Monday, August 31, 2009

Kirkegaard Suggests that You Smile

It was Soren Kirkegaard who said, Our lives always express the result of our dominant thoughts. Not generally remembered as a woo-woo, out there kind of guy, he nonetheless anticipated contemporary pop psych notions of manifestation and the laws of attraction.

Is Kirkegaard's prescription really so different from creating a sound moral compass and letting it guide you throughout your life?

His statement describes an orientation of awareness toward the result of each choice you make. In that sense, it is being present with the simultaneity of eternity: what you do now will look like this (exhibit 'a') tomorrow, and like this (exhibit 'b') a year from now. The shell that encases choice is responsibility, and it surrounds every decision you make now and will ever make. That is the mechanism behind Kirkegaard's observation that our lives express the result of our dominant thoughts.

I once heard an older person (who could have been 45) say that when you're young you have the face you were born with, but when you're older you have the face you deserve.

Because I was a child who habitually took things off to the cave for more thorough examination later, I rolled this around in my mind for years before I understood what it meant. How could it be that the very structure of your face could reflect your life's decisions, everything you've ever done or thought? I didn't understand how skin and musculature work, for one thing.

I didn't understand, for example, that a perpetual scowl brought on by cynicism and distrust would eventually demonstrate before you even uttered a word that you were cynical and distrustful.

I didn't understand how pursing your lips in disgust would eventually incise lines radiating outward that made your mouth look drawn so tight that nothing kind could ever slip out.

I didn't understand how squinting your eyes in perpetual chagrin and impatience would eventually make you appear to be straining just to see what lies directly in front of you.

Look around. You can tell at a glance whose company you are likely to enjoy and whose you would more likely avoid, given the choice.

Is this prejudice?

Prejudice is using your own criteria, internally derived, to judge another person. But when you look at someone's face, you are reading what is there, not writing it. You are reading it and saying: I don't have to get to the last page of this book to know how this story ends.

And if you doubt the possibility that this might be true, why do you think you smile back when someone smiles at you?

Photography: Albrect Durer, Portrait of an Unknown Man, 1524. Museo del Prado; Mother Teresa; Scowl, The Karma Report web site; Selection from Kirkegaard manuscript, Philosophical Fragments

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Remembrance of Sea Turtles Past

I remember the things I wish to forget and forget the things I wish to remember.

I am writing from my balcony on the nineteenth floor of the Sheraton Waikiki overlooking Diamond Head and the vast green and blue Pacific. Rolling curls of white surf tickle the sand. I see the outline of reefs which are remarkably close to the shoreline. And then I notice some of the shapes I took for reefs are moving.

Up pops a sea turtle, and then another, and another. My immediate impulse is to call to my daughters and make certain they have a chance to see these gentle creatures.

But my daughters are not here. Daughter One parlayed her film degree into work in the Los Angeles movie industry. Daughter Two used her degree in French and Anthropology as a ticket to law school in Seattle. I am alone on this balcony in Honolulu watching the sea turtles.

I reach for my cell phone and call Los Angeles.

"I can see sea turtles in the water from my balcony!"

"That's great, Mom."

Pause. "I didn't realize how big they are."

"Yeah, they're huge! I saw some in Fiji last week."

"I- well, I just wanted to say hello, Honey."

"Glad you called," my daughter said. "Have fun at the writers conference."

"I will," I said. She could not see the tears welling in my eyes and I hoped she couldn't hear them in my voice. Mom can get so emotional. "I'll call you when I get home."

"Okay," she said. "Love you, Mom."

"I love you, too, Sweetheart."

I did not want to cry. I did want to touch my daughter. I wanted to touch my daughter when she was a wide-eyed four year old who had never seen a sea turtle. I forgot for a moment all the time that had passed. A part of me believed I could call her name out loud and she would rush to my side and look at the water until a sea turtle emerged, and then her face would light with glee and she'd call to her little sister to come look, too.

I go down to the poolside cafe to meet a friend from Australia whom I only get to see when we both attend this annual conference in Hawaii. I arrive a few minutes early. Children shriek and splash. Wait a minute. I know this place. I've been here before.

My daughters are 2 and 4. They have water wings and inflatable blue and green turtles that encircle their waists. I hover, holding both at once. These Seattle babies frolic without their raincoats, sweaters, boots in warm water under the Hawaiian sun on a clear November afternoon. Such beautiful skin they have. Time to apply more sunblock. Are they getting hungry yet?

When I signed up for this conference several months ago, I picked this hotel because it is where the conference is headquartered this year. At the time I was just three months out from breaking both legs. It was an act of faith to register in the first place--I believed I would be walking well enough by Labor Day that I could manage to attend, but I didn't want to push my luck by staying at another hotel that would require additional walking just to get to a meeting.

Not for one second did it enter my mind that I had been to this hotel before, and that memories of my babies would be there waiting for me when I arrived.

I love memories of my children. But I grow weary of tearful encounters that come from living in two moments at the same time when the choice of which to stay with is not mine to make.

Memories create many parallel currents in the rivers of our lives. They stay with us, and we recognize them as memories when we are thinking clearly, when we see things with enough emotional separation.

It's like watching the sea turtles from the nineteenth floor. If I were swimming down there among them right now, I'd be face to face with one, and how my adrenaline would rush and how alive I would feel! From my balcony, though, I see the whole picture. I see the ocean, the horizon, the sky.

I know my daughters are not my babies any longer. But I forget every now and then, if, for example, from my balcony I see sea turtles come up for air under the Hawaiian sun and I want my little girls to see them, too.

Being a mother means living in a thousand simultaneous minutes. Sometimes it feels like an act of courage to stay with the one the calendar calls today.

Photography: Green Turtle, Mila Zinkova, 2008; View of Diamond Head, Ergo Sum 88

Friday, August 28, 2009

Scale and Balance for the Human Heart: the Comfort of Feeling Small and Significant

I watched a National Geographic special called The Sahara last evening. During the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, the area approximately the size of the United States that is now barren desert was once a verdant temperate zone teeming with plant and animal life--and, of course, inhabited by people who hunted and gathered to feed themselves.

A cyclical change in Earth's axial orientation to the sun brought a about such swift climatological changes that advancing desertification would have been evident within a single person's lifetime. Lake Chad, which was once the size of Texas, shrank to the size of Vermont. The mighty horse once used for transport could no longer bear up under the conditions. The camel was introduced from southwest Asia, soon to become the embodiment of all that is harsh about living in the desert: two eyelids, one of which is clear to keep out driving sand; wide feet to prevent sinking into loose sand; a hump of stored fat to provide nutrition over long periods during which food is not available.

If you close your eyes, I'm betting you are able to imagine a caravan in silhouette on some long-ago evening against the red fading light of a setting sun as the long chain plods along the crest of a sand dune (some dunes are as tall as a 50-story building). Can you also imagine the next day as Homer's rosy-fingered dawn unfurls ribbons of light and brings the desert into relief under the morning sky? And later as shimmering sheets of heat disorient you to both time and place, and your depth of field is ratcheted down to only what you could capture with a macro lens? Any time of day, the Sahara is unfathomably broad.

Saharans and visitors alike describe being overcome with a sense of the immensity of the universe as the sand stretches out below and the stars above. They say it creates a distinct awareness of the place in creation occupied by human beings, specifically the individual who is sitting in awe of being cradled in this environment.

Early Moslems called the Sahara The Garden of Allah. In my ignorance, I thought the idea was perhaps an analog to the Garden of Eden, or even a reference to a heavenly installation similar to the lush paradise gardens the Arabs built on the earthly plane. But The Garden of Allah is much more than that: it is an empty and private place where Allah can go to be alone and think. Even Allah acknowledges the vastness of the Saraha.

You don't have to go to the Sahara for this experience. One evening under the stars in even the Mojave Desert provokes similar sentiments. Is it the desolation, and the awareness that one is there despite such obviously great odds? I don't think so, because the same feelings of being part of something much larger can come to you on an empty beach on Oahu or during a quiet break at the side of a groomed slope high upon a snow-covered mountain.

I think it is the separateness. All evidence of human context slip away in environments such as these. A person stands alone as if it were the first moment in time. Ticklish reminders of daily life do not enter such rarefied places: it is you--mind, body and spirit--and your creator in a moment of intimacy seldom available to us in the rush of quotidian getting and spending. No wonder clarity descends like manna from the heavens.

But it is also possible to see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour. William Blake's words suggest we can find the same peace by inverting the vast and concentrating on the small. For example, there are extraordinary goings-on in your own garden right this minute in these last days of August, where now the spider's web drips with early morning dew and awaits the stumbling flight of an insect losing body heat as summer turns to fall. Chlorophyll no longer holds center stage in the chromatic scale, and where buds once formed, now there are acorns.

What immortal hand or eye could frame such a world? Hold this question in awareness as you go through your day, and hold it despite all the mounting evidence around you that to do so is to indulge in a flight of fancy. Night will come again. It will blanket you with stars. The majesty of creation will once again be self-evident, and you will no longer doubt the wisdom of the tenderness you allow into your heart when you contemplate such thoughts as these.

Let yourself be. Let Earth be your home and heaven your state of mind.

A robin redbreast in a cage Puts all heaven in a rage.
--William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, written 1803, published 1863

Photography: Sahara Desert in Tunisa and Shadows of Camels and Travelers, Alexey Kkrapckhen Moscvitch, 2004; The Large Turf, Albrecht Durer, 1503, The Albertina, Vienna; The Pleiades, NASA/ESA/AURA/CalTech; Sahara, 1908, Page; Erg Chebbi, Morocco, Rosino, December 2005

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Three Ways to Grow

So the question is this: do we grow strongly and independently toward the light like the sunflower? or, do we lean into the darkness to get support from anything we come into contact with, like the ivy?

The sunflower, Helianthus annuus: its stem is stout and strong because it has to support itself. It bears a large flower that has a lot of fast growing to do and insects to warm and feed.

A vine is slender and graceful (think of the annual sweet pea Lathyrus odoratus). It has an entirely different orientation. It grows its leaves and flowers out in the sun, where flying insects are made at home, but deep underneath it sends out shoots and tendrils to attach it to anything it can reach in order to remain upright.

I'm sure the metaphor here is obvious, but I'll say it outright anyway.

It's unwise to judge the stem of a sunflower by comparing its appearance to that of a vine. One is not right; one is not wrong. One is not beautiful; one is not ugly. They are different manifestations of what is possible in the plant world, different answers to the same questions regarding propagation, nutrition, security. They grow under different conditions.

There are times in my life when I am like a sunflower. My strength flows, I feel the radiance I project, and I am strong in my sense of purpose and my role here in this life. Connection to the transcendent spirit that rolls through all living things pulses through me. God's in his heaven, and all's right with the world, as my mother said on many a fine summer evening, quoting Robert Browning.

There are other times when that strength slips away. I am more like the sweet pea: I don't mean to pull the life out of anyone else the way an ivy, given enough time, can strangle even the strongest tree. However, when I'm knocked off my feet, I need support: I will lean on someone or something else until I once again feel my own independent orientation to the morning light and can stand on my own again.

And then there are the darkest times when my strength has gone underground. I won't--can't?--lean on anyone. Circumstances have changed too much, and the connection is ruptured; new questions have arisen that I can barely articulate, much less expect someone else to understand. Such confusion can overwhelm me, and I will hide until I can re-emerge into the light with some sense of direction.

We are constantly charged with maintaining a course that we can seldom accurately anticipate. It serves us well to be flexible, and adapt to each new reality as we face it. Breathe in and breathe out, moment to moment: peel back the illusions of what you thought about something or what you hoped or how it used to be. Face the day. Every day. Every moment. Buddhists call this mindfulness.

I call it sanity. It is the way to receptivity, which is the only state in which the divine can enter into your life and re-animate you. Its gift is quiet hopefulness that leads to discernment.

Right now in your garden there are plants like the sunflower that seek the sun with no illusions of doing anything else. They're sunflowers, and this is what sunflowers do. There are also plants whose furtive and tentative reaching out for support is hidden by a lush display of leaves and tumbling blossoms. And then there are the plants still in the pots from the nursery that you somehow never got around to planting last spring. They don't look their best off in the corner by the planting shed, no longer in bloom with a few broken stems, lined up as if waiting for the bus to recycle-land.

How many times have you gone out looking around in the garden on a wet day in early spring and discovered that your dead plants in this discard pile are sprouting new growth? And the growth is at all angles, because the pots were heaped in a lopsided fashion for a disorderly demise? The urge to survive has transcended all the constraints you tried to enforce on them through your neglect.We contain all of these proclivities: we are created beings and we are not perfect, yet we are capable of remounting ourselves with great success if we go inward and rely on our connection to all of creation to get us through. There are seasons in the garden, remember. We can't expect the hydrangeas to bloom or the sunflowers to germinate in December, at least not here in the Pacific Northwest.

Photography: A Macro Photo of a Cluster of Sweet Peas, Giligone, August 31, 2008, Wikipedia; Vine Climbing on a Fixed Steel Ladder, Menazu-tron, 12 July 2009, Wikipedia; Flowerpot, Lombroso, 20 August 2006, Wikipedia. All are in the public domain.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tropisms 101

Is there anything more undeniably cheerful than the open face of a large sunflower?

You don't even have to like them to get the effect. Your brain will lift you up anyway because of the color: yellow stimulates the nervous system, activates the memory, stirs up feelings of optimism and happiness, and encourages communication (yellow legal pads come to mind). 85% of all pencils are yellow, but that's because in the 1880s the best graphite came from China where the color yellow is associated with royalty (Ming yellow) and respect; pencils were painted yellow to borrow a little of the glory. That was just the beginning of its use in advertising. You will see plenty of evidence in any fast food operation that yellow is powerful in its effect on consumers' moods: be jolly, enjoy your food, eat fast, and then get out of here so someone else can use the table.

Sunflowers (Helianthus anuus) are all native to North America. There is enormous variety among members of the helianthus family, but the specimen familiar to most people is the tall annual that bears one large flower head atop a very sturdy stem.

Sunflowers demonstrate the remarkable property of phototropism, which is to say they all face the rising sun. In a mechanism on the plant's stem, turgidity is controlled by varying the water pressure within the cells, and the side that swells bends toward the side that does not (in effect it is much like the way hair curls by uneven growth one side to the other).

Why would a plant do this? The more surface area a flower can expose to the morning sun, the warmer it becomes (I have read that this difference can be up to 14 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the ambient air). Given a choice from among all the flowers in the garden, where are cold-blooded insects likely to go to jump start their days? The sunflower sauna. And, in this way, the sunflower is sure to be pollinated.

There is a slightly different phenomenon called heliotropism: this mechanism works all day to bring either the flower's face (such as the common buttercup Ranunculus repens) or the leaves (nasturtium Tropaeolum majus) and garden heliotrope (Heliotropium peruvianum, hence its name) into perpendicular alignment to the sun for maximum exposure. The flower turns all day long to face the sun, maximizing opportunities for photosynthesis. Leonardo da Vinci was first to describe heliotropism in a work on the nature of plants. But hadn't anyone noticed this before? Look in any meadow and you can practically watch the buttercups move like little satellite dishes primed to pick up ancient noise in the heavens.

There is another light-related characteristic of plants that is equally intriguing: skototropism (Strong and Ray, 1975), or negative phototropism, which means exactly what you think it means (skotos is Greek for dark). Skototropic plants grow not only away from the sun, but emphatically toward darkness. (Have you ever had an errant English ivy Hedera helix grow through the concrete window casement of your basement? You've seen skototropism.)

One thing the ivy gains by this process is a way for a plant to attach itself to something else for support as it grows. Pretty as it may be, don't let ivy fool you: if you let it grow up against your beautiful brick facade, the mortar will deteriorate and soon you will have a pile of bricks where your wall once stood. What you see in the photograph above is an explosion of the growths which can develop in one of two ways: they can attach themselves to a structure and bind the plant to it with great strength; or, they can touch down on the soil and extend downward (gravitropism, of course, which was first explored by Charles Darwin). Darwin also worked on understanding heliotropism by covering the growing tips of seedlings with foil to block the light; they stopped turning toward the sun.

Grativropism describes the movement of roots as affected by gravity. It used to be called geotropism, but that is no longer seen to be accurate since epiphytes like orchids, for example, have gravitropic roots and they grow downward but they extract their nutrients from the air, not the soil/earth (geo-).

So many questions swirl in my mind related to the implications of the various tropisms. This list covers a mere handful, though I find these to be the ones that merit particular attention for considering psychology and spirituality in the garden.

I'll pick up the threads tomorrow. I'm still thinking all this through, and want to sleep on it.

Photography: Bumble Bee, Darren Hachter, 19 May 2006; orchid Holcoglossum kimballianum (Rchb.f) Garay, 1972; buttercup Ranunculus repens, Sannse, Great Holland Pits, Essex, 6 June 2004; nasturtium Tropaeolum majus, Armon, 22:19, 17 February 2006; Hedera helix root system, Bialowieza, 2005; Sunflowers in Fargo, South Dakota, Bruce Fitz; Sunflower in Victoria, Australia, Fir2002, November 2008; heliotrope Heliotropium peruvianum, Algirdas, 2005

Monday, August 24, 2009

We May Decide which is Right...but the Apple Falls from the Tree, Nonetheless

Breathe deep the gathering gloom,
Watch lights fade from every room...
Cold hearted orb that rules the night,
Removes the colours from our sight.
Red is grey and yellow white,
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion.

Can you hear the orchestra swell? Of course you can. Late Lament was spoken by Graeme Edge on the 1967 album Days of Future Passed (the album that gave us Nights in White Satin) as the music swirled around him like mist from a rock concert fog machine. It was a little spooky but a little seductive, too.

My friends and I mocked such lyrics as pseudo-philosophical (we called them tief, the German word for deep, which shows you just how effete we were). A spoken poem and The Moody Blues' florid musical style and clean melodies felt a little out of the mainstream musically (after all, they included the London Festival Orchestra on their album), and frankly, because of that, I wasn't sure whether I should like them, which left me no choice, given my position on the consciousness learning curve at the time: I joined the group and mocked the lyrics. Secretly, of course, I had all The Moody Blues' albums, knew every word to every song, and, truth be told, was deeply, tief-ly touched by the sentiments they expressed.

I still am.

I'll start with the part about the gathering gloom. Have you ever sat at dusk with your mind prepared to experience the reality of twilight as it turns to darkness? You know how infinitely small the incremental changes are, and you know you cannot perceive them discretely. What your eyes tell you is that what once was red is now grey; what was yellow, white. Your brain consolidates everything for you with one big and rather crude information blast to describe a process that is as mysterious as anything in this universe: it was light; now it is dark.

I've always liked the neatness in the approach the ancient Egyptians came up with to explain things. The sun disk was drawn across the daytime sky in the sun boat by Ra, who nightly sailed into the the underworld to bring the prayers of the living to the dead. Every morning the cycle was renewed, thus repeating the moment of creation in the constant and closed circle of being that the Egyptians locked in place for thousands of years. Dusk in this worldview was the point at which the entire system had the potential for failure: Ra could decide from this day on I will no longer set sail. Priests and ritual guarded the night; songs of praise and gratitude flooded the early dawn.

There wasn't much room, officially, for thinking or doing otherwise, but who knows what a lowly villager thought about while pondering the night sky? Just because his musings weren't laid down in hieroglyphics doesn't mean they weren't interesting, and possibly heretical at that. No human being since time immemorial has been born immune to the call of the natural world, regardless of the canonical views of contemporary times. The divine is lodged there, and our spirits know this. We seek it and nothing can stop us from doing so. Doing so is an accident of our birth, just like breathing and breaking fingernails--and thinking big thoughts.

It is the human mind that conforms reality to ideas of the created universe, but as The Moody Blues hinted at above, there is a lot of wiggle room in this area, and interpretations rightfully vary.

But variations in interpretation--is it red now? or black?--do not alter the reality that undergirds the perception. Just as apples will fall from trees regardless of whether we believe in gravity, the divine lives in the world and in us without any need for help from our faith.

It is nearing time for apple harvest. It may be worth a drive to an orchard, not to see whether apples fall from their trees, but rather to breathe in the gathering light of spiritual incontrovertibility that will fill your soul and get you through another winter, and still be shining in your heart when spring comes again.


Photography: Seascape after Sunset, Rabc, Wikipedia 2008-02-01; Ra with Sun Boat, Wikipedia, public domain; Apple Trees at L'Hermitage, Paul Gauguin, 1879. Property of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Days of Future Passed album cover, The Moody Blues, 1967. Deram Records.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Toshiro in the Rain

I have never been a movie star devotee. Thinking too much about people I don't know personally feels voyeuristic, like driving slowly in a residential neighborhood so you can look in the windows. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered I was madly in love with Toshiro Mifune. I couldn't explain this reaction, and I didn't tell anyone, but I absolutely did not think John Belushi's samurai was funny. In fact, the nerve of him. He spat on sacred ground.

It was probably Roshomon (1950) that started everything when we watched it in our high school film history class. That movie with its triad of contradicting stories made me sick with worry about ever being able to communicate with another person again as long as I lived. I got over that eventually. But thoughts of the dashing Toshiro lingered and grew. I didn't realize until much later that Toshiro's great appeal to me was due in large part to the directorial eye of Akira Kurosawa who in my mind stands alone as the great genius of filmmaking.

Kurosawa was a painter by training. Once I learned that, things began to fall into place. It explained my reaction not only to Toshiro: the angles and planes of his face, his elegant posture and gestures regardless of what he was doing were choreographed for effect, frame by frame. It also explained something I couldn't otherwise understand: I could sit through three hours of some of the bloodiest sequences ever filmed (Ran, 1985) and come away with an overriding sense that I had viewed something horrible of extreme beauty.

For example, look at this carefully composed scene from the opening sequence of Ran. Four warlords face four directions while mounted on horses, the stealth bombers of the day; soft green hills roll off into the distance. Clouds loom on the horizon, and let that be a warning (we all know this from our own personally compiled encyclopedias of movie imagery). In this case, our sense of menace has been manipulated: it turns out the warlords are on a boar hunt. But don't get complacent. This is more than hunting for sustenance: the reddest screens you've ever seen are about to unfold before you. You were right to feel uneasy from the first frames. In Japanese symbolism the wild boar (a favorite image of warriors) represents war and violence.

Often when this film is discussed, it is in terms of the unrestrained carnage, brutality, man's inhumanity to man, to use Robert Burns' pure reduction of the sentiment. So why is it that after all these years what I remember is the sublime beauty of that opening shot, the exquisite balance of the placement of the figures in the scene, the rootedness of the men on the horses and the horses in the grass and the grass on the hillside under the clouds and the sky?

Let's move for a moment to the sword-fighting scenes in The Seven Samurai (1954). Do you remember those? Maybe instead you can visualize the gunfights in The Magnificent Seven (1960) which was based on Kurosawa's film. Here's the difference: the sun shone as the bullets flew. While the swords of Kurosawa's rogue samurai clashed, rain drenched everything, watering down the potential for genuine human interactions by obscuring facial details of the other. Dense rain like this is noisy. It blocks out anyone else's voice and deadens any possibility for influences from the outside of the single mindedness in each man's heart: kill the other. The other thing heavy rain does is give you a sense that time is slowing down, so that while the sensibilities of these ronin were blunted, the same rain that blunted them also created the mental state of readiness in slow time that permitted indelible mental imagery to be planted in their minds. They were brutal, vicious, inhumane. By adding rain to the scene, however, Kurosawa demands they they bear the consciousness of their deeds: they will not easily forget those images which will haunt them for the rest of their days.

Japanese artists hail from a long tradition of sensitivity to cues from the natural world. No haiku or screen or brocade obi is conceived without consciousness of the reference to its correlate in nature: everything is symbolic, nothing stands alone. For example, there are many fine permutations of the meaning of rain, from gentle awakening in the early spring to torrents that nearly obliterate everything on the earthly plane. Kurosawa's rain in The Seven Samurai is torrential. Since it comes from the heavens, as the gathering storm clouds on the horizon in Ran also suggest, it is fitting and just that these violent fights should be showered with sadness from the heavens above.

There is an exquisite pain in beauty underlying much of Japanese art. Conversely, there is often beauty in pain. A message can be conveyed without a bludgeon: art can be horrible and beautiful at the same time (as opposed to much of what passes for art today, but that's a subject for another post). Every film made by Akira Kurosawa bears testimony to this belief.

The samurai in The Seven Samurai were ronin (masterless samurai) recruited to fight on behalf of some farmers and their beleaguered village which was constantly under siege by bandits, another group of rogue samurai. After all the bloody scenes in the rain, after all the slaughter, the farmers' champions prevail, though they don't seem to feel like conquering heroes. It is actually the farmers with their ties to renewal who have overcome the evil wrought by the bandits.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God sent Noah the rainbow as a reminder that there is life after death. In the closing scene of The Seven Samurai, the farmers plant rice in the abundant paddies filled with captured rainwater. The warring ethos represented by the samurai on both sides was as defeated as the wild boar in Ran.

In both the bible and Kurosawa's films, the divine is revealed in nature. Even within the concrete bulwarks we call our cities, and beside the labyrinthine corridors we call freeways, it waits quietly for us. It tugs at our souls, no matter how hard we fight to pretend it isn't there.

As long as we have city parks and hiking trails funded by public money, as long as kayaks sprout in the rain atop every Subaru Outback in Seattle, evidence of our search and desire for a soul-deep connection with our creator will remain in evidence and prevail, just like the rainbow and the rice paddies.

P.S. Toshiro Mifune didn't appear in Ran, but you can identify him easily in The Seven Samurai: he is the samurai with the biggest sword.

Photos: all photographs are from Wikipedia, public domain

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hypatia of Alexandria and The Evening Papyrus

There are atoms in the void. Democritus (460-370 BCE) Imagine what it was like at the dawn of western civilization to think things like that for the first time. Democritus had the opportunity to tease ideas out of primary material. He observed, deduced and hypothesized. He didn't have to push the river of historical precedent out of his way first.

Democritus arrived at his theories by looking at life around him with only his eyes and his mind. He decided that truth was perceived through the senses, which were subjective and varied from individual to individual. According to Democritus, sensory perceptions are then interpreted by the mind and contain truth because truth underlies all perceptions.

I was profoundly moved in high school philosophy class, in spite of being seriously distracted by the boys in the class who infiltrated the girls' school for certain courses. This was my first opportunity to think in such a completely abstract fashion about something so essential and so far beyond the stuff of everyday conversation. It began to frame questions that had swirled in my nascent consciousness. I could practically smell the limestone dust gathering slowly in the quiet rectilinear corners of Athenian brilliance as intellectual fireworks exploded one after the other.

Later that semester I first encountered Raphael's painting, The School of Athens. I imagined all early Greek philosophers stood on steps outside gleaming white buildings wearing flowing gowns, gesturing broadly, exchanging profundities--it was a club of sorts that met outdoors in the clear Greek air flooded with sunshine. That fantasy evaporated when I learned that the figures in the painting were not all contemporaries, and, in fact, my old friend Democritus was not represented. He wasn't all that well liked in Athens, it turns out, and if it hadn't been for Aristotle, we may not even know his name today. Plato wanted his works burned.

That bit of information hinted at a descent. I wanted mountain tops and clean air because I had enough chaos at home in the hidden depths of dysfunction behind our closed doors. In ancient Greece I thought I had discovered a world in which high motive and intellectual pursuit sustained all interactions, where logic prevailed and good triumphed over all contenders. Something died for me when I realized the sun was not really any brighter in the ancient world. It must have been just the flash of clarity in Democritus' thought that made it seem that way to me.

Still, I liked to imagine what it was like to live during those times and to think about the unseen and the unprovable core of material reality. Though nearly all the big names of the ancient world were the names of men, I discovered Hypatia, the one woman who was granted scholar status (and dressed like a scholar instead of in the female fashion of her day), whose image Raphael sneaked into his painting in defiance of strict orders from the reigning prelates of the Catholic Church to omit her. Instead, Raphael painted his own mistress dressed in pure white as Hypatia and placed her figure next to that of Parmenides very near the central vanishing point occupied by Plato and Aristotle. Whether Raphael was influenced by ideals or by lust we will never know; I like the result.

Why did the Catholic Church feel so strongly about eliminating this woman from the School of Athens painting? It wasn't because she hadn't live in Athens; nearly 2/3 of the philosophers included hailed from other places. Hypatia (370-415 CE) lived in Alexandria, the renowned city in the Nile Delta created by Cleopatra as her capital.

Daughter of leading scholar Theon, Hypatia herself was brilliant and popular, the teacher of many fine young minds both male and female. Among other things, she was an expert on conical sections, and kudos for that--all I saw when I looked at cones in trigonometry class was the dunce hat I ought to have been wearing. Hypatia paid for standing out from the norm. At a time when the ascendancy of Christianity meant converting or conquering all dissenters, she tried to remain neutral but was involuntarily drawn into the chaos.

Accused of being a prime player in the non-Christian camp, she was attacked in her chariot one afternoon. Women didn't drive chariots in Alexandria or any other Greek or Roman city; it wasn't the done thing. She was dragged from her chariot and slashed to bits by a mob. Then the flesh was scraped from her bones with sharpened oyster shells and scattered around the streets; what remained of her after that was set afire. The gruesome murder of Hypatia of Alexandria was the climax of the first great witch hunt.

As often happens when my mind wanders off into the very small tributaries of history, once again I stumbled into a topic that was already vibrating in the atmosphere (oh, if I could bottle this talent!). To wit: by pursuing Hypatia of Alexandria I inadvertently did so just as a movie is about to come out on the subject. In this case, the movie is called Agora and it stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this past May and is due to open in theaters in the fall.

The review of Agora is favorable, though I'm not sure that translates into the movie is good. (Note my restraint in avoiding any references to agoraphobia while mentioning my concerns.) I hope the message of Hypatia's life is not lost in the artifice of imagined ancient splendor. She made difficult choices to follow her gifts, sensing correctly that she would be of the greatest service to her community by doing so, and also become the finest vessel for the divine spark she carried within. She was aware of the price such freedom entailed for a woman in the fifth century, even in the enlightened environment of the Roman-run Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt. Hypatia found the courage to move forward anyway.

Honoring the gifts we are born with is a perennial challenge we face as human beings. We can learn so much from Hypatia. Her historical moment wasn't that far in the past; we are closer in time to the days of Hypatia than she was to the days of Egypt's pyramid-building pharaohs. Did she stare into the papyrus reeds (Cyperus papyrus) that choked the Delta region and wonder whether the sun shone more brightly in earlier times? Or did she cast her mind forward into a mist of possibility that one day things would not be as difficult for women as they were for her?

Her work lives on. We know her name. What were the names of her accusers? Who were the men who killed her? I can't find them in history's footnotes. They didn't even make the Evening Papyrus.

Photo credits: Sculpture, Democritus Meditating on the Seat of the Soul (1868) by Leon-Alexandre Delhomme, Wikipedia; The School of Athens (1510-1511) by Raphael, Wikipedia; Cyperus papyrus, Wikipedia

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lavender and Global Warming

Lavender has enraptured me for as long as I can remember: the mere idea that a single plant from tip of root to top of inflorescence can offer such aromatic treasure demonstrates what a gift it is to us.

The color itself is soothing, gentle on the eyes like mist on a far horizon. Sitting in the midst of a lavender field is a multi-sensory event: the rolling shades of blue and green and grey relieve any tension you brought with you, the comforting tang of the volatile oils relax you as they are released by the warmth of the sun which also shines on you, the soft and lulling buzz of bees grounds you in the world of nature and blankets any intrusions related to civilization. (If you are allergic to bee stings, my dream could be your nightmare. Imagine the whirr of butterfly wings instead.)

I've always thought of England as the mother lode for lavender plants. Lavandula angustifolia is the group usually referred to as English lavender, but this plant was actually introduced to Great Britain by the Romans who used it in their laundry (lavanda, Latin for things that need to be washed from the verb lavare).

Gardens like Hidcote Manor in the Cotswolds (shown here) and renowned garden designer Gertrude Jekyll's (pronounced gee-kill) own garden at Munstead Woods give us two Lavandula angustifolia cultivars, Hidcote and Munstead. From there the list grows long as new cultivars are always being introduced. Also, lavender cross-fertilizes easily, so if you have more than one type in your garden and you find little sprouts of new growth where you didn't plant them, odds are they won't be true to the parent plants that bore them. Don't worry, though; they will be lovely regardless. Why not name them after yourself? Some people do that with newly discovered stars. (I do it with hosta sports, but that's for another post.)

Apparently lavender was used during World War II to disinfect hospital floors and walls, which means the scent of lavender must bring a flood of memories for anyone associated with those facilities at that time. For them, the scent of lavender may not be so wonderful. As Proust reminds us with his madeleines in Remembrance of Things Past, the olfactory system and the part of the brain where memories are stored are inextricably interconnected.

I've always had good results applying lavender oil to my temples to get rid of headaches. To me it is comforting. It seems it was comforting for Napoleon and Josephine, too, though not as a headache cure. They drank a mixture of coffee and cocoa infused with lavender as an aphrodisiac. Here's a very simple recipe, if you're curious: Put one cup of hot coffee and one cup of hot cocoa into a French press coffee pot and add 3 tablespoons of fresh lavender flowers or 1 tablespoon of dried lavender flowers (use only Lavandula angustifolia for culinary purposes and make certain, of course, that it hasn't recently been sprayed with anything you don't want to ingest). Let this mixture steep for three minutes and add honey to taste. What do you think?

I first tried growing lavender in Seattle in the very early 1980s. At that time, small plants were available in a few nurseries, looking wan and leggy. I bought them anyway and tried to coax them along. I thought if they could grow in England, they ought to be able to grow in the Pacific Northwest. Generally that is true because there are many similarities in our garden capabilities. However, something was wrong. Maybe it was too cloudy. Maybe too much rain. More different than we thought from the gardens of Great Britain? Maybe the soil had the wrong basic set of nutrients. I couldn't get the combination right, however, so for several years I gave up.

Then I started noticing heartier plants in larger containers in my favorite nurseries. They must know what they're doing trying to sell those here, I decided, and brought home a fine selection that included the Lavandula angustifolia of my previous and unsuccessful efforts.

This time it worked. Mighty hedges of lavender took hold and bees and butterflies covered them the moment the buds started to show color. Had the plants changed? Had my horticultural practices changed? No and no.

So it must have been the garden itself--the weather? the soil?

Since my early days with lavender, gardens of Seattle have changed considerably. Now it's not just lavender that grows on every corner (and parking strip and median strip) but also rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, a plant native to scrubby and rocky areas along the Mediterranean coast.

The first olive tree I see growing in Seattle will be not the symbol of enduring peace that is has been since time immemorial. Tolerant of virtual neglect, able to thrive in rocky soil while being baked under an unforgiving sun--Olea Europaea will become for me the symbol of how we have breached our covenant with our creator and spoiled the garden created for us and all other creatures.

I just read a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges entitled, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation Books, 2009). I'm glad I read it but it terrified me. Mr. Hedge's discussion of global warming woke me up to the reality that my fears about seeing olive trees in Seattle someday might be warranted, at least until they won't grow anywhere anymore.

Photo credits: Wikipedia, lavender fields and lavender flowers; Hidcote Manor courtesy of The National Trust UK.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Stumbling upon The Blue Flower

The Campanula rotundifolia to the left is commonly called harebell. It is also known as the Bluebell of Scotland.

C. rotundifolia forms slowly growing clumps of basal leaf rosettes which are about 3" tall. Floral stalks can reach 18". The color is described as light clear blue. They are fairly widespread, and can be found from Alaska to Southern Europe (and Scotland). They like well-drained soil, good light and will bloom happily in the early summer for many years if they are well-sited.

The Campanula family is huge. According to the Sunset Western Garden Book/My Plant Bible, there are over 300 species. But there's another very large plant family, also with blue bell-shaped flowers, some of which are clear light blue like C. rotundifolia. That family is the gentians.

The Gentiana acaulis at the left is commonly seen in the embroidered company of Edelweiss blossoms on clothing from Bavaria, Switzerland and Austria. It grows happily in alpine scree and blooms heartily in summertime.

Many people who have pondered such matters believe that the gentian is Die Blaue Blume created by Novalis, The Blue Flower that spearheaded the passions of German Romanticism, becoming the symbol of genius and the quest; more poignantly, it was the symbol of the unattainable.

I recently re-read Novalis' account of the blue flower. It is in his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen that he describes a tall light blue flower blooming at the edge of a mountain spring. As Heinrich approaches it, the flower leans forward toward him and the petals remind him of a blue ruff, in which hovers a lovely face. At that moment the hero is awakened from his dream by the voice of his mother (and I wonder whether Freud gave this matter any thought). Before that, however, we learn that there are dark blue rocks with multicolored veins surrounding the spring, and that the sky is deep blue black. One can assume the water also had a blue tint.

Searching for the origin of the blue flower, the actual model Novalis used, became high sport among certain literary types. There have also been theologians who wondered how many angels could fit on the tip of a pin, so I'm not going to be too rough on these scholars.

However...

Novalis wrote poetry, essays and fiction in the 18th century, specifically to counter the ideas of the Enlightenment which he found devoid of spirituality. He was a broadly educated and keenly intelligent man, more philosopher than anything else. As such, he was certainly competent at developing a metaphor or two as he told his tales. The Blue Flower is one such metaphor: blue is the color of the heavens, it is the color of clarity, and in the field of optics, blue light vibrates at the highest frequency.

I've also seen The Blue Flower label pinned to Lithodora diffusa, a ground-hugging perennial that forms a carpet of shocking blue. (I'm not fond of Lithodora because I find that its strident color is difficult to work into the garden, though I love its name: a gift from the rocks. Lithodora often appears to thrive in gravel that wouldn't host much else.)

In other applications, to offer a frame of reference, blue violet is the color used to describe the Crown chakra, the level of pure consciousness in the ancient Indian energy system; in modern times we have the notion of Indigo Children originated by New Age thinker Nancy Ann Tappe to describe children who represent the next phase of human development. Blue is now and always has been an up there color.

Why would common plants become a symbol for everything beyond our reach? Novalis was smarter than that. I'm positive his flower wasn't based on anything but his own imagination, and I ask anyone who believes otherwise to explain the part about the tender face that appeared to Heinrich in the center of the bloom.

Nonetheless, if I had to choose, I like Campanula rotundifolia for The Blue Flower. The bloom is the right shade (light blue) and it is tall (18"). It grows in a similar habitat to Gentiana and to Lithodora. It is a far more graceful plant than the other two, a quality not lost on 18th century German writers.

Here's the weird part: I came to these thoughts about a week after I had ordered my new business cards, which happen to show an open Campanula rotundifolia blossom on a field of pale blue violet. I haven't read Novalis since my undergraduate years. I was not conscious of making this choice. I picked the design because I liked the image and the color.

This issue doesn't require the genius of Freud. It simply shows how deeply things can be rooted in your psyche without your awareness. A Blue Flower, for instance.

It comforts me as proof that I don't have to have all the answers: I am still on a quest, and I see the face of the divine in every flower I meet.

photo credits: Campanula rotundifolia, www.plant-identification.co.uk; Gentiana acaulis, www.srgc.org.uk; Lithodora diffusa, www.donnan.com

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Naked as a Caladium

I'm going to start right out by saying I don't like white caladiums (Caladium bicolor).

Native to the lush shade of Brazilian forests, caladiums are grown in pots in the Pacific Northwest. They'd never survive a winter here, and probably not even a summer, so we keep them indoors. And though houseplants are beyond the scope of my talents (tiny sucking spider mites seem to know where I live), I like them in the homes of my friends.

I know a woman who banishes all multicolored plants from her garden, whether striped, streaked or spotted. Some of my very favorite plants are variegated, so it's not that.

The garden of my childhood included a bank of the magnificent green and white large-leafed English ivy Hedera helix 'Glacier' and it was spectacular. Every leaf was different from the next. There were areas of green, white, grey green, quite distinctly separated from one another.

During the Christmas holidays I like to have cut holly in the house, and my favorite is the green and white Ilex aquifolium 'Argenteo Marginata' which will look fresh and crisp in a vase for a month. Like the ivy, each leaf is distinct and the colors are clearly delineated.

The caladium, on the other hand, is not at all like the ivy or the holly with sharp lines and glossy surfaces that deflect light away from themselves. In contrast, the caladium has a matte appearance to it, and nothing is reflected: all is absorbed because in its native habitat very little light hits the forest floor.

Clearly articulated green veins stand out sharply against the white background. You can see them from across the room. And that's the problem: they are way too exposed, unprotected. The plant's operational parts, its elemental working innards, are visible. It's as if it were a creature without skin.

The personal seems much too public with this plant and it unnerves me. But then I'd be the first to admit I wouldn't wear a bikini on the beach in Ipanema.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Refuting Illusions: Picasso and Lady's Mantle

The leaves of Alchemilla mollis are often wet. In fact, lady's mantle could be the Official Plant of the Pacific Northwest: people think it's always covered with dew just as people think it always rains in Seattle. But both suppositions are incorrect.

The weather myth is easy to refute: Seattle's average annual rainfall of 34.5 inches is nearly ten inches less than the 44.4 inches of average annual rainfall in New York City's Central Park.

Why then does Seattle have the reputation for being so rainy? Because myths are difficult to uproot (think of the story of The Hook and how there's always someone who swears it really happened). The sky is definitely cloudy in Seattle more often than it is in Manhattan. That's probably why people think of Seattle as Rain City. They equate clouds to rain, and the fact that our grey skies are often just that--grey skies--seems to have little influence. You will win every time if you lay down your money against someone who wagers it rains more here (and who thinks you're a moron for taking the bet), but be prepared to support your position with statistics.

That Alchemilla mollis has the reputation of being dew-drenched most of the time is also more related to appearance than to fact. In reality, it looks dewy because some mornings the leaves are covered with water that the plant itself expels in a process called guttation (gutta, Latin for drop). This is not the same as dew, which is condensation from moisture in the air. If you're not familiar with lady's mantle, you can see the same phenomenon on the umbrella-like leaves of the more generally available nasturtium (Tropaeolum) and Fuchsia. The water droplets look like dew but they are not. Things are not always what they seem.

I realize I'm not breaking any new ground here. My mother started warning me about judging books by their covers before I was even old enough to understand that she was speaking metaphorically. But judge we do, and generally by what we see repeatedly. With equal frequency, we form our opinions based on what we repeatedly hear.

Pablo Picasso painted the portrait shown to the left in 1903 during his so-called Blue Period. He referred to it as The Old Guitarist. Writer Wallace Stevens, influenced by Picasso, wrote a poem which he called The Man with the Blue Guitar in 1937. Since that time the painting itself is often referred to as The Man with the Blue Guitar. But look at the image again: the guitar is the only thing on the canvas that is not blue. In spite of the evidence to the contrary, most people will tell you the guitar is blue if you ask them to imagine Picasso's Old Guitarist painting and then describe it to you, and I am sure that anyone who can imagine the painting well enough to do that has actually seen it or seen a reproduction of it. Seen, yet not seen.

Wallace wrote: "They said, You have a blue guitar. /You do not play things as they are. The man replied, Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar." Maybe Wallace wrote with irony. But isn't it also possible he wrote from a faulty but permanently lodged impression of what Picasso had actually put down in paint?

I'm attempting heavy personal rationale building here. The fact is that during my marriage I was repeatedly regarded as someone other than the person I actually was. My husband's ideas about who I am were as concretely formed as Wallace's mental picture of Picasso's guitar. And over the course of the marriage, I, too, became like Wallace: in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of what my own eyes and my own memories told me, I came to agree that the guitar was blue.

I chose divorce. And for the most part I know that Alchemilla mollis isn't covered with dew. I know Manhattan is rainier than Seattle. I even know Picasso's guitar is more red than blue.

But sometimes in dark and quiet moments I forget I'm not the person my former husband told me I was. Sometimes I have to force that phantom to leave me alone.

Sometimes I still feel small.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Under Wet Eucalyptus

Walking to school in a blustery San Francisco Bay Area rain storm was a surefire way to get drenched. The rain came at my face as if I were being squirted by a summertime hose, but this water was sharp and ice cold. My feet felt slimy in my white uniform oxfords. But I thought of a day like that as a chance to swim in air, and I liked it.

A dense aroma predominated as I neared the groves of Eucalyptus globulus that surrounded our school. The towering trees had been planted as a wind break early in the 20th century and by my time they nearly reached the sky. Long strips of shredded bark flapped in the wind and whistled in a mysterious way before flying off in large chunks and thudding to the ground below. Long, narrow leaves were pungent underfoot. Little grey-green caps were generally abundant and made my fingers sticky if I rolled them around in my hands. The caps were from seed pods and each was unique--some were very pointed, some much flatter, some with a heavy grey blush and some more green, as if the blush were rubbed away. I knew they were helmets of some kind for the wee folk who lived in the area. It was worth the mess on my hands because they smelled so good.

By the time I got settled into my desk and the school day began, I had already packed enough into my morning to nurture any daydreams I might need for getting through any lessons I already understood. Just where are those little people on a day like this? I imagined the coziest of all possible dens, tiny fires blazing on river rock hearths, porridge steaming in an iron pot. What is porridge? No idea. Elf food. I could see the little bentwood rocking chairs, the colorful crocheted afghans, the rag rugs. Beds with patchwork quilts. Small green shoes with pointed toes lined up by size to dry by the fire. Curtains drawn. A curl of smoke from the chimney obliterated by the raging storm outside. They were safe. No one--not a person, not a crow--would find their cottage today.

I rested my chin on my hand for a furtive sniff of the resin, but my fingers now smelled more like the cedar of my pencil, which was okay. It was probably time to pay attention anyway.

I loved the eucalyptus. It was the gateway to magic.

I'll get some more of those little caps after school.

Photography: Eucalyptus globulus, www.anbg.gov.au