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Author: Ralph Gardner

A Master Gardener Offers His Diagnosis

A Master Gardener Offers His Diagnosis

 Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

 Master Gardener Gerry Weber at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties

When my brothers and I were born my grandmother planted spruce trees for each of us on the front lawn of the house that has now passed down to me.

One of my brothers passed away in 1987 and his tree around the same time. I hope there wasn’t a direct connection because, even though my surviving siblings and I are relatively healthy, the three remaining trees my grandmother planted in our honor are faring less well.

The branches appear dead and needleless from the base at least half way up the tree. But you only realize the extent of their decline when you look at photos from just a few years ago when they were lush and green from top to bottom.

I have a rule regarding tree removal that I adopted from August Heckscher, a gentleman, scholar and friend who served as New York City’s Parks Commissioner under Mayor John Lindsay in the 1960’s. Regarding his beautiful home overlooking the ocean on Mt. Dessert Island in Maine, Augie used to say they take down trees only when they fall down.

I’m of the same opinion – perhaps willing to make an exception for those that threaten to topple onto structures – but I’ve got to confess that the spruces are becoming eyesores. And while I’m not quite ready to remove them I decided to pay a visit last week to the Cornell University Cooperative Extension for Columbia and Greene Counties.

Part of my motivation was to find out what was happening to my trees and whether I could do anything about it. The other reason was to learn about the work of the cooperative extension, which has been around for over a hundred years. You’ve got to appreciate a place devoted to promoting nature and the environment and dispensing much of its expertise for free.

They also sponsor 4-H youth development programs. But I’m a little late to the game for that. As a city kid my interaction with wildlife was limited to Central Park’s pigeons and squirrels.

The extension office is on Route 66 just outside Hudson, New York. And its modest wooden buildings, up a long, tree-lined driveway, are reminiscent of a summer camp director’s cottage in the Adirondacks.

I’d come armed with a sorry looking branch from one of my trees as well as photographs. And I presented them to Gerry Weber, the master gardener on duty that Monday morning.

Mr. Weber explained that there are two conditions that could have caused my trees’ decline. The first is needlecast, a disease of the foliage caused by a fungus. The needles closest to the trunk turn brown while new growth at the end of the branches remains green. However, if left untreated the entire tree will eventually die.

The other is a canker disease that works its way from the outside in. Symptoms show at the ends or tips of branches and move back towards the inside of the tree.

Unlike with needlecast, there are no fungicides to treat the cankers. Managing the disease requires judicious early pruning. “Basically, there’s not much you can do about it,” Mr. Weber told me.

However, based on the specimen I brought in – where there was fresh growth at the end of the branch but the inside was brown and brittle – the gardener was pretty confident our trees were suffering from needlecast.

While he wasn’t willing to attribute the disease to global warming – he said the forests in our area remain quite healthy – the fungus grows best when it’s wet and humid.

And older trees, such as ours, are more susceptible to disease.

The good news, such as it is, is that the condition strikes individual trees, even though spores of the fungus can be wind blown from one tree to another. It’s not like the emerald ash borer, an insect responsible for the destruction of millions of ash trees in dozens of states.

However, Mr. Weber said that at this advanced stage of decline there was probably little fungicides could do to help, especially with the trees now as much as sixty feet tall. “I’d cut them down,” he told me. “There’s no way you can go up there and spray every twig.”

But it’s not all bad news. If I remove the trees – and I’m not there yet – it presents an opportunity to plant new ones. I have photographs of my grandmother doing the same with the seedlings that became our trees. And in planting them she was making an implicit statement that she and my grandfather – they’d bought the places in the late 1940’s – were thinking of succeeding generations.

If the price of the trees’ demise is to plant new ones – though being a Baby Boomer I suspect the specimens I purchase would be more mature and instantly gratifying than my grandmother’s seedlings – it will have been worth it.

Not just for their beauty but also as a statement of my own that I hope our children and their children will find as much peace and happiness here as I have.

Thinking of Tortola

Thinking of Tortola

 Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

Lambert Beach, Tortola
My wife visited the British Virgin Islands in the late 1970’s, part of a crew to sail a boat back to New York City. Their departure was delayed several weeks, giving them a chance to get to know Tortola, the largest of the islands.

Debbie returned with me the following winter and my first impression of Tortola was, well, equivocal.

I’d been to St. Bart’s, at the time basking in the glow of its “Cheeseburger in Paradise” reputation. It hadn’t yet become the full blown playground of the rich and famous that it would in more recent years. But even back then it had an air of French refinement. The landscape was beautiful and the food was excellent.

Tortola, by comparison, was scruffy. Traveling its steep mountain roads to get from beach to beach, or to the Riteway supermarket in Roadtown, was a hair-raising experience. And the food was nothing to write home about. Even though I appreciated the Cadbury chocolate, one of the benefits of being a British territory.

We’ve probably returned close to thirty times since then and hope to do so again this winter as the island recovers from Hurriance Irma.

The British Virgin Islands in 2014

Visiting “BVI Abroad – Hurricane Irma” has been a heartbreaking experience. That’s the public Facebook group created as a clearinghouse for information about the disaster, and for finding information about friends and loved ones on the island.

Heartbreaking both because your heart breaks for the survivors – it’s hard to overstate the extent of the damage – and also because of our own love for the island.

So what was it about Tortola that changed from my first, skeptical impression of the place all those years ago?

Part of it is that the island is easy to make your own. Unlike someplace like St. Bart’s where you felt you might not be cool enough to compete – sadly, St. Bart’s was also devastated by Irma – Tortola comes without pretensions.

The beaches are beautiful and the swimming and snorkeling excellent. But it offers an unusual kind of freedom from the typical resort vacation, though a car and a certain amount of courage to tackle its vertigo-inducing roads are required.

Tortola’s natives – known as belongers – are friendly but in a restrained way. Their refreshing attitude suggests that getting on with their own lives, rather than tourism, is their first priority.

Of course, there are those who prefer a more pampered experience – whether it’s taking a cruise with a couple of thousand strangers or sitting by a hotel pool sipping marguerites.

But Tortola provides just the right balance between adventure vacation and extreme relaxation.

We rent a home overlooking the Caribbean, have a swim before breakfast, make a picnic lunch and head off to one of our favorite seven or eight beaches scattered across the island – some of them remote and having taken us years to discover.

While we occasionally go out for dinner, we typically prefer to eat at home, watching the sunset over cocktails, grilling under the stars, and then reading in bed to a chorus of tree frogs and the sound of waves breaking in the distance.

Last night our younger daughter Gracie was saying how lucky she was that the apartment she shares with her roommates in Washington Heights, our apartment where she grew up, and our house in the Hudson Valley all feel like home to her.

Part of what a disaster like Irma underscores is that the definition of home needs to be expanded to the all places that draw you back again and again. I’m by no means suggesting that our loss approaches that of the people who live on the island and have lost everything.

But a piece of us remains on Tortola, awaiting our return.

In the meantime, I’ve been scanning Facebook and watching videos people have posted of the hurricane’s terrible aftermath, trying to find anything recognizable, anything that helps orient you and provides information about our favorite places on the island.

But the scene is apocalyptic. Not just all the houses damaged and destroyed. The trees are also gone. Splintered. And the inviting turquoise water, where we swam and snorkeled every day, will no doubt feel like it’s making a mockery of people’s misery. At least in the short term.

By the way, if you want to contribute to the British Virgin Islands’ recovery, a good place to start might be Virgin Unite, a foundation run by billionaire Richard Branson to help assist the local community. Other initiatives can be found on the BVI Abroad Facebook page.

But I have no doubt the islands will recover. Nature is resilient. Tortolans, too.

But it will take time.

Until then the tragedy and the way people seem to be coming together to support the islands in its aftermath, have lessons to teach. And one of those is that love is an unlimited resource. It shines not just on the people but also the places in your heart.

Getting into a Jam

Getting into a Jam

photo credit:  Lucy Gardner

With the headlines – a Mexican earthquake sandwiched between two superstorms – sounding apocalyptic, mental health almost requires those of us out of harm’s way not only to give thanks but also to take solace in life’s smaller pleasures.

Canning, for example.

Canning, it seems to me, is more popular than it’s been probably been since the days of the pioneers when people put stuff up just to survive the winter.

But with inventions such as refrigeration, and the produce aisle at the local supermarket filled with a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables from here and abroad throughout the cold weather months, there’s no need to go to all that effort.

So why do we?

That’s the question I kept asking myself from approximately 9 a.m. Monday morning, Labor Day, through Tuesday afternoon.

That’s how long it took me to pick, pay for, wash, sugar, macerate overnight, boil, can and label four pounds of raspberries that I turned into raspberry jam.

I’m not one of those individuals conceited enough to put a price tag on his time. Since some of the best things in life can’t be reduced to dollars and cents. But if I were I’d conservatively estimate that the four small Mason jars that resulted from my effort qualify as the most expensive jam I’ve ever tasted.

But returning to my original question. How did it come to this? What made me unwilling to take the sensible route and plunk down an eminently affordable $3.99 for a 13-ounce jar of Bonne Maman mixed berry jam at my local Hannaford’s?

There are several plausible explanations, none of them sufficient unto themselves; and now that the task is accomplished and the jam disappointingly under sugared – at least to my taste — inadequate even when you put them all together.

The first excuse is that there are occasionally grown children in the house who are at that time of life where reducing things like tomatoes to sauce resembles a religious experience. In other words, they’re “Do It Yourself” millennials. I probably caught the bug from them.

The next explanation is that I suffer from an excess of hubris. I generally believe I can do things better than other people. Not program a computer or fly a plane, perhaps, but certainly stand over a hot stove and stir.

I’m not an excessive believer in “Farm to Table.” It would be nice to know where my food comes from. But not knowing isn’t among the myriad things that keeps me up at night. So that’s out as a reason for how I got myself into this fix.

The last reason, and the most plausible, given that I’m occasionally prone to bouts of pessimism, is that I’m preparing for the Apocalypse. I don’t know how far four jars of jam will get me and my loved ones come nuclear winter or a thousand year weather event, but there’s still some comfort to be taken in knowing the jars are living in our basement just waiting to be called into duty.

The raspberries’ metamorphosis from unsuspecting fruit to designer jam commenced, as I said, last Monday morning when I joined my daughter Lucy and her boyfriend Malcolm at Samascott Orchards in Kinderhook, New York.

After approximately an hour I’d almost filled a large cardboard container, though I couldn’t help but notice that Lucy’s berries looked bigger and more beautiful than mine. Leave it to me to turn picking crimson berries under a cerulean sky into a competitive enterprise.

The idea to let them macerate overnight in the refrigerator didn’t come from me or some random cookbook or website but from my younger daughter Gracie, a professional chef. She claimed the flavor more intense if you do so, then separate the resulting liquid from the berries, boil the broth, throw in the berries, and cook – well — seemingly forever.

That’s approximately how long it took me to reduce the fruit to a state that more closely resembled jam than soup.

Did I mention that if you don’t go out and buy brand new lids for the jars and also sterilize the jars by boiling them the seal may be breached and consuming the contents can result in contracting diseases last seen during the Middle Ages?

Perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration. And I am a big believer in the human immune system. Nonetheless, that scuzzy stuff that grows on jam if it lingers too long in your refrigerator doesn’t rate high on the appetizing scale.

Where the art of jam making comes in, at least as far as I can tell, is knowing when the bubbling liquid has congealed. This is done simply by dropping a little jam onto a frozen plate. When it doesn’t dribble you know you’re done.

The problem is defining dribble. Does dribble mean it slides off the plate and onto the floor. Or that it creeps stealthy like a leopard sneaking up on its prey?

My favorite part of the process was labeling my jars. I don’t believe in tooting my own horn. But “Ralph’s Remarkable Raspberry Jam” sounded a pretty fair description to me.

Next year I’ll just have to remember not to go so easy on the sugar.

Traveling Beyond the Headlines

Traveling Beyond the Headlines

A memorial to victims of August’s terrorist attack in Barcelona (photo credit: Ralph Gardner Jr.)
There are many benefits to taking a vacation abroad – the charming, if unquantifiable stimulus on the brain when you visit new places; good food; and the opportunity to relax; whether in my case that means taking long walks through terrain more dramatic than our woods or going swimming in bodies of water significantly larger and less murky than our pond.

But this year add another perk to getting your passport stamped. That’s escaping America’s 24-hour news cycle.

You can’t flee it completely. Hotel rooms and Airbnbs typically come equipped with TV sets, many of them broadcasting CNN, MSNBC, the BBC and Bloomberg. And there’s always your phone. It’s hard to resist sneaking a peek at your news apps for the latest challenges to logic, decency and decorum. But what you’re largely able to escape is the hype – the breathless promotion of everything as “breaking news.” The addictive sense that unless you remain tethered to some device at all times you might be missing something.

And I say this as someone whose vacation included several days in Barcelona, starting 48 hours after the terrorist attack there.

There were moving, makeshift memorials – carpets of candles, stuffed animals and flowers — set up along Las Ramblas, the pedestrian avenue where a terrorist driving a van had mowed down dozens of people.

Yet the city seemed pretty much returned to normal by the time we arrived, Las Ramblas worth avoiding not because of its disturbing connection to current events but because it was crowded with tourists once again.

I read one account of Barcelonans walking around with “downcast” eyes. Perhaps they were. The city was too new to me to know what normal is. But it was impossible to tell that anything was out of the ordinary from the citizens we came into contact with.

When I was lucky enough to visit Europe as a child with my family our main source of news was the International Herald Tribune.

My father controlled access, or rather hogged the paper, but eventually the rest of us wised up and got our own copies.

Back then the publication was a joint venture between the New York Times and the Washington Post, editors picking and choosing the best stories and most popular columnists from both publications – Russell Baker, David Broder and Art Buchwald among them.

I felt it lost its edge when the Times took exclusive control in the early 2000’s. But it still served as a link to home.

I’m not much of a baseball fan and don’t typically check the standings when I’m in the United States. But I always do abroad, taking special pleasure in learning which player is leading the homerun derby or has the most RBI’s. It almost felt one’s patriotic duty.

So it was with no small disappointment this summer when I discovered that the International New York Times, as it’s now called, no longer carries them. Nor its quaint gossip column. Attempts at gossip never worked in the U.S. edition of the “newspaper of record.” The paper took itself too seriously for that.

But reading the latest about Mick Jagger or Sophia Loren – these days I suppose it would be Beyoncé or the Kardashians – seemed the perfect frivolous vacation entertainment.

Another source of news and sports – I might be dating myself but so what – was the Armed Forces Network. I’d listen late at night on my transistor radio to the sweet static of Major League baseball broadcasts, the signal fading in and out as if it were beamed from a distant galaxy.

All that’s different now, of course. With just a couple of swipes on your cellphone you can get the news from and about anywhere. Which I suppose is the reason the Times discontinued including the baseball standings and gossip.

These days to avoid the news while abroad requires dedication and self-discipline. I was aided by my family who steadfastly refused to turn on the TV. In fact, for them part of the allure of leaving the United States this summer was leaving behind the latest headlines.

Ironically, it seems that August, the month when most of us check out, is the one that packs some of the biggest news punches. Nixon’s resignation in 1974. The 2003 blackout along the Northeast. And this year Hurricane Harvey.

But what one discovers is that it will all be there when you return – the tragedy, the sadness, the outrage, the talking heads. And you’ll merge so effortlessly back into the latest news that your brief information blackout becomes nothing but a pleasant memory, a source of modest perspective, and an incentive to invest in another foreign vacation as soon as possible.

August Light

August Light

 Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

I realize that’s a large claim to make. Why should one month be any different or better than another?

Every month, every day, each hour potentially has its moments. Wouldn’t the quality of light have at least as much to do with the weather – if it’s overcast or clear, sunny or rainy. You can also never discount the influential role clouds play, either. They play bass to the band’s lead guitar, or something like that.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in Italy in August. And I used to the think the mellow light – if one wanted to attempt poetry you might go so far as to describe it as antique — was peculiar to that country and its Renaissance culture.

That what made the light noteworthy had less to do with the time of year than what it was illuminating – ancient churches, towering campaniles, fields of Tuscan sunflowers.

But the light – not that I’m competitive or anything – is just as amazing come August in the Hudson Valley, and for all I know in the Appalachians, Colorado, and the California coastline.

I tried to do a Google search for “light in August” hoping to find some scientific explanation. But, of course, William Faulkner’s novel by that title dominates the search results. “August light” fares hardly better.

But while searching I came across an excerpt from “The River In Summer” by Maury Haraway. Mr. Haraway, according to an Amazon description of his 2013 book – the work tracks nature across the seasons and the North American landscape – is an expert in comparative psychology and animal behavior, and an avid birder.

And he writes, “Light in August is the beginning of the light of autumn. Something to do with the slanting of the light, with the angle of the Earth in its tilt versus the Sun. The light becomes more golden and acquires a purer quality.”

I can see how birding might qualify you to generalize about the light, if only because you’re spending lots of time outdoors and observing. But come to think of it, comparative psychology might also serve as a critical credential.

Because there’s something psychological about the light in August. I think I might be forgiven for assuming the light was particular to Italy because that’s where I happened to be at that time of year.

But what makes it special is that it seems a peculiarly personal kind of light. I don’t typically think of the gothic light of November with its low clouds; or the white light you wake up to after a January snowfall; or the bright, budding green of May as something that belongs to me.

But August light has a way of making you turn outward and inward simultaneously. It’s reflective light, no pun in intended.

I first started noticing the change a few days ago, admittedly still in July. Maybe because this summer seems more lush than the average one.

And while Mr. Haraway detects autumn in its fine print – I don’t disagree – the light by no means encourages you to throw in the towel on summer and start thinking of things like the fall, school supplies, and Thanksgiving. God forbid.

It’s a light that encourages you to give nature, and perhaps yourself, a second look. To take stock and appreciate your good fortune – your good fortune, if nothing else, to possess the apparatus to bear witness to nature, to contemplate its beauty. Because the light seems to flatter just about anything.

I happened to be somewhere over the last few days – at the moment it’s not coming back to me but my recollection is that it was an urban setting – and while it didn’t look great it looked as good in late afternoon as it was ever going to look.

And when the light happens to bestow its grace on things like trees and rivers and mountains in this part of the world it’s hard not to believe you lucked out by choosing to live here.

Last night, as I write this, we had dinner with friends who recently moved to the area. The high point of an altogether lovely evening came when we took our drinks to the top of a hill, as sunset approached. Several lawn chairs were waiting for us in a freshly mowed spot. We chatted as black cows in an adjoining field casually grazed amid the green grass, as if they hadn’t a worry in the world.

You couldn’t help but feel that the animals were appreciating the light just as much as we were.

Going Overboard for Lobsters

Going Overboard for Lobsters

 Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

 What is it about lobster rolls? A trip to Maine would seem incomplete without one of these tasty treats. About the only thing that can compete on a consistent basis in the counter food category is a charcoal-grilled cheeseburger and fries.

And when I say a trip to Maine would be incomplete without a lobster roll – my wife and I spent a few days there last week — I don’t mean one roll over the course of a visit, but a new lobster roll every day.

I’m not foolish enough to believe that two a day might be sustainable, but only because I haven’t tried.

On the other hand, a lobster roll for lunch and a lobster dinner is entirely doable. Lobster happens to be impressively versatile.

One night we went to a dinner party at my friend Pedro Leitao’s house. He rents a place in Seal Harbor, Maine on Mount Desert Island for the month of July and has for many years. Lobster isn’t the only or even the main draw, no pun intended, on a vacation in the Pine Tree State. By the way, isn’t it about time they change the name to the Crustacean State? Maine has other things going for it — even though it’s possible to overlook them if you’re as obsessed about lobster as I am: among them hiking, sailing and a delicacy to the landscape embodied in the relationship between pine forests, bouldered cliffs and ocean that has an entirely calming effect on the psyche.

But first things first: Pedro served lobster in a curry sauce for dinner. Also, a delicious lobster soup. Delightful as both were they were too elaborate to count towards my lobster quota.

To count a lobster must be served in its virginal, or nearly virginal state. We can quibble whether a lobster roll, which typically comes in a nearly one-to-one ratio of lobster to mayo, passes that test.

By the way, as simple as it is, it’s as easy to get a lobster roll wrong as it is to get it right. The first requirement is that it be overstuffed. Any establishment that stiffs you on the amount lobster, especially tail meat, probably ought to be prosecutable.

But the reason I mention Pedro, besides the fact that he’s a superb cook and an even better host, is that I discovered one of the first things he does when he arrives in Maine is purchase a hundred pounds of live lobster from a local lobsterman.

And you think I’m obsessed. He has a lobster crate that he hangs from the mooring of his boat and whenever he needs a lobster, or thirteen of them in the case of the dinner that my wife and I attended, he goes out to the boat and retrieves them.

I assumed he buys in bulk because it’s cheaper that way. But he told me he only saves a dollar a pound. He does it for the convenience of having lobsters whenever he needs them – though some would probably argue that having to maintain a colony of lobsters and taking a dingy to your boat every time you need a few doesn’t connote convenience.

I think he does it mostly for the sense of well-being — knowing you’re covered in a crisis.

The first time I had lobster was at David Lamb’s house in maybe fifth grade. I assumed I’d dislike it because it looked red and weird and had claws. But the meat, dipped in liquid butter, tasted like a combination of chicken and cumulous clouds. And I’ve been an avid fan ever since.

While the delicacy is synonymous with Maine, the most reliably overstuffed lobster roll I get is at a place called Mary Fish’s Camp in Greenwich Village. The problem is that the indulgence will cost you approximately $40, which is about $20 more than I’m typically prepared to pay for a lobster roll.

Though Mary’s comes with almost inhalable string fries.

Sides are an important consideration when ordering a lobster roll. A lobster roll without French fries feels woefully incomplete. Cole Slaw is also pertinent.

I faced a dilemma on this trip when I ordered a lobster roll at a restaurant called the Docksider, since my roll included only one side. I avoided catastrophe by ordering the fries and charming the waitress into slipping me some cole slaw.

I left her a handsome tip, though obviously nowhere near what she’s worth.

Our trip kicked off with a lobster pie at a place called the Maine Diner in Wells.

The dish was as heavenly as I remembered it from my last visit, a couple of decades ago. My only regret is that it took a full forty minutes from the time we crossed the state line before I tasted my first lobster.

Growing Local Hors d’Oeuvres

Growing Local Hors d’Oeuvres

 Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

The first homegrown cherry tomato of the season with Hawaiian black lava salt and refreshments

Last holiday season I received an advent calendar from the Burpee company. Instead of chocolate, or whatever treat is typically secreted behind the twenty-five doors of an advent calendar, this one contained seeds: beets, basil, tomatoes, poppies, cauliflower, radishes, watermelon.

Last holiday season I received an advent calendar from the Burpee company. Instead of chocolate, or whatever treat is typically secreted behind the twenty-five doors of an advent calendar, this one contained seeds: beets, basil, tomatoes, poppies, cauliflower, radishes, watermelon.

I’d have preferred chocolates, but since I was now the owner of lots of seed packets I decided to do something I’d never done before – grow vegetables from scratch.

The reason for my inexperience is that I grew up in the city. And I come from generations of city people. They never cultivated anything either. So it’s not as if I had a grandfather or grandmother who served as a repository of farming knowledge.

My wife was somewhat better informed; if only to the extent of coaching me that if I wanted to grow a plant from seed the first step was to buy seed trays and soil.

I did as instructed, watered, and — low and behold — within a week or so delicate shoots began to emerge.

Come May, I removed the slender seedlings from the flats and planted them in the four raised beds in our garden. I’m not sure whether, or which ones, survived because I bowed to popular demand and purchased plants at a local farm store that looked like they stood a reasonable chance of surviving long enough to bear something edible.

But whether it’s seeds I grew from scratch or young plants I bought in a store doesn’t really matter. The point is to participate in the wonders of nature. And as marvelous, even miraculous, as the experience is I suspect it’s heightened by the fact that, as I said, I’m a city boy, the product of concrete and tall buildings, of parks and playgrounds, rather than fertilizer and harrowed fields.

Each morning when I go down to our garden to see what’s grown or changed overnight, it’s like living a second childhood.

And watering is a daily way of nurturing living things, something my family will testify I’ve never exhibited a pronounced talent for.

I spoke to a writer recently, another city kid who bought a house upstate. She told me she finds it hard to work on her screenplay because she’d rather be weeding.

There are actually similarities between gardening and writing – attention to detail being the most prominent. The difference is that you don’t feel under any pressure to come up with bright ideas in the garden. The sun and soil have already taken care of that.

Lawn mowing may have been my first adult experience of partnering with the Earth. I discovered I loved mowing. It’s similar to writing in that you wrestle to exert control over a tiny corner of the universe.

I doubt I’d feel the same way if I’d lived in a house with a front lawn as a kid and been forced to mow it before I could go out and play. I deduce, from watching fifties TV shows such as “Leave It To Beaver,” that that’s the sort of chores suburban and country kids are forced to suffer.

But because I never had to do anything more strenuous than clean up my room, I’m able to see mowing as a creative endeavor. Sometimes I mow in one direction, sometimes the other. Occasionally I’ll mow in circles.

But the point is that once it’s done, it’s perfect, or close enough. Writing, on the other hand, can always be improved.

There’s a scene in the W.C. Fields movie “It’s a Gift” where Harold Bissonette, played by the comedian, abandons his grocery store, and drives to California to buy an orange grove. A lot happens in between, including Fields suffering the scorn of his family, who consider him a sucker.

But Fields has the last laugh – it turns out the barren plot of land he bought is wanted by a developer to build a racetrack – and the final scene shows him plucking oranges from a tree on his veranda, and squeezing fresh juice, fortified with booze from his flask. His nagging wife and bratty son having departed for town in their shiny new car, leaving him in peace.

I can relate – minus the nagging wife and bratty son. Because one of the pleasures of last summer was picking cherry tomatoes from our garden, sprinkling them with Hawaiian black lava salt – I liked the visual of black salt against red or yellow tomatoes – and enjoying them as a healthy snack during cocktail hour.

My first cherry tomatoes of the season are due to ripen any moment. There’s also a flowering mystery vine I just discovered snaking through one of the planting beds. Might a watermelon seed have survived to tell about it?

Dodging Raindrops at Tanglewood

Dodging Raindrops at Tanglewood

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

I love Tanglewood. The problem is Tanglewood doesn’t love me back.

My wife and I attended opening night last week and got rained on – and due to my low tolerance for excessive moisture – rained out for the second year in a row.

It probably doesn’t say much for my status as a classical music lover that it took me approximately thirty years of visiting the Hudson Valley to make it over to Tanglewood in the Berkshires.

I’m not really sure why. Turns out our house is only half an hour by car from the famous music venue. In these parts, that’s almost walking distance.

Chalk it up to inertia. Once I’m settled on my deck watching the sunset accompanied by a vodka and lime, no music, no matter how sublime, has the power to compete with birdsong.

Then there’s the laziness factor, which is akin to, but distinct from inertia.

It seems as if attending Tanglewood takes almost as much preparation as taking a months-long road trip across the American West.

You need your chairs, cooler, and sheet to spread on the ground. And then there’s the question of the menu – the canapés, main course, dessert, cheeses and selection of wines and/or liquor.

It would be one thing if you knew you were going to be serenaded by Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony upon arrival. But the music last Friday night was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.2 in C minor, his “Resurrection” Symphony. It’s a work with which I wasn’t especially familiar.

I’m one of those “Greatest Hits” classical music lovers. I let my subscription to the New York Philharmonic lapse years ago because they had the temerity to try to expand the audience’s musical horizons by littering seemingly every program with works by the likes of Bruckner and Edward Elgar when all I really wanted to hear was the “Ode to Joy.”

Nonetheless, the siren song of culture and self-improvement compelled me to visit Tanglewood. That and the fact that I received two free tickets by contributing to WAMC’s most recent fund drive.

We almost forfeited the experience due to some ominous looking storm clouds gathering over the Catskills. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Independence Day” they looked like the weather brewing just before the alien forces turn the White House and the Empire State Building to toast.

Having become an amateur scholar of local weather I calculated the billowing mass would be over Tanglewood at approximately the moment conductor Andris Nelsons launched the Boston Symphony Orchestra into the first movement of the Mahler.

However, my wife checked her weather app and it appeared that any downpours would pass to the north of us.

And when we arrived, I’ve got to admit that parking and then finding a place to plant ourselves on the lawn couldn’t have been easier or more Elysian.

We were so naïve, or irresponsible, that even though we had an umbrella in the car, we forgot to bring it along because the sun happened to be shining at that ephemeral moment.

We should have known better. When we attended a Tanglewood concert last year I had a premonition the heavens were about to open and we were on our way back to the waterproof sanctuary of our Columbia County home by the time they indeed did, accompanied by thunder and lightening, causing a delay in the concert.

The rain this year was less dramatic.

It started with just a few drops, as rain often does, and built into a steady drizzle. I noticed that some of the ancient trees on the lawn had lighting rods. But it never got to that. It was the sort of rain you’d hardly notice if you were indoors.

Unfortunately, we weren’t. I’ve deduced that some Tanglewood veterans purchase tickets in the Koussevitzky Music Shed against just such eventualities and because you can actually see the orchestra and soloists without resorting to binoculars or the screens positioned around the site.

But what’s the fun of that — being quasi-indoors when the whole appeal of the place is hearing music in nature, under the moon and stars?

After suffering the drizzle for a long forty-five seconds or so we made our way to a nearby overhang where we set up camp and alighted into our repast – curried chicken salad with a side of potato chips.

We were shortly joined by other concertgoers who, like us, hadn’t had the foresight to include umbrellas on their equipment lists, or better yet tents.

Yes, tents started to sprout on the lawn like mushrooms.

I envied their residents. But again, what’s the point of going to Tanglewood in the first place if your checklist is only slightly less elaborate than NASA’s when they’re sending astronauts into orbit?

However, we refused to be defeated and when the rain seemed to be letting up we ventured back out onto the lawn to bask in the young Mahler’s melodies while I read in the program about the affair he was having with the wife of a captain in the Saxon army, hints of their romance and heartbreak finding its way into the score.

But the rain resumed, Mahler left his married girlfriend, and by the time the Tanglewood Festival Chorus rose to its feet for the finale we’d crossed the border back into New York and listened to the end of the concert on this radio station, to the accompaniment of our windshield wipers.

Partying for a Good Cause with Joan Davidson

Partying for a Good Cause with Joan Davidson

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio


Joan K. Davidson, President Emeritus of the J.M. Kaplan Fund

The first goal of being a philanthropist should be to do good. But there’s a second, perhaps undervalued side of giving away your cash – having fun while doing so.

I don’t make this observation based on personal experience. Since the bulk of my philanthropy goes to causes such as caulking my roof. But rather by benefiting from the example of philanthropists such as Joan Davidson, the president emeritus of the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

Joan, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, is known for dispensing her fund’s money in intelligent and far-sighted ways and also for throwing excellent parties – from intimate lunches and dinners to the birthday party recently held in her honor at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

I first met Joan in the late 90’s when I was writing a story for New York Magazine about the controversy surrounding a proposed cement plant in Hudson, NY. The plant was eventually defeated.

One of the people I interviewed suggested that if I wanted to take the pulse of the Hudson Valley, at least those who opposed the plant, and pick up a few pithy quotes, as well as a lovely backdrop to set the scene I should attend Joan’s annual shad bake.

It occurs at Midwood, her 85-acre estate overlooking the Hudson River in Germantown, NY, and typically attracts a cross-section of movers and shakers from New York City, the Hudson Valley and beyond.

I was told that Joan wasn’t thrilled with the resulting article – I’m not sure whether that’s because it attempted to be fair and balanced while employing subtle, perhaps too subtle, irony to suggest that the viewshed of Olana, Hudson River School painter Frederic Church’s home and a national historic landmark, probably wasn’t the best place to locate a cement plant with a 400-foot smokestack.

Or perhaps just because I led the piece with her party and touches such as Bill Cunningham, the New York Times legendary society photographer, scurrying around snapping pictures of all the swells.

But Joan is one of those people who doesn’t let a journalist’s indiscretion get in the way of her larger goal – which is to make the world, and New York City and the Hudson Valley in particular – a better, more environmentally-conscious place to live, work and play.

Here’s just a few of the causes Joan and the Kaplan Fund have championed over the years. (By the way, the fund was started by her father Jacob Kaplan in the 1950’s from the sale of the Welch Grape Juice Company, which he headed.)

New York City’s vest pocket parks in the 1960’s.

Greenmarkets in the 1970’s.

Riverkeeper, the Hudson River advocacy group, in the 1980’s.

The Highline in the late 1990’s.

And immigration initiatives throughout the 2000’s.

In all, the fund has given away a quarter of a billion dollars since its inception.

Joan also served as Governor Mario Cuomo’s Commissioner of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. And founded Furthermore, a publishing enterprise that since its start in 1995 has helped fund more than 1,000 non-fiction books in the area of art, history and the environment. One of her latest projects is The Alice Award, a prize named after her mother and given annually for an illustrated book.

But perhaps Joan’s greatest achievement is the model she sets for tough-minded philanthropy.

It goes without saying that the weather almost always cooperates during her May shad bake, even though, over the years the shad have been replaced by more plentiful fish as well as by burgers and hot dogs as shad populations in the Hudson have waxed and waned.

The party is also a rite of passage for political candidates, whether local or statewide.

In keeping with tradition, the light couldn’t have been more crystalline on the evening of her birthday party in the garden at the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum. The Kaplan Fund has supported that institution for over five decades.

The general assumption is that it’s not a coincidence that the heavens tend to be cloudless during one of Joan’s events and that even the Hudson Valley’s mercurial meteorology shapes up and the rain ships out before her guests arrive.

It’s a symptom of the same force of personality that has made shrewd, strategically placed investments in organizations ranging from the Public Theater and Poets House to Human Rights Watch, the Coalition for the Homeless, and the New York Coat Drive.

Joan gives little indication of slowing down. But she’s turned over the day-to-day running of the J.M. Kaplan Fund to her children and grandchildren, led by Peter Davidson, one of her son’s.

There’s no doubt that Peter, who oversaw the Department of Energy’s $30 billion clean energy portfolio during the Obama Administration, can run an organization.

The question is whether he knows how to throw a party as well as his mother, and can he make the sun shine on command?

City vs. Country

City vs. Country

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio


Dancers at Sunset Park in Brooklyn

The question comes up often these days: Where would I rather live? The city or the country?

And the answer is… both.

One makes you appreciate the other more.

If someone put a proverbial gun to my head, I suppose the country would win out because it’s, well, more civilized.

I suppose that’s an ironic thing to say since cities are synonymous with civilization. But the country seems to triumph as the more genteel and refined of the two experiences, especially if you’ve ridden the New York City subway at rush hour, or weathered the many other indignities of urban living. (MTA fans take heart; I’m going to celebrate the inimitable virtues of subway ridership shortly.)

By genteel, I mean that there’s something to be said for waking up to birdsong and the sound of the breeze rustling the leaves rather than jackhammers and ambulance sirens.

Or an uninterrupted vista of trees and hills instead of the new building on your block that seems designed not to win any architectural awards but to obstruct your view.

It’s also nice to know you can get in your car and go somewhere without having to factor in how much time will be spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Or shop at a supermarket where the prices are half what they are in the city, the variety of snack foods stirring, and the aisles positively oceanic.

But part of what makes the experience of the country so precious is returning to it after several days in the city. To remind you of the ease and beauty of rural life.

On the other hand, there’s also a sense of marvel getting off the West Side Highway at 96th Street, stopping for the light on Broadway, and being thrust back into humanity.

As much as I like birds and consider chipmunks and raccoons my friends, I find people much more interesting to observe.

There’s a myth that what makes a city great are its cultural opportunities – things like plays, concerts, and museums. They may contribute to the experience, but the most attractive aspect of living in the city, it seems to me, is the almost unconscious cross-pollination that occurs among people of different ages, races and backgrounds in places like, yes, the #6 train.

Better yet, take a walk from, say, the Upper East Side to Midtown, or along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The people watching and window-shopping are unique to great pedestrian cities; they also double as excellent exercise.

What brought home the virtues of city life was the summer solstice. You might assume the country the only place worthy to mark the day the Northern Hemisphere is most inclined towards the sun. But we spent it at aptly named Sunset Park in Brooklyn, joining my daughter and her boyfriend who were planning an evening picnic.

The park boasts a sweeping view of New York Harbor, the skyline of Lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and New Jersey beyond.

We began the evening by picking up affordably priced tacos to go, scored dessert at two bakeries – one Mexican, the other Chinese – and then drove to Sunset Park, where we managed to get a parking space right at the entrance to the park.

Before I get carried away by the benefits of city living, I should mention that we drove around for some time, desperation starting to creep in, before my wife, who generally has excellent parking karma, saw someone pull out of a space in front of us.

If carefree parking is a concern, then the country has the city beat hands down.

We found a spot on a park hill with exceptional views, lay down a picnic blanket and prepared to launch into our beer, wine and tacos as we watched the sun sink below the horizon.

But as it turned out, the sunset was only the second most interesting spectacle we were to witness that evening. The Sunset Park neighborhood has a large Chinese population and the majority of them seemed to be out on this lovely evening. And not just out, but dancing in the park.

There were men and woman dancing together, women dancing with other women, as well as groups of women – from adolescents to unselfconscious older ladies, line dancing as a form of exercise. And if that wasn’t enough activity, children on scooters wended their way among them, angling for a better view.

It reminded me of an Asian version of that famous Renoir painting depicting a typical Sunday afternoon of 19th Century working class Parisians dancing and drinking among the trees of Montmartre.

So, on one side of the park people were celebrating nature, on the other side the pleasures of community, both groups brought together by the magnetic pull of city life.

If you wanted to create an advertisement for benevolent and joyous humanity, at a time when faith in each other seems in short supply, you couldn’t do much better than Sunset Park on the evening of the longest day of the year.