That Was Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving FootballThe Thanksgiving holiday really was a bust this year. It snowed the day before and icy roads made traveling difficult. But there was plenty on television between almost continuous football games and days where we were expected to pull out our wallets and celebrate by spending money: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday. Add to this the fact that most of my local stores have had their Christmas trimmings on display now for a couple of weeks and one wonders what has happened to Thanksgiving. It got nudged into oblivion.

So this started me wondering about how I could put together an illustration to show the turmoil that seems to have beset our national Thanksgiving holiday. Animals are well represented in the names of football teams so with some light-hearted footwork I’ve come up with the Buffalo Browns and the Miami Marlins. Two buffalo and a marlin are part of the general melee on the football field while no one pays attention to the turkey that really appears to be above it all.

It’s a shame we’ve come to think of this day as one for either shopping or watching football. I know people who always gather round a table each Thanksgiving and prepare to enjoy a splendid feast. There are others who participate in a Turkey Trot or some run for a good cause. And there are a few souls who give voice to what they are thankful for at this time of year. As always, I enjoy the simpler things: a good laugh, cheerful friends, the expressions of caring that come my way and come when I least expect it. The Thanksgiving holiday is distinct for its humble yet very human touch.  Let’s not lose it.

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Guy Fawkes

Guy FawkesPlease to remember the fifth of November,  for  gunpowder                                                                                                                                                         treason and plot: I know of no reason                                                                                              why gunpowder and treason ever should be forgot!

I grew up reciting this rhyme and celebrating Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th. On a cool, crisp November night we would light a bonfire and roast potatoes and chestnuts in it, setting off the fireworks we’d collected. They seem rather tame by today’s standards but I had a romantic attachment to them all: rockets, Roman candles, Catherine wheels, squibs, and golden rain, to name a few. To collect money for fireworks, kids would make a Guy Fawkes in effigy by stuffing a pair of pants and shirt with straw, putting it into a child’s wagon and going about the streets of London asking for “A penny for the Guy.”

As children, we had no idea who Guy Fawkes really was. Going back 400 years when England teetered between Catholicism and Protestantism, a group of five English renegade Catholics decided to blow up the House of Lords when King James 1 came to open parliament. The conspirators trundled barrels of gunpowder into a cellar room and Guy Fawkes was detailed off to guard the explosives. He wasn’t even the ring leader of this group of terrorists bent on restoring their faith to a divided land.

The plot was known to a few others besides. One of the members of the House of Lords was tipped off not to attend the opening ceremony.  He showed the letter to King James 1. James ordered a search of the cellars and Guy Fawkes was discovered with a match to set alight the gunpowder and a watch to calculate the right moment. There follows a rather grisly few weeks of torture for Guy Fawkes and a hanging while the English people were asked to light bonfires to celebrate the King’s escape from assassination.

This bloody history has echoes for us today. The English King James 1 was succeeded by his son, Charles 1 whose side lost in the civil war with Oliver Cromwell and Charles was executed. His son, Charles 11 was later restored to the throne and succeeded by his brother, James 11, the last Catholic monarch of England. James fled after three years on the throne and England at last decided decisively it was going to be Protestant. But it’s as well to remember that this period of religious strife, warfare and radical politics lasted throughout the reigns of four kings and some one hundred years. Guy Fawkes was only a bit player in the drama.

 

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Passenger Pigeons

 

Passenger Pigeons

This month marks one hundred years since the demise of the passenger pigeon. This once prolific bird seems to have become extinct without much understanding of the cautionary tale it has to tell.

When Europeans arrived on the North American continent, flocks of passenger pigeons were so vast that they blackened the sky, sometimes taking hours to pass overhead with a noise like distant thunder. There are no accurate records of their numbers but from written scraps and sightings the total has been estimated at between three and five billion birds. The air could become so thick with them that simply waving a pole would bring them down. Another way to catch hundreds of birds at one time was by throwing up a net. Frontiersmen who had subsisted on whatever they had been able to store as food over the winter welcomed the pigeons as a source of fresh meat. But the real undoing of the passenger pigeons arrived when the railroad came through.

Slaughtered pigeons were packed 300 to a barrel and shipped by rail to eastern cities. Each train could transport up to 1,000 barrels at one time, or a total of 300,000 pigeons. The birds were considered a source of cheap food for slaves and the poor. In the nineteenth century, no one foresaw that a bird as plentiful as the passenger pigeon could disappear. But it did. Through a combination of wholesale slaughter, local hunting, land deforestation and disrupted nesting sites, the birds could not reproduce at the same rate that they were being killed. The last known passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in September, 1914.

Environmentalism arrived too late to save the passenger pigeons. But the loss of the birds did give a few people pause. In the decades following their disappearance legislation was introduced into Congress to begin to protect wild life culminating in 1918 in the Migratory Bird Act which included protection of the nests, eggs and feathers as well as the birds. This year, Project Passenger Pigeon has launched a wide-ranging effort to educate a largely uninformed public about the demise of the passenger pigeons. This effort is considered a jumping off point for an exploration of the many ways in which we humans shape our own environment, an environment made infinitely richer by the creatures that inhabit the forests, deserts and oceans of this shrinking world.

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Are You the Artist?

Craft Show

I spend the summer taking part in art festivals in order to sell my paintings, which I do. But a lot goes on besides exhibiting my work, making a sale or getting a commission for some custom work.

Art festivals, which are often fund-raisers, take place in attractive outdoor spaces like the grounds of some old mansion or New England town green. As a pop-up gallery, we exhibitors have to set up and take down our own booths, a task which is physically demanding. I put everything into my car the night before and arrive at the location early. There’s great camaraderie among the vendors and I have met some very interesting people. I am struck by how many of them suffered in the recent recession losing their white-collar jobs and despairing of ever getting

re-employed. So they have begun to turn their interests towards an attempt to generate income as best they know how. Out of sheer necessity, they have become jewelers, wood carvers, potters, sculptors and many other things.

As for myself, tending my tables on which I display my art work for eight or nine hours a day, I become a captive audience for the visitors who drift by. The conversations we have often arrange themselves into a sequence with which I am becoming familiar. The opening salvo is always: “Are you the artist?” People genuinely like to know who executed the painting, to be able to put a personal face on the art work, and always want to know that the painting is an original and with my signature on it. I quite appreciate all this. It makes a lot of sense if the visitor intends to purchase the art. All these steps add value. I have stories to tell about how the art work came to be, plus some anecdotes from my own personal history.

If the visitor is not a buyer of my art, which is the majority of people who stop by, the conversation then frequently veers away from my painting with the comment: “I have no talent.” This is odd. I have taught painting and found everyone in my classes to have had imagination and some degree of skill, so much so that I, as the instructor, had to go away to improve so that my students did not become more “talented” than I was. I think what the art festival visitors are really telling me is that either someone important in their past had been critical of their efforts so that their self-confidence had been destroyed, or, because becoming competent in the skills required to become an artist means many hours or years of practice, few people are prepared to put in that amount of effort.

The next progression in the conversation is a riff on the “no talent” theme.  From some people I get:  “I have no talent but my daughter or grand-daughter is a superb artist.” These visitors give me a complete run-down of this little girl’s imaginative art work in fifth or sixth grade and all the accolades heaped on her by her teachers and relatives. I really don’t have a good response to this theme and remain a listener.

On the other hand, from the”some day” crowd, there’s another variation. Their question to me is: “Do you do children’s book illustration?” If I answer “Yes,” then I have fallen into the captive audience trap again. These visitors will tell me of the book they want to write “some day”. It’s invariably an animal rescue story, either a puppy or a kitten, which they themselves saved from annihilation many years ago. As a listener I have the distinct impression that the real value to the storyteller is in the retelling and reliving of the experience, not the very hard work of actually assembling the various parts into a book, getting it published and distributing it.

And so during art festivals I become the repository of other people’s unrealized dreams. And I think our technology which promises so much in the way of individual awareness and proximity is failing these visitors to my booth. These people show me they need the emotional contact that comes from face-to-face encounters.  They need to be listened to, find appreciation and respect and know that they count for something, just as they are.

 

 

 

 

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Poppies

Flanders Fields“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

 

I have always loved poppies but not so much the terrible events that these wild flowers have come to represent.  Thinking about the First World War is to drum up intense regret, almost bitterness, at the enormous loss of life, some 15 million people. Armies were made up mostly of the young and innocent with their lives before them, convinced that hostilities would be over in a few months.  The war of 1914 – 1918 spawned marvelous poets while the creation of the poem referred to here was almost accidental. It was written by a Canadian physician, Lt. Col. John McCrae who had just spent seventeen days straight tending the wounded in his field hospital. One senses the extreme fatigue and futility of his lines.

However somber the association, poppies are for me a delightful presence. They will grow almost anywhere with enough sun and well-drained soil. The scarlet petals are extremely flashy. If you look closely enough you can see the petals turning black towards their centers. The stamens around the seed pod are powdery and covered with a purplish pollen. When young, I used to open up the poppies while still in bud. The petals resembled crumpled tissue paper just turning from pale pink to their characteristic scarlet. Fields were particularly attractive when poppies and blue cornflowers grew among ripening ears of wheat, a crop  I haven’t seen now that farming has become so much more efficient.  These days I grow the poppies myself in a sunny flower bed, hoping they will eventually self-sow and put on an increasingly bold display beginning in June each year.

On Armistice Day I used to wear a poppy made of cloth on my lapel while the whole of London observed two minutes of silence in honor of our war dead. Even so, we never reconciled the beauty of the world to which the poppy belongs with the carnage of war. Nor have we been able to fully comprehend how or why the nations of Europe stumbled towards a conflagration that forever changed how we perceive the world, in the midst of which the poppy acheter viagra stands as an emblem of inconsequence or terrible human fragility.

 

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This Land Is My Land

Wineberries

Wineberries

Yesterday I left a bag of food I’d purchased in the grocery store, something that thoroughly ticks me off that I could be so absent-minded. I decided to go back and retrieve it. I climbed up from my hillside to the road only to find it blocked by an enormous black SUV. The mother, a summer visitor, had parked her car across my entrance onto the road and informed me that her children were foraging for raspberries.

I didn’t understand why anyone would forage by SUV or why foraging couldn’t be done by walking. But I have to understand that summer visitors to my beloved lake probably have slightly different attitudes towards the land and while it’s a good thing that more of us can enjoy this beautiful environment, we’re all going to experience it in slightly different ways. Or are we?

I was also surprised that these summer visitors had found wild raspberries. I have observed what grows along the road for years and it doesn’t seem the right environment for raspberries. So I stopped to see what the kids were collecting. To me, they looked like wineberries which also grow at the edges of my hillside. I suggested to another mother with the group that these were not raspberries but my comments were coldly brushed aside. So I left with our visitors’ different claim to  the land and what was growing on it.

Wineberries are not poisonous but I don’t think they make for very good eating. They are among the first wild berries to ripen each year. The seeds inside the fruit droplets are rather large and woody but the shiny red flesh surrounding each seed is tart and not very tasty. Wineberries are an invasive species introduced into the United States from Asia in the 1890’s. The canes form a dense, matted barrier impenetrable to wild life and people and a threat to native plants. They grow vigorously and eventually bend over far enough to re-root themselves in the ground. Canes are covered in spines much like blackberries which make them difficult to dislodge, but the birds feast on the berries eventually scattering the seeds.

So to prevent this intrusive plant from taking over, I go to my hillside to beat back the undergrowth.  There’s been a little house wren that has adopted my hillside as his territory this summer  and often sings out his claim to ownership on low-hanging branches or even from my propane tanks. As I began weed-wacking away yesterday, he soon turned up to “chuck-chuck” his displeasure at my presence with the clear message that I should get off his property. So whose land is it, anyway?

 

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Beasts of Burden

When the Afghans went to vote last week I noticed some polling materials contained in large plastic tubs were transported into the more remote areas on the backs of donkeys. It struck me as ironic – Afghanistan holding the first democratic election in the country’s history yet relying on a mode of transportation that hasn’t changed for the past 5,000 years.

Donkeys have small hoofs which allow them to be particularly sure-footed in rough, mountainous terrain. They are generic viagra also amazingly tough for their small size. In some parts of the world I have seen donkeys transporting enormous loads that look to be about three times their size. On the west coast of Ireland years ago, a donkey that was used for hauling peat cut from the bog was lent to me to ride. The leather collar that formed part of the animal’s harness had worn away the hair and exposed the skin underneath which was cracked and bleeding. Donkeys are not well treated where people rely on them to eke out a subsistence living.

Not only are donkeys mistreated but they are frequently mislabeled. To call someone a donkey or a jackass is to imply the person is stupid. But donkeys are not stupid. Maybe it’s their “hee haw” the sound that donkeys make like a loud wheeze that gives them a reputation for being dull-witted. But these animals are patient, undemanding and able to forage on scant vegetation. Christians celebrate the start of Holy Week with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a pure white donkey. Not coveting a neighbor’s ass forms part of one of the Ten Commandments as livestock in those ancient days were counted as wealth.

A political association began with Democratic Andrew Jackson’s campaign for the presidency when his political opponents referred to him as a jackass. Jackson capitalized on the slight and began to feature a donkey on his campaign posters. The more famous reprise is a cartoon by Thomas Nash in 1870 which appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. The feisty Democratic donkey is kicking a lion. Nash also created the elephant symbol for the Republicans a few years later.

These days donkeys are little more than pets in the United States. Not so throughout the undeveloped areas of the world where they continue to be overworked, poorly cared for and poorly fed, the butt of countless jokes and derogatory references.

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Small Shifts, Big Changes

Tigris & EuphratesChanges in the weather aren’t just a contemporary phenomenon. Nor are the unintended consequences that small shifts bring. Here in the Northeast we seem to have exchanged a winter of extreme cold  with a chill spring and plenty of rain. Weeds are growing rapidly. Kudzu seems to have taken over every patch of uncultivated ground, its shoots waving around ready to catch onto a nearby tree by which it can haul itself up and take over, creating a green curtain of impenetrable vines and leaves.

I’ve also watched a documentary on the brown bear population on an island off the Alaskan coast gorging on salmon when those fish return to their spawning grounds upstream. As this documentary was being filmed a change of two degree Celsius in the waters of the South Pacific delayed the salmon run for a couple of months. As a result, the bear population here almost starved. Animal ecosystems can inform our human situations. While population conflicts appear to have been largely ideological and political in recent years, underlying stressors have been the scarce resources .

I have not been there but I’ve read that Northern Nigeria is losing arable land to desertification by about fifteen kilometers a year in some places. Nomadic herders who depend on grazing lands for their livelihood are being forced closer to farmed areas. The media reports on armed conflict while drought, job loss and the march of desertification is seldom recognized as an underlying cause. And in many places in the Middle East water is scarcer than oil. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which rise in the Taurus mountains of eastern Turkey flow less rapidly through Iraq and Syria into the Persian Gulf as populations upstream either dam the rivers or divert the flow. I have read, too that the whole central plain of Iran faces an acute water shortage.

History shows us how catastrophe can result from very small shifts in ecosystems on which so many depend. We must all share limited resources if we are to prosper. Armed conflict seems a very short-sighted way to deal with scarcity.

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Love of Daffodils

DaffodilsThe daffodil season on my hillside is just coming to an end. The show has been spectacular this year. I’ve planted at least two new daffodil varieties each fall for several years. The bulbs need to winter over in the soil before coming into bloom the following spring. By now I must have over one hundred clumps of up to 30 or 40 varieties coming into flower in at least three distinct blooming periods between early April and mid-May.

As soon as the snow recedes I watch for the first green leaf tips to appear. The first leaves up are always over the septic tank, slightly warmer I guess than the rest of the hillside. The first daffodil to burst into bloom is a variety called Ice Follies, very prolific around here and quite hardy. With one flower per stem, this daffodil has six white petals around a stubby pale yellow cup. You see it everywhere but it has the distinction of being the first to put on a show.

I am not such a daffodil devotee that I know the names of all the varieties I’ve planted but I do have my favorites. Among the first arrivals is Mount Hood which is all white but it doesn’t start out that way. The cups turn from pale yellow to white once the flowers are in bloom. By mid-season the doubles seem to take over. Tahiti has a complex double center cup surrounded by double petals of bright yellow interspersed with bright orange. Similar complexity follows in daffodils that are yellow and white, or pink and white. As to the pink cup varieties, beware of the catalogues. They show pages of daffodils with bright baby pink centers. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. My pink daffodils have cups that are a subtle peach, interesting in their own way but definitely not pink. My preference for blooms in this high season is for the daffodil varieties with brilliant orange cups of varying beauty and intensity.

Towards the end of the daffodil season I welcome the varieties sometimes known as jonquils. These have several blooms on one stem, so the flowers are rather small but have great personality. My favorite is Yellow Cheerfulness, a pale primrose yellow with multiple petals. I’ve also been captivated by the daffodil variety called Geranium because of the fragrance and by Thalia blooming now at the end of the season though again, when the catalogues refer to it as the orchid daffodil, that’s a bit of a stretch. For a grand finale, the Poet’s Daffodil , delicate in white with a tiny deep orange cup and green throat is the last to bloom on my hillside.

Now that the show is almost over, I’ve been round dead-heading the plants, that is, snipping off the seed heads so that the plant’s energy goes downwards into the bulbs, setting them up for next spring. Some will produce daughter bulbs as they are called, building out the clumps of blooms that can get to be fifty flowers strong. I also need to let the daffodil leaves die off, turning ugly shades of yellow cheap levitra india and brown before I weedwack them down with the rest of the growing vegetation. I like to think of the bulbs buried in the brown earth under my feet getting ready for another spectacular show next spring.

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Beasts of Burden

Democratic Donkey

When the Afghans went to vote last week I noticed some polling materials contained in large plastic tubs were transported into the more remote areas on the backs of donkeys. It struck me as ironic – Afghanistan holding the first democratic election in the country’s history yet relying on a mode of transportation that hasn’t changed for the past 5,000 years.

Donkeys have small hoofs which allow them to be particularly sure-footed in rough, mountainous terrain. They are also amazingly tough for their small size. In some parts of the world I have seen donkeys transporting enormous loads that look to be about three times their size. On the west coast of Ireland years ago, a donkey that was used for hauling peat cut from the bog was lent to me to ride. The leather collar that formed part of the animal’s harness had worn away http://www.izzit.org/cheap/viagra-online-cheap.html the hair and exposed the skin underneath which was cracked and bleeding. Donkeys are not well treated where people rely on them to eke out a subsistence living.

Not only are donkeys mistreated but they are frequently mislabeled. To call someone a donkey or a jackass is to imply the person is stupid. But donkeys are not stupid. Maybe it’s their “hee haw” the sound that donkeys make like a loud wheeze that gives them a reputation for being viagra online dull-witted. But these animals are patient, undemanding and able to forage on scant vegetation. Christians celebrate the start of Holy Week with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, a young donkey.  Not coveting a neighbor’s ass forms part of one of the Ten Commandments as livestock in those ancient days were counted as wealth.

A political association began with Democratic Andrew Jackson’s campaign for the presidency when his political opponents referred to him as a jackass.  Jackson capitalized on the slight and began to feature a donkey on his campaign posters. The more famous reprise is a cartoon by Thomas Nash in 1870 which appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. The feisty Democratic donkey is kicking a lion. Nash also created the elephant symbol for the Republicans a few years later.

These days donkeys are little more than pets in the United States. Not so throughout the undeveloped areas of the world where they continue to be overworked, poorly cared for and poorly fed, the butt of countless jokes and derogatory references.

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