Tag Archives: the physical expression of the intellectual passion

True journey is return

To be whole is to be part; true journey is return.
-Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

(Previous posts from this trip: Black Earth energy receptor fields, The Wisconsin desert, Mother of Waters)

The silence of a country road in the Driftless Area at dawn Sunday morning is deep, though not uninterrupted: it was broken by the odd rooster, a dog here and there, the siren of a single Crawford County Sheriff’s Department car blasting down the lane on its way to some rural emergency, and me getting short of breath and cursing Google Maps for its propensity to direct me down hilly back-roads instead of flatter if busier main arteries.

In about an hour I reached US-18 and from there things were smoother: rolling, but without so many bastards of hills. For several miles I kept passing Mennonites in carriages; the driver would lift a dignified hand in greeting, which I would attempt to return. I think I got the lifting part down. At any rate, it was another hour and a half or so of that to Fennimore, where I stopped for two breakfasts – again featuring blueberry pancakes exceeding my head in diameter, and if you haven’t seen my head it’s one of those long, lantern-jawed Irish deals, I have a hard time finding hats that fit – and then another couple of hours to the city of Dodgeville.

My initial plan had been to roll into Governor Dodge State Park, do a little hiking there, camp, and head home; but once I reached Dodgeville and the head of the Military Ridge trail, it struck me that it was only 1 in the afternoon, and the rest of the way was mostly downhill on trails, with a couple of possible spots to break for the day if I really couldn’t push on. So I kept on going, and ended up home at around twilight: a distance of about 107 miles. That’s my first century, though I feel it was so lackadaisical that it’s hardly worthy of the name.

And so there ended up being no natural history to speak of on that leg of the trip, though the highway did pass through some striking rock-cuts, and there were plenty of butterflies along the trail. I put in my headphones and enjoyed just being out there. When the going got difficult in the last dozen miles or so, I did switch my listening to the heavy inspiration guns: “Northwest Passage”, and the main theme from Pacific Rim. And then I was home, ready to shower, eat, and collapse, in no particular order.

I’ll close out with some of the pictures I didn’t find a place for earlier, and some random thoughts. From Cross Plains, the first morning, this delightful mammoth sculpture at the Ice Age Trail office:
Mammoth sculpture at Ice Age Trail Alliance HQ in Cross Plains WI

A ladybird pupa clinging to a blade of grass, right by my front wheel, at Tower Hill:
Ladybird pupa with bike, Tower Hill State Park

A rock-cut just past the river crossing at Boscobel:
Roadcut on Hwy 60 just outside Boscobel WI

A view towards the lip of Pictured Rock Cave at Wyalusing:
Above Pictured Rock Cave, Wyalusing State Park

and a plaque commemorating the entry of Père Marquette and Louis Joliet – and 5 Métis voyageurs, who are generally not named and not even mentioned by this inscription, but who doubtless did the heavy lifting and navigating – into the Mississippi from the Wisconsin, 300 years and a few weeks before I was born:
Marquette and Joliet commemorated, Wyalusing State Park

All in all, despite some tough bits, it was an excellent trip. If anything went less well than hoped, it’s that really clear nights have been in short supply this summer, meaning that even though I was in fairly dark-sky locations there wasn’t much by way of stargazing to be had. Which is especially sad, given that Wyalusing State Park has its own observatory! But otherwise the weather co-operated, and even the bugs weren’t too bad.

One thing I noticed, though, is that after 2 days of serious riding (60-70 miles), my appetite for adventure on the third day is greatly lessened. Next time I do this, I’ll plan on following every 2 days of hard riding with a down day, probably of 25 miles or less, to relax and recuperate. On that plan, I’m thinking a 350-mile roundtrip over a week, though probably not until next year. Still contemplating possible destinations; possibly the complement to this year’s trip, following the Fox River to Lake Michigan at Green Bay.

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Darwin’s Day

Here I first saw a tropical forest in all its sublime grandeur — nothing but the reality can give any idea how wonderful, how magnificent the scene is. If I was to specify any one thing I should give the pre-eminence to the host of parasitical plants. Your engraving is exactly true, but underrates rather than exaggerates the luxuriance. I never experienced such intense delight. I formerly admired Humboldt, I now almost adore him; he alone gives any notion of the feelings which are raised in the mind on first entering the Tropics.
-letter from Charles Darwin to John Stevens Henslow, 1832

My mother recently sent me a newspaper clipping with a picture of a blue Morpho butterfly, which vividly called to mind my own first sight of a tropical forest, in Monteverde, Costa Rica; before even leaving the property I was staying on I saw a large, iridescent blue Morpho dart out and then fly far away before I even had my camera turned on. An incredible sight. And then, a few steps further on, at my feet marched a column of leafcutter ants, their leaf-fragments bobbing as they walked. I must have watched them for a good half hour.

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Snowstorms on January the twelfth

A great sleepiness came over Frodo; he felt himself sinking fast into a warm and hazy dream. He thought a fire was heating his toes, and out of the shadows on the other side of the hearth he heard Bilbo’s voice speaking. I don’t think much of your diary, he said. Snowstorms on January the twelfth: there was no need to come back to report that!

But I wanted rest and sleep, Bilbo, Frodo answered with an effort…

-Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book II

We are enjoying good conditions here in southeastern Wisconsin for the Aurora Borealis, but we are also “enjoying” pretty extensive cloud cover, so… nothing to report on that front. There has intermittently been some decent stargazing, with a very bright Jupiter and the Great Orion Nebula to be seen. The cloud cover came with a dramatic increase in temperature, leading to rainfall that instantly became sheets of treacherous ice covering the sidewalk.

Speaking of ice, I’ve been enjoying the reports from the 2013 Australasian Antarctic Expedition by the BBC World Service podcast Discovery; yes, the one that got stuck and had to be helicoptered out. The expedition started on the hundredth anniversary of another Australasian Antarctic Expedition, led by Douglas Mawson. His account, The Home of the Blizzard, is available from Project Gutenberg; in it you will find the hair-raising narrative of how Mawson, sole survivor of a disastrous trek, had to claw his way out of a crevasse while all his skin was coming off due to hypervitaminosis A and make his way back to the expedition’s base just to see the ship departing for New Zealand for the winter, and then spend an Antarctic winter in a tiny cabin with several other people. Who not only did not kill or maim one another, but got on fine, diverting themselves with cooking, printing a newspaper, and high-stakes gambling for chocolate.

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We shine a light sometimes

I actually watched the film Europa Report some months ago, but then they took it down from Amazon Instant Video and it wasn’t in a lot of theatres. Which turned writing a review from “hey you should check out this cool thing” to “ha ha I saw this cool thing which you can’t actually watch”, so.. I didn’t do that. But now it’s up on Netflix (or at least, on U.S. Netflix), so I can talk about it with a relatively clear conscience.

It is, indeed, a cool thing. From the opening frame narrative – a press conference – we learn that a SpaceX-esque firm has launched a crewed exploratory mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa; and that something bad has happened to it. From there we pass to the compelling story of the mission proper, put together as if with footage from on-board cameras. This might give the impression of a Blair Witch-esque shaky-cam fest, but in fact effects like that are used very sparingly, and the overall feel is more like a documentary.

That being said there are a fair number of horror tropes deployed. The sound design, in particular, is often claustrophobic and unsettling. Ultimately (and I don’t want to go into too much more detail, because spoilers) it is not a horror film at all; but if I can bring H.P. Lovecraft back on briefly:

The oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

There’s a lot of the unknown in traveling to a world in the outer Solar System. Particularly when things don’t go smoothly, which they don’t. In contrast to the real fear, though, Europa Report sounds a very different note with a repeated line:

Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known… what does your life actually matter?

To me at least this looks back past 2001 (which definitely gets its shout-outs), 100 years back to Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. It’s not always remembered that one of the factors distinguishing Scott’s goals from Roald Amundsen’s is that Scott built doing real science into his plans from the word go. When Scott’s tent was found, alongside the dead explorers were 35 pounds of fossils, which they had carried until the end.

People tell me that Europa Report‘s physics and engineering are largely credible, though I don’t have the background to call shenanigans even if they aren’t. They seem believable, and the story doesn’t posit any unlikely new technologies. The astronauts seem like real astronauts: skilled and dedicated without being hyper-competent Spaceman Spiffs who never get irritated with each other or make mistakes. The performances were pretty solid, I thought; apart from Embeth Davidtz in the frame narrative, Sharlto (District 9) Copley was the only name I recognized, but everyone was good, particularly Anamaria Marinca as pilot Rosa Dasque. The spaceship’s crew was reasonably diverse, so kudos for that too.

That Europa is a frontier still lying in wait was emphasized by a recent Planetary Radio episode, which interviewed one of the founders of the Destination: Europa initiative; they advocate for missions to Europa, beginning with an orbiter, the romantically-named Europa Clipper. Since I’m neither a scientist who can send them interesting material to use, nor a U.S. citizen who can write my Congresscritter, there’s not much I can do beyond writing a blog post to say that they rock and you should go check it out, on the off chance that you do fit either or both of those descriptions.

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To follow knowledge like a sinking star

For reals, this time: Voyager 1 has entered interstellar space. In another 300 years it should reach the inner edge of the Oort cloud, assuming there is an Oort cloud; but all instruments will have gone silent by only 2025. Still, ten years of data from the interstellar medium, even at 160 baud, is a lot.

.. but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

-Tennyson, “Ulysses”

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