Monday, April 14, 2014

On composting, elephants and a treehouse

                  Sagar's girlfriend was visiting from India and flying back on Friday. Could they come to the Treehouse on Tuesday?
 Normally we don’t take guests at Fern Forest Treehouse during the week, but how could we refuse?
I’m glad we didn’t. Sagar met Jahnvi through an ashram where they were practicing their religion of Jainism, one of the oldest faiths on earth. Tuesday evening over carrot sticks, hummus and apple cider (they don't drink alcohol), they told us about being Indian, being a Jain, and being in love. 
Jahnvi is a civil engineer in Bombay, as she refers to her home city. Mumbai, the richest and most densely populated city in India, was renamed in 1995 because Indian leaders wanted a less English sounding name. The Indian word Mumbai comes from the Koli goddess Mumbadevi who defeated a malicious giant. Since Jahnvi grew up in the city where her father is in the real estate business, she still uses the older name. Her job in this urban area of twenty million people is planning composting projects to eliminate some of the prevalent garbage issues. Working with compost and garbage seems counterintuitive for this beautiful, petite Indian woman. But she is determined, highly intelligent, and committed to bringing her home city to a more hygienically functioning state.
Sagar is a young dentist who was born and raised on Long Island. He shares his father’s dentistry practice and lives with his family, following Indian tradition. A treehouse in Vermont was a welcome retreat for the couple.
We always ask our guests about dietary preferences for breakfast. Neither Jahnvi nor Sagar eats eggs or meat of any kind. Strict Jains are vegans and don’t even take honey because harvesting stresses the bees, but our guests make exceptions for honey and dairy.
Food aside, these are two of the nicest and most gracious people we’ve hosted at Fern Forest. I’m not sure if it’s their religion or if they’re just naturally positive. Jains are committed to doing no harm to any living creature. In fact, Jain priests sweep the ground in front of them as they walk so as not to injure even the most minuscule insect. They carry a cloth to cover their mouths as a reminder not to speak a harsh word.
Sometimes I could use one of those cloths.
In their four days with us, Sagar and Jahnvi never wandered far from the treehouse. Sagar calls her “The One,” which led to a conversation about Indian weddings. Jahnvi said there might be 1,500 guests at ceremonies lasting as long as five days. On the day of the wedding, the groom rides in on a horse or if the family is wealthy, he rides an elephant. After the ceremony, the reception line lasts up to four hours as each guest is photographed with the newlyweds.
Sagar looked shocked. He visits relatives in India but has never been to a full-blown Indian wedding.
“How did you and H get married?” he asked. I told him it was just H and I and a Unitarian minister in the church parlor. The minister’s secretary came in afterward to sign the marriage certificate.
“That’s how I’d like to do it,” he said.
But of course, that’s not how it will be if he and Jahnvi decide to marry.
On Friday plumbers came to the house to install a water filtration system and had to turn off the water. Jahnvi and Sagar didn’t mind. Jahnvi spoke sweetly to one of the plumbers, asking him about his family and his vacation in the Caribbean. The plumber was charmed.
Jahnvi’s flight to India was just hours away, and Sagar waited until the last minute to pack up for the drive to New York, navigating around plumbing tools and buckets of water. They both had to get back to work on opposite sides of the globe. Jahnvi said once back in India her first order of business would be planning the next time she'll see Sagar.
I think I see an elephant in the dentist’s future.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Artists in the trees

It doesn’t pay to be an artist these days. I mean, it doesn’t pay—at least, generally not much. Kristen and Dave will tell you that. They were last weekend’s guests at Fern Forest Treehouse. Kristen is a video film editor in Boston currently working on a documentary film about how child well being is molded by the policies and practices that shape their environments. Dave is a musician who works at an insurance agency, his hours often melting into the evening.
Painting by artist Rory Jackson (
            More and more it’s becoming obvious that we’re living in a visual culture—much you see on social media are pictures or videos, and even texters are expected to send photos to illustrate their texts. Kristen believes pictures should tell stories. You won’t see her photographing her brother standing in front of Lincoln Memorial. She’d rather capture a broken salt shaker on the table of a Boston restaurant. She didn’t mean to break it, but stuff happens. There’s all sorts of resonance to spilled salt—embarrassment, a mess someone will have to clean up, possibly being billed for the broken shaker, and bad luck if you don’t toss a pinch over your shoulder. There’s a sad sense of spilled salt—the waste, a salty taste, tears, the vast and detached ocean. And there’s a story to be told.
            Kristen began working in film editing as an unpaid intern three and a half years ago. She’s still struggling her way up the ladder, but she’s lucky to be able to work at something she has a passion for. The unfortunate side effect to her work is that when she joined the firm, her employer told her that she would never be able to sit back and enjoy a film again—she’d always be looking for the cuts. She confirms that his prediction has come true.
            I had a similar experience when I joined a local book group. I read the books like a writer, finding themes, symbolism, repeated images and triangulation in characters and events. Other members of the group complained that our meetings felt more like a class than a social gathering. “Can’t you just read for enjoyment?” one group member asked.
No. I read critically. I can’t read any other way. So I bowed out of the group but continued to read the books. Now the group has decided they want me back because since I left their discussions have fizzled. At the next meeting, I’ll try to keep my analysis from brimming over.
There’s always a catch to making and interpreting art.
Dave is in a three-piece band. The drummer was trained in Ghana and plays both rock as well as traditional African drums. The lead guitarist has a taste for Middle Eastern music. Dave plays bass and prefers rock music. The flavor of each musician is different but somehow the music comes together. “It’s a cross between jazz and rock,” he says. “Sort of new age-y.”
The beauty, as one might say, is in the ear of the beholder.
Dave and his band have played lots of gigs around New England, but a night in a hotel costs them the evening’s earnings. So when on tour they try to stay with family, friends, and friends of friends.
“Everyone is nice,” he says. “They won’t take any money and even feed us.”
Art for room and board? I suppose that’s worth something.
Our Lincoln house is decorated with paintings and lithographs by artists we know. When we have a little extra money, we support them by purchasing artwork. H has made frames for local painter Rory Jackson, and Rory has repaid him with a few paintings, one of which hangs in the Treehouse. Maybe art is better bartered.
Who can really place a value on art? It should at least be worth the cost of an artist’s rent and grocery bill. But in my opinion, art—whether it be visual, auditory or literary—is worth a whale of a lot more. Our very souls depend on it.