The Tsavo Big Game Show: it’s a dangerous pursuit

lone elephant at twilight

Night comes swiftly in the African bush but never quietly. As the sun drops behind the Chyulu Hills, so the pipe and whirr of frog and bug ratchet up a few decibels. It is like a million high tension wires being pinged and twanged. If you listen with both ears it can drive you mad. Likewise, if you allow yourself to succumb to the night’s sticky heat and the hypnotic scents of thorn flowers, then do not be surprised when the sudden, blood-chilling scream of a tree hyrax stops your heart.

But we are not going mad. And our hearts are just fine. We think we have cracked this Africa lark. Well sprayed with insect-repellent, all accessible parts covered as can be, anti-malarials ingested, it seems safe to sit out on our veranda at Kilaguni Lodge  and do some night-time big game watching. 

Below our room is a barren stretch of red volcanic earth, and a water-hole lit up by two search lights. The illuminated circle that the lights create is like a stage set. It seems we are seated in a mysterious wildlife theatre waiting for the cast to appear.

The contrast is disturbing. By day, this self-same set is furnace red, littered with volcanic spoil; it is the haunt of the cadaverous-looking marabou storks and the occasional zebra. By night, all is softer, surreal. You feel you might dissolve through the light into perpetual darkness; for out there the night goes on forever, doesn’t it?

And so we go on gazing at the scene. It takes some time to realize that small groups of impala are emerging from the gloom. Their stillness is mesmerizing. Perhaps they are not there at all.

And then…

And then…

The impala are wary. You can almost see the charge of anxiety ripple through the herd. We hold our breath and stare into the dark behind the lights.

And then we see them – black hulks gliding through the thorn trees. Elephants. They have come so silently, walking always on tiptoes, their heels cushions of fat to muffle their footfalls. Slowly they move in from the bush. Even in the dimness beyond the pool, their hides glow red, irradiated by the igneous dirt they have blown over themselves.

In the wings the elephants pause. It is hard to say how many are there. After a few moments two peel away and the rest of the group retreats again into darkness. Two large matriarchs now head for the pool. At the water’s edge they part, and in matched strides stake out the water-hole from opposite directions. There’s an angry trumpeting when an impala fails to withdraw fast enough, and only when the entire bank is clear do the elephants go down and drink. But they have hardly taken a couple of gulps when they move back and take up guard duty, one at each end of the mud bank.

We are transfixed. We cannot fathom the plot, but note that, despite the elephants’ aggressive stance, there has been a concerted gracefulness to their routine. It crosses my mind that the great choreographer, Balanchine, once made a ballet for elephants. Now we see they have dances of their own.

And so we wait.

Slowly the rest of the group reappears, moving as one in the tightest huddle. As they enter the spotlight we understand. Tucked safely between the legs of four large cows are three infants. Like precious celebrities surrounded by an escort of heavies, the youngsters are guided to the water. There, with tiny trunks they cannot quite control, they drink their fill. The whole thing takes only a few minutes. Then, with this life-and-death task accomplished, the sentinels re-join the group, and the small herd leaves as silently as it came, melting into the backdrop.

So: this drama is over; the stage empty. After the thrill there is anti-climax, a strange sense of banishment; depression even. We go to bed, suddenly overcome by the heat and with too many insects on the brain.

Inside, though, the room is hotter still; windows shut fast against malarial mosquitoes. Even so, and despite the rock-like pillows, we sleep for a time. At midnight it is the menacing whine of a mosquito that rouses us to a bleary-eyed seek and destroy mission. At 2 a.m. we are awake again as two waterbuck lock in high-snorting combat below our veranda.

G. huddles back in bed. I press my nose to the window. It’s at times like this that Africa looms largest, that you know you are out of your element. Night stretches ahead like a herculean trial. I stare once more at pale stage in the bush. The impala have drifted back to the pool again, but they barely move. It is like watching a Samuel Becket play where nothing much happens.

And yet…

Suddenly the antelope are on full alert – rigid stance, ears pricked, noses twitching. I stare and stare. At last I spot movement, a sinuous shape pressing through the low scrub. The impala rise on hoof-tips, torn between staying and fleeing, and then the lioness steps out from the grass and pads down to the water.

The impala draw back, still unsure of the big cat’s agenda. The lioness parades around the waterhole, but does not drink. Instead she finds a clump of grass and lies down, head up, still as stone, commanding the pool  – a heraldic lion couchant. Now it is clear. None of the animals can drink. The tension is visible. This is a new kind of drama: feline power play.

But I cannot wait for the denouement. Worn out, I return to my hard pillow and tangled sheet.

The next time I wake it is light enough to know that I can abandon all efforts to sleep. It’s a huge relief. While G. slumbers on, I step out into cool of the veranda. In the dawn light I see that last night’s set has mystically expanded into a vast new backdrop. Now the Chyulu Hills rise above the dry plains, a vision of impossible greenness that belies the violence of their birth. For these hills are new, erupting around the time Sir Francis Drake was bowling off Plymouth Hoe and ignoring news of the advancing Armada. It’s hard to believe.

But this is not all. To the west, the snow-capped crown of Kilimanjaro breaks free of the earth and floats high on a wreath of pink clouds. It makes me want to hoot with laughter. Who does this Africa think she is? Does she really expect me to be taken in by  all her absurd illusions? Poof! The mountain snuffs out and leaves only sky. (Is this possible?) And I, like the victim of some worming parasite, know I am becoming infected. All our defences are useless. This land is creeping under my skin and invading all my senses. More likely than not I will never be the same again.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Kenya; Chyulu Hills; Campi ya Kanzi - Giraffe in the Chyulu Hills

Chyulu Hills. Photo: Abercrombie & Kent

Daily Post Prompt: write here, write now

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Field of Thorns

Right Down My Alley

Overcoming Bloglessness

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The Dragon Weyr

One Starving Activist

Double take, double bass and all that jazz down at the Eagle Tavern

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Sunday jazz at The Eagle Tavern was a regular haunt for us in the early 2000s when we lived in Rochester in Kent. The local jazz club worked its socks off to secure a programme of first class trios and quartets. We were never members. No one even asked us to join, but for the price of a few raffle tickets we could sit with a glass or two of good Kentish ale and the Observer crossword and enjoy some of the best jazz musicians around.

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Gilad Atzmon at the Eagle Tavern

Bands would drive down from London to perform at The Eagle. Gildad Atzmon, Renato D’Aiello, Derek Nash, Alan Barnes – all top names in British jazz – were among the musicians who often came to play for a couple of hours over a Sunday lunch-time. In return they received nothing more than a pub meal and  the raffle takings, but they came because they knew that every note they played would be listened to, appraised and appreciated by the dedicated members of the Medway jazz club. Besides which, it was a good place to warm-up for their paid Sunday night gigs back in the capital.

Unfortunately the Farrell filing system – both mental and physical, failed dismally when trying to access the name of the double bass player rendered severally above. For which apologies all round, and most especially to the musician himself. To make up for this omission here is Gilad Atzmon, first  in whimsical mode, then a more serious piece.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

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Mao at the Met: a disturbing juxta-position?

 

“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person.”

Andy Warhol

 

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Mao Zedong by Andy Warhol (1928‑1987)

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan

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Andy Warhol became interested in China in 1971. “I have been reading so much about China. They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen”.

The following year he began work on the portrait, which grew into ten variations, all based on the portrait that appears in Little Red Book: the thoughts of Chairman Mao.

In 2012 the portraits were part of the touring art show ‘Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal’.  The exhibition, organised by the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, marked the 25th anniversary of Warhol’s death. The Mao portraits, however, did not make an appearance in either Beijing or Shanghai when the show went to Asia in 2013.  The official Chinese view was that the portraits were disrespectful in suggesting that the former leader wore make-up. All the same, Mao Zedong’s legacy is currently undergoing some re-evaluation in China. There are even admissions that mistakes were made. It is a start…

 

For more juxtapositions go to Weekly Photo Challenge

Nice Family? En famille at the Massena Palace

The family who lived in the Palais de Masena

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Believe me, the family gathering depicted in these two murals has more tales to tell than most. They could be the very depiction of Tolstoy’s famous opening to the tragic novel Anna Karenina: (and I paraphrase) all happy families look alike, but the unhappy ones are unhappy in their own inimitable way. I leave you to decide which sort we have here.

But before the stories, first a little about the murals’ setting. They face one another across the top of the grand staircase in the Palais Masséna in Nice. This imposing house was one of the last of its kind to be built on the Promenade des Anglais, looking

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out on the sparkling blue Mediterranean.  It was designed by Danish architect Hans-Georg Tersling (1857-1920),  and  finished in 1901. By then Nice had long been a thriving upper class resort, a trend begun in the 1730s when British aristocrats such as Lord and Lady Cavendish first began to gather at Nice and along Côte d’Azur for the winter season. Back then Nice was an ancient fishing town. The Scottish poet, Tobias Smollett describes it in 1764. He went there in hopes that the benign winter climate would help improve his consumption:

“This little town, hardly a mile in circumference, is said to contain twelve thousand inhabitants. The streets are narrow; the houses are built of stone, and the windows in general are fitted with paper instead of glass. This expedient would not answer in a country subject to rain and storms; but here, where there is very little of either, the paper lozenges answer tolerably well. The bourgeois, however, begin to have their houses sashed with glass. Between the town-wall and the sea, the fishermen haul up their boats upon the open beach.”

As time went on the Tsars of Russia and the Romanov family made the South of France their second home, which circumstance, in 1912, prompted Tsar Nicholas II to build the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice to serve the Russian nobility. Even Queen Victoria came on holiday to Nice, staying in the magnificent  Excelsior Régina Palace which looks down on the city and the sea from the hill of Cimiez. It was apparently built in response to her requirements for a place to stay that matched her status. And so the hotels and palaces grew up around the old town of Nice to provide for the royal, rich and famous.

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Excelsior Regina Palace built 1895-7; Photo: Nice Archives copyright expired

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Angelo Garino Promenade des Anglais 1922[1]Detail from Promenade des Anglais 1922 by Angelo Garino  (1860-1945)

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Some of these elite visitors and palace owners acquired their riches and nobility by rather questionable means, and this includes the erstwhile owners of the Palais Masséna. It was built for Victor Masséna, 3rd Prince d’Essling, 3rd Duc de Rivoli and the grandson of  André Masséna, son of a Nice shopkeeper who acquired wealth and royalty while serving and plundering in Bonaparte’s army.  More of him later.

The two family murals are dated 1902-3 and include members of the intermarried Masséna, Murat and Ney families. The reason for the elevated positions and princely titles is entirely due to Napoleon Bonaparte and his ambitions of military conquest.  The founders of their ennobled dynasties were three ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds who joined the French army. All three proved to be brilliant and courageous soldiers who ascended rapidly through the ranks to become Marshals of Empire.

Joachim Murat, an innkeeper’s son, married Bonaparte’s youngest sister, Caroline, and for services rendered was made the King of Naples. He ruled between 1808 and 1815. File:Murat2.jpg

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Michel Ney, a public notary and surveyor of mines, gave up being a civil servant and enlisted in the hussars. After great battle victories he became 1st Prince de la Moskowa, 1st Duc d’Elchingen.

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As mentioned above, André Masséna earned the titles 1st Duc de Rivoli and 1st Prince d’Essling.

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But status and wealth are not everything. Nor were they enjoyed for long. Masséna, long suffering from ill-health, died in retirement after being serially dismissed by Napoleon, first for excessive war looting, and then (after reinstatement) for military failures against the British in the Peninsular War. In his last days before his death in 1817, he supported the restoration of King Louis XVIII to the French throne. Doubtless a wise move for his descendants.

In 1815, after the capture and  exile of Napoleon Bonaparte, both Murat and Ney were executed by firing squad for treason. Murat’s two sons went to North America in the 1820s; the elder stayed and became a citizen, but the younger, Napoléon-Lucien-Charles returned to France in 1848 when his title as Prince Murat was recognised by Napoleon III under the Second Empire.

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And so we come back to the descendants of the three brave Marshals on the walls of the Palais Masséna. The more you look at these murals, the more curious they seem. They were painted by the then successful French artist François Flameng (1856–1923). He later went on to paint Great War battle scenes, and document new kinds of families, the close-knit comradeship of companies of men under siege.

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A Machine Gun Company of Chasseurs Alpins in the Barren Winter Landscape of the Vosges, François Flameng, photo Wikimedia Commons.

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I suppose my first question is why would the mural people wish to have themselves depicted in this way? Certainly there is a sense of entitlement and much self-regarding, but at the same time it is also as if they are not quite self-aware. Flameng verges on caricature for most of his subjects.  For surely there are suggestions of secrets, collusion, factions, conspiracy, loss of status within the gilded circle.  There are shared misfortunes and private sorrows; anxiety and repression; no one smiles; the children look utterly constrained. And then there are simply too many people peering round pillars, or only half seen despite their prestigious titles.

The two men on the far left of the second painting look distinctly rascally, their almost-smiles, sardonic, malicious.  They are related, brothers I think; the nearest to the viewer is Napoleon Ney, Prince de la Moskowa; behind him Claude Ney, Duc d’Elchingen. In 1903, the year the murals were completed, the Prince and Princesse de la Moskowa were divorced. La Princesse is the sad woman in the blue gown at the other end of the mural, only partially seen behind the column. Is Flameng intimating her loss of status in relation to the others? She is Eugénie, youngest daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte. She married the Prince in Rome at the Villa Bonaparte in 1898, and with all the Ney family in attendance. The couple had no children.

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Here is Eugenie on her wedding day. The photograph is attributed to Count Guiseppe Primoli.

Eugenie Bonaparte 1898

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Further along the mural from the Ney brothers is Victor Masséna, Prince d’Essling, the builder of the palace. His eldest daughter, Anne, has a proprietorial hold on his shoulder. He will die in 1810 in a Paris nursing home after an operation, and she will marry the Duc d’Albufera. The two faded souls at Victor’s elbow are his long-dead parents, also named Anne and Victor.

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The only calm and truly sympathetic face among the whole gathering is that of Rose Ney d’Elchingen. She leans over the balustrade accompanied by two macaws and an expensive tapestry. Beside her (with the pince nez) is the Princesse Joachim Murat, born Cecile Ney d’Elchingen, probably Rose’s sister. Her husband, Prince Joachim Murat, is across the stairs, lurking between a pillar and a large urn.  Rose, herself, will marry the distinguished Italian politician Duca Guiseppe Lanza di Camastra, and he will die prematurely in 1927 at the age of 31. Before that though, a 1916 newspaper photo will show Rose La Duchesse in full nurse’s gear, apparently assisting the surgeon with the war wounded at Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris. She is well-known for her beauty and philanthropy.

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Also in this mural detail is Prince Eugene Murat and the boy Charles Murat. The prince will die, aged 30, in 1906 when he overturns his car  while driving to Karlsbad. The report says he lived in Paris and left three children. It does not mention that he was married to the notorious Violette Ney d’Elchingen, Princesse Eugene Murat, and Rose’s sister. We are about to meet her across the staircase. They could not be less alike, at least in their demeanour.

The family who lived in the Palais de Masena

In fact you can hardly miss her, can you, Madame in the royal blue blouse. She seems to dominate the gathering on both sides of le grand escalier. The hand on hip gesture looks coarse, suggestive more of a nicoise fishwife than a princess. She is also the only one taking an active, indeed aggressive stance. She looks out at us visitors as if we were something unpleasant she has stepped in.

But what did the artist Flameng mean us to understand from this image? And what is going on with sad, submissive girl who leans against the redoubtable Violette? After all, this is not mother and daughter. The girl is Victoire  Masséna, younger daughter of Victor. She is around 14 years old here. In 4 years she will be married to the Marquis de Montesquiou. She will have two sons and at 30 she will be dead. Perhaps she foresees her future. Perhaps when you know that Violette, besides being a mother of three, is also a predatory bisexual, you might think there is something more sinister here. But then maybe one should not jump to conclusions.

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Princess Eugene Murat c.1929; photo Berenice Abbott

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In the decades of her widowhood, after the car-crash death of Eugene, Violette led a very gay life, and in all senses of the word. She was part of the Paris and Harlem Jazz Age scene. She entertained the likes of Stravinsky and Cocteau in her Paris home. She was a friend of the artist Augustus John who sketched her quite pleasingly while she introduced him to novel ways of taking hashish. In his autobiography he says:

“I had already tried smoking this celebrated drug without the slightest result. It was Princess Murat who converted me. She contributed several pots of the substance in the form of a compôte or jam. A teaspoonful was taken at intervals.”

She famously stormed out of a very famous Paris dinner party, held in 1922 for Europe’s artistic elite. The guests of honour included Diaghilev, Stravinsky, James Joyce, and Picasso. But it was the appearance of the reclusive Marcel Proust that evinced Princess Murat’s all too visible disfavour. At the time everyone who was anyone was trying to identify themselves and others in the characters of Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu. Violette, who was renowned for meanness had seemingly provided the model for an extremely miserly individual.

She was, in fact, exceedingly generous with the cocaine, or so we discover in Sebastian Faulks’ book The Fatal Englishman, which includes the biography of the English artist, Christopher Wood (1901-30). In it he describes Violette as “an enormous drug-addicted lesbian with a hunger for company.” She goes around with a bag of cocaine and lays out lines for Wood when he is struggling to complete a piece of work. Faulks tells, too, of Wood’s claim that she lost £5 or 6 million in the 1929 Stock Market crash. She ended her days, living in squalor, having overcome an earlier obsession with maintaining cleanliness, and died of barbiturate poisoning at the age of 58. A sad end to a damaged life.

And what was at the heart of this – sibling jealousy perhaps? Does that explain Flameng’s placing of the players in the murals – the beautiful Rose on one side of the stairs, blissfully unaware of her allure, and beloved even by the two family macaws? While opposite, the portly, coarse featured sister tries to outface her, and indeed the whole world that pays court to her much prettier sister. It’s a theory.

Finally, there is a more pleasing story, at least as far as the palace is concerned. Below on the left we see Victor Masséna’s heir, André, the future Prince d’Essling beside his mother, Princesse d’Essling. In 1919, with his father dead nearly ten years, he hands the Palais Masséna to the city of Nice on the understanding that it will be open to the public. Today it is the city’s local history and art museum.

The family who lived in the Palais de Masena

And so what is there left to say about this self-aggrandizing family. With hindsight one could say that in real life, when these murals were painted, the Belle Époque was drawing to its close. Did Flameng already sense this? The world was changing. Soon there would no longer be the annual winter retreat to the Palais Masséna.  Somehow, then, the murals do have a Proustian feel, perhaps a missing story thread from À la Recherche du temps perdu; the last moment of a perfect, and rarified age caught in two wall paintings, and now gawped at by the passing public.

And as for the three Marshals of France whose derring-do started all this social climbing, you  may find them lying quite close to one another in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. There they have long since made their residence – among the great and growing family of the dead.

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Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris.Photo: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

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Last but not least, I leave you with glimpses of former winter season glory chez Masséna.

Nice is filled with chandeliers

Palais de Masena, now a museum

© 2014 Tish Farrell

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Chrissie Hynde Queen of the Castle

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It’s not often that a rock legend comes to perform practically on your doorstep, but in the summer of 2002 Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders did just that. They were booked to show in the outer bailey of Rochester Castle. At that time we’d not long moved back to the UK from Kenya and were living along the Esplanade in Rochester, Kent, a short walk from the castle. We could not believe our luck. The tickets cost £15 and we had to bring our own chairs and refreshments. Midge Ure did the opening set and it was all rather low key, with people milling around and having sunset picnics. And then the Pretenders were on and the night turned electric…

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The 12th century keep of Rochester Castle, Kent _ The Pretenders’ venue July 2002.

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And now for a classic favourite performed live:

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Gallery

Windows Into The Inner Sanctum

Such a stunning insight into inner turmoil and trauma – from The Beauty Along the Road

The Beauty Along the Road

So often we think of windows as enabling us to look OUTSIDE. However, I’d like to introduce a window that allows us to look INSIDE, specifically, into the inner workings of the psyche.  As a former psychologist with a specialty in playtherapy, I used sandplay therapy with both children and adults to gain a better understanding of what my clients were struggling with. Sandplay was truly a window of privilege – no other technique revealed as much about what was really going on INSIDE.

“At the beginning in sandplay, we observe images of the daily world, its difficulties. When we continue this work, we get into deeper realms of ourselves. We discover contents which have remained unknown. They have become dark and negative. All of our potentials would like to be developed. If they are not taken care of, they get furious and work against us.
Beyond this darkness is the…

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Bright Fields on Llyn: windows in time, mind and space and other stories from Cymru

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Oh all right, I confess. My take on the WP photo challenge is a little tangential. Also I have combined it with Ailsa’s travel theme ‘illuminated’ and Frizztext’s ‘B’ challenge (links below). But for me, photographs are windows in their own right, focusing the eye, mind and sensibility. The ones in this post seem to reveal a glimpse of something that require my special attention. And while some shots do in fact include actual windows, most are about those tiny ah-ha moments: the event, image, artefact that opened a window in my mind, whether a crack, or a full-blown throw-back-the-shutters moment.

And so it was stormy September, and the holiday-season well and truly over when Nosy Writer and the Team Leader headed to Wales for a few days. G. had a brand new camera to learn. I, as ever, was happy to snap whatever caught my eye.

We stayed in an odd, but well-meant  B & B in Llanbedrog, and set off each day to explore North Wales’ Llŷn Peninsula. The weather was deeply discouraging. Wales has much wet weather, and, with it, an oppositely equal lack of indoor places to visit, especially out of season. The first day it rained so hard there was no choice but to head for the nearest large town in hopes of finding something to do under cover.  We drove up the coast to Caernarfon,and once there sat  in a car park for an hour while the rain teemed down on the windscreen. Finally, it eased off enough to venture out. By then, the ludicrousness of coming on holiday to sit in a Welsh car park watching supermarket deliveries was beginning to grate.

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Swathed in raingear we trailed around an impressive but dreary Caernarfon Castle, the remnant expression of Edward I of England’s systematic oppression of the Welsh people. In 1283 he extended a small Norman motte and bailey castle into a massive fortress – all the better to assert English rule over the Welsh and their princes. In design it is said to recall the walls of Constantinople, seat of Roman imperial power, thus invoking memories of more ancient times when the Romans also subdued the Welsh. These earlier invaders built the nearby fort of Segontium and, like the castle, it commanded the Menai Straits and the island of  Ynys Môn (Anglesey) beyond.

Segontium was built in AD77 by the Roman governor of Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, in preparation for the capture Anglesey (see Island of Old Ghosts). Over a thousand years later the castle was built as one in a circle of mighty fortresses to control the people of North Wales. In 1284 Edward’s heir,  later Edward II, was born there, and thus proclaimed the first English Prince of Wales. Though English born and bred, I find this hard to swallow.

And so I think I would have found Caernarfon Castle depressing even in broad sunshine – too much death and domination. The best part of the day was definitely lunch in one of the town’s meandering back-streets. At the bistro Blas they welcomed us in from another downpour, and kindly allowed us to drip on their carpet while feeding us delicious food. Not only that, it was so soothingly lavender, both inside and out.

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It was the next day, with the rain abating and the sea roiling over the Cricieth breakwater (beneath another Edward I castle) that we spotted the bright field in the first photo. G. thought it was a good opportunity to start getting to grips with his Fujicamera. I snapped the sea.

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But seeing that bright field, so astonishingly luminous against the grey sky, reminded me of the poem of the same name, written by the great Welsh poet-priest R.S.Thomas. This craggy, slab of a man was as redoubtable as one of Edward Longshanks’ castles.

In fact he might have been hewn  from the bed-rock of his native Wales. And like all such formations he had his fissures, faults and flaws. Many thought him morose, cantankerous, and rife with ambiguity and contradiction. For one thing, he abhorred the Anglicisation of Wales, yet he wrote in English despite being a Welsh speaker. In 1996 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but  lost out to Seamus Heaney. 

As a priest he was kindly and sympathetic to the hardships of his parishioners, although this would not stop him from hectoring them from the pulpit, urging them to foreswear any yearning for consumer durables such as refrigerators and washing machines. He could also be judgemental and, as a fierce Welsh Nationalist and political activist, withering about the failure of the Welsh to resist being swamped by Englishness.

Thomas’s poetry, then, can be both trenchant and transcendent. While I do not subscribe to his religion, I honour the spirit of his words. His poems are among those I love most. Here it is then:

The Bright Field

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I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

the treasure in it. I realize now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

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on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but it is the eternity that awaits you.

R.S. Thomas

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On our final day it was with R.S. Thomas in mind, and with a little sun at last, we drove down the narrow lanes of the Llŷn Peninsula  to Aberdaron where the poet served as a parish priest between 1967-78.

The ancient church of St. Hywyn’s stands right beside the sea. Since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have come there on their way to Bardsey Island, Ynis Enlli, Island of 20,000 Saints. Inside the church are two ancient grave stones belonging to Christian priests of the late 5th/early 6th century. There is also a welcome there: a bookshop full of R.S. Thomas’s poetry books; even a poem to take away. There are also piles of sea pebbles, shells for contemplating your journey, a kneeler that has been stitched with the single word cariad, beloved.

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And beside the knave the clear glass window that needs no further embellishment looks out on the sea and islands of Gwylan Fawr and Gwylan Fach. And outside in the sea wind is the graveyard whose stones seem to cluster like a meeting of villagers in their own bright field. And so it is, as we ponder on all these things that our creedless souls, one atheist, one agnostic, know that we too are on a pilgrimage – to seek out the things that truly matter.

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RS Thomas

R.S. Thomas 1913-2000 Photo: BBC Cymru Wales Walesart

See this brief biography of the poet, made in 1996 when it was thought he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Related: Warrior Wind-Singer of Llŷn

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Flikr Comments Tagged ‘B’

Weekly Photo Challenge: Windows 

Ailsa’s travel theme: illuminated

Anthology Baobab: African Story Tree

 

 

 

“Knowledge is like a baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot encompass it.”

Ghanaian proverb

South Luangwa - mighty poachers' baobab 2

This baobab in Zambia’s South Luangwa was used as a poachers’ look-out

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At the moment I’m working on a short story that includes a large and very ancient Adansonia digitata – in other words, a mighty baobab tree. These extraordinary trees have a way of finding their way into my stories (Mantrap, A Hare Who Would Not Be King amongst others). In fact, with so many legends about them, baobabs are nothing if not arboreal storybooks.

They are also like no other tree I can think of, although they are related to kapok trees. They grow in the hot lowlands of Africa and Madagascar and also in Vietnam and Australia. Their capacity to store vast quantities of water in their trunks has earned them the name Tree of Life.  A single tree can hold up to 4,500 litres /1,189 gallons.

In my story, however, the baobab has no such mundane function. It is a place of ritual – a spirit home on the Swahili coast, for here, as in other parts of Africa, it is believed that baobabs harbour the souls of the dead. And that is all I am revealing of my story  except to say that it also involves murder, unquiet spirits and unrequited love.

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As for the trees, in real life they have a mass of practical, medicinal and nutritional uses – for humans and wildlife alike. It all begins with the pollination of these oddly striking flowers.

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For nine months of the year, the baobab has no foliage. When the leaves come they are eaten like spinach by humans and browsed by both domestic and wild animals. The flowers, too, are short-lived. The bloom first at night, their pungent smelling nectar attracting bush babies and fruit bats which then pollinate the flowers. Bees also feed on the nectar, and farmers often hang their barrel beehives up in the branches of a baobab. Photo: Tuli Lodge, Botswana

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The resulting woody capsules enclose many seeds within an edible pulp. Both seeds and pulp are high in potassium, calcium and magnesium and are ideal foods for pregnant and breast-feeding women. The pulp is also rich in vitamin C, thiamine and antioxidants. Being high in pectin, it is useful for jam making and creating refreshing drinks. The seeds produce a fine oil that is used by the cosmetics industry. They can also be ground to make a coffee substitute. And so with all these attributes, the baobab has been classified as a superfood. Its many by-products are now sold worldwide. Photo: http://www.ifood.tv/blog/the-latest-superfood-from-africa-baobab

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http://www.ifood.tv/blog/the-latest-superfood-from-africa-baobab

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The growing world-wide demand for the baobab’s phyto-nutrients mean that seed harvesting has become a valuable source of income for many African families. This is one man’s story:

“My name is Andrew Mbaimbai and I am 63 years old. I live in Mtimbuka, a village in southern Malawi, with my wife, four daughters and eight grandchildren. In 2005, I heard that a new company was buying baobab and I knew this was a good opportunity for me.

“I collect and process baobab in my spare time because I also have a job as a cook. After gathering the fruit, I go to the processing centre, crack the shells and separate the fruit powder from the seeds. Then I sell it.

“I use the money to pay for my grandchildren’s school fees and to buy clothes for my family. Sometimes if a family member falls ill, I use the money to pay hospital bills. Without the money from selling baobab, I would not be able to meet all my family’s needs.”

http://baobabsuperfruit.com/andrew-mbaimbai/

As a consequence of ethically managed initiatives like the Eden Project’s programme in Malawi you will now find many baobab-derived products on line and in your local health food shops. Here is one of them. It can be added to anything and everything, creating, apparently, a  zesty flavour.

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The Eden Project’s baobab powder.

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Then there are the baobab bark products. The trunk of the baobab is very fibrous and can be processed into cloth, twine and ropes. Kenyan women are famous for their kiondo bags which they make both from baobab and (increasingly) sisal string. You will see women walking along the road weaving these lovely baskets, and I can attest that they last for decades. I have at least four. In time the leather handles might need replacing,  but the baskets endure, becoming more beautiful as their pigment dyes fade.

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Photos: africablogs

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A Kenyan kiondo woven from baobab fibre.

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Baobabs can of course grow to massive proportions  and into the oddest shapes. They may be thousands of years old.

The Legend of the Upside-down Tree

Photo: Eco Products

With age, many become hollow, creating large spaces within that are variously used as barns, churches, places to give birth, and for the burial of griots as in West Africa. In Botswana one was once used as a jail, the adjoining trunks for male and female prisoners.

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Kasane, Botswana, now has a new prison but the architect ensured that the original one was preserved: http://www.ofm.co.za/article/67788/Voices

Big Baobab

Sunland Baobab

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At Sunland Farm, Limpopo, South Africa, this baobab is used as a bar and wine cellar. It is believed to be the largest example in the world. It is 47 metres around (154 feet) and has a carbon date of around 6,000 years.  Below  are four of us trying to surround a much younger Kenyan baobab. This one is at Maweni on Tiwi Beach, South Mombasa.

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And now for some of those baobab legends I mentioned. There are many variations of these tales throughout Africa.

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When Creator was busy creating the world, the animals came to him and asked if they could help him finish his work. Creator was doubtful and said there were only the trees left to make. But the animals persisted, so Creator handed out specific seed types to each animal species, and they went away and planted them. Finally, only the baobab seeds remained, and these Creator handed to the hyenas. The outcome, of course, was to be expected, given the stupidity of hyenas. They planted the seeds upside down, and that is why the baobab always looks as if it has its roots in the air.

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Long, long ago the very first baobab sprouted up beside a small lake. When it saw the other trees with their tall, smooth trunks and bright flowers and large leaves, it thought how beautiful they were. Then one day, when the lake surface was smooth as glass, the baobab caught sight of itself, and oh, what a shock. Its flowers were so pale, and its leaves so small. But worst of all, it was appallingly fat, and its skin looked like the wrinkling hide of an old elephant.

The baobab cried out to Creator, complaining of its lot. Creator in turn was huffy. Many things had been made that were not quite perfect, he said. He retreated behind a cloud. But the baobab did not stop whining and whingeing. Finally, Creator grew so cross that he leaned out of the sky, and yanking the baobab from the ground, replanted the tree upside down. And so ever since, the baobab has lived on in silence, unable to see its reflection in the lake, but making up for its transgression by doing many good deeds for humankind.

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And if these baobab tales have not quite cheered you up, here are some clips from the life-enhancing Orchestra Baobab. This band from Senegal has had two lives, one back in the ‘70s, and now the current reprise which includes many of the original line-up, among them the Togolese guitarist, Barthélémy Attisso, who in the interim went away to become a lawyer. If you get the chance to see them live, go for  it.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Frizztext’s ‘A’ Challenge

Onwards and upwards…the big New Year ‘do-over’

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“Encompassed by a world of tangible, visible things – animals, plants, and stars –  mankind has from time immemorial perceived that deep within these beings and things dwells something powerful, yet indescribable, that gives them life.”

Cosmic view of the Fulani people of West Africa

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I took this photo last spring, in March when we were plunged into a sudden and unexpected winter. In seemed  that the tulips were burning their way through the snow – biological imperative incarnate: come hell or high water, these tulips will BECOME.

In some ways, though, I find the image  disturbing, especially the bud just breaking through the snow, and the dark little shadow at the centre top where another seems to be welling just beneath the surface like a bruise. Is the earth bleeding?

Of course, in no time my mind flies to that wintery scene with the good queen, Snow White’s mother. There she sits with her embroidery at the castle window. There she pricks her finger as she sews, the blood drops falling on the snowy whiteness. And there she makes the pledge that calls into being a beautiful child, but in the process brings about her own end.

The queen pricks her finger. Snow White illustrated by Charles Santore 1997

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And so by degrees I start thinking of the creative process, that is to say, my creative process or seeming lack of same. And while I am sure that many creative people (which is all of us) will be facing the New Year with renewed vigour and hopefulness at the journey ahead, there are others of us who remain intent on endlessly hunting round the same old  circles that take us nowhere. We are of course woozle hunting and A.A. Milne sums up the entire predicament perfectly.

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  ‘One fine winter’s day when Piglet was brushing away the snow in front of his house, he happened to look up, and there was Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh was walking round and round in a circle, thinking of something else, and when Piglet called to him, he just went on walking.


      “Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”
“Hunting,” said Pooh.
“Hunting what?”
“Tracking something,” said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.
“Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer
“That’s just what I ask myself. I ask myself, What?”
“What do you think you’ll answer?”
“I shall have to wait until I catch up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.”

 Winnie-the-Pooh 1926, A A Milne, illustrated by E H Shepard

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Next then comes the question of how, creatively speaking, does one get off the treadmill of woozle hunting (which can of course become perversely absorbing despite the fruitlessness of the quest) and lift off into the stratosphere with the high-octane thrust of tulips breaking bounds?

Perhaps to begin to answer this, it is first important to know that human creativity has its cycles in much the same way as the natural world, or indeed tulips. In her audio compilation The Creative Fire, poet, storyteller and Jungian psycho-analyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estés puts it this way:

“Creativity goes through many different cycles: of birth, rising energy, reaching a zenith, declining, further entropy, death, incubation, quickening, rebirth…”

She then elaborates on this process by retelling two versions of the Persephone story , the Greek myth that, among other things, explains the origins of winter and spring.

In other words, a period of dying down, gathering in resources, dormancy, are all essential before strong new growth can occur. The tulips, after all, had some nine months of dying down and re-growing their bulbs.

CPE  has other words of wisdom too:

“The main struggle that people have with creativity is that they stop themselves from doing what comes naturally.”

And:

“We all cover miles and miles of territory looking for the starting line when it’s inside of our minds the entire time.”

She also deals with the deep-rooted fear that most of us have: that our creative impulse/spirit/inspiration has died or deserted us. She likens it to la chispa, the hearth ember that seems quite dead until you breathe upon it, fanning the flames so that once more it bursts into a blazing fire. If we feel stifled and blocked she suggests that the causes are probably fear, the lies  that people have told us about our creativity, and the fact that we have paid way too much attention to our internal critic.

“The creative function,” she concludes, “ is the centre of the soul and the psyche; it can never be destroyed.”

So there we have it. Less woozle hunting, and more blowing on dead wood. Also listen to your internal wisdom, then make like a tulip. Who knows what it will lead it.

Or as the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe said:

 “Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.”

There are no rules and regulations on the number of times that we must re-do a piece of work before we have made it to our liking. The only rule is to give yourself a break, then go to it.

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Wishing you all a happy and floriferous 2014

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Weekly photo challenge: beginning: go here for more Daily Post beginnings

© 2014 Tish Farrell