The Mist of History

Living in Rockbridge County, I’ve learned to accept the idea that there are three distinct kinds of “history.” First, there’s the history of historians, the gentle “arguments” of history professors in the three colleges rooted hereabouts and in the lectures you’ll hear Column footin Lee Chapel or Virginia Military Institute’s Jackson Memorial Hall reappraising the Civil War. Then there’s public history, the stories and monuments that give educated folks a sense of pride, or guilt, in the grand narratives. We have plenty of that history here too.

And then there’s what really happened. This is a realm of ghosts and coffins beyond our knowing. I look for that underneath the double-bullseye sidewalk bricks and granite pavers naming the “Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge.” In a ditch dug by a work crew along East Washington Street, below the layers of red clay and limestone gravel, I see Progressive Era sewer pipes. But I wouldn’t expect to see deeper layers of real history. The early settlers of Lexington removed about six feet of street and earth to get down to this level. The original doors on the older houses are that far above the sidewalk.

Go to the cemeteries here for the buried kind of history, or see the sunless things buried in libraries, local historical societies, the two courthouses and a dozen or so proud little museums around Rockbridge County. You wouldn’t believe how many splendid little museums there are. In one Saturday afternoon, you can drive north to the once-bustling town of Brownsburg for its modest two-room museum, further north to the McCormick Farm exhibit on the county line, back to Lexington for the Miller’s House Museum at Jordan’s Point (where the Maury River, Wood’s Creek and the old canal come together) and up the bluff to VMI for the two polished museums of George C. Marshall and the Institute.

At Natural Bridge, now a well-managed state park 12 miles south of Lexington, you walk under “the most sublime of Nature’s work,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia about his purchase from King George III.

Canal boat

Canal flatboat as would have carried goods on the old North River canal in the 19th century.

 Pass underneath the chilling power of the limestone arch, and down the path you come to the Monacan Indian Living History Exhibit. This native American tribe is said to have lived here for hundreds of years. The woodland Monacan tribe itself may be 10,000 years old, but only recently has it achieved federal recognition. History, as Gertrude Stein said, takes Time.

There’s something that is both rock and bridge about this area. It was a bridge to elsewhere, a passthrough place on the Great Wagon Road. That was the Appalachian dirt road to the southwest for the Scots-Irish migration, and the way Sam Houston went (his 1793 birthplace honored in two markers at Timber Ridge Wayside). Today, it’s a crossroads, the midway point between Atlanta and New York, the place where in the 1940s Hodding Carter Jr., the great Greenville, Mississippi, newspaper editor, would stop with his family on the way to their summer vacations in Maine to lecture the children on the Civil War (recalled Hodding III in a talk here at Washington and Lee University). But it’s also a rock, a sanctuary, a separate peace in the Valley where the Blue Ridge and Alleghanies squeeze a little closer together.

“It is a region with a different soil, a different climate, different scenery, and a population more distinctly sui generis than any,” wrote John Sergeant Wise, who spent Lex Carriagethe Civil War as a VMI cadet and whose father Governor Henry Wise (a Washington College graduate) helped bring on Virginia’s secession with his day-long interview with the mortally wounded abolitionist John Brown.

In Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, with its buried veterans of the American Revolution and Confederacy, the statue of Stonewall looms with mystic power (at twilight, the Haunting Tales-Lexington’s Ghost Tour makes you believe the head turns sadly toward the grave of his first wife, Eleanor Junkin, the grave plot where Jackson as VMI Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Artillery Tactics came to pray daily).

So many graves in this cemetery (photographed by local super-star photographer Sally Mann) hide their own histories. General E.F. Paxton had died in the Battle of Chancellorsville with Jackson in 1863, at age 35. The simple headstone has only a single incised quotation: “It is well with thee.”

His father Elisha had hauled timber and crops down the North River (now the Maury) and built the Paxton House (now restored in Buena Vista’s Glen Maury Park, where old-timey festivals and rallies continue alongside the river).

“What we need is history,” said George C. Marshall. A quote from his 1953 Nobel Peace Prize address in the Marshall museum says the path to peace is to study with “almost scientific accuracy the circumstances which have marked the breakdown of peace.” That takes time, which is something we have here.

[This is the slightly edited version that ran in a magazine published recently by the Visitors Centers of Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County, 2020 Inspiration Guide.]

Marshall poster

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Shade for sale?

We worked in the lower pasture getting fence posts and yellow jacket stings (two, that is, for me), then met William in Dobson at the Mexican restaurant called Tlaquepaque. It’s bleakly set between the highway and that giant chicken processing plant, Wayne, where a few hundred cars of the Puerto Rican workers broil in the sun to molten temperatures. The cracked asphalt lot and gravel that serve as a giant stove top to the Tlaquepaque building are nearly at that level of heat, so Alyssa parks the Yaris in a lonely strip of tree shade 50 feet in back. Wm Avis & AlyssaWalking across that waste, holding Avis’s either hand, they make such an iconic picture of the Human Race starting anew, I take a shot of them on my iPhone. That shade for the car is so valuable, yet nobody is making money off of it. I wish I could figure out how to do that, like the person who first figured out that millions of people would pay $1 or more for plain old drinking water in plastic bottles. I’d be a gazillionaire, and save the world.

Shopping at Food Lion in Dobson the day before, I parked next door in a back slot at McDonald’s that was covered in tree shade, mildly illicit for a Food Lion shopper – but free.

There are but two new missions left on this God-given planet in my lifetime, and the lifetimes of my children and my students. One is to make adjustments for the rising temperatures, rising seas, and preposterous storms – adjustments for ourselves individually, and for whole groaning populations. (Here on these old weathered steps to a ramshackle house off the Blue Ridge Parkway, coffee in hand, I’m making my adjustments 2000 feet above the Carolina foothills, which are themselves 1000 feet above the the Outer Banks in the path of Dorian. Ominous clouds drift overhead from that directions.)

Mission Two is to begin shifting our energy sources from hydrocarbons to solar and wind, and to engineer our cities, economies and appliances for greater and greater efficiency. (Fortunately, the engineering part is well underway. The latter part needs a huge goose, something like a Pearl Harbor that gets something like a carbon tax passed in a jiffy.) Mission Two won’t get us to a leveling off of CO2 and climate change for 40 years, but still, it’s our mission.

If I could figure out how to corner a market on shade – to franchise it as Dixie Shade, or “Beyond a Shadow” – I’d address both missions at once, and make a killing.



Posted in Family life | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

South Sudanese gathering in Lexington: One step

This past weekend, a different civil war drew nearly 100 mediation experts, Episcopal bishops and war victims from as far away as South Sudan and Omaha to the little city where Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried.

The three-day gathering, “Uniting the Diaspora to Act for Peace,” was declared a success at the churches that hosted it, primarily Grace Episcopal and Lexington Presbyterian. The weekend was a rare mix of light cultural exchange between Lexington and South Sudan – with ethnic foods, African singing and colorful crafts – and heavy discussions regarding mass violence and elusive justice for that east African nation.

Helen Abyei, Noel Kulang, bp Augustine

Small-group discussion at Lexington Presbyterian, l-r, Helen Abyei, Noel Kulang, and Bishop Patrick Augustine

The American Civil War that draws history buffs here is dwarfed in scope by the last 60 years in the Sudan, then the largest nation in Africa.  After two lengthy post-colonial civil wars, South Sudan split off in 2011. But two years later, it fell into its own civil war. A fragile peace agreement last year is holding, but more than two million people remain displaced by the conflict, according to Jacqueline Wilson, a mediation consultant who helped organize the Lexington conference.

And that’s not including the thousands in the North American dispersion, or diaspora, such as a diminishing community of about 80 in Roanoke.

“The diaspora has continued to come together in various forms,” said Wilson, who has visited the Sudans dozens of times since 2005 for the U.S. Institute of Peace and for her Georgetown University dissertation on “blood money” retribution. “I think what made this one unique was the radical hospitality, as it’s been called here in Lexington. I’ve not seen that before.”

Fr Joe and Bp Justin

Father Joe D’Aurora of our local Catholic church, St. Patrick, greets the Most Rev. Justin Badi Arama, archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan

Members of various local churches picked up the visitors at airports, offered their homes and kitchens, helped with funding and organizing, and even joined in some of the conference sessions and the Sunday morning service at Grace Episcopal Church.  That local engagement was something Wilson said she had not seen in previous gatherings she attended Boston and Minneapolis.

The conversations at the conference revealed a variety of projects and experiences with deep roots in South Sudan and with techniques of mediation. These include:

  • Bishop Martin S. Field, of the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri, asked for help in compiling a directory of all the scattered communities of South Sudanese in North America. The largest may be in Omaha, which has about 10,000, according to Lyndon Graves, a board member of Aqua Africa who came from Omaha.
  • Projects to bring clean water to South Sudan through purification plants and well-drilling were represented by officials from two different agencies, Aqua Africa and Water for South Sudan.
  • Meriel Wright, a volunteer from Norfolk, accepted donations for a small regional agency called Outreach Africa: Lost Boys Foundation, which helps pay for schooling for the displaced orphans known as the Lost Boys of the Sudan.
  • Dane F. Smith Jr., a U.S. senior advisor for Darfur who helped mediate the conflict there in 2011, spoke about the need to recognize faith-based peacemaking and nonviolent direct action as “the best hope for lasting peace in the country.”
  • “Tribalism No More,” a short didactic play by Helen Achol Abyei, was rehearsed and performed at Lexington Presbyterian Church on Saturday.
  • The Rev. Sue Bentley, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Roanoke, described how her church has served as a “multi-tribal, multi-denominational” nested church and community center for the Sudanese community in Roanoke.
  • The Rev. Joseph Bilal, who came to Lexington from Juba, South Sudan, described the launching of The Episcopal University, where he is Deputy Vice Chancellor and project director.

At the start of the Sunday service, which packed some 200 worshipers into Grace Episcopal, acting rector Rev. James Hubbard welcomed those who came from South Sudan or Roanoke, “from North and South, East and West.” The Archbishop of South Sudan, the Most Rev. Justin Badi Arama, who had come from South Sudan with his wife, Joyce Solomon Eremadowa Modi, was the celebrant for the eucharist.

Other priests in the service were the Most Rev. Heath Light, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia; the Most Rev. Patrick Augustine, the Episcopal bishop of Bor, South Sudan, and the Rev. Richard J. Jones, emeritus professor from Virginia Theological Seminary, who gave the sermon.

“We welcome all men and women,” Hubbard said, “all gay and straight, all black and white, Asians and Native Americans.” Christians, Muslims, Jews and “those who do not claim a faith tradition.”

Mayor greeting Friday

Mayor Frank Friedman greets the gathering on Friday night with a prepared statement.

Why did the South Sudanese Diaspora Network for Reconciliation and Peace (SSDNRP) come to Lexington, after its precursors had met in cities such as Des Moines and Denver?

The answer is Marc Nikkel, a much-respected teacher and missionary in southern Sudan from 1981 until his death on Sept. 3, 2000. Nikkel was ordained a deacon by Bishop Light, then became a priest in southern Sudan.

Last year, Grace Episcopal Church was planning a celebration of The Feast of Marc Nikkel for this Sept. 1. But it could not get a commitment for a visiting preacher involved in the South Sudanese diaspora movement. Hubbard finally asked, What’s the problem? The SSDNRP might be having its first conference that weekend, but was unable to find a willing venue.

Why don’t you come to Grace Church, he offered. And so it happened.

In 1987, armed fighters in the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army abducted Marc Nikkel from where he was teaching college in Mundri, the Sudan. It was July 7, in the middle of the night in that hot, war-ravaged country.

The guerilla soldiers held Nikkel in their camps for six months, but didn’t harm him. They had too much respect for him, or at least knew the great respect so many others had for him. They only wanted to know, as he heard them demand through clenched teeth that first night, “Why didn’t you leave when you were ordered?”

“He was a man of God,” said Bilal during dinner at Grace Church on Friday.  Nikkel had been Bilal’s mentor and seminary instructor in the 1980s. When Nikkel left Africa in 2000 in the final stages of cancer, he told Bilal not to cry at their parting. He seemed happy, Bilal said. “He said we will be able to meet again.”

Lengthy religious letters from Nikkel in the Sudan and various places of exile from 1981-2000 were published in a book called “Why Haven’t You Left?” Sue Bentley, the Episcopal priest at St. James in Roanoke, remembers reading some of those letters addressed to the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia. She and Nikkel had gone through ordination from that diocese together, under Bishop Light.

At the service Sunday, Bishop Light spoke of the interdependence of members of “the Body of Christ” that brought the Diocese of Southwest Virginia together with the Episcopal Church in southern Sudan. He said the process was called Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence, an alternative to the us-helping-them paradigm.

“Each church has something to offer and something to receive,” Light told the congregation. “I offered an invitation to the Church of Sudan, but I’m also aware of what we’ve received, and it’s significant. We received prayers, we received Marc Nikkel, who lived in this diocese, went to seminary here. . .That is a gift that the Sudan has sent to us. And now we are privileged to have another gift in Archbishop Justin.

“He brings the witness of a people who have suffering and who continue to be a community in separation here in this country,” Light said. “We have been enriched by their presence and in the relationship.” His words provoked something unusual for an Episcopal church service: applause.

Jacqueline Wilson

Jacki Wilson, mediation consultant

Most conferences include a lot of unplanned conversations and networking, but that seemed to be the serious heart of this one, by intention. Jacqueline Wilson, the mediation consultant, said she had left the U.S. Institute for Peace to explore a different “paradigm” from the standard “cease-fire” peace accords that are only between the armed actors.

Those sorts of peace accords are rarely sustainable or “transformative,” she said. She has come to believe the problem is that negotiations between armed actors need to include civil society, such as people of faith and religious leaders. “Leverage can be gained through the inclusion of other parties, other stakeholders, to put pressure on the armed actors and to hold them accountable,” Wilson said in an interview.

A transformative peace process needs “process design and mediation skills,” she said. The Lexington conference was intended to be part of such a process, with “adult-learning principles” of engaging everyone rather than dishing out lectures and expert panels, Wilson said. The conference program included a 10-point “Discernment Listening Guidelines,” such as this: “Do not challenge what others say. Let go of the need to be right.”

Sharon Massie, program director for Grace Episcopal, spoke for about 10 minutes to the conference about such a “transformative” process that had taken place over a difficult two years at her church, around its being named “R.E. Lee Memorial Church.”

The name, to honor Lee for his leadership role in the church from 1865 until his death in 1870, was changed from Grace to R.E. Lee in 1903. In 2015, the mass shooting of black church members by a neo-Confederate in Charleston, S.C., prompted a difficult discussion around whether the “Lee” name should be changed.

Massie described how the church hired professional consultants who guided a team of six parishioners on a process designed to be not “conflict resolution” but “conflict transformation.” The consultants cost the church $16,000. The team, after nine months of intensive work and “listening” to the congregation, reported back a host of recommendations. One was to restore the original name, Grace.

The vestry, in a second split vote, rejected that recommendation. Then the deadly Charlottesville protest by white nationalists took place in August 2017, and the name-change re-emerged. It passed by another split vote. Massie described how the process had led to a deep transformation that was visible everywhere in the success of this conference.

Several people came up to her afterwards to say that her talk was “powerful,” she said.

On Sunday afternoon, conference attendees made commitments to take specific actions back home around three areas, written on a tear sheet on an easel as “Reconciliation,” “Hate Speech” and “Tribalism.”

“We did brainstorm how to deal with reconciliation and healing, mitigating hate speech, and mitigating tribalism,” Wilson said. “Maybe acknowledgement (of wrong done in the past) may be enough. We couldn’t get that specific because each situation is unique.”

The results of the conference seemed to be summed up in a song that Grace Episcopal’s music director Martha Burford taught the congregation at the Sunday service, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with . . . one step.”


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Free movie, pointing to local South Sudanese gathering for reconciliation

LEXINGTON, Va. – A one-time screening of the movie “The Good Lie” at Washington and Lee University is open to the public on Friday evening, Aug. 16, to raise awareness of a historic meeting of more than 100 South Sudanese leaders two weeks later in Lexington.

Movie_PosterThe movie, starring Reese Witherspoon (“Legally Blonde”) and several South Sudanese actors, tells the story of one group of the “Lost Boys” who were settled into Kansas City, Mo., by an initially clueless helper played by Witherspoon.

The movie will begin at 6:30 p.m. at Stackhouse Theater, Elrod Commons. Afterward, the Rev. Richard J. Jones, emeritus professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, will describe the upcoming Labor Day weekend conference of the South Sudanese Diaspora Network for Reconciliation and Peace (SSDNRP) and will moderate a discussion.

Jones, the founding president of the Episcopal Church’s network of support for the Church in the two Sudans, is secretary of the newly formed South Sudanese diaspora group. The seven organizers of “Uniting the Diaspora for Peace” are religious and tribal leaders among the tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees throughout North America. They are being hosted by Lexington Presbyterian and Grace Episcopal churches for this first conference of SSDNRP Aug. 30-Sept. 1.

“We look forward this Labor Day weekend to making music, putting on a play by a Sudanese author, celebrating evidences of solidarity among North American Diaspora communities, and enjoying food prepared by the Sudanese community of Roanoke,” Jones said.

“We believe we have invited leaders who will also help us develop our capacity to deal with truth,” he added. Among the conferees are Jacqueline Wilson, an associate of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and retired U.S. ambassador Dane F. Smith, Jr.

Thirty-five years of civil war in the Sudan, formerly the largest nation in Africa, killed or displaced more than a million children and adults. After a U.S.-brokered ceasefire and a popular vote that split off the newest nation on earth, South Sudan, tribal fighting dashed initial hopes for peace there.

Differences among some 64 tribes and languages, primarily Dinka and Nuer, fed the continued violence in South Sudan. But among the North American diaspora, common bonds of faith and close ties with the homeland have led to a series of peace-building meetings that eventually led to this conference in Lexington. Conferees will be staying in the homes of church members in the area.

“The Good Lie,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2014, was directed by French Canadian Philippe Falardeau and produced by Ron Howard. Reviewers praised its sensitive, fictionalized portrayal of young men from South Sudan made orphans by civil war. Critics noted approvingly that marketing Reese Witherspoon as the star (who doesn’t appear in the first 35 minutes) was a smart strategy to lure Americans into a movie that delivers a powerful understanding of the Sudanese experience of suffering and hope.

“This moving story possesses an honesty that compensates for any of the more obvious tugs on our tear ducts, most of which arrive in the latter part of the film,” wrote Susan Wloszyna on

W&L’s Africana Studies Program and Department of Journalism and Mass Communications welcome the public and members of the academic communities to the screening and discussion.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Wright stuff

The sky over the Wright Brothers National Memorial is a dazzling blue playground dotted with kites. In that blue, a slow cub plane pulls an advertisement that says, “$15 Rides All Day. . .OBXAIRPLANES.COM.” The sun is blinding. It’s hot, in the 90s, and the stunted grass planted over this national park at Kitty Hawk in the Great Depression harbors

sand spurs and tiny cacti. But visitors from toddlers to grannies are here in the hundreds, and they seem to be enjoying plenty of liberating space and open air. A young woman is jogging the paved walks that wind up and down the Big Kill Devil Hill that is crowned by the 60-foot Art Deco memorial. She is sweating, wearing earbuds. The Wright brothers struggled up this giant sand dune with their glider more than a hundred times before the slopes were planted with green ground-cover to save it for history. Warned to stay cool and drink water, the jogger says in passing, “I do this a lot.”

Orville Wright, aviator Sen. Hiram Bingham and aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

My wife and our friends at this Nieman class reunion all head for the Visitors Center, with its modern cypress paneling, smart snippets of history, its reproduction of the two-prop biplane that flew four times on Dec. 17, 1903. . . and good air conditioning. This Visitors Center has just undergone a two-year renovation of its mechanical systems. It’s up-to-date in every way. But I felt an itch to see the world’s first runway first. I couldn’t wait to go to those two old sun-browned outbuildings (reproductions of the brothers’ wooden work sheds), and trek to the lofty Memorial. From a distance, the memorial reminds me too much of the sad Voortrekkers Memorial in South Africa, but up close, I found it deeply moving. It invites Americans to contemplate the bottomless meaning of what the Wright brothers did. Or I should say, “limitless” meaning.

It’s where Man took off. On the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing this month, it’s good to visit that first liftoff from earth 66 years before that. It was important to be first: For America to be first (Mankind’s and DaVinci’s old dream tripping out of self-educated tinkerers in a bicycle shop in Dayton) and for Wilbur and Orville and little-credited sister Kate to beat those other guys (in the way of American enterprise and competition), Langley in Washington, Whitehead in Connecticut. Deeper meanings, still: I remember from a deceptively sing-song-y poem by Robert Frost he called a “skylark,” a mile-long poem of three-beat lines and silly rhymes called “Kitty Hawk.” In that poem, he hides a little of his incarnational Christian belief that is also the bedrock of my faith.

. . .God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation.
Westerners inherit
A design for living
Deeper into matter
Not without due patter
Of a great misgiving.
All the science zest
To materialize
By on-penetration
Into earth and skies
(Don’t forget the latter
Is but further matter)
Has been West Northwest.

Aside from spirit-in-matter, and the Frosty idea that science’s historical path has been west-northwest, I am struck by another way to see what the Wright brothers did. They kept their secret away from the world. As they perfected the yaw, pitch and roll of the wings, as they improved on their chain-driven propellers, they kept their work militantly private. Off on the Outer Banks on repeated trips, they didn’t talk to the press or to Alexander Graham Bell or the gossipers back in Ohio. They only talked to a single patent lawyer at home. They made sure they had pictures, drawings, proof. But they didn’t seek publicity. They sought the patent, and the credit of history.

“Be in known that we, Orville and Wilbur Wright, citizens of the United States, residing in the city of Dayton, county of Montgomery, and State of Ohio, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Flying-Machines, of which the following is a specification.” So begins their patent of May 22, 1906, reproduced in the Visitors Center.

What they were about was not only Mankind’s leap off of the Earth, but also exercising a Constitutional right. Article 1, Section 8, number 8, gives Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” They had contacted the U.S. Weather Service to ask where they could find an open, sandy place with steady winds. “Kitty Hawk, North Carolina” would be the best, the federal agency told them. The feds were their collaborators. No one works alone under our Constitution.

More than a century after the Wright brothers, American inventors are losing those rights to China in two of the areas that will create jobs and possibly save the Earth: electric cars and photovoltaic solar cells. As I looked down from the Memorial onto that world’s first runway, with its thin rail, sized for bicycle wheel hubs, I was thinking: Who will capitalize on the great shift from a fossil fuel economy that is already underway? Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground. It’s even hotter now, so I’ll head for the Visitor’s Center.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Packing up

The Urbino Project of 2019 è finito.

Closing up shop, boxing equipment in the basement classrooms of the beautiful old Corboli building, I feel a sadness more stinging than the loss of the car keys or wallet (not mine, for the record) on last night’s trip to Riccione. (We had a four-course feast past 10 and moon rise on the beach at Ristorante Mariscos, conducted by our Sugar Cafe friend, Giovanni Garbugli, who  demonstrated beach bocci for us.)Michael & Doug - The Sopranos

That was a fine farewell last night. It began with our traditional Raffie Awards ceremony in the giant brick tomb of the Sala del Maniscalco, below the palace wall. Michael and I were The Sopranos – our one chance to show off the only saxophones we could carry on a plane. The students didn’t seem impressed.

I think they were too excited about the Raffies, our version of the Oscars. Statuettes of Raphael’s head and shoulders were given out. First, nominees were announced. Then the winners: Best multimedia text story, best multimedia photo story, best multimedia video, best multimedia package, best magazine text story, best magazine picture, and magazine cover.

Raffie winners

Raffie winners, on the beach in Riccione

Nearly four weeks ago, when the students heard about the Raffies, Alli Baxter told me she and Liza (whom I was mentoring and editing for their shepherd/sheepdog/pecorino stories) want to win a Raffie to make me proud.

Well, Alli’s story did win the Raffie for best text story, Liza and Alli’s video was a runner up, and Alli won for overall multimedia package.

The other students I mentored and edited also did me proud. Kelsey and Eliza turned in great packages on the coolest preschool in the world. Thank you, all. Great work!

Arrivederci, Marche.





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sensing Italian food

The Italian verb sentire means not only “to feel/sense” but also to smell, to taste, and even to hear. It covers the full sensorium of eating good food in Italy.  Add vedere, to see, for the art of presentation on i piatti. Back home, we have a big book on Italian food that a friend bought for us from the gift shop of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Why shouldn’t a book on Italian food be beautiful, and sold in an art museum?

Terrace table

Preparing the table on the terrace atop our dorm, where we like to gather with food contributions from all the faculty, as swifts dart around.

Even drinks and snacks you have around 6 or 7 p.m. as the day cools down, il aperitivo, can deliver the whole range to the senses.  Yesterday, at the top of steep Via Raffaello we enjoyed an aperitivo at one of the outdoor tables of Caffé dell’Accademia: Campari and prosecco for me, white wine for Libby, and little inch-wide sandwiches with cheese and meats.

Last week, Barbara Buttarini invited us to an aperitivo at her farm. She lives alone there with 10 goats, the church-like rooms that were her father’s art-restoring classroom and workshop before he died, and a hectare of land with stunning views of mountains, prim pasture slopes, and a tiny blue hem of the Adriatic. We each had our turn milking Bella, but the yield was ruined by a swift hoof that went splat into the milk. We moved into the cool empty space of the workshop. Barbara pulled out goat cheese she had made, salami, a chilled bottle of white wine and fresh warm crescia di Urbino, the circular flat bread she had just fried on a small one-burner gas stove.

I met Barbara on visits to the outdoor preschool two of my students are featuring in their multimedia work here. The school, Maestro Natura, rents Barbara’s farm for its campus. Another way that Barbara is making ends meet is by working at a restaurant on a remote mountaintop outside Fermignano called Ca’ Maddalena. She encouraged us to try the restaurant, and last night, we did.

barbara and uncle

Barbara Buttarini and her uncle

Ca’ Maddalena is an agritourism farm and inn, with horses, cattle, wooded paths, a vista of several mountain ranges, and a restaurant with about 20 tables for couples and families who somehow know about this place. It was good to see every table filled (we made reservations days earlier). How they all got there is a miracle. You drive about four kilometers up dirt roads so steep and narrow you pray no one is coming down (no one did) and switchbacks so extreme the two legs merge into one on Google Map.

ca'M antipasta


We had a friendly wait with a couple who came from their home toward Bologna (more than an hour away, I’m sure), limited to about 12 words that made a conversation in our Italian and their English. Understanding the Italian menu was made easier by the outgoing manager, who made sure everyone was well served. Libby’s gluten-intolerance would not be a problem.

My iPhone scanned the names of the things we ordered. For drinks, l’acqua naurale and Vercicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC Classico, a local white wine. (DOC is the highest certification, Italy’s version of France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée.) For antipasto, we shared a platter of spicy salami, thin slices of ham and beef, grilled vegetables, a lintel dish, mild peppers mix, all prepared by la casa, and crescia sfoglita and a kind of hummus in small pastries for me. Libby’s secondo: Grigliata mista di maiale (mix of grilled pork) and carciofi ripassati in padella (pan-fried artichoke). And mine: fegato di vitelline con cipolla bianca stufata (calf liver with stewed white onion) and pomodori “Cuore di Bue” con cipolla fresca di Tropea e basilico (“Heart of Ox” tomatoes with fresh Tropea onions and basil).

Night fell gently and a nearly full moon rose over the mountains. Lab and gattoA Lab and a cat picked certain tables to wait for donations. The friendly manager came out to check on us for about the fourth time, and we asked his story. He had been trained in art restoration by Barbara Buttarini’s father. And Barbara, meanwhile, was back in the kitchen, working on a dessert (we ordered no dessert, only a cup of café to get me back down the mountain), like a work of art.

Ca'M cafe

Ca'M dr D

The panarama from Ca’Maddalena

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An album

Friends and other characters who are making this time in the Marche especially memorable.

Fillippo Venturini, archeologist

Fillippo Venturini, who led us through the museum in Fossombrone and then through the excavated Roman town of Forum Semprone. The archeological site is between the old Via Fluminia, or Roman road to Fano, and the Metaura river. Good pagans lived there until the 6th century C.E. The mosaic he is explaining here he helped move in three slabs from the site. It depicts centaurs (too drunk and ill-mannered to come into the party), Europa on Jupiter-bull’s back and Bacchus and wine, for those who knew how to drink at the party.

Reading Dante

A monkish fellow and harpist atop one of the four towers of il Rocco at Senigallia. He’s reading from Dante’s Commedia, part of the time-trippy visions we ran into when we happened to hit that seaside town during its Solenne ingresso reenactment of glory days from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Students on stories I’m editing (and driving them to in my rented Fiat 500).

Kelsey at L'albero maestro

Kelsey Robertson, JMU, at L’albero Maestro, the outdoor preschool.

Allison in palace light

Allison Baxter, JMU, in the Duke’s Palace

Emilio being interviewed

Emilio Spada, the 36-year-old shepherd, being interviewed by Liza Moore, of W&L, and Alli Baxter, of JMU, with interpreter (red-head) Lisa Oliva.


Egidio Maccantoni

Egidio Maccantoni, proprietor of Il Conventino di Montecicardo, the vast vineyard and olive oil refinery we toured and tasted June 7. A successful businessman whose easy-chair motors are made in China now, Egidio and his children run this beautiful farm with precision machinery, like this olive oil extractor.

The maremmani sheep dogs and some of the shorn sheep they protect from wolves, at Cau & Spada farm near Sassocavara.

ManemmariShorn sheep

Montefeltro in Senigallia

Duke Frederico di Montefeltro

Hadrian's head

Emperor Hadrian

San Sabastian Rabbit

St. Sebastian Bunny

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Urban planning

Urbino is a thick exhibition of hills shared by walkers, Italian-talkers and residential Fiats. View from san BSurrounding the two grand piazzas is a hive of narrow cobblestone paths steeped in the shade of ancient buildings. This is my fourth four-week residence, and still I discover new nooks in this city no bigger than Lexington, Va. (inside Urbino’s high, ancient walls at least).

The layers of Time did crazy things to the design, as did the slopes of hills upon a hill.

But somewhere deep in its soul, Urbino had an idea, a pitch-perfect ideal based on mathematics and a hallucination of perfect civic design. There is a painting of this, a long, narrow work called “Città Ideale,” the ideal city. The painting (there are other versions in Berlin and Baltimore) is mounted in the museum of the duke’s palace. No one is sure who painted it. But we were told, in the Palazzo Ducale tour the class got last Thursday, that art critics are sure it’s an important depiction of the Renaissance idea of utopia, the perfect city.

LoggiaBut these were Humanists. Where are the people? Ah, we’re told, this is not Man but the Work of Man. But, wait. They were great observers of Nature. What about nature – why not a single geranium or shrub in all this marble? Nature is represented, they say, in that little plant puffed from a window ledge, and two hints of mountains in the background.

Loggio from frontBut what about politics, the new realism of power that made the cunning Caesare Borga (after he conquered Urbino for his father Pope Alexander VI) the model of Machiavelli’s Prince? Well, there’s no constitutional “balance of power.” But the painting is. . .in “dialogue.”

We’re supposed to talk back to it, the Enlightenment vs. the Renaissance. Now vs. then.

I don’t know. The older sights of Urbino leave me sort of speechless (especially in my Italian). The iPhone panorama I took inside the Palazzo courtyard looks like “Città Ideale,” without people, nature or the politics of Mitch McConnell. There’s no dialog with the present.Citta Reale

But there are clues to the past. Another painting in the museum is an obscure work of Pietro della Francesca that is like the “Città Ideale” in look, shape, and. . . obscurity.  It’s called “The Flagellation of Christ.” (Both might be by the same painter.) In an oddly serene moment in a Renaissance setting, an un-bloodied, un-bent Christ is being scourged in the background while three figures in the foreground could be discussing silk prices on the Rialto. Our guide says there are something like 46 official interpretations of what the painting means (and another 63 unofficial, he jokes).

I am told that a loggia near our classroom was the basis for the setting where Christ is being whipped. And I wonder if a column nearby is the model for the column Christ is tied to. The one in Urbino is topped by St. George slaying his dragon; in the painting, it looks like a Roman emperor. St George columnOne of the interpretations is that this is about the tension between Christian and pagan cultures. Another is that it is about Christendom threatened by the Islamic conquest of Byzantium in the East, which happened at the time of the painting. Another, that it is about the new geometry of perspective, with various implied circles intersecting at the crown of Christ’s head.

What I notice in the painting and in the ideal Città is that there are no ads. No cars, and no ads. That seems ideal enough to me right now, thinking of America from over here. Italy seems closer to these paintings than to any five minutes off I-75 outside Atlanta or a shopping mall in McLean, Va.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Locanda Montelippo

Six of us drove the winding road out of Urbino toward the Adriatic, halfway to Pesaro, for a memorable dinner in the sun-splashed dusk. Locanda Montelippo is a country inn that features its locally sourced dishes and regional wines. A TV crew was there filming a feature when we arrived. The cannon boom every minute to scare birds from the cherry orchard was unfortunate. But otherwise, a perfect evening out.

If you want to find the place, you need to know where to turn off the highway onto a tiny road over a one-lane bridge. Apparently, enough people know this. There’s a healthy business going on here. On June 16, we’ll be back for a concert and buffet, L’agricoltura e musica. This is the sort of vision our son William has for the farm he and his fiancee are establishing on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Fancy Gap, Va.

Lippo driveLippo rosesLippo olive groveLippo table

Lippo dessertLippo at night

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment