100 Seconds – Gone to Soldiers 5/05/21

My Journey to the Lost Garden of Heligan, Cornwall, England

There once was a place, a lost garden, that evokes Pete Seeger’s poignant song about the never-ending waste of human lives we call war:

“Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?”

There once was a family called Tremayne, who owned an estate of almost 1,000 acres in rural Cornwall, where they lived for over four hundred years. They employed a large staff of gardeners and laborers who built and tended a magical garden. Those men joined up to fight in the bloodbath called WW1. The house was converted to a soldier’s convalescent hospital, then sold for apartments. Gradually the garden itself was buried under brambles and fallen masonry walls, even the fact of its existence was almost wiped from memory.

Then, in 1990, the last Tremayne heir and a garden enthusiast discovered a tiny hidden room. A motto was etched onto the limestone wall, barely legible in pencil, which read: “Don’t come here to sleep or slumber”, with the names of those who worked there, signed with the date of August 1914. Only six of the large staff survived, the rest lay buried in some Flanders field.

A dedicated team of a national charity restored the Tremayne gardens of 200 acres for the enjoyment of wildlife and plant lovers worldwide, complete with a mud head, Victorian kitchen garden, rope bridge, pleasure ground, and jungle with majestic tree ferns, giant rhubarb and bananas, which thrive in the micro-climate of Cornwall.

Let me take you there.

Open the secret door again and marvel at Heligan’s beauties, but think too of what was lost and unrecoverable. All my life I have wondered this, when will we ever learn?

100 Seconds – Spirit Guide of the Cloud Forest 4/29/2021

The Quetzals of Monteverde, Costa Rica

Somewhere on this earth, a place calls out to you, with an emotional power that could only be real. That place for me was Monteverde, Costa Rica in 1997.

I came to Monteverde with the hope of seeing a rare, beautiful bird, the Resplendent Quetzal; during mating season, male quetzals grow twin tail feathers that form an amazing train. Only nine years earlier, I voluntarily surrendered and settled with the federal government for burning draft files in 1969, protesting against the Vietnam War and racism. In 1969, I was working for the Quakers as a draft counselor. Why I’m mentioning my own life story will become clear as I tell this tale.

Monteverde! The memory is still undiminished in my mind. A ceiling fan lazily shooed gnats away as we all sat on the veranda, listening to the darkness, the darkness of a rain forest, its night creatures calling, feeding, a sharp whistling sound from Capuchin monkeys came from somewhere in the tree canopy. Our guide passed around a joint. I leaned back on a sagging sofa and looked up at the clear sky studded with stars, never visible to me in the artificial night of the city.

She told us the story of the Monteverde lodge, a story I was hearing for the first time, or was it my soul singing the story back to me? Her tale began in Texas during the time of the Korean War when I was only a toddler.

Four men refused to be inducted into the Army. They were Quakers, a rare pacifist faith that took the commandment of “thou shall not kill” seriously. It was a crime to refuse induction (as it was during Vietnam), and the Texas courts predictbly ruled against the resisters, jailing their leader. They decided to leave the US and sent scouts to many places, who came back with promising news about a tiny country called Costa Rica, who had abolished its army and welcomed foreigners who could help them.

In 1951, about hundred Quakers walked to Costa Rica from Texas with carts filled with tools and supplies to start small farms. They reached a lush valley and named it Monteverde, “Green Hills”. In all their efforts, they focused on preserving the cloud forest and its unique creatures, ultimately buying much more land to establish a protected place. The endangered quetzals only survive if their forests survive.

So, this Quaker ecolodge found me. I can thank the quetzal, my spirit guide, even if I might fail to see one on this trip, for honoring me with this extraordinary connection with these Friends across so many miles and years.

The woman next to me on the couch was a college student from Guatemala. She then spun another story, from a much more ancient past. In Mesoamerican civilizations, the quetzal was considered divine, associated with the snake god, Quetzalcoatl. It was a crime to kill a quetzal. The Mayan nobles wanted the bird’s long, magnificent tail feathers for headdresses, so the bird was simply captured, a few feathers plucked, and then set free. In several Mesoamerican languages, the term for quetzal meant “precious” or “sacred”.

To Guatemalans, the quetzal is the central figure in their legend of the hero Tecún Umán, a prince and warrior of the Quiché (K’iche’) Maya during the Spanish conquest of their land. The quetzal was his nahual (spirit guide). The Quiché repelled several attacks from the Spanish army, even though outmatched in weaponry. When Tecún Umán died, the bird swooped down and landed on his bloody body, leaving distinctive red feathers on its chest.

The bird represents freedom and is said to die of sadness if it is caged, evoked so well in the Guatemalan national anthem, which contains the words “rather death than slavery (antes muerto que esclavo sera)” in reference to the bird.

And my wish was granted two days later, when our guide spotted the elusive Resplendent Quetzal at last, sitting in a wild avocado tree, still, completely camouflaged in the green shadow. I couldn’t spot it for a long time. But then, I saw the crimson chest stained from the blood of the Mayan prince.
My spirit guide of the cloud forest, whispering freedom, oh freedom

100 Seconds – Close-Up to Creation 4/25/2021

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Flowers

Some artists speak directly to your heart, not just through the subject matter, but also in color, form, light, and viewpoint, an entirety of invention that awakens a personal meaning and delight for a lifetime. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is one of those artists for me. A print of her work called “The Lawrence Tree” has been on my walls of my vagabond lodgings for over forty years, now on the wall of my true home.

She married the photographer/art dealer Alfred Stieglitz in 1924, although she had relationships with women, including Frida Kahlo. She struggled with depression; and in 1933, she was hospitalized following a nervous breakdown. She drifted away from the East Coast, resettling her life and art in New Mexico. On her own, she found inspiration in its stark, arid landscape, its reds, ochres, yellows, and blacks.

Over the course of her career, she painted somewhere around two hundred images of flowers, many of them like a close-cropped photo, large-scale depictions of the interiors of flowers, capturing the essence of their life force, the beauty of their sexual parts of stamens and ovaries. Many (largely male) art critics said her pictures referenced feminism and sexuality. Georgia scoffed at their opinion.

She learned from modernist photography, especially the work of Paul Strand, with her own pictorial vocabulary of undulating forms and soft, tonal gradations. She transformed her botanical subjects into compositions that move between abstraction and representation. A small, ordinary flower suggested the immensity of nature.

In details, O’Keeffe sought to jostle her viewers’ habitual ways of looking. In my own photography of garden flowers, I aim for a close-up view, the revelation of simplicity and majesty in details. The last 2 photos of a bearded iris and blue hydrangea.

100 Seconds – Your House is a Canvas 4/22/2021

My Journey to Charleston House, the home ground of the Bloomsbury Group

I set off on a day trip aboard a sluggish train from London’s Victoria Station to the south of England. My destination: Charleston House, located in the village of Firle in East Sussex, not too far from Brighton. Charleston House hosted and housed some of the 20th century’s most avant-garde people. Among them were the founding members of the celebrated Bloomsbury Group: the famous writer, Virginia Woolf; her sister, Vanessa Bell; and Vanessa’s lover, Duncan Grant.

Bell and Grant, both accomplished artists, utilized the house as their residence for over sixty years. Since 1980, a charitable trust runs the property funded by tours and special functions. I’ve heard that many such trusts are struggling for funds, given the Covid lockdown.

Charleston House has a strong gay connection, not only through its residents, but also its frequent visitors, like the author/critic Lytton Strachey. I had the opportunity to go with a small group of Londoners who were interested in seeing the house from a LGBTQ+ focus. Vanessa brought Duncan, his lover David Garnett, and her two children by her husband, Clive, to Charleston. A complicated, open marriage arrangement included a time when David and Vanessa had a relationship.

Since Vanessa and Duncan were boho artists, no heavy Victorian furniture and dark walls suited them (or Victorian conservative mores). As owners of Charleston, they turned every surface of the interior into a canvas, painting the walls, the furniture, doorways, fireplace, even a God of Sleep bed frame, and a Ballet Russe log box. Visitors posed for portraits, like their gay writer friends, Strachey and E. M. Forster. The economist, John Maynard Keynes, had his own bedroom at the house. In another post, I mentioned Virginia’s love affair with Vita Sackville-West.

These works weren’t slapdash or amateur at all, but the living space of two whimsical, creative souls and their children. Vanessa studied with John Singer Sargent, and her own work has never been fully appreciated, in my mind because she was a radical woman, free of mindless conventions. I like her playfulness and use of color, suggestive of Matisse. She did wonderful paintings of Virginia.

The house seemed fixed in time, as if Vanessa and company just dashed out and would return at any moment. A sense of intimacy with people long gone, even moments of intruding in the most intimate rooms of this house. Pinned photos, newspapers, paint brushes, and personal art objects everywhere. The garden reflected Vanessa’s love of flamboyant flowers to which she added a tiled pond and piazza.

In the dining room, I closed my eyes, imagining the lively conversation and laughter. Here the walls were black, the room anchored by a large circular table, painted yellow, pink, and green.

Bold, fanciful, unique, my kind of abode.

100 Seconds – Ten Million Whispers 4/17/2021

This post will be rather different. I felt compelled to write this piece and share it with you, given what is happening in our country. Your thoughts gratefully appreciated.

I was born in 1946.

WWII was over. Soldiers weren’t the only ones killed. No, this was a total war on civilians, and ten million Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies in Europe suffered and were murdered without pity. The Germans and their allies were very efficient at the business of death.

Many in my family had emigrated from Russia, Poland, and Hungary to the U.S. between 1870-1910, fleeing conscription, pogroms, and poverty. I never met the Rappaports, Cohens, Schenkers, and Quints who stayed behind in Europe. My mother told me that one great aunt miraculously avoided being transported to the death camps by hiding at a Catholic hospital in Paris; then with the help of nuns, she secretly made her way with her children to the south of France.

Only when I was 43 did I travel outside of the U.S., the reason for which is detailed in my book published last year. Walking in Europe’s capitals, I could hear ten million whispers of a lost people, of a lost language called Yiddish, whispers of those who contributed much to the economic and cultural life of the countries they called home. The names of Jewish streets, squares, and ghettos still remain but in name only.

These mementos made me gasp and bow my head in silence:

A memorial inscription at the old Jewish quarter in Prague with a listing of names of those killed in the Shoah. One line had a family of Rappaports.

A plaque in Paris on the Rue St. Jacques, affixed to a school wall that Jewish children once attended. The last line in French read, “we will never forget them”.

A monument in a Viennese square I came across by accident. A bunker-like form, but coming closer, it was actually a stack of closed books, a library set in concrete, lifeless, doors with no handles or hinges. These hermetically sealed books were all that was left of the city’s 10,000 Jews, their education and culture came to naught.

As I’ve wandered, I came to these ideas about hate and violence, imperfect as they are, but crafted from my life’s experiences. The disease of intolerance incepts in fear, lies, and envy of the “other”. It is often stoked and endorsed by the powerful. I understand that humans (like other animals) are comfortable only with our own circle, pack, or den, but how does that become so virulent that we will kill our own kind, not for food or survival, but out of unreasoning animosity for another skin color, another religion, another gender identity, another culture, another nationality?

Oscar Hammerstein’s telling lyric in the musical, South Pacific, says it all. “You have to be carefully taught” to become intolerant and hate. We’re not born that way. We humans learn it. I have seen that haters don’t single out just one group, rather they are likely to hate trans people, black people, Jews, you name it. It is utterly frightening to see their faces, to realize that they are unreachable by any logic, and that they easily become violent. I don’t know how these souls can be brought back to sanity. I do know that the law of the larger society must come down hard on them when they act or plan to act on that hate, or we are all lost.

Hate is a suspension of reality into a twisted world of fantasies with no basis in fact. Some of these hate conspiracies are centuries old, resurrected again and again. Rational thought is toxic to hate. Hate will bar the mind of seeing anything clearly, but education is only a partial answer. There is truly an element of envy and insecurity in haters, as if being tolerant would threaten their position on the economic or social ladder. Dictators and autocrats understand how to manipulate these emotions effectively. Most Germans followed Hitler willingly to genocide and a dead generation of their young men. And millions of Republicans followed Trump no matter what and still follow his flavor of hate.

Hate’s companion is violence. A society which becomes conditioned to violence (as it occurs all the time) becomes ever more violent. It will never be normal to have frequent mass shootings in everyday public places. It will never be normal for a society to allow the public to easily procure high-powered weapons (or any gun for that matter). It will never be normal to have the police protect only its white citizens, while shooting people of color with impunity…but this is reality today in this land.

The whisper of George Floyd and Daunte Wright is the whisper of all victims. How many plaques would be needed to mark the site of victims of violence or police shootings in this country? How many schools where students were murdered? How many places of worship? How many businesses, malls, and grocery stores? Commemorations cannot change the future. We must stop writing our history in the names of its victims.

100 Seconds – Niwaki Gardens 4/14/21

Making a garden is a form of art and escape from human woes, letting nature carry, subdue, and astound us with its boundless beauty. Each garden reflects local culture and its individual gardener, a human creation that always should be organic and protective of wildlife.

Of all garden styles, the Japanese garden is designed to foster heightened mindfulness, serenity, and meditation, in keeping with Shinto/ Zen ideals. It is made possible through evolution over millennia of Japanese flora and fauna, aided by its damp and cool climate with defined seasons. Even with props like stone lanterns and curious rocks, this way of creating outdoor space is very difficult to achieve in dry or tropical macroclimates.

Throughout the centuries, the niwaki garden in Japan has played a very profound role, but its influence can also be seen worldwide. Vincent Van Gogh’s art derives so much from Japanese art prints depicting landscapes, both wild and niwaki gardens.

The Japanese garden requires precision and persistence to maintain; all the while as it strives to look completely natural, as if it were always there. Instead, it requires great skill to create a living metaphor of nature, that in truth, is a work of living art. However, the foremost Japanese gardens require training and plenty of monks, staff, or volunteers to tend each leaf, shrub or tree — following the thousand years old practice of niwaki.

What is niwaki? Most outside Japan have never heard of it, yet the style is quite recognizable in gardens imitating its Asian cousins. A Japanese person would likely translate “niwaki” to English as “garden tree”. But if you take a look at a Japanese garden, what you see is so much more than just a garden tree.

What are the principles of niwaki for a garden and by extension, for your life?

The act of gardening in itself is a cleansing and uplifting activity, requiring concentration and patience, emptying the mind of stress, our fear and flight brain chemicals. Zen monks make excellent gardeners.

Key virtues in niwaki are patience, diligence and perseverance.

Unlike us, less is more, so the number of plants they use is relatively small. Common trees suitable for niwaki include pine, yew and box. Applying niwaki ideas makes some pretty stunning shapes of trees and shrubs. A technique called “cloud pruning” (where tree branches look like clouds) is heavily influenced by nature. Form becomes natural sculptures.

In niwaki, the whole idea is to harmonize the trees in accordance with their surroundings, creating outstretched branches and rounded canopies by trimming, clipping, and pruning. Moss, rocks, sand, gravel, and water create the impression of large landscapes in miniature, drawing inspiration from mountains, waterfalls and rivers.

These gardens of such delicate beauty and profound ideals cannot insulate nor excuse a society from its history. Sadly, like so many other countries, Japan disdained other nationalities, blindly obeyed autocracy and the military, dominated women, and quested for empire. I still find this contradiction shocking between the ethos of these gardens and the well-documented brutalities and carnage committed by the Japanese during World War II to both ‘enemy’ civilians and combatants. A dear friend somehow survived the Bataan Death March when a POW.

Although the virtues exemplified in niwaki of creativity, meditation, love of nature, tranquility, and mindful activities like gardening cannot shield a society against hate and violence; but without these virtues, we would be lost with the worst of ourselves.

100 Seconds – Montezuma’s Oropendola 4/7/21

My Journey to a Central American Rainforest

Most of us can instantly remember the scariest plane ride they’ve had. Mine was the short flight from the airport in Belize City to a remote rainforest eco-lodge, an enclave of elevated cabins and dining hall built on an ancient Mayan site. Over 300 species of birds have been spotted there. Nature lovers came from all over the world; but with Covid, I can’t imagine how these lodges survive or how the rainforest can be protected very long from “development”, or rather, destruction.

A single engine, four-seater Cessna had an engine that growled and rumbled ominously throughout the half hour trip to the lodge. I peered anxiously out the window at the dense green canopy below, where jaguars still roamed. I muttered a silent prayer when the wheels finally bounced on the ground.

On arrival, I heard a sound like no other -– something making a long-drawn, echoing, liquid burbling noise, becoming a loud gurgle, ascending in pitch. The lodge employee carrying my duffel bag to my cabin laughed when I asked what was making that sound. She said, “wait until you hear the dawn chorus of these birds. Montezuma’s Oropendolas”. What a name! She laughed again and pointed to the tree canopy, where a colony of twenty-odd, intricately woven nest sacks was hanging three feet or more from the branches. These oropendolas wove vines to create their pendulous nests to secure them from predators.

Then I saw one fly out of the cup of the nest. I lifted my binoculars and stared at this strange creature. An oropendola was similar in size to our red-winged blackbird, chestnut with a blackish head and rump, and a bright yellow tail. Its face had a blue cheek patch and pink wattle, with a long bill, black at the base with a red tip. Colors off the chart!

Found only in Central America, the English and scientific names of this species commemorate the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II, a very unlucky name, as he and his empire never survived the invasion by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. The word “oropendola” is derived from the term “gold pendulum”, referring to the bird’s tail and the male’s unusual habit of bowing forward when calling the female as part of its elaborate courtship display. The name also references their distinctive hanging nests.

The diet of these birds consists of large insects (of which there were plenty), nectar and fruit, including bananas. It belongs to the New World family of blackbirds, called Icterids. With howler monkeys, they are the definitive sound of the Central American rainforest. It was worth the worrying plane ride to get there.

100 Seconds – Sakura Sunday 4/4/21

In my spring garden, I gaze in rapture, each day new life, new blossoms of white or pink, first peach, then apricot, pear, and lastly apple, each tree setting its own time to stir. It reminds me of Sakura, the ancient Japanese festival of cherry blossoms and the tradition of “hanami”, where people walk amongst the cherry trees, share a meal, and admire the beauty of spring in the flourish of buds and flowers.

Sakura parties and crowds were banned this year in Japan, during this second spring of global pandemic, but no one told the trees. They continue to thrive, although 2021 is the earliest cherry blossom bloom for 1,200 years, the sign of another planet crisis called climate change.

I hold my own hanami, alongside my mini orchard, watching in silence and wonder as the buds burst, burgeon, fall and inevitably fade.

100 Seconds – The Southern Cassowary and The Dreamtime 03/29/21

My Journey to An Ancient Rainforest

I joined a small group hoping to find one of the most astounding, endangered flightless birds in the world — its sanctuary, a tropical rainforest called Daintree in Queensland, Australia. The air in a rainforest drips, its humidity nearly oppressive, like a greenhouse gone feral, every scrap of light nurtures or denies life to some plant or tree, but in that throng of green, a flash of intense color – red, orange, purple, black of birds that disappear before you can train your binoculars on them.

A rainforest isn’t quiet, rather a place of incessant buzzing, chirping, drumming, and howling in the verdant shadows of gingers, breadfruit, fan palms, and mahogany. Our guide knew the local birds and mammals instantly either by sight or by their strange calls. Here, I was at a loss, as whole genera and families of plants and animals were unknown to me. Australia severed from Asia some 180 million years ago, and evolution followed an extraordinary, insular path.

Daintree is one of the most ancient rainforests with the greatest diversity of plants and animals on this island continent; and so far, protected from mining, cattle grazing, farming, and palm oil factories that have destroyed so many other rainforests around the world, worsening global warming (as burning down these forests releases untold tons of carbon that they have been faithfully storing for centuries).

On top of our list for this outing was the Southern Cassowary, Australia’s heaviest flightless bird. Like the emu and ostrich, the southern cassowary is a ratite, a large flightless bird with unusual feathers and other features that distinguish it from all other birds. A striking bird with glossy black plumage, the adult southern cassowary has a tall, brown casque (helmet) on top of its head, a blue and purple neck, long drooping red wattles and amber eyes.

The purpose of the casque is unknown, but it may indicate dominance and age, as it continues to grow throughout life. The First Peoples of Australia celebrated the cassowary and wove them into their beliefs, their stories of creation called The Dreamtime. There are customs, songs and dances about the cassowary, a prized source of food, hunting implements, and ornaments. They have a Dreamtime tale of how the cassowary got its helmet, when it saved the forest animals from fierce snakes, cracking them with its head. Hailed as their rescuer, the cassowary was never teased again about its inability to fly.

Each heavy leg has three toes, with the inside toe bearing a large dagger-shaped claw used for scratching and fighting. If we managed to see one, the guide warned us not to approach. Cassowaries prefer fallen fruit, but will eat small animals, fungi, carrion and plants. They are a rainforest gardener, one of only a few frugivores (fruit eaters) that can disperse large, seeded fruits over long distances.

Humans are affecting their survival through habitat loss, vehicle strikes, disease from domesticated animals, etc. In the Daintree, they are protected. Cassowaries aren’t common and could be hard to find, because even though they’re big and colorful, they can blend into the rainforest gloom. We were lucky that day as two wandered onto the dirt path late in the afternoon, when we were headed back to our jeeps. Only something real could look so unreal…

100 Seconds – French Lessons for Gardeners 3/24/21

My Journey to Provence: Potagers and Lavender Fields

My basement flat in London came with a modest outdoor space. For an unlimited quantity of Fosters and pizza, two Aussie brothers built me a rude potting up shed, made the garden access safe, and hauled off rubbish – a brew of bricks, rotten boards, and broken glass. I wanted to grow vegetables organically, attract birds, and sit in serene floweriness. But how would I get from muck to magic? I needed inspiration and instantly thought of France.

Early July, I wrangled some time off work and took the early morning Eurostar to Paris, then onto a TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse or really fast train) to Aix-en-Provence. By late afternoon, I was ensconced at a café alongside the central market square with my favorites: “une infusion de verveine” (lemon verbena herbal tea) and “navettes à la fleur d’oranger “(orange blossom biscuits).

The next morning, I visited the bus terminal where the local tours usually start. Clearing my throat, I tried out my fledgling French at the ticket window. “Y-a-t-il des visites de potagers?” (Are there any tours of French kitchen gardens?) Standing nearby, a young woman, wearing a smart silk scarf, smiled with a look I interpreted as both gentle encouragement and amusement. She responded with “bien, vouz essayez de parler français” (good, you’re trying to speak French).

After that, she spoke English. I learned her German tourists cancelled their tour today, so she was free. I told her about my garden dreams. She offered a walking adventure, which would include a visit to a private garden with a potager expert, lavender fields, and “une surprise”. I instantly said yes.

What a day in the Provence countryside! The intense sunlight and colors, inspiring both Van Gogh and Cezanne, has never left me. I absorbed everything I could about potagers in bits and pieces of two languages. A doyenne in a print smock and jeans escorted me around her kitchen garden, patiently answering my questions, sharing local wine and cheese with us. Her garden stroked all the senses – from the drone of cicadas to soft bursts of scent everywhere.

The essence of a French potager lies in its combination of beauty, productivity, structure, and respect for nature. The gardener must protect and nourish the “terroir” (the soil) that nourishes the plants. A potager is both art and autobiography, combining vegetables, herbs and cutting flowers, utilizing repetitive geometric patterns which structures the growing space. Within that structure, plants grow exuberantly, feeding you and your weary spirit.

In the last century, 94% of heritage vegetables have disappeared. A French kitchen garden relies on seeds from regional heritage varieties. Only taste and nutrition matters, not shelf life. My host was growing a spinach with huge, dark green leaves, called Monstrueux de Viroflay. It was even mentioned in a Medieval book and thought to have originated in a suburb of Paris called Viroflay.

Oh, what was my guide’s surprise? A visit to a 12th century abbey called Sénanque, bluish-gray weathered walls rose above a swaying ocean of lavender. I took my French lessons to heart wherever I called home.

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