The Village of Glen Ellyn is a pretty suburb west of Chicago, surrounded by nature preserves. Bill, Jean and I took a walk in nearby McKee Marsh, on a trail that cut through marsh and grassland. Watching the cattails sway in the wind and listening to the red-winged blackbirds in the cottonwood trees was sublime, luscious. Walking to dinner in lovely Glen Ellyn was another small town pleasure, a perfect saunter.
We decided to take the back roads through Wisconsin farm country to Milwaukee from Madison, taking a detour to Racine, where my dad and uncle grew up. Lush, rolling hills with gold and green corn fields, sprinkled with wild amaryllis and Queen Anne’s lace soothed my sun parched soul. What a relief to luxuriate in the vivid greens of well-watered trees and grasses. The great lakes are battling for survival, like most other waterways under siege from pollution. Still, when we got to Racine it looked like we were at the beach. So too in Milwaukee, which also has a lovely, sandy beach along the shores of Lake Michigan.
Milwaukee is an attractive city, a little smaller than Austin. Gary and Diane Porter, my cousins, were perfect hosts for a trip around scenic downtown Milwaukee and Waukesha, their suburb. Knowing I was interested in local architecture, Gary took us to the University area, both U WI Milwaukee and Marquette, where the St. Joan of Arc Chapel stands and where my grandfather went to school. The 15th Century church was disassembled in France, shipped to New Jersey, reconstructed then disassembled again and brought to Marquette University. I wished I had the time to sit and meditate in the church, it had a very intimate, electric atmosphere. St. Joan is a personal favorite. It’s still interesting to me that she was canonized, although I think it’s safe to say the Catholics make their rules up as they go.
Gary (who put the Pulitzer in Porter) is the lead photographer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel so he really knows his city. While we did make it to the Milwaukee Art Museum, it wasn’t open so I contented myself with shots of the Burke Bris Soleil at the Quadracci Pavillon shown below. Visiting Gary and Diane for the first time was such a pleasure. Enjoying their hospitality and swapping stories made me realize how we, as family members, really mirrored one another, even though we grew up in different parts of the country. These days I feel like a tuning fork much of the time, seeking resonance with others and finding it or not. Returning to the land of my ancestors moved me in ways that continue to unfold, as if I never left the St. Joan Chapel – still meditating just below the surface of my thoughts.
There’s no place like home
Texas cypress are so enchanting, I half expect to see a unicorn step out from behind one someday. Even in winter, bald cypress exude an ancient, mysterious grace. Click on thumbnails to enlarge the photos and enjoy the soundtrack on videos below.
Krause Spings has a small but impressive stand of cypress. Though the dragon flies are no larger than your fingers, that doesn’t diminish the primeval feel of the landscape.
Even winter cypress preside majestically over spring fed creeks, shown here off FM 1826 past the Salt Lick. Spanish moss graces the trees on the Medina River Standing in clear, spring fed creeks or by river’s edge, water is the spiritual advisor to Cypress. For your relaxation, a clip of water flowing through a cypress forest girdling a small elbow of the Medina River.
Traveling back to my birthplace, Junction City, Kansas was a pilgrimage I considered off and on over the years. There was Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz on the one hand and a bit of Lena Lovich on the other. After all, I was conceived in Vienna, Austria, shipped overseas in utero, born 2 months later in Kansas then back to Europe at 6 tender months, not to return until the end of this, my golden year. Bill, a fan of Midwestern Regionalist Art, and I also scheduled a hike at the Konza Prairie Biological Field Station for a closer look at the Flint Hills.
The first leg of our 2.5 hour Kansas trek was lovely; rolling hills and horse farms, a little of the magic of Grant Woods’ Young Corn. When we stopped at Grandma Hoerner’s Organic Food Store, I was gratified to find a portrait of Auntie Em hanging in the folksy warehouse shop. A few jars of special sauces later we resumed our journey West.
Then came Topeka. To be fair, there were controlled burns devouring the hills in every direction. Smoke twisted off the horizon, casting a pall over much of the land. Topeka boasted train tracks, stock yards and a kind of dark malaise. Like the oil fields we passed through in Wyoming, this was not a happy place. I didn’t shake the heaviness until we were 60 miles past. The question of Junction City loomed large in my mind, but proved to be the epitome of anywhere USA. I was really disappointed, not noticing anything quaint or comely about the town. Finally, I pulled over to get a shot of a pleasant building, which was fortuitous because it led us to Bessie’s Buy Gone Antiques. Don, the gregarious owner of the store radiated energy and a warmth that made me feel welcome in my “home” town. Within the span of 20 minutes he told us we were baby Gods, (able to create and destroy but not yet wise enough to create heaven on earth) proclaiming how great life is while giving us a deal on a photo of black leather Elvis and a strand of pearls, my nod to Eisenhower America. Bill calls him Don Miguel, from the 4 Agreements; glad to have found a Bodhisattva along the way. Don’s motto:
The Konza Tall Grass Prairie preserve was so windy I thought I could fly. The headwind was a bit battering, but there were glimpses of the rolling, furry hide of mother earth that I found so appealing in Nebraska. As we walked through the woods, there was a palpable feeling of blood in the land. My impression was of the civil war era but the American Indians battled at least as long and hard here. In the two pictures of the woods in which this battle weary feeling was strongest an odd glow appears. I can’t explain it but it does give me pause. When I started imagining writing about this part of the trip, my overall feeling was much bleaker, it was so darkened by this wounded land. As you can see in the images below, the prairie is very light, a kingdom of grass and sky, whipped by tireless gusts of wind.
It’s been how many years since our last snowfall? Eight? Ten? I know my cousins in Wisconsin will make fun of me but this is FUN for Austin!
Traveling out to the Caverns of Sonora in Sonora, Texas was made easier by 80 mph speed limits. I was prepared to enter into another world, of twisting tunnels and vaulted rooms gleaming with crystals. We were not disappointed, the caverns were mysterious, well-lit and eerily beautiful, an alien world that was only recently discovered (in 1954). Since there was only a small ingress and no egress, it remained undisturbed, growing over eons, carved by water and by wind. Privately owned, the Mayfield family runs tours for 10 – 12 people at a time. Our guide was a caver whose day job was at TXDOT, the group all people “of a certain age” who were new to the caverns.
The tour began at the surface in the part of the cave that was not considered alive, no longer producing formations. It took about an hour and 45 minutes and descended 150 feet into the earth. They warned us it was humid, so no one was overdressed and almost everyone packed a camera, only occasionally impeding the enchantment of the living cave creature. Several moments stood out for me: one was when we passed a small, extraordinarily clear pool of water, tinted slightly green. There were stalactites dripping over the pool, causing a circle to ripple across the surface, some intersecting but all moving with a smooth elegance that made the water seem like glycerine. It was so silky and luxurious, the gentlest touch of time moving over the water’s surface. I tried to capture the feeling in my body but was shooed along, always the laggard. The group stopped for a moment to sit on benches and experience the darkness and the deep silence in one of the caverns. It was truly womb like, we were immediately enclosed by the soft, dark quiet. Would that we had a few moments in this pre-existent state, all sense of direction collapsed into a point. Bill suggested we return and take a private tour to enjoy this world at a saunter. I agree. I am still trying to get a real sense of geological time. The formations grow roughly one inch per thousand years and are still evolving. The cave is an ancient being by whom we are insects. This feeling reminds me of the Badlands when I realized how many millions of years the dinosaurs roamed the earth. I include a modern dinosaur in tribute.
The website: The Caverns of Sonora.
Finding an oasis in the city like McKinney Falls, fed by Onion Creek, keeps ennui at bay. Walking in the afternoon sun on the last day of our winter break, Bill and I had to really use a sauntering eye. When the scenery is spectacular, it’s easy to overlook small delights. Maximizing little pleasures has long been a secret to keeping my heart fire lit, so with time and fresh air the flame steadies. I’ve been thinking about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and feeling chained by my work a day world. Time for meditation, reflection pictured below with shadow play to come. What is it about dreams, reflections, shadow and light that teases my imagination?
It’s always nice to be with family for a traditional Christmas dinner. Our hosts, my sister Lucy and brother in-law Bill are beyond gracious. Growing up in a military family with a European mother and living oversees made me a world citizen before I knew I was American. In the last few years I’ve understood how much honor and courage means to me. It takes courage to face the ups and downs, the battle of life. Generally I prefer a more aesthetic approach, but one rises to meet challenges with grit, a quality I learned at home. Missing Aurora, who traveled north to Buffalo for a white (and frigid) Christmas, we were warm but not as bright.
The tables turned to more down home fare at the Salt Lick, as I meandered out to meet my sister Carol, Mike (my other brother in-law) and Dick, in from California and up for ribs. Holy smoke, I believe it has expanded threefold (like my waistline) but the food is still authentic and the people friendly. Except in the parking lot, where the feeding frenzy prompted snapping carnivores to lose some holiday cheer. We got our cheer back at the Duchman Family Winery (formerly Mandola’s) where we sipped some reds and whites, and split North and South. It’s probably clear to most who venture into this blog that I’m “big on Austin” but honestly, where else can you drive out in the country for great barbecue, enjoy the rolling hills and fields, cypress creeks, vineyards, an ass or two and Barsana Dham, a Hindu temple? The evidence speaks for itself. I hope you stay merry through the New Year and into 2011!
One way I stay in touch with Austin is to meet my friend Dottie at Ladybird Lake on Saturday for a stroll. The skyline is changing and there are new xeriscapes popping up here and there but the trees, the people are consistent, like the guy we say hello to who shares our time and space every Saturday but whose name we may never know. Some of the dogs are regulars too, a few are pictured below. People love to gush about their dogs. It’s a growing phenomenon, one that blurs the lines between species. PBS did a series on the plasticity of dog genes. They are so adaptive they can change physical form within a few generations. What we’re doing to the psyche of our dogs is worth considering. It used to be our kids, but now dogs are the new frontier in behavior mod. Take the undercover pug, better know to his fans as Ms. Douglas Bean. While I applaud the style with which Bean flaunts his neutered transexuality, did the pug get to pick the outfits?
And what are our dogs doing to us? Are they underscoring our pack mentality or could we learn a lot about unconditional love from our wards? I think guardian is a better term than owner, particularly given the expense to maintain our little buddies. Now is certainly an opportune time to wait out the great recession by generating a little side income in doggie paraphernalia. I’m hoping Addy will write that advice column I asked her editor about. The imagination is unchained. . . time to rethink the master/pet relationship at the very least.