Sunday, September 25, 2016

September in the Garden: An 'Annuals' Affair






A recipe for September. Plant your annuals from seed. Let them take their time growing all summer, and keep watering them when they flower best at the end of the season. 
In the top photo, at left, the cosmos I planted by seed in a seedbed out back sometime not too early in the summer are flourishing now. Somehow I never get around to starting seeds early. All the advice givers have you starting these seeds indoors, in a greenhouse, or a cold frame; soaking the seed in the water, or on paper towels, and otherwise acting as if the fate of the entire summer depends on your doing everything perfectly. Or, you can toss them into the ground when the soil has warmed up; forget about them; and then walk by some time in July and say, 'Oh, look, cosmos.'
       I transplanted the cosmos to wherever I found space for them. Some spaces, naturally, worked better than others. In the photo at left, I potted them so I wouldn't have to disturb the soil below where perennials, bulbs in this case, are already waiting for next spring. 
      The plants in the second photo from the top, showing a collections of potted annuals, are a different story. These pots occupy a place where an old shed collapsed under our record snowfall two winters ago. We had the shed removed, opening up a flat corner of the yard that got morning sun. I covered the ground, a messy piece of dirt with very little topsoil, with crushed stone, raked it flat and planted it entirely in containers (left over from other purchases) with inexpensive annuals bought some time in June.


        Prominent in this photo are petunias, blue salvia (a very rewarding sun plant), white-flowering Angelonia, some marigolds, verbena, the orange-flowering Gazania, and another purplish-blue plant called unhelpfully 'blue-bells.' Also Lantana (not visible here). I dug some surplus blacked-eyed susans and potted them as well; they flower in July and August, but are pretty much done now. The work here comes in watering them; nature didn't help very much in Massachusetts this summer. 
         The third photo down is the yellow hibiscus. This color blossom is a great variety for this plant. This particular specimen spent the winter (not too happily) indoors and took pretty much until the end of August before blooming regularly. 
           The next plant down is the red-flowering Mandeville rose, another popular hibiscus that will bloom until the frost.  
            The next, the fifth photo down, is the morning glory, another sun-loving annual that I am planting behind the house in a place convenient for climbing but which does not get full sun. The blooms don't come until late summer. 
          Finally, some of the same annuals as those seen earlier in pots. This time they are planted in Anne's densely populated flower boxes, supplemented by a happy gathering of red-flowering impatiens. 


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Garden of the Musical Theater: 'Sunday in the Park' with Sondheim


            There is so much life in the essentially melancholy story line of Sondheim's musical "Sunday in the Park with George." Including, perhaps, a story of noble dedication and sacrifice. Or, perhaps, of the costs of such sacrifices.
            Simply hearing a few phrases from "Maria" or "Some Day" can make you want to cry if you know "West Side Story." The theme from the Franco Zeffirelli film version of "Romeo and Juliet" produces a similar emotion in me. Musical moments from "Carousel" or and from the heart-break songs in "Les Miserables" have the same effect on those of us who love those shows.
            I  don't have a simple word for the emotion produced by the recurring theme in "Sunday in the Park with George," with music and lyrics both by Stephen Sondheim, likely to prove one of enduring works for musical theater from recent decades. Last weekend we saw the current production by the Huntington Theatre Company.
            How do you create a musical about a painting?
            The painting by George Seurat (known to art history as a "pointillist") bears the original title "Un dimanche apres-midi a I'lle de la Grande Jatte." It depicts an "ordinary Sunday" in a Parisian "suburban park." Sunday was the single day off in the miserable Victorian work week of the latter 19th century, but the range of leisure time diversions by today's standards was not wide. So people go to the park, and once there they complain how hot it is.
            The painting stands out even in the incredibly prolific era of 19th century French art as a masterpiece. It is filled with people and also with impersonality. It offers a point of view on both the richness and the constraint of the life we urban dwellers live: an unremarkable moment in the inner life of a socially respectable people spent in a public space. This is my understanding, at least, of the point Sondheim is making in a quoted remark in the Huntington Theatre's program (written by Charles Haugland): "... you start speculating on why none of them are looking at each other..." Contemporary subway trains can be just like that. Every elevator ride as well.
            The painting is a big canvas. Seurat employed the technique, largely of his own invention, of creating figures and backgrounds out of tiny dabs of unmixed color. Beside a yellow dab, he places a yellow-orange one. The idea, Sondheim states, is to let the eye mix the colors.  
            Sondheim's comments do not explain why he chose the painting as the theme, and setting, of his musical play. (I'm not sure such choices are explicable.) He credits the writer of the play's 'book' (storyline), Jim Lapine, with this 'key observation' on the painting:
            "Of course the main character's missing...The artist."
            Who is 'George' in this musical play? He's the creator who refuses to "engage," as we say today, with the scene that he is recording.
            He is polite, but always to the point. The point is how to stand or sit. To hold the neck up. To turn the head one way or another.
            The plot offered us in 'Sunday's' first act, the act that matters, is minimalist. In other works Sondheim has characters major and minor running around, hiding from each other, concealing stuff, revealing secrets at key moments. Here we have George, whose major song sums up the meaning of his life, his character this way: "I made a hat today."
            It's brilliant. He is his work. By telling himself to finish the hat -- all those little, perfectly executed dabs -- he has been true to himself, but not to his lover, his model, whom he has failed to take to the Follies that evening. "We will go to the Follies tonight," he tells her in a rare personal comment. But they don't.
            Theirs is the sort of affair in which one person does all the talking, and wonders alound what the other person is thinking. Does he care? George is a person whom others talk to, and some seek to define, but who resists all attempts to define him by the simple expedient of addressing only the needs of his art. His lover is having his child, but the artist doesn't claim the child -- or her. He allows her to marry a baker instead.
            Sondheim explains the ways his musical composition mirrors Seurat's pointillist technique of using pure colors and letting the eyes mix colors close to one another on the color wheel. The composer takes a similar approach by alternating major and minor keys: "If you listen to the alternation ... the alternation between a major third and minor third, if you justapose them, is exactly like juxtaposing yellow with yellow-orange or red with red-orange. "
            It's a way to evoke emotion in the listener, Sondheim says. "The ear blends them," he states. "That little major/minor alternation... the ear blends those two things and it comes to this unsettled, but very poignant chord."
            Poignant it is. I can't think of any better word to describe the way the music affects you, and stays with you. And of course, it also works because he matches the lyrics so perfectly to the emotional space created by those alternations.
            The result is deeply, enduringly melancholy -- a word that includes beauty in its cluster of shaded meanings.
            I can't say much for the second act of the show, which jumps a century ahead to our own time and is said by Sondheim to mirror the structure of the first half, both musically and narratively. This may be so, but compared to the first act, the second feels forced and cliched. The narrative is predictable and the characters trite. And there's no George, no model-mistress, no painting, and the park is nothing like what it once was.
            Even without these narrative strengths, the music remains as affecting as it is in the play's brilliant first half. By the end all I'm doing is listening to those "little" alternations. They're all I know, and all I need to know.
            The Huntington Theater Company production continues through Oct. 16.
            Here's the link to the theater's site: www.huntingtontheatre.org

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Garden of Verse: On the Menu Today... Food



            Food is almost too easy a subject. Everybody has something to say about food. Some people never stop talking about it. Sometimes we realize we've become those people ourselves. 'And the food? You can't believe the food.' It's our definition of a good time.
            What do we do to have fun? Let's have a party. What's the secret of a good party? Experts say it's the food.
            What will we do when the guests come to visit? Let's go out to eat! Anybody know a good restaurant?
            So the optional theme of the September issue of Verse-Virtual, the online poetry journal to which I contribute each month, is food. Alas, I have already written about this rich and universal theme in a poem called "Invitation to the Feast," published on Verse-Virtual a year ago. On closer inspection, the poem which begins this way...


I'd like to start with some Inspiration Soup. A small bowl if it's strong enough.
I'm leaning to Puccini, and if you have something off of "La Fanciulla del West," I'd be in emotional-culinary heaven. (Add a dash of emoticon if you're of a mind to.)


... is not really about 'food' -- the various sources of nutrition -- but about the rituals.
            So once again when the 'food theme' crossed my mind, it was not what we eat, but the act of eating, the role of eating, that stirred my appetite for words. More central than what we eat, the act of eating is the central activity, and ritual, of a successful, long-lasting life. It keeps us going in more ways than we easily enumerate. Do not mistake me, we are fascinated by what we eat. Probably always have been. But it's the "let's eat" button pushed continually by our brain that triggers the whole human behavioral repertoire.
            Our eyes open: a new day. Even if nothing else summons us -- no job to do; no responsibilities -- we might lie around in bed for what, an hour or two?, before the idea of breakfast gets us out of bed.
            Eating eats at us.
            But what happens if you have no appetite? This condition has appeared only a few times in my fortunate span of years. The only times that endure in memory are directly following surgery, probably the only extended periods when I have had to force my body to learn how to eat. When the whole idea of consumption was not only unappetizing, but positively repugnant.
            A life turned upside down. Eating is not only the activity that keep us going physically, it's the activity that tell us who we are. Who am I without it? Anywhere here's the poem that confronts that fraught circumstance:


Appetite Post-Surgical
My food is eating me
When I lie down my stomach sits up,
this sick center of mortal existence
Which of us will digest the other?

Indigestible me:
a pain additive
choked down with every feeding
grows at length into a bigger pain
until it alienates my affections
from the act of consumption,
then goes on to sitting, standing, reclining,
working up to breathing,
even as we cease to speak

Food and I are at an impasse,
a no-go zone
I lounge in my bed sheets,
recalling a lustier fellow at table,
eating everything in sight
'These skinny guys,' a portlier colleague once remarked,
with some ire,
'who can eat so much pizza'

Pizza free, he's hiding in there somewhere,
that long-ago lithe fellow reliably good for dessert,
desperately seeking to eat his way out

           
             Another poem in the September Verse-Virtual also plays fast and loose with the way we think about eating. It's called "Food for Thought." The opposite of my "no appetite" poem, this one is about the drive we sometimes feel to 'consume' experience.
            How was the show? 'We ate it up! We loved it!' We danced in the aisles (literally, or figuratively).
            But not only do we want to eat up the world, sometimes there are things -- forces -- that want to eat us. In this state of hominid development, we're not particularly worried about lions and tigers, as we once were when we were little tree-habituated creatures trying to last out a winter in a cave.
            Runaway appetites is the theme for this loosely-strung effort titled "Food for Thought." As the title suggests, the metaphorical expansion of the notions of food and eating is, as the expression goes, as big as life. Here's an exerpt:

...A monster is loose, seeking to eat us all,
as we scurry down the alley-way of tomorrow,
today already consumed (used up; no good any more)
The glass and steel towers zoop us up,
giant anteaters with air-conditioned intestines,
butts litter the sidewalk
We will eat this day through a mound of doughnuts
taller than the Imperial Nation Building,
consuming the century that is no longer ours...



            You can read the rest, and all the other poems this month, at http://www.verse-virtual.com/robert-knox-2016-september.html


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Garden of the Birds: Great Moments for Great Egrets







The Great Egret is a big and striking bird. We see them in Quincy, in coastal marshes and along the estuarial Furnace Brook quite often. But I am often surprised when others walk by without even turning a head in their direction. Since we don't try to kill these birds for food, and I'm happy we don't, and since we don't kill them any more for their beautiful white plumage to ornament our hats -- a really good idea to put an end to that -- the bird population has recovered to the point where I know I'm going to see some every year.             
           Still I'm surprised that large, dominant two-legged animals can be so blase about seeing them. They just don't see the point of looking at these amazing living creatures, which makes me sad.
            When they walk or ride past a heron-sized wading bird standing stock-still in a shallow stream, long serpentine neck pulled in tight, or fully extended just above the water surface like the prow of some ancient fishing vessel, what do they think they're seeing? An albino seagull?
            Don't take my word for this splash of wonder in a largely urban landscape. Here's the description provided by the Cornell Orinthology lab:
            "The elegant Great Egret is a dazzling sight in many a North American wetland. Slightly smaller and more svelte than a Great Blue Heron, these are still large birds with impressive wingspans. They hunt in classic heron fashion, standing immobile or wading through wetlands to capture fish with a deadly jab of their yellow bill."
            Serious hunters, they are elegant fliers as well.
            With those long wings they don't need to flap around a lot to stay aloft. They thrust hard with those tripartite wings to get off the ground, but they're able to use the slightest updraft or current to glide. Smaller birds work harder to get aloft where the drafts are stronger. Heron-family birds float off as if the sky itself were a magnet.
            Some years they're more plentiful in Quincy's marshes and shorelines than others. Generally I see a few on the broad salt marsh neighboring Wollaston Beach. The harbor waters flow underneath busy Shoreline Drive and fill the channels of the marsh as the tide comes in, draining them as the tide goes out. The egrets need water shallow enough to wade in, standing motionless on those stick legs to wait for prey. But deep enough so the tiny sea creatures they feed on will be moving up stream or down.
            A decade ago, when we fist moved into this part of Quincy close to Wollaston Beach, I occasionally came upon broods of egrets in my walks on the marsh path. I'm told they nest in trees, and no trees are available in the marsh. But judging from their size, most of the birds I saw were first-year waders; yearlings. They clung together, close to their elder out in the thick salt grass (Spartina patens) patches far from the dry footpaths, far beyond where the human beings of our era are likely to pursue. We don't stomp through muddy-channeled marshes even at lowest tide to get our hands on wading birds. I'll bet our ancestors did; probably hunted their eggs too.
            Those extended family groups stopped taking breaks in the Wollaston marsh, at least on the days I made my scouting expeditions. I began taking photos of egrets and other birds I did see; three or four egrets at once would be high-density days.
            This year, for whatever reason, I've found egrets in larger numbers on a couple of occasions again. Last week as I rounded the point in my usual marsh-trail progress, I saw the first few birds, lifting their wings and gliding from point A to point B among the flattened grasses.
            Standing a few feet in front of me an even rare site: a couple of fellow human explorers. I can go a whole year of visits on this path without encountering anybody else on it, so this was a remarkable day. The woman of the pair asked me if I had been on this path before; presumably they hadn't.
            "Oh, yes."
            She started to speak, but I interrupted. "Look, egrets!"
            They looked, I think. But no response.
            "They're very big birds. They're waders. They migrate here from the South."
            Kind of nothing to say.
            I don't know, maybe it was my civic duty to share anything more I knew of this subject with the newbies and worker harder to stimulate interest, but I wasn't getting a lot back. I wished them a good day and kept going around the point, and my view opened on the first dense -- 'flock' doesn't seem right; encampment is more like it -- of Great Egrets taking a migration break in our salt marsh.
            Wow. Lots of egrets. Out comes the camera.
            I've worried that my avidity for taking their picture has discouraged large bird presence from our marsh. They'd rather not be the objects of my attention. They'll remember my intrusion and choose another marsh next time. So I try not to take too many photos of the same bird, or group.
            But this was ridiculous.         
            I looked back at the couple of first-time visitors, but I couldn't tell if the bird show had attracted their attention. Then I saw the strangest thing I've ever seen in this place. A diminutive man (man's clothing at least) emerged from somewhere, walked determinedly past me, perhaps not noticing me, wearing a cloth hat and cape-like smock and carrying a camera; strode right into the marsh (where I was sure no two-legs would ever venture); and headed toward the Egret camp-in. Recovering from my surprise, I walked along my path to get a better view of his intentions, and opened a panorama on a second large multi-generational grouping of egrets.
            I've seen more big birds in one place before. But that place was Florida. We're lucky to have egrets and herons and hawks up here. They're summer people. We're fortunate to still possess the habitats that attract them for breeding season. Little coastal wildernesses. Micro-habitats that we somehow haven't polluted, drained, or otherwise over-used in our dense domination of the planet beyond their value for other lifeforms.
            I looked back at the first group of birds and spotted the little man in earth-toned clothes setting up a tripod, shielded by some tall grass (Spartina alterniflora) presumably to take some shots of the egrets at rest or play or work in our marsh.  
            So this is who we are. Some of us will march straight into the mud to get a good photo. Others, by far the majority, won't even know there's anything worth seeing.   
            People, this is your planet. It's all the other species's planet as well. Get to know your neighbors.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Garden of Verse: A September Harvest Home


Among the nursery rhymes most of us are familiar with, there's a special kick in recalling the Muffin Man who lives on Drury Lane. Maybe, as Dick Allen says in his poem "Do You Know the Muffin Man?":
There’s a sort of Zen to him,
like loss rerouted to gain,

Among the varieties of the Muffin Man's wares the poem cites,
I'm particularly enamored of

The ultimate muffins, the muffins
to die for, the muffins of fame,

and
the muffins of Meaning, the muffins
none can explain,

In an issue with an optional food theme, I'm glad September's Verse-Virtual remembers the gifts of the Muffin Man. Elevenses, anyone?  


Joyce Brown offers two perfectly wise poems in the September issue. In "Food Supply," she offers us the advantages of a goat-like approach to food.
 
In a perfect world,
we would eat like goats,
anything at hand —
soap, soup cans, weeds.

She cinches the case for me by adding to the goat's diet
 yesterday’s New York Times.

I so wish I could see the Sunday papers instead of rounding them up for recycling. 
Equally good advice can be found in "Rackets." 
Your opponent hits the ball with force.
Relax your grip a bit, take off some pace.
Control, not power, is the smarter course.

I'll try to remember that next time I find myself in a political disagreement. I've never played tennis, but the advice derived there from the game makes so much sense for the back-and-forth of life. The poem's flexible rhyming scheme appears to illustrate its meaning.  Not all of the poem's rhymes land hard. Some land soft, and some land near. 

....Soft hands!
When life comes at you hard,
prepare to move and change your plans. 
  
Plenty of wisdom as well in David Chorlton's series, "Poems from the Rainforest." Especially in "After the Rainforest," when the landscape invites us to see the oneness in inter-dependent life.

Whatever is here keeps changing: insects
turn into leaves; the leaves
become ants; the ants turn into red mounds
that burn into the ground, and the rain
that falls on everything              
turns into trees.

In this "extreme drought" summer, the rain in our little backyard forest came from the mouth of the hose or the sprinkler, but the plants I helped keep alive kept me cool, offering shade and taking the greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. And I was particularly cheered by these words from the poet on the gain won by encountering the rainforest:
[you] return to your other world with the ancient strength of animals in your every step.

Wisdom in encountering the wild is a theme in Sylvia Cavanaugh's poem "Harvest." Describing autumn in "a patch of neglected wood" -- a landscape I'm drawn to myself -- the poem suggests the natural religion of outdoor spaces. 

A type of folk Mass
unfolds in this sun dappled cathedral, the
absorption of one body into another, the face
of the orb cheerful, even after the sudden drop down
to earth.


From there the poem picks up its opening image of an old apple tree, works it through Eve's choice and leaves us with an evocation of the search for windfall fruit amid "a loam tasting of lost apple." A marvelously unified poem. 

There's wisdom and meaning in the autumn ritual of orchard apple-picking as well, as Firestone Feinberg's homage to this family activity tells us: "Every apples takes you home."

These poems and more can be found at http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html