Showing posts with label Memoire. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Memoire. Show all posts

Monday, October 03, 2022

The Jazz Naturalist Travels to England

Botanical and musical interests merged recently, while touring England with a latin/jazz ensemble I've been musical director of for almost 40 years, called the Lunar Octet. It was a whirlwind tour, with seven gigs in five days. Along the way, I was able to catch glimpses of nature in the British Isles. 

One of our hosts, in Tunbridge Wells, has a delightful garden. The city is located in Kent, which is a county south of London. England as a country has no states, but rather lots of counties, like Hampshire, Yorkshire, and Devon, which seems to have lost its shire. Homes have addresses in England, but they are also sometimes given names. Our host lives in the Sandstone House. Are all english gardens like this? I'd be fine with it if so. Sheep graze peacefully in the front yard. Had never seen baby sheep grazing before. They're doing a great job.
Pink flamingoes are an indicator species for quirky habitat. Real flamingoes can be found in Africa and America. I once saw flocks of them at watering holes at the base of the Andes in the Patagonian desert in Argentina. Plastic pink flamingoes (Phoenicopterus plasticus) are a northern species, reportedly native to Massachusetts. 
The nylon strings draped over the front yard water feature looked at first like a sculpture, but may also be an elegant deterrent of whatever local water bird might be tempted to fly in and gobble up the fish.
There was a very scary guard dog, fortunately leashed.
And a guard bird kept an eye on us. People underestimate guard birds at their peril. 

There was a sheep patrolling the deck, looking like a character out of Wallace and Gromit. Very high security.

The garden deals with the death of trees in an interesting way. People tend to eliminate all signs of death from their gardens, but our hosts see demise as an opportunity. What's this?, you might ask.

I did ask, and was told that it's a thumb. That's a very positive thing to do with a dead tree trunk. 
And that split trunk in the distance, instead of cutting it down, 
they added a rope and called it a sling-shot.
If you've been steeped in the American ethic that trees should be allowed to grow naturally, the European treatment of trees can seem at first brutal. This eucalyptus, native to Australia, is lucky to have any limbs. Radical pruning is a means of controlling size, and is reminiscent of how grape vines are pruned back each year to not much more than a post sticking out of the ground. New growth sprouts from the tips. Pollarding is a fascinating technique with a long history, and some examples, intentional or not, can be found in Princeton.

Even more extreme pruning leaves just the trunk, as can be seen in this photo taken on the fly. It would be interesting to see how the trees respond to such extreme treatment.

There was a forest nearby that I didn't have time to explore, but the description sounds appealing.

"... a diverse mosaic of habitats: native broadleaf woodland of oak, birch, rowan, and hazel; areas of mature and younger conifer; fern-clad hollows; and patches of heathland where the heather, gorse, and purple moor-grass harbour a host of wildlife." 

"Fernclad hollows? Heather, gorse, purple moor-grass? If I had read the sign then and there, I would have launched myself up the trail for a closer look. Instead I took a photo of the sign, to ostensibly read later, and returned to the Sandstone House, still carrying the misconception that heather only grows further north, up towards Scotland. Rowan turns out to be the European equivalent of our mountain ash. Gorse looks a bit like a shrub called Scotch broom, with similarly bright yellow leguminous flowers. Both were introduced to the western U.S. and became invasive. It would have been good to see how gorse grows in its native habitat of Britain. The sign also says that Hargate Forest has its own invasive species, rhododendron, which is being removed. 

One big surprise was the presence of palm trees in southern Great Britain. The photo below was taken in Torquay (pronounced tor-KEY, home of Faulty Towers) where our band did a workshop at a boy's grammar school. A grammar school, I learned, doesn't refer to teaching grammar but to the need to test to get in. Palm trees, yuccas, Bird of Paradise--the flora along the south coast was more reminiscent of Pasadena, CA than my preconception of a uniformly cold, damp England.

A little ways north, the climate still looked to be on the mild side, with fuchsia shrubs blooming in a garden designed for butterflies. It was at the Bristol Grammar School, reminiscent of Hogwarts, with uniformed students and a grand paneled dining hall. 
In a big blackbox theater, we performed our original music, then brought the students down to learn how to play a street samba rhythm. It is tremendously satisfying to perform for a sea of bright young faces, who listened well and gave back as much energy as we gave them. 

Most jazz musicians, leaving the gig, would not have noticed the teasel growing in the little butterfly garden that was trying mightily to do its part to counter 50 years of decline in butterflies and moths in Great Britain. Apparently native to England, teasel is a plant with a striking form that unfortunately has become highly invasive in the midwestern U.S., forming thick stands along highways. It probably will become problematic in NJ over time. Typically there's a lack of indigenous herbivores and diseases to keep an introduced plant in check when it becomes invasive on other continents. Teasel is, as mentioned, a striking plant, sometimes used in dry flower arrangements. Invasive is another way of saying "too much of a good thing." It would be interesting to see how teasel behaves in the English landscape, beyond the confines of a 10 X 20 butterfly garden.
Towards the end of the tour, our hosts in Nottingham, owners of a wonderful jazz club called Peggy's Skylight, put us up at their homes. The foliage in front of one of the houses along the street was decidedly American, with pampas grass and Virginia creeper.

The wannabe urban planner in me would like to take a moment to heap praise upon shallow setbacks, which I will pretend is a botanical term for locating homes close to the street. The small front yard thus created is a manageable space for having a small garden. Princeton has some neighborhoods with these smaller setbacks, but where homes are placed far from the street, not only is it less likely one will get to know one's neighbor, but the vast front yard thus created is also too big for most people to garden. The solution most homeowners gravitate towards is a boring, sterile expanse of mowed lawn. In England, I was glad for the feeling of embrace the narrow streets and their close-in buildings create.

There's a wonderful post about Virginia creeper by a woman in London who describes herself this way: "Bug Woman is a slightly scruffy middle-aged woman who enjoys nothing more than finding a large spider in the bathroom."

The blogger's description of self begs the question: Are Brits more comfortable than Americans with self-deprecation? In downtown Nottingham, we saw the Ugly Bread Bakery, 
which was just up the street from the Fatface department store. Do words get upcycled in England, to turn a negative into a positive? Though people were not above occasional complaint, we picked up on considerable positive energy, with the word "brilliant" being sprinkled liberally upon various things and actions, the way we might use "awesome."

One plant doing very well in England is English ivy, which looks to be a bonafide native. Vines typically bloom only when they climb something, which is why you never see English ivy, Virginia creeper, or poison ivy blooming when they are only spreading across the ground.

Along with the loss of wildlife, there's also the mourning of the attrition of hedgerows in the countryside. Apparently a lot were removed after WWII, when farming shifted towards maximum production and the hedgerows were standing in the way of expanding fields. Our pianist for the week, Adam Biggs, lives in Bath and described to me how hedgerows are not so much planted as "laid". There's a whole technique to creating and maintaining hedgerows, which are promoted as important habitat for wildlife.

We were fortunate in Nottingham to have an instantly likable host named Lex, a geographer with a liking for pirates and educational t-shirts.

A closer look reveals important anatomical differences between various strains of humanity.

Their dog is a small version of a pure bred fox hound, the runt of the litter. The sort that hunts foxes, Lex explained, are much larger and specially bred. He described the tradition of fox hunting historically as more a form of warfare than sport--a means by which the upper class could demonstrate dominion over the lands populated by the tenant farmers. Fox hunting became logistically difficult as the landscape became more broken up into smallholder parcels whose owners were less willing to go along with the periodic invasion. 

While we found Robin Hood hanging out next to Nottingham Castle, built over ancient sandstone caves, he'd now have to drive an hour north to reach what remains of Sherwood Forest. There was no time for that, even though it looks like there's an amazingly old oak up there called the Major Oak.

We didn't see any fairs in Scarborough, but we did go, and did play for a thousand people at the jazz festival there. They called our music "joy jazz"--a new genre. Half the joy was in the music. The other half was in getting to see England and meet some of its people.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Proliferating Paradise

If you asked me what a utopian landscape might look like, it would be something like this. People talk more of dystopia than utopia these days, but this enclave stirred memories of utopian dreamers who were more common a half century ago. This is not a utopia filled with fantastical gizmology, but a more basic collecting of solar energy by plants and people to fill our needs for comfort, food and beauty. Though a deep forest would be somewhere nearby, houses would be producers, not just consumers, their roofs shaded by solar panels sending renewable electrons out into the neighborhood grid. And their front yards would be producers as well, of a joyous mix of wildflowers and vegetables.

Wild plants would mingle with domestic, and people would be a gentle mix of wild and domesticated natures as well. On this particular day, a neighbor was harvesting cucumbers and tomatoes while we plant lovers were inspecting the leaves of a curious plant grown from seeds we had collected from a wild remnant on the outskirts of town. We continue to be stumped. It's some sort of Silphium, not quite cup plant, not quite rosinweed. Genius nature has taken our breath and turned its carbon into yet another surprise.

The garden is largely the work of my friend Perry in Durham, NC, who began gardening in his own yard, then extended his work into his grateful neighbor's. Other neighbors on the block have picked up on the theme, getting acquainted with plants one at a time, until their lawns too have been displaced by something much more interesting and productive. It's a miniature experiment in proliferating paradise.

Perhaps paradise is too strong a word, being associated more with leisure than production, more with a tropical beach and soft sea breezes than an urban front yard. This is a plant-based, pandemic-borne, home-centered paradise.

I'm in Durham partly to see a close friend, but also to work on my house there, a 1919 house surrounded by towering oaks, but with a big lawn drenched with sunlight and potential to grow all kinds of interesting things. Being a long-distance gardener is even more challenging than being a long-distance landlord, particularly during a pandemic, but last fall, we started by planting seeds of local wildflowers and grasses around stakes in a part of the lawn where the soil had been freed of Bermuda grass. Perry didn't get my hopes up, sending periodic reports this spring of copious amounts of chickweed and weedy cranesbill filling the void in the lawn. It was a great surprise then to finally show up and find an enthusiastic crowd of intended plants around each stake, enough to populate a much larger portion of the lawn.

This is an unorthodox way of proliferating prairie. I used a similar technique at the botanical garden at Herrontown Woods in Princeton, where toddlers and their moms planted wildflowers in staked pods like this--mini-nurseries of clustered plants that were transplanted the next year to begin filling the whole forest opening. As the transplants produce seeds, they expand the overall planting still further.

Perry's been using incrementalism in a Durham nature preserve as well. At 17 Acre Wood, the first urban preserve I helped create in Durham 20 years ago, Perry and I checked out the hazelnut crop in a floodplain he has been working to shift towards native species.

One of the toughest spots was clogged with climbing euonymus, english ivy and periwinkle. Trees tend to be native, the understory not, but Perry is shifting the balance. It's hard to grow much in deep shade where water stands for much of the winter, but where the invasives have been removed, elderberry and jewelweed have bounced back, and a patch of lizard's tail has appeared.

The work is partly ecological, partly aesthetic, partly public safety, since removing invasive shrubs and vines improves vistas and sightlines along a public trail. This West Ellerbe Creek Trail, which follows the creek through the preserve, is also a story of incrementalism. It was a big hit with neighbors when it was built by the city in 2001, but would not have been built at all if not for the small steps that preceded it. A county government grant had helped our nonprofit create a nature preserve along the creek. Then the city, seeing we had created a destination, built the creekside bikepath to reach it. The result was a way for neighbors to take a nature walk in their own urban neighborhood.

To shift the world towards paradise, we really don't need new ideas, only people and organizations and governments doing what they each do best, combining incremental action with caring about the world and what we'll pass to future generations.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Repopulating the Community With Native Wildflowers

My younger daughter Anna recently returned from a year in Bolivia, and since she loves to walk, we headed out across town towards Mountain Lakes. It gave me a chance to check out, or check in on, some of the plantings I've been involved in creating over the years. It was surprising how many we encountered along the way. There are the rain gardens adopted at the Westminster parking lot, plantings on both sides of the high school, a couple gardens around Mountain Lakes House, and then on the way back we stopped by the courtyard behind the Community Park Elementary, where I recently helped a bit with a garden planted by students under the leadership of Georgette Stern. Those are projects west of my house. Extending eastward are plantings at the Whole Earth Center, Smoyer Park and a botanical garden being established at Herrontown Woods.

Since many of the plants now in public places come from my backyard, or in many cases "through" my backyard from wildflower seeds collected from native populations along the canal, there are recurrent themes.

A pollinator flying around town will encounter these bottlebrush buckeyes in my yard, at Mountain Lakes House, and now at the botanical garden at Herrontown Woods.

These backyard clouds of tall meadow rue were first found along the canal, then traveled to my yard and from there to the various gardens around town. The new populations are particularly important because the original patch along the canal is being grown over by invasive porcelainberry vine.

Virginia sweetspire came from a nursery, but creates suckers that can be easily dug and transplanted to public places.

Divisions from these backyard oakleafed hydrangias have also become ambassadors of native beauty in the community.

The richweed in the front left of this photo is a rare native that first arrived in the backyard via a plant rescue from a stream restoration site on the university campus. Though it doesn't have showy flowers, the hydrangia-like foliage makes an attractive massing in a flower bed. Again, the backyard was a conduit, as the richweed's seedlings are now growing at Herrontown Woods.

Some beebalm given to me by a friend mixes with the tall meadow rue from the canal.

Division from that beebalm now thrive at the Herrontown Woods botanical garden, protected from the deer by some fencing.

Sundrops, here mixed with deer tongue grass--a common native grass in local floodplains--also made the journey from backyard to botanical garden,

as did cupplant, a giant wildflower here catching rain in its "cup." This is probably the tenth or twentieth generation from the original plant rescued in 1994 from next to a dumpster behind Mark Twain's house in Hartford, CT.

Fox sedge is a common local sedge that has an attractive shape that works for informal gardens.

A more recent find is purple milkweed (distinct from common, swamp, green, butterflyweed, etc.), a few specimens of which are now traveling from their original location at the Veblen House grounds to begin growing elsewhere in town.

Others have yet to travel, like black-eyed Susan,

and Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra), a native I've never seen growing in the wild, given to us by a friend our first full summer in Princeton, when the 17 year cicadas were having a look all around.

The purpose of this post is not to encourage people to dig up plants from their gardens and spread them indiscriminately throughout town. Given how weeds can travel in dirt, I'm careful to introduce to new areas only seeds or bareroot plants, with a strong preference for local genotypes rather than bred varieties. The goal that began this process was to make isolated remnant populations of this or that native species less isolated and more resilient by starting new populations in auspicious conditions elsewhere in town.

There's a long-standing irony that the wildflowers native to an area are often the least encountered by people living in suburban landscapes dominated by non-native plants. This process of seed collection, division and transplanting, natural to a gardener, can help bring back some native diversity in the community, for people as well as pollinators to enjoy.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Yerkes Observatory: A Giant Eye in Need of a New Vision

One of the most distinctive and hallowed buildings in the world closed down this past fall. The original vision behind Yerkes Observatory, to understand the universe, carried it through one full century and well into the next.

Now, this extraordinary building perched high above Lake Geneva in Wisconsin is in need of a new vision and funding that will open the doors once again to its fabulous interior and history. We live in a time when great things that have long been taken for granted reveal themselves to be vulnerable, and Yerkes is yet another entity of extraordinary value and seeming permanence whose future is now in question.

I've taken an interest because  this "birthplace of astrophysics" is my birthplace as well. Not that I was born in the observatory--there was fortunately a hospital in the next town over--but while most kids grow up along streets lined with houses, I grew up with a world famous observatory standing just beyond our front yard. Though located in Wisconsin, it was built by the University of Chicago. Through most of 20th century, the university's astronomy faculty was located there, including Nobel Prize winner Chandreseckhar. Among the better known astronomers trained there is Edwin Hubble, for whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named. Carl Sagan was doing his graduate work there when I was preparing to launch into kindergarten. My father was director for awhile and designed a telescope in one of the domes. Most importantly for a kid, he had a set of keys that sometimes I could borrow, to explore the observatory's elaborate interior. Vast indoor spaces have populated my dreams ever since.

This fall I visited just before the observatory closed on October 1.

Yerkes' contribution to the goal of understanding the universe came from or through the eyes it pointed towards the heavens.The big dome still houses the largest refracting telescope in the world, with a lens 40" across. It was the largest telescope of any kind when it was built in 1897. What was impressive for a kid was the train-like wheels that carry the weight of the massive dome as it rotates, the elaborate system of cables that drive dome and floor, and the way my voice and footsteps would echo in that immense, resonant space.

The big dome still houses the world's largest elevator, a circular floor that rises or falls to meet the angle of the telescope. The founder and first director of the observatory was George E. Hale, and his father made a small fortune after developing and selling hydraulic elevators for use in the rebuilding of Chicago after the massive fire in 1871. Coincidence? I don't think so.

The two smaller domes were accessed by narrow spiral staircases. One small dome housed a 40" reflecting telescope,

and the other still has a special telescope my father, W.A. Hiltner, designed and used to study the polarization of light in space. Since the best skies for observing--"photometric", my father would call them--came on the coldest nights, and the domes could not be heated, my father would dress up in insulated underwear and spend the long cold nights collecting data.

A couple times, I ventured to help him, but didn't make it much past 10pm. I remember the mysterious dials, with labels like "declination", "universal time", or "sidereal time." There were red lights to provide just enough illumination for us to navigate, and a needle making squiggles on a scroll of paper, upon which he would write notes to signify which squiggle was which. This was the patient collecting of data--the often boring work that may or may not lead to fascinating insight.

Yerkes is a generous building, its facade packed with ornament and curious figures drawn from mythology.

Gargoyles perch on its sides, apparently having mistaken the edifice for a cathedral.

I call the building generous because it provides a rich visual experience without demanding that anyone take notice. It tells its stories only to those who have time to pause and explore and speculate on the meaning behind the many symbols and colorful characters molded into the walls and pillars of the entryway.

How many astronomers, preoccupied with their theories of the universe, scrutinizing the heavens by night, noticed that they, too, were being watched as they came and went. The observatory has many eyes carved into its facade, checking out the human mortals as they climb the steps seeking knowledge that will last beyond their lifetimes.

That particular steady gaze bears a resemblance to Yerkes himself, whose controversial wealth funded the building. He now sits as a bust in the rotunda, next to one of the building's many clocks.

While the Yerkes historian Richard Dreiser described the building during one of the last tours, I checked out the carvings that likely fed my imagination as a kid, even though I don't remember paying them any mind.

Some of the characters look surprised to find us there in the rotunda,

but the owls look like they've seen it all. Akin to astronomers with their powerful night vision, they show up in varied forms.

This owl serves as centerpiece for a collection of symbols, some of whose meanings have changed significantly since 1897. At the upper left is what for us is a highly disturbing symbol. It looks like a swastika, but is not. A little research shows that the swastika was an ancient symbol of good luck, before the Nazis appropriated it for much different purposes in the 1930s. The symbol at Yerkes, with lines pointed counter clockwise, is a "sauvastica", having nothing to do with the political aberrations of the 20th century. The Star of David design, too, likely had different meaning back in 1897, when it was just beginning to be formally associated with Zionism.

These owls look to be lovebirds.

There's some irony in the fact that a building with so many eyes was directed for many years by an astronomer who lost his sight at the age of 55. Undaunted, he continued as director for another ten years. Some of the story of Edwin Brant Frost, particularly how his love of nature influenced his leadership of the observatory and his reaction to blindness, is told in another post.

Down the marble-lined hallway is what I call "the stairway to the heavens," which astronomers would climb as they headed to the big dome for a night of observing.

The attic seems to belong more to a ship than an observatory,

with its small round windows. There were cots there for astronomers to sleep undisturbed through the day, and in the 1960s, a computer was installed, filling a whole room. I spent some time in there, converting my father's data into punch cards to run through the computer.

The attic also holds some sort of instrument to study the sun, seldom used, apparently.

The observatory made it into a movie or two. For twenty seconds, starting at 1:26 in this trailer for the movie Chain Reaction,  you can see an actor running up from my house towards the observatory, along with some chase scenes in the hallways and on this roof.

The reality was a bit less dramatic. Our community of astronomers and staff, clustered in a pastoral setting on the outskirts of little Williams Bay, would gather on the observatory grounds, sometimes to play volleyball or baseball, sometimes for picnics, which in this photo appear to be pretty sedate affairs. Maybe they were, with ice tea and sandwiches, those aluminum folding chairs and a croquet game set up nearby. The Chain Reaction movie would be much more realistic if it had had the actors running through one of our picnics, upsetting tables, tripping over croquet hoops.

More breathtaking than the picnics was the view from the catwalk of the big dome. Here's a picture of my father with George Van Biesbroeck, gazing out across the lawns and forest, some 75 acres of which remain a part of the observatory and will hopefully be preserved. Lake Geneva, a popular vacation destination for Chicagoans, is in the distance.

That was back when the observatory's value to the world was beyond question. Fast forward to the present, when a few valiant, dedicated individuals are working to give Yerkes a new mission for a new century. The University is in negotiation with the Yerkes Future Foundation, a nonprofit organized to create a vision, raise funds, and find present meaning in this remarkable piece of astronomical history.

And then there's Katya Gozman, a U of Chicago student who gave me a tour and who loves Yerkes at least as much as I do, and Kate Meredith of GLAS Education (Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM), who leads the education and outreach that, since the building's closing, has relocated offsite.

Their passion and dedication to the observatory's future gives hope that funding will ultimately come forth to match the love.