The highlight of our trip was a visit to the Jardin des Quatre Vents (Garden of the Four Winds), a private garden owned and created by the eminent horticulturalist Francis Cabot. It's only open to the public - reservations required - four days each summer; our friends G. and S. invited us quite a while ago, and got the tickets. All the proceeds go to environmental causes. The garden, which comprises hundreds of acres and many different types of growing conditions, from formal gardens near the house to shady woodlands and meadows, a deep damp ravine, and a potager full of vegetables, fruit trees, and flowers. One of the most remarkable aspects, to me, was the use of water throughout, and there were also many sculptures -- plus a lot of whimsy. Les Quatre Vents is considered to be one of the most beautiful gardens in all of Canada. Eventually I hope it will become a more public treasure like some of the famous gardens of Europe. It's fragile, though, and there would have to be a lot of care taken to control the foot traffic. We were impressed with the way the tour was handled; it was nearly three hours long, comprehensive and generous. These photos don't begin to show the variety or the detail, but I'll still let them speak for themselves. If you'd like to see more, take a look inside Cabot's book, A Greater Perfection, about the creation of this magnificent garden.
La Malbaie from Cap à l'Aigle
Champlain had arrived here long before us, too. Unable to find a good anchor in the harbor for his ships, he was further frustrated when, the next morning, he found they had run aground. He christened the spot "La Malbaie" - the "bad bay", or "poor bay." The name stuck, even after Scottish settlers tried to rename it "Murray Bay."
We stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in Cap à l'Aigle (Eagle Cape) across the bay from the main town. It's a small place, not very touristy compared to some of the other towns we saw during our trip, with a huge Catholic church, a small hospital, a number of inns and gites, and a cluster of residences. With fishing so diminished, the main livelihood is tourism, and we speculated on how difficult life might be here in the winter after the short four months of high season.
There was a local celebration going on when we went over in search of dinner, with little tables set up on the main street outside the stores, and a local rock band playing on a makeshift stage in the city park overlooking the harbor. It was all lowkey and local, with a small crowd of mixed ages milling around, under a nearly-full moon shining on the water at low tide. A big cross on the cape opposite stood silhouetted against the sky. We ate in a nice restaurant that offered regional specialties -- Charlevoix veal and beef, fresh fish -- I had a good local paté as an appetizer, and cod in a delicious sauce.
The next morning J. and I woke early, around 5, and got up and went out for a walk, discovering for the first time the beautiful views downriver; a small Anglican church - St. Peter-on-the-Rock - established and maintained by English-speaking summer residents; and the cape's own wharf, where we watched the sun climb into the clouds, cormorants diving for fish, and a large boat moving west, on its way to Montreal and the Great Lakes beyond.
This past weekend we went on a trip, with our traveling companions S. and G., to the Charlevoix region of Quebec, north of Quebec City above the St. Lawrence river as it heads toward the ocean. This was our first time going as far north in the region, celebrated as one of the most beautiful not only in Quebec but in Canada, and we weren't disappointed. And because J. and I have recently read a new biography of Samuel de Champlain, who explored and started the first French settlements in the St. Lawrence valley in the early 1600s, we were keen to see more of this history firsthand.
Our first stop, for a picnic lunch, was Montmorency Falls. We'd seen the falls from the road when we visited St. Anne-de-Beaupré, Cap Tourmente and the Isle d'Orleans -- you can't exactly miss it! - but hadn't gone into the park area; this time we did. The access road had a detour, which took us along the ridgeline along the "Chemin de Nouvelle France" where we saw a number of old Norman houses, built of stone with curved roofs, some dating from the end of the 17th century, and all of which still seemed to be occupied.
The falls were named by Champlain in 1613 for Henri II, duc de Montmorency who served as viceroy of New France from 1620 to 1625. And they are impressive, at 76 metres high. On the western side, where we began, a walkway leads to two observation areas and then climbs up to a suspension bridge directly over the top of the falls.
In the 1800s the falls were used for water power, and a large cotton mill stood in the flat area below; now it's empty except for a few fishermen.
The suspension bridge overlooks the river and the beautiful Isle d'Orleans, home of the first French settlements that lasted and thrived (the very first were in Acadia, or what is now known as Nova Scotia). In contrast to the area around Quebec City, just to the south, the island is still mostly agricultural -- Isle d'Orleans strawberries and mais sucré, framboises et bluets (sweet corn, raspberries, and blueberries) were being sold from farmstands all along this area of the river.
I stayed behind for a little while, at the lower observation area, to do this study of the falls, the dramatic trees, and bare rocky hill, maybe for a painting or a print later on. Then we got back in the car and drove for several more hours: next stop, La Malbaie.
This morning we put our bikes on the car, drove across the river to Longueuil, parked near a marina, and then rode into a wild shoreline area full of old trees and rocks, with a view across to the Hochelaga shipyards and a huge grain elevator, with the Olympic tower and stadium behind them, and, to the east, the green Isles de Boucherville. The light was favorable, with huge cumulus clouds billowing over the industrial landscape and grey river. J. set up his camera on a tripod and I took out my sketchbook and watercolors and we worked for half an hour, and then stopped for lunch. We had brought Vietnamese sandwiches and rouleux de printemps with pale pink shrimp, halved lengthwise, blushing beneath the gently curving surface of the translucent rice-paper skin.We went into the shadows under a copse of trees and sat on a rock to eat. A little spit of land covered with knee-high grass curved out into the river below us, and there a father and his two children crouched in the sunlight, hands outstretched, trying to catch something we couldn't see but decided must be dragonflies. "Here!" the father would silently point, and the little boy would creep closer, carefully cupping his hands. Nearer to us but still out of earshot, a couple poured foamy beer from a silver can into wine glasses and toasted each other before beginning their own picnic.
My friend Teju Cole and I spent Saturday afternoon at the site of the Montreal Olympics, some of which is still used and some of which has fallen into that moody decay particular to poured concrete landscapes. As we wandered around and took photos, hoping to go from there to the botanical gardens, huge storm clouds gathered overhead and the sky got darker and darker. We ended up getting soaked and waiting out the first of several passing thunderstorms, complete with driving winds, in a bus shelter along with six Muslim women who had to put up with being packed into one corner, away from the rain-hurtling wind, with a man as part of the group. The sky then turned blue and clear; Teju went off on the metro and I retrieved my bike and cycled home, only to get caught in the next storm; I got completely drenched but after all the heat we've had, it felt terrific and I rode home soaked but grinning.
You can click on any of these images for a larger version.
One reason I've always drawn plants is that I'm fascinated with their individual forms. Each species is different in some essential way, and trying to capture what makes a hollyhock a hollyhock, a pansy a pansy, a maple a maple is a particular kind of challenge. You can draw the details of an individual flower or plant, but that's not necessarily "it." What gives each plant its character? Its busyness? Its solidity? The contrast of big round leaves and small flowers? A triangular aspect, or a tall straight one? Can that be set down in a few quick strokes? In different media, how can both the characteristics of species and individual plants be conveyed, the way the eye actually ranges over and recognizes them in a landscape, without getting caught up in minute details?
You could work on nothing else for a lifetime.
We spent the evening of July 4th with friends at the Montreal jazz festival. It was a beautiful summer evening, before the oppressive heat of last week, and perfect for listening to happy outdoor music. As the sun set we heard "Lost Fingers," a popular Montreal group, at the main stage, and then went to sit on the lawn at the blues stage to hear a very good British guitarist and his band. I did this sketch of the first concert while there was still light in the sky, and added the color later when I was back home.
Below is the original sketch. I liked the spontaneity of the original drawing and tried to keep as much of it as I could when working over it with the watercolors. The color does adds some of the excitement of actually being in a big crowd like this. In a fast, small watercolor on non-watercolor paper, you don't have much control at all, and it's hard to convey the luminosity of the lights and the big video monitors that showed closeups of the performers. It would be hard even in oils! But I really enjoyed doing this sketch, as well as being in such a lively place, and hope that shows in the result.
It's been an eclectic few months of reading, with more globetrotting coming up. Last night I finished "Champlain's Dream," a riveting biography of the man who did more than anyone else to establish and shape "New France." David Hackett Fisher is a historian at Brandeis who won the Pulitzer for his book about Washington at the Delaware and the surrounding events, titled "Washington's Crossing." I was fascinated to read this one, though, because Samuel de Champlain (~1570-1635) not only explored, shaped, (and named!) much of the St. Lawrence valley from Tadoussac, near the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to Montreal and far beyond; his explorations and courageous attacks (with the Huron and other Quebec tribes) to repel the Iroquois took him as far south as present-day Syracuse (Onondaga) and as far west as Lake Huron; he also explored and mapped much of the Atlantic coast, down to Cape Cod. What this means is that he had an influence over all the area where I've spent my life - and in northern Vermont and northern New York, a much greater influence than the New England first settlers we're taught about in history books.
He was also a remarkable man who I've come to admire greatly, not only for his leadership and creative vision but for his great humanity, most obvious in his love and respect for the native Americans which resulted in cooperation, mutual admiration, and a peace that endured throughout his lifetime - a record neither the British nor Spanish can begin to approach. Champlain's humanity was rooted in his catholicism - and I write that deliberately with a small "c" - he was Roman Catholic but much less interested in dogma or the organized Church than in his deep belief that all human beings were equal. He actually encouraged intermarriage between the native people and the French, and like his king, Henri IV (who actually may have been his father) dreamt of a New World free of the sort of religious and cultural strife that had plagued Europe for centuries. I can certainly see lingering effects of his legacy in the Quebec of today, and am anxious to follow out some of the threads that were started by my reading of this book.
At the same time, I'm into another Conrad: this time, "The Secret Agent," set in London. I can't say that I'm wild about Conrad, even though I'm reading most of his books. He is, however, one of the best descriptive writers I've ever read. The problem stems from the fact that none of his characters are people you come to love. Conrad's interest is in exposing the flaws that lurk in every human, and expose them he does, perhaps better than anyone. So it's not pretty, but he has a great deal to say, not only about individuals but about the times and places he's writing about, and this psychological and cultural drama, combined with his remarkable writing, have kept me going through this particular reading project.
Knowing about my interest in Orhan Pamuk and Istanbul, as part of my larger interest in the Near and Middle East, Elizabeth Angell recommended "A Mind at Peace" to me because its author, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, was one of Pamuk's greatest influences. The book is about a doomed love affair in Istanbul; that is, the love between the man and the woman is doomed, but the entire novel is a love poem to the city itself. It's a wonderful book that I am very glad to have read, not only for its insight into Pamuk but for its own story and the delicacy of Tanpinar's writing. "A Mind at Peace" weaves a sort of spell for the reader, while speaking of the spell cast on the protagonist by his love for a particular woman, and creates an atmosphere and a world that I became immersed in and was sorry to leave. No wonder Elizabeth said, as she took it off the bookstore shelf in Brooklyn and handed it to me, "If you want to see where Pamuk is coming from, this is the book to read." Pamuk's concept of the city's embodiment of melancholy, or hüzün, clearly comes directly from Tanpinar, but Orhan, while a great storyteller in his own right, has never written about love as convincingly as Tanpinar.
That book led me to two by Louis de Bernieres, "Birds Without Wings," set in a small Turkish village, and "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," winner of the Commonwealth Prize and a beautiful and harrowing story of the occupation of a Greek island by Italian soldiers at the end of WWII, and I'd happily recommend either.
Next up: another Turkish novel by an author I discovered through the recent BBC radio series about Istanbul: "The Bastard of Istanbul" by Elif Shafak. That will complete the little Turkish focus for this spring and summer; it's time, I think, to finally come back home and read (or re-read) some American novels. First will be "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner, and we'll see where that leads. The others on my immediate list are "Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis" by Jose Saramago, recommended by Wah-Ming Chang who has written an excellent essay on Saramago after his recent death; and "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" by Haruki Murakami and "Experiments in Ethics" by Kwame Anthony Appiah, both highly recommended by my friend Bill Gordh (he and another close friend are also reading the Faulkner right now.)
I'm excited -- and we'll see how much of that I actually get through by fall, or will there be an unexpected but serendipitous detour?
(Note: there's already been a detour! When I couldn't get the Saramago or Murakami listed above at the library, I got Murakami's "South of the Border, West of the Sun" instead and immediately read it in two obsessive sessions between 10:00 pm and 8 am. A remarkable, deceptively simple book.)
I'm not a big soccer fan but have gotten caught up, at least a little, in the fervor surrounding the World Cup. Today was so incredibly hot here that I was glad for an excuse to sit still on the studio couch, watching the match between Spain and Germany, and sketching while the fan kept me sort of comfortable and the tense match and drawing kept my mind off the sweat rolling down my body.
Now, though, I have to get up and go home, which will at least be on my bike - its own wind machine.
For more drawings, see also my Photostream on Flickr.