Showing posts with label whimsy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label whimsy. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Becoming a Tree

A tree was spotted taking a selfie of its shadow with the Veblen House.

Yes, you can become a tree when the angle of the sun is right, and wave to the flowers growing below, and cast your mighty shadow across the expanse, to mingle with the land's many memories of the passing day.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

A Pumpkin's Smile That Would Not Die

Not everyone will see the smile that lingers here on a Michigan friend's front step long after Halloween has passed, just as not everyone will see the value in keeping any sort of organic matter around that is transitioning back to the air and soil from which it came.

This pumpkin, too, would have long been gone if not for its smile, and for an assignment given to its carver, an art student named Theadora, to draw an object in progressive stages of decomposition.

For me, this smile, here visible, is inherent in all things making nature's magical journey from death back to new life. For me, leaves keep their smiles all the way through winter and the following year, as they are slowly dismantled, losing themselves to a soil's riches, casting their carbon to the winds to take new forms.

In addition to the artist, the art teacher, and my friend Dan--the patient, appreciative father who took the photo--there is one other person to credit for this lingering smile.

As we know here in Princeton, many a pumpkin's well-carved expression has been lost, or reworked, by a neighborhood squirrel.

Squirrels tend to render one-eyed faces, or a face that is all mouth and no eyes,

though perhaps a couple squirrels teamed up to carve what here looks like a face with bunny ears.

Sometimes, if a squirrel is too hungry, it abandons all pretense of artistry and eats its own carving down to the ground.

Thea's smile in Michigan might too have been radically reworked by a local squirrel if not for the mother, Karen, who has been paying off the local squirrel mafia with peanuts in a shell, which she delivers one by one to their tender, appreciative paws on the back porch.

Moral: It takes an artist to make a smile, and a family to keep it going. I wonder what other stories this smile has to tell.

Friday, October 04, 2019

The Edible Aril of Yew

Said the Duke to the Count
in the town of the Prince,
"Have you heard of the Edible
Aril of Yew?"

Said the Count in reply,
"I don't see how a cone
could be anything tasty.
Since yews carry poison
we best not be hasty."

And so they walked on
past the closely trimmed hedge,
for fear of the toxins
in needle and seed,

the better for me on the arils to feed.

(Note how the seed sticks out a bit from the surrounding mug-shaped aril that's red and fleshy when ripe. The ripe aril is edible, but spit out the seed.)

Sunday, October 08, 2017

A Spider Seeks To Catch the Sun

One evening, when the sun was dipping low, an ambitious spider thought to itself, "What if my web could catch the sun, and I could live upon its energy for all my days?

It tried from top and tried from bottom, but the slippery sun slipped, slipped, down and away.

Another spider, across the windswept bridge, saw the moon and thought, "What if I could catch the moon in my web, and feast upon its dreams? What a beautiful life it would be."

It tried from top and tried from bottom, and thought for a moment to have captured a lifetime of wondrous moonlight. But the moon climbed higher, higher and away.

Even the moon's reflection stayed stuck upon the glassy water.

Then another spider, having to cast its net like an airborne fisherman, looking down as the lake looked back, said to all the others, "Let us leave the sun and moon to their risings and fallings, and catch instead the bugs, who catch their energy from the plants, who catch the sunlight from the sun, and we shall feast upon the sun's energy for all our days."

And so it came to be, that the spiders lived in their village stretched across the water, catching bugs and summer sunsets, and moonlit dreams, while cars sped by, seeing nothing.

Afterthought: I didn't think about it at the time, but photographing the sun, even when close to the horizon, may not be the best idea. Even if I was only looking at the sun's image in the iPhone, not the sun itself, that's some pretty intense light. Keeping my eyes flitting about, not resting the gaze, surely helped. Lots on the web about this, due to the recent eclipse. Apparently the sun isn't bad for the iPhone, especially at sunset, but I wonder about the intensity of the image on the screen, and articles especially warn against using selfie mode with the sun because of the reflection of radiation off the iPhone onto one's eyes. Fortunately, I kept the camera pointed at nature rather than self, and it seems like no damage was done.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Banana Peel Slips on Self

A banana peel was found badly beaten last week on a main walkway leading into Princeton University. Passersby seemed completely indifferent to its fate. Sure, banana peels have a certain reputation for playing practical jokes, but has anyone considered that prank from the banana peel's point of view? Tossed thoughtlessly onto the hard pavement, left destitute, far from the comforting warmth of a compost pile, stripped of any hope of returning to the good earth, a banana peel gains no sympathy but instead must endure the heavy tread of Man. Those humans, with their heads held high, their thoughts in the stars, yet to land are made insensate by thick soles, knowing not the tyranny their feet impose with every step. People, once fallen, can pick themselves up again. Not so a banana peel.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Did U Put the Ant in Cantaloupe?

It just doesn't seem right. Ants in February, feasting on tiny bits of cantaloupe on the kitchen counter when it's below freezing outside. And what sort of February is this, with cantaloupe for sale and a stretch of 60 degree days starting tomorrow? Has nature finally surrendered to the economy and abolished seasons altogether? Even the spelling of the word "cantaloupe" comes as a surprise, after a lifetime of not really noticing. Maybe one of our political parties will once again decide it dislikes all things french, and defiantly serve "cantalope" with American fries in the cafeteria of the U.S. Congress. Their presidential candidate will boldly declare that "This campaign is all about U", and promise that, to strengthen the nation's moral character, his first action as president will be to proclaim that the english language can't elope with French words. The other political party, tired of relentless negativity, will base its campaign on the slogan "Yes we canaloupe". By this time, a previous president will have indefinitely suspended all future elections, consigning the nation to a campaign season without substance and without end. Meanwhile, the meekest and tiniest among the ants, thriving in a climate made weird by too many tiny molecules in the atmosphere, and seeing the big-brained species devolving into nonsense, will seize the day and inherit the earth.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Water: Our Backyard Artist in Residence

Even in the winter, or maybe especially in the winter, there's a lot of creativity and beauty in our backyard, thanks to a fillable-spillable 35 gallon black tub that catches runoff from the roof. If the night dips below freezing, the open water becomes a canvas for elaborate 3-dimensional designs.

Why the water doesn't freeze flat is hard to fathom. Sometimes, if the night's freeze has been light, these geometric shapes will frame miniature pools of open water that jiggle when the tub is tapped.

Cold brings out an unexpected beauty in water, and sometimes in ourselves, if we have clothes to match the weather, and take the cold as a bracing stimulant rather than, as Garrison Keillor would say, "nature's attempt to kill us."

These images were first posted at as News Flash: Nature is a Geometer, in a post that links to an Exploratorium exhibit that shows how supercooled water can freeze over in a flash.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Morning Vision in the Trees

Yesterday, while my younger daughter was getting ready for school, I happened to look out the back window and saw a sight that became a vision:

After days of deep freeze, the temperature rises towards the 60s, and the squirrels are frolicking in the trees. By the tens they go. By the tens!? They flow like a spiraling current up trunks, out branches, leaping tree to tree, thinking three dimensionally. So cute and breathtaking, these acrobatic rats with charismatic tails! And so thoughtfully integrated, like the ads, with one black squirrel mixed in with the gray, all at ease and thrilled by the heady weather. Might humans, too, festering in ancient animosities, fall into long winter's slumber, then awaken in a January thaw to a fresh world redolent and warm, where life moves forward in leaps and bounds, and all fear of difference has been forgotten.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Winter Has Been Downsized

Like the incredible shrinking chocolates that cost the same but come in smaller packages, winter isn't exactly filling its three month package like it used to. This Snow Wall-E was looking pretty lonely on Hawthorn, before it too succumbed to the browns and grays of mild weather.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Gulick Park: It Takes a Fantasy Village

The stereotype is that "kids these days" tend to stay indoors, discouraged from outdoor adventure in part by woods that have become impenetrable thickets of thorny invasive shrubs. A striking counter-story to that stereotype played out in Princeton's Gulick Park this past summer. Some of Princeton's open space has very little native plantlife on the forest floor, due to past plowing. In areas where the invasive shrubs haven't filled the void, the combination of trees, sticks and empty ground can make an appealing canvas for the imagination--essentially a natural playground for kids. Some schools, such as the Willow School in Gladstone, NJ, and the Princeton Friends School, incorporate natural playgrounds into their campuses. Attendees of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival will remember a wonderful documentary called School's Out about a completely outdoor kindergarten in Switzerland. Princeton's evergreen forest in Community Park North, planted back in the 1960s, was a natural playground until most of the trees blew down during Hurricane Sandy.

My first inkling that not all kids were spending the summer huddled in front of computers and lounging on sofas with cell phones came when biking through Smoyer Park. There, in the open woods near Snowden Lane and Van Dyke was a shelter carefully constructed out of sticks. The workmanship, or workpersonship, was impressive.

Weeks later, during a nature walk I led through Herrontown Woods, the leader of the informal Friends of Gulick Preserve, Ed Simon, told me of a whole village constructed there by teenage girls. He mentioned Narnia as a possible inspiration. (Update: Though mentions of Narnia are being left in the post, the actual inspiration for this village was other books. See comment below, sent by one of the daughter's parents.)

Here's what I found on a recent visit. There were promising signs of construction along the main drag, a broad trail that extends into the woods from a little deadend fragment of Terhune Rd near Dodds Lane.

Those lean-to structures are mere prelude to the village further in. Small abodes fashioned of sticks and yarn--shall we call it Yarnia?--stretch along leafy trails that hint at a matrix of streets. Might the streets have names, and if so, would they be like Princeton's tree streets, except that Sweetgum Lane would actually have sweetgums growing along it? Or would the streets have far more fanciful names from some other world entered only through the imagination?

This one reminds me of a shelter that some friends and I made deep in the woods when we were kids. The project ended when my face broke out in a poison ivy rash from digging roots out of the ground to make a nice floor. Poison ivy roots have the same oil as the leaves, apparently. The rash gave me Nixon-like jowls for a week. Still, it's a very positive memory.

At times like this, it would have been helpful to have read fantasy fiction, to better understand whether these pebbles are a literary quote or, perhaps, some sort of currency for use in transactions with other forest dwellers, with protective netting to keep the Rock Doves from stealing them.

A bit of speculation here, that the village's proximity to Gulick Preserve's pond is not coincidence. Wikipedia tells of the Wood between the Worlds, "a pond-filled forest in The Magician's Nephew (1955), the sixth book in The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Each pond is a portal that provides instant transportation to a "world" such as ours and Narnia's."

The kids must have been surprised, one fateful day in early September, to step into the pond and be instantly transported to school.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

A Modern Times Moment With Persimmons

There's a scene in Modern Times where Charlie Chaplin's fantasy of domestic bliss includes reaching out the window to pluck some grapes. A cow comes to the back door to supply milk. Nature is cleverly tended to put its bounty within arm's reach.

I think of that scene every time I bicycle over Princeton University's graceful Streicker Bridge above Washington Road, ever since I noticed some native persimmon trees rising up alongside the bridge. They were planted intentionally, like Chaplin's grapes, and each year they've gotten higher, pressing their leaves and fruits closer to the fencing .

Posts from 2014 documenting the persimmon trees' rise can be found here and here, and a 2015 post is entitled "Close but no persimmon".

There's a catalpa growing within reach as well, but that's not as appetizing, somehow.

This year, the long awaited casual Chaplinesque reach was finally possible. Heading to a university soccer game, I'd check their progress.

The fencing is a real deterrent, though, as if Chaplin's dream of domestic bliss were set in a high-crime neighborhood where all the windows were barred.

At last, time and fruit seemed ripe. But wait, one problem. It's a persimmon. Can't they be astringent in the extreme? So much expectation, only to have a very pucker-mouthed ride home.

The soccer season passed less than gloriously into history, the leaves fell. A few persimmons remained on the tree, but out of reach.

Giving it one last try, I gave up on the fruits coming to me and went down below the bridge to see what lay on the ground. There, preserved on top of a leaf, was one ready to taste. It was sweet, without a hint of astringency, delicious beyond all expectation.

Sometimes dreams don't play out the way you imagined, but they can still come true.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

How to Thank a Leaf

On this day of gratitude, I would like to thank leaves of all kinds for all they do, for all the CO2 they eat, and all the treats they make possible, with their patient translation of sun into sugar. As if that weren't enough, they close the summer's show by becoming candy for the eye, then fly and fall in a dance with gravity, to blanket and feed the earth upon which all depends, though we pretend otherwise. How do I thank them all, where they lay in humble anonymity, while we brag and boast and think ourselves the center of the world? And how do I thank the windblown leaves that raced along with my bicycle a week or two ago? The wind at our backs, they cheered me down the sidewalk like a tickertape parade, as if all the world were going my way.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Trees By the Light of the Supermoon

By the time we saw the supermoon last night, it had risen well beyond the horizon. My older daughter wasn't impressed. "I've seen it bigger," she texted. Au contraire, mon fille. The last time the moon was this big was before our time, in 1948.

Don't ask me why the moon would want to venture closer to the earth, and thus look bigger, given all that's going on here. I'd recommend that all heavenly bodies keep their distance, lest we decide to export our brand of planetary stewardship.

The moon made a fine backdrop for scrutinizing the twigs and acorns of a pin oak,

and the leaves of a red oak in the front yard.

That's Quercus rubra to botany types, with hints of Batman.

The neighbor's spruce tree got in the act.

This shot managed to capture some of the texture of the moon's surface along with a few scraggly pin oak leaves.

Given a preoccupation with earthbound interests, this is one of the few times I've pointed my camera skyward, in contrast to my father, who as an astronomer spent much of his time photographing the universe, and then developing the images in a darkroom in the basement of Yerkes Observatory. The school librarian back then made this lamp, with images captured by the observatory's famous 40" refracting telescope.

The moon will be pretty super tonight, too, if the clouds hold off.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

What a Little Dew Can Do

Here's a bit of serendipity. Shadows play upon the grounds of Princeton Battlefield, charmed with dew on a Saturday morning.

Ever the resident tourist, a shadow selfie with Mercer Oak II. Had no luck getting the shadow to smile.

Sorry, but you can't look at any screen--TV or computer--without at least one obligatory car commercial popping up. The sound track runs something like, "If George Washington were alive today, ...", though he might eschew fossil fuel altogether and stick with a horse. Those founding fathers thought about long term consequence. What ever happened to that kind of thinking?

The original motivation for stopping during a drive by of the Battlefield was documentation, not aesthetics: to photograph the invasive porcelainberry overgrowing flowering dogwoods planted as part of the nation's bicentennial celebrations in 1976.

One of my recurrent cause celebres is to save the Dogwood Garden Club's dogwood legacy from the aggressive vine growth. From the green/yellow of the porcelainberry vines crawling over the red leaves of the dogwoods, you can see who won this year's skirmish. The Dogwood Garden Club doesn't know who I am, and for all I know they've forgotten that they ever planted these trees along the field's edge in the first place.

There was also an obligatory photo of the great disappearing bamboo patch. Two years ago, this was a thick clone of bamboo growing out over the path down to the Quaker Meeting House, but a series of well-timed cuttings with magic loppers over the past couple years have sapped vigor from the bamboo's giant root system. The decisive strategic intervention came this past June, when Kip Cherry and I cut down the regrowth from a cutting in the spring. It was some inconvenient toil, but deprived of any payback from that big investment in regrowth--two years in a row--the bamboo has nearly given up. A visit next spring should be light work, followed by a refreshing beverage on the Clark House porch.

Dew was also working some magic on the vista on Quaker Road near the towpath. Scattered pin oaks in a field of goldenrods.

Thanks goes to my daughter Anna for getting me out that way early on a Saturday, to drop her off for a busride to Philadelphia to do some canvassing. Otherwise, that encounter with morning dew would have never happened. Finally, a reason to be thankful for this election season.