One of my first tasks starting next week when I leave The Agonist will be to go on a Dostoevsky binge of epic proportions.

A Short Tale Of A Small Victory

On the SummitThere was no way someone could look at this picture and call it beautiful. They’d be hard pressed to know where it was either, except that wherever it was there was plenty of rain. Tropic of Cancer? Tropic of Capricorn? Or perhaps it was temperate? If you look close enough you can convince yourself that it’s on the subtropical slopes of the Caspian Sea.

Maybe there’s a giveaway?

Yes, the Exif data: January 13, 2009. So, you go back through Flickr and Google: Malaysia. Yes, it’s in the Highlands, the Cameron Highlands: tea plantations, faux-Tudor guest-houses, Nutmeg manikins and the best flower gardens East of Wales.

“No,” you think, “the photo is not beautiful. Not ugly, either. It’s an anodyne shot attempting to capture a sweeping view that in the moment was beautiful.” You are correct.

But what of the moment that defined it?

There are two moments actually. Halfway up the mountain Jeff, a red-headed nomad who, like yourself, is running away from who-knows-what, stops to smell some flowers.Nutmeg Mannikin (Lonchura punctulata)

He senses your impatience. The first quarter of the hike you’ve struggled for oxygen. Your out of shape body and lungs demanded surcease, but then your blood reaches oxygen saturation and stopping would send you back into dis-equilibrium.

“Come on man, let’s get up this bad boy,” you say.

“You really should stop and smell these flowers,” he smiles back.

“What a cliché,” you say.

“Just try it,” he says.

Like a petulant child you shrug your shoulders and relent. You even stomp your foot like a child a little bit. It’s instinctive.

You sniff the flower peremptorily and pull away. By the time your olfactory nerves send the quanta of info to your brain and your brain has processed it you are already smiling and leaning back in for another sniff.

But this time you linger and shout, like a child, “it’s, it’s, it’s like cinnamon and vanilla and strawberries!”

“I think we’ll call it strawberry shortcake,” he says. “You really should smell flowers more often.”

Jeff Takes Time Out To Smell The RosesYou pledge to do so, solemnly, like a Boyscout, except you never were one.

At the top of the small mountain you have another sensation: satisfaction. There is also a sensation missing you’ve grown comfortable with, an old friend of sorts. There is no pain. You explain it to Jeff.

“In Tibet I blew out three discs in my back coming down from the Everest base camp.”

“Did you climb it?” he asks, surprised.

“Hell no,” you say. “Was just there, taking in the view.”

“So what happened?”

“Jeep I was in crashed, rolled over. Six people were on top of me but in the rush to get out I was the first. Guess my football instincts kicked in.”

You shrug, humble-like, but shiver as well, remembering the fear, smelling the danger. You continue the story.

“A few minutes after I climbed out the pain hit me. Spent the next two weeks in Nepal and India whacked out on opiates. For two years I tried all kinds of remedies. Finally had surgery in late 2005. After that it was two years of putting my life and marriage back together. I failed,” you tell him with a smile.

“But I’ll tell you something,” you say.

“What’s that?”

“This may not be much of a climb to you! What’s a couple of thousand feet after rock climbing with your bare hands in Thailand, right? But it’s my first substantial hike since the wreck,” you say.

“Can’t tell you how important mountains are to me. Something to their solidity and simplicity, permanent and everlasting,” you say. Then you finish.

“Maybe I’m unusual but they move me. And I feel no pain. It’s been too long since and I forgot how good it feels.”

Republicans Who Speak Chinese And Other Oddities

It’s hilarious to watch Republicans fall all over themselves bashing each other for speaking French in the case of Mitt Romney and Chinese in the case of John Huntsman. Of course, it’s hard for me to get excited about a candidate that speaks a romance language. They are all pretty easy to master. I mean, we all know George W. Bush spoke “Mexican.”

But Huntsman is a different case. He clearly speaks Chinese well and as president this would be a tremendous asset. Alas, the Republicans have attacked him for speaking the language. More is the pity. A man has a useful skill that could advance American interests and he’s pilloried for it? Silly, I tell you, but that is modern America for you: anti-intellectual to the core.

James Fallows, in a recent post, on the issue, however, wrote something that I found even more fascinating:

why [is it] so much easier to understand other non-natives than people who grew up speaking the language?

I had this exact experience in the former Soviet Republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan with regards to Russian, pretty much the only language (other than Spanish) I have any mastery of. Communicating in Russian to Georgians, Azeris, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz was simple. I could understand them and they could understand me. But the moment I got to Domodedevo Airport in Moscow I was simply bewildered. The Russians, obviously, spoke better Russian than any non-native speakers in the former republics, but it was also slangier, less academic. I think that’s one of the keys: a non-native speaker will be much more grammatically formal (if incorrect) and won’t use a great deal of confusing idioms. Their diction will usually be very precise and much slower than a native speaker. Seriously, try speaking to a surly, pissed-off Russian (which they are most of the time) who’s speaking in rapid-fire blasts of ‘Mat’–a kind of second Russian that is horribly filthy and hilarious. For example, the slang, ‘Mat’ term for “just hanging out and doing nothing” in Russian is: “khuem grushi okolachivat” — translated as: knocking pears out of a tree with one’s dick.

So, the next time someone asks you, “Kak dyela,” you’ll know how to reply.

A Little Bird Crazy? Why Yes, I Am.

Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)Last year wasn’t anything close to being a ‘Big Year.’ I only saw about 225 or so different species. Heck, some people can do that from their backyard. And my year included Costa Rica, New Mexico, California, Malaysia and Indonesia. From the Monk Parakeet colonies here in Austin (which I have yet to photograph) and a small Common-yellowthroat I saved one morning in the backyard to the Great Argus I saw in the jungles of Sumatra it was, however, a good year full of wildlife and birds.

You might recall early last year I wrote in Texas Monthly that I came to birding somewhat late in life. But there was a lot to the story I left out. Namely, how I developed the skills, or ‘the eye’ to identify different species of birds. Shooting dove and quail in the Brush Country of South Texas was my introduction, but it was Father’s prime hunting directive that solidified it. He drilled the mantra “we only kill what we eat” into me. If I mistakenly shot a meadowlark thinking it was a flushing quail or thought a crow was a dove that’s what I ate for dinner.

Nor did I really have a chance to write in Texas Monthly about how my birding developed in 2010 and into 2011. It wasn’t until the year before last (2010) that I started keeping a list. Sure, I’d kept photos on Flickr, but it was more a kind of happenstance, “hey, I saw this cool new bird today in country X” kind of exercise. I’d had ‘the eye’ since I was a kid and found some enjoyment in the occasional bird, like the random Erckel’s Francolin or a gorgeous Hoopoe sitting on a collapsed, lopsided stela in Axum, Ethiopia but I hadn’t gone out specifically ‘to bird.’ By 2010 things were different. I now went specifically ‘to bird.’ I was now a full-fledged twitcher. (Get the pun?)

On December 31st of 2011 I decided to try for 200 or more birds in the state for 2012. Not a ‘Big Year’ but not a little one, either.Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway)

After last weekend, however, the count was already up to 50, much of which is attributable to newly acquired knowledge of birds and their habitats, where they can be found, at what time of the day and at what time of the year. But really, only ten days into the year and I’m at 50? Methinks I might have to make that number 300–especially as The Brunette and I have a trip planned for the Lower Rio Grande Valley during the spring migration. But I digress.

Bird crazy you say? Well, let me ask you this: would you rather spend your time looking for something as beautiful as this guy or something as fascinating as this gal? Or would you rather watch this clown on TV? Easy choice, if you ask me.

So, here’s the list so far this year:

1. Blue Jay
2. Carolina Chickadee
3. Black-crested Titmouse
4. Great-tailed Grackle
5. European Starling
6. Red-bellied Woodpecker
7. White-winged Dove
8. House Sparrow
9. Northern Mockingbird
10. Mourning Dove
11. Lesser Goldfinch
12. Carolina Wren
13. Northern Flicker
14. Northern Cardinal
15. Red-tailed Hawk
16. Great Horned Owl
17. Eastern Phoebe
18. House Finch
19. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
20. Ring-necked Duck
21. Pied-billed Grebe
22. Great-blue Heron
23. Snowy Egret
24. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
25. Yellow-rumped Warbler
26. Hermit Thrush
27. Barred Owl
28. Belted Kingfisher
29. American Coot
30. Red-tailed Hawk
31. Orange-crowned Warbler
32. American Goldfinch
33. White-eyed Vireo
34. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
35. Red-shouldered Hawk
36. Cedar Waxwings
37. Osprey
38. Wood Duck
39. Turkey Vulture
40. Loggerheard Shrike
41. American Kestrel
42. Whooping Crane
43. Western Meadowlark
44. Common Raven
45. Anhinga
46. Crested Caracara
47. American Robin
48. Red-winged Cowbird
49. Cooper’s Hawk
50. American Pipit

What I Read In 2011

Rum and ReadingIt’s always at the end of the year that I re-read the list of books read and find surprising trends. 2011 was no different. There was, as always, a lot of history. But the Middle East and Central Asia have faded, although not totally. This year’s main theme seemed to be Texas and its history. Early in the year I bought John Graves’ “Goodbye to a River” on the recommendation of Larry McMurtry and in a classic example of the intellectual process run amok Graves’ book set off a mad scramble to learn more about my home. The unique nature of Graves’ book led me down all sorts of intellectual avenues. Where before I had primarily been interested in Texas’ imperial period—more precisely, I someday hope to write a travel-book about the changes in specific places in Texas from Spanish times to the present. For example: what did the first Spanish explorers who traveled up to the headwaters of the Guadalupe River or the Nueces River see? One interesting nugget I dug up a few years ago is how the padres used to call the Nueces Canyon, a place near and dear to my heart, the Vale Of Saint Joseph. No one in the region ever calls it that. Not old timers, not historians, no one. But after Graves my horizons expanded to the Texas Rangers, (Chuck Norris is a pansy compared to those guys) and of course the Comanches. Lots of good new stuff came from investigations after Graves, such as: Comanches, by TR Fehrenbach, Empire of the Summer Moon, by SC Gwynne and The Texas Rangers, by Walter Prescott Webb.

Another theme emergent from 2011’s reading list was geology. I had read McPhee’s excellent Rising from the Plains a few years back and picked it up once again. This led to more specialized reading of geology in the Southwest and the use of a more sophisticated geological vocabulary. Two trips (one to Big Bend and the other to New Mexico) in particular this year furthered my knowledge of the subject and gave me a detailed familiarity of the book, Texas Roadside Geology. If you have not ever picked one of these books up for your own state allow me to recommend doing so right now. Would you like a little ‘awe’ in your life? Read a geology book about your state or region, or better yet pick up McPhee’s Rising from the Plains, Assembling California or Basin and Range.

LibraryOne last trend to emerge this year was Latin America, a trend that began a few years ago when I first read Charles C. Mann’s 1491. This year I read his follow up: 1493, which is better than the first. I also read Mañana by Carlos Castaneda, So Far From God by Patrick Marnham and the Devil’s Highway. All excellent books. If you have any suggestions for books on Latin America, Mexico in particular, please email me. I’d love to hear them.

Lastly follows a few brief annotations on some, but not all, of the books I read last year.

Mirror of Herodotus – Hartog: There is nothing easy about this book, but it is a rewarding study of what is, in my opinion, the best portions of Herodotus’ book: the Scythians. This was the first ‘history’ book I ever read. I was eighteen years old and just in college. I had yet to decide what my major would be, but Herodotus’ depiction of the Scythians really solidified it for me. It was only later that I grew to love Herodotus as a travel writer. Regardless, Hartog’s long exegesis was well worth the work.

Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein: this book. Well, anyone seeking a better understanding of the impact the Chicago School of Economics has had on the world must begin here.

Dan Brown’s latest book. Terrible. Read it on an airplane, doped up on opiates with a shattered collar bone while flying home from Indonesia. The drugs didn’t make it any better, just tolerable.

Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kahneman: only recently finished this book. Still digesting but excellent food for thought.

Under The Volcano – Malcolm Lowry: read this book. You can thank me later.

Manana – Carlos Castaneda: quite enjoyable and edifying. I learned a great deal about Mexico that I did not alread know.

Runciman volume three of Crusades: still the best history of the Crusades in print. Period.

Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter: not an easy read, at all.

The Passage – Cronin. A fun and different take on vampires and the apocalypse.

The Travels of John Mandeville: too old fashioned, but reading between the lines and a careful study imbues one with a healthy respect for just where the tropes of modern travel literature come from.Rockwell Kent Illustrates Moby Dick

The Alexander Romance: too old fashioned, but reading between the lines and a careful study imbues one with a healthy respect for just where the tropes of modern travel literature come from. Yes, I wrote that twice. Read the books if you don’t believe me. There is a straight line from Mandeville and the Iskander Romance right to Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, ‘Eat, Love, Pray.’ And no, I am not joking.

Ibn Fadlan’s Russia: fascinating and well translated.

The Great War For Civilization – Robert Fisk: another tome worthy of reading and a good revisionist companion to the Shock Doctrine.

Rising from the Plains – John McPhee: buy it right now. If you do not fall in love with geology and the book I’ll pay you back. (Not really, but still, you’ll love it.)

Out of the East – Paul Freedman: ever wondered how food culture and recipes have changed over the centuries? Ever wondered just where those spices on your rack come from? Freedman will answer all your questions and more.

Helix – Eric Brown: not the best sci-fi I’ve ever read.

Rainbow Pie – Joe Bageant: what’s there to say? Joe died too damned young. Wanna know why America is so fucked up? Read Joe’s books and learn, grasshopper.

Travels in Siberia Ian Frazier: Bland.

The Heart of Buddhism Guy Claxton
The Diamond Sutra
Miracle of Mindfulness -Thich Nhat Hanh

I’m a Buddhist, so what can I say?

East of Eden – Steinbeck: still the best, after all these years.

Assembling California – John McPhee: what California is today Japan will be in fifty million years.

So Far From God – Patrick Marnham: poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.

In a Narrow Grave – Larry McMurtry
Goodbye to a River – John Graves
Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen – Larry McMurtry
Myself and Strangers – John Graves
Hardscrabble – John Graves
Comanches – TR Fehrenbach
A John Graves Reader – John Graves
Empire of the Summer Moon – SC Gwynne
The Texas Rangers – Walter Prescott Webb

Does Texas just flummox you? And enrage you at times? Pick up any one of these nine books and you will learn more and come to understand why Texas is the way Texas is. It ain’t pretty, but it also proves ‘national’ or perhaps, regional character doesn’t emerge from an historical vacuum.Spring Reading

Cities of Gold – Douglas Preston: ever wanted to ride a horse across the Arizona desert? Me neither, but after reading this book I kind of wanted to.

Geology of the American Southwest – W. Scott Baldridge: if you dig geology (get it?) you’ll find this useful.

On China – Kissinger: say what you will about Henry the K, when he writes about high level diplomacy and diplomatic history there is no one living who does it better.

Landfalls – Tim Macintosh-Smith: fun, poetic and edifying and made me want to visit places I’ve never had any interest in visiting.

The Devil’s Highway – Luis Urrea: did not like the style of writing, but it was a damned good story about just how horrifyingly difficult crossing the border from Mexico to Texas can be.

Connemara – Tim Robinson: I’m Irish so sue me.

The Great Warming – Brian Fagan: solid read on a critical period of history examined from an environmentally deterministic viewpoint.

1493 – Charles C. Mann: excellent in every way and goes to great lengths to exemplify why our world is the way it is today and why Columbus, for good or ill, matters.

Bukowski – Post Office
Bukowski – Women

I love Bukowski and if you don’t, well, more for me then.

Barbarossa – Alan Clark: remains the single best one volume, non-specialist treatment of the war on the Eastern front in print.


Ethiopian ShepherdIt’s been five years to the day since I snapped this photo hanging out of the window of a white Land Rover. Yes, I know I’ve written about this photo before, but wow, it’s one of those stunning images that stays with you no matter what. Of course I had no idea how terrible 2007 would end up being—nor did I realize how lonely and difficult the trip in Ethiopia would be—but this day offered both promise and excitement (some in the form of Qat).

My mental map of Ethiopia, up to this point, was largely formed by Band-Aid and the famine in the eighties. I expected rocks and semi-arid plains. Thomas, my driver, and I drove up over the mountains ringing Addis Ababa watching little old ladies carry impossible burdens of sticks on their backs, many of whom end up permanently hunched over late in life from such labors. We came down the backside of the hills into a wonderland of round thatch-roofed huts, thick trees and boys playing soccer with tightly wrapped balls of leather strips, straight from the cows that they herded the year before. The dirt was intensely red and warm, the bark of trees almost gray and the leaves a bright rippling green in the soughing wind, but the main south-north highway was, and would remain, dirt and dust.

The road and the landscape continued straight and flat until a great abyss opened up.

“Aha,” I thought incorrectly, “this is why Ethiopia was once called Abyssinia.

This was the Nile gorge, a mighty chasm. If Africa is the land of horizons, none is so great as that halfway down the gorge where clouds streamed overhead and the rays of light are visible between them like a surrealist masterpiece. A lone green bus drove upwards far away across the gorge. Further and further down into it we drove, switchback after switchback after switchback along the river-carved cliffs composed of a geometrically shaped volcanic rock—like long parallelograms stretching out a hundred feet. And then, abruptly the shapes melted into waves, rolling in from the ocean and finally flat nothingness only occasionally pockmarked betrayed 70 million years of geology from the rimrock of the gorge to the alluvial bed at the bottom. By the time we reached the valley floor the elevated coolness of highland plains gave way to an almost equatorial African heat, blasts of warm air coming in from the windows, sweat beading on my temples.

The road rose quickly out of the canyon and the cool air returned as we sped across the golden plains of Amaharaland—the core, the home of Ethiopian Christianity and its dominant ethnic group. Beehive shaped piles of tef, Ethiopia’s staple cereal crowded out the view of blue skies and parched white clouds. We stopped and bought some Qat, had lunch and then ate the Qat as the road chewed up the miles. My euphoria rose and Aster Aweke played on the radio. Songs from a strange continent, syncopated and eerily enjoyable.

There they were: two boys, shepherds of old with crooks, smiling and singing to their sheep. An almost biblical scene washed in outrageous color, green, gold, tan, ruddy, white clouds and blue skies. Was I dreaming? Was it the qat?

No, I wasn’t dreaming and it wasn’t the silky thoughts emanating from the alkaloid.

A moment in time—a snapshot—but one that has stuck with me, enduring so many more adventures and trials and joys. Few have overshadowed that moment and I doubt few ever will.