Time travel in west Texas

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Sunrise out of the cabin

Ever since reading The Time Machine as a teenager, I, like most people, have wondered about time travel. And despite annoying naysaying from logicians and physicists, it still seems like an intriguing idea.

Wolf spider

Wolf spider

Susan and I just spent a week in far west Texas, where we experienced something like time travel. We stayed in a cabin in a caldera near Fort Davis. Other than a barbed wire fence, a single electric line, and a narrow, rutted dirt road there were no signs of human habitation––no other buildings, no cell service, no flights overhead.

An astute rancher might have pointed out that the male cattle were steers, not bulls, and that the cattle and many turkeys around were probably being raised for market. Closer inspection would reveal that there were some planted trees, both for shade and for pecans, but on the whole the impression was of desert isolation.

In this land the people are hard to find, but we could see yucca, sotol, ocotillo, prickly pear, sagebrush, mesquite, live oak, and uncountable wildflowers. We saw buzzards, mockingbirds, huge spiders, whitetail and mule deer. These living friends were framed by gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and unbelievable cloud formations.

(Reconstructed) Fort Davis from 1854

1854 Fort Davis (reconstructed)

This all made me think of my early days in Fort Worth. We lived then in the new suburbs on the edge of ranchland. In our childhood explorations we could find tarantulas and horned toads, tumbleweeds and cockleburs, scorpions and butterflies. The land seemed to stretch forever into remoteness and romance. When we looked up we could see the Milky Way and thousands of stars.

Fort Davis felt like that Fort Worth of long ago. The contentious Presidential race was irrelevant. The old cashier at the local market wanted to share interesting stories rather than to ring up grocery items. The buildings and houses looked like stage props for an old Western, until you realized that they were still in use, probably by the same family that settled here a century or two ago.

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Fort Davis itself lies at the base of a rhyolite cliff, the south side of the caldera, or box canyon, that held our cabin. With just a few steps we could reach the path to climb the cliff shown above. Without realizing it, we zoomed even further back in time, to an era of intense volcanic activity, which created the Davis Mountains. The rhyolite columns, tuff and pumice, volcanic peaks and domes, took us entirely away from the human world.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory (from mcdonaldobservatory.org)

But not long after that we learned what time travel could really be. We went to the nearby University of Texas McDonald Observatory, which takes advantage of the clear mountain air.

Among many projects at McDonald is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). This seeks to uncover the secrets of dark energy, using the large Hobby-Eberly Telescope and to survey the sky 10x faster than other facilities can do. It will eventually create the largest map of the Universe ever, with over a million galaxies. In doing so, HETDEX will look back in time 10 billion years.

If there is anything more amazing than the mind-stretching that Fort Davis does, it is that the area is so little visited. In addition to the sites mentioned above, there is a state park with numerous hiking trails, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens, interesting towns such as Alpine and Marfa, and the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, under the trees at Balmorhea State Park, which takes one back to the wonderful CCC projects of the 1930s.

 

Newfoundland diary: Bottle Cove

York Harbour

York Harbour

I had intended to write a Newfoundland diary, but the onslaught of beautiful rocky coasts, wildflowers and butterflies, fragrant forests of balsam fir, moose and caribou, seabirds, icebergs, quaint fishing villages, lighthouses, Paleoeskimo archeology, world renowned geological sites, challenging hikes with gorgeous views, tundra, friendly people, widely divergent regional dialects, and more has distracted me.

This is beginning to look more like a five-day report, maybe a quinquery? Even now, I feel that I’m just highlighting a few of many rich experiences.

Bottle Cove

Bottle Cove

It wasn’t just the overload of rich experiences. The problem began on the first full day. We had arranged to stay in a cabin in York Harbour, on the central west coast, not far from Corner Brook. The cabin was on the seacoast, with a view of mountains and islands. That would have been difficulty enough.

However, the next day we ventured to Bottle Cove. It’s a fishing village with a population of just 10 people, but deservedly has its own Wikipedia entry. Two of those ten were very good friends who welcomed us with treats, including cheeses and homemade beer.

Trail's End, named by Captain Cook

Trail’s End, named by Captain Cook

The cove is aptly named, given its narrow mouth, but apparently it’s actually an Anglicization of the French bateau, from its days as a French fishing village.

The surrounding terrain is part of the Appalachian Mountains. That’s the justification for including the trails in the area in the International Appalachian Trail system.

We had a beautiful walk to the headland named Trail’s End by Captain Cook, when he first explored the area. The trails are suffused with wildflowers, beautiful mushrooms, and interesting rock formations.

The rocks are mostly ophiolites, meaning they came from the oceanic crust and the upper mantle of ancient seas.  They were uplifted and exposed above sea level, often on top of shale and other continental crustal rocks. A prevalent and striking example are the green serpentinites. We saw them in walks around Bottle Cove and also at the nearby Cedar Cove, another beautiful, but quite different formation.

View from the headland

View from the headland

After a day in the Bottle Cove area I was in a mixed state, exhilarated from the beauty and good experiences, but depressed by the thought that everything to come would be a let-down.

Personal geography: Walking

Lake Silvaplana

Lake Silvaplana

In Die Götzen-Dämmerung (Twilight of the Idols), Friedrich Nietzsche writes that his best ideas come from walking:

On ne peut penser et ecrire qu’assis [One cannot think and write except when seated] (G. Flaubert). There I have caught you, nihilist! The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.

An important example of this for Nietzsche was his concept of the eternal recurrence of the same events. It occurred to him while he was walking in Switzerland in the woods around Lake Silvaplana, when he was inspired by the sight of a large, pyramidal rock. His inner life as writer and philosopher could not be separated from his embodied life as a person who spent hours walking in beautiful spots in Europe.

Why does it require the direct connection reached through walking to embrace an idea like eternal recurrence? Why not just use a map? Reading a book, map, diagram, photo, movie, etc. can be a powerful experience. Why can’t we have the same insights without being there? And what is the relation between reading a text  about a phenomenon and experiencing it more directly?

A philosophy of walkingJohn Dewey addresses this dichotomy in The Child and the Curriculum:

The map is not a substitute for a personal experience. The map does not take the place of an actual journey…But the map, a summary, an arranged and orderly view of previous experiences, serves as a guide to future experience; it gives direction; it facilitates control; it economizes effort, preventing useless wandering, and pointing out the paths which lead most quickly and most certainly to a desired result. Through the map every new traveler may get for his own journey the benefits of the results of others’ explorations without the waste of energy and loss of time involved in their wanderings–wanderings which he himself would be obliged to repeat were it not for just the assistance of the objective and generalized record of their performances.

Sunset on the Dardanelles

Sunset on the Dardanelles

I’ve been thinking along these lines while reading, A Philosophy of Walking, by Frédéric Gros. The book is a pleasure to read (though not while walking). It intersperses Gros’s observations with accounts of other great walkers such as Rimbaud and Nietzsche. Gros writes,

By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history … The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.

Curiously, the anomia and ahistory of walking, its “freedom,” is what allows the walker to connect to a greater degree with history, geography, and ideas in general. This has become even more evident to me during our stay in Turkey.

To be continued…

 

Herodotus today

Yalikavak, Turkey

Anyone writing a blog post owes a debt to the “Father of History,” Herodotus.

He was the first to show how write narrative history. And despite his additional appellation as the “Father of Lies,” he did show how to collect information systematically and to assess its validity. It’s noteworthy that his ἱστορία (historía, history), also means inquiry. The delivery channels have changed since the 5th century BCE, but we could still learn from his advocacy of careful methods.

Herodotus lived in Halicarnassus, the site of the famous Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, as well as an ancient stadium and castle. It’s now Bodrum, the booming town and resort area of southwestern Turkey.

We’re staying not far from Halicarnassus/Bodrum, near Yalikavak. Of course much has changed. Our stone cottage has a smaller doorway than he would have wanted, or is it possible that people today are taller?

There are still beautiful views of a landscape convoluted by millennia of volcanic activity and earthquakes, and of a limpid Aegean Sea. The vegetation is still of the maquis type, which is found throughout coastal regions in the Mediterranean–dense scrub, with evergreen shrubs, live oak, bay trees, olive trees, lavender, and rosemary. However, the hillsides are now coated with swaths of white block houses, reflecting the rapid development experienced here.

We have photovoltaic cells to heat our water, whereas his solar heating was entirely passive. I imagine a goatskin bag filled with water and hanging in the sun. But I’m not sure we’ve advanced much. A morning shower here leads to abstruse discussions along the lines of “Was the water hot?” “What do you mean by hot?”

We have amphoras in our cottage, just as Herodotus must have had.They’re still made and used locally. However, I’m not aware that the amphoras gather for symposia, as shown here in the Bodrum Kale (castle). That exhibit is part of the underwater archaeology museum, the world’s largest.

At the end of the day yesterday, we stopped to buy some vegetables for dinner. Although Herodotus wouldn’t have used the Turkish lirasi as we do, it’s not hard to envision him or someone in his household selecting beans, carrots, or onions as we did. Even the measuring device would have been similar, a crude balance with old, battered weights.

I’d always imagined Herodotus as an old man with a long white beard, as he’s portrayed in statues. But thinking of his life here, I now wonder: Would a young Herodotus be writing blog posts from his stone cottage? And when he was younger still, how much would he look like the young boy we see today?

Outside lies magic, Part 1

Gesa Kirsch recently pointed me to John R. Stilgoe’s, Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. It’s a refreshing call for becoming more aware of the ordinary world around us. Stilgoe urges us not only to walk or cycle more, but also to use the advantages of those modes of transport to see the world that we usually ignore.

I finished the book, and am writing now, in the antipode of his call to walk and observe. I’m cramped in an airplane seat near the end of a four and a half hour flight. Stilgoe would say that I should still take the opportunity to observe, to learn, and to make sense of my surrounding, but instead I’m counting down the minutes until we land.

The chapters—Beginnings, Lines, Mall, Strips, Interstate, Enclosures, Main Street, Stops, Endings—lie somewhere between prose poems, history lessons, and sermons about the everyday. They remind me of John McDermott’s summary that John Dewey “believed that ordinary experience is seeded with possibilities for surprises and possibilities for enhancement if we but allow it to bathe over us in its own terms” (1973/1981, p. x).

To appreciate the book, you need to follow Stilgoe as he discovers nature, history, urban planning, ethics, social class, and more through cracks in the pavement, vegetation, telephone poles, roadside motels, angle parking, and other seemingly forgettable objects. The real point is not his own findings, but the demonstration that slowing down to look can open up worlds of understanding.

He shows the value of a camera, despite the lament that “ordinary American landscape strikes almost no one as photogenic” (p. 179). He recognizes the dread of causal photography (‘why are you photographing that vacant lot?’), but ties it to “deepening ignorance” (p. 181). This ignorance makes asking directions dangerous: People question us back, ‘Why do you want to know?’

Stilgoe says, “discovering the bits and pieces of peculiar, idiosyncratic importance in ordinary metropolitan landscape scrapes away the deep veneer of programmed learning” (p. 184). Unprogrammed exercise and discovery leads to a unified whole that reorients the mind and the body together. Someone else may own the real estate, but “the explorer owns the landscape” (p. 187).

Stilgoe’s prescription is simple:

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.
So read this book, then go.
Go without purpose.
Go for the going.

See Outside lies magic, Part 2.

References

  • McDermott, John J. (1981). The philosophy of John Dewey: Two volumes in one. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Originally published 1973)
  • Stilgoe, John R. (1998). Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. New York: Walker.

Voyages with the Rob Roy

rob_royI had shoulder surgery on August 18, so my days of paddling through rapids or hoisting a canoe on my shoulders need to be postponed. As a substitute, I’ve been reading A thousand miles in the Rob Roy canoe on rivers and lakes of Europe (1866), by John Macgregor (1825-1892).

singers_wagonMacGregor himself led a life that sounds like an overdone adventure yarn. At the age of three months, he was rescued from a burning ship whil een route to India with his parents. At the age of 12, he helped launch a rescue boat for a ship in distress off Belfast, then slipped aboard secretly a the last moment to help out. He grew up sailing, boat-building, riding, reading, and experimenting with home-made steam engines, batteries, and chemicals that led to several major explosions. He attended seven schools before graduating from Trinity College, Dublin in mathematics. He traveled throughout the world, fighting Greek pirates and crocodiles, climbing Mont Blanc, Etna, and Vesuvius. He won awards for sharpshooting, drew for Punch and illustrated books, and wrote his own books on marine propulsion, patent law, travel, and transcriptions of Syrian and Egyptian melodies he had heard in his travels.

MacGregor built a hybrid canoe / kayak with a sail and a double-bladed, kayak paddle which he named the “Rob Roy”. He then paddled through the rivers, lakes and canals of Germany, France and Switzerland, portaging between waterways on a cart or on trains. His account of the journey became a best seller and was the beginning of the recreational canoeing movement. His trip inspired many, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who made his own voyage in a Rob Roy, and then wrote about it in his first published book, An inland voyage.

morningMacGregor’s account portrays a Europe with only distant resonance to today. Instead of shopping centers and freeways, there were people cutting hay with hand tools. Instead of the Web, there were newspapers, 3241 in Germany alone.

A thousand miles displays a buoyant optimism and refreshing sense of discovery. MacGregor talks of “a strange feeling of freedom and novelty which lasted to the end of the tour,” (p. 15), and throughout, of a reverence for the canoe, which I share:

Something like it is felt when you first march off with a knapsack ready to walk anywhere, or when you start alone in a sailing-boat for a long cruise.

But then in walking you are bounded by every sea and river, and in a common sailing-boat you are bounded by every shallow and shore; whereas, I was in a canoe, which could be paddled or sailed, hauled, or carried over land or water to Rome, if I liked, or to Hong-Kong. (p. 15)

digueI also like his descriptions of wildlife, for example of herons “wading about with that look of injured innocence they put on when you dare to disturb them.” (p. 35) Later, he refers to a gathering including the

long-necked, long-winged, long-legged heron, that seems to have forgotten to get a body, flocks by scores with ducks of the various wild breeds, while pretty painted butterflies and fierce- looking dragon-flies float, as it were, on the summer sunbeams, and simmer in the air. (p. 71)

At the village of Geisingen it was discovered that the boiler of my engine needed some fuel, or, in plain terms, I must breakfast. (p. 59)

meuseMacGregor’s challenges along the way become not discouragements, but the very stuff of the journey. He  reminds me that a broken shoulder is just a toss on the billows, one that can be an opportunity to learn:

It is, as in the voyage of life, that our cares and hardships are our very Mentors of living. Our minds would only vegetate if all life were like a straight canal, and we in a boat being towed along it. The afflictions that agitate the soul are as its shallows, rocks, and whirlpools, and the bark that has not been tossed on billows knows not half the sweetness of the harbour of rest. (p. 37)

Which side of the road do they drive on?


Map of the world showing the driving directions for all countries and any changes that have occurred, beginning with Finland’s change in 1858
     drives on right      drove on left, now drives on right      drives on left      drove on right, now drives on left      had different rules of the road within borders, now drives on right

[Map from Right- and left-hand traffic]

While working at the National College of Ireland, I got into a lunchtime discussion about driving, in particular, about why some countries, such as Ireland, drive on the left and others, such as the US, drive on the right. None of us could even say with much certainty how many people in the world did it one way or the other. Seemingly simple questions led to many jokes, confident pronouncements, and further questions about changeovers, what boats and planes do, and so on.

As I began to look into it more, I realized this was yet another example of how simple questions can lead to interesting inquiries without end. One of the most interesting sources I came across was a website, Which side of the road do they drive on?, edited by Brian Lucas, and based in large part on The Rule of the Road: An International Guide to History and Practice by Peter Kincaid. Here’s an excerpt from the site:

The side of the road one drives on seems to be one of those mundane details of everyday life which people take for granted and never bother to write down. In his book, Kincaid comes up with a blank: “I have been unable to discover any firm evidence as to what the rule of the road was in any part of the ancient civilizations in Greece, Rome, or Assyria. It seems inconceivable that there was not one.” We have found, however, evidence that the ancient Romans drove on the left.

In late 1998, the remains of a Roman quarry was discovered at Blunsdon Ridge, near Swindon, England. It is one of the largest and best-preserved Roman quarries known. Ruts in the road leading to this quarry are much deeper on one side of the road than on the other. If it can be assumed that the side of the road with deeper ruts was the side used by loaded carts leaving the quarry, while the side with shallow ruts indicates empty carts arriving, then we can conclude that at this particular location, at least, the Romans drove on the left. (Sources: a web page in the SwindonWeb Local News Archives for October 1998 which has since disappeared, and an article by Gwynne Dyer, Is driving on the right right or wrong?, from 1999.)

Another piece of evidence comes from a Roman coin. Robert Pease writes that he has seen a picture of a denarius from between 50 BC and 50 AD showing two horsemen riding past each other, right shoulder to right shoulder (i.e. each keeping to the left side of the road).

It was amazing to me to learn how this simple practice connects with our physical characteristics, modes of transportation, revolution and empire, warfare, commerce, and many other aspects of daily life.