Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Day After

Nature is trying to get our attention.
One day after the new hybrid Super-Storm Sandy, which makes it sound like something that escaped from a genetic modification research laboratory, the New York metropolitan area is a disaster area and millions of people on the East Coast are without electricity.
New York City is completely without public transportation, all the subway tunnels between Manhattan and the Long Island boroughs are awash with salt water. The Battery, the name for the lower tip of Manhattan where you take a ferry to the Statue of Liberty got 12 feet of water above sea level. Lots of flooding yesterday, no lights on in lower Manhattan or Brooklyn last night, a condition widely regarded as one of the signs of the Apocalypse. No power still today in lower Manhattan all the way up to 40th St.
If storms like this had been more frequent in ye days of yore, they wouldn’t have built New York City where they did, on that wonderful “protected” harbor. Or it would have looked more like the Netherlands.
Mystical earth-magic interpretation: Mother Nature knows where the power lives. She aimed the hammer blow of her storm of perfect vengeance right at Wall Street.
In Massachusetts about half a million people lost power, most of them still without it today. A lot of schools stayed closed because of the power losses. Fortunately, we didn’t lose power or have tree limbs come down in our yard. The Boston area was lucky. My brother on Long Island lost power yesterday afternoon and is still without it today.
Earth to people: your planet is trying to get your attention. Because the so-called most powerful nation on earth is conducting an extensive money-poisoned Black Mass called an election campaign to choose its leaders, during which it has ignored all climate change and environmental issues.
Somebody cue “Eve of Destruction.”
Meanwhile, we little folk prepared in our usual way. I harvested a pailful of green tomatoes, cut the branches of the herb garden and brought them into dry, and stripped a small horde of pointy red peppers from a low plant I bought a couple of months ago already well fruited.
With the storm casting a shadow over the region lon Sunday, Anne and I took the scissors out and culled a few armfuls of flowers. Harvesting the flowers, bring the perennial garden inside the house, concentrating the colors of the earth in a few small vases.
The day after the storm, Nature renewed the garden’s colors. Leaves of a half dozen trees spread in a “fall colors” natural carpeting all over the earth.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Review: In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti

“In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti,” the new historical study by journalist Susan Tejada of one of the great watershed crises of the 20th century, succeeds better than anything else I have read in telling the human story of the two forever-paired principal figures while providing renewed insight into the case’s historical context. The two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested in 1920 for a payroll robbery and double murder in Massachusetts they almost certainly did not commit, tried and found guilty the following year, and executed in 1927 despite a worldwide clamor over the unfairness of the proceeding.
While the case has been the subject of scores of studies, Tejada’s book nails the enduring significance of an affair that divided American public opinion between sympathizers for the two immigrant working men who espoused radical political opinions and those who wanted to string them up – and anyone else who shared those opinions. As Tejada states on the very last page of her book in her rollcall of comparisons between America then and now, “In 1917… lawmakers wrestled with opposing concepts of civil liberties and homeland security. They still do.”
While US opinion was divided on the fairness of the trial, for the rest of the world the case was a clear example of scapegoating a couple of convenient victims to assuage a capitalist-dominated society’s fear of Communist revolution in Europe and union agitation at home. That view is also too simplistic, but then as now – and I would add this similarity to the book’s final summation of comparison points – American politics continues to suffer from big money domination and an irrational fear of “socialism.” The jury that convicted Sacco and Vanzetti of the crime did not consist of the wealthy, but after the Red Scare years of 1919-20 and a string of what we now call “terrorist” bombings, appeals to a reactionary and anti-foreigner patriotism combined with the longing for a simpler American day – when, for instance, nobody in town spoke with an accent – prejudiced the average citizen against foreigners with crazy ideas. Again, as Tejada’s book concludes, just like today. In 1908 [the year of both immigrants’ arrival in the US], she writes, “America was struggling with immigration reform. It still is.”
The book’s insight into the similarities between Sacco and Vanzetti’s America of 100 and our post-911 America whets our interest to know more about the case’s two principals. Both men immigrated from a relatively backward Italy in search of a better world, and both were appalled by the heartless exploitation of the workers in America’s fiercely competitive industrial economy that treated workers like disposable parts. They met when they joined a small Italian anarchist group in Boston, part of a network of followers of a charismatic theorist whose ideas may have led to terrorist-style bombings in the year after World War I. Sacco is the less likely revolutionary as a skilled worker and family man who made a good living in Massachusetts shoe factories, but whose sympathies were always drawn to the downtrodden. Vanzetti, a bachelor day laborer, is a true believer in the “beautiful idea” of the anarchist utopia in which people would replace the current exploitive institutions with cooperative practices.
It’s Vanzetti, the reading man and voluble spokesman for his utopian ideas, who flourishes intellectually after he’s thrown into prison for seven years and has time at last to improve his command of English and study the world’s great thinkers. The effect of Vanzetti’s personality on rallying support for the defendants’ cause has been noted elsewhere. But Tejada makes a singular contribution is in its frank discussion of Vanzetti’s romantic fixation on the married woman who visits him in Charleston State Prison to tutor him in English. His love for Virginia MacMechan inevitably goes nowhere, but it answers an enduring puzzle about the heart of a kind man who loved women and children, but apparently never had romantic feelings for particular women. In fact he did have them, he just didn’t want them on the record. And his devotion to his revolutionary cause came first.
“In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti” takes readers back to an American reality few people today know much about. It’s a world in which a highly polarized society – “we are two societies” was a judgement widely cited by intellectuals following the case – chose ultimately to paper over it divisions by scapegoating critics and demonizing as “left-wing radicals” the very voices the rest of the world recognizes as part of a healthy debate. The American mindset still suffers from this imbalance. Even right-wing ideas as radical and nutty as Ayn Rand’s apotheosis of selfishness now receive attention in mainstream politics. Readers would do well to read “In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti” for an insight into the early 20th century roots of this witches’ brew of xenophobia, radical-hunting and J. Edgar Hoover.
As an account of the fascinating case of the “a good shoemaker” and “a poor fish peddler” (to use Vanzetti’s formulation) who became the center of an international affair, “In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti” is equally valuable as a first-rate read.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Great Deal Owed to Autumn

            There is very little I can do to make the perennial garden look any better or worse at this time of year. It’s liberating. 

            Maybe that’s why I always concentrate on the “mellow” in Keats’s great first line in his Ode to Autumn: “Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness.”
            This line is followed at once by “Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.”
            More words to chew on. Once again he’s hit on something in the back of our minds and brought it to the front. (Poetry is all about finding the suitable particular.)    
            Why do the colors, especially autumn colors, seem to match up so well with the “maturing sun”? The sun rises earlier, sets sooner and sits less high in the sky throughout the day. And mature, as we know, is a nice way of saying “getting older.”
The earth’s day-night division reached the fifty-fifty point in the third week of September. Since then the “maturing” sun sets appreciably earlier all the time. We look one day and say, ‘the sun’s going down already? I just got home.’ How has this happened? Aren’t we still barefoot in the summer sun, looking forward to a beach day, walking the tide line, picking blueberries, watching the first tomatoes redden, hoping against hope that the baseball team will be good this year?
            We have done nothing and yet everything has changed.
            Thank goodness for the mellow time, the best possible of “close bosom-friend(s).” Thank goodness for the sweet deception of gentle days. Bosom-buddy Autumn tells us a few sweet fibs, a few sweet-nothings. Have no fear, I’ll be with you – some time yet. Don’t worry how much time, exactly. No need to panic. Be here now.
            And, why not (bosom buddy Autumn further urges) enjoy the colors while they last? Look up at the sweet lemon-yellow of the mulberry tree. The red sky of early sunset inflames the red and orange leaves of the maples. The low, wild shrub growth on the margins of the woodlands sends up red flares in the late afternoon. It fires the heart.
            Even the tall grasses of the salt marsh – the most “sublime” of landscapes, to use the Romantic poets’ favorite word; a word that  means solitary but also “not obvious” – turn a sun-loving bronze, inventing colors you cannot see at other seasons.
            And then we come to the season’s buoyant determination “to set budding more,/ And still more, later flowers for the bees,/ Until they think warm days will never cease.”
            Poor bees. If they buy this line, they’re in for a surprise. If they’ve been lulled into thinking warm days will never cease, they’ll have a shock when they get their oil bill. We all know how they feel.
            Keats’s great Ode is set in the country. He invokes vines rounding the “thatch-eaves.” No thatch-eaves in Quincy. We read of autumn conspiring with that good-hearted “maturing sun” to “bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees.” In our single family homes rounded with a little patch of earth to call our own we have neither “cottages” nor for the most part “cottage-trees,” and not many apple trees that aren’t old and wormy.
            But we surely have shade trees planted along all our sheets, green yards, and vegetable and flower gardens. They’re all gorgeous this time of year, particularly in the mass. Don’t take them for granted, people. We need them. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Late for the Party, Wearing a Smile

            October is turning into an “annual” event.
            Some annuals that seem to need all summer to work up their strength look better than ever, look finally like themselves in autumn sunshine.
            These red circles of Lantana. I bought them late (somebody must have started them late), planted them late, waited a little impatiently for those initial blossoms to pass away and the roots to produce sufficient energy to spring a new low field of flowers. But we finally got there.
            A handful of Portulaca, lying flat on the low dry ground between sidewalk and street take care of themselves at this point. Seeding, popping out of the ground when it’s already mid-summer, and slowly growing themselves big and happy by September. They’re still with us, though they’re no fans of the cold. Enjoy them, I remind myself, while they last.
            Some of the mums are uncommonly cheerful as well. The mums in the back garden are garden mums, perennials. You expect them to be back. Some are the “hardy mum” annual, which survive a winter or two if you dig them into the ground. I did that with the one (last year? not sure) that bloomed a thick golden yellow halo of flowers this year, brightening up the sidewalk.
            I added some blue-lavendar range annuals (that shall remain nameless because I don’t know it) grown for the late season by the nurseries to the back garden. They survived the local night-chomper plague we suffered this year, found their footing last month and put out lots of little blooms this month.
            A few blue salvia too.
            They all seem to fit in with the fall perennials and turning leaves of the autumn foliage of the mid to late October. Healthy plants take care of each other. They harmonize, naturally.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sunny Days, Cool Air, Fall Colors

Sunny, cool and colorful: it sounds like an advertisement for Autumn. If it’s a TV commercial, put George Winston’s “Colors,” the perfect autumn song, on the soundtrack and it’s hard to find a happier time and place to be on the planet than here and now.  
I go out this morning, temperatures in low fifties this week, different days, real autumn. The trees have turned. They turn earlier this year, the anonymous tree with orange leaves in the back, the maple in the front, the half-turned mulberry in between them. Only the oak, always the last, holds out. Its big green, dark-tinged leaves shine against the immeasurable depths of the true blue autumn sky.
            Plants like October. Those that are still going strong and those that only come into their own this month.
Not those that bloomed early, shot their bolt, and are fast fading. The May-blooming peonies are falling over, their stalks already sucked of life by the first few cold nights. Their still shapely leaves turns yellow and lie down flat on the brick walk, waiting for me to come by and cut them off.
            Some plants that flowered in summer stand tall, holding up their leaves, though the flowers have browned, or blacked, gone to seed, fallen off, or simply turned gray like old wood or old men. The veins of nutrients that colored them have lost all connection to the life force. The stems lose their color and dry up like the old brush and branches fallen in the forest. They’ll nourish the next generation.
The bi-colored leaves on a tall phlox maintain a presence, the stalks still standing straight. The other tall phlox have all fallen prey to the white mildew that catches up to their species in fall. Nothing to do but take them down to the roots.
The flowers of the black-eyed susans are nothing but black eyes now, glowering in the end times where they once smiled in the sunshine; their pointy green leaves darkening, turning leathery, the stems thin and cramped. They seem to shrink into themselves as you watch.
            But last-call October bloomers are going strong, some still arriving. The Montauk daisies, big round white heads around yellow centers beam up at us. And the “spotted toad lilies” endure all summer long to open their spotted, contorted, complicated blooms now. With dark “spots” on their light pink backgrounds, they have the intricate beauty of small, subtle things.
            In combination with the turning trees and the various shades and stages of declining shrubs and perennials, the October bloomers focus our eyes on the season’s special palette and the year’s late vigor. It’s our own little Renaissance.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Catch Us, We're Falling

Three days, Columbus Day weekend in the Berkshires, revisiting old haunts. It was warm and blowsy when we arrived on Saturday at midday and by the time we walked down to the lake on the Gould Meadow trail the wind had begun to blow steadily, shaking the already-turned, yellow-leaved trees like fast-running waves breaking continually on the shore. It sent cascades of small yellow, brown-streaked leaves down from the trees and I held out my hands, not reaching, but simply opening them up to the sky and leaves fell into them. At one moment two in succession, one in each hand.
A leaf landed perfectly on Anne’s hair and balanced there. Another landed between the tip of her wire-rims and the fold of her brow. Nestling there, like some fledgling of the season.
It was warm autumn, blowsy, lazy – a “seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness” day – when we started that walk. A nuncio, anticipatory sort of day. Come to the village square and hear the proclamation: the Fall of the Year has arrived. Go and live in accordance, knowing this truth in your heart.
Oh, and maybe do a little preparation.
The wind meant something. We thought it meant rain, going by the forecast. Clouds thickened as walked along the banks of the Stockbridge Bowl. We glimpsed a single pink-hulled kayaker paddling near the shore. A handsome and sizable sailboat lay moored close to the bend in the trail where we stop by the reclining white birch to contemplate the water. The yacht had safe-harbor looking cabin, and Anne called it a floating house. But the clouds let off only a few drops, a sly low-key drizzle that barely made its way through the trees to reach us. More a rumor of rain than the thing itself. We could scarcely make out the drops on the surface of the lake.
A few hours later, though it did not rain, the sky remained thick with clouds and the temperature began to drop. Close to sunset I marshaled us back into the car for a quick drive down to the break in the woods formed by the “causeway” – water on both sides of this stretch of road: the full oval of the Stockbridge Lake on the left; a marsh of run off and thick rushes on the right – and hoped for a peek at a sunset.
By then we had a change in the weather to accommodate. The temperature plummeted like an unwary skater breaking through ice. The cold front predicted for days had fattened on that warm, high-canopy, mellow wind of midday that had gifted us with the gold currency of autumn leaves falling in our hands and in our hair. Now that wind simply blew ice cold. The car thermometer registered 56, down 25 degrees from our arrival. And the wind-chill made it feel much colder.
We left the car alongside the causeway and faced west, over the pond. A gap opened in the clouds and clear sky appeared between the top of the ridge and the steel-gray cloud cover above. This place reflected the progress of the sun dropping behind the hill, while its light still shone in the sky west of our summit. Continents of cloud rode through and over this sun-bright space in the heavens, big gray masses closing against one another, the color of the still undeparted sun that blazed unseen from the next horizon lighting up their edges. Beautiful tints and subtle notes appeared in this composition of air and water and color and whatever else clouds are made of.
A lower layer, moving toward us, or perhaps the larger cloud mass was moving away, turned into gauzey pink gazelles, great snow flakes of sunset mauve floating in light, hovering, holding some miracle of vision that exists only in our eyes; ballerinas in gossamer gowns, flakes of air and stardust, spinning galaxies of no dimension, but real in the moment. The moment of our viewpoint.
They outlast us. We grow cold.
Later that evening, when we have built a good fire in the small cottage fireplace, a thing we always do in October, we see all these sights, once more, in the flames.