Monday, November 13, 2017

The Garden of History: The Origin of Veterans Day and the End of War

            Veterans Day is celebrated on the date of the 1918 "armistice," the agreement that ended the First World War I on Nov. 11.
            After four years of a devastating modern mechanized gunnery and heavy armaments style of warfare unlike anything the world had seen before, none of the combatants had anything to celebrate. 
             What was World War I about? Nothing that justified destroying lives by the thousands; and nothing that was resolved by the enormity of four years of death and destruction. 
              A rising European power, Germany wanted its “day in the sun.” France wanted to regain territory lost to Germany in a previous war. Russia wanted absorb more of the declining Ottoman Empire into its own Czarist oppression. Turkey was talked into allying with Germany to protect that empire from Russian aggression. England, afraid of a threat from rising German power, a country that insisted on building a navy that would some day rival its own – our word for this today is “arms race” – allied with France to maintain what it saw as a favorable balance of power. Austria, another fading empire, allied with imperial Germany also to seek protection from Russia and that country's pan-Slavic agitation of orthodox Christian minorities within the Austro-Hungarian empire. Italy, nursing grievances against Austria, joined the England-France team.
            Significant segments of the population in the various warring parties believed that a war would get them what they wanted, at minimal cost – and quickly. Absolutely everybody was wrong.
            What war brings is a sharp reduction of population, particularly in the youthful demographic, loss of wealth and productive capacity, setbacks in social progress, and renewed cries for vengeance.  
             Among the costs of the world war that began in August of 1914, France lost 300,000 men killed in the first five months. Major battles continued to reckon the casualties in the hundreds of thousands. 
             European armies, eventually joined by American forces exactly 100 years ago, laid waste to one another along trench lines and fortresses until a weakened and worn Germany sued for peace and an armistice was declared on Nov. 11, 1918. Historian Alistair Horne writes in his book "La Belle France":

  When the celebrants of Armistice Day in Paris paused to consider the cost in the grey light of day, they counted 1.4 million Frenchmen killed in action, the largest proportion of any of the combatant nations; On top of that came the civilian dead and the victims of the flu epidemic that took 40 million lives across the globe... Thus it was hardly surprising that the post-Armistice Day cry across the breath of France was "Plus jamais ca! [Never again!]"

         That message, however, has been lost sight of again and again as nation states and their governments, even the so-called democratic ones, continue to use military force in a vain attempt to solve conflicts with other nation states. 

          What is the enduring meaning of Veterans Day, a day that was created to commemorate the ending of the "Great War"? Here it is in the words of Roger Ehrlich, a member of Veterans For Peace and "co-creator of the Swords To Ploughshares Memorial Belltower" in Raleigh, N.C.:

Ninety-nine years ago, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, bells tolled around the world, and people poured into public squares to celebrate the end of what was called The War to End All Wars. For many years, Armistice Day was observed as a day to remember the dead of WWI and rededicate ourselves to never letting it happen again.

Ehrlich said the Memorial Belltower in Raleigh provides a place to memorialize the loss of loved ones, fellow countrymen, and even to recognize the losses of wartime enemies: "Perhaps the most radical but most healing aspect of our Belltower is the inclusion of inscriptions memorializing the suffering of our ‘enemies’... This Armistice Day, let us – at long last – beat our swords into plowshares."

       The Veterans For Peace national organization took the opportunity of Veterans Day this year to urge Americans to sign the People’s Peace Treaty with North Korea. Here's what these veterans are saying:
       Alarmed by the threat of a nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea, Veterans For Peace and other concerned U.S. peace groups have come together to send an open message to Washington and Pyongyang that we are strongly opposed to any resumption of the horrific Korean War. What we want is a peace treaty to finally end the lingering Korean War!
        Inspired by the Vietnam-era People’s Peace Treaty, we have initiated a People’s Peace Treaty with North Korea, to raise awareness about the past U.S. policy toward North Korea, and to send a clear message that we, the people of the U.S., do not want another war with North Korea.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Garden of the Seasons: Transition Time in Marsh and Forest

 Autumn color is still all around us. This year the season is rolling through without a peak. The experts tell us October needs a couple of cold nights to trigger the chemical changes in trees that block chlorophyll from reaching the leaves, allowing those other chemicals in leaves to dominate, turning them yellow gold, orange, red, bronze, and the ruddy-maroon brown of late season oaks... until the leaves dry out and eventually fall. Without a clear signal from the cold weather -- bam! bam! Did you feel how cold it got last night? -- the trees are pretty much on a go it alone basis. They will 'turn' when they do, each in its own season. On our block our street-side maple turned bright orange weeks ago. It was the only tree on the street with strong color. Those orange leaves are on the ground now, quickly losing their death-mask of color. And we've already turned the clocks back, and you still can't really tell it's autumn yet from looking at the trees.
        November is often the month with the most autumn color around here, but this fall the turn will arrive later and pass slower than ever before. 
          Frankly, the high-end market for trees in the Boston area, the Arnold Arboretum, exhibits much the same pattern. The color was muted when we visited there, the city's premium showplace and wonderland for trees, last weekend. Two examples of interesting color are pictured here. The top photo is the larch. The species is rare among conifers in practicing the behavior of the other kind of trees -- the deciduous -- in losing its leaves each year. The larch, a member of the genus Larix of the pine family Pinaceae (having just looked this up to confirm my memory) has needles that turn orange (as seen in the top photo and the fifth one down) in autumn before falling.
         The second example, also exhibiting leaves of a wonderful yellowish shade, this one a kind of buttery tint, is the gingko (Ginkgo biloba, a family of one). A native of China, the tree's leaves exhibit a sculpted fan-like shape. Pale green all summer, they turn into golden scales in the fall (bottom two photos).   
          Autumn color also turns a golden, yellowish, brownish, copperish range of tints in the salt marsh along the shore where we live in Quincy, Massachusetts. I've included here a couple of shots of the spartina grass that colonizes all of the marshland except for the more permanent channels of salt water regularly replenished by the tides. If there's any even occasionally dry sandy soil in the marsh, the spartina grows there. This time of year it turns golden or golden-brown like a field of nourishing, delightful grain that will feed us all winter. Of course it isn't, but these color tones dazzle my eyes.
           And finally, discovered in the marsh a long-legged white wading bird, the Great Egret. Just because it's there. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Garden of Verse: My Poem on the "Symbiotic Community" of the Forest, after Reading "The Hidden Life of Trees"

 When is the wrong time to think about trees? I don't know, but this is clearly one of the right times. 
I wrote the poem below after reading The Hidden Life of Trees,by German forester and author Peter Wohlleben, which I'm being told is an international best-seller.
I was taken by his phrasing. Not only are trees social beings they are connected with other species such as fungi in a "symbiotic community" of the wild forest. They live life in "the slow lane," Wohlleben tells us. Very young trees, a kindergarten of saplings, are cared by "their mothers" who feed them nutrients through a fungal network. I wanted to get some of the poetic quality of the forester's vocabulary, or imagery, into this poem. Stimulated by the author's way of seeing the woodland as a social network and trees as planful elders looking out for their own best interests by looking out for those of all their 'neighbors,' I tried to imagine life as the trees -- the people of the forest -- experience it.

The 'Symbiotic Community' of the Forest

They know us from the roots
They talk about the weather,
exchanging chemical news
When their fungal fibers clasp hands in the morning
The sky is theirs, to do with as they wish
Appendages finger the air
and take hold of aerie elements
invisible to other eyes,
their thousands of greenie digits
flying in place through the winds of the world

Stalwart defenders of the right to grow
nerves probing deep in the hidden land of subsoil
amid glacial memories of the icemen
who walked the earth
the dominators, rulers of the shape of things
until we came along

Tendrils flipping through the library of time,
they know us from the taste of earth
the rain with its acid tinge
the smoke of the ubiquitous compounds
of the ceaseless back-and-forth
the dry rain of transport

They know us from the leaf,
the air, the color of the lights
the bent, frazzled music of our passing,
the foot-dragging alterations of our artificial suns,
our many, many star-chambers fixed on imitation trees
made of their dead,
shiny heads upon their stakes
their flesh flensed and wound about the quadrants of our dwellings,
great woody bandages defending the empty air inside

They know us by their buried nerves
streaming through arterial currents
the tidings of the under-earth
They know our flavor, and our angry moods
Our burning love to be somewhere else
Our burials, our hidden wastes
Our smokes, and floods of mineral leaks,
our fences and our wars
They know, and still they turn
their flesh-fed banners to the sky

Lots more poems in the November 2017 issue of Verse-Virtual.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: The Time of Year When Life Meets Death and Horrors Prowl

 It's a scary time of year. Filled with strange omens, early sunsets, sudden changes of weather, wandering beggars pounding at your door, and the abidingly glorious spectacle of the autumn foliage. We should all look this good when we fall to earth.
What we learned about this season last year was that Halloween comes very close to Election Day, and sometimes the two exchange places. Halloween is clearly the lighter-hearted of the now widely observed autumn holidays. It’s on Election Day that ghosts, monsters, and spirits of the dead walk the land.
Some of us find any excuse at all to celebrate in autumn. In our household we have favorite pieces of music or albums that evoke the season’s spirit. We associate the beauty of Fall with the music of Windham Hill piano master George Winston, especially his albums “Autumn” and “Forest.”
I also find the music of Celtic harp virtuoso and musicologist Aine Minogue particularly soulful when the sun declines, the shadows lengthen and, according to ancient belief, the barrier between the material world and the world of the spirit thins.  
The popular origin theory for Halloween is the Celtic festival Samhain. Though typically associated with Ireland today, the Celts were once the dominant culture all over western Europe. When Caesar was conquering the Gauls in France – those were Celts. As were the Britons.
            Later, when the people of these lands were converted to Christianity, the Roman church took control of their calendar. The Christian stamp was laid on top of a seasonal parade of feast days that were still rich with the old traditions. The Celtic autumn festival Samhain, one of the seasonal ‘fire festivals,’ involved lighting bonfires and – here’s the clincher – wearing costumes to ward off ghosts.
The Christian holy day celebrated at this time is All Saints Day. Many saints have their own feast days, so all the others (lest they feel neglected) are all bundled into All Saints Day, celebrated on Nov. 1. Saints are “hallowed,” that is, sacred figures. So All Hallows Eve became the name for the day before All Saints Day, a day when folks had the fun of lighting fires, costuming and otherwise japing around. They would have plenty of time to be good on the day after.
            Here’s what Aine Minogue’s album “Between the Worlds” says about the Celtic festival of Samhaim:
Samhain was the feast that marked the end of the "light half" of the year and the beginning of the "dark half." The light half was that of the people, the dark half belonged to the earth, the cycle of time being expressed in the basic duality of darkness and light. Samhain, or Halloween as it has come to be known, was actually New Year's Eve in the Celtic calendar. For the Celts, the dark always preceded the light, and day began at dusk, not dawn.”
            Samhain, this borderland of seasons, between light and dark, also bridged the dualities of life and death:
This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.”

Aine’s research also extends to the origin of trick-or-treating: “The children's tradition that otherworldly creatures come to life on Halloween has its origins in the ancient feast of Samhain." However, she adds, "the Celts' main concern with the other world was to receive wisdom from their ancestors.”
Samhain, a time of borders and passages between this world and the next, between growing season and fallow season, was also “a time for solitary introspection and reflection,” she writes. “The custom of dressing up in costume began back then. It was acceptable to stretch the boundaries by assuming a different identity to welcome the supernatural.”
This year I think I will dress up as myself. 
We thought about carving a pumpkin with the features of a raving lunatic and plastering a hank of straw on top to suggest the image of the monster who slipped into our world this time of year one year ago.
In the end, however, we decided not to tempt fate a second time. We turned on the porch light and handed out treats. I wore the mask of a contented soul and munched on leftover candy to sweeten my disposition.   

Here’s a link to the song “Fyvie Castle” from Aine Minogue's album “Between the Worlds.”

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: Still Moments in the Shakers' Woods

          Late October. Some of the trees are bare. Some shedding leaves as we watch. In ones or twos, or a dozen when a breeze blows, the yellowing leaves float down, breeze sensitive.
         Any motion, any gesture cutting the air pressure column causes the descending nearly weightless entity of a falling leaf to change direction. That's why you can't catch them.  
         The first thing you notice on mild, calm October days such as those we had last weekend, even before the falling leaves, is the silence. 

          We wanted that silence. We wanted to enter and be swallowed up by the presence of trees, those speechless companions, loosing the superfluities of the growing season, those solar-gathering leaves, to better save their energies for the cold, dormant time ahead. 
           We found those quiet woods on the property of Hancock Shaker Village, a site a few miles away from the city of Pittsfield in northern Berkshire County.
            The village itself was the home of a once highly successful community established in the late 18th century by a religious movement begun earlier in England by the "charismatic" prophet Anne Lee. Today the village is a museum, after the Shakers closed it in 1960. In its early 19th century heyday the Shakers provided a refuge for women, and men, who needed a home, a means of support, and perhaps an alternative to conventional life. It also provided a home for those whose need was even more acute -- orphaned children, in an era before government care for orphans.  
             We hiked in Hancock Shakers' woods up to the summit called Shaker Mountain now, though the Shakers themselves had given it the Biblical name of Mount Sinai. 
              The Sun was out and the trees sluiced its light, yellow and orange foliage shining in its glow. Alternating strips of shadow and slight carpeting the path before us and the forest floor. Trees going about their business. Getting along with rocks. Providing some nourishment for the woodland creatures who feed on their seeds. Silently cheering on the few still-running streams that bring fresh water to wild places. 
           We followed the woodland stream the Shakers had fitted with piping to provide themselves with clean water. And dammed with flat stone buttresses to power a mill wheel to grind their grain. 
             The defining way of life in Shaker villages was celibacy. This was the fulcrum of Mother Ann Lee's founding vision: abstaining from sex was the path you took to get into heaven. Pacifism and gender equality came into play as well. Men and women lived separately, but but otherwise communally at the Shaker village and lived off the produce of their farm. The Hancock property was essentially a dairy farm. The selling of garden seeds was a big business too. And at some point, of course, the wonderful, defining legacy of Shaker furniture came into play.
            The plain style of their handsome furniture is evident in Hancock Village's architecture as well.
            The movement began to run out of steam in the 1840s, and folks left New England farming communities to move west or find industrial jobs in cities. I think also the difficulty of replenishing population without making your own next generation told on the movement as well.
             Before today's museum village, it was the Shakers themselves who looked after these woods, this hillside, this summit. On the summit of Shaker Mountain, the Hancock Shakers, following a directive from their movement's leaders, cleared a regular quadrant for a burial place. That squared-off clearing has been preserved. The weeds and brush cut back. 
             We walked a narrow path through it, preserving its silence, feeling its peace.   

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Garden of Music and History: Tosca, Puccini, Napoleon and the Short-lived Roman Republic

          I can sum up our recent Sunday afternoon at the opera -- the phrase doesn't quite have the ring of "night of the opera" -- in a single word: great.
          I have loved the music of Puccini's "Tosca" for years; and pretty much all of Puccini. Everything about the Boston Lyric Opera production was first rate, and clearly an opera company with the word 'Boston' in it (a rarity in recent decades) is extremely cheered by the strong reception its all-out staging of a 'big' classical opera has received from audiences, reviewers, and the city as a whole. World-class cities have opera; it's one of the requirements. Sunday's show was sold out, as was Friday night's opener at the Emerson Majestic Theater, a restored beaux arts theater that looks and performs perfectly for grand opera -- the musical genre in which the unaided human voice can fill every inch of a big hall. 
          The leads -- Elena Stikhina as Tosca, Jonathan Burton as her lover Cavaradossi and Daniel Sutin as the seriously despicable Scarpia -- were excellent both as singers and as actors. And the stage was inventively reconfigured to make space for a full orchestra (as opposed to a smaller 'pit orchestra'). Everything comes together in the quintessentially 'operatic' high point -- singing, lush orchestration, plot points, sacred setting and a thoroughly profane, confessional evil-dictator exulting by Scarpia -- of the emotion-wring "Te Deum"concluding the first act. 
          God is part of the plot line here. But as entrapped, devoutly Catholic Tosca asks in her heart-rending solo in the second act, where is he? 
           And then we come to the historical, real-world setting of "Tosca," a work based not on fable, myth, or romance, or even realistic fiction, but on a particular moment of history: Rome, in 1800, just after a great battle of Marengo, a crucial event in the Napoleonic Wars. The forces of the Roman church and state status-quo are rooting for Napoleon's defeat. The forces of liberty and modernity for his victory.
         Blogging for the Boston Lyric Opera, Laura Stanfield Prichard describes 'Tosca' this way:
"A tempestuous tale of seduction, cruelty, and deception, this opera presents a fierce battle of wills set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars."
         Some reviewers have described its plot as "a political thriller."
         Puccini based his work on an 1889 play by Victorien Sardou, whose surgeon grandfather served in Napoleon's army in Italy. Sardou wrote it for actress Sarah Bernhardt and the play proved a spectacular success at the box office.
          In fact, the history of the Napoleonic era is all over this play. In the play's first scene the escaping political prisoner, Angelotti, re-introduces himself to onetime supporter Cavaradossi as the former premier "of the short-lived Republic of Rome." This was a government set up by the Revolutionary French Republic in 1798. The Army of the French Republic justified its wide-reaching campaigns of the 1790s as the liberation of other nations from absolutism, monarchy, hereditary social classes, and the tyranny of both church and state in the kingdoms of the Old Regime. 
          No unified country of Italy existed at this time. Rome was governed by the Pope, as were a collection of provinces called The Papal States. In much of the country the dominant power was the Austrian Empire. When the Army of the Republic defeated the armies of Austria, its ancien regime allies and the various kingdoms of Italy, it set up satellite states with new pro-French regimes. (It also took a captive Pope to France.) The new Roman Republic promptly absorbed the neighboring Papal States and claimed authority over a fair-sized chunk of the middle of the Italian peninsula.
          But when the French army withdrew, most of these new regimes lacked enough local support to stay in power. In Rome an invasion from Naples overthrew the 'short-lived' republic, put the republicans like Angelotti in jail, and enlisted provincial bullies such as Scarpia to run the city as a police state. Torture, show trials, political executions, extortion, corruption. We're familiar with this apparatus from the bad times and places of the 20th and 21st century. 
          The situation remained fluid in the fragmented Italian peninsula. And Napoleon was still in the picture. When a fresh coalition of anti-republican states was formed against France, Napoleon again took command of The French Army of Italy (such a geographical name) and carried the war to the Austrians in the Alpine region.
           The decisive battle of Marengo in the Piedmont region of Italy is the "victory" reported to Scapia and his reactionary government in the first act of "Tosca." In fact 'early reports' from the battlefield would have given the edge to the Austrians. Napoleon had divided his army, based on false reports of enemy intentions from a double-agent, and faced the Austrian attack with only a part of his forces. His commanders were able to give ground slowly and avoid a rout until later in the day when the rest of the French army arrived, positioned on the enemy's flanks. Under their unexpected attacks, the Austrians broke and fled. 
          A report of Napoleon's victory at Marengo arrives in the second act of the opera, causing the imprisoned Cavaradossi to rejoice. Whatever happens to him, this news seems to promise, revolutionary justice will win in the end.  
          The Battle of Marengo actually had bigger short-term consequences for Napoleon and France than it did for Rome. The decisive victory established Napoleon's popularity at home as the superstar who could do no wrong -- a path that led him a few years later to crown himself as Emperor. 
           Rome and the Papal States would see various regimes for more than half a century until they became part of the unified Italian Republic in 1870. 
           Great art depicts both individual tragedy and the ultimate triumph of forces greater than individuals -- love, heroism, and the arc of history. The only thing missing from the BLO's "Tosca" was a curtain call for Scarpia wearing a Trump mask.   

Composer Giacomo Puccini based his Tosca on the 1889 play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou. He had seen a performance of it while working on Manon Lescaut (even Verdi was interested in it!), and was taken with the thriller. He began work in earnest in 1896, after asking his publisher Giulio Ricordi to wrangle the rights for Sardou’s play from Alberto Franchetti, another composer who worked with librettist Luigi Illica. A tempestuous tale of seduction, cruelty, and deception, this opera presents a fierce battle of wills set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Conductor James Levine has described it as “Puccini’s glorious musical inspiration [combined] with the melodramatic vitality of one of the great Hitchcock films.” -- Laura Stanfield Prichard, blogging for the Boston Lyric Opera