Stilll Working, After All These Years

In the beginning, I learned to call it ‘helping.’ Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand, or an imposition. Helping was something people did naturally, and helping around the house was a way for children to participate more fully in the life of the family.

Eventually, I discovered that trailing behind my mother with a dust cloth or venturing into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for my father garnered smiles of approval. I enjoyed approval, so I looked for other opportunities to seek it out: cutting flowers to make the house pretty, or picking up my toys. I collected windfall apples in a bucket; pulled low-hanging cherries from trees; set the table and dried the silverware; folded the wash cloths; put newspapers in their box. 

Eventually, I began watering flowers for next-door neighbors when they traveled out of town. It required a heavy bucket and multiple trips, but I never thought of it as a chore. It was fun: particularly since I was allowed to go by myself, on my tricycle, carrying my new responsibility with pride.

Over time, I learned another word for helping: ‘work.’ People worked on cars, and worked around the house. Painting was work: so was putting screens on windows, or vegetable canning.

Slowly, I began to understand the complexity of work, and to differentiate among its varieties: homework and handwork, busywork and piecework. I learned to associate work with money, and occasional unhappiness. I discovered there were days when Daddy didn’t want to go to work, and people who worried over lack of work.

Still, working and helping remained so intertwined that the phrase “Daddy’s gone to work” seemed wonderful to me. Even adults chatting across fences or on the porches of our neighborhood could offer no higher praise than to say of someone, “That one’s a workin’ fool”.

Workin’ fools aren’t so abundant these days. New forces are abroad in the land: forces happy to sunder work from pleasure and minimize its importance, reducing it to the sort of burden only a fool would endure — particularly when government checks are increasingly available.

Our increasing ambivalence toward — or reluctance to engage in — work has reminded me in past months of a 2012 Smithsonian traveling exhibit, sponsored by its Museum on Main Street and titled The Way We Worked.

The title itself —The Way We Worked — could suggest that our working days are over: that work itself has become a curiosity or a museum piece, something to be noted and then forgotten as easily as the fifty-foot-long chunk of Route 66 languishing in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In fact, the exhibit was strongly historical in nature, and far from dismissive.

“The Way We Worked,” adapted from an original exhibition developed by the National Archives, explores how work became such a central element in American culture by tracing the many changes that affected the work force and work environments over the past 150 years. The exhibition draws from the Archives’ rich collections to tell this compelling story.

Equally interesting were concurrent exhibits created by ‘partner sites’ — small towns selected to join with the Smithsonian in exploring the rich diversity of work. Free to develop their individual programs as they saw fit, some chose retrospectives, or emphasized particular industries. But in Kansas, one town chose to focus on the present.

The Way We Worked in Blue Rapids, a photographic exhibit sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council in partnership with the Museum on Main Street,  opened February 2, 2013, at the Blue Rapids Museum.

The exhibit featured eighty large-format photographs taken by Blue Rapids photographer Tom Parker, along with a running slideshow of more than 400 additional photos he captured during 2012. Describing the scope of the project, Parker said:
Over the past year I photographed the men, women and children of our town performing the diverse tasks that are at their core the building blocks of rural America. While other [exhibit] sites focused on their particular histories — mining, agriculture, black populations — ours was a photographic record of how we worked in Blue Rapids during 2012. We called it a snapshot of a single year, and thought of it in terms of historical record.
It was more time-consuming than I’d envisioned, and much more rewarding. Along the way I spent hundreds of hours with farmers, ranchers, convenience store workers, clerks, grocers, city workers, lifeguards, contractors, shopkeepers, retailers, postal employees, medical professionals, welders, musicians, explosives experts, county fair workers, and volunteers – even a cat and a dog.
I was there for funerals and the baptism of twins. I was allowed unrestricted access into the working lives of my friends, my neighbors, and complete strangers. Everywhere I went my camera went.

When Tom first told me about the unfolding project, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was part of the fun. As the months passed and images of life in Blue Rapids began to pile up, it was impossible not to be amazed by how little some things had changed.

Occasionally, the sweetest of memories were evoked. Lunch with Daddy at his work place seems to be as special now as it was sixty years ago.

Photographs shared along the way always were interesting, and often compelling. Of equal interest were Tom’s musings over his project. Recording the frustrations, joys, technical challenges, and sheer exhaustion that attend any large, on-going process, Tom clearly understood that blank canvas, empty pages, or vacant walls present significant challenges to those charged with filling them.

Triggering [my] edginess is an immersion into the classic images of early American labor with a hefty dollop of worldwide street photography thrown in for good measure.
After delving into Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” Lewis Hine’s works on child labor, Margaret Bourke-White’s collections on industrial design and factory workers, Dorothea Lange on the Dust Bowl years… I’ve reconsidered and reworked many of my initial compositions in an attempt to mimic some of their distinctive styles.
It’s an imposing and indeed impossible task, one almost guaranteed to assure defeat. When I discussed this with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, he shook his head and said, “Can’t be done. Were those pictures iconic when they were taken or are they iconic because of what they represent to us now?”
Sartore offered several bits of advice, one of the best being “Go big or go home.” But the most incisive, and the one I’m printing out to paste on my monitor, aligned the project’s direction in the truest, most linear fashion. “Every picture,” he said, “must advance the story.”

The process of advancing the story was as slow as it was detailed. There was a lot of waiting, and a lot of work:

I was tired all the time. In the past month sleep was as elusive as coherence, or the ability to piece together words into a cohesive whole: similar to writer’s block, but much more debilitating.
When people asked when I was going to write another column, I’d say, “When I can think straight.” But thinking straight seemed to be exclusively the domain of The Way We Worked project, and little else. It filled my days and troubled my dreams. It propelled me from the warm confines of my flannel sheets, often at 2 a.m. And in December, the month of its finale, it allowed for very little else.

As he snapped the project’s final photo at 11:59 p.m on New Year’s Eve, in a local bar, there still was work to be done before his deadline was met. Still, no one imagined it wouldn’t be done. Through the whole of 2012, Tom Parker had proven himself a working fool: capturing 40,000 images, considering and culling, rejecting and retrieving. He went big and didn’t go home, all in order to keep advancing the story.

Today, Tom still is at work: capturing and processing photographs from the world in which he lives. “It seems there’s no end to it,” he says. Then, he grins, and adds, “But isn’t that just the point?”

For my parents and grandparents, for the neighbors who surrounded me, and for all the workers who filled my young world, that certainly seemed to be the point. While doing their best to eliminate drudgery from their lives, they seemed intuitively to understand the truth of Freud’s famous statement that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”

They understood that, even as age, illness, or infirmity eventually would change the nature of their work, work itself should go on: advancing a multitude of meaningful personal and communal stories.

Comments always are welcome.

Cemetery Season

Some call it the end of winter; some call it spring. Increasingly, Texans call it wildflower season, but I’ve come to think of it as cemetery season: that time of year when human preferences for tidiness and uniformity are challenged by nature’s urge toward abundant, irrepressible growth. In at least some of our cemeteries, nature wins, and a visit to one is sheer pleasure.

In Galveston, it’s the six-block area known collectively as the Broadway Cemeteries that crowns the season. Comprised of seven burial grounds plotted between 1839 and 1939, it includes three associated with faith communities (Hebrew, Catholic, and Episcopal) and four which are non-sectarian. Some allow wildflowers to flourish while others don’t; in spring, the difference in appearance between the mowed and the unmowed is remarkable.

The cemeteries themselves have interesting histories. Today’s Oleander Cemetery, previously Potters’ Field, provided a resting place for the indigent. The New City Cemetery, originally known as the Yellow Fever Yard, was established around 1867 in response to a particularly virulent yellow fever outbreak that ravaged a city already familiar with the disease. From 1839 to 1867, at least nine yellow fever epidemics swept through Galveston; in 1853, sixty percent of the city’s approximately 45,000 residents contracted the disease, and 523 died.

Evergreen and Old City Cemeteries are filled with victims of a different sort: many who lie there perished in the Great Storm of 1900. Of course, apart from the twin insults of disease and natural disaster, each cemetery also provided final resting places for some of the earliest immigrants to Texas; soldiers from both sides of the Civil War; businessmen; legislators; and entirely ordinary families.

 In spring, the twin pillars of history and remembrance are joined by a third: the simple beauty of the flowers.

Some spread across the ground, spilling out through fences into the surrounding neighborhood. Some travel upward, accepting the crevices and cracks of aging crypts as an acceptable home.

Even the simplest stones are enhanced by the flowers surrounding them. James Grice, known as ‘Shorty’ by the fishermen he served, established a waterfront bait and tackle shop after arriving from Liverpool, England. He slept in the back of his shop, and willingly served even those customers who felt the urge to fish at midnight.

Jennie Rust’s stone has its own simple dignity, though it raises a question or two. During the Great Storm of 1900, a father named Charles Rust was knocked from a wagon while attempting to carry his family to safety; he perished with three of his children. Jennie died in 1880 at the age of eighteen, so she clearly wasn’t the wife of that Charles Rust, but I suspect the desperate father and Jennie’s Charles were somehow connected.

Not all graves are so simple, of course. The Broadway Cemeteries contain a remarkable collection of Classical Revival vaults, Gothic Revival mausoleums, and towering obelisks. 

Here, lush blooms surround one of two Willis family mausoleums. Peter James Willis, one of several family members interred in the impressive edifice, arrived in Texas from Maryland in January 1836, shortly before the fall of the Alamo. He returned to his home state in June of that year, but came back to Texas in October, bringing two younger brothers — William and Richard — with him.

The trio went to work on Buffalo Bayou, supplying wood to steamboats. They intended to use their profits to open a store in Washington on the Brazos, but fending off Brazos river bottom mosquitoes wasn’t easy, and William died of malaria. After that, the two remaining brothers moved to Montgomery, Texas, and opened their store.

In 1845, Peter  married Caroline Womack, the daughter of a prosperous planter. One of their six children, a daughter named Magnolia, married wealthy businessman George Sealy in 1875. George and his brother John were involved in cotton, banking, and railroads; John’s son, owner of the Magnolia Petroleum Company, is said to have named it for his aunt Magnolia.

My favorite Willis family story involves Magnolia. According to family legend, the construction of the landmark Sealy mansion was instigated by a statement made by Magnolia after the birth of the couple’s fifth child in 1885: “Sir, I’ll give you a second son, if you’ll build me the finest home in Galveston.”

Whatever the actual circumstances, the Neo-Renaissance mansion was completed in 1889. An elaborate carriage house designed by Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton was finished in 1891: the very year the couple’s second son was born.

The less elaborate but still appealing crypt of the Haden family can be found near the edge of the Episcopal Cemetery. Dr. J.M. Haden, born in Lowndes county, Mississippi in 1825, contributed significantly to the health and well-being of Galveston residents.

A graduate of Jackson college in Columbia, Tennessee and La Grange college in Alabama,  Dr. Haden received his M.D. in 1847 from the University of New Orleans. After serving the United States military and then that of the Confederacy,  he returned to Galveston at the end of the Civil War to begin the practice of medicine. Elected president of the Galveston County Medical Society as well as the board of directors of the Galveston Medical college, he went on to head Galveston’s Board of Health. During his tenure, it became recognized that yellow fever had been brought to Texas from outside the state, and his obituary, published inThe Galveston Daily News  on October 31, 1892, noted his role in containing the disease:

It is probably due to Dr Hayden’s measures adopted in the [yellow fever] epidemic of 1878 that such a strict state quarantine has been established, and the testimony of leading citizens is preserved which credits his vigilance with the preservation of this city from horrors of the epidemic which swept over some of our neighboring communities during his administration of our health affairs.
An unusual example of murderer and victims buried together

Occasionally, gravestones hint at nearly unimaginable horrors. After emigrating from Germany to Galveston with his family, Louis Alberti eventually married Galveston native Elize Roemer and established a successful butcher shop with his brother-in-law.

After Louis and Elize’s first-born child, Louis, Jr., died of tetanus at the age of seven, friends and family noticed changes in his mother’s behavior. Ten years later, after the births of several other children, daughter Caroline was born in 1894, then died in April of that year, before reaching her first birthday.

By May, Elize began exhibiting aberrant and violent behavior, and was sent to live with her parents in a different part of Galveston. After a few weeks she returned home, despite showing continued signs of disturbance. On the evening of December 4, 1894, Elize called her children into the dining room and offered them a few sips of wine: a customary practice in Victorian times.

Not long after, Louis began hearing screams from his children, and rushed home from his shop next door to find them in agony. Under questioning, Elize admitted she had put morphine into the wine, intending to kill both the children and herself; only Louis’s return to the house had kept her from suicide.

Despite attempts by physicians, four of the children died: Willie first, then
Dora, Ella, and Lizzie. Emma, 16, recovered enough to be sent to the hospital for a day, and she survived. Fourteen-year-old Wilhelmina escaped, since she was studying in a different room when her mother called.

The next day, Mrs. Alberti was arrested and charged with insanity. Asked if she knew what she had done, she replied that she did, and regretted only that she had not been able to take her own life. “I have been ill for the last eight months,” she said, “and know that I could not fill my obligations to my babies. They are better off.”

After the murders, Alberti spent time in the San Antonio Asylum. After her release, she returned to Galveston, and — free to achieve her goal at last — committed suicide.

Despite the reminders of human frailty and foibles hidden among the stones, every cemetery provides an amusement or two. Here, an angel seems to be pouting, and with good reason. The drape of Mardi Gras beads on the cross in front of her hasn’t changed in a year; she probably would enjoy more beads, in different colors.

I hope she can’t see this stone, visible in the photo of Dr. Haden’s crypt. It’s not only decorated with three times the number of beads that decorated it last year, it has snails ready to join the party.

In spring and summer, grackles qualify as Broadway’s most enthusiastic party animals. They feed among the flowers and nest in palm trees, while the boys show off for the girls from atop the gravestones.

More than birds and flowers flourish above the crypts. Trees and shrubbery seem willing to set up shop wherever conditions are right; someday, enterprising birds may nest in one of these oddly-rooted trees.

Many palms scattered throughout the cemeteries weren’t available for nesting this year, having lost their fronds to our February freeze. Still, grackles were flying into and out of this trio of palms next to an obelisk marking the grave of Abraham Parker Lufkin (1816-1887), a cotton merchant and Galveston City Council  member for whom town of Lufkin is named.

Hints of green suggest this palm, too, will survive and continue to provide a pretty backdrop for the memorial to paint store owner Joseph Rice; his wife Mary; and several of their children. Changing technology brought grief to this family when daughter Louisa, quite deaf, was killed when she walked in front of a street car whose motor she couldn’t hear.

Despite the intriguing histories contained within the Broadway cemeteries, and despite the beauty of the flowers decorating them, the greatest delight on my day of exploration was a gravestone I’d never before seen. The identity of the child is unknown, as is the hand of the sculptor. Even the inscription was invisible until the stone was raised some years ago, but its tenderness, and the love of those who chose its words, is unmistakable.

Who plucked this flower the angry gardner cried
The Master hath his mate replied
Thereat the gardner paused and held his peace

 

Comments always are welcome.

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.