Thursday, April 19, 2012

Arbor Day/Earth Day

Cross posted at my other blog.

Upcoming this Sunday, April 22: Earth Day which also coincides with one of the original dates of Arbor Day.

Earth Day is a fairly new holiday. Earth Day was first proclaimed on March 21, the Spring Equinox in San Francisco in 1970. Doesn't that seem perfect? The spring after the Summer of Love. Just a few weeks later, also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an Environmental Teach-in (modeled after the Vietnam war sit-ins) on April 22, which had been celebrated for many years as Arbor Day.

Arbor Day is almost one hundred years older than Earth Day, but still young for a holiday. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, declared April 10 a day for planting trees (according to this history compiled by the Arbor Day Foundation). In 1885, it was declared a legal holiday in the State of Nebraska and moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. It was adopted as a holiday by other states but the date has varied, depending on when tree planting is ideal. It is now usually celebrated on the last Friday in April but it seems to have fallen out of favor as Earth Day has gained popularity.

Although Arbor Day and Earth Day are relatively new holidays, they align with many older traditions. There are many ancient April festivals which honor the goddess as garden guardian (Venus Verticordia on April 1) and Earth mother (Megalisa on April 3, Cerealia on April 13, and Fordicalia on April 15). April is also the month of St. George (his feast day is April 23), the dragon slaying saint. For centuries, the celebrations in honor of St. George have associations with verdant nature. The very name George means farmer.

In Carinthia and Transylvania, a birch tree or willow tree, decked with flowers, is called Green George. Sometimes a boy is dressed up in branches, leaves and flowers. Albanians slaughter a lamb on this day and smear blood on sills (recalling the Jewish holiday of Passover) to protect them from evil. Before an icon of St George, they pray: "Holy St George, this year thou hast sent me this lamb, next year, I beseech you, send me a larger one." People go on picnics and weigh themselves holding sprigs of green. St George or Mari Ghergis is the most popular saint in Egypt where he is associated with El Khider, the green man, who appears to travelers who are lost or in despair.

Mrs Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach) celebrates Earth Day by doing an inventory garden tools and supplies. She makes presents of gardening gloves and other accessories. Each of her children has a tree, and on this day they clean around their own tree and tie a ribbon on the trunk to honor it.

On the very first Arbor Day, more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska. Planting a tree can still be a great way to celebrate.

Or you can simply admire trees. Go on a tree walk like the one I took two weeks ago at the University of Washington with our local plant and tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.
I was delighted when we entered the quad which is famous for its flowering cherry trees and found it thronged with people. Students were lounging on the lawns. Japanese families were taking photos of their young ones under the trees. The profusion of pink flowers seemed like an ample reason for celebration.

If you don’t have a knowledgeable guide, the Arbor Day Foundation provides this useful key which will help you identify trees.

In honor of Earth Day, experiment with eating only local food. Determine what foods are available within 250 miles of your home and create meals based on those foods. Find out where your eggs come from. Visit a local farm. Stop at a roadside stand. Invite your friends for a feast or a potluck to celebrate local foods.

Al Khidr web site (source of picture)

Arbor Day Foundation web site
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp's Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Maria Leach, editor, Harper and Row 1984
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Morrow, Susan Brind, The Names of Things, Riverhead 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman's Press 1937
Wikipedia article on Earth Day

Friday, July 08, 2011

Book Review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

The most soothing book I’ve ever read. It moves at a snail’s pace. Small in size, lyrical in language, precise in observation, delicate in articulation.

The author, Elizabeth Tova Bailey, is bedridden due to a mysterious auto-immune disease. A friend bringers her a flowerpot containing a wild violet from the nearby woods, and along with the plant, a snail. Bailey watches the snail and becomes fascinated by its journeys. Up and down the pot to sip the water that collects in the saucer. She figures out what to feed it (in the most dramatic moments of the book, the snail gluts on cornmeal and almost dies) and eventually moves it to a terrarium (a refurbished aquarium) where it settles in a lays eggs. The snail is mostly silent, although in the night, Bailey sometimes hears the tiny rasping sound of it eating. Bailey begins reading about snails and as she expands her knowledge of her quiet companion, her world begins to expand. By the end of the book she has recovered enough to move home and the snail and all 138 baby snails have been released in the woods from which the snail came.

But the true magic of this book is not that the snail healed the woman or that the woman recovered, but rather that loving attention to the smallest creature can open up a world of marvels. I felt refreshed after reading this book (which I read at an un-snail-like pace straight through in two hours) and also as if life had simultaneously slowed down and expanded.

Favorite Quote:

Inches from my bed and from each other stood the terrarium and a clock. While life in the terrarium flourished, time ticked away its seconds. But the relationship between time and the snail confused me. The snail would make its way through the terrarium while the hand of the clock barely moved—so I often thought the snail traveled faster than time. Then, absorbed in snail watching, I‘d find that time had flown by, unnoticed.

If you would like to hear a wild snail eating, Elizabeth Tova Bailey published a mp3 recording done by Lang Elliott and Marla Coppolino at her web site.

You can also watch a slide slow which includes video of the snail in the terrarium.

I also published this review at Goodreads and on my web site.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

My Happiness Project

I’m in the middle of reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. In fact, I’m in July. I thought the book sounded annoying: too chipper, too cheerful, too prescriptive. And at times, it can be all of those things. But, for the most part, I find it charming, informative, inspiring.

Rubin notice one day that although she was reasonably happy with her life—and her husband, her two young daughters, her work as a writer—she always had a nagging feeling she should be happier. So she created the Happiness Project. She assigned themes to each month (of course, this made me happy, because this is what I did in My Year in Flowers book). Her twelve themes for the year were:

January: Vitality
February: Marriage
March: Work
April: Parenthood
May: Leisure
June: Friendship
July: Money
August: Eternity
September: Books
October: Mindfulness
November: Attitude
December Happiness

She spent each month reading about the topic and applying certain principles she distilled from her reading to her own life, for example, during the month of July (Money) she worked with these concepts: Indulge in a Modest Splurge, Buy Needful Things, Spend Out, and Give Something Up.

Naturally I was enchanted by this idea. I love putting things in boxes (hence my fascination with planners) and, in fact, I was contemplating posting a monthly theme on my web site. So I decided to create my own Happiness Project and these are the themes I chose (carefully chosen to be seasonal, naturally):

January: Serenity
February: Relationship
March: Health
April: Clarity
May: Beauty
June: Play
July: Creativity
August: Spaciousness
September: Mystery
October: Work
November: Legacy
December: Gift-Giving

I’m still tinkering with these. I stole some from Rubin. Others are my theme words for 2011. I’m already sad I missed some (Play!) but they’ll come around again next year (my Happiness Year apparently starts in July).

Right now I’m having a great time figuring out what to do during the month of Creativity. My principles so far are Borrow Creativity (a trip to a museum or attending a concert). Go on an Artist Date (I’m planning a trip to my local art supply store, perhaps a perfume store too!). Try Something New: I’m thinking of trying a different artistic medium each week, but am having a hard time figuring out what besides my two favorites (outside of writing): photography and collage. Attend Art Events: Luckily I am already attending the opening of the Long Shot photo exhibit at Photo Center Northwest on July 23 (I’ll have a photo in the exhibit! As will everyone who participated). I also found some great events sponsored by the Henry Art Gallery: a workshop on art books (maybe I’ll be inspired to make one) and a talk on the future of book stores by one of the people who is reshaping publishing, Matthew Stadler.

My assignment is already reshaping the way I approach my life. I spent a couple of happy hours this morning looking at various visual artist’s sites and found all sorts of cool projects that parallel my own, like the Long Walk a project by artist Susan Robb and this article on Hamish Fulton who makes art resulting from the experience of individual walks, which also led me to an article on How To Get Lost in a City, by about Amira Hanafi, who produces art from walks she takes. I have no idea what a situationist derive is but I think I should learn. (Actually I just found out by visiting Wikipedia: it's a drifting, unplanned walk taken to absorb the ambiance of the city and go in the direction of what appeals.)

Come to think of it, this will be my fourth art form: a walk. Which is really at the heart of My Year in Flowers book so it all comes around in a neat circle, like the seasons.

All the photos are mine. Took the shadow on the sidewalk during the Long Shot (a 24 hours fund-raising event sponsored by Photo Center Northwest) and I took the night photo one evening coming home on the bus when I was bored because I didn't have a book to read.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Flower Art for Corpus Christi

Thursday, June 23 is Corpus Christi, a Catholic holiday that arrived on the Church calendar fairly late ((the 13th century), a holiday devoted to the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament. It is often celebrated with a procession in which the priest carries the blessed Host (which represents the Body of Christ). I remember it from my Catholic childhood as the most golden of holidays, with the priest wearing gold vestments, and walking under a gilt-fringed canopy, holding aloft the gold vessel containing the host, flanked by altar boys swinging glittering thuribles emitting the smoke of frankincense.

The most amazing celebrations of this holiday have evolved in Spain and Italy where people create carpets of flowers over which the procession can pass. I wrote about this in 2007 in my blog when I discovered some fabulous flower art in my neighborhood.

A few months ago, I happened upon a form of flower art that is even more simple but in some ways more poignant. I was on my way to the University of Washington when I spotted this flower, poised on top of a concrete pole, obviously carefully placed there. I was so surprised and moved, I took a photo. Then a few steps further on, I found another camellia tucked into the corner of a re-paving project.

So I challenge you to create some flower art of your own on Corpus Christi. Find a flower, and arrange it where someone else will find and enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Driving Kindness

Lately I’ve been thinking about driving more kindly. It doesn’t come naturally.

I have a lot of friends who are angry drivers. I hate riding with them. They yell at other drivers as they drive. “What do you think you are doing?” Or make impatient noises indicating their disgust. Or tailgate slow drivers to try to make them uncomfortable. Or complain about how poorly everyone else is driving.

I used to feel a bit superior because I don’t do this. But the other day as I was driving home, I realized how judgmental I am. I may not be yelling or tsking or tail-gating but I’m still thinking those things. “Could you move a littler faster?” “What do you think you’re doing?” “You really think I’m going to let you cut into this lane just because you were too impatient to wait with the rest of us?”

I decided to try driving with loving-kindness. If I drove with loving-kindness, when I’m behind a slow driver, I would simply slow down, keep a respectful distance and think, “Hmm, maybe I need to be reminded to slow down,” or “Maybe they are looking for an address. I hope they find it.” If I drove with loving kindness, when someone tries to sneak into my lane, I’d think, “I bet they didn’t know they had to be in this lane,” and let them in. If I drove with loving-kindness and someone else tail-gated me, I’d say, “Oh, do you want to go by? I’ll move aside.” When I came to an intersection where it was confusing as to who should go first, I would not decide when to go by what is right (“I was here first”) or logic “(Well, he’s waiting for a pedestrian, so I should go.”) No, I would take my turn in the way I assume would make everyone else the happiest.

I have tried to put this into action. I don’t drive that often (maybe once or twice a week) so I haven’t had much practice. I have to tell you it is extremely difficult (at least for me) but it turns driving into a totally different experience.

That cute yellow car is my three year old Ford Focus: Sunny.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Scent of Spring 2011

The first day I smelled the scent of spring in 2011 was Monday, January 10.

In the past I've always associated it with an unusually warm and sunny winter day but Monday it was snowing in Seattle: soft, clumpy flakes drifting down from the sky on and off all day long, leaving a frosting of white on the grass and car windows.

Still when I left work in the afternoon, there was that piercing sweet scent that I immediately identified as sweet box (sarcococcus humilis, I believe, though I am a little confused by my sarococcus species).

The scent is hard to describe but almost everyone describes it as piercing. For instance, I found this blog post by Barbara Wilde who gardens in Paris and found it wafting out of Parc Monceau. She describes it as powerful and piercingly sweet.

Another common description, and one I have used in the past, is the sensation of being stopped in your tracks, as described by Sue Taylor in an article at Dave’s Garden. She compares the scent to honey.

This year my first thought was of violets. Mary Robson at Muck About describes the fragrance as vanilla and honey. She brings in branches in November and “forces’ them to bloom indoors.

I have tried this myself as a way to extend this delicious scent but it really loses its charm after a few hours in a warm house and becomes cloying. I prefer that elusive, piercing, evasive scent that surprises me on a winter day with its promise of spring.