Tag Archives: Aquidneck Island

Morning Dews and Damps

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

From our bungalow on Birch Street in Portsmouth, I exit to the bottom of the hill on Orchard View and turn left on Middle Road by Escobar Farm. Middle Road to the end, right on Union to just before West Main Road, left on Jepson Street to the end at Oliphant Lane and back is exactly ten miles. I hold dear my bike ride at five or six am past nurseries and fields of corn, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and strawberries. From the top of Middle Road, one of the highest points on Aquidneck Island, on a clear morning the West Bay is clearly visible and to the east in glimpses, the Sakonnet River, which runs fourteen miles between Mount Hope Bay and Rhode Island Sound.

If I’m running late, the strawberry pickers are starting to gather. On the weekends, the farm owners drag a small wood framed snack stand out to field with a tractor to sell snacks and drinks to the U-Pick-Them crowd. At this point of the summer, the magnolias, dogwoods, apples, cherries, horse chestnuts, azaleas and rhododendrons have past their flowering splendor, but the hydrangeas, Black-eyed Susans, daisies, hostas, Queen Anne’s lace and an occasional tree of heaven are holding their own. Everywhere, in every direction, is quiet and the smells of summer. Most of the farms are arable, but there are a few chickens, ducks and dairy cows. One field near the reservoir on Union, just past the golf course, hosts four beef critters, lazily grazing their way to qualifying for their purpose as steaks and hamburger in the fall or early winter.

Colonial houses dating back to the revolution along with a collection of center chimney capes and newer colonials and ranches are distributed unevenly along the way. There are several small developments of newer homes with farmer’s porches and attached garages with large lots for the most part, many of which back up to planted fields, reservoir or golf course.

Traffic is light, and almost without exception the few cars and pickup trucks slow and swing wide around the frequent bicycle riders. Unlike last year, which for some reason was a bad year for cotton tails, I greet adolescent rabbits a dozen times on my ten -mile ride. Don’t know their names; they remain reticent and watchful. The red-tail hawks look well fed.

“She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Susan B. Anthony

At the base of a short hill on Union Street just past the U PICK blueberry farm, a few wicker baskets of haphazard common garden vegetables are often displayed for sale on the honor system with a metal cash box. They sit on a flat spot atop the stone wall in front of a rambling two story white house with several additions and out buildings, some well-considered, others more like orphaned after thoughts; the house is just this side of neglected with a slate roof and washed-out, chalky paint. The yard is losing a long transition from tended gardens to an encroaching wooded glade of mostly maples. Curious, I investigated its history and found it was registered as a National Historic site as “Oak Glen.” Julia Ward Howe died of pneumonia here at 91 in 1910 where she had spent many summers.

As a young girl in New York City, she met Charles Dickens through her father, a prominent Wall Street stock broker and her mother, the poet Julia Rush Cutler. Of a literary bent, privately educated, she published learned essays, biographies, plays and poetry. Her husband in a less than happy marriage was Dr. Samuel Howe, the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind; they raised their children in South Boston. She spent many summers here in Portsmouth and much time in the “Yellow House” in Gardiner, Maine, apparently to get away from her husband. Well known as first an abolitionist, she outraged many with her unflattering descriptions of blacks in her book, “A Trip to Cuba.” While disliking slavery, she did not believe in the equality of races. Apparently “all men are created equal,” although an admirable ideal, did not mean all that it implies. Her most passionate cause was women’s suffrage and equality; I suspect that the landed gentry were a bit more equal than an Irish washerwoman taking in Mrs. Howe’s laundry.

At various times, she was president of both the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and the New England Suffrage Association, which she co-founded. She also founded and served as president for twenty-one years of the Association of American Women, advocating for women’s education.  At some point, she eschewed her father’s strict Calvinist faith in favor of the less demanding, and more fashionable among the literati, Universalist creed.

Mrs. Howe was best remembered for her song writing, and was inducted posthumously into the Song Writers Hall of Fame in 1970. After meeting Abraham Lincoln in 1861, a friend suggested she pen new lyrics to the same tune as the abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body” with the line about “moldering in the grave.” Her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” still rouses many a worship service and patriotic gathering. Four thousand people sang it at her memorial service, as it had been sung at all her speaking engagements for many years.  In 1870, she unsuccessfully lobbied for the country to celebrate a “Mother’s Day” on June second. Two of her daughters collaborated on telling her story, which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1916. Like so many who left a legacy, she was imperfect, an admixture of the admirable and the flawed.

Oak Glen still on its original 4.7 acres sits unnoticed by most next to a similarly neglected small historic cemetery on Union Street in Portsmouth like the faded matron of a once elegant family. Oak Glen has become for me a symbol of ephemeral celebrity, but her signature work, the words of which came to her in a dream, remains. We sang it at church on the Fourth of July as it has been sung for over a century.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of human life.”  H.G. Wells

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Acclimated

“It takes a very long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso

IMG_0570Late in June of 2014 we moved from the Providence home in which we had lived for almost thirty years to Middletown. Riding our bikes yesterday we saw cottontail rabbits again—four of them in a field adjacent to Oliphant Lane along our regular route. On rides earlier in the month I wondered if they would be so numerous as last June and why we had yet to see any this year: a matter of timing as it turns out. At least a year is needed to begin to know a new house, a new locale, a new life: four seasons, weather, and changes slow and sudden, the idiosyncrasies of house upkeep.

We missed the spring last year here: the wild palette of color that catches our eyes and our breath. Soil is rich on Aquidneck Island; many small farms, a couple of large nurseries (one across the street) and at least two commercial vineyards attest to its fecundity. So do our gardens and the diverse flora, both wild and somewhat tamed. After a challenging cold, snowy winter, the spring came “on little cat feet,” tenuously with false starts, and later in all its finery. Early the forsythia, then lilacs, cherry blossoms pink, horse chestnuts white, our pear and apple trees, purple azaleas, rhododendron, and more recently both pink and white dogwood with the Rose of Sharon yet to come. We hung bird feeders and planted flower beds, raised vegetable beds, three blueberry bushes and a moderate sized twenty by twenty garden. Last year we planted little, as we were late to the task.

The bird feeders drew a large crowd: goldfinch, red winged blackbirds, mourning doves, pairs of cardinals, winter wrens, and downy woodpeckers, some unwelcome grackles and gray squirrels. Gianna, now seven, fashioned a bird house from a half gallon cardboard milk container after getting a lesson at the local Norman Bird Sanctuary; one of the wrens moved in.  The smaller female squirrel fed on the ground underneath the seed feeder from some that we scattered and some that we and our guests dropped. She remained unmolested by me although a red tailed hawk noticed, but as yet has not made a dive for her. The male squirrel, undeterred even after we hung an unjustifiably guaranteed squirrel proof plastic hood, required some discouragement with a few stings from an underpowered (one or two pumps) BB gun. The rabbits so far have left our garden alone, but the blueberries needed some netting while they ripen. We share with the birds a good mix of seed and suet from the Agway store, but draw the line on the blueberries.

We have lived rural, and we have lived urban. Middletown is a mixture, but tends toward rural, which taken as a whole is better. The shrubs and trees in Middletown are for the most part less hacked than those in the city. City folk’s drive to tame untamable things mars the landscape with shaped, shorn, unnatural shrubbery and trees cultivated like the gelled, fashionable hair of a vain, just past his prime news anchor on a small market local broadcast. Here, there is less of it.

“Gardeners may create order briefly out of chaos, but nature always gets the last word, and what it says is usually untidy by human standards.” Diane Ackerman

IMG_0567The second tree climbing job I had was for Allen Tree Experts in 1968 between living in Northampton in Western Massachusetts and moving to Colorado. Ellis Allen was a third generation tree warden for the Town of Medfield, Mass. President of the Mass Arborists Association, Ellis was the most knowledgeable of any the many people I worked for in the trade. In his private practice, we worked for the wealthy who could afford him in nearby towns like Dover and Sherborn on estates and gentlemen farms. Boston high-rise buildings were visible from the top of tall oaks and elms. Customers included ex-governor Frank Sargent and former U.S. Senator and Governor Leverett Saltonstall. Ellis was exacting in his instructions and standards; he would suffer no shears—electric or manual. Shrubs were to be pruned precisely with hand snips: no grotesquely mangled Andromeda or Japanese maple, cropped azaleas; no shattered yews. Cuts were made one at a time by skilled hands, angled back into the center of the plant so they didn’t show with casual observation. The objective was a gently disciplined planting that retained the natural shape of its residents. Ellis would fire someone who could not learn the technique and artistry, or he would consign them permanently to chain saws and stump grinding.

We worked for several weeks in Dover on the eighty acre estate, now long since subdivided, of Mrs. Adams, a direct descendent of John and John Quincy.  She was elderly, kind and, while self-possessed with the poise of aristocracy, unpretentious. Her chauffer driven 1938 Plymouth caught her spirit. On the farm estate was a smaller house for the butler and another for the groundskeeper, who directed all the comings and goings of arborists. Mrs. Adams would overlook all; she and Ellis were kindred when it came to all things green. She was the president of the garden club and had been since The War. A large greenhouse adjacent to one of the barns protected award winning orchids and roses. Each day at break time, the cook would bring out fresh coffee and still warm rolls for the staff and the visiting tree climbers.

Once Ellis sent me to find a hundred and fifty year old pin oak that towered thirty feet above the canopy of the surrounding trees fifty yards from the house. Mrs. Adams observed it every morning from her breakfast balcony; several minutes of dead reckoning were needed to find it in the woods. I trimmed just the protruding top most of the morning, leaving the cut branches on the ground where they fell. Another afternoon, I fine pruned a forty foot linden–not like a city chopped lollipop linden, but retaining its innate figure. I used hand snips without a bucket truck. Climbing skills out at the end of the branches were important working for Ellis.

“In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.” Aldo Leopold

2 Comments

Filed under Personal and family life, Tree Stories