A Less-Than-Epic Quest For Signs Of Spring

There I was, on the second Monday of the present month, heading south from my suburban Philadelphia home to the Abington Art Center a few miles away. I was seated within my trusty 2001 Honda Civic, a vehicle that has served me well. I consider it to be a good friend.

I would be remiss, however, not to note that my wife Sandy feels no affection for my wheels. She used to love the Civic as much as I do, but those days are in the distant past. Yes, its forest-green paint has faded and developed splotchy areas so prolific they stun the eyes. Yes, the fabric that used to be tautly attached to the underside of the roof now billows downward like an open parachute. And yes, those conditions are fixable, but haven’t been addressed because I’m a lazy son of a bitch. Still, are the Civic’s flaws good enough reasons for Sandy to refuse to step foot inside the vehicle and to wish and pray that some day soon it will drive itself to the nearest junk yard and stay there? No, I emphatically state. And I rest my case.

Anyway, the Abington Art Center is a community organization that offers classes and programs in a once-private mansion and whose grounds include a huge, hilly lawn and a patch of woods. I was driving there because a story idea had occurred to me earlier that day: I’d decided to look for and write about signs of spring. Now, spring has been late arriving this year in my part of the States, what with below-average temperatures that don’t seem to want to loosen their grip. And even though I hadn’t seen much springlike activity among the flora in my neighborhood, or anywhere else in the region, I had a good feeling about what I might come across at AAC. That’s what happens when you’re a born-again optimist.

Arriving at the center at around 2:15 PM, I began my stroll. Right off the bat I noticed that there were no trees in flower. And that there were no flowers worth mentioning of any kind except for the yellow beauties attached to a large forsythia. In other words, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to flowers.

As for the trees, they appeared as they would have in the dead of winter, at least to my eyes. No doubt the leaf-budding process had begun, but highly-myopic me was unable to determine that for a fact, as so many of the the branches were too high up for me to discern much about them. At eye level, though, there was some action, because bright green leaves were emerging on scraggly bushes that were fairly populous on the grounds. All in all, though, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to buds and new leaves.

But I wasn’t disappointed that my article about the Earth’s vibrant rebirth would have to be put on hold. In fact, I very much liked the look of my surroundings, where practically every shade of tan and brown known to man was on display. I’m a big fan of blisteringly bright colors, but I’m totally down with neutrals too.

What’s more, I liked the quiet of the place. I heard one dog bark for a few seconds, and the sounds of automobiles on the roads bordering AAC were now and then apparent. But overall, things were peaceful at AAC. No other human crossed my path or field of vision during the 70 minutes I spent there, and so I found myself getting lost in the center’s 20 or so acres of semi-nature. Not lost in the sense of not knowing where I was, but lost as in going with the flow. I don’t know about you, but my life sure could use many heavy doses of the latter on a regular basis.

Flow-wise, I spent time in the pursuit of, well, whatever. I began to look around and was glad to notice, for instance, complex tangles of roots and branches, scalloped white fungi plastered on a fallen tree limb, and elegant beige leaves that had refused to drop from their tree’s branches during the winter.

A bunch of back-to-nature types of sculptures have been placed within the woods. Of those, the one I liked the best (Just Passing Through, by Laura Petrovich-Cheney) is a string of five tree trunks. Only the bases of the trunks were used in the sculpture, a display of elemental shapes and of the power of deep browns. One day these trunks will have rotted away and become one with the soil.

We have arrived close to the end of this essay. Hoping to leave with a sort of bang, I’ll make mention of something I hadn’t expected to find within the woods. Namely, inserted into the barks of a number of trees were small mirrors. I guess that Jeanne Jaffe, the artist behind the mirror sculptures, if you want to call them that, was very civic-minded, wishing to give the public the opportunity to check if their makeup needs refreshing or if their nose hairs could use a trim.

Me, I peered into one of the mirrors and was highly disappointed by the visage staring back at me. Might as well take a picture of my reflection anyway, I decided. Yeah, my iPhone’s case is pink. I like pink a lot. In fact, by the time my next article hits cyberspace there’s a good chance that I’ll have dyed my hair the most shocking hue of shocking pink available. I’ve been thinking of doing that for the longest time. And there’s no time like the present, right?

But if I do, Sandy probably will see to it that I’m inside the Honda Civic when it decides to drive itself to the nearest junk yard. That’s life.

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He Whose Thumbs Are Anything But Green Visits The Philadelphia Flower Show

I’ve a close friend who oohs and aahs and maybe even finds her reason for being when she goes to the Philadelphia Flower Show, a massive and annual event that attracts numerous gardeners and other assorted nature lovers. Yeah, the Flower Show means a lot to her. She attends every year with her sisters, excitedly looking at exhibits both grand and small and sniffing out ideas that might be applicable to her garden. Basically, she loves to get her horticultural groove on. She was there with her female siblings two Mondays ago, devoting five hours of her life to the enterprise. And, I’m sure, had a remarkable time.

As for me, on the other hand, I never entertained the idea of going to the PFS until two years ago. It’s not that I don’t like to look at flowers and other plants  — I do! — but I guess the notion of seeing them indoors in artificial settings never rang my bell sufficiently. What’s more, I’m not in the market for floral or other gardening hints that undoubtedly would aid the small patch of land upon which my suburban abode sits. Hell, the subject just doesn’t interest me. And, I’m not embarrassed to admit, my thumbs are so far from being green, flowers and shrubs sprint down the block faster than Usain Bolt when they see me coming.

But in 2016, after having dwelled in or near Philadelphia, my adopted city, for about 40 years, I had a change of heart. Why not go, indeed? The Philadelphia Flower Show is enormously popular (200,000 or more bodies take it in each year) and known around the world. The time had come to check it out. Which my wife Sandy and I did. We had a pretty good time.

One thing I learned at the show in 2016 is that flowers hardly are the only focus. Maybe it once was strictly a floral endeavor, but those days are in the far away past. Now pretty much all of nature is fair game. In the interests of accuracy it wouldn’t be a bad idea, I’d therefore say, if the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, which has been putting on the extravaganza since 1829,  changed the event’s name. How about Flowers N More R Us? No? Well, I’ll give it some more thought.

Anyway, for many years now the Flower Show has had a theme, a different one each go-round, to which about a third of the floor space is devoted. The displays within the themed section are the event’s biggest draw. The rest of the square footage is taken up by that to which the theme does not apply: small-to-medium scale floral and other plant displays, flora competitions, horticultural product vendors, and by refreshment stands. Two years ago the exhibits in the themed section had nothing to do with cultivated flowers at all, or with any other examples of horticulture for that matter. That’s because the topic at hand was the USA’s national parks, which, duh, are wilderness or near-wilderness regions.

This year, though, cultivated flora was a part of the story in the themed district, which was dubbed “Wonders Of Water.” Still, the untamed substantially ruled, as a recreation of a tropical rainforest — rainforests, duh, being environments in which human hands play little part (except when man is leveling them, which is what our blighted species loves to do) — held 2018’s center stage position.

I’m not complaining, by the way. It’s all to the good that the Philadelphia Horticultural Society has expansive viewpoints that encompass much of nature, not just the human-tailored parts of the picture.

Admirably, I’ve now attended the Flower Show twice. Because on March 6 of the present year, the fourth day of the show’s nine-day run, Sandy and I entered the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is in downtown Philly and only inches away from the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. The Flower Show took up a whole lot of the enormous structure’s acreage. I’ll say this about the quarters in which the PFS was staged: If you’ve seen one airplane hangar, you’ve seen ’em all! If I owned a hat I’d tip it to the Horticultural Society for having given it all they’ve got to transform an antiseptic mega-space into something more than decently attractive.

Getting back to that rainforest, it was a beautiful, sprawling installation. Colorful, fragrant and dense, complete with misty rains dropping from on-high in one (or was it two?) spots, and a not-bad facsimile of a waterfall, it dominated the Wonders Of Water area in nothing but good ways. Truckloads of show-attendees clogged the pathways that wound within and around the rainforest. The Flower Show clearly is not the place to go for anyone seeking to get away from it all. Not that the crowds were unpleasant. They weren’t. Everyone seemed relaxed and respectful of their fellow tribe members, whose numbers included high quantities of young children and individuals who needed canes, walkers or wheelchairs to get around.

Of the sizeable number of displays other than the rainforest in the Wonders Of Water zone, three grabbed me more than the rest. How cool was the Spring Thaw exhibit, its pretty flowers abloom in a meadow being fed by melting waters from mountain peaks. And how aridly spot-on was the desert mock-up in which cacti and other life forms thrived in their own stark way, making do with very little of the wet stuff.

Plenty of water (in an irrigation ditch), however, was present in the tulips field display. Those flowers jolted the eye in washes of yellow, purple, red and other members of the spectrum. I’m a sucker for splashy swaths of color, so I spent quite a lot of time letting them raise my spirits. There, more than anywhere in Wonders Of Water, the name Philadelphia Flower Show truly applied.

Sandy and I passed many minutes together in the themed section. Then we separated for a while, she investigating the sections of the show outside the Wonders Of Water boundaries. I however stayed within those boundaries. The creations there satisfied me very well, and I felt little desire to stray.

Before we knew it, two hours had passed. Sandy by then had rejoined me and we decided to call it a day. Our visit to the Philadelphia Flower Show had been a good one.

But that’s not the end of the story. I’ve given the visit some thought in the process of composing that which you now are reading. And I’ve come to realize that what the show had to offer me, beyond its immediate delights, was the impetus to get out into, and explore, nature. I imagine that such is one of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s main aims in mounting the exhibition each year.

I have plans to head west to New Mexico in 2018, where my brother and sister-in-law recently moved. There I’ll mosey around the deserts, remembering, of course, to lather on sunscreen beforehand, as all good little boys and girls should do. And, closer to home, in fact only seven or so miles away, I’ll hike the trails inside Pennypack Park, a nine-mile long forest, bordered by residential streets, that runs through Philadelphia’s northeast section. Call me crazy, but I plan to try and hike the park’s entire length in one session. The last time I walked that far in one day was when I was in my 30s. I’ve recently tiptoed into my 70s, so who knows if nine miles is within my engine’s capabilities. If I make it all the way, and even if I don’t, you can bet your sweet bippy that I’ll be writing about the expedition on this blog’s pages.

Thanks, Philadelphia Flower Show. I enjoyed you quite a lot this year. If I remain above ground for a good while longer, then I’ll see you again.

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(All photos are from March 6, 2018. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)

Snap, Snap, Snap: A Photography Story

Philadelphia (2017)

Starting in the late 1970s, and continuing for 10 or 12 years, I passed a good amount of time wandering around Philadelphia (where I lived), other parts of the States, Europe and elsewhere with a Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera in hand or in pocket. A non-techie all my life, the Instamatic was the perfect camera for me. Small and easy to load — you dropped a film cartridge into place and then closed the back cover over it, a process even I could handle — the camera provided photographic images that struck me as just fine. Bulky cameras, special lenses and filters, carrying cases? Man, I wanted no part of any of that. And still don’t. I like my life plain and simple, because I’m a plain sort of guy who some might describe as being simple too. Doesn’t offend me. I’m simple that way.

Philadelphia (2017)

And so, wander I would, snapping photos of things that caught my eye. Street scenes, decorated house doors, gnarly trees, cool-looking cars, mountains and forests . . . fairly avidly I documented all of those and more. Outdoor photography was fun, a hobby that made me think creatively and provided exercise in the process. What was not to like?

Manhattan (2017)

Alas, for reasons I haven’t tried to decipher, my photography excursions came to a halt. The photos I took, and they likely number in at least the high hundreds, lie within boxes shoved into attic and basement and closet niches. I haven’t looked at any of them in 10 years or more. And I probably didn’t label half of them. I swear, I’m going to hire a personal assistant one of these days to haul out those photos and put them into working order. And then I’ll donate the pictures to the Smithsonian Institution, which I hear has a program called We’ll Accept Anything, As These Photographs Taken By Extremely Ordinary Americans Clearly Prove.

Manhattan (2017)

Fortuitously, my wife Sandy, whom I met in 1990, picked up the slack. On our vacations and at family gatherings she’s the one who for years took nearly all the photos. Sandy, kind of a photography buff, always has had cameras far more advanced than the Instamatic, and happily danced into digital camera ownership earlier this century. I had no problem with her handling the photographic duties. I didn’t miss them, whatever the reasons might have been. Needless to say, when I started this blog in April 2015 Sandy was the chief photographer.

Cleveland’s baseball stadium (2017)

And then came January 2016. During that fabled month, Sandy bought a new iPhone and donated to me the iPhone she’d been using till then. iPhonically-speaking, for me it almost was love at first sight and first usage. I mean, the phone is so cute, so compact, and not too hard for a technological imbecile like me to figure out.

Cape Cod (2017)

Before then I’d been a flip-phone person, basically ignorant of the wonders of smart phones. But within days I became an addict, surfing the web, watching videos, etc., etc. And my iPhone’s camera? Why, it called to me with a song that I was powerless to resist. Before I knew it I was snapping photos left and right, far more than I did in my Instamatic days. Twenty-six months later I’m still snapping. And, by the way, not long after the iPhone came into my possession Sandy lost her photography job with this blog.

Cape Cod (2017)

And why do I bring up all of this? Hold tight, Bunky, as I’m about to tell you. Not that you haven’t already guessed, seeing that photos are on display right from the start of this essay.

Cape Cod (2017)

A day or two before I sat down to begin the composition of that which you presently are reading, it dawned on me that not the worst idea in the world would be to write a story into which I might place a number of photos that I took in 2017. Dozens of them I’d already used in blog articles during that year. But many others were sitting all sad and lonesome, feeling unwanted, on the hard drive or whatever it is within my iPhone. “I’ll liberate some of you! And I accept your thanks in advance,” I said to the pictures.

Cape Cod (2017)

Yes, it’s as simple as that. As I’ve prominently noted above, I’m a simple guy, so what would you expect? In any case, the year 2017 found me in my suburban Philadelphia region, in the City Of Brotherly Love itself, in The Big Apple, in Cleveland and on Cape Cod. There were a few other locales too, but that’s enough. I selected about 30 photos from the previously-unused pile and studied them almost assiduously. I whittled down the pile to the eleven pix herein contained. Some are artsy shots, some are candid, some display the wonders of nature, some have sentimental value to me. My favorites are the two that follow: a selfie of me and Sandy taken on Cape Cod, and a spontaneous etching that I made in the sands of a Cape Cod beach.

Thanks for reading and gazing. Your humble reporter is now going to sign off, hopefully to return in the near future with an as-yet-undetermined commentary upon something or other.

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A Trip To Fallingwater

I’ve done a fair amount of traveling during the 69 years I’ve taken up space on Planet Earth. Been to Asia (Nepal). And to the Middle East (Israel). And to North Africa (Egypt). And to various countries in Europe any number of times. And I’ve been here and there in the States and Canada. How about Pennsylvania, then, the state I’ve lived in since my late 20s? Well, I’m nicely familiar with its greater Philadelphia region, which is my home territory, but outside of that orb I haven’t ventured all too much. And in the last couple of years I’ve been thinking about what I may have been missing. A trip to Ohio via the Pennsylvania Turnpike that my wife Sandy and I made a few weeks ago drove the point home pretty decisively. “Wow, look at all these mountains and farms. Who knew?” I said to Sandy more than once during that westward journey. “It’s time to explore Pennsylvania. Let’s do plenty of that before the sands of time run out on us.” Those weren’t my exact words, but they are close enough.

Smartly, we had already planned a day and a half of discovery in the Keystone State. On the way back from Ohio (you can read about the Ohio visit by clicking here) we drove to Uniontown, a less-than-flourishing community nestled in southwestern Pennsylvania, where we had booked a hotel room. The following day, Monday, would be our visit to Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that has become a tourist destination. Neither Sandy nor I had ever been in southwestern Pennsylvania before.

To be honest, I feel a little guilty writing about Fallingwater. It’s not as if the world needs any more mentions of the place, as the 2,400,000+ Google results for Fallingwater obviously prove. But what’s a blogger to do? I considered typing an opus about what I ate for breakfast this morning (strong coffee, and Wheaties with blueberries), but opted instead for Wright’s creation. Nobody wants to read about my breakfast, not even me, no matter how delicious it was. Fallingwater it is.

To summarize Fallingwater’s history: Edgar Kaufmann, a department store magnate who lived in Pittsburgh with his wife Lillian and son Edgar Jr., commissioned the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build a weekend/vacation home for the family. The house was to be set within the enormous, heavily-forested swath of land that the Kaufmanns owned in the Allegheny Mountains. That plot was (and is) about 50 miles from Pittsburgh. Wright completed his design in 1935. Two years later the house was in place, and two years after that a guest house, uphill from the main residence and connected to it by a short cement span, went up. In 1963, some years after the death of his parents, Junior donated Fallingwater and the family’s mountain acreage to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a land and water protection organization. The Conservancy opened the buildings and grounds to the public in 1964, and before long Fallingwater caught on. Really caught on. To date, upwards of 5,000,000 visitors have toured the facilities. For a place that some might describe as being in the middle of nowhere, that’s genuinely impressive.

Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

And here’s why they keep on coming: Fallingwater’s exterior looks better than just about any house that you’ll ever see. It is sleek, lovingly tiered, rustically handsome and highly imaginatively laid out. And the house’s placement is, as they say, unparalleled. It is built atop and alongside boulders, a few of which poke out into the living spaces. And, rather incredibly, it is perched above a descending stream at the point where the waters – you guessed it – fall over rocks. A waterfall! A modest waterall, to be sure, but beautiful nonetheless. Fallingwater, a looker in an admirable, peaceful way, communes righteously with the natural environment that surrounds it. Harmony definitely prevails.

After breakfast on Monday, Sandy and I jumped into our car and drove the 25 miles, half of them along winding country roads, that separate Uniontown from Fallingwater. Our tour, scheduled for 11:00 AM, began on time. Twenty or so folks were in our tour group. The guide, alas, informed us that photography wouldn’t be allowed within the house. Nor would touching of the objects. Bummer. The interior shots I’ve included in this humble essay, therefore, are photos that I’ve snatched off the Internet. By the way, Fallingwater’s room arrangements and furnishings have been left pretty much as they were when Junior turned over the keys to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Photo by Jeffrey Neal

Most of the tour took place inside, as opposed to outside, Fallingwater. My memory being duller than a butter knife, let me pass on a few recollections before they fade into oblivion. First, I dug Wright’s color scheme. Earth tones predominate. They make for a calming, comforting experience, which without doubt was his intention. And I was surprised to learn that Wright designed not only Fallingwater’s structure, but many of its objects – desks, cabinets, chairs and tables. And they are beautiful. The guy was something else. Was there anything he couldn’t do? Well, he couldn’t walk on the waters of the stream flowing beneath the house, right? Or maybe he could.

Photo by Brad Ford

I noticed a couple of broad wooden desks, wedged into corners, that have portions of their tops neatly cut away so as to allow windows to swing open. Brilliant idea! And I spent some time in Junior’s bedroom looking over the smallish but swell collection of books on his shelves. They reflect an open and bright mind. Among them are the 10-volume set of The World’s Best Essays, a long-forgotten collection published in 1900. I’d have loved to pull out one or two of the volumes to take a look at the wisdom contained therein. But that wouldn’t have been a wise move, as the tour guide might have dragged me off the premises by the few strands of hair remaining on my head had I attempted to satisfy my innocent desire.

The one-hour tour over, Sandy and I headed down a trail that paralleled the stream and led into deep forest country. Rhododendron bushes grew in numbers you’re unlikely to see elsewhere. Oak and maple trees flourished, as did a variety of evergreens. It felt good to get lost, metaphorically, in the woods for a while. Take more forest walks is something I’ve added to my to-do-soon list. Forests don’t exist in my paved-over home area, but a few are within reasonable driving distance.

The next morning we drove home, southwestern Pennsylvania before long disappearing from our rear view mirror. Now, I’m not going to say that this rural region of Pennsylvania is a must-see destination. For those who groove on mountain hiking or fishing or rafting, it’s absolutely A-OK. For those not of that persuasion but who are passing through the area or taking in the sights in Pittsburgh, here’s the thing: You could do a lot worse than make the drive to Fallingwater. Sandy and I agree that Fallingwater made our trip worthwhile. The place is a beaut.

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Spring 2017 Revisited

What were the odds that I’d be writing about spring for the second time in three weeks? Well, if you had asked me that question even one week ago I’d have said “slim, very slim.” But it turns out the odds were 100%, because here I am penning another paean to the greenest of seasons.

To begin, there I was on the afternoon of April 24, denting, as usual, my favorite of the living room sofa’s three cushions. Such a comfortable spot it is. In fact, when I expire I’d like a memorial plaque to be placed on that cushion. It should read as follows: Neil Scheinin certainly made quite an impression. Here’s proof: He sat for so many hours on this sofa, the sensuous shape of his buttocks is forever recorded directly below. May Neil’s rear end, and his other parts, rest in peace.

Once in a while, however, I do rise from my throne to meet and greet the outside world. And once in a while said excursions involve taking a pretty good look at what passes for nature in my home territory. To wit, the wondrously paved-over, built-upon lands of suburban Philadelphia. My first investigation of Spring 2017’s unfolding, which took place on April 11 (click here to read it), was less than a smash. Few maples and oaks and their brethren had sprouted much, if any, new greenery. And blossoms on flowering trees and bushes were in short supply too. Two days later, though, driving around my region, I’d noticed that things were getting better, that spring was starting to look more like spring. It was a call to action.

But I’m not a man of action. I waited a week and a half, until April 24 rolled around, before once again making my way into the wilderness. As with my previous springtime stroll I would be a seeker of colors other than green. Hell, I’m cool with green, but there’s just so damn much of it out there. Enough’s enough, don’t you think? What’s more, variety’s the spice of life. And I’d throw in another cliché if I could think of one. No, it was pale whites and pinks and soothing shades of violet and rocking reds and yellows that I was charged up to smile at. Hey, by now those hues would be popping out riotously, wouldn’t they?

Hopping off the couch and into my car, I headed to a neighborhood I was slightly familiar with in a nearby township. I parked on a leafy street studded with good-looking houses and began my walk. It was 3:00 PM.

Eureka! I struck pay dirt! I strolled along many blocks admiring the views. Dogwood trees and azalea and lilac bushes, all aflower, glowed serenely on nearly every property. Beautiful flower beds — hey man, dig those snazzy, crazy tulips! — wowed like flashy jewels. I was in heaven. Or thereabouts.

What’s more, the air was cool and comfortable, a light breeze tousling my Apollo-like tresses. And it was okay by me that the sky was overcast, as the clouds were not unhappy nor threatening. In other words I was amidst perfect walking conditions. No need to have slathered on sunscreen (I hadn’t). No chance I’d be shvitzing like a pig by the time my travels ended.

Clearly, I was in a very good mood. Things were going my way. Although I was a mere mile and a half from my home, the sights were far better than those in my own township. These homeowners not only were with it, they were into it, putting a whole lot of time, effort and bucks into creating fine outdoor canvases. Now I know where to head to decompress, other than the emergency room, when my blood pressure starts pushing 230/130.

My journey was a quiet one, decibel-wise, except for the manic dog barking its head off in a yard. Of course, that’s one too many, especially if you’re an unfortunate soul living within 150 feet of that animal and its owner(s). Other than that, everything was peaceful. None of the cars passing by hit their horns. And the only other sounds of note that I met, besides the voices of the people walking on the streets, were those of something I hadn’t encountered in a pretty long time — the whirs of a bicycle bearing down on me from behind. Deftly I stepped off the sidewalk, moving onto a front lawn, and watched a nine-or-so-year-old whiz by on his two-wheeler. “Thank you!” he yelled to me. Holy crap, I really must have been in heaven, that place of the heart and mind where I’m certain it’s a prerequisite for children to have the finest of manners. “You’re welcome!” I shouted in return.

At 4:00 PM I returned to my car. I hadn’t felt so chipper in weeks. I’ve got to get out more in the suburban version of the great outdoors.

 

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Spring Is In The Air: A Search For Colors

For the last seven years I’ve had a Tuesday morning volunteer gig at a suburban Philadelphia hospital’s medical office building. There, I man the information desk from eight o’clock till noon, helping people locate their doctors’ offices, the cleverly hidden restrooms, and ATMs so that they can pay to get out of the cash-only parking garage behind the building. Incredible to me, it seems to be de rigueur for lots of folks these days to carry nary a dollar on their persons. Plastic rules, except at the parking garage. Wouldn’t you know it, though? . . . there isn’t an ATM in the garage or the medical building. So, off on a two-block trek to the closest ATM the short-on-cash folks depart.

I was at my post last Tuesday, the 11th of April. Looking through the lobby windows I could tell that the Sun was blazing away deliriously. My iPhone said that the high for the day would be 83°F. Yeah man, that sounded fine to me, a non-Sun-worshipping guy who normally isn’t thrilled when the thermometer climbs above 74 degrees. But after all the rains we’d had in recent weeks I was psyched for a bright, overly-warm spring day.

I wasn’t alone in that feeling. Inside the medical building two humans of the male variety were taking their cues from our winged friends that undoubtedly were chirping away merrily outside. I heard one of the patients singing freely and loudly as he entered the elevator, on his way to get checked out in an upper-level doctor’s office. And I heard another whistling a happy tune as he exited the building through the main door 20 feet from the information desk. His doctor must have given him a good report. Good golly, Miss Molly, there and then I decided to have a look that afternoon at how spring was shaping up in my neck of the woods. I would be in search of colors.

I was possibly, even probably, wrong, but for a couple of weeks I’d been thinking that spring was taking its good old time unfolding in the Philadelphia region. I could have sworn that in most years, for instance, masses of forsythia were showing off their yellows by early April and that flowering trees were ablaze aplenty. But I’d noticed not too much activity so far in 2017 during my drives through the burbs, though I hadn’t really been paying strict attention to the situation for the last four or five days. “Let’s see if things are starting to get more colorful out there,” I said to myself. “I’m ready to be impressed.”

And so I spent an hour and a half in early afternoon wandering, on foot, in three of my town’s neighborhoods, including my own. These are modest areas filled with no-nonsense homes from the last century’s early and middle sections. Things are neat and tidy here, but usually not exactly eye-grabbing. But when cherry and dogwood trees and azaleas and rhododendrons and all the rest open their floodgates, watch out! The streets then, for me anyway, rise above snooziness. Charm and loveliness take over.

Alas, I’m here to report that not much out of the ordinary was happening color-wise on April 11. Bummer, indeed. In fact, many streets hadn’t escaped from their leafless winter doldrums, though here and there some trees were beginning to sprout delicate, new leafage. As expected, there were plenty of greens to be seen — lawn grasses and evergreen trees. And there was no shortage of browns, obviously, what with tree trunks all over the place. But soft colors that make you ooh and ah, and vivid colors that go pow? Well, some cherry trees were in bloom, and a smallish number of  azalea bushes were festooned with flowers tinted in strong lavender, and a far-less-than-I-expected quantity of forsythia were unfurling their yellows, and . . . that was about it. There even was a shortage of revved-up flower beds.

And yet I strolled in a contented mood. I don’t go out for walks anywhere near often enough, so the excursion put some purpose into my footsteps. I investigated block after block, taking pictures, neck craned and eyes darting everywhere in quest of color. I was surprised by how few people I passed, other than four dog walkers. Where was everybody? “Yo, genius,” a little voice inside my head muttered, “half the people are either at work or in school. And most of the others probably are at the mall, at Macy’s. Macy’s is having an incredible two-hour sale on underwear: Buy one and get six free. Genius, you’ve been wearing the same briefs for the last 15 years. Raggedy doesn’t begin to describe them. Do your balls a favor and head to Macy’s now.”

Thus, I hurried to my car, snapping the last of my photos. Macy’s, not Nature’s hues, called! Maybe in a future article I’ll report on the degree of shopping success I encountered at the mall. The world, I know, anxiously awaits that information. In any case, I’ll wind up these proceedings by saying that I hope you have enjoyed the photographs that I’ve placed on this page. Though my springtime adventure wasn’t a 10 (hell, it was more like a 4), I managed to document some decently lovely and colorful vegetative sights. Next year, perhaps, I’ll improve my timing and write a piece about spring in all its glory.

 

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The Meadow And I

In some ways I envy those who live in or near undeveloped locales. Those parts of Montana or Utah, say, that Man hasn’t messed around with too much. Places whose terrains have been shaped over the eons by seismic events and by the unaltered flow of waters, without the added oomph provided by bulldozers, dynamite and chain saws. Where the growth and spread, or not, of vegetation follow elemental rhythms. And where, if you decide to venture out on a nice, long walk, you’re probably not going to bump into other members of our wondrously meddlesome species. Yes, that would be superb.

On the other hand, I’m a suburban/city boy at heart, ensconced in a comfortable house a handful of miles outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. As such, I like living close to supermarkets and shopping malls and movie theaters and art museums and a lot of the other man-made stuff that this sort of environment contains. But there are times when I’ve had enough. “Let me outta here!” I then cry inwardly. “I hear the call of the wild! I require the presence of forests and/or sands and/or seas. Oh, wait for me, my fair landscapes and coastlines. Soon I shall be among you.”

Cape Cod Bay.
Cape Cod Bay (in the distance) at low tide.

That’s when my wife Sandy and I start making plans, rent a house for a decent spell, and a month or so later drive 360 miles in a northwesterly direction to said house on Cape Cod where, miraculously, substantial expanses of Nature in its mostly-undisturbed glory indeed exist. Cape Cod soothes my soul. And has for a long time. But, going to Cape Cod is a schlep and a half. What’s a guy to do on those mornings or afternoons, at home  in the Philadelphia burbs, when a quick fix is in order?

Good question. For picky me there aren’t too many pleasing answers. I mean, there isn’t a lot of natural  scenery around here, in any format, to begin with. Much of what passes for natural are fields and woodlands that have been daintified and picnic-benched. But a few pockets of goodness somehow have escaped humankind’s conquering hands, and one of them, pathetically small as it may be, is where I headed one morning late last month when my inner being began slapping me hard upside the head to let me know it was time to try and commune with Mother Earth.

img_1306img_1304Thus, off I headed on a solo expedition to Awbury Arboretum, formerly a private estate now run by a non-profit group, half an hour from my house. This was my third time there. The first two were with my wife Sandy. She and I first heard of and went to Awbury three years ago. It’s in Philadelphia’s Germantown section, a congested residential area with roots that reach back to the late 1600s, and about seven miles from downtown. Little-known and little-visited, that’s Awbury. Which is A-OK with me, not being the world’s biggest people person. We enjoyed that Awbury visit very much, checking out the trees and shrubbery and well-kept lawns, and admiring the mansion that once housed the Cope family (click here to learn more about the arboretum), even though we didn’t set foot on Awbury’s best feature. A few months ago, on our second trip, we discovered that feature, a compact and alluring meadow. Wowza! I was smitten.

What’s the big deal about a meadow? Well, incredibly, this simple form of natural landscape is harder to find in the Philadelphia area than a winning Powerball ticket. Where did we go wrong? Unfettered meadows, where grasses and wildflowers grow freely to their hearts’ content, used to be fairly commonplace around here not all that many decades ago, weren’t they? Bye, baby, bye. What a world.

img_1313img_1319Yeah, the Awbury meadow is pint-sized, three or four acres at best. Not exactly the meadow of my dreams. But not only did it have to do last month when the earth goddesses beckoned me to find green space, I enjoyed the heck out of it. I tell you, 20 minutes in the meadow grasses did me a world of good. That’s the thing about meadows: they’re just so cute and inviting. Why, within seconds I dropped 60 years from my age and began doing cartwheels magnificently from one edge of the field to another. Too bad that Simone Biles wasn’t there to witness my athletic triumphs. She’d have been way envious.

img_1315img_1314But, getting back to reality, let me say this: You better believe it’s the simple things in life — like, strutting through tall grasses and admiring the muted shades of green and tan and sepia that the blades take on in winter — that can help to put your head back on straight. Not that mine remained in proper position for all that long. Though I embraced the Zenlike moments that happily blossomed within me at Awbury, they faded fast. I ain’t a Buddhist monk — not a bad thing to be, come to think of it — so I was almost back to my usual grumbly self by the time I arrived home. No doubt, however, that something sweet yet short-lived is better than nothing at all.

 

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Ponds

For those of you who have been wishing and praying that this correspondent would drop the Cape Cod kick he’s been on, I have a few things to say, such as “lump it.” Or, as I mentioned in my previous story, “sue me.” Be forewarned, though, that if you choose the latter path you’ll soon encounter the legal fury of my attorney, the one and only Harry “I’m gonna git you, sucka!” Hooznext. Harry is a fearsome son of a bitch. The last time he lost a case was before any of us were born.

Ponds. Yeah, that’s what I’m about to write about. Specifically, Cape Cod ponds. Not with the magical descriptive powers or insights that Henry David Thoreau, in the mid-1800s, brought to the subject in his charming book Cape Cod. Rather, with the flabby notions that one would expect from he who in his own mind is a sort of Nature Boy, but whose knowledge of the natural world actually is barely enough to squeeze out a 1,000 or so word essay. But we work with the tools that have been granted us, no? Yes.

Let’s get on with it. Last month my wife Sandy and I spent some time on Cape Cod, a locale where, as I’ve noted previously on these pages, we frolic in and stand in awe of the great outdoors indescribably more than we do back home in suburban Philadelphia. That’s because 97% of the great outdoors has been bulldozed and paved over where we live, whereas on Cape Cod substantial areas of near-undisturbed beauty remain.

A portion of Hawksnest State Park's forest.
A portion of Hawksnest State Park’s forest.

We’ve been coming to Cape Cod since 1998. At first it was The Cape’s waters and coastlines that made us chant “OMG” in unison several times each day. As the years rolled by we started to realize that those waters and sands and marshes weren’t all there was to go gaga over and to commune with. Hey, there were trees! A trillion of them! I mean, within and between its villages, Cape Cod is slathered with woods, many public. And there are several sprawling areas that meet just about anyone’s definition of true forests. And so, to the woodlands we went, skipping hand-in-hand down their trails, dropping bread crumbs behind us and keeping one dominant thread of thought in our minds. To wit: “Holy crap! There’s a ton of poison ivy all over the place! What the f*ck are we doing here?” But we carefully watched where we placed our feet and soldiered on.

Lo and behold, one day in a woody spread we came upon a body of water so pristine and lovely we almost dropped to our knees. It was a pond. A freshwater pond. It sat there demurely, prettily, surrounded by trees small to medium in stature, trees unable to reach towering heights due to The Cape’s less-than-fully-nourishing sandy soils. And small to medium seemed just right, the correct accompaniment to a modestly sized pool of water. Yes, we were smitten. Once again Cape Cod’s elemental beauty had melted us like butter. Pre-Cape Cod we hardly were oblivious to nature’s bounties. But The Cape somehow opened inner windows that allowed us to enjoy the views as we never had before.

Since that fateful day Sandy and I have added pond-seeking to our repertoire of activities on The Cape. Needless to say, the hands of man have surrounded too many ponds with roads and houses that don’t exactly make enchanted experiences out of gazing upon the waters. Yet, a decent number of freshwater ponds remain in unspoiled woodlands. And we’ve worshipped at some of their altars. By the way, if one is to believe what one reads, the end of the latest Ice Age, 12,000 or so years ago, is responsible for The Cape’s freshwater ponds. Retreating glaciers apparently scraped holes in the ground that filled with water and became the ponds we know and love today. And how many freshwater ponds are there? There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the answer. Anywhere from 365 to 1,000 are the numbers thrown around. Whatever, The Cape contains more than a few.

Hawksnest Pond.
Hawksnest Pond.

Sandy and I fell under the spell of a pond one week into our latest Cape trip. We’d seen it, Hawksnest Pond, a few years ago, and decided to refresh beside it again. This pond, and two others, are sheltered within a small forest, Hawksnest State Park, a little-known and little-visited and undeveloped swath of Harwich township. We parked along one of the park’s borders and entered, marching down the park’s wide main trail till Hawksnest Pond materialized. Man, standing on its shores I felt my anxieties begin to slip away. Alas, an hour later all the tensions returned when we exited the forest. Tight as a frigging knot I often tend to be.

Tight doesn’t begin to describe the emotional state that a pond-hunting escapade threw me into two days later. Ballistic is more like it. There Sandy and I were in Nickerson Sate Park, a 1,900 acre forest in Brewster township. Eight freshwater ponds are on the premises, and pine trees and oak trees abound, as they do throughout Cape Cod. Sandy and I have been to Nickerson a few times over the years. This time I was determined to gaze upon its Higgins Pond, which, as far as I could remember, I’d never seen before. But gaze upon it I did not, as Higgins wasn’t visible from the road that supposedly ran near it, and trying to ascertain which forest pathways led to the pond proved to be an exercise in sheer frustration. The park brochure and map? Pretty useless.  Road signs and trail signs clearly pointing to Higgins? Nonexistent. “Where’s Daniel Effing Boone when you need him?” I bellowed, not for the first time in my life. “He’s on his lunch break,” a voice, barely perceptible, answered from far, far away. It figured.

Flax Pond.
Flax Pond.

Smoke pouring out of my ears, I drove back towards the park entrance, deciding to turn onto a road that seemingly had a good chance of leading to Flax Pond, another of Nickerson’s oases. Mercifully it did. Flax Pond wasn’t new to us, but was no less beautiful for that. The pond looked sweet and innocent. Hell, it was sweet and innocent. Quiet blue waters ringed by a chorale of lovely, welcoming trees . . .  not much is better. Almost instantly I felt my diastolic and systolic numbers head southward dramatically. And there they remained for a good while, as memories of the Higgins mini-fiasco evaporated presto. Some days work out just fine.

 

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To The Beach!

Regular readers of this publication (there are at least three or four of you, which is a hefty increase from the one or two who were tuning in a year ago) might be sick of hearing me extol Cape Cod. You know what? Sue me. I traipse through life under numerous aliases, so you’ll never track me down.

The Outer Cape's sand cliff-backed ocean coastline.
The Outer Cape’s sand cliff-backed ocean coastline.

This, then, is another story revolving around The Cape, a locale that I and my wife Sandy most favor. We find Cape Cod to carry a pretty perfect combination of attributes and personality traits. Overall it is scenically beautiful, which is why we spend much time outdoors, way more than we do back home. And, if you know where to go, you’ll find expansive and mostly undeveloped shoreline and forested and sand dune areas that are far beyond beautiful. Awe-inspiring and majestic are words I’d use to describe those sections, especially the Outer Cape’s long stretches of sand cliff-backed ocean coastline and crazily huge dunes. What’s more, Cape Cod is nicely doused with cute villages, good art galleries and museums, small theater companies and plenty of cinemas and restaurants. All of this is right up my and Sandy’s alleys. We’re at ease, wowed and highly entertained on Cape Cod.

We were on Cape Cod for a spell earlier this month, based in a somewhat secluded part of Orleans, one of The Cape’s 15 townships. The Atlantic Ocean, which paws at and sometimes pounds CC’s eastern border, was near our rented house. Ditto for the endless extent of sands that goes hand-in-hand with the ocean. In other words, double duh, the beach. I’ve racked up many miles of hiking and strolling on Orleans’ share of the ocean beach over the years, and also on the portions within the boundaries of other Cape townships such as Wellfleet and Truro.

Normally when I’m out on Cape Cod’s sands (be they beside the ocean or Cape Cod Bay or Nantucket Sound) or poking around in its forests and marshlands, I don’t particularly like seeing or being aware of fellow humans. Sandy excluded, I hasten to add. That’s because I’m a misanthrope and also because my delicate psychological relationship with Mother Nature is easily disturbed. Not to mention my delicate psychological relationship with myself. Luckily for me, normally Sandy and I don’t come in contact with many others on our expeditions. In summer, when Cape Cod swarms with frolickers, that wouldn’t be the case. But the hordes of humanity significantly diminish in the off-season, which is when Sandy and I do our Cape thing.

A view from Nauset Beach.
A view from Nauset Beach.

Our first full day on Cape Cod this month was the Friday of Columbus Day weekend. A good way to inaugurate our latest Cape trip, we decided, would be to head to Nauset Beach, a part of Orleans’ coastline that has been tamed a
bit in its central section so that people can get their beach fixes. There’s the mandatory big parking area, the restrooms and showers, a seafood stand. And not much else, actually, besides trillions of grains of sand and trillions of gallons of H2O and millions of blades of beach grasses. No boardwalk, no amusements. Which pleases me. And no sand cliffs, which doesn’t, Nauset Beach being a tad south of the Outer Cape.

Nauset Beach. October 2016.
Nauset Beach. October 2016.

In the summer Nauset Beach is congested. Otherwise, usually not. On the Friday in question Sandy and I were surprised, but shouldn’t have been, to see quite a few vehicles in the parking lot. And quite a few people, hardly a mob but maybe 125 or so, scattered around Nauset Beach’s miles-long length. Hey, why not? Columbus Day weekend is a Cape draw. And the day was perfect. Mild, sunny, a light breeze coming off the waters. And, much to my amazement, I was glad to be among those folks. It happens sometimes.

img_1088img_1089Everyone was calm and quiet. Small brigades of my brethren were cemented into beach chairs, staring trancelike at the ocean waves. Others practiced multitasking. Sandy and me, for instance. We walked the sands, gazing downward at human footprints and canine pawprints, upward at the clear blue sky and outward at the eight to ten foot waves rolling relentlessly to shore. During our journey we came across beaucoup people out for a jaunt with their canine friends. Two couples led dogs almost as large as they were. Perhaps the creatures were ponies. I’m not sure. Wait, on second thought they definitely were dogs. I heard them bark, not neigh.

What is it about sand, sky and indescribably massive bodies of water that attract people like ants drawn to carelessly disposed and half-eaten Slim Jims? A few hours after leaving Nauset Beach that question came to me and, predictably, I had no bright answers. It’s quite the phenomenon, though, a natural part of human behavior as far as I can tell. Maybe it has something to do with our links to our fishy ancestors who eons ago inhabited Planet Earth’s liquid stuff. Whatever, I love staring out at Cape Cod’s waters and scampering on its shorelines. I can’t keep away. Invisible forces from within and without bring me there. It amazes me that I used to have no clue that this innate attraction was lurking inside me waiting to bloom. I found out only when Sandy and I hit The Cape for the first time in 1998.

After an hour and a half of beach-meandering we headed back to our car to retrieve our picnic lunch. A gourmet meal of yogurt, grapes, pretzels and seltzer awaited us. We ate it at one of the tables outside the seafood stand and then drove off for some sightseeing in the historic core of Orleans village. The first adventure of our Cape Cod 2016 sojourn was in the books.

 

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I Was Late For The Springtime Party

“You’re shvitzing like a pig,” my wife Sandy observed last week when I strode into the house after one of my highly infrequent walks around the neighborhood. Incredibly, I hadn’t realized how excellently the sweat was pouring off of me. Call me Mr. Observant. As I unbuttoned and took off my sopping shirt I thought to myself that I’d have inserted the word f**king before the word pig if it had been me commenting in Sandy’s place. She’s a lot more refined than I am.

The only flowering tree that I came across.
The only flowering tree that I came across.

Amazingly, the stroll around my little corner of the Philadelphia burbs was my first since last December, a nighttime excursion I undertook to gaze upon Christmas lights. I wrote a story about that adventure, and if you’re interested in reading it you should click right here. Last week’s stroll was different. With my trusty iPhone in hand I hit the streets for an hour in late morning, looking for pretty flowers to admire and photograph. Particularly those on trees and shrubbery. The sun was beating down rippingly as I left the house, the temperature already about 85° F, and the humidity was formidable. But I was late for the party. Turns out that virtually all of the flowering trees, and most of the flowering bushes, already had dropped their glitter.

Greens, man, greens.
Greens, man, greens.
Greens, man, greens.
Greens, man, greens.

What, then, did I see?  Greens, man, greens. I walked past hundreds of houses, all with nicely-trimmed lawns, and past thousands of trees, and the expanses of shades of greens made my eyes stand at attention. But I was on a quest for colors other than those, and needless to say they were there to be spotted. True, I didn’t find a single azalea still in glorious bloom. But rhododendrons, yes, and quite a few other bushes I won’t go out on a limb and try to identify, as I ain’t exactly John Bartram or John Muir. And though 99.999% of dogwoods and other flowering varieties of tall barky objects had not a remaining petal hanging on their branches, I discovered one cute tree still dressed in white.

“Yo, Nature Boy,” I heard someone shout at me two seconds ago. “What about planted flowers? Or was Nature Boy not seeking them?” Well, I’ve got an answer: I sought and I found. But something I never had realized before about my neighborhood is that there is no glut of those beauties. I saw a lot of nice ones, sure — roses and don’t ask me what else, because, as I already mentioned, I ain’t exactly . . . Yet many homes had no flowers in beds or windowboxes at all. Maybe I should report my area to The Philadelphia Horticultural Society. Or to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Yeah, that’s what I should do.

Still, my walk was a good one. As I said in my Christmas lights story, I need to get out into my neighborhood, beyond my block, more than I do. There’s plenty to look at, if you force yourself to really look, even though my suburban development, like all suburban developments, isn’t on anyone’s bucket list of places to visit. And, importantly, there’s no dog crap to step on, as the dog owners around here are well-trained in picking up after. One thing for certain is that next spring I’m going to wander a few weeks earlier in the season. The neighborhood’s flowering trees and bushes fully were ablaze from mid-April through mid-May. Regrettably, my views of them mostly were from a moving car, and that’s no way to experience the world if foot power is an option. I’ve set myself a reminder.

In conclusion, I’m going to give a big shoutout, as the half-assed expression goes, to my newest best friend: my iPhone. It took some pretty nice pictures the other day. I offer up a selection of the colorful sights. By the way, if you click on any photo, a larger image will open. And one last thing: Don’t be shy about adding your comments, or about sharing this article with others.

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