Monday, October 31, 2011

Mississippi Swans

On the spur of the moment, we decided to drive down to Alma, Wisconsin, on the east bank of the Mississippi, to see the swans that funnel through every year on their way from western Canada to Chesapeake Bay.

I booked a cheap motel in Winona and we set out Saturday morning. It was a brilliant day, blue sky, bright sun. A great day for a trip.

The swans evidently felt differently. Though Lake Pepin was beautiful and the bluffs above the road, from Maiden Rock to Chimney Bluff and beyond, were spectacular, there were no swans in Alma. We saw a shrike in a tree at one point during our drive down, but that was hardly a consolation. We followed some dirt roads north of the Chippewa River in an attempt to penetrate the Tiffany Wildlife Area, without success. There were a few widgeons intermixed with the coots and Canada geese at Reick’s Lake in Alma, where the swans normally congregate. From the heights of Buena Vista Park we could look down at the tiny fishermen in aluminum boats trying their luck below the dam.

The gentleman at the visitor’s center downtown told us the swans won’t come in until the weather turns bad. And in any case, he said, they don’t arrive in such great numbers as they used to. It seems the lake has been silting up.

Well, so it goes. On the plus side, the sloughs on the Mississippi look far less skanky than usual at this time of year, with golden leaves covering the forest floor and dappled autumn sunlight filtering down. And the remarkable Marine museum in Winona has added some choice new paintings since our last visit, including a very fine little Matisse. I wanted to take a picture of it but the docent wouldn’t allow it.

We explored the waterfront between Winona and Minnesota City as the sun was setting, and arrived at our motel feeling that we’d had a good day.

The next morning the sky was gray, the air was cold, and everything was wet, which gave a romantic sheen to the logos of the Target store and the Holiday Inn we could see across the highway from out our third-floor motel window. Yes, but what to do on a cold, rainy, pitch-black Sunday morning, 140 miles from home?

We decided to continue south along the river to Brownsville, near the Iowa border. The river fans out down there, with lots of shallow water and sand islands just stable enough from year to year to have been given names. You pass several houseboat villages along the shore. A few viewing platforms have been constructed along the highway.

Here, in the gray morning light, is where we began to see the swans, off in the distance to the right, almost out of sight. And hear them. Hundreds of them, honking. There were gadwalls and mallards, too. A few clumps of pelicans, drifting here and there as if in formation. Eight or nine egrets. Bald eagles sitting miserably on the ends of stubby deadheads a few feet off the water, off in the distance.

The rain was coming down in a light drizzle. There were very few cars passing on the highway. We stopped in several places, and finally found a good point from which to view the birds.

Had they blown in the with bad weather? I have no idea.

On the way back we took the backroads through the hilly country of Houston and Fillmore counties, stopping at Beaver Creek State Park for some watercress.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Edward DeVere for Me

I had a pass to see a sneak of the new Shakespeare movie, Anonymous, but our Happy Hour ran on too long, got a little too happy, and besides, the ramps at the West End Kerasote complex are a mess. The film fleshes out, in more ways than one, the increasingly popular notion that Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays we now associate with the Bard of Stratford.

I read a few of the early reviews, which were generally unfavorable. I’m not surprised. But along with the reviews, there has also been a steady dribble of condescending ink being spilled about how absurd it is even to suggest that the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays might still be in question.

I think it ought to be more widely known that there is very little evidence to suggest that the man from Stratford with whom many of us associate the plays actually wrote them…or anything else. In fact, every bit of genuine documentary evidence we have about the man could probably be listed in a three-page Word document. Much of the biography that academics take as established fact will be seen, on closer inspection, to have been largely spun from whole cloth and then transformed in time from supposition to unassailable truth. At a famous inquiry at the Folger library in 1949, one scholar was asked to present a single bit of documentary evidence from the playwright’s own time linking the man from Stratford to the authorship of the plays. After a good deal of hemming and hawing, he admitted he could not. And unlike other playwrights and scholars of the Elizabethan era, not a single one of the books he owned (if he owned any) has ever been unearthed. Strange.

This is a tiny bit of one side of the argument put forth by the Oxfordians: We know almost nothing about the man from Stratford, though millions of hours of research have been extended in search of it. On the other side of the coin, the Oxfordians point out that the correlations between the life of Edward De Vere and the plot of Hamlet, for example, are far too uncanny to be ascribed to coincidence.

Anyone who’s interested in the details can take a look at the Wikipedia article about the Oxfordian theory. The only point I’m trying to make here is that the Oxfordians are far from being the crack-pots we read about in the newspapers. Not all of them, at any rate. No less eminent a Shakespearean interpreter than Derek Jacobi stands among them. In particular, the patient, painstaking, and well-reasoned book by Charlton Osburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, spells out the arguments honestly and in masterly detail.

Aside from all that, my discovery of DeVere solved another problem for me. I could never understand why all the books I’d tried to read about the Man from Stratford were so boring. It’s because they’re full of speculative nonsense. “He must have walked along this….” Or “We can presume he sold his shares in the manner of…..” The man from Stratford was himself, as far as we know, very boring.

No one ever said that about Edward DeVere.

Friday, October 14, 2011


When Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel prize for literature last week, many people around the world uttered a collective, “Who?”

Perhaps half the people in Minnesota who follow such things were pleased, or at any rate, not overly surprised. This is not only because of the state’s Scandinavian heritage, but also because one of Tranströmer’s early translators and lifelong friends is Robert Bly, who is a literary institution in these parts.

I was biking with a friend on a rail-trail near Nisswa over the weekend, and conversation got around to the recent award. “I dug out this book,” my friend said, “to give him another chance…”

“I know the one,” I relied. “It has a purple cover with a painting by Vermeer.”

“Yeah, I read five or six poems…they just didn’t grab me.”

“I often take that book with me when we go up north. Yet I feel like I’ve never read it. Now Rolf Jacobson I like.”

And so it goes.

It’s a great thing that the Nobel committee still gives out awards to poets, and also great that the news can make the front page of the paper, or somewhere close. Everyone loves to dispute whether so-and-so is worthy, and who’s been unjustly neglected for too long.

Perhaps Tranströmer will someday return to the ranks of the obscure in the lengthening Nobel list, along with Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, and Henrik Pontoppidan. Maybe tomorrow. It doesn’t matter.

As I thumb once again through The Half-Finished Heaven, with its gloomy and enigmatic urban images and it bizarre nature-associations, I hit upon expressions that seem artificial and portentous to me:

The building not open today. The sun crowds in through the windowpanes
And warms the upper side of the desk
Which is strong enough to bear the fate of others.
That's a bad line. But in the next stanza things improve.

…If you stand in the sun and shut your eyes,
You feel as if you were slowly blown forward.
The narrator has come down to the beach—a place he rarely visits—to stand among “good-sized stones with peaceful backs.”

He concludes:

The stones have been gradually walking backward out of the sea.
I like that. There is a sense of things left behind and other things being noticed for the first time. A minimum of words.

The heaviness is not in what the desk bears but in the psyche of the man who too often sits behind it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Mysteries of Dürer

We had driven down to do a little birding at Swan Lake, a few miles west of St. Peter. A hundred years ago the lake was a market-hunter’s paradise, and thousands of ducks and geese were bagged there, packed in ice, and shipped immediately to the fancy restaurants in Chicago. Duck hunters still go there today, though more than half of the lake has been drained, and if you don’t have a boat or a canoe you’re not likely to see much. The cattails have overgrown the viewing platforms on the SE side of the lake.

Our best sighting was of a least bittern, typically an elusive bird, who was standing in the mud in plain view near the conservation club headquarters. We watched him picking up passing morsels from the muck for a good fifteen minutes.

After a pleasant picnic at Mill Pond Park, we drove up to the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College. It has a windswept feel, sitting on the top of the hill with miles of former prairie to the west and St. Peter, nestled in the valley of the Minnesota River, to the right. The arboretum is fit for a pleasant stroll. But we had it in mind to see a collection of Albrecht Dürer prints that were on display at the college’s Hillstrom Museum of Art.

The museum proved to be harder to find than the overgrown shores of Swan Lake. It’s tucked in the far basement of the student union without a single sign to guide the way. We asked around an eventually reached the empty museum. When I opened the door the attendant jumped about a foot. (I don’t think they get many visitors.)

The exhibit carries the title A Collector's Passion for Dürer's Secrets: the MAGJEKL Collection. The woman whose collection is on display, Elizabeth Maxwell-Garner, may be described, I think, as an amateur—in a good way. Her interest in the works of the great German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was kindled as recently as 2006. The Connecticut collector now owns more than forty of the master’s woodblocks and engravings.

The images themselves are stunning, for the most part, and Maxwell-Garner has studied them with a fresh eye. She has developed a host of theories that orthodox scholars would never have dreamed of about how they relate to Dürer’s Hungarian background and the petty urban politics of the time. Each one of her acquisitions appears to have a secret meaning that no one has explored before. How extraordinary.

To take a single example, Maxwell-Garner makes the commonplace observation that Dürer’s most famous engraving has been given the name Melancholia on the basis of a word that appears in the rendering, but that word is not Melancholia. It’s Melencholia. How are we to explain the discrepancy? She proposes that the lettering actually contains an inscription in Greek rather than Latin.

"Mele" means honey in Greek; "col," means "suffering." To pronounce these two words in succession word would have required adding a meaningless "N" in between. The "ia' at the end Latinizes the Greek. A "flourish" comes next, followed by the letter "I." She tells us that researchers have ignored this symbol, though it has a horizontal slash through it—a symbol for "returning." She suspects that the “I” at the end might actually be a “J”—perhaps a symbol for Jesus or Jehovah?

Thus Maxwell-Garner concludes that the lettering actually means: "in sweetness and in sorrow, returning to the Lord." She goes on to speculate that the various objects that clutter up the periphery of the engraving symbolize various relatives of Dürer who have died. Not quite satisfied with the simplicity of these speculations, she adds:

“It is my opinion this image is a tribute to all the Dürer relatives who had died by 1514, and specifically to his mother Barbara and his sister Margret (the eighth child in the family). I also believe that this image tells us that Dürer's family is of Hungarian noble descent, that they are possibly Jewish, that Dürer's mother Barbara functioned at some point as his woodblock cutter, and that his sister Margret helped him with his engravings.”

I can’t say whether any of this is true, though some of it is definitely hard to follow. The effect of such observations is to remind us that Dürer had a lot of things on his mind as he cut these images—both “meaning” and markets prominent among them. He also took a serious interest in mathematics. Some expert has determined that the large geometrical object in the engraving is a cube, first distorted to give it rhombus faces with angles of 108° and then truncated so that its vertices lie on a sphere. The picture also contains Europe’s first magic square.

Garner will be giving a public lecture on Sunday, October 16, in the Nobel Hall of Science in Wallenberg Auditorium at Gustavus. It might be fun to listen to this wildcat art historian speak.