Saturday, August 29, 2015

Point Lobos: Nature's Healing Power

Nothing refreshes the mind and cleanses the soul more than wilderness, be it the wilderness of the woods or of the shore. Point Lobos, a California State Nature Reserve about eighty miles south of San Jose and covering approximately 9 square miles, is one of those rare places where visitors find a merging of the woods and the shore, timeless trails lined by ancient pines and colonies of seals and cormorants on rocks shaped by wind and surf over millennia.

It is difficult for any photographer to comprehensively capture the haunting beauty of Point Lobos across the seasons, although Edward Weston, one of the earliest (1886-1958) and among the elect, tried. His lyrical black-and-white prints of unusual rock formations at the reserve have inspired scores of nature lovers to flock to the California coastline over the years.

With a summer of record-breaking temperatures in drought-stricken California winding down, I recently found myself approaching the Pacific from a pinecone-strewn trail at the Reserve.
The tide was coming in, watched over by a preternaturally calm gull poised on a rock. Colorful pebbles, green, brown, white and red, glistened in the sun, as did pink and white corals shaped like miniature trees.

Most striking were the tide pools reflecting bits of the sky and filled with the flower-like sentient anemones that closed and opened every time some seawater food got inside it while surging waves crashed on the rocks around them, sending white spray skyward.

Hermit crabs seemed to appear from nowhere, some falling awkwardly trying to scale the slippery slopes of the rocks. Others met headlong only to sidle away in opposite directions. Snails were out in force as well, crawling from nooks and crannies to approach the tide pools. Limpets, barnacles, and starfish used their suction-like holdfast to add to the diversity of the shore. With each wave, the starfish seemed to change its location.

The predator-prey relationship that had evolved over millennia was in full exhibit everywhere you looked. The tiny creatures looked fragile but there was an element of resiliency and fierce fight for survival in them that was palpable.

A tangled forest of kelp and rockweed farther out sank and surfaced as the tidal surge washed over them. A flock of gulls wheeled over them. Next to the kelp was an oystercatcher, a real work of art. Its deep-black body, bright red bill and yellow feet made it look both pre-historic and ultra-modern. It was feeding on the ocean flotsam that had washed up the shore and emitted a piercing cry that stopped me cold in my track when I tried to approach it. I did the only brave thing I could do: I quietly withdrew.

In a rock island farther out in the sea, saw hundreds of birds preening and, well, socializing. And farther beyond were seals talking up a storm in their rocky habitat, a combination of grunts and exclamations, punctuated by what seemed uncannily like the sound of laughter.
As I stood back to take the whole elemental scene in, I smelled it, the pine-scented breeze wafting in from the ancient grove nearby, and I thought: The music of the forest is lapping at the shore of eternity!

The sun moved across the sky with an urgency rarely witnessed on a normal day. And when it set in a blaze of yellow and crimson, with a flock of pelicans flying in formation across its golden orb, I knew I had gotten what I had hoped for: the gift of a fresh perspective and the appreciating the blessings of being alive.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Movie Review: "Mr. Holmes: The Man Beyond the Myth"

Creative reimagining of the canon is an art unto itself.

Such is the case with the movie, “Mr. Holmes: The Man Beyond the Myth.” Based on the book, “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin (1985), it explores the life of Sherlock Holmes in retirement as he raises bees in a farm upon the South Downs in Sussex in the south coast of England.

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), creator of the wildly popular detective, wrote fifty-six short stories and four novels (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear) centered on his super sleuth.

But when Doyle ‘exiled’ Holmes to his apiary (The Blanched SoldierThe Lion's Mane and His Last Bow), it only kindled the imagination of writers convinced that age could not possibly dim this prodigious mind.

The stories in the canon suggest that Holmes would have been about 50 years old when he retired in late 1903. The movie opens with Holmes (played by Ian McKellen in an  Oscar-worthy performance) pushing 93 in 1947 in post-WWII England. His mind is as agile as ever but his memory is failing him. That explains his recent visit to Japan where he went in search of the elusive “prickly ash,” a plant with alleged ingredients to spruce up the memory, the ginkgo biloba of its time. He and his Japanese guide (Hiroyuki Sanada, who has a mystery of his own that he wants Holmes to solve) discover the plant in the bomb-blasted ruins of Hiroshima. Holmes’s physician derisively calls the plant “Ashly prick” but is unable to convince Holmes of its uselessness.

Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney, also brilliant) is Holmes’s long-suffering housekeeper, burdened by her gifted son Roger (Milo Parker, gifted actor indeed!) who helps Holmes with the upkeep of the bees and shows all the signs of a budding Sherlock Holmes in his own right. The pair’s verbal back-and-forth can carry the movie for those for whom a riposte goes farther than an edge-of-the–seat car chase.

Roger and Holmes run circles around Mrs. Munro with their observations, their air-tight logical inferences. “She doesn’t even know how to read,” says Roger in an outburst of cruelty that earns him a rebuke from Holmes. The practical Mrs. Munro wants to move out for the sake of her son’s future, a possibility that distresses both Holmes and Roger. “Exceptional children are the product of unremarkable parents,” Holmes arrogantly tells his housekeeper, indifferent to the cruelty of the remark. But he redeems himself by also telling Roger that “a good son always does what a mother asks him to.” Holmes also makes clear his distaste for people who “cloak cowardice in flags of sacrifice” and who does not wish, particularly at this stage in his life, to be a “last resort for lunatics out there.”

The story revolves around an unfinished case that Holmes investigated thirty years ago, of a devoted wife (Ann Kelmot, played by Hattie Morahan) whose miscarriages left her, and her husband Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy), in misery and suspicion. When finally Holmes takes the mystery to its logical conclusion, it leads not to a sense of satisfaction but to a despair unknown to the First Detective who commanded mass adulation in his prime. “Human nature is a mystery,” says a rueful and chastened Holmes, “that logic alone cannot illuminate.”

What of the man beyond the myth? Earlier in the movie, Holmes informs an incredulous Roger that Dr. Watson, his quintessential sidekick (who had “at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association” as Holmes recalls in The Blanched Soldier), was not beyond taking poetic license in transcribing his adventures, including associating the iconic detective with the hat, the pipe and the cigar. He wishes to correct the embellishments of Watson who “turned me into fiction.” When Holmes struggles to recall the case of Ann Kelmot, it is Roger who supplies the crucial link that allows him to reconstruct the tragedy that unfolded so many years ago. As to why the case haunts him, Holmes tells his young protégé that “one shouldn’t leave this world without a sense of completion.”

Holmes’s enigmatic brother, Mycroft Holmes (The Greek Interpreter, in which Holmes confided to Watson that “If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an arm-chair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived”) makes an appearance to help viewers tidy up the case of Holmes’s Japanese guide. There are also allusions to Jack the Ripper and, of course, to the fearsome and ferocious Hounds of the Baskervilles.

There is a subtle, and it turns out, telling difference between the sting of a bee and that of a wasp. When Holmes comes upon the seemingly lifeless body of Roger on his estate with angry stings all over his body, his first instinct is to summon an ambulance before informing the boy’s mother. In anguish, the mother accuses Holmes of exploiting the boy and not really caring for him. “But I do,” laments Holmes as he breaks down before the mother in a heart-breaking scene of pain and guilt, remorse and repentance.

At the confluence of art and science lies the power of observation. This is what saves a distraught Holmes, already reeling from an “outbreak of mortality,” as he suddenly realizes what really happened to Roger now fighting for his life in the hospital.

“What will happen to the bees when you are gone,” Roger had asked Holmes earlier. That question helps Holmes figure out the chain of events that ensued when Roger went to check in on the bees dying mysteriously in their hives.

Curious? Then consider seeing this poignant, cerebral movie.