Thursday, March 27, 2014

Garden on the Road: Flowers in Beirut

            When we tell people we are going on a vacation, they ask where. When we them Lebanon, some people say, "I like Lebanese food."
            But most people say something like --
            "That's scary."
            I had a version of this conversation the other day. I mention vacation. Interlocutor asks where. I reply Lebanon.
            "Is that safe?"
            Actually, Beirut, where out daughter Sonya lives, is a very safe city. Virtually no street crime. No youth gangs. No drug dealing. Women are safe walking alone.
            "... But street fighting?"
            That was back from 1975 to 1990, during a terrible civil war that left a permanent scar's on the country's reputation. It has certainly left an indelible impression in the American mind.
            "Are you Lebanese?"
            No. I give a one sentence summary of our relationship with Lebanon. Our daughter has lived there for a dozen years working for organizations such as the UN and currently is a partner in a small consultancy.
            "The reason I said that is I'm Lebanese." 
            Really? I press for details about my interlocutor's Lebanese background. It comes from her grandparents' generation. The older generation still has relatives living there.
            "Well, in that case you should go there..." I begin my 'joys and delights of the country' spiel. Mountains and beaches. Wonderful produce; greens, fruits, wine. Flowers in spring (and winter, for that matter; see photos at left.) Many good and inexpensive restaurants; French bakeries. Six varieties of oranges.
            My partner in conversation interrupts: "It's scary."
            I know when I'm not getting anywhere. I change the subject.

            I've had other, more positive responses. People I contacted for work tell me they got back to me right because I was going on vacation.
            Some people bring up Syria. A serious concern in all ways. And it's certainly true that some parts of the country we might have visited -- and have visited in the past -- we will avoid this time because of tensions spilling over from the border. The presence of an estimated one million refugees in a county of 4 million people obviously strains resources.
            Another friend says he and his wife have just come back from a vacation in "Naples... Naples, Florida."
            Florida must be great this time of year, I say.
            "But it's not some place risky," he adds in a somewhat apologetic tone.
            In a bank, however, of all places, the young man assisting us with a transaction says, "Wow. Lebanon? That's great."
            Ah, hopeful youth. Now that's what I want to hear. 

(Photos taken by Sonya of flowers on her lemon tree budding, and then opening. She writes: "The whole balcony smelled of lemon blossoms."


Monday, March 24, 2014

Gardening Green: The Birds and the Bees Want In

            Nature is more interested in us than ever. As we take more and more of the natural environment for our own use, the birds and the bees and the butterflies (or at least their human advocates) are trying to persuade us to share our space with them.
            This is the message from one of those advocates, Mass Audubon, who made the case for "Bird Gardening" at the Gardening Green Expos held in Scituate, Mass., last weekend.

           Birds, it seems to me, can make a good case for our sharing the world with them. Long ago our relative positions were reversed, and while I'm not sure birds made a conscious decision not to eliminate all our ancestors, I'm still grateful they didn't.
            Birds descended from dinosaurs during in the Age of Reptiles. According to the PBS website on the evolution of birds, "several hundred million years ago, huge and often terrifying new life forms, Pterosaurs, or flying dinosaurs, took the ascendancy.".... Around 150 million years ago, these flying dinosaurs converted into the much more aerodynamic, feathered creature humans know as the bird.
            While mammal ancestry goes back to roughly the same period, our antecedents were less dramatic. The first mammals began to appear during the Triassic Period, good times for dinosaurs, which began some 250 million years ago. But these first mammals were tiny, shrew-like mammals, probably seeking to hide underfoot.
            To sum up the comparative relation between our ancestries: birds big and scary. Mammals small and mousey. When big scary birds were ruling the roost, little furry mammals were meat. Human beings didn't emerge in their present form until -- depending on where you draw the line -- about a couple hundred thousand years ago. Increasing size, erect posture, bigger brains, tool use, and ultimately firearms changed the relationship. Now we're the hunter and the duck is dinner.
            Ask the passenger pigeon how dangerous we can be. Their North American number went from virtually uncountable (estimated in the billions) to nothing in less than a century after human beings began thinking of them as a food resource and a sporting option.
            Today when we observe birds at our feeders, shrubs and trees we notice them move their heads continually side to side. Brother Hawk may be at the top of their watch list, but we're there too.
            According to the Mass Audubon, what we need to build a "bird garden" in our yards is food, water, and shelter. As for food, their instructional pamphlet advises, "consider native plants that birds have been feeding on for hundreds of years." Certain bird and plant species have grown up together in a given niche, so the birds know how to get their "best" nutrition from these.
            The native species they recommend for us to grow include the Eastern Red Cedar (a branch of the juniper family) tree and shrubs such as the red dogwood, a viburnum called the High Bush Cranberry, Red Chokeberry, Highbush Blueberry, Sweet Pepperbush, American Elderberry, Winterberry and Inkberry (two Ilex varieties), the Sweespire (Itea), and spicebush.
            Some of these are unfamiliar to me and I wish we had the space to try grow them. We have dogwood, several varieties of viburnum (one of which produces a a dark purple berry that attracts birds in winter), a few tall blueberry plants the birds get more from than we do, and a small Itea still having growing pains. While we don't have an elderberry, we have a mulberry tree that produces lots of berries and draws a lot of bird activity in June. Elderberries have more calories than mulberries, which is probably why they get the nutrition nod for birds.
            Audubon also recommends honeysuckle and trumpet vine. We don't have them and I didn't know they were native.
            Recommended perennials include coneflower (Echinacea), bee balm, lobelia, tickseed (Coreopsis), goldenrod, butterfly weed, joe pye weed and blazing star (Liatris).
            We've got the coneflower, bee balm, lobelia, tickseed coreopsis, and liatris.
            I'm putting the others on my list; all good late season bloomers. I looked for butterfly weed (Asclepias) last year without success.
            Birds also need a water source, for which I have no plans whatsoever (I'm hoping a neighbor's swimming pool will do), and shelter from elements and predators, for which they recommend small trees and shrubs. I think ours like most yards does better on the shelter department. For winter, at least, the combination of an overgrown rhododendron and a nearby bird feeder seems to do the trick.
            As for butterflies, they're welcome too but their needs are even more complicated. I'm still thinking them over.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Signs of Spring: Not So Much

            The rain falls, it's comforting. Maybe that's because it's been a long time since a precipitation forecast didn't include a certain latitude for snow -- "mixed with," "chance of," "periods of," or just plain snow. It was a rain event. I listened to the fall, steady, but not too hard.
            Lying in bed, the sound of this rain gives me a warm, happy feeling. It's not easy to say why. Plenty of rains don't.
            I made the decision to call it "a spring rain." It's a harbinger, a herald. An invitation. A precursor to a cosmic event. I'd like to say that a part of me remembered that at 12:57 p.m. today -- March 20 -- that cosmic event took place. But that would be a flagrant untruth since I didn't even know when the first day of spring fell this year and had to look it up.
            The temperature is up in the fifties today, certainly a significant improvement, but it's gray after morning sunshine and windy. I keep waiting to jump and down and do a dance for spring, but I can't find a reason.
            I walk the neighborhood. Some of the usual suspects make an appearance, like the big black cat that's taken to cutting a path through our backyard. The kind of people who don't own winter coats even in winter are thumping back from the subway in their shirt sleeves; they say, 'I have my backpack to keep me warm.' And I discover a few people outdoors doing things to their yards.
            A woman with red hair attacks her lawn with vigorous rake-hauling strokes. I hear the sound of scraping coming from behind a fence in the backyard of another house.
            And I think we can begin the count for the number of days since the last, actual, measurable snowfall.
            But on the whole signs of spring are thin on the ground.
            I keep hounding my plants for updated information, maybe a short-term projection of growth potential, but when I look at the earth I find no new green anywhere. Plants I've seen blooming in February (Lenten rose; hellebores) look like death on a withered stem on the so-called first day of spring. Apparently lying under snow cover for two months has some lingering effects.
            The Boston low for yesterday (March 19) was 27. Come on, atmosphere, we've got to do better than this. You've got to keep the temperature over freezing -- most of the time -- for the earth to warm sufficiently for the roots to give the word to shoot the shoots.
            Chaucer calls them "the tendre croppes" in the famous first 19-lines of "The Canterbury Tales." He places them in the month of "Aprille" when the "shoures soote" -- that's "sweet showers" (ah ha, was that what I heard last night?)  -- have "bathed every veyne in swich licour/ Of which vertu engendred is the flour." That's 
Middle English for "have bathed every vine in such liquid of which virtue is the flower." (I like his version better.) But I'm taking his point: the rain comes first. Then comes the warm wind, called Zephirus for classical reasons: "Zephirus eek ["also] with his swete breeth/ Inspired hath in every holt and heeth ["wood and grassland"]/ The tendre croppes..."
        All right, so maybe we have to wait for April.

          The sap is running in bird land, however.
          The other day the male cardinal followed the female around the weeping cherry tree -- very closely. She hops onto a tree branch, he lands on the same branch. She flies away. He flies away....The tale is clear: She's trying to ditch him, and he's saying "oh, no you don't, baby." Somehow we know how this will end.
            Redbirds to the side, here's is my cumulative total of "sings of spring" so far.

                                                Signs of Spring

            We go looking for signs of spring.
            In the arboretum we find babies, toddlers, lots of people, an array of tiny dogs.
            The kid shooting basketball in his backyard behind the house, I hear the bound, the bounce ... Bounce-bounce-bobble-bounce. 
            (I will hear it all year once again, until it grows too cold or the snow swallows up the spring of the bounce.)
            The love/longing song I hear in a book store,
            that makes me want to run up to the cashier, throw my arms around him, and beg him to sell me the CD
            Ah, this is a poem.
            It's the kind of thing you think about when you're raking the leaves off the first emergences of spring:
            How do we know this world we are part of?
            And what will we do with this love?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Garden of Science: Elizabeth Gilbert's 'Signature' Novel

            The most enjoyable book I've read in months, Elizabeth Gilbert's novel "The Signature of All Things" is almost all things in itself. A grand novel about nature? You have it here.
            It's about nature, but not in some sort of "love-letter" way. The book takes place during the great era of scientific exploration of the natural world that opened to the West by the 18th century through geographical exploration, specimen collection, taxonomy; the cultivation in England and new American republic of plants discovered in Asia, the Americas and the Pacific; and the resulting theories of how to explain the origin and development of the abundance and variety of living things.
            The novel's main characters are fictional, but they mix with historical ones, and the author's use of these sets up interesting goalposts for the great age of nature-science her main character transits. It begins with Sir Joseph Banks, the dashing young aristocrat whose voyages to the Pacific with the 18th century English explorer Captain Cook awoke the curiosity of the English-speaking about the "other side of the world."
            Exploring Polynesia and other Pacific islands, Banks's notion of science extended to the ethnography of the open and unrepressed lives of the Polynesians, opening European eyes to the abundance of the world's peoples and societies. The period culminates in the 19th century breakthroughs to a science of natural life through the earth-shaking theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.
            The novel's central character is Alma Whittaker, whose father rose from humble circumstances by following up Banks's explorations with the keen commercial eye of a new age to become the richest man in Pennsylvania. Alma is born into her father's company's international interests and his estate's material and scientific wealth. Her childhood is equivalent to a university eduction. Her home is a botanical paradise. But her education is short on ordinary human connections since her father is interested only in using people and few peers penetrate her privileged world.  
            Alma's love of nature is more of an "absorption," the scientific parallel to the romantic poets' embrace of nature as a source of wisdom and spiritual knowledge. She loves knowledge of the natural world and her special gift is taxonomy -- sorting living things into varieties and species and families; recognizing the crucial differences between related life forms.
            Alma goes through life as a large brain with an inner hard drive of limitless bytes on top of a tank-like body. She rolls over the world, cataloging its data. But by the time she discovers her own human and female needs and desires (oh, brave new world!) the few friends in her world have paired off. The scientific publisher she "loves" marries her childlike society friend, never having considered Alma a possible partner. Her adopted sister marries the nearest male at hand for purely altruistic reasons Alma doesn't learn about until much later in her life.  
            Then out of nowhere -- or out of the miraculous abundance of life -- the perfect man comes along. He loves the natural world and sees deeply into it. He's the first genuine companion of her life, but his devotion to the material world has a spiritual source: If you want to know God in his creation you must open yourself to it completely. Ambrose embraces the work of the 16th century mystic Jakob Boehme (see who saw in the physical character of the world the creator's "signature" and wrote a book called "The Signature of All Things."
            Ambrose's attempt to follow this spiritual path requires him to live, essentially, like a plant and give up significant parts of material life such as eating. In the resulting state of material deprivation you see angels dancing in the structural minutiae of orchids.... Experience shows however that this state of wonder is likely to leave you lying half-dead in a snowbank, where (in Ambrose's case) a friend rescues you and saves your life.  
            Somewhat moderated in his current habits, while completely dependent on others for his maintenance, Ambrose is adopted by the Whittaker business because of his great ability as a nature artist. Alma, older but desperately in love, marries him because she believes their regard is mutual. It is up to a point, but that point is a crucial one for Alma, a deal-breaker and -- near spoiler alert! -- Alma makes decisions that destroy the peace of her contented, but cloistered life as the world's finest student of mosses, her special study.
            She leaves her sheltered nature-science paradise of a home, travels to Tahiti, traces Ambrose's exile, discovers people and facts of human life that challenge her upbringing, gives up (or loses) all her possessions, surrenders her father's wealth and everything else she has -- except her mind. Her mind finds a paradise of mosses in Polynesia and her scientific training and gifts lead her to attempt the great intellectual challenge of her age: making sense of the natural world. How did things get to be the way they are: the near infinite array and diversity of places, peoples, species, varieties, plants, bugs, animals, and survival mechanisms. What are the "scientific laws" operating to make it so?
            She leaves the Pacific for the other side of the world, Europe, to explore one side of her own roots and discovers truly fortunate conditions for the maturation of her own studies and her theories. She is "there" -- intellectually -- when Charles Darwin and the much less well known Alfred Wallace declare their theories almost simultaneously. Darwin's term, "evolution," and his more copiously developed evidentiary basis (the work of decades) win the renown of the ages.
            In her last days Alma seeks out Wallace -- a quirky common man and social outsider like herself -- to offer her recognition of his accomplishment and seek a little bit for herself. Wallace, interestingly, is inclined to understand and embrace the universe in a way reminiscent of Ambrose's, while Alma clings to what we can know: 'all things' in the here and now.
            I loved the book for many of the usual reasons. The storytelling was good, the characters smart and likable, the narrative voice engaging. But the book's center also engages very central questions of life, the kind of things you think about when you're raking the leaves off the first emergences of spring: how do we explain the world we are part of?