Review: The Wright Brothers

Review: The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


When you open a McCullough book you know what to expect: fine prose, strong storytelling, and inspiring stories of American heroes. That is his domain, and he is the master of it. This book about the Wright brothers exemplifies all of these virtues in just over 300 pages. The audio book in particular, narrated by McCullough himself—whose folksy and yet erudite speaking voice encapsulates his ethos—is perhaps the most concentrated form of McCullough that you can imbibe.

Like many people, I was surprised at how little I knew about the Wrights. My hazy impression of their story was thus: The brothers were eccentric bike mechanics who, through a series of trial and error, managed to make some primitive flying machines, devices that could putter a few hundred feet and lift a few dozen feet off the ground. This is quite wrong. The Wrights approached the problem of flight with remarkable dedication and care. They read all the scientific literature they could find; and they performed careful experiments, documenting each step of the way. Their final product was not just some clumsy motor-powered kite, but a sophisticated machine capable of crossing the English channel and flying over the Eiffel Tower. Their creative vision was matched only by their persistence and perfectionism.

The story of the Wrights is legitimately inspiring. Having no special resources, no roadmap, no background, no support, they were able to succeed where so many other famous and wealthy inventors failed. They endured countless setbacks, both in the research and development of their craft and then in achieving recognition for their accomplishments. But in the end, two modest men from Ohio profoundly changed human life. It is a testament to their tenacity as much as to their intelligence.

It is difficult to criticize McCullough, because he does so perfectly what he sets out to do: show us how people in ordinary circumstances accomplish extraordinary things. But of course, this requires minimizing or even ignoring many aspects of a story that would attract other writers. One prominent example of this is the Wrights’ personalities. McCullough portrays them as dignified and diligent, representatives of an old-fashioned work ethic, unconcerned with fame or fortune. But in the hands of another biographer, the Wrights might not come across as so perfectly admirable. To me, they seemed curiously aloof, distant, and even repressed. The fact that Orville flew into a rage when his sister got married, for example, seems to be worth more investigation than McCullough is willing to give it. He dismisses the long estrangement as one of Orville’s “moods.”

Reading McCullough is a bit strange in today’s political climate. He was never concerned with being cutting-edge; but now more than ever he feels distinctly like a holdover from another era. As is commonly observed, American life has become deeply divided; so McCullough’s mission—to write about universally admirable Americans—seems more quixotic than ever. Yet McCullough’s reputation appears to have survived the late polarization relatively intact. And I think that is a good thing. True, it is wise to be wary of national mythologizers. But for the life of me I cannot find anything to trouble my conscience or divide the nation in the figures of Wilbur and Orville Wright.



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Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human

Review: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not quite as absurd as its title would seem to indicate. If anybody worshipped Shakespeare enough to think that the Bard literally did invent humanity, it would be Bloom. But Bloom’s primary thesis is the only slightly less grandiose claim that Shakespeare, by creating the most persuasively realistic mode of representing personality, shaped our ideas of what it means to be human. This at least falls within the realm of physical possibility.

I quite like the idea of approaching Shakespeare this way, since it allows us to integrate literature into intellectual history. Surely, the great innovators in poetry, prose, and drama must have contributed to our understanding of the human psyche. And Shakespeare’s works may, indeed, represent a great leap in this respect. Unfortunately, Bloom—both by background and temper—is not really up to the task of substantiating this claim. A serious inquiry into Shakespeare’s novel modes of portraying the human would require a broad overview of Shakespeare’s predecessors. There is nothing of the kind in this book; Bloom instead gives us a series of commentaries on each of Shakespeare’s plays.

For my part, I do agree with Bloom that Shakespeare’s greatest gift was his ability to endow his characters with startling depth. And if I can judge from my own reading, this was something quite new in the history of literature, though perhaps not quite as unique to Shakespeare as Bloom asserts. Montaigne and Cervantes—two near-contemporaries of Shakespeare—also portrayed shifting and unfolding characters, and by Bloom’s own admission Chaucer had encroached on this territory several hundred years earlier.

In any case, establishing a claim for intellectual priority in inventing the human is not at all what this book is about. Instead, this book is a reader‘s guide, consisting of a close reading of Shakespeare’s 39 plays. The plays are grouped both chronologically and thematically, from the early comedies to the late romances. Bloom’s attention is admittedly uneven. To some of the minor works he devotes some ten pages or so, while Hamlet gets nearly fifty. In his approach, Bloom is a self-professed follower of Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, and A.C. Bradley—that is, mainly focusing on the character’s personalities and Shakespeare’s methods of representing them.

As you may know, this approach has been out of intellectual fashion for quite some time. Indeed, in many ways Bloom was a deliberate stick in the mud. He was adamantly opposed to reading any kind of social, political, religious, or other message in the plays, and was mostly uninterested in how Shakespeare’s own historical context shaped the play’s content. He was an old-school champion of the autonomy of the aesthetic, of literary excellence existing in a realm apart from the rest of life. You can imagine that this is not especially popular nowadays, to say the least; and Bloom, never one to mince words, is constantly taking swipes at his fellow academics. For the casual reader, this is mostly just a distraction, since most of us just want to enjoy and understand the plays a little better.

Any critic, however broad, will inevitably have strong and weak sections when dealing with a corpus as vast and varied as Shakespeare’s plays. Bloom is no different. I consistently found Bloom at his worst when he was at his most passionate. That is, whenever he felt called upon to rhapsodize over the Bard’s incomparable genius, the book devolved into a string of superlatives that did little to enrich my reading. Thus, ironically, this book is weakest when Shakespeare is at his strongest—particularly in the chapters on Hamlet, King Lear, and the Henry IV plays. Any attempt to analyze the brooding Prince of Denmark or the fat Sir John Falstaff—the Bard’s two greatest creations, according to Bloom—knocks him off his rocker.

By contrast, many of the shorter chapters on Shakespeare’s slightly less famous works are quite strong. Bloom is at his best when he is doing the work of an uncommonly good common reader—that is, merely picking up the play and noting which sections are strong, weak, moving, interesting, disturbing, etc., and then trying to analyze why. This is basically what all of us try to do here on Goodreads, and it just so happens that Bloom is quite good at it. What he is not good at is moving beyond this close, sympathetic reading to arrive at a more general conclusion.

Insofar as Bloom does have a general insight into Shakespeare’s mode of creating the human, it is the concept of self-overhearing. Unfortunately, Bloom does not elaborate on this idea very much, so it is difficult to know exactly what he means by it. As far as I can tell, the idea is that Shakespeare’s characters are never fully able to articulate what they think or feel, but their words always somehow one step behind their psyches. Put another way, Shakespeare’s characters experience a kind of self-alienation, forever trying and failing to fully articulate their own innermost selves. Thus, overhearing their own failed attempts at articulation cause them to change and grow, as they try to correct their own previous failures at self-revelation.

I think this is quite an insightful way of looking at Shakespeare’s characters, and it does pinpoint something novel about Shakespeare’s mode of representation. In most fiction, the characters either articulate exactly what they think, or they articulate the exact opposite (when they are lying, or when they are supposed to be self-deluded). But Shakespeare’s characters are far more subtle than simply dishonest or even self-deluded personas. What they say is never exactly right nor exactly wrong, but forever on the cusp, just missing the mark; and this inability to ever get it exactly right drives the kind of verbal excess that marks Shakespeare’s most powerful speeches—poetry pushing toward the ineffable.

And I do think that this captures something essential about us: that we can hardly ever articulate exactly what we think, how we feel, or what we want; and so there seems to be a disconnect between our innermost core and the outward selves we are able to project. Did Shakespeare first have this insight or did he just perfect its use in the theater? That is a question for a different kind of literary critic than Bloom.

I am spending too much time on this issue of character—since it fascinates me—even though the real value of this book does not consist in its philosophical insights. This book is an excellent companion for reading Shakespeare’s plays, since it allows you to read them alongside a very opinionated, highly intelligent, and fiercely individual reader—which is always valuable.



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The Rockefeller State Park Preserve

The Rockefeller State Park Preserve

A Natural History

Every child should have someplace wild nearby. For me it was the Rockefeller State Park Preserve. I was fortunate enough to have the entire sprawling forest right behind my house, accessible through the back fence. So much of my childhood is connected with that place. I remember searching for ghosts with a polaroid camera, playing make-believe with the neighbors, and taking a winter walk with my family. When it snowed we would sled down the hill behind our house (and my unfortunate brother split his lip this way, when his sled collided with a tree).

I really came to cherish the forest when we got a dog. Dogs need to be walked, of course, and the forest was the perfect place to do it. Most dogs would love to be walked somewhere with so many plants, animals, and other dogs. But my dog was rather special. She was only mildly interested in chasing squirrels; she was even apathetic towards other dogs. There were really only two things that mattered to her: humans and food. The forest had the former in abundance—people out for a walk or a jog—and every time I passed another person I had to wrap the leash around my wrist and hold it tight to prevent her from jumping all over her new friends. The forest also had things to eat, in the form of dog and deer droppings; but I tried to discourage that, too. 

Jenny loved the snow.

My dog’s life came and went, but the forest remained. The many years of walking her instilled the habit in me so deeply that I continued to take walks in the forest just for myself. In fact, I started to walk much further than I ever could with my poor girl, since she had hip dysplasia (a common malady among purebreds). The forest was bigger than I had ever known. There were so many paths left to explore, stretching for miles and miles behind my house. It has been the work of years to know them all; and even now I am missing a few corners of the map. The park is so big that I reached its most distant corners when I took up running as regular exercise. That is the only way (besides horseback) to go from one end of the park to the other in a comfortable span of time. (Cycling is not permitted in the park, though it is allowed on the Aqueduct Trail.)

In this post, then, I would like to tell you everything I have learned about this park over the years. I have done my best to be as thorough as possible, describing the geography, climate, topography, history, flora, and fauna of the park. But I am not a scientist or a naturalist, or even a particularly knowledgeable amateur. Indeed, this post would have been impossible without the resources compiled by experts and nature-lovers alike, many of which are free online. Technology, for all of its ravages, does have its perks.


We shall begin at the beginning: with the formation of the earth. According to the geological maps I have been able to find—available on a superb application called Rockd—the bedrock of this area is composed of Fordham gneiss. The gneiss was formed between four billion and one billion years ago, which makes it one of the oldest rock formations in the world. Gneiss is a metamorphic rock (made by transforming other types of rock, such as granite in this case) created under high pressure and temperatures. This gives it a characteristic and rather attractive banding pattern that you can find on some of the exposed boulders in the area.

An exposed rock formation

According to what I have been able to find (and the American Museum of Natural History’s exhibition on the New York State environment is the best resource I have come across), gneiss tends to form only a thin layer of fertile humus on the surface, making such areas ill-suited for agriculture. Further, gneiss tends to weather into “massive rough surfaces” (to quote the AMHN), which again is not ideal for planting and harvesting. You can see some of the exposed gneiss at various points in the park, most notably in the high elevations between the Aqueduct Trail and the Big Tree Trail. I suppose that this gneissic bedrock is why the land was mostly left alone by previous farmers. (Admittedly, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is situated on the same bedrock, and they seem to have no trouble with their agriculture.) 

Note the banding pattern

The landscape also bears the traces of the previous ice age, which ended around 12,000 years ago. This is most obvious in the glacial erratics (large boulders left by the receding glaciers) that are scattered about. One of these is Spook Rock, a fairly nondescript rock with an obscure scary story attached to it, after which a trail is named. Then there is the nameless glacial erratic, which is tucked into a detour off of Nature’s Way, one of the park’s smallest trails. According to a story in the New York Times from 1987, this massive rock is perhaps the biggest glacial erratic in the country, and certainly the biggest in the Hudson Valley. It stands about 20 feet high and is over 60 feet in diameter, which means that it must weigh several tons. Just imagine such a thing being budged, bit by bit, by frozen water. Nowadays, benches are set up around the rock, where I assume educators give presentations to students. 

The glacial erratic

On the subject of rocks, I ought to mention Raven’s Rock. This is not a glacial erratic, but a large exposed rock formation. As usual in these parts, a couple ghost stories have been attached to this place, too. In fact, Raven’s Rock is referenced in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: “Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow.” Of course, there is some question as to whether the rock was named after this episode in the story, or vice versa.

The topography of the park is not especially dynamic. New York in general is geologically inactive. A mild earthquake in 2011 was enough to send people running from tall buildings, and made front-page news. A lack of tectonic activity makes for relatively flat landscapes, and consequently this area is hilly rather than mountainous. Rockefeller’s own house, Kykuit, occupies the highest point in the Pocantico Hills, just 500 feet above sea level. According to my running app, even the hilliest paths barely exceed 500 feet in elevation over several miles of trail. As discussed below, the paths were originally laid out for horse-drawn carriages, which require a relatively flat surface. 

The view from my back window, several winters ago

The Rockefeller State Park Preserve partakes in the climate of the lower Hudson River Valley, which is classified as humid continental. This means that there are quite dramatic seasonal changes in temperature, from well below freezing in winter to upwards of 90°F (or 32°C) in summer—both of which can be uncomfortable and even dangerous if you do not take proper precautions. Rainfall is heavy and steady. The yearly average is over 50 inches (or 130 cm) per year—for comparison, London gets less than half that amount—and it rains in all seasons. The typical Hudson Valley sky is low and grey, a consequence of the ever-present stratus clouds. 

Even when it is not rainy, humidity is typically quite high, which can make summer days unpleasant. Even so, summer is my favorite time in the park, since the leaves shine with an intense greenness that I rarely see in Europe. It usually snows in the winter months, though how often and how much can vary quite a lot from year to year. The park can take on an ethereal beauty after a good snowfall. All of this snow, rain, cloudiness, and humidity can be somewhat depressing; but it does allow for a verdant landscape, full of plants and all the animals that they support. Fall is perhaps the most comfortable and certainly the most beautiful season in the park, when the trees turn bright shades of red, orange, and yellow. This effect is far more pronounced in the United States than in Western Europe, which is due to the much greater variety of tree species in America (a byproduct of the ice age). 

A snow-less winter day

The Hudson River is the most important geographic feature in the area. The river is unusual for having waters that alternately flow north and south, depending on the ocean’s tide. This alternating current is due to the river being, in its southern portion, a tidal estuary, intimately connected with New York’s harbor. For this same reason, the Hudson’s waters are brackish (a mixture of salt and fresh water), are thus not potable. The Hudson also marks a divide in the area’s geography, as the rock formations on either side of the river are vastly different in age and type. The rocks directly across from the Rockefeller State Park, in Nyack, were formed in the Late Triassic, and have been found to contain dinosaur fossils. That is a difference of at least half a billion years in age. 

But the Hudson is not the only relevant water feature in the park. Several smaller rivers and brooks—tributaries of the Hudson—wind their way through the park’s confines, having long ago carved out a channel within the topography. The most important of these is the Pocantico River (whose name is derived from its indigenous appellation). It is normally between ten and twenty feet across, and usually not much deeper than your knee. Normally the current is gentle enough to allow you or your dog to walk right in, though strong rains cause the river to swell and flood, washing over the bases of neighboring trees. Even smaller and gentler are the little Rockefeller and Gory Brooks, which connect with the Pocantico and which all eventually flow into the Hudson. As charming as are these little rivers, it is worth noting that they are quite contaminated—more so, in fact, than the Hudson River itself—and this from sewage leakage. Do not be tempted if you are thirsty.

The Pocantico River

The biggest water feature in the park is Swan Lake, with an area of 24 acres. This is one of the most picturesque areas in the park, as well as one of the best spots to see many of the local bird species. Quite nearby, though technically not within the park itself, is Pocantico Lake. This lake used to be used as a reservoir, and ruins of the old waterworks building still stand next to the dam. Every year, the lake is stocked with hundreds of brown trout, which swim down the Pocantico River into the Hudson. Other native fish include perch and suckers; and if you have the relevant license you are free to cast your line into the waters—though I do not think I have ever actually seen somebody do so. (Judging from observation, the fishing seems to be better in the nearby Tarrytown Lakes.)

Swan Lake

Human habitation in this area goes back far before Henry Hudson sailed up his eponymous river in 1609. Back then, the land of the park was occupied by the Wecquaesgeek people, a subgroup of the Wappinger. They spoke an Algonquin language closely related to the Lenape (the people who were living on the island of Manhattan), and lived as hunter-gatherers, dressing themselves in the skins of deer and beaver. When the Dutch began to settle in large numbers, in 1624, thus commenced a series of treaties, epidemics, and battles, all of which resulted in the Wecquaesgeek being pushed off their land. I do not know if any native artifacts have ever been found on the grounds of the park, or if anyone has ever looked. 

Nowadays, the only things that may vaguely remind the visitor of this history are the lean-tos, situated in the forest near Spook Rock. Technically, they are not lean-tos, but “survival shelters,” made by leaning sticks against the base of a tree; and I very much doubt that they actually resemble anything that was built by the Wecquaesgeek. I believe they are made as demonstrations for boy scouts, judging by the little benches that have been set up nearby. If you find yourself lost in the middle of the woods for an extended period of time, I suppose that knowing how to build one of these may come in handy. Perhaps the very oldest surviving human constructions in the park are the stone walls that can be seen in many areas. These were built well over a century ago by yankee farmers, and they accomplished several purposes. The fields had to be cleared of stones to allow for planting; and the stone barriers helped to mark boundaries and keep livestock from escaping. 

A survival shelter

The history of the park as it exists today begins with one of the most controversial men in American history: John D. Rockefeller, Sr., a man whose very name has become synonymous with wealth. In 1893, Rockefeller purchased the land for what was to become his new home, Kykuit, on the Pocantico hills overlooking the Hudson. Part of the reason he chose this spot was because his brother, William, had already built a mansion for himself fairly closeby, called Rockwood.

Rockefeller was a man of few pleasures, among which was to ride in his elaborate horse-drawn carriages. Thus, he made sure to buy up huge tracts of lands adjacent to his new home, which he turned into a kind of paradise for scenic rides. This explains the peculiar characteristic of the park’s trails: they are quite wide and usually have a gentle inclination—both of which are necessary for horse-drawn carriages. Rockefeller was something of an amateur landscape designer, and many of the trails were laid out by the tycoon himself, along with his son. You can still occasionally see carriages being driven along the trails of the park, presumably owned by the descendents of the Rockefeller family, who still live closeby. (One friend of mine claims to have seen Martha Stewart riding around.) Another reminder of the continuing Rockefeller influence are the helicopters that sometimes fly overhead, presumably ferrying scions of this noble family over their domains. 

The visitor center

In the 1980s, this enormous swath of land—almost 1,800 acres of land (over twice as large as Central Park), with over 50 miles of trails—was donated to New York to be used as a park and nature preserve. Nowadays it is overseen by the state of New York, which maintains a visitor center off of Route 117. Here you can park your car, see a bit of art in a small gallery, take a map, use the bathroom, and learn about the wildlife.


When I was younger, as I walked alone through the tall woods, I imagined that the park was as close to pure nature as I was likely to see. But of course this is not true: the park is a managed environment, even if that land management is done with a light touch.

The most obvious human intervention are the trails. Topped with crushed rock, they are quite wide, smooth, and easy to walk on. The trails are carefully maintained. At some points in the park, stone retaining walls prevent a neighboring hill from spilling onto the trails. More subtle is the drainage system, visible as a series of ditches and gutters running besides the paths, which work to redirect rainwater away from the trails. Without simple systems such as this, I am sure that the trails would be washed away in a short while.

The sycamores lining Canter Alley

The park staff also work to control certain types of invasive species. One of these is a vine called mile-a-minute (Persicaria pertofoliata), so named because of its rapid growth rate—about six inches a day. This plant is indigenous to India, and its accidental introduction to NY has put native species in jeopardy, since the thorny plant grows so fast that it can literally smother its competition. The park staff is currently engaged in a battle to stop this vine from spreading, and is asking for volunteers to help in the fight. (If you would like to help, call 914-631-3064.)

You can see the vine’s characteristic leaves all around

Another obvious human intervention are the many areas of the park which are kept as grassland rather than forest. The staff maintain this area in several ways. The grass is cut down at the end of spring with a tractor and gathered into bundles, to be given to livestock. The staff also bring in livestock—goats, sheep, and cows, guarded by a few wary dogs—to graze the land in summertime. Personally I find it quite charming to come across a group of these farm animals on a walk. And the animals are certainly effective. They eat all day from dawn to dusk, and they leave hardly a stalk untouched.

Livestock maintaining the fields

In layout, the park is massive and sprawling. The furthest reaches of the park are bounded by the Hudson River to the west and the Saw Mill River Parkway to the East. But between these two boundaries the park’s extent is uneven. Bits of the park jut out past Route 117 to the north or Route 9 to the West. One major artery through the park is the Old Croton Aqueduct trail, which runs parallel to Route 9 and across it into William Rockefeller’s old estate. Another major division is Bedford road, which cuts the park into two fairly distinct areas: the part to the east of Bedford road tends to have fewer visitors than the part to the west.

The view from the bridge over Route 117

Virtually every one of the park’s dozens of trails has its own personality. I am biased, of course, but for me the area closest to my house (between the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and Sleepy Hollow Road) is easily one of the most beautiful sections of the park. There are three stone bridges that span the Pocantico River. These are the clearest signatures of the Rockefeller family: for the bridges would certainly have been costly to build, and they perfectly evoke the kind of European antiquity that the Rockefellers enjoyed. For my part, I think they are lovely constructions, totally in keeping with the primeval aesthetic of the park. When I was a child, I could not help but imagine legions of centurions marching over these apparently ancient viaducts.

The largest stone bridge, spanning the Pocantico River

Some of the most beautiful trails—especially in summer—are in the area surrounding the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. (Stone Barns is a non-profit, sustainable farm founded by David Rockefeller.) Here the forest gives way to rolling hills shaded by rows of oaks, and the stone buildings and fields of crops create a bucolic picture. Just as lovely is Rockwood, located right on the Hudson River. There, several paths leads up a hill to what appears, superficially, to be a kind of stone fortress overlooking the river. This is actually the foundation for William Rockefeller’s mansion, long since demolished. Here you can sit on the wall and contemplate the new Tappan Zee bridge, and even spot Manhattan in the far distance. (For some reason, flies love to buzz around these rocky walls in summer.)

The view from Rockwood
A colorized photo of the destroyed Rockwood mansion

One of my favorite places to run is the Thirteen Bridges Trail, so named for the many little bridges that lead the wanderer criss-crossing over Gory Brook. Once you finish this loop, you can cross back over Route 117 on one of the two metal bridges. Turning in one direction takes you on the Pocantico River Trail, which (you will be surprised to learn) runs parallel to the Pocantico River. Turning the other way can bring you to the Big Tree Trail. This trail runs along a lower-lying part of the park, and is noted (as you may have guessed) for its large trees. If you walk along the trail on a quiet afternoon, as the sunlight drifts through the canopy, and the sounds of birdsong echo from above, the enormous columns of trees can create the impression of being in a natural cathedral. 

Big Tree Trail

This brings me to the flora of the park. By my count, the park is home to well over fifty species of tree. The tallest to be found is the tulip tree, which is so named because of its yellow spring flowers. The trunk is as straight as an arrow, and the tree can grow upwards of 150 feet (or 45 meters). In general, the tallest trees are found in lower-lying areas, often near the river. Erosion causes soil to fall from the higher areas and accumulate here. Apart from the tulip tree, the park contains a mixture of beech, maple, and oak, along with shrubbier trees such as sassafras and witch hazel. There are relatively few conifers—mostly spruces—and they seem to prefer the areas close to the rivers. The park also has some non-indigenous species, too, such as the beautiful European beech—with red leaves—overlooking Canter Alley. My favorite may be the (non-native) Shagbark Hickory on Douglas Hill Loup. 

The view from the base of a tulip tree

In the fall, most trees lose their leaves. They accumulate on the ground as a thick, brownish, rust-colored matting. Even by late summer, this bed of dead leaves is still noticeable everywhere. It seems that all of the insects, fungi, and bacteria present in the park’s soil have their hands full with such a superabundance of nutrients; but sooner or later, the dead leaves decompose and enrich the soil. We must pause here to acknowledge the kings of the park, and indeed of all life: bacteria. They are the most abundant organisms in the park and absolutely essential to each vital process. This is most obvious with the case of diazotrophs, which are the bacteria that convert nitrogen gas into a form (ammonia) that plants can use. Without these helpful microorganisms, plants could not grow, and the rest of us would be out of luck, too. 

When it comes to shrubs, ferns, grasses, vines, and other sorts of plants, the species-count goes up into the hundreds. I could not hope to identify even a significant chunk of these plants. Using the application Plantsnap, however, I have collected a list of some of the more common vegetation. Claytosmunda (or interrupted fern) is intermixed with sensitive fern and spikenard, forming a thick underbrush of low, leafy plants in summer. In some areas there are thick masses of wild blackberry bushes, whose fruits are delicious and safe to eat, but whose vines are covered with painful spikes. In the more open grasslands one can find reeds and grass, as well as wild carrot.

The bark of a Shagbark Hickory

(The application, iNaturalist, allows visitors to log any sightings of a species—be it bird, bush, or bear—within the park. This list, available here, has been a great aide to me.)

The most hazardous plant is poison ivy, which is quite common in the area. Rubbing up against this plant can cause painful rashes that last well over a week. (Lucky for me, I seem to be among those who have no allergic reaction to the plant, so I have never learned to identify it.) Another plant to avoid is the wood nettle, whose leaves are covered with little stinging hairs. Once I rode my bike through a patch of this stuff, and my skin erupted into painful red bumps. Fortunately, the effects from a wood nettle sting wear off in under an hour. 

The park also has a robust fungus population. Identifying mushrooms is a skill that I lack entirely; but visitors to the park have registered about two dozen species. The mushroom I most often notice is a Stereum, I believe, which grows on the sides of decaying trees. Indeed, saprotrophic mushrooms (which feed on decaying organic matter) play an essential role in the park’s ecosystem, allowing dead trees and plants to be broken down and returned to the soil. To name just a few of the mushrooms identified by park-goers, there is the dryad’s saddle, chicken of the woods, turkey-tail, resinous polypore, and honey mushroom. Some of these may be edible, but I would not take my chances. 

Fungus growing on a decaying tree

The park’s fauna is even more diverse than its flora. We may start with the arthropods—specifically, my least favorite animal in the park: the tick. There are two main species of tick in this area: the dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) and the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis). Do not let these names mislead you, for both are happy to bite dogs, deer, or humans. The dog tick is bigger and is completely black, while the deer tick is smaller, with a brown body and black legs. Getting bitten by either is not fun, but it is really the deer tick that you should watch out for, since it can transmit Lyme disease. My dog would inevitably get a few ticks every summer (and got Lyme disease twice), and I have found three or four ticks on myself over the years. It is a good idea to check both yourself and your pets after a walk, especially if you went through a woody area. If you have been bitten, it is wise to watch out for any signs of Lyme disease, which can include a circular rash around the bite.

Coming in second for hazardous bugs are the mosquitos, which can also carry diseases. People in the area have been concerned about West Nile Virus for years now, and more recently there has been worry regarding Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Fortunately, the mosquitoes normally come out around dusk, and are mostly absent during the day. I ought also to mention the possibility of a wasp sting. Once, while walking on the Aqueduct Trail in the park, I accidentally stepped onto a wasp’s nest in the path. The angered insect flew out and stung my legs several times before I could run away—quite painful. But I think the chances of this happening are very low. More annoying than dangerous are the gnats that can sometimes be found swarming, particularly in low-lying areas of the park. Though they are completely harmless, some of them seem to be attracted to the secretions produced by your eyes, and so you can end up endlessly swatting away curious little bugs.

The park is also home to some beautiful insects. My favorites are the fireflies, which come out around dusk in summertime. They fly low to the ground, hovering slowly in search of prey. The light, created with chemicals in the abdomen, is used to attract small insects. Without this lure, the firefly would be quite an ineffective predator, since it is clumsy and ponderous in flight. Indeed, fireflies would be the perfect snack for any insectivorous birds—the easiest bugs in the world to find and catch—if they were not filled with bad-tasting chemicals. Thus they float around in security, lighting up the evening forest like little stars.

A monarch butterfly on the flower of a wild carrot

Also lovely are the many species of butterfly that flap about, including the majestic monarch butterfly. The best place to see them, in my experience, is the area around Bedford Road, in the fields of Buttermilk Hill. There the butterflies congregate in the hundreds, floating from flower to flower. Another attractive insect is the blue dasher dragonfly, which normally prefers watery areas like Swan Lake. They are graceful fliers, now hovering in place, and now darting forward at great speed—their long blue bodies flashing in the sunlight. A personal favorite of mine are the grasshoppers, which sometimes jump along the paths, their razor-like bodies cutting through the air. 

Sugar maple leaves

Insects are not merely seen everywhere, but they generate the loudest noises of the park. In the evening the crickets chirp with their wings, creating that comforting chorus of summertime. (Aside from these chirping crickets, however, there is the so-called camel cricket, which is a large, wingless species of cricket. Lacking wings, this species cannot chirp, and it is mostly known for accidentally invading basements.) The big noise makers, however, are the cicadas. The park is home to both the annual and the periodical varieties. The former are responsible for most of the daytime noise in summer, creating a kind of sonic sheet with their buzzing wings. Though constantly heard, cicadas are seldom seen, at least not in my experience. Both cicadas and crickets will stop chirping if you get too close; and in general their sounds are difficult to track down. The periodical cicadas hatch in enormous broods every 13 or 17 years (prime numbers make it difficult for predators to synchronize) and are quite a presence when they appear.

Rather inconspicuous to most park-goers, but fundamental to the park’s ecosystem, are the bees. According to a guide compiled by Sharp-Eatman Photography, over 100 species of bee have been found in the park. Most people, I suspect, will be surprised to learn that there are 100 species of bees in the world, much less in a relatively small area in New York. But bees are an incredibly diverse group. There are several species of bumble bees, carpenter bees, leaf-cutter bees, digger bees, and mining bees, to name just a few common groups. The bees are attracted by the many species of wildflowers found within the park, which include (to quote the guide) “wild azaleas, countless spring woodland bulbs, American white water lilies, four varieties of milkweed and large swatches of dogbane and meadow flowers.” European honey bees are also kept at the Stone Barns, where they help to pollinate the plants on the farm and in the surrounding park.

I have reached the limit of my knowledge of the park’s arthropod life, and yet this short description only scratches the surface. I am sure the park is home to a great many species of ants, spiders, and beetles; but it just so happens that I hardly ever see these creatures. They live their little lives in a small-scale world, vitally important to life in the park, but mostly invisible to people having a nice stroll.

Most visitors, I suspect, are far more interested in the birds. The Rockefeller State Park is also a wonderful place for birdwatching; indeed, it is recognized as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. Over 180 species of bird have been identified within the park’s confines, which is well over twice as many birds as I could probably name. I should admit that I am not myself a skilled birdwatcher; I lack the patience and the good binoculars. But even a casual visitor will likely see a great many interesting avians.

Starlings flying over the foliage

The most common bird in the park may be the humble house sparrow. This bird is not even native to New York, but is an invasive species from Europe. Apparently it was first introduced into New York in an attempt to control the linden moth, and since then the bird has become ubiquitous. This is a shame, since the sparrow is not particularly pretty and its call is a tuneless chirp. The common starling is another species imported from Europe. Now extremely widespread across the continent, the bird was first brought to the United States in the 1890s; it was introduced into Central Park by a group of Shakespeare fans who sought to import every species mentioned by the Bard. This whimsical idea has cost the United States billions in damaged crops, and untold more in damage to native ecosystems.

The starling is—to my eyes at least—a rather ugly bird with a mangy look to it; and its song is not very pleasant either. But the bird does have its delights. In the autumn months, the starlings flock together in massive formations, shifting shape in the air like an ethereal wave. I have watched them take off, swarm, divide, rejoin, twist and turn, and then land—all perfectly in sync. It is wonderful to see.

The smallest stone bridge

But now we should discuss some of the park’s native species. My childhood favorite was the American robin, which was named after (but completely unrelated to) the European robin. These are the only birds which can commonly be found on the paths, where they like to look for worms. Also common is the red-winged blackbird, whose few scarlet feathers contrast sharply with its jet-black body. Its song is one of the most distinctive in the park, a tripartite raspy trill. (Describing bird calls in words is always tricky.) Even more brilliant is the cardinal, whose bright red plumage (among the males, at least) is impossible to miss. The blue jay is superficially similar to the cardinal, with its bright color and distinctive head crest. But jays are only distantly related to cardinals, and really belong to the crow family. The beautifully colored eastern bluebird is also unrelated to the blue jay, and is actually in the same family as the American robin.

One of the prettiest birds in the park is the American goldfinch, a petite yellow bird normally found in the more open areas of the park. Even smaller, and even harder to find, are the hummingbirds. In fact, the only reason I know they live in the park is that my brother set up hummingbird feeders in my backyard, and I have seen them fly in to have a snack. Few things in nature as are charming as a hummingbird; they way they move through the air is not quite birdlike (and not quite buglike, either), and the low-pitched hum from their wings is unmistakable. 

Among the more tuneful residents of the park is the black-capped chickadee, a small bird (about the size of a sparrow) with a complex and varied song. Its very name (“chickadee”) comes from one of its many calls, and is an immediately recognizable sonic signature. The tufted titmouse is a cousin of the chickadee, somewhat bigger more graceful in appearance, though lacking the chickadee’s elaborate melodies. (Why some birds develop elaborate calls while others stick with simple chirps? Does a chickadee have that much more to communicate than a titmouse? I will let the biologists ponder this one.)

The last of the three stone bridges

The eastern towhee—a pretty mixture of red, white, and black—has a musical call, with three notes that sound somewhat like an augmented triad. Even more alluring is the call of the wood thrush. Indeed, many have considered the thrush’s song the most beautiful in the country, and I agree. Henry David Thoreau had this to say about this small brownish bird: “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest. … When a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring.” To my ears, the thrush’s song has an odd auditory quality to it, sounding almost like water echoing in a closed chamber, or even like some digital effects on a sound editing program. It is wonderfully soothing, like the soft babbling of a river. 

If the thrush is the most beautiful melodist, the mockingbird is the most virtuosic musician of the area. As its name indicates, this bird can imitate a seemingly infinite range of sounds, from the calls of other birds to the whining of car alarms. I should mention that the mockingbird is probably more commonly found in the suburbs surrounding the park than in the park itself, owing to its preference for short grass and open areas. In reasonably short doses the mockingbird’s endlessly shifting song is enchanting; but when one is keeping you awake in the middle of the night, the charm wears off. Strangely, mockingbirds accumulate a repertoire of mimicked bird calls, not in order to trick other birds—who are not easily fooled—but instead to impress potential mates. Evolution is a wonderous thing.

It is quite an impressive construction

One of the most charming sounds of the forest is not a call, but a rhythmic tapping or rattle. This is caused by the pileated woodpecker, whose large size and red crown make it easy to recognize. This tapping noise is not a byproduct of the woodpecker’s feeding, but is instead created intentionally as a display; the bird raps its beak against a resonant piece of wood, like a hollow log, in order to proclaim its territory. The woodpecker feeds by drilling into the sides of trees with its beak and gobbling up the ants and beetles living within the living wood. 

We cannot depart from the world of birds without considering the humble raven. Or perhaps I mean the crow. To be honest, I can hardly tell the difference between the two. Ravens are slightly bigger and have bulkier heads; and their vocalizations are an ugly squawk. (I actually find the song of the American crow to be, by contrast, rather soothing.) In any case, it is the raven that participates in one of my favorite animal spectacles in the park. Ravens are vigorous defenders of their nests, and do not hesitate to attack birds much larger than themselves. Thus, any red-tailed falcons that get too close—whether they are going for the raven’s young, or simply by chance—are likely to be harrassed by one or two angry ravens snapping after them. It is amusing to see the formidable profile of a hawk in flight from the pugnacious ravens, like a F-16 being driven off by a couple Cessnas.

The red-tailed hawk is one of the park’s apex predators. They can be startlingly big—big enough to be mistaken for an eagle (that is, until you see a real eagle). Red-tailed hawks are carnivores whose diet mostly consists of rodents, particularly squirrels, though I do wonder if they ever try to attack stray cats or small dogs. Their call is a high-pitched screech that sounds like a war-cry. Much smaller is the American kestrel, a petite little hawk with muted coloration, which likes to eat large insects and small mammals. Intermediate between these two is the Cooper’s hawk, which in my experience is significantly less common. There may be owls in the park, too—either barred owls or the great-horned owl—but I confess I have never knowingly laid eyes on one.

Cows in wintertime

The park is home to many water birds as well. If you are at Rockwood, looking out at the Hudson, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a bald eagle. But normally the best place to see water-loving birds is, unsurprisingly, Swan Lake. There you can find the modest duck—in many varieties, including the common mallard duck, with its charming emerald head. The pestilent Canada goose is sometimes present as well, though in mercifully small numbers in the park. (Perhaps the presence of so many carnivores makes the park unsafe for the goose’s young, and so they prefer more human-dominated areas.) Out in the middle of the lake I have seen the black profile of a double-crested cormorant as it dove for fish and then reappeared on the surface. 

More graceful avians include the great egret and the great blue heron. Both of these slender creatures tend to stand still in shallow water, waiting to snatch an animal with their long beaks. Coming across a heron—waiting motionless in a river—is one of my favorite moments in the park. It is stunning to see one stretch is long wings and take off. According to the website, the lake is home to “large-mouth bass, crappie, pumpkinseeds, bluegills, and bullhead catfish,” and this is not to mention the brown trout that are stocked every year. And this is not all: the egrets and herons also feast on some of the local amphibians, such as the common snapping turtle or the painted turtle. 

As you can see, there are an awful lot of birds in the park. I ought to stop now before this post becomes truly unreadable. And yet I cannot leave off without mentioning the biggest bird of all, bigger than the bald eagle or the great blue heron. This is the wild turkey. They are rather reclusive creatures, and so catching sight of one is not easy. Indeed, I cannot say whether they are often in the park, or only very occasionally. I have only seen a wild turkey once, many years ago, as I walked on a quiet winter day. The startled birds ran off (surprisingly quickly) through the forest and out of sight. 

The park has a few reptile and amphibian inhabitants, too, though thankfully they are not normally very visible. We have already mentioned the turtles, who like the water. The park is also home to several varieties of frogs and toads. Visitors have spotted and identified several: the bullfrog, the wood frog, the pickerel frog, the spring peeper, and the American toad. There are even salamanders. Snakes crawl among the underbrush, though thankfully no dangerous ones (well, not dangerous to humans, but lethal to the frogs). There are garter snakes, water snakes, milk snakes, and the tiny brown snake. I have never seen one of these snakes, and I am not particularly anxious to. (Technically, the park lies within the range of the timber rattlesnake, which is venomous, though I have never heard of any sightings.)

Now we come to the mammals of the Rockefeller State Park. We begin with the very smallest, the chipmunk. These adorable little creatures are most commonly seen scurrying about near the ground, usually at the base of a tree. They climb just as well as their larger squirrel brethren, but their burrows and much of their food is located at ground level, so it is not usual to see them in the tree-tops. The grey squirrel, one of the most common species of the park, is over twice as large as the chipmunk. Though so often seen as to be nearly invisible, the gray squirrel is quite an impressive animal. Not many mammals can climb and jump so ably; indeed the gray squirrel is one of the few mammals who can climb down a tree head-first. And if you try to prevent the squirrels from eating from your bird-feeders or fruit trees, you will find them to be wily and clever adversaries. Their name notwithstanding, a significant portion of grey squirrels are entirely black.

Before moving to Europe, I did not know how distinctive chipmunks and grey squirrels are to America. One does sometimes see gray squirrels in Spain, but there they are invasive. In the United Kingdom they have largely displaced the native red squirrel. Another of the squirrel species—an American icon—is the groundhog, which are also called woodchucks. (The name woodchuck has nothing to do with chucking wood, but comes from an Algonquin word.) These normally stay earth-bound, and live in underground burrows. Unlike the grey squirrel, which stores food away and is active all winter, the groundhog gorges itself and hibernates during the lean times. The chipmunk takes a middle road, and falls into a non-hibernative torpor (which is my winter strategy as well). 

One of my favorite views, on Douglas Hill

There are some other rodents to be seen. The meadow vole (more often called a field mouse) makes it home in the park, though it is normally difficult to find. The eastern cottontail rabbit can sometimes be spotted at a distance; they are rather skittish, too. I suppose these rodents must be careful, considering the number of predatory birds circling overhead. Almost all nocturnal animals are not seen in the park, if only because it gets so dark that virtually nobody wishes to be there. Thus we miss the possum, a comically ugly creature that looks like an oversized rat. It is not a rodent at all, however, but a marsupial, the only one to live north of Mexico. This means that the young are born very small (the size of a dime) and reside in their mother’s pouch, just like kangaroos. 

Mammals do not just inhabit the trees and undergrowth; they compete with birds for the air. Several species of bats are endemic to the area, and they can be spotted in the waning light of summer evenings. The most common types are the little brown bat and the northern long-eared bat. Personally I like bats, since they help to control mosquito populations; but they can also transmit diseases to humans. The most deadly of these is rabies. Once, when a bat was discovered in—and chased out of—my house, my whole family had to go several times the hospital for the rabies vaccine, just as a precautionary measure. At present, bat populations all over the United States and Canada are threatened by a virulent fungus that colonizes the bat’s skin, a condition called white-nose syndrome. This has had a devastating effect on many bat populations, reducing some by over 90%. It remains to be seen how they will recover from this blight. 

One of the most common—and hazardous—animals of the area is the striped skunk. I know they live in the park, since my poor dog was sprayed twice. The smell is powerful and rancid. From far away it can smell vaguely like marijuana smoke, though from up close it is harshly chemical. If you keep your distance, however, skunks are harmless animals who mainly eat insects. Slightly more of a pest is the common raccoon. Once I was surprised when, seemingly out of nowhere, a group of raccoons appeared, pushed over a nearby garbage can, and then carried off their loot into the forest. They are very dextrous and intelligent animals, and able climbers. During a rainstorm I witnessed a raccoon climb to the top of an electricity pole and huddle their for well over an hour. Raccoons, like skunks, are only really dangerous if they are infected with rabies. A police officer shot a rabid raccoon at the top of my street some years ago. If you are unlucky enough to get bitten, you will need to get the vaccine immediately.

A snowy day

The park is also home to many predators. By their nature, these carnivores are quite expert at sneaking around unheard and unseen, and so catching sight of one is an uncommon experience. The red fox prowls around the park, eating pretty much anything it can find, be it bird, amphibian, reptile, or mammal, as well as some seeds and grasses. I have heard of bobcats occasionally appearing in Westchester county, but I believe there are not many; competition with coyotes often drives them away. And the Rockefeller State Park Preserve definitely has coyotes. Some nights, you can hear their high-pitched yelps and howls echoing through the forest. It can be very loud, and quite eerie.

I have only seen a coyote on three or four occasions—always at a distance, and always briefly. The only exception to this was one odd sighting, right in the middle of Tarrytown, of a coyote chasing a domestic cat. The cat escaped by clawing its way up a tree. Coyotes are bigger than foxes—though smaller than most dogs—and are more ferocious hunters. Close cousins of the gray wolf, coyotes prefer fresh meat and are capable of taking down animals as big as deer (but they normally go after immature animals). They are very effective predators, and can kill porcupines and rattlesnakes, as well as many species of birds, including wild turkeys. Coyotes are not pack animals, but instead form pair-bonds, which are probably more stable than most human relationships. Unless they are rabid, they pose no threat to humans.

Coyotes became top dog after gray wolves were hunted out of the region, which was done over 100 years ago to protect livestock. Now the biggest canines in the park are domestic dogs. Another predator that has been eliminated from the area is the cougar (or mountain lion, or catamount—it has many names), which became locally extinct about 200 years ago. Black bears have occasionally been sighted in Westchester County, though I have not heard of any within the park. The lack of predators may make the area a little safer, for humans and for cows, but it did greatly upset the ecosystem.

The most apparent evidence of this is the huge profusion of deer. The white-tailed deer is the biggest animal in the park (that is, not counting the domestic cows); big bucks can get even heavier than most adult humans. They are everywhere, and often they are not particularly skittish around people. Many will not even bother to run away when you walk by. The most flighty seem to be the males with fully-grown antlers, which can be seen starting in late spring. Perhaps they are nervous because the park does allow some limited bow-hunting of deer in one section of the preserve. This is done as a needed control over the deer’s explosive population. 


This description, long as it is, does not even come close to fully capturing all of the manifold forms of life within the park. Language is linear, so we must go through these many species as a long list. But life is not a list, not even a long one. Every level and layer is intimately bound up with every other, creating a dense web too complex for us to wrap our minds around. This is the problem of organized complexity. We can readily understand things that are complex but disorganized (like the motions of gas particles) or simple but organized (like the orbit of a planet); but when there are so many variables, all influencing one another in precise and specific ways, we find ourselves grasping in the dark. This partially explains why humans so persistently disrupt ecosystems. We cannot tweak them by simply eliminating the parts we do not like—such as wolves or mosquitos—since every change has ripple effects through the whole system.

The European beech near Canter Alley

To see all of these particulars as one enormous whole is the challenge of the naturalist. But it is also what comprises the real beauty of a natural place. Organized complexity, after all, is what separates a forest from a botanical garden or a zoo, wherein species are divided and labeled. And this is also, I think, why natural spaces are so refreshing to us. Every human-made environment is composed of simple shapes—lines, circles, rectangles—all arranged simply enough for us to easily navigate them. From a suburban neighborhood to the inside of a cathedral, this holds true. Natural spaces betray no such simple geometry or geography. By comparison, nature can appear chaotic or disorganized; and yet if it were truly so we would not find nature so aesthetically pleasing. Rather, natural spaces are highly organized, but along non-intuitive lines; and this lack of obvious arrangement is why, I believe, it can feel so refreshing for us to take a walk in a forest. Sensually and cognitively, it is a richer experience.

Henry David Thoreau famously went into nature and found the meaning of life—or at least, the meaning of his life. I cannot say that the Rockefeller State Park Preserve has been to me what Walden Pond was to him. Yet the park has been a constant, comforting presence in my life, a place of beauty and continuing wonder. Even now, there are still some corners I have yet to explore, and so many plants and animals I have yet to know. Like all of nature, the park can teach many lessons, provided you are a willing pupil. The principles which shaped the park are the same as those which have shaped the entire earth; and so understanding one small plot of land may be the best way to come to grips with the cosmos. If the park has any moral lessons to teach, it is the lesson of all nature: that life goes on. I do find a sort of comfort in the thought that, whatever happens to me, this buzzing, blooming world will continue.

A free-standing oak tree

But the park has another lesson, too, and that is the value of cooperation. The Rockefeller State Park Preserve would not exist without the generosity, care, and work of thousands of people—from the original donors of the land, to the volunteers who help to combat invasive species, to the casual visitor who takes care not to litter. Wild places do not simply exist nowadays, but must be actively maintained. It is one of the ironies of our history that we only really began to savor wilderness when much of it had already been destroyed. Now, without places of refuge like the park, we will be condemned to wander among asphalt landscapes of endless surburbia. For our own sake—if for nothing else—we must fight to protect it. 

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2020: New Years Resolutions

2020: New Years Resolutions

I ended my resolutions post last year by promising I would not diet or exercise. Well, I broke the last part of the resolution when I took up running in February. This confirms my suspicion that the best way to motivate yourself is to resolve to do the opposite. So this year I resolve to stop exercising, eat poorly, be very unkind, and just be generally irresponsible and unpleasant.

My travel writing aspirations were only half-successful. Admittedly, I did compensate somewhat by writing long posts on the big NYC museums, but the list of travel writing keeps growing. Here are the big ones:

  • Asturias
  • Chartres
  • Istanbul
  • Marseille
  • Monticello
  • Naples & Pompeii
  • Normandy
  • Padua
  • Paris Cemeteries & Museums
  • Venice
  • Versailles
  • Washington D.C.

And this is not all.

In books, I got through most of my resolved reading from last year. My main omissions were the works of Archimedes, Apollonius, and Sir Thomas Heath’s book on Greek mathematics. Apart from this, one of my big goals this year is to read more about economics. I have a large biography of John Maynard Keynes sitting on my shelf. I also have a few scattered books and lectures to guide me. Hopefully I can make some headway in this most dismal of sciences.

In literature, these are the authors in my sights: Lord Byron, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence. In the history of science, here are the big names: Lavoisier, Lyell, and Faraday. And in philosophy I hope to finish reading the works of Plato.

I will do at least one more season (10 episodes) of my podcast. But my big goal is to put more energy into getting published. This includes short stories, articles, and hopefully my old novel. Wish me luck!

2019 in Books

2019 in Books

This has shaped up to be another excellent year in reading. For the most part I kept going with themes that occupied me last year. The history of science is a prominent one. As for primary sources, the only book I completed was a short one, Christiaan Huygens’s Treatise on Light, where he analyzes light as a series of waves. Andrea Wulf’s popular biography of Alexander Humboldt technically falls within the history of science, though the book reads more like a hagiography. Much better—and one of my favorite books of the year—was Thomas Kuhn’s book on the Copernican Revolution. Lawrence Principe’s series of lectures on the history of science rounded out this category for me.

Next year, I hope to finally get to Lavoisier’s book on chemistry, Lyell’s book on geography, and Faraday’s book on electricity and magnetism. We shall see how I do.

As for philosophy, I decided to dip into existentialism. This began with Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful popular work on the subject—which was so charming, in fact, that I think it made existentialism seem a little bit more interesting than it really is. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or was the first serious philosophy book on the list; I found it brilliant, if uneven and ultimately disagreeable. Then there came Sartre’s tome, Being and Nothingness, which was ultimately even less satisfying than Kierkegaard’s book, even if it gives the reader a lot to chew over. Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, if not precisely existentialist, still failed to make much of an impression on me.  La Rouchefoucauld’s Maximes, Baltasar’s Arte de la prudencia, and Pascal’s Pensées had much more in the way of philosophic interest and life advice than these existentialists. 

My travels dictated some of my reading this year. In preparation for a trip to Naples, I read Pliny the Younger’s letters, which include his description of the eruption of Vesuvius; before going to Istanbul, I listened to a history of Byzantium by Kenneth Harl; and in order to ready myself for Normandy, I read a book about the D-Day landings. Yet of all this travel reading, the best was Mary Beard’s book on the Parthenon, which I read a bit too late for my 2018 trip to Athens.

This year, I had a vague idea that I would finally read some books about subjects that fascinated me as a child. This directed me to Stephen Brusette’s book on dinosaurs—badly written but informative—and Bob Brier’s lectures on Ancient Egypt—both informative and extremely entertaining. In this same spirit, I read the Very Short Introduction on Human Evolution, written by Bernard Wood, a former professor of mine. I combined this reading with trips to my favorite childhood museums, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I marvelled once again over the Tyrannosaurus fossils and the mummies. 

As usual, I tried to read about America for my summer back in the United States. This led me to some really superb books. The first was Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, a man with a story worthy of a musical, play, film, or anything else really. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams was even more enjoyable—the best book of the year, if measured in pure reading pleasure (and the television series was great, too)—while I found Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson quite remarkably bad. Reading about America also means reading about our wars. This led me to McCullough’s short book on the first year of the Revolutionary War, and Ken Burns’s classic documentary on the Civil War (not a book, but book-length).

This year I got around to a few works of fiction that had long been on my list: The Call of the Wild, The Jungle Book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lord of the Flies… I probably enjoyed them in that order. Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls was much funnier than I thought it would be, given the title, and Balzac’s Père Goriot was likewise more bleakly depressing. But the two outstanding works of fiction, for me, were Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, both of which I greatly loved. I should also mention Benito Pérez Galdós’s wonderful novel, Fortunata y Jacinta, which was one of my major reading challenges of the year—over 1,000 pages of literary Spanish.

A new discovery this year were the lecture series by the Great Courses. I have already mentioned a few of them: Principe’s on the history of science, Harl’s on Byzantium, Brier’s on Ancient Egypt. To this, I must add Edwin Barnhart’s excellent lecture series on the peoples of North and of Central America. The very best, however, may be Robert Greenberg’s introduction to the history of Western music, which was so good it convinced me to start going to the opera. In general these Great Courses fill a perfect niche in my reading, providing in-depth but painless introductions to topics that have long interested me, and allowing me to learn during the walks on my commute. 

But the dominating presence in my reading this year has been William Shakespeare. I read, watched, or listened to fifteen of his plays, and completed Harold Bloom’s enormous guide to the works of the Bard. I may not be convinced that Shakespeare invented humanity, but I am convinced more than ever that he is one of my favorite writers. Now that Shakespeare is done (or nearly done), I will hopefully return to be goal of reading through Plato’s works. Then I’ll have to figure out something else to do with my time.

A partially failed effort was to get more into mathematics, as a complement to my interest in the history of science. I did manage to speed my way through Morris Kline’s calculus textbook—an accomplishment I am rather proud of, even if it probably didn’t do me much good—as well as a short book on performing mental calculations (I forgot most of that already, too). I had hoped to read Thomas Heath’s Manual of Greek Mathematics, as well as some classic Greek mathematicians, but I only managed a hundred pages of the former and a small book by Nichomachus. I hope to read the rest next year.

Despite all these weighty-sounding books, two books this year represent bigger shifts in my actual day-to-day life. Peter Sagal’s book on running was part of my transition from total indolence to regularly exercising, a process that culminated in my running the Madrid half-marathon back in April. I hope to do it again this coming year. I also read a book about chess, as my amateurish interest in the game grew. I am still a very bad chess player; but the fact that I play at all is a big shift from last year, when I professed to scorn all games. Though not really a practical book, David Graeber’s book on bullshit jobs was my most cathartic read for the year, since it seemed to ratify many of my working experiences.

The only other thing worth mentioning is my attempt to turn my book reviews in a podcast. I did this for about twenty books, and then decided that it was a little silly, and stopped. Now my podcast is about life in Spain, which may be just as silly.

I will end this review on a sad note. As you may know, Ted Schmeckpeper died this year. He was one of my favorite people on Goodreads, not so much for his reviews as for his general presence. He helped to make Goodreads into a real community. Ted was also personally kind. Not only did he mail me a book from his own library, but Ted read an early draft of my novel and gave me detailed feedback. He had a rich and full life, as you can tell from his obituary. I miss him.

Letters from Spain #10: A Very Spanish Christmas

Letters from Spain #10: A Very Spanish Christmas

Here is the next installment of my podcast about life in Spain. This one, about Christmas, is the final one for 2019. I hope you enjoy it!

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-10-a-very-spanish-christmas/id1469809686?i=1000460225839

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

It’s the most wonderful time of year here in Spain: Christmas. And the Spanish love Christmas, just as much as we Americans do. In fact, as I mentioned in another podcast, since there aren’t any major holidays in November, the Christmas season in Spain starts very early. Now we are in full Christmas swing, as can be seen by taking a short walk through any Spanish city. On the first of December the lights, decorations, and trees go up.

Now, Spain does not have such a strong tradition of festive house decoration as we have in the United States. This is largely because, as I’ve said before, the private houses in Spain are not open to the street, but instead normally have tall walls wrapping around the property (so there’s not much to decorate). But the Spanish do love their Christmas lights. People, old and young, flock to the center of Madrid to enjoy the street decorations. It gets so crowded in the city center that you can hardly walk. This year there is a new star attraction: a massive illuminated globe that stands at the end of Gran Vía. Once in a while the ball plays Christmas songs on big speakers, and all the Spaniards within eyesight pull out their phones to record the bright singing ball. Yeah, it’s charming.

A Christmas tradition that may be a bit surprising for Americans is the Christmas Lottery, called El Gordo (the fat one). Everyone buys a ticket, and you can buy them everywhere. In my case, I bought a ticket through the school where I work, and this is fairly common for employees. You can also buy tickets at cafés or restaurants or other types of shops, or at specific lottery stands. There is one particular shop near the Puerta de Sol, right in the center of Madrid, which has somehow become famous for being especially lucky. Thus, every year people line up for hours in order to buy a lottery ticket there (a ticket that is no different from a lottery ticket bought anyywhere else).

A big part of the lottery tradition are the commercials. They have quite a good marketing team, and every year there’s a new concept for the lottery commercial. Last year, for example, it was kind of a spoof on Groundhog Day, with a guy winning the lottery every day over and over until he got sick of it, and then somehow becoming a better person. This year, it’s a bit more sentimental, and it’s about how lottery tickets bring people together. Of course it is ridiculous to connect the idea of a lottery ticket with generosity and family, but the commercials somehow accomplish this paradox. In any case, if I win you can be sure the production values of this podcast will be going up.

Well, Spain has more wholesome Christmas traditions, too. A big part of the Christmas season is the food. There are many types of seasonal sweets. Most famous, perhaps, is turrón, which is like marzipan (which the Spanish also eat) but made with added honey. It comes in many different forms, from a barely solid paste to toothbreakingly hard bars, but in general it’s very very sweet. There are also polvorones, which are balls made with flour and sugar. They have very little water or fat in them, which makes them sort of dry and dusty to eat. (Polvo is Spanish for “powder.”)

My favorite is a type of sweet cake called Roscón de Reyes. This is a type of sweet bread that is delicious when you dip it in coffee. It reminds me a lot of something my dad makes around Christmas, which he calls Swedish Cardamom Coffee Braid. Traditionally, a small toy is baked into the cake, and if you get this piece it’s considered good luck.

Possibly the biggest difference between Spanish and American Christmas is the celebration of the Three Wise Men. In Spanish, they are called the tres reyes magos, which translated to something like the three magic kings, or perhaps the three magi kings. In Spain the day of the magic kings (January 6, which we call Epiphany in English) is almost as important as Christmas itself. And the magic kings also deliver presents! So Christmas season in Spain is long indeed, since the holidays extends from before Christmas all the way to the sixth of January, and the children get presents twice. I should also mention the Cabalgata de los Reyes, a massive parade held on January 5th, with giant floats and people dressed up as the wise kings themselves. Unfortunately for me, I’ve never seen it. Normally I’m home for Christmas break. 

Connected with the importance of the Three Wise Men is the popularity of Nativity Scenes. In Spanish these are called belén, which is the translation of Bethlehem. Nativity figurines are sold everywhere, and it’s very common for Spaniards to have little nativity scenes in their houses. In Spain there is a special twist to their nativity scenes, which comes from Catalonia. This is to include a little person defecating in the corner of the scene, called the Caganer (which is Catalan for “the pooper”). The tradition of nativity scenes is just another example of how Spain can be intensely Catholic in its culture, while at the same time divorcing Catholicism from actual religiosity. There are many people who would call themselves atheists who still have nativity scenes in their houses.

The Spanish also like to perform nativity plays, or Christmas pageants. And this brings me to something that is a source of controversy every Christmas season. As you may know, one of the three wise men, Balthasar, is traditionally portrayed as being black. As a result, every year, all around Spain, a white Spanish person—sometimes a celebritiy—will dress up in blackface to play the role of Balthasar (noy only in schools, but also during the big parade). This inevitably makes any visiting Americans extremely uncomfortable, since blackface is a deeply racist symbol in the United States. Spaniards typically react with puzzlement when told by Americans that the practice is racist, and that is normally where the matter ends.

I have never personally seen a nativity play, nor have I seen any Spanish person wearing blackface. I’m sure I would find it upsetting. But, to be honest, this is an area where I hesitate to venture an opinion. Blackface is undeniably racist in an American context, since it is connected with the tradition of minstrel shows, which were based on explicit mockery of black people and black culture. All the same, Spain does not have this history, with all its baggage, and so applying our American sensibilities to a Spanish context is probably not valid. A symbol has no inherent meaning, after all, but is given a meaning by its culture. As a comparison, consider the costumes that Spanish people wear during their Easter processions, which look to Americans like the Klu Klux Klan outfits, but which of course are completely different. 

Of course, you could make a strong argument that dressing up as someone from a different race is inherently racist. But considering the different cultural contexts, my inclination is to think that this is just something Spanish people need to work out among themselves, without Americans telling them what is right or wrong. Judging from the petitions on change.org to have a Balthasar played by a black person, the country is slowly moving in the right direction. 

Well, let’s leave these troubled waters and move on to New Year’s Eve. For the most part this is celebrated just like it is everywhere: with parties, champaign, and fireworks. But in Spain they have a special tradition. As they count down from 12 to 0, they try to eat one grape every second. That’s twelve grapes total. It’s not easy—I’ve tried. The idea is that it’s supposed to bring you good luck. (My girlfriend doesn’t like grapes, so she eats little pieces of chocolate.)

There are just a couple more differences I shall mention between the Christmas season in Spain and in the United States. I forgot to mention that, since most Spanish homes don’t have fireplaces, they hang their stockings somewhere else. Another is that, since Spain does not have big forests, virtually everyone in the country uses plastic trees. Probably this is a lot better for the environment, since they don’t need to cut down millions of trees every year, like we do in the United States. But I have to admit a real Christmas tree has a lot more romance (besides having a better smell). You are also pretty unlikely to get a beautiful snowy Christmas anywhere in Spain, unless you live up on the mountains.

As for me, I’ll be heading home. Christmas is a time to spend with family and old friends. It is also not a time for making podcasts, so this will be my last episode of 2019. It has been a good run. In a week I will be sitting in my house, wrapped in a blanket, and eating some of my mom’s delicious cooking. But I’ll be sure to bring some Spanish turrón home, too. 

Happy holidays!

Images of Extremadura: Trujillo, Cáceres, and Monfragüe

Images of Extremadura: Trujillo, Cáceres, and Monfragüe

Even though Halloween is not nearly as popular in Spain as it is in my own country, it is still a time of celebration. For the day after Halloween, November 1st, is All Saints’ Day. and this means that we have a long weekend. I took the opportunity to visit one of the lesser-known regions of Spain: Extremadura. This is the area that lies to the Southwest of Madrid. Known for its relative poverty (the area is mostly agricultural, with hardly any industry), Extremadura nevertheless produces some of the country’s finest cured meats. Its cuisine is delightful.

Our first stop was the town of Trujillo. This is a small town (with less than 10,000 inhabitants) famous for being both beautiful and historically significant. The town owes its beauty partly to its location. Situated atop a granite knoll, the town has a commanding view of the surroundings, and the plentiful local rock has been quarried and used to give all the buildings a uniform appearance. The whole place is stone—from the pavement stones, to the restaurants, to the churches, to the city walls.

The town is also known for being the home of several Conquistadores (the Spaniards who conquered the New World), most notably Francisco Pizarro, the man who conquered the Incan Empire. Nowadays, of course, we are more likely to feel uneasy at this “accomplishment” of destroying a whole civilization. Even so, he is a historical character of immense importance. Pizarro’s statue stands in the main square, looking properly triumphant. (Hernan Cortés, the conquirer of the Aztecs, was from a small village not so far off. I wonder why Extremadura was a breeding-ground for these characters.)

The city walls.
The town cemetery. Many families were gathered inside, busy leaving flowers and cleaning the tombs of their ancestors. This is a common tradition on All Saints’ Day.
The main square, with the statue of Pizarro.
The church of Santa María la Mayor, which is both beautiful in itself and which has excellent views of the city and the surrounding countryside
The view from the church tower.

Later that day we went to Cáceres, the second-largest city in the whole province. Cáceres also has a beautifully-preserved historical center, making it a lovely place to walk around. But perhaps even more important, Cáceres has an excellent food scene. There are many superb restaurants in the city.

The Church of San Francisco Javier, in the Plaza of San Jorge. Nearby a musician was playing flamenco guitar and singingand he was excellent at both.
The view from the tower of the Church of San Francisco
The Arch of the Star, a gateway in the main square, made at an angle to allow carriages to pass through from the nearby street.

The next morning we left Cáceres early to go to the National Park of Monfragüe. This is a beautiful area of green hills around the valley of the Tajo River. Humans have been drawn to this area for a long time. In the center of the park, high up on a hill, are the remains of a medieval fortress. In a cave on that same hill, cave paintings have been found, dating from thousands of years ago.

Nowadays tourists mostly come for the birds. A massive rock formation, called the Salto del Gitano (or the “gypsy’s jump”), sits at the river’s edge, creating a persistent updraft. For whatever reason, predatory birds—most notably vultures, but eagles as well—enjoy coasting in this pillow of air. This has made the park one of the best places for bird-watching in all of Europe.

The Salto del Gitano
The old castle

Letters from Spain #9: The Spanish Landscape

Letters from Spain #9: The Spanish Landscape

Here is the next episode of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-9-the-spanish-landscape/id1469809686?i=1000459409868

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

We have had another long weekend here in Spain, and this one was for the Day of the Constitution. It commemorates the day in 1978 when the constitution was passed into law via a referendum. We also had Monday, December 9th, off. And this was basically just because the government guarantees a certain number of holidays per year, and organizes them to make as many long weekends as possible. I quite like this aspect of Spain.

Like so many people (judging from the traffic), I took the opportunity to leave Madrid and to go visit another part of Spain. And while I travelled, I was reminded, once again, of how amazingly diverse the Spanish landscape can be. So I thought I would take this opportunity to give you a kind of quick overview of Spain’s geography.

We can begin with Madrid and its surroundings. Now, I am sorry to say that I think this is one of the ugliest parts of Spain. Madrid is a kind of bureaucratic capital. The site of the city was chosen because it is in the middle of the country. There really isn’t any geographical reason a city should be here. The soil is dry and sandy and isn’t good for farming. There is no coast and no navigable river. (Madrid’s river, the Manzanares, is a kind of pathetic trickle most of the year.) Basically, if the city were to disappear completely, the thought of founding a city here would probably never even occur to anyone (well, unless you were a bureaucrat). 

I mostly like Madrid’s climate, if only because it rarely rains. The air is so dry that it hardly holds any heat. This is weird for a New Yorker, used to humidity. The temperature can vary quite a lot from morning to evening, and can even change drastically between sun and shade. All this is because Madrid is at a relatively high altitude—in fact, it is the highest altitude capital in Europe—and the air is sort of thin. Besides that, a whole mountain chain to the north shields the city from any weather making its way from the coast. As a result, it’s dry and pretty barren.

Here is what Ernest Hemingway had to say about Madrid:

“Madrid is a mountain city with a mountain climate. It has the high cloudless Spanish sky that makes the Italian sky seem sentimental and it has air that is actively pleasurable to breathe. The heat and the cold come and go quickly there.”

I can attest to the air being pleasurable to breathe. At the very least, I feel invigorated when I go running here.

If Madrid itself has an unremarkable landscape, it is fortunately close to some beautiful areas. Most notably there are the Guadarrama mountains to the north. For a New Yorker like me, seeing any mountains is an exciting experience. The highest point in all of New York state is Mount Marcy, which is 1,600 meters tall. And this is in the Adirondacks, pretty far from where I live. The tallest peak fairly close to my house is Mount Beacon, which is 491 meters tall. The whole city of Madrid is higher than that!

The highest peak in Madrid’s mountain range is called Peñalara, and it is about 2,400 meters above sea level. That’s just high enough so that you might experience altitude sickness, though the risk is very small. I’ve climbed to the top many times. It’s fantastic both in winter, when it’s covered in snow and skiers, and in summer, when the view is magnificent. This, by the way, is one of Spain’s 15 national parks. So far, I’ve only visited six of them.

Now that I am on the subject, though, let me tell you about two more national parks that I’ve visited recently. One is in the province of Extremadura. This province is now known as the poorest area of Spain. Ironically, however, it was one of the richest parts of the peninsula when the Romans were here, as we can see from the many Roman ruins. Nowadays, much of Extremadura is given over to raising the Iberian pigs which produce some of the country’s finest hams. The pigs are fed a diet of acorns from a little shrubby tree called the holm oak, which grows in abundance in Extremadura. 

Anyways, the national park is called Monfragüe. It occupies part of the Tagus river valley, where a huge rock formation called the Salto del Gitano created a strong updraft that birds really like. As a result, on any given day you can see dozens and dozens of the indigenous vultures hovering overhead. I highly recommend it.

Just this last weekend I saw another national park, the Picos de Europa (or the “peaks of Europe”). This is a mountain range in the north of Spain (it occupies the borders of three provinces), which gets its name for being the first bits of land that sailors from the New World could see on their return to Europe. Personally, I doubt this story is true, since the Picos de Europa aren’t especially close to the Atlantic, and they aren’t the tallest mountains on the peninsula. Regardless, they are absolutely gorgeous. You could easily imagine yourself in the Swiss alps.

I like these national parks partly because they are not the sorts of things people normally associate with Spain. The popular image of the country is of the beach, the hot sun, orange trees, palm trees, and olive trees. And of course you can find all that in Spain, too. Spain has great beaches, and great palm trees. But arguably Spain’s most important geographic characteristic is that it is so mountainous. In fact, Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland, with an average elevation of about 600 meters (or 2,000 feet). Mountain chains crisscross the country. Besides the two mountain chains I already mentioned, there are the Pyrenees on the border with France, and the Sierra Nevada in Andalucia, which is the tallest range in the peninsula (there are many mountains well over 3,000 meters, or 10,000 feet tall!).

These mountains have played an extremely important role in Spain’s history, both for their effect on transport and the climate. To state the obvious, mountains can get in the way of travel, and this has contributed to the political and cultural disunity of Spain. Historically, it wasn’t so easy to get around. Even more important, the many changes in elevation—mountains, plateaus, and river valleys—can create lots of little micro-climates, and this has an important effect on the culture. I’ll illustrate this with a comparison.

Andalusia, which is in the south of the country, is fairly flat and low-lying, with lots of sun and good soil. As a consequence, farmers can gather lots of land together under one owner, and then farm it with a team of professional planters and pickers for added efficiency. Historically, this led to a great deal of inequality, since the wealthy would buy up the land, and the poor would be forced to work as itinerant laborers. By contrast, consider Galicia. This is the area on the northwestern tip of Spain, right above Portugal. Much like New York, Galicia is hilly rather than mountainous, and it receives quite a lot of rain from the Atlantic, so it’s very green. The soil is workable but not very high quality, and in any case the dense forest and the many hills make it difficult to unite lots of land under one owner. So the Galicians became subsistence farmers, with each family owning their own little plot of land. As you can imagine, these differences in farming strategies have shaped the cultures of these two regions.

I am going on and on, and yet I am afraid I am not doing justice to the Spanish landscape. So here is the historian, J.H. Elliott, on the country’s geography:

“A dry, barren, impoverished land: 10 percent of its soil bare rock; 35 percent poor and unproductive; 45 percent moderately fertile; 10 percent rich. A peninsula separated from the continent of Europe by the mountain barrier of the Pyrenees—isolated and remote. A country divided within itself, broken by a high central tableland that stretches from the Pyrenees to the southern coast. No natural centre, no easy routes. Fragmented, disparate, a complex of different races, languages, and civilizations—this was, and is, Spain.”

Well, for style I doubt I’m going to beat that. I do think that Elliott exaggerates the harshness of the Spanish climate and the isolation of the country’s geography. But he does capture the strangely disunited quality of the landscape. Whenever I drive through the country I am surprised at the sharp contrasts from one region to another. Just yesterday I drove from the snowy, green mountains of Asturias into the incredibly flat and empty plains of León. I am sure that the United States, being so much bigger, contains more variety. But I doubt that any part of America can present such stark contrasts in such a small span of space. In a single day, driving from one end of the peninsula to the other, you can see sandy desserts, arid plains, ice-tipped mountains, verdant river valleys, and lush forests. 

When speaking of beautiful Spanish landscapes, we also cannot forget the country’s islands. There are the Baleares in the Mediteranean, which are lovely. But even more interesting are the Canary Islands. This is an archipelago located in the Atlantic, somewhere off the coast of Morocco. The islands are volcanic, which makes them especially fascinating to visit. The tallest mountain in Spain, el Teide, is located on the largest island of the archipelago: Tenerife. I’m sure I’ve never seen anything taller than Teide. The mountain (which is really the volcano that formed the island) stretched up to 3,700 meters. That’s 12,000 feet! And of course the whole height of the volcano is very apparent, since it’s right next to the ocean. I remember being on the plane as we took off from the island, passing through the clouds on the way up, and then seeing Teide above me.

Naturally, Teide is a national park. The island of Lanzarote, which is the third-largest in the archipelago, also has a national park, called Timanfaya. This is the part of Lanzarote that was most recently formed by a volcanic eruption. As a result, there’s basically no vegetation at all. And the rocks are twisted into all sorts of nightmarish shapes. It’s both beautiful and hellish.

Well, I can’t hope to do justice to every one of Spain’s beautiful landscapes in the podcast. But if you take away one thing, I hope it is that Spain has more than just beaches and sun. The geography is fascinatingly diverse, and you can’t hope to understand the variety of Spain’s many regions without knowing something about its many different climates. The national parks are especially wonderful and are just as worth visiting as Spain’s many cultural treasures. Spain is a fortunate country.

Thank you

Images of the Galician Coast

Images of the Galician Coast

During our last Easter Vacation, my brother and I took a trip up to Galicia for a few days. I had been to Galicia many times before, but this time I wanted to do something different. My plan was to rent a car and see some of the less accessible parts of the province, away from the big cities.

Well, this went mostly to plan. The main source of anxiety was the car. I was totally inexperienced in car rentals, so I was caught off guard at the office when they told me that I would have to pay more on top of what I had already paid to reserve the car—a lot more. What many rental agencies do is bundle together their gasoline and their insurance policies. So, basically, if you do not want the insurance they charge you a huge “administrative fee” for filling up the car’s tank with gas, and this makes it cheaper to actually get the insurance. As a result, we paid over twice as much in the office as we had paid online to get the car.

Personally I think this practice should not be allowed, since it is transparently a way of squeezing money from customers. But, I must admit, by the end of the trip I was glad I had bought the insurance, since I managed to scratch the side of the car in an underground parking lot.

But getting a car had many positives. One of them was in allowing us to rent an Airbnb out in the middle of the countryside. It was unlike any place I had ever stayed in: a stone cottage where an old Belgian woman lived with her dogs and chickens. If you can find the listing, I highly recommend a stay. (The cottage is quite near the town of Xuño, in the province of Pontevedra.) The surrounding landscape is gorgeous, and the cottage is near many things worth visiting—as I hope to show.

Our little car and our Airbnb, with my brother in the background
The Airbnb had a great mirror

First we headed to the town of O Grove, on the recommendation of a friend. This is a popular destination for local tourism, and it is easy to see why. The town itself is quite pleasant, right on the coastline and filled with good restaurants. We stopped and had some of Galicia’s delicious seafood. (The bad part of driving is that I cannot have wine with lunch.) Across a bridge is the island of A Toxa, which is filled with resorts and hotels. It is worth visiting, however, if only for the hermitage, whose walls are covered in cockle shells.

A fisherman in O Grove
The Hermitage of A Toxa

Closer to our Airbnb was the Miradoiro da Curota, which it a lookout point on the top of one of the tallest hills in the area. Some have called this mirador the best view in Spain, if only because all of the region’s famous island national parks are visible from it. It is an extremely impressive sight. Personally I find the Galician landscape intoxicating, with its mixture of lush green, deep greys, and shimmering waters.

My brother pointing to something in the distance.

Next we went down towards the town of Xuño, to visit the local beach: As Furnas. This beach is famous for being the place where the writer Ramón Sampedro dove from the rocks and broke his neck, turning him into a paraplegic. Unhappy with his life of immobility, he tried for many years to be euthanized, taking his case all the way to the highest court in the land. In the end he lost the case, but he convinced his friends to give him cyanide.

This tragic story was turned into an iconic film—Mar Adentro, or The Sea Inside—by Alejandro Amenábar, with Javier Bardem playing Sampedro.

I was thrilled. You see, as usual I had hardly looked up anything before booking the trip, so virtually everything we saw was done on the spur of the moment. So it was a very fortunate coincidence to come across this beach: The Sea Inside was one of the first movies I watched in the hopes of improving my Spanish. Travelling in Spain is often like this. The country is so jam packed with treasures that you trip over them wherever you go.

This is where Ramón Sampedro jumped and became paralyzed. He misjudged the depth of the water; it is safe to jump at high tide.
A bust of Sampedro

Even if you do not care about the movie, the beach is worth visiting on its own merits. Skeletal granite formations jut into the water, creating fascinating patterns of pools and polished rock.

My brother looking out at the sea.

All of this was great. But the best was yet to come. After doing some searching on my phone, we drove north to the Castro of Baroña. To be honest I had little idea what to expect. It turned out to be one of the coolest things that I have seen in Galicia—or in all of Spain, for that matter.

Situated on a little peninsula, with roaring waves all around, is an ancient fort. Settlement of the land probably dates back centuries before the common era, and the fort was finally abandoned in the first century. This is what is called a “castro,” which loosely means a fortress. It was built by the (appropriately named) Castro Culture—a group of Celtic peoples living in the north. Though the Celtic language has disappeared from the Iberian Peninsula, its ruins (and some aspects of its culture) have remained.

The builders dug a little moat into the isthmus of land connecting the island to the mainland, and built two circular walls around the area. All that remains of the buildings inside the fortress are stone circles, the bases of former constructions. I imagine it would have been very difficult to attack such a place, since the only access is by sea (and there is no good place to land a boat) or across the narrow strip of land. But I doubt that the defenders could have stored enough food for a prolonged siege.

Not only are the ruins intriguing, but the site is beautiful in itself, like so much of the Galician coast.

For my money, the combination of the landscape, the excellent seafood, and the welcoming people makes this region perhaps my favorite in the entire country. And that is saying quite a lot.

Letters from Spain #8: Climate Change and Immigration

Letters from Spain #8: Climate Change and Immigration

Here is the eighth episode of my podcast about life in Spain. In this one, I talk about the UN Climate Conference that’s being held here in Madrid, as well as the process of working legally in Spain as an American.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-8-climate-change-and-immigration/id1469809686?i=1000458741282

For the transcript, see below.


Hello.

Today I want to talk about two things that cause a lot of anxiety, climate change and immigration. (Though, they tend to cause different sorts of people anxiety.)

Well, we have a short week here in Madrid—thanks to the Day of the Constitution, on December 6th—but still quite an eventful one. As far as the news is concerned, the biggest event is the COP25: the 25th United Nations Climate Conference. It is being held in Madrid, in a place called IFEMA, which consists of a bunch of big empty glass buildings for holding big events. For example, this is where I had to go to register for the Madrid half marathon. They also have a special travelling exhibition about the tomb of Tutankhamun there now.

Brazil was originally supposed to host the event, but the election of Jair Bolsonaro—a version of Donald Trump—mooted that plan. Chile then offered to host the event; but political unrest in that country forced them to pass the torch to Spain. The highest profile guest at this climate talk will, no doubt, be Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist from Sweden. She hasn’t quite arrived in Madrid yet, since she had to come all the way from New York, and she chose to cross the Atlantic in a boat rather than a plane in order to reduce her carbon footprint. It took her 21 days to make the crossing (she was slowed down by adverse weather), and has just arrived hours ago in Lisbon. (I wrote this yesterday on December 3rd.) She was in New York to participate in the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, which was in September. So it seems like she’s following me around.

The main goal of this Madrid conference is to hammer out Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Basically, this is an attempt to create a kind of global emissions market, wherein low-emissions countries will be able to sell their excess allowable emissions to other countries. I think it is a good idea. But I have to admit that, as the years go by, I get more and more depressed when it comes to climate change. Yesterday at the conference, Spain’s president, Pedro Sánchez, said: “Today, fortunately, only a handful of fanatics deny the evidence.” Unfortunately, one of those fanatics is in the White House, which has caused the United States—the second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases—to pull out of the agreement entirely. Meanwhile, most other countries have not been able to reduce their emissions sufficiently to stay within the goal (which is a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures). China, for example, which is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas contributor, is still increasing rather than decreasing its emissions.

I remember when global warming was considered to be something we had to solve for our grandchildren’s sake. But as the years have gone by, and governments have continued to sit on their hands, the problem has become increasingly acute—not a problem for future generations, but for us. Unfortunately, by their very nature, these huge international agreements take a lot of time. And even if the U.N. does pass sweeping resolutions, these laws must still be hammered out and enacted in all of these different member states. Democracy is an awfully slow form of government, while climate change keeps accelerating.

As far as Spain is concerned, I think the country is doing decently well. There is a robust public transport system. If you go up north, especially to Galicia, you can see dozens upon dozens of wind turbines, which supply a sizable proportion of the country’s power. And if you go south, it is not hard to find solar panels baking in the Meditteranean sun. Near Seville, from the highway, you can see the PS10 solar power plant—which uses hundreds of mirrors to focus light onto a central point elevated on a tower. It looks quite cool, and somehow reminds me of Sauron’s tower from Lord of the Rings. Last year, in 2018, renewable energy accounted for 40% of the energy produced in Spain. The comparable figure for the United States is 17%. To pick a more humble example, I was happy to find that the little vegetable bags in my supermarket are biodegradable.

In any case, while climate change is threatening and occupying the world, my little world has been occupied by issues of immigration—namely, my own immigration. For the fifth time, I had to go and renew my visa in order to stay in Spain. So I thought that I’d take a little opportunity to walk you through the process of legally working as a language assistant in Spain as an American.

You start off in America, obviously. Now first you need to secure a job as a language assistant. The most popular way to do that is through the Ministry of Education program, but there are several others in Spain. You apply online and, assuming that you’re accepted into the program, you will be emailed an official letter stating the details of your job. This letter can sometimes take a distressingly long time to arrive, and some years it takes longer than others; but once you have that letter you are ready to apply for your visa. To do this, you need to locate your nearest consulate. I am lucky to live near New York City, where there is one, but for many people the nearest Spanish consulate is hours away.

To apply for the visa, you need to gather several things. There are easy things like writing a check for the fee and filling out a form. And then you have the official letter with your job details. But then there are more difficult things. You need a doctor’s note saying that you’re in good health, and this means a visit to your doctor. You need proof of financial means, which you can do either with a bank statement or with a notarized statement from a parent. The most difficult thing is the background check. You need to get this from the FBI. And since the FBI itself takes a long time in doing background checks, probably you’re going to have to use a ‘channeler,’ which is a third-party company that speeds it up. To do this you’ll need to go get your fingerprints taken. Now, once you get your background check back (and let’s assume you have a clean record) you’re still not done. Now you need to get what’s called an apostille, which is a document certifying the background check for international use. To get this in a reasonable amount of time, you need to pay another channeling service.

Ok, so we gather all of these documents together. When I got my visa, all I had to do was to mail my documents in with my passport, and they would send my passport back with the relevant stamp in a few weeks. But that system worked a little too well for the Spanish government, so they decided to change it. Now you need to book an appointment and physically bring all your documents into the consulate office. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if there were appointments, but when my brother had to do it, all of the appointments were booked solid for months. (Lucky for him, they gave him an “emergency” slot.)

Well let’s say you go through all of these hoops and they give you back your visa in your passport. Hurray! But wait, you’re not done. This visa only lasts about three months. It’s really just to get you into the country and settled. Once you get in, you have to apply for your real identity card. And this, of course, is another long process. You need to make an appointment at a special police station (in Madrid it is in a place called Aluche) and then get a bunch of documents in order: the form, photocopies of your passport, new passport photos, your official job letter, and proof that you paid the fee. (Paying the fee is usually the most annoying part, since you need to do it in a bank, and the banks are not cooperative.) You show up on the appointed day at the appointed hour, wait a long time in a line, and then give your bundle of papers to a person behind a desk, who then scans the fingerprints of your two index fingers.

Oh, I also need to mention a document called an empadronamiento (a little hard to say). This is basically a registry of where you live. To get this, you need to make an appointment, fill out a form, and then go to the office on the appointed day with your rental contract and a recently paid bill (and copies, of course). You need to do this before the fingerprint appointment, so be careful!

If this goes well, you still have a little task to do, since it takes them about a month to print your identity card. So you need to take a little receipt and come back in 40 days to pick up the card. Now, something interesting happens if you, say, want to go back to America for Christmas break, but you don’t have your identity card yet (and this is fairly common). In that case you need another special piece of paper called the Autorización de Regreso. This allows you to exit and enter Spain without needing a visa for a period of ninety days. To get this, you need to get a whole bunch of other papers together, etc., etc., etc.

What I just described to you is what may be called an ideal process. It can, of course, go wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I already mentioned that the appointments at the Spanish consulate in New York City fill up so fast that it can be impossible to get anything within three months. My brother would have been in a bad situation if they had not made a so-called “emergency” appointment for him, and they only did this because he has a government job. A slight error can also totally upset the process. When you pay the fee, for example, the person at the bank gives you back two receipts of payment: one for the government, and one for you to keep. They look absolutely the same except for some fine print on the bottom. Once, without either of us noticing, the man at the bank only gave me one of these back. So when I went to my appointment, the bureaucrat wouldn’t accept my application because I only had the receipt for me and not for the government. Nevermind that either receipt equally proves that I paid the fee, the fine print on the bottom is different. So I had to make a new appointment, go back a month later, and do it all again.

My worst experience was with the regreso document. In the past, the regreso was given out to anyone who showed up with the proper forms. All you really needed to say is that you had a flight soon, and it wouldn’t matter if you had an appointment. I thought this was very nice, since there are many situations when you might need to leave the country on short notice. But this system was too convenient for the Spanish government, so they changed it last year, requiring that everyone have an appointment. Nevermind that the appointments are not available within a short timeframe and are sometimes not available at all.

Well, suffice to say that I wasn’t aware of this rule change. So one summer I went to get my regreso before going back to America, and found to my horror that they wouldn’t give me it. This, despite being there, sitting in the desk with all of the requisite papers. The woman refused to accept them and I was sent packing. I ended up buying an entirely new flight. And the irony was that I wasn’t even asked for my regreso document upon getting back to Spain—something that very often happens. Indeed, I have found that it’s much easier for me to get into Spain than into my own country, since the Spanish are in general a lot less paranoid when it comes to foreigners.

So that’s my immigration story. After all this, I get a little green card that is valid for about six months. As a language assistant, you get a student visa for some reason, which is why you need to renew it every year. I am sure it could be much worse. I bet it is worse in my own country. But I do wonder what, if anything, all of this bureaucracy is really accomplishing. For example, with every application I need to include scans of my passport, which has all of my basic information. Then I need to put my basic information on a form. And all my basic information on the bank fee. And my information is also in my job letter. So, considering all the applications for various things, the Spanish government has dozens and dozens of documents with my basic information, all stored away in God knows where.

To me, it seems that this huge process only guarantees that people fill out the right forms and pay the right fees. I have a very hard time believing it keeps anybody safe. Think about it. If I was really up to no good, I would just enter Spain on a tourist visa, overstay it (which a lot of people do), and live off the grid. And think about how much all of this unnecessary bureaucracy is contributing to global warming? So here’s my proposal: open the borders, eliminate all of these petty and useless processes, and then put everyone to work building solar panels or something. I am sure the world would be a better place.

Thank you.