Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Magic of Gardens

“Garden as though You will live Forever”
                                      William Kent
“The garden suggests there might be a place where humans can meet nature halfway”
                                    Michael Pollan
     It is mid-July now, and a big part of me does not like the heat, the humidity, the stickiness, and the need to often take more than one shower a day that this means. But for all of my discomfort in this weather, this is also one of my favorite times of the year. For this is the time when we can get a real sense that we have a place in the universe, and we can come alive to and witness the joy of nature around us. For this is the time the gardens all around us fully came to life and joyously announce their presence.  They reward us with all of their amazing shapes, colors, scents, and  beauty that make us love the world all over again. It is a quietly magical time.
  One of the big joys of moving from Germantown to Mt Airy in 1990 was that this house had room for a back garden. My wife loved plants and flowers, and there were pots and window boxes in our Germantown home. But Penny wanted a place where we could have a real garden, with bushes, a variety of flowers, trees, a path, and more. So our back yard in Mt Airy quickly became her place to “play in the dirt.” She was a member of the Horticultural Society, and she got ideas from their flower shows, their magazine and their neighborhood garden projects. When we went on our camping trips and vacation travel, we would always go to an arboretum or a public garden. She would see things, get ideas, bring some of the ideas home to our garden to try them out, and our garden became a lively and wondrous place. We were birders as well, and we hung thistle, suet, and sunflower seed feeders to attract a wide variety of birds. House finches, purple finches, chickadees, nuthatches, hairy and downy woodpeckers, cardinals, starlings, robins, catbirds, titmice, goldfinches and more eventually came to the yard, drawn by the colors and variety of the planting. Sitting in the yard, especially on a summer night around duck and eating BBQ became a magical ritual. Penny called it, “The Show”, and over the years The Show provided countless hours of quiet joy, peace, and spectacle.
    Penny kept trying new and different things in the garden, and it changed and expanded over time. Two of the biggest aides to that process came as a result of summer trips we took. In the late 1990’s we would go up to Wellesley island State Park, a park and camping area in upstate New York that is in the St Laurence River on the Canadian border. The park’s nature center was wonderful; they had a “Vouyager” canoe trip outing where one could follow some of the routes French fur trappers took through the area in the 17th and 18th century. I am not a great canoer, but as a history teacher this was perfect for me. I had been teaching about this part of North American history for years, and now I could follow in the footsteps of the was a great experience. But the real joy of the nature center for us was their large and gorgeous butterfly garden. It was the first one we had been in, and it just blew our minds. It was a huge outdoor garden covered with netting and filled with flowers of all different types of colors, sizes, shapes and scents. The place was filled with hundreds of butterflies of a variety of sizes and colors that were just floating all around us as we walked through the garden. They were flittering just in front of us, occasionally landing on us, and sunning themselves on the tree stumps in the place. It was otherworldly; like being in a living dream. Penny took note of the different type of plants in the garden and asked some of the staff about how to plant and care for them. And when we got back to Philly she put in a number of those plants:Joe Pye weed, bee balm, monarda, a butterfly bush, and more. By July of the next year we were attracting dozens of butterflies, including monarchs, streaks of various colors and sizes, Admirals, swallowtails, and more. We also went to a workshop at Cape May Bird Observatory outisde of Cale May, NJ for a workshop on how to plant a garden to attract more insect pollinators including bees, beetles, moths and certain flies. Again, new plants were added and our garden became a place for more and more avian creatures. The Show was blossoming and expanding. And when we started putting out sugar nectar feeders on May 1st,  hummingbirds started to arrive by the middle of June. Just about everyone in our section of West Mount Airy gardens, so all the birds and insects could travel from house to house and garden to garden in the neighborhood,delighting the whole area. It was like having a neighborhood nature center.
      I am not nearly the gardener Penny was, but I am trying my best, with the help of a neighbor or two, to keep “The Show” intact. The garden had been cut back during Penny’s sickness last year as she could not keep up with the amount of work keeping up a gardens takes.  She was simply too weak. This year I have done some planting, trimming, watering and weeding, and it seems to be working. The variety of birds and butterflies and bees are back, and “The Show’” continues to dazzle and delight. The hummingbirds have not returned this year, though, and that saddens me. The last two winters have been hard on our two butterfly bushes; they are not blooming and are looking the worse for wear. I know they are big attractors for hummers, and I may have to remove and replace them. I have tried different nectar and sugar water formulas in the hummingbird feeders, and I even bought some commercial nectar. Nothing has worked so far.
      Still, that garden is a very special and magical place. Most mid-summer nights I am fortunate to be able to spend some time out there experiencing some of what it offers. It was hard for me at this time last year to sit out there and watch the show without Penny. It just seemed too empty and too solemn. It is easier this year, though, and I am glad for that. I can sit out in the back, look at the feeders, and sometimes feel her presence and hear her voice. Or I can just sit in a quiet, watchful silence; we could sit out there quietly and bask in the specialness of that type of place that can bring humans and nature together in such primal and sustaining ways. Thanks, Penny, for bringing The Show to our house and continually adding to it, expanding it, nurturing it and caring for it. I am so grateful for its presence in my life and to have had the opportunity to have known it with you. And thank you, gardeners everywhere, for doing your part to make us more aware of the world around us and enabling us to have a chance to meet nature halfway. That is a treasure, indeed.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Happy 200th Walt Whitman!


“And your very flesh shall be a great poem.” 

“A child said to me, “What is the grass?” How shall I answer

“I am large. I contain multitudes”

“Not I nor anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it by yourself. It is not far, It is within reach”

                                                From Walt Whitman’s, Leaves of Grass

  As a kid I loved reading, and I loved reading all sorts of things. My mother used to ban having cereal boxes on the kitchen table during breakfasts because I would be reading the boxes and not paying attention to the other member of the family gathered at the table. But Mom loved that I loved reading, and she supported it. We had encyclopedias Mom provided, and she would regularly asked me what I had read in them that day and to read things to her from them. We also had a young person’s mini encyclopedia called. Childcraft that included volumes on science, geography, folklore, literature and more.. I devoured them, particularly the literature volumes. They were my entry into the worlds of mythology, fiction, drama and poetry. Their influence has stayed with me my entire life.

  I think of that now because this year the nation is celebrating the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman, a man many consider to be to father of a truly American poetry.  Whitman wasn’t in my Childcraft books, as I recall, but those books made me ready for him. I had memorized several poems in the Childcraft volumes, especially Henry Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride and Hiawatha, and Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman. I loved the rhyme patterns and the descriptive language in these poems; “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas” from The Highwayman is still one of my favorite lines of poetry. These opened me up to the power and magic of words and some of the ways they could be used. So when, in my high school years, I was encountering new friends in Rittenhouse Square and the coffeehouses to which my music was taking me, I was also ready to encounter new approaches to poetry. I heard and read the Beats, including Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Le Roi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Denise Levertov, and William Carlos Williams. I also encountered historically, spiritually, and politically centered poets and modern and surreal poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Olson, Ishmael Reed, Kenneth Patchen, Diane di Prima, Audre Lorde, and tons more. The same Philadelphia Free Libraries that fed my insatiable curiosity for music at thi time also fed my appetite for poetry and poets. And as I read more about my favorite poets and their influences, most of them made regular and strong references to the importance of Walt Whitman and especially Leaves of Grass.

   In reading, studying about, and loving the works of all the aforementioned poets, I came over time to better understand Whitman and what he did for and gave to American thought and verse. The directness those poets feature owe a lot to his unflinching looking at himself, the places and people around him and what they not only were, but also what they could mean and be. Whitman was among the first poets to intentionally write in free, unrhymed verse, and I came[JC1]  to see that not rhyming or having a repeated rhythmic pattern in a poem could allow a writer to do and say things in ways that were more emotional, direct, and meaningful. He also delighted in the specialness of the commonplace and the ordinary. He made it clear that if we open a bit and expand our vision and our awareness, simple things, such as a leaf of grass, could “be links to much bigger and larger concepts…could, “contain multitudes.”  He also saw, named and gave space for the role so many emotional and sensual things have in our lives and being, no matter how we might want to downplay, disguise or ignore them. He saw that looking at ourselves and our world straight on and honestly could have immense value. And he wrote in a way that forced us, sometimes lovingly and sometimes intensely, to do just that. Honestly. Directly. Unflinchingly.

  I have read Leaves of Grass several times, and I will read it again this year. It is one of those works that caught me at the same time it mystified and infuriated me. It is a powerful work: one that always intrigues, arouses, confuses, angers, and calls to me. Yes, it took me some time and re-reading to get comfortable with the self-awareness, analysis, and prodding he was doing both with himself and calling on us, his readers, to do in our own lives. But each time I read it, in my twenties, thirties, forties and fifties, it rewarded me in ways I did not expect and could not have imagined at the time.  I expect it will do so again. Happy 200th birthday, Walt. Thank you for giving me the gift of you looking at yourself as one of the guides helping me to look at myself and my world. My enduring thanks to thee, and to your many and continuous offspring.