the mountains of the South

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‘Before them stood the mountains of the South: white-tipped and streaked with black. The grass-lands rolled against the hills that clustered at their feet, and flowed up into many valleys still dim and dark, untouched by the light of dawn, winding their way into the heart of the great mountains. Immediately before the travellers the widest of these glens opened like a long gulf among the hills. Far inward they glimpsed a tumbled mountain-mass with one tall peak, at the mouth of the vale there stood like a sentinel a lonely height. About its feet there flowed, as a thread of silver, the stream that issued from the dale’ upon its brow they caught, still far away, a glint in the rising sun, a glimmer of gold.’

(Chapter VI ‘The King of the Golden Hall’ from The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien.)

The description would fit even better if I had been standing across the valley and facing where I stood when I took this photo. This valley is where the kingdom of Rohan was filmed in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I climbed to the top of Mount Sunday, the peak where Edoras stood, but there was no trace of the Golden Hall: the New Zealand government allowed Peter Jackson, et. al., to film here (and other places) on the condition that they would leave the area as they found it. Here, it meant GPS tagging every single bush in the immediate area, removing them to a specially made nursery with gardeners to tend them, and returning those bushes to their original places. Their incredible attention to detail was not only spent on constructing sets and costumes!

Photo: Rangitata River Valley seen from Mount Sunday, in the Southern Alps, New Zealand.

here, now: little red wagon

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When was the last time I had been to a plant nursery? Too long ago to remember; long enough to be amazed at the rows upon rows of plants in the open air nursery: on tables, hanging from rafters, organized by type or purpose. Our goal was to find the succulents and add to my small but growing collection of houseplants. I took the handle of a red wagon and pulled it along with us. Other customers with their own wagons passed by, their wagons filled to the brim with flowers of varying hues, or with herbs and vegetables, or others with plants I did not immediately recognize. Once my mum and I found the succulents, described as being “made by God with Texas in mind,” we chose a couple of ghost rosettes and hen and chicks. Nearby was a stand of miniature rosebushes. I already had one at home, but I had bought it from the supermarket and it was a bit unhappy. Here were miniature roses that were lush and full, with dark green leaves and vivid red, yellow, or pink blooms. I have an aversion to solid-colored roses of all three of these colors; I prefer multi-colored blooms. Among the other roses were three of the pinstripe red and white variety. I chose one and added it to our wagon. Perhaps it would inspire my other rosebush to grow.

Now I want to find a Mexican flower pot while I am in San Antonio to take back with me to North Texas.

Photo: Rainbow Gardens in San Antonio, TX.

like liquid silver

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At the turn of the year (a few years ago) I stood on a boat on a loch in the north of Scotland. The fog hung low over the water; it had frozen crystal on the branches and the leaves. It was barely mid-afternoon and yet it was already turning to dusk, turning the trees that came down to the water’s edge into dark shadows. A castle looked out over the loch. It was the kind of afternoon to make its ghosts wander the deserted grounds. The water, thick and dark with peat, reflected the silver sky as though it was itself made of mercury. One could believe the stories of creatures living deep beneath the surface, staring up at the world from the other side of a mirror. I had never seen anything like it. I would visit this loch again three more times over the years, but never again did I see the waters of Loch Ness move like liquid silver in the twilight.

(And to think, my camera had run out of battery earlier in the day. My mother let me use hers, which had, inexplicably, refused to focus. All of the photos I took are as blurry as I see the world without my glasses. The only photo from that afternoon that came out clear is this one, and it best captured the experience we had on the loch.)

Photo: Loch Ness in Scotland.

on academic distance

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I was discussing with my students the topics they have chosen for their “Explaining a Concept” essays during their House Tutorials yesterday. One of my students chose “religion” as her concept. I’m fine with that, as long as she does her research properly and I know that I will workshop how to research in class tomorrow. It’s also a chance for me to teach a different concept: academic distance. And it didn’t take long for me to demonstrate just that. As part of the group discussion for how she could focus her paper topic, another student said, “You could say how religions change. Like how there were Catholics and then the Christians came–”

“Catholics are Christians,” I said automatically.

“But Catholics pray to angels and believe in the Virgin Mary and Christians don’t,” said another student.

“Actually, Catholics don’t pray to angels. Catholics are Christians.”

“Are you Catholic?” they asked. To which I replied, “Now, about your topic, one way you can focus it is by choosing something specific…”

Which means, of course, they think I’m Catholic. Explaining the finer points between Catholicism and Anglo-Catholic Episcopalianism would take too long; also, my denominational preference doesn’t matter. They don’t understand that what I personally believe did not matter in that discussion: factually, Catholics are Christians. Catholics don’t pray to angels. As for saints and the Virgin: veneration is not the same thing as worship. “Praying to” the saints relies on the premise that all Christians, living and dead, are the body of Christ. “Praying to” a saint is, in a sense, equivalent to asking a friend to pray for you. Now, we could talk about the “cult of the saints” during the Patristic and Medieval periods, but that would be different–because it is in a different historical context.

You can be familiar with a subject without being that subject. It is possible to research a topic without being personally invested in that topic. It is possible to research a subject without putting your own beliefs “at risk.” If you are afraid of that happening, then perhaps you need to question the strength of your convictions. Investigating opposing or alternative viewpoints to your own is not a weakness, but a strength. And when you are personally invested in that subject? Challenge yourself. Identify your bias, become aware of it. Then you can set it aside. You can’t completely detach yourself from your bias; it will keep you company, sprawling on your papers, occasionally getting in your way, like a cat would, while you do research on that subject. Maintaining academic distance requires you to be intensely self-aware.

One of the things I try to teach my students is the habit of critical thinking, the practice of questioning everything, to not accept generalizations at face value. Question the source. Who are they? What authority do they have on this subject? Where are they getting their information? Are their sources credible? I can lecture, I can demonstrate, I can give examples–but whether they take any of it in is up to them.

Photo: Chiesa di San Francesco in Lodi, Italy.

stairs to the queen’s garden

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The castle, built on a hill, had several levels; one level’s roof might be another level’s courtyard or garden. Not all of the gardens were ornamental. The gardeners tended vegetables, too: an architect’s provision for if the castle came under siege. As was the moat that filled at high tide. But they had been conquered without coming under siege. The invaders had simply entered through the city gates, at her invitation.

She now stood beside a low wall at the end of one such garden, traditionally referred to as the Queen’s Garden. And she had, indeed, made use of it. Fountains bubbled in each of the four corners and, larger, in the center. Two sides were lined with orange trees, with cushioned divans beneath their branches. One end of the garden opened into a covered patio which joined the palace. The opposite side, where she stood, faced the east. From here she could see both the city and the sea. She need only turn her head, look south, to see the gate the Caspar had entered, and the tree-lined avenue where her husband had been killed. She did not know by whom.

The Queen’s Garden was still hers, even though she wasn’t queen anymore. Caspar had annexed her country; now she was duchess to the Caspar duke. The barons blamed her for the Caspars’ coming and for the king’s death. Hadn’t she, after all, suggested they invite the envoy?

No longer holding any responsibility for the duchy, she often read poetry in the orange grove. Her new handmaidens didn’t like that she read, but she shouted down all of the curses from the Bedzi gods and her Akkadian ancestors that–even if they didn’t understand a word she said–they stopped trying to keep her from the library or from taking books out to the garden.

And of course, the Queen’s Garden was on one of the higher levels. She could access it from inside the palace, which, though longer, was a less grueling climb. However, she often chose to take the outer stairs. She enjoyed seeing her handmaidens, red-faced and puffing, as they collapsed onto the divans in the shade. The Caspar were not made for the Bedzi sun, and she took what victory she could, however small.

But, leaning against the wall, she, too, felt weak. The Caspar women, feigning confusion, refused to taste her food when she ate alone, and so she allowed herself only the food from her new husband’s plate at dinner. She did not know who wanted to kill her more: the Bedzi barons or her Caspar step-son.

What she did know was that she wanted to stay alive.

Photo: Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon, Portugal.

here, now: morrison’s corn-kits

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The air in the prairie, in the city, is not as clear as the air by the sea. Full of dust and pollution, it lends a different quality to the sky, a warmer tone, perhaps, a haziness, as the sky darkens into night. Against the pale orange and grey sky stands one of the city’s landmarks. I was momentarily confused when I first saw it, months ago now. “I didn’t know Morrison’s was here,” I thought, thinking of the supermarket I would often go to in the UK. But of course, this wasn’t a supermarket. Morrison’s Corn-Kits has been manufacturing ready-to-make cornbread mixes for nearly a century; it has been a mill for even longer. This is one building I don’t mind rising above the horizon. Despite still being in use, it has a neglected, abandoned quality to it; a nostalgia for times past. Some buildings seem to have grown out of the land–something about their design, their age, I can’t quite put my finger on it–so that it feels as though they have always been there, or, at least, belong there. When I see Morrison’s Corn-Kits, I feel its connection to the land and the community. It is rough and bare, as the land the farmers would have tended to grow their wheat, their corn, to bring to the mill. And yet, it also feels like some version of Dr Eckleburg’s eyes for North Texas, watching the city’s comings and goings in this dry and flat dusty land, keeping its judgment to itself.

Photo: Morrison’s Corn-Kits in Denton, TX.

where I haven’t been

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I have a stamp in my passport from a country to which I have never been.

Countries that are part of the Schengen Area in Europe stamp your passport whenever you enter or exit that area–not whether you enter or leave a specific country. The agreement allows for greater freedom of movement within most of Europe (a convenient arrangement, even if it does come at the expense of fewer stamps for stamp collectors like me). The stamp also shows your mode of transportation, whether you arrived or departed by plane, train, or ferry. I already had train and plane stamps in my passport; I was excited to finally get the ferry stamp on my trip to Croatia.

When Jo and I queued up to board the ferry in Trieste, Italy, I expected to go through customs at the port. When we didn’t, I thought we would at the dock in Pula, Croatia. Unlike other ferries I’ve been on, the seats inside this ferry were aisled like they would be on an airplane. We managed to get seats by the window, where we watched as the Mediterranean coastline passed by, Croatian guidebooks and phrasebooks sitting on our laps. At some point, Italy became Slovenia and we came into port. Some passengers left, others boarded, and with them came a Slovenian customs officer. He took up all of our passports and, after a few tense moments (as is the case whenever my passport is taken from me, however legitimately), returned them. Jo’s passport came back empty, due to being a British national; mine came with a stamp saying that I was departing Slovenia by ferry.

That is, I was exiting the Schengen Area. My passport was stamped at the last port in the Schengen Area before crossing into Croatian territory.

I feel a bit like it’s cheating, to have a stamp from a country I haven’t actually visited. It does, however, give me another reason to visit Slovenia someday.

Photo: Slovenian coastline.