Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Log 421: Antarctica, barren end of Earth, yet teeming with life: Peter Matthiessen’s unforgettable description of it

Map showing the second voyage of Captain James...
Map showing the second voyage of Captain James Cook. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Official portrait of Captain James Cook
Official portrait of Captain James Cook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Peter Matthiessen in the WNYC studios...
Peter Matthiessen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Since Peter Matthiessen died 10 days ago I have been reading a book of his I had not previously seen. It is called End of the Earth, and is an account of two voyages he made deep into the Antarctic on board a Russian icebreaker which was taking time off its normal duties around the northern coasts of Russia to undertake some cruising for adventurous people.
I found the book in my favorite book store in Montreal The Word, run by Adrian  King-Edwards, whom I had chafed when he did not run a Peter Matthiessen window, as I would have expected. He said it was because they had
not been able to find enough  Matthiessen books to make a window among their remarkably comprehensive stock of second-hand books, an inventory that has been built up through the devotion and remarkable knowledge of the unassuming proprietor.
I noticed the next morning that they had found one book, at least,  and had put it in the window, so I went in and bought it. “The fact we don’t have his books in stock is a tribute to his stature, because it means people are not getting rid of his books.,” Adrian said when I ran into him on the street.
This book, like almost everything else I have read by Matthiessen, is a wonder. Embarking into the most remote area on Earth, he treats past voyageurs to the region, reaching back beyond Captain Cook’s two eighteenth century forays into the heavy ice, almost as fellow-voyageurs, and tells us the most enthralling details about each of them. Furthermore, his knowledge of bird-life is so profound that his pages are filled with descriptions of the few species that are either born down there, or visit the south during its least ferocious months, and he seems to be able to recognize immediately the many varieties of shearwaters, petrels, albatrosses and penguins. He had not personally seen the giant among the penguins, the Emperor, until his second voyage, but his background reading had been so voracious that he was able to describe their amazing life-cycle in detail.  Far from only visiting the region in the more clement weather, the Emperor --- the author says it is the only bird that never touches solid land in its life ---- breeds in the middle of the Antarctic winter. In other words, it chooses the toughest conditions available anywhere on Earth in which to lay its fairly rare eggs, nurture them against all temperatures, gales and storms, bring their chicks to life and eventually set them off on their journeys by depositing them into the ocean, and expecting them to return in a couple of years when fully grown. In itself a story worth the price of the book.
I had an especial interest in the subject of this book because he was sailing around in latitudes  not that very far from those in which I was born. On the return journey, for example, the little ship is tossed around by one of the most ferocious storms imaginable in the latitudes of the fifties, as they try to make their way to the New Zealand-owned Campbell islands, some hundreds of miles south of where I grew up. He talks of the Roaring Forties, those latitudes across which huge winds blow persistently south of Australia. They hit the Southern Alps of the South Island of New Zealand, drop immense quantities of water on the fiordlands of the south, and then pass on innocuously to my home town, Invercargill, a city  --- “the southernmost city in the British Empire”, we used to call it --- that is always noted in the guide books as having only one virtue, that is, of being a place to leave on the way to somewhere more interesting. Directly south of my hometown lies Foveaux Strait, a 26 mile stretch of turbulent water between the South Island and Stewart Island, which I remember from my one crossing in my late teens was as rough as I ever expect an ocean to become.
Matthiessen doesn’t mention it but Foveaux Strait is home to what those of us from that part of the world acknowledge to be the world’s finest oysters. But in the context of his description of the wildlife in Antarctica that should come as no surprise to anyone, because although one thinks of the Antarctic as the most barren area of Earth, in fact it is teeming with life, sustains vast colonies of sea-birds, seals, whales, all of which it feeds by providing huge clouds of  millions of krill, the primary food for the immense whales, grossly fat elephant seals,  and other amazing species.
Even more astonishing is his description of what is called the West Wind Drift, the biggest and most powerful  ocean current on Earth that circumnavigates the globe, and is indexed in the book under the title “circumpolar river…” of which he writes: “…whose depth and width, spanning the latitudes, make it the mightiest of currents, with a volume equivalent to all of the Earth’s rivers 135 times over.”
Matthiessen spends a lot of space writing  about “the Antarctic Convergence”, or Polar Front, that area where the intensely cold Southern Ocean (a term first used, he notes, by Captain Cook) “heavy and more dense, sinks hundreds of feet below the surface of the warmer ocean before continuing a northern ‘creep’ that is detectable by hydrologists all the way to the Equator and beyond. He goes into great detail about the separation of the various continents from Gondwana, at the period millions of years ago when they were all joined, noting that much animal life from those times --- for example, the strange animals that populate Australia --- got their characteristics and their particularity from that time.
Although he has provided fascinating snippets of information throughout the book about his predecessors over the centuries in Polar voyaging, he devotes a whole final chapter to estimating their various achievements, or lack of them, in some cases. He is an unrepentant admirer of Captain James Cook, who set off south during his Pacific voyages with the hope of discovering the Terra Australis Incognita at the bottom of the Earth, and had to give it up because of the barrier of the ice. He admires Shackleton, and particularly the great scientific adventurer Dr Edward Wilson. He is not an admirer of the fabled Captain  Scott, sold to every child in my boyhood as a huge hero of the British Empire, but revealed in the 1960s by Roland Huntford to have been a complete bungler, whose poor decision-making, stubbornness and false heroics unfortunately doomed not ony himself but his whole party of brave men, who perished on the way back from his ill-planned, ill-judged, impetuous journey to the South Pole in 1912, where he arrived only to find that the more methodical Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it.
Matthiessen returns repeatedly to wondering what is the mysterious attraction of the Antarctic, and quotes several of the more thoughtful of the explorers of the past. “A man on such an expedition lives so close to nature,” wrote Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote the best book about the experience, “ in whom he realizes a giant force which is visibly, before his eyes, carving out the world.” Shackleton spoke of “the longing for the ice,” a feeling Matthiessen himself obviously felt, although he confessed unable to describe it in more detail.
Since Matthiessen’s death I have seen some interviews with him reproduced from earlier years, in which he claimed to be primarily a fiction writer, not a naturalist, and I certainly agree with one reviewer quoted on the book’s back cover who said that “I found myself constantly re-reading sentences or paragraphs to savour all of their rich resonances,” something I found myself doing as well. Matthiessen was not only a supreme observer of the natural world, but a master of English prose, as proof of which I  end with this quote:
“I am quite content with the material simplicity of shipboard life. Though scarcely hermetic, it offers a cocoon free of incoming mail, the clamor of the telephone, intrusive voices. In my spare, small cabin with its bunk and desk, its big porthole like a window on the sea,my books, binoculars, warming whiskey and rare solitude….I am somehow complete. In the sea rhythm and the wind on deck, I fill my lungs with ocean emptiness and the pure wind circling the Earth; in hard weather, driven below, I kneel on the spare bunk and peer out of my window at the waves, awaiting the passage of light-boned ocean birds in their fragility and their taut strength, astonished anew by those ancient adaptations that align them with the elements so that waves, wind, and wings all move as one. And to the degree that I am able to let go of mind and body and escape all boundaries, I soar with them in the unity of being.”
As someone has said since Peter Matthiessen’s death, we may never see his like again.

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

My Log 420 April 6 2014: Death of a giant among writers: Peter Matthiessen left behind a body of work that I hope will be read forever

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (book)
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (book) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Peter Matthiessen in the WNYC studios...
Peter Matthiessen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: F.B.I. photograph of agents' car afte...
English: F.B.I. photograph of agents' car after the shootout at Pine Ridge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "Killing Mister Watson (Panther)...
Cover of Killing Mister Watson (Panther)

One of the writers I have most admired has just died. Peter Matthiessen was a giant not only among American writers, but among all writers in the English language.  For many years I have wondered why he was never granted the Nobel Prize for literature, of which he was a master in both fiction and non-fictional books.
Perhaps a clue to this was given in a moving tribute to him written this weekend by Leonard Peltier, the long-imprisoned victim of a miscarriage of justice arising from the events around the fiasco in Pine Ridge reservation in Dakota in  1973. Known among native people as the Wounded Knee incident, it arose from an occupation of part of the huge Pine Ridge reservation, known far and wide for its corruption,  by the radicals of the American Indian Movement. Two FBI agents were killed during this imbroglio, and Peltier was convicted of their murder (with, it has to be said, Canadian cooperation). Matthiessen wrote a book, In The Spirit of Crazy Horse in defense of Peltier, who said that because of the book the FBI targetted Matthiessen.
Peltier wrote:
 “F.B.I.  first tried to ruin his career by filing false, multi-million-dollar libel suits against him and his publishing company, also effectively BANNING the book during the lawsuits.  When that did not work, they threatened his life and the lives of his family. In true warrior form, Peter told them to get off of his property. Peter told me ‘Sure I was concerned,’ but his beliefs in the Constitution and his belief in America were stronger than any fear they could put on him. Others who were threatened and became afraid, burned thousands and thousands of copies  of our book; yes!… in modern times they burned In the Spirit of Crazy Horse
Governor Bill Janklow threatened all of the book stores in South Dakota to BAN the book.”
Peltier wrote of Matheissen:
“Man, I thought he was going to live forever. Peter was one-of-a-kind. Truly --ONE that will go down in history. He fought for the poor and the weary, the sick, and anyone who had problems that were brought to his attention. He took time from his own life to try to help them in whatever way he could. He  ALWAYS gave freely when someone needed anything, fought for those who were being mistreated. I mean, this man's life was like a movie script.  Not to mention the great books he wrote. Some of them are mind blowing.  This man had the kind of talent that we may never see again.”
The New York Times, just before he died, published an interesting interview of  Matthiessen this weekend, but without mentioning his book in favour of Leonard Peltier.
The writer mentioned as two of his greatest books the environmental-spiritual account of his trip into the Himalayas in search of The Snow Leopard,  which basically was an account of his devotion to Zen Buddhism, a religion to which he devoted much of his life. This, of course was a non-fiction book, and was generally regarded as his master work (although it is the one book of his that I was not especially impressed by, perhaps because of my distaste for all religions).
The novel the New York Times writer regarded as a masterwork was the fascinating  Far Tortuga, an account of a trip made down the coast of Honduras to catch turtles, written in a dialect of the people living in that part of the world (in itself an amazing feat), and a book that provided me as its  reader with all sorts of difficulties, until, halfway through, I found  myself irrevocably caught up in its story, in the characters, in their tale.  Just one of the amazing works of fiction written by Matthiessen. His first novel, an attack on the Christian fundamentalist missionaries who have penetrated the tribes of the Amazon forest, was called At Play in the Fields of the Lord  and is a very funny book that succeeds in denouncing the missionaries and their evil works while at the same time making fun of them.
I was surprised that the Times article did not menton his wonderful trilogy, Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999).
The three books deal with the killing of an early settler deep in the Florida Everglades an event that is described from three different points of view. As in  other of his books, he makes no concessions to the reader. His books as a general rule  were  quite difficult to get into, and required attention and persistence, but the detail, the depth of understanding he showed of  human nature and human motivations more than rewarded the considerable effort a reader had to put into them. I believe that later he worked on reducing these three great novels to one huge 800-page epic called Shadow Country, a new rendering of the Watson legend (2008).
Another of his books that I have recommended to many of my friends is called Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age (1962).  As an anthropologist he visited a valley in New Guinea a mere two years after its inhabitants had first been contacted by the outside world, and his account of the habits of life, the beliefs, the wars and peace-making conducted by these people reads more like a novel than a scientific study, but is an enthralling read from cover to cover, giving one plenty of food for thought about the true nature of homo sapiens. As a search of his works reveals, he  wrote extensively on the environment of some of the most precious places on Earth ---  wildlife in America, the South American  wilderness, the Atlantic coast, Baikal, Sacred Sea of  Siberia and End of the Earth: Antarctica.  He also devoted much of his life to exposing the dangers to noble creatures that humankind is threatening, as his book titles testify: Shorebirds of America, the Search for the Great White Shark, and Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes.
His Buddhism itself was informed by a deep concern for Nature, as reflected in the title of his Zen journals, 1969-1982: Nine-headed Dragon River.

In a world in which men and women  seem to be so unconscious of the effects of  their actions on other creatures, we can scarcely afford to lose a man like Peter Matthiessen. And I for one deeply mourn his passing, while wishing I could live up to his example in my own small life.
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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Log 419 April 1 2014: Superb theatre group in Minsk, Belarus, works under severe censorship of authoritarian Lukashenko government

English: The logo for the Cinema Politica netw...
English: The logo for the Cinema Politica network. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko
English: President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Natalia Koliada in New York City. Jan...
Natalia Koliada, one of the actors, in New York City. January 19, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Political dissenters have discovered in almost every type of society on earth that if you want to attract the hostility of the security apparatus of the state, you should mount a theatrical performance of some kind. This seems to be true wherever you live. Even in what are called western democracies there is a long history of censorship of the theatre, much of it based on moral issues, but much on political grounds as well.  I remember in my own lifetime the ludicrous lengths to which, as recently as the 1960s,  the Lord Chamberlain, the responsible official in Britain, would go in his censorship of theatrical scripts. And, of course, the trials and tribulations of performers like Lenny Bruce (and a multitude of others) in the United States are fresh in the minds of those who cherish comic genius.
That this censorship of live performance is alive and well in Eastern Europe is well-known.  The most recent example has been the imprisonment in Russia of the so-called musical group Pussy Riot, three amazingly courageous girls who are really street activists disguising themselves as a musical group , and whose greatest performance, to my mind, came when they emerged after a year of imprisonment, shouting, “Putin Must go!” or words to that effect, at the very doors of the prison. They seem determined not to be silenced.
One of the more effective dissident groups to have emerged in recent years is a group of eight people who call themselves the Belarus Free Theatre, about whom the American film-maker Madeleine Sackler has made a gripping and inspiring activist film called Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus
that was the penultimate screening of the most recent season of the admirable Cinema Politica at Concordia University. 
The film takes up the story just before the 2010 election in Belarus, won by an evidently rigged  80 per cent vote by Alexander Lukashenko, the last dictator in Europe, as he is sometimes called. The theatre group works illegally, in that it has no licence or permit from the state, so they live in expectation of meeting interference from the state, and have to gather their audiences more or less secretly. Twice, in the film, people are shown standing  around in the street in small groups before being contacted by a representative of the theatre, who then leads them to the small room in which they perform.
Their subject matter, frankly, is the repressive apparatus of state power, and under the imaginative leadership of a man called Vladimir Scherban, they have invented some remarkably effective symbolic ways of representing it.  The group makes no secret of their links to, and support of opposition political leaders, especially the front runner in the election Andei Sannikov. Following the election, people who were outraged by the fixed result took to the streets in their thousands, peacefully, until they were charged, beaten, and hundreds of them, including opposition politicians, even Sannikov himself, were arrested
This led to such an increase in the repression that several of the theatre group’s leading members were visited by the secret police, and are today facing criminal charges, and they decided that rather than face  years of imprisonment, they had better go into exile.
They managed to get to emerged in New York, where they mounted their show and won an Obie award for Off-Broadway productions.
Nevertheless, working in exile did not satisfy them: “How can we say we are a Belarus Free Theatre when we are not even able to perform in Belarus,” one of them asked. Several of the actors had left children behind, and they decided to return, leaving others behind. These others went to Britain, where they became one of the 21,000 groups to perform at that year’s Edinburgh festival, once again winning accolades for the power of their work.
Those who returned arrived in time to greet the release from imprisonment of Sannikov, and the film ends with the actors, under more pressure than ever before, once again greeting their audience in the streets and leading them to the small performance room.
That the repression in Belarus is extremely violent is one of the messages of the film, which, however, also carries the message that it cannot last, that eventually they will gain their freedom, which will mean they are free to work as performers in the way they wish.
It is somewhat piquant to have to report that the Cinema Politica group itself seems not to be valued as it should be by Concordia University.  Although I doubt that there is any other group in Concordia which so admirably fulfils the wish of every University to establish strong roots with the local community --- their screenings each week attract hundreds of people from inside and outside the University --- they have been shuffled from pillar to post, from one screening theatre to another because other groups appear to have been given priority over them.  Their first theatre of choice is under reconstruction, but their second, also in the main university building, was given to a small theatre group for the last two weeks, forcing the film group to set up their screenings in the student’s lounge. Though they were grateful for the use of the space, it could not be described as satisfactory, providing only flat seating that made it difficult, not to say almost impossible, for the audience to see the many sub-titles.
Since the motto of the group is “screening truth to power” --- which it has been doing successfully for ten years --- one is left to wonder whether this lack of respect for their screenings might not hide an establishment distaste for the radicalism of most of the fare the group  produces for their student audiences.

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