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Beauty hurts

and I shoot when I’m in the most pain. Joe McNally credited a fellow photographer with that exquisite sentiment in the course of a workshop at the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island today. He taught, and led by example, shooting pictures of his own as the day progressed.

I liked helping guide the group around the complex and hearing this pro’s ideas about how to see and to show what is all around us there.

McNally, a veteran photographer (National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, New York Stock Exchange annual reports, etc., etc.) had shot Ellis Island in the late 1980s, when even the main immigration building hadn’t been fully restored and the south side of the island was a wreck. Save Ellis Island, the nonprofit that employs me as an educator, has now stabilized some spaces to what is called a condition of arrested decay.

We snooped around a lot of areas I don’t usually take tourists.

Some wards, as decrepit as they are, give off a somehow beautiful feeling. Blue was thought to be a calming paint color to use in wards, especially those housing patients with psychiatric woes, and I think it still soothes the savage breast, as playwright William Congreve said about music back in the day.

Other people helped with the tour and provided their own bright color. Charles.

I thought about Leonardo da Vinci. He said, Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.

For the photographers today, it was all about the light. The quality of light here is very forgiving, McNally assured his students.

You feel it palpably, he said.

The weather cooperated. Dawn came up pink in New York Harbor.

Later, lightning and rain, courtesy of Fiona brushing by up the coast, offered just enough mood.

Photographers don’t all like to be bothered with facts, even at such an iconic spot. It’s usually about the framing, the exposure, shutter speed.

Some tolerated a little historical grit to accompany the visual grit at the hospital. This was a ward where the sickest of the sick received treatment, I told a few of them, keeping it simple. Or, Nurses lived in these quarters.

To whomever I could get to listen, I said, Florence Nightingale’s ideas were so important to the medical protocol here. She believed in sunshine, fresh air, and handwashing. That’s why you see so many handwashing sinks as you go throughout the complex.

Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily, quoth La Rochefoucauld, back in the 17th century. Perhaps it is just too difficult to stand in the hospital ruin’s spaces and really grok what went on there, that there were human beings working, suffering, being healed there. Existing. The oversized autoclave was used to sterilize mattresses so that people wouldn’t die.

Emerson said, The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. A faded scrap of carpet remains, improbably.

Coal bins in a jumble. Don’t mind us, we’re just crucial historical artifacts.

An industrial spin dryer: The Fletcher Whirlwind. We can only imagine the important folks who once did the wash here and kept everything sanitary.

The group spent time in the morgue. Nice location for a fashion shoot some day.

McNally talked about what to do if you want to impart a patina rather than shooting it raw.

The abandoned hospital complex offers nothing if not patina. Are there ghosts here? You be the judge.

One photographer actually came all the way from Lisbon to take the class – also to hang out with half a dozen pals who knew each other from the trenches. He said you can’t beat the atmosphere at the abandoned hospital complex. I said, Say spaghetti and meatballs! and clicked. Savoring the light.

You must give birth to your images, said Rilke, he who knew everything about everything. They are the future waiting to be born.

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Something happened today. Something out of the ordinary.

I was taking my group on the walking tour of the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island. We went into the “hospice room,” which was many peoples’ last stop at the hospital. As usual, the spaces at Ellis had been magical, evocative, spooky, and above all historical. There is a room where someone once swore they caught the fragrance of lavender. Another person, it is reported, heard children’s faint laughter down a corridor. In one space, the nurses’ quarters, a rainbow likes to appear on one wall no matter the weather, rain or shine. I’ve seen it many times but have never been able to capture it in a picture.

I always like to ask people when we get to the hospice room to take a moment to reflect on all the people that had come through the hospital wanting to come to America, making sacrifices we cannot imagine to come to America, and ultimately not making it here. 

(Or, as has been pointed out to me, only making to one of the New York area cemeteries.)

Blue, by the way, was considered a calming color, and so many of the sick ward walls at Ellis were painted blue.

People on my tours take that moment to reflect, then we move on to another space. After today’s tour a woman caught up with me to tell me something. She said that on her ghost-buster phone app, as we stood in the hospice and took that moment of silence, some words popped up on her screen: “we are everywhere.” That had never happened before, she said.

Phone app– latter-day Ouija Board. Okay, easy to say. Nonsense? When you are there, in the moment, it feels like anything but. Chills.

We’ll see what happens tomorrow. Anything is possible.

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Arlow Burdette Stout

had a great name, and also revolutionized our thinking about day lilies. Never thought much about Hemerocallis? The name Hemerocallis comes from the Greek words for “day” and “beautiful”.

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance. John Ruskin wrote that. I don’t believe that peacocks are useless however; nor are day lilies. I have been walking past a beautifully planted border of day lilies for the past month at Ellis Island, where the flowers are as diverse as the multitudes of immigrants that passed through over the years 1892 through 1954, when the facility closed. I get the feeling that many visitors just hustle past them every day in a rush to find their ancestors on the Wall of Honor, or to get a quick sandwich in the café before jumping on a ferry to Liberty Island. Everyone is in such a hurry, even on vacation.

Tens of thousands of cultivars exist. Arlow Stout alone produced over one hundred Hemerocallis hybrids, reawakening popular interest in the flower, which was introduced to America by European settlers—probably brought from Asia along the silk roads. By the 1800s they were naturalized in the U.S., and still what is called the “tawny” variety can be found springing up by the roadsides all over the country. Ancient Chinese paintings depict glowing orange day lilies.

It’s not actually a lily.

In the department of Harumphh: in 2009, under the APG III system, day lilies were removed from the family Liliaceae and assigned to the family Xanthorrhoeaceae, subfamily HemerocallidoideaeXanthorrhoeaceae was renamed in 2016 to Asphodelaceae in the APG IV system. Will someone wake me up when this is all sorted out?

Growing on long stems called scapes, flowers bloom for one day each. You can gather them, eat them, press them, present them to people you love. Hybridizers like our friend Stout like to fool around with properties like height or scent, ruffled edges, putting contrasting “eyes” in the center of a bloom, or creating an illusion of glitter called “diamond dust.”

Sylvia Plath also wrote about them, in a poem from 1962 called “Crossing the Water.” Stars open among the lilies./Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?/This is the silence of astounded souls.

But we don’t need such a hard sell. Their season is almost over. Go out and be agog over one, before their beauty sleep ’til next year.

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A felicitous and unexpected event

took place on Ellis Island. That’s my favorite kind of event, don’t know about you. A duck took it into her head to create a new family in an abandoned enclosed courtyard.

We have a few of these areas in the ruined hospital complex: semicircular, small spaces where patients would have been encouraged to go in order to take some fresh air. Back in the day.

Now the lovely little courtyards are crumbling, of course, and trees grow up out of the once manicured ground. Nice installation here by the French artist J.R. Perhaps not well known in America but applauded throughout the rest of the world as a photo-graffeur, J.R. wheat-pastes enlarged archival images on windows and walls. At Ellis, they lend a piquant magic to the surroundings.

How do ducks decide where to lay their eggs? Do ducks even think about it? By the way, how did a clutch of 11 eggs fit inside the womb of so diminutive a creature? Inquiring minds want to know.

Sometimes I feel like a teenager just learning about the world. And that’s something, for a wizened old woman like me. Always surprises, all around.

At Ellis Island, if you can tear your vision away from the scorching views of the lady in the harbor there are many other revelatory experiences to be had. Openings into other worlds.

But this one was not expected. I couldn’t see the mama duck, to begin with, she hid herself so well, even though I was told by a fellow Educator that she was in fact there. Then one day she appeared, and not only that, her eggs had hatched. If you know anything about ducks, you know that their eggs take about 30 days to incubate and that you should never under any circumstances try to relocate the nest, even a short distance, as the maternal progenitor might not recognize it as her own and fly the coop.

Ultimately eight brawny, uniformed members of the Parks Service came in with two by fours and built a ramp so that the mother duck could march up and out with her brood of ducklings (aka a waddle of ducklings). We’ve got it under control, the head of the team told me, a serious look on his handsome face.

Ellis is well known for processing immigrants, less famous for hosting wildlife. However, animals are abundant here, from feral cats and abandoned dogs to raccoons, a bewildered fox, geese, gulls and falcons. Also rats of course. I am hoping not to meet a raccoon on one of my tours. The critters all cross the secret bridge from Jersey, just as I do, and then I guess they like this habitat, or else they don’t know how to leave. The fowl arrive by water or air, of course.

Secrets and surprises are my favorite things. Something else I like, making mistakes. It’s humbling, and that’s how I grow.

Apparently the lady mallard nests in the same courtyard every year. The new family has to be helped out and led along the damp dank dark corridors of the contagious disease hospital to safety. And they made it.

Hooray. Nature triumphs over adversity, with a little help from burly humans. Good to know. Just watch out for hungry foxes.

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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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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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