Wednesday, March 22, 2017


This picture will have to stand in for (it can't do justice to) the landscapes we drove through on our little trip up to Saratoga Springs, across to Bennington, and back to Brooklyn. Early or late on a bright cloudless day, these wooded hills blanketed smooth in clean snow offer contrasts of white and near-black lines of a dazzling beauty and precision. Beholding them I felt I had seen such loveliness in art. But where? Grandma Moses? Currier and Ives? Brueghel? Hiroshige? Nope... It's like the clarity of a print with the fulness of oils.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chance encounter

Had the great pleasure today of visiting my friend L's class at Bennington College. The course is called "Chance" and populated mostly by students studying economics (L, too, is an economist), but my assignment was to talk about chance (a) and John Cage, (b) and religion. It worked better than I thought it might... curious students and an enthusiastic host make all the difference!

I won't tire you with the details but we went from Cage's challenge to the distinction between sound (or music) and noise to the discovery that we can make sound of noise through attention (as we do when attending a concert with the right attitude) to the potential for unprecedented creativity in seeking out what we would otherwise dismiss as noise through "chance operations" to... religion? What is it not just to recognize chance, uncertainty, chaos, contingency as in their own way significant or true (even as every effort to articulate it traduces it) but to find (and give yourself to) God, Buddha nature or the Dao in it?

This is all quite different from the overall aim of L's class, which is to survey the way probability can (to the extent it can) compass chance events, but everyone seemed engaged, busily making sense of what we'd billed as a chance - or chancy - inter-disciplinary encounter. Part of a lovely sojourn in Bennington!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Together we prosper

Manifesto on the wall of one of the few establishment in Bennington (town) that seems to be on the way in rather than on its way out.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Visitor views

Saratoga Springs is one of America's oldest tourist destinations - natural mineral springs and horse racing, proximity to the site of an important battle early in the war of independence, early connected to NYC by train. The cracking paint in this now illegible map, in the century-old station now converted into a visitors center, gives a sense of hoary age.
The view from Saratoga National Historical Park's visitor center.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Off the grid

We're heading to our friend's place in Bennington for the start of Spring Break. North of NYC there's no sign of Spring! But there were these amazing inverted icicle cities in the carpark of a service station of I-87.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Longue durée

To commemorate Women's History Month, The New School today screened a documentary about Gerda Lerner (1920-2013), the historian who studied here - and, while still studying, taught the first course in women's history at this or any other university. (It was anthropologist May Edel, one of her teachers at The New School, who pointed Lerner toward history, a field she went on to reshape in significant ways.) A most inspiring story, and sobering. Nobody gave us anything, she insisted. Women worked hard for all their rights. Seventy-two years for suffrage in the US. Seventy-two years! What kept them going?

It's always good to be reminded how very recent it is that young women now grow up with women role models, heroes and models in history as well as the present. (Young boys, too!) Not much longer than my lifetime, in fact... though, Lerner would point out, women have in fact been making history all along, even without the aid of histories, which used to focus only on (and exaggerate) the history-making of men.

During the three days of interviews in 2012 that form the center of the documentary, film maker Renata Keller got to be the one to tell Lerner that one of her heroes, Hildegard of Bingen, had just been canonized by Benedict XVI. Nine hundred years it took, Lerner said. Thirty-nine abbesses, thirty-nine generations of nuns!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ply visible

Another marvel from Nan Shepherd...

The freezing of running water is another mystery. The strong white stuff, whose power I have felt in swollen streams, which I have watched pour over ledges in endless ease, is itself held and punished. But the struggle between frost and the force in running water is not quickly over. The battle fluctuates, and at the point of fluctuation between the motion of water and the immobility of frost, strange and beautiful forms are evolved. Until I spent a whole midwinter day wandering from one burn to another watching them, I had no idea how many fantastic shapes the freezing of running water took. In each whorl and spike one catches the moment of equilibrium between two elemental forces. (29) avid reader, I've learned, of Daoist and Buddhist texts!

Since then I have watched many burns in the process of freezing, but I do not know if description can describe these delicate manifestations. Each is an interplay between two movements in simultaneous action, the freezing of frost and the running of water. Sometimes a third force, the blowing of wind, complicates the forms still further. The ice may be crystal clear, but more probably is translucent; crimpled, crackled or bubbled; green throughout or at the edges. Where the water comes wreathing over stones the ice is opaque, in broken circular structure. Where the water runs thinly over a line of stones right across the bed and freezes in crinkled green cascades of ice, then a dam forms further up of half frozen slush, green, though colourless if lifted out, solid at its margins, foliated, with the edges all separate, like untrimmed hand-made paper, and each edge a vivid green. Where water drips steadily from an overhang, undeflected by wind, almost perfect sphere of clear transparent ice result. They look unreal, in this world of wayward undulations, too regular, as though man had made them. Spray splashing off a stone cuts into the slowly freezing snow on the bank and flutes it with crystal, or drenches a sprig of heather that hardens to a tree of purest glass, like an ingenious toy. Water running over a rock face freezes in ropes, with the ply visible. Where the water fell clear of the rock, icicles hang, thick as a thigh, many feet in length, and sometimes when the wind blows the falling water askew as it freezes, the icicles are squint. I have seen icicles like a scimitar blade in shape, firm and solid in their place. For once, even the wind has been fixed. Sometimes a smooth portion of stream is covered with a thin coat of ice that, not quite meeting in the middle, shows the level of the water several inches below; since the freezing began, the water upstream has frozen and less water is flowing. When a level surface has frozen hard from bank to bank, one may hear at times a loud knocking, as the stream, rushing below the ice, flings a stone up against its roof. In boggy parts by the burnside one treads on what seems solid frozen snow, to find only a thin crisp crust that gives way to reveal massed thousands of needle crystals of ice, fluted columns four or five inches deep. And if one can look below the covering ice on a frozen burn, a lovely pattern of fluted indentations is found, arched and chiselled, the obverse of the water's surface, with the subtle shift of emphasis and superimposed design that occurs between a painting and the landscape that it represents. In short, there is no end to the lovely things that frost and the running of water can create between them. (31-32)

Copying this out word for word was my own act of attention; the congealing of her words is as mysterious as the processes she describes.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

After the snow

Because of the snow day, the Religious Studies roundtable has had to be rescheduled (probably to April 27th). But tomorrow's opening of the art exhibit curated by one of my Kailash fellow yatris is still happening!

You'll notice a second event in the poster, too. On March 30th, the New School participants in last year's Kailash kora will be getting together to share reflections on our experiences together. The event will include photo highlights of the expedition.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Cairngorm see-er

If I teach the Sacred Mountains class again, Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain will be the reading after the essay assignment on the the perils and advantages of seeing mountain from a distance. Shepherd never went "up" but always "into" her beloved Cairngorms.

[C]hanging of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one's sense of outer reality. Then static things may be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one's head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become! From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches it back, and each layer of landscape bristles - though bristles is a word of too much commotion for it. Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.

How sweet a riposte to the hubris of "To see the greatness of a mountain one must keep one's distance from it" is this:

No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it.

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (Edinburgh and London: Canongate,
2011 [1977, but actually written 30 years before that]), 11, 90