Highway Of Miracles

It doesn’t take much for my equanimity to be disturbed, sad to say. During my return from a birding trip to New Mexico in late April, where I had been caught unawares when the thermometer climbed above 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius), I was taken equally by surprise by a gathering bank of clouds that eventually spanned the entire firmament from Albuquerque to the state line, before it released squalls of rain and billowing clouds of fog. Associated gusts of wind and an unpropitious weather forecast for the coming night made me choose a motel in southern Colorado over a cold, wet night in the tent. Big mistake!

After a week of camping, I underestimated the horror of replacing a billowy tent with an enclosed room, a constant flow of fresh air with sealed windows, the nocturnal hooting of owls with the constant drone of trucks on the nearby interstate, my firm sleeping pad with an overly soft mattress. I tossed and turned during each expensive hour and could not wait to hit the road again by 6 AM.

I was still squabbling with myself for having overpaid for my uninviting accommodations, and berating myself for being a fair-weather camper, not quite sure how to get over myself. Leave it to southern Colorado’s Highway Of Legends to put me to shame, and pull me out of my foul, sleep-deprived mood by gently but insistently reminding me of nature’s beauty and grace, in a way that even my curmudgeonly self could not ignore.

Early into the 82 mile (132 kilometer) route between the towns of Trinidad and Walsenburg, one of the West’s most striking woodpeckers, a Lewis’s, which I had not seen in ages, clang to a utility pole right next to the road, but my brain registered its presence only after I had already passed it. A quick glance in the rearview mirror revealed no cars. I engaged the brakes, shifted into reverse, then pulled over to take a few photos, unable to prevent a smile.

Not long after my woodpecker surprise, complemented by additional animal appearances, I happened upon a herd of at least 100 elk crossing the highway. Seemingly without effort, they leapt across the fences that lined both sides of the road. Most of them threw me wary glances while they kept trotting, but one bull stopped to show himself in his regal stance. I alone witnessed their move from a wintry meadow to one clad in vernal apparel.

My rainy day in New Mexico had translated into a brief burst of winter in this part of Colorado, as I experienced mile after scenic mile on my way to Cuchara Pass at nearly 10,000 feet (3000 meters). By then, my real or imagined grievances were forgotten and I realized that the timing of the day’s encounters only worked out because of where and when I had started out that morning. I was entirely enchanted and utterly happy to be present right there and then, on my Highway of Miracles.

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

I will take a break from blogging for at least three weeks as I will be traveling abroad. My apologies if I won’t get around to reading and liking your posts. Thank you for your understanding and Happy May to all of us!

Earth Still Spins

Some destinations exert a magnetic force, compelling us to return time and again. New Mexico’s Villanueva State Park is one such destination for me. Reachable only by a little-traveled county road, it is situated at the end of a fertile valley first frequented by Paleo-Indians and farmed in more recent centuries by Hispanic settlers, with water provided gratis by an early stretch of Pecos River, between its origin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and its eventual destiny in Texas—the mighty Rio Grande.

During my most recent visit in late April, not only do I travel a distance of nearly 300 miles (480 kilometers) south, I also journey into a more advanced stage of spring, with budding or blossoming trees and shrubs, a few blooming wildflowers, and pleasing temperatures, conducive to sleeping in a tent. The park’s campground is hemmed in by towering walls of sandstone carved by the stream and clad with the juniper-pinyon community typical of vast expanses of the arid Southwest. Rocky trails lead to various overlooks with views that touch infinity. The rushing river, swelled by snowmelt in the highlands, provides constant background music, to which resident and early migratory birds add their joyful voices.

It is a place permeated by a sense of timelessness, even though I am swept up in its daily arc far more than at home: Up and down with the sun, active early in the morning and late in the afternoon, with decreased activity during the heat of the day, like many fellow critters. The more egregious and topsy-turvy the man-made world, the more I long to be reassured that the earth is still spinning around its axis, that flora and fauna still follow their age-old rhythms. We would do well to heed Mother Nature’s mostly patient and persistent, but recently more urgent, pointers that to ignore those rhythms is to do so at our peril and to our detriment.

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

Peace On Earth

As varied as our backgrounds and beliefs, most of us undoubtedly share the hope of a peaceful future for all (wo)mankind. Despite interpersonal differences and strife, we all know individuals who exemplify the good in humanity, or recall instances when someone’s unexpected conduct stopped us in our tracks, and made us reflect how we would have reacted in a similar situation.

I experienced one such instance when I first learned about the provenance of the windows at St. Stephen’s Church in Mainz, Germany, in the late 1980s. The building, whose foundations rest on Roman ruins, dates back in its earliest incarnation to the 10th century AD, having since undergone multiple modifications. After vast portions were destroyed by allied bombings in the 1940s, it was restored in the following decades.

I imagine that, in 1973, St. Stephen’s Pastor Klaus Mayer approached world-renowned artist Marc Chagall with some trepidation, with the request to fashion stained-glass windows for the church building, to replace the clear panels mounted temporarily during the postwar years. Russian-born Marc Chagall (1887-1985) had moved to France as a young artist, and had returned to his adopted country in 1948, after fleeing to the United States in 1941, in the wake of the Nazi invasion. I can’t begin to understand what it took for him not only to forgive the German nation for its genocide of millions of his fellow Jews, but to have the grace and greatheartedness to sublimate his sadness and sorrow into some of the most magnificent stained-glass windows ever created.

To bridge not only the chasm between Germans and Jews, but also between Christianity and Judaism, he chose to depict scenes from both the old and the new testaments. Between 1978, when he was 91, and his death in 1985 at the age of 97, nine windows of his design were produced at the studio of Jacques Simon in Reims, and subsequently installed at St. Stephen’s. Following Chagall’s passing, his friend and fellow artist, Charles Marq, continued the project, contributing nineteen additional windows. Whereas his conceptions over time became less pictorial and more abstract, they nonetheless emulated Chagall’s original color scheme and intent.

The exterior of the stately, yet not sumptuous, church does not prepare for the splendor that awaits behind the heavy bronze doors. A deep blue emanates from the windows, suffuses the interior, envelops the visitor in its calming, comforting glow. It draws the eye into the distance, while highlighting other colors and figures embedded in the glass. Since first falling in love with the serene, soothing atmosphere of this space, I have returned time and again, either to contemplate in silence, attend a guided meditation, or enjoy an organ concert. No trip to Germany would be complete without setting foot in it.

Marc Chagall’s life and legacy inspire. If each of us were to put forth even a modest effort to respect, and reach out to, one another, regardless of our religious or political convictions, skin color, age, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, Peace On Earth would not remain a mere utopian wish, but become a true possibility.

Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/12/25/friede-auf-erden/

Back To Nature

Wherever we gaze, natural habitat is vanishing. All of us are aware of the tragic destruction of rain forest, which not only creates, but also compounds global warming, as earth’s green lung is no longer available to inhale thermogenic carbon dioxide in the wonderful process of photosynthesis, which happens to exhale oxygen as an afterthought, in a way. Wetlands, on which countless animals and plants depend, are a second crucial environment that is disappearing at a dizzying pace. In the face of these losses, resignation, if not despair, is an understandable reaction. Fortunately, any restoration of life-giving spheres also restores a little glimmer of hope.

I have been heartened to learn of the success of several such projects during my previous sojourns in Germany. My roots lie in Rheinhessen, a region dominated by the Rhine River, as the name implies. Not far from the Rohrwiesen near the small town of Rheindürkheim (the topic of a previous post) lies a second sanctuary, called Eich-Gimbsheimer Altrhein (literally Old Rhine). A meandering stream for millennia, the Rhine was straightened in the 1820s, which left most of its loops to their own devices. Many dried up, but some, like the body of water in question, received sufficient quantities of water from the ground or skies, aided by occasional flooding of the stream. These inundations were subsequently prevented by the construction of a dam, and the marshes were drained and converted into arable land. The ground water level dropped further when wells were drilled to extract drinking water.

Happily, multi-pronged efforts in recent decades transformed the Old Rhine arm into a lake, and resurrected the adjacent wetlands. The 667 hectare area of this nature preserve forms part of the Natura 2000 network, an EU initiative that has as its goal the protection of threatened habitat, with its attendant plant and animal species. While it represents but a minuscule sliver of the surface of the earth, it has resulted in the flourishing of the local flora and fauna, and the provision of a way station for migratory birds. A 3.7 mile loop with several observation huts and towers circles and transects the parcel and affords glimpses of the Altrheinsee (Old Rhine Lake), of several water-filled gravel pits, of wetlands, of small pockets of swamp forest, and of the surrounding agricultural fields.

Because all my visits have happened in late autumn, I have yet to witness the full spectrum of vibrant life, and look forward to experiencing it in springtime. As modest as this haven might be, it nevertheless serves as an example of how we can save our planet, one baby step at a time.

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

Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/12/11/zuruck-zur-natur/

Home Away From Home

Whenever I have occasion to travel to Germany, I set my proverbial sail for my port of call: Osthofen. Scene of the first six years of my life, before a move to neighboring Westhofen with my parents, it has, once again, become my father’s chosen hometown. It is his company I seek, his domicile, where he and his significant other spoil me (or us) with their hospitality. Much to my chagrin, instead of experiencing their warm welcome in person, I can only reminisce about it at present.

Like many communities in Rhineland-Palatinate’s Rheinhessen region, Osthofen is famous for its wines. Viticulture has been practiced in the climatically conducive Rhine Valley since its introductions by the Romans 2000 years ago. Many families have benefitted from the river’s proximity, and, for generations, have been proud caretakers of countless vineyards. They cover the rolling hills, and change their apparel with the seasons. Distinctive turrets rise between the orderly rows of vines and are reminders of days when guardians took up temporary residence in them near harvest times, to discourage voracious birds from devouring the crops by firing loud shots into the air. Those human deterrents have long been replaced by noise-producing cannons.

To enlarge a photo, click on it.

Strolling through town and its environs transports me to back to my childhood: Living with my paternal grandparents when I was an infant, until my parents built our first home. Being baptized at the local church. Attending the first three grades of elementary school. Returning in subsequent years to see family and friends, and to play team handball in a local club. The existence of the railroad has always guaranteed convenient connections to two significant destinations, Worms and Mainz, where I attended high school and university, respectively.

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

Osthofen’s chronicles contain both light and dark chapters since the settlement was first mentioned in the 8th century. In 1621, it was destroyed during the 30 Years’ War, before being rebuilt. It hosted Richard Wagner in 1862, when he visited fellow composer and native son, Wendelin Weißheimer. 1933 cast its long, sinister shadow over the town. A former paper mill was re-purposed into a concentration camp for enemies of the newly-elected National Socialists, until their transfer to other facilities in the following year. Today the building houses a museum and an educational center that document the atrocities committed during Hitler’s calamitous regime.

Whenever possible, I spend time in nature. Like many agriculturally overdeveloped areas, arable land not covered in vineyards is subjugated to the plow and planted with grains or beets. Few natural enclaves remain, little habitat for untamed beings. Yet a small, man-made pond attracts waterfowl both domestic and wild, and the local cemetery with its old tree growth provides a haven for feathered and furry friends.

In response to my recent blog post “Sit And Stay A Spell,” my dad sent me this photograph of a bench. It has been in our family longer than I have, and was once a place to lounge on while making phone calls to friends. It has weathered repeated moves, and is now weathering the elements in my father’s driveway, where I hope to (gingerly) sit on it during my eagerly awaited next visit.

Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/12/04/meine-zweite-erste-heimat/

Germany’s Greatest Gift To The World

As a European transplant to America, I am often asked if I miss my native country. First and foremost, I miss my Dad, his significant other, the rest of my family, and my friends. Staying connected via the Internet or the occasional phone call can, in no way, replace cherished face-to-face time, which happens all too seldom, but at least a connection remains. This was commonly not the case for earlier emigrants who, once they stepped on board the ship that would steam across the Atlantic, were never heard of again. Furthermore, I miss certain places and traditions that have imprinted themselves on my psyche and are associated with an aching sense of nostalgia.

On a lighter note, when we met, my future husband used to tease me about not really being German by birth, as I neither ate meat, nor drank beer, wine, or coffee. He always claimed that I must have been an import. So when American friends wax lyrical about German cuisine and German hops, I can only roll my eyes. I no longer yearn for the typical meals of my childhood, centered around a slab of meat, accompanied by a potato variation, and served with an overcooked, tasteless vegetable slathered in a Fondor-based white sauce (my apologies to all lovers of said dishes).

What I long for instead is German bread. Oval, round, square, or rectangular loaves (not to forget Brötchen). Baked with wheat, buckwheat, rye, barley, spelt, or oat flower. Topped or filled with sunflower, pumpkin, millet, poppy, or flax seeds. With a crunchy crust and a firm yet fluffy core that can neither be lumped into a ball, nor tastes of molasses, or some other sweetener (my apologies to all lovers of American bread). If this sounds like a nightmare for sufferers of gluten-sensitivity, it is a dream for someone who will never embrace a low-carb diet.

Given this somewhat lengthy introduction, it is perhaps relatable that one of my first errands upon my arrival in Frankfurt is a detour to one of the various airport bakeries, followed by many similar errands to similar establishments throughout my sojourn in Germany, be they venerable old-time, locally-owned businesses (those are the best!), supermarket-affiliated chains, or pretzel kiosks at train stations, or in downtown pedestrian zones.

The inimitable, irresistible aroma of freshly baked goods wafting out of a bakery, and the sight of shelves weighed down with myriad shapes and sizes and shades of bread are, for me, the surest signs that I am back in the old country.

Alas, at present, I have to content myself with visual, olfactory, and gustatory fantasies, until our travel plans come to fruition.

Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/11/27/deutschlands-gro…henk-an-die-welt/

Nebraska’s Ocean

Until the final two days of our May trip, we were not aware that Nebraska, a landlocked state, has its own ocean. Confused? So were we. If we had been blindfolded and dropped in this location, we might indeed have deemed ourselves at the beach of a vast sea, stretching from horizon to horizon. With our toes digging into fine sand and touching the edge of an immense body of water, we were able to relate to “Nebraska’s Ocean,” one of Lake McConaughy’s playful monikers (another is Big Mac), even after we learned that it is “only” the state’s largest reservoir, twenty-two miles long and four miles across at its widest point. Created by impounding the North Platte River behind Kingsley Dam which was constructed between 1936 and 1941, the reservoir provides and controls the water supply for agricultural use, and generates energy via a hydroelectric power plant.

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

The lake has become a major destination for vacationers as it offers boating, fishing, hunting, and camping. With numerous campgrounds, particularly along its northern shore, the main difficulty for us in choosing a campsite would have been an embarrassment of riches. Instead, by following the suggestion of the friendly receptionist at the visitor center, we enjoyed the smaller and less busy Lake Ogallala campground at the foot of Kingsley Dam. A stiff breeze was blowing all afternoon on the day of our arrival, and an impressive storm illuminated the surrounding night sky, but only touched us with brief lightning, claps of thunder, and a few heavy droplets. In the wake of this unsettled front followed two calm nights and days.

    Our daytime hours were filled with birding, reading, writing, and simply hanging out to enjoy the scenery. As we traveled during the week before Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial beginning of the summer season, we knew we would have to deal with increasing numbers of campers, but we were fortunate to have considerate neighbors, so that all we heard at night were the hoots of owls and the shrieks of grebes. As Nebraska’s feathered denizens differ from Colorado’s, I relished the opportunity to familiarize myself with more Midwestern species.

My most memorable avian encounter happened not at Lake Ogallala, but at “Big Mac.” As one of the few inland breeding sites of a rare species, portions of the beach are off limits to human use during the summer months, but the birds in question occasionally venture outside. On our second evening, we took a couple hours to explore stretches of the north shoreline, where several had been sighted. After two or three unsuccessful stops, I made one last effort and strolled down to the water’s edge. Wishful thinking sometimes makes us see things that are not there, which was the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw a diminutive bird chase away a Killdeer, nearly twice its size. My heart skipped a beat when, staring through my binoculars, I grasped that I was, indeed, looking at a Piping Plover, one of an estimated 8,400 individuals worldwide, all of which live in the Americas. Of the two existing populations, one breeds at the Atlantic seaboard in the Northeast; another prefers lakeshores and rivers of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains. In the Great Lakes region, they are considered threatened; in the other two endangered. Adding this little lifer was a big deal, and, according to my husband, my formerly tenuous mood improved immediately. I hate it when he is right!

To avoid the weekend crowd, we slowly packed up on Friday morning, then bid Nebraska goodbye, grateful for a week packed with many new impressions and much food for thought.