To Bee or not to Bee

I love having a beehive in my bedroom!

Honey Factories

I walked upstairs in my friend Karen Aschenbach’s very old Vermont farmhouse and heard a low buzzing drone when she opened the door to her room. There was a large beehive inside the framing and the weathered siding of her family’s large 19th century farmhouse in Charlotte, Vermont. The hive was directly behind the headboard of her bed, separated only by a cracked plater wall covered with colorful peeling floral wallpaper. She told me that she loved the sound of the bees and that their industrious murdering helped her to sleep at night.

Her father was a sculptor named Paul Aschenbach. His ex-wife Anna, (Karen’s mother) had shared a crib with my mother in China when they were infants in the early 1920’s. Paul was the first man I ever saw with a beard.  When he was courting his wife-to-be Anna in Northampton, Massachusetts, he and his art professor were know as “Jesus and his disciple” for their beards and 1940’s bohemian style, when they drove around the area on their motorcycles. 

Paul and his wife had taken vows of poverty and simplicity and lived in a somewhat run down, but wonderful farm on a hillside in rural Vermont, a few miles from Burlington. Paul made sculptures out of wrought iron and enthralled me with his loud pounding of red hot metal on the anvil of his creations, sending sparks and molten metal flying with each crash of his hammer. It remained me of the hammer of Thor and the anvil of Vulcan, mythic bed time stories that my grandmother had read to me. He was the first full time artist I ever saw at work, forging something brand new out of raw materials. My mother took me to a show of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York when I was a child, and she had a photo over the kitchen sink of a wrought iron sculpture entitled  “Busy Woman,” that Paul had made of a woman washing dishes, her arms and hands a whirling chaotic tangle of ambition, energy, order and intention.

Paul Aschenbach

Blacksmiths • Francisco Goya

“Friday! Friday! Friday!

Kiloran Bay • Colonsay, Scotland • Photo by MMB

Sun Loving Cows • Kiloran Bay • Colonsay, Scotland • Photo by MMB

I was hiking on the beautiful isle of Colonsay, home to the McAfee clan off of the west coast of Scotland when I was 9 years old. My mother had told me that there was a legend that if you shouted the word “Friday!” and stamped your feet that the Wee Folk would come and take you away. I was very interested in being swept off into the spirit world, to live with the Wee Folk and continued stomping my feet and shouting “Friday” for several days without much success. The landscape and ethereal spirit of the place did transport me, and there is seldom a day that goes by now that I do not think of that magical island. In my father’s last year he often told me he could see the “Wee Folk” sitting on the window ledges and on tables and chairs in his house. They were always a friendly and peaceful presence and I never doubted that they were there to help him make the transition to the next great adventure. We scattered some of my father’s ashes on the nearby isle of Oransay in a roofless stone priory built by Saint Columba where the chieftains of the McAfee clan were buried – If there is a bridge between the worlds of spirit and matter, its foundations may be on the islands of Colonsay and Oransay.

 When we were hiking there across a sandy tidal flat in 1960, a farmer named Andrew Macneil offered us a ride on a trailer he was pulling behind his tractor, and slowly took us back to our small hotel at the end of a long day of walking. Andrew was one of 4 people who lived on the neighboring island of Oransay, connected to Colonsay twice a day by a sandy strand when the tide went out. My mother asked him what it was like to live so far, far away. He responded by saying “So far away from what?”

Colonsay is a small island, about 8 miles long and 3 miles across at the widest part. It is thought to have been inhabited for over 30.000 years. It was originally called the “Island of the Hazelnuts” and hundreds of thousands of burnt hazelnut shells have been found in archeological digs, though all of the hazelnut trees have long since been cut down. There are ruined forts on top of some small mountains and the area was ravaged, pillaged and ruled by Vikings for several hundred years, which my explain why I had bright blonde hair as a child, as my 23&Me genetic DNA analysis has me as 3% Nordic.

The Wee Folk

Marko, tell me what exactly you are protesting with your long hair?

America burning • 1967

My grandmother, Margaret Thomson, asked me this hirsute question in the summer of 1967, the first year that I had begun to wear longer hair. There was plenty to protest; the military draft, the endless, pointless war in Vietnam, a long and terrible American history of racial injustice, police brutality, cultural mores and tired old ideas that were clearly outmoded; multi year prison sentences for possession of miniscule amounts of cannabis and a host of other outmoded rules and regulations and ways of thinking. Longer hair on young males was just one small visible thrusting counter punch of the new counter culture, which was introducing entirely new ways of walking, talking, eating, drinking, dressing, thinking, creating, celebrating and being, into the new American life.

Mushroom Cloud

Who are those naked pregnant women with shaved heads and all of the kids?

Full Moonrise • Borel Hill, 1976 • Photo by MMB

I lived just down the slope from the top of this beautiful hill for a time in the 1970’s. We would often walk up to the mountain top to see the sun set or the moon rise. It offered stunningly beautiful 360 degree views, from high atop Russian Ridge. On a fog free day one could see San Francisco and most of the Bay Area, as well as the Pacific Ocean across the golden hills, not far out to the west. This photo was taken in July of 1976, America’s bicentennial year – thus the red, white and blue background skies. We lived in a Russian Orthodox Nunnery which had been converted into a house, formerly known as Saint Seraphim’s Sanctuary. The nuns were of a silent order and had two priests in house who did all of the talking and all of the preaching. Our enormous living room with 20 foot ceilings had been their chapel. There were praying stands (for kneeling worship) decorated with elaborately painted Russian icons, distributed randomly throughout the forest of our 17 acre “religious retreat”. There were many dilapidated chicken coop outbuildings, as the mainstay of their income (other than God’s Grace), had been chickens and eggs which they sold to the public. There were 2 ejector seats from fighter jets out amongst the general rubble. There was a pond and a small lake. The adjacent hilltop seen in the photo was then part of a private ranch, and often rifle toting cowboys on horses would chase us young sunset seeking trespassers into the woods before riding off into the sunset.

We had three intentional communities nearby as neighbors. The singer Joan Baez had lived in one called Struggle Mountain, which was the center for her group “The Institute for the Study of Non-violence.” Her husband, the author and activist David Harris, was then in jail for draft resistance. Another community was a sprawling 750 acre ranch simply know as “The Land” where people lived off the grid for free in hand crafted homes and tree houses. Lake swimming at Saint Seraphim’s where I lived was a daily affair in the hot summers, and Gridly Wright, leader of the nomadic, hippie, polyamorous group known as Shivalila Sect, was visiting another of our neighboring communities, Black Mountain, and he frequently brought his tribe over to bathe. He (the father of all of his tribe’s children) believed that the key to consciousness was the experience of childhood, and to that end he had four very pregnant partners who constantly surrounded him and wandered the lakeshore and forest naked, with shaven heads. They also had many already born young children, that they were already learning from. The lessons that their children taught them were enhanced by copious quantities of LSD that Wright and his female followers took. This was toward the dark, creepy end of the Hippie Era. Wright was later knifed by a psychotic Australian man in Goa, India, and died from complications from his wounds.

We heated our nunnery with wood in the sometimes snowy winters, but stove safety protocol was not high on the list for some of my house mates. One night someone forgot to put the fire screen on the stove and went to bed. A glowing ember shot across the room and landed on a huge, overstuffed chair. One house mate came home late, saw the smouldering cushion, spat on the ember, and went to sleep. Hours later the chair was in flames which set the open stairs above it on fire, as well as a large freestanding loft. I was awakened by screams and ran outside to get the hose to douse the fire. Because it was an exceptionally cold winter night, the hose was frozen solid, and no water would come out. Nearly naked, we formed a bucket brigade from the kitchen and bathroom, filling pots and pans, passing them on down the line and throwing them onto the fire. Finally our strongest and bravest house mate picked up the chair, carried it to the front door, where it got jammed in the entryway portal and set the door on fire. We wrestled it through the door, me pulling on it with a rake, and deposited it in the gravel driveway, where it burned for the rest of the night. Months later, our door had been replaced but the carpenter had not been paid, so he removed the new door and reinstalled the burnt one, to spite our parsimonious landlady.    

Years later, after a wet winter, Saint Seraphim’s Sanctuary cracked in half and fell down the high dirt cliff it had been unwisely built atop. The area was later turned into a park and today there is no trace of any of the old buildings or religious artifacts.

Saint Seraphim

Russian Orthodox Guardian Angel Icon

Red Rum, Dim Sum, Dot Com, Smart Bomb, Double Cappuccino and a Heart like a Tom Tom!

Double Cappuccino

When I first heard Rodney Crowell sing this verse of his song “Fate’s Right hand” at the Strawberry Music Festival many years ago, I knew I was in the presence of a far more literary bard and songwriter than is common in most of the country or alt-country worlds. 

Back when I drank coffee and needed an early morning jolt to fire my creativity neurons before making my way to Macarthur Design and Communications in Palo Alto where I was a graphic designer, I often stopped in at Whole foods for a double cappuccino. I was on the same schedule many early mornings with Steve Jobs, who would also order a double cappuccino from the barrista. He was always dressed in the same uniform of a long sleeved black mock turtle neck shirt and faded blue Levis, looking casually elegant and extremely intense. The double cappuccino doubtlessly amped up the intensity a couple of notches more. I once thanked him for creating the Mac platform and digital design tools which helped to expand my creative life exponentially over the decades, in graphic design and in fine art.

Steve Jobs