January 2012
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Year 2012

Masks of the History Museum

While I was still in New York I had the pleasure of running through the American Natural History Museum looking at some of the beautiful masks tucked away in their collections. It’s an old fashioned museum in a lot of ways, and masks of the are displayed with almost no context, like butterflies on a pin-board. In one particularly bad display of Pacific Island masks one card read, “New Ireland.” Well, I thought, there is a New Ireland.


Today the low pile carpet and oak and glass cabinets make the Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians pretty shabby and unwelcoming but in his book The Way of the Masks, Claude Levi-Strauss described his experience of the hall with the first stanza of Charles Baudelaire’s poem Correspondences:

Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.

Taken as objects behind glass the masks can seem meaningless, crude and lifeless. Their cards are unhelpful to the point of silliness. They all seem to read along the lines of: wooden mask, shaman’s mask, a mask is a pretend face etc. But with a little imagination and curiosity they start to come alive. Piercing stares, flapping, lolling tongues. Some even have mechanisms–hinges and pulleys–that can tear apart one face to reveal a face underneath. Not to mention the human bodies that must have played these masks, breathing through them and embodying every distorted and extreme detail.  Whoo!

The Big Apple Picking

Sara drove Bannack and I upstate to an apple orchard to pick our own half bushel of some of the best tasting sweet apples I’ve ever eaten. Cars filled the parking lot outside the gift shop. Inside we bought our bag to fill and got advice on where to pick from a muscle shirted guy standing in front of his date, “Go all the way back.”

Back around the shop there was a duck pond, a pumpkin patch, chickens, goats and a rustic tree lined trail up to the orchard. I’ve never seen apples hang so heavily from trees before. Some branches were broken from the weight.

By the time we got to the top of a hill a man eating a huge stalk of broccoli stopped his light-duty four wheeler. I asked him where to find the best tasting apples and he pointed the way down the other side of the hill to a row of trees right on the edge of the farm. As he pulled away I noticed a bottle of beer in his cup-holder.

We charged down the path feeling a little like trespassers, the little road had a more private feeling than the open orchard. Down in the trees though it was near paradise.  Apples from the first few trees were all of the same type but some were sweeter, some crisper, some more subtle. All astoundingly delicious, especially the ones that grew high up in the sunshine. We filled our half-bushel basket to the brim in no time and carried our loot back to the car talking about all the wonderful things we’d make with all these apples.

The next day Sara and I peeled, cored and sliced (by hand) about three quarters of the apples to make applesauce, spiced apple butter and enough canned apple pie filling for 6 pies. Last night we made a pie and even though I undercooked it—by just a little—it was just as tasty as if it was picked fresh off an apple pie tree. Apparently this sudden family obsession with apples extended all the way back to Montana. My mother sent this photo of the apple press my father cleaned up that they will use to make cider this year when their apples come in. Maybe a little applejack too? I hope so.

W. Reginald Bray

I was browsing in an ultra cool book store in Brooklyn and came across a title I could not pass up. John Tingey’s “The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects,” tells the story of how accountant and postal regulation enthusiast W. Reginald Bray became “The Human Letter” and “The Autograph King.” From the 2010 review in the New Yorker:

Bray (1879-1939) was an avid collector who amassed stamps, postmarks, train tickets, and girlfriends, and who, after reading the entire British Post Office Guide, impishly determined to take the rules as challenges. He tried posting an unimaginable array of things, to see whether the post office would deliver them. At one point or another, he mailed a bowler hat, a rabbit skull (the address spelled out on the nasal bone, and the stamps pasted to the back), a purse, a slipper, a clothes brush, seaweed, shirt collars, a penny, a turnip (address and message carved into the durable tuber), an Irish Terrier, and a pipe, among other curios.

Needless to say I loved it and it inspired me to send a few return address experiments of my own today. Will my letter to PJ reach all the way to the fictional address in Saipan before it reaches him in California? Who knows, but it’s worth 45 cents to find out.

More on Bray on the author’s website.

Bannack on the Straightaway

Aurochs and Angels

I saw a beautiful movie this weekend, Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s completely emotional and magical and I recommend getting to a theater if you can find it playing and seeing it. Set in the disappearing Louisiana bayou and told from the perspective of an six year old girl. She’s living with her father in a doomed shanty town that they call The Bathtub. It’s an incredible story, but the geography is real and so are the consequences for the people who live there.

Here is a short documentary about the Isle de Jean Charles. It’s worth a look.

The movie has a very imaginative and homemade quality about it. It stars community actors and was shot on 16mm film, it’s the work of American director Benh Zeitlin. If you’re curious you can watch his short film Glory at Sea, it shares a lot of the magical elements and themes of Beasts.