Eight Paradises

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Hermann David Salomon Corrodi. ‘Campfire by the River: The Kiosk of Trajan at Philae.’ Dahesh Museum, New York.

After wanting to get to it for nearly twenty years, I finally found a copy of the Romanian writer Marthe Bibesco’s portrait of rural Romanian life between the two World Wars, ‘Isvor, the Country of Willows.’ It was the title which always enchanted me, but I was a long time tracking it down and was not disappointed when I did. Next came ‘Egyptian Day’, a provocative and interesting collection of terse vignettes and observations of a journey Bibesco made down the Nile (1930), and I’m now reading her 1923 offering, ‘Eight Paradises: Travel Pictures in Persia, Asia Minor and Constantinople.’ Its descriptions of a Middle East so different from the one we’re used to hearing about in the news today read like verbal versions of 19th century Orientalist canvases like the one by Corrodi reproduced above. Below is a paragraph which I find particularly striking, from the beginning of Chapter II, entitled ‘Teheran.’ Perhaps anyone who has ever spent time in a truly hot climate can identify with the experience involved.

‘Everyone walks under white sunshades, carefully avoiding the dazzling strip of sunlight in the middle of the streets, and keeping to the sides where even at high noon the shade of the elms is impenetrable. We have a feeling of great contentment. It is as though the air, brought up by the unutterable heat to the temperature of our bodies, ceases to envelop and begins to form part of us as we of it, so that our limitless being feels as vast and as light as space.’

Hermann David Salomon Corrodi (1844-1905) was an Italian painter, born either at Frascati or Zurich, though he lived for many years at Rome. He studied under his own father, Salomon Corrodi, at the Accademia di S. Luca, and traveled widely throughout the Levant and Middle East, producing landscape paintings in the academic and Orientalist styles so popular in the final decades of the 19th century. The painting reproduced above depicts a small temple dedicated to Isis at a bend in the Nile. 

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Shasta County Hologram

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Mt. Shasta, California, in the Fall. 

There is something deeply disorienting about returning after the passage of many years to a place once familiar but now hardly so at all. As you pass along the streets of rural and semi-rural communities which have long since become suburban, you find that you have lost your coordinates irrevocably: the slightly upsloping field with the great oak in whose dappled shade springtime lupines grew has been replaced by a health club; block on block of car-washes, outlet stores, tattoo parlors and fast-food restaurants suffocate the rolling acres of golden grasses where you’d once hoped to live in a secluded house and tend your orchard if you could ever manage it; a youth-guidance and juvenile incarceration facility with concertina-wire topped metal fences greet you at the corner where, as a young man, you used to stop along a dirt road to wipe your windshield or eat a sandwich on a rock. I am reminded of a section of a collection of essays entitled ‘Where I Was From’ by the American Joan Didion in which she describes her inability to recognize a rural community much beloved in her long-ago youth: ‘Discussion of how California has “changed,” then, tends locally to define the more ideal California as that which existed at whatever past point  the speaker first saw it: Gilroy as it was in the 1960’s and Gilroy as it was fifteen years ago and Gilroy as it was when my father and I ate short ribs at the Milias Hotel are three pictures with virtually no overlap, a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it.” I can really identify with this experience.

In the mid-1970’s my father’s business interests took our family to a medium-sized city in far northern California. And it was there, after being away at university for some years, and before going away again for graduate studies and other adventures, that I had my first real job. It was in an office, and my supervisor later became my friend, so that I would occasionally go back to see her long after I had moved away, both before and after she had retired. In the early 1960’s she and her husband had acquired some acreage on what was then the outskirts of town and built a house in the midst of a grove of digger pines and red-barked and acridly fragrant manzanitas with a view of Mt. Shasta. There they raised their four sons; there her youngest eventually hung himself from a beam in the carport; there she was left alone when her husband went off to live on a ranch they jointly owned when their marriage collapsed into ruins; there, in her retirement, and plagued with the tremors of a degenerative neurological disease, she lived in fear of ghosts of the past and a living ex-husband she was convinced wanted to do her in. I used to have coffee with her there in her high-ceilinged living room with its warm wooden floors and soaring chimney and worry about her. Even then the neighborhood was beginning to change, but it was still an isolated spot. And I was shocked to learn, just a few years ago, that she had died when her house was incinerated in a midnight fire caused by a thermostat set at nearly 90 degrees. And here’s the ironic fact: my friend was so frugal that I could never imagine her turning her heater on at all.

I don’t need to make the long drive of hundreds of miles to see how that area has changed. A close-up view with Google Earth shows me that the site of my friend’s house is now a couple of acres of bulldozed earth with a few scattered pines to help me find the spot: perhaps her sons have kept it as an investment. The single-lane country road which once led to the property has been replaced by an enormous grid of two and four-lane city streets with stoplights, cross-walks and freeway off-ramps. The rolling boulder-flecked acres which surrounded the house, reaching from the edges of the city toward the denser chaparral and then the forests farther east, have been replaced with enormous shopping malls, parking lots, interchanges, multi-level apartment complexes and subdivisions. It is not my purpose here to speculate on what happens to the dead, indeed the past itself, when once they have vanished from our sight. But I do wonder if, as we depart, we can have any inkling of how much our familiar surroundings are likely to change and dissolve into unrecognizability at some point, even quite soon, after we are gone. Surely we must cast one last loving glance around and try to hang on to what we know for just a few seconds more. I am reminded of some lines from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’:

‘For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
     This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
     Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
     Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
     Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.’

 

Views From The Mountain

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I’m going to post a few photos I’ve taken from our back deck and let them pretty much tell their own story, with a few notes by way of explanation. That’s sunrise above. Since we’re located almost in the geographical center of the city, if you could look a bit to the left of the scene shown above, you’d see some of the taller buildings of downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge as well. Directly ahead is Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa County, the summit and lower slopes of which make up a series of interlocking county parks and public and private protected areas, a really beautiful world of native plants, trees and Spring wildflowers. The lights of various East Bay communities are coming on as people make their coffee, fix breakfast, prepare to go to work. I always associate scenes like this with Fall and Spring, the two seasons of the year when we generally have little fog and only intermittent rain, so you can actually see something. Early in the morning I’m busy taking dogs out, sweeping the deck, making tea, but occasionally I’ve got the camera nearby and can take a snapshot of something I’ll really want to remember.

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Sometimes we get these intermittent moving mists which weave in and out from the ocean, traveling inland in long fingers of cloud, advancing, withdrawing, then advancing again among the hills and neighborhoods around and below us. Eventually they clear, if we’re lucky, and we’ll have a nice dry sunny day. In the scene above, you can see Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, north of the Golden Gate, another county park. I’m told I climbed Mt. Tamalpais at age four, but I don’t remember it, though my energetic young parents were always taking us off on weekends and vacations devoted to camping, hiking and fishing just for fun. At the center of the picture you can see some of the houses on the sides and summits of the neighborhoods known as Forest Hill and Forest Hill Extension, and below those some of the large clumps of eucalyptus trees planted in the 19th century which gather moisture from the fog, which then drenches the earth below, creating whole rain forests of trees on the Mt. Davidson slopes.

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Here you’re looking at a storm at sea in the late afternoon. It’s a very cold rough world out there, and since I’m not particularly adventurous or hardy, I have great admiration for the freighter and liner crews and captains who venture out into those thousands of miles of empty and often stormy Pacific, perhaps the most misnamed Ocean in the world. My grandmother’s father and uncles, carpenters and woodworkers all, built their own boats in 19th century Norway in the Nordland style of their native province, then sailed them for fun and profit on fishing expeditions through the Lofoten Islands and along the convoluted and treacherous northern Norwegian coast. Scenes like the one above always make me think of them. And I had a beloved nephew who perished a few years ago when, first man on deck during the early morning watch, he was swept ashore by a freak wave while sailing more than thirty miles out to sea just a bit north from where we live on an on otherwise joyous trip. So any glance at the ocean, especially on stormy days as pictured above, is a very sobering experience for me.

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Sunset comes swiftly up here for some reason. I’m not a night person. Perhaps it has something to do with millenia of ancestors living in arctic Europe in primitive and difficult conditions: night would generally have been fraught with dangers and alive with the mythical creatures of forest and meadows and seas which bring color and the occasional shiver to the reading of Scandinavian folktales today. That’s our neighbor’s enormous cypress tree in the picture. I think of it as watching over us, since it was certainly here already before the house itself was built in 1950. It’s home to squirrels and raccoons and some pretty impressive birds. And it gathers fog in its branches to hurl against the back of the house on misty days. 

Julio Herrera y Reissig: The Council

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Julio Herrera y Reissig (1875-1910) appears at top left in this photo taken on a country estate near Montevideo on 17 November, 1901. Biblioteca Nacional de Uruguay.

Here is my English translation of a poem which was first published in the literary journal ‘El Diario Español’ in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 16 December, 1906. Herrera y Reissig’s Spanish original follows.

The Council

The astronomer, the poet and the seer have met…
The mountain assembles the rustic dispute;
And in the sonorous air of the celestial vault,
The three voices resound as a single refrain.

They feverishly guess at the hidden source…
Then the seer predicts both misery and plague;
While the poet composes, turned toward the West,
The astronomer announces it has rained in Spain.

Drunk with the godlike majesty of the wind,
The discourses deepen…Night has fallen. Soon
A star flames in flight…They examine its wake

As many thousands of eyes into infinite enigma:
The silence of the erudite council is tripled…
Fingers in the shadows advance toward the stars.

El consejo

El astrónomo, el vate y el mentor se han reunido…
La montaña recoge la polémica agreste;
Y en el aire sonoro de campana celeste,
Las tres voces retumban como un solo latido.

Conjeturan fiebrosos del principio escondido…
Luego el mago predice la miseria y la peste;
El poeta improvisa, mientras, vuelto al oeste,
El astrónomo anuncia que en Hispania ha llovido.

Ebrios de la divina majestad del tramonto,
Los discursos se agravan…Es ya noche. De pronto,
Arde en fuga una estrella…Interrogan sus rastros

Cual mil ojos abiertos al enigma infinita:
Se hace triple el silencio del consejo erudito…
Dedos entre la sombra se alzan hacia los astros.