Absinthe, So Many Stories!

absinthe
Absinthe (photographer unknown)

Tuesday Night in San Francisco

Went to an absinthe tasting in San Franciso on Tuesday night. I am still not sure if the drink is legal in the United States or if what exists now is liquor or liqueur. No slotted spoon, no sugar cube and no water dripping on the sugar and into the drink a’la Ernest Hemingway. And so, there was no true vision of the green that the drink is supposed to be. My artist’s eyes were looking forward to seeing that.

It is just as well that I had no expectation of taste. I was surprised by absinthe’s strong anise flavor. It tasted like licorice. I hate licorice. Still, I was game and had two of the three servings allotted for the evening. By the third drink, however, when the serving had been elevated to a 74 percent alcohol level, I had had enough. I know my limit and so I stopped after drink number two (which was about a 35 to 45 percent alcohol level). No walking around the Mission District or getting on the BART drunk for me.

absinthe1
Absinthe Drinker, by Viktor Oliva, c1901

The Many Stories of Absinthe

Absinthe is rife with history and includes stories of art, agriculture (a la the Great French Wine Blight), the economics of supply and demand, medicinal elixirs, the French military in North Africa, European imperialism, the Belle Epoque period (the French counterpart of America’s Gilded Age), industrialization and urban sprawl, the beginning of women’s liberation/feminism, French and New Orleans cafe society, Social Darwinism, and the Prohibition/Temperance Movement(s). Artists too, feature prominently in the drink’s history. Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Verlaine, Picasso and Hemingway were all aficionados of the green fairy. Poet Oscar Wilde is said to have been a heavy drinker of absinthe but there is no real proof of this. Perhaps the only statement about absinthe that seems directly attributable and related to him is one he made to author Arthur Machen:

“I could never quite accustom myself to absinthe, but it suits my style so well.”

Far from being a heavy absinthe drinker, it seems that Wilde didn’t quite like this drink. Maybe like me, the infusion of anise which produces a licorice-like flavor wasn’t quite to his liking.

Glass of Absinthe, Pablo Picasso,1914

What is That Thing?

As a teenager I saw this Picasso sculpture in either New York or Philadelphia and thought that the sugar cube was a dice with too many numbers on each side. That was before I started reading the labels on museum walls. (Now I read them sometimes but only after I’ve seen the works, digested them and made of them what I want to make of them). I still say this looks like a dice in a spoon and it’s not a particularly good sculpture either. Maybe the only thing it has going for it is that it was created in 1914, which is the beginning of World War One. So historically, it is significant: This is the end of the Belle Epoch period, Bohemian Paris and the avant garde lifestyle enjoyed by many, including Picasso.

Blame the Drink

Absinthe has a bad reputation and has been blamed for madness, debauchery and even murder. Among the artists who were heavy absinthe drinkers, some veered toward insanity. Van Gough, Hemingway, and Verlaine all came from families with histories of mental illness: Verlaine drank himself to death and the other two committed suicide. Absinthe, with its incredibly high levels of alcohol (74 percent!) plus mental illness, plus alcoholism, all make for a deadly combination. But is the drink to blame for murder, madness and mayhem? I would say not. The trouble with the artists mentioned in this article is that they didn’t know their limit. They were incessant drinkers and probably all alcoholics. To blame the drink for these ills is tantamount to blaming violent video games and movies for the prevalence of gun violence in our society today.

***** ***** *****

The Yellow House

You can watch a free downloadable movie (based on a book by the same name) about Van Gogh’s and Gaugin’s time together in the South of France. There is also a short animated introduction to the movie here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGHwFn5xS5o.

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The River Road, Part Two

Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, Yellowstone River (photo credit: FishEyeGuy)

Yellowstone River

I learned this interesting fact as I started doing research for my trip to Yellowstone National Park: The Yellowstone River is the only river in the contiguous United States that is not damned. The 692-miles long river rises in Wyoming on the Continental Divide, flows through Yellowstone  National Park, runs northwards into Montana and finally flows into the Missouri River near Buford, North Dakota.

The River, a tributary of the Missouri, is known for its trout fishing. One of its forks was a favorite fishing spot of author, Ernest Hemingway. In 2011, an oil pipeline belonging to ExxonMobile ruptured in the river. Only with the passing of time will we understand the extent of the damage. No matter where in the world we are, we seem to manage to despoil our rivers.

Hudson River

Unlike the Yellowstone River which I only recently started learning about, I am quite familiar with the Hudson River. The Hudson was the site of many environmental studies and environmental activism during many of the years that I lived in New York. Along with the Long Island Sound, the river had been under severe stress. The details below are an apt description of the Hudson of the 1970s and ’80s, and perhaps, of the ’90s too:

“New York City was dumping 1.5 billion gallons per day of raw sewage into the River, the paint from Tarrytown’s GM plant dyed the River a new color each week, the Indian Point power plant was killing millions of fish each day, the National Guard was filling tidal wetlands at Camp Smith, and Penn Central Railroad was discharging oil from a pipe at the Croton Rail Yard. The oil floated up the Croton on the tide, blackening the beaches and making the shad taste of diesel.”

Man, business and government were killing the river. Today the Hudson has rebounded, thanks in part to a Riverkeeper boat that patrols the river in an effort to protect it from environmental lawbreakers. But other problems like the introduction of non-native invasive species (example, water chestnut and zebra mussels) have altered and impacted the aquatic animal populations. What will the river look like in ten years, fifty years, from now?

The Mississippi River on Exhibit

If you ever read the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, you will recall that one of the biggest stars in both books is the Mississippi River. Just like the Morant and Yallhas Rivers in Jamaica (See The River Road, Part One), the Mississippi held a special place in my childhood fantasies.  I read and re-read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and pretended that my local river was the Mississippi upon which steamboats ran and adventures were to be had. Now my old friend is on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Museum.

Tom and Huck rafting on the Mississippi
Tom and Huck rafting on the Mississippi

In an exhibition that runs until June 2013, photographer, Richard Misrach brings the Mississippi River to life in a way that is far different from Mark Twain’s version of it. Though invisible in some of the photographs, the river is still very much a presence in each of the twenty-one images. The larger than life scale of the photographs (each is about five or six feet high), makes it unlikely that the viewer will soon forget the subject matter. The title of the show? “Revisiting the South: Cancer Alley.”

Cancer Alley is an eighty-five mile stretch of the Mississippi River, from Baton Rouge through to New Orleans. There are innumerable industrial plants there. All are drawn to the region because of favorable taxation policies. The first photograph that the visitor encounters upon entering the gallery is to the immediate right. The photograph is striking for two reasons: First, there is an ethereal light beyond which the viewer cannot see and so, cannot imagine what it is that the woman in the photograph is looking at. The second striking thing about the photograph is that the lady doesn’t seem to belong inside this house. Is she standing in a museum looking outwards? Is she the owner of the house or merely a visitor? As you move closer to the photograph you learn from the wall tag that she is a tour guide. The plaque reads, “Tour Guide, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, 1998.”

Today’s Nottoway is a tourist destination. In yesteryears, it was a slave plantation. Not so long ago, this woman would have been a slave in this place. She may have been in the fields or she may have been in the house but either way, she wouldn’t have had time to stand around, looking out windows.

cancer alley
Tour Guide, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, negative 1998 (photo credit: Richard Misrach)

This show makes me Jim, the runaway slave (in Huck Finn) kind of sad.  Today there is destruction of communities, the river and the environment. The entire show is dressed in poverty, destruction and degradation. In Huck Finn there was hope — hope that Jim would be free, hope that he wouldn’t get sold down river, hope that he and Huck would remain on the island in the river, happy and undetected. If you read the book as a child, you know all about hoping, hoping, hoping, against all odds. Today, after viewing the show, I hope that the:

  • Mississippi River, poisoned and polluted as it is, will make a comeback
  • people, like the woman in the photograph, will be able to continue living there
  • petro-chemical factories that pollute the area be forced to stop degrading the environment and everything connected to the River (including the nearby communities)
  • cancer rates in the area will subside/lessen

As is the case of the pollution of the Yellowstone River, only with time, will one have answers to these questions.

References:

http://museum.stanford.edu/news_room/misrach.html

http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=18694

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