Monday, July 21, 2014

The Weight of Mountains

I used to believe that there were only two kinds of places one could end up: a place near the sea or a place in the mountains. For years I scoured the dark reaches of my soul trying to discern if I was "of the mountains" or "of the ocean." 

Colorado, USA
Through my adolescence and early twenties, I was convinced that my heart needed the constancy of waves, my feet baptized daily in salt water. I was convinced that I had been born "of the ocean" and this notion was partly responsible for my relocation to a costal town in western Costa Rica at age 18.

There I lived a mere 8 degrees off the invisible line of the equator, about 50 feet from the high tide of the Pacific Ocean. The sun rose every day at 6am and set every afternoon at 6pm; a dry season was mirrored by a wet season. Once in a while, I would wake up to a crimson beach: the red tide, a cycle of blooms in under the water's surface. There was a balance of life there that revolved around the rhythm of the ocean. I had fallen effortlessly into that rhythm and thought I'd never leave.

Guanacaste, Costa Rica
It has been a year since my feet touched seawater and almost ten years since my last trip to Costa Rica. I now live along the foot of a mountain range - in the dry shadow of the green-felted, pine covered Rockies. The mountains have their own rhythm: bears come down the slopes in spring and retreat along with the flower blossoms, with the first crisp wind of winter. The vertical orientation of the landscape draws my eyes upward, towards the deep, open sky.

Since arriving in Colorado, I've had to revisit my decision and ask myself again: of the sea or of the mountains? 

...And then yesterday I saw this documentary poetic masterpiece:

"The Weight of Mountains" is a short documentary on the life cycle of mountains - a thing I'd never considered before. Temujin Doran is the creator of this film and here he has delicately balanced geological data with prose, still images of tall and far-away mountains with close-up shots of tiny movement covering these giants. Please watch full screen.

After watching this, it seemed that there aren't only two places a person can end up. Probably, in fact, there are many, many places you can end up. But that anywhere I find myself, I am either traveling to or emerging from sea or the sky, pushing upwards against rock or sliding gently into dark blue water. 

Until next time - keep rustling!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

On Horse, In Saddle

After almost four full months of silence I am finally back on the horse, firmly in the blogging saddle, grasping the reigns of recreational writing. Several significant life events have kept me away from the blogosphere for these past couple of months, but I have missed it so much and am really glad to now be back!

By way of reintroducing myself after this lengthy hiatus, I thought it would be fun to share some of what I've been reading recently - both for pleasure and for work. I hope you find something that interests you!

Our kitchen table, on any given morning...
Research for my dissertation has been taking some interesting twists and turns. I've been looking at various accounts of journeys to the afterlife, composed by writers from across the Mediterranean region. The way in which these cross-cultural narratives intersect seems to provide insight into Mediterranean perceptions of the afterlife and, in particular, the extent to which these divine spaces of the afterlife were accessible to the living.

My new best friends.
One medieval narrative of divine space seems of particular interest, as it extends across several geographic and linguistic communities. The narrative, retold throughout the region and down through the ages, leads the reader into a dark and mysterious cave in the northeastern region of Ireland.

The cave was known as Saint Patrick's Purgatory and was said to have been the earthly site of Purgatory. This concrete physical location became a vastly important pilgrimage site for both natives of Ireland as well as curious travelers. These pilgrimages continue to take place, and in fact you can go yourself if you like, although the cave itself was filled in during the mid-XVIII century and replaced with a chapel.

Books from left to right: The Voyage of Saint Brendan - Journey to the Promised Land, trans. John O'Meara; Viaje al Purgatorio by Ramón de Perellós; Visions of Heaven and Hell Before Dante by Eileen Gardener
I recently read a version of this narrative that fascinated me, written by the Catalan diplomat, Ramón de Perellós, right-hand man to king Juan I of Aragón (XIV century). Following the king's sudden death in a hunting accident, Perellós made the journey to the cave of purgatory in Ireland, in hopes of speaking with the deceased king and discovering the fate of his soul. This appeared to be, then, a diplomatic journey to Purgatory, aimed at settling a matter of State. The yellow book in the photo above is a modern copy of his 1397 account, Journey to Purgatory (my translation).

In spite of the stated purpose for the journey, Perellós' account of covers little of his encounter with the deceased king he successfully visited in purgatory, glossing over a brief conversation in which Perellós confirms that, indeed, the king died in an accident and was destined for paradise after purging the final stains of venial sins.

Perellós went into great detail, however, about the demons that accosted him, the dark and narrow tunnels he traveled through, the immense joy and relief he experienced upon arriving in the anteroom to heaven, and the dread and tearful departure he made from there, returning to the mouth of the cave and the rest of the world to go on living. Rather than recount a "diplomatic mission" (albeit a cosmic one), Perellós ends up with a travel diary that includes detailed descriptions of evil and divine space.

What makes Journey to Purgatory so different from Dante's Divine Comedy is that Perellós' journey has been historically documented and was considered to be not a work of poetry but an autobiographical composition by a respected courtier. Perellós brought several companions with him, received several letters of recommendation from French and British monarchs, documented his expenses and the stops he made along the way; in other words, historians can confirm that he actually did travel to Ireland and actually did enter the cave thought to be the mouth of Purgatory. The way his work was read and interpreted would've differed greatly from the way people read and interpreted Dante. ...More on Perellós to come!

The beauty of painted vellum and historiated initial letters.
When not reading about caves and demons, much of my pleasure reading has been centered on how medieval texts were made, stored, and circulated. I have subsequently spent a good deal of time in the Special Collections Library, taking advantage of their collection of pre-modern manuscripts.

If you are interested in learning more about how manuscripts were made prior to the advent of the printing press, check out this fantastic video produced by the Getty Museum: 

Finally, because making one's way through histories of purgatory and heaven and hell can be daunting, it is important to temper the heaviosity with puppies. That's right. PUPPIES. I'm not just talking about the adorable youtube snugglers that steal my heart on a daily basis, I'm talking about medieval pets. Thank goodness I found Kathleen Walker-Meikle's well-researched and thoughtfully written volume, Medieval Pets (2012).  

Two of the books at the top of my pleasure reading stack.
I wish I could read two things at once so that I could get to these all the many wonderful books I've collected before the summer slips away and the Fall semester takes over my life. The good news is that I will certainly not lack for good reading adventures to share with you, dear petticoat rustlers! More to come soon on the beauty of vellum, the foul stench of hell, the promise of purgatory, the lives of Portuguese clerics, the medieval Mediterranean identity, and of course, puppies.....

Book stacks unnumbered!
Until next time -- keep rustling!