Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 3, 2017

“Is It Art?” Part II: Black Box

A few months ago, I wrote a post about a massive piece of art on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: “Levitated Mass,” by Michael Heizer.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7014 (480x640)

It’s a 300-ton boulder suspended above a 15-foot-deep concrete trench.

The question I asked, “Is it art?” generated a number of interesting comments.

Recently I saw another work — albeit much smaller — that begs the same question.

McCracken Black Box 7838 (640x480)

That is “Black Box,” by John McCracken, created c. 1965. It’s on display in the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum. The museum’s description reads, “Polyester resin on fiberglass and plywood.” I didn’t measure it, but it’s approximately 18″ on each side.

As you can see, the visible faces are reflective. It’s only occurred to me now that there are two sides — the “back” and the bottom — that I did not see. Does one assume they’re identical? Is part of the artistry to make us question our assumption that the parts suggest the whole?  A question of the gestalt?

I went out of my way to avoid reflections in the image above other than the unavoidable one of the white plinth and the object’s own shadow. A second image shows the reflection of a passing museum-goer and the descriptive card to the right.

McCracken Black Box 7839 (640x524)


There is certainly “artistry” involved: imagining and then executing the fabrication of a (presumably) perfect cube with no surface variation other than in the reflection of light on its surface.

That, after all, is precisely what is going on in adjacent rooms of that museum and every other museum in the world: Light is reflecting from paint, stone, bronze, ceramics or precious metals used by Monet, Degas, Tiffany et. al. One of the most profound lessons a beginning painter learns is that she isn’t painting the object, she’s painting the light reflected from it.

Black Cube is an object, not a representation. If it represents anything, it embodies the idea, “cube.” But it’s also about light, because it reflects light (and does almost nothing else). Is that enough to call it “art?” René Magritte famously painted a pipe with the label, “Ceci n’est pas un pipe,” naming the painting “The treachery of images.” McCracken calls this a cube: Is that what it is? If that’s all it signified, wouldn’t he have simply made the surface a nonreflective matte black?

At the very least, McCracken makes us think about the light, not just the object.

So, is it art?

I already know what I think. What about you? Leave a comment. I relish discussions like this.

Additional information:

John McCracken on Wikipedia

John McCracken Survey, David Zwirner

© Brad Nixon 2017. Black Cube © John McCracken, Portland Art Museum, gift of Karen and Henry Groth. No commercial use of the image without express permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 16, 2017

The Joy of Pain

You know one: an exercise geek.

Their workout routines and the progress of their strength, speed or endurance — related in excruciating detail — dominate their conversation. You make every attempt to stick to safe subjects like politics or religion, but, inevitably, you end up hearing a blow-by-blow narrative of their latest killer ab crunch or the dy-no-mite new series of inverted hanging military presses they’ve discovered. You sidle away, explaining that you’re in a hurry, on your way to the Kazakhstan Consulate to pick up your visa to hike the Silk Road, and that you’ll see them when you get back in 18 months or so … if you survive.

Heaven forbid that you encounter them limping toward you. Run away.

They’ve blown out their knee, torn a rotator cuff or ruptured an Achilles tendon. If you give them an opening, not only will you learn exactly how they incurred it, but why: improper form executing the forward one-and-a-half dismount from their balance beam practice, overstriding while running the curve during their 800-meter speed intervals or prematurely moving up from 200 to 220 pounds on the bicep curl.

If they stopped there, it might not be too bad. You could express sympathy, wish them well in their recovery, and hustle off, perhaps even thinking this might tamp down their focus on workouts for a few weeks while they heal so you could chat about other things.

But there are no days off in Workout Obsession World. There are underlying causes to consider, and you’re going to hear about them. These range from overtraining (they only rested an hour between running 20 miles and putting in 2 hours free-climbing the gym’s vertical wall), an electrolyte imbalance (they knew they should be getting more hydromorphic diethylene citrate in their diet!) or something equally involved, requiring exhaustive explication.

Only with injury does the real fun — the absolute joy of pain — of working out begin for these lost souls. If exercise and all its attendant details is an obsession, recovery is a religion magnified to cult status.

They have a plan, a program. Whether it takes weeks or months — the more extreme, one way or the other, the better — they’ll be back, better than ever, and you’re going to hear a day-by-day outline: the stretching; application of cold, pressure and heat; progressively shorter periods of rest and concomitantly longer stints of easy, then moderate and finally strenuous activity, applied with the single-minded passion of a physicist measuring the electronic discharge from sub-atomic particles moving at the speed of light in the Hadron Collider.

But wait, that’s not all! There’s the task of describing, analyzing and categorizing the pain itself.

I don’t know any other languages well enough to compare them, but in English, we possess a vast word hoard of pain descriptors. They include tender, stinging, throbbing, pulsing, aching, dull, sharp, searing, to name only a sample of the single words. Once we expand our list to include multiple word phrases, there’s a veritable encyclopedia of agony. Even better, as the injury either heals or (OMG) worsens, the descriptors change, and what was a searing pain subsides to an ache, then soreness, in endless procession. You’ll know exactly what stage they’re in, where they started, and what’s next.

The true devotee will have not only their own testimony, but draw citations from a rich literature of physiological research studies, websites, newsletters and podcasts to quote to you about the incidence, causes, prognosis, treatment, recovery and future avoidance of their injury.

So, did I tell you about how I pulled my calf muscle today at the Torrance South track? Really, this’ll just take a minute. There I was, a few miles into my run, with only a couple more to do ….

IMG_3353 wide track

Where’d everybody go?

© Brad Nixon 2017

Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 30, 2017

2017 Reading: Midpoint Observations

At the halfway point of 2017, I’m pleased to report that it’s been a good year for reading.

I’m not going to get into whether I’ve read more books than your sister has; the number isn’t important. I’ve made some excellent discoveries, with books by authors from 6 countries. Exactly 50% of my books were borrowed from the library, and the bulk of the rest I received as gifts, pulled from the shelves of Rancho Retro or picked up for a dollar or two at the Friends of the Library book sale. Amazon and the brick-and-mortar bookstores aren’t happy on my account.

The books (almost all fiction) span just under 200 years: 1819 – 2016.  That range will expand by about 400 years at the end of 2017, assuming I finish out the year with the traditional rereading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Speaking of Re-reading

I’m an inveterate re-reader. I return again and again to a few treasured favorites, but this year has been an exception, only one of my 2017 books to-date being one I’d read before; even that was for a specific reason. I discovered the French writer, Emmanuel Carerre, and the first of two of his books I read (in English translation) was I Am Alive and You Are Dead, a biography of one of my all-time favorite authors, Philip K. Dick.

Having just become aware of Carerre’s work, and waiting while I moved up the library wait list for his 2016 book, The Kingdom, I was delighted to find that he’d authored a study of Dick. The book is a mixture of thoroughly researched fact and personal reflection and associations, a hallmark of his work.  As it happens, 2016 had been my year to re-read a number of Dick’s novels, so the references in Carerre’s book were fresh in my mind, but it had been many years since I’d picked up A Maze of Death, a classic bit of Dickian storytelling, set on an alien planet and mixing myth, interpersonal conflict, psychotropic drugs and — inevitably — disaster.

By an incredible stroke of luck for me, The Kingdom (about the relationship between  Saint Paul and Saint Luke) once it came to me, is replete with references to the period in Carerre’s own life when he was suffering a crisis of faith that informed his investigation of Dick’s life. The science fiction writer also wrestled with matters of faith, converting to a committed Catholicism at one point, and using it as a platform for much of his writing that followed.

Sadly, A Maze of Death didn’t hold up to the high regard I developed for it when I first read it 40 years ago, but I recommend Carerre to you if you’re not familiar with him.

Previously Reported

The first 2 months of the year included 2 impressive books, The Bridge over the Drina by the Serbian writer, Ivo Andrich, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. I was moved to write blog posts about each of those, which you can find by clicking on the respective book titles.

Czars of the Name Game

Still looming on the list of books I intend to read this year is one of the Big Ones: War and Peace. I’ll get there. You’ll probably read about it here. In preparation, I’ve done a couple of Russian Lit warm-ups: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

My previous experience with Russian writers —Dostoevsky, Anna Karenina, Chekhov and a handful of others — came flooding back in one notable way.

Those names! Every character has a first name, a patronymic, a family name and one or more nicknames (Arcady Nicholeyevich in Fathers and Sons gets a raft of nicknames from his mother, who seems to generate a new one with every appearance she makes). Fortunately, my editions of both books provided a list of characters with most of their names. Perhaps that’s a fixture of all Russian novels; a necessary survival tool.


Some time ago I wrote a blog post about a list of “100 Greatest British Novels.” I majored in English literature in college, and I’ve read a large number of the books on that list … until about 1960. I was stunned to discover that I had read none of the 29 books on that list published after 1962. None.

I’m continuing my catch-up game, and so far this year my reading’s included fascinating work by four British women: Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966), Zadie Smith (The Autograph Man,  2002 and NW, 2012),  Monica Ali (Brick Lane, 2003), and Ali Smith (There But For The, 2011). All have things to recommend them. I particularly enjoyed There But for The.

American Masters, Old and New

As for American authors, I’ve been filling in gaps, too. I revere Mark Twain, but had never read any of his travel writing, so I started with A Tramp Abroad. There are brilliantly hilarious portions, and some powerful ones, too sometimes simultaneously. I don’t actually know whether or not to trust his first-hand account of the dueling fraternities at Heidelberg , but it was captivating. There are, I must say, some long, slow-moving and not inspiring sections of the book, too. I was fortunate that my library’s copy was a reprint of an 1880s edition of the book with several hundred illustrations, including 4 by Twain. It was a reminder of the cultural context in which Twain was working. Books were one of the primary forms of entertainment in a world before recorded sound and moving pictures, and that edition by the American Publishing Company put me in the place of a person 130 years ago, reading about travels through Europe as told by one of the world’s foremost (and most entertaining) writers.

I’ve read my share of Henry James, now some decades ago, but had never read The Portrait of a Lady. I was riveted by it, both the narrative structure and the language, and now I’m at risk of going on a James bender, reading or rereading a big portion of his novels.

I knew Willa Cather’s stories, but not a single one of her novels. I broke the ice with O Pioneers! Highly recommended.

I continued my exploration of the work of one of my favorite recent discoveries, Richard Ford, although he’s now 73 and I should have found him sooner. I finished working backward through a trilogy I began at the end last year, reading The Sportswriter. Ford has all the archetypically American perspective of Updike, Cheever and O’Hara, a marvelous ear, and compelling command of narrative. I have more of his work on my to-read list.

Late in the game, I’ve discovered another writer, a slightly older contemporary of Ford’s, whom I should’ve known long before this, Robert Coover. While waiting for my turn at his recently published Huck Out West (continuing the story of Huckleberry Finn, an outrageous idea if ever three was one), I read his staggeringly audacious novel, John’s Wife. I can’t think of a book that’s slammed me in the head with the impact of that one. Everything about it is stunning. How I could have read Pynchon, Gass, DeLillo, Barthelme, Gaddis and the rest of his generation and not come across Coover is a mystery, but I look forward to making up for lost time with more of his books.

Muy Borracho Under the Volcano

I’ll conclude with a perennial theme of fiction: alcohol consumption.

Hemingway is probably the gold standard when it comes to novels that feature drinking, especially The Sun Also Rises, but you may have other favorites.

Personally, I’ve always held Kingsley Amis’ description of Jim Dixon’s hangover in Lucky Jim as the single funniest bit ever written about drinking, and the role alcohol plays in Dixon’s misadventures is just one of the many charms of the book. Last year, I discovered that Amis’ son, Martin, took on the old man and out-Heroded Herod, as the saying goes, in Money, which, page for page, derives about as much entertainment value from imbibing as one can pack into a book. Or so I thought.

However, this year, I finally tackled Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. There’s a lot to say about a book that’s been lauded as one of the greatest 20th Century British novels without discussing all the drinking. The main story takes place in one 24-hour period, and I don’t know of any fictional character who’s managed to consume as much alcohol as the protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin, and with such panache, although it’s not humorous. That’s not a reason to recommend the book — there are much better ones — but Lowry sets the bar higher than ever ol’ Papa leaped.

What’s your favorite book of 2017 so far? And, really, has anyone ever had more drinks per page than Lowry’s character? Let me know.

© Brad Nixon 2017

Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 27, 2017

Call to Action: Saving Organ Mountains Monument (et al)

In preparing for an upcoming trip to southern New Mexico, I visited the National Park Service (NPS) website to plan a visit to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, created by President Obama in 2014, spanning nearly half a million acres in south-central New Mexico.

Rugged, dramatic peaks, some still wilderness, the Organ Mountains have significant natural, prehistoric and historic value. Archaic inhabited sites dating as far back as 7,000 years have been identified, and more likely remain in areas not fully surveyed. The list of diverse bird, animal and plant species that live in that harsh land fills several pages.

It’s a strikingly dramatic landscape, but I’ve only seen it in passing along the highway and from within the city of Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley of the Rio Grande. As a result, I don’t have photos to share with you, but I look forward to exploring it and writing about it here.

However, the Monument isn’t listed on the NPS site. Its “Monument” status hasn’t been approved. More dire is the news is that it’s one of 27 previously approved Monuments the current president and administration intend to cancel.

Currently, the areas encompassed by the proposed Monument are public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). There are trails, parking areas and campgrounds, so it is accessible. However, the difference between BLM and NPS remits is that as BLM land, the area is still subject to applications for mining, grazing, logging and other commercial uses. With Monument status under the aegis of NPS, the area would be removed from future development of any sort and preserved as natural space.

The White House has clearly stated its intention to revoke Monument status for 27 pending National Monuments created during the past 20 years. The action is a microcosm of the administration’s egregious disregard for the environment, the welfare of U.S. citizens and of its adamant opposition to anything that impedes the ability of commercial enterprise to exploit any resource, no matter the impact. The administration isn’t saying that there is some number of proposed Monument sites that are problematic. They are ruling against the very concept of protecting lands from development in any way.

Click here to see the list of 27 Monuments under review.

Like Organ Mountains, all the proposed monuments received extensive public review and comment. In many instances, the agreements to move forward to Monument status were forged through long and sometimes contentious debate between residents, communities and interests with differing points of view. Despite that fact, the administration is making haste to establish a new rule of governance that spans not only the environment and public lands, but the health, welfare, equality and freedom of citizens: the rule of money. There shall be no infringement on the flow of dollars into commercial enterprise. It’s a supremely un-American approach, given our country’s long tradition of embracing the protection of natural lands.

Take Action. Time Is Critical

The U.S. Department of the Interior (of which the NPS is part) has set a deadline of July 7, 2017 to receive any public comment on this issue. Nearly all of you who read this blog are travelers, and many of you are outdoors people: hikers, bikers, runners and adventurers, or have the well-being of our natural spaces at heart. It’s time to act.

In the case of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, go to this link:

There, you can write and send a message to Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of the Interior, adding your voice to those who oppose canceling National Monument status.

The Sierra Club also provides a link to take similar action. The link below addresses the 7 pending Monuments in California, but you can tailor your message to address any or all of the Monuments under review.

Link to Sierra Club communication.

I always suggest including some of your own text rather than using the boilerplate copy provided by any organization; it proves that you’re a concerned individual, a voter and not a robot.

Here’s my letter:

I urge you to confirm National Monument status for New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. This natural land encompasses important natural environments and watersheds, serves as habitat for numerous plant and animal species, and contains numerous  important archaeological and historic sites.

A full public review with the engagement of all vested parties has already been conducted, and there is every reason to move forward with Monument status for the area, as previously approved. 

With full Monument protection, these scenic and valuable lands will be a resource for generations to come, and serve as one more demonstration of our commitment as a nation to preserving our natural and historic heritage. It will also be a significant generator of travel, tourism and the associated employment that will benefit southern New Mexico and its people.


Most of you are writers; you know how to do this. But it requires action. Silence is acquiescence.

Many of you write about the outdoors, the environment and associated subjects in your own blogs. This would be a good week to bring this matter to the attention of your readers.

Some time this year, I expect to write a blog post describing what I saw when I hiked in the Organ Mountains. Will I be describing a National Monument? Not if we’re silent.

Thank you.

To my international readers:

I make every effort to be as inclusive as possible, and I deeply appreciate having you read Under Western Skies. I enjoy reading about your visits to your national parks, whether in Poland, the U.K., South Korea, the Philippines or anywhere else in the world. I know you treasure them. In this instance, writing about a domestic U.S. issue, I ask your forbearance. Wish us well. 

Note: the featured image some of you see at the head of this post is not the Organ Mountains, but the Jumbo Rocks area of Joshua Tree National Park, another of the spectacular natural treasures protected by the National Park Service.

© Brad Nixon 2017

Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 30, 2017

Watch the Water. This Isn’t “Baywatch.”

This weekend, the Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., was our ad hoc official start of summer, at least insofar as the consensus for the date on which swimming pools and beaches are open.

Wherever you are, and whatever season it is in your part of the world, take a moment to consider water safety with me, please. Consider this a message from my mother, avid swimmer and Registered Nurse, who is no longer here to deliver the message in person.

Learn to swim, teach your children to swim and watch the water.

“Watch the water” is the guiding principal of lifeguards everywhere. In a moment of inattention, a person can lose their life by drowning, whether they’re a practiced swimmer or not.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that an average of 3,536 people drowned in the U.S. each year between 2005 and 2014: about 10 each day, not including another 332 people per year in boating accidents.

Here in southern California, the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard Division lifeguards watch 72 miles of coastline. With about 50 million people visiting the beaches during a year, they perform an average of about 10,000 rescues per year. That is serious business.

There’s a dramatized version of lifeguards on the big screen right now: “Baywatch.” Without having seen the movie, I can speculate that onscreen, lifeguards are more glamorous and their work more dramatic than is apparent in the real-life work they do day in and day out. There is, though, nothing much more dramatic than saving a life, and with being prepared to act on a moment’s notice every minute a lifeguard’s on duty.

Here’s a photo I shot two weeks ago on Redondo Beach near the Pier:

LAFD lifeguards Brad Nixon 7042 (640x427)

What I like about that photo of actual lifeguards (red jackets) at work is the fact that the lifeguard on duty in the tower has come out to talk to the supervisor who’s just driven up in the vehicle. Notice that whatever they’re discussing, they’re sitting side-by-side, both WATCHING THE WATER. It never stops.

They’re not watching for what you might expect. It’s important for you to know what it is, because sometimes you are the lifeguard, not a trained professional.

You may be at a backyard pool, a lake in a nearby park or at a cookout by a river.

If there are people in the water, young or old, non-swimmers splashing by the edge or excellent swimmers out in the water, someone should be watching from shore. Here’s why.

A drowning person doesn’t call for help, doesn’t wave their arms to indicate distress. They’re drowning, and their only concern is with saving themselves through something called Instinctive Drowning Response. They have no air with which to call for help, because they’re trying to breathe. Their arms are engaged in pressing against the water to keep their heads above water and they can’t signal for assistance. They’re fighting for their lives and have no energy or mental attention for anything but survival.

I know, the pool’s only 15 feet from the back door, and you and all the adults are sitting right there, just inside when the kids run out to the pool. If something happens, you won’t hear it. There won’t be any noise. You have to watch. The pool, the lake, the river, whatever, are off-limits unless someone’s watching. Period.

I’m not a trained lifeguard, either, so I’ll direct your attention to an article and an instructive video that explain what to watch for. Keys you’ll learn are that drowning people don’t LOOK like drowning people do in movies, because they’re not thrashing about: They’re entirely focused on trying to stay above water. If they’re drowning, you have less than 30 seconds to get to them.

Please CLICK HERE to read the details.

Teach your kids to swim. It could save their lives, but it could also give them something they’ll enjoy for a lifetime. That’s straight from Nurse Nixon. She and I wish you a safe, happy summer in the water.

The link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention above has additional information about preparedness and prevention.

Read about the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard Division here.

© Brad Nixon 2017

Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 28, 2017

Morning Paper: Where Worlds Collide

There are two types of readers: those who prefer to read a printed page and those who would rather read information on an electronic display.

I never tire of this subject, especially regarding newspapers.

I’m a lifelong newspaper fan, and I still relish picking up the local newspaper in airports, bookstores, gas stations and restaurants. There’s nothing more appealing than a well-stocked news stand.

newsstand Marcy Vincent 3516 (480x640)

I’m fascinated, even in a country where I can’t actually read any of them.

China Shanghai newsstand Brad Nixon 25 (640x480)

That was in Shanghai, China. The next time I pass through Socorro, New Mexico, I’ll see what’s in the pages of the local publication, which has one of the best names of any American paper: The El Defensor Chieftain. If I go through Concrete, Washington again, I hope I’ll still find printed copies of the Concrete Herald around town. I wrote briefly about the Herald in a piece about Concrete, click here.

When I’m lucky enough to travel abroad, I make a stab at reading the foreign languages in which Le Monde, Corriere della Sera and the Times of London are written.

I grew up reading syndicated columnists who appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer, although they wrote for newspapers in Chicago (Mike Royko), Washington (Art Buchwald) or Los Angeles (Jim Murray), not to mention Cincinnati’s own Bob Brumfield.

I no longer subscribe to a printed newspaper of any description: world, local or neighborhood coverage. The days of sitting at breakfast and leafing through one, checking the sports scores, reading the comics or doing the crossword are things of the past here at Rancho Retro.

Nothing more clearly demonstrates the impact of technology on the flow of information than the topic of print versus online news.

Still an avid news reader, I rarely fail to spend a measurable amount of time on the websites of the LA Times, New York Times, BBC and a few others, including the newspaper that covers my portion of Los Angeles, The Daily Breeze.

I’m not entirely satisfied with that situation. There are aspects of turning the pages of a well laid-out newspaper that can’t be replicated by even the best websites. Granted, there are no hyperlinks to related material, no streaming video and just as many advertisements in print as online, but there’s nothing like a newspaper for those serendipitous discoveries, those full-page spreads of news or features from every part of the world. Also missing from newspapers are the irritating full page pop-up ads that block the screen (I’m looking at YOU,

We’re currently retrieving the neighbors’ newspaper while they’re out of town, and this was the first morning in many years we’d sat down to breakfast with the newspaper spread out on the table.

newspaper Brad Nixon 7044 (640x480)

I won’t belabor the point, but it was a pleasure, and one worth repeating.

I feel divided, because I know that, ultimately, only a fraction of the existing printed newspapers (already a paltry set of survivors from a few decades ago) will endure as more readers (including me), cancel their print subscriptions and read online. Rather, I suppose, many papers will persist, but only online, and there’ll be no more morning coffee with that page of box scores from yesterday’s baseball games open in front of me (or I could turn the page, study the entries for the day’s racing at Santa Anita Racetrack, and mark my choices with a pencil).

I particularly mourn the loss of those local newspapers — many of them weeklies — that have disappeared or certainly will, including the paper that served my Midwestern hometown for more than 150 years before it closed up shop. Journalism and journalists continue, but their old order is rapidly fading.

What’s your preference: print or online? Or both? What’s better about one or the other? Please add a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Photo of me reading a now-ancient headline © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 26, 2017

Tractatus Logico-Ductus: a Logical Leadership Treatise

Dear Mr. President,

It’s always struck me how demanding it must be to read all the hundreds of pages of material that stream across your desk every day: the briefings, legislation being considered by Congress (which you must absorb, then sign or veto), reports from multiple federal agencies, more reports from the White House staff … it’s an immense job in itself, aside from all your other responsibilities.

I can only imagine that you and your predecessors have found the time to read for pleasure or personal fulfillment dwindling to almost nothing. I picture the books on your bedside table or in some quiet portion of the White House sitting unopened: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (I know how you like the Russians), not to mention more contemporary titans like O’Reilly and Hefner.

I also suspect you’ve also had little opportunity lately to crack open your copy of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

It’s obvious that you care deeply about facts and the truth. The subject figures largely in nearly every public address you make, not to mention all those tweets on the topic of eschewing inaccurate information. You’re all about facts!

However busy you are, Herr Wittgenstein might be a resource when more volatile people around you resort to terms like “fake news” or “alternative facts” when confronted with demonstrable truth. Having on your side one of the 20th Century’s preeminent philosophers and his methodology for determining the scope (and limits) of the relationship between language and reality is a powerful tool to employ in stemming any drift away from FACTS in your leadership of the nation.

I thought of you immediately as I was rereading the Tractatus recently.  It occurs to me that you might find Wittgenstein’s continuation of the tradition of Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant and Russell useful in combating the less disciplined speakers on your staff who sometimes appear before the cameras making rather wayward comments that reflect careless attitudes toward the relationship of language and reality.

Just review with me, if you will, Wittgenstein’s Proposition 1, in which he begins his elucidation of what we can know about the world and (important for you) what we can say about it:

1 The world is all that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.
1.2 The world divides into facts.

Reassuring, isn’t it? To propose the existence of something called an “alternative fact” would necessitate there being an “alternative world” comprised of such. I’m sure, like me, you find it difficult to imagine an epistemological method for determining truth that would allow a leader could govern in an alternative world.

Wittgenstein bolsters us with the certainty that the FACTS remain all that the case is, and therefore the world. Perhaps you’ll remind your staff that although, as Kant said, the mind is “a unity which unifies,” it can only do so when premises and conclusions are based on facts.

The final proposition of the Tractatus is also worth bearing in mind:

7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Viewed this way, Wittgenstein was, in a sense, writing not only a seminal work on the metaphysics of language and knowledge, but a guide for leaders in an era when so many demonstrable facts are called into question, despite their clear representation of “all that is the case.” His work is, we might say, a “Logical Leadership Treatise,” (Tractatus Logico-Ductus) as well as one about logical philosophy and epistemology.

(By the way, Wittgenstein was a huge fan of both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky!)

The world is determined by the facts, indeed. I find that a comforting thought, and trust you do, as well. I fully understand how difficult it must be for you — or any world leader — to find those precious minutes away from the crush of work facing you. I hope this note has been of some value. Happy reading.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1921. English translation © Dover Books, Frank Ramsey and Charles Kay Ogden, reprint 1999.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 24, 2017

North Cascades National Park, Washington

Mountain residents, travelers and trekkers wait each year for the roads to open. In the mountains of the American west, particularly following a winter of heavy snowfall like the past one, it can be a long wait.

If you’ve been planning to drive into or through North Cascades National Park in northern Washington, Route 20, the North Cascades Highway, opened about a week ago, the 3rd-latest opening in its history. Crews removed as much as 25 feet of snow from the only paved road that crosses the park, which is primarily wilderness.

Cascade Loop Brad Nixon 7394-2 (640x480)

That’s the “Cascade Loop” at the eastern edge of the park as it appeared late one October several years ago, before snow had begun falling in earnest. The park itself doesn’t close during the winter, but access is limited to hardy backcountry travelers equipped to deal with extreme conditions.

Immediately above the Loop, viewed from Washington Pass Overlook (blue square in map below), these peaks give you an idea of the rugged wilderness found in North Cascades National Park.

Early Winters Spires Liberty Bell Brad Nixon 7396-2 (640x480)

The pinnacles on the left are the Early Winter Spires, and on the right is Liberty Bell, 7,720′.

Liberty Bell Brad Nixon 7403-2 (480x640)

This detail from the NPS Visitor Guide provides an overview of Route 20 through the park.

Route 20 map NPS marked

If you enter from the west, you’ll find the Visitors’ Center a good place for a first stop for updates on conditions, camping and trail information, as well as access to a number of trails that wind through the dense, mossy forest.

From there, you’ll get a look at the imposing Picket Range, 10 miles to the north.

Picket Range Brad Nixon 7338-2 (640x468)

On the left is Pinnacle Peak, 6,805 feet, also known as the “Chopping Block.”

Pinnacle Peak Brad Nixon 7332-2 (640x445)

To the right are the Pyramid (7,920′) and Inspiration Peak (7,840′)

Pyramid Inspiration Peak Brad Nixon 7339-2 (640x480)

Those views are an excellent introduction to the reality of the park, because there are no roads and no maintained trails in the Picket Range area. Like much of the park, it is absolute wilderness.

Route 20 follows the course of the Skagit River (SKAA-jit) upstream, where it’s been dammed to form a series of lakes you’ll see below you as you drive: Gorge, Diablo and Ross.

You’ll want to take advantage of the scenic overlooks along the road, like the Diablo Lake Overlook:

Diablo Lake Brad Nixon 7353-2 (480x640)

A road leads down to the lakes where there is hiking, boating and some accommodations.

All along the route there are trailheads for hikes of varying degrees of difficulty. One doesn’t truly see a place without getting out on foot, and you’ll be rewarded with the experience of the alpine forest, snow and glaciers on the mountains and waterfalls.

Waterfall Brad Nixon 7345-2 (640x480)

Every turn of the highway brings another vista into view.

North Cascades Brad Nixon 7361-2 (640x480)

Once out of the eastern side of the park, you’re in the watershed of the Columbia River, and the drier landscape is an important area for agriculture, especially the many varieties of Washington’s famous apples. A good stopping place is the small town of Winthrop, founded in 1891. There are shops, dining and fuel, not to mention plenty of local character.

A Big Volcano Nearby

One worthwhile point of interest not within North Cascades NP, but on the very northwestern edge is the spectacular stratovolcano, Mt. Baker, 10,781 feet (3,286 m).

Mount Baker Brad Nixon 7279-PS1 (640x468)

Draped in glaciers, it has the most active crater in the Cascades other than Mount Saint Helens, and there were eruptions in the 19th Century.

Getting There

The map below shows the park’s position relative to Seattle, about 2 hours away by car, as well as Washington’s other 2 National Parks: Olympic, to the west and Rainier, at the bottom. North Cascades National Park’s northern border is the U.S.-Canadian border.

North Cascades NP road map

There are some services within the park, but no fuel stops in the 60 miles, and few accommodations other than camping and a lakeside resort at Ross Lake. We stayed in Concrete (blue circle, top map) and I wrote about the small town in an article here, many years ago. The access to the Mt. Baker area (blue star) is just west of Concrete.

A good source for basic information about the park, including trails, hiking, camping and much more is the NPS Visitor Information Guide. Click on the link to view it and download.

This is the barest sketch of an extensive, fascinating place. Have you been to North Cascades? What tips do you have for readers?

© Brad Nixon 2017. Top map © U.S. National Park Service. Bottom map © Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 22, 2017

An Elephant with an Obelisk(?) Bernini in Rome

Whether in a small town or the most sprawling metropolis, simply walking around leads to unexpected discoveries.

Rome is an excellent example. Replete with buildings, monuments, art and even plumbing that originated over a span of thousands of years, the city delivers a ceaseless barrage of sights that bear investigating. With your attention bouncing between the pages of your tour book and your camera viewfinder, you’re likely to literally bump into some presence from the past that makes you stop, gawk and ask, “Whaah …?”

Like this:

Elephant and Obelisk Brad Nixon 023 (480x640)

Okay, a statue of an elephant with an obelisk on its back. Of course, makes perfect sense. The Romans carted back a mess of obelisks from Egypt. Maybe one of them was on an elephant. Yeah, maybe that’s an Egyptian elephant. Or maybe it has something to do with beating Hannibal after he crossed the Alps using elephants (although of 38 he started with, only a handful survived the ordeal).

You know you’re in the Piazza della Minerva (map below, red circle at bottom), but you weren’t planning to stop to see the church (Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva), visible behind the statue. You’re on your way to see the Pantheon, only steps away, then find La Casa Del Caffè Tazza D’oro (gold star) to sample their world-famous coffee, and then the equally renowned Gelateria Della Palma (150 flavors!) (blue circle).

Rome Elephant Obelisk map Google

You weren’t expecting an obelisk-bearing pachyderm.

While you’re leafing through the guidebook for information, your travel partner sits on the pediment to wait.

Elephant and Obelisk Brad Nixon 038 (475x640)

The problem with Rome, as with other ancient towns, is that it’s not one thing. It consists of layer upon layer of history piled upon prehistory, on top of all of which resides the present, all jumbled together. You can stand on paving stones laid down by Roman workmen while you look in the windows of a modern store in a Renaissance-era building occupying the site of an Etruscan tomb. The city is a welter of cultures, welded together in an overwhelming fashion.

Your guidebook informs you that the statue is Elephant and Obelisk (Italian: Obelisco della Minerva), and isn’t from ancient Rome, at least not all of it. It was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1660, incorporating a bona fide Egyptian obelisk that had been recovered from the excavation of a nearby Roman site.

Elephant and Obelisk sculpture Rome Bernini Brad Nixon (480x640)

The work of Bernini, called “the Shakespeare of sculpture,” is everywhere in Rome. Not far from Elephant and Obelisk is the Piazza Navona (map, red star on left), where you’ll see his Four Rivers Fountain (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, 1651, sporting another Egyptian obelisk). I don’t have a photo that does it justice.

Bernini left an indelible mark on St. Peter’s Basilica, designing the arcing colonnades of the exterior piazza, the massive pillars at the junction of the four arms of the interior, the massive Baldacchino that stands in the center and a number of other works.

The place of pilgrimage to which every visitor to Rome should progress without fail is the Galleria Borghese in the Borghese Gardens. Go there to marvel at four of Bernini’s masterpieces, including Apollo and Daphne. It’s truly not to be missed. I know your itinerary is crowded, but don’t fail to make time for it. Before your visit, click on the Galleria website link to reserve tickets. Don’t plan to show up without a reservation.

I’m sorry to report that Elephant and Obelisk suffered an accident in November 2016. Vandals broke off the end of the elephant’s left tusk. To my knowledge, the statue is still open to view while authorities study restoration. If you visit and have an update, please provide it at, which is keeping tabs on the statue’s condition. and will provide updates.

Do you have a favorite Bernini work in Rome (or elsewhere)? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017

The bottom photo in this post and select images from Under Western Skies are available on CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky image portfolio.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 19, 2017

A Pile of Rocks #2: The City of Rocks, New Mexico

The first post in this 2-part series was about Joshua Tree National Park in California.

One of the largest U.S. National Parks, Joshua Tree is easily reached from interstate highway 10 and the nearby metropolitan area of Palm Springs. As a result, it receives about 2.5 million visitors each year.

For Part 2, I’ll go to a less-visited, more remote pile of rocks in New Mexico.

Our destination is the City of Rocks (flag on map below), between Silver City (red circle) and Deming (blue circle).

City of Rocks NM map Google

The New Mexico-Arizona border is at the left. The border with Texas is in the lower right (the border with Mexico is 33 miles south of Deming). The City of Rocks is about a 4 hour drive from Albuquerque,  3-1/2 hours from Tucson, 2 hours from El Paso. I’ve starred two other natural attractions in the region: White Sands National Monument to the east and the Gila Wilderness to the north.

The Google map has an inaccuracy. It’s “City of Rocks,” plural. There’s more than one rock.

city of rocks NM Marcy Vincent 034 - PS1 (640x480)

Volcanic Origin

Those formations are granite, the result of a volcanic eruption, shaped by 35 million years of subsequent erosion. Occupying approximately a one mile square area, City of Rocks is a sudden and striking anomaly in the wide-open plains.

city of rocks NM Brad Nixon 030 (640x480)

Some of the granite formations are as tall as 40 feet.

city of rocks NM Brad Nixon 038 (640x480)

The numerous trails that wind through the City of Rocks are relatively easy because the formation rests on more or less level ground in the midst of the high plains of the Chihuahuan Desert (5,200 feet elevation).

city of rocks NM Brad Nixon 049 (480x640)

Yes, when you go, you can truthfully say you’re out in the wide open spaces.

You’ll find ample opportunities to scramble off-trail through the labyrinth of monoliths.

Close-up, you see how solid blocks of granite are eaten away by millions of years of wind, rain, snow and even lichen.

city of rocks NM Brad Nixon 048 (480x640)

One encounters impressive results from the accidents of erosion in any big pile of rocks, like this boulder perched on a tiny pedestal.

city of rocks NM Brad Nixon 031 (640x480)

I couldn’t resist doing the math. At an average for granite of 150 pounds per cubic foot, that boulder weighs 7 or 8 tons. There’s a story there. How did it end up poised on that small base? Did it fall or roll onto it, or did water and wind erode the ground beneath it?


As always, wildlife sightings depend on the season, time of day and our old friend, blind luck. Numerous species of birds, reptiles and mammals inhabit the area, but visiting in the middle of the day, we saw the usual suspects: lizards, a jackrabbit and this sentinel ground squirrel on his solitary outpost.

City of Rocks NM Brad Nixon 046 (640x480)

When You’re There

As a New Mexico State Park, City of Rocks provides a reasonable number of services, including direction signs from the main road (always welcome), a visitors’ center, water, parking area, restrooms and camping. When skies are clear, there’s world-class stargazing, a long way from any light pollution. Click here for the park website.

Daylight viewing, though, provides plenty of memorable vistas and opportunities to contemplate nature’s ability both to create and destroy.

city of rocks NM Marcy Vincent 041 (640x480)

It can be blistering hot in summer, which is also the season for thunderstorms, including lightning, so go prepared.

Nearby Deming has a few attractions, but I don’t know it well other than its funky local museum. It’s a major stop along interstate highway 10, with plenty of shops and services. Silver City is well worth a visit, with an interesting historic downtown. It’s a college town (Western New Mexico University, where the museum has an excellent collection of Mogollon culture artifacts) and is the gateway to the Gila Wilderness. I’ll write about both the city and the wilderness in future blog posts.

I repeat my invitation to post a comment with your own favorite big pile of rocks, from whatever part of the world.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission. Map © Google.

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