Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lush Moments, Changing Times: Metaphysics in the Garden

Lush moments versus spring coaxings.
The same place, looking a lot different now.
Everything boiling over,
the last days of July.
Those blue balloon flowers puffing out a pure cerulean blossom
a few more this year, each year, but who's counting
who else even notices.
I offer my presentation to the neighbors who live over the fence
Who look down now upon our creations
(the first person plural pronoun standing for nature plus us),
from the raised deck added to the two-story addition
it took a year, a whole growing season, plus an autumn, winter,
closing time, to build.
I give each of my neighbors a task: count the balloon flowers,
track the population of those native daylilies, declining? aging?
growing too crowded like the old neighborhoods
in old cities,
the places we track in our guidebooks while we count the mosques, the minarets, the park benches,
the quality (and quantity) of views of the Bosporus.
The thing about traveling, it's not where you go,
it's who you are
and the coefficient of likelihood
for being the same person when you return

So it is with the seasons, the summers.
I am sure the roses never shined so brightly,
endured so long disease-free without human interventions,
the Coreopsis Helios spreads by an annual 15 percent (maybe 16? 17?)
and those tiny yellow buttons, like flowers stitched in a woven rug
by fingers too minutely particular to ever see,
and all such trends escape my eye
At what point did the creamy white Echinacea emerge,
lined up like paint chips for discerning householders,
how many ways does the paint store know how to say white?
We painted ours in "sandy beaches"
but still bring my eyes no closer to the instant of emergence
The yellows are in retreat
red daylilies pick up the count.

We raise our flags in July
The high tide, not at Gettysburg, or Philadelphia, nor the Place de la Revolution
(renamed de la Concorde when the natives
grew tired of cutting off heads)
as my fingers weary and grow stiff from the endless
task of dead-heading faded blossoms struck from the rollcall of time

Each growing year we travel from the frozen shores
of first life, first sightings,
the retreat of the glaciers still fresh in our memories
Till little white flowers give way to little purple ones,
the purples grow bigger, spread farther,
the green earth rises to join in the dance
of the freshly ritualized spring, windows thrown open to life,
jackets off, hearts ablaze
The little purples, the modest blues, give way to
the vast, enheartening operatic invasion of golden life, expressive oranges, blazes of red
truer than blood,
hot colors for the hot season
!Summer! is proclaimed
I am overwhelmed,
swept overboard in a sea of life, I ply the tools of my trade,
left and right like some chivalrous hero surrounded by a sea of barbarians,
at times embracing the role of the commander pleased by the battle's progress,
crowds of rudbeckia cheer him from the public squares,
heads bobbing like Black-Eyed-Susans
swimming in a sea of love,
Till changing coats to observe the fallen like a trained physician,
and record the moment when inevitable decline has taken hold.
The patient will not recover

Neither will we.
Let no one say the struggle is in vain,
the game not worth the candle
We burn in beauty, knowing the winter sleep
is long, and always soon.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Royalty in the Midsummer Garden: Daylily Days

           Among the things I like about daylilies: there are a lot of them. I quote Wikipedia here: "There are over 60,000 registered cultivars." Apparently that's a number that grows every year.
           Daylilies grow in colonies, or clumps, happily making more of themselves.
            They are hardy and reliable.
            They've been with us from the start.
           Our perennial garden began with the variety that every garden in New England begins with: orange native daylilies technically known as "orange daylilies." They're also commonly called "ditch lilies" because they will grow wild at the side of the world. In rural, small town Massachusetts, any kind of road that's allowed to do its own thing because nobody is cultivating a lawn right up to the edge of pavement is likely to attract them somewhere along its length.That's what we must mean by calling the plant (technically hemerocallis) 'native' because the reference sites say they're "native to Eurasia." They've been here long enough to feel like they belong.
            We had them growing at our house in Plymouth. I don't  believe we stole some from the Berkshires, but I may have forgotten. I wouldn't put it past me.
            Some orange natives (third photo down) were found in the backyard (to use the term loosely) here in Quincy, growing against the wire fence. I divided them and they began to multiply, producing more flowers every year.
            I also bought some Stella d'oro daylilies (fourth photo down) for variety; they're smaller, the blooms are a buttery yellow. That was the only other variety of daylily I knew existed.
             Then I visited Stephen and Janet Tooker's registered American Hemerocallis Society Display Garden, called Collamore Garden, in the shoreline town Scituate, a town about 20 miles away along the coast, but somehow occupying another geographical/metaphysical time zone: beaches, marshes, woods. Quincy has some of these features too (its 'woods' though are part of the Blue Hills state park), but the difference is Quincy has a population of 90,000. Scituate population as of the last national census is 5,245.
            The Tookers' garden pretty much evens the score in daylilies alone. They grow about 700 varieties.

          They also belong to a regional organization for daylily growers, the Southeastern Massachusetts Daylily Society, that meets in Wareham. The organization held a plant sale in early May. (Spring is the best time for planting daylilies.) Somehow I missed it.
            I'm sorry now. Various kinds of daylilies bloom throughout the growing season. But for me this mid to late July period is the high point. I've bought some different varieties in the last couple of years, but almost most immediately lost track of their names.
            I think of them as the reddish one, the pure yellow one, the light orange one, and the really big yellow ones with the brown markings, throwing up so many scapes their blossoms last for a month.
            I have taken photos of various blooms this year, but can offer no names to match up to them. It would help me keep track of how the plants were doing, if I knew by name what I was growing.
            I've got to get better at this. Daylilies are the queens of mid-summer.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Garden of Travel: Independence Day in Cincinnati

            The Fourth's not such a big deal here, the van driver tells us, as he takes us from the airport to our hotel downtown (not far from the Ohio River) on a visit to our son. The airport is in the state of Kentucky, which, like Ohio, did not exist at the time of the Declaration of Independence. It's the day before the Fourth of July, but the airport is not very crowded. I had feared it would be a busy, crowded, anxious travel day -- not so much. Not even in Logan, which is ordinarily bad to the bone. Our van driver has all sorts of things to tell us about living in Cincinnati, since he used to live in Salem, Mass.

            "They have their big parade on Labor Day out here," he tells us.

            Whoa, I think. A big labor town?

            He doesn't know why. He has family in Mass., and keeps up, but has somehow missed the earth-shaking fact that the surviving Marathon Day bomber has been sentenced to death. Do you mean the Boston bombing attack is not a drop-dead, stop what you're doing lead item news on the local networks?

            We cross the Ohio River, long famous as the boundary of freedom for escaped slaves at the doorstep of freedom. I have to remind myself that 'border state' Kentucky remained in the Union during the Era of Illegal Secession. Abe Lincoln was born in Kentucky. George Washington never set foot in Kentucky. Nor did he make it to Cincinnati, though Washington loved 'the Ohio,' since it represented the universal dream of 18th century, independence-hungry American patriots: to get rich on owning new western land. In Washington's time, that new western land was called 'the Ohio country.'

            As a career move Washington joined British General Braddock in an ill-considered military expedition into the 'Ohio country' (their goal was the place where Pittsburgh stands now) where the Redcoats were slaughtered by the French and their Indian allies waiting for them in ambush. Dying in Washington's arms, Braddock was reported to have said, "We shall know better how to deal with them next time."

            In this year of "The Color of Change," of police killings and a racist massacre in the Old South, it seems we are still trying to learn how to better deal with divisions among ourselves. How do we cross that river beyond which certain horrors will cease to grow up among us liked ugly, deadly weeds. I hear of urgings that President Obama in some official POTUS cap and gown should formally apologize for slavery. By all means, and to all the world. In our famous Declaration we copyrighted the word "equality," but our behavior showed we didn't really mean it.

            On Independence Day I am a cranky Yankee. But Ohio has no Adams family, no Virginia class of mansion-bred Founding Fathers, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, slave-owners all. Kentucky-born, Illinois favorite-son Lincoln had no slaves, but like most Midwesterners, was no abolitionist himself. Even Walt Whitman, my favorite 19th century American, a New Yorker and world class egalitarian, had a soft spot for the rural 'Southern way of life.'

            Still, it's understandable that Ohio, still Indian territory at the time of the American Revolution, despite French and English intrusions -- the British holding back American settlers from the region in an attempt to keep some tribes on their side -- has no major Independence Day glitter. No freedom trail. No Cincinnati massacre to rival Boston's. No Minutemen. No 18th century historic houses; though no slave quarters either. No sites connected to the founding fathers and their best friends and colleagues. Though plenty of German beer -- far superior, at least to American taste, to anything that Sam Adams could have produced.

            But the city draws its name from Washington's heroic career as Revolutionary general and the newly independent country's first President. His generation of idealistic leaders found models in the "classics" studied for their wisdom by 18th century gentlemen. When he stepped down from the head of the army at the war's end to allow for the civilian rule of a new government, his officers recognized the example of the Roman general Cincinnatus and formed an organization dedicated to the republican ideal of unselfish public service, calling themselves the Society of the Cincinnati.

            Here's another Revolutionary connection. Even today, the Wikipedia tells us, "Cincinnati in particular, and Ohio in general, is home to a disproportionately large number of descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers who were granted lands in the state."

            The place goes back to physical origins around 1800, became a city in 1819, grew to a major trade and manufacturing center, and an important stop on the Underground Railroad. That cheek to jowl border and deep economic ties with the South made Ohio fertile ground for a movement to end the Civil War. The Union Army declared martial law in the city when Confederate raiders struck North. The Union was preserved.

            We did in fact see some fireworks during our visit with Saul. They were visible from Fountain Square, the mid-town public space, for music and the like, though launched behind an electric billboard, as if somebody had been given the wrong map. They were however effectively loud. Even louder, and by all accounts more spectacular were the Friday night fireworks launched by the Cincinnati Reds in their Great American Ballpark after a game. The Reds got pounded Friday night. Fireworks anyway. Saturday night, lost again. More fireworks. Unfortunately, our nice and very reasonably priced downtown hotel had no view of the waterfront .

            However we do it, Independence Day is always worth celebrating.

            We can't underestimate the accomplishment of simply starting up a new country and keeping it together. Think of Sudan: genocide, secession, civil war, massacres. Remember the break-up of Yugoslavia: massacres, hate. Independence Day in 1947 for Indian and Pakistan: grand scale massacres.

            In fact, keeping this country together was no easy job. Remember the American Civil War: a million casualties.

            Guided by Saul, we saw revived city streets in Cincinnati, beautiful old neighborhoods, historic houses, river views, parks. The place that moved me is the one that memorializes that catastrophic blot on the 'stability' and unity of the new independent nation we celebrate each year in the Revolutionary month of July. In a city cemetery of monuments to the prosperous, a quadrant of grass dedicated to some portion of many American lives lost to that war.    

            Coming home from our visit, I wrote a poem that has since been published in the July edition of the Verse-Virtual online literary journal. Here's the link:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Two Plays in Shakespeare's Garden: Will Miracles Never Cease?

            The Bay Colony Shakespeare Company calls the two works it's now presenting in Plymouth's Community Center for the Arts plays "about light, love and magic." What's really miraculous is that a professional company this good is now in its third season of offering high-quality Shakespeare in Plymouth and other area towns.
            "The Winter's Tale," which opened last weekend, is one of Shakespeare's late romances, a particularly apt example of the 'romance' genre: a tale that moves from apparent tragedy to a redemption that may stretch credibility but satisfies the deeper yearnings of human heart.
            King Leontes, played by company director Neil McGarry of Marshfield, an actor who once again shows himself capable of commanding attention in any role, really has no claim on our sympathies except that he's a human being. A standard Shakespearean monarch capable of turning tyrant in a flash, his wholly unmotivated jealousy destroys the life of his blameless queen -- a la Othello, only he doesn't have the excuse of being corrupted by an Iago-figure. Somehow in an instant, like catching a fatal infection while out for a morning walk, he manages to corrupt himself by groundless self-feeding suspicion. The same disease of the mind convinces him that his newborn daughter is not his own child, so he has the infant exposed in a barren place.
            But romance is a literary opening to fairy tale and draws on the deep primal tuning to wonder and marvel that hooks us in children's literature, at least those tales that have a happy ending. In fact in Shakespeare's time that's what "a winter tale" meant: a tall story.
            Perdita (the name means "lost one") is carried to the wild country of Bohemia, a real name given to a stage creation, by a kindly courtier, who is eaten by a bear for his troubles. (No romance there.) Raised by simple shepherds, the girl has a natural grace and genuineness that charms a prince, who for some reason is hiding from his father.
            Part of the unstated metaphysics in romance is that an 'unspoiled' upbringing can cleanse the corruptions of the hothouse atmosphere of life at court. It's Cinderella the prince wants; not the pampered sisters. Similarly, if you're depressed in London, go spend some time in the forest of Arden -- well, actually the plot of another play, "As You Like It," but something similar is going on in this tale. There's a disease in the king's mind; perhaps power really does corrupt. And the pastoral folk of Perdita's upbringing -- even the truly simple-minded rubes whose "cozening" by the complacent hustler-clown Autolycus Shakespeare invites the audience to enjoy -- somehow help restore the balance.
            It's the 'return' of Perdita, the lost child, to Leontes's court that restores 'truth and natural goodness' to this world. For me, the high point of Bay Colony's production is observing McGarry transform himself into a sufficiently withered and guilt-haunted Leontes -- as if the theatrical 16 years' passage the plot calls for has magically taken place while the audience was chatting at intermission -- in order to enable the impact of 'bad transformed to good' to register fully on his character. In McGarry's hands Leontes is not just an example of regal folly; he's a suffering human being.
            The cast is uniformly strong. Poornima Kirby, who played opposite McGarry in the company's "Much Ado About Nothing" last year, is equally convincing as the wronged queen Hermione. Erica Simpson, another young veteran, who was the dark Lady Mac in the company's "MacBeth" last summer, hits the right note in a diametrically opposite role as the saving-grace Perdita. Meredith Stypinski, who stepped into a crucial role at the last moment, is a strong Paulina -- the woman who speaks truth to power. Cam Torres has a paunchy swagger as the gleeful conman Autolycus.
            "The Winter's Tale" can be somewhat harder to follow than the more popular comedies. Audiences who know "Much Ado" from the popular film may not have seen a production of "Tale," in a theater or on screen. Perusing a copy of the play beforehand, or even a plot summary, may be advised.
            Bay Colony Shakespeare Company doesn't slight the wonder and romance of the work's plot. And miracles do happen on stage.

(The Bay Colony Shakespeare Company presents two of Shakespeare’s most magical plays, "The Winter's Tale" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in repertory in Plymouth starting through Aug. 2. For dates and tickets see