Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In the Thick of It: the Garden and the Novel


           As the month ends, a great month, a fantastic July for growing things, I have to wonder if it's time to pick some flowers.
            They grew tall this month, some of them, and thick, a lot of them.
            The tall phlox, with its pinkish violet blooms (top photo), push up to grab as much of the mid-summer sun as they can get while they're still fresh and young. They crowd each other and expand into any place they can take for their own before some other plant takes it. I find them in places where I don't really want, but I think, well in a month they'll flower.
            The phlox combine with the yellow blossoms -- the Rudbeckia (top photo, yellow blossoms), the taller and more persistent daylilies, the baby blue balloon (last pic) flowers, the white gooseneck loosestrife, which curve up and then down, little sine-curves of finger-pointing white blossoms, and the white Queen Anne's Lace (last) to make a busy upper-story in the perennial garden.
            Surely they could spare a few blossoms.  
            Bright colors also appear on the cone flowers, the red Mandeville roses (third photo), the red lobelia, the purple fuzzy Liatris, the ever-climbing morning glory (second photo), and a still lively array of newcomer daylilies that I'm grateful to for expanding the season.
            What of the fat fuzzy white "fairy candles"? The bees love them and drag their legs all through the cottony 'candles' of the tall stalky blossoms. The blaze in the shade.
            Should I take some inside. Will they flame as well indoors?
            D. H. Lawrence made the classic case against cut flowers in his iconic novel of young love and mother-love "Sons and Lovers."
            "I don’t want the corpses of flowers about me,” his biographical stand-in coming of age character Paul Morel maintains, in rejecting the desire of his first love, adolescent Miriam, to pick the wildflowers they both admire and take them home to put in a vase.
            Actually, he doesn't like Miriam's whole approach to nature. “You're always begging things to love you," Paul upbraids her, "as if you were a beggar for love. Even the flowers, you have to fawn on them--”
            Lawrence was a celebrated love poet ("Look! We have come Through!"), travel writer, and early theorist on modern psychology, in addition to novelist. His stand-in spokesmen have scathing things to say about his own early 20th century English society, in all social classes. His deeper characters, whether uneducated peasants, or anguished self-questioning aristocrats, have a deep connection with nature.
            Paul Morel, a coal miner's son just as "Bertie" Lawrence himself was, trekked all over the countryside, drew and painted plants, and bared his soul beneath the stars. It's not surprising he has strong feelings about flowers.
            While still la teenager, working class Paul takes his first fulltime job in a factory. "Already [Lawrence writes] he was a prisoner of industrialism. Large sunflowers stared over the old red wall of the garden opposite... He was being taken into bondage. His freedom in the beloved home valley was going now."
            Does that mean that Paul is right when he complains that cut blossoms are nothing more than "the corpses of flowers"?
            I don't thinks so. Flowers are the plant's way of persuading people to keep growing them -- and allow them to keep going and going and going. We'll never pick them all (and personally I never pick more than a couple). Some of the seed will always escape and find its own little piece of earth to start a new branch of the family. They spread their likeness, root, stem and flower in a deathless expansion of life.
            It appears to be working. Our black-eyed susans, to take one example, are all over the place.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Everything on Schedule: Telling Time in the Garden


   It's three weeks into July. One of the benefits of having a garden is that it moves you along through the seasons, even if you aren't doing anything major to it. Without any assistance from me to speak of, the native orange daylilies come and go. I started stretching the season last year by consciously planting different varieties of the astonishingly expansive daylily family. These start flowering at different times, some are just starting to blossom now, some are going strong. 
            The rose bushes, which have cruising along splendidly for a month and a half, have lately developed black-spot disease on their leaves. Conclusion: it must be the second half of July. So I fertilized them for the first time this year and spent a thorny afternoon picking off the yellowed, diseased-looking leaves. We'll see how that works. If the disease hadn't shown up, I would have been happy to go on doing nothing but admiring them.
            The butterfly bushes that looked dead this spring -- bare sticks, naggingly slow to leaf -- are back to their old shapes. They look remarkably like they did a year ago, even though I cropped them back aggressively last fall in an effort to make them grow fuller and bring their blossoms down closer to the ground. Instead they've grown tall and leggy, and bare on their lower branches, just as in previous years. Which only means that any day now I'll start reaching up to remove the dead blossoms and stimulate the new ones, and face the same old decisions about how to prune them in the fall.
            But the thing that tells me it's really high, full-on summer is the way the two hibiscuses have bonded. One is the plant, an annual variety, that grew big last year on the patio and produced a lot of classic pink, roseate blossoms. I took it indoors during the winter and kept it alive; it went on blossoming for some weeks in the fall and then ran out of solar energy. The plant survived the winter, but its productive urge slept. I lugged it outdoors again when the weather warmed up and waited for it to do its stuff in the manner of previous summer, but the now second-year annual took the longest time to re-adjust to prosperity.
            To give it the idea I purchased another hibiscus, a different variety called a Mandeville rose (also an annual in temperate zones), loaded with buds and dark red blossoms and lodged right up against the older plant. Sure enough the sleek vines of the Mandeville have begun curling around the branches of the bigger plant (top photo).         
            If this trend keeps up, we'll be started on our own rain forest.
            Because the natural world performs in the age-old manner -- you can set your calendar, so to speak, to some of these behaviors -- we think everything is the same and will always stay the same. There's nothing new, as the saying goes, under the sun.
            But everything under the sun is also moving on, always, if imperceptibly. In the next couple of weeks our family will celebrate a couple of milestones. Our niece will celebrate her 30th birthday. Anne's father will celebrate his 90th.
            We're somewhere in between. Every age is a stage, and each role in life has its own job to do. We'll keep the roses, and the lilies, and the hibiscus coming.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Macbeth in Plymouth: The Garden of the Mind

            Seeing Shakespeare on stage began for me back in graduate school at Boston University as a student studying the texts. One of my professors arranged for some film versions to be screened locally. Orson Welles played Falstaff in a version of the Henrys. Roman Polanski made a 'Macbeth' that was too Hollywood or just too weird. Then a theater in Boston began offering some Shakespeare plays: 'The Tempest.' 'As You Like It.' We saw a 'King Lear' at one of the college theaters. Even with a twenty-something in the role of the doomed king, who failed to become wise before he became old, seeing Lear live was a scary good experience.
            We began to make a regular thing of it. We discovered Shakespeare & Company, a then-new company performing in the woods outside the Edith Wharton estate in Lenox. We saw a Macbeth with a young actor in the lead whose New York accent got in the way of the play's Scots ambience. Still, the show had a grip on the audience, including our daughter who cried in the end when Macbeth dies. She was five, I think (what kind of parent brings a 5-year-old to a Shakespearean tragedy?) and though unable to follow all of the play's ins and outs (especially the notion that
Macbeth was responsible for most of the bloodshed) her reaction caught the paradox of tragedy. It's hard to not to identify, to go along some way, with a tragic hero.
            It's impossible not to care about Ross MacDonald's Macbeth in the Old Colony Shakespeare Company's ongoing production at the Spire in Plymouth. He's set up by fate. 'Oh, I am fortune's fool!' he might wail, as does Romeo in his play. And the set-up is more than the ominous, though tempting foretelling of the infamous 'three witches.'
            At the play's start, Macbeth is returning from battle, having put down a bloody rebellion against the king. Brave soldiers, military heroes, come back from the wars throughout the centuries, but do they come back to what they were before? Or does the trauma of violence 'start a spirit' (to use an Elizabethan phrase) inside them? -- especially in the days when being a war survivor meant coming back with blood on your sword.
            As MacDonald plays the part, Macbeth's loyal-soldier hinge comes loose right from the start. He is far too interested in the weird sisters' prophecies. When they say 'and king thou wilt be,' the words are dark music to his ears. Perhaps a crown would make poetic justice of the slaughter he's just committed on the king's enemies.
            And if a crazy, blood-born notion has been externalized by the witches' prophecy so that the war-hero must face it, the Macbeths' marital dynamic doubles down on the desperate gamble of usurping a throne by 'foul' means. Lady Macbeth is the dark lady of Shakespeare's tragic women. In fact the strength of Shakespeare's female characters throughout his opus may be one piece of his genius that's still under-appreciated. In play after play, it's the women who drive the action. In 'Romeo and Juliet' it's Juliet who says, 'well if you're really serious, show up tomorrow and we'll get married.' Female characters impel the action in all the 'romantic comedies' as well. In Macbeth, it's the hero's lady who says 'if you really want and need to be the top man in Scotland, let's not just sit around wishing.'
            But the play is Shakespeare's critique of vitalism. Macbeth has more energy, and certainly more poetry, than any of the other characters. But evil choices, as his sad tale shows, reduce even the best of men to the banality of the tyrant. Still, even as he degrades himself to gangster status, rubbing out the competition, Macbeth becomes the supreme poet of the banality of evil: " I am in blood/ Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more/ Returning were as tedious as go o'er."
            That's the tyrant's fate in a nutshell: killing people is tedious.
            Bay Colony director Neil McGarry has suggested that the husband-wife dynamic is also supercharged for a reason only glanced at in the text. "I have given suck," Lady Macbeth says at one point. Since the couple have no children now, the reasonable inference is they have lost a child, and the death of a child is a lingering trauma for parents. Lady M also pointedly raises the spectre of madness in warning her husband not to think about certain things too much.
            'Let's get life back on track,' she may be thinking when her husband raises the witchery of being king. 'If he wants to be king, well maybe that's the ticket. It stinks to have to carve up a nice old man in your guest room but, hey, life is tough.'
             It is tough. Lady M. falls prey to her own warning and doesn't make it to the end of the play.
            Watching a brainy and energy-packed interpretation of one the English language's masterpieces such as the show currently offered by Bay Colony Shakespeare Company is why we keep going to the theater. So many good things call out for notice. The cast's three witches (Poornima Kirby, Monica Giordano, Meredith Stypinski) offer glorious, wild, physical nasty-joy. Stypinski also finds more to do with the single speech of the darkly clownish 'porter' than one ever imagined was in there. Eric Simpson as Lady M was all-in, matching MacDonald's visionary loosing of the inner devils with a steely determination to fight a losing battle. And MacDonald's falling hero, summoning his own demons, anticipates the consequences even as he commits the acts that bring them on in a brilliant realization of one of literature's great creations.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Garden of Words: Cape Cod Writers Conference Annual Convention

Hello, Friends

I will be teaching a class on "Writing the Good Read" at the Cape Cod Writers Center Annual Conference in Hyannis on Aug. 7-10. The class is a one-day session on Aug. 8 in which I will be using some of favorite books to share my experience as a book reviewer, reader, blogger, freelance journalist and writer and my lifelong love of literature in the hope of offering something of value to those in the room. Pause for joke about nerves. It's been over 20 years since I've been in a classroom. 
            The conference is headlined by acclaimed writers including novelists Gary Braver and Michelle Hoover, poet Kathleen Spivack, short-story writer Rishi Reddi. The Writer Magazine editor-in-chief Alicia Anstead will give a keynote talk.
            Here's the link to the conference brochure with the full schedule and course descriptions of all the courses in the four-day conference: Cape Cod Writers convention brochure  

If any of you are drawn to the conference on that day, please look for me. 
P.S. Here's my course description:

"Writing the Good Read"
            Writing that offers a good read is like a door with a big sign saying "Open Me." We can't resist. We can't wait for a break in our day to read another chapter. Compelling works of both fiction and nonfiction "hook" us with a strong premise, a brilliant setting, a character that engages us in that deep, inward place and won't let us go. Or a voice that makes us want to hear more and more, and keeps on whetting an appetite the next sentence fulfills. What's the "hook" that seals the deal in your writing?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Flower People: Ladies' Names in the Summer Garden

            Lots of 'ladies' showing up these days in the summer garden. Off the top of my head we have the lily, the rose, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne's Lace, and Lady's Mantle.
            Do these names belong to women first, or flowers? In the most common cases, not surprisingly, the flowers got there first.           
            Daylilies (pictured in the top two photos), tiger lilies, ornamental lilies, Asiatic lilies -- lilies are everywhere this time of year. The word 'lily' is found in Middle English and derived from the Latin word lilium, which even back then appears to be a name for the flower. The English, at least, took the name to mean 'pure' and hence gave it to their daughters.
           Other names abound in the daylily family alone. The daylily depicted in the top photo is various called by various names --the "orange daylily," "tawny daylily," "tiger daylily" and "ditch daylily" -- some of them sounding distinctly less than pure. 

            'Rose' (third pic down) has a frightfully confused etymology. One theory traces its origin to a word that means 'thorn' or 'bramble,' which at least makes sense to culivators of this beautiful, celebrated, and common the world over plant. The gardener define it as "blood-letting experience." No rose, without the thorns. The photo here shows our ever-blooming roses, peaking now. They're prone to black-spot disease and they take of trimming and thorny care.

            However, when we come to Black-Eyed Susans, Queen Anne's Lace, and Lady's Mantle -- all of which sound like there must be a story behind them -- we find that real (or legendary) people have loaned their names to the plants. 
            Who was the original "Black-Eyed Susan”? (fourth and fifth photos) Legend has it that name came from a poem of that name by English poet John Gay (most famous as the author "The Beggar's Opera," a satire of corruption on various levels of society). Here's the excerpt I found from the poem:

All in the downs, the fleet was moored,
Banners waving in the wind.
When Black-Eyed Susan came aboard,
and eyed the burly men.
“Tell me ye sailors, tell me true
Does my Sweet William sail with you?”

            Some year, if I may make a parenthetical note, we also have 'Sweet William' growing in our garden; not it seems this year.
            The best thing about the plant "Black-Eyed Susan” is that it's, well, promiscuous. It's all over the place. It's cheerful, adaptable, undemanding, and fills the space you don't have other plans for, so I pretty let it have the run of the place.
            The point of the name Queen Anne's Lace (also in forth photo and in fifth) is sort of self-evident, but I didn't know if we were looking at a particular queen. Apparently, we are. The name comes from lacy look of the plant's white flowers and foliage and goes back to Queen Anne who was the wife of King James I of England. She was enamored of a particular variety of hard-to-make lace.
            Lady's Mantle gets its name because in the Middle Ages the plant was dedicated to "Our Lady" Virgin Mary. Other female associations abound. It has lacy flowers and the leaves, I am told,  resemble the scalloped edges of a mantle. The plant is also alleged to be "a healing herb for women" and said to regulate the menstrual cycle. Also to drive away a threat or (take your pick) "attract love."
          I think all these flowers attract love, especially in the third week of July when they're still going strong.