I went to see my friend Lillian in Grey County on Wednesday. She was doing a painting course with Allen Smutylo, a very fine artist whose work I'd glimpsed in a recent book of his at Lillian's house. We met at Inglis Falls, outside Owen Sound, where the group was working that morning. What a lovely spot, a place that must have been sacred to the aboriginal people who lived in and moved through the forests of the area for centuries until the arrival of European settlers in the mid-nineteenth century.
Lillian and I headed to Owen Sound for a bite of lunch and then to the Tom Tomson gallery to see a large show of Allen Smutylo's art. He is a figurative painter who works in watercolour and in oils, but does a lot of mixed media, combining in one frame say a watercolour portrait, another black and white or shadowed image that is related, and then maybe some pattern or texture, all of it to put the portrait in context.
And what are his subjects? Well that was the astonishment: I was completely transported to the world of Tibetan nomads and Tibet, for the art arises from his many stays with nomads in Ladakh, in remote parts of that remote region that lies north of the Himalaya and west of Tibet. (Sounds rather like north of the moon and west of Venus or something.) We see a small girl herding goats, or a huge caravan of yaks and people moving across a vast landscape, or the intimacy of a hand pouring out butter tea... and faces weathered by life lived in a harsh environment. Now I have the book, borrowed from Lillian, but I will have to buy a copy for myself, for it's a keeper. It's called Wild Places, Wild Hearts and was published in 2007. His writing is strong and graceful and wonderfully unpretentious and appreciative.
What is the pull of those regions where life is elemental? I can't say, but it is a real pull. I felt a pang of longing as I looked at the pictures, some of them of very familiar scenes: the child herding, the nomad tent.... Maybe it's simply the softness of our comfy lives that makes us sometimes seek a sharp kick in the pants. Maybe something in us hearkens back to our ancestors and needs to feel the harsh edge of life lived on the edge? That's not a very attractive picture.... hmmm
Another thought is that we are humbled by the self-sufficiency of people like the Inuit or the nomads, who manage to survive in tough environments. It's good to be humbled, to be reminded that we don't know much at all and we aren't really in control. That would then make it like the person who goes sailing solo around the Horn, or across the ocean, who wants to feel the elemental force of nature and the sea, with no mediating safety net of any kind.
And from the Tibetans of Ladakh to the Uighurs living in China: Just as, last spring, the Tibetans of Tibet rioted in frustration at the heavy hand of Beijing, this year it is the Uighurs who are rebelling. But as with the Tibetans, it seems that it suits Buijing to have images of Uighurs beating up Han people in Urumqi. The Han majority living in the cities of China must feel sickened at the sight, and so most citizens of China will welcome the government's heavy repression of Uighur dissent. (The idea that Beijing will ever move an inch toward allowing Uighur autonomy is a fantasy.) Having "barbarians" like the Tibetans or the Uighurs attacking Han people is useful to Beijing right now. It means that people will ignore for awhile the economic pains of the current recession and come together behind the government as it cracks down on dissent. The majority really rules.
And on an entirely different, and much more frivolous, topic: Today Robyn Eckhardt's very nice article about the immersethrough tour we did in Chiang Mai in February of this year came out in the Wall Street Journal. You can find it, for one week only, at WSJ.com - A Moveable Feast
To jump to yet another topic, also at the more frivolous end of the spectrum, I asked awhile back if anyone wanted me to post a recipe for the skillet cake I'd referred to. I got a "yes, please", and so here it is, written out the English way, in sentences.
I should say first of all that this evening Tashi made the cake, pretty much on his own, with just the odd reminder from me. It's always delish, and yet every time a little different.
We started by me suggesting that Tashi put everything out ready and that he turn the oven on to 425 fahrenheit. We already had some cooked rhubarb, so we just set some aside in a bowl and stirred in some sugar (it was unsweetened). You can lightly cook some sliced apple in butter, or just have about 2 cups of berries, blueberries are great, on hand, or you can leave the cake plain.
Then into one bowl go a scant 2 cups flour, half of it whole wheat pastry flour, half all-purpose. (You can use all all-purpose if it's easier). Add to it about half teaspoon salt, a half teaspoon baking soda and one teaspoon baking powder, as well as generous cinnamon, some ground cloves and some powdered ginger if you like it (we do).
Into the other bowl goes a generous quarter pound of softened butter and a cup of sugar (I like the turbinado or the organic sucanet these days; use whatever you like). Tashi is good now at creaming them together and once that is done, the rest is easy. You add a cup of plain yogurt (whole milk is of course best) and three extra-large or four large eggs, lightly beaten first. We tend to add a dash of vanilla; suit yourself.
Before combining the wet and the dry, we heat a ten-inch cast-iron skillet and add a generous tablespoon of butter. When it melts, we turn and tilt so that the pan gets well buttered, then remove from the heat.
Now pour the wets into the dries and stir gently (we have a wire whisk stirrer thing that works well) to wet completely. Pour the mixture into the skillet and use a rubber scraper to get every last bit of the mixture out of the bowl.
Now here comes a choice: You can add the rhubarb or apples or berries right away, onto the batter, and then put the cake in the oven. OR you can put it in and wait for twenty-five minutes or so before you add the fruit. If it's added earlier it sinks in and becomes part of the cake; later-added fruit is more of a topping. We make the decision freshly each time! Sprinkle on some sugar after the fruit goes on, just as you put the cake into (or back into) the oven.
Lower the heat to 400 once the cake is in, and then after twenty-five or thirty minutes, lower the temperature to 385. The cake will be done in 50 minutes, or maybe a little more if there's a lot of fruit on top. The sides will have pulled away from the pan. Serve from the pan or else wait ten minutes and then place a large plate on the pan and flip it over so the cake drops out. (You can flip it onto another plate if you prefer it fruit side up.)
Now, see, even written briefly and with very little chat, that takes up a lot of space. Apologies to anyone who is not very recipe-interested!