Profiles in Literature: Karel Capek

Greetings, literature-loving Dharmists! (do we have a group name yet?)  This is a crosspost of my dailykos series, profiling famous and not-so-famous names in literary history.  Last week we spent time in West Africa with the former president of Senegal, who also happened to be a cultural theorist and excellent poet.  Our subject this week was also involved with politics, although on a much more modest scale: he was friend and informal adviser to Czechoslovakia’s first elected president, Tomáš Masaryk

Since the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina two years ago this week, one of this author’s novels has become uncomfortable to read, because he had once imagined in agonizing detail the destruction of the Gulf Coast due to humanity’s meddling with nature.  Join me below for an extended discussion with a true visionary, and one of the foremost liberal humanists of the 20th century.

It is time to read Capek again for his insouciant laughter, and the anguish of human blindness that lies beneath it.
  This said, the most important thing about this writer remains to be noted – his art.  He is a joy to read – a wonderfully surprising storyteller of some fairly astonishing and unforgettable tales.

– Arthur Miller

Though I’m likely to cover a host of lesser-known writers in this series, the relative obscurity of Karel Capek confuses me most.  It’s certainly not for lack of trying, since his résumé is intimidating: novelist, playwright, photographer, philosopher, humorist, journalist, children’s author, gardening expert, artist, etc.  But here we stand decades later, and Capek’s fame lies mostly in a footnote to a single word, and an inaccurate footnote at that. 


Karel Capek was born in what is now the Czech Republic, but what belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire when he was born in 1890.  In a period of less than a decade, the Czech lands saw the birth of three titans of early 20th century literature: the raucous Slavic Cervantes Karel Hašek, the moody Jewish-German genius Franz Kafka, and the relentless innovator Karel Capek. 

By the time the Czech lands achieved their independence, the Czech language and identity were still struggling to define themselves after having been nearly obliterated during centuries of foreign rule and forced use of German.  Some groundwork had been laid in the 19th century by good (but not great) poets like Erben, Nemcová and Neruda, but Capek’s virtuoso skill with the language and his expansion of that skill into such disparate genres as newspaper editorial, science fiction fantasy, and technical handbooks made possible later Czech writers like Kundera, Škvorecký, Hrabal, Klíma, and Havel.

The bulk of his creative output took place between the World Wars, and Capek recognized that one of the most destructive forces at work in interwar Europe was the belief that all humanity could be brought under a single political framework “for the greater good”.  Like Dostoevsky, he had an instinctive fear of Universal Solutions, recognizing the seeds of authoritarianism whether in fascism, communism, religion, or even science (remember that this was the age of eugenics).  Capek transformed these fears into fantasy landscapes of the human race’s worst qualities run amok, where dreams of perfection inevitably turn destructive.

But unlike many writers of dystopian fiction, Capek is never bitter or misanthropic – his love for the human race leaps off the page in warm caricatures.  He was a cynic with a sense of humor.  He was a pessimist who loved photographing puppies.

Nor did his fears about the future lead him to facile detachment from society or civic duty: he maintained a close friendship with the first elected president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk, himself a philosopher and writer.  The two held a long epistolary correspondence which was later collected into a book, and Masaryk was a frequent guest at Capek’s salon-like gatherings. 

Today, most of Capek’s limited contemporary fame comes from a single word in a single play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a satire about the promised scientific utopia and the clash of good-intentioned ideologies:

HELENA: It is said that man is the creation of God.
DOMIN: So much the worse.  God had no notion of modern technology.

– Prologue, p. 41

R.U.R. assured Capek’s immortality, although in a slightly inaccurate way.  While writing the play, he struggled to find a new word for his artificial hominids, settling on the clumsy labori.  His brother and frequent collaborator Josef suggested the much more felicitous robot, from the old Slavic stem rab-, suggesting labor or servitude.  Practically overnight, a new word entered our common vocabulary.

When the Oxford English Dictionary claimed “robot” as his invention, Karel proved himself a class act: he wrote a letter explaining that his brother was actually the word’s creator, asking them to amend the entry. 

Capek died at the tragically young age of 48, although it was probably for the better: his death came on the eve of World War II, and his vehemently anti-Nazi sentiments would not have ensured him a happy ending.  His brother Josef was dragged off in a brutal march to a concentration camp, where he died in 1945.

A Catastrophe of Our Own Making:


Late in his sci-fi masterpiece War with the Newts, Capek envisions the American Gulf Coast being obliterated as a first sortie in the war between humanity and nature.  Until 2005, this chapter had seemed a frightening fantasy – and I’m sure a generation or two from now, it’ll feel the same way.  But at this moment in history, and for those connected to the tragedy of Katrina (we “celebrate” two years this week) the images ring too close to reality to read as comfortably and as innocently as when they were first written:

The whole coast from Port Arthur (Texas) as far as Mobile (Alabama), it was said, had been inundated during the night by a tidal wave; everywhere could be seen wrecked or damaged houses.  The south-east of Louisiana (from the Lake Charles-Alexandria-Natchez road) and southern Mississippi (as far as the Jackson-Hattiesburg-Pascagoula line) was plastured over with mud… The most serious loss of life would most likely have been along the coast.

– p. 304

In the novel, the destruction is not the result of a powerful hurricane, but of the human race’s idiotic attempt to master nature, here represented by a newly-discovered species of intelligent salamanders (Capek uses the term interchangeably with “newts”).  Enslaved, subjected to experiments, and forced into manual labor, the newts eventually discover their ability to organize and fight back. 

Why the Gulf Coast?  Well, Capek understood a bit about the racial politics of the United States, and the newts’ treatment as a lesser species sometimes mirrors the post-war South’s treatment of people of color.  See if you don’t get chills when newts are lynched after women accuse them (somewhat ridiculously) of rape, or at the minstrel show “Sally and Andy, the Two Good Salamanders”.

I’m making this novel sound grim and despairing, but it’s actually a rich work bursting with humor, literary experiment, and genuine affection for a misguided race that can’t help but screw up its own planet.  Capek packs the pages not only with straightforward narrative, but with scientific papers, newspaper articles, illustrations, allegory, telegrams (see above), depositions, advertisements, interviews with real-life celebrities … and finally, the novel disintegrates in the epilogue, as an uneasy reader criticizes the author for having such an apocalyptic vision.

The fictional author pleads that it isn’t his fault for following the story to its logical conclusions.  In a tirade that’s gained a lot of unintentionally accumulated meaning thanks to the global climate debate,  he begs the reader to understand why he can’t save the narrative from the people who inhabit it:

They all had a thousand absolutely sound economical and political reasons why it’s impossible.  I’m not a politician or an economist; I can’t change their opinions, can I?  What is one to do?  The earth will probably sink and drown; but at least it will be the result of generally acknowledged political and economic ideas, at least it will be accomplished with the help of the science, industry, and public opinion, with the application of all human ingenuity!  No cosmic catastrophe, nothing but state, official, economic, and other causes.

– p. 340

Newts remains arguably the best of Capek’s science fiction, but other works are worth exploring, as well.  The most interesting from a political point of view is Factory of the Absolute (sometimes translated as The Absolute at Large), which shows how well-meaning ideologies can contribute both to gloomy dystopia and to the eventual destruction of the planet.  In Absolute, businessmen, politicians, armies, and religions all fight to create a human paradise on Earth, and through the impossibility of this goal they all contribute unwillingly to the destruction of the very ideal they envision.

The Pursuit of Knowledge:

  “You see that footprint over there?” said the snow-covered man, and he pointed at an impression about six yards from the side of the road.
  “I see it; a man’s footprint.”
  “Yes, but how did it get there?”

The other major concern of Capek’s art was epistemology: how do we know what we know?  Though it’s a constant presence in his work, he explores this theme directly in two exceptional short stories, “Footprint” and “Footprints”

“Footprint” has no real plot to speak of: two strangers cross paths in a snowy landscape and notice the print of a shoe in the middle of the snow.  At first they attempt to explain the print’s appearance as a natural phenomenon (Did someone hop there?  Did a bird drop a shoe?), but as each attempt fails, their ideas shift from the physical to the metaphysical, to the religious, and finally to the bare contemplation of a phenomenon that offers no explanation, and no excuse for being.  The two strangers part ways, deeply moved by the experience.

“Footprints” was written later and feels a little more cynical.  This time, the two characters are unable (afraid?) to contemplate the footsteps fully, so they settle into convenient fictions that allow them to sleep easily at night. 

But random footprints are cake compared to the impossibility of knowing ourselves – and each other.  In a trio of novels – Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life –  Capek dove headfirst into the delicious unknowablity of the human experience.  In each the narrative mode is different – sometimes first person, sometimes split between multiple, conflicting narrators – as the author explores the slipperiness of identity, both internal and external.

On Madmen and Artists:

Things get a bit more complicated in his final novel, the powerful but baffling The Life and Work of the Composer Foltýn, an unfinished work which exists in English only in a difficult-to-find and inferior The Cheat.  Capek again employed the multi-narrator model, but where he’d earlier used it to show the difficulty of pinning down a single life, here all the narrators agree: the self-made poet and composer Beda Folten was nothing but a sham.  In chapter after chapter, we watch the title character lie, cheat, and steal his way into D-list celebrity, leaving his path strewn with wrecked lives.

Sounds simple enough, but Capek throws in some curveballs that make this easy reading highly suspect.  First, Folten’s mania is practically clinical, which may absolve him from his moral shortcomings (insofar as we can’t really use a madman to derive moral lessons). Second, some of the characters develop a plan for revenge that turns out far, far crueler than any of Folten’s petty crimes: against all odds, he ends up gaining our sympathy because of their brutal mistreatment of him. 

So what exactly are we supposed to derive from that?

I’ll be honest: I have no idea, and that may be due to the unfinished nature of the work (although I doubt it – his widow described what he’d intended with the remaining chapters).  What I can say is that it’s the best-written and most involved of all his novels, equally adept at humor and pathos, often within the same short chapter.  Despite being in his deathbed, Capek was firing on all cylinders here.

Here’s a great example: in the wonderful third chapter, Folten’s college roommate – a pedantic older student, now Dr. V. B. – remembers how he blasted the young composer’s pretentious use of fuzzy, romantic terms to describe his “art”:

Whenever I hear or read that kind of prater about spiritual crystallization, formative pre-essence, creative synthesis or whatever they call it, it makes me ill.  My God, people! I think to myself, stick your nose into some organic chemistry (not to mention mathematics) and you would be hard pressed to write at all.  For me, that’s the greatest calamity of our time: on one hand, our ability to work with microns and infinitesimal quantities with a precision nothing short of perfection; and on the other hand, we’ll let our brains, our feelings, and our thoughts be controlled by the haziest words.  I’ve always understood music; I felt in it something like a great and pure architecture, like one finds in numbers; but occasionally something disgustingly and cuticularly human creeps into it.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoy that final line, with its perfect neologism “cuticularly” (pokožkove).  Working within the constraints of a developing language, Capek had excellent taste to know when a new word was warranted, and the disgust of the anti-social Dr. V. B. feels perfectly expressed by the dead skin of fingernails.  Of course, the Doctor is right: Folten has no idea what he’s talking about, so he hides behind a bunch of grand-falutin’ words and ideas that he hardly understands.

The payoff is even better.  Hating each other intensely, Folten and Dr. V. B. live “with knives drawn”, and finally the sham artist figures out how to avenge himself on his roommate.  Implying that he’d slept with the Doctor’s love interest, Folten pounds out a mockingly bawdy tune on the piano.  The intensely angry and humiliated Doctor loses his ability to express himself in that precise language he so treasures:

It was as if he had punched me in the face.  It was a vulgar, cooing melody, an execrably crawling and oozing lasciviousness. 
  Foltýn only squinted his eyes against the brightness and played, played, played that whiny waltzing beastliness, swinging his whole body, with his mouth contorted, with an air of intoxicated fervor.  I knew that he was slandering Pavla with that filth, that he was disrobing her in front of me, that he was mocking me: she was here, she was here, and the rest… well, you know. “You son of a bitch!” I bellowed.

Capek died while finishing one of the final chapters, written from the point of view of a “true artist”, the voice teacher Jan Trojan.  What begins as another encounter between the narrator and the sham Folten slowly turns into a manifesto about the nature of art.  Trojan uses the book of Genesis as a metaphor for art: not just God the creator, but a specific attitude towards the creative process:

I’m no scholar – only a simple musician, but this is what it means to me: in the beginning, it’s only you, formless and empty material; you yourself, your “I”, your life, your abilities, all that is only matter: there’s no creation, only empty existence…You have to divide light from darkness, so that the materials take shape; you have to divide and constrain so that clear contours emerge and things stand before you in full light, as beautifully as on the day of their creation.  You create only up to the point that you give shape to the material: to create is to break down and always, always to design finite and concrete limits in the material, which is otherwise limitless and empty.

The last words Capek ever wrote were a plea to would-be artists: the material is already all around you.  Your job is not to create more material, but only to lend the existing material clarity and shape.

In a rapidly-changing, chaotic interwar Europe, that’s precisely what Capek did.


– Complete online texts of R.U.R. and War with the Newts at [email protected]
– The Karel Capek website, which includes an extensive biography
– Karel Capek at kirjasto
Films based on Capek’s works, from the Internet Movie Database

Excerpt from “Footprint” and the Arthur Miller quote taken from Toward the Radical Center: a Karel Capek Reader, Catbird Press. Excerpts from War with the Newts taken from the Northwestern University Press edition, translated by M. & R. Weatherall.  Translated excerpts from Foltýn are my own.  All images from Wikimedia Commons; the book cover of War with the Newts comes from the 1955 English-language edition (Bantam #A1292).  Crossposted at dailykos and Progressive Historians.

Mission Statement/FAQ…The Latest Iteration

Man, this is hard!

I think I am putting way too much importance on it after all the legal wrangling and Troll Wars at Daily Kos. ugh

I also feel very self conscious about being , the Man…even though I am very convinced that there does need to a The Man… Help Me, my friends

PLEASE give me feedback! (let me know if I am being too egocentric, etc)

PLEASE let me know what I am leaving out! (It feels VERY incomplete.)

Please point out my errors in Spelling and Grammah (I suck at that shit!)

This is posted as a starting point, it is a Wiki, add what you wish, it will be integrated. I want it to be, hahaha, an evolving document…and I very much mean it about all suggestions being listened to….so here it is….3, 2, 1, ….dissect!

Mission Statement
Passion, politics, poetry, prose and ponies. Silliness, snark and a serious effort to frame the future. A river of words, thought, philosophy and action that nourishes and transforms the political cultural and social landscape through which it passes. That is the spirit behind this “place”
In practice….write whatever the hell you want! There are no rigid restrictions here, it is a salon and a laboratory and a place to create a new reality. A reality based on compassion, empathy and caring for the people and the planet, while acknowledging the harsh realities of the world we live in and the difficulty of the tasks ahead. The complexities of greed, corruption and the petty politics of ‘human nature’ in the face of climate crisis and seven billion souls …will not be overcome by black and white solutions or electoral processes, but by becoming the change we wish to see and helping others to do the same. Not through top down enforcement, but through people working together, a model of cooperation, not competition. 
In other words….Hey Kids! Let’s put on an evolution! This is a place for each of us to do our 1/seven billionth of that together, and hopefully speed the process of change along through a synergy of our ideas, intentions and actions. Now let’s get out there and change the world!

Docudharma is about discussing and debating ideas. All ideas. We are not about being respected by other media or electing …anyone. That gives us the opportunity to discuss politics and everything else, freely. Our nominal focus is on finding a way to create a better future, but that is mainly because we needed a nominal focus! Other than the usual parameters of relatively civilized behavior, there is nothing out of bounds. Vigorous debate is encouraged, not shunned, and if you cross the legendary ‘line,’ folks will call you on it. Vigorously.

There are some things that are not allowed here, but they are just the basics. Threatening or calling for or planning violence, spamming, fundraising or publishing pedophilia. These things will get you warned and if you persist…quickly banned. As will excessive and prolonged Assholery. Assholery is of course subjective, but basically consists of NOT debating ideas, but attacking or stalking other posters. Attacks on other posters WHILE discussing ideas is discouraged, but since it happens on every blog everywhere inevitably, we have to some extent surrendered to it here at Docudharma. After all, Armando posts here!

One thing we do NOT do here is pre-emptively ban. You will be warned, in public if you are getting close to being banned. You have the right to argue that, you have a right to appeal it. But unlike other blogs we will not pretend that it is not subjective. If enough people don’t like the way you post…you will hear about it! Only one person makes the final decision to ban…, buhdydharma. To get banned here, you have to offend me.

It is very hard to offend me…but this is my site and what I say goes. I will ban people, if necessary, but….WITH an explanation of why. And with a three comment argument policy. In other words, I will listen to your argument for three comments as to why a post shouldn’t be pulled, or why you shouldn’t be banned. If you fail to convince me in three comments, I will most likely stop arguing with you.

Conspiracy theories are allowed, Dirty Fucking Hippies are welcomed with open arms, and Republicans who are not overly dogmatic are tolerated. To reiterate, this is NOT a site to elect Democrats. NEITHER IS IT A DAILY KOS BASHING SITE. There are plenty of other places to do that.

All of the ‘rules’ are subject to …..MY subjectivity. All of these rules are changeable. And challengable! But….I am The Decider.  The Zen Dictator of Docudharma……meaning, I will have a hands off policy and position as much as is possible, but if it comes to me having to make a decision, I will do so as quickly as possible and take full responsibility for it. If the site is successful and we get too big for me to pay attention to every case, the rules will be changed. Which should lead to some interesting discussions!

Hiding Offensive Comments : We have a three ‘stage’ rating system: Unacceptable (hide), Marginal (pie), and Excellent (pony). This will work just like at Daily Kos, two ratings of unacceptable and the comment is hidden. Comments are hidden by Responsible Users, the equivalent of Trusted Users at Daily Kos.  Becoming a Responsible User is more difficult at Docudharma, than at Daily Kos.  If you wish to become a Responsible User you have to have been posting here for a while have a good track record of debating honestly and of respecting the community. And…you have to ask! While we are still small, this is possible, I am willing to do the work to answer your request and take the time to review your record. There will also be an algorithm that kicks in and qualifies you to become a Responsible User. When this happens you will be notified and asked if you wish to have this responsibility. As much as is possible, cliques and packs and gangs formed for rating purposes will not be allowed. If you have a problem, or think you are being treated unfairly, talk to me. We will work it out.

Hopefully……none of this bullshit will be necessary! If we approach and communicate with each other with a modicum of respect and honesty in debate, VERY little moderation will be needed. In other words….Be Excellent To Each Other. Don’t Start No Shit, And There Won’t Be No Shit. Live And Let Live. There Is no Crying In CalvinBall.

I believe in transparency, so as much as possible….well let’s be honest….as much as is convenient….the process of running and moderating this forum will be transparent. We are looking to TRULY be a community site. All suggestions for how to make the site better will be listened to and considered. We want every user here to feel as if it is their site, while keeping just enough control to keep from descending into total anarchy So, please, take your shoes off, settle in and make yourself at home!

Questions: If you have a question on how to use the site….or on more existential matters, post them in an Open Thread and they will most likely be answered, if not e-mail us at [email protected]

Ponies People often ask about the origin and use of Ponies. There are no easy answers. Some things are best left as mysteries! However if you make a comment and a Pony suddenly appears after it, rest assured it is a compliment and  a ‘reward’ for being funny, smart or insightful. If for some reason you have not received a Pony and you are experiencing Pony Envy….just ask!

Guidelines for Essays  Since we are starting out as a small site and are not AS worried about diaries scrolling off the page, there is no Three Paragraph Rule. Your thoughts are welcome even if they do not fill up a page. Out of respect for other essayists we would LIKE you to consider the fact that every essay does move another essay down the list and as in all things here, we ask that you post essays with care and consideration.

While we allow Conspiracy theories and speculation…do NOT be surprised if ANYTHING you state as fact is challenged.
Just as you have the right to express yourself in an essay or comment, everyone else here has the right to challenge what you say….and they will. Be prepared, this is NOT a tea party! We enjoy vigorous debate here.  Though we will make an effort to not allow debate to become to ‘personal’…..The official policy of Docudharma is, that if engaged in as honestly as possible, if we can eschew as much as possible attacking the PERSON behind the argument, and if we can shake hands afterwards… Flame Wars Are FUN!

Last Word: This is a blog, not life or death, we are on the Internet, not a battlefield. We are all just fellow posters…..The Enemy is not here,  treating someone on this blog as an enemy is a pretty good definition of Assholery. Please keep this in perspective, people….we are here to debate each other, not destroy each other.

It is only a blog.

When humanity prevails.

It’s not often that genuinely good news comes out of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Today, there is some. It’s small, but it’s huge.

As the Associated Press reports:

Palestinian police rescued an Israeli soldier Monday after he mistakenly drove into this West Bank town and was surrounded by a mob that later burned his car. Israel praised the rescue as a sign of the growing strength of Palestinian moderates.

It’s more than that. It has nothing to do with moderation or extremism, it has to do with humanity.

One of the reasons people hate I/P diaries is that they’re often mere shitfests about who did what horrible thing to whom. I have no use for such diaries. I’ve said it many times: the two sides are at war, and when there is a war, people do horrible things to each other. Blaming one side, or wanting to punish one side, accomplishes nothing. Broadcasting every atrocity only fans the flames of hatred. As long as there is a war, there will be atrocities. That’s a given.

The only issue that matters is how we can help foster peace. The only way to foster peace is to stop exacerbating the hatred, to stop fueling the justifiable paranoia that permeates both populations, and to try to understand that both sides have been severely traumatized- by each other, by their own failed leaders, by the U.S. and Europe, by other Arab and Muslim nations, and by the wider world. The Israeli and Palestinian people have been but pawns in much larger geopolitical machinations, and what they need is compassion, understanding, and a chance to move forward. That’s why I love this little story.

The rescue was a sharp contrast to seven years ago when two Israeli army reservists strayed into the West Bank city of Ramallah. They were captured by Palestinian police, who took them to a police station. A mob stormed the station and killed the two, throwing one body from a second story window as news photographers took pictures.

That incident, known to shocked Israelis as “the lynching,” set the tone for violence and suspicion that has continued ever since.

Exactly right. When people outside the world of politics behave with such inhumanity, it speaks to the degree to which they have been dehumanized. Today’s story says something else. These Palestinian cops could have easily turned away. They could have seen the soldier as a uniformed enemy who deserved whatever horrible fate befell him. They didn’t. They saw him as a human being.

It is the common humanity of the Israelis and the Palestinians that has been bludgeoned. It is only the common humanity of the Israelis and the Palestinians that can save them. It’s not about politics, it’s about people. Today, one Israeli soldier is safe with the people he loves. Today, a group of Palestinian police officers are heroes.

Roof Gardens, Wine, and Urban Agriculture

(repromoted – promoted by On The Bus)

In the past few days, two news stories have captured my imagination. The first story came from the Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney’s skyline turning green. The second story was in the Washington Post, Iraqi Past Ferments in An Unlikely N.Y. Winery. Both stories deal with urban agriculture – the potential for it and one man’s reality of it. From the SMH story:

Rice paddies and orchards on city rooftops could become reality with a plan to green Sydney’s roofs… “It’d mean an enormous increase in parkland in the city,” [architect Tone Wheeler] said.

The rooftop gardens could also have commercial potential. “There could be organically grown food grown on the roof and sold in the cafe below,” Mr Wheeler said…

Garden designer Jamie Durie’s company, Patio, has worked on several Sydney rooftop gardens and is working on projects in Chicago and New York, where the concept is more advanced.

Wherever the sun falls there’s an opportunity to grow a garden,” he said.

The idea of rooftop gardens isn’t a new one, but I think it has untapped potential for growing food in the urban environment. I love the idea of inviting you to a cozy corner restaurant in a favorite part of the city. We’d sit down at a table and, perhaps, order a fresh salad made from tossed greens grown on the restaurant’s own roof garden. Throw in a few slices of cucumber and wedges of tomatoes from the garden and a dash of a light vinaigrette dressing and we’re dining in urban agricultural style.

But, there’s more… our young server suggests that we order a bottle of wine made by the neighborhood winery. She can see by our dubiously raised eyebrows that we were unaware that there was a vineyard nearby. After a couple, gentle but leading questions, she begins to tell us about Latif Jiji, a 79-year-old “engineering professor originally from Iraq, [who] has made his townhouse into a vertical winery…”

NYC Grape Harvest

Latif Jiji stood on his Manhattan bedroom balcony and leaned out into a great, green vine. Facing the gray buildings of midtown, he grasped a handful of grapes and snipped, leaned farther, grasped another, snipped again, until he had filled two plastic bags with the fruit of his bedroom view…

He coaxed a vine he planted in 1977 to grow up four stories along the back of his home and cover almost all the roof — more than 100 feet of gnarled wood and green grapes. He built his own air-conditioned wine cellar and stored 20 of his vintages in the basement. And each year he manages the picking of hundreds of pounds of grapes and sets up a crushing, pressing and chemistry operation outside in his narrow back yard…

Overhead, dangling from a rooftop trellis, were bundles upon bundles of grapes, pale green, thin-skinned, with a translucent, fatty, sugary quality, already giving off the scent of ferment and wine…

“The Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, they had short vines — my vine is tall,” Jiji will note. His vertical vine can cause problems. It’s hard to pick grapes overhead. They’re hard to see, grapes get crushed, juice streams down.

Of course after the fascinating story about Jiji and his “vertical winery” we agree we must try a bottle to taste the efforts of this eccentric, urban winemaker. Our server does warn us, however, that each bottle is an adventure onto itself.

The taste and quality of the wine varies from year to year, but also from bottle to bottle. It mostly has a mild, sweet flavor, and tastes much like the grapes on the roof. Some bottles develop a spiked grape juice taste.

She recommends the 2001 vintage, because it is “very well balanced, but it still has the Latif character, its crispness”. We agree and she goes off to get a bottle from the restaurant’s cellar. While we wait, we begin to discuss urban gardening.

So, what do you think?

Midnight Cowboying – Monster of the Pozo

(demoted & repromoted (testing stuff) – promoted by On The Bus)

Stingray and I had been long hauling in the jungle for a solid month at this point. The mysterious bug bites and shady comidas had been worth it, we had found what we were looking for. But that is easy when you have a map, especially one from NASA. Hidden in plain view in the mountains of their forefathers, there were still Mayan temples with pre-Columbian pottery on the ground. We had not come to loot, we had only come to see, and that’s why we were welcomed. And even lead.

We had met Poncho down in the valley where I do my best work, on a barstool in a cantina. When he saw our map and gear he knew we were serious and lead us deep into vines and history, all the way to his village. All the way till we were the first gringos seen, all the way to the lands where they don’t even speak Spanish.

The funniest part of this trip, before we hunted the monster, occurred 150 feet inside a mountain miles away from anything that resembled civilization. And as usual in this part of the world, it involved gold.

It was your basic Cueva del Diablo story, but deep inside this temple cave was The Slide. Mind you, we had gone through 500 feet of rope to get down to this point, and we just ran out as we approached a whimsical ride that looked like something out of the Goonies. Perfectly smooth granite slid around and down at an angle that lead into deep darkness. A rock tossed rattled along for a good thirty seconds, letting us know that there was no drop off, but it would be a one way trip. Without rope.

According to Poncho, if you slide down the Devil takes your soul and you are never heard from again. That’s bullshit, you just die. I noticed an inscription above the slide and copied the hieroglyph before we pulled out. I would learn later it meant “Virgin Well.” We had been standing in front of a sacrificial pit.

That’s not even the story though, on the hike down, some people came up who knew Poncho. After a heated discussion, he turned from the small group and asked,

“You two wanna go see a monster?”

I am always up for a monster. In my travels, I have seen some very unique specimens, usually just freaks of nature. But sometimes they border on the edge of the mystic. Stingray was more than up for it, having heard my tales of lore, and we started to climb along a river bed in the valley. We had to have climbed straight up a mile along what they called a road, though some might even argue against it’s status as a trail. And coming out of a huge grotto was a waterfall that lead to a breath-taking pozo.

(This is not said pozo, just figured most would need a reference.)

We edged along the tree line and Stingray broke out the looking glass.

“Bloody shit mate, have a look at that!”

I took a look, took a swig of my flask of mezcal, and then took another one. Of both.

Sure enough, there was a damn monster down in the pozo. I turned to Poncho and said I knew what it was, but it had no business being there, or in this part of the world. He asked what it was, and my Spanish failed me. Mainly because I had never said the word before, and went with “Water Horse”, after the Roman name for them.

See, nestled up high in this rain forest in Latin America was a fucking hippo.

Yes, a hippo.

After a bit of explaining to Poncho about the origins of said animal, he tried to explain to the locals the best he could what to the two gringos were talking about. We also stressed the point that hippos killed more people in Africa than any other animal. There was a heated discussion about us being idiots, we didn’t need to understand the language to see that, since common knowledge was that lions were definitely kings of the Dark Continent. Either way, it was time to start heading down to town.

A couple of days later, Stingray and I finally made it to the centro of the big village in the area. After steeling ourselves with some tequila at the cantina we decided to go tell the local authorities that there was a hippo up in the fucking mountains. It seemed like they really should know, but coming from us we hoped we wouldn’t be confused with our drugged up countrymen who frequented their beaches.

Once we cased the place walking in, we decide to talk to the big fat dude, because he looked like he could at least laugh it off if he didn’t believe us. We sat down and calmly told him what we had saw, a hippo in the pozo. He looked up in starry-eyed disbelief and asked, “Where! Where did you see it!”

Turns out a train had wrecked on a nearby mountain pass the winter before, and the train was carrying a full circus. We quickly drew a map to the where the fugitive was hiding out and refused all attempts to give us the reward money. Not because we felt bad about ruining the life of a hippo that had won the lotto and was about to go back to the confines of the circus, but because we always knew when it was time for the gringos to get out of town.

So when you hear a local legend of temples and monsters, never discount them, but don’t trip over yourself to have a gawk. Because out there, the truth can kill you.


My Top 5 Favorite Things Today:

1)  Shibam, The World’s First Skyscraper City

2) Desperate Student Answers

3) Strange Contemporary Furniture

4) Orphaned hedgehogs adopt cleaning brush as their mother

5)  Stray Camel

Pinche Tejano, over and out.

my diary today on dKos

read MY f’cking rant, kos

read MY f’cking rant kos

posted on dKos today…

read my f’cking rant kos

FWS: ten years left for American red knot

Last month the USFWS released in advance its massive obituary for one of the most-studied birds in the world: Status of the Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in the Western Hemisphere

Warning! This is a 287-page pdf. That is not as offputting as it might seem, since much is supporting material, 18 pages of citations for instance, and 25 pages of habitat maps. It is also lavishly illustrated.

For the impatient reader, the actual status of the bird is baldly stated in the first paragraph of the Executive Summary:

The population of the rufa subspecies of the red knot Calidris canutus, which breeds in the central Canadian arctic and mainly winters in Tierra del Fuego, has declined dramatically over the past twenty years. Previously estimated at 100,000-150,000 . . . .

. . . . Counts show that the main Tierra del Fuego wintering population dropped from 67,546 in 1985 to 51,255 in 2000, 29,271 in 2002, 31,568 in 2004, but only 17,653 in 2005 and 17,211 in 2006.

In other words, with allowances for imperfections of methodology, in 2000 the bird’s numbers had declined to one third of historically normal levels, and by 2006 to something like one ninth of those levels. 89% wiped out. That is why most conservation groups predict it really has five years left or less. What is remarkable is that the FWs has finally recognized the severity of the situation. Not that they plan to do anything about it, mind you.

Red knots are among the great migrators, and the rufa subspecies undertakes each year the longest trip of the bunch, as can be seen in this simplified representation of the migration of the the six currently recognized subspecies, where the circles represent relative numbers:

They make the long trip in stages, most famously stopping off at Delaware Bay to double their weight on the feast of horseshoe crab eggs before proceeding north to breed. Or at least they used to.

It is notable that a document devoted to finding the reasons for the red knot’s decline has variously worded reiterations of the following statement scattered all throughout its text:

The main identified threat to the rufa population is the reduced availability of horseshoe crabs eggs in Delaware Bay arising from elevated harvest of adult crabs for bait in the conch and eel fishing industries.

The report does examine, exhaustively, dozens of other contributing factors.

Some are obvious and well-documented, such as oil spills and habitat destruction and disturbance at various locations. As the numbers continue to plummet, and conditions to deteriorate in even one of the locales critical to the bird, solitary incidents become more significant. In April, 1300 red knots were found dead in Uruguay, the presumed victims of a lethal algal bloom. That is roughly six percent of the population, gone in one event spanning at most a few days.

This is not a good time to be dependent on the health of several widely dispersed habitats.

Others are less clear, such as the probable increase in predation by raptors following the elimination of DDT and the subsequent rise in raptor numbers. Still and all,

If it is proved that there are factors that lead knots to arrive late in Delaware Bay and/or in poor condition, this does not diminish the importance of the Delaware Bay food resource. If anything, it is increased because it is of critical importance in enabling the birds to recover quickly and reach the breeding grounds on time and in good reproductive condition.

Then perhaps we should start with Delaware Bay? There isn’t space enough to go into the sorry history of interstate squabbling. When one state tried to impose restrictions on crabbing, fishermen would simply land on another shore.

Perhaps the federal government could do something? Perhaps it could take the bird under the protection of the ESA?

They simply refuse. At one point, believe it or not, they used an uptick in numbers for one season as sufficient evidence to deny the bird was in any trouble. (A favored trick pulled out for use in the case of coho salmon and many others: Ignore twenty years of observation and use one statistical outlier to justify the position you have already arrived at through political calculation.) Here is Jamie Rappaport Clark, former Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, on that decision:

No biologist worth their degree would suggest a species is on the path to recovery based on one year’s population count.
It is monumentally irresponsible to use data from one field season to suggest the bird is secure. Their decision is a political one, pure and simple.
The Bush administration’s actions make one wonder just how close to extinction an animal must be before it will act. This species is literally disappearing before our eyes and still the Bush administration refuses to take any steps to save it.

The excuse now? Pick one: several are on offer on a rotating basis. Some time is even spent in the new status report enumerating the reasons, like the incredible passage below which concludes with the observation that other species are in greater need, and there aren’t the resources to do anything anyway. Read this:

1. Inadequacies of the Federal and Regional Regulatory System

The existing regulatory system creates a number of problems for the conservation of red knots stopping over in Delaware Bay in that different agencies have jurisdiction over the protection of horseshoe crabs (and their eggs) on the one hand and red knots on the other. The birds are under the legal jurisdiction of the USFWS, and the horseshoe crabs are under the legal jurisdiction of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) which has the authority to set quotas for adoption by the states. The ASMFC is overseen by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) which has ultimate responsibility for the management and conservation of living marine resources. Presently NMFS has limited it involvement to participating in the ASMFC subcommittees and has not taken any regulatory action to protect crabs or birds. Individual states have authority to implement more restrictive harvest regulations than those set by the ASMFC and have done so on numerous occasions.

The ASMFC has promulgated a horseshoe crab management plan to conserve the horseshoe crab resource based on the current commercial uses of the crab for bait and for the biomedical industry, and the competing needs of migratory shorebirds and the federally-listed, (threatened) loggerhead turtle. The protection of the adult horseshoe crab population as food source for the loggerhead turtle is specifically identified in the plan with the recognition that the plan should be coordinated with the federal agencies having jurisdiction over the turtle population. Migratory shorebirds, and specifically the red knot, and their reliance on horseshoe crab eggs are also identified and discussed in the management plan. The plan specifically protects the food resource of the loggerhead turtle pursuant to Section 7(a)(2) of the ESA; the food resource of the red knot is not similarly protected. Although the ASMFC does not have direct legal jurisdiction to protect the food resource for the red knot, it has taken steps to improve horseshoe crab egg availability including decreasing harvest quotas, more efficient use of crabs as bait and facilitating a horseshoe crab sanctuary at the mouth of Delaware Bay.

In contrast the USFWS does have authority to protect the birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (40 Stat. 755; 16 U.S.C. 703-712) (MBTA) which provides that no migratory bird can be taken, killed or possessed unless in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty. The MBTA is the only current federal protection provided for the red knot. The MBTA prohibits “take” of any migratory bird, which is defined as: “to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect.” However, other than for nesting sites, which are not located in the United States, the MBTA provides no authority for protection of habitat or food resources. Human disturbance is cited as one of the major threats to red knots throughout it migratory range within the United States. Therefore, the MBTA provides inadequate protection to the red knot in that it does not afford red knots protection from human disturbance on migratory and wintering areas or ensure protection of food resources.

Under the Endangered Species Act 1973, a species may be designated as threatened or endangered. However, this may be precluded through lack of resources if there are species of higher conservation priority. Therefore species whose listing is warranted may receive none of the benefits of listing including those involving little or no cost. This is a shortcoming that needs to be addressed.

Where to begin? For starters, the “higher priority” argument. For one thing, doesn’t a population crash of 90% suggest urgent priority? For another, what exactly are these higher priority species? What exactly has been done for them in the last seven years?

It is necessary to mention here that while there is certainly a point in delineating the bureaucratic labyrinth as it effects red knots, crabs, turtles, etc., it is also true that the FWS loves nothing more than spending time in its published assessments, especially habitat designations, bitching about the very things it is supposed to do instead of doing them. It’s hard work.

What are we to make of a government agency that thinks part of its job is publishing elaborate excuses as to why it done hasn’t its job?

I think many people believe the FWS should act as an advocate for fish and wildlife interests, not make excuses for itself and publish eulogies and post-mortems.

While we’re on the subject, is it really good enough to release a 287-page pdf? Why is it left to BirdLife and other advocacy groups to put the information out to the public in understandable form? Why is that not part of the function of the FWS?

USFWS Red Knot page

Requiescat in Pace

Midnight Cowboying