La Kid Spent this Great Fall Day…

… at Barrel Oak Winery with her buddy Natasha.

Back in ‘thesda, UD ponders the odd ways…

… of the earth. Its impossible constellations, its terrifying caves… I mean, without wanting to be a wimp about it, there’s something overwhelming about massive chambers of dripping stalactites beneath, and infinite dripping stars above; and Les UDs got that particular double helping quite intensely on their little trip.

It was deliciously cold both above and below, but now we’re back at surface heat, waiting for summer to give way.

On the winding road up Skyline Drive, I insisted we talk about this article on Lebanon in The Economist because the country it evoked seemed as impossible to me as the constellations. On the one year anniversary of the port explosion, the country the writer evoked is disgustingly corrupt, corrupt beyond belief, absolutely corrupt, and, because of that corruption, seemingly dead beyond repair. How did that happen, and how is Lebanon to survive its own death?

Certes, UD knows that corruption is part of political life, and a very significant part of political (and social) life in many countries (note Lebanon’s location on the corruption index to which I just linked). But the Economist writer seems to be announcing the protracted lurid extinction of a country because its governing and business elite is totally happy to dine on the corpse of the Lebanese people until there’s nothing left but bones … at which point they’ll all move to Monaco.

It’s pure Ubu: “I”ll make my fortune, kill the whole world, and bugger off.”

Ubu is a way over the top, hilarious, moral monster. How did Lebanon, where religious faith is the reason it looks the way it does, get an entire political class of moral monsters? Forget hypocritical; these people are evil. To paraphrase another UD favorite: They are monsters without being a myth.

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Consider the language of the Economist piece: Lebanon is an “abyss,” there is “no bottom” in its “bottomless collapse.” Its “shambolic politicians cannot agree on a new government.” The police, grossly underpaid “agents of a bankrupt state,” cannot be expected to cooperate with the authorities forever. A year after the blast, “things are indeed worse, almost immeasurably so.”

The blast was not a nadir, just another twist on Lebanon’s long downward spiral. There has been no accountability for the disaster. Nor is there a government empowered to tackle an economic crisis that, according to the World Bank, may rank as the third worst anywhere in the world since the 1850’s...

[The country] tipped into economic crisis in 2019, the result of a years-long Ponzi scheme overseen by the central bank, which borrowed billions from an outsized banking industry to sustain a currency peg. The scheme unraveled when banks no longer took in enough fresh deposits to keep it going. [An observer] estimates that there was an $83bn hole in their balance-sheets last year.

Half the country now lives below the poverty line. [There are] only a few hours of electricity each day… A young girl died from a scorpion sting that could not be treated for lack of antivenom in depleted hospitals and pharmacies… Beirutis wander the streets glassy-eyed: no one is sleeping well, without even a fan to cut the heat and humidity. Everyone seems to have caught a stomach bug this summer from food spoiled by power cuts… [T]he… days are a brew of rage and despair.

The World Bank calls this a “deliberate depression,” a man-made crisis – and the men who made it are still in power, with no plan to fix it.

Lebanon is not a failed state; it’s a zombie state. In order to have a free hand to steal all the country’s money, its governing elite has reduced the population to automata unable to act on their own behalf. The closest analogy UD can think of is North Korea.

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So, nu, Mr UD, what to do?

Here are some of his comments.

1.) The Economist writer exaggerates, focuses only on the very worst aspects of the situation. “Spoken like a Pole,” replied UD. “Not every country conjures Solidarność, you know.”

2.) One solution might be The Appointment of the Respected, Legitimate Person/People. Here, as in Italy calling the non-corrupt, brilliant technocrat Mario Draghi out of private life at an advanced age in order to deal with Italy’s ridiculous economy, Lebanon would search for a small group of morally serious people with relevant expertise, people respected by all because of their above-the-fray gravitas, and ask them to save the country. Even better – bring together organizations that have independent legitimacy, have them constitute themselves as, say, The National Salvation Congress, and wait while their moral and intellectual legitimacy endows them with meaningful power.

3.) If/when things deteriorate into actual civil war, call in the UN.

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UPDATE: A personal view of the end of the world.

Thirteen meteors in an hour.

Not a huge number, but you had to be there. The bowl of the heavens, at Big Meadow, shone everywhere – not just in white clusters overhead, but along the tree and hill line. An eerie little breeze deepened the darkness as UD groped the ground for her binoculars and – when it grew chilly – her sweater.

Chilly – she thought of hellish, thunderish, DC while she lay back, somewhat shivering, in her beach chair.

The barred owls hoot all night here, a cosmic chorale. Last evening a distant storm made bright flashes across the field. We talked about lightyears of distance (one lightyear = about six trillion miles) and parsecs and made obvious remarks about our incapacity to grasp astronomical realities. Also, though, about how remarkably much we know (Mr UD reads a lot of astronomy/physics) about the massive black canvas. Galactic Hubble images came to me as I scanned the stars.

The Denial of Death in Shenandoah National Park.

The Denial of Death in Shenandoah National Park

Cold air, barred owls, and the smell of smoke:

Only a little data here, to evoke

The August woods off the balcony.

Woods that always prompt philosophy.

As when I read, in Becker, a phrase like

“Immunity bath,’ meaning cultic rites

That cleanse the cultist of the dread of death

(Page 12) and sometimes even of its sight.

Or anti-vaxers who, with dying breath,

Admit they thought their breath would never end.

“Consciousness of death is the primary

Repression, not sexuality.” Mend

Your dread by bacchanal, or by fairy

Story, and you’ll still get badly scarred.

A death-accepter, say Kierkegaard,

Knows this is merely where the fun begins:

The wisest owls unbarred spin and spin

Out of smoke mythic immortality.

Take, among those I love, N., P., and D.

N. strode in to save Detroit, then broke down

At the vastness of it. P. circles round

The earth’s atrocities, repairing souls.

D., who must perceive the very world, stole

His life through abstraction. Hard led

By dread, N. is struggling, D. dead.

From the balcony again the smell of smoke —

Of our own ashy end an easy token.

A string of exceptionally wretched deep summer days is forecast…

… for UD‘s part of Maryland, so, if nothing else, she and Mr UD will avoid them in the Virginia mountains, where temperatures will be moderate during the day, and downright cold (cold!) at night. Their main tasks – they leave today – are two: To see the Perseid meteor shower at its absolute peak, and to celebrate UD‘s birthday at a restaurant in nearby Luray, where they’ll also go to Luray Caverns. I’ve been visiting those kitschy caves since I was a toddler.

Mr UD finally found our (dusty, discolored) copy of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, which I love; and this will be my light reading (rereading) for our trip. We’re not good at organizing our books, but eventually we do find the ones we’re looking for.

So the formal title of my trip will be The Denial of Death at Shenandoah National Park, and I will be offering you, my reader, snippets of nature description/life wisdom/Kierkegaardian dread/astronomical observations.

The whole thing, to quote Roger De Bris, will be drenched with goodies.

UD’s prep, pre-hike…
… Shenandoah National Park.
UD photographs a hummingbird clearwing moth…

… on the balcony of Big Meadows Lodge, Shenandoah National Park.

UD’s posts for the last few days.

August 14, 2019

SUNSET OVER THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY LAST NIGHT…

…was like a Hubble shot of Jupiter. Whirling skirling swirling squirreling grays and blues. The cloudy sky that ensued was all wrong for perseids, so we passed on the whole get up at two AM and drive down the hill to Big Meadows (we’re talking Shenandoah National Park here) thing. Talking to a guy who drives here every year from Michigan, UD learned that last night was unusually cloudy, so we’re hopeful at least one of the next three nights will be clear enough for fireballs.

Meanwhile, we hike among the deer and the bear (UD dreamt of bears last night, natch), and gawk at the long mountain/valley/mountain views. Gophers scurry the hallway outside our room.

Big Meadows Lodge is already the land that time forgot, but they’re celebrating their eightieth birthday (UD, tomorrow, in Luray, Virginia, will celebrate her 66th), so here in the main room (only place with internet) they’re piping in nonstop forties swing.

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August 15, 2019

A MOON UNLIKE ANY UD HAS EVER SEEN

The irony was that we were there for the perseids; but sitting on our rickety beach chairs at the Big Meadows clearing last night, the real show turned out to be an absolutely full brilliantly lit moon that insinuated itself as a silver glint among horizonal clouds and then raised itself up to surreality right before our eyes. UD grabbed her binoculars and attempted to make credible the massive and intricately legible orb, its hollows and craters so blatant… When it climbed to higher clouds, they made a golden aura together, the moon now and then blindfolding itself with a black ribbon of atmosphere, and I sat there thinking about my mother who loved the night sky. And of course immediately came the thought that has so often for so long come to UD: We are here to experience the terrestrial wonder that our dead don’t get anymore. We’re doing it for them.

This morning I stood on the lodge’s balcony and watched three gold finches massacre the petals of some purple wildflowers. If butterflies are endangered, there’s no sign of it here. Fern oceans cover acres of woodland floor, and I’m not sure why but it’s very cool when your hike intersects with the Appalachian Trail. Zero-luxuries, zero-prestige Big Meadows Lodge draws an intriguing mix – Mennonites, naturalists, intellectuals, hikers. To my eye, plenty of Paul Fussell’s X’s (scroll down) populate the place, keening over their wildlife books and adjusting the length of their walking sticks. The stolidly downscale Great Room, all dusty wood floors and dusty jigsaw puzzles, buzzes with women in gingham dresses and sweaty kids playing checkers.

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August 16, 2019

UD/BIRTHDAYS

She’s had a ton of great ones. At a restaurant on the edge of a Santorini cliff; in a cafe by a fast-rolling river in Telluride; at a balcony dining room at the top of a hotel overlooking Mexico City’s zocalo; and, many times, at the Bear Cafe (also alongside a babbling brook) in Woodstock, near our upstate NY house. Last night was another one of the greats – a big, boisterous gathering of family and friends at Moonshadows in Luray, down the hill from Shenandoah National Park. There were glitches galore – an immense detour plus immense thunderstorms on their trip from Washington for a group of late-arriving guests; worries about night vision for a guest who would need to drive the dark winding Skyline Drive back to the lodge… But in the event everything worked out perfectly, and UD felt love for all of these people who had gone to so much trouble for her.

Today the rain has cleared out and we’ve done a ton of hiking. If the sky stays clear, we’ll do another wee hours visit to Big Meadow (as close to a true dark sky as you’re likely to find on the east coast), set out our beach chairs, and look up. UD is so full of gratitude and joy today that she doesn’t care whether she sees any fireballs at all.

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August 17, 2019

SKYLAND IS THE OTHER LODGE IN THE PARK…

… and unless you feel like a twisting hour-long drive down the hill and back, it’s the one and only meal alternative to Big Meadow Lodge. Our foursome (Peter Galbraith, first American ambassador to Croatia; Sarah Peck, recently retired Foreign Service officer; Mr UD, and UD) met there and on arrival stared from a silent stony hilltop at a garish orange sun settling into pink clouds. The nature/culture clash was equally garish, with raucous country tap dancing in the bar next to the dining room as we entered Skyland. Fa rumore, as the Italians have it; human beings love to make noise. Indeed after a long day of quiet hiking together, we ourselves really went at it over the meal, yelling about the partisan Supreme Court, the Electoral College, and what to do with ISIS prisoners languishing in camps.

Our group prepares for a final hike before leaving Shenandoah National Park. UD‘s inappropriate backpack, foreground.
‘The Perseid Meteor Shower Is Here, And Might Foretell Humanity’s Extinction’

Party pooper! As ever, Les UDs are headed, tomorrow morning, for Big Meadows, in Shenandoah National Park, where they will lean back in their little blue beach chairs and count fireballs. Check out my Snapshots from Shenandoah category for last year’s trip. I’ll be blogging throughout this one, too, of course.

23 Meteors in One Hour.

So last night wasn’t the peak of the peak; but Les UDs left their Big Meadows Lodge room at 3:18 AM anyway, figuring they’d for sure be the only people at the Big Meadow down the road, which has enormous dark skies. They dressed warmly – mid-August evenings turn out to be cold here, especially when you’re sitting (beach chairs) in the middle of a vast wildflower field.

The short drive over there put UD in mind of the night the lights went out over much of the United States in 2003, and Les UDs drove back from Cooperstown to their houselet in Summit in Total Rural Darkness. And Total Rural Silence, something about the gorgeous witchy world having hushed them.

So here’s a family lying in sleeping bags at the entrance to the meadow – quiet father, mother noting each meteor, and small daughter entirely into the experience. A kid, thrilled to be lying on the cold hard ground in the middle of nowhere … Three other cars stood in the parking lot, meaning people had walked through the meadow to distant viewing points.

“Thought we’d be the only people here,” said UD to the sleeping baggers.

“Oh, we set the alarm for 2:30,” said the father.

Les UDs carried their chairs far enough into the meadow to avoid the lights of passing cars, and let their eyes adjust to … yikes… the starriest vastest dome ever…

************

Mars, the Milky Way. And meteors diving out of the black lagoon – some mere flakes, which we didn’t count, some white missiles with fireballs, missiles so bright they left stellar contrails. With each big one we whooped and clapped and considered again the bizarre good fortune that first hoisted us up onto Skyline Drive and then settled us down into beach chairs under galactic suns.

Barred owls hooted as the heavens rained.

Islands in the Stream

I’m too excited by my location
to sleep much. The advantage
of this: Not only did I finally,
last night, see a big-ass meteor;
I’m up early enough to see the
valley covered in clouds.

Wow. Pow.

So here’s me.
UD.
Sitting under a tree
At three.

And through the tree’s branches came the entire firmament as it is spectacularly to be seen at three AM mid-August in front of Big Meadows Lodge, Shenandoah National Park.

I sat in a chair and watched and in only a few minutes several silver glints swan-dived, and this was fine, this was the whole point of being cold and alone out there in my James Joyce sweatshirt…

Oh but then. Then the sky blazed up with a big meteor! I saw its fireball and was amazed.

As it blazed out I raised my arms and let rip a victory whoop because this after all was the moment of triumph for ol’ UD, who has been trying for years, every August, to see the sky blaze big just like that.

Shenandoah National Park…

… Big Meadows Lodge, has spotty internet, so UD can’t at the moment share the long-view-in-cloud-and-sun picture she just took on her first hike. The mixed weather means thick smoky hills out to the edge of the earth.

The climb up Skyline Drive featured fairy tale woods: Green-gray barks and shaggy canopies visible through gray mist. Sometimes sunlight broke the mist.

***************

I.e., it will be a miracle if any perseids are to be seen tonight. But the world from the Big Meadows balcony rolls out beautifully, and UD is more than happy to make do with that. The air is cool, nature madly green from all the summer rain, and my immediate view of parents piecing animal puzzles together with their children as they wait for the dining room to open extremely pleasant.

UD – a charter member of the Hell is Other People club – finds the subdued company of damp weary hikers more than tolerable.

Faithful readers know of UD’s annual, not terribly successful, perseids outings.

She’s got a little house in nowheresville upstate New York, no lights anywhere, a true dark sky, and she has sat in its front meadow many a chilly August night over the years, looking up at the enormous firmament. (Actually, news flash: UD‘s country house has suddenly gone from a nowheresville location to a destination location! Look what’s moved down the lane. That pond you see if you check out the photos on the website was the work of UD‘s old friend, Wojciech Fangor and… well, you can put Fangor in my search engine if you want that story…) But for all her effort, she’s never experienced a true meteor shower – just occasional shooting stars in the course of a few hours.

This year, Les UDs are going to Shenandoah National Park – two hours from ‘thesda – because it’s apparently the best place for hundreds of miles around to see the perseid meteor shower.

There will be a Night Sky Festival at the park while we’re there. So even if UD is again disappointed this year, she will at least be surrounded by experts telling her precisely what’s up there and why.

Obviously, she will extensively blog this experience.

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