Saturday, March 24, 2018

I am Orpheus: a gift to you on my birthday!

Jeez: that's a 13 year old me in the middle. My beloved first cousin cousin Yorgo (George) passed away four years ago, and my beautiful cousin Eleni is fortunately alive and kicking and even just sent me a Linked-in request! Yikes: 55 years ago this can do the math...

I'm very bad about birthdays: I rarely send cards, although I do somewhat regularly call immediate family and I give random presents (sometimes apropos, sometimes not) to those near and dear to me. I've always thought that b-days are for little kids--for us now two years away from eighth decade (I kid you not) they're a tad more like death knells, or fatidic acknowledgements of the first rather painful stress we inflicted on our mothers ex Utero. You can probably deduce that I'm not the president of the local Optimist's club!

Being suddenly 68 is interesting to say the least (please put the accent first, usually elided "e" in the world to get the full gist...)...Why? you ask...

Getting older in our strange contemporary culture isn't a good thing in most people's minds: slick advertisements usually show oldsters sitting, often with canes. Their glaring smiles belie the aches and pains they're expected to have. People retire after rich, rewarding careers and drop dead after a few weeks or months when they realize they no longer matter, or only matter dead. Honestly, there's not a whole lot to look forward to if you rely on the folkways of conventionality and crass commercialism (the religion that elected our last so called prevaricator).

I'm not as Greek as my name suggests--born at over 7000' in the heart of the Rockies. Bred in Baghdad by the Flatirons, otherwise known as Aspen East or ten square miles surrounded by reality. My childhood in Boulder was a complicated affair--agony, ecstasy and a lot of contemplation and learning and just plain fun. My life since then has really become more and more rewarding: a little less neurotic every decade, and I'd like to think I'm becoming a better human being.

Of course, I'm still an egotist (as every human ought to be in some small measure). But I think I'm slightly less of one than I was last year and so and and so forth. Of course, anyone who writes a Birthday Blog and declares they're not an egotist is certainly extremely suspect.

I love Thanksgiving above all holidays for the reason most of us do: families getting together (and in my case, I happen to be extraordinarily fortunate in my family: they are all wise, kind, beautiful and incredibly good to me). And of course I like to eat a lot. 

If I were more Greek, I'd celebrate my name day rather than my birthday (my father didn't have a clue what year he was born in let alone the day: birthdays didn't matter a hoot back then in Crete). And on your name day you invite any and all to your home and you feed them, you celebrate the vast community that actually comprises who you truly are.

I'm intrigued and rather surprised that Social Media--not just this blog, but of course evil Facebook and not so much Twitter--have brought a large new group of people into my life--and I wish I could open my door and invite you all in today (I can't, the living room's a mess for one thing). Instead, I suppose week in week out I've invited you to my garden and other gardens and other wild places that are the real stuff of my work and my life and my soul. So what to do on my B-day that would be Greek? I can't have you over, as I said. I have nothing physical I can transfer over the Worldwide Web...

Then I realize that millions of young people across America are rallying today to protest gun violence and demand action on the part of our (currently) worthless "government". I don't know about you, but I think that's about as good a present any of us could want for our birthday!

But this is supposed to be from me to you, right? Isn't that the Greek Way? I shall give you not one, but two of my favorite poems for my gift to you--my mysterious and somewhat abstract community of the Web. I look up, and the almond tree in my Ridge garden is starting to bloom: although I'm not very conventionally religious, I'm a sort of spiritually minded secular humanist--which doesn't stop me from appreciating Nikos Kazanzakis' wonderful haiku:  

I said to the almond tree
"speak to me of God."
And the almond tree blossomed 

That's a bit too short. I delve into my memory (I do love poetry) and a poem I have loved all my life rises to my mind: Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich was an emigre Russian poet--a friend of Vladimir Nabokov (my favorite writer) who considered him the best poet of his time, and immortalized him (or his avatar rather) as Koncheyev, in The Gift (possibly my favorite novel of all time). I ought to give you all that book as a present, but it's still under copywrite! This poem may be too (and Nabokov in his dotage would have disapproved of a metrical translation, double penalty there for me), but perhaps he'd forgive himself and me--since it is one of the loveliest poems imaginable. Here you are: my birthday present to you (and to myself!):


Brightly lit from above, I am sitting
In my circular room; this is I
Looking up at a sky made of stucco,
At a sixty-watt sun in that sky.

All around me, and also lit brightly,
All around me my furniture stands,
Chair and table and bed—and I wonder
Sitting there what to do with my hands

Frost-engendered white feathery palm-trees
On the window-panes silently bloom,
Loud and quick ticks my watch in my pocket
As I sit in my circular room.

Oh, the leaden, the beggarly bareness
Of a life where no issue I see!
Whom on earth could I tell how I pity
My own self and the things around me?

And then clasping my knees I start slowly
Swaying backwards and forwards and soon
I am speaking in verse, I am crooning
To myself as I say in a swoon.

What a vague, what a passionate murmur
Lacking any intelligent plan
But a sound may be truer than reason
And a word may be stronger than man.

And then melody, melody, melody
Blends my accents and joins in their quest,
And a delicate, delicate, delicate
Pointed blade seems to enter my breast.

High above my own spirit I tower,
High above mortal matter I grow;
Subterranean flames lick my ankles,
Past my brow the cool galaxies glow.

With big eyes, as my singing grows wilder
With the eyes of a serpent maybe,
I keep watching the helpless expression
Of the poor things that listen to me.

And the room and the furniture slowly
Slowly start in a circle to sail,
And a great heavy lyre is from nowhere
Handed by a ghost through the gale.

And the sixty-watt sun has now vanished,
And away the false heavens are blown;
On the smoothness of glossy white boulders
This is Orpheus standing alone.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Blame the Chandelier Plant, please...

Medinilla magnifica
Yesterday, one of our custodians accosted me (apologetically) and asked if I could come over and answer a question. Some visitors were standing in front of this rather magnificent Melostome (at least I knew the family) and wondered what the name was. Tucked on the south side of Marnie's orchid pavilion (even though my office is tucked to the NORTH side (in another room of course) I rarely come down to this area, and had never seen the plant before...
Medinilla magnifica
Of course, being chronically, acutely and perhaps even fatally temperate when it comes to my plant knowledge (if not my temperament) I didn't have a clue what it was, but promised to look it up: which I've done...and I've gone and done way more than that. I have worked at Denver a full 38 years (next month of course! let's not rush things)...and have written many hundreds of articles, and perhaps 1000 blog entries in various blogs, I've spoken in 150 cities and 12 countries, and I believe this is perhaps the first time I will have written ANYTHING about our tropical collections...yikes!

The answer is simple: I know less about tropical plants than you do, I suspect. I write about what I feel I know just a tad...but I have to admit, walking in and out of Marnie's every day, and through our magnificent Boetcher conservatory almost as often, a bit does rub off! Finally, after many decades (I'm not too far from entering my FIFTH after all), perhaps I should make some pretty enormous amends and share a few pictures I took (I doubt I spent half an hour snapping these yesterday)...and acknowledge the amazing work that our tropical greenhouse staff have done day in, day out for decades while I galavanted among the alpines, desert and temperate plants on the grounds and abroad. (Blogger has spellchecked "galavant"--apparently it's not done much in modern society!)

Do I have an excuse for this gross neglect? I just played the ignorance card (a poor excuse, I admit)--a better one is that our tropical conservatory and the greenhouses supporting it were among the very first major efforts when Denver Botanic Gardens finally came to be: the Boetcher Memorial Conservatory became an instant icon, and before too long was entered onto the Register of Historic Places and even featured as a backdrop to Woody Allen's Sleeper (perhaps an even more significant recognition?

In our climate, with its very long, dry, cold, brown, tan, gray and interminable winters, the prospect of a visit to Denver Botanic Gardens always meant a stroll through the tropics. This has been the symbol of the institution--and for many years so overshadowed everything else we did (the "outside grounds" as we used to call them were pretty hum-drum by comparison) that I didn't feel when I arrived that this needed a champion. Over the decades, the outdoor gardens have gained a mighty luster, and so many other activities and programs have grown up that the Conservatory and tropical collections perhaps have assumed a more modest profile in the awareness of the public. But as I jostle (day in and day out) through throngs of visitors gawking at the tall palm  trees and innumerable photographers trying to get a perfect closeup of this or that tropical gem (and let's not even speak of the gaggles and giggles of school children)...the tropics of Denver deserve to receive their due: for one thing they've propagated themselves! The Zoo has a wonderful Tropical Discovery not only inspired by DBG, but designed and planted by some of our transplanted staff! And Shane Smith, who shall be retiring this month from Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, has acknowledged his inspiration visiting Boetcher as a child and young man growing up in Denver. He's recently overseen the completion of a fantastic Conservatory in Cheyenne  a mere 100 miles away. Not many regions can boast three monumental conservatories so near to one another!

Enough talk: I have labeled as many of the following slides as I could, and the closeups are interspersed with landscape shots. Of course, this is all incomplete--I could have taken twice as many-but this is it for now. My commute every day is through this jungle, day after day, decade after decade. It's about time I gave it its due!

Guzmania 'Hilda'

Ficus cordata ssp. salicifolia

Clerodendrum ugandense

Clerodendrum speciosissimum

Euphorbia punicea

Asclepias currasavica

 Crossandra infundibuliformis

Acalypha hispida

Acalypha hispida


Pachystachys lutea

Pachystachys lutea

Carica papaya

Add caption

Jatropha integerrima

Russelia sarmentosa

Calathea 'Helen Kennedy'

Sanchezia speciosa

Clerodendum speciosum

Clerodendum speciosum       

Theobroma cacao

Brownea ariza

Kerriodoxa elegans

Begonia 'Snowcap'

Blue ring Teal Callonetta leucophrys

Musa itinerans ssp. guangdongensis

Begonia sp.

Calliandra haematocephala

Vriesia hieroglyphica

Thunbergia mysorensis

Thunbergia mysorensis

Areca vestiaria

Heliconia rostrata

Aphelandra sinclairiana

Jatropha multifida

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Scarlet Giant'

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Scarlet Giant'

Aha! If you've made it this far I know you're probably patient enough to put up with another paragraph or two of reminiscences...I apologize to the decades of conservatory staff whom I now realize I have neglected and not properly addressed (especially since my title was "Curator of Plant Collections" for decades, and now "Senior Curator". I realize I've basically been cutator of temperate plant collections and Curator with Senior Moments when it comes to tropicals...

At least a dozen, perhaps more staff have cared for these collections in my tenure beginning with Andrew Pierce (who was Conservatory Superintendent when I started at DBG in 1980). Andrew became my instant champion and dear friend--poor lost soul that I was at the time. I had no office or pied-a-terre when I arrived: Andrew camped me in a corner of his office! When Andrew became Assistant Director, Larry Latta oversaw the greenhouse collections: we always had a jocular, affectionate relationship, and when he retired, Gary Davis began a grand era (completely gutting Boetcher and replanting it! for one thing)...when Gary left, Nick Snakenberg assumed the oversight which continues to this day. Helping them a host of incredibly dedicated staff over the decades, many of whom have become dear friends to me personally (I hesitate to list them all--I know I'll omit some key names)...

In December of 1980 (let's pretend it was Christmas--it might have been) I climbed the highest pyramid at Tikal (in Guatemala) and gazed over the vast Peten rain forest. I recognized only a few Royal Palms, and didn't even know their Scientific name... in fact I knew nothing out there whatsoever. I realized that to dip in with real curiosity there would be no end: the Equatorial rain forests are so complex, so rich and vast a subject it was daunting. And their fate--being felled for cattle grazing and human use at a colossal rate--was so depressing, I decided to exclude anything between the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn from my ken: I'd stick to the Temperate and Arctic zones where things were not quite so complex or tragic (or so I thought)...I basically was a coward.

I have nevertheless have dutifullly visited dozens, perhaps a hundred or more conservatories over the years: I come back to Boetcher and marvel at how much more artistic, how fresh and well (yet inconspicuously) labeled it is than any other (almost without exception).   I do miss the pre-1997 waterfall. I think the Cloud Forest tree was the most stunning tropical exhibit I've seen anywhere, and it is no more. So I'm not without my quibbles...but I have never felt the need to champion or tout this enormously important part of the work done by DBG and other botanic gardens.

I regret my past decisions and hereby promise to do better!

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