Alles Gut

Not all who wander are lost.

~J. R. R. Tolkien

I am an intellectual vagrant, used to finding something new every few hours to occupy the way my mind likes to flit and skip and discover, similar, in my mind, to the way a Northern Harrier hunts; pause in flight, hover, flap wings and move on, hover, dip a wing, left or right, climb, dive, hover.

The notion of vagrant, which means someone who doesn’t have a settled home, which isn’t technically correct in my case, leads one to think of moving, moving, maybe a bum of sorts, on the road, and as many of our friends know, we—Betty and I—like to go, go, go, and being stuck in our house with the Coronavirus blues, for the most part, has crimped our action and I find myself thinking of travel, thinking about it a lot, and some of those thoughts bend back in time to trips we made in the past.

One journey that returns to my thoughts again and again is the time Betty and I flew to Frankfurt am Main in Germany for a wedding.
Our friends Tanja Alexandra Hoch and Rainer Soelkner were getting hitched.

Bacharach, Germany

When we hit Frankfurt, heat sizzled the pavement and there was no place to hide—not the art museum, or Goethe’s house, or our hotel.

Nevertheless, we hiked about the city and saw the sights—all of the art museums, the mall, the riverbanks, the old city, the Roman ruins that only showed up after Allied planes bombed Frankfurt into the ground—and ate kraut and schnitzel, really good stuff unlike what they served us in the cafeteria at Casa Grande’s North School back in the 50s.

The day before the wedding we rented a car and bombed along on the Autobahn to the Rhine River community of Sankt Goar where the wedding was to take place.

The morning of the wedding, Betty and I took the train upriver to Bacharach and looked at the medieval architecture, and we rode the ferry back downriver past the fabled Lorelei, a massive rock on one side of the river that is supposedly inhabited by dwarves who live in caves and a beautiful young siren who sits on top of the rock and sings while combing her hair, causing boatmen to lose their way and crash.

We were two of four Americans on hand, the rest of the folks at the wedding being Germans, some with whom we became acquainted including Rainer’s father, who when we first walked and talked on the streets of the Sachsenhausen district of Frankfurt, announced that when a man visits another man’s country, he should speak the language. So he spoke to me in German, which I didn’t understand, and I spoke to him in English which I think he understood, although he never spoke one word of my language. I tried to speak some of his, stumbling over words that if not pronounced in just the right way, were apparently unintelligible.

I didn’t resent this predicament; it made sense to me, and as the days went by, we—Mr. Soelkner and I—seemed to get across what we intended.

After the wedding in a cathedral in Sankt Goar, the subsequent celebration took place in a castle on a high bluff overlooking the Rhine River in a hotel facility that had been built into what was once a mighty fortress.

At the hotel, we sat outside on a deck looming over the steep banks and looked down on the river, watching the commerce, barges hauling coal and cars and equipment and grain and vegetables. Across the Rhine the rows of vines that ran from top to bottom of the steep banks like minute landslide chutes kept coming under my inspection as I pondered the terrain, the terroir and the wines of the region: Riesling, Grauburgunder, Weissburgunder, Spatburgunder.

The nuptials night, we didn’t sleep much and were up until way after 1:00 am, and even after we retired, the late summer light never died. The slanted rays of June bounced off the dark slate tiles of the roof and kept me sleeping light, and about two hours later, the swallows came alive as the hint of early morning sneaked over the northeastern horizon. The scent of the linden trees floated through our open windows, acting as a sweet reveille.

Vineyards on the Rhine River

That next morning we all met out on the patio that looked down on the river. There were fresh berries of different kinds—raspberries and strawberries—and there was strong coffee that you cut with thick cream, and there were sausages and Bratkartoffen (cottage fries). The pastries on display made your mouth water.

The confabulations of the weary guests bubbled up, and as I stood against the railing of the patio, Herr Soelkner approached and began to speak to me in his lingo. I stood there wishing I were fluent, or hell, if not fluent, knew enough to get the gist of what he was saying to me because at that moment his words hit my face and bounced off like something plopping on the deck.

The maid of honor, a young woman named Anja, came over and began to translate. She spoke English better that I did.

High above the Rhine, he spoke softly and as she translated, the words marched at me like Napoleon’s troops back in the day when they destroyed much of the castle where our hotel now sat. The drum and thrum of his words matched the motors of the barges hauling commodities up and down the river.

He spoke of that moment, right then, and what it would mean to me in the future as I remembered it.

Across the river, the rows of wine grapes running north and south added to the mesmerizing chant of the words in German and then English.
He said, “These are the things that give meaning to our lives.” And he pointed at the bride and groom who’d joined us in these final moments of the memorable celebration of their marriage, and then he pointed to the other guests. He looked at me and smiled.

Swallows darted past our eyrie, their soft sighs like unknown memories caught in the wind.

He said, “And for the rest of your life, you will think of us, here, in Germany, and you will hold images of the people and how we all, you and us, met and mingled and became friends.”

And the damnedest thing happened and maybe it was because I was tired from travel—San Francisco to Frankfurt to Sankt Goar on the Rhine—lack of sleep, lots of big, emotional discoveries, the history, me recognizing that though we were all different, in more ways than not, we were all the same.

Rhine River

And suddenly a trickle of tears began to seep out of my eyes and if you knew how I hate to cry you’d understand my chagrin.

But I couldn’t fight it, so I just let it come and that seemed to alleviate some of the power of the moment, or that probably isn’t the right word—alleviate—but more like making it easier to admit that I was tired and yes, he spoke truth and yes, these people, this place, this moment had marked me in a way I’d never before experienced. And maybe never would again.

And he smiled at me and put his hands on my shoulders and squeezed and said, “Alles gut”—all is good.

Down below along the bank of the river, in the town, cars ran along the highway that paralleled the Rhine. They looked like troops of ants lined up in single file. A ferry boat tooted a whistle. As I turned to leave, I noticed a big, fat strawberry near where I stood on the deck.

And now, confined to the Covid prison, the berry sits in my mind, a metaphor for that memorable time and place.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

When I was a kid in southern Arizona, I went caving and spelunking with a guy who was a middle school teacher in the town where I lived, Casa Grande, Arizona. We walked into basalt cave mouths in the Silver Bells and Silver Reef Mountains, and into our own little Sawtooths. We sniffed around for the scent of gas as he told us about canaries in coal mines. He was from coal mining country. We pitched rocks down mine shafts that had claim markers that looked like they were still maintained by prospectors. The rocks clicked and clacked and often we heard the rattle of diamondbacks climb out of the shafts. I wondered if they were albino rattlers or if they climbed out at night just like the ones we killed with forked sticks and shovels. I wondered if they captured and swallowed kangaroo rats and other small things, wrens, and such. Sometimes there were windlasses and big containers that would lower you into vertical mine shafts, but I was always frightened to go down in. The possibility of snakes scared me, and the thought of the ropes breaking scared me too, and that I might end up dying down there while the teacher and his two sons ran back to town in an effort to find someone to save me.

I have always had a primal fear of going into the bowels of the earth and admire miners with the way they go miles down into the tunnels that wind and penetrate below the surface. Likewise, I admire the men who go into caves and search below the earth for life and remnants of life.

Last Wednesday night, Betty and I went to see the Werner Herzog documentary film titled, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The film is available in 3D but our art house theater didn’t have that option, so we watched the film in two dimensions. Earlier this year, I heard Herzog talk about the film and one of the things he said was that it was the only film he would ever make in 3D.

But even in 2D it was impressive. The cinematography was outstanding from beginning to end with some very odd frame composition that worked, I think, to help set on end our modern arrogance about how smart we are. The cave, Chauvet, which is in southeastern France, is mostly off limits to anyone but scientists studying the geology; or the Paleolithic era information about cave bears and wolves and cave lions and horses and bison; or the astounding artwork, some as old as thirty-five thousand years. Human activity inside the cave presently is limited so the film crew was restrained as to the types of lighting and camera equipment they could employ. What they created is truly a fine work, particularly given the limited gear they could take into the cave.

All great films have obstacles that must be overcome by the characters on the way to reaching goals and in this documentary, the physical restraints and the restraints imposed by the French government become the obstacles that must be defeated. Herzog, who narrated the film, gives us this information right up front so the requisite tension to keep us interested is created.

What is on the walls of Chauvet are astounding paintings at least twice as old as anything previously discovered on this planet, and the likenesses were amazingly correct, not primitive like some of the old Hohokam rock scratchings that we used to find in the caves of southern Arizona, but sophisticated artwork displaying not only the fauna of the time, but fauna behavior that included breeding and hunting. The cave paintings included great, stunning murals of horses and bison being hunted by lions and bears; and wooly rhinos fighting each other. I think I was doubly stunned because of what the images told me about the intelligence of the people who created this ancient art. When T. S. Eliot came out from viewing the sixteen-thousand-year-old cave paintings at Lascaux, he is reported to have said something along the lines of, “We haven’t changed a bit,” and I could see that, I could see what he meant, as if Picasso or Klee or Matisse or de Kooning had been down there, painting away, or at least their spirits encaved in the bodies of Cro Magnon man.

I also liked the music in the film. It was often melodic and spiritual like the milieu it described, especially at the end, where the narration takes a holiday and lets the camera work. The fine lines of the cave drawings along with the choral voices allow us to step back into our racial memories, our racial minds, and contemplate the long run of humanity on this planet. They allow us to ponder what is possible, what might come to pass.

At one point in the film, Herzog takes us out of the cave and on a cinematic sojourn to the University of Tübingen in Germany where a large exhibit of small sculptures of Venus and animals of the Paleolithic era is housed. We get a clinical analysis of these artifacts‘ relationship to the paintings at Chauvet (evidently they are all from the same time period, give or take five thousand years) and how Cro Magnon could carry on so advanced a concept as paintings and art while his neighbor Neanderthals were not capable of creating anything of the sort. All of this was interesting, but to me, felt as if the magic created by the paintings, their rendition in Herzog’s film, and attention to the power of art were all defeated by the measuring stick-and-caliper outlook of the sciences of studying ancient peoples.

I was glad when that train of thought ended and we returned to the magnificence of the paintings, what they said about my ancestors’ intelligence, their powers of observation and creativity. Some of the paintings are five thousand years older than others, so the time frame in which the cave was used as a ceremonial site, but apparently not lived in, is as long as the history of the written word in our Homo sapiens sapiens sub-species.

Given my innate fear of caves, I sat and wondered if I would go down to look at these images and I have to say yes, I would. In the film, Herzog points out that he and his crew often felt as if they were being watched by the ancients, and he remarked that the anthropologists, the geologists, the paleontologist also had the same sensation, so maybe my old fears are not without grounding in the human psyche.

I would definitely recommend that you go see this film. It is a visual masterpiece, and to boot, stimulates the imagination. The Cave of Forgotten Dreams will force you to ponder various issues, how far apart we are from the artists who created the Chauvet paintings, and how alike we are. They were smart, as smart as the men who built the windlasses that lowered miners down into the vertical mine shafts that we investigated in my youth. As smart as we are now. Not yet with the tools that make us what we are in this time, but smart enough to understand the world they inhabited and to record and interpret what they saw.