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London and Cambridge (associated with The Death of Mycroft)

(For China, see below)

Prince William and his new bride Kate

OK, OK! We just happened to be in London researching The Death of Mycroft when Prince William and Kate Middleton were married in their storybook wedding. Tammy had dragged me out of bed at 4:30 that April 29 morning in 2011 to get us to The Mall. Only those who had slept overnight there were closer than us as the wedding procession made its way to and from Westminster Abbey. Even for former colonials, the wedding was magic: the hundreds of horses, the guards with swords and beaver hats, the carriages and landaus, and most of all the cheers and elation of the gathered well-wishers.

The Crusader House on Pall Mall

Mycroft Holmes occupied the entire third floor suite facing Pall Mall in the venerable Crusader House on Pall Mall. The Diogenes Club is just across Pall Mall and half a block to the left of this view. Cockspur lane to the right connects with Whitehall shortly. As Sherlock says in The Bruce Partington Plans, Mycroft rarely left this vicinity: The prospect of his coming to Baker Street "is as if you met a tramcar coming down a country lane. Mycroft has his rails and he runs on them. His Pall Mall lodgings, the Diogenes Club, Whitehall--that is his cycle. Once, and only once, has he been here. What upheaval can possibly have derailed him?" It was a crowd around a bobby at this entrance to The Crusader House that caught Sherlock's attention on the morning of May 24, 1944, and led to his discovery that his brother was dead. Clues pointed to murder, and suggested that a Nazi spy had infiltrated Mycroft's planning group for the looming D-Day invasion.

The Old Admiralty on Whitehall

Mycroft's office was located in the Old Admiralty, just a short ways down Whitehall from Cockspur Lane which connected with Pall Mall. From this building Great Britain ruled the seas (and much of the world) for several centuries. Mycroft liked its solid ambience, its centrality to the incoming flood of intelligence from the far corners of the British Empire, and frankly its remove from the political battles raging down Whitehall at Downing, King Charles, and Great George Streets. Lord Nelson's body lay in state for a day in the Old Admiralty in 1806,and the Nelson Column is but half a block to the right of this view in Trafalgar Square, commemorating Nelson's costly victory at the Battle of Cape Trafalgar in late 1805 against the combined fleets of Spain and Napoleon's France.

The Duke of York column, from St. James Park

In Mycroft's view, Frederick the Duke of York was one of that rare breed, the second son of a King (George III, in this case) who was both able and inclined to serve his country. Frederick was Commander in Chief of the British Army 1795-1809 and 1821-27, which were difficult and challenging years for Great Britain. His column sits in Waterloo Place halfway between The Mall in St. James Park (behind us in this photo, down which Will and Kate rode on their way to Buckingham Palace after the wedding) and Pall Mall (ahead of us), a short street of exclusive clubs and residences, including that of Mycroft Holmes and his Diogenes Club, where conversation was permitted only in The Visitor's Room overlooking Pall Mall, from which Sherlock and Mycroft deduced the occupations of passersby in The Greek Interpreter.

Darwin's home in Kent

Here are modern visitors at Charles Darwin's home, Down House, just outside the village of Downe, Kent south of London. Darwin lived here from 1842 to his death in 1882. Here he researched and wrote his great study of barnacles (which still stands, today, as the authoritative monograph on the subject), The Origin of Species, which of course is the bedrock elucidation of evolution, and numerous studies on earthworms and, particularly, plants, including flower morphology in cross- and self-fertilising plants, insectivorous plants, and the mechanisms of movement in climbing and trailing plants.

Isadora Klein's mansion at Grosvenor Square

Isadora Klein's mansion in Grosvenor Square (as recounted in The Three Gables) occupied the prestigious southwest corner, seen here from within Grosvenor Square and behind leaves of one of the majestic London Plane trees of the park. Behind me, on the northern rim of the Square, is General Eisenhower's office when he was head of American forces in Great Britain in 1942, a black plaque marking his suite. Within Grosvenor Square (behind where I'm taking the photo) is a monument to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Adam's Row mew behind Isadora Klein's mansion

At the corner where Adam's Row runs off of South Audley Street, leading to the gardens and pigeon loft behind Isadora Klein's Grosvenor Square mansion, Richoux Patisserie and Chocolatier has been located since 1909,its elegant interior featuring chandeliers, columns, and ivory wallpaper. Several blocks down the street is Purdey's manufactury: "By Appointment of HRH Prince of Wales: James Purdey and Sons, gun and cartridge makers." Several blocks further down South Audley is Grosvenor chapel, with its green copper spire and the blue clock within the brickwork below.

China (associated with Jade and Fire and Relax, You're Already Home)

Over the years I've made many journeys through China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, in the company of adventuresome friends. Here I invite you to come along with me as we amble through Asia enjoying its striking natural and human scenery. (If you're interested in my sources of information on China and Taoism, see sources).

Pines and granite, Huang Shan, "Yellow Mt."

We had stepped back a thousand years in time as we trudged up the ancient steps chiseled into the granite body of the Yellow Mountain itself. Mountains have been sacred in China since Neolithic times, when they were considered dangerous places where the half-human, half-animal totem ancestors of the clans resided. After the Han dynasty, Taoist holy men sufficiently skilled and reckless might venture onto them to gain spiritual power—if they survived. The mountains were “cosmic pillars” connecting the yang of Heaven with the Yin of earth, and thus possessed potent charges of Qi energy. By the Tang dynasty, the image of mountains had softened to the point where ordinary mortals began to visit them to benefit from their inherent abundance of Qi energy . Thus began a thousand-year tradition of pilgrimages to China’s mountains. My travel buddy Kyle and I immersed ourselves in that tradition on Huang Shan, the Yellow Mountain of Anhwei province, a half-day bus ride west of Hangzhou. We shared a bus with young tourists from Hong Kong, who would pass up their "rock and roll" tapes to replace the classical Chinese music on the speakers--all as we rolled through rice fields and hills covered with the yellow bloom of rapeseed, white-shirted peasants working them with a rhythm (and tools) not much changed since these pilgrimages began.

On Celestial Capital, with Jade Screen Tower many miles behind

Like our own Yosemite here in California, Huang Shan’s geology is based on granite, moreover granite scoured by glaciers that dropped numerous “erratics” from other places. It’s known for its four treasures: ancient pines, strangely shaped rocks, sea of clouds, and hot springs. Among our fellow pilgrims, we were the only ones carrying our own packs up the mountain; everyone else had porters. Some even “climbed” the mountain seated in chairs carried by porters! Periodically, we'd all have to step aside for young teenage boys (and some girls!) carrying two 50-pound bags of sand or cement on bamboo poles to the top for construction. But all of us, including porters, were up before dawn, huddled in our “Mao coats” provided by the North Sea Hostel, to watch the sun rise in the east (behind the sea of clouds, as it turned out!) This occasion conferred the most Qi benefits on the pilgrims. Most of us spent two to three days on the mountain, staying in hostels or temples.

Monkey skulls, snake skins, mushrooms, roots, bundles of herbs--everything a pilgrim could want!

By the time Kyle and I traveled across China to Emei Shan, deep in Szechuan province on the edge of the Qinhai-Tibet plateau, we were joined by my Yale buddy A.J., whom I had literally bumped into in a steam-filled shower room in Beijing—our first meeting in 17 years. Over drinks in the Beijing Hotel, A.J. decided to amble with us a thousand miles into the interior, setting the stage for what we all affectionately still call "The Three Stooges on the Holy Mountain." Emei Shan rises to 10,300 feet, and we passed from rice terraces to subtropical evergreen forests of maples and beeches to mixed forests of firs and azeleas as we toiled up the mountain, the cries of macaque and golden monkeys echoing around us. The increased rainfall producing the lush forests make Szechuan one of China's most prosperous provinces (just as the low rainfall in Anhui province make it one of China's least prosperous--and let us see all those beautiful granite rocks back on Huang Shan, above). Low on the flank of Mt. Emei, we occasionally encountered creekside pavilions for tea drinking. Higher up, trailside vendors offered dried roots, herbs, snake skins, and monkey skulls to complement their hot tea.

Blue-clad Taoist priest tends to the offering

The first night on Emei Shan, we stayed in a temple where Taoist priests kept incense burning in a huge cauldron amidst the deep boom of gongs, with the high-pitched calls of tree frogs a constant backdrop throughout the night. It rained hard that night, and all my gear and clothing was sopping wet when we awoke the next morning (no wonder the accommodations were so cheap!) A hard day’s climb in the rain led to a Buddhist hostel higher up—more rain, though the spicy Szechuan food in the refectory was welcome, as was the eye-popping alcohol available at a nearby stall. We awoke the next morning to windows breaking, and the patter of bare feet in the hallways—macaque monkeys had broken into the hostel for food and shelter from the storm. A.J. had his poncho ripped off his back by a burly monkey on his (A.J.'s) way to the privy. Armed with stout walking sticks, we prepared to fight our way out of the hostel onto the trail, and burst through the doors--into a double-line of unsmiling soldiers, rifles in hand, who had just cleared the monkeys from the hostel. We sheepishly lowered our sticks and muttered "Some weather, huh guys?" as we passed.

Threshing rice outside of Kweilin, much as it was done a century ago. Note the ducks gleaning.

In addition to its striking natural beauties, China’s people are another treasure. Perhaps because I spoke some Chinese and Kyle learned quite a bit as we went, we were constantly the recipients of kindness and favors—though the cultural brusqueness that strikes us westerners as rudeness was also present, of course. On one trip, I was guiding a tour of the country, and we were treated to dancing with schoolchildren, who graciously swallowed their distaste for clumsy foreigners. But even on our own in the streetsides and the back alleys on subsequent trips, we’d meet artisans and shopkeepers who were happy to spend some moments in conversation (though awkward!) with us. And deep in the countryside, where hardly any “tourists” made it, we were fascinated with the use of old tools and old methods of carpentry and rice harvesting.

From left: Zhou Minzhen, myself, Ye Duzhuang at the cave where "Peking Man" populations lived.

We also were fortunate to spend time with the educated elite, connected with my giving a talk on Darwinism to scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. My host was Ye Duzhuang, who had translated all of Darwin’s writings into Chinese during the 1950’s and 1960’s, a monumental achievement of scholarship. Unfortunately, this made him conspicuous and suspect during the Cultural Revolution, when he was harassed and put under house arrest by Red Guards. His captors burned most of Ye’s “foreign” books (I was happy to replace his volume of Francis Darwin’s writings about his father Charles in meager repayment of all Ye’s kindnesses to me). In the fascinating company of Zhou Minzhen, the Director of the Beijing Natural History Museum, Ye took Kyle and I to Zhoukoudian, the site of the cave where “Peking Man” fossils (now considered to be examples of Homo erectus) were discovered in the 1920’s. (The French priest/archaeologist Teilhard de Chardin took part in the excavations toward the end.) All the Peking Man skulls were entrusted to a troop of U.S. Marines in Beijing when the Japanese invaded China in 1937, and have never been seen again (though casts were made and survive).

Taihu stones come in all sizes. Here's a large one, in a courtyard in Shanghai (as I recall)

One of the great insights of Chinese civilization is the recognition of an overarching pattern to natural phenomena, a pattern resulting from inherent properties of matter and energy. They call the pattern-generating force “The Tao.” (“Qi” is the energy that flows along the pathways set by the Tao.) To remind themselves of these patterns, the Chinese surround themselves with objects in which the flow of the Tao is illustrated. The ubiquitous landscape paintings found in even the most simple of homes and shops is one example of this. Another example is the strange-shaped stones present in courtyards and gardens throughout the country. These stones have been shaped and eroded by millennia of water and wind, and thus are particularly potent incarnations of the flow of the Tao. Just by seeing them and contemplating them, we humans (who have an annoying tendency to stray away from the natural flow of the Tao!) are reminded of how the universe works, and how the Tao flows in us as well. This reminder, as well as tendency for our own Tao to flow stronger and more harmoniously when we are in the presence of vigorous and pure flows of the Tao in nearby objects (as a tuning fork will vibrate and match the note of a musical instrument), strengthens our own health and vitality. Thus the motivation to spend time around the stones.

Striking Taihu stone in one of the classic Suzhou gardens, "Liu Yuan" (Tarrying Garden), as I recall

Because the most famous of these stones (and they have fame and recognition similar to paintings by Leonardo and Monet in the West) are from Lake Tai (Tai Hu) outside of Suzhou, the rocks are generically called “Taihu Stones,” or sometimes “Guai Stones” (“strange” stones). Kyle and I made a pilgrimage to Suzhou, where the most famous classical Chinese gardens are located, and enjoyed the many Taihu stones in the various gardens—as well as the stones in parks and gardens and courtyards throughout every place in China we visited. (Suzhou's "Garden of the Master of the Nets," built in the 12th century, was recreated in the Metropolican Museum of Art in New York City in 1981, and drew huge crowds.) My favorite Taihu stone (which I’ve only seen in paintings) is called Mi Fei’s Young Brother, because the well-known painter and poet Mi Fei was so fond of the stone he would address it as his Younger Brother and talk familiarly with it (thus proving the eccentricity of poets).