[f_minor] Happy GG Birthday -- & another GG milestone in about a month

Robert Merkin bobmerk at earthlink.net
Sun Sep 26 18:04:37 EDT 2010

Oh yes Happy Birthday! 

In about a month there's another milestone of Glenn Gould's achievements. Our obvious pilgrimage is to Toronto, but the cusp of October/November is the annual polar bear migration through Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay, and the train trip from Winnipeg -- 2 1/2 days in each direction through the unimaginably vast wilderness -- was the trip of the remarkable CBC radio documentary "The Idea of North."

I took the trip. You should, too. 

And now for a new and sad reason. While I would have wished that Glenn Gould were with us to celebrate his 78th birthday, if he had to leave us early, it has spared him something he never suspected, and my trip never hinted at.

These are likely the last years of polar bears in the wild, our last chance to see the world's largest and most successful land predator in the circumpolar niche in which it fit so perfectly. In the '70s, the circumpolar nations imposed important restrictions on the ways humans hunt polar bears, and for a few decades we believed this human initiative had secured their place in the wild. That belief appears to have been tragically naive and inaccurate. 

As the icecap melts and these remarkable swimmers drown trying to make it to an ice cake miles beyond even their stamina -- they'll eat anything, but hunting seals on the icepack is their evolved specialty -- the next and final phase of polar bears will be in our zoos. I admire our finer modern zoos. But we have failed in our stewardship of the world's animals when there is no place left for them but zoos.

Here, in a translation by D.C. Barranco, is what Rainer Maria Rilke saw and felt of a caged panther at the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris:

>From seeing only bars, his seeing is exhausted.
It holds nothing, nothing more.

To him, the world is bars,
100,000 bars, and behind the bars, nothing.

The lithe swinging of his rhythmic, easy stride
circles an inner hub -- a dance of energy,
'round a central point.

Inside, a gigantic Will stands stunned and numb.

Only, at times, the curtains rise.

Silently, a vision enters,
slips though the focused silence of his shoulders,
reaches his heart,
and dies. 

Even in a panther's healthiest wild environment, it's unlikely, in a lifetime of trying, that you'll ever see one -- the next day's pawprints are the best gift a panther might give you. (Second best gift: skat.)

But at the end of the wonderful train trip a month from now, you can (usually safely) be just a meter from the snout of a male adolescent. They're waiting for the Bay icepack to freeze, so they can hunt seals. 

When these quite brilliant animals know they have no chance to catch you, they wrestle each other and seem quite bored and uninterested in you.

If you're foolish enough to give them the slightest chance, you will, briefly, see an entirely different polar bear. Inuit know that while they hunt the polar bear, the polar bear thinks it's hunting Inuit, and most of the time the polar bear was right. 

By all means, drag a child or three along. This will thrust living witness of polar bears in the wild to the end of our century.

This invitation to take GG's train ride has seemed very misleadingly downbeat and somber. 

For me, it was the Adventure of a Lifetime, non-stop Thrills & Fun from the moment I boarded the train in Toronto to the moment I returned to Toronto. 

And the human contact -- the part of the Adventure Glenn Gould composed for "The Idea of North" -- well, you ain't never been among such interesting, amazing human beings before, both the Canadian locals, Euros and First Peoples, and travellers from every corner of Earth. Bring every language you can limp along in, and prepare to learn entirely new ones, and their entirely new alphabets.

At the hardest places to reach, you always find the most interesting people. You might find yourself sitting next to -- well, Glenn Gould! Deep in the night I had the vivid sensation of sitting next to him. We were both grinning from ear to ear, and he was humming.

At night on the return, I was invited to ride in the engine, and when we approached an at-grade crossing, the engineer told me to toot the horn.

Happy Birthday!


Der Panther

Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille -
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

-- Rainer Maria Rilke, 6.11.1902, Paris 
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