Category Archives: The Wilds

Ironwood Forest National Monument

Round and about Ragged Top:

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Kartchner Caverns

It is full of shadows, depths, spaces with a presence and a texture. Against these, between these, through these spaces the formations stand clumped or alone, strange and wonderful and misshapen. The skill of the lighting picks out the speleothems: tiny and delicate twigs and antlers, the fragile and luminous curtains, the massive and awe-inspiring flows. Above them all arches the roof, itself a thing of wonder, a broken and shifting mass of banded limestone that hides mystery in its fractures and faultlines.

It is much about the spaces of darkness as the wondrous formations of calcite dropped and bubbled and crystallised and soda-strawed by water laden with minerals and pigments that has worked its tortuous ways through the limestone to create. It is still creating.

I just wanted to sit there and stare. Drink in. Feel. Something shifts inside of you in places like this.

I still remember the excitement when the knowledge of these caves was made public — 1988, and I was just a kid. We’d only ever seen the fake (but very impressive) caves at the Desert Museum, and trying to imagine something magnitudes bigger, more wonderful, more beautiful…I stretched high and wide to do it.

I failed, but not for lack of trying.

Even then mum had impressed upon us the wonderful gift that Kartchener Caverns were, how important it was that they get it right, that they protect such a thing of wonder and age still living and growing. The story of how they had been discovered and that secret kept hidden, protected for fourteen years as the cavers Tenen and Tufts and the Kartchners tried to figure out how they could be protected — well that story always wrapped those caves around like a blanket, and gave their fabled wonder even more strength. Even that young we knew that people ruin things like that if you do not protect them. When the waiting list stretched to years for entry once it finally opened to the public, I think I nodded, unsurprised. It was expensive. Not for folks like us. I was still glad they were protecting it though.

Fifteen more years of exploring all over Southern Arizona and I still had never been.

We went today, and they were more beautiful than I had imagined. Bigger and stranger and more wonderful.

Even now, the theme of stewardship, of these caves as something that belongs to the people and need to be cared for by us so that they can still be there for our children and grandchildren is what is emphasised most. It made me happy, I wish we had more talk like this.

We were in the Big Room. Words fail, as do pictures, to give you any sense of what it is like to stand there

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Courtesy of AZ State Parks
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Courtesy of AZ State Parks

Pictures flatten it out somehow, remove that echoing sense of vast enclosed space. Remove some of the awe. Remove the warmth and the humidity and the smell of rock breathing. Still, it was torture not to be able to take pictures or just sit there and stare, try and drink all of it in. Other people deserve a turn here though, and the tours are always full.

What surprised me most were the formations, these wonderful rippled sheets I had never seen before:

Kartchner-Caverns
Courtesy of Kartchner Caverns State Park

Helictites, ‘eccentric’ stalactites that have defied gravity, twisted and turned and curled upon themselves. Fried egg formations, formed of crystal so that light shines through them. 1-centimeter crenellations ridging and rippling up and down certain formations as they do in caves all around the world, and no one knows why (how much do I love the unknown, the undiscovered, the still-waiting and still-inexplicable). Lips and ledges and wonders of all kinds.

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Courtesy of Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic
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Courtesy of AZ State Parks

From April to October this room is a nursery for myotis bats and we yield it to them for the summer — that was perhaps one of my favourite facts. We will be back to see the Throne Room and Rotunda, but I wouldn’t mind making this a yearly pilgrimage.

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Seven Falls

Seven Falls, oasis in the desert.

IMG_0088You can see a person in the picture for scale if you look hard enough. There were a lot of people on the trail sadly, probably walking off immense dinners like us.

We escaped to Sabino Canyon all the time when I was little, a long drive and then a short enough walk you could (well, my mum and dad could) carry an ice chest, we’d bring food to barbecue and swim in the stream. We knew all the deepest holes, the best places to slide down rocks. I don’t think we made it up Bear Canyon until I was older, high school maybe. Plenty of hiking to do around our own house, though no waterfalls.

Still, it’s one of those places I have layers of memories for. Some aren’t even mine, like my brother’s friend getting airlifted out after casually reaching for a football they’d been throwing around in one of the pools and getting caught in the undertow and sucked over one of the falls.

My own fiercest memory is of hiking it after getting bitten on the thigh by something I never saw (never be lazy and leave your jeans on the floor, never, I know this). I hiked up here about three days after, when my leg was aching and the bruised area around the bite still expanding. With my flesh turning black and liquifying, it was definitely a spider. Not as bad as many I’ve seen, so I was lucky.  Still, I have memories of that ache, remembered a stretch or two where I had been sure I wouldn’t make it. I made it. I was a lot prouder and stupider in those days.

My favourite memory is walking along the banks beneath the mesquites, the air full of the smell of sage, my mum and dad hand in hand somewhere behind me.

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This last trip was just beautiful, though so cold — snow on the Rincons, and ice on the puddles. The water was higher than I ever remember it, and I forgot just how many times the trail crosses it (seven), balanced precariously on stones. There was a bit of jumping. I loved it, loved seeing the desert so lush and knowing the wildflowers will be probably be absolutely gorgeous this spring, though I won’t be there to see them.

My partner had a hard time calling this desert.

There was a sliver of silver moon above us the whole afternoon, and my camera mostly loved the contrasts between light and shadow. But for the falls themselves it made the pictures less than what I was hoping for…
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Extraordinary (if frightening) trilobite


I know it’s impossible to believe that anything as extraordinary as the trilobite above should be mine (all mine and absolutely no one else’s ever…one of my few ridiculous materialisms) but so it is. Happiness.

Trilobite – Order Lichida
Superfamily Odontopleuroidea – Family Odontopleuridae
Lower Devonian
Fossil Site: Hamar Laghdad Formation, Zerg, Morocco

Jellyfish and other wonders

Cnidarians. Schyphozoa. Hydromedusae. Science is full of these amazing Latin words that evoke the world’s riches, and the words are no more beautiful than the creatures they name.

You can watch them, well…I could watch them for hours. A graceful inhaling-exhaling dance through the water, a ripple of translucent flesh that catches the light as they pulse effortlessly through the world’s oceans. They are a wonder of gelatinous color and texture.

Though many of them are almost invisible in the ocean. They have no internal systems, breathing through the diffusion of oxygen through their skin, absorbing nutrients through the lining of their gastrovascular cavity. They do not have a nervous system but a nerve net.

The large groups of them found in the oceans are called blooms.

There are males and females, but they don’t really mate. That would have been another wonder to behold. Instead they release eggs and sperm (in a multitude of different ways), which combine and form tiny polyps. Attached to a surface, these polyps grow, and they reproduce asexually…releasing tiny jellies or medusas into the great watery world. It’s extraordinary. What happens to the polyps after this? Do they ever long for freedom?

Medusa of the water, I love that image…another kind of mermaid. One with snakes. One that flowers, stings, kills, eats its own. Moves through the oceans, sometimes with a will, sometimes without.

And some of them are fixed…the upside-down jellyfish:

They have traded their freedom for a symbiotic relationship with the things that live in their tentacles, generating nutrients…

I’ve had a nature documentary sort of weekend really, we went to the California Academy of Sciences, the amazing new(ish) museum in Golden Gate Park, we waited ages to get in but it was entirely worth it. They have nautili. And peacock shrimp. And sculpins and lumpfish. And giant sea bass and these sea horses with amazing leaves to camouflage them and an albino alligator and a lion fish and a COELOCANTH! Holy shite, the prehistoric fish that they thought had been extinct for millions of years before one popped up suddenly in the 30’s some time. Or was it the 20’s? Amazing either way. The Coelocanth is sitting in formaldehyde of course. And a lungfish, the fish that can breath in air and water, a key for how evolution could have happened and the emergence of life from water to land. And a giant salamandar. Several feet long, one of the more amazing things I’ve ever seen.

And then the Aquarium on the Bay, which I also loved…I’m going to learn to scuba dive. It’s decided. And there have been other adventures, but more soon.

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Chortling Chinchillas and Jabberwocks

So I was having a conversation with a friend about the word chortle, I really love this word… I would like to chortle, I think I might from time to time, but generally speaking it always seemed to me something that plump people do, a deep belly chuckle that involves a lot of happy stomach jiggling. Or babies who are always round and, well, rather fat, and do a good bit of chortling when not drooling or crying. Being tall and thin, it seemed rather beyond my abilities…though I swear I never giggle.

I was happy to find that apart from people with large bellies, chortling is also a technical term used to describe some of the communication between chinchillas. Just look at this:

I don’t know the genius who is responsible for this sign, nor quite how to explain the presence of chinchillas at San Francisco’s aquarium on the bay, but was very happy about both.

Still, the word chortle seemed to require a bit more investigation. So investigate I did. And was astounded and amazed to find that the word was actually invented by Lewis Carroll in the immortal poem Jabberwocky (at least, that’s what wiktionary says).

Now I have been in love with this poem ever since I first read it at a very tender age, it is perhaps my favourite poem of all time, though my love for it is slightly different then my love for the poetry of Akhmatova, Neruda, Heaney, and even Poe. And it’s a bit…well no, I am immensely excited and happy and well nigh overjoyed in the amazement to find it was first coined there in 1871

‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy.

I never knew. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says it can also mean to sing or chant exultantly, but I think they’re utterly wrong, and obviously not as in tune with the great Carrollian mind as I am…how could they say such a thing after writing that the etymology of the word is “probably a blend of chuckle and snort?”

But I think this much discussion calls for the complete poem

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

And I am newly reminded about the importance of using frabjous much more regularly. Of whiffling and burbling and the sound of snicker-snack. I do often use galumph, having once had a cat who used that as his regular mode of transport. And I know this is an out and out nonsense poem that has since had reams of very learned sillyness written about it, but ’twas magical the world it created for me as a kid. And the doors it opened in language. And the frumious bandersnatch remains one of my favourite creatures ever…I’m still hoping to meet one, though not in a dark alley.

And it only adds to the happiness of chortling chinchillas.

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Carrizo Plain

I woke up Sunday morning, fell back asleep, had a brilliant dream, woke up again, made coffee. It was a bit of a late night at Allegra’s house party the night before, reggaeton and some dancing, beer and a contact high. So I treated myself, and lay in bed reading The Urban Question by Manuel Castells and maybe dozed a bit more through that, it’s heavy going. Though good for a chuckle when he starts to rumble with Lefebvre if you’re an urban planning nerd like me…

And then Bev called to say they were heading north after all, so I threw on some clothes. Jeans and a T-shirt here in the LA sunshine, but by the time we arrived in Gorman on the I-5 it was snowing.

Snowing! I love the inconsistencies of snow in Southern California a short drive from home, and the brightly capped peaks that lie to the left of the 5.

I have no proof, I took shots of the wet flakes in vain, and nothing was sticking. But Gorman is coloured beautiful with flowers,

even though the poppies and trumpet flowers were closed up tight against the weather. Wish I had that ability as well, I took this shot through my tears, they were rolling down my cheeks from the cold of the wind. Needless to say I was not prepared for snow, though I did have a sweater. We drove the 5 and then down along the 166, past row upon row of grapes, peaches, citrus trees. Past oil derricks and the weathered wood of abandoned buildings and bridges with their twisted rusted metal. And up into the hills and down again onto Carrizo Plain.

It was a day of wide expanses, a world of sun and shadow. And salt flats. And flowers.

The great San Andrea’s fault runs down through the basin, plain to the view, and if California ever cleaves in two with half of it falling into the ocean? It will crack along this line, this understated source of seismic unrest and quaking earth. It’s quite extraordinary to think you could walk along this slight cleft in the ground and never know the power that lies beneath you.

The flowers, our reason for driving, were incredible carpets of yellow. Poppies were all hiding their heads and we only saw a few clumps of lupins, but the various sunflowers?

Dancing in the wind…exuberant, short lived, glorious. As we walked up this mountainside, crickets sprang from underfoot, hundreds of them, and they sang low and sweet and from all directions. And all of this is almost side by side with Soda lake. It is filled entirely by run off from its large basin, and sometimes dries almost completely. The water leaves an eerie beauty in its wake, mud encrusted with brilliantly white alkaline salts.

Death and life once again, I find them everywhere!

The drive back homeward was full of afternoon light and storm clouds, and great expanses of rolling hills that are one of the landscapes I love best.

And one of the best shots of the year below. The Pogues were playing, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die, black hell! Hell’s ditch.” And I don’t know I disagree, which gives an enormous sense of pleasure and transgression to be out in this beautiful world and joyful, a day stolen from the world’s ravages

The sun was setting as we drove through McKittrick, and then Buttonwillow, and I caught this shot of grower owner an operated gin, cotton gin I imagine! I remember reading about them in school though I’ve really no idea what a cotton gin does…still, cooperatives make me happy, especially when the sky is rosy and their surroundings beautiful.

We stopped to eat, and then drove back down over the grapevine, the dark sky carpeted with millions of stars the way it should be. And so while I could possibly name a couple of things that could make me happier with their presence, being happy is quite enough.

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Ammonites and trilobites, oh my!

So what are my current loves? I’ll start with the stone. Labradorite. Every year I’ve said I shall get some, and this year I found The One.

You can see most of the colors, but not the true beauty of it. It is dull gray from some angles, and as you move it, the colors ripple in refractions across its surface. Constantly changing, constantly surprising, they always feel as if they are hiding themselves, elusive beneath the surface, submerged within the stone. You catch one in the light, and then it is gone as another  emerges from the shallow depths. Some stones are deep blue, some green to yellow, a few orange, and a very few show all of these at once. Like mine. It’s very rare I feel such an intense pleasure in possession. I try not to encourage it, but I think after all, it is good to have a handful of things that make you happy just to look at them.

Like ammonites! Not only are the fossils incredibly beautiful, especially the opalized ones from Canada that I cannot afford, but they are also extraordinary creatures. After a series of catastrophic losses, they died out for good in the Cretaceous Period, along with many another very cool yet frightening creature that I am not really sorry about no longer sharing the planet with. Their closest living descendants (or related species sort of thing) are the nautilus, which looks like this

Pure dead brilliant. They are related to octopi, squid, and cuttlefish. They moved by jet propulsion, and were supreme predators, probably stalking their prey silently and then attacking with their tentacles, dragging their meals into the jaws located between their eyes. They had a lot of tentacles, and look at the eyes! (you can tell I am running from the scientific). Unlike nautili, they lived in shallow, warm water, and it is believed that color and light played a large role in their short lives…which means their shells were possibly incredibly beautiful. But in fossils it is what happened to them after death, what new minerals and chemical combinations filled the chambers left by their bodies to form stone. This one is from Madagascar, and looks better in better light I must admit

You can see a bit of the opalization I love…there’s something about iridescence and changing color that parts me from my money. The color is really a deeper red then you can see, it is high in iron, and the patterns are called sutures, formed where the walls of the inner chambers met the shell and folded in on themselves to provide extra strength. The shells themselves are chambered, reflecting the years of life, and in this one from Russia they have been pyritized

I am not usually such a big fan of shiny, but these are incredibly beautiful. This one has been sliced in half of course, but when left in the matrix they are equally beautiful

Once again, more beautiful then the picture, a more refractive red on the outside. There’s no sun today!

So on to trilobites. I got another beauty…wikipedia says 17,000 species have been identified so you’ll forgive the lack of specificity, but this one is also from Morroco

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You can even see the little bumbs on his head. They lived, and died, in extraordinary numbers. I was having trouble deciding between this one and another, and my mum bought me the other because she loves me

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You can see the…tongue? I don’t believe they had tongues…I couldn’t find out what this thing is but one day I will. There were some amazing specimens from Russia which still had the eyestalks. Maybe next year, they were lovely, and I was spent out.

Apart from fossils, I also love bowls of polished stone. I think perhaps it is the beauty of them combined with functionality. I have one of malachite and another of onyx that have traveled with me for years, and now own several more…Two tiny ones of amethyst and translucent veined jasper, and two slightly larger ones from morocco of stone filled with ammonites and other fossils, one is in the spiraled shape of an ammonite itself, and the other in the shape of a leaf. I keep telling myself that all of this is portable.

Because if all goes well I shall be moving back to the UK…which meant no fragile and glorious mineral specimens for me. In fact, it was my last move to the UK that parted me from the collected minerals and fossils of years. My dad, on the other hand, has a house AND a glass cabinet, so he bought these two extraordinary pieces of selenite. This one is from Winnepeg, Canada, and the crystals are twinned, which is really rare.

And this one from Lubin, Poland

They formed in narrow fissures in the rock, and they were selling many of them in sheafs of interlocking crystals between two very thin slices of stone. Fragile and beautiful…

What an incredible world we live in.

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The Dinosaurs of Toronto

The wind bites like fall, the buses throw up whirls and swirls of dead leaves reaching above me as they pass in the street, my black wool coat is warm and my scarf snug about my neck. I forgot how much I love fall. How I love the chill of it, the change and trembling in the air, the tingle in my cheeks, and the feel of snuggling under the warm cloud of a down comforter. I got into Toronto last night and met up with Dawn after her writing class, we went to eat and then walked the long way back to the streetcar, through Kensington market which was lovely…empty but lovely. And great graffiti, which is always enough to warm my heart if narrow streets, cool pubs, tiny little neighborhood stores, coffee houses and such were not enough.

I spent the night feeling like a small woodland creature curled up in a little nest between the radiator and some shelves, an old mattress bundled with extra blankets and a sleeping bag on top for softness, with a sheet on top of it all, and then me, and then…I said it already I think, a warm cloud of downy warmth. And I slept deliciously, glad that I am too long for the couch.

Woke up late…for Toronto. Early for L.A. Spent the morning chatting over coffee and omelet with Dawn into early afternoon, and then headed out into the fall…I had a bit of work to do, a bit of wandering to do, so I mixed both and enjoyed myself thoroughly. I still have to take some good city photographs, but here is one from outside the Royal Ontario Museum which is where I ended up.

I used another friend’s card to sneak in…the woman asked me for id and I said I didn’t have any (!), she looked at me funny, I thought I’d probably have to cut and run, but then she said she could look me up. I was imagining my friend’s picture coming up and seriously thought of cutting and running. Then she asked my address and I confidently gave it to her, I suppose the right street allayed her fears? She said oh dear we have the address wrong, upon which I pulled the little card where I had it written down out of my back pocket and confirmed that no, I was the one who had it wrong. Upon which she handed me an entrance ticket. She was beautiful. Because I don’t think I really pulled it off, but i am staring incipient poverty in the face and that ticket was golden.

And I didn’t even know it, but they have the most marvelous collection of dinosaur skeletons I’ve seen in ages, bits of originals, some casts, but all around extraordinary. They had a 90 foot Barosaurus, one of only two in the world, it has a hugely long razor thin tail that some believe they cracked like a whip. I believe it, I think that makes them much more interesting:

They had an original triceratops skull, a stegasauros, a tiny little compsognathus in a glass case…my dad used to tell us stories about compsognathi when I was little, one day you’ll be reading about them too in the adventures of Osa and Aggie (and me, Michael, Daniel and Tristram. And some of it is even true). They had this enormous fish thing with sharp pointy teeth

and this amazing knobble headed dinosaur that I tragically did not record the sumptuous latin name of:

It’s perhaps my favourite photo of the day. And possibly my favourite dinosaur. And I don’t even know his name. But they also had a rare type of hadrosaur…this one is crested and looks like it pranced about rather joyously and is called a parasuarolophus walkeri. The name rolls of the tongue. and looked very cool

And finally the stuff of nightmares…highly recognizable and always strikes fear into the very heart of me, the one, the only, Tyrannasaurus Rex

But pictures can’t do him justice really. He towers over you, his teeth are huge, even the bare bones of him are big and ravenously hulking. I’ve actually had family discussions about whether T-Rex or Allosaurus was scarier…some say allosaurus was smarter. As if we know. Still, this is the one that scares me.

Other things that scare me are lifesize painted representations of people and animals…like the mechanical cartoon figures at Chuck E Cheese and Disneyland’s Splash Mountain, and apparently Chinese wooden temple statues beginning from the 13th century. Fear is too strong a word perhaps, I’d prefer to think of it simply as a deep unease. But one of them had real human hair as his long beard. Painted statues are really popular in Catholic Churches as well, and the blood is never skimped on, and in fact I remember the crypt of a church in Bahia with mummified bishops still wearing their sacramental robes sat upright and staring down at you. Fear is not to strong a word for that experience, I suppose this “deep unease” has been building for some time. There was also a large section of stuffed birds…creepy, definitely creepy. I really wonder who first thought it was a good idea to kill something alive and beautiful and stuff it.

Anyway, that’s enough proof of my nerdiness for one evening. After the museum I had dinner with dawn and then we went out and did some more work and had some quiet drinking with a tasty piece of Canadian apple crumble which apparently includes dates and raisins and is a wee bit chocolatey…I wasn’t complaining, it was deliciously unexpected. And now I am headed back for the nest after kicking Ozzie the giant half husky sort of dog out of my room. She snores.

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Arizona Dreaming

Tucson during the monsoons is one of my favourite places…it’s one of my favourite places most times I have to admit. And my brother Dan is home for the summer, and my cousin Alana is living with my folks now, so it was a houseful and that is always nice.

On Saturday we went up to Mount Lemon, I remember some time ago coming home to see the entire mountain on fire, clouds of smoke in fantastic shapes, the air alive with the all the colour and smell and ash of fire…half of the mountains burned one year, and the rest in the next, along with most of Summerhaven (though the pie shop survived! My dad swears that was due to his prayers, and the prayers of everyone who has ever been there…). It is amazing to see how the trees living and dead show how fire skips and leaps, how it razes the side of mountains leaving patches of trees intact, how it jumps over the bottoms of arroyos, stops at the crests of hills. And the trees remind me of Scotland in the wintertime, I love their stark silhouettes against the sky and the distant views. Or I would if only these trees would also return to life come Spring. Still, they have an incredible beauty to them that I almost prefer to what was there before. I wonder why I prefer my beauty bleak?

Mt. Lemon after the fires

And here is another view of it…

We went up the ski lift…the first time I have ever done that in all the years we have been going up there! Here’s the family up at the top:

And my little brother out on the rocks at Windy Point…that’s Tucson in the background, only about 20 minutes down from the pine forest…it is an amazing thing to go from the Sonoran desert to forest in such a short time…

After the mountain we headed over to the Hut to see some amazing and funky music courtesy of Dan’s friends…everyone playing was good, and the rain was coming down in torrents outside, the thunder and lightening going off, the roof leaking…it was quite spectacular. Got home after 2, woke up early the next morning for brunch at Sun’s, and then saw the Dark Knight. Which was also spectacular. And I loved Heath Ledger. And the only bit that made me sad was when the Joker equated anarchy with chaos and said he stood for both…anarchy is not chaos, it is the opposite of it. So I damned the writers and the confusion of their politics but didn’t let it interfere with the rest of the movie. I definitely recommend it.

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