Thursday, June 29, 2017

Greek music by Borges

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward gives us a poem of Borges for which no English translation exists. I did not know there was such a thing.

Música griega – Jorge Luís Borges
     Mientras dure esta música,
     seremos dignos del amor de Helena de Troya.
     Mientras dure esta música,
     seremos dignos de haber muerto en Arbela.
     Mientras dure esta música,
     creeremos en el libre albedrío,
     esa ilusión de cada instante.
     Mientras dure esta música,
     sabremos que la nave de Ulises volverá a Itaca.
     Mientras dure esta música,
     seremos la palabra y la espada.
     Mientras dure esta música,
     seremos dignos del cristal y de la caoba,
     de la nieve y del mármol.
     Mientras dure esta música,
     seremos dignos de las cosas comunes,
     que ahora no lo son.
     Mientras dure esta música,
     seremos en el aire la flecha.
     Mientras dure esta música,
     creeremos en la misericordia del lobo
     y en la justicia de los justos.
     Mientras dure esta música,
     mereceremos tu gran voz Walt Whitman.
     Mientras dure esta música,
     mereceremos haber visto, desde una cumbre,
     la tierra prometida.

Digging around finds jbrignone in .ar with some background, 
(Published in the newspaper Clarín on April 11, 1985)
(It should be noted that at this time Borges frequented not only the office of the Greek Orthodox Church, but also the taverna of Takis Delénikas and accompanied his partner to the classes of Greek dance of Jorge Dermitzákis. Although this is not one of the best of Borges, nevertheless it gives a good account of the climate of enthusiasm that permeated these eternal philhellenes in those evenings. JB)

I have always found Greek dance tremendously moving and powerful though I cannot dance. Alex likes to quote his grandmother, Nadie te quita lo bailado, which is approximately, no-one can take away from you the dances you have danced. In the case of no dances, perhaps the memory of watching dancers is enough. There is a fragment of a poem I wrote for my wife after watching her dancing with her eleven girl cousins, written down somewhere.

In the meantime here is a rough translation of the poem - shoved the música through Google Translate and tinkered a bit around the edges, to produce a sort of Tom Waits cover version, all rough growls and sounds made by hitting something metal with a stick. The tinkering is based on my understanding of Borges which is itself dependent on translations by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, W.S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, and others: to whom my debt is great.

I did not know why we might have died in Arbela. That was the Battle of Gaugamela, where Alexander with vastly inferior forces and a brilliant dangerous strategy, defeated Darius of Persia and ended the Achaemenid empire. Though the Greeks did not know mahogany or Whitman or a promised land, and our unworthiness of the common things is a very Borgesian idea, for me these only strengthen the message of eternal philhellenism.

Musica Griega - Jorge Luis Borges

While this music lasts,
we will be worthy of the love of Helen of Troy.
While this music lasts,
we will be worthy to have died in Arbela.
While this music lasts,
we can believe in free will,
that illusion of each moment.
While this music lasts,
we will know that Ulysses' ship returns to Ithaca.
While this music lasts,
we will be the word and the sword.
While this music lasts,
we will be worthy of crystal and mahogany,
snow and marble.
While this music lasts,
we will be worthy of the common things,
which now are not deserved.
While this music lasts,
we will be in the air the arrow.
While this music lasts,
we can believe in the mercy of the wolf
and in the justice of the righteous.
While this music lasts,
we will deserve your great voice Walt Whitman.
While this music lasts,
we merit a view, from a summit,
of the promised land.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

bluegills !

Please to excuse the excitable post. Bluegill fishing according to myth and legend is easy, and they spawn prolifically. By these lights, it is one of the few fish species remaining where you can catch and kill a mess of 'em for a fish fry, guilt-free. In twenty-seven years of living in the US this would be the first time I've found bluegill as described in these foundational myths of US fly-fishing. So yes, I am excited, sufficiently to put up a post to commemorate this possibly singular occurrence.

John Gierach, himself something of a legend, got his start in paid writing with the aid of bluegill.
"I wrote a story about fly-fishing. I think it was about bluegills, because I used to go out to the ponds and catch bluegills for food. And I sold it, and I remember it was like, $75, which was huge money back then. And I just thought, “Well, maybe I can do this to finance my ‘real’ writing career instead of driving a garbage truck.” "
Paid writing is of course very different from writing, as witness this. An opportunity for gratitude, since I have derived tremendous pleasure and consolation from John's books over the years: thank you the bluegill.

An elderly fisherman needs elderly gear, a 1941 Heddon cane rod, and an English reel from the 50s, JW Young Landex. For me there is a small but constant pleasure to be found in fishing this outfit. The reel is nicely engineered and solidly built, long outlasting its owners. I confidently expect it to outlive me and hope that my sons will sell it on through ebay, to another eccentric. There is an element of pity and terror in this new enthusiasm for old fishing gear - like Frodo speaking of Gollum, "I have to believe he can come back." - if I can save these oddments from the teeth of time, perhaps I too may yet be saved. Perhaps not, but at least the fishing has been fine meantime.

The biggest bluegill I ever caught, some 9" or so. That's not large enough to qualify as a 'bull' bluegill which is 10-12" but quite big enough for who it's for. Bull bluegill indeed, it is impressive how fishermen can find a way to be macho even about little fish.

This is not a bluegill but some other representative of the glorious panoply of sunfish native to the US. First guess was a punkinseed but those have orange markers on their black ears (the little black tab at the top of the gill cover or operculum). 

I was standing in the shade, casting to fish in the shade. Upon hooking one it would dart out to deeper water, flashing in the sun, suspended in clear water above the dense green weeds. That much I remember.

The original plan was to catch bass, some hawgs as we fishermen like to say, but did not manage that. The bass were all fun-size like this one.

OK back to the bluegill, I may have been wandering a bit. It turns out that killing a mess of 'em is most likely counterproductive. An enterprising fisheries biologist in Wisconsin questioned the conventional wisdom than overpopulation produces stunted fish. Andrew Rypel set up a study using the ponds under his management. More restrictive size and number limits allow the 'stunted' populations to start growing again. Not only that, but the limit reductions will produce more fish flesh. As the bluegill get bigger in length, they get exponentially bigger in weight, so a few bigger fish weigh more than many small ones. The next step is a ten-year study in Wisconsin using varied regulations across many different ponds.

Later found another study which gets into the deep weeds of bluegill sexuality. The tale of big bull bluegill getting the babes is simple, clear, and wrong. There are two approaches to spawning. The second one is the sneaker or satellite male, who puts his efforts into growing massive gonads instead of simply growing massive. Then he waits for the rapture of the breeding pair, darts in and spreads his seed across the eggs, and escapes before the bull notices. These males are smaller but tend to produce larger offspring. The sneak then runs off to enjoy life, while the bull is left guarding his (and other fishes') progeny. Once the sneaker gets too big to sneak, he starts cross-dressing, and becomes a satellite breeder. These imitate the female colouring and hang around the breeding pair. The bull probably thinks he's getting some hot two-girl-fish action and feels all manly/bullish/bluegillish. Nature is always weirder than I imagined, it's wonderful.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Malibamatso river, Lesotho 1987

Two out of three donkeys find me quite interesting.

Brother Charles the water engineer used to hear about all kinds of fish opportunities. At this point the Lesotho Highlands water project was still a speculation under feasibility study. The plan was to put a damn on the river, Katse dam, and siphon off Lesotho's water for the conurbation of Gauteng. We thought we'd better go check on the river before anything happened.

For some reason that escapes me after thirty years, Charles had to bail on the trip. Girlfriend, work or room-mate problems, something trivial but no doubt it was important at the time. Access to the river in those days was either a couple of days' hike, or a two-track donkey path up the mountains. My little hatchback Mazda 323 - the Mazderati, also known as Tarzan car (tree to tree) - was not up for that kind of rock crawling. Another engineer acquaintance whom Charles had included, called me up and proposed we go anyway, with the assistance of a kindly hippie he knew in Ficksburg and his bakkie. No decision necessary, the only certainty in my life is to always accept when asked on a trip where fishing might be possible.

Ficksburg is a small farming town in the Free State, with a leavening of poor artists and hippies who like the low cost of living, fine climate, mountains and plains. I travelled there once to run the 23km Ficksburg Cherry Race. The race started early to beat the heat which allowed us to start drinking at 9am under the cherry trees. That's all I can remember about that.

Let us call the engineer Harry, not his name but I don't care to recall it. His girlfriend Annie and kindly hippie friend Riaan completed the expedition. Halfway up the mountains the bakkie was staggering up between the rocks while everyone not driving walked up next to it in the rain, pushing from time to time when the mud seized the bald old tires. Harry looked at me and said, "this is Mazda country !" which was funny at the time.

Pitched camp with Riaan's capacious old canvas tent above the river, a few feet from the road, which enjoyed no traffic at all in the time we were there. We could have pitched on the road itself. That would have been flatter. Some people brought folding stretchers which looked pretty comfortable from my viewpoint on a thin foam gaper pad.

No pictures at all from this trip, only a few clear images in memory. The rain was off and on all weekend, wind and clouds driving over the high peaks. Fish were sparse but perfectly gorgeous when found, deep black-backed bodies and bright ruddy-streaked silver sides. The biggest was 3lb or so, grabbed the fly as a veil of rain swept over the pool, and ran thirty yards downstream before I realized what was going on. Returned with thanks. I wish I could share that picture. Kept two smaller but still decent-sized fish to feed the camp.

Harry had brought a rod but no trout flies so I gave him some of mine. These did not meet his high standards - "give me some of your good flies, these lousy ones keep unraveling". Unwisely I observed that his backcast was pounding the (perfectly good) flies into the unrelenting rocks, several times on each cast. In the end what can you do, offered up a few more sacrificial flies and resolved not to go on any more trips with Harry. This resolution kept, though I do regret losing touch with Riaan.

In the evening Harry and Annie were jumping each other's bones in the tent. Riaan and I took ourselves off to sit in companionable silence at the cherry-wood fire, wood imported from Ficksburg by bakkie at some expense of time and spirit. It was worth it. The rain flurried by as we listened to the music of river and fire.

The next time Charles and I could synchronize our schedules was deep into winter. We had doubts about finding the fish under winter conditions, but as always the best time to go fishing is when you can, so we went. The river was showing its bones.

This time we abandoned the car at the road and backpacked further downstream each day, finding no fish. In a few of the deep pools there were cruising shadows like submarines which seemed impossibly big for trout. They weren't actively feeding, just hanging in the current, roundly ignoring everything we had in our fly boxes. Eventually they would tire of being pestered and fade down into the deep green water and rocks.

Another day down the river. This was the first and only tent we owned, a good twenty-five pounds of somewhat portable shelter. Each morning the blue flysheet was stiff with frost, in this picture removed to dry somewhat on a bush. No fires this time as there is no wood in the sub-alpine (cf pictures).  The camping was chilly. Morning oatmeal made with boiling water would be frozen to the bowl before it could all be eaten, not much of a loss it is true.

There were herdsboys and flocks of sheep in the hills, sleeping in little stone rondavels. In the morning a thin thread of smoke would emerge first, then as the sun rose the bodies would pile out. We speculated that everyone slept in one promiscuous pile for warmth. The boys were clad in blankets with rubber gumboots. One boy had a pair of fine German leather hiking boots, probably considerably warmer than the standard issue. They were interested and deeply puzzled by us.

Since we couldn't catch the submarines in the big pools, we tried stalking quietly the smaller pools. No fish seen or surmised.

Perhaps they are hiding under the faster water  ? nope.

Yet further downriver, still cold and fishless.  Really the trip was excellent but the lack of fish does remove a possible source of happiness, of which there are few enough in all conscience.

Not here either.

A very blurry photo but that's all there is - I won the fishing, with one fish.. handsome healthy fellow, where are his friends ?

This whole post was prompted by an inquiry from Rex Fey, who went up to the Malibamatso this year on the new smooth roads the Water Project built, and found a seemingly fishless river in winter as well. Yet other reports from warmer times earlier in the year showed quantities of fish. Just what do they do in winter ? Apparently they have been doing it for thirty years now, before and since the dam. 

Go to Rex's weblog and read the whole thing, to see more stories and pictures from the high Drakensberg trout streams, so beautiful it could break your fisherman's heart. This trip was the last time I fished the Malibamatso. We left SA in 1990 as my biannual Army camps sent me to doing police work in the townships, roadblocks and chasing gunrunners, couldn’t stand it. Always wanted to fish the Berg streams once more, still dream about them.

In a big country
dreams stay with you

Saturday, March 11, 2017

retreat to Encampment

What water and sun are to the body, prayer is to the soul.
 - St John Chrysostom

outside in the light
the river prays without ceasing
trout rise and offer metanoias
to change without ceasing

In late summer last year, clergy and laity of the Metropolis of Denver beat a retreat to the Encampment river in WY, at a quiet conference center by the edge of the smallest wilderness. That starts in the hills beyond the lake.

There was some praying thinking teaching and learning done. However the real point was of course to go whistling and fishing..
Father forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us we'll forgive you
We'll forgive each other till we both turn blue
Then we'll whistle and go fishing in heaven.
We head into the wilderness for meditation, carrying only water
(and the knowledge that the staff at the conference center is cooking a fine dinner for us).

Long reaches of thin water in the wild canyon, real pretty but not much cover for fish. We found a few handsome fellows even so.

I was fishing my $20 outfit, a South Bend 359 cane rod and Langley Riffle reel from the same era, each $10 off ebay. We won't count the hours of semi-skilled work I spent to recover them to fishable condition, since that was in any case another form of prayer.
I have rescued what I could of the past from the teeth of time.
- John Aubrey, 1697

At closing we talked about what Orthodox Christianity can mean after some thousands of years. I suspect it had not before occurred to the cradle Orthodox to think much about it. The converts like me however mustered tirades of eloquence. We had each spent years or decades thinking about it and had plenty to say.

On the way back, Fr Lou, Fr Dimitri, Greg and I had not had enough fishing yet, so stopped at Meeboer lake near Laramie. Brilliantly clear water over vividly green weeds produces bright silver dark-backed rainbow trout, we caught a few. I walked downwind to where the Wyoming breeze had raised 2-foot white cresting riffles.

There was a pod of huge trout feeding over the weeds in a little sheltered bay. Threw damselfly nymphs nada, Peter Ross nada, dragonfly nymph nada, caddis in all 3 stages nada, scuds nada, assorted desperation flies nada. The Hare's Ear emerger finally tempted one about 25", and the hook pulled out straight after 2-3 lumbering great jumps. Never seen that before except on the cheapest nastiest hooks. All the HE emergers I had were tied on that same hook, tried another and had another take hooked briefly and lost the same way.

Even after all these years and all the fish that have passed through my hands, I find it is still possible to be blinded by big fish lust. Pray harder, dammit. Even so going fishing is always a holiday and high day: the mistakes I make here don't matter and the sun and water are enough.
Fishing was fine, but fishing comes to an end
I'm coming down the mountain again. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

snow days

Last week I achieved an ambition of twenty years' standing, to ski to the top of the Blue Ridge forest road.

This starts from the valley at 8 500 ft, goes up an old forest road to 10 600 ft, a good pull. Twenty years ago when we arrived in CO, I could not ski more than half a mile without falling over. At that point it was more a fantasy than a goal as such. Then we had small children and I never had time to ski all the way up, though there was some excellent training to be had pulling them in a pulk.  Then I started getting up early in the morning to make my attempt, but those efforts were stopped a couple of times by bad snow conditions, deep wet heavy snow, like skiing through congealing concrete. Another memorable time I made it almost two hours up, then hit a whiteout blizzard. That was decided in favor of prudence (that delightful girl, who grows increasingly attractive as I grow older), and turned back.

There are probably only a few years left that I'll be physically capable of this trip. When a day of opportunity opened up on the Christmas week trip up to Snow Mountain Ranch, I seized it.

The first few miles were well packed and good going. The snow gradually got deeper and softer and less stable, with fewer tracks. After two hours I was on my own, breaking trail up the hill in 3-6" of fresh, real pretty but hard going. The skinny track skis would sink in, compress the snow, then slide off to the left or right into the soft stuff. The way down was even worse, couldn't control my edges at all, fell 6-8 times which is more than I've fallen in the past five years or more. Good exercise for the humility muscles though a tad bruising.

Making tracks:

Tracks to be made:

Somewhere up in the forests a couple of blue grouse exploded out of the spruce in a whirring of wings, like pheasants in camouflage feathers. I have hunted the elusive grouse many times over many miles, but never yet saw one while hunting. These looked plump and healthy, more strength to their wings. Above 10 000ft or so and over 2 hours it became necessary to take the occasional panting photo break.

Finally made it up and took the second selfie of my life. The road did not in fact go to the high point. Next time I'll bring a backpack and snowshoes, to buck up the last few feet.

Here is an attempt at the video vista.

A good day. Three hours up, two hours down, followed by total collapse of stout party. I'd taken only an expired Clif Bar and water with me, expecting to be up in 2-3 hours and down in one. The Clif bar was marked best before six months ago. Apart from being frozen solid so I had to smash off chunks and suck them until chewable, it tasted fine. One of the chunks fell into the snow. I grovelled shamelessly to find it, digging like my dog Artie in the snowfields. By the end I was well and truly bonked.

Last week there was an accidental snow run, a couple days before this scene.

Hectic day at work and did not check weather before heading out for a late lunchtime run. Foolish me believed the forecast which had said 28 for the high, fine for a run when properly dressed. It looked sorta foggy grey and cold out the office window, plus I was feeling tired and unwilling to tolerate the first few miles running cold until reaching operating temperature, so added a windbreaker over the 100wt fleece. Tights are the same Pearl Izumi Amphib used for x-c skiing, good down to zero or so. It was certainly not 28, nor anything near that balmy. I regretted not having a hat and buff as all that skin was burning cold for several miles. No gloves either, so had to pull the fleece over my fists and run like a prizefighter, indulging the Rocky fantasy. Actually as an effete skinny pseudo-intellectual my fantasies are more on the George Plimpton side. Grey low skies with swirls of snow, nothing much sticking but in the air with the fog and mist. Checked the weather after the 5 miles and 40min or so, this is what it actually was:

Notice the wind chill at -12.. that might be the coldest I've ever run in. The windbreaker was running with sweat on the inside, but the fleece kept me warm and only slightly damp.

#1 son is at school in Minnesota. He easily aced my cold-weather story. One morning returning from 5-7am swim practice, the wind chill was -44. Between the pool and the cafeteria his hair froze hard enough that some of it broke off. We are mere pikers in CO I guess.