FLUTIST'S ENCOUNTER WITH A 220 YEAR OLD TORTOISE)
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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."