Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Feeling the urge to get creative in the garden

It's May, the snow is gone, the hummingbirds are back, and once again I'm indulging in the Water Feature Fantasy. Back when I first discovered BBC America, that channel carried a lot of shows that were popular in Great Britain: "Cash in the Attic," "Changing Rooms," "Ground Force," and a number of others with names I've forgotten. I loved "Ground Force." The team would go in to someone's minuscule back yard, which is always referred to as a "garden" in Britain, even when it's a patch of bare dirt with not even a weed to be seen, and turn it into something lovely in what seemed like record time and without huge expenditures of money. Every so often they'd incorporate a water feature.
Not quite what I've got in mind, but close. 

Well, "Ground Force" is long gone -- the BBC cancelled the series almost ten years ago -- but the memories of the water features linger on. The fantasy went dormant during the Omaha and Atlanta years, but it's back now. Our yard slopes, which makes a water feature a little easier to design. I had been thinking about various possibilities, but then this weekend I spotted something that might be the perfect vessel: an old cast iron sink that we used back in the '70s as a feed trough in the pig pen. The pen is long gone, and I thought the sink was too -- a lot of the old iron that had built up through 90 years of frugal Finlanders never throwing anything away did get picked up and sold as scrap metal a few years ago. I was a little surprised that sink got missed, but it was. And now the Water Feature Fantasy is back. An old kitchen sink, a broken pitcher pump, . . . the possibilities are definitely there. Now all I have to do is find the ambition to follow through on them.

Monday, May 26, 2014

It finally melted

Here's the proof. A month ago that old wheelbarrow in the background was still buried in snow. 

Daffodils developed by a plant breeder who was an idiot. The flowers are so heavy the stems can't support them. Two drops of dew and they topple. They looked good in the catalog, though, and do make nice cut flowers. 

A patch of bloodroot on the edge of the yard. There was so much bloodroot blooming on the hillside that for a few days it looked like it had snowed again. The hill was almost solid white.

We've been enjoying our very brief Spring, which appears to have slid straight into summer. We went from below freezing and snowing on May 15 to temps in the 80s ten days later. Which was good, because we had family visit and high temperatures meant we didn't have to worry about heat for either the guest cabin or the motorhome. We put the grandkids to work, of course. The younger ones got to stack wood; the oldest was up on the barn roof.  

Every time we do any work on that barn and I notice the construction details, I'm  amazed it's still standing. We're going to put a metal roof on it this time; the last four roofs were rolled roofing and they only lasted about 20 years. If we do metal, we'll be dead long before the roof needs work again.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Pulitzer Project: Guard of Honor

Guard of Honor won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1949. When I saw it on the list, the author, James Gould Cozzens, was another writer who fell into the "I'd never heard of him before" category. Cozzens, at least according to Wikipedia, was a successful writer but had a privacy fetish that rivaled J. D. Salinger's. He eschewed publicity tours and speaking engagements; he felt his work should stand or fall on its own merits. Whether or not he would have been quite so anti-publicity if his books hadn't sold well is, of course, debatable. It's easy to have a privacy fetish when you're doing well without having to do book tours; it's a lot harder when the alternative to hawking the book is seeing it on remainder tables.

In any case, Cozzens could write. Guard of Honor is complex and multi-layered;  it is not an easy read although it is an engaging one. The action in the novel takes place over the course of three days at an Army Air Force base in Florida during World War II. The situation mirrors Cozzens' own war experience: he began by writing training manuals and eventually became a press officer. That is, he handled public relations and tried to minimize any potential bad news while playing up the good, and he did so in a position that gave him unparalleled access to what was happening with the Army Air Force. Cozzens was assigned to the staff of General "Hap" Arnold. One of the characters in the novel is a fairly close fit for Cozzens' own life: Captain Hicks has been writing training manuals but is pushing a project that falls more under the rubric of public relations.

The Wikipedia biography of Cozzens notes that he was viewed as too conservative, but I'm not sure how anyone would reach that conclusion from reading this novel. Perhaps it's apparent in his other works, but in Guard of Honor it would be hard to determine just what the author's personal biases were. Two issues that were hot topics at the time were the role of women in the military and the role of African-Americans. Both issues are themes in Guard of Honor. There's a Women's Army Corps detachment at the air base; the controllers in the tower are WACs and they're serving in other positions as well. In some scenes, the WACs are portrayed in a less than flattering light while in others the author is sympathetic to the problems they face. Similarly with the black troops, at times Cozzens allows the characters who oppose integrating the service to express their reservations but in other scenes he lays out the case for integration. One of the least likable characters in the book is a hot-headed smug Northern liberal, but he's balanced out by an equally obnoxious bigoted Southerner. If Cozzens can be labeled as a conservative, it's more likely because of his presenting various characters with moral or ethical dilemmas; he seems to prefer the characters who stick to their principles instead of opting to bend the rules in order to cover someone's ass or who claim the ends justify the means.

One thing that struck me while reading this book was that it reminded me a lot of Catch-22. Of course, Cozzens and Joseph Heller had the shared experience of having served in the Army Air Force so it's not surprising they would have formed similar opinions of the military bureaucracy.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Yes, with a caveat. Guard of Honor is not an easy read. The structure is complicated. The reader sees events from multiple perspectives and numerous flashbacks as different characters reminisce about how they got to where they are now. This isn't a book a person can skim while sitting in a beach chair. I think it was worth the effort, but other readers may not.

Next up on the list: The Way West by A. B. Guthrie. Once again, it's a book and an author I don't recall ever hearing about before I started this project.

Friday, May 16, 2014

We drove right past Spring into Summer

And now we're back to Almost Winter -- the forecast when we returned was "snow with possible rain mixed in." Note that it's not rain mixed with snow; it's snow mixed with rain. And it was May 14.

On the other hand, one of the first things we did when we got home was fill the hummingbird feeder and, snow in the forecast or not, we do have hummers flitting around the yard. So maybe it really is Spring, or what passes for Spring, here in the U.P.

We spent not quite two weeks imposing on the Younger Daughter in Missouri. We did some appropriately touristy things -- wandered around the historic town of Ste. Genevieve, went to an Azalea Festival that had no azaleas, checked out the ruins of the Einstein Silver Mine near the Silver Mines campground on the Mark Twain National Forest -- but mostly we just basked in the weather. When we left the U.P., temps were just barely above freezing. It was in the 80s in Missouri. As the S.O. put it, we went looking for Spring and drove right past it into Summer. It was wonderful. High water pants, sandals, the risk of sunburn . . .

The Einstein Mine site was interesting. It's one of those places that looks like it's been untouched by the hand of man until you start looking a little more closely. . . and then you realize that what looks like a natural rock formation is actually cut stone or the remnants of poured concrete. I looked up the Einstein Mine; it was a fairly large industrial complex, although you'd never know it from just looking at the ruins.
Einstein Silver Mine site, May 2014
I went looking for historic images on-line. This was the only one I could find:
It's probably circa 1900 or a little earlier. 

The mining complex also includes a dam: 

For a sense of scale, embiggen the photo. There are people on the rocks on the other side of the St. Francis River. We arrived at the mine site just in time to witness a rescue by local emergency personnel of a person who had apparently fallen while scrambling down those rocks to get closer to the dam or the river. There was a group of high school age boys camping; one of those kids probably over-estimated his ability to scramble down some fairly steep rock slopes. 

We checked out some other campgrounds while we were in the area, including Hawn State Park. The next time we visit the Younger Daughter we plan to use the RV. If we're at a campground, she won't feel obligated to feed and entertain us. Even better, we won't be stuck sleeping on an air mattress that's seen better days. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

On the road again

Iris in full bloom in a garden in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri 
After staring at the snow melting ever so slowly, the S.O. and I decided that maybe it was like that old saying about a watched pot never boiling. You know, as long as we were watching it, the snow wasn't going to leave. So we hit the road for Missouri. We've been down here for about a week now, and it has been a pleasant break from the mud season. Up north I can't even tell where the flowerbeds are; down here lilacs, bearded iris, peonies, and a zillion other things are in full bloom. We've done a little bit of playing tourist, a little bit of shopping, and checked out several of the campgrounds that are close to where the Younger Daughter lives. It's been nice. We wandered around historic Ste. Genevieve one day and checked out the ruins of the Einstein Mine on the Mark Twain National Forest. We even managed to stumble across an event the S.O. could get enthusiastic about: the 47th Annual Azalea Festival in Fredricktown.

The Azalea Festival was interesting. It had a lot of things going on -- a carnival (complete with a tilt-and-hurl), an arts and crafts fair, a children's pet show with the pets all dressed up in various costumes. I wasn't sure if it was possible for a dog to look truly embarrassed until I saw a vizsla dressed in a hot pink tutu with matching hot pink nail polish on its toes. The one thing the Azalea Festival did not have was azaleas -- the crafts fair was set up in "Azalea Park," which was basically just a big flat green open space down the hill from the courthouse square. No azaleas, at least none that I could see.

Up the hill from the carnival, the arts and crafts, and the dogs dressed in strange costumes was the one event that interested the S.O. It was a pretty decent car show with a wide variety of entries, although based on the photos he took, I think he was most interested in the classic hot rods.

 Monday we'll be heading home to the tundra. If we're lucky, the worst of the Mud Season will be over.