Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: 2017, An Outlier Autumn

The photos to the left were taken in November of 2016, just a year ago, on our property in a residential neighborhood in Quincy. They're typical of other autumns -- not only here, but everywhere in New England. 
Orange, yellow, red -- the colors of the autumn leaves. New England's claim to fame. It's New England brand name autumn foliage. 
Where is it -- was it? -- this year. 
We went to the Berkshires in October. The color was muted. We went back two weeks later. Some trees were bare; some were partially turned. Even then the color was spotty, hit and miss, muted even when present. The trees did not act in concert this year.
The trees were confused. 
Always we turn to the weather for explanations. The weather was too wet, or not wet enough. Last year, the year these photos were taken, the summer weather was so dry it reached  severe drought in most places. But still the Japanese maple, at left, turned red.
The maple tree below it, a native variety planted along the street in front of our house by the city, turned orange. 
The fourth photo down, our Japanese weeping cherry turned yellow, though as memory has it, some years the color was more pale yellow and uniformly sublime. 
This year spring rain removed the region from drought status and the rain continued in early summer. But from mid-summer on, the rain failed. Perhaps the trees are still suffering from a long period of insufficient water.
I could not help noticing that among the 'street trees' in our city neighborhood leaves began drying up early, in late August and September. They didn't turn colors, they simply dried up, turned brown at the edges and fell into the gutters. These trees had few leaves left to change colors in the true fall of the year
The explanation for this year's poor foliage season that I have heard mentions the absence of a proper 'signal' to the trees to stop sending chlorophyll to their leaves -- the signal is a couple of cold, below-freezing nights. When the chlorophyll pipeline is turned off, other chemicals present in leaves (such as carotin) dominate the color of the leaves as they dry out and fall off their branches. 
I think the cold temperatures came with unusual abruptness in November. Now the season felt too late for the staged withdrawal of 'food' from the leaves. No elegant turning. Simply dry up and fall. 
I don't have photos similar to these from the autumn of 2017. I didn't photograph the trees in their majestic autumn tints, because those colors weren't there. 
I am really hoping that this is truly an outlier year for a set of conditions that robbed the trees (and us autumn-lovers) of their customary treat for the eyes. 
And not a trend. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Garden of Art: Painter Frederic Church Built His House Above the Scenery That Build His Reputation

The Hudson River School of American painters owed their name, and much of their popularity, to a pioneering artist who moved to Catskill, NY in the 1820s and began sketching the landscape. A figure of the Romantic movement that included the great composers of Beethoven's era and the English poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley, Thomas Cole turned the Catskills into some combination of the unexplored Rockies and the landscape of myth, offering dramatic sweeps of wild scenery in which the works of nature loomed very large and human figures very small. 
             The works of Cole and a few others formed the first American school of painting that owed less to European models than to the New World -- emphasizing the size, the remoteness and wildness of a country still largely unexplored and likely to create a national character different from Europe.
             Following in Cole's footsteps the second generation of the Hudson River School took the romantic landscape approach to paintings executed all over the world. Among these artists was Connecticut-born Frederic Church. His big paintings of big subject proved popular and profitable. Influenced by the great naturalist and explorer Humboldt, along with the old masters of Europe and the new American Hudson River landscape painters, Church traveled to both the Old World and South America to portray subjects such as volcanoes in the Andes and rain forests. He uses rainbows and sunsets to add emotional color to realistic settings.  

           Aware of the public's appetite for views of earthly wonders, he put paintings of subjects such as Niagara and icebergs on tour for the genera public, who (in the pre-film era) paid money to step inside a hall and look at them. 
             Though he moved on from New England and the Hudson Valley to painting the Andes, Church built his own home amid the spawning grounds of the Hudson River School, building a highly idiosyncratic mansion, called Olana, in the town of Hudson, NY. As the tour guide explained on our visit last weekend, after traveling widely, Church based most of the house's design on his appreciation for Persian art. The Persian arch features prominently. 
            Equally impressive as the house itself is the place where he put it. As you can see in the photos the structure is sited up on a summit, with an unobstructed view of the long slope down to the Hudson River. The river divides here around a large island. While the lower Hudson was a major transportation route in the early 19th century, today the river is beautiful but largely untrafficked. From the summit you can also see the iron bridge that carries vehicular traffic across the river in two stages; first to the island and then to the other side. People come here just to walk the grounds and take in the view. 
            The mansion, Olana, houses the Churches' art collection, gathered over several continents. He has sculptural pieces from India, likely copies of ancient pieces. He has a room with its walls tightly packed with his "old masters'' collection, including many oils that have gone dark over time. He has table full of tightly woven Mexican hats. 
          Another suite of rooms embraces the Middle-Eastern motifs in design and furnishings that he saw in his travels. 
          Only a few of Church's own paintings are exhibited in the house; and those came back to him after being sold. The painter could afford to travel widely and build a house like this because in the first decades of his career his art was popular, sold well, and his reputation drew commissions. 
           Church worked closely with prominent architect Calvert Vaux on on the house's individualistic design. Here's how the Olana Historic Site website describes the architecture:  
Stylistically, the building is a villa with asymmetrical massing of towers and block masonry punctuated by fanciful windows and porches. The irregular silhouette of the exterior contrasts with the more regular rhythm of rooms arranged around a central hall. On the exterior, Middle Eastern motifs are carried out in colored brick, wood, slate, ceramic tile and especially stenciling. Together, the various motifs and themes create a unique artistic unity, one that is difficult to categorize.[http://www.olana.org/]

          After the family moved into the house (1872), Church continued to work on unfinished rooms and make improvements for the next 20 years.  
           A visiting to Olana is well worth the trouble. Between what's inside the house and what's outside it, there's plenty of beauty to look at.

Monday, November 20, 2017

November Poems. A curse, a praise song, harmony, belief, time's slow investments, and some happy-sad payoffs fall like autumn leaves at the turn of the year

November's Verse-Virtual, the online poetry journal, includes some very good poems on very tough subjects. 
           A stupendous poem by Dick Allen on a subject that continues to haunt American life in these politically disordered times, "A Curse" seeks to blast the names of our country's homegrown mass murderers into negative space. The message rips me open, but I love the word music in this poem's construction.  For instance, all those 'r' sounds, grr-grring, in the final stanza:

"For they are dung and spit and gelatin and scar,
The dribble soaked into a chewed cigar,
Old knots in dirty hair, crepuscular.
We want to hear their names no more."

            Joan Colby must truly know the ins and outs of every useful occupation employed to keep our everyday world running. It's enough to make the rest of us feel thoughtless and incurious. Her "Saint Roofer" pounds nails "to secure our lives."

"As the hailstones beat
A severe harmony retelling
All that we have missed."

I'm convinced. Thanks heaven for roofs that keep the winter out of our indoor lives and the people who keep them tight.
We hear the music of the city in "Saint Busker":

"Sad operetta of the unemployed
Strumming an old song for coins
Thrown carelessly in a bucket."
Anyone who's ever waited in a subway station appreciates the apt phrase "sad operetta."
Of the "Saint Roadbuilder," whose place of employment I pass with never a grateful thought for the blessing of passable roads, here is the poet's depiction: 

"Aloof in the cage working the levers
Of a juggernaut as we pray
For safe passage."

            Donna Hilbert's "What to Believe" melds Sunday, church, family, pop culture, childhood nostalgia, and darker moments into a kind of prayer, elegy and statement of self-assertion, part affirmation and part accusation.
"I did love Sunday mornings, but needed more than love.
I lacked the knack for easy pleasure," the poem confides. 
Be sure to read the rest.

          Tricia Knoll's poem teaches me a new word, "Rhytides" :

"My script is rhytides, wrinkles
that accrue with interest after slow investments."

It's the measurement of time in our skin. The indexing. Many of us will identify with the spirit of this poem.

           The sad, lovely music of Kate Sontag's "Black Knot Blues," a poem about the transformation of a tree into a walking stick is both poignant and entrancing:

"we croon, prune, spray in repetitions thick
as jam. But galled limbs, trunk split then sold,
our plum tree becomes a walking stick,"

It took me a while to recall that the term for a poem built of stanzas like these, with repeating third-line refrains, is villanelle -- even though Verse-Virtual made it a theme a while back. Whatever we call it, this is one of those true poems about time that poets have to keep writing because we can't wish it way it way, forget it, or do anything about it except to make something artful. Like a poem. This one is a beautiful lament for time's victim; but also a 'stick' that will help keep us on our feet.

See the rest of these poems, and more, in http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html
I continue to be happily amazed at how many marvelous poems Firestone and Verse-Virtual's contributors wrap up in a lovely package each month.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Garden of History: The Origin of Veterans Day and the End of War

            Veterans Day is celebrated on the date of the 1918 "armistice," the agreement that ended the First World War I on Nov. 11.
            After four years of a devastating modern mechanized gunnery and heavy armaments style of warfare unlike anything the world had seen before, none of the combatants had anything to celebrate. 
             What was World War I about? Nothing that justified destroying lives by the thousands; and nothing that was resolved by the enormity of four years of death and destruction. 
              A rising European power, Germany wanted its “day in the sun.” France wanted to regain territory lost to Germany in a previous war. Russia wanted absorb more of the declining Ottoman Empire into its own Czarist oppression. Turkey was talked into allying with Germany to protect that empire from Russian aggression. England, afraid of a threat from rising German power, a country that insisted on building a navy that would some day rival its own – our word for this today is “arms race” – allied with France to maintain what it saw as a favorable balance of power. Austria, another fading empire, allied with imperial Germany also to seek protection from Russia and that country's pan-Slavic agitation of orthodox Christian minorities within the Austro-Hungarian empire. Italy, nursing grievances against Austria, joined the England-France team.
            Significant segments of the population in the various warring parties believed that a war would get them what they wanted, at minimal cost – and quickly. Absolutely everybody was wrong.
            What war brings is a sharp reduction of population, particularly in the youthful demographic, loss of wealth and productive capacity, setbacks in social progress, and renewed cries for vengeance.  
             Among the costs of the world war that began in August of 1914, France lost 300,000 men killed in the first five months. Major battles continued to reckon the casualties in the hundreds of thousands. 
             European armies, eventually joined by American forces exactly 100 years ago, laid waste to one another along trench lines and fortresses until a weakened and worn Germany sued for peace and an armistice was declared on Nov. 11, 1918. Historian Alistair Horne writes in his book "La Belle France":

  When the celebrants of Armistice Day in Paris paused to consider the cost in the grey light of day, they counted 1.4 million Frenchmen killed in action, the largest proportion of any of the combatant nations; On top of that came the civilian dead and the victims of the flu epidemic that took 40 million lives across the globe... Thus it was hardly surprising that the post-Armistice Day cry across the breath of France was "Plus jamais ca! [Never again!]"

         That message, however, has been lost sight of again and again as nation states and their governments, even the so-called democratic ones, continue to use military force in a vain attempt to solve conflicts with other nation states. 

          What is the enduring meaning of Veterans Day, a day that was created to commemorate the ending of the "Great War"? Here it is in the words of Roger Ehrlich, a member of Veterans For Peace and "co-creator of the Swords To Ploughshares Memorial Belltower" in Raleigh, N.C.:

Ninety-nine years ago, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, bells tolled around the world, and people poured into public squares to celebrate the end of what was called The War to End All Wars. For many years, Armistice Day was observed as a day to remember the dead of WWI and rededicate ourselves to never letting it happen again.

Ehrlich said the Memorial Belltower in Raleigh provides a place to memorialize the loss of loved ones, fellow countrymen, and even to recognize the losses of wartime enemies: "Perhaps the most radical but most healing aspect of our Belltower is the inclusion of inscriptions memorializing the suffering of our ‘enemies’... This Armistice Day, let us – at long last – beat our swords into plowshares."

       The Veterans For Peace national organization took the opportunity of Veterans Day this year to urge Americans to sign the People’s Peace Treaty with North Korea. Here's what these veterans are saying:
       Alarmed by the threat of a nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea, Veterans For Peace and other concerned U.S. peace groups have come together to send an open message to Washington and Pyongyang that we are strongly opposed to any resumption of the horrific Korean War. What we want is a peace treaty to finally end the lingering Korean War!
        Inspired by the Vietnam-era People’s Peace Treaty, we have initiated a People’s Peace Treaty with North Korea, to raise awareness about the past U.S. policy toward North Korea, and to send a clear message that we, the people of the U.S., do not want another war with North Korea.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Garden of the Seasons: Transition Time in Marsh and Forest

 Autumn color is still all around us. This year the season is rolling through without a peak. The experts tell us October needs a couple of cold nights to trigger the chemical changes in trees that block chlorophyll from reaching the leaves, allowing those other chemicals in leaves to dominate, turning them yellow gold, orange, red, bronze, and the ruddy-maroon brown of late season oaks... until the leaves dry out and eventually fall. Without a clear signal from the cold weather -- bam! bam! Did you feel how cold it got last night? -- the trees are pretty much on a go it alone basis. They will 'turn' when they do, each in its own season. On our block our street-side maple turned bright orange weeks ago. It was the only tree on the street with strong color. Those orange leaves are on the ground now, quickly losing their death-mask of color. And we've already turned the clocks back, and you still can't really tell it's autumn yet from looking at the trees.
        November is often the month with the most autumn color around here, but this fall the turn will arrive later and pass slower than ever before. 
          Frankly, the high-end market for trees in the Boston area, the Arnold Arboretum, exhibits much the same pattern. The color was muted when we visited there, the city's premium showplace and wonderland for trees, last weekend. Two examples of interesting color are pictured here. The top photo is the larch. The species is rare among conifers in practicing the behavior of the other kind of trees -- the deciduous -- in losing its leaves each year. The larch, a member of the genus Larix of the pine family Pinaceae (having just looked this up to confirm my memory) has needles that turn orange (as seen in the top photo and the fifth one down) in autumn before falling.
         The second example, also exhibiting leaves of a wonderful yellowish shade, this one a kind of buttery tint, is the gingko (Ginkgo biloba, a family of one). A native of China, the tree's leaves exhibit a sculpted fan-like shape. Pale green all summer, they turn into golden scales in the fall (bottom two photos).   
          Autumn color also turns a golden, yellowish, brownish, copperish range of tints in the salt marsh along the shore where we live in Quincy, Massachusetts. I've included here a couple of shots of the spartina grass that colonizes all of the marshland except for the more permanent channels of salt water regularly replenished by the tides. If there's any even occasionally dry sandy soil in the marsh, the spartina grows there. This time of year it turns golden or golden-brown like a field of nourishing, delightful grain that will feed us all winter. Of course it isn't, but these color tones dazzle my eyes.
           And finally, discovered in the marsh a long-legged white wading bird, the Great Egret. Just because it's there. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Garden of Verse: My Poem on the "Symbiotic Community" of the Forest, after Reading "The Hidden Life of Trees"

 When is the wrong time to think about trees? I don't know, but this is clearly one of the right times. 
I wrote the poem below after reading The Hidden Life of Trees,by German forester and author Peter Wohlleben, which I'm being told is an international best-seller.
I was taken by his phrasing. Not only are trees social beings they are connected with other species such as fungi in a "symbiotic community" of the wild forest. They live life in "the slow lane," Wohlleben tells us. Very young trees, a kindergarten of saplings, are cared by "their mothers" who feed them nutrients through a fungal network. I wanted to get some of the poetic quality of the forester's vocabulary, or imagery, into this poem. Stimulated by the author's way of seeing the woodland as a social network and trees as planful elders looking out for their own best interests by looking out for those of all their 'neighbors,' I tried to imagine life as the trees -- the people of the forest -- experience it.

The 'Symbiotic Community' of the Forest

They know us from the roots
They talk about the weather,
exchanging chemical news
When their fungal fibers clasp hands in the morning
The sky is theirs, to do with as they wish
Appendages finger the air
and take hold of aerie elements
invisible to other eyes,
their thousands of greenie digits
flying in place through the winds of the world

Stalwart defenders of the right to grow
nerves probing deep in the hidden land of subsoil
amid glacial memories of the icemen
who walked the earth
the dominators, rulers of the shape of things
until we came along

Tendrils flipping through the library of time,
they know us from the taste of earth
the rain with its acid tinge
the smoke of the ubiquitous compounds
of the ceaseless back-and-forth
the dry rain of transport

They know us from the leaf,
the air, the color of the lights
the bent, frazzled music of our passing,
the foot-dragging alterations of our artificial suns,
our many, many star-chambers fixed on imitation trees
made of their dead,
shiny heads upon their stakes
their flesh flensed and wound about the quadrants of our dwellings,
great woody bandages defending the empty air inside

They know us by their buried nerves
streaming through arterial currents
the tidings of the under-earth
They know our flavor, and our angry moods
Our burning love to be somewhere else
Our burials, our hidden wastes
Our smokes, and floods of mineral leaks,
our fences and our wars
They know, and still they turn
their flesh-fed banners to the sky

Lots more poems in the November 2017 issue of Verse-Virtual. http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html