Monthly Archives: July 2015

BY APRIL KNIGHT

 

     My fascination with Vincent van Gogh began when I first heard my older brother strumming Don McLean’s “Vincent.” A tribute to the Dutch post-impressionist, the song’s imagery was so concrete it played like a montage of colors in my head: thick strokes of blue across a blank canvas, yellow daffodils bending in the summer wind, a dark red rose crushed against fresh snow. When I breathed, I could smell roses and paint.

     So I sought out a photo of the “starry, starry night” in question and saw something else in that scene: a man’s internal tempest spilling out into the world in oil. I did not know this man, but I felt that somehow he didn’t quite belong; perhaps he was even bullied and outcast. I was all of ten years old and the world was still rosy, but for some benighted reason, I decided I liked the man who drew this. I just didn’t know then that he’d beckon for the rest of my life. Nor that I would follow.

     More than a decade later, an internship interview put me on a plane to New York. I had a tight itinerary, so I asked myself: If I could never come back to this city, what would I do? The question was, of course, a formality, a courtesy to Lady Liberty, Ellis Island and the Empire State Building. I knew what I wanted: to see the Starry Night, and through it, Vincent van Gogh.

     The problem was, I wasn’t sure why anymore. Whatever the reason lies buried between layers of time and experience, dormant, a smudgy memory devoid of feeling. By that time, the quest to finally see the Van Gogh was more of a confrontation than a date. I could picture myself storming up to the frame, saying, “Well? What do you want?”

     I could also hear Meneer van Gogh firing back: “No, mevrouw, what do you want?”

     What did I want indeed? Why seek a painting centuries and an ocean away, with a curiosity half-remembered, barely felt?

      So there I was, ambling around the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, tearing myself away from the Dalís, Monets, Picassos and Vermeers I also loved, and in my restless search I almost missed it. I rounded a section of wall set in the center of another sprawling gallery, whipped around — and there it was. The painting of legend.

Van Gogh's "Starry Night." 1889. Museum of Modern Art.

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” 1889. Museum of Modern Art.

It wasn’t as big as it was in my head, almost unassuming in fact, apart from a camera-wielding crowd surrounding it in a half circle. And yet it rooted me where I stood, literally stunned, I think, and somewhat disbelieving.

Like a shy teenager around a crush, I stalked its periphery, absorbing as much detail as I could from afar before drawing closer. I took in the rich, deep blues of the night sky, dissolving unevenly into lighter tones where they morphed into 11 large silver-gold stars. The golden crescent moon blazed with unearthly light. A west wind billowed in thickly, dominating the heavens. Below it, the sleepy town sat blanketed in silence, but nine windows kept vigil, gleaming faintly in the night. An orchard could be glimpsed in a dark corner, and a slender tree with flowing foliage — pine, possibly — shot up to the sky. There was a sense of anticipation, a quiet unraveling of some cosmic, almost spiritual event.

"Wheatfield with Mountains in the Background." 1889.  Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

“Wheatfield with Mountains in the Background.” 1889. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

Van Gogh’s works (more than those of, say, Monet’s or Seurrat’s) have that effect on me, that sense of motion and unfolding, and life — from swaying wheat fields, to flaming sunflowers, to dancing irises. Even his collection of shoes — shoes with laces and shoes without, shoes upright and overturned — gives off a hypnotic, homy, just-taken-off feel. I imagine that if I touched them, they’d still be warm from the last pair of feet they carried.

"Sunflowers." 1887. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Sunflowers.” 1887. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I realized then that part of the appeal was in van Gogh’s brisk, bold staccato strokes, almost aimless and accidental. I paint with a fear of imperfections, so I could see in them the freedom I admire but dare not seize. Van Gogh saw and created beauty in the inexact, the unrealistic, purposely shunning clean edges, opting for uneven transitions and mostly discrete dabs of paint.

Van Gogh's "Irises." 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Van Gogh’s “Irises.” 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum.

This, I think, is life. The passage of our time on earth is never clean and linear, and can’t be portrayed in blocks of color bound by solid lines. It is not exquisite shadings, nor even immaculate renderings of the texture of the skin. Life is how van Gogh paints it, little discrete dabs of imperfect moments that eventually coalesce into a beautiful, living tapestry, much like the living blue painting that hung before me then, that first time in New York.

"A Pair of Shoes." 1887. Baltimore Museum of Art.

“A Pair of Shoes.” 1887. Baltimore Museum of Art.

So I made a little promise to Monsieur van Gogh to come and visit whenever I’m in town. I may not always know what I want out of it, but I’m sure he’s full of surprises, and I intend to keep that promise for as long as I can.

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BY APRIL KNIGHT

 

There are some moments in life, no matter how long ago, that can still give you a good punch in the gut every time you think about them. The moment I voluntarily jumped off a perfectly good airplane always does it for me.

Skydiving is no longer an uncommon experience; you’re bound to have a friend who’s done it, or you’ve taken the leap yourself. I’m here to detail exactly how it felt.

I had no plans of going when I visited my parents in San Antonio a few years ago, but a quick Google search of “fun things to do in San Antonio area while stuck with parents for a week” turned up a skydiving field in nearby San Marcos.

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Skydive San Marcos.

The jump site was nothing but a cluster of wooden box-like buildings in the middle of a vast, empty flatland. We knew we were in the right place because of their unique marquee: the broken remains of a small crashed plane, with big letters saying, “There’s no such thing as a perfectly good airplane. Learn to skydive.”

     Cute, I thought.

My stepdad Aaron is a retired Army colonel; he was as excited as I was. My mother, meanwhile, declared that while waiting for me to get my feet back on solid ground, she’d pass the time by passing out every now and then.

I joined a small group and put my harness and pink jumpsuit on. We were given a disconcertingly brief demo of things to try to remember to do as we fall to the earth: keep your chin up, keep your bum up, have fun and let your instructor worry about the rest.

We could only do tandem dives with certified instructors; they operated the parachute, and we — well, we were baggage. I didn’t think I would’ve had it any other way anyway, that is until I met my instructor: a tall, charming dude wearing a shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops that he secured to his big toes with rubber bands. Can’t have them flying off on their own in the upper troposphere, you know.

I was about to ask why he didn’t just wear a jumpsuit and sneakers like the rest of us, but thought better of it when I smelled his breath, which positively reeked of beer. In hindsight, I think I thought better of the whole thing for a second there.

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“Old Maid.”

We filed into a small, disemboweled aircraft named “Old Maid.” I was so taut with anticipation I could feel every vibration the weather-beaten plane made as it rose to 11,000 feet. We began to circle and my instructor, tightly strapped to my back, deftly stood us both up and waddled toward the door, like some strange four-legged duck. Panic gripped me, and for a moment, the little voice inside my head reasserted itself and started screaming, “What the **** do you think you’re doing?!?”

I swallowed big gulps of air, now hanging off the side of the aircraft with the wind roaring in my ears, and heard another screaming voice: “It helps if you don’t look down!” My instructor, the genius.

Naturally, my eyes fixed themselves on the green, quilted landscape below, houses now nothing but scarce pinpoints, and for a weird second, I wondered if my mom passed out yet.

“How long have you been doing this again?” I shouted to the stranger stuck to my back, grasping for reassurance.

“Oh, about five minutes now,” he shouted back. Then he jumped.

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What they don’t tell you about jumping off a plane is that you change your mind the second you jump. A mortal fear of certain death overcame me as we hurtled down to earth, nothing but dead weight spat down by an uncaring sky, falling, falling, falling without end. Falling still with no signs of stopping. The free fall lasted ten seconds; it felt like hours.

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Free fall.

Another thing they don’t tell you is you can’t hear anything but the wind. I’m pretty sure I was screaming my  throat out (I could feel it days later) but we were streaking through air so fast the wind tore the sound from my mouth before it could reach my ears. I remember a kaleidoscope of whirling greens and blues, the air resistance buffeting my flesh (my face looked like it was constantly being rearranged by invisible fingers) and my stomach perpetually clenched from screaming, but not one high-pitched shriek escaped my lips.

Then I felt a sudden drag, the pilot chute deployed, and we began to glide for what was the most pleasurable five minutes of the entire ordeal.

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The Glide.

With the pilot chute providing some resistance, we slowed down considerably. I spread my arms wide, feeling a thick cushion of air under my belly, and stared bewilderingly at the bed of clouds below me. Below me. And then we were in the clouds, their pure coldness stinging my cheeks, invading my lungs. And right then, I tried to forever sear the moment in my memory, when there was nothing between me and fearsome Nature. Well, aside from a slightly drunk dive instructor and several pounds of gear.

We jerked back abruptly, the main parachute breaking our momentum like a hard foot on the brakes. I felt the breath knocked out of me as the harness cut painfully into my chest. The wind wasn’t so loud now, and I could hear my instructor saying we could stay up there like that longer because I was light. He steered the chute this way and that, drifting closer to earth.

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Smooth landing.

I pulled my knees up as we landed, and he took the brunt of the force. And just like that, we were back on solid ground, meters away from my pale-faced mom.

“That was awesome!” I shrieked.

“Think you’ll do it again?” asked my instructor, whose name, I then learned, was Ryan.

I grinned at him, and said, “Oh yeah.”

They said there’s no such thing as a perfectly good airplane, but even if there was, jumping off of one guarantees a memory of gut-punching quality for a long, long time.

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BY APRIL KNIGHT

All research done by the V.I. Sea Turtle Project under the University of the Virgin Islands Marine and Environmental Science Center is conducted pursuant to a National Marine Fisheries Service permit.


          The seabed shimmered a dark green, barely reached by the filtered midday light. Darker coral lay in scattered splotches. The ocean was quiet as a womb, disturbed only by the rasp of his breathing into the mask.

     Scott Eanes strained his eyes and drifted forward. Alongside three other marine researchers, Eanes was combing Brewer’s Bay, a small patch of ocean on St. Thomas’ southwest end, quietly searching for the amphibious subjects of his research: pre-pubescent hawksbill sea turtles.

     Eanes, a graduate marine biology student at the University of the Virgin Islands, founded the V.I. Sea Turtle Project nine months ago. Closely linked to his university research, the local non-profit tags, tracks and monitors the population of endangered hawksbill sea turtles around St. Thomas, ultimately to protect them.

    “Hawksbills are considered a ‘keystone specie,’” said Eanes. “They make the ecosystem stronger, able to withstand disturbances like hurricanes, just by being there.”

      First, Eanes had to find them. Finally, a brief shout cut across the howling sea breeze: “Turtle!”

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Eanes, far right, holds a recaptured juvenile hawksbill sea turtle.

      In unison, the three human bodies bobbing quietly on the water converged in one area. Contrary to the reputation of their ground-based counterparts, sea turtles move like underwater missiles, nothing but quick green flashes shooting through the water to the unprepared eye. When Eanes spotted the turtle, he lost no time, diving in a straight line toward the small, dark shape against the rocks, grabbing it quickly and swimming toward a waiting research boat.

       It turned out to be a juvenile hawksbill already tagged by Eanes’ team, judging from the tiny, metal clips on its flippers. According to his tag, his name was Cletus.

       “Looks like we caught him several months ago,” said Eanes, holding up the struggling turtle. “We’ve tagged about 30 so far.”

       Cletus, only a couple of years old, was a foot in length from head to tail, his rubbery shell a dark pattern of overlapping diamond scales. His strong flippers slapped the surface of the boat with resounding cracks, his beak-like mouth, after which his specie was named, snapping at the researchers’ questing hands.

Scott, in his "Turtle Power" shirt, and fellow researcher Samu Mitchell place a wet towel over Cletus to calm him.

Scott, in his “Turtle Power” shirt, and fellow researcher Samu Mitchell place a wet towel over Cletus to calm him.

Eanes took a sloppy wet towel, pressed down on Cletus with it to keep him calm, and quickly went to work. He measured Cletus crosswise and lengthwise and took his weight. Instead of injecting a tracker microchip into Cletus’ neck, Eanes ran a black device the size of a TV remote along the turtle’s body to check if the tag was working properly.

     “He’s grown one pound,” announced a beaming Eanes, eliciting cheers from his colleagues.

     Ten minutes later, Cletus was placed gently back into the water.

    Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 10.41.49 PM “We hope he makes it,” said Eanes, watching Cletus disappear quickly into the depths. “He already passed the most dangerous stage of his life, it’d be a shame if we lost him now.”