Monday, October 27, 2014

Garden at the Curbside: Still Shining in October

            The curbside garden in front of our house -- known in the how-to books as the "sidewalk strip" -- is rich in sedum, a plant that not only tolerates, but loves heat and dryness. If you're trying to grow between the asphalt of the roadway on one side and a paved sidewalk (asphalt in our case) desert-like conditions are what you can expect. A row of Autumn Joy sedum provides the biggest hunk of foliage and "plant material" in the strip (rivaled only by high-summer weeds) for most of the growing season. This year the sedum flowers showed and exhausted their color early in autumn, so I've moved on to coaxing what color I can get from the other plants.
            Following the sedum, come the mums; a mixed bag of new 'hardy' ones  purchased this year and a few still hardy returnees from previous years. This year I went for the small-size on the new mums, betting less on their capacity for surviving a winter and coming back next year,and leaving more space for annuals the rest of the season. The top photo shows a sedum bloom at left; a couple of orange nasturtium flowers, an annual; and a red-flowering mum.
            By the end of October, the new hardy mums have mostly exhausted their blooms, though a few of the returning mums are still showing color. I had to nurse these, watering them frequently through our long dry September and deadheading off the dried or failed blooms. The yellow-flowering mum shown in the second photo is the best of these.

            A personal favorite because of its modest persistence, the summery, warm-weather portulaca is an annual that just keeps seeding itself and coming back each year in the same spots in the poor, crowded, beleaguered soil of the sidewalk strip. They take all summer to sprout and most remain small when they flower in September, often only a single flowering stem: little buttons of color in the strip's flayed soil and mulch (third and fourth photos). I bought a couple of these in August this year; larger plants, larger flowers. They're hanging in there; after surviving a cool and rainy week, they're making new buds for another flowering. I would have bought more if I could have found them locally.
            Curbside strips naturally attract certain activities that make life tougher for plants. Dogs are frequently walked down the sidewalk in front of our house. Plants get stepped on. Occasional litter, sometimes following neighborhood curbside trash pickup day, settles there. These areas require policing.
            But the curbside garden offers its own little ecosystem, with a stable of persistent, heat-loving plants, warmed by the concrete jungle of the surrounding pavement, surviving the pollution of the passing cars and trucks, squirrel predations, pet visits, and the regular arrival of tossed garbage lids. They keep blossoming straight through autumn.
            To top it off, the strip is crowned by a tall maple, which at this moments happens to be looking very orange.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Garden of Film: 'Omar' Climbs the Wall of Sad Experience

            Nominated last year for Best Foreign Film Oscar, "Omar," a film about Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, has almost nothing "Hollywood" about it.After seeing the film last night at the Boston Palestinian Film Festival, I'm surprised it made to the Oscar finals. Written and directed by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, "Omar" is neither resistance propaganda or a "message film." It assumes the audience knows what life has been like for decades in Occupied Palestine, never a good idea with
American audience. Its true subject is the cost of resistance to the resisters themselves, and audiences can draw little consolation from its conclusion.
             Omar is young, sincere, and idealistic. He is also in love with the sister of the man who leads an armed Palestinian resistance group.The Israelis call such people 'terrorists.' In Palestine they are called 'freedom fighters.'
            The film begins with Omar's strenuous struggle to scale "the separation war" built by Israel to keep the Palestinian population separate from both pre-1967 Israel and the Israeli settlements built on the West Bank land captured in the 1967 war. The reason for these climbs -- not clear to me until after the film -- is that Omar lives in a part of Jerusalem (the Arab part) annexed into Israel after the war and so must get over the wall to meet with Palestinians on the West Bank. It's a tricky business. To Israeli security forces being Palestinian is a lot like being black in Ferguson, Missouri. Omar is caught after one climb by Israeli soldiers, who humiliate him and club him in the face with a rifle butt.
            This event precipitates the group's attack and killing of the Israeli soldier, which in turn leads to Omar's arrest. His capture convinces his resistance group that they have been betrayed to the Israelis. In Israel, Palestinians who cooperate with the security forces are called 'informants.' Palestinians call them 'traitors.' We see Omar stripped naked and tortured in an Israeli prison -- routine, everyday operational procedure in Occupied Palestine, though most Americans don't know it because of the success pro-Israel groups have in shutting down informed discussion of life in the West Bank under Israeli occupation, abetted by the appalling spinelessness of American politicians (including the current occupant of the White House).
            Worse than torture, Omar is tricked by a Mossad (Israeli intelligence) agent disguised as a prisoner into making the single statement "I will never confess" caught on tape. We are told that Israeli courts regard will regard this as a legal statement of confession to whatever crime a prisoner is being charged with. He is then offered freedom by the agent in exchange for delivering the comrade the Israelis believe (wrongly) shot the soldier. Omar accepts the deal with the intention of using his freedom to learn the identity of the traitor and set up an ambush of Israeli soldiers; but, of course, a deal with the devil is a slippery slope.
            It's the beginning of a trail of compromises and betrayals that end up taking more lives and destroying all of Omar's meaningful connections with his own people. When the young woman whose love he regards as the foundation of his future hopes confronts him with the rumors that he is "working with both sides," the burden of the secrets and deceits he knows of prevent him from giving her the categorical denial she seeks. The Israelis have told him lies. But they are acting on information (some of it untrue) betrayed to them by one or more of his own comrades. In place of his youthful clarity and honor, suspicion is general.  
            The qualities and beliefs that motivate the idealistic young such as Omar to take up arms against the conqueror can't survive survive the ambiguities of the secret war of 'resistance.' They never do.The film reminds me of all the French resistance films made after World War II in which heroic Resistance fighters are betrayed by one of their own placed under impossible pressures by the Nazis. To save your family, or your lover, or your children, or some greater good of humanity, you betray your comrades -- the apparently lesser evil. As brutal occupiers in Algeria the French used the same tactics of official terror, infiltration and paid informers to try to put down a revolt by Algerian rebels. Stories of the Irish revolt and "civil war" in the early 20th century sounded the same note. Who was the true Patriot? Who among a range of likely "double agents" was the informer?
            Tyrants, conquerors and occupying armies always turn to the same tactics: torture, lies, psychological manipulation, betrayal. The Romans found locals to do their dirty work in ancient Jerusalem. The conqueror and his armies of occupation always turn into some version of those 20th century demons, the Nazis. The resistors begin each day wondering who they can trust.
            "Omar" isn't a cynical movie. It's a complex, nuanced film, but its message is a sorrowful one. Power relationships between oppressor and oppressed always corrupt. Israeli society will go on decaying morally behind its separation walls until all those who call the ancient land of Palestine home have equal rights in an open and just society.
The Boston Palestine Film Festival continues through Sunday, Oct. 26. For the full festival schedule see the link at

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Garden of Words: 'Tenth of December' by George Saunders

            If you read books for wonderful word concoctions, linguistic gymnastics, and an almost painful sharpness of ear, you’re likely to find satisfaction in the latest collection of short stories by George Saunders, “Tenth of December.” Saunders is a master of capturing the contemporary American argot: the adoption of workplace, technical, digital, and media jargon to everyday uses. Where, especially in the inner monologue of our lives, these verbal safaris provide an insistent and often unintentionally humorous effect. At least in the characters Saunders whips up for us.
            In stories such as "Victory Lap," the volume opener, the author treats us to the thought stream of his narrator or main characters, from adolescent fantasy to mid-life confusions. His people tend to be hopeful, traditionally optimistic Americans. If they work hard and keep on believing in themselves, things should work out. If not on this page, perhaps a few pages later on. We’re often peering into these characters’ lives at moments when things are not presently working out.
            "Victory Lap," one of the stories that stayed longest with me, gives us two young people at a moment of unanticipated crisis. Before the inconceivable 'bad thing' happens, the author's prose has already got us into their heads. When it comes to young people, Saunders is all over that ‘like.’ Nearly fifteen, Alison is posing on the stairway of her house while imaging her image as the source of enraptured contemplation by a suite of admirers. How fifteen is that?
            The first of her imaginary suitors says, “Let us go stand in the moon.” Had he meant 'on' the moon? If so, Alison reflects, “she would have to be like, Uh, I’m not exactly dressed for standing on the moon, which, as I understand it, is super-cold?” Saunders is all over that American ‘Uh’ as well, and that ubiquitous question mark at the end of statements meant to suggest the questionable-ness of almost any assertion. Alison knows, beyond question, that it’s super-cold on the moon, but she’s going to give you a chance to consider how dumb you’re being.
            Meanwhile the neighbor boy Kyle is dealing with a "work note" left for him by uber-controlling father, who sees life as an endless series of performance standards. Poor Kyle's life is so tied up in parental regulations that he can't take a step without making a misstep. Failing to remove his shoes before entering the house, he fears leaving "an incriminating trail of microclods" behind. He imagines a cable TV show called "What if... Right now?" consisting of the dialogues that would occur if his parents discovered him 'right now' when he is in violation of one of their many protocols. His inner monologue relies on phrases like "self-corrected," "per your note," "holly-golly," and "shoe sheet is required."
            The plot of "Victory Lap" appears to be heading toward tabloid TV disaster when a dangerous-nut stalker -- contemporary social paranoia alert! -- appears on the scene with a plan to abduct poor Alison. But when Kyle finds his self-button and involves himself, against the parental warning in his mind, in the real-life drama taking place before his eyes next door, the tale takes an unexpected life-affirming note: "Easy, Scout," his inner voice narrates, "you're out of control... Quiet. I'm the boss of me."
            We suspect this mean the end of parental mind-control for victorious Kyle.
            The insight that our inner voices are always narrating the progress of our lives gives Saunders the technique he draws on for these stories. In the final, "The Tenth of December" we follow the trails of a sick man attempting to remove the burden his existence places on his family and a teenaged 'misfit' who imagines himself becoming a hero as they intersect surprisingly. Again, the inner word stream is spot-on, contemporary, and full of a cleverness the thinkers of these thoughts seem unaware of.
            Faced with the challenge of rescuing the kid from a fall through ice, the undressed suicidally-sick adult thinks about how to get the kid warmed up: "Hug him, lie on top of him. That would be like Popsicle-on-Popsicle."
            Somehow all this works best, at least for me, when the deeper motivation behind all the mind-chatter is fundamental human decency.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

These Trees are Talking October: A Garden of Autumn Impressions

It's mid-October and we're back to working our way though all the 'walks' in our relatively new trail guide, "Hikes & Walks in the Berkshire Hills," concentrating in particular on the 'walks' as many of the more ambitious 'hikes' are designed for sterner stuff than we can bring to the game. We like the walking, all right, but then we like getting back to the cottage, putting our feet up, sipping warm beverages and thinking about how virtuous we've been.         
After a rainy morning at the start of the Columbus Day weekend we looked for an outing not too far from base camp, the Stockbridge summer (now fall) house that Anne's parents bought many years ago and generations of the family continue to put to good use.

            My son Saul -- (pictured, left, with daughter Sonya) all four of us were attending this Columbus Day reunion -- found a likely candidate in the miniscule, mostly hidden municipality of Richmond, Mass., a town where you never tend to go to unless you've taken the wrong road, probably because you're trying to find your way to the West Stockbridge entrance onto the New York State Throughway. So it made a change to be actually looking for the place.
            "There is no town center in Richmond," our trail guide informs. When you get to the top of the hill, it advises, "avoid the left turn" that's labeled Lenox Branch. We so avoided.
            Taking the other fork, we descend a mountain, eschew another turning at a road we have in the pat reached while coming from an entirely different destination, and continue to East Road. Once there, the directions say, "park somewhere" and "as soon as you can."
            It's all good. East Road in Richmond is the kind of place where you can in fact park just about anywhere and begin walking. Even on a three-day weekend at the peak of the leaf-peeping season there is no traffic on East Road. It's the kind of place where the habitations of man are few and far between, the fields wide and green, the hillsides wooded and multi-colored, and the sky large and very blue.
            The following day, Sunday, was all things bright and beautiful right from the start, so we drove down to the Bartholomew's Cobble conservation property managed by Trustees of Reservations, a site we visit pretty much every Columbus Day weekend. The photos of wooded and grassy paths along the Housatonic River were taken here. We climb Hurlburt's Hill at the end of the outing, a classic prospect -- summits, mountain sides and long vistas in all directions (bottom photo). Other people do this too, but the Cobble property is extensive and absorbs the modest numbers served by its parking lot well.
            On Monday we decided to stay close to home again, and I find a trail guide proposal for a modest, but satisfying walk that falls remarkably close to our East Road outing. We drive up the same mountain pass blacktop, but this time we take that other fork, Lenox Branch, and then go down three-quarters of a mile to find a promised "romantic" vista "tersely labeled," as our guide puts it as "S. Glen" on a wooden sign to indicate the single parking space for the walk through Stevens Glen. Only to find -- ta-da! -- that the Berkshire Natural Resources Council has been at work and provided us with a real sign spelling out the site's full name, a decent parking area, and a new map board showing a loop trail with a "spur."
              Living up to its advertisement, Stevens Glen proves to be a deep-woods beautiful trail of big old trees, with their special silence and soft pine needle powder underfoot. We walk steadily, with occasional photo stops, the day's gray atmosphere serenely filtered by the tall tree tops. We are promised an "outlook" somewhere, so when we reach the 'spur' we eagerly take it, finding ourselves climbing a steeper ascent that leads ultimately to an incredibly atmospheric hidden prospect overlooking a deep, rocky ravine. Is this the romantic heart of the glen? I'm not sure how these words were meant back in the day. But we looked with pleasure down into a rippling stream cut deeply between two rocky cavernous sides (a New England sized 'canyon' perhaps), while enjoying the luxury of an iron-framed observation deck that upheld us securely while we peered over the side.
            And then, of course, silent as a whisper, a great blue heron flew right past us between the rocky enfilades at exactly our elevation. The angel, I thought, of the place. If I were quicker I could have touched a feather.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Deadheads in the Garden (Not What You Think)

            So there I am, squatting in the front garden dead-heading asters.
            This act was a direct response to an issue raised by my sister, Gwen Eichorn, who gardens at her home near Syracuse. We have been discussing such issues by email. Deadheading plants -- removing the spent blossoms in order to stimulate the production of new blossoms -- is something to ponder before leaping into it because it's a time-intensive activity.        
            The value of this activity from the point of view of a time cost/benefit analysis has got to be a persistent issue for the army of backyard gardeners, us amateurs, that is, who don't go around snipping off spent pansies at professionally maintained mansions, corporate headquarters and civic showplaces for a living. Frankly on the macro level it sounds like a recipe for repetitive stress syndrome. Snip, snip, snip. I've snipped a hundred or more faded blossoms (the old word for this was 'blown') from a single coreopsis heliopsis, a perennial that looks great in its gold-topped fully crown moment in the sun of July, but then grows dark. The scores of unopened buds just millimeters behind the faded blossoms proved an irresistible temptation.
            My diligence met with minor success. Maybe one new blossom for every 15 to 20 faded blossoms I decapitate. This year I volunteered our daughter Sonya for that job on her 'vacation.' Happily, she volunteers herself for time-consuming landscaping tasks whenever she visits during the growing season.   
            Despite the low rate of return, deadheading a coreopsis produces some satisfaction. With some other plants, like the pale pink anemones just finishing up, my attempts to stimulate color by removing the old blooms have failed to make an appreciable
produced anything at all. I'm betting the technique works better with annuals -- pansies, petunias, marigolds -- than it does with perennials.
            Almost everyone believes that it should work. I deadhead our Shasta daisies because the blossoms are so large and white and generally happy looking -- and besides, another gardener pointed out that I should be doing it -- and because you can see the next round of fat little button-shaped nubs coming up. Alas, very few of this palpable second round ever do blossom. And then they usually prove smaller and kind of half-baked looking. More 'perfect' conditions for this flower's flourishing probably yield better results from deadheading, as they do for almost all other aspects of the plant growth. The results of my dead-heading may be limited by the fact that very few of my plantings (i.e. almost none) enjoy "full sun."
            This year, caught up in drought-patrol, I never got around to deadheading the daisies. I did recently deadhead our hardy mums -- and the perennial version called 'garden mums' (third and fourth photos down). So far no results from a second generation of buds on those plants where the first the blooms are already gone.
            Asters, however, are an interesting case. I have various perennial asters, only one of them really flourishing (top photo), but some of the others producing a good burst of color for about two weeks. But I can't remember if I attempted systematic dead-heading before. Examining the plants closely, it appears that potential buds, if not actual blossoms, are forming almost everywhere you look.
            So this year I decided to make the experiment. I attacked a plant with striking red blossoms (second photo down), trimming carefully so as not to destroy any new baby-buds willing to give open-air exposure a shot. I'm not sure any of these ever intended to do anything more than pretend. We'll see.
            And then I attacked a blue, standard-color perennial aster, all of whose bright flowers have quietly blinked out in the last couple of days as if somebody threw the 'off' switch. On inspection, sure enough, many, many possible-buds -- very small, nearly countless -- lying up close, right behind the blown blossoms, even though the lower parts of this plant appear to be drying out. I dead-headed about half of these stems. Just in case I get any result, I have a clear basis for comparison between the dead-headed stems and those that were not dead-headed.
            The final lesson for me is that although I consider this aster plant to be a very modest specimen, far short of large and lush, when I concentrated on removing every single faded blossom from the chosen branches there proved to be scores and scores and scores of them. It takes more flowers than you think to make that true, blue impression.
            So another unanticipated insight from this experience: so much more is going on in every flowering plant than meets the casual glance.