Border Crossing





Fear lurks

in the guts,

winds its way


hesitates at the heart.

Thoughts beat

against the bony bondage

of the brain,

cursed to crave

and hope

and wait

cold and forlorn

at the rusty edges of

communication’s gate

where words

hang suspended

from barbs of metal,

where children


at jumping


and creativity

now means


a route that will

somehow work.

They say the land

will hold your step

while death still rules the waters.


Dandiya Raas



The late K.P. Kunhiraman and his wife Katherine, founders of Kalanjali: Dances of India, are best known for their lifework of disseminating the dance styles of Kathakali and Bharatanatyam in the U.S. Under their tutelage young people have achieved professional proficiency, some going on to perform, some to teach and share the tradition.

But as I sit here – far away in Berlin! – on the eve of Navaratri, I recall another dance, and a performance some 30 years ago under a bright blue sky on the stage of the Bandshell in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. After a couple of rehearsals with Katherine, dressed in bright yellow and red, with gay painted sticks I got to take part in Dandiya Raas, the traditional folk dance form of Gujarat, India. It’s the featured dance in Western India during the 9 nights and 10 days of Navaratri (starting this Tuesday) when Hindus worship the nine forms of the goddess Durga. The dance is a staging of the mock-fight between Durga and the fearsome demon-king Mahishasura.

It was a small thing, maybe, but for me as a non-Indian – and a non-dancer as well! – it was a little bit of India, as the beating of the sticks and the drums caught me up in a movement both ancient and visceral. Thanks to K.P. and Katherine Kunhiraman. Sometimes small things are not so small after all.

Image: Durga fighting Mahishura, Brooklyn Museum

The Tale of the Chestnut Tree and the Leaf Miner Moth That Calls It Home

Photo by David Short: Miner Moth

Photo by David Short: Miner Moth

Another beautiful day, I think guiltily as I wander down the road. It’s a pretty road, with a sidewalk, a trottoir, they call it here in Berlin, Germany – in a part of the country where no buffaloes but instead quite a few French-speaking Huguenots used to roam. It’s lined with flowering chestnut trees, known as Horse Chestnuts, or Aesculus hippocastana, because in ancient times the horses used to be fed the conkers – those glistening, dark-chocolate-cinnamon-colored seeds inside a spiny protective armor. The conkers cured them of coughs and other such maladies. The trees’ snowy white or deep-pink blossoms remind me of fluffy, diaphanous Southern belles sitting upright and proud in the midst of a riotous green. On a day like this – but there’ve been too many of these recently, I think to myself – I’m grateful for their graciously offered shade. And when the evening seeps in sluggishly, around 9 or 10 at this time of year, they perfume the air heavily with their sensuous, lush fragrance.

I like to imagine a single chestnut tree, many centuries ago, tucked away in happy anonymity in a shady, humid ravine somewhere in the Pindus Mountains of ancient Greece. The canyon was surely thick and alive with juicy greenery, and the chestnut was just one among a whole variety of kindred plant-spirits. Here in the Balkans, it had managed to survive the rigors of the Ice Age so many millennia before. Given the chestnut’s charms, it is no wonder that the Ottomans later so eagerly collected its seeds and cultivated the tree in the walled gardens of Istanbul. Willem Quackelbeen, the sixteenth-century physician to the Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador under the reign of no other than Suleyman the Magnificent, reported seeing them there in abundance. Very likely they blossomed on the grounds of Topkapi Palace, delighting the eyes of silken-veiled women peeking longingly through dark, grated windows or lounging in the loggias of the harem. Some years after Quackelbeen’s missives from Istanbul, a specimen finally arrived in Vienna – maybe on the back of a horse, maybe a mule, maybe even on a camel. The year was 1581 when a man by the name of Clusius, a court-servant to His Roman Imperial Majesty Maximilian II, wrote about the unfolding of the chestnut leaves in springtime Vienna. The tree went on to become a favorite in European cities, especially in the Victorian era, lining stately lanes, parks, and squares. Berlin cannot be imagined without the brilliant green, white, and pink of the chestnut trees in early summer along so many of its wide avenues. They offer an indispensible shady canopy over the long wooden tables of the beer gardens so popular all over Germany. Continue Reading →