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.

 

 

Storms, Survival, and Stories

Houston’s Buffalo Bayou after  Hurricane Harvey

Matt Lanza, forecast meteorologist for Houston’s Cheniere Energy, shares responsibilities with Eric Berger for Space City Weather, a blog dedicated to providing the greater Houston area with what Matt and Eric like to call “accurate, hype-free forecasts.”

Before and during Hurricane Harvey, their blog and social media postings served as excellent sources of information, making a complex system understandable even as they refused to engage in histrionics.

Only after the hurricane’s departure did the toll of providing that information become clear. Writing for Space City Weather, Matt included these comments in a post titled “My Harvey Story”:

Weather models constantly indicated risks for 30, 40, or 50 inches of rain in high confidence fashion somewhere between Beaumont and Victoria. I couldn’t comprehend that amount of water in such a short time. How do you reconcile a patently absurd forecast with the reality that it’s probably going to verify?
We’d see messages from people wondering if they should just leave. I got emails from co-workers, worried about losing their homes on the coast near Port Aransas. What do you tell people? How do you express this?
As the event unfolded it got harder and harder to do. Seeing pictures of devastation, getting text messages from family who live nowhere near a bayou and still took water into their home, getting messages from friends who worried about water coming into their apartments, I came close to breaking down on Sunday morning, completely.
I’ve never felt so heartsick and helpless in my life. Disasters which had, for all my life to this point, been mostly impersonal, finally became real, raw, and very personal.

Matt and his wife Denise were fortunate. Their home didn’t flood, and their property losses were minimal. But for Matt, haunted by other, less tangible losses, the struggles continued:

Somewhere along the line [Hurricane] Gloria ignited a passion for meteorology… As I sit here 32 years later, I openly wonder if a rain-laden hurricane in Texas is what extinguishes it.
Do I still love weather? I guess so, but if we’re really being honest here, I don’t know right now. I honestly think I’m not going to be able to sleep now when it’s raining. There’s no rain gentle enough that will allow me to drift off to sleep in peace. Maybe that “fear” of rain will disappear with time… But I do wonder where my passion for weather goes from here.

And then, tucked into the middle of his reflective paragraphs, there is the simple statement: “I have survivor’s guilt.”

I understand Matt’s feelings. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, I produced a few blog entries, but the joy of writing, the sense of unfettered creativity, the easy flow of words, disappeared. Ideas came to mind, but nothing seemed worth the sustained effort a coherent piece of writing requires.

Like the Lanzas, I had emerged from a terrible storm unbelievably blessed, with my home and business secure. Even the stray kitty I worried over had survived, and a camphor tree I’d planted lost hardly a leaf.

With my possessions intact, no permanent financial losses, and power restored, Hurricane Ike had left me essentially free of problems.

And that, in the end, became the problem.

Despite the sheetrock I knocked out, the supplies I furnished, and the contributions I made, every time I sat down to write, paralysis overtook me.

It seemed selfish to be sitting at a desk while only five miles away ice, water, and food were being handed out. There seemed no way to justify spending hours engrossed in reading and thought while others struggled to find showers or a job. What good could come, I wondered, from a story, an essay,  or a poem for people left with nothing but a tent, a cot and a void in their soul so deep it seemed impossible to fill?

The paralysis lingered.

In the end, it was a friend’s quite different experience that helped me untie the knots. Scheduled to be in New York City on September 11, 2001, he had remained at home because of a cancelled meeting. As he put it:

I never felt relief, or gratitude for having been unbelievably lucky.  I was consumed with guilt, feeling consigned to live forever in the shadow of those who died, unable to make amends.

As he later learned, his sense of isolation, numbness, and helplessness is common to people who escape a disaster which seriously affects others. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 are only one example. Train wrecks, building fires, robbery attempts, refinery explosions, mass murders, or natural disasters of every sort can trigger the same reaction. 

The arbitrary nature of such events makes survivors especially vulnerable to stunned disbelief and guilt. One house survives, while a neighbor’s does not.  A concertgoer survives, but his friends do not. Asking, “Why?” is natural, but there are no answers.

While survivor’s guilt isn’t identical to clinical depression, many of the same remedies are proposed by those familiar with the syndrome. They advise talking about the event, nurturing a sense of safety and stability, and returning to usual routines as soon as possible.

Challenging irrational thoughts is especially important, as is focusing on personal strengths, and taking action wherever possible.

After Ike, I heard that final piece of perfectly reasonable advice as a bit of an accusation. Having been raised to believe that actions speak louder than words, the aphorism’s truth appeared self-evident.

Words weren’t going to patch a roof, or feed a child.  Metaphors couldn’t produce ice or water, and cooking up pithy paragraphs certainly wouldn’t transform a single MRE into a gourmet meal. Similes don’t scrape sand off roads, and even the most well-written chapter rarely captures the chaos of utter destruction.

Entangled in these thoughts and exhausted by the struggle to escape their pull, I found release in the form of a quotation from the author Ingrid Bengis:

 Words are a form of action, capable of producing change.

Thinking more clearly than I had for days, I asked myself, “What can words do?” Somewhat astonished, I watched my list grow as I reminded myself that words can console and hearten; strengthen a spirit; clarify  vision, and enliven hope. When necessary, words challenge or confront, describing  realities we prefer to ignore with sharpness and clarity.

Words can sting a conscience, or soothe a heart.  Words help to create community in the midst of chaos.  Most importantly, words humanize, breaking down barriers that inevitably arise between the lucky and the unlucky, between victims and survivors.

Eventually, I heard a powerful plea on behalf of words from a true storm survivor: a man living in his truck and tent on a Galveston beach. Like others who chose that way of coping, he had his reasons. When I asked why he hadn’t gone to a shelter, he said,

“You’re never sure what you can do and what you can’t do.  And it’s depressing, being shoved into a place with a bunch of people you don’t know,  having to look at that mess all the time.”

Out here, I got the waves, and the moon and the stars are pretty, and there ain’t nobody to bother me. At night, it’s real peaceful. I just lay here, and kind of think. If I get real bored or lonesome or nervous, I tell myself stories.”

So it is. Despite our slightly naive trust in the permanence of our homes, our friends, our jobs, and our health, each of us lives as a sojourner: strangers in a strange land, creatures destined to be stripped by time and fate of youth, power, and pride as surely as natural events strip communities of structures and possessions.

When that time comes, we need words. We need stories to sketch a vision of the future, and poems to hold the scattered remnants of the past. We need blankets of words to wrap around cherished memories, and baskets of seed-words to sow for hope.

There always will be people convinced words don’t matter, just as there are people who believe writing is frivolous — rather like origami, or learning to make puff pastry.

But writers and storytellers, playwrights and poets know a deeper truth. Human beings are creatures of language, and crafters of words. Words give birth to our hopes and attend the death of our dreams. Words lead us through the mazes of life, and sanctify our struggles. When the world we know is destroyed, words help us reclaim our humanity, even as we rebuild our lives.

Words are a form of action, but they are far more than a tool, capable of producing change. They are a wellspring of life.

To speak, to write, to dare to utter a word in the shimmering, moonstruck darkness is human. And when the darkness is complete; when the moon has set and the stars have gone; when there is only the silence and waves of loneliness and grief, the world needs its writers, its wordsmiths, and its ordinary speakers to tell their stories — offering them as gifts for those whose own words have been silenced by the vicissitudes of life.

 

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

The Poets’ Birds: Ducks

Black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)

 

For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.
And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.
What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.
“Mornings at Blackwater” ~ Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome. The photo comes from the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.

 

Those Thick-Barked Survivors

The Big Tree at Goose Island, Texas c. 1990

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 glory at Goose Island State Park near Rockport. 

Dethroned in 2003 by the discovery of an even larger tree in Brazoria County — the San Bernard Oak on the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge — it still remains the second largest live oak in Texas, and one of the largest in the United States.

Thirty five feet in circumference and forty-four feet tall, the Big Tree is more than a thousand years old. It would have been only a sprout when Dirk III, Count of Holland, defeated Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor, at the Battle of Vlaardingen, when Buckfast Abbey was founded in England, 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, but most recently it did battle with Hurricane Harvey: a battle that left it battered, somewhat broken and stripped of leaves, but firmly rooted to its ground.
Continue reading

Watered In

High and still dry

In the end, practicality won out over aesthetic appeal, and the powers-that-be installed recycled plastic benches along our marina’s walkways.

Less attractive but more comfortable than the previous teak and metal benches, they serve their purpose admirably. Dog walkers, boaters, sunset-watchers, and elderly residents who’ve misjudged their stamina vie for empty spots. Friendly though the competition may be, it’s competition nonetheless.
Continue reading

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