Monday, October 25, 2010

Rain and Chicken Soup

"Maybe, just once, someone will call me 'Sir' without adding, 'You're making a scene'."
- Homer Simpson

I’m not inclined to the dramatic today. Which is just as well, because nobody has called me Sir/M’am lately. Nor have I been making public spectacles of myself. Not that I remember, anyway. Which might be a clue, but I’ve also been undergoing a bout of cluelessness lately. Anyway, I think I am coming around.

Rain helps. It seems to water my soul after the long dry spell, with its promise of renewal. Rain is pattering down just enough outside to make me want to stay inside and make soup out of yesterday’s roast chicken. I could wax poetic about the rain and/or chicken soup, but I simply can’t compete with the eloquence of Homer Simpson, so you’ll just have to imagine the scene. Misty rain outside, and rich chicken broth inside.

While vegetable simmer in the broth, I clean the bird like my Mom used to do: two bowls, the carcass, a knife. She’d sit and pick the meat off the bones, carefully placing the unadulterated meat in one bowl, cut into bite sizes with the paring knife against her right thumb. The gristle, skin, and bones mostly went into the other bowl. The fun part was what became of the uncertain bits. Those would be popped into her mouth with the crispy skin. If you hung around, she’d pop a bit of chicken in your mouth too.

When Mom ate chicken, the bones would be left looking like they’d been out in the desert a month – they were so clean they were white. Mom died 16 years ago next month. That time of year, the first snow might be falling. I’m a long way from snow, but the gentle raindrops clinging to the pine trees look like snow if I squint.

So, I’ve got winter outdoors, and some very nostalgic smells inside. Which leaves me with a very healthy “mission accomplished” feeling this afternoon. And which leaves me to conclude with another bit of questionable wisdom from Homer: All my life I've had one dream, to achieve my many goals. What Homer said.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Autumn Color

“The forms in which we learn to think of landscape are forms that we have got from painted canvas. Any man can see and understand a picture; it is reserved for the few to separate anything out of the confusion of nature, and see that distinctly and with intelligence.“
Robert Louis Stevens, An Autumn Effect

Today, it’s hard to miss the arrival of a new season. It is coming on strong, bringing grey skies and softer lighting that at first seems to make things look dull and thick compared to the recent of the bright lights and colors of summer.

For those familiar with the almost unbelievably bright colors of autumn in New England, the sparse autumn colors of southern California seem at first dull and miserable in October afternoon lights. The few deciduous trees in my yard, like the struggling purple ornamental plum and the liquid amber trees drop their leaves with little fanfare: they fade from an unenthusiastic yellow to quiet shades of brown, and then one morning they’re gone.

So it rained, and brought a week of cloudy skies and drizzle along with cooler nights, shorter days, and less sunshine. We are beginning the season of mixed blessings. In exchange for the gardener’s relief from hot dry weather, the rains offer not just a relief from the dry heat but protect the exhausted landscape from fires that the wind blowing west. The first heavy rains not only wash off the parched leaves and branches, they clean out the deadfall, particularly from the eucalyptus trees which tend to shed and peel bark beneath their branches so they end up sitting on top of small hills made from their discarded growth. After the first rain, our driveway is covered with leaves and bark that sheds like snakeskin.

But if you can welcome our gentle autumn with subtle almost monochrome colors, there is beauty waiting for those with the a gardener’s intelligence to see. The sky seems bigger than it did in summer when the living earth distracted my glance, and new somber shades of blue and grey are used to make thicker and more ominous-looking clouds. They hurry across the sky, flirting with sunshine in the chill winds.

Then there are the colors of the eucalyptus trees - there are 600-700 different species, native to Australia but naturalized in California for about a hundred years. The eucalyptus tree is not deciduous, instead continually growing and replacing leaves. Also called gum trees, their bark peels and drops and litters the surrounding area that they are often (mistakenly) presumed to be allopathic. They are messy however, particularly when the first rains are vigorous enough to pare dead growth from stem and trunk.

I fondly recall my seasons in the north east US with their pageantry and rich colors. But I now find nothing more reassuring as the gardening year winds down here than the still art of eucalyptus bark painted in the colors of the landscape and as understandable as Steven’ picture of autumn.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

About One Hundred Autumns Ago

"The weather is only a little west of south for one of the last fair days of the year; and the gloom of the yew in the churchyard... which seems the residue of the dark past, has its antiquity full of little smouldering embers of new life again; and so a lazy man has reasons to doubt whether the millennium is worth all this hurry."
Henry Major Tomlinson, An Autumn Morning

I wish I could write like this author. Tomlinson was a veteran of World War I who was coping not only with post-traumatic stress of a war to end all wars, he was still young enough to remember the world that existed before his generation turned into soldiers; the world that was gone forever by the time the survivors returned home. The story begins in the Autumn of 1918. The war is over, but “life is real, life is earnest”.

Here’s how it begins:

“SEPTEMBER 28, 1918. The way to my suburban station and the morning train admonishes me sadly with its stream of season-ticket holders carrying dispatch-cases, and all of them anxious, their resolute pace makes it evident, for work. This morning two aeroplanes were over us in the blue, in mimic combat; they were, of course, getting into trim for the raid to-night, because the barometer is beautifully high and steady. But the people on their way to the 9.30 did not look up at the flight. Life is real, life is earnest. When I doubt that humanity knows what it is doing, I get comfort from watching our local brigadiers and Whitehall ladies on their way these tranquil Autumn mornings to give our planet another good shove towards the millennium. Progress, progress! I hear their feet overtaking me, brisk and resolute, as though a revelation had come to them overnight, and so now they know what to do, undiverted by any doubt…”

Walking on, he turns from the main road into a side street he last walked with his friend who never returned from war. It was “… a street which turns abruptly from my straight road to the station. It goes like a sudden resolution to get out of this daily hurry and excitement. It is a pre-war street. It is an ancient thoroughfare of ours, a rambling and unfrequented by-way. It is more than four years since it was a habit of mine to loiter through it, with a man with whom I shall do no more pleasant idling. We enjoyed its old and ruinous shops and its stalls, where all things could be bought at second-hand, excepting young doves, ferrets, and dogs. I saw it again this morning, and felt, somehow, that it was the first time I had noticed it since the world suddenly changed. Where had it been in the meantime? It was empty this morning, it was still, it was luminous. It might have been waiting, a place that was, for the return of what can never return. Its sunlight was different from the glare in the hurrying road to the station. It was the apparition of a light which has gone out…”

He sees a bookstore he used to visit with his friend. On impulse, he enters the store and sees the same old shopman who was always there. The shopman was pretty old school even before the war: “If you showed no real interest in what you proposed to buy he would refuse to sell it.”

Here is how the story ends:

“I came upon a copy of Walden, in its earliest Camelot dress (price sixpence), and remembered that one who was not there had once said he was looking for it in that edition. I turned to the last page and read: ‘Only that day dawns to which we are awake...’

"I reserved the book for him at once, though knowing I could not give it to him. But what is the good of cold reason? Are we awake in such dawns as we now witness? Or has there been no dawn yet because we are only restless in our sleep? It might be either way, and in such a perplexity reason cannot help us. I thought that perhaps I might now be stirring, on the point of actually rousing. There, in any case, was the evidence of that fugitive spark of the early summer of 1914 still imprisoned in its crystal, proof that the world had experienced a dawn or two. An entirely unreasonable serenity possessed me--perhaps because I was not fully roused--because of the indestructibility of those few voiceless hopes we cherish that seem as fugitive as the glint in the crystal ball, hopes without which our existence would have no meaning, for if we lost them we should know the universe was a witless jest, with nobody to laugh at it.

"'I want this book,' I said to the shopman.

"'I know,' he answered, without looking up. 'I've kept it for you.'"