Thursday, January 31, 2013

Listening By Half

            For a week or so I've only been half-hearing things. This is because one of my ears, the left one, periodically gets stopped up with earwax, and my efforts to unclog it invariably fail wetly.
            These efforts are not very aggressive because I fear like death the possibility of puncturing an eardrum with too pointed a clearing effort. So, following the instructions on the box, I squirt some water into my ear canal through a fat plastic hypodermic-like arrangement, a kind of squeegee in reverse, sucking up water into the tube and then pushing it into the canal, which for the above reasons I'm not even sure is a good idea.
            What if some of the water actually made it through the canal and flowed inward. Couldn't that lead to water on the brain? (Don't sailing or surfing or kayak enthusiasts, for instance, have "water on the brain"?)
            So not surprisingly, these efforts fail and I go about half-hearing the world. Does this make me vulnerable to one-sided arguments? Am I more polarized than usual? When I listen for the deeper song, am I missing half the notes? When I make certain that as we are walking down the sidewalk my wife walks on my right side so that I have some possibility of taking in her shrewd commentaries and apposite observations, am I assigning her "right-hand" status, a lordly prerogative (according to the Episcopal Nicean Creed I memorized as a child) that I doubt I am entitled to? Does this make her my right-hand woman?
            It is puzzling that the ear in which I am prone to losing my hearing, for hopefully brief periods, is always the left one. As anyone who knows me can attest, I am passionately attached to voices from the left. I cannot say for sure what tomorrow's issue will be, but I can already tell you I'll be listening to the left.
            Only I'll be hearing it from the right ear.
            One way to correct this imbalance,  I suppose, is to take a hard look at myself in the mirror. Matter will smartly re-arrange themselves there so that my left ear is on right -- a principle I know to be true but don't really understand. So if I spend half a day in front of a mirror, will that balance out my one-sided hearing? However, I have always suspected the mirrors are distorting the truth, or at least lying to us a little.
            So I resign myself to hearing only one half of what's going on out there. If I heard any more -- on, for instance, subjects like gun violence: if I were forced to take in all the sound and fury from those defending their god-given right to own machine guns -- I would probably want to shoot myself in the head. Then both ears would be equally useless.
            I can only take in so much. It's not really much of a relief, most of sound and fury does force itself into the one working ear, but sometimes it's a little more peaceful. I go into that slack-faced neutral state of mind you sometimes notice on people when they are "tuning you out." I tell myself I am compensating by "tuning in" to my inner life.
            But then we try to watch something British on TV and I find myself querying, annoyingly often, "What did he say?"
            And so, in the end, I take myself, as I must, to the great clearer of ears, that goddess of sound in the nurse practitioner's office who has remedied my halfway status in the past. When she pours the water, somehow it goes where it needs to and the waxy barriers inside my ear canal crumble. Last time we got together around the subject of my left ear, I recall, it took twenty-four dosings, a stunningly protracted siege, before victory was finally declared.
            This time -- what did I do to deserve such good fortune? -- only three.
            Then she says, "Now let's do the other. As I always say, you can't just change one headlight."
            So now I'm a car.
            Happily, the other "headlight" clears up after only a couple of dosings.
            Later, lying on my couch in "vacant or in pensive mood," I realize how lucky I am to be hearing, period. The wind blows. I hear it.
            After last week's single digit temperatures...,
            The roar of the wind sounds like... spring.


Can't Look Away

Somehow novelist Richard Ford, whose books I've read for years, manages to hold our attention when nothing much happens for scores of pages at a time while we wait for the disaster explicitly foretold on the first page of his latest novel, "Canada," to unfold. It's not that we can't look away from this train wreck; it's that we can't look away when we know that a train wreck's bound to happen somewhere down the line. In fact, it's like we're riding in that train along with the book's then 15-year-old narrator, named Dell, and the other three members of his ill-fated family. We could get off at any page, but our anxiety over the fate of the faux-naive narrator, his fraternal twin sister and mismatched parents is a kind of psychic glue. While we wait for the other shoe to drop after learning of the parents' absurd criminal plan, we share the narrator's agonizing tension.
And then, of course, as the narrator tells us in the same hopelessly understated tone, also at the novel's very start, "there were the murders."
The family is living in a small city in Montana after Dell's father quits the military over the discovery of his small-time scam. Without the old military-base connection, the family has no reason to be in this place; or perhaps any place. Dell's father is the family's central problem, his character flawed by by his inability to see that his friendly "Southern" personal charm will not by itself overcome his catastrophic failures of judgment, such as his belief that his small-time con games will have no ill consequences simply because he cannot see around his own ever hopeful, delusionary temperament to face the world clearly. Dell's mother, a committed loner and deluded in her own way, doesn't want her children to "assimilate" into the low-level culture around them.
The book's great accomplishment is telling this story from the point of view of a persuasively typical American boy of the late Fifties with no one to rely on but his ill-matched parents and his more perceptive, but cynical sister. Dell just wants everything to work out OK; the anticipation of starting high school is enough to keep him going. He's the kind of kid who studies chess books in the hope of making friends with the guys on the chess club. It hurts to see any part of yourself in any of these characters. His sister is the kind of unhappy adolescent girl who's already discovered the other town misfit and is planning to run away with him, even before her parents' absurdly ill-considered crime venture brings the roof down on top of them all.
Ford manages to spin his tale through Del's narration -- recollected in some tranquility decades later, while keeping the feel and tone of thoughtful but unsophisticated adolescent consciousness -- as the boy reconstructs what happened, what he was thinking then, what his parents must have or might have been thinking in a factual, reflective manner that keeps the reader waiting for what might appear to be an ordinary American family to hit a bridge abutment (metaphorically speaking) at 60 miles per hour.
And after it happens, Dell's life gets worse, and weirder. Then comes the "Canada" part of the book, and given the title you can't say you weren't warned. The still hopeful, still remarkably self-reliant Dell endures loneliness, material squalor and emotional privation, while landing, through circumstances bearing that same train-wreck anticipation of inevitability that carried us through the first part of the novel, in the clutches of a deranged Ivy League dropout whose self-delusions make his own father's inadequacies seem benign. His parents still in jail back in the States, and his sister off on her own weird trip, as Dell's new life begins in a Saskatchewan ghost town, any reason-loving reader such as my wife would be justified in throwing her hands up and complaining "this is a whole other story!"
But even as we know there's another disaster looming -- bearing down on us like a 10-ton truck on a lonesome Canadian prairie highway -- most of us are unable to tear our eyes away.
Like all really good works of fiction -- the best ones, maybe -- the subject of this novel is human existence. It remains an inexhaustible subject. "Canada" says what it says about what matters to us in a peculiar way that is all its own, because it has to.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Men of Yoga

How cold was it? I froze my toes in yoga class.
However cranky my toes, arches or other cramp-prone places in my feet can sometimes prove during what yoga teachers tend to call "your practice," it's a comfort these days to look around when I am bent over like a croquet hoop, bum in the air in the position known as "downward dog," and discover that a few of the other twisted sisters in the room are actually male.
That's a sea change in my own experience of the "relaxation technique," as a long-ago teacher termed it while leading a class in a high school gym of forty women and me. In those days I was worried about what to wear, and how to keep all of me inoffensively covered as the "practice" pulled parts of me this way and that; while keeping my eyes somewhat aslant from the enormously toned body parts of our white-haired, forever-young instructor, who occasionally reminded us she practiced at home in the evenings while watching TV.
In the world we live in now, where most everyone has a camera and video recorder no farther away than a pocketbook or, as we guys like to call them, a "man bag," image is everything, and body image is even more than that. So I've no desire to be the answer to the question that begins "one of these things is not like the others." I want to fit in. So I'm happy these days to see three or four or more (and always at least one) other male physiques in our group practice.
That wasn't the case something less than ten years ago when I went looking for a solution to my desire to sleep better, breathe deeply, rest fully, cleanse my mind from the ups and downs of the day, and quiet the endless round of too much thinking for too little effect in that busy little mind we all carry around with us -- in a word, life as we know it. And, yes, relax.
I found a weekly yoga class that somehow managed meet all these needs. It met in the early evening and often twilight would arrive while we breathed deeply and persuaded our bodies into some unconventional attitudes -- some of them the kind of thing that seems to shout "don't try this at home!" But it was perfectly safe to do these stretches, and stretch our limits, in the intimate salon a pair of teachers had molded from the insides an old New England house.
It was an environment in which it was impossible to make a mistake. We had incense, candles, sometimes chimes, and a teacher who read verses from the poet Rumi or other spiritually attuned source. The ambiance made you forget that in other circumstances you were made of cold toes, stiff ankles, little pockets of excess flesh here and there, bums and bellies, thickening limbs and too rigid backbones. In the Yoga Salon you were all right. No other possibility existed. You were always, in the words of our teacher, exactly where you were supposed to be.
"Don't look at your neighbor," she told us at one my first classes.
Good advice. I know what she meant was that since every "body" will do the postures differently no one else's position can tell you what yours should look like. But this universal advice mattered to me when everyone else was bound to look different by the mere fact of gender (and, btw, don't look at the guy and giggle because he's trying his best). Yoga class back then was me and the gals.
One season a younger guy showed up, arriving for class as if he had just flown out of the office in his chinos and sport shirt. Dress code, dude! Go home and get your sweats on. Make an effort, can't ya? Men stand out enough around here as it is.
I didn't miss his disappearance -- or, truth be told, long for the companionship of additional Men of Yoga -- in those days because there was something about the Yoga Salon's female ambiance that was intensely comforting. What was it about our sessions that seemed to restore the sensuality of childhood? The teacher's trained, gentle, soothing voice managed to sound maternal, cosmic, caring and -- well, seductive -- all at the same time. Like the Earth Mother you never had.
Combined with the positive reinforcement of that feminine leadership style. Nobody barks at you as they do in aerobics. You're told 'take a break when you need to.' And,'It should never hurt.'
"Wherever your body goes, ends up, how far down you get -- how much extended, stretched -- is the right amount for you. Whatever place you end up is the right place for you... Wherever you are is exactly where you're supposed to be."
Really? Is this principle generally applicable? Can I take it to the bank? Try it on my accountant?
Plus, there's all that time on the floor. How second childhood is that? When do grownups get down there? It's good for you, peeps! Remember, grownups are just oversized children on their way to wearing out.
And then at the end you get to lie down on your back for a good long collapse, a position called savasana. It's not a pose, a stretch, a balance, a flex, a rep. You just lie on your mat for whole minutes with your hands by your size. At the Yoga Salon, the teacher would come around with little natural-fiber blankies and ask if you wanted to be covered to stay warm. You generally did. When was the last time somebody offered to tuck you in?
That's how guys know we're in a different place. We can't remember ever being invited to a "slumber party." Is this how girls did it? Sometimes when you mumbled, "mmm, yes, great" to the blanket query, you'd get touched on the shoulder or arm. It was like Mom checking for a fever.
I would fall asleep during savasana. My mind would float on its little endorphin high after exercise. It was nap time for aging boomers.
But as I said at the start, things are different in my current yoga class, now that the Men of Yoga have arrived. My class is bigger, the space (a gym floor) is huge, and sometimes the turnout fills it. But the biggest change of all is looking around and seeing a half dozen hairy sons of Adam.
OK, guys, I don't blame you for horning in on a good thing. Just try not to louse it up.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Counting the Bird Feeders

Various well-meaning organizations choose this time of year, earthfast mid-winter to induce the unsuspecting citizenry of bird feeder nation to take part in their annual winter bird counts. They think if you're feeding birds you might as well count them so then we'll all get some use out of this unnatural activity. There's the Christmas Bird Count, the Mid-winter bird count, and another one coming up in late February (Survivors Rollcall?).
Of course, there's also the "no bird count," the one where you put all your winter togs on, stomp outdoors with your big bag of rich black-shelled sunflower seeds, expose your tender little fingers to the wind-chill in order to manipulate some percentage of the store-bought seed into the feeding mechanism, stomp back indoors, take your own fat downy feathers off, then stand by the kitchen window and exclaim, "Where in blazes did all the birds go?"
It's an easy count when the total is zero.
All self-serving plaints aside, bird-feeding is one of the great cold-climate winter sports in these parts. One of its main advantage is that for the great majority of the time you're indoors and it's the doughty little avians, who apparently don't mind so much, who are outdoors. This is far superior to say, fish-feeding, which during winter is almost solely practiced, as far as I can tell, by the act of protracted lingering over thick ice on a body of very cold water after drilling a hole through the ice (though otherwise trying hard not to molest it), and then waiting for fish to pop out of the hole to be counted.
I have no idea how you go about counting racoons, badgers, porcupines or coyotes in winter and leave the whole idea in the hands of hardier folk. So if you are in a counting mood in mid-winter, that leaves us with birds.
But do not pretend that this is a simple matter.
Understand that those who create these bird population surveys are not content with hearsay -- with well-meaning light-hearted reports: Oh, heck of a lot of birds! Mostly your little brown jobs! Just all over the place! Have a look at that one, willya'?
Oh no, they're sticklers for details. They want to know what kinds of birds you have. They want to know pretty much exactly which kind. One well-known authority in this field, I won't mention any names, recently produced a list, by name, of some thirty bird species most likely to be turning up for free lunch at your feeder.
This list does not include the thin-skinned hawk (it hates being talked about) which recently chilled the lunch-time crowd at our place. Hawks and other big charismatic high-flying fellows don't even make this accounting. But they give you 30 varieties of smaller look-alike creatures, out of the maybe 200 species common to our neck of the map, and expect you to make the distinction.
These suspects, alphabetically arranged, have names such as American crow. In a spirit of international brotherhood, I am open to recording crows of all nationality, but while we do see crows in our trees we do not see them at our feeder and I am hard-put to imagine it. American Goldfinch is a different story. It may be distinguished from House Finch and Purple Finch on the question of size alone since it resembles a large yellow-warning traffic light. It's a finch on steroids. However, if I am asked to distinguish house finch from purple finch and referred to the paired photographs provided by the authority, I can only conclude there is no discernible difference.
These birds are paired in a section titled "easily confused birds." I fear for these mentally troubled avians: Will they find their way to the feeder without assistance?
Here, birdie birdie! The feeder's right in front of you!
We are similarly shown pictures of the Hairy Woodpecker beside the Downy Woodpecker: same little red spot on the back of the head, same lovely white checks on black coat over the wing and tail feathers. The only difference I see is Downy boy is about two and a half inches longer. Keep that ruler handy! The difficulty is we have the hardest time getting them to stand still long enough to use it.
All in all, it might be simpler to ask the birds to count their feeders this time around. Of course, this raises another perplexing question: Can they tell us apart?
How many lonely housebound writers peering outdoors every day, watching the line of the birdseed in the feeder sinking down as the minutes pass? How many underpaid housewives? House husbands leaving the toddlers alone with strict instructions not to fiddle with the house electronics until they return from filling up the feeder?
Some species of bird feeders, as I am told, have so well mastered the art of distinguishing one little brown feathered flyer from the next that they can estimate its length within a centimeter from the kitchen window while humming several measures of its winter pick-up song. These are called "birders."
The rest of us pretty much see birds of a feather who seldom stand still enough for us to entrap them in their distinguishing characteristics. We are called "humans."

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sand Castles in the Air

Rated the third best work of fiction published last year by the NY Times, "A Hologram for the King" by Dave Eggers gives us one central character, an "industrialist" to use Alan Clay's word for himself, but actually more of a salesman, who has lost his place in the great American downsizing caused by the bank crash of 2008, loss of American manufacturing to cheaper factories overseas, and the rise of China. He has a daughter, but we don't get to meet her. He has three colleagues on his sales mission to Saudi Arabia, where the entire story takes place, young people so hard to tell apart we can barely remember their names.
So we are pretty much dependent on Alan Clay and the charms of his story as he tries to reverse his decline with a big success in Saudi Arabia to keep us interested. Alan was involved with American manufacturing companies such as Schwinn that made good money for him in the past, but that's all over now. Those who live by the dollar die by the dollar. Alan is broke; his skills unneeded, his contacts eroded.
Ironically globalization, the enemy of American factories, comes to his rescue. Now a consultant, he's been chosen to pitch the King of Saudi Arabia for a very big digital product for the new city that King is building from scratch on the shores of nowhere, the sort of project that happens only in the oil-rich Gulf. The "hologram" of the title is the centerpiece of the pitch -- it's a top of the line high-tech gimmick to catch a king.
The novel starts slowly and annoyed me with its page layout tic of separating the narrative very six or ten lines with a line break, a device conventionally used to indicate a change of place, time, scene or point of view. Here it indicates nothing. The textual breaks seemed intended to stretch the story to novel size; it's packaging over product. The tic is annoying because what we get at first is a lot of nothing much, the trivia of an international business trip that starts badly. An impenetrable Saudi city, a bland new hotel, the office building in the city the king is building -- that all this could be anywhere in the world is part of the point, I suppose, but as atmosphere, scene-setting, story-telling, whatever, it's not very engaging. A worried taxi cab driver in a beat-up car turns into a character, but it takes a while. Alan tells jokes, giving him something to say, since he evidently does not read books or even newspapers. It's impossible for me to imagine a middle-aged American traveling to a foreign city that lacks both English media and booze (technically banned by the kingdom's s puritanical version of Islam) without bringing a single book to read. What did he think he was going to do with himself? Our hero does play his cell phone, placing costly phone calls that either do not end well personally or fail to advance his situation financially.
Yet there must be something appealing about this guy. The taxi driver laughs at his jokes and eventually gives him an in-country experience of the real Saudi Arabia, a village built under a mountain in a place where it appears to Alan that people weren't meant to live -- that turns into the novel's high point. It's the one place in the book where you read on because you have to know what comes next. It also results in a dramatic and convincing low point, both morally and emotionally, for Alan.
And both of the women he meets come on to him sexually, including the Saudi doctor who treats foreign men (against the rules). It is interesting to follow the book's depiction of how a woman in this most repressive of societies, officially at least, manages an affair. Unhappily, Alan cannot manage an affair on, so to speak, his end. So we're left with a hologram, rather than a fleshly encounter in the book's anticlimactic resolution.
In the end I'm not that sympathetic to this character or convinced I should be. He can't pay his daughter's private college tuition, but he appears never to have heard of needs-based financial aid. He has married the wrong person; and now he can't make a commitment to anyone else.
Well, you can always dream. Which makes Alan Clay, I suppose, an American everyman. So is this what we've been reduced to? Trying to impress a king with a high-tech gimmick? I thought we were the country that got rid of kings. Alan keeps on dreaming of the next big score. I think he should come back to the US and try to do something useful -- like, say, organizing a Wal-Mart union.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Worldwide Weather

It was 60 degrees on Jan. 14, a ridiculous temperature for winter in New England. You can't take a photo of 60 degrees, but I had to take a photo of something to try to record something so fleeting but so real in the moment, so I went down to my favorite waterfront salt marsh and took a photo of the glossy yellow marsh grass and and light-filled sky above. Birds were active, but the trees were bare; it's winter.
The next day was dark, cooler, and nasty with that coastal-wet, stinging sensation you get around here, even though the temperature was mid 40s. That night it snowed.
Today we're glutted with fat, wet, thickly-hanging snow cover, piling up on the tree branches and slushing the lawns and sidewalks. I watch the melting snow fall steadily off the thickly coated branches. Clumps of snow pour down in a continuous, variable (a little, then a lot) faucet-stream of wet white snow. Falling not from the sky, but the treetops. It's kind of a second act.
It's not snowing now. It's weathering.
Last week in Beirut fierce rain storms off the Mediterranean lashed the city for days. That's winter in the part of the world where our daughter lives. The same storm system brought snow to Israel and the West Bank. Newspaper photos showed kids trying to make snow ball fights just like they've seen other kids do on news footage of other people's winters.
In Beirut the heavy rain attacked the balcony where Sonya keeps her plants. It blew a poinsettaa, a Christmas season poinsetta (I'd say they're big in Lebanon, but that's redundant; anything having to do with any holiday celebration is big in Lebanon) out of its pot, tore it up by the roots, and threw it against a very large, space-taking climbing plant (probably the bougainvillea), tangling its roots and branches in this greater wall of green. There it remained some time while the rains soaked the city, hanging on for dear life, emitting the silent screams of a plant that's had its lifeline to the earth rudely removed and finds itself roots-up in the air -- never a good posture for a plant -- clinging with its little twiggy fingers onto a larger plant, rather than fall to the cold, dead pavement below.
Remarkably, Sonya found the plant still in this precarious position when the storm let up and re-potted it sufficiently to keep it alive.
This storm in the Mediterranean, dramatic as it was for that part of the world, may portend nothing for the weather heading our way.
We are blessed in our family with a meteorologist of repute, who detects storms and other phenomena in the upper airs. The upper airs, as I recall from my own liberal arts highly unscientific background, are where where the ancient gods of Greek mythology lived on Mount Olympus; and the Olympian gods, as you'll remember from the Greek myths, are always stirrers-up of trouble for mere mortals.
But in the world of science, the upper air is where the weather comes from, up up and away, over the poles, and in the jet stream and in other atmospheric places referred to by meteorologists and climate scientists in jargon terms I do not intend to remember.
What I picture up there in the upper atmosphere is some huge mythological fist ready to come down on us, pretty soon (a week or two), according to the predictive computer models. The prediction this time is a deep cold spell, not a blizzard.
We all know from recent experience with superstorm Sandy that unusually strong storms can be predicted from these models. Our family star meteorologist predicted a strong winter hurricane for the East Coast well in advance of its arrival. Sandy struck and in some cases shattered places where I grew up, on Long Island. I'm not looking forward to a similar punch from the upper airs landing on Boston.
Today, living near the shore in Eastern Massachusetts, I watch the weather bring us that fat wet snow, our second this year after almost no snow last year. But these are just little slaps and nudges from Worldwide Weather.
We are all in this together. All air, all atmosphere, all atmospheric pollution, all weather is connected.
Yesterday's winter storm was called Helen. A Greek name. Not a storm to launch a thousand ships -- or even, around here, a thousand snow plows. Just enough to give us something to think about.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Garden of Trails

Holly Hill Farm, I've been told about for a couple of years, is this wonderful actual farm in Cohasset that invites people to come take a look at it and even walk on its property. I had trouble imagining a "farm" of any description in Cohasset. If you don't live there -- and after all, very few of us do -- Cohasset is the high-end zip code for this part of the state of Massachusetts. People, we've all been told, come from far and wide to gawk at the mansions overlooking the ocean on a street grandly (or mysteriously) named Jerusalem Road. But it's not the mansions (works of man, not matter how grand), it's the setting, the land and seascape, that takes your breath away.
People keep forgetting that paradise is all around us. We never lost it, not completely. Though our current practices are threatening our earthly paradise as never before; and, granted, often enough it's easy to forget that that third rock from the sun is quite literally the best of all possible worlds. Along the shoreline in Cohasset it's easy to remember.
I keep forgetting how beautiful this town really is. Then I drive through the pretty town center and head to the shore and recall my snarky first impression of the whole effect: a nature preserve for white people.
Jerusalem Road (the biblical reference seems purely ironic), the poshest street on Massachusetts' South Shore, is a brand name street. It's not the real estate, it's the layout, the geography. The coast twists and curves, with inlets and streams, woody rises over the ocean, and on the inland side from the coastal road way more wooded open space than an outsider can imagine being there.
That's where Holly Hill farm has rooted in.
Sure enough, it's an old actual, agriculture-business farm-like farm, with broken-up wood planks lying in a pile on bare ground, little corrals for animals, barns with more use on them than paint, a line of farm machine vehicles inside a large open shed with a sign that says "Please don't sit on the tractors."
A real farm, that is, except for the signs. The signs exist because the place, legally a non-profit with a complicated mission, not only expects visitors but invites them. There's no one around on the first weekend in January, but you'll be all right if you follow the signs, like the ones over each parking space that say "parking space."
A farm with signs for the unwary. I'm also surprised that the pretty brown horse in the little corral isn't wearing a signboard saying "horse."
However when it comes a screened yard full of handsome, healthy roosters or chickens with nothing to do but pose colorfully, I could use some labeling. With their handsome red combs and reddish feather ones, are these Rhode Island Reds?
I'm also missing a clear indication of which direction to head for the vaunted hiking trails, the object of our visit. In the absence of a sign, we wander around the barn, find a "mowin'" field, walk alongside it until we come to a smaller, but substantial growing plot filled with still sturdy dark green broccoli plants -- a good-sized edible flower head on one -- and enter the land of initials.
Signs reappear here -- trail signs, clearly painted and tacked to trees. They're all initials. Some with a single letter, H, for instance; some with combinations, big letter followed by small: So, Bc. Clearly these indications refer to a detailed map of an intricate trail system with frequent intersections between the parts. These promise to be highly useful in connection with said map, which we have not got.
But we boldly step forth, followed one initialed trail a decently long way to another, enjoy an attractive, varied woodlands, with streams, wetlands, big gray "erratic" boulders, lots of stone walls, all of it adding up to thoroughly satisfying winter walk.
Taking a different loop on the way back, careful not to get turned around, we come to a gentle decline with a charming view of a picturesque marsh, tucked in between woods and shore. At the sound of our approach steps, a great blue heron opens its wings and soars majestically away.
Paradise may be fleeting, but it's there.
And it's always good to go some place new and discover another pretty room in earth's mansion.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Garden in the House

Take the house plants outdoors in the summer.
Bring them back indoors in the winter.
Generally, they grow a lot of new leaves when they're outdoors, given more light, moderate temperatures, much more water -- more natural conditions. I am speaking of house plants that have endured rough, substandard housing conditions for years. I don't fertilize them. I barely water them. I don't transplant them when they grow out of their old pots and their roots clump together in the plastic bottoms like the fingers of prisoners scratching at the walls, looking for a finger-hold to drag themselves under and out of their prison to seek the freedom of new soil. We don't have new soil in the house. Just air, furniture, the usual clutter, and a surprising amount of airborne dust. But not even our hard-scrabble house plants can survive on dust alone.
It's too much to say these plants prosper and flourish in our house, I have to admit. I don't mean to sound cold-hearted, but it's the simple truth. They endure. They survive. That's why they're still here.
Occasionally, OK, not that occasionally, I look up some winter day and find leaves yellowing, stems flopping, twiggy leafless branches extending bare, pleading fingers in my direction. I go into rescue mode then, apply water generously, spill it generously too because the root-bound soil has lost its natural absorbent power; and repeat this operation with some frequency while also twisting off the yellowed leaves and offering soft words of encouragement... and, almost always, save the plant.
Currently I have one plant, the sad remains of a once buoyant Swedish ivy drooping in a pot too large for its decayed root structure, in my study, waiting for extreme unction or some more practical intervention involving extensive surgery and a course of medication. Its more likely future is cold storage. I'd like to re-pot it in something small and cozy with better soil and leave it in a shady spot where I will remember to give it a little water whenever I walk by with a hose or can in my hands.
However this operation is about six months away, on account of winter.
Other plants in this holding tank of mine are in various stages of good or indifferent health. One is simply too big. It's strong and growing tall, as it does presumably in the rainforest it came from. But here it threatens the ceiling and reaches out to the closet door. (It will be disappointed. Nothing for plants in there.) As for what happens next, I'm awaiting inspiration. I do take it outdoors for summer vacation and it thickens a little, but still insists on growing up.
Others, old viney ones, including a couple of philodendrons, grow lush and happy in the summer, their color darkening handsomely. When they come back indoors, they tend to lose a lot of leaves that turn yellow and make autumn on the floor. One of the principal reasons for this is I do not water them nearly often as they get watered outdoors.
On the other hand, they would not like the outdoors alternative of sunbathing in January.
And lastly, as pictured above, I have another plant that someone gave us a few years ago, that produced beautiful brightly colored flowers in circular flower heads consisting of scores of tiny florets. I don't know what the plant is, something Mediterranean I'd guess, but the tag that came with it disappeared long ago. What the plant's done since that opening show, predictably, in a much less hospitable environment than the greenhouse which grew it, is grow long and leggy and stop flowering.
This plant got a summer vacation too last year, plus a fortunate re-potting.
And guess what? Flowers in January.
Seen in the photo taken a couple days ago by Anne, the first pink blossom appeared while the world was going white outdoors.