Feb 14, 2014

Oh My Love, My Darling: Teak

Teak is the first tree that I came to love. Since then there have been many others; Magnolia, Bois canot, Poui and tall bamboo may try to compete but teak will always have a special place in my heart. I don't exactly how or when it started but I remember always anticipating the encounter as the taxi or bus approached rolling fields with bison and the arches created by fields of teak on both sides of the road between Tableland and New Grant. I stared making drawings of teak leaves and its papery thin-skinned fruit when I was a teenager. At sixteen I dreamed of lying in a grove of towering teak and falling asleep upon a bed or curled leaves. I ruminated about teak. It became my obsession and muse.

Teak (Tectona grandis) is a fast growing hardwood tree, the trunk of which can grow to seventy feet in just ten years. A native of Burma, India and cultivated in the Caribbean, it is grown for making fine (and wasted on not-so-fine) furniture. Teak is long-lasting and thus expensive. Men have lost their lives protecting mature trees against timber robbers. It is the wood most often used to make planters, outdoor furniture, decks and boats.

In 1988 when I left Trinidad to study art in Kingston, I found myself constantly drawing leaves. I made paintings of an aging Eudora Welty staring into the distance with dried leaves suspended in the air around her. Leaves were curling and falling singly and in groups all around me. It took a while before I realized that I was homesick and missing the fields of teak that I passed to and from school and work for the previous years of my life. Leaves dominated my paintings and were carved into my pottery. They came to symbolize the passage of time, change and longing.

It is you I adore. I can count the whys:
For the way your trunk stands erect, like the queen's guards
Ushering me along the winding road to town
Verdant fields with bison behind you. Is that envy in their eyes?
It is because you are fine in grain and core
No architect could possibly love you more.

Is it because I know now, what I only guessed then
That you are treasured for strength and resilience
Growing more handsome as time goes by
Coveted and consumed almost to the point of extinction.
As a currency you are more precious than gold
Proof that money grows on trees.

For airy clusters of flora and fruit, halos above your head
Like so many bees suspended in awe.
It is for your tender leaves, with pubescent undersides,
The largest in all the land
And when they die, they die so beautifully;
Curling and twisting on the way back to earth.

I long to mimic those country roads
And create an alley of you that no axe will ever near
You stand august, while we come and go
Making fools of ourselves being humans beings.
You are all that is good and beautiful.
You are forever pure, forever royal, and forever. 

Feb 3, 2014

A Winter Whine

I consider myself a New Yorker, having lived in Brooklyn for thirteen years and Manhattan for ten: almost half my life. I love it here! New York is where my boys were born and have lived all their lives. They will always call it home as will I. Yet, each year when this horrible winter cold takes a hold I start thinking, I want to go Home. Home to the place where I was born and home where I often think I belong.

But what would spring be without winter? Would our spirits be lifted by the sight of jonquils if we had not endured weeks of miserable cold? Narcissus, tulips, crocus, alliums and scilla all need the cold period before warmer, wetter weather prompts them to pop up. Do I need the winter cold? I understand that gardens and plants need the winter months as a time to rest. Or do they really? Maybe it is just that they are forced to rest and do as mother commands. So they adjust, they adapt, they must or they die and some die despite it all. Blankets of snow are often insufficient to protect some from desiccating winds, freezes, thaws and freeze again that make them heave and me want to bolt. Rest can hardly be restful if plants are fighting for their lives, even under blankets. When I look out at my widow boxes with frozen ivy and rosemary I wring my hands wondering what perennials and shrubs will succumb to the perils of winter this year. I hear the fading cries of a certain stray cat and wonder if he will make it. Will the cold kill all the pests that torture a gardener? Would that it destroyed adult and eggs of the nefarious tick. Now that's something to not whine about.

Maybe my beef with winter is the same as yours: it is too long and I cannot simply occupy a state of hibernation throughout it. Can I? Can I be as dormant each winter as the garden itself, staying in the great indoors, living off soups and mugs of tea while writing, drawing, obsessing over seed packets, plant catalogs and plans for the new year and pretending I can play guitar, under layers of wool? Instead I schlep. I freeze. I shiver and swear on above-ground train platforms and risk breaking my back on deceptive patches of ice as I race around town in order to bring home the bacon (or broccoli).

Forget this bloody freezer! Rather than weathering the weather take a cue from the hummingbird: head out of hell and stay south until the end of February. Each winter I want to go home to my cricket-commentating, gospel-singing, Sinatra-whistling, bird-watching parents and work with my mom, happily pulling weeds from between orchids and anthyriums while lizards and praying mantises wait patiently to snatch butterflies from the lantana bush. I will hear kiskadees singing on the electrical wires and that bird that makes a song like tweet-tweet-double-tweet-tweet-doy-doy-doy each morning. I want to be woken up by a rooster at 3:55am, say "What the hell?" and go back to sleep. I will hear the rain thundering on the rooftops and collect muddy passion fruits that were washed off the vines. Being able to garden all year long is something to not whine about. It is to sing about, indeed.

And what of an endless summer? Were I to retire to a tropical island I would surely miss seeing ice embracing thin branches, icicles hanging from awnings and bumpers and ice crystals kissing the glass door entrance of my building and window panes. I would think of fresh and falling snow creating soft mounds on stoops, obscuring garbage bins and making Boteros of each line on the fire escape. I would miss the fleeting magic of the New York City wonderland, made more magical during the holiday season. I would want to watch as my boys speed down the slopes while I imagine that one day I may be good at cross country skiing. I would long for the winter landscape with seemingly infinite layers upon layers of leafless branches punctuated by the surprising chartreuse twigs of the willow, both beautiful and haunting. I would want winter walks in  the countryside, cardinals against the snow and sledding in Central Park.

So I try not to whine. I enjoy each winter's day that feels like the beginning of spring, like yesterday, with sun shining and the air crisp. I stay indoors when I don't have to be outside. Then some days, like today, it was great to be outside. The snow was heavy, perfect for making easy snowballs. I bowled and hit tree trunks as my wickets. These images were taken in Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem. 

I hope some day, maybe sometime during another twenty-three years or so, I will adjust like the rosemary bush in my window box, standing intact after the last frost. One day when yet another cold season rolls around I will say "Bring it on" and be confident that I will emerge a little stronger, a bit more resilient and better equipped for all the winters that lie ahead.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...