Wednesday, October 31, 2012


On Sunday evening, when warnings of monster storm Sandy became more urgent and the weatherman was anticipating power outages and possible flooding, I put two cups of dried beans in a bowl of water to soak.   Baked beans qualify as true comfort food, and provide enough low glycaemic carbs to get you through any crisis.   I have a vintage McCoy ceramic pot  that was designed to cook beans to perfection in a slow oven and the heat-retaining vessel works just as well on top of the woodstove, in the event of a blackout.

The real McCoy bean pot

Upon arrival in Plymouth in the fall of 1620, Pilgrims scrambled to learn essential New World survival skills before winter set in.  The blessing of baked beans came from the Wampanoag native tribe whose traditional slow-cooking method involved burying a pot in the ground with hot coals for a day or two. The original recipe called for maple syrup and bear fat, ingredients that evolved into molasses and pork rind once the new immigrants had settled in.  Baked beans were economical, highly nutritious and complied with the rules of religious correctness.  Puritans were not permitted to cook on Sunday, but a hot meal could be enjoyed after the church service if beans were prepared on Saturday and allowed to sit overnight in a brick oven.

We stocked up on batteries, bottled water, matches, candles and chocolate bars.  (Robert survived Holland's hunger winter of 1944 with a stash of chocolate that his parents had hidden away prior to the war.)  On Monday, while the beans were simmering in the oven, I collected dry kindling from the back woods.  The wind howled hard all night, but fortunately the power did not go out, the basement did not flood, and the roof remained intact.  Tuesday's lunch was a tribute to Pilgrim practicality, a down-to-earth pairing of baked beans and cornbread accompanied by a prayer of thanksgiving.

Being prepared is part of the 21st century New World order, as climate change breeds more intense and more frequent killer storms.  It's back-to-basics here in NB, where we're rediscovering the native goodness of beans and corn.

 If you want to try baking beans the traditional way, using a fire pit in lieu of a stove, here are the directions.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Swan and John Cage

The swan, Mt. Allison University
The Swan
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan when he nervously lets himself down

into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each minute more fully grown,
more like a king, composed, farther and farther on.

- Rainer Maria Rilke  translated by Robert Bly

 Whenever I see a swan, Rilke's famous poem about "letting go" comes to mind.  The photo posted here was taken at the campus pond just prior to attending a lecture at Mt. Allison University.    Guest speaker Rob Haskins, a professor and musicologist from the University of New Hampshire was about to give a talk concerning the work of the American composer John Cage.  The event was part of a festival marking the 100th anniversary of Cage's birth and the 20th year since his death.

The swan waddled to the edge of the pond where he hesitated, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, leaned forward and finally lowered himself into the water.  It was a sequence that matched Rilke's text, a reluctant departure from terra firma.   As he glided away, the swan was indeed a majestic creature, transformed and beautified.

Haskin's lecture entitled "Rehearsing Contingencies" explored the problems inherent in performing the music of John Cage.  Cage's unconventional approach to composing (informed by Zen Buddhism and random number sequences generated by I Ching software) resulted in performance instructions that are deliberately ambiguous and open-ended and extremely difficult for the player to follow.  His work challenges musicians to be spontaneous, to respond to other members of the orchestra and to incorporate unintentional sounds.  This method of music-making is the opposite of the routine memorization, reading of notation and following of conductor's cues that are second nature to classically-trained musicians.  Cage compositions require a different level of concentration, and a willingness to let go of programmatic associations.  He aimed to create works that present pure sound, unencumbered by specific ideas or narrative, vivid but not distorted.  

"Art's purpose is to sober and quiet the mind so that it is in accord with what happens,"  wrote Cage.

He also advocated a degree of studied detachment.  "What I'm proposing, to myself and other people is what I often call the touristic attitude - that you act as though you've never been there before.  So that you're not supposed to know anything about it.  If you really get down to brass tacks, we have never been anywhere before."

While the act of leaving convention and intention behind may be totally liberating, it is not necessarily an easy accomplishment. David Tudor, a virtuoso performer of Cage's works described his process as one of rigorous forgetting.

"Music of Changes was great discipline, because you can't do it unless you're ready for anything at each instant.  You can't carry over any emotional impediments, though at the same time you have to be ready to accept them each instant, as they arise.  .... I had to be able to cancel my consciousness of any previous moment, in order to be able to produce the next one."

Freeing music from personal likes and dislikes is a form of thought annihilation that recalls Rilke's poetic "letting go of the ground we stand on and cling to every day."   It is that uneasy moment of launching from the familiar shore into the unknown element that allows the marvellous to unfold.

Here is a video clip of John Cage discussing sound and silence.

NB:  Rilke's poem is included in this blog post by David Whyte.

Friday, October 12, 2012

From the field

Last weekend at an estate sale in Sackville NB I purchased a wartime painting dated 1944.  The panel featured a green summer landscape dotted with army tents, two military men at ease, conversing under a leafy tree and a stone farmhouse in the background.   It looked like an oil painting done on site by a soldier/artist.

Painting by A. Pouzadoux, dated 1944

Who was he and where did he record the details of a quiet evening in a WWII camp?
I checked the Canadian virtual war memorial site for A. Pouzadoux, but the search yielded no military men with that surname.  On a French WWII site, I found a page of information on Antoine Gabriel Pouzadoux, a Resistance (Maquis) soldier who served in the Auvergne region.   Pouzadoux was killed on June 20, 1944, during a battle at Anterrieux as French forces tried to delay German troops who were moving north to oppose the D-day landings in Normandy.  The Germans killed 160 Resistance soldiers in the conflict.  Accounts of the days leading up to the attack mention the dangerous evacuation of wounded soldiers from a field hospital at Mont Mouchet.  I now have good reason to think that the Red Cross tents shown in the Pouzadoux painting were part of that encampment.

Antoine Gabriel Pouzadoux (b. 1905 d. 1944)

Prior to the war, Pouzadoux had been employed as a printer at La Banque de France in Chamalieres, a fact that supports the image of a man who might be inclined to create a painting in the midst of active war service.  In Anterrieux there's a stone marker at the edge of a farmer's field near the spot where Pouzadoux died, a simple memorial bearing a flag and a photo.  Perhaps I'll make a pilgrimage to that place some day and find the same green field where Antoine painted the stillness before the storm.

Stele for Antoine Pouzadoux at Anterrieux, Cantal