Monday, September 29, 2014

The Garden Water-Bearer; or, My Aching Back

            It's summer, one last time (presumably), with temperatures in the high eighties last weekend. We're in the last days of September, that month of mildly gentle farewells (assuming no hurricanes) and easing up to the fiercer embrace of October.
            And here I am putting the sprinkler on the garden. It feels so July.
            Typically, some time in July, in the midst of a nasty heat and humidity spell, driving up air conditioner sales (and suicide threats) all over the Northeast, I reach a point where I can't stand watching plants wilt groundward, stick out their tongues, and appear to beg for death. So I drag out the old made-for-lawncare sprinkler, try to remember which way to point it, and give everything a good soaking (generally self included). I like plants to look the way they're supposed for the given time of year.
            This year, since we did not get a peace of mind-destroying heat wave in July, I ignored the watering question -- except for potted annuals, which you pretty much have to water every day -- until I noted the leaves of a certain valued class of annual plants, namely tomatoes, turning yellow.
            The vegetable garden is always a special case. Veggies are almost all annuals, so they have a shorter growing season in which to send their roots deep into the ground, sprout flowers, then turn those flowers into fruit before that fell messenger nature says 'time.' If the tomato plants and others wither and turn yellow, there's no getting back those lost days and weeks, and even if the weather improves and the rain comes, you still fail to get value from the plants.
            So some time in July, the first of our three very low-rain months in a row, I began what felt like starting an intravenous daily drip to the vegetable garden, by means of carrying fully filled watering cans to placate the tomatoes. Actually I started by spraying the garden hose in their direction, a nearly pointless exercise if you're up against a serious dry spell. Some vegetables, of course, don't need this degree of coddling. The Swiss chard we had for dinner last night kept producing leaves with very little help from me. 
            Plants like tomatoes, peppers, beans -- not so much. We got tomatoes this summer because I carried water to the plants.
            But then all the perennial flowering plants started looking for the same treatment. This is the moment when I give up completely and try to remember where I put the lawn sprinkler, where I should slip it in among the perennials to do the most good, and how to aim it to soak the plants rather than the patio or the house. (Or the neighbors.)
            The thing is, unless I come up with a wholly improved irrigation method -- and I won't -- I have to remember that the wise man gives in and starts depending on the unfashionable sprinkler early in the season with the ultimate, entirely estimable purpose of saving his back.
            First I started feeling a soreness at the top of my right shoulder. It took me months, literally, to correlate carrying the two-gallon watering can around the property with that persistent soreness. Then came the day when I attempted an-ill timed contortion involving the use of my back. Almost all physical movements connected to watering plants do also connect to the human back, a notoriously temperamental piece of bodywork. -- and, according to most authorities, a poorly designed committee-solution to the problem of standing up straight.
            I can still stand up straight these days, but bending is just a pain in the, well -- lower back.
            Not that I've stopped watering, entirely. Especially the late-season new acquisitions such as Joe-Pye Weed (third photo down) and a blue cliome that perked up the late season color profile and, of course, my perennial favorite anemones (top two photos). I like them almost as much as my back.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Roosevelts: 'Rosies' and Thorns in America's Common Garden

         If we learn anything from the recently concluded Ken Burns PBS documentary on 'The Roosevelts,' it's that the progressive, humanitarian future foreseen by America's two great 20th century presidents has regressed in the last thirty years to a version of the darker, oligarchal, big money-manipulated past.
            It was Theodore Roosevelt, a Progressive Republican, who declared he would stand up to "the malfactors of great wealth."
            Nowadays Washington insiders would proudly wear that phrase as a team affiliation on their T-shirts. If someone or some (corporate) entity possesses great wealth, he must be good, because it's only by cuddling up to possessors of great wealth that Washington insiders can keep their positions. It's the new normal. Elections are too expensive for a Congressman to look a gift horse, however mangy, in the mouth. The Supreme Court tells us that's the way things should be.
            Franklin Delano Roosevelt had some interesting epithets as well for those who opposed his progressive social legislation -- banking regulation to prevent dangerous speculation, the FDIC to gaurantee deposits, the Civilian Conservation Corps to put people back to work, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, child labor laws, minimum wage, the Wagner Act to guarantee workers the right to organize, the GI Bill of Rights to loan veterans money to buy a house or go to college, Rural Electrification to bring the 20th century to farm country... the list goes on. He called these detractors "Economic Royalists," in one one of his famous Depression Era speeches. They "fear that we are threatening their power."
            FDR understood that the the corporate bosses and billionaires of his era saw themselves as "royalty," who believed they deserved riches because they were born to them. FDR was born to that class as well. He knew and understood them. He knew they 'hated' him as a 'traitor.'
            Banker and monopolist J.P. Morgan, the Darth Vader of the suffering inflicted on millions of exploited workers and their families during America's 'Gilded Age' -- i.e., the period when American society was increasingly divided into rich robber barons and impoverished masses -- clashed with both Roosevelts. He was shocked that Teddy Roosevelt invoked 'emergency' powers to prevent Morgan's takeover of the entire railroad system with the goal of setting tranporatation rates for all goods shipped by rail. It doesn't say anywhere in the Constitution you have the power to do that, Morgan complained.
            "The Consitution exists for the people, not the people for the Constitution," TR replied.
            Why don't we have political leaders who can speak truth to power like that? Imagine anyone saying something like that today? The good of the American people comes first; the search for precedent in the law courts a distant second.  
            FDR saved the country in 1933 by closing the banks until he had a plan to reform them -- and to restore Americans' confidence in their solvency. Many argue that he saved capitalism itself from perishing through its own excesses. The hatred of the billionaires was a price he was willing to pay for saving America from chaos and despair, and saving them from the real possibility of a Soviet-style, class-based revolution. 
            While the main lines of the Roosevelt story might be familiar, what continues to amaze me is that the words -- the public articulation of ideas, ideals and values -- routinely spoken by the two Roosevelts in the White House are just plain absent from today's political vocabulary.
            In one of the documentary's many remarkable archived film moments, FDR observes that a public policy should not be judged by whether "it added to those who already had more than enough, but whether it added something to those who have too little."
            You couldn't say that today without being attacked for being unfair to the 1 percenters. In the American political mind the concept of "having too much" no longer eixists. Given the routinely obscene compensation packages for CEOs, bankers and stock brokers, how could it? Politicians no longer say "malfactors of great wealth," they say "big donors with purchased access to elected officials." The Supreme Court says 'sure, go ahead, buy as many Congressmen as you want.'
            As a result, the so-called 'man in the street' no longer realizes that the super-rich are fleecing the public good to feather their own no nests.
            And there is no consensus that public policy ought to be concerned primarily with those who have too little. That government, again in the words of FDR, has an obligation to take action to ensure "a decent place, and a decent government" for its citizens. If you are unemployed, poor, hungry or homeless, or driven into penury by exorbitant medical costs, the general opinion today appears to be that such matters are your own business. 'Why come running to us?' Congression leaders ask today.' We take care of ourselves. Model your behavior on us.'
            Americans wrote thousands of letters every day to FDR when he was in the White House because, in the words of one correspondent, this was the first time they thought someone in Washington actually cared about them.
            Somehow we've lost the notion that "providing for the common good" was the purpose of government.
            Maybe watching a documentary that provides a detailed passage through the major events of the first half of the 20th century will remind us of how hard life was for so long for so many "common people" and how far American had to come to create the social advantages so many of the Baby Boomers could take for granted. Do we have to go all the way back to 1900 and do it all over again?      

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Saving Earth's Garden: 'There is no Planet B"

            The sign from Sunday's "People's Climate March" that is likely to stay with me the longest is a hand-written one saying "There is no Planet B."
            We jumped into the march at 59th Street, where Central Park West flows into Columbus Circle, and is called Sixth Avenue when it emerges as a wide roadway heading south. You can see Central Park for a quite a ways when you turn around and look behind you. As you head down to Lower Manhattan the buildings get higher, with some skyscrapers owned and bearing the names of some of the people the group the save-the-planet climate marchers are part of the problem -- and not yet part of the solution.
            If it started on time, the march was going for about an hour by the time we arrived -- leaving a bus that crawled down a majorly clogged Fifth Avenue -- and walked beside it on the crowded sidewalk where a fence line of metal railings separated the march from the rest of  the city. We had to walk a block this way before the railings ended and we could mingle into the march.
            The group we found ourselves among -- we called them "Vocal"; I never did see what the large banner-sign carried by a half dozen people actually said -- was led by folks wearing green caps with red feathers to symbolize their advocacy for the "Robin Hood Tax." As the name implies, that's a tax on the rich to help those in need. Here's the explanatory chant:
            "No more budget cuts on our backs/
            We'll get aid with the Robin Hood Tax."

            It took me about a dozen blocks to understand the words of the group's basic marching-orders chant, repeated countless times, in the manner of day-long protest marches. The merry men wearing the green hats relied on a main man who possessed both a mike and a very quick tongue (wit, too). This leader -- "my name is Robin, and this is my 'hood -- improvised countless variations and seemingly spontaneous raps on the protest's "vocal," climate change, and "tax the corporations" theme. The basic chant, in timeless 'call and response' form, went like this:
            "Who are we? Vocal./ Who are we? Vocal./ What do we want? Climate justice./ When do we want it? Now!"
            This was varied, and when the marchers were in synch with the chant leaders, the one verse swung into the second, and then back to the first, again and again:
            "When they get loco, We get vocal./ When they loco, we get vocal./ When they loco, we get vocal" -- with both the tempo of the response and the intensity of the 'vocal' increasing with each repeat.
            When our march reached the fat shiny fortress of the Bank of America skyscraper, the need for a new chant was obvious: "Bank of America/ Bad for America!" Repeat many times.
            Some of the marchers around us carried signs that identified them with phrases like "Displaced Renters." References to the suffering brought by Superstorm Sandy to New York and New Jersey shoreline communities, where two years later many housing units destroyed by the storm have still not been replaced, were part of the vibe. Others carried signs depicting the image of a hook in bright red paint to signify "Redhook," one shoreline community wiped out by the hurricane.
            We also took part in a group speech delivered "Occupy Movement" style. The speaker says a phrase, maybe only two or three words, and then everybody repeats it. This brief policy statement conveyed one version of the Robin Hood Tax. If you place a small sales tax on each stock market transaction, billions in new revenues would be raised to combat rapid climate change and ameliorate its effects on the least fortunate such as those whose homes have been lost to rising seas and super storms. Why not? I thought. Almost all other sales are taxed.
            The high point, by most accounts, of the march came just after the moment of silence for the victims of climate change. After that period of silence, everybody in the march was asked to make a lot of noise: drums beat, sirens rang out, and -- the biggest noise of all -- voices rose in a sustained citywide roar. A demand, I thought, for the world's powerful, both state and private entities, to take meaningful actions to reduce global warming. 
            Why shouldn't we take to the streets and roar? The hour is growing late to focus world leaders on the world's biggest problem. When do we want it? Now.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sweeney Todd: Musical Blossoms in a Dark City

            What can be so inspiring about a story of a barber who cuts throats with his razor in league with a pie-maker who bakes the remains in her increasingly popular meat pies. Oh, look, says the slow-witted boy who is one of the tale's few survivors, "There's a bit of fingernail."
            Why this darkly satirical musical -- Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" -- is not only invigorating, but proftoundly moving, often funny and a complete pleasure to behold on a stage from start to finish may tell us something about the popularity of medieval "morality plays" that began with their characters neatly labeled: Virtue, Vice, Everyman.
            In Sondheim's tale, Sweeney Todd -- "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" -- is Everyman. He's not a monster -- or no more of a monster than the lords and toadies of the demonically unjust social system that drove him to the distracted state in which cutting throats for profit and convenience seemed merely part and parcel of life in Victorian London. This is darker Dickens territory, but with no sentimentality, and no happy rescues of the virtuous by a member of the well-meaning, well-off minority.
            In a song called "No Place like London," Todd explains his world view: "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit/ And it's filled with people who are filled with shit/ And the vermin of the world inhabit it/ And the name of the place is London."
            Basically, Todd came to this conclusion after he was framed for a crime and "transported" to Australia as punishment by London's notoriously corrupt and casually cruel court system because a judge lusted after his wife. Having schemed to get rid of Todd, the judge rapes his wife and raises his daughter as his own ward. When Todd somehow escapes, many years later, and makes his way back to England -- a plot premise favored by Victorian writers such as Dickens and Conan Doyle and so many others you assume it must have happened sometimes -- he finds his wife dead and the judge still in full posession of his awful class-based authority while lusting after his teenaged ward.
            When the one-time barber picks up his old razer again and opens for business it's with an eye to serving the judge out. A rival barber discovers the secret of Todd's criminal past, threatens to expose him, and Todd feels obliged to give him a closer shave than he bargained for. Mrs. Lovett, the lady baker who harbors a one-sided romance with Todd, remarks that it's a shame to waste such fleshy remains, what with times being so hard and the price of meat so high, if you can get it -- and the partnership is born. From there it's off to the races.
            In the marvelous song that ends the long first act, Mrs. Lovett sings:   
"... Have a little priest
Sir, it's too good, at least
Then again, they don't commit sins of the flesh
So it's pretty fresh

Awful lot of fat only where it sat
Haven't you got poet, or something like that?
No, y'see, the trouble with poet is
'Ow do you know it's deceased? Try the priest."

            We saw the play last weekend at the Lyric Theater in Boston in a marvelous production -- fast, vibrant, energetic, note-perfect -- that emphasizes the play's 'morality play' message: "[The] history of the world, my love... [Mrs. Lovett, again] Is those below serving those up above."
            I don't know if the play's terribly precise, mordantly comic delivery of that vision accounts for its impact. "Sweeney Todd" may be one of those things -- like great art in any form, high humor, or the pleasure of a sunset, a spring morning, an autumn vista, or a full moon rising over the water -- that evades a complete analysis.
            It's as if (still trying, anyhow) in the 19th century macabre tale of "demon barber" Sweeney Todd -- which today we would probably call an "urban legend" -- Sondheim found an image shocking enough to approach the horror of 19th century life for the urban poor. Which was mostly the urban everybody, saving of course the one percent.
            The framework of the plot is old-fashioned stage melodrama, with a revenge theme that goes back to Shakespeare -- and for that matter the Greeks.
            The wit of the music -- both in the tart lyrics and in music written not so much to accompany the singer but to lead him to unexpected places -- frees the spectator from stereotyped reactions to pat situations. Todd is cetainly an anti-hero. We can't go around approving of people randomly offing other people -- including strangers guilty of nothing more than walking into his shop when flesh is in demand. But then, as the play repeatedly suggests, in a dog-eat-dog world people are in effect "eating" other people all the time. So in the 'great black pit' that his Sweeney Todd's London, as our anti-hero rationalizes, people are better off dead anyway.
            Sondheim and his collaborators (book by Hugh Wheeler) pull the mechanics of the plot and the dark brilliance of the play's vision into lock-step, or dance-step harmony, physically enacted, logically concluded, by the play's climax. Every nuance is brilliantly expressed, and unlike 'realistic' drama almost none of it matters to our appreciation of the work's impact. At the end we're happy that even a handful of the good are alive and the worst of the villains are, so to speak, minced meat.
            In a world where human life is not sacred, this visionary piece of musical theater tells us, all we are is meat. The exhilaration of our theater-goer's experience at the Lyric may be attributable to seeing that point ungainsayably demonstrated.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Garden Wall: But Just For Looks

            First disclaimer: it's a very low wall. But I built it. It took almost no time.
            I bought what I needed at Home Depot, cleaning out the available stock of a certain style of distressed concrete border block made to resemble a stone. I had measured the space -- eyeballing the approximate size of the blocks I needed -- with a piece of notebook paper since the tape measure was on sabbatical. I figured on buying a few extra blocks since they were not expensive. When I brought them to the cashier with a few other purchases, she was unable to find the item on her merchandise list and so decided to charge them as something else (and smaller) at about one-third the price I expected.
            I also bought three bags of black garden soil, stopping at that number because I was tired of lifting heavy bags.
            Home, I took the blocks out the car's trunk, two at a time and placed them along the edge of a slate walk we had laboriously constructed two years ago (with real digging) where I thought they belonged. They fit perfectly. I took no more than a couple of minutes to do this. I did not attempt to dig them into the ground because there is no ground to dig in this patch of hard earth bordering the slate walk. It's all tree root beneath a hard, leached surface covered in part by tough weeds, most of these showing ill use from a rain-less summer.
            Any loose, pliable soil in this patch erodes in the rain onto the walk. Hence the need for a low border wall.
            But now that my line of low concrete blocks was in place, I poured the new soil on the tree-root side of the wall. The wall holds the soil in place, and the soil helps to hold the blocks in place.
            Now I had a strip of soil to plant. It took me about two weeks to get to it, but I transplanted vinca from another piece of the yard. This was a much messier job. The roots and vines go every whichway and you can't cut them out neatly like squares of turf, but our groundcover vinca was outgrowing its allotted space and tangling up around a line of low boxwood shrubs while crowding the roots of the roses. I packed the roots of the transplants into the new earth and watered them deeply. Then, for variety and color, I added a few small hardy mums.
            I am not as a rule a big fan of walls. Something there is, as the poet famously said, that doesn't love how walls separate and divide the world up. That something is nature. I certainly do appreciate the walls keeping the weather out of my house and the need for them in all the rest of the buildings required by civilization in a temperate climate. But walls between countries, borders, prison walls, the infamous "separation walls" that  protect the conqueror from the people whose land they have stolen are all blatant evidences of human failures.
            Garden walls, however, are mere points of landscape design. Their purpose is aesthetic. They're a species of outdoor sculpture. They are, generally speaking, straight lines in a realm free of them. But that's what a garden is -- it's an imposition on nature. We make art out of the materials nature provides, changing the look to our own satisfaction. And something inside of us loves to do it.
            Or at least try.