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.

Fort Robinson

The Cook Collection and its connection to Sioux Chief Red Cloud at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument mentioned in my previous post served as the perfect transition to and preparation for our next stop, Fort Robinson State Park. Located in the ruggedly beautiful Pine Ridge landscape of northern Nebraska, close to South Dakota, it was the site of momentous events that determined the fate of several Plains Indian tribes.

Fort Robinson was established in 1874 and served multiple functions until 1947. It played a major role in the era of the Indian Wars of the late 1870s, and the ensuing banishment of regional tribes onto totally inadequate reservations – the sad reality repeated time and again all across the country. As was typical, the fort was established near an Indian Agency, in this case, the Red Cloud Agency. Agencies were supposed to provide food and additional supplies to Indians who had “agreed” to cede their land to the US Government, or to exchange it for land considered less valuable, until something of value was discovered. This befell several Sioux (Lakota) groups, who had been guaranteed possession of the Black Hills in South Dakota, in a treaty. Like most other treaties, this one was broken after the discovery of gold, and the Lakota rose up in defense of their land and way of life, fighting bloody and bitter battles, until they were outnumbered and outweaponed.

When the combined forces of multiple native tribes defeated General George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry in the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as it was called among indigenous peoples, but more commonly referred to as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, on June 25, 1876, Crazy Horse, among the best-known leaders of the Oglala Sioux, became one of the most-hated and sought-after men. Custer was considered a national hero since the American Civil War and his death contributed to the resolve to deal with the “Indian question” once and for all. Following loss of land and bison, the center around which the Plains Indians’ life revolved, Crazy Horse eventually surrendered in 1877. Though he was guaranteed safe keeping, he was instead stabbed to death at Fort Robinson in a sequence of events that has sparked heated debate to this day.

A few years later, in 1879, a group of Northern Cheyenne, attempting to return to their homeland in Montana Territory, were imprisoned at Fort Robinson, after fleeing from a reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), where they had been deported. When they were threatened with transport back, they attempted to flee, thinking it better to die near home than to live in a strange, inhospitable place. And die they did, as the text on a number of commemorative plaques reminded us.

Compared to the ugliness of humans’ actions against fellow humans, the area’s natural beauty stood in stark contrast. The rocky splendor of the Pine Ridge, the lush vegetation, the various animals in the vicinity, including a herd of 150 reintroduced bison, seemed somewhat surreal in the context of the region’s tumultuous history.

After several days of inclement weather the sun showed again, and we slept in the tent without the risk of getting soaked, having the primitive camping area adjacent to the developed campground basically to ourselves. Very near to where Crazy Horse was murdered, and where the Cheyenne Outbreak started, we breathed the same air and gazed at the same stars as the First Americans, whose spirits are said to linger in their native lands.

Nebraska’s Sandhills

Having previously traversed parts of Nebraska, my husband and I had read about its Sandhills (or Sand Hills), and heard them mentioned by friends as an attractive destination. In May of this year, we explored Nebraska’s panhandle, which abuts Colorado’s northeast corner and which is home to the western portion of the Sandhills. Without much research, we did not know what to expect. Would they resemble Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes, or New Mexico’s White Sands?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rolling hills they were, but from a distance their sandy substrate was not immediately obvious. As a result of wind and time, plant seeds have been transported and deposited there, taken root, and transformed a barren aggregate of granules into a landscape of lush, green mounds and valleys. They cover an area of about 20,000 square miles and occupy an elevation that ranges from 1,800 feet in the east, to 3,600 feet in the west. Teeming with wildlife typical of the Great Plains to which the Sandhills technically belong, and being part of the Central Flyway, I encountered several birds for the first time, or, in the case of the Ring-necked Pheasant, reacquainted myself with a species that used to be common in Germany during my childhood, but whose numbers there have since declined.

Our flexible itinerary underwent adjustments when two successive days of not merely rain, but downpour, foiled some of our plans. From Oshkosh, where we had spent the night in a motel, rather than in the tent as desired, we reached Chimney Rock National Historic Site and Scott’s Bluff National Monument, both located along the North Platte River, and both significant landmarks for those traveling overland on the Mormon Pioneer, the Oregon, and the California Trails. While we learned much about those emigrant trails and their travelers at both visitor centers, we caught only wet glimpses of the outdoors, instead of hiking it as intended.

Likewise at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, where our journey took us next. Its visitor center offered information not only about local fossil finds, but also housed the impressive collection of one of the local settlers, James. H. Cook, who befriended Red Cloud, a well-known Sioux Chief. He donated many personal items to Mr. Cook that are representative of the Plains Indians culture and offer valuable insight into everyday life and native customs.

To complete our circle back to Oshkosh, I chose a route leading past Fort Robinson and Chadron, then to and through Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which promised a wealth of birdlife, as did several smaller neighboring lakes dotting the map. Unbeknownst to us, even though we had left the rain behind, the plentiful precipitation of four-plus inches in twenty-four hours, in addition to high water tables from previous rains, had resulted in the flooding of low-lying stretches of a number of roads. The birds loved the expanded watery realm and were thick not purely in the usual ponds, but also in the temporary bodies of water created by the rains. This windfall (or, to be exact, waterfall), afforded me close looks at a variety of waterfowl; at the elegant Upland Sandpiper, previously glimpsed only once; at an American Bittern, an elusive bird, and an addition to my life list. It pretended to be a reed, as is its wont, but did not call. For an opportunity to hear its unusual vocalization, please click on the link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

These heady experiences came, however, at the cost of several white-knuckled, heart-skipping moments, on account of multiple water crossings. Our old and trusted Subaru with nearly 225,000 miles on the odometer did not let us down, and we breathed a sigh of profound relief when we realized that we did not have to wade through calf-deep water to seek help to get towed. In retrospect, it was foolish and entirely uncharacteristic for us to continue on this route, but once we had forded a couple of flooded segments, we did not want to turn around and re-live those. I was also beguiled by the avifauna which might have impaired my judgment, but my husband, a birder only by association, did not even get a similar pay-off as I, and had to maneuver the car through the watery depths to boot.

Honey, I appreciate your never-ending support and your willingness to accompany me to locales that allow me to indulge in my favorite hobby.