Thursday, April 22, 2021

Steppe spring

Tulipa greigii 4-22-2021

I remember flying into Rochester in late March of 1978 and seeing huge mounds of snow everywhere and feeling so sorry for the locals. I remember my first visit to Flagstaff, a few years earlier. That was in May, and there were enormous mounds of snow in the parking lots there as well...We'd had more normal springs around then (if there is a thing as a "normal spring" anywhere...this year it's apparently Denver's turn for a mini-Ice Age. A friend emailed me to say we're the second snowiest city in the continental U.S. this year--right after Worcester, Massachusetts. Woo hoo! Poor Worcester!

The snows have been coming just about every week, sometimes twice or three times in a week--but it will thaw enough for flowers to emerge, and even this athletic Fritillary to rise nearly two feet. Miraculously, it seems to have weathered at least 3 snowstorms, despite temperatures dropping into the teens several nights. They must have a lot of antifreeze in them!

There is a beauty, I admit, and a purity of freshly fallen snow. It was rather charming back in December... the charm has long since worn off: every Denverite I meet is grumbling about it.

Stange how it melts from the pathways and sidewalks before it melts on the garden or lawn....

 I suppose Erythronium tuolumnense must get some spring snow on it in California--although it's not the highest elevation glacier lily.

 This Fritillaria crassifolia reveals its steppe ancestry by holding up so well in the snow...

 This one, not so much. It really reflects the way Denverites are feeling...especially when I see the NOAA forecast for next Wednesday reads: "A chance of rain and snow showers. Some thunder is also possible." Fortunately, they appended this: "Mostly sunny, with a high near 60"....I like the last part best!


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Spring snow....and a rant

 Spring snow is no stranger to Colorado: we almost always get snows in March (often our snowiest month: nearly 45" have fallen the last six weeks I read). April is often just as snowy. I recall several feet of snow falling in May in 2003. And many other years as well...

We joke about "white rain" and how it doesn't really do damage--except of course when trees are leafed out: We locals have seen enormous mountains of tree branches pile on the streets in front of every house on especially bad years.  Some trees are so disfigured they have to be removed.

A week or so after a bad snow, once things have been cleaned up, it is miraculous to see how gardens can rejuvenate. Except for a bent stem over here or over there you'd hardly even know...

Honestly, many of us wish the snows were gentle rains as you get in Maritime climates...but if we really wanted that, shouldn't we just pick up and move to a Maritime location?

Mass murders really don't have a lot to do with untimely snow--the snow after all brings moisture and a fresh snowfall can be simply gorgeoua: I remember a few days ago seeing a sparkling vista in my garden--the sun came out and the fresh snow on my garden shimmered and twinkled like diamonds!

Time for another picture to distract you from the distressing subject: taken last week--the Adonis amurensis colony in my back yard under the  Chinese fringe tree came up mid January: they've been snowed upon eight or more times, last week over 27 inches and bounced back (the sow was exactly like styrofoam  one frosty morning). A month ago it dropped to -15F several nights, with a high one day of -3 and they had barely an inch of snow on them and they survived (the Christmas rose flowers were crisped by that same cold snap by the way). 

I posted this picture on Facebook and a friend said that I was like these Adonis--tough.

I don't feel tough today. Yesterday afternoon a gunner shot and killed ten people in my home town of Boulder.

Boulder isn't just any old town: it's "special" in every precious and pretentious connotation of that word. It's a place that if you grow up there you feel a tad superior to people who grow up in less picturesque and idyllic places. It attracts tourists in droves. Coloradoans in other parts of the state heap scorn on "a few square miles surrounded by reality", on Boulder's ultra-liberality, its airs.

Growing up in the 1950's and 1960's the town had not yet become so dominated by the many Scientific Institutes, the counter-cultural boutiques and scores of professional hippies. Tibetan Buddhism had not yet put its stamp on the town (the Naropa Institute has buildings all over town: a University, and large mysterious buildings--one catty corner from the house I grew up in: temples? dormitories? Half a dozen of my closest friends were part of that community--why have I never asked them to explain what all those buildings with Tibetan paintings and signage on them were?

And yes, the University of Colorado--where I graduated a long time ago. What really makes Boulder unique are the Flatirons--enormous cliffs that jut thousands of feet into the air at the northwest part of town. Boulder city mountain parks and open space constitute thousands of acres surrounding the city on most sides, creating a donut of nature buffering Boulder from the cancerous urbanization that's smothered so much of the Front Range. 

I grew up a few blocks from the start of that open space at Chatauqua park--one of the countless benisons I was granted by this enchanted spot.

There is no place in America where one would expect the brutal murder of a child beauty queen in a stately home's basement, or the shooting of ten citizens in a grocery store.

My father was a hunter and we grew up eating venison and elk. Once when we'd gone camping I woke up at dawn to see the shadow silhouette of a bear on its hind legs--pawing our tent from the outside. I looked next to me and my father had a pistol drawn and pointed in case the bear tried to get into the tent--I had no idea he even owned a pistol!

My dad was born in the 19th century and came to Colorado in 1910 when it was basically the wild West. He had a first cousin who shot someone and escaped to Mexico. I probably have second cousins in Tampico. My dad's brother-in-law shot my Uncle Steve in the leg because (Steve accused him of killing my aunt Katina). In February of 1957 a bitter Italian-American broke into my father's hotel and pool hall building in Oak Creek and shot George Kourkounis and two others to death before going home and committing suicide. Kourkounis was my father's partner and the man closest to my family.

In 1993 not long after we'd moved to our present home in southeast Denver, at a Chuck-e-Cheese's restaurant exactly 2.6 miles southeast of that home a "disgruntled" worker gunned and killed four people in the first such murder that permeated my consciousness in the Denver area. 

Seven years later Columbine High in the Southeast metro inaugurated the holocaust of school shootings with 15 deaths by gunfire and 24 wounded. Two nieces of my partner and two dear friends of mine were in the school at the time, and one sustained a wound.

In 2012 another "troubled white male" gunman killed 12 people and wounded 70 at the "Aurora theatre" incident that made going to the cinema a scary act. That took place 6.2 miles east of where I live.

And yesterday afternoon another "troubled" white guy shot and killed ten people in a King Soopers in Boulder.

I have been in the physical and psychological proximity of five horrendous mass killing atrocities in my lifetime. People I love have been killed and wounded in these "events".

I would be thrilled and delighted if every gun on the planet were to rust and disappear. I would like to see the most stringent restrictions placed on gun manufacture and sale. Sure I know there are sportsmen who love their rifles--but I'm at the point that I would LOVE to see all guns banned forever...screw the "sportsmen" who don't bother to put a kibosh on the wackos.

I believe gun violence (to give it its genteel name) is a cancer on America's soul That and racism, and egregious predatory capitalism are destroying the fabric of this once great country...

You really wanna make "Amerika Grate Again" you moronic red state bock-heads*? Pass decent gun control legislation. Defeat every shill who's funded by the N.R.A.  Encourage those who've suffered "gun violence" to sue gun manufacturers. Quit glorifying guns in video games, movies and the media.

I've vented enough for now...

Oh yeah. I'm not too hot on these spring snows right now either.

*To be fair, block-heads are not by any means restricted to the red states--they're just a majority there. And I preferred a different term to characterize them.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Petunias, Patagonia, the Pampas and Politics:: a meditation

"Petunia" patagonica

I've posted pictures of this wonderful creature several times on Social Media, and they seem to attract more than passing interest. More like minor conflagrations of enthusiasm: rock gardeners who usually disdain the giant annual petunias go ape-sh#t (sorry, but it fits) over a cushion cousin with those ludicrously penciled corollas...what's it all about Alfie?

"Petunia" patagonica and Junellia

Here's a truly triumphal display in our glorious Steppe Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens: the clever staff there have gathered together a bevy of very choice Patagonians--several species of Junellia (the little lavender verbena cousin left and center), and of course our putative petunia upper right...when this is in bloom in late April to June I make regular visits to this altar like arrangement (although I try and avoid kow-towing)..

"Petunia" patagonica

Each clone is different--here this one has far fewer markings within. The large Patagonian slope in the Steppe Garden has dozens of enormous mounds of this: I look forward to the day when they're all brimming with flowers. Surely that day will come? Although they do seem to bloom better on these raised, trough like beds...

"Petunia" patagonica
One last little glimpse of a flower growing in a trough at Mike Kintgen's home: Mike was perhaps the first in Denver to really tame this challenging flower that Botanists are now thinking of relegating to another genus--perhaps Fabiana--saying it's not really that petunioid after all. No one is rushing to agree, so let's keep with our little fantasy of a spiffy cushion perennial petunia with pencilled petals...

It was those pencillings that have got me going in an interesting direction: who has not been dazzled by complexity, the labyrinthine pattering of frost, crenelation, incrustation and the Moorish grandeur of faience?

Faience at the Alhambra, October 2001

It's not TOO much of a stretch, is it, to go from the tracery inside a petunia blossom, to the elaborate complexity of Arabic lettering carved on the walls of the incomparable Moorish palace in Granada...and that city too became a center of yet another elaborate, extravagant sort of aural tracery--the magical sound of Spanish guitar....I'm carrying you by leaps and bounds, I know: but there is a method to my madness. I mean to suggest in the modest Blogpost of mine that ornamentation of the sublime sort--whether the petals of petunias, the tracery of Islamic wall art or the flourishes of guitar chords have other astonishing connections....which brings me back to Argentina, where I've been meaning to lead you all along...

As a very young man I had a dear friend from South America who introduced me to the rich musical traditions of South America: Maria Bethânia, Vinicius de Moraes from Brazil, Inti-Illimani and Violeta Parra from Chile, but a lots of Argentine musicians, one of whom I found especially haunting.  I purchased vinyl records which I played until the days of vinyl faded (for me) and I remembered from time to time how much I loved Atahualpa's guitar and his wonderful voice.

With Spotify, Pandora and Youtube, I have found a wealth of Atahualpa music I can play most any time I fancy. I'm one of those people who like to work on the computer with music in the background. I'm pretty fussy: baroque music (especially Bach, Vivaldi and Teleman are my favorites, but Spanish guitar is often even more soothing. And I discovered that Ata Yupanqui is an ideal work accompaniment.  It's one of the few musicians I can work to with songs with words, I don't know why. Although he's composed lots of instrumental songs as well. There is something so compelling about his music. Although very much a folk musician (he studied the indigenous folk songs throughout the high Andes as a young man) there is the complex rhythms and elaborate picking in his music that must derive from Gaucho guitar, which in turn has strong ties to Flamenco and the elaborate, complex Spanish guitar tradition. You can see where I'm going here--I find Atahualpa's music to be a correlative of the complexity of Islamic ornamentation, and in turn the complex patterning of flowers--all which seem so utterly, almost insanely complex, but which indeed have an ulterior and ultimately very simple end perhaps in mind. 

For the flower, the patterning of flower always leads to attracting pollinators and perpetuating its kind. The pencilling of the petunia is nowhere nearly as complex as things can get in this arena...

In Islamic art, the fantasy of faience is a sort of glorification of Allah--I wouldn't be surprised if the faience at the Alhambra spelled out verses from the Koran...

One of innumerable album covers of Ata's music

But what of Atahualpa's music, which seems so direct at times, and seemingly simple. Don't be fooled for a moment: I highly recommend (especially if you speak Spanish) listening to a River that never ceases to sing (click to go there), which was an hour long documentary about the artist for television. I found it spellbinding. It begins with his testament of sorts, a short prose poem to guitar where he expresses his philosophy. I transcribed the verses and translate them below:


Quién soy? Pues soy un argentino                              Who am I? An Argentine singer

cantor de artes olvidadas                                              of forgotten arts

que camina el mundo                                                   who travels the world                              

para que los pueblos no olviden                                  so that people will not forget

el mensaje sereno y fraterno                                        the peaceful and brotherly message

de los paisanos de mi tierra                                          of the country folk of my land.

aspiro a expresar los tres misterios argentinos            I aspire to express the three Argentine mysteries:

 la Pampa la selva el misterio de los Andes                 the Pampa, the forest and the mystery of the Andes

 de las montañas donde vagan libremente                    of the mountains where wander freely

vicuñas y guanacos y donde el cóndor                        vicuñas and guanacos and where the condor

rubrica la historia del tiempo Indio         `                    signs with a flourish the history of Indian times

sobre la mañana azul del territorio                               on the blue morning of the land

amo la naturaleza amo al música de Bach                   I love nature, the music of Bach

amo al árbol al viento y al caballo                               I love trees, the wind and the horse

y guardo un anhelo para mí profundo                          And I bear a deep desire

de sumarme un día a la región de los anónimos           to add myself one day to the anonymous region

Sin nombre sin imagen sin historia personal                without a name, nor image nor personal history

 sólo un canto de amor y de paz                                    just a song of love and peace

que el viento lleva hacia un mundo de hermanos.        which the wind carries to a world of brothers.


 I was so enchanted with rediscovering Ata (as he's often called) I did a bit of reading in various biographies: his lifetime parallels so many artists of his generation such as Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, John Dos Passos, Hemingway, George Orwell: as a young man he became a Communist and spent much of his youth going into and out of jail for his political beliefs, and was banned for long periods of time--especially by Juan Perón. He spent much of his middle age in exile in France. He rejected communism in the early 1950's, although he maintained an enormous commitment to the poor and social justice all his life. The huge burden of exile and repression scarred his entire youth and middle age. As you listen to more and more of the words of his music you can see that the elaborate arabesques with the guitar, the seemingly simple lyrics "of the people" all are shot through with themes of freedom, ecological and social justice and a deep commitment to equality, democracy and love. This isn't just tinkle tinkle of pretty sounds or the hackneyed themes of so much popular music.

 Readers of my blog are aware of my lifetime interest and love of the writings of Vladimir Nabokov (henceforward referred to as VN), a writer who would SEEM to be poles apart from Ata, not to mention the decorations of the Alhambra!

 Nabokov's writings are often discounted as "formalist"--as elaborate, complex art for art's sake indulgences. I've read his work compared to Fabergé jewels. He's also reviled as heartless and cruel--which I find truly bizarre. VN was also boxed into the category of "white Russian" (many of whom were political reactionaries). His non-stop detestation of all things Leninist, or having anything to do with communism led many to assume he was a political reactionary. There is no question that word play, gorgeous images and fantastic settings and themes provide an exotic illusion when it comes to VN. As with the Argentine guitarist, the gorgeous, baroque notes of Nabokov beguile and perhaps disguise truths we'd rather not face. I have however always known that there was a rock solid base of ethics in his writing, and that his moral compass pointed rigidly towards Justice.

Over the last few weeks I read Andrea Pitzer's The Secret History of Nabokov. In this book she shows that much of the impetus and virtually every passage and every verse VN wrote is full of allusions to the enormous political calamities that effected his life at every turn, from the Russo-Japanese war of his childhood, the First World War, the Russian Civil War, Lenin's reign of Terror, The Stalinist purges, the rise of Hitler and the continuing tyranny in Russia and elsewhere around the world. He and those close to him barely escaped many of these calamitous events: in fact many did not. His father was assassinated by Russian fascists. His brother Sergei died in a concentration camp. Yes, he always hated communism, but makes a strong point of sympathizing with Social Revolutionaries, who were clearly socialist and often allied with the Kadets, his father's party. And he left Russia with guns shooting at his ship, and he and his family barely escaped France as it was being taken over by Nazi Germany. His writing is full of direct and subtle references to the politics of his time, and although he detests pontification and crude politicizing, this book reveals that a profound sense of the importance of intellectual freedom, hate for tyranny and sympathy for the underdog permeate both his prose and poetry. Having re-re-read so many of VN's books, I was almost embarrassed reading Pitzer's elegant monograph: I'd missed scads of subtle allusions to concentration camps throughout his work, to torture and the horrendous mass murders of the last century and especially his lifetime battle with anti-semitism. I now realize how much the terrors of our time were an obvious preoccupation for him In some ways, his works like all great art comprise a redemption of our collective soul.

Ornamentation is ridiculed by devotees of minimalism. Sometimes the only way that profound feelings can be expressed (or perhaps masked for their protection) is beneath carved intricacies of verbal and musical and literal faience. Atahualpa Yupanqui and Vladimir Nabokov--so seemingly different in so many ways, are perhaps brotherly in another more meaningful way.

If you made it to the end, I doff my Greek sailor cap to you.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Desert caesura

Cactus combo, Tucson Botanic Garden

 Why a caesura? The internet defines "caesura" thusly:
                                            cae·su·ra (/sēˈzyo͝orə,siˈZHo͞orə/)
  1. (in Greek and Latin verse) a break between words within a metrical foot.
    • (in modern verse) a pause near the middle of a line.
    • any interruption or break.
      "an unaccountable caesura: no deaths were reported in the newspapers"
Jan and my recent escape for two weeks represented a caesura in so many ways: a break from this seemingly interminable winter for one. And an interruption form COVID-induced indolence.

Kalanchoe luciae

We visited three nurseries, many friends and family, several public gardens, art museums and ate out (something we haven't done much for a while) in a number of outdoor restaurants. And brought back a small load of succulents for our pots and gardens. I've grown the Paddle Plant above for years, and keep frogetting the Latin name: I shall not do so again, thanks to TBG's excellent labeling.

I suspect you can read the label clearly on this lovely potted Mesemb: lots of nice specimens at this garden.

Iris unguicularis

And not just succulents: the glorious winter flowering iris ("Algerian iris" so called) looked mighty good.

Cupressus arizonica    

The botanic garden is quite central in the city, on the site of an old nursery with a lot of the original buildings and some terrific specimen trees, like this Arizona cypress: my picture doesn't really show how attractive the bark is on it. A tree I've helped introduce into the trade in Colorado (a long and pretty good story I should tell soon! I'm pretty sure I collected the first seed that produced viable plants 50 years go in Socorro, New Mexico while my fellow traveler was paying a traffic ticket)...

Helleborus x niger

I was shocked they could grow Christmas roses--although I'm sure one of the parents of this hybrid is subtropical, which may explain why it looks so good!

Everyone checked out the cactus car. I'm a bit embarrassed to say I did too.

This is the only picture I'm showing of the cacti with cups on their tips--there were a lot more. This is not uncommon in Tucson, where temps drop below freezing several times a winter.

Aloe humilis

Lots of little gems tucked here and there, like this striking miniature aloe..

Not taken at the garden--this was downtown Tucson, and I notice a tad out of focus: but I loved the shadows on the wall...

Sunset from the top of "A" Mountain

Every evening seemed to have a lovely sunset--here from Sentinel Mountain (also called "A" mountain due to a large "A" on its breast, like an orogenic Hester Prynne. The 360 degree view was astonishing: the rapidly filling Tucson valley is surrounded by a dozen mountain ranges: surely one of America's premier cities.

Sonoran Sunset

 I was once party to giving this name to a cultivar of Agastache cana, a beautiful bright pink Southwestern mint: we made a mistake! We should have given it to Agastache aurantiaca instead! The sunsets are usually a glowing orange.

We'll be back! Wait and see...

Monday, February 22, 2021

Imaginary frogs in real gardens?

One of my favorite frog sculptures at Ed and Betty Ann Spar's garden

I have a few regrets: one is that I never took enough pictures in my mentor's garden in Boulder. T. Paul Maslin passed away in 1984 and for fifteen years before that was my closest friend and garden guru. He was also a herpetologist by training, and though much of his work was based on lizards and snakes, he had a great fondness for amphibians--especially frogs. And he had many sculptures of them in his garden: none of which I ever photographed. Worse still was that I never asked Mary (his wife) for one as a memento before she passed away decades later. Perhaps that's why I've noticed frog sculptures in so many gardens I visit--and I began to photograph them thinking there may be an opportunity to share. I think that time has come...although I've lost track of where I photographed some of them!

This frog poised in a niche at Sam Hitt's garden in Santa Fe,(which I've blogged about before)

I hit Frog-paydirt this weekend visiting Ed and Betty Ann Spar's wonderful garden in Tucson: turns out Ed is a bit of a Frog sculpture fancier: they're garden was FULL of them--here are just some of the best (they became favorite birthday and Christmas presents from his kids)

Many of Ed's frogs seem especially mellow and relaxed...

I like this sleek one.

I think these could double as vases for flowers...

Slightly more stylized

More potential vases here...

A photograph taken by Jeff Wagner, a friend of mine of Kim Kori's sculpture "The Kiss" which is at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts--a pretty elaborate sculpture in this genre!

A frog featured in a friend's garden in Pueblo, Colorado

Another Pueblo amphibian: I suspect warm places like Pueblo and Tucson like the idea of these moisture loving creatures!

Marianne Moore declares that poetry is "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" (see poem at the end). Here is a frog I photographed in northernmost Yunnan, at over `12.000': this part of China is truly a real natural garden if there ever was one! Proving her right once again.

At Stonecrop garden in Cold Spring, NY,  Jan found this life sized frog and tested the fairy tale...

Presto! This may explain my affinity for frogs!

 Do take a moment to savor Moore's lovely poem which reveals something about poetry, and a little about frogs and gardens to boot!


Marianne Moore - 1887-1972

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers that there is in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
      they are
   useful; when they become so derivative as to become
      unintelligible, the
   same thing may be said for all of us—that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand. The bat,
         holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
      wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse
      that feels a flea, the base-
   ball fan, the statistician—case after case
      could be cited did
      one wish it; nor is it valid
         to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must
      make a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
      the result is not poetry,
   nor till the autocrats among us can be
     “literalists of
      the imagination”—above
         insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
      shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in defiance of their opinion—
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness, and
      that which is on the other hand,
         genuine, then you are interested in poetry.



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