Drones And The Beautiful World They Reveal

Over the past year or so, I have, on multiple occasions, sat down with my toddler daughter to enjoy BBC’s epic nature documentary series Planet Earth. Narrated by the incomparable David Attenborough, it offers up hour-long packages of visual delight in stunning high-definition: giant waterfalls, towering mountains and icebergs, gigantic flocks of birds, roaring volcanoes and river rapids, deep canyons, majestic creatures of all kinds; the eye-candy is plentiful, and it is dished out in large portions. While watching it, I’ve been moved to remark that my co-viewing of it in the company of my daughter–and sensing her delight as we do so–has been one of the highlights of my parental responsibilities.

Filming a documentary like Planet Earth, the most expensive ever, takes time and money and technical aid. The featurettes for the various episodes explain how they were filmed: sometimes using a cinebulle, sometimes “the Heligimbal, a powerful, gyro-stabilised camera mounted beneath a helicopter.” Now comes news that Planet Earth II, the second installment of the series will deploy even more advanced technology:

The BBC…has not only shot the whole thing in UHD, but it also used the latest camera stabilisation, remote recording, and aerial drone technology, too.

The use of drones should make perfectly good sense. Drones can be commandeered into remote and difficult to access territories and zones with great ease and precision; they can be made to wait for the perfect shot for long periods of time; they can generate huge amounts of visual image data which can then be sorted through to select the best images; without a doubt, their usage will result in the previously hidden–and beautiful–coming to light. Perhaps they will descend into the craters of volcanoes; perhaps they will hover above herds of animals, tracking their every move to record and reveal the mysteries of migration; perhaps they will enable closer looks at the dynamics of waterfalls and whirlpools; perhaps they will fly amidst flocks of birds.

Their use will remind us once again of the mixed blessings of technology. Drones can be used for surveillance, for privacy invasions, for the violations of human rights; they can be used to conduct warfare from on high, sending down deadly munitions directed at civilians; they can also be used to reveal the beauties of this world in a manner that reminds us, yet again, that our planet is a beautiful place, one worth preserving for the sake of future generations. Technology facilitates the exploitation of nature but also, hopefully, its conservation and sensible stewardship thanks to the beauties of the images brought back to us by the drones we use. The use of drones in Planet Earth II may refine our aesthetic sensibilities further: many of our aesthetic superlatives are drawn from nature, but that entity’s contours will now be revealed in ever greater detail, with more aspects brought front and center. And so, as we have never stopped noticing, even as technology makes the world more understandable, it reveals its ever greater mysteries.  Technology may make the world mundane, quantify it all the better to tame it, but it may also reveal facets of the world we may have been previously blind to, rendering some sensibilities duller and yet others more acute.

Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

Kundera On Nostalgia For The Present

In Identity (HarperCollins, New York, 1998, pp. 40), Milan Kundera has Chantal thinking nostalgically about her love, Jean-Marc, but:

Nostalgia? How could she feel nostalgia when he was right in front of her? How can you suffer from the absence of a person who is present? (Jean-Marc knew how to answer that: you can suffer nostalgia in the presence of a beloved if you glimpse a future where the beloved is no more; if the beloved’s death is, invisibly, already present.)

Sometimes when I’m looking at videos and photos of loved ones I find myself overcome by a curious melancholia, a wistfulness of sorts. I’m perplexed; why is this so? These people, whose images I am gazing at, whom I love and care for, are still very much with me; they continue to enrich my life. Why does the sight of them introduce a sensation that is ‘nostalgic’, akin to the feeling that one might get on gazing at a scene never to be re-staged, a vista never to be viewed again? (The images I speak of are not ones that should be properly productive of nostalgia: they are way too recently produced for that, and even the sense of time elapsed cannot account for the depth and pathos of the associated melancholia.)

Kundera is right, of course, that this is because we have anticipated a future without our loved ones; we are not content to live in the present; we must look ahead as we always do. Our joy at the presence of our loved ones then, is always mingled, always touched and inflected, by a hint of terror; indeed, this fear, this paralyzing nightmare which flickers at the margins of our thoughts, might be what makes our joys of love quite so sweet. Parents know this the best perhaps, but lovers do too. Just like a jealous lover torments himself by thoughts of the times before he met his beloved, of those she loved and left, of a time when he was non-existent in her romantic calculus, we inflict ourselves on the pain of an imagined future that is bereft of those we love. As we walk side by side by those we love, we imagine ourselves alone, unable to share what we see with that pair of eyes which now supplements ours.

There is another reason too, I think, for reactions similar to mine–where we are looking at images of loved ones who still live with us. We have experienced losses in the past; we have spent much time gazing at visual mementos that remind us, again and again, of what we have lost. The act of viewing an image has itself become infected with a particular kind of superstitious threat: to look on too long is to tempt fates, to turn this gazing into all we might have left. And images themselves threaten: this is what your loved ones are reduced to; this is all that shall remain. We might shrink from the act of capturing images, afraid that we are tempting fate; perhaps we should be content with the concrete. And, of course, the present.

Christopher Hitchens: Pro-War, Anti-Death Penalty

A few days ago, Corey Robin wondered on his Facebook status:

Something I never understood about Christopher Hitchens: how such a fervent opponent of the death penalty could be such an avid supporter of war.

Supporters of the death penalty, of course, are notoriously fond of war (they also tend to be ‘pro-life’ in the debate on abortion). But why would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may, I think, be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

The death penalty, in sharp and instructive contrast, is almost uniformly grubby and sordid. It is underwritten by retribution, an ignoble business at best; it is wrapped up in tedious layers of penal codes, legal wrangling, and procedural disputes; it happens quietly and grimly, away from the public eye, the punishment that dare not  speak its name. All associated with it are diminished; the condemned have lost their human dignity well before they ascend the gallows, the jailers and clergymen and executioners appear merely as bureaucratic functionaries, executing–no pun intended–with nary a trace of flair or style, the bookish orders laid out in the court document sanctioning the killing. There is no glamour, no sheen, no gleaming edges in the death penalty. It is dull, dull, dull. Especially in this guillotine-free age.

If the death penalty could have been lifted, somehow, out of the unappealing morass of state bureaucracy, judicial procedure, and clumsy modes of execution, if it could somehow have brought with it some of the frisson that war provides, then I do not doubt that Hitchens would have been all for it.

Note: One should also not forget that Hitchens considered himself a contrarian. Perhaps his opposition to the death penalty was formed at a time when public support for it ran high; his support of the Iraq War was probably viewed by him as a gleeful flipping of the bird to his former mates on the Left.

My Missing Uncle

The year I turned thirteen, a year after my father’s passing away, I spent part of my summer vacation, as usual, at my grandfather’s home in Central India. The days were long and hot, the afternoons slow and languorous, the evenings warm, the nights short and cool. We–my brother, my cousins, and I–played cricket in the mornings, drank lemonade, went swimming in a nearby river, and hitched rides on my uncle’s mining company’s trucks to visit the mines themselves, where we could see rock faces blown to bits by explosive charges. And in quieter moments, I would read books–picking one after the other from the shelves in our living room–and look through the family’s old photo albums.

The albums in my grandfather’s home had heirloom status by now; they were filled with a black and white photographic record of my father’s family, from their earliest days in this small town, all the way down to the present day. I delighted in examining these photos again and again, revisiting weddings, birthdays, festival celebrations, travels on vacation. A central pleasure in these investigations was that of seeing an uncle or an aunt in their childhood incarnation: there he was, good ‘ol A__, back in the day as a rakish young college student, slim and dapper, moustached, long before he grew heavy and sedate; there she was, our lovely aunt C__, looking almost impossibly glamorous, long before she resigned herself to household duties and bringing up her daughters. Sometimes they were teenagers, sometimes they were even younger.

One evening, while looking through a set of photographs of a family trip to Kashmir in 1950, I came upon a group photograph, posed against the backdrop of a beautiful lake ringed by hills. We chuckled over how callow some of our grizzled elders looked, how slim, how dashing, how innocent. We named them all, exclaiming in surprise at the changes wrought by the years. We were brought up short by a young lad, sitting quietly in the front row, his legs neatly tucked beneath him. Who was this? He looked vaguely like my uncle’s son, my ten-year old cousin–who could he be? We didn’t dwell on the mystery too long; our family was capacious, and it was not too surprising to find out members of it were unknown to us.

A day or so later, I showed my uncle–my father’s younger brother–the photograph and asked him who the lad was. My uncle said he was his younger brother. He had been my uncle’s little buddy, a friend, someone to be taken care of and protected, just the way he had been by my father. He named him. It was the first time I had ever heard the name  uttered in my presence. I had never met him.  I couldn’t have, for he had died a year after that photograph had been taken. He had been set to follow my father and my uncle–his older brothers–to boarding school in Delhi, and indeed, had his baggage packed and ready to go, when he had come down suddenly with a mysterious intestinal ailment. Despite being rushed to the doctors and extended the best care possible under the circumstances–in a small town in Central India in the 1950s–he had passed away. He had been nine years old.

My grandmother and grandfather confirmed the story. My uncle–that little boy–was their youngest child. They had loved him dearly, pampering him in a way they hadn’t their first two sons. They had held him back at home a little longer, not wanting to send him away to Delhi to boarding school as quickly as they had sent my father and uncle. As they spoke, tears welled up in their eyes.  My grandfather, a gruff and stern man, visibly weakened as he spoke; my grandmother, always soft-spoken, murmured in even lower tones.

So I had had another uncle, one who didn’t even grow to be as old as I was when I first heard of him. Had he survived his mystery illness, he would have been twenty-three or so years older than me. Calling him ‘uncle’, conferring upon him that avuncular title makes him sound older; he was just a little kid.Till I had seen that photograph and persisted in my curiosity, no one had ever mentioned him to me. His death was a tragedy that no one spoke of; perhaps it was too distant in time, too many years had gone by; perhaps the memory was too painful. I never learned much more about my father’s brother. My grandparents passed away; my uncle’s memories of him remained limited.

My father, certainly, had never spoken of his little brother. I knew, in the days and weeks and months and years following my father’s passing away that I would find out more about him–that my childhood picture of him would change in many ways unanticipated. I had not reckoned that I would find out that he had once been a teenager, who had received a devastating letter from his parents telling him his youngest brother had passed away.

In the brief time I knew my father, he had been carrying around, somewhere in the spaces of his memories, recollections of a long-dead brother. In some roundabout way, to learn about my uncle was to learn something about my father, about what he might have had in that part of himself that he kept hidden from his children

Yosemite and Sequoia: Visiting John Muir’s Playgrounds

Last week, my family and I traveled to California; more precisely, to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. (We visited family in Los Angeles as well.) Superlatives for national parks are a dime-a-dozen, so most writing on them is doomed to cliche. But let me press on regardless.

The landscapes of these parks, like those of Monument Valley on which I wrote last year, have become iconic–captured innumerable times in photographs and movies.  Your first encounter with them is tinged with that familiar sense of bewilderment: you have seen this all before, many, many times. And yet, of course, it’s novel.

Consider Half-Dome, that splendid granite centerpiece of the Yosemite Valley, here viewed from Glacier Point (now, mercifully free of the hotels that once defiled it):


This is an exceedingly familiar image for most Americans (and many non-Americans too, if the amount of German, French, and Russian I heard spoken at Yosemite is any indication). Still, its ubiquity does nothing to diminish one’s sense of awe when confronted by its 4000-foot face.

Yosemite and Sequoia are justifiably famous too, as the venues of John Muir‘s epic rambles, walks which brought him into close proximity with a wilderness of staggering beauty and which he dedicated his life to studying, eulogizing, and protecting. Reading his richly poetic descriptions of these landscapes, you realize you have made contact–through time and space–with a deeply sensitive soul, someone who found in quiet and loud spaces by stream and brook and waterfall and glacier and rockface, the perfect zones for meditation and repose and a deeper understanding of himself and his place in nature. And ours, of course.

It might sound strange to say this, but the deepest impressions on me on these travels were made not just by the awe-inspiring High Sierra, the gigantic sequoias, the verdant valleys of the Merced but also by Muir’s words and recountings of his travels and experiences. This was a man who could travel alone, for weeks and months on end, among bear and mountain lion, swim down an avalanche, stand behind a waterfall and spend a night on a tree to experience its relationship to a storm. This was a man who found his most comfortable beds on the branches of fir trees, who preferred to count stars instead of sheep as he sought sleep, who found divinity not in the Bible he had been forced to memorize by a tyrannical father, but in the living, breathing, sparkling works of nature around him. Somewhere, buried in his many, many written words, must be emotions and thoughts similar to those expressed by another visionary and mystic:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Muir clearly felt himself to be one with the beauty that surrounded him; in its endless cycles and rhythms he might have detected a kind of immortality that was also his, an acknowledgment of his genesis in age-old cosmic dust, come to rest in him and the granite and bark and cold streams that were his constant companions.

We should all be grateful he was so eloquent and so passionate, that his words helped protect and preserve the visions that are ours for the viewing.

The Visually Sophisticated Society and “Seeing is Believing”

In 1980, Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Selden sent their copy of H.H Goddard‘s The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness to James H. Wallace, director of Photographic Services at the Smithsonian Institution. The photographs in Goddard’s book of the supposedly “feeble-minded” family had appeared to confirm their mental infirmity:

All have a depraved look about them. Their mouths are sinister in appearance; their eyes are darkened slits.


But as the photograph above indicates, and as Wallace noted:

There can be no doubt that the photographs of the Kallikak family members have been retouched. Further, it appears that this retouching was limited to the facial features of the individuals involved–specifically eyes, eyebrows, mouths, nose and hair. By contemporary standards, this retouching is extremely crude and obvious.

The intellectual dishonesty on display in Goddard’s work is but a small sample of the many instances noted in Gould’s critique of biological determinism, The Mismeasure of Man  (W. W. Norton, New York, 1980).

Of interest too, is what Wallace went on to say in his response to Gould and Selden:

 It should be remembered, however, that at the time of the original publication of the book, our society was far less visually sophisticated. The widespread use of photographs was limited, and casual viewers of the time would not have nearly the comparative ability possessed by even pre-teenage children today….

 The “visual sophistication” that Wallace indicates is, of course, a function of the greater prominence of the visual in modern society. Photographs, digital and analog, and moving images, whether those of the movies or television, are our commonplace companions; we record our lives, their humble and exalted moments, through a bewildering arrays of technologies and methods. Our blogs and other forms of social media are awash in these images. If the cultures that preceded ours were verbal, we are increasingly visual. Our future masterpieces might increasingly be drawn from this domain.

This swamping of our senses and sensibilities produces a greater refinement of our visual concepts and judgments. Modern cinephiles speak knowledgeably and effortlessly of cinematic palettes and visual grammars; admirers of photographers’ works offer esoteric evaluations of their correspondingly complex productions. We consider such discourses exceedingly commonplace; we are, after all, creatures whose dominant sensory modality is sight, able to examine their world from the microscopic to the macroscopic scale, from the beginning of their lives to their ends, through images.

Wallace’s invocation of our increased “visual sophistication” appropriately enough arises in the context of retouching. We are used to the altered digital image, the restored old photograph, the enhanced and corrected draft photograph; we return from vacations with a camera full of digital photos; we understand their final displayed product will be a modified one, lights and darks and colors and shades all expertly changed by our photo processing software, our clumsiness and inexpertness cleverly altered and polished out.

We are, by now, accustomed to the notion that seeing is not believing but rather, the opening salvo in a series of investigations.