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bonfire of the crocodiles

bonfire of the crocodiles

bonfire of the crocodiles


“What remains is the red wind in the field with the name of the rose upon its lips”

(Russian metaphorical poem)

It’s an unspecific hour; morning probably, but not according to my biological clock, which is still mired in the mudflats of sleep. I’ve just touched down at Helsinki Vantaa Airport and outside the glass curtain walls, an anemic subarctic sun washes across tidy parking lots and spills over the crowns of the birch trees that quiver golden against the cold blue vault of the Nordic sky. It’s only mid-September yet fall has locked itself in.

The life force seeped out of me somewhere over Greenland and I need somehow to absorb enough caffeine to re-start my misfiring nervous system and begin to part the skeins of translucent eye plankton that drifted across my field of vision since I stumbled off my Finnair flight. Not that Finnair is a bad airline -far from it! My flight had none of that Nilodor meets stale sweat and leatherette odor that greets the nostrils on the cheap airlines I usually take, where the business model increasingly seems focused on finding new and exquisite tortures for us coach class customers so that we’ll start coughing up money for what used to be free:

Want to eat something?  Check baggage? Board in a timely manner or sit in a seat that won’t cut your circulation off?  It ‘ll cost you.  The limits of human endurance have already been reached though I can’t help wondering what the next iteration of airline indignity will be. Perhaps a charge for using the toilets or maybe getting rid of the seats entirely and piling us up like sacks of UNHCR rations to be lashed into the hold with bungee nets.

I try to get my mind off these things as I settle into the first coffee shop I see, maneuvering my espresso and wheelie bag toward a vacant table.  It is quiet and ordered here. The men’s room is awash with simulated birdsong and the beautifully designed faucets and the hand dryers actually work.  There is none of that under-serviced, held together with duct tape and gum quality that pervades most American airports these days.

There’s not many people in here – some airport guys in orange safety vests and a large, older black woman in a black raincoat and multi-colored headscarf. She seems to be wearing a lot of layers.

On the TV monitor above us, there’s a morning talk show in progress, which the cuts to the image of a helicopter pulling a very large and very dead crocodile up from a muddy waterhole with a long steel cable. The Finnish celebrities discuss this for a moment as the shot goes to a close up of the  cable tightening around the monstrous animal’s neck and then pans out to the silhouette of its great carcass swinging back and forth beneath the helicopter until both are engulfed into the vast pink inflammation of a tropical sunset.

The guys in the orange vests next to me have stopped talking and seem riveted to the screen.

The shot now is of the mountainous dead reptile slumping down in front of a group of park ranger type people dressed in khaki safari gear. A couple of burlier guys unhook the cable and the helicopter rises up out of the screen and we zoom in on several of the ranger people clamber over the tree trunk sized corpse with calipers measuring tapes and syringes. A dour looking guy in a blue uniform talks into a walkie talkie and looks on. A young ranger woman aims the lens of her large camera at the once mighty creature’s head and we cut to a close up of the sad, shrunken eyelids, which have deeply into the sockets underscoring  that it has been dead for a long time. A florid faced man with a large pair of pliers pries out one of the crocodile’s enormous scales and drops it into a jar of liquid.
This seems somehow cruel and disrespectful but the crocodile is dead after all.

The scene changes and we see more dead crocodiles this time scattered like logs along a wide river bank. There are dozens of them and many are belly up, their lighter colored undersides looking swollen and puffy in the high contrast light, the armored skins seeping sickly death fluids, though this is only visible for an instant and perhaps I am extrapolating.  Something is clearly killing those crocodiles and everyone seems to get that.  It is being made very obvious.  Carrion birds circle and land to prod haphazardly at the carcass but they don’t look too enthusiastic at the quality of what lies before them. Perhaps the crocodiles are poisoned or the corpses are not appealing to them or  just too far gone. Too far gone for carrion birds? I find that hard to believe. The camera zooms in on some foot tracks and pans toward another muddy pool where we see the corpse of a smaller crocodile, six feet or so in length, festering in stagnant water. ‘It has crawled off to die here’ the narration must be telling us, albeit in Finnish, which for me is completely inscrutable, and anyways the sound is turned way down.

A ranger guy in very short khaki shorts (what is it about tropical Caucasians and their really short shorts?) loops a cable under the smaller  creature’s forelimbs and watches it get winched up, deus ex machina, by the helicopter hovering overhead, which then ascends as before, dangling its payload against the picturesque, distant thunder clouds, pregnant with rain. This smaller croc gets dumped into the back of a pickup truck.

In the next shot we see a very large pile of dead crocodiles, which have been accumulating at some kind of a staging area. The helicopters keep arriving bringing more of them in. A couple of grad student type women are stacking logs and branches into a conical pyre type arrangement. We see a section where the crocodiles of all shapes and sizes are being dragged toward the pyre, the smaller ones being dragged by their tails the larger ones hauled in on buckets of heavy earth moving equipment or pulled in winches. The camera zooms in on gasoline being poured on the pyre. We pull out to a long shot of the burning pyre with its oily smoke roiling into a peach colored sky. People are milling around beside the conflagration in a kind of agitated way though some are just standing there with their hands on their waists.

It is night time now and we see a crocodile, apparently alive with its jaws fastened together with heavy duty duct tape. We cut to a flashback of it being pulled out of a waterhole and it is wrapped up in a painful-looking ensnarement of ropes and cables, which makes me think of Japanese rope pornography and its trussed-up women, only this time it involves an antediluvian reptile, so there is nothing sexual about it, at least not obviously so.  With an electric drill, a man bores a hole through one of the larger scales on the dorsal crest through which he loops some kind of an electronic tracking device. This crocodile will probably never enjoy privacy again, I imagine, but this is probably ‘for the good of the species’ or something like that. The men finish calibrating the tracker and unfasten the ropes before gingerly backing away. The crocodile stays motionless for a moment then explodes into the dark water in a burst of spray. The men wander off with their flashlight beams bobbing up and down against blurry vegetation and everything seems calm for the moment.

The celebrity panel starts their banter again and the spell of the program is broken. The guys in the orange vests resume their gruff, unintelligible man talk and I can’t tell at all whether they were appalled by what we all just saw or are just talking about work. The black woman with her many layers of clothing stands looking at the screen a moment longer then gives out a long, sad sigh and slowly walks away.









it’s not nothing…

lost pom pom

lost pom pom

a little closer

a little closer


I suppose there is a certain amount of cheek to me writing this on a leap day, a day that shouldn’t even exist except in service of an inaccurate calendrical system. Today exists, but then again it doesn’t, or rather it exists under the guise of a convenient idea. But what of materiality? The lost pom-poms I keep finding all over the streets of New York seem real enough, despite having been separated from their originally intended assemblages.

Things come and things go, but do we really understand this? At what point does matter coalesce into being and what are we left with when it disappears. Is nothing really nothing? A void? Emptiness? Or is nothing just something that hasn’t yet happened? What is the size and shape of this nothingness?

In The Turin Horse, The Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr envisions a world, inhabited by an elderly horse cart driver and his daughter, that is slowly diminishing over a series of days, as if the universe were a giant iris stopping itself down, until finally all we are left with is an overwhelming absence. But is this the absolute end? The filmmaker never answers this question. Perhaps the darkness he leaves us with is akin to the primordial dark matter, a kind of pre-generative firmament from which the rest of the universe will once again exude itself like so much quivering fruit.

The ongoing search for fundamental particles might indeed one day corroborate that there is, to quote Kurt Vonnegut – a “universal will to become” or ‘UWTB,’ as he puts it. Paradoxically, we appear to be only able to discern this by smashing things into smaller and smaller pieces using such pieces of über-technology as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), through which it is hoped, the Higgs boson might one day emerge. The appearance of this much anticipated entity would be the closest thing yet to witnessing the actual origin of mass, erupting into existence when the Higgs field – the theoretical field that fills all of space – is excited above its ground state. The hitch is that the Higgs boson has been a little hard to find, though of late we seem to be getting tantalizingly close.

An appreciation for the tangled relationship between ‘nothingness’ and ‘somethingness’ is certainly not new, and the notion of ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form,’ goes back to ancient times among Buddhists or as it is sometimes translated in the Heart Sutra: ‘Matter is empty, emptiness is matter.’

In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett calls for a new, vital materialism and a an acknowledgement of matter’s innate agency. Matter it would seem, should have rights and is worthy of our kindness and respect because at least on some level, it wills itself into being, forming its own aggregations and assemblages from, well, emptiness. Never truly inert, matter, by its very nature evokes a response and is thereby generative. In Japan, ceremonies are held at shrines for broken dolls or lost pins…

This generative nature is beautifully portrayed by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz in his (1934) short story – Tailor’s Dummies in which the narrator’s lucidly batty, geriatric father holds forth on the nature of matter in oracular torrents at the family dinner table:

“Matter (says the father) has been given infinite fertility, inexhaustible vitality and, at the same time, a seductive power of temptation, which invites us to create as well. In the depths of matter, indistinct smiles are shaped, tensions built up, attempts at form appear – the whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, round shapes, which it blindly dreams up within itself.”

The son goes on to describe the spontaneous generation of pseudo life forms his has father dreamed up:

“a generato aequivoca, a species of beings only half organic, a kind of pseudofauna and pseudoflora, the result of fantastic fermentation of matter… These creatures – mobile, sensitive to stimuli and yet outside the pale of real life, cold be brought into being by suspending certain complex colloids in solutions of kitchen salt.”

Schulz goes on to imagine other generative phenomena such the floral wallpaper in abandoned rooms growing out into rampant, pseudo-botanical festoonery, then receding as soon as it is directly observed.

The pseudo-biological quality of inorganic matter is not just the domain of Eastern European fiction but is entirely observable. At the New York Institute for the Humanities’ recent Survival of the Beautiful event, British science writer Phillip Ball gave a fascinating account of how autocatalytic feedback and oscillating chemical reactions have been recently theorized to account for many natural patterns such as a zebra’s stripes or an angelfish’s swirls, the latter of which beautifully zip and unzip from each other as the fish grows with an aesthetic exuberance owing less to Darwinian natural selection than to the vibrant, self-assembling agency of matter itself. Called Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions, these processes create biological looking patterns, quite independently of biology, which also appear in such inert substances as sand and mud.

angelfish and its ever-changing stripes

angelfish and its ever-changing stripes

The New Scientist recently featured a rather Schulzian sounding research project at University of Glasgow that is creating pseudo-life forms out of large metal molecules, called polyoxometalates, which when dissolved in certain salt solutions start to self-assemble into cell-like spheres, complete with pseudo membranes that have the ability to control the flow of chemicals to and from the ‘cell.’ Instead of using DNA, these polyoxometalate cells use each other as templates to self-replicate, but replicate they do and perhaps they will even evolve, though the experiment hasn’t been run long enough yet to bear that out.

Such self-amplifying processes bring to mind the presence of ‘morphic fields’ Rupert Sheldrake postulates might influence the way matter, both living and non-living, aggregates. Morphic fields, if indeed they exist, would act as a kind of organizing consciousness, increasing the likelihood that things assemble will themselves in certain ways – especially if a given configuration has already happened. The morphic field in some way ‘remembers’ arrangements it has encountered as a resonance – not unlike the excitation of the Higgs Field I described earlier – which in turn acts as a template for subsequent iterations.

So where does this leave us? Is anything every really empty or is what we perceive as emptiness just a transitional state between oscillations of form?

If what we think of as ‘agency’ turns out to be the pervasive action of fields, is there any point in making a distinction between what we have come to think of as ‘living’ and that which is not? It’s hard not to feel a little celebratory about all of this. Even if we can’t find any more so-called ‘life’ out there in the rest of the universe, the fact that we all are part of its vibrant assembly of matter should make us feel  a little less lonely!

punks and persimmons

Russian persimmon close-up

Russian persimmons at Cottonwood

Inspecting Persimmons

Inspecting Persimmons


One of the delights of late autumn is the sweet taste of persimmon. Almost 20 years ago, when I was first designing the Asian arboretum at the brand new Cottonwood Community Gardens, I ordered a few small, bare-root trees from a nursery called Oregon Exotics. Its proprietor, Jerome R Black, described himself as a peripatetic ethno-botanist and his catalog featured a diversity of rare plant varieties I hadn’t seen anywhere else. He collected many of the parent plants himself, in remote areas of Asia and South America, where he traveled in search of overlooked crops worth trying in warmish temperate climates. Vancouver, with its relatively cool and wet weather is at the northern edge of where persimmons might be expected to flourish, so I selected three varieties from his listings – ‘Russian,’ ‘Korean,’ and ‘Great Wall,’ which were described as cold tolerant and early maturing. Cottonwood Gardens is situated in a kind of urban heat island, so I had high hopes of seeing the fruit ripen, in time for the torrential rains of fall. The trees got off to a slow start, but after three years or so, the first fruits appeared. Life brought about its inevitable changes and after I moved away to New York City (and eventually Cortes Island), I wasn’t able to check in with my former botanical charges nearly as often as I would have liked.

While I was back in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, I got to hang out with of the Purple Thistle Collective. They are a youth group who are doing amazing work farming the parking strips of East Van’s industrial zone. Their gonzo, earth-repair spirit reminded me of when we first started Cottonwood, which is in the same area, some 20 years ago.

Purple Thistle's Industrial Zone farming

Purple Thistle's Industrial Zone farming


In addition to being guerrilla gardeners, the gang at the Thistle turn out to be Super 8mm film geeks, determined to bring the endearingly crusty medium back to a whole new generation of enthusiasts. There is something particularly endearing about these teens and twenty-somethings, raised in the great smothering bosom of the Internet, seeking to re-vivify Super 8, with all of its grainy unpredictability and lack of instant gratification. Viva Analog!! I’ll be pulling some of my ‘Haute Cold War’ footage from the vault soon to screen for them, – stuff I shot in Berlin, Toronto and New York, in the early 1980’s. There is a sequence they might like, which shows the thriving DMZ ecology of the no-man’s land in between the two sections of the Berlin Wall – a mine field covered in lush meadow that supported a teeming population of hares, which in turn were preyed upon by a proliferation of raptors.

Anyway, back to the persimmons. When the Thistles and I trooped over to look at the plantings in Cottonwood, I was happy to see the persimmon trees bearing better than ever, their shiny leaved branches, bobbing in the November drizzle with jaunty orange fruits. For those of you who have never eaten a persimmon, some caution is in order. Fuyu, type persimmons taste sweet even when not completely ripe but many others, such as the popular Hachiya, need to be quite soft before you eat them, otherwise your mouth will feel like you’ve just sucked on a deodorant stick, – a saliva-less gaping hole through which you will have to beg for water. Well not quite that bad, but the fruit-fancier’s description of ‘astringent’ is well worth noting. When sufficiently ripened though, these persimmons are sheer ambrosia. Though native to the Far East, these ‘kaki’ type persimmons (Diospyros kaki), have a long history of cultivation in the Mediterranean. Over the years, I’ve noticed quite a few of these trees popping up in East Vancouver, usually in the yards of Italian immigrants, and many of them seem to be producing well. Given the right location and a bit of care, Asian persimmons should thrive in at least the mildest parts of Canada. The related American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is native to areas not that far south of the Great Lakes and can stand quite a bit of cold. Clearly some experimentation is in order. Grimo Nut Nursery offers some varieties they say do well in Southern Ontario, which might be worth a try in other mild-ish areas as well.

I’ve grown quite a few persimmon trees from seed over the years, though none have yet reached fruiting size. The trick is to let the seeds overwinter outside or in a fridge, to stimulate germination the following spring. I put them into a zip-lock bag with a bit of soil, in a spot where rodents can’t get at them. I’ve got a couple of Diospyros lotus seedlings, also known as Date plums, growing in my Cortes Island yard. I originally propagated them from a fruit I picked up from the path in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. The trees, though small, seem to be doing well and haven’t yet been set back during the past few winters. The fruits of the parent tree were quite small as I recall, not exactly the ‘food of the gods,’ implied by their Latin name – unless of course the gods were not particularly discerning fruit-wise. Odysseus’s men were said to have been way-laid by them in the land of the lotus eaters. Maybe the fruits were larger in those days or maybe Odysseus and his gang were tiny midget people the size of human thumbs. Probably though, his sailors just got bored of being told to “smite the gray seas with their oars,” by their hard-ass captain and were holding out for a little well-deserved ‘R and R.’ So my date plums will likely be relegated to my ever expanding collection of ‘somewhat edible’ plants, an aspect of my gardening hobby that my significant other continues to find perplexing.

East Van persimmon tree

East Van persimmon – 5th & Nanaimo