100 Seconds – March Madness 3/19/21

The March Hare is my favorite Lewis Carroll character, first introduced to the reader at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in “Through the Looking-Glass”. Carroll drew on a rich vein of folklore surrounding this creature which is so iconic with the English countryside. To me, the March Hare seems more philosophical than mad, questioning conventional sense like the mathematician in Carroll. This exchange with Alice, for example:

The March hare explains, “and they drew all manner of things – everything that begins with an M—”
“With an M”, said Alice.
“Why not?” said the March Hare.

Commonly found in the English countryside on long grass, heather, or windy fields, wild hares aren’t a native animal, but brought some say by the Romans, others by peoples much earlier during the Iron or Bronze Age. They are now as native to Britain as the pheasant, another foreigner. Brown hares are herbivores and the fastest British land mammal, very elusive with an ability to abruptly turn, a necessary skill to escape formidable predators like owls, hawks, and foxes. Their biggest threat is commercial agriculture with its pesticides and destruction of wild areas.

Hares have a reputation of going bonkers in the month of March, as they engage in madcap chases and furious boxing matches. Lewis Carroll immortalized that notion. Actually, it’s not madness but mating. The boxing protagonists aren’t two males, but rather a disinterested female fighting off a male’s advances. The female hare breaks stride and confronts her overly aggressive suitor, up on her hind legs with forepaws flailing. Watching them in March on a rural walk, I found them intriguing.

Few animals in Britain have so much folklore attached to them, including the notion that they can disappear into thin air, because of their ability to scrunch down low in the grass and seemingly vanish. In many tales, they are portrayed as romantic, cunning, or benign. They have become the egg deliverers at Easter.

Actually, it’s writers, not hares, who are a little bonkers. Who could dream up “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” but someone with a wacky, but brilliant imagination like Carroll’s? Writers are indeed the ones who believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

(Painting- Judith Yates)

100 Seconds – 3/17/21

At the Lakes of Killarney, a local woman told me to look out for a water spirit, known in Irish as a “luchorpán,” meaning a “wee creature”. These spirits over many centuries became the mischievous household fairy said to haunt cellars and drink heavily, called leprechauns.
Wishing you safety and peace on this St. Patrick’s day!

100 Seconds – Fly With An Eagle 3/15/21

The last white-tailed sea eagle in Britain was shot by hunters in 1918, but the story doesn’t end there. A Scottish conservation team brought them back via “rewilding”, a purposeful restoration of an eco-system destroyed by humans. Now they’re a protected species in Scotland.

Chicks were taken from a donor population in Norway and flown across to the Isle of Rum, one of the Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides. This nature reserve is home to one of the largest colonies of Manx Shearwaters and now a stronghold of the sea eagles. A wild, wind-tossed place in any season, I can assure you (see second post). In 1985, the first sea eagle pair hatched their eggs on Rum. Soon, the sea eagles discovered the other Scottish islands. A few had small tracking cameras fitted to follow their movements to further protect them in their range.

The typical wingspan of sea eagles is 5-8 feet, likely making them the largest eagle species. They live most of the year near large bodies of open water and require an abundant food supply and old-growth trees or ample sea cliffs for nesting.

Take a break and hold on tight! Enjoy this ride on a majestic sea eagle’s back over Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

100 Seconds – All Passion Spent 3/13/21

All Passion Spent
Vita Sacksville-West and Sissinghurst Castle Garden

To my knowledge, there is only one internationally famous and glorious garden that was created by a married couple, who were in fact living underground gay lives. That place is Sissinghurst; the pair, Vita Sacksville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson.

It’s only a few hours from London’s Charing Cross train station to the bucolic countryside of Kent. I made that journey many times, each time learning more, seeing more, and dreaming more.

Vita was an extraordinary figure in gay cultural history, an author, and a foremost innovator in garden design. She married Harold in 1913, giving them both an abiding friendship, children, and cover in homophobic England (sex between men was only decriminalized in 1967). Like many others, they chose the safety of a straight marriage. To their credit, they were open with each other.

Vita’s two great amours ended in heartbreaking separation, the subject of TV and movie dramas. She had a lengthy relationship with Violet Trefusis, an English socialite and writer, that continued after both were married. Then with Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest novelists of any time or place, who had tragic bouts of what was likely bipolar disorder. Vita became the central character in Woolf’s extraordinary novel, “Orlando: A Biography”, chronicling the adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries.

One of Vita’s letters to Virginia: “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple, desperate human way…So, this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become.”

The daughter of old nobility, Vita inherited a ruined Elizabethan manor house and spent decades creating a garden that is still highly influential. Starting in 1946, she wrote newspaper articles about garden design, which were read eagerly by professionals and the public alike.

Harold created the masterpiece of the architectural framework that released her creativity. She poured her ideas and sensibilities into Sissinghurst. For her, gardening was always about beauty.

Sissinghurst is a sensual wonder that revolutionized garden design. Vita and her friend, Lawrence Johnston, the designer of Hidcote Manor, discarded the norm of the day, which was to have a single style for the entire garden. Sissinghurst is divided into ten garden rooms with different themes, some with sculpture, fountains, or topiary, enclosed by old brick walls or yew hedges, so all the rooms can’t be taken in at once. There is even a bench made by pruning box hedging in the shape of a seat.

She created the first monochromatic garden rooms, most notably the White Garden. With Harold’s perfect lines, she let the planting be exuberant, engulfing, and romantic. Self-seeded plants grew where they naturally fell, wild flowers with cultivated plants – a revolt against stuffy, manicured formality. Her Rose Garden celebrated the heritage roses that had grown out of fashion, but had a wonderful scent and character.

Sissinghurst has the original Elizabethan tower that dominates the garden, which was her study and library. Climbing the steep stairs, I could take in the five-acre garden from above, as Vita would have seen it.

Vita truly became the artist-gardener here, in a bewitching combination of wildness and restraint, all passion spent on this visual space.

100 Seconds 3/11/21

The weird but wonderful Malaysian (left) and tawny (right ) frogmouths, both masters of camouflage, related to nightjars. Only by sheer luck, my guide spotted the tawnies. They’re known in Australia as the nocturnal vacuum cleaners of insect pests. In the daytime, they perch motionless on a tree branch.

Ghosts of Granada

100 Seconds – Ghosts of Granada 3/9/21

My Journey to Southern Spain

I rented a mini Fiat at the Madrid airport. Armed with a map, I drove off on my own to Andalusia in the southernmost part of Spain. First destination, Granada. Even before the quintessential Muslim paradise garden, the Alhambra, my first day in Grenada was earmarked for the homes of two preeminent creative geniuses, Federico Garcia Lorca and Manual de Falla.

They shared a love of flamenco, which is deeply embedded in Lorca’s poetry and plays, as well as de Falla’s music. Listen to de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” (The Bewitched Love) or “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” and hear his flamenco-inspired, vibrant sound world.

Flamenco is a unique genre combining dance, virtuoso guitar, and songs of passion and sorrow. It was created by the gitanos (gypsies) who migrated to Spain in the 15th century. However, flamenco echoes with the cadences and sounds of Islamic Spain from even earlier centuries.

My late night in Granada was spent at a smoky flamenco cabaret called a tabloa, sipping a local sherry, steering clear of places where the tourist buses go. With shouts and rhythmic clapping, the audience and performers become one with the drama, wild improvisation, and storytelling of the flamenco art form. The cante jondo or deep songs are visceral wails, accusations, and pleas, drawing out of me such emotions and recollections, the cante jondo of love, struggle, and loss in my own life story. I know Lorca’s poem, “The Guitar” in my skin.

The weeping of the guitar begins.
The goblets of dawn are smashed.
The weeping of the guitar begins.
Useless to silence it.
Impossible to silence it.
It weeps monotonously as water weeps
as the wind weeps over snowfields.
Impossible to silence it.
It weeps for distant things.
Hot southern sands yearning for white camellias.
Weeps arrow without target, evening without morning…

I was the only visitor at Manual de Falla’s modest house the next morning, down the hill from the Alhambra. The guard was asleep on a folding chair by the entrance. Just an unremarkable Spanish house with white-washed plaster walls, adobe tile roof, iron railings, tile floor. I went upstairs to his modest bedroom. I glanced around — a gramophone, a crucifix, single bed, and a shelf full of medicinal products. I heard footsteps and turned around. A young man smiled at me, the museum guide.

He said, “Since you’re the only one here, do you want to see his clothes?” Not waiting for my answer, he opened a wooden dresser drawer. Inside were de Falla’s stiff collars, blue and white striped shirts, studs, nightgowns, all neatly folded. “He thought he wouldn’t be gone long.” My eyes burned, as he closed the drawer.

De Falla fled the Franco regime, which crushed Spanish democracy in 1939. He didn’t think to take everything. General Franco couldn’t last. No, de Falla was to spend the rest of his life in exile, but safe in Argentina.

On the outskirts of Granada is the Huerta de San Vicente, Lorca’s family summer home. I looked absently at the period furniture, lace tablecloth, and sentimental details. Nothing about Lorca himself, except old photos, his upright piano with two branched candlesticks, and his bedroom desk, above which hung the original poster for his travelling theatre company, with whom he brought the joy of the stage to small villages. I tried to imagine him writing “Blood Wedding” in this room.

Unlike de Falla, Lorca was not lucky enough to leave Spain. He was arrested in 1936 by orders of Franco’s fascist authorities in Grenada, who hated that he was gay and a socialist. He was shot on a remote hillside outside town, his remains never found.

People who make art are dangerous to a dictatorship, whatever its ideology. Artists are escapists, not subjects. They create beauty, and beauty is the enemy. Tyrants can’t control the terrain called beauty and thus try to destroy it. Time and again, we are reminded that democracy is fragile, no matter where. When the long night of dictatorship begins, artists find themselves in dire peril. It is never the same when they are gone.

Wild Swans

100 Seconds – Wild Swans 3/6/21

I was well over forty when I saw my first wild swan. I was crossing a stone bridge in Cambridge, England, and below me were a pair of mute swans gliding past, the water rippling in their wake. Their bright orange bills were topped with a bulbous black knob. After that, I seemingly found them everywhere in Europe’s lakes and ponds, even a semi-frozen one in Sweden. I never grew tired of seeing them.

My parents were nature-adverse, and so my image of swans grew out of music, starting in high school when a gifted student cellist played “Le Cygne” by Camille Saint-Saëns. Right then, I began a lifelong love of the cello and swans.

Much later, I attended a mesmerizing performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, with its transcendent music and timeless story of love, betrayal and tragedy. My swan music was topped off by a Jean Sibelius tone poem, “The Swan of Tuonela”, This swan is guarding a mystical kingdom, the Finnish version of Hades, surrounded by a dark, wide river. You can hear the birch trees tremble in the winds of winter in this music.

A few tidbits about swans. Only seven species exist worldwide. They are quite heavy and large birds that mate for life, rather aggressive and territorial in courting season, and can live over twenty years. Saint Hugh is their patron saint. He was much respected as bishop of Lincoln, appointed in 1186. There are stories about how he challenged an angry mob that were persecuting innocent Jews and set them free. His best friend was a swan, which followed him everywhere, even slept in his bedroom.

Enjoy these swans. Perhaps you might augment with a little swan music…

100 Seconds – Garden as Art and Autobiography: My Journey to Frieda Kahlo’s La Casa Azul 3/4/21

Great art and music resonate differently with each person. A certain sound or visual world can touch your very being, rich with meaning and emotion, melding with your personality, gender identity, ethnicity, heritage, memories, relationships, even shared life experiences with the artist or composer.

Frida Kahlo and her self-portraits resonate with me. I can identify with her unabashed love of women. She had a swagger when she dressed in men’s clothes, expressing her power and independence in that way. Although her marriages with Diego Rivera and her affair with Leon Trotsky dominate her story, she had many female lovers, including Josephine Baker, the Parisian nightclub sensation, movie stars, and the artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

It isn’t the technical brilliance of her art, rather how she could paint from her heart in such an original and immediately identifiable way — pictures that were both biography and metaphor, a symbolic narrative linked to her most intimate experiences, relationships, passions, and terrible, lifelong physical pain. Her style connects with European Surrealism, as well as Mexican folk art. Her paintings reflect her matrilineal connection to native Tehuanan culture (the style of her famous dresses).

And so, on a journey to Oaxaca, I stopped overnight at Mexico City and took a taxi to La Casa Azul, known internationally as Museo Frida Kahlo, in the Coyoacán borough, now a district of wealth with secluded residences patrolled by armed guards. Casa Azul was originally the Kahlo family home. Rivera lived here for a time, but they kept separate studios.

I wanted to linger in her garden where she spent countless hours, inspiring her art and offering solace. What would I discover about this woman artist, beyond the countless tourist trinkets with her image?

This is a courtyard garden with irregular flagstones, whispering of Spain, transported to the Americas and overlaid with the idea of Mexico – its cultural, biological and botanical worlds — enclosed by high walls painted deep blue with scarlet window trim, filled with terracotta pots, statues of forgotten ancient gods, pomegranate trees, native tropical and desert plants, including cacti, yucca, and canna lily.

In her lifetime, this was a noisy place, where a menagerie of exotic animals wandered including monkeys, deer, parrots, turkeys, and weird hairless dogs. This place witnessed extremes of delight and pain. Her favorite bougainvillea is still pampered with its drooping bath of flowers. In one self-portrait, she painted only its stems as a necklace of torment.

Casa Azul isn’t a pastel English cottage garden, not one where you putter, pot up plants, or mow lush lawns. It has qualities of an art installation and a figurative statement about her and what mattered to her. Yet, it is truly a garden, reflecting her love of plants and knowledge of botany. Kahlo liked to press flowers within the pages of her books. After she died, a tiny bouquet was discovered in her beloved copy of “Leaves of Grass”, written by the gay poet, Walt Whitman.

She left us her presence not only in her art, but also in this vibrant, phantastic place.

100 Seconds – Old Religions and Green Beings 2/28/21

I’ve often wondered why we humans thought up religion, which has benefited us with social adhesion, ethical ideas, solace, great music and art, but it has a lot to answer for. Religion plays a conspicuous role in intolerance, authoritarianism, violence, oppression of women and minorities, and war.

Before the modern global mega-faiths, there were the old religions, often despairingly referred to as “pagan”, but with rich cultures and traditions that persist with native peoples around the world. What little we have from antiquity in ritual objects, cave paintings, sagas, and the like confirms how powerful the impetus was to create spirituality. We humans needed protection, fertility, and success in hunting. We needed to pass down a story, an explanation of the powerful forces of nature, the universe, and the miracle of our living planet. So, deities arose from storms, the sun, and scary animals.

The mother goddess was revered in many early societies as new life, nature’s abundance, and guardian. Some of the oldest relics found are of a female fertility figures. But newer religions emerged which exalted male power and a patriarchal social structure. Even so, the mother is too potent a symbol and is still very much with us – notably in Mary, the Corn Maiden, Durga, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, wise crones demonized as witches…and the Green Beings.

As a magical soul of the woods, the Green Woman’s face emerges from foliage or crowned with a garland of leaves. In one guise, she was Sheela-Na-Gig, the goddess of the Celtic old religion, depicted with an exaggerated vulva, carved in stone on Norman churches, particularly in Ireland. High up on pillars and vaults, the medieval stone masons put her out of reach, but not out of mind. Imagine my surprise looking up at the clock tower at Whittlesford’s St. Mary and St. Andrew’s Church on the Welsh borders and seeing a full-on Sheela!

And who or what is the Green Man? Part-tree and part-human, the Green Man has a wry, fierce, or wise expression. His hair, lips, and mouth erupt with vines and leaves. The Green Man of the old religion endures in European spring festivals, pub names; and like Sheela, a favorite image in medieval churches. It’s said that you’ll have good harvests if you have a Green Being in your garden. I have a wall plaque of one that looks out over my veg patch and have no complaints.

I imagine that these Green Beings live on from a time, tens of thousands of years ago, when an ancient dreamer saw the outline of a human face in the deep grooves and hollows of a tree, partly out of hope for a year of plenty and safety, and partly out of fear and awe of the mysterious, dark forest. Have we changed that much today?

100 Seconds – Your Mind Is A Garden: My Journey to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top House 2/23/21

Millions of children for well more than a century know the opening line of this magical story: “Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.”

The author, Beatrix Potter, was a gifted, original artist. Her books interwove the wild and human world in a unique way in tales where frogs wore breeches and portly badgers, red sweaters. She didn’t believe in the prevailing norms of her day. At the turn of the 20th century, nature was there to exploit, and non-human animals had no feelings or rights. And sadly, we still struggle to appreciate and protect the natural world today.

There is much more to Beatrix Potter than that, so I decided to get to know her better, beyond the clichés and shop figurines, and make the journey for the better part of a day up from London to her home, Hill Top House, in the Lake District of Cumbria. When I finally arrived at the Windermere train station and boarded the local ferry meant for cars, horses, and cycles, my sullen fatigue vanished.

We crossed a hushed lake like glass, that reflected a clean sky and burnt umber cliffs. This was the world treasure known as the Lake District, where its native son, William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud” amongst his daffodils. So, I forgot the lukewarm cups of Yorkshire tea and stale muffins that was my meal so far, the jolts of largely empty trains, the product of Margaret Thatcher’s carving up of British Rail into a privatized patchwork of train lines across England.

I took out my notebook where I had copied a few of my favorite Beatrix lines and read them again before disembarking near her house. “Your mind is a garden; your thoughts are the seeds. You can grow flowers, or you can grow weeds.” And this one: “All outward forms of religion are almost useless, and are the causes of endless strife.”

In 1905, she bought Hill Top largely with royalties from her books. She worked tirelessly to maintain the ecology and distinct rural culture by buying farmland to save it from development and preserve the tradition of common sheep grazing. She bequeathed more than 4,000 acres (including Hill Top) to the National Trust, a UK charity that conserves historic places.

She saved the Lake District for the world to revel in to this day.

Her home is a hulking stone structure with miniature, dark rooms — cozy in any weather; but in late spring, its glory was outside in her true place of being and contemplation.

Hers is a quintessential English “cottage garden” buzzing with life, delicate scents, lilacs, beehive, glowing azaleas, roses, stately foxgloves, blowsy, overflowing borders, with a pale wisteria covering the wall by the front door. Sweet peas wind up branches likely from a local wood, tied together to form a rough frame. Cabbages, rhubarb and carrots bump happily into each other across rows. I could see her here. I could see her joy in tending this place.

Our gardens are likely to disappear with our deaths, go to weeds, pulled up, a sanctuary for wildlife and organic growing lost again. How could I ever change that aftermath, when I finally find my true home, my mind garden, my Ithaca?

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