Category Archives: Dogs

The Pleasures of the Urban Arborist

I wish I could suck it all up, absorb it and remember every single thing. Driving in the black night over the highways of New York City to get to the site. The lichen on the burly oaks. Their majesty.

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The flashy red leaf plum.

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The smell of sesame oil wafting through the Chinese neighborhood at Francis Lewis Boulevard. The 7:30 am parade of children to school, holding their parents’ hands. The identical row houses of Queens. The crone who was surprised when I approached her: “She’s a lady!” which is true, though I like feeling a little bit like a man on this job. The persistent smell of exhaust from the landscaping truck. Prickly sweetgum balls, red maple twigs, the puffs that hang swaying from the london plane.

 

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The way the root of the l.p. emphatically bulges over and raises up the sidewalk.

 

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The resident who was aghast that her neighbors had had their mammoth tree butchered: “I came back from Vegas and it was done!”

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The haunted houses of Brooklyn.

 

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Learning to differentiate between a zelkova and a linden. Bad bodega coffee. The best lunch in the world.

 

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The soapy grace of laundromats that let you pee there. Proud pit bulls. The soft detritus of leaves pushed up against the gutters. Laying my palm on a fat cherry trunk, feeling its lenticels under the pads of my fingers.

Days that are poems.

 

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And always, the juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade.

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I’ve been doing this for just under a year now.

 

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Slowdown Saturday

A knuckle-sized frog hopped straight by the woodpile.

A butterfly lit on a thistle.

Chickadees flocked around the bird feeder, making off with safflower seeds.

A long day, reading a long novel.

Excitement: Oliver thundering from the porch toward the rabbit he’ll never catch.

It grew cool, deep shadows stretched across the grass.

Then there were dinner pancakes, made with fresh-laid eggs from the good neighbor’s coop and local blueberries, soaked in a friend’s home-tapped maple syrup.

blues

“Summer afternoon, summer afternoon,” said Henry James. “To me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”

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Hummingbirds, Bats and Butterflies

The Desert Discovery Guide invited us to enjoy three zones along a trail that led out from the Scottsdale Senior Center: a hummingbird nest, a saguaro and bat sanctuary, and a butterfly garden.

desert garden

I foresaw bliss ahead, an afternoon of hummingbirds, bats and butterflies, all in one swooping, fluttering place.

We just had to follow the gleaming glass-embedded arrows.

green path

They look like jelly beans, said my mother.

jellly beans

The mesquite dangled over our heads.

mesquite

Desert blooms along the way tantalized us. They would be perfect for butterflies, wouldn’t they?

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There was a monstrous twin-headed cactii. A bat home! Where were the bats?

twin saguaro

Saguaro are unlike any other plant, said my mother. All the others follow a regular pattern. Not so the saguaro.

Walk, walk, follow the arrows. All around, mallow, the peachy-orange blooms that hummingbirds love.

blue path

Not a hummingbird to be seen, though, in a nest or out. No sanctuary for bats, no garden for butterflies.

A trail to nowhere, with plants in bud, an empty picnic table, a tall metal sculpture standing alone.

sculpture

But a kindly elf had constructed an ingenious dog fountain on the dirt, activated by paw pressure.

dog bowl

We went in hope of something and came away emptyhanded, but for a handful of jellybeans and thorns. Sounds like Easter is on its way.

 

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Deep in the Novel Cave

Sshhh. I can’t hear you. I am writing a book. Or as Father John Misty said in a song last year, “I’m writing a novel, because it’s never been done before.”

I want to make amends for letting my daily posts slide a bit recently. It’s partly that I’m preoccupied by the release of Savage Girl, yes. But more relevant, perhaps, I have been deep in novel-writing, a process that in my experience tends to zone out most other activity. Like laundry, dishes, housekeeping.

My new book tells the story of a girl in 1776 New-York (back when the city had a hyphen), and I have been spending all my time in that British-occupied city.

Let me tell you what it is like in my household when Gil and I are writing books.

We wake. Let Oliver out the door. Let Oliver back in.

winsome OIiver

Coffee, lots of it. We sit down at the computer. Get up for lunch, the lightest lunch possible so that we won’t be sluggish in the afternoon. Sit down once more at the computer. Knock off in the late afternoon. Let Oliver take us for walk. Dinner. Game of Thrones reruns. A fitful, novel-haunted sleep.

Next morning, begin again.

It is boring. It is fascinating. To me, anyway, if to no one else.

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Thus quoth Somerset Maugham. And so it is really a matter of creating new rules, a new language, every single day until you get your 450 manuscript pages finished. You never know what you’re doing. It’s insecurity raised to the max, alternating with momentary blips of glee that you got something right. Got something write. Ha.

Anything outside that process is hard to fathom, hard to incorporate – the spring buds on the trees, the return of the birds, social beckonings, exercise, even cooking good food, something that for me almost never falls by the wayside.

I remember years ago attending a party with a book freshly done, wiped out, eyes bleary, toasted to a turn, and thinking that it was impossible to even have a social conversation with someone who had not just finished a book. I simply could not relate to a book-less human being.

“There is nothing to writing,” said Hemingway, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” A mite melodramatic, are we?

Once upon a time, the novelist Amy Tan’s house burned down with her manuscript in it. She didn’t have another copy. She said she had no interest in talking to anybody whose house had not burned down, she was so consumed by what had happened.

So Gil and I retreat into our little cave, better known as the Cabin. The only thing in the Cabin is, right now, a pair of computers. And a dog. (Oliver refuses incontrovertibly to fall by the wayside.) There is the odor of hyacinth in the air, a strangely chemical smell, if beautiful. And a new page to be written, with words I cannot yet imagine.

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Long Winter’s Nap

I’ve taken the polar express right upstairs to my bedroom, since my downstairs office is a good 15 degrees colder. Computer, books, coffee, check. The only thing I lack here is a canopy bed such as the kind they built during the middle ages.

medieval block print

Long curtains to pull around the sides kept you cozy.

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Sleeping might not have been so comfortable today as it involved straw-stuffed, weevil-engorged mattresses. But it was better, I think, than earlier, when the Romans laid themselves out on planks.

Roman Beds

Especially for the wealthier sort in the Middle Ages, drapery offered privacy. Nice when servants and even livestock slept in the same great hall as you did.

med bed and bedroom

I’ve always liked the Dutch version of the canopy, which often appears in Golden Age art with a cradle right near by.

Woman cradle de Hooch

And often a dog. Here there’s also an idea I’d like to bring back tonight, a warming pan into which you place hot coals, then swish it fast between your sheets before you slide between them.

I’ve frequently been tempted  to crawl right in to a bedstead in Colonial museum or historic house. Especially nice is the idea of a blazing fire right nearby.

colonial williamsburg canopy bed

I could hide. Pull the brocade, stay quiet and nobody would find me.

1800 New England bed w curtains and valance

Though they might hear me swiffing the warming pan around.

Van Cortlandt House bed

Wait until spring comes, yank back the curtains, roll out. A survivor of the cold snap of 2014.

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The Hearth of the Matter

Oh, why am I out, seeking sushi sustenance, on the coldest day of the year?

Because I have a touch of cabin fever, and because Maud all but forcibly pulled me out, plunked me on my scooter, and got me to a hot bowl of miso soup at Okinawa nearby.

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Living in the Cabin, even with central heating, we spend a lot of time in front of a fire stoked with very good hardwood. I can’t help but imagine the hearths of the past when New York was Dutch, when New Amsterdam was 15 streets and 2,000 residents. When a fire was the only heat source in a long, bitter winter.

1  1655 Manhattan View

Not much remains of that era’s built environment. But one impressive hearth specimen remains from the 1680s, twenty miles up the Hudson from Manhattan in Yonkers, New York. Now known as Philipse Manor Hall, it was then the house  Margaret Hardenbroeck built. I wrote about her, her female descendants and her home, constructed of coursed rubblestone masonry in the then-wilderness, for my history The Women of the House. Hardenbroeck and her husband Frederick Philipse had negotiated for tens of thousands of acres with the local Lenape Indians.

17  PMH South Facade

In her new home’s first-flour room — seen here to the left — with its corner view of the river and the majestic Palisades, she installed a fireplace of bricks held together by plaster fortified with horsehair. It was huge, designed in the style of fireplaces of the day, so big a person could duck inside and see the clear cobalt heavens through the brick-framed top. A tongue of flagstone extended into the room, providing a generous space to prepare meals. A slightly more genteel version of her hearth can be seen at New York’s Van Cortlandt House– the oldest house in the Bronx — built some years later, in 1748.

van cortlandt house, nyc

Despite the heat that must have escaped up the chimney, the occupants of Hardenbroeck’s house, out in the woods, all by themselves, with no neighbors, no local tavern, no welcoming church, would surely stay warm.

How do you think the Dutch in America survived the cold winters? I asked Maud as we tucked into hot coffee.

Maud sips

They wore plenty of furs, she said.

Right. It didn’t hurt that Hardenbroeck made her living as a fur trader – one of the most successful of the age. This could be a likeness of her engaging in her business, beaver hat set squarely on her head.

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She traveled from the island of Manhattan up the Hudson to Albany to acquire beaver pelts from Native American trappers and returned south to ship the furs off to Holland, sometimes traveling on board to keep an eye on her merchandise. She made a fortune, more than enough to build her solid Yonkers pied a terre and to clothe herself in furs as well. She was a crack businesswoman and I always liked to see her signature at the bottom of contracts.11 Margarets SignatureShe could definitely drape herself in all the furs she wanted to, like this well-cloaked London fashionista from the era, portrayed by Wenceslas Hollar. The mask is to keep her complexion fresh.

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Something odd struck me about Hardenbroeck’s fireplace when I first saw it. Most Dutch hearths have a decorative surround of Delft tiles.

Delft Tile 15

Staid Dutch burghers usually employed tilework in pure white or sober biblical allegories in safe shades of blue. Hardenbroeck’s, on the other hand, was framed by painted tiles that she might have found especially chic, with exotic pictures in a stylish minor-key tint called manganese that resembled the magenta-blue-brown of a fading bruise. Off shades called “sad” persisted as high fashion in the clothes of this period, denoting not necessarily gray or black but muddier earth tones, whether russet, plummy red, or the golden brown called ‘tawney.’ Even some pewter plates received the descriptor “sad-colored.”

Hardenbroeck chose a theme  with some Delft craftman’s cracked vision of the wilden of the New World: heavy-lidded hermaphrodites frolicking on animal feet, breasts bulging, carrying fruits that resembled ripe melons and accompanied by old-style griffins. These images reflected the era, which paired intensive high-seas exploration and scientific curiosity with tenacious ancient beliefs in monsters.

PMH Fireplace Tile

Artists and writers without firsthand knowledge of lands abroad still portrayed the scenery of America as crowded with Cyclopes and unicorns and other odd beasts, like those of Fortunio Liceti, who was sharing his creations with the world at around the same time.

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The fanciful renderings on Hardenbroeck’s hearth tiles offer an ironic counterpoint to the house’s site, centered among the ghosts of ancient native villages whose all-too human inhabitants had perished of fevers, plagues and violence. New Amsterdam, where Hardenbroeck spent most of her time, was relatively cosmopolitan – for America. These were people, not only Dutch but a range of nationalities, who had braved all sorts of dangers to settle here, and now they lived clustered together in relative safety. They even bartered and socialized with the local Indians, when they weren’t making war on them.

But did the fur trader’s hearth fires keep her warm against the seventeenth century equivalent of our polar vortex? We have to assume they did. Folksy colonial historian Alice Morse Earle quoted a poem in one of her many books about the Dutch in Manhattan.

Shut in from all the world about,

We sat at the clean-winged hearth about,

Content to let the north wind roar

In baffled rage at pane and door,

While the red logs before us beat

The frost-line back with tropic heat;

And ever, when a louder blast

Shook beam and rafter as it passed,

The merrier up its roaring draught

The great throat of the chimney laughed,

The house dog on his paws outspread

Laid to the fire his drowsy head…

Hardenbroeck kept her up-river lodgings until her death in 1691, at the age of 54, and the house stayed in the family for a century after that, until the loyalist Philipses were driven off their estate after the Revolution, back to England. Hardenbroeck used the house at Yonkers throughout her career-intensive years as a stopover on her way to and from the fur fair at Albany, storing goods in a dry, paved cellar, no doubt happy to warm her hands by a blazing fire for a couple of days en route.

The sushi has arrived.

sushi

Cold fish on a cold day, how nice. We are fond of our fresh fish, here along the Hudson in the winter of 2014. No doubt, the Dutch denizens of New York also appreciated their seafood more than 300 years ago. After all, the harbor at New Amsterdam was stocked with foot-long oysters.

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From the Chimney With Care

They’re waiting. Waiting in plain sight, hung from the chimney with care, assembled of felt and yarn and sparkles. Everyone in the house for the holidays is an adult now, but still we hang our stockings.

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The practice of hanging a Christmas stocking… why hang a sock to collect treats, or put out a shoe as people do it in some cultures? I’ve never found a satisfactory answer, but I always associate it with the idea that your dog always wants to chew up your shoe, because he loves you and that’s the part of you that smells most like you.

O beseeching

He knows not what he does. That’s what I’ve always heard. So Santa is looking to find the part of you that is most you when he tracks down the stocking you hang with care.

1900 stocking

Auntie, my mother’s aunt, made her converted sweet potato shed in Greenfield, Tennessee into a cozy home. She had a tiny room that never failed to impress me with its huge stash of craft materials, from buttons to calico to giant skeins of acrylic yarn.

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Auntie knitted, she made lace, she crocheted, she sewed. She was simply a craft adept. And she loved kids, though she never had any of her own, referring to her home economics students at Dresden High School as my children. My Christmas stocking and those of my brothers were Auntie’s creations.

auntie stocking

Last year I learned to knit a sock. I thought I could use it as a Christmas stocking if it ever got long enough. It didn’t. It was orange anyway. Luckily I still have my old beauty from Auntie.

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For some reason people have competed over the years to set a record for the biggest Christmas stocking. That seems odd to me, as a Christmas stocking is by nature pleasantly ordinary of stature, somewhat roomier than an actual sock that fits your foot but no larger as that would be somehow… greedy. One time recently The Children’s Society in London organized a stocking of 6,000 squares of red knitting, as long as three doubledecker buses. I hear that it weighed the equivalent of five reindeer and bulged with with toys for the poor.

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If you have a stocking that is yours and has always been yours, you are lucky. A personal stocking. Gil’s stocking reverted back to him somewhere along the way, emerging out of the Wisconsin Christmas Box, perhaps when someone noticed he was on the verge of entering a second childhood and needed all the treats he could get. He also inherited the Christmas ornaments his mother made for him, one for every year of his young life. Most of them seem to be assembled of toothpicks in some form or another.

gil ornament

Gil was the youngest of five, and that made it important that the old lady brought in to produce his stocking should knit the letters of his name in a bold block print around the top edge. He wanted his fair share of candy on Christmas morning.

gil stocking

Gil remembers the fascination he felt for the tiny plastic gewgaws that decorated his stocking.

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The little drummer boy with his big sisters in this 1890 shot could actually be Gil.

1890-xmas

Maud must have been around three when I decided to make her a personalized stocking. I remember carefully picking out the supplies at a crafts store near her grandparents’ house, where we were staying for the holidays. With enough glue, red, white and green felt and some pompoms would surely make something. And it did.

maud stocking

For some reason a curious mouse found its way onto the toe – maybe I was thinking of the Nutcracker.  The stocking had hearts and bow-tied presents and glitter, plus the letters of her name, all the trimmings my little sprite would want to see hanging near the fireplace. The girl herself looked all grown up. It was as if I was looking into the future. The stocking, I knew, would be a keeper.

hope your stocking

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