place for the gator to be housed, but through some misunderstanding it fell through. So he did the best he could: he duct-taped the gator's mouth shut, rolled it in a large piece of carpet and left it in his van in the parking lot of the motel where he was staying. In the middle of the night, a policewoman knocked on his door. She wanted to warn him that there was an escaped alligator in the park across the street, that had apparently escaped by busting the window of a van that was parked in the lot. He explained that it was his alligator and that he needed to check and see if it had cut itself climbing through the broken glass. She refused to believe it and insisted that he stay away from it until somebody from Animal Control arrived. Well, the Animal Control people all know Jim and so it all worked out in the end (except that the poor gator died from his cuts).

I think Jim was the guy I asked about where to buy tilapia. He explained that they were looking into the possibility of a food truck that would meet all the health department requirements, but until then, the food co-op was their local outlet. Later, when he saw that I was looking at the bowl of dried alligator scales in the gift shop, he came over and gave me this little science talk. Alligator scales aren't like, say, lizard scales, that are part of the skin. They are chunks of bone that lie under the skin and have many tiny holes. Blood vessels pass through those holes and get heated up by the surface skin when the alligator sunbathes. He called gators "living solar panels." It works so well that the Colorado Gators will even get out on top of the snow to sunbathe. And he gave me a postcard.

Art and Countercultural History in Walsenberg

Posted on 2015.07.15 at 11:34
Regions have nothing to do with state lines. Eastern Kansas is hilly, at times dramatically so. It looks pretty much like the area of Illinois just across the river. The western half is prairie, the tornado country made famous by Frank L. Baum in The Wizard of Oz. (Odd, then, that the billboards for Oz-related tourist attractions all seemed to be in the eastern half.) The prairie continues into Colorado. Towns are few. Their skylines are dominated by silos. Seeking a news station on the radio, I found one that was all farm news all the time: agricultural commodity prices, the poultry death toll from avian flu, the latest changes to USDA policy, and, inevitably, the rain. Until last night, there was rain every night of this trip, sometimes extending into the day. I had detours due to roads being washed out. I passed cornfields with ponds in the middle of them that I don't think were supposed to be there. I slept in the Prius with rain pelting the glass a few inches above my legs.

When there wasn't rain, there was pounding heat, temperatures in the risk-of-heat-stroke range. Somewhere in the middle of yesterday, in the middle of nondescript Colorado prairie, the heat changed its character. It wasn't a warm front being pushed ahead of yet another storm. It was just the climate. I was in the Southwest.

And then the Rockies loomed. There's very little gradation between prairie and mountain, just a thin line of foothills. I-25 is built almost exactly along the boundary between the two ecosystems. You drive south and out your driver's side window is flatness as far as the eye can see, but out your passenger side window are these ginormous mountains.

Back in the Berkshires, I had concluded that Beethoven was perfect for driving through mountains, and it was... for those Eastern mountains. But there's something lush and juicy about Beethoven, and for that matter about most European classical music, that just doesn't work in the Colorado Rockies. Neither does the pop/rock/disco category, really. Popular music calls for populated areas, not vast stretches of empty. I was thinking that something traditionally Spanish might be called for, flamenco or classical guitar, but it had been a long time since I played any of that. I wasn't even sure I had ripped it from CD. So I was driving along (and if I-25 hadn't been virtually empty, I would not have tried to do this while driving) groping for my iPod, which was attached to my stereo by a patch cord that was semi-entangled with the charging cord that my phone was on. Somehow, I'm not sure how, I ended up undermining the stability of the half-open Colorado map on the seat beside me, which rose up on the breeze and began trying to get out the passenger side window. I grabbed for the button to close the window, but I was too late; out it went.

So I needed a new map. The next town was Walsenburg. Cute little town. Lot of antique shops. Half a block from City Hall was a Tourist Information office, the kind of place that usually has the free map printed by the state government. Just inside the door, taped to the glass, I saw this:

Drop City. I was a teenager when I found out about the place, mainly through the book of the same name. I was mesmerized by its depiction of a Sixties commune created by drug-addled fools who were also hard-working visionaries. Their story spoke to a yearning in me, a yearning to participate in the transformation of the world, to experience community and taste wonder. Drop City itself, including its award-winning geodesic domes, was taken down decades ago, but when I saw the poster I remembered that at the end of the book, a bunch of Droppers (as the book called Drop City's denizens) had founded a new community called Libre, which was, as it turns out, just outside Walsenberg. The people putting on this 50-year retrospective were probably those people. The place hosting it, this Museum of Friends, was only two blocks away. I had a parking spot in the shade, so I walked.

It's a small storefront in a typical 19th century retail block. Around the door, there was a crowding of student artwork and gift shop stuff. Beyond that, the whole first floor was opened up into a single big gallery displaying the work of artists who were among the founders of Drop City, some of it done at the time, some newer. Now, the thing to keep in mind about the art of the Vietnam War Era (a more accurate name for the period than The Sixties, in my opinion) is that there's more to it than Peter Max and Andy Warhol. A big part of it was Op Art, works designed to play with the optic nerve. This example, titled "One Over One", by Clark Richert, is one of those.
It's just a bunch of vertical black and white lines, bisected by tiny dashes of color, but if you stare at it (the original, I mean; this may not work onscreen) from just the right distance, you start to see diagonal "argyl" patterns in every color of the rainbow in your peripheral vision. I found it very cool.

Other works ran the gamut from exuberant poster art to surreal sculpture to the geodesics that Drop City was famous for. A young woman named Candice was on hand to provide biographical details for each artist and where any particular work fitted into the chronology. And then she took me upstairs, where the real museum was.

Oh, yeah, the real museum. What's downstairs is a temporary exhibit, with a lot of things on temporary loan from private collections. Upstairs is the permanent collection. Upstairs, too, was Brendt Berger, its"co-founder and curator, handyman, and fund raiser," as his bio on the museum's website describes him. Never a Dropper himself, he was a longtime associate of several Droppers, and he had stories. Boy, did he have stories.

One was about the book, which he described as inaccurately depicting Drop City, and I can see his point. The Drop City in the book was all about getting high and freaking people out, with the art as a minor and secondary feature, while Berger remembered a community that was primarily about the art. And the book (and related articles in magazines and newspapers) did its subject no favor by making it famous. There were tour buses bringing people to Drop City to gawk at the freaks. There were also people inspired by the writing to come and live there, a common problem in those days (and occasionally even now) with intentional communities: total strangers show up at the front door with all their worldly possessions, expecting to move in, and the community they expect to move into is the one depicted in the writings, not the one that actually exists. Drop City was founded as an inclusive community, meaning that anybody who wanted to come was welcome. It was a policy characteristic of the times, and it worked as long as the place was known only by word of mouth, but fame led to it becoming unliveable. Libre was one of several communities -- at least nine, Berger recalled -- formed by ex-Droppers. Three are still in existence -- and exclusive; to live there, you have to be invited.

Berger also told me some of his own story, including an episode of being homeless in New York City with his then-girlfriend (now ex-wife) and doing a vast painting on a section of elevated highway through Manhattan that had been condemned for lack of maintenance, "an act of anarchy" with no permission from the authorities. About a decade ago, Berger and his current wife, Maria Cocchiarelli, bought the building that is now the museum, exhibiting the artworks given to them by their friends, hence the name. As soon as there was a place for the art, people began to donate more. It's still coming, at the rate of at least one piece a month. They crowd the walls in no particular order, styles and periods mixed in a way that reminds me of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, although the resemblance ends there. And there's much more to it than the Drop City material. They do exhibits about local history, culture and tradition. There's a permanent Hawaiian collection. There are one- and two-person shows from time to time and art activities for children. It's a fine little museum, perfect for its context.

Reflections on the 4th Weekend

Posted on 2015.07.06 at 13:11
Current Location: Urbana, IL
I decided not to travel on the 4th of July. It's a crazy traffic day, almost as bad as Thanksgiving weekend. So I spent the holiday, from the evening of the 3rd through about lunchtime on the 5th, at the Indy Hostel in Indianapolis, Indiana. Now, the city is famous for one thing: the famous auto race known as the Indy 500. It takes place in May at the Indianapolis Speedway. I figured that, on the first weekend in July, not much more would be happening in Indianapolis than in any other major U.S. city.

I was wrong.

The Stones were in town. Yes, the Rolling Stones, one of the dominant rock bands of the 1960s (at the time there were many who regarded them as second only to the Beatles) performed at the Speedway that day. I spoke to a young man, my fellow guest at the hostel, who boasted, in essence, that he was about to one-up his dad, a passionate Stones fan since their early days who had never seen them live. He was only one of several guests who were in town for this particular concert. (Most of the rest were foriegners. I couldn't help but wonder what they thought about the idea of Americans celebrating our independence from Britian by going to see a British band, albeit one that slavishly imitated African American R&B.)

I ignored both the concert and the various public festivities. I intended to have a quiet respite from the road and that's what I had. I bought salmon and vegetables and I cooked myself a real dinner.

It was on the 5th, on my way out, that I discovered something truly American: a genuine international food store. I told Google Maps I wanted an Asian grocery store and it directed me to Saraga International Market, a huge place that seemed to be attempting to cater to all the immigrant groups in the city. The aisles were labeled as follows (eccentric spellings included):

Middle Eastern food: olive oil, grape oil, cous cous, foul moudammas, grape leaves
Indian Food: chapati flour, coconut oil, basmati rice, dal
Asian food: Sriracha hot chilli sauce, sweet chilli sauce, longan-lychee, curry paste
Mexican Food: jalapeno pepper, mole-hot sauce, cooking oils, sugar
South Central American Food: cassaba bread, yerba mate
American Food: cereal, sugar, peanut butter
African food: jamaican food, royco-curry, red palm oil, jerk seasoning
European food: ajvar-pate, bosanska kafa, beef goulash

I couldn't help thinking about the kids I saw trailing after their shopping elders, learning that America isn't just the Anglo-German-derived culture depicted as American on TV, the culture of my personal upbringing; it's all the peoples served by this store and more, the cultural wealth of the whole world.

Back in the car, I found an Eighties station that had, possibly in response to the Stones mania, declared a "Born in the USA weekend" in which they played only songs both composed and recorded by Americans. I played it all the way to the Indiana border. It seemed right.

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