My Greek Year

Rather than discuss a year I spent in Greece (how I wish) or my membership in a sorority (which sounds like a nightmare), I will tell you about the completion of an odyssey started a couple of years ago. Whatever else 2020 might have been, it also was the year in which I finally reached my goal of reading Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Not the original versions, mind you, which would have required much study as my Greek language skills are next to nonexistent, but an English translation.

But which translation? After studying “It’s All Greek to Me” in my perpetual quest to get a better handle on antiquity, I followed the author’s recommendation and asked my husband for a birthday gift—the handsome boxed set of Homer’s classics by translator Robert Fagles. And while I dove into The Iliad right away, it took me a looong time to fight my way through the chronicle of the ten-year Trojan War, even though the book only discusses the final year of the action. My capacity was limited to absorb warriors’ genealogies on both Greek and Trojan sides, understand the seemingly arbitrary interventions of different gods, and stomach one war injury after the next, variously afflicted by spears, axes, or swords. The very detailed descriptions of human carnage would make a great study for trauma surgeons, who could conceive of an operative plan to treat the afflicted. If The Iliad is not required reading for future surgeons, it should be.

The Trojan War was fought because Helen of Greece either was abducted by Paris of Troy, or followed him willingly, leaving behind her husband Menelaus. He and his brother Agamemnon organized a fleet with various Greek tribes to sail for Troy (known as Ilium—hence the “Iliad” is a poem about Ilium) to bring Helen back. Agamemnon is chosen leader of the united Greek forces and is called a hero, but he is proud, selfish, and willing to risk countless lives by insisting on having the Trojan slave Briseis, who had rightfully been “won” by Greek warrior Achilles, for himself (the standard practice of rape is never questioned), after he is asked to return his own sex slave to her father, a priest. As a result, Achilles makes the equally selfish choice to no longer do combat for the Greeks, regardless of the havoc wreaked by his decision. His mind is changed only after Patroclus, his beloved friend, is killed. Patroclus was not a warrior, but he took up arms because he could not bear watching his fellow Greeks perish. His death puts Achilles in such a rage that he finally fights and is responsible for killing Hector, son of King Priam and Troy’s best fighter. This leads to the ultimate conquest of Troy with the help of the Trojan Horse, though I was surprised to learn that this is mentioned only in passing in the sequel to The Iliad.

This sequel, The Odyssey, was easier to get through even though it also abounds in accounts of graphic violence. But not all narrative strands deal with fighting. Many deal with human scheming, lying, and conniving, to say nothing of the childish, selfish, jealous, and otherwise ludicrous doings the Olympian Gods engage in.

The Odyssey is named for Odysseus, another Greek “hero” and originator of the Trojan Horse. He also makes countless poor choices and ends up losing all his men while they attempt to reach their home island Ithaca. The return trip takes another 10 years because the protagonist offends Poseidon by blinding his son, Cyclops Polyphemus. Odysseus eventually completes his journey because of divine help bestowed by Athena. After his homecoming, he suspiciously tests the loyalty of his wife Penelope, who has remained faithful to him for 20 years, while he has enjoyed sex with both mortal women and immortal goddesses. And despite having seen so much murder and mayhem, Odysseus is not yet ready to hang up his weapons. More bloodshed follows when he and his son Telemachus kill all the suitors who have tried to win Penelope’s hand while Odysseus was absent. The enslaved women who had “lain” with the suitors (whether or not they did so voluntarily is not considered), were brutally hanged.

Just as I was finishing Fagles’s 1996 translation of The Odyssey, a friend told me about a more recent 2018 translation remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only is it the first one by a woman, Professor of classical studies Emily Wilson decided to follow Homer’s lead and present the epic poem in verse. Instead of the six-footed lines (dactylic hexameters) that were the conventional meter in archaic Greece, she employed a meter English speakers are more accustomed to from reading Shakespeare and the like—iambic pentameter, which employs five-footed lines. And all this she did by holding the poem to the same length as the original, which makes it possible to open her opus on any given page and compare chapter and line numbers to Homer’s text.

The following examples illustrate the difference between the two versions. They represent the very beginning of The Odyssey:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.

Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,

Many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,

Fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home. (Robert Fagles)

_____________________________________________________________________________

Tell me about a complicated man.

Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost

when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,

and where he went, and who he met, the pain

he suffered on the sea, and how he worked

to save his life and bring his men back home. (Emily Wilson)

“I prefer the first example, “ you might exclaim, which was my initial reaction. I don’t mind effusive language and originally thought Fagles sounded more lyrical. But I changed my mind once I read passages aloud and was swept along by the sparse prose and musical rhythm of Wilson’s meter.

What did my Greek year teach me? In addition to refreshing my memory about a confusing litany of names, both human and divine, my understanding of the events surrounding the Trojan War and the subsequent fate of its protagonists was improved. I also learned that both authorship and age of these so-called Homeric poems are still debated by scholars today. Consensus exists that they arose from an oral tradition and were recited for live audiences before being written down anytime between the late eighth and late seventh centuries BCE, but who did the writing down is less clear.

It is not my intention to belittle these important touchstones of world literature, but however interesting and intriguing they might be, edifying they are not. They left me with the sense that humans have always been imperfect, bumbling, or even downright devious. The Iliad and The Odyssey don’t offer a solution to this perpetual dilemma, they simply depict our faults and frailties. And in the pantheon of Greek gods, not one is without his or her own foibles.

In addition to the works discussed, I also read the following two novels not once, but twice, as I found them very enjoyable and relatable. Both were written by Madeline Miller, also a classics scholar, and could be considered fanfiction at a very high level. They imagine the lives of some of the characters of Homer’s opus in detail and present them as more fleshed out beings.

Please share your impressions and thoughts if you have had your own version of a Greek year or are familiar with any of the books discussed here.

Everybody Welcome

In honor of Black History Month, allow me to introduce you to a remarkable woman who once called Colorado Springs home. On October 26, 2019 our city welcomed a new sculpture in front of the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts. The life-size figure depicts Fannie Mae Duncan (1918-2005) in her mid-30s, elegantly-attired, enthusiastic, and with her right arm extended in a greeting gesture, epitomizing the motto that became her credo, EVERYBODY WELCOME. Plans to create the first local statue in honor of an African-American woman were forged soon after Fannie Mae’s death, but it took nearly a decade-and-a-half of private fundraising for those plans to be made flesh—or bronze. The well-attended dedication ceremony was the latest in a series of belated tributes to a woman who modeled a peaceful way to racial integration.

Everybody Welcome also became the theme of a play, a book, and a PBS television documentary, thanks to the efforts of retired teacher, Kathleen F. Esmiol. She and a group of her students contacted Mrs. Duncan to ask for permission to portray her in a play, which was performed in Colorado Springs and Denver on a number of occasions between 1993 and 1994. The ensuing friendship between the two women led to the 2013 publication of Everybody Welcome, A Memoir of Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club. Written by Ms. Esmiol, it recounts Fannie Mae Duncan’s life in her own words, and is a poignant and profound portrait of a woman whose ideals we are still striving to achieve today. If it were not for urban renewal, a short walk from Fannie Mae’s statue would lead to the legendary establishment that became synonymous with her—Colorado Springs’ very own Cotton Club.

To retrace Fannie Mae’s life from her roots in the deep South to her blossoming in Colorado Springs is to re-live the struggles of many an African-American family. Her parents were children of enslaved parents and labored as tenant farmers in Alabama, until the family moved to Oklahoma to escape a case of blatant racism. Fannie Mae Bragg was the first of seven siblings born outside of Alabama. After the death of her father, the family eventually relocated to Colorado Springs, where Fannie Mae became the first member of her family to graduate from high school in 1939. She had to forego her dream of attending nursing school because of a lack of funds, working instead as a maid for various employers. She married Ed Duncan, the older brother of a classmate, who worked as chauffeur.

The entry of the United States into the second World War after the attack on Pearl Harbor changed not only Colorado Springs’ fortunes, but also the Duncans’. Camp Carson was founded in 1942 (to be renamed Fort Carson in 1957), and Fannie Mae learned about an open position as a soda fountain operator at the segregated Haven Club. In 1944, she persuaded Ed to help her run a café and snack bar at the newly opened USO club for black servicemen in downtown Colorado Springs. He was an excellent cook and handyman, she knew how to deal with customers and money. The café was an instant success, providing a steady income for the Duncans, as it was one of the few eateries that served blacks, and attracted both downtown workers for a quick bite, as well as local families and travelers.

Fannie Mae dreamed about not only renting, but owning their own business. When the opportunity presented itself that same year to buy a former restaurant, she pleaded with Ed to jump at it. They borrowed money from one of his former employers, a wealthy widow, in order to make the requisite down payment. Duncan’s Café and Bar opened in November 1947, becoming instantly popular. Soon thereafter, Fannie Mae and Ed also opened Duncan’s Lounge on the second floor above the café.

Fannie Mae and Ed regularly journeyed to the Rossonian nightclub in Denver’s Five Point neighborhood to listen to famous jazz performers, which sparked the desire to open their very own. Fannie Mae knew she wanted a grand name, and what could be grander than Cotton Club, in honor of Harlem’s famous but defunct musical venue. She ordered a 20 foot-tall, flamingo pink Cotton Club sign, and was tickled by the notion that it could be seen by all passing cars from the highway that would became I-25.

The Cotton Club was a hit from the moment it opened its doors. Unlike Harlem’s namesake, which featured black performers for white patrons, the Duncans wanted to provide a home not only for black artists, but also for their fellow black citizens, whose social opportunities continued to be limited. Neither the Antlers nor the Broadmoor Hotel allowed black performers or guests. Because many of their patrons were in the military, and had returned home after World War II with foreign-born wives, the Duncans expected a multi-ethnic crowd, and wanted to make them feel welcome. Fannie Mae hired 15 waitresses from various racial backgrounds.

By coordinating engagements with the Rossonian, she was able to book their high-level performers for the Cotton Club also. The Who’s Who of American Jazz performed in Colorado Springs, among them luminaries like Fats Domino, B.B. King, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Etta James. It did not take long for white music lovers to show up at the club, and for other local businesses to complain about her channeling white customers away from their establishments, which led to her invitation to the local police chief who told her she “couldn’t mix races,” and to “run it black.” She famously countered with: “I check them for age. Nobody told me I had to check them for color.” He soon changed his mind, likely because of the protests by her white, influential clientele.

Fannie Mae has often been described as a community activist, but my impression is that she did not set out to be a revolutionary. She simply applied the golden rule and treated others the way she wished to be treated, regardless of skin color. While it might not have been the Duncans’ initial intent to make a political statement, the Cotton Club became the first fully integrated enterprise in Colorado Springs. Ed hand-lettered a sign, and Fannie Mae put it into the window: EVERYBODY WELCOME reflected not only the slogan of the Cotton Club, but Fannie Mae’s philosophy of life.

Black performers, regardless of their national or international fame, were still not welcome to rest their heads on pillows in Colorado Springs hotels. It profoundly perturbed Fannie Mae that her musicians had to return to Denver for accommodations. To remedy this shortcoming, in 1952 she bought one of her favorite downtown houses, saving it from demolition. The 1891, 42-room Victorian Mansion was then conveyed to her property in three parts. The Duncans were able to welcome their performers with comfortable lodgings and with home-cooked, Southern-style meals, courtesy of Fannie Mae’s mother. Sadly, Ed died in 1955 due to complications from alcoholism, which might have been triggered by the death of their only child during delivery. He left Fannie Mae a widow at 36.

It seems an inevitable fact of “civilized” society that jealous, evil tongues start wagging at the success of fellow humans. Fannie Mae’s preference for flamboyant outfits, flashy Cadillacs, and Victorian mansions likely did not help, nor did the degeneration of downtown Colorado Springs, with increased levels of crime in the 1960s and 70s. The city decided to sacrifice her Cotton Club to urban renewal and applied eminent domain, and Fannie Mae’s baby fell prey to the wrecking ball in 1975.

She moved away from Colorado for a while, but returned to live in Denver, where Kathleen Esmiol found her and set into motion the events that culminated in the beautiful statue of Fannie Mae Duncan. Fannie Mae died in Denver in 2005 at age 87, not knowing of all the honors that would be bestowed upon her posthumously. One hopes that she had overcome her misgivings about Colorado Springs, where she was laid to rest at Evergreen Cemetery, next to her husband. In death, she remains surrounded by her mother and several other family members.

The mural of Fannie Mae and her Cotton Club shown in the topmost photo graces a wall at 2438 E. Platte Avenue in Colorado Springs. It was dedicated by the Knobhill Urban Arts District Planning Committee on July 5, 2019.

Bitte verzeiht mir, daß es wegen der Länge dieses Beitrags heute keine deutsche Übersetzung gibt.

Maria Merian

One scientist, who would have taken issue with last week’s “ignorance is bliss” statement is Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717). This powerhouse of a woman, of whom I knew nothing until the recent fortuitous find of her 2018 biography The Girl Who Drew Butterflies  by Joyce Sidman, not only sought knowledge at every turn, it was insect knowledge she loved above all else, which led her to accomplish feats unusual for any human, let alone for a woman born in the 17th century.

Endpaper detail from “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies” by Joyce Sidman

Maria saw the light of the world in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 2, 1647. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, an engraver and head of a publishing company died when she was only three. Her mother, Johanna Sibylla, remarried. From her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still life painter, Maria learned his craft, and she proved talented from an early age. Including insects on still lifes was popular, and Maria, utterly intrigued, began to observe them closely. Most of their life cycles were unknown (the notion of spontaneous generation was still widespread), and while watching and drawing their transformation from egg to caterpillar to moth or butterfly, she became aware of the process of metamorphosis, which was not common knowledge then.

Uncolored engraving of a garden tiger moth on a hyacinth flower from Maria Merian’s 1679 caterpillar book

Maria married at 18, as was expected of her. Her husband, Johann Andreas Graff, also a painter, was ten years her senior. The couple moved to Nuremberg, where they ran a printing and engraving shop. They had two daughters, Johanna and Dorothea. Unusual for the time, Maria published two books with engravings during her sojourn in Nuremberg, one about flowers, another about caterpillars and their remarkable transformation. Eventually, a second caterpillar volume was to follow.

Her marriage was unhappy, and when her stepfather died in 1681, Maria returned to Frankfurt, ostensibly to support her mother, but likely because she wanted to get away from her husband. Four years later, Maria, her two daughters, and her mother joined a religious community in Holland, where Johann sought her out, demanding her return. Maria refused, and they divorced shortly thereafter.

Maria Merian’s depiction of a frog’s life cycle, including eggs, tadpoles, and adults

Following her mother’s death, Maria and her daughters moved to Amsterdam, Holland’s capital and a thriving port city, where she had access to private curiosity cabinets, precursors to museums, with their plant and animal collections from across the world. Together with her daughters, both accomplished artists in their own right, Maria ran a business. They painted and engraved, and Maria taught fellow women artists, while continuing her scientific observations. No animal or plant was beyond her notice. She became particularly intrigued by specimens sent back from the Dutch colony of Surinam, also known as Dutch Guyana.

Maria determined to travel to Surinam to study its flora and fauna. Against all odds, she and her younger daughter financed their own journey, and, from 1699 to 1701, spent nearly two years in this exotic country at the northern coast of South America. Maria would have preferred to stay longer, but reluctantly returned to Europe because of ill health, likely the result of tropical diseases. They arrived with vivid recollections, volumes of notebooks filled with sketches, myriad animal specimens, as well as seeds, bulbs and pressed flowers.

It took four years, but Maria’s masterpiece, a book about the insects of Surinam, was published in 1705. Sixty gorgeous plates depict the different developmental stages of each species on the animal’s host plant. Critical acclaim followed, but not financial gain, as she barely recovered the cost of publication. The Royal Society of London praised Maria’s work, even if it did not offer her membership (the first woman member would not be admitted for another 250 years).

Banana flower, young bananas and saturnid moth from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

After her death of a stroke at the age of 69, Tsar Peter the Great bought nearly 300 of her watercolors for Russia’s first art museum, later to be curated by Maria’s daughter, Dorothea. She also published her mother’s third European caterpillar book posthumously. Carl Linnaeus, the “inventor” of the binomial nomenclature, cited her extensively in the 10th edition of his 1758 Systema Naturae. In subsequent centuries, Maria’s “amateur” accomplishments were largely forgotten, until she was rediscovered, and recognized as a trailblazer and scientist ahead of her time. Her portrait graced the 500 Deutschmark bill, before the introduction of the Euro.

Pineapple plant and tropical cockroach from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

I’m grateful to Joyce Sidman. Her The Girl who drew Butterflies acquainted me with a remarkable woman whose contributions to the life sciences should not be overlooked. 303 years ago to the day, Maria Merian passed away on January 13, 1717.

Bitte verzeiht mir, daß es wegen der Länge dieses Beitrags heute keine deutsche Übersetzung gibt.

Buffalo Peaks Ranch

A multi-layered tapestry of vegetation stretches before my eyes, the various hues and heights snuggling against the backdrop of angular mesas, rounded knobs, and a morning sky that already carries the promise of afternoon showers.

Myriad swallows dart across the canvas. Their constant chattering fills the air, and is only disrupted by the intermittent approach of vehicles on the nearby highway. Slight gusts of wind rustle the leaves of the tree in whose shadow I have sought refuge from the sun.

A pleasant perfume pervades the air. The pollen is so thick that it makes me sneeze, even if I don’t suffer from allergies. When I step into the sage-filled meadow, a fine layer of yellow dust instantly envelops my boots and pants. Between my fingertips, it feels like fine powder.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover cursor over it.

These are some of the thoughts I scribbled during a recent writing workshop, which took place at the former Buffalo Peaks Ranch (thank you for suggesting I attend, Andrea!). Situated in Colorado’s South Park, between the medium-sized hamlet of Fairplay and its smaller southern neighbor, Hartsel, the 1861 homestead, one of the oldest in the area, is named after the eponymous summits due west, which are clearly visible from the premises. The ranch and surrounding land were purchased by Aurora in 1985, to gain control of the associated water rights. The city is leasing the buildings to the Rocky Mountain Land Library, whose mission is “to help connect people to nature and the land,” with the vision to “open Buffalo Ranch as a year-round, residential retreat center and library…” In its still-growing collection of 35,000 plus books are reflected the geography, geology, biology, and history of the habitation of the American West—any bibliophile’s idea of paradise.

The erstwhile rooms of the main ranch building house the volumes that tell the stories of those who once inhabited this land, while some of the adjacent buildings are in the process of being transformed into lodgings. All structures evoke the ghosts of those who tread here before, whether on foot or hoof. Empty stables still strewn with golden straw and littered with manure seem to await the cattle’s return from its pastures. A nest under the eaves invites a pair of birds to move in. Save a little necessary TLC, it’s basically ready for a housewarming party.

During the seminar, we participants are encouraged to experience different corners of the property, and to note our impressions. The longer we are present, and the more we move around and observe, the more evident it becomes just how multi-layered the tapestry is, and how many strata underlie each single spot. My descriptions haven’t even scratched the surface.

Read more about the Rocky Mountain Land Library here, and find out about their history, philosophy, and workshops.

The Power Of Books

Stories, invented or real, have captured our collective imagination ever since we acquired the ability to think and talk in the mists of time, and our personal imagination since our own dawn of consciousness. Committing our stories not only to memory, but to papyrus, parchment, or paper, created a vehicle to transfer them across time and space.

Geschichten, ob erfunden oder wahr, haben unsere kollektive Vorstellungskraft erobert, seit wir in Urzeiten die Fähigkeit zum Denken und Sprechen erlangten, und unsere persönliche Phantasie seit der Dämmerung unseres eigenen Bewußtseins. Indem wir unsere Geschichten nicht nur dem Gedächtnis sondern auch Papyrus, Pergament und Papier anvertrauten, erschufen wir ein Mittel, sie über Zeit und Raum hinweg zu transportieren.

Still, each new generation needs to acquire literacy anew, and our individual craving to become literate awakens when we are read to by our elders. When we finally learn the letters of the alphabet, and how to assemble them in the proper order to create meaning, a world heretofore unknown is unlocked, and life is never the same. Words and books have the power to grip our attention, make us lose ourselves in their meanings and pages, let us escape our reality, be it good or bad, and open new horizons previously inconceivable.

Jedoch muß jede neue Generation von neuem lesekundig werden, und unser individuelles Begehren nach Belesenheit wird erweckt, wenn uns unsere Leitfiguren vorlesen. Wenn wir endlich die Buchstaben des Alphabets lernen, sowie ihre sinnvolle Anordnung, eröffnet sich uns eine neue Welt, und nichts ist wie bisher. Wörter und Bücher fesseln unsere Aufmerksamkeit, ermöglichen es, uns in ihnen zu verlieren, unserer Realität, mag sie gut oder schlecht sein, zu entkommen und eröffnen uns neue, bisher ungeahnte Horizonte.

This power of books has been praised not only in word and song, but in additional artful creations, such as these statues. I have encountered them in various locales, some near libraries (those monuments to books), others in unexpected settings—in the middle of a pond, for example. While the fisherman is linked to the presence through his rod, he is clearly eons away. This post celebrates the improbable, incredible, yet indisputable influence of books.

Diese Macht der Bücher wird nicht nur in Wort und Gesang gepriesen, sondern auch mittels weiterer künstlerischer Kreationen. Diesen Statuen bin ich an den unterschiedlichsten Orten begegnet, manchen in der Nähe von Bibliotheken (diesen Büchern gewidmeten Denkmälern), anderen in unerwarteten Umfeldern, etwa inmitten eines Sees. Auch wenn seine Rute den Angler mit der Gegenwart verbindet, ist er offensichtlich Welten entfernt. Dieser Beitrag feiert den unwahrscheinlichen, unglaublichen, und dennoch unwiderleglichen Einfluß von Büchern.

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