100 Seconds – Part 2 of 2: The First Juneteenth During Pride Month 06/18/2021

Our new national holiday. Juneteenth, marks a landmark moment of black liberation, when federal troops entered Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved black people were freed (2-1/2 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation).

As a gay woman, I’m also celebrating Pride Month, which honors the Stonewall Uprising in June 1969, the catalyst moment of gay liberation. One of the leaders at the Stonewall bar was Martha Johnson, a black trans woman, who was fed up with police raids and harassment, so common then at gay bars.

So, June is about liberation, a time to honor what we have achieved and to remind us of how much remains to be done. Standing up for human rights, gender identity, and equality is tough, often dangerous, as those who hate are often violent. And those who hate often weld the power of the state.

In my universe of great souls and great writers, there are two that stand out for me, both combined extraordinary literary achievement with being activists in liberation. They were black. They were gay. They never let anyone turn them around.

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who dedicated her life and her work to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism and homophobia. A poem by Audre Lorde:

Who Said It Was Simple
There are many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.

Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex

and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

A great novelist, playwright, essayist, and poet, his many works explored like none other the racial, sexual, and class tensions in America. The pain and trauma of his characters grip you from the first page and on through his intricate narrative of fate, love, and loss. His second novel, “Giovanni’s Room”, which I read as a freshman in college, pried me out of my shell to face my sexual truth.

Some favorite quotes from his work:

“Nakedness has no color: this can come as news only to those who have never covered, or been covered by, another naked human being.”

“Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.”

“I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

“You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”

“To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”

100 Seconds – Part 1 of 2: In Celebration of Pride Month 06/15/2021

“There Is No There There” — Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein (1874 –1946) was a free soul, a giantess of gay history and the arts (photo 1). As a novelist, poet and playwright, she eschewed the conventional narrative and the linear in her writing and in her choice of artworks, widely acknowledged as an important advocate/patron of Modernist painters. She understood the work of the Matisse and Picasso, when collectors turned up their nose. After Picasso delivered a portrait of her (photo 2), this exchange followed between artist and subject: “After a while, I murmured to Picasso that I liked it. Yes, he replied, everybody says that you don’t look like it, but that doesn’t make any difference – you will.”

She dared to be unapologetically butch, but had to live in France to do that. Her childhood home was Oakland, California (the “there” of the quote above, from “Everyone’s Autobiography”, 1937). On that subject, she said, “America is my country, but Paris is my hometown”. She was in every way married to Alice B. Toklas, who was herself much more than a lifetime partner.

Gertrude and Alice are known for their famous literary and artist salon, held at their residence on 27 rue de Fleurus (photo 5), in the 6th arrondissement, the heart of the Left Bank in Paris. Their regular attendees included the artists Picasso, Braque, and Picabia, and many writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who flocked to Paris after the end of WWI (she called them the “Lost Generation”). (photo 6 – Gertrude and Alice at home)

On my many journeys to Paris, I spent considerable time on the Left Bank (photo 3, view of St. Suplice), the heart of progressive intellectualism, tarrying in bookstores (photo 4, Shakespeare & Co. books), funky shops, college cafes, the historic buildings of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (surrounding the Abbey founded in the 6th century), street markets, my day topped off with afternoon tea and madeleines at the Bon Marche. I sat watching children shove their little sail boats from the edge of the circular pool at the Jardin du Luxembourg. And sometimes I passed by 27 rue de Fleurus and gazed up at the memorial plaque. America sadly seldom honors the residence of artists, writers, and activists who stood up for their sexual truth.

Gertrude was fortunate to have progressive German-Jewish parents who encouraged her to speak multiple languages and learn about art. College followed at Radcliffe, where she developed a lifelong interest in psychology and became a pupil of William James. She almost finished medical school but decided instead to join her brother in Paris in 1903 and took up residence at Number 27. She would spend the next 43 years in France.

She liked to mess with your mind in her writings, especially the landmark memoir published in 1933, an “Autobiography” of her partner. She was interested in the color, sound, and rhythm of words, which has earned her a unique place in literature.

After France fell to the Nazis in 1940, the couple lived in the country near the Rhone, as Gertrude was liable to be transported at any moment to a death camp, being a woman of Jewish descent, plus a lesbian. After Liberation, Stein became seriously ill in 1946 and died in the American Hospital at Neuilly. She stayed firmly in character to the end. From her hospital bed, she asked Alice, “What is the answer?” and getting none, laughed and replied, “In that case, what is the question?”

100 Seconds – The Celtic Maze 06/11/2021

My Journey to Ballymaloe, County Cork, Ireland

I was lost, and what’s more, driving on the “wrong” side of the road (for an American). I slowed down, rolled down the window, and stopped alongside a man with a sturdy walking stick. He laughed, then said “Ballymaloe, been there for dinner and scoops. Cailín, follow your nose. It’s just a wee bit more down the road.” I knew enough to guess that “a wee bit” could vary wildly in Ireland. After a few more miles of passing sheep peacefully munching on the glowing green hills, I found a sign and turned off onto a dirt road. My destination at last, the Ballymaloe cooking school built around an organic farm and gardens.

I spent two days eating wonderful, home cooked meals, fresh from the farm, and having plenty of scoops (drinking Guinness). I can still taste the soda bread, warm from the oven, mussels, clams, and winkles, with all the flavors of the briny Irish sea.

The gardens dated back to the early 19th century when a family of Quakers arrived here. When a well-known Irish chef, named Darina Allen, bought the property fifty years ago, the gardens were little more than brambles and weeds with only a few hints of the past, like a mosaic floor made out of broken china.

The farm and gardens were both quirky and charming, including a lake with a giant flute leaning against a tree (photo 4), a duck and geese enclosure, a converted barn which housed the cooking school, orchard, kitchen potager in the French style (photo 5 and 6), a summer house preserving the century-old mosaic floor, a rustic tree house, wildflower meadow, herb garden, and a classical folly (meaning a structure meant to look like something ancient, in this case, a Roman temple), and blowsy, long flower borders, filled with cottage garden plants. My two Ballymaloe favorites were the Shell House and Celtic Maze.

The Shell House walls, window sills and ceiling were encrusted with a myriad of shells. In the center of the pebble studded floor was a circular pool of shallow, bubbling water.

The Celtic Maze

A bit about mazes. Mazes are typically made of trees, hedges or plants. In Europe, mazes date back thousands of years. The oldest surviving maze today is over 4,000 years old in Italy. The most famous one is in England at Hampton Court, the royal palace of Henry VIII. Substantial mazes require money, people, time, and a very large space.

Is a maze the same as a labyrinth? No, a labyrinth is usually a winding path without any choices. In ancient Ireland, labyrinths were often carved on Stone Age monuments and grave sites, the design representing the soul’s journey into the center of the uterine underworld and its return toward rebirth. One of the oldest archetypal symbols, it is sacred to the earth goddess.

A maze involves making the walker choose between various routes with many dead-ends. Ballymaloe’s maze was based on manuscripts of Ireland’s Golden Age, from monastic works like the Book of Kells, which contain the most intricate and abstract patterns, many of which are maze-like. This Celtic Maze covered about an acre, constructed from yew, hornbeam, and beech trees. Each section had to be carefully measured so that when the final tree was set in place it was exactly where it should be to keep the puzzle intact.

Walking the Celtic maze at Ballymaloe was disorienting, yet a strangely transcendent experience. Much like life.

100 Seconds – Cornwall – Art and Literature 06/07/2021

“Your work is very organic,” an interviewer remarked to Barbara Hepworth (photo 2) late in her life. “It’s meant to be. I’m organic myself!” was the British sculptor’s succinct, though revealing, reply.

Hepworth (1903-1975) has been characterized as an artist totally in tune with herself and with nature. Her sculptures evoke the play of wind and air, sunlight and sea spray on the Cornish coast — calm, strong, true. In her elemental, sensuous ovoid forms, I find a spirit evocative of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

The Barbara Hepworth Museum (photo 1) is located in the artist colony and fishing village of St Ives. It preserves her studio and garden much as they were when she lived there. The studio is typical of local, stone-built houses. Her workshop remains full of her tools, materials, and part-worked pieces still waiting for their moment of completion.

Despite an impressive list of works and accolades, she has never been credited to her full worth internationally, as art was (and still is) a man’s world. She was very much aware of these obstacles. Hepworth began to introduce color into her woodcarvings from her drawings made during WWII. She utilized driftwood she found during long walks along the beach. I especially like a piece called “Pendour Cove” (photo 3), which conjures up a Cornish myth in which a man is enchanted by a mermaid and beckons her from the sea by singing.

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) was a fascinating writer, whose life was intimately connected with Cornwall (the moody place where most of her works are set). Her parents were prominent stage actors, comfortable and well-connected. Du Maurier, although very shy and reclusive, did what was expected of her by marrying and having children.

Although her novels, most prominently “Rebecca” and “My Cousin Rachel” (both made into films), are labeled “romantic”, they are far from that. They delve into the paranormal and hidden lives with wild, twisted plots. Although the Rebecca character appeared to be the paragon of kindness and beauty, she was a malevolent fake. The book ends grimly with her Cornish stately home in flames (the thinly disguised actual home of Du Maurier’s in Fowey, Cornwall). Although in real life, her home was not burned down, her life there was lost by legal wrangling and her husband’s affairs.

Du Maurier (photo 5) never wanted the masquerade of femininity — dresses, children, the template of a woman’s life. She liked rain-lashed walks on the coast (photo 4), to be scruffy, perpetually in trousers, messing about in boats or living in her own head. She locked herself in a box, as she called it; but right after the end of WWII, she opened up and let her “Venetian tendencies” out, as she called it, by falling very much in love with two women (notably Gertrude Lawrence, a great Broadway actress). All the while, she believed she was stuck in the wrong body but stayed married.

I have wondered why her characters, so winning and charming externally, turn out to be sinister shapeshifters, very capable of destroying others. In her writing, I see a strong parallel to the American author, Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), whose five novels about the charming murderer, Tom Ripley, were made into film thrillers. She too turned her buried life into a murderous imagination.

I wonder — what would they have written in a different world, where gender identity and sexual truth were respected, not shamed?

100 Seconds – Cornwall, its Elysian Tropical Gardens 06/03/2021

With its Gulf Stream influence, great gardens in Cornwall can splash out with tropical plantings and trees, that would shiver in winter or expire of frost elsewhere in the UK. For several days, I just wandered about — from the seacoast, to artist and writer haunts, and a selection of different inspiring green spaces. Let me take you to two of these:

How could one not visit a place named that? Unique in the world, this Eden is famous for its “biomes”, the world’s largest greenhouses which nestle in a giant crater the size of 30 football fields, forming the centerpiece of a spectacular global garden. Their mission is both preservation and warning, as what grows within these greenhouses are often threatened in the wider world.

Another treat at Eden is the rainforest aerial walkway – not for those who have quivering legs on heights! Just one of their amazing plants is “Fascicularia bicolour”, a bromeliad found high in the Andes, mainly in Chile. It forms clumps on the ground with electric blue and red flowers in its center. A psychedelic pineapple….

This is a sub-tropical paradise, a valley garden with a stunning coastal backdrop. It’s the result of 180 years of inspired creation. Its beach was an embarkation point for the 29th US Infantry Division destined for the assault landing on Omaha beach. Visiting in spring, it was alive with a wealth of 100-year-old rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias. Also famed for its “champion trees”, some of the tallest living in the UK.

A favorite of mine are the tree ferns, especially “Dicksonia antarctica”, which can grow to over 49 feet height, with dark green, luxurious fronds that spread into a large canopy. The “trunk” of this fern is really the decaying remains of earlier growth of the plant and forms a medium through which the roots grow. #garden

The last of this journey (Part 3) centers on one of Cornwall’s unique writers, Daphne du Maurier, and one of its artists, Barbara Hepworth.

100 Seconds – Honeyeaters of Australia 05/27/2021

As hummingbirds are New World birds, the niche of nectar-sipping birds is filled by fascinating other avian groups. Honeyeaters are part of the large avian family called Meliphagidae and are native to Australia, New Guinea, and New Zealand. This family includes 187 species, half found in Australia, including miners and wattlebirds.

Here are a few facts about them:

* Small-medium sized birds.
* They have a ‘brush-tipped’ tongue, with which they take up nectar from flowers.
* However, nectar is only one of their foods. Most honeyeaters also eat insects. Some feed on pollen, berries and sugary sap of plants.
* Some are highly mobile, searching out seasonal nectar sources. Mass-flowering eucalypts are particularly popular with these nomadic honeyeaters. Other species are strongly territorial.
* A great many Aussie plants are pollinated by honeyeaters.
* Only small species of honeyeaters have the hovering capabilities of hummingbirds. Mostly they perch on flowers, stretch, or even hang upside down.
* Some are critically endangered like the Regent honeyeater. Habitat loss, wildfires, and invasive species are principal causes of decline (a familiar story in worldwide biodiversity).

I saw honeyeaters in Queensland at multiple rainforest/wetland sites (with the mossie bites to prove it!). Notably Dunk Island (part of the Great Barrier Reef), Mission Beach, Lake Tinaroo, Cathedral Fig, and Lamington National Park, which is part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area, the most extensive subtropical rainforest in the world.

99.9% of tourists to Dunk Island never got off the beach and had no idea of the rich interior of the island. However, it’s a wild place to explore a few hundred yards beyond the Aussie fast food joints, scuba rentals, hotels, and highways.

In life, wander, get off the beaten path.

100 Seconds – Part 1 – Hummingbirds 5/24/21

A whirr of wings
Motionless, as if perched on an invisible precipice

Along with owls, hummingbirds are my favorite family of birds. They belong to the avian family Trochilidae; their closest relatives are swifts. The almost 340 hummingbird species are found only in the Americas.

Traveling beyond the “New World”, the niche of nectar-sipping birds is filled by other fascinating families, like the Nectariniidae, which include sunbirds and spiderhunters, and the Meliphagidae, which include honeyeaters (look out for Part 2). More about hummers:
*They’re the only birds that can fly up, down, sideways, forwards, and, backwards.
*They fly at an average speed of 25-30 miles per hour, and are able to dive at a speed of up to 50 miles per hour.
*Their average lifespan is 5 years, but they have been known to live for more than 10.
*Some travel over 2,000 miles twice a year in migration.
*They have tiny hairs on their tongues to help them lap up nectar, similar to cats.
*No sense of smell, but can hear much better than humans.
*They can see in ultraviolet light and further than a human.
*A great memory: they remember every flower they’ve been to, and how long it will take a flower to refill. Their brains make up 4.2% of their body weight. Proportionally speaking however, they have the largest brains of wild birds.
*When food is scarce and they are fatigued, they go into a hibernation-like state (known as torpor) to conserve energy.
*You can provide all the nectar they need by having the right plants, natives a plus. Many choices including salvia (especially the variety, Amistad), columbine, petunia, catmint, penstemon, bee balm, weigela, flowering currant, to name just a few. #wander #birds #wellbeing

Sit back and watch them, enjoy!

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100 Seconds – From a Hunting Ground to a World Heritage Site 5/23/21

My Passage to India
Keoladeo National Park, Rajasthan

I thought long and hard about traveling to India — the difficulties of the journey, health and safety concerns, the thought of being immersed for ten days in a totally unfamiliar society and culture, whose people have suffered so much poverty and exploitation, where suppression of women and minorities still the way of life. The death toll from Covid plague in India today must be beyond counting, stretched to breaking by limited medical resources. Only the well-off can afford to buy oxygen on the black market. Surely other countries can do much more to help.

A friend and nature enthusiast said I would regret missing a very special nature trip. Our guide had outstanding knowledge of migratory birds and was an expert photographer. She talked me into it. I didn’t regret going, but it was difficult and more. I can still remember the utter destitution I saw in cities and villages, the graft and corruption of authority at every turn, the air pollution like muddy storm clouds. However, the local people were very kind and seemed bemused that our group was more interested in birds than the Taj Mahal (which we did visit).

Situated at the confluence of the Gambhir and Banganga rivers in the Bharatpur district of Rajasthan, Keoladeo was originally open land that seasonally flooded. The Maharajas of Bharatpur created a system of freshwater marshes, bound by earthen dykes, that attracted a large and diverse population of migratory birds. The princely family and their British overlords loved the “sport” of shooting ducks by the thousands.

Finally in 1982, the government agreed to recognize Keoladeo’s value for tourism and created a national park; the duck shooting finally stopped. In 1985, it was recognized as a world heritage site because of its incredible biodiversity of plants and animals.

The time to visit Keoladeo is in early November when birds from distant places like Siberia and Central Asia arrive, like cranes, pelicans, geese, and ducks, mingling with the resident species of eagles, hawks, shorebirds, warblers, flycatchers, larks, and much more for over 450 species have been recorded.

One of the rarest, endangered birds is the majestic Siberian Crane (shown in 2nd photo), also known as the snow crane. Siberian cranes are nearly all snowy white, except for their red face mask and black primary feathers visible in flight. The western population migrate to Iran, India and Nepal during winter. Amongst the cranes, they make the longest distance migration. Habitat loss and hunting are major problems for the cranes. Other amazing birds we saw included Painted Storks, Oriental Ibis, Spotted Owlet, and Oriental Darter (shown in photos). In one day, we encountered with our expert guide over 100 different species.

I went to India in the 1990’s and sadly a friend told me that the dwindling population of Siberian Cranes that wintered in India are now extinct. Other than reintroduction and conservation, there’s no way back for the rest.

100 Seconds – 5/21/21

When at last I found Ithaca’s shore, I gave it all I had and all I have been. For like the poet, Sara Teasdale, I understood that in life one must barter….

“Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And memories of faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.”
—Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)

100 Seconds – A Fine Madness 5/20/21

Astonishing Topiary of England and France

Topiary is the art of clipping hedges and trees into ornamental shapes. Topiary is ostentation, whimsy, a compulsive impulse to have nature resemble geometric contours or animals. A fine madness of human creativity; however, the opposite of Japanese niwaki, which seeks through minute pruning and training to create the illusion that the garden is completely natural.

Many gardens have a few topiary features like box balls or quirky creatures using fine-leafed evergreens, but it can be done with any plant theoretically, quite laborsome to maintain. However, it can transform a garden in winter when everything else is bare. In my garden, I inherited rectangular box hedges and some euonymus shrubs in half domes, but that’s the extent of my foray into topiary, as I prefer a natural, Provencal-inspired garden.

I can admire topiary in the right surroundings. Here’s the best of what I’ve seen and the stories these gardens tell — two English and two French.

Château de Villandry, département of Indre-et-Loire, France
This country estate was constructed in the 16th century by a senior official in King Francis I’s cabinet, around even an older 14th century tower. After all the vagaries of war and revolution, a major restoration project in 1906 brought back its topiary shapes and patterns. Villandry is known internationally for its glorious kitchen garden in Renaissance style, combining monastic and Italian influences. It consists of nine areas of the same size, but each with a different geometric motif of vegetables and flowers. These areas are planted with vegetables in alternating colors – blue leek, red cabbage and beets, green carrot tops, etc. – giving the impression of a multi-colored chessboard. Villandry is ostentation beyond measure, the grand ancestor of the humble French potager.
(photo 1)

Levens Hall, Cumbria, England
Touted as the world’s oldest topiary garden and unchanged from the 17th century, Levens Hall itself dates from the Elizabethan era. The house passed in 1689 to a colonel who was a treasury official for King James II. The colonel retained the King’s own French gardener, Guilliame Beaumont, who designed Leven’s complex and celebrated topiary garden, largely unchanged to the current day. There are over 100 individual pieces of topiary, some quite huge. Truly something suitable for the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s tale.
(photo 2)

Château de Marqueyssac and gardens, Vézac, département of Dordogne, France
On a site high above the Dordogne River is the 17th-century château and gardens built by Bertrand Vernet de Marqueyssac, Counselor to Louis XIV. To show his wealth and style, Bertrand had an extensive kitchen garden and terraces built, but no topiary. Only during the 1860s, a new rich, eccentric owner, Julien de Cervel, began to plant thousands of boxwood trees, today over 150,000, and had them carved in fantastic shapes, many in groups of rounded shapes like low hills or psychedelic brussel sprouts. He added linden, cypress, and stone pine trees, all a reminder of idyllic days on the “Grand Tour” in Italy. Named one of the “Notable Gardens” of France.
(photo 3 and 4)

Topiary Cat, Painshill, Surrey, England
Imagine walking through a beautiful English country garden, turning a corner and seeing a gigantic, perfectly-manicured cat sculpted from lush green bushes. The surrealist artist, Richard Saunders, once saw an ornamental shrub and was struck by how its shape resembled his beloved, deceased cat. One of his later images, which depicted a cat drinking water from a lake, was seen by millions on social media. The apogee of a fine madness.

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