Thursday, April 22, 2010

the lessons of the wisteria

The beautiful pale violet flowering vine above is wisteria (this one is along a neighbor's fence just before the turn off to our lane).

Wisteria is a plant that does not bloom until it reaches maturity (which can be a few years for the Kentucky Wisteria that I see all around me, or more than a decade for the Chinese variant). Even then wisteria does not always blossom until it has experienced some type of distress -- like blows, explosions, and fire damage to the main trunk, shock to the roots (like extended freeze/thaw cycles), or drought. Clearly something about the last year, especially this past winter, created exactly the right conditions for wisteria, because it is more abundant in eastern Kentucky than I have seen in 14 years I've lived here.

For the first time it is impossible to miss the wisteria on my drive to work. In addition to lanes of redbud and dogwood this spring, I pass a half dozen places where wisteria has taken over an entire hillside. In each case, in the center of the massive cascades of wisteria, are the collapsed, shattered, rotting remains of a house, often barely visible in the vegetation.

Wisteria is a very long lived plant, an invasive plant that climbs walls, covers buildings, chokes giant trees -- luckily its a relatively slow growing plant (unlike kudzu). Home owners fifty, sixty years ago or even longer, planted wisteria near their homes. The home owners are long since gone, the houses decayed into near oblivion, but the wisteria has thrived and taken over the entire former homestead, climbing 80 foot trees, cascading down hillsides creating magical, fairy bowers.

There is something inspiring about a plant that blooms its best when damaged and distressed, and which creates its most beautiful landscapes on the bones of abandoned homes.

Monet's 1925 painting Wisteria at Monetalia.

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Sweet baby blue eyes

Here are the kittens at two weeks and two days old.

No genders or names yet.

The little feller with the raised head is the most active of the bunch.

No one has climbed out of the little bed yet. I'm sure that will happen soon.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

under the lilacs

There is nothing so wonderful as the smell of lilacs. I'd only read about lilacs until I was 19 years old and a freshman in college. Lilacs require cold, snowy winters to flourish and bloom, so they just won't grow in coastal California -- my mother tried repeatedly, but was never successful in her attempts to produce lilacs.

At Oberlin College, behind the Conservatory of Music, hedge of lilacs that was more than 8 feet tall and 50 feet long; bountiful enough to allow a fragrance hungry freshman to purloin a few sprigs to perfume her dorm room.

In television series '30-something' (from the 1980's), there was an episode in which 'Elliot' was trying to win back his estranged wife 'Nancy' and filled the whole house with dozens of lilacs boughs. That certainly would have won me over.

Our long, snowy winter produced more than the usual supply of spring lilacs through out eastern Kentucky. The bushes are heavy with fragrant blooms. The ones in this photo are on the Southeast Whitesburg campus planted within the last two years, and this is the first year that they have had blooms.

(Under the Lilacs is one of Louisa May Alcott's lesser known children's novels).

plumes of dust

Every time I go over Pine Mountain towards Harlan County (as I did this past Friday April 16) there's a point, just over the ridge of the mountain when it feels like the bottom has fallen out of the world, and there is a sick feeling in my stomach.

The cause that sense of impending doom is the huge strip mine cutting into the side of the mountains on the border between Kentucky and Virginia show in the photos above. Friday, the view was less obscured by the clouds of dust in the air. Dry conditions and stiff winds were filling the air with dust with every passage of the drag lines across the mine surface.

One the Google map below, you can see the great gray scar on the landscape that the mine makes. The photos I took (above) were taken when my car was at a point on US 119 just above the "SAT" and "TER" buttons (where you see the 119)in the upper right corner of the map. I was looking southward.

As you can see on the map, this enormous strip mine that runs for nearly two miles, is within the boundaries of the Jefferson National Forest, and there is an even larger mine to the south west.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

redbud by-ways of Kentucky

After my post on Saturday, I was determined to figure out a way to get some of my own photos of the spectacular redbud lining the roads, even if it meant stopping dead in the middle of the road to take pictures.

It was a quiet morning on the way to work, with little traffic on the backroads and I found a couple of small dirt turn outs. In one location (the top photo), several hounds let me know with loud barks that I was tresspassing on their territory -- so I shot the photo out the car window!

The very bottom photo was actually taken while the car was moving as I was on a main road, with lots of truck traffic (really, I know there doesn't look like any in the shot, but there were several trucks behind me). Only on the middle photo did I actually get out of the car to shoot the picture.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

pink noses

Here are three of the four kittens at six days old. Number four is hiding under the pile at the moment. They don't much like the camera's flash, so I'm trying to limit the number of photo.

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redbud time in the mountains

There is a brief window of about one week in mid-April each spring where all the roads of eastern Kentucky are outlined in redbud. This year, as several times in the past, I was lucky to have the chance to drive the by-ways of eastern Kentucky during that magic moment. Thursday afternoon I left my home at the far southeast of the state, and headed north and west through the mountains toward Lexington and the bluegrass.

The nature of the redbud phenomenon makes it hard to photograph. The mountain roads are narrow, with few places to pull safely off the road, and the redbud--which by the way is not red but rather light purple--presses in tightly on the narrow margins on the steep hillsides. Redbud is a forest margin tree, an understory tree, much like dogwood which blooms about a week or two later.

So one goes barrelling along the highway, rounding curves to have the breath snatched away by intense borders of purple, that pass before one can even consider stopping.
Thursday was also a day of clouds and rain, which made the colors richer and more vibrant, but added even more obstacles to photography. So I will have to settle for a National Park Service photo. Imagine twenty or thirty of these trees crowded together in a long line framing a double lane winding mountain road, deep within the V of the mountains. And then imagine that being repeated over and over again, for 80 miles. It's just part of the miracle of early spring in Appalachia.

The day long workshop (on Friday) that I attended on this trip, dealt with the Open Textbook movement. One of the things we learned about in the workshop is the Creative Commons licensing alternative to copyright. You will see me beginning to explore and use the creative commons license rather than copyright in my blog -- seems a lot friendlier in the blogging. The key is allowing use for non-commercial purposes as long as the user gives attribution with every use.

The redbud photo is a public domain photo by the National Park Service, and can be found on Wikipedia.
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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

ta-da! kittens!

Early this morning -- certainly earlier than I got up -- mama Tabitha kitty gave birth to four kittens. I wasn't certain about the fourth one this morning (it's so dark it was camouflage by her tail). But this evening when Tabbie was ready to leave them for a few minutes to scarf down some food, I got a good look and a good photo or two.

Names and personalities will arrive later. Right now they are a tiny mass of light and dark kittenness.

I am quite fascinated by how much genetic programming there is in a mother cat. All by herself, Tabbie, like all normal mothers, found a safe corner (not the nice box I prepared by the way) and gave birth alone. She cut the cords with her teeth, cleaned all the placenta off the kittens, especially their mouth and eyes, and licked them so that they would start breathing and nursing. She ate all the afterbirth as well. Leaving her little nest clean and dry. I had been worrying for days about whether such a small young cat as Tabbie would manage, but genetic programming and instincts came through. Tabbie harbors no dark doubts about her abilities to mother.

Human females have none of these instincts. We have to learn from others what is required to give birth and nourish our babies. In traditional societies girls observed and assisted at births, and had close contract with nursing mothers. The knowledge of mothering was part of daily life. We might question today, how good that traditional knowledge was -- especially in agricultural societies where infant mortality rates were extremely high -- but women in those cultures did not worry about how to be mother. Today, modern societies make knowledge of birth and mothering something that requires formal instruction, and often raises many concerns and anxieties is mothers to be.

My own mother frequently tells me the story of how she cried and cried in the hospital because she was terrified she wouldn't know what to do with me and would hurt me. The 1950's were perhaps an extreme period of isolation and lack of knowledge (with traditional means of learning to be a mother disappearing and little formal instruction to replace it yet) for new mothers, but I have heard other new mothers today express similar, if not quite intense fears.

With all our medical and technological progress, have we lost something we need to retrieve from the past?

spring has sprung

While I was laid up with the flu for five days--and deprived of access to the Internet at home--the outside temperatures have been rather more summer than spring (86 degrees F at the present moment) resulting in blossoms busting out all over.

On my first day back to work yesterday I stopped on the way in to Whitesburg to snap my favorite spring views.

It is always miraculous to me, that I can rely on these beautiful things happening every spring. That the yellow of the forsythia along the old high schools retaining wall will always be the exact same, in-your-face electric yellow, and the ornamental pear trees will always be heavenly clouds of pristine, creamy white. It is the glorious precision of nature, that the colors are always perfect, always the exact same, always vibrant, clear and true.

The photographs are always just a pale representation of the original. Over the winter, the colors fade in my mind to the dull approximations of the photographs. So each spring, when the flowers return its amazes me all over again in its brilliance. It is an annual miracle, that restores my faith, my soul and heart once again.