Amusing to me because the tulip fields lie just 20 miles to the south of where I live and have been the subject of my own blog twice. (Tourists and Locals Love Tulip Time and A Trip to Skagit Valley’s Tulip Farms) I had already planned to make my re-entry this week to my blog about the tulip festival (after an absence due to my preoccupation with my duties as Executive Director for CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival) . The idea was prompted by a notice that this weekend would be the last for the tulip festival this year. It’s always a little sad to learn that those beautiful flowers will be clipped and harvested starting tomorrow bringing an end to another display of fields of color.
I’m sure those who live in the immediate area are a little happy and relieved to see the month-long event come to a close as literally thousands of people are drawn to see the brilliant blooms causing residents to post ‘no parking’ signs along their property and take alternate routes to avoid the traffic back ups leading to and from the nearby freeway. For visitors, finding a place to park along the roadways becomes a challenge if you opt not to pay the fee asked by those with the lots. But it all seems worth the time and money spent to admire the planted ribbons of color and masterful landscaped gardens of the various growers.
Among the most popular of these farm stops is the RoozenGaarde owned by Washington Bulb Company. The company flourished under the ownership of William Roozen, a Dutch emigrant who purchased the business in 1955 from its original founders and the first bulb growers in the area, Joe Berger and Cornelius Roozekrans. Today, the Washington Bulb Company is the largest tulip-grower in the country with 350 acres of tulips and 70 million cut flowers shipped throughout the U.S. annually.
In addition, the company also plants 500 acres of daffodils (not nearly as much a draw as the tulips), 150 acres of iris and 600 acres of wheat (no one goes to see that.)
Someone, I can’t recall who, once told me that the tulips cultivated in the Skagit Valley when harvested are shipped to Holland where they are propagated then returned to the U.S. and marketed as “Dutch” tulips. Whether or not this is true or just legend I don’t know and haven’t, as a good journalist should, followed up to ask company officials.
The flowers were late this year due to an unusually longer cold spell of weather and didn’t come into full flourish until mid-April. The festival itself, begun in 1984 by the town of Mount Vernon, starts April 1st, regardless. What began as a three-day event now is a month-long celebration that includes not only self-guided visits to the fields, but a parade, a ‘tulip’ run,’ concerts and a street fair.
I’ve not seen the figures but I can only imagine what the economic impact of this highly attended annual festival has on the town and the surrounding area as people make the trek from all over the state and British Columbia just to take in the splendorous display by nature and the bulb farmers. Kind of nice to know that in this day and age of virtual reality and high-tech devices that people can still find such enjoyment and pleasure in what nature has to offer.
I didn’t make the trip down to the fields this year, opting instead to satisfy myself with the tulips growing in my own garden. But it’s likely I will, as in years, past, go again along with the thousands of others because the beauty of the tulip fields of Skagit Valley is still compelling no matter how many times you’ve seen them.
It’s tulip time in many parts of the U.S. and nowhere are the tulips more colorful and splendorous than in Washington’s Skagit Valley. Fields and fields of the highly valued bulb are grown for commercial sales. Each year at this time, the area plays host to thousands of visitors who come for the annual Tulip Festival. The exits from Interstate 5 which skirt the town of Mount Vernon and connects Vancouver B.C. to the north with Seattle to the south are literally backed up for miles with cars making their way on the weekends to see the rainbow-colored floral fields.
As a local, I have the luxury and advantage of being able to go to the fields on a weekday and avoiding the crowds. I also get to pick my day, waiting for the weather to clear. And so I did earlier this week when I awoke to sunny skies at sunrise. When I go, I’m out the door by 7 a.m. to make the 20-mile scenic drive south so as to arrive by 7:30, even earlier is better. By arriving about the same time as do the field workers, I not only miss the multitudes of tourists but I have better light for photographing these gorgeous flowers. The dew is often still on the petals, the colors are bright and the sky is bluer. (That can of course be boosted with the help of a filter over your lens or later manipulated digitally in post-production.)
I never know exactly which field I’ll work in unless I scout them ahead of time, as I did this year when I drove down to get the required permit from the RoozenGaarde growers that allows professional photographers to go into the fields without scrutiny from the field foreman. I pick one spot because the light changes so quickly that by the time you’ve moved from one place to another, you’ve lost the optimal conditions. I “work the location,” capturing the chosen field from as many different angles as I can, studying the surroundings to maximize what’s there and letting the location be my guide as to what and how to photograph it.
Some years I feel more productive than others. I rarely concentrate on just the flowers themselves. I try to make use of whatever is present: field workers, farm implements, signs, other artists or photographers who might be there, farm buildings to help create a sense of place. When I focus on the flowers, I strive to find different ways to photograph them and try to zero in on a particular feature or color. If I decide to photograph the field en masse, I look for the overall impact of color or the setting. Until I’m in the editing and post-production process I often don’t know how I ultimately want to treat an image.
After years of having done this, I know how to dress. The fields are frequently muddy and the early a.m. air chilly. I dress for the conditions. Jeans and a sweatshirt are must with a warm jacket that I can shed if it should warm up, as it did this year.
Gloves with the fingertips cut out are also handy for those times when the morning temperatures are cold. I also wear my insulated ‘muck’ shoes that I use for gardening because they are warm and wash off easily. After years of crawling around in the dirt with a gardening pad, I now strap on heavy-duty knee guards so that I don’t have to scoot around on a pad and can literally get on my hands and knees to get the shot I want.
Equipment-wise, everyone has their own preferences. A UV lens filter is a must. I stick with my zoom lenses and fit close-up filters over them for really tight shots. Sometimes I use a tripod, sometimes not. And a lens hood helps to block out annoying light flares. I don’t spend a lot of time switching lenses or cameras in part because it creates less risk of getting damaging dirt on my sensitive digital gear. I find it’s better and sometimes more interesting to work within the parameters of my equipment.
I don’t make the trek to the tulips every year but this year I did as a way to unwind and relax after months of preparing for the film festival of which I now head up. Usually I’ll take a friend along with me. This year I did it solo and enjoyed the time to myself. No matter how you go, alone, with family or friends, these beautiful blooms are sure to restore your soul and remind you how wonderful the spring season is.
We’re in the final days of Black History Month here in the U.S. I don’t want it to end without writing about a new destination I visited earlier this month while in New Orleans.
The last day of my annual retreat to New Orleans was spent visiting one of the many plantations open to tourists and school groups on what is known as River Road, the two-lane highway that winds north along the Mississippi on the opposite bank from the Crescent City. As the National Park Service says: “Although other states have their own River Roads, perhaps none is more evocative or famous than Louisiana’s. Here, the very name inspires a vision of white pillared houses standing amid lush gardens and trees dripping with Spanish moss.”
While that is true, River Road also represents a much darker, less charming story of our country’s history that is seldom told during the tours of these showy homes and that is the story of those who actually built these splendid structures, who worked the fields that stretched behind and who lived an existence of enslavement fearing that any day they could be sold off to another “master” and forced to leave their family. Except at one of these historic plantations, the story of slavery is its entire focus.
Opened in 2014, the Whitney Plantation is one of the newer properties for public and educational tours. During the many years that I have been going to New Orleans for a winter break, I have visited nearly all, if not all, the other plantation properties. They have been interesting, to be sure, and wonderful places to photograph. Last year, I went out the Destrehan Plantation, located just 22 miles west of downtown New Orleans. I took my son, who had never visited a plantation, there this year.
Destrehan makes a point of talking and including some individual stories of the enslaved in its tours, unlike other plantations. To be honest, I had never heard about the Slave Revolt of 1811 until I visited Destrehan. It certainly wasn’t in any of the history books I had read in school. I wrote a piece for this blog about Destrehan last year. The plantation is one I’d highly recommend to you.
The Whitney, however, is solely dedicated to preserving the memory and history of the enslaved. The stories you’ll hear on your tour are not storybook sweet nor romanticized. Life for those who were chained and brought to this country like cattle, or less, in the filthy holds of ships, was never romantic. The Whitney seeks to basically tell it like it truly was, as accurately as possible, without sparing words for the way these hard-working, brutalized and largely disrespected people were treated by those who considered them as nothing but property found on their list of valuable belongings.
As Cheryl, my guide for the tour who lives and grew up in the area, said: “For me, this is not history, it’s personal.” She quite likely had ancestors who were slaves, if not on the Whitney, somewhere else. Her words and descriptions of what slave life was like were full of emotional fact. And as she herself said: “Sometimes hard to hear or read.” Like the fact that no slave escaped the punishment of the slave driver’s rawhide whip. Even pregnant slaves who “misbehaved” were forced to lie face down, with he ground below dug out to accommodate their swollen belly, to receive their lashings.
The visit starts in the Whitney’s small museum while waiting for your tour time which start hourly from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. There you’ll read a little history about their journey from the Ivory to Gulf Coast, view the timeline of slavery throughout history worldwide and gain a little perspective as to how slavery in the U.S. contributed to this country’s disgraceful history.
Outside, on the plantation grounds, you’re first stop is at the picturesque Antioch Baptist Church, for many years the only African-American church in the area. The church was donated and moved to The Whitney from another location on the east bank.
Inside you’ll find beautiful, life-size clay sculptures of the children of the Whitney, created by artist Woodrow Nash. Their individual stories and pictures are found on the laminated lanyards given to you when you begin the tour for you take home as a memento of the visit here.
There’s also a stop at The Wall of Honor and Field of Angels where those lived and died in slavery are remembered. The original 22 cabins once that once housed the 61 slaves of the Haydel plantation, as it was then known, were torn down in the late 1970s. The ones that stand on the property today were moved there from other plantations.
The “Big House” is one of the earliest and finest examples Creole style plantation homes in Louisiana and is one of the best preserved. Somewhat more modest than others found on River Road, it is, however, architecturally and historically significant. It provides visitors with a glimpse of how the plantation owner’s family enjoyed the comforts of life while those they depended upon to provide it lived in simple, crowded wooden quarters within view of the back gallery.
The centerpiece on the property is the rusty-brown box-car shaped slave jail placed directly in line with the Big House. More like a cage, the ‘jail’ originally stood elsewhere and held slaves waiting to go on the auction block. Step inside and you feel a chill of those who once were shackled and confined here.
Walking around the Whitney was one of the most moving and educational experiences I’ve had in my years of going to the area. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s headed there. And if you’re not, take a few minutes to read more about The Whitney and its efforts to provide an honest historical perspective of slavery in the U.S. South. It’s sure to be a story that sticks with you.
When you were a kid did you ever bundle up when the big snow hit, run outside and build a snowman, or a snow house or fort? I did. I don’t recall receiving the kind of heavy snows that hit much of the U.S. this week during my years growing up in the Midwest, but there were plenty of winter days that enough of the cold, white snow blanketed the ground to build a couple of small walls in my aunt’s big vacant lot. We lobbed packed snowballs back and forth at each other by popping up and ducking behind these freezing fortresses until we were so cold and wet that a truce was called and we retreated indoors to warm up with steaming cups of hot chocolate with sticky sweet marshmallows floating on top.
Our childhood’s frozen fortresses were fun but nowhere as fancy as the elaborate Ice Castle I visited last winter in Midway, Utah. I was in Midway attending a film festival conference when, during one of the evening’s gatherings, everyone was invited to see the Ice Castle at the Homestead Resort where we were staying. It was late, and cold, and I was tired from sitting in meetings all day. But those who had been at the conference before told me that I must go out and see the castle.
Having no idea what exactly to expect, I grabbed my camera and carefully made my way down the snowy path behind the resort until I came to a lighted entrance. Even as I stepped past the attendants at the arched entry, I didn’t anticipate what was coming. I walked through an illuminated blue tunnel of icy stalactites looming high above me that revealed at the end to a spectacular, snowy open cavern surrounded by 20 to 35-foot high and 10-foot thick walls of ice. Sitting in the center was a towering singular free-form sculpture lit like a big birthday cake with light that changed color every few minutes.
Off on the sides and built into the walls were tunnels through which other conference attendees were carefully crawling or walking as they took in the beauty of the icy formation that encased them. At the far end stood the slickest slipper slide I’d ever seen down which sliders sped on their tushes like two human toboggans. The dark silhouettes of bulky-clad visitors wandered the shimmering structure, disappearing in and out of the walls, convening in the center to look like eerie explorers in a strange frigid landscape.
The Ice Castle is a man-made creation designed by a crew of artists who put it together by growing individual icicles and attaching them to one another until they are absorbed into the larger structure. Brent Christensen created the first ice castle creation for his daughter in his front yard of Alpine, Utah. Converting his hobby into a company, he founded the $2 million business, Ice Castles. His first public installation was constructed in Midway in 2011 at the Zermatt Resort. It was so popular that he expanded to include his four partners. Today, their company builds ice castles in six locations in the U.S. and Canada and attracts more than a million visitors. A crew of 50 now do what Brent once did alone.
More than just a wintry wonder, the Ice Castles are the setting for outdoor winter concerts, weddings, family outings and conference attractions, like the one I attended. Of course, the success and the ability of the ice artists to come up with these castles is weather-dependent. They start in the fall spraying water through a system of sprinklers onto metal racks that grow the icicles harvested by Christensen’s team and attached to scaffolding that eventually becomes totally covered by ice and develops into unpredictable shapes.
Yes, walking through a tunnel with thousands of pounds of ice hanging down above you is a bit disconcerting though Ice Castles assures you it’s safe because of the way it is constructed. The longer you stay, however, the more you’re overcome by the sheer magic of the icy-blue beauty of the castle. Trepidation is taken over the fascination for how the castle is created and how something so simple as water can transform itself into such an enchanting experience. Although helped in the process by human touch, Christensen’s ice castles provide yet another reminder of nature’s amazing majesty, even when temperatures are well below freezing.
“Mom, it won’t be back in the same place for another 375 years,” my son, Tim, was telling me in a phone conversation just a few days before the August 21 solar eclipse. The significance of the astronomical event was punctuated by the urgency in his voice. “We’ve got to go see it.”
I had considered making the trip south to Oregon, where my cousins live in Albany, almost directly in the charted path of the solar eclipse and where totality would take place. After all, how likely was I to be this near a total eclipse again in my lifetime? But the prediction of the traffic snarls, shortages of food, gas and water as well as my own work schedule caused me to abandon my plans. Tim convinced me otherwise and offered to fly from New York to join me.
I kicked into last-minute planning mode; first contacting my Oregon family to ask if we could stay at their home, postponing appointments on my calendar, reading what was required to photograph it, picking up food to take along on the five-hour drive south and even asking my uncle to purchase ten gallons of gas for me in case the anticipated fuel shortages came true.
When Saturday arrived, I hit the road, stopping in Seattle to pick up my son at the airport then continued on towards Oregon. The drive was uneventful and we arrived that evening in time to take part in a ‘name that tune’ challenge with my cousins while sitting around the backyard fire pit at their home.
Early Sunday morning, Tim and I went out to ‘scout’ locations that might be best to view the eclipse. Tim had already picked out on possible spots on the internet. We headed off, driving north on country roads from my cousin’s home. A few minutes later, we passed by an open farm field where the horizon could be seen without any trees blocking the view (not an easy thing to find in Oregon). We wanted to be able to see the horizon line because at the time of totality, it would appear like sunset all the way around.
We drove on to a little county park, Buena Vista Park, outside the tiny village of the same name. The unincorporated town, as far as I could tell, exists primarily as a toll ferry point to cross the Willamette River. A few campers were in the riverside park enjoying one of the last summer weekends. Although a very picturesque, clean and relaxing spot, not ideal for eclipse viewing due to the tree line on the opposite of the river. We moved on.
Back on the country road, on our way to Independence, six miles away, we pulled into Hilltop Cemetery. It was empty of visitors except for a woman walking her dog and two men studying some of the older gravestones. The view was encouraging. True to its name, Hilltop Cemetery was situated on a hill that overlooked the beautiful Willamette Valley that stretched below. So far, this was the best vantage point we had seen.
The cemetery, established in 1849, serves nearby Independence, a charming little town of almost 10,000 with a two-block storefront downtown built in the late 1800 and early 1900s. As we drove into town, it was obvious a surge of eclipse viewers were expected as entrances to parking lots, driveways, school grounds were blocked. A big sign with an arrow pointed to “Event Viewing.” We stopped just long enough for me to take a photo of a historic church.
After searching for one more spot, which we never found, we agreed that Hilltop Cemetery would be our choice for Monday’s eclipse. It was directly in the path for totality. The next morning, we hopped back into the car, along with my other son, Marshall, and his friend Trevor, visiting from Los Angeles.
The last total solar eclipse viewed from contiguous United States was on Feb. 26, 1979, according to NASA. The longest total solar eclipse of this century, lasting 6 minutes and 39 seconds, occurred on July 22, 2009 crossing Southern Asia and the South Pacific. Totality in our location would last nearly two minutes!
The last time a solar eclipse passed the U.S. from coast to coast was on June 8, 1918 and it would be 2045 for it to happen again. No wonder millions of Americans, like myself and my two sons, were so excited for the chance to see it.
As television’s CNN reported: “According to NASA, this is a ‘celestial coincidence,’ as the sun is about 400 times wider than the moon and about 400 times farther away. From certain vantage points on Earth, the moon will completely block the sun. This is called totality.” We were about to be lucky enough to witness it.
Hilltop Cemetery had come alive with people who, like us, tossed their blankets, set up camp chairs, laid out beach towels for the eclipse viewing. I could set up my cameras in hopes of capturing images of what was likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime event for me. The atmosphere was festive. People had brought their kids, their cameras, their eclipse glasses, their breakfasts.
With everything in place and ready, we donned the eclipse glasses that Tim had purchased in New York. (Local outlets in Oregon and Washington had run out several days before.) The suspense built as the moon first kissed the edge of the bright sun. As it slowly progressed, more and more people tilted their heads up towards the sky. Their chatter became anticipatory and hushed. I made the first of my exposures using my film camera which didn’t require the special solar filter that any digital or electronic device did.
Gradually, the dark shadow of the moon eased across the sun’s face. As it did, the temperature became noticeably cooler. I retrieved my jacket from the car. Someone pointed to the two vultures that swirled overhead. We hoped it wasn’t an omen of things to come. The light took on an odd quality, almost grayish-yellow in color, as if the sun had been shrouded by heavy smoke from a large wildfire. Our shadows looked oddly muted and ashen, softened by the vanishing light.
And then–totality! A spontaneous cheer went up from the cemetery. People clapped for the moon’s performance. I snapped a few more photos both of the eclipse and the view from the cemetery. I expected to be thrown into total blackness but it more closely resembled twilight just before the sun’s last light disappears. A couple of stars twinkled in the darkened sky. The eclipse viewers gazed in wonder at what they were seeing. Then, it was over. The bright flash of light, known as the diamond ring effect,appeared as the moon began to retreat.
We stayed, as did most of those gathered, until the sun was once again fully revealed, as if people thought staying could prolong the moment. And what a moment it was. The eclipse was a reminder of nature’s power, something so extraordinary that people will travel hundreds of miles, some even thousands, put up with hours of clogged traffic on the journey back to experience two minutes worth of daylight turning into darkness.
The drive home that night took more than twice the time as usual. But I would do it again because it created a memory for me with my sons, family and friends that I will talk about for the rest of my life.
Two years ago I wrote about the Evergreen Plantation which I had recently visited during a trip to New Orleans and which had been the location for several films, including the Academy Award winning “12 Years A Slave.” Now with last night’s Oscar ceremony and Black History month winding down, I thought I’d feature another Louisiana plantation that also has been the setting for motion pictures, including “12 Years A Slave.”
But what’s really important about this plantation, is not its film roles but the role it played in history and continues to play today in educating its visitors about the history of the South and, particularly, Black history.
The Destrehan Plantation sits a mere 30 minutes north of New Orleans yet it was one of the few plantations in the New Orleans’ area that I had not visited during the nearly 20 years that I have been going there. On this trip, however, I decided it would be a good place to take my cousin and his friend from Sweden who were visiting us in New Orleans. It would be a treat for me too.
Now that I’ve been, I can tell you that it’s one of the more worthwhile and informative plantations to visit. Architecturally, it doesn’t have the “Gone With the Wind” grandeur of Oak Alley, which many tourists associate with plantations, and its slave quarters aren’t as extensive as those found at Evergreen, but it is rich in ways that other area plantations aren’t. And yet, it barely survived having fallen into disrepair and the hands of vandals who took everything that could not be carried away.
The plantation was rescued from its demise in 1971 when a local group of preservation-minded citizens who had formed the River Road Society was granted a deed to the house and four acres of its property by the then owners, the American Oil Company. The group set out to restore the house, which has cost more than $2 million. Another $500,000 is being spent for the purchase and development of 14 more acres of plantation land, to include six bed and breakfast cottages expected to be ready in 2018.
Docents at Destrehan dress in period costume to lead visitors through the house sharing with them information about the plantation, the people who lived there, including those who were enslaved, and a history of the pre-Civil era. Our guide, Beverly, clearly enjoyed her role and answered many questions.
Construction on the French colonial style home was started in 1787 by Robin deLogny and completed in 1790. But the plantation takes its name from Jean Noel Destrehan, who married deLogny’s daughter, Celeste, and bought the property after her father’s death in 1792. Destrehan was also appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to the legislative council responsible for organizing and creating the laws for the new state of Louisiana. The appointment signed by Jefferson and Secretary of Sate James Madison is on display at the plantation although photographs of it are not permitted.
The plantation remained in the Destrehan family until 1910 when it was sold to the Destrehan Manufacturing Company and then to Amoco which operated an oil refinery and a company town on the property until 1958.
During the tour, visitors learn about the family who lived in the house. They are also told about those who actually built the house–the enslaved which numbered more than 200 before the Civil War. The names of some of those appear on the registry posted on one of two slave cabins that sit near the entrance. The names of other slaves are placed throughout the house where they would have worked. One of those was Marguerite, a cook and laundress, whose story is told by the historical interpreters.
In the education center, originally an overseer’s cabin, are exhibits about the Slave Revolt of 1811. The revolt, which nearly succeeded, was one of the largest slave revolts in U.S. history. Contrary to the letters from the planters, “which are the basis for most accounts of the revolt,” according to historian Daniel Rasmussen, “the slave army posed an existential threat to white control over the city of New Orleans.” Three trials of those accused as instigators were conducted at Destrehan. Many found guilty were executed, others were sent back to their plantations for a life of hard toil. The story is as dramatic as any movie script but until recently, little was heard about it in American history classes. To its credit, Destrehan has made every effort to bring this part of its history to the forefront.
Plantation life was often portrayed through that of the owners but little attention was focused on the ones they enslaved. Destrehan, it seems, is attempting to correct that.
A company called Light is introducing a new compact camera that uses new technology. They enlisted some photographers to mention it in their blogs and to write about one of their favorite locations to shoot or a unique spot in their city. I was one of those contacted for Light’s #VantagePoint project.
A request like this isn’t easy for me because I have so many favorite spots and so many favorite images that I’ve created over the years. But I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk to you about one of my favorite local subjects (besides the people I photograph). And that is Bellingham’s old City Hall building, now part of the Whatcom County Museum of Art.
It’s an iconic building in town and safe to say probably the most photographed in Bellingham. Completed in 1892, it served as the town’s official city hall until 1939 when new offices were built and the museum moved in.
The noble red-brick and Chuckanut sandstone structure was designed by local architect Alfred Lee in the Second Empire style of Victorian architecture. According to the City’s website, is “currently one of this style’s most exquisite example in the Pacific Northwest. This building epitomizes the general characteristics of this French inspired style, which are tall, bold and purposely three-dimensional. Some of the design elements are also an eclectic mixture of the Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival style.” It includes a high mansard roof, classical columns on either side of the main entrance, and a prominent, central bell tower, all of which draw the photographer’s eye.
I have photographed the building, or elements of it, from a variety of spots, angles, times of day and year. It has been the setting for many of my senior portrait sessions and the choice of seniors who want their portrait to reflect something uniquely Bellingham. And I’ve used a variety of cameras over the years from my Mamiya RB67 and Nikon F5 film cameras, to my digital Nikon D700s to (yes,) my cell phone cameras. It all depends upon what I may happen to have with me or what I’m using at the moment. The images included in this post were taken on all of these various cameras.
The building now houses part of the museum’s collection and its spacious Rotunda Room is frequently the site for concerts, including the Bellingham Festival of Music‘s popular free lunch-time chamber concerts. I even photographed one of those this past summer.
When you visit Bellingham, which I hope you’ll do one day, be sure to stop by the old City Hall. It’s likely to be as memorable for you as it has been for many photographers and visitors before you.
I’ve not seen or tried out the new Light camera but according to the company’s website, the camera, Light L16, is sold out until 2017. You can check it out yourself.
Birthday surprises usually come in the form of parties or gifts. I’ve received both. But last year for my birthday, I was surprised to learn about a new relative. And fortunately, it came as a welcomed surprise.
The news arrived not with someone standing on my door, but in the form of a large mailing envelope sent from Sweden. I immediately recognized the return address as that of Bo, cousin to my aunt Marie who was married to my father’s brother, Dale. I’ve known Bo nearly my entire life. His family and my own have become like extended family. I spend time with them whenever I go to Sweden, as I did earlier this summer.
When I opened the envelope from Bo, I expected to find a birthday card, but was surprised to find much more. Inside was a letter that read: “As you are very like Pippi Longstocking in many ways there is some connection to her in you I must say…As the author Astrid Lindgren who wrote the book is a kind of relative to your mother.” Along with the letter was a family tree linking my mother to the Swedish author as a fourth cousin. My mother’s fourth cousin?
What a discovery! Astrid Lindgren is one of Sweden’s most treasured authors. Her books about the freckled-faced, pig-tailed girl, Pippi Longstocking, has become a children’s classic throughout the world. Her books have been translated into 70 languages and made into several films and television series. There is even an Astrid Lindgren’s World, a children’s theme park and a popular family destination located outside Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby.
Lindgren herself was honored last year when her picture was placed on the 20 Swedish kronor, replacing that of another beloved Swedish children’s writer, Selma Lagerlöf. Bo had enclosed one of the freshly printed bills inside my letter. In addition, Lindgren and the characters from her books became the subject of a set of shiny silver commemorative coins. One of these, along with the folder with spots for the other coins, I also found in Bo’s package. I want to collect the entire set.
Having learned about my Lindgren connection, I of course made it a priority on my recent trip, to visit Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby where she was born, where she is buried and where Pippi’s adventures are set. It was a part of my trip to which I was most looking forward.
I drove into Vimmerby mid-afternoon on a Saturday. It was only a 48 minute drive inland from Vastervik, where my husband and I had disembarked from the Gotland ferry. The shops in Vimmerby’s town square had closed at two o’clock. I would not buy any Pippi Longstocking souvenirs to carry home. We strolled into the charming square, empty except for a handful of visitors like ourselves.
At one end of the square sat the old, mustard-colored Town Hall and opposite is a lovely hotel with patio tables on the porch. In the center of the square, near the hotel, are several small play structures taken from Lindgren’s books: a sailing ship,a cottage, Kindergarten-sized children were crawling in and out and climbing up and down in delight.
On the other side of the square, nearer the Town Hall, is a life-size sculpture of my famous cousin sitting at desk with a typewriter. It felt a little odd to meet my newly found relative in this way, but was quite an honor at the same time.
I next sought out her resting place in the neatly kept, hilltop cemetery. Thanks to some local residents, I found her gravestone, alongside that of her parents and sister. It was a simple stone for such a celebrated figure, quite humble and unassuming. I wondered if it reflected her personality in life.
As we walked back through the streets of Vimmerby we noted the spots where Pippi and her sidekick, Tommy, had their adventures. Then we headed out to the Lindgren family home, where Astrid was born and lived as a child. The little house is located on a farm known as Näs in Vimmerby. It stands exactly as it was when Astrid grew up there, having been restored by Lindgren herself. Tours of the house are available almost daily except when closed for the winter from mid-December until March. Unfortunately, we arrived after hours. Had someone been around I might have told them that I was a ‘cousin’ from the U.S., in hopes that they would take pity on me and allow me inside.
Also on the property, owned by the city of Vimmerby, stands a modern glass-walled exhibition hall where her life and achievements are displayed. But again, we were too late and unable to go in. I was disappointed but until only a year ago, I didn’t even know that the woman remembered here was even remotely related to me. Now that I do, I will return the next trip to see both the house and the museum.
Back in Stockholm, three long, large banners hung down from the city’s concert hall. On two of the red banners were the words: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award with the name and image of the winning author—Meg Rosoff—printed on the center banner. The award is presented annually to presented to authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and reading promoters to honor her memory and promote interest in children’s and young adult literature. It is the largest such literature award in the world.
Lindgren’s apartment in Stockholm where she lived for 61 years, is also open for tours but reservations must be made in advance. Even though we were unable to secure reservations, Bo accompanied me to apartment. The apartment itself looks out over a large park, Vasa Park, bustling with children. Lindgren would be pleased, I’m sure, to hear their gleeful shrieks and young laughter outside her window.
Next time I visit Sweden, I will return to these places for an inside tour. For now, however, I have the commemorative coins Bo sent to me and the 20 kronor bills that I collected and carried home to share with my family. How many people can say that their cousin appears on their national money? What a birthday surprise that was!
Summers in the Puget Sound area, where I live, don’t officially start, weather-wise, until July 13, according to local meteorologists. But in Bellingham, summers begin when the musicians from around the country arrive for the Bellingham Festival of Music. That happened last week.
The Festival, now in its 23rd season from July 1-17, is one of the things that I look forward to every summer. In fact, the Festival is one of the amenities that attracted us and ultimately convinced us to move to Bellingham. It must be a draw for the musicians too as every summer, 44 musicians from major orchestras across the U.S. and Canada (plus additional players as needed) assemble here to play two weeks worth of some of the most beautiful music in the world. We like to think that they are also playing in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
It all begins with a welcoming picnic for the musicians, conductor Micheal Palmer, the chorus members, sponsors and the families who host the musicians in their homes during their stay. This year’s picnic took place at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal which offers a terrific view of the Bay and Bellingham. It’s an ideal spot for returning and new musicians to meet this year’s Festival board members, local sponsors and the home hosts.
The potluck picnic, provided by the Festival Board member and volunteers, is tasty and plentiful. Following appetizers and drinks, with local prize-winning microbrewery Boundary Bay serving up some of its finest beers, the picnickers head off to the buffet table and dinner. Afterwards, this year’s Board Chair, Karen Berry, officially opened the season by introducing maestro Michael Palmer who, in turn, introduced this year’s team of musicians.
Section by section, starting with the first violins of course, the musicians took their turn at the podium to share with the evening’s guests their answers to the question: “What was your most embarrassing moment as a musician?” There were some great ones: insects falling onto instruments and being flung into the audience, missed cues, parts of bassoons falling out during performances, women’s undergarments landing on violin scrolls during a Tom Jones’ show, auditions that turned out well despite mishaps and being encouraged to pursue other professions. It all made for some entertaining anecdotes.
Many of the Festival’s musicians have been coming to Bellingham for years. They have become a ‘family’ in the sense that they know one another’s spouses and children, have forged long-lasting friendships with their home hosts and share in the joys and sadness of one another’s lives. Last summer, one of the musicians stayed beyond the Festival dates in order to have her wedding in Bellingham. This year, a group from the orchestra is throwing a baby shower for an expectant father who’s playing here while his wife, nearing her due date, remained at home.
This long-term bonding has, over the years, made the orchestra tighter when they play together onstage. At least that’s my belief having now gone to concerts for the past 20 years. Although together for only a short time, with rehearsals only days ahead of each concert, they meld into a solid sound. I have often found myself astounded to be sitting in my own backyard–nearly literally as the concert hall at Western Washington University where they play is within walking distance–and listening to world-class performances.
For Festival goers, the concerts are a bargain with ticket prices topping at $45 for premiere seating in a small, intimate performance hall of just 650 seats. I recall the many years that I lived in Los Angeles and
was a subscriber to the L.A.Philharmonic. Travel time from our home was 45 minutes at least, depending upon traffic, bargain tickets were usually no less than $45 and in the top tiers of the 3,000 seat hall, plus parking costs and don’t forget money for the babysitter. Granted, I no longer need to pay a babysitter, but all the other costs of hearing live classical music and experiencing outstanding performances in as beautiful a natural setting as you’ll ever find make the Bellingham Festival of Music an incredible deal. Especially for us locals.
If you don’t live in the immediate area, you can spend the week vacationing and enjoying the classical music concerts at night and any one number of activities during the day–strolling the art galleries and shops, tipping a few brews on the ‘Tap Trail,” hiking or biking on one of our many trails, playing golf on one of 22 courses here, fishing, kayaking or sailing on the Bay. I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.
When most visitors go to Florida, they often wind up at some of the state’s many tourist attractions–the Everglades, the Kennedy Space Center, Disney World, Daytona Beach–to mention a few. But none of those spots were on my itinerary when I went to the state recently. It was my first trip there since I was kid vacationing with my parents. And one of the reasons I travelled from one tip of the country to the other, was to spend a little time with my 89-year-old uncle.
Red, as most people know him, is an old salt whose career with the Navy began when he ran away from home as a teenager, signed up under age during World War II and then toured the world mostly on aircraft carriers to become a Master Chief Petty Officer asked to go to the Pentagon, a job he turned down. But I know him as the uncle who was full of shenanigans as a boy, plays harmonica, sews and can tell a tale with the best of them.
I visited him at his retirement community where he now lives, Penney Farms, about 50 miles south of Jacksonville. It’s a thriving little place that was established in 1926 by the department store tycoon, J.C. Penney as somewhere for his parents, who were in the ministry, and others like them could retire. The population who reside there now, like my uncle, come from varied backgrounds. It’s a lovely spot with 93 cottages, an apartment complex, health facilities, a gym, an arts center, a non-denominational church, and a beautiful Norman-styled architecture dining hall where I had breakfast with my uncle every morning.
My uncle gave me the grand tour which besides the stops I’ve already listed, also included the workshop where he spends two mornings a week. This is not, however, your ordinary workshop for hobbyists who like to putter at building a birdhouse or maybe a sign for the front door. This is serious stuff.
Those who come here are all dedicated volunteers who collectively construct wooden carts that are shipped, literally, all over the world to those who are leg disabled. It is part of a much larger project known as the Personal Energy Transportation Mobility Project, or PET for short.
Begun in 1994 by missionaries Larry Hills, Mel West and engineer Earl Miner. PET was intended to provide a means of mobility to persons who had been victims of polio or landmines. The first of these went to where Hills was posted in Zaire. But word about their effort and project quickly spread until today, PET ships, through its 26 affiliate workshops, thousands of these carts to 101 countries. Carts crafted at the Penny Farms workshop alone have gone to 93 countries.
Those who volunteer at the Penney Farms workshop, like my uncle, each have a specific job to do in manufacturing the cart. My uncle’s is to cut to size the boards needed for the body. Another tugs and pulls to upholster the seat cushions; another cuts the drive chains to an exact length and others give them the final coats of colorful paint. Most, but not all, who come here, reside at Penney Farms.
The ingenuous design of these mobility miracles has evolved over the years. Padded seats were added, wooden handles were switched to heavy-duty plastic, tires were improved and a storage bin included beneath for carrying goods and other items. But they all still substitute a hand crank for foot pedals to power it and make it affordable to PET’s partners who supply those in poor, underdeveloped countries. As a result, more than 57,000 people have been lifted off their knees and out of the dirt.
Sure, it’s not the high technology that visitors will see when they go to the Kennedy Space Center, but the good it’s accomplishing is beyond technology. And those I met who volunteer in the Penney Farms workshop obviously love the camaraderie and the purpose of what they are building there. Might not be on your list of places to go next time you visit Florida, but I’m glad it was on mine.