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World Tour 2002

 

SERENADING JONATHAN (A FLUTIST'S ENCOUNTER WITH A 220 YEAR OLD TORTOISE)

It is 7:00 a.m. I am leaning on the railing of a white cruise ship on which I have played concerts and shows for the past three weeks. Looking out at the horizon, I can now see the island of St. Helena, a British Crown Colony in the midst of the South Atlantic. After this sea passage from Brazil, apart from Ascension Island, this barren looking rock with its foreboding cliffs, a suitable prison for Napoleon, is the first land we have seen after seven days. It is a hauntingly beautiful morning. The night rain clouds are retreating and a stunning, bright rainbow greets us as we approach the island of Napoleon's exile. 

My mind is not so much on Napoleon, however, but more on hoping to arrange an encounter with Jonathan, a giant land tortoise said to be around two hundred and twenty years old and knew Napoleon. He now lives with three other tortoises at the governor's mansion. 

An hour later we anchored: I am one of the first to board one of the small tender boats that bring us ashore. With me is my friend Grazia, a lovely Italian lady, who is an excellent photographer and also an animal lover .I have my five flutes that I usually take with me in case I get a chance to play for the people, children and animals of the many places I visit. 

As soon as we get off the tender at least twelve taxi drivers approach us to show us the island. All are anxious for the job on this island that has no airport and doesn't get many visitors apart from people like us from the occasional visiting cruise ship. I make a decision by picking the one with the best energy, much like a dog would size someone up by pure feeling. Our driver is indeed a lovely man who has lived on St. Helena for over fifty years. He knows his island. 

We leave the only village, Jamestown and drive up the winding road through the cliffs as he starts to explain to us about the island's famous prisoner and The Briars, which was Napoleon's first place of house arrest in 1815. As soon as we get above the rocky cliff, we are greeted by the biggest surprise. There in front of us lies a green, luscious, almost tropical landscape -there are flowering trees among lovely valleys with pastures and neat English hedges. Breathtaking views of the ocean are around every bend in the narrow road. 

Our first stop is Napoleon's tomb. Actually, the Emperor is not buried there now, as in 1840 his body was taken from St. Helena to Paris where it now lies housed in the magnificent tomb of Les Invalides on the banks of the Seine, but his original tomb on St. Helena is still lovingly cared for by the French government as is The Briars and Longwood House, our next stopping off point, where Napoleon spent the last five years of his life in exile until his death. The house and gardens are kept up beautifully. As we are walking through I keep thinking to myself: This was not a bad prison, and my mind goes back to someone I had just met on the ship. It was Terry Waite, who was a hostage in Beirut for five years and spent four years in total solitary confinement, chained to the wall and was often without light. For four years he was not allowed any books. Napoleon didn't have it so bad. He gardened extensively, even if it was in part to build a natural wall between he and his jailers, the British governor Hudson Lowe's spies. He was allowed a library, read extensively and wrote many remarkable things. So it is all relative. Terry moved me very deeply - he was not bitter at all but rather totally forgiving and a wonderful humanitarian. 

In comparison, Napoleon despite his fairly attractive surroundings was miserable and bitter in captivity .I stood for a long time in front of the painting that portrays Napoleon's death in the Drawing Room at Longwood House. The Emperor is surrounded by several of his closest associates, but he looks very pale and unhappy. I think he died of a broken heart, despite rumors of arsenic poisoning, stomach cancer and other theories. He wrote extensively on St. Helena and he was appalled at how his dreams of a new Europe built on the principles of the French Revolution were shattered as the world reverted back to privilege and class, greed and petty nationalism. 

To be fair, Napoleon had never betrayed the revolution that had brought him to power. He believed in a more liberal and united Europe, and he felt the French revolutionary principles of liberty, equality and fraternity were the benchmark for future European society. It is interesting that in his captivity he looked to the Americas as the hopeful standard of his dreams. But, one of his most interesting comments at this time was a statement on religion. A statement made before the great scientific challenges of the latter nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He wrote: "Everything is matter, more or less organized. The soul? It's some sort of electrical or magnetic force. If l had to have a religion, I should worship the source of all life - the real God of the earth." I wondered with whom he shared these feelings and if maybe Jonathan might hold the key to understanding those last years of the Emperor of the French. 

So, we drive over a hill and into a lush valley with views of the sea to Plantation House, where Jonathan still lives. The Georgian mansion that had once been Hudson Lowe's home and witnessed semaphore signals from Longwood House on Napoleon's movements, is a gracious house fronted by a huge meadow generously laced with yellow buttercups. Here, I find Jonathon with his three younger centenarian friends. I slowly approach the giant land tortoise and gently unpack my flutes. I try to feel into Jonathan. What music might such an ancient being like? La Marseilles -French revolutionary music! I don't know any! So, I start with one of my bamboo Native American Flutes, as it is soft and gentle like the upper landscape of St. Helena. Jonathan responds immediately to the first sound -his head comes out further from his shell and then he starts to move toward me, his huge toes pushing the grass aside leaving a trail in the buttercups. Now, he is almost touching my flute with his nose. I look into his eyes--awesome ancient eyes -wise -knowing. I ask him internally: "Can you share your wisdom with me?" I feel at one with him. I take out my other flutes and try them. He moves even more to the higher flutes and then the piccolo. After a few more short tunes, noting that he is now more interested in eating grass, I feel the concert is over. I bend forward to touch his head gently -he closes his eyes and I feel a sacredness and gratitude to be blessed by such an amazing being.

I am more quiet for the rest of the tour. The presence of Jonathon is with me the whole day and evening. Back on the ship that night I have one of my shows. I open my first number, which is called "Talk to the Animals" with these words: "Today I had the privilege and honor to play for an ancient being on St. Helena- it was not Napoleon who will make a long, lasting impression on me but this tortoise into whose eyes I gazed. Those eyes I will never forget and I want to dedicate my concert tonight to him and to the oneness of all life that perhaps he might have wanted to share with Napoleon in his younger days. They had more in common than the history books written by lesser witnesses often allow."

After the show, I make my way out on deck. I can still see St. Helena in the distance. "Jonathan, " I say softly, "I thank you for being. You were not as famous as Napoleon with whom you shared some years, but you have a secret to tell the world. A secret that the world needs very much right now. That is: 'we are all one -we are all different expressions of the one -just in different forms. If we kill another we kill ourselves. I will rename my first tune in my show Listen to the Animals and I will know that you are here to teach us about love. Good night and I love you."

Pictures from Bettine's Trip To China
And the rest of her tour

   

 

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