Thursday, September 6, 2012

Morris Men in flower-bedecked hats
on May Morning in Oxford
Throughout the summer England's folk dancers, the ‘Morris Men’, can be seen in cities and villages across the land celebrating a tradition that goes back centuries.
On this particular morning, mingling with crowds, the men are dressed in traditional costume; white embroidered smocks and trousers, heavy boots or clogs with jingling bells around their legs. Headgear - depending on which dance group they belong to - are floppy felt hats, 'bowlers', black top hats and straw hats, each encircled with garlands of fresh lilac, daffodils, peach blossom and summer roses. For extra flourish, pheasant or peacock feathers are mixed in with the flowers.
A musician strikes up a tune on his fiddle; an impromptu dance by the Morris Men, handkerchiefs waving, bells jingling, sets off a rhythmic hand-clapping.
Beside me, 'Jack in the Green', a time-honoured figure who accompanies the Morris Men on their dances, stands motionless. I sense that I am under scrutiny. The man is invisible beneath a tree-shaped arrangement of netting woven with fresh-picked greenery. I lift my camera to photograph and am startled by a voice that comes from deep within the foliage, “When am I going to see the photos you took of us last time Anne Gordon?” Pushing the leaves aside I peer into the dappled shade of a leafy hide-out. It is Peter Lund, a professor from Oxford University who has loaned me a book on the history of the Morris Dancers. He laughs at my astonishment.
But life is not always so amusing for the Morris dancers. One group I know of, was sued because an over zealous dancer, carried away by the moment, whacked one of the onlookers with an inflated pig's bladder. I doubt that he caused much harm, but in today’s litigious society, restitution was demanded and the group subsequently crumbled under the resultant debt.
Photos copyright Anne Gordon
Postd by Anne Gordon on Thursday, 6 September, 2012                                             

Chateau de Chambord in the Loire Valley in France
       The Loire Valley in France is known as 'the garden of France' and 'the country of a thousand castles'. On a recent seven day visit I wondered through a glorious land of vineyards and flowers and explored at least eight of its 1,000 castles. Of those, I found the Chateau de Chambord to be the most spectacular. A mere 2 hour train ride from Paris, the chateau is situated in the centre of a 54 square kilometre forest. Enclosed within a 32 kilometre-long wall erected in the 16th century, the forest was once the hunting preserve of Francois 1. Still a wildlife refuge, its hunting rights are one of the perks of the presiding French President.
       For 25 years 1800 skilled artisans laboured on the building of the young French king's hunting lodge. This massive structure, France's second largest castle after Versailles, is crowned with a roof likened to the skyline of an Oriental city. Its upper terrace comprises an astounding array of lanterns, chimneys, cupolas, minarets and towers. During Francois' reign it was customary for ladies of the Court to gather on the terrace to watch the return of the hunt and for the King and his courtiers to enjoy spectacular events, many of them devised by Leonardo da Vinci.
A ghostly image of the interior of
da Vinci's double-helix stairway
       One of Chambord's most famous attractions is a double-helix staircase attributed to the Italian artist/architect. After studying his design sketches, its present caretakers are of the opinion that Leonardo was likely responsible for the staircase's unique design. Built around a circular central core lit by an opening at its apex, the stairway is such that climbers ascending do not come in contact with those descending.
Amboise Castle, home of King Francois 1
        Although the origins of Chambord are uncertain, it is thought that Leonardo may have had more input into the castle design that just the staircase. He was a close confidant of the king, so much so that the king had an underground tunnel built from Amboise Castle to the artist's home so that he could visit for conversation with his mentor at any time of the day or night.
Photos copyright Anne Gordon
Posted on Thursday, 6 September, 2012

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Butterflies at Point Pelee on the shores of Lake Erie
       As any nature lover will know, migrations of varying magnitude have taken place throughout time all over the world. In Alaska and Canada about 1.2 million caribou migrate annually in the spring to their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra. In Africa the wildebeest, a meandering assortment of clownish buffoons, trek in unimaginable numbers across the Serengeti plains to the Masai Mara. In the distant past when buffalo were a force of nature in North America, these magnificent animals during their migration, were a source of food for the various tribes who eagerly awaited their passing each year.
       When contemplating migration, for me, the most miraculous migration of all is that of the Monarch butterfly. Each year in September, butterflies in the millions gather at Point Pelee on the shores of Lake Erie in south-western Canada. When the conditions are right – cool days and gentle winds – colourful clouds of these minute creatures rise en masse, flutter around in a distracted manner for awhile, then, as if programmed by an unseen hand, set off on the most hazardous and epic journey of their brief lives.

       Their destination is the same each year, a predestined location in the mountains of Mexico. To reach it they must cross vast expanses of water and land, and all the while surviving on the tiniest sips of nectar from flowers along the way. Even more astounding; the destination is unknown. An innate instinct draws them like a magnet to their place of wintering.

       I decided to travel to Point Pelee to witness this epic event, but like many before me...the time was not right. Walking in the Point Pelee National Park, one of the few Carolinian forests left in North America, I did see some evidence of the gathering. Like brilliant flowers, clusters of butterflies clung to drooping branches but they were few compared with the millions that would eventually arrive.

        Some butterfly enthusiasts have travelled to Point Pelee for 20 consecutive years and have yet to witness the peak of the migration. It seems, strangely, that the only ones who really know what is going on are the butterflies.

Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted on Wednesday, 5th September, 2012