BRILLIANT NOSTALGIA — UPON RE-READING E. B. WHITE: All for the Love of Books

Sometimes, when you order from Amazon, your request is archaic enough that it arrives as a library book.  Complete with faded cardboard sleeve in the front, intricate / cryptic numbers, handwritings of some vanished librarian.

In quest of excellence, I recently arranged to receive works on and by E. B. White, Ur-New Yorker writer of yesteryear.  This founding writer, in the days of Ross, lived and cavorted in the Village.  He would read seed and farm equipment catalogues for pleasure.  A man of such wit as to cause me to laugh right out loud, reading his essays in the middle of the night.

In The Second Tree from the Corner, I hoped to have purchased a collection that included the idyllic, profound, Return to the Lake.  I needed ‘to re-experience those indelible scenes of Elwyn pere and his young son, in the New England haven that mattered most to both.  Part of me desired a virtual trip to a lake, any lake.  The other part yearns always for the miracle of sharing important childhood places with one’s own offspring.

“Lake” wasn’t in “Tree”.  But, Farewell My Lovely is!  What a romp, this salutation to the Model T!

Out-loud laughter, and sometimes tears, accompanied each turning of a page.  EBW had named his seminal new vehicle, “My Lovely.”  [There may be extra layers of appreciation in this former resident of Detroit, then suburbs, suffused with Henry Ford from 2-years-old, on.] Ellwyn exults: “‘My Lovely’ is mechanically and uncannily like nothing that had come into the world before.”  He reveals, “The driver of the Model T was a man enthroned.”

He drove his purchase “directly to the blacksmith” for “appurtenances to support an army trunk.”  “A speedometer cost money, and was extra; like a windshield wiper.”

White carefully explains the cranking process, –its subtleties and dangers–, concluding, “Until you had learned to ‘Get Results!’, you may as well have been cranking up an awning.”

Catastrophes large and small were the norm, price of passage.  Everyone knows about the tires (did he spell it ‘tyres’?), those abrupt sudden stops necessitating patching by the driver.  But this comedic genius conveys the entire litany of ordeals, with a light touch suitable for a stand-up comic.  Because of the multiplicity of perils, White insists, “Model T drivers ride in a state of thoughtful catalepsy.”

He seems not to have been skilled at those incessant repairs.  “I have had a timer apart on an old Ford many times.  But I never knew what I was up to.  I was just showing off for God.”

Sometimes, White looks back with intensity and even longing.  He considers Thoreau’s Walden to be “a document of increasing pertinence.”

Sometimes, Ellwyn B. White is a prophet:  “Audio-visual devices require no mental discipline.”

Reading a writer so skilled, so rich in language, and so unafraid to be quirky, strengthens my spine.

From Charlotte’s Web to Is Sex Necessary, with Thurber, and the essential Elements of Style with the revered William Strunk, who equals White’s range?  Who is the E. B. White of our era?

But there was an added bonus to this book order — holding that old library volume of The Second Tree from the Corner in my two 21st-Century hands.  It triggered memory like Proust’s tea and madelene.

The library card is marked in faded ink:  Ashtabula, Ohio, Library, followed by Kent State University.

Site of our country’s great shame, –right up there with civil rights abuses beyond measure — where our own government officials turned clubs and weapons upon Kent State students, upon our own children, who dared to protest war.

Kent State, which refused George Segal’s arresting statue of Abraham and Isaac, –portraying in his unique human-generated mastery– father about to slit the throat of his own long-awaited son.  Only Segal’s figures are not garbed in biblical robes.  Rather t-shirts and jeans.  And it was no God who demanded this sacrifice, but bureaucrats, officials and politicians.  This masterpiece preside alongside our Princeton University Chapel. Lest we forget…

What an unexpected link, Ken State, fronting a work by E. B. White, so devoted to his own son, Joel, delightful centerpiece of the Lake essay that I do not possess.

Cradling this book of other times, I inhaled what was the most important scent in the world to me — a whiff of old volumes and old dark and yes dusty and yes sometimes even moldy libraries of childhood.

Suddenly, I am back in one of those venerable rooms.  Sun slants through tall windows with their wavy glass of yesteryear.  The light is alive with particles more alive than I feel.  It illumines towering ‘stacks’, –more essential, more priceless to the child Carolyn than all the gold in Fort Knox.  In this room, dark and light mingle with a kind of delicate power exemplified by dust dancing in sunbeams.  In this room, ignorance and knowledge meet and marry..

I feel very little, attempting to climb up into the heavy dark wood straight-backed chair.  A thick volume awaits upon the scuffed table.  I get tired here, stretching up to the thick wide table, my legs not touching the floor.  After awhile, I kneel to read.  I now see how appropriate is that reverent pose!  Nobody has to tell me to keep silent.

The aromas of this used book whoosh me back, suffusing me anew with my absolute craving for books and all that they held; craving for the places where books presided.

In Michigan, I knew no bookish people.

Teachers did not count.

Textbooks DEFINITELY did not count!

The neighbor mothers in Lathrup Village ganged up on my mother one afternoon.  They surrounded her, towered over her at our little kitchen table, ordering “Do not give our children any more books!”

There is a black and white 7th birthday picture of me, in the pine-paneled living room, clasping a huge (as a bible to the Child Carolyn) volume of Longfellow’s Evangeline to my skinny chest.  My face is all ecstasy.  The faces of all the neighbor boys and girls, ringing me, –“My Jolly Friends”, I called them, from the song, “Playmate–”  look completely baffled.

When I had to fly in wartime to Northern Michigan the following summer, because of bronchitis on top of winter’s rheumatic fever, I clutched that same volume to the smocked bodice of my traveling dress.  It would be at least a month before I saw Lathrup Village again.  One of the best things about the Leelanau Peninsula resort of Fountain Point, was an entire room, fronting the lake, lined with bookshelves, studded with books I’d never seen.

E. B. White is a distillation of books, for grown-ups, for children, all he’d absorbed, and all he wrote for others.

The Child Carolyn would be in her 20’s and living and working in Manhattan before she would be introduced by her upper West Side roommates to Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web.  She was clear that she’d’ve been enchanted, had she met them earlier.  That’s when she met the New Yorker, too.  Basically her life has never been the same.

In an aunt’s attic, on swift Toledo visits, she’d come across leathern volumes with silk-soft tissue pages edged with gold.  They all seem heavy in retrospect, for this little girl, –who knelt there, too, to read them.  What she never could understand was that these treasures were up in the, yes, dusty attic.  Sun-motes there, too.  But those books languished there, unread, except for Carolyn-visits.

I was supposed to want to go to Toledo for the relatives.  I went to Toledo for the books.

No matter how many biographical works on E. B. White I read and re-read, nothing REALLY explains his diversity, wit and wisdom.

As proof, I offer his response to the first space tests, which had gone off unsuccessfully and successfully, “leaving the earth’s people frightened and joyless.”

“Emerging Signs of Spring” — recent Times of Trenton Article

Brave Skunk Cabbage in March, Bowman's

Brave Skunk Cabbage in March, Bowman’s

My NJWILDBEAUTY readers know I am always avid for signs of the coming season, no matter what it may be — including winter.

Rich Rein of US 1 (Business) Newspaper, published my account of being impatient for the spare beauties, –especially the true sculptural form of trees–, of that approaching season.

At the same time, The Times of Trenton kindly accepted my article on the importance of prolonged cold for the full health of wild creatures.

Last week, The Times presented the story I’d titled “Where is Spring?”  They honored me with the title of Guest Columnist, and again blessed my story with a handsome photograph by fine artist Michael Mancuso, who is masquerading as a journalist.

Salamander in hand, early April 2015, by Michael Mancuso of the Times of Trenton

Salamander in hand, early April 2015, by Michael Mancuso of the Times of Trenton

“Emerging Signs of Spring”, Guest Columnist, Carolyn Foote Edelmann

 

This year, not even naturalists can find spring.

We have been taught that the season arrives with the vernal equinox, when day and night are virtually equal; and that equinox leads to lengthening sunlight. Longer days, we have. But where is spring?

Each naturalist has his or her own proof of spring.

For one, it is the blooming of witch hazel. Good, because last night I saw a witch hazel tree in Lawrence in full, brassy bloom. They can blossom in December and January. Does blooming witch hazel make a spring? .

For many home gardeners, spring means snowdrops, which can pop through January drifts. Last week’s snowdrops at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton were up, but they looked frail and drained, as though their journey through snow and ice had sapped them of all energy.

For many, spring means the bird-like chirping of tiny frogs called peepers. A colleague at work heard both peepers and wood frogs in Hopewell a week ago Friday. Although I know well where to look and listen, I have not heard a single trill. Peepers do not begin their incessant chorus until it’s been above freezing for at least three nights. Which it hasn’t.

March 27, Jenn Rogers, our merry Mercer County naturalist, led a troupe of brave souls out into dusk and darkness at Hopewell’s St. Michaels Farm Preserve. Rogers and confreres had set out on an “Owl Prowl.” Not an owl was heard nor seen. But the group was treated to the full dance and aural phenomena of woodcocks, over and over, until full dark. When woodcocks rise, it’s spring.

These fortunate explorers, under Rogers’ tutelage, were then able to see and hold female and male salamanders, moving from winter quarters to their spring egg-laying waters. The group also encountered a number of frogs, still, yet ready for action, visible beneath skim ice on the vernal ponds. If salamanders have made their historic night-time journeys, it’s spring.

Near Greenwich, where New Jersey’s legendary tea burning taught the British we would no longer submit to the crown’s dictates, we could not leave a female American kestrel flitting in and out of a long line of bare trees. Nearby, a spurt or two of crocus, some dark purple mini-iris and one effusion of daffodils seemed to certify spring.

A flutter of vivid bluebirds under the leafless shrubs of Stow Creek, eagle central, seemed more important, dare I say it, than that site’s legendary eagles.

Last Sunday, I spent significant time in Salem and Cumberland counties, where America’s avian symbol is everywhere right now. We studied eagles on nests, incubating eggs, performing nest exchanges and feeding hatchlings down near the Delaware Bay. Eagle spring comes earlier than that of other species. However, regional naturalists are concerned that many Delaware Valley eagles are not yet on the nest. Timing is everything with the eagle family. Much more delay and it will become too hot for the young with all those insulating feathers. Hard to believe in “hot” right now.

Our incontrovertible spring proof may have been the osprey on its unlikely nest alongside Route 55 near Millville. Ospreys winter separately, returning to the same nest on the same day. When ospreys are reunited, spring is here.

If you need to certify spring, go straight over to Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, below New Hope, Pa. Return every weekend, until the forest canopy leafs out. Spring’s ephemerals, irrefutable proof of the new season, will be blanketing the ground. In the woods, spicebush shrubs sport tiny chartreuse flowers, almost the color of fireflies. Their twigs, scraped with a fingernail, give off the healing aroma of benzoin, part of this spring herald’s Latin name.

Signage, flower maps and informed volunteers in their Twinleaf shop will lead you to hepatica, twinleaf, bloodroot, spring beauty, trout lily and early saxifrage (rock-breaker). Bowman’s grounds will soon resemble a studio floor, continuously spattered by some errant artist.

In wettest places, an unmistakable spring herald rises — skunk cabbage. This waxy plant emerges like a monk in a cowl, colors swirling from burgundy to bright green. Skunk cabbage can melt ice, as its flower generates 60 degrees of heat. Its rotting meat scent is purportedly irresistible to pollinators. Which, frankly, are what spring is all about.

Above all, remember: Spring is inevitable. Even when trees remain black and brown. Even under skies that Henry David Thoreau described as “stern” back in his laggard spring in the 1800s. For him, as for us, this season must emerge.

Use all your senses. Watch for pollinators, even houseflies. Listen for wood frogs and peepers. Try to scent spicebush and the loamy perfume of awakening earth. Touch the soft green tips of emergent daffodil or narcissus leaves. Even when everything seems brown and grey and black and taupe, know that spring is being born.

Carolyn Foote Edelmann, a poet, naturalist and community relations associate for the Delaware and Raritan Greenway Land Trust, writes and photographs for NJWildBeauty nature blog (njwildbeauty.wordpress.com).

 

Thoreau Upon the Merrimack — POEM

Kayak Prow and D&R Canal in Summer

Kayak Prow and D&R Canal in Summer

Thoreau Upon the Merrimack

it’s 3 p.m. and a Friday

I’m stroking with urgency

within my sleek kayak

upon the placid waters

of the Delaware & Raritan Canal

***

they let us out early on Fridays

from profane corporate halls

to honor summer weekends

but I honor Henry Thoreau

***

who counted the day lost

when he did not spend several hours

outdoors

sometimes taking to his canoe

for day after endless northern days

***

I envy him both boat and brother

time, and strong arms for rowing

upriver all the way

from Concord to Concord

***

but most of all, I covet

his finding a “foundation

of an Indian wigwam

— perfect circle, burnt stones

bones of small animals

arrowhead flakes

— here, there, the Indians

must have fished”

***

in my life at its best

I row with Thoreau

THE JUNO CHRONICLES — The Blizzard of 2015

Snowed Ash Tree

Snowed Ash Tree, Jan. 27, 2015

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that I always feel, and often obey, a mandate imposed by my hero, Henry David Thoreau.: In natural situations, I resonate to the question, “What would Henry do?”  Of course, he’d journal the development of this storm.

So here goes, with no pretensions as to literary merit.

Yesterday (Tuesday, January 26th) driving home from D&R Greenway, I was puzzled to realize that — a mere two blocks from the red barn of the Pole Farm– I could NOT find that bright red barn.  An infinity of tiny whitenesses created snow fog worse than any white-out during ski trips to Zermatt.  Even more amazing, when close enough to see the barn, it HAD NO COLOR!

“Blowing and Drifting Snow”, –infamous in my Minnesota years, zwooshing across those prairies, absolutely obscuring the edges of major highways–, was alive and well and zwooshing along Cold Soil Road.  I am too aware of ditches on both sides of that narrow (seemingly unsalted, unsanded) roadway. The ditches had filled somehow.  Snow coursed, like fat white greedy hands, onto and beyond the so-called shoulder.

The snow reminded me of Royal Icing with which I had had to frost a wedding cake for a British cookbook at Tested Recipe Institute, 500 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan.  Royal Icing hardens irrevocably – and that’s exactly what the Cold Soil snow-icing seemed to have done.  With the wedding cake, [a fruit cake (!)], I had to go on and make roses.  With the Royal Icing of Cold Soil, I only had to make my halting, near-blinded way a few more blocks into Society Hill.

Royal Icing Snow

Royal Icing Snow

Possibly the hardest part of the homeward journey turned out to be the attempt to back into my parking place, with all stripes and of course parking place numbers, covered.  The car’s a little crooked, but, at least, with four-wheel drive, whenever I do essay a journey, I can go safely frontwards.

Midnight Magic Snowstorm 1 2015

Midnight Tree, Snowflakes Catching the Flash]

Fast forward to morning, Tuesday, January 27.  In the night, emergency orders closed New Jersey roads. Snow didn’t look that perilous at various times in the night, but it’s done a grand job of coating everything.  We never had the wild winds.  Our office was supposed to open at noon, but an early call put that to rest for this day.

This is no Nor’easter — ‘my’ snow pours ceaselessly, angling sharply from southwest to northeast, often flat-out sideways.

Snow From Northwest Coats Tree Trunk

Snow From SOUTHWEST Coats Tree Trunk

I ‘screwed my courage to the sticking place” and proceeded to brush off my car and a neighbor’s, [probably the Samaritan who had done the same for my car, last week, anonymously.]  I could STAND on the accumulated snow.  That hasn’t happened since I was ten years old!  I had forgotten how snow dampens clothes — at first it doesn’t melt and you think it doesn’t matter…

Cold Rhododendrons

Cold Rhododendrons

Now the promised “blowing and drifting snow” has arrived with a vengeance.  (It’s around noon.)  At first, great thick swirls, like Isadora scarves, whirled from the roof.  It seemed as though a Giant on the roof had just drunk hot soup, breathing furious gusts out onto the gelid air.  The energy and curvaceousness of the puffs brought back a Renaissance mural at Rome’s Farnese Gallery.  There, a wind god puffed fat cheeks, and white billows scurried across the wall.

Mid=Blizzard

Mid=Blizzard

Then, out in the middle of the ‘greensward’ between my building and the one across the way, a disembodied curtain of snow zoomed across, blotting out the other buildings.  This was like the Nutcracker’s corps de ballet, impersonating not mere snowflakes, but a vertical blizzard, fast-forwarded.

Frosted Conifers, Mid-Storm

Frosted Conifers, Mid-Storm

Meanwhile, snow descends with the furious relentlessness that categorizes this storm named Juno. This is an ironic name, as I am deep in Masters and Commanders by Andrew Roberts.  You could call it a quadruple biography of the decision-makers of WWII.  This spectacular British biographer/historian has great respect for FDR, affection for and pride in Churchill yet sees ‘warts and all’, and clear eyes and wisdom regarding George Marshall and Alan Brooke.  Juno was one of code names for British beaches in Normandy.  On a later D Day, I visited Juno, touched by intimate bouquets, as though hand-made, carefully placed.  Ribbons of the French tricoleur blew in the sea wind, at sites where British and American soldiers had given their lives to save France and the free world.  Ribbons of snow efface everything here at my study window.

Farm Fresh Omelet, Farm-Raised Bacon, Lettuce from Live Lettuce Plant from Terhune Orchards

Farm Fresh Omelet, Farm-Raised Bacon, Lettuce from Live Lettuce Plant from Terhune Orchards

After a restorative lunch, I note the turkey vulture, tipping and soaring.  This may not be easy for him, as the ground is too cold to generate thermals which vultures require for lift.  He’s elegant, practiced, even graceful.  Pete Dunne, consummate birder, terms vultures “The Wind Masters”.  Pete taught me to appreciate them. This black and grey icon of the wild is very welcome in the totally motionless landscape out my windows.

Sun Like a Lightbulb

Sun Like a Lightbulb

I realize, suddenly, the snow has topped falling.

There is that strange sepulchral glow to the world that comes after storm, but before sun.

Sepulchral Glow

Sepulchral Glow

The other highlight of my day was the sudden gaggle of snow geese, heard before seen.  There is no other sound in the wild to equal their liquid mellifluous murmuring.  It is light years more wonderful than the barking of Canada geese, and thousands of times more rare.  I only encounter the snow geese chorale at ‘The Brig, in South Jersey.

These snow geese, about twenty, were nearly invisible in the impenetrable mass of minuscule flakes, if you could call them flakes. Their cluster (snow geese do not do ‘V’s’) was very determinedly flying sharply east from somewhere north.  I concluded that snow geese must have to gabble throughout their flights, whenever the element for whom they are named rules the day.  Must these black-and-white visitors from afar carry on like this, vocally, so that they do not lose each other, lose their way?

The most important New Year’s Eve of my life, when my century changed, took place at the Brig.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of snow geese blanketed Absecon Bay, the way real snow blankets everything today.  The setting sun of the 20th Century painted the bay water pink and rose and coral, and the snow geese with it.  My New Year’s Eve noisemakers were the liquidities of these birds. And now, for the first time (and I have lived in Princeton off and on since 1968), I hear that music in my back yard.

A mourning dove landed – then, the only sign of nearby life.  It looked anything but mournful, perky rather, even triumphant.

Snow Rescuers Snowstorm 1 2015

Snow-Rescuers at Dusk

There is a sea of white on the ground, seafoam on all the clenched rhododendrons, foam and sea spray and god knows what else taking the place of sky.  All day, that sky resembled the solid fog that surrounds icebergs.  This I experienced from the deck of the SS France, which had embarked on the anniversary of the Titanic disaster, sailing that long-ago April of 1964

If Henry were here, he’d be chronicling numbers assiduously.  He would want you to know that all day the thermometer at the front door has ranged very few degrees above ten.  Late afternoon, and it has soared to eighteen.

Snow Removal Snowstorm 1 2015

Snowplows in Half-Light

This yard is so empty of life, because Society Hill residents are forbidden to feed the birds.

The mourning dove seems taken up residence for now, puffing itself to stay warm.  There is no nourishment for it nor for turkey vulture, anywhere around here.

One friend who lives at Society Hill tells me that she and a friend have seen a coyote right in the middle of their street, very nearby.  I have yet to find coyotes here nor in the Pole Farm, but I am always searching

Another friend has gone ski-birding twice this week.  Some of her miracles include kinglets — those golden-crowned and ruby-crowned living jewels who zip about on the ground, feeding with the dapper chickadees.  And, also at the Pole Farm, she was blessed with two female Northern harriers, and the most elusive and rare male, known as “the grey ghost.”

Although the snow has seemed to stop, swirls arrive, I guess from roofs.  The last burst itself was a grey ghost.

Dire Beauty, Mid-Storm

Dire Beauty, Mid-Storm

AFTER THE STORM

After the Snow Snowstorm 1 2015

Calm after Snowstorm 1 2015

TRUE FRIENDS – Poem re Henry David Thoreau; Bird List from the Marsh

Sleepy Snowy Owl by Ray Yeager

Sleepy Snowy Owl by Ray Yeager

It’s lovely to think, had I lived in Concord, I might have strolled with Henry round his pond, met the creatures who enlivened his Walden days and nights.

This is a new poem, triggered by my umpteenth reading of Walden.  What a treat it is to plaster and build fires and fish and stride with Henry, far from the hurly burly and gossip he decries, while all the world seems to be swarming into and through malls…

REMEMBER PARTRIDGES?

Henry, in his Walden haven,

called partridges

“my hens and chickens”

praising serene eyes

— open yet filled

“with wisdom clarified by experience”

trusting

in his outstretched human hand

insisting partridge eyes

were “not born when the bird was”

but are “coeval with sky”

Henry hearkens

to partridge “mewings”

the “whinnerrings”

of raccoons

consorts with otter

“big as a small boy”

heading for a summer spring

–cooler than his pond

Henry is ringed and ringed

by the maternal woodcock

pretending broken wing

then leg

if we could follow his instructions:

“You only need sit still

long enough.”

CAROLYN FOOTE EDELMANN

December 6, 2014

It’s interesting, in this time of gifts and cards, to attempt to define true friendship.

Right now, true friendship is conveyed by people I slightly know and barely ever see.  Ray Yeager, who sends his newest snowy owl, frisking fox, from Holgate, from Island Beach.

FRisky Fox of Island Beach, early December 2014, by Ray Yeager

Frisky Fox of Island Beach, early December 2014, by Ray Yeager

And Warren Liebensperger, “Godfather of the Marsh,” who called last night with the current bird list from the (Hamilton Trenton Bordentown) Abbott Marshlands:

mute swans

Canada geese

wood ducks

green-winged teal

American black ducks

mallards

northern pintails

northern shovelers

gadwall

American wigeon (this used to be spelled with a ‘d’ and always looks wrong to me)

hooded mergansers

marsh hawk

sharp-shinned

Cooper’s hawk

bald eagle

a lot of coots!

Most of these birds were to the right as you walk into the Abbott Marshlands off Sewell Avenue. According to Warren, there was “nothing in Spring Lake.”  The lake never looked right all summer and fall, choked with insect-riddled yellowing leaves.  I wonder if its ph has changed or what that makes it inhospitable to winter waterfowl.

Warren then, clearly disappointed by the emptiness of the lake, gave me his (near-Marsh) yard bird list:

flickers

robins

marsh wrens, which “they like to call winter wren”

kinglets, mostly golden-crowned

chickadees

cowbirds

white-breasted nuthatch

downy woodpecker

hairy woodpecker

American crows

of course, the juncoes are here

THANK YOU, PROFOUNDLY, RAY AND WARREN, for our friendship, and yours, with the wild creatures.