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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

LISTEN  

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

LISTEN  

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.