Friday, May 25, 2012

Is the Gnat Line Moving North?

This has been a strange spring in Nashville, Tennessee. March was as warm as June, April as cool as October. Crape Myrtles are blooming a month early, and two days ago I found a patch of blooming Wild Blue Ageratum along the road in Edwin Warner Park. This wildflower usually blossoms in September.

And stranger still, two gnats bit me last week as I was minding my own business on my porch. I have lived 30 years in this city, and have never been bitten by gnats here. Mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, horseflies, deer flies- I have been chased by all of them.
When I lived in New Hampshire black flies attacked from Memorial Day through the Fourth. What freedom to live in Nashville, where gnats might circle, but never bite.

Anyone who has spent time on the Gulf Coast or on the Golden Isles of Georgia knows about the Gnat Line. Try watching a sunset from deck chairs out on your marsh side or bay side pier. Take the wooden board walk to the river in the Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge. Misery will come out of nowhere. This is not something the rental companies and tourists' boards like to mention- A few hours spent below the Gnat Line seeing 12 foot alligators, stepping on sand burs, flushing Eastern Diamond Back rattlers from their hiding places under the saw palmettos ,all the while being pursued by these aerial devils, gives one respect for the Spanish explorers, and the Amerindians who lived here.

Remember that alligators live in the Tennessee River near Decatur, that armadillos are on the march through Tennessee. Any day now I may go to the park and see Spanish Moss hanging off a cedar tree. The Deep South is moving north.

Will the gnats be far behind? Or are they already here?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

America's Nightingales

The European nightingale was a bird for both poet and playwright. A late song heard in the darkness. Before we banished night, people walked out of an evening. They courted and watched the stars. Walked home to the village through darkening fields and celebrated the Mid Summer revels under the moon.

"Philomel, with melody,
sing in our sweet lullaby-"

So wrote Shakespeare in "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Philomel, the nightingale, sang for Romeo and Juliet, and for John Keats:

"Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:"

The nightingale, once thought to belong to the Thrush family, is now classed as a flycatcher. Ironic, since the most melodious and mysterious bird song in North America comes from the thrushes: the Hermit Thrush, the Veery, the Wood Thrush, and the Swainson's Thrush. In Middle Tennessee the Wood Thrush spends the summer, the Hermit spends the winter soundlessly, and the others just pass through. They sing very early, and very late, though I have never heard them sing at night. Robert Frost describes their dusk music best:

"Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went-
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament".

In the evening, if the traffic on Old Hickory Boulevard is not too heavy, I can hear the Wood Thrush from my porch. "E Oh Lay", he sings along with assorted whistles and trills. His song, though pensive, is not a lament to my ear. There is more sadness in the call of the White-throated Sparrow, calling the name of "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" , as he scratches for southern food before his spring trek back to the North Country and its wistful, short summers.

But here in the South, we do have some night singers. Downtown the Nighthawks cruise over tall buildings looking for insects dazzled by the city lights. In Gulf Shores, Alabama, the Chuck Will's Widow cries out across the sloughs to the alligators and the diamond back rattlesnakes hiding in the tussocks of the Saw Palmettos.

And for years at night I worked in an Intensive Care Unit of a suburban hospital here in town. There was a large hack-berry tree outside the second story window and in it, a mockingbird who cared not who was coming, going, or dying inside. His song was cheerful at all hours, and in all weathers.

* The photo is of a Wood Thrush. I borrowed it from Wikipedia.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

California Dreaming- A Book Mention

What is better on a rainy afternoon, after one has worked one night shift and is facing another after only 3 hours of sleep,than to sit down with a novel picked up at the library on a whim, and to find one has happened upon a book that is alive and breathing.

I brought home two novels last week. About one I will only say that it is a story about 1930s Manhattan written by a Yalie who works in an investment bank in New York City. The author dispensed with quotation marks, which I found strange in light of the amount of dialogue he used. Perhaps this device would have worked better in a more contemporary story. A story perhaps about your money, and what people too good for the rules of usage have done to it at a place such as J.P. Morgan.

This book did not keep me, not after two chapters. I can abandon books at will, since no one is paying me to review them, and I can get away with saying they just did not interest me.

The second novel is a California story, and that is one of my favorite kinds. "The Barbarian Nurseries", by Hector Tobar, a columnist for the LA Times, is a novel about thwarted dreamers who squander what they have, have no idea what they need, and who may or may not find it in the end. Let us remember what Joan Didion wrote in her "Notes from A Native Daughter", in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"-

"-California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension;in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent".

And it is on this end edge where Scott Torres and his wife Maureen live with their three children and their last household Mexican, their maid Areceli. The money bubble the Torres family has drifted on has broken, as has the Dot Com company from whence the good life came. No more money for the gardener or the children's nanny. No more money for dream landscaping with cacti and "non-threatening succulents". Or for expense account lunches which will be ruined by overdrawn accounts.

I can share no more story now, since I have just started Part 2. But how often does one wish one could just stay home and read a book one has been so lucky to find? I would take it in to work to read on my break, except that I work in a prison, where even reading the Bible or the latest" Southern Living" is forbidden-

"Too Many Words"

I am sorry I discovered the Google "stats" function on my site. I think I would be happier not knowing how many people are reading what I write. I would not be as dismayed. And something I read today as I searched around made me even sadder.

"People get discouraged when they have to read too many words" said the author of this entry about "Why No One is Reading Your Blog". Of course one's posts may be boring. They may be poorly written. They may be, God Forbid, old fashioned in their emphasis on words and in their subjects.

There are millions of blogs now, and Twitter, and Facebook. When someone finds my blog I think "There are 150 million blogs out there, and you had to stumble onto mine!"

Perhaps there are limitations to what a blog can be and do-

Saturday, May 12, 2012

An Easy Crawfish Pie

This was so good I even ate it for breakfast. And I do not feel guilty that the crust was commercial rolled dough from a box in the refrigerator case. Making the filling takes under an hour and baking is around 15 to 20 minutes.

1 box rolled pastry-pie dough. Box contains 2 sheets.

1 lb frozen crawfish tails

1 green bell pepper,diced

8 oz good quality tomato sauce

1 yellow onion, diced and sauteed in butter till golden (20 minutes).Season with a little sea salt to taste, and to sweat onions.

2 heaping tbs remoulade sauce

3/4 stick of butter

2 tbs flour

Creole seasoning-1 tsp. More to taste. I use Tony Chachere's.

Saute the diced onion in half the butter till it is golden. Then add the diced pepper and saute another 10 minutes
Put the onions and the peppers in a large saucepan, then add the thawed crawfish, the tomato sauce, the remoulade sauce, the remaining butter, and season to taste with the Creole seasoning. Cook on medium heat 20 minutes. Then sprinkle in the flour and mix well. Sprinkling keeps the flour from sticking and making lumps. Cook another 10 minutes then take from heat and cool.

Following package directions, line a 9 inch round pie pan with one sheet of pastry. Remember to prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Add the filling, then place the second sheet of pastry over the top. Take a small knife and make some 1/2 slits in the dough.

Crimp the pastry edges, then bake at 425 for 15-20 minutes until the crust is golden. This should serve 4-6.

* A more tradition filling would use celery, but I do not care for celery and rarely use it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Emmeline Grangerford-The First Goth

Whenever I need to reverse a mood of curmudgeonliness , I find something funny to read, and there is nothing funnier to read than Huckleberry Finn's descriptions of Emmeline Grangerford, dead daughter of Colonel Grangerford in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn".

Emmeline was a dark haired ,funereal girl preoccupied with the dead and the dying. When anyone in her town was ,as we say here in the South, "fixin to die", Huck says that"it was the doctor first,then Emmeline,then the undertaker"-

Emmeline inflicted her poetry, which she called "tributes" on the grieving families, and she kept a scrap book that was her ode to Death. She even wrote poetry for dead birds, and she drew pictures of the avian deceased, which lay feet up in her hands. Below the picture she wrote"I shall never hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas".

Huck Finn admitted that her poetry and her drawings gave him "the fan-tods", a word we should revive immediately to replace all the worn out, useless ones we have beaten to death. Instead of telling our doctor we think we are bi-polar, we should tell him we have a case of the fan-tods. Let's find out what pill Merck can invent to cure that.

No doubt today Emmeline would be alive in Therapy, or worse ,for an Obsessive disorder, but her spirit was exhausted after only 15 years on Earth. As Huck says"But I reckoned with her disposition, she was having a better time in the graveyard".

Huck recites one of her poems about poor Stephen Dowling Bots, who fell down a well and "drownded". I will include two of the stanzas.

"No whooping cough did rack his frame
No measles drear with spots;
Not these impaired the sacred name
Of Stephen Dowling Bots".

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots".

I reckon, as Huck would say, that when Death came for Emmeline, the Reaper was laughing.

Humanity's Fifth Age- The Screen Age

I cannot begin this little meditation by writing that "Every school child knows" that Human History progressed from Stone, to Copper, to Bronze, and then to Iron Age. American school children do not know, and have not for decades. I have heard of children who do not know that Winter comes after Fall, who do not know what continent they live on. They will not be reading this, and so will not know that we are living in the Screen Age, though it surrounds them daily and keeps their fingers busy.

I read once that young men, influenced by the omnipresent perfection of women on TV and in films, have trouble accepting the flaws that every real female is heir to. They do not think that cameras lie.

And now that we broadcast ourselves daily onto our own reality show,we think the world is more interested in us than it is, we think we are more interesting than we are. We pull out our camera phone, our computer pad(that is if we ever put them away) and record every banal moment of our lives. There is always something to update, to check on, to buy, to dream very little dreams about.

Picture a break room in a modern hospital where the nurses gather for midnight supper. The TV is on, and when the diners are not thumbing messages through space to whomever, they watch scattered moments from "Storage Wars". No one opens their mouth. They talk with their fingers, in blurted nothings in under 140 characters to people not in the room. Or maybe they are . Perhaps they are texting the nurse beside them. Talking, thinking, and caring at the same time is such hard work-

I read a story in the New York Times that talked about how distracted even doctors are now. They check Facebook while doing neurosurgery. Acting as though there was no one else important in the operating room.

The poet W.H. Auden called the 20th Century the Age of Anxiety.( We all know no one has anxiety anymore. It is being stamped out pill by pill). But the 21st Century, at least the first twelve years of it, is not only the Screen Age, it is also the Age of Distraction. How happy this must make those planning our dystopic and numb future. People believe anything they see on a screen. Perhaps by 2030 we will have reached the Zombie Age , when all we see are images sent to our brains through chips implanted behind our eyeballs.

I am happy I will not live to see it-

Monday, May 7, 2012

Old Roses Just Fade Away

This rose grows just outside one of the Ranger Stations at Radnor Lake State Park. It is an old fashioned rose, and from the looks of it, a one time bloomer. I am sure no one remembers its name. On a May morning it is a cheerful sight, but when one looks too closely,one sees the mildew on new canes. By summer's end it will have more mildew, and fewer leaves.

I once grew one hundred and fifty kinds of roses in my Nashville garden. I had them all. The Floribundas, the Chinas,
The Hybrid Teas. I had five foot by five foot once blooming antique roses. Species Roses. David Austin's roses. They were resplendent in May until the humidity and the rains left their buds brown and ruined. They were not good garden plants, and by September I regretted them. Japanese beetles attacked them. Black spot denuded them. Every year, as the shade deepened and the sunny spots disappeared I had to cull them. Even then it was surprising how some of the very old varieties- Rosa Gallica and Tuscany Suberb- which I bought at a plant sale at Rachel Jackson's garden at The Hermitage, persisted and rooted themselves in unlikely places.

One can drive out to Fairview, Tennessee in May and see other varieties that have persisted and gone wild. The old pink "Dorothy Perkins" lives on the sunny hills and roadsides of State Route 100. They take care of themselves, and spread by root and cane. Yet they are disease ridden, but they thrive in spite of it.

Twenty years ago one could drive around this city and see the red rose "Blaze" winding over fences. There might be a "New Dawn" on the side of a house climbing for the shingles. I do not see these anymore, for they have been replaced by the "Knockout" roses which are as at home in the hell strip in a Walmart parking lot as they are in private gardens. By the looks of it, no one plants any rose but "Knockout" now.

"Oh Rose, thou art sick", wrote William Blake, who blamed an "invisible worm that flies in the night". That worm has no taste for the Knockouts, which look the same in October as they do in May. Who can blame people who want Big Color for buying them? I have read they are the best selling garden plant in this country.

Yet they have one flaw. They make every yard and garden look the same, and had I a garden again I would not plant them. I can see as many as I want to on the median strip. And I would fill my garden instead with Crape Myrtles. 10 foot bushes and dwarfs. 20 foot trees. All floating in the early morning mists of humid Tennessee, and surpassing the Knockouts for beauty. They are one of the South's Soul plants, just like the gardenias and camellias Nashvillians wish they could coax through the winter.

And the Knockouts do have a second flaw. No fragrance. A disappointment in any rose.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Memo to the History Channel

Here is my idea for the History Channel. Shelve "Pawn Stars" and even my beloved "American Pickers" temporarily, and declare "History Week".

Begin with an epic account of World War II and I am not talking about the movies "Pearl Harbor", or "Tora! Tora! Tora!.
Open whatever vault you need to and show the entire "Victory at Sea". Several new generations, who think the Iraq war is ancient history, need to see it. First shown on NBC in the last century, it has drama, and mystery, and action, and music by Richard Rodgers. What is more suspenseful than the hunt for the German pocket battleship Graf Spee off the coast of South America? It is all there, in "Beneath the Southern Cross". Take us to Mandalay, to the Coral Sea, to The Slot, and The Solomon Islands and to Burma-

And how about the old PBS series"Vietnam"? Maybe Public TV would send it out on loan- And ask them about Ken Burn's "Civil War", while you are negotiating. Remember you are a media giant! And PBS? Well, they are PBS.

Show the 1995 movie "Gettysburg". It has disappeared off TBS for some reason, and it needs to be shown again. It is worth watching just for Jeff Daniels as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, and Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee.

By all means do not skip historical fiction. Show "Lonesome Dove", and in a lighter, sillier mood, resurrect "The Final Countdown", one of my favorites. It has the carrier "Nimitz" going through a time warp on the eve of Pearl Harbor just in time to change history-

If the Discovery Channel can give Great White Sharks a week, surely the History Channel can put their lumberjacks and bulldozer auctions on hold for 7 days, and give us some- HISTORY!

Found On My Door Step

Living in an apartment block makes for interesting times at month's end . In come the U-Hauls and the moving vans, and when they are loaded, objects not dear enough to take, but too good to throw away are left outside the dumpster. Yesterday, driving out to take the hounds for a walk, I saw two television sets, an ironing board, a big microwave, and a steam kettle. I hope they found homes.

Two nights ago someone knocked at my door. When I opened it I saw two little girls running away up the stairs. They were laughing, and I thought it an obnoxious prank until I saw that they were only telling me, in their noisy way, that I had a gift from someone who was leaving.

It was a handsome three foot tall clump of Sanseveria in a nice black pot. And it sits well on my porch, which I have patched together in the style of " Frida Kahlo goes to Cuba by way of Savannah".

I am going to Radnor Lake this morning to go on a bird walk with the Nashville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. I am taking the camera in hopes of seeing some basking water snakes or some of the 3 foot in circumference alligator snapping turtles. If I find them I will post pictures-

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

French Toast with Tropical Flavors

This was my May Day Breakfast. And as I ate it at 4:30 this morning on my darkened porch, I pictured it as a breakfast that Emile De Becque might have had his cook prepare for Ensign Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific". Bread saturated with a sweet orange cream base, fried in butter, and drizzled with a chocolate, almond and coconut syrup. Exotic, and not for everyday.

To serve two:

4 slices good quality white bread, not thin sliced.
2 eggs
2 Tbs Dolce de Leche or sweetened condensed milk
The juice of two oranges
1/4 cup half and half

Whisk the above until well-blended. Then dip the bread slices into the mixture, letting them become saturated in it. Then pan fry them in a buttered skillet until they are brown-golden on each side.

For the syrup:

1/4 cup chocolate syrup
2 tbs sweetened grated coconut
1 tbs almond syrup

Whisk the syrups and the coconut together, then drizzle over the French Toast.

You can find Almond syrup at any Middle Eastern or ethnic market. Failing that, it can be ordered on line.