October 27, 2007

Aimless meandering

Had a good hike today. Three days of rain cleared into a beautiful autumn day, so I hit the woods and let both my feet and my mind wander. Passed a couple of guys in the parking lot who were donning camo gear for some bow hunting in the area, and that prompted the majority of my mental ramblings. (Disclaimer: As with everything else I post here, what I'm about to state are my own opinions and ideas, and they're not even terribly well informed ones, at that. I'm not looking to offend anyone with these opinions, I'm just putting my thoughts into words. So, my apologies in advance to any cattle ranchers or Bambi fans who may be reading.)

I decided long ago that I have no problem with hunters, even when their hunting grounds coincide with my hiking trails (Becoming common practice where I live. The deer population is huge.). Poachers and trophy hunters disgust me, but someone who goes out with a bow and spends the time to familiarise themself with the animal's habits, learns to think like the animal, and then actually makes use of the meat after the kill, seems to have more respect for the animal (though I don't generally poll the hunters I meet on their intentions and practices, so for all I know the guys I saw today were just looking to score a big rack). Since humankind was stupid enough to kill off most of our predatory competitors, we've put ourselves in the position of having to control the populations of herbivores like the whitetail. Controlled, managed hunting culls the population and helps to maintain the health of the herd. That's how nature intended it, and by decimating fellow predatory species we perverted the cycle of life. Hunting somewhat helps to restore it.

Another element of this equation is the whole meat-eating question. I've been considering this more and more frequently and, as usual, I'm conflicted about it. I vaguely remember my parents dabbling in vegetarianism at one point back when I was a kid. Or at least Mom did. Dad's always been one of those guys you see in the current Wendy's ads, screaming for meat as if it were the source of all manliness. But anyway... Since I began reading about Buddhism and the Yogic concept of ahimsa, you'd think that going veg-o would be a natural course of action. Thing is, though, that I don't necessarily believe that humankind isn't supposed to eat meat. I believe that we evolved to be omnivorous, similarly to bears and raccoons. We developed rudimentary canine teeth and the ability to digest meat proteins. Our bodies actually require a certain amount of protein to function properly. Evolution just did not develop us to be herbivorous grazers. Where we went astray, though, was in allowing our appetite to consume us.

Think about it. In the beginning, humans had to work for their meat. It was a "special occasion" kind of thing, depending on the success of the hunt. But that bit of protein helped our brains to grow, and we ironically became smart enough to begin coralling and domesticating some of our more gentle, less-skittish protein sources. From that point on, meat became a staple in our diets and the Big Mac was the unfortunately inevitable outcome.

It's always our intelligence that gets us in trouble. From throwing up a fence, we moved on to members of the tribe learning to specialize in butchery and, voila!, the Meat Industry was born. What we have today is such a perversion of our original instincts that it's almost on a par with the atomic bomb coming from the ideas of someone like Einstein. Not only have we industrialized our consumption of something we originally had to work for, we've allowed that industry to become a filthy, corrupt thing that's cruel to the animals in question and, by ironic extension, hazardous to ourselves. (What's being fed to animals raised for consumption is disgusting and frightening. And that doesn't even get into the chemicals and antibiotics they're pumped up with.)

But what's a lazy slob like me to do? I hate to admit it, but I'm a slave to convenience. If I can't nuke it, order it, or pick it up at the drive-through, then I don't eat (cereal and fruit are nifty alternatives, though). This doesn't mean that I can't cook, just that I choose not to. I go through periodic phases when I make use of a few pots and pans and my handy-dandy George Foreman grill. It ain't gourmet, but I can make some fairly tasty meals. But then there are all those pots and pans and dishes to clean up... I'll admit it again: I'm a lazy slob. For someone like me, going vegetarian is decidedly challenging. Until Chick-Fil-A changes its name to Tofu-Fil-A, I'm a pawn to an industry that I'd rather have no part of.

And that's what it comes down to. For me, if I were to get off my lazy ass and make the decision to go veg-o, it would be as a boycott of Meat Industry practices, not out of any ahims-ic feelings towards my fellow creatures. I'll emphasize, again: I feel that truly needless killing is reprehensible. But if a bear or a wolf or a lion can remorselessly consume an animal that sits lower down the food chain, I can as well. And when I'm mindful enough to stop and think about it, I try to do so with respect and gratitude towards that animal. I'll admit, though, that my conscience would rest more easily if I were out there working for it, rather than having it neatly sliced, diced, and packaged, then handed to me at the drive-through.

Life feeds on life feeds on life...

So, spending much of today's hike pondering my feelings on this subject was a good break for me. It predominated my thoughts, allowing only a short time to brood over a sick cat, necessary home repairs, and problems at work and the terribly un-skillful ways in which I've been dealing with them. Another good distraction was a very cool animal encounter. I had stopped for a bit to just take in my surroundings, when I caught the flap of large wings out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head in time to see a Barred Owl settle on the limb of a tree just a couple hundred feet away. There were a few leafy branches between us, but I was able to very quietly maneuver myself to an angle at which I could see its eyes as it turned its head from side to side. At one point I let out a low whistle and it turned to stare directly towards me. Then, stupidly, I tried to slowly move a few steps to get a clearer view, which prompted it to spread its wings and swoop off to a further tree. So I apologized for disturbing it and hit the trail.

October 9, 2007

Recent experiences in mind-expansion

In the last handful of days, I've been to two very intense, moving, and thought-provoking exhibits. It's going to be hard to convey the full impact of them, but hopefully I can get at least some of it across.

First of the two is the latest exhibit at the American Visionary Arts Museum (AVAM), "All Faiths Beautiful" (photos from the opening, apparently). I had been slightly disappointed by the last two year's exhibits at AVAM, but this one is special from the first step beyond the entrance. In addition, I had the pleasure of experiencing it with a new internet acquaintance with whom I was very much on the same wave-length. From the items we reacted to, to the connections we made with pieces, there were repeated moments of synchronicity as we wandered through the galleries. As I've written here before, I'm often hesitant to share with others things that are meaningful to me for fear that the experience will be diminished by that person not "getting it". Having this person along definitely made the experience richer and lots of fun to boot (thanks, Leo!).

So, the exhibit
begins with a stream of postcards from the PostSecret project, chosen specifically for their reference to the sender's issues with faith. The secrets shared ranged from hilarious to heart-rending and were very touching to read. At the top of the entrance ramp, before entering the galleries, a sign explains that this year's exhibit is dedicated to the middle-eastern spiritual poet, Rumi, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of his birth. I've read about Rumi in the yoga and Buddhism magazines I subscribe to, but I had never been drawn into reading anything from Rumi. After this introduction to him, it's time.

Immediately beyond the ramp and across from the stairs, AVAM hung the lone Alex Grey piece in this exhibit, "Transfiguration". I've seen a few other of Grey's works at the gallery ("Gaia" and "Cosmic Christ", both presented in the same terrific spot by the stairs) and each one has left me in awe. It's impossible to conceive either the detail or the overall beauty of his work in the tiny images linked here. The man's work is profound and amazing.

The walls along the stairs leading to the upper exhibit floors are lined with more cards from PostSecret. They're a fantastic exhibit all to themselves, but they're only the beginning. The review in the Baltimore Sun really describes the entire show better than I can, but there were a few highlights that really stuck with me. One in particular is the art of Fred Kahler. The detail of Kahler's pieces is mind-boggling. I've often walked through AVAM and imagined the various artists hunched for hours and hours over their work, compelled to create by the power of their vision (AVAM recognizes this same impression, with a separate exhibit of permanent works entitled "OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Delight"). Just as many hours could be spent inspecting, analysing and comprehending works like Kahler's. Amazing stuff.

Another hightlight is the room of Rumi. The combination of Rumi's words with gorgeous imagery is fantastic. Being with someone at the time, I didn't take advantage of the pillows along the wall, but on my second visit I may have to pull one out to the middle of the room to sit and soak it all up.

Another excellent discovery of the day was later at the Fell's Point Festival (longest running street festival on the east coast, apparently). There are always several booths of wonderful photographers, but the works of Christos Palios were the most fantastic I saw. Very Escher-esque pieces that are as trippy as they are beautiful. It's definitely worth the time to explore the portfolio area at his site.

Today's incredible experience was attending Bodies, The Exhibit. At first glance, the exhibits appear to be very thoroughly detailed models. The colors of the muscles and other tissues have a faded appearance that makes them seem fake (whether this is their true color or from exposure to light, dust, etc, I don't know). As I looked closer, though, certain details became apparent that drove home the reality: The hairs on the shin of a human skin laid out sans body; thick, horney-looking toenails on the foot of an otherwise flayed body; eyelashes on another. From that point on, my thoughts veered between fascination and morbidity through the rest of the exhibit. The information accompanying the exhibits is very detail and informative, and actually seeing the veins, tendons, muscles, organs and skeletal structures was wonderfully instructive. But then I'd catch myself thinking that a gluteus muscle looked just like a flank steak, or that a cross-section cut of thigh looked like a slice of ham (with the center bone, marrow, and all).

The circulatory gallery, though, was more beautiful than morbid. I don't remember the exact name and details of the process used to create this portion of the exhibit, but in a nutshell-- A fluid is injected into the veins that colors and hardens them. The body is then immersed in a solution that dissolves everything except the hardened veins. The result is an amazing mesh of tiny, intricately branching veins in the rough form of a human body, heart, lungs, etc. It looks as if it can't possibly be real and, if it is, as if there wouldn't be room within the body for all of those veins along with skeleton, muscles and organs.

As much fun as the exhibit itself was riding the subway home afterwards and trying to picture what was under the skin of the people all around me. What would that heavy-set person look like in a cross-section cut? Do that person's lungs look like the healthy ones exhibited, or are they black like the smoker's lungs displayed? Mind-blowing stuff, and so worth the visit. See it if you can.

I've ended up the evening sitting in front of the computer tripping myself out over the Win Media Player visualizations dancing along to Incubus' "Calgone". Damn, man, who the f' needs drugs? I mean, really. Experiences such as I've had the last few days do it for me with no controlled substances necessary

October 7, 2007

The annual pilgrimage, 2007

I've let two weeks go by before making time to write about this year's annual pilgimage out to western Md. Life is freaking busy these days.

So, anyway, the pilgrimage. I first vacationed in western Md roughly ten years ago. I had moved into my grandmother's basement apartment as a 6-year relationship was in the process of crumbling (he wanted kids, I didn't), only to find that Grandma had just been diagnosed with cancer. So, at some point during that chaotic period, I picked up a brochure advertising "The Mountain Side of Maryland". Sounded damned good to me, so I booked a room at the Cumberland Holiday Inn and mapped a route of back roads through Va and WV up into Md. I've been in love with that area ever since and have spread my exploration over into Garrett County and up into Fayette County, Pa. Cumberland remains "home base", and I head in a different direction each day for exploration and adventure via car, bike and foot.

With so many great options, I usually cross my fingers for good weather and go for 4-5 days. This year's been another chaotic one, though, and I was only able to arrange a 3-day pilgrimage. Ma Nature blessed me with good weather, though, so while short, it was definitely sweet.

Thursday's adventure was a ride along the C&O Canal towpath from Little Orleans to the Paw Paw Tunnel. I've been riding the towpath in sections for the last several years, and there was one little stretch between these two locations that had been eluding me. I'd been needing to do this ride to finally link everything up and be able to say I've ridden the entire length from Great Falls to Cumberland (I have no interest in riding the section between D.C. and Great Falls, I'd rather head away from the city). This is a beautiful, solitary section, and the half-mile long, pitch-black tunnel is a real highlight.

Heading into the tunnel at the downstream end:

Within the tunnel (taken with flash):

Coming back out, heading downstream:

Further downstream:

And even further downstream:

Headed from there into Cumberland, checked into the hotel, then up to LaVale for dinner at the Texas Grillhouse. The place is a cowboy-themed chain and I wouldn't bother to mention it except that they consistently have the absolute best snowcrab legs I've ever eaten. Full of dense, sweet meat, and perfectly cooked so that you're able to pull out nice big chunks of meat to dip in the melted butter. After a good long bike ride, it's a decadently luxurious meal (yet somewhat healthy when combined with a baked sweet potato and applesauce) and I truly look forward to it each year.

The second day's ride was along the last completed stretch of the Great Allegheny Passage trail from Cumberland to Frostburg. I've ridden this trail west of Frostburg (my blog of that ride) and up in Fayette County, Pa, but this last 15 or so miles was just completed over the winter of 2006. It turned out to be a steeper grade than I expected, though, (I'd estimate 2-3%, more in some spots) and I ended up pooping out and turning around just 3 miles from Frostburg. Took me 2 hours and a whole lot of breaks to pedal 12 miles uphill, but only a bit over a half-hour to head back down.

In the mountains, along the tracks:

My trusty steed:

The evening consisted of a wander around Cumberland at dusk, then ordering room service and watching Spiderman III on pay-per-view.

Historic downtown Cumberland at dusk:

After cycling two days in a row, I weenied out of a third and headed back east a ways to Berkely Springs, WV. For the past several years, my Cumberland trips have begun with a massage at The Bath House (These pilgrimages may be solitary, but they are most definitely not ascetic). This year, though, all the time and money spent with the chiropractor made me feel I couldn't justify this particular luxury at this time. When my thighs turned to lead on the uphill to Frostburg, though, I changed my mind and decided to have myself kneaded into a lump of blissed-out clay after all.

After that, another indulgence-- Warm Brie, apple and almond salad at Tari's Cafe. And after that, I chose to partake in a bit of my favorite drug: Adrenaline, induced by high speed on smooth pavement. Instead of driving the highway back to Cumberland, I turned off to take a run up and down mountainous rural route 9 through WV. My trusty little Honda Civic flowed through the repeated 'S' curves like water, while Incubus cranked through the stereo. Brandon Boyd's no Chris Cornell (Edit 11/11/07: I've since changed that opinion), but he's got a sweet, fresh set of pipes nonetheless. A few choruses of "Nice to Know You", along with a couple of high-speed passes of slower pick-up trucks, and I was quite high.

After coming down, I spent the rest of the afternoon reading Rudyard Kipling at a table in front of the Mountain City Coffehouse in Frostburg (with Jasmine tea and Belgian waffle with chocolate chips for dinner). When I first began these trips, it was the Tombstone Cafe, a funky little coffee joint geared towards the local college kids. The tiny little building, next door to St. Michael's church, originally housed the town's headstone carver. It's been through a few incarnations over the last decade, ending up as Mountain City, which seems to cater less to the funky college crowd and more to their yuppie parents.

Funny how the definition of "Yuppie" has expanded, at least in my mind. Originally coined to describe "Young Urban Professionals", it now encompasses, for me at least, a decidedly vaster age and geographic range. I find myself appying the term to 40- & 50-somethings piloting mini-vans and Hummers through the suburbs. What acronym would be more accurate? M.A.S.T.-ies (Middle-Aged Surburban Twits)? And how about the SUV-driving, born-again hippies who guzzle gas on their way to Whole Foods? That bunch makes me feel almost affectionate towards the born'n'bred country locals rumbling around in their pickup trucks. They seem somehow less hypocritical and disingenuous.

And yet, where do I get off judging the people around me in this way? Me, who dodges group identification as if it were a plague and fastidiously avoids labeling myself in any way, how can I so easily classify individuals about whom I know nothing but what I imagine I see in a quick glimpse? Like Camus' "judge-penitent", I'm cynical enough to exercise hypocrisy with impunity (and tongue firmly in cheek).

"[My words] have the purpose of...avoiding judgement personally, though there is apparently no escape. Is not the great thing that stands in the way of escaping it the fact that we are the first to condemn ourselves? Therefore it is essential to begin by extending the condemnation to all, without distinction..." (Albert Camus, The Fall)

To shake off the bitter direction my thoughts were taking, I headed out for an evening drive before my last night in Cumberland. In addition to being a great high, driving's also a meditative and relaxing activity for me. I often think that if I could just keep driving, all the need for judgement and condemnation would just fall away somewhere around the next bend...

"Nice to Know You"

Better than watching Gellar bending silver spoons
Better than witnessing newborn nebulaes in bloom
She who sees from up high smiles and surely sings
Perspective pries your once weighty eyes
And it gives you wings

I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long
It's hard for me to specify
I'm beginning to notice
How much this feels like a waking limb
Pins and needles, nice to know you

Goodbye, nice to know you

Deeper than the deepest Cousteau would ever go
And higher than the heights of what we often think we know
Blessed she who clearly sees the wood for the trees
To obtain a birds eye is to turn a blizzard to a breeze

I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long
It's hard for me to specify
I'm beginning to notice
How much this feels like a waking limb
Pins and needles, nice to know you

Goodbye, nice to know you

So could it be that it has been there all along?