Monday, November 23, 2015

The River in Books, Books on the River

Following on the spate of media coverage inspired by the 2013 Nobody’s River Project, the Amur basin and its headwaters have now found their way to National Public Radio, which reviewed Dominic Zeigler’s Black Dragon River this past weekend.

This isn’t the first book to chronicle a long journey down the Amur. I’ve read at least two others—one was published in 1860, the other in 2005.

NPR’s review was a bit garbled on the topic of fish: “The river’s waters swarm with life. The Amur is home to a hundred-twenty fish specimens, ‘a primal soup, thick with wanton life and death. Myriad fish gorge on the tapioca pears of fish eggs caught up and down by the current.’”

My guess is that they meant species, not specimens, and pearls, not pears. But who knows about “caught up and down”?

For more on Amur fish and fishing, I recommend two books available free online: Fishes of Mongolia, underwritten by the World Bank, and Amur Fish: Wealth and Crisis, published by the World Wildlife Fund.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

More Things We Can Learn from the Bottle

While preparing lunch one day on the river, I couldn’t help but notice the desire of these moths for our bottle of wine. (An imported Argentinian red but, then again, all wines in Mongolia are imported.)

Turns out that a technique called wine-roping is well known among moth enthusiasts. If any of you are reading this, would you kindly confirm that these specimens are Red Underwings?

Monday, August 10, 2015

The View from Tangier

Since moving to Morocco last month, we have spent many hours contemplating the view from our third-floor perch. White storks often fly above the clay-tiled roofs, sometimes landing on nearby television antennas, where they exhibit a remarkable sense of balance in the fickle winds.

Like some fortunate humans, they are migrants, able to cross between Europe and Africa at will.

According to James Edward Budgett-Meakin, author of Land of the Moors: A Comprehensive Description (1901), “As a slayer of serpents the stork is held sacred, and if he fails to return any year to his accustomed haunt, some evil is feared.”

In The Land of an African Sultan: Travels in Morocco (1889), Walter B. Harris wrote this about storks:  “They are men, say the Moors, who have come from islands far away to the west, to see Morocco. Like all the world, they know there is no other land to compare to it, and so they even abandon their outward form of men to come and see it.”

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Why I Haven't Quit My Day Job

Whenever I’m away from my desk, it seems that the world is determined to show me strange and beautiful things. An albino sea turtle, for one, gleaming like white gold beneath the blue water. And a brown booby, who nabbed a flying fish off a wave-crest as I watched from the kayak.

When a juvenile frigate bird tried to steal the booby’s fish away, I paddled over to offer support. The frigate fled, and then the booby enjoyed its meal, as well as (apparently) my company, eventually settling on this buoy to pose and preen.

A few days later, doubting my vision of the gilded turtle in the middle of copyediting a book about J. Alden Weir, the American Impressionist, I took the time for a quick search online (our family calls it, “consulting the oracle”). As it turns out, albino turtles, while uncommon, are not unheard of, although it’s more likely that the one I saw was leucistic. That’s one of my favorite things about the Web: what you might, in some less enlightened age, have been tempted to call hallucination can now be labeled as probable sighting.

Another of the fun things about the Web is that it brings nonstop news of success: the glad tidings of friends and acquaintances, as well as the exploits of impossibly lucky or talented humans who you will never meet.

On the other hand, if you are one of the untold millions striving to find a voice (and a paycheck), the continuous awareness of other folks’ book deals and movie options might leave you feeling like a chronic underachiever. At those moments, it can help to remember that the mere attempt to create carries its own rewards (sometimes long deferred, sometimes completely unfathomable).

Though it’s scant consolation, I try to remind myself that each rejection letter means that I now have one more reader than I did a minute ago. Not a satisfied reader, but hey, you can’t please everybody. The important thing—for my own sense of being a person among other people—is to keep plugging away. I don’t insist on becoming Meb Keflezighi every time I set out on a morning run, so why feel unhappy about not being Jim Harrison whenever I sit down at the keyboard?

The fact is that only a rare few get paid to play. The rest of us, as Gillian Welch sings, “do it anyway.”  Here are links for a handful of stories that found publication this spring, none of them in print, and none for pay . . .

• a few thoughts on aspirational flyfishing photography at Tail magazine

• tips for making the most of a trip to Mongolia at On the Fly magazine

• an update on our conservation work in Orvis News

• humor for proofreaders or mathematicians (your choice) at the Science Creative Quarterly

• and a brief meditation on zen and the art of nonrefundable airfares at We Said Go Travel.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Another 36 Hours in Lisbon

At first, Seth Sherwood’s recent guide to Portugal’s capital city left me feeling as if I’d missed out on something. After all, our family had enjoyed several days and nights there in December—without experiencing many of the author’s designated highlights. In fact, we only managed two: the riverside running path that passes through the grand Praça do Comércio, and the gallery at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga that contains Bosch’s mind-altering Temptations of Saint Anthony.

Upon further reflection, however, I wouldn’t have missed any of the treasures that we bumbled into during our walks around the city. Here’s an abbreviated version of our visit.

Friday / 4:00 p.m.
To get a good view of everything Lisbon has to offer, begin your visit at Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte. A miradouro is the Portuguese version of a scenic viewpoint, and Lisbon’s hills provide several great ones.

Friday / 8:00 p.m.
Our home base was a third-story walkup in the Alfama District, the oldest part of the city. There are many interesting-looking places to eat between the castle and the river, but after strolling up and down a few cobblestoned streets, we chose Bistrô Gato Pardo, at Rua de São Vicente 10. It’s an intimate and comfortable space, and each plate manages that rare achievement of disarming simplicity: beautiful to contemplate, wonderful to taste. We felt perfectly content to linger through a long dinner, two bottles of wine, dessert and coffee. Ask Mario and Werner to tell a few stories about the Sardine Festival (when the restaurant closes in the interests of self-preservation).

Saturday / 12:00 noon
After a morning run or walk, make your way to Portugalia’s cervejaria, a brewery turned beer hall at Rua São Caetano 4. Although the menu offers a number of the usual suspects, we recommend the house specialty: Bacalhau Bras (the half portion was enough for two of us). Its robust flavor of salt cod, potatoes, and olives is accompanied equally well by a glass of Bohemia or Imperial Branca.

Saturday / 2:00 p.m.
Confronted with a daunting list of worthwhile museums, we chose the one that seemed most emblematic of Lisbon itself: the tile museum. The Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Rua da Madre de Deus 4, is housed in a former convent whose sixteenth-century buildings provide a suitably meandering home for a wide-ranging collection. Although some taxi drivers may insist that the word azulejo comes from the Portuguese for “blue,” it more likely derives from the Arabic al zuleycha, which means “small polished stone.”

Saturday / 8:00 p.m.
Mini Bar Teatro, Rua António Maria Cardoso 58, is one of chef José Avillez’s five restaurants in Lisbon. We found the place on Friday, when it was already fully booked for dinner, and literally begged for a reservation for the following night. The food is inventive and showy, with foie gras masquerading as a Ferrero Rocher and a brilliant green sphere that transforms itself into a caiparinha in your mouth. The theater theme also extends to the traditionally liquid cocktails, which have names like Godot and Hairspray. After a few of these we laughed so hard that one of our party fell from a chair.

Sunday / 10:00 a.m.
By now you’ve probably tried at least a few of Lisbon’s many distinctive pastries, including the egg tarts known as pastéis de nata or, if you go directly to the source, pastéis de Belém. One of the city’s better versions is served at Versailles, an atmospheric café at Avenida Republica 15A. Although you’ll see locals happily standing and eating at the long counter, it’s worth waiting for a seat under the elegantly high ceiling.

Sunday / 1:00 p.m.
If you can’t leave Lisbon without at least a few souvenirs, then stop at A Arte da Terra, Rua Augusto Rosa 40. The shop is housed in the former stables of the city’s cathedral, just downhill from the Roman ruins, and the cobbled floor beneath your feet has been trod by both humans and horses for what has no doubt been donkeys of years. Individual displays of fine handicrafts are arranged in the stone mangers, and the retro tins of Portuguese sardines seem even more appealing when viewed beneath a centuries-old vault of brick.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The State of the Fishery

From the perspective of someone who has been obsessed with fish-catching since childhood, the week’s news was mixed. There were stories about efforts to reduce dynamite fishing, on the unintended consequences to fish populations of attempts to combat malaria, and on the use of satellites to identify seafood pirates.

The view from the kayak, however, was truly amazing. On Saturday morning, it looked like this (for comparison’s sake, that’s a size-12 Simms sandal on the right):

In Florida, these fish are called dolphin; on our home island of Aruba, dorado; but they are better known on menus by their Hawaiian name: mahi-mahi. 

Back in the mid-1980s—when I worked as the mate on a charter boat and moonlighted as a tropical-fish collector and commercial fisherman—we often caught dozens of dolphinfish a day, sometimes hundreds. I was certainly grateful for them at the time, with the precise level of that gratitude varying by the rate we received at the local fish house: usually between $0.79 and $1.39 per pound.

Even considering the greater worth of those Reagan-era dollars, such prices seem criminally low for a commodity as valuable as fresh fish. Which is why the good fortune I experienced Saturday occupies an entirely different range of the spectrum.

Though I release most of what I catch here on Aruba, I resolved to kill this dorado and honor its death. With wasabi and soy sauce, lime juice and cilantro, panko crumbs and curry paste.

When you only have one fish to clean, you have the luxury of using it all—much like dressing your own ducks or butchering your own deer. After skinning and fileting this fish, I saved the roe, the collar, and the head.

I enjoyed the roe pan-fried for breakfast, with stewed tomatoes from Sarah’s container garden, avocado, and toast. The collar was cooked in the Japanese izakaya style, with grated ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, and mirin. And the head, of course, became Singapore fish-head curry.

Most North Americans will never get to savor these dishes because they won’t be able to find the appropriate parts of the fish in the market. But what if the trend toward artisanal food spread to seafood providers, in the same way that craft beer and real bread can now be found from Vermont to Montana?

Even if the movement never makes it out of Brooklyn or Palo Alto, a few more fish-obsessed types might find it easier to both make a living and show respect for the creatures they pursue. And that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing . . .

Monday, January 5, 2015

Happy Is the Man

For some odd reason, it’s often easier to be grateful in the first week of January than in the third week. Today I’m grateful that the Web is like the Yellowstone in summer flood, roiling with debris, reaching high into the willows to reclaim the previous year’s (or decade’s) parched husks.

I wrote “Happy Is the Man” in 2004, while we were living in the Paradise Valley, and modeled the title character after an angler I met on Western New York’s Oak Orchard Creek. You can read the story on Big Sky Journal’s site, with photos by Ken Takata and Barry and Cathy Beck.