Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Salzburg, 15.7.03: Wild Astilbe and Monastic Cellars

At my lake bench again. Again, the clear early morning reflection of the mountains in the lake. For the first time, swans swimming in the middle of the lake rather than hovering on shore—two together, one (the drake?) straggling behind. So serene, the way they move, and with such seeming certitude of their majesty. You’d never think, looking at them, they could be capable of such viciousness.

We walked around the lake this morning. The Schloss from the other side is impressive, as our hotel manager told us this morning. But the shoreline is depressingly dirty, littered with paper, cigarette butts, spent matches. One not-too-friendly shirtless man fishing. Gave us that head-lowered, eyes appraising from below look some men cultivate to signal aggression—a very animal look, one rooted in the testosterone-laden days of scrimmaging for raw deer haunches. It’s actually funny, in this day and age.

Men: what to do with them (us)? We encountered one of us out jogging, mid-50s, one of those military-type billed caps down over his eyes. The cap, the jogging, screamed American.

As we approached, another appraising, cool look. Jaws working, but no sound. Steve tells me a somebody M. from D.C. who spoke the first day at the seminar, singularly unimpressive.

These men. They rule the earth, or think they do. From the outside, life seems so easy for them. They form a network spanning the globe, getting their own men to the inside, keeping the rest at bay.

And they have so many accomplices at gatherings like this. Steve tells me a Dr. W., Hong Kong-born but American-educated, spoke yesterday and predicted a future out of H.G. Wells. By the early 21st century, only a tiny proportion of folks (but who?) will do the work to sustain the rest of us (we assume, of course, that we’ll be the sustained and not the sustainers).

Steve and others asked critical questions: if this will be true in the future, isn’t it true even now that we have ample resources to go around? And isn’t your projection based on the assumption that we’ll conquer disease and there’ll be no epidemics? With AIDS, is that not counter-intuitive?

Steve says W. shrugged the questions off. They didn’t even count. He actually said science will conquer AIDS and other diseases. Others—from Serbia, India—persisted in asking, but W. ignored them. In this very American, very macho, enclave formed by the Mellon Foundation in Salzburg, such questions may not be asked. It’s as if ghosts were asking them.

Not only that, but a woman from Virginia and a man from California teamed up and attacked the nay-sayers. The California man, who works with ETS or some testing service, got onto the need of U.S. colleges to screen foreign students: Ausländer aus! The Serbia woman asked how you’d identify the threatening ones.

I should have thought we have more than enough endemic violence in America to worry about. Every year, we ourselves, we Americans, kill more of each other wantonly, with handguns, than 9/11 did, I daresay.

Our focus is all wrong. Religion ought to refocus us, but institutionally, it seems only to mirror the world of macho male pseudo power. I saw on BBC news yesterday that Rev. John has removed himself from consideration as a bishop in England. Rowan Williams was talking, and I didn’t get the gist, whether he was relieved or saying the kerfuffle over John exposes how far from the gospels some of us are.

In such a world, a relief to think about astilbe. It is wild astilbe I’ve been seeing in that boggy meadow, I now realize. I saw some cultivated astilbe in a garden yesterday, and the leaves are the same. The wild is white, whereas the cultivated was mauve and its flowers much larger.

Tielsch, Ancestral Pyramid: “Whatever we are began a long time before us. We can live for a longish time as if there were no past, as if the present and the future were alone important, but the past catches up with us” (81). (A significant passage, one I need to photocopy in its entirety.)

A flock of ducks now swimming to the shore, just past the large tree to the east of me. The lead duck, a sentry, larger, evidently a drake, gingerly webfoots his way up the incline and looks carefully around. Another outrider sentry, also a drake, I believe, guards the west flank and stares at me. Are they more worried about humans, dogs, or cats?

They’re now across the lawn almost at the little porch of the guest residence. They’re picking away at the lawn. Looks as if it may have been mown yesterday, but if so, not while I was on the bench. What do they harvest—insects? Seeds? Are they hoping to find crumbs from folks who’ve had coffee here?

Now the ducks are completely gone. Can’t see them anywhere. They for sure didn’t re-enter the water at the point where they left it. They did seem to take notice when a group across the lake began to honk furiously. That is, one of the sentries stood stock still and lifted his head as high as it could be lifted.

Have they made their way inside somehow? I hear a honk that seems to come from inside the guesthouse, and thought I heard a scream in there a moment ago. Will there be gebratene Ente and knödels for supper?

No, there they go into the water, lead duck honking. Is he calling to the others across the lake, or calling his flock, which looks smaller, all in a straight line following him? Now they’re in flock mode again.

My question about gebratene Ente: what does it mean to be a young Austrian today? In Vienna, younger people told us twice they’re vegetarian. How self-consciously do younger Austrians adopt the cultural patterns of their heritage?

Specifically, what do they think of and how do they relate to the church? People in habits everywhere, many of them young; fresh flowers in front of the wayside shrines; people praying in churches or listening to the office at the Benedictine chapel, actually participating in it at the Franciscan church: does this mean Austrian youth are flocking to church and ardently Catholic?

I haven’t been here long enough to know, but somehow I think not. To me, at a feeling level, it feels as if the church acts as a kind of check on the culture, making it more conservative than, say, German culture. But it doesn’t feel as if the church compels the involvement of large numbers of youth in a more than formal, superficial way.

Sitting in the beautiful little green park across from St. Erhard’s church now. I discovered it a few days ago. It’s gloriously shady in this hot, dry weather, and has a wonderful view of the church across the street with its red, black, and gold clock about to strike 4, and its Corinthian columns. The apartment building next to the church is also pleasant, gray to match the trim on the church, with window boxes of various-hued geraniums.

An old lady in a straw hat sits on the bench to my left staring at the clock tower and talking to herself. Upwind, unfortunately, is a dark-haired pony-tailed man smoking.

As 4 approaches, Talking Lady is leaning back on the bench and clutching it with both hands. Maybe the clanging bells hold some portentous significance for her.

By the apartment building is another, green plastered (pastel) with white trim and a very shiny new copper roof, catching the rays of brilliant sun and as brilliantly throwing them into the street.

We’ve had a long afternoon—Steve’s free afternoon. A walk back behind town along the ridge (Mönchbergstrasse?) leading to the Altstadt, then lunch at an undistinguished and rather dirty restaurant. We both had Tagestellers—I noodles and ham, Steve bratwurst and sauerkraut. Steve drank beer, I Gespritzter. My noodles were fatty, but nicely prepared, with fried onion and fresh chopped marjoram, an herb Austrians use often.

Then a walk to a Buchhandlung we’d seen in the Altstadt, where I bought Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I remember it being recommended in a “High Profile” interview in the Democrat-Gazette by that woman in D.C.—something Norwood?—whose distinguished Southern art collection was on display at the Arkansas Museum of Art. It’s where I first saw and loved that Virginia artist Eldridge Bagley. Her father, I seem to recall, was once a senator.

After that, ices on one of the old streets in the heart of the Altstadt. Steve had Heidelbeer, which was good, and I an awful pistachio. Heidelbeeren, it turns out, are bilberries. But what’s a bilberry? Our hotel lady says like a blueberry, but not quite the same. A huckleberry, then, of some sort?

Speaking of semantic distinctions, I find what I’ve been calling a lake at Leopoldskron is actually a pond, Leopoldskron Weiher. If so, it’s a darned large pond.

After the ices, a tour of the museum of modern art, which turns out to be quite a disappointment after Vienna. The ground floor was closed—new exhibit being installed—and the whole thing seems to be an extension of the Rupertinum.

Still, on the top two floors was a decent enough exhibit of Nolde and other German expressionists. Only trouble, we’d seen much of this at the Altona Museum and Barlach Haus in Hamburg, though there was a Barlach engraving I’d never seen. Didn’t even know he did engravings.

And now back. A very hot day, and the hotel lady says supposed to be hotter tomorrow, with storms by evening. She says the weather has been more extreme—very hot and dry, followed by fiercer storms—in recent years.

Oh, clean forgot. We stepped into St. Peter’s church, a mishmash of styles dominated by Italianate Baroque, and discovered it’s the Stiftkirche for the oldest Benedictine monastery in the German-speaking world, founded in the 7th century.

As we left, we noticed a Keller for the monastery. Turned out to be a wonderful little patio restaurant noted for its wine since the 9th century. We had cappuccino and apple strudel with vanilla ice cream, a very pleasant respite in the heat of the day. Looking up from the patio, you see right overhead the mountain with the women’s monastery and the Festung: church, abbey, and restaurant are all built right against the mountain. Benedictus montes, Bernadus valles, amavit.

Same hayfield, same mountains I watched last night through the window at this hour. And yet not the same. The light I saw then, the angle of sun against earth, the wind ruffling leaves in trees: all are different, subtly but decisively so. You can never recapture a moment….

You can only hope for other moments, ones beautiful, moving, soft, stirring—above all, full of meaning. This is certainly a moment. The mountains are again as though illuminated by soft light from within.

But it’s not the same moment as yesterday. For one thing, the unfamiliarity of what I saw then is more familiar now, even if slightly so, and I am slightly less wonderstruck.

That hay: we smelled it into the night. It was, as Steve predicted, very dry by noon today, though the hayfields were wet with heavy dew as we walked to the Schloss early in the morning. The farmer was mowing another field, and as Steve pointed out, the tires of his hay-cutting machine were glistening with the dew.

Yet the hay that had blown or been strewn onto the path by the machine that spreads it out was entirely dry by noon. It crunched beneath our feet as we walked on it. If rain’s in the forecast, I’d have thought the farmer would be gathering it in now. But not so. Maybe tomorrow before the evening storms….

Gathering in: an image and phrase I like, one with deep religious overtones for me. Bringing in the sheaves…. That book with a title something like Gathering Home, a first novel by an Alabama writer, Vicki Covington?: I gave it to my mother, and she told me she’d read and been moved by it. A point of contact in those awful years when I thought mind could never leap to mind across the chasm that divided us….

Now I smell the hay. Wind must be just right or, as I pointed out to Steve, the increasing humidity of evening brings smells out. New Orleans is never so redolent (and foetid) as on a hot summer’s night—a hot muggy summer’s night.

That evanescent evening-breeze smell of new-mown hay and thoughts of a tiny spark of connection with my mother not too long before she died: the most I can hope for in my life is that there have been sparks of connection that have meant something to others. From my side, the spark with my mother via that book seems so dim, an evanescent flash. But perhaps it meant more to her. And from God’s-eye view, who knows what any such spark might mean?

Is this what ultimately pushes one to write—the need to coax such sparks out of the dailyness of one’s (and others’) existence? I can’t think of a better reason, really.

Whatever bird flies over at night as sun sets (and why do I expect them to have American or British names and identities—meadowlark? purple martin?) makes a shrill, unpleasant cry, very high-pitched and monotonal. It’s not the meadowlark of fable. I can’t recall if purple martins sound this way. I do faintly remember that one evening when C.J. McNaspy had us take him, late in his life, to the Lake Pontchartrain bridge to see the martins nest at night. They arrived by the thousands and (seeming) tens of thousands. He enjoyed it so. I didn’t appreciate it, and feel guilty. I was so wrapped up in the aftermath of the Belmont Abbey experience. C.J. had recommended us to Fr. Placid and knew him personally.

What a poor friend I’ve been to so many people. I ought to have valued those final moments with C.J. more. It may well be the last time I saw him. Was this the trip we made when Bruce B. died? If so, it was our last trip to New Orleans, and I was, of course, also much engaged with taking care of my mother, though she wasn’t with us the evening we went to the causeway, of that I’m sure.

I ought to have been more attentive. Seeing Steve (who’s now at a cookout for the seminar) sleep this afternoon, I realized how little I do to give him bodily comfort, and how much he does for me. I’m a selfish sod—don’t know the American expression that gets it quite so apt as the Brits do.

The mountains now gray-purple in their go-to-sleep clothes. Light is waning. I hope Steve’s walk back will be safe. There are crossings, bicyclists, and he may drink wine or beer. May the angels accompany him as he wends his way back. And may I be a person of larger heart, more depth, more penetrating vision, and less self concern (above all).

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