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Cornell Plantations in the Rain

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Last week, I traveled to Ithaca, which is a solid nine hours from southeast Ohio. I haven't been home very much lately; seems like I'm always loading the car for the next thing. My last two trips were so close together I just kept the car loaded. Writing now from a hotel room in Columbus. Missing my bed and my boys and the time just to be with a hot cup of tea.

I had two talks to give, one on Monday night at the Lab of Ornithology, hosted by the Cayuga Bird Club. The auditorium, one end of which is wood paneled and decorated with oil paintings by Louis Fuertes, one of my favorite-ever bird painters, was full. So was my heart. I'd made the trip up two years ago, only to have Superstorm Sandy cut the turnout to about 15. This made up for that! I'm pretty sure the talk I gave was unlike any other given at the lab--a personal view of how birds inform and inhabit my spirituality. 

On Wednesday, I was to present "Personal Habitat" for the Elizabeth E. Rowley Lecture at Cornell Plantations. 
Part of my speaker's welcome was a tour of the Plantations gardens by Betty Rowley herself! 

The heavens opened on us as our tour began, but Betty was slickered and umbrellaed. I was wearing a brand new, untested Eddie Bauer ultralight windbreaker/slicker. Best to find out how it would perform in actual field conditions. 

These white pines were planted in 1912, the year my DOD was born. I couldn't believe a hurricane hadn't brought them down, and just as I was thinking that Betty said that these are all that remain of a much larger plantation, hurricanes having brought the rest down. 

Part of the fun of an arboretum or plantation is seeing plants and trees from all over the world. These are Japanese katsura trees, with their small round leaves like gold coins. 

I think I was most impressed with the "Bioswale," a water-purifying streambed designed and planted to take water runoff from the parking lot and sidewalks, purify it with roots and gravel, and send it into a nearby stream which feeds into Cayuga Lake. 

The young sugar maples were at peak color, and they just took my breath away with the golden katsura trees, asters and grasses interplanted.

I love the notion of putting plants' root systems to work in purifying runoff water. And they chose such gloriously colorful plants. I couldn't imagine the Bioswale being any more beautiful than it was at this moment, in this hard rain, and I was thankful to be there to behold these landscape architects' handiwork.

This plant is from Texas and it has "blue" in its name. How embarrassing. But I couldn't pull my little notebook out to write. It was raining too hard. 

I knew this one: castor bean. It was in a medicinal plant garden. Mmm. Love those leaves. Every placard had something about the plant's use or connection to literature. I could have strolled and read for hours.

A large and lovely catalpa tree dominated the decorative plant garden, which was adjacent to the herb/medicinal garden. 

A spectacular Viburnum in blazing fruit. 

It was obvious that a lot of thought had gone into creating a landscape that would change interest and color with the seasons. 

The Tropical garden still had banana trees out, but it was clear the landscape there would change radically with the first frost. These red coleus, for  instance, would liquefy...I was glad to see them before that happened. 

And still the rain came down. I spotted several Plantations employees, weeding and deadheading and cleaning the gardens even in the rain. With their hoods up, they looked like wraiths popping in and out of the vegetation. It reminded me that no garden stays this beautiful without constant maintenance.

I discovered rather quickly that my nice lightweight slicker had two seams in the armpits that admitted a steady trickle of cold water on either side. Said water ran down my flanks to my stomach, where it pooled above my belt and soaked me from armpit to waist. Meanwhile, the water was running off the hip-length slicker and onto my trousers, which were saturated by the end of the tour. I was every bit as soaked under my slicker as outside it. Altogether a highly unsatisfactory performance for outdoor gear. Which I bought at a factory outlet. The phrase "You get what you pay for" probably applies. To be fair, what tags were on it made no claims for water resistance. Not sure what it's good for--windbreaker? Who gets wind without rain?

This is going to sound a little strange, but one of the things I enjoyed most was the pavement beneath the trees in the parking lot. As the leaves fell, their tannins interacted with the concrete, creating dark


Under each katsura tree was a great dark print of hundreds of fallen leaves. The leaves had been raked away, but their round ganged imprints were still on the concrete.  I found it so beautiful, this unbidden art made by trees. I couldn't do it justice in photos. It was all the more beautiful because no one could have anticipated it would happen. Sonja, who took wonderful care of me throughout my stay, agreed. It was nice to find that others noticed and appreciated the tree art.

A drip on the chin of the Yarb Lady, much like the one hanging off mine. I spent the rest of the afternoon slowly drying out.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Building. Hmm. My friend Tim said it looked like it might rise up and stomp on cars. I agree. Kind of a lurky Transformer vibe to it.  Cornell's campus is a melting pot of architectural styles, that's for sure. Something like this arises, cheek to jowl with something like this.

Pretty sure this was a redtail, hangin' out on some ironwork high above Cayuga Lake.

I know for a fact this is a redtail nest stuffed in a light fixture, because Sonja told me it was featured on a Lab of O Webcam. The female's name is Big Red, the male is Ezra, if I remember correctly.

Oh look. It's starting to rain.

Hmm. Wonder how this slicker will do? I left my heavy-duty one home...

In the photo below, that's scaffolding on a cupola under repair, transforming it into a magic, temporary pagoda against the sky. A lovely sunset, just the Lord's way of saying sorry about the wet pants.

Gentian Church

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

One of the things, it turns out, that is almost impossible to do when one is constantly traveling is: 
Put up blogposts. 

I miss it. It's a meditative thing. I get to roll around in my photos and think about what I've experienced and try to put all that into words. 

But I can't do that when I'm rushing around preparing talks and publicizing said talks, matting prints to sell, packing the car and meeting people for lunch and dinner and trying to sell books and prints and notecards and keeping track of all that by myself. Talk about a one-man band. Yikes. It's amazing how much energy goes into making your living on the road. Which, I realize suddenly, is what I do now.  Just ask Liam and Bill and Chet. 

I'd been saving one special experience from my eastern Pennsylvania trip at the end of September. I was saving it for dessert, for myself, and for you. And then it fell off the radar screen altogether. 

So I'm sitting in a hotel room high above the Cornell campus right now and the view looks like this in the morning: 

and it also looks like this:

and I feel incredibly lucky to be seeing these things, to be treated like visiting royalty when all I'm doing is giving talks and showing people pictures of my little corner of Appalachia.

But  it's all going by much too fast. I don't even have time to reflect on it, to write the way I used to about every little thing I see. And I miss that, the down time I need to process all this beauty.  I woke up this morning meaning to go for a run but I couldn't tear myself away from the sunrise on Ithaca. I mean, holy smokes. How could you walk away from a view like that? So I took a little time just to watch it and take some photos and fool around with them until they looked as beautiful on the screen as they did to my eyes.

That's the thing--to try to share things so you feel a little bit of what I did when I experienced them. 
I'll try with this one. 

September mornings are magical almost anywhere, but September 20 in Kunkletown PA was killing me. 

I took off on a 4 mile loop and breathed in the meadows and the slowly changing trees, the expansive skies. 

I saw a closed gate with a No Trespassing sign on it. By the signage, it seemed to lead to a gravel pit, that for all I could tell was now defunct.  I examined the blacktop road. It was clear to me that it had had no truck traffic for some time. Weeds were growing up through the asphalt. I walked around the gate. Gravel pits can be interesting places.

I was drawn to the blooming goldenrod and New England asters that were thriving in a meadow. It looked to me like at some point the meadow had been a vacant lot, scraped, perhaps, and leveled for stacking timber from the surrounding forest, which had been heavily cut over. But the wildflowers were growing, thriving in rank profusion on what was once a waste place. I liked the way they looked against an unsettled morning cloudbank rolling over the Kittatinny Ridge. I knelt and got down low to put them as high against that blue ridge and sky as I could.

And then I noticed a royal-blue flower in the grass and goldenrod and aster tangle. And another, and another. 

I hadn't seen greater fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita)  for easily 27 years. I knew a place in Connecticut where I could find a couple of plants come September. That was it until now.

It was cool, early morning, and bumbles were asleep on the flowers, waiting for them to open and release their sweet nectar and pollen to the bees' care. You can see the fringed eyelashes on the petals.

For all I knew they'd fallen asleep in a nectar-drunk stupor the evening before and spent the night on the bar's front step.  I stood up and gazed around me after taking these photos. There was gentian everywhere I looked. 

photo by Diane Husic

And that's the way gentians are. They sneak up on you. Maybe you see one here, one there. And then one fine September morning when you least expect it you come on a meadow and decide to walk into that meadow, deer ticks be damned, and kneel down to take a photo of goldenrod against a dark sky, and damned if you don't find a gentian. Or a hundred of them. 


Did some unseen hand send me around that gate, into the meadow? Sometimes I wonder.

When the sun warms them the gentians' eyelash fringed petals open up, the caps on the bottles, and the bees hurry to fall into them, crawling all the way to the bottom.

And they have to back out.

This plant grows as an annual or biennial in wet alkaline soils. It's rare, nowhere common. To find it in such profusion, growing to such magnificent heights,  overwhelmed me. It literally brought me to my knees, as in worship. 

And why not? For the plants were approaching a yard tall, each one so magnificently arrayed in tiers of elegant violet-blue blooms that they looked like a floral arranger's work, a perfect bouquet in each plant. I couldn't take it all in alone. The next morning Diane and I came together to the service at Fringed Gentian Chapel.

We wandered, aimless as two clouds, amidst the impossibly rich splendor in the grass.

For they hide, not easily apparent until your eyes are ready to pick up that royal velvet purple deep in the meadow. And once you see it, and begin counting, and pass 60, 70, 80, 100's like drinking a whole bottle of wine, and then pouring another glass.

We began making Best Bouquet photos.
Here's a foursome of goldenrod, heath aster, New England aster, and fringed gentian.

This was a nice combo, too. Red sumac, heath aster, New England aster, and fringed gentian.

Might as well go all red white and blue while we're at it.

Each plant was so full of buds I could tell the show would go on for weeks.

What a sweet coda to the end of summer.

Diane and I spent Sunday morning in our makeshift church, praising satin blue creation. David was competing at a fiddle competition, but he'd come worship later that week.

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,

And colored with the heaven’s own blue,

That openest when the quiet light

Succeeds the keen and frosty night.
Thou comest not when violets lean

O’er wandering brooks and springs unseen,

Or columbines, in purple dressed,

Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest.
Thou waitest late and com’st alone,

When woods are bare and birds are flown,

And frosts and shortening days portend

The aged year is near his end.
Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye

Look through its fringes to the sky,

Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall

A flower from its cerulean wall.
I would that thus, when I shall see

The hour of death draw near to me,

Hope, blossoming within my heart,

May look to heaven as I depart.

"To The Fringed Gentian"  William Cullen Bryant 

Yes. That Massachusetts poet had knelt at the same altar perhaps 170 years earlier, marveled too that this splendid plant raises its cup as a toast to dying summer, just as the nights turn sharp.  This poem made me happy, made me feel that Diane and David and I are part of a continuum of appreciators of the best things, which are, after all, often hidden in thick meadows.

When I'd said my thank-yous to the best hosts ever and finally got in the car to head home, my clock read 11:11. Yes. This morning had definitely gone to eleven. No time could have been better spent.

I drove east all day, and as evening came on traffic ground to a halt. A truck was burning up on SR 50 in West Virginia. I sized up the situation, took a couple of photos of someone's savings going up in flames, and peeled off on the side road to the right of the picture. I have driven enough side roads to know that sooner or later they all come back out on the main road. I'd just head west and hit Rt. 50 farther on down the line.  I'm sure the traffic was backed up for miles behind that conflagration. 

Not for me. I rolled the windows down and opened the moon roof and breathed the sweet autumn air as I found my way home. 

A Tree. For Me??

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

I have a thing for trees. It's grown slowly over the years, like a tree does.

You may remember the huge red oak that grew by our mailbox. I certainly do. She was big once, when our children were small, and we waited for the bus beneath her friendly limbs.

This one is worth reading: Remembering the Oak.

But if you don't go read that, here's a fragment: 

This is how I will remember her, guardian of our driveway, stately landmark of our ridge road. I'll remember her shading a bluebird box, sheltering families of birds, lizards, insects, mammals, and four humans, often as not wearing a hawk in her hair.

 Forming attachments to people, to individual creatures, trees, even beef cattle...for better or worse, it's what I do. And when the woodpecker hits the window glass, when the tree comes crashing down, when the truck comes for that old tired bull, well, it's hard. But it is better to love and lose, they say, than never to love at all.

This isn't really a post about losing something. It's about loving things. I got plenty of lovin'.

I think you'll remember The Three Graces, trees that adorn a rise near my home. I photograph them in every light regime, every weather condition, and they have grown very dear to me. From left to right, they're red maple, sugar maple, and black tupelo.

To me, they are dancing ladies, each with her own rhythm and style.

I shouldn't say this in their presence, but I do have a favorite.  It's the one on the far right.

The black tupelo, who dances like Pigpen. 

Here's how they looked this morning:

 I am agog and amazed that I get to see such beautiful things every day. That I am able to get out in the fleeting hours that the sun shines and record such wonders. Hard to believe that was this morning, as a cold rain hits the window.

Traces of her famed autumn color are beginning to touch her hi-gloss leaves. She'll go maroon, then brightest crimson.

I moved around to get the sun on my beloved tupelo, only to find her top cresting and falling like a rogue wave. Who knew?

What a tree. I wonder if anyone else who drives by this grace-filled trio every day stops to cherish it?

So it is a piece of karmic perfection that the Dawes Arboretum in Newark, Ohio, has for reasons known only to them decided to honor me this coming Saturday, October 11, 2014, by dedicating 

not one
not two
but an entire grove of black tupelos
to me. Zick. Whawhat?

When I first got the call two years ago I thought there must be some mistake. Don't I have to die first for an honor like that, for a bronze plaque with a little epitaph on it beneath a grove of beautiful tupelo? Don't I have to do something of real consequence? 

They assured me they had the right person. 
And in my heart, if only for the depth of my love for trees, I think they must. 

The tree dedication ceremony happens first, and immediately afterward, at 2 pm, I'll be speaking in the Visitor's Center at Dawes Arboretum. That part is open to the public, and Bill, Liam and I would be delighted to see you there. Find out more here. 

I wrote a little haiku, an epitaph for the plaque. Though last I checked I'm still alive.

The tupelo’s full
Of small blue fruits, offered up
For birds to carry

Like our words, aimless
‘Til they are taken, consumed
Planted in new minds

We must bear fruit, too
Some words, a painting, a song
To disperse this joy

With another favorite tree, the pawpaw. Thank you, Dawes Arboretum, for this honor.
Come see me Saturday, if you can!

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