Friday, March 30, 2007

magical luminescence

In Münich, we see lots of Wassily Kandinsky's and Gabrielle Münter's art at the Lenbachhaus and we discover that the summer home Kandinsky and Münter shared from 1909 through 1914 is in a prealp town called Murnau and that we are going right through that area the very next day. The house was recently restored in 1999 back to the way it was when they were living there and is now open to the public. So we go to their Alpine house in Murnau that overlooks the train tracks and gazes directly out to an elaborate church on a hill, and, sensitive person that I am, walking up the rise to the house, I feel like I am returning to my own home.

The Alps are beautiful and striking. There is something strange about the area that I can’t figure out until I realize that it is the light. It does this thing where it manifests a white pearlescent overlay that makes everything shine in a peculiar kind of way. According to Gabrielle Münter, when she and Kandinsky went to Murnau, they saw the house and Kandinsky became completely obsessed with it and kept insisting that she buy it until she gave in and they moved there. They painted hundreds of paintings and entertained other artist friends there for five years during the summers. They worked on the house and gardened and wore traditional Bavarian clothing and enjoyed and collected traditional Bavarian crafts and glass painting and began painting on glass themselves and giving in to the effects of the light and the place itself until gradually all figurative form became secondary and abstraction was born.

This was the birthplace of the Blue Rider group. Kandinsky, Münter, Marc and others all collaborated to come up with this new idea of the spiritual in art as a pure concept. Kandinsky loved the idea of the rider and Marc was into horses and the Blue Rider came from there one night around the table. There was no actual requirement of style and for the first time a movement embraced other arts forms as well, including dance, music, visual art by children, amateurs, and the mentally ill. It was quite a breakthrough and a radical idea for the time, although these days it is a given that art encompasses all of those things and remains rooted in personal experience. When you look at the art they made there, and the art they made previously, and when you also travel there you can truly see the difference in the colors and the energy of the work.

Franz Marc was killed in the war at Verdun at age 37, and Münter and Kandinsky parted ways in 1914, because Kandinsky, a Russian, had to leave since he was now an enemy of the state during the war, and the group’s heyday ended. Kandinsky went on to become more and more abstract with his work, continuing to develop in Moscow, while Münter was somewhat derailed by his leaving her when he offered little explanation of why he never returned, even after the war, and she didn’t really paint again until the 1930’s.

When Kandinsky returned to Russia, he expected the war to end soon and left his work in Murnau with Münter, figuring he would retrieve it when he came back. He never returned, married someone else, and when he asked for his work back later, she refused and a custody battle ensued. She ended up keeping much of it and safeguarded it in the Murnau house all through the Nazi regime when it was all declared degenerate.

On her 80th birthday in 1956, she donated all of it to the Lenbachhaus in Münich, after years of the museum director trying to convince her that they were the right place for her donation. The small, regional Lenbachhaus museum became internationally acclaimed overnight.

The personal details of these artists' lives together and the sketchy demise of their relationship are as important to me as the artwork. Understanding their physical context explains in a fuller way where the art comes from and why there was such a dramatic shift for the entire group when they all worked together in Murnau. This magic soup of new love, light and dramatic relationship with each other in the milieu of the Alps created an opening and immersion into to the spirit of the place, allowing that spirit to emerge into their media. It feels like it is still there, the spirit of sparkling creativity particular to the place, waiting to be uncovered again and again by anyone who gives in to its magical luminescence.

Images in order are:
Studies and Improvisations Wassily Kandinsky
The Bavarian Alps
The town of Murnau
Dining room at Münterhaus where the Blue Rider was conceived
Interior of the Russians’ House Gabrielle Münter
all images by Scott Hess

civilized streets

More on the streets of Bobenheim-Roxheim, germany.

In this image, you can see the cars parked in the street. Looks like traffic, but no, those are parked cars. Bikes have the road and there is a sign warning about pedestrains since there is a school right there. No one seems to be annoyed by this. The protocol is to wait if someone is in the oncoming lane and then go. Many cars have an extra little "left side back parking light on" option that you can turn on if you are parking like this on a dark road.

Here is the midsize rental car we were issued as if it were a geo metro. (Not that I don't love the geo metro) Apparently the mercedes, being their car, is very popular. We don't have this model mercedes in the united states for some reason. It is in the B class. They have an A class too that is the compact version of this that we saw all over the place and a sports car version that was parked next door. Our car had pretty decent gas milage.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

german details

We've spent the last week or so in Germany visiting with my sister and checking out all kinds of wonderful things. Scott was taking a photo of a sculpture on the corner of a building in Münich and a woman came up to us and started speaking in German smiling with excitement--since we know no German at all, we were at a loss to answer and kept smiling with perplexed looks. Finally our perplexed looks caused her to ask if we spoke German and we shook our heads. At this point my sister came up and was able to translate. The woman said that she had lived in Münich (München) for 31 years and had never noticed those statues until she saw Scott taking a photo of them! She thought that was hilarious and was happy to finally see them!

In that spirit, rather than expound on the many attractions of münich, the Alps and the beautiful Bavarian towns we visited, I'll focus in on the details I noticed as an outsider. One thing that was striking was the transportation systems. Trains to everywhere. Care taken with the streets. Highways are well-maintained, streets in towns are beautifully cobbled, cars are in good working order and up to date (mostly) Bike lanes a normal thing to build in when a street is created. Some may consider it a restriction to place regulations on cars and to tax the people so the government can fix the roads, but I think it is good common sense. The village streets are cobbled in beautifully crafted designs, using different size and color stones. In Heidelburg, I noticed crosswalk stripes were done in white stones. No need for paint! In other places where there were gaps, little stones filled in.

Everywhere and I mean everywhere, there are bike paths. On the side of the freeway, next to winding mountain roads in the Alps, on main streets in towns. And these are paths with actual bicyclists in mind. They are next to the road but separated by a wide strip of field so the likelihood of being creamed by a car is reduced to almost nothing. In small villages, people just ride on the streets and cars are aware of them. Oddly enough, cars actually park in the streets too, like in the actual lane. Traffic just goes around them. It is the way they have adapted the narrow roads. There are very few stop signs, and lots of yield signs and right of way signs, so you never need to stop for no reason. Maintainance workers sweep the streets with old fashioned brooms, I guess they just work the best.

Along the highway there are rest stops. Some stops are basic, you can just pull off to stretch your legs, others also have recycling bins so you can recycle your trash, others have restrooms that you pay 50 cents for and then you can redeem your restroom ticket at the adjoining store for 50 cents off if you choose to buy something. No denying a restroom because you aren't buying something, it's the other way around! Also at the rest stop is a nice park with benches and tables and place to walk yourself or the dog. The rest stops are designed with the idea of what people might want when they pull off the highway for a rest.

I have often wished for better bike paths here in California, and for better aesthetics and functionality to public amenities and have observed how they are treated as some kind of "extra". In Germany, and everywhere In Europe that I have been, you can see that making life pleasant for people and doing what is good for the environment is more of a priority of life. Many things indicate that people and the earth are foremost in decision making. For example: the myriad bike paths that everyone uses for transportation; the double flush toilets that are in many public restrooms, (large and small flush...); the craftsmanship and sense of fun in everyday items, like the dark royal blue refrigerator in my sister's kitchen that has cats with glow in the dark eyes painted on it (she actually bought it this way!); electrical outlets high on the wall so you can attach a wall mounted light without unsightly cords trailing to an outlet by the ground; the beautifully designed streets pictured here, solar panels covering homes and barns all over that generate energy that the owners can sell back to the electric company for a premium rate; windmills all over the place; most of the windows have exterior shades that roll down over the windows and completely block out light—important in a northern city where summer nights are short; in historic districts, they keep a sense of history with the buildings but are not so regimented that life can't take place--in heidelburg, we saw laundry and little teapots on windowsills. And birds--lots of people seem really into birds and feed them and hawk rests are placed on the side of the road by fields. I saw some hawks using them.

It makes me feel like the ideas I have for our town to make it more pleasant and functional for people are not crazy and impossible to implement but are actually valid because they are already being done somewhere else with full support and good results. I hope we can learn to lean in the direction of decision-making for people and the earth foremost in our minds because that is the wisest way to make decisions. What is practical and easy for people? What is good for animals and the earth? What will be most fun? What will give us a fuller life?

Friday, March 16, 2007

the sun

My favorite magazine is the Sun magazine. It has no advertisements, just stirring black and white photos and wonderful writing. Some people think it is depressing because a lot of the writing is about difficult truths, but I think what people are responding to when they think that is the quietness of the magazine. Since there is no advertising blasting at you, and no color, it has more stillness, and sometimes stillness is unnerving in our frantic world.

The Readers Write section is always where I go (and probably where everyone goes) first. A few topics for upcoming issues are listed and people can write in with their stories around those topics. This month’s topic is Good Friends. Upcoming deadlines are: Rivals—April 1; Telling the Truth—May 1; Airports—June 1; Getting Ready—July 1; Fame and Fortune—August 1; and Parties—September 1. The rest of the magazine is devoted to articles, both fiction and nonfiction, poetry and an interview. This month there is an article written by a guy who taught US history in Syria. His sarcastic style communicated the fear and surprise he had of Damascus, and the love he came to have for the place and its people, in spite of the things that made him nervous. The Sun is about true moments, and often those come with wackiness, embarrassment, fear or grief. Above is a photo Scott took that was on the cover of the Sun one month.

You can even read the magazine online via pdfs with intact formatting, but it is really nicer to read it on paper. (Like, reading online can be a great catalyst to start in--I'm now enjoying Anna Karenina in actual book format thanks to dailylit unwittingly introducing me to the beauty of the Russian authors--see post below on Dostoevsky)

The miracle is that this magazine exists at all. Started in 1974 by an idealistic young writer, the Sun remains idealistic, and even though it is constantly assaulted on all sides to carry advertising, the editor/founder refuses. When the Sun arrives in the mailbox, I know that very soon, possibly even in minutes, I will be in a still, quiet, friendly place, hearing stories from people like me who are noticing the strange details of life.

Monday, March 12, 2007

urban island

The other day I went for a walk in another of our little town's hidden refuges, mcnear island. It's actually more of a penninsula, and is the site of a new little park (and a forty foot section of the bay ridge trail) The reason it's somewhat of a mystery spot is because if you are on the river's west bank down around h street, and look across, you might assume you are looking at the other side of the river, but actually you are looking at mcnear island. If you are on the east bank of the river, you might look across and think you are looking at the west side and in this case also, you are not. You can find the neck of the penninsula just southeast of the d street drawbridge. The other day, the grasses were vibrantly shining with premature summer sun as I walked into its reverie.

Heading out onto the path, the town recedes behind me and expands out in a far-away circle as a strange quiet, sparkling world opens up. Old damp gray grass bows under new green grass growing through it. Passing the old livery building with its vintage blue ghirardelli chocolate advertisement still vibrant on the side, I remember when the developers moved the old edifice here from its former home on d street in the middle of the night—since they were building a huge new parking garage where the livery had been standing for decades. Eve, Susan and Lisa arrived in white nightgowns and nightcaps for the 3am event. It's like a building put out to pasture, I think, and pass by its old gray boards to the open rising meadow. Water flows by on both sides.

A wild place downtown, in a sense that you would ever expect. The community heart vibrates when you stand quietly on this piece of land at the top of the rise. Nothing has been "done" with it yet, so it is still beautiful.

I heard it might become an urban farm, created by permaculturists, who understand wildness and landscape. This would expand and transform its magic and give rise to a different kind of interaction: agriculture. But permaculture is not traditional agriculture; it's more along the path of indigenous people, who managed the forests and formed a partnership with the elements rather than imposing a dominating force. It could be one act of wisdom, acting from a center.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

the erstwhile medicine show

Last Saturday morning, we traveled to old eastern europe (while in the privacy of our own town). Down at the local cafe, The Erstwhile Medicine Show, nudged us all back in time into the narrow streets of petersburg, budapest and prague. The band of 17 and 18 year olds played (well) an array of old time instruments including fiddle, standup bass, guitar, accordian and washboard. Their claim: "From new orleans funeral marches to alabama hoe-downs and klezmer gypsy jigs, the Erstwhiles will cure all your ails." Simple and effective.

Our friend Eve, who was a dancer and now builds stone walls, summed it up when she said "It's so nice to see good, decent teenagers these days!". Of course, she meant, teenagers who focus on the intrigue of life itself.

And these teenage musicians dragged us all with them into the intrigue. Sound is mysterious, transporting the listener in the same way that scent or flavor does. Less obvious that the visual, music blindsides you and takes you where it wants you. And if you aren't a musician yourself, then the next best thing is music in real life—on the street or in cafés—melodic notes that pull you into the moment, whether that moment is from some other time, right now, or both.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

a la sainte terre

Thoreau writes about the art of walking or "sauntering" and says that the word is "beautifully derived from 'idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte-Terre', to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed 'There goes a Sainte-Terrer' a Saunterer, a Holy Lander." He goes on to say that "They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean...he who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea."

Our town's meandering river, formerly a marsh and estuary, has been legally declared a river by an act of congress. Like congress can change what is—and what is, in this case, is the largest intact salt water marsh in the continental united states, flowing into the Bay from here. The dredgers come out every few years to take out the mud from the petaluma river and make a channel that boats can come through. The coursing water doesn't know it's a river now though and still likes to flow over its floodplain sometimes. It has come very close to overflowing the banks downtown and regularly gushes onto roads, into neighborhoods and auto plazas, parking lots and retail stores, as if they were never built.

There is a walking (or sauntering) and biking trail following the petaluma river and its feeder creeks along all the way across town. Not everyone knows about it, and some people write on the flood control walls. These walls have been engineered at great expense to protect the adjacent neighborhoods from this relentless water—neighborhoods built before people realized that a flood plain sometimes floods, even if you call it a river instead. To get to the lynch creek river trail you have to find the beginning, which is behind the clover plant off lakeville. Eventually the trail will lead all the way into downtown, but until then, behind the clover plant you go.

It is surprising how fast you cross town on foot and even faster on a bike. From lakeville to mcdowell in 20 leisurely minutes on foot. The thing I like about this trail is that there are no cars in sight until you go under the freeway, which is a treat in and of itself. The natural world abounds all around you: lynch creek rushing by, rain pouring down, tall fennel plants growing around you, birds conversing madly, a stretching meadow with oaks in the distance. And at the same time you are juxtaposed against the fast freeway right above, cars barreling by at 80 miles per hour as you stand quietly, invisibly under their wheels. And there you are, a la sainte terre.

Saturday, March 3, 2007



I hear it:

like I consume everything in my path,
like a fire or a hurricane


and did this consuming begin before
or after
the burning of citizens
and their resurrection as