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Jesus in Novels

October 1, 2018

Last month I realized my novel needed a chapter from the point of view of Jesus. My initial reaction was terror: I can’t do that! 

After a suitable period of angst and paralysis, I turned to a reassuring comfort activity, something that I know how to do and that gives at least the illusion of productivity – research. I figured, See how other writers have handled this. And did a web search for novels about Jesus.

I found one that I’d expected — the classic The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, which was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese. But I also found three unexpected works by unlikely authors – D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, and Phillip Pullman.

Lawrence? Mailer? Pullman? Writing from the point of view of Jesus?

I had to read these! Here’s my thumbnail summary:

D.H. Lawrence: The Man Who Died (1929)

This short novella, just 43 pages, opens with a lengthy description of a young rooster, resplendant and virile, who is tied up by his peasant owner. His body is restrained by the cord. But inside he remains unbroken. Finally the rooster breaks his cord – at the same moment that an unnamed man wakes up from death inside a stone crypt.

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The unnamed man is of course Jesus, who remains nameless throughout the book. The rooster  — another “of course,” if you are familiar with Lawrence — also symbolizes Jesus. (He initially titled the novella The Escaped Cock.)

Lawrence’s Jesus doesn’t want to revive. His description of Jesus’s reluctance to return is wonderful.

“A deep, deep nausea stirred in him at the premonition of movement…. He had wanted to stay outside, in the place where even memory is stone dead. But now, something had returned to him, like a returned letter, and in that return he lay overcome with a sense of nausea.”

The drive to live overcomes Jesus’s reluctance. Here comes that rooster again:

“As he came out, the young cock crowed. It was a diminished, pinched cry, but there was that in the voice of the bird stronger than chagrin. It was the necessity to live, and even to cry out the triumph of life…. the everlasting resoluteness of life.”

Jesus encounters Mary Magdalene and his mother at the tomb. He realizes they want him to continue in the role of savior and prophet. But he wants something different now – he wants to live a normal human life.

“For me that life is over,” he tells Magdalene. “I have outlived my mission and know no more of it. The teacher and the saviour are dead in me; now I can go about my business, into my own single life…. Now I can live without striving to sway others any more. For my reach ends in my fingertips, and my stride is no longer than the ends of my toes.”

Magdalene is of course crushed by what he says: “The Messiah had not risen. The enthusiasm and the burning purity were done, and the rapt youth.” So she reworks the encounter in her mind into something more: “She conjured up rapture and wonder… He was risen, but not as man; as pure God, who should not be touched by flesh, and who should be rapt away into Heaven.”

Jesus, meanwhile, flees all who knew him and wanders alone. He seeks physical communion – not mere sex, but the kind of spiritualized sex that is at the center of Lawrence’s other writings.

“Now he knew that he had risen for the woman, or women, who knew the greater life of the body, not greedy to give, not greedy to take, and with whom he could mingle his body… Perhaps one evening I shall meet a woman who can lure my risen body, yet leave me my aloneness.”

Ultimately he meets a woman who is an acolyte of the Egyptian goddess Isis. (Yes, this gets more and more sacrilegious. Just wait.)

The woman worships an “Isis in Search” figure who is seeking “fragments of the dead Osiris” that she can gather and revive and that will “fecundate her womb.”

The two connect with Lawrence’s characteristic sexual transcendance. This is the stuff that left me perplexed when I read him in college: the sex I was having was never like this.

“He was absorbed and enmeshed in new sensations. The woman of Isis was lovely to him, not so much in form as in the wonderful womanly glow of her. Suns beyond suns had dipped her in mysterious fire, the mysterious fire of a potent woman… She would never know or understand what he was. Especially she would never know the death that was gone before in him. But what did it matter? She was different. She was woman: her life and her death were different from him. Only she was good to him.”

Now are you ready for more sacrilege?

“And his death and his passion of sacrifice were all as nothing to him now, he knew only the crouching fullness of the woman, there the soft white rock of life. ‘On this rock I build my life.’ The deep-folded penetrable rock of the living woman!… The woman, hiding her face. Himself bending over, powerful and new like dawn.

“He crouched to her, and he felt the blaze of his manhood and his power rise up in his loins, magnificent.

“ ‘I am risen!’ ”

Oy.

The novella ends shortly after this. The woman’s family is conspiring to kill Jesus. She has become pregnant. He flees to wander the world but promises to return. “I have sowed the seed of my life and my resurrection, and put my touch forever upon the choice woman of this day, and I carry her perfume in my flesh like the essence of roses.”

Setting aside the groan-inducing bits about “the blaze of his manhood” and his “rising,” what is remarkable is how Lawrence kidnaps the Gospels’ resurrection story to preach his own doctrine of the holiness of physical love. With language and cadence similar to his other novels, he promotes a view of men and women as fundamentally different from each other and fundamentally alone, yet able at times to bridge that aloneness with sexual connection that neither demands nor possesses.

Here is how he described the novella, in a letter to a friend:

I wrote a story of the Resurrection, where Jesus gets up and feels very sick about everything, and can’t stand the old crowd any more – so cuts out – and as he heals up, he begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven – and thanks his stars he needn’t have a ‘mission’ any more.

Norman Mailer: The Gospel According to the Son (1997)

Of course Norman Mailer, who thought he could do anything better than anyone, would have to try his hand at writing Jesus.

You’d think that with Mailer’s interest in sex and power, his personal combativeness, and his liberal-to-left political views (he co-founded the Village Voice), this would be a shocking or at least iconoclastic book.

Mailer

In fact, I found it pedestrian. Basically a very modest gloss on Jesus’s life that could have been written by a somewhat-literary theology student trying to mimic the style of the Gospels.

Jesus narrates the book, which he says is an effort to set straight the misstatements about his life in the Bible. “While I would not say that Mark’s gospel is false, it has much exaggeration,” he says on the first page.

But the ways he diverges from the Gospels are practically invisible when compared with D.H. Lawrence’s wholesale reinterpretation.

For instance, instead of a literal multiplication of loaves and fishes, Mailer portrays it as a psychological multiplication. Mailer’s Jesus takes two fishes and five loaves and cuts them up into 500 teeny-tiny pieces.

“I would lay one flake of fish and one bit of bread upon each tongue. Yet when each person had tasted these fragments, so do I believe that each morsel became enlarged within his thoughts… and so I knew that few among these hundred would say that they had not been given sufficient fish and bread. And this was a triumph of the Spirit rather than an enlargement of matter.”

Not very different, I suspect, from how many modern liberal theologians might understand that story.

Mailer provides little psychological insight and practically no detailed, sensory descriptions of landscape, people etc. In that sense it’s not much different from the Gospels themselves.

There’s some marginally interesting stuff about how Jesus views his power to do miracles, and the motivations of Judas. But none of this was developed in a consistent or compelling way.

In short, it was a slog to get through this book. I didn’t see its reason to exist. If it had been anyone else but the already-famous Mailer writing it, I doubt it would have seen the light of day.

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010)

Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass fantasy trilogy, is an outspoken atheist and critic of organized religion. So it surprised me that he had written a novel about the life of Jesus.

(Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised: I already owned an edition of Paradise Lost with his introduction and commentary.  “Christianity formed my mind,” Pullman writes in the afterword to The Good Man Jesus.)

PullmanI’ll say up front that this was by far my favorite of the three novels. Pullman builds it on a truly out-of-the-box premise – that Jesus had a twin brother, who recorded his life story and edited it in a way that created Christianity as a religion.

Pullman raises thought-provoking questions not just about Jesus’s life and the Church, but about what writers do and the distinction between factual accuracy and  “truth.” (A theme that is too relevant in today’s political universe.)

Quick synopsis: Mary bears twins, named Jesus and Christ. Jesus becomes a wandering preacher. Christ watches – supportive, but with different ideas of how to proceed.

Jesus adopts a low-key approach of delivering a message that “God loves us like a father, and his Kingdom is close at hand.” Christ tells his brother that he can  accomplish more good through miracles.

“Fine words convince the mind, but miracles speak directly to the heart and then to the soul,” Christ tells his brother. “If a simple person sees stones changed into bread, or sees sick people healed, this makes an impression on him that could change his life. He’ll believe every word you say from then on.”

Christ also argues that his preacher brother should build an organization to help make the Kingdom of God a reality – effectively, create the Church.  But Jesus rejects miracles as “conjuring tricks” and also rejects the idea of a powerful, wealthy Church.

“What you describe sounds like the work of Satan,” Jesus tells his brother. “God will bring about his Kingdom in his own way, and when he chooses. Do you think your mighty organization would even recognize the Kingdom if it arrived?”

Encouraged by a stranger who may be angel or devil, Christ goes on to record Jesus’s teachings and actions – while editing them to be more dramatic and inspirational.

“Christ wrote down every word, but he resolved to improve the story later,” Pullman writes.

Ultimately the stranger encourages Christ to betray Jesus to his death as a way to foster the spread of God’s word.

“Jesus could not be with people for ever, but the Holy Spirit can,” the angel/devil tells Christ. “What the living Jesus could not do, the dead and risen Jesus will bring about… Men and women need a sign that is outward and visible and then they will believe.”

After his death, Jesus’s life becomes more and more fictionalized, both by his disciples and by his brother. Christ believes he is spreading God’s Word but he also feels the seductive allure of telling a good story.

“I want to knot the details together to make patterns and show correspondences,” Christ says after Jesus’s death. “And if they weren’t there in life, I want to put them there in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story. The stranger would have called it letting in truth. Jesus would have called it lying.”

I love this!

The Good Man Jesus may be the most provocative literary challenge to institutional Christianity since the story of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.

Novelizing the Bible

All three of these works function more as re-interpreted myths than as real novels. Kazantzakis is a better choice if you’re looking for a psychologically nuanced, fully drawn, naturalistic depiction of Jesus and his world.

Reading them, though, I thought about the powerful draw of novelizing the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are filled with dramatic events and characters who take world-changing actions. But they say nothing about the characters’ inner thoughts, how they grow as individuals, or what happens in-between the dramatic moments. The novelist gets to fill all this in – whether Abel suspects Cain might kill him, how Isaac feels about Abraham after his near-sacrifice, the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. What fun!

This is what has driven some recent novels based on the Tanach, such as The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1997, about the rape of Dina) and The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2016, about King David).

As Philip Pullman said through his character Christ: I want to put those details in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story.

Meanwhile, what about my story?

I ordered these three novels, but even before they arrived in the mail, I went ahead and wrote my chapter with the Jesus point of view. It was reassuring simply to know that other people had done this and hadn’t been struck down by lightning.

“Just go ahead and write some stuff; don’t worry whether it’s any good; you can toss it in the trash if you hate it,” I told myself, which is always good advice when feeling intimidated or stuck.

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Vacationing alone in the Lake District

August 11, 2018

I spent the past week by myself on vacation – or “on holiday,” as they’d say in England’s Lake District, which is where I was.

This was the first time I’d ever taken a full-on vacation by myself. I’ve traveled alone for reporting assignments and book promotion, moved to new cities alone (a long time ago), and spent two days alone in Puerto Vallarta last year when Sam had to return earlier than I did from a trip. But this was my first full week in a foreign place with no reason to be there other than enjoying myself.

I was a little nervous beforehand. But it was great!

England was an easy place to be a solo American traveler. We share a language (despite the occasionally confounding accents). It’s got reliable train schedules, comfortable hotels etc., and unlike some other parts of the world, a woman alone is not viewed as a target.

And the Lake District – the mountainous area in the northwest of England made famous by Wordsworth – was particularly welcoming. The region basically lives off of tourism. It has well-marked hiking paths that are easy to navigate. It has a great bus system that allows you to reach almost any trailhead or cultural site without a car. And its beautiful walks draw a variety of visitors – studly young rock climbers, multi-generational families, older couples who have been walking the fells (hills) together for decades, and a surprising number of single hikers like me.

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View of Derwentwater from top of Cat Bells footpath. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Steady stream of hikers climbing up Cat Bells. Note view of two lakes. Photo by Ilana DeBare

My home base was the Lairbeck Hotel, a small family-run inn in a spacious 19th century home on the outskirts of Keswick in the northern Lake District. Keswick swarms with tourists in the summer months, but it’s outdoor-oriented tourists, not the “file-out-of-the-tour-bus-and-take-a-selfie” packaged-tour crowds. It feels like Truckee or Banff: Everyone is wearing hiking boots, and there are more stores selling outdoor gear than you can count. No one dresses for dinner. People ask each other where they hiked that day. I felt very much at home.

Sam was backpacking in the Sierra while I was gone – hauling thirty pounds in his pack, sleeping under the stars, totally away from civilization for five days. The Lake District is a different kind of outdoor experience. I’m not sure there’s anywhere you could hike and camp for five full days without running into roads or towns. Instead, you do day hikes – between picturesque stone villages, or loops up and down the fells. You can easily get away from people by choosing the right path, but England is too small and has been settled for too long to have the vast amounts of wilderness we enjoy in the western United States.

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View of farmland from a ridge. Photo by Ilana DeBare

What England does have is an amazing network of public footpaths. Many of these paths have existed for centuries or even millennia, and private landowners are required to maintain the public right of way. (As opposed to the U.S., where landowners will shoot or sue anyone who sets foot on their property.) My hikes took me through sheep pastures, across wheat fields, down farm driveways, along a “coffin path” formerly used to carry the deceased to the nearby churchyard, and through countless wooden gates with an equally countless variety of latching devices.

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England’s public footpaths are usually well marked.  Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Footpath up the Latrigg fell that, like many others, goes through sheep pastures. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Derwentwater in the morning fog. Photo by Ilana DeBare

The paths offer stunning views from the tops of the fells – of lakes, farmland, villages, and clouds sweeping over the surrounding peaks.

And then at the end of your hike, you return to your comfy hotel or bed-and-breakfast or rental cottage. With a tall pint of ale in the nearby pub! With all due love and respect for my husband, I’ll take this kind of hiking vacation over a backpack trip any day.

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Pub near my inn.  Photo by Ilana DeBare

Before my solo week in the Lake District, I’d spent a similar week walking in the Cotswolds to the south with my friend Sue. By the time I reached Keswick, I’d realized that my “sweet spot” for hiking is six to eight miles, or about three to four hours of actual walking.

My time on the trails was longer than those three to four hours, though, because I stopped a lot. And that was one unexpected benefit of spending this vacation alone – I got to set my own pace, not just for the walking, but for everything.

Traveling with even one very compatible partner entails a constant calibration. Are they bored at a viewpoint and ready to get moving? Do they want to spend more time in the antiques shop? Like a good marriage, they accommodate you and you accommodate them, and it all works well.

But traveling alone, you’re only responsible to yourself — which forces you to pay more attention to your desires. So I spent a full hour sitting on top of the Cat Bells trail, just looking down at the dueling vistas of a farm valley and Derwentwater lake, while other hikers stopped to picnic and moved on. So I noodled around the edges of the Castlerigg stone circle in the drizzle, thinking about the 5,000-year history of those stones, for much longer than I would have with a companion.

I stopped to look at birds. I stopped to look at really nondescript birds!

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Visitors photograph a “druid” at Castlerigg stone circle. Photo by Ilana DeBare

This was “slow travel.” And I realized I wanted to get even slower. Next time, I would bring a small notebook or sketch pad with me. I wanted to interact with the landscapes in a more active way than taking a cellphone photo. Often we arrive at a beautiful or fascinating place, glance at it, click the camera to capture it, and move on. We lazily count on that photo to be the memory rather than trying to remember it ourselves. I wanted to feel the contours, remember the lines, articulate the feelings and thoughts evoked by the scene.

Two mornings, I stayed at the inn and worked on my novel on my laptop before going out to hike in the afternoon. The Lairbeck Hotel has a lovely, quiet garden, and one of those late afternoons after hiking I sat in the garden with a glass of wine.

I realized that was my ideal travel day – half the day writing, the other half out actively exploring. With a garden and a glass of wine at the end!

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The garden and house at Lairbeck Hotel. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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View of Skiddaw fell from my room at the Lairbeck Hotel. Photo by Ilana DeBare

It’s hard to achieve that kind of balance without a deliberate effort. When visiting a new place, there’s always so much to see. The temptation is to run from sight to sight, and then collapse at dinnertime. It’s even harder to carve out quiet time for writing, sketching, or reflecting when you’re traveling with a companion.

One of the benefits of this solo trip was I’m now more aware of what I want from my travel experiences. If I don’t get to every highlight listed in the guidebook, that’s okay: I’ll see fewer but spend more time at each, and more time on reflection.

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Sheep, sheep, and more sheep / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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Oops, not sheep! / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I hate thinking

July 23, 2015

There! Doesn’t that headline sound like the beginning of a condescending rant about Republicans?

(Republican friends: Please don’t take offense. Just substitute the word “Democrats” and keep reading.)

But I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about the writing process.

I love days when I can sit down and write. I sit at my computer, I start writing, hours pass, and I have a bunch of new pages. Then I feel like I’ve accomplished something. i can blow the factory whistle, stop work, head home (even if “home” just means leaving my study for the living room), and do something completely unrelated with a light heart.

Happy-Writer

But then there are days — weeks — where instead I have to think.

Maybe I’ve written a character into a corner and have no idea how to get her out. Maybe I have to re-conceptualize an entire character. Research the religion or medical condition or historical background of a character. Figure out a new sub-plot. Figure out the entire main plot!

This is different from what people talk about as “writer’s block.”  When I think of writer’s block, I picture sitting down and having no ideas, nothing to say. Or paralyzing oneself with fear. It’s a mind-numbing fog.

What I’m talking about is not a fog. It’s having some very specific problems with a manuscript that need to be thought through or, occasionally, researched. But the thinking does not happen in a controlled, manageable, linear fashion. I wish it were like writing a news story or a fundraising letter, where I could say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down at 2 p.m. and have this done by 5 p.m.” But it’s not.

Instead, my mind wanders. I play Facebook Scrabble. I move the laundry. I write out page after page of notes and outlines that look organized but basically just re-state the problem. Even if I focus on trying to find the answer, it doesn’t come.

And I want to write! I don’t want to sit around thinking. I want motion, action, progress. I want to look at my computer and see “1,269 words” at the bottom of that Microsoft Word window. I feel like someone in the driver’s seat, bags are packed and loaded in the trunk, key in the ignition, the open road stretching ahead, and the damn car isn’t moving.

car

I want to have everything figured out so I can blast forward putting it on paper.  After all, this process is all about the writing, right? We call ourselves “writers.” We go to “writers’ retreats” and “writers” conferences.” We buy books on writing and join writing groups.

Nobody says “I’m joining a thinking group.”

But maybe we should.

My rational self — the self that is not tearing its hair out and wanting to blast forward — knows that thinking is an essential part of this process. That’s especially true at the stage I’m at with this current novel — first draft just finished, ready to start revising and improving.

I need to think about what works and what doesn’t work, what I want to add, and where I want to take this manuscript. That’s just as important as getting all those pages of the first draft down on paper. And it doesn’t happen on command or on schedule. Maybe for some people it does, but not me.

I need to calm down and give it time.

That’s my rational self talking. But what I really want is: motion, action, progress.

Pages.

In praise of fava beans

July 12, 2015

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I could have counted all the vegetables I knew on two hands. Carrots, peas, broccoli, string beans, celery, lettuce…. My mom was probably on the adventurous side because she made fresh artichokes for us even though we lived 3,000 miles from any artichoke fields.

Now of course the American palate has expanded. Kale is so trendy that it is just about passé! Safeway sells baby arugula. People have learned to roast brussel sprouts in olive oil rather than boiling them to odoriferous pulp.

Still, we all get stuck in food ruts, cooking the same familiar things over and over. I was bumped out of my rut last year when we joined a CSA food box program. That stands for Community Supported Agriculture, where people support nearby organic farmers by ordering a box of produce each week, a kind of vegetable version of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

You don’t get to choose what comes in your box. You get whatever is seasonal. So in the past few months, I’ve learned to cook and like watermelon radishes and kohlrabi. Now I even buy watermelon radishes at the store!  (Note: They are large beet-sized radishes with very pretty circles of pink, white, and light green. I dice them and roast them with beets, cauliflower, and butternut squash.)

I got another bump this week when our neighbors went on vacation and ordered us to eat whatever was ripe in their garden. This gave a whole new meaning to the phrase farm-to-table, since their garden is about six feet from my kitchen table.

Among other things, they were growing fava beans. Now, fava beans were something I’ve never had interest in buying or growing. I’d eaten them in paella, where they were big and brown and tasteless and mushy. You get three or four beans to a pod, and not too many pods on a plant, and they seemed like a whole lot of work for… just beans.

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Fava bean plant — look for the protruding bean pods / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But God forbid anything should go to waste. So I picked a bunch of our neighbor’s beans and perused various web sites to figure out what to do with them. I decided to blanche them and serve them with olive oil and salt, like tapas.

They were awesome!

Preparing them was half the fun. It takes more time than throwing a head of broccoli in a pot, but it’s much more interesting and sensual.

First you shell the beans. I was amazed to open up a fava pod and find the beans cocooned in a kind of fleece lining, a soft, wispy white fuzz covering the inside of the pod. It was like a sleeping bag for beans. This is a plant that knows how to take care of its babies! (Hint: score the seam of the pod with a knife to shell them more easily.)

A fava bean pod / Photo by Ilana DeBare

A fava bean pod / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The white fleece inside of the pod, with beans removed / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The white fleece inside of the pod, with beans removed / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The beans themselves were smooth and flawless. I thought of bars of new soap. I thought of round stones that had been smoothed by a million years of running water. Apple could have stolen the clean lines and minimalist chic of its iPhone from a fava bean.

Next comes the hull protecting each bean. Some people peel the hulls and then eat the beans raw; others pop them into their mouth and eat them with the hull. I tried both ways and they were both good — would be a great TV snack. But for tapas, I wanted a large quantity of peeled beans.

Fava beans, shelled but not yet peeled / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Fava beans, shelled but not yet peeled / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I brought a pot of water to a boil, blanched the beans for three minutes, then spooned them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Boiling loosened their hulls and it was easy to slide the skin off. There’s something sensual about the frictionless ease with which the beans slide out of their cases in your fingers.

Removing the bean from its hull / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Removing the bean from its hull / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Voila! Fava beans, ready for olive oil and salt. The taste is starchy but also sweet, with a hint of nut or chestnut. Simple yet fresh.

I would feel bad about eating all of our neighbors’ fava beans, but they’re in Italy.

I suspect they are eating even better over there.

Fava beans with olive oil and salt / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Fava beans with olive oil and salt / Photo by Ilana DeBare

A century since the last Passenger Pigeon

August 27, 2014

Note: I wrote this post for the Golden Gate Audubon blog.

This Monday September 1st will mark the 100th anniversary of the death in captivity of the last Passenger Pigeon.

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Taxidermied Passenger Pigeon in the Royal Ontario Museum

Several months ago, I read Richard Rhodes’ fascinating biography of John James Audubon and was struck by Audubon’s description of the arrival and slaughter of a massive Passenger Pigeon flock in the midwest around 1816:

“The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea…. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men. The birds continued to pour in…. The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches all around. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading….

The Pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in there number of those that arrived. The uproar continued the whole night…. Towards the approach of the day, the noise in some measure [having] subsided, long before objects were distinguishable, the Pigeons began to move off… and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears, ands the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears…

It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying and the mangled. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder….”

 

Such massive flocks were not unusual: The largest known nesting site was documented in 1871 in Wisconsin with 136 million birds covering 850 square miles.

Their large flocks and communal behavior made the pigeons easy prey for hunters. Faced with massive commercial hunting and loss of habitat, their numbers dwindled. Then, a century ago, they were gone.

Juvenile Passenger Pigeon (left), male (center), female (right), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Juvenile Passenger Pigeon (left), male (center), female (right), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

A 19th century Passenger Pigeon shoot

A 19th century Passenger Pigeon shoot

The Passenger Pigeon’s story is particularly cautionary for us these days because, with climate change, we may be on the verge of witnessing a tidal wave of similar extinctions.

In September — by coincidence about a week after the sad anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon’s loss — National Audubon will release a very comprehensive scientific report on North American birds and climate change that has been years in preparation.

Which species will face significant habitat loss? Which ones are likely to adapt and survive? Which are at risk of extinction?

We’ll share the news here with you as soon as we get it, along with steps we can take to protect the Northern California species most at risk due to climate change.

Meanwhile, please consider doing one small thing on Monday to mark the death of Martha, that last lone pigeon in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Talk to one non-birder friend about why you care about preserving species…

Write a letter to one elected official in Washington…

Take a young person out to a park and help them spot an egret in the marsh…

Post a Passenger Pigeon image on your Facebook page, and ask your friends to share it…  

Replace the energy-hogging incandescent bulbs in your house with LEDs or compact fluorescents, and think of Martha while you do it….

In 2114, will our grandchildren or great-grandchildren be writing blog posts commemorating the anniversary of the death of the last Tricolored Blackbird? Ashy Storm-Petrel? Yellow-billed Cuckoo? Burrowing Owl? Snowy Plover?

Or might there be so many losses that they won’t even know where to start?

Why do we take vacation photos?

July 19, 2014

For twenty years I was the family vacation photographer. I bought the cameras, I packed the cameras in my luggage, I was the one who thought to stop in the middle of a museum or a park and say, “Hold on a sec! Let me get a photo!”

Then my husband Sam got an iPhone. He realized how easy it was to snap a photo and upload it to Facebook.

So now we both take photos. We returned last week from a vacation in Central Europe during which we often ended up taking photos of the exact same things.

We’d be standing in Budapest looking across the Danube to the old castle on the Buda side of the river. Sam would take a picture of the castle with his iPhone. Two feet away, I’d take a picture of the castle with my point-and-shoot.

And the kicker is: There were already about two zillion photos of that same castle, taken from the same angle, on the web.

Sam's photo of the Danube and castle

Sam’s photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

My photo of the Danube and castle

So why do we take those photos? Why capture an image that has already been captured countless times, often with higher resolution or better quality?

The simple answer is that we want mementos of our trip. We want to remember where we’ve been. But that desire could be satisfied by just one person taking photos, or even by buying old-fashioned picture postcards.

Another answer is that we love our gadgets. We feel compelled to use them constantly. But that doesn’t fully nail it either.

There are also less charitable possibilities. We are sheep: We take photos on vacation because we believe we are supposed to take photos on vacation. Or we are status-grubbers: We photograph ourselves in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Colosseum or the Budapest castle  to show our neighbors and our Facebook friends how worldly and fantastically happy we are.

Blech. That may be true for some people, but I think it is still more complicated.

For me at least, taking vacation photos is an attempt to engage with the things I’m seeing. As tourists visiting places briefly, we are typically spectators. We are outsiders watching a world that other people have shaped and are living in. But we want more than that.

So we engage with the places we’re visiting by eating the food, meeting the people, or… taking photos.

Sam's photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam’s photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

IMG_0674

My photo of men playing chess in the Szechenyi thermal baths in Budapest

Sam's photo of a communist-era status in Memento Park in Budapest

Sam’s photo of a communist-era statuse in Memento Park in Budapest

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park status

My photo (well, taken by a passerby with my camera) of the Memento Park statue

Choices: I can stand by  the Danube, look briefly at the castle, and then walk on to the next site specified in my guidebook. Or I can pull out my camera and engage. Frame the picture. How much river, how much sky? Focus on the dome or the facade? Which part seems most interesting? It’s bringing a little bit of artistic judgment and creativity to bear. It gives me a sense of ownership and personal connection to a place. That’s not the same level of engagement as getting to know local residents, but it’s something.

“Taking photos forces you to look at what you’re seeing,” someone told me the other night.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Taking photos can also be a substitute for truly looking at what we’re seeing.

Scenic vista point! Get out the camera. Frame the shot. Move on. 

I fall victim to this, no question about it. I don’t try to commit a scene to memory because I assume it will be preserved by my camera. Instead of paying attention to the details of this interesting place – the color of light on the roofs, a boat’s wake on the river, the funny zigzag path taken by a small child running near the water — I think about framing the photo. Once I’ve pressed the shutter, I feel like I’m done.

Now let’s ramp up this scenario to the Nth degree – Auschwitz.

Our recent trip included a tour of the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, where over 1 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. I’ll write more about that in my next blog post. But what’s relevant here is that I took photos.

I took photos of the room filled with hair shorn from thousands of Jewish women en route to the gas chamber for use in German wigs. I took photos of the room filled with shoes from dead children. I took photos of the bombed ruins of the crematoria, of the gathering spot where people were unloaded from boxcars and directed to either barracks or gas chambers. Our guide described each section of the camp, and we looked, mostly silent, and took photos, and moved on.

In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time looking, thinking, and imagining. I would have liked to stay in the unloading spot for maybe an hour, to sit cross-legged on the summer grass and just think about what had happened there. Maybe try to sketch it or describe it in writing. But definitely do something slower and more mindful than pressing a shutter.

I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with photos as a way to engage with important places – places of particular historical meaning or natural beauty. I’m not a visual artist, but sketching or painting a scene seems to require so much more attention and involvement. Writing a description also forces you to engage more deeply and attentively.

I wonder what it would be like to take a sketch pad or pocket journal on our next trip instead of a camera. When we come to a point of particular interest, I could sit there for a half hour drawing or writing.

Of course that would slow things down – it’s harder to hit six different churches, museums and monuments in one afternoon if you keep stopping for long blocks of time!

But maybe it is useful to start thinking of “slow travel,” like we now think of “slow food.”

And tapping into ways of engagement that are deeper than snapping photos.

WTS Birding Trip – Postponed

February 8, 2014

If you were planning to come on the Women of Temple Sinai beginning birdwatching outing on Sunday Feb. 8th, it has been cancelled since the latest forecast is for 100% chance of rain.

We are rescheduling for Sunday February 23 (two weeks from now), 9:30 to 11:30 am. Hope you can make it!

I’d say I’m sorry for the cancellation… but we need the rain so badly that it’s hard to be sorry! :-)

Meanwhile, if you’re one of my blog readers and have no idea what I’m talking about… this was a bird walk I was co-leading for our temple. I hope to have a “real” post for you soon!

Anna's Hummingbird / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Anna’s Hummingbird / Photo by Ilana DeBare

 

Ilana’s Little List of Superfluous Words

November 11, 2013

Hallelujah! I’m almost at the end of my latest round of novel revisions.

And once I’m done with the substantive revisions, I’m going to try something new — a Microsoft Word “search” for superfluous words.

Noodling  around in the manuscript, I’ve noticed that there are certain words that add little or no value. Sometimes they are “hedge” words that undercut what I’m saying. Other times they state the obvious. Or they are just a flabby cliche.

cliche-t

I don’t notice these words when I’m writing a first draft; they roll easily off my pen. They seem so natural that I don’t notice them on reading the completed manuscript, either. Thus the computer search.

Prime example: suddenly. 

I use a lot of suddenlys!  My characters look up suddenly. They put down their forks suddenly. They hurl chairs suddenly.

(Have you ever seen a chair hurled in a non-sudden manner? Now that would be an adverb worth using: “He hurled the chair gradually.”)

So I’m starting a list of superfluous words that should be weeded out. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • suddenly
  • somewhat, some
  • sort of, kind of
  • little
  • simply
  • just

Here are a few examples from different sections of my manuscript:

“What does Marta have to do with this?” her mother asked with some bewilderment.

There were more stars in just one small corner of the sky than you could see over all of Manhattan.

I felt suddenly uneasy. 

I jerked my head around, suddenly paranoid, and shoved the boa back inside the bag.  (Well, maybe I should keep that one. I’ll think about it.)

Talking with my lawyer friend Beth yesterday, she described routinely excising certain words when editing her colleagues’ briefs. In her case, they are legal jargon like heretofore.

I suspect every genre of writing – every profession – needs its own unique blacklist of superfluous words. Every writer should probably have her or his personal list too: The flabby words that slip into my draft may be different from the ones that slip into yours.

How about you? Any words that routinely roll off your pen that should be rolled off to the landfill?

Underground France

September 29, 2013

We just returned from a two-week vacation in France where you could say the theme turned out to be “underground France.”

Not as in underground cinema, or underground resistance, or anything so metaphorical.

Literally underground.

We started in Paris where we took a self-guided tour of the city’s sewer system. You know how in Les Miserables, Jean Valjean carries wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris? That’s where we were. Below the sidewalks but above the Metro, walking through  some of the vaulted tunnels that stretch for 2,100 kilometers under the city. Yes, we watched the dark water coursing along a few feet below our walkway. Yes, it smelled like sewage.

Paris is the only city in the world that designed sewers large enough for people to walk through. The sewer network was a major 19th century technical feat, a reminder that the French have a history of superb engineering as well as superb wine, food and fashion.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Parisian elite took tours of the sewer system. You can still do that today at the Musee des Egouts de Paris.

An earlier era of sewer tourism

An earlier era of sewer tourism

Not content with sewers, we ventured deeper underground — 20 meters deep, about the height of a five-story building — to Paris’ catacombs.

These were originally 13th century quarries for limestone, the stone used in Notre Dame, the Louvre and countless other Paris buildings. In the late 1700s, as Paris’ population outpaced the ability of its cemeteries to hold the dead, the abandoned limestone tunnels were repurposed as a storehouse for skeletons — some 6 million of them. Blessed by priests and supervised by engineers, centuries worth of bodies were dug up and carted ceremoniously across town for storage in the catacombs.

A resourceful public works administrator in the early 1800s added snippets of morbid Romantic poetry about the transience of life. And yes, it became another tourist attraction — there was even one midnight concert held in the tunnels in the late 1800s. You can find out about touring the catacombs here.

Paris catacombs/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs/ Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs with sign, "Stop! Here is the empire of death." / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs with sign, “Stop! Here is the empire of death.” / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Paris catacombs / Photo by Ilana DeBare

We weren’t doing all this underground touring on purpose. It just turned out that way. We did spend time in the fresh air, like strolling along the Promenade Plantee — an old railroad aqueduct turned into an elevated tree-lined walkway between Place de la Bastille and the Gare de Lyon, a Parisian precursor to New York’s High Line park.

But that night we somehow ended up underground again, at a jazz club located in a 12th century dungeon.

Listening to jazz in a dungeon / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Listening to jazz in an underground 12th century dungeon / Photo by Ilana DeBare

And when we left Paris for the second half of our trip — a bike tour through the Dordogne and Bordeaux countryside — one of the highlights was a visit to the prehistoric art within the Dordogne’s limestone caves. Back down into the dark and cold, but this time even further into the past — 15,000 years back.

We visited the Rouffignac cave, with over 250 engravings and drawings of  mammoths, bison, horses and other figures.

Entry to Rouffignac cave / Wikipedia

Entry to Rouffignac cave / Wikipedia

Rouffignac Cave

Rouffignac Cave

The French cave art was something I’d read about since I was a little girl. It was stunning and humbling to see it in person, one of my “bucket list” experiences. Archeologists don’t know what the drawings meant to the society that created them — were they part of a spiritual ritual? a social history? any theories are only speculative fiction — but there they were, just feet away from us, crisp and clear despite 15,000 years.

We biked from the cliffs of the Dordogne into the rolling vineyards around St. Emilion, and visited a winery where the bottles of wine are stored underground… in (you guessed it) limestone caves that were once quarries. In this particular winery, Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot, the caves also served as a hiding place for wealthy families during the French Revolution, who lived there for years and built a tiny chapel underground.

Entering the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Entering the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Wine in the cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Wine in the cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Chapel inside the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Later we visited a quarry/cave inside the town of St. Emilion that has been made into an underground museum of pottery. They lent us shawls to wear during our visit since the temperature dropped some 20 degrees in the tunnels. And we visited St. Emilion’s famous Monolithic Church, a church painstakingly chipped and carved out of a single giant limestone cliff in the 12th century. This was not just a little chapel carved into the rock, but a serious, humongous cathedral-sized church.

Monolithic Church, carved into the rock / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Exterior of Monolithic Church, carved into the rock / Photo by Ilana DeBare

In nearly all of these sites — the 12th century church, the 15,000-year-old cave art galleries — we saw evidence of visitors there before us. There was graffiti carved or etched into the walls.

At first I was irritated: Why can’t these stupid teenagers limit their graffiti to subway cars and modern buildings?

And then I looked more closely at the graffiti. These were names and dates from the 1700s. 

Graffiti near entrance to St. Emilion's cave from 1767 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Graffiti near entrance to St. Emilion’s cave from 1767 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

So what’s with all of this underground France? A couple of things, I guess. Many parts of France — in particular the areas around Paris and the Aquitaine, where we spent this vacation — are limestone plateaus that were formed eons ago when covered with shallow seas. Sea organisms died and decayed and were compressed into limestone. Limestone is a soft, porous rock, easily eroded into caves by water, easily carved into quarries by humans.

And then France — like the rest of Europe  — is an old civilization in comparison with the United States. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy traveling there — the ease of transporting yourself back into different eras.

People have been living continuously in France for tens of thousands of years. The 15,000-year-old cave drawings that we saw in Rouffignac are in fact among the most recent examples of neolithic art; others in the Dordogne region go back 30,000 years.

And in 30,000 years, there’s a lot that people can find to do with caves.

Seek shelter. Create art. Dig for building materials. Worship gods. Bury the dead. Hide from enemies. Store wine. Play jazz….

And tomorrow what?

If humans still exist 15,000 years from now, will our subways and sewers, our museums and music clubs, be as much of a mystery to them as the Rouffignac cave paintings are to us?

This is the "Mirror of Water" along the Bordeaux riverfront. Photo by Ilana DeBare

Now for some above-ground daylight! This is the “Mirror of Water” along the Bordeaux riverfront. Photo by Ilana DeBare

Biking the new Bay Bridge

September 9, 2013

It only took 24 years, but Caltrans finally completed and opened the new Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland to replace the one that partly collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The new bridge includes a bike/pedestrian trail from Oakland to Treasure Island, a former military base that is about halfway to San Francisco. The trail doesn’t go all the way to Treasure Island yet — the old bridge is in the way — but by 2015 the connection to the island will be complete.

New bridge / Photo by Ilana DeBare

New bridge / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Me on the bridge / Photo by Sam Schuchat

Me on the bridge / Photo by Sam Schuchat

This weekend Sam and I rode our bikes down to the trail entrance in Emeryville and as far as you can bike on the bridge.

Us and about two zillion other people.

It was terrific!

We were among a cross-section of Bay Area humanity — middle-aged bike geeks on $5000 titanium frames and century-ride jerseys; little kids wobbling on their first two-wheeler; walkers, joggers and skaters; people of all ages, races and physical abilities. It was one of the warmest, sunniest days of the year and the views were beautiful.

The old bridge stood empty alongside the new one. It has been out of use for only about eleven days, but already it looks like a relic from another century —  some dark, rusting remnant from a time of railroad barons and steel factories. In comparison, the new bridge looks like a shiny white iPod.

Heading to the bridge,  I felt like a tourist in my own city in the best possible way —  on an adventure, knowing I would experience something new and intriguing.

Of course, the question now comes up more loudly than ever: How can Caltrans build only half a bike trail? Even in 2015 when the trail is complete, it will stop at Treasure Island — a nice place to picnic but not to do much else. Shouldn’t the trail go all the way into San Francisco?

There would be engineering challenges in adding a bike/walk path to the remaining span of the old bridge between Treasure Island and San Francisco. But surely there is a technical solution. I suspect that people will love this new partial trail enough that they’ll start pressuring Caltrans to build the other half.

It would be a wonderful day trip… a great way to commute… Caltrans, are you listening?

——————————–

Want to try the trail? You can find a map on the East Bay Bicycle Coalition web site. We entered the trail from Shellmound Street in Emeryville, across the street from Ikea. After biking as far on the bridge as we could go, we backtracked and exited the trail in the other direction, Maritime Street near the Port of Oakland. If you’d like to add to your excursion, it’s a quiet, flat ten-minute ride from the Maritime Street entrance to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park inside the Port of Oakland. (Take Maritime Street to 7th Street and turn right; follow signs for the park.) This is an undiscovered gem inside the industrial no-man’s-land of the port — green lawns, picnic tables, great views of SF, and often a lot of shorebirds. Take binoculars.