Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Garden of Honey Bee: Pass the Dandelions, Please

This is the time of the year if you live in the northern half of the United States, or anywhere in the northern hemisphere, to remind yourself that the sun will return, the light will lengthen, plants will pop up out of the earth spontaneously (I know I didn't plant them all), the green will return to the trees, and the color to lawns and gardens. Also birds will sing and bees will buzz.
            Or will they? The last item on this happy roll call of nature's bounties has been the least certain of earth's annual bounties in recent years because of a frightening loss of bee population, almost certainly related to the use of chemical fertilizers, called "colony collapse disorder."
            Bees are not primarily the nuisance creatures that we worried about stepping on in our bare feet, during the unsteady paradise of childhood. They are an essential partner in human food production.  
            Bees pollinate fruit trees, nut crops, berries, and many other of the plant foods we rely on.
            After writing that sentence I wondered how many so I looked up www:// and found...   Alfalfa   Okra   Strawberries   Onions   Cashews   Cactus   Prickly Pear   Apricots   Allspice   Avocados   Passion Fruit   Lima Beans   Kidney Beans   Adzuki Beans   Green Beans  and....
            The list rolls down the screen -- and down and down and down... My finger grow tired scrolling. I literally cannot count them all. A few other favorites that catch my eye: mangoes, lemons, carrots, coffee -- what was that last one? Coffee?
            Has everyone got the point?
            Now let's focus on another item on the happy-thoughts-of-spring agenda, the category of common wild plants found, in field, farm, residential yards and public lawns that are abused under the misapprehension that they are "weeds." A weed, of course, is merely a plant in a place where we don't wish it to be. The word has no scientific definition. One of the most widely victimized of these wild common plants, under the libel of 'weed,' is the common dandelion.
            Given the problematic decline of honey bees, it's time to turn our attention on the role of the dandelion in the 'balance of nature.'
            Writing a couple springs ago, Kate Bradbury of the newspaper The Guardian put the case this way:
"A few weeks ago I walked past a lawn which hadn’t yet had its first spring cut. It was awash with bright yellow dandelions, and each one was peppered with several pollen beetles, perhaps enjoying their first meal of the year. A week later the dandelions were buzzing with bees, but a few days after that, this little patch of wildflowers had been razed – what happened to the pollen beetles and the bees?"
                 Experts on the subject tell us dandelions are simply the honey bee's most important spring flower. In fact beekeepers traditionally look to the timing of dandelion season as an important marker of honeybee success. After a hive survives the winter, as the beekeeper surely hopes it does, the keeper knows the bees won't starve if they can manage to hang on until dandelions bloom in early springs. That means May, in Massachusetts, with some early starters hoisting those yellow petals in April.
            "Each flower consists of up to 100 florets, each one packed with nectar and pollen," Bradbury writes. "This early, easily available source of food is a lifesaver for pollinators in spring."
            Dandelions are a lifeline for honey bees, whose continued survival largely depends on wild flowers.
            Unfortunately,in the minds of many property owners dandelions are seen as the enemy of the perfect lawn. And they're a determined and resourceful enemy. Their deep tap roots are hard to remove -- you fail to 'get all of it' and the thing grows back -- and the plant has the ability to plant itself in cracks in the pavement, rock piles, cement walls, or your neighbor's yard, from which stronghold its seeds come wafting back into yours.
            There's yet another libel from which dandelions suffer. Calling them 'weeds' is bad enough, but some elements of the native-plant police consider them "invasives."
            Dandelions, and a host of other Old World plant colleagues, arrived in this continent along with the Pilgrims, the Boston Puritans and all the other English-speaking colonists; plus the Dutch, Swedish, German, Scottish and Irish settlers of the European migration.
            Pointing out that the dandelion had settled in America by 1672, scientist Peter Del Tredici challenged the rigid notion of "invasives" in a recent article in the Boston Globe that raised the idea of "a statute of limitations for plants" that have clearly settled in (along with us) to become part of the local landscape:
"Can the ubiquitous dandelion ever achieve native status or will it forever be considered an alien? Adding a layer of complexity to these questions is the fact that modern molecular research has demonstrated than many European weeds have undergone genetic adaptation under North American conditions, and are now measurably distinct from their European ancestors."
            He proposes that any plant growing successfully here before 1800 -- wildflowers and herbs like the dandelion, plantain and curly dock, along with basic European imports such as grains, flowering ornamentals, fruit trees and shade trees -- should be considered a naturalized “American archaeophyte.” Plants brought later can be classified as neophytes, he says, and 'non-native' until their statute of limitations is reached.
            So here's the message for lawn lovers, backyard gardeners, lawn care companies -- lighten up on the weeding. We are all part of a natural inter-dependency: humans, plants, bees, birds, wildflowers, 'weeds.'
            Your yard is part of some other living thing's habitat.
            We have all grown up together in North America. Dandelions have been here since 1672. They are as native as we are, part of the American landscape.
            And honey bees, who have adapted to their presence, depend on them. Just as we depend on bees.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Garden of Verse: My Poem in a Beautiful Book; A Memory of Spring

I have an Easter poem, titled "A Certain Day in Spring," in the recently published final edition of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, a journal closing its six-year run with a beautifully designed coffee table hardcover issue. 
The book is over 200 pages and includes literally hundreds of full-color illustrations, plus something over 200 poems and "vignettes." 
           I'm very happy to have a poem of mine included in his hardcover book. The only downside is that the book, given its size and lavish use of color and art has a high price, at $60.
            The full title is "Vine leaves Literary Journal: A Collection of Vignettes From Across the Globe," compiled and edited by Jessica Bell. Here's a link to the publisher's site: 

           Since the contents of the book are not available online, I'll post my poem here:

A Certain Day In Spring

I cry in the same place every year
I remember to bring tissues, but I don't remember why
We are called upon to respect others
The minister, recalling an incident involving her wife and their child
explodes the canon of pronouns
We breathe the fragrance of potted pink hyacinths
People older than us shamelessly singing
choruses of 'Hallelujah!'

At night I strive to recall
the wisest of all her sayings.
'the sacrament of tears'
I listen to songs named 'Two Souls,' 'Sacred Nature,' 'My Brother's Keeper.'
Isaac turns in a slow circle, expectantly for the ram
Now we will live forever

            The minister referred to here is Rev. Pamela L. Werntz, Rector at Emmanuel Church, an Episcopal church in Boston. Her Easter sermons are a revelation.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Garden of Verse: The Way We Were -- At Least in Our Poems

Living alone in Boston in the virtually prehistoric decade of the seventies, working lousy jobs, or no jobs, and writing poetry as a sure way to stay poor, I joined up in a “co-op” publishing venture consisting of similar types based in Cambridge. We published a slim poetry tabloid called “Dark Horse” and sold copies on the street for next to nothing. A favorite venue was the sidewalk on Huntington Avenue in front of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts -- especially on Sunday mornings, when they opened the doors for free. 
        I think my favorite pitch was something like "Get your news about the state of the universe." I think the price was a quarter. I think it really was. 
         I doubt we sold many copies. But we were pleasantly surprised when we sold some. 
          Anyway the monthly online poetry journal Verse-Virtual, of which I am regular contributor, asked poets to submit "early poems" for the now current December 2017 issue. 
           Remarkably, I put my hands on a few (I hoard paper) and three of these are currently up on Verse Virtual at
            The first of these, posted below, "Background," is a fairly paranoid sounding piece I don't really remember writing, though the words felt familiar as I read them. I don't recall the 'brief encounter' that appears to have provoked this account, but I think I was attracted to the various different meanings of the common term "background." Something is always, in one sense or another, going on in the 'background," even if it's just a bird making a noise in a tree.


Our paths cross by accident,
and each is a little nervous.
I have a good excuse to be somewhere else,
but miss too much
and life goes to pieces.

We meet between post office and library.
I would like to postpone the conversation,
like all my chores –
but these few words
may make us allies.

Behind us a tree and a crow
are talking,
and I would really like
to know what they are saying.  

The other two poems published in this December issue, "False Spring" and "November Firsts" have seasonal themes. In my memories of those days it is almost always autumn, except when it's winter.  

Verse-Virtual editor Firestone Feinberg asked us also to supply a photo of ourselves from the time when our early poems were written. The photo at the top here is a black and white snapshot my wife Anne (we met around the time these poems were written) helped me find. I don't really remember it, but it must be me because I still dress that way. 

Firestone himself supplied one of his own first poems, a very personal and meaningful record of meeting his wife in his first year of college. You can read that at

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Garden of History: The Real "Game of Thrones" -- England's War of the Roses and Why Empires Never Last

         For a period of years early in the 15th century, England was on top of the Western world.
            After Henry V's great victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415 (during a conflict known as The Hundred Years War) and his successful dynastic marriage to Catherine, daughter of the King of France, the heroic English warrior-king became heir to the throne of France. He was accorded the title "King of England and Heir of France."
            In volume one, "The Birth of Britain," of his three-volume "The History of the English-Speaking Peoples," Winston Churchill quotes the judgment of historian Leopold von Ranke:
            "It was a very extraordinary position which Henry V now occupied. The two great kingdoms, each of which by itself has earlier or later claimed to sway the world, were to remain united for ever under his successors."

            No prince in Europe could compare with him in territorial possessions or reputation. Churchill writes: "This was the boldest bid the Island ever made in Europe... Henry stood, and with him his country, at the summit of the world."
            So how long did this English domination of Europe last? Not long at all. 
            Henry made the mistake of dying young and things fell apart immediately. Churchill describes the fate of the son of Henry V and Catherine (crowned as Henry VI) as "long to reign over impending English miseries."
            What happened to England during much of the remainder of the 15th century still serves as a prime example of the absolute rivalry that takes place between powerful dynastic families (or ruling cliques, clans, secret governments, or rival elites) whenever the prize is something close to the absolute power traditionally granted to "kings"... those who sit upon thrones.
            "The Game of Thrones," the title of the wildly popular TV dramatic series, is aptly chosen. During the Western world's long era of government by royal sovereigns, all of the 'houses' of Europe, big and small, engaged in a continual contest of influence, domination, and hegemony through dynastic force of arms,
marriage, alliance and betrayal, pretty much all of the time.
            When Europe's World War I broke out, pitting England against Germany, some members of Britain's royal Windsor family expressed surprise, because Germany's Kaiser William was a cousin. Another cousin was the czar of all Russians.
            After the First World War put an end to Russia's House of Romanov, Marxist Russia was temporarily out of the traditional dynastic game. But twenty years later the Soviet Union's Communist czar Stalin was playing footsie with Hitler. The two tyrants signed a non-aggression pact in 1939. Two years later Hitler sent his armies in a surprise attack into Russia -- a classic Game of Thrones stab in the back. 
            Today we have the internecine rivalry in the royal family of Saudi Arabia as members of the younger generation strive for the throne and contenders prove how tough they are by destroying neighboring Yemen. A dynastic family belonging to a minority religious sect in Syria bombed hospitals and turned half the country into ruins to hold onto power. In the world of so-called Constitutional government the dynastic Bush family caused a million deaths in an unnecessary American war in Iraq. The struggle to deny power to the Clinton dynasty ended up putting a dangerous maniac on the throne of the world's greatest power, just in time to confront the lunatic, now-nuclear dynasty of North Korea.

             For all such dangerous contests of gaining state power, England's internecine "game of thrones," known as The War of the Roses, provides a chilling precedent.
            Churchill, a student of history and widely experienced practitioner in the arts of power himself, follows the twists and turns of loyalties, pledges, promises, betrayals, back and forth victories and defeats of a two-generation struggle between contenders for the English throne in the houses of York and Lancaster.
            The root cause appears to me to lie in the nature of state or 'national' power itself. The problem is aggravated by the whole notion of hereditary succession. In fact, the first cause of England's disastrous game of thrones was Henry V's overreaching success. As Churchill puts it: "When Henry V revived the English claims to France he opened the greatest tragedy in our medieval history... The miserable, destroying century that ensued casts its black shadow upon Henry's heroic triumph."
            In short, though Henry won on the battlefield the 'right' to the French throne, England was never meant to govern France. Though deeply divided in the medieval centuries, France is a big country. England is an island, with its own internal divisions, facing a significant transportation barrier between its borders and the continent of Europe -- a piece of treacherous ocean.
            If the French were not content to be ruled by an English king, in any prolonged ensuing conflict all the advantages of numbers, resources, and ease of supply lay on their side. What caused English hegemony over France to fall apart so quickly reveals another flaw in the "throne" system: Henry's son, who 'succeeded' to the throne on his father's death, was never cut out to rule anything. Pious, humble, and unworldly, he had no interest or ability in governance. His incapacity created a power vacuum, and various English barons and ambitious 'operatives' rushed to fill it.
            An even deeper problem in hereditary succession was uncovered when the most powerful (and power-hungry) nobles fell to quarreling over who should take over the reins of power as their country's hold over France collapsed and their 'king' proved incompetent. Henry VI's direct descent went back to Henry IV, who deposed a ruling king (Richard II) for incompetence, favoritism, and various other pretexts... and mostly because he played "the game of thrones" better than the vainglorious Richard.
            However, if Henry IV's 'pretext' for legitimate accession to power is exposed as a fig leaf for a power grab, then some other high-born noble possessed a better, more legitimate claim to the throne -- all of these calculations were based on the 'divine right' belief that God somehow was delivering the baby he wanted to be king to the right family.
            This was exactly the position taken by the Duke of York: I should be king; I should have been king all along. If I were king, God wouldn't be punishing us.
            But he was not the only contender to play the play the game. The current dynastic head of the House of Lancaster threw his hat in the ring as well. York took the white rose as its heraldic symbol; Lancaster the red. Hence the War of the Roses. Churchill describes the conflict this way: "We are in the presence of the most ferocious and implacable quarrel of which there is factual record. The individual actors were bred by generations of privilege and war, into which the feudal theme had brought its peculiar sense of honor... The ups and downs of fortune were numerous and startling, the family feuds so complicated, the impact of national feeling in moments of crisis so difficult to measure."
            Only Shakespeare, Churchill remarks, attempted to tell the story, though Shakespeare "telescopes" events for dramatic purposes. In his own book Churchill determines to spell the whole bloody thing out in detail.
            While I admire and respect the statesman-historian's grasp of the ins and outs and the who's who among a large cast of players, I look to history more for meaning than for a full recital of facts. What makes a story "heroic," as Greek tragedy taught the world millennia ago, is the 'greatness' of the protagonist, even though he or she dies in the end.
            It's easy to see why the English public preferred the dramatic concision of Shakespeare's history plays to the full recital. As the recently televised version of the three parts of "Henry VI," covering the origin and core period of the dynastic wars, demonstrated, the plays still make for riveting theater. But the meaning and value for the English of the whole sequence of Shakespeare's history plays, culminating in "Richard III" when the civil strife ends with a new dynasty (the Tudors) in control, is "Thank God this is all behind us now. Now we have a steady hand governing the nation in the person of Queen Elizabeth. Whew! Glad those bad days are over!"
            Of course they're not; they never are.
            In Shakespeare's own times, audiences were well aware that Catholics murdered Protestants in Paris, Catholic priests were hunted and burned at the stake in England, and the Emperor of Spain (the current top guy in Europe, though no Henry V) first tried unsuccessfully to marry Elizabeth and then prepared to conquer her country by launching the Spanish Armada.
            And in our own day, entertainments such as "Game of Thrones" and "House of Cards" grab audiences because people know deep down that the desire for power is still what rules us. And both the conduct of our government and our private sectors daily inform us of what people will do for power. Basically, anything. We watch these stories about power "games" because they show much that is true about our own societies. About us.
             These reflections leave me with the question of how do we get to the place -- to the way of life -- in which the mass of human beings no longer need to be ruled by those with an outsized appetite for power. When we're not simply hoping for 'stable,' 'sensible,' 'realistic' governance of our society; while fearing -- with good reason -- that the current pretender to throne is not the guy or gal to give it to us?
            To put it another way: When do human beings get to the place where we can to govern ourselves and live in charity with our neighbors without rulers, rules, and wielders of power?
            One name for this place is anarchy. A word that literally means "without rulers."