Tag Archives: Nature

I’m not much for views.

I’d rather look up to the peaks than down to the valleys. So I’m fortunate that any number of stupendous trails wind around the base of the mountains at Brown’s Ranch in Phoenix.

Desert vistas abound at this former cattle ranch, which dates back to 1917.

But first you must pay attention. A warning.

I find I like the living desert, with features like this fishhook cactus.

But I equally like everything that is dead or dying.

It’s like the memento mori of the Renaissance, artwork that has ancient roots. Latin for “remember that you will have to die.” Or as I would put it, embrace death and you will live. In some accounts of ye olde Rome, a companion or public slave would stand behind some triumphant general during a procession to remind him from time to time of his own mortality or prompt him to “look behind”.

Especially meaningful to me as I watch my father wend his way toward the end. And I would like to see a death-whisperer behind some of our more insensitive politicians today.

The saguaros here are ginormous, as they say. I think the largest ones I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

Carnegiea gigantean counts itself a member of the cactus family, not a tree (but you knew that) and takes up to 75 years to develop a side arm. It only grows about one inch per year. This one’s a small fry.

The arms are grown to increase the plant’s reproductive capacity, bearing more flowers and fruit.

Near Scottsdale, one known as the Grand One is 46 feet tall, measured by a representative of the National Register of Big Trees in 2005 (though, note, not a tree!), burned in the Cave Creek Complex fire and might not have  survived if not for treatment of bacterial infections and the creation of waddles, small structures made of straw that help channel streams of water towards the thirsty saguaro. I think some of the specimens I’ve seen today could reach grand status one day.

Their skeletons are amazing.

We were standing underneath a palo verde, a tree whose name translates to “green stick”, remarking upon its stature and probable age, when we heard bird noises and looked up to see a pair of Harris’s hawks tearing apart a mouse. They noticed us and fled the nest, of course, and we saw the unmistakable white color at the base of their tails.

Harris’s hawks are only one of two hawk species that hunt in pairs, like wolves. I was glad not to be descended upon!

A morning in the desert is like any morning in the desert and no other morning, all at once. It’ll weary your legs as it restores your spirit, hawks or no hawks. But they were pretty superb.

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A few corny sentiments

are in order when you’re sprung from your Covid cell, told you’ve tested negative and are free to storm the world again.

I walked in the miraculous Arizona desert landscape, among plants that are ancient yet fresh, survivors on only a few drops of rainfall a year.

The oft-quoted lines from a Mary Oliver poem seemed relevant, as sentimental as they sometimes seem: “what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” Well, I thought about it as I walked.

What in fact do I want to do?

Pacing the perimeter of my parents’ development, I thought I might want to take some inspiration.

To kiss and to hug. That’s something that you think of first when you’ve been told not to come up close to anybody, even wearing a mask.

To hydrate.

The city of  Scottsdale actually goes out and dribbles water on individual plants. That’s responsible.

Allow my book to germinate.

Toughen my hide.

Bloom.

Stretch out.

Plant.

Pay attention to what’s above.

Be thornier.

Burst forth.

If I can do any of these things with a microcosmic bit of the spirit of the sage inhabitants of the desert, it will be awesome.

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The most famous tree guy

that no one now has ever heard of is William Bartram. Maybe you are the exception.

If you visit Bartram’s Garden outside Philadelphia you will find the oldest ginkgo tree in North America, grown from a seedling that was imported to Bartram in 1785  as a gift from noted plant collector William Hamilton of The Woodlands, in England. The Garden is now a 50-acre botanical garden on the banks of the Schuykill River, but it was once the home of naturalist and wilderness champion William Bartram.

Bartram lived out his years in the house where he was born, built by his father John and added onto over the years. John before him was a well-known botanist, in 1765 designated the “Royal Botanist” by King George III, which meant that he shipped exotic native American  seeds and plant samples across the Atlantic to not only his majesty but grateful wealthy gentlemen for their estates.

William Bartram wasn’t always a success. Though his artistic skills impressed people at an early age, he first embarked on a career as a merchant in Philadelphia and a rice farmer in the Carolinas before his father welcomed him into his botanist world in his mid-30s. He is most famous for a four- (or five-? apparently his counting skills were uneven when he was out in the woods) year stint in the unsettled wilderness of the southern United States, beginning in 1753, which he wrote about in the illustrated Travels in 1791.

Bartram waxed rhapsodic about wilderness. The key descriptor of the time was “sublime,” as in  “the sublime wilderness,” just as Thoreau would in the next century. Thoreau, a true kindred spirit, would write a friend, “I grow savager and savager every day, as if it fed on raw meat, and my tameness is only the repose of untamableness.” Not sure I totally get that grammar, but it sounds much like something William Bartram would have felt in spades out in  forest. The two of them could have gone camping together.

For Bartram, many places he goes are sublime. Camping next to Florida’s Lake George, he talks about being “seduced by these sublime enchanting scenes of primitive nature.” I love the story about his specimen collection in Georgia. He climbed far up a range “from which I enjoyed a view inexpressibly magnificent and comprehensive…. of the mountain wilderness through which I had lately traversed.” Then he adds, “my imagination thus wholly engaged in the contemplation of this magnificent landscape… I was almost insensible… of…a new species of Rhododendron.” He was a wonderful artist.

Both William and John Bartram thought snakes were great and only killed them on the trail. when absolutely necessary, even rattlers. Black snakes they judged harmless enough to keep around the house as mice hunters. (We had families of black snakes at the Cabin and I never cared for them much.) Bartram drew many gorgeous if dangerous snakes. You may still find some if you hike Bartram Trail, which follows his approximate route through the states of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. I’d like to try at least a part of it, though admittedly I’d rather drive down to Philadelphia and walk the more civilized pathways of the gardens where he spent so much time—the site is open 365 days a year, dawn through dusk.

He was also a champion of the afternoon nap, best performed in the shade of a favorite tree in his yard. Let’s hope that when George Washington visited the homestead he didn’t have to shake Bartram awake.

Which would you  rather do, hike Bartram Trail or visit Bartram’s Garden?

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Come for the oak trees,

stay for the polka dots.

That was my idea at the New York Botanical Garden, along with hundreds of other visitors still drying out after being pummeled by Ida.

Yayoi Kusama has been the artist in residence for months, transforming outdoor and indoor spaces, populating them with her whimsical works. Now 92 and one of the most prominent Japanese artists, she drew acclaim in the 60s for organizing happenings where the naked participants would be painted with polka dots.

This installation is a bit more tame, though it has plenty of dots.

Eschewing the rock garden, the stand of virgin forest and the rose garden – a sacrifice, with the later bloomers at their peak – we visited Kusama-world.

Some works can be found in the peerless Victorian greenhouse, designed by Lord & Burnham, the preeminent designer of glass houses in the U.S. in the nineteenth century,  in the Italian Renaissance style, which houses the Garden’s collection of tropical plants. You can find flourishing palms like this one from Brazil.

Or this quite remarkable phallic charmer, also hailing from South America.

Now Kusama can be found here as well, with a pumpkin sculpture. The Garden has cleverly included a quote from the artist with each work.

I parted a row of zinnias and reached in to pluck the pumpkin from its vine. It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner. It was still moist with dew, indescribably appealing, and tender to the touch.

Everything is saturated with color. Even the flower beds are intended to mimic her work. I am happy that I have painted flowers. There are no objects more interesting.

Step outside. The lily pool, like everything else horticulatural here, has been annotated for your edification.

Personally I think lilies can speak for themselves.

Especially in the late summer sunlight.

The koi in the pool could probably eat a man. Are they alive or did Kusama paint them?

A path leads to a little Kusama-designed hut. You are handed a sticker with an image of a poppy and are told to place it wherever in the room you like. A lot of people have obviously preceded us.

The whole “house” is awash with poppies. Some prefer to take their poppies home with them.

A memento of a day spent with Yayoi Kusama.

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No humans, no dogs, one swan

populated the Ridgewood Reservoir when we saw it.  Ridgewood sits in the middle of Highland Park in Brooklyn, bordering Queens, and it is the closest thing to wilderness you will find in all of New York City. Those haunting pictures of life coming back to Chernobyl when it was absolutely impossible for life to come back – Ridgewood is like that, minus the nuclear blast.

In 1858, the city fathers (note: no mothers among them) realized that clean water was a vital necessity, and they bought Snedicker’s corn farm to become the reservoir.

Over the years the borough’s thirst only intensified and The People in Charge bought acres and acres around the original site to use as a buffer against “pollutants generated by cemeteries and garbage plants.” The boroughs of New York were still independent cities until 1898. By bringing water to Brooklyn, the reservoir allowed Brooklyn to become America’s third-largest city, as well as the country’s largest beer producer. (That honor now belongs either to Chicago or to Portland, OR.)

The reservoir was decommissioned and drained by 1990, and the land basically left to its own devices. 

During our visit we made our way all along the perimeter (1.18 miles) and met no one but a lone birder, who told us the bird song quieted at the hotter hours of the day. (I knew that.) I wanted to go because I heard there was a birch forest growing in Brooklyn, but in fact I saw nary a birch. Black locust, yes, very fragrant.

And lots of black cherry.

Sassafras. Imagine fifty-plus acres of sassafras. There’s also red maple and sweet gum. There are thick carpets of moss and the bogs we couldn’t get at.

I wonder what old Frederick Olmsted, master landscaper who designed Central Park, would have thought of the pristine pool becoming a jungle.

Highland Park sits atop  a ridge formed by the Wisconsin ice sheet’s terminal moraine. Olmstead loved blasting the hell out of ancient boulders to make Central Park.

In 1894, Brooklyn hired Olmsted’s firm to design the main drive and concourse for the reservoir’s southern portion, lined still today with towering, bulbous London plane trees.

The Olmsted company erected an iron fence and electric lights, which were barely heard of in those days. The fence went up because of repeated drownings, suicidal and otherwise.

You can still read on the base of each light fixture: MAGNIFLOOD.

Old pumphouses still stand.

Nine cemeteries ring the park, including this one, the B’nal Jeshaurm and Shearith Isreal cemetery. There is one just for nuns, too, and one for the World War I dead. I think I have family in one of them.

Actually, the original tract featured three reservoirs, and two were drained in the 1980s while water remained in one. That body is now ringed by phragmites, which is the insidious non-cattail taking over deteriorated landscapes everywhere. At the Cabin we had a swamp filled with phragmites; a botanist friend visited and told me, “Oh, those are an invasive species.” Which I felt kind of insulted by at the time, but she was correct.

The swan on the beach is cleaning itself. The person who uses the flat-bottomed boat is used by ecologists, and maybe Huckleberry Finn.

Ridgewood is now a wildlife refuge, with forests, fields and wetlands.  Preservationists have rallied against any threat to its development. We tried to imagine the wildlife that would get over the fences, down the steep slopes and survive there: possum, raccoon, squirrels, voles, snapping turtles (the New York State reptile), garter snakes and frogs. And probably coyotes. In the heart of Brooklyn! We saw only a red winged blackbird but could hear birdsong. A total of 127 bird species have been counted there.

“It’s like a postage-stamp size id in the middle of the raging ego of New York City,” says Gil.

I just say it’s a cool place.

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How old were you

when you first noticed flowering trees? Think about it.

I had an apple tree in my back yard when I was a kid and I sure never noticed its blossoms. Later, living in my 20s on Manhattan’s upper west side, where the medians were a jungle of pear trees, I remember having the certain knowledge that all the blooms popped open the same night. It was a romantic view and I was a romantic.

Much later, when we lived in the Cabin, we had a magnolia that survived a late winter storm, but one hefty branch fell off, into the marsh below.

It was early spring, the tree was still in bud, and as the weather warmed up, the fallen branch blossomed as generously as the tree itself. It was another kind of romance, the romance of a miracle.

What flowering tree did you see first?

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Take one step

in the desert and you see something astounding. I am parched. I crave liquid, anything, water, iced coffee, beer. Desert plants thrive in the heat of the sun. Without water, they ooze color. Yellow desert marigold, a member of the aster family.

The flame of indian paintbrush.

Or these more delicate desert mallow.

Textures seem improbable, like the flirty catkins of the mesquite.

Or the haunted-house barbs of the fishhook cactus.

The prickly pear, just on the verge of busting out.

Back home on the east coast, so far away, the pretty cherries are in bloom. Daffodils mildly wave their snouts. Forsythia, rich but somehow insipid, you can find it at the edge of all the roads.

Here there is drama.

The blue bell jar of sky covers everything. Magnifies it all. Holds you as if you are pinned, gape-mouthed, in thirst and in awe.

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An Ichthyologist’s delight

The Hudson River Almanac, compiled by a sage named Tom Lake, covers the Hudson River and everything that flies above it, swims in it or roams its banks, from the High Peaks of the Adirondacks to New York Harbor. “It seeks to capture the river’s spirit, magic and science by presenting observations from many individuals who delight in the diversity of nature in the Hudson Valley.” It’s crowd-sourced by a bunch a nature nuts. Dip in and have a happy day.

To illustrate, recently the “Fish of the Week” was the northern stargazer. I had never heard of it but once introduced couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Ichthyologist C. Lavett Smith, I learned, calls the northern stargazer “a bizarre fish.” They are somewhat like the oyster toadfish and somewhat like the goosefish. “They have a nearly vertical mouth surrounded by fringed lips,” The Hudson River Almanac tells me. “Much of their body mass is in their head and they will eat pretty much whatever they can fit in their huge mouth. They bury themselves in the sand with their eyes and mouth sticking out just enough, aimed skyward (star-ward) and wait for prey. When something appealing swims by, the stargazer uses its large mouth to create a vacuum to suck it in.”

Also, these appealing creatures have an organ in their head that can deliver an electric charge that can stun prey and perhaps ward off predators. Their genus, Astroscopus, comes from Latin as one that “aims at the stars.” Their trivial name, guttatus, comes from Latin as “speckled,” like raindrops.

To subscribe to this always surprising publication, go here: Hudson River Almanac . In the meantime, keep your fingers and toes in the boat.

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