Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Spirits

Riding the wave of holiday merriment, my family throws an annual Christmas party. Usually between 60 and 80 people arrive at our house with food and drink under the cheerful guise of “The Sing Along.” Of the multitudes, and this is a generous number, only about twenty people sing while others strategically steal away, pretending to eat and involve themselves in urgent conversation. I have become a master at this technique. It’s not that I don’t enjoy singing, in fact I love singing; it’s just that others don’t enjoy me singing. Several partygoers pay their dues by lip-synching, by picking up a cowbell, or by joining in on the choruses which are always the loudest, most dissonant, but at least cheeriest parts of the song.

The Sing Along is a constantly evolving machine. What started out fifteen years ago as an impromptu celebration with close friends, quickly and uncontrollably metastasized into an unstoppable force.

I would liken The Sing Along’s “behind the music” success story to that of Nike, Google, and I dare to say, Oprah. In recent years we’ve upgraded to catered sushi, hired help, elegantly handcrafted boutonni√®res for each attendee, a jazz trio of Gainesville’s finest musicians (Richy Stano, Rebecca Brown, and Gary Langford), and even printed songbooks. Years of training and dedication have made this one of the most stressful times of the year for my mother though she swears, “next year will be easier.”

My favorite part of the sing along is the clash of characters. And I don’t mean in a violent way, but we have friends from all creeds and backgrounds. So to pack them all together in a couple of rooms always makes for great entertainment. To see the drama accrue and unfold over a series of years is also noteworthy. The husband who gets a little too merry one year will assuredly become the designated driver the next. The cousin who shows up with a girlfriend who unfoundedly pours a drink over another guest’s head will arrive bashfully single the following year. The German gluhwein that eventually took the blame for these faux pas will be substituted for a slightly milder Russian tea the next time around. The mayonnaise broccoli casserole left untouched will (hopefully) morph into another veggie dip 365 days later. Even the most well-oiled machines require slight tune-ups and tweaking. It’s funny though, how the idiosyncrasies of years past quickly become the fondest memories.

So in the spirit of mixing things up, this year my cousin, Catherin Healy, who you might recognize from a few episodes of Saved by the Bell, brought Burning Man to the party.

In our backyard she performed a sensuous fire dance, as her brother Art, stood close by outfitted and ready with a fire retardant blanket. Fortunately, the blanket was not needed.

I have seen fire dancing in Ecuador and Honduras as street talent but Catherin portrayed the dangerous act as an art.

She moved seamlessly with the music and kept the burning balls of fire in constant motion, closer and closer to her face.

After the show was over my brothers and I looked at each other and wondered how we were supposed to follow the act next year. It felt like we had reached the zenith of entertainment, although I’m sure, whether intentional or not, someone will step up to the plate for the Sing Along of 2010.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

All Access

Florida Bay and the Everglades National Park are huge places. For a novice, without the aid of topographical discontinuity or frequent trail markings, navigating through these areas is extremely difficult. The nondescript cuts and endless chains of mangrove islands help deter most people from venturing out alone. As menacing as the nautical maps may be, plenty of experienced anglers and explorers launch into the canals and blind turns of the backcountry.

Because it’s such a large area, it’s next to impossible for an underfunded park service crew to stay vigilant, especially on the fringes of the Everglades. As an avid trespasser myself, I fully understand the potential payoffs and risks that rest on the other side of an unguarded fence. In fact, many of my favorite images have roots that extend past legal property lines. My body follows my curiosity and my curiosity follows the blind theory that if there’s a fence, then generally speaking, something interesting, something forbidden, and eventually, something irresistible, rests on the other side. For the first time, however, legally, I have carte blanche to one of the most famous wildernesses in the world: Everglades National Park. I have to admit I miss the thrill of delinquency, but while in nature, the absence of adrenaline brings peace of mind, and peace of mind brings clarity, and clarity, for an artist, is a powerful tool.

Working with a reputable organization like Audubon in the Florida Keys parallels to having the golden ticket in Willy Wonka’s factory; instead of a river of chocolate we have endless estuaries, instead of fizzy lifting drinks, we have helicopters. I dug deep to find something that likened to an oompa loompa, but it would have been a stretch. I know it’s a ridiculous simile, but it’s hard not to feel like a kid in a candy shop out here.

Just before Christmas, I was invited to go out with Audubon’s bird crew to monitor and band nesting roseate spoonbills. Since my specific job with the fish crew requires that I be at our sample sites every day, this was an extremely rare opportunity to leave the nets behind and pick up some binoculars.

The spoonbill crew is responsible for finding and tagging nests all throughout the Florida Bay and into the southern tip of the Everglades. Most of the nesting sites have been protected and blocked off to human traffic in order to allow the birds a safe haven for nesting. Knowing that I would be walking through mangroves otherwise forbidden and unfamiliar to the general public was half the fun.

The most productive site for the spoonbills is Sandy Key. In a good season there can be anywhere from 100 to 300 nests. That number doesn’t include the egrets and cormorants who also nest on the island. This year, however, water levels are at an unusual high, which prevents the spoonbills from frequenting their favorite foraging grounds. Additionally burdened with a recent cold snap, spoonbills have a trying winter ahead of them.

Aside from the climate, the offspring face an array of obstacles. On some of the nesting sites, crocodiles and alligators wait patiently below for clumsy fledglings.

Despite the tough conditions, many spoonbills have tried valiantly to propagate the next generation. Sadly, some have failed.

Strangely, other adults in the same colony seem to be unaffected by the peripheral challenges.

Equipped with convex mirrors attached to painter’s poles and extension ladders, we scour the island for nests. Arching and bending beneath the mangroves’ brachial maze, we trip, slip, and slosh through the sediment and whitewashed roots like clumsy tourists. Well, at least that’s how I moved. Karen and Seth, the more experienced mangrove marauders, navigated far more gracefully.

When we found a nest with chicks old enough to receive bands, we set up the ladder and grabbing the largest bird first, we brought them down to the ground. Their blunt beaks were not quite hard enough to cause any discomfort but they had another, much more effective defense tactic. Upon lowering these guys to the ground their first reaction is to pooh everywhere; and not just a little dribble, but with an almost sniper-like accuracy. While extremely unpleasant it’s hard to hold a grudge against a terrified ball of pink feathers. Besides, I’m pretty sure I did the same thing as an infant, minus the accuracy.

Over time Audubon will monitor the birds’ progress and track their movements. This information will give us a better idea of the feeding and breeding habits of these beautiful birds and the legislative steps necessary for ensuring their future.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Keys Please

The job market is a pretty dismal place right now. That is, unless you don’t mind “wading through mud and water, working from boats or kayaks in close proximity to crocodiles, snakes, and under the Florida sun in remote areas of the Everglades and Florida Bay.”

You can imagine my excitement then, when I read the job description for the field technician position at the National Audubon Tavernier Research Center.

In 18 years as a Florida resident, I never once made it past Miami into the famous waters of the Keys. So when I accepted the job in Tavernier after leaving the mountains of Wyoming, I felt the swelling anticipation of adventure. I’ve done and seen many things both stateside and internationally. Not that I’m hard to impress, but it usually takes a large perspective jolt to get my adrenaline flowing. I had no idea I was about to experience a slough of “firsts” within five days of arriving.

There is no other place in Florida quite like the Keys. Driving south on highway 1, I noticed signs that read “Crocodile Crossing next 6 miles” and intersections appropriately named Ocean Blvd, Conch Court, Pelican Place, and Reef Road.

Only two days after moving in, my roommate, Adam Vila, took me out on his boat to go spearfishing. Since then, I haven’t bought meat from the grocery store.

The following Monday, my first day of work, I had to be at the office by 5:00 AM. We drove out to an airport where a helicopter waited to take us out over the Everglades to one of our sample sites.

When the pontoons landed on the water, my supervisor, Michelle Robinson and I jumped out of the chopper and immediately sunk three feet into sediment. At the site Michelle explained the process and purpose of our job. Every day for 8 months out of the year we set up 6 nets at various sites to catch fish.

These fish are the food source for the spoonbills and wading birds of the Everglades. Coupled with salinity and water depth tests, we can compare bird populations with relative fish population densities and determine how the two are related.

It sounds simple, but the job is extremely demanding. Often, we are up at 2:30 AM and on the road by 3:00 to get to these remote locations before sunrise. My first week was nothing short of brutal, logging a total of 19 hours of sleep for 5 days. Still used to the freelance schedule of going to bed at 1:00 and waking up around 8:00, my body could not handle the predawn wakeup-call. Before last week, I don’t think I’ve ever actually thrown my alarm clock against the wall. I am still slowly adapting and thankful to be tired by 11:00.

While the hours are tough, I couldn’t ask for a more scenic office. On the way to work we see fish jumping, pods of dolphins playing, incredible cloud formations, crocodiles basking in the sun, and hundreds of birds.

I do feel that I’m starting to go a little crazy though. I have noticed that while I’m setting up nets or collecting fish, my mind travels to strange, disturbing places. Yesterday I caught myself conversing with mangroves in Spanish. Today, “The Good Ship Lolipop” and Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait,” cycled on repeat in my head. They mysteriously lodged themselves in a dark corner of my mind, impossible to dislocate like a popcorn kernel at the base of a tooth, almost driving me to the point of insanity. I think scientists need to look further into the effects of sleep deprivation and its parallels to bad music.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Back in May I wrote in the blog titled "The Art of Howism" a brief paragraph about a knifemaker named Jason Knight. For a such a distinguished person, I felt like he deserved his own entry, a moment under the spotlight. I wrote this article in hopes of publication with one of many sportsman magazines. We'll see what develops.

Knifemaker Jason Knight forged his first knife in high school after a brief and ironic stint with Cutco.

Nowadays you won’t find the South Carolina native knocking at your door to prove his knives can cut through aluminum cans. In fact, when asked to show a collection of his work, he timidly pulls out two blades from his workbench and admits, “I can’t keep a knife long enough to put on display. These need to go out tomorrow.”

Knight belongs to an elite group of only 120 knifemaker artisans worldwide with the certified and illustrious title of Mastersmith.

Visit his home in Harleyville, South Carolina, and prepare to have your feeble hand disappear into his iron grip. Cracked and permanently blackened, his fleshy mitts reveal scars and calluses from years of forging raw steel into intricate and graceful works of art.

Born and raised in the backwoods of South Carolina, Jason Knight is the Palmetto State’s first and only Mastersmith. At an early age Knight slogged through the tangles and eerie landscape of Four Holes Swamp uncovering bayonets and other artifacts dating back to the Revolutionary War. Spending his childhood traversing the sloughs and braided channels, he traces his fascination with knives back to imaginary battles with fanciful beasts lurking amidst the cypress knees and blackwater.

Today, Knight hammers out orders and ships them to sportsmen and collectors all over the world. Rather than outsourcing the handle or guard like many knife makers, he insists on handcrafting every detail. “I forge the steel, I carve the wood, I inlay the handles, and I do my own leather sheaths. So when I put my name on the knife, I know it belongs there,” he proudly states.

His modest workshop is a veritable battlefield littered with fragments of bone, splintered wood, and shards of steel. Amidst the wreckage rests in medieval fashion a forge bearing the head of a dragon, a 425-pound anvil, and a cantankerous power hammer from 1919. Surprisingly, these archaic tools are producing the sinuous and sophisticated pieces of art Knight has become famous for. The craft of forging metal into functional weapons and tools predates written history, but over the millennia little has changed in the overall metallurgy process. For this reason, carving out a name in the cutthroat profession of knifemaking proves extremely difficult.

At 37 years of age, Jason Knight is one of the youngest members of the distinguished club of Mastersmiths. His design and technique carry the mark now internationally exalted as the Knight Method. Incorporating woods, Damascus steel, and precious stones from all corners of the globe, he uses natural forms found in nature to define his style.

“I consider my style to be simplistic. When I make a handle I think of the arms of a praying mantis or the curves of a woman’s leg: the subtle arches, smooth edges, and elegance. I like my knives to look and feel fast like a Ferrari while being practical at the same time. A fast car isn’t any fun if you don’t drive it.”

While most outdoor enthusiasts would not take their Ferrari into the wilderness, Knight designs his knives with the highest standards to accompany hunters, top chefs, and even U.S. soldiers. To demonstrate, he gingerly approaches a brush pile and begins hacking away at three-inch pine limbs. In a matter of minutes with a modest blade he manages to rival the efficiency of a machete without losing any sharpness. His most popular seller, the Bowie knife, is his personal favorite.

“Every culture has a knife they can indentify with. For us, it’s hard because we’re a culture of all different kinds of backgrounds—but the Bowie knife sticks out because it’s fantastical. We fall in love with the idea of it. The idea of being able to fight, the idea of chopping our way through the woods, the idea of being able to explore the unexplored.”

When I propose the idea that the general population might consider wielding a Bowie knife in public as barbarous, Knight scoffs. “I think it’s barbaric when I see people using their teeth, struggling to open a package or to clip fishing line. God didn’t give me sharp teeth, he gave me a brain so I could use tools.”

Currently, Knight is producing a series of eight Bowie knives fabricated using carbon steel and scraps from the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. He says, “I’m not trying to key in on a popular trend. It’s just more interesting to me when my knives have a story. I’m calling it the 9/12 Bowie because the day after 9/11 is when everyone woke up.”

Despite the awards and international acclaim that his work attracts, Knight remains humble, energetic, and altruistic. Recently, he traveled to Nicaragua solely to teach a handful of underprivileged locals the art of knifemaking.

“My ability is something that should be shared, and I want other people to have that knowledge and skill set. I want them to be able to build homes and feed their families, just like I do.”

Domestically, he offers a special customer program designed to support U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In order to own the Desert Eagle knife, one must pay the price for two and Knight will personally send the second knife to a soldier abroad. As if that weren’t enough, just last year for fear of a rapidly metastasizing ego, Knight gathered up all his awards and trophies and casually burned them with trash. He says, “It’s good to be proud of what you make, but I just reveled in those awards and all I got out of it was some plastic. I needed to be humble. I was fatheaded and lived with that pride to where I just started to stagnate. I’m a spiritual person, and I didn’t give credit where the credit was due.”

Since his fiery catharsis, Knight has returned to his passion with a new vitality. Back at the anvil, he hammers out a drab lump of steel into another elegant knife for enthusiasts and aficionados to covet.

As a chef pines over a new stove, or an angler envies a cutting-edge rod, the potential energy exuded by Knight’s knives is nothing short of intoxicating. Most of us may never engage in personal combat or find the need to blaze a trail through the thickets of a swamp. Our imaginations help carry us to that whimsical place, indulging our primal instincts to be constantly vigilant and always prepared.

Whether dredging the depths of some childhood urge to explore or simply satisfying aesthetic appetites, Knight designs and fabricates the ultimate knife that his customers will never want to keep sheathed.