Sunday, 2 July 2017

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point
Death Valley National Park, California

(yours truly, via instagram)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Burke on the Sublime

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.
No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on any thing as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous.
To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Everyone will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion. Almost all the heathen temples were dark. Even in the barbarous temples of the Americans at this day, they keep their idol in a dark part of the hut, which is consecrated to his worship. For this purpose too the druids performed all their ceremonies in the bosom of the darkest woods, and in the shade of the oldest and most spreading oaks.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

This seems to be happening again.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Nazis of Rustic Canyon

A couple of miles’ walk north of Pacific Palisades, entangled in the coast live oaks and sycamores of Rustic Canyon, lie the ruins of one of L.A.’s most peculiar landmarks. A dilapidated series of graffiti-daubed concrete foundations, rusting metal and burnt-out shells of abandoned buildings, it cuts an eerie figure. For while the wreckage of yesterday’s industry is hardly a rarity in the hills and canyons of the Los Angeles basin, Murphy Ranch is a ruin with a history more interesting than most.

Acquired in 1933 by one Jessie M. Murphy — presumed to be a pseudonym, given the absence of any other historical trace of such a character — during the 1930s the site was home to a group of Nazi sympathisers, led by a mysterious German known only by the name of ‘Herr Schmidt’. Convinced of the imminent fall of the United States to the forces of the Third Reich, so the story goes, Schmidt enlisted wealthy L.A. couple Norman and Winona Stephens and persuaded them to bankroll the construction of a self-sufficient stronghold, in which they and a group of fellow-travellers would sit out the war and prepare for the arrival of the German army.

Nothing seems to be known about this ‘Herr Schmidt’. Details of the Stephenses are hazy, but it seems that Norman was an engineer who had made a fortune in the Colorado silver mining industry, and Winona a Chicago heiress. A strong believer in the occult, Winona was apparently enthralled by the supernatural powers Schmidt purported to possess, and throughout the 1930s she and her husband are said to have shelled out millions of dollars on landscaping, architectural plans and construction.

According to UCLA professor John Vincent, whose testimony seems to be the only first-hand account of the Stephenses’ activities at the ranch, immediately after the group took possession of the property an ambitious building programme got underway. “A virtual Utopia was begun,” Vincent reports, “with its own water supply from springs, a double-generator power station … and a 20,000-gallon fuel oil tank. Terraces were leveled and planted with trees, all supplied with copper pipes and a watering outlet for each tree. A culvert was built for the stream and a cold storage locker for storing food.”

Even from the ruins that remain today, overgrown and unkempt as they are, it's clear that what Schmidt and his associates managed to create in Rustic Canyon in the 1930s was something quite astonishing in scale. But this was only the beginning of a much more ambitious enterprise. Over the course of that decade, several different architects from the Los Angeles area, including Welton Becket, designer of the Tower Records building in downtown L.A., and the noted African-American architect Paul Williams, were employed to draw up plans for what has since been described as a “self-sustaining ‘utopia’ with a mansion fit for a world leader”.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Ancestry & Alibis

"If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel— as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them— wherever you go." — Anthony Bourdain 

* * *
You go out into the world to acquire all manner of habits and learn all sorts of languages, but the one tongue you neglect most is the one you’ve spoken at home, just as the customs you feel most comfortable with are those you never knew were customs until you saw others practice completely different ones and realized you didn’t quite mind your own, though you’d strayed so far now that you probably no longer knew how to practice them. - Andre Aciman, Alibis.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Nomadic Genes

For 99% of our existence as a species, anthropologists believe, humans have lived as nomadic beings. As we've evolved, settled, become more sedentary and rooted, an impulse towards travel, exploration and novelty has remained in our nature. This instinct has more of a hand in the life choices of some than others, however. One theory as to why this might be, writes David Dobbs in the National Geographic, comes from the field of evolutionary genetics:
[T]here is a mutation that pops up frequently in such discussions: a variant of a gene called DRD4, which helps control dopamine, a chemical brain messenger important in learning and reward. Researchers have repeatedly tied the variant, known as DRD4–7R and carried by roughly 20 percent of all humans, to curiosity and restlessness. Dozens of human studies have found that 7R makes people more likely to take risks; explore new places, ideas, foods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities; and generally embrace movement, change, and adventure. Studies in animals simulating 7R’s actions suggest it increases their taste for both movement and novelty. (Not incidentally, it is also closely associated with ADHD.)
Most provocatively, several studies tie 7R to human migration. The first large genetic study to do so, led by Chuansheng Chen of the University of California, Irvine in 1999, found 7R more common in present-day migratory cultures than in settled ones. A larger, more statistically rigorous 2011 study supported this, finding that 7R, along with another variant named 2R, tends to be found more frequently than you would expect by chance in populations whose ancestors migrated longer distances after they moved out of Africa. Neither study necessarily means that the 7R form of the gene actually made those ancestors especially restless; you’d have to have been around back then to test that premise with certainty. But both studies support the idea that a nomadic lifestyle selects for the 7R variant.
Another recent study backs this up. Among Ariaal tribesmen in Africa, those who carry 7R tend to be stronger and better fed than their non-7R peers if they live in nomadic tribes, possibly reflecting better fitness for a nomadic life and perhaps higher status as well. However, 7R carriers tend to be less well nourished if they live as settled villagers. The variant’s value, then, like that of many genes and traits, may depend on the surroundings. A restless person may thrive in a changeable environment but wither in a stable one; likewise with any genes that help produce the restlessness.
Read the rest of Dobbs’s article here.

Monday, 5 June 2017


On walking and solitude
From Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, 1782
"I have never thought so much, existed so much, lived so much, been so much myself, if I may venture to use the phrase, as in the journeys which I have made alone and on foot. There is something in walking which animates and enlivens my ideas. I can scarcely think when I remain still; my body must be in motion to make my mind active. The sight of the country, a succession of pleasant views, the open air, a good appetite, the sound health which walking gives me, the free life of the inns, the absence of all that makes me conscious of my dependent position, of all that reminds me of my condition – all this sets my soul free, gives me greater boldness of thought, throws me, so to speak, into the immensity of things, so that I can combine, select, and appropriate them at pleasure, without fear or restraint."
* * *

On walking and landscapes, internal and external
From Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking 
"Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts...
The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete — for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can."