March 17, 2018

Spring 2017 Descanso
Sycamore Trees, Descanso Garden, March 10, 2017 (watercolor and Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

Hard to believe, but I did this watercolor almost exactly one year ago. And you could smell spring coming then as now. I love the leaves that are just coming up around my neighborhood trees, much like the wonderful green spikes in the ground around last year’s spring sycamores. I remember going to the garden and seeing the leaves of such annuals that seemed to have appeared as if by magic, adding bright balls of yellow and red on the ends of bright light green anemone stems. Spring is such a brief season here in SoCal, and I like to really accentuate the affect our seasonal water has on everything in our landscape in my art. That’s why I made the sky such a luscious watery blue, and why I added the stripes of cerulean next to the vertical leaves of daffodils and tulips that surround these trees. (They can be found at the edge of the rose garden at the Descanso.) And if you really want those saturated spring colors to pop in a painting, put them near different shades of grey—like the bark of the trees. You should also know that behind this vignette, sharp green weeds had also blanketed the hills behind the garden. Every spring the hills near my house add a welcome softness to our landscape, giving a real three-dimensional quality to our normally monotone graham cracker brown hills. The velvety green is especially nice on the rolling slopes I go past on my way to work every morning. They were recently ravaged by fire and have been looking more like a lunar landscape with “Dali-like” black outlines of trees popping up every so often. I noticed on my way home yesterday that a number of those dark skeletons have some bushy bits of green at the base—like a green phoenix rising from the ashes I think.

For those of you still in the grips of winter, all I have to say is that spring is really on its way, even for you. I know it may not seem like it could possibly be true, but the calendar says spring starts next week—March 20 to be exact. And you know in your heart it’s not wrong, it’s just delayed. There’s a wonderful passage in the book The Secret Garden (by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911) that will make you believe for certain that it is so. You may not see anything new green and growing, but under the ground the unseen is happening nonetheless. I’ll try to paraphrase the idea of spring coming before you can actually see it through the eyes of Mr. Weatherstaff, the main gardener in the book. The story takes place on a large estate on a moor in Yorkshire, England. Ben Weatherstaff describes the coming of spring to Mary, a little girl recently orphaned. She had been living in a hot and humid area in India, but was now living at her uncle’s house known as Misselthwaite Manor. The author, Ms. Burnett, was amazing at capturing the Yorkshire dialect in her writing, but it can make reading that kind of dialog a bit tricky. But here goes… “Springtime’s comin’,” he said. “Cannot tha’ smell it?” Then he goes on to tell Mary that the earth is fresh and damp in spring, and “…in good humor makin’ ready to grow things.” He tells her that the earth is “dull” in the winter with nothing to do and that plants start waking up with the new warmth of the springtime sun. And the last part, which is my favorite, he describes the different bulbs that will soon be visible “…bits of green spikes…” And he lists crocuses, snowdrops and “daffydowndillys,” which are daffodils, or narcissus. What a great word. And the way Ms. Burnett describes the greenness of pre-1911 Yorkshire in early spring you can almost feel the heaviness of oxygen that a great number of plants are about to produce, like these moors are on photosynthesis steroids or something. And you can just imagine that avid gardeners, like Ben Weatherstaff, have been waiting for just this moment. Today the English are still known as notoriously mad about gardening. That has actually always seemed kind of crazy to me as the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are at the same latitude as Newfoundland, so it’s pretty far north and usually sunless and wet. I mean, without the sun how do green plants grow in such profusion? It doesn’t seem like it should be a climate for elaborate gardens. But that doesn’t stop the people who live there from digging in the dirt and having amazing and beautiful gardens. I have distant ancestors that came from these very places. And I have to say that every year, when our spring rains are finally here, I am avidly planning which beds will need weeding and what flowers and/or vegetables with need planting. For a number of years I would get seed catalogs in winter and I would pour over the magazines as though I would be curing cancer with the plantings I had planned to make thrive and provide color or food. And of course there was all the compost I had made and where I would be amending the soil. For those of you who are too distant from your farming gene, I apologize and will stop here.

Last post for winter 2018 and Happy St Patrick’s Day!

You may or may not already know this, but the Irish don’t actually celebrate such a day. I remember learning once why Americans took up the “green” mantle, but I have forgotten. I mean St. Patrick wasn’t actually Irish and he didn’t drive away all of the snakes in Ireland. There never were any snakes in Ireland to drive away. (I remembered that part.) And then there is the fact that there a whole bunch of Protestants in Northern Ireland and they would never consider celebrating some Papist catholic saint. Those shanty Irish Protestants are my ancestors. My mother’s family thought to celebrate July 12, in support of William of Orange, a kind of patron saint of the non-Catholic Irish folk.

The thought of getting pinched on St. Patrick’s Day always annoyed me and I tried to permanently ward that possible assault by reminding people my eyes were green all the time, for real. So as long as I wasn’t asleep (and my eyes were closed), pinching me should not be allowed. But as kids I wasn’t sure anyone was actually looking at my eyes, so I usually wore some kind of green clothing to school to avoid the whole thing. Saying that I had green eyes was probably up there with telling classmates that you were actually wearing green underwear. That always seemed like a dicey gambit, as someone would then insist to see if you were telling the truth. And I’m guessing having green eyes somehow wouldn’t count anyway.

My mother used to tell a story about her mother that always gave me a real sense of her Irishness, but I always suspected some of what she said was a bit of blarney. (Mom said that her mother used to call daffodils daffydowndillys. Gotta love that word!) During the Depression I guess my grandmother would go into a green grocer in Los Angeles to buy produce for the family. Mom said that the owner was Irish and Catholic. So I guess there were some occasions my grandmother would have orange paper (from William of Orange fame) in her purse and with great fanfare she would cover those Irish Catholic green apples with the paper. And I guess once this little 4 foot 11 woman started doing that, the green grocer had green paper ready to cover the Northern Ireland Protestant oranges for when she came in the store. Hard to know what to think or believe. I mean, where did she get orange paper? I never met my maternal grandma, but it’s hard to imagine this little tiny lady sort of leaping up towards the boxes of pippins with sheets and sheets of orange paper. This kind of activity seems playful enough. But when I was growing up the trouble between the different parts of Ireland was anything be playful. My brother said he wasn’t going to admit that he was of Irish descent until they straightened out. Not sure if The Troubles are really over, but the bombings and shootings we heard about when I was a kid seem to have subsided. Eirinn go Brach

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