The Serendipitists

Green comet milkweed buds (Asclepias viridiflora)

It wasn’t the sort of news that would entice just anyone to change their weekend plans. Still, as word began to spread that green comet milkweed had been found on the Nash prairie, and that Susan Conaty would lead a prairie walk to see both the milkweed and other late spring beauties, plans began to change.

Susan knows Nash Prairie as well as anyone, and a chance to spend time there in her company wasn’t to be missed. I arrived at the prairie to find Susan had been delayed, but eager milkweed hunters already were comparing notes, trying to pin down the plants’ location with half-remembered bits of information, a few cryptic texts, and entirely wrong assumptions about the plant’s appearance.

As we bumbled about, the search for the milkweed reminded me of my initial search for Nash Prairie itself. On that trip, a goat standing atop a shed and a utility substation served as unmistakable markers. Our flower-finding directions were more vague: turn left from the hay road; scan near the fence; look for the fallen gate; draw an imaginary line to the stand of trees.

Finally, a cry of triumph drew us to plants we had to have passed at least a dozen times, oblivious to their presence. Still in bud and unblemished, the large round clusters of flowers and trailing leaves certainly made the name “green comet” understandable.

With the day’s primary goal achieved, people spread out to explore the prairie: taking photos, identifying unusual plants, and gauging the readiness of seeds to be plucked. Among the plants still in bloom, the unfailingly cheerful black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) bobbed and nodded in the breeze.

A typical black-eyed Susan

I spent some time chasing butterflies among the Rudbeckia, hoping to photograph a black swallowtail at rest. Unsuccessful and ready for a different subject, I scanned a nearby group of flowers and realized I’d found something I never imagined I’d see: an example of fasciation.

A fasciated Black-eyed Susan 

Derived from the Latin word fascia  (“a band, bandage, swathe, ribbon”), fasciation describes an abnormal fusion or flattening of plant stems, flowers, fruit, or foliage. In the case of this black-eyed Susan, fasciation has caused both a broad, flattened stem, and a double, or “twinned” flower. The causes seem to be varied, and somewhat mysterious: viruses, genetic abnormality, insects, or physical damage all have been offered as reasons for the phenomenon.

The flattened and ribbon-like stem

I’d heard that photographing a fasciated plant can be challenging, and so it was. As I contorted myself this way and that, I heard a voice behind me ask, “What have you got there?” I untangled myself, sat up, and said, “It’s a serendipitous Susan.”

Indeed, it was: wholly unexpected, entirely delightful, and odd as odd could be.

Over time, the excitement I’d felt at the discovery abated, although I enjoyed looking back at the photos occasionally. Then Chris Helzer added a new gallery of photos to his site, “The Prairie Ecologist,” and brought the joys of serendipity back into focus.

In 2013, as he photographed a crab spider on what appears to be a sunflower, an ant unexpectedly appeared. Describing the experience, Chris wrote, “Often, [these] older photos capture a particular moment of serendipity that still evokes strong emotions for me.”

I enjoyed his reference to serendipity as much as I did the photo, and began to ponder how often these serendipitous experiences seem to occur in nature.  We should call ourselves serendipitists, I thought, since we’re always hoping to bump up against some unexpected oddity of life.”

Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined the word serendipity  seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes the author and critic as an exemplar of a somewhat peculiar strain of British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness and just plain madness.”

There’s no question Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When he wasn’t busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters  One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France, was a fake.

The letter, supposedly written by King Frederick of Prussia, offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick said, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”

Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume, and the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.

When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, his “Gothic mousetrap” of a house.  Like most collectors, he wanted his objects to be ­admired, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.

Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.”  Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “Everyone will live in it but you.”

Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china and carpets.”  It seems reasonable to assume Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a concrete analogue to his writing. As he said,

­Visions have always been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old ­people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.

Michael Snodin, ­curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, suggests Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his  fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity  has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.

Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

As John Barthes notes in his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.”

In that sense, my discovery of a fasciated black-eyed Susan on a day meant to be focused on milkweed surely was serendipitous. But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s serendipity is more than accidental discovery or happy coincidence. For Walpole, sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous or irrelevant facts — was  equally important if previously unsuspected pathways for exploration and delight were to open.

Someday, a more sagacious serendipitist may stumble across another fasciated flower and make the intuitive leap to the unrelated, innocuous, or seemingly irrelevant facts that finally explain the phenomenon. If — or perhaps when — that happens, it surely will be fascinating.

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

Time To Take A Breath

Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington, D.C. ~ September, 1926
(Library of Congress)

Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial rock, you’ve no doubt noticed that things in our nation have been a little chaotic of late. Confrontation, confusion, accusations and counter-accusations: all have played a role in roiling the civic waters.  As one of my dear Southern friends likes to say, “I’m plumb wore out.” Continue reading

Sailing A Different Sea

Kansas: an ocean of grass

To undertake a westward journey on any early American trail — to begin life on the Oregon or Santa Fe, the Mormon or Gila — necessarily demanded the acceptance of difficulties.

From accounts in pioneer diaries, scientific notebooks, and letters written to family and friends, it seems that Indian raids, horse rustling, gunfights, and buffalo stampedes were the least of it. More often, quotidian challenges became the undoing of even the strongest traveler. Mired wagons; swarming insects; meal after meal of crackers and tea; the combination of overpowering thirst and stagnant, disease-ridden water; all these demanded remarkable levels of commitment and persistence.
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Decorated Graves, Decorated Lives

As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly, patriotic garlands hang from porch railings, and bunting flutters in late-May breezes. Nevertheless, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual: a time to focus on beaches, barbeques, mattress sales, and the first road trip of the season.

In truth, the slowly-fading history and significance of Memorial Day is both more complex and more interesting than most Americans realize. 

With the ending of the Civil War, commemorations spread across the South as mothers, wives, and children of the Confederate dead decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers.

Thirty years later, American writer and illustrator Howard Pyle wrote about Decoration Day for the May 28, 1898 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:

At that time, the outward signs of that flaming and bitter strife were still fresh and new. The bosom of nature, ploughed by the iron of war, had not yet healed. Everywhere were smoke-blackened and shattered shells, each at one time the patriarchal mansion of some great slave-holding planter.
Woods and glades were thinned out by the storm of shot and shell that had torn through them with iron hail. In one place or another long rows – rank upon rank – of shallow mounds stretched up hills, along the level, through the woodlands: battalions of graves hardly yet covered with the thin young grass.
Upon a dozen battle-fields were great cemeteries, each consecrated with its baptism of blood, and there North and South lay in stillness, soldiers stretched side by side, in a fraternity never to be broken, because the Angel Israfel himself had set his seal of silence upon it all.
“In Memoriam” ~ Sophie Bertha Steel
It was to these battle cemeteries, greater or lesser, that the women of the neighboring country brought their offering of flowers.
There is something very full of pathos in the thought of those poor Southern women who had suffered so much and who had endured to such a bitter end – of those patient women of grief bringing their harmless offerings of flowers to these stern and furrowed fields of death, there to lay the fading things upon the bosom of each mound.
The North, it is said, was remembered at those times as well as the South. One cannot but hope this may be true, for it is beautiful to think of one woman of sorrows in the South reaching out an unseen hand to some other and unknown woman of sorrows in the faraway North.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued orders that on May 30th of that year all posts should decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers – both North and South – thus formalizing what had become customary.

After World War I, the focus of the day was expanded to honor all those who had died in all American wars, and Memorial Day began to replace Decoration Day as a term of reference. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and placed on the last Monday in May.

By the years of my midwestern childhood, the rituals of Decoration Day had become firmly established. On the weekend preceding the holiday, we traveled to family cemeteries to clear away grass from the stones, trim the bushes, and plant fresh flowers. The town’s Boy Scouts, 4-H members, and church youth groups helped the Veterans of Foreign Wars place flags on veterans’ graves, so that all who served would be remembered.

Classroom lessons included the history of significant battles, and Presidential speeches. We created red, white and blue pennants containing patriotic images – the Tree of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, or Lady Liberty’s torch – and posters containing words we barely apprehended: Freedom. Peace. Courage.

Always, there was time for personal memories. World War II lay only a decade in the past, so tokens of that time were common: rationing coupons for gas and sugar; ribbons and medals awarded for bravery; photographs and correspondence from the front.

Once year, I shared a letter from my Uncle Jack, who fought in the Pacific but lay buried in Manila. His letters somehow disappeared into the great maw of time, but I have my father’s words to his brother:

We got your letter today and were sure glad to hear from you and that you are OK. It must be something over there. We kind of figured you must be up in the front, as we had not heard of you for some time…
Saw in the paper that the kid I used to ask you about was wounded over in Leyte. From that I figured you must be in there, too, as he is in the same division as you. Things must be bad there in more ways than one. From the papers it sounds like you are doing OK, though. Sure hope so…
Had you heard that Don was wounded? He was hit by a piece of flak. I guess his flying days are over from what he says. Sure hope you get through this campaign without injury. It sure must be nerve-wracking to fight all day and stand guard all night…
Take care of yourself and be careful. Hope this thing is over and you get home pretty soon. Write when you can…

Once school was dismissed on Friday, the routine never varied. Saturday morning meant a parade. In the afternoon, we cooked for Sunday’s trip to my grandparents’ home and then, at Sunday worship, we listened as a deacon read the list of congregational members killed or missing in action. We sang hymns acknowledging the realities of worldly conflict, and listened to sermons meant to comfort those still grieving their loss.

On Memorial Day itself we returned to the cemetery for flag ceremonies and speeches: a different sort of comfort.

On May 30, 1896, Father John J. Woods, pastor of Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Church, delivered some typical remarks. After members of the Veterans and Sons of Veterans’ Mutual Benefit Union marched with a fife and drum corps past decorated houses and cheering crowds to Holy Cross Cemetery, they heard these words, later reported in The Brooklyn Eagle.

“Where in the history of the world can be found any preamble or constitution as that of America? Its enunciation carried hope and consolation to the downtrodden and afflicted of every country, its promulgation and realization by a handful of valiant patriots sent consternation to cruel tyrants and earthly potentates, and proved that more than a human hand guided the destinies of the young republic.
The corner stone of this republic was laid in the noblest blood that ever flowed in battle, for it was shed for principle and God-given rights that no tyrant or power can stifle, much less destroy.
Our forefathers grabbed the sword and musket not to extend their territory or possessions, not to further ambitious objects, but to protect their heavenly gift of liberty. ‘Who will dare,’ cried they to the world, ‘deprive us of our right to seek happiness? Who will dare fetter us by unlawful and excessive taxation? Who will deny us the right to worship our Creator according to the dictates of our consciences? None, unless at the loss of our fortunes, our lives and sacred honor.”

Always, Decoration Day closed with a concert in the park. Battle-scarred or whole, old or young, bereaved by conflict or blessedly untouched, we gathered to hear the familiar songs.

After singing along with Cohen’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and clapping and toe-tapping our way through Sousa marches, our program invariably concluded with “The Battle Hymn of Republic.” Sometimes there were tears, and Peter Wilhousky’s arrangment still touches me: recalling as it does a time, not so long ago and perhaps still recoverable, when people of every political stripe, of wildly varying economic status, of every faith or of no faith at all, were willing to set aside differences in order to stand together in reverence before the majesty and mystery of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

As we come to our own Memorial Day celebrations, honoring those whose graves we decorate and cherishing the memory of their service on our behalf, perhaps we would do well to remember that lives, too, can be decorated: draped with the selflessness, integrity, honesty, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship.

If we choose to live by such values, we may yet ensure that our dead have not died in vain; that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that, in the words of Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Battle Hymn of the Republic, arr. Wilhousky

Comments always are welcome. Illustrations come from a collection of family postcards. The post, updated from one previously published, still is relevant.

Still Rolling, After All These Years

Union Pacific Steam Engine 844 Passing Castle Rock  ~  Green River, Wyoming
Photo courtesy of Eric Nielsen

For three years, Union Pacific’s magnificent Engine No. 844 cooled its wheels in Cheyenne, Wyoming while undergoing a major overhaul in the company’s steam shop. Returned to service in 2016, it traveled first to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and then to the opening of the Big River Crossing in Memphis.

Today, UP 844 is traveling again. The Boise Turn Special, an eleven-day round trip run to Idaho to help celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Boise’s historic depot, will have taken the historic steam engine over 1,600 miles of Union Pacific track: through Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. Brief stops in communities along the way have allowed both dedicated railfans and the casually curious to see, touch, and hear an important part of American history.
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The Great Arkansas Post Office Tour

Tobacco Sorters  (1942-1944) ~ Thomas Hart Benton

In Arkansas and Missouri, the name is ubiquitous. Even the most casual visitor tends to notice, and occasionally asks, “Who is this ‘Benton’ character whose name keeps cropping up?” In fact, it isn’t “this Benton” but “these Bentons” for whom the states’ schools, counties, and towns are named.

The first Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) served five terms as senator from Missouri. A strong advocate for westward expansion, he petitioned Congress to fund a survey of the road to Santa Fe. The petition granted, Commissioners George Sibley, Benjamin Reeves, and Thomas Mather of Illinois took charge of the survey, measuring and negotiating their way across Kansas and New Mexico from 1825-1827. Continue reading

Plato’s Front Porch

Autumn Cypress Along the Rio Frio

We’d left home intending to visit Lost Maples State Natural Area. Because the relatively small pocket of New England-like foliage draws thousands of visitors each year, we’d scheduled a midweek trip, hoping to avoid the hordes of leaf-peepers who descend into the canyon each weekend. To our chagrin, the line of cars waiting to enter the area was substantial, and electronic signs along the road suggested the wait might be longer than an hour.

Not inclined to spend any time in a line, even for maple leaves, we began to wander, plan-less and happy, down one road, then up another: feasting on chicken-fried steak and coconut cream pie, admiring an assortment of rivers and creeks, and exploring old family cemeteries. Continue reading