A Letter to Londub: a letter and poem art-film to two friends who moved away
Produced November, 2014
(Scroll down for the full annotated poem.) This is an artistic letter film with a poem/rap about the desert using natural desert beats in the latter half of the film. This was for two dear friends who moved away. I thought they might want something to remember the desert by. The full poem is annotated below, explaining many natural history nuances. There are some personal references, but I thought the flavor and science were of enough general interest to share publicly.
The Making of A Letter to Londub
I got into a fun habit of filming during this project, carrying my camera around for opportunistic captures, and scheduling sessions to correspond with climbing or a beer with a friend at Congress. I’d take work breaks to edit or work on the rap a bit. I fluctuated a lot between “this is the coolest fucking thing ever made” and “oh my god, I can never share this with anybody, what was I thinking?”. I think I ended with “hmm, not up to the original vision, but actually not too bad, and at least an A for Effort.” The soundtrack of natural sounds is an idea I’ve had for a while, hatched when I discovered what a nice instrument a barrel cactus makes. So this was a cool opportunity to get a start and some practice with that idea.
I made the rap/poem with a combination of freestyling in my head, recording bits on my phone while driving, and searching for interesting desert facts and terms in books like A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, Roadside Geology of Arizona, my old geology textbook, and good old Google and Wikipedia. It played back and forth with my gradual collection of footage. Sometimes I’d have footage that I needed words for, and sometimes the other way around.
I discovered after writing my rap that if you want beats behind it, you actually have to plan your writing, particularly the breaths, around the beat cadence that you want! Duh. It was too late to re-write though. So for some sections I figured out how many beats-per-minute they should be, capitalized letters of stressed syllables, and read them with a metronome in my ears, recording them into the shotgun mic on my camera while huddled under a blanket for sound quality. I think I could have gotten more emotional expression into the reading though if I had stood up; huddling beneath the blanket was constricting. I used the beats-per-minute to time how many video frames apart to place the natural beat strings. Some parts I didn’t bother to do rhythmically because they were impossible. I learned though, and maybe I could do a better quality rap in a future attempt.
I’m not really of the camp that art should be left open to interpretation. I put a lot of thought into deliberate metaphors and double-meanings, etc., and I want to make sure they aren’t missed! Plus, there is some real natural history knowledge in here; why not capitalize on the opportunity for learning? So I’ve provided an annotated version of the poem below.
* Annotations in [square brackets]
[First, the word ‘favonian’ in the beginning of the letter means either a west wind or something propitious. A ‘southern favonian’, or southwest wind, typically only occurs here during monsoon season, where it can bring water from the warm Gulf of California to our region. And of course, it points roughly in your direction, and I’m suggesting that it must be a favorable one that carries you there into your future!]
But in the meantime here I am in the oven and maybe I’m just glamorizing this life and I’m loving it only because the few brain cells that have been spared from the cooking effect of the sun are not the ones that are responsible for complaining about things.
Honestly, most days I simply hold onto the strings.
I think maybe I’m animated by ethereal beings.
I push through a cylinder embedded in electrical dreams.
[Reference to the long, dark tunnel of instrument development and written exams. I spent months straight without a whole day off. The video here is a cool, very expensive gas-flow meter that measures flow rates by the time it takes to push this piston to the top of the cylinder.]
My mind’s fire, kindled by desire, is doused when the desert sings.
[That’s a real interpretation of my being.]
My depressed land
stresses, water taxed
by the compression of a warm hand
[This first section is sort of the voice of the climate or the monsoon. The first Hadley cell, rising near the equator, descends around 30˚ latitude north and south. The cool air descends, expands, and heats, sucking up water with the increased vapor capacity. The high pressure system eliminates rain potential over the Sonoran Desert for most of the year.]
My voice, first heard
when the ghost of a drowned horse
[The 30˚ latitude high pressure system plagued mariners because they could get stuck there without wind for weeks. To conserve water, they would push horses and other livestock overboard. Other ships would encounter floating carcasses. So this latitudinal belt was called the ‘horse latitude’. Deserts around 30˚ are therefore called ‘horse latitude deserts’. There is a horse latitude desert on the western edge of every continent around 30˚, but not on the eastern edge. That’s because the western edges get the reinforcement of dry air via cold, arctic currents. As the thermal equator shifts to the north and the south during the northern summer and winter respectively, the descending part of that first Hadley cell also shifts. So I depicted the summertime northern march of the horse latitude as the ‘ghost of a drowned horse’ running north. In our case, that displaces the high pressure system, allowing for the potential for rain. Extra fun fact, the thermal equator shifts further northward in the Americas than it does southward because it is drawn to thermal masses, and the northern continent is a larger, and therefore greater thermal mass than the southern continent. Changing forest cover in the Amazon and North America in response to climate change will alter the magnitude of the thermal equator’s seasonal march, and therefore alter precipitation patterns in both those continents.]
My cyclonic pen draws devils
from their den
[That would have been better if I could have gotten a video of a dust devil!]
My orograph begins!
[I thought ‘orograph’ kind of sounds like a speech or a drawing of the weather created by the wind via the orographic effect. Maybe that was obvious..]
My artillery moves earth
Veins bulge in all souls
in a deluginal race [get it?]
to capture the product of my collaboration with
My life diffuses like molecules,
intercept your antennae,
put your glomeruli in a frenzy.
[You guys probably remember all of Ben Goldman’s presentations on glomeruli, the brain lobes in drosophila (and I guess more generally in other insects) that respond to gaseous chemical signals. This video is from the insect festival, which was really fun! This demonstration is a bit diabolical though. Poor moth stuffed inside a tube with an eyeball and its antennae sticking out. Antennae are hooked to electrodes to measure their responses, like to the dude blowing on them. As awful as I find that, I can’t help but enjoy the idea of having a moth-powered volatile detection system for the field!]
— Pass the voice to the rock —
Pardon the intrusion it’s my orogenical nature
I smoke tuff and I’m gneissly uplifted,
that’s gnomenclature with a g-n
Like the little men that blasted holes up in my abdomen
[Get it, orogenical gnome-enclature? for gneiss? little men? miners? I’m killing the whole thing with my explanations aren’t I… Tuff is sedimentary rock formed from volcanic ash. Gneiss (pronounced “nice”) is what makes up the fore-range of the Catalinas, formed by the uplift of a granite tongue of Mount Lemmon into the matrix rock that once sat above it. I fell into a story of miners of the Arizona geology here, or more rightly, the mountains telling the story of the miners.]
I kept ‘em captivated in subterranean rumination
Through my perlite lenses some enhanced their concentration
[Perlite is a light colored type of volcanic glass. It’s mined at the east end of the Superstitions, a site of incredible volcanic activity, where about 2,500 cubic miles of earth exploded and spread across the land (maybe not all at once, but still!).]
till their third eye tinted blue like an azuritic druse.
[Like ‘favonian’, this was another recent accidental discovery of a cool double meaning (my dictionary.com phone app is one of my new best friends). So, azurite is a blue mineral commonly found in conjunction with green malachite. Both are different oxidation states of copper. Lots of copper mining in AZ and lots of malachite and azurite. Azurite makes beautiful encrustations of tiny crystals. That type of crystallization is called ‘druse’ (or druze or druzy, pronounced “drooz-ee”). A ‘druse’ is also a member of a particular muslim-like religious sect in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. A third meaning is a globular mass of calcium oxalate formed around an organic core, found in some plant cells.]
For others revelation in the dark was too abstruse
In the void their fears crystalized like pegmatites
[Pegmatites are exceptionally large crystals (or rather, the intrusions containing them) formed slowly by slow cooling of igneous rock, necessarily deep in the formation.]
They went mad at their reflection in molybdenum seams
[Arizona is the world’s third greatest producer of molybdenum. Deposits are found along with copper in certain types of granitic intrusions. It’s used for alloys and stainless steels, and is important for missile and aircraft construction, and electronics.]
They couldn’t separate the greedy truth from their dreams
And started calling rocks ‘my precious’
whispers in the dark will lead you deep into
where fishes lose their visions
under the laccolithic passes
[A laccolith is a large mass of intrusive rock that lifted up overlying sediments, as opposed to dikes or sills that squeezed between layers. I was imagining a lake in a cave carved out beneath one of these. In reality though, I just needed a fancy geology term here with lots of staccato syllables.]
the poisons mix just
behind the eye sockets
And You think that it’s a Bucket o Gold
but it’s not what you think
it’ll make you feel cold
but you boldly go
down down down to the olivine glow
[Olivine is an olive green mineral formed very deep in basaltic magma. It’s particularly deep because it crystalizes early and is heavy, so it settles low in the molten mass. So I associated this with going deeper and deeper into the mines, chasing the dream of riches into the depths of madness.]
but you Slip on the Drips, *sss-P’-iiisssh-Ch*
Back into the sun
where the coyotes run
You remember that smell
when the raindrops drum?
Where the ocotillo drips and the roadrunner runs
and the hairy legs show when the
Or the ghost face bat on a sag flower tack [nautical tack]
Wide eyed ringtail feet turned back
[Ringtails can turn their hind feet 180˚ backward to run down cliff faces head first! How cool is that!]
Rat watch your back!
Let him hit the cholla that you made into a stack
[I asked Pacifica for camera trap videos for these. They were a nice addition! When I’m playing around in the Tucson mountains, I always marvel at the massive piles of cholla balls that packrats make outside their middens. I often find triangle shaped, dense fields of jumping cholla on slopes, at the peak of which is an old packrat midden. I wonder if coevolution with packrats has been the driving force of the almost complete loss of flowering in these cholla.]
kiss of the Pepsis, you’re her pet
[That’s the tarantula hawk wasps, genus Pepsis, that paralyzes prey to feed her larvae. I found this one on my first packrafting trip in Arizona on the Verde River.]
gila monster hiss, you won’t forget
[Gila monster saliva contains a compound called ‘gilatide’ that has been found to enhance memory! I guess this way you won’t forget who bit you.]
take a bend in the river now [Salt River]
… to reset
Now the sun comes up
and it takes
[The final photo is a panorama stitch looking over the Salt River on the early hiking portion of one of three packrafting trips I’ve done there. It’s really one of my favorite photos.]