Jim Ross – Finding Stillness in Movement

Jim Ross
Finding Stillness in Movement

After slowing to a trickle, the pilgrimage toward Santiago—along The Way of Saint James—began booming back fifty years ago as part of a global uptick in pilgrimage across faith traditions. Trails from all over Europe, four across France alone, merge to send travellers toward Santiago. For many, walking on The Way is an act of surrendering to The Way itself and letting It work Its wonders. In doing so, walkers (and smaller groups travelling by bike, wheelchair, or horseback) join the legions who, for over a millennium, walked to commune with nature and to experience revitalization and a restored perspective. Many communities, through which the pilgrims pass, came into existence a thousand years ago specifically to support pilgrims.

Jim Ross, Burdens Left Behind by Directional Sign, photograph, 2010. Many pilgrims symbolically leave their burdens behind as they trek. This pile is above one of the many red-and-white directional signs along The Way.

      Most people find it difficult to carve out of their frantic, fractured lives the six to ten weeks needed to walk the entire route. Many instead plan to walk for, say, two weeks now, picking up the next time where they left off. Daily, pilgrims walk for hours, often over challenging terrain. Most pilgrims carry their immediate possessions on their backs. In arriving at new places daily, some hardly pause except in sleep. Most interrupt their walking whenever the spirit says it’s time to hear the enveloping stillness. In moving, they discover a stillness that the disquietude they experienced prior to the pilgrimage blocked. And that stillness opens the door to moving in directions they couldn’t previously fathom. As I talked with other pilgrims, it became clear that nearly all sought healing, realignment, and/or direction; some, forgiveness.
     When I first arrived in France, I spent time with friends who questioned whether my embarking on the pilgrimage was wise on the grounds that I hadn’t trained adequately, didn’t speak French, and had no hotel reservations. I said I’d been training all my life, two people who had the will to communicate could do so despite language barriers, and pilgrims historically travelled without making reservations, trusting that The Way would provide. But after setting out, I wondered, were they right? When day was done, would I be able to find an inn? Would there be room for me? Would the trail be marked clearly enough that I’d be able to follow it? Would potable water be readily findable? Were warnings about vicious dogs over-stated? What about claims that each day walking on The Way would be more difficult than any day in our pre-pilgrimage lives? Would I hold up walking 15 miles per day when I’m accustomed to a third of that and have no backpacking experience?

Jim Ross, Pont d’Estaing, Estaing, France, photograph, 2010.

      I’d be walking through the French midi-Pyrenees on a rolling path that periodically dips down to villages built along rivers. Those dips require steep descents on arrival and ascents at departure. My intent was to restore balance, not by ruminating, not by over-planning, but by letting the act of movement over a place with deep history work its wonders. I had to trust that every night I would find dinner, shower, and a place to rest my head.

Jim Ross, Grazing Sheep, photograph, 2010. Grazing animals provides reassurance, company, entertainment, and role models.

Getting Lost
      Ordinarily when I travel, I let myself get lost deliberately because it leads to surprises. On The Way, I couldn’t get lost and stay on the prescribed path. Still, I got lost.
      Perhaps in reading guidebooks I skipped over sections on signage. I knew that a white-over-red stripe painted on a tree, rock, fence, barrel, or rusted-out tractor meant, ‘Go this way.’ It took me too long to discern that a red-and-white X means “Not this way” and a hooked white-over-red symbol means turn right or left depending on a hook’s direction. For a while, I walked on instinct, almost oblivious to signage. As a result, I sometimes found myself miles off course. In my defence, sometimes the ‘Go this way’ symbols weren’t readily visible or suggested ambiguous courses of action. And, because it was October, I often went hours without seeing another soul.

Jim Ross, Pilgrim Directional Signs, photograph, 2010. The red-and-white bars, barely visible in the middle of the tree trunk, often suggested ambiguous courses of action.

      There were advantages too of accidentally walking the road less travelled. I also learned there were ‘variants’, meaning segments of trail that weren’t considered the main path, but were recognized as alternate routes. Veering off course opened the doors of possibility. I saw my first porcupine in the wild. I chanced upon a village where every home was half in ruins, where a woman wearing a red sweater greeted me in French with, ‘Has God ever given us a more beautiful day?’ Another time, I came upon the 11th century chapel of St. Hiliarian. A cemetery adjoining the chapel had potable water. I came to realize that cemeteries are reliable sources of drinking water.

Jim Ross, St. Hilarian’s Chapel and Cemetery, photograph, 2010. The 11th century chapel of St. Hilarian taught me cemeteries usually have potable water.

      I resisted creating an itinerary of where I would stay each night because it violated the notion I was surrendering to The Way. Since it was October, I figured I’d have little competition in finding places to rest my head.
      One of my first days, as the sun sounded its final trumpet, I began doubting I’d reach the convent where I hoped to stay. I came upon a doorless, dirt-floored,17th century shepherd’s shelter. It had a concrete bench with a rustic wood-slat top, which looked like a tolerable bed. I had a space blanket for warmth. Then I remembered another warning: ‘Vipers come out to play at night.’ I resumed walking. Then, after sunset, my right foot caught on a root and I began falling. I flipped 180 degrees, touched down hard, rolled from left to right, and nearly slammed my head on an ancient stone wall. When I finally reached the convent, a 500-year-old nun let me in and led me to dinner. The simple pilgrim’s dinner was over so I was brought to a more elaborate dinner of all the pilgrimage coordinators from the region, all thirty of them.

Jim Ross, Doorless Shepherd’s Shelter (inside), photograph, 2010. I decided this doorless shepherd’s shelter wasn’t where I would pass the night.

      That became my signature: Approaching the next destination after dark, with no clear plan of where I might find dinner and lodging. Strangers plucked me out of the darkness. Still walking, stiffly, even feverishly, not thinking clearly. In one instance, I was walking unsafely after dark on a heavily-trafficked road. A Dutch woman pulled over in her Beetle and drove me to the village’s official pilgrim shelter. While I extricated myself, she ran inside, shouting, ‘I have a pilgrim,’ as if she just found one of Peter Pan’s lost boys. Another time, well after 10 p.m., I was rescued and brought to the priest’s house, where I was given a sheet of bubble wrap in which to cocoon myself on the visitor’s kitchen floor. This was the price I paid for taking in the path at my own pace and paying little attention to where I might spend the night. To make matters worse, many shelters close for the winter in October, reopening in April.

Jim Ross, Abandoned Shepherd’s Shelter, photograph, 2010. Shelters that once housed shepherds punctuated the landscape.

      I hadn’t slept in a dormitory-style room since I was 17. I didn’t exactly mind sharing but I tend to be restless during night, emit a cacophony of sound effects, and am up and down to the bathroom. My sharing a dormitory wouldn’t work for anyone. I began inquiring about availability of single or double rooms. An incidental advantage of getting a private or double room was not having to compete with my roommates to recharge camera batteries, cell phones, and other devices. Most dorm rooms weren’t designed to allow multiple people to charge their devices simultaneously.

Jim Ross, My Monastery Cell, photograph, 2010. My cell at the monastery necessitated effective use of space.


Jim Ross, The View from my Monastery Cell, photograph, 2010.

Sustenance and Hydration
      Every place I stayed fed me well. Nearly all served multi-course dinners with freely-flowing wine, either as part of the lodging cost, which was nominal, or for a small extra fee. Breakfasts consisted of breads, coffee, and fruit and sometimes fruit juice, cheeses, and/or meats. Discovery: soft cheese is a dead-ringer for yogurt. Some places served coffee in bowls, following local custom. While walking, I nibbled on dried blueberries and hard cheese.

Jim Ross, My Monastery Breakfast, photograph, 2010. A typical breakfast consisted of breads, juice, coffee, and fruit (here cherries).

      When I came upon pear or apple trees heavy with fruit, I usually picked up freshly-fallen fruit from the ground. If a tree grew wildly in a forest, I took my pick. I found plenty of fig trees, but most figs had dried up and/or turned mouldy.
      Many people left out drinks (water or tea) or fruit (apples, pears, plums). Some villages served drinks and snacks under a roof. Some even incorporated bathrooms, community bread ovens, and/or resting areas.
      When I saw that one family left out baskets of large, shapely pears, I assumed they were meant for pilgrims. They must have laughed at the sight of me trying to bite through their thick, furry skin and chew their sour, hard flesh until swallowable. Anyone in France, whom I told about this experience, laughed uncontrollably while repeating, ‘You fool! That was quince. You have to cook it.’ Widely used in jams, quince or marmelo is the root of the word ‘marmalade.’ If I can teach anyone anything in the time I have left on earth, it’s that you can’t eat quince raw.

Jim Ross, A Basket of Quinces, photograph, 2010. Quince resembles hefty pears but are nearly impossible to eat raw.

      Staying hydrated presented greater challenges. To travel light, I carried relatively little water. I ran out daily except for sips kept in reserve. I stayed vigilant for “eau potable” signs. In the absence of a sign, I refused to assume water was safe unless the setting clearly implied it (e.g., public water fountains). Being dehydrated toward day’s end increased anxiety about reaching the next destination and probably made me a tad delirious. I kept my eyes peeled for cemeteries. In my next incarnation, I plan to invent concentrated water.

The Most Difficult Day
      One guidebook I read before leaving home claimed that every day on the pilgrimage would be more difficult than every day in one’s prior life. Once I began walking, I quickly rejected that claim. There were hard days when I had to concentrate intensely on every moment, hoping as I hopped from rock to rock that my instincts in using my walking sticks would fire timely to restore balance. But, there were also days when it felt like I was walking in paradise.
      I met two women from Provence who, at their final stop, shipped home all their clothes so they could fill their backpacks with precious cargo: chestnuts. While I love chestnuts, I didn’t love them on the pilgrimage because they often blanketed the trails, with this year’s joining remnants from prior years, making footing unpredictable.

Jim Ross, My Name in Chestnuts; photograph, 2010. After hearing me complain, another pilgrim wrote my name in chestnuts to welcome me.

Attack Cows?
      The small herds of deer that roam my suburban neighbourhood at home sometimes accidentally bowl people over. More often, they surge suicidally into traffic and cause fender benders. Once, I was bitten by a neighbour’s dog. Should I fear dogs along The Way? I was more worried about feral cats. Friends warned my real nemesis could be cows, and if they charge at you and mean business, barbed wire won’t hold them back.

Jim Ross, Attack Cow, photograph, 2010. Barbed wire won’t hold them back!

      Most of the cows I met wore impressive horns that cause naïve cow-gazers to believe they’re bulls. Idyllic-looking creatures, they often play melodic bells and in May are crowned with wildflower garlands. Evidently, they’re not always mild-tempered. I learned that when I snapped a photo of a mottled cow that wasn’t going to let a little barbed wire keep us apart.

Jim Ross, Zita, Pilgrim’s Companion, photograph, 2010.

      Fortunately, hours earlier, I was picked up by a kind-looking German shepherd named Zita, who led me to the chapel of St. Roch, the patron saint of dogs and dog lovers, and led me inside. Over the next eleven hours, she shielded me from oncoming traffic, counter-charged that fussy cow and chased her away, and used her night vision to guide us through a forest after nightfall. I also rescued her from cars speeding on a busy road. I hated parting with my Zita, but that was a condition of the priest’s taking me in for the night.

Jim Ross, Aubrac Cows, photograph, 2010. Aubrac cows have long horns that result in being mistaken for bulls.

Experiencing the Sacred
      Notions of what pilgrims considered ‘sacred’ varied widely. Some embraced traditional Christian beliefs. For many, communing with nature or experiencing villages we passed through was ‘sacred’. I think nearly all considered the ground we walked on ‘sacred’ because millions came and walked before us in search of healing and balance.
      I learned a little about the profane side of sacredness. A thousand years ago, villages sought to get on pilgrimage routes because it meant big business for the Church. In addition, visiting pilgrims would need shelter, food, and hospitals and could be persuaded to buy indulgences and fake relics. To earn a spot on a pilgrimage route, a village had to have holy bones (i.e., the relics of saints).
      How did villages lacking holy bones procure them? Absent other options, they stole them. For example, a 9th century monk from Conques went under cover for a decade at a monastery in Agen to get close enough to the relics of 4th century Saint-Foy to steal them. Spiriting away Saint-Foy’s relics made Conques a competitive pilgrimage site. As the pilgrimage routes to Santiago formed, Conques already had status and investors. The profane history of pilgrimage positioning suggests we re-think, ‘What makes something sacred?’

Jim Ross, Gate at Abbey of Saint-Foy, photograph, 2010. A gate at the Abbey of Saint-Foy incorporates an extreme form of barbed wire.

Human Contact and Getting Home
      I went on the pilgrimage to get lost in a dark forest and breathe solitude into my lungs. After ritually exchanging ‘Bonjour’ with others I often remind myself, ‘I’m merely a pilgrim, by definition I’m only passing through.’ The break from solitude came at dinnertime, when most dinner conversations took place in French. Still, I came to feel part of a fabric. And every morning, I left solo as did nearly every other pilgrim.
      By the end, on the eve of a National Strike, I began reaching out to villagers. One village had been in the throes of a pre-emptive National Strike for five days. I found myself reverting to my professional behaviour by interviewing activist students, noncommittal students, teachers, residents, and striking railroad workers. On my first attempt to catch a bus (to begin my journey home), a high school student sat beside me and offered to split her ham baguette in exchange for conversation. After this distraction caused me to miss my bus, I went back into town and spent three more hours with the students and railroad workers, who shared cheese, bread, and wine with me. In turn, I helped tend to their little children. The high school students offered me a coke. An older protest junkie offered cannabis. (I declined).
      At the airport, I heard the National Strike might delay my flight home. I began rooting for the National Strike to keep me there. I decided I would go back to find Zita. Then my flight managed to get out after all. Nine months later, I went back and found Zita.    AQ

Jim Ross – Swedish and Finnish Easter Witches

Jim Ross
Swedish and Finnish Easter Witches

The witch craze that tore through Europe and the Americas, peaking in the late 17th century, resulted in fanatical accusations, bogus trials, torture, and executions—by fire, strangling, boiling alive, or hanging—of over 100,000 people, most of them women. Typical charges against them were souring milk; damaging crops; cursing at or hurting children; causing miscarriages; and inflicting death or illness on animals or humans. After being tortured, the accused often confessed to having entered a pact with Satan, engaged in intercourse with him, or suckled demons. The hysteria and persecution of witches lingered into the 20th century, especially in the countryside, where an irrational belief in witches persisted despite advances of science. Those thought to be witches were often suspected to be part of a

      In Sweden, a belief emerged that witches came out at the most sacred time of year, on Maundy Thursday—the day before Good Friday—and flew to Blåkulla (the equivalent of Brocken in German legends) to consort with Satan until Easter Sunday morning. Blåkulla is a sort of backwards world: witches sit with their backs to the table; women assume roles normally ascribed to men; men assume roles typically performed by women; and the old and haggard become young. Before departing via chimney or keyhole, Easter witches (påskkäringar) poured oil from horns obtained from Satan and rubbed it on the brooms, poles, cattle, or even sleeping humans, fish, bicycles, balloons, eggs, or barrels they would ride to Blåkulla for Black Sabbath.
      Mirroring this belief in witches and Blåkulla, Swedes in their teens and twenties began dressing up as påskkäringar to terrorize local villagers on Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday. It is believed this tradition began in the late 1700s. By the mid-1800s, the tradition was widespread. It persisted throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, especially in western Sweden.

Artist: Jenny Nyström, Published by Alex Eliassons Konstförlag, Stockholm. Finnish message “Iloista Pääsiäistä” translates into “Happy Easter.” Postmarked 1911.

      Young adults made themselves look as hideous as possible and emitted otherworldly shrieks and howls, often imitating cats serenading. Occasionally, they overturned cart or wagons or poured water over horses to give the impression witches had ridden them hard. More likely, they threw anonymous Easter letters inside outer doors, often accompanied by a log, to invite recipients to join in the Black Sabbath. The letters consisted of verse and symbols associated with påskkäringar. Sometimes, the texts and symbols were frighteningly personal. After leaving a letter, the marauders brushed their brooms by the windows. As they ran, they swung their brooms to make them whistle, mimicking the sound of witches in flight. Because many people actively believed in påskkäringar and Blåkulla, they were vulnerable to being terrorized by the young marauders. And they dared not complain, else they risked even worse treatment by the påskkäringar the following year.

Artist, Jenny Eugenia Nyström, published by Alex Eliassons Konstförlag, Stockholm. Swedish message ‘skicka vykort‘ translates into ‘send postcards.’ ‘Glad Pask‘ means ‘Happy Easter.’ Postmarked 1911.

      To take on the appearance of påskkäringar, young men and women dressed up in grungy old clothes, often turned inside out, or even in fur or hides. Men often disguised themselves as women; and women, as men, thus anticipating the gender reversals in Blåkulla. It’s noteworthy that, those who took on the appearance of women were called witches, but those who presented as men were called trolls. Many wore hideous-looking masks or darkened their faces with soot to maintain anonymity. They often carried brooms, rakes, poles, other garden implements, coffee pots, and ointment horns. Carrying the tools needed to fly at a moment’s notice, they ran about leaving Easter letters despite seeing tar crosses meant to fend of witches, fully anticipating their actions might influence Sunday’s Easter sermon about påskkäringar and Blåkulla. As they tore through a village, there was usually no notion of ‘trick or treating’ but occasionally the witches and trolls stopped and asked for drink, usually Schnapps, or it was freely offered.

Artist, Jenny Nyström, published by Alex Eliassons Konstförlag, Stockholm, postmarked 1910. Swedish message ‘En glad pask‘ translates as ‘Happy Easter.’

      In the late 1890s, picture postcards came into being, and påskkäringar became a fanciful subject for Easter (Pask) cards. The vast majority of Easter witches shown on early postcards present as women. Only rarely do the witches come across as men masquerading as women. Typically, they ride on brooms and carry coffee pots and are accompanied by cats. Some are seen bursting out of chimneys or crashing down them on arrival home. Many are seen in flight to Blåkulla or having arrived and meeting with a coven of witches. Now and then they carry ointment horns or take alternative transportation: cattle, bicycle, air balloon, even car.

Artist, P.H., published by Alex Eliassons Konstförlag, Stockholm, postmarked 1919

      Early postcards were designed during a period when belief in påskkäringar as real witches (haxa) was dying out, but still persisted in parts of Sweden, especially among the elderly. Some postcard images must have been terrifying to someone who still entertained the possibility that påskkäringar could be real witches. Considering the reference time period is 100 to 120 years ago, it is highly likely that most children still believed påskkäringar were real witches. These postcards kept the legend of påskkäringar and Blåkulla alive. Even those who knew there couldn’t possibly be Easter witches were reminded that a tradition of masquerading as witches and terrorizing villagers had long existed.

Artist unknown. Publisher unknown. Postmarked 1904

      The early påskkäringar cards that most fascinate me are the ones that show how men responded as their påskkäringar women prepared to journey. Some show men sharing a broom or taking off on their own. Others show variations in supportiveness: on the ground, pulling or dragging the women back vs. helpfully seeing them off; or, through a window, looking shocked, kissing them goodbye, or standing in awe.

Artist, F.R.(probably Rosenthal), publisher unknown, postmarked 1905.

      Just as the 20th century yanked fearful characters from Grimm’s fairy tales through a process akin to Disneyfication, it also transformed Easter Witches. Now, twenty-somethings no longer masquerade as witches to terrorize villagers. Instead, children, mostly girls, put on cutely bewitching, garish outfits and painted-on freckles, and go singing door-to-door and politely asking for candy. Easter witch postcards from the mid-20th century document this domestication of the Easter witch. Some cards even suggest that the legends associated with Easter witches were veiled stories of women’s liberation and a variation on ‘sisterhood is powerful’.

Artist, Hildur Söderberg, published by Tolen & Wilkinson Konstförlag, Gotebourg. Swedish message ‘Lefve Kvasten‘ translates into ‘Long live brooms.’ Message ‘Ned meg flyg maskinen‘ translates into ‘Down with planes.’ ‘Rolig Pask,‘ means ‘Peaceful Easter.’ Small card, postmarked 1916.


Mark Crimmins – The Future is Now

Mark Crimmins
The Future is Now

In 2019, a student in one of my business classes in China walked to the front of the classroom. He pulled from his pocket a hundred yuan bill, held it up, and told a story. ‘When I left my village in Anhui Province to come to university in 2017, my grandma gave me this bill. “Here is a hundred yuan,” she said, “buy yourself a present from your old granny!” I put the bill in my wallet and brought it to university. Two years later, as you can see, I still have the money in my wallet. I have not used any paper money since I left home. It will probably still be in my wallet when I graduate in 2021. My grandma is very kind, but she is old fashioned. She doesn’t realize that paper money is a thing of the past.’
      Early in 2020, When I went to a local supermarket and pulled money from my wallet to pay for my groceries, the old ladies behind me in line let out a collective sigh of exasperation. ‘It’s the foreigners,’ I heard one of them say in Mandarin—‘They still use paper money!’ Then I read a China Daily story about a robbery in Guangzhou. The thieves held up a convenience store and escaped with: seven dollars’ worth of cash! All the store had. When I got AliPay recently and started purchasing things by scanning QR codes with my phone, I stopped using paper money altogether. The transition was instantaneous. Now, when I ride the subway, take a cab, eat a meal, go shopping, use a vending machine, pay my bills—even when I buy a fifty-cent popsicle, I scan the payment with my phone.
      Back in the classroom, I had an argument with a student from Guangzhou. She was talking about how nice it is to be so close to home as a student in Shenzhen. ‘On the high speed train I can be home in thirty minutes!’ she said. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘Not true!’ The Guangzhou young woman felt sure she was right. At 320 kilometres an hour, she had whooshed from Shenzhen to Guangzhou and back dozens of times. But so had I. ‘It never takes thirty minutes,’ I told her with a cheeky smile. The other students laughed nervously. ‘That train ride only takes twenty-nine minutes! In my fifty-nine rides between the two cities, it has only varied from twenty-nine minutes once, and that was when the train arrived at Shenzhen North Station twenty-eight minutes and fifty five seconds after departing Guangzhou South Station. That must have been a fast driver!’

Mark Crimmins, High Speed Platform Berths, Guangzhou, photo, 2017.

      Every day, I walk to the university where I teach through the Dayun Nature Park. It’s a forty-five minute stroll o’er hill and dale of beautifully landscaped yet also wild greenery, part of a mammoth environmental initiative in my home province: the Guangdong Greenway project. In 2017, on one of my first walks to class by this route, I heard a buzzing over my head and turned. Skimming my hair and landing smoothly on the asphalt path ahead of me was a drone shaped like a baby Concord. I never saw its owner. Maybe it didn’t have one.
      A few months later, I saw a hawk soar up from a park woodland. With some excitement, I pointed it out to my girlfriend. ‘Nope,’ she quipped. ‘That’s not a hawk—it’s a drone, silly!’ And so it was.       Walking home through the park after classes ended in May 2021, I saw something new. Patiently and smoothly climbing the incline before me was a robot. A machine four feet high, it was cleaning, with great precision, the side of the asphalt path, which is two miles long and curves around the contours of hills, rising and falling as it does. Following the robot was an old man carrying a transistor radio from which a Tibetan singer belted out a song about the Qinghai Plateau. The old man watched the robot ahead of him as it uniformly climbed the hill, swishing its brushes and leaving a smart, clean, wet stripe two miles long in the gutter behind it. The old man and I looked at each other, looked at the robot, laughed, and shook our heads.

Mark Crimmins, A Friendly Robot with Jennifer Gresham, Shenzhen Bao’An International Airport, photo, 2020.

Mark Crimmins, Reception Robot, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine Shenzhen Hospital, photo, 2021.

      That was the most recent robot I’ve encountered in the city of Shenzhen, where I have lived since 2016. The first time I remember seeing a robot at work was in 2017, when I went to Shenzhen’s Bao’An International Airport, a stunning edifice shaped like a gigantic manta ray. In the arrivals area, next to the Information desk, stood the welcoming robot with its winsome face, fetching eyelashes painted above the light emitting diodes of its eyes. I went off to check my luggage, surprised to find a human worker handing out boarding passes.
      Before returning home to Hong Kong in May 2021, I had to go to the nearest local hospital, The Beijing Traditional Chinese Medicine University Shenzhen Hospital, for a Covid test. It was no surprise for me to be greeted at the hospital entrance by a robot, whose job was to assist the Information desk staff. When I was in Shenzhen government-mandated quarantine for arrivals from Hong Kong back in January 2021, I was allowed to open my hotel room door to pick up my meals, and as I did, I would often see a cleaner robot puttering along the carpeted hall doing its hoovering and sweeping. It seemed to do a bang up job of cleaning the hallways and keeping the carpets clean.

      Not long ago, I was waiting at a bus stop. One of the city’s thousands of electric buses (Shenzhen has no other kind) was gliding past me along Longxiang Boulevard. Next to the driver, I saw a robot at the front of the bus. I figured the robot gave passengers advice about upcoming stops or nearby places of interest. But then another thought occurred to me: perhaps the robot itself was a passenger like everyone else, on its way from one job to another.

Mark Crimmins, Security Robot, Futian High Speed Railway Station, Shenzhen, photograph, 2020.

      At the end of 2018, I was walking along the broad sidewalk next to a local mall when I stopped in my tracks. Rolling smoothly towards me was a policeman like no other I’d ever seen: a robot wearing a smart metal policeman’s dark blue uniform, the insignia of the Longgang District Police on its cap. As the robot moved gently forwards through the crowds of shoppers, a gob-smacked child fell off her bike in front of the machine. The robot rolled to a halt. I heard a beep. A whir. Then the robot rotated forty-five degrees and cut a diagonal around the fallen child, who continued to watch it, mesmerized, with open-mouthed delight. Next, the robot cut another forty-five degree angle and regained its original course behind the child, continuing up the sidewalk until it stopped briefly in order to accommodate the pedestrian trajectory of a mother pushing a stroller.

Mark Crimmins, Deconstructive Architecture, Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning, photo, 2019

Two years ago I attended a museum exhibition celebrating forty years of municipal development since Deng Xiaoping declared Shenzhen a Special Economic Zone and made the city a vast pilot project to experiment with the rapid transformation of Chinese cities. In those four decades, Shenzhen morphed from a fishing village with a few hundred inhabitants into a gleaming megalopolis of twenty million residents, now one of the richest, greenest, and most beautiful megacities in China. The stunning deconstructive architecture of the museum belied the low-tech contents of some exhibits: photographs of huge factory floors, legions of sewers at their machines, construction workers topping out ever-higher skyscrapers. The city’s transition from manufacturing facilities to white collar work environments was charted carefully, each economic phase of development passing with dizzying speed. As I reached the final gallery, I heard squawks and screams of childish delight. I rounded a corner to see four young children dancing like there was no tomorrow, gyrating their little bodies and giggling madly. An electronic break beat blasted from the exhibit speakers. I approached the dancing children and passed between their laughing parents. There, in front of the delighted kids, were two child-sized dancing robots, hopping from foot to foot and waving their arms in time to the music. Side to side, up and down, the machines had it—rhythm. It was a case of Saturday Afternoon Fever—micromoving kindergarteners hooked on robotics.
      In a way, I could see all of this coming. Four years ago, I took a short staycation in the Huaqiang North District of downtown Shenzhen, forty kilometers away from my own home in the vast metropolis. The Huaqiang District includes China Electronics First Street, which was already becoming famous.

Mark Crimmins, Hong Kong Cityscape, Mid-Levels, Central, photo, 2015

      I stayed up on the thirty-fifth floor of The Huaqiang Plaza Hotel, a glittering skyscraper of steel and glass, though a small one by Shenzhen skyscraper standards. I was riding upwards to my room in the glass elevator one day, looking outwards at the astonishing cityscape. The elevator slowed and stopped. The doors opened. A robot soundlessly entered the elevator and turned around to face the doors. Its robotic arm held a folded China Daily. The robot was able to select its floor remotely. Four floors later, the elevator stopped again and the robot rolled soundlessly through the doors, turning left. I held the elevator doors open and peered along the curved, carpeted hallway. The robot stopped before a guest suite and rotated to face the door. A few lights flashed in its head. The doorbell to the room rang, remotely selected like the elevator button. The robot’s arm lifted the folded newspaper in preparation to deliver it to the guest, who opened the door, laughed, and took the newspaper, uttering a ‘xie xie‘—thank you—in surprise. ‘Bu yong xie‘, a woman’s electronic voice replied from somewhere inside the robot: ‘No thanks necessary’.
      The next time I stayed at the hotel, I made sure I called the front desk to ask for a newspaper to be delivered to my room. When I heard the doorbell ring, I knew what to expect. AQ

Ladislav R. Hanka – The Honeybee Scriptures

Ladislav R. Hanka
The Honeybee Scriptures

Ladislav R. Hanka is an artist dwelling among the Great Lakes of North America. His artwork examines themes of life, death and regeneration – nature as the crucible in which man finds a reflection of his own life and meaning. Most recently this work has involved close collaboration with honeybees and placing his drawings and etchings into living beehives. This contribution to Amsterdam Quarterly is largely excerpted from a book currently being prepared for publication and entitled The Honeybee Scriptures.

I am an artist and keeper of bees — two venerable vocations whose roots extend back to the Neolithic Age and into a time when the roles of artist and shaman were essentially interchangeable. The several etchings you see here, encrusted with amber-hued beeswax, are made in the time-honoured way, much as Rembrandt recorded the Dutch landscape on copper plates in the 17th century. They are made by hand and rely upon extensive fieldwork before being completed in studio. These works often take on a second life, when I insert them into a living beehive, where bees take over and continue the now collaborative creative process.

Bees will eventually cover everything in wax or even capped honey — or conversely, they may take a dislike to the intrusion, in which case swarms of little critics will start chewing up my precious artwork. I must therefore continually monitor the hive in order to reclaim my work when I deem it to be completed.

Entering the hive to check on developments is not as dramatic as you may think. Generally I can dip my hands into the living, swirling bug soup unmolested and inspect my art as well as the larval bees and honey stores, while the bees go calmly about their business. There are, however, days when bees soon become agitated and then the interspecies communication is direct. If you are wilful enough to ignore guard bees bouncing off your forehead, you deserve to be stung – and yes, I do get stung.

Ladislav R. Hanka, Cottonwood Trinity Enfolded in Living Amber Honeybees, © 2017, etching with drypoint and beeswax added by honeybees in a living hive. Collection of Kalamazoo Nature Center, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

Still, the collaboration has been well worth any discomfort I may suffer. These wondrous, little beasties have rewarded my efforts richly, adding their accretions of wax in the exquisite ways with which Mother Nature has equipped them. I find their additions to be as inevitably elegant as the endless variety of gently curving veils of honeycomb you’ll find hanging from the domed ceilings within a bee tree. But why am I so taken with all this to stay with it for years? That is harder to say and requires reaching more for evocation and metaphor than relying upon direct answers. Perhaps a story is the best way to enter that unstable ground.

Ladislav R. Hanka, Dragonfly Draped in Honeycomb, etching with drypoint and beeswax added by honeybees in a living hive, © 2018.

The scene is of an old woman, home alone and watching TV, when they announce a contest for the most beautiful tree in all the land. This gets her attention, for she has a grand old pear tree in the garden — her companion from childhood. Like herself, the tree is growing old and withering away, but clearly a contender. History and character are there in spades, etched into every knobby crook and knotted, gnarly joint. She takes a picture, sends it in and wins the contest. Happy as a clam, she hangs the prize up on the tree for all to see. A year goes by and they run the popular contest again, so she catches a ride into town for the award ceremonies.

The popular Czech comedian, Jaroslav Dušek, hosted that show and as he tells it, the previous year’s winner came up on stage and cryptically handed him a wine bottle. ‘Well now, dear Auntie,’ he asked her in his best stage voice, ‘what have we here?’ And she told him. without equivalent stagecraft, that her pear tree won the prize last year, and then soon after, began to noticeably green up, sprouting new leaves and even branches. But, that’s not all.

When spring arrived, her tree blossomed as never before and hosted absolutely remarkable numbers of bees. The ensuing fruit too, was bountiful and then received a full summer’s sun. Well, that dear old pear tree hadn’t born any fruit in years. As she watched those pears ripen to a full rich flavour, she knew she was witnessing a miracle.

And that bottle she handed off on stage? Well, that sweet little old lady had picked, mashed and fermented the pears herself and then carefully distilled the wine in the time-honoured way of her ancestors. She’d produced a powerful clear brandy — the very essence of all that is delectable about a pear at its late summer peak — and proof positive, that the dear old tree appreciated being noticed.

Ladislav R. Hanka, Dragonfly Embellished with Veils of Living Amber, etching with drypoint and beeswax added by honeybees in a living hive, © 2018.

Well, my friends, I have drawn enough old trees, meditated in their shade and listened to them tell me their stories, that I know the truth about trees when I hear it. All the many creatures, with whom we share God’s green earth, wither away with neglect, or conversely, come to life and blossom when bathed in loving attention — me, thee, trees and bees included.

This is why I draw trees, mushrooms, minnows and spiders, and why I also talk to my bees. I urinate in the bee-yard to be sure they know my smell and they reward my attentions by working on my etchings with a sensitivity that speaks of knowing my intentions.

Bees do seem to know a lot and they clearly have a relationship with their keeper. Folklore is rich with anecdote about this. As recently as 2007, a Scottish newspaper commented upon an elderly beekeeper’s funeral near Edinburgh — that his bees swarmed and followed the hearse right into the churchyard. Attending their master’s funeral is a phenomenon that is often mentioned in the folklore of beekeeping. In my own maternal Czech tongue, there’s a separate word for death, when used for animals as opposed to people — except when bees die. Then we use the human expression for passing.

There is something special about bees and it goes way back — back before the word itself was even written. It may not sound like good science, but it is good myth, as well as truth writ large — the kind of truth with roots that run deep enough to sustain us in hard times. This is, of course, the very point of art — at least any art that hopes to feed our souls tomorrow, and next year as well. Such art must contain a generous spectrum of experience — from the mythic to the spiritual, the technical and serious, to the downright laughable.

And so I indulge in creating scripture, drawings and etchings — which are then annotated, redacted, and embellished by honeybees. I have also seen fit to tell my stories, not so much as definitive statements of truth, handed down from on-high, but in ways which I hope will open the doors of perception a crack and allow others entry, to observe the artist at play — as a fly on the studio wall. Storytelling has a way of going off on tangents that are indeed telling — that inadvertently allow something more to slip out. One’s nagging doubts and questionable motivations come out, alongside admissions of living with contradiction in an imperfect world — one in which we rarely live up to our own beliefs and standards. With some luck, even the big questions, so boldly sincere, we know not how they escaped our notice, will see the light of day — the ones that force us to look at the unexamined.

Opening a hive is good for clarifying the order of things — for getting out of one’s head and abstraction and back to the present — fully conscious. One’s attention assumes a crystalline clarity, when focused upon the sound of tens of thousands of buzzing insects, each with a venom-laden stinger just inches away. They get increasingly agitated as I reach in and pull out their winter stores. I read the ledger of their lives in frame after frame of brood and honey in order to manage the hive, but it’s not without its limits. There comes a point when they’ve had enough of my intrusions. They tend to let one know, but we do need to be attentive. Since I generally wear little more than light summer clothing, I really do need to be sensitive to their communication, or suffer the consequences.

Anna Ill Marovich, Lad with his girls, photograph, © 2017.

Bees are my subject here as well as my collaborators and medium. Honeybees are, of course, in trouble and anybody who has not been living under a rock should be getting nervous about that and the source of their own food in the very near term. The artwork being immersed in hives is a culmination of thirty years of work as a printmaker and informed by my decades as a naturalist, zoologist, and environmentalist — even as a monitor of nuclear power plants and as a chemist synthesizing pesticides. I have at times worked for the evil empire, taken its money and eaten the food from its fields. Of course, when you get close to it, this evil empire becomes much more nuanced and composed of many disturbingly normal and limited people with complexes of mixed motives as well as needs and fiduciary responsibilities that lead to questionable choices made under the usual clouds of obscuring conflicted interests. How dreadfully ordinary.

Honeybees, however, are far from ordinary. They have not only entered my artwork, but gotten under my skin and into my blood. There is nothing quite like settling down in the grass after a day of tending bees, next to a hive and popping a beer. Going off into mid-summer reverie, I enter dreamtime as the workaday world recedes into mere background noise. The hum and the smell of a hive permeating my immediate environment is positively intoxicating, as bees alight on my skin, sniff around and fly off again — just doing what bees do. Such are the timeless, primordial pleasures that life can offer, when a stolen moment, shared with bees, telescopes into a glimpse of eternity.

There is an undeniable intelligence at work in a beehive. Working with bees you learn to respect that and indeed care about these endearing creatures and the folklore that has arisen around their tending and care. Esoteric traditions speak of an Akashic Record in which all things from all times are recorded and accessible to those who’ve earned the right of entry. Among the many works of art being harvested from my beehives, there are several fanciful entries into that very book of records, opened to pages featuring decomposers and pollinators. Elsewhere bugs and bushes will be seen intruding at the edges of untended fields, while under the surface, the roots of agricultural row crops are being infiltrated by beetles, snakes and Sassafras rhizomes. A book of books … perhaps a Scriptum Apium melliferum, or indeed the Honeybee Scriptures.

Ladislav R. Hanka, Fields Going Wild and Embalmed by Honeybees, etching with drypoint and beeswax added by honeybees in a living hive, © 2018. Collection of Midwest Museum of American Art, Elkhart, Indiana, USA.

In the great cycle of being, creation and decomposition are but two sides of one coin recorded in this Librum aeternum on verso and recto sides of the same sheet. Bees pollinate and plants reconfigure the molecules of air, soil and water, which soil fungi then again pry loose from the dead and release back into the system. Of course, bees are in trouble and bee trees are increasingly rare. Crops are now threatened by a paucity of pollinators. Even the once resilient decomposing side of the cycle is weakened by pernicious pollutants, which, having no obvious chinks in their armour, are not easily broken down. All the earth is an interdependent system of connected vessels — much like the lava in one volcano, which recedes into the depths of the earth in response to the lava in another volcano hundreds of miles away swelling up into the cone and flowing up over the lip and down its fiery slopes.

Ladislav R Hanka, The Book of Decomposers Ornamented by Honeybees, etching with drypoint and beeswax added by honeybees in a living hive, © 2017.

I’d like to do something about all of that, but I am neither scientist nor politician. I am an artist and a beekeeper — member of two ancient, esoteric brotherhoods whose roots reach back into the mists of time and down to the very bedrock of civilization — among the first professions. Seventeen thousand years ago, a colleague artist working in the Spanish Cave of the Spider clearly depicted a person collecting honey from a bee-tree. Our interactions with honeybees thus appear to rival those with dogs, pigeons and horses as the earliest domestication of animals. As conservators of ancestral knowledge, entrusted to be carriers of the culture, there is an added burden placed upon us to bear witness.

Ladislav R Hanka, Decomposers Embalmed by Honeybees, etching with drypoint and beeswax added by honeybees in a living hive, Ladislav R. Hanka, © 2017.

In both of these callings, as artist and as keeper of the bees, I am entering primordial, mysterious worlds that are at once alluring and potentially dangerous. But come walk with me to the studio and over to the bee yards. We’ll have a closer look. It’s no secret to beekeepers that our bees respond differently to our presence than to that of invading strangers. They know far more than you might think.

The brain of a bee is admittedly minuscule, but a hive can easily contain 50,000 inhabitants — which is equal to the population of a modest-sized town with schools, clinics, delinquents, police, sewage treatment plants and manufacturing. Bees clearly learn from experience and communicate within the hive what they have learned. But does that extend to actually being interested in me and my artwork? The additions they make do seem to have a compositional sense to them – framing devices of sorts – embellishments, but somehow appropriate. Bees appear to understand what the two-dimensional drawings and etchings I give them actually represent. I once even witnessed a queen respond to an engraved image of a bee several times her size – as if it were a living competitor. She tried to kill that depiction of a bee just as she would a strange queen trespassing in her hive — with a sting to the abdomen. To the biologist still dwelling deep within my bones, that sounds far-fetched, yet I cannot deny what I witnessed. Every bee-keeper has such stories to tell. Hunters, farmers and fishermen – much the same. Every dog owner knows their pet responds to them with intelligence and compassion. We are not so separable you, and I — we tool users and reflective beings — from the world we inhabit.

Night-flying Pollinators Embalmed by Honeybees, etching with drypoint and beeswax added by honeybees in a living hive, © 2018

My artwork extends to a fascination with bee trees — large, dominant trees with prominent features, in whose bark a mere fissure or knothole can lead to a complete world of domed chambers deep within, where legions of bees, guard their golden trove of honey. And then there are the parasites living inside the hive and pollination and the healing properties of honey and on and on it goes — one thing leading to the next — cycles without beginning, endpoint or resolution.

The beauty inhering in these works of art is, of course, based in the usual uses of line and composition to make some sort of elusive and nuanced statement, but beyond that is the synergistic effect that collaboration introduces to the process. We seem predisposed to being charmed by beautiful surprises more than by our own clever manipulations. I find that I typically approach the hive in anticipation of what the girls will have done this time – the smile that sneaks in unannounced when I open the hive.

What we are beholding here is nothing less than the elegance of form following function at the very level of biology, as the veils of honeycomb come down the fronts of my etchings and occlude some of my preciously composed works of art. Oftentimes those little pin-head sized brains of the cute fuzzy little bugs seem to comprehend composition and design and follow my lead as if they were colouring within the lines or picking up the motion I have begun and continuing with that rhythm in the media of wax, propolis and honey.

Ladislav R. Hanka, Queen bee stinging the depiction of a much larger bee, photograph, © 2018.

Perhaps it is indeed the realization of a morphogenic field – of an artwork whose time has come and which desires to become manifest through the intelligence of the hive or perhaps all hives and all queens as one. Consciousness – perhaps it is indivisible — an omnipresent and universal attribute inhering in all material. Imagine that – and be consequential in your imaginings!

Other times the bees will begin to chew the paper away – get good purchase on an exposed edge and keep at it — all my efforts quickly going back to undifferentiated cellulose and tossed out with the dead. Then again, those remaining chewed edges can also be breathtakingly elegant as all nature ultimately is. Form and function. Evolution. Chance and necessity. Survival of the fittest – but not just the old red of tooth and claw saw, but also the elegant solution – like mathematical equations. It is so because it must be — cannot be otherwise. The destruction of a volcano or a flood is breathtaking even within its violence and destruction. The ruthless efficiency of large cats — a dragonfly darting out to catch a honeybee which it carefully holds away from its body as it delicately munches it down to the stinger and tosses it away — all much the same.

Ultimately, we learn to care about that, to which we direct our attention. What is love, if not the capacity for inclusion and learning to care about that which is not just an extension of one’s ego? And art too, is typically directed outward to that which we behold of the world around – much more so than being a mere mirror, held up to our own precious, egoic delusions. What after all, does a Bach Sonata mean? Hard to say, but it seems to stay relevant over centuries, while the issues of the day change with vertiginous frequency. Music is a primary human concern, rather than something that has utility in the service of other ends. It has intrinsic value. We feel better for having meaningful music enter our lives, but it’s very hard to say how or why that should be. Good art works that way. And like rust, it never sleeps. AQ

Alex & Jim Ross – Encounter

Photos by Alex Ross
Text by Jim Ross

Standing in the canal’s shallow waters, the blue heron holds her neck in a relaxed, “S” position. When something catches her eye, she studies its movement and gravitates almost imperceptibly in its direction. As a call to alarm, allegro con brio, the heron straightens her neck, flaps her wings, and hovers above the canal, like a ballerina on pointe, arms held aloft.

She touches down again in somewhat deeper waters, contracts her neck into an “S,” and darts to her right. Leaning forward, she elongates and narrows her neck. Running, she repeatedly dips her head and most of her neck below the waterline. After several scoops, she throws her head back, holding in her beak a five-feet-long snake. Standing, she flaps her wings, as the writhing snake throws its weight in one direction, then another, and pulls free.

Undeterred, she lengthens her neck again and starts jabbing repeatedly beneath the waterline. Again, she captures the snake, stands with a still-elongated neck, and starts running. The snake throbs, jerks left, throws itself right, and breaks free again.

The same process of pursuit and breaking free occurs a third time.

Still undaunted, the heron throws herself at the water while running full tilt, captures the snake in her beak and, using her wings for propulsion, runs toward the banks. She has a firmer grip now, about six inches behind the snake’s head. The snake convulses, heaving wildly.

The heron opens her beak to reposition the snake and chomp down closer to its head. Repositioning strategically, she finally chomps right behind the snake’s head. In turn, the snake finally stops writhing and wriggling. Instead, it begins coiling around the heron’s beak, her right thigh, and again around her beak. The snake’s tail barely wraps once around the heron’s neck. It’s unclear whether the snake’s intent is to break the heron’s thigh, distract her so it can escape, prevent her chomping down again on its head, or simply to outlast her.

To disentangle herself from the snake’s coils, the heron raises her beak. She apparently doesn’t realize that, because the snake connects beak to thigh—just as Geppetto’s strings connected to Pinocchio—she inadvertently lifts her right thigh too. Not expecting this, she tips over clumsily, falling on her beak. She flaps her wings furiously to stand upright and doesn’t lose hold of the snake. Still not grasping what just transpired, the heron repeats the same maneuver: lifts her beak, inadvertently lifts her right thigh, falls over onto her beak, flaps her wings furiously, and uprights herself. Throughout, the heron holds on. The snake too hangs on.

It’s clear now the snake simply lacks the strength to writhe free. After repositioning, the heron squeezes the snake right behind its head. After repeated attempts to chomp down directly on the snake’s head, the heron suddenly throws the snake down on the ground, jumps backward, and kicks her legs to break free of the coils, once and for all.

She backs up, observes the slowly convulsing snake for 20 seconds, pecks at it a few times, then picks it up, chomps down a few times hard on its head, and throws it in the air like a cowgirl tossing up a lasso. As the snake comes down head first in a vertical line, the heron opens her beak, tilts her head back, and catches the snake as it passes directly into her elongated neck. The first nine inches disappear.

The heron’s neck distends as she repeatedly forces the snake along a few inches at a time. Eventually, all that remains is the curling end of the snake’s tail. It hangs there for several discomforting minutes, like a demon’s tongue, until she says, “Let’s finish this,” and then the tail disappears too.

The heron moves unsteadily like a drunk who has overdone it this time. She looks ready to topple over from the ordeal. For several minutes, she stands on the banks motionless. She then strides into shallow waters and continues standing still with her neck in a distended S position.

Eventually, she bends, scoops up a beak full of water, throws her head back as if she were doing shots, and swallows hard. A chaser. Five times she repeats this action in slow motion, poco a poco, each time swallowing not quite as hard as the time before. It looks as if the heron’s having devoured the snake whole may yet prove a pyrrhic victory.

An hour later, as dusk approaches, the heron stands completely still in the canal’s deeper waters, surrounded by early fallen leaves. Her distended lower neck evidently still houses the snake. She seems content now. A small snake swims into the leafy undergrowth as the heron surveys her surroundings.