HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Environment (Page 1 of 6)

The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

“In the Perfected Mahayana – everything, every speck of dust even, can be seen as conditioned arising. Thus even in a hair there are innumerable golden lions.”- Tractate of the Golden Lion — Fazang

My friend Tomohiro once asked me why I was living in Japan, “You not married, don’t have girlfriend, not getting paid shit-ton cash like finance assholes, have no real prospects, kind of smell bad…so why you come to Japan…for the sushi?”

“Tomo, I’m seeking satori…duh.”

“You drink too much beer for satori. Even you run bar you drink all the profit, so why you wanna be Buddhist?”

Actually I get this question a lot. Japanese people are curious about an outsider’s views on what makes Japan attractive. Occasionally whomever it is I’m talking to continues the conversation with another whopper of a mystical/metaphysical/meaning-of-life type of question like, “Can you use chopsticks?” or “Wow, you sure are good at using chopsticks!”

I nod imbecilically and smile, saying, “Chinese food everywhere in America!” while adding, “Oscar Wilde said that when given a choice between going to heaven and attending a lecture on heaven, an American would attend the lecture. Because quoting Oscar Wilde to people, especially in Japanese, gets awkward quickly, the subject changes rather quickly as well.

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Seething Clouds on Turnagain Arm

Seething Clouds on Turnagain Arm

Clouds are the essence of balance. They are created from the heating of air and the condensing of water vapor in the air as it rises. As air rises it cools, decreasing the water vapor it can hold. As air descends, it warms and evaporates. Up and down go the countless billions tiny water droplets and ice crystals that make up clouds. Forming and deforming. The chemical process of changing moisture from a gas to liquid is a poetry of motion.

Seething Clouds on Turnagain Arm/h2>

Nowhere is this more spectacular than within mountain ranges. Air blowing over a mountain is forced upward and can develop swaths of clouds quickly, especially where air masses collide. Different air swarming in a valley masses can’t coalesce unless they share similarities in temperature and moisture content. Live Science tells us that “if a cold, dry air mass pushes into an air mass that is warm and moist, the warmer air is forced upward, rapidly producing clouds that bubble up, perhaps ultimately leading to lightning, thunder and showery-type rains. If the cold air retreats, warm air pushing over it can bring a much slower process of lowering and thickening clouds and finally light precipitation in the form of light rain, mist or drizzle.”

In the case of Turnagain Arm just southeast of Anchorage we often see air masses of warm, moist winter air off the ocean meeting the Chugach mountains where it cools, and creates some of the fiercest and fastest cloud formations in Alaska. Formations that, due to their microscopic crystalline composition of billions of tiny water droplets, are reflective as glass beads, scattering sunlight, and most often producing a white color. However they often take on the characteristics of the sun as well, making sheaths of clouds appear pink, orange, yellow, blue and so on.

The road to Kenai is a beautiful yet dangerous scenic byway. You never know what you may run into: a moose, a cloud or even a glacier (or all three). Enjoy the ride.

From ocean to table - Wild Alaskan Silver Salmon

From Ocean to Table – Wild Alaskan Silver Salmon

Fish Tacos make me happy. Halibut, Cod, Monkfish, Blowfish, whatever you got. Bring it. But what about Salmon?

Well-known for its high protein, high omega-3 fatty acids, and high vitamin D content, like most seafood salmon is becoming an increasingly popular food, especially in places that don’t traditionally have access to oceans-going fish. In order to service this demand, an increase in farmed salmon has spread across the globe. 99% of all Atlantic salmon commercially available are farmed (while more than 80% of Pacific salmon is harvested from the wild). While harvesting wild salmon (wild anything really) is more beneficial in terms of nutrient content, sustainable fisheries practices are necessary to maintain a healthy and vibrant population. With the advent of damming rivers and mining activities, logging, et al, the situation for wild salmon migrations has turned political. On the one hand there are many native populations that still depend on salmon for a large part of their diet and economic livelihood, not to mention their millennia-old cultural importance. And on the other hand there are large commercial interests jockeying for access to energy sources, logging rights, mineral deposits, and hegemony over the fish farming industry itself. Who knew a large majority of the world’s salmon supply was farmed in Chile? Which begs multiple questions: 1) is there enough wild salmon to go around and 2) is the proliferation of farmed salmon doing more damage than good in harming the environment, the fish, and we, the consumers, who just want a damn taco?

The NOAA fisheries stat sheet states that “Coho salmon on the west coast of the United States have experienced dramatic declines in abundance during the past several decades as a result of human-induced and natural factors. Water storage, withdrawal, conveyance, and diversions for agriculture, flood control, domestic, and hydropower purposes have greatly reduced or eliminated historically accessible habitat. Physical features of dams, such as turbines and sluiceways, have resulted in increased mortality of both adults and juvenile salmonids.”

The key characteristic of salmon is adaptability. What else would you expect from an anadromous fish? Being born in fresh water river beds, migrating to the ocean to feed, then returning, often to the exact place of their own birth to spawn, and then unceremoniously dying in a heap of stinking fish flesh. What an epic life. Yet one that the farmed variety never gets to experience. It does not hunt, as it is fed fish pellets (a ratio of 1.5 – 8 kilograms of wild fish are needed to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon) and never gets to expire in spawning ecstasy yet rather mills about in its open net pens, polluting the ocean floor and proliferating sea lice.

From Ocean to Table - Wild Alaskan Silver Salmon

(Map courtesy of NOAA)

While the majority of coho salmon seem to inhabit the waters surrounding Alaska, they range throughout the Pacific from Japan and eastern Russian, and south all the way to Monterey Bay, California. As baby fry, coho feed frantically on aquatic insects and plankton, as well as cannibalizing their own the eggs deposited by adult spawning salmon. They grow peacefully in the pooling river beds, ponds and lakes, eating and defending their turf from their cousin fish, trout and char. But there is simply not enough food present in fresh water for their growth. So they head out to sea to gorge on all sorts of fish and squid. Yet even as technologically savvy as modern fishery sciences are we know little about the ocean migrations of coho salmon. Tagging has shown that maturing Southeast Alaska coho move northward throughout the spring and congregate in the central Gulf of Alaska in June–probably one final feeding frenzy–until at some point setting off toward shore and reaching their stream of origin. Once the return home begins they never eat again, eventually even dissolving their own stomachs to make room for eggs and sperm. Now that is dedication.

After reentering fresh water the dehydrated salmon change appearance and lose their delicious flavor as the salt leeches from their bodies. Weakened by the long journey and fight to spawn they, and their fresh laid patch of roe are easy pickings for bears, the ecosystem engineers of the forest. It is the bears unique fishing ability that allows them to rely on salmon as a major food source. Once caught the bears transport the fish to the forest where the remains become nutrients for the soil, trees, and plants. The salmon leftovers are scavenged by birds and other animals and eventually feed the forest floor and release nitrogen as they decompose, also feeding the trees. And the cycle continues. Unless you’re a Norwegian farmed salmon. Then it is abruptly stopped.

The Audubon Society reports that wetlands that connect lakes and rivers leading from forests to the open sea are crucial to maintaining a healthy salmon population. Over the last 200 years, the continental United States have lost at least half of all its wetlands. NOAA goes on to say that “Washington and Oregon’s wetlands have been estimated to have been diminished by one third, while it is estimated that California has experienced a 91 percent loss of its wetland habitat.” Human action in wild habitats, once a part of the natural cycle of life, has become an intrusive, destructive and catastrophic to the general welfare of the entire ecosystem. So sayonara wild salmon. Hello farmed fish. Hope you’re happy, people in Kansas, yes now you too can eat salmon.

While farming fish may be an exploding market of potential revenue for investors the larger item at stake here is not just one fish but the entire Pacific ocean coastal ecosystem. There must be balance or we will wipe out a keystone species. That will most likely have devastating effects on a wide range of issues we have no idea the depth of. Let the rivers flow and the wetlands return and their will be fish, wild and healthy, enough for us all who live within reach. Those living in landlocked regions can eat what is available, as their ancestors once did. Keep Salmon wild. And properly labeled. And now, please enjoy what I caught, cleaned, cooked and ate with a deliciously home-brewed double IPA last night.

From Ocean to Table – Wild Alaskan Silver Salmon

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

One of the best thing in the countryside are the encounters with ladies carrying around an amazing amount of stuff (often on their head), some of them do it with very curious and beautiful (if not totally outdated fashion wise) outfits. She had a smile to warm up a dead body

What is race? How does it work? For example, what does humanity’s racist tendencies of the past have to do with current economic world order? Ethnology assumes that race and racism are extremely powerful social and cultural forces at work everywhere in the world. And that we, as humans, seek lessons for generalizing about modern society and the contemporary global order. But specific questions need to be asked too: what are the structural dimensions of race and racism (social, political, and economic inequality) and what are the cultural dimensions (artistic forms of humanistic expression, as well as politics)? How do they differ from country to country? If one were to take two island nations–Japan and Madagascar–and compare their societies, it would seem that the Malagasy would come in a far second to one of the most powerful economies as rich in cultural history as the Japanese. But why? Unfortunately the answers are never easy. But with effort and experience we hope to gain insight. Though the following article is not a comparison nor a study of two separate, unrelated countries, but rather about research and communication, we place a special focus on an old practice with a new name: ethno-photography. It will be described as an analog and digital bridge for science and communication; as a platform for resource users to showcase their points of view; and as an amplifier to research for development.

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

–by Arnaud De Grave & Patrick O. Waeber

A brief glance at Madagascar

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

This little dude is a Gentle lemur (also known locally as bandro, or under his scientific name Hapalemur alaotrensis) from Lake Alaotra; it seems not so sure whether to enjoy the sun and breeze while softly rocking on the top of a reed stem, or rather be concerned about the pirogue lurking in closest vicinity.

Madagascar, renowned for its unique flora and fauna, one of the hottest biodiversity hotspots on earth, has a lot to carry in terms of suffering. The nation has been through five years of a transitional administration under the leadership of a former DJ, during which economic disorder and international isolation has weighed heavily on its people. Presidential and legislative elections finally took place in Madagascar in December 2013. Hery Rajaonarimampianina, according to the New York Times the president with the longest surname in history, assumed his role on 25 January 2013. Immediately thereafter, the African Union and Southern African Development Community lifted their suspensions, followed by the European Union’s development program; monetary institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund reinstated their development funds. Hope for better times?

According to some, the power shift was merely a cosmetic make-over. The political situation remains fragile, and the new government has to deal with a lot of “challenges”, to say the least, which have been ongoing for long times, and will likely and unfortunately continue to carry on: Highest poverty rates, highest birth rates, highest school drop-outs, increasing in-transparency in governance, increasing illegal exportations of precious natural resources. Nevertheless, the new government started to take action by creating more presence in previously neglected regions in Madagascar, and according to Rajaonarimampianina’s speech on 25 September 2014 in front of the UN General Assembly in New York, declared that “Our primary goal is to bring our people out of their precarious situation” (…) “the aim…is to transform Madagascar into a food hub in the region” referring to increased investments into agriculture.

Inside Madagascar’s Bread Basket: Alaotra

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

Local marshlands are at risk to be all converted into rice fields: you burn it, you claim it, and you farm it

In terms of rice and inland-fish production the Alaotra-Mangoro region, one of 22 in Madagascar, is the country’s current food hub. Constituting the largest wetland system, the Lake Alaotra wetland’s surrounding marshlands deliver crucial cultural and ecosystem services such as water, medicinal plants, fish stock, while hosting unique wildlife such as the Alaotra gentle lemur, a primate species living constantly in marshlands. The wetland is the third out of currently nine Ramsar sites in Madagascar since 2003 (The Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources). The Malagasy government added further importance to the conservation and biodiversity values of the region by inscribing the system as new Protected Area in 2007. To be ratified as a Protected Area (the marshlands are risking to be all converted into rice fields: you burn it, you claim it, and you farm it…), a management plan, currently in the making, is badly needed.

Forests? Of course, there are also some beautiful forests full of biodiversity (more than 80% of all described animal species in Madagascar depend on forests), but they are largely locked up in parks and reserves. The rest of the landscape is dominated by agricultural production (a significant portion is also for self-subsistence, with a majority of the 550,000+ people engaging in small-scale farming), and a vast extant of open grasslands, which are low in nutrients and hence difficult to use for farming production.

Stakeholders can be the fishermen who fish in the lakes and marshes, the farmer growing fruit or cattle on the open range, as well as the any one of the heads of the Ministries deciding on regulations regarding fisheries and… Click To Tweet

Governing the complexity

So, we have mentioned forests. Check. Outside protected areas, there are still ‘forests’, but many are degraded (or actually burned in order to be used for agriculture), and either have been transformed into something like ‘agro-forestry’ (though generally rare, and more on the ‘agro’ side than ‘forestry’), dominated by a few species such as fruit trees, or plantations. Besides being the rice granary of the island, the Alaotra is also leader in terms of plantations (with the usual suspects: acacia, eucalyptus, pine) for wood production but a lot is used also for energy consumption. Wood charcoal is still the number one energy source in Madagascar.

There are a impressive number of institutions responsible for governing the various dimensions of this complex human-environmental system: Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Water and Forests, Ministry of Fisheries, Ministry of Livestock, Ministry of Mining. There are remarkable overlaps of responsibilities requiring some coordinated planning, a challenging thing, …and you’ll also understand that communication, i.e., the receiving and delivering of information, between these institutions (but also between the decision makers and resource users on the ground) becomes a key part in this governance undertaking.

Research in the Alaotra

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

The AlaReLa logo represents 3 main ecosystems: in yellow the open grasslands, in blue the wetlands, and in green the forests.

Given we are working in the realms of NRM (natural resources management), we first started creating an acronym (technocrats are very fond of acronyms; not that we would label ourselves as such, but we are, as said in NRM realms): “AlaReLa”, the name of our research for development project, stands for Alaotra Resilience Landscapes. In brief, this research aims to provide tools to the various stakeholders of the Alaotra human-environment system to strike a balance in the governance between development (or agricultural production thereof) and conservation (there are crucial ecosystems for biodiversity and people). Stakeholders can be the fishermen who fish in the lakes and marshes, the farmer growing fruit or cattle on the open range, as well as the any one of the heads of the Ministries deciding on regulations regarding fisheries and agriculture. This sounds very ambitious, and it probably is! Nonetheless, we, a consortium of several research and conservation institutions use a three-prong approach: understanding, exploring, communicating– with the latter being ongoing throughout the duration of the project, and beyond.

How do we do it?

Well, we talk and we listen. Sounds simple, right? To tackle the understanding portion of this research, we use a variety of disciplinary approaches (e.g., ecology, sociology, remote sensing) to create a picture of this complex human-environmental system. The exploration consists of collectively developing models (in our case role playing games and board games such as Settlers of Catan©) to test collectively agreed scenarios. For this, we sit together with the various resource users and decision makers to describe the challenges of NRM, to identify and link the key actors and resources of the system which may be prone to change (such as environmental, economic, political, etc.). In applying this participatory modeling approach, the underpinning philosophy is communication. By gaming various NRM situations, we bring together key stakeholders of the system; we listen, we (the researchers) and they (the stakeholders from the Alaotra) both learn, and we reformulate questions. During this process new questions and surprises can emerge which were not evident from the start of the project. To sum up, we all gain a better understanding of how processes or dynamics work (this is our overarching assumption).

But let’s elaborate on the term “communication” a bit further; here we explore and present a rather new avenue of communication in research. We decided to ask a photographer to be part of the AlaReLa project, here is what he has to say…Arnaud! Your turn.

In a way locals are also researchers of their own lives. Click To Tweet

An innovative approach to dissemination of research

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

Shooting from a moving pirogue is no picnic! I had to do it while standing [Note from Patrick: almost 20 minutes!] to be able to get a shot of a baby bandro. I earned the respect of the fishermen that day, and got the picture of the beast.

There is a need to be innovative in environmental sciences, involving locals and the approach described in the former paragraph explains one of the ways the AlaReLa project is doing this. However, there is also a lack of communication for all this science to actually mean something! Having been an academic myself (in various unrelated fields, do not ask on which fields, I still have some sense of decency) I do think that there is a conundrum in the way research and particularly the publication/reference/quotes system performs and sometimes clutter the way knowledge is produced. Writings by scientists for other scientists is needed, the peer review system is sound. But maybe there is a need to reach further and with more tangible effects for a more perennial outcome; so one has to find other ways to enter people’s field of view. Art could be this entrance. Or rather art could be the metaphorical foot blocking said-door. The AlaReLa team decided to continue being innovative and incorporate a photographer in the project, from start to finish, not only for pure documentation… Somebody who could invest more than a couple of weeks to go on site and maybe sleep on the floor and get bitten by bugs and almost killed a couple of times for being too noisy in shady bars. I was happy to oblige.

I decided to call this activity Ethno-photography. How does it work? The “ethno-” means a humanistic approach and long stays, with local involvement through iteration in the picture selection (and shooting) process and through potential collaboration with local photographers. We should be able to use photography as support for the project research results, or even provide more information, a different point of view, visual narration for data… That is where my (second) academic background came in handy. Let’s spill the beans: I re-educated myself in Forest Ecosystems management recently.

It is not all fun and games though… One of my biggest fear was (and still is) to depict the locals throughout the lens of Neo-Colonialism or Post-Colonialism or Neo-Post-Colonialism, et al. I am a Caucasian male of 40, born and raised in a “rich” country (France, of all places, has a, er, rich and complex history with Madagascar). Whether I like it or not, my views are tainted. By overthinking it sometimes, as well. So I had to find a way to make sure this vision I was to bring back was a vision shared with the depicted people, as real a picture as possible. Of course, paradigms, lenses, etc. Here is the way the AlaReLa team and I tried to overcome this issue. The project was separated in three distinct phases:

Bridging Science and Photography in Madagascar

The modus-operandi was simple: wander around, pick some good one, negotiate (sometimes with the help of an interpreter – phd student, local project manager, etc.) and shoot. While the picture was self-developing, write “AlaReLa project 2014” on it and make a scene of drying it and all… give it to the model and try to escape the hordes of people wanting to get one as well. Repeat later, farther… I tried to get a wide variety of models: kids, teenagers, workers, old folks, both genders. I then asked them to be pictured with their instant-photo by joking that my boss wouldn’t believe me that I worked if he had no proof! There is nothing better than the common enemy of “the big boss” to make friends…

1. Discovery – I followed two Malagasy PhD students during their field work and, without previous knowledge (i.e., without having done my homework and read a lot about the country and its history), took a first harvest of pictures…

2. Iteration – With the first batch of pictures it is possible to identify some gaps in the stories we want to narrate and complete the set. However, the most important for me is to go back to the same spots (and more of course) and to show a selection of these pictures to the locals, asking them what is missing. For instance, let’s say I was dumb enough not to take any pictures of Zebus, there is a strong chance people will ask me something like “Dude, where are the zebus!” Zebus are an important element of local life, from social prestige to more economical reasons, which is of course linked. It is my belief that, by combining my view and theirs through this iteration, an accurate picture of the life in this socio-ecological-economical system can be achieved. I do hope that something beyond the obvious will emerge from this ping-pong with the locals. Nonetheless, we already know that I need more pictures of people working and a more varied selection of activities: fishing, cooking and farming, but also charcoal making, hunting, illegal alcohol making, etc.

3. Display / Outreach – The final outcome for the photography part of this project is a transdisciplinary exhibition, coupling photography and environmental sciences, in various locations. A first formal collaborative exhibition at a cultural institution in the capital Antananarivo with a local photographer (I am in negotiation with the French Cultural Center, the only way to have good wine at the opening…) will be organized. Then we will bring a selection of the pictures, printed on tarp, to each village where I was staying when doing, er, let’s call that field work, that sounds like science. Each time we will try to have a party and create a cultural event. Following these, the exhibition will constitute a package that will be proposed at scientific conferences as a support for the presentations of AlaReLa researchers’ work. First results were shown with a presentation and an exhibition in April (2015) at the GTOe conference in Zurich. This is aimed at bridging the gap between art and science or, to get back to our metaphor, put the shoulder in the door-frame previously blocked by the metaphorical foot.

The photography in itself has also been thought/designed to be multidisciplinary (within reason and within photography techniques) and serves different purposes. Digital colour photography is used to document the work of the AlaReLa researchers; it can be used rather quickly for Internet visibility (even during the stay, as shown on my flickr Madagascar set) and later by the researchers for their publications, reports, etc, all using creative-commons licensing. For the “art” part I use mostly black and white analogue film photography. It is beyond the scope of this article to debate of the pros and cons of film photography or to inflame any church wars, though let me just say this is a personal choice and modus operandi, not any kind of statement. The selection of which type of camera(s) to use and why is also beyond the scope of this article but to satisfy the photography-freaks amongst the readers here is my setup: I used two Voigtlander Bessas (R3M and R4A) with 3 lenses: 21mm, 35mm and 50mm, shooting Ilford HP5 and FP4 film, depending on the wind direction and my moods. The use of rangefinders helped me to get quickly close to people and be rather unobtrusive, but this set-up is limited for portraiture or details such as hands, etc. I will undoubtedly change this for the second phase. In addition to that I carried around with me a Fuji Instax camera and gave away about 70 to 80 portraits. This helped me connect with people and led to a lot of memorable encounters. Moreover it left behind a trace of my passage (each instant picture I labeled “AlaReLa project 2014”) and a tacit promise of return.

That is all good but what is the gain for the locals? Obviously they get the opportunity and the ability to bring their own point of view through the process and through the collaboration with local photographers during the final exhibitions. We’ll see how that goes. In a way locals are also researchers of their own lives. In addition, as the stays are long there are possibilities for me to share some of what I do: photography, self-publication, association creation, etc. During the first phase I gave a workshop on how to run a small photography association (BOP – the infamous “Bricolages Ondulatoires & Particulaires” collective) and try to publish artifacts to a group of photographers from Antananarivo.

This is of course still a work in progress. My second stay is planned for the end of 2015 and the AlaReLa team and I already have some ideas to go beyond what was done in phase one. However, the results from phase one are very encouraging and some of the objectives have already been reached.


POW: from Zoology (behavior of monkeys) via forestry (behavior of trees under changing climate and disturbance regimes), to complexity (monkeys, trees, non-tree environments, and people). Co-founder of Madagascar Wildlife Conservation; Madagascar Conservation & Development scientific journal (MCD) editor. Currently post-doc-ing at ForDev ETH Zurich and coordinating the AlaReLa project.

ADG: from manufacturing engineering and design (sociology of metrology, integrated design of MEMS) to forestry (sociology of forest management around ski resorts) to innovative eco-technology (Mycoremediation with Polypop Industries) and ethnophotography of sciences… BOP president and co-founder, editor and designer of the BOP Photo Analogies magazine; MCD layouter.

Life and Death on Mount Everest

“…the highest of mountains is capable of severity, a severity so awful sand so fatal that the wiser sort of men do well to think and tremble even on the threshhold of their high endeavor.”

— George Mallory

Life and Death on Mount Everest

The path to Everest in 1921 and 2006

No matter how immovable the many mountains may seem, the recent earthquakes in Nepal have illuminated to the world how fragile the ground beneath our feet truly is. Epicentered between Pokhara and Kathmandu in central Nepal, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake has killed and wounded thousands, left homeless many hundreds of thousands more, and decimated the infrastructure of the mountainous country. Many more casualties are expected as aftershocks continue to set life on edge. And while officials slowly respond to the isolated communities of villages dotting the Nepali countryside, locals do what they can to help on their own. Climbers in the Himalayan mountains have felt firsthand a small portion of what the creation of the globe’s youngest mountain range may have felt like when the Indian Plate collided with the Eurasian plate. That collision is still happening. The earthquake triggered several avalanches, one of which poured through Everest Base Camp like a 20-story tall tidal wave of snow, killing 18 in the process.

Apart from the tragic loss of life, the damage of cultural capital is devastating. Irreplaceable sites of archaeological significance have been obliterated. It will take years and billions to recover from the disaster (unless we forgive their debt). Unqualified aid workers streaming into the country (ala the 2010 Haiti earthquake) are not what the Nepali need. Claire Bennett suggests handouts in the short term and rebuilding sustainably in the long term. Perhaps it is too early to comment, but this horrible event may provide an opportunity for just that kind of change. The Nepali disaster seems similar to many other Asian countries that have suffered earthquakes in that an abnormally high number of deaths occur where poor infrastructure and high poverty are the norm. The average Nepali salary is roughly equivalent to $750. The most lucrative job belong to the Sherpa who are the designated guide to the Himalaya, earning several thousands of dollars per climbing season. With the advent of adventure mountaineering, climbing Mt. Everest has become a reality for people whose only qualification is the thousands of dollars for a permit, especially since the government slashed the permit price in order to attract more climbers, most of whom have no business climbing the Santa Monica Mountains let alone the most dangerous mountain range in the world.

But to what end? Merely to be the first western men to stand atop a mountain that the Nepalese and Tibetans hold sacred? Click To Tweet

The Siege on Everest

While it seems idiotic to say that karma has anything to do with the recent tragedies on Everest, there are surely some who have thought about it. Many believe that Miyolangsangma, a Tibetan Buddhist “Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving”, once lived at the top of what the Nepali call Sagarmāthā, Mt. Everest. According to Broughton Coburn in his article on Sherpas for National Geographic “to Sherpa Buddhist monks, Mt. Everest is Miyolangsangma’s palace and playground, and all climbers are only partially welcome guests, having arrived without invitation.” The mountain may be a playground for the gods, but it remains a dangerous and dirty reality for all parties involved in the new economy coming to Nepal.

In his book Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, Wade Davis reveals the reticence of the Tibetans and the outright denial of the Nepalese to allow the British into their country. Decades of failed attempts involving stealth, subterfuge, and the cold-blooded slaughter of monks by the British finally saw the door to Everest open. But to what end? Merely to be the first western men to stand atop a mountain that the Nepalese and Tibetans hold sacred? Perhaps that ultimate quest, so nobly started, has since been taken too far. Our World, the UN University’s online magazine published a story in 2013 concerning Vanity, Pollution and Death on Mt. Everest and National Geographic offers 6 ways to repair Everest. But more than the pollution that the western world brings with it, recently the mountain has been taking tribute back. Outside Online looks at 2014, Everest’s Darkest Year, in which 16 Sherpa died when a 31 million pound serac broke off of the western shoulder and plummeted onto the Popcorn Field of the Khumbu Icefall. Little did the author know that just one season later, in 2015, would his title need to be revised to Everest’s 2nd Darkest Year.

Alongside being an award-winning anthropologist, the author of fifteen books, Wade Davis, is National Geographic’s Explorer In Residence. In Into The Silence, he shows the British expeditions of the Himalayan Range—and much of the conquest of the third world—are characterized by the dualism of Britain: the manifest destiny of a deserving upper class to deliver the world from savagery and the romantic notions of misanthropic lower-middle class dreamers to be useful. The rest are just more cannon fodder for the colonies. Somewhere in the quagmire of imperialistic desires and day-to-day reality there is argument that despite the massive culling of the “savages” in the process, that there is a kind of noble sentiment, much as the Japanese continue to argue about their erstwhile Asian colonies, in the British mapping, modernizing and laying the framework for much of the modern world. In the decades leading up to the first world war, the British Empire was continuing very much in a business as usual manner in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, New Guinea, much of Africa, and of course, India.

Mercantile zeal, severe military reprisals and the subversion of the local elites all played a role in the maintenance of the Raj. But what really held it together was the audacity of the venture, the sheer gall of a small island nation that had never set out to rule the world but did so with such flair.

–Wade Davis

As George Mallory and the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition searched for a route to the summit from the North Col of Mt. Everest late in 1921, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, was waiting for publication. Central to The Waste Land is the medieval Grail adventure of Parsifal, and the Fisher King, “he who is too ill to live but not ill enough to die”. The tale of the knight who seeks his own path on the pilgrimmage for wholeness mirrors on a minor scale Mallory’s own Himalayan quest, and on a major scale the search of a continent for meaning in a post-war world. Eliot was able to synthesize the hopes and fears of the western world—a world of people living inauthentic lives—in a beautiful and esoteric 64 page poem. Mallory was able to do this by pulling himself and a team of ragtag amateurs, so close to the top of the world, he became what the world needed most, a new Arthurian legend.

Life & Death on Mount Everest

Wade Davis – Into The Silence The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

A part of this subconscious desire to conquer and yet be the benevolent rulers, for the British, was to discover the unknown. For more than one hundred years the cartographers of the Survey of India had triangulated and established every measurement of the subcontinent, save the youngest and tallest set of mountains in the world, the Himalaya. The biggest difference between the initial forays into the Himalaya frontier with those of today were that they began in Darjeeling rather than Nepal, a country that remained closed off to the British until after the second world war. In fact, the largest initial obstacles, other than getting to the remote northeast corner of India and acclimatizing to the severe altitude of the mountains themselves, were political considerations. Tibet wanted nothing to do with the British, and Nepal, a more established state at this time, was completely unwilling to to allow a survey team carte blanche to roam its valleys and peaks. Still, somehow the British made inroads into Tibet, with Brigadier-General Cecil Rawling, the Brit that had first explored the Himalaya and the foothills of Everest in 1903, who along with more than 500,000 others died at the Battle of Paschendaelle in 1917. There is the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband, who led a de facto invasion of the country and massacred hundreds of the monk militia at Guru. Despite this unspeakable act (which helped lead to Chinese control), Younghusband had become mystically entranced by the beauty of the country and wrote eloquently about it for the rest of his life. He became the president of the Royal Geographical Society in 1919 and, together with the Alpine Club, championed the reconnaissance of the Himalaya as the Chairman of the newly created Mount Everest Committee. When permission was finally granted by the 13th Dalai Lama for the 1921 expedition, it was an extremely unpopular decision with the other highly placed monks, who thought the British partly crazy for uselessly seeking to climb into such a dangerous scenario, and partly believed them to be a gang of spies. This paranoid belief eventually barred any member of the Survey of India from future inclusion on the climbing team, which with their surfeit of expert mountaineers became one of the reasons why the first campaigns resulted in at least some kind of failure.

Just having emerged from World War I, the career militarists who led the expeditions favored a militaristic siege style of expedition. This was to be an assault on the mountain and they needed a plan of attack. Almost the entirety of the team involved had miraculously survived the hell of the Great War and as such most were searching for some kind of meaning to make out of all the death. Davis calls conquering the tallest mountain in the world (and mapping yet another the unknown frontier to boot), a “gesture of imperial redemption” for a country that, despite it leading to no tangible result, except as Mallory famously put it when asked while on tour in the U.S., “because it is there,” could be what both the men involved and the British public at large very much needed to revive the old English pluck.

Yet ignorant of the impending danger lurking at every cruelly beautiful rise and somehow flailing through the journey without completely destroying themselves, the first campaigns led by General Bruce could be likened to infants toddling about in a minefield. The naïveté of the ingenue Brits, who didn’t know that they should all be failing horribly and so actually merited a measure of success, even as the bureaucracy of the Everest Committee committed mistake after mistake, turns out to be something of an asset, and is exemplified by the absent-minded dreamer George Mallory, an idiot-savant of a mountain climber who almost single-handedly pioneered the northern route to the summit. It was only the lack of understanding the nature of the Himalaya connection with the subcontinent’s summer monsoon season, and the onset of winter, that prevented a serious attempt. So blinded by their own westernized hubris the team thought merely missing the winter snows would be sufficient and so didn’t depart for Darjeeling from England by steamer until early April 1921, and didn’t begin the arduous trek through the Chumbi Valley until May, spent June and July stumbling around the Rongbuk valley and its glaciers, were stalled by the monsoon in August and September, finally reaching the path to Everest, deranged and bedraggled, sometime in October.

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Everest Panoramas by Howard-Bury, C.K. The Mount Everest Expedition.

Yet it was not Mallory who found that path, but Edward Oliver Wheeler, Canadian surveyor, who in stealing away on his own to photograph found passage through the East Rongbuk glacier below the Lhakpa La pass. It wasn’t until September that Mallory, Bullock & Wheeler used the Lhakpa La pass to become the first westerners to reach the North Col of Everest and set the modern route to the mountain. Though considered a mere surveyor by many, Wheeler was an accomplished climber, having grown up ascending the Canadian Rockies, as well the chief photographer of that first expedition. Apart from the capturing the minds of subsequent climbers and the British public, his photographic efforts may have more rapidly brought about the development of the modern portable camera:

He carried the camera, a supply of eleven glass plates, as well as notebooks and pencils in a stout leather case in a knapsack that weighed some thirty pounds. The theolodite broke down into to parts, each stored in a protective wooden box. Together with the tripod, this added another twenty-seven pounds. The leveling base for the camera, spare plate holders, measuring tapes, three-cornered canvas bags to fill with dirt or stones to steady the tripod, and other miscellaneous items brought the total field kit to nearly 100 pounds. In addition, there was the supply of glass negatives, which Wheeler had packed himself, wrapping each plate in dry botanical paper, then placing them individually in one-inch protective sleeves in tin-lined boxes, which he personally sealed with solder. Each of these boxes weighed thirty-two pounds. He would secure and develop 240 images.

Having reached the North Col and been turned away, yet still miraculously alive (save for Keller) the team, defeated but not dismayed, through the Everest Committee, quickly geared up for a second expedition in the spring of 1922. Though they were much earlier than in 1921 the group were still disadvantaged by several key factors:

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Self portrait of John Noel, filming the ascent from Chang La, the North Col in 1922

E.O. Wheeler, the Canadian surveyor who found the path to the North Col, was discluded due to politics rather than talent. The team would miss his variety of skill. The 48-year-old Colonel Strutt, was made new “climbing leader” by General Bruce largely due to him being a highly decorated military commander. The team still had little idea of the true route to the North Face and wasted precious time between the end of winter and the oncoming Monsoon Season searching various paths. Though they had the use of oxygen tanks, this was the first time a human had climbed above 8,000 m (26,247 ft), and all involved had little idea how lack of oxygen affected humans at high altitude. Many preferred to go without, to their detriment. The attitude of “real men don’t use bottle air” likely still holds some kind sway to this day. All this in addition to insufficient equipment (clothing, tents, food) and equipment failure (those damn oxygen tanks), as well as the lack of any decent idea about how the monsoon rains affect weather at the top of the world. They would not make the peak. The wishy-washy method of finding a route in time plus the unpredictability of the monsoon made ascent impossible and put the climbing team in more unpredictable and dangerous situations where making life and death decisions too casually caused the death of seven porters in an avalanche on the descent from the North col.

Despite the unrealistic pressures of the militarists for success at all cost versus the mountaineers more realistic view yet equally deranged undertaking, the addition of the photographer John Noel was crucial to the future of the mythical Mount Everest in the eyes of the western world. He would go on to make two documentaries about his experiences in the Himalaya and be key in fundraising to get the team back to the mountain in 1924.

There is a way to remove the perversion from our once honorable acts of exploration--to cease the destruction of the natural world to our financial profit and physical and spiritual deficit. Click To Tweet

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Life & Death on Mount Everest

Mallory’s Route up the North Face

While the remainder of 1922 was reserved for soul-searching the Everest Committee was committed to another shot at Everest. Despite bankruptcy that delayed them an entire year and a continued military style leadership that was more political than practical, it had become abundantly clear that Mallory was the only one who could attempt and truly have a shot at the peak, but he needed more than just an adequate team, he needed to believe. The mountain had changed Mallory in ways he had never suspected possible. Despite all of his newfound fame at home he was almost destitute, still away from his family for the most part, having to work as a teacher for disagreeable men, yet enjoying no sense of the exhilaration of exploring such a place as the Himalaya, where men dared not go. After having been so close to the top, one can only imagine the solitude he felt at the bottom, where he was just another regular joe amongst the rest of the lowly rabble of society. It was for his wife that the decision cost him any sleep, for soon enough he was neck deep in preparations for the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition.

The elderly head of the expedition Charles Bruce was soon struck down with malaria and succeeded by Edward Norton, an officer and a capable climber. On finding the route and establishing camps higher and higher along the way to the North Col, Captain Geoffrey Bruce (the brother of the General) along with Mallory made the first summit attempt. Abandoned by their porters and having to set up camp themselves in torrents of icy wind without the use of oxygen, they soon descended to a lower camp and met Norton and Dr. T. Howard Somervell on their way up. It was here that Norton set the confirmed world record climbing altitude of 8570 m which was not surpassed for another 28 years until the 1952 Swiss Mount Everest Expedition. But he too was turned away due to climbing difficulty and lack of oxygen, while his partner Somervell nearly died on top. On the way down, he passed Mallory and the engineering student Andrew Irvine, who had decided to give it one last attempt, this time with oxygen.

Mallory and Irvine disappeared from the visibility of John Noel’s cameras a mere 800 feet from the summit. A sudden storm rolled in and they were never seen alive again. Could they have made summit—exhausted and with little oxygen left—in the whipping wind and stinging snow? Separating them from the peak at a height of 8,610 meters (28,250 ft) was the Second Step, a prominent upwelling of rock jutting 40 meters into the air–a very difficult, if not impossible free climb. Since a Chinese climbing team attached a ladder in 1975 this step has not had the significance it would have had to a team climbing without modern technology in the midst of a sudden storm, such as Mallory could have faced.

Mallory’s wife Ruth was waiting patiently in England for her husband to conquer the mountain and come home to her. That never happened. What did happen is up for supposition. The central question to The Wildest Dream (Anthony Geffen, 2010), the story of Conrad Anker going back to Everest 8 years after discovering George Mallory’s body in 1999, to revisit the 1924 expedition undertaken by Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine: was George Mallory the first to summit Mt. Everest? Anker is a compelling protagonist and an expert mountaineer, who drags a youthful and adept climber Leo Houlding along with him to retrace the steps of the infamous pair—often employing the same clothing, shoes and equipment—in their trailblazing ascent. We learn that when Anker found Mallory’s body he did not find the picture of his wife Mallory had promised to place atop the summit should he make it. It was also not among his papers in his breast pocket, yet a recently penned letter to Ruth was. So where did the photo go? Did Mallory achieve summit and place the photo where he reported he would, or did the well-known absent-minded mountaineer merely lose it while shuffling last-minute through his papers?

It is an understandable passion, to see a mountain and want to scale it, for good or ill, we will never stop the quest to explore our world. Whether it be the honorable act of mountain climbing corrupted or one of profitable oil drilling gone bad, the world will not wait for permission. Come what may, we act now and beg for forgiveness later. In the rush to outpace death we often invite it to our own–and those less advantaged’s–doorstep. But what is the alternative? To wait for life to snuff itself out, whittling away at a lump of wood on the porch, or to seek it out, even to the extremes and damned be the costs, for the glory of humankind? There is a way to remove the perversion from our once honorable acts of exploration–to cease the destruction of the natural world to our financial profit and physical and spiritual deficit. Beyond whether man’s desire to attain the peak of Everest (or any other absurd activity) at any cost merely “because it is there” is right or wrong, should we not rather look toward the plight of the many and spend our precious time and limited energy on fixing our homes and neighborhoods? Or as Sogyal Rinpoche says:

All too often people come to meditation in the hope of extraordinary results, like visions, lights, or some supernatural miracle. When no such thing occurs, they feel extremely disappointed. But the real miracle of meditation is more ordinary and much more useful.


Mount Everest the Reconnaissance, 1921, by Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury and George H. Leigh-Mallory and A. F. R. Wollaston
Climbing Mount Everest, 1922, The Epic of Everest, 1924, by John Noel
Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, 2011, by Wade Davis, Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Mount Everest Fight Raises Questions About Sherpas Broughton Coburn, National Geographic (magazine).

420 - Green Is Good

420 – Green Is Good

“Hemp is, by far, Earth’s premier, renewable natural resource.”
— Jack Herer

In Jack Herer’s scathing Corporate takedown, The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy, he talks about the history of hemp:

Botanically, hemp is a member of the most advanced plant family on Earth. It is a dioecious (having male, female and sometimes hermaphroditic, male and female on same plant), woody, herbaceous annual that uses the sun more efficiently than virtually any other plant on our planet, reaching a robust 12 to 20 feet or more in one short growing season. It can be grown in virtually any climate or soil condition on Earth, even marginal ones.

420 - Green Is Good

That is a most kindly flag Miss Ross. Sew up another please!

Among its many uses hemp was crafted into canvas sails, virtually all of the rigging, anchor ropes, cargo nets, fishing nets, flags, shrouds, and sailors’ clothing for ocean-going vessels, as well as Levis, tents, bed sheets and linens, rugs, drapes, quilts, towels, diapers, and the U.S. flag, all principally made from fibers of cannabis. Additionally, any ships’ charts, maps, logs, and Bibles were made from paper containing hemp fiber. Roll that up and smoke it Moses. Not to mention, paint, varnish, lamp oil, food, and of course, medicine. yet it may be its use as a paper product that created the environment in which it met its a legislature too large.

The 1930s saw the creation of the decorticator – a new mechanical hemp fiber stripping machine– as well as machines to conserve hemp’s high-cellulose pulp threaten to become widespread enough to lower the cost of mass-produced hemp-based paper products a reality–and a danger–tonot only the American public, but to American manufacturing, and most importantly Randolph Heart’s newspapers. Hearst had large timber interests and a paper manufacturing division, and stood to lose the substantial profits he made by selling the yellow journalism he daily coerced his editors into spewing, such as, “Mexican killer weed, Marihuana.” This snowballed into other racist epithets (“Marihuana-crazed blacks raping whites”) that were largely accepted by the majority Caucasian populace and scared the citizenry into silent acceptance for 60 years.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, drafted by Harry Anslinger–an anti-drug nutjob who held the post of Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for more than 30 years–placed a tax on the sale of cannabis. This affected few beside the AMA (American Medical Association), which prescribed marijuana medicinally. The Tax Act is seen as the precursor to criminalization of the plant, a conspiracy hatched by Hearst and the DuPont Petrochemical Company, which had just invented Nylon, a rival fiber that may have challenged DuPont investor Andrew Mellon’s (Anslinger’s Father-in-law and Secretary of the Treasury at the time) interests.

The only major opposition to the Marihuana Tax Act was brought by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who in 1939 created the La Guardia Committee, which conducted the first in-depth study into the effects of smoking cannabis. Contradicting claims made by the U.S. Treasury Department, the committee concluded that “the practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.” The report did little beside angering Anslinger, who was not a doctor, though he called it unscientific. Incredible that the Treasury once wielded such power. And so with little more fanfare than the beginning of 60 years of arrests for the possession and sale of minor amounts of fruit of the hemp plant.

420 – Green Is Good

While there are many who point to the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana as being a stepping off point into the oblivion of a lawless society, the continued stigmatization of the plant as something different than any other socially acceptable drug with generally mild euphoric effect, is past the point of being saleable to an increasingly world-savvy generation of people with some kind of disposable incomes. Almost 60% of millennials see marijuana as something that should be legalized, while the boomer and gen xers tend to top out at just over 50%, dually ironic in that kids are starting to see things as their parents do, and that the hippy generation who championed “Peace Not War” has become conservative almost to a fault. More than %05 of Americans do think it should be recreationally legal, a fact that is hard to ignore in a world where hardliners want to cut tax revenue and worries about future solvency of Social Security and healthcare seem to be never-ending. Let the people eat cake, especially if it’s safely laced with THC and well, but not prohibitively, taxed.

420 - Green Is Good

Pew Research Marijuana Map

Despite opposition, the tide is turning. In four states – Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon as well as Washington D.C., recreational use of marijuana has become legal in the last two years, while an additional 14 states have decriminalized certain amounts of marijuana possession. Including those five locations, 23 states plus D.C. and Guam allow medical marijuana. As far as the U.S. government is concerned Marijuana remains a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, classified as having a “high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use.” However the Obama Administration has been active in not prosecuting those involved in the medicinal marijuana trade. As well as staying away from Colorado & Washington recreational tax revenues. That doesn’t mean any of these new businesses popping up will accept a debit card anytime soon.

Hemp has thousands of applications developed over the millennia by industrious people who did not have the benefit of modern technology, including by the U.S. military during WWII. With the advent of high tech processes that could streamline the production of high quality hemp products, it is wasteful to continue in the current fashion, especially when the major hang-up is the prohibition-era teetotaller-minded stigmitization based on lies and profit for the privileged few. It was only in the Tax Act of 1937 and the subsequent Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that it became a Schedule I substance equal to heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and crack. What was happening in the early part of last century is largely what is happening now – the widespread medicinal application of a generally mild euphoric relaxant. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, the first state in the union to allow for the medical use of marijuana. In response to California’s Prop 215 the Institute of Medicine put together a report which found that “Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation…The psychological effects of cannabinoids, such as anxiety reduction, sedation, and euphoria can influence their potential therapeutic value. Those effects are potentially undesirable for certain patients and situations and beneficial for others.” That’s science’s way of saying, Randolph Hearst was full of shit.

Skylines Hong Kong

Skylines Hong Kong

Skylines Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a perfect example of a seemingly finite universe in which a quite small amount of land has been pointed toward a certain kind of efficiency–building up and down rather than outward–in effect searching for ways to find space within rather than without. With its background as imperial playground and now its multi-cultural identity going far to define it as China-but-not, Hong Kong is a perfect place to get (very) lost and still feel warmly surrounded and enclosed by people of all makes and models.

Skylines Hong Kong

Shrine to all the Night bats

KOWLOON is a big beautiful sewer, awash with gorgeous rats. Humid and rife with an armada of smells in her harbor: smells of the sea and shit, dim sum and diapers, tobacco and Tsing Tao. I’m staying where I always stay in Asian cities: in the ghetto with the illegals and no names, foreigners and prostitutes, criminals and the working class- a crowd which Jesus would approve, the lifeblood as it were, and then there are the ubiquitous touts on every corner proffering fake Rolex, real hash, faux Gucci, real women, ersatz Versace, real annoyance- this is Nathan Road. I am targeted for my pigment, my melanin. 8 of 10 apparently being too dark-skinned to be dollar rich, the random Brit and I (not together mind you) walking the wide crowded boulevard, remain the only recipients of such special offers as Pressure Point foot massages, exquisitely tailored almost-Armani suits and of course the superfluous Chinese Virgin…”Comes with the set meal!” I expect to hear next, yet somehow don’t. The thought arises concerning job security in this latter category, though knowing the Chinese’s affinity for their daughters, most likely not something to give a lot of thought to.

Here in this part of the city, on these long traversive roads, one tends to walk faster than any double-decker tourist special. One weaves and bobs like a prize fighter in training, with that special glint in the eye focusing toward some future destination. Though if those eyes should linger too long on any would be prize, if too much interest be shown in any merchandise, human or otherwise, the possibility of being pestered and followed for blocks by a never-ending flow of Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian or other-blooded touts looms too large for comfort. So I walk on, turn corners, round blocks, repeat, retrace, I check out a possible restaurant in two to three passes before committing, whereupon I do not stand outside like some pasty German in overly tight safari shorts with his fat wife gawking at the plastic display. No. But rather walking in, in full stride, head up high with eyes scanning, sitting as strategically as possible (for a potentially quick getaway should it be needed) and I order the local beer as quickly as possible.

The truth is I enjoy all these things to a certain extent- the dirt, the constant pestering, the humidity, the walking, the smell of the earth, the sweat, blood, and genitals all intermingling in intimate proximity to fellow humans, swarthy or not. Though they reside at the periphery of my journey, though I pass them by, they too matter. They also are part of the process. For what I seek is simple, friends. What I seek is food. And no matter how much shit I have to trudge through to reach my destination, sometimes known sometimes not, I shall pass.

It's the BBQ prawns which I can't get out of my head, the taste off my tongue. Here comes the second order, blindingly hot wrapped around thick chunks of bamboo, hot and sweet, washed down with a second tallboy of Tsing Tao. Visions… Click To Tweet

Skylines Hong Kong

Restructuring Hong Kong Night & Day

As diverse as Hong Kong is English is everywhere. Good English too, at least compared to the Japanese. The Chinese are Asia’s consummate businessmen and thusly realize the power of properly utilized linguistics. Most any restaurant I walk in to has an English menu, albeit offering slightly inflated prices, telling me of the: oceans of shrimp, ox tail, beef tongue, pork neck, duck wing, camel hoof, shark fin, turtle soup- the translation of which leads me to actually knowing what I shall soon be served as opposed to (yet another) bout of random pointing at Chinese Characters, because though the businessmen of Hong Kong do know their English, the citizenry have yet to learn word one, nor do they care to, especially the wait staff, it would seem.

Having gotten my beer and a roomful of odd stares from the customers (none of whom are drinking anything but tea with their dinner), I down a few glasses of the ice cold Tsing Tao and kick back, preparing the various soy and sweet chili sauces. But here comes my order- nothing fancy for dinner- BBQ prawns fried in sugarcane, the Vietnamese veggie harumaki- fat thumbsized bastards all of them, come with a plate of lettuce the mama-san mimes me to wrap the spring roll in and then dip in the strong chili paste, and finally my weakness, some octopus tentacles. It’s the BBQ prawns which I can’t get out of my head, the taste off my tongue. Here comes the second order, blindingly hot wrapped around thick chunks of bamboo, hot and sweet, washed down with a second tallboy of Tsing Tao. Visions of cows and their two stomachs float by, but I’ve already ordered more than usual, so I finish my beer and pass on, rolling a smoke outside and venturing onto the next joint.

Skylines Hong Kong

A Misty View From Victoria Peak, Hong Kong

The Chinese are nighthawks, up all hours selling, buying, eating, drinking, smoking, touting, pimping, dealing, double-dealing, even perhaps loving. The opportunity for good food, good photos, strange conversations, illicit meetings, dark alley connections, neon-lit exclamations, convenience store forays, porn-mag expeditions, brothel look-sees never ends. Then there’s still the endless sidewalk running alongside this British-dubbed Nathan Road, walled in on all sides by a million different nationalities, all vying for one more Hong Kong Dollar. Well friends, tonight I’m buying. Anyone know a good place for snake, boar, bear, pigeon or raccoon at 5am?

The day starts a deep dark gray and seems to settle that way, as if it likes it just fine. The streets wet from rain or the perpetual sweat the city secretes from its myriad glands, I cannot tell. The touts at their posts already, yawning yet with eyes apeel for the day’s fresh white meat. Sipping a mango smoothie, I makeway through morning traffic with one thing on my mind: dim sum. A local points me toward Happy Market Noodle Factory recommending the congee. I find it, walk in and sit while the mama-san impatiently taps her foot as I sip my tea and take in the 10 page menu she just slammed down on the sticky table.

I say “Beer” motioning big as she husks off whispering something to the other 8 waitresses lounging about beneath strange posters of various mostly deep-fried flora and fauna, all looking eerily similar. I need the time it takes her to get my beer so as to justify my slow perusal of the menu’s breadth and overall depth of selection. I imagine myself a fortune cookie maker: “One must take their time when ordering so as not to miss the menu’s secret back-alley specials.” Somewhere a gong carols. Birds flap off. A baby cries.

Mama comes back and I know another drink won’t keep her from tossing me out, so I order a mudfish congee to appease her and keep scanning, my eyes jitterbugging back and forth past typical boring, safe tourist fare. I linger a bit over shark fin soup, but can’t bring myself to sanction such brutality. The ox-ball dumplings in oyster sauce with braised bok choy sounds good. Never had testicles before. Penis yes. Testes no. That’ll serve nicely as an apres-main and for the second course…it’s then I see it, big and posterized above a waitress picking her nose: Deep Fried Pigeon.

My choice is made. Screw dim sum. I. Must. Have. Pigeon. My mouth, which before had merely been expecting testicles, now goes into salivary overproduction mode. My belly rumbles and rolls in anticipation. My fingers even begin surreptitiously to move toward my lips, preparing to be licked. As if a sudden case of low blood sugar has set in, I have the shakes. I’m flushed and prickly. My dick is hard.

Skylines Hong Kong

This Little Hong Kong Pigeon Won’t Be Flying Far

I head to the bathroom to steady myself, throw water on my face. Looking in the mirror I flash on my ex-girlfriend and her vocal disgust for what she termed “flying rats”. What would be her reaction to my breakfast choice: would she hug me to her bosom for ridding the world of one more foul beast or revile me in disgust for putting such a vile, dirty creature across my lips?

Shrugging, I head back to my table, passing the kitchen, full of a fresh delivery of duck carcasses, some brown and crispy-skinned, others pale and limp, all piled next to various heaps of pig legs, necks, feet, cow tongues, ox tails, and what look like a bevy of genitalia all queued up for the big Oak-round cutting board and that mad-eyed Kahn lookalike with the cleaver in his hand and blood on his apron. Steam floats about in all directions, whistling and shooting like from old locomotives, while small, angular men in white wield knives with deadly accuracy, moving with a precision memorized by muscles years ago. There is no waste. Not in animal nor in preparation. It is a pleasure to watch.

It is only then I notice my the pounding in my ears. Suddenly everything’s sped up. My pulse ascending to double beats. Blood rushing to the surface of my clammy skin. My walk is thick and loud like slow motion through a bog. I imagine MSG poisoning feels like this. Was the bear liver I had yesterday bad? The Panda anus not quite bacteria free?

It’s nothing. Nerves. Excitement. Sexual rush. I get back to my table and, steaming and popping in grease rivulets, here comes my pigeon. It’s smaller than I expected, though defeathered, what isn’t? As it’s served whole (it’s fried little head, eyes and beak rendered so perfectly…adorable) I glance at my chopsticks, then at the bird, then at my steady surgeon hands and I have at it, dropping the chopsticks and tearing into it. Literally ripping it in half and sucking all I can out of its fried little ass. There are no barriers anymore.

I flay the skin from its neck and, peeling up and over the head, I bite down until it breaks between my teeth, sucking out all the marrow from the neck bones. I slurp at the eyes, test the beak, chaw on the spine. I want to consume it whole. And not for my ex and for anyone who ever hated on one of these so-called winged rodents, but instead to take the yoke off of its much maligned back and put it on mine. Suddenly I see a light. I hear beautiful singing. And then I know.

From now on little fellow, in eating you, in consuming you whole, sins and all, I relieve you of your earthly burdens and take them for myself. From this point forward Brother Pigeon, I feel your pain, just like all the clawed, taloned, hoofed, scaled and winged animals I have taken your deliciousness into my body and allowed to strengthen me in my journey to rid the world of treachery toward our collective. Thank you, brother, for your life, tasty as it was, given unwillingly, has now become mine and until I can no longer eat another of your winged kin, can step no longer to the cutting board to declaw you, can no longer chew my own food, I will live this life in strength and peace, pursuing wisdom and offering respect to all those who seek to enlighten us on our collective journey down the Right Path.

A photographic work-in-progress focusing on the communities in which we reside and the lines, sometimes invisible sometimes not, that connect us. This project began in Hong Kong in 2007 documenting how we layout, build, maintain and ultimately view ourselves within the large-scale cityscapes in which we move to and fro, work and live, love and kill. Suggesting not only what we see before us but also the larger and more mysterious nature of the cities and therefore the societies that we make, as well as their reverberations spreading outward from the center to the fringes. I remain fascinated by exploring new places with my camera and a few rolls of film, after which revisiting old places provides me a parallax perspective, fresh ideas and new insight into how we continue to add to the world of our forefathers and mothers.

The Spires of Watts Towers

Watts Towers – Nuestro Pueblo

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

                                       — John Augustus Shedd (1859 – ?), Salt from My Attic (1928)

Cities, more and more, represent waste, inefficiency and indentured servitude within an unnatural and unhealthful setting that is inhospitable to humans. But what can you do? You were likely born in one, raised and currently live and work in one, and probably see no problem at all with this situation. You have been brainwashed by police dramas on cable television and fashion magazines and 24-hour news cycles that need and fear are the primary human emotions. Indeed you most definitely enjoy being surrounded by the Energy of the City, the buzz of traffic and hum of electrical lines criss-crossing the grid, beneath which strangers just like you search out on their smart phones the newest restaurants and bars, go to 3D movies and shop at miniature stores in shopping malls nested atop concrete parking lots, where you chomp on foodlike substances and slurp down overly sugared coffee drinks before getting into whatever vehicle the carsalesman convinced you you couldn’t live another day without to drive back to the apartment/condo/townhouse/duplex/highrise/brownstone you live in to unpack your new gear before adding another nth of unbiodegradable rubbish to the invisible pile of garbage on which our foundations founder.

But this is a must for most. We don’t know any better. And if we do it doesn’t matter. We have to work to survive, to pay the bills, to afford some little comforts and conveniences in otherwise unexciting stomp to the grave. As Emily Haines of Metric disdainfully sings in Handshakes, “Buy This Car To Drive To Work / Drive To Work To Pay For This Car.”

Start a farm and grow your own vegetables? Impossible! Buy a boat and sail around the world – HA – Pipedream!

Watts Towers – Nuestro Pueblo

Andy Warhol may have asserted that everything has been done and there is nothing original left, and all of life’s new days are full of government regulation and legalese, but within the life of duty to work and family and country and local football team and softdrink, there are chances to aspire to more. Between each breath there is the specter of death, driving us to grasp the manic and surreal images from within our dreams and blow life into them. The effort to create something from nothing but your only slightly intelligible mindscape is called visualization and one of the things that make humans special.

Simon Rodia, the diminutive Italian immigrant who constructed the Watts Towers by hand —alone— out of steel rods looped with spoked circular hoops rising to over 100 feet, who had no formal architectural training, once said, “I had it in mind to do something big and I did it.” Yet the towers, under construction from 1921 until 1954 and often the target of civic demolition campaign, have been proven more structurally sound than many modern edifices. The towers are more than the sum of their structurally sound steel reinforced rods. Artistically composed of a mosaic of blue and green glass bottles, various kinds of seashells, shards of pottery, multicolored tile and other locally found materials, remarkably, they are not merely towers at all. Viewed from within, one can see that the towers that poke into the often blue sky of south central Los Angeles are instead the masts that stem from the hull of an unsailable ship, one supposedly pointing toward Rodia’s homeland. in a way the towers represent both a dream come to fruition as well as a dream unfulfilled. From the mind of one man sprang one of the only culturally profound sites in the southland (other than the La Brea Tar Pits, which perhaps represent the yin to Rodia’s yang–the inward breath of life rather than outward aspiration–the sucking in rather than the blowing out), and yet it’s very shape and meaning are one that will never come to pass for Mr. Rodia, who passed away in the mid-60s. It is symbolic that to get to Watts Towers, the brave traveler must venture through some unsavory and potentially dangerous terrain, but what trip that means anything is not fraught with peril? What ship is meant to stay in harbor?

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