Sunday, October 30, 2011

10.24 Last Call

Some flowers still blooming in the last week of October are pictured here. White Montauk daisies with yellow centers. A reliable October bloomer, but I’ve let this plant grow too tall and leggy. The flower-loaded branches fall to the ground as soon as they start to open. Someone told me the way to combat it is to cut back the branches each month in the spring. Sounds radical, but I may have to try it.
Lots of garden mums, like the lavender blossoms in this photo. They bloom (so far at least) every autumn and last a good while. Again, the branches have grown too long, but I almost prefer them falling to the ground, the way the colored leaves do in autumn, to staking.
The zinnias I grew from seed are still holding up too and making new blossoms. I started to cut and dry some of the blossoms indoors, and plan to save their seeds. Will find out whether the seed lasts over winter and can sprout next year.
The oddly shaped pink flowers are “Spotted Toad Lilies,” a reference to the dark spots on bright blossoms. The species name is Trycirtis. The flower stalks grow about three feet high, and the buds wait until the end of September before they begin to open.
A wild aster grows and blooms this month in a quiet corner in front of the white fence. It’s a true volunteer. The flowers are white until they start to fade, and then for about a week they have a delicious violet tint.
The maiden grass lifts up its seed heads against the front of the house. In full sun the grass grows very tall and very thick, and the seed heads turn a coppery brown color this time of year. The wiegelia in front of it is blooming a fall round of pink flowers; it’s big season is spring. We have to cut it back severely to allow the grass behind it to show off.
After a serious late summer slump, in which they lost most of their leaves to brown-leaf disease, the pink roses are rewarding my pruning, spraying and feeding attentions with a strong October.

A Growing Understanding

With early winter storms headed our way last week, and darkness now falling well before six p.m., nature is telling us it’s time for us to do our growing – growing ourselves, that is – indoors. Film is a great way to teach history, and the arrival of the annual Boston Palestine Film Festival coincides with the coming of the “dark age” of the New England calendar. So we found ourselves standing on the street beside the tracks of Boston’s “Green Line” at 10 p.m. Thursday night with the freezing rain beginning to show white mush in the middle of the always-intimidating “winter mix.”
The film, however, was worth a little cold weather suffering. A lot of the films in the Palestine Film Festival are documentaries, often preceded by a couple of shorts, and many are prize winters at other festivals. The quality is uniformly excellent, and the series is hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts and some other sites, such as local town libraries and a few awkward venues at Harvard.
We saw “Gaza Hospital” Thursday night, a documentary about the volunteer-run hospital that saved lives during the war-torn 80s in Beirut. No voice-over, no narration verbally or in titles, no overt filmmaker’s point of view. The characters, people who were there, sometimes in archival footage, much of it in return visits to the scene in the 90s or later, and some contemporary footage shot in the sites where the Gaza Hospital stood, tell their stories in factual and remarkably restrained fashion. They say things like “it’s been 25 years since my son disappeared.”
Despite two visits to Beirut (where, as you may know, our daughter lives), I had never heard of Gaza Hospital. The film “Gaza Hospital” concentrates on the war-torn, calamitous 80s in Lebanon. I know of no useful, brief written histories of the period (though then-correspondent Thomas Friedman wrote a well-received book called from “From Beirut to Jerusalem”) and am not knowledgeable enough to provide one. But an abstract of the events that form the film’s background goes something like this:
During the horrendous Lebanese civil war (begun around 1975), Beirut was plunged into deeper disaster when Israel invaded the country in order to attack Palestinian military organizations, which held power in parts of Lebanon, including parts of the city, because they were better armed and organized than the Lebanese factions. We see the Palestinian fighters leaving Beirut in the face of the Israeli invasion. We Israeli bombs falling on pieces of the Beirut shoreline where Anne and I have walked, and then we see the burn victims coming to the volunteer-run, bare-bones Gaza Hospital. Its surgeons include an Asian female volunteer, who worked in London and knew nothing of the region until recruited into the humanitarian effort. Other volunteers include a Jewish American nurse.
The hospital appears to be located between or as part of two Palestinian refugee camps, created in the wake of the Israeli takeover of Palestine in 1948. Sometimes the hospital has no water, often no electricity. But care is provided free to all who seek it. Fighters and civilian victims from all factions are brought there. Refugees from the civil war street fighting in Beirut’s neigborhoods or other parts of the country, their numbers intensified by the Isreaeli invasion, live in the upper stories of the fortress-like cement block building which serves as the hospital.
After the Palestinian fighters left Beirut, the refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila were left behind, in the words of one as “hostages.” After the assassination of the leader of the right-wing Christian faction, who’s about to become the country’s president (Bashir Gemayal) in a country whose constitution requires the president be a Christian, the rightwing Lebanese Phalangist faction seeks revenge. Because right-wing factions blamed the civil war and everything bad happening in the country on the Palestinian presence in their country, Phalangist troops entered the camps of Sabra and Shatila massacred hundreds of civilians, whole families, etc. as Israeli troops look on. (One estimate placed the death toll at more than 3,000. The massacre is well documented; Wikipedia has a summary.)
Gaza Hospital’s volunteer staff, including many internationals, are forcibly evacuated from the hospital, threatened with death before being released, and the patients remaining behind are killed.
After all this, somehow the effort and resources are found to rebuild the hospital.
The civil war continues. The Palestinian camps, once again home to refugees, fall under siege, incredibly enough, by another Lebanese faction, Amal, a Shiite group backed by Syria, which seeks to fill the power vacuum in the city. Food is cut off, and the inhabitants begin to starve, but they fight back in what became known as “The War of the Camps.” By the time the siege is lifted, Gaza Hospital has been largely destroyed, its cement block interiors filled with rubble.
The refugees say they will rebuild it once again. But I don’t know what’s there now, since in the film’s later shots returning international volunteers walk through a hell of torn-up walls and piles of broken cement and trash.
People still live in the camps. They sing, dance a little, remember their martyrs. A Palestinian refugee who has lived there since 1948 restores his shop’s electric sign and goes back to business as a barber. His thirteen-year old son was shot to death by snipers during the siege.
We saw two other documentaries at the Boston Palestine Film Festival. “The Kingdom of Women” tells the story of the women who rebuilt their refugee village in southern Lebanon after it was destroyed in the Israeli invasion and the men were detained by Israel. “We Were Communists” is the story of four men now in their forties who were teens when they joined the Communist Party, generally because their fathers had jointed it as the social justice party for all elements of society, and found themselves fighting to resist, first, the Israeli invasion and then to oppose any other Lebanese faction that their leaders told them to fight. Twenty-five years later they think Lebanon still has a long way to go to get beyond factionalism.
There were at least a dozen other films I would have liked to see. The Boston Palestine Film Festival deserves more coverage than it gets from local news media, particularly the major players such as the Globe, a point that has to be made by somebody other than me since I’m guilty of association there. The films presented there are certainly worthy of a look by anyone who cares about our country’s continued involvement in the Middle East.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

10/8-10/10 and 10/15-10/17: Visiting the Trees

Every year around the middle of October we go to the cottage in Stockbridge, Massachusetts to fill up on autumn. This year Sonya went with us, so we went two weekends in a row since she was really low on autumns, having not been in this part of the world for a few years.
There are lots of things we like to do in the Berkshires, but when autumn comes most of those things have to do with trees. Our days have a rhythm: hike the woods and mountain trails during the daytime, and make fires at night. Basically, we spend a lot of time with trees.
One year a visitor from Lebanon came with Sonya and accompanied us first to the Berkshires, and then up to northern Vermont. He called home from the car and announced: “I am in a place where there are only trees.”
While a slight exaggeration (there are a few people around), that description has always struck me as getting to the essence of the Berkshires and northern New England. Especially, in October. What are we looking for? What are we looking at? Places with trees. Where do we find them? Basically, everywhere.
Still, there are favorite places. The lake across the street from the Meyersons’ cottage is known as Stockbridge Bowl. We watched the sky pink over the ridge line at twilight one evening and caught the first house lights reflecting on the water. Geese squawked overhead as they circled at dusk, for no apparent purpose but exercise. These not so wild geese are not going anywhere. In the spring they will fill the little sandy beach with poop.
Leaving the beach behind, we hiked along the wooded edge of this lake one late afternoon, arriving finally at the Place of the Favorite Tree, whose trunk extends over the water and can put up with some climbing. The next day we hiked up from Olivia’s Overlook to a view from a high ridge on a day too hot for October. You can tell because people look sweaty in the photos; is this really autumn?
Then we visited another favorite place, the Sacred (or Hidden) Pond in Kennedy Park in Lenox and gazed at gently spinning leaves, at spontaneously forming concentric circles on the surface of the pond that point to the life below the surface; at the high water levels of a heavy-rainfall season in the hills causing the springs to flow hard around us.
It was colder the next weekend, seasonal temps dipping sharply after dark, so this was a true weekend for fires. We have come to look at the trees’ turning foliage, but now it is time to rely on their substance. Experience proves that even with a purchased package of fatwood, we still need kindling to keep a good flame going in the fireplace. The trees complied. Dried branches waited on the forest floor only a matter of feet from the door.
For the limited needs of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots such as ourselves, the spoilage of the elements provides an embarrassment of riches. Storms, winds, insects, age, and competition for space and sun have culled the woodland.
After we layer up the fallen branch and twig kindling, our fires are a thing of a beauty and utility.
Deeper into the woods, older trees, some with thick trunks, have been brought down by the weather, the wet road-swamping hurricane of September, the occasional local near-tornado force micro-bursts, and the ordinary mortality of bugs and disease. Plenty of wood for the taking by those who rely on it for heat.
We catch a rain storm on our first hike on the second weekend. But we dry out and warm up hot cider, mulled wine, and even a hot tottie, after mincing fresh ginger and adding other spices. The next day is sunny and we explore a new path, a stretch of the Appalachian Trail that leads to fresh views of hillsides and high valley wetlands, before circling the rest of Bear Lake on the border of Montgomery and Lenox.
On the final day we pay a return visit to Kennedy Park, then clean and close up the house. Sweeping leaves off the deck and wiping down the outdoor furniture, I pile the chairs up on top of one another in a vain attempt to reach the leafy canopy above. It’s a tribute to the trees.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

10.1 Suspects in the Conservatory

Krohn Conservatory is where they keep the plants in Cincinnati. You won’t find many of these 3,500 species in my garden – or yours.
You will find a rainforest waterfall and hundreds of exotic plants on permanent display in the Palm, Tropical, Desert and Orchid houses, among other features, in free to the public Krohn Conservatory, located in Eden Park, one of Cincinnati’s well maintained urban parks.
The conservatory’s special collections include the Bonsai Collection, a roomful of mature but knee-high firs, pines and oaks that make you think there should be tiny Hobbits running around underneath them. A true fantasy forest in miniature.
The Desert Garden hosts succulents and cacti with principal families with names such as agaves, aloes, crassulas, yuccas, cereus, opuntia and pereskia – according to the sources I found online; these names are well beyond my competence. If I’ve got this right, a subset of one these families (cassulaceae) includes the sedum plants many of us have in our garden. Some of our Autumn Joy sedum are still flowering in a sunny, streetside spot in front of our house.
Low, spreading groundcover sedum, which flower in early summer, are marketed as “stonecrop” sedum. Stonecrop, I learn, is a term used for all the members of this plant family because of their ability to flourish on stony ground.
As summer was ending this year, I transplanted some well-diffused stonecrop sedum into a spot beside a steppingstone walk and gathered all the smaller stones I could put my hands on to lace in between the plants. So far, so good. Stonecrop sedum just naturally looks rights around stones.
The conservatory’s indescribably lush, credibility-mocking Palm House dominates the building’s 45-foot high central spine; here’s where you find that rainforest waterfall and a goldfish pond with some suspiciously large orange fish. These are not your 99 percent goldfish; these are the gobbling-up 1 percent.
The big canopy trees here are the palm trees, rubber trees and banana trees. The really cute (in a bizarre sort of way) thing about these imagination-stretching rain forest characters is that they also provide homes for “epiphytic” plants – plants that derive moisture and nutrients from other plants – such as bromeliads, orchids and ferns growing from them.
On our visit we found plants labeled “bromeliad” everywhere in this conservatory. It’s enough to make you want to learn something about them. The first thing you discover, to give an idea of the bromeliad’s range, is that the pineapple is one of them. It’s kind of a poster child for a family – “I’m a major fruit, the rest of you guys are just weird” – of 3,000 species native mainly to tropical climates in the western hemisphere.
Judging from the ground-hugging bromeliads we noticed in the conservatory’s rainforest rooms (Palm House and Tropical House), the tightly overlapping leaf structure at the plant’s base appears to be the common characteristic, at least to the unaided eye. The family’s diversity includes something called “tank bromeliads,” epiphytic plants, and a large number of desert-dwelling succulents which means we also found bromeliads in the Desert House.
It was in the Desert house, where the cool dry air creates a world’s-away climate that we found some gaps in the foliage and decided to them with the unlikely flowers you can see in the photo above.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

9.30 A Garden of Song: Saul’s Recital

It’s cold in Cincinnati in the last days of September. Anne and I fly in on a Thursday and rendezvous with Saul at the motel (a Holiday Inn off the interstate we remember from our previous visit), where he gives us his annotated maps with directions to the recital, the university, his new apartment, and several parks and other sights of interest. Then we go to an authentic Cincinnati chili house where they serve chili – over spaghetti – with lots of cheese and few interesting additions such as onions. I get “chili five ways” and the waitress laughs at me when I add, “over spaghetti,” because of course “chili five ways” means over spaghetti. I mean, don’t you speak Cincinnati?
The restaurant includes a collection of characters, black and white, the like of whom you are unlikely to find anywhere in Greater Boston. Traveling is so broadening.
The next morning we are off to one the aforementioned annotated park options (not Eden Park, can’t remember its name). The park’s parking lot brings you right up to a great overlook over the river and a piece of the city, and the air is fresh and full of a great, gray, windy faceful of autumn breeze prompting Anne to exult “Isn’t it wonderful!” just as I burst out with “God, it’s freezing! Why didn’t I bring my winter coat?”
We walk all around the place looking for a woodland trail and never finding one, though we go up and down a side road through a woodsy neighborhood long enough to tire us out.
Then we practice driving back and forth from the motel to the University of Cincinnati parking lot that’s nearest to the recital hall where Saul will perform his master’s solo recital this evening. If you’re not in the habit of driving back and forth from a motel to a parking lot, you may not realize how entertaining this can be, but just take my word for it.
The next plane-party of guests arrives in early afternoon – daughter Sonya and Anne’s parents, Marion and Jack – and we go out to lunch (not to the authentic Cincinnati chili place) before resting up for the recital. Some time in the late afternoon the last party of long-range guests, Walter and his father who lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, arrive and we arrange to meet at the concert hall before stage time. The complete roster of long-distance travelers is as follows: three people from Massachusetts, two from New York City, one from elsewhere in Ohio, and one from Lebanon. Sonya, whose place of residence has a view of the Mediterranean, wins the “came farthest” award.
Our son dresses in a black tuxedo. In addition to his personal fan club, the audience is swelled with the members of the College Conservatory of Music guitar program, some other students and friends, including an incredible singer and a soon to be incredible lawyer, and a family of young guitar students consisting of two parents, two young boys Saul gives guitar lessons too and a friend of similar age they have borrowed for the occasion. It’s a superbly attentive and excitable audience.
Saul performs each of his four pieces – a Romantic Spanish work by Tarrega, a Bach lute piece, a moody 20th century piece by Ernst Brouwer, and a grand climactic classical statement by Fernando Sor – flawlessly, bowing at the end of each to a great burst of sincere and enthusiastic applause, and walking briefly off stage before returning for the following work. With true professional sang froid, he does not speak a single word to the audience at any point in the recital (though he smiles a lot). The guitar does all the talking. It says all that needs to be said, it sings its part, orates, struts upon the stage, assumes the voice of each of its characters, expands each composer’s vision of the instrument, interprets his musical statement, enchants its audience.
Afterwards, there is a great and long-lasting pizza party at a favorite local haunt (Cincinnati pizza, we’re happy to report, is much like pizza in Massachusetts or New York), where an overtaxed oven made us wait for dinner but kept the beer and the appetizers flowing. A range of interests coalesced: Saul’s guitar professor Claire, the Phd. program opera singer, the third-year law student, building master Walter and his nonagenarian chemistry professor father, our New York and Massachusetts contingents, our resident internationalist – experts everywhere! At the end Claire said, “This is a party that wants to get together again.”
By all means let’s do Cincinnati again. But there can only be one master’s solo recital by Saul Meyerson-Knox. And we were there – and it was wonderful.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Oct. 15: Bonus Berkshires autumn weekend

Late Saturday morning we drove to Bartholomew’s Cobble. It rained. I fell. The abstract:
The rain begins, gently at first, as we are walking Spero Trail along the Housatonic, the river that runs everywhere through the Berkshires.
We pause, wait under a pine tree, look for a more thickly leaved tree to keep off the rain – not so common this year – decide to go on. When I say “the rain is diminishing, let us go,” the rain increases. When I say “it will not be cold so long as the wind does not blow," the wind puffs out its cheeks and blows.” Still, we proceed until we come to the loop running through a field where river executes an oxbow curve. I propose double-timing through the open grass to the opposite bank; we start out. Ten seconds later the rain picks up. “Retreat!” I call. We turn back and head for the sparse cover of the half-leaved trees.
Under the trees we wait, hoping again for a slackening in the rain. Instead it comes harder. I’m for a full retreat now, I say. We make a plan to head inland and uphill and hope to find thicker tree cover there.
I run across a half-timbered bridge over a creek, exulting in my still youthful stride. Then it happens. A few strides farther on I take a running, tripping, tumbling, splattering fall in the rain. It happens when I look behind, over my shoulder, to shout some blithe observation passing for wit to Sonya – I have dashed ahead once we decided to outrun the rain, making a game of it – but fail to observe the protruding end of a heavy black branch, downed in some previous storm, sticking its thick finger onto the edge of the path as if determined still to play a role in the destinies of men. Thick and weighty enough that it doesn’t give when the outer edge of my sneakered foot comes into contact with it.
O’erbalanced, flying forward before taking in my predicament, I fend off the ground with both hands as if pushing off an attacker. I roll, pivoting my weight off my hands when the ground doesn’t give way, doesn’t behave like air or water, banging both knees against the earth and bouncing up. Nothing’s broke, I decide; no harm done. On my feet I look back for the cause of my downfall and spot the offending black branch, thick as a pike; first time I’ve seen it. I inspect myself. Mud on my knees and the tops of my sneakers. A stiffness in my hands and forearms.
Also, litter on the ground from my backpack. Somehow the zipper was closed tightly enough; it pops open and our picnic fare, apples and pears, slip along the grease-wet leaves. Sonya catches up and retrieves our goods, as I vouch for my survival.
It rains heavier, the skies lighten, then a sun shower has us looking for a sheltering tree once again; then the shower stops and we find ourselves under mostly bright skies just as we reach the last trail-turning. Do we risk going up to the summit after all? But by now we are wet and decide to take the path more chosen back to the car.
I have fallen in the Fall, but rise again.
Back in the Stockbridge cottage, we clean off our dirt-dusted fruit and eat it.