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.

The Poets’ Birds: Migration

Snow geese above a Texas rice field

Empty as the space surrounding it, the hummingbird feeder hangs: bereft of jewel-like flashes and the whir of tiny wings. The wire above the bayou no longer supports the flycatcher; the swallows, too, have flown.

In their absence, other birds return: the osprey to its mast, white pelicans to bayside pilings, teal and coots to the ponds. The cry of early sandhill cranes echoes from the sky; geese swirl over already-harvested fields of milo and rice.

Above autumn’s colored leaves and seeding grassses, the sky is filled with movement: thrilling in its inevitability, and heart-rending in its beauty. Poet Anne Porter has captured something of the risks, the rewards, and the natural rhythm of migration in her poem, “The Birds of Passage.”

 

THE BIRDS OF PASSAGE
You are the one who made us.
You silver all the minnows in all rivers;
You wait in the deep woods
To find the newborn fox cubs
And unseal their eyes.
You shower the sky with stars.
You walk alone
In the wild royal darkness
Of the heavens above the heavens
Where no one else can go.
When the fragile swallows assemble
For their pilgrimages,
When the hummingbirds
Who are scarcely more
Than a glittering breath
Set out for the rain forest
To drink from the scarlet flowers
On the other side of the world
With only now and then
The mast of a passing ship
For a resting place and an inn,
When the Canada geese
Are coming down from the north,
When the storks of Europe
Stretch out their necks toward Egypt
From their nests on the chimney tops,
When shaking their big wings open
And trailing their long legs after them
They rise up heavily
To begin their autumn flight,
You who speak without words
To your creatures who live without words
Are hiding under their feathers
To give them a delicate certainty
On the long dangerous night journey.

 

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about poet Anne Porter.

A Little Hike to a Big Tree

The Big Tree ~ Goose Island, Texas

For years after being designated Texas’s State Champion Coastal Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) in 1966, the tree affectionately known as The Big Tree reigned in leafy splendor at Goose Island State Park near Rockport.

Thirty-five feet in circumference and forty-four feet tall, the Goose Island Tree is more than a thousand years old. It would have been little more than a sprout when Dirk III, Count of Holland, defeated Holy Roman Emperor Henry II at the Battle of Vlaardingen; when England’s Buckfast Abbey was founded; or when Aeddan ap Blegywryd, King of Gwynedd, passed on.

More recently, the giant oak survived an 1864 Civil War battle that destroyed the nearby town of Lamar. After doing battle with Hurricane Harvey, although battered, somewhat broken, and stripped of leaves, it remained firmly rooted to its ground.

The Big Tree after Hurricane Harvey ~ September 5, 2017 (Texas Parks & Wildlife photo)

Today, the Goose Island tree continues to recover, but it’s no longer our champion live oak. That honor now belongs to a tree on private property in Colorado County. Certified in August of 2016, the Colorado County oak is 61 feet high, with a circumference of 338 inches and a crown spread of 114 feet.

The current champion live oak ~ Colorado County

Between the reign of the Goose Island oak and the designation of the Colorado County oak as Texas’s largest, a third, equally impressive tree served as state champion. Still the second largest live oak in Texas, and one of the largest in the United States, the so-called San Bernard Oak was discovered in 2000 and officially entered into the record books in 2003.

Estimated to be 200 to 300 years old, the San Bernard Oak is hidden away in Brazoria County, on the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. The area, sometimes called Austin’s Woods in tribute to Stephen F. Austin and the settlers he brought here in 1823, is more commonly known as the Columbia Bottomlands: another historical reference. Established in 1826 by Josiah Hughes Bell, Columbia (known today as West Columbia) served as capital of the Republic of Texas from September to December 1836.

The Columbia Bottomlands extend through four Texas counties — Brazoria, Matagorda, Fort Bend and Wharton — and share a forested floodplain network of rivers, creeks, ponds, and marshes.

Finding the San Bernard Oak isn’t difficult, but it does require a bit more effort than driving up and snapping a photo. This satellite image shows the upper half of the trail. At the bottom edge, toward the right, you can see the trail crossing a utility easement. Nearer the center of the image, another section of the trail is visible; the San Bernard Oak is to the north and west of the visible trail.

The Columbia Bottomlands, one of the few forested communities within the Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion, consist of interconnected floodplains of the Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado Rivers. Historically a patchwork of forested bottoms and prairie uplands, they extend approximately 75 miles inland, and serve a variety of critical funtions: lessening the destructiveness of floods; reducing soil erosion; retaining river-borne sediments; and filtering out pollutants.

While some protected bottomland areas now are closed or only partially open to the public, the San Bernard Oak is accessible, and the trail leading to the oak is as interesting as the tree itself.

 

After a short drive from the main section of the San Bernard Refuge, a sign marks the beginning of an ecotone: a word used to designate transitional areas of vegetation between two different plant communities. Here, the transition is between wet prairie and bottomland forest; evidence of plants’ adaptations to increased shade, less sandy soil, and constant fluctuations in water levels is obvious even to casual observers.

At the trailhead, vines and a few palmettos suggest the changes to come.

As the trail narrows and shade becomes deeper, a wall of green thickens on either side. Still, at the woods’ edge, enough sunlight flickers through to encourage a variety of flowers:

Purple bindweed (Ipomoea cordatotriloba)
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Turk’s cap ~ Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii

On either side of the first boardwalk, no water is apparent, but soils are moist, and more flowers appear.

Heartleaf skullcap ~ Scutellaria ovata
Panicled ticktrefoil ~ Desmodium paniculatum
Texas pinkroot ~ Spigelia texana

Here and there, deer trails intersect the main path. Follow one, and the little dramas of woodland life appear everywhere. Impaled on a broken segment of vine, a moth  — perhaps a Virginia tiger moth — may become another creature’s midnight snack.

Close by, an Eastern Pondhawk struggles to contain a Pearl Crescent butterfly.

Sometimes, there are mysteries. I can’t identify either this plant or the spider who did the work, but the shape of the shadow suggests something else tucked away for safe keeping.

Scattered throughout the leaf litter, older bones bespeak earlier struggles. Snake, raccoon, and deer are easily enough identified. Other fragments require more knowledge, and a sharper eye.

Eventually, dry leaves give way to water, and the value of the boardwalk becomes obvious.

Some plants thrive in the wetter conditions, blooming and apparently thriving despite being anchored in standing water.

Brazos penstemon ~ Penstemon tenuis
White swamp milkweed ~ Asclepias perennis

As the trail approaches the utility easement, the canopy opens, and flowers more closely associated with prairies and full sunlight begin to appear.

Evening primrose (white form) ~ Oenothera speciosa
Mexican hat ~ Ratibida columnifera
Gulf vervain ~ Verbena xutha
Pyramid flower ~ Melochia pyramidata
Clasping Venus’ looking-glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata
Carolina elephant’s foot ~ Elephantopus carolinianus

Here, too, the practical skill and artistry of the spider is evident.

Black and yellow Argiope cocooning its prey ~ Argiope aurantia
Golden silk orbweaver ~Trichonephila clavipes

Eventually, the boardwalk turns and runs parallel to Little Slough, and a true ‘wet bottomland’ emerges.  In especially rainy years, the area may remain saturated for months. Thick groves of palmettos indicate poorly drained soils, while trees such as cedar elm, green ash, hackberry, and water oak thrive in the watery glade: well-adapted to prolonged flooding.

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Dwarf palmetto ~ Sabal minor

Hidden among the trees and vines, a variety of butterflies, moths, amphibians and snakes secret themselves, motionless and nearly invisible.

Ilia underwing ~ Catocala ilia

Rushes and sedges abound, while long-stemmed, woody vines called lianas root in the soil before making use of their tendrils to climb or twine around the trees.

Short-bristled Horned Beaksedge ~ Rhynchospora corniculata
Vines represent one structural difference between tropical and temperate forests; where lianas have formed a hanging network of vegetation, their presence provides a good indicator of older, more mature woodlands. In the Columbia Bottomlands, rattan, trumpet vine, Virginia creeper, and mustang grape twine toward the canopy, adding a certain ‘atmosphere’ to the woods.
Where oaks are more prevalent, the canopy opens, allowing a glimpse of blue sky and sunlight. If you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the limbs seem fuzzy, and in a sense they are.

The limbs are covered in resurrection fern, one of three fern species on the refuge. An epiphyte that uses the trees for support while gaining nutrients from sunlight, air, and rain, the fern grows on the upper side of the live oak branches.

Without rainfall, the fern shrivels and appears dead; it can lose as much as 75 percent of its water content during typical dry periods. After a good rain, it rebounds within a day, once again appearing green and healthy. This remarkable ‘resurrection’ gives the plant its name, even though it never actually dies during the process.

Resurrection fern on a live oak limb ~ Pleopeltis polypodioides
Dried fronds of resurrection fern, awaiting rain

Finally, the San Bernard Oak comes into view. Its bifurcated trunk is immense; only the bench provided for visitors at the end of the boardwalk offers some sense of scale.

Given the tree’s size and the tangle of surrounding growth, photographing it in the same way as the Goose island or Colorado County oaks is impossible. On the other hand, the San Bernard Oak’s isolation has kept it safe from humans, just as the forest has helped protect it from storms.

In time, I’ll return to the tree, eager to experience it in a different season. For now, I’m happy to have made its acquaintance. Those whose work established the refuge and allowed the land to return to its natural state deserve to be honored; like the San Bernard Oak, they’re providing a legacy for future generations.

The San Bernard Oak

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Red-Winged Blackbird

 

Like the thrilling call of a returning osprey, the song of the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) announces an undeniable turn of season. Hear the song, and it’s not difficult to find the bird: defending territory or seeking a mate by displaying his brilliant red shoulder patches atop any convenient cornstalk, cattail, or branch.

The song, once heard, lingers in memory: evocative, freighted with unexpected meaning. For Welsh poet R.S.Thomas, a song similar in so many ways to the landscape of Wales — a little rough, a bit dark — gave rise to a simple and yet enjoyable poem.

Sometimes compared to the American poet Robert Frost, Thomas is less philosophical and less sanguine about the realities of rural life. Still, there’s little question that he absorbed those realities and transformed them in his own way, much as he imagines the blackbird’s song as a particularly pleasing alchemy.

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes’
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.
You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.
A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history’s overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.
                                          “A Blackbird, Singing”  ~  R.S. Thomas

 

Comments always are welcome.
Click here for more information on poet R.S. Thomas.

Ashe-Choo!

The scourge of the Texas Hill Country ~ Ashe juniper releasing pollen

Overwhelmed in kindergarten, we wouldn’t have dared to jeer at anyone. In first grade, we began forging alliances, sending our boldest competitors into the fray and encouraging them from the sidelines. By second grade, we were ready to join in the fun, taunting even fifth and sixth-graders with our generations-old insults:

So’s your old man!
Your mother wears combat boots!
Liar, liar, pants on fire!

In time, developing vocabularies and an increasing appreciation for word play moved us toward more complex insults:

When they were giving out brains, you thought they said canes, and said, “I don’t need one!”

As our ability to lob or fend off good verbal assaults developed, we became unknowing participants in a tradition reaching back to Shakespeare and beyond: a tradition maintained by sharp-tongued repartee artists closer to our time.

“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” (Oscar Wilde)
“He has all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty.” (Sam Houston)
“His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” (Mae West)
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” (Groucho Marx)

When Lady Astor remarked to Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” Churchill famously replied, “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” Churchill spared no one, as George Bernard Shaw learned after telegraphing Churchill to say, “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend – if you have one.” Completely unfazed, Churchill sent a message of his own. “Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second – if there is one.”

Despite being attributed to Dorothy Parker, one of most trenchant and oft-quoted bits of snark in recent history actually was embroidered on a sitting room pillow belonging to Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

No group sat next to Longworth more willingly than many of our best-known novelists and poets. T.S. Eliot said of Henry James, “[He] has a mind – a sensibility -so fine that no mere idea could ever penetrate it.” Robert Browning endured Gerard Manley Hopkins’s assertion that, “[Browning’s] verse is the beads without the string,” while Austenites no doubt recall Mark Twain’s observation that “Jane Austen’s books…are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”

Even William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway felt it necessary to trade insults. Faulker once observed that Hemingway “has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.”

Chafed by the criticism, Hemingway responded, “I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which, if you arrange then in the proper combination, you make it stick.”

Given today’s general loss of vocabulary, the promotion of crude and vulgar language by celebrities, and the tendency of social media postings to resemble grade-school level banter, artful insults are hard to find. Nature, on the other hand, continues to perfect the form. Each spring she offers up wordless taunts in a form difficult to counter: the impertinence called pollen.

In Texas, spring pollen season begins early. By December or January, the tree variously called mountain cedar, post cedar, or, more properly, Ashe juniper begins to develop tiny, amber-colored male cones. When conditions are right, pollen-covered cones blanket the trees, drooping the limbs with their weight and making the hills glow an unearthly orange.

Ashe juniper cones ~ photo by Bob Harms, University of Texas

As the wind rises, great clouds of pollen are released to drift across a broad swath of Texas, as far south as the Rio Grande and as far east as Beaumont. If conditions are right, you can hear the sound of the trees releasing their burden into the wind.

Newcomers to Texas can be forgiven their assumption that references to cedars “popping” are hyperbole, or perhaps a folksy figure of speech. In fact, the ‘pop’ of the cones can be audible, and the ‘cedar smoke’ that results — clouds of a particularly nasty pollen — are nothing to sneeze at, even though multitudes do sneeze because of the ghastly allergy called ‘cedar fever.’ Most don’t develop a true fever at all, but that’s small comfort given the severity of other symptoms: itchy eyes, a runny nose, sneezing and wheezing, and major sinus infections.

Rusty Hierholzer, Kerr County sheriff, captured a release of the trouble-making pollen on video.

Mountain cedar, aka Ashe juniper ( Juniperus ashei) releasing pollen

In a passionate and humorous Texas Monthly harangue on all things cedar, Joe Patoski pondered the phenomenon:

I hate cedar. Especially this time of year, when central Texas cedars—one of the most prolifically pollinating plants in North America—dramatically release copious airborne pollens in explosive puffs of orange-red smoke whenever cold winds blow from the north. Like gnarly little fishhooks, the pollens invade my nostrils and sinuses. Before long I’m sniffling and vacant, sick and tired. I hate cedar fever.

As do we all. Some barricade themselves in their homes. Others buy stock in antihistamine manufacturers. The writer J.Frank Dobie famously left Austin every year when the pollen began to fly. As his biographer, Steven L. Davis, recalls:

Dobie suffered terribly from Cedar Fever, the winter allergy outbreak that afflicts many Austinites. For years he had made himself scarce during pollen’s peak months [and] had long arranged his university schedule so he could teach his “Life and Literature of the Southwest” course in the spring, after the pollen had died down.

Given its ability to annoy humans, as well as its disputed reputation for hogging water, it might seem tempting to pursue on a state-wide basis the course taken by some individual landowners: eradication.

But Ashe juniper is native, and an important part of the regional ecosystem. The tree provides shelter for a variety of wildlife, and nesting materials for  the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Deer, raccoons, gray foxes, coyotes, and jackrabbits consume the berry-like cones, particularly when other forages are limited or of poor quality.

Ashe juniper berries

American robins and cedar waxwings, common winter residents in central Texas, feed on the berries as well, and the trees help to limit soil erosion on steep canyon slopes and in areas where vegetation is sparse. 

Host to the Juniper hairstreak, a green-winged butterfly that feasts on its leaves and nectars on native agarita, ‘mountain cedar’ also provides a rich environment for the native plants that thrive in its mulch.

Texas juniper hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus castalis) nectaring on milkweed

As February gives way to March, the amount of cedar pollen decreases, even as oak and pine pollen increase. Elm, ash, and willow already have begun to add to the mix and soon, as spring unfolds across the country, the sneezing and grumpiness will commence in locations as widely separated as South Carolina and Oregon. But if the thin, greenish-yellow veils covering patio tables, mailboxes, sidewalks, and cars are as insulting as they are inevitable, they bring a certain beauty as well: the aesthetic appeal of pollen swirls on water, and the equally pleasing swirl of a new season into our lives.

Oak pollen abstraction

 

Comments always are welcome.
Photos can be enlarged by clicking on the image.