DATE April 3, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Michael Ray Taylor discusses his experiences as a caver
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In an age when everything seems to have been explored, many of the millions of
caves hidden beneath the surface of the Earth are still uncharted. My guest,
Michael Ray Taylor, has been exploring caves since 1979, and has written
several books about them. His latest, "Caves: Exploring Hidden Realms," is a
companion to a new IMAX movie. Taylor describes caving as being in the midst
of a golden age of discovery comparable to the jungle penetrations of the last
century, or the mountain conquests of Edmund Hillary's day. Because no
sunlight penetrates there, caves are inhospitable to most plant and animal
life, but exotic life flourishes there, including microorganisms known as
extremophiles, because they live in such extreme environments, environments
that may be closer to the landscapes of other planets. In fact, NASA is
studying cave mircoorganisms to better understand what life forms on other
planets might be like. I asked Taylor to describe some of the unusual
characteristics of cave-dwelling microorganisms.
Mr. MICHAEL RAY TAYLOR (Author, "Caves: Exploring Hidden Realms"): Well, my
favorite extremophile, it's not one organism, but it's actually a whole colony
of thousands of different organisms, but they live together in a specialized
kind of microbial mat that right now is only known in one cave. It's in
Mexico. It's called Villa Luz. And these things that grow in the caves, a
caver named Jim Pisarowicz named them snotites. If you can picture your
typical stalactite, only instead of being made of rock, it's made of a
jellylike substance that sways in the breeze and drips pure sulfuric acid,
these are living curtains, and the acid comes from the poisonous hydrogen
sulfide gas in the cave. They use it for food. They convert this hydrogen
sulfide gas into acid. The acid drips down, hollows out more cave, so in
essence they've created their own environment. They're the reason the cave
exists in the first place.
And it's like something from a science fiction movie to walk into a room like
this wearing a gas mask, avoiding the acid so it doesn't eat through your
clothes, and see that life has adapted.
GROSS: Is that named after snot? I mean...
Mr. TAYLOR: Yes, it's named after snot.
GROSS: That's what I figured.
Mr. TAYLOR: It looked like a big...
Mr. TAYLOR: ...curtain of snot, so the guy who discovered them named them
snotites, and the name has stuck. You know, you get scientific papers now at
major universities on snotites.
GROSS: And what are troglobites?
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, there are technical definitions between what's a troglobite
and what's a troglodyte, and it has to do with life that is common on the
surface, but has somehow adapted to the caves. Some animals live just in the
lights of the caves near the entrance. Others are completely cave adapted.
You know, the famous blind fish that you get in caves in Kentucky and a few
other places that have lost their eyes completely, they've lost all their skin
pigmentation. They are genetically dependent on life in the cave. Although
interestingly, there was recently a study of a cave in Mexico where the
underground river flows past this big opening to the surface, and the blind
cave fish in this cave, in this sky-lit area, have, after who knows how many
thousands of generations, have gotten their eyes back. And through genetic
analysis of the fish, you can tell that they lost them in ancient generations
and in recent generations they got them back.
Most troglobites are like that. They're surface animals that have become
cavers, kind of like people. But then the bacteria that I've been studying
more recently are dependent on the cave and could not exist anywhere else.
GROSS: Are scientists speculating that some of these microorganisms in caves
might prove useful to people?
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, some scientists are doing more than speculate. In the same
way that scientists go to the rain forest for natural products and, you know,
herbal medicines that can be turned into prescription medicines, scientists
are studying the chemical properties of these organisms. If you consider the
genetic diversity of life on Earth, the bacteria are much more diverse than
the larger organisms. That means that any two bacteria in a cave pool are
probably much more distant relatives than I am to a corn plant. And when you
get that genetic diversity, you get lots of strategies of `This is how I'm
going to fight off invaders.' So that means lots of new medicines
There's a guy named Larry Mallory that I've accompanied on several cave
collections around the world, and he has a company that's developing drugs
from cave organisms. They've had some very promising early results of a
particular organism that seems to secret a chemical that goes after breast
cancer. Doesn't harm other types of cancer, doesn't harm healthy cells, but
there's something about a breast cancer cell that mimics a natural enemy it
has in the cave. And so they are in the long and, unfortunately, drawn-out
process of creating and bringing to market a drug based on this. They've also
found two or three new types of antibiotics, and with various bacteria that
we've been able to treat with antibiotics for much of the 20th century, now
suddenly becoming resistant to those antibiotics, we need some new antibiotics
to come into the market in the next century, and I think a lot of them may
actually come from caves and other extreme environments.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Ray Taylor, and he's
the author of the new book "Caves: Exploring Hidden Realms," and it's a
companion book to a new IMAX film called "Journey Into Amazing Caves."
Michael Ray Taylor has been caving for years, and is the author of a couple of
other books about caves as well.
Let's talk a little bit about underwater caves. Describe one underwater cave
that you've been to for us.
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, in the course of traveling with the IMAX crew, which made
the film "Journey Into Amazing Caves," one of the two stars of the film, Hazel
Barton, is a certified cave diver who invited me to accompany her into a
collection area that's featured in the film. And this was in the Yucatan
Peninsula in Mexico, and the unique thing about these caves, as compared to
other underwater caves, they're relatively shallow--the water's 30 to 40 feet
deep--and the caves were all dry during the last Ice Age, when sea levels were
lower, all the water was up in the ice cap. And so they formed the dripstone
formations that can grow only in air. You know, beautiful stalactites,
draperies, flow stone, stalagmites, columns and so forth. So these are very
well decorated and pretty rooms, which make them great on the IMAX film, but
for me as a caver who normally has to do a lot of climbing and crawling and
rappelling to get to a place like this, to float through it with dive gear was
like being weightless. It was a wonderful sensation to just glide
effortlessly past these wonderful formations, floating along with the lights.
Our dive lights would reflect off them in the water in interesting patterns.
Just very pretty.
GROSS: Now there are certain problems that cavers experience when they're
swimming deep under the ground.
Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, cave diving is extremely dangerous. You know, caving
itself is something that almost anybody can do if they're with a good guide
and if they have a couple of hours of training prior to going underground.
Cave diving, on the other hand, I would no more, without proper training, sit
down and try to fly an Air Force jet than I would try to cave dive without
proper training. Because there are so many ways you can mess up and die.
It's that simple. I get lost in caves from time to time. It's the way you
get lost in a shopping mall. You have to backtrack your steps a few ways and
figure out where you got turned around. But if you have 30 minutes of air on
your back and you're lost and it takes you 45 minutes to find your way, then
you're not leaving the cave. And there are so many ways to become
disoriented, to have a gear failure. You have to be able to deal with any
emergency quickly and with a calm head. I go on a lot of trips with cave
divers where I haul their tanks into the cave, and I'll get to a certain point
and I'll say, `Well, I'll be the guy waiting for you. I hope you have a good
dive.' It's extremely dangerous, there's no way around it.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about some of the animal life that you've
found in caves. Why don't we start with the most commonly known one, which is
bats. You were once in a cave with 40,000 bats?
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, 40,000 is a conservative number. There were 40,000 in the
air around me in that particular passage. I think the cave itself may have
had as many as 500,000 bats. And I've been in other caves that have colonies
of up to 20 million bats. It is what you would expect it to be as an
experience. It's a little creepy. It's a horror movie sort of sensation when
they're wheeling around your head in a bat flight on the way out of the cave
to feed at night. But at the same time, cavers everywhere have a deep respect
for bats, because being in close proximity with them all the time, we've
studied them and learned that they're really beneficial to the environment,
and they've been persecuted for a long time. And so cavers will go out of
their ways to preserve bats, to avoid caves where threatened bats live or to
avoid caves where there are nursery colonies or where the bats are
The cave I wrote about with the 40,000 bats screaming around me was in the
tropics in Jamaica, and the bats were not hibernating, they were not a
threatened species, and they were in between the group I was with and the
passage we hoped to go explore, so there was nothing for it but to plow on
through the bats. And these were big tropical bats. Most North American
bats, you know, it's the size of a little mouse with wings. They're tiny
little creatures. They couldn't really hurt you if they wanted to, in most
cases. The tropical bats get a little bit bigger, a little more horror movie
like in terms of the experience, and yet at the same time it's their
environment, and I respect it whenever I'm going through it.
GROSS: What do the bats contribute to the environment?
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, many things. Probably the best thing in the US, and
especially the Southeast and Southwest states is they eat mosquitoes. Bats
eat either mosquitoes or fruit or insects or fruit. The ones who eat insects
often show a preponderance to go after mosquitoes. There's a cave in Texas
that's featured in the IMAX film, it has a year-round colony of around 20
million bats, and they eat something like 500,000 pounds of mosquitoes every
night. So they keep the insect population down.
Then there are fruit-eating bats, and like birds and bees they help pollinate
and distribute fruits. If you eat peaches, for example, chances are the peach
was pollinated, not by an insect, but by a bat.
GROSS: Where there's lots of bats, there's lots of bat guano, which is the
word for bat dung.
Mr. TAYLOR: Yes, guano is the best natural fertilizer known to man. In fact,
I've been known to sometimes bag a little bit of guano whenever I'm on a
caving trip and bring it back for the garden, because it makes things grow
GROSS: You've also been known to slide down a six-foot hill of bat guano.
Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah.
GROSS: That must be a pretty awful experience.
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, cavers get dirty, and, you know, cavers, they're a
different sort of people. They've often very quirky in their habits. And I
think at a base level it comes down to the fact we're like little kids playing
in the sandbox. If you want to find the big room, sometimes you have to go
through the little, muddy places to get to them. So this was on another
tropical caving trip, I sledded down a big hill of guano because there was an
opening at the base of it, and it was too slick to do anything but slide down
it. So I'm covered with slime at the bottom, but there's a little opening,
and I feel some air coming out of it, and it's kind of tight, but I can wiggle
through, and there's a room on the other side. It just keeps pulling us
GROSS: Did you ever get caught in a narrow opening?
Mr. TAYLOR: Yes, I did. Most cavers are very light, small people. My wife
describes a lot of my friends as kind of squirrellike. I am not squirrellike.
I'm about as big as cavers come. I've got a big frame. And there's a passage
in West Virginia, it's in a cave called Bone Cave, and Bone Cave connects to
Norman Cave in one spot through a squeeze called the Devil's Pinch(ph). And
it's got a knife-blade of a rock running down the center of what's a very
tight squeeze. And I went one way from Bone Cave into Norman Cave through it.
I'd heard people larger than me had gone through and fit fine, and it was very
hard, but by exhaling so that my rib cage got smaller, I could sliver through
and pop out on the other side. And then we spent a number of hours in the
cave on the other side.
But coming back, which we had to do, because we didn't know the way to the
other entrance to the cave that was on the Norman side, something about the
angle was just difficult. I couldn't align my body the way I had going
through the other direction, and I pushed forward and I couldn't go any
further. And this is the way out of the cave, so I've got to go. So I backed
up, I took off my coveralls and passed my coveralls and my pack up to a friend
on the other side of the constriction, and so I'm sliding up basically in my
underwear, and this blade of rock starts digging into my chest, so I exhale
and squeeze forward, you know, use my toes and fingers to pull forward, and
then I can inhale just about a half inch before my chest is caught on the
rock. And eventually I squeezed forward to the point where I literally could
not inhale anymore--no breath, I'm stuck in the rock, but I'm within an inch
of getting out, and I know it. And I just stuck my hand forward and got a
friend to yank from the other side, and he popped me past the constriction. I
had a cut on my chest, but I was through.
That's the tightest spot I've ever been. I've heard other cavers talk about
going into similarly tight places. You have to know by practicing on the
surface with a box, this thing called a squeeze box, we test ourself. We know
what's the smallest spot we can fit through, and you shouldn't try to push
anything smaller than that.
GROSS: Michael Ray Taylor is the author of "Caves: Exploring Hidden Realms."
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Ray Taylor, and he's a caver who's also a
journalist and has written a lot about caves. His latest book is called
"Caves: Exploring Hidden Realms," and it's a companion to an IMAX film called
"Journey Into Amazing Caves."
Part of your new book is about ice caves. Would you describe an ice cave that
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, ice caves are very different from what we think of as the
more traditional caves and rock because they are so temporary. You know, a
cave like Mammoth Cave or Carlsbad Caverns, it's a geological feature that
took millions of years to form and it's not going anywhere any time soon. Ice
caves are ephemeral. They form in glaciers. Glaciers are moving, breathing.
When you're inside an ice cave, you can often hear the glacier groaning as
it's slowly sliding down the rock beneath it toward the sea. And so ice caves
give you sort of a fast-forward view of geology. They take water, run-off
water, melt water from the surface. They channel it down toward the bedrock,
just as traditional caves channel water to the surface through porous rock.
But they're unstable.
The vertical shafts in an ice cave, and you can see this marvelously in the
IMAX film, tend to be among the most dangerous types of vertical caving you
can do, because big chunks of ice are liable to fall without any warning.
This doesn't happen very often at all in a cave in rock. You know, Hollywood
will often show--as soon as a group of people in a Hollywood film go into a
cave, the ceiling starts falling in. Well, cavers laugh at that, because the
ceiling in your local mall is more likely to fall in than most caves, which
have been there thousands of years. But when you're inside ice, you have to
watch every step. You have to anchor yourself to the wall at all times, and
sometimes you'll swing a hammer to set an anchor, and a crack will appear like
a gunshot that runs for a hundred feet, and you'll feel everything shift a
This in fact happened to the IMAX crew. When they were getting one of the
scenes in the movie, they had a camera crew of three people balanced on a
block of ice 60 feet off the floor of a 500-foot pit, and this whole block of
ice, which was the size of maybe two school buses, without warning shifted.
It only shifted an inch. For a moment, they thought they were just going to
crash to their deaths. Luckily, it wasn't shifting anymore than that, but
they still got out of there very quickly after that.
GROSS: How do you get into one of the ice caves? Describe one of the
openings that you went into.
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, they're like any other sort of caves. They can be big or
small. Typically, in a glacial ice cave, such as you'll find in Greenland,
what you've got it a surface stream that's carved a canyon in the ice, and
these canyons can run for many miles, just like a surface stream anywhere,
until they encounter a big crack in the glacier, usually caused by a geologic
fault that--you know, the rock may be a full mile beneath your feet, but if
there's a geologic fault there, the ice will tend to mimic that. And so
suddenly the water starts shooting down and forming this great yawning chasm.
GROSS: What are some of the strangest things you've found within caves?
Mr. TAYLOR: Oh, probably what I would call strangest are the things that are
not indigenous to the cave, things that have been brought in by other people
somehow. I was with a friend in Tennessee one time, we were exploring some
pits on a particular mountain that had a number of pits on it. There was this
one pit about 130, 140 feet deep, we rappelled to the bottom, and there's a
small, circular room at the bottom of the pit and arranged around the
perimeter of the room were all these horse skulls, and each one had a black
handle melted on top of it. It was like a scene from a horror movie or an
AC/DC video, and it creeped us out a little bit.
Every once in a while you come up with something incongrous--an old car that
someone has somehow abandoned in a cave miles from any road. But in terms of
the natural features of the cave, to me they're just--I'm excited. I find
them wonderful, but it's the excitement one gets from watching birds or
walking through a national forest.
GROSS: When you resurface to the outside world after exploring a cave, how
does that world look different to you?
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, it's most noticeable after a lengthy trip. In the course
of doing some of the research on cave microbes--I did a couple of trips into
Letchagia Cave(ph) that lasted three days or more, and after several days
underground, where the colors you see are various hues of red and orange and
just the dull, brown earth colors, to get up on the surface world in the New
Mexico desert, suddenly the blue looks a lot more blue, the green looks a lot
more green. It's a kind of a rebirth. I suppose this is another reason caves
were important to so many early societies, that they were symbolic of the act
of birth itself, and that's the way you feel when you come out of a cave,
changed and as if you've been to a place no one else will know, and your life
is very much enriched by that.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us about caves.
Mr. TAYLOR: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: Michael Ray Taylor's latest book is called "Caves: Exploring Hidden
Realms." It's the companion book to the new IMAX movie "Journey Into Amazing
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
This is NPR, National Public Radio.
The dread of home sent journalist Richard Bernstein off on a journey. Coming
up, Bernstein, New York Times book critic and former foreign correspondent,
tells us about his journey retracing the path of a 7th century Buddhist monk
through China and India, and how it transformed him. It's the subject of
Bernstein's new book.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Richard Bernstein discusses his new book "Ultimate
Journey" and the trip he took through China
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
You may know my guest Richard Bernstein as a New York Times book critic,
former foreign correspondent and Time magazine's first Beijing bureau chief.
After he turned 50, living in New York, he wanted to get away from it all. He
decided to retrace the journey of the 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk Hsuan
Tsang. The monk traveled 5,000 miles from China's ancient capital to southern
India in search of the original Sanskrit Buddhist text. His goal was to
produce new translations of these classic texts to develop a pure form of
Chinese Buddhism and in the process to achieve the exalted understanding that
was the ultimate truth. The monk's journey took 17 years; Bernstein's took
about four months. His new book about both journeys is called "Ultimate
Journey." I asked Richard Bernstein to tell us more about what the monk was
Mr. RICHARD BERNSTEIN (Author, "Ultimate Journey"): I mean, he was after
trying to resolve a paradox that's very central to his version of Buddhism
which was a very intellectual kind of Buddhism called yogacara, the mind-only
school of Buddhism, which holds that everything that we perceive is a creation
of the mind. There is no distinction between the mind and the world outside
the mind that it perceives. But the paradox then comes in the idea that--in
other words, how do you create a sense that the world as you perceive it as
empty and resolve the idea that emptiness doesn't apply also to the concept
that you've applied to the world?
As I say, I use the concept--I try to use a very modern-day metaphor to
understand the problem here, maybe not the solution but the problem. I talk
about the "Yellow Submarine" by The Beatles where there's a vacuum cleaner
that sucks up everything inside. And then once it's done that, it turns on
itself and it sucks itself down. So one is the idea that the world is
illusion, and then the idea that the world is an illusion is also an illusion
when the vacuum sucks itself into nonexistence also.
GROSS: Richard Bernstein, you describe yourself as a secular Jew. What was
your interest in Buddhism as someone who is Jewish but doesn't really believe
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, that's part of the appeal of Buddhism. I think you
don't need to believe in God in order to find Buddhism appealing. And I
didn't become a Buddhist, by the way. I mean, I'm still a Jew in a, you know,
kind of secular, historical, cultural sense of that word `Jew,' but as I
traveled, I gained tremendous reverence for Buddhism and for, you know, this
idea that there really is this thing that we call the wisdom of the East. And
Buddhism, I think, embodies it or embodies some of that wisdom with tremendous
brilliance. I mean, the concept of emptiness and the idea that all is an
illusion and the idea that how do we know that what we perceive through our
senses is real? These are ideas that don't get considered in the West until
1,000 years later with Descartes and the British empirical philosophers, and
yet here you have it actually well before Hsuan Tsang in India. In the 4th
century you have people embarking on a very penetrating examination of that
GROSS: Let's talk more about your reasons for taking this trip. You're a
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And you say you were experiencing a quarrel with bourgeois life. What
was your quarrel?
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Right. You know, I remember one time I came home from being
a foreign correspondent for a few years and the night that I arrived back in
New York, I was staying at The New York Times apartment and I wanted to go out
and buy some breakfast food for the next day. And I went into the supermarket
and I felt just tremendously depressed by all that sort of odorless,
shrink-wrapped, packaged stuff that you had in the American supermarket and I
longed for the markets of Asia where, you know, you can still smell
everything, where there's just kind of a color. Well, there's the smell of
blood and of death in the market as well as of life. And I just missed that.
I missed the adventure of roaming around the world, of being someplace else.
And I guess I found that--well, I have a good life and an interesting job and
I enjoy it and I appreciate it--that I had kind of stopped adventuring a
little bit too early. I felt that I had crossed over the border of 50 years
old and I wasn't--life wasn't as exciting as I wanted it to be.
GROSS: Well, the woman who is now your wife, who was your lover at the time
of the trip, is from China. She's a woman who was a very well-known dancer in
China, and had come to the United States in the hopes of dancing here. And
she--Jung Mae(ph) is her name--went to China with you for the first part of
the journey and helped you kind of finesse things. Part of your trouble was
that you were having problems getting travel documents. What was the problem?
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, the problem was that I'd been a journalist in China
before, which already put me in, I guess, not the best, most favorable light
from the standpoint of the Chinese authorities. And then in 1996 with Ross H.
Monroe I wrote a book called "The Coming Conflict with China," in which
afterwards I found myself declared public enemy number one in China for
awhile, and unable to get a visa. I tried for several years actually to get a
visa to go and make this trip, and I kept--I got turned down. The American
Embassy in Peking tried to persuade the Chinese authorities that this was a
good project and that wouldn't reflect badly on China, which is true--it
doesn't--but I still wasn't able to get a visa.
And finally I just went to Hong Kong to a travel agent and I got a tourist
visa that you get in Hong Kong sort of through semi-official channels, but it
looks a little bit different from a regular visa. And journalists, in any
case, are banned from most of the stretch that I had to travel in China. So
Jung Mae went to be there in Shiyan, my point of arrival to see what she could
do if, in fact, I got turned back at the border or they, you know, slapped me
in irons or tried to deport my right away. She was there with letters of
introduction and so forth, and wanted to help. And then she stayed with me
for the first couple of weeks as I traveled in Xinjiang Zizhiqu, their
autonomous region, the very westernmost--huge westernmost province of China
that really is where the old traditional Silk Road goes.
GROSS: When you were recrossing the path of Hsuan Tsang, the ancient Buddhist
monk from the 7th century, the most remote part of your trip, the most remote
part was in Takla Makan. Am I pronouncing that right?
Mr. BERNSTEIN: You're pronouncing it properly. Well, Takla Makan is the
great western desert of China.
GROSS: And you write that this is as remote as it's possible to be and still
be on the planet.
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: What gave that feeling of remoteness, of differentness?
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Oh, it's just--its vastness, its flatness, its--the sereness
of it, the way the air and the earth glitter together in such a way that you
really can't even make out exactly where one begins and the other ends. I
mean, we--Jung Mae and I, until she had to peel off and come back to the
United States, went on the northern oasis route, which is more highly
populated than the southern route. But on the way back, I took the southern
route, and I hired a Jeep and a driver. And there were stretches where you
would go for 10 or 12 hours down these sandy roads and you wouldn't pass a
single car coming in the other direction. So it is really the platonic ideal
of remoteness, of barrenness and farawayness.
GROSS: So when you were going through this vast desert you were reflecting on
the nature of your trip. You were thinking about Buddhism and so on. Were
you scared at all? Were you thinking about water? Were you thinking about
what if the Jeep breaks?
Mr. BERNSTEIN: I wasn't thinking scared so much along those lines. I was
nervous in that part of the trip about getting found out by the Chinese
authorities and being captured, as it were, and sent home before I could
finish the journey, actually at that point, before the journey had really even
gotten started. So I took a very low profile. I never--you know, I actually
can handle Chinese fairly well from my years living in Asia and China, but I
pretended not to be able to understand or to speak Chinese so as not to draw
any suspicion to myself.
One time I was having noodles in a noodle shop and I made the mistake of
taking out my notebook and writing down some notes and I found the man in the
noodle shop accusing me of being a spy. And then I worried about him going
off to the police at the local town, which is called Jiujiang(ph) and telling
them about this suspicious guy who was writing notes in a notebook while
eating noodles. And then shortly after that I looked at the very western-most
remnant of the Great Wall, which is in this place Jiujiang, and as I climbed
up to the top of the wall I saw three uniformed men sort of climbing up the
wall in my direction and I was terrified that they were policemen who had been
informed by the man in the restaurant and they were coming to get me. But in
fact, they just sort of started posing for pictures and taking snapshots of
each other, so that danger passed.
GROSS: It's funny how something that's the most natural thing in the world to
you, sitting in a restaurant and taking some notes, just writing things down,
is a sign of something awful when you're an American in China.
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, I think actually there's even some political meaning.
I didn't go in order to find out the political situation so much, but I was
there when the United States accidentally, I suppose, bombed the Chinese
embassy in Belgrade. And it was amazing how from one moment to the next the
atmosphere in China changed and how the propaganda machinery went into
operation to create this intense mood of anger, animosity, fury at the United
States, and these sort of nationwide calls for China to be strong, to avenge
the deaths of those who had died in the Belgrade embassy. And in a way there
was a connection between that guy in the--this is--the man in the restaurant
happened before the bombing of Belgrade. But that kind of touchiness in the
face of American intruders is something that you encounter in China, even as
at the same time you encounter basically a very welcoming picture. People are
And by the way, during the entire trip I never did get stopped by a policeman,
which in itself is kind of amazing if you think about the tensions in that
part of the world, the fact that I am an American, that when I was in China--I
left China 18 years ago and I went to Xinjiang in 1982, and, you know, you
couldn't talk to somebody without having your minder present supervising your
conversation. You couldn't go anyplace without being accompanied by a
representative of the Chinese government. And here I was able to go to all of
these places, to the very border with China and Kyrgyzstan and to cross the
border without ever being stopped or questioned about who I was or what I was
GROSS: My guest is Richard Bernstein, author of the new book "Ultimate
Journey." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Bernstein. He's a book
critic for The New York Times, a former Time foreign correspondent. Now he's
written a new book called "Ultimate Journey" about his journey in which he
retraced the route of a 7th century Buddhist monk who had gone in search of
the ultimate truth.
What was the moment of your trip where you most felt, `Yes, this is the reason
to take a voyage like this'?
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Oh, there were a number of moments like that. I suppose when
I met a man, Chankara Chari(ph) of Kanchipuram, the spiritual leader of 800
million Hindus, and I sat with him, was received very cordially by him. And I
sat with him in a room, a very bare room, sitting on the floor--supposedly his
only possession is a wooden bowl. And I thought that he was so different from
me that there is really almost no way that he and I are going to make a
connection, and yet we did make a connection. And we spoke--he spoke to me
about Hindu philosophy. We spoke about Judaism. We talked about the
renunciation of the self. And he was so eloquent and so charming and so
intelligent that I really did have the feeling that the whole trip was worth
just this moment of meeting this man.
GROSS: You write in your book about your really ambivalent feelings about
home. You say you feel the sense of unease at the idea of home. On the one
hand you feel like home is good and on the other hand you feel home is
horrible. What is it that makes you so ambivalent about home, you think?
What do you dread about the sense of home?
Mr. BERNSTEIN: I guess I dread the routine of home and the ordinariness of
it, the fact that you grow old when you're at home. I remember talking
about--saying something in the book about how when you're travelling you have
at least the illusion that time is not passing because you're so busy that you
really don't feel yourself getting old and time passing. Home to me has been
the place of comfort and the place of belonging. But it's also the place that
can get tedious where you're too comfortable, where not very much happens. I
use the expression `the horror of home' in this regard. And somebody pointed
out after the book was published that actually that's a phrase from
Baudelaire. I didn't know it but I was kind of comforted to know that a poet
of that stature had some of these same feelings of ambivalence about home,
both as the place that you need but as the place also that fills your life
with a certain kind of lack of adventure, with a certain--everything is too
ordinary, the prosody of day to day existence.
GROSS: And you spent much of your life, or a good deal of your adult life, in
other countries as a foreign correspondent. But in the past few years, you've
been home in New York writing book reviews for The New York Times.
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Right.
GROSS: You discuss being single and being married in your book. You were
single until very recently, until after your trip. You say that the Torah
calls a man without a wife or without children half a man.
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Yes.
GROSS: Do you believe that? Did you think of yourself as half a man before
you got married?
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, I mean, not literally, but, yes, I felt very much that
by not being married and also by not having children, which I don't have yet,
that I was missing out on something very important both for me personally but
also it gets to this my sort of the way in which I'm drawn towards a kind of
spiritual solace and spiritual meaning and religious meaning, connection with
the past and responsibility to the generations of the future, and at the same
time, that as an unbeliever I feel somewhat alienated by all of those things.
And the trip was a way in which to try to work some of those things out.
But marriage was kind of like that for me, too. I suppose there was in a way
if I had a horror of home I also had a horror of marriage. It was where, you
know, you gave yourself a kind of final definition in--it seemed to me--in my
mind, and I feared it. And at the same time, yes, I felt that you have some
kind of a responsibility to live for something just beyond yourself, to create
a next generation, to fulfill what really is sort of almost--well, it's a
biblical injunction to--you know, the Jews called to be, you know, fruitful
and multiply. And I had, instead of being fruitful and multiplied, I had
always chosen this life of splendid isolation and solitude. And so, yes, in
that sense I did feel that I was half a man, half a person. And I had...
GROSS: Instead of being fruitful, you were productive. You got a lot of work
Mr. BERNSTEIN: That I did, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So what exactly changed on the trip that made you emerge as
somebody who was really ready to get married? Part of it was, I think, that
you spent more time with the woman who became your wife because she traveled
with you on the first and final legs of the journey.
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Yeah.
GROSS: But what changed in you that kind of opened your mind to actually
making a commitment to have a partner and also have a home?
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, the first part of it is important. Jung Mae, my wife
now, my girlfriend in those days, and I really had a tremendous experience
together. And I--there was a moment--really this is almost an epiphany--when
she peeled off to come back to the States and she brought me to the train
station in Kucha in western China at about 5:00 in the morning. It was
still dark, and she put me on the train, and said goodbye to me on the
platform, and turned around and walked away. And as I went off through the
desert, and especially on an almost overnight bus ride, I sort of thought of
myself going in one direction and I thought of her on the train going on
another direction, and I did have a kind of epiphany that this was ridiculous.
We shouldn't be going in opposite directions anymore, and that if she'll have
me, I want to be going in the same direction as her from now on.
And then there was--I don't know. I got something very important for me out
of my system. I did it. I did sort of overcome my inertia. I shook things
up. I just felt happier. I felt more comfortable with myself for having had
this adventure, for having traced this man's journey, for having thought about
Buddhism and the concepts that Buddhism brings into your life about the
renunciation of the self, about--you do--you learn how, again, to strip
yourself down a little bit and focus on the essential things and to be content
rather than chronically dissatisfied.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BERNSTEIN: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Richard Bernstein is a New York Times book critic and author of the
new book "Ultimate Journey." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New book "The Gardens of Kyoto"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Kate Walbert has attracted attention for her short stories. In fact, her
debut novel, "The Gardens of Kyoto," is based on one of her short stories
that won a Pushcart and an O. Henry Prize. Book critic Maureen Corrigan
says that like O. Henry, Walbert has a literary knack for sad surprises.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
There's an arrestingly wistful atmosphere to Kate Walbert's first novel "The
Gardens of Kyoto." Like so many other American novels, consciously or not,
hers looks to the ur-American novel "The Great Gatsby" for inspiration. In
this case, Nick Carraway's signature tone of regret is transposed to the
voice of a middle-aged woman named Ellen, one of three sisters who came of
age during World War II. Of course, World War II is a hot subject for books
and movies right now. But what's different about Walbert's small story is
that it focuses on the lasting damage done to those who only stand and wait,
the women like Ellen whose lives were blown to smithereens either because the
men they loved returned as hopelessly damaged goods or never came home at all.
In the first paragraph of "The Gardens of Kyoto," Ellen abruptly introduces
herself by announcing, `I had a cousin Randall killed on Iwo Jima. Have I
told you? The last man killed on the island, they said. Killed after the
fighting had ceased and the rest of the soldiers had already been transported
away to hospitals or to body bags. Killed mopping up. That's what they
called it. A mopping-up operation.' That's what this memorable novel is too,
a decades-long mopping-up operation by a woman too weary to notice that she's
missing spots, going around in circles, just pushing dust around without
really doing any cleaning.
Ellen begins her story by telling us about the first time she remembers
meeting Randall. It was an Easter visit with her parents and sisters. She
and Randall were both teen-agers. Randall's mother died young, and he and his
father, Sterling, an amateur Jonathan Edwards scholar who shared the great
Puritan preacher's gloomy disposition, live in isolation on Maryland's Eastern
Shore in a cavernous house that was once a way station for escaped slaves. On
that visit, Randall takes Ellen into the slaves' secret hiding hole that he's
discovered in the house. Or was that another visit?
Readers quickly catch on that Ellen's memory is unreliable, sometimes more
wishful than precise. Her hypnotic account of her growing romantic attachment
to Randall, who goes off to war while he's still a teen-aged beanpole, is
interspersed with purely imagined recollections of his mother's life, as well
as stories about the famed gardens of Kyoto in Japan, a place that obsessed
By the time the novel ends, readers also catch on to something else: that the
entire story is a dramatic monologue, structured around three unwanted
pregnancies, and Ellen has been disclaiming her confessions not to us, but to
her most cherished confidant. We readers are only mere eavesdroppers,
stand-ins, rubberneckers at the accidents of fate that befall relative
"The Gardens of Kyoto" contains a few chapters I wish Walbert had weeded out:
a life-altering meeting where three important characters lock eyes for the
first and only time seems forced, and the section where Ellen remembers her
student days in the 1950s at a women's college is the same old-same old,
serving up reheated references to polite dating practices and Mrs. degrees.
But there's a whispery, ghostly quality to the novel as a whole that excuses
its momentary weaknesses.
Towards the end of the story, Ellen, as she frequently does, describes one of
the gardens of Kyoto. `This one,' she says, `is meant to be viewed at night,
in shadows. The entire thing--the pathways, the fountains, the lakes, the
cherry trees--is an illusion, colorless shadows without scent cast by large
paper cutouts, a scene set from a drama created by the emperor's gardeners
specifically to his wishes--changed for the seasons, rearranged, bare trees
for trees in full bloom, lakes with frothy waves, blossoms far too large to
grow in that climate.' The image of that particular garden offers a pretty
good metaphor for the novel itself. Some parts are obviously fake, but the
overall effect is haunting.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Gardens of Kyoto" by Kate Walbert.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.