Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Apple Tree Diary - Position

Have you ever considered your position in terms of where you are physically placed as a factor that influences your perception? Here I sit at my table, everyday at mealtime, looking through a west-facing window at an apple tree. Now that the days have cooled enough to close the window, twenty four panes of glass segment the tree into individually framed scenes. Every few seconds each scene changes as the sun rises higher in the sky casting a variety of shadows, a breeze tickles a few leaves, a pair of sparrows play tag in the branches. If I could “cascade the panes’ as the computer Windows’ program lets me “cascade the tiles”, I could drag the ripe apples to the bottom branches for easy picking. Ah, Fantasy.

If perception is reality, as they say, it would seem to follow that where and how we position ourselves (allowing that choice in the matter is, in itself, innately debatable) is pretty important---to understate the case. So I ask myself, “why sit and look out the window then---especially one that obstructs a clear view with divided lights?” And here comes the muse, rising like the jinni out of the lamp.

Divided lights --- yes, we all live by our own divided lights, our unique perspective, our position. A topic for endless exploration. The utterly amazing realization is that every single individual on our spinning earth has a unique position, a unique perspective, a framed view of their own. No wonder there is a great deal of gunfire beyond my apple tree --- literal and figurative.

One prominent public figure in the news has surely put a great deal of thought into his position in recent months. Alan Greenspan, our former Federal Reserve Chairman (age 81), is heavily invested in the process of repositioning himself. This is a fascinating story of power, personality, policy and politics (we won’t discuss money). Some are asking whether the mighty has fallen.


Ohh! How beautiful the Blue Jay is high up in the apple tree against the backdrop of bright red fruit! The little sparrow down below seems not to notice him though, oblivious to the danger of dislodged apples from above.

Perhaps relative to none of this --- is a quote from a letter inviting me to my 45th high school reunion at St. Mary’s Academy of the Visitation:

“Don’t ever let age wrinkle your spirits. Remember, Grandma Moses began to paint at age 78; at age 81, Benjamin Franklin played a major role in the writing of the US Constitution; and at age 60, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.”

It is a generally accepted opinion that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Chapel in an upside down position. Come to think of it, Greenspan’s new book, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World is disturbing to some for its reversal of his former position. It all brings to mind a vision of Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole in her Adventures in Wonderland. Ah, Fantasy.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Get Off at Any Exit!

After a doctor’s appointment in East Greenwich yesterday, I decided to drive up to Providence to have lunch with my husband. On most days, when faced with the choice, I will take any roundabout route to avoid I-95, but on this day nothing else made sense (except to forget it and go home). I took a deep breath as I chose the I-95 North entrance instead of South to retrace my steps to the hinterlands of Foster.

By the time I reached the Thurbers Avenue curve (that infamous commuter traffic barometer), forward progress had slowed to 4mph. The crawl continued to the State House exit. I could see the dome--- and as it turned out, I could have reached my destination more quickly if I had walked (or, the thought crossed my mind, jumped into a boat). Trapped in four lanes of shoulder to shoulder steel hulks spewing noxious gases, revving engines and throbbing rhythms, the tension heightened; a momentary urge to get off at any exit!

Freeways (Interstate Highways), though, are a way of life from which there appears to be no exit. In Jean Paul Sartre’s play of that title, i.e. “No Exit”, he traps three people in a room with no way out. From their misery in each others’ company arises his statement "l'enfer, c'est les autres" (Hell is other people). My sympathies were with that view yesterday. Yet, for a bedroom community like ours, highways are a lifeline to jobs and sustenance.

We can associate freeways with so many of the environmental woes plaguing us these days; (their entangled nature somewhat like the child’s rhyme, Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, remember?) energy needs, air pollution, climate change, sprawl, and now the expanding price of pasta in Italy ( less grain, of course); not to mention freedom as a way of life and all that it entails. We really can’t get off at any exit --- can we?

Thoreau said he could walk to his destination faster than his neighbors could work to earn their train fare. And he did. But he never got on the freeway to begin with I guess. He knew from day one about the logic of raising the price of pasta to lower the price of oil.

There was an old lady who swallowed a horse -
She's dead, of course.

“The construction of the U.S. interstate highway system was the largest public works project in human history, and has altered our landscape more than any other project.” Read more at this link for an interesting perspective on freeways.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

An Apple for Breakfast

6:40 am: As I munched my banana from some exotic land, my little wall neighbor worked for his breakfast right outside my window. As I read last evening’s Pro Jo article about “---small agricultural fairs struggling to stay open”, a shaking of leaves caught my attention. Huh! What’s he up to (should I apologize for my gender bias---). Up and down the branches; quickly, hurry, reminding me of Alice’s White Rabbit, “I’m late, I’m late”.

Back on the lowest branch he found what he’d apparently been after, a fair sized apple. He straddled it, worried it, twisted, turned and generally beat on it until it fell. Ah! It fell at the base of the tree, behind the wall, out of my view. Darn!

I left my banana to go take a look, crept as quietly as I could. Yes! He didn’t hear me; there he is, tucked safely into the tiger lilies. Oops! a squeak/scold/leap, all in a blink, into the wall. I felt a little pang of guilt, believe it or not, but I had to see the whole breakfast routine unfolding just outside my window.

Back to my banana and the “fair” article. Past President of the Middlefield, MA fair is quoted saying, “You beat yourself up year after year, and it reaches a point when you ask yourself what we’re doing this for.” “It’s mostly about tradition. But it gets to be a real soul search.”

FPS is currently researching the history of Old Home Days for a book that will be ready for OHD in 2008. Thanks to Earl Hopkins for loaning the original journals of the Old Home Association, started in 1904. Tradition is alive in our hands as we read them.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Good Book

Here is a link to a complete online copy of John Burroughs' 1916 book, Under the Apple Trees. I had never read Burroughs work until I discovered this wonderful book online when I "googled" Apple Tree Diary out of curiosity, lest I was infringing on a copyright by using that title. If you enjoy observing the wild creatures amongst whom you live, and have time and taste for a philosophical view of their kingdom, I recommend this wise and soothing book by this renowned naturalist.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Apple Tree Diary - Questions

The blush of ripening apples fills the window these past few days; the change was imperceptible but now is striking. The fading days of summer have spirited the bright birds to some secluded woodland retreat, leaving the abundance of the apple tree to the enterprising chipmunks and woodchucks. Even a garter snake raised a pale green throat to survey the prospects.

Shall I gamble with the chances of the ripening fruit to survive the burdened branches of the tree---and the lust of the wild creatures anxious for its fall? Or shall I pick and pray that the fruit will mellow in safety behind the window pane? Do apples ripen off the tree? If not, to what use could they be put---apple piccalilli, like tomatoes?

A trip down the walk these days draws the eye to a half-eaten apple on the wall under the tree, covered by mid-day with bees seizing an opportunity. Will a hint of apple flavor their honey, or is that only from the nectar of flowers? There are apple and bee experts in Town who know the answers to such questions, but truth be told, it is the food for thought, alive in the apple tree, which nourishes something the facts never will. Questions of all sorts ripen and cluster; weighty questions float on tenuous branches in the sunny breeze, the rain, the mist and fog.

The apple tree as symbol traces its’ pedigree from the Book of Genesis to “motherhood, apple pie and Chevrolet”. We have the bad apple in a barrel and the medicinal apple that keeps the doctor away. What is it about an apple tree? I can’t remember hearing about the other side of the apple---I guess that’s a coin---something about light and dark, good and evil.

Speaking of light and dark, I took this shot of my woodchuck through the window screen. It developed as a faded “wash’, but thanks to the miracle of MS Picture Manager I was able to tinker until I cleared it up enough to share here. He clearly has a question; I wonder what it is.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

High Finance Connections

This post links to an article about Charles Dow, a Sterling, CT, native and founder of the publishing empire, Dow Jones. Thanks to Heidi Colwell for sending the article. It is a timely memoir in these days of stock market unrest; and it highlights a few historic connections between Foster, eastern Connecticut and high finance.

So many early settlers came to Foster (then Scituate) from Sterling and Killingly, CT. Just a week ago FPS had a request for information from a lady in New York about her ancestor, Frink Uriah Dorrance, who was the son of Alexander Dorrance and Elizabeth Frink. In the article about Charles Dow, author Bill Stanley, a Sterling native, mentions the “legendary Herman Frink” who owned the gorgeous farmland at the top of Ekonk Hill on Route 49 in Sterling. (That site was proposed, by Bill Stanley, for an international airport during the 1980s, and was one of the threats that Foster faced a few decades ago.)

The Dorrance connection is to the Dorrance House, c.1720, on Jenks Road in Foster (National Register, 1971) The Dorrance brothers emigrated from Ireland to eastern CT before 1719, but due to the dispute over the RI/CT border, ended up on the Quandoc Brook (which separates RI from CT) in Foster, where they built saw and grist mills, establishing southwestern Foster along with the Tyler families, also natives of CT.

In a different Foster location, another giant in the world of finance, US Senator Nelson W. Aldrich (from 1881 to 1911), was born in the Gideon Burgess Homestead on Burgess Rd. The Aldriches moved to East Killingly, CT where Nelson grew up. “He became such a leading figure in the Senate and in the national government that he was often referred to as the ‘general manager of the United States’. Congress moved to revise the monetary system by creating the National Monetary Commission, led by U.S. Senator Nelson W Aldrich of Rhode Island as chairman, 1908-1912. Senator Aldrich was chief sponsor of The National Monetary Commission--the National Reserve Association which eventually became the Federal Reserve System.
(From The History of the Rhode Island General Assembly)

There seems a bit of irony in the fact that CT’s economically depressed quiet corner and our small Town, which cannot wield the influence today to rate a single traffic light, cable television or complete access to high speed internet connections, spawned two of the most influential men in the history of the world’s high finance. I have to wonder if they knew each other. Read this biography of Charles Dow and compare with that of Nelson Aldrich. Hard to believe they didn't know each other. Write to us if you find the connection before we do.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A nest of robins in her hair.*

In yesterday’s Providence Sunday Journal, Paul Davis wrote, “RI forests are losing ground”. He tells us that “A relentless march of development is eating into the State’s forests, threatening the natural, economic and spiritual benefits of Rhode Island’s woods.”

In 1861, Henry David Thoreau asked, “What are the natural features which make a township handsome? A river, with its waterfalls and meadows, a lake, a hill, a cliff or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient trees standing singly. Such things are beautiful; they have a high use which dollars and cents never represent. If the inhabitants of a town were wise they would preserve such things; for such things educate more than any hired teachers or preachers, or any at present recognized system of school education. I do not think him fit to be the founder of a state or even of a town who does not foresee the use of these things, but legislates chiefly for oxen, as it were.” ( from H. D. Thoreau: A Writer’s Journal, p. 226)

Old photographs of Foster, from the turn of the century, record the long views over countryside cleared of forests. Trees served the need of early settlers for shelter, space to grow food, as well as timbers for King Charles. Today, much of the forest cleared for housing is cast into a chipper to mulch suburban landscapes.

The Foster Conservation Commission is currently helping the RI Tree Council find a Champion Tree. If you know of a special specimen, email a member of the Conservation Commission.The Tree Council also sponsors a Tree Steward Program.

The Foster Land Trust has worked quietly and effectively since 1990 to save both forests and meadow for our future. We’d like to publish a list of their properties for our readers.

Forests are a major asset in Foster, the State, the world---a topic for endless discussion---environmental, economic, and as poetic muse.

* “Trees” by Alfred Joyce Kilmer, 1913.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Apple Tree Diary, August 14th

New day dawns all washed and shining;

Showy rain diamonds cling to leafy fingers

betrothed to a glorious sun for the day.

Dark memory of night’s past storm

evaporates in blinding light.

Stormy fear slips away.

Hope returns.

Only the fearsome red squirrel in the tree today.

I dare not breach her manic preoccupation with a greeting.


I was a bit late in planting a flower border by my kitchen door this year. My faithful sage and rue, catmint and daylilies stood tall, dwarfing St. Elisabeth (she of the bread and roses) but no flowering border softened the edge of the dooryard garden. From Howard Hill Farm I bought several exquisite, striped, lavender Petunias. I sweltered through the planting as soon as I brought the pretty things home --- plenty of water to compensate for the hot sun---I broke all the rules of ideal planting time.

Work completed, perhaps ten minutes passed before I looked out the kitchen sink window to admire my handiwork. WHAT! I suddenly froze at the sight of a brown ball of fur with a pointy snout, partly hidden beneath the sage, munching vigorously on my just-planted Petunias. I flew to the door, raced out screaming at our resident Woodchuck, but not before he denuded an entire plant of its lovely blooms. Heartbreaking!

About three weeks have now passed since this incident. I was certain that all my flowers were doomed to meet the same fate. But incredibly, not another Petunia has been touched, and the plant nibbled nude has recovered with no sign of trauma. It has puzzled me. It occurred to me, and I have chosen to believe, that my screaming at my plump little neighbor left him feeling as bad as I did that our formerly pleasant relationship had been severely wounded. For months I have spoken to him through the window as he munched his clover meals --- “Hello, Mr. Woodchuck”, and such silly soft murmurings. He clearly paused, briefly at attention, before going on with his business. We know each other. I know where he lives; his front door is at the wall 50’ from my door. He is aware of my movements at the windows. We had lived together in peace. But, after the Petunia incident, he dove under the deck whenever I spied him in the backyard. He had come to fear my wrath. Yet --- not one more blossom has been touched!

My wild neighbor and I have now resumed our former relationship. Is it possible that we can communicate with the wild creatures with whom we live, in like proximity to city dwellers in their tenements? I think it is so --- I believe that my little furry brown friend left me my Petunias ---as I have always believed St. Elisabeth’s bread for the hungry turned to roses at the approach of the King. Who can really define the borders between nature and faith, or the mind and the soul?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Bell Tolls Today

A few years ago we bought a bell on the way home from vacation in Maine. It tolls as I write on this damp breezy morning. The bell tone is called Chatham, supposedly calibrated to approximate the sound of the harbor bell there. It does conjure up foggy seaside visions, even forty miles inland at 620 feet above the ocean.

I was in the act of writing an “issue post” to comment on yesterday’s Providence Journal article, “Theft---another threat to N. E.’s stone walls” , when the tolling of the bell lured me away. I was copying “---hoping an appeal to landowners’ sense of history will be more effective than heavy-handed rules.” The alchemy of sound, sea and old walls conjured a vision of the Native Americans who trekked forty miles inland to winter hunting grounds in the woods of Foster and nearby.

On our land there is an immense boulder surrounded on three sides by stone walls. About two hundred feet to the east are “standing stones”. We have been told by people knowledgeable about Native American culture that this configuration of rocks indicates a ceremonial site. The large boulder might have been used as a kind of altar, facing east, where the sun rose directly over the standing stones.

The land we live on is a remnant of the Abraham Walker farm (the Walker brothers operated a plow factory in the nineteenth century) and is crisscrossed by thousands of feet of stone walls, which mark the old pastures and attest to the back breaking labor of our forbears.

I have no answers to the question of how we can prevent the loss of the old walls that have tales to tell of Foster’s past. But I think we ought to talk about it. I’d like to learn more about Smithfield’s tax exemption of $5000. on the property of those who preserve old walls. Foster is currently seeking a candidate to fill the ceremonial position of Fence Viewer. Perhaps the time has come ‘round again to create a serious job description for the position.

I hope you will give this some thought and post your ideas. The Society exists to preserve our heritage. Let not the bell toll for the demise of Foster’s stone walls.

Here is the passage taken from John Donne’s Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, written in 1624:
Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Friday, August 3, 2007

A Study in Contrasts

Quiet as a tomb this morning---sultry mist suspended over the tall rusty grass, spared from the mower’s blade this year. Stern gray walls and elegant dark pines stand in silence---anticipating. Perhaps an artist could interpret the subtle color contrasts to communicate the utter perfection of these common landscape elements this morning, on this date, at this moment, barely past dawn. Perhaps a gifted novelist could construct a haunting tale within the scene. I, however, am just humbly thankful for this beauty.

A week ago, at 10:40 a.m., I sat in a parking place marked “Taxi Stand” in Kennedy Plaza, waiting to taxi my daughter-in-law from her stern gray bank to see my granddaughter perform in “Cinderella” across the city. For twenty minutes I was immersed deep in the metropolitan heart --- in a place teeming with an astounding variety of human beings hurrying in pursuit of their affairs. In my horseless carriage, fresh from the pumpkin patch, I felt more like an alien in a hover craft from the far reaches of the cosmos. Let it be noted that I was born in Providence.

As long as I have lived in Foster, it has never ceased to amaze me that we can travel to and from another world in barely more than a half hour. The Federal Census, in fact, tells us that most Foster residents of working age do just that at least five days per week. We are a bedroom community, not a rural community as we like to imagine. Yet we manage to maintain our imaginary sense of place rather well in spite of the every-so-often threats to our land development and more than a few intrusive architectural blunders.

I am thankful for the collective imagination that has, so far, kept Foster a place apart. Yet, a vague and haunting guilt clouds the joy of life so removed from the pressing problems of the teeming cities --- a bit like the mist suspended above the rusty grasses of the field at dawn.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Apple Tree Window

We planted an apple tree just outside our kitchen window when we built our house here. It’s surprising that I never tire of watching for someone in the tree. At every meal I watch the comings and goings of life in the apple tree, a way station for every bird enroute to and from its daily seeds. I often wonder why I never tire of watching for what I might see there.

I should start an Apple Tree Journal; “---today Lady Cardinal perched shyly amongst the fragrant petals, savoring her breakfast as her great protector snatched a few seeds at the feeder--- never letting her out of his sight”

And, “---the wall Chipmunk (wall being an address among several others nearby) stood on tip-toe to reach a low branch, over laden with apples, to explore the leafy avenues of the tree. What are you looking for – so busy, so intent? Will you bite an apple?

Or, “---something must be done. The apple tree is straining under the weight of too much production --- must pick most of the little green fruit before the branch cracks under its burden.”

Perhaps the apple tree window is the prism of an armchair philosopher --- the great refractor, bursting synapses into the prismatic colors of the spectrum, from the cardinal reds of 4th of July to the deathly purple of current events in Darfur.

Today, far from the madding crowd, I’ll pick the too heavy, bitter fruit and watch the branch uplift in time for tomorrow’s breakfast.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Simple Pleasures

These are my favorite photos of "life in my garden". It was a pleasure to watch these Chickadees build their nest and care for their new family on our garden fence. Their simple rustic home is surrounded by fragrant antique roses from an old Foster homestead on Balcom Road, whose owner had propagated a few of these old-fashioned plants for sale from his dooryard. They are beautiful for just a moment in time it seems, but the pleasure of color and scent is persistent among memories that sooth---simple quiet pleasures among the din of the world out there.