TREES IN BEAUTY, TIME + SPACE

 

Trees In Beauty, Time + Space

 

 

I grew up in the Caribbean and never experienced autumn or snowfall until I was twenty-four years old, when I migrated to New York. There are two seasons in the islands of the Caribbean, the rainy season and the dry season. In Trinidad we look forward to the flowering of the Poui tree (Tabebuia serratifolia) from March to May, at the beginning of the dry season. We can see the explosion of yellow flowers in the distant hills and on the Northern Ranges and how they shower parked cars.  Sometimes the trees will  flower more than once, as blossoms are affected by rainfall. There is a saying among students at UWI or the University of the West Indies, that if you did not know your sh...t  by the time the Poui finished flowering, you are in serious trouble.

 

Here in the northeast US landscapes and trees define the passage of time in a very dramatic way. Fall color is awesome and leaves of honeylocust and tilia create cheerful litter on city streets while we adjust our wardrobes. It may be no big deal to many but is is quite extraordinary to me to witness the unclothing of trees until they stand there naked and vulnerable. Old, long-deserted nests are exposed and birds move on, into greener homes for the winter. 

 

 

 


I do not love the cold but I cherish landscapes where the bare branches of deciduous trees create seemingly infinite layers and impenetrable screens with chartreuse hints from the vertical branches of weeping willows. Magical landscapes appear with the look of black and white photographs with washes of ocher, burnt sienna and umber in small patches. A favorite winter event is traveling by train or bus  across states to view wetlands and other landscapes from or near bridges. Landscapes are particularly beautiful with the fluffy ocher seed heads of phragmites and masses of vertical stems of other grasses, creating soft drifts of color and etches against snow or dark land. 

 


Then, just as I am weary from the endless winter, textured bark and the forms of trees appear more pronounced; buds take on wonderful tints and slowly morph from points and knobs into ruffles, fluffs, tassels and scales. Some burst into pink and white puffs. Amalenchier, Malus, Cherries and Cercis pop out of every corner. Leaves in various shades unfurl, robins are everywhere and another Spring is on the way. Before you know it the ground is carpeted in delicate loveliness. 

 


 





A temporary kind of sadness always seeps in at this time. Beauty is fleeting. It is another Spring
and I am another year older. I remind myself that there is no point in wallowing on things I cannot control. I remind myself to roll with the weather, the seasons, with ageing, the changing landscapes, the good and bad of this stampeding world and life, and to cherish it all.

CLEVER CATERPILLARS

Butterflies, like all organisms, are intent on surviving. Some live for only a few days while others live for many months in their adult stage, often surviving harsh winters or perilous journeys to food and breeding grounds. The goal is always the same: to mate, reproduce and continue the survival of the species.

Some butterflies have evolved clever tactics to disguise themselves and avoid predation by birds. The viceroy butterfly has wing venation and color that resembles those of the monarch butterfly, a species that is toxic to birds. Monarch caterpillars ingest chemicals from milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.)  that make the adult butterfly particularly unpalatable and in some cases, toxic. Birds know this. By assuming the color and pattern of the monarch, the viceroy evades predators.  Similarly, the red spotted purple exhibits mimicry as it has evolved to look a lot like the pipevine swallowtail, which is also toxic or unpleasant tasting.  Birds don't take a chance and stay clear of the red-spotted purple, which, I bet is is absolutely delicious.

                                                                                                                                                                                        The orange dog (which is the caterpillar of the giant swallowtail) looks like bird poop. Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars have fake eye markings  that make them look like a snake, a clever strategy to confuse and  intimidate bird predators. 

The relationship between the nymph stage of the ladybug and the swallowtail caterpillar is a source of wonder to me. They both thrive on fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) in my garden. The tiny caterpillars eat the leaves while the ladybug nymphs eat the aphids that suck juices from the plant. Paper wasps prey on swallowtail caterpillars. Great for the plant but not so for the black swallowtail, which is one of my favorite butterfly species. 
 

 
 
Once the plant, with the juicy soft bodies is discovered, wasps hang around for a feast. What is remarkable is the resemblance between the young caterpillars and the ladybug nymphs. I often wonder if the caterpillars have evolved to be mistaken for nymphs. Tricky!  
 
 




 
 
 
Newly hatched black swallowtail caterpillars have a white bar around their midsection and stubby projections overall.
 






 
 
 
As they grow older, the black swallowtail caterpillars look nothing like when they are newly hatched.  Their color changes to a stripped white, black and yellow to greenish coat.
 
 

Nevertheless, they are still preyed upon by wasps. I know they must eat too but I am bias and would much rather  have more caterpillars than wasps on my fennel plant. I also welcome the ravenous ladybug nymph. Without it I think there would be many less black swallowtails for us to enjoy.

 





 


COME LEH WE LIME - Peas, Fire + Steel

 
Today, one day before Ash Wednesday, marks the end of the two-day celebration of revelry and musical explosion in what has been called the greatest show on earth, Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. For years I witnessed thousands of paraders donning costumes fashioned around social commentary, political satire, global issues of the day, history, folklore, flora and fauna of the islands. All the happenings of the past year could be themes for new calypsos and large costumes and I can imagine overwhelmingly orange costumes, referencing the virus and Trump. Many decades of wire bending tradition goes into creating some of the worlds most intricate, flexible and magnificent costumes for the Kings and Queens of the bands. The followers usually frolic in simpler costumes; lighter, more flexible versions of the king and queen. In recent years some mas bands have relied on cheap, made-in-China headdresses of colorful feathers on sequenced, barely-clad bodies. In social media Trinidad Carnival looks very much like the plumed bikini pageantry of Rio de Janeiro. However, the atmosphere surrounding competing calypsonians presenting their original tunes each year and the rivalry and camaraderie among the multitudes of steel band groups keep Trinidad and Tobago Carnival spectacular and dynamic.  

 



 

 
 





The pandemic has placed a hold on Carnival this year. The streets will not vibrate with thousands of bodies dingolaying and shuffling behind large steel band formations, performing in front of judges across the stage in Queens Park Savannah. Nor will there be revelers chipping down the road in towns across the country. There is no Panorama steel band competition, no J’ouvert, Dimanche Gra and no winning Road March this year. Today the celebration of freedom and a tradition that grew from defiance and rebellion against French and British colonial oppression is present and in the air and in the form of looking back.


The Steel drum is an invention which first took root in the 1940’s in poverty-riddled hills of Laventille, Trinidad. Through the innovation and Winston “Spree” Simon and later talents of greats like Ellie Mannette, pan evolved into multiple multi-note instruments. With no amplification, a tremendous range of notes resonates on indentations portioned into the circular end of oil drums, hammered into a shallow concave form. Trinidad exports billions of dollars worth of oil and gas to the US and globally each year. Most early steel pans were made from discarded drums. What began as a simple 4-note instrument evolved into various drums that come together to form orchestras with over one hundred players. Large bands are divided into groups of players on the tenor pan (1-2 pans), guitar pan (2 pans), the cello pan (3 pans) and the bass pan (4-6 pans, fashioned from full length oil drums). I have been mesmerized by the sweet melodies emanating  from steel played by men, women and children, moving with lightning speed, their bodies swaying with each beat while celebrating their craft. In the words of the calypsonian Maestro, "Hot like fire!"

 



New York subway riders may be treated to steel pan music from a single tenor pan or a double guitar pan. Caesar Passée is a musician who plays the pan with skill and passion. One particularly bad performer prances around while pounding out the first couple lines of Beethoven’s Für Elise. It is quite difficult to stand on the platform when he is doing his thing and I often want to pay him to stop playing.

Regardless of which side of the equator we West Indians live during winter, Carnival season is the time of year when our spirits are infused with rhythms born of hybrid African and western traditions that make for unique and vibrant people. Come rain or snow or shine we lime, Trinidadian style. ‘Lime’ is a noun and a verb in Trinbago dialect. The word means a hangout out, party or any informal social event and also used to describe hanging out or socializing. I hope that we can meet for a lime in the very near future and celebrate life and hope for the future. Below is an invitation to walk down memory lane and to be introduced to some favorite oldies in the form of traditional calypsos and steel pan.

Calypsonian Lord Relator and Andy Narell Steel orchestra performing in Germany. Relator sings a medley of some popular calypsos by the super talented grand master, the Lord Kitchener, who passed away in 2000. Kitchener was a genius in composing music that was well suited to explore the range of tones of the steel drum. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0Zyn5Tq_Hk


The brilliant Maestro said in his 1976 funky soca tune “Savage”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DA2atUxJQds

"…Especially in the winter

Temperatures lower than ever

Yankees looking for shelter

West Indian on the road, taking over

Taking Over, Hot like fire.

Savage! They say we West Indians Savage......."


Or you may like Bunji Garlin’s “Savage”, 2012

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XKjLOMINEY


Trinidad All Stars - “Woman on The Bass”, 2014

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJiPkzl5R88

 

Shadow - “Dingolay” (frolic wildly and move to music)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_DLpyB_Q5U

 

 

Pigeon peas (Cajanus cajun) is a favorite Trinidadian crop that is usually harvested around Carnival time. We cook it with tiny pieces of salted meat and coconut milk. Or with rice and meat in pelau. Delicious!

I am really glad Shadow decided to sing calypso rather than become farmer. How lucky we were to have him. Hopefully he still had time to enjoy planting pigeon peas, sorrel and okra   when the bass man allowed him.

Shadow -“Bass Man”,
1987

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3O-jgw_V3Q

"I was planning to forget Calypso
And go and plant peas in Tobago
But I am afraid ah cyah make de grade.
Cuz every night I lie down in mih bed
Ah hearing a Bassman in mih head

Ah don’t know how dis t’ing get inside me
But e-ve-ry morning, he drivin’ me crazy
Like he takin’ me head for a pan-yard
Morning and evening, like dis fella gone mad.
Pim pom – an’ if ah don’t want to sing
Pim pom – well, he start to do he t’ing
I don’t want to – but ah have to sing
Pim pom – an’ if ah don’t want to dance
Pim pom – he does have me in a trance
I don’t want to – but ah have to prance to his:

pom pom pidi pom, pom, pom pom pidi pom, pom… "


Lastly, Kitchener – “Pan in A Minor”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGPwBXUKK7I

















BIRDS OF NORTH HARLEM





Harlem may seem like an unlikely location for bird-watching. Yet, for the past few months Harlemites have woken up to the sounds of multitudes of bird calls, some just outside their bedroom windows. New Yorkers are used to the sounds of those sometimes-pesky sparrows that are like miniature pigeons. They seem to be everywhere waiting for the crumbs of your sandwich as you sit in the park. They bicker and are often a boisterous lot too. Then there are the pigeons. Pigeons on your rooftops, window sills and air condition units, splattering the sidewalks with poop and swooping down within inches of your head as you try to escape what you realize a little too late, is their feeding spot in a park. As I write I hear crows making a ruckus nearby. What I am thrilled to hear each morning are the sounds made by cardinals. It is mostly a shw-heet-shw-heet-shw-heet-shw-heet-whoo-whoo-whoo; three or four long and three staccato. Robins make a sweet call too and if you are  curious and patient you can connect the music to the red-breasted serenaders.

The source of much of this ornithological merry making is the largely undisturbed tree canopies that shelter the North Woods of Central Park, which abuts 110th Street. Morningside Park sits a few blocks away to the West and St Nicholas Park is close by. The ribbon of greenery ends with the narrow Jackie Robinson Park, with its many massive mature trees and understory plants throughout the ten-block landscape, ending at 155th street. With all these large fragmented pockets of wilderness, city birds have ample areas in whi
ch to forage and raise their families. 

 

 

Many spaces in which birds congregate are usually narrow patches of earth strewn with used diapers, foam and discarded household items resting on the roots and clinging to branches of mulberry bushes, lovely purple-flowering paulownias and elderberries. Stray cats curl up on discarded stuff toys and cushions, some still recovering from the long winter and too tired or eager to pounce on the all-too-vigilant sparrows. 

My apartment is on the forth floor of a five-story apartment building, which is surrounded by similar structures. Between my north-facing windows and the south facing windows of buildings on 149th street lies a narrow strip of land and concrete which runs along the entire length of the block. The sliver of land is divided into coveted backyard spaces for the ground floor residences and are home to birds, squirrels, stray cats and the occasional racoon family, on vacation from the nearby parks. I find myself rushing to the window, careening my neck and stepping out on the fire escape to find that bird that is not the cardinal whose calls and whistles I've come to know so well. The blue jays are the ones making the loud squawking calls. Sparrows are plentiful and noisy. Starlings sit high in the London planetrees and make soft quick clicking sounds to attract mates. Across the street, on the south side of my block sits a renovated school that is now a luxury coo-op building. One penthouse garden apartment attracts an outrageous mocking bird. I often see and hear him mimicking car alarms and announcing himself to the world from his perch on the apex of a roof structure.

 

Mourning doves are regular visitors to my window boxes and fire escape. They make squeaky-wheel sounds as they fly past my windows.


Slivers of land at the back and sides of multi-family buildings are spaces not unlike areas of the North Woods with its larger two-legged inhabitants sectioning parts of Central Park's wildness for sleep, recreation, bodily functions and other human pastimes. The woods provide hiding, breeding and recreational venues for birds that sometimes benefit from scraps left behind by cohabiting humans.The main attraction for birds however remains the same in large spaces as throughout the narrow margins and spaces between buildings. It is in the bounty of trees laden with mulberries, elderberries, paulownia seeds, chokeberry and sumac berries. 

One other factor influencing bird population in Harlem is the presence of human feeders who accidentally, carelessly or deliberately supply birds with an array of crumbs from bread, bagels, pizza and yes, fried chicken. I sometimes shudder to see birds pecking at sprinkles or chocolate-covered lump of a doughnut or starlings squabbling over pieces of chicken.

 


Pale Male is the most famous bird of Central Park and possibly in the world (with the exception from Big Bird, of course). This red-tailed hawk may be one of his many offspring. It is perched near a Firth Ave terrace, overlooking Central Park.


Then there are the birds of the bay and bridge areas.The island of Manhattan drastically narrows in North Harlem. Beginning at 125th Street, several bridges straddle the Harlem River and connect the island to the South Bronx. Seagulls sometime surprise me with tenacity, their wing-span and gall as they scoop down to pick on  treats near the subway entrance at 148th street, often startling pedestrians.A few blocks north sits the Macombs Dam Bridge which connects North Harlem to the South Bronx area near Yankee Stadium. I once approached the east side of the bridge curious about the architectural structures on the foundation housing the swing mechanism of the bridge. This foundation is usually covered in weeds; phragmites, paulownia, milkweed and goldenrod occupy the surface of the footing which is surrounded by a band of concrete. As I got closer, I found that each evenly spaced mound on the concrete was a tightly tucked-in Canada Goose. How they managed to each sit perfectly still at about four feet apart was cause for amusement and wonder.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have a backyard in the city can encourage feathered visitors by allowing one or more weedy shrubs or trees that birds favor.  Mulberries can be messy but birds cherish them as they do the seeds of paulownia and elderberry. A pile of dried leaves may attract warblers and overwintering juncos before it begins to breakdown into compost. A drinking station in the form of a simple birdbath is an open invitation and birds will love you if you provide feeding stations of seeds to help them survive our harsh winters. Amelanchier, chokeberry, sunflowers, panicum and echinachea in containers work for those with terraces and rooftop gardens. Window boxes including small containers of water and assorted birdseed may attract cardinals, doves and sparrows. Evergreen cuttings and stems of holly berry will attract birds in winter and may inspire juncos to overnight as evergreens provide protection during winter nights.

Hummingbird sightings are rare in Harlem. I sometimes spot them at the botanical gardens in the Bronx but will be thrilled to see one in my neighborhood. I am working on it and planted red cardinal climbers, foxgloves and salvia in the community garden on west 146th Street to entice them. Red-orange honey suckle will soon follow in a sunny garden spot. 

 

Dark-eyed Juncos are known as Snow birds. They spend winter in New York but fly north in spring. 

 

I keep looking and listening for new and less familiar calls and wonder what new neighbor will move into the hood and which ones may relocate. I welcome all those feathered friends,  even sparrows and pigeons. It is important that we remember that they are entitled to this land. Indeed many of them were here long before us, when Manhattan was a lush landscape crisscrossed with walking trails. They cohabited with many Native American Peoples. With so much urban development taking place in our great city and the many environmental and biological hazards shaping the world, it is extraordinary to have these beautiful and musical creatures choose to share this island with us. 

BUTTERFLY ART

My obsession with butterflies and moths has grown over the past few months. It began out of a need to identify and showcase the caterpillars that had invaded my community garden in Harlem and to pair them with their adult butterfly or moth stage. I also wanted other gardeners to understand the reasons why I grew particular 'weedy' plants and did not share their habit of cutting back or removing every spent plant from each bed during our winter clean-up sessions.

However, my fascination with butterflies and moths dates back to my early childhood when masses of Urania leilus moths floated on the air in search of food and breeding grounds. We called them 'police butterflies' for their black coloring with highlights of blue, green and white. As kids we often found hundreds of these day-flying moths along roads and sidewalks as many were damaged or perished during their migration across the Caribbean and South America. Sadly, the phenomenon has become much less common in recent years. 

I've absorbed lepidoptera information and started a little painting project. Unlike the abstract paintings 'field paintings' of the past 2+ decades, I rekindled a practice from my childhood: an exercise in seeing and reproducing details. I studied my many photographs of butterflies and moths and also looked at tons of images online. I wanted to give each painting a level of realism and render the subjects with their approximate wingspans and each in a size relative to other species. After a few hours of painting I found myself enjoying the focus on symmetry and detail. Now, a few months later, I have amassed a small collection of paintings.

You can find various versions of these paintings on Etsy under the shop name NaturalArtScapes.
































Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)
 
































Monarch (Danaus plexippus)



These small paintings were made with acrylic and permanent  ink  on wood. They are meant to free stand or can be easily hung.





























Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon)


































Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)


Two Monarchs









































 California Sister (Limenitis bredowii)



Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)


This swallowtail is depicted on Buddleia davidii, a non-native species. Buddleia is considered an invasive weed by some gardeners. I've even heard it referred to as junk food for butterflies. I like it. I always have since I noticed it attracts hoards of butterflies. I am also fond of buddleia because I remember it growing as far south as in my mother's garden when I was a child in Trinidad. Very strange, knowing what I know now of this plant's growing range. But, I dare say that my mom was a miracle worker and grew all sorts of unusual plants. There is a Hydrangea macrophylla growing in her garden today.


Red Admiral, Red Spotted Purple and Buckeye






































Other butterflies depicted include a Sulfur, Cabbage White, Painted Lady and a Fritillary. My personal favorite is one of the least colorful and not a butterfly. It is the Sphinx Moth. I will soon add the Mourning Cloak butterfly and Dog Face to my collection.

These and other lovely visitors are regulars in my Harlem garden. I have created a haven for them with attractive plants for food and habitat. They add a bit of magic to the garden and to a home.

TREES IN BEAUTY, TIME + SPACE

  Trees In Beauty, Time + Space     I grew up in the Caribbean and never experienced autumn or snowfall until I was twenty-four ...