Saturday, March 30, 2013

[Last week we were away in Nicaragua, now we are not. But in order to maintain the illusion of immediacy, I am going to pretend, here in SQD, that we are still in Nicaragua. Even though we are not. In Nicaragua it is very hot and dusty, and anyone can tell you that I will never use my laptop in a dusty or sweaty atmosphere because I am just a tiny bit OCD on the subject of keyboard cleanliness. Also in Nicaragua, we had infrequent Internet connections and dicey electrical power, conditions not conducive to blogging in the moment. That is why we have the willing suspension of disbelief.]

Ometepe is an island in Lake Nicaragua, now more properly called Lago Cocibolca, and it is the largest volcanic island in a fresh water lake in the world. You may not know this fact. I have been to Nicaragua countless times and I did not know this fact, but CSB’s son Colby, who is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua, did know this fact. It was his idea that we go to Ometepe with him, and it was an excellent idea. However, while we were in Nicaragua we were told – often - that Ometepe is the largest island in a fresh water lake in the world – without that all important adjective: volcanic – and I spouted that fact to several people and insisted that yes, of course it is larger even than Manitoulin in Lake Huron. For which assertion I apologize. Ometepe is only the 10th largest island in a lake, which is still very large. It is the largest volcanic island. There are two volcanoes: Concepcíon and Maderas. Concepcíon is a perfectly symmetrical cone and still active, having most recently erupted in 2010; Ometepe’s residents declined to evacuate. Maderas is lower (1394 meters) and dormant; its slopes are covered with rain forest and there is a lagoon inside its crater. The two volcanoes are connected by an isthmus, which gives the island the shape of an hourglass, or a dumbbell, or mismatched breasts, or a bikini top. So quite naturally the island’s creation myth involves a pair of star-crossed lovers, Ometepetl and Nagrando; their parents will not allow them to marry and as a result they prefer to die together. In death, Ometepetl’s beasts swell up to become the twin volcanoes of Ometepe, and a furious rain floods the valley to create the lake.

To get to Ometepe we take a ferry from San Jorge to Moyogalpa. The ferries are famously old and rickety, but you can sit on the bridge and have spectacular views of the island.
At Moyogalpa we get off the ferry and walk into a cloud of tiny white motes, gnats, bugs, flying insects. We don’t know what they are, but they envelope the entire port, they fly into our noses and ears and mouths; they cloud our vision. They don’t sting or bite us, but they make us very nervous. They feel like a plague. Later we will learn that these are chayules, miniscule gnats that come with a change in the atmospheric pressure, and the wind blowing in from the lake. They hatch en masse, live for three days and then disappear. That was the explanation we got, and it is a relatively good one, until we start to wonder: why? Why do they exist? As insects go they appear to be entirely pointless, and yet the more I learn about insects, the more I realize that most of them have some kind of function; it may not be a function I can selfishly appreciate, but they have one. They rely on other creatures, and other creatures rely on them, for food, for aid in hatching, for dissemination, for the entomological meaning to life. So why do chayules exist? If you worry enough about that question, you will mind less picking them out of your nose and spitting them out of your mouth.
From Moyogalpa we drive along the shore and then across the isthmus. We drive very carefully because if there is one thing the Ometepeëños don't want, it is for you to drive too fast. The road, the only road, is interrupted randomly and often by sleeping policemen. If you chance to drive too fast over a sleeping policemen you can easily rupture your gas tank or oil pan, and then you can provide income to whatever local mechanic is lurking nearby in the shade of a palm tree. Watching the gringos slam on their brakes a few seconds too late is a schadenfreude-ish form of entertainment.
By sheer luck, and CSB’s brilliant mastery of Nicaraguan roads, we arrive unscathed at our hotel, a recently renovated banana finca on Playa San Domingo.
It takes about an hour to get there, and then another 15 minutes on the rough road through the banana fields. Until we see the vast lake again. It does indeed look like an old hacienda. A man with a high pitched – almost falsetto – voice greets us as if he knows exactly who we are;he brings us fruit drinks, and shows us to our rooms. We appear to be the only guests, until a bald & chatty Brit wanders over. Meanwhile, we never register and never tell Señor Falsetto our names. Perhaps he thinks Colby is a movie star and we are his aged handlers. We lie on hammocks that swing between the columns of the porch in front of our rooms. He tells us about the howler monkeys that will wake us in the morning. He is knowledgeable about local plants used as natural dyes.

Every morning and evening, a young boy on a horse leads his cows and a few horses down to the beach and they amble into the water to bathe. I assume they are bathing. Then they retreat to the shaded palm grove. I have no idea what the cows and horses do all day long.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The most wonderful (sparkling, luminous, head-scratching) art I have seen of late is a floor covered with sifted hazelnut pollen at MOMA, in the Marron Atrium – that big open space where I have also seen Marina Abramovic stare at someone for hours on end (she stared for hours, I did not), and also a collection of a Chinese woman’s hoarded objects that included every used toothpaste tube she ever had.
Since CSB built our observation hive, I have become far more intrigued by, and intimate with, pollen than I ever could have imagined. Every spring the bees start bringing it home in their pollen baskets, and packing the nutritious grains into their honeycomb. Because we have such a variety of plants here, we get to see a wide range of pollen, in colors that go from carnelian red to orange orange to sunflower yellow. For a brief time when the scilla take over a patch of lawn, they bring in blue pollen. But never very much blue pollen, never enough for the atrium at MOMA.

The pollen covering the floor at MOMA is hazelnut pollen, which the artist, Wolfgang Laib, collected personally on his property in Germany. Given that Laib is not a honeybee, and is not anatomically blessed with pollen baskets on his back legs, he has to collect the pollen manually, purposefully and laboriously. Accompanying the show is a video of Laib in Germany, with jars full of yellow pollen, sifting pollen through a cheesecloth, and collecting pollen from conifers. Sadly, the video does not show him collecting hazelnut pollen. Which is rather a shame.

When I described the show to my friend LB her nose started to twitch and her eyes started to tear up. “How many allergy attacks were there?” she asked. It had never occurred to me that this pollen field posed a public health threat. “With all that pollen flying around?”
“It wasn’t flying around,” I insisted. “It was just sitting there on the ground, glowing.”
“But with all those people breathing and walking around, it had to be agitated.”
This seems like it should be the case. But I was staring at this big square of pollen, and I did not see anything flying around. Not a single grain. LB suggested that the artist or the museum must have secured the pollen with some fixative. But I insisted that there was no fixative. And the more I consider it, I think the reason the pollen shimmered is that it was in fact moving just the tiniest bit.
Especially because it was hazelnut pollen, which is anemophilous. Most fruit trees bloom and then pollinate in the springtime, but not hazelnut trees. Their pollination occurs in the winter: wind carries the pollen from the male catkins to the female flowers, and there it rests until spring when the actual fertilization occurs.

We still don't know why there wasn't an epidemic of sneezing at MOMA last month. Yes, last month. I regret to say that as usual I saw this show at the last possible moment, and as of yesterday the show has closed. Wolgang will be sweeping up the pollen and funneling it into jars - a process that is sure to agitate the grains even more than your breath or mine - and then he will sell the jars to collectors, who will probably not feed it to their beehives.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

More apian SWAG

Just when you thought it was impossible to acquire, or even conceive of, more bee-themed articles of clothing, check out what your BFF found in Vermont. CSB, being such a snappy dresser himself, is eager to squire me around in my fetching new hat. He may even borrow it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Her car, the virgin

In general I don’t get overly excited by birthdays, but there is an exception to every rule, and every year on this date (actually two days ago, I am running late, so please pretend) I make an exception because it is my grandmother’s birthday, the original Reine, my beloved Bonne Maman.
But in all these years of privately celebrating her birthday – she would be 111 today – I had never realized that she and the AAA (American Automobile Association) both entered the world on the same day (March 4, 1902). I don’t know what time she was born, nor do I know at what time of day the AAA was officially born, but I plan to look into this. Let us presume Reine was born at 3 a.m. on March 4th, in Mons, which is a not unreasonable guess, given how babies prefer to born in the tenebrous pre-dawn; in which case it was only 9 pm of March 3rd in Cleveland, Ohio, where the AAA came into existence. So for the purposes of this connection I am attempting to make, we are going to presume my grandmother was born after 6 am.
If the AAA began with the start of the business day, say 10 am, on March 4th, in Cleveland, then it was still March 4th in Mons. So if Bonne Maman was born anytime before midnight that night of March 4th, then there is absolutely no problem about claiming that she shares a birthday with the AAA. In other words, we have to consider when March 4th in Mons overlapped with March 4th in Cleveland: from 6 am to midnight in Mons and from 12 am to 6 pm in Cleveland. Even if the AAA didn’t officially begin until the end of the business day, say at 5 pm, when it would be 11 pm in Mons, then can we still claim their shared birthday.
This gets complicated, as such things often do.
And why is this important?
Because driving in cars played a small but significant role in the lives of my Belgian grandparents. We will briefly address my grandfather, Bon Papa’s fondness for driving. It was a serious fondness. In Egypt he was a member of an Automobile Club, which was not quite like the AAA that shares his wife’s birthday. As far as I can tell, the Egyptian Auto Club was a group of European men who liked to leave their chauffeurs and wives behind, and go driving into the desert. That is all I know.
Meanwhile, Bonne Maman never drove in Belgium or Alexandria or Indo China or Cairo. She was driven. (And unlike her daughter, SBM, she did not find this objectionable.) Then Bonne Maman and Bon Papa moved to the US to be near their daughter and son and assorted grandchildren, and discovered that in the US it is almost impossible to find gentle chauffeurs named Mohammed. Since Bon Papa had a stroke and could no longer drive, Bonne Maman finally had to learn, in her late 50’s.

She bought a beige Oldsmobile with a Fisher body. How do I know this? For all that I know about - and obsess about - my grandmother, I had no idea what model car she drove. I barely know what model car I drive. So this is what I did: First I searched and searched the Internet for grandmother-appropriate cars of the 1960’s, and found nothing that remotely resembled the car I remembered Bonne Maman driving. Then I emailed my siblings and cousins, and my cousin in California is responsible for the phrase “with a Fisher body” which is exhibits a degree of auto-savvy light years ahead of anything I could aspire to. The car was equipped with an early version of automatic transmission, with only 3 speeds. At some later time an air conditioning unit was installed in the middle of the dashboard, so if you sat in the middle of the front (bench seats of course) you could get blasted into Irkutsk.
The important thing about Bonne Maman’s car was that it was a Virgin.
By a virgin, she meant it had no dents or nicks or bruises, that it was as perfectly intact and pristine as it was on her first day on the road. Some grandmothers might like their pubescent granddaughters to be virgins; Bonne Maman apparently only valued virginity in a car. And miraculously, this car remained a virgin, long after it had been driven into the garage wall, long after it both suffered and inflicted numerous dents, scratches, scrapes and hematomas, long after it straddled a fire hydrant and received a speeding a ticket in Wyoming. This car was gave witness to the triumph of pixie dust over epistemological evidence.
“But she is still a virgin,” Bonne Maman repeated in her lovely French accent, each time the car returned from the body shop.
This was all meant to lead us to my road trip story, about the time Bonne Maman and I drove her virginal & re-virginized car out to California, where I would go to college and she would live nearby in Santa Barbara to keep me company. It was a great road trip. But it will have to be told another day. The important detail is the wooden pomegranate.

Also born in 1902, though not on March 4th, were Charles Lindbergh, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Ray Kroc and Ogden Nash. Bonne Maman outlived them all.