It seems they wouldn’t know a sycamore

from a sasquatch.

Peoples’ lack of knowledge about tree species comes as something of a surprise as I begin to lead tours at Ellis Island. It has dozens of mature sycamores lining a landscaped lawn just in front of the main immigration building, as well as elsewhere in the complex of 29 buildings.

Pose the question, Do you know what tree this is, and everyone draws a blank. That provides a good opportunity for me to natter on about the cream-and-brown camouflage bark, how these amazing trees grow, how impervious they are to difficult natural conditions, how old they can get. Five hundred years, I have read, though I doubt it. These are somewhere under a century old.

Elegant, substantial, even hearty. Yes, some have seen better days. Some have been cared for better than others.

There are always surprises on Ellis.

Bagpipers assembled today to celebrate Scottish-American Heritage Month.

It created a nice musical accompaniment to the opening of my tour, in which I introduce myself as a proud product of Ellis Island, having a grandfather who came to America as a child in 1900, fresh off a Polish shtetl, with nothing but five dollars in his hand. The sight of the Statue of Liberty out a hospital window would have been a surprise, even a revelation to him.

Sycamores are often called plane trees – they belong to the genus Platanus, an ancient kind of flowering tree with fossils confirming it to be at least 100 million years old. The American sycamore is Platanus occidentalis, but there are other recognizable versions, including the London plane tree that clots the sidewalks of its namesake city, yes, but also New York City. Somewhat confusingly, the London plane is a hybrid, Platanus x acerfolia, a cross between Platanus occidentalis and Platanus orientalis. I’ve heard it said that the two species sort of randomly commingled in the back yard of a London botanist some time in a previous century, but that would appear to be myth. Somebody, surely, intentionally crossed the two kinds — maybe Dickens? He knew everything about everything.

Another Ellis surprise – to me – came when I asked the guard at her post on the New Jersey end of the 400-yard back door bridge to the Island how she liked her view of the daffodils in front of her window.

Oh, is that what you call them? she asked in perfect English. I didn’t know! I texted my friend to say what’s with these crazy yellow flowers? She said to send her a pic.

Yes, they are daffodils, blooming in profusion everyplace In Liberty State Park, along the Turnpike, in our Westchester yards. Everywhere. Daffodils. New life.

The London plane tree was planted throughout London during the Industrial Revolution and it proved to be astonishingly good at thriving in the soot and smoke.

Some have called the sycamore the buttonwood tree, a name deriving from the seed balls that bounce from its branches. The terms of the New York stock exchange were hammered out in the shade of a buttonwood tree down on Wall Street in 1792. Yes, totally true story. Okay.

More current, and definitely more accurate, the trees in front of the immigration station were designated Ellis Island Sycamores in 1987 in honor of the Bicentennial of the United States constitution. At that time, the ruined, abandoned historic facility had been taken in hand, cleared of trees, poison ivy and squatters. The Guastavino ceiling tiles had been polished, buffed and restored. The landmark was about ready to receive its hundreds upon hundreds of tourists and ancestry-seekers. Welcome! Now, we care for our trees.

I have not yet established when these particular sycamores took root here. But they lend a calm and stolid presence to the many people bustling by in the quest for their own roots. The sycamores and the daffodils. Let us name them.


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Spring, season of music and madness,

is here. And magic. Trees are still budding out, but in planters on the street flowers bloom.

At Hekate, a “sober bar” on Manhattan’s lower east side, there is a little of all three.

The music is the band Maputi, with Nora Balaban on the mbira, Banning Eyre on guitar and Rima Fand playing violin. Traditional Zimbabwean rhythms, lulling, hypnotic. Trance music.

The magic, served up by a witchy wench of a bartender, consists of elixirs designed to elevate your mood.

I find The Healer refreshing enough to quaff in one gulp: Apothekary’s Blue Me Away, lemonade, seltzer and lavender simple syrup. Don’t try this at home. Or if you do, make sure you invite me over.

The madness? That would come at 1 pm, 7 days a week, when the wannabe druids “gather to listen to the trees” at Corlears Hook Park on the East River. “They are smarter than us! They have been here longer!”

But is that really so crazy? I’d like to join the assembly with a Healer in a thermos and Maputi rocking my earbuds.

Spring. It’s here.

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Geez, only bluebonnets are in bloom!

was my first thought upon entering the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.

 Not true though.

It’s only that they have such a massive presence everywhere you look.

Other flowers also are poking up.

Most of them I don’t know by name, though the garden is if anything overboard with its signage. Now even I can recognize coral honeysuckle.

I know what I like. The shy kind of blooms. I feel that way sometimes too.

Trees flowering also. Mexican plum.

Other fetching amusements. Tiny lily pads in a discreet little pond. Tiny tadpoles, soon to be tiny frogs.

A hobbit door for children, unfortunately not open for visitors small or big at the moment.

Something else wonderful, a gazebo that has benches of repurposed wood, with each of the boards labeled. Live oak, harvested from Dell Medical School campus in Austin.

You can run your hand along the grain and know the tree that gave it to you.

Sculptures of wildlife dot the woodland trails.

This forest is wonderful, private, shady. A massive post oak.

But you always come back to the native beds.

What is the name of those wonderful flowers? Who cares? The air has a syrupy sweetness. There’s mountain laurel.

A few monarchs already float by, though many more will come to this pollinator sanctuary. I rest on a bench, and something tickles the back of my neck. Oh, wouldn’t you know, Anacardiaceae, in the sumac family. Should’ve recognized ya.

I’m leaving to fly home to New York, but will definitely come back when the beds are a riot of color.

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Here is what happened.

First off, seedlings are available at 79.95 a pop. They’re rare. They’re historic. They’re cool.

The story of their parentage goes back a ways.

Let’s start with the more recent history. A crazy guy in Austin was spurned by his would-be lover under a gracious old Southern live oak that stood downtown amid all the glass high-rise buildings. It happened in 1989. He took revenge by poisoning the tree, injecting it with the powerful herbicide Velpar—actually the amount that would kill 100 trees. The tree nearly died. A crew of arborists came together to save the magnificent specimen, bankrolled by Ross Perot (and aided with the unheralded expertise of tree company Bartlett, it is said). Dupont, manufacturer of Velpar, offered a 10,000-dollar reward to find the culprit. The crazy guy, who confessed he had been trying to cast a spell on his counselor at a local methadone clinic, went to jail for nine years for this heinous act (he’s now deceased).

The Treaty Oak, as it is known, still stands, surrounded by a protective metal chain.

It’s hard to kill an icon.

Just leafing out.

In the Lone Star State things are immense, and the Treaty Oak is no exception. Sturdy, husky, stout of trunk. Still, almost two-thirds of the tree went to tree heaven.

The story stretches back. The Treaty Oak had already stood for a century before Columbus landed in the New World, according to current estimates. The Comanches and the Tonkawas met in its sacred shade to hammer out agreements. Thirteen other equally magnificent oaks stood nearby, in a grove now called the Council Oaks. Legend holds that women of the Teias tribe would drink a tea made from honey and the acorns of these oaks to ensure the safety of warriors in battle. Dances performed there, war councils commenced, etc. Important stuff.

Also it is said that Sam Houston rested beneath the Treaty Oak after his expulsion from the Governor’s office (look it up).

In 1927, the city of Austin purchased the tree from a local family for 1,000 dollars. That same year, the tree obtained national status as the most perfect example of a North American tree, and was entered into the National Forestry’s Hall of Fame. Downtown surges all around it.

So many years passed. The Treaty Oak nearly perished, as we have seen. The intensive efforts to save the historic, even mythical tree included applications of sugar to the root zone, replacement of soil around its roots. the installation of a system to mist the tree with spring water. Although the more negative-minded expected the tree to die, the Treaty Oak survived.

Finally, in 1997, this legend once again bore acorns. Hence the 79.95 dollar saplings. “The creation of a thousand forests,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is in one acorn.” A Texas company called Legendary Trees markets youngsters along with the offspring of 10 other famous trees, including Texas A&M University’s Century Tree (the most popular one, reports the company), Comanche’s Fleming Oak and New Braunfels’ Church Oak.

What would make a man, even a crazy guy, poison a tree?

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Life being somewhat complicated and challenging

at times, it is awfully good to focus on the basics: coffee, tacos, and dogs. Fortunately there is an abundance of all three in Austin, Texas, where I happen to be sojourning for several days. I knew good things were in store when I spotted the taco food truck actually inside the airport terminal. It was 11pm and the place was hopping. The millennials seemed all to be heading back from Las Vegas.

Nothing too weird yet, but I feel something could be about to spring up.

Until then, got a jump on the caffeine thing with a cosmic coffee, a spring specialty at Maud’s favorite joint that pairs cold brew with Mexican vanilla, orange honey and oat milk. Pretty decent. Next time might go for the root beer latte.

Texas mountain laurels have just come into bloom and it seems every little old fashioned bungalow has one out front.

The western redbuds are popping too.


Now a latte and a stop at the Korean nail salon. The man getting a gel manicure next to me wants it to be known that he is getting a special design on each of his pinkies: a peace sign rendered in yellow and blue.

Not quite a Rothko, but very much in keeping with the spirit of the times.

Canines run free in the dog park except when they pause awaiting the flight of a ragged tennis ball.

I wish our lives had the simplicity of Fetch under the live oaks. Everyone here wears flip flops, so I got a pair. Ahhh, instantaneous simplicity.

Are you hungry yet? You’re in luck.

Criispy pork belly tacos with fried parsley and mandarin orange pico.

Extra fat included at no charge. Fingers are for licking.

Two of my favorites come intermixed in a dirty horchata–horchata and coffee, silly. You knew that.

Home again, home again. Baths and naps all around. The simple life.

No freak show.

Perhaps that will come later. It is Austin, after all. I feel we’re just gearing up.

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The ghosts of immigrants past

congregate volubly at Ellis Island for those who would pay attention.

Some fortunate people enter through a back door bridge from Liberty State Park in New Jersey rather than the tried and true ferry.

If you insist on visiting the Statue of Liberty, fine. I’ve seen her enough and I’ll probably never scale the heights to the torch, even if it reopens. At Ellis Island there’s a nifty view of the Lady of the Harbor’s back.

But there’s a lot I find more thrilling. It’s good to stoke up with a humous and kale sandwich in a café thronged with high school students. Check out the ho-hum view out an ordinary window. Just the Freedom Tower, up close and personal.

But nothing at Ellis Island is ho-hum for long. The high-ceilinged, well-refurbished, shiny Great Hall offers a view of how some of our ancestors arrived in America. One in four of us, in fact, have some tie to an immigrant who arrived here on Ellis.

If you take the Hard Hat Tour on the unrestored south side of the island, be prepared for a different view.

And this is why I love it. You can feel the presence of the past. The walls breathe magic.

There are 29 structures on the south side that have long since fallen into ruin, and lucky visitors get to go behind the scenes and see it all. The fantastic organization Save Ellis Island raises funds to restore the complex, and there is a long way to go. In the meantime, being there means immersion in a fever dream.

These were all hospital buildings, constructed in the most up-to-date manner, with proper ventilation.

Our guide points overhead to where the nurses lodged, in a bunk room we are not now permitted to enter because of its fragile state.

It was a mandate that all nurses be single. There were four female doctors on the premises as well. But the story becomes largely about nurses and the children they cared for, in addition to the treatment of contagious and infectious diseases, the problems that detained so many immigrants here until they could be released into the general population.

We are introduced to a nurses’s station, long disappeared.

Then and now. A sick ward—can you imagine it?

Here is a visual aid.

A French artist named JR created blown-up images from photos taken at Ellis in its heyday, then wheat-pasted installations throughout.

This was the era’s version of a psych ward. Spooky.

American sycamores across the site received the designation “Ellis Island Sycamores” in 1987 to honor the Bicentennial of the U.S. constitution, and their seeds are now being propagated. It’s said some of these trees get to be 500 years old. The name is derived from the Greek sukomoros, a type of fig native to the Mediterranean. The leaves of the sycamore resemble fig leaves.

Here on the south side of the island, the practices of arboriculture need a bit of attention. Pruning shears, anyone?

I would like to offer my attention. And in fact I plan to spend much more time among the ghosts of Ellis Island as an Educator, leading these Hard Hat Tours. I can’t wait.


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Victoria Woodhull for president!

I really think her time has come. Finally.

“They cannot roll back the rising tide of reform,” she said. “The world moves.”

Yes, she had her problems. She was born into an abusive household on the rural Ohio frontier, one of 10 children, and didn’t start elementary school until the age of 8. Her mother was a mystic-spiritualist, her father a snake-oil salesman. When she was all of 15 she married a doctor named Canning Woodhull who drank and cheated on her. When she left him she kept their two young children and his name.

She led a lot of lives. As a young woman she worked as a traveling clairvoyant, teaming with her sister Tennessee Claflin to tell fortunes and contact spirits, offering cures for deathly diseases, selling elixirs, giving massages. Tennessee was her much younger sister and known to all as Tennie.

Jump ahead a few years. Woodhull married again, to a Colonel James Harvey Blood. She and Tennessee became the first female brokers on Wall Street. Railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, said to be Tennessee’s lover, backed the two sisters in Woodhull, Claflin&Co. They netted $700,000 during the gold panic of 1869.

Woodhull became an ardent suffragist. She testified before the House Judiciary Committee in 1871 that female Americans actually already held the right to vote based on the recently enacted 14th and 15th enactments. She was now a star among those who advocated “woman’s rights.”

When she ran for president  — she was not yet 35 — she did so on a platform of women’s suffrage, nationalization of railroads, an eight-hour workday, abolition of the death penalty, among other issues. Her weekly newspaper, Woodhull&Claflin’s Weekly, propelled her into the public eye, and she organized an Equal Rights Party, which held a convention in 1872 and nominated her.

Though Frederick Douglass was named as Woodhull’s running mate, he never accepted and in fact campaigned for Ulysses Grant. Her name appeared on the ballots in some states, but apparently the votes were never counted. Her paper was the first to publish an English translation of The Communist Manifesto.

What did she do next? Using the news, promoted a national scandal by exposing preacher Henry Ward Beecher as an adulterer. Beecher’s supporters lashed back, claiming that the newspaper amounted to obscene material sent through the mail. The sisters were ultimately found not guilty. Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe called Woodhull an “impudent witch.”

She was no prude. In fact, she promoted free love on the lecture circuit, also saying that women should have the right to escape bad marriages and control their own bodies.

“Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week,” she wrote.

She wound up in England, where she met her third husband, ran another newspaper, worked to preserve the English home of George Washington’s ancestors and became a car enthusiast before there were many on the road. Forever in the vanguard.

She also ran for President of the United States – again, in 1892. She had a lot of energy.

Susan B. Anthony had a bone to pick: “Both sisters are regarded as lewd and indecent,” she wrote in a letter.

Portrait of American feminist reformer Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838 – 1927), the first woman to run for US president from a nationally recognized ticket as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1872, 1870s. Claflin Woodhull, along with her sister, Tennessee Claflin, was also one of the first female stock brokers on Wall Street as the cofounder of the brokerage firm Woodhull, Claflin & Company in 1870. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

She was ahead of her time, and we love her. She also knew her way around a hat.

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Everybody makes mistakes.

Don’t they?

That’s the first thing that caught my eye on the bulletin board of teeny magnets in front of the expresso machine where I was purchasing about two gulps of five dollar latte. For a long time I thought I made no mistakes, then I thought I made nothing but mistakes. Now I’m going with the neutral position, as long as there’s plenty of caffeine.

Coffee to cut the pizza at Artichoke Pizza, which weighs down Manhattan’s 14th Street’s east end with its cheesy, creamy, gooey goodness.

Something that caught my eye – something is always catching my eye – on the wall of Artichoke.

Signed in 1876. That’s about the time we’re about to delve into at the Morgan Library Museum on Madison and 36thStreet. The Morgan has fascinating period rooms that feature the financier J. Pierpont Morgan’s original library, among other things. And there are great manuscript-focused exhibits on a regular basis. But what always holds my interest is the brownstone that anchors the library complex.

I wrote about I.N. Phelps Stokes, the white-shoe philanthropist/architect/collector who published the greatest ever (and heaviest ever) compendium of images and texts about Manhattan Island. As I tell it in Love, Fiercely, Stokes spent his boyhood in this house, and when he was born here at the end of the nineteenth century, Murray Hill was still hilly and wild. Young Newton used to wander down to the East River with his Newfoundland dog, six or seven blocks from his home, and go for a swim. Stokes would have been 10 when that beam in the pizza place got inscribed. Aside from its use as a bookstore, the brownstone is now locked to all but staff, but you can catch a glimpse of the old, grand entry through a glass partition.

Morgan bought the Stokes property and gave it to his son Jack, who would surely have appreciated its 45 splendid rooms.

How would Pierpont have liked the current exhibit in the museum bearing his name?

That’s Woody Guthrie and his ever-loving wife Marjorie in 1941, on the wall of Woody Guthrie: People Are the Song.

There might be few Americans more antithetical in worldview as Woody Guthrie and J.P. Morgan. When most people think of J.P. Morgan, they might think, rapacious banker. Down in Wall Street you can still find the impression of explosive materials from when a horse-drawn wagon bombed J.P. Morgan & Co. bank in 1920 (killing 30 people though not the top guy). About Guthrie, on the other hand, people think, This Land is Your Land. And the song is here in spades, alongside dozens of notebooks, lyrics, photos and instruments. Even a business card.

Guthrie wrote over 3,000 songs. What you might not know is that after his Dust Bowl years he moved to New York City, spending half his life there. Actually, he wrote the song that Bruce Springsteen said is the best ever written about America while in New York. at the Hanover House, a hotel at 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue.  It was 1940, and the lyrics were conceived as a response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.

Another little known fact about the genius songwriter is that he was a quite wonderful artist.

Something else not widely taught in grade school: the final verse Woody wrote.

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said Private Property

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing

That side was made for you and me.

I doubt J.P. Morgan would have approved of that sentiment.

Seems like he put more demands upon himself than anyone, as per his New Year’s Resolutions for 1943. Along with Work more and better and Work by a schedule we find Write a song a day and Beat fascism. Beat fascism? And here I always say, Lose weight.

He was human. He suffered the worries of any artist that his voice might not be heard, an agony he recounts in verse.

As Guthrie’s pal Pete Seeger said about him, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”

It takes a lot of effort, too. A lot of mistakes. If you really want to be creative.


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If integuments are the vital connections

between things, as Gil would have it, then it seems my course in the days since coming back to New York was about restoring some of those integuments, strengthening them.

I went to a few places I love. Driving south to Wave Hill on a winter Sunday is like visiting family, its mansions and gardens a boon, on a hill overlooking the Hudson.

If you can tear yourself away from the view of the Palisades through the pergola, pay homage to some of the old, old trees. Wave Hill’s Chinese elm bark looks more like rough cement.

The linden that was here when Mark Twain arrived in 1901 still reaches upward.

I always like the quote attributed to Twain by his daughter Clara about the Bronx estate: “I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts here I have ever known on land; they sing their hoarse song through the big tree-tops with a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always.”

Today it was quiet rather than blowy and you could notice a few details in the silence.

A witch hazel cultivar which burns in the cold air.

The first of the snow drops.

The bones of the Japanese maple.

My old friend the copper beech.

Which invites you to come closer and duck beneath its sinuous branches, the better to imagine all the people who have come before and recorded their visits.

I picked up a book when visiting my mother this month and found an old clipping carefully folded up inside its pages. The book’s author, brilliant critic Reginald H. Blyth, had first published Haiku in 1949, but this was the 1982 reissue.

Blyth began writing about Zen Buddhism while imprisoned in Japan as an enemy alien during WWII. By the time he died in 1964 he had released more than 20 volumes on Japanese Zen, English literature and the deep relationships he found between them.

My mother, the brilliant learner Betty Zimmerman, had been inspired to get the book based on that review.

She and my father spent her first married years in Japan. In 1982, she had recently received her masters in cultural studies at Manhattanville at Purchase, writing a thesis on Odilon Redon, the French symbolist painter.

She went to work at the Metropolitan Museum in the Eastern Arts department.

The Met has got to be the last changed environment in all of New York City. Or when it does change, it manages to seem as if it has always been like that. The skyline has changed of course, due to incursions of needle skyscrapers.

The windows overlooking Central Park capture a landscape that was created even before the museum opened there in 1880 and has been maintained in much the same way since.

 If you go not to the changing exhibits but the old guard, even more so. The Asian arts in particular are burnished by time. This Noguchi basalt “water stone” has been here forever — at least in my time frame, since the 1980s..

Some of the painted screens change but there will always be birds in flight in the Met’s collection, in this case mynah birds, by an artist of the Edo period.

Reginald Blyth talks about haiku not being just a poetic form but a way of life.

“Haiku record what Wordsworth calls those ‘spots of time,’ those moments which for some quite mysterious reason have a peculiar resonance.” The deluge of a waterfall would be one such moment, captured by Tanaka Raisho in 1917.

I totally get it. A hawk in the seconds before flight, in the late 1500s, by an artist you’ve never heard of. It doesn’t matter, all that matters is that beady-eyed moment.

Blyth goes on to say, “When we are grasping the inexpressible meaning of those things, this is life, this is living. To do this twenty-four hours a day is the Way of Haiku. It is having life more abundantly.”

I also like a quote from the yellowed NYT book review from another of Blyth’s books: “The back of the picture, the unheard melodies, the dull and the stale, and cheap and vulgar are all of infinite value.”

That is why I am touched by my mother’s scribbles on the repurposed bookmark also hidden in Haiku’s spine and never supposed to see the light of day again. The page numbers and opening words of certain haiku… ones she would have been considering, she tells me, for use on Christmas cards. I turn to page 27.

Mountains and rivers, the whole earth—

All manifest forth the essence of being.

Not actually haiku but a verse used by monks studying Zen in the monastery, according to Blyth. Think of the splash of pine at Wave Hill.

The mysterious shadow of the atlas cedar.

The essence of being is a phrase that reflects the integuments that exist, between my mother and myself, between Japanese scroll painting and poetry, between Mark Twain and the “hoarse song” of the wind, between all those who initialed the Wave Hill copper beech bark over the ages. The things that connect to other things.

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The numbers are in, and the black bear lost.

Across New York State, where I live, hunters took 1,346 black bears during 2021.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos declared, “Although they aren’t always successful, thousands of dedicated hunters venturing afield each year help keep populations [of black bears] at desired levels, maintaining healthy bear populations in the state.” Both bows and muzzleloaders came into play. The heaviest beast weighed more than 600 pounds.

The black bear has always been held sacred by the Cherokee, and a project in North Carolina displayed sculptures decorated with the symbolism of different clans: Bird, Blue, Deer, Wolf, and so on.

I’ve never been big on buffalo burgers or gravitated to goat stew, feeling something of a kinship with both animals. And I’ve never had horse, or at least knowingly. But I somehow feel even worse about the idea of shooting a bear, although the purpose of the hunt might be for meat as well as trophy. And, hunting advocates tell me, the bears are invading the suburbs! They are dangerous! They must be stopped!

Seventy-five percent of Americans think hunting wild game is a good thing. Between 40,000 to 50,000 bears are legally hunted in the U.S. each year; an unknown number are also illegally poached.

Not every hunter is what’s known as “slob hunter,” someone who hunts legally, but behaves unethically. A slob hunter will take bad shots, leave trash in the woods, damage habitat, vandalize signs, or show disrespect toward natural resources, landowners, other hunters and people in general. 

The vast majority of hunters in America (95%) eat the game animals they kill. So it’s all okay, isn’t it?

Let’s consider some other animals that are routinely killed for their meat.

Dog eating is still common in China, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and the region of Nagaland in India. An estimated 30 million dogs across Asia, including stolen family pets, are killed for human consumption every year.

In Taiwan, many people think that eating black dogs in will help you stay warm. Taiwan is the first Asian country to crack down dogs as food. The country’s Animal Protection Act fines anyone caught selling, eating or buying the animals for consumption, with a fine of up to £6,500. Those found guilty of animal cruelty could also receive a fine of £52,000 and two years in prison.

Each year in June, the city of Yulin in southern China hosts a dog meat festival, where live dogs and cats are sold specifically for eating and an estimated 10,000 are slaughtered for their meat. You can look up pictures if you like; I can’t bear to run them here.

South Koreans eat more than one million dogs per year. They consume much of it during boknal, the hottest days of the year, in July and August. Some believe it revives energy or virility sapped by the heat. They consider dog meat in bosintang stew or the drink gaesoju as “a soup form of Gatorade,” according to American food writer Joe McPherson in a 2015 UPI interview.

The most common dog breed raised for food is called nureongi — Korean for “yellow dog.” They have short, yellow fur, and are seldom adopted as pets. In other words, they are considered generic, and so expendable.

Humane Society International has been liberating canines from the farms that raise them and adopting them out to U.S. families.

Cats are also considered medicinal in Asia. In Korea, cat meat was historically brewed into a tonic as a folk remedy for neuralgia and arthritis. Modern consumption has mainly been in the form of cat soup, consumed most often by middle-aged working class women for perceived health benefits. It takes ten cats to produce a small bottle of goyangi, an alcoholic elixir.

With the increase of cats as pets in China, opposition towards the traditional use of cats for food has grown. In June 2006, approximately 40 activists stormed the Fangji Cat Meatball Restaurant, forcing it to shut down.

What about bears? Are they good eating?

In Europe of the late medieval period, the consumption of bear meat was an aristocratic privilege. In Tyrol and Piedmont, villages had to fetch up a set number of bear paws to the local lord every year.

Elsewhere in the world, Kodiak Natives hunted bears for food, clothing and tools, and left bear heads in the field as a sign of respect to the ursuline spirit. 

Closer to home – in North America. Native tribes, frontiersmen and settlers ate bear meat for hundreds of years. 

The black bear has become one of the most widespread big game animals in North America, and hunting them is legal in 27 states, last I counted.

A blip occurred in the American support for bear hunting, which slackened when Teddy Roosevelt went on a hunt and refused to shoot a bear tied to a willow tree. A toy company famously marketed a stuffed bear to commemorate the incident. You know the rest.

Hunters have come to recognize Arizona as one of the nation’s greatest spots for black bear hunting. A staple of all Arizona bear diets is the prickly pear cactus, and bears can predictably stay close to a patch. Kind of like a salt lick with thorns.

New Jersey’s hunting guide offers an online bear cookbook that features “Grilled Bear Loin with Brown Sugar Baste” and “BBQ Bear Roast.” 

“Good bear meat can go toe-to-toe with any other wild game meat when prepared properly,” proffers hunter Connor Gabbott on a web site. “The best bear meat I have ever eaten was from an inland, spring-time sow that was estimated to be over twenty years old. Bear meat is slightly darker in color than beef and the grain of the meat is coarser and a touch looser. All the bear meat I have tried has been very mild and somewhat sweet. There is a distinct (not off-putting) smell to the meat, the same way raw lamb meat has a unique smell. To ensure the best table fare, it is highly recommended to remove all the fat from the meat prior to freezing. If left on, some potentially off-putting flavors from the fat can migrate into the meat while frozen.”

I feel sure that many people would get their hackles up were one to suggest we stop killing and consuming bears. Not having ever experienced the thrill of the hunt, I know I wouldn’t feel deprived of the hobby were it to be curtailed.

Sometimes considering one example helps us to focus on another.

The meat of the hyena is now a delicacy across Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Somalia, where people have developed a keen appetite for the wild animal’s meat – as long as they can afford it, as it comes at a cost. Pakistanis and Iranians also cook up hyena meat, which has been deemed halal. Don’t know about you, but the hyena is one of my favorite animals, with its keening vocals, sharp aroma and gender-fluid sex characteristics. I hate to think of them being et.

I feel the same way about the bear.

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On the cusp of spring

the Arizona desert moves itself to sprout.

The ocatillo puts forth its first miniature green leaves.

Fairy Duster joins the party.

Pima Dynamite trails may be full of mountain bikes and power lines, but they go on and on despite humankind’s interference.

This preserve was saved from development by a champion named Arthur W. Decabooter. A successful doctor, he opened doors to which “cactus huggers” had previously been denied and served as chair of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve starting in 1994.

In our party of six, photographers go clicking, trying to capture everything that is beautiful beyond measure. Shrubby Deervetch looks eager.

The saguaro braces itself against the sky, eternally photogenic.

The ones with peepholes fascinate me.

The cause of the decay is bacterial necrosis. The amazing thing is it goes on and up, at least for some time, as beefy and strong as its hole-less neighbors.

The bark of the Palo Verde pops, grasshopper-chartreuse in the sharp sunlight.

Teddy-bear chollas swell, show off, display themselves, muscular arms on blackened stalks.

Fishhooks have retained their fruit but are so ready to bud out.

Quartz sparkles, scattered like treasure on either side of the trail.

Another first flower – does anyone know its name? No. Does it matter? The desert is so far beyond names. Let’s call this one purple-bloom and be done with it.

Close up, cacti are so severe.  The thorns are actually modified leaves, and help the reduce water evaporation. It is also  a fierce sort of armor, so different from the more gentle deciduous trees back east.

All saguaros are the same, yet different.

Kind of like those who hike the trails, appreciating the grandeur of the desert, and Dr. Arthur W. Decabooter, who dedicated himself to saving it. Thank you, Dr. Decabooter.

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We’re only amusing ourselves

is something Gil and I sometimes say when we imagine that an idea we’ve come up with is something probably too esoteric or just ridiculous to interest anyone else. And I have had quite a few of these over the years. Books usually start with this kind of glimmer, and you can expect some ideas to peter out of their own accord, gradually going extinct like the elephant bird.

Occasionally one sticks when thrown against the wall – for example, the notion of writing a biography of the little known I.N. Phelps Stokes, the white-shoe tenement-designer, philanthropist and all-around eccentric who put together the most extensive book about Manhattan ever written, along with his It-girl wife, back in the Gilded Age. A publisher gifted me with an advance to research that effort and it came out under the title Love, Fiercely

Comparably, at least in terms of ideosyncracy, I have undertaken narratives about she-merchants in New Amsterdam (The Women of the House), heroic American Housewives (Made From Scratch), and female jet jocks in the U.S. Navy (Tailspin).  Each book comprised both a commercial undertaking and a labor of love.

Then there was the fictional nineteenth-century girl raised by wolves turned New York City debutante (Savage Girl).

In each case I hoped for a readership but, yes, at bottom, I was essentially amusing myself. At least at the start. Henry James wrote about the beginning of his creative process:  “The ‘germ,’ wherever gathered, has ever been for me, ‘the germ of a story,’ and most of the stories strained to shape under my hand have sprung from a single small seed, a seed as remote and windblown as a casual hint.”

I am currently working on a proposal for a nonfiction book tentatively called Heartwood: The Epic Battle Over America’s Forests.

So far, I have done a lot of research, drunk a lot of coffee, and revamped the basic architecture of the idea several times. I plan to present the story of wilderness in the U.S., not so much biologically, though that will be a part of it, but culturally. From pre-European times through the quest for ship-mast pine through the timber barons of the 19th century, as well as the purist forest champions like wilderness champion John Muir.

Up through the wildfires that threaten the great trees of the Pacific Northwest and the million-tree planting movements we see today. As I see it, Heartwood will not be stuffy science or hackneyed history, but the drama of a struggle that helped define this country, one that absorbs American readers more than ever.

I do think that if I can pull it off it will be a lively book. A story that will amuse me, yes, but others as well.


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The zig zag trail leads…where?

First you have to see it. Can you see it?

Maybe you can’t go all the way. Maybe the rocks underfoot prove too much for you, even if the saguaro forest at Spur Cross Ranch tempts you.

Beefy, odd, some more masculine than others.

A well placed bench welcomes us. Behind is a mature mesquite, shaggy and fissured.

A plaque on the back of the seat has a few words from

Walking in Beauty, the closing prayer from the Navajo Way blessing ceremony:
In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again

The lines are supposed to bring peace and calm, and I’m beginning to feel iit, surrounded by an intense aroma that floats on the hot air, herbal and intoxicating, combined with the smell of horse. So many ride these Cave Creek trails.

My father would always find a bench. I don’t like to walk, he always said. I never understood. You’d find him seated, whether on the side of a trail, say, or on a bench at one end of a museum exhibit even when the greatest Jackson Pollack canvas in the world could be found at the other end. He wouldn’t move.

This trail has ancient rocks that have never moved, hot to the touch.

My mother says it’s strange because when my father hit the tennis court he was a demon, with a killer serve.

I think now he was just at home in his skin. He didn’t need art, or a view from a hiking trail.

Sometimes you find a tableau in the desert. Frozen, totally stationary, looking as if were posed by a mighty hand. My mother found one today.

Sometimes you see a saguaro that took protection as it grew under a larger plant, one quite different from itself.

My father never blinked when I said I wanted to go to grad school for an MFA in poetry. What a useless endeavor! He bankrolled the whole thing, and launched me as a writer.

Am I growing up yet? Like the saguaro, I’m taking a long time to be in my skin. I’m trying to be patient. “Patience is also a form of action,” said Auguste Rodin.

There might be birds here, sometime, if you wait patiently.

Two century plants side by side, one quite dead, one obviously alive.

Sometimes the llve and the dead grasses grow together.

In one of his most acute descriptions, Walt Whitman praised “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”

Today, down a hill, Cave Creek.

Little more than a trickle now. In another season the rains will come and the creek will rise.

All we can do is observe and be patient.

Wendell Berry writes:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do 
we have come our real work, 

and that when we no longer know which way to go 
we have come to our real journey. 

The mind that is not baffled is not employed. 

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Not a long trail today, but one just the right length.

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From the sublime to the ridiculous

is a saying that that has become part of the vernacular, though no one quite knows who said it – Talleyrand? Napoleon? Gertrude Stein? It captures the spectrum of experiences I had today on my desert trip north.

Sublime would be the weathered, battered signs that dot the old west.

Up in Wikea, not an official ghost town but a real, ramshackle, dusty, spread out region, a speck on the map.

A place of pies and honey. We had black walnut cream pie, which tasted a lot like maple and was the specialty of Lucia’s, a joint on the fringe of town.

More recent signs will someday deteriorate, I’m sure.

Farther down 93, the Joshua Forest Scenic Parkway, a forest of the plants, which are not actually trees but belong to the yucca family.

The highway is the site of some gruesome collisions, with 13 deaths this past year.

The descansos by the side of the road brought the statistic to life, and I have to say they were both horrible and very sweet.

Then there is the town of Nothing, current population Zero.

Also sublime in its own mysterious way. Founder Richard “Buddy” Kenworthy had a bar, a service station and a general store here, back in the ‘70s,  but it all went south. The sign and an over-tagged shed are all that’s left.

Finally we come to Wickenburg, founded in 1863. Ridiculous? Sublime? You tell me.

It is a true western town, with 6,000 residents and a least four saloons. Stores selling various essentials.

We met a guy with a cherished Chevy Nova who came to Arizona from unspoiled Molokai, Hawaii, once the home of a famous leper’s colony.

Now, he said, he only makes the daily roundtrip from his home south of Wickenburg in to the American Legion.

Another fellow runs a café where you can get a very un-Western latte. The local government is getting too liberal, he said, but his wife sits on the town council and has managed to put the brakes on so far.

Signs outside of town announce Gold Panning Here and Abolish the IRS. A church sign says, “Trying times are times for trying.”

Local store windows further offer a picture of the Wickenburg worldview.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association is a political association of local police officials who contend that federal and state government authorities are subordinate to the power of county sheriffs. So-called constitution sheriffs assert they are the supreme legal authority with the power to disregard laws they regard as unconstitutional. It has its roots in the Posse Comitatus of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Great.

Everyone tries to be cheerful about everything.

This is what I find ridiculous.

But finally, just outside of Wickenburg, we find the Rancho Rio Weekly Wild West Rodeo. Wickenburg is the Team Roping Capital of the World. Sunburnt cowboys, fantastic horses, the pleasant aroma of horse dung.

We didn’t see some of the more interesting events, like wild cow milking and trailer loading. Just the roping, impossible to document with a still camera.

Champions all around.

A puppy that would be ready for adoption in a week. As yet unnamed.

And the most sublime, a cow roper with an elegant mustachio.

Worth traveling to Wickenburg for.

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We are nowhere.

Nowhere is sometimes beautiful, especially out a car window, roadside nowhere.

If you’re in the right mood, that is. We drive north from Scottsdale to Cave Creek and pass pretty much nothing. Isn’t nothing interesting?

If you have maybe too much too think about, beefy saguaros in a parking lot can seem pretty cool.

Or massive pines.

Peter drives.

His hat came from the 90th birthday party of Paul Orifice, former chairman of Dow Chemical.

My mother just turned ninety. Still a vision, even when the sun makes her squint.

We pass groves of beaver tail or elephant tongue cactus, no one knows which. Cave Creek’s a tacky western-style town, replete with Jesus, gifts and cheap hotels. Big Earl’s Greasy Eats is the local fast food.

Hooray America.

Bikers throng the bars.

Barrel cactus morphs.

The restaurant a cacophony. Corny Mexican that offers oblivion in its world-famous margarita.

You can get a 32-ounce bucket to go for 32 dollars.

My mother is a naturally spiritual person, though she has no use for organized religion. As long as you’re a good person, she says, it doesn’t matter what you believe, if you believe anything at all. All the fires are lit.

Over chips and three types of salsa, we speak of things that matter. Of “arrangements “ that will eventually have to be made—not yet!

Not every woman has a wall of ornaments gleaned from different cultures, most of which embody spiritual beliefs.

There is a Panamanian toucan and a coming-of-age necklace for Indonesian women. They hang in her lair, in her woman-cave.

One was gifted her recently for her ninetieth year my brother. It’s a Zen chime made by an artist/musician in Memphis, Zen because it is a chime that makes no sound. (I must credit Peter for the best of these pictures.) The Tanzanian headdress for a young woman is especially intricate.

At El Encanto, I dig into my queso guillermo, hot bubbling cheeses blended with yellow chiles, onions and tomatoes, served sizzling at the table, with pico de gallo, limes and corn tortillas. I think about the nothing of the desert, of the flame, of spiritual artifacts, of the ashes that some people want scattered on the desert when they pass. That’s something.


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