Monday, April 30, 2012

Restoring Order in the Garden

            The moments I like best of all are when my hands are in the dirt and I’m making life or death decisions about spring incursions by this or that intruder. This is a regular springtime experience. Things happen over the winter, some of them unexpected.
            Some of course are very expected, such as The Return of the Weeds.
            Most of our weeds survive by beating competitors to the punch. Some grow up in the smallest empty spaces, even between the leaves of the officially recognized space-takers, the A-List of garden property owners. I wonder, briefly, what would happened if I just stopped pulling a certain greeny interloper with pointy leaves (which I can recognize anywhere by sight but will never learn the name of) that springs up among such heavily leafed and hearty survivors as English Ivy and Pachysandra. I think I know. After a few years we’d stop seeing the ivy and the pachysandra. They would still be there at first, along the ground, but these weeds grows fast and tall and their leaves hog all the view-space. All the sun as well. The plants below would begin to starve.
            I would have a lot of these nameless greeny guys all over the garden, but I wouldn’t have much else.
            But restoring order each year in the perennial garden is not just a matter of thinning the weed colonies down to a dull roar.
            The harder decisions have to do with where to draw lines between the good plants, the favored flowering kind which I rely on to keep me happy all season, successively, each in its turn, when these privileged characters begin invading each other’s territory.
            In a mild and snowless winter, our Vinca appears to have been growing all year, or perhaps it just got an especially early start in a mild winter followed by an even milder March and April. Are there some perennial garden plants that simply nevcr stopped growing last year? Is that why the Vinca is thick and brilliant this April, while I find no signs whatsoever of the Achillea, the Gallardia, or a few Russian sage plants that used to pop up between the low viney Vinca and tower over them in the summer?
            The mild weather favoring certain species over others may also be the reason why we have a thick, mid-season looking patch of clover in the front garden near the stoop where there used to be a colony of self-seeding Snapdragons and a couple of showy flowering perennials, such as bachelor’s button, which appear determined to prove to me they don’t like being planted near the house.
            As for the Vinca takeover of the front garden, I may dig some up to make room for the late-season bloomers I envisioned sharing that space near the sidewalk. For the clover – sorry, you guys are headed for the mulch pile whenever I make up my mind to restore the Snapdragons or some other heat-loving perennial to a high-visibility space (or make a better guess as to what plants would actually flourish in this spot).
            But the toughest choices are the when-worlds-collide run-ins between desired bloomers. Free-range violets in the Steppable thyme patches? Pull them out. Other groundcovers overrunning the Stonecrop Sedum? They’re gone. What about the Mazus (the ground-hugging Steppable producing fields of tiny exquisite pink flowers just now) running into the Forget-me-nots? Leave the blue unforgettables there; deal with the Mazus in a month or so when they’re not blooming any more.
            I don’t really like discouraging any growing things (despite the necessities cited above), but there’s an overriding pleasure to these decision-making, border-setting, homeland-defending, life and death choices in that my fingers are in the soil when I am making them.
That is what I really like. My hands on the earth, while the plants whisper their secrets.

Monday, April 23, 2012

April Climax

The greening of April, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I am scratching a compost and peat moss mixture into the planting bed between the spokes in my wheel of brick pathways when everything falls into place, clicks, and suddenly the Zone of Flowering April is established. Blossoms that were not there a day before are here today. I am sitting on the ground, my favorite position for gardening. The lamium (also called dead nettle) are poking their strong pink blossoms about six inches off the ground, and the dark purple Labrador violets have suddenly wakened for contrast. They grow up between the spreading gray-leaves of the Artemisia, which stretch out this time of year like courtiers adjusting their wigs. The Artemisia will soon grow tall and make a pest of itself, but right now it’s a perfect complement. Some other new showings today. Where was the mazus, a ground-hugging steppable with light violet blossoms Friday? I was out here that afternoon, enjoying the bright sun and the smell of sea in the air while digging away at our vegetable garden patch. Today the little carpet of mazus has appeared by magic beneath our veet. A couple of poppy-orange blossoms have also opened today from a plant whose origins I can never place. The blue forget-me-nots began last week, but they blossom exponentially for a few days at this time of year, and these are those few days. Their sky blue parade of blossoms lines the sine curve path through the center of things in the perennial garden, putting their stamp on the season. You can’t forget them, a friend told me a few years ago when she gave me some of these plants, because they come back every year and remind you.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Mosque of Fakhreddine (and the Revolution That Failed)

On our last day in Lebanon but one we drive up into the mountains with Sonya’s friend Kanj, owner of a white Mercedes. Deir Al-Qamar is a Druze and Maronite town in one of the most picturesque settings of the Chouf, a mountainous region in the south of Lebanon where we had hiked in a cedar preserve some years ago on our first visit. Spectacularly steep hillsides, some terraced with stone walls straight as lines of type, dividing the gray-leaved olive trees. Farther up, snow appears on the crest of the next range.
We pass from the pale blue water of the Mediterranean on the way to Sidon, banana plantations growing along the highway, to the snow-capped Mount Lebanon range in less than an hour. A few turns later, steep-sided snow-covered massifs appear, looking like the ice crystal palaces of some wintry fantasy tale; or a cautionary nature film with an avalanche due any second.
A few more spectacular vistas later, we arrive at Deir Al-Qamar (don’t pronounce the ‘Q,’ I’m told), a village fed by numerous springs, featuring 17th and 18th century village architecture well preserved. This is the village where we find the Mosque of Fakhreddine, an early 17th century adventurer and “Ottoman gentleman,” according to the guidebooks. He led a rebellion against a vizier based in the North, uniting some of the elements of the Lebanese hills, both Druze and Christians, and had success in drawing in the assistance of the European powers in his revolt against the Ottomans. His rebellion tied together much of what would emerge as modern Lebanon when the Ottoman Empire was finally dismembered after World War I. But his allies went home, sectarian fighting broke out in his own base, and he was eventually captured by the Ottomans, taken to the capital and executed. Instead of being celebrated as the father of his country, his national revolution that failed is generally connected today to the origins of sectarian infighting among the religious groups of his country.
The Mosque of Fakhreddine goes back to 1493, but was restored by Fakhreddine in the style of the Mamluks, the Egyptian dynasty which had begun as a revolt of palace slaves and were his allies during his revolt. Behind the mosque was the souk, where the café now occupies some of an open paved square. Behind it is a palace built for Fakhreddine by an Italian architect in the Renaissance style.
We walk the narrow stone lanes that go up and down hill between the houses and take pictures of the mosque, the palace, the Maronite church on the opposite of the road, the plants the flowers that stick out between the stone walls – well, everything.
Undeterred by the snowy vistas in the distance, we we head to higher elevations in search of a restaurant destination that Sonya and Kanj know at least by reputation. But as we get higher and ask directions, we begin hearing that the road is closed. Still, it’s open where we are, so we push on until the snow banks begin to rise on both sides of the car, and the two older people in the back seat of the car begin to worry whether we’re going to find the space to turn around. The road narrows, the banks climb.
Finally, we run into a huge tractor-plow parked at the end of the cleared strip. The driver is probably surprised to see us, but the Lebanese are unfailingly polite. It’s been a snowy winter, he says, offering Kanj some impossibly high figure for the amount of snow up ahead (7 meters?), and saying, yes, we can turn the car around in the narrow space he’s just cleared. We go back down the mountain and end up at the café beside Fakhreddine’s mosque.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Shocking Vision in Beirut

Anne and I are out by ourselves for a walk in the city while Sonya meets with her business. We turn a corner on a very clear, dry, shockingly far-seeing day and gaze -- at??? Between two lines of tall buildings a wide avenue offer us a view of an ice-white cloud sitting on top of the distant hills… until –???
We realize it’s not a cloud at all but the distant, snow-bound high massif of a summit in the Mount Lebanon range called Sannine.
It looks like a vast suspended glacier of pure supernaturally white matter lying intimidatingly high above the city. It looks like an avalanche waiting to happen. Or a tidal wave poised above the fragile civilization beneath it... No, just a vision of the Alps glimpsed from a coastal city.
A few blocks later, we turn in another direction and see the light gray-blue water of the Mediterranean Sea.
That’s the high point, in both senses, of our outing. We also have the pleasure of locating a historic architectural treasure Anne found described in a guidebook – a restored red-stone medressa (school building) built by the Mamluks in their characteristic low arch and dome-roofed style around the time Genghis Khan was savaging the greater neighborhood. Unlike the Europeans, who were forced to steal their treasures from Egypt and Greece, the Lebanese discovered this by accident when an excavator driver found his controls frozen whenever he tried to dig up the spot where it was buried. So they dug by hand.
Look! A miracle!
Some other surprises are less pleasant. We find armed soldiers manning checkpoints around the central square of the rebuilt tourism-oriented downtown, called the Place d’Etoile, because of a demonstration somewhere in the city. It may have something to do with Syria, but no one we talk to does more than shrug; these things happen. Still, soldiers with automatic weapons, military vehicles, checkpoints don’t make a good impression. We seem to be the only tourists around.
Then comes the adventure of the central post office. In the US, a post office is a place to get stamps. Here it’s also somewhere to apply for official documents and get them certified. It seems the place hasn’t quite figured out how to do both. We are sent to one line, then told to go to another; then everyone is sent back to the first line. An employee comes on duty and addresses a computer, but the line does not move. Then a man with an armful of papers comes in and begins a long argument in Arabic with the woman who appears to be in charge – if you can be “in charge” when nothing is being done. She appears to be telling him to wait in line and he appears to be telling her all the reasons why he cannot do that. Eventually, he wins. She bends over his paperwork. Nothing happens to our line.
We leave without the stamps for our postcards. The Phoenicians may have invented writing, but I doubt they found anyone to sell them a stamp.
Our walk back to Sonya’s neighborhood, starting out from my dead reckoning on which way to head, calls for frequent recalculations and stops for directions. “Reconfiguring,” goes the automatic voice in the head.
We have a map, but the problem is the streets don’t have signs. That makes it difficult to determine which street one is currently on and seriously diminishes the value of a map.
In a working class neighborhood bakery we find a cashier with some English but no idea where Saniyeh Park is. Considering how many parks there are in the city (off hand I can’t think of another), we’re surprised how little knowledge there is of a place not very far away.
After all, we’re walking.
“Walk? No, no, a taxi.”
“No, thanks. We want to walk. So do you know to get to the park?”
“Let me get you a taxi.”
Since the Lebanese are much friendlier and more helpful to strangers than Westerners, it’s not that they’re holding out on us. They don’t know. I think it may have something to do with the idea of “park.” They don’t use them. The other problem is “walking.” In a city where taxis are plentiful and cheap, why walk when you can get into a taxi and sit in traffic?
Finally we run into a group of teenaged boys who put their good English to use. Combining local knowledge with staring at our map, one of them points out the direction of a major street that helps us get our bearings.
Two days later we do the whole thing over and get lost in a different way.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Above the City in “The House of the Master”

We have some pictures. Here's the narrative.
On a Sunday in early March – it’s our first sunny day in Beirut – we drive, in two cars, up the mountains to Beit Mery, where we can see the snow, and the mountains, and the hillsides with wildflowers and olive trees. We park on the summit, stroll to a Maronite Church built on the site of an old monastery with Roman ruins. The churchyard includes a healing tree, a regional Oak, thick trunk, different looking leaves. I am made to touch it; a photograph is taken. Ta da! – all better!
Then you walk over to a vantage point and look down. Guess what, there’s a huge city spread out down below. You can see the shoreline, the sea. On a clear day those who know Beirut can undoubtedly point out the different districts; the airport on one end of the city, the port on the other.
When you walk to another open vista and look inland, guess what. Mountains; the range on the horizon covered with snow.
I learn more about the village of Beit Mery from sources consulted afterwards. At the time I had heard the name as “Mary,” but the name has nothing to do with the famous mother of the Holy Land. The place name, I’m told, comes from Aramaic and means “The house of my Lord or Master.” The columns we saw, and photographed, are among the ruins of old Phoenician and Roman temples, according to one source. Another says Roman and Byzantine temples. The Maronite church and monastery, again sources say, sit on the remains of part of the old Roman temple.
One of the sources identifies the long-ago monastery as “the Maronite Monastery of John the Baptist.” That’s certainly interesting. We may not have a Virgin Mary connection here, but we get an opportunity to think about John the Baptist. Nowhere in Lebanon is that far from Galilee. It seems very possible to me that the very old churches of the Levant would know traditions, stories, whatever we call them, that remember the teachings and activities of the potential Messiah who goes down in Gospel history as foretelling of, and deferring to, the greater one who is to come.
We have simpler ambitions. The group of us – Eynas, who drove the three of us up in her car on a busy, chaotic highway to the village in the hills, following Eileen and Cedric with 10-month-old Eloise – walk around the new church and the old ruins, enjoy the views, pose in the sun, remark on the wildflowers at our feet against the snows in the distance. We wear parkas. It’s chilly in the wind, but springlike out of it.
Next we drive a short ways to a restaurant called The Tiger, opening the joint up with our arrival. A few minutes later a party of German friends of Eileen and Cedric arrive. They have a 1-year-old. More of their friends arrive. The place resounds with happy Europeans. They laugh, shout, greet each other with enthusiasm and play with each other’s babies; eat and drink and converse with gusto, seeming to flourish in Lebanon’s easygoing society.
Then a quick-flowing flock of local girls, their dark braids bouncing, scamper over to see and adore the babies. Which moment leads, in a somewhat inexplicable fashion, to this poem.

The Fountains of Beirut

Let us now sing of
The happy father, who clings to his child
Like a precious gift, a savior,
A female emanation of God’s happier musings
He builds a living bower of Care
Applianced by the Stroller of Forgiveness
He lifts his treasure up
To garner Smiles of Human-aided Flight
Abetted by careful words from the young and certain wife
Who has come to study the waters of Beirut

And let us celebrate the muses, the daughters of the mountains
Who dash like Naiads born of flowers on Olympian hillsides
(Outside Beit Mery’s windows the mythopoeically snowy peaks)
A flock of dark-braided river nymphs
(Golden waters pouring from the snow-capped heights to the rivers and the sea)
With the glee of instinct flowing to the living touch
They surround the cherubim in diapers, little Eros and Psyche,
Rushing like the waters down the mountains to the Fountains of Beirut
A ceaseless tide of renewal,
Which fills the human heart, in the words of the immortal Blake,
From Love the Human Form Divine

We live – for so the muses show us,
The nymphs proclaim,
Speaking ancient tongues to those who cannot hear –
And so persist in living
On little snow-capped islands
Of Beauty and of Hope

Wearing the Fez in the Garden of Eternity

You can’t really explain how cool some moments are. Or how they happen.
We’ve spent the afternoon in the Turkish Modern, finding our way there on a tram and somehow figuring out where to get off. We enjoy the art exhibits in the museum (some contemporary stuff; an ambitious look at western influences on 20th century Turkish art) and have already taken a break to have “tea” in the place’s great dining space, meaning strong coffee and something sweet for me while looking out over the water. There’s almost always a water view in Istanbul. We have even planned to stay here and take advantage of the museum restaurant’s dinner menu, and late hours. But – I don’t know why – we get restless, there are new worlds to discover; so out we go.
Outside the museum, we’re on foot, the best way to travel, the usual line-up of Turkish commercial opportunities occupies a narrow lane feeding off the action: crafts, rugs, half a dozen cafes and restaurants. We pass these, move toward the main street where the tramline runs. The street gleams from the day’s rain and occasional snowfalls, the streetlights come on and glow in the twilight. After walking a block down the main drag, the accidental magic of a late winter twilight takes over, and I say let’s head toward the water, maybe we can find a way back to main tramway station that’s scenic.
We come to a mosque, no name – there is always a mosque (seldom a name) – and we cut across an open space to get close to it. The light shining on the minaret and roofline is dramatic. The light still good, Sonya stops to take a dozen photos of a beautifully designed and ornamented kiosk-like little structure with tiles and calligraphy that would be a tourist-attracting marvel anywhere else except in Istanbul, where this kind of building turns up frequently. This one is a place to wash up before prayers).
Finally we cross a side street to the mosque itself and find there are openings through the wall that surrounds it. We peek in. A burial ground inside? A kind of “churchyard” cemetery?
We move from one “window” opening in the wall to the next and find a miniature city of monuments placed close together: a beautiful, secret, shining-in-the-dark garden of eternity.
At top of some of these funeral monuments we see, the totally real thing, sculptured images of fezzes.
Fezzes on the head of tombstones. They replaced, Sonya tells us, the turbans that used to appear on top of the stones, the way they used to appear on the heads of sultans and other Turkish men, until the culture changed and somebody said “we’re Turks, let's be different from the Moguls and the Arabs, we wear fezzes.” We find a sculpted turban settled above one of the stones as well.
The “young Turks” of the 20th century, however, sought to modernize the country by adopting Western ways. Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, abhorred the fez, believing it was a humiliating symbol of his country’s backwardness at a time when everything was measured against European standards.
The state banned the fez, along with the headscarf. It was against the law to wear it. Cops would pull them off men on the streets, and then drag the wearer off to jail. Turkish men hated the change. It was like giving up all that was familiar, the world you have always known: home. They wore homely little uncomfortable versions of low, flat European hats instead.
But here, through the holes in the wall – but lit up! – (Istanbul gives lessons on how dramatic lighting does wonders for cities after dark) – in this beautiful sacred ground, this garden of eternity, the gravestones of the departed still wear the beloved headgear.
Sonya gets the pictures.
We do find a quiet, drizzle-swept, water-view, out-of-the-way, quiet and exquisitely picturesque walkway along the banks of the Bosphorus and find our way back to the Galata Bridge, stopping on the way for a meal with good wine
Then we decide to walk the rest of the way back to the hotel.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Blossoms on the Trees, Cardinals at the Feeder

Red blossoms on the maple trees. White on the ornamental cherry trees, flowering dogwood, on the tall stately well-proportioned tree in my neighbor’s yard. Pink on the magnolias, and on cherry, apple and other spring-blooming trees all over town, outside Town Hall and on the edge of a shopping mall plot stripped for development. Soft colors, pastels, a green fuzz of new buds on the shade trees throughout the neighborhood and all around town.
Spring is good for cities. The entire city of Quincy has its ten to twenty days in the sun when trees are in blossom and the grass greens up below. It never looks that good again until autumn.
Of course, it helps when the sun does shine. We’ve had a shortage of sunny days over the last two weeks, the weather turning back to chill, gray, windy and even raw days, the true default setting for March. Even then, after dark there was excitement in the clouds passing over the first quarter moon and the stars poking through. It’s transition time. You can feel it in the wind, and sometimes even smell it.
The cardinals are back. I don’t know where they’ve wintered, maybe just a few blocks down, but they’ve lately discovered (or rediscovered) our feeder. I watch the male, safely perched in a nearby tangle of branches watch a grackle take over the feeder. The purple-collared grackle plants his feet on the circular metal landing zone, known as the “cardinal ring,” and eats like a bird. Only when the grackle departs, sated (if that’s a word you can use for a bird), do I see the male plant his own efficient birdsfoot-claws on the same ring and eat directly from the feeder, instead of planting himself below as usual and pecking through the shell mulch with the squirrels and the other bottom-feeders. Go, redbird.
Birds, both large and small, take a turn perching on the top of the Japanese weeping cherry tree, which has been in semi-bloom for two weeks since seventy and eighty degree temps of the overly warm second week of March first forced the blooms. Highly unusual behavior for this tree. Usually it waits for the first or second starting bells of April, picks a good spot of reasonably mild weather and begins putting forth. Classic white, pink-centered, satisfyingly full headdress of flowers.
Then they run into a warm day or two, and they’re done. With flowers, the decline from perfection starts immediately; nature at its pedagogical best. Green leaves on their way, and time to start spraying them to keep off the plague of inchworms falling from above.
I’ve actually been worried about their slow, start-and-stop emergence this year. Many of the blossoms seem tightly wound, not fully opened. Will they ever completely relax this year, give themselves to warm air and float down in their turn?
What also happens in this long exposure is some of those birds who find the tree take a notion to sample the blossoms’ suitability for lunch. Peck one, discard it; peck another; etc. A few minutes later, a little snowfall on the ground.
An hour of two of sunlight yesterday afternoon; a hour or two this morning: they look better today. I’m making a secret bet with myself over whether the blossoms last until Easter.