Monday, December 31, 2012

Monsters in the Hall

This book lives up to its billing.
The big people, and many of the little ones, who dwell in the court and country of Henry VIII -- that wife-consuming monster of English royal history -- stand up and walk around in your thoughts after Hilary Mantel's king-sized novel of uneasy-headed Tudor history.
The novel was published two years ago -- she's already published the sequel (which like "Wolf Hall" was named the best fiction of the year in the UK). But if, like me, you've told yourself this is a book you should get around to, the word here is: yes, you should. It's a big book and it will make hungry for more; and now there is more ("Bring Up the Bodies").
Henry's court, like "the revolution" of the parable, eats its children -- Cardinal Woolsey, Queen Katherine, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, so many more. So danger, even tragedy, is lurking on every page. Untimely death strikes ordinary people too, struck down in horrifying numbers every summer or so by "the plague." In a world where "this life" is so temporary, it's easy to appreciate the universal concern over the "next life." Today we assume we have "time" to think about all that. The 16th century was not so lucky.
Mantel's creative powers -- it's hard to find terms that don't understate the artistic quality of this book -- rewrite the history we think we know. Henry himself is not such a bad fellow when compared to some of his peers. It's just that he's in a position of seeing all his wishes -- both the sensible ones and the terrible -- enacted in the flesh, with nobody else in the whole country able to say 'stop it, you idiot, and think about what you're doing.' Think CEO, Donald Trump maybe, with a handy torture chamber.
The single figure from this nest of high-born vipers that those of us who have read Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons" regard with admiration and sympathy, Thomas More, turns out to be one of the quicker hands to reach for the thumbscrew. At a time when theology is written in blood, More is the colossal defender of the Church of Rome's orthodoxy. Nothing so horrifies him as the thought of an Englishman daring to read the Bible in his own language. It makes him want to build a fire.
Against this vision of turning dissenters into torches, the villain of Bolt's play, Thomas Cromwell, enters from the wings as a near-heroic everyman. In comparison to the vain, shallow aristocrats who clog the court, like bad plumbing, Cromwell possesses a combination of qualities and virtues that doesn't send a modern, egalitarian sensibility yearning for a guillotine. He's a working class hero whose rise to middle-class and professional stature makes the democrat in us stand up and salute. The only other figure who attracts more than repels is Woolsey, a prince of the old church whose own common origins, and practical abilities, make the Tudor court's upper-class twits want to destroy him on general principles.
Mantel has us admiring Woolsey for his decency even while teaching Cromwell the principles of effective public policy, and personal survival, in a court of medieval cannibals. She has us loving Cromwell for keeping the Machiavelli in his own makeup in check while he pulls strings, out-thinks and --in very middle-class fashion -- out-works everybody in sight to become the single essential man for Henry; even as Henry extracts the Church of Rome from not-so-merry old England (particularly its extensive real estate holdings) and replaces the church's claws with his own.
Of course, the book isn't all class and religion and power -- three ways of saying the same thing -- it's about mating too. But even here, the king's desire to replace Queen Katherine with Anne Boleyn, not as concubine but as wife, is about how to rule a country. The king needs a legitimate heir. Unlike all other women, Anne, this book tells us, is a power in her own right. Her ambition is not so different from the others', Cromwell's even, and she uses her refusal to let the king get what he wants to get what she wants.
All of these characters -- and scores of others -- are imagined with rapier strokes of exactitude and plausibility in circumstances far more often quotidian than grand, as in real rather than "dramatic" life. They are more real to us in the end than the two-legged pygmy monsters walking around D.C. today. Truth may be "stranger" than fiction. But fiction on this order makes it more real.
"You choose your prince," Cromwell says. Therein lies the tragedy. It tells us much about human nature and human society (more than we want to know) that everyone in Henry's England prefers the notion of an absolute monarch, however flawed and tyrannical, however monstrous, to the absence of a clear and unimpeachable power to rule over them. Five centuries later, in the land of checks and balances, we're glad we're beyond all that. At least, shudder, I hope so.

A Garden of Song at Christmas

We sang "Good King Wenceslas" on Christmas Day at my brother's house in Smithtown, New York.
My daughter sang it as well at a Christmas party she attended a little less than halfway around the world, in the Beirut apartment of a good friend who works for the UN.
The UN has a big presence in Lebanon because of its troubled border with Israel and the need to provide ongoing subsistence for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries. And though we may not hear much about them, Christmas parties take place in these 60-year-old "camps," in the West Bank, and among Israel's Arab population as well.
As always, we sang lots of Christmas songs at my brother's house. For years, decades, my whole life probably, my mother's stalwart presence at the piano was the enabling factor for our Christmas caroling. Sitting straight on the bench, she sight-read through the songs, switching from songbook to songbook, complaining at times that the song she was looking for wasn't in the book she expected it to be in, or that her glasses weren't the right ones for the job, or exclaiming -- very occasionally -- "this is hard!" when faced by a cluster of flats in the key signature for the left-hand. Then she put her fingers on the keys, worked up the introduction whether we singers wanted one or not, then nodded decisively when it was time for us to start singing.
We generally came in late.
I tried to stand close enough to the piano to read the lyrics printed under the lines of the score. One knew the words, generally, of the most familiar songs -- but, so often, one didn't know them exactly enough to belt out a line with sufficient confidence -- "Oh, Holy Night!" -- and then..? "The stars are shining brightly" --? Then what? Something to get us to..."our dear savior's birth" --?
So voices go in and out, depending on who remembers what from each song. We know this about each other. It's not about perfection.
"Good King Wenceslas went out," we sing, "on the feast of Stephen." Stephen? Is he one of the shepherds or the hot chef at the nouveau Mediterranean diner? Why is this song a Christmas carol?
"When the snow lay round about/ deep and crisp and even."
For the matter who was Wenceslas and was he king of something more substantial than Marvin Gardens?
His song may be in English, but the king who cared about a poor peasant looking for fuel in the snow wasn't English. He was Czech. The notion of the Bohemian duke as "the righteous king" gained popularity in England and Bohemia centuries before the Reformation, the Countereformation, the Inquisition, Henry VIII, and the establishment of the Church of England.
My mother died last year. She was ninety. This is our second year without her at the piano.
Daniel, the youngest of her six grandchildren, took over the piano duties this Christmas. John, my brother and generous Christmas host, xeroxed lyrics to about 20 carols, stapled them together, passed them around, and we sang a bunch of them, including all those long overlooked (and to some minds unnecessary) second, third, fourth and fifth verses.
"Angels we have seen on high...." da-dum da-dum da-dum. This song has lots of "glorias." I like the glorias. We feel like angels singing them.
Daniel, a college freshman, has some challenges sight-reading this music, but persists. The high point point, of course, is singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas," something we do each year. It's a tradition. It says we're all here. Of course, we're not. Mom's not....
Afterwards, we say 'Mom would be proud.'
The day after Christmas, Mom's birthday, with Daniel and his parents heading home after breakfast to beat a storm, our son Saul the crackerjack classical guitarist takes over the music for day-two's "Twelve Days." Cousin Alan and his wife are present this day to help fill out the numbers. Alan, a powerful baritone, plays his part with gusto -- it's good to have a singer you can hide behind when the correct number of lady's dancers temporarily escapes you -- but the day proves unexpectedly tough sledding for me.
...Meanwhile in Beirut, Sonya is facing challenges of her own.
The electricity in her apartment goes out on Christmas day, unexpectedly. Power goes out at scheduled intervals every day in Beirut; fuel rationing is national policy. But this power loss affects only half her building -- her half. When nothing happens, she calls the power company, at regular intervals, but no one there will venture any concrete information about whether a repairman has been sent and when the power will be restored.
Instead, the male voices at the company turn the conversation to (1) her nationality, (2) her reason for living in Lebanon, and (3) her marital status.
With no estimate for power resumption, the landlord rigs a temporary expedient by running an extension cord from the last floor with power through the window up to Sonya's floor and the floors above her.
Sonya continues preparations for her own holiday party. But with power still out as the time grows near, she makes plans to move the entire party to a friend's apartment. With an hour to spare, the lights come back on.
It's hard to believe, but our daughter goes to (and hosts) more Christmas parties in the Middle East than we do in the good ol' USA.

"Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither" ...the good King commands.

We get our fuel needs met through the power grid rather than pine logs these days, but the man surely knew what he was talking about.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Brother Hawk

            I do not say he waits for me. But our paths cross.
            More often, perhaps, than chance can account for.
            We keep the bird feeder in the place I sometimes refer to as the berry garden because that's where the raspberry bushes grow thick and impassably thorny in the summer. Some tall bush blueberry plants grow there too, but they supply berries only to the birds. And high above is the mulberry tree, which turns the ground below purple in June, so for most of the year this part of the garden is bird central.
            When the raspberry bushes run out of berries, around November, I cut down the canes so we can get to the birdfeeder to begin filling the neighborhood birds with sunflower seeds. This year, out of sloth, I've neglected cutting the thorny canes though we fill the birdfeeder any way. An active birdfeeder means plenty of seeds on the ground, so the squirrels take a lively feeder as an open invitation for them too. When they see birds hopping on and off they think, 'damn, maybe something good's happening down there, I gotta go back there and check that out.'
            You may remember, dear ones, that I found Brother Hawk sitting on a high lamp post on Quincy Shore Drive, making sure the harbor wasn't overrun with mice; looking for all the world like a great hawk-faced totem on top of a very tall pole.
            On our next encounter he took me completely by surprise, dashing out from somewhere and breezing plast me as I walked the harbor-marsh trail, looking inland toward the tree line where, in the past, raptors tend to perch to get an eyeful of any movement in the marsh. How far did he have to go to glide past me like that? I don't know since he was close, some 20 to 30 feet away when he cruised past and I caught him in the corner of my eye before whirling around to follow his disappearance once more into the green maze of the tall evergreens and bare tops of the hardwoods.
            The last time, the most recent transit in the marsh, came again as a surprise. He broke from cover in a place I would never expect to find a hawk, at the back side of the trail surrounded by waves of cordgrass. I never would have seen him there, but he can't see to hunt from there either. He shot off and was long gone in seconds, alerted no doubt to the sound my footsteps.
            Of course maybe he'd already done his hunting. Did I interrupt a late lunch? an early dinner?
            But, oh, brother hawk, was it you -- or some fellow flying predatory prince of the skies -- who visited our berry garden a week ago, spoiling the midday seed-peck for the lunch crowd of sparrows, finches, chickadees, gray and brown fellows of the multiple species I can't recognize, and the occasional cardinal to brighten the scene up? They gather heavily at the feeder at times, this was one of them,in part because I have kept it filled for the pleasure of their avian company.
            Are you stalking me, oh majestic predatory one? Or did fate, mere accident, or a sharp-eyed god's-eye view from the friendly skies of densely populated Quincy tell you that small, winged appetizers lay unsuspectingly below?
            If it was you, and I'm far from sure, you knew me when I appeared, bounding from cover onto the front porch, camera in hand, because you straightway abandoned your refuge in the thick-leaved rhododendron to soar into the neighbor's tree.
            I snapped you there.
            There! You're it.
            But I'm sure you will get me back.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Garden of the City

Things grow up along a river.
We walk Boston's Neponset River Trail -- some green signs at unpredictable intervals tell you that you're on it -- starting from the parking lot off Granite Avenue just beyond a rusted iron bridge that looks like the shovel end of a bulldozer on steroids, lacking the truck part behind it. It's an apparatus, I suppose, for lifting the bridge to let a sailboat through. We have never seen it lifted (thank goodness). This part of the Neponset is not a busy river for navigation purposes.
From the parking area we generally head toward Lower Dorchester Mills, a stretch of hard-surface trail that gives wonderful views of some restored and repurposed red-brick mills. People live in them, work in them. In that direction, your route parallels the tracks of an old trolley line that goes straight through a cemetery, a convenience for those postmortem journeys to the polls on Election Day Boston is famous for.
But this day we go the other way (north, roughly) just to see where it will take us. We pass under a tunnel (a roadway above us) ornamented by a skillfully executed mural divided into two dozen mosaic-like paintings of the wild species that live in or along the river: American eel, great blue heron, monarch butterfly, some fish, small mammals, many plants. All depicted in bright colors, well drawn and painted in some kind of paint that holds up to the weather.
We're not going to see these creatures -- wise creatures stay out of sight (though we see some plants) -- but their portrait not only teaches a habitat lesson. It also brightens our passage.
Why should we not have attractive architecture and ornamentation along our pathways?
The Neponset River runs through a couple of cities (Boston, Quincy) and several towns. The "trail" we follow is part nature trail, part urban stroll -- ideal for exercise, dog-walking, bike riding, fresh air. If you work locally enough, you can walk it to work.
The river's presence creates a habitat: the wildweed banks, marsh elder in some places, a mass of skinny undernourished saplings in other places, bridges, crossings, birds overhead; openness, water, fresh air.
Why should we not have an appealing landscape? When we walk through a natural place, we are natural beings ourselves.
But shouldn't we do better with our vehicular travel routes?
We live in Quincy, an old New England city with a long shoreline. One of the major connector routes through the city, known as Route 3A -- taking you south to South Shore communities whose high property values attest to their desirability; or north to Boston -- looks like who-did-it-and-ran on its local shoreline stretch. It's the architectural equivalent of a discarded candy wrapper. People, or businesses, must be doing something sweet in these places -- making money from car dealerships and fuel "tank farms" -- that line the road along with various semi- or wholly abandoned lots and a mishmash of modest, aging enterprises. In old cities, shorelines developed centuries ago as part of a maritime-based industrial corridor are treated today like the part of the basement where you put the stuff you're tired of looking at and don't know what to do with.
But from an aesthetic or planning or design point of view, it's like putting your garbage in your front yard. Everybody is looking at it. Especially along the highly traveled "connector" routes often described as city's "gateways."
We need a Frederick Law Olmsted for the urban viewscape. Cities should design their roadsides like landscape gardens. We'd all feet better about waiting at traffic lights if we had something nice to look at it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The American Iliad

You may have asked yourself, as I asked myself, "Do I need to read another book about the battle of Gettysburg?" If you're thinking about the recent novel "Cain at Gettysburg" by Ralph Peters, and whether you're thinking about reading it because either you want to know more about the turning-point battle of the Civil War or you already know too much about it, the answer is probably yes.
            Much of the battle's storyline will be familiar to those who've read the earlier popular fictional treatment of Gettysburg, "The Killer Angels" or any of the many nonfiction books about his great fraternal blood-letting. The battle is America's "Iliad," in which truly valiant figures, some of them long inscribed in the nation's legends, struggled
over a great prize according to very personal code of honor, and thousands died in a terrible apotheosis of violence that can only be described as tragic and perhaps, in a fierce Homeric way, as poetic.
            The over-arching character conflict between hero of his fledgling nation, Robert E. Lee, and his best surviving general, Longstreet, remains a key stone in the narrative arch of Peters' novel, as it was in the recent books and films on the subject. Peters' contribution is giving equal focus to the neglected, underestimated Union commander George Meade, who was given command of the Army of the Potomac only a week before the climactic battle. Meade is often viewed as a stodgy, cautious general. What he was, as this book shows, was rivetingly competent. An engineer by training, determined not to make mistakes, Meade persevered and won a great victory that crippled the South's military capacity.
            My only quarrel with this novel is that while it teaches non-military types like myself more about how to run an army than I have ever learned from any other book, it spends too much time with generals and too little with its cast of heart-breakingly human privates, noncoms and lower-rank officers on both sides of the battle. Some of these soldiers are pure inventions, others are drawn from history but given a rare prominence they richly deserve. The great gift of fiction is that its best invented characters are often more "real" to readers than the those whose biographies are purely factual; perhaps, even, more real, to some of us, than those flesh and blood humans we meet in life but whose inner lives remains closed to us.
            The novel's deepest portraits are of the Confederate sergeant "Quaker" Blake, whose breakthrough into self-knowledge comes only hours before his last breath on earth. So it goes in war, the book seems to say, but having been through so much with this character we can't help feeling cheated that we don't get to learn how the rest of his life goes -- there's no "meaning" to his growth because there is no "rest of life." His death is one small measure, among thousands, of the price paid for Lee's desperate, hopeless gamble on the the battle's final, decisive day.
            I cared just as much, probably more, for an array of Union soldiers who fought in a regiment consisting of German immigrants who fled to the new world after failed democratic revolutions in their own country. America or, as we say, "history" never pays enough attention to this element of our past -- the story of immigrants who found sanctuary in this country for the best the reasons, because they had first risked their lives to make their own countries better and now were forced to bring those ideals here. They are educated, idealistic, often utopian, brave survivors; their minds molded by poets and philosophers. Having fought for freedom in countries like Europe, they came to the land of the free only to find themselves swept up in another cause, anti-slavery, that once again required an ultimate choice and too often an ultimate sacrifice.
            At the novel's end I wanted to know what happens to the fictional survivors of this battle such as the lieutenant who spent the war writing letters to a recent widow he has been in love with for years. This melding of this character's personal and Army life is moving and completely persuasive; but battle account novels can take us only so far.
            "Cain at Gettysburg" doesn't tell us what these incredibly courageous and human pawns in the great game of nation-building were fighting for. The novel is the other side of the story, a complementary cautionary tale to the idealism of historical portrayals such as the recent film "Lincoln." "Lincoln" tells us the cause. This book shows us the cost.
            Peters' battle scenes, especially the bravura yard-by-yard recreation of the accidental first-day battle, overlooked in most accounts, are incredible triumphs by an author with a military background coupled with a great gift for physical description of the way people move, sense, feel, and think in the most terrible and terrifying encounters human beings can have with one another. They die, or somehow survive, from the unbearable carnage on fields we've forgotten, ignored, or never knew much about because the mind has room to take in only so much bloodshed. Maybe that's the point.
            The Iliad, that great opening shout at the start of the western literary tradition, also devotes a great deal of language depicting how heroes died in battle. We still ask them to do it. Maybe that's why we have to keep reading these books.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Interest Blooms in Rediscovered Workshop

About a month ago, the day (Nov. 17) a Northeaster roared into Eastern Massachusetts, making for wet, windy and dark day, I met restoration carpenter Michael Burrey for a close look at the 18th century woodworker's shop recently rediscovered at a preschool in Duxbury.
With the coastal storm squatting in your sky it’s pretty dark at 4 p.m.. Inside the 16x32-feet shed, light bulbs hang from the ceiling, but the power has has long been shut off. Michael and his friend have flashlights and, happily, photographer Barry Chin arrives on time and says, Let’s go in while there’s still light. I am overjoyed with his optimistic, can-do attitude, because if it were me behind a camera I would be cursing the darkness rather than lighting a candle.
Inside we find a beautiful white-painted fireplace surround, a big wood frontispiece with carved moldings resembling the ornamental designs on Greek columns. In the workroom, among other 18th century joinery charms, we find a faded colored image of a man sketched on one of the walls; he stands, back leaning against a wall, one knee lifted, hand extended. The painting was never finished and the color has dulled, but much remains. Nearby, pencil drawings appear open on the old pineboard wall: a bird, a goose maybe, sketched for the design of a weather vane. Cross-hatchings over a door sill show the tallying of some quantity: bags of supply, boards, days of work?
In the store room, a date is written in big, blackish lettering on a ceiling joist: 1789. Do the workshop’s origins go back to that year?
A few weeks later the Boston Globe published my story on Luther Sampson's workshop.

18th-century woodworking shop a rare find

DUXBURY — What experts are calling “the rarest of the rare” and “a once in a lifetime find” — a largely intact woodworking shop dating from the latter half of the 18th century — has been discovered in Duxbury on the site of a private school for children.
“It is an extraordinary find,” said professor J. Ritchie Garrison, a specialist in American material culture who hurried from the University of Delaware to take a look at the shop last month when he heard about the find. “It’s National Historic Landmark status.”
The 16-by-32-foot shed-like building is on the site of the Berrybrook School on Winter Street. With the school’s approval, restoration carpenter Michael Burrey of Plymouth explored the outbuilding, now clad in nondescript vinyl and used by the school for storage, while taking down an old house that once served as the preschool’s main building on the property.
He said he was stunned by what he saw inside the building.
A drill bit bracket inside the 18th century craftsman's shop.
“All the benches were there. It’s likely to be the earliest known joiner and cabinet maker’s shop on its original site” anywhere in the United States, Burrey said. “The woodwork on the house [being removed] was probably built in the shop.
“The way the benches are in relation to the windows, how the light comes in to light an area, the location of the tool racks on the walls,” all tell of how the craftsmen used the shop, Burrey said.
Gary Naylor of Hanson, a specialist in antique woodwork and tools, said the shop’s interior revealed signs of a Federalist craftsman’s workshop.
“When I saw the [foot-operated] lathe there, I knew it was a highly skilled craftsman,” Naylor said. “A lot of different features in the building are untouched, intact. When I turned around and saw the opening for the fireplace, it was all coming together.”
The president of the school’s board of directors said Berrybrook had no idea of the building’s historical value.
“We really thought nothing of it. We had used it as storage,” Christopher DeOrsay, an architect, said recently. “We gave [Burrey] a tour. His jaw hit the floor.”
Since then the school has had more than a dozen experts come to see it, DeOrsay said.
Burrey showed off the shop’s period-specific features to visitors on a recent afternoon.
Framed in original sills, joists, and pineboard walls, the shop’s interior reveals two original work benches, one pitted with marks from hand tools. The second was a “planing bench,” lacking gouges or other tool scars because skilled millwork with wood planes was performed there. The wall above the bench has shelving to hold the planes.
The planing bench also reveals a groove added later to allow craftsmen to install a treadle lathe for turning wood, powered by a foot pedal.
The shop also has its original tool racks for chisels, awls, and brace (hand drill) bits, and a rack near the ceiling for handsaws. Holes in the wall board above the joinery bench and to the right of the window show where awls were stuck to keep them close at hand.
Sketches and hash marks on another wall preserve the living sense of a place where woodworkers spend long hours. Someone painted a sketch of a man standing with his back against a wall, one knee lifted, a hand extended. Much of the outline remains, the colors dulled but visible.
Sketches in pencil appear on another wall, including the outline of a bird probably sketched for a weather vane. Cross-hatchings over a door show the tallying of some quantity. Supplies? Boards? Wainscoting panels completed?
Cuts in the wall board reveal the location and shape of the shop’s fireplace, probably removed in the 19th century in favor of a woodstove.
Painted in black on a joist in the shop’s small storeroom, large digits spell out a date, “1789.” It may be a construction date, but Burrey says some construction techniques suggest an earlier date.
Burrey also shows visitors a millworked “chimney surround” removed from the old house. He believes the house’s decorative moldings were done in the shop, probably by the house’s owner.
Garrison, who visited the shop with a team of specialists from historical organizations such as Colonial Williamsburg, said the shop’s interior exhibited the pattern of work for woodworkers of the 18th century. Called “joiners” then (carpenters and cabinet-makers today), early American craftsmen worked with wood that came rough from the saw mill. Their first job was to plane it down to a smooth finish.
You can see which bench is the planing bench not only because it’s not scarred but also because it’s built against the wall farthest from the fireplace, Garrison said. Planing produces shavings likely to become tinder for a spark from the fireplace, and would have been a threat to burn the shop down.
Naylor said property records show that the shop belonged to a well-known “housewright and joiner,” Luther Sampson, in the late 18th century. Genealogy research revealed that Sampson was the craftsman who founded Kents Hill School in Readville, Maine.
Born in 1760 in Duxbury, Sampson served in the Revolutionary War and bought the 60-acre Philips farm on the west side of Duxbury, home of the Berrybrook School today. His high-quality handiwork, experts say, adorns the interiors of many fine houses built in Duxbury in the late 18th century, when the town was home to prosperous sea captains and merchants.
The survey team that visited the shop with Garrison last month concluded the building was worthy of National Historic Landmark status “due to its rarity and integrity,” Garrison said in an e-mail after the visit.
He urged preservation of the shop. “We won’t get a do-over with this building,” he said.
Preservation costs money, and supporters have applied for a $35,000 grant from Duxbury’s Community Preservation Act funds to help pay for an archeological survey of the site, some foundation repair, and to “repair deteriorating hand-hewn sills and joists to stabilize [the] structure.”
“While we have lots and lots of historical houses,” Garrison said in a recent interview, “as a woodworker’s shop it’s probably the oldest in New England” and possibly the country.
“It’s the rarest of the rare. And who knew? Found on the grounds of a preschool.”
DeOrsay said the school’s board of directors would be in favor of preserving the shop. “We’ll try to find out what the best option is.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Bird Garden of the Marsh

            I walk these days in the salt marsh off Quincy Shore Drive, even though last month I came home with a tricky black tick that ended up attached to my thigh before I realized it was there.
            In other years I have pursued the big wading birds who hunt for fish in the twists of water that curve through the tall marsh grasses, especially the two kinds of Spartina cordgrass (high and low). They shoot off ahead and wait for me as I turn a curve in the path used by pretty much no one but the two of us and flush the big birds heedlessly around the bend. Not this year. No big birds in the shoreline marsh this year. Was it something I said? No great blue heron or great white egret, or hawks such as the pair I spotted here a half dozen times last fall.
            I hunt the little birds instead. The black-capped hedge hoppers that make chick-a-dee-dee calls, chiding, going for the piercing effect rather than melody, the chick-a-dee-dee-dee sounding metallic and warning instead of a mere call-of-myself, an identity song, the way it sounds in warmer months. These chickadees, if that’s what they are, have a yellowish cloud in the breast area. A different variety from those we're accustomed to seeing in Massachusetts backyards? The Carolina version up here already?
            A platoon of them hop to the next elder thicket when I come close, as if observing some 10-foot-separation rule. But sometime one forgets, I get about six feet away and try to snap pictures of a little bird in thick snag of half dead clump of wild thicket with colors that mix amazingly well with these interesting little birds. You can barely see the bird in the resulting image: another snap of wild autumn thicket.
            A big flock of brown-feather, larger birds, starling size, keep an even stricter distance between us, zooming into the tree cover at the sound of my approach. What crimes have these birds committed that they are so sure the approach of a large, loud walking figure means someone wants to shoot at them.
            I come unarmed, though they all seem to take offense at the camera. They do not like to see objects raised to my face. Are they genetically predisposed to see bird-shooting slingshots everywhere?
            Though I don't see any charismatically big birds this fall, it may be because I am looking in the wrong places. When I walk on the road side of the marsh the next afternoon searching the cordgrass and tree line from another point of view, I spy nothing but a hurrying crow. Squawking all my himself, he clearly has something to say. But for long moments no feathered fellows rush to his side to take up the story.
            Sometimes squawking crows have something to squawk about. Even though only one has raised the cry, eventually I lift my eyes to the cloud-blown blue sky above and spot the high sailor, riding the air currents far above the marsh and every other little piece of earth below.
            It's a hawk, and he really is very high in the sky, though not high enough to escape a crow-eyed sentinel. It's gratifying, somehow, to know that he's back in the neighborhood.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Breaking the Fence

I gaze out the window behind my desk and a leaf falls. They fall one by one now.
The big autumn unleaving -- which gives us our age-old picture of "the fall of the year" -- is long over. We have had a Halloween hurricane -- a monster from another age of the planet dressed up as today -- this year followed a week later by a rocking Northeaster (business as usual in coastal New England), to give the trees a better than good shaking weeks ago.
Some beautiful yellow-gold weeks followed in eastern Massachusetts as the wind and the cold winnowed down the survivors.
Now when a leaf falls in the slanted light of late morning I'm not sure where it comes from. The big oak tree, generally a month behind the others, is down to a few score of leaves. Maybe a few still fall from there. The weeping cherry tree is down to its last few days of rusty bronze foliage. Those last leaves falling one at time float down past the increasingly bare umbrella skeleton of the cherry tree's branches.
After the leaves go, the view of the back garden is the view I will have for most of the next five months, to some time in April. Three or four years ago, in the early spring, three intrepid garden-makers went out to the back yard property line and threaded a bamboo fence along the old wire fence that separated us from our neighbors. Adding wood to the back fence was simply a matter of aesthetics -- a better background to set off the shrubs we have planted along the fence line.
I asked myself then how long it would take for the first plants we put back there to break the top of the fence line.
Well, the answer was not very long. The bi-colored (called "gold splash") Euonymus we planted our first summer in the house hovered by the ground for four or five years, thickening its roots perhaps in the mediocre soil, mostly fill we inherited here, enriched by wheelbarrow loads of purchased humus. But it was only after the bamboo fence went in (or so it appears to me, pretending as usual to read the mind of a plant) that the climbing branches got their fingernails into something that would hold and shimmied straight up the wood to the top. Now the light green and yellow leaves wave a good twelve inches over the top of the fence, as if still optimistic that the next handhold will show itself if they keep climbing. Some climbers have broken tiny creases between the bamboo slats and slipped onto the neighbor's side of the fence. They may tangle up the wire fence visible on their side of the line, but no one seems to mind.
The butterfly bush has topped the fence several years now. That hardly counts because it doesn't keep its leaves in winter and, besides, the bush is long and leggy rather than full as its kind is supposed to be because in the first summer's rush I planted it in soil too poor in a place of marginal sun for a shrub that likes full sun. Still it sends tall shooters up in the summer, blossoms repeatedly, and snares the attention of a few butterflies.
The best winter show of the fence line shrubs belongs to the black-fruited viburnum. The leaves turn a maroon-violet color in October and purple berries swell beneath them. The leaves darken and mostly hang on the shrub all winter, as the berries turn black.
Winter berries make an aesthetically delicious contrast against the snow, when they particularly stand out because most everything else steps aside in that season. The leaves fall, the skeletal branches retreat. The deep colors of few wintry sentries, holly, laurel, the maiden grass, and the bare branches of the rose of Sharon, and a few hardy evergreens shine out, along with the viburnum. Even now, as autumn's color goes underground, they hold forth against late November skies -- our bold enduring patriots in the country of cold.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Still Too Early

            I wrote this post almost exactly a year ago. The earth turns around the one sun one complete evolution and, one year later, it's remarkable how little has changed.     
            November sunsets are different (and special) because we've turned the clocks back. The time change means sunset catches us by surprise each day. It's too early. Each day's early dark is a shock to the system.

                                     "November Sunsets"

Change, in the solar sense, happens slowly. The hours of daylight dribble away tiny bit by bit. Minutely might be the word, because it’s a matter of a minute or two each day. It’s hard to register slight daily changes.
Where was the sun yesterday? Where is it today? Our eyes can’t tell the difference. We live mostly indoors, instead of outdoors, like our ancestors. Few of us note the change in position of a sunrise from one season to the next, or where it sets on the horizon now as opposed to where it set last June (when the hands of the clock climbed toward nine p.m.).
Or how high, or not so high, it stands in the sky at noon compared to where it stood at 1 p.m. (DST) on the summer solstice.
            It’s the sudden loss of that hour that puts the difference in our faces. We miss that extra hour of sunlight at the end of the shortened day. For many it’s the difference between coming home in daylight or in the dark.
Coming home from work in the dark is like saying goodbye to the world, certainly the sunlit world of nature, for the whole work week: “Take it easy, world. I’ll look you up again on the weekend!”
Those of us who work at home or have a more relaxed schedule, whose workday doesn’t hinge around the conventional end of the business day, find it easier to stick our face out of doors during daylight to register the new patterns in the bare trees, count the last orange leaves on the cherry tree, monitor avian life at the bird feeder, or stomp down to the corner store on any excuse to get a mouthful of fresh air.
Some of us watch the light fade from the sky every day as if obeying a ritual in a private religion. For me sunset-staring is never more important than in the short days of November and December. The more time we spend indoors, the more the spectacle of nature is reduced to one simple, remarkable, all-important fact: sometimes light, sometimes dark.
Sunset -- twilight -- early dark: it catches us in traffic on the way home. Or we pass a big plate glass window walking the corridors of some temple of commerce, or medicine, or academe. The sky is painting its big message in broad strokes and bright colors. Daytime is over. Prepare for a lengthy period of lightlessness: hibernation recommended.
We’re still natural enough beings to feel this. The advent of electric lighting changed the human experience of night. Darkness is now more of an inconvenience we can quickly remedy (unless a not-so freak storm takes the power lines down) than the serious barrier to human activity it posed for all the millennia of our species’ existence up to a century ago.
But sunsets speak to secret places in our minds. Slow down, they say, have a care. Find shelter, warmth, companionship. Maybe a storyteller and a glass of grog.
And the annual plunge backward in time makes us more aware of them now than at any other time of year. Maybe that’s why they seem more beautiful, certainly more stirring, than ever.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

“The Keats Brothers: The Life of George and John” by Denise Gigante

The brothers lived their lives under a cloud. The cloud, the disease we now call tuberculosis, took their mother when they were children (it may have taken other family members too) and with their father out of the picture, the Keats children were on their own. The eldest, John, nursed his mother to the end, probably picking up the infection then. The third brother, "poor Tom," died in his teens with both brothers John and George taking turns at nursing, John once again there at the end. When you nurse somebody who's dying from a failed respiratory system and struggling for breath, as the author points out, you're almost certain to be infected. If you're susceptible (clearly not everyone was), you get the disease. Sometimes it's slow, sometimes quick.
Today we have inoculations and treatments, but in the early 19th century you couldn't even rely on doctors to diagnose it correctly. Even well into the 20th century notables died from it - try D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell.
John Keats, who would become one of the "immortals" of English poetry, though only (the words themselves pile the irony on) after his death, diagnosed his own "death warrant" when he saw the color of the blood he was expectorating after a particularly cruel turn of fate. On a warm winter's day he rode into London but left his winter coat behind. The weather turned cold and he took an ill-chosen coach ride, sitting outside the box to save money and arriving home in a feverish state. We shake our heads when geniuses make tragic mistakes - earlier, a walking expedition to Scotland (a notoriously cold climate even in summer) left him with a throat infection he never got over; but John Keats always expected to die young.
George Keats, the second brother, and the person in his life that John relied on more than anyone else, lasted into his early forties. But George, when barely twenty, goes to America to make his fortune at a time when the American frontier was regarded as boomtown.
A more tantalizing subject (despite the unfortunate pairing of first names in the subtitle, which suggests an early attempt at the Beatles) can hardly be imagined.
Poetry freaks, English majors everywhere, and followers of the geniuses-die-young school of celebrity worship - we all have a soft spot for John Keats. Being great in your early twenties leads to what-ifs? How would Jimi Hendrix be playing in the 21st century? Harvesting golden oldies in Las Vegas; or escaping to a mountain somewhere to conduct secret recording sessions with the locals?
John Keats' poetry writing career lasted only a few years, and genius flared to its heights around the time in fell (tragically, of course) in love. It's a set-up that has people like me craving all the details I can get, and Gigante's book delivers more than I knew before.
Her book also delivers all sorts of details about George's life in the rude, crude American frontier (a place we have longed tamed into the Midwest). This is an intriguing tale as well, though here we have too many details for my taste, the fruit of the author's exhaustive research of everyone and every place that George rubbed elbows with (or might have) in his pioneering quest for a financial utopia. First on the "English prairie," a tantalizing name for a place so lacking in infrastructure and basic civility that it was hard to imagine anyone there reading a poem or for that matter getting out of the rain. George takes his investment capital (some of which arguably belonged to his brothers and a younger sister stranded with an unloved guardian) down river to Cincinnati and Louisville, first getting ripped off by local entrepreneurs (including no less an eminence than John James Audubon, who also went bankrupt); then persevering and getting rich when the frontier boom caught up to his neighborhood; then going bankrupt in the panic of 1837. A truly American story.
Just how bare and dirty and opportunistic (also drunk and lazy) the American frontier was at this time is an eye-opener and a compelling subject. I was a little put off when first reading the snobby English perspective on the USA. It was like England, John Keats thought, but lacking in the poetry and romance. He imagined it as an endless store counter with everything in the world for sale. In fact, Gigante's's portrait of the place backs it up. Fine English goods, we learn, were rushed to newly planted frontier towns before there were buyers for them.
George Keats, a man of culture and intellect in a land of the unlearned, becomes a conventional pillar of his community. He's married, has seven children, a few slaves, and seemingly sound business interests; and a lifelong sadness over the loss of his fantastically gifted brother.
John suffered the loss of his brother to the new world as well. George was family, companionship and security for much of his too short life, a life in which he knew only that he would die young and believed - as he once put it - "when I die I think I shall be among the English poets."
God, is he ever.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hurry Up Please, It’s Time

            I’ve taken a long vacation from hands-on management of the garden.        
            After putting off the chore for a month or more, I finally begin the chore of putting the flower gardent to bed. This is a moment fraught with decisions.
           As the weather gets cooler and cooler in autumn, I stop spending time out there, standing, staring, squatting, being in the garden.

But you don’t have to do a lot this time of year to enjoy a garden. The seasonal changes that plants go through take care of themselves. When you have a lot of plants living and dying together, a lot of interesting colors and shapes are produced by forces set in motion by time, in the form of the seasons, itself.
            Time – the revolution of the earth around the sun, the seasons produced by the earth’s axis, the effects of this constant cosmic journey made manifest in the growth cycle of plants, trees, and all green things; the human art of cultivation – all of these come together as they do all the “time,” but with a concentration of dramatically visible impact this wonderful time of year.
            In short, the cosmos is doing all the work, and the anxious monkeying I’ve been doing in earlier months, especially the late declining months of summer to keep the show entertaining has come to its natural and inevitable end. I watch, happily, generally from indoors, as colors change, final blossoms emerge, dry out and fall away, or are vampired by cold on that first frosty night, the stuffing sucked out of them… It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful anywhere and everywhere that people haven’t torn up the last growing things by the roots.
            So I take a holiday. Several storms of autumn roar through, causing consternation elsewhere but luckily doing nothing much here except knock a few green tomatoes off the vine; and then, one silent but much deadlier pair of sub-freezing nights rolls through like a gang of marauders determined to prey on the weak and vulnerable: so much for those pretty annuals you’ve planted in late summer…
            And so, looking at the blackened branches of once lovely flowering plants, I realize at long last there are tasks I should be doing. For example, maybe cut down those dead stalks?
            Saturday rolls around. I try to take an organized approach; I go back to my notes from previous years. But a funny thing happens to memory. Those facts well set in stone from earlier years remain in place arrive with with ribbons on them when you go digging for them. Those later details, names, advisories, notes-to-self, resolutions, fine points, and veteran pointers you have accumulated in more recent years have all turned into fly-by-night operations. Gone when you look for them, driving down the street, honking the horn, looking for some action.
            The operative questions – when do you cut back the butterfly bush? (answer: later winter, early spring; or really whenever you’ve a mind to); or how much of the peony bush do you take down and when (basically all of it, leaving “cigar” sized stubs of the roots, and now’s a good time) don’t necessarily stay put in the mind’s top drawer filing cabinet. Especially when so many oddball subjects, data points, and individual plant types are tossed into the mix and no standard rules play across the entire garden-facts community. Trim the lavender? Well, from the shorn looks of it I’ve already done the trim. Hope it wasn’t too soon!
            Prune the lace-cap hydrangea? Sounds like a good idea because the leaves withered and flopped at the first touch of frost and the plant looks like hell, but I’d like to be careful since I want it, or a least a good part of it, back in the spring.
            Still, I squat down beside the beds, take out the clippers, begin with the easy stuff.
            It’s good to get a day’s work in. From November late morning sun to November sunset, it’s all good. And however much you accomplish or leave undone, in the end you’re happy for another excuse to spend a day with the elements and the elemental forces that turn green plants into compositions of wonder and of art.