Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Boxing Day Snowstorm

The back yard at first light
It started soon after Kali and I returned from bargain-hunting on the morning after Christmas and didn't let up until the wee hours of Monday morning.  When it was all over, we had a foot of snow--our portion of the Boxing Day East Coast 2010 snowstorm.  It was enough to keep me from going to work yesterday for business as usual, but I still had to spend several hours shoveling to make the place ready for opening today.

Sunrise through broken clouds

Sunrise across the frozen, snow-covered pond
The sycamore behind the house after the storm cleared

Christmas Eve Visits

Harper's Run
Our friends Jean and Joel, two Philadelphia-suburb expats now exiled to St. Paul, Minnesota, came to visit on Christmas Eve, as they do nearly every year. They still have lots of friends and family in southeastern Pennsylvania, so it's not just us they're in town to see.  Nevertheless, if the weather's nice and the trail conditions appropriate, we try to take long walk with them and to catch up on a year's news.

We decided to walk in the county park where a two-mile rails-to-trails project had been completed 1-1/2 years ago.  A portion of the trail runs alongside Harper's Run, one of my favorite photographic subjects.  Because of the persistent cold weather, rocky parts of the shallow stream had iced-up.

After we bid our friends adieu in mid-afternoon, we returned to the house, where I spent the rest of the daylight hours grading final exams from the graduate course I had just finished teaching.  Those exams, while generally good, certainly did not put me in a Christmas mood (which was already at low ebb, anyway, thank you very much Mr. Grinch).  However, as the sun set, we got ourselves ready to attend the annual Christmas Eve gala organized by one of our neighbors--a couple so preternaturally gregarious, generous, and welcoming and that you'd almost claim they'd been raised in Stepford.  Great food in prodigious quantities, a beautifully decorated house jammed with interesting people, and 56 varieties of red wine.  I challenge you not to have a good time!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Parsons Dance / Remember Me

David Parson's dance company, Parsons Dance, was in town for four performances last weekend.  The program consisted of two works.  The first was one of Parsons's signature dances, Caught, which never fails to elicit a gasp out of newcomers and heartfelt admiration from those of us who have seen the work performed several times.  The dance, a solo, involves a dancer moving around a blackened stage fleetingly illuminated by stobe lights so that the dancer appears to be flying.  It's magic.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the second piece, Remember Me.  Critics have savaged this piece, but audiences generally love it.  I went into the performance with an open mind, ready to prove the snobby New York dance establishment wrong.  Unfortunately, the critics did get it right (in the opinion of Kali, several other aficionados, and me who talked after the performance).

Remember Me is a collaboration between Parsons Dance and the East Village Opera Company, which supplied two singers for the endeavor.  The work consists of a simple romantic love triangle played out to the tune of thirteen of the most famous operatic arias performed live on stage.  But, did the producers use the arias as written?  Oh, no; instead, they pumped them up with near-ear splitting rock guitar background music.  Then Parsons's dancers performed the story, which was insultingly shallow and maudlin.  Woman wooded by two men rebuffs Man A, who then proceeds to rape her.  When Man B finds out about the woman's soiled past he, in turn, rebuffs her, and she proceeds to die of a broken heart.  Then, she is resurrected and lives happily ever after with Man B.  Maybe this kind of thing would have worked in the Middle Ages or at the hands of a master like Shakespeare, but contemporary audiences are just a little bit too cynical to buy this.  Or, maybe not, since it's a popular hit.  DVDs of the performance were completely sold out, and a quick trip to NYC to restock resulted in another sellout.

The dancers certainly couldn't be faulted.  They were expert and performed flawlessly and tirelessly, as they always do. Parson Dance is among the best companies on the contemporary dance scene.  That's why a piece like Remember Me was so disappointing.   

Monday, December 6, 2010


New Jersey, south and east of the state capital, Trenton, is the Coastal Plain--an area of unconsolidated sand, gravel, and clay washed off the Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont and deposited on the shallow continental shelf.

In New Jersey, the Coastal Plain is divided into two zones, the Inner Coastal Plain and (naturally) the Outer Coastal Plain.  The two zones are separated from one another by a series of low, sandy hills called cuesatas, which form a regional watershed divide.  Streams rising on the northwest side of the divide flow westward toward the Delaware River.  Streams rising on the southeast side of the divide flow eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean with one exception--Rancocas Creek--which rises on the Outer Coastal Plain, flows westward through a valley, and empties into the Delaware River like its Inner Coastal Plain brethren.
Kali and I visited Rancocas Creek State Park last Saturday afternoon.  The day was cool and overcast, but pleasant for walking.  New Jersey Audubon maintains a nature center with well-marked trails on 125 acres in the park, but the rest of the preserved land seems nearly abandoned by the state.  Foot trails are not marked and difficult to follow.  In addition, they are regularly interrupted by deer trails, making hiking especially challenging.  In addition, the state allowed a local chapter of the Lenni Lenape Indians to use a significant section in the center of the park for tribal activities, but the chapter has been split by internal rifts and the Indians have abandoned their facilities.
Nevertheless, we walked about four miles, enjoying the gently undulating landscape and the woodlands that feature oaks, sweet gums, beeches, and American hollies.  Most people have hollies in the foundation plantings around their houses; here (and throughout the Coastal Plain), they are evergreen components of the forest.  In addition, the streams are sand bottomed and stained with tannins.  All in all, a nice break from the Piedmont.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Night Vision

Another in the occasional series of "The Rural Life" short essays by Verlyn Klinkenborg from the New York Times' editorial page (November 30, 2010).  That we could all write as evocatively as he...
I pull into the farm from the city.  It is early in the evening but well after nightfall, and the moon hangs over the hills like a hypnotist's watch.  I drop a few things in the house and then wander out to check on the animals.

I used to take a flashlight when I was new to this place.  I no longer do.  My eyes adjust slowly, but part of the pleasure of walking out in the night is watching the flat opacity resolve into the three dimensions of this farm.  All the nocturnal creatures are out and about--somewhere--and I will never be one of them.  Even the horses are more nocturnal than I am.  They live in natural light year-round, and by the time I get home they're a couple of hours into watching the night.

In summer, you can pretend the night is translucent and that even the Milky Way is emanating warmth.  By late November, those illusions are past. The sun feels benevolent, but when it vanishes, after 4 p.m., the rising darkness becomes continuous with the deepest, coldest reaches of space.
The chickens pretend not to notice when I look in.  The horses stand impassive in their pasture, though if I opened the gate and walked in, they would drift over to share their heat.  I have no idea where the barn cat is, but he is so black that he would stand out in a night like this.  I complete my rounds and still my eyes haven't opened fully to the night.

I light a fire in the wood stove and settle in to read in the kitchen.  Light spills onto the deck, and I see a movement.  It's an opossum, come up to investigate the cat-food dish.  It walks up to the glass door and peers in, surely blinded by so much brightness.  Perhaps this is the one I met--to both our surprise--on the ladder to the hayloft a few months ago.  Now it stands in the light looking hopelessly disorganized, as opossums do, and then it wanders off into the darkness, where the seeing is much better.