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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A Cape Cod Sunset Story

My wife Sandy and I have a love affair going with Cape Cod, which is where we are vacationing as I type this missive. We live in suburban Philadelphia, but in most ways prefer the Cape. Boo hoo . . . we’ll be back home tomorrow.

In 1998 we visited the Cape for the first time, expecting it to be a locale we’d enjoy. Well, we did. And decided to come back the next year for some more good times. I think it was on that second trip that I realized I liked Cape Cod much more than I ever thought I would, that it really suited my soul, that I was starting to become smitten. Sandy and I have returned every year since then, excepting one. Before Cape Cod entered the picture, in my adult life it had never occurred to me that there might be an Eden of sorts waiting for me, someplace beautiful and in which I truly felt at home. A favorite place.

Sandy and I have had only great vacations on Cape Cod. We’ve been there in all seasons except summer, which is the one time of year when the Cape is overrun. With humans. We fill our days with a variety of activities: nature walks on sand or through forests; poking around in country-imbued villages; art gallery and museum hopping; attending movies, plays and concerts; lots of tasty eating in restaurants humble and above; the list continues. No doubt, this is the good life. I feel almost guilty that such fine fortune has come my way. But I’ll take it.

Atlantic Ocean shoreline. Eastham, Cape Cod.
Atlantic Ocean shoreline. Eastham, Cape Cod.

If I had to select one reason above all that puts Cape Cod at the top of my list, I’d point to the expansive areas of natural beauty. Such as the 40 or more mile-long Atlantic Ocean shoreline, much of it government-protected and thus little disturbed or altered by the hands of man. The vistas there are pretty elemental and always knock my socks off. Ocean, sky and beaches backed by dunes-topped sand cliffs. My psychological and emotional makeups, whatever the heck they might be, vibrate in a calm, contented and awestruck manner when I’m in the midst of such.

And there are other reasons. To name one: When vacationing on Cape Cod sometimes an unexpected present drops into your lap, just as with life in general. One day last week an example came my and Sandy’s way. I’m talking about a sunset. Right, right, I know that over the centuries untold thousands of scribes have oohed and aahed in print about sunsets. And millions of sunset photos have been published, more in the last 15 or so years than ever before thanks to the Web. But hey, I’m not embarrassed to add a few hundred sunset words, and a handful of photographs, to the Everest-high piles already out there. Don’t bail out on me. Keep reading.

And so on the aforementioned day at 5:15 PM, Sandy and I were in Chatham, a needless-to-say charming Cape Cod town. We had just watched Steven Spielberg’s latest oeuvre, Bridge Of Spies, in the Chatham Orpheum Theater. Our next planned destination was 20 miles away, Harvest Gallery Wine Bar. There we meant to dine and listen to a tough as nails rock trio, The Catbirds. But there was no need to arrive before 7 PM. We had time to kill. We scratched our heads, coming up empty. Then “sunset” popped into my mind. Sandy checked with her phone, which is much smarter than me, and learned that the Sun would dip below the horizon at 5:57. I steered our car westward and then turned south onto a road I’d never heard of, hoping that we eventually would find our way to a Chatham beach on Nantucket Sound. The sand gods must have been with us, for Hardings Beach Road soon materialized. And moments later Hardings Beach itself emerged.

We parked. The spot was gorgeous. Lovely sands, magnificent Nantucket Sound waters gently rippling beneath a sky puffy here and there with clouds. The clouds made my heart leap, or something like that, because a scattering of clouds, as I’ve come to realize from years of sunset-gazing on the Cape, is key to a good sunset. Their water droplets and other particles refract light beams and reflect colors. Their movements and changing forms turn sunsets into active canvases. And that’s what happened as Sandy and I watched our fiery faraway friend say goodnight.

Sunset at Hardings Beach. 5:56 PM.
Sunset at Hardings Beach. 5:56 PM.
Sunset at Hardings Beach. 6:05 PM.
Sunset at Hardings Beach. 6:05 PM.
Sunset with the Moon at Hardings Beach. 6:07 PM.
Sunset. The Moon. Hardings Beach. 6:07 PM.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lot of people claim to dislike colorful abstract art, certain paintings by, say, Vasily Kandinsky or Jackson Pollock. I don’t get that, because everybody loves sunsets, which to me can be among the ultimate in eye-popping abstractions. I’ve never read that sunsets inspired any brush wielders to go wild and free in their approach or vision, but it wouldn’t surprise me if in fact this were the case. Sandy and I watched the sky for 20 minutes. The pinks and oranges darkened as the big event rolled on. The clouds worked their wonders. And in a little while Sandy pointed up and said, “There’s the Moon.” It was a graceful sliver of white balancing above swashes of pastel hues.

On Cape Cod I’ve been a lucky son of a gun many times. That evening on Hardings Beach was one of them.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

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A Pretty Park Can Be Pretty Hard To Find

Back in 1981 the Philadelphia Museum Of Art mounted an exhibition of photographs by Robert Adams. Adams took the photos in the 1970s. They were images of western American states, the desolate areas, primarily deserts and mountains. I remember the show fairly well. No matter how remote the locale, nearly every photograph bore evidence of man’s hand: A telephone pole, tire ruts in the sand, roads winding like barber pole stripes around magnificent mountains. One of Adams’s points was that pure wilderness is long gone, so we better get used to it and be glad for the great though adulterated spaces that exist. I imagine that even if you found yourself in the middle of Antarctica’s biggest ice shelf, and I don’t wish that fate on too many of us, you wouldn’t have to wait impossibly long before an airplane passed overhead. Man is everywhere. Yikes.

Now, a half-baked embryonic distillation of those thoughts was in my head recently when my wife Sandy suggested that we walk around the grounds of Abington Art Center, a few miles south of our home in the Philadelphia suburbs. “Sure,” I said, “good idea.” But what I didn’t say is that I’d prefer to stroll some expansive Adams-like terrain. In my dreams. Around here in the burbs, man for the last 75 years has been relentlessly busy cutting down trees and pouring cement. Around here, you have to count your lucky stars that any good-looking patches of territory of any sort still exist.

Manor house and lawn at Abington Art Center.
Manor house and lawn at Abington Art Center.

Abington Art Center is one of those patches. The center contains the manor house and some of the grounds of a former estate. The house is used for art classes and gallery exhibits and the like. The grounds mostly are a huge lawn that slopes away from the rear of the house and 10 or 15 acres of woods. It’s a lovely place. And it is more than manor, grass and trees. Scattered here and there on the great lawn and on side lawns and in the woods are all manner of sculptures, about 50 all told. Sandy and I had a good time at the center. For two hours we looked at trees and artworks and burned off a few calories while walking a couple of miles.

The play of light in the woods at Abington Art Center.
The play of light in the woods at Abington Art Center.

I like the outdoors. But I’m hardly a naturalist. My knowledge of flora and fauna has more holes than you can count. And so at Abington Art Center I found myself admiring a specific leafy tree species, of which many examples exist in the center’s tiny forest, having no clue what I was looking at. They weren’t maples or oaks. Those I can identify. Whatever the trees were, they were  the tallest at the center. They measured well over 100 feet from bottom to top and didn’t wander leftward or rightward on their way towards the heavens. Their mothers must have told them from an early age to stand up straight. What also fascinated me was the play of light within the woods, how one tree’s upper reaches might be caught by the day’s intense sun, while others only a few feet away were out of the sun’s direct path. Contrasts of this sort always have appealed to me.

Mazzaroth is Alison Stigora's construction of burnt tree branches.
Mazzaroth is Alison Stigora’s construction of burnt tree branches.

The sculpture I thought the most of in the woods was Alison Stigora’s Mazzaroth. It’s an assemblage of burnt tree branches fitted together tightly to portray . . . what? A serpent? The movement of time? As the years go on, Mazzaroth will crumble and become one with the forest floor, as will the trees surrounding it.

You’re not going to confuse many of the sculptures at Abington Art Center with creations by David Smith, Louise Nevelson or other deservedly famed artists. Few if any are on that level. Some though, like Mazzaroth, had me looking them over from different angles because I liked them a lot. Take two on the great lawn, for instance. They are placed near each other and are as different as they can be.

Cabin Van Gogh at Abington Art Center.
Cabin Van Gogh at Abington Art Center.
Partial view of bed and table inside Cabin Van Gogh.
Partial view of bed and table inside Cabin Van Gogh.

What is a lopsided small wooden cabin doing on the grass at Abington? Well, it’s a whimsical piece of art and is right at home there. Weather-beaten, cute and loveable, it contains within, of all things, a bed, chair and table lifted straight out of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of his bedroom in Arles, France. This work is Knox Cummin’s Habitation Suite: Cabin Van Gogh. Vincent I believe would have been charmed  by Cummin’s idea to build such an unlikely homage, and also by the view of foliage from the cabin’s open back side.

David Schafer's orange sculpture at Abington Art Center.
David Schafer’s orange sculpture at Abington Art Center.

Uphill from the cabin stands what looks a bit like a lifeguard tower painted in bright orange, some of its support slats atilt. David Schafer, the creator, named his piece Untitled Expression: How to Look at Sculpture. I suspect that the notions behind the giddy orange tower are partly conceptual. Sculptures, like just about anything, are multifaceted. No need to try and pin down a precise meaning. Observe, surmise and enjoy. One of my takes, subject to change, is that the sculpture is alive yet indecisive, that it is shaking out its stiff bones and readying to inch forward but hasn’t gotten into gear quite yet. And what’s going on with that public address system speaker? I remembered later that it had a practical purpose once, as a recorded message played from it for months after the sculpture was first installed about six years ago. Sandy and I were at Abington Art Center at that time and heard the message. If we were put into a deep hypnotic state, maybe we’d recall what the message was. Gone silent, to me the speaker now just looks cool.

(All photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

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Outdoors At Last, At Morris Arboretum

Ocean, beach and sand cliffs on Cape Cod.
Ocean, beach and sand cliffs on Cape Cod.

Cape Cod has become a favorite locale for me and my wife. It was love at first sight when we first ventured there for a vacation in 1998. We like pretty much everything about Cape Cod, but the one aspect above all others is its expansive areas of startling beauty. The Cape’s Atlantic Ocean beach, for one example, is breathtaking, about 30 miles of it uninterrupted and basically undeveloped. In the off-season you can walk there as far as you like, gazing at the waters and the tall sand cliffs backing the beach, and there’s a good chance you’ll cross paths with nary another human. Not many places where such a scenario can be duplicated. And at Cape Cod’s outer reaches is one of the more astonishing vistas I’ve ever seen, a five mile long lunar-like expanse of enormous sand dunes and valleys. Most unusual, most unexpected.

Cape Cod’s natural world draws me outdoors. When Capeside my wife and I spend hours in the fresh air daily. Home in the burbs, though, it’s another story. Here I’m out when mowing the lawn or shoveling snow or shooting hoops at my neighborhood playground. Other than that I’m indoors most of the time, and I think this is because there’s a dearth of beautiful suburban places to get lost in.

Luckily for me, Philadelphia is at hand. It’s an old city and a new one, with great architecture and sights. Walking its streets and parks is an outdoors activity that I do a fair amount of.  On Memorial Day weekend’s Sunday, my wife had an inspired Philadelphia idea. Let’s visit Morris Arboretum, she suggested. We hadn’t been there in years. This would be a fine chance to spend time in a lovely green spot not far from home. Okay, I said. We drove to Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill section, where the Morris takes up a lot of space (167 acres). We spent three hours there. It was good to be outside for an extended period.

Morris Arboretum originally was an estate named Compton, home to siblings John Morris and Lydia Morris. They were wealthy, worldly and civic-minded folks. Their mansion is no longer with us, but Compton’s grounds and some secondary buildings remain. Established in 1887, Compton stayed in Morris hands till 1932, the year of Lydia’s passing (John had died in 1915). Lydia bequeathed Compton to the University of Pennsylvania as a botanical garden and research facility. The U of P has maintained and developed the property ever since.

Morris Arboretum has gotten a whole lot better since our previous visit. Back then a parent might have said to his or her five year old Amy or Andy, “Hey, look at that pine tree. Isn’t it beautiful?” and Amy or Andy would have responded “I’m bored, let’s go home.” The arboretum managers, obviously smart people, saw the need to build kid-magnet structures. Up went the Garden Railway in the late 1990s, and in 2009 Out On A Limb opened.

Morris Arboretum's Out On A Limb.
Morris Arboretum’s Out On A Limb.
Out On A Limb's play area.
Out On A Limb’s play area.

Out On A Limb is very cool. It’s an elevated twisting boardwalk, supported by steel columns and threaded between trees on a hilly part of the arboretum’s grounds. You enter at ground level and in a few seconds, because the earth slopes away quickly,  you’re looking down 40 or more feet at the forest floor. Walking alongside the mid and upper reaches of trees is a gas. Best yet is the play area at the walkway’s far end, where giant rope hammocks are suspended off to the side. Kids abound there. No wonder that attendance at Morris Arboretum has grown steadily since Out On A Limb came on the scene.

Morris Arboretum's Garden Railway.
Morris Arboretum’s Garden Railway.

Almost as invigorating is the Garden Railway. Nestled among trees and shrubbery near the Morris’s Rose Garden, it is a cleverly designed toy train layout. Passenger trains, freight trains, cable cars, tunnels, bridges . . . all are there in three large separate areas. So are natural-material replicas of famous structures, such as the Eiffel Tower and Philadelphia’s City Hall. The trains wind their way over, around and through, disappearing from view, eventually reemerging. My wife and I were intrigued by the whole set-up. It’s something.

The amazing Blue Atlas Cedar at Morris Arboretum.
The amazing Blue Atlas Cedar at Morris Arboretum.

It’s not a bad idea to stroll the arboretum’s grounds with no particular plan. That is to say, you won’t go wrong by not referring too often to the map you’re given at the information center. Morris Arboretum is a work of art, sculpted to display its trees, flower gardens, fern groves, swan pond and shrubs. Poking around them randomly works. Plenty of things, often green ones, will catch your eye. One tree in particular caught mine, a Blue Atlas Cedar. One of this massive being’s long lower limbs shoots out perpendicularly to the trunk, resting on the earth. The limb I think grows that way naturally. It doesn’t appear to have been forced into its strange position by windstorms or magic.

Sculptures by George Sugarman.
Sculptures by George Sugarman.
African Queen, a stone sculpture at Morris Arboretum.
African Queen, a stone sculpture at Morris Arboretum.

Manmade sculpture is another big part of the arboretum experience. Many such objects are placed on the grounds, continuing a tradition that John and Lydia began. The most colorful are the large playful and organically-shaped painted aluminum creations by the late George Sugarman. They’ve been on site since 1981. The most alluring sculpture to me is African Queen, a stone carving from Zimbabwe, artist unknown. How old is it? 50 years? 500 years? If the arboretum custodians have the answer, they’re not saying. Regardless, it’s a charmer. Pablo Picasso, who was greatly influenced by African art, would have loved it. The armless queen is asleep, her sweet face lost in dreams. The artist chose to depict her headdress as broad and undefined, focusing attention to the face below. A visit to Morris Arboretum, in my opinion, is incomplete without making time for this superb piece.