In Hopi Land

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House at Walpi Village, Hopi Reservation, Arizona, c. 1918. Photoprint from nitrate negative, 10 x 13 cm., by Horace Swartley Poley. From the collections of the Western History / Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library, Denver, Colorado.

It was the summer of 1987 and I was returning with my friend Ed from my first and long-awaited trip to New Mexico–reluctantly, to say the least, because I had nearly instantly fallen in love with that state and didn’t at all want to go back to my regular life. My car was a gun-metal colored Volkswagen Jetta, which I had impulsively purchased new off a lot when a long period of economic austerity had ended with an inheritance from an elderly and kindly great-aunt. So I was rather carefree: new automobile, plenty of cash in my pocket, an enjoyable traveling companion and a great new enthusiasm which would periodically charm my thoughts for decades to come. All looked good. I planned to return to California, where a new job awaited, but to begin plotting my next vacation in the Southwest at the earliest available opportunity.

What I didn’t know was that the factory had sent a recall notice to all buyers of new Jettas. It was something to do with the fuel injection system, some small part whose name I have forgotten but which monumentally mattered when my car began to malfunction in the middle of the nearly 2 million acre Hopi reservation in north-central Arizona. I wouldn’t get the notice until I returned home, and meanwhile the stylish little Jetta would only go a mile or so at a stretch before coming to a halt. If I let it rest a bit, I could coax another mile out of it, but it was a rather frustrating and frightening way to travel. We drove about a hundred miles that way, miraculously managing to reach Las Vegas, Nevada, where the nearest suitable repair shop was located. And whence I had a very difficult time dislodging the enthusiastic Ed, who had previously railed against Las Vegas as representative of the worst in American superficiality and pointlessness, but who found to his surprise that he was charmed by the casino and resort atmosphere. But that’s another story altogether.

The three Hopi mesas are not to be forgotten. Unfortunately we saw them on a day of depressing gray overcast weather. I don’t think a single person was in sight at any of the tiny villages atop them which my Jetta crept through on uneven rocky roads. Eagles soared over vast plains below. Everything seemed to be made of jagged rock. We ate the traditional paper-thin ‘piki bread’, made of blue cornmeal paste smeared on a griddle, then baked quickly and rolled into dry scroll-like morsels. Walpi, a village which has only half a dozen permanent inhabitants today, is one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the United States, founded in about the year 900 C.E. When the Spanish first came to the Hopi mesas in 1540, the Hopi priests had supposedly predicted the event many years before and drizzled a long thin trail of sacred blue cornmeal from top to bottom of one of the mesas to greet their guests. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it’s an image quite lovely to contemplate. I think about it fairly often.  

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In the Far North

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Even Ulving. ‘Midnight Sun in Lofoten’. Oil on canvas, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway.

My grandmother’s grandfather, Andreas Grenstad (1821-1900), is known among our relatives in Norway even today as ‘Andreas Kirkebygger’, or ‘Andreas the Churchbuilder’. Born on a family farm on a lake a bit south of Trondheim, the historic city where Norwegian kings have been crowned since the Middle Ages, he was one of the middle sons of a very large family and not about to inherit much. He must have been an enterprising young man, however, for he soon found his way to the very far north, settling in the Arctic city of Tromsø, not far from where the Norwegian border met those of the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland and the Russian province of Anchangelsk. This was when he was very young, but by the mid 1850’s he had settled for good a bit farther south, just slightly below the Arctic Circle at Mosjøen, on the Vefsnfjord, which had a moderately active port. There he married into a Danish family named Jørgensen resident in the Mosjøen area and thus acquired land of his own, though he later built a much finer house on a hill overlooking nearby Fustvatn Lake, just a few kilometers away. That original Jørgensen house still stands, and the house at Fustvatn survives too, but in a very poor state: its present owners have replaced it with a newer one. 

During the second half of the 19th century Andreas established himself as an architect and master builder. Even today much of Nordland province is dotted with the houses, commercial establishments and churches which he built. It was the churches, though, which became his specialty. His many sons helped him in his trade, learning valuable skills which would help some of them to earn a living as emigrants to America later on. And in their spare time they ran a saw mill to supply themselves with lumber, and built boats in which to sail to the Lofoten islands to fish in the off-season. During one of these journeys to Lofoten, a very extended one as it turned out, Andreas and some of his sons built the Valberg church on the island of Vestvågøy. This took place between 1888 and 1889. The church still stands, surrounded by its churchyard of peaceful graves, and the remote location appeals to me. But it is rather plain and dour, and I much prefer the octagonal Rødøy church on the tiny island of Rødøy near Mosjøen. Andreas built it in 1885, and it was heavily damaged after its steeple was struck by lightning on 11 January 2009. I think repairs have been completed by now. The Norwegians are good at documenting their historic buildings, and you can find many photos of churches built by Andreas Grenstand online. 

When Andreas died at age 79, his widow retained a life residence in the house at Fustvatn, where she lived until her death in 1925. But the building and lumber businesses dissolved, and most of the Grenstad sons headed for the New World, where some of them became involved in the various building trades they had learned at home.  Yet a whole trove of stories of their life in the Norwegian Arctic has lingered on among their descendants to the present day. I have decided to illustrate today’s post with a painting by the Norwegian artist Even Ulving (1863-1952). Born on Vegøy, a small island a few kilometers from my family’s home at Fustvatn, he is known for his paintings of the Helgeland region of Nordland, where both Vegøy and Fustvatn are located, and for his many canvases inspired by his years in the Lofoten islands, where he lived and painted at Henningsvær for 15 years. He had a long life and left many works. 

 

Niels Lergaard: House By The Sea

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Niels Lergaard. ‘Hus ved Havet’. Oil on canvas, 1938. Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, Aalborg, Denmark.

As a child and then young man living in California’s more arid interior, I often thought about the sea. Very occasional visits over the years had given me some first-hand and somewhat practical material to work with, of course. But I was charmed by the maritime smells of seaweed and wet sand, of creosote drenched wooden dock piles and planking. The cries of seabirds seemed as eternal and repetitive as the crashings of waves carried to our shores from China and Siberia and Japan. I liked the way the loud rush of winds through shore grass drowned out everything else–including my thoughts. And it seemed like the coast would be a very healthy place to live: the everlasting breezes and gales would purify the air; the moderate temperatures would make year-round outdoor life possible; the brisk oxygen-packed atmosphere would conduce to energetic living and a vigorous appetite.

Now that I have lived along the Northern California coast for over a dozen years, I have significantly modified my views, however. When we rented a large house atop a bluff overlooking violent surf a few years ago, I found myself mightily annoyed by the constant din of waves which intruded upon every waking moment, by the inevitable ferocious drubbing and buffeting to which we were physically subject anytime we went outdoors. Damp sea air can really get to your corporeal organism after about age fifty and generally wreaks havoc on houses and gardens alike. 

But I have never ceased to be fascinated by the abrupt juxtaposition of sea and land at the coast. Perhaps that’s what always most drew me in the first place. There is something furiously dynamic about it which both makes you ceaselessly aware that you are still among the living, and yet a tiny and in some respects quite powerless part of the whole. I think that dual realization is good for me and that I will continue to seek it rather oftener than not.

Niels Lergaard (1893-1982), whose painting appears above, was invited to come to the Danish island of Bornholm by his fellow painter Oluf Høst in 1928 and spent much of the rest of his life painting aspects of it. But he was never considered really a member of the ‘Bornholm School’ of painters. He was one of the ‘mørkemalere’ or ‘dark painters’, who tended to use darker palettes and more somber tones. Though even Lergaard himself departed from this practice for the most part after the 1940’s. In his ‘House by the Sea’ above, I am struck by the blunt and nearly pure planes of color, by the warm glowing light which shines even through the rather dour mood of the whole, by the almost architectural construction of the picture. and by the ominous immense sea bearing down upon the viewer from the horizon. I would have liked this painting as a young man, but I’m glad I have not discovered it until now. 

Oluf Høst: Vinterdagen Dør

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Oluf Høst. ‘Vinterdagen Dør’, 1943. Oil on canvas, Oluf Høst Museum, Bornholm, Denmark. 

I am fascinated by the quality of light found in the works of so many Scandinavian painters, especially those who worked during the early to mid 20th century. There is something about those long glowing edges of light angling up sharply from this horizon or that, depending upon the time of day, something about those varied shades of maritime radiance permeating clouds and clear skies and dozing snowscapes alike: I feel irresistibly drawn into their alternating moods of dour meditation and staid but euphoric contemplation of nature’s easy domination of man in the northern realms. One painter who attracts me is Oluf Høst (1884-1966), the only member of the so-called ‘Bornholm School’ of painters who was actually born on the remote Danish island of Bornholm. 

Høst studied extensively in Copenhagen, but by 1929 had returned to his native island to remain for the rest of his life. One thing that intrigues me is his repeated attempts over the course of his long life to capture the shifting moods of light and weather and season in the buildings and landscapes of a little farm named Bognemark, located near his own home in Gudhjem, and which he eventually also acquired. In this respect, as in the example of his painting ‘Vinterdagen Dør’ (‘Winter Day Door’), he reminds me of no one so much as the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe’s many attempts to depict a single doorway in the courtyard of a ramshackle adobe house in a tiny New Mexican village, a house she eventually managed to buy and rebuild after a ten-year struggle to acquire it from its owners, form one of the staples of 20th century American art history. I like to think of O’Keeffe visiting Høst  on his Bornholm farm and Høst returning the favor by making a pilgrimage to New Mexico. They seemed to have had some important things in common, though I doubt they ever met. 

Bornholm itself is one of those places which interest me. Though part of Denmark for many centuries, it is closer to Sweden and connected to that country’s electrical grid. It has attracted a large number of writers over the years, such as Gustaf Munch-Petersen, who moved there in 1935, and Martin Andersen Nexø, who lived on the island from age 8 and took his name from the city of Nexø on Bornholm’s east coast. The Bornholm School of painters, to which Høst belonged, is well represented at the Bornholm Art Museum, located about 15 kilometers from Gudhjem, where Høst lived, and built on three levels on a hill sloping down to the sea. The galleries line each side of a kind of street along which water trickles down from the ancient Helligdomskilde healing spring. But you can also visit the Oluf Høst Museum, located in Høst’s family home named ‘Norresân’, in Gudhjem, built from two fishermen’s cottages. 

And here’s another thing which fascinates me about Høst: he left a collection of 1,800 diaries, still mostly unpublished and held in the collections of the Royal Library in Copenhagen. According to Høst’s will, they will not become available until 2016, but Jens Henrik Sandberg, director of the Oluf Høst Museum, published a biography of Høst in 2012, based upon the diaries, and bearing the lovely title ‘Oluf Høst: jeg blev væk i mig selv’ (‘Oluf Høst: I was lost in myself’). The word ‘væk’ can also mean ‘missing’ or simply ‘away’ or ‘gone’. I think it’s wonderful. 

 

Arctic Norway and Jutland

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Fustvatn Lake, Nordland, Norway. We came to America from our home on this lake in 1901. 

Moving swiftly toward Christmas now. Northern California rainy season, which should last off and on until at least March, perhaps beyond. This afternoon tiny particles of rain which I wouldn’t exactly call drops, but which are present in great abundance, drift and dance through the air, flying in every direction like so many bits of agitated pollen–the winds can’t seem to decide which direction they ought to go. My main job this wet weekend: to be somewhat productive with my various projects while keeping the dogs on schedule, unfrenetic, and dry. So far so good.

Christmas will be just our very small family circle. The menu is vegetarian Nordic: braised red cabbage with apples, currant jelly and tofu sausage; scalloped potatoes; salad of shaved brussels sprouts with lemon vinaigrette and toasted hazelnuts; Jutlandic apple cake with powdered sugar and whipped cream. In my youth we would have eaten most of these items, but there would also have been: dinner plate sized Norwegian pancakes, paper thin, covered with melted butter and crunchy sugar, rolled and cut into sections (breakfast); roast turkey with lingonberries; caramelized new potatoes; mulled red wine; rice pudding with almonds and cherry sauce; various festive biscuits, including very peppery gingerbread.

Pepper was not only a food but a great remedy for Scandinavian immigrants to America at the end of the 19th century. I still use it, in fact, whenever I feel a cold coming on. Here’s the recipe for a family tonic from our native Helgeland region of Norway, which lies just at the Arctic Circle: put a cup or two of milk in a small saucepan, grind fresh black pepper into the milk, then bring almost to a boil, stirring constantly as the milk gets hot. Just before serving, add a bit of sugar or honey to the milk and some brandy too, if you’ve got it. Take a steaming cupful to bed with you and be glad you’re not on a fishing boat in a storm off the coast of Lofoten, where my grandmother’s uncles went for fun in off seasons of the year. I can hardly imagine doing such a thing.

My grandmother’s grandmother’s family was Danish, though they ended up in northern Norway, a whole story in itself. Thus the Jutlandic salad above. And just yesterday I started working, after a hiatus of a couple of years, on translating an early 20th century collection of tales by Johannes Jensen, ‘Himmerland Stories’, all of which take place in the remote part of Jutland where the author spent his youth. It’s really great fun, and the bleak scenery and even bleaker weather of the book exactly suit the somewhat dour mood which almost always overtakes me at this somber season of the year.

St. Petersburg in 1908

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Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva. ‘St. Petersburg: Colonnade of the Stock Exchange’. Woodcut on Paper, 1908. The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

I first saw St. Petersburg from the air. We had spent some days in Helsinki, a very fine city built in the Russian 18th century neoclassical style, and took the very short flight to Peter the Great’s glorious capital on the banks of the Neva one fine sunny morning toward the end of May. Many years before I had read rather romantic accounts of the last Russian imperial family taking annual cruises on the Gulf of Finland on their splendid yacht Standart, and I thought of them as I looked down at the bright blue waters below. Then soon there it was: the city itself, its many spires and cupolas sparkling blindingly in the noonday sun at the end of the gulf, a sight I will probably never forget. Then came the working docks, the long lines of pastel palaces fronting the busy riverscape and rimming the canals, the green squares and rectangles of parks. The vast ugly monstrosity of post-revolutionary and crumbling Leningrad which began at the edges of this 18th and 19th century marvel attracted my attention hardly at all, but that was very soon to change: no one can walk or ride through those later and in many ways depressing, even alarming quarters of the city without thinking long and hard about the tragic fate of the place. That’s what happened to me, at any rate. 

And here’s something no one ever tells you: St. Petersburg is essentially a maritime city. That is evident in everything from the intense smell of the sea on the air, to the cries of gulls as they soar over the steeples and alight in the squares, from the dampness arising from the docks and chilling you through to the bone as you stroll along the canals, to the greenish water, direct from the gulf, which fills your tub as you prepare to bathe. But here’s something people do say, because it’s true: after a few days in Russia, you will begin to want to leave. But then, once you have left, you will forever long to return. It creates a very mysterious relationship with you. I am convinced that Russia has a soul, and a very intense one at that. If it draws you to itself, it will never really let you go. It forges a bond which endures, whether you like it or not. But you probably will.

The woodcut print shown above is of a corner of the porch of the old St. Petersburg Stock Exchange, designed by the French architect Thomas de Thomon and inspired by the Greek Temple of Hera at Paestum. It was built between 1805 and 1810 and is one of those many iconic images of the city which stay with you. The view looks out toward the spire of the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, where several generations of Romanovs lie buried, and the ramparts and towers of the fortress which surrounds it and where prisoners were kept and sometimes executed. This is the scene as the artist saw it in 1908. 

Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva (1871-1955) was the daughter of a high government official who became a senator. The first part of her hyphenated last name literally means ‘sharp-witted’, and the second part is related to the Russian word for ‘swan’, perhaps derived from a farm or country estate named after that graceful bird. In any case, she had a glorious education, first at the Stieglitz School of Technical Drawing, then at the Academy of Art under the great painter Ilya Repin. In Paris she worked in the studio of the American James Whistler, then, back in St. Petersburg, and as before, at the Stiegliz School, under Vasily Mathé. She studied watercolor with Leon Bakst, travelled widely in western Europe, and became a regular exhibitor with the Russian ‘World of Art’ movement. She mainly worked in wood block prints, engravings and watercolors, for she had a severe allergy to oil paint and could not work in that medium at all. 

I have seen various versions of this same woodblock print, each done in a different spectrum of colors, perhaps to reflect the different seasons of the year and shiftings of light. I love every one. 

 

 

 

Petersburg Verses

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Ostroumova Lebedeva. ‘The Kryukov Canal, 1910’. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Here is my translation of the two sections of ‘Petersburg Verses’, a poem written in 1913 by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). The St. Petersburg scene depicted above by Ostroumova Lebedeva (1871-1955) actually shows the bell tower of St. Nicholas of the Sea Cathedral, whereas the poem mentions the much grander St. Isaac’s. But the picture captures the spirit of the city and deserves to be better known, so I’ve included it here. 

Petersburg Verses

I

Once again, St. Isaac vested
In his bright and silvered dome,
Frozen, fierce, in bronze arrested,
Peter’s horse in monochrome.

From the chimneys, blackened ashes,
Winds that stifle, beat and moan,
Peter’s frowning gaze that flashes,
Sovereign city, monotone.

II

Now my heart beats, even, measured,
Years are nothing in the end.
There our shadows, held and treasured,
Fall forever, rise, extend.

Through my lowered eyes, unfolding,
Still I see us, woman, man
And your hand, forever holding
There my closed, forgotten fan.

The night was warm, mesmerizing,
Side by side we stood there then,
As the rosy moon was rising
In the summer sky again.

I could seek and not discover
Better love, a better fate.
I have had the finest lover,
Now I have no need to wait.

Freedom’s son and freedom’s daughter
Under Peter’s winter smile,
Morning comes in just awhile
By the Neva’s darkened water,
As the ages reconcile.