Spring Salad


The First Green of Spring

Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,
this sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting
to a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,

harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching
on this message from the dawn which says we and the world
are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And

even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we
will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here
now, today, and, my oh my! don’t these greens taste good.

—David Budbill

A Mothers Day


My mother passed away unexpectedly on this day in April, 2006, after complications following gall bladder surgery. We were very close. I have gradually, painfully, come to believe that she is truly departed from here, but each year as spring approaches, instead of simply gazing admiringly at the daffodils I regress to a state of wandering semi-shock for a while. It’s become a more complicated season. Beside her Yahrzeit candle today are items of significance: family photographs, a book of poetry, a small felted sheep, a pot of Sweet Williams, an avocado, a potato…

There are lots drawings of her in my sketchbooks. I made this one on our last Mothers Day together, except I didn’t know it would be the last. We rarely do, do we. She loved to be taken out to restaurants. This evening in a turning of the tables, so to speak, my son took us all out to a restaurant. We took the Yahrzeit candle along.



Garden at the heart

We are seeing the last of the tulips here. (This is a detail from a larger painting.)


There is a garden at the heart of things,
Our oldest memory guards it with her strong will.
Those who by love and work attain there
Bathe in her living waters, lift up their hearts and
Turn again to share the steep privations of the hill;
They walk in the market but their feet are still.

from The Promised Garden, by Theo Dorgan

Renaissance Man

In the middle of Italy, in the middle of the 15th century, a prosperous Florentine attorney had an assignation with a peasant girl who subsequently became pregnant. Having no intention of marrying out of his class, he nevertheless adopted the child (and married someone else). But it’s doubtful either suspected that their dalliance would produce one of the most extraordinary geniuses of an extraordinary era. Or perhaps of any era. Today is the birthday of that baby, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), and what can I say of this man that hasn’t already been said a thousand times, and much better too? But in respect I devote today’s post to him, along with a sketch I made at a Smithsonian Discovery Theater performance about his life (signed by the actor, Oran Sandel).

The period we call the Italian Renaissance stretched from the 14th to the 16th centuries, when the disposable wealth of a growing middle class helped to fund travel, trade, manufacture, learning and art, and the educated citizen reached back beyond a medieval sleep to rediscover the classical world and open his mind to earth and sky. Leonardo’s life-span fell at the heart of this era. He was not an isolated pheomenon; he was part of a continuum that stretched from Piero della Francesca and Donatello to Michelangelo and Raphael. And yet within this continuum he is remarkable.

Little Leonardo had no formal schooling, but apparently showed an early aptitude for mathematics, music, and drawing, and at fourteen was apprenticed to the artist Andrea del Verocchio. Now, “artist” is a label with a shifting interpretation, and in 15th-century Italy it did not mean a superstar who sat pouring out his heart and his genius before an easel or a block of marble. No, an artist was a bloke whom you hired to manage all sorts of practical and decorative tasks. Verrochio got his start as a goldsmith, and when his work sent him to Rome and he perceived the city’s appreciation of statuary, he said to himself, “Allora—I can do that!” And so he did, creating sculpture in plaster, marble, and bronze, with the occasional bell-casting to keep pasta on the table.

Leonardo was a gifted pupil who studied both artistic and technical skills, working in metal, plaster, leather, and wood as well as paint, and, the story goes, he quickly surpassed his master. At 20 he was admitted to a guild composed of artists, chemists, and physicians (perhaps this made it handy to study anatomy).

He began to receive commissions, and after a few years applied to the Duke of Milan for an appointment, writing that he could design bridges, canals, and buildings; make light and heavy weaponry; create sculpture; and paint. How’s that for a resume? He was hired, and his many tasks included not only those above but decorating palace rooms, creating pageants, and designing costumes for festivals. It seems like a waste of his talents, but one of the most striking and curious aspects of Leonardo was his apparently inexhaustible interest in everything and its effect on his limitless imagination.

The list of his interests is stunning. Of course he was interested in the human face and form in all its positions, moods, and stages of life, from the beautiful to the grotesque, from the skeleton to the fetus to the movement of blood. But he also loved animal life, and all of nature, not just its forms but its structures and functions. He was fascinated by the movement of water, by clouds, by astronomy. He explored the wonders of geometry, optics, color, light, heat, sound, magnetism, geology, fossils, the chemistry of pigments, the flight of birds. He filled thousands and thousands of journal pages with his observations and sketches. He designed (famously ahead of his time) predecessors of the armored tank, the helicopter, the hang-glider.

And, yes, he painted. Probably, although we are aware of his multi-faceted pursuits, we remember him best for his painting. The Mona Lisa. The Last Supper. The Virgin of the Rocks. He didn’t leave us many (and what he did leave is astonishing)—a mere handful of finished paintings and sculptures. Thousands of sketches. And a number of works that are unfinished, or deteriorating because of his use of experimental materials. When we gaze upon his people, living and breathing and thinking and feeling upon the canvas, we might wonder:

What was going on with this artist that he didn’t feel compelled to bring forth a few more amazing works of art?

Was he such a perfectionist that the energy for his approach was limited? (He was famous for—and exasperated his clients with—the preparation, the thought, the hundreds of studies that preceded any final work.)

Was the process more interesting to him than the product?

What’s with all the hobbies? Did he think he was going to live FOREVER, for heaven’s sake?

Near the end of his life, when he was working for the French king François I (designing canals, arranging pageants), he wrote despairingly in one of his notebooks, “I have wasted my hours.” But in another he wrote, “As a day well-spent makes it sweet to sleep, so a life well-spent makes it sweet to die.” I am hoping it is the latter thought that was with him at the end.

Bean Sprout

It’s lovely to go outside each morning in this season and see what new surprise (dogwood? dandelion?) awaits us. But if you have never put a bean into a jar of damp cotton balls and watched to see what happens over the next few days, I recommend it as an annual springtime activity. To watch the magical unfolding in your own kitchen does renew respect for what’s happening in the larger world. This is a sketch from our homeschooling Botany block.


One Small Step for l’Homme


When I travel, I like to see what Mass is like in other places, especially in foreign countries, now that it’s no longer in Latin and I can listen to the local language. Even if I don’t speak the language, the structure of the service is familiar enough that I know what’s happening. I guess that’s part of the appeal of standardized religions. It’s like being a member of a club, and you get to participate as long as you follow the rules, learn the secret handshake, and wear the moose hat.

I did this sketch at a church in Epinal, France some years ago, and I post it here because it seemed suitable for today’s anniversary of the declaration of the Edict of Nantes in 1598. If this event does not leap out from the Renaissance history drawer of your brain, let me remind you.

In the 16th century, France was in the midst of its Wars of Religion. Just like many other nations whose boundaries we take for granted in our own lifetimes, “France” was an evolving entity torn by factions jostling for influence and supremacy, while ordinary peasants muddled along growing periodically-trampled cabbages as best they could. When the teachings of Martin Luther were introduced to France and were received with interest, even passion, by part of the population, it lit a fire in the hearts of others who (choose one):

a. were genuinely concerned about the immortal souls of these lost sheep.

b. feared the loss of power and riches that affiliation with the approved Catholic designation afforded them.

c. said, “Hey, here’s an opportunity to get rid of that rich relative/persistent creditor/tiresome spouse.”

d. foresaw that 36 years of people slaughtering each other and desecrating their forms of worship would be a jolly good way to spend their time.

(Answer is probably e.)

The Huguenots (French Protestants) and the French Catholics each spoke as if convinced of the one-true-faith-ness of their respective choices and sought not only to protect their own practices but to squash each others’ altogether. The neighbors were called in (Protestant England and Flanders; Catholic Spain and the Papal States) and arrived shouting, brandishing weapons, and eyeing the attractive lands near their borders. Numerous skirmishes, all-out battles, and horrible massacres alternated with periodic treaties and edicts which brought peace briefly and were then ignored.

Complicating this struggle was the irony that, not too far down the line of succession to the throne, was Henri of Navarre, a sword-wieldin’, skirt-chasin’, freedom-lovin’ mec* (worth an eventual post here) and a Huguenot himself. Catherine de Medici, mother of the young and unstable King Charles IX, was more practical than religious, and her principal aim was to keep control of France in her children’s hands. As what mother wouldn’t. She proposed a marriage between her beautiful daughter Marguerite and Henri of Navarre, and, despite disapproval from nearly everybody on both sides, the marriage took place in Paris. Followed immediately by the horrible St. Batholomew’s Day Massacre, the worst yet.

Henri was obliged to flee Paris, and when Charles IX died shortly thereafter, Henri had to fight his way back to Paris at the head of an army to be recognized as the new King Henri IV. He successfully conquered one region after another, but staunchly Catholic (or perhaps just relentlessly stubborn and contrary) Paris held out, eating rats du jour right through a siege, until Henri relented and decided to convert to Catholicism. This was not a big deal to him, as he had practiced both faiths while growing up depending on whether he was at court or at home. But it was a huge deal for the country, annoying both disappointed Protestants and skeptical Catholics.

Once he was ensconced, however, Henri showed the kingly stuff he was made of, launching a series of highly successful financial and agricultural reforms and huge public service projects. He then took the opportunity to enact what you, faithful reader (if you are still with me here), have followed this post so long to discover: THE EDICT OF NANTES, which authorized freedom of Protestant worship, the press, eligibility to public office (his brilliant finance minister was a Huguenot), and equal admission to schools, universities, and hospitals. It also authorized payment of Protestant ministers by the government. (This tolerance extended only to Protestants—forget Jews, Muslims, or atheists.) Simultaneously he allowed the previously exiled and troublesome Jesuits to return to France, taking one as his confessor. And he pardoned miscreants from both sides of the Wars of Religion. Thus Catholic and Protestant fanatics alike were infuriated.

But Henri’s intelligent policies and genial personality made him popular with ordinary folks, and France entered a new era of prosperity and relative tolerance that lasted until Louis XIV unwisely revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, resulting in a brain drain as thousands of Protestants took their skills and industry to friendlier locations. The 87-year period had been one step on the journey toward toleration of differences—a long and stumbling journey that, we must admit, is still in progress. Light a candle at dinner tonight in gratitude for each step.


Bless the Field and Bless the Furrow


To begin the work week, a traditional blessing from our homemade family mealtime verse book.

I especially like “Bless the righteous and the thief.” To hold this vision of the world deeply in one’s heart is worth striving for. Ongoing struggle though it may be from day to day. Well, it is for me, anyway.

Wild About Harry

This picture is from our Local History and Geography lesson block.


If you lived in Washington, DC in 1938, ONE out of every TEN of your neighbors was living in a house or apartment built by Harry Wardman (1872-1938), whose birthday it is today. Not bad for a guy born in Bradford, England who came to the United States at age 17 and started out as a department store floorwalker in New York. He moved on to a store in Philadelphia, then to Washington, DC in 1893, where he found carpentry work and learned to build staircases.

Wardman wasn’t satisfied with staircases, however. Washington suffered from housing shortages both after the Civil War and after World War I, and Wardman was poised and eager to fill the need. He moved on from staircases to building entire houses, and then larger structures: buying land, building on it and selling, then buying new land for another project. He built apartment buildings, office buildings, hotels, clubs, and whole neighborhoods of row houses renowned for the quality of their construction and materials.

Wardman built many of Washington’s grandest apartment buildings, the Hay-Adams Hotel, and the British Embassy, but his best-known project is probably the Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park. Wardman and his wife already had an impressive mansion in the neighborhood, at the intersection of the newly-extended Connecticut Avenue and Woodley Road. An iron bridge had only just been built in 1891 allowing easier travel across the ravine of Rock Creek Valley, and Wardman decided that Woodley Park would be a fine location for a hotel.

So in 1916, while his wife was overseeing their daughter’s schooling in Paris, Wardman ordered a crew to empty their house of its furnishings, and then he had the place torn down, to be replaced by the Wardman Park Hotel (now the Marriott Wardman Park). People called it “Wardman’s Folly.” Why, you ask? Supposedly because no one in his right mind would ever want to stay in a hotel soooo far away from downtown. But I’m trying to imagine returning from a trip to Paris and discovering that my husband has knocked down our house and replaced it with a hotel. “Folly” is certainly one word that would come to mind. Many other words, too, probably.

Wardman made a fortune. By 1929 he had amassed $30 million (which I understand was a lot of money in those days). Most of it was lost in the stock market crash, but he retained enough to continue some of his building projects and was on his way to a second fortune when he died, having spent years putting roofs of one sort or another over the heads of Washingtonians. Our family lives today in a Wardman neighborhood (our house turns 100 years old this year), and I definitely plan to put some candles in the dessert tonight and sing Happy Birthday to Harry.