Thursday, January 24, 2013

Poe Birds

I think we are down to two squirrels. 
When Mars and I went away for the Christmas holiday we were providing room and board for between six and eight acorn burying Sciurus, depending on the day.  We left them, and the birds with which they share the dining hall, a full feeder of sunflower seeds – plus the biggest ear of corn I could find for their exclusive, tree-side squirrel-feeding device.  When we returned the canister was empty, the maize was missing, and no furry gray rodents were in sight.  
I replenished the self-service seed silo and the corn but for several days no one – feathered or furred  – appeared to take advantage of my somewhat guilt-ridden largesse.  Then a few juncos and chickadees dropped in.  Soon there was pretty much continuous wing traffic at and below the al fresco cafeterias – but no squirrels.
Then the crows came.  In what may have been a foreshadowing of the demise of the New England Patriots at the hands of the Poe-birds from Baltimore, the glossy black intruders overran our landscape multiple times a day – totally unimpeded.
They somehow detached the ear of corn that had been screwed onto the squirrel feeder and tossed it to the ground.   There they took turns tentatively pecking at it and immediately hopping back in fear – like the monkeys in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” checking out the monolith that fell among them.
After about a week of all-birds-all-the-time a squirrel showed up – not early or aggressively enough to claim its rightful food – but instead obsequiously dining underneath the sunflower feeder.
It was fat.  Quite fat actually.  So clearly it had not been in any way starving.  After two or three days it climbed (or jumped) onto the seed station. Before we went away the rodents would drape their bodies along the side of the cylinder, gorging themselves for hours at a time. This visit lasted less than a minute.  Shortly thereafter a second tree rodent appeared on the scene – but not with any regularity.
 During this time we did see one flattened gray furry corpse pressed into the tarmac of our street of residence.  The crows took time off from their Vegan ways and began takin’ it to the street.
Soon the corpse was gone.  Either our town’s road-kill remover did his thing – we really do have one – or the carnivorous black birds did theirs.  In any event the crows are back once again in full force – but not so with the bushy tailed rodents.
It may be that as long as the ravens stay we will have just one or two squirrels, but never more.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cute - Or What?

Mars and I came back to Wethersfield, Connecticut from Santa Fe with several Virgins of Guadalupe, two Red Onions, and a Jackalope.  The V.O.G.s were expected.  She is our favorite icon.  The latter two were total surprises.

For the past several Christmases Mars and I have spent the holidays in New Mexico’s capitol city visiting Monica and Bram (daughter-in-law and son).  (It is one place in the world where we feel at home, and we plan on making it our real home eventually.  For now we visit often, and surround ourselves with as much of its ambience as we can fit into our small New England Colonial house.)  The last couple of times there we all four were guests on a local public radio “foodie” program called “Mouth of Wonder” hosted by M & B’s friend Stacy. 

As a project for our local historical society in 2011, Mars had edited a cookbook ofWethersfield family recipes and the stories that went with them.  She gave Stacy a copy of the publication – and on the air, talked about some of the dishes and told the story of the Red Onion – the official emblem of our hometown.  Wethersfield is Connecticut’s oldest established town and was once the leading grower and exporter of the edible bulb in the entire world.  The crop was harvested by “onion maidens” – young women who, town lore says –  "weeded and wept," as they reaped the onions for the reward of a silk dress.

On this visit the timing was wrong to do the show.   But on December 25th, as we did in the past – after our sunrise eggnog latte stroll; then breakfast, gifts and hanging out with Monica and Bram – we got together with Stacy, her husband Jim, her mother Bernice, and a few others for dinner and gift exchanging to celebrate what you might call Christmas with a lower case “c”.  (I’m not quite sure what else to describe it as, even though my Word word-processor on the Mac will not let me type christmas without a fight.) 

Stacy and Bernice are New York Jewish –  “Noo Yawk, as in "Get outa hea", "Fawget aboutit", "Ahrite ahready" and "Lawn Guyland" – but they say they stopped being Jewish when they moved to Santa Fe. 

The four of us – Mars, Monica, Bram and me – are, I guess, a-religious.  New Mexico however has a unique culture and style in which the peasant Catholic religious iconography and tradition overlaps with and infuses the secular Hispanic.   And I find myself being drawn towards sacred symbols and objects that wouldn’t even be on my radar in another environment.  In this land of adobe brown and turquoise nothing is black and white. 

There were green and red “Happy Birthday Jesus” cocktail napkins at Stacy’s party.  So maybe it is more rightly called “Jewish Christmas”. – The online “urban dictionary” says, “Jewish Christmas costs less than twenty bucks per head and you're not stuck with crappy gifts.” – although I think it was referring to the folklore (or fact) that Jews tend to celebrate the holiday at Chinese restaurants.

 We did exchange gifts – one of which was a pair of embroidered Red onion pillow cases for Mars and me – suggested by Monica and Bram, designed by Stacy, and executed by Bernice.  Thank you all.

The next afternoon we bought our Jackalope.  This was our day for gallery-hiking Canyon Road.  Mars and I spent an hour or so working our way up the street then met Bram for lunch at a teahouse located at the border line of retail and residential.  After our meal we wandered with him back to a gallery owned by B., an acquaintance of his, at which we had made an acquisition last Christmas.
As we entered B. was busily in conversation with a thirty-something woman who turned out to be one of the artists that he represented.  Bram said quietly, “She’s one of my favorite painters.”  B. stopped to greet us, introduced Amy Ringholz, and told us that she had literally just dropped off some new pieces “with the paint still wet”.  The works were casually lined up on the floor, leaning on the wall. 

 Amy’s subject matter is mostly the animals of the west painted in large, angular (but realistic) lines, in dreamlike colors.  One of her “still wet” pieces was a Jackalope – an antlered species of rabbit that is a cross between a hare and an antelope, unique to the imaginations of residents of the western United States.  Live ones are rarely (some would say never) sighted but taxidermy models, tall-tales, and paintings abound.

 Mars and I both independently and immediately liked it.  Mars even told Amy that she thought it was cute.  I privately agreed – especially since I find most images of the creature to be freaky scary.  The two of us conferred in another room while pretending to look at the other artists on display and decided to buy it – and to wait for the colors to set before it was shipped to us.  Amy signed the back of the canvas, Mars signed the credit card slip, we took some photos, complimented B. on his sales techniques and resumed our trek down Canyon Road and back to our casita.
 A symbol of where we are and a sign of where we are going, each made expressly for us (one intentionally, one not), and both exactly where they were meant to be (or will be when the paint dries.)


Tuesday, January 08, 2013


"God Made the earth, the sky and the water, the moon and the sun. He made man and bird and beast. But He didn't make the dog. He already had one." – Native American saying.
"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." – Groucho Marx
Before I get started on the story of our other 2012 Santa Fe Virgin of Guadalupe acquisition I want to let you know that there is precedent for it.
Two years ago we also celebrated Christmas with Monica, Bram and Cheyenne (daughter-in-law, son and Greyhound grand-dog) at their home in the capitol city of New Mexico.  One of Bram’s gifts to Monica was a book of photos of and essays about Greyhounds, within which we all discovered the story of Saint Guinefort a 13th Century member of that breed.

The faithful hound belonged to a knight who lived in a castle near Lyon, France. One day the nobleman went out hunting leaving his infant son to be babysat by (at that time mere citizen) Guinefort. When the father returned he found the room covered in blood, most notably surrounding the crib, and the child nowhere in sight. The guilty-looking greyhound was sitting next to the child's bed with more blood on his mouth.
Deciding that the dog had killed and devoured his offspring the father immediately shot and killed it with an arrow – and then discovered the baby safely hidden under a cot.  And nearby the freshly killed body of a snake.  Guinefort had heroically saved the young scion’s life.
Overcome by guilt the father interred the dog and planted a grove of trees around the grave to honor it. Local villagers soon began making pilgrimages to the gravesite, miraculous events happened, and "Saint Guinefort" became an object of worship among the townspeople.
But the Catholic Church never formally canonized the Greyhound. Etienne de Bourbon, an Inquisitor, had the dog "disinterred and the sacred wood cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog." Guinefort was declared a heretic.
It didn't work. Up until the 1940's pilgrims continued to visit the site, praying for the protection of their children and nourishing their spirits.
And then there is The Legend of the Dog-headed Saint Christopher – a member of the African tribe Marmaritae, who were believed to be (among other things) dog-headed and flesh eating.  When Christopher saw how much the early Christians were suffering he began to worship their God.  He ultimately was given the power of human speech and went on to preach his faith and suffered martyrdom.

While these two dog saints may be extreme cases - Canis familiaris was and is highly admired in many religions.
The Physiologus, an early-medieval source of the late-medieval Bestiaries, praises dogs for "having more understanding than any other beast".  They are "are like preachers who by warnings and by righteous living turn aside the ambushes of the Devil...As the dog's tongue heals a wound by licking, so the wounds of sin are cleansed by the instruction of the priest when they are laid bare in confession."
And in the Lakota Sioux creation story First Man and First Woman are told by First Dog:
"’Take my pups. You will raise them and call them Dog. They will be your guardians. They will alert you to danger, keep you warm, guard your camp, and even lay down their life to protect your life and the lives of your children. They will be companions to you and all your generations, never leaving your side, as long as Mankind shall survive. In return, you will share your food and the warmth of your fire. You will treat my children with love and kindness, and tend them if they become ill, just as if they were born from your own belly.’
"First Man and First Woman agreed. ... Before she disappeared into the darkness, she turned and spoke once more to First Man, ‘My children will honor the pact for all generations. But if Man breaks this pact, if you or your children's children deny even one Dog food, warmth, a kind word or a merciful end, your generations will be plagued with war, hunger, and disease, and so shall this remain until the pact is honored again by all Mankind.’ With this, First Dog entered the night and returned in spirit to the Creator." 
And it probably should be remembered that Mars and I were first introduced to the Virgin of Guadalupe by an episode of the television series “Wishbone” in which the eponymous leading actor – a Jack Russell Terrier – played the part of Juan Diego, the indigenous Native American from Mexico who saw the apparition of Christ’s mother in 1531.  Now we seek out and collect all things V.O.G..

The stage was set.  So when we both spotted the greeting card with the message “In Guad We Trust” and the William Wegman-like photo of a Weimaraner Virgin of Guadalupe at “The Flea” in the Santa Fe Railyard – purchasing it was a no-brainer.
Sitting stoically, this Weimaraner (“Paloma”)– who the photographer/sales person eagerly told us, “loves to get dressed up” – is wearing a long purple scarf arranged cowl-like over its head and shoulders.  Photoshopped around this central figure are the rays of light emanating from its presence.
 But it is the face that gets me – particularly the eyes.  As a review of Wegman’s art in New York magazine describes them “A Weimaraner’s eyes are a disturbing, otherworldly amber: They appear transparent, but cannot be interpreted. They have a way of reflecting our gaze, turning us back upon ourselves until we become the subject. The dog is the viewer; we’re the show.”
Exactly what a religious icon should do.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

What was that about hats??

The labyrinth at Museum Hill in Santa Fe was covered by several inches of long-accumulated snow when Mars and I visited it on the projected last day of the world. 
We had hoped to walk this network of bricks to commemorate the winter solstice as we had the past two Decembers – once on our own, and initially as participants in an event conducted and carefully monitored by the local “Labyrinth Resource Group”.  The absence of any signs of life in the form of either shovel marks, or warm bodies could have been either a source of concern or solace – who knew if the L.R.G. had insider Mayan information?
Mars and I chose to believe that the invisibility and inaccessibility of the maze was a propitious omen.  So we walked slowly on to the Museum of International Folk Art and its newly opened exhibit  “New World Cuisine: The Histories of Chocolate and Mate y Más” – the earthy taste of sweetened cacao being more of a source of comfort than mystical meanderings anyway.  Regrettably no samples were included in this display.
 A large part of the draw of Santa Fe (in addition to our daughter-in-law, son and grand-dog – although we discovered it first) is the curious salmagundi of the sacred and the profane that permeates the local art and culture – mostly taking the form of the spiritual being secularized.  This is made even more complicated to me by my continuing inability, even after almost seven decades of earth begun with twenty years of Catholicism, to understand exactly what spirituality actually is – as witnessed by the fact that I turn not to prayer to determine its meaning but rather to Wikipedia:
“Spirituality is the concept of an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the ‘deepest values and meanings by which people live.’  Spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life. Spiritual experiences can include being connected to a larger reality, yielding a more comprehensive self; joining with other individuals or the human community; with nature or the cosmos; or with the divine realm. Spirituality is often experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life. It can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world.”
And to Monty Python:
...Which brings us once again to the urgent realisation of just how much there is still left to own. Item six on the agenda: the meaning of life. Now, uh, Harry, you've had some thoughts on this.
That's right. Yeah, I've had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and, uh, what we've come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: people are not wearing enough hats. Two: matter is energy. In the universe, there are many energy fields, which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source, which act upon a person's soul. However, this soul does not exist ab initio, as orthodox Christianity teaches. It has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved, owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.
What was that about hats, again?”
 …Or was it about chocolate?
Two of the earthly things that distract me in Santa Fe are the Virgin of Guadalupe and “small shots”.
In spite of my religious upbringing I first learned about the Mexican icon of the mother of Jesus on the PBS children’s series “Wishbone”:
“…a live-action television series that brings books to life for kids and their families. In each episode, the star - a friendly Jack Russell Terrier with an overactive imagination - leaps into a new and exciting adventure with his human owner, Joe Talbot and his friends in their hometown of Oakdale. Almost anything sparks Wishbone's imagination - from Joe's school beach party to the family's end of the summer adventure in Jackson Park, and he's reminded of a favorite classic story in which he is the hero!
“[In the episode] ’Viva Wishbone!’ Joe's family friend Julia tells Joe stories from Mexico that help him understand the power of love for his mother. Meanwhile, Wishbone is Juan Diego in the story of ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’.”
(BTW Juan Diego, the character played by the Jack Russell Terrier, was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II on July 31, 2002.)
Less surprisingly, having lived in the northeastern part of the U.S.A. for all of my life, I never saw a picture of the V.O.G. until Mars and I traveled to New Mexico for our 25th wedding anniversary in 1992.  (I told you we discovered Santa Fe first.)
Images of the Virgen de Guadalupe and other southwestern saints and religious figures are prominently displayed from the back-road churches of Chimayo and other small New Mexican towns to the priciest gift stores on the town squares of Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  We discovered the work of one “Santera” (a female “folk” artist who creates religious images) named Lydia Garcia at a small gallery in Taos on one of our early trips and bought several of her pieces over the years – beginning the small collection that has become the southwestern room in our New England casa.  
 The Santero(a) tradition began in the New Mexico Hispanic community toward the end of the 18th century when New Mexican artisans attempted to imitate – to the best of their untrained abilities – the fine-art statues, paintings and prints of Spain and Mexico City.
“In this sense, a santo is holy art because it was fashioned according to a holy prototype and for a holy purpose.
“The theory of icons…was based on the Neoplatonic doctrine of participation, and so it interpreted the icon as a dependent entity that shared the being, holiness, power, intelligibility, beauty, life, and purpose of its model…a folk-Platonic mentality.”  (Santos and Saints: Thomas J. Steele, S.J.)
Apparently even when it becomes a retail object.
One of our first Lydias  (as labeled in her printing on the back) is “Nustra SENORa de Guadlupe [sic]”.  The image is painted on the inside bottom of a Hormel SPAM can with the aluminum sides peeled back and cut into the rays of sun that sometimes surround the Virgin.  It is impossible for me not to feel warm, and fuzzy, and a little sad when I look at this and other similar works that we have (or have not) purchased.

Several years later we had the good fortune to meet Lydia at her small studio space in Taos and her persona was totally in sync with her art and her words.
So every trip to Santa Fe and northern NM becomes for me in part a quest – a medieval romantic expedition rather than an arduous search – for V.O.G.s and similar icons.
Mars and my way of deciding what we will buy is simple – if it hits us both as “I gotta have it” (and the price is okay), then we get it.
This year’s acquisition is (we are both convinced) an abstract representation of the Virgin.  It probably is as technologically opposite from our SPAM can retablo as two works of art (or faith) can be.  This artist is a former architect from a small town in North Carolina.  But the result feels the same to me. 

The “small shots” that I mentioned above are photos that I begin taking – usually after a few days in the “city different”.  They are close ups of architectural features, public sculptures, and signage that create, I hope, an interesting aesthetic image.  And they are either my attempt to participate in the being, holiness, power, intelligibility, beauty, life, and purpose of this part of the world in which we both feel so comfortable – or my unique ability to be distracted by everyday trivia in any environment.