Sunday, April 28, 2013

More Color, More Life

I devoted a fair part of several fairly warm afternoons last week picking old brown leaves and new green weeds out of the groundcover that grows under a big shade tree in the back garden.
For me that's a sure sign of spring.
The groundcover back there consists of English Ivy, which grows wherever and however it wants (but which has not yet threatened to take over the universe), a few wild violets, and a grassy-looking spring bloomer that makes tiny white flowers whose name and provenance are a complete mystery to me.
But the signature groundcover of this stage of the springtime garden is Vinca minor. The small-leaved plant -- the leaves shiny, with a wax-like coating that discourages certain diseases and pests -- is also known as periwinkle and, incorrectly according to the sources, as creeping myrtle.
I look forward to a solid show by Vinca, with patches in both the front and back flower gardens, because its bluish flowers make the ground shine. It's an April bloomer, but here it is the last week of April before we've seen much in the way of color.
Still its arrival is a bright moment. After a long winter and slow-starting spring I'm not about to let the patch under the tree be overshadowed by the weeds that, despite the above-mentioned chilly spring, are off to their usual healthy head start. In particular, a light green weed with a slightly fuzzy leaf loves to slip in among the Vinca and obscure our view of the flowers by spreading its leaves above them if I let it, so I don't.
Pulling weeds involves sitting or squatting on the ground, so a little warm weather makes the task more attractive. I listen to the birds, it's their month too, woodpeckers knock about invisibly in the oak, pile up a small landfill of the extracted pale-green weeds that I apply directly to the newly turned soil in the vegetable garden to mask the smell of our recently-added compost.
We needed to remove a lot of half dessicated food waste from the compost bin this year because the thing was half tipping over and falling apart. Anne always volunteers eagerly for this job (this is the sort of remark I slip in to see if you're awake).
I dug the compost, both well-decayed and not-so, directly into the garden soil because we don't have any other place to put it.
The smell was remarkable; and enduring. I carried it on the soles of my sneakers for days afterwards. (No, the sneakers did no go indoors.)
So weeds always play this role in the garden's economy. The quicker I get their roots out of the soil the sooner I can use them to mulch the vegetable garden, that flash-mob of the annuals I am hoping to make grow from seed or seedling size in spring to tomato, bean, and eggplant jungle by late summer.
I'm late getting to work on the vegetable garden, but the proliferation of blossoms on the Vinca, the thickening up of the other groundcovers, the white flowers on the pachysandra -- plus the rapid population growth of the weeds, for that matter -- all show that spring is taking hold.
Traction in the earth. Sunlight in the skies. The green blossoms on the shade trees on both sides of our street. And in our exposed, pushy sidewalk strip, that little oasis of cultivation between the decaying sidewalk and the asphalt jungle of the street, the blue of the grape hyacinths is shining strongly now. Along with the pansies, planted by Anne, they give us some spot color to celebrate the high moments of April.
We enjoy those moments, those repeated but always new gifts of the cosmos,whenever they come.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Boston Underfoot

On the Saturday after Marathon Day, we went downtown to Boston to feel the city under our feet once again.
The city, official voices assured us after the famous Friday evening arrest, was back on its feet. We wanted it on ours too.Lots of other people had the same idea.
From Park Street we walked through Boston Common, circling a gentle grassy rise clothed with several hundred young people sitting in small groups facing this way and that. Was it Earth Day? Or merely Turf Day? The youthful gathering had staked out its turf in impressive numbers, and the smell of marijuana wafting on the April breeze was profound.
The nature of this gathering made me think of Central Park on some very (very) youthful occasions. Anne suggested the term "be-in." No uniformed public safety presence was anywhere in sight. We were told later that a crowd gathers in the Common every year at this time to celebrate the Earth by puffing on one of its products.
The uniformed personnel, not surprisingly, were all over on Boylston Street.
Before going there we hiked through the Public Garden, stuffed with people as well, but the Garden has a different personality from the Common. The Garden is for strolling, not for langing. The landscape desgin with its circular, winding paths has the classic Olmstead look, with a new vista at every turn. The design has formal elements as well: massed plantings -- the tulip buds were pursing their lips but not quite open; the pansy beds were turning their happy faces to the transitory sun. And romantic structural elements such as footbridge over the pond where the swanboats play in the summer. The bridge is ideal for picture taking. Pretty much every turn on a Boston Public Garden path is.
The gates of the Garden give way to the Commonwealth Avenue "mall," its green, tree-filled walkway separating two roadways. The west side of the street is lined with magnolia trees blooming last weekend in front of the avenue's classy stone townhouses, perfectly maintained private addresses with pretty public faces. Together they make a unified aesthetic piece, with a little bit of individuality in each tiny courtyard, like separate voices joined in a chorus.
The mall also provides a setting for a quirky cavalcade of monuments to some of Boston's best-known names mixed with lesser known sons whose backers apparently had an in with the city. In the first category, for example, we have an old-fashioned, 19th century "great man" statue of William Lloyd Garrison, accompanied by an inscription with his most oft-repeated declaration: "I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - and I will be heard!" Garrison is a Boston brand, but the monument nowhere states that he was an abolitionist, perhaps the single most important voice in that crusade. I wonder how long it will be safe to say, "Doesn't everybody know that?"
Don't worry. I didn't stop perfect strangers to take a survey.
But I took photos of the well-designed, very contemporary "women's voices" monument, with its images of Phyllis Wheatley (America's first black author); Lucy Stone (suffragist and the first Massachusetts woman to earn a college degree); and Abigail Adams, for whom the inscribed text quotes from the "remember the ladies" letter to husband John.
The crowd, and the cops, were thickest at the metal barriers and ad-hoc mourners' monument at the crime scene on Boylston Street. You took it in with a glance and there was no need to remain. Newbury Street proved more mobbed than usual on a spring weekend, so when we were finally allowed back on Boylston Street, near the Arlington station, we got coffee and croissants at a crowded Au Bon Pain and sat outdoors among people of different backgrounds and colors, several parties of Spanish speakers, a small flock of happy sparrows, and a news anchor from NECN (New England Cable News) who was instantly recognized on the street .
Ah, a typical urban melange. Same as it always was. Just what we wanted.
Somebody wrote recently (can't remember where or I would credit the author) that the thing that brings people back to cities is they find they have conversations there they don't have anywhere else. Sometimes they even have them with themselves.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Garden of the Mind

When a great writer takes on a difficult subject, the results can be intriguing. In the case of Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed," the subject is a utopia that does not, as it typically would in the scifi or fantasy genres, turn into a dystopia. The planet of Anares, whose whose people founded their society on the principles of the great anarchist philosophy Odo, does have its problems. But then everywhere in the universe -- at least everywhere the human-like species in Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" can travel -- does.
            Le Guin wrote this book 40 years ago. I can't explain why I only got around to it recently. Maybe because 40 years ago I would have tried to figure out where it was and go there.
            Anares was once the satellite planet, or colony, of the much larger planet Urras. Urras mined it for minerals, much in the way the counties of the Earth plan to treat the Arctic, or maybe the moon some day once we figure out to exploit it. However life on Urras was dominated by greed, ambition, the exploitation of the less powerful by the more powerful, vulturish capitalism, the sort of corrosive materialism that corrupts the haves as it drains the life from the have-nots. This picture should sound familiar, though the novel claims this is not a portrait of Earth since in Le Guin's literary universe another world, called Terra, takes on that role. Terra, as should be instructive for us to learn, is a largely burnt-out planet trying to struggle back from a planetary-resources collapse that reduced the population from 8 billion to a few struggling millions. People from Terra tend to think that the cruel but wealthy planet of Urras is the cat's meow.
            However, the growing number of social and economic revolutionaries on Urras who followed the teachings of Odo eventually threatened the status quo sufficiently that the planet's leaders decided to buy off dissent by offering its "moon," Anares, to the Odonians for their "new world." Seven generations later, as our story begins, Anares is still small potatoes. The planet has an atmosphere but not enough water. It's dry and hot and hard to grow enough food there. It trades minerals for fuel from Urras. The truly charming piece of their relationship is that the people on each planet call the other "the moon."
            What Anares does have is idealism and brotherhood. Each person has right to call on every other for assistance. No one owns property. In fact to insult somebody for selfish or uncivil behavior you call him a "propertarian." People live in dormitories or something called "doms," which appears to mean "available housing."
            There is no money. When you need something you go to the storehouse and take it, though as is to be expected in a "scarcity society" much is rationed. A serious, long-lasting drought raises the possibility of starvation and shakes this group-oriented society to its roots. The planet would not turn to Urras for help because, in line with ideological purity, it won't have anything to do with Urras or any other world (beside that restricted trade in minerals).
            Having given herself such interesting ideas to work with, Le Guin then creates intriguing, complex characters with satisfyingly deep issues and drives them into an involving, unconventional plot. It's politics, ethics, psychology and international diplomacy, rather than action-adventure that motivates -- just as in any really good novel in any (or no) genre.
            And after the story resolves, and the fiction comes to an end, we're left with much to think about. We have, for instance, Le Guin's brilliant creation of a philosophical basis for this society founded on the ideas of the anarcho-ethicist Odo, a woman who does not live to see her ideas put into practice.
            In place of money, ambition, and ego, Odonians have brotherhood and the absolute right to mutual assistance -- along with the responsibility to provide it. And a looser idea of family, since everyone, including parents seek out (and are sometimes forced to accept) job postings anywhere in the world. Sometimes to work in your desired field you must go far from home. Sometimes the needs of the community lead you to sign up for long stretches of planting trees, for instance, in a virtual desert. Our hero's mother says, "the work comes first." The result is our hero, Shevek, grows up without a mother. Shevek, a physicist, is separated from his own family for four years because survival needs turn him into an agricultural laborer.
            But Odo was no back-to-the-land romantic. While decentralization is an essential element of anarchist philosophy, Odo "had no intention of trying to de-urbanize civilization," Le Guin writes. Her followers "knew their anarchism was the product of a complex and diversified culture, of a stable economy and a highly industrialized technology that could maintain high production and rapid transportation of goods and ideas." When they developed a new area, they built the roads first.
            Ideas such as these are folded into the narrative throughout. Our Shevek is not only a universe-class physics theorist, he's a deep psychological and spiritual thinker whose personal journey leads, shockingly to his society, to an actual spaceship journey to another world. It's rare to find a novel written these days, or any days perhaps, with this much intellectual/inspirational heft in so many directions.
            "The Dispossessed" assumes high technological standard, but its action isn't techno-driven. It's human-driven. That's a model that can still fly.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wander Land

Anything you can do that's physically involving, repetitive enough so that it doesn't take a lot of thought to keep going, and outdoors -- that's a bonus -- creates a good space for what you might call "off-line thinking."
            Your mind is free to wander, you're not screwing up anything important by not paying steady attention -- you're not, that is, "focusing" (because, thank heaven!, for once you don't need to) -- and there's no pressure to be doing something else, or doing something productive or useful, because you are already doing something useful.
            You're pulling old leaves out of your plants. Or picking out weeds, or trimming foliage, or deadheading flowers, or sticking something sharp into the ground to loosen the soil. Or planting seedlings. Or even seeds.
            I'm still on the first of these. It's cosmetic, pulling last year's dried brown leaves from the grasp of this year's emerging green shoots just to make the whole flower garden plot look better. On the other hand, the whole flower garden plot is itself essentially cosmetic.
            So I'm doing what I'm doing. The synecdoche represents the whole.
            The garden, as both place and idea, is there all the time. We can't see it -- i.e. we can't see what we want to see -- when we look at a carpet of dead brown leaves. The perennials, probably all of them, will push their way out eventually by themselves if we did nothing at all... That hands-off approach would eventually, however, would lead to something more like a wildnerness. A garden going wild.What we're going for is the balance between "part of nature, part of us."
            So we are given an opportunity to meditate because while picking leaves out from the roots of plants, removing those trapped between the stalks, and (slowest of all) removing leaves, bits of leaves, broken twigs and other plant material from the clusters of low viney groundcovers -- the small-leafed euonymus is particularly challenging -- our hands are busy being practical.
            Let me that again: since our hands are busy, our brains can wander.
            We all have our own wander-land. The book we're reading, the TV show or movie we watched last night, the Red Sox or the Yankees, a relationship. Our boss; practical stuff at work or on the domestic front. But the longer we wander, and the more often we do it, the more likely we are to get into fresher regions.
            When you take care of plants, you don't necessarily think much about plants (though I'm still trying to remember the name of that ornamental grass with purple flowers) any more than you think about clothing or laundry when you're folding the wash. I don't think much about birds, though I hear them and stop working to look around when a woodpecker jackhammers the tree I'm squatting under and no matter how hard I look I can't find him. When I get tired of looking, I drop my eyes back on the ground I'm picking clean, and let my thoughts go where they will go.
            I begin to think, for a while this time (an OK Saturday, 53 degre
es, occasional sun) about some of the songs on a new album, meaning new to me, of previously unheard Woodie Guthrie songs set to music and sung by the folk music group Wilco and British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.
            One song, a perfect match of lyric, mood, and sound, has a haunting refrain that goes: "Ain't nobody that can sing like me/ Way over yonder in the minor key."
            That's true of us all. No one can sing our own songs, our own deepest and most peculiar songs, the way we can. Especially when we're free to feel them.

Tax Day, Marathon Day, Bomb Day

Monday, for one day only, I wished I could say I lived in Boston.
We live in the north end of Quincy, two or three miles from the Boston line. Without traffic on the highway it would take us about 15 minutes to drive to the place on
Boylston Street where the bombs went off on Patriots Day.
Boylston Street is not the most beautiful street in the city -- its near neighbors Commonwealth Ave and Newbury Street are more charming -- but for me it's the most memorable. It's a broad avenue with some of the city's finest buildings such as the Boston Public Library.
Slightly beyond the library, on a block of hotels, restaurants and shops, race officials set up the finish line for the Boston. It's a place where people watch, applaud friends and strangers, hang out, wait for friends, go to restaurants, sit outside.
It's a place where you can harm a lot of people if you want to.
When I moved to Boston long ago, in any earlier age of the world, I would walk from my cheap North End apartment to the public pleasures of Boylston Street in the evenings. Begin by traveling through the city's green heart: first, the rougher and frankly "common" Boston Commons where people walk their dogs, beg, play music and softball, ignore the homeless, and on occasional summer nights sit on the grass for free Shakespeare. Then stroll through the always in-trim Public Gardens (about 10,000 tulips pursing their pretty lips there this month), emerge on Charles Street, and turn up a block to Boylston. From there continue past the cathedral heft of Trinity Church, breezy Copley Plaza, and a block of storeftonts to the BPL.
Too many books: the huge library was mixed pleasure. You could still walk the library stacks then and face the intimidating accumulation of all that towering literacy. But a city library is a great public resource and we should keep in mind that "public" is good. It means all of us.
Downtown Boston was always (and still is) a beautiful place to be on foot. Its big-city charms are modest in comparison to the world's major cities, but the center is easily accessible to all comers and it doesn't cost anything to walk the streets and look at the buildings, the shops, and the people.
The places I went in those early days -- all-night restaurants, the Jazz Workshop -- aren't there anymore. The favorite places of the next group of people have probably disappeared as well. But the kids who come for college or grad school and the young people who choose to live in a place with nightlife and culture are still finding their places and always will because like all real cities Boston continually reinvents itself.
My personal taste doesn't run to marathons or races of any sort (though pennant races are a different category) so I wasn't one of those people yesterday thinking 'that could have been me.' But any day spent hanging out in the city center, getting together with family or friends, meeting someone, or sitting outdoors to watch the world, is a day well spent.
My point is: let's not take it for granted. Let's not lose the concentrated stimulus of people, resources and public places only a city center can offer. It's a place to hang around, explore, get lost in, find something new.
It is, as the expression goes, "our freedom." That, ultimately, in the macro, is what was attacked Monday.
We preserve it best by using it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

From Time to Time

Sonya has us time traveling -- not that she isn't the cause of most of our other traveling: across the ocean for visits; down to Florida for vacation -- by introducing us to hand-picked episodes of "Doctor Who." A classic British TV sci-fi -- thriller? mind-twister? -- from 70s and the 80s, it was revived about seven years ago as a completely new show with the same old twists and thrills and the central character of the Time Lord, the last of his kind, who whistles through time and space in his London police callbox, a squat obscure cube on the outside and an enormous space ship on the inside.
(Time out for brief aside: The reason I have been watching all this TV is I have been sick, sick, sick and truly sick of it. I think's a cold, but I've never had a cold last this long, over a week, and the worst symptom is when I sit down at the computer or pick up a pen, my brain turns to mush. My eyes swim. I would go lie on my face, but I've doing too much of that, as is... A final insult to injury, just as the weather has warmed up, I've barely been able to do any gardening. OK, enough complaining, and give thanks for some good TV.)
Sonya and I used to watch the old "Doctor Who" show on our tiny black-and white TV when she came home from elementary school. They had cool characters, scary alien monsters, and fun ideas. But those shows are jalopies compared to the speed of light production techniques the film makers can bring to the new shows, along with a 21st century sense of humor, and some very smart writing.
The rapid-fire explanations shouted by the doctor while he wrestles control of some malfunctioning technology are a little geeky, but the episodes are very much character-driven, fun and funny. The cleverness of the plots are matched by the interactions of the characters.
Basically, events too complicated to explain send the doctor, and his companion, off to save the universe here or there, sometimes (when all else fails) by rolling the scene back in time a few hours or years (or centuries) for a re-do -- a neat trick which tests the audience's metaphysical speculation aptitude. Even if some of this stuff goes by too fast, suggesting the writers don't want you to pick it apart too closely, the show's fun, the characters likable, and the plot payoffs and the fast turn-arounds are worth it.
Endorsement by Wikipedia: "The show is a significant part of British popular culture." It's won all sorts of awards.
I have an advisory, though. Since Sonya brought some episodes cherry-picked by a friend, that were several seasons on, we saw some of the best-written shows in the series. When I asked Netflix for the beginning of the first season (2005) of the revived show, it was really disappointing.
The best actors are the current Doctor, Matt Smith, and the one he took over from, David Tennant. Tennant took over the role in the second series of 2005 season, the first year of the new show. So I would watch any episode that stars either Tennant or Smith in the role the Doctor.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Images of St. Augustine

Sun-struck faces three/
blinking like the flash of wings/
Eden's cool green days

A girl, a child, thin, sylphlike, leans toward her father but is distracted. Head turned, she looks toward something facing her. We have her forever, captured by chance and surprise in a tourist photo of -- I consult the map -- King Street. She is time's accidental hostage in our first moments in a new destination, valuable only because they are ours.
Northeast Florida is cold because a storm has steamrolled through the day before taking everything in the air had with it; cold dry air follows from somewhere behind it. Clouds, for three days, cool at night, in the morning, in the evening, warming in midday. Warming a little more each day until my in-between wardrobe that was too cold on the first day is too hot on the last. Where are the clothes of summer? Yes, where are they? Upstairs in a plastic bin awaiting eighty-degree days in Massachusetts.
Somehow we don't meet many people in Florida (probably because there are four of us already), but birds are our friends, particularly the large ones. They feel secure, sheltered in large preserves where no one tries to harm them.
We find them everywhere, pelicans zigzagging across the harbor, sometimes flocking, often flying solo.
Black-headed seagulls, somehow less brutish than our own variety, gather on a gently slanted rooftop of ye olde somewhat dilapidated dock-sited drinking hole; their figures bright white against the faded dark red of a long shed-like facade with beckoning porches. The seagulls wait, hoping some lady will spread crumbs on a flat porch railing. Some lady does.
In the amazing state park on Anastasia Island -- barrier beach, dunes, subtropical nature walk, bird-sign viewing spot -- we have already met the osprey before our enduring close encounter. It sits contentedly in a tree in hummock of brush between dunes and parking area so thick the winged being knows no great land-locked blunderer can get any closer. We stare, but don't get close enough to ID him. We don't know who he is.
However, an hour later, by the "sign of the birds," he poses for inspection. We have pulled off the road at the place where a billboard filled with lifesize images of charismatically large avians has drawn us to the waterside turn-off from the park's main road where you are supposed to do what? Look at pictures of birds? I turn from staring at the billboard and there he is. Once more on a tree limb, but now exposed, isolated, close to people in the small parking area on the other side of a shade cover. We walk slowly toward him, expecting at any moment to see him haul sail on those masty wings and fly. He doesn't move or appear to notice us in any way. He does not deign to see us.
I sneak up cleverly by walking beneath the shade roof and pop out undetected, but it doesn't matter. He ignores us,enjoying his afternoon gaze. We stand beneath his tree, aiming our cameras upward.
We show him off to newcomers to the parking lot, like a celebrity guest. He's still there an hour later when we leave.
In that hour we see other birds, great white and smaller egrets, all of them white, standing along the water's edge. They have their rules about how close we can get, but it's closer than most allow. Sandpipers dance along the gray wet sand of the water's edge. Terns fly overhead with their small black heads and precisely arrowed wings, crimped just aerodynamically so. A great blue heron glides over the blue water and goes away to somewhere barely visible on the other side. Pelicans quarter the sand strip-land and blue water of the inlet; their casual swoop downward measuring the chances of a quick pop-down for lunch, then reverse course up and away again.
I see huge white wings flapping at great distance, out of sight in an instance. Maybe a great egret in flight? Maybe something else.
Maybe I am dreaming this all up, having fallen asleep under the great Billboard of the Illustrated Birds. Maybe the Northeast coast of Florida in the last week of March is a dream as well, now that we're all back where we belong and it's thirty-three degrees in Boston but "feels like twenty-two" according to the Weather Channel because a ceaseless and vengefully chilly wind blows: are you mad at me, O my Miserable Massachusetts March, because I abandoned you for a week?
But no, it's not a dream. We have the photos.

Old Roots in the Sunshine State

New Englanders are proud and often knowledgeable about their history but we tend to know little about the colony that was planted long before any of the 13 "originals." After visiting St. Augustine for the first time last month, I'd have to say it's a city with more of the feel, atmosphere, and stuff of the past than anywhere I've been to in New England -- plus all the greenery of that long, luscious growing season. There's a deep back story here.
It takes some mental turning around to appreciate. You're being asked to see things from the Spanish point of view, which doesn't come easy for us Yankees. Spain is often a word for "villain" in our ordinary New England -- note the emphasis on that second word -- account of things American.
Only 20 years after a talented Genoa navigator "discovered" a new world by sailing west in search of the old one, the Spanish Imperial Grand Theft of indigenous American treasures operation was well under way. The biggest haul was gold and other precious metals from the Incan and Aztec lands. They hauled the loot over to an Atlantic harbor and shipped it off on "caravels" that had all the seagoing maneuverability of large bathtubs. The truly gifted sea-thieving nations such as the English caught on quickly and found the Spanish cargo ships easy prey for their own better designed ocean-going vessels.
To protect their treasure ships the Spanish looked to establish strong points along the coast. Ponce de Leon's expedition in 1513 failed in its pop-quiz quest for the fountain of youth. However, or so I have recently read, Spain's poncey Lion had accidentally discovered the powerful Gulf Stream current off Florida waters, promising a quicker trip back to Europe. This combination of factors made Florida of strategic value even though subsequent expeditions into the interior produced nothing but disaster for the natives.
Imperial rivalry dominated the region's fate. The French -- Huguenots, according to the city's official chronicle -- sought to establish a settlement called Fort Caroline on the coast. When word of this gambit reached the desk of emperor Philip II, whose reign saw both the peak and decline of the Spanish Empire (and whose personal resume includes a failed courtship of Queen Elizabeth), he sent a punitive expedition to wipe out the French and establish a permanent Spanish settlement. Every report generated by an official in the far-flung Spanish empire was piled onto that desk for imperial consideration. Who knows, if this one had got lost or kept slipping to the bottom of his inbox Florida's history might have been different.
Philip dispatched his military beast Don Pedro Menendez with 700 soldiers and settlers to deal with a fraction of that number of French. Menendez chased them around and caught them on a place on the coast now named "Mantanzas" -- the place of the "slaughters" -- because that's what happened to the French. He also founded St. Augustine on the Matanzas Bay, a defensible site for a fortress or "presidio" to assist shipping and discourage raiders.
The settlers left behind by Menendez, however, were unprepared in the usual transplanted colonial way to deal with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and their European crops didn't grow. Half-starved and afraid of the Indians, some of whom with good reason suspected that these newcomers would lead to no good, the settlement limped along until disaster arrived in the person of Sir Francis Drake. Drake dropped by on his way back to England in 1586 and burned down the settlement's village and wooden fort.
All of this, for perspective, happened more than a century before English fortune-hunters tried their hand at Virginia and the generally more admirable Pilgrims "discovered" Plymouth while looking for Virginia, and both colonies began their own the systematic appropriation of the native peoples' land that eventually became the United States.
From the Spanish point of view, the English colonies in Virginia or anywhere in North America were actually part of "La Florida." It was worry over southward expansion by the English that led led to the eventual building of a serious fort in St. Augustine.
In 1668 English privateer Robert Searles ("privateer" meant licensed pirate) paid visit to the rebuilt settlement. Learning that a large shipment of silver was being stored in St. Augustine, Searles sailed into the harbor under cover of night and was mistaken for another supply ship. The raiders slipped into town, massacred 60 residents and committed other depredations before stealing the silver on their way out.
After this a Spanish queen named Mariana -- how is there is no pop star named "Queen Mariana"? -- finally ordered the construction of a stone fort in 1672. It took 23 years to complete, but turned out to be the colony's best econonic development idea because it's still standing today and serves as the town's major tourist attraction. The oldest remaining monument of the so-called Early Spanish Period, the Castillo de Marco is a tribute to the idea of building from a local rock called coquina, a "shell rock" consisting of tiny pieces of shell pressed together by enormous natura forces (yet another confirmation of the powers of deep geological history).
You can see the tiny shell fragments in the stones today. Workers cut the stone "like cheese" into block-size hunks and cemented them into a fortress (or "castillo") that wasn't brittle and didn't fall to pieces under cannon fire. (Shades of the palmetto walls of Charleston's Fort Moultrie for those who know that story.) Another sidebar is the fortress was based on a state of the art design by the clever Italian, Leonardo da Vinci. Many houses in the town have since been built of the same coquina rock; again, the visible shell fragments make the stone easy to spot.
But the city continued to be a pawn in an 18th century "game of thrones." The English pushed south, establishing a Carolina colony close enough to St. Augustine to pose a threat. The two colonies raided each other and, even worse, bribed Indians to do their dirty work. The English enslaved Indians; the Spanish tried to make Catholics out of them. A brief ray of light fell when a Quaker governor of Carolina, John Archdale, brokered an agreement with St.Augustine. The English would return Christian Indians to Florida, and the Spanish give up shipwrecked Englishmen. In fact, St. Augustine residents rescued a large contingent of Quakers during the winter of 1696.
But the English decided to give war a chance and subjected that new stone fortress to a serious trial in 1702, besieging the fort for 50 days while the town's 1,500 residents huddled behind its walls in the courtyard. (Fortunately the fort had its own tidal flush sewer system.)
The Brits failed to destroy the fort and finally contented themselves with burning down the town. As a result, no buildings in the town of St. Augustine date before 1702. To put this episode in perspective, the colony's determined resistance to a great imperial power took place 75 years before New England colonials ever fired a shot in anger against their colonial masters.
Yet St. Augustine's "American" victory over the British merits little attention in our history books, because our Anglo-biased history never forgave this remarkably resilient city its Spanish roots. The Spanish Empire was certainly nothing to celebrate in moral or political terms, but when it comes to "settling" the New World and deposing of its indigenous inhabitants, nobody's hands are clean.
The Spanish rebuilt their town, using cochina stone for the principal buildings. The next attack came in 1740 headed by James Ogelthorpe, who founded the English colony of Georgia as a refuge for debtors from the British Isles but showed less compassion for the Roman Catholics who populated Florida. His ships shot cannon balls at the Castillo de Marcos for 27 days before giving up.
In the end, however, England got in through the back door. After defeating Spain (and France) in the the world-wide Seven Years War, the war that made Canada English, Great Britain cleaned up at the conference table, where peace terms included its acquisition form Spain of all of La Florida. England divided this vast colony into two halves, making St. Augustine the capital of the eastern half.
Then -- perhaps crucially for its image -- St. Augustine's Florida remained loyal to the Brits (don't ask me why, since British rule was a disaster there) during the American Revolution. Had the inhabitants managed to throw in with the revolutionaries, we'd have 14 original colonies and Florida would be indisputably the first "American" colony.
The American Revolution nevertheless cut the deck again. At the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the war on handsome terms for the rebelling colonies, Florida was given back to Spain. Spain? Apparently the now enfeebled Castilian state had helped out the Americans a little during the Revolution and earned a reward.
Florida was in bad shape then, according to the city's official history, which blames runaway slaves, Seminole Indians, and pirates. This hardly seems fair. Should slaves not have run away? Should Indians not seek to live on their own land? As for pirates, we have Johnny Depp.
What's called the Second Spanish Period lasted from 1783 to 1821. Few new settlers came from Spain, though the church built its cathedral during this time. You can see it, and its monument to faithful friars giving succor to suffering Catholics, on the corner of St. George Street and Cathedral Place.
For reasons not yet clear to me, the robustly youthful United States of America acquired Florida from Spain in 1821and immediately got into a war with the Seminoles. White settlers poured in from the rest of the states, Indians of course poured out (except for the local prison population), and Florida entered the Union in 1845: As E.B. White once famously remarked, "two cheers for democracy."
A place with a deeply rooted, complex, and too often bloody history -- have I mentioned all that lush, long-growing-season green? -- St. Augustine makes for a hell of a tourist town.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Packing for Vacation

Three people, three rooms, three computers.
This is how we prepare for a family vacation to Florida at the end of the coldest, snowiest March I can remember. I've been looking forward to it for months. Even if we were going nowhere, everybody needs a vacation.
But it's hard to get there. I don't mean the travel. Airports can certainly be hell, but we're not at the point of worrying about how we're going to get there through rush hour traffic on a weekday morning, of if somebody's going to find two ounces of forgotten hair oil in the bottom of your suitcase and subject you to a cavities search on the suspicion of impersonating a rock star. No, not yet the wake-up anxiety, taxi waiting it's beeping it horn, commuter traffic, airport security, delayed flight, missed connections, night in a plastic chair sort of stress.
No, we're talking about getting the next week work's done before your finish this one in order to have one week free of doing the work you normally would be doing if you weren't taking a vacation week in order to get away from work. Which obviously you cannot. At least not easily.
In the kitchen I have no idea what my wife is working on. She does seem to be going at it steadily enough to make me wonder why this is technically a day-off for my dearest. Her voice sounds positive, supportive, occasionally even cheerful on the phone. Is that how work sounds to my dearest when she is in the office as well? And if things are going so well, are these phone calls really necessary?
But hers is not the only voice I hear. In the living room (and our spaces are rather closer together than farther), I hear another voice. Female also, upbeat, almost perky at times, businesslike but nothing hard-edged. Nothing like a seriously prolonged discussion with a taxi driver in Beirut. And so I realize that, yes, my fabulous daughter has found somebody in another hemisphere to share her hours of Eastern Standard Time consciousness with.
So three rooms, three computers -- and telephones. Phone calls apparently necessary to pre-vacation planning are being diligently executed. I'm accustomed to hearing the smooth, slight, dull squish of the Mac keys coming from somewhere within the circle of my daughter's presence, wherever that presence happens to be at any given moment in the house. Only today those little key-to-key computer conferences are accompanied by live voices.
Still, when it comes to keyboard whacking the leader on the course is the guy in the closed "office" room writing the story not scheduled to appear until eleven days hence, but necessary to be completed and shrink-wrapped in digital deep freeze all cleaned up and tidy until the instant it's needed, so that the poor long-suffering, wintered-out in-need-of-vacation typist's brain doesn't have to think about it (or anything like it) until the brain's owner is back from vacation. No brainfogs in Florida.
Work orgy finished, the poor typist collapses and lies on his face for two hours immediately upon the thing's completion.
The funny thing is, all goes exactly as planned. Three people, meeting a fourth (with his own working life on hold) in a crowded motel room for restaurant meals, long walks, cobblestone streets, diving pelicans, treks through subtropical "marine hammocks," Spanish forts, and cruising with dolphins. And no work interruptions for four blessed days.
So let's all give a leisurely cheer for the Sunshine State. Where have they been keeping this place all my life?

Old Snow, New Rose

I walk out to the back garden and look at the ground with some expectancy -- more like fingers-crossed hope for a longshot mircle than real expectation, to be honest -- for the first time in months. For one thing there hasn't been any ground to look at. This is the first weekend since the "wicked stawm" of early February without some new snow, and last week's weather of rain on and off, cloudy days and occasional sun periods, and daytime temperatures over freezing has whittled down the snow blanket to a few angry and resentful hold-out piles where prople piled it up at the edge of the sidewalk during the initial struggle to find their way from their house to their car.
            Things have changed on the ground since the blizzard of Feb. 8-9 zipped a thick white seal over the ground. The snow has been looking down in the mouth all week. 
            We noticed it one evening glowering under a stoplight on Newport Avenue, a crowded intersection where the trekkers to the subway station compete with the vans restocking the Chinese stores.
            "Once you feared me!" Old Snow said, shaking its fist. "Now you walk past without even a cursory nod or stray curse. You think your snowplows and pitiful little red shovels and the endless swish-swish of your caravans of oversized vehicles have defeated me?"
            Well, I think something has.  
            "But it's not you -- it's earth!" The voice of Old Snow insists. "And what earth has taken away, she can restore in time."
            Yeah, Yeah, I mutter. Have you taken a look at the calendar?
            "Fear me still!" Snow growled and glowered, little bits of unidentifiable blackness, the residue of urban time, sprinkled on its crystallized surfaces like sprinkles of grit on a truckful of refrozen vanilla ice cream cones dumped in a gutter. Let's face it, Old Snow was looking horrible.
            "Hear me!" Old Snow spat with rancor. "I swear I will be back and you mortals will be singing another tune. Remember those back-ache blues?"
            Who can argue with that?
            Nevertheless, since Old Man Snow was clearly on the run, and since I had put on boots to attempt a walk in the woods, I stepped around back to check out the lay of the land. Some patches of snow still hung on, particularly the strips where my footsteps packed it down on occasional trips to dump the compost pail into the compost bin. A few other low spots  still have their gluey, partially-frozen furze of snow.
            I go back almost to the fence looking for rumors of spring from the Lenten Rose plant that grows under the big maple tree out back, in shade even in the summer. The flowers poke out this time of year, as I know from last year's experience when I took their picture when the calendar still read February.
            When the blossoms first appear the outside layers of the flower are exactly the same shade of pale green as the leaves of the plant (Helleborus Orientalis). Then the flowers on this plant turn a very innocent pure white color, Lenten still. Clearly, aspects of their character are concealed by this color, since they are a tough breed of green plant to bloom this early in a temperate climate. 
            But as I learn this year when I find them, they don't bloom in snow, or under it. The plants are there, the leaves are there; they look fine. But no flowers; no buds.
            I planted a second Lenten Rose in an even tougher place for finding sun on the west side of the house where a big granite stone path holds down the earth and creates a border opportunity, but one well shaded by the house. Some things get going here after a few years; some go on struggling. This Helleborus specimen had a surprise for me last year: dark pink flowers, same shape as the white ones, but striving toward red. Just a few, but beautiful.
            Hear me, Old Snow! True, you have held us back this year, and my hopes for February have drawn a blank.
            But I'm not giving up on the Lenten Rose yet.
            It's still four weeks to Easter.