Destination: Unknown

The good ship Adventure making way

In May 2017, two young brothers, Ollie and Harry Ferguson, launched a plastic pirate ship named Adventure into the North Sea at Peterhead, Scotland. Following the practice of generations of seaside bottle tossers, their ship carried a message asking anyone who found it to record the vessel’s location before returning it to the sea.

Over the course of several months, the boys’ ship visited Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Eventually, the Fergusons were approached by the crew of the Norwegian full-rigged ship Christian Radich, who offered to make needed repairs before carrying Adventure out of the North Sea to explore new waters. After refurbishing the rigging and installing new sails, the Christian Radich headed south with the tiny ship on board; on November 8, Adventure was released a hundred miles off the coast of Mauritania with hopes that she would be carried westward across the Atlantic, to the Americas.

She nearly ran aground in the Cape Verde Islands, but the little ship carried on. In May,  the voyage ended 18.6 miles off the coast of Barbados, where her GPS tracker died after recording 3,773.26 miles of watery travel.

145. Sail the Atlantic 1 (1).JPGAdventure after being re-launched from the Christian Radich

Initially, the plan was to pick up Adventure, recharge the tracker battery, and send her back to sea. Instead, a second family became involved in the launch of a second ship, Adventure 2, from the offshore support vessel Normand Installation. On the day of launch north of Georgetown, Guyana, Adventure 2  was less than a hundred miles from Adventure’s original course. At the time, some thought that ocean currents would carry Adventure 2 into the Caribbean Sea, where the Gulf Stream might catch her and carry her back to the UK. Today that seems possible, since her tracker shows Adventure 2 now moving north along the east coast of Florida.

Pondering the tracks of both Adventures, I couldn’t help remembering an off-handed remark made by a woman with decades of classroom experience. “Teaching is like throwing out words in a bottle,” she said. “Sometimes you’re lucky, and the bottle reaches shore.”

It’s an apt metaphor: one that applies not only to teaching but also to various sorts of creative activity. Few of us send toy pirate ships to sea, but all of us have tossed tiny, message-filled bottles into the currents of today’s great cyber-sea, leaving them to bob, tumble, and drift about until they safely reach shore, are broken and destroyed on the rocks, or disappear over the horizon, never to return.

Regardless of outcome, the first step is an enthusiastic toss seaward. Whatever our bottles’ contents, the words or images they contain will have no opportunity to touch people, clear their vision, educate, or bring comfort until the bottles are set free to travel.

Beyond that, patience is imperative. It takes time for bottles to bob their way to the beaches of the world. It takes time for someone to find them, and there are times when only pure luck allows the message to be plucked from the surf and acknowledged.

Over time, a few of my own metaphorical blog-bottles have reached shore with their contents intact, and I’ve been lucky enough to be contacted by the people who found them. At first, it happened only with words — poetry and prose from this blog —  but, as I’ve learned, it can happen with photographs, too.

Only weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall — also in 2017 — the natural world began to recover. One of the first plants to bloom at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge was Aquatic Milkweed; fresh and undamaged, the almost perfect specimens were a joy to photograph and to share on Lagniappe.

Imagine my surprise when, three years later, the Xerces Society contacted me, requesting permission to use one of my blog-published photos of the milkweed in their new publication titled 100 Plants to Feed the Monarch. After giving permission and signing releases, I moved on to other things and forgot about their inquiry, until a complimentary copy of the published book appeared in my mailbox this month. I was pleased, of course, and also amused. Thanks to the editors’ decision to arrange plants alphabetically, the section devoted to milkweeds begins with my pretty Aquatic Milkweed.

Aquatic Milkweed ~ Asclepias perennis

The request from the Xerces Society was the first of the year, but not the last. In late January, an intern for the group Indiana Phenology contacted me by email, requesting permission to use two of my favorite photos of Ohio Spiderwort in their educational materials. Part of the National Phenology Network, the Indiana group’s mission is the same:

[To bring together] citizen scientists, government agencies, non-profit groups, educators and students of all ages to monitor the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the United States. 
Ohio Spiderwort ~ Tradescantia ohiensis

A third and more recent request came last month from Mark Egger, a University of Washington Research Associate and Burke Museum Specialist on Castilleja and related genera.  While researching stem fasciation in Castilleja spp., he’d come across my photos of a delightfully odd Indian paintbrush, and asked if he might use them in a paper.

Now published in Phytoneuron, described as “a venue for digital publication of miscellaneous reports on taxonomy, floristics, and geographical distribution of vascular plants,” Egger’s paper is both understandable and interesting, and I’m pleased to have played a small role in its publication.

I was equally pleased to be introduced to Phytoneuron. Looking through other papers published on the site, I found more than a few names familiar to any Texan interested in native plants: Jason Singhurst, Bill Carr, and W.C. Holmes. There’s some good reading ahead.

Fasciated Indian paintbrush ~ Castilleja indivisa

Each of these requests reinforced one of my most firmly held beliefs: that not every cause has an immediate effect, and not every hour invested brings immediate return. In a world dedicated to instant gratification and marked by the replacement of a 24/7 news cycle with instantaneous rumor, it’s become a decidedly old-fashioned view.

And yet, it’s only a willingness to take the longer, less demanding view of things that allows any of us to keep tossing our bottles or sending our boats into the vast, impersonal sea surrounding us: vessels filled with uniquely personal treasures that one day — some day –will wash onto a receptive shore.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the voyage, additional photos, and the real-time tracking map of Adventure2, click here.

Morning with Monet

Claude Monet ~ Impression, Sunrise

Highlighted by savvy museum curators and hawked within an inch of their beautiful lives by mass-market retailers, the French Impressionists remain popular painters. Once derided and criticized, their landscapes, serial studies, and portraits have become as pleasing to the art establishment as to ordinary people seeking a pretty picture for their wall. It’s easy to imagine Messrs. Monet, Renoir,  Degas, and Cézanne sitting around the heavenly atelier, watching light play over the clouds and congratulating themselves on their remarkable staying power.

Less concerned with realistic form than with natural light, atmosphere, and color, Impressionists sought to paint the world as they perceived it rather than in accordance with conceptual guidelines. In a brief overview of the movement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes:

Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), exhibited in 1874, gave the Impressionist movement its name when the critic Louis Leroy accused it of being a sketch or “impression,” and not a finished painting.
It demonstrates the techniques many of the independent artists adopted: short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light. Rather than neutral white, grays, and blacks, Impressionists often rendered shadows and highlights in color. The artists’ loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often carefully constructed compositions.

 Traditional landscape artists tended to depict the individual phenomena of the natural world – leaves, blossoms, blades of grass – as carefully as an illustrator, and with an eye to accuracy. Monet was more concerned with painting what he saw ~ not separate leaves or discrete blossoms, but splashes of constantly changing color and light.

According to William Seitz, art historian and author of the Monet volume for the Masters of Art series:

It is in this context that we must understand his desire to see the world through the eyes of a man born blind who had suddenly gained his sight: as a pattern of nameless color patches.

Reading Seitz’s words, I can’t help wondering if he knew of Marius von Senden’s 1932 study called Space and Sight. Quoted extensively in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, von Senden had collected stories of men and women blind since birth who regained their sight with newly available cataract surgery. For most, it was a difficult transition, full of necessary learning. As von Senden puts it, for the newly sighted, “Space ends with visual space…with color patches that happen to bound his view.”

Beginning with Manet, the idea of ‘color patches’ was integral to the development of the Impressionist vision; it’s possible that von Senden picked up the phrase from the painters themselves. In any event, it’s easy to imagine a painter like Monet roaming the countryside with his easel and palette, painting whatever he happened upon and in the process giving us a record of the world informed by these new techniques and his unique vision.

In his bookThe Impressionist Garden, Derek Fell notes the Impressionists’ commitment to “capture and record the fleeting moment” through their brushstrokes. Perhaps the development of photography and the new ability to take ‘snapshots’ influenced their thinking. The phrase “fleeting moment” certainly recalls photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous commitment to his own ‘decisive moment.’ Whether Monet’s reflections on his art were known to Bresson I can’t say, but the lives of Monet (d.1926) and Bresson (b.1908) briefly overlapped; they experienced the same technological advances and no doubt shared some of the same artistic concerns.

Monet’s Garden at Giverny

In 1883, Claude Monet moved to Giverny, and began to develop his garden. In the process, nothing escaped his attention. As avid a gardener as a painter, his legacy still lives in the water-lily ponds, wisteria-clad Japanese bridge, and grand central allée strewn with nasturtiums; the collection of paths and beds in the walled Clos Normand, the large, traditional Normandy flower garden just outside the house, is equally lovely. When Monet acquired the old farmhouse in 1890, he sacrified an old and tired orchard in order to plant new gardens and install the custom-designed metal hoops and pergolas that carried his roses and clematis.

Eventually, he turned his attention to the water garden. He rerouted a river, selected hybrid water lilies for their color, and designed his bridge in a deliberate act of creation. An artist creating his own subject, he left nothing to chance. Renoir built a glass-walled studio in his garden in order to paint his beloved olive trees, but Monet commissioned a studio boat, the better to paint his water lilies.

Claude Monet ~ Le Bateau-atelier 1876

“Apart from painting and gardening, I’m not good at anything,” Monet once remarked. Amusing self-deprecation aside, his talents in both areas resulted in the creation of the garden at Giverny. Composed as if it were a painting, and over time the subject of much of his best work, it is considered by many painters and gardeners to be his greatest legacy – as beautiful, inspirational, and pervasive in its later influence as it was for Monet himself.

Until a trip to Mississippi some years ago, I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of Monet’s double role in shaping our vision of the world. Despite my affection for his paintings, I’d never considered the possibility that his gardens, and his interpretation of them, might one day shape my own experience of the land.

Turning down a gravel road in the midst of the old Doro Plantation, halfway betweeen a clapboard house flying the Confederate flag and a cluster of fishing shacks moored along the levee, I discovered a landscape so purely Impressionistic it was hard to believe it wasn’t already on canvas. Rippling curtains of white and lavender wisteria hung everywhere, recalling Giverny.  A multitude of greens sprouted from bushes and trees, and the grasses were filled with glowing purple and pink spiderworts. Scrambling across barbed wire and piles of fallen brush into a pecan orchard, I found my footing and looked up in astonishment.

It wasn’t that the orchard reminded me of Monet, it was as though Monet himself already had been there: dappling the leaves with light, capturing the pristine translucence of new growth, and washing the world’s canvas with a sheen of unnameable colors. I’d have been less astonished had I walked into Monet’s studio and discovered the canvases suddenly come to life,  or walked into his garden and surprised him painting a few new shrubs into place.

In Giverny, Monet constructed a garden for himself. That day on the Doro Plantation, where accidents of nature and history had rerouted the Mississippi, reshaped the land, and left a secret, unexpected collection of trees, flowers, and grasses to shimmer in the springtime light, the only thing missing was the artist himself: recording the miraculous beauty of a world akin to the gardens he had grown.

Looking at the photographs today, I remember those unexpected bits of beauty tucked away into the silence of a Mississippi morning.

Seeing the play of light, imagining the warming breeze, and re-experiencing those first, memorable impressions, I realize an unexpected truth. For a few moments, I had seen the world as Claude Monet saw it: tumbled into light and patched with color so piercingly pure no response beyond a sigh is possible. For the first time, I appreciated the enormity of what Monet spent a lifetime revealing: that brushes, paint, and canvas are sufficient to capture our first impressions of the world, and to provide a lifetime of enjoyment in the process.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Sublime Landscape

Some might consider it little more than a proverbial wide spot in the road, but Sublime, Texas — population seventy-five or so — has a post office, a Lutheran church founded in 1868, and some of 2021’s earliest bluebonnets.

Traveling west of town on Alternate Highway 90 last weekend, I began to see pastures and rangeland that were filling with flowers. Before long, those familiar reds and blues spread among the oaks will be joined by an extravagance of colorful yellows, pinks, and whites.

No one around Sublime minds a pure blue field, of course.

After all, this is the highway and these are the fields that gave rise to one of the loveliest tributes possible to our state wildflower, and our “sweet bluebonnet spring.”

You don’t have to be Texan to get a tear in your eye when you hear Emmylou and Willie sing Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway,” but if you are a Texan, you probably can’t help it. I know I can’t.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ The Warblers

I’ll confess that I giggled a bit when friend Tina of My Gardener Says first mentioned the presence of ‘butter butts’ in her yard. It seemed such an improbable name, until I learned that the more polite version is ‘Yellow-rumped,’ and that both names refer to a little patch of yellow on the nether end of the warbler Setophaga coronata.

Wintertime warblers are easy to find here, especially in places like Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve, where plentiful, berry-filled wax myrtles draw them in. Able to digest the wax in berries, the warblers often supplement their insect-heavy diet with berries of juniper, wax myrtle and poison ivy.

In fall and winter, they also frequent more open woods and shrubby areas like the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, where the flitty little creature shown above paused long enough in its foraging for me to capture its image.

Wax myrtle berries and budding leaves

Two subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler exist: the Myrtle Warbler, found primarily in the eastern United States and Canada, and the Audubon’s Warbler, a bird of western states. The Audubon’s throat is yellow, while the Myrtle’s is white, so I seem to have found a Myrtle Warbler.

Poet Kevin Cole, a resident of South Dakota, may see more Audubon’s Warblers: reason enough to celebrate that bird in his poem of the same name. Despite slight differences in the birds, the poem seems applicable to both.

The Audubon warblers keep the time of their coming,
Arriving on stillness of a storm,
Their breast and backs as dark as low bruised banks of cloud,
Rumps and throats as yellow as blooms of buckwheat.
They throng this evening in the newly-leaved,
Tender-tipped canopies nervously weaving
Through the catkins like frantic prophets
Bearing some divine prophecy of the coming spring.
I wait, hoping for nothing too grave:
News of ruinous lands, of cutting and swarming locusts,
Of withering vines and empty granaries,
Of fasting, weeping, and rending of garments.
No, I wait for lighter fare:
Perhaps a promise that the green heron will nest
On the west end of the slough and that the ironweed
And wood lily will once again together bloom.
This would be an ample prophecy for another year—
This, and a promise to keep the time of their coming.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Poet Kevin Cole earned his BA and MA in literature from Texas A&M University, and a PhD in literature from Baylor University. He currently teaches English at the University of Sioux Falls.

Hulls and Humanity

While Galveston was seeking new ways to celebrate Mardi Gras and South Padre Island continued to hope for a successful spring break, Port O’Connor began cleaning rods and repairing reels in anticipation of the spring flounder run.

Port O’Connor knows how to party, but in Port O’Connor, fishing comes first.  Lying at the end of the coastal road, clinging to the edge of Matagorda Bay like a derelict boat that refuses to die, the town is salted with spray: rusted and grayed, weathered from decades of storms. At first glance, she seems an unpromising destination, but beneath the surface of her bays, redfish and  trout school and scatter. Beyond the intracoastal waterway, across the barrier island and over the dunes, surfcasters work the waves; offshore, marlin, snapper, and tarpon lure the adventurous with the promise of exhilarating combat.

Some years ago, I spent time in Port O’Connor maintaining a classic sailboat. Owned by land-locked partners who wanted to keep their boat near the Gulf for easy access to offshore sailing, it was a delightful opportunity. I labored through the days sun-lit and warm as a basking turtle; evenings were filled with equal delights. After dinners of fresh-caught shrimp or fish, a lamp-lit cabin and uninterrupted time for reading or sleep were there for the taking. If I happened back onto the dock to gaze at stars or watch passing barges, an old fellow who lived aboard two slips down sometimes came to visit, glad for a few minutes of conversation.

The man loved to tell stories, and his tales were memorable. Generally, they involved long, intricate meanders through the details of weekend bar fights: harmless confrontations fueled by drink and boredom. But he watched visitors to the marina with a sharp eye, and recounted their antics with amusement.

My favorite of his stories, a Hemingwayesque account of a young man and the bay, involved a novice who went out to fish in a lightweight dingy without a motor. He hooked the big one he’d always dreamed of, then found he couldn’t land it. The fish towed the dingy across the flats until the line broke. At that point in the story, between snorts and guffaws, the old story-teller would gasp, “Damn fool never thought to cut his line, but even if he’d had the thought, it wasn’t gonna happen, ’cause he didn’t have a knife. No knife! Who goes fishing without a knife?”

Sometimes the old man shared his recipe for ceviche, or bragged on the boys who hang trophy marlins, or reminisced about the old days, when life was simpler. Always, he ended with The Storm. The Storm was Carla, the mythic hurricane that landed on Matagorda’s shores long before Katrina, Rita, Harvey, or Ike provided their own dramatic narratives.

Carla was a Cecil B. DeMille kind of storm: a storm so vast, so compelling, that decades later people still gasped at the memories. Carla carried wheat straw from fields and drove it into the brick walls of homes. She left rattlesnakes hanging from trees, and broke the legs of cattle. Her unearthly howl so unnerved one woman that she ran into her back yard and howled back in defiance, until her panic-stricken family dragged her back into the house and made her drink whiskey.

Almost as an afterthought, Carla raged through Port O’Connor’s collection of boats. Skiffs and jon boats were scattered or destroyed. Shrimp trawlers plowed into fields; sport fishers were carried inland by the surge. Barges forced miles inland were strewn up and down major highways like old-fashioned toys. When it was over, there was nothing to do but gaze over the scene in numbed astonishment and think, Well.

Loss wrought by storms is at least understandable. When wind, waves, and surge tear at rigging and batter hulls for hours at a time, some boats will survive, but many let go before the implacable forces of nature, tossing and tumbling to their deaths.

What isn’t so easily understood is death by inattention: the death of a boat that’s been abandoned — left neglected and lonely, allowed to rot away in marshes, at docks, or on out-of-the-way moorings.

Like dogs or cats callously thrown into the world to fend for themselves, unwanted and unloved boats know they’ve been abandoned, and they grieve. Deserted by owners too busy to give them care, relinquished in favor of other pursuits, cast off as no longer romantic or affordable, they are ownerless in truth if not in fact.

Bereft of attention, they begin to decline. Unused hoses harden and crack. Unlubricated winches seize up; barnacles colonize the bottom. Rust blooms, paint flakes, and hanging gardens of algae begin to ring the waterline. Eventually, as time and weather shred the canvas and dry the wood, the boat begins to settle on her lines, leaning inexorably into dereliction.

Anyone familiar with boats has seen it happen, and knows the truth. A boat has to be loved, used, and maintained, lest it die. But when inattention has led to a boat’s dereliction or seeming death, nothing satisfies more than bringing it back to life.

The process of restoration is neither mysterious nor complicated. The only requirements — apart from money — are a few simple tools, a good bit of time,  and a high tolerance for tedium. It’s also helpful to understand that 19th century techniques don’t always lend themselves to 21st century schedules, and to have a passing acquaintance with the basics of weather. But with diligence and focus, even the worst damage can be undone. With patience and persistence, wood turns silky, fiberglass shines, and machinery that clanked, rattled, and banged begins to quietly hum like an absorbed and happy child.

As work progresses and the boat begins to realize that she’ll sail again, you can sense the signs of new life. A boat with hopes of leaving the dock rides differently in the water. The rigging no longer howls like a woman facing down a storm; it sings in the breeze with overtones of satisfaction and joy. When a boat no longer feels abandoned, when she once again hears the call of the sea, she begins to gaze into the depths of her watery mirrors with a sense of restored dignity. 

When I find myself working on a more-or-less abandoned boat, it becomes  impossible not to think of parallels between its condition and the plight of people left to bob and rot in the backwaters of society. Decades ago, ‘derelict’ was a word reserved for bums, drifters, and vagrants. To be called derelict was to face moral judgements built upon assumptions that you were negligent, undependable, untrustworthy, and irresponsible.

Certainly, there are irresponsible and deeply untrustworthy people in the world, just as there are people who seemingly prefer disconnected and unproductive lives. But some who wander our world have more in common with derelict boats than with skidrow bums or amoral profiteers. Abandoned by family, neglected by friends, or rejected by the institutions and structures of society, their dereliction is less a matter choice than of circumstance.

If transformation is to come, what holds true for boats will be no less true for such people. No matter how damaged a heart, no matter how hardened its lines, no matter how tattered its dreams or hard its grounding onto the shoals of unhappiness, there is nothing that time, patience and loving attention cannot restore.

Repairing a heart certainly requires dedication, an acceptance of the vicissitudes of daily life, and a willingness to engage in repetitively difficult or unpleasant tasks. Certainly it profits from steady faith and a willingness to believe that even when the past makes its presence known, even when its reflections linger and shimmer in the brightness of newer days, all of the shabbiness, disrepair, and simple ugliness of dereliction eventually can be undone.

In a season dedicated to exchanging hearts as tokens of affection, it’s worth pausing a moment to ponder these less romantic realities of life and love. Somewhere, docked at the edges of our lives, moored just beyond our concern, run aground in a marsh of indifference or neglect, a derelict heart leans inexorably toward desolation: forsaken and forlorn. It may be time to begin its restoration.

Comments always are welcome.