living with ruins

Achmore stones

Achmore Stone Circle Megalith looking southwest at the Old Woman mountain range. Isle of Lewis, Scotland. Robin L. Chandler 2017

Gray skies and drizzle we drove the narrow track through the moors on the Isle of Lewis. Fresh from the Skye ferry, we were bound for the Callinish Stones, when we crested a hill and the sky opened upon a vista of mountain and sea. It was beautiful in a Brontë Sisters sort of way, the promise of redemption beyond the horizon, but a long troubled journey ahead with no certain success. We stopped to absorb this compelling view. Was it Providence, or was it simply a universal acknowledgement of beauty that had made us stop here? A windswept, rain-drenched patch of stone not far removed from the sound of the sea. Our rest to gaze at the magical landscape was serendipitous as we soon realized that nearby, barely acknowledged by signposts, was a nearly invisible stone circle built by peoples of the Neolithic British Isles. Situated near the village of Achmore, the stones, now unintended memorials, were monuments placed some four thousand years ago by peoples tracking the cycles of the sun and moon. With our reverence at these monuments, we seek connection to ancestors, and hoped for insight into the human condition. All the while looking southwest toward the mountain range known locally as the Old Woman; the hypnotic mountain range directing us to stop and commune with this place.

Memorials and the need to learn from the past are much on my mind these days. In Glasgow, I spoke with historian, Valentina Rozas-Krause, who writes about memorials: “monuments are as old as civilization. Whether with stones, totems, trees, stone plaques, busts, arches, or sculptures, the ways of materializing memories are as varied as the cultural manifestations that exist.” In her article, Challenging the Traditional Monument: Four Reviews Applied to Santiago and Buenos Aires, Rozas-Krause writes about archaeological memorials serving as material witnesses to a harrowing past. She raises an important question “how do we live with the ruins?” I ask myself: how do we live with ruins, both literal and figurative? Can we learn from the ruins so the past is not forever doomed to repeat itself? Two books I read while traversing Scotland serve as literary memorials, built around past ruins, crimes against humanity: Han Kang’s Human Acts and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Phenomenal works of literature. Difficult journeys both, but sad depths to which a reader must travel if we are to learn from the past. We must traverse difficult roads, we must live with these ruins and encourage others to make the journey as well, if we are to have any chance at acquiring the empathy essential to ensure the future of humankind.

Much later in the day, I queued up a song called The Old Woman by Skippenish, from their album The Seventh Wave. In a small store near the Callinish Stones, the album had spoken to me in that way that happens only when you’re browsing in uncharted territory. Something reaches out and says: “stop, look at me, learn from me, I’m the soundtrack you’ve been looking for.” And indeed, suddenly, the track The Old Woman meant so much more, after our visit to stones at Achmore. As I wander, as I wonder, no matter how much sadness I see or learn about, I cannot shake my sincere belief that by understanding the past, we can gain the empathy we need, to ensure our future.

Itinerannia

Montserrat Abbey at sunrise. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Sunrise at Montserrat Abbey. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

No matter where you find yourself, walking or cycling connect you to place. On foot or on a bike, life slows down and ceases to rush by in a blur. The smells, tastes, sounds, and sights of a landscape can be discovered, lingered over, and remembered. This rings true in both urban settings and the countryside where the aroma of paella cooking, the taste of locally made vermouth, the sound of church bells ringing, or the sight of the remaining fall leaves colorful against a winter sky are savored and stored like Proust’s memories of things past. Or as the landscape writer and teacher, J.B. Jackson wrote in his essay Sense of Place, Sense of Time the atmosphere…the quality of the environment…have an attraction…we want to return to, time and again.” So, after days of walking and gathering our own observational data about Barcelona, we set out to walk in some of Catalonia’s regions known as comarcas.

In the comarca of Pla de Barges, home to cava grapes, we arrived at Catalonia’s iconic mountain Montserrat to visit the Benedictine abbey Santa Maria de Montserrat in which the Mare de Deu de Montserrat – the black Madonna known as La Moreneta – greets pilgrim’s seeking to touch her hand to receive her blessing. The Montserrat range is Spain’s first national park and features formations composed of pink conglomerate and limestone rock visible from a distance as serrated ridges. The park draws hikers, rock climbers, nature lovers, tourists, and pilgrims to traverse the park’s miles of trails. On clear days visitors can see Mallorca one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean; unfortunately for us, it was hazy. At sunrise the rocks and abbey are bathed in pinks and oranges and the Llobregat river valley below the mountain is covered with a blanket of fog. The Llobregat river flows from the Pyranees to enter the Mediterranean at Tarragona, the Roman imperial city of Iberia. The mountains above the abbey host chapels and the ruins of hermitages dating back over ten centuries. We walked the Cami de Sant Miquel through a Mediterranean Oak forest to Sant Joan’s chapel, the hermitage of Sant Onofre and the Stairway of the Poor. On the trail to the hermitage, I was moved by the stones worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims climbing the trail. My thoughts travelled to the Zen Buddhist, Matsuo Basho, the great master of haiku who wandered Japan writing poetry during the 17th century. Bashho drew inspiration from his environment, capturing his experience beautifully in a few short lines. Reaching the summit, I heard the abbey’s bells ring the quarter hour hundreds of meters below.

Sunset at La Rectoria de Sant Miquel de Pineda. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Sunset at La Rectoria de Sant Miquel de Pineda. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Later in the trip, we visited the volcanic comarca of La Garrotxa, staying at the lovely bed and breakfast La Rectoria Sant Miquel de Pineda beside a restored 12th century chapel situated on the Ruta del Carrilet part of the itinerannia, a network of historical paths connecting three comarcs: El Ripolies (Pyranees mountains), La Garrotxa (the volcanic park) and L’Alt Emporda (rolling hills teased by the offshore dry, cold Tramuntana wind ). This network of trails is ideal for avid hikers and mountain bikers who enjoy exploring nature, touring farms, and sampling local cheeses, hazelnuts, pinenuts, honeys and breads, as well as learning about the history of the area. We walked the path leading to La Rectoria once the bed of the narrow gauge railroad connecting the ancient cities of Girona and Olot.  We also explored the cobblestone alleys of the medieval towns of Besalu and Sant Pau discovering the traces of Jewish communities tragically expelled by their majesties Ferdinand and Isabella’s Alhambra Decree in 1492 after the Reqonquista of Muslim Iberia in 1491. We visited these towns on the celebration of Treis Reis (Three Kings day) or the Epiphany, when the Magi visited the infant Jesus celebrating the revelation of the Son of God as a human being. Parades arrived at the main town plaça where the Kings presented gifts to eager children and on January 6 we ate the Tortell de Reis. Each night at dinner our host Roy Lawson and his wife Garrotti created delicious meals featuring fare from local farms including haricot beans, truffles, goat cheese soufflé, and buckwheat pancakes. Roy and Garrotti’s hospitality, comfortable and welcoming accommodations, fabulous food are a must if you are travelling in Catalonia; and the people you meet at their B & B are great!  Roy and Garrotti also have a blog for La Rectoria.

And then we came home and began thumbing our new Catalan cookbook!

Els Segadors

Sketch of Salvadore Dali statue in surreal Cadaques, Catalonia. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2013.

Sketch of Salvadore Dali statue in surreal Cadaques, Catalonia. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2013.

Maybe it’s gravity, centrifugal force, or just the force of my own nature, but I always find a comfortable place to anchor, while traveling amongst the new. No surprise confession here, but I love comfortable places where friends talk over wine and beer, and in Barcelona, I will add Els Quatre Gats to my list. Of course given my current obsessions with cycling, it helps a lot that the café features a mural size art nouveau style painting of two cyclists on a tandem by Ramon Casas. Opened in 1897, Els Quatre Gats was a home to the artists and intellectuals participating in Barcelona’s Modernisme movement. It was a favorite place of Picasso, who came to Barcelona to study painting, laying the foundation for his Blue Period. Picasso had strong connections to this region, personally requesting that the Museo Picasso be built in Barcelona. Over glasses of cava and grilled calamari, we talked about our day visiting the northern Catalonia towns of Figures, Cadaques and Port Lligat on the “Salvadore Dali Trail,” and mused about the two artists and their context within the Spanish Civil War.

Painted in 1937, Picasso created Guernica in response to the then recent bombing and destruction of the Basque village by German and Italian warplanes allied with Franco’s forces fighting the Spanish Republic’s Popular Front. Guernica was first exhibited in June 1937 at the Paris International Exposition by the Spanish Republican Government and then travelled to England and the United States with the hope of raising awareness and sympathy for the elected government of the Spanish people. Picasso, who died in 1973, never returned to Spain while Franco was dictator.

Sketch of harbor near Dali's home in Port Lligat, Catalonia. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2013.

Sketch of harbor near Dali’s home in Port Lligat, Catalonia. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2013.

In 1936, Salvador Dali painted Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War). Known as a Surrealist, Dali worked in what he described as the paranoiac critical method to access the subconscious for greater artistic creativity. While sketches for the painting are dated to 1934, Dali felt the painting described the many hardships endured by Spaniards during the Spanish Civil War. In 1934, Dali was expelled from Surrealism by Andre Breton and the other Surrealists allegedly because of his ambiguous position on the relationship between politics and art. Dali returned to Spain in 1949, living in Port Lligat until his death in 1989 fully embracing Franco’s dictatorship.

working through history

Heidelberg view of the marketplatz and the Church of the Holy Spirit. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler.

Situated on the northern side of the river Neckar, the Philosophenweg or Philospher’s Walk, provides beautiful views of the picturesque city of Heidelberg, Germany.  After a good hike from the train station, I found myself gazing down upon the ruins of the schloss, the old bridge, the medieval marketplatz and the imposing late Gothic Church of the Holy Spirit. My friend Astrid had encouraged me to visit Heidelberg, and soaking up the southern exposure tucked amongst the vineyards and vegetable gardens dotting the hillside and the industrious bees, I was glad I took her advice.  Below me the sounds of a bustling city travelled across the river and up the hillside. Sited on a major tributary to the Rhine Heidelberg has become a tourist destination – whose history spans the Romans, the Reformation and the third Reich – it is also the site of a major University making significant contributions in scientific research. Being September, the faculty and students  – like migratory birds  – were winging their way back to begin anew the cyclical learning experience. In such a place, history is everywhere – you sense the very vineyards surrounding you have roots in the pax Romana. Reaching for my watercolors, I began sketching, attempting to  capture the moment before returning to the bahnhof and Frankfurt.

Although painting requires focus, it also provides a quiet time for reflection and anticipation. Thirty years have passed since my first trip to Germany.  In 1982, my youth, love of history, and study of Existentialism brought me to Cold-War Berlin, Hitler’s Munich, and the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau seeking answers to difficult questions. Germans have a phrase  – Vergangenheitsbewaltigung or Aufarbeitung der Geschichte which means the working through of history. Returning in 2012, this trip is a continuation of a conversation started. History is a heavy responsibility.  It can be crippling or it can be a reservoir of evidence preserved by archivists supporting scholars, who sift through the past seeking patterns, providing perspectives, guiding us in the present. Ahead still lay my journey from Bingen to Bauhaus (tempted to sing out the lyrics to the tune of Emmylou’s Boulder to Birmingham, I delayed the impulse). On this journey we would visit Bingen on the Rhine near Niederwalddenkmal the monument commemorating Bismark’s 1871 Prussian victory and the beginning of the German Empire, the former ghettos and cemeteries of Jewish Frankfurt, Zollverein the coal-mining complex of the Ruhr Valley, the gardens of Sanssouci, the Einstein Tower an Expressionist masterpiece by Erich Mendelsohn, the 1936 Olympic Stadium site of Jesse Owen’s triumph, Bertohlt Brecht’s Archives & Museum in former East Berlin, and Walter Groupius’ Bauhaus in Dessau.

For the trip, I brought with me Stephen Ozment’s  A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People.  Ozment puts forward what he calls the Tacitus challenge: can a more than 2,000 year old civilization be defined by its last 150 years? Paraphrasing German Historian Thomas Nipperdey, Ozment writes it is one thing to know the end of a story and to be moved by it to learn the whole story, and quite another to tell that story from its known outcome. Because of this visit, my personal tapestry of European history is more complete. Over the years, I have made many journeys to France, Great Britain, and Italy and solo excursions to Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Norway and Slovakia. Because of this visit, the weak threads connecting Germany with her neighbors are strengthened to more fully support my understanding of the warp and weft of European history. Working through history is good advice  —  grapple with the past – but engage fully and openly in dialogue with the present.

a tale of two cities

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, France. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

This summer we visited Lyon, France and Matera, Italy, two European cities, which share some common traits: both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites with roots in ancient Rome, situated on hillsides above rivers and crowned by majestic cathedrals. However, upon walking their streets one feels dramatic differences, metaphorically speaking, it is the difference between living and dying. Lyon is a vibrant metropolitan center, the second largest city in France located in the Rhone-Alpes region and situated on a continuum between Paris and Marseille at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. Matera, located in Basilicata in Southern Italy, is a city whose breathing is shallow, so near death the priest has given the last rites, the children have long ago moved away, and all that remains is the cemetery sextant to care for the gravesite. Yet, Matera mysteriously lingers in the imagination. Would I return to Lyon and Matera? Yes, but for different purposes: Lyon to seek my living, and Matera, to seek the meaning of my life.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities speaks to the imaginative potentials of cities and provides a framework to consider Lyon and Matera. One of Calvino’s sections Trading Cities features Esmeralda, a city reminiscent of Lyon. “Esmeralda’s residents are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day…the network of routes is not arranged on one level, but follows instead an up-and-down course of steps, landings, cambered bridges, hanging streets…combining the segments of the various routes, elevated or on ground level, each inhabitant can enjoy every day the pleasure of a new itinerary to reach the same places.” On our visit, we walked the historic narrow walkways named traboules passing through buildings linking streets on either side in the in Vieux Lyon and the slopes of the Croix-Rouss. Thought to be built in the 4th century, the passageways allowed craftsman to move quickly from their workshops and homes on the hill to the silk merchants on the river. The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere, built in the late 19th century crowns the hillside on the site of the Roman forum of Trajan. Today, Lyon is a major centre for banking and industries such as chemical, pharmaceutical, biotech and computer software.

Matera Cathedral. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

In his section Cities and the Dead, Calvino conjures Matera with the imaginary city of Argia. “What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt…..over the roofs of houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds…..from up here nothing of Argia can be seen; some say, ‘its down below there,’ and we can only believe them. The place is deserted. At night, putting your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear a door slam.” Matera, an agricultural settlement, believed founded by the Romans in the 3rd century, was built upon a hillside of soft tufa, which permitted the inhabitants to build underground chambers and dwellings as well as cisterns drawing upon the water table from which the “la Gravina” river flowed in the ravine below town. For many centuries the city thrived and many magnificent churches and monasteries were built including the 13th century Matera Cathedral.  However, over population and agriculture expansion coupled with the mismanagement of water supplies reached a crisis point in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the city began a steady decline. Matera became the symbol of peasant misery in southern Italy as described by the author Carlo Levi in his 1945 novel Christ Stopped at Eboli.

Ben and Jerry got married

Celebrating the legalization of gay marriage in Vermont, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream makers have for the month of September renamed their popular ‘Chubby Hubby’ flavor ‘Hubby Hubby.’ I completely understand why ‘Wifey, Wifey’ wasn’t an option and I will forgive them for my sadness at this momentary gender exclusion. So three cheers for Ben and Jerry’s and pass me that pint of Cherry Garcia! (lovingly named in honor of the late Jerry Garcia legendary guitarist of the Grateful Dead). In August, my wife and I celebrated our one year anniversary as a married couple — one of the 18,000 or so couples that tied the knot when gay marriage was briefly legal in California. Our anniversary was a very special occasion graced with champagne and a piece of the wedding cake.  For our wedding announcement, we used a watercolor I painted of Isola Bella in Taormina, Sicily

Isola Bella, Taormina, Sicily

Isola Bella, Taormina, Sicily. Copyright 2005  Robin L. Chandler

the beautiful place where we celebrated our 20th anniversary as a couple.   So though we’ve only legally been married in California for just over a year, we’ve been a couple for nearly twenty-five wonderful years. Some day in the future, gay marriage will be the norm in our country, and not the exception or blasphemy as some see it today.

There is that wonderful saying “as California goes, so goes the country,” which in my mind translates as California sets the trends and others follow a good idea. But that hasn’t always been the case. Many of the leading abolitionists fighting to end the practice of slavery in the United States were from New England including Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry David Thoreau and John Greenleaf Whittier. Interesting coincidence but Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont — all New England states — have legalized gay marriage.   Plucky Iowa has too, but that’s another longitude.  Slavery was an inhuman practice codified in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but the rhetoric of the New England abolitionists served as the country’s conscience arguing slavery must end, and all must be free and equal.   Equality under the law is a fundamental freedom was the argument against Proposition 8 heard by the California Supreme Court.  While the court upheld Proposition 8 ending gay marriage in my state, the fight will continue here in California and throughout our country.   Equality is one of those fine old New England traditions that runs deep.   I look forward to the day I can say ” as New England goes, so goes the country.”