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Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Colorful World of Rusudan Petviashvili

One of Rusudan Petviashvili's works, showcasing her signature style
Rusudan Petviashvili described her paintings to me as I sat across from her in her Tbilisi studio, characterizing them as often containing everything at once--good and evil, envy and goodwill, peace and turmoil. I came across Rusudan's work in a small bookstore in Tbilisi, where a set of sixteen postcards was for sale. Each was a unique painting of hers, and each enchanted me. I began to look deeper into her art, and finally was able to sit down for a conversation with her. I made my way to her studio in the foothills looking over the Georgian capital on a pleasant spring evening, and was welcomed into the colorful and serene space inside.

Rusudan graciously translated the vivid creativity that lives within her not into her native tongue of Georgian, but into English for my own sake. I initially thought she likened her paintings to "parabolas", and immediately followed up asking if there was something mathematical behind her work. Indeed, her father's ancestors were physicists (search her surname on Amazon and you'll find a textbook), but she quickly corrected her word choice. She had meant to say "parables", as she illustrated not the structures and laws of mathematics but the fluidity and emotion of cultural narratives. Her eyes shone brightly as she explained further: "Reality is just put inside little fairy tales in order to be more beautiful."

One of many vivid paintings in Rusudan's Tbilisi studio

Her work is replete with not only themes but entire stories. There is not just motion, but activity. Rusudan herself is not only an artist, but something of a visual poet. Her words continued to expand upon her delightful perspective, as she said that "every person is like a universe", and she tried to capture the celestial qualities of humanity inside each figure of her paintings. As I looked around her studio, I could see that her art was absolutely rooted in human beings, yet not in so literal a sense that she was painting portraits or classical scenes. Instead, there seemed to be metaphors saturated in color, symbols endowed with human features. She elaborated on many of the symbols, some Biblical, and others simply fantasies of her own mind. Her eyes glowed with youth, a creativity that is as old as the artist herself.

Rusudan was born in another era, when the homeland she calls Georgia (or in her language, საქართველო - Sakartvelo) was known on maps as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Free thought and expression were not openly encouraged--parabolas, and not parables, were what geniuses pursued and paraded as the pinnacle of Soviet civilization  Georgian culture was suppressed, but, as Rusudan recalled to me aloud, the Georgians would only go along with Soviet decrees while it was convenient. True suppression was something they would not tolerate, and actively resisted. All these years later, Georgian culture is flourishing, with its language, music, architecture, history, and many other aspects very apparent to any visitor. Georgia is certainly not Russified, nor a Soviet relic. Even at the height of the Soviet Union, there was something unique about Georgia--and Tbilisi at it's heart--that gave it a reputation as something of a "Russian riviera" that was known as the home of artists, composers, and poets.

One of Rusudan's first sketches, featuring perhaps countless small figures--she says she gave each one a story of it's own

Georgian culture is part of what nurtured Rusudan into her career as an artist, but she also is a product of both an artistic family, of the influence of the Western world, and even the explicit encouragement of the Soviet Union. More than anything, she remarked, she is inspired by her own heart and soul--not by the works of others. Rusudan was sketching and painting from a very young age, under the guidance of her sculptor father and poet mother. By the age of six, she had made over 80 complex drawings. Two years later she was in Moscow, where one of her art exhibitions, scheduled to be two weeks long, ended up on display for three months instead. People came from all over the Soviet Union, in disbelief that they were viewing the work of a child. Some said the art resembled old Georgian manuscripts, but indeed it was Rusudan's own imagination and touch that produced such remarkable beauty. The French ambassador to the Soviet Union was one of her early admirers, and proposed that the Soviet government allow her to travel to Paris to showcase her art. For the Soviets, this was an opportunity to show the height of their people's art, and she quickly became not discouraged but prided. Eduard Shevardnadze, leader of Soviet Georgia, approached her parents in order to ask how he could help foster Rusudan's creative spirit; her mother replied that the best help was to refrain from bothering her.

Another of Rusudan's earliest sketches depicting her tale of three giants

Tbilisi was something of a Soviet Paris, Rusudan told me. This recalled my travels to other versions of "Paris"--Beirut, as the "Paris of the Middle East", and Buenos Aires as South America's equivalent. All earned these titles for their permissive, artistic, and progressive atmospheres at some time or other, but all had also lost that spirit in cataclysms and transformations. Tbilisi, however, had seen a different timeline. Tbilisi was a beacon of this spirit amid the austerity of the Soviet Union's other republics, and all these years later is still a hotbed of culture recognized by its neighbors. Nonetheless, Rusudan's life changed drastically when she left this "Soviet riviera" and went to visit Paris itself--not as a tourist, but as an artist. Her sketches became full fledged paintings, and her life as a whole became equally colorful.

In the Soviet Union, Rusudan told me, "everything was grey." To her the whole region seemed pale and lifeless, yet inside she felt a burst of vibrant color. "I had a feeling that I was in jail." The Soviets initially refused to allow her to visit Paris, instead suggesting another Soviet artist visit--but the French response was firm, insisting that it was Rusudan and her exhibition that they wanted to bring to France. Rusudan herself didn't participate in the politics of the art scene, but instead simply focused on her work. She looked to stand above the difficulties and conflicts posed by the rivalry of the Soviet Union and the West, and hoped to look inward for her inspiration. Human figures continued to dominate her work, more and more vibrantly. "A human being is a very special creation," she said dreamily. "He can do, he can receive, he can reach everything--can be perfect, can be cruel, can stand above or below himself. I love people who stand above."

Her first impression of Paris, after visiting as a 12 year old girl, was how colorful everything was. She said it felt free and like a true home--a feeling she is now acquainted with after so many subsequent visits there. When she returned from Paris, Rusudan had difficulty explaining to her peers what it was like. She went back to her work, and continued to excel. The year was 1980, and it was still a decade before she would find the same colorful freedom blossoming in full in Tbilisi. During those coming years, she browsed her father's books in admiration of other artists, finding herself in particular amazement of Impressionist paintings. Other influences included Egyptian hieroglyphs, which have a vague resemblance to the elongated figures in her forthcoming paintings. She also enjoyed the work of Georgian artists, many of whom had been renowned internationally in years past, but she saw their work as a different flavor entirely and not of great influence to her own aspirations. Her own methods drew strongly from Impressionists but with a twist--rather than relying on color as the basis of her pieces, she relied on the lines. She began to illustrate with unbroken lines, never lifting the pencil from the paper, before painting on her color.

Rusudan's paintings express fantastical scenes replete with color and emotion

In a sense, Rusudan's method can be compared to a writing technique called "stream of consciousness." When I asked her if this was a legitimate comparison, Rusudan was puzzled--she hadn't heard the phrase. To me it evoked the writings of Jack Kerouac, I explained. His most recognizable work, On the Road, was written over a three week period on a continuous scroll of paper. Many parts of the book feature what some would call run-on sentences, where thoughts continue at length without punctuation. To many, it was an artistic signature, and I could see the same in Rusudan's method in some vague sense. She had never read Kerouac's work, but seemed interested in his own themes of freespirited travel, and exploring the humanity of post-war American culture. Her appreciation for writing is as innate as her talent for visual art, and I could see the curiosity light up in her eyes.

Her own experience with writing involved two landmark projects. Rusudan cooperated with a French-Georgian writer, Gastogne Buachidze, illustrating his 1989 French translation of the Georgian epic poem Le Chevalier à la peau de tigre (The Knight in Tiger's Skin).  The book has long been out of print, but is still quickly found on Amazon's French website--and features Rusudan's illustrations that attempt to capture entire chapters in a single image. I tracked down a copy, and found that the detail is indeed remarkable. The poem itself is of national pride in Georgia, authored by Shota Rustaveli--whose name now graces one of the most beautiful and well-known streets in Tbilisi. To illustrate such a national treasure was a great privilege, but her later landmark project was even more moving.

In the 1990s, the Georgian Orthodox Church commissioned a 100 kilogram Bible, each page made from calf's skin. For three years, Rusudan worked on 60 miniature illustrations for this Bible, putting aside all other work. From 9 in the morning until 7 in the evening, this was her focus. It all began when she visited a close friend of hers, a nun, and came into conversation with the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Patriarch, leader of the church, asked Rusudan if she was familiar with the Old and New Testaments, as well as the medieval versions of the Georgian alphabet. Indeed, she knew two versions of the medieval alphabet in addition to the modern Georgian alphabet. Rusudan saw this as a special calling--she had fallen into a depressive mood following conflicts in post-Soviet Georgia and the breakaways of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. She was psychologically exhausted, but saw promise in such a project. After three years of work, she felted changed, but couldn't verbalize to me exactly how. In the end, it is an emotion perhaps best seen in her continued work.

A personal touch on the wall of Rusudan's studio

The themes in Rusudan's work are positive and hopeful, but not without a darker side. Many scenes she paints feature beasts that are undeniably ugly. "Envy has no face," she said. "When I want to express rudeness, there is an ugly face with it." Nonetheless, these darker elements are part of the greater whole. Her paintings, which shows extremes as mentioned before, overall emphasize the concept of harmony. "Life is so," Rusudan remarked, her eyes gazing around her studio. She described evil and bad intentions as plumes of smoke, covering large spaces but in reality having little substance. "Good things are like honey--little, and sweet."

She directed me to one of the most unique paintings in the room--a sketch, but far more advanced than the earliest paintings of her youth. This one was of Noah's Ark, and, like her other works, truly presented a story. One critic had counted something like 800 individual figures in the scene, but Rusudan shrugged it off--she wasn't sure how many were really there, as she simply let the scene flow from her imagination. Crafted when she was 12 years old, around the time of her first trip to Paris, this one was now valued at one million dollars. I stood in front of it cautiously, less taken aback by the price tag than by its detail. It is infinitely intricate, with detail to the millimeter. It features a ship floating not on the sea, but above the sea, with sails like fish scales and bird feathers. It resembles also the variety of patterns in the plume of a peacock, or the patchwork of a quilt. In the scene one can spot a sleeping beauty hanging in a basket, twig-like oars, proud masts, fluttering birds, leaping fish, yelping dogs, blaring trumpets, and a single disk of sunshine with a red pupil like an eye with rays. There are bearded men with chests like roosters, women with cascading locks of hair, three rafts, and opposite the sun hangs a crescent moon. It's able to be read, examined, and explored.

The intricate painting of Noah's Ark, straight from the mind of Rusudan Petviashvili

Across all of her paintings, Rusudan has several persisant images and themes. There are scenes of people who love one another, not outwardly but inwardly such that they create their own souls. Wings on women show their yearning to fly, despite being tethered to a man at the time. Birds on the heads humans, looking to the east, serve as a symbol of positive and inspired mindset. A bird in the hand, however, indicates poetic nature of the depicted person, and the moon behind the head--like a halo--shows a man who is a gentle dreamer. Boats carry problems, while angels come to save those in the boats. Some paintings feature only a single sun, while others have many. A large one indicates a brilliant and shining person underneath it. Some of the figures have two faces, in an almost Picasso-like fashion, showing that they wear a mask. Humans, she explains, act as one person but inside are another. Anger can be a mask for misery, kindness a disguise for strictness. Painted rivers flow by like life itself, unobstructed and always in motion.

Rusudan's dreamy world is alive and well in her paintings, and her intent is express her true feelings--especially that of love. She was 22 years old when the Soviet Union fell, and all these years later her artwork has continued to flow despite ups and downs. I asked her what goals and dreams she still has, but she shook her head, stating: "I never dreamed. I don't like to dream. No... I have a vision." I was puzzled, and pressed her to elaborate. She continued: "In dreams, things never really happen, they happen already in dreams but not reality." She smiled. "But to wish is good--you are gathering your strengths to make something."

A work in progress

Rusudan's words left me inspired, augmenting the power of her artwork. She continues to be recognized in Georgia and across Europe for her unique style and powerful message, and undoubtedly will continue to paint for the rest of her days. Her work can be viewed in the National Gallery of Georgia in Tbilisi, at Rusudan's Gallery Art Cafe in Batumi, Georgia, as well as on her official website. Each piece is intricate, beautiful, and inspiring. More of her work can be found in collections and exhibitions throughout Europe, and hopefully will continue to gain renown as a pinnacle of modern Georgian art and a colorful expression of human emotion.

I asked Rusudan for her wishes, rather than dreams--what she wished for her country that she had watched transform over all these years, and for herself who had also transformed. "For Georgia, I wish her to be independent, united, filled and overflowing with kind, good Christian people. Kindness is the main thing, to be a special country and have her place in the community of the world. Everyone should know of Georgia's kind influence, and that this kindness is always shining toward everyone." She took a deep breath, and continued: "for myself: my aim is to be on a very high level, to be always truthful, have strength to be truthful, to be always filled with love, never love the inner feeling of love. Love strengthens, losing love is exhaustion. Love in and of itself, inside of the self."

The door to the outside, a last glimpse of art before I concluded our interview

Friday, April 1, 2016

Searching for Shade in Buenos Aires

The city of Buenos Aires wasn’t particularly green when I arrived in August 2015—it was the middle of winter, colder than I expected, and most of the trees were deciduous yet decidedly leafless. Earlier that year, I was walking through San Francisco, California with my friend Ken who pointed out that it was all too common to find that any given street in the city was paved with concrete from wall to wall. There were hardly any patches of bare earth or virgin grass outside a designated park in the City by the Bay, and Buenos Aires presented a very similar image. My new neighborhood, Palermo, was split into several smaller areas such as Palermo Soho (charming with the occasional cobblestone streets, featuring trendy Italian-inspired cafes in cozy plazas) or Palermo Hollywood (auto shops, night clubs, and corporate headquarters on less pedestrian-friendly avenues). Trees were everywhere, but I didn’t really begin to appreciate them until the spring bloom sometime in late October.

Around the same time as my stroll through San Francisco, I had started a small project focusing on the urban forest of Buenos Aires. To my delight, the city government offered a tree census in their online data repository. This census was a table documenting the species, genus, common name, height, address, grid coordinates, and other attributes of a few hundred thousand trees in the city. I was able to open the data in QGIS, my computer struggling to load all these thousands of dots stacking up on top of one another within the borders of Capital Federal (the administrative boundary of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, or CABA, and capital district of Argentina). QGIS is a powerful open source mapping software, and it would be my primary tool as I moved forward with my study. I changed the size of each dot that represented a tree, and soon was able to see neat lines along the main streets with some parts of the city more densely covered than others.

My first analysis was to look for any connection between the density of trees and demographic data. I found quickly that the poorer, less educated, and more immigrant-dominated southern part of the city was nearly barren of trees in many parts. This area included Nueva Pompeya (an industrial district) and La Boca (“the mouth”, were the old port was built on the mouth of a river and still quite the skid row). Palermo, a haven for expatriates (i.e., non-immigrant foreigners) like me in contrast to less affluent immigrants in the south, was well covered. Palermo’s ritzy but quieter neighbor to the east called Recoleta was also quite green. In the heart of the city—really the northeast corner—Microcentro and San Telmo were also very lacking in urban forest, but featured a wealthier resident population, with high levels of education especially near the University of Buenos Aires and areas dominated by foreign banks and technology headquarters (Google, for example, is located somewhere in the overlap of San Telmo and Microcentro). 

So what to conclude? More trees tended to accompany a better standard of living and higher socio-economic status. In addition, areas with higher proportions of Argentine-born residents are also more densely forested, showing perhaps an attitude of better environmental health and greenery where residents feel more invested in the land as their past, present, and future home. These are my theories, at the least, judging from associations in the data.

On my arrival in Buenos Aires, I began to look at the city under a more environmental lens than a social one. Upon my arrival, I was able to meet with Manuel Swarcz, a middle-aged Argentinean man who was the director of an organization called Arboles sin Fronteras (Trees without Borders). He had overseen tree-planting projects all over the country, including in parts of Buenos Aires. In our first meeting I explained my past research that made use of the tree census. Manuel was quite interested,; I suggested we speak again in another week, and so I retreated back to my Palermo apartment to ponder the next steps over a bottle of Malbec. I created a new layer for the map that showed not the precise location of each tree, but the density within 500 square meter hexagons instead of in kilometer wide squares as before. Now I could see in great detail where the urban forest was concentrated, but I still needed to think deeper about how to make something useful out of this.

The idea came to me slowly, relating to some scientific publications that discussed benefits of urban forest. One was the regulation of urban temperatures, particularly combating what is known as urban heat island (UHI) effect. It appeared that I could help Manuel by suggesting where to target tree-planting efforts in the city in hopes of lowering temperatures and covering the city’s bare spots with green leaves.  I spent several long nights improving my knowledge and skills, eventually being able to proficiently construct two new map layers to accompany the tree census. Both of these layers have their origin in NASA’s Landsat8 satellite, which takes images of every part of the earth several times over the course of each year. I chose imagery from a clear day in December 2014—summer in Buenos Aires—and downloaded these images in 11 different bands of light to include infrared, red, green, and blue.

In my first layer, I depicted was is called Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). This is a visualization of vegetation and plant presence, and can even be used to evaluate the health of these plants by people more skilled than me. For my purposes, I was able to create a layer that painted the map green where any form of plant life existed in the city. The premise for this is that plant life, especially in the green variety, reflects a certain level of radiation to the atmosphere that can be detected by the satellite. As a result, I could indeed see the green expanses of many parks, of the ecological reserve near Microcentro, and other widespread locations in the city. Combined with a map of the tree census, this allowed me to really gain insight into which parts of Buenos Aires were truly green—and which were note. Again, the south was lacking, the city center as well, and finally the airport and railways along the northern stretches of the city that made up the right bank of the Rio Plata.

My second layer showed Land Surface Temperature (LST)—an indication of the temperature in degrees Celsius not in the air, but on the actual ground. This comes from a similar process as calculating the NDVI. Uncovered rock and dirt, impervious surfaces such as roads, and other man-made structures like rooftops and runways reflect their own rather unique level of radiation back to the satellite. This is first detected through something call at-satellite brightness, which is converted again to degrees Kelvin and then Celsius to be more informative for the common viewer. Adding a color gradient to the result, I was able to find the maximum and minimum LST during that December day, with the coolest being shown in blue, moderate temperatures in yellow and finally the highest temperatures in orange and red.

What I expected was to find that it was visually obvious that more trees and greenery resulted in lower temperatures. Indeed, the airport and railway areas in the north, as well as another railway station in the central part of the city near the Floresta neighborhood, were the color of a hot iron as expected. Major streets were also red, in addition to other rail lines, the sea port near La Boca, and much of the industrial south such as Nueva Pompeya. Surprisingly, though, there were some ultra-cool spots. The Rio Plata was blue, indicating of course that the water was a lower temperature (it’s certainly not inviting to swim in, neither due to temperature nor its brown color). Some other ponds and small lakes in the city were also blue. These made sense—but then in the Floresta neighborhood, near the red hot train station, there was a little oasis of dark blue that was unmatched anywhere else in the city.

I went to Manuel with my latest map. The NDVI layer was interesting to see, as it expanded the conclusion on which parts of the city could be called green or not. The LST, however, was the true point of conversation. Manuel put on his reading glasses and pored over my screen, impressed to see the variation in temperatures as indicated by the rich colors. He nodded as he looked at the airport and railways. Near the Plaza Italia underground station in Palermo, the base layer labeled the Sociedad Rural (Rural Society) beside what was also a dark red despite being surrounded by one of the city’s largest, grassiest, and most forested parks.

“What could this be?” he asked. I wasn’t sure. Then his eyes drifted to Floresta and we both furled our brows at the dark blue. “And this?” he asked again, putting the eraser of his pencil against the screen. I wasn’t sure about that one either, but it held some value—in the realm of UHI, there was a more desirable effected that could be called an urban cool island (UCI). I had hoped a density of trees and greenery might cause this effect, but neither the tree census nor the NDVI indicated anything special about Floresta. I left Manuel’s office again, determined to investigate the scene of the UCI and find the cause.

The next week, my friend Aditya and I went strolling through the center of the cool spot. It was about four by four city blocks—or manzanas (apples), as the locals called city blocks—and faded still over several blocks in every direction. I brought Aditya as an extra set of eyes, hoping he would notice something I might miss. The area was dominated by sidewalk flea markets, two- to four-story buildings, clothing shops with broad windows, and wide streets with an unremarkable number of trees. The sun seemed to cast its light on the streets throughout the whole day, so it wasn’t particularly shady on any of the streets. After an hour of walking, Aditya and I were stumped. “Maybe there was a cloud over this area when the satellite took the image,” he suggested. I sighed, nodding and thinking that it must have been a stupid mistake on my part.

Back behind my computer screen, I chose another clear day that same December to convert to LST—and the cool spot was still there, in just the same shape. This was certainly no cloud, but a persisting phenomenon. While this news was exciting, my next meeting with Manuel left us both disappointed at the same time. The mystery would take more time to solve, but I was scheduled the fly back to the US in a week’s time with no plan to return anytime soon. I mused with Manuel over how to get better insight—maybe the elevation was significantly different in Floresta than in neighboring parts, causing some effect on the wind. But the city was overall quite flat, we both agreed, shaking our heads. Could there be something underground causing the temperature to cool—perhaps a sort of cavern? There didn’t seem to be any effect like this in the areas with underground stations, so perhaps it wasn’t the case. Maybe an underground river, or the rooftops were comprised of some peculiar material. Maybe the height and shape of the buildings did something to reflect heat differently? It was all a mystery. The real question, however, was still useful—how could we recreate this effect in the hotter parts of the city, and make them more habitable and temperate?

The mystery still remains. UHI is an important issue being studied around the world today, as heat waves kill more humans annually than any other type of natural disaster or extreme weather event. Urbanization is on the rise, with more people flocking to city centers for economic and social reasons. Global average temperatures are also on the rise, which makes concrete jungles even more hellish and in need of greenery. Trees and vegetation are certainly crucial to lowering urban temperatures, especially when placed along waterways. But what happened in the Floresta neighborhood on those December days, and perhaps every day, may hold the key to some other advancement—a way to go beyond just augmenting urban greenery and to more drastically lower urban temperatures on sweltering summer days. It may be a secret that neither I nor anyone else ever unlocks, but nonetheless it remains as a reminder of how complex our world is despite all the technological lenses we use to study it’s changing relationships.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Talking About My Generation - About Wilderness, Wonder, and Wandering

Mountain Goat in the Washington Cascades. Photo by Christopher Beddow, 2014. 

There is a significant clash of ideas between the well touted, vivacious Millennial drive and a rather unsung Millennial counterculture. While a seeming majority is striving to achieve social mobility, to live a life not of hollow financial gain but of abundance in both tangible and intangible generation of value, another strain of philosophy shrugs off all the pressure to build a great socioeconomic cathedral. Instead, this strain insists that judgment is always undue, and that we Millennials should live a life free from the expectations of others. It insists that we should live according to our most fundamental desires, and that above anything else we should cherish truth. It is a strain that shares with the Millennial attitude of common publications that the world needs less corruption, more tolerance, more free expression. But it is also a counterculture that advocates withdrawing from an economic society that may be inherently corrupt, impersonal, wasteful, and manipulative.

As Millennials, many of us are not part of one school of thought or the other, but instead we inhabit both worldviews. One is simply a shadow of the other, but still inseparable. Most of us have deviated in one direction. Very likely, almost all of us have done so once, perhaps briefly, before getting on with life in the other direction. For others, there has been an awakening of sorts, as if discovering a new truth in that shadow of culture. The result may be a mounting crisis, where there is uncertainty about doing what we do best, versus doing what society needs most, versus doing what we love, versus doing what produces the most invigorating fruits of success. The possibilities are many, and all have their merits. However, it should be acknowledged that for our generation, like many before us, there is a raw passion that stirs when we look not at our careers but at the concept of adventure in the wilderness. By wilderness I mean that which is strange to us—foreign countries, new cities, new subcultures of our own societies as well as the countless other cultures in faraway lands, and of course the forests, streams, fields, mountains, and canyons that are often a temporary getaway. There is a yearning, small or large, to sometimes drop everything and make for the wilderness. For some, it happens when no one is watching, for others it remains a dream, and for some it manifests in brief moments where an e-ticket is dropped into your inbox, or a campground reservation email rings bold among the work messages.

To enter a forest is to enter a realm of silence. One spring evening, I walked to the nearest patch of forest, and was overtaken by an instinct to tread softly. Chirps and flutters from birds in the canopy reverberated like whispers in the dim light, while laughter echoed from the park on the street. I walked deeper into the sanctuary bound by trees, down a switchbacking path of wooden steps. As I emerged from the trees onto a wider dirt thoroughfare, I happened upon a bench among the brooding ferns. I took a seat, and looked into the greenery before me with no particular focus.

I can remember going into the forest to find peace for as long as I remember being able to walk. They may very well have been coinciding developments, and certainly they were a reflection of my interests in the same way that we are drawn to our favorite genres shortly after learning to read, and we tend to favor certain dishes once we learn to cook. For me there is a certain redemption in nature, made possible through no greater effort than to simply walk into the solitude it offers and stay awhile. As a child, I would set out from my backyard to explore the forests in the valley below, following Alkali Creek in search of its source and establishing my own personal outposts that I would often revisit. On trips to my grandparents’ home an hour away, the edge of the driveway and the limits of the lawn marked the beginning of the pine trees of Custer National Forest and the Beartooth wilderness. I would wander through the woods, happening upon new tributaries of the creeks and lush wild raspberry bushes that would upset my stomach hours after munching on them. The western meadowlark would sing in the distance, and I felt a sense of stillness, a will to sit beside a tree and just listen for hours.

These trees have become a critical piece of my murky conception of home. They also subtly influence my view of the universe, for as I look back I can connect the dots between my dependence on an escape into the wild for peace and my rationale that if there is anything divine in this world, it is most especially apparent in the humble vastness of nature. Growing up in a community that was largely Catholic, I found that what spoke to me most were a few lines from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, rather than anything among the usual doctrine: “Cleave the wood, I am there; lift up the stone, and you shall find me there.” I was later introduced to the philosophy of Taoism through a remarkable book that compared its tenets to the stories of Winnie the Pooh. This experience instilled in me a sensation of calm, a faith above all else that everything would be okay. Later, like many over the decades I was inspired by the words of author Jack Kerouac, and drew warmth from some of the final lines of his distressing novel Big Sur: “Something good will come of all things yet—And it will be golden and eternal just like that…”

Much of this floats chaotically through my mind, day after day—these small snippets of insight as alongside far greater grapples with existence. All of it, however can come to a sudden silence the moment it collides with the reality of everyday life. Existential musings are freely shared around late night campfires and dwindling cases of beer, but Tuesday at lunch discussions are painstakingly more mundane. Certainly our society, and societies far and wide, are not so centered on religion that the meaning of life is discussed day after day, but often we fail to share our collective confusion about what it all means. I’m writing not about the ideas of piousness, of which church or temple or other structure you call yours, nor about the doctrine and dogma that defines beliefs. I’m writing instead about the sense of wonder that shrinks us down into infancy when we’re caught off guard under seemingly infinite fields of nighttime stars, and the astonishment that arises when considering how different life could have been if minute decisions had been altered only slightly. It is the joy that comes with waking up from a perplexing dream only to wonder where you are, finding that you’re camping on a mountainside with dear friends and not rising to the alarm and about to start another day at work. Our human sense of awe can be aroused by nearly anything, but it stays dormant unless called. Nature, however, is like an intoxicant that erodes our rigidity and lets that awe trickle out, drop by drop, until it flows just for a short while.

As a member of what’s called the Millennial generation, much of today’s cultural commentary claims to have a grip of what we all want, how we make decisions, how we see ourselves, and what stokes our fiery ambitions. We are all driven by a desire to chase our passions, by a refusal accept social injustice, by a vision of a better world and a happier life. We will not stand to live in vain, nor to waste our talents. Every single one of us. And yet it’s prudent to wonder—did our predecessors not feel the same once? Did they really give up, and assume a lifestyle that was so different from the life our generation wants? Do they not also have a life replete with memories of that sense of human awe that makes life blindingly joyous for only precious moments at a time?

The need to capture and maintain the idea of this generational utopia may be dangerous, in all truth. I believe my own mind is more delicate than I ever realized in days past. In setting goals, in dreaming dreams and in imagining possibilities, I was never cautious. Often I still am not, to the degree that I can imagine the best and imagine the worst. I’ve certainly been conditioned to think critically about any plan or decision, in order to be prepared for the worst and thus avoid it altogether. I’ve also learned that statistically my wildest dreams are an overestimation of the future that actually develops. There has been pressure in many years past to succeed, to be brilliant, to develop and showcase talents. My Millennial attitude was cultivated by a continuous cycle of reinforcement from almost anyone imaginable—and also by a fear of disappointing all those who so genuine, or perhaps sometimes so absentminded, as to offer endless encouragement. The pressure created by telling young students they are the future of the world, and telling them that they can accomplish anything, leaves a worry that to fall short of grandeur is to fail.

My personal dilemma has always been the attempt to rectify an enduring cognitive dissonance. This refers to two worldviews that flow apart, or perhaps even against one another. This is perhaps the very same conflict that exists between Millennial culture and the shadow that is very much a part of the whole. I have always seen the opportunity to seek prestige and achievement. Sometimes I have pursued it. Like many of my generation, there is confusion about “what do I really want” and a fear of self-inflicted misdirection. There is a conflict between living a life that has meaning only sometimes, and trying to imbue every hour with awe. It is truly impossible to do the latter, in the same way that summer always ends and the weekends come to a close. Life must be balanced, but where is the balance point? Where do we compromise, and how do we avoid compromising too much when we aren’t sure what is truly the limit?

People often adopt new values as they go through life, and I certainly do so. I have come to value compassion, intimacy, curiosity, and freedom. I’ve come to question many other values, finding that I am not sure what merits my hardest efforts, and am not sure if I should seek to fulfill material wants that exceed my needs. There is a rising consciousness among many for the needs of others, for the freedom of others to do as they please, for the health of nature, for the good of the community over the self. There is an anxiety about being greedy, about supporting destructive causes, about denigrating culture and breeding division. Often the compromise that young people are making is that of the Millennial counterculture—they are sacrificing their own opportunities for gain in order to ensure the wellbeing of the community, of the environment, and to overall promote peace and equality. There are many who forgo money, reconsider their morals, and temper their ambitions in order to not achieve success but to achieve goodness. And many are seeking to fill not their resume, but their autobiography by reaching out for redemption in nature, in travel, and in exploration of ideas.

What is most notable to me about my generation is the number of people who are truly concerned with doing good. They are not interested in doing good under the premise of particular religions or philosophies, and they want a career to be one that makes the world better, rather than earns them individual recognition. There is a sense of wonder that is very much alive in these people, and it is in conflict with many traditional systems. Perhaps the way that society works, the way business works, the way government works will all change in coming years and decades. However, many others will abandon it as a lost cause, and seek fairer meadows in unusual careers or journeys. What is important about Millennials is important about all people—that we need to cultivate our awe of the universe. We need inspiration from nature, from dreams of travel, from speculation about traveling to the stars and about a better world. All of us have a willingness to compromise on some level or other in order to meet this need. Some give it more credence than others. Some spend years traveling alone, some pick a destination each year. Some have a passion for the outdoors alongside their urban lifestyle, and some never stop learning about new cultures on far shores.

If I have learned anything from coming of age at this time, it is that our entire existence is a thing in flux rather than something static. Nothing is purely pleasurable, and nothing is purely painful. As Millennials, many of our most joyous moments are yet to come, but just the same some of our greatest traumas are also looming. Life will be wonderful, and yet life will hurt. More generally, life will continue to change, and what we want will also continue to change. Our dreams will come and go, our success will be recognized and forgotten. Nonetheless, amid all of the delightful chaos, life will work out okay if we’re able to simply be okay with it all. Everything wonderful will always lose its charm, and every hardship will always relent into calm. We won’t fail to become disenchanted with things we direct our passions toward, and the benefit of this is that we realize there’s no need to hold onto anything too desperately. Inspiration and wonder will always awaiting, just as they did in childhood, as we look around us and explore the breadth and depth of every locale, every relationship, and every blossoming change.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Midnight Sun

"When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all."
-Herman Hesse

It was nearly two o'clock in the morning, and the sun had refused to set. My first night in Iceland was shrouded in fog and mist, but this third night was clear to the horizon's end. The Westman Islands, a small archipelago off the southern coast of Iceland, felt like one of the remotest places I had ever experienced if for no other reason than the lack of darkness. It was beyond the reach of night, a frontier in the summer sun. We had pitched our tents in an eerie wasteland of black sand and rusted metal, overlooking a glassy seascape with grass covered islets in the distance. I went to sleep with a hat pulled down over my eyes, to fool myself into thinking it was nighttime. The constant sunlight was a source of infinite energy, as the atmosphere was always that of a pleasant afternoon or a long-stretched moment of sunrise.

Further north, on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, the experience continued. I had hitchhiked with my haphazard travel companion, Gerrit, from the end-of-the-earth road where the ferry from the Westman Islands reached the mainland for the better part of a day to make camp once more on a serene shore. Hellnar was a small fishing village nearby, recommended to Gerrit by an old Icelandic man in a pub, that had a ghostly sort of charm. We were dropped on the highway and had descended into the village around midnight. Finding only a sleepy yet idyllic scene, we marched on through dew-soaked grass until we reached a secluded bank of the sea, rife with driftwood and the smell of those stringy plants that wash up in the tide. Looking back toward the village, the mighty snow-capped volcano called Snaefell loomed over the quiet landscape. The sky was rosy and vast.

A day later, we hitched several more rides to the north side of the peninsula, stopping in Stykkisholmur to restock on wine and select a few items for dinner--Icelandic salmon and lamb, to be cooked on the fire. As the hour grew late once more, we passed by breathtaking fjords with their ridges mirrored on the water. We hiked up from the road and into a bleak field, something like high plain though just a few meters above sea level where cracked mud and parched shrubs made up the windswept scene with mountains in the distance. We roasted the meat on a fire made from gathered scraps of long fallen fences and washed up debris, and stayed up chatting until the sun had outlasted us once again.

The long days and nights, the lost sense of time, and the brilliant pastels of Iceland that summer are what stay with me the most. The people were cheerful, the food nourishing, and the road itself kindly led strangers like me to places set in dreams. There is much more to Iceland than a few scenic locales, there is a greater story of the society that inhabits its modest expanse, and there is more to explore and understand than can possibly be realized in a brief few weeks. In the end, however, I sat on a snowfield high above the port village of Seyðisfjörður knowing that this little island had imbued a calm satisfaction into me.

Iceland is seen best through whatever perspective suits you--for me it was the shoulder of a highway and the half-zipped aperture of a tent. It could be said to be a place like those in dreams, perhaps due in part to the calm and in part to the bizarre qualities of some of its landscapes. I had set out with a list of Icelandic destinations I wanted to see, but ultimately I came away with an experience far different from what I imagined. It was more spontaneous thanks to my sudden taking to hitchhiking over buses, more serene thanks to the fortune of good weather, and more inspired thanks to the edifying content of both the culture and endless panoramas.

I was enduring a rough phase of life before Iceland. My trip to this little boreal paradise was certainly no unforeseen, monumental turning point in my life, but rather came to be a deliberate instrument for self-reflection. I came back and decided to make it the setting for a long period of writing and self examination. Iceland, for me, was a special place because it coincided with a long overdue pause in life. I didn't discover anything new about myself there. I took the time in those two weeks, and for months afterward, to instead consider what I already knew, to truly come to embrace it--realizing, for example, that things don't simply happen to a person as much as a person lives them.

The day after I returned from Iceland, I wrote an introduction to what would become a novel. I was sitting in the backyard of my parents' house, in what I call my mother's garden. I wrote a simple description of the plants all around me, many of which I couldn't name, before relating it to a much larger garden which I had just visited. It was a garden, or perhaps a wilderness--something I often debated in the over sixty thousand words that comprised the entire novel. In the process of writing it, I refined my views of the world and came to suggest that one of the most challenging parts of life is confronting a fear of truly walking away from your past with no umbilical cord to keep you tethered. I mused that we are all raised in a garden of sorts, and that many of us later set out beyond the pale and into the wilderness. The wilderness can be stressful, terrifying, and discouraging. But like any wilderness I have seen, there is a certain rugged beauty and excitement that comes with all of that, and it is a place where curiosity thrives.

I've finished writing all of the words, and now I am undergoing the equally arduous process of editing the entire feature into something worth reading. I expect to be finished by summer, a full year after I took my trip. The cover is below--it is titled "No Man's Land: Under the Icelandic Sky", and features one of my photos as the backdrop. The specific scene is from Hellnar, just near the campsite of the shores of Snaefellsness where an old boat that had weathered many years dominated a magnificent scene before the sea and the mountains.

If you're interested in following the progress of the book, would like to be informed as I ready it for release, or have any comments or questions, please leave a comment below or contact me here. It's a piece of writing that has been very important for me, and that I hope may be memorable for others some day, too.

Friday, April 25, 2014

An Excerpt from "Landscapes: Drifting in Armenia and Georgia"

A shot from my travels through northern Armenia

          Off I went into the afternoon. Another cheap car ride, and a conversation with a
large middle aged woman where she asked questions in Russian and I asked her to
repeat, repeat, repeat. A stop for coffee, a cigarette by the highway while the driver filled
with gas, and contemplation of the windswept plains. An hour later, it was the Georgian
border, and the Russian-speaking woman went back to Armenia in another car as she had
forgotten her passport. I presented my passport, and we proceeded to Akhalkalaki. Akhal
means new, and kalaki means city.

          At Akhalkalaki, the new city, we first stopped by an automotive shop to pick up
motor oil. I stepped into the store, curious, but when I asked for a toilet was directed to the
grassy passage behind the building. I returned to the car after stepping out back, and the
driver took me another few minutes down the road. Finally, we pulled over at what I
assume was near his house, and he explained that he lived in this town. I told him I
wanted to find a bus to Akhaltsikhe, which was at least another hour's drive, and he
somehow got across to me that he wanted fifty dollars to take me there himself. I chuckled,
and shook my head. I grabbed my pack and started walking. I pointed down the winding
road toward a river, which the road crossed on a bridge before darting down a canyon.

          “Akhaltsikhe?” I asked.

          “Da,” he responded in Russian. Yes. “Autostop?”

Out for a walk in Akhaltsikhe

          I nodded. Autostop is a French word, but perhaps has become rather universal, and
means hitch-hiking. That is precisely what I hoped to do. I walked and walked and walked.
The canyon was beautiful, fraught with old caves and debris along the river such as an
armored personnel carrier that was being used as support for an irrigation pipe, or a
railroad car that had been propped up as a bridge. Georgia was already slightly more
beautiful than Armenia. I felt, somewhere deep inside, that I was at home—I knew I could
camp out here and survive if I needed to. I walked seemingly endlessly, however, but
eventually a van pulled aside and picked me up, whisking me away to Akhaltsikhe. I would
make it after nightfall.

Once a train, now a bridge 

*           *           *

           Landscapes overtake the soul. They are bigger than us, larger than life. They are
the scenes and settings for events as small as just a beautiful day and as large as great
battles or migrations of civilization. The word landscape makes me think of a sprawling
mountain valley replete with bison, with a cool wind under the late summer sun. Taken
from a distance, it is one large picture, but in focus there are more details than one could
ever notice. Landscapes tell stories, and landscapes never forget history. Whether it is the
steppes of Central Asia, which perhaps describes the part of Armenia I was in at the time,
or whether it is the enchanting threshold of the Grand Tetons—the place I always wanted
to call my real home—landscapes have a unique ability to inspire awe and reverence in

          The ties between landscapes, or even nature as a whole, and our emotions, are not
easily denied. People travel the world every day seeking beautiful places. Yet beauty is in
the eye of the beholder, we always hear—and that is the key. Beauty is something we
visualize, which in turn strikes us deeply and moves the soul. Our sense of awe is tied to
our other five senses, and our vision is one of the most important. Touch, taste, and smell
can have strong effects on our emotions, but perhaps nothing truly riveting. The greatest
potential effect from those three senses is really a negative one, as pain, bad odors, and
repulsive tastes will inspire an energetic and forceful reaction, where as good feelings,
pleasant smells, and pleasing flavors will inspire a gentle, restrained sense of approval.
But sight and sound can be life changing.

Windswept plains and the mountains beyond just outside Gyumri, Armenia

          Words. Music. Being witness to events, or an observer of great visual beauty or
horror. The possibilities are perhaps boundless. But to seek to constantly stimulate and
even overwhelm these two senses, as a goal in life, as a mission, is to really live. My own
travels were a pilgrimage in search of awe. Others chase sights and sounds with an equal
sense of religious fervor. Majestic mountains, the sound of silence, or simply the sound of
people living, of languages that I didn't speak yet that I realized were all viable and
understood by people somehow—this to me was holy. In some of my time, I took a deep
interest in languages, in finding that I could speak to another human being in words that
my own brother could never recognize, yet it would convey real meaning. That was Beirut.
But in Georgia, I began to sink into the scenery. It is not necessarily the most scenic
of countries, as I would be loathe to describe it that way a tourist may describe the beauty
of Yosemite Valley. To me, the value was in the way the landscapes touched my soul. The
way it made me believe that I was experiencing something holy and divine, rather than just
seeing the sights and calling it a vacation. What I was seeing was true, real, and primeval.
Older than time, older than words, the cradle that raised a segment of the vast human
civilization, and an environment where the results turned out differently than the next.
People did not worship these mountains, traditionally, but in an even more divine sense
they simply existed alongside them.

*            *            *

          I spent the night in a feasible excuse for a hotel room, located above a nondescript
shop adjacent to the parking lot that was called the bus station in Akhaltsikhe. The early
evening before this sleep was spent on the town, where I made vodka toasts with young
Georgian rascals excited to meet an American, who asked me to meet them in the same
square the next morning to make a hike to the monastery of Sarapa. I later ducked into the
nearest restaurant, and once again my dollar went miles in bringing me a sumptuous meal.
I tried the khinkali, which although touted to be a unique and staple Georgian food was
little more to me than a variation on the potsticker.

          I awoke the next morning beneath a pile of warm wool blankets, feeling toasty and
rested. I stepped into the bathroom, which consisted of a toilet, a bucket next to it, and a
waist-high trash can full of water to use as my imagination pleased. I was quick to pack
and move on—the six dollar room had served me well. I started out of my room, waved
thank you and goodbye to my hostess, and descended the stairs into daylight. I
immediately followed the road, then the train tracks, and felt delightful in the golden sun of
an early morning in November. As I walked the tracks, I looked up at old medieval walls on
the hillside, thrust high above the rest of the city and unavoidably the center of attention.

A village street on a winter morning, southern Georgia

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Four Cups of Tea: Unusual Flavors to Sip

“…the first sip is joy the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy.” –Japhy Ryder, The Dharma Bums

Tea is a thirst quenching, relaxing, and almost universally traditional drink. Morning tea, bedtime tea, even afternoon tea—it’s to be found everywhere in the day, all across history, and around the world. Black tea, green tea, chamomile tea, and many more are staples at grocery stores and restaurants. Looking around a little harder, there are a few lesser known flavors and varieties, nothing new to some parts of the world, that are a pleasant novelty to many of us. Read on for an overview of four of these teas, and consider them next time you’re stocking the tea cabinet.

Saffron Tea

A cup of golden hued saffron tea - from

A spice with ancient allure and enduring use, saffron is important in many foods from India to Spain and all in between. Very commonly found today in your local Persian restaurant, the flavor of the spice is complementary to its perceived health benefits. The ancient Egyptians use it in food and medicine, and today in Iran it is still popular to believe that saffron is a sort of cure-all for simple ailments. Often made by dropping crystal saffron candy in water, saffron can also be found in tea form. It takes tens of thousands of crocus flowers to produce just a small amount of saffron, and this combined with the delicate hand cultivation makes for one of the world’s most expensive spices. Benefits may include alleviating respiratory problems, aiding with sleep, curbing depressin, and it is even said to serve as a sweat-inducing aphrodisiac. In addition, saffron tea has a rich and sweet flavor, enough reason to make it a drink of choice any given day.

Sage Tea

A glass of Lebanese sage tea - from

Native to the Mediterranean region, sage is also well regarded as an herb frequently employed in the flavoring of delicacies. In ancient Rome, sage was also revered for its medicinal properties, and over time its use in the form of tea was popularly embraced in several cultures. French sage tea became widely produced by the 1700s, and was in high demand in China as an alternative to traditional tea. Meanwhile, it today remains prominent for cultivation and consumption as tea in the Middle East, especially in places like Lebanon and Syria along the Mediterranean coast, while in Turkey the herb on its own is even referred to as “island tea”. Sage has empirically demonstrated particular potency in improving memory and learning in people with Alzheimer’s disease, while it is also traditionally believed to be effective in treating mouth and stomach pain, digestive problems, weak appetites, and depression. The unique aroma of sage makes for a soothing and pleasing flavor for any adventurous tea guzzler

Mate Tea

A traditionally prepared cup of yerba mate - from

A South American herb called Yerba Mate is the basis for this increasingly well-known tea, already well established in countries like Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina and even imported en masse to places like Lebanon. Native to Paraguay, Yerba Mate was first introduced outside of South America and the Guaraní tribe in the 1500s, when the Spanish began their conquest of the region. By the 1600s it was being imported into Spain as an alternative to English tea, but its use ebbed until the 1800s when it was officially documented by a German botanist and once again began circulating. While the taste is bitter and earthy, this drink, said by the Guaraní tribe to be a gift from their gods, is alleged to have a holistic effect on health including relieving fatigue, heart conditions, headaches, depression, urinary tract infections, as well as assisting in weight loss and fluid retention. Be sure to try it if you’re traveling in its historical home, but also look for mate in many grocery stores as it grows in popularity.

Kava Tea

Women making ground kava - from the book "Kava: From Ethnology to Pharmacology" edited by Yadhu N. Singh

Originating in the tropical Pacific islands, from Tonga to Hawai’i and Tahiti to Fiji, kava has been domesticated for over 3000 years. Sometimes celebrated for its vitalizing, life-giving powers, legends tells that kava first grew from the womb of a buried woman and curried the grief of her mourning brother. Captain James Cook, journeying across the Pacific, encountered the drink and named kava “the intoxicating pepper”—a reference to both its flavor and effects. Today, the bitter-tasting herb is exported from the Pacific across the world, and still used locally in as a social drink, as well as for ritual and medicine. While kava most notably brings on a relaxing and sedated sensation, it is also used more specifically to treat anxiety, depression, psychological ailments, as well as venereal diseases and infections. Found in some grocery stores, kava is most readily available when directly ordered from growers in the South Pacific. Take care, however—kava is banned in Canada and a few other countries for its alleged link to liver damage, a curious irony considering its consumption has been displaced in the Pacific islands by the use of alcohol as an alternative.