Forum Holitorium

Category: Water

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!

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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!

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!

Elemental Experiences

Last weekend I retreated into the green folds of the Alps and had the pleasure of meeting a writer whose work I admire. It was by chance that I discovered the work of Ulli Olvedi. While scanning the books on the shelf at a café last summer, I came across her book Wie in einem Traum (Like in a Dream), the story of a young Nepali girl who becomes a Buddhist nun in her quest to follow her own path through life and find answers to the fundamental questions we all ask. I was immediately impressed by the clarity of the Olvedi’s prose and the compassionate depiction of a strong female character. Since then, I have read several of her other books  – both fiction and non-fiction. And then I found out that she was going to be giving a seminar on Tibetan healing meditation at a center for Buddhist studies just a few hours away. How could I pass up the opportunity?

The seminar dealt with how to keep the energies of the five elements in the Tibetan tradition (earth, water, fire, air, and space) in balance so as to prevent illness from occurring. It is believed that illness starts at the level of subtle energy before it manifests itself physically in the body. A typical meditation exercise involved focusing our attention on an experience we had had with a specific element and observing the feelings that arise. When I meditate, I usually focus on my breath or on the sounds around me. Visualization is a bit of a challenge for me, but it helped that the subject of meditation was my own embodied experience and I could drawn on other sensory memories.

sun-and-moon-and-stars

At the end of the seminar, we received a kind of homework assignment: to reflect on our own unique relationship to the five elements. Which element is the strongest in me? Water. Which element am I striving for? Fire. Which element provides me with support? Earth. These are my initial responses, but I would like to explore this topic in greater depth.

May the constellation of elements in your life be in balance!

And We Observers, Always, Everywhere

I fell in love yesterday, love at first sight, with a pine tree. It was a lopsided tree with branches reaching in all directions except towards the path. Es bleibt uns vielleicht irgend ein Baum an dem Abhang, daß wir ihn täglich wiedersähen/There remains for us perhaps a tree on a slope that we see every day, Duino Elegy 1. My hand on its rough bark, I was struck by the clarity and honesty of this feeling, all the while accepting that we could not stay together unless I were to remain perched on a rock high above the sea, warmed by the sun and drunk on the resiny smell of my beloved. Tempting as it is, my destiny is leading me in another direction.

I finally did it. After thirteen years of wanting to visit Duino, Italy, and walk along the cliffs south of Duino Castle, the place where 104 years ago Rainer Maria Rilke heard the first line of what became the Duino Elegies, I found myself on the Rilke Trail, rereading the first lines of the poem about angels and the terrible power of beauty. It was a dazzlingly beautiful day yet with no dread in sight, just sailboats on the blue Adriatic and green brush and trees growing on the white chalk cliffs. The castle was built on the ruins of an ancient Roman military fort. As I walked along the trail, I became slightly unstuck in time and imagined what it must have been like to walk along these cliffs two thousand years ago in a linen or wool tunic, delighting in the warmth of the sun on my bare forearms, breathing deeply. Looking, watching. Ich bleibe dennoch. Es giebt immer Zuschaun./Nevertheless I remain. There is always watching. Elegy 4.

Hiersein ist herrlich./Being here is marvellous. Elegy 7.

This summer, a friend and I vowed to read through Rilke’s The Duino Elegies in the original German. And we did it. When you tackle a difficult work, especially one in a foreign language, the task of the first reading is simply to orient yourself in the text. Upon finishing it, I decided I needed to reread it and focus on a few main themes in order to make sense of the work and come up with a coherent interpretation of my own. So now I am in the middle of this rereading of the elegies. I love how Rilke comes back again and again to the importance of observing, of watching, of learning how to see the world (this is also a topic in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which I intend to revisit this winter).

Being in Italy is always a treat for my senses, especially taste and smell – the best coffee around, sweets laced with lemon and pine nuts that are not cloying. But I am trying to focus more on cultivating my sense of vision, actively looking on more and observing what is going on around me. Paying attention creates a connection between me and the world. When I am lucky, I feel as if I can share in the joys and sorrows of those around me and have tapped into the stream of life. In Palmanova from Caffeteria Torinese: the excited children running around in anticipation of the fun to be had over the weekend as amusement park rides were being set up on the main piazza. In Aquileia in the basilica: the creatures of the deep captured for millennia by the careful creators of mosaics. In Grado: the local Gradesi working hard to cater to the swarms of tourists still arriving to enjoy the summery weather while dealing with the milestones in life (the basilica was the site of at least one funeral and two weddings on Saturday).

May the act of observing connect you to the stream of life!

Nice Mon Amour

The first Christmas I spent away from my family was in Nice. I was 34 and my aunt and godmother had died of pancreatic cancer in April, a handful of sand slipping through our fingers in the short span of three months. When someone you love fades so quickly, when you look into the face of death, it shakes you and questions you can’t afford to ignore start haunting you. What do I really want? What have I always dreamed of and still haven’t done? What will I regret not having done if death were to come calling on me soon? One of my answers was spending time on the French Riviera in winter. So I bought myself a train ticket to Nice.

Sometimes you need to do things for yourself that the people you love do not understand at the time, things that are connected to the private realms within you that normally remain out of sight yet steer you along your path through life. That year was a year of transition and often painful transformation, and it was clear that I needed a time out to nourish my soul. Nice symbolizes a time I dared to take care of myself and make a dream become reality.

I started my day with a coffee and a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais, appreciating how winter felt and envying the Niçois who could do this every day, sitting and staring at the Mediterranean in all kinds of weather.

Christmas on the Riviera was so markedly different from what I had known before – palm trees decked out with white lights, oranges ripening on the trees, the Christmas market serving up socca, the ultimate in street food, a chickpea flour flatbread baptized in olive oil. This ancient city has a remarkable wealth of art and I was able to go to museums devoted to two of my favorite artists, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. No city on the Mediterranean would be complete without mosaics, and this mermaid and merman are still working hard to keep things in balance.

Nice has recently been catapulted into limelight because of the painful events of Thursday evening. I feel it is important to revisit and share my positive memories of Nice to affirm the beauty of that city and to prevent all the negative images flooding the media from sticking to it. My heart goes out to those who were on the Promenade, those who lost someone they loved, those who stared into the face of death and are now asking themselves those important questions.

A few years back, I had a conversation with an unhappy, grizzled, chain-smoking man who stated that the world would be a better place if more people listened to the music of Georges Moustaki, the great French singer-songwriter who died in Nice in 2013. I agree. Here are the original French lyrics to one of his songs followed by my English translation.

 

Le Temps de Vivre

 

Nous prendrons le temps de vivre

D’être libres, mon amour

Sans projets et sans habitudes

Nous pourrons rêver notre vie

 

Viens, je suis là, je n’attends que toi

Tout est possible, tout est permis

 

Viens, écoute ces mots qui vibrent

Sur les murs du mois de mai

Ils nous disent la certitude

Que tout peut changer un jour

 

The Time to Live

 

We will take time to live

To be free, my love,

Without plans and without habits

We will be able to dream our life

 

Come, I am here, I’m just waiting for you

Everything is possible, everything is allowed

 

Come, listen to these words that vibrate

Against the walls of the month of May

They tell us of the certitude

That everything can change one day

 

Listen to some Moustaki and take good care of your soul!

Spreading My Wings

Europe is like that: go a mere two hours away in any direction and you may find yourself in an entirely different landscape and climatic zone. Head northeast from here and you end up where the Alps give way to the Pannonian steppe. Forming part of the border between Austria and Hungary, Lake Neusiedl, or Neusiedlersee, is the westernmost steppe lake and is located in a closed drainage basin. Unlike most lakes, whose waters flow into rivers that ultimately meet the ocean, it loses water only through evaporation and seepage. Most of its periphery is protected by a layer of reeds within which a rich variety of birds feel at home. The small town of Rust touts itself as the “city of storks and fine wine.” Intense sunshine and headache made me focus on the former, not the latter.

An association in Rust works to maintain adequate habitat for storks, and near the main square where the town meets the lake, benches in the shade face a protected area where you can sit and admire the birdlife. A stork taking off, flying, and landing is a sight to behold. Egrets, ducks, greylag geese, and many other birds I am not expert enough to identify go about the business of their lives here.

Before I spent two years living in Poland, I was mostly indifferent to these birds who showed up in folk tales dangling babies from their beaks. During my travels around that country, I encountered these birds in the wild, spying them flying above or strutting their way through fields, and their lanky grace and staccato clattering call delighted me. When they clatter, they often bend their heads back to touch their bodies (contortionist storks, anyone?), and like with swans, I envy their suppleness. Though their numbers have diminished because of pesticide use, loss of habitat, and encounters with electrical wiring, they don’t seem to hold it against us and choose to live side by side with humans, often nesting atop houses. They are thought to bring luck in many parts of central and eastern Europe including Austria and Germany, where they are humorously referred to as Meister Adebar. A Storchbiss, or “stork bite” is the word for a birthmark on the back of the head.

Yes, Lake Neusiedl is a fine place to be a bird, especially a migratory one. When you migrate, you depend on the wind to blow you where you want to go to conserve your strength. The wind constantly rustles and rushes through the reeds, furnishing a soothing soundscape that the still, shallow water does not. The sound reminds you that come fall you will shake your feathers and fly off to warmer climes. In the meantime, the screen of reeds hide so many attractive spots where you can hide from the gaze of stork cameras and humans, who mostly prefer not to sully their shoes tramping through the wetlands.

Trees play a supporting role in the landscape, and their shade is much appreciated as the sun beats down. The air is much drier and more pleasant than in Graz. Despite being underneath the final approach path to the airport in Vienna, the air at the lakeshore energizes and invites you to take a deep breath. Water, then reed belt, then vineyards as far as the eye can see – which is not too far because the foothills of the Alps lurk on the horizon to the west and north. To the south, where the storks will head in a just a few months, the eye rests on blue sky, puffy clouds, and shapeshifting dreams.

Hope you can spread your wings under a blue sky!

Musings on the Mur

This week I decided I would be better off spending less time bellyaching about not being where I would like to be and more time actively engaging with where I am. To use the language of the book I just finished by Karen Babine, Water and What We Know, it is time to stop regretting my not being in the homeplace, “where you return, no matter the occasion…where you go to remember who you are and where you will find those who will remind you of where you come from…where you go to remember what is really important and what is chaff.” It is time to start asking the two central questions of her book: “What does it mean to live in this place, on this particular day? What do we see when we look?”

The Mur River flows through the center of Graz, yet I have always felt the city is divorced from the Mur; it doesn’t feel like it is a true river city like Budapest or Paris or Ljubljana. Is it because the river is so much lower than the streets that you need to walk down a flight of stairs to get to its banks? The paucity of cafes and restaurants at river level? The strong current that makes you think twice about dipping your feet in it? Last summer a 15-year-old drowned in the river after he went in to cool off.

There was a time when I used to bike into the center every day on the riverside bike path. There was another time when I used to stroll along the path on the opposite bank. I do not spend much time in that part of the city anymore and forget that I can get close to wild (river) water whenever I like. This past week I took two walks along the Mur. As soon as I walked down the steps to the level of the river, the rush of water drowned out the traffic and city noise immediately.

The first walk was Friday evening. Even though the path was crawling with people of all ages out enjoying one of the first summery evenings this year, it was still possible to find a peaceful place where I could contemplate the river. The second walk was yesterday morning, when I was the only person out and about.

Babine makes a distinction between lake people and river people: as a lake is self-contained and complete, lake people don’t seek anything beyond the shore and have found what they need. River people are always looking for more and are compelled to keep walking. When I gaze at the Mur, I think of how all the water rushing by that started up in the Alps will ultimately reach the Black Sea. I imagine how it first flows into the Drava in Croatia, how the Drava then flows into Danube in that same country, how the Danube finally empties into the Black Sea. Rivers are the circulatory system of Europe, ensuring cultural and economic flow. Or at least they used to. When I look at rivers, this is what I see: source and confluence, past and future.

At heart, I am a lake person; maybe it is the influence of all these rivers I have lived near over the past 15 years that has kept me moving and looking for more: the Vistula, the Rhône, the Saône, the Moskva, the Mur. Crossing a river has always been an exciting experience, yet more exhilarating is how the wind off the lake sweeping down from the north whips my face, chilling me awake. But I digress.

What does it mean to live in Graz on this day? Summer has finally arrived, neatly coinciding with the solstice and full moon on Monday. Out with the summer dresses and skirts. What do I see? Sun warmed tiles that kiss my bare feet. Thriving strawberry plants that yield luscious berries. A linen bag taking shape quickly. A small lake in a glass of organic wine from the Penedès region in Catalonia. A fascinating new book on the history of women producing textiles.

 Enjoy seeing and being exactly where you are!