River Landscape with Ferry, by Salomon van Ruysdael, 1649. This is a new acquisition of the National Art Gallery, in Washington, DC.

Did you ever face a problem that seemed to expand until it touched every aspect of your life? How did you cope with it? At the moment, I am doing research for a story on credit card debt. I have just added a post on credit card debt, loan applications to Twitter, soliciting stories about loan applications. I would like to hear from people whose credit card debt had a serious impact on their lives. How did they manage? How did credit card debt affect the quality of their lives?
The story is in the seminal stage. Its crux is what happens when a society geared towards consumerism does exactly what it is programmed to do then crashes. More on this later.
Dutch painter Salomon van Ruysdael ( 1603-167t) lived during the Dutch Golden Age. Rampant affluence, courtesy of the West India Company spice trade, allowed greater social mobility New riches . Flush with profits from the Indies, the nouveaux riches elevated consumerism to a quasi-religious position. Paintings from that period reflect an affluent society represented by burgers bedecked in lace and jewels. Landscapes are tranquil and idyllic, still life paintings give an illusion of unending riches, posh brick houses are “as solid as ennui.” Their iconic stability seems to speak for the entrenched power of Dutch bankers. But did poverty and debt lurk behind these fortress-like facades? I know that Holland occasionally exported its poorer citizens to the Indies. One of my remote ancestors ended up in the Caribbean along with several underprivileged fellow Jews–not all Sephardim did brilliantly in the spice and sugar trade.
Not all Americans got rich during our Golden Age. I wonder who will paint the America of the Eighties when abundance seem eternal. Will their art last beyond this century? Who will pain the anguish of those who were lured by the sirens of acquisitiveness only to see that prosperity was just a bubble on the verge of bursting? These are the people flocking to banks, begging for loans. How do they face the schadenfreunde of whose circumstances allow them to weather the crisis comfortably? The economy will rebound, according to predictions. By next year, the job market will supposedly improve. Credit card companies will no longer have as much latitude as previously. But at the heart of the problems is the American attitude towards ownership–I own, therefore I am. Will that have changed?


Butter rum cake with strawberries
My friend John has a strange predilection for the likeness of pigs. So much so that his collection of pig-like objects has grown larger than his artistic sensitivity can abide. Consequently, he has issued a moratorium on gifts of a swinish nature, which leaves me in a quandary. What am I to do with the tea towels I embroidered with a sweetly retro piggie munching on a candy cane and the porcine Fred Astaire doing the soft shoe routine? Who uses tea towels anyway? They are a nostalgic remnant of a time when women whiled away long winters at hearth. No one whiles rime away anymore. In Little Macondo, most folks I know rush about doing the things they used to do when they were part of an affluent society. Repose is for those have no jobs, own no homes, have no social position to maintain. Being middle and upper middle class is full time chore hereabouts. It does not exclude the sorrows common to the proletariat, but it obscures lesser worries such as the water bill, the cost of gas, ailing lawn mowers. Middle class people do not worry. They delegate. They do not do manual labour. They outsource. For all that, they have little free time and if they want a little chunk of nostalgia, such as tea towels, they head to Anthropologie.
I know the ways of the middle class from personal experience. For the past few years I have been learning a simpler lifestyle that marginalises me more than being an immigrant ever did. Living simply has not yet caught on in Little Macondo as the cool thing to do. I am patient. I embroider tea towels using saccharine patterns from yesteryear because they straddle the line that separates the hideous from the homely cute. I also bake, on occasion though I understand that what is truly middle class is to get one’s baked goods from a little Jamaican baker no one else has heard about. In a pinch, there is Trader’s Joe. Me, I bake my own cakes. The one above is a plain yellow cake drizzled with a glaze made from melted butter, rum and confectioner’s sugar. Add strawberries Romanoff and it’s pig heaven. Neither tea towels nor cakes make me into a superior person, but they are certainly less labour intensive than clinging to the social ladder.



Hello Ryiad, Rabat, Barbastro, Jerusalem, Teheran, Mega, Rouen, Lisbon and Pawpaw! It is rainy and cool in little Macondo by the Potomac. Roses, irises, oriental poppies, spirea and sweet rocket are blooming, asparagus is ready to harvest and it is time to plant more strawberries. I am about to have a slice of freshly baked corn cheese bread and a cup of espresso. How about you? I am assuming that you also have breakfast, wherever you live and I hope that you have plenty to feed yourself and your family, plus a few extra pennies to blow on books, a box of chocolate, flowers, a bottle of good wine, music, movies, and whatever you like and your religious beliefs permit. Out there, in the big world of realpolitik, things are not so pretty. People are killing each other in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Darfur, and Sri Lanka, among other places.

I suspect that some of you might think that killing is not such a bad thing. Some of you might believe that you go boom-boom and you fly straight up to where your seventy virgins await you. That is your thing. I confess that I do not understand it. It is not that I am that terribly afraid of dying. I just happen to have seen enough death to gather that it is dadblasted final. Besides, there a few features this side of paradise that I would like to enjoy a little longer.
Being on the sunny side of sixty, I belong to a group whose peers seem to be departing life all too often. Two of mine died within the lat couple of months. A couple of days ago I helped bury a good friend. Actually, some of us who love her scattered her ashes in the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, below Harpers Ferry. It was a sunny afternoon. The sky was as clear as the best aquamarine. Gold flecks shone on the cool river water and and on the hills, the old trees had the achingly beautiful green of new saplings. A gentle breeze turne the surface of the water to a froth of lace. A Pawlonia tree showered us with it royal blue flowers.
After we had scattered ashes and roses into the river, a pair of wild ducks made its leisurely way to the shore. A swallowtail butterfly, old quaint old buildings of the town seemed to huddle together arund gardens where e pink clematis yellow roses bloomed. In the hour long trip home we saw more wildlife than we usually see in a week. Baby turtles sunned themselves on a log on the Potomac. A trio of groundogs played in the grass. Deer watched us from the woods. A great blue heron fed in the shallows. Mourning doves sang in the wheat fields. All about us there were reminders that in the midst of death there is unquenchable life.
I think that you out there in Rabat, Teheran, Rouen, Jerusalem, and I, in this little town in West Virginia are good neighbours. We have more in common than you imagine. We hve known love, loss and we have learnt to carry our burden of grief with dignity. We know that some of that grief could have been avoided if only we could have chosen wise leaders. As it is, we have to do goes on when our best as individuals. We cannot determine the results of the talks between Obama and Netanyahu. We cannot prevail upon Ahmadinejad to stop rattling his nucler saber and bringing the world closer to complete disaster. We cannot stop floods in Brazil, nor keep the swine flu from spreading globally. What we can do is to respect each other. Life is short. We can do nothing better than to honor our shared humanity and tend the seeds of peace as carefully we tend our gardens.


Cottage garden design is a populist concept. It requires no vast tracts of land, no armies of gardeners and none of the expenditures associated with the prim landscapes of baronial holdings. True cottage gardens have no formal design. It is a style that evolved from of working people’s hunger for beauty and their need to supplement meager diets with homegrown vegetables. Since land ownership was limited to the elites, workers were limited to the exiguous space immediately next to their homes. There they planted edible crops intermingled with flowering plants culled from the woods. This kind of intensive gardening helps minimise labor since it suppress weeds that might compete with flowers and vegetables for water and nutrients.
There those who consider British artist and landscape architect Gertrude Jekyll the quintessential cottage gardener and it is true that in her writing she referred to cottage gardens as one of her source of inspiration, but so were the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement–design unity, joy in labour, regionalism and individualism.
I don’t know about design unity since these very words contradict everything I have learnt about cottage gardens. As for joy in labour, I have little to say, what with the gnats on full battle mode, heat and humidity making a mockery of last week’s cool interlude. For all that, the gardens of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle evidence plenty of and individualism. While they evolved from the British model, the vigor of native flora alone would preclude duplication of, say, a garden in Yorkshire. In my little garden, Virginia creeper, mayapple, wild ginger and solomon’s seal are a rampant challenge to most imports. Even so, I have been able to grow flowers traditionally planted in cottage gardens–roses, columbines, dianthus, daisies, hollyhocks. Mid-May, they come into their own as shown in the photos above.


R. Cecile Brunner
All the roses of my childhood were French. Cecille Brunner, a mini poliantha bred in Lyon by Joseph PernetDucher, grew in its original shrublet form in the torrid gardens throughout the Brazilian sertao. So did the Alba Amelia, released by Parisian rose breeder Jean Pierre Vibert, in 1823 and Guillot’s La France, the first hybrid tea ever, introduced in 1867. Today, I grow these and many other French Heirloom roses in West Virginia garden where summers are humid, black spot is a menace and Japanese beetles an ever present nuisance.
I would like to know how these French beauties travelled to Brazil. My sister theorizes that they arrived with immigrants from Madeira. She might be right. I prefer to think homesick Norman pirates carried them to Brazilian coast, tending them lovingly so that they could present the blossoms to a dark eyed Brazilian beauty. I admit that such a theory belongs in a romance novel complete with a picture of Fabio on its cover, but it is my theory and I am sticking to it until a scholarly rosarian out there traces the history of French roses in Brazil. As for the Cecile Brunner, in my WV garden, why, it came from The Antique Rose Emporium, in Texas. I have the climber, a sport that popped up in California in 1894. In a few weeks, I will be planting the shrub form along with Amelia and La France. I hope they come with a Norman pirate who will cosset them when they sulk. They will need him in this climate.


Manet, Peonies

There is a gizmo on my blog that tells me who has looked at it, how how he accessed it, how long he spent reading, which server he used and much more. I know, for example, that someone in Rabat, Morocco who is a client of MarocTelecom gained access through a peculiar site that links Rotring pens and Zionism. This unexpected visitor did not linger, which does not surprise me. I write about many different subjects, but my emphasis is on West Virginia. Though I happen to own a couple of Rotring pens they were given to me by a dear friend who comes from an Episcopalian family with no links to Israel and zero interest in Zionism. I am sorry to disappoint my Moroccan visitor, but these are regular sketch pens with no connections whatever with the Mossad. At least if they do have Israeli intel connections, they are not telling me and that is a good thing. I have enough to think about without getting mixed up in international intrigue.

Life in the lusty little village is sufficiently exciting. As this goes to press, the municipality continues to perpetrate something called Streetscape, a project that supposedly will make main street sidewalks ADA compliant. Well and good. I am all for adding access ramps for wheelchairs to our sidewalks. However, I question the wisdom of going beyond that to build uproot mature trees and replace them with the ugliest bump-out ever to disfigure a town since the demise of Soviet architecture. I fear that to add insult to injury, the municipality will plant the shopping mall trees and characterless landscape roses in the bump-outs. If that does not raise hackles from here to Rabat, something is wrong with the citizenry.

There is much that the municipality could consider doing for the environment. For example, It could build a butterfly preserve, plant pawpaws, which are the favorite food of the rapidly vanishing zebra butterfly. It could choose native plants and wildflowers for the horrible bump-outs instead of ugly unscented roses developed by French corporations. It could transform parts of existing park into wildlife shelters. It could limit car traffic in green spaces. Gosh, I could give the mayor a long list of what could be done, but he would only refer me to a committee and committees seem to spend more time talking than doing.

So, you there in Rabat, unless you garden, cook and fret about West Virginia politics, I’ve nothing of interest to contribute. To you guys at Fullerton, Ca, LA, CA, Woodbridge, VA, NY, NY, Ranson and Nitro, WV, Winchester, VA, Washington, DC, Waltham, MA, Drexell Hill, PA, Atlanta, GA, Quincy and Lena, IL, Oklahoma City, OK, Vancouver, WA, Berlin, Germany, SP and Rio, Brazil, Cheonan, Korea, Toronto, Canada, Torrevieja, Spain, Campbell River, BC CT and Stockolm, I thank you and Google Analytic thanks you for stopping by. Happy Mother’s day.


There remain poppies, lilacs, tree peonies. Those do not seem to please Bambi and family as much as hosta, creeping phlox, and day lilies. The Turkish tulips are gone along with lily of the valley. Those made up a feast for the resident voles, whom the cat Ha Motzie pursues almost incessantly and whose sad little remains she brings to my doorstep. The garden is a battlefield and slugs make up the latest wave of insurgents. What am I to do, pledged as I am, not to use pesticides or any sort of chemical ides? Should I try diplomacy? Would Ban Ki Moon mediate a parley with these creatures bent on destroying my less than perfect paraideza?
My garden is not my castle. The constitution does not guarantee my right to hosta. I could poison the heck out of this little space where I try to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables. I am fairly certain that poisoning gardens is every Americans constitutional right. That poses a bit of a problem for those of us in Macondo by the Potomac. Our geology is one that makes it possible for the great limestone Swiss cheese that lies beneath our houses to leach poison from the soil and send it into our water supply, so tells me my friend Bob who knows what is what about geology and clean water.
Why struggle to garden organically when the municipality creates environmental havoc with the little park across the street? This is a question I repeat along with my plaintive refrain about the frequent violations of my community’s right to quiet. I think it all comes down to personal responsibilty. I cannot control what the Town Hall does, though the mayor and Town Council are said to represent my neighbours and me. All I can do is take care of this little piece of land as well as I can. That means that I have to make peace with the fact deer eat hosta and voles eat most bulbs–daffodils are an exception. As for other environmental problems, maybe I should tend my garden and ignore everything else. Who needs the tsuris of dealing with politicians, academics and all the big folk who run little Macondo? Why not stop worrying about anything besides deer and voles? Ah, that is the big question every citizen must ask herself. Does anyone need to challenge authority when authority clearly neglects the welfare of the community it represents? I don’t really know. All I know is that it is an exhausting business. If it did not sound so pompous, I would say that it is a Sisiphean struggle. The good thing is that if enough of us put our shoulders to the boulder we might stop it from rolling back. Hope springs eternal, no?