Jan 292011

We are accustomed to thinking of river drainages, like trees, as having a directional structure — branching as one moves upstream, but converging into larger streams as one moves down­stream. Deltas, like the root systems of trees, are boundary cases.

There is a remarkable exception to this structure, however, that occurs at Two Ocean Pass in northern Wyoming. Two Ocean Creek drains the plateau north­west of the Pass and rushes down the mountain straight into a ridge line that forms part of the conti­nental divide. There the creek splits into two parts: one of which becomes Atlantic Creek and flows north into the Yellowstone, and thence into the Mississippi; while the other be­comes Pacific Creek, flowing southwest into the Snake, and thence into the Pacific. Here is a map:

View Two Ocean Pass in a larger map

Cutthroat trout used this route to migrate from the Snake River into Yellowstone Lake which is in the Mississippi drainage. Parting of the Waters describes the hike back to Two Ocean Creek, and has some nice photographs and maps.


Nov 122009

Golf Dreams is John Updike’s brilliant collection of stories and essays about the game of golf. In the title story, Updike describes a golf dream — a dream in which targets mysteriously recede, hazards materialize out of thin air, balls change into cylinders, and clubs develop an odd flabby appen­dage which prevents them from contacting the ball crisply. Nonetheless, he observes, the dreamer “surrenders not a particle of hope of making the shot.”

After all, are these nightmares any worse than the “real” drive that skips off the toe of the club, strikes the prism-shaped tee marker, and is swallowed by weeds some twenty yards behind the horrified driver? Or the magical impotence of an utter whiff? Or the bizarre physical comedy of a soaring slice that strikes the one telephone wire strung across three hundred acres? The golfer is so habituated to humiliation that his dreaming mind never offers any protest of implausibility. Whereas dream life, we are told, is a therapeutic cari­cature, seamy side out, of real life, dream golf is simply golf played on another course.

Updike himself had an 18-handicap — which probably meant more to him than being lauded by the NYT as “the most gifted writer of his generation.” He loved the game. In an essay called “The Bliss of Golf,”  Updike recounts:

I never touched a club until I was twenty-five. Then, on a shady lawn in Wellesley, a kind of aunt-in-law showed me how to hold her driver and told me, after one swoop at a phantom ball, that I had a wonderful natural swing. Since that fatal encouragement, in many weathers inner and outer, amid many a green and winding landscape, I have asked myself what the peculiar bliss of this demanding game is, a bliss that at times threatens to relegate all the rest of life, including those sexual concerns that Freud claims are paramount and those even more basic needs that Marx insists must be met, to the shadows.

The immensities of space, beside which even polo and baseball are constricted pastimes, must be part of it. To see one’s ball gallop two hundred and more yards down the fairway, or see it fly from the face of an 8-iron clear across an entire copse of maples in full autumnal flare, is to join one’s soul with the vastness that, con­templated from another angle, intimidates the spirit, and makes one feel small. As it moves through the adventures of a golf match, the human body, like Alice’s in Wonderland, experiences an intoxicating relativity — huge in relation to the ball, tiny in relation to the course, exactly matched to that of the other players. From this relativity is struck a silent music that rings to the treetops and runs through a Wagnerian array of changes as each hole evokes its set of shots, dwindling down to the final putt. The clubs in their nice gradations suggest organ pipes. . .

And the bliss of the swing. The one that feels effortless and produces a shot of miraculous straightness and soar. “I’ll take it,” we say modestly, searching about with a demure blush for the spun-away tee. Just a few shots a round keep us coming back; what other sport offers such sudden splendor in exchange for so few calories of expended energy? In those instants of whizz, ascent, hover, and fall, an ideal self seems mirrored. If we have that one shot in us, we must have thousands more — the problem is to get them out, to let them out. To concentrate, to take one’s time, to move the weight across, to keep the elbow in, to save the wrist-cock for the hitting area, to keep one’s head still, down, and as full of serenity as a Zen monk’s: an ambitious program, but a basically spiritual one. . .

The high point of Updike’s collection, in my view, is the short story “Farrell’s Caddie,” which, fortunately, is available on-line here. It is indeed short — so take a minute.

If you are wanting to learn how to play golf, this is probably the wrong book. Harvey Pennick’s Little Red Book might be what you need. But if you are wanting something more substantial, Updike is matchless. “Golf’s ultimate moral instruction,” he says, “directs us to find within ourselves a pivotal center of enjoyment: relax into a rhythm that fits the hills and swales, and play the shot at hand — not the last one, or the next one, but the one at your feet, in the poison ivy, where you put it.”


Apr 092009

The exciting archaeological discoveries at Gobekli Tepe, a mega­lithic site in southern Turkey that predates Stonehenge by about 6000 years, are reported on the Smithsonian website.  Gobekli Tepe consisted of multiple T-shaped stone pillars, up to 16 feet tall and weighing 7 to 10 tons each, arranged in circular patterns on a hill­top. The location was apparently used for religious purposes and probably preceded the advent of agri­culture in the region.

The link is from Jebadiah Moore’s excellent The Jeblog, where he remarks:

I really like the theory that the desire to create this place led to the devel­opment of agri­culture rather than the other way around. Perhaps I’m just romantic, but I like the idea that humanity only wrested itself into a single place in order to fulfill a higher goal.

In a similar context, speaking of the Hopewell mounds at the High Bank site in Ohio, I can remember Bob Horn observing that the gods can be useful to humans.


Jan 112009

So, Shelley and I went off to see Gran Torino this evening and we really liked it. This is not necessarily a recommendation. Shelley tends to like movies about grumpy, politically incorrect, old men while I seem to like everything Clint Eastwood does. But Ann Althouse, who strikes me as hard-headed and sensible, also gives Gran Torino a strong review: “I laughed, I cried — a great movie experience.”  Trailers are here.

At the end of the movie the audience just sat there.


Oct 272008

My first interview with the College of Santa Fe was a conference call with the Dean and maybe five or six faculty and staff.  One of the questions I remember being asked was whether I knew anything about that part of the country. I replied that all I knew was what I had learned from reading Tony Hillerman novels. Apparently this was a satisfactory answer, since I got the job.

Here is a brief obituary, and a nice tribute.

Tony Hillerman