Slugs + Snails (and nudists)

Yesterday hiking I saw an inordinate number of slugs on the path. I always see one or two, but the rainy weather created some slick pavement that made their day all the easier.

 

On sunny days, they are almost comical, and their evolutionary strategy seems laughable. ‘Okay’ thinks the slug. ‘I’m going to have this soft mushy body, with no arms or legs. To get around, I’ll simply hack up a puddle of mucus, over which I will gradually drag myself.’ Repeat. Well, it’s hardly a strategy that would pass in an ordered, planned universe, but it is obviously effective, based on the shear number of slugs. Based on the number I saw out in the open, I’d unscientifically estimate there must be at least one slug for every square meter of German earth.

 

The second defect in their evolutionary strategy became obvious when I noticed what most of the slugs seemed to be eating; other dead slugs that had been squished by bicyclists and joggers. So the slug basically spends his life, slowly dragging himself over a puddle of his own vomit, hoping he’ll strike the jackpot and find a dead friend, to suck him up too. What doesn’t occur (in his admittedly puny) slug brain is that the cause of this bonanza is something that may very well undo him next. OK, slugs are stupid.

 

But the last part of slug’s evolutionary strategy maybe has something going for it. A general slug compared with his cousin, a general snail, is perhaps one of the ugliest creatures on the planet, while the snail is generally considered “cute” which is a pretty remarkable thing, since usually cute is generally defined by big eyes and copious amounts of fur. Snails have neither of these, but can have a pretty kick ass shell. So the only difference, essentially, between a slug and a snail is a lack of clothes. I think this could form the core of a convincing argument against nudism; animals with ‘clothes’ generally just look better than the naked ones. The snail is the fashionista, while the slug is the fat fuck who is “comfortable in his own skin.” A careful evaluation of the snail’s body form versus the slug is also revealing. In order to fit in his shell, the snail needs to keep the lines trim and watch his weight. The slug, on the other hand, can just let it go. No shell to try and fit into. But the slugs seem more successful. A case of the uglier cousins outbreeding their refined relations. I saw slugs all day, while the snails were only isolated to a small stretch. Why is this? Well maybe this last piece of the slug’s strategy, to look so ugly, nobody would want to eat him, has something going for it. A slow piece of juicy meat would in most cases seem ideal for a bird, but when it looks like that?!?… no thanks. We all know aesthetics are important in the cultural world, but I think they’re more important than we might think in the natural world as well. And bad aesthetics, in some situations, can be just as useful as the good.

slugs+snailsSlugs                                                                         Snails

 

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Wheatfields

So just as its getting started, the short north German summer is coming to an end. This weekend wandering through the countryside I went through a lot of wheat fields, and took quite a few pictures of the fields in different lighting, weather, and textures. wheatfield

German Wheat fields

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 17.28.21

Germany’s Greatest Export

 

 

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Canterbury Tale

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

of which vertu engendred is …

What? It’s the 21st Century? Going on pilgrimages to Canterbury is so 14th century? OK, I admit it. I’m a little behind the times. Or if history truly is cyclical, maybe I’m on the cutting edge. Anyways, I just took an impromptu trip to the UK. I know, I promised to stay a little closer to home this summer, but when offered a free place to stay in London, its hard to turn down. And when you’re visiting one of the most progressive cities on the planet, what better place to take a day trip to than one of the world’s premier backwaters, Canterbury. I don’t know why I’ve been wanting to make this trip for quite some time, I’m not a member of the Church of England (God Save the Queen) or any of the churches in the Anglican Communion, so it’s not the Archbishop of Canterbury that I want to see, and I’m not too saddened by the death of Thomas Becket, who resisted royal authority and became the martyr that inspired medieval pilgrimages. Maybe its because in the neighborhood I grew up in, there was a street called Canterbury Circle (right off Robinhood Road, and down from Little John Court).

Whatever my reasons, I wanted to do this right. Most people these days arrive by train or car, but I decided to do it on foot, at least the last 8 miles or so. So I got off in the small town of Chilham and decided to walk on some foot-trails the last little bit. Anyways, compared to last summer, the walking was easy going, through fields of turnips, rapeseed (its not as bad as it sounds), apple orchards, and hops gardens. The hops gardens were actually very cool and inspired the idea for my next book (forthcoming in 2025). They also inspired a mid-day pint at a pub at the halfway point of the walk. Hiking in Britain as opposed to America is a much more civilized pursuit, more like a pub crawl than the Bataan Death March. The biggest challenge is trying to find your way, as the trails are not well marked and they go off in every direction. Another challenge is walking through piles of muck (mud and poo mixed together, a contraction of “Mud! Poo! Not again! Fuck!”). Luckily, there was a mound of freshly sheared wool right after the worst of these piles to aid in cleaning off my shoes.

 

After these travails, I arrived in Canterbury. The sight did not bring tears to my eyes, but it was a good trip. I even saw the tomb of Thomas Becket and paid my respects to the martyr, and also participated in the Evensong service commemorating St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 10th century and England’s most popular Saint for nearly two centuries. OK, no one has heard of him today, but being popular for 200 years is quite an accomplishment, especially considering today fame only lasts for fifteen minutes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunstan

Path through countryside

Fields of Rapeseed

Hops Garden

Coppiced Poplars

Apple Orchards

Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral –  Good thing they chopped down the poplar tree for the view…

Canal in Canterbury City…almost a little too quaint

Canterbury Cathedral.  Pilgrimages here went out of fashion in the 1500s.  I went in 2008. 

 

 

 

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The Prime Meridian of the World

I’ve never been in two hemispheres at once, at least not knowingly, and up until now, I’ve had no documentary evidence of such. Recently, my brother Alan has been lobbying to take a trip to the Equator on one of the Equinox’s, preferably in Ecuador. Apparently its a rapturous experience, at least it better be. If the best thing your country has going for it is the fact that it is on the Equator, so much so that you name your entire country after it, the Equator must be a pretty exciting place. On this trip, however, I’d have to miss the Equator and the invariable demonstration of pouring water down a toilet just north and just south of the equator to demonstrate the Corriolis affect. (This demonstration is a hoax, by the way, so I’ve heard) You see, the Equator doesn’t pass anywhere near the United Kingdom. By lucky coincidence, however, the Prime Meridian does. And not just any Prime Meridian, but “The Prime Meridian of the World”. OK, this line is pretty arbitrary, and has a lot more to do with the dominance of British Sea Power than with any circumscribed natural line, but every survey and every parcel of land is measured in relation to this line, so it is at least picture worthy, isn’t it? And here I am, in two hemispheres, one foot in the Eastern hemisphere, and one in the Western. I didn’t feel any strange forces working on me, besides the fact that I did kind of feel like I was at the Nexus of the Known Universe. And looking at the picture, its obvious that I have a slight, unconscious bias towards the western hemisphere, only reluctantly setting my foot in the East.

The Eastern Hemisphere, however, does have some differences from the Western one. For example, I saw some trees in the Eastern hemisphere, quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the West. Pretty impressive, isn’t it?  The biggest disappointment of the trip, however, was the layout of the Greenwich University Campus.  They could have easily laid out the axis of the campus to coincide with the Meridian, but for some odd reason, they decided to lay it out just off the line.  Leave it to the British to establish a line marking the Center of the Universe, forcing the rest of the world to recognize the supremacy of the line, and then to totally disregard it themselves.   

Here I am  Latitude 51deg, 28′ 38″ North, Longitude 0 deg, 0′, 0″

The sign says it all

Things are quite different in the two hemispheres, as evidenced by this aerial photo.  While the West is bright, cheery, with clear skies, the East is ominous and shrouded in perpetual mists of darkness. 

One of the exotic, weird trees seen in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Is everything so bizzare in the East?

Greenwich University.  The campus is laid out around an axes, which oddly does not coincide with the Prime Meridian of the World.

 

 

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Spiral Jetty

*Excerpt from paper written about Land Art for Theories and Practices of Landscape Architecture class

How bad could the road get? Driving north from Salt Lake City, the road changes from freeway, to highway, to byway–from paved, to well-graded gravel, to dirt. As we approach the Jetty, the road track becomes less and less defined, shifting with seasons, and more and more treacherous. The basaltic landscape enters the road, and I try to maneuver the car to avoid the jagged rocks. The car gets stuck in a depression, but only for a moment as I back up the car to gain some momentum. Thud. Did I press our luck. Is the car alright? Yes, its fine…I think. We’re close enough now, though. I think we can manage the rest of the journey on foot.
Two and one-half hours from Salt Lake City, but seemingly removed from the rest of the universe in space and time, is perhaps the most important and famous piece of land art to be produced in the 20th century. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is an image I have encountered numerous times in books and in lectures, but because of its isolation, it isn’t on any tourist agenda, and is rarely visited except by the most die-hard land art aficionados. It is located in a desolate landscape. The water in the Great Salt Lake is so salty, the only life it can support is a pinkish algae that colors the water in parts of the lake, and a brine shrimp. The mountains and rocks are volcanic, and despite being millions of years old, they seem young as very sparse vegetation covers them and little rain falls to erode them. This is the landscape Smithson’s piece attempts to encapsulate and describe.
I walk out onto the spiral with my six-year old nephew. I am focused on how the spiral relates to its surroundings. When in the spiral, the alternating bands of rock and water create a layering affect that reaches beyond the art-work and into the landscape. The lake and the land beyond become two more bands in the spiral, extending out into infinity. My nephew, isn’t looking out, but in. He is focused on playing with the rocks and the mud, chipping the white salt crystals off the black basalt. If we were in a gallery, we’d certainly be chided by the docents for touching the artwork, but here, more powerful forces of weathering and erosion, sedimentation and crystallization have been taking their toll on Smithson’s piece for the past thirty-eight years. Since its completion, the piece has been mostly submerged as the lake level fluctuates considerably with times of drought and times of heavy rainfall. Between 1963 and 1986, for example, the depth of the Salt Lake has varied by approximately twenty feet. This is considerable especially in light of the fact that the lake is generally only 33 feet deep at its deepest point. Only a year ago, with severe drought the water had retreated to areas miles away from Spiral Jetty, surrounding the piece with endless salt flats, not water. When I visited, the water level had risen due to a very wet winter and the water level was fortunately very close to that of the original piece. The rising and falling of the lake had taken its toll on the piece, however, and the central portions were mostly sedimented in, and only a thin veneer of water lay over the salt. In many ways, however, the processes that have shaped the piece from its inception have made it a richer work of art, since the work does not seek to stop time, but to magnify the geological processes which are always shaping what on the surface appears to be a timeless region.
The last piece in my understanding of Spiral Jetty was the film Smithson made about the artwork, describing its conception and construction. I assume that most experience the film first, then the piece. For me it was the opposite. The film, however, extended my understanding of the art in a number of ways. I realized that the road was part of the experience of the piece, serving to create an isolation in the visitor from the modern world, and to bring him or her out of human time, and into geologic time. I also realized that the work’s construction echoed in many ways the construction of the surrounding landscape. A calm timelessness usually permeates the landscape, which can be suddenly changed in a cataclysmic way. The basalt was formed through violent volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. The Salt Lake was formed following a catastrophic release of water from Lake Bonneville at the end of the last ice age, and subsequent drying caused by high evaporation and low precipitation levels. The Spiral Jetty was formed through a flurry of construction activity over the course of one summer, with heavy equipment moving the basalt in a brute manner into the lake. The end effect, however, does not echo the activty of one summer, or even the timespan of man. Smithson’s piece speaks to a landscape of unity. Here the work of man pales in comparison to the work of geologic time, and the echoes are not of Utah, but of Gondwanaland.

View looking out to the Jetty

View from Jetty back to land

Salt Floating in the Lake near Spiral Jetty

My niece Ashley near the Jetty

My nephew David playing on Salt near the Jetty

Spiral Jetty

Salt Lake

 

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Look Like You Just Stepped Out of a Salon

I’ve never liked the expression “Look like you just stepped out of a salon” mostly because whenever I step outside of a salon, I think I look totally ridiculous. I’ve long had a mild phobia of haircuts. As a child, our father took us to the cheapest barber in town since he obviously didn’t want to break the bank on cuts for all of us kids. This one particular barber, named Dubb, was dreaded by all. When he asked “Who’s next?” none of us boys would respond as we knew what horrors awaited us. Then he’d select one of us, citing the ditty “Eenie, Meenie, Minee, Moe, catch the n—-r by the toe…” I think that pretty much says it all. Needless to say, the haircuts were a critical factor in me and my brother’s aquiring the nickname “The Budget Boys” at school. Another thing I hate about haircuts is the fact that someone who doesn’t even know you is imposing their vision of who you are as a person onto your appearance. Some of these people cut 30-40 heads per day, and they can’t be bothered with the nuances of your personality and try and express it in the best way possible. The few haircuts I’ve got that I have liked were all from people who knew me pretty well, even if they weren’t a trained professional.

Anyways, the time for yet another haircut came a few days ago, and since I haven’t found anyone I like yet in Boston, I checked the reviews on Yelp to see if anyone halfway decent was cutting hair nearby. This one place nearby got pretty good reviews for the price, so that’s where I went. As soon as I walked in, I felt a tinge of panic. This place felt way too barbershoppy. It was too late, though, as someone told me “I’ll be right with you.” Soon, I was sitting in a chair at the mercy of an old Greek man. I explained to him what I wanted, sort of, and told him not to use the clippers, but only scissors. He thought this was a very odd request, but proceeded to cut my hair. It was then I noticed a photograph of him cutting Michael Dukakis’ hair. He proudly stated that he had been Dukakis’ barber for the past thirty years. At that point, I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would be leaving the shop looking like a failed presidential candidate, and I was right. I looked like a Massachusetts politician. As I was leaving, a friend of mine was walking in. I practically walked right past him, not looking him in the eye, as the embarrassment was setting in. I had to get home as soon as possible to mess my hair up, before anyone I knew was subjected to this false image of me.

It turns out, once I got home and uncombed my hair, the cut didn’t turn out half bad. I have to admit the 30 years of experience lent good structure to my hair, and I got a little closer to fame, or infamy as the case may be. I can take comfort in the fact that at least it wasn’t Mitt Romney’s barber, and I certainly couldn’t afford John Edward’s stylist so all in all, I’d say it was a blog-worthy experience.

The haircut…after I messed it up

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World’s Largest Polished Granite Shaft

Today as me and my brother Richard traveled around New England, bagging towns and highpoints in the process, we passed within a few miles of an object in Vermont purported to be, hold your oohs and aahs now, “the world’s largest polished granite shaft.” Its not everyday that you get to see a granite shaft, let alone a polished one, and rarer still one that could be the world’s largest (the people at Guiness apparently are still working on this one). The thing that takes the cake though, and compelled us to take a detour of a couple of miles is that it just so happens to be that this shaft is a monument to the guy that I’m named after, Joseph Smith–the founder of Mormonism. Since Richard is still a “good Mormon,” I figured he’d eagerly go along with this slight itinerary diversion to see the place of the Nativity of the Second Most Important Personage in world history. Reluctantly, he agreed.

It was a little late in the day when we arrived at the site near peaceful Sharon, Vermont, and a slight rain was falling. Still, this wouldn’t deter the most die-hard shaft enthusiasts, nor would it deter us. We arrived at the site and everything appeared dead and closed up for the day. The plan was simple– we’d get out of the car, walk up to the monument, snap a couple of photos, and get the hell out of Dodge. Not having visited a Mormon affiliated site in a while, though, I’d forgotten that such a simple approach would not be possible. Last time I visited a Mormon site, for example, I was with my girlfriend Jen and a simple desire to tour the green roof at the new Mormon Conference Center in Salt Lake City led us to sit through an hour long tour and missionary spiel. Jen was forced to pick her favorite piece of artwork from an array of poorly executed Mormon themed paintings, none of which she particularly cared for. In the end she picked the one where the prophet Moroni is wearing a Viking helmet as he looks over his aged father’s steroid pumped body that would put the Gubernator to shame. This led to a series of leading questions and probing (“Oh, you‘re Lutheran! That must mean you believe in Jesus, too!”), with the only escape being a promise on my part to give Jen a copy of the Book of Mormon a my earliest convenience, and a promise by Jen to seriously re-evaluate her commitment to the Lutheran Church, neither of which happened. Of course the guides kind of reniged on their promises too. It turns out at the end of the tour, that the green roof was closed due to excessive snow accumulation, funny we didn’t tell you that before the tour!

Back in Vermont, as me and Richard approached the shaft, a woman appeared out of nowhere, followed in short order by a severely overweight man. These were senior missionaries, not the young, naïve, all-American ones that wear bicycle helmets, but the ones that make you feel like you‘re talking to a senile Alzheimer‘s patient. The wife of the pairing asked if we wanted a tour, and not wanting to be rude to an old lady, I agreed to a “quick tour.” Here her husband took over and the wife assumed her proper role as a quiet, submissive Mormon wife. The tour of the shaft itself turned out to be very quick. What can be said. It’s granite. It’s polished. It’s large…perhaps the world’s largest as a matter of fact. To be exact it’s 39 ½ feet tall, one foot for every year of Joseph Smith’s life. Of course, I had to ask for additional clarification. Was this shaft distance being measured from the base of the monument, including the granite pedestal on which the shaft rested, or was the 39 ½ feet actual shaft length? The quick reply was given with a smug sense of pride, as if this were the most commonly asked question at the site. Of course this includes only shaft length. The church would never exagerate the size of Joseph Smith’s shaft…did we mention that it’s the world’s largest polished granite shaft? I wasn’t about to get into the realm of unpolished granite shafts, or broach the subject of polished limestone shafts, so for me, the tour was for all intents and purposes over. For the old missionary, however, it had just begun…

“World’s Largest Polished Granite Shaft”

 

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