St Michaels, on Maryland’s Easter Shore

July 26, 2017 at 10:20 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Maryland)

I rise early.

I go out on the deck, to survey what for a few precious moments seems like my own kingdom.

Meanwhile Ron sleeps peacefully. My own husband and the kindest man I have ever known, or will know. More and more, as the years pass, I’ve learned from him that thoughtfulness and consideration and selflessness are the true hallmarks of deep, real love.

As I write this, he snores away peacefully in the adjoining room. (If he heard me say this, he would exclaim, with a grin, “Snore? Me? Never!!) O that I could hear that sound forever! (Perhaps I will.)

In this second marriage for both of us, how lucky we have been.

Back to the deck. A couple strolls by. He turns to me, smiles, and wishes me good morning. I return his greeting. They walk on, seemingly content, despite the heat.

I long to see the ducks and rabbits that frequent this place. In the course of the morning, I see both, albeit fleetingly. And of course, numerous squirrels.

The heat is rising. The water glitters. The sun is blazing; the sky is white with heat.

I can sum up in a word why we come here and what we find each time we do: peace.

 

 

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From Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in several not so easy leaps

July 23, 2017 at 8:05 pm (books, Film and television, opera)

It begins with an achingly beautiful duet: “Marietta’s Lied” from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt:

Korngold based this opera on Bruge-La-Morte, a short novel written by a Belgian, Georges Rodenbach, in 1892:

It tells the story of Hugues Viane, a widower overcome with grief, who takes refuge in Bruges where he lives among the relics of his former wife – her clothes, her letters, a length of her hair – rarely leaving his house.

From the Wikipedia entry for the book.  The following is from that same source:

The novel influenced many later writers, including W.G. Sebald. The plot of the book may also have influenced the French crime novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Vertigo in 1958.

D’Entre les Morts (Among the Dead) came out in 1954. The authors  were Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud; the latter wrote under the pseudonym Thomas Narcejac.

Of course, that passage above has a decidedly speculative ring to it: “…may also have influenced“…. James Gardner makes the same suggestion, though, in a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Incarnating the World Within.”

Vertigo is one of my favorite films.

 

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“‘The way it’s told,…they’re invisible. But you can see them if you’re about to die.'” – Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman

July 19, 2017 at 2:42 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

On Tuesday of last week, Cheryl, one of the newer members of the Usual Suspects, did our group a very big favor. She selected, for our discussion and reading pleasure, Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman.

And what a pleasure it was to revisit the work of this master storyteller, with his unpretentious style, evocative setting, and intriguing characters. Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) is the second entry in the Joe Leaphorn series; in the fourth, People of Darkness (1980), Hillerman introduces the younger officer, Jim Chee. Leaphorn and Chee are paired as investigators for the first time in Skinwalkers (1986). It was to prove a winning direction in which to take the series.

In Dance Hall of the Dead, the investigation begins with the disappearance of two adolescent boys, Ernesto Cata and George Bowlegs. Ernesto is a Zuni; George is Navajo. They are fast friends are nearly always seen together. Ernesto goes missing first; then George, who flees from his school classroom the following day. The boys had recently been hanging around at an archeological dig in progress nearby

George envied his friend’s Zuni identity and wished to become part of his tribe. He was also said to be embroiled with a kachina, the sight of which supposedly portends death for the uninitiated. In the early part of the novel, Leaphorn himself is unnerved one night by an unanticipated sighting of what seems to be one of these same spirit beings. This occurs when he thinks he spots a youth who’d been part of a group of hippies living in an abandoned hogan:

Was this him standing so silently under  the arbor? But why would he stand there in the icy moonlight? And how had he got there without Leaphorn seeing him? As he considered this, the figure moved. With birdlike swiftness it darted out of the arbor to the side of the hogan, disappearing into  the shadow. It crouched, pressed against the logs….And then the figure straightened, its head moving upward into  the slanting moonlight. Leaphorn sucked in his breath. The head was a bird’s. Round, jaylike feathers plumes thrusting backward, a long, narrow sandpiper’s beak, a bristling ruff of feathers where  the human neck would be. The head was round. As it turned away from profile, Leaphorn saw round eyes ringed with yellow against the black. He was seeing the staring., expressionless face of a kachina. Leaphorn felt the hairs bristling at the back of his neck.

As do I, reading this mesmerizing passage, and as I did when I first read Dance Hall of the Dead over twenty years ago.

Kachina dolls in the Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ

Carol said that she’d forgotten what a wonderful writer Hillerman was. She’s right: there’s more  beautiful prose where the above came from.

Tony Hillerman was born in Oklahoma in 1925. He served with distinction in the Second World War, after which he became a journalist.

When he had returned home on convalescent leave from the Army he came upon a group of Navajos on horseback and in face paint and feathers in Crownpoint, New Mexico They were holding a Navajo Enemy Way ceremony, a curing ritual for a soldier just like himself just back from the war. The ritual exorcises all traces of the enemy from those returning from battle.

He was moved by the ceremony and by the Navajos — “I’m drawn to people who believe in something enough that their lives are affected by it” — and stirred by the vastness of the country to the extent that he resolved to live there.

From the New York Times obituary, 2008.

Hillerman’s experience of encountering the Enemy Way ceremony was key in leading him to write The Blessing Way (1970), first in what became the Leaphorn and Chee series centered on the Navajo Tribal Police. The rest, as  they say, is history.

Several of us long time Hillerman fans agreed that his work is still relevant and deserving of a wide readership. Marge reminded us of another author we’ve read whose work treats with empathy the subject of Native Americans. This is William Kent Krueger, who sets his mysteries in the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. The tribe about which he writes is the Ojibwe. I’d like to add to that Vidar Sundstol’s The Land of Dreams, a vivid evocation of that same region and its mix of inhabitants.

We did have a  few minor reservation about Dance Hall of the Dead. For a relatively short novel – the current Harper paperback edition runs to 240 pages – there are numerous characters to keep track of. I found that to be especially true of the law enforcement professionals from various agencies who are engaged on the case.Marge felt that the description of the archeologists’ activities and goals became tedious, whereas I found the narration of the Zuni Pueblo religious and ceremonial rites to be similarly over long. Both passages slowed the pace of the narrative almost to a halt.

Yet we all felt that these were minor cavils that were more than made up  for by the privilege of spending time with these intriguing individuals as they go about their business in the exotic landscape they call home. I’d like to add here that I initially revisited this novel through the audiobook narration by George Guidall. I cannot recommend this approach to these novels highly enough; Guidall has a marvelous feel for these characters and places.

Hillerman’s novels were largely responsible for my trips in the 1990s to New Mexico and Arizona. If anything, the vivid immediacy of those experiences exceeded their written description. You have to feel the air, smell the pinon…it really is amazing. New Mexico, “Land of Enchantment” –  rarely has an entity lived up so completely to its sobriquet.

(Judith Van Giesen‘s Neil Hamel novels, written in the 1990s and set in Albuquerque, produced a  similar effect. This is a series that Marge and I were both very fond of, but it never received its due from the mystery-reading public. I tend to blame this sort of failure on weak publisher support – if any.)

Beginning with the publication of Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013, Tony and Marie Hillerman’s daughter Anne Hillerman has been continuing the Navajo series begun by her unassuming yet illustrious father. I’ve not ready up until now, but I hope that will change soon.

Anthony Grove Hillerman May 27, 1925-October 26, 2008

 

 

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…’Venice is a labyrinth whose streets are famously full of water.’ – Trajectory, by Richard Russo

July 14, 2017 at 8:52 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

  Interestingly, there is no story or novella in this collection that’s actually entitled “Trajectory.” Nevertheless, it’s an apt title.

Of the four works here included, I especially liked “Voice.” It takes place in Venice, always a rich venue  for storytellers. The main character is Nate, a retired English professor who has somewhat reluctantly agreed to accompany his brother on a trip to that fabled city on the occasion of the famous (notorious?) Biennale International Art Exhibition.

As is only to be expected, everything looms larger than life in this hothouse atmosphere, including the long running estrangement of Nate from his wheeler-dealer brother Julian. Nate views this trip as a chance for a possible reconciliation, or at least a thaw in relations. Whether this will happen is anybody’s guess, but not unexpectedly, the journey turns out to have larger implications, not just for Nate but for Julian and other members of the tour as well.

As anyone who has traveled with a tour group can attest, your fellow travelers can go from being strangers to intimates in no time flat. They become major players in your life’s drama with lightning speed and then disappear from view just as quickly. Your new bosom buddy from Akron or Reno will inevitably return to his or her home ground, and you, to yours. There’s a certain poignancy in this, a mixture of sadness and relief.

Regarding the few tours I myself have  been on, there are times when these ephemeral but intense relationships overshadow the trip’s stated purpose. I remember a tour I took to Yorkshire in 2005 when the woman seated next to me at dinner was going on at great length about a brand of  health food she was partial to. It’s not a subject that I would ordinarily find riveting, yet I recall being quite captivated by her speech. This, you should know, was taking place while our group was dining in the stately home of a gracious aristocratic couple, a stunning experience  that I had not known we were slated to have and which I will undoubtedly never have again. (And in my memory, it is inextricably linked to Ezekiel Bread.)

That was a bit of a digression, which I hope you’ll excuse. And definitely don’t let it detract from the sheer brilliance of Russo’s story. Nate is a character whose head I got so thoroughly into that when it came time to take my leave, I felt genuine grief at the need to do so. Can you wish a fictional creation well, with all your heart? Well, of course you can. This is one reason why people are so devoted to the novels of Jane Austen.

I love Richard Russo’s writing. His straight ahead, unpretentious style is power (rather artfully) disguised as simplicity. To wit:

From “Voice:”

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in several years and he already wanted to strangle the man.
**************************

….his last waking thoughts are of the prostitutes’ children who sang so beautifully. How did  they feel about being hidden behind those screens? Did it seem a kindness that their voices alone should represent them to the world of others? Why should these privileged others be spared the deformity its victims had no part in causing? Is it better to be known whole or to conceal what makes us unworthy of love?
**************************

Even if Julian has ulterior motives for inviting him [on this trip], does it necessarily mean he’s totally without warm brotherly feelings? People have lots of moving parts, and trying to reduce motives for simplicity’s sake is always dangerous.

As Nate views the art of the sixteenth century painter Tintoretto  at the Scuola San Rocco, he can’t help contrasting it with what he has so far seen on display at the Biennale:

How comforting it must’ve been to know that everybody was proceeding from the same basic assumptions about God and creation and arriving at the same conclusions about the eternal existential questions: Who are we? What is our purpose?…

Renaissance painting and architecture were both designed to make the individual feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, which to  them was, well, grand. Was it the loss of this grandeur, and of the faith that was its foundation, that led to the fragmentation of today’s world, to postmodern silliness, art as a sight gag? Possibly, though Nate has little affection for Tintoretto’s muscle-bound figures, their heavy, brutal limbs foreshortened to emphasize their relentless determination to climb up and away from Mother Earth. Even his gray-bearded elders looked ripped and ready for battle, which might be why Nate, feeling paunchy, leave the Scuola San Rocco feeling bullied.

The Miracle of St. Mark Freeing a Slave, by Tintoretto 1548

*******************************

Ray, the chief actor in “Intervention,” sells real estate in Maine. His current clients are the Bells, whom he describes as “cultural refugees from Texas.” He guesses that like many others who have vacationed in the Pine Tree State, they have wholeheartedly bought into the state’s motto, “The Way Life Should Be.”

That happened pretty often actually….”If things get really bad,” people said, “we’ll sell everything and move to Maine,” as if it were a foreign country. Liberals came fleeing conservatives, libertarians fleeing government,  traders fleeing Wall Street, film people fleeing L A, everybody felling the nation’s collective culture, as if there were no cable TV or internet access north of Boston, and by means of geography they could escape Snooki and hip-hop and Sarah Palin and bird flu.

He adds, “One rough winter, followed by a black fly-rich June, was usually sufficient to send such folks scurrying back to wherever they came from.”

After the exhausting ordeal of house hunting, Cliff Bell is eager to go out for dinner:

“I want some of those clams you get up here. The ones with the little penises.”

His wife opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again, evidently deciding that just because it was teed up didn’t mean you had to hit it.

I really enjoyed “Intervention.” It showcases Russo’s dry and rather rueful wit, always a pleasure to encounter. The story ends, though, with the kind of sad realization that Russo is especially good at putting into words:

….people cling to folly as if it were their most prized possession, defending it, sometimes with violence, against the possibility of wisdom.

“Voice” and “Intervention” are the second and third stories respectively in this collection. While I liked the other two – “Horseman” and “Milton and Marcus” – I didn’t think that they were quite of the same caliber as “Voice” and “Intervention.”

Richard Russo

In recent weeks, I’ve read a slew of rave reviews of new story collections. Trajectory has certainly whetted my appetite for more of the same.

Additional recommendations gratefully accepted!

And as for Venice’s streets being “famously full of water,” this is probably a reference to the telegram that American humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945) purportedly sent to Harold Ross, his editor at The New Yorker, when he – Benchley –  arrived in Venice:

Streets full of water. Please advise.

Robert Benchley

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Charismatic cows, trees contracting like drinking straws, and other wonders

July 13, 2017 at 2:31 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

  Many are the moments of beauty contained in this small gem of a book. The most central of these is the eponymous tree, a majestic red oak presiding serenely in Harvard Forest.

Author Lynda V. Mapes tells us that in the eighteenth century, surveyors would designate certain trees as boundary markers. They were the original witness trees. She decided that the term would serve admirably for the large red oak around which she would orient her year long study of the Harvard Forest and its numerous plant and animal denizens.

Mapes often waxes lyrical when describing her year long immersion in nature:

This was the splendid time of the spring ephemerals, the woodland wildflowers precisely timed. They had been coming on with the sun since the spring equinox, the display growing in color and diversity as the sun gained in its height and heat, day by day, capturing the brightest light the understory would receive all year, right between the melt of the snow and the leaf-out of the trees. Four-petaled bluets, their blooms the size of a pinkie nail, paved the crown of the wagon road in nodding blue and white flowers. Sun flecks found pools of deep purple: the broad-leaved wood violets, turning their white-whiskered faces to the sun. The elegant, single nodding bloom of sessile bellwort, with its graceful, winged leaves, stood in creamy-white perfection at the feet of the trees. Bees, wasps, flies, and beetles sought these early-spring nectar sources, returning the favor with pollination, in a meetup essential  to each.

This is particularly when she’s talking about trees:

Trees are interstitial beings, connecting the atmospheric and terrestrial realms. They are rooted in the ground, but made from thin air, conjuring the sky, the atmosphere, and the sun to earthly form. For this alchemy they embody wonder; they are a transubstantiation that has amazed people for centuries. For really, who would think something so solid and long-standing as a tree could be made from the limpid, quicksilver ingredients of sun, water, and air?

The ‘charismatic cows’ were brought into the forest to help in maintaining an area of pasture land. Their presence is something of a holdover from the days of the Sanderson Farm, “one of the core properties from which the Harvard Forest was created.”

The cows, I noticed, had charisma. They were the first thing tour groups typically wanted to stop and look at when they came to visit the Forest, and they always drew smiles. People brought their kids by on weekends just to pet the cows through the fence. The pasture is small enough that it could just as easily have been mowed twice a year, but the cows were themselves historical reenactors, co-opted into our living exhibit of a New England pastoral landscape. Using animals to defend the open meadow from the encroachment of the Forest was the whole historical point.

From Lynda Mapes I’ve  learned many fascinating facts about trees. The ‘drinking straw’ phenomenon alluded to in the title of this post is part of a lengthier explanation of how trees handle water:

The tree does all that pumping against the countervailing forces of gravity and friction, without making a sound or using a calorie of energy. The number of interconnected water transport conduits— xylem cells— can exceed hundreds of millions in the trunk of a large tree such as the big oak, and their total length can be greater than 200 kilometers, or some 124 miles. The speed of water flow up a ring-porous tree such as the oak is also impressive, on the order of twenty meters or sixty-six feet per hour. The forces involved are enormous; a tree will actually slim ever so slightly in shape on a hot, dry day, as the suction of evapotranspiration pulls in the sides of the tree like a drinking straw. The tree replumps at night, as it refills with water.

Don’t know about you, but I found this simply amazing!

I was especially pleased that Mapes found several occasions in which to reference two of my historical  heroes of the conservation cause: Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold.

 

Aldo Leopold 1887-1948

Here’s Leopold in his paper “Phenological Record for Sauk and Dane Counties, Wisconsin, 1935– 1945”:

“Each year, after the midwinter blizzards, there comes a thawy night when the tinkle of dripping water is heard in the land. It brings strange stirrings, not only to creatures abed for the night, but to some who have been asleep for the winter. The hibernating skunk, curled up in his deep den, uncurls himself and ventures forth to prowl the wet world for breakfast, dragging his belly in the melting snow. His track marks one of the earliest dateable events in that cycle of beginnings and ceasings which we call a year. From the beginnings of history, people have searched for order and meaning in these events, but only a few have discovered that keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search, and also the chance of finding order and meaning. These few are called phenologists.”

How beautiful this passage is, both for its appreciation of the skunk’s awakening slink after its long sleep, and the connection Leopold draws for us to the pleasure of noticing the world around us and seeking to understand the land’s inner workings. He kept track of the first crowing of the pheasant, the first arrival of the marsh hawk, the emergence of the woodchuck from hibernation, and arrival of the bluebird. When the gray chipmunk first popped out of its burrow in spring, and eastern meadowlarks arrived, Leopold made a note. He tracked the first time the prairie mole made its active run up and around in broad day, the breakup of the ice on the Wisconsin River, and the arrival of the killdeer. He logged with precision the first calls of the Canada goose, woodcock, and leopard frog. He noticed when the first adult moths of the spring cankerworm flew in the trees, and the first song of the cardinal, brilliant red in the still-bare trees. He marked well the first bloom of the pasqueflower, the wood sorrel, and the toadflax, the bird-foot violet, penstemon, and coneflower.

Mapes adds at the end of this passage: “What a wonderful way to live.”

Indeed.

In aid of ongoing research,  Webcams have been placed strategically throughout Harvard Forest.  And here is a video about the Witness Tree Project:

As I was reading, one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare kept coming back to me. It’s from As You Like It. The speaker is Orlando. He’s commenting on the unexpected pleasures of his exile to the Forest of Arden:

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stone and good in everything.
I would not change it.

I should add here that the Harvard Forest is not “exempt from public haunt.” Visitors – both human and animal –  are cordially welcome.

You’ll note that this post is largely comprised of direct quotes. I felt it was useless, if not impossible, for me to attempt to paraphrase the text. Instead, if you care at all about trees, nature in general, climate change in particular, and a host of other related subjects, I urge you to read this book. It confers blessings one minute, promotes anxiety the next, but never relinquishes a sense of wonder. All this, in slightly over two hundred pages!

Lynda v Mapes

 

 

 

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‘The Osage found themselves surrounded by predators—“ a flock of buzzards,” as one member of the tribe complained at a council meeting.’ – Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

July 8, 2017 at 2:15 pm (Book review, books, History)

 

Yet another Osage chief, Bacon Rind by name, enlarged on the subject at a congressional hearing, testifying that the whites had

“bunched us down here in the backwoods, the roughest part of the United States, thinking ‘we will drive these Indians down to where there is a big pile of rocks and put them there in that corner.’  ” Now that the pile of rocks had turned out to be worth millions of dollars, he said, “everybody wants to get in here and get some of this money.”

Pile of rocks worth millions? What happened was this: After being driven from their land in Kansas, the Osage finally settled – were permitted to settle – on the stony ground of northeast Oklahoma, in the early 1870s. It was thought that in this region, so inimical to agricultural usage, the Osage would be left alone.

And so they were, until these began to appear on the landscape:

The Osage owned not only the land, but also the mineral rights pertaining to that land.. Oil barons like J. Paul Getty and Frank Phillips came calling; they paid enormous sums for the right to drill on Osage property. Unexpectedly, almost unimaginably, members of the tribe became wealthy. They spent lavishly on houses and cars. They were living the good life. At first.

It’s not hard to envision the reaction of their white neighbors. First, astonishment. Then resentment. These could have been borne. But they were followed by something far more dangerous: greed. Greed, in its most insidious yet ruthless guise, masquerading as friendship and benign caring. In particular, with regard to one William Hale, Hamlet’s bitter exclamation concerning his uncle comes to mind:

That one may smile and smile, and be a villain….

William Hale, supposed friend of he Osage; in reality, their scourge

The wave of crime that decimated the Osage’s rightful gain and culminated in multiple murders, committed by varied and nefarious means, was ultimately traced back to him and his henchmen. The period in the 1920s in which these depredations occurred became known as the Reign of Terror.

Who did the above tracing? To being with, local and state law enforcement. At first, the crimes having been so cunningly executed and forensic evidence gathering being so new and largely untested, the investigation proceeded at the proverbial snail’s pace. It didn’t help that while some investigators were committed and resourceful, others were being suborned with threats and payoffs. It was indeed a fiendish set of circumstances, with the deck heavily stacked against the Osage victims, real and potential.

Eventually, a key development kick started a series of breakthroughs. Because in  some cases, the crimes had been committed on federal land, the federal government was  duly brought in. A little known and relatively small agency, an arm of the Department of Justice, assumed responsibility. At the time it was called the Bureau of Investigation. Its low profile was about to change dramatically, largely because it was headed up by a man who was young, smart, incredibly focused and utterly driven:

Hoover and  the Osage had the great good fortune to have an agent in the field who was indefatigable in his pursuit of justice. His name was Tom White.

Tom White and J Edgar Hoover

Mollie Burkhart and her long suffering family are the heart and soul of Killers of the Flower Moon.

Mollie Burkhart, center, with sister Annie at left and another sister Minnie. Annie was shot and killed execution style, Minnie died of “a peculiar wasting illness,” their mother Lizzie was almost certainly poisoned, yet another sister, Rita, was killed when her house was bombed.

The story David Grann tells in this book should never have been allowed to lapse into obscurity. It is both mesmerizing and enraging and needs to be remembered. Although the Osage paid a terrible price, justice was done, at least to some extent. Grann believes that there are more murders than those officially acknowledged in the public record. What a job of research he has done here; I cannot praise his efforts highly enough. It’s the good fortune of readers that his skills as a researcher are matched by his gifts as a storyteller. Still, I think he remains haunted by “the ones that got away.” We should all feel the same.

Click here to view a segment on David Grann and Killers of the Flower Moon aired on April 30th on CBS Sunday Morning.

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