What do gardens, libraries and exploring have in common?

Tree like a cathedral, with flying buttress sort of trunks. Huge canopy of leaves and the trunks more than twice the height of a person.
Fantastic tree in the botanical garden. Orto Botanico, Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Planting a tree in Palermo a few hundred years ago means a gigantic tree is still living today. A botanical garden is a living library and so is a zoo, an art museum, or a national park.

These storehouses of genetic variability are important because today’s shortcoming may be the key to success in another era. A library works the same way: the ideas and stories in books are passed on to the next generation and they make new stories of their own.

A book is a kind of seed that grows into someone’s life and becomes what they make and do in their lives. Each library leads to the next and reading in one library might mean writing a book for another. In the same way, planting one garden makes seeds for the next.

Malcolm Gladwell’s THE TIPPING POINT applies epidemiology to the transmission of ideas. A epidemiologic causal chain describes the path of an outbreak: a reservoir to a portal of exit to a mode of transmission to a portal of entry to a susceptible host.

You break the chain in as many places as possible to prevent disease. Or connect as many links as possible to spread ideas.

Libraries, gardens, art museums, and forests are all idea reservoirs. When we explore the world around us in these places, we are susceptible hosts.

What matters to me is the way both libraries and gardens illustrate God’s generosity and the abundance in our lives. Scarcity has no place in a garden or in a library. Tragedies may destroy them–drought, fire, water damage, flooding, war–but gardens and libraries are a kind of sharing that can always be started again. Once they begin, they multiply.

In an unfamiliar place, I orient myself by sticking to the main path. I gradually extend my boundaries so I see new things, but still know where I am.

I make forays. My husband tends to surround a new place by going all around the edge.

I explore books in a causal chain, finding the ones connected to the ones I’ve already enjoyed. I’m not sure it matters how we explore. Only that we do.

Why do reservoirs matter so much? We need them to grow. To become someone better than the old you? Maybe. I’ve always valued the ability to surprise people with unexpected skills because they didn’t see how long it took you to learn them. Rising out of obscurity can be so entertaining.

But for me, Patrick O’Brian’s famous line from his Aubrey–Maturin series: “There’s not a moment to be lost” expresses the value of our lives. Our explorations of the huge, amazing, varied world bring us more than self-improvement. Our discoveries, the seeds we plant, the books we read and write, as well as the people we love, make a difference for the future.

What will you explore today?

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Create something new: What would you do with 500 olive trees?

Olive trees under a blue sky with a mountain in the distance and green grass underneath.
500 olive trees. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

I recently came across another inspiring example of using your inheritance to create something new.

Alessandro inherited 500 olive trees with his grandfather’s Sicilian property. Most people look at 500 olive trees and think olive oil, but Alessandro had a different idea: soap.

His engineering Ph.D. comes in handy for designing the tools he needs to create Saponi & Saponi’s soaps from local ingredients: bay laurel, prickly pear, oranges, honey, and, of course, olive oil.

Creativity isn’t limited to soap from olive trees. All around the house, his environmental worldview is in practice. A solar panel is installed just inside the gate. He has his own water purification and passive hot water systems and his house is heated with olive, persimmon, and pine grown on the property.

I’m fond of the sustainable mowing team: a horse and a donkey who are clearly good friends.

Horse and donket grazing among the olive trees. Sicily.
Sustainable mowing team. Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We got a glimpse into the culture of soap-making in the soap museum. The guided tour includes Alessandro’s steadily growing collection of soaps from around the world and an exhibit about the soap-making process (in English and Italian.)

I loved his story about the way soap is made in Aleppo–may peace come there soon!

Most scents fade away in traditionally hand-made soaps because of the long curing process. Aleppo soap is the exception. It’s a dark green color because up to 50% of the soap is bay leaf extract. It’s also a cube shape, rather than a bar, because the liquid soap is poured out in a thick layer on stone or tile floors, rather than in shallow frames and then cut.

Maybe the story feels even stronger if you hear it while standing in a stone building where olives were once pressed. The soap museum’s cool stone walls must be very welcome when the hot Sicilian sun arrives. Plain square tiles cover the floor, unpainted versions of the vibrant tiles common in this region. Local products, used creatively, yet again, this time by taking the decoration away.

Handpainted tiles with bright yellows, blues, reds and greens.
Ceramic tiles from Vincenzo Arena in Sciacca, Sicily.

Ceramic Artist: Vincenzo Arena

That brings me to questions I’ve asked before:

What in your life could be transformed into something new?

Or something beautiful?

How could you give new life to something you’ve had a very long time?

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Hope for Spring: Prince Charles’ Duchy Home Farm

Snow pea seedlings in a pot.
Tiny snow pea seedlings on the balcony. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We just watched DER BAUER UND SEIN PRINZ (The Farmer and his Prince) about Prince Charles’ organically run farm. I ordered the DVD from the local bookstore here in Germany. Oddly, it’s unavailable anywhere in the Commonwealth.

The film made me think about growing things and raising chickens. For years after failing with chickens the first time, I didn’t try again because it felt too frivolous and too much of a luxury to keep hens of your own when you knew you could buy eggs, even organic ones, at a fraction of the price.

The film reminded me of what matters to me. The farmer kept going into the middle of various fields and pulling out a plant or a handful of dirt and explaining why it was better or stronger or different than the plant/dirt in the control field. The smell of the good garden soil in spring is so hopeful.

The film gave me a new view of cows. Their cows loll around in a huge barn with deep hay bedding, looking for all the world like bovine matrons in the Roman bath. Comfortable is not a word I connect with cows in a barn. Resigned or placid, but not comfortable.

Prince Charles demonstrated how to make a hedgerow. He leaned thorn trees at a 30 degree angle and then wove all kinds of other things into it. There were lovely photos of established hedgerows covered with blossoms with flocks of birds sailing in and out of them. My resident zoologist has been saying this for years: Hedgerows are good habitat.

Prince Charles’ farm manager said that the average age of farmers in the UK is 59 and young farmers are needed. My youngest is interested in farming so we all perked up our ears. He also said that many young people don’t seem to have had the kind of practical childhood that would help them with farm skills. We’re all brought up to sit in front of computer screens these days.

It’s hard to move toward the future, even when you are convinced it’s worthwhile to do so. We resisted getting a car for three years because we know that petroleum reserves are already so low. But now we have one even though I wanted to go everywhere by train.

I’m wondering how I can contribute to conserving the soil and growing more organic vegetables on my balcony. It’s easy to say: “There’s nothing I can do about it.” But there are always seeds to plant.

In January, I looked up a planting calendar for my area and planted snow peas in a big pot outside. Now they’re coming up. We can’t eat them yet, but they make me welcome the rain.

It’s like writing a book (or reading one). You don’t get guarantees about how it will come out. But we know, inside ourselves, that the attempt is worthy. Even if we fail, this is what life is about.

 

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Wait–My free calendar from the health food store has predictive powers?

Wild boar with nose dusted with snow from January page of my 2016 calendar.
January’s Wild Boar from my ReformhausMarketing GmbH 2016 calendar. Image: Horst Jegen/ImageBROKER/mauritius images

My youngest took a horse for a walk in the forest this week. I went along.

The horse, Rökkvi, is a shaggy, black, Icelandic pony with a mellow disposition. We were walking along one of the forest’s old hunting roads when Rökkvi pricked his ears and turned his head to the left.

When we finally looked, we saw a wild boar hurtling through the forest parallel to us. The boar shot past us, made a 90 degree turn, crossed our road, and disappeared into the forest on our right.

Rökkvi’s expression: “I told you there was something.”

I haven’t turned the calendar page yet to see what’s coming up in February.

 

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Exploring the Imagination: Fictional Characters From Art Museums

Brochure for Zurbaran exhibit showing painting of woman in red, brocade, dress, long black hair, ivory face and a scratch that symbolizes a halo.
Art museums are treasure troves for fleshing out characters. This beautiful painting inspired a queen antagonist character in my latest work-in-progress.

See the trailer for the exhibit here:

The stunning poster drew me in for the latest exhibit in Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast. It’s called “Zurbarán: Meister der Details” [Master of Details] and features 16th-century full-size portraits by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

My first reaction to the poster was: “There she is!” She is the queen antagonist for my new middle grade work-in-progress.

The extreme contrast of ivory skin and long, black hair, the 397 pearls on the hem of her gown, and the intensity of her eyes, almost scornful–certainly assessing–give the sense that you’ve caught her attention and it may not be to your advantage.

She’s caught up her brocade gown with one, white, elegant, hand and is ready to move. She’s only paused to run her eye over you.

Only after I went into the exhibit did I realize that the tiny flaw in the canvas above her head is actually a halo. The painting’s subject is St. Casilda, not an evil queen at all.

If I borrow his St. Casilda and embroider a character for my latest middle grade adventure, I’m only following his example. The rich gown is an invention of the painter, the son of a cloth merchant, who invented the elegant fashions of his subjects based on his father’s cloth samples.

There are advantages to drawing characters from a master. The artist works in a visual medium and the character traits that are words to me, are the artist’s details of dress, expression, and gesture. The artist paints a mood with colors and light and, through his painting, I can borrow his eyes to sketch a vivid character.

If you’d like to try it yourself, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Cast an eye over the museum guards and visitors. Anyone who thinks there’s no romance to a museum guard hasn’t read FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (or seen Audrey Hepburn in HOW TO STEAL A MILLION). What visitors say and do in museums tells another set of stories. Sometimes I catch a moment of conscious or unconscious mimicry or hear a wonderful snippet of dialogue that helps my story along.

2. If your museum doesn’t have portraits, try a more literal use of a painting. In C.S. Lewis’s THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, a painting of a Narnian ship turns into a portal to the imaginary world of Narnia.

3. Prep a character or two before your museum visit. The Reverse Backstory Tool is an efficient tool for working out the connection between your character’s want, need, flaw, and wound. The “Reverse Backstory Tool” appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Acker and Becca Puglisi. The tool is handy to prep before your museum visit or to develop characters who’ve caught your eye in the museum.

Art museums are a treasure trove for characters. The artists have done all the work of people-watching and the paintings already express personalities and stories. It’s all ready-to-pick, so go ahead and fill the well.

Do you find art museums inspiring? What do you enjoy about them?

 

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What’s it like to visit historical sites for a story world you’ve only imagined?

Men in red and gold and blue medieval woolen tunics accompanied by shield and spear bearing knights
The Middle Ages come to life in Arezzo, Italy. ©Jan Decher, 2002.

After I moved to Germany, I planned a trip of a lifetime to visit the physical places in my children’s adventure story set in the early Middle Ages. I wrote the story with spreadsheets, maps, Google, and libraries. It was a work of imagination based on research.

The itinerary included the most important and accessible places in the story:

  • Bologna (nearest airport and unexpectedly beautiful)
  • Casa Cares near Tuscany (a family visit to this retreat center brought me to Arezzo and the story)
  • Camaldolì monastery (an 11th century monastery and hermitage)
  • Arezzo (Birthplace of Guido d’Arezzo and my main character’s home. Site of an annual medieval festival that clothes the whole city in the Middle Ages.)
  • Pratovecchio (a beautiful medieval town with arcades)
  • Poppi (site of an ancient castle, and on the route my characters traveled over the mountains)
  • Classe (known for its byzantine mosaics and churches. Site of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire with the mosaic mural of a shepherd with sheep that Bella admires on her way to Venice.)
  • Ravenna (the modern city near Classe and the sea. Organic market under the arcades with medlars, sausages, ricotta cheese and Napoleon squash.)
  • Pomposa Abbey (a powerful medieval Abbey, today much further from the sea)
  • Venice (colors, light, flavors, a museum of boats and the beginning of the sea journey)

I hoped to collect images, recordings, and maybe video to use on a new website. My husband and child #2 are photographers and agreed to be pressed into service.

My goals for the trip were to experience my story world with all five senses and to resist the temptation to go overboard and drive my family crazy.
What actually happened surprised me. Here are some quotes from my trip journal:

Imagination: How does it work? What is it good for?

“I’m constantly adjusting to two sets of ‘memories’: the set from a visit here in 2002 with my parents and the set from Bella’s [my main character’s] imaginary journey.”

“My husband said, ‘Your imagination is important’ meaning, it needed to be recorded and cared for in the midst of confusing landscapes and facts.”

Validation: I got some things right.

“I felt hopeful for the first time in a while when I saw Guido d’Arezzo’s house is close to the church and the park with the Medici fortress. It is downhill to the piazza grande from there.”

“The friendly man in the tourist office agreed that the Cathedral School might have been up where the Medici ruins are now.”

It was so much fun to talk to someone who knew and cared about the real Guido d’Arezzo. I had no idea how much it would help me with the story to get that boost.

Fortune from a Baci chocolate: ‘Metti il cuore in tutto ciò che fai.’ Or ‘Put your heart in everything you do.’

Disappointment: Some things have changed since the 11th century. In many cases, the particular medieval landscape I wanted to photograph didn’t exist any more. The places that felt most like my story were sometimes in the next village over.

“We didn’t get to Camaldolì because we would have been too late getting home.”

Note: we drove a car and my characters walked, went by donkey or in a litter. So much for the spreadsheet distance and travel time calculation!

“The winding roads slow the pace of modernity. Not that much faster than Bella.”

Generosity: the balance between getting it perfect and letting it go

“My husband is very generous to take me places when he would like to sit in the sun and talk to people.”

The experience: What it feels like to travel in unknown places:

“Luke Skywalker could drive a rental car through tunnels surrounded by trucks traveling at top speed. The Death Star is nothing to this.”

“My daughter’s order of ‘latte freddo bianco’ [cold white milk] came with a teacup and saucer and a spoon.”

“A list of things that could bother Bella: mosquitoes (+ malaria), fog and poor visibility, the smells of pig farms and old fish, injuries, cut fingers, blisters, wasp stings, the feeling of being cheated, the need to re-group, trying to recall what she’d seen, angry drivers. . .what is the medieval equivalent of a road with a slow bicycle, a Vespa between lanes, a heavy truck in front and another passing from behind?”

I never expected to walk around in my imaginary world with my family. It was hard to talk about things I hadn’t put into words before and to make a claim that my imaginary people existed in a real landscape. It was magical for me and I think it helped my family understand better too.

This trip reminded me that a story is a kind of hospitality. We invite people in and try to make them comfortable before they embark on adventure.

What makes you comfortable when you set out on adventure? What sparks your imagination?

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A Novel Way for Young Readers to Relate to Faith?

Interior view of castle with people standing in the open gate and sunlight behind them.
What difference does faith make? Marburg’s Landgrave Castle (Landgrafenschloss). Influential religious leaders Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon and Oeclampadius met here in 1529 to discuss their differences.

Last week, my husband and I visited Marburg, the town where we first met. In 2017, Marburg will join many cities in Germany in a celebration of Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Belief, politics, power all mixed together to shape Europe’s history.

Events are planned all over Germany. The Playmobil company even released a tiny Martin Luther figure. (I’d like to see one for Katharina von Bora, the intrepid nun who later married Martin Luther.) Whatever your views on the Reformation or Martin Luther, it’s interesting that a toy company thought there was a market for Martin Luther Playmobil figures. Toy Noah’s Arks abound in the United States, but I’ve never seen a Mattel Pope action figure or a MatchBox Popemobile.

Living in Germany makes me wonder: if religious faith has such a strong influence in the world, isn’t it a priority to learn more? How will we (and the next generations) be able to talk about such sensitive topics without having the language, frameworks, or empathy to understand one another?

For readers and writers, a novel is an ideal way to develop empathy and practice that mantra of peace-making amidst diversity: “What might [fill in the blank] be true of?”

Natalie Lloyd’s middle grade book,  A SNICKER OF MAGIC, touches naturally and lightly on faith, as does Gary D. Schmidt’s THE WEDNESDAY WARS.

What other recent novels would you recommend for readers who want the inside experience of a particular faith?

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