If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is

FireflyBeen doing an awful lot of gardening lately, followed by an awful lot of twilight wanders through the cool evening air. It’s been a banner year for fireflies, and the sight of them flashing and darting amid the undergrowth never fails to make me clap my hands with delight.

Which startles them, of course. Freezes them into motionless terror, no doubt. But only for a moment.

Because after a moment’s darkness, they come back. They always come back.

The gardening has been a bit of a surprise to me. Oh, I know, I’ve been posting pictures of my so-called “garden” on this blog for years now, almost since the very beginning. But I never really thought of myself as a “gardener” per se.

I thought of myself as somebody who occasionally “threw down” wildflower seeds. Who neglected weeding in the name of “biodiversity.” Who cheered on “invasive species” as merely plants who were finally pulling some weight around here for a change.

In short, I was generally more likely to call my little acre a “yard” rather than a “garden.” I had done nothing, I felt, to earn the distinction.

Well, this year all that has changed.

I spent the last week or so putting about fifty different new plants into my very small yard. Which was followed, naturally, by about one metric OHMYGOD of mulch. And capped off with two brand new, perfectly handmade Adirondack chairs, poised just at the top of a small rise with a view through the trees to the river beyond.

This is an excellent thing.

Fifty different plants, you say? Why, yes. Something like that, at least. I sort of lost count.

Let’s see, there’s now:

  • Woodland Phlox
  • Cardinal flowers
  • Foxgloves (which make me think of Agatha Christie every time)
  • Purple Coneflowers
  • Coreopsis
  • Hostas
  • Russian Sage
  • New England Asters
  • Creeping Thyme
  • Raspberries

…and more varieties of dazzlingly showy day lilies than you’d even believe if I told you.

It was the melange of day lilies that finally did me in. I ordered a little variety pack of about 15 from this fabulous organic day lily farm in Vermont that has all of the most spectacular kinds of day lily that will make you forget all about those ubiquitous orange things on the side of the road. But they apparently take that sort of order and interpret it as a very loose “baker’s dozen,” because when the box arrived I found myself with upwards of 30 different plants.

Oh my god, she exclaimed, opening the cardboard crate which sealed her doom. Oh my stars and garters, that’s a lot of day lilies.

And of course they arrived the very day after I came down with the worst kind of early summer cold. The kind that keeps you in bed for three days, and then keeps you moaning on the couch for the rest of the week.

But I had scads and scads of planting to do, so I gobbled down some Advil and I got down to work, by gum.

And it’s like cleaning your house, apparently. Once you clean one bit, you realize that all you’ve done is throw the rest of the place into such awful, stark relief that you now have to clean the closest adjacent bit, and then the bit closest to that, and so on.

It kind of got completely out of hand, is what I am trying to say.

But now I have two wide, curving arcs of carefully planted day lilies (which look so much like I stuck a bunch of scallions into the ground in a fit of culinary optimism, it’s hilarious) surrounding a wee little enclave of mulch in which sits my two slouchy wooden chairs. Behind me sit the raspberries, which (speaking of fits of optimism) look like they might even bear fruit in their very first year. Ahead of me lie the wildflowers, heathers, and roses which you already know all about.

And when night falls, every single inch of the place becomes a goddamn discotheque for fireflies.

And honey, they are looking for love.

To give them their privacy, and because I needed to stretch my legs after another full day of manic gardening, I went a little further afield than usual in my twilight meanderings this evening, taking the liberty of strolling up and down my quiet little street to see if my neighbors were similarly blessed with fireflies and gardening mania.

Let’s just say I’m far from alone in my afflictions.

As the evening went on and darkness gathered ever closer about me, I tilted my head up to the sky. The fireflies, it seemed, were retreating with the light up into the treetops, flickering and dancing among the waving pine boughs in the gentle summer breeze. As they disappeared, one by one, stars appeared behind them to take their place in the evening sky.

And I said to myself, This, right here? This is pretty great.

And if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

(With thanks to Kurt Vonnegut.)

Thomas Say, Noted 19th Century Hottie

Thomas Say thinks you look smashing

Thomas Say, Noted Hottie

I’ve gone and written another one of my madcap historical essays over on Wonders & Marvels, this time ostensibly on the early American natural scientist Thomas Say and his trip down the Ohio River on the famous “Boatload of Knowledge” to found a utopian settlement with the best scientists of his generation.

Apparently, Say is most well-remembered these days for having a particularly handsome portrait in the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

And while I’m certainly the last person to dispute anyone’s right to come at history with an eye toward its more aesthetically pleasing representatives, I’d actually suggest that Thomas Say’s story has a fair bit more to recommend it than just a fine pair of eyes.

While Thomas Say’s latter-day designation as a 19th century hottie may be what catches the eye, the man’s actual career is fascinating enough in its own right. Already a successful and highly respected natural scientist by the age of 25, Say was a founding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He formed lasting friendships with many of the most respected and prolific scientists of the day, each of whom it seems can lay claim to being the “Father of American” this or that. Auspicious company, indeed.

And it was in some of this auspicious company that Say travelled to Indiana in 1826 on the delightfully named “Boatload of Knowledge,” a gang of top scientists headed for the utopian community of New Harmony that was then in its heyday of attracting the best minds of the young republic.

The heyday didn’t last long, as is so often the way with utopian societies. But Thomas met his future wife, Lucy Sistare, on the Boatload of Knowledge. Lucy was herself a gifted illustrator of the natural sciences, and would in fact go on to be the first woman elected to the Academy of Natural Sciences. Her own thoughts on her husband’s relative attractiveness have not been recorded, though perhaps they can be reliably inferred.

The Boatload of Knowledge was actually a fascinating episode in history. I think it has all of the makings of a swashbuckling tale of adventure and romance. These wayfaring scientists were trapped in ice, threatened by attack, locked in endless nights of heated debate, and, in at least one instance, scared out of their daylights by the violence of a midwestern thunderstorm. In between adventures, they played whist.

Also, I’ve included a picture of Paul Tillich, jumping. Trust me, there’s a connection.

Read A Boatload of Knowledge on Wonders & Marvels.


Brainy is the New Sexy

The second season of Sherlock started airing on PBS tonight, which means that I can expect all of the friends I’ve been mercilessly hounding to watch that show to start calling me and telling me I was right, it’s wonderful, and they should always, always, always listen to what I say.

What? It could happen.

It isn’t even so much that I need to be acknowledged as right (though of course that’s a teensy, eensy part of it), but more that it’s always so much more fun to enjoy the truly quality obsessions of life in the company — albeit virtual company — of others.

I mean, that’s pretty much why God invented Tumblr, am I right?

What’s so insanely great about Sherlock (and you must understand that I am talking about the BBC Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch now) is that it assumes that you are bright enough to follow along.

Seriously. It assumes you are smart.

It’s kind of pathetic that this should come as a new sensation to us television viewers here in the states, but let’s face it. It’s a compliment we’re not often paid. And Sherlock flatters us, my friends, flatters us at every turn.

It’s frankly kind of thrilling, if you want to know the truth.

An optional and entirely parallel series of thrills can be had if you’re at all familiar with the Sherlock Holmes canon (by which you must understand I mean the original works by Conan Doyle, as well as various of the more esteemed adaptations). It’s not in any way essential to the full enjoyment of each episode that you get all of the adorable little in-jokes and references and easter eggs that the writers and set designers have strewn throughout the new series.

But if you’re a Sherlock geek, then you’ll get them. And you will more than likely flip right the heck out.

Which is all we ever really want out of our favorite adaptations of our most cherished written works, isn’t it?

It’s not just the thrill of recognition, of seeing your best loved characters spring into new life on the screen. Although that helps.

It’s not just the new spin that different writers, different actors, and even different fandoms will put on your beloved work of fiction. Although that, too, is awesome.

It’s the sudden and startling sense of community that you get when you realize you’re not the only one, not by a long shot, for whom this stuff matters. Matters deeply.

And I ain’t even ashamed.

I’ll admit right now that I was late to the Sherlock game. I only discovered the genius of the original books after I’d accidentally stumbled across the Granada series, in reruns, on PBS, about seven years ago. From the first clip-clop of horses’ hooves in the sepia-toned opening credits, to the wistful little smile Holmes gives at the end, I fell completely, head-over-heels in love.

Jeremy Brett’s Holmes is just perfect, spot-on, unbelievably good. And when I started borrowing the original books from the library, I started noticing how often the series even tried to recreate the original series illustrations, too. They didn’t make a big deal of it, but if you know what scenes are depicted so memorably in those original sketches, then certain scenes in the tv series just leap out at you. Like a mugger. A mugger who is wearing your favorite sweatshirt from high school.

You’re startled, but nostalgic at the same time. And you’re not entirely sure why.

So seven years ago was when I first established my by now well known pattern of recording the whatever episodes of period drama were on offer via the local PBS station, waiting until I knew I reliably had the house to myself, and settling in for a mad little spree. A little Thai food take-out, some Earl Grey tea, and two or three episodes of Sherlock, and I was all set.

And yes, if you had talked to ten-years-ago-me and asked her what she considered a mad little spree to consist of, she would have given you a very different answer.

I prefer now-me, to be perfectly honest. And trust me, so do you.

So I imagine that’s what I’ll do at some point this week, too. I’ll wait, having duly recorded tonight’s new episode (which of course I have already seen but we don’t need to discuss that now), and isolate some evening when I am alone and in need of Thai food and London and a script that assumes, just takes for granted without even considering the alternative, that I’ll be able to keep up.

And I will soak up that flattery like a sponge.

Real Snow, Our Snow

real snow, our snowThere’s a passage in The Great Gatsby that I want to talk to you about.

Well, there’s a ton of them, frankly. But this one in particular.

Gatsby is a book filled to bursting with phrases and images that make your heart stop, that force you to pause, close your eyes, and breathe for a few seconds before you can carry on with the story. Bits and pieces of prose that are wondrous in their perfection.

And lots of the people I’ve talked to about it tell me about how it’s a book about extravagance, about the excesses of the Jazz Age, about the inevitable fall from grace of a wild, reckless generation.

Other, equally thoughtful readers point out its insistence on the tragic importance of first love, of dreams, fantasies, and grasping after something ideal and impossible.

And before I reread it last Thursday night, I might have agreed with them all.

But I had forgotten this one bit, towards the end, that crystallizes for me what the whole, remarkable story is really all about. At least, for me. Right now.

One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gaieties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-That’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’? and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner though the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

For me, Gatsby’s not about a girl, or about a mysterious, vaguely sinister parvenu who dreams of possessing her. It’s not even about the incredible carelessness of the rich, those charming creatures who are able to retreat into their money and let other people clean up their messes.

Of course it is about those things. It’s a book that is about a lot of important things, which is why it’s been considered the epitome of the great American novel by so many, and for so long.

So like any great work, it calls out in each reader something important about themselves. Something that they knew about their own hearts, but hadn’t quite yet been able to articulate. Or even understand.

I read that passage and I realized that that sense of belonging to a particular place, of having an origin and a sense of home in a place that the world doesn’t credit much, is really what I’m trying to get at in a lot of my writing. It’s why so many of my own stories are set in the past, occasionally in my past, taking as their theme some meaningless event in my youth or in the overlooked and obscure history of my own personal real or imagined half-acre of this world.

It’s why so many of my posts begin, or could begin, with some variation on the words, In my younger and more vulnerable years…

And yeah, part of it is because we’re all of us, inevitably, borne ceaselessly into the past.

But part of it also is that there’s real meaning to be found there, that the forms and patterns of the past — our own personal pasts and the wider historical canvas — give form and pattern to our lives today.

Because everybody knows what the home of their childhood smells like, what unique blend of scent and association will greet them with either delight or dismay when they first roll down the car window back in their old hometown. That the snow that falls in whatever glittering city or grungy town they now call home is somehow different than the snow they grew up with. That this snow is indescribably less than the Platonic ideal of snow, which is only to be found within a certain set of county lines.

For those of you who grew up outside of the frozen north, I have no doubts that there is an equivalent. The shape of the trees. The shadow of the leaves. Even the rain falls differently in your own home town.

And I realize that I am an outlier. That most people don’t set out for college and then professional life, only to return home after little more than a decade. A decade of both successes and failures, but one that cascaded in increasing insistence on the wrongness of the snow in that other town in which we lived, and on the limited number of winters we would be granted to raise our heads to the sky and let the right kind of snowflakes dissolve silently on our lips.

But I did come back, and I found myself waiting for me here. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s unnerving to come back to your old hometown and realize that earlier versions of you are lurking around every corner, waiting breathlessly behind each bush, ready to ambush you with all the old stories that you’d thought you’d left behind.

Like Easter eggs, I pick them up and put them in my basket.

I know I will leave some behind. Some will remain too well hidden, or will be stolen by birds.

But on the whole, this has been the most rewarding experience of my life. Coming home. Finding myself in curious corners. Crooning softly to younger versions of me who have lain crouching, hidden, neglected and ashamed while I went off to my own West Egg and ran with the fast crowd.

I read that passage and realized that’s what I’ve been doing. And then finally, a part of me that has been struggling hard with what kind of writing I really want to do in this world relaxed.

Flexed its fingers. Nodded. And got back to work.


Image by Chicago Rail Head