Monday, March 21, 2011

The Cumberland Island Armadillos

Jennifer's original photograph circa 1990. Clint, Mark, me, Jeffery, and Ted prepare for a Cumberland Island adventure. After seeing this pic Clint captioned it as "The Cumberland Island Armadillos sans Jennifer." The name stuck.

I’ve mentioned the Cumberland Island Armadillos throughout this blog. In a nutshell, they are collection of good friends, best friends in fact, that all met during a strange assortment of backpacking and camping trips through the years. Almost all of the ‘Dillos (as we affectionately refer to ourselves) have been to Cumberland Island at one time or another. A ‘Dillo that has never been to the island is known as “dillotaunt”, a designation that is not considered secondary but for missing the experience of the island itself which is, of course, uniquely profound. Everyone is included equally in our fellowship. Going there is not a requirement as long as you can appreciate the peace and sense of magic of those who have been to Cumberland Island in your own way through other, similar intimate experiences.

The group has now grown considerably in size but in the early days it was a much more exclusive club or, rather, we were all scattered and didn’t know one another yet. Jennifer had been to the island several times before we married in 1988. She and I honeymooned there, staying at Stafford Beach, a three-mile hike from the ferry dock. We read the southern novel Raney to one another and spent a lot of time upon a 13-mile span of white beach looking east into the Atlantic Ocean. We were alone on the beach. Gazing about three-miles southward you could see small collections of dotted people. A larger cluster was vaguely visible. That was the Sea Camp area which is the hot spot for ‘Dillo adventurers today, apparently. Looking to the left, northward, there are no dots at all. It was all sand curving gently into the surf until it vanished over the horizon.

Jennifer and I were the only two people on the beach within many miles. To feel that space. To Be in the surf, the foam, the saltiness, feet wet from a bit of wading, windy but warm, a few gulls about, the sun so bright, a dot to someone else, in such a vast openness. This feature of Cumberland Island allows you to get into the “12-mile stare” very quickly. I blogged about on the 12-mile stare after our trip to Destin in 2009. But, what allows the island to surpass a beautiful beach resort like Destin is that within a few steps you can take the stare state of Being into a live oak forest with birds and animal life, almost jungle-like. A few steps further might take you, depending on where you are on island, to an inter-coastal marshland teeming with larger shorebirds and alligators. A change of scenery whilst in the 12-mile stare shows you how to Be that way in other places, if still close to the island. Perhaps, beyond.

Those who can manage to Be like that I would call ‘Dillomeisters. The masters of the transference of the 12-mile stare. This year and last the ‘Dillos stayed on the island at Sea Camp. I did not make either trip but I have visited Sea Camp a couple of times while waiting on the ferry at the end of a trip. Cold showers are there, a tent camping luxury. Rickshaws help you lug in the mighty coolers and heavy camping supplies. The backpacking experience has been traded for more creature comforts and relaxation under the awning of live oaks adorned with great palmettos. For years after our honeymoon, Jennifer and I returned to the island annually, each time taking a slightly different assortment of friends. Generally speaking, however, in those early years the ‘Dillos consisted of Clint, Mark, Ted, Jeffery, Jennifer and myself, with Jennifer’s brother sometimes accompanying us. 1989. Left to right: Jeffery, Jeff (Jen's bro), Clint, and Jennifer. Hiking an open field section of the main road that runs more or less up the middle of the island.

The journey to Cumberland Island back then was (and still is today) the ‘Dillo version of Mecca. Life was not complete without a pilgrimage to visit the island. In those earlier years only 250 visitors were allowed on the island on any given day. The only way to get there was by catching the ferry out of St. Marys across the street from the classic Riverview Hotel, our resting place both the night before catching the ferry and the evening after our return from several days on the island. The hotel offered a nice restaurant, a cozy bar, and an old southern coastal charm that sets the right attitude for the trip.

Of course, before arriving at St. Marys there is the immense desolation known as “south Georgia” that one must go through. We’ve taken varying routes through the years. One can journey into the no-man’s land of I-16 toward Savannah and experience hour after hour of nothing but bland, featureless pine trees owned primarily by timber companies. The other route takes your down I-75 almost to the Florida line and then over a two-lane road by way of the Okefenokee Swamp.That route is not much more exciting than coming down from Savannah. Either way there is not much to do on the long journey down but to yack and joke with one another. Amazingly, some rather profound philosophical insights were attained during the long drives to and from St. Marys, as well as while camping in the wilderness of the island.

Only a small amount of ‘Dillo philosophy actually exists, within my experience anyway. One tenet is that “You can drag more than you can push.” This is not only a truth of physics it was decreed by the ‘Dillos as a metaphysical truth as well. Our ideas are more or less group collected, often during feeding frenzies in camp. But, Ted led the charge with that particular ‘Dillo certainty, as an inspiration for life burdens, if you can't carry to load sometimes then pull it.
The “Law of Pee” states that when traveling the importance of every other consideration varies with the degree to which one has to urinate. At some point, urination trumps all. The “Law of Pee” was proclaimed suddenly like the burning bush, in a way, somewhere on a trip down I-16 when I was a passenger in one car and Jennifer pulled up next to us in the other vehicle our group was venturing to the Island in that year. She held up a torn page from a spiral notebook that simply contained a very large, somewhat embellished with doodles of various kinds, capital letter “P”. She was laughing and grimacing at the same time. The proper translation of that was, of course, stop at the next exit (which could be 30-40 miles away yet in I-16) I have to urinate. The discussion that followed lead to the proclamation of the Law.

Our greatest insight, however, came upon the island itself. In our sometimes more than slightly inebriated group discussions about life and the tranquil beauty of the island itself, we came up with the concept of the “suck factor”. The theory goes roughly like this…Everything sucks, but it all sucks in degrees. A suck factor 10, for example, is really sucky – involving injury or illness or some inescapable calamity of life. On the other end of the spectrum is suck factor 1. At the level of 1, everything only sucks to a barely detectable degree. You are feeling fine, at peace, life is flowing along, and you are only troubled by the sucky fact that you have to get up and move occasionally or that you have to leave a place that you have just discovered so fulfilling. The suck factor remains an understanding among original ‘Dillos to this day. In phone conversations you will often hear “Oh, it’s about a suck factor 3 or 4” in response to an inquiry about how things are going. Jennifer sometimes posts the suck factor update on her Facebook page. 3 or 4 is considered in the “normal” suck range. And so forth.

Non-metaphysical ideas abound in ‘Dillo history as well. One of my contributions was the yellow-breasted whupeefu#ker. This is a fading piece of ‘Dillo lore as newer ‘Dillos bring in their own fine influences on the culture. At any rate, the yellow-breasted whupeefu#ker came as a spontaneous, Dionysian utterance under the effects of Wild Turkey 101 and other sorted spirits. Jennifer, her brother, and Ted were all discussing the plentiful birds around us. I knew very little about birds at the time. Even though I had grown up a farm boy my rational understanding of birds was quite na├»ve. Jennifer and her dad have taught me much about birds in our married life together. Anyway, all the seemingly endless technical talk of various bird calls, and appearances, and subtle differences drove me to burst forth from my ignorant silence to ask: “Well, what about the yellow-breasted whuppeefu#ker? What kind of sound does it make?” To which everyone laughed. The whupeefu#ker remains elusive. Each trip has its own distinctive chapter in the collective ‘Dillo Cumberland Island unconscious.

Once Jeffery accompanied Ted, Mark, Clint, Jennifer and myself (it is the pic featured at the top of this blog). Jeffery carried a PVC-built contraption he had invented with wide plastic tires to carry his pack and supplies for him as he guided it with two poles up the road. Mark and Clint joked about the simple nature of the somewhat outlandish and unruly design, doubting it would work. Indeed, it only lasted a couple of hours. But, the fault lied not in Jeffery’s design so much as his playfulness at making the contraption cut donuts in the sandy road. The poles broke at their critical junction and the mechanism was rendered steerless. Jeffery comically carried the apparatus on his backpack virtually the entire hike.
Jennifer resting on a tarp during a water break. You can see Jeffery in the background trying to repair his pack-hauling contraption.

Perhaps my favorite trip was the year Jennifer and I went with only Ted and Jeffery. We took a second ferry that then ran on weekends from Sea Camp Dock up to the old plantation style estate of Plum Orchard. We toured the elegance of the estate house, leaving our backpacks outside. Then we headed up to Brickhill Bluff, staying two nights and using Brickhill as a staging place for forays into the northern part of the island. We visited Lake Whitney, a fresh-water lake right on the dunes with the white beach literally spilling into its tannic waters. We also saw the little slave church where JFK, Jr. married, but this was years before his marriage.

My most recent trip to Cumberland Island was in 2001. (Click the Google Earth map of island at left taken from 5 miles altitude.) That was a larger group that included Jennifer, myself, Jeffery and his then-wife, Clint and his then-wife, and Mark. We spent one night at Yankee Paradise, hiked to Hickory Hill, and spent more time on the beach, ending up back at Stafford Beach where Jennifer and I had honeymooned with the place practically to ourselves 13 years earlier (now 23 today). There we reclined in hammocks, told jokes, partied, ate, slept, went for walks, read, got quiet, punctuated by rambunctious moments of high spirits. As always the beach at Stafford was an awesome touchstone.

I hiked back to the ferry dock quickly from Stafford. I usually am faster than other packers – or used to be anyway. I like getting back a bit early before the late-afternoon ferry back to St. Marys (and the hot shower and seafood feast waiting for you back at the Riverview). This gave me some time to explore the Dungeness part of the island, which is a thing unto itself, concentrated near the isle’s southern tip. Here lie the exquisite ruins of a former aristocracy that used the island as winter vacation home and hunting resort in another age. It is here that human history is most obvious and to be appreciated on the island.

Jennifer’s down there this week with a dozen other ‘Dillos, some of whom I’ve never even met. I’m being Mr. Mom. Last year was the first time any of the “core” ‘Dillos had returned to Cumberland Island since the 2001 trip. A few years before that Jennifer went with a professional photography friend of hers for a wife-only trip. So, this marks her third time back since I’ve been there. But, when she returns she will paint me vivid recollections of what it was like to be there, and I can feel it with a mental imagery, draw upon my store of experience, and Be there again.

Consider yourself alone on a beach, walking back west through a robust stretch of natural dunes, grasses, the sound of the waves rescinding, then you hear birds, and you walk down into a forest from the top of a dune that is pushing into the forest. Some of the live oaks are partially buried in a minutely wind-shifting dune. You walk out of the acutely leaning tree tops into the forest floor. You may see boar or Ferrell deer or wild horses or panted buntings or, of course, armadillos. Then, image that you cannot hear the sea any longer and you are walking through the forest, the canopy alive with birds. After a time, the trees gradually become shrubbier. The sky opens up a bit now and then and then suddenly all now. You are standing on the edge of a coastline, looking from this broken islet across several miles of marsh and inlet waterways at the solid landmass of Georgia. Herons fly. It will be a magnificent water-reflected sunset. Now realize you felt all that in the span of a 45-minute walk or so. An amazing thing to experience. I can’t tell you why, but in such moments you live as great as any king that ever graced this earth.

A pic of me catching the sunrise from an early trip to Cumberland Island.

Late Note: Click here to see an early website design by me (neglected since, a snap-shot in Time) featuring the 'Dillos Adventures as of August 2000.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Wave of 2011

We all are collections of little prejudices. Here is one of mine. People who think God made the Earth roughly 6,000 years ago, as the chronology of the Bible more or less factualizes, are stupid. It is difficult for me to respect them.

I work with a person who thinks this way. He rages against how Carbon-14 dating has been “disproven” and how it is clear “from studies” that these old primate fossils have nothing to do with human beings. I respect him as a fellow manager and he is often a fun guy. But his religion makes him stupid.

We know the Pacific Ocean is shrinking and the Atlantic Ocean is growing wider at a rate of about one inch per year. The movement of the continents has been happening for hundreds of millions of years. We know this because, among other reasons, the fossil record indicates the landmasses of South America and Africa were once united.

It took about 130 million of years for the Atlantic Ocean to form.

To say this could have happened in 6,000 years (or, even more stupid, to argue it is an absurd rationalization to believe in such an expanse of time) is simply to give too much weight to the requirements of belief. Belief is the last place to seek objectivity. The Bible is not the infallible Word of God. Although a genuine source of spiritual inspiration and wisdom of a sort it is clearly mistaken in tracing the generations back to Adam and Eve. You realize the story of Adam and Eve is a myth don’t you? The story is part of a wider mythology of the Ancient Near East. Invented despite the fact that it might contain more truth than tale, but not in the Judeo-Christian sense.

Now and then, plate tectonics cause the Earth itself to shift or jolt. Where the plates are moving in opposite directions there are periodic shifting earthquakes. Where the the plates directly push into one another the Earth “pops” or jolts.

A jolting earthquake hit Japan this past Friday. At 8.9 on the Richter scale it is one of the strongest ever measured. The Eurasian Plate gave way to the force of the Pacific Plate and a large section of the ocean floor suddenly buckled, the Pacific ending up descending beneath the Eurasian, causing the latter to snap upward. This was very near Japan, off the coast of Honshu.

The sudden movement of enormous magnitude (far greater than, say, the strongest nuclear weapon – humankind can destroy the earth but we cannot create anything as powerful as what happened near Japan last Friday) caused a deadly tsunami that rammed into Japan with extremely violent force. Massive tidal flooding was added to the great earthquake itself.

The result was a national disaster for Japan. Current estimates are that over 10,000 people may have died as a result of the one-two punch of quake and wave. Damage was done to some of Japan’s nuclear power plants and authorities are scrambling to contain a partial meltdown at one reactor. Many people have been treated for radiation exposure. The unstable nuclear plant situation in Japan remains serious as a third reactor explosion was reported late today. If a true nuclear meltdown occurs this national tragedy will become global in its economic scope.

Some of the raw footage of the event is spell-binding. Docks, boats, buildings, hundreds of vehicles, entire coastal areas - all swept away suddenly by a gigantic onslaught of water. A tide of bodies is washing up on what remains of the shoreline.

On the other hand, the part of the split tsunami that ventured away from Japan into the Pacific Ocean found almost no land mass. The Hawaiian Islands were the nearest to the brunt of the wave. Only minor damage was reported there. The rest of this violent force largely dissipated into the deep waters of the Pacific. By the time the wave reached the western coast of America it was a largely spent force. However damaging, these were only energy sapped tsunami ripples.

To consider, not the damage, but the almost cosmic force that caused the earthquake and tsunami is to see things as they are. These plates upon which the landmass of the earth more or less floats are in subtle but perpetual motion. Occasionally, the force is enough to cause faster than usual changes. These are inevitable consequences of living on the Earth. Our home is alive and it quakes.

Fortunately, it seems that this event will not equal the loss of life that occured in the 2004 tsunami. Over 230,000 human beings throughout 14 countries in the south Pacific and Indian Ocean perished then. But, in terms of magnitude, property damage, and possible nuclear contamination, the Wave of 2011 just might surpass 2004. The quake itself was the strongest ever recorded in Japan and one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since 1900. It was devastating enough to actually shift the Earth on its axis by about 25 centimeters.

To me, such force is almost unimaginable. Earthquakes occur thousands of times a year all over the globe. As I mentioned, it comes with the territory of living on Earth. On average, earthquakes of a magnitude over 8 only occur once per year, though we had none in 2002 and four in 2007.

The forces of nature are humbling to me and seem to put humanity in its proper place. We are not nearly in control of our destiny (or even our behavior, but for different reasons) as much as we would like to believe. We can reshape the surface of the earth, we can build massive structures, and create comfortable micro-climates. We can render the globe poisonous and uninhabitable for ourselves and other life forms. But, to mistake this power as a "great power" is relative and ultimately an illusion.

From time to time, the far greater forces of Gaia will literally jolt our awareness back to reality. Our Being as individuals or as a species is a marvelous thing of wonder, a soup of mystery and possibility. But, this does not transcend all mysteries and possibilities. A 30-foot wall of water dozens of miles long following the most violent shaking of the very ground beneath our feet shows how indifferent the Being of non-human Being is in relation to us.

Still, I cannot escape my human Being and in times like these I find myself not only acknowledging the cosmic forces in which we count as mere temporal residents at best. Equal to this rather sobering assessment is the intimate connection I feel for my fellow human beings as a whole. The disaster in Japan affects no one I know personally and yet I feel linked to it somehow. We are all fellow travelers, after all, even if we Be as strangers on a bus.

The Wave of 2011, like the great tsunami of 2004, demonstrates to me how much we have in common rather than our differences. The very indifference of the universe is also one of the fundamental things that unites us. The sheer awe I experience from these events is noticeably tempered by a sense of compassion as we all share this planet.

The magnitude of a great wave sweeping over Japan and onto Hawaii and the Pacific Coast, connects all these places, in spite of the great differences in the resulting damage. Somehow, it reacquaints me with the knowledge of a strange, if otherwise casually forgotten, intimacy we all can share. Massive devastation thousands of miles away takes the life of a lone photographer in California. It is connected. It even connects me with that stupid person I work with who is clueless about Time and humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Google Earth As Art

Detail of a marshy region near the Amazon River as viewed from 15 miles altitude in Google Earth. North is right.

You had so much and now so much is gone
What are you gonna do
With your life?

What a lucky man.
To see the earth before it touched his hand
What an angry fool
To condemn.

One more night to go
One more sleep upon your burning banks
A greedy man never knows
What he's done.

A natural beauty should be preserved like a monument to nature
Don't sell yourself too short, my love
Or someday you might find your soul endangered...

-Neil Young,
Natural Beauty

Once more, seemingly disconnected events have coalesced in my life to produce something unexpected and new. I see karma in this though you may call it what you will, haphazard chance perhaps.

Early last fall, The Economist featured
a cover story of the world's great forests, particularly the Amazon rain forest. I read the article with interest but it was an isolated incidence in my life. It was an impressive, balanced, report on what is being done to preserve “the world’s lungs” from further clearing and intrusion by humanity, given that these forests are so important to ecosystem of the planet.

Then, when I posted months ago about
H.P. Lovecraft I mentioned a couple of podcasts I had discovered. The Cthulhu Podcast features readings of the works by Lovecraft along with songs from the 1920's and, by chance, it is currently working its way through Theodore Roosevelt's Through the Brazilian Wilderness; 8-10 minutes at a time. Like the music, the Roosevelt book hearkens back to the time in which Lovecraft was his most prolific as an author of fiction. I listened to just a couple of these readings from the chronicle Roosevelt’s adventure out of curiosity, but, once more, never really connected it to anything. The readings did strike me as exceptionally vivid in their descriptions and detail. Indications of a quality writer. Can you imagine anyone like Teddy Roosevelt being president today? Almost unthinkable.

Shortly after that, I purchased
the Blu-ray collector’s edition of Avatar, which I have now watched a couple of times at home. Even without the 3-D element, the visuals remain stunning and almost trance-like to behold. A very magical film, even if the story lacks much originality. I waited until after Christmas to make the purchase because, first of all, it was on my gift list and I thought someone might give it to me (which no one did).

Secondly, I chose not to purchase
the “Earth Day” release of Avatar last year because it contained no bonus features. This marketing tactic of offering the same film over and over with a few additions in seemingly ever-cooler editions has grown old on me and I resist it. So, I waited many months for the extras on how the movie was made and such. I was not disappointed. One of the features was a brief documentary on James Cameron’s trips down to the Amazon to raise awareness to a massive dam project intended for the river which will displace many native tribes in the area. Again, I observed with interest but didn’t connect it to anything else in my life.

It wasn't until I used
Google Earth to obtain a satellite view of my own property that these events became more interwoven. I had not visited or planet with Google Earth recently until it came time for me to blog about my sense of stewardship about my property.

I like Google Earth a lot. It is kind of like the
Starry Night of planet Earth for me. Anyway, after posting the satellite image of my property, I randomly decided to tour the world a bit. I saw the Great Pyramids, the Great Wall, the Congo, Mount McKinley, Mount Kilimanjaro, the City of Tokyo, various other places. Then I happened upon the Amazon River Basin in South America. As I searched around the huge area for what there was to see I was amazed by the natural beauty of it all, even from space.

It was only then that all of these moments from the recent past came back to me as a kind of path to the present discovery. Given this seemingly arbitrary exposure to the Amazon on numerous occasions the past few months, how could I have possibly toured the world in Google Earth and not eventually wandered over to check out the vast river basin?

A pristine area of the Amazon rain forest along one of its minor tributaries. I love the ethereal energy of this imagery. North is left.

Since then I have spent a dozen hours or more (who marks time when one is so absorbed in the moment?) exploring the region and taking various screenshots, stitching them together into what feel to me to be striking mosaics. Many of them strike me as art. So, I decided to share these in my blog.

A partially deforested region of the northern Amazon rain forest. It appears to me like a subtle, colorful abstract painting.

The pics represented here are, of necessity, much smaller than the original stitched screenshots, some of which were over 10-15 megs in size. I took most of the images from an altitude of 25-50 miles, though a couple were captured at 15 miles. It just depended upon the size of the region and the amount of detail I wanted to display. Wherever possible, I avoided sections that displayed older, less colorful satellite imagery.

One of my favorite stitched images. This represents about 50 screenshots. I have no idea what geography is actually depicted in this pic. Probably a shallow lake region and subsequent water flows.

Detail of the previous image. Wonderful color and abstract nature. It doesn't even look "earthly" to my untrained eye.

I wish to stress that I did not retouch any of these images. The colors and textures are all there in Google Earth for anyone to behold. I can’t explain the way some things look. Their color or the angle and quality of the sunlight must have had something with the time of day and season of the year, although, as far as I know, there is only one season along most of the Amazon River.

Also, I’d like to point out that I know very little about the precise nature of what is depicted in these images. I am able to figure out some of the tributaries and other features by researching on the web. But, I have no reference books to turn to and, from what I read regarding books about the Amazon on, there is no single, good atlas overview of the geography, which is rather surprising.

So, I offer these images without much rational understanding. But, that doesn’t really matter. They are more of a feeling for me than a thought process. As I mentioned, for my part I would classify these images as art and might even have some of them printed sometime for the purpose of private collection and enjoyment.

Here are
a few facts
about the Amazon River Basin that I would like to point out and might be of interest to you...

  • 20 percent of the world's supply of oxygen is supplied by the Amazon River Basin.
  • 25 percent of pharmaceuticals are derived from plants in the Amazon region. Yet, less than 1 percent of the flora there has been tested by scientists.
  • 20 percent of the world's supply of fresh water is in the Amazon River.
  • Since 1970, 20 percent of the Amazon rain forest has been deforested.

Signs of human habitation in the rain forest. A sprawling fractal of houses and buildings and roads etching through a thickly forested area. This is one example of human intrusion.

This is a deforested region located in the northern Amazon basin in Guyana near the border with Brazil.

Another deforested region seen from 50 miles altitude. Many miles of denuded rain forest are visible here.

This is my favorite mosaic of satellite imagery. I want to have this one printed and framed. It reminds me of some photos taken of nebula by the Hubble Space Telescope. Does this look like earth or space? Amazing stuff.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Hobbit: Take Nine

I just reread JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit for either eighth or ninth time in my life (I can't remember which exactly). My first reading was when I was in high school and I have always begun my reading of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) with Tolkien's "enchanting prelude" to his famous trilogy. Unlike LOTR, The Hobbit is a children's book. More specifically, it is written for early teens. That doesn't take anything away from the enjoyment of reading it as an adult, obviously, since I have done so many times.

Each tour is a special treat. Tolkien is very informal in this narrative. He pokes a bit of fun at the reader now and then. The story itself is rather straightforward, with surprising (if a bit formula-matic) twists and turns to keep young minds (and older ones) engaged. The Hobbit is a perfect read for someone like myself who usually reads a lot of rather heavy books. It is comparatively light without being simpleton, it is well-written, and has some deeper things to say if anyone cares to latch on to them.

In a nutshell, this is the story of how Bilbo Baggins, with almost no genuine qualifications, is hired on by a troop of dwarfs, acting upon the advice of Gandalf the wizard, to be a “burglar” on an adventure that eventually takes the lot of them through wild and bleak places to the Lonely Mountain. It is here that the dragon Smaug has hoarded all the gold and other riches of the dwarfs' ancestors. They intend to get it back.

Of special significance to fans of LOTR is the fact that The Hobbit tells us how Bilbo came about obtaining his sword Sting, how he obtained a coat of mithril, both of which he later gave to Frodo Baggins in LOTR and, more importantly, how he came upon a special "ring of power" which allows him to become invisible whenever he puts it on.

So, while The Hobbit only hints at the greater depths of Tolkien’s Middle-earth (which was a largely incoherent project at the time the book was published in 1937), it makes for a great introduction to LOTR because of the way Tolkien retrofitted events as described in The Hobbit to his larger and more mature literary endeavor.

Certainly, one theme important to Tolkien in LOTR is strongly apparent throughout The Hobbit. This is Tolkien’s distrust and discouragement about the loss of the natural world to the fast emerging reality of technology and industrialization at the turn of the last century. He hints at it throughout the work with such lines as: “…one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and hobbits were still numerous and prosperous.” (page 17)

Tolkien equates his private quandary with changing times to the evil Goblins of his story. “It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.” (page 70)

These social criticisms of modernity are sprinkled throughout much of Tolkien’s body of work but they are somewhat more noticeable in The Hobbit given its younger audience and the less serious approach to story-telling that Tolkien takes in the book. Much of this stems from Tolkien’s experience in the Great War, where he personally witnessed the horrible killing and maiming of hundreds of human beings with relatively new machinery such as machine guns and recoiling artillery. It was literally in the trenches of the war that he first began to create Middle-earth, beginning with early drafts of his posthumously published magnum opus, The Silmarillion. More on that in a moment.

Clearly, the critical element connecting The Hobbit with LOTR is the encounter between Gollum and Bilbo in the depths of the Misty Mountains and the rather accidental discovery of the special ring. While Tolkien makes no bones about the ring being a “ring of power” it becomes noticeable upon repeat readings that this ring has a subtle, peculiar effect.

Tolkien makes the subtle point, for example, of how things occur “suddenly” in Bilbo’s mind after he discovers the ring. One sudden, subtle effect of the ring is that it could very well be the cause for a special bond that abruptly emerges between Bilbo and Gollum. “A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.” (page 93)

Bilbo, in a show of dexterity and strength not exhibited heretofore, manages to make a clean leap over Gollum while wearing the ring. Again, this marks a rather subtle change but the fact that, after finding the ring, things are not exactly what they once were for our heroic hobbit is apparent to the discerning reader.

Bilbo at first uses the ring sparingly but then with greater frequency. While each use of the ring is justified by some danger Bilbo soon relies on the ring more and more and finds himself thinking about it often as well as verifying its exact location.

According to Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey: “Yet however neat the final product, at that point in late 1937, and for long afterwards, Tolkien had no clear plan at all…Tolkien knew, for instance, that Bilbo’s ring now had to be explained and would become important in the story, but he still had no idea of it as the Ring, the Ruling Ring, the Ring-with-a-capital-letter, so to speak: indeed he remarked at an early stage that it was ‘Not very dangerous’.” (page 53)

So, Tolkien had not conceived of the ring of power in The Hobbit was the One Ring of Sauron. In fact, he had yet to even conceive of Sauron, who is referred to as “the Necromancer” throughout the book. Orcs did not exist as such. They were called Goblins in the book. This demonstrates the incomplete nature of Tolkien’s thinking when the work was first published.

The fact is, Tolkien had not really connected hobbits with the grander tale he began writing literally in the trenches of World War One. That tale, The Silmarillion, had nothing to do with hobbits at all. So, in a way, it was accidental that LOTR ever came to be written to begin with. It was written because Tolkien’s publisher wanted more stories about hobbits and Tolkien decided to embed the apparently popular characters more deeply in a story that had very little to do with them up to that point.

Tolkien’s cathartic connection which tied everything together was to make Bilbo’s ring into the One Ring and thus thrust the hobbit into the very center of much grander story. This occurred many months following the book’s publication when it became apparent how viable hobbits were as a commercial literary creation. Hobbits, some of the more insignificant creatures of Middle-earth, ended up being a convenient way of connecting Tolkien’s literary success with what he was attempting to do with The Silmarillion. His personal compromise was to focus more on the happenings of the Third Age than was his original intent. LOTR was the rather considerable afterthought of all this.

What surprises me every time I read The Hobbit is the bravery of Bilbo. The hobbit is introduced in a rather unassuming manner. He had some “strange” blood in him from the Tookish side of his ancestry but he was otherwise an ordinary hobbit. He did not care for adventures or anything taking him away from the comforts of his home and surroundings. And yet, with great assistance and encouragement from Gandalf who seems to know more than he ever lets on in the book, Bilbo goes.

Bilbo experiences the common feelings of missing home, wishing he were somewhere else, regretting his decision to go throughout the story. But, it is precisely the clear presentation of these ordinary attributes that makes much of what he does in the tale so extraordinary. He exhibits great heroism against spiders of Mirkwood, saving the dwarfs and demonstrating some skill with Sting. While not as threatening a situation, Bilbo once again saves the day by rescuing the dwarfs from Elven imprisonment, relying heavily on the ring in order to execute a clever plan he hatches.

It is remarked several times that Bilbo felt alone. This is a strong theme throughout the work and makes it particularly applicable to younger readers. Bilbo was not an introvert nor was he some hermit. He was a friendly, sociable hobbit. On this trip he often felt isolated and alone while thinking about his home and the Shire. This loneliness allows him to oddly connect with Gollum. But it also is the source of his heroism. Because it is out of the loneliness that he triumphs.

For example, as he crept in the side passage toward Smaug’s hoard for the first time, it was dark and he was alone. He could hear and smell and feel the heat of the dragon but he could not see it yet. “It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.” (page 205)

Tolkien is toying with his own personal knowledge of bravery here. He had survived the First World War when almost all of his friends died. It was a traumatic part of his life and, though he lived a full and happy life, he was in many ways tainted afterwards. Tolkien knew first hand that bravery and duty did not come from extraordinary individuals. It came from ordinary human beings facing extraordinary circumstances. This knowledge is profoundly woven into the narrative of The Hobbit.

To that extent Bilbo is an everyman sort of character. Perhaps this is one source of the novel’s perpetual appeal. This is classic fantasy but it is fantasy with deeper things to say about our “real’ world; about the consequences of modernity. It also is about placing the ordinary into the extraordinary and how that juxtaposition is not only entertaining but how it can change our hero as well.

I am looking forward to the making of the film based upon this novel. Peter Jackson is attempting to produce the movie version, after long delays. Hopefully within a year or two it will make it into the theaters. Jackson did a great job distilling the spirit of LOTR into what was essentially a 15-hour film in three-parts. It will be interesting to see what can be accomplished with this comparatively modest material.

Each happy time I read Tolkien in general and The Hobbit in particular I am taken in by all of this. The fantastic, the grounded nature of character experiences, the applicability of Middle-earth to my world, and – perhaps most of all – by Bilbo’s bravery in the face of fear and uncertainty. We can all learn from that can’t we?

The Hobbit can be pure escapism (as it was for me as a teen) or it can be something more (as it is for me now). The story works well on either level. I never regret reading this “children’s book” as the preface to LOTR. It introduces me to Middle-earth on the mildest level while whetting my appetite for the incredible story to which all this is but an overture.

On to take nine (or is it eight?) of The Fellowship of the Ring!