Forum Holitorium

On the Cusp of Winter

The promise of snow did not pan out as I had hoped. I had imagined waking up to glowing white outside, looking down from my cozy room in my refuge with a view of the forest and delighting in the arrival of winter. But I have enjoyed just a few mornings with a liberal sprinkling of powdered sugar that melts as soon as the sun warms the earth. When I find such a layer on top of apple strudel, I try to tap it off with my fork. Why ruin one of the few desserts that is not overly sweet with extra sugar?

Winter may come soon enough but most likely after I return to the city later this week. It has been a year of cultivating patience in many areas of life; I guess this will apply to enjoyment of snow as well. How fickle I have become, yearning for the next season when the reds and oranges of fall are still on view. Perhaps my focus has shifted a bit. On my walks in the woods, I have been distracted by my four-legged companion Kati. Wire-haired dachshunds approach the world differently than we do. Whereas I am content to breath in the smell of spruce and let my mind wander as I stroll, Kati stops every few meters, nose quivering, ears giving away how much more alert she is than I to the subtle smells of the forest. Or she takes off at a good clip, excited to be out and stretching her legs, stopping impatiently when she reaches the end of the leash to wait for me to catch up with her. Walks are not supposed to be this strenuous. I spend more time contemplating her than the trees now, noting how her hind legs are rarely in perfect alignment with her front legs as she trots along in front of me and anticipating when she will try to leave the path to sniff and explore dead grass. Leisurely contemplation while walking will need to wait until Kati is reunited with her owner.

I have come to the conclusion that dog ownership is best left for people who live in the countryside, people who wish to lose weight, people who do not shirk from taking responsibility for the welfare of another being, and people who can handle the smell of meat. I am just a temporary dabbler, an adjunct dog sitter, and do not inhabit the space in the Venn diagram where these categories overlap. Far from it. Yet my week with Kati has shown me how quickly a good natured dog can win even me over.

May you see the world differently through the eyes of an animal!

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Middle High Autumn

I find myself happier with less. I find I no longer need to seek things out; instead, the important things and ideas find me. I find myself listening. Looking. Observing. More. Not enough though, because I nearly stepped on a fire salamander, so engrossed I was in a conversation, my thoughts darting to possible futures instead of taking in the wonders in front of me.

Fall brings with it a quiet of its own. I am at a point where I am interested in seeking out new rhythms and focusing more on the silence between the beats. When I need to clear my head and breathe deeply, I head to the forest. Somehow the colors of the leaves – those on fire as well as those stalwartly green – seem more vibrant to me this year.

In September I read two books that found me, two books not on my reading list. The first was The Abundance of Less by Andy Couturier. Couturier interviewed ten people living in rural Japan who are treading softly on the earth by making do without money as much as possible. One of the people he interviewed said that we human beings want things because we have too much information, yet the changing weather and seasons are enough. Another says you need a life where you can be aware of nature and perceive it closely.

I stop to admire water drops on leaves and walk away carefully, leaving them for others to appreciate.

The second book was Being the Change by Peter Kalmus. One of the important messages is that although we cannot save the world, we can still change it, and every action counts. Kalmus is a climate scientist who has slashed his CO2 emissions by ninety percent. He writes eloquently about the change in perspective that is necessary to temper global warming and speaks from his own experiences with meditation about how practicing can lead to greater equanimity. What if more people cultivated equanimity?

What both books have in common is the ethic of choosing not to take everything we can take. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it should be done. Opting out is often a very good option. I don’t need to climb a mountain to appreciate its beauty and be changed by its presence.

Snow has already fallen in the Alps. In the valley where I am typing these lines, freezing temperatures were predicted. Instead of a dusting of frost on the grass, my observations early this morning revealed two magpies in a linden tree nearly devoid of leaves. It is darker longer, and the silence of evenings is intoxicating. Apples are at their peak of crispness; wool begs to be knit into sweaters.

May you choose not to take everything you can!

 

In the Kingdom of the Monarch

When I hear the word butterfly, I see a monarch butterfly. Still common in my hometown, this was the only butterfly I could identify until relatively recently. I was happy to see quite a few on a visit a few weeks ago to Richard Bong State Recreation Area, one of Wisconsin’s state parks. According to its homepage, the area was slated to become an airport for jet fighter planes but was spared at the last minute – as in shortly before the concrete for the runway was poured. How the world desperately needs more of these happy endings!

Monarchs thrive on a diet of milkweed, a plant that produces prickly pods that split to reveal silky seeds.

Pesticide use in North America and deforestation in Mexico, where monarchs spend the winter, have a direct impact on the monarch population. For readers in North America, growing milkweed in your yard is just one way to help out the monarch butterfly. Refraining from using pesticides also helps pollinators like the one in the picture below.

It has been good spending these past few weeks where remnants of the Midwestern prairie yield to Lake Michigan. The unseasonable heat and lack of rainfall is troubling, yet my wish to be here in this familiar landscape while the weather was summery came true.

The colors and the sounds (especially blue jays, crickets, and cicadas) have been soothing, the expanse of the sky a reminder of how limitless and open life can be.

Soon I will be experiencing the Alps in autumn, covering up with wool sweaters and opening up my umbrella. But now it is time to listen to the breeze whispering through the prairie grass and soak up a little more warmth while I still can.

May you enjoy the colors, sounds, and vistas around you!

My Salzkammergut Summer

Summer 2017 is drawing to a close. I have spent a fair share of this one in the northeasternmost reaches of the Salzkammergut, Austria’s lake district, getting to know places like Lake Traunsee. Gmunden is a pleasant small town located on its northern shore. During the monarchy, it was a popular resort area complete with an esplanade, casino, and paddle steamer; today it is known for its distinctive ceramics and Schloss Ort, the castle jutting out into the lake that is a popular venue for weddings. The stunning view of the mountains hasn’t changed since the fall of the monarchy, and you can still take a ride on the lake on the historic paddle steamer Gisela (built in Vienna in 1871).

Swans can also be spotted paddling around Lake Traunsee as well as many of the other lakes in the Salzkammergut. Another lake I have gotten to know this summer that is frequented by swans is the smaller and less touristy Lake Almsee. Ducks and other birds whose names I do not know enjoy the fresh clear water.

You can walk along a trail that follows the very green eastern shore of the lake.

Lake Almsee is at the southern end of the Alm Valley and can be reached via Grünau, home of the Konrad Lorenz Research Center, where research is conducted on the behavior of greylag geese. At the end of the road running through this valley lies a nature reserve and this view of the mountains that protect it to the south: the Totes Gebirge (dead mountain range).

It is hard to write about these pictures and come up with words besides beautiful, stunning, or enchanting – this landscape is truly incredible and speaks to me tremendously at this moment in my life. I should probably stop worrying about my limited vocabulary and just keep enjoying what is in front of me. As I took pictures, I thought of how futile it is to try to reduce the view into such a small image – I guess blogging is ultimately an exercise in futility.

During my Salzkammergut summer, I have spent time observing the behavior of cats, pied wagtails, deer, wasps, flies, and dogs. I have seen red currants ripen and be picked. Now is the time of blackberries and apples, and soon the time will come for these elderberries to be separated from the bush they grew on. Perhaps they will become elderberry syrup that is mixed with sparkling water to make a refreshing drink.

Yes, summer is coming to a close. The next time I visit the Salzkammergut, it will be another season. And like many a bird, I am now readying myself for a long migratory voyage to another lakeshore.

Enjoy everything beautiful, stunning, and enchanting in what remains of this summer!

Dog Days

The dog days: how the ancient Greeks and Romans referred to the period of time when the star Sirius, thought to represent Orion’s dog, rose before the sun. It is mentioned in Homer’s The Iliad as the star of the harvest that boded ill and brought fever. The dies caniculares (Latin for dog days) are indeed upon us here in Austria. After a brief respite from this summer’s fourth official heat wave (or canicule, as the French would say, from the Latin canicula, “puppy”), the temperatures have gone up yet again. To beat the heat, I have been taking to the forest in St. Radegund.

Named after the sixth century saint, a poet and healer reported to have eaten nothing but legumes and green vegetables, St. Radegund is a small town at the foot of Mount Schöckl 15 km northeast of Graz. First settled in the sixth century, it became a popular spa town in the nineteenth century thanks to its radioactive springs.

Many Hungarians came to take the waters, some of whom donated a statue of St. Elizabeth of Hungary to show their gratitude for being healed. This statue graces one of the springs along the “Ungarische Runde“, or Hungarian Walk. On this bench you can take a break from your stroll and contemplate the Hungarian Madonna.

The well-shaded Hungarian Walk continues through the woods, passing by numerous springs and Kneipp cure stations. Sebastian Kneipp was a Bavarian priest who healed himself of tuberculosis by bathing several times a week in the cold waters of the Danube. He developed the Kneipp cure, a form of water therapy that involves immersing the body in cold water to stimulate circulation as well as encouraging a whole foods diet, herbal treatments, fresh air, and movement (preferably barefoot). He also had a penchant for hand spun linen and hemp clothing instead of wool.

Since my normal body temperature is quite low, I shudder at the mere thought of a cold shower, but it has been so hot in the past few weeks that I have found myself wading through the Kneipp pool alongside the trail and dousing myself with fresh cold mountain water to cool off. Yes, a Kneipp cure makes good sense as soon as the temperature rises above 90° F / 32° C. Another favorite strategy of mine for keeping cool: ingesting copious amounts of raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries – all which can be found growing in the woods near St. Radegund. I think Father Kneipp would have probably approved.

The spring above is for the lazy (paresseux). I can only speculate why it is labelled in French although located in a German speaking area. Perhaps the Hungarian guests were all of a certain class whose education included learning French to be sophisticated? A heat wave is a good time to laze about and avoid activity as much as possible – perhaps on one of these wooden chairs.

It is incredible how much cooler the temperature is in the forest. How fortunate we are here in Austria, one of the few countries where the area of forested land is actually increasing. Nearly half of the country is covered with trees. Every second one cubic meter of wood grows, and more wood is produced than is harvested. As the climate becomes warmer, it is important to have places to take refuge where you can still enjoy being outside, breathing in fresh air, and drinking safe water.

Hope you have a nice spot where you can keep cool during the dog days!

Lenzingtide

Happy spring! Though I peeked my head out of the cave in February, I retreated back into my lair until spring arrived. The German word for spring is Frühling (früh = early). In Austria you often hear the word Frühjahr (“early year”) as well, most commonly in connection with Frühjahrsmüdigkeit (“spring fatigue or lethargy”). This refers to the tiredness many feel this time of year attributable to hormonal changes that occur as the body emerges from winter mode and wakes up again. The flip side of spring fever, I suppose. Another older word for spring that mainly appears in song and poetry is Lenz, short for the word Lenzing (“long day”) that was formerly used to name the month in which spring begins. The days are indeed longer this side of the vernal equinox, allowing more time to appreciate color.

Colors that recur provide comfort and connect us to the season cycle. Currently I see yellow all around me. March is yellow with forsythia, the shrub shown at the top of this page that does things in reverse by flowering before producing leaves. March is yellow with primroses peppering the lawn. Though the flowers and leaves are edible, keep your hands off Primula vulgaris – it is under protection in many European countries including Austria. March is yellow with daffodils and tulips, the favorites of many a gardener.

Yellow is the cover of Julia Cameron’s book The Right to Write. It made its way into my collection years ago. I am finally reading it in an attempt to answer the question: What role should writing play in my life? Yellow is the color of a tattered folder holding sheets of paper whose blank sides can be used to print knitting patterns and rough drafts. And yellow is the color of cotton yarn on the needles taking shape into a runner for the pine dresser of my dreams.

May you enjoy the many shades of yellow around you!

Reentering Roman Territory

Dear readers, I have emerged out of hibernation, my Winterschlaf (literally winter sleep). I think you will be happy to hear that I am carving out a space for writing once again. My refuge of snow and ice has melted and I find myself back in Felix Austria, tracing a triangle between Graz, Klagenfurt and Vienna. Today I found myself heading to the small town of Tulln an der Donau for what I thought would be a peaceful stroll along the banks of the Danube in the late winter sunshine. By the time I got there, the sun had gone into hiding behind the clouds. Despite the chilly, damp weather, the journey was well worth it, for I received a gentle nudge to return to the Forum Holitorium from this famous man on horseback.

On the river walk in Tulln, Marcus Aurelius sits on horseback, contemplating the sleepy Danube in front of him. The area of Tulln was already settled before the Romans arrived to build the camp of Comagena along the Limes, the frontier that marked the edge of the Roman Empire and followed the curve of the Danube River. Little did I expect to find traces of the Romans on the menu today. The Roman Museum was still closed for winter, but I was able to admire the Römerturm (Roman Tower), one of the oldest buildings in Austria that dates back to the 4th century. It is also one of the few antique structures north of the Alps preserved in its entirety and has been used as a repository for weapons as well as a storehouse for salt.

Besides the Romans, Tulln’s other historic claim to fame dwells in the realm of myth. An event memorialized in the German epic the Nibelungenlied is said to have taken place in Tulln: King Etzel (otherwise known as Attila the Hun) proposes to Kriemhild, widow of Siegfried, in Tulln. They marry and live not quite happily ever after down river in the land of the Huns. There is a statue with a fountain on the river walk commemorating this momentous occasion. My previous exposure to this Germanic saga was limited to a theater production of Friedrich Hebbel’s Die Niebelungen, and I must admit it extinguished any interest I had previously had in reading the German sagas. The Nibelungenlied is a medieval crime story about the murder of Siegfried and his wife Kriemhild’s avenging of his death. I find revenge one of the silliest and most immature actions on earth. My eyes start to glaze over at the mere thought of trying to keep all the plot twists straight. Instead, I prefer to shift my focus to more peaceable creatures like this cute little rat that looks upon the scene of Etzel’s proposal to Kriemhild and laughs.

May only peaceable creatures cross your path!

Refuge of Snow and Ice

My wish came true: the refuge of a real winter, first a thick slab of snow smeared across the land, and now for good measure a cold pack of polar air to press it down and flatten us against the earth. On a day like today when it is -2 F / -19 C while the sun is shining, you are forced to keep your focus on the essential: keeping warm, guarding the flame inside you from any gusts that might extinguish it in a flash. Everything insignificant and trivial vaporizes and is carried away by the wind just like the steam fog that forms over Lake Michigan when cold dry air meets relatively warm moist water. The cold humbles me and encourages clarity and concentration.

The light at dawn casts a bluish tinge on the snow, imbuing it with a magical, eerie sheen. I have never been to Scandinavia, but my daily contemplation of the harbor has led me to imagine that there is a similar quality to light and shadow in lands further north, in settlements hugging the curve of the great water that has the upper hand on our planet. In such an atmosphere, the existence of elves and fairies seems more plausible.

Perhaps I have an affinity for birds because the cold does not stop them from their daily routine; they appear indifferent to contact with the frigid water. But where they have feathers, I must layer myself in wool and alpaca and be sure to keep dry, mere mammal that I am.

It was a fitting morning to start reading Gretel Ehrlich’s book The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold, a meditation on the significance of winter and cold in our lives and musings on what we will lose when climate change melts the glaciers and dilutes winter, further untethering us from the cycle of the seasons. What is the relationship between weather and our consciousness? One answer the book has given so far: the impermanence of weather mimics the shifting nature of our thoughts.

Whereas yesterday the wind tried out different patterns on the water, today the surface of the harbor is frozen. Who needs diamonds when the skin of the ice sparkles and dances in the sunlight? In such cold, thoughts and intentions, wishes and dreams readily crystallize and become tangible, easily identifiable. The cold will recede eventually, the snow and ice will melt, and the water will ripple and flow once again, tousled by the wind. I take refuge in the winter, pausing for a moment with the sun and taking stock of my life, clearly delineating both what has come to pass and what I wish for the new year.

May you experience moments of stillness, peace, and insight!

 

The Perfection of Mornings

The sun is visible again. Wind, rain, and grey vanished in the night while I wasn’t looking. The sky before dawn reverted to the normal procedure for welcoming a sunny day. Yet another last hurrah before winter sets in. Some days it is easier to appreciate the perfection of mornings. Today is one of those days; in fact, it is impossible to ignore the perfection of this particular morning.

As I peered through the gnarly hair of the tree, dusty rose and lavender bands rose from the waters.

As the hours of daylight continue to shrink, reducing their surface area to keep warm, sunrise is after 7 AM. I can position myself at the best table in the coffee shop for soaking up the rays that manage to reach the earth. This was the first morning in awhile that I could bask in the sun. Its power to warm everything in its path never ceases to amaze me. I touch my hair and feel how much warmer it is on the side of my head facing the window as I type these lines.

For the first time in days, dampness did not cling to the morning air and I took a long walk. What a perfect way to welcome the new moon.

The wind through the rigging of hibernating sailboats and the waves breaking on the rocks were singing a duet while the pines stood watch. An image of Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind arose in my mind.

The camera can handle all the brilliance of the sun that my eyes are not capable of beholding. Somewhere in this line of light, the moon hides between the earth and the sun, invisible once again.

May you be open to perceiving the perfection of all mornings!

Anchoring Myself

Each sunrise over Lake Michigan that I have experienced in the past five days has been progressively more dazzling. In her book An Unspoken Hunger, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “There are the patterns that awaken us to our surroundings. Each of us harbors a homeland, a landscape we naturally comprehend. By understanding the dependability of place, we can anchor ourselves as trees.” This is what I know deep in my bones: come morning, there is a fiery orb rising in the east over the ever rippling water, regardless of whether I can see it or not.

Like well-kneaded bread dough, this autumn is stretched out and refuses to break. What a joy that I did not arrive too late to enjoy the golden play of light. Moving inland, I took a walk through Petrifying Springs Park.

A letter surfaced from my grandmother, who was a great lover of nature and the Wisconsin woods. She wrote to me one fall many years ago: “The leaves are doing their annual dance to form a golden carpet.” The dance is mostly over for this year, but the carpet remains. My inner child revels in hearing the crunch of leaves at every footfall.

I ease myself into my natural rhythm of life here on the shores of Lake Michigan, greeting the sunrise by the lake, writing in my journal and catching up on good reading at my favorite coffee shop, taking a stroll along the harbor to the rocks across from the red lighthouse. After months of activity and change, this routine is welcome and healing. My ship has reached its home port and I ready myself for hibernation.

Everybody knows that the road leads to the spare snowy beauty of winter, that’s how it goes…But for now, enjoy the gift of a lingering autumn or at least a walk in the woods!