Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Garden of the Forest: Old and New Cedars of Lebanon

Among the most famous trees of the Old World, the Cedars of Lebanon were especially sought after for their sturdiness by King Solomon when he built a new high temple in Jerusalem. Altogether cedars of Lebanon have been used for building by 15 world cultures, our guide told us, when we visited the Cedar Preserve in the Qadisha Valley region of northern Lebanon, known officially as the Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab). More than any other variety of cedar.
            There are two kinds of cedar trees. The ‘candle’ cedars, which grow tall and straight like candles, and ‘table’ cedars, which spread their branches out to both sides like a table. The difference is the candle cedars are competing with surrounding trees for sunlight. The cedars uncrowded by other trees have room to let their branches stretch out.
            Lebanese cedar grows very slowly. The new ones planted by the national initiative to restore the cedars to the country’s deforested mountain areas are about a foot and half tall after ten years. But they also live a very long time. Our guide, trained by the preservation initiative, pointed out a tree to us that has been growing in its mountain home for some 1,800 years, beginning before the birth of Alexander the Great. (Though not before the early days of the Maronite Christian church. We saw a dead cedar in which one branch had been sculpted to resemble the crucified Christ). The age is determined by an unintrusive cell sampling technique. All the old trees in the preserve are numbered, their health monitored, and their information kept on file – they are trees with, botanically speaking, medical records.
            The trees reproduce by seeds protected by seed covers resembling pine cones. They take three years to mature, and you can chart their progress easily because they pass through different color stages from green to light beige to a much darker pine cone-color as they mature. We saw tiny seedlings beginning life among the much of the protected forest floor.
We followed our guide from the top of the preserve down a carefully maintained path of switchbacks, admiring old and highly individualized cedars, until our path crossed a roadway, where we exited for lunch. As we left the outdoor restaurant, we could see ranks of young trees digging their roots into the flanks of the Mount Lebanon range.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Garden of Literary History: Visiting the Khalil Gibran Museum

 Last week we visited the Khalil Gibran Museum in Bsharri, Lebanon, 120 kilometers  from Beirut in the Mt. Lebanon range, a site dedicated to the Lebanese artist, writer and author of a classic work of popular wisdom literature, "The Prophet." The book offers quotable perspectives on big subjects such as his oft-cited pronouncement on children:

"Your children are not your children.
        They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself…"

The museum is situated with a view of the Qadisha Valley, regarded by many as the most beautiful natural area in Lebanon. To get there we took part in a small bus tour with three Lebanese sisters and an Egyptian woman.
            We don’t usually go places on paid public tours, but this one proved a great way to get someplace we wouldn’t have managed to get to on our own. We had an excellent Lebanese driver (no mean accomplishment; no tourist is eager to take on driving in Lebanon) and a superb guide as well. Since our fellow passengers were native Arabic speakers, our guide (let’s call him George) devoted himself about 80 percent of the time to that tongue, but was scrupulous in giving us all the tour information in English. It was important to me that we had somebody in charge who both knew what he was doing and was comfortable telling us what we needed to know in the only language I function in. The Lebanese tend to be both personable and polite, so it was no surprise George did very well by us. The other tourists were competent in English as well and good company.
            We went to see the Qadisha Valley region, regarded as perhaps the most beautiful spot in a country with lots of attractive mountain scenery. It’s a deeply cut valley winding around what appears – from the top – to be a very narrow stream, a mere glint of light in the viewfinder of my camera. One dirt road in to the valley bottom; many spots reached only by footpaths. Our tour (as we knew beforehand) stayed on top, taking us through the hills to the good places to look down on the scenery. We stopped in tiny picturesque Bcharre, where our driver picked ripe cherries (photo) from roadside trees; later he found us all fat, red roses.
            The valley was a hiding place for the locals, predominantly Maronite Christians, to get away from invaders or local enemies, George told us. He cited the example of the local Christians hiding here from the Mameluke enemies, rulers of this part of the Islamic empire during the period of Crusades. My suspicion is that the invasion by European Christian Crusaders (still called ‘the Franks’ in the Arab world) might have emboldened the Maronites to revolt against their Muslim rulers, provoking the wrath of the Mamelukes.  
The valley is a natural fortress; it’s hard to get an army down there. To escape from smaller parties the Lebanese climbed up hillsides to caves, then cut their rope ladders. No one was likely to pursue them any further.
            Our tour had three major stops: the Khalil Gibran Museum, the Cedars Reserve, and the St. Anthony Monastery. Gibran, taken to America by his mother as a child, studied art in the US and Europe. His work centered on the human figure in symbolic poses representing his own personal-mystical philosophy of human life – observers have noted the resemblance between his work and that of the prophetic art of William Blake – and he did not exhibit it publicly. After his death those looking after his legacy bought the property as a museum for his artwork and a resting place for his tomb. We took photos of the museum's exterior and views from one of the beautiful natural situations imaginable; no photos were permitted inside.     
            We also visited the Cedars Preserver where the oldest Cedars of Lebanon are protected, studied, numbered and otherwise glorified, a site where the country is seeking to restore the cedar forests that once blanketed hillsides in this region. We saw the oldest of these trees, once reported to be 1,800 years old.
            The last stop was an even more dramatic site, the recently restored monastery of St. Anthony of Quzhaya, consisting of stone buildings built into the mountain side, with caves turned into places of worship. Today visitors can tour these places, including a library, hermitage cave, and a cave-like museum that houses a 16th century printing press that printed a Bible in the Syriac language to escape the notice of Ottoman authorities.   
         I’ll post some images of this site and the Cedar Reserve in a later posting.  

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Garden of the Seasons: Parting With the Plants


Now that the warm spring weather has come, drawing mature growth from the plants I associate with the end of May, I’m really worried that time will go by too fast and we’ll miss too much. For the first time since our move to Quincy and the beginning our perennial garden there, Anne and I have gone away on vacation during the heart of the growing season in the northeastern part of the United States. Other years we’ve taken vacation trips that remove us from home for a week or two in late winter or early spring. We’ve gone to Lebanon, where Sonya lives, in February, March, early April two years ago, and on our first trip in October, when it felt like summer there but not oppressively (not far from July in Massachusetts).
            So this time is different. We left last Friday on the day the first of the clematis blooms opened (top photo), just enough to reveal its pointed-star shape. We have two plants of this viney climber that gives the front of the house a small town rural look in late May.
            The tightly rolled iris blossoms (photo at left) in the back garden were just about to unfurl themselves as well. (They've bloomed by now: oh dear, I'm missing it.) One was just beginning the blooming process when I caught it on camera Friday afternoon. People aren’t blue on this planet, but I’ll confess to finding a resemblance in the bud’s mis-en-scene profile to Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart.   
            The poppies, crammed into a portion of the front garden are beginning to take over all available space (second photo down). They must like growing thickly; the other option I’ve known from this variety, Icelandic poppies, is not to grow at all, so I’m glad it’s chosen to proliferate in its erratic long-necked style. We see lots of poppies, same color, about the tenth of the size growing close to the ground in Lebanon’s hills.
            The general impression of fullness is what I like perhaps most of all from the late spring perennial garden. The greenery is large enough to show its style, and all the shapes and sizes and multi-varied approaches to growing in green plant photosynthesis style begin to crowd abundantly together. It’s a texture; always changing, always different. Always worth looking at as one of earth’s various and seemingly limitless ways of covering itself. And we all go around humming Louis Armstrong’s immortal line “what a beautiful world it is.”
            What happens next, even last year, spring of 2015, when I was going absolutely nowhere (we had been gifted with some much needed late winter days in Florida), I realize I was still worried about time passing too fast to properly appreciate everything that goes on in this special season.
            I’m posting here (below) the poem that I wrote then. As for the garden I left behind in Massachusetts for two weeks of the best of the growing season, it will just have to take care of itself.  

        Hungry Summer 

I feel about the birds on the cherry tree
tearing off its blinding white blossoms
As I do about the easy spring days
of early May when earth simmers up
the year's first soothing seventies
Now that spring has finally put a bare foot down
I fear the beast of summer, the swish of its heavy legs
And those large happy jaws chewing through
days of children by the shore
their voices the eerie cries of disappearing angels

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Garden of May: A Setting for the 'Immortality Ode

The best of poets have always philosophized over flowers. Spring, perhaps the month of May especially, is as good a time as any to consider the mysteries of birth, time, and decay.

Where do we come from? And the equally fundamental question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

William Wordsworth, perhaps the greatest of the English Romantic poets, also known as a poet of Nature par excellence, considered these questions in his  celebrated Immortality Ode (full title: "Ode: Intimations of Immortality").

Like the works of Shakespeare, the poem is full of phrases that step out of their original context to find a life of their own in common language (sometimes in an ironic fashion). Ever hear, or read, "trailing clouds of glory"? Here's the sentence in which it appears in the Ode. We are born into this world, the poet says,  

                      Not in entire forgetfulness, 
                      And not in utter nakedness

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

        From God, who is our home:

 Heaven lies about us in our infancy.

The poem appears to say that when a new "soul" is born into this life, it carries some initial remembrance of the eternal realm from which the child came. That remembrance, or "glory," trails some ways through our childhood on imperfect earth, this realm of growth and decline, birth and death: "...he beholds the light, and whence it flows,/ He sees it in his joy." 

          Which (to me) glances at that sense new parents sometimes have of the otherworldly aura of a newborn. What are those eyes looking at that we cannot see?
            For Wordsworth, it's that special connection with the higher realm from which we are "thrown" at birth that cements a young child's oneness with nature. In this poem, the poet conjoins his 'religion of nature' -- his belief in nature as the source of human goodness -- with the orthodox Christian faith that was the be and end all of religion in his society. Not to believe in this orthodoxy was to be damned as an atheist, the charge Shelley and other English "free thinkers" would face. Wordsworth bows openly to orthodoxy in his reference to God as "our home."
            But the poem's assertion of the that infantile apprehension of the holy, of "heaven" lying about one, is pure Romantic. It's akin to Rousseau's belief that children are born not in sin, but in purity -- anathema to the religious in his own country. To Wordsworth, those God-given 'clouds of glory' empower the child's love for the physical world, the unself-consciousness embrace of nature often noted in very young children. Rolling in the grass, playing in the mud, carrying bugs around in a pocket, delighting in the presence of animals. The heavenly "light" the child beholds in nature, the poem continues, transforms him into "Nature's priest."
            In those early years of mortal existence, Wordsworth writes, he "still is Nature's priest/ And by the vision splendid/ Is on his way attended..."
            The Immortality Ode is Wordsworth's fullest statement of reconciliation between his belief in goodness of nature and the facts of life. Those infantile heavenly clouds dissipate in the full light of day -- the mortal, material world that Wordsworth says in a much quoted phrase from another poem "is too much with us" as we grow into our mature lives. We're no longer one with nature, no longer its devoted  priest, as the demands of 'real life' rub their daily erasures over the magic of the wonder years.
             And yet, and here is the poem's great and moving attempt to reconcile transcendent belief and sad experience, as the poet wrestles with the Romantic problem of mortal life -- how to accept that youthful "light" (vigor, hope, optimism) grows progressively dim as we mature and age and suffer losses. In short, if what Wordsworth has told us about the human state in the early part of this poem (and the best of his other poems) is true, then life inevitably goes downhill.
            The ode turns then to what we might call 'the consolations of philosophy.' (A phrase not invented by Wordsworth, or Shakespeare, but by a Saxon forebear named Boethius.) When -- and this is where I began this consideration, with the special appreciation of May as the most transformational, generative, birth-happy month -- the Immortality Ode stages the reconciliation of mortal man with the inevitable loss of exaltation and ecstasy (whether spiritual or poetic or simply 'natural'), he chooses May for his epiphany.
            "Then sing, ye birds," the poet writes, invoking the spirits of the season, then adds bounding lambs, and the music of the "tabor" to summon those those able to perceive through the "heart" (that most poetic organ):

Then sing, ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
        And let the young lambs bound
        As to the tabor's sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
      Ye that pipe and ye that play,
      Ye that through your hearts to-day
                                    Feel the gladness of May!

            (And indeed the month of May has been unusually birdful around these parts. We've had a mockingbird camp out for half-days at a time. The cardinal and the other songbirds have been spring-singing steadily, and some little creature chirped for days on end in the tree or the telephone line above the driveway, seldom taking wing for more a half dozen feet.. though I suspect the burden of his song might be something like "I am so lost." )
             In what would later be called the confessional mode, Wordsworth then speaks in the first person to acknowledge the "lost" radiance even a fulltime poet must acknowledge as mortal's fate.

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
    Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

How about "splendor in the grass"? Have you heard that one; the title of a book (and soon after a major movie) that 60 years ago made bold to treat the sex motive in human conduct. As for the absence of "glory in the flower," don't take this too much to heart, as we will see.

      We will grieve not, rather find
      Strength in what remains behind;
      In the primal sympathy
      Which having been must ever be;
      In the soothing thoughts that spring
      Out of human suffering;
      In the faith that looks through death,

The consolation appears to lie in improved morals, plus some wisdom. We find "strength in what remains behind," in sympathy, in the hard to buy notion that "soothing thoughts" that spring from suffering are a source of strenght, and in a faith stronger than death.

              And then, at the end, if all else fails -- to pierce the shell we necessarily thicken around ourselves to defend against "human suffering" and, I suspect, the growing awareness of oncoming death  ... there are flowers.

             However tepid some of these prior consolations may appear to us, the last stanza pays for all. After the tone of these rationalizations ("which having been must ever be"), what bursts forth is tried and true lover's love song.Wisdom colors the poet's vision, but an aging, studied, lived passion is even more passionate, these lines tell us, even more life-affirming. How about that little phrase "too deep for tears"? Heard that one? Here it is, fully earned. And you can't miss the blossom in this final vision:   

And O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,

Forebode not any severing of our loves!

Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;

I only have relinquish'd one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.

I love the brooks which down their channels fret,

Even more than when I tripp'd lightly as they;

The innocent brightness of a new-born Day

            Is lovely yet;
The clouds that gather round the setting sun

Do take a sober colouring from an eye

That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality;

Another race hath been, and other palms are won.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.