On Not Being Late To The Party

Late winter wetlands

As lingering autumn wildflowers succumb to January frost; as grasses shrivel and shred; as trees offer up their branches to importunate winds from the north and are rendered bare, a certain impatience begins to stir.

Winter is winter, after all, and bland, monochromatic landscapes can oppress the spirit as surely as long months of ice and snow. When fog insists on shrouding those same landscapes and gray, glowering skies refuse to lighten, questions inevitably arise: how long will it be until we see the change we long for? How long must we wait until this gray, dismal time gives way to spring?

Certainly, by mid-February in coastal Texas there are signs. Mallards chase one another on the ponds, with mating on their minds. Coots begin flocking up, setting aside their aggressive quarreling in preparation for migration. Their leave-taking occurs as silently and secretively as their arrival; by the time their absence is noted, they will be well away.

Even as the coots depart, northern-bound ospreys cease calling to one another above the lake, and the kingfisher’s rattle already has flown. Bereft of sound as well as of color, the world waits for what will come.

What comes, of course, is the greening of spring: a process of flowering and renewal as silent and secretive in its arrival as the departure of coots.  Despite years in Texas, I’ve often missed those first arrivals, since my Inner Midwesterner seems determined to believe that spring arrives here on a midwestern schedule, in mid-to-late March, or even April.

My inability to adapt to seasons I’ve experienced for over a quarter century suggests that we may be imprinted as firmly by place as by face, with our understanding of seasons rooted in our first, formative years. True or not, what can’t be denied is that, year after year, each time I bestirred myself to go out to meet the spring, early wildflowers already were fading beneath a rising summer heat.

Determined to break an old pattern, I resolved last week to visit my favorite vacant lots, abandoned industrial sites, ditches, and nearby nature centers just to see what was happening. What I found astonished me. Had I dallied, I would have missed much of spring’s first flowering.

It isn’t that the flowers are particularly early. Some typically bloom in February, and many more appear in March. The flowers, it seems, are on schedule. But for once I was on their schedule, too, and I’m happy to share some of what I discovered in the past week.

If you’re still buried in snow, take heart; spring is coming your way. And if the sun is shining and the temperatures are warming, look around. There might be a party going on.


Crow poison, or false garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) ~ Bacliff, Texas
Ten-petal anemone (Anemone berlandieri) ~ Bacliff, Texas
Berlandier’s sundrops (Calylophus berlandieri) ~ 11 Mile Road, Galveston Island
Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis) ~ Settegast Road, Galveston Island
Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule – naturalized) ~ Settegast Road, Galveston Island
Texas dandelion (Pyrrhopappus multicaulis) ~ Brazoria County Road 227
Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge
Evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge
Texas vervain (Verbena halei) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge
Cut-leaf groundsel (Senecio tampicanus) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Dewberry blossom (Rubus trivialis) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Small bluet (Houstonia pusilla) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Texas umbrellawort (Tauschia texana) ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City
Violet wood-sorrel (Oxalis violacea) ~ Vacant lot, Kemah
Bristly buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) ~ Shaded drainage ditch, Kemah
Deer pea vetch (Vicia ludoviciana) ~ Vacant lot, Kemah

Comments always are welcome.

Taking The De Longpré View

“Pansies in a Pewter Vase” ~ Paul de Longpré

Tough and resilient, pansies bring a welcome touch of color to winter on the Texas coast. Beloved of landscapers and gardeners alike, the flowers tolerate cold, snow, and ice; even after days of freezing temperatures they recover quickly, and will bloom until the rising heat of summer wilts them away.

Some pansies, of course, never fade. Many years ago, I found a Paul de Longpré watercolor, “Pansies In A Pewter Vase,” at an estate sale. Entranced by the combination of pretty flowers and a beautifully constructed wooden frame, I brought the piece home, and hung it near my desk. Eventually, the artful signature led me to wonder: Who was this de Longpré fellow?

A self-taught artist born in 1855 in Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon, France, de Longpré favored floral painting from the beginning:

When I was a little child having my first experience at school, I would make drawings of flowers that my fellow students would buy with their pocket money in place of toffee. Complimentary, was it not?
It never excelled any other tribute I have since received: that group of kids bidding their precious spending money against each other for my sketches of objects.

After his father’s death forced twelve-year-old Paul to leave school in order to help support his family, he joined two older brothers in Paris, where the trio spent their days painting decorative flowers on Victorian hand fans. Establishing a reputation for exquisite decoration after only six years, the youngest de Longpré found his work being sold throughout France, and his finances secured.

Married to a nineteen-year-old seamstress named Josephine in 1874, de Longpré continued painting florals, albeit on canvas. His work became increasingly well accepted, leading him to take the unprecedented step described by Louis N. Richards in a 1904 issue of the magazine Overland Monthly:

In 1895 de Longpré decided to give an exhibition of his paintings. An exhibition of flower paintings exclusively was a thing unheard of, and his friends endeavored to convince him that such an undertaking could never be successful: that his plans, if ever carried out, meant inevitable ruin.
The exhibition was given, nevertheless, and its success was greater than the artist himself had ever dreamed of. The galleries were crowded every day and his pictures brought enormous prices. The critics were unanimous in their praise of the artist’s work and the name of Paul de Longpré was on the lips of everyone interested in art.

Despite the success of his exhibition, the subsequent failure of his bank, the Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris, swept away fifteen years of savings. With only a few hundred dollars at hand, the de Longpré family set off in 1890 for New York, ready for a new start.

During his first years in New York, de Longpré successfully utilized his artistic skills in a multitude of new ways: decorating celluloid mirrors and photo albums, sheet music, shaving mirrors, and perfume bottles. Some of America’s most beautiful seed packets resulted from his talent.

As he worked to rebuild his savings, his floral paintings — primarily watercolors –continued to gain in popularity, and soon were hanging in galleries and drawing rooms throughout the city.

Still, having tired both of the weather and of the need to continually purchase plants to serve as models, de Longpré decided in 1898 to take his family, his ambitions, and his newfound wealth to Los Angeles.

When a curious reporter asked de Longpré to explain his move away from the vibrant cultural scene in New York, his answer was simple enough:

Sated with the culture of the Old World, and with the restless ambition of New York, this famous painter of flowers has come to seek new inspiration in the brilliant, sun-warmed blossoms of California.
That there is nothing here to stimulate the intellectual life of an artist, M. De Longpre frankly admits, but intellectual stimulus is not what he is seeking. He has had that all his life. What he wants now is sunshine and flowers, and he declares that these will content him as long as he can wield the brush. He intends to spend the rest of his days in Southern California.

After De Longpré and his family settled into a large mansion at the corner of West Adams Boulevard and Figueroa Street, he paid his rent in paintings and often was seen “pedaling his bicycle through the quiet suburbs of Los Angeles with palette, paints, and easel strapped to his back, searching for flowers.”

Introduced to the founder of still-rural Hollywood, Daeida Wilcox Beveridge, at an exhibit of his work in Los Angeles, he found Beveridge anxious to promote her new real estate venture. Like any developer eager to attract good people, she recognized the opportunity offered by de Longpré, who could add a bit of culture to the neighborhood.

She offered de Longpré the site of her former Hollywood home for his estate, and the painter accepted, with thanks. The three acre site on Cahuenga Boulevard just north of Prospect Avenue (today’s Hollywood Boulevard) later was enlarged by Beveridge’s gift of an adjoining lot, which allowed de Longpré to expand his gardens.

Today’s Hollywood, with an overlay showing the location of the original de Longpré home

In time, de Longpré’s Moorish style mansion, studio, and gardens became an enormous tourist attraction, in part because the home was added as a stop on the interurban railway route known, because of its shape, as the “Balloon Route.”

The Balloon Route Trolley trip, the featured route of the Los Angeles Pacific, opened in September 1901. The line ran from downtown Los Angeles through Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Redondo Beach, and back to Los Angeles via Culver City.
The line stopped at beach resorts and included free entrance to some en-route attractions, including Sunset Boulevard, the studio of painter Paul de Longpré, bean fields of Morocco in Beverly Hills, Sawtelle Veterans Home and Old Soldiers’ Home in Sawtelle, Long Wharf, Camera Obscura at Santa Monica, Playa del Rey Pavilion for a fish dinner, Redondo’s Moonstone Beach, Venice, and Palms – Culver City.
Tourists arriving at the de Longpré estate via the Balloon Route’s parlor cars

In time, the de Longpré estate became the route’s most popular attraction, visited by as many as 8,000 people every month. Tourists could walk from the rail cars directly into the garden, where they could enjoy thousands of rose bushes and other plantings, tour the mansion, purchase refreshments, and select an original watercolor as a souvenir. Postcards celebrating the beauty of the de Longpré gardens spread its fame across the country.

The more traditionally romantic flowers that brought de Longpré his fame were on view in the garden — particularly the roses — but flowers native to his new state were included as well.

“California Poppies in an Indian Basket ” ~ Watercolor, Los Angeles, 1910
“White Poppies” ~  Watercolor, Los Angeles, 1905
(The models for this painting were gathered by Madame Modjeska’s niece in the canyons at the actress’s home near El Toro, and brought to the artist to paint)

Tours of the house and gardens, along with prints of his floral paintings, supported the family until the artist’s death in 1911. Only 56, he had suffered over the years from tuberculosis, and succumbed at last to a serious ear infection.

After his death, Josephine and daughter Pauline moved back to France. Eventually, the mansion was sold; in 1925, both the house and gardens were demolished to make room for new bungalows. Today, parking lots, a CVS pharmacy, and what appears to be a club occupy the land.

Some critics contend that de Longpré’s paintings — especially his romantic still-lifes of roses and pansies — fell permanently out of fashion after his death and are of negligible import today. Others point to his inclusion in collections at the Currier Gallery of Art in New Hampshire, the Irvine Museum in California, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as increasing sales of his watercolors and chromolithographs, as evidence of renewed popularity.

Demand for reprints of his so-called “yard-longs” is particularly strong today. Named for their long, narrow form (usually thirty-six inches long and seven, eight, or nine inches wide), these lithographs were popular at the turn of the century, between about 1890 and 1920.  Calendars often were printed on their backs, along with advertising copy for department stores and companies such as Diamond Crystal Salt, Pabst beer, and the same Mandeville & King Seeds for which de Longpré had previously worked.

Initially, yard-longs were known as “yard pictures,” since they often depicted a yard filled with ducks, dogs, kittens, or puppies.

“Yard of Puppies” ~ C.L. Van Vredenburgh

In time, children were portrayed, often by such well-known artists as Maud Humphrey Bogart; the mother of actor Humphrey Bogart, she often used her son as a model.

“Miss Muffet’s Tea Party” ~ Maude Humphrey Bogart

In time, florals found greater favor, and de Longpré profited from adaptations of his flower paintings to this new format.

“American Beauty” ~ Paul de Longpré
“Pansy Waltz” ~ Paul de Longpré

Today, little remains of Paul de Longpré’s legacy in Hollywood itself, save for De Longpré Avenue. Paralleling Sunset Boulevard, south of Hollywood Boulevard where the house and gardens stood and north of Santa Monica Boulevard with its vibrant new communities, De Longpré Avenue lacks the compelling resonance of those nearly-mythic names.

Still, the fact that the avenue exists at all seems a fitting conclusion to de Longpré’s story.

In 1903, opposition developed when de Longpré’s friends, including the Beveridge family, attempted to rename Prospect Boulevard in his honor. Despite the fact that de Longpré had become an American citizen, some felt naming the street in honor of a Frenchman was inappropriate.

After some thought, de Longpré wrote an open letter to the Los Angeles Times:

I am not aware that it is a crime to be a Frenchman and I take pride in flying the American flag from my house alongside the tricolor of France. The two peoples have fought side by side for liberty.
However, if the change in the name of a single street in this growing suburban town is thought by my fellow-citizens to be so serious a matter, I will not stand in the way; and if they decide to drop the matter I will acquiesce with good grace.

Eventually, Prospect Avenue became Hollywood Boulevard, but in 1913, thanks to former California Senator and de Longpré friend Cornelius Cole, De Longpré Avenue received its name.

Today, lined with million dollar homes and apartments with exorbitant rents, it’s neither a neighborhood Paul de Longpré would recognize nor one in which I would live. Still, it makes me happy to know that he has his street — and I have his painting.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Vultures

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

There’s nothing unusual about seeing vultures in Texas, but a pair of turkey vultures taking the sun on a gently disintegrating windmill seemed worth the stop.

By the time I’d stepped out of the car, one of the birds already was giving me the side-eye. The reason for his attention was obvious; if I were going to expire on the side of the road, he didn’t want to miss an easy meal.

His cautious but coolly calculating expression amused me immensely. There on the spot, I composed a bit of verse for him:

The vulture high atop his tree
will look and look  – what does he see?
Of course he’d like to eat for free;
I hope he doesn’t relish me!

Occasionally a website or tabloid will try to pull in readers with an attack-vulture story, but vultures aren’t designed to attack human beings. Several species, including the turkey vulture, will eat small, live prey from time to time, but they’ve evolved to feed primarily on carrion, and help to keep the environment clean by ridding it of dead animals. 

Still, their habits elicit a certain revulsion, and occasionally an almost superstitious reaction. “Don’t stop walking,” an old Texas rancher once said to me. “You don’t want to tempt them.”


In a poem he titled “Vulture,” Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962) imagines what it would be like to stop walking, and tempt such a bird.

Jeffers promoted a philosophy he called “inhumanism” — a view of things in which nature “not only serves as a backdrop for verse,  but animals and natural objects frequently are compared to man, with man shown to be the inferior.” It’s a perspective that influenced other California poets, such as Gary Snyder, and although the “merging with nature” that Jeffers imagines here is less sentimental and far more graphic than that portrayed in many poems, it certainly is memorable. I suspect my vultures would like it.


I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling
high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward, staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the
over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death.



Comments always are welcome.


The Poets Birds: Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) taking the sun at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Despite neither appearing nor behaving precisely like a falcon, the crested caracara is considered a member of the falcon family. Resident in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, its range extends southward through Mexico into tropical areas of Central and South America. Its name, Caracara, may be an anglicization of the Guarani Indian traro-traro: an imitation of the unusual rattling sound the bird makes when agitated.

Often referred to as a Mexican eagle, the caracara is thought to be the bird originally depicted on the national emblem and flag of Mexico before being replaced by the golden eagle.
Continue reading

A Halloween Spiderpalooza

Who could be afraid of this? Juvenile peacock spider (Maratus albus)
(all photos courtesy of Jürgen Otto)

Jürgen Otto is passionate about spiders: not just any spiders, but the tiny Australian creatures known as peacock spiders. Famous for their brilliant colors and intricately patterned courtship dances, their genus, Maratus, includes sixty-seven species and subspecies.

The first peacock spider was described by British arachnologist Octavius Pickard-Cambridge in 1874. In the past decade, Otto and his colleague David Hill have discovered more than half of the currently documented species. One species has been found in China, but the others all live in Australia, primarily in the bushlands on the southern portion of the continent.

Peacock spiders are so small (the one in the photo above is sitting on a pencil) that most people don’t notice them, even in the heart of their territories. Recalling his own first encounter with a peacock spider, Otto says:

I did not know anything about them until I stumbled over one during a walk in nearby bushland [near Sydney] purely by accident. It attracted my attention in the way it jumped — it seemed more nimble than other spiders. The specimen I saw then was one of Maratus volans, and I had no idea at the time what it was or that there were other similar species.
Maratus volans in his full glory, with abdominal flaps extended
A true thumbnail portrait of Maratus volans ~ notice the folded abdominal flaps

For many years, people believed that peacocks (a variety of jumping spider) used the flaps on the sides of their abdomens to glide through the air, but no one actually had seen them use the flaps for any purpose. Eventually, Otto’s research unearthed a suggestion or two that Maratus volans used its flaps in courtship, and his work with the spiders confirmed it.

When a male peacock spider encounters a female, he initiates courtship by waving his legs like semaphore flags. If she seems interested,  he raises the flaps at his sides and displays his brilliantly colored abdomen while dancing back and forth.

If he performs well and the female finds him acceptable, they will mate; occasionally, the female will do her own little dance of acceptance. But color patterns and dance moves are species-specific, meaning that males with atypical dances, or color patterns that resemble those of a different species, can come to a sorry end.

There’s little sentimentality among female peacock spiders. If she doesn’t approve of the dance, or mistakes his abdominal pattern for that of an unfamiliar species, she’ll often have the male for lunch — as the main course.

The mating dance of a Maratus personatus (who apparently was refused, but lived to tell the tale)

Watching one of Otto’s  videos, it’s easy to assume the spiders are dancing in the wild. But most videos are shot in his home, where he maintains a “spider room” for studying and documenting the various species in every stage of development.

At one point, he kept a pile of leaves on the dining room table for photo shoots, until his wife objected, and other accomodations had to be made. As for the filming itself, Otto’s techniques are relatively simple:

 When I started to film them, I had no idea about how to go about it. I simply thought one day to explore the video option on my DSLR, a Canon 7D with a 100mm macro lens. So I just kept filming them and added scene after scene to my collection. I had no prior experience in editing video footage.
The equipment that professional documentary makers use is very different from mine, with much larger cameras, big steady tripods etc., and for a while I thought that getting such equipment would be something to strive for.
However, I now realize that the small, simple, and cheap setup I used was almost ideal for the job as it allowed me to follow the spiders on the ground and use natural lighting. Once you find a place where they occur, you simply have to search for specimens and watch them or, better, find a pair that is already engaged in some courtship.

Otto’s affection for his subjects is obvious, as is his hope that people introduced to them will develop the same affection. He often mentions that the spiders are considered cute, even by self-declared arachnophobes, and that he “loves the way they interact with their environment: how they exhibit fear, excitement, and curiosity.” Seen through his eyes, the spiders are less fearful than fascinating: the very opposite of the Halloween horror they’re often portrayed to be.

What’s also clear is that he enjoys their dancing, and sometimes is amused by it. I suspect only someone with a great deal of affection for these creatures and an ability to be amused by them would have come up with this video. It’s a musical tribute with a sly title. For the male peacock spider, staying alive certainly does depend on his ability to dance his tiny little heart out.

Comments always are welcome.
For more videos, see Jürgen Otto’s YouTube channel.  For photos, try his Flickr page.
For a hilarious video of a peacock spider dancing to the Village People’s “YMCA,” click here.
For some serious science, PECKHAMIA, the major publication of the Peckham Society, is a good source. Founded in 1977 as an informal alliance of amateur and professional naturalists or scientists with an interest in jumping spider research, the society was named in honor of George and Elizabeth Peckham, early pioneers in their study.

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.



First Grade, Forever

Five-year-old me, on my way to my first day of first grade

As Hurricane Harvey curved east and north, away from its landfall near Rockport, its rampage through Houston, and its nearly total immersion of the Texas Golden Triangle, families and businesses focused their attention on immediate needs: shelter, drywall removal, mold remediation, and the complications of living without electicity or water.

More than homes and businesses had been damaged, of course. Hospitals and medical centers, recreational facilities, and schools also faced substantial challenges. Entire school districts, poised to begin a new year of classes, were forced to delay their openings for as much as two weeks. Continue reading