Monday, October 23, 2017

Sympathy For The Devil

While the Beatles dominated pop in the 1960s, their music was nearly devoid of one vital element: darkness. At a time when authentic blues was still relatively unknown (and also not widely available) to most white kids, those who craved the seductive complexities of the dark side turned to the Rolling Stones. And nothing more vividly illuminated the group’s supposed affinity for Lucifer than “Sympathy for the Devil,” their anthem-cum-incantation in the form of a taunting cultural fable. It was the first cut on the A side of “Beggar’s Banquet” — which now, 33 years later, still stands as not only one of the Stones’ finest albums, but one of the best rock records ever made.
Released on Dec. 5, 1968, “Beggar’s Banquet” came out just 10 days after the Beatles’ White Album, and a year and a day before the Stones’ notorious free concert at Altamont Speedway in Livermore, Calif. (Contrary to popular legend, “Sympathy for the Devil” was not the song being played when a young man was killed at the free concert. The band was knocking out “Under My Thumb” when 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club. Several websites reference Don McLean’s allusion to this incident in deconstructions of his song “American Pie”: “Oh, and as I watched him on the stage/ My hands were clenched in fists of rage/ No angel born in Hell/ Could break that Satan’s spell.”)
The Stones have made plenty of mistakes over the years (“Their Satanic Majesties Request”), but producing a rock opera wasn’t one of them. Though “Sympathy for the Devil” is embedded with enough historical and philosophical scope to seem like the opening act to a drama of operatic dimensions, they wisely kept it to a concise six minutes and 22 seconds. In interviews, Mick Jagger — who wrote “Sympathy” (“I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song”) without his usual writing partner, Keith Richards — has said he was concerned at the time about the potential for the lyrics to come off as pretentious and the band to be “skewered on the altar of pop culture.” So when Richards suggested changing the rhythm, Jagger agreed and as the band worked (and worked and worked) on the piece, it ended up as a samba, which Jagger has called “hypnotic” and Richards referred to as “mad.”
Jagger, a voracious reader and history buff, claimed he was influenced in writing “Sympathy” by Baudelaire. But he was also, as others have pointed out, clearly under the spell of Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic allegorical novel of good and evil, “The Master and Margarita.” Of course, Jagger was even more clearly under the spell of the 1960s, a time when — for many — heaven and hell seemed to have come to earth in the most lucid terms.
The song’s opening — “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste” — parallels the beginning of Bulgakov’s novel, in which a sophisticated stranger, who turns out to be Satan, introduces himself to two gentlemen sitting in a Moscow park as they’re discussing whether Jesus existed or not. (“‘Please excuse me,’ he said, speaking correctly, but with a foreign accent, ‘for presuming to speak to you without an introduction.’”) The song then references Christ and the story of Pontius Pilate, which the novel takes up in its second chapter. Before moving on to the Russian Revolution, the song’s narrator, Lucifer, acknowledges that his listeners are mystified — “But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game” — just as, in “The Master and Margarita,” one of the men approached by Satan in the park thinks to himself, “What the devil is he after?”
In the lyrics for “Sympathy,” Jagger’s narrator jumps from making “damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed [Jesus'] fate” to St. Petersburg, “When I saw it was time for a change,” and kills “the Czar and his ministers.” Curiously (or not so curiously, given Jagger’s penchant for reading history), the only other allusion in the song to Russia’s dark past is an odd one: “Anastasia screamed in vain” — a reference to the youngest daughter of the czar who was murdered with the rest of the Romanov royal family. For most of the 20th century Anastasia was an almost mythological figure, thanks to the specious claims that she alone had survived the murders.
But more interesting than what appear to be direct correlations between the book and the song is how Jagger and the Stones, drawing on numerous influences, Bulgakov’s novel apparently among them, managed — in a rock song — to address serious, even profound, ideas to a samba beat without turning the whole affair into an exercise in dull earnestness. On the contrary, “Sympathy” sounds like a party and works so well, on multiple levels, because its lyrics evoke more than they spell out, while the music not only has an infectious rhythm, it features ingenious layering of sound and background vocals that build to an irresistible, kick-ass tribal hootenanny. Those “woo woos,” by the way, which provide a self-deprecating, cartoonish poke at the song’s spookiness, while adding to the chanting-around-the-bonfire nature of the music, were provided by the four demons themselves, along with two members of the Stones’ 1968 coven — Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull — and the album’s producer, Jimmy Miller.
In writing the song, Jagger used words with impressive economy. He cites Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate, the czar, Anastasia, the blitzkrieg (World War II), the Kennedys and the city of Bombay and mentions Lucifer by name (just once) and in so doing creates a deep, amplified portrait of a world torn by religion, war, assassination and confusion where “Every cop is a criminal/ And all the sinners saints.” Threaded throughout are taunts from the teasing narrator — the traditional demon trickster — trying to get the listener to speak his name: “Hope you guess my name,” “Tell me, baby, what’s my name?” “Tell me, sweetie, what’s my name?” And — at the very pinnacle of the Flower Power era, remember — he then turns on his starry-eyed audience and tells them that they, in league with him, are to blame for the deaths of the ’60s most promising political leaders.
But lest you think Jagger simply mixed up some brainy lyrics and threw them into a recording studio with his talented, stoned friends, take a look sometime at the strange little cinematic time capsule “One Plus One,” a documentary on the recording of “Sympathy for the Devil” (among many other things). The film, which has been distributed in two versions, was directed by Jean-Luc Godard, and it’s had a tempestuous history, which I won’t go into here except to say that one version, known by the same title as the song, is not Godard’s cut. That’s the version generally available in the U.S. Anyway, whichever version you view, you’ll see the Stones as they work with meticulous attention to detail to record the tracks and build the elaborate song.
Not surprisingly, given its distinctive sound and eternal-hot-button subject matter, “Sympathy” has taken on a life of its own (and isn’t that just what that doggone devil would want?). It’s been recorded by Bryan Ferry, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Natalie Merchant, Jane’s Addiction, the Hampton String Quartet, the band Laibach (which devoted an entire album to different versions of the song) and, believe it or don’t, the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s worth pointing out that Rolling Stone magazine’s take, in its review of Ferry’s cover of the song (“‘Sympathy’ has always been recorded with, if not seriousness, at least earnestness”), is dismissive of both the Stones’ version and Jagger’s lyrics, which Rolling Stone called “slightly corny, vaguely ridiculous.”
On the other hand, just last month Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article in the New York Observer in which he extols Jagger’s abilities as a lyricist and specifically mentions “Sympathy for the Devil”: “And let’s not forget,” Rosenbaum writes, “at this particular moment, that he’s one of the rare rock songwriters who has addressed the question of evil and apocalypse in a sophisticated way.” Rosenbaum goes on at some length to praise the singer’s “beautiful use of incantation ... a lovely word for a special kind of vocal recurrence, one that combines overtones of prayer, magic, spell casting ... a kind of vocal voodoo.”
The song’s title continues to have almost iconic status and gets all manner of uses. It has been appropriated for a computer game (“Sympathy for the Devil: The War in Russia, 1942-43″) and is tiresomely used whenever possible to headline stories about Jagger’s marital woes and paternity suits or any time bad behavior is the subject. For example, these, all of which appeared in the New York Post: “Jagger’s Ex Has Sympathy for the Devil,” “No Sympathy for Devils” and “Sympathy for the Devil: Why Bill Is No Hypocrite” (an article by P.J O’Rourke). To this day, “Sympathy” is widely discussed online on sites like the Christian Music Forum and referenced in treatises on the devil, such as John P. Sisk’s paper, “The Necessary Devil” in First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life.
Jagger concedes that the song may have been something of an inspiration for all the ’70s and ’80s heavy metal bands that flirted with Satanism, but in interviews he’s repeatedly distanced the Stones from any of it. In an exchange with Creem magazine, he said, “[When people started taking us as devil worshippers], I thought it was a really odd thing, because it was only one song, after all. It wasn’t like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back. People seemed to embrace the image so readily, [and] it has carried all the way over into heavy metal bands today.”
Regardless of, or maybe because of, the swath it has cut, “Sympathy for the Devil,” as good art often does, continues to resonate at least as strongly today as it did when it was first created. Woo woo.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The days in our life, and the lives in our days...

Most mornings I wake up before the monkeys, struggle to find the opening in the mosquito net, wander out to the front balcony and read the news or reply to emails as the sky lights up. By 7:00, the sun is peeking through the palms and the mango trees, and Honesty and Bashura are opening their small shops across the road. The packed matatus are bouncing down the dirt track toward downtown, taking people to work; the boda-bodas are revving their engines and hustling suicidal rides through the rush hour traffic to everyone who walks by; some brave souls accept their offer, pay for the privelege even. Then Mukisa toddles out, settles in my lap, helps me eat my eggs, yells at the chickens three floors below us. And the monkeys show up to entertain their biggest fan.

We live in Kisaasi, a country-town-like neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda. It is lush with trees and domestic and wild animals. The bird life is especially rich and loud (there are more species of birds in Uganda than in all of North America). The ibises, for example, don't seem to be able to fly without squawking loudly; they wait until they're cruising past about 5 feet away from us then let out an ear-splitting, guttural shriek that makes Muki jump about 6 inches and nearly gives me a second heart attack. Then there are the turacos which come in an elegant palette that ranges from warm grey to royal blue to deep black with red highlights. They are exquisite and have one of the odder calls, sort of a low gurgle that morphs to a deep bass coo.

Mukisa climbs on and off the stool next to me 5 or 6 times -- it's his most recently acquired talent -- falling only three or four times. I catch him most of those times, but he invariably knocks his curly-haired head at least once on the hard tile and we have a good cry. I hold him and comfort him and he then penguin walks back into the house to wake up mama. We try to tell him "No" as little as possible. He can touch most everything in the house, carry it around, try to make it work. The only restrictions are those things that might hurt him. Inconveniencing me is not his problem; he is not in my hurry; figuring out how and why the world works is his job. Mine is to make sure his discoveries happen in safety, and without destroying (or dropping from our third story balcony) expensive electronic devices that me and his mother must stare into throughout the day -- to service our addictions.

Once Mama Ruth wakes up, there is an hour or so of play and silliness. She can get Mukisa laughing harder than anyone can. They are still lounging in bed, Muki nursing, while I cook myself breakfast. There is some very good bread here -- whole wheat, crusty, and slathered with seeds. We eat a couple of loaves a week. I always cook breakfast for myself, Mama, Muki and nanny Sophie. First I melt a big chunk of margarine in the skillet, then I put in two slices of the luscious bread, which I've torn holes in. I break an egg into each hole, add pepper and salt.

For lunches and dinners we cook a combination of local Ugandan food (some of the healthiest in the world), prepared by Sophie and Mama Ruth, which includes matooke (steamed, mashed plantains that taste like mashed potatoes), rice and beans, posho with mukene sauce (mukene are small fish; posho is steamed bread similar to a dumpling), and my concoctions -- pasta, stews, etc. The market produce -- fruits and vegetables -- is abundant and varied. We also eat roast or fried goat, Nile perch, tilapia, and snack on fried grasshoppers with cold beer in October and November when they are in season. 

After the morning ritual, I shave, shower, put myself together and go off to Cafeserrie to work, drink coffee and observe the wildlife, especially the old white guys with the hot young black women, an abundant pairing here. As a member of that demographic -- the white geezer component -- I find those couples fascinating. There are a good number of them in Kampala (and in other African cities, no doubt), and most people's prevailing assumption is that the men are in it for sex and the young women are in it for money. That was my initial assumption too, but then I started closely observing these relationships, got to know some of the couples, and became involved in such a love affair myself. They are not what they seem. The initial attraction may be centered around sex and money, but as time passes and the two become real, fully dimensional people to each other -- vulnerable, fun, loving, lonely, giving, taking -- they connect on a sweet and deep level. They talk, get to know and appreciate one another. They fall in love, and in like (the more important of the two in my opinion). In many cases, after a time, you see them with children, babies. 

There is one guy, an American, I see at Cafeserrie regularly. He is maybe 10 years older than I am; I'm nearly 65. He comes in with a mixed race boy of 5 or 6 years old. They have lunch, laugh, talk. Sometimes they are joined by the boy's mother. She's very dark-skinned, must be from Northern Uganda or Sudan. The three are happy together, relaxed, caring. The man -- who I've chatted with a little, showed him photos of my son -- is helping the young woman finish university and raise her son. He is a retired construction company owner. He told me he and his wife never had children. After she died 4 years ago, he decided to come to Africa. He'd never been here before and, like me, was immediately smitten with the place and the people. He returned home long enough to sell all his belongings. He came back here and has never returned to the U.S. It's a plotline that you come across often here. I'm living it.

I feel fortunate that I'm at a point in life where I can spend so much time with my boy. And Nattabi is similarly fortunate: We spend many hours everyday with Mukisa, take him most everywhere with us (he's very social, at ease around people, charming, curious). He is especially fond of men and we have several friends who have had close friendships with him since he was an infant. One of our best friends, Rashid, comes by about once a week to take Muki out for 6-7 hours. He takes him to the mall, to antique car shows, out to eat with his friends. Muki adores him and Rashid dotes on Muki; it's a rich association for both of them.

We are so lucky that we all stumbled into each other -- Nattabi in the middle of her life, me in the final quarter (which is turning out to be the happiest) and Mukisa at the beginning of his. All three of us are healthy, happy and looking forward to the future. We have a nice place to live (no extra charge for monkeys), plenty to eat, we sleep well, we go for walks, our work and various projects are going well. Mukisa likes to laugh and thinks his mama is very very funny. He laughs politely at my jokes. He enjoys it when Nattabi and I dance and act like big fools, which is often. He is walking, running, jumping and climbing all over everything. Nattabi's most spoken and most ignored phrase, "Muki! You are going to fall!" He is very verbal but not quite speaking yet; soon. He brushes his 8 teeth about 45 minutes a day and likes having his lush locks combed. He carefully cleans his little ears with Q-Tips every morning. He helps mama pick out his clothes. Luganda and English are spoken in equal measure around our house and most places we go. I imagine he sees them as a single language. He enjoys being read to and Nattabi (more often than me I'm ashamed to admit) reads at least one book a day to him. He loves his nanny, Sophie, and so do we. She is Muslim and when she prays Muki kneels beside her. He knows he must be quiet when she is praying, but he finds other ways to distract her. She also cooks, does laundry, cleans the house and often brings her sons over. They love playing with Muki; sometimes they all stay overnight. The boys are about 9 & 12. We sometimes take them swimming with us, always a fun day. Nattabi's tour company is picking up steam and threatening to start making real money. My work, including helping her build her travel business, is varied and satisfying, if not lucrative. We are busy in a good way. 

On balance, when looked at from a distance, it is, as always, the best of times and the worst of times. No matter how perfect things may seem momentarily, we are every moment reminded of the tentative, fragile nature of that perfection in our lives and the lives of all we know and don't know. Living here, where the extremes of poverty and wealth are everywhere in evidence, keeps us aware of that truth every moment of every day. We are within a day's travel of where homo sapiens began and before us we see how far humanity has come in it's present form, since its inception 200,000 years ago. It's no joke, unless God has a particularly bent sense of humor. Just in the last few weeks we've heard of loved ones dying, having severe illnesses, losing everything in a raging wildfire. So it goes, as Vonnegut would put it. Thank you then, or as they say in Luganda, Webale, for staying in touch. It's important to me. I believe in the art of communication; it's my religion, and my wife and sons are its saints, its angels. Bless you in all you do.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Stalking the Dewey-Eyed Platypus

When I told a friend that one of the main reasons I was going to Australia was to try to find a platypus, he said, “Aren’t they mythological or extinct or something?” They are not. In fact, platypuses are surprisingly abundant, though the odd, duck-billed creatures are also a shy, elusive evolutionary anomaly that few Australians – to say nothing of foreigners – have ever laid eyes upon. Some consider seeing one in the wilderness tantamount to bumping into a mermaid or a unicorn. When the first platypus skin arrived in London in 1798, many thought it was a hoax, and the poor thing has never entirely shaken the stigma. What could it expect given its looks?

The platypus safari commences with a flight out of Brisbane’s Archer Field in a blue and white, 10-seat, twin-engine airplane cruising over a parquet of flat green farmland and eucalypt forests. It is early fall – that is, April – in Queensland, warm and a little humid.

After an hour and a half, and an in-flight picnic of cheesecake and orange juice, we land on a grassy airstrip near Carnarvon National Park. Once I’m out of the plane, dozens of grasshoppers – the kangaroos of the insect world – hurdle over my feet and crash into my ankles as three yellow and blue pale-headed rosellas – small parrots – slalom between the polished trunks of the nearby gum trees. Within a few minutes the hot weight of the outback sun has caused my bald scalp to get as overheated as my prose, and I’m thankful that I’ve brought along an old tan Borsalino and a pair of cheap sunglasses. I put both on my head, where they stay for the remainder of the expedition, and we drive off toward Carnarvon Gorge, home of the platypus.

The man driving is John Stoddart, who, along with Linda Stoddart, his wife, manages the Oasis Lodge adjacent to Carnarvon National Park. They are both former high school teachers, and like many Australians, they seem to find wry humor in both the nature of reality and the reality of nature. Stoddart, I find out, knows a lot about platypuses. During the next few days’ conversations he gives me a short course in Beginning Platypusology 1A.

To start with, he says, they’re smaller than most people assume. The average adult is a foot to 18 inches long. The heaviest one on record weighed less than 5½ pounds. They have a birdlike snout that resembles a duck’s, but the grayish bill is soft, not hard. They are mammals of the order called Monotremata (the only other member is the equally bizarre, hedgehog-like echidna, also a native of Australia), characterized by their egg-laying and the cloaca, a single orifice for excretion and reproduction.

Monotremes are also the only mammals known to react to electrical fields. Platypuses have electrosensitive pores in their bills used to detect the electrical currents generated by the muscle activity of their prey – shrimps and insect larvae. (They have a tremendous appetite complemented by “a metabolic rate like a blast furnace,” according to “The Fatal Shore,” Robert Hughes’ definitive history of Australia’s founding.) It is believed that they may also use their electrosensitivity – a true “sixth sense” – for “seeing” stationary objects under water.

The platypus has beautiful, thick, waterproof fur and a plump tail something like a beaver’s, the top of which is covered with fur. They were hunted for their luxuriant pelts until 1912, when legislation was enacted to protect them nationwide.

Much like birds, they have a single functioning ovary, the second one being poorly developed. The females lay eggs but suckle their young with extraordinarily rich milk. Platypuses have webbed feet and the males have a venomous spur on each rear leg that can deliver a nasty sting. Stoddart tells me the story of a man he knew who managed to get spurred in the finger by a male platypus. “The poor bloke’s finger was no good after that,” he says. “It turned blood red and shriveled to a point like an old carrot.”

Aborigines knew the platypus as Mallangong, Boonaburra or Tambreet, and it figures in some of their myths. In one – a moral tale – the platypus’s origin is attributed to a wayward duck who disobeys its elders, wanders away from its pond and is imprisoned and raped by a randy old water rat. The child this coupling produces is a platypus. This is no less solid an explanation of the platypus’s beginnings than most modern researchers have provided.

Platypuses are found in deep burrows along the muddy banks or feeding among the shoreline reeds of rivers, streams and ponds in eastern Australia, on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia (where they were introduced by a naturalist in 1940) and in Tasmania. Just one pair – named Jack and Jill – successfully bred in captivity, and that was 50 years ago. On the official Australian wildlife cuteness scale the platypus rates second only to the koala and just slightly ahead of the wombat. The palm-size baby platypus is too cute to discuss in rational terms.

While Carnarvon Gorge is a platypus stronghold, John Stoddart tells me, I shouldn’t get my hopes up about actually seeing one, but if I want to try, dawn or dusk are the best times to seek out Australia’s duck-billed irregularity.

As intent as I am on satiating my desire to meet a platypus, like every other first-time visitor to Australia, I also hope to see a wild kangaroo as soon as possible, and shortly after arriving at the Oasis Lodge I get to – they’re all over the place.

The lodge consists of a central reception building, which houses the dining room, a library where gatherings and nature talks are held, and a number of luxurious “tent cabins” that evoke camping without actually immersing you in its often romanticized but typically uncomfortable specifics. The buildings are scattered over several acres of lawn, with palms and gum trees to provide shade. Scattered over the lawn are kangaroos, looking so much like giant prehistoric mice I’m inclined to offer them a piece of cheese.

When they aren’t lollygagging around on the lawns – their usual midday activity – they are grazing or bounding or battling with each other, or staring at the guests. The lodge asks guests not to feed the kangaroos, which has kept them untamed, so you can’t approach any closer than about 10 feet. That’s good, because the rebounding beasts can get to be a nuisance.

Indeed, in some places tourists find that they must apply popular aerosol kangaroo repellents, such as “Roo-quat” and “Roo-Be-Gone” as frequently as sunscreen. And if you absent-mindedly leave your door open, making it possible for one of the large marsupials to sneak in and jump on the bed (they’re worse than young Homo sapiens when it comes to this activity), they can destroy a box spring in mere minutes, play hell with a goose down comforter and make an expensive duvet history in a matter of seconds. It is no coincidence, then, that neither pogo sticks nor trampolines have ever been marketed in Australia.

At one point I ask Stoddart what the word “kangaroo” means. “Joseph Banks,” he replies, “was the naturalist that sailed to Australia with Capt. Cook. The story’s told that when Banks came ashore and first glimpsed the hopping creature, he asked a native what it was, and the aboriginal said something that sounded like ‘kangaroo.’ Later Banks asked another aboriginal what the word meant. ‘Kangaroo,’ the native told him, means ‘Hell if I know.’”

Curiously, I find no verification of this report in the literature. But in “The Fatal Impact,” Alan Moorehead’s elegant account of Cook’s “invasion” of the South Pacific, Banks is quoted and he does sound perplexed. The naturalist accurately describes the gray kangaroo as “of a mouse-colour and very swift,” and then remarks, “What to liken him to I cannot tell.”

Fortunately for Joseph Banks, his powers or description were not further taxed by the platypus. It would be another 27 years before a European (not Banks) first stumbled upon the fur-bearing duckoid, foolishly sending the hide off to London where he was ridiculed mercilessly. (There are certain discoveries it’s best not to reveal.)

Carnarvon Gorge itself looks like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon with forest poured into it. The massive rock cliffs are composed mostly of sandstone capped by a layer of basalt. The forest below is light and airy, home to a variety of tall eucalypts – the slick-barked Sydney bluegum is the most prevalent – with macrozamia and other palms, native hibiscus and the sandpaper fig growing beneath the silver-green foliage of the gum trees.

Extravagantly painted parrots (splashed with crimson, chartreuse, deep yellow, electric blue), large white cockatoos with an ear-splitting shriek, and jug-headed kookaburras (like our kingfisher, but with a taunting cackle as their song) are plentiful. The wealth of butterflies is a poignant reminder of how scarce they’ve become in much of the United States.

The sun-mottled forest floor is carpeted with high grass and bracken ferns. It is common to see eastern gray kangaroos, wallabies (a smaller kangaroo) and the occasional dark-coated rock wallabies (a shy kangaroo that behaves like a mountain goat) either nibbling at the ground cover or bounding through the brush. There are also ibis, heron, blue-faced honeyeaters and pied cormorants. And a smallish python known as a carpet snake – because of the pattern of its scales – in addition to bearded dragon lizards, turtles and monitor lizards, called goannas, that can reach 4 feet in length.

At night the Carnarvon sky is ink-black felt speckled with white paint. Nocturnal animals are ubiquitous, including an assortment of possums and a sweet-faced, big-eyed creature known as the sugar glider – so called because, like a flying squirrel, it uses the webbing between its front and rear legs to sail from tree to tree where it feeds on the eucalypt’s sugary sap.

At the bottom of the gorge runs Carnarvon Creek. Along its banks grow wispy Casuarina trees and the weeping red bottlebrush. Near the water’s edge are found green tree-frogs, which are preyed on by the creek’s freshwater keelback snakes. And if you’re extremely quiet and very still (and don’t wear bright-colored clothing) and patiently watch for the telltale shivering of the reeds, you may catch sight of a platypus. But, as I’m often told, “It ain’t too bloody likely.”

From April through November, staff members of the Oasis Lodge lead daily hikes, some of them fairly arduous, throughout the gorge and up to its more spectacular vistas, like Boolimba Bluff. (I hiked to the bluff on a Sunday. As I stood at the top looking down to the camping area from hundreds of feet above, a hymn being sung by the small congregation attending an outdoor Anglican service – which I could not see – came wafting up out of the gum forest. The effect was reminiscent of a scene from “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.”)

You can go hiking on your own, of course, but the young, dauntingly vigorous staff members make good company. They’re also knowledgeable about the terrain and the gorge’s flora and fauna, not to mention the fact that they carry a big backpack full of tea and snacks, which they prepare and serve during a rest stop along the way. One of the least strenuous walks is geared specifically to those desperately seeking platypuses.

On the appointed day we get up before sunrise and drive a mile or two to the Carnarvon Gorge trailhead. I keep the window down as we drive through the dawn forest so I can listen to the bird songs and other noises – the archetypal “jungle sounds” we’ve heard all our lives in Hollywood movies. The caustic laugh of the kookaburra is especially familiar. (One of the many perverse satisfactions of living in the media-besotted world, I’m ashamed to admit, is visiting the real thing and finding it exactly as depicted in a motion picture or on television – the twisted pleasure of having reality validated by illusion.)

As instructed, our small group has worn dull-hued clothing. The platypus has keen vision (and conservative taste in apparel), and it is put off by loud outfits. We’re also told not to speak, which certain of us find particularly onerous.

We enter the forest and walk over the creek on stones to reach the start of the Nature Trail. We follow the creekside path with nothing but cackling kookaburras and beeping Nikons to puncture the primeval silence. Across the creek, a wallaby and its offspring are having breakfast, which gets me to thinking: When God created Australia’s animals, perhaps he somewhat overestimated his abilities. At the very least the deity exhibited peculiar taste, if not a perverse sense of humor.

First of all, most of the beasts’ proportions are screwy; they look like a design experiment gone wrong or a rough sketch for an animated character that should have been canceled by the cartoon committee before it could see the light of day.

Consider the kangaroo – it is essentially a fur-upholstered pear with spring-loaded rear legs. Its creator apparently ran out of steam about waist level because, except for its well-developed biceps, the upper trunk, arms and head of the venerable kangaroo don’t amount to much when compared to its substantial lower body. Fortunately, the beasts seem to have little or no self-consciousness about having such a preposterous appearance, as that could only generate complex neurosis that would be no help whatsoever to a creature that must focus most of its attention on dodging boomerangs, bullets and dingoes in a natural environment that can be harsh on the best of days.

The Australian people, on the other hand, are quick and funny, gregarious and natural-born raconteurs. As testament to their bountiful good humor, they have courageously put the kangaroo, and the equally illogical emu, on their national crest, and the platypus on their 20-cent piece. A race less comfortable with irony might have downplayed such a collection of ridiculous faunae, but the Australians are proud of their continent’s curious beasts, and on average, more knowledgeable about them than we are about our more banal assortment.

When you ask Australians a question, they’ll often give a well-informed answer or, if they don’t know the answer, they’ll make up something that either sounds like the truth or actually improves on the truth. In either case you come away satisfied.

The Nikons are beeping excitedly as we approach the platypus viewing overlook. We make a few detours to the creek bank, but the guide shakes her head and motions us onward. Finally she stops at a clearing atop a small embankment and indicates that we should form a line. It’s about 20 feet to the other side of the creek where tall reeds wander into the slow-moving water, creating a perfect feeding area for the platypus.

The sun hasn’t yet ascended above the walls of the gorge, but the sky is the color of a morning glory blossom and the sandstone cliffs are either changing from orange to pink or from pink to orange. We stare intently at the reeds and the nearly still, black water. Nothing. A Nikon beeps. Nothing. A couple of people move off down the trail, impatient. Nothing. Then the guide points emphatically and whispers, “There.”

Something is moving through the reeds, jostling them as it goes, something underwater. And then, just clear of the reeds and out in the open, no more than 4 yards away, it comes to the surface. First the legendary bill, followed by a slick, furry back. It’s a great brute of a platypus, easily 12 inches long, maybe 14. It takes a breath, quickly glances at us with its small, dewy eyes, and disappears into the dark creek with a kick of its back feet. The reeds jiggle a little. And again nothing. And a Nikon beeps as the morning sun drools through the eucalyptus leaves. And we walk on.

Later, back at the lodge, I tell John Stoddart of our luck. “Was it a good-size one then?” he asks.

“Probably about 8 feet,” I say. And for a brief moment his eyes widen before he explodes with a kookaburra chortle, which makes me think that for a second or two, I just may have had him going.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo
The second most refreshing thing about Manuel Alvarez Bravo is that he’s not Ansel Adams. The first is his photographs — they are dreamy, literally. But that’s not news. Bravo has had his work described as dreamlike for much of the last century. Adams was a master landscape photographer, but Bravo, whose contributions to 20th century art are at least as significant as Adams’, is a master at chronicling the interior, making photographs that illustrate the subconscious landscape.
This is especially true of “Nudes: The Blue House,” a new book of photographs by Bravo, some taken as recently as the ’90s, some dating back to the 1930s, with an introduction by Carlos Fuentes. It’s a small book of about three dozen images of women — Bravo likes women — all nude or partially so, and all, it seems, captured while in the middle of some sort of implied narrative.
That’s Bravo: He’s always telling the story without a plot, the story that never stops — the tightly constructed tale of whatever is going on at the moment he takes the picture. Like a dream, it makes perfect sense while you’re in it. If Cartier-Bresson was champion of the decisive moment, Bravo’s pictures have made the indecisive moment iconic.
Though he worked with models (not professional ones) to produce the images in “Nudes: The Blue House,” often he has not captured poses so much as anti-poses, the evocative moments between those self-conscious instances when model and photographer conceptually come together. “My work is completely natural and spontaneous,” he once told Florida’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper. It is also unnatural and carefully planned, albeit instinctively, not consciously.
Our tendency is to look at photographs slowly, to amble through the gallery or page through the book, pausing at each new image, taking it all in, but Bravo’s nudes should be flashed on a wall, seen as a flipbook, perceived subliminally, run past furtively, then back again. There’s a longing in his images that’s better experienced by glancing at them than studying them pensively. “I don’t look for anything,” Bravo told the New York Times, “I discover things.”
One of the things he seems to have discovered over and over during the seven or eight decades of his career is the exhilaration of discovery. But the leap Bravo made that has always given his work a perpetually modern, fresh spirit is that his photos are not about him, they’re not even about their subject — they’re about the person who’s discovering them.
When I was a college student, I was lucky enough to work as a teaching assistant for film director Alexander Mackendrick (“The Ladykillers,” “The Man in the White Suit,” “The Sweet Smell of Success”). He used to say that movies take place in a theater located inside the head of each person in the audience. Bravo hangs his pictures in a gallery at that same location.
The classic narrative hook of a quest, or of longing, is one of the themes that runs through “Nudes.” The women are often looking at something, as if for the first time, or seeking something or on their way somewhere.
In “Vertical Panoramic Nude,” Bravo tips his hat to Duchamp as a nude woman ascends a short staircase to a drape that’s just blowing open. In “Between White Walls” another woman looks downward as she approaches the top of a curving staircase. “With Architecture II” gives us a naked woman walking away from us, down the sidewalk. And in one of the book’s most elegant images, “The Feet on the Ground,” a blonde, wearing only low-heeled pumps, turns away to walk up a desert road bordered on one side by a large tangle of swordlike agave plants.
Where are these women headed? They’re all going to the same place. They’ll be going with you. You’ll take them along to have coffee, or to the bar or to have dinner or to meet with friends. Or they’ll come to you later, after you fall asleep — that’s when the drape will blow all the way open; that’s when the woman will reach the top of the staircase, look at you and speak; that’s when the agave plants and the lady in the pumps will resolve whatever it is they’re conversing about. And you won’t be able to get any of them out of your mind.
Bravo was embraced by surrealism at its beginnings, and embraced it back, but he is a Bravoist more than a surrealist; he’s not a trickster. He’s also not humorless. The last photo of a woman in the book is “Lucy.” She faces us, we see her from the shoulders down, she holds a small tray just below her navel. On the tray are two artificial eyes. Now Bravo’s got us. We must look at her nipples, but we can’t take our eyes off those eyes, either. The picture is the first thing Fuentes mentions in his introduction: “We experience a shiver, just the kind we feel in the sliced-eye scene in Luis Buñuel’s ‘Le Chien Andalou.’ In this photograph of ‘Lucy,’ the ambiguities of the gaze become a triple challenge for us. We must wonder: is it our privilege to see ‘Lucy’ with no eyes other than the nipples of a decapitated body? Or are the eyes on the platter looking at us? But the woman’s breasts: don’t they have a gaze? Doesn’t the body have its own way of seeing and being seen?”
Bravo’s career has spanned almost the whole of what’s called modern art while not losing relevance. He’s nearly always found his subjects near his home in Coyoacan, south of Mexico City. He’s shown with Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Imogene Cunningham and Dorothea Lange and has been the subject of one-man shows and the recipient of myriad awards across the globe. In his own small Mexico City gallery, Bravo was showing the work of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo and Jose Clemente Orozco as early as 1927, three years after he bought his first camera. Just three years later he was cameraman on Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Que Viva México.”
By 1938 he had met the bull goose surrealist André Breton, who asked him to take part in a Mexico City exhibition of surrealist art. It was for that show that Bravo created one of his most famous and startling images, “Good Reputation Sleeping,” which is included in “Nudes.” It’s a picture of a woman, wrapped in bandages at the ankles, hips and wrists, lying on a blanket outdoors next to a wall. Four prickly cactus buds lie next to her. Her pubic hair peeks through a gap in the bandages. It’s quintessential Bravo, an image of divine tension, carnal, but also religious, casual and ethereal. But then the jolting juxtapositions in dreams are often what wake us up.