Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Spiderman's First One Hundred Days

Profiling the French climber, Alain Robert, in a recent New Yorker, Lauren Collins describes him as "The Vertical Tourist." Others have referred to him as "The Wall Crawler" and the "French Spiderman." When he was a boy, Alain Robert liked climbing on rock piles with his friends, pretending they were Himalayan peaks, and scampering up frozen waterfalls. These days he traverses the world mounting its tallest buildings like a monkey--scaling sheets of glass and steel, which he does without the help of ropes, implements, harnesses, or parachutes. Safety contrivances, in his view, are a form of bondage.

Previously I blogged about his French counterpart, Philippe Petit, known as the "Man on Wire" who, in 1974, suspended a steel cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walked across it. I likened Petit's sure-footed balancing act to Barack Obama's calm aplomb on the tightrope of the campaign trail, as he staved off constant vicious assaults from both Republicans and Hillary Clinton, always managing to fight back without ever seeming as if he were fighting at all.

Alain Robert, by contrast, gets vertigo he says, when walking horizontally. Now in his upper forties, he began climbing the world's tallest buildings in 1994. On June 4, 2008, he scaled the north face of the New York Times building, all 52 stories of it, bearing his green banner on which these words were written: "Global warming kills more people than 9/11 every week." So far, he has climbed some 80 buildings around the world, including the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, and the National Bank of Abu Dhabi. Hoping at some point to climb the WTC, he received an unexpected reprieve when it was destroyed. As he told Lauren Collins, it was "like a long-time nemesis dropping dead before a duel."

With all the assessments now pouring in about Obama's first one hundred days in office, most pundits are grading him by comparison with former presidents like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and FDR. Personally, I prefer an analogy that is more out-of-the-box for this unique man, whose ideology is proving hard to pin down, and whose leadership defies easy labeling as either liberal or conservative. Since taking office, Obama has faced rising unemployment and foreclosure rates, a federal deficit looming as high as a skyscraper, and the necessity of climbing over the traditional wall between government and business.

So, rather than the high-wire balancing act demonstrated during his campaign, these first hundred days in office have shown Obama more in vertical ascent a la Spiderman, as he struggles to make the steep climb out of global economic recession, failing health care, unpopular wars, climate-change threats, and now, a potential flu pandemic. So far, he has been an awesome president, rising up against all difficulties in ways that are amazing to watch--that are every bit as skilled and thrilling as Alain Robert's bare-handed climbs up the sides of tall buildings. In short, what is most impressive about Obama is his absolute fearlessness.

You could say he is the very opposite of that man in the Sufi tale who was terrified of snakes. While visiting a mountain resort, the man became frightened when someone casually mentioned there were poisonous snakes in the area. Suddenly every shadow seemed to conceal a snake, and when he returned to his darkened room that night, he saw a coiled snake on the floor ready to strike. Overwhelmed by fear, he had a heart attack on the spot and dropped dead. The next morning, a housekeeper found his body lying next to a coil of rope. (Having had snakes in my house more than once, I can definitely relate.)

So, if I were being asked, along with the media pundits, what it is about Obama that impresses me most, I would have to say: the fact that, unerringly, he can tell the difference between a live snake and a mere coil of rope.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Story of Pi"

The "Story of Pi" is a novel, whose main character is a 16-year-old Indian boy named after a French swimming pool. Piscine Molitor Patel, otherwise known as "Pi" and the son of a Hindu zookeeper in Pondicherry, fancies himself to be, all at once, a good Hindu, a practicing Muslim, and a devout Catholic. The real story of Pi begins when Pi"s family decides to uproot and emigrate from India to Canada on a Japanese cargo ship, with many of their zoo animals on board, which they hope to sell on arrival in North America.

When the ship unexpectedly sinks without explanation, Pi finds himself the only human survivor in a lifeboat with several of the animals--a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. The hyena quickly does in the zebra, after which the tiger makes short work of the orangutan and the hyena, leaving Pi and the tiger--called Richard Parker, after the hunter who captured him, owing to an uncorrected clerical error when the form was originally filed at the zoo--as two of the most unlikely traveling companions crossing the Pacific Ocean in Kon-Tiki style during the years 1977-78.

What ensues is the fiercest, most outrageous survival story you have ever read in your life, with three protagonists: Pi, the Bengal tiger, and the sea, all battling it out. Can it be done? Who will win? From the beginning, the whole narrative seizes the imagination in the most bewildering ways. It doesn't take too long before Pi discovers his own intense will-to-live:

"It's not something evident, in my experience. Some of us give up on life with only a resigned sigh. Others fight a little, then lose hope. Still others--and I am one of those--never give up. We fight and fight and fight. We fight no matter what the costs of battle, the losses we take, the improbability of success. We fight to the very end...."

The struggle to tame a Bengal tiger with whom you are stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of an endless panorama of nothing but blue ocean conjures up situations the likes of which you have never encountered either in real life or even in your imagination, which is what gives this book its unusual flavor. Yet it all seems utterly plausible and convincing.

"I had to tame him," Pi says of the tiger. "It was not a question of him or me, but of him AND me. We were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat. We would live--or we would die--together. He might be killed in an accident, or he could die shortly of natural causes, but it would be foolish to count on such an eventuality."

How Pi manages to tame the tiger has to be read to be believed. But the challenge is what gives him something to live for during the 227 harrowing days that he is lost and adrift at sea, battling not only the elements and his status as alpha male with respect to the tiger, but warding off the constant threat of depression, fear, rage, madness, hopelessness, and apathy. All during that time, Pi has no way of controlling where he is going--the boat has no rudder, sails, or motor--and no way of plotting a course in any case.

I love this book, but it was only on page 237 that I suddenly understood what had led me, willy-nilly, to take it off the shelf now, given that it has been sitting around unread for several years. The hidden, but timely, synchronicity of which I was unaware is that Pi wakes up one morning in the Pacific equatorial counter-current--the very same gyre--that features in my blogs about Pam Longobardi's work, the albatross necklace, and the Plastiki bottle boat. He finds himself s surrounded by trash:

"First the water glistened with patches of oil. Coming up soon after was the domestic and industrial waste: mainly plastic refuse in a variety of forms and colours, but also pieces of lumber, beer cans, wine bottles, tatters of cloth, bits of rope and, surrounding it all, yellow foam. We advanced into it. I looked to see if there was anything that might be of use to us...."

After the encounter with the Pacific gyre, there is a potent brief interlude spent on an floating island made entirely of bright green algae, where Pi enjoys some refreshing and revivifying days--until he discovers with horror that the monster plant is carnivorous. My friend Jane, who has read the book, tells me that around New Orelans, down in the bayou, there are similar "floatons," little floating island-like tangles of weed and algae and marsh grasses, with surfaces that a person can actually walk on. "Think of them," she says, "as living green brillo pads. You sink into the sponginess, but you don't fall through. Incidentally, alligators love to nest on floatons."

Bubbles come up on the water as Virgil assures me that yes, this book is as good as it gets, especially for an alligator, because it rips away your breath in ways you will never forget. But he wishes it had been him on that boat instead of the Bengal tiger. After a long sweep of seven months at sea, Pi's boat finally drifts onto a beach in Mexico. Bright and quick, Richard Parker leaps out and runs off, straight into the jungle, without even one last loose smile or a split second of eye contact with Pi.

"I wept like a child," says Pi. "It was not because I was overcome at having survived my ordeal, though I was....I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell....It's important in life to conclude things properly....That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day...."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Who Needs Al Qaeda?

when you've got folks right on your own doorstep plotting malignancy like this? (Photographed at one of those infamous "tea party" protests and calls for secession yesterday, in Fresno, CA, by Mathieu Young, from a HuffPost slide show today). A few days ago a Homeland Security Report outlined the threat posed by right wing extremists. As for those of us who breathed a big sigh of relief when Bush's helicopter finally took off from the White House lawn once and for all on Inauguration Day, we better wake up from our dream that things are going to be much better now. The Newtonian stateliness of this one grim woman and her sinister placard conveys it all. Our republic is still in serious jeopardy from these folks.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Plastiki": The Plastic-Bottle Boat

I'd somehow (mistakenly) assumed that once my last blog was posted, I was done with plastic debris stories, but synchronicity struck again that very night--and of course, in my world, synchronicity always has the last word. So there I was in bed with the New Yorker, when I began, quite innocently, to read John Colapinto's essay, called "Message in a Bottle," having no idea what it was even about.

Well, it's all about this man, David de Rothschild, a thirty-year-old heir to the British banking fortune and an Arctic and Antarctic adventurer, who is currently building a sixty-foot catamaran out of thousands of discarded plastic water bottles. His intention is to sail across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Sydney, a journey of 11,000 miles, stopping en route to visit the Eastern Garbage Patch--the very same region of floating plastic trash I had just finished writing about in "The Albatross Necklace," halfway between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. Estimated to be twice the size of Texas, this is where the slow, clockwise eddy known as the North Pacific Gyre keeps plastic debris rotating around indefinitely. The polymer particles, as they break down, are eaten by zooplankton and jellyfish and consumed by fish, eventually passing into the food chain of humans.

De Rothschild's goal, it seems, is the same one as Pam Longobardi's in "Drifters," and Cindy Waddington's in her necklaces: to make the point that humans are trashing the oceans. He also hopes to prove that by turning plastic waste into a reusable resource, it could revolutionize the shipbuilding industry. Perhaps one day we will all be riding around in bottle boats! Except for the masts, which are metal, everything on the catamaran is made from recycled plastic. The boat will also produce its own energy through solar panels, wind turbines, and stationary bikes to power small, battery-run motors that can maintain several laptop computers, a GPS, and a SAT phone. Everything on the boat will be composted, so no new pollution will be added to the ocean or the atmosphere. Everything is going to be recycled, including the boat itself, after the journey.

The bottles are being made brick-like by injecting dry-ice powder into them, which turns into carbon-dioxide gas and pressurizes them, making them rigid. None of these materials have yet been tested against serious ocean waves, much less cyclones or other weather hazards. But working with unknowns is part of the adventure, according to de Rothschild. "Ignorance is bliss in these situations," he says. His adventurous spirit emboldens and impels him. It's not unlike the risks undertaken by another adventurer, Thor Heyerdahl, in 1947, when he traveled for 101 days across 4,300 miles of ocean, from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands in the South Pacific, in a raft made of balsa logs lashed together with hemp ropes.

Heyerdahl called his boat the "Kon-Tiki," and in homage to Heyerdahl's journey, de Rothschild has named his bottle boat the "Plastiki." He plans on having Thor's grandaughter, and her cousin, Olav, join the small crew for part of the voyage, which he is hoping to launch some time this summer. Hopefully, too, they won't run into any pirates or they would be dead ducks. Meanwhile, de Rothschild can be often be found taking sailing lessons in San Francisco Bay. It's a good way to get your blood going, and it smells good too. I wish him well.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Albatross Necklace

Somewhat in the manner of a triumphal cat who has dragged home the wretched dead mouse, I returned from my Lynchburg experience bearing an unlikely trophy: an outsized necklace of sausage-shaped beads, whose nebula of soft, buzzy colors I'm assuming even Andy Warhol would have loved.

The necklace looks pretty enough, seems innocent enough, until you learn its story--after which there is the inevitable spasm. Its beads are made from plastic salvaged from the guts of dead albatrosses. They have been fashioned into lei necklaces by an artist from Hawaii, Cindy Waddington, who lives on Oahu, for the Friends of Midway Atoll. The knowledge of their origin is arresting: you realize these beads contain the hushed urgency of death and it makes you flinch.

Midway Atoll consists of three islands and a shallow white sand lagoon, sheltered from the surrounding Pacific Ocean by a coral reef. It is the major breeding ground for over two million seabirds including the world's largest colonies of black-footed albatrosses--and it is also adjacent to two of the largest and most deadly concentrations of floating plastic debris. Officially the most threatened seabird species in the world, albatrosses die in unprecedented numbers partly from becoming entangled in fishing nets, and partly from ingesting marine debris, in the form of plastic that they mistake for food and then can't digest.

I acquired my necklace from Wayne Sentman, a naturalist, field biologist, and third speaker at the conference, who had brought along several of them as part of his show-and-tell eco-talk. The necklaces are available from a gift shop on Midway Atoll, now a National Wildlife Refuge and the second largest marine protected area in the world, situated 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. Since l994, Wayne has been conducting ecotourism trips and field programs for the Oceanic Society, to educate the public regarding habitat and species protection, at sites that include the one on Midway Atoll, as well as others in Micronesia, Africa, and South America. (More information about these adventure expeditions can be found at

Thinking about this necklace and its distinctive role as keeper of the albatross's story--and the poisoning of the oceans--I was suddenly struck by its unlikely resonance with the idiomatic phrase "an albatross around your neck," alluding, of course, to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which a sailor shoots a friendly albatross and is forced to wear its carcass around his neck as a punishment. According to Google, an albatross (around your neck) is someone or something that causes you a lot of problems and stops you from being successful. When I scrolled down further, I found some intriguing search results, suggesting that certain humans (Republicans in particular) may be as equally tough to digest, once they have entered the system, as is plastic:

"The 'Rick Warren Albatross' around Obama's Neck"..."Palin, the albatross around McCain's neck"..."Cheney is the Albatross Around George Bush's Neck"..."The Bush-Cheney Albatross Around McCain's Neck." And on and on it goes. Every culture has its own way of driving people crazy. I even found "The Obama Stimulus Plan--An Albatross around the Neck of America." With the metaphor of the albatross, politics has met its match.

Already in 1892, according to an essay in Resurgence magazine written by Mark Cocker, the naturalist W.H. Hudson was sounding the alarm about the imminent extinction of an ostrich-like bird, the rhea, from the Argentine pampas. "What a wail there would be in the world if a sudden destruction were to fall on the accumulated art-treasures of the National Gallery, the marbles in the British Museum, and contents of the King's Library," Hudson wrote in his book "The Naturalist in La Plata." He goes on to lament the significantly higher value we place on human creativity and culture than we place on the survival of other species.

Wayne and Pam Longobardi plan to collaborate in the future on several projects, one of which will be to curate an exhibition of environmental artists from around the globe, who use marine debris in their work, along with a forum to inspire possible action on the problem. So, a muscular vision of our ruined world may soon be headed your way. Will it trigger the required wake-up? The thing I love most about my new necklace is the way it bites you in the backside. As the dangers to planetary survival escalate, this one chunky little bauble, in its own subtle way, helps (if I may steal a phrase from Barbara Kingsolver) to explain our pickle. Probe it, and the path is illuminated: two hundred years of unsustainable and unmanaged growth economy that have allowed this necklace, with its implicit reproach, to exist.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Art in the Plastocene Era

Did you know that when you toss out your empty plastic bottle of shampoo it hangs around the planet for a thousand years? I learned this lurid fact from Pam Longobardi, the other artist whose work is currently being exhibited along with Sue Johnson's (see my previous post) at the Maier Museum in Lynchburg. Pam was talking about her current project entitled "Drifters," whose subject happens to be plastic rubble. The inspiration (if inspiration is indeed the correct word) for this project arrived unexpectedly, when she discovered an enormous tangle of plastic fishing nets and other plastic debris while camping at a remote beach on the southernmost tip of the Big Island in Hawaii.

Attracted at first by the astonishing spectacle of the day-glo colors--almost a hallucination--and then by the lethal implications of what she was really seeing, it did not take long for Pam to realize that she had stumbled inadvertently into what she describes as "an environmental nightmare."

These fragments--combs that have lost their teeth, battered toys that look like gnawed bones, discarded flip-flops and mangled toothbrushes--were all heavy with rabid meaning. "Do you want to expose these scenes to the light?" Annie Dillard asks in "The Writing Life." "You may locate them and leave them, or poke the spot hard till the sore bleeds on your finger, and write with that can use its power for many years, until the heart resorbs it." Pam recognized this scene as a deadly portrait--of late capitalist global society and how we've fouled the ocean. She couldn't just leave it, but had to write with that blood for many years in order to share what she had witnessed.

She began by documenting the site with photographs and carrying out duffle bags filled with the plastic debris, intending to create art with what she'd found. Her subsequent creations made with plastic fragments are reminiscent of the work of English artist Tony Cragg, who also assembled found plastic remnants in the 1980s--but with a huge difference. Cragg's interest in plastic debris was entirely formalistic, engaged with the dazzling colors and eccentric shapes as a new form of art material. As Pam states: "In the '80s when Cragg was making pictures on the wall with garbage, plastic was fun. Now plastic is dangerous." It is the dangerous, degrading aspect of plastic that powers Pam's work, the crushing devastation hidden inside its gaudy allure.

In her by now extensive research, Pam has learned there exists in the Pacific a "garbage patch" of plastic the size of Texas. Thinking it is food, fish and birds eat these fragments, which then becomed embedded in their tissues and cause them to die. An oeceanic current called the North Pacific Gyre sweeps North, counterclockwise, up the coast of the Americas, west across the upper Arctic, south along the Asian coast, and then back toward the Hawaiian Islands--picking up debris along the way. It can take six years of riding the currents before the plastic arrives in the Gyre, and lands on that Hawaiian beach. Once there, however, it never leaves except as food ingested by members of the oceanic food chain. What was once an ordinary, functional object in human life has mutated into another kind of dark entity: trash.

"In a perverse continuation of the change of hands of commerce," Pam writes, "these objects circle the globe on oceanic currents, plied first by trade, then by trade winds....Joining Plant, Animal, and Mineral, we now must acknowledge a new kingdom, a Fourth Kingdom, the kingdom of Plastic, an army whose members never die or decompose, and threaten to outnumber all others."

On a mission of sorts, the artist is now planning a book about plastic and pollution that will encompass its artistic, scientific, and cultural aspects. In addition to her own work, the book will include essays by five other interdisciplinary contributers. More information about Pam's work can be found on her websites: and