Natural Image in Myrtlewood

Tell me, what do you see?

From Page 222 of “Myrtlewood Memoirs” that welcomes comments here.

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New Book!

Available at

Myrtlewood Memoirs is the story of a nature artist’s life with myrtlewood.
Never before has anyone looked so deeply into this national treasure, the
myrtlewood of Southern Oregon’s coastal region, and revealed so much
about its inner workings as in this first book ever written about myrtlewood.
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News, Art Events

Raptor at Fallbrook Art Center

Two art pieces by Terry Woodall have been selected for the month long art exhibition, “Reflections of Nature and Beyond” taking place May 1 to May 30, 2021, at the Fallbrook Art Center, Fallbrook, California. A wall hanging of wild horses titled “Stampede” and a 3-D raptor scene are the exhibiting pieces.

Also recently completed is a carving of African wildlife specially commissioned by Christine Stockton of Roseburg, Oregon. All the pieces are carved from Oregon myrtlewood, including the rustic base.

Carved wall hanging, by Terry Woodall, showing at the Fallbrook Art Center through May. 38″ x 16″
African water hole scene commissioned by Christine Stockton of Roseburg, Oregon. 36″x18″
Detail, African subjects of a specially commissioned art piece, 2021

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What on Earth?! “Clustering”

“Clustering” is the second in a series of drawings in the year of covid-19. The central figures, including the snag, is a 100% natural image taken from the heartwood of a myrtlewood tree. The first drawing can be seen in the March 2020 post.

“Clustering” by Terry Woodall 12″ X 9″

Central figure of vultures clustering on a forest snag is natural pigmentation of the myrtlewood tree, revealed in a cross cut of wood, and super imposed into a pencil drawing.

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Where on Earth?! Rome

“Silence!”  boomed the commanding voice of the uniformed guard as he lorded over the great hall, a hall packed with modern day pilgrims.  Backed by another equally pompous guard, the non-negotiable official brought the loud commotion to a whimpering standstill with his command and a downward motion of his extended arm.

Slowly, and as surely as an ebbing tide, the crowd’s uncontained excitement rebounded from the whimper back to a murmur, and from the murmur to a buzzing tremor, and on to a mini roar beyond the boundaries of the official guard’s patience.   Once again, he penalized the crowd with a bellowing order for “Silence!”

 On and on it went for a dozen more cycles of crowd control until the time slot ended for this batch of visitors that were mostly everyday tourists, with up to two thousand more waiting in line to fill their spot.  Throughout the day the cycles continued, like it must be every day for an attraction as grand as the Sistine Chapel.

High above this tittering fickledom of humanity, the hand of man stretched out for the hand of god in an iconic scene of hope for all, at least according to the paint brush held hand of Michelangelo. The uniformed guard’s insistence on “silence” was meant to impose a humble reverence on the collective gaze aimed at the expansive ceiling high above, and the sanctity of the Chapel in general.

In the depths of winter on a Wednesday at eight in the morning, one hour before the opening, I felt assured of a crowd free entry into this realm of Renaissance art for myself, my wife and our college age daughter.  But not so, for we arrived to the back of an early bird line stretching around an extra-long city block of Vatican buildings.  Supposedly crimping the number of potential visitors even more, this was a few short months after 9-11, when flights were half empty and tourism seemed flat with a pervasive state of shock lingering in the airways.

                                               Roman Forum

Exploring the ruins of the Roman Forum added a special twist to this trip, since I solved a long standing mystery concerning my own career.  A very special tree grows on the hillsides of my Southern Oregon home, and a very special tree lines the Roman Forum of Rome.  The Oregon Myrtlewood trees produce one of the finest woods of the world, and are the main medium of my artworks of carved wildlife.  They’re categorized in their own unique genus-species, Umbellaria californica, but they have a close cousin, Laurus nobilis, that grows only in the southern Mediterranean region.  This laurel produced the leaves used for wreathes that crowned champions of both the Romans and Greeks of ancient times.

 While walking this promenade in the footsteps of the ancients, I was astounded to see this familiar tree, which had every outward appearance of the myrtles of my home.  While smaller in stature, they looked alike, even down to the identical bark. I broke open a leaf to savor its aroma, and sure enough, besides looking the same, it had the exact pungent and spicy scent of the myrtle leaf.  One could also compare this strong scent to the bay leaf used in cooking.

As an artist and writer, I am something of a romantic, and absorbing history has always provided an open door for that romanticism.  Whether it be exploring the sanctuary of Apollo in the mountain stronghold of Delphi, as I did as a backpacking teenager, or strolling down the Roman Forum later in life, experiencing the actual sites of the ancients can truly uplift the human spirit.  Both Delphi and the Roman Forum have these subtle links to my art career, since both locales used honorary wreaths of laurel leaves.

The Greeks of antiquity first introduced the crown of laurel as a reward for victors in athletic, military, poetic, and musical contests.  The Pythian Games were held at Delphi every four years in honor of Apollo, and winners traditionally received a wreath of bay laurel. The laurel tree stood as an important symbol of victory and achievement, based on the following legend.

 Apollo is the god of poets and writers, and the term poet laureate comes from his story.  According to this ancient narrative, Apollo pursued the goddess Daphne until she turned into a laurel tree to escape him.   He pulled off a branch of her tree so she would always be with him, claiming he would wear her in his hair. Hence, Apollo is often depicted wearing a laurel wreath as a symbol of his love for Daphne, and wide spread use of the wreaths became traditional in Greek culture.

The early Romans continued the tradition of the crowning wreath as a reward for triumph, leading to laurel trees lining the forum even in modern times.  The symbolism of the laurel wreath survives to this day, used in the medal designs for modern day Olympic Games.

                                                               Piazza Navona

The expansive Piazza Navona  [a Roman plaza] is a wonderful place to spend an evening, from enjoying oven fired pizza to strolling the extensive sculpted fountains of the piazza.  It has always been a hub of social life, as an outdoor market was held here for centuries.  Before that, the piazza adjoined a stadium, built in the first century A.D., the grand entry of which is still part of the buildings surrounding this great plaza.  Now it is flooded with artists, musicians, locals and visitors, and it was here that we found really authentic, good Italian food.  New York City has better Italian than most restaurants we visited, which offered mediocre fare catering to tourists, but when we found this hole in the wall on Piazza Navona, we went back night after night.

Piazza Navona

 One evening alone on the piazza, I came across a festive crowd gathering around a portrait painter as she finished a handsome rendition for a gracious clientele.  After a few moments of watching the artist at work, a happy go lucky trio of young men came carousing and cackling through the throngs.  Their intoxication was fairly obvious as they directed their attention to the painter at her work.  Suddenly, with a quick downward motion, the lead clown of the macho group whipped out his manhood with a mischievous “here, paint this” gesture.  Although there were a few gasps from the crowd, fortunately neither the painter nor her subject observed or were aware of the crude antics, and the hysterical miscreants moved on.  From the iconic David on down, perhaps there are too many naked statues around for the young males to absorb and still keep their wits about them. *

Late one night, one of my last nights in Rome, Trajan’s Column beckoned with its spire splitting the black sky.  The air seemed refreshingly clean on this cool February night, and the city had calmed down, with only a few Vespa’s buzzing around, that motorbike being the obvious transport of choice throughout Italy.  Even women in fine dress could be routinely seen navigating the boulevards, and many times two or three commuters would be aboard.  But not on this evening devoid of most traffic, and I easily made my way across the main avenues from the Roman Forum to the prominent spire illuminated against the black sky.   

The 115’ high column, built to commemorate Emperor Trajan and his war time victories in the first century A.D., looms large a short distance from the forum.  Intricate scenes of roman life and battles are carved on the exterior of the colossal marble cylinders that form the tower, resulting in 620’ of bas relief frieze.  Built with marble drums each weighing 32 tons and with a diameter of 12’, the Trajan Column is a substantial monument, with many picture stories of early roman life to view on its facade.   After absorbing the telling dramas that unfolded before my eyes, I continued up this avenue of antiquities, and bidding Trajan farewell, I decided this was among my favorite cities.  Shortly thereafter, with a heavyhearted feeling, it was also goodbye to the avenues of Rome.

*Note:  everything written in “Where on Earth?!” stories is factual as seen and experienced by the artist. Quoted conversations and comments are generalizations taken from memory of the actual exchange of words.

Where on Earth?! Rome, Italy

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Where on Earth?! New York Sidewalks

“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans…” John Lennon, 1980.

The hotel was a modest affair, small lobby, small rooms, but always busy, and crowded at peak hours.  Set in a long line of high rises and indistinguishable from the street, the well-worn hotel is average for the city. But location is everything and it’s the spot on the block that counts.  Out the front door and half a block to the left, and Central Park beckons.  To the left again and my sidewalk route is bordered by a long line of Gotham City iron works at its best, all in black, of course.  Gargoyles peer out from a fence framework wrapped in dragons that extends around the base of the prominent Dakota Building. As part of my favorite walking circuit in NYC,  I cross the street that runs between the Dakota and Central Park, and pay homage to Strawberry Fields close by, as I always do when in the Big Apple.

Fence line of the
Dakota Building, Central Park West

The monument to John Lennon is simple in design but powerful in meaning and in its reach through generations.  Three wide sidewalks of Central Park converge on a circle, and set in the center of the foot traffic roundabout is a tiled mosaic, round and flush to the concrete, with one undying word spelled out in its center—“Imagine”.

As could be expected, there is always a guitar strummer singing that song from one of the many park benches lining the sidewalks here; “Imagine all the people, living life in peace”.   Sometimes one can hear a mix of other Lennon-Beatle melodies as well, and the many visitors keep his coffer full.

The ubiquitous street musicians of New York are everywhere and usually a delightful addition to the cityscape.  A favorite on this visit was a one- man junk- band that I happened across with my wife and New York family, well beneath the sidewalks at the Columbus Circle subway station.  Along with much clanging and clatter, various melodies emerged from this cornucopia of sound as we stood in audience.

One man junk band, Columbus Circle subway station

Circling around sidewalks and city streets on a later outing, my route brought me back to that everyday hotel close to Central Park.  As I prepared to embark from the lobby on the elevator, one of the Latino hotel workers joined me.  As the door closed with no other passengers, he began singing a seemingly personalized jingle– “There is a distance between us” dah dah dah, to which I humorously quipped back, “yea, there’s a lot of distance between here and the fourth floor where I am going!”  Ignoring my friendly response, he again repeated the same refrain over and over in a somber tone until I jumped off at my floor.   “There is a distance between us”— neither he nor I had any idea just how prophetic those words would become in a few short months.   However, his lyrical message had nothing to do with social distancing, a term that did not exist at the time.  What was the basis of his message, directed at me in sobering stanzas? It seemed obvious that the “distance between us” was an ethnic- racial reference.

But he did not know me.  He did not know of my life long Spanish “brother” that began from a high school foreign exchange.  He did not know that I was not a tourist here to take selfies at the top of the Empire State Building or in Times Square.   He did not know that I was only here to visit my daughter, son-in-law, and their children at their apartment 2 blocks away, and he did not know that they both work tirelessly on behalf of the under privileged and abused peoples worldwide as careerists in the United Nations.

Besides riding on their successful shoulders in my many visits to the city that they are proud to call home, I have made my own in-roads into the art world of this beating heart of culture.  Twice I have exhibited my work in the area’s only wildlife art museum found a short distance outside the metropolitan environs, and I am currently an exhibiting member of Manhattan Arts International.

As a member of the Artists for Conservation Foundation, I was awarded a grant for an artistic field study of rare or endangered wildlife in their habitat.  A month long study of the world’s only freshwater seal in the remote reaches of Lake Baikal, Russia, ensued, and from that study came sculptures of the seals. That brought me to the New York area’s wildlife art museum. A bronze seal that I created was exhibited in the annual “Art of Conservation” international art exhibition at the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum, a short distance outside of New York City.  Part of the opening night reception of the exhibit was a slide show presentation and my review of the artistic field study on Lake Baikal.

“The Sentinel” Baikal Seal, Bronze, © Terry Woodall

Back in the city, also during the opening weekend of the art exhibition,  an inside tour of the American Museum of Natural History was arranged and hosted by the director of art exhibits and dioramas, Stephen Quinn, who is also a member of Artists for Conservation.  Many wildlife artists attending the exhibition opening were treated to behind the scenes work creating and maintaining the wonderful wildlife dioramas for which the museum is well renowned.

Another day and I find another opportunity to wander New York City sidewalks.  Looking out over the streets from my daughter’s apartment window, a stately and monolithic appearing building has piqued my curiosity.   Five floors down the elevator and I am off to explore this building and its neighborhood.

The historic structure, once a grand hotel, now seemed to be ground floor businesses and upper story apartments.  However, the wide and elegant original lobby passed through the base of the wide building, and in the center were some interesting display cases reflecting the history of the former hotel.  In the center case, baseballs were displayed.  Baseballs?  Well, not just any baseballs, these were autographed by Babe Ruth!  According to some old letters also displayed, this was his favorite New York hotel, and other letters, photos and various memorabilia also attested to his games and stats and visits to the hotel.

I loop across Broadway and down Amsterdam Avenue back towards the apartment and find it refreshing to funnel into the constant street side motion, the movement of people fueled by their daily desires.  Crossing the street I pass by the Beacon, one of New York’s magic music halls.  Glancing up at the marquee, Bob Dylan’s name jumps out, due to perform in a week.

From Babe Ruth to Bob Dylan, from one sidewalk to the other—only while exploring the footpaths of New York City.

Where on Earth?!  New York, New York, January 2020

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What on Earth?! Vulture Alights…

While being in a state of “sick” for most of the month of February, I created this drawing. The vulture is a 100% natural spalted/pigment image from the grain of a Myrtlewood tree, super imposed into the pencil drawing.

“Vulture Alights, Vulture Awaits”
by Terry Woodall    12″ x 9″

What on Earth?! Central figure, natural myrtlewood image; art created, March 2020.

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Where on Earth?! Sian Ka’an Biosphere

With a sweeping gesture that seemed to encompass all the sky that lorded above the reaches of the lagoon, the boatman blurted out “the land where the sky was born!”  Since he was mostly busy with navigating narrow channels of mangrove and churning across the expansive aquamarine waters, his few spoken words carried an extra weight that grabbed everyone’s attention.  Indeed, row after row of a subtle and light cloud cast extended far into the distance and brushed every horizon.  The flat jungle plain beyond the lagoon seemed to extend the horizons, and the elements of the distant sea at our backs completed this surreal realm of sky birthing.

In Mayan lore, there were specific gods tasked with raising the heavens, and four deities called ”sky bearers” hold up the sky at each corner.  Ancient Mesoamerican inscriptions denote the sky with a segmented sky- band glyph, with celestial objects sometimes added into the band.  These sky bands appear in some murals painted in the nearby site of Tulum.

Ethnic pride of a deep Mayan heritage beamed from our guide as he continued maneuvering our small craft along the marine routes once navigated by the ancients.  My wife and I, the boatman and a guide, and a young couple that had been seeking remote Mayan ruins were the lucky ones lost in this world of lagoons and sky bequeathed by the ancients, at least for this tropical afternoon.

As we drifted along these canals engineered in millenniums past one of their ancient temples suddenly appeared on a jungle encrusted spit of land.  A stop to explore this small edifice was initiated, and I found myself backing away from a large hornet nest hidden in its dank and dark interior.   For one mile- long section of  canal, which began at the temple, we simply floated with life vests, carried by the cool current while enjoying the resplendent life both below and above the water.

It had taken a long jungle trail to arrive at the lagoon launching point, and along the way we traversed a step back into the time of the Mayan empires, strolling among their temples and sculptures of stone at a site called Chunyaxche [also known as Muyil].   This was a tranquil place, with pathways interconnecting building sites with the main plaza.  Rock rubble scattered around the edges and half walls appearing and disappearing in the verdant blanket of jungle growth.  All around was a feeling of stillness, yet a soft background hum of birds and insects was ever present.  One section of trail hosted a sudden convergence of noisy Chachalacas, a pigeon like bird with an extra long tail.

Meandering along, we explored the main plaza or civic center, where special rites and community gatherings occurred in the ancient city [settlements date back to 300 BC, the city peaked in 700 AD].  After passing a few more remnants of early habitation, the trail lead us to the cities’ majestic pyramid, ”El Castillo”, the castle.   A temple topped this edifice, jutting above the highest layer of trees in this flat, sylvan world.

Heron images, temple in ancient Mayan ruins.

To my delight, two heron figures carved in relief graced the base of the temple high above the ground.  “El Castillo” supported what could have been the temple of the herons.  In this moment, I felt a special connection to this temple, since my most successful carving to date was a pair of herons.

An original stone track known as a scabe, roads that connected many Mayan cities, continued through the jungle from the ruin site to the boat launch.   These Mayan roads originally connected this site of Chunyaxche with the more well- known ruined cities of Tulum and Coba, Tulum being a main seaport.  The scabe that we were following once connected with trade routes that used ocean going canoes, navigating this same lagoon and sometimes landing on a beautiful sandy beach nestled beneath the templed cliffs of Tulum.  Chunyaxche ‘s access to the sea  was a myriad of waterways dotted with mangrove islands, including man made canals, lagoons, lakes and cenotes that immersed the jungle lowland and sprawled for miles until finally reaching the sea.  This is the Sian Ka’an, land where the sky is born.

Temple of Herons, Chunyaxche, Mexico

*                            *                         *                       *                         *                             *

Up the road a ways lie the ruins of Tulum, a sight I had dreamed about seeing when in high school.  One magazine photo set my dreams alive with the most alluring ancient ruin I had ever chanced upon, an idyllic Mayan temple set on cliffs directly above a turquoise sea.  And the day came when that dream materialized like heat waves begetting a mirage.

In that time past here was no town of Tulum like there is today, only the temples and scattered stone buildings, the cenote, and a stone wall encircling the site.  It was not on the way to anywhere, on an isolated edge of the vast Quintana Roo jungle plain.  One string of two lane pavement ran parallel to the sea and connected one end of this flat jungle plain to the other, from the lively Caribbean flavored seaport of Chetumal bordering Belize in the south, to the empty, far northeastern corner of the Yucatan Peninsula that would one day harbor the resort city of Cancun.  In this time of my youthful exploration there were only a few tiny fishing villages, isolated as much from each other as they were from the rest of the world.

We were four youths out for adventure, a band of backpacking brothers, two Americans and two Mexican Nationals.  Back in that day, the Mayan ruins of Tulum, which means “City of Dawn”, sat forlorn and mostly forgotten, but they were the main target of my odyssey through Mesoamerica’s past.

“Could this be it?”  One backpacker exclaimed with great reservation.  A passing truck had deposited us at an intersecting dirt road.  Off the dirt track an abandoned guard shack the size of a school bus shelter sat sinking into the sandy terrain, and there was no signage to be seen.

“Must be, let’s see what’s down the road,” I responded.  Within a mile we were rewarded by a high stone wall with an opening leading to a fantasy realm of cultures past.  We thoroughly explored the ruins, crawling into the Temple of the Frescoes and admiring the faded mural of warriors, climbing to the top of El Castillo and enjoying its magnificent view of the Caribbean Sea.  We swam in the sea below the cliffs where El Castillo perched, nosing among small caves and ledges with their sea life, and watched as a small shark swam about.

And still there were no other people around—not another soul.  The four of us took the solitude for granted, for it was an abandoned ruin that was uninhabited for many centuries, and the quiet demeanor seemed as it should be.

Today, the archeological site of Tulum hosts, on average, 3,000 visitors;  per day.  A disneyesque entry of restaurants, tour bus parking lots, performance areas, gift shops, and photo ops spreading out for acres has replaced the forlorn guard shack and dirt road.

*                                   *                                   *                                *                                   *

This land where the sky was born inspired me to think of my own land where my own sky was born everyday—above the Pacific coastline and the bay of Coos with its border of towering sand dunes.

“Where the sky was Born” could take on many meanings, and I thought that every day could be a new birth of the sky.  One late winter morning came to mind, a morning sky that generated the most incredible rainbow of all my life memories.  It came over the bay, a wide bay bordered by a horizon of sand dunes rolling and rising to varying heights. This rainbow formed in tandem with the rising sun, which bathed all the roiling clouds in a pink glow above the blue expanse of bay waters and the undulating sand hills.

It seemed to be the most beautiful rainbow ever, in tandem with and bathed by a glowing pink sunrise, stretching from the bay to the dunes—a full arch with an unbelievable color band of soft pink pastels, like no other color bands commonly seen in a rainbow.  The mighty perpetuator of these weather events, the Pacific Ocean, lay beyond the bay and line of dunes, and out over this ocean other rainbows of the same hue appeared, dropping straight down out of the clouded, turbulent sky in short and wide bands with no arching.  Of course, if this sublime vista of a pastel rainbow were the norm, and a brilliant rainbow of true colors was the rare oddity, then the brightly colored rainbow could be considered the most beautiful ever.  It’s just a matter of perception.

Where on Earth?!  Sian Ka’an Biosphere, Muyil, Mexico, March 2019 — Tulum, Mexico, Summer of 1971 – Coos Bay, Oregon, USA

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Where on Earth?!? Madrid, Spain

Sometimes there’s all good, sometimes there’s all bad, and sometimes it’s good and bad.  I was elated at being selected for a “Wildlife Artist of the Year” finalist, which included showing my work at the exhibit in the Mall Galleries, London.  The cost of shipping the bronze sculpture that was in the show was more than an airplane ticket, so I opted to fly with the bronze and attend the exhibit.

In the same time frame, the story of Jose [my foreign exchange student- brother from high school] took a downward turn. I learned about his dire situation shortly after buying a ticket to London.  When I received a photo of him in his current condition, it was immediately obvious that the lights weren’t on.   I added on a short round trip flight from London to Madrid.

Upon arriving on my poignant mission to Madrid, I was directed to Jose’s office with its overnight accommodations by Esther and Pablo, his adult children and immediate caretakers. The “office” of Jose was a basement in a high rise apartment complex, which obviously served as his personal man cave as well.  Upon entering, a spacious great room opened up bordered by a small kitchenette, with a stoic  dining table extending just beyond the entry way.  To the left was a tall poster depicting the cathedral of Vitoria that was labeled with the architectural office of Jose’s grandfather, who had designed this monumental edifice.  Beyond was a pool table, overstuffed chairs and random antique furnishings, some ancient and crude.  The walls were hung with portraits and scenes of another time that looked like prizes from an antique market, but were not.  They were actual portraits of Jose’s ancestors, and one pasture scene was painted by an uncle on a sheet of metal framed in painted wood.  The designated office nook with desk and couches was set prominently amidst the paintings.

One end of the grand dining table was strewn with bills and paper work, as if Jose had just stepped out from his daily routines; the other end was spotless except for  a round and leathery keepsake box that sat all by itself at the head of the table. It was begging to be opened, and with little hesitation I peered inside Jose’s guardian of treasures and froze. For there, at the very top of its contents, was a fuzzy wool mascot, the type that typically adorns high school letterman jackets. This, a Trojan warrior head, was the mascot of our high school and was only presented for the very top sports and special achievement awards.  To think that this was the top prize in his treasure box, a high school relic from almost fifty years ago, astonished me, especially considering his long career that took him all over Europe and to China, and his hundreds of friends along the way.  A multitude of buttons from a military jacket of long ago, presumably from one of Jose’s family patriarchs, were the only other keepsakes of top ranking found within.

Jose’s presence draped the large room like a loose fitting shroud, a shroud of welcome and warmth.  In his true fashion, a cookie jar on the counter of the kitchenette proclaimed “To the home of a friend the road is never long.”   But Jose was not home, due to one unfortunate event on a winter day in busy city traffic.  While on his motorcycle, a taxi swerved without seeing him, which threw him onto the windshield and ricocheted him into a steel fence that served as a guard rail beside the busy highway.  When doctors were through saving his life, it was learned that much of his mental capacity was gone, that he could not use his arms again, and would be wheel chair bound indefinitely. The ultimate prognosis was that in one year’s time he would either gain back his mental faculties, or not.

My introductory visit late in the day of my arrival was with Esther by car, and she showed me the route by metro for my solo visits.  She guided me to an old nunnery that was converted into a soulful and pastoral long term care facility. Esther constantly talked to Jose, played classical music well into his long nights, and did everything she could to soothe his hidden soul.  Needless to say, I was emotionally distraught by this first visit.

With the early morning rise of the next day, I poked around the kitchenette for coffee and found a simple manual French press that resulted in concentrated espresso.  Milk in the fridge seemed fresh enough and the countertop provided a crystal sugar bowl complete with a spoon, from which I added two heaping teaspoons to the aromatic brew.  Pleased to start the day at full velocity, I gulped at the hot beverage with delight; and immediately gagged and choked and hurled into the sink!  How on earth did this go so badly?  I searched for clues, sniffed the milk in the fridge again, and finally discovered that the sugar bowl was actually salt!  Which goes to show, no matter how familiar you are with friends of other countries, some cultural differences can take you by surprise.

The whole episode of this short weekend in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula was like a dream that I was floating through.  Here was my “Spanish brother” and close friend in an extreme state of distress and mostly oblivious to the world around him. I spent a full day in a one sided conversation, talking a constant stream of memories and hope for his future as I pushed him around the serene grounds of the old nunnery in his wheelchair. Mostly he maintained the same pose of head bent down and kicking his restless legs.  Only twice did he lift his head and gaze into my eyes with a faint glimmer of hope and recognition.

When in an abnormal and emotionally strained situation, the events and interactions around you can seem unusually strange as well.  Late that last evening, on a hot summer night in a sweltering city, I took a long stroll seeking Spanish wine and cuisine.  The grand Plaza Castilla and its traffic circle opened up before me, and two matching skyscrapers leaned crazily over the boulevard as if they were in need of a cantilever.

Disregarding the flashy restaurants around the grand plaza, I found a quiet sidewalk cafe down a side street that had a superb offering of authentic plates.  After the red wine was poured, I glanced about my surrounding.  Windows lined the street side where busy outdoor tables were set, and the interior followed clean lines of pine tables and shelves and light polished tile.  It was not overly crowded inside, and I watched as the sun began to set with an amber glow against the city skyline.

Suddenly a disk of metal flew off one of the high shelves and clattered across the floor, startling two women patrons a few tables away.  The shelving was in my line of vision and I saw the source of the action, a lineup of various dispensers. I retrieved the rolling metal and discovered it to be the lid of a salt shaker.  Salt again!  There were no earthquake tremors, no trucks rumbling by, and no extra vibrations to detach the lid from the dormant salt shaker on the high shelf.  It simply flew off.

I was reminded of that juvenile prank of middle school where the lid is removed and lightly set in place on the shaker, so the next user would have a generous portion dumped onto his meal. I also pondered over the mystery of these two encounters with salt at the beginning and end of the same day, and all the old sayings spun through my mind;

“Take it with a grain of salt”  “pour salt on the wound”  “Worth his salt” “Salt of the Earth”  “back to the salt mine”.

To satisfy my curiosity, some later research revealed salt superstitions from cultures around the world.

“If you spill salt, you must throw a pinch over your left shoulder to cancel out the bad luck of spilling salt”.   {Ancient Rome}

The use of salt to ward off evil:  “Evil cannot abide salt”. {Shinto}

Salt would also be thrown on a fire, and would pop and crackle to ward off spirits. {Celtic}

And appropriately:  spilled salt is an omen, “every grain of salt will turn into a tear”.

After leaving the restaurant the surreal evening continued with faint notes of music that increased in volume somewhere ahead in the dimly lit streets. It was approaching midnight and I assumed a party was gaining momentum in the neighborhoods up ahead.  As I walked on towards Jose’s “office” the crescendo arose well beyond the level of a private party.  What could this be?  Eventually I came to edge of a large park, and, unbelievably, in the middle of this greenway was a full symphony orchestra, playing at full tilt.

Filling the park were five thousand chairs set before an expansive stage, and standing room only included crowds lined up along the street to enjoy the late night performance.  I indulged in the classical notes with the street crowd well past midnight.  Imagine, in my short two day visit of this city that on this night a full symphony orchestra would be in full swing directly at the end of Jose’s street, only a long block away from his office.  It was as if it were a timely and welcome salute to my endearing Spanish brother.

I turned up his street as the crescendo continued unabated, my mind swirling from the sensory bombardment of the last forty eight hours.  Retiring to his office apartment, I shot a few solo rounds at the pool table, and spent the rest of the night without sleep. At seven the next morning I was on a plane flying out of Madrid.

The constant attention and support Jose received from immediate family is a classic example of objective reality changed by subjective persuasions.   I am convinced that if Jose was abandoned in the old nunnery he would never regain his mental faculties and would remain in the same state indefinitely.  As it were, the constant coaxing from his family exercised his brain back into a normal state of cognitive abilities.  Within ten months of the accident, by that Christmas, he got to go home to his family and his lights were back on.

Where on Earth?!?  Madrid, Spain, 2017


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Where on Earth?! Segovia and Madrid, Spain; Brockway, Oregon

I remember, I remember; a heady spring day when the pasture grass climaxed in the balmy air and the stout oaks cast their shadows over rolling hills.  A quiet country road meandered through these hills which my Spanish brother Jose and I navigated on a random outing typical of the young in the springtime of their lives.

As we pedaled the tandem bike in unison, a song, also in unison, bellowed from the carefree lungs of our zestful youth, and it went like this:

“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they would never end, those were the days, oh yes, those were the days, la la la—la la la”  [1968 hit song by Mary Hopkin]

The oak trees seemed ancient, and near a rickety corral of barn board a tree trunk championed a sizable oval burl.  Its normally rough bark was polished smooth by a century of bovine hide using it as a rubbing stone. A flock of sheep were milling about the aging stockade, and a white haired oldster was coaxing the animals into a semblance of order.

We stopped the double bike at this point of interest, and Jose immediately ventured a dialogue, which quickly became an animated conversation in a language that I did not understand.  The old shepherd was from a land called Euskadi, and Jose’s ancestry was also tied to this land, as his grandfather was the architect for designing and constructing the cathedral of Euskadi’s capital, Vitoria. The always friendly Jose spoke in the Basque tongue with the shepherd as if they were in their homeland, which was at least five thousand miles away, for this road led to a rural Oregon crossing that was known as Brockway.

The crossroads at Brockway harbored one of those old general stores with a false front looming over the entry with “Brockway Store” painted in large blocky letters.  Inside was the ubiquitous wood stove where the old timers were posted to broadcast the farm reports, spin yarns and chew tabaccy.  At this juncture, we turned the bicycle built for two around and cruised back to my boyhood home.

Watercolor by Mel Vincent ©

When we were both sixteen, Jose came to our household as a foreign exchange student sponsored by the American Field Service, and I have yet to meet a more amiable and gregarious personality.  We were almost denied the opportunity of knowing this character, as AFS was skeptical of our household abilities for hosting a student due to the size and young age of our family.  But my mother went on the warpath and would not quit.  All through that summer of 1968 she battled, until AFS finally gave in and assigned us a student barely before the school year started.

It was such a last minute placement that we did not even have a photograph of our student, and he had only one photo, that of my father.  After traveling three hours north to Portland International Airport, my family gathered at his crowded gate in a state of excited apprehension and curiosity.  As the plane spilled out its cargo of international travelers, we looked and looked, trying to second guess our students identity, but to no avail.

“Mister Woodall, Mister Woodall!” A short, round faced boy with over size glasses was tugging on my father’s shirtsleeve. “I am Jose!” he exclaimed. “He was like an owl peering up at me!” my father humorously recounted from that day.

Leaping ahead half a lifetime, I received a very special invitation.  In the Spanish culture, a fiftieth birthday is a major event and worthy of great celebration, and my wife and I were invited to Jose’s party.  In January 2002, after a sobering walk around ground zero New York City, we found ourselves relishing a lively Madrid tapas bar with Jose and friends.  We were there among other early arrivals, mainly Jose’s rugby chums from Harvard, and there would be many more to come, from Sweden, Germany, England, America and all of Jose’s hometown Spanish friends and relatives.

In between all the festivities, my wife and I ventured into the Spanish countryside, and found ourselves in a small town with a big history.   We followed colossal arching aqueducts, which were built by the Romans in the first century AD, to an enchanting castle perched on a hill overlooking the town.

Well into the twentieth century, water was transported eleven miles from a mountain stream into the heart of Segovia via this aqueduct, which was actually an “aqueduct bridge” that towered ninety feet above us. This marvel of engineering of 167 arches was built with tight fitting stones and no mortar, and is the finest roman aqueduct remaining in Europe.

However, the highlight of the afternoon came from exploring that hilltop castle named Alcazar.  “Wow, where could I find a more enchanted castle!” my wife exclaimed.  It seems she was not alone with that opinion, since the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle was in part modeled after this one by Walt Disney for the centerpiece of his magic kingdom.  Here the lady of my life had some childhood fantasies fulfilled as we climbed and explored hidden staircases with small widows, great halls for royal courts, and soaked in amazing vistas from high in the turret towers.

Jose’s fiftieth birthday party was a lavish affair, and after the main presentations and stupendous dining, everyone was whisked away to the evening entertainment.  After filling up three full sized charter buses, we nearly filled up a broadway theater of Madrid to enjoy its presentation of “Hello Dolly.”

After the show, the leading lady and a top starlet of the Madrid theater scene sought out Jose in the crowded lobby, teetering there with one hand full of roses and scribbling autographs with the other, all the while basking in open admiration and in a constant discussion with Jose.  As I stood there enjoying the scene with Jose at the top of his game, I reminisced of a different time with the tune “those were the days” playing in my head.

Where on Earth?!  Brockway, Oregon;  Segovia, Spain;  Madrid, Spain.

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