What’s with all these women and snakes? Or more precisely, what’s with all these artists painting pictures of women with snakes?

Yes, there’s a pat, comic answer, but put your inner sophomore away for a few minutes.

In Western culture, the woman most often depicted in significant art must be the Virgin Mary. Most of those paintings do not portray any specific act or episode in her life, but are devotional Madonnas — mother and child. There are episodes painted — the nativity, the flight into Egypt or the lamentation at the cross — but mostly they are icons, static and symbolic.

If we were to search for the second most painted woman, it would have to be a tossup between Venus (or Aphrodite) and Eve. I’m not going to examine the goddess here, but I want to consider Adam’s consort.

She is painted over and over, with and without Adam, but almost always with the “apple,” and usually with the serpent, although the serpent takes many forms.

I became interested in this as I began to discover many paintings. I now have images of several hundred historical paintings of the Temptation of Eve (I can only share a handful).

It interested me to watch the change in the iconography over the centuries, and the shift from one compositional pattern to a second.

The source of the imagery in the paintings begins in Genesis, but quickly adds bits from other places, none authorized by the actual words in the Bible. The Bible, for instance, does not say the serpent is Satan; it does not name the fruit as an apple; does not say that Eve “seduced” Adam into tasting the fruit.

The earliest visual representations of the Temptation are Late Roman, or early Romanesque. In these the first design is firmly established: a symmetrical disposition of the man and woman to either side of the central tree, usually with a snake coiled around its trunk.

One of the most interesting early images is from a fresco in the Plaincourault Chapel, a 12th-century chapel of the Knights Hospitaller in Merigny — at nearly the perfect center of France. In it, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is depicted in a very primitive way that could easily be interpreted as a giant mushroom. Indeed, there is a vein of scholarly thought that takes the forbidden fruit to be psychedelic mushrooms. Having eaten of them, Adam and Eve are able to see the deeper reality behind the surface one.

In this fresco, you see the familiar items. Adam, Eve, the tree and the serpent wound around the trunk very like the caduceus carried by the messenger god, Mercury, or the Rod of Asclepius, an insignia of healing. The symmetry of the design serves it well to becoming a kind of icon.

You see the pattern repeated over and over in Medieval prints, carrying over into the early Renaissance.

The design continues in popular arts for centuries. You find it even in plates.

But, at some point an insidious misogyny infects the standard imagery. In some paintings, starting in the Renaissance, the serpent takes on a female’s head, either Eve’s own likeness, as if the serpent were a mirror, or the head of the mythical non-Biblical figure of Lilith, styled to be Adam’s first wife.

The problem of Lilith originally arose because there are actually two stories of the creation of the first woman. In the first (Genesis 1:26 and 27), after having created all the animals, God “created humankind in his own image, in the image of God did he create it, male and female he created them.”

In the second story (Genesis 2:18-25), Jehovah, having already created Adam, creates all the animals to give him company, and when that isn’t sufficient, puts Adam to sleep and takes from his side a woman, making the bad pun in Hebrew, translatable to English as “We will call her ‘woman’ because from ‘man’ is she taken.” (In Hebrew “Ish” and “Isha.”)

Later commentators puzzled by these two different creations of Woman, decided that the first must be different from the second, and came to give the first one the name Lilith. The name may derive from ancient Semitic demons, known as “Lilitu.”

There are several examples of Mediterranean goddesses with special commerce with snakes. There is the Snake Goddess of Minoan culture, the Canaanite Astarte and even the Egyptian Isis. So, there is precedent for commingling the first woman and the serpent.

At any rate, in later Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah texts, this first woman created is identified as Lilith and various stories get told about her, in all of which, she is evil, and a kidnapper and killer of children, and later, as a seducer and destroyer of men.

Obviously, then — at least to the Medieval minds of the interpreters of the sacred texts — this must be the woman God created first. She disappears from Eden through various versions of myth, but returns to cause havoc.

Most notably, as the serpent in the Garden. And so, many of the snakes wrapped around the Tree have a woman’s head or face. Most notable, perhaps, is the Sistine fresco by Michelangelo.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, you can hardly get away from this trope.

But as art history progresses into the Baroque, the static symmetry of the classic tree and couple gives way to moving both Adam and Eve to the same side and putting tree and snake in its own half of the frame.

The old design doesn’t disappear. You can see it in the grand paintings of Rubens, who clearly copied from Titian.

What does happen, however, is that the biblical stories are no longer able to be taken as literal fact. You find the Scripture being used as pretext for allegory or even for an excuse for painting naked women. You see the light of faith dimming and the approach of the Enlightenment.


When Eugène Viollet-le-Duc renovated the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in the mid- to late 19th century, he replaced weathered Medieval sculpture with modern replicas of his own design, imitating the Gothic style. The central trumeau of the central portal of the cathedral sports this wonderful take on the Temptation of Eve. It follows the old formula, and has some vigor, but you know that Viollet-le-Duc could never believe in the Fall of Man in quite the same way as the original builders of the cathedral.

Into the 19th century, the whole issue of the Fall, of the snake — for now the ambiguity of the “serpent” has been changed out for the Freudian certainty of the phallic snake — and the naked Eve have given way increasingly to kitsch.

There are some Modernist attempts at reviving the mythology, but they are few and lack the persuasiveness of the older images, perhaps because the 20th-century artists cannot actually believe in what they are painting. It is not only God that is dead.

This has been a very short overview. There is so much more I would like to share, but there is limited space. They come in all styles and media.

In the next blog entry, we will look at some other permutations of the naked lady and the snake.

Click on any image to enlarge.

It is going to be 6 degrees  tonight. Even in the day, it won’t get over freezing until Wednesday. It is winter.

I have not been out of the house for three days.

I may climb into the refrigerator for warmth.

Now that I am old, winter gets into my bones. But when I was younger, I loved the bracing cold, the breath congealed on my beard. I made myself warm by chopping wood. A good walk in the woods, with snow crunching under my boots left my cheeks ruddy and numb. I felt like I was skin to skin with nature. It was a glorious feeling.

Many years before that, I remember building an igloo on the front lawn in New Jersey. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. Inside, it was dark and if you stayed there long enough, it began to get a little warmer. The neighbor’s yard was a hill, and my brothers and I would sled down it when it snowed.

In New Jersey, the snow only stayed white a short, glorious period before turning soot gray as the snowplows piled up moraines of the stuff along the roadsides.

So, I am not so fond of winter now as I was then. The cold makes my knees ache. Yet, there are still elements of the season I cherish. In North Carolina, there is always a midwinter spring, often in February, when the temperature rises for a week before dropping back into the bin-bottom of the thermometer to remind us winter is not so kind, nor so short.

In February, the red maples earn their name, with spreading leaf buds uncovering the red beneath. You can see, even as the winter grips hard, that spring is working its way to the surface.

In March, as winter recedes, the frozen ground melts and mud season descends. Boots get stuck in the mire; you have to watch out not to step completely out of them.

But it is January First, and a cold snap has bottled up Asheville. The trees seem brittle with the freeze. It is a perfect day to listen to Sibelius and stare out the window.

For some reason, although most other people seem to most appreciate trees in the spring, when they come back to sap-life or fall, when they turn gaudy colors, I have always responded to the empty trees of winter. Looking over the Blue Ridge in winter, the leafless trees, from a distance, become a gray fur on the backs of the mountains. The hills look almost soft.

I think of the winter trees as nudes. They have dropped their clothes to show their real form, the trunk, branch and stem.

If you remember your Wölfflin from art history, there are eras — and people — who prefer painting and those who prefer drawing. I have always been a drawing-guy. I appreciate the linear, the ink-on-paper scratches of tree limbs, the crosshatching of twigs. There is something dour in my soul that enjoys gray more than party colors. Not a flat, simple gray, but a complex gray built from dusty blues mixed with tawny beiges. A good gray has as much depth as a river.

In winter, the air is clearer, except when a cold mist obscures the trees. The cold keeps you awake. The floors are icy underfoot, even if the room temperature inside is kept a comfortable 68. One sleeps well at night, with cool air in the nostrils.

A steaming stew or vegetable soup with a crusty bread and the evening seems just right.

Winter light, low and dim; early dusk, late dawn; the sun not strong enough to reach zenith, but arcing across the sky barely above the trees.

I remember one winter day, 40 years ago, walking across the railway bridge the cuts over Lake Brandt. It was probably 20 degrees and the air dead still. The surface of the water was not yet frozen, but it was mirror-smooth. The remains of snow covered the lake’s banks and no one seemed stirring in the landscape except me, walking tie by tie over the water beneath. It was silent; so quiet I could hear my breathing. It was one of those moments of epiphany, when suddenly the world becomes clear. It is almost a religious experience. You recognize that fact of the planet beneath your boot sole, and the atmosphere above your watch cap, bleeding into infinite dark space.

Such moments are delicious, and more valuable for their rarity. If we are lucky, we have perhaps a dozen or so such instants in our lives. For me, most of them have happened in freezing cold.

But now, my joints ache. What glimpses of eternity I get are less optimistic. Winter has a different meaning as you turn 70.

In 1873, an amateur German archeologist working in western Anatolia, claimed to have dug up a trove of gold he called “Priam’s Treasure” and ascribed to the king of Ilium during the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad.

Whether any of his claim was true remains contentious; Heinrich Schliemann fibbed about many of his claims. But what is not under question is the public attention roused by the gold. Nothing dug from the earth quite hypnotizes the layman so much as gold. Treasure. Pirate’s booty. Roman coins.

The fascination seems unquenchable. Museum blockbuster shows are predicated on that fascination. “The Treasures of Tutankhamun;” “Treasure Houses of Britain;” “Catherine the Great: Treasures of Imperial Russia;” “Splendors of the Ottoman Sultans;” “Treasures of the Czars.” The list is long. And so are the lines to get in.

But while traveling blockbusters are tarted out with gold, the permanent collections of major museums also offer more humble relics of antiquity. Visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Boston Fine Arts Museum, even a smaller one, such as the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., and you find vitrines highlighting the pottery dug up from the historic layers of soil. While the gold glitters, the simple ceramics — more common than the jewelry — yield up more useful information about the people who lived before our ancestors knew they were our ancestors.

Shards of Egyptian pottery have turned up in Afghanistan, evidencing the far-flung trade network from before the 12th century BCE, Greek red-figure ceramics show up from Spain to Iran. When archeologists want to find out about the lives of the earliest European settlers in the New World, they search out the middens of refuse from those early outposts and it is the broken dishes, cooking vessels, drinking cups and flatware that tell us perhaps the most. We learn where those dishes were made, how they were used, about the trade networks that brought Delftware from the Low Countries to southern England and to Massachusetts, where the village burgermaster showed off his status, while the laborer ate off tin plates.

But such clayware isn’t shown in museums only for its historical importance. You can find great esthetic value in archaic Greek ceramics, in red-figure and black-figure pottery, in the designs of pre-Columbian figurines, in Egyptian clay palettes, in ancient Chinese vases. They are shown in museums for their beauty. They are works of art.

On a visit to Colmar in eastern France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece, that huge symbol of the sorrows of life on earth, the museum also had a whole wing of domestic arts, including some fabulous dinnerplates, hand painted with flowers, abstract floral patterns and the occasional family crest. There was no question that those beautiful plates deserved their spotlight behind the glass.

Which brings me to my own kitchen. I have way too many dinner plates. The cause is esthetic, not practical. In fact, it is anti-practical.

My interest in what I ate off of was nil until my second unofficial marriage. I have no recollection at all of what plates we had during my first official marriage. Anything that held victuals was sufficient.

I know we had a few blue-speckled enamel tin plates. As humble as our incomes at the time. (I still feel a nostalgia for tin plates). Years later, between relationships, I lived with friends whose plates were a traditional Pfaltzgraff design. I came to feel a comfortable homeyness about them. Who knew you could have emotional feelings about baked mud?

But with my second unofficial pairing, the two of us sought out dinnerware that expressed who we were, or who we thought we were. Something vaguely arty.

We found the perfect answer in the stripped-down esthetic of Dansk breakfastware. The large plate was as plain as could be, with a mildly speckled blue ironstone, about 10 inches in diameter, with a half-inch lip around the edge, almost as if it were a pie tin. We had the bowls and mugs to go with them, and for years, they served as a signal of the kind of Modernist esthetic we cared for. Others might choose more flowery plates, or something elegant with gold rims, but we liked the showy simplicity of our Dansk dishes.

Where those dishes went, I have no idea. Through divorce and  break-up, they have vanished. But many years — many decades — later, I came across a pair of Dansk plates in a thrift store. These were brown rather than blue, but they were the same design. I snarfled them up and use them to this day, still enjoying that heavy crockery feel, that masculine, stripped-down directness.

Pfaltzgraff pattern

But when it came to my second official marriage — the one that took — there was a problem. Although Carole and I were perfectly matched in so many ways, there was a significant rupture in our esthetic senses. Where we were the same was that neither of us tolerated bad design. We both wanted something well thought-out and pleasing to our senses. But Carole tilted toward the traditional, the more feminine, the more what I called “doilied-up.” While I, of course, favored the blunt, direct and undecorated and modern look. This could be a problem.

So, over 35 years of living together, we tried many ways of satisfying both of us. She usually won in this struggle. She came with an heirloom set of Haviland settings, well over a hundred years old. But they were too valuable to actually use. So, they sat in a cupboard looking elegant. Elegant if that is the sort of thing you value.

She also had a thing for Blue Willow ware, and collected platters and plates, bowls and tureens in the pattern. Some so old their whites had begun to turn brown. They came from Goodwills and Salvation Army stores, and while they didn’t cost us a whole lot, took up way more pantry space than their use warranted.

Blue Willow was perhaps the sweet spot for Carole, but it wasn’t enough. She brought home random dinner plates from her sallies into various thrift stores. We collected quite a few floral plates. Then, there was a mismatched set of autumnal plates that she meant to use for Thanksgiving dinners. Those plates featured grouse or hunting scenes.

There was a new set she bought without telling me. One day, it showed up: A bright red and white set of Christmas dishes, bordered with reindeer and sleighs. The whole disaster — plates, salad plates, bowls, cups, saucers. Hardly room in the cabinet to hold them. And they were used, maybe, once a year. The crowded shelves hardly left room for the wine and water glasses.

Fiesta ware

My Modernist taste was clearly being drowned under a welter of semi-kitsch. Meanwhile, the growth of Blue Willow continued.

Clearly, there had to be some kind of compromise. Weighted to her side, of course, but at least a little give.

The clue came in France, while we were visiting the gardens painter Claude Monet had established for himself in Giverny, some 40 miles northwest of Paris. We have been to Giverny three or four times, in different seasons. It is powerfully beautiful, restored to its original glory.

And in the inevitable gift shop, there were offered for sale reproductions of the tableware that the painter used for his guests. In 1898, Monet designed a porcelain dinner service by painting a simple white plate with a blue edge and a yellow rim. It was executed by the company of Godin and Arhendfeld and perfectly set off the bright yellow dining room the painter fitted out in the old farm house that he refurbished.

In 1978, the Foundation Claude Monet commissioned the Robert Haviland and C. Parlon company of Limoges to recreate that original set of crockery. We gawked at it in the Giverny gift shop, salivated over it, distressed by its price. If you wanted to buy such a dinner plate now, it would cost you $155. Yes, per plate. A single five-piece place setting was $570. Standard setting for six, nearly $3500. Clearly this was out of our price range.

Yet, we knew we had found that compromise. Both traditional and Modernist, with the imprimatur of a great artist we both loved, it would have been the perfect set for our kitchen. We pined; we sighed; we longed.

In the meantime, every few years, we would see some place settings we liked, and if it was in our price range, we might buy it. We did both love the joy of the hunt for dinnerware we both could live with. There were compromises, mostly by me.

But then, we found a perfect knock-off. The Italian firm of Pagnossin had a set of blue-edged, yellow-rimmed plates. They were on sale. They weren’t exactly the same as the Monet plates. Monet’s had a light, powdery blue edge. These had a navy edge. But the yellow was identical. They were elegant, traditional and modern. We fell in love with them. I still have them and use them whenever company comes over.

Now that Carole is gone, the Blue Willow is gone, too. So are the red Christmas dishes. Alone, I find myself eating off of paper plates more than I care to admit. But I still have the faux-Monet plates and the replacement Dansk plates. And I keep several of Carole’s additions. There are two beautiful, simple plates with blue flowers drawn, not painted, on them. And there is a set of four Rita Monti hand-painted dishes, with floral and Renaissance patterns on them, very Mediterranean, which are perfect for pasta or fish. It seems I have mellowed; my need for masculine simplicity has softened into an absorption of some of Carole’s personality into my own, where it persists, even as she no longer does.

“Do you know where you come from?”

“New Jersey,” I said.

“No, I mean where your people come from.”

“Yeah, New Jersey.”

But that’s not what Stuart meant.

“I mean originally,” he said.

“Then, I guess, the Rift Valley in Africa.”

“But after that. What ethnicity do you identify as.”

“Well, everyone in my family is Norwegian. But the Nordic people migrated there from elsewhere before that.”

“And how far back does your family tree go?”

“I’ve never really thought about it much,” I said. “My grandmother’s old family Bible — in Norwegian — has people listed back as far as my great-great-grandparents. Or at least some of them. Not all 16 of them.”

“And none of the 32 who gave birth to them, or the 64 who gave birth to the 32,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about this.”

Stuart thinks about a lot of things. And when he starts off, there’s usually no stopping him. We turned a corner onto his street. The air was turning into winter.

“It began because Genevieve has been watching these genealogy programs on TV. They seem to be enormously popular. They take a celebrity guest and trace their family history to answer questions that the guest has about his or her past — things that perhaps their parents never talked about. Where did Grandma get that tattoo? Why did our family leave Serbia? They sometimes find out that their great-great-great-great-great grandfather was thrown in debtors’ prison during the Glorious Revolution, or some such thing that amazes them.”

“Yes, I’ve seen those. Henry Louis Gates does one on PBS and I’ve seen a British one on YouTube. They can be fascinating.”

“But I’ve noticed a problem that is never addressed, although, maybe it can’t be. Genevieve accidentally pointed it out once. The family trees they come up with are always piecemeal, and they tend to follow the family name, which means the father’s father’s father, on and on. Sometimes they do the mother, too. But then if it continues, it’s the mother’s father and his father. They get hung up in the family name.

“It makes it seem as if a family tree has a certain neatness to it,” Stuart said. “And if they find something notable in the past, it seems as if there is a direct line, say, from Charlemagne to them. As if a family line were a simple thing.”

Stuart had worked a good deal of this out, he said, and when we got to his house, Genevieve had dinner ready.

“She sure can cook, for a violist,” he said. Genevieve did not seem amused.

Later, he brought out his paperwork. He laid it on the cleaned off table. There was a good deal of scribbling on it, and a lot of numbers.

“You have to do the math,” he said. “You start of with 1 — that’s you. You have two parents. They each have two parents, making four grandparents. The numbers pile up. You have eight great-grandparents. Keep doubling the number for each generation. By the time you get to five ‘greats’ you have 128 people dumping their DNA into your birth cauldron.”

That makes doing a full family tree rather busy with names — even if you could track the names down. You don’t really know the names, Stuart said, but the math remains certain.

“One thinks in terms of great old Pop-Pop, or Nana, and maybe you have in mind their parents or grandparents, but it is always a manageable number of people. A number you might know — they are people you can know the names of.

“I thought of how many years this might encompass,” he said. “And as an average — and average only, because, of course, there’s a lot of variation, but as an average, I think this works. You take a generation to be 25 years — it makes the math easier and we’re only doing this for illustration. But if your parents were 25 when you were born, and your grandparents were 50, that makes your great-grandparents 75 at your birth. Again, this is only for illustration. My great-grandmother was actually 82 when I was born.

“That means there is 100 years to your great-great-grandparents.”

“OK, I’m buying it so far. But,” I said, looking down at the papers he had spread out, “that leaves us with 16 people to keep track of. Sixteen in a century seems doable.”

“The problem is that the numbers keep doubling. By the time you go back 200 years, you have 256 ancestors. By 300 years, you have 4,096 ‘9-G’ grandparents. That’s great-great-great-great-great —“ he held up his fingers and started on the next hand — “great-great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a lot of DNA dumping into your cells. If you go back 500 years — and this doesn’t yet get you anywhere near Charlemagne — you now have to send greeting cards to one-million forty-eight-thousand five-hundred and seventy-six geezers.

“Let’s go back to the 1260s, when Chartres Cathedral was dedicated and Kublai Khan was emperor of China. That’s when you now count a billion people as your ancestors. With a ‘B’ — actually, 1,073,741,824 people, all of whom were necessary for the production of the zygote that became you, sitting here, eating Genevieve’s lasagne.”

Stuart was starting to get a little excited. His eyes were taking on that glow I recognized all to well.

“You only have to go back 33 generations to a point that you have more grandparents than there are currently people on earth. Here it is, 400 years after Charlemagne and you have 8,589,934,592 ancestors. Seven more generations — that takes us only to about the turn of the first millennium and you have already needed a trillion ancestors. It starts to get really ridiculous.”

He pointed to his calculations on the paper again.

“This means that it is mathematically certain that you share an ancestor within the past thousand years with everybody now living on the planet. There’s no escaping that fact. So, you may not be a direct descendant of Charlemagne, but you are related. Since there needs to be more people than are available in order to sire you — more people required than exist or have existed on earth — it necessarily means there has to be a great deal of cross-breeding, making everyone cousins of a sort. Alle Menschen werden Brüder, as Beethoven said.”

“Maybe we should say, ‘alle Menschen sind Brüder.’ Make it present tense,” I said. “But when you mentioned ‘cross-breeding,’ it brings to mind what happened when Carole wanted to track the origins of her family.”

My late wife adored her father and loved everything about the Steele family. To discover the origin of the family, her brother, Mel, took one of those Y-chromosome tests. The Y-chromosome is passed down from father to son across the generations. When the results came back in the mail, there was at least one anomaly.

“We learned that surname and DNA are only tangentially related,” I said. “The DNA descends from father to son, but maybe not the surname. The Steele family always said it was originally Irish. But it is an English name, possibly Scottish, and everyone was Protestant. In the U.S., they lived in the Appalachians and so we assumed they were Scots-Irish. Along with the complicated information about haplogroup, there was a list of other men who had taken the test who matched up with the Steele DNA. The most recent names were indeed Steele. But going back in history, the Steele name disappears and is replaced with the name Driscoll. The oldest Driscolls on the list came from County Cork, in southern Ireland.

“What we figured out is that at some point — maybe in Ireland, maybe after they emigrated to America — a Steele woman either had a baby out of wedlock to a Driscoll, or a Steele wife had an adulterous affair with a Driscoll. So, the Driscoll DNA settled, cuckoo-egg style in the Steele family line.

“It taught us not to be too cocky about the nominal lineage you work out through genealogy. Just because someone is married, doesn’t mean the husband is father to the child. There must be a lot of this kind of misdirection over the centuries.”

“And also,” said Stuart, “You should be as aware of the many other contributors to your genetic make-up, and not so focused on the genes stumbling down through your father’s line. It’s only one of two parts, or of four parts, or of eight, or, well, you get the picture.”

How long ago was history?

When I was in grade school, whatever history I was taught seemed as distant as fairy tales, a never-never of such ancientness as to be inconceivable. It was certain that there was an unbridgeable divide between the now I lived in and a history that resided only in books, and pained us with dates and names we were required to memorize. There was no continuity; past and present were as immiscible as diesel fuel and salt water.

These things change as you get older and what is taught as history is what you lived through when you were younger. When I was born, Harry Truman hadn’t yet campaigned for president. For my grandchildren, Truman is a fuzzy black-and-white halftone in their textbook. For me, however, he was my first president. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing — these were things I can remember a time that was before.

Now that I’m about to turn 70, a century doesn’t seem like such a long time, or such a meaningful slice of eternity. My grandmother was born in the 19th century and I’m now alive in the 21st. She used to muse occasionally on the fact that she was born before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

It’s really just a flash before you connect with what seemed so alien in that history textbook. Six degrees of separation.

Literally.

From me to my wife takes the first step. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was alive until my wife was 8 years old. She was 98 when she died, in my wife’s childhood bed. She could remember eating sandwiches made from the cambium layer of tree bark because there was nothing else to eat during the Civil War. She had been married to Civil War veteran Rowan Steele, who had been messenger and courier for Col. Robert E. Lee, Jr., who was the youngest son of the legendary general, Bobby Lee. And that’s only five degrees of separation. Who knew a Yankee boy from New Jersey would be this close to the biggest name in the Confederacy?

We think of a century as being the measurement of a considerable piece of time — it is long enough to tick off entire ages in the history books: The 19th Century was distinct from the 18th Century; the 14th Century was so different from the 10th Century: the revolution between the Romanesque and the Gothic. But a century is really just the space from grandparent to grandchild. Not long at all.

In Ancient Rome, that is exactly how they counted eras. The Latin word we translate as “century” is “saeculum,” but saeculum doesn’t actually mean a hundred years. It is the time from the birth of a grandparent that you outlive to the death of the child who outlives you. They calculated it to be anywhere from 112 to 117 years.

How we can skip across these centuries. Let’s take something from the history books, say, the accession of James II of England in 1685. Unutterably distant, no?

Well, I can trace a person-to-person connection to that year in only nine degrees of separation. And without Kevin Bacon entering the equation at all.

That same year, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in Thuringia, now part of Germany. One of his sons was Johann Christian Bach, also a composer. J.C. Bach was friend and mentor to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who once heard the young Beethoven play the piano. He was impressed. Beethoven had a few paying students to help him afford his daily vin de pays. One of those students was Carl Czerny, who wrote an infernal and deeply hated series of piano finger-exercises that young pianists still suffer through. One of Czerny’s students became probably the greatest piano teacher of all time, Theodor Leschetizky (among his students are Jan Paderewski, Alexander Brailowsky, Ignaz Friedman, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Artur Schnabel, and Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler — all of them among the most famous pianists of the first half of the 20th century). And Mieczyslaw Horszowski — who died in 1993 at the age of 101, playing and recording well into his 90s.

Well, Horszowski had a piano student named Eugene Istomin, who made a series of legendary piano-trio recordings with Isaac Stern and cellist Leonard Rose. And when I was a volunteer photographer for the Eastern Music Festival, in Greensboro, N.C., in the early 1970s, I was tasked with picking Rose up from the airport, cello and all. I was his chauffeur.

There it is, from Bach to me in nine easy steps. So, the 17th Century isn’t all that far away. Another nine and we could be building Chartres. History is not that long ago.

It is early spring in 1967, I’m in college and the country is heading toward the Summer of Love, and in my Shakespeare class we have just been given a pop quiz on, I think, Antony and Cleopatra.

“Well, now you know what my little quizzies are like,” said the professor.

And from the back of class a small, demure student, innocent and unknowing as a lamb bounding in the meadows said, “If that’s what your quizzies are like, Dr. Gutsell, I’d hate to see what your testies are like.”

That is what I remember most from that class. Most of what I know about Shakespeare I learned later on my own. But the small episodes of those years stand out.

Like in an astronomy class. The regular teacher had retired a year earlier and our class was assigned to a very nice and soft-spoken man — everyone liked him — who was a math professor. He didn’t know much about astronomy and was racing ahead of us in the textbook. When he came across something he didn’t really understand, he invariably turned to the smartest student in class, Bill McAllister, and asked for clarification. “Mac, tell us about Uranus.”

I’m not claiming that I didn’t learn anything at college. There were many excellent classes that opened me up. But the information from those has been stored in a different place in my head. More distinct are the bits of condiment that flavored the experience.

The biology teacher was a highly eccentric man who had been teaching forever. Richard Carleton Ward talked with his teeth clenched and out of the side of his mouth, making his every utterance seem both like a snarky aside, and at the same time and exasperated threat. His explanation of sex on campus was: “Some do, some don’t.”

One day, he brought a potted plant to class, and as the bell sounded, he held it up in front of us. “This is the sacred lotus of India,” he said through his teeth. “It sheds water as we are supposed to shed our sins.” He took up a pitcher of water and poured it over the plant, dripping onto the floor, saying to us in biblical voice, “Go forth and sin no more.”

It was 50 years ago — a half century of water under the dam — and it is the quirks of the professors, it is the adventures with fellow students, the petty “crimes” we committed that remain.

Once, Martha Jane Burton and her boyfriend and Mary Winslow and I drove to Washington, D.C. When Martha Jane hinted she wanted some time alone with Tom, Mary and I went out walking. We walked from Georgetown, where we were staying, all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.

Now, I know we were idiots and the walk, at 2 in the morning was suicidal, but we were protected by the angel of fools and had not an unpleasant moment.

Mary was an athletic sort of girl, a real tomboy who prided herself on her physical fitness. She had once said, “The man who will have my virginity will be the man who can outwalk me.”

We walked a good deal in the wee hours of the morning, and on the way back to the apartment, came across an all-night movie theater that was showing the Pasolini Gospel According to St. Matthew. Mary had never seen it; I had and recommended we stop in. About an hour and a half into the story, Mary fell asleep.

I reminded her, when we got back to campus, that I was now the man destined to take her virginity. “You owe me,” I said. The next day I got an envelope with a note from her; inside was a 2-inch wood screw. “Debt paid,” said the note.

My sophomore year, I took an Aesthetics class with the most august and revered philosophy professor. After a week, he fell ill from an amoebic infection he had picked up in India and the school president, Grimsley T. Hobbs, took over the class. Let’s just say, it was a step down in the intellectual rigor of the course. Hobbs actually taught aesthetics with flash cards. We took turns reading from the textbook (I’m not making this up), and whenever we came across the name of an artist, say, Michelangelo, he’s make the reader stop and we’d pass around the seminar table a picture of Michelangelo. A paragraph or two later, it might be a picture of Leonardo.

“I’ll trade you two Leonardos for a Mickey Mantle,” said one of the students.

It was the era when Timothy Leary was dropping acid, and drugs were first becoming widely available on campus.

Hank Hackett, my roommate for part of this time, smoked constantly. He took one summer off and basically dropped out, and turned on.

When he came back in the fall, he had something of a glassy stare and perpetual grin.

“Why do you smoke so much reefer?” I asked him.

“Oh, I don’t smoke all that much, just five or six joints a day.”

Another time, Hank bought several packets of garden seeds for morning glory.

“They add something to make you nauseous, so you won’t take them for the trip,” he said. “But I thought I’d see just how bad the nausea is. It can’t be as bad as the high is good.”

But a few hours later, Hank was retching up his innards over the toilet and swearing never to do that again.

One day, Hank came to the house, sat down on the floor and didn’t move for several minutes, and then turned to me and said, “You know, I feel more like I do now than I did when I came in.”

Others took different drugs: Phil Sanders tried smoking Spanish moss one night and went into heart palpitations. He had to be taken to the hospital, where he was too embarrassed about what he’d done to tell the doctors what his problem was. He recovered anyway.

And then, there was Larry Mackie, our campus’s own Timothy Leary. Larry lived downstairs from Hank and me. His bedroom was painted in bright colors, with a geometric mandala in red and green painted on the wall above his bed as a headboard. Larry was a small guy, both short and slight, with a head of blond hair, looking something like a thinner, adolescent Bill Gates. He would wander campus in robes and talk about the religious significance of acid. He had a small but loyal following, mainly women. One night his two girlfriends drove up with Larry in the car barely conscious.

“We went out to the airport to drop acid,” one of them told me. “It was neat watching the lights of the jets as they came overhead and screamed their jet noise.”

This was something Larry did on occasion.

“But then he sat, lotus position, in the middle of the road and wouldn’t move.”

“He said he was enjoying the headlights of a truck move farther and farther apart,” the other girlfriend said. The truck squealed to a halt and the driver came out cussing and threatening. Larry wouldn’t move, so we put him in the car and decided to come back home.”

The downstairs apartment saw a parade of colorful and disreputable types. One was a freak named Jim Nyland, who drove one of those tiny British sports cars. Shortly after he moved in, we noticed a large dark car parked on the road in front of the house. This was unusual because our street was a dead-end. Yet, night after night, there it was, with two men sitting in the front seat.

One day, walking in the vacant lot behind the house, I came across a patch of very healthy, green marijuana plants and things began to fall into place. I phoned the police and reported the illicit weed. They came with a team and uprooted it. “Street value of $140,000,” they told us. We eyed their exaggeration as suspiciously as they eyed us. The car never showed up again.

I remember the last time I voluntarily took mind-altering drugs. Hank had brought to campus some mescaline-laced hashish. At a small party at our apartment on Francis King Street, with maybe 20 others, mostly drinking beer and discussing Kant or Vietnam, Hank and I lit up his tiny hash pipe, with the glowing coal of chemical in its brass bowl. It was the most trippy high I had experienced. At one moment, everything anyone said appeared in a cartoon word-balloon over their heads and when they finished talking, the word-balloon took off like a balloon let go, spinning and making the sound of a raspberry and flying out the window. It was quite an amusing sensation.

At another party, I witnessed a feat of strength I doubt I will ever see matched.

One of the hotshot humanities students and publisher of the underground campus newspaper was Richard Horne, known to his friends as Dick, and here’s why: At this party, he won a bar bet by balancing an unabridged dictionary on his erect penis. He did this as a matter of course. You could tell how far along the party was by whether Dick Horne had pulled out the Webster’s. It was a sight you didn’t soon forget.

In my class of English Romantic Poetry, I met my first wife. Annie was skinny, funny and whip smart. She could say any name or word backwards instantly. In class one day, the professor called on her to answer a question about Keats.

“Don’t look at me, I’m just a girl,” she said. The professor had that made into a needlepoint sampler and framed it.

When we got married, we moved into a second-floor apartment on that dead-end street just south of campus. It was a cheap run-down place with only one kerosene heater for warmth. The stairs to the apartment ran up the outside of the house and on frozen, cold days, I had to walk down the icy steps to the oil drum and bring up a gallon of fuel, load it into the stove and light up. It took a half-hour or so for any heat to make itself felt.

The apartment rented for $50 a month, which was a lot for us. Annie bought a book called Dinner for Two on a Dollar a Day, and made up menus from it. We lived very cheaply. It was a wonderful time for me; I was finally a real bohemian. I painted the living room fire orange with deep avocado-green trim. It was hard even to think in such decor.

Annie was from eastern North Carolina cotton and tobacco country. Her mother was not one of my fans. In fact, I think I can state with reasonable confidence that she loathed me. I was not the steady provider and solid citizen she had envisioned for her daughter and besides, I was a Yankee. But she had a saying that I have kept in my heart for lo these 50 years:

“Cheer up, the worst is yet to come.”

Part 1: The Thing

Abstract art has several jobs, but one of the most important is to take the bits of the visual world around us, separate them from their context, and allow us to see them freshly. By removing color, texture, and pattern from their received meaning allows us to pay attention to the building blocks of vision. As if we could take the music of speech and remove the words from them, so only the sensuous vestige remains.

In most of the visual world we live in, we have given meanings to what we see, like seeing the diagrammatic picture of a man or woman on the restroom door. And in “reading” the visual world this way, as a sort of language, we too easily fail to actually see what we are looking at: We simplify and name: That is “green,” rather than “that is the green of kelp,” or “the green of grass.” Two very different greens. And there are thousands of greens. If we abstract the color from its worldly signature, we can place two greens next to each other and force ourselves to notice.

The same is true for texture, reflectivity, surface (whether matte or glossy), size or scale, the opacity or translucency of pigment — a thousand different qualities of sight, and of the visual world we inhabit, but where habit has dulled our perception — and our delight.

Still, no matter how abstracted from the quotidian an image may be, there remains some remnant of its source. We tend to recognize a certain green by the chords it sounds in our memory, our sense memory. We respond to this green or that in part — and idiosyncratically — by the way it calls to mind the emotions and pleasures we attach to it in a rather Proustian way.

Thus, although we may think of abstract art as a kind of rationalized set of color and pattern, line and texture, we can never entirely divorce our response to it from the experience of our own lives.

So, we are left with complicated response to art that on the surface seems to have no meaning.

(It’s no use making the argument that such response is too subjective, too personal. Our response to any art, no matter how abstract or how realistic, is always personal. Abstraction, again, reminds us of what we don’t normally think about.)

Painters have the advantage that they can invent shapes and lines from nothing but cobalt blue and vermilion. But a photographer is left with a more direct connection to the world outside his head. The camera must be pointed at something.

So, to make the same sort of visual argument as an abstract painter, the photographer has to use the real world and re-see it in some way as to make it unrecognizable. The two most immediate ways to do that are to get so close that all context is stripped away, or to step so far back that the perspective is one that no ordinary human can recognize it.

It is why I always book a seat by a window when I fly. I can look out the window and see the colors, textures and patterns of the planet below me, and make designs with them with my camera.

I self-published a book of such abstractions using the website, blurb.com. You can find the book here, and open it up in preview mode: http://www.blurb.com/b/1376943-windowseat

The skin of the continent becomes a canvas painted in swirls and pools, like some de Kooning or Pollock, Rothko or Diebenkorn. If you look, you can see again.

Part 2: The Metaphor

We live on a planetary canvas; colors and shapes are spread across the stretched linen of the Earth’s surface, although we have to step back to see it with any clarity.

The best way to do that is to climb up into the air. Up a tree and the neighborhood looks different; up a mountain and the valleys change; up in a jet plane and whole quarters of the continent are transformed.

That is the gift of the window seat. The view out and down paints a completely different picture of the world: clouds below us; shadows stretch out for dozens of miles late in the day, or as the sun rises; seas catch the sunlight in a scatter of sparks; the sky overhead is so dark a blue as to mimic midnight at midday.

I love flying. There is nothing quite so exciting as seeing a whole state underneath you opened up like a life-size map.

From 30,000 feet, you get a sense of the world as a tiny globe and can see whole ranges of many mountains as single features, like wrinkles on a face.

Few of us will ever see the Earth from the moon, or even from orbit, but anyone with a boarding pass can have his sensibility slapped silly with the incredible beauty of the planet.

So I always book a window seat for the show. And no matter how long the flight, I’m glued, stiff-necked, to the view.

You can spot the Rio Grande and its terrace, the Mississippi and its wiggle. You can tell Chicago from Detroit, Oklahoma from Arkansas.

Several times on cross-country flights, sitting on the north side of the plane, away from the glare of the direct sun, I looked out the window and down below the jet would be a floating pool of light, moving with the plane at some 500 mph. It is called a “glory” and it is certainly well-named. It is a visual effect much like a rainbow, and no two people see it in just the same place.

It can be seen at a point 180 degrees opposite the sun, speeding across the map-landscape below, crossing interstates and rivers, past the pegged dots of new housing developments, looking like mitochondria in an electron microscope, or the great circles of irrigated crops — great green coins spaced across Texas.

But it isn’t just the landforms that excite me. Even bad weather keeps my attention. Think of all the thousands of generations of humans who were never able to see the tops of clouds, which form their own fantastic landscapes, with mountains and valleys of crenellated whiteness.

The pilot curves the jet route in wide circles around a towering thunderhead, bleach-white at top and sooty at bottom, with its cauliflower protuberances catching new light. The distance is crowded with them, sprouting like mushrooms to the horizon. Dozens of fresh, new thunderstorms rising sunward like children reaching up for their mothers.

Over California once, after a rainstorm, with a low mist of water evaporating up into the atmosphere, the millions of puddles aggregated their mirror effect into a single flash, moving at the speed of the plane and making Fourth of July lightning bolts that flashed just beneath the surface of the mist, the way you can sometimes see the blood pulsing under the skin of a newborn. It gave me a feeling of intimacy with the planet.

Or a night flight, with the ground black underneath you as you fly over the empty expanses of the Southwest, with the small embers of tiny desert communities coming periodically into view, glowing like the last bit of a dying campfire. As you approach Phoenix, those embers gather into a vast pattern of incandescence, like some great lava field, with the glowing magma breaking through the cracks of the cooling stone above it. Almost nothing is as radiant as a city at night seen from the air. You want to hold your palms out toward it, to warm your hands in its heat.


Earthbound, we have a very bland, utilitarian sense of the celestial body we ride around on. It is all streets and signage, houses and mini malls. It is the place we go to work every day, the place where we watch television in the evening.

It is true, to those who have the eyes to see it, the planetary nature of our home is there to be seen: Daybreak shows us the sun breeching the horizon and moving across the heavens; the stars are there to see at night; there are rainy days and lightning storms to remind us of the larger forces. But they have all become ordinary through habit and usage. How many of us take the time to look up and admire a mackerel sky or a fair-weather cumulus cloud floating puffy on the slightly denser air beneath it?

But take an elevator to 30,000 feet and you get the god’s-eye view, moving across the curved surface of the world, where the people aren’t even ants and where the Earth is one small aggie in a great colliding pile of cosmic marbles.

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