Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Book Review: "Into The Silence" by Wade Davis

Each March Break, for the last five years or so, I've picked a big book or two to keep me company on the trip, and to help make it notable. In two Cuba trips I got through five Hemingway books (four novels and a memoir). This year I ploughed through a 573-page book. It's a good one.

In the spring of 1996 Canadian anthropologist, ethno-botanist, and travel writer Wade Davis was completing a 4,000 mile overland journey from Chengdu, in China, through Tibet, and on to Kathmandu in Nepal. By coincidence, he passed close by Mt. Everest in mid-May, just as the tragic events unfolded on its upper slopes that would be chronicled later in the compelling books Into Thin Air, by journalist Jon Krakauer, and The Climb, by Anatoli Boukreev. Those books provide gripping accounts of how five climbers died on Everest on 10 May and 11 May  -  a blizzard hit the mountain, just as a group of 34 exhausted climbers were struggling to return to the safety of camps below the mountain’s “death zone”. Davis, like many others who have read the books, was seized by an intense interest in Everest and the dramatic history of attempts to reach its lofty summit. The title of Davis’s book, Into The Silence is a salute, perhaps, to the inspiration of the Krakauer book.

In the fall of the following year (1997), Wade Davis was back in Tibet, with hopes of photographing the elusive snow leopard. He hiked on trails in the Kama Valley, south of Kharta - the same trails British expeditions had taken in their explorations of the early 1920s. His companion on this trip, Daniel Taylor, had made some 45 expeditions into Tibet. Taylor had been raised in the Himalayan region, the son of medical missionaries. One of his childhood heroes was George Mallory – the lead mountaineer on three successive British expeditions in 1921, 1922 and 1924, which hiked west through Tibet and attempted to reach the summit of Everest by climbing its northeast ridge. Mallory and Andrew Irvine died mysteriously at the tragic conclusion of the 1924 expedition, attempting to reach the summit. Their bodies were abandoned to the mountain – frozen in snow and ice.

Back in Vancouver, Davis discovered in a second-hand bookstore three rare first editions of the official accounts of those British expeditions (‘21, ‘22 and ’24). This began a systematic campaign to find out everything he could about the lives of George Mallory and the other members of those early expeditions, as well as classic books about Mt. Everest and the Himalayas. Wade Davis first wrote about Mallory in a book of essays published in 1998. The following year he wrote to his agent, outlining thoughts of a book about the little-known mountaineer.

The north face of Mt. Everest, seen from Tibet

And then, just as Davis’s research began in earnest, George Mallory’s body was discovered by Conrad Ankar on the north face of Everest. Mallory’s name was suddenly everywhere in the media. Within a year, eight books were published about him and the failed attempts to put a British climber on the summit of the mountain in the early 1920s. Davis didn’t want to write just another book about George Mallory. He decided, instead, to take his research into “new levels of depth and scope”. And, indeed, he has.

The resulting book, Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, took ten years of research. It explores four main areas: the First World War experiences of the twenty men (amongst the twenty-six expedition members) who saw active duty in France and Belgium; the history of the Mount Everest Committee, supported and manned by members of the British Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society; the history of political and military relations between the British Raj administration in India and the Tibetan authorities; and the detailed history of the three expeditions in the early 1920s which hiked from Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India north into Tibet, and then west to the Mount Everest region.

1921 Expedition: George Mallory is far-right on the back row, Oliver Wheeler stands beside him

Most of the British explorers were veterans of the Great War. Part of The Lost Generation. They were physically damaged by the war - most of them wounded in one way or another - and emotionally scarred. Davis provides a thorough treatment of each man’s war experience – and what an appalling thing it was that they endured. Mindless carnage. Hundreds of thousands of men on each side were slaughtered in battles that seemed to go on for ever. The number of artillery shells launched by each side on the other is almost inconceivable. And the top commanders were almost completely ignorant of the real conditions in the field and the complete futility of their campaigns. Their ignorance was criminal. Entire brigades were wiped out because they were ordered to walk or run at enemy positions that were solidly defended by machine gun fire. They were sitting ducks – both officers and regular troops. 

After the war, thanks to sustained negotiations between a few leading British diplomats in India and Tibet (the key figure was Sir Charles Bell), an opportunity opened up for exploration into Tibet and the planning of a possible expedition to Mt. Everest. In the early 1920s, the political situation in the Himalayan region was the opposite of what it is today. Then it was impossible to approach Everest from the south – through Nepal. The only chance was to come at it from the east, through central Tibet. Interested parties at the British Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society formed the Mount Everest Committee. Expedition leaders were hired and climbers and explorers were invited to join the team. George Mallory was the leading British mountaineer of his generation. He was an obvious choice and was soon part of the first expedition in 1921. Mallory’s climbing experience was primarily in the Alps. He and the other possible climbers who would attempt to scale Everest had no high-altitude experience at all. They knew almost nothing about the debilitating effects of the lack of oxygen in the so-called “death-zones” faced on mountains with peaks above 8,000 metres. Mallory was a much-admired mountaineer – recognised for his strength and courage. But he had faults – he was absent-minded, and did not always make sound judgements.

The route up the north face of Mt. Everest from Tibet
The first expedition into Tibet in 1921 was primarily a detailed exploration of all the possible routes available leading to the mountain. The fittest and ablest members of the team worked in two and threes to scout out various valleys and passes. It was Mallory who did most of the important exploring along the Rongbuk Glacier, and the paths leading off of it towards Everest’s northeast ridge. But strangely, although he’d travelled south down the glacier several times, he neglected to check out an access leading east out of that glacier into an adjacent glacier - the East Rongbuk Glacier - which turned out to be the easiest, and eventual, route up to the northeast ridge. Much to Mallory’s embarrassment (although he wouldn’t admit to it), that route was discovered by Oliver Wheeler, one of a few non-English members of the expedition (he was a Canadian surveyor) – embarrassing because Mallory had not been very complimentary about Wheeler’s abilities and attributes. After four months of intense exploration and surveying in 1921, the expedition was finally within striking distance of the mountain itself. Mallory was the first climber to set foot on the mountain.  He, Wheeler, Guy Bullock, and some porters began to climb its icy slopes towards the North Col. But a gale on top was blowing whipping snow into deep drifts. They got as far as the North Col (23,030 feet). They attempted to make further headway before being forced back. The weather had turned. It was the end of their first season; but Mallory had seen enough to realise that they had found the best route available up the mountain.

Last photograph taken of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine on Everest
A second expedition returned in 1922. This time there was little exploring to do; their focus was to be on getting up the mountain. They had to endure some horrendous weather conditions. They didn’t have appropriate mountaineering gear and were always in danger of frostbite and high-altitude sickness. Mallory and two other climbers managed to reach about 26,800 feet. But a day later George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce, using oxygen canisters for the first time, climbed another 500 feet higher, reaching 27, 300 feet. It was a vindication for those who believed that the use of oxygen was the secret to avoiding high-altitude sickness and exhaustion - particularly George Finch and Sandy Irvine. Many climbers felt that the use of supplemental oxygen in cylinders was "cheating". A couple of weeks later, Mallory began a third attempt. He and his party were caught in an avalanche. Mallory was able to dig himself out of the snow, but seven Sherpa porters were killed. These were the first reported deaths of climbers on Mt. Everest. It was a disastrous conclusion to a difficult season of climbing. Mallory was partly responsible and he was devastated by feelings of guilt.

The final expedition of 1924 faced the same horrendous problems of bad weather and extreme conditions. The team's careful planning and their experience from the previous trips counted for nothing once the mountain unleashed its fury on the exhausted climbers. On June 2, Mallory and Charles Bruce left the North Col to make the first attempt on the summit. Extreme wind and cold and the refusal of the porters to continue led Mallory to abandon the attempt. On June 4, Edward Norton and Howard Somervell attempted to reach the summit in perfect weather without oxygen; Somervell was forced to abandon the climb at about 28,000 feet because of throat trouble; Norton continued on alone, reaching a height of 8,573 m (28,126 ft), just 275 m (900 ft) short of the summit. Exhausted, he turned back. Finally, on June 8, Mallory and Irvine left their high camp at 26,900 ft to attempt the summit. Their colleague, Noel Odell, climbing in support below, wrote in his diary that at 26,000-ft he "saw Mallory and Irvine on the ridge, nearing base of final pyramid", climbing what he thought at the time was the very difficult Second Step at 12:50 p.m. It was the last time the two were seen. Whether either of them reached the summit remains a question for the ages. And the discovery of Mallory’s body on the mountain in 1999 provided no definitive clues to answer that mystery.

Sandy Irvine (left) and George Mallory (right) - faced death together on Everest in 1924

Into The Silence is a big book – 573 pages of text. It has sixteen pages of excellent photographs. And it has four crucial maps: showing the treks the expeditions took across Tibet; detailed regional maps of the area around the mountain; and a schematic map of Everest itself, showing the progress that various climbers made, on the two expeditions (’22 and ’24) that got near the summit. You’ll come back to these maps, time and time again as you’re reading the text, especially during the section which describes the reconnaissance exploration of 1921.

Some readers may find the amount of historical and political detail tedious. But this book will fascinate those willing to follow Davis into his detailed treatment of World War I, and the background politics that affected the course the expeditions took. Those interested particularly in Tibet – its history, culture, geology, flora and fauna will be riveted; it’s all here. These expeditions were important for their contributions to science and topographical surveying, as much as for the human drama of extreme mountain climbing.

Wade Davis took ten years to write Into The Silence
And, of course, it does come back to that human drama. A great climber who perishes on a mountain - a man who pays the price for his obsession. 

This is an informative and, surely, definitive treatment of its subject. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

CD Review: Bruce Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball"

The front cover of Wrecking Ball
Wrecking Ball is Bruce Springsteen’s 17th studio album. Released here in North America three weeks ago (March 5th), it is his first album since 2009’s Working on a Dream. In its first week of release it hit #1 in the albums charts in the U.S. and the U.K. I picked it up just a few days before leaving on our March Break holiday in Florida. I thought it would be appropriate to have a couple of typically American albums to listen to in our rented car down there – so I took this and Ry Cooder’s latest album, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down. Guess which one I preferred?

Wrecking Ball was produced by Ron Aniello, with assistance from Springsteen. Aniello is a successful pop producer who has worked with a couple of dozen other pop acts, including Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa. He co-produced Scialfa’s 2007 album Play It As it Lays.

In Wrecking Ball, Springsteen presents a collection of songs primarily about the economic troubles besetting the American working-class during this latest recession. He also lays into the rampant greed and corruption of the economic elite - the Wall Street bankers and industry leaders identified these days as the 1%. He explores the devastation their greed has wrought.

Most of the songs were written last year (2011), but three of them were written earlier and have been performed live over the intervening years. The title track, “Wrecking Ball” was written in 2009 prior to a series of shows the E Street Band did at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It is a tribute to a stadium built in 1976 (which hosted games by the New York Giants and the New York Jets), and demolished in 2010. “American Land”, one of two bonus tracks on the extended edition, was written when Springsteen was working on the 2006 Seeger Sessions. It shows the folk influence. A studio version was recorded back then, but never released. “Land of Hope and Dreams” was written in late 1998 and performed during the E Street Band’s reunion tour in 1999.

Bruce Springsteen
Wrecking Ball is one of those curious albums which sound less interesting the more you hear them. And I have been listening to it a lot. If the adage “less is more” means anything to you, musically, then this work is a good example of its corollary - “more is less.” Springsteen’s rock ‘n’ roll has often come over-dressed in a dense wall-of-sound wash. Combined with lyrics that are often preachy and tendentious, the result can be overwrought and bombastic.

On this album the production does the songs no favours; and there are some good songs here, but they suffer from similar, murky, over-the-top arrangements. It makes the music dull and lifeless. The strategy is generally the same throughout: begin with a laid-back, interesting couple of verses, where individual instruments can be heard; then, in the middle and again at the end, crank up the production into overdrive – guitars, keyboards, electronics, strings, horns and choir belting out a repetitive riff in which there is no space for individual elements to be heard or appreciated. The New York Chamber Consort (a sixteen-piece chamber ensemble) plays on three of the tracks, for example; but it’s difficult to hear much of what they’re playing. And five or six musicians are credited with playing horn-parts; frustratingly, their work too is buried in the mix. Tellingly, four of the songs here feature loops extracted from other recordings (folk and gospel) - and even the loops are hard to hear, buried as well in the murky mix.

So many opportunities lost. On the dirge-like “Jack Of All Trades”, for example, a horn section is added to the middle of the song. They sound a bit like a Salvation Army band, or an English colliery’s brass band. Featured up front, it would have sounded great, but they’re hiding in the mix. A tin whistle playing a riff through “Death to My Hometown” is also buried. Strangely, when an instrument is featured and placed front-and-centre – like Tom Morello’s guitar in “Jack Of All Trades” and “This Depression” (both solos are given special mention in the album’s booklet) - the results, really, are damp squibs.

Some of the arrangements, too, seem strangely at odds with the words: “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn” are both downbeat lyrics, but they’re hammered out in perky productions that present them as upbeat sing-alongs; and “Death to my Hometown”, with words like a Michael Moore rant put to music (think Roger and Me), sounds like a perky sea shanty. Perhaps the problem is the dominance given to percussion – these tracks invariably feature drums-on-steroids. Combined with other electronic percussive effects, it sounds just too heavy on the beat to my ears.

The most interesting track here is the experimental one, “Rocky Ground” – the one production that’s different from the rest. There is a strong gospel tinge to much of the album, although the choir-like vocals are often just unison voices added as another element to the dense mix. In “Rocky Ground”, there is a kind of hip-hop/gospel blend, with Michelle Moore providing a brief rap. There are horns again in the mix, this time used more effectively. “There’s a new day coming”, Springsteen sings here, and it’s one of the more affecting moments in the album.

“Land of Hope and Dreams”, near the close of the album, attempts a kind of epic-statement that Springsteen is keen on. The track is notable for containing Clarence Clemons’ last work with Springsteen. The E Street Band’s sax player died in June, 2011. (Springsteen provides a written tribute to Clemons in the accompanying booklet). He plays a couple of typical solos in the middle and end of the track. The song is an extended train metaphor; the words sound trite and familiar: “This train carries saints and sinners; this train carries losers and winners; this train carries whores and gamblers …” Get on board. Take the ride. Etc., etc.

The back cover of the extended edition

What it comes down to, for me, I think, is that Springsteen too often sounds inauthentic. He’s striking a pose; making a statement; pushing a message. And even though I have no quarrel with the message, I don’t want to hear it declaimed like it’s preaching. Otherwise, it becomes pretentious. Effective when delivered live in concert at a huge sports arena - and he's a superb live performer - but ostentatious in the context of a rock ‘n’ roll recording. Springsteen fans will probably love this album. If you’re not always convinced that Bruce is the Boss, however, you might find your response more ambivalent – like mine.

Oh ... and the Ry Cooder? Stay tuned!

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Photo Essay: Birds of Florida

Early morning at Estero Beach, on the Gulf of Mexico
Barb and I, and the children - Gillian (15) and Colin (13) - spent last week’s March Break holiday in Florida. It was our family’s first visit to Florida. For Barb and me, one of the main attractions of the place is the interesting birdlife. I was anticipating it greatly.

In fact, I went out and bought a new lens for my digital SLR. Usually I use a 18-105 mm zoom lens. To do real justice to the beauty of some of the large wading birds (herons, ibises, pelicans), however, I decided to invest in a zoom lens with a much longer telephoto capacity – a 70-300 mm zoom. (Although, as you may know, using these lenses on digital cameras multiplies the focal lengths by one-and-a-half, so it behaves like a 105-450 mm lens.) I couldn’t wait to try it out on the birds that would appear. So, what follows, is a photographic journal – offered chronologically – of the birds that stood out on this trip to Florida. I photographed some of these birds forty or fifty times – different habitats, different lighting conditions, different times of day. These are all my shots. 

A male Boat-Tailed Grackle (Quiscalus major)

The Boat-Tailed Grackle (Quiscalus major) is a non-glamorous, rather bland kind of bird species. But it's a perfect example of dimorphism in birds. “Dimorphism” means literally ‘two-forms’. And it refers to the distinct differences in the appearance of the male and female species. This first significant species of the vacation (because I hadn’t seen it before) was all over the place at the LC-39 observation gantry at the Kennedy Space Centre. This spot is a three-storey platform that allows you to get an elevated view of the key launch-facilities at Cape Kennedy: the gigantic Vehicular Assembly Building (VAB), for example, where they assembled the Saturn V rockets; and the 39A Launch pad, where they launched all the Apollo missions. All around the site were these grackles. 

In southern Ontario we have mostly common grackles; this is a different grackle, much bigger (the male), but just as noisy and aggressive. The grackles are icterids - very intelligent, pushy birds, that like to dominate their habitat. Icterids include blackbirds, cowbirds, meadowlarks and grackles.

A female Boat-Tailed Grackle

So - the dimorphism. The male boat-tailed grackle looks a lot bigger than the female. At 16-17 inches (41 cm), these are large perching birds. And like the very irridescent common grackle - which shines with a greenish hue - the boat-tailed grackle shines royal blue. Nice. The female has no irridescence, but it does show a pleasant blend of pastel browns and yellows. And it is a smaller bird. I thought they were two different species. They were both loud birds - but even more-so, the male. They seemed to be stealing and begging for human scraps – popcorn, bread, snack food, that kind of thing. Not very attractive. Not musical either. This bird emits mostly harsh whistles and clucks.

Royal Tern  on Jensen Beach
The next bird of note was found in a small flock on the beach when we first arrived at Jensen Beach, located on Hutchinson Island, hugging the Atlantic coast, just north of Fort Lauderdale – the Treasure Coast, it’s called. On our first reconnoitre of the beach, there was a flock of about a dozen Royal Terns (Sterna maxima). Terns look like gulls, but they are generally smaller and more streamlined (18-21”, 45-53 cm). Unlike gulls, terns do not land on water and swim about. They often hover over water and dive into it for fish. Compared to the terns found in southern Ontario, Royal Terns are closest in look and niche to the Caspian Tern.

Royal Terns (Sterna maxima) on Atlantic Ocean at Jensen Beach

These Royal Terns were on Jensen Beach every day – standing as a small group close to the shore. They were not skittish at all; you could walk by them as close as a few feet. They would back up, or move sideways, but they wouldn’t fly off, unless you walked right up into their midst. A very attractive bird. A crowd of them standing around is very photogenic. I took lots of pictures of them - in groups, pairs, and individually.

Royal Tern (Sterna maxima) on Gulf of Mexico at Estero Beach

Sanderling (Calidris alba) at Jensen Beach, on the Atlantic coast
The Sanderling (Calidris alba) is a type of sandpiper – a small wading shorebird (about 7-8”, 18-20 cm). It’s found at beaches and mudflats. We saw this bird first at Jensen Beach, and found it again at Estero Beach. It was still in its winter plumage – pale, snowy-white underneath, and pale grey above with dark shoulders. It has a straight black beak, which is somewhat thicker than the smaller “peep” sandpiper. It is a wave-chaser – it runs up and down the beach like a clockwork-toy, following the retreating surf in order to feed within centimetres of the waves. Usually seen in small groups.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) on Estero Beach, Florida - the Gulf of Mexico

We saw the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) everywhere we went in Florida. Like the Bald Eagle, it eats only fish; because we were next to water throughout our visit, we saw lots of Ospreys. They are raptors (birds of prey). The term raptor comes from its hunting technique - seizing prey with its sharp talons. Unlike Bald Eagles, which fly just above the surface of the water and scoop fish out of the water with their talons, the Osprey actually plunges into the water to seize the fish. Then it carries it away to a high perch to feed, by pulling apart the fish with its beak.

The Osprey is a medium-sized bird of prey (21-24”, 53-61 cm) – about the size of a buteo (buzzard). Smaller than a Bald Eagle, and its wings are longer and thinner. Ospreys build very large nests out of twigs and branches at the top of a bare tree. You will often see platforms attached to a high pole. This is done not only to assist the bird, but to keep it off of electricity poles, where the huge nests would disrupt the electric cables. Ospreys are easier to spot than many other birds of prey – they don’t soar as high and seem less skittish of human beings.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) taking captured fish to high perch for feeding

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) overhead at Estero Beach

Willet (Catoptrophurus semipalmatus) on Estero Beach, Florida

The Willet (Catoptrophurus semipalmatus) is a medium-sized (14-17”, 35-43 cm) shorebird found, like many other shorebirds of its type, at beaches and mudflats. It's double the size of the Sanderling. We saw an individual bird on our first day at Estero Beach (on the Gulf of Mexico, below Fort Myers, and just north of Naples); after that, we found it in small groups there every day. 

Willet on Estero Beach
You identify them from the combination of size, leg-coloring (bluish-grey), and beak (medium long, fairly thick, straight and dark). Even more distinctive - when it’s in flight - is the large, white, horizontal band running across the underside of the outstretched wing. It strolls the beach at the shoreline, looking for tiny invertebrates that are washed up by the incessant wave running up the strand. Its name comes from the cry: “Pill-will-willet.” I got some shots early in the morning, and at dusk, so there are some nice hues to the pictures. I love taking photos on a beach: pale sand, waves, birds, and people. Perfect.

The Willet at dusk on Estero Beach

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) on Estero Beach
The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is everywhere on the Florida coast. We saw it all the time – and at all times of the day. That allowed me to shoot it, like the Willet, in some very different lighting conditions, with some dramatic colour. Large water birds are a delight to photograph. They don’t flit around constantly, like sandpipers, or warblers – they move slowly and deliberately and strike majestic poses. Easy to follow, most of the time. A telephoto lens is best, to frame a large individual specimen against the pastel colours of sand and water. The Brown Pelican is a big bird (50”, 125 cm). It is generally a dark brownish bird - but it has lots of white (tinged with yellow) about the neck and head. The wings spread out to six-and-a-half feet.

A pelican in flight is easy to recognise, and the way this species plunges into the water bill-first is distinctive. It was impressive to see a flock of six or seven of these birds on the estuary (during our boat ride around the Estero Bay) plunging into the water in tight formation - like a team of synchronized divers. I tried to get a good shot of that, but failed. Sometimes, you only get a few chances to shoot, and the technical demands are too great to handle within just a few seconds. 

Brown Pelican at dusk on Estero Beach, just south of Fort Meyers

The best shots of pelicans are not when they’re on the water, but when they glide through the sky like a pterodactyl. They’re slow enough to allow successful pictures. Ugly birds in a way, but also very elegant. 

The Brown Pelican in flight at dusk on Estero Beach, on the gulf of Mexico

A banded Brown Pelican flies over Estero Beach on the Gulf of Mexico, just south of Fort Meyers

Great Egret at the "Ding" Darling Wilflife Refuge on Sanibel Island
Herons and Egrets are amongst my favourite birds. Compared to tiny warblers, which flit about all the time, and never stand still for a moment, herons are slow, and, therefore, easier to photograph. We saw eight different species in Florida: the familiar Great Blue Heron and Black-Crowned Night Heron of southern Ontario, but also the Little Blue Heron and the Reddish Egret.  And then there are three all-white egrets – the Great Egret, the Snowy Egret and the Cattle Egret. And the Tricoloured Heron.

Herons are sleek, slow and deliberate. They pace about stealthily in shallow water, waiting patiently to spear an unlucky fish or amphibian with their long, sharp bill. One of the birding highlights of our trip was the visit to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, south-east of Fort Myers. We saw several large alligators, different frogs and lizards and lots of large wading birds.

A "GBH" - Great Blue Heron - flies over Estero Beach

We got one close-up view of the familiar Great Blue Heron (found all over southern Ontario), but what a dramatic encounter it was! The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is a large heron (42-52”, 105-130 cm). It’s mostly a blue-grey colour, but there is lots of white around the head and neck. It has yellow feet and beak. It flies with a folded neck – with a distinctive wing-beat. 

Great Blue Heron snatches a large frog out of the mud at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Just beside us, off the boardwalk, a “GBH” (as birders call them) snatched up a huge frog, or toad, and devoured it in one gulp right in front of us. We could see the bulky shape of the large amphibian sliding down the inside of the bird’s neck – pressing up against the skin. Amazing! 

Great Egret crossing road at Ding Darling Refuge

We got several close-up sightings of the Great Egret - both at the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, and at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, just south of Fort Meyers. It is a big heron – stretching to 38” (95 cm). Sometimes it stands erect, looking very slender, with the neck sticking out straight vertically; other times, when it’s feeding, it tips over, with its beak almost horizontal to the ground - readying itself to strike at a fish with its long, spear-like, yellow beak. We got a good look at one fishing at Corkscrew. It was standing very near a large, black alligator – but didn’t seem at all concerned by the giant reptile’s presence.

The Great Egret’s plumage is completely white. Its legs and feet are both black – which is a good way to distinguish it from the similar Snowy Egret, which has black legs, but yellow feet. It flies with its long neck in a deep “sink trap” shape, with its long legs trailing behind. During the breeding season, it has long, filamentous plumes down its back. The Great Egret prefers freshwater habitats, mudflats and tidal shallows.


Great Egret at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Snowy Egret on a beach of Estero Island

The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is a similar-looking, all-white, heron-type bird, but it’s much smaller (20-27”, 50-68 cm) than the Great Egret, and its beak is dark. And, although the legs are black like the Great Egret, its feet are yellow. When it’s flying away from you, the yellow feet trailing behind are distinctive; and it has quicker wing beats than the Great Egret. When it feeds, the Snowy Egret shuffles its feet, in order to stir up food. We saw it several times on the beaches of Estero Island.

The orange-yellow trailing "slippers" is a distinctive mark of the Snowy Egret

Tricoloured Heron in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

An exciting new addition to our birding “life list” was the Tricoloured Heron (Egretta tricolor). This bird was formerly known as the Louisiana Heron. It frequents the same habitats as the other herons – salt marshes, tidal shallows, mudflats, and freshwater marshes. The Tricoloured Heron is about the same size as a Snowy Egret. It is slimmer and longer than most other herons; and it wades into rather deep water to forage for food. The three colours that give this species its name: dark grey-blue upper parts and neck, a maroon or chestnut throat, and a white belly and rump. It also has an intermittent thin white line running down its throat. Our best siting of this bird was in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

Tricoloured Heron fishing at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary


An American Anhinga drying its wings in the sun
The American Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) is similar to a Cormorant. It is another new bird for our “life list”. It’s the same size as a Cormorant (34”, 85 cm), and is also a predominantly black bird – but it has very distinctive, large, silvery patches on the top of it its wings. It often holds its head and neck in an S shape. The anhinga’s beak is pointed – it doesn’t have the small hook on the end that the Cormorant has. And its neck is thin and snake-like.

American Anhinga spearing fish at Corkscrew

When this bird is hunting for fish it swims underwater. It will bring up a fish in its beak above the water, but only have its neck exposed – most of its body still submerged. After a session of fishing it will perch on a thick tree-branch and spread its wings – letting them dry off in the sun.

White Ibis at Corkscrew Swamp

Another new bird for us is the White Ibis (Eudocimus albus). This is a long-legged, heron-like, wading bird. Apart from its slender, decurved, reddish bill, red patches around the eyes, and its reddish legs and feet, this bird is completely white. It’s about the size of a Cattle Egret (22-27”, 55-68 cm). In flight it shows black wing tips. We saw this bird in the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island and the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. At Corkscrew, we saw a group of five or six of them at a fair distance. But then one individual flew over close to us, perching in amongst the branches and twigs of a small tree. The foliage was interfering with the focusing of my telephoto zoom, so I was happy when this Ibis jumped down to feed in shallow water – allowing me to get some good, close-up shots.

White Ibis


Semipalmated Plover on lagoon mudflat

The final good bird sighting happened on our last day. There was a single Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) on the mudflat beside a lagoon near our hotel on Estero Beach.  Plovers are small wading birds (7”, 17 cm) about the size of a sparrow. They are more compactly built than the smaller sandpipers. And the Semipalmated Plover is a small plover. Its colouration is similar to the Wilson’s Plover and the Killdeer, but it is smaller and the single dark band across its breast is thinner. The bill is a deep yellow, with a small black tip. And its legs are orange or yellow. It likes shores and tide-flats. Its foraging is of the look-run-look-peck variety.

A Barred Owl at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

© Clive W. Baugh

All of these photographs were taken with a Nikon D7000 camera using a Nikkor 70-300 mm telephoto zoom lens.

Please do not copy or use these photographs without the permission of the photographer.

Resources used: Eastern Birds by Roger Tory Peterson; and Eastern Birds: An Audobon Handbook

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 3 - "Oliver Twist"

Dickens in 1837 - a portrait by Samuel Lawrence
1836 had been an incredibly busy year for Charles Dickens.  In February the publisher John Macrone had released a two-volume collection of his Sketches by Boz. A second series was published in one-volume that August. Macrone was also waiting patiently for Dickens to get to work on a promised three-volume novel called “Gabriel Vardon” (which would emerge four years later as the re-titled Barnaby Rudge). By the autumn of 1836, Chapman & Hall had published eight monthly instalments of The Pickwick Papers, but there was still another year to go before its run was complete. Dickens had written a play, The Strange Gentleman, based on one of his sketches; it was running at the St. James Theatre. And he was hard at work writing the libretto for an operetta. In the midst of all of this, Dickens was approached by a third publisher, Richard Bentley, with a proposal to edit a new monthly magazine, to be called Bentley’s Miscellany. Amazingly, the overstretched author agreed to take on yet another project - not just writing, but editing a magazine. He considered himself now truly committed to a literary career,  and ready - finally - to give up his post as journalist at The Morning Chronicle.

In addition to editing the work of the other contributors to the magazine, Dickens would also write a piece of fiction for each instalment. And he would get pride of place, of course – the first piece in each issue. For the first edition of Bentley’s Miscellany - published in January 1837 - Dickens could only manage a farcical tale in the style of his Boz sketches. But then in mid-January, he informed Bentley that he’d hit upon a great idea for a novel. It would be a polemical story aimed at satirising the worst effects of the New Poor Law – a series of measures which had been introduced back in 1834, but whose social repercussions were only now starting to reveal themselves. In the planned novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens proposed to portray the harsh results of the new law by focusing on the life of an infant born in a parochial workhouse.

The first two chapters of Oliver Twist appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany in February 1837, accompanied by George Cruikshank’s steel etching showing “Oliver asking for more”. Dickens had trouble, at first, with the new format. The first instalment was too short. But he soon had the work under control. The problem was that for the first time ever a major novelist was writing and publishing two different novels simultaneously in monthly instalments. And the two novels were not only of a very different style and theme, they were also written to different lengths. By February 1838, The Pickwick Papers was into its twelfth issue (Chapters 32-33). There were seven instalments to come. So, for seven months, Dickens would begin the month writing two chapters of Oliver Twist in 9,000 words; and then switch to an instalment of The Pickwick Papers which was twice as long - 19,000 words. He would write up to the last week of the month, when both novels would be quickly published in the last few days of the month. He would start the month deep in lurid melodrama, and finish with the satiric good-humour of picaresque adventure. And he managed to juggle these opposite assignments with ease. Ideas poured out of him: incidents, characters, and plot-lines. He was digging deep into his imagination.

But suddenly he was thrown off course. On May 7, Mary Hogarth, his wife Catherine’s younger sister, who was living with the family in their new home on Doughty Street, suddenly took ill one evening after they had returned from the theatre. Mary's condition declined rapidly overnight, and she died in Dickens’ arms the next day. He was devastated. She had assumed a special importance in his life. He was thrown into an extended period of grief – revealing later that he dreamed about her every night for nine months! After the funeral, he and Catherine took a two-week country retreat in Hampstead. And, for the first and only time in his writing life - a 34-year career of fourteen novels written in monthly instalments - he missed a deadline. In June there was no new issue for either The Pickwick Papers or Oliver Twist. He was back into the swing of things in July, taking up again the story of Fagin and his gang (Chapter 9); but the tone and focus of Oliver Twist would change significantly. 

The sub-title Dickens gave to Oliver Twist was “the Parish Boy’s Progress”.  As such, it was clearly intended to provoke comparisons with both John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress - an allegorical tale of Christian, the protagonist, and his spiritual tribulations in search of the Celestial City - and two William Hogarth moralizing picture-books - A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress, which depicted in just a handful of engravings the physical and moral decline of its subjects into sin and debauchery. So what would Oliver’s tale amount to – an uplifting account of spiritual survival, or a depressing slide into depravity?

Oliver Twist is likely the first novel in English which features a child as its central character. In doing this, Dickens was combining the roles of novelist and journalist. There had been recent news of an inquiry into the deaths of workhouse children, who had been “farmed out” into the care of women in private homes. Dickens presents Oliver as representative of these workhouse orphans. Oliver, too, is farmed out, and the treatment he receives from his guardian, Mrs. Mann, is not much better than that he had suffered at the workhouse. The first section of the novel (seven brief, but vivid, chapters) depicts the oppressive treatment Oliver suffers at a parochial workhouse. Dickens writes here with brutal realism, but the polemics are made more effective through the use of dramatic exaggeration and an often savage sarcasm.  Unlike many of his books, which tend toward the prolix, this one moves along briskly.  After famously asking for more food - not just for himself, but also for his fellow starving inmates - he is “sold” to the local undertaker. Again he suffers abuse. He runs away, and walks all the way to London. Arriving in the capital, exhausted and hungry, he is taken in hand by Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, who brings him back to the squalid lair of Fagin, “the Respectable Old Gentleman” – who trains and controls a small team of children working as pickpockets in the London streets.

The opening chapters, focused on the workhouse, have Oliver serving as a tool for Dickens’ polemic. But once the scene shifts to the London underworld, Dickens’ imagination starts to invest the story of his title-character with elements of his own childhood experience. Throughout the novel, Oliver is a passive pawn in the hands of fate. In the workhouse, he merely suffers abuse and neglect. But in the hands of Fagin, he is in a much more dangerous situation. It is not just the threat to his physical survival that faces him now; it is the danger of social and moral degradation. There were perhaps only a very few people in Dickens’ immediate circle who knew how Dickens was drawing on his own childhood experience. When his father was consigned to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison - his mother and siblings would later join his father - Charles was sent to work at the Warren’s Blacking Warehouse. Dickens was left to fend for himself and he found the whole situation a great humiliation. There was a friendly young man at Warren’s, named Bob Fagin, who took Charles under his wing. But Dickens came to see this intervention as a kind of threat – in some sense, he thought Bob was encouraging him to accept his social degradation. And the figure of Fagin in Oliver Twist represents that same danger – he tries to entice Oliver to accept the twisted morals of this criminal gang. He attempts to seduce the boy into accepting life as a thief. Some of the author’s deepest anxieties are reflected in Oliver’s struggle to survive. His protagonist is portrayed as a boy with a deep instinct for human goodness and feeling. It always serves to protect him from the abuse of the uncaring and the machinations of the wicked.

Bill Sikes and his dog, Bulls Eye
And with the sudden death of Mary Hogarth, and the grief that followed, the focus of the book shifts again; it becomes less satirical and more personal. Once Oliver has been rescued from the clutches of Bill Sikes by the Maylie family, his story is pretty much complete. What Dickens gives us now is a kind of parable about the triumph of good over evil; innocence is vindicated in its struggle against moral corruption. Dickens seems to lose interest in the topical and polemical elements of the early section, and focuses instead on the domestic themes of home, childhood and early death. The character of Rose Maylie is introduced as an idealised portrait of the deceased Mary Hogarth - but in this fictional world of wish-fulfilment she survives a serious illness that brings her to the brink of death. And Dickens constructs a complicated - and rather tedious - mystery about the true identity of Oliver’s mother and her family. The concern here is to establish the fact that Oliver deserves his happy fate, because he is not really a waif; he is the child of middle-class parentage. 

Many contemporary critics of the book missed this social conservatism; they were shocked by the lurid depiction of the London underworld. By the 1840s, Dickens’ book was lumped in with the so-called “Newgate novels”, which included William Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram. These books were condemned. They were accused of depraving and corrupting their readers by glamorizing the lives of thieves and prostitutes. Dickens was indignant with this sort of criticism – especially the fierce attack of William Thackeray who ridiculed the genre in general, but Oliver Twist specifically. As Dickens points out, though, his criminal characters are not glamorized: Bill Sikes is an unrepentant thug, with no redeeming features; Fagin is sympathetic only in the gross exaggeration of his comic depiction; and Nancy regrets her life of crime, and takes action to save the innocent Oliver. Nonetheless, Dickens did revel to some extent in the melodramatic excess of some of this sordid detail. Famously, in later life, he would give public readings from his novels; and the description of Bill Sikes’ murder of Nancy was one of his favourite choices. It always left the audience emotionally drained, and Dickens physically exhausted.

Fagin awaits execution in Newgate Prison
The depiction of Fagin in Oliver Twist, unfortunately, is tainted by its anti-semitism – typical of its period. Not only does Dickens describe Fagin physically as a repulsive human being – almost bestial, but he refers over and over to this character as “the Jew”. It’s well known, of course, that the prejudice of the time denied Jews access to many areas of social and business life. Those Jewish entrepreneurs interested in business and money were excluded from most elements of finance, and were reduced to the role of money-lender, pawnbroker and usurer – or criminal activities like theft and the fencing of stolen property. The latter activities, of course, were Fagin’s modus operandi. Dickens spares no chance in depicting him as a loathsome individual. Eliza Davis wrote to Dickens to criticise his portrayal of Fagin. She argued that he "encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew" - and that had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. At first Dickens reacted defensively to her letter, but he then halted a later edition of Oliver Twist, and changed the text for the parts of the book that had not yet been set - which is why Fagin is called "the Jew" 257 times in the first 38 chapters, but barely at all in the next 179 references to him – where he’s called simply Fagin.

Oliver Twist is one of Dickens’ most popular novels. Because it was published monthly in Bentley’s Miscellany, a magazine that featured a host of other contributors, he adopted the melodramatic, adventurous style typical of those sorts of compendia. Readers respond instinctively to the plight of the innocent young orphan struggling against a host of hypocritical, cruel adults – depicted with trenchant sarcasm and sly humour. It’s also one of his shortest novels – a plus for those daunted by the 800-page length of most of his discursive epics. And the characters of Oliver (the boy who dared ask for more), Mr. Bumble (the parochial beadle who uttered the immortal line: “If the law supposes that, then the law is a ass, a idiot!”), Fagin, Bill Sikes and Nancy have become some of the most-widely recognized fictional characters in the English language. Despite the didactic intention of the novel, Oliver Twist is a surprisingly poetic work. Dickens’ response to the traumatic death of Mary Hogarth gives much of the second-half of the book a dreamlike intensity: full of mystery, visions, and romance. Oliver emerges unscathed from the almost metaphysical struggle between Fagin’s world of seductive wickedness and the secure goodness found in the world of the Maylies and Mr. Brownlow. And if you don’t find it a most captivating read, I’ll eat my head.

Mr. Bumble, the Beadle: "The law is a ass, a idiot".

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Charles Dickens was to start again, read through all 14 of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. I'll give it a try, anyway! So this is the third of a series.]

Next - Nicholas Nickleby