Friday, July 31, 2009

Lydia and Plato

Mars and I were both Philosophy majors in college, and we have a small collection of Hispanic New Mexican religious folk art. Last week I wouldn't have even used those two facts in the same sentence. Now it makes perfect sense to me.

Most of the artworks are "Santos" (painted/carved images of saints) -- several of them created by one particular "Santara" (Lydia) who lives in the Taos area. All are modern. Although we collect them for the way that they look and their evocation of a culture with which we feel a strong affinity, they were created as religious objects -- not collectibles.

In that same spirit we recently attended an Elderhostel at the Museum of Russian Icons for our own secular, aesthetic reasons. The Santos and the Icons portray the same things but their styles are recognizably different. The Russian objects also appeal to me artistically but, probably because of our years of personal experience in New Mexico, do not effect me as emotionally as the Santos do.

The icon museum is located in Clinton Massachusetts -- one of the many former textile-milling towns in that section of the state. The major employer in town nowadays is Nypro, an internationally successful plastics company ("Where success takes shape"), whose Chairman of the Board, Gordon Lankton, turned his personal collection of sacred Orthodox artworks into this public museum.

He spoke to our group about how he began his collection with a $25 purchase at a Moscow flea market. Over three hundred fifty of his accumulated pieces -- most costing considerably more than his original acquisition -- are now housed in this museum, which he opened in 2007.

In addition to Mr. Lankton, David Durrant the architect who custom-converted the former mill building into a museum, Kent Russell the Curator, and Olga Litvak professor of Jewish-and-Russian Studies spoke to our class.

I knew nothing about Russian Icons other than their subject matter, so just about everything that they said was new to me. Then, as I sat down to write this account, I was brushing up on my New Mexican folk art terminology in a book called "Santos and Saints" by Thomas J. Steele, S.J. and I discovered that many of the major attributes of the Russian icons were also true of the Santos.

As mentioned above the subject matter is the same: Christ, Mary the Mother of God, individual saints, and (considerably less common in Santos) bible stories.

The technicalities are similar. Both are created on wood that has been coated with gesso. The paints are created from the minerals and vegetation of the earth. Images and backgrounds are presented as flat.

But, most importantly, their guiding principles are cut from the same cloth.

The centerpiece of the museum, and of Russian iconography, is the Image-Not-Made-By-Hands, a.k.a. The First Icon.

According to legend Jesus himself produced the first icon. King Agbar of Edessa, a leper, heard of Jesus' healing powers, and sent a messenger to bring Jesus back to heal him. Along with a letter declining the invitation because of his pressing mission, Jesus sent the MANDILION, a cloth on which the image of his face was miraculously reproduced. (

The museum does not own the original face print of Christ. Unlike similar religious objects such as the Shroud of Turin the current location of the first Image-Not-Made-By-Hands is not known. The representation has however been recreated imitatively by icon artists (or "writers" as they prefer) throughout the history of the craft and is one of the most frequently used, effigies of Russian iconography.

In fact the art of Russian iconography consists entirely of exactly recreating accepted iconic images and combining them following strict rules such as the order in which colors are placed on the object, and which symbols are theologically correct for the story being told.

(Interesting aside: The icon on display in the museum is actually a three year old exact replica of a much older picture that Mr. Lankton purchased in Russia but which he is not allowed to remove from that country. Even that copy was "written" according to the rules of the craft.)

A Renaissance painter would attempt to portray a chair realistically (three dimensionally) and, if asked what the subject of the painting was would say "a chair". A Russian Icon writer would depict the same object and say it was "an image of a chair".

Mars and I learned something like this in Philosophy 101. The Greek philosopher Plato believed that even the chairs that we actually sit in are merely imperfect images of the "Idea" of a chair. I never quite comprehended this -- but it made enough sense to me that I felt I should have. Apparently others understood it better.

In the New Mexican santero tradition, a painting was judged holy if it repeated the previous painting of the same subject in its tradition, and it thereby resembles the icon of Greek Byzantium and Russia. The theory of icons in the Orthodox Churches was based on the Neoplatonic doctrine of participation, and so it interpreted the icon as a dependent entity that shared the being, holiness, power, intelligibility, beauty, life, and purpose of its model. In New Mexico, even the relatively and naively naturalistic late-nineteenth-century bultos [folk art images] developed within a folk-Platonic mentality. (Santos and Saints).

An illustrated guide to Plato right here on our family room walls. Who knew?

All my life's a circle -- or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

An Ode to the Pruning Saw

If I had to pick just one piece of athletic training equipment with which to exercise I would choose the Japanese pruning saw.

This insight occurred to me as I was using said implement to dismember and remove a large branch from one of our Maple trees that had fallen across our driveway -- temporarily delaying Mars and my plan for a morning of golf at our favorite local course.

(Photo by Mars - click to enlarge)

Thunderstorms had passed through our area the night before. We were up and awake when the rains came so we heard the heavy downpour and sporadic claps of thunder, and saw some of the accompanying lightning. We did not hear any unusually heavy winds. Nor did we discern the sound of timber cracking. We went to bed with our electricity intact and awoke in the same state the next morning. So we figured all was right with our world -- but it wasn't.

The wounded Maple stands about fifteen feet to the south of our drive, immediately behind a set of privet hedges that abut the sidewalk. The broken branch was on the north side of the tree and fell in that direction across the walkway completely shutting off all access to and from our driveway. It was cracked but still attached to the trunk, balanced sturdily on the ground by several sturdy limbs.

Mars saw the damage and immediately figured we would be tied up all morning getting hold of, and then waiting for, an arborist to remove our arboreal captor. I looked at the mangle of timber and thought "pruning saw".

After a protein-rich breakfast we went outside to assess the situation. It became clear very quickly that the first order of things was to reclaim our ability to enter and (of more immediate importance given our golf plans) exit our driveway. The point where the branch joined the tree was immediately adjacent to a network of power lines and up high enough so as to be difficult to reach even with my pole saw. So we decided to cut the branch a few feet further down at a point that was safe from electrocution and more easily accessible with the long-handled steel blade. The wood at that spot was about ten inches in diameter.

(Photo by Mars - click to enlarge)

I started cutting with the pole saw and made it about half way through when the blade bound up. After several unsuccessful attempts to get going again I shifted to my Japanese pruning saw operated from atop my stepladder as balanced by Mars. I made twenty-five percent more progress when the branch started to sag and then that cutting implement stuck in place.

It was time for Plan B. We decided that if I cut off each of the ground-bound limbs that supported the bigger bough it would snap off under its own weight. There turned out to be about ten such braces ranging in thickness from several inches to not much smaller than the main artery.

I sawed. Mars dragged. After about thirty minutes the driveway had been opened up and the remainder of the branch had cracked a bit more and now was balanced by itself on the ground. Since I hadn't used up my pruning saw enthusiasm I decided to finish cutting the big piece and hoped that when it finally broke off -- which it did with several vigorous pushes -- that the part of the limb attached to the trunk would also fall down -- which it didn't.

But ninety percent of the lumberjacking had been done and we could come and go as we pleased. Some of our trees are actually on town property -- long story -- and Mars noticed that the Maple seemed to be one of them. So now the plan became to call the Physical Service Department to see if they would (a) complete the trimming job and (b) remove the residue. They would, if in fact it was their tree. If not we would then call a private arborist. Either way we were now finished with cutting and ready to do some chipping -- plus some driving and putting.

The next day I thought a little bit more about the one-hour workout that I had so willingly subjected my body to.

(1) Cardio: The major problem in sawing is having the tool bind up and stop. The best way to prevent this is to just keep on cutting. This is not a problem with thumb-sized branches, which come apart after four or five rapid strokes. Most of the limbs I dealt with this time required multiple minutes of nonstop hacking. Even with only one arm performing ninety percent of the labor, it is a heart-pounder.

(2) Resistance Training: Resistance training is a form of strength training in which each effort is performed against a specific opposing force generated by resistance (i.e. resistance to being pushed, squeezed, stretched or bent).....Resistance exercise is used to develop the strength and size of skeletal muscles.....Research shows that regular resistance training will strengthen and tone muscles and increase bone mass. (

Sounds just like cutting wood to me.

(3) Eye-Hand Coordination: Thirty years of sawing and I still have all ten fingers. Say no more!

(4) Balance & Flexibility: Most pruning saw jobs do not consist of a single piece of wood perfectly balanced on a flat cutting surface. You usually have to contort your body into impossible positions just to get to the thing that you want to cut, and then stay in that absurd position for minutes at a time while maintaining your focus on your target. If you are not positioned correctly you cannot generate enough leverage or force to get the job done -- and/or you fall down. Real lumberjacks do not tip over.

This is even better than what you can do with a Bowflex.

And all for less than $25 at your local hardware store.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Water Damage

Our hollyhocks are dead. They are not pining. They have passed on. Ceased to be. Expired. Gone to meet their maker. This afternoon we ripped them out of the earth and consigned them to the big green bin from whence they will somehow find their way into the great waste disposal system in the sky -- or perhaps a local landfill.

I think that they drowned. But I can't prove it except circumstantially.

(1) They are from the desert southwest -- specifically Santa Fe, New Mexico where Mars harvested the seeds from a plant belonging to our daughter-in-law Monica, and another on the land of mutual friends J & J. As far as we know the forebears of these seeds have never resided anywhere other than dry, desolate, waterless, barren areas -- where they flourished.

(2) We have had an abnormally-wet spring and early summer in New England -- highlighted by our town's first ever tornado bookended between pretty much continuous days of heavy rain. Yesterday was the first time in over three weeks when I have been able to walk in my yard and not have standing water slosh up against my ankles and/or mud puddles suck my Muck Boots into the earth. Since early May I have been similarly shut out of my property at least five times. If my yard were a golf course it would have lost its designation as "casual water".

We planted our annuals the weekend after Memorial Day, and yesterday (July 13) was the first time that I had to hand-water any of them

My efforts to research our actual rainfall totals, in inches, have proven fruitless so take my word for it -- it has rained really, really hard, very, very often.

(3) They look like they have been drowned. Just examine Mars' digital evidence -- Exhibits A, B, and C. You can see, step-by-step, the results of that colorless, transparent, odorless, tasteless liquid insinuating itself into these helpless plants -- first diluting, then ultimately completely supplanting their vital fluids with a toxic mixture of hydrogen, oxygen and other "beneficial" vitamins and minerals.

(Exhibit A)

(Exhibit B)

(Exhibit C)

Never having experienced it, the hollyhocks just never knew what hit them.

(4) Or they could have died from second-hand water. Hollyhock websites list the plants hydration requirements as "normal watering". In New Mexico they received their modest H2O allotment from whatever meager desert rain happened. Here I would have watered them by hand, using a gently flowing hose placed at the base of the plant.

However we never really got to do that -- even once. Instead, because of the incessant precipitation, they received an almost daily head-and-shoulder pulsating shower of down-pouring rain -- similar to, and worse than, the following scenario.

The spray from lawn sprinklers continually wetting the foliage can cause rust disease to develop on the leaves. For this reason, overhead watering isn't recommended.

Rust is the most common disease affecting the hollyhock. All green parts of the plant are susceptible to infection. Death rarely occurs though severe infection causes yellowing and premature defoliation of the leaves. If early signs of the characteristic rust-colored pustules go unnoticed, the plant will soon be entirely infected; unless properly controlled, the fungal disease will survive year to year.

Apparently at the first sign of rust we could have removed the effected leaves -- by hand so as not to spread the disease on the blades of our cutting tool -- and trashed them. However, with the continuous rains, that would have resulted in a daily denuding exercise the end result of which would have been one dead leaf on top of a totally naked hollyhock stalk.

So we ended up deep-sixing them.

They could spontaneously reappear next year, or the year after -- they are considered a biennial/short term perennial. But I am pretty sure we have removed their entire infrastructure from our soil. It is unlikely that any seeds dropped during the plant's brief flurry of life. Instead we will return to the same southwest sources for another handful of reproductive kernels.

Then we will pray for drought.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Quiet Place to Harbor (1)

The tee on the first hole of the North Course at our "home club" is elevated. As a result it is impossible to see any players in the fairway ahead of you until they are within about fifty yards of the green.

The golf links are located inside an urban municipal park with playground, basketball court, swimming pool, softball field, and picnic area. Charcoal and hotdog aromas float in the air. Hawks look down from their high tree box seats. Non-golfers and their extended families, sometimes with dogs, wander across the course. Fishermen and duck-feeders sit on the banks of the water hazards. Bicyclists and joggers circle by on the surrounding road. In the winter this access route winds its way through a "Festival of Lights". The unlit naked looking sculptures appear next to fairways and greens towards the end of the golf season adding hazards that normally only putt-putt golfers would face. From inside the car trunks of picnickers and hoopsters oversized audio speakers blast competing bass rhythms across the greens and tee boxes.

Golf clubs are either private ("members only") or public (open to any golfer). This one is, at times, anarchic.

Therefore I wasn't too surprised, as I stood ready to tee-off at that elevated opening hole, when a golf cart with an adult and a child made its way up the fairway heading in my direction. I had seen it leave the area around the green but now it had temporarily disappeared. So I leaned on my club and waited, somewhat impatiently, for the small vehicle and its occupants to appear over the top of the hill.

When they came into sight the driver was waving at me. I did not recognize him. He continued across the upper plateau, still blocking my shot, and pulled up next to Mars who was waiting for me to hit.

There was one golf bag in the cart. The driver was a thirty-something, slightly built black man with a short black chin hair, a black tee shirt, and a black, red and gold Rasta hat -- those knitted caps designed to contain dreadlock styled hair.
His outfit was not at all out of place. Most of the golfers at this venue do not follow the rules of "proper golf attire" -- a golf shirt with collar, long trousers, no denim, and proper golf shoes.

Based purely on their clothing it is pretty much impossible to tell those who are at the park to play the game from those that are not.

The passenger looked to be about ten years of age. He wore a yellow golf shirt with the word "Jamaica" in red, a Tiger Woods Tour Swoosh Flex Golf Hat, and an expression of eagerness.

"My son is going to play a round of golf and he would like to play with someone. Can he join you?" the driver asked from inside the cart.

"Sure" we both said.

As I began my practice swing the boy hopped out of the cart, took off his cap, walked up to Mars, shook her hand and introduced himself. Then he approached me. "Hello, my name is Dexter."

After I hit my drive I walked over to Dexter's father and extended my hand. "I'm Jim."

"Thank you. My name is also Dexter."

Meanwhile young Dexter selected his target, positioned himself properly, swung smoothly, and drove the ball straight down the fairway about the same distance as my shot.

"My son is in the 'First Tee' program and is getting ready for a tournament."

"I guess he is". I replied.

Needless to say Dexter shot par or one above on each of the nine holes that we played. Mars and I scored a couple of strokes higher on every tee-to-green trip. On the first hole, where he putted out before we did, he put the flag back in when we all finished, and handed us the additional clubs that we had carried to the green. He and we continued that protocol throughout the round.

Dexter hesitated only once. On a ninety-degree dogleg he didn't hit his drive past the turning point and was blocked from the green by a copse of tall trees. He conferred with his father who recommended a five iron and to "try that curving shot you've been practicing". Once again Dexter selected his target, positioned himself properly, swung smoothly, and "bent it like Beckham" around the forest and onto the fairway up close to the green.

Other than "nice shot" or "thank you" neither of the Dexters said much. I inquired how often he played here.

"This is his backup course. He plays it every Wednesday afternoon." After a pause the father added, "He wants to birdie every hole. I tell him that doesn't happen."

At one point I asked young Dexter, who had been riding, if he had to walk during the tournament. "Yes. But my father carries the clubs" he said with a big smile. He did however get out of the cart and walk a little more.

After the last hole young Dexter removed his hat and we four shook hands all around thanking each other for a good game. Mars and I wished him good luck in his upcoming competition. Then they got back in the cart and headed up to the practice green for some putting and chipping drills. We followed them on the cart path and went to our car.

Several teenage boys were smoking in the small shed next to the first tee as we all rode by. The heavy pungent aroma of a non-tobacco substance wafted into the carts -- bringing at least two of us back to the real world, which we actually had never left.

(1) A Quiet Place to Harbor

Monday, July 06, 2009

Drugs DO Work - That's Why We Use Them

We are by no means born-again "pray don't spray" gardeners, but we do try to limit our use of chemical solutions to those horticultural problems that can truly be called life and death situations.

Nonetheless, we are drugging two of our trees.

Several years ago our elm tree began throwing bark -- not literally, but the resulting effect was as if it were. Intact chunks of the protective outer sheath of the trunk began appearing on the ground around the base. Most of the pieces lay directly at the foot of the tree but sometimes the thick, gray wedges came to earth as far as ten feet away. It looked as if, like the Incredible Hulk, our gentle elm had suddenly expanded too rapidly for its own good. But it still remained at the same size -- just naked in spots.

My first reaction, as it is frequently, was to do nothing. In medicine this is known as "watchful waiting". In non-medical circles it is called "masterly inactivity", or laziness. There was a time when I would have considered this to be organic gardening. But it is not.

Anyway, after a few weeks it did not get any better and, while the dead bark shards were not quite overflowing my trash bins, they were causing enough cleanup effort to make them difficult to ignore.

The elm provides summertime shade and cooling to our favorite sitting-outside part of the yard. So, with Mars' urging, I called a local arborist with whom we had previously done business. And then I thought, while he was out here he might as well take a look at the flowering crab tree that serves as the hanging place for our small collection of bird/squirrel feeders.

That particular woody perennial had not looked healthy for several years. If not for its utilitarian value as a feeder holder, and the modicum of privacy it provides to our family room, it would long ago have become apple-scented fireplace embers.

I suspect that having an arborist inspect your trees for problems is like driving your ten-year old car into a garage, flashing a wad of cash, and asking if there might just possibly be something somewhere that could use some fixing. But my concern was actually at the other extreme -- that he would take a quick look at both trees, shake his head sadly, grab his industrial sized chain saw, and depart four hours later leaving me with two large piles of sawdust and an even larger bill.

Instead he told us that the flying bark was nothing to worry about -- elms do this all the time for reasons apparently only the trees themselves understand. There were however some diseases floating around to which even a fully clothed elm tree might fall victim and so he recommended a regimen of preventive shots.

I do not remember what ailments he mentioned but when I just Googled "elm tree diseases" I was given Dutch Elm Disease, Elm Leaf Beetle, Verticillium Wilt, Elm Yellows, and my two favorites Cankers and Wetwood -- the names of any of which would have compelled me to have our tree injected.

The formerly flowering crab already had a couple of afflictions, one of which (black spot) I recognized from my experience with roses. I don't recall the other but it wouldn't have made any difference. I was so happy and relieved that we didn't have to euthanise our beloved bird feeder stand that I quickly signed on the dotted line and registered both of the trees for a lifetime of addiction. Soon the base of the crab was decorated with tapped-in, lollypop shaped, IV devices.

They were removed one week later and next month the elm was similarly treated.

The two trees have received these fixes faithfully, and automatically, for the last several years -- until this spring when the tree docs unaccountably forgot.

The elm had long ago given up its striptease act and had never shown any other indications of infirmity. The crab seemed to be holding its own and actually may have begun producing unprecedented amounts of petals. But when Mars and I returned from our mid-May jaunt to North Carolina the faux fruit tree looked worse than our 401K at the depths of the financial meltdown.

I called the arborist and he came out the next day. He apologized so profusely for missing his drug date I became concerned that he might have a Samurai hari-kari sword in his toolbox. He didn't. It was too late to atone for this year's missed performance but he assured us that (a) although the tree looked to be at death's door, it really wasn't and (b) he would shoot it up for sure next annum.

I hope so. I don't think that either tree is really on life-support. But even if they are, we are not willing to say D.N.R.