Room with a View: NYC sunsets

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I was in NYC last week. I stayed high up in an apartment in the mid-60’s on the West Side.

I took photos every evening between 5:00 and 6:30 of the city, Hudson River, New Jersey, and the setting sun.

It was magnificent every time.DSCN3694

 

(Click on any photo to enlarge for better viewing.)

 

 

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A million lights, a million lives.

 

 

 

 

Every day a reminder . . .

 

 

 

 

 

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. . . every day beyond words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Galapagos birds: by land, sea, and air

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Pelican with marine iguana.

The birds of the Galapagos were far beyond my ability to comprehend in a week. There are nineteen species, five of which exist only (are “endemic”) to the islands. They vary from the brown long-necked flightless cormorants to blue-footed boobies, miniaturized penguins, and the varieties of Darwin finches from island to island that led the good man to contemplate “survival of the fittest.”

How did any of them get there? The Galapagos are a thousand miles from anywhere. Fly, glide, ride vegetation rafts, swim up the Humboldt Current?

And what were the odds of a male and female bird of the same species getting there at the same time? What does that mean in terms of all the other birds that launched off deliberately or by accident and perished mid-Pacific Ocean? The Galapagos are small, the Pacific Ocean is large. Sighting land, eden ahead? Let’s go there and evolve into a new species!

Given the magnitude of questions, I am simply going to show you some of my bird photos in the hopes you can catch the wonder without the scientific data. Enjoy!

Immediately below are a lava heron and the famous blue-footed booby:

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Here, the flightless, swimming birds, little penguins and cormorants:

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Darwin’s finches: yes, beautiful

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And, signing off, with a couple of brown pelicans:

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Galapagos: turtle and tortoise (lack of) romance

She was young and he was old, a mere toddler when President James Garfield was shot in 1881. To be specific, according to our guide, the male giant land tortoise was between 130 and 140 years old and approximately 800 pounds while the female was one-sixth his size and 30 years old at most.

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To be more specific, male giant land tortoises do not lose virility or impulse with age. Nor do they care if humans surround them and take photos. Male giant land tortoises, when in the mood, have only one thing in mind. ( . . .  and they achieve this by a sex organ in their tails. Don’t ask.)

 

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The female, however, wasn’t on with the same plan. Escape under his fore flipper was her only chance. We women silently encouraged her despite our mutual concern for land tortoises as an vulnerable species.

(They arrived 2-3 million years ago by drifting 600 miles from the South American coast on vegetation rafts or by floating and swimming. Once numbering between 100,000 and 200,000, now 20,000-25,000 tortoises live on the islands, up from a low of 3,000 in the 1970s.)

If impregnated, our female would spend 3 months walking across the island to dig a deep hole in the beach sand, lay her dozen or more eggs in it, and then spend 3 months returning to the center of the island. And then she repeats this for a hundred years.

Tortoises don’t do much else. DSCN3452DSCN3468They hang out in shallow ponds or stroll and nibble cactus pads, grass, and low-hanging fruit. They don’t have to eat or drink for up to a year.

Actually, not needing food or drink worked horribly against them when whalers, fur sealers, and buccaneers realized they could chuck live giant tortoises in the holds of their ships to kill whenever they wanted fresh meat – though the tortoises did have distinction of having the islands named after them. Galapagos means “saddle” in Spanish. The giant land tortoises come in two main groups: the smaller saddleback with a shell that curves downward in the middle, and the domed back with a shell that is domed. Our May-December couple was domed.

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Sea turtles, on the other hand, have their own mating issues. An adult male, about 2/3rds the size of an adult female, climbs on top of the female at sea while his buddies or rivals push in. The female holds both herself and the mating male up, trying not to drown. Below you see the male on a free ride while another male is coming in from the side. The female? … well, she’s under water.

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Turtles are reptiles, they have lungs, they need oxygen. Not much, but if they are active, they need a good intake every few minutes. Each mating season there are drowned females at the bottom of the coves.

I was, by chance, on site for each mating session. Like the other women, I identified  with the females and their plight. The men mostly went silent.

There was not a speck of pruning, preening, giving of gifts or flowers, no dances, no “aren’t I the cat’s meow?” Nothing. Turtles have existed for 200 to 300 million years. Evidently the need for spectacle and seduction evolved later, was only needed later. Maybe style entered in with species complexity, i.e. awareness of difference and self. My feathers are brighter than yours, my mane is bushier than yours, my Armani outdoes your L.L. Bean. I like seduction, I like gentleness. Yet . . .DSCN2452

All said, the sea turtles and giant tortoises were marvelous. Snorkeling with 12 sea turtles at one time was thrilling. They swan six inches under our bellies and slept below us. (At rest, they can go without breathing for a couple hours.)

Yes, tortoises by day, and a great chablis by night. Each to his own species.

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More tortoise and turtle photos: they pretty much all look alike.

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Galapagos: Sea lions, oh my ….

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Enlarge all photos for greater impact.

An endangered species, Galapagos sea lions breed exclusively in the Galapagos – or on little Isla de la Plata off the coast of Ecuador. There are 20,000 to 50,000 of them, down about 50% from 30 years ago.

They are threatened by el Ninos, which are expected to increase with global warming, and sharks and killer whales when they venture far out in search of, yum yum, sardines.  . . . not to mention fisherman nets and poachers looking for a profit on bull penises sold as aphrodisiacs.

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Otherwise, their lives consist of swimming, sleeping in the daytime sun, lolling on and over each other, mating, mothering, and being cute or elegant (take your choice) furry bags of blubber.

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Why they are called sea lions, or sea wolves (“lobos marino” in Spanish) instead of sea dogs or sea bears makes no sense.

Look at this face. Their faces convince you they are safe even when you are warned to stay 12 feet from the bulls.

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(Bull to right, not quite as cute.)

 

 

 

But what’s important is: I SWAM WITH A SEA LION!

Sammy, the guide, ever vigilant to my happiness, tapped my flippered foot and pointed. Fifteen feet away, among the rocky crevices, was my new dance partner. As I approached, she came towards me and began to whirl, twirl, and make loops and circles with her body. It was I who backed off. Less than three feet between us crossed my comfort zone.

She broke away once to chase off two smallish sharks 12 feet below (oh, yeah), then swam back, looked me in the eye, and we danced again. Later she danced with others, and that was okay because we danced longer, and she loved me more than she loved them, and I think of her every day. And I miss her, and I hope she thinks of me, and . . . and . . . .

Reality: the mothering aspect of sea lions is peculiar. Once a baby is a week old, its mother returns to the sea in her daily (nightly) food search. Things happen. She might not return, in which case the baby is doomed. It will not be adopted by another mother.

sea lion, sea lion mother, sea lion cub, nursing sea lion, Galapagos

 

Mothers identify their babies by the sound of their “bark” and their smell. It works both ways. Babies sniff their way across piles of sleeping seals to their mothers where they attach themselves to a teat and suck loudly as they too fall asleep.

 

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In sum: sea lions are sculptures in fur, varying in color from gray to gold. They cannot be awkward, though . . .

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young sea lion, Galapagos, running sea lion, sea lion, beach

. . . the sight of a sea lion scrambling across sand has cognitive dissonance to it. How does that work?

They flipper to everywhere – to a pier bench, a tubular slide of a children’s playground, to the top of the stairs of the first leg of the climb to Darwin’s Lake.

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Sea lions just are. They have no appointments and not much to say. You want them to be here forever, to loll, sleep, mate, and swim in loops and whirls, and circle 8’s for flabbergasted tourists.

You want, actually, to lie down next to them in the sand, to see their dreams and just be.

Galapagos, sea lions on beach, Patricia Smith, Patricia Smith Melton, beach, sea lions

Galapagos: iguana ravings

marine iguana, galapagos, iguanaIF THERE ARE PEOPLE who can talk rationally about the iguanas, especially the marine iguanas, of the Galapagos Islands, I am not among them. Neither was Darwin, nice polite young rich guy that he was.

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I encourage you to enlarge all photos for close up inspection.

 

 

The iguanas are too freaking weird. Jurassic weird. A thousand-minds-working-as-one weird. Stare you down weird. My great-great-grandmother was a dragon weird – and she flamed people like you for dinner.

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There are two major groups of iguanas in the Galapagos. See photos (right, above, and throughout) of marine iguanas finding you only mildly interesting.

Land iguanas tend to be somewhat larger and more colorful than the marine iguanas, which are unique (“endemic” is the word) to the Galapagos and swim in the ocean next to your rubber panga (dinghy) alongside sea turtles, miniature penguins, sea lions, pelicans and other birds, and various fish, and the occasional shark.

Land iguana, which stay high and dry, are in two photos below only.

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How iguanas got to Galapagos is also beyond my rational thought. Land iguanas on a floating tree trunk traversing more than 500 miles of open sea from the coast of what is now Ecuador? Then, over thousands of years the low-life, early-adaptor cousins branched off to get fish from the sea while the patriarchs held command of the high ground of lava and ashy sand? And it would have had to be more than one iguana on that log. Life is two by two, after all.

I mean, it must be possible. It had to have been. The penguins had to have arrived via the Humboldt Current from Antarctica. This is 6000 miles, shortest route. Were they looking for better prospects? Escaping religious persecution? Or did a couple just go out for a romantic evening swim and get carried away for, like, forever?

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Then, once to the barren lava islands, their offspring became smaller and smaller until they are now only 50% larger than a football. I’d guess it has to do with keeping cool at the equator, which is why they are in the water a lot and why when on land they tend to hold their flippers out to protect their feet and why they pant.

 

Returning to iguanas: marine iguanas are charcoal color for the most part and  camouflaged on the lava rock and sand. They hang out together. See photos, and squirm.

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And they are cold blooded – but you knew that – so they like the sun. Sammy, one of our guides, calls them the original Aztecs, sun worshippers. And who wouldn’t be, waking up on cold volcanic rock at the equator where you would have assumed, wouldn’t you, it would be warmer?

See photos, and imagine basking, surviving the cold.

Marine iguana males are vaguely territorial, probably heightened by it being mating season for reptiles and amphibians in the islands. See photos, but do not replicate.

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fighting marine iguanas, Galapagos, mating ritualsI

I saw mating sea turtles, giant land tortoises, and Galapagos lizards. None of it romantic. Galapagos male lizards try to eat the females while mating and sea turtle males don’t care if the females drown. See my comments on that and photos at blog titled “First Thoughts on Millennia of Lava.”

Marine iguanas hang out with their own, but have a symbiotic relationship with birds that can clean ’em up, are benignly curious about sea lions, and can’t avoid the ubiquitous red crabs. See photos, but do not imagine warm fuzzy friendships. (Look closely for black bird on back of iguana.)

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I saw a 1000 marine iguanas, surely. They are everywhere, ignoring you while submerging you in primal recollections. I envied their communal life, lack of responsibilities and of guilt, and their sense of being present where they are – and their fearlessness even if not because they are courageous but because it doesn’t enter their group mind that anything would harm them.

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galapagos, marine iguanas

 

That said, probably better to see one than be one. They can’t read and they can’t laugh. They cuddle, but do they love?

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(See photos below. Enter the silence.) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ecuador: hummingbird, just because . . .

. . . just because it is so beautiful, and blue, and purple, and green, and incandescent, and its wings and heart have the same velocity.

hummingbird, Ecuador

Magnify photos for personal pleasure!

. . . just because the hummingbird flitted into my view, pure gift, moments before leaving Ecuador, after a week in the Galapagos with the big birds: blue-footed boobies, miniature penguins, Galapagos hawks, wide-winged frigates, flamingoes, and pelicans, plus Darwin’s finches.

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. . . because beauty is to be shared.

 

 

 

 

 

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… because hummingbirds are traveling light.

 

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Galapagos: first thoughts on millennia on lava

We tourists skitter the shallow crust of the earth at a place where other humans – indigenous pre-Columbian people, pirates, buccaneers, conquistadors, eccentric colonists from Europe, and assorted other opportunists – have threatened but not yet entirely ravaged most life forms here. I believe the marine iguanas have the survivability of cockroaches but with more cool panache.

. . . oh, there was a long break in thought process here. My morning Dramamine for motion sickness has hit my system and you, dear reader, have become as hazy to me as the timelessness of this place.

[Insert photos here to avoid meaningless chatter about eons, blue-footed boobies, souls of reptiles,etc.]

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We are on the equator, but it is not so very hot. I’ve been too busy looking rather that listening to understand the science of that even though the guides have explained it repeatedly.

There were 500,000+ sea turtles here, now down to a small but protected fraction of that number after the slaughter of pirates, traders, marauders, and opportunists. We are not to touch anything, flora or fauna, for fear of contaminating the recovering balance. We are to STAY ON THE PATH and to follow the guides, and I prefer Sammy as my guide as both knowledgeable and friendly, while Alex asks you later what you remember and Lenin is endearing but newer.

So, we swim with the sea turtles who glide by a few inches under our bellies and we try not to step on marine iguanas the slate grey color of the lava sand and that are lazy and fearless, and we do not disturb the naps of sea lions whose fur radiates in the sun.

[Insert more photos as examples of radiating fur and lazy camouflaged iguanas.]
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I realize, dear reader, that I am not being concise about the real natures of these animals. They baffle me and I can see them only from a human perspective. Do they think? Do they dream? I am in a Galapagos-cradled haze and will let photos explain the benign disinterest of the animals in us. Now we are harmless, the slaughter is over.

Do you have any idea how these creatures got here thousands of miles from anywhere else? Some rode the cold Humboldt currents up from the Antarctic. Others would have flown from far astray and then evolved into species that exist no where else. Others arrived afloat downed trees or rafts of matted sea stuff.

The plants came by sea, or wind, or bird poop. A lot of things were helped by bird and animal poop. The poop of the sea lions contains an enzyme that allows the primitive but iron clad digestive system of the land turtles (behemoths that they are) to eat and digest cacti, branches, and other fibrous stuff. Their poop is in effect 80% twigs stripped of greenery, moisture, and sap. Poop is a major ecological catalyst here, as is mating.

[Insert photos of mating land tortoises and sea turtles.]

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Male land tortoises are much larger than the females, and they live to be 150 years old, and they keep growing most of that time, and during mating season they are right in there with the lads of only 100. The male we watched catch and lose and catch again a female of maybe only 20 years could not have cared less that 10 or so people were up front and personal with them, while the female just wanted to get away.

Sea turtles are not so charming, either, once you have seen a male mounted on a female without care or concern that she may be drowning under his weight. There seems to be an evolutionary flaw here unless you count that weaker females end up as food for bottom feeders. To be specific, the smaller male rides her and if she is not strong enough to get her head out of the water for air at a minimum of once every eight minutes, the show is over. There is a reason females are larger than males. They have to be. Once the first male is finished, the next in line has his turn, thus 80 to 120 or so eggs from different fathers will be laid in deep holes dug and covered by the mother on raised sandy shores. (Note in photograph female is hardly visible as one male is on top and another close behind.)

This is a Herculean task. Once there, the eggs will mature and hatch after about 60 days. If the sand is below 86 degrees F the little nippers will be mostly males and above 86 degrees they will be mostly females, a potential disaster if global warming continues. The mother helps regulate sexual distribution by pissing into the lower layers of sand to make them more compact and, thus, cooler . . . returning again to the multi-utility of animal body “waste.”

Galapagos lizard males, fast little critters with some resemblance to road runners, sometimes eat the females while mating, another seeming design flaw unless you count that maybe the stronger females can fight back enough to live despite a few nips out of her hide.

[Insert photo of aggressive male with female trying to escape even though a still photo doesn’t show the speed and whip-arounds.]
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And then, you have sea lion mothers who refuse to adopt orphan babies whose mothers disappeared for whatever reason and the little orphans slowly wither next to the fat, sleek healthy babies that never lost their mothers. And now you always look to see if the babies are fat and happy, or not.

And you see the marine iguanas that lounge over and on each other like one organism until the mature males get testy about who owns the territory and the females in it. Teeth are bared and they become miniature land dragons lacking only the ability to spew fire. Instead they hiss saliva. No one ever said evolution was pretty. Ruthlessly efficient maybe, elegant no.

[Photo of marine iguanas acting tough.]
Marine iguanas, iguanas fighting, galapagos

Basically animal life here is about food, sleep, poop, and procreation. And getting from place to place in order to eat, sleep, poop, and procreate. Some fly, some swim, and some crawl, all on top of volcanos formed from the molten center of earth exploding upward as all things hot under pressure explode sooner or later to the surface.

Once something works, it works. Sea turtles don’t need to change, they’ve survived, baring humans and a couple other large predators. It is only necessity that is the mother of evolution. Or more aptly, it is advantage that creates change, without the awareness of the evolving species. Did a single cormorant note the moment when they traded the ability to fly for the ability to dive deeper into the sea for food? Did a penguin? Do they dream of flying? I doubt it, with all those little fishes digesting in their bellies.

Neither awareness nor curiosity enter into it. Understanding who I am and what my place is on planet Earth doesn’t enter the consciousness of a penguin or a shark. But it does for us. We wonder and ponder and strive for answers BECAUSE we have questions about what we don’t know. We know we don’t know. We are aware of distant past and distant future, of geography beyond what is in front of us, and that species evolve.

We have this deep need to record everything and make sense of it, and to turn it into permanent images and words and share it with others of our species. We have a need to say “I was here” if only for a moment.

 

Ramada Inn and Beyond

Dear friends, this is my message after a night on the lesser side of Houston where I have just left the Ramada Inn (the lesser of two Ramada’s) to plunk down at the United Club at the airport, and where I am stuffing myself with “pure butter shortbread” cookie thingies.

The things I have learned in the past 24 hours:

1) if you are destined to miss your plane, you will no matter how fast you run from the end of one terminal to the end of the other.

2) when an airline says they will put you up for the night, it does NOT mean at a luxury place or a place near to the airport (and they will fudge what they tell you or deflect or otherwise be unhelpful.)

3) locked windows policy does not apply to 3-story Ramada’s, which is good because opening a window clears away the bug killer smell.

4) you can be satisfied with a dinner of canned peaches from a salad bar at a place named Hot Biscuits that also, btw, serves breakfast at $3.99.

5) “Velvet” is the name of a real woman who works the night shift at the Ramada and she is sweet as they come.

6) there are automatic waffle makers that make damned good waffles. Now if only the syrup were the real stuff and the butter pats weren’t frozen.

7) the breakfast waitress calls you “ladybug” and you shouldn’t be flattered. She calls all women that.

8) closets, bathroom counters, complimentary toiletries, something in the minibar are all unnecessary luxuries. A good bed is a necessity, and it was.

9) what they lacked in ambiance was compensated for by the largest best selection of whiskies in the area, judging by the hang dog clientele draped over the bar through the night.

10) I enjoyed it, immensely, especially in the past tense. And now back to reading “Origin of the Species” and eating shortcake thingies. Next stop, Quito.

Photos below: note cement bags in lobby

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Checking in

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Butterflies, or Mom has left the room

Exactly two weeks ago I wrote about my mother in a blog titled When Mom Was My Age. Five days ago I received a call that she was failing and I should fly to Iowa immediately. Three days ago she slipped into another form, the one we cannot really see or know about. The call came moments before I planned to post a blog on butterflies after a visit with my grandchildren to the butterfly house at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. In the preparations for the funeral and the clang of being thrown back into family history, butterflies and life and death have melded in my mind. She was the last member of my immediate family, except for my younger cousin who was raised by my parents and adopted as my brother two years ago. Below is the blog as originally written, with a new poignancy for me:   

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Butterflies weigh nothing but you can feel when they land on you, and when they move, it tickles, and when they stay still, there is a microscopic clutch. They make their presence known. Some miracles are like that, and it is difficult to figure out if the miracle is meant for you or randomly distributed and you just happened to be close by.

At the butterfly house you are not supposed to touch the butterflies but the butterflies are allowed to touch you. This is why my grandson held his finger still near one for ten minutes while it slowly made its way to him, finally tentatively touching his fingernail.butterly fingertouch

Butterflies are miracles that are made of transparent colors and they don’t have to walk from here to there. They fly, live off sweets, and bury their heads in flowers – keeping company with their flora kin.

The butterfly that finally touched Ben’s finger flew away shortly after contact. Yet moments later a much larger one landed on his pants and refused to leave. It is the way with some miracles that they are not only unexpected but determined.

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Before they became flying bits of exquisite glistening color, a butterfly is liquid. It is liquid that knew what it was doing inside a chrysalis made by caterpillar that moved on its belly.

The day was a blessing with the grandchildren running from dinosaur skeletons and early sea creatures like the basilosaurus, which is more than 55 feet long, to gem and crystal formations that make humans’ sculptures look like amateur stuff. It was complete with Ben’s getting separated and lost and explaining it all calmly to the security guard, doing exactly as he had been told to do, except for having a side conversation on how rockets work. In any case, I sighted him with the guard from the second story balcony overlooking the giant stuffed elephant.

And then suddenly there was the butterfly house! I had wanted for half a year to take them there and it never happened for so long that I forgot until it was in front of us and together we exclaimed, “The Butterfly House!”

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Nature’s organic colors never clash with each other because embedded in them is the full spectrum of colors even if we don’t see all of them. Chemical commercial colors are not like this so we experience them clash. I say this by way of saying we can’t see everything. We cannot see the miracles behind what is visible to us that never clash with anything.photo copy 19photo copy black crop

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are always in a miracle, an unexplainable existence of which we can see and process only a sliver at a time. Butterflies give us a glimpse of what we cannot know – transient creatures that they are, born of liquid born of caterpillars that answered their calling.

 

 

LACES OF REMBRANDT

Some things are perfect in themselves, require no explanations. Flower petals, for example, are not metaphors for other things, they are wholly themselves, unexplainable, irreducible. Bird song, the same.

Rembrandt

Laces painted by Rembrandt require no explanations, they are irreducible, they are their own reality, larger somehow than what they represent. (All images in the blog can be enlarged for better viewing.)

The paint of them, the white of them, the brush strokes step outside of time and history and reference, the way feathers are timeless, the way whispers are forever, the way intrigue and make-believe and dress-up travel through time.

Rembrandt, lace

Rembrandt

That’s sort of the way with Rembrandt, though the humanity in his self-portraits shocks you into knowing the man behind the painting, the real human of complexity who understood white and lace, especially against black.

Last Friday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC) the laces stopped me on my way to see the Vermeer paintings a few galleries further on. Surrounded by hundreds of masterpieces, the laces are stunning in their confidence of what they are.

Rembrandt, lace

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