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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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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