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Photos from September

In March 1990, thieves broke into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and “cut Rembrandt’s ‘Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee‘ and ‘A Lady and Gentleman in Black,’ ” among other works, from their frames.

A renewed flurry of interest in the 1990 art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum occurred the week that my husband and I took Minnesota friends to see the collection.

It was the week that “Robert V. Gentile, a Connecticut mobster long suspected by federal authorities of having information about the whereabouts of $500 million worth of masterworks stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum decades ago,” died. (See Boston Globe story.)

Visitors still flock to see the blank places where the missing pieces were once exhibited, and the museum staff is well primed on details. (Our friends asked one guard how long it took the thieves to get in and out with the goods. “Eighty-one minutes,” he answered promptly.)

So today I will share some pictures from our visit as well as a few other photos of the season.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, seen in the portrait below, was an unusual, wealthy woman who imported the courtyard and many other rooms and reconstructed them in the mansion that became a museum. She insisted in her will that nothing ever be changed after her death.

That posed a challenge for trustees. So in recent years, a separate building was constructed and connected to the mansion museum. In the new building, we saw the Titian exhibition, which features a series of paintings that Titian created between 1551 and 1562 for King Philip II of Spain. The most famous of the series is a painting Gardner actually owned.

The scenes of violence against women from Roman Mythology have forced curators to jump through a few hoops. Read about that here.

I have included a photo of the fireplace in the Dutch Room, the room from which most of the art works were stolen, and 15th century artist Paolo Uccello’s “A Young Lady of Fashion.”

The sculpture of ballet feet was outside the Mass College of Art, where we sat for a while to chat with our friends without masks that day.

Later, when I was back home, I shot the formal garden of a house in town, thinking how much it reminded me of the Gardner courtyard.

Also in town, there was a neighborly Porchfest once again, having been canceled last year because of Covid.

For the red flower picture, I very carefully tried to exclude all the clutter around it, but there is still an orange traffic hat peeking through in back. The next shot features a creative Toyota bumper.

Finally, a few photos from Rhode Island — a wall of giant stones and a Blackstone Park Eagle Scout project that created an activity space for children.

Photo: Zuni Youth Enrichment Project.
By incorporating the Zuni people into the planning, design, and execution, a unique park in New Mexico addresses health on multiple levels.

Call it the department of “Don’t tell people what they need. Ask them.” It’s a bit of wisdom that organizations and government entities proposing to do good have been trying to apply to their work for years now. Unfortunately, past failures mean they first have to overcome suspicion.

Amanda Loudin reports at Shelterforce, “Six artists reside in the Shack family home in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico. While that many artists living under one roof is an anomaly, in the Zuni tribe there’s at least one artist living in nearly 70 percent of households, according to a study by the University of New Mexico. Art is part and parcel of the tribe’s history and culture.

“The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP) understands this, so when it began planning a new youth center and park in 2015, Zuni artists and community members were invited to play a central role in the design and execution of the project.

“Their opinions and their art were woven into the fabric of the process from start to finish. The end result is the 2.5-acre H’on A:wan, or ‘Of the People,’ Community Park, which officially welcomed youth and the wider tribal community in 2018.

“ZYEP is a grassroots nonprofit founded by community members with the mission of enhancing the health of the tribe’s youth, who number 2,900 of the 10,000 tribe members. Zuni households face many challenges, including systemic poverty, which affects one in two Zuni families with children. And poverty, of course, is closely linked to health.

“Daryl Shack, one of the six artists in his Zuni household, played an integral role in the youth center/park project. ‘I kind of became involved by accident,’ Shack says. ‘We had a Main Street Art Walk project underway, and I was already involved in that to help ensure the modernization included a cultural aspect to it. When I heard about the park project, I wanted to learn more.’

“Funding for the park and community center originated with ArtPlace America, a 10-year collaboration among federal agencies, foundations, and financial institutions. … By design, the projects involve artists, culture bearers, and community members in every step of the planning and implementation.

“With the grant money, ZYEP set its sights on developing a center for youth that would benefit their spiritual well-being. To ZYEP, this meant Zuni art, history, and culture needed to be integral to the project. But Zuni youth also need access to safe spaces to play and be physically active, says ZYEP Executive Director Joe Claunch.

“ ‘We were well aware of the fact that they lacked space where they could run, play, and fall down without getting injured — every surface was either concrete or desert,’ he says. ‘The park represents a green space that celebrates Zuni identity and [is a] safe place where kids and families could engage in a range of healthy activities without concern.’

“Like many kids today, the Zuni youth have access to technology, which can quickly override cultural influences and healthy traditions. ‘Kids can get stuck on technology and start practicing a sedentary lifestyle, planting the seeds for preventable diseases,’ says Claunch. …

“The original intent for the park goes back more than a decade. ‘We had a local pediatrician who heard too many times from youth that they had nothing going on in their summers,’ Claunch explains. ‘He recognized that they needed healthy spaces and places, not just activity.’ …

“On a spiritual/emotional level, [the park] is a supervised space with a positive, culturally sensitive staff in place to encourage healthy activity. ‘We provide training to our staff that focuses on the strengths of the community, the family, and the youth.’ …

“In 2014, ZYEP approached the Zuni Tribal Council about acquiring land to develop the park and community center. Together, they found a spot near the center of the village, and ZYEP leased 2.5 acres. A year later, they applied for the ArtPlace America grant. …

“Typical government-sponsored development brings with it an institutional look, says Claunch, rather than a cultural look. Think chain link fences, sometimes even topped with barbed wire, which is unwelcoming and devoid of character. The same goes to new housing developments, which are designed for the nuclear family, rather than the extended family commonly found in Zuni culture. A government-designed home will look like a typical two-to- three-bedroom home, whereas a traditional Zuni home will house three to four families living under one roof — much larger in structure with large communal spaces for family functions like meals.

Having a recent history of development that often neglected the role of Zuni culture meant that when approached by ZYEP, community members were initially skeptical about the good intentions of the project. …

“Like others in his community, Shack came to the table with a healthy dose of skepticism. ‘Usually, grants come into Zuni and the planning and models are made, the meetings are held and that’s where it ends,’ he says. ‘When the park project was directed to the artists community, I was hesitant but interested.’

“Shack’s first introduction to the project was in a large-scale meeting he attended to listen in and hear about the planning process. ‘Subsequent meetings were smaller, and that’s when I decided to sign on,’ he explains.

“From the get-go, says Claunch, ZYEP aimed to build trust in the community, and did it by engaging residents in conversation. ‘We didn’t make any promises but assured them that over time, we’d show them we were serious about having them shape decisions,’ he says. ‘The artists took on the role of advocates and cast the vision. They also took the feedback and concerns from the neighbors, often in the Zuni language. If it weren’t for the artists, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.’ ”

Read more about how this beautiful park came together at Shelterforce, here.

Goat vs. Wildfire

Photo: Goat Green LLC.
Lani Malmberg “contracts with federal, state, county, and city governments, homeowners associations, and private landowners for noxious weed control, fire fuel load abatement, re-seeding, watershed management, and land restoration.

While we’re on the subject of fungi and their role in improving soil, how about the work that goats are doing? Goats are not as ubiquitous as mushrooms, but they can really help restore damaged land and even prevent wildfires.

Coral Murphy Marcos reports at the New York Times, “When megafires burn in unison and harsh droughts parch the West, local governments, utilities and companies struggle with how to prevent outbreaks, especially as each year brings record destruction.

“Carrying an unconventional weapon, Ms. Malmberg travels the American West in an Arctic Fox camper, occupying a small but vital entrepreneurial niche.

“Ms. Malmberg, 64, is a goat herder and a pioneer in using the animals to restore fire-ravaged lands to greener pastures and make them less prone to the spread of blazes. She developed the fire-prevention technique in graduate school and is among a few individuals using grazing methods for fire mitigation. …

“Ms. Malmberg works with her son, Donny Benz; his fiancé, Kaiti Singley; and an occasional unpaid intern. The team runs on the goats’ time and have their dinner only when the day’s job is done. They arrive early and open the trailer. The goats jump out, ready to eat, as Ms. Malmberg watches that they don’t stray. The team sets up an electric fence to confine the goats and their meals to a specific area overnight.

After the goats digest the brush, their waste returns organic matter to the soil, increasing its potential to hold water.

“Goats are browsers that eat the grass, leaves and tall brush that cows and other grazers can’t reach. This type of vegetation is known as the fire fuel ladder and leads to wider spread when wildfires spark. More than quell a fire, Ms. Malmberg aims to prevent it from even starting. ‘By increasing soil organic matter by 1 percent, that soil can hold an additional 16,500 gallons of water per acre,’ said Ms. Malmberg. ‘If helicopters come and dump water on the fires, nothing is done for the soil.’ …

“ ‘Lani is a leading example of someone who has carved the pathway and is a trailblazer in this industry of prescribed grazing,’ said Brittany Cole-Bush, one of Ms. Malmberg’s mentees and the owner of Shepherdess Land and Livestock in Ojai Valley, Calif. ‘We want to support ecology as much as possible. We want to support the growth of native perennial grasses.’ Ms. Cole-Bush, who uses goats and sheep in her business, believes that fortifying perennial grasses, rather than planting grass annually, will make the land more tolerant of drought.

“Ms. Malmberg, who has a master’s degree in weed science from Colorado State University, spends most of the year traveling around the West on jobs. Last year, for the first time, the Bureau of Land Management contracted Ms. Malmberg and her goats for fire mitigation in Carbondale, Colo. …

“Ms. Malmberg’s assignments can take anywhere from a day to six months; she prices them after evaluating the site. In late August, she was hired to work on a property in Silverthorne that took six days and cost more than $9,000.

“At the beginning and end of every job, Ms. Malmberg asks the spirits in the area to protect her herd. She lights a ceremonial stick of tobacco and calls out to introduce herself, an intruder on the land, to the animals living there. …

“The work can take longer because of on-the-ground conditions. The Carbondale mitigation project was pushed back three weeks because mudslides caused by last year’s wildfires had closed Interstate 70, the state’s main highway

“Scientists say that wildfires have become hotter, more intense and more destructive in recent years.

“Experts attribute the longer and more ferocious fire seasons to climate change. Wildfires in the West are growing larger, spreading faster and reaching higher, scaling mountains that were once too wet and cool to support them. Studies have shown that wildfires are leading to skin damage and premature births.

“The cost of fire suppression has doubled since 1994 to over $400 million in 2018 — a cost, Ms. Malmberg notes, that doesn’t account for how people are affected by the loss of their land and homes.

“ ‘How do we value the nest that supports us?” Ms. Malmberg asked. ‘We’re just about out of time to change the ways of how we do things.’ ”

Amanda Lucier’s excellent photos of Malmberg’s work are at the New York Times, here. You can also search this blog on the word “goat” for related stories. I’m kind of a fan of goats.

Mushrooms Mushrooming

Last night my husband reported that Massachusetts had just experienced its wettest July ever, breaking the record set in 1938.

Now, if you live in New England, you have no need to be told what happened in 1938. Most of us call it the Hurricane of ’38, and many books have been written about it. The one I loved had the awesome title A Wind to Shake the World. My mother experienced that wind firsthand.

But today’s post is not about hurricanes: its about wet weather and what follows it. Because lately on my walks, I’ve been noticing an unusual number and variety of mushrooms blooming in the wet. (Does one say “blooming” in regard to mushrooms? Let’s say they are “mushrooming.”)

I’ve blogged about mushrooms before. Last year’s Love for Fungi post described how these natural wonders “knit Earth’s soils into nearly contiguous living networks of unfathomable scale” and may ultimately save the planet.

I love the idea of anything knitting the world together without boundaries. Just imagine how wonderful it would be if we took the concept a step farther and began advocating for earthworm diplomacy — a kind of interaction among nations recognizing that certain aspects of borders are about as meaningless for humans as they are for an earthworm. Consider Covid. Consider climate change.

Anyway, here are the kinds of mushrooms our wettest July has engendered: speckled, yellow, red, blue , bizarre … I wind up with a window photo of something Lena Takamori, a mushroom-inspired artist, created.

Would love to see mushrooms from where you live.

Photo: Lover’s Eyes: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection.
Gold brooch surrounded by a rope of brown hair (ca. 1835), an example of a short-lived craze in England.

King George IV of England was a pretty wild youth, and when he clapped eyes on one commoner that he knew he would never be authorized to marry, he sent her a picture of his love-at-first-sight eye. She sent an eye picture back. They married in secret, a marriage later abandoned.

But England was left with one of those nutty crazes for which it is is well known.

“Lover’s eyes” became a thing. The fact that they were worn close to the heart on lockets and pendants makes me wonder if the antique-locket side of Suzanne’s jewelry business, Luna & Stella, might have come across any.

Lauren Moya Ford reports at Hyperallergic on a new book about a collection of the mysterious miniatures.

“From the moment the Prince of Wales (later, King George IV of England) laid eyes on Maria Firtzherbert at the London opera in 1784, he knew it was love. But Fitzherbert, a Catholic, twice-widowed commoner, knew that British law would never allow their union. She fled to France to escape the future king’s ardor, but Fitzherbert’s absence only inflamed the prince more. In his passion, he sent Fitzherbert a miniature portrait of one of his eyes. She reciprocated with her own eye miniature, and one month later, the two were married in a secret ceremony. The scandalous tale of love at first sight set off a craze for eye miniatures across England that would stretch for nearly four decades. 

“A new book, Lover’s Eyes: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection (D Giles Limited, 2021) edited by Elle Shushan, features a richly illustrated cache of over 130 of these bejeweled, hand-painted treasures. Eye miniatures are typically made of painstakingly detailed watercolors on polished pieces of ivory, and surrounded by carved gems, enameled metals, and human hair. These exquisite, enigmatic objects are frequently unsigned, making the majority unattributable to a single artist, and because they depict only a single eye and sometimes a stray lock of hair or eyebrow, the sitter’s identity is also often obscured. …

“Most lovers’ eyes were worn as jewelry, especially on brooches, lockets, and pendants worn close to the heart. Others decorated small functional boxes and etuis used to hold toothpicks, false beauty marks, and other trinkets. Most eye miniatures were exchanged between lovers, though they were also given to close friends and family members. Others were produced as memorial tokens after a loved one’s death. In this case, the eye is often surrounded by clouds to symbolize the subject’s ascent from earth.

“But it wasn’t just the eye itself that carried meaning in these small portraits. An essay by art historian Graham C. Boettcher explains the messages conveyed by the miniatures’ accompanying diamonds, coral, and other gemstones. Pearls, for example, symbolized purity but also tears, and often framed the portraits of the deceased, while garnets represented friendship.

“Another essay by Shusan details the ways that eye miniature artists utilized the language of flowers, or floriography, in their work. For example, a miniature thought to be the eye of Mary Sarah Fox surrounded by foxgloves may be a play on the sitter’s last name, but could also connect the sitter to the energy, magic, and cunning that the flower was then considered to represent. In addition to eyes, some miniatures also featured locks of the sitter’s hair, another fragment of a beloved body to be captured and cherished by the miniature’s owner forever. 

“Although the king later abandoned Fitzherbert for a more legitimate marriage, he requested to be buried with her eye miniature placed directly over his heart upon his death. In this way, he took a piece of his lover — and her watchful gaze — with him to the grave.

Lover’s Eyes: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection, edited by Elle Shushan and published by D Giles Limited, is available on Bookshop.”

Photos showing an array of these mementos may be seen at Hyperallergic, here.

About Giving Up a Lawn

Photo: Meadowscaping for Biodiversity.
Laura D. Eisener, Massachusetts landscape architect and Meadowscaping design consultant, believes in giving people the skills to create their own environmentally sound landscapes.

For years now, my friend Jean has been spreading the word on biodiversity and the problems posed by our lawns. I think that Jean and her business partner, Barbara, have been especially savvy in teaching the principles of biodiversity to middle school kids in particular. It’s one way to influence a generation of parents addicted to lawn chemicals and at the same time raise the consciousness of a generation that will be responsible for the planet’s future.

Tik Root writes on biodiversity and lawns at the Washington Post: “For many Americans, [summer] means blankets of grassy green for kids to play in, or families to picnic on.

“There are an estimated 40 million to 50 million acres of lawn in the continental United States — that’s nearly as much as all of the country’s national parks combined. In 2020, Americans spent $105 billion keeping their lawns verdant and neat. But our grass addiction comes at an environmental cost.

“According to the Environmental Protection Agency, maintaining those lawns also consumes nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year as well as 59 million pounds of pesticides, which can seep into our land and waterways.

“Department of Transportation data shows that in 2018, Americans used nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline running lawn and garden equipment. That’s the equivalent of 6 million passenger cars running for a year.

“As these issues are becoming more prominent in climate change discussion, there are steps you can take to more sustainably manage the impact of your lawn. … Having less grass and more plants is among the most important factors in keeping a yard eco-friendly.

“ ‘Lawn, ecologically, is dead space,’ said Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware and author of ‘Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.’

“The solution, he says, is ultimately less lawn. He recommends people aim to cut the amount of turf grass in their yard in half. … Laying down mulch is one place to start. It quickly kills grass and offers a blank canvas for planting. … Invasive plants, Tallamy said, ‘are ecologically castrating the land around us.’ Native plants, on the other hand, often have deep root structures, making them good for storing water or providing drainage. They have also co-evolved for local conditions. …

“Eric Braun, the water resources manager for the town of Gilbert, Ariz., is quick to emphasize that water-friendly landscapes, also known as xeriscapes, don’t have to look like moonscapes.

“ ‘Xeriscape doesn’t mean one saguaro and a cow skull. It can be very lush and inviting,’ said Braun. ‘The number one thing was showing people that it can be a beautiful landscape.’ he said. …

“More broadly, Tallamy said native landscapes can help refocus our gardens on the ecological purpose of plants, which is to produce food. Plant energy gets passed up the food chain, often via insects. But many insects only eat one native plant species, or group of related plants. So, if we are planting nonnative plants, that food doesn’t necessarily transfer from creature to creature, and the ecosystem can stall.

Monarch butterflies, for example, famously rely on milkweed, and as the plant has become less abundant, the monarch population has plummeted. Bird species are also in decline, as are more than 40 percent of insect species. The United Nations estimates that, globally, 1 million plant and animal species are under threat of extinction.

“Tallamy said native flora better supports native fauna and, as a result, helps combat these declines. Tallamy is a fan of oak trees, which come in 91 native species, grow almost everywhere in the country and attract caterpillars, a key species for supporting other wildlife — to raise a clutch of chicks, a pair of robins needs between 6,000 caterpillars and 9,000 caterpillars in just 16 days, Tallamy said. …

“Others put less emphasis on nativity, and more on the diversity of species and types of plants in a yard.

” ‘Yes, we want natives but let’s be inclusive and not exclude plants that have come from somewhere,’ said Juliet Stromberg, a professor at Arizona State University, who was one of more than a dozen ecologists who wrote a letter arguing that a plant’s origin is less important than its environmental impact.

“ ‘What I would suggest is just loosening the reins a little bit,’ she said. ‘If you’re bringing in the plant that’s the same genus, the insects are going to be fine.’ “

More at the Post, here.

Not Just for Truckers

Photo: Matt Smith.
Co-owners Vamsi Yaramaka (left) and Raj Alturu stand inside Eat Spice in October 2019, in the truck stop on Route 534 off I-80 in White Haven, Pa. Indian and Mediterranean dishes like theirs can be hard to find on the road.

Whenever I want to share something I read about before Covid, I do a search to see if it is still relevant or if a featured company is still in business. That is how I learned that the truck stop National Public Radio reported on before lockdown — a restaurant that was catering to Sikh and Somali truck drivers — had been discovered by lots of other motorists.

Here’s what Laura Beshoff had to say about the restaurant in January 2020. “Truck driver Aman Singh, 30, must traverse the 660 miles from northeastern Pennsylvania to Louisville, Ky., on an overnight drive. Before he saddles up for the long haul, he settles into a booth at Eat Spice, a truck stop/Indian restaurant off I-80 in Luzerne County, Pa., with a plate of chicken curry and a stack of roti. …

“Eat Spice caters to a unique intersection: where rural America meets an increasingly diverse cadre of truckers looking for a taste of home as they jockey between warehouses and retail outlets.

“Located in White Haven, Pa., population 1,100, the truck stop has a clientele that’s more likely to hail from immigrant enclaves in Ohio and Michigan than the surrounding town, which is 96% white. Here, the cooler of live bait coexists with the carafe of homemade chai. In the fridge, there’s both Red Bull and mango lassi. Your choice.

“Sam Singh, 27, drives between Flint, Mich., and northern New Jersey every other day. He stops at Eat Spice for meals during nearly every 10- to 12-hour trip.

” ‘We like Eat Spice. Everything [is] Indian food,’ says Singh, listing his favorites. ‘Chicken biryani, goat biryani, chicken saag, butter chicken, egg bhurji, paneer something. Everything.’ …

“While the average trucker is a 46-year-old white male, a growing proportion of drivers younger than 35 are women, Latinx or from another country. Immigrants from northern and western India, such as Singh, have flocked to the trucking industry.

“Many of the early adopters follow Sikhism and came in the late 1980s after fleeing ethnic violence in India, according to Gurinder Singh Khalsa, a Sikh community activist in Indiana.

” ‘They came out of the country to save their lives,’ he said, often fleeing before being able to go to college or acquire job skills.

“Devout Sikhs may wear their hair long and wrapped in a turban, a look that was not always welcome on U.S. job sites, according to Khalsa. … So many turned to trucking. …

“Pay is another draw. Somali driver Farhan Warsame says he makes significantly more driving his own rig now than he did in his old job, working warehouses in Kentucky.

” ‘I make a week, the money I used to make before… [in] a whole month,’ he says. ‘I make $1,200.’ …

“Steve Emery, who’s white, is another regular at Eat Spice. The 62-year-old trucker wears a Van Halen T-shirt and stands by the counter. He’s hungry after hauling a load of retail clothing from Akron, Ohio, to New Jersey.

” ‘I kind of had a taste for tuna today, but they didn’t have it, so I went back to the old faithful,’ he says, selecting a meatball sub from the ‘American’ portion of the menu. Emery has tried the biryani and says he liked it, but chose his comfort foods this visit.

“Eat Spice owner Raj Alturu, who lives in Allentown, Pa., says he wants his business to be inclusive of everyone’s appetites. When he and his business partner, Vamsi Yaramaka, bought the restaurant/gas station/snack shop about seven years ago, it served sandwiches. …

” ‘We’re trying to update [the] menu when we get requests from customers,’ says Alturu. ‘Once people hit the road, it can be a day or two before they get home. … At least like once a day or once every two days, you want to have the food you are accustomed to.’

“Take the spaghetti chicken curry. It’s based on a Somali dish that a regular customer asked for. A few minutes later, that regular walks in. Yousuf Dahar, 31, lives in Hopkins, Minn., and was born in Ethiopia to Somali parents. …

“Sean Yazici, who lives in Indiana, is an immigrant who has embraced the classic trucker look. He sports a cowboy hat, boots and a belt buckle the size of a saucer. A first-timer at Eat Spice, he is excited about the shish kebab. ‘I’m from another country, Turkey,’ says Yazici. For him, finding Mediterranean food at a truck stop feels like hitting the lottery.”

More at NPR, here. Some 2021 reviews of the restaurant are here.

1930s in Shanghai

Photo: Library of Congress.
Shanghai in the 1930s.

Something worth remembering as the need for asylum in our world grows every year, is that Shanghai accepted many Jewish refugees in the 1930s, where they joined an already thriving community of Jewish immigrants from Baghdad.

And as most immigrants do, these transplants made valuable contributions to their new country. Today’s story is about one such contribution in Shanghai: an unusual ballet.

Susan Blumberg-Kason writes at the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Jews in Shanghai have been the subject of many memoirs and novels. … Kirsty Manning’s The Song of Jade Lily (2018) and Rachel DeWoskin’s Someday We Will Fly (2019) are two recent novels that tell stories of Jewish refugees who fled to the Chinese city, one of the only places in the world that didn’t require papers back then.

“Other books have told of a Jewish community in Shanghai before the refugees arrived. Taras Grescoe’s Shanghai Grand (2016) and Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai (2020) center around Baghdadi Jewish families like the Sassoons and Kadoories, families that arrived in Shanghai a century before the onset of World War II. …

“Judaism is not a monolithic culture, as the different communities in Shanghai before and during the war show. Besides the refugees and the Baghdadi businesspeople, Shanghai was also home to Jews in the performing arts. Very little has been written about their contributions to Shanghai before the Japanese took over most of the city in 1937.

“These contributions centered around two people: Russian Jewish composer Aaron Avshalomov and American Jewish theater producer Bernardine Szold Fritz. …

“Avshalomov left Russia to study medicine in Zürich before the Bolshevik Revolution. … But by the end of the 1910s, he had decided to leave medicine and the US, and pursue a career in music. He moved to Shanghai.

“At the time, customs in this port city were not administered by Chinese officials, nor was it managed by French, British, or American authorities, all of which held local concessions. Because of these loose arrangements, Shanghai became a refuge for anyone seeking a new home. It attracted Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and Jews escaping pogroms. In Shanghai, Avshalomov worked with other Jewish musicians.

“Bernardine Szold Fritz was a Jewish actress-turned-journalist who fled three husbands before the age of 30, arriving in Shanghai in 1929 to marry her fourth husband, an American silver broker. Born in Peoria, Illinois, she had acted at Chicago’s Little Theatre before moving to New York and then Paris. …

“In Shanghai, Bernardine started a salon, bringing together Chinese and foreign writers, artists, musicians, and actors. In early 1933, she invited Avshalomov and learned that he had written a ballet, The Soul of the Ch’in, while living in Peking in 1925–’26. The ballet had been performed in Portland, Oregon, in the late ’20s, but had yet to be produced in China.

“Suddenly Bernardine envisioned a new project that inspired her to think beyond her living room. She convinced Avshalomov that the two of them together could produce his ballet right there in Shanghai. Not unfamiliar with the dance world, she was friendly with Ruth Page, the American ballerina, and her partner, Harald Kreutzberg, a German pioneer in modern dance.

“Avshalomov’s experience in China — he had already lived there for almost 15 years — and Bernardine’s theatrical background allowed the duo to bring a ballet to Shanghai that would appeal to all arts enthusiasts, both Chinese and expat. Bernardine also tapped into her connections in Shanghai’s financial, political, and artistic communities. She and Avshalomov knew members of the influential Soong family, including Madame Chiang Kai-shek (or Soong Mei-ling) and Madame Sun Yat-sen (or Soong Ching-ling), both avid patrons of the arts. The performance ran on May 21, 1933, at 9:15 p.m. at the new Grand Theatre. …

The Soul of the Ch’in was possibly the first Chinese ballet performed on a grand scale in China. … The event was even more remarkable because the cast of dancers was all Chinese, as were the set designers, dramaturge, and stage manager. In fact, the only foreigners on the crew were the costume designer and the person managing the lights.”

More at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here. There’s a full description of the ballet’s rather wild plot.

Outdoor Concerts Shine

Photo: Toronto Star.
The San Diego Symphony’s waterfront venue, the Rady Shell.

The pandemic made us take a close look at the possibilities of moving the performing arts outdoors. Maybe outdoor performance is a good idea even without a pandemic.

William Littler writes at the Toronto Star, “Yes, San Diego is an outdoors city, blessed with an enviable oceanside location and a climate worthy of a snowbird’s dreams. No wonder the local symphony orchestra wants to come out and play.

“It has an even better reason now, thanks to last month’s opening of Rady Shell in Jacobs Park, a downtown al fresco setting for up to 10,000 people, picturesquely surrounded on three sides by water.

“The setting is nature’s gift, slightly reminiscent of the days when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra had a popular series at Ontario Place. And I say slightly because Ontario Place offered the orchestra a shared residence in a multi-purpose facility, whereas Rady Shell was developed specifically as a home for the San Diego Symphony.

“Described as the only permanent waterfront performance space on the West Coast, the handsome shell stretches forward as if to embrace the audience, with a series of speakers lined up on each side of the upward sweeping, (imitation) grass-covered audience area.

“At an afternoon rehearsal I took the opportunity to walk around and sample the sound from different standpoints and was not surprised to find the best sound — which was surprisingly good — closer to the front, where most of it came directly from the stage. …

“The arrival of COVID-19 has led orchestras to seek ways to enhance their outdoor profiles.

“The Montreal Symphony Orchestra has taken to its city’s parks. The Boston Symphony Orchestra heads for Western Massachusetts and Tanglewood. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has Hollywood Bowl.

“Though never an ideal solution, Ontario Place gave the Toronto Symphony an opportunity to broaden its audience and lengthen its season.

“Rady Shell demonstrates what more can be achieved through years of careful planning. A community effort, because it is part of a park, 85 per cent open to the public, people have routine access to the site.

“According to CEO Martha Gilmer, the orchestra plans to present about 110 events there per year, including the first part of its fall season, thanks to San Diego’s friendly climate. …

“The Southwest is clearly America’s fastest growth area; witness the fact that Phoenix, Arizona, recently passed Philadelphia to become the country’s fifth largest city. A can-do attitude helps explain how the new facility was built almost entirely without government support.

“The architects clearly wanted to design a people place, even providing a 12-foot-wide walkaround with benches just outside the porous perimeter fence for those who would like to hear, if not actually see the concert, without buying tickets. During the opening concert I even saw passing sailboats pause to share the experience.

“Of course I am describing a special place, not the kind of home most orchestras could hope to build in their neighbourhood. But the need is the same, to reach out to more people in a friendly environment.

“The San Diego Symphony has obviously understood this: the opening event at Rady Shell was a full-scale symphony concert, conducted by its popular music director, Rafael Payare, who will add the Montreal Symphony Orchestra to his schedule in 2022, but the second event was a Broadway program presided over by a different maestro, and the third was a concert by Gladys Knight.

“Three substantially different audiences attended these concerts, testimony to the orchestra’s wish to open its doors wide. It is a strategy for survival for symphony orchestras in Canada as well as the United States.

“In the program handed out for the opening concerts, Payare declared unequivocally: ‘From the moment I first stood on the stage of what would become Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, I knew that it was going to be an incredibly powerful acoustic for the orchestra.’ ” More at the Toronto Star, here.

In related news, there’s an interesting New York Times article about an outdoor theater space that was launched by black-listed artists in the McCarthy era and got a new lease on life during the pandemic.

Refugee Kids with Cameras

Image: Ibrahim, 13.
The photography of Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, is featured with the work of other boys and girls in the book i saw the air fly, by Sirkhane Darkroom (Mack, 2021). Proceeds go to the Her Yerde Sanat-Sirkhane charity.

Today’s story is about trying to provide some fun for children caught in the failures of a grownup world. Adults of good will can’t fix everything for these youngsters, but whatever they manage to do can mean a lot.

Sean O’Hagan reports at the Guardian, “Serbest Salih studied photography at college in Aleppo, before fleeing Syria with his family in 2014 as Islamic State fighters advanced on his home town of Kobani. He is now one of an estimated 100,000 refugees living in the historic city of Mardin in south-eastern Turkey, just a few miles from the Syrian border. Having initially found work as a photographer for a German NGO, Salih’s life changed dramatically in 2017 when, while wandering with a friend through the city, he discovered a sprawling refugee community living in a group of abandoned government buildings in the working-class Kurdish district of Istayson.

“ ‘It was a place where Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds lived as neighbours, but did not communicate,’ he says, ‘They were strangers who spoke the same language. It was at that moment that I thought to use analogue photography as a means to integrate the different communities.’

“Working with Sirkhane, a community organisation, and with initial funding from a German aid organisation, Welthungerhilfe, he began hosting photography workshops using donated cheap analogue cameras. ‘Digital is easier and quicker,’ he tells me, ‘but the analogue process teaches children to look more carefully and also to be patient, because they have to take a picture without seeing the result instantly. For them, there is something therapeutic and healing about the whole process.’

“Salih now runs the Sirkhane Darkroom in Mardin and, since 2019, has travelled to neighbouring towns and villages with the Sirkhane Caravan, a mobile version of the same. Children from the age of seven come to his workshops to learn the traditional skills of shooting on film and processing the results in a darkroom. …

The results, as a new book, i saw the air fly, shows, are often surprising. Rather than reflect the traumas of their displacement, the pictures tend towards the innocent and joyous …

“Family portraits, blurred shots of their friends at play, children jumping, hiding, posing with their friends or tending their animals. Throughout, there are more intricately formal compositions that catch the eye: a cluster of hilltop buildings, the irregular geometry of electricity wires crisscrossing the sky. …

“The book has parallels with Wendy Ewald’s Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians, also published by Mack, in which she taught practical photography to kids from a poor rural community with often startling results. Like that project, i saw the air fly is a testament to the undimmed imagination of the very young, however impoverished their circumstances, but also to Salih’s faith in the transformative power of analogue photography. …

“As the children progress though the workshops, he tells me, they are given specific subjects to photograph. These can range from the everyday (the garden, the home) to the more socially aware – child labour, child marriage and, tentatively, gender issues. ‘Often, when we begin, the girls don’t think they can be as good as the boys,’ he says. ‘Sadly, that is what the adult world has taught them, but soon they are shooting pictures about their lives and experiences. The camera gives them the confidence to do that.’

“On the Sirkhane website, videos and photographs attest to the sense of wonder the children experience in the darkroom as the images they have shot finally appear. …

“Salih’s plans to ‘expand the caravan workshops so we can go to the most affected places’ have been put on hold since the pandemic began and he has had to teach online. ‘It has been difficult,’ he says, ‘because most of the children do not have smartphones or internet access.’ …

“The publication of i saw the air fly is a singular achievement. It is also, in many ways, a humble book – all the images have been selected by the children themselves, their often low-key charm attesting to the essentially democratic nature of the medium, and its ability to surprise. ‘People think that if you give a refugee child a camera, the results will be sad,’ says Salih, ‘but instead most of these photographs are all about joy. They are small moments of private happiness.’

“All proceeds from the sale of i saw the air fly will go to the Her Yerde Sanat-Sirkhane charity, whose aim is to provide ‘a safe, friendly and embracing environment’ for children caught up in conflicts.”

More at the Guardian, here.

A Giant Violin in Venice

Photo: Reuters via the Christian Science Monitor.
The giant violin above was built by Venetian artisans and carries musicians performing a live concert.

How have people around the world found a path to joy and laughter during the pandemic? In Venice, a giant, floating violin is providing fun on the Grand Canal.

As Elisabetta Povoledo reported this month at the New York Times, “In its 1,600-odd years, any number of phantasmagorical vessels have floated down Venice’s Grand Canal, often during regattas or elaborate ceremonies dedicated to the sea. On Saturday morning, a decidedly unusual head-turner took a spin: a gigantic violin, carrying a string quartet playing Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons.’

“The craft, called ‘Noah’s Violin,’ set sail accompanied by an escort of gondolas, and in no time a small flotilla of motorboats, water taxis and traditional flat-bottomed Venetian sandoli joined the violin as it glided from city hall, near the Rialto Bridge, to the ancient Customs House across from Piazza San Marco, about an hour’s ride.

“The vessel is a faithful, large-scale replica of a real violin, made from about a dozen different kinds of wood, with nuts and bolts inside, as well as space for a motor. In addition to the artistry involved, it took a lot of tinkering and nautical expertise to make it seaworthy, its makers say.

‘It was a novelty for us, too,’ said Michele Pitteri, a member of the Consorzio Venezia Sviluppo, which financed the boat and built it along with Livio De Marchi, a Venetian artist, who conceived the idea during last year’s lockdown.

“De Marchi named the work ‘Noah’s Violin,’ because like the ark, it was meant to bring a message of hope after a storm, in this case a message that promoted ‘art, culture and music,’ he said.

“It’s no coincidence that the journey down the Grand Canal was plotted to end beside the church of La Salute, Italian for health, in the Dorsoduro district, which was built as a votive offering to the Virgin Mary for deliverance from a plague that decimated the city in 1630. …

“The boat was steered by a helmsman dressed in a black cape and wearing a black tricorn hat like those popular in the 18th century. ‘I wanted him to channel the spirit of Vivaldi,’ De Marchi said.

“Leone Zannovello, the president of the consortium, said that the project had revived enthusiasm at the shipyard on the island of Giudecca, where it was made, after the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic. Companies and individuals who weren’t part of the group even offered to help out, he said. ‘It was something that united us even more,’ he said. ‘We worked with our hearts.’

“On Saturday, Zannovello and others followed the violin down the Grand Canal on sundry boats, palpably proud.

“ ‘Bravo Livio!’ a voice cried out in praise of De Marchi.

“ ‘Bravi tutti!’ (‘Well done, everyone!’), De Marchi responded.

“It was mostly smooth sailing, though De Marchi mumbled anxiously whenever the prow (the neck of the violin) veered too sharply to one side or other. But even though the musicians played standing up (barefoot for a better grip), they scarcely missed a note. At one point the score for the viola flew off the music stand and into the water, but it was quickly recovered.

“ ‘Let’s just say that between the wind and the waves, it was challenging,’ said Caterina Camozzi, the viola player, after she was back on dry ground. Tiziana Gasparoni, the cellist, chimed in to say, ‘as a Venetian and a musician, it was the most moving experience of my life.’

“As is often the case in Italy, the real hitches along with way were bureaucratic.

“ ‘We were told we needed a vehicle registration plate, but officials didn’t know how to classify it,’ said Mario Bullo, a carpenter in the consortium. At first, they were issued the same plates given to rafts. ‘But the traffic police objected, saying that’s not a raft, it’s a violin,’ he said with a shrug. In the end, city officials worked it out. …

“ ‘The artisans in the city never stopped during the lockdown. Even if they couldn’t work with their hands, they still used their brains,’ said Aldo Reato, a local lawmaker who arranged for the half-dozen gondolas to accompany the violin. ‘There is no one better than a gondolier to represent the city’s traditions,’ he said.

“It’s not the first time that De Marchi, an artist known for sculpting household objects or clothing in wood, has created large-scale floating works. He began with an origami-style paper hat made of wood, in 1985, and since then he’s put several large-scale wooden objects out to sea, including a woman’s shoe, a pumpkin coach with horses, and a variety of cars, including a 1937 Jaguar, a Volkswagen Beetle and a Ferrari convertible.

“People gathered over the Ponte dell’Accademia and along the paved banks of the Grand Canal to watch the floating concert that included works by Bach and Schubert. …

“A brief ceremony attended by members of the consortium and their families and friends, followed. De Marchi made a speech, and commemorated the relatives of people who had worked on the violin who had died before seeing it finished. The Rev. Florio Tessari blessed the violin and said he hoped it would ‘travel the world as a message of hope.’ There has been interest in the violin from businesses in Italy and a museum in China, De Marchi said.

“The musical entertainment continued there along with toasts and a singalong of sorts.

“Zannovello, the consortium president, said he hoped the violin would serve to showcase Venetian crafts after a slow and difficult period. ‘I am convinced there will be a return,’ he said.”

Do check out the photos at the Times, here, and enjoy the grins of people just having fun.

Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for MoveOn.
Jean Evansmore of West Virginia, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaking at a rally on July 19, 2021
.

It’s not news that the attitudes of the people who raise you help to make you who you are. Activist Jean Evansmore, brought up by grandparents in West Virginia, never knew she was poor. What she knew was that her family worked hard and had dignity. Their self-esteem has carried her through life.

Courtland Milloy recently wrote about Evansmore at the Washington Post. “When Jean Evansmore was growing up in West Virginia coal country, her grandfather did two things that would have a profound effect on her life. He showed her how to plant a garden and, by his own example, let her see that just because you were poor didn’t mean you were lazy or stupid.

“Her grandfather, Webster Evans, earned between $2.50 and $5 a day in the 1920s if he could blast loose, load and haul at least five tons of coal from the mine where he worked. Today, low-wage workers make about $7.50 an hour.

“According to the Poor People’s Campaign, which focuses attention and resources on poverty, about 40 percent of West Virginia residents are poor or low-income. And as in much of the nation, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Since 1979, income for the top 1 percent in West Virginia grew by about 60 percent, while income for the bottom 99 percent fell by 0.4 percent, the group said. …

“Evansmore, 80, [is] one of the chairpersons for the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. That is a branch of a national faith-based activist civic organization founded by the Rev. William J. Barber II. In remaking the Poor People’s Campaign that was started by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Barber has cited poverty, racism and ecological destruction as culprits in the spiritual bankruptcy of the nation.

“The people of West Virginia know firsthand just how damaging poverty and not having a voice can be. One hundred years ago, in August 1921, thousands of coal miners gathered in Madison in preparation for a trek to Logan and Mingo counties. Several workers had been arrested for attempting to organize a union in both places.

“To reach their incarcerated co-workers, the miners had to cross Blair Mountain. … The miners lost what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. But years later during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, reforms were made that eventually would give miners safer working conditions along with better pay and health care.

” ‘What we should have learned from that history is organizing makes a difference,’ Evansmore said.

Just as the miners in the Battle of Blair Mountain were of different races and ethnic groups, Evansmore, who is Black, hopes the same diversity can be achieved in organizing the poor today.

“Her goal now is to teach more people about the fight for justice in the state. She encourages everyone to tune in to city and county council meetings. She writes letters to elected officials and newspaper editors, often expressing her dismay at how out of touch they are with the struggles of everyday residents.

“And she protests, carrying signs in opposition to proposed cuts to programs that help the poor — even if only a handful of people join in.

“ ‘Because people are told that poverty is caused by some character flaw, a lot of people won’t even admit they are poor,’ she said. … “Sometimes, she tells them about how little she knew about economics as a child.

‘I didn’t even know we were poor,’ said Evansmore. … ‘We were used to eating pinto beans six days a week and chicken on Sunday. The only time we knew something was wrong was when we had to eat beans on Sunday, too.’

“But after graduating from high school in 1958, she left the state to stay with relatives in New Jersey. It was a different world — one with well-insulated homes and indoor plumbing, not outhouses. She eventually enrolled at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Then she got a job with Raytheon, first as a secretary and later working her way up to a buyer in the submarine signaling division. … In 2012, she returned home for good.

“ ‘I vowed that nothing would run me out of West Virginia,’ she said. ‘If I didn’t like something, I’d just stay and fight it.’ ”

More at the Post, here.

Photo: Taylor Luck.
Saudi university graduates tour the rock inscription at Jabal Ikma, one of several sites dated to the ancient Arab kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan that are spread out across Al Ula, northwest Saudi Arabia, March 7, 2020.

Residents of Saudi Arabia have been learning recently about two previously unknown, ancient civilizations on their peninsula — making them proud to be recognized for something beyond oil.

Taylor Luck reported at the Christian Science Monitor, “Tarek never knew his daily commute was in the footsteps of ancient Arab kings. The 30-year-old Al Ula resident runs his hands over the exposed brick and rock inscriptions he has known since a child as ‘the ruins,’ listening as a tour guide lists the achievements of the tribes that built a kingdom on these sands 3,000 years ago.

“Squinting at the rock-carved tombs in front of him, he sees something greater than a civilization: a connection.

‘They prayed, they grew dates, they performed pilgrimages and welcomed visitors to the oasis like we do today,’ Tarek says as he stops to pose for a selfie in front of a rock engraving. ‘They lived just like us.’

“Today Saudi authorities and archaeologists are unearthing and promoting Dadan and Lihyan, two Arab kingdoms whose traces have lain under sand and obscurity for centuries. Cited in the Old Testament and ancient Greek texts, the ancient kingdoms once ruled vital trade routes.

“Saudi citizens are pointing to the kingdoms as proof not only that this arid region was home to civilizations centuries before the modern oil boom, but that the people of Saudi Arabia are the latest in a proud lineage stretching back millennia – that there is more to being a Saudi than oil and religion. …

“While most of the Middle East and Mediterranean were rich in legendary city-states, the vast Arabian deserts were, for generations of archeologists and academics, flyover country of little note or historical value. A blank spot on the map of the ancient world. If they were so great, where are the monuments? Where are the cities?

“The cities, it turns out, are still being unearthed. And what has already been uncovered of Dadan and Lihyan in the deserts of northwest Saudi Arabia has turned conventional wisdom on its head.

“Here in Al Ula, the remnants of these sprawling desert kingdoms from the first millennium B.C. are woven into the landscape: Temple columns, 1-meter-thick brick walls, rock-carved tombs, detailed statues, and inscription-scrawled boulders poke out among date farms, houses, and newly-established eco-resorts.

“Most of what scholars know today of these kingdoms is from the hundreds of rock inscriptions scrawled across the area in the Dadanite language, a Semitic offshoot, telling of kings and pilgrims, migrant communities, and daily life and death. And taxes. …

“ ‘This is their library, a collection of their civilization and stories carefully carved into stone,’ says [tour guide] Thuraya, who was trained to interpret rock art. ‘Lihyanites and the Dadanites … were advanced kingdoms that you could put in the same sentence as ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia.’

“The Dadanites controlled the lucrative trade of incense – namely frankincense – which was cultivated in Yemen and carried on camel caravans through Dadan en route to temples in Pharaonic Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, where this fragrant tree resin played an important role in religious ceremonies. …

“ ‘Incense was the petrol of the times, this is why Dadan flourished,’ says Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, an associate professor at King Saud University in Riyadh who has been leading excavations at Dadan for the past decade.

“What has been excavated speaks to their advancements: one temple features perfectly square tombs and intricate lion statues carved into the rockface. At another, wells and an 8-foot-tall stone basin believed to have been used for ablution by pilgrims coming to give tribute to a pantheon of gods suggest an advanced water management system.

“In the fifth century B.C., another tribe built upon Dadan to create Lihyan, an empire extending west into the Gulf of Aqaba and Sinai and north toward the Levant. What has been uncovered speaks to the Lihyanites’ influence: two imposing larger-than-life statues of Lihyan kings, standing like half-robed pharaohs, were recovered at a Lihyanite temple. … Local residents say they have seen ‘dozens’ of statues and human-shaped stone idols over the years while picnicking in the valleys. 

“This is likely because Lihyan’s economic juggernaut was built not only on incense trade, but on tribute paid at its temples. It also was a hub for dried dates, which have grown in abundance here for nearly 3,000 years and travel well on weekslong desert treks.

“Today, this same oasis accounts for one-third of Saudi Arabia’s date production and is renowned across the country. … Such was Lihyan’s fame, ancient Greek cartographers and Pliny the Elder referred to the Gulf of Aqaba as the Gulf of Lihyan, a name that was in use for three centuries.

“But then, shortly before the first century B.C., the rival Nabataeans from southern Jordan inhabited Lihyan and transformed it into the town of Al Hajr, or Hegra, the second city of their empire. Within years, all mention of Lihyan suddenly stopped.”

Imagine! Three hundred years of fame and then nothing.

Hard to read about archaeology without thinking of Shelley’s poem:

“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains.” 

More at the Monitor, here.

Photo: Embassy of Switzerland in the United States of America.
The Swiss embassy has created a bird sanctuary in the heart of Washington, DC.

When a Swiss bird lover became the ambassador to the United States, he was horrified that his embassy in Washington was maintained like a golf course. He decided to create grounds more welcoming to birds — and did a big favor to everyone who cares about biodiversity.

Molly McCluskey reports at Audubon magazine, “When Jacques Pitteloud arrived at his new home and office in the fall of 2019, he was dismayed to discover the state of the property. As Switzerland’s new ambassador to the United States, he had a piece of prime real estate in northwest Washington, D.C.,— a historic six-acre stretch of land that once was a farm called Single Oak. Now it hosted the country’s sleek, modern residence, and an embassy under renovation. But the grounds looked and were treated like a golf course.

‘I felt a tremendous amount of guilt and shame when I took over the residence,’ he says. ‘Golf courses are nice to look at, but they’re ecological disasters. … [Now] we have so many fireflies at night, it’s like fireworks.’

Normal diplomatic life was soon upended by the pandemic, and since then he’s been on a mission to rewild the expansive grounds, aiming to create a biodiversity reserve marked by the native plants of the region. He forbid the use of pesticides and allowed the lawn to grow out in spotty patches. Using resources such as Audubon’s native plants database and guide to birds, he worked closely with a local landscape designer, Aldertree Garden, that specializes in native plants. They uprooted all the non-native bushes and trees, such as ornamental burning bush and non-productive grass, and replaced them with meadows, bushes, and native trees, including white oak, scarlet oak, black oak, and others.

“Wildlife was also a part of his rewilding vision. Local beekeepers now manage the embassy’s colony of 50 hives, and he built a home for…

” ‘Within a short time, the results are amazing,’ Pitteloud tells me as he walks through the grounds, bending down from time to time to check on the plants or to take a closer view at the frogs in a newly installed pond. ‘We have so many more birds, butterflies. It’s incredible how quickly they returned. We have so many fireflies at night, it’s like fireworks.’ …

“Soon after his arrival in Washington, with the pandemic in full swing and diplomatic life thrown into disarray, Pitteloud immersed himself in local birding clubs and outings as a way of getting to know his new community and environment. His snapshot of an unusual Painted Bunting sighting on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park — a bird more typically found in Florida than in southern Maryland — was featured in the Washington Post.

“Pitteloud’s efforts to rewild the embassy and residence are a part of a growing movement of local embassies adding more natural elements to their buildings and grounds. The Finnish embassy prides itself on being the first U.S. Green Building Council LEED-certified embassy in Washington. The Irish ambassador’s residence has a low-impact, xeriscaped garden. The Tunisian embassy and residence both have wild, untamed pollinator gardens, in addition to vegetable gardens. The Canadian residence on Pennsylvania Avenue has beehives, and a community-engaged program around beekeeping.

“But the Swiss are perhaps going the furthest on the land they tend. Pitteloud says the efforts are labor- and cost-intensive, but he sees no other option. And staff in D.C. and back in Switzerland at the foreign ministry, he says, have largely applauded the work — especially as the effects of climate change, and the dramatic loss of birdlife around the world, gain more attention. Around the time he took the helm at the embassy, in September 2019, a team of scientists concluded that North America has lost some 3 billion breeding adult birds since 1970, with every biome impacted.

“The news hit Pitteloud hard: ‘We’re five minutes to midnight on biodiversity loss,’ he says. ‘In 30 years, we’ll have empty skies, with no songbirds left. We’ll have to carry bees around because we won’t be able to pollinate our agriculture.’

“Though the Swiss embassy in Washington is only one property, Pitteloud hopes that by fostering favorable habitats for wildlife and inviting in beekeepers and other neighborhood groups, he is engaging in a form of ‘environmental diplomacy.’ Essentially his goal is to set an example for others, whether local neighbors or other embassies (or maybe even the White House, a property whose garden is notably lacking in native plants).

“Because ambassadors and their staff often cycle in and out of their posts every few years, Pitteloud may never see the full effects of the landscaping changes come to fruition, but he hopes the legacy lasts.”

More at Audubon, here.

Photo: Deb Nystrom.
The Minnesota State Fair crowns a “Princess Kay of the Milky Way” every year, and for 50 years, Linda Christensen has been sculpting her head in butter.

OK, no laughing. A regular attraction of the Minnesota State Fair, which I visited when I lived in Minneapolis, is one that celebrates the dairy industry. It includes a pageant to select the year’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way. And for 50 years, Princess Kay and her attendants have had their heads sculpted in butter by Linda Christensen.

Cathy Free writes at the Washington Post, “Photos and paintings can be lovely, but if you really want to impress, get your likeness chiseled into a 90-pound block of butter.

“Every year at the Minnesota State Fair, a dozen young dairy pageant finalists are sculpted live as part of a spectacle, a tradition that dates back to 1965. The butter busts began as a way to bring attention to Minnesota’s dairy industry and have remained a draw since, as thousands of visitors show up every August to watch the painstaking artistry while a winner is named Princess Kay of the Milky Way.

“ ‘It would be hard to find a person in Minnesota who doesn’t know about Princess Kay of the Milky Way,’ said sculptor Linda Christensen, 79, about the contest naming a state dairy ambassador.

“For almost 50 years, Christensen has been the principal artist to create the busts. She uses a kitchen knife she calls ‘Old Faithful’ to carve the faces into salted butter. Each one takes about six hours.

“Now, after churning out more than 500 princess butter heads over nearly five decades, Christensen has decided to retire her knife. She turned her last 90-pound block into a creamy masterpiece at the fairgrounds last month from her glass-enclosed studio.

‘You learn to get used to working in a rotating glass booth with everyone watching you,’ she said. ‘You have to bundle up, because the temperature is set at 39 degrees. There probably aren’t a lot of artists who’d like to work with cold butter, but I really enjoyed it.’ …

“State fairs in Iowa and Illinois are famous for showcasing cows crafted from butter, but Christensen said she doesn’t know other artists who regularly sculpt the likenesses of live dairy models year after year. She said she admires the women she sculpts, most of whom come from dairy farming families.

“ ‘As kids, they knew what it was like to get up at 4:30 to help with the farm chores before catching the bus to school,’ she said. ‘They’re tough.’ …

“The Princess Kay of the Milky Way contest is not based on looks. It is a goodwill ambassador program focused on leadership skills and ‘promoting the goodness of dairy products,’ according to the Minnesota Dairy Princess Handbook. … The princess is selected based on how well judges think she will promote Minnesota’s dairy industry at trade shows and community events. Women who live or work on dairy farms are encouraged to compete in county contests every year, with the finalists advancing to the Minnesota State Fair.

“The top dozen ended up in Christensen’s see-through butter booth as she chiseled their likenesses into edible works of art.

“The princess is selected based on how well judges think she will promote Minnesota’s dairy industry at trade shows and community events. Women who live or work on dairy farms are encouraged to compete in county contests every year, with the finalists advancing to the Minnesota State Fair. …

“Christensen began the niche portraits in 1972 when the American Dairy Association of Minnesota (now known as Midwest Dairy) was looking for a new artist to make giant princess butter heads at the state fairgrounds in Falcon Heights, outside of St. Paul.

“Christensen had recently graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and was recommended by one of her instructors to make sculptures of the pageant’s finalists. Christensen worked as an art teacher at the time, but she thought two weeks of butter sculpting would be a fun way to make extra money, she said. She didn’t imagine she’d remain for nearly 50 years. …

“The Princess Kay of the Milky Way pageant — named in the 1950s by the winner of a public contest — wouldn’t have been the same without Christensen’s sculpting talent, said Molly Pelzer, the CEO of Midwest Dairy.

“ ‘Linda’s butter sculptures have helped solidify [the pageant’s] iconic place in Minnesota culture,’ she said.

“Past winners have included Kristi Pettis Osterlund, who in 1996 was crowned as the 43rd Princess Kay of the Milky Way. She took her butter bust home to Winthrop, Minn., where it was kept frozen in a meat locker until the last month of her reign. She then decided to melt down her likeness and serve it to her community to slather on corn on the cob. …

“She and her mother fired up the largest slow-cooker they could find, cut the butter head into big chunks and melted it one batch at a time, she said.

“ ‘I remember cringing when my mom took a butcher knife to the head,’ she said. ‘That was a little emotional for me. But it was such a fun and memorable party. I’ll bet we easily had six or seven quarts of melted butter.’

“Donna Schmidt Moenning, a Princess Kay finalist in 1980, opted for a different approach. Moenning shared the back half of her butter bust with friends and neighbors in Marietta, Minn., for baking projects. But then she froze the face portion. It’s still sitting in her deep freeze, next to the pork chops, she said.” More at the Post, here.

And at CBS, here, you can see three sisters posing with the butter sculptures they have preserved. Jeni Haler says, “We’re a generation of butter heads. My mom was a butter head. And I have two older sisters that were also butter heads.”

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