Where There Are No Rivers

Cenote at Chichen Itza in Yucatán

Even Los Angeles has a river. Never mind that its banks are mostly of concrete and that it runs dry most of the year. There are some parts of the world in which rain sometimes falls in great profusion, but where there are no rivers to be seen. The operative phrase here is “to be seen.”

The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, which I plan to visit next winter, is a solid block of limestone into which the rainfall seeps. There is quite a bit of water in Yucatán, but almost all of it is below sea level. Thanks to the giant meteor which caused the Cretaceous Extinction some 66 million years ago, numerous holes were punched through the surface of the limestone causing waterholes (usually referred to as cenotes). Many of these cenotes are interconnected through extensive subterranean caves.

Many of these cenotes make for excellent swimming holes in the subtropical climate of the peninsula, and they are a steady source of water for drinking and washing to the local population.

Where matters get more complicated is in the region known as the Puuc Hills, which rise several hundred feet above sea level, yet which sustained a large Maya population in ancient times. During rainy season, water is collected in stone cisterns called chultunes. During the dry season, these sources tend to dry up, and the local Maya must go hundreds of feet down to get at the subterranean rivers and wells. There is a famous illustration by Frederick Catherwood (around 1840) that shows the descent of hundreds of feet at the well in Bolonchen (see below). Shown here is only a portion of the descent to the wells, which continue for several hundred feet from the base of the stairs.

The Log Stairway at the Wells of Bolonchen (Representing Just Part of the Journey to Get Water)

Many place names in Yucatán contain the particle chen, which means well. In addition to Bolonchen, there is Chichen Itza, which, translated, means “The Mouth of the Well of the Itzaés.” A quick glance at a detailed map of this part of Mexico will turn up hundreds of other examples.

 

The First Ever Photograph of a Human Being

Look Closely at the Lower Left of the Photo, Where the Street Curves

This is a slightly modified reprint of a blog I published on the late unlamented Multiply.Com on January 21, 2011.

If you don’t look hard, you can easily miss it. Near the bottom left corner of the above photograph is the first photographic image of a human being ever taken. The place is the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. The year is 1838. And the photographer is none other than Louis Daguerre, after whom the daguerreotype was named.

The only reason you don’t see other people in the street is that the exposure was for ten minutes, and anyone or thing in motion appeared only as a blur if at all. The reason the gentleman above was standing still for ten minutes was that he was getting his shoes shined.

No one knows the man’s name or anything about him. He just wandered into history, got his shoes shined, and went on his way.

Referenced in this article: For more info and a closer view of our mystery subject, click here.

Reading Russian Poetry in Translation

I Love Russian Poetry, But I Don’t Know Russian

I get a real feeling of inadequacy every time I read Russian poetry in translation. How can one really appreciate a country’s poetry unless one speaks the language? What Russian I know relates only to, of all things, chess. I used to play international correspondence chess in competition, so I had to understand certain terms such as “position drawn” or “resigns” or the names of the pieces in several languages. That doesn’t help me understand what Marina Tsvetaeva meant in the above illustration. I’ve read Tsvetaeva and several of her countrymen in translation. Most recently, I read Arseny Tarkovsky’s collection I Burned at the Feast.

Again and again, I would run into stanzas that seemed to open vistas for me—only to wonder how the poem read in the original language. Here are a few examples:

A word is only a skin,
a thin film of human lots,
and any line in your poem
can sharpen the knife of your fate.

Or this:

Something was leading us.
Built by miracle, whole cities split—
like mirages before our eyes.
And mint bowed beneath our feet,
and birds hovered above our heads,
and fish nosed against the river’s flow,
and the sky unscrolled above the land…

while behind us, fate followed
like a madman with a razor in his hand.

Russians love the poetry of Pushkin, but I have no idea of what he sounds like in the original Russian. Sometime in the next year, I will read Babette Deutsch’s translation of Eugene Onegin. But is it really any good? Some people say it is, but I am at the mercy of whatever translation I select.

 

Good Government

The Emperor Trajan (AD 53-117)

The Roman Emperors get a lot of bad press in the history books, thanks largely to such holders of the crown as Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius (yes, he was not a nice guy after all), and Nero—not to mention some of the later occupants such as Commodus and Elagabalus. Still, there was a period of some eighty years when there was a sequence of five emperors who were actually outstanding both in terms of governance and as human beings.

Edward Gibbon’s 18th century The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire begins with this paragraph:

In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113)

Earlier this month, I finished reading the complete surviving letters of Pliny the Younger, who was selected by Trajan to be the governor of Bithynia-Pontus and who maintained a regular correspondence with the emperor. Here is a typical exchange:

PLINY:

The citizens of Prusa [modern day Bursa in Turkey], my lord, have public baths which are filthy and out of date, and they think it important to have a new building. In my view you can show favour to their request, for there will be money to finance it. In the first place, there are the sums which I have already begun to recover and to exact from private citizens, and secondly, amounts which they habitually expend on olive oil they are ready to contribute towards the building of the baths. In general, both the prestige of the town and the splendour of your reign make this demand.

TRAJAN:

If the construction of the new baths is not going to impose a burden on the resources of the Prusians, we can grant this request, so long as no levy is imposed on them for that purpose, and that they do not have fewer resources available for necessary expenditure in the future.

The whole of Book X of Pliny’s letters consists of numerous missives to the emperor, followed by the emperor’s responses. To me, this was the most interesting section in the letters, as it shows a correspondence between a competent and honest governor and a caring Roman emperor.

 

 

In Ignatievo Forest

Russian Forest Scene

Today I have made the acquaintance of a major Russian poet named Arseny Tarkovsky. If that last name is more than a little familiar to you, it is because his son Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the greatest postwar Russian filmmakers. Curiously, Arseny’s first published collection came out in 1962, when the poet was 55 years old; and his son Andrei made him famous by quoting his poems in his films Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979). (And Stalker is one of my favorite films—ever!)

The following poem, “Ignatievo Forest” was written in 1935. According to the notes in the collection I am reading, it deals with the difficult relationship with the poet’s first wife, Maria Ivanovna Vishnyakova (1907-1979), mother of Andrei, whom he divorced in 1937.

Ignatievo Forest

The last leaves in self-immolation
burn and rise to sky. The whole forest here
lives and breathes the same irritation
we lived and breathed in our last year.

In your tear-blurred eyes the path’s a mirror
as the gloomy flood-plain mirrors the shrubs.
Don’t fuss, do not disturb, don’t touch
or threaten the wood’s wet quiet. Here,

the old life breathes. Just listen:
in damp grass, slimy mushrooms appear.
Slugs gnaw their way to the core,
though a damp itch still tingles the skin.

You’ve known how love is like a threat:
when I come back, you’ll wish you were dead.
The sky shivers in reply, holds a maple like a rose.
Let it burn hotter—till it almost reaches our eyes.

The collection I am reading is called I Burned at the Feast. The book is overdue at the L.A. Central Library, and I cannot endure the thought of returning it until I am finished with it, even though it will cost me a few bucks.

When You Strip Away the Surface …

Dancers from the Kárpátok Folk Dance Ensemble

… of me, what you will find is a strange sort of Hungarian. Although I have read no studies to this effect, I think that the first language you learn to speak is what determines, at the deepest level, who you are. My first language was an older dialect of the Magyar language from the region just to the southwest of Budapest. Today, when I speak the language—haltingly—Hungarians laugh at my choice of words and horrible grammar. Yet, my ever-so-sophisticated American English is merely an overlay on a base that was set in concrete before I was five. I feel myself to be a kind of Brummagem Hungarian.

Last night, Martine and I attended a Hungarian folk dance program at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church just south of downtown L.A. The dance was put on by the Kárpátok Folk Dance Ensemble, which has just recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. That a city like Los Angeles, which does not have that large a Hungarian population, could support an organization like Kárpátok is an unending surprise to me.

For many of the fifteen-odd dances they performed, I was in tears. There are certain themes in Hungarian music that take me way back to my beginnings. I could not lay my finger on it, but a deep emotional chord is struck deep in my core.

The people in attendance were curious about me. My pronunciation is near perfect, but I might as well be retarded. As for Martine, she doesn’t know a word of Magyar and depended on me for many things I was unable to explain.

Flyer for the “Thousand Faces” Dance Concert We Attended

That didn’t keep up from enjoying the music and dances—and the Hungarian meal that was served afterwards—even though we were both suffering from nasty colds. She might be French, but Martine enjoys these Hungarian events as much as I do, though in a different way. I do believe she prefers Hungarian food to the great cuisine of France, especially where pastries are involved.

 

The Singing Chef and Others

Singing Chef Harpal Singh

Although I still have a shelf of cookbooks, it is unlikely that I will add to it. For my own ventures into cooking, I am increasingly turning to YouTube where I can see the dish being made and what it looks like when it is completed.

As I grow older, I am becoming more interested in vegetarian cuisine. And which is the greatest vegetarian cuisine, but the foods of India. If I am cooking for myself these days, I am more than likely to go for a good curry recipe like one of the following:

Chef Harpal Singh’s Mumbai Mast Tomato Pullao

Chef Harpal Singh is a charming presence who likes to entertain you by singing (or is it singhing?). I have not made this dish yet because Martine prefers me to cook dishes with meat. So I have to wait until she has an episode of irritable bowel syndrome before trying it. (Those episodes last for about a week.)

A Tasty Eggplant and Potato Curry from HowToCookGreatFood.Com

The chef here does not introduce himself by name, but he is a wizard. I have prepared this dish twice and love it. My friend Mona, who is a health nut, thinks I am crazy for liking a dish whose primary ingredients are both members of the deadly nightshade family. Happily, I have not yet succumbed to any sort of nightshade poisoning.

There are other sources, which I may introduce at some later date, such as Chef Odon Hankusz from Budapest. Unfortunately, his instructions are all in Hungarian, but his Gulyás Leves is a dish for the gods!