Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Gardens of "The Greene Countrie Town"



(I watched the solar ellipse last week from the plaza next to the Chestnut Hill Library. It was wonderful-there were people of all different ages and ethnic groups and colors, all looking up and oohing and ahhing as the process began. And when the moon was in front of the sun and the air felt immediately cooler, we were all amazed and simultaneously aware that in the scope of the universe we humans are rather insignificant and there is still so much to marvel at that is beyond human accomplishment. It is important for us to be able to know awe” as in the original meaning of the word-worthy of the divine.   

That, the weather this week, and the growths going on around us have reminded me of one of the joys of living in this city. So I am reprinting some of a post from 2018)  

   One of the many things I love about living in the city of Philadelphia is that many neighborhoods still hold to founder William Penn’s idea of a “greene countrie towne.” There are trees, gardens and green spaces in just about every part of the city. Even the downtown still holds to Penn’s idea with four of his five original plazas. Rittenhouse, Franklin, Washington and Logan Squares still exist as green spaces. And as the city expanded in all direction from its' start between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, it has, for the most part, kept to Penn’s idea. We have an extraordinary amount of green space and trees even in some densely populated areas. Spring and fall really bring those things to the fore, and there is a profusion of shapes, smells and bright colors to be seen and experienced. Philly is a wonderfully walkable city, and just about anywhere one walks in the city one can easily see all the different trees, plants, and gardens. This makes the city attractive and manageable; it seems “human.” And if I am open and aware of these things, they can rescue me from getting too caught up in “life” and missing the quiet power of a tree lined street or a park or a garden. They can get me out of myself and connect me to larger, important things.   

Philadelphians have always loved gardens, and there are tons of lovely gardens all over the city. Many of them are public gardens; the Philly area, in fact, has the highest concentration of public gardens in the United States. Some of them were private spaces that were open to the paying public for festive occasions and entertainment. In fact the idea of “outdoor concerts” in Philadelphia seems to go back to colonial times with the “Cherry Garden” and “Spring Garden” sites in what is now Center City. As the years have gone by many wealthy garden owners have also opened their private estate gardens to the public and/or donated them to the city. Philadelphians seem to have always associated gardens with fun and good times, and we have many public gardens for people to enjoy.  

   Philadelphia is also widely known as a city of neighborhood gardens, and weather such as we have had recently has been getting entire communities out and into the dirt. This brings neighborhoods together, and it also beautifies them. These gardens also do an important job in providing fresh and nutritious food in urban food deserts. Community gardens in sections of North Philly and Southwest Philly have been doing that for years, but there is some concern about the future of these gardens. The rapid growth of the city and the press for development seems to be threatening the existence of some of them. Fortunately, there are some forces working on behalf of the gardeners and the gardens. I am hopeful that they can be maintained and continue to play the important roles they are playing in their communities. They are an important part of the “Philadelphia story” and we need them. (http://planphilly.com/articles/2016/10/13/neighborhood-gardens-trust-targets-preservation-for-28-more-gardens)   

    This week will bring more great weather, and I hope you can all make some time to get out to walk, stroll, plant, or just look and admire. We are very fortunate to be in or around this “greene countrie towne”, and I hope you can take advantage of what it has to offer. It is one of the quiet joys of being a resident of this city.   

(If you are interested in Philadelphia gardens, the role of gardens in communities, or anything else about the social history of Philadelphia I recommend the website, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. It is a wonderful site about all the things that make Philadelphia Philadelphia, written by folks who know about and care about the city: http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/?s=gardens   

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Magic of Libraries



            Poetry and the Library  
(This is a partially updated piece from several years ago. Apologies for the length)  


    April is among my favorite months because April is National Poetry Month and also features National Library Worker’s Day and National Library Week. These three observances recognize several things that have been and are very important and wondrous to me; words, knowledge, curiosity, creativity, and helpfulness. These have all played a vital role in my life and in me becoming the person I am. I am grateful that these things have been a part of my life for quite a while.  

     I do not know exactly how I got into poetry. Yes, there were all the rhymes we used to say as kids and the poems we had to memorize in elementary school. But I think that reading “Childcraft’, the literary and educational set of books my mother got for us that went along with the World Book Encyclopedia, was where poetry really settled into me. “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes with its magical and evocative, “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas”, and its rhythmic and exciting, “The Highwayman came ridin’; the highway man came ridin’; up to the old inn door” just caught me. I remember lines from that poem today, over a half century later. That set of books also had memorable poems by Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that sometimes sent me to the dictionary to find out what some of the words meant, thus enlarging my vocabulary and furthering my sense of wonder at all the things words could mean and do. And I am still fascinated by the uses, subtleties, meanings and origins of words  

     I am also a child of the 60’s, and in the energy of the Civil Rights Movement I discovered the works of earlier Black poets such as Langston Hughes, Fenton Johnson, and Gwendolyn Brooks and new ones (at the time) such as Le Roi Jones, Lucille Clifton, and Ishmael Reed. Through that I saw how poems could touch on both the eternal and the metaphorical as well as the here and the  now. It was also a time of great cultural change in the whole of US society, and the anthology, The New American Poetry and friends of mine such as Steve A. and Dave F. introduced me to great modern wordsmiths such as William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, and, my all-time favorite poet, Kenneth Patchen. Popular songs by artists such as Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson and Simon and Garfunkel were full of similes and metaphors and allusions. Demonstrations of the power and versatility of poetic thinking were all around, and my love for poetry was fed and took off. Even now I browse books of poetry in bookstores, and I subscribe to the Poetry Foundation’s daily e-mail service. ( Poetry Foundation ) It is a life-long love story that will only end when I do.  

     Librarians helped with all of that and so much more. When I had read a poem that interested me, I could ask a librarian where I could find more works by that poet or by poets who wrote in the same way. And they would help. I had the same experience when I was researching a historical question, looking for something about music, following up some odd, weird idea, looking for how to copyright a song, or any of the thousands of things I asked librarians about over the years. Libraries and librarians have always been there for me, willing and able to help. Libraries themselves have been so many things to me; places to gain refuge from the outside world, a source to unlock new knowledge, a place to answer questions and feed my insatiable curiosity, or in the case of some of the turn of the 20th century ones, places to go to be amazed at the architecture. It still amazes me that we have public free libraries and have had them for such a long time  

   I used to do some classes on US law and life for foreign students and professionals. Some of them were from developing or recently independent countries, and the openness and ease of access of our libraries was one thing that always intrigued and amazed them. Public schools have them. Just about every neighborhood has them. Colleges and universities have them. And they are open to anyone at all. That was definitely not their experience, and they marveled at it.  

   I got my first library card to take home and hold onto when I was in second grade. I have had one ever since then; over half a century. When I was a kid, the 3 public libraries in West Philadelphia were places where I spent tons of time regularly. As I got older, the Main Branch at 19th and the Parkway became a haven. I could find books on things I was curious about and take them home with me-for free! I could listen to music I could not afford to buy repeatedly. For free! I could ask for help with a vexing research question or process and receive one on one help. For free! It is both wondrous and ordinary; we rarely think about how special it actually has been.  

    I was a high school and middle school teacher for almost 40 years, and I always had the good fortune to work with excellent librarians. I have long said to my students that if there is a heaven, I may not get in. But librarians are automatically guaranteed entrance. They go through all of that college training and professional development work, not for themselves, but just so they can help other people. Repeatedly. And for free. Wow. That is simply incredible.  

    Libraries are in tough financial and political times right now. School districts, cities, and towns have been cutting funding for them even as the needs for the many services they provide have been increasing. Politicians and special interest groups have been trying to censor, curtail, demote and reduce the public and school library to being not a tool for feeding curiosity and knowledge, but to being a pawn in cultural, ideological and political wars. This drains the library of its wealth and potential for the greater development of the whole society. This hurts us all in myriad ways.  

   I encourage people to donate whatever they can to their local public library and to publicly and strongly resist the calls for book bans and censorship. Libraries are an indispensable part of the intellectual infrastructure of this country, and they represent us at our best. Think about all of the students, perhaps even you, who learned to do research, finished a school project and/or had their curiosity sparked by a librarian or at a library. Think of all of the immigrants who have learned and are learning about being in this country through library programs over the decades. Think of all the working parents for whom libraries provide free after-school programs and a safe place for kids to spend time after school. April is a great time to remember what libraries and librarians do for all of us and focus on what we can do for them. National Library Week, April 7-13, and National Library Worker’s Day, April 9, offer us a chance to reflect on the vital role these workers and these institutions play. As the historian Barbara Tuckman said, “Nothing saddens me more than the closed and locked door of a library.”  That is so true. Help libraries. In so doing, you help the country.  


(To see a great film about what libraries do on any given day go to  https://vimeo.com/95529067 


(Some people may feel that online developments make some of these things in the film "irrelevant" but I think that the personal, in-person contact shown is also super important, and in some ways, irreplaceable.) 

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Sky Joy



Highway of Combes le ville-Giovanni Boldinni


"The sky is the daily bread of the eyes.”  
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I've never seen a moon in the sky that, if it didn't take my breath away, at least misplaced it for a moment.
-- Colin Farrell 

      The weather for much of last week reminded us that spring is on its way. So too have the gardens in the neighborhood; the crocuses, snowdrops and redbuds have all started making their appearance. The morning sounds now included the sounds of robins, cardinals and other avian life. And Sunday is Daylight Saving Time. Spring is on the way. To that end I am re-running a piece I published last year about the sky and looking up. 

      I love this painting. I LOVE this painting. It is perhaps the most important painting I have ever seen in my life. I first saw it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art when I was in junior high school, and a few of us one afternoon, for some unremembered reason, decided to go the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I came upon the Boldini in the first-floor gallery of European Art on a wall on the left of the gallery, and it literally stopped me. I was caught and amazed. I looked at it, moving closer to take in the all the beautifully crafted colors, the subtly changing shades of green and brown marking the highway, the scale of the carriage and the people, and the placement of the trees along the road. Then I noticed the sky in this painting -- the varying shades of blue that seem to infuse the scene with magic, the way the background sky seemed to just arise and appear to slowly dominate the scene, and the marvelous clouds that seem to be quietly, majestically, and steadily in motion. The scene felt alive; real, and I was hooked. Every time after that, whenever I went to the museum, I had to see that painting. In my high school years, in my early 20’s, for some fifteen or so years I visited this painting as often as I could. It changed location during those fifteen years, but I had to see it and I tracked it down. When they took it off view for some 15 years, I was saddened. And when I saw it back on view in the 1990’s, I was astonished and joyous, and I literally burst out crying when I first saw it again. This is probably the single most important painting I have seen in my life. For this is the painting that has made me forever look up and marvel at the sky.

      I was an urban kid and did not have too much experience being outside the city. Some summers we stayed for a while with relatives in Coatesville when I was a kid, but I really didn’t notice the sky then. I liked the trails we walked, the dirt roads, and the sounds of the freight train going to and from Lukens Steel. But I paid little attention to the sky. But in my high school years I had more outside experiences, and they happened after I had seen that painting. So, I was much more aware of the sun, the clouds, the moon and the wondrousness of sky. I went to the Folk Festival and to Be-Ins and was listening to music outside in the day and in the night. And I would look up and pay attention to the sky. I started going camping and bird watching and had the joy of looking at the sky away from the glare of city lights. Looking up became something of vital importance to me. 

      Fortunately, when I married my late wife, Penny, she was a camper and birder, and she loved the sky as well. In fact, we had a 15-day tent-camping honeymoon in Maine and Nova Scotia and saw a couple of sunrises from Cadillac Mountain. And through our 40 year-long relationship we had many incredible experiences with the wonders of the sky. Seeing several eclipses over a lake at Montezuma State Park in upstate New York. Watching full moons in West Virginia, Canada and upstate Pennsylvania. Seeing dozens of meteor showers away from city lights and marveling at the sheer number of stars and meteors. Waking with the sun numerous mornings in our campsites and watching many magical and colorful sunrises. And I will never forget the experience we had one night at one of her cousins’ house in Arizona: laying on sleeping bags for a couple of hours outside on the deck, watching a moose walk by the house, and looking up into the clear night sky at the Perseid meteor shower as a wolf howled. Watching the sky has become an integral part of how I take in the world, and it still brings me pleasure and joy.

      I am thinking of that now because I am again doing more early morning walking. If I leave the house around 5:30-6:00 AM I am catching the last of the winter night sky's darkness and watching the day coming into being at the same time. If I look south and east, I often see the orangish, yellowish, reddish streaks that are beautifully announcing the day. And if I look to the north and the west, I can still see the moon sitting shyly above the roofs. It is just hovering there, watching over us for just a little longer. No matter the mood I am in upon awakening, seeing day and night simultaneously improves it, if only for a while. It is a quiet cup of amazement that I can sip from as I start my day. It is glorious.

  As we get ready for spring to arrive, I realize yet again that I owe my awareness and appreciation of all of the simple beauty of the sky to Boldini and that magical highway somewhere in France. Encountering his work was the start of a lifetime of “skyjoy.” I think I will visit the Art Museum again in the next week and spend some more time standing and looking in Gallery 155 on the first floor. I have to once again say, “Thanks,” to a painting.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

If You Ever Plan to Motor West....



DUKES FANS:         

“Get your kicks, on Route 66”... Bobby Troup  

   I have always been fascinated by travel and things beyond my immediate surroundings. Growing up I read encyclopedias and focused on history, other times, and other places. Mom subscribed to Life magazine and Reader’s Digest, and they also fed my curiosity about different places. And there was, of course, National Geographic Magazine, which brought the whole world to my door. I still have vivid memories of photographs from that magazine. I have yet to get to Greece, but I really want to all because of a stunning photograph of a sheer white cliff I saw in the Geographic when I was about 12. That picture has stayed with me for over 5 decades  

   In the 1960’s there were a number of TV shows that featured travel and being on the road: The Fugitive, Run For Your Life, and Route 66. I watched them and loved Route 66 especially, because I loved that song. When I was starting to play in bands in the 1970’s almost every band had a version of Route 66. It was not a question; you did that song! 

   Last week I was doing the “post-dinner, what’s on WHYY?” thing I sometimes do, and I stumbled on a show about traveling Route 66 with TV travel reporter Samantha Brown. The wonderful thing about this show was that it focused on Route 66 from its start in Illinois. I had not thought of that: the, “It winds from St Louis to Joplin, Missouri” part and places beyond that in the song had always captured my attention. So it was good to see what the route had been for many small towns and villages in Illinois and how so many them are trying to hold on to some of the places and things that made the route special even as the rise of interstates lessened the importance of the road.  

    Samantha meets and talks with people, and that is the joy of this episode for me. We meet John White, diner owner and author of a guidebook to Route 66; the warden of Joliet prison at the time of the filming of The Blues Brothers; the owner of a museum dedicated to Pontiac automobiles; people in a town called Normal, IL, the director of the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library, and much more. I was a joyous and celebratory show, and I was so glad I stumbled upon it. I will check out more of her shows over the next few weeks.  

   One of the things I have loved about my life is that while I have never been off the North American continent, I have had hundreds of experiences and met thousands of people in different towns, states, provinces, and cities. Samantha’s show reminded me of the joys of that process and how, if we are open to the possibility of surprise, we never stop learning and growing. I wish each of you safe and happy travels.  
Route 66 Through Illinois: https://samantha-brown.com/episodes/season-7/route66-illinois/   

Samantha Brown Site; https://samantha-brown.com/