Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Mid-Summer in the Mid-Atlantic

     I love living in the Mid-Atlantic region area in late July and early August. Yes, mid-summer can be and has been a time of hot and humid weather. That is not always comfortable for me; humidity, especially is not my thing. But it is also a time when so much of what got started by nature, home gardeners, and the region’s farmers a few months ago bursts forth in all its splendor and glory. Walking around Mt Airy, Germantown, and Chestnut Hill these days I notice that a wondrous variety of scents now fill the air. Front yards are awash in color as flowers have come fully alive, displaying their leaves and blooms in a dazzling array of shapes, sizes and tones. Window boxes and flower pots are likewise alive, sitting proudly and showing their stuff. And bees, butterflies, and other insects are buzzing, hopping and zooming about, doing their pollinator thing and flashing their colors as they zip about. Fireflies are dancing in the early evenings, adding mystery and wonder. Mornings and evenings are filled with the sights and sounds of dozens of different birds ranging from little tiny hummingbirds and wrens all the way up to majestic owls and soaring hawks. Grocery stores, produce markets and farmers markets are humming with people getting blue and blackberries, strawberries, peaches, cucumbers, fresh corn on the cob, and more. (I love summer fruits, and the peaches the last several years have been especially juicy and sweet.) This is a good time to be out and about, slowing down, and drinking in all the ways this time of the year entices all of our senses. It is quietly spectacular.

   I am fortunate to live in a place with enough land for plantings, both in back and alongside the house. I am also especially fortunate to live in that place with a wonderful gardener. There is a lot of work to be done in a garden, and she spends a great amount of time planting, weeding, deadheading, weeding again, pruning, composting, and trimming. And this is the time of the year when so much of that hard work is wonderfully rewarded. When we walk on one side of the house the sweet and luscious scents of fennel and daytora plants fill the air. A variety of colors also liven up that view of the property. We are also birders, so there are plants and feeders in the back garden to attract birds and butterflies. When we eat breakfast or dinner in the garden we regularly see a variety of white and yellow streak butterflies, Eastern Swallowtails, and the occasional Monarch. We also have sugar water feeders, suet feeders and sunflower seed feeders out, and we have water. So as we sit outside we are able to enjoy what we call, “The Show.” Sparrows, house finches, goldfinches, 2 types of woodpeckers, catbirds, chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals, robins, house wrens, mourning doves, hummingbirds, nuthatches and the occasional hawk all keep us amused, entertained and in wonder. We have also started harvesting and enjoying some of the fruits of the garden. We are eating some of the cilantro, cherry tomatoes, and rosemary that is growing in the back garden. Some of the plants have been cut and are in  vases in the kitchen and dining room, adding scents and color to those places. And reading, eating, and doing work on the computer outside is definitely a wonderful way of spending time.

  So I am enjoying yet another turn of the cycle. Another progression through the year and looking how humans, nature and the cycle itself do their thing, interact, and present me with so much joy, pleasure and wonder. It is small stuff; noting the birds, tasting the food, appreciating the colors, smelling the scents, and so on. It is not earth-shattering stuff at all. But as a wise cab driver once said to me some 20 years ago when I was taking a cab home from the Art Museum, “The secret to having a good life is to notice, appreciate, treasure and be grateful for the small things. Because most of life is small things; you aren’t rushing into a burning building every day and saving a baby. Most of any day is small stuff, and if you can learn to notice and enjoy that, then that means most of your days have been good ones.” He was right-the small stuff matters so much. I hope you get a chance to slow down, get our savor and enjoy. It is a glorious time to be alive.
(Here are some photos of the Colgan-Davis gardens: Colgan-Davis Garden)

John will be making a guest appearance at the  Rose Tree Park Summer Concert Series in Media, PA with Roger Girke and the Blues Social Club, an all-atar group featuring Bert Harris from Philly Gumbo on bass, Andy Haley , who has played with Eric Steckel, on drums, John on harp, and Delaware’s blues icon Roger Girke on guitar and vocals. Started some 42 years ago, this concert series is a great treat in the tri-state area, and I am happy to be a performer this year. The show begins at 7:30 PM. Bring the family, blankets, chairs and food (no alcohol) and come on out and enjoy one of the Delaware Valley’s gems. More information can be found at: Summer Festival - Delaware County


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Goin' to New York


I’m Goin’ To New York (apologies to Jimmy Reed)

  When I had graduated high school way back in the dark ages (1968) I considered moving out of Philly. I had some friends who went to college in interesting cities, so I spent a month in Boston and a month in New York City trying to figure out in which city I should take up residence. In the end, though, I decided not to move to either one. Boston had a great folk music scene at the time, but it seemed too insular and was too racist. New York also had a great music scene, but it was getting expensive and it had too many scenes of all types going on loudly and constantly. I truly felt that if I stayed in Manhattan I would either go crazy with over stimulation or just be worn out. So I came back to Philly, and I am glad I did. One of the things I love about Philly is that you can put your own scene together here, and it is easy to navigate between scenes. It is even possible to take a vacation from a scene or scenes on occasion, and I do that some times as well. But I still absolutely love visiting New York City-Manhattan to be precise. I am one of those stereotypical, “Couldn’t live there, but love visiting” folks you hear so much about. Six or seven times a year I take off for the Apple, usually for a day trip and occasionally for a weekend. I always have a grand time, and this past weekend was no exception. My wife and I spent a joyous Manhattan weekend of wonderful things to do and see, great food, good weather, and great places to walk. I love that town!

    We went up for a Saturday morning Friends of the High Line members tour of the High Line, that wonderful “railroad park in the sky’ that has brought so much wonder and joy to people from New York and around the world. I was introduced to the Line in 2012 by a Dukes fan familiar with my love of cities, and I have visited the High Line just about every time I have returned to New York. Like getting food from a street vendor in front of the Metropolitan Museum, it is one of the New York things that I simply must do when I am in Manhattan. Saturday was a chance to meet other members of the Friends of the High Line and to get some behind the scenes detail and history on a guided walk on the Line. Jeff, our guide, was enthusiastic and energetic, and the group was a nice mix of age, gender, and ethnicity. Jeff had great information on the history of the Line and on how and why certain plants worked in the park and others didn’t, do so well. He also pointed out some small details about specific parts of the line that I had not noticed before, and those were great surprises for me. Like me, Jeff, loves the way the High Line is an urban park-intentionally designed to  bring in the city and to be a part of all that its urban setting has to offer. Central Park, that other great New York park, was designed to help remove folks from the city-it came about when cities viewed parks as providing relief from the crowds, noise, smells and pollution of mid-19th century city life. And it does that job magnificently. The High Line, on the other hand, wants to let the city in; to more fully immerse a person into the city and all of its chaotic energy and beauty. The two are not polar opposites to me; I love both parks and both purposes. Each park does its job incredibly well, and together the two present me with a more complete picture of what being in a city can be. I get plenty of pleasure from both.

    The Line on Saturday was its usual wonderful self. Languages from all over the world were heard, people of all different ages were out and enjoying the day, and the plantings and design features of the line were beautifully present. The plants, trees and flowers were dazzling, the sculptures and wall paintings were breathtaking, and the views of the skyline and the rooftops of downtown NY were crystal clear. I was again amazed at the magnificent views the Line offers of the city. New York has a staggering amount of rooftop gardens, and the High Line allows one to see many of them. There are rooftop palm trees, vegetable gardens, colorful flowers, meadows and more. There are also the wonderful, challenging and, “What the hell is that!?” examples of New York City architecture all visible from the Line. There were also new additions and installations to the line since I had last visited three months ago. They keep changing and adding to the place so it is never boring or tiring. Saturday was simply a wondrous day to be on the Line; there were great views, great conversations and plenty of wonder to be had.

    Our weekend also featured good food and good walking. Our hotel was on the Upper West Side, so we had easy access to Harlem and Marcus Samuelson’s Red Rooster restaurant at 125th and Lenox Ave. My wife recently read his autobiography, made one of the recipes from his cookbook, and watched several TV shows about him. To say she was excited to visit one of  his restaurants is an understatement. We met my niece there for lunch on Friday. and it was just a fantastic experience. It was a delicious, full flavored meal in a setting with a great waitstaff, unique indoor and outdoor d├ęcor, and bathrooms filled with wonderful snapshots and postcards of everyday moments in African-American life. The whole place seemed to surround us with fun, joy and love. And because New York is New York, we also ate at a Peruvian-Chinese place on Friday night, Sullivan’s Bakery, one of my favorite coffee houses, Saturday afternoon, a great old-style French restaurant on Saturday night, and a Mexican coffeehouse/diner for brunch Sunday morning. Wow! I remember growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s when it was unusual for someone to eat across cultures. Going to New York always makes me appreciative of the Immigration Act of 1965. That Act dropped quotas on immigrants and allowed more folks into the US from many different cultures. That in turn has enabled us to widen our food experiences to foods from around the world. It has radically broadened the American palate, and no place makes that clearer than New York City.

   We followed each meal with nice long walks around the different neighborhoods we ate in-Harlem, Chelsea, the Upper West Side and South of Houston (SOHO). Each neighborhood has its little architectural gems -great brownstones with columns and incredible stone carvings in Harlem and on the West Side, some cute townhouses and multi-level structures in Chelsea and SOHO, and more. As in most cities “up” was the direction to look as we walked because columns, rooftops, upper story windows and cornices frequently displayed wonderfully detailed work by stonemasons. It was as if the designers were painters who had signed their work near the top of the canvas instead of the bottom. That quietly adds majesty and solidity to so many of the city’s older buildings.

    Overall, then, we thoroughly enjoyed some of the pleasures and unique features that make New York City what it is. Yes, there are real problems there, as there are in all cities and, in fact, as there are in many types of places in the US. And, yes, ugliness can arise. But I never want to lose site of the magic, innovation, sense of surprise, beauty and boundless energy that cities embody. For me cities are amazing creations that can produce some amazingly wonderful things and allow for experiences that one would be hard-pressed to have in any other type of location. It was a joy to drink in so much of what one of the world’s great cities had to offer over a glorious summer weekend. It was a gift that we totally enjoyed.

(Here are a couple of links to some of what we saw in NYC:

Friday, July 7, 2017

Walkin' By Myself

WALKIN’ BY MYSELF (thanks to Jimmie Rogers)

    As regular readers of these newsletters know, I love walking. I love walking on country roads, walking in the woods, walking in the downtowns of cities-I just love walking. These days I am enjoying walking in the morning around Chestnut Hill, Mt Airy and Germantown; walking and looking and noticing. And I notice a lot. I love discovering little alleyways that have hidden garages and hidden entrances to apartments and little hidden gardens. Chestnut Hill is especially fertile in this area, and it is always a joy to discover another hidden gem. I also love looking at doors and porches-the different ways people can design an entrance and make a border between private and public areas. What I most love, though, is the gardens I get to see and marvel at. The three neighborhoods I walk in most frequently are awash in wonderful plantings that are for the most part homeowner designed, produced and maintained. And because of that these gardens provide wonderful and surprising scenery and beauty along my favorite routes. They are my wonderful morning gifts that I get as I walk those neighborhoods.

   There are many directions to take when I go walking. Should I head south to Germantown there are long-east west streets with front yards that are narrow but deep. People trend to plant a variety of long stemmed plants in these plots: lavender, tulips, different lilies, and more. The gardens are a mix of bright colors, and they often lead right up to the porch or the house, brightly showing the way. The colors are a wonderful mix of oranges, shades of blues and yellow, and more. It is a veritable carnival of color, and I love the scenes those different color combinations often produce. Mt, Airy and Chestnut Hill also have a number of long north-south streets. Many of the gardens on those streets are planted in wonderful lateral jumbles with a patch of one bright or solid color here, and patches of other colors planted in different sections of the space. They also feature more grasses and shrubs. The plots  may be planted in straight lines along a border or along a driveway, but the plantings often exceed the space, almost as if they are fighting to get free. They seem to be threatening to burst well beyond a given plot’s dimensions, and they seem joyously and wondrously wild.  There are also bushes shrubs, pots and grasses that add a wonderful air of solidity to certain plots. There are no two plots that look even remotely the same. Each one offers its own unique take on color and shape and the use of space. Often the houses with porches have plants in pots on the porches, aesthetically placed  to draw attention to a rocking chair or provide an accent for a porch swing. One of my favorite such porches on West Rittenhouse Street also seems to always have a cat out sitting near the chairs as if posing for a greeting card picture. That always makes me smile.

   In terms of types of plants, lilies, tulips lavender and roses seem to be the popular plantings this year in the Northwestern section of the city. I am constantly surprised at the number of varieties of lily there are, at the different ways lavender looks depending on the shape and color of what it is placed next to, and how “proud and mighty” tulips can look. Noticing all of this makes my walk refreshing and joyous and gives my day a great start.

   So I truly love my morning walks. They settle me, energize me, and get my day off to a great start. Now that the humidity has broken I can go out for longer walks and I can spend even more time marveling at all  the different ways people answer the perpetual question, “What shall I do with this plot of earth?”  There are so many ways that question gets answered, and I am enjoying the sweep and beauty of all of those answers.  Happy Walking!
(Here are some photos of some of the gardens I pass)