Meeting Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis is a genre of writing about a work of art. Homer’s lengthy and vivid description of Achilles' shield in The Iliad is one of the oldest examples, though Keat’s Ode to a Grecian Urn is more quoted, especially its enigmatic last lines.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
          Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The writer, and most often a poet, explores a work of art, responds to it, even adds elements from his or her own life. The Poetry Foundation defines an ekphrastic poem as follows: “Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.” I love this description and thought about it when I sat down to write a statement about a new sculpture I am exhibiting at 6 Bridges Gallery in Maynard, Massachusetts (July 11 – August 12).

   Meeting   in the studio. sculpture, 2017

Meeting in the studio. sculpture, 2017

To write about, Meeting, I started by considering its materials — rope and wood. Rope is used to connect one object to another, a canoe to a tree or a skiff to a dock. A rope hammock connects two trees. What intrigued me when I placed the thick rope into the walnut trunk was that it connected back to itself. There was no connecting of two objects but a unifying of the whole. The ends disappeared as if there were no ends.

This section of a tug-of-war-size rope has been in my studio for six years ago. Back then, I suspended it, tied it, uncoiled part of it, and wove it back into itself. When I hung up the heavy coil, it made me think of a Japanese Enso, the circle that is an expression of enlightenment, the ultimate connection with everything because there is nothing inside or outside, nothing separate or divided, nothing to connect, no beginning and no ending.

I then wrapped a thin white twine around the rope, the way a snake coils around a stick. It reminded me of a painting I saw in a small church in Florence. Christ was nailed to the cross alone up on Calvary Hill. There was a simple white cloth wrapped around his pelvis, the cloth painted as if being blown by a gentle breeze. The body was dead, but life stirred in the simplicity of the white threads. The painter may have been suggesting that life is never completely extinguished.

The wood component of the sculpture, a walnut trunk, sawn twice to reveal its two hollow sections, has also been in my studio for a number of years. A bronze sculpture I made of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion, sat on it for a while, but I removed her knowing the wood had something else to reveal.

One day I took the tug-of-war rope and threaded it through and around the wood. I was intrigued by what I saw, but also by what I didn’t see. In Meeting, we don’t actually see whether the two ends of the rope meet. It’s a question that is unanswered. The rope, in its serpentine path around and into the trunk reveals only part of itself. It is like happening upon a snake, though the head and tail are hidden.

Meeting is the word for the worship practice of the Quakers. I went to a Quaker elementary school where we had ‘meeting for worship’ on Wednesday mornings. We sat in silence unless someone was moved to speak. In a Quaker Meeting, we meet ourselves, we meet God, we meet each other.

Art is a form of meeting. We meet the work, its materials, colors, and forms, the artist and ourselves. Ekphrasis writing is a form of meeting. When I write about my own work, I discover connections that I had never considered while making the piece. And when I read the writing of others who have been inspired my art, I encounter the work differently.

At another summer exhibit where I have a sculpture, Art on the Trails: Finding Solace in the Woods at the Beal Preserve in Southborough, MA (June 7 – September 24), there will be a reading of ekphrastic poems written about the works of the exhibiting artists. I have a new casting of Tree Harp in the exhibit and hope there will be a poem written about it. I much prefer to hear what others write about my sculpture. An ekphrastic poem that I treasure was written by Joanne Reynolds about my sculpture Ordinary Pine when it was installed at the Jackson Homestead in Newton, Massachusetts.

   Ordinary Pine  , partial view, installed at Jackson Homestead, Newton, MA

Ordinary Pine, partial view, installed at Jackson Homestead, Newton, MA

       Ordinary Pine         

What happened? That is to say, what happened
To us? Or between us? What
Will become of us now?

True, you were older. Suffered
The deluge. Cast a shadow
More borrowed than your own.

I came shortly after. Not so much a part
As a go-between - a link.

I remember the way you reached out
To the youngest - your great hands - how well they played!

Facing away from you now, each of us
Cut down, I long to see you.
Both of you.

Such a hole in each of us.

                        —Joanne Reynolds



Ripening Fruit

We have been coming to this little cabin near the beach in Wellfleet for the last ten years. We have the opportunity to rent it in late June and though our minds say, no, you can’t leave the farm, we rent it anyway. Otherwise, we might lose the opportunity.

 And farmer Blase clearly needed the rest!

And farmer Blase clearly needed the rest!

Then I received an email from an orchard consultant, Kathleen Leahy. ‘Bad weather’ the subject line said:

Hi all,

Looks like a bunch more hail came along today and knocked out more of the crop – not all precincts have been heard from but quite a few orchards seem to have been affected. . .

This consultant reminded growers to spray strep, streptomycin that is, within twenty-four hours.  “And of course, call your insurer ASAP.” Hail pierces the skin of the apple and leaves an opening for the fire blight bacteria to enter. Fire blight can be a horrendous problem for growers. It enters the fruit and then the tree, and can also spread to other trees, killing them in a season. For the organic grower, there is little to do. Early season, we spray copper to clean any residual fire blight; but we do not spray streptomycin. We can only look for the telltale blackening of the leaves and a shepherd’s crook bend to the end of the twig, signaling that it is time to get out the loppers and remove the branch before the bacteria moves into the rest of the tree.  Damage from hail on the fruit amplifies the danger fifty-fold. I had to go home and check on the fruit.  

It’s already been a difficult season for some apple growers. Too much rain makes spraying difficult and scab (Venturia inaequalis), one of New England’s most challenging apple diseases, has been especially difficult for me to control. The scab fungus overwinters in the orchard floor under the trees. After a warm, rainy period, millions of spores float upwards into the tree like dust motes in sunlight. Landing on the young wet leaves, the scab begins to grow, first showing up as innocuous-looking dark spots on the leaves. Gradually, these black cloudy patches grow darker and spread over the leaf surface. Unchecked, the fungus becomes rampant and jumps from leaf to fruit. The apples will develop brown crusty scabs, be misshapen, and eventually crack.

This year, every time I thought about spraying for scab, it was either raining, going to rain, or too windy.  I didn’t get enough sulfur on the trees, and when I did spray, it was immediately washed off. Sulfur is, at best, only a mediocre material to use compared to modern chemical fungicides. Sulfur works by changing the pH of the leaf surface, making it inhospitable to the scab fungus. I could use lime sulfur; it’s stronger and burns the fungus on the leaves. It’s the harshest material I have in our arsenal, but I haven’t used it in many years. Four years ago, I opened the jug, and its contents had thickened into crystals. I tried to pour off some of the amber-red liquid, but the color reminded me of the chemo drugs I've taken and every pore in my being rebeled at the idea of spraying it.

Macintosh apples are scab magnets.Our Macs are among the oldest trees in the orchard; they are large and densely planted. Even spraying in an ‘easy’ year, I have a difficult time controlling scab on them. Every year I vow to do better. But this year, our Macs look terrible. It’s doubly sad because they are in the first few rows – we have lots of beautiful and healthy fruit farther back in the orchard.

 Morning dew on Williams Pride, one of our early apples.

Morning dew on Williams Pride, one of our early apples.

Arriving home from the Cape, I pulled into the driveway, let the dog out of the car, and immediately went on rounds to inspect the fruit. Blase had returned a day earlier to hill potatoes and had already told me that he hadn’t seen any hail. I started in the raspberry patch; all looked fine there. I pulled some weeds, found a little of the troublesome dodder, and noted that it looked like we would have quite a lot of early raspberries. The blueberries, heavy with fruit, were still a week away from the beginning of harvest. The Macs with their scab hadn’t improved; no amount of wishful thinking would do that. But I was relieved — no hail damage!

The next morning, one of the meditators who sits regularly in our meditation hut behind the orchard told me she had hail and that her neighbor’s garden flowers were completely ravaged. Then an inquiry came in from our local paper. Joan Eliyesil writes about farms and farming in Harvard and she had heard from Frank Carlson of Carlson’s Orchards that the crop on their Bolton Road apple trees was decimated, likely only good for juice. Libby Levinson, another apple grower in Harvard, told me that Bolton and Sterling got hit badly. She wanted to know about our orchard.

We were lucky this time. But there are still two months for the apples to ripen before harvest. Fruit growing is a long season of perpetual concern, like that first year your teenager drives at night and you don’t sleep until you hear the car door close. Fruit growers experience this anxiety every year. Maybe that’s why a good fruit harvest is such a cause for celebration.  Fingers crossed!

The Voice of The Caterpillar

I walked with our old brindle boxer along the single lane road curving through the Cape Cod National Seashore. We circled around the puddles from a downpour earlier in the day; the dog doesn't like water. As we descended the next hill, my eye caught the different coloring on the trunks of the oaks – a mosaic pattern almost as if there was a thick growth of brown lichen. It made me think of the African Kuba cloth, fuzzy raised dark brown patterns on a background of raffia. But this wasn’t textile art; this unusual raised patterning was thousands of two-inch long caterpillars, affixed vertically to the oak bark.

 Caterpillars and Kuba Cloth

Caterpillars and Kuba Cloth

I heard the falling bodies of other caterpillars from branches high above, the sound like leftover rain drops from still wet leaves. I looked up and saw that the oaks had no leaves; the only green in the sky belonged to the scrub pines. I had never before seen such an assembly of caterpillars, nor so many bare-branched trees.

Later, when my husband, Blase, arrived, I told him about the caterpillars as we stood on the porch of the cabin. He pointed out the line of damage. Like the frontlines of war, he could distinctly see the line between the denuded trees and the green leafy ones. I wondered what causes such specific demarcation and whether the trees near the cabin have more access to water and are healthier. Or was it just the slow movement, the adagio, as the caterpillars make their way eastward, traveling slowly, moving deliberately, ravaging completely.

I touched a few and was surprised; there was no squirming. Were they dead? Dying? Tired of growing? I wanted to know more about their life cycle. I knew these were Gypsy Moth caterpillars and that at some point they would become pupae, but would they move into this next stage in this position, clinging to the trunk, all of them head down, or would they burrow in the ground, or go elsewhere? I wanted to know about their particular life cycle.

In this small cabin in the woods, there is no internet.  But there is a bookshelf, and I picked out an orange hardcover book, one of a series called “How-to Know” —  this one “How to Know the Insects,” with a copyright of 1947. In the chapter on Lepidoptera, the order of butterflies and moths, there were descriptions of quite a few moths: the Little Wood Satyr, the Squash Borer, the Luna Moth, even the Casemaking Clothes Moth, which constructs a cloth case around itself from chewing up cloth. The book suggests, as an experiment, to put the moth in a metal box with only one color of cloth. Then change the color of cloth from time to time, and see how the moth constructs a variegated colored case. All of this was interesting, but not helpful in my understanding of the life cycle of the Gypsy Moth.

I returned the book to the shelf, slipping it back between How to Know the Trees and How to Know the Wildflowers, and looked for a more current book. On the same shelf I found, A Pocket Guide to Insects, with a section on moths. This book mentioned sixteen interesting moths, among them the lovely White Ermine, all white with a few black dots, and a fur ‘ermine’ stole covering her neck and head. She could be a princess in a fairytale, who was changed into a moth while awaiting her flame. She even had orange spots on her belly, announcing to the world that she is not to be eaten. There was also a photo of the lovely, bright red and black patterned, Cinnabar Moth, original to Europe and Asia, but brought to America to control ragweed, a plant that is toxic to cattle. The Cinnabar Moth eats ragweed like I eat popcorn at the movies — rapidly and non-stop. Caterpillars multiply their body size two or three thousand times in only a few weeks before they transform to the pupa stage.  Alas, there was no mention of the Gypsy Moth. I’m beginning to wonder why no one writes about it. If only could look it up on the internet, or like Alice, ask the Caterpillar.

I returned A Pocket Guide to the Insects to the shelf, and looked quickly to see if I had missed another lead. I noticed biologist David George Haskell’s book, The Forest Unseen. In this book, Haskell visits every few days for a year a meter square of old growth forest in the mountains of Tennessee. In one day’s entry, he describes how a moth alights on his finger, and stays, unfurling its delicate proboscis as it draws up a minuscule amount of salt from the sweat in between two finger print lines. Caterpillars get everything they need from eating leaves, except salt, which they must find elsewhere. When a male moth mates with a female, he passes a packet of sperm as well as a packet of food, which, most importantly for the yet-to-be-born caterpillars, contains salt. The female passes on the salt to her eggs and thus to the caterpillars. Nowhere in his book does Haskell mention the Gypsy Moth.

When I had had enough of the horrific sight of so many caterpillars, I guided the dog towards a fresh water pond. Our dog, who is terrified of water, was so hot that he gingerly put his paws into the pond. He even began wading up to his belly, nosing around under the bayberry. He seemed mesmerized by the shifting patterns of plant shadows, the water sliders, and watched along with me, small sunfish.

 Bruschi in Horseleach Pond

Bruschi in Horseleach Pond

We saw four sunfish hanging out over their own collection of small pebbles, each one ringed by a dike of sand. The sunfish were clearly protecting their eggs, but how did the eggs get to be under the stones? I could imagine the sunfish moving sand with a tail fin, but not pushing pebbles. There’s so much I don’t know!

Books are helpful; even the oldest ones add to our braided rope of knowledge. But I know that the only way I will truly learn will be by watching. I will need to see the sunfish earlier in the year when she is preparing her nest. And I will have to check back on the caterpillars in a few days, and a few days later still. That’s why I am so slow to truly learn about all the insects in the apple orchard. It takes years of repeated observation.

On our last walk on the Cape, the dog and I strolled down to the pond again. While he poked his head into the reeds, I watched a sunfish hovering over her eggs, open her mouth, pick up a three-inch stick, and swim it out of the nest. Spring cleaning! Then she came back, lowered herself almost to the pebbly bottom, and began twitching, rhythmically wriggling her fins and tail, clearing fine debris off the nest. Over my shoulder I heard a voice I thought I recognized as Alice’s Caterpillar, “There’s only this — your experience.”

And I had to agree.

Goumi — An Unusual Fructus

A few days ago I had the pleasure of tasting my first farm-grown fructus of the season, goumi berries, a new fruit for the orchard. I knew the berries were ripe from their red-orange translucent color and the ease of release from the stem. Goumi berries have an astringent tartness with the first bite (I briefly wondered whether I should be eating them), but once through the skin, the inner flesh holds a citrusy sweetness. I lingered over the oblong seed, turning it in my mouth, and sanding off the last bit of fruit with my tongue before spitting it to the ground. Goumis remind me of mulberries, and I imagine, like mulberries, goumis would be delicious in pies, sauces, and jellies.

The goumi, Elaeagnus multiflora, comes from China. Its leaves are silvery below and glossy green above, similar to its sister plant, Elaeagnus umbellate, an invasive in America which grows up to twenty inches high and thirty inches wide, outcompeting native plants for sun and nutrients. Goumis have an Old World look that suggests they’ve been around a long time. No tender hybrid, but a strong matriarch who grows wide around the middle and rules her household.

I can attest that the plant grows on its own without much attention. The Asian pear orchard completely got away from me last year. When my daughter, Ariel, and I finally hacked our way through it last fall to liberate the young pear trees, the purple asters, bee balms, and other wildflowers were over six feet tall. (Some of you may recall the blog in which I described experimenting, once again, with creating a natural orchard.) By design, there is no access for the riding mower, and I didn’t get myself back there with a scythe or sickle. The goumis came through this neglect, strong as ever, growing three feet and flowering this spring with sweet scented delicate white blossoms for the first time. Many of the pears, on the other hand, suffered from so much competition — I promised them I would to do better this year.

I first heard about goumis though the permaculture world. Goumis are considered good companion plants for an orchard because they are nitrogen fixers. That is, like clover and vetch, they work with bacteria in the soil to make nitrogen accessible for themselves as well as nearby roots. I planted four goumi bushes in our Asian pear orchard with the hopes that the pears would then not need any additional outsourced nitrogen. Goumis are also touted for being an “insectory,” meaning they attract beneficial insects who might ward off orchard pests. Goumis make a hardy hedge and provide great bird watching early in the season. However, if you are hoping to harvest goumi fructus, you will need to cover them before the birds enjoy them all.  Our English word fruit is derived from fructus, one of the verb forms of the Latin, fruor ("have the benefit of, use, enjoy"). Eating fructus we enjoy the miraculous bounty of nature

  Sweet Hay the Clown , Sculpture LH

Sweet Hay the Clown, Sculpture LH