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Author: Ralph Gardner

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

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

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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.

One Less Carp

One Less Carp

 Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Officer Jeffrey Cox

About a month ago I penned a commentary about the single fish in my pond – a grass carp. I suggested that I probably ought to give him a name because, after a number of years swimming around in solitude and growing to the approximate size of an ocean-going tuna, he’d assumed the status of a family pet.

Come spring, all would not be right with the world until I spied him lolling just beneath the surface of the water, knowing that he’d survived another winter.

Once I’d spotted him this season I was confident that I’d enjoy his company through the summer as he made his way through the depths and shallows, possessed, I suspected, of a powerful imagination.

The reason I say that is because nobody could spend that much time doing nothing more interesting than floating, sampling the vegetation at the edges of the pond, and on the occasions when a predator’s shadow darkened the water, vanishing into the depths with a reflexive spasm and splash — without having a vivid inner life.

So it’s with great sadness that I’m forced to report that my carp is no more.

Before I go any further it’s probably best to offer that warning I often hear on TV that the following material might not be suitable for children or anybody with delicate feelings.

Last weekend I walked out to the pond in the full expectation that my experience would be as it always is – a combination of wonder, gratitude and curiosity about what wildlife – an unusual duck, a deer sipping at the water’s edge, a brigade of turtles basking in the sun – I might encounter there.

But the first thing that caught my eye was something white floating on the surface and so large that I guessed, with some anticipation, that it might be a swan. I’ve never before seen a swan on our pond. But part of the joy of this modest one-third acre of water is the anticipation, occasionally rewarded, of the novel and unexpected.

But as I raised my binoculars to my eyes I saw that the object wasn’t a swan but the bloated remains of my beloved carp floating belly up.

And the fish, as it turns out, was but the proverbial canary in the coal mine, though an over-sized and odiferous one.

Drawing closer to the pond I noticed a lot of debris in the water. At first I assumed it was leaves or pollen fallen from the surrounding oaks and maples. But as I looked closer I realized they were tadpoles and baby frogs, all of them dead.

My shock was slightly cushioned because I’d noticed something odd about the pond a few weeks earlier. An invasive weed – milfoil – was growing up from the bottom.

It returns every year. But it usually doesn’t make its fan-like tentacles apparent, and the pond less fun to swim, until late June or early July.

But this year I spotted the weed in May, and also the water clouded with an algae bloom. Milfoil crowds out native species and can also choke a pond of oxygen.

However, I noticed that larger frogs and turtles, who have the luxury of dividing their time between water and land and breathing the air, seemed to be doing just fine.

There were alternate explanations for the kill-off – pollution, poison, an ancient curse, vandalism.

However, none of those seemed likely. The pond is 100% spring-fed. There are no streams carrying water into it that might be tainted by pesticides or fertilizers.

But just to be on the safe side I contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and one of their officers assigned to Columbia County, Jeffrey Cox, paid a visit the next morning.

He confirmed my suspicions, that the fish and frogs had probably been killed by a lack of oxygen. He thought the cause of the early milfoil bloom might have been a warm spell early in the spring, before what seemed like weeks of below normal temperatures and rain.

Officer Cox said he’d seen another pond in similar condition a couple of weeks earlier.

He thought the milfoil could have originally migrated to the pond on the feet or bodies of geese or ducks.

But there didn’t seem much that could be done except giving my friends a proper burial deep in the woods; I’d spent several hours collecting my carp (it must have weighed twenty pounds) and perhaps a thousand tadpoles.

I’m happy to report that the pond already appears to be on its way to recovery. The water is now reasonably clear. New tadpoles are slithering through it; salamanders, too. And the turtles seem as nonchalant as ever.

I mourn my carp, however, still expecting to find him making his rounds. The pond won’t truly be back to its old self until I find a suitably steadfast replacement.

Hunting For Hawthorne

Hunting For Hawthorne

 Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

An acquisition at the Kinderhook, NY Memorial Library book sale

A local library book sale isn’t the place you’d expect to go to learn you’re a has-been. But that’s what happened to me last weekend at the Kinderhook Memorial Library book sale in Kinderhook, New York.

If you’ll indulge me while I offer a little background regarding my history of book hunting. I probably need to go as far back as the 1960’s when my father, a book collector, started me collecting American first editions.

His purpose was less to turn me onto the majesty of literature than to get me into Yale. Assuming, correctly, that my high school transcript and SAT scores would be lackluster at best, he thought I might nonetheless intrigue Yale’s admissions office if I could claim to be America’s youngest bibliophile.

It didn’t work, of course. But in the meantime, I amassed a respectable collection of first editions acquired for a pittance – “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” an autographed first edition of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.

I also caught the collecting bug, which is the reason I look forward each spring to country book sales, Kinderhook’s in particular.

Over the years, I’ve managed to discover a few first editions there – from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” and James Thurber and E.B. White’s “Is Sex Necessary?” I never got far enough into the volume to learn their conclusion.

That is, I managed to unearth a first edition or two until the library’s volunteers wised up and weeded them out to sell to collectors for a higher price, the proceeds going, of course, to support the library.

But it wasn’t first editions I was after as much as oddities, books that were beautifully printed, or those that had slipped through the existential cracks – probably not heard a peep about since they were published back in the Paleolithic.

Some of the books were being deacquisitioned by the library itself, apparently because nobody had borrowed them for decades. One of them had even been written by my father, “Horatio Alger; or The American Hero Era.”

It was a biography of the popular 19th Century author of such young adult novels as “Ragged Dick,” and “Timothy Crump’s Ward.”

I felt a familial obligation to buy and preserve it, even though I already own a couple of copies.

But I took particular pleasure in purchasing and poring through books whose spines I may have been the first to crack in decades. For example, “Will Rogers – Ambassador of Good Will. Prince of Wit and Wisdom,” by P.J. O’Brien. It was published in 1935, the year of Rogers’ death in an Alaskan plane crash.

I was also happy to acquire “Meet Calvin Coolidge; the Man Behind the Myth.” To be honest, I haven’t read it. I just like the title.

Other small gems I’ve snapped up over the years have included a 1908 tribute to Margaret Ogilvy by her son J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. There was also “Baedecker’s Switzerland” with detailed maps and foldout panoramas of the Swiss Alps. And, from the 1860’s, an illustrated self-instruction manual to phrenology, the study of the bumps on your head.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t come away from last Saturday’s Kinderhook Library book sale empty-handed. My purchases included a 700-page doorstop of a book – volume 1 of Mark Twain’s recently published autobiography.

I also took home a delightful reference book – “Popular Proverbs and Sayings” by Gregory Titelman.

Do you know where the expressions “A rolling stone gathers no moss” or “Rome wasn’t built in a day” come from?

I didn’t either. But I do now.

However, among the fiction and non-fiction, the bios and history books, there was hardly an old, musty antique book for sale.

As I was paying for my purchases I brought this disturbing new development to the attention of Warren Applegate, a library volunteer. Mr. Applegate informed me that they no longer regularly stock old books because almost nobody buys them. Why go to the effort of lugging them out of storage when they’ll go right back in?

The volunteer invited me to peruse the classics and the near classics at a nearby storage room in the village. I followed him there and confess there was some interesting stuff.

But they had high price tags – and by high I mean more than the $2 they were charging for a hardcover and $1 for a paperback back at the book sale. But more to the point, Mr. Applegate had already discovered these gems, denying me the thrill of the hunt, the lust for buried treasure.

He suggested I become a friend of the library. That way I’d get invited to the Friday night party where members get first dibs on the books that go on sale to the public the next morning.

I admit it’s a moral failing that I didn’t join the library years ago. But part of the fun of the book chase is that you don’t enjoy an advantage over other book lovers. It’s like prospecting for gold, ones’ success a function of luck, savvy, and the undeniable impulse of avarice.

However, even more disturbing than my failure to add to my list of literary curiosities is the fact that many people these days are apparently only interested in shiny, new books. Part of the beauty of literature is that, no matter how ancient the covers, the words within remain as fresh as the day they were written if the author is worth his or her salt.

I’m thinking, for example, of a series of English sketches from 1863 by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I bought the volume at a previous Kinderhook book sale. Some of the essays are based on his experience as the American consul in Liverpool during the 1850’s.

And to think – if I hadn’t acquired this lively, occasionally irreverent book I’d probably have known Hawthorne only as the author of that morbid classic, “The Scarlet Letter.”

Planet Earth to Trump

Planet Earth to Trump

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

Photo of the Earth taken on 12/7/72, by the crew of the Apollo 17
CREDIT PUBLIC DOMAIN / NASA

Donald Trump has done a lot to amaze and disturb since becoming President of the United States. But abandoning the Paris Climate Accord struck a particularly depressing note.

As he made his defiant announcement in the Rose Garden, enabled by questionable statistics, a military band, and applauding minions, you could almost hear the flowers weep.

Since then, I’ve been trying to articulate, if only to myself, what was so upsetting about the spectacle, beyond the obvious.

I think I started to get at it last week as I was returning home on a beautiful spring evening from a fundraiser for Scenic Hudson, an environmental organization that serves as an eloquent rebuke to Trumpism. Their mission is to protect the planet for the current and future generations, at least the parts of it that radiate out from the Hudson River.

I’m fortunate to own a little of that land, most of it deeply wooded, on both sides of a country road. I was passing through it on the way back to our house from the party last Saturday.

The event was held at Art Omi, a sculpture field in Columbia County that looked especially handsome at sunset that early June night. And its glowing green fields were set off, as the party wound down, by an accommodating rainbow.

But “own” land is a rather bizarre concept when it comes to trees and streams and all the life forms that inhabit it. I don’t own them any more than they own me.

Due to a succession of evolutionary twists and turns, and the fact that my grandparents fell in love with the place seventy years ago, we just happen to be caretaking this infinitesimal patch of a particular planet in a suburban solar system for the wink of an eye. And paying the taxes.

Nobody owns anybody.

To think that the decisions of a single incurious individual have the power to abet its demise provokes a particular kind of indignation. If we’re going to die in an extinction event, at least let it be from natural causes, such as an asteroid.

It’s easy to see without looking too hard, to quote Bob Dylan, “that not much is really sacred.”

However, the Earth is.

Let’s take a moment to examine the evidence objectively – and I don’t mean the lavishly funded fake science.

I think we can all agree, whether we do on global warming or not, that we live on a planet that has its moments.

I still don’t really understand why our sky is such a becoming shade of blue when the rest of interstellar space is black, but I’m certainly happy about it. And God, or whatever title you choose for its animating force, couldn’t have nailed it any better than making the grass green; the trees, too.

And what about those sunsets, snow covered peaks, Beethoven’s Ninth, coral reefs, the fragrance of flowers, craft beer, bird song, clouds. The list goes on.

Take politics and the calculations of small, insecure men out of the equation and we live in a fairly promising, hospitable place.

Even more so from the perspective of outer space. I always thought it would be helpful to position a camera looking back at Earth from a suitable distance. We could consult it once or twice a day on our computers or mobile devices and appreciate how good we’ve got it.

It’s a fine looking place. Especially compared to everything else we’ve come across thus far. Jupiter and Saturn have their charms, but not as a place to own property. There’s that word “own” again.

And one can’t help but feel that in the mortal combat between chaos and order, between love and hate, between the indifference of the Universe and things like friendship, families and the warmth of the sun on your skin, Earth stands as a fairly eloquent argument for the comforts of home.

I remember standing amid the smoldering ruins at Ground Zero a week after 9/11. What impressed me most– and I don’t mean in a good way – was that this was destruction on the scale of nature. But it had been perpetrated by humans against one another.

It seemed at that moment that hate wasn’t the opposite of love. Anger was. Our future probably depends on getting it under control and rejecting those who exploit it.

A couple of other thoughts. Neither of them particularly original, or even my own.

I like to remind my children, not that they need reminding, that humanity is an experiment. There’s no guarantee it’s going to succeed. Our fate rests in our own hands. Fortunately, it turns on something we’re singularly equipped to do – peek into the future and predict the outcome of our decisions.

Peddling fake information and selfish math only makes the challenge greater.

Another idea I keep returning to comes from, I believe, astronomer Carl Sagan. Regarding the question of making contact with extra-terrestrials, he was of the opinion that any civilization advanced enough to return our messages would be taking a wait-and-see attitude; in other words, whether we were sufficiently grown-up as a species that we could be counted on not to wreck the cosmic furniture.

We currently seem to be at one of those tipping points. It’s been said that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris isn’t as dire as it seems. It won’t go into effect for another four years, by which time the White House may have been returned to a more far-sighted occupant. That renewable energy is an unstoppable train.

But the sin that’s already been committed doesn’t depend on whether things turn out for the best. It’s the sin of scorn, of contempt, of self-importance; the potential end of the world as we know it, not with a bang but a tweet storm. It’s certainly not the outcome the Earth deserves in return for everything it’s given us.

 

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

Communing With Camels

Communing With Camels

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Miyako Kinoshita, Green Chimneys Education Program Manager, with Phoenix, a Bactrian camel
My family has this game we play. It’s not really a game; it’s more of a ritual. We call it “What’s Your Favorite Part of the Weekend?”

It started in the car returning to the city on Sunday nights. We’d go from family member to family member, in no particular order, and try to pinpoint our favorite part, aspect, moment, experience of the weekend.

It was a way, though not in so many words, of acknowledging how fortunate we were that we got to spend weekends in the country.

I believe my wife and I played “What’s Your Favorite Part of the Weekend” before our children were born. But we’ve certainly continued the tradition now that they’ve grown up and typically aren’t traveling with us when we return to the city.

It’s generally unacceptable for two people to have the same favorite part of the weekend. But a few weekends ago we did and there were no two ways around it.

So what was that charmed moment? It involved meeting Phoenix, a camel.

Camels don’t have the best reputations, even though I do recall that as a child I befriended a camel named “Artie” at the Central Park Zoo.

However, my understanding is that camels can be rather ornery and they spit. But Phoenix couldn’t have been more gracious as we petted him and touched his humps. For the record, they felt oddly spongy.

Phoenix, a two-humped Bactrian camel, native to the steppes of Central Asia, also happened to be a handsome animal. As camels go, definitely a “ten.”

As you may be able to guess we didn’t happen across Phoenix, and his sidekick Sage, during a walk in the woods since Bactrian camels aren’t native to the deciduous forests of the Northeast.

No, we encountered the even-toed ungulate when we stopped on our way upstate at Green Chimneys. That’s a special-education school that includes a farm and wildlife center, with campuses in Brewster and Carmel, New York.

The non-profit school is attended by over 100 residential and 100 day students from kindergarten through 12th grade. They’re drawn from eighty school districts around New York State. Green Chimneys is also considered a leader in animal-assisted therapy and educational activities for children with special needs.

The success of the program was evident in the care, interest and kindness the kids showered on our dog Wallie, who was along for the ride.

The farm has over 300 farm animals, as well as birds of prey and other wildlife, all of whom seem to be living the good life. A lot of them are rescues or they’ve been donated to the school and acclimated to interact with children.

Not all of them, however.

For example, the condors, whose idea of fun is to rip up old jeans as a substitute for the hides of animals they might have shred in the wild.

I asked Mikayo Kinoshita, the farm’s education program manager, whether she felt she a particular bond with an Andean condor, at that very moment, eviscerating a pair of distressed Levis. He’s apparently been around since she started working at Green Chimneys in 1997.

“From this distance,” she told me.

By the way, tomorrow, June 4th, is Green Chimneys annual “Birds of Prey” Day where you can visit the farm and smooze with some of the residents and wildlife experts. The stars of the show include local predators – such as great horned owls and turkey vultures – and others that are a good deal more exotic. For example, a kookaburra, a kingfisher native to Australia.

While turkey vultures don’t have the most appealing reputations or diets – when they aren’t circling the sky they seem to be feasting on road kill, Ms. Kinoshita told me they’re actually very sociable.

Indeed, she reported that she’s seen the farm’s resident vultures push food through their enclosures to cousins from the wild that happen to drop by.

Green Chimneys also has a bashful emu – when it was rescued it was tied to a fence along a highway – and a tortoise who managed to escape but was found traveling along one of the farm’s nature trails.

Learning to care for the animals isn’t just therapeutic for the children who attend Green Chimneys, giving them a sense of accomplishment and responsibility. The animals also impart wisdom:

For example, in observing the special relationship and living arrangement between Wilbur, a pig donated by a teenager who purchased him from a farm that raises pigs for food, and Vanilla, a goat.

When Vanilla was introduced to the farm she was placed in a pen with another goat and pig. But when it came time for her to reunite with the farm’s goat population it was discovered she preferred the company of pigs. So she was offered Wilbur as a roommate. And the animals have lived happily ever after.

Ms. Kinoshita told me: “They love each other. But Wilbur doesn’t like other pigs and Vanilla doesn’t like other goats.”

She added that there’s a valuable life lesson in their relationship for the children who help care for them: It’s okay to be different.

A Long Overdue Visit to Mohonk Mountain House

A Long Overdue Visit to Mohonk Mountain House

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Mohonk Mountain House
I filled a rather significant hole in my Hudson Valley education last weekend. I finally spent a couple of nights at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY.

I say significant and finally not just because the spectacular 259-room castle hotel, which has been around since 1869 and sits on the Shawangunk Ridge in Ulster County, is listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But also because friends and family have been visiting for years and singing the praises of the place.

My curiosity was peeked, but never sufficiently to spend several hundred dollars a night to see what the fuss was about. Also, I’m somewhat of a snob when it comes to nature.

My preference is to contemplate it in solitude, or as close to that condition as possible. If I must have companions, the fewer the better.

So the idea of a resort hotel with hundreds of rooms, a lake with paddleboats, a climbing labyrinth, a golf course, and a spa didn’t quite sound like something Henry David Thoreau would have approved of.

Fortunately, I was able to overcome my qualms with the help of friends who invited my wife and me, and dozens of others, to help them celebrate a significant wedding anniversary.

I also have a small confession to make. On a nature walk we took Saturday morning, I dropped a tissue onto a ledge below where we were standing while contemplating one of the resort’s exceptional views.

I still feel bad about it.

The only reason I bring up this seemingly minor violation is that I don’t think I’ve visited anywhere that accommodates this many guests on a daily basis – including Switzerland, where cleanliness along its alpine meadows rises to something like a spiritual contract – with such well-groomed trails and so little litter.

Mohonk was started by Quaker twin brothers Alfred and Albert Smiley as a place to enjoy nature, and subsequent generations of the family have built upon their mission of environmental stewardship.

So I apologize. I was tempted to climb down to retrieve the culprit Kleenex. Except that would have risked spending Saturday night at the local hospital, or the morgue, rather than at the excellent dinner and dance party, with a great band, that our friends threw to celebrate their anniversary.

Our cozy wood-trimmed room came with a terrace where one could enjoy a view of the lake and fellow guests engaging in water sports, as well as swifts and swallows darting back and forth against the evening sky. We also had a fireplace that we put to good use Saturday morning.

I had only two regrets. The first was that I forgot to bring along a bottle of vodka or scotch. Since part of the fun of resorts, as well as an effective cost cutting measure, is to enjoy the view under the influence of your own poison.

And that I neglected to pack my binoculars, since Mohonk is well known for its bird walks. I was told guides might have pairs one could borrow; but I wasn’t ambitious enough to sign up for any of the scheduled walks.

However, my failure to include a bottle of Tito’s or single malt in my luggage turned out just fine. Because one of the hotel’s bars is on an outdoor terrace that offers perhaps the best views of the Catskills I’ve ever seen.

Before I forget, the food was also excellent and elegantly served. Saturday breakfast and Sunday brunch, where we joined hundreds of other hotel guests under the soaring ceilings of the Victorian era main dining room, couldn’t have been more generous or artfully prepared.

I suppose the test of any great resort is the opportunities it provides to socialize when you feel like it and privacy when you don’t.

Mohonk Mountain House tiptoes up to, but never quite crosses, the line into overkill with a rustic gazebo seemingly every hundred feet or so.

But those gazebos offer amazing views.

The most memorable part of the weekend came when my wife and I took an hour-long walk along Eagle Cliff. It wasn’t especially challenging – Mohonk borders the Mohonk Preserve and offers eighty-five miles of hiking trails, some undoubtedly a good deal more strenuous than ours – but when we turned a corner we came upon a view I’ll probably always remember.

It was of black vultures serenely riding the thermals high above the emerald carpeted ridge of the Shawangunks.

We failed to take advantage of the hotel’s spa or pool. But come Sunday morning, before brunch, I did bury my resort-phobic pride, settled into a kayak and paddled out along Mohonk Lake, among the canoers and paddleboarders.

When I returned to the dock, a cheerful attendant was waiting to guide me into a slip, specifically made for kayaks. It came with an overhead bar that allows you to lift yourself out of the scull without any risk of capsizing.

There’s something to be said for a resort with all the amenities.

Feed Your Hummingbirds

Feed Your Hummingbirds

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Homemade hummingbird nectar
 After you’ve watched hummingbirds feed at your hummingbird feeder for a while – what, you don’t own a hummingbird feeder? – you’ll realize that the box the feeder came in, the one with the picture of a hummingbird placidly sitting at each port sipping nectar; it’s a scam! The picture had been photoshopped.

A hummingbird won’t let another hummingbird anywhere near a feeder if it has anything to say about it. Or an even nastier hummingbird will come along and chase the first one away.

Roger Tory Peterson’s “A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies” uses one word to describe these ruby-throated miracles of flight. Pugnacious. That pretty much says it all.

One time, I was standing on my porch enjoying a plum. A hummingbird flew over and hovered inches from my face. I’m convinced he was calculating the odds of taking me, of bullying the fruit out of my hand.

Another time I watched as two hummingbirds got into a fight to the death over my feeder.

The battle started in midair, then proceeded to the porch where one hummingbird pinned the other to the ground. The contest went back and forth, punishing blows struck by both sides, until the fight spilled off the porch and onto the grass. That’s where one of the combatants gained the upper hand and appeared to kill his opponent.

I let the victim rest in peace for about ten minutes, certain he was dead. But since I’d planned to mow the lawn that afternoon I stooped over to remove the sad corpse. As I did he zoomed off. He was only playing possum. Which I realize is a curious saying to employ when describing bird behavior.

But this is the sort of viewing pleasure you can have if you own a hummingbird feeder. You don’t need cable. You don’t need to subscribe to Netflix or HBO or Amazon. Just buy a feeder for a few bucks.

And one of the best parts is that after your initial investment, it’s essentially free. Ignore anyone who tells you that you have to buy hummingbird nectar at a store. Just stir one cup of sugar into four cups of water, boil and let cool.

Apart from all the other pleasures my feeder provides, saving money on hummingbird food ranks high.

Hanging my feeder also signals high spring. My first hummingbird arrived from down south the second week in May.

The event typically also signals that it’s time to retire my regular bird feeders for the season. I’d heard that if birds come to rely on your feeders and you stop filling them they’ll die. So I once asked a bird expert whether that was true. His response: “Do you really think birds are that stupid?”

In other words, if they can’t find a free lunch at your place they’ll go elsewhere. Besides, come the warm weather months nature more than provides.

I have precise rituals surrounding my hummingbird feeder. For example, after I make the nectar on my stove I pour it into its own designated green Pellegrino bottle.

The bottle has a label drawn by my younger daughter Gracie when she was a child. It has pictures of hummingbirds and the warning, “Stay away from the hummingbird food.” In case anyone mistakes the nectar for water.

I like the way she captured the tiniest of birds’ iridescent green bodies, their needle-like bills, and the way they hover while feeding.

Gracie is now twenty-three, and a professional chef, but I’m proud that I’ve managed to preserve the label, more or less intact, through dozens of washing of the bottle.

But, of course, the best part is sitting on your porch and watching the hummingbirds come and go. Sometimes I’ll have as many as four or five vying for the feeder. It feels like you’re running a busy regional airport.

By the way, the ruby-throated is the only Eastern species of hummingbird. On rare occasions our area is visited by the rufous hummingbird in the fall.

Among my favorite of the ruby-throated’s behaviors is the male’s mating dance. It’s a thrilling aerial display that involves swooping up and down in a series of ascents and dives, or shuttling back and forth, their wings making a distinctive humming sound.

While they’re showing off, the female sits on a comfortable branch calmly enjoying the performance. Her head turns back and forth, or up and down, like tennis fans following the motion of the ball as it crosses the net during an especially compelling point.

The first thing I do when I return to country from the city, after unlocking the front door, is fill the feeder. It will undoubtedly have been drained in my absence.

A few minutes after that the birds are back. Actually, they’ll sometimes be sitting there waiting for me, as if to say, “What took you so long?”

I’ve been told they’re probably the same birds from year to year. It’s incredible to think they’ll have migrated all the way from Mexico and Central America, where they spend the winter, to my feeder.

Come autumn, I’ll diligently scrub the feeder, as well as the nectar bottle with the label designed by daughter, and retire both for the winter.

Until then, there will be many flights and a few good dogfights, to watch.

A Fish With No Name

A Fish With No Name

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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GRASS CARP  — Credit U.S. Geological Survey/Public Domain — Wikimedia Commons

I own exactly one fish. Lately I’ve been thinking I ought to give him a name.

He’s not a pet fish that lives in a bowl, though he feels more pet-like with each passing season.

He’s a grass carp, a species rumored to control aquatic weeds. He’s also the last of five I bought a few years back from a fish farm in Hillsdale, NY.

They suggested five in case one or two got picked off by hawks or herons. They were being overly optimistic. They’re all gone now except for that yet-to-be-named carp.

Avian predators aren’t the fish’s only foes. Hard winters also take their toll.

One spring I found every member of the previous batch I purchased deceased. They’d grown to quite a substantial size. Fishing them belly up out of the pond wasn’t something I’d recommend for weekend fun.

I also threw a goldfish that didn’t play well with others into the pond. We came to call him “Fat Bastard,” after the obese henchman in “Austin Powers,” because he grew to such a robust size. He’d even let us pet him. It was only other goldfish he had issues with. I haven’t seen him in years and can only assume that what goes around comes around and he got his.

So each spring I head out to the pond fingers crossed that my carp survived the winter.

A couple of summers ago scientists from the New York Botanical Garden visited – they were in the region surveying lakes and ponds for an invasive algae called starry stonewort. Fortunately, they didn’t find any at our place. In fact, they took water samples and pronounced my one-third acre inland sea wonderfully healthy.

It teems with turtles, a couple of them the snapping sort, frogs, salamanders, snakes and, of course, one fish.

I’m the only family member who swims in the pond regularly. I can’t seem to convince my wife and daughters that doing so on warm spring and summer mornings constitutes a quasi-religious experience.

The spring-fed pond, as opposed to a swimming pool, feels very much alive – which some apparently consider a deterrent. I feel more alive, too, as I turn my face to the sun while swimming and listen to the birds and the wind rush through the tall oaks that surround the pond.

I subscribe to the belief that all the fauna, snapping turtles included, are more afraid of me than I am of them and will run for the exits as soon as I make my ungraceful entrance off our dock.

So far, I’ve managed to avoid any unlucky encounters.

I never visit the pond without thinking of my grandparents. They bought our place in the 1940’s and really wanted water on their property. But an expert from the cooperative extension service examined the swamp they were planning to excavate and told them it wasn’t worth it. The thing would never be more than a few feet deep.

After my grandparents passed away we were having some land cleared. Our contractor took one look at the swamp, said he’d dug a hundred ponds in his time, and told us we could have a pond there if we wanted.

Today it’s ten, probably fifteen feet deep in places. I only wish my grandparents were around to see it.

For some reason, it’s hard to spot my fish in early spring. I’m not sure why. Maybe the water is too murky. Or too cold and he prefers to linger in the pond’s depths. Who knows?

Come mid-spring he’s more socialable, or at least less enigmatic. He lolls just beneath the surface. And while his responsibilities include keeping the weeds around the pond’s edge at bay, I rarely see him at work. Mostly, he just seems to bask in the sun.

Before I bought my first round of carp I asked Peter Bodo, a friend and wildlife writer, what he thought the chances the fish would keep the cattails that crowded the edge of the pond in check.

Peter predicted the result would be both fat carp and flourishing cattails.

He was mostly accurate. In fact, the fish seems to have eliminated the cattails. But not other plants that have taken its place, nor a seaweed-like substance that grows from the bottom and can make pond swimming less appealing come midsummer.

I’ve come to think of my carp as a pet, with only occasional benefits.

But when I haven’t seen him for several weeks at the start of the season, I start to worry he perished over the winter and begin writing his eulogy.

So I’m pleased to report that I spotted the carp last weekend. And, at well over two feet long, he appears to have survived the winter just fine.

He was engaged in doing what he’s always done. Which was pretty much just floating, though I prefer to think of him as patrolling for invasive species.

It’s just a matter of time until I join him in the pond, content in the knowledge that we’ve both passed another winter largely unscathed, ready to resume our relationship.