These posts are either "jump pages" for my weblog or posts-in-process that will eventually appear there. For what it's worth, here's an archive of these random bits. The picture to the left is by a famous comic book artist.
View current page
...more recent posts
The Year the Earth Fought Back
By SIMON WINCHESTER
London — LIKE two bookends of calamity, earthquakes at Bam in Iran and off Sumatra in Indonesia have delineated a year of unusual seismic ferocity - a year, one might say, of living dangerously. Twelve months, almost to the very hour, before Sunday's extraordinary release of stress at the India-Burma tectonic plate boundary, a similar jolt at the boundary of the Arabian and the Eurasian Plates devastated one of the most celebrated of Persian caravan cities. The televised images of Bam's collapsed citadel and the sight of thousands of bodies being carried from the desert ruins haunted the world then just as the images of the drowned around the shores of the Bay of Bengal do today.
But that has not been the half of it. True, these two disasters were, in terms of their numbers of casualties, by far the most lethal. But in the 12 months that separated them, there have been many other ruinous and seismically ominous events, occurring in places that seem at first blush to be entirely disconnected.
This year just ending - which the all-too-seismically-aware Chinese will remind us has been that of the Monkey, and so generally much prone to terrestrial mischief - has seen killer earthquakes in Morocco in February and Japan's main island of Honshu in October. The Japan temblor left us with one widely published image - of a bullet-train, derailed and lying on its side - that was, in its own way, an augury of a very considerable power: no such locomotive had ever been brought low before, and the Japanese were properly vexed by its melancholy symbolism.
In America, too, this year there have been some peculiar signs. Not only has Mount St. Helens been acting up in the most serious fashion since its devastating eruption of May 1980, but on one bright mid-autumn day in California this year the great San Andreas Fault, where the North American and Pacific Plates rub alongside one another, ruptured. It was on Sept. 28, early in the morning, near the town of Parkfield - where, by chance, a deep hole was being drilled directly down into the fault by geologists to try to discern the fault's inner mysteries.
The rupture produced a quake of magnitude 6.0 - and though it did not kill anyone, it frightened millions, not least the government scientists who have the fault in their care. They had expected this particular quake to have occurred years beforehand - and had thought a seismic event so unlikely at the time that most were at a conference in Chicago when it happened. They rushed home, fascinated to examine their instruments, but eager also to allay fears that their drilling had anything to do with the tremors.
As every American schoolchild knows, the most notorious rupture of this same fault occurred nearly a century ago, at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906 - an occurrence now known around the world as the great San Francisco Earthquake. An entire city, a monument to the hopes and dreams of America's westward expansion, was destroyed by a mere 40 seconds of shaking. It was an occurrence possessed of a historical significance that may well be matched by the tragedy now unfolding on the far side of the world.
But, curiously, it turns out that there were many other equally momentous seismic events taking place elsewhere in the world in 1906 as well. Ten weeks before the San Francisco quake there was one of magnitude 8.2 on the frontier between Colombia and Ecuador; then on Feb. 16 there was a violent rupture under the Caribbean island of St. Lucia;then on March 1, 200 people were killed by an earthquake on Formosa; and then, to pile Pelion upon Ossa, Mt. Vesuvius in Italy erupted, killing hundreds.
But even then it wasn't over. The grand finale of the year's seismic upheaval took place in Chile in August, a quake that all but destroyed the port of Valparaiso. Twenty thousand people were killed. Small wonder that the Chinese, who invented the seismograph and who tend to take the long view of all historical happenings, note in their writings that 1906 was a highly unusual Year of the Fire Horse, when devastating consequences are wont to abound, worldwide.
Given these cascades of disasters past and present, one can only wonder: might there be some kind of butterfly effect, latent and deadly, lying out in the seismic world? There is of course no hard scientific truth - no firm certainty that a rupture on a tectonic boundary in the western Pacific (in Honshu, say) can lead directly to a break in a boundary in the eastern Pacific (in Parkfield), or another in the eastern Indian ocean (off Sumatra, say). But anecdotally, as this year has so tragically shown, there is evidence aplenty.
Plate tectonics as a science is less than 40 years old. It is possible that common sense suggests what science has yet to confirm: that the movement among the world's tectonic plates may be one part of enormous dynamic system, with effects of one plate's shifting more likely than not to spread far, far away, quite possibly clear across the surface of the globe..
In recent decades, thanks largely to the controversial Gaia Theory developed by the British scientists James Lovelock, it has become ever more respectable to consider the planet as one immense and eternally interacting living system - the living planet, floating in space, every part of its great engine affecting every other, for good or for ill.
Mr. Lovelock's notion, which he named after the earth goddess of the Ancient Greeks, makes much of the delicacy of the balance that mankind's environmental carelessness increasingly threatens. But his theory also acknowledges the somber necessity of natural happenings, many of which seem in human terms so tragically unjust, as part of a vast system of checks and balances. The events that this week destroyed the shores of the Indian Ocean, and which leveled the city of Bam a year ago, were of unmitigated horror: but they may also serve some deeper planetary purpose, one quite hidden to our own beliefs.
It is worth noting that scientists have discovered that the geysers in Yellowstone National Park started to erupt much more frequently in the days immediately following a huge earthquake in central Alaska in 2002. There turned out to be a connection, one hitherto quite unrealized, that intimately linked places thousands of miles apart. Geologists are now looking for other possible links - sure in the knowledge that if real geological connections can be determined, then we may in due course be able to divine from events on one side of the planet indications that will allow us to warn people on the other - and so perhaps allow them to prepare, as those in today's Indian Ocean communities never were able, for the next time.
For one thing is certain, and comfortless: on earth, eternally restless and alive, there will, and without a scintilla of doubt, be a next time.
Simon Winchester is the author of "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883."
back to weblog
James Wolcott on Bernie Kerik
Weeks ago, I found myself in the green room of a cable show with Ed Koch, Bernard Kerik, and Joe Trippi. I had been looking forward to meeting Trippi, but when I stepped into the room and saw these two other slabs of supreme self-assurance taking up real estate, I figured this wasn't the time for chitchat. Since the three were doing a segment together in a matter of minutes, I didn't want to be inconsiderate and "break their concentration," and besides, I couldn't think of anything approriately obnoxious to say in the presence of two stalwart Bush supporters. A hard spherical object, Kerik is physically formidable, not someone you'd want to skirmish with over the last sticky bun on the tray. Upcoming were the Olympics, and Koch asked Kerik if he thought there might be terrorist trouble. Kerik intoned that the security in Athens, in Greece generally, was very porous, and let the subject drop with a combination of ominous understatement and quiet authority that made me suspect I was in the presence of a champion b-s'er.
Kerik exuded too much quiet authority and dramatic effect, trying a shade too hard to convey that he knew things he couldn't speak of and was working from the deep inside, privy to secrets that he carried locked inside the bank vault of his barrel chest. I could see how this tough-guy shtick--which obviously wasn't entirely shtick, but a tough streak that had been refined into an urban lawman persona--would impress fake swaggarts like, well, George Bush, who likes to play dress-up as a range hand and fighter pilot to show what a Hungry man entree he is.
Sketches From the Front: An Artist's Dispatches, Rendered in Ink and Paint
By CAROL KINO
Though contemporary American art often flirts with politics, it is not usually noted for its head-on engagement with war. Yet some of the most compelling commentary on Iraq has come from a New York painter, Steve Mumford, who has been embedded with military units in hot spots like Baquba, Tikrit and Baghdad on and off since April 2003.
Mr. Mumford has posted frequent dispatches on the Web magazine Artnet. Each is accompanied by drawings and paintings - many made on the spot - illustrating people and places in the story. Titled "Baghdad Journal," the project strikes a somewhat incongruous note amid the magazine's usual fare of reviews, gossip and party pictures.
The 16th and final entry, to be posted this week, chronicles the attempts of the Third Brigade of the First Cavalry Division to quell insurgents in Baghdad in late October, toward the end of Mr. Mumford's last visit. He opens with a description of the city and the military blimp that hovers above it, gathering intelligence.
"I often imagined the view from up there," he writes, "especially on one afternoon in mid-October when I found myself running across Talaa Square with Third Platoon just after a young soldier had been killed by a sniper."
The dispatch ends with the memorial service for Sgt. Jack Hennessy of the First Battalion, Ninth Cavalry, killed by friendly fire from an Iraqi National Guard unit. As a first sergeant in the battalion calls out the dead soldier's name a third and final time, the company falls silent. "In the quiet that follows I find my own tears falling onto my drawing pad," Mr. Mumford writes. The accompanying drawing, a modest sketch made with sepia ink, shows a soldier saluting before Sergeant Hennessy's helmet, rifle and boots.
Now 44, Mr. Mumford had been comfortably embedded in the London and New York gallery worlds. He was known for paintings that seemed to pit two disparate Americas - wilderness and society - against each other by depicting, for example, a car seen against a sublime landscape or a wild animal about to pounce at a house. The work was technically impressive but creatively confused. Like many contemporary artists, Mr. Mumford seemed fascinated by 19th-century American art but stymied by the task of making it new.
Yet in the end, that art helped set him free. Mr. Mumford says his inspiration for the project stemmed directly from his admiration for the painter Winslow Homer, who was sent to the front during the Civil War to sketch for Harper's Weekly.
Mr. Mumford was already working on a Vietnam series when the war in Iraq began. By that time, the subject of war had become "an all-consuming interest," he said. "It sort of hit me: why don't I go over there?"
He called around to military bases in an attempt to have himself embedded, but his efforts were fruitless. Nor did he get far with magazines and newspapers: the only taker was Artnet, which gave him a press pass. Eventually, Mr. Mumford said, "I realized the only way to do it was to buy a ticket." (He financed the project with sales of his own work and with a little help from his wife, the painter Inka Essenhigh.)
Mr. Mumford made his first trip in April 2003. After arriving in Kuwait, he hitched a ride to Baghdad with a French reporter. He soon happened across an approachable army unit patrolling the banking district. He hit it off with the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Scott Rutter (now retired and a military analyst for Fox News), and within minutes, Mr. Mumford found himself embedded.
After this visit, he returned to Iraq three times, spending 10 and a half months there in total, much of it in Baghdad. Like an embedded journalist he outfitted himself with special protective gear - flak jacket, helmet, goggles and earplugs - when accompanying soldiers on patrols. He also carried brushes, ink, watercolors and drawing pads along with his notebook.
Like Winslow Homer before him, Mr. Mumford spent most of his time at military bases, chronicling the routine, monotony and constant togetherness of soldiers' daily lives. Often they are seen dozing on cots, doing paperwork, watching television or playing cards. But he also shows them standing guard, attending neighborhood council meetings, searching homes and hunched inside tanks, tensely watching the road.
Though he had not had much contact with the military before, Mr. Mumford said, he came away with strongly favorable feelings. "Most of the soldiers are really trying to do the right thing." he said. "I wanted to do them justice because I was really impressed."
On his last three visits, he also spent time exploring Baghdad, making drawings of the people he encountered. He said he had felt relatively safe until his last trip, when he began to sense he was being watched. For the most part, the people he met seemed to have regarded him as a curiosity. "Iraqis are so sweet and so forgiving," he said, "that even though they may resent the U.S. Army being there, most of them are sort of tickled to see an American."
Mr. Mumford also became friends with several Iraqi artists, who aided his deeper exploration of the city. In one dispatch, he discusses contemporary Iraqi art. During Saddam Hussein's time, he writes, the prevailing trend was abstraction, "a convenient technique for a time when all narrative content was suspect."
With such broad scope, "Baghdad Journal" differs from most journalistic endeavors. The writing, full of anecdotes and visual details, reads nothing like a news article. Nor does it resemble a blog. Though he took working photographs and made sketches and notes on the spot, Mr. Mumford often fleshed out his writing and drawings later, sometimes waiting until he had returned to New York to finish and file dispatches. And then, of course, there is the project's raison d'ętre: the paintings themselves, all elegantly composed and coolly direct, yet strikingly different from one another in both subject matter and technique. Some were obviously made quickly, with ink and watercolor on paper. Others are more complex, fully worked in gouache, watercolor and oil. These Mr. Mumford painted later, working from snapshots - an approach he believes is similar to that of Homer, who seems to have used his own sketches to compose elaborate engravings of large-scale battle scenes. (Mr. Mumford plans to make his own large-scale oils in future.)
The very act of drawing often led to deeper engagement, with soldiers and civilians alike. "Because I would be sitting there drawing for so long," Mr. Mumford said, "everyone around me could see what I was doing, so there was none of the fear of the photograph. A lot of the time Iraqis who might not like their photograph taken would be happy to have me make a drawing, and this would lead to conversation."
Seen on their own without much writing, as they were in Mr. Mumford's solo show last fall at the Postmasters gallery in Chelsea, the drawings perplexed some critics because the Iraq depicted seems relatively tranquil. But after pointing out that he wasn't in Falluja, Mr. Mumford counters that this was the Iraq he found. Though the situation deteriorated over the course of his visits and anti-Americanism increased, he said that "90 percent of the time I was there it was a relatively peaceful situation, where people were trying to make the best of a difficult place."
Within the art world, which tends to operate under its own rules of engagement, there has also been unease about the illustrative aspect of the work, and for some it lacks the expected political edge. "I think it's difficult for them to look at what I'm doing because I don't take an antiwar position," Mr. Mumford said. (A selection of his drawings is on view at White Columns in the West Village, through Jan. 30.)
His own position changed over the course of his travels. He initially went to Iraq convinced that the war was a huge blunder, and now he is on the fence about whether the occupation can succeed. As he put it, "The Bush government made some really insane mistakes." Yet he began to understand the invasion differently after hearing firsthand about life under Mr. Hussein. "My consciousness was raised by the Iraqis themselves," he said.
back to weblog