FLASHBACK: “Exploring Belize’s Rainforest”

15 June 2016

Most visitors to Belize head straight for the offshore cays. Nothing wrong with that; the diving and snorkeling are some of the best in the western hemisphere. But the country is small enough—about the size of Massachusetts—to offer some intriguing inland adventures as well. Besides, the communal and grassroots nature of virtually all Belize’s enterprises means that travelers can be assured the footprint they leave will sustain local human and natural resources. Small-scale, informal guide arrangements provide local knowledge and control, and—given the ethnic complexity of the country—offer great opportunities to meet folks from the various heritages.

A rope swing on the Mopan River at Parrot Nest lodge tempts Evan Gabriel into a daredevil leap.

A rope swing on the Mopan River at Parrot Nest lodge tempts Evan Gabriel into a daredevil leap.

Just two hours west of Belize City is the Cayo District, a secluded upland rainforest sprinkled with fertile valleys that are wedged in between mountains, rivers, and pine savannah. Once considered the most isolated part of Belize, the region has now been opened up for adventure travel experiences of all sorts. Cave tubing, river kayaking, horseback riding, expeditions into overgrown Mayan ruins . . . or just sitting on the verandah of a jungle lodge. And just west, over the border into Guatemala, lie some of the most thoroughly excavated Mayan remains in the world—the imperious Tikal.

We visited Cayo in the heart of winter with our two teenage boys. While the tinselly Christmas decorations seemed a bit incongruous, it was a thrill to go from icy winds to the soft patter of rain falling off the jungle canopy and fifty shades of green surrounding our field of vision. We stayed in one of the cheapest jungle lodges in the area: Parrot Nest, outside the village of Bullet Tree Falls. Our thatched cabin on stilts slept four, and the Mopan River at the edge of the lodge’s grounds offered some great midday swimming. Pacas and agoutis scuttled between the bushes, “Jesus-lizard” basilisks lurked in the trees, and several pet tarantulas could be coaxed out from holes in the lawn. Even just sitting on the verandah listening to the palm fronds rustle was a wintry delight.

The grounds of Parrot Nest lodge are laced with vibrant flowers like this bird-of-paradise.

The grounds of Parrot Nest lodge are laced with vibrant flowers like this bird-of-paradise.

But our family needed action too. We spent one day exploring Barton Creek Cave, a site discovered in 1994 that still houses Mayan skulls and pottery remains. Straggling along a long dirt road deep in the mountains south of the Western Highway, Barton Creek is home to one of the more traditional Mennonite settlements in Belize. The spacious farmsteads provide most of Belize’s dairy products and chickens, but try not to stare too hard when the horse-and-buggy sets go by.

With a pair of guides, our group of six took canoes into the cave and spent an hour or two drifting along the dark passageways, lit by powerful torch lights provided by our guide. We saw bat nests, silvery fish, and huge cathedrals of dripping stone chambers that rose into a dark and distant ceiling. At times we lay flat in the canoes in order to edge our way past low-hanging pillars of rocks. At the far end, we unhitched inner tubes and the boys delighted in paddling along through the darkness as we headed back out to the trail.

Some stretches of Barton Creek Cave are so low that riding an inner tube is the only practical way through.

Some stretches of Barton Creek Cave are so low that riding an inner tube is the only practical way through.

For more caving, try Che Chem Ha, which was only discovered in 1999 when a farmer’s dog chased a gibnut into the cave’s mouth. Che Chem Ha was used extensively by the Maya for food storage and rituals. Nearly a hundred artifacts have been found inside and touring with the original finders of the cave, the Morales family, takes you along narrow passages past intact ceremonial pots.

The “ultimate” Belizean cave experience is the all-day trip through Actun Tunichil Muknal. The only way in leads through creeks and lush jungle, followed by a plunge into a 20 foot-deep pool. Inside are shimmering rock formations, pottery vessels, and even human remains. National Geographic filmed scenes from Journey to the Underworld here.

Another day we hopped a local bus to the village of San Jose Succotz near the Guatemalan border, then rode a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan to the site of the ruins of Xunantunich. This Mayan site is nowhere near as grandiose as Tikal, but it offers a usefully compact set of partially-excavated ruins, including the 130 foot-high El Castillo, which was long considered to be the highest building in Belize. (Recent excavations at the remote site of Caracol have found a temple comb that is a few feet higher.)

A hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River leads to the ruins of Xunantunich.

A hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River leads to the ruins of Xunantunich.

Several sets of large-scope inscriptions are found on the sides of El Castillo, and the views from its roof look far across the rainforest canopy into Guatemala. There is also a ball court, a royal residence, and over thirty smaller temples being excavated. The day we were there barely a handful of other visitors appeared, which gave us the feeling of having a private viewing of the site, and let the ancient Mayan feel seep into our bones.

For further Mayan explorations, you can also do a lengthy day trip to Caracol (south from Cayo, up in the Maya Mountains), which is just beginning to be fully appreciated. Archeologists believe that at its peak, Caracol had a population of 200,000—which is nearly the population of all of Belize today! Day tours are also available to Tikal and, because of the complexity of transport needed, are as cheap as making the trek alone. However, having visited Tikal on a previous trip, I would counsel giving the ruins several days in order to truly take them in.

Simpler Mayan sites are also easily accessible from Cayo’s urban center of San Ignacio. Cahal Pech (the inelegantly named “Place of the Ticks”) is about a mile beyond the Hawkesworth Bridge and El Pilar is a dozen miles to the northwest. (There is no public transportation to the site.)

The Mayan-built stone temple of El Castillo at Xunantunich has lasted nearly 2,000 years. Its heiroglyphs are still only partially translated.

The Mayan-built stone temple of El Castillo at Xunantunich has lasted nearly 2,000 years. Its heiroglyphs are still only partially translated.

Adventure travel operations also offer full and half-day horseback riding, river kayaking, and tubing on the Mopan River. These can be arranged through the manager of your lodge or hotel, or sorted out in San Ignacio. (Not all plans come to fruition, of course. We were burned by two different promises of outings that never came to pass.)

Naturalists will find plenty of intriguing possibilities as well. There are several butterfly farms (Green Hills raises the most species; Chaa Creek highlights the dazzling Blue Morpho), botanical gardens, and the Rainforest Medicine Trail at Ix Chel Farm.

And when you’ve had enough jungle rambling, the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena offer a pleasing variety of restaurants to swap stories in. The most famous is Eva’s—where nearly any manner of expedition can be arranged—but tastier fare is available at Martha’s Guest House, which offers huge burgers, fresh fish, and basic Italian dishes. Another hot spot is Cafe Sol; try the Thai noodle salad.

We ate twice at Serandib, the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Belize. Amidst ads for Ceylon tea and long tables packed with South Asian families, we enjoyed a tasty variety of curries and seafood. When the weather is right, the outdoor patio in the back is a refreshing hideaway from the town.

For all its hidden feel, Cayo won’t leave you stranded. If you’re heading west, Guatemala is barely half an hour away. The route to southern Belize via the Hummingbird Highway forks south at Belmopan, less than an hour to the east. And even Goldson International Airport or the boats to the offshore cayes can be reached in a couple of hours.

Not that there’s really any need to rush away. Rain or shine, the hammocks on the verandah are calling, and the reds and golds and greens of the wildflower canopy seem to want to ease their way into my senses for yet another day.

This piece was originally published in Transitions Abroad, July/Aug 2007.

Video of WRESTLING WITH ANGELS reading

4 May 2016

OK, this photo is not @ SubText, but rather @ the Eat My Words reading. But you get the idea.

OK, this photo is not @ SubText, but rather @ the Eat My Words reading. But you get the idea.

For all those who missed my Twin Cities readings this past winter, here’s a glimpse of what went down. Many thanks to filmmaker Patrick Risberg for running the original shoot, and further thanks to DJ/producer Evan Gabriel for handling subsequent details.

The scene is SubText Books in downtown St. Paul, on a cold January night. Legendary Twin Cities bookseller Dave Unowsky does introductions and then we’re off and running: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT-Kfr8kJF8

Tapping History (Again): Dance Hall Days of the ’60s

20 April 2016

Whichever dance hall they're heading to—that's where I'm going.

Whichever dance hall they’re heading to—that’s where I’m going.

Many thanks to the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society, for once again hosting an event that allowed me to revisit my misguided youth. Here’s how they billed last week’s affair:

Join us for a night about Minnesota Rock and Roll in the 1960s. Rick Shefchik, author of Everybody’s Heard About the Bird: the True Story of 1960s Rock N Roll in Minnesota, will be joined by Daniel Gabriel, who spent much of his youth in Excelsior, has written extensively on the Dance Hall scene, and completed a yet-unpublished novel inspired by Excelsior. They will recall a time when music was regional, when local dance halls catapulted Twin City bands to a national stage, and when Excelsior was among the region’s most important venues for new music.

Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society's photo.

[Shown above is Excelsior’s Danceland, one of the biggest and most influential dance halls in the Twin Cities. Dig those entrance doors. From the look of them, they were stolen from the Amusement Park’s Fun House right across the street.]

I had never met Rick Shefchik, though thanks to a timely Christmas gift from son Alex, I’d been able to devour his book, which I loved. Rick and I seemed to hit it off quite well. I was told later that our sharing of the mic appeared seamless and well-rehearsed. Probably it was just our joint passion for the subject.

Rick emphasized some of the key bands of the era, offering historic photos

Augie Garcia bouncing through "River Road Boogie."

Augie Garcia bouncing through “River Road Boogie.”

(everything from early St. Paul rocker Augie Garcia cavorting onstage in his trademark Bermuda shorts, to Danceland’s owner, Big Reggie Colihan, leaning in on 3 guys named John, Paul & George). His choices were excellent, though I couldn’t resist upbraiding him about underselling my favorite local band, TC Atlantic. (He did mention their single “Mona,” but I felt the need to bang the gong for “Faces,” an early garage band/psychedelic classic.)

My angle was more about dance hall culture, and the rapid style changes that flitted past during the ’60s. From Continental style (greased-back hair and tight pegged pants) into the Baldie look (high-water pants worn with knee-length sox and spit-shined wingtips or shells) and so on to Mod (or at least the watered-down US version, which often mistook flair and exotic cut for the more subtle over-elaboration used by the early Brit Mods) and eventually the visual riot of Psychedelia. Women in the crowd helped fill in the many gaps in my memory about how girls’ styles vamped and changed. (Culottes, flirt skirts, hiphuggers and minis . . .)

The crowd, once again, was incredibly knowledgeable—and standing room only. When Rick struggled to remember the name of an obscure ballroom in Pipestone (the far SW corner of the state), somebody in the crowd immediately piped up with the name. And when we discussed, inevitably, the legendary Rolling Stones concert at Danceland in 1964, no fewer than four people in the audience had been there. Memories? “All I could think of was how big the singer’s lips were” . . . “the bass player was holding his bass real funny, almost upright” . . . “I didn’t think the songs they played were all that different from local bands” . . . “Is it true what they say about Danceland and Mr. Jimmy?”

Ah, yes, Mr. Jimmy. Excelsior legend and supposed inspiration for the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I won’t take the time to recount the entire story here, but I have come to realize that I am now considered an authority on the matter. Rick even said I had swayed his opinion from doubtful to possible. And, again, members of the audience had their own twigs to throw on the fire: “My friend worked the Bacon Drug soda fountain in those years, and she witnessed the encounter between Jagger and Mr. Jimmy.” . . . “I was one of Jimmy’s best friends. He talked about that time a lot . . .”

And afterwards, the stories kept on coming. One audience member after another had a memory to share. We could argue over which dance hall was the best, but we all agreed on what good times had been had. To quote Bunny Wailer, from a completely different context: “Rule Dance Hall!”

Why Write?—Middle Schoolers Respond

23 March 2016

A few days ago I taught at the opening day of the annual Young Authors Conference here in the Twin Cities. (The bulk of the event will happen in late May.) YAC has taken place for 26 straight years, and I’ve been there every single time. As ever, this was a wonderful opportunity to share the enthusiasm of over 1,000 young writers in grades 4-8. About 80 of them ended up in my sessions, and this year, the conference theme was “Why Write?”

In between bursts of speed writing from prompts (got to keep your chops in order), we became a temporary community and shared some of our answers to that question. Going in, I wondered whether a collection of early teens and ‘tweens—who were largely unknown to each other—would really be willing to open up about such a personal topic. To my joy, many were. Here are just a few of their responses [Note: stock photos are used below]:

In their regular classrooms, young writers are often isolated. At the Young Authors Conference, everybody present shares their interest.

In their regular classrooms, young writers are often isolated. At the Young Authors Conference, everybody present shares their interest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do you write?

  • It helps me make sense of the world.
  • I want to shape things my way.
  • My grandpa is a writer.
  • Because that’s the way I figure things out.

Who do you write for?

  • My friend, “Angie” (who was sitting nearby).
  • I write for myself. I just like my stuff.
  • For my family. I want them to be proud.
  • For myself, so I can see what I think.
  • I write for my dog. My stories are all about him.
  • I write for my goldfish. He died.

Where do you want to go with your writing?

  • I want to write lots of stories.
  • To work in sports journalism.
  • I plan to write dystopian mysteries.
  • I have a whole bunch of ideas—should I put them all in my first book?
  • I just want to keep on doing it and see what happens.
  • Onto the next page!

Hey, I’m with that last comment. Keep the hand moving on the page—who knows what might come out?

The hand moving on the page—watching creation unfurl.

The hand moving on the page—watching creation unfurl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once again, those young writers have re-energized me for my own work. It’s such a joy to see their excitement, their concern to do the very best they can, their hunger to learn inside tips. And where else do you enter a room filling up with middle schoolers where early arrivals are all sitting at their desks, heads buried in heavy tomes?

Here’s to future literary accomplishments by young minds that are growing even as we speak . . .

I think she's set to roll, don't you? Look out, world.

Not even old enough for YAC yet, but I think she’s ready to roll, don’t you? Look out, world.

FLASHBACK: “Market Day in Haarlem”

24 February 2016

I was hoping to share a link to the publication that printed this photo essay, but they have no online presence. In fact, copies of their magazine only turned up the other day. So here’s my recreation of the original piece:

The Dutch love open-air markets. From the sprawling Waterlooplein flea market in Amsterdam, to the choreographed pageant of Alkmaar’s cheese market, to tiny side street gatherings around herring carts and flower baskets in towns large and small, folks in the Netherlands love to gather outdoors and mix their shopping with a neighborly visit and a leisurely stroll.

A classic Dutch combo of tradition and vitality.

A classic Dutch combo of tradition and vitality.

The city of Haarlem is no exception. While the small, neighborhood Botermarkt operates most days, the real treat appears when the central Grote Markt kicks into action. Every Saturday and Monday the pedestrian-only center of town reclaims its 17th century flavor and speckles the cobblestones with tents and trailers and carts. Ringed by the same period edifices that marked the city during the Golden Age—the vast Grote Kerk (once known as St. Bavo’s), the ornate Stadhuis (City Hall), the long low line of the old fish market, the precise gables of De Hallen (the former meat market), and on around the lovely old square—with plane trees and outdoor cafes encircling the iconic statue of L.J. Coster, would-be inventor of moveable type—Haarlem’s outdoor market is both uniquely Dutch and quintessentially European.

Come take a look around. . . .

CLICK HERE TO GO TO PHOTO GALLERY: Market Day in Haarlem, 2007.

This piece originally appeared in the Palo Alto Review, vol xxiv, 2014.

Biking in Waterland

3 February 2016

The low swirl of Waterland is as much a part of the sea as land. For birds, it's a paradise.

The low swirl of Waterland is as much a part of the sea as land. For birds, it’s a paradise.

For all the talk about the cutting edge “green living movement,” it can be instructive to realize that not everything needs to be re-invented. Many eco-friendly approaches to life can be found from poking around in the past—and present. During a jaunt to Noord Holland, I spent a day biking through the polders and wind farms of the area known as Waterland, which lies just east from Amsterdam.

My trip started at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, where I dropped into MacBike, located along the southern end of the main building. I got a bright red pushbike, with a wide, comfortable seat, upright handlebars, and foot brakes. It was like riding a bike from my childhood—and best of all, it was instantly comfortable.

Being the Netherlands, there was a bike path starting right outside the door. Around the back of the station I went, where I cruised to a stop at a ferry crossing. Five minutes later, the free ferry had dumped me in Noord Amsterdam, where winding residential streets soon led to the heavy foliage of a city park and, beyond it, a bike path atop a dyke. In no time I was in open countryside . . . and then the gabled village of Schellingwoude . . . and then more open land along the dyke.

A boat, a canal, and a bike. Let the road stretch on forever.

A boat, a canal, and a bike. Let the road stretch on forever.

This was a pattern that would repeat across much of the landscape. As far as the eye could see were polders and canals and dykes. All man-made. Even the IJsselmeer—the vast inland lake—was manmade, created by the Dutch in 1932 when they completed the great Barrier Dyke that closed out the North Sea and transformed the Zuider Zee and its fishing communities into the recreational IJsselmeer.

One could argue that this is the opposite of accommodating culture to the environment, but through hard, persistent work and the taming of the elements of wind and water, the Dutch have created quite a sustainable lifestyle for the inhabitants. Everything is on a human scale, with cozy villages and farms and houses linked to the single road by skiff platforms used to cross the tiny canals from one’s front doorstep. Clusters of cows and sheep nibble contentedly, and herons hunt in the shallows. Waterland is five meters below sea level—and still sinking. The moist grasslands serve as breeding grounds for many species of birds.

The further out in Waterland I went, the fewer villages there were. Even cars were scarce on the little road that sometimes paralleled my dyke path. I rode along above the water, self-propelled, and happy to leave a very light footprint. When bike paths diverged (and there were many such paths) signposts were quick to show the way. Even so, I took the opportunity to engage the occasional passing stranger in conversation, sometimes feigning ignorance just as a chat-starter. The only times I had trouble being understood were when I attempted to speak Dutch. English worked just fine.

But soon I had left the little villages, and only an occasional farmstead broke the horizon above the long, low canals and grasslands. Atop the polder the wind blew steadily, with the salt smell of sea air, and on my right, away from the farmlands, the IJsselmeer sprinkled whitecaps and cresting gulls glided against a slate grey sky.

My goal since I’d set out was to ride all the way to Marken, a former island in the Zuider Zee which was now connected to the mainland by a causeway. Back in the early fifties, when Marken was still an isolated island outpost—and I was a wee toddler—I had traveled here with my parents. For years I’d heard stories from them recalling the little Dutch villages along the Zee, like Edam and Volendam, with locals in fulsome dresses and starched white caps, the men with their pipes and billowing trousers. Marken had particularly stood out, both as an end-of-the-road destination and because the local population seemed to have intermarried a few times too many for their own good. What would it be like today?

For centuries, the Marken folks were known for their distinctive dress and dedication to their fishing fleet.

For centuries, the Marken folks were known for their distinctive dress and dedication to their fishing fleet.

Then I was onto the causeway. The winds whipped across my path. On the far side I dipped down through a quiet crossroads of bike paths and along a lane on the edge of town. The characteristic green-and-white wooden stripes of Marken houses huddled comfortably along canals, and bright banners with royal portraits heralded the 50th anniversary of the coming of the causeway. The narrow streets were tidy and quiet, the only sound the occasional clopping of shoes as locals strolled past. They certainly looked normal to me. I slipped along in silence, heading for the old Marken harbor.

Another dyke path pulled me on towards the mast and furled sails of pleasure boats tied up in a line along the breakwater. Four traditional houses stood in a row at the end, just as the old photos had portended. One featured espresso and pastries, and I gathered myself in the lee of a pair of outdoor tables and celebrated my return to the scene of yet another childhood memory.

Placid Marken Harbour has survived many a gale blowing in off the North Sea. Today it's weekend sailors rather than true grit fishermen who call it home port.

Placid Marken Harbour has survived many a gale blowing in off the North Sea. Today it’s weekend sailors rather than true grit fishermen who call it home port.

It was mid-autumn and the sailing season nearly done. An occasional seafarer would ramble along the line of the boats rocking at anchor and hop aboard, tidying up and tucking items away. Two boys in Ajax shirts dodged in and out of the bollards along the harbor wall, playing an imaginary game of soccer.

I could feel the day sliding off towards evening too, so I gathered up my bright red bike, made a quick circle of the outer village and set off back across the causeway. I was twenty-some kilometers from central Amsterdam, with the promise of the other half of the cycling loop yet to be fulfilled.

Once back on the mainland, I passed a set of modern slim-line windmills, their pale grey poles almost disappearing into the equally grey sky behind them. I followed the coast for a few kilometers and then turned inland, winding down lanes and pasturelands that left the sea feeling remarkably distant. In Zuiderwoude and Broek in Waterland, gabled wooden houses were sprinkled along the roadside, and a cluster of red-lettered signs pointed the way on bike paths in all directions. The steeples of 17th century Dutch Reformed churches were the highest points in the landscape, and as the afternoon mellowed into early evening, I settled back in a slow, comfortable riding rhythm.

Bike paths in Holland are thick on the ground, and often more convenient than driving anyway.

Bike paths in Holland are thick on the ground, and often more convenient than driving anyway.

I crossed over the Noordhollandsch Kanaal on a high bridge, dodging a moment of traffic, and then looped down through woods and parkland that paralleled the flowing water. Above me on the far bank the rush of traffic multiplied until it seemed a motorway of frantic visitors heading for the center. Yet my path continued to wind through trees, past dog-walkers and couples strolling hand-in-hand. An old-style windmill appeared in my track, its wide sails stopped forever, but still a symbol of the old ways.

Ahead I could see the ferry landing, and across the Het IJ the sprawling edifice of Amsterdam Centraal Station. Was it really still the same day as when I’d left? I felt I’d traveled much further in time even than in distance, and that in some important ways I’d penetrated closer to the heart of the Dutch psyche.

 

FLASHBACK: “The Wonder of Wies”

6 January 2016

Delicate tracery based on leaves and plants graces the organ and loft.

Inside Wieskirche, delicate tracery based on leaves and plants graces the organ and loft.

The eye roves incessantly. The trompe d’oeil ceiling sparks interest in the pulpit, then in the inlaid wooden railings around the altar. Gold and glitter jump out from every corner, one detail leading on to the next. It is a feast—almost a gluttony—of German rococo ornamentation. One of Ludwig II’s fantasy castles? A major cathedral? The high point on a tour of Wurzburg? In fact, it is none of the above.

This is the Wieskirche, a pilgrimage church set just off the Romantic Road (near Steingaden) in rolling countryside back dropped by the white peaks of the Bavarian Alps.

"The Wonder of the Wies" lies in quiet Bavarian countryside.

“The Wonder of the Wies” lies in quiet Bavarian countryside.

It is no surprise to find such a gem in Bavaria, which was long a center for rococo adornment. But there is irony in the fact that what most authorities consider to be the finest rococo church in Germany is found, not in regal Munich, or even the bustle of a market town, but standing forth in solitary grandeur amongst a handful of houses in the tiny community of Wies. After all, rococo, with its profusion of glitter and pomp, is most closely associated with the flamboyant court life of the 17th and 18th centuries. Who would build such a masterpiece in a tiny country hamlet?

The answer lies within. On the cover of a tomb in an obscure corner of the sanctuary is written the name, Dominikus Zimmerman. Here is the key to understanding the Wieskirche. Dominikus Zimmerman was one of the finest—and certainly the most prolific—architects ever to work in the rococo style. And he was born just outside Wies.

But what we have here is not the usual case of a lad from humble beginnings going on to fame and fortune and then in his old age bequeathing a large sum of money so that his home town could erect something in his honor. No. Dominikus Zimmerman gave not money, but time. He labored for a full decade (1744-54) to complete the Wieskirche. For a full decade he poured his heart’s blood and artistic talent into a house of worship for the townspeople of his home.

The result is known throughout Germany as “The Wonder of the Wies.” Sunstreams slide through the windows, illuminating an interior of delights both majestic and miniature alike. Here a Biblical quotation lies enshrined in golden carvings. There a cherubic leg suddenly juts forth from a fresco into the third dimension. Imposing statues of the saints stand in a circle around the sanctuary, lending a human element to the ethereal setting.

Even the sunlight enters with an appropriate flourish.

Even the sunlight enters with an appropriate flourish.

From every angle the oval sanctuary exudes light and space. As the angles of light change with the hour of the day, worshippers come and go. Some seek healing, and leave crosses and crutches as tokens of their thankfulness. Others find solace in the notes of the church organ, whose ponderous tones fill the sanctuary with waves of sound. And still more just come to sit in stillness. Their eyes are first drawn forward, to the richly decorated altar; and then above it, to where a bronze statue of the Lamb of God reminds them of the true object of their faith. For whatever the modern viewer’s reaction, the Wieskirche remains first a house of worship, and only secondly a museum of rococo art.

This is as it should be, for Dominikus Zimmerman poured his energies into this project not to outdo himself artistically, but to keep a faith promise with himself and with all those who share the same belief.

The lamb of God stands over all (above the altar).

The lamb of God stands over all (above the altar).

This piece originally appeared in Messenger (Italy), December 1984.

This is where “The River Starts Flowing”

16 December 2015

Just released—the 36th volume in the long-running COMPAS series of Anthologies of Student Writing, The River Starts Flowing. Proud editor—Daniel Gabriel. Once again, we collected the best stories, poems, songs, memoirs, and spoken word pieces from K-12 students around the state of Minnesota and put them together in a bound volume that signals heartfelt and exciting paths to the future.

Being published in a COMPAS anthology holds memories for a lifetime.

Being published in a COMPAS anthology holds memories for a lifetime./Photo by Betsy Mowry Voss

And once again, we gathered on the 2nd Saturday in December to celebrate these students’ achievements in the elegant Cortile of Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul. Several families came hundreds of miles from Roseau, up on the Canadian border, to attend. Rochester STEM Academy, whose work was featured in multiple selections, brought a busload of students, staff, and family members up from the south. Kids large and small set aside their fears of public speaking and amazed the jam-packed crowd with their insights.

We opened with “My Place,” a moving piece from a Nepalese girl, written during last year’s devastating earthquakes in her homeland, and we closed with three Somali girls line sync-performing a tribute to their homeland, “East Africa’s Most Beautiful: Somalia.” No question, these young students are connected to the world at large.

Rochester STEM Academy turns up the volume

Rochester STEM Academy turns up the volume./Photo by Betsy Mowry Voss

Lest it be thought that all good young writers are girls, and all best topics are foreign, two of the strongest pieces in the book were done by boys from the far north. Jordan Moser’s “More Than Hunting” took this city-lubber inside hunting camp in a way that I’d never thought possible, and Michael Thompson’s “Remember the Days” was an eloquent memorial to a lost life, brilliantly expressed in taut imagery.

Some pieces were funny, particularly some of the clever stories written by kids in elementary school. Many were saddening commentaries on youthful exclusion and misunderstanding. All used language effectively to talk back to the world, to stake their claim, to find a platform. You can’t see for sure where all this will pour out into the great sea of human endeavor, but this is definitely where the river starts flowing . . .

Gathered backstage, we plot our approach for the main event.

Gathered backstage, we plot our approach for the main event./Photo by Betsy Mowry Voss.

Book Launch Provides Flying Start

28 October 2015

Just back from the book launch for my latest collection of short stories, Wrestling with Angels. Many thanks to the great folks at New Rivers Press (NRP)—especially Nayt Rundquist and Alan Davis—for being wonderful hosts this past week up in Fargo-Moorhead.

CLICK HERE TO BUY Wrestling with Angels

There were three writers involved. The others were Julie Gard, sharing her collection of prose poems (Home Studies), and Tracy Robert, author of the dual novellas Flash Cards and the Curse of Ambrosia. After a classic walleye dinner at Usher’s Place, overlooking the winding banks of the Red River of the North, we moved on to MSUM (Minnesota State University Moorhead), home of NRP, for a joint reading in the student union.

The following day, action shifted across the border to Fargo. As part of an NRP fundraiser, the three of us read again at The Spirit Room, a meditation center on the heart of Broadway in downtown Fargo. The setting was meditative indeed, with huge abstract canvases lining the walls and a low-rise stage providing a suitable setting for raised voices. Besides reading pieces from our books, we were also asked to share examples of what has inspired us to write. It was fascinating to discover what had influenced my fellow writers.

Myself, I started with a short excerpt from Jack Kerouac’s “The Railroad Earth,” which appeared in Lonesome Traveler. Aside from his themes, I love Kerouac’s exuberance of language and his ability to mythologize his own life. Then I read a slice of the opening to Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train. This was Greene’s first major success in Britain, and I’ve always been impressed with his craft (and ability to be at home, anywhere in the world). Greene is so effective in those first few pages, setting up any number of hints that pay off later in the book. I concluded with a bold approach: the voice of God speaking to Job, from Job 38 in the Old Testament. As I told the assembled throng, The Bible is where I go for wisdom, and for a heightened sense of language. The cadences, the phrasing, the subtleties—I’m more than happy to absorb those influences.

Finally, on Saturday, we participated in a panel discussion at the Fargo Public Library. The main focus was on NaNoWriMo (sp?), national novel writing month, though the flow of talk ranged far and wide. Fargo-Moorhead has a number of serious writers. It was fun to encounter some of them!

This is the first time I’ve done a joint launch, and it was really satisfying. Sharing the events with two other writers meant that there was always someone else going through the same surges of nerves and emotions, and it kept us locked into our roles as writers. For me, at least, my daily round rarely includes emphasizing the fact that I publish fiction. During our time in Fargo-Moorhead, that fact was front and center at all times.

Now if only everybody and their cousin will go out and BUY the book, we can repeat these celebrations in cities and towns across the country. That’s my plan and I’m sticking to it.

Back Door to Russia—Down the Saimaa Canal

23 September 2015

Gliding along the Saimaa Canal

Gliding along the Saimaa Canal with the Finnish-Russian border just ahead.

While Putin blusters and the value of the ruble dips ever lower, we wanted to slide into Russia without the need for an inconvenient—and expensive—set of visas. We found our back door through the Finnish Saimaa Canal, thanks to the fact that the Russians allow 72-hour visa-free travel, so long as one enters and leaves on the same watergoing vessel.

During the summer, the Finns run a daily boat from Lappeenranta on Lake Saimaa (Finland’s largest lake) down the length of the canal to the now-Russian port of Vyborg, on the Baltic Sea. First attempts to construct a waterway to link Lake Saimaa with the Gulf of Finland go as far back as 1499 and 1607, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the canal was finally opened. Goods traffic blossomed and between the world wars, Vyborg was Finland’s busiest port.

Then came World War II. While attention was focused elsewhere, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in the Winter War of 1940 (and later, in the Continuation War). When the dust had settled, the Soviets had claimed half of the canal, and large swaths of the Finnish region of Karelia, including Vyborg. Decades later, a lease arrangement was concluded, allowing Finland use of the canal once again.

Entering one of the 7 locks on the Saimaa Canal.

Entering one of the 7 locks on the Saimaa Canal. Notice the old, smaller canal on the right.

In efforts to maximize our time inside Russia, we traversed the length of the canal four times on the M/S Carelia. Down a series of 7 locks, across a scattered chain of lakes (one with floating islands that changed positions every time we passed), past hidden summer homes and fishing holes, and on into the Gulf. There was a hearty meal of salmon and pork, Karelian folk songs, and a cohort of hard-drinkers making the most of the tax-free alcohol. Virtually all other passengers were Finns, crossing the border to savor the dying light from old Karelia and, in particular, the once-vibrant city of Vyborg.

Since 1293, Vyborg Castle has protected its city from Baltic raiders.

Since 1293, Vyborg Castle has protected its city from Baltic raiders.

Our ship docked in the shadow of Vyborg’s 13th century castle, set on its own private island in the estuary. Passport control was surprisingly low-key, as if we were entering a foreman’s trailer on a construction site. On the other side, tangled streets ran through Vyborg’s old city up to Market Square, where a medieval round tower faced off against city hall. This was once Finland’s second largest city. Much of the architecture is still in place, but only the facades are intact. Interior after interior remains empty, still bombed out a full 70 years after WW2 ended. An eerie feeling, wandering back streets in the summer twilight with empty windows reflecting the sky.

Parklands abound—both along the river estuary walk, and running for blocks through the middle length of the old city. Where the parks end, Krasnaya Square begins, decorated in red, white and blue streamers withering under the severe iron gaze of Comrade V.I. Lenin, still proudly perched on his plinth, commanding the city. The Revolution is dead. Long live the Revolution.

Comrade Lenin, architect of the Bolshevik Revolution

Comrade Lenin, architect of the Bolshevik Revolution and still, apparently, in favor with the present government.

Our fellow passengers spend no time here. They are visiting Alvar Aalto’s library, and Hakman’s House, and St. Hyacinthus’ Church; or studying the historical exhibits inside the castle, which recreate the golden era between the wars, replete with photographs and letters and remnants of household goods.

Karelian culture still lives on, in its Finnish half of the territory. On the Russian side, the fractured shell of the culture has proved to have deep, stubborn roots, though all the original populace fled generations ago. There is a sadness underlying all this. Finns we spoke to about the loss of Karelia seemed resigned, but embittered. Russians seemed not to notice. On the boat trips back to Finland, the last light of sunset hung on until we’d crossed the border. As darkness fell, the stars emerged, along with the distant lights of Lappeenranta town. Not all of Karelia has been lost.

[For more, see photo gallery Saimaa Canal & Vyborg, Russia, 2015: http://danielgabriel.us/travel-photos/]