Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Heigh-ho, the wind and the rain": A Garden of Photos from the Other Sort of Day

           In the play "Twelfth Night," Shakespeare gives the play's clown, Feste, a great song known as "The Wind and Rain." The last line of each stanza (except the final) goes "For the rain it raineth every day." Here's the first stanza: 
"When that I was but a tiny little boy,
With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day."
 No it doesn't, I think. It only seems that way. I remember, quite clearly, when was it? -- two-three days ago? -- a whole day without a bit of rain. I have the photos to prove it. 
            (Actually, I think Mr. Shakespeare was intending a somewhat more philosophical meaning for "rain" in that last line.)
            In any event, when I'm not bemoaning the weather I'm taking note of the blooming times of various springtime splendors.
            It's poppy time. (Top photo.) They grow in front of the house and they're wide and bright and showy, like creatures from another planet -- or climate, at least. The have wobbly necks, I mean stems, and they're quite vulnerable to being battered down in the wind, as happened today in our late May nor'easter. Poppies grow all over the world, but I'm pretty sure these are not a variety much like those of Afghanistan that supply the world with opium. We get northern European varieties, I believe, such as Icelandic poppies. Apparently they don't mind the winters here. We are getting more of them every year.
            The obscure perennial in the shade garden (second photo down). I've misplaced its name and hope to recover it some day. The plant came back this spring after being trampled on by the folks trimming the trees in this area last spring. I'm impressed by its persistence.
            The columbine (third pic down) are blooming very late. I'm sure I found them in early May some years. They're advertised as part-shade and a woodland plant, and I've had mixed success with planting them in those situations. Some grow for a few years and then give up. But they do have an English-garden sort of delicate charm, a kind of dancing elfish look.
            The big white iris (fourth down). They popped open on a dark day a week ago when nothing else was looking that happy, so I was particularly grateful for them. We don't really have enough sun for most of the irises, so I'm happy when one is doing well.
            The plant below the iris is a larger variety of the campanula -- known as bellflower from the shape of the flowers. There seem to be an unlimited number of varieties, and I have found this defining sentence for campanula on line: "a diverse genus with varying attributes, but most are noted for their flowers, which can be tubular, bell, star, cup or saucer shaped." I put this plant in last year. It's looks happy, and I'm cheered to see it back this year. If I remember correctly, we saw dozens of these on the High Line park in New York City last year.
            I call these little guys (in the sixth photo down) white star-flowers because I don't know what they are. They spread themselves all over. I don't remember planting them, but I've been known to forget a few planting gestures over the years.
            The last photo is the Korean lilac that grows in the back garden along the fence. It's a very reliable bloomer. I've been giving it some lime in the spring. I don't know if it makes a big difference, but it doesn't appear to be doing any harm.
            It doesn't do me any harm either to look at these photos and remember that days do come when the rain that "raineth every day" is not so much on our minds.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Pope, Hope and the Inside Dope: Aiding Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

            Pope Francis visited Jordan last week and made a point of reminding the world that some 600,000 Syrian refugees from that nation's devastating conflict are now living within Jordan's borders. He asked the rest of the world not to leave Jordan, a small country of only 6.3 million people, alone with this burden.
            It takes something like a visit by the Pope to put the Syrian refugee crisis in the news. Francis thanked Jordan for its "generous welcome" to Syrian refugees and called for an urgent resolution to a war now in its fourth year.
            But Jordan's not the only small country dealing with the refugees from a war that's taken an outrageous toll on the civilian population.
            Lebanon, a country with even fewer resources, is dealing with about one million refugees. A recent report by our daughter's company, Ibtikar Research & Consulting, looked into the UN-led humanitarian aid effort for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Despite a considerable international effort (though most nations have not provided the funding the UN requested to finance its relief plan), the report concluded that the effort is suffering from a failure to seek input from "the Syrian refugee and host communities when designing relief aid strategy and implementation."
            Titled "The international aid community and local actors: Experiences and testimonies from the ground," the report was written by Leila Zakharia and Sonya Knox.
            Reading it, I am driven to conclude that the bigger the organization or institution attacking any social problem, the harder it is for that entity to turn its ear to the little people on the ground directly affected by the crisis.
            The international humanitarian effort, the authors state, "has been tremendous, particularly given this crisis’ evolving challenges, including the wide dispersal of refugees in 1,650 different locations across Lebanon, with 85% of the refugee population not residing in camps."
            However, "despite Lebanon’s long history of local and civil society responses to a variety of complex emergencies," the report states, "the relief, recovery and development work undertaken by Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations is mainly overlooked by the international humanitarian community, and their insights and suggestions ignored."
            One of the sad ironies of the Syrian refugee situation is the presence among this refugee population of large numbers of Palestinians -- members of the Palestinian refugee community, that is, who have remained a people without a country since driven from their homeland by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Now forced to flee their homes in Syria by relentless attacks on rebel-held territory by the Syrian government, these refugees find themselves reduced once again to homelessness and penury.
            To make matters worse, the legal status of a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon is worse than that in Syria where Palestinians possessed the legal right to work -- a right they have never been granted by Lebanon's fragmented political system.
            Nevertheless, Ibtikar's report found some positive developments in the response efforts of the displaced Syrian community acting in concert with small community-based Lebanese organizations. "One of the untold stories of the relief response to the Syrian emergency in Lebanon," the authors state, "is the flourishing of new relief and development organizations founded by Syrian refugees and dedicated to helping Syrian refugees and their host communities."
            The report quotes the director of one of the larger Syrian-founded relief groups:“We were born to respond to the gaps left by the UN’s refugee response, and our work is presented to the people as by Syrians for Syrians.”
            The full report is on line at the "Lebanon Support" website.
            The link is:

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

It Smells of Green

           The smell of the May night. Everywhere things are fresh.
            It's been a day that turns out better than forecast, better than expected, full sun in the later afternoon, seventy degrees at the high sun, dropping into the sixties as I pick the weeds in the last hours instead of going indoors to make dinner. I chose gratifying my appetite -- my desire -- for the green of the earth. The colors of the flowers please me as well, of course, but there is something especially strong in all the fresh outpouring of chlorophyll surrounding us on all sides and from top to bottom, from the roots in the ground to the top of the trees.
            I'm thankful we made the decision a decade ago to surrender the minimalist green carpet of a lawn for this great oceanic mishmash of the plants we have chosen and those who have chosen us -- in a crime of opportunity -- to insinuate their green flesh in every millimeter of space when and where conditions are ripe to attempt the supreme gamble of growth. The ultimate risk of existence: the Earth peoples the earth.
            Common violets, nameless weeds -- they have names, I've simply never learned them, for example the one with five-sided leaves that look like wild geraniums or like garden geraniums gone wild; maybe that's what they are -- anyway, they're everywhere.
            I lose myself among them.
            Spring greens are the wild earth's poetry. This collection of "leaves of grass," line and meter obscured by the pure multitude of all they are.
            They are life's ammunition against the dying of the light.
            The green scatter-shot, the bullets of the universal urge -- urge, urge, always the procreative urge (to modify a little more Whitman) -- nothing dies, nothing is lost, so long as the sun tilts on its celestial shoulder to look back at us, turns its face, warm and scented with blossom, pollen, pheromone, hum of the honey bee, the chase of the brown-striped sparrows over the broken-brown earth of the still unplanted vegetable patch, upon a piece of earth...
            The fire in the senses -- the song in the tree.
            The neighbor girls bickering in their play, the steady drum-bounce eternal of the basketball.
            The new banshee scream electrical, the profanation of the leaf blower, that instrument of the devil.
            The rise and surge of the tiny nations underfoot, violets overblooming their allotted sphere so that man is driven to pull up handfuls of green hair from beds whose chosen species -- nation, clan -- struggles for the breath of light below.
            Speedwell, Forget-me-not, Mazus -- Hear these names on the lips of ages?
            Somewhere Sweet William hides in the weeds.
            A green wave invades, overtops the chosen ones, I yank them in the joy of haste, know the root remains below
            And will overcome and will grow over the graves of dying men.
            That heads of tulips have fallen already in the hurdle of time.
            And flowery hands of pansies, over-extended in the friendship of air, wait for the ax --
            And yet why if not for such days do we live
            To watch the mayfly of understanding
            Flicker in the green light of the new, the fresh,
            the renewal of time
            The fountain that fills what it overflows
            in some fresh ecstasy of movement
            Of which we drink so long as we live life and
            sense and thirst for its living.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Every Year Is Different: The "Succession Theory of Plant Migrations"

This is why I love the month of May. It gets warm suddenly. It's eighty one day this week, just simply mellow, and I can squat in the weeds in my shirt sleeves luxuriating in the tiniest growing things imaginable. Then it goes to fifty the next day with a damp breeze off the ocean and I don't even want to set foot out of doors (except to stock up on ice cream for when the warm returns). And then the warm does return the day after that,

but it's sort of cloudy and muggy all day and -- feels like a humid summer day in July (evidence: Anne complains) -- but for me it's a day when I can stoop over expanding and contracting waves of groundcover species and contemplate my newly developed "Succession Theory of Plant Migrations"...
            It's an illusion to think that plants don't move. They move, when viewed as colonies, or tribes, rather than individuals -- I also think of them as "nations" -- just much more slowly than animals.
            And sometimes they follow each other across the landscape according to laws of their own nature and the conditions they encounter. That red and violet foliage of a very low to the ground, delicate groundcover plant called purple Acaena? I'm missing it this year; it's moved away. It's a New Zealand native and year by year has fled from the lands I awarded to it and policed with some vigilance, removing invaders every spring.This plant nation expanded greatly the year after I planted it, but in subsequent years retreated. It's as if it gave the place its best shot, saw that it wouldn't do, and began an irreversible retreat for greener pastures.
            I'm guessing it's heading back to New Zealand.
            For a couple of years I watched the Acaena battle off a challenge from a neighboring colony of thyme groundcover, called "woolly thyme" (Thymus praecox). (See second photo; with violets.) I had assigned them to neighboring pieces of earth, though with no hard barriers between them, so naturally they infiltrated one another. As I said, plants don't want to stay in one place --their apparent immobility is an illusion we get from fixing our glance on very tall and heavy trees. Oaks don't appear to move; but forests creep.
            For a while the two nations blended into one another, and then both seemed to retreat. The woolly thyme is still around, but has moved to the edges of things. It likes to shelter just off the red bricks in various curvilinear paths, sometimes filling tiny gaps between them. The ground the two nations surrendered has big spare spots this year (see top photo). Is some new invader on the horizon? Maybe the plants know something I don't.
            Meanwhile in other sections of the back garden, I've noticed that when plant colonies flourish and overgrow their space, overextend themselves, perhaps, that weeds (i.e., in their classic definition of "plants that are in the wrong place") force themselves up between individual roots and sprouts, one plant species appearing at times to emerge right from the center, or flesh, of another.
            These invaders are often common native violets or a range of familiar wild plants (weeds, again) I discover flourishing as opportunists wherever bare ground is available.
            In some cases it appears to me that one plant nation has expanded to the limit of its strength and the instant that strength begins to fade, another one appears to push it along. Some rule of natural succession is taking place, at its own pace and in its own way. Again this law is most clearly in operation among the low groundcovers.
            In another patch of earth a flat plain of densely grown thyme, a different variety -- "thymus albiflora," I believe -- after achieving a dense mat-like surface, curiously uniform and mono-cropped (a state I am now beginning to think of as "unnatural") has been increasingly vulnerable to incursions from other plants right in its very center. For a few years I've been pulling out, obsessively, all the tiny violet leaves that indicated the weakening of the thyme's roots and the determination of the violets.
            Last year I loosened my grip. A large-leaved echinacea had forced its way into the vulnerable spot, the very spot where violets have been forcing their way. I like echinacea (or cone flowers), they make large colorful blossoms, so I thought I'll leave it there and let the thyme grow around it. This year the retreat of the thyme from this spot is ten times more visible.
            Not only is the echinacea back, but a handful of hardy colonists of the sweet woodruff nation are solidly entrenched around it. A groundcover itself, the woodruff is much taller and thicker-leaved than the thyme. This looks to be a case of a bigger plant pushing a smaller one around.
            Other plants are pushing their way into this spot as well. Probably I stick my hand in and try to establish a new order.
            But while the woodruff is making gains in this place, it has been almost wholly driven off from an original homeland it occupied just a few years ago, which I term "the country of the cat" because we have installed (planted?) a brown cat sculpture we inherited from Anne's parents, in whose more woodsy terrain it could not find a home. A plant I never intended to grow there, the bugleweed ajuga (see fifth photo, simply forced its way in and took over.
            The ajuga smiles at me with a perfect purple gleam this week, showing an array of beautifully spiky teeth. (Close-up view in last photo.)
            In other areas, campaigns of succession are being waged where I planted an array of groundcovers without any solid divisions between them: no stone or wood barriers or impasable stretches of pavement. I like to see them brush up against each other and rub shoulders. I like to see their shapes and colors reflect upon one another. It "looks more natural" to me (see sixth photo). But, in truth, the nations of plants have no more respect for my esthetic than they ought to have.
            In one particularly busy landscape, nations of mazus (a very low, thinly rooted, fast-moving groundcover; see fourth photo) has completely overrun a neighboring dianthus, while a low sedum tries to hold off a thick-leaved greeny vine whose name I don't know, and a patch of stolid clover-like groundcover by the pretentious name of double trefoil birdsfoot are all mushed together. While of course the ubiquitous "common violet" sticks its nose in everywhere. (Third photo.)
            I'll continue to play the dishonest broker, favoring particular species (or "nations") in one spot or another. But in the end ancient laws of rise and fall, expansion and contraction, succession and migration will decide what grows where.
            I just fiddle around the edges.