July 2009


Flyby

Last weekend, on our way home from seeing the sand sculptures at Revere Beach, J and I took a short stroll at Belle Isle Marsh in East Boston, a place we’d talked about exploring ever since our first outing to Revere Beach last October.

Egrets

Belle Isle is the last remaining salt marsh in Boston, and Belle Isle Marsh Reservation preserves 152 of the marsh’s 241 acres. Although most of the reservation is too marshy to be of much use to humans, these wetlands harbor a diverse population of plants, fish, shellfish, and birds.

More amenable to human visitors are the 28 acres of reservation land that are maintained as a park with landscaping, paths, and benches. Belle Isle Marsh is popular with local dog-walkers, baby strollers, and bird-watchers who don’t have cars, as the marsh is easily accessible via public transportation. Belle Isle is the kind of place you can drop by, briefly explore, and be back on your way, having taken a mini-vacation in less than an hour. While J and I explored the marsh last weekend, we saw several families taking afternoon walks with dogs and children, a chatty throng of middle-aged men on bicycles, and several lone men who seemed content simply to sit on benches in the sun. Belle Isle Marsh isn’t the kind of place tourists travel miles to see; instead, it’s a hidden jewel appreciated mostly by local folks.

Overhead

And then there are the planes. Although J and I went to Belle Isle Marsh intending to watch egrets, gulls, and other marsh birds, the most conspicuous “birds” flying overhead last weekend were of the silver-bellied gas-guzzling variety. Belle Isle Marsh is in East Boston, which means it’s directly in the flight path of Logan Airport. The egrets, gulls, and other marsh birds don’t seem to mind sharing airspace with silver-bellied gas-guzzlers; in fact, by the time we left Belle Isle, it somehow seemed natural to see wading birds fishing for aquatic morsels while a constant stream of planes flew overhead.

Humans, like many birds, are migratory creatures, their comings and goings following airline timetables rather than seasons. From the ground looking up, flybys are always awe-inspiring, regardless of whether the flying creature is feathered or jet-fueled.

Click here for a photo-set of images from Belle Isle Marsh. Enjoy!

Green bee on purple coneflower

Emily Dickinson said to make a prairie, it takes one clover, one bee, and revery…and revery alone will do if bees are few. I’ve already opined regarding prairies, but let me add this: to make a blog-worthy closeup photo of a green bee pollinating a purple coneflower, it might take you more than 40 shots, most of which you’ll end up deleting.

Bumble bee on purple coneflower

It’s a kind of revery, I guess. It’s a sunny day, and you happen upon a garden patch of purple coneflowers–or purple cureflowers, as I prefer to call them. You see that they are swarming with bees. You have your purse-sized, everyday-use point-and-shoot digicam with you, as you always do, so you start shooting, using your zoom to take close-up shots from a distance. In the blink of an eye, you’ve shot more than 40 pictures–nearly two rolls of film, if this had been the old days–and maybe a few of them, if you’re lucky, will be worth sharing.

During today’s revery, I was approached by a friendly man who initially thought I was taking pictures of the coneflowers, not having noticed the various kinds of bees tenaciously working their orange disks. “Shouldn’t you take that from behind,” he asked, and I shrugged. When you’re in a revery and have pixels to burn, you shoot from any angle: shoot first, sort out the good pictures from the bad latter. When I pointed to the various kinds of bees that were my real target, the man nodded. “It’s always good to see them,” he said, and I agreed. Just imagine the level of revery Emily Dickinson would fall into given the luxury of multiple bees?

Click here for a photo-set of images from today’s bee-inspired revery. Isn’t this what everyone does on their way home from another day at work?

Starburst

Just like that, the cool rains that lingered through June and much of July have stopped, the sun has appeared, and it’s hot, humid, and almost August. While I wasn’t looking, we switched palettes from spring pink to summer gold. Where was I while the days and weeks slipped away, unnoticed?

Angelic

It’s been more than a single season since J and I went walking at Revere Beach last October, so this past weekend we took the Blue Line to Wonderland, where we walked up to Kelly’s Roast Beef, watched seagulls beg for bits of our lunch, then walked back toward the heart of Revere Beach, where the remnants of the New England Sand Sculpting Festival are slowly deteriorating.

Ouroborus:  Life, rebirth, and stuff

Although I’m familiar with ice sculptures, I’m new to the sand sculpting scene. When I learned from newspaper coverage that this year’s festival had happened over the weekend of July 16 through 18, I figured J and I would have to wait until next year to check out the local sand artistry. Thanks, however, to a glue-based fixative that protects the sculptures from the drying effect of the sun and the erosive power of wind and rain, these sculptures stay on display, slightly the worse for wear, for several weeks after the festival.

I can’t say I’ve ever made much out of beach sand other than a soggy hole or two, so I can’t imagine how sand-sculptors make such elaborate structures with the stuff. From reading about the festival, I know that this particular sand is trucked in from Hudson, NH: apparently Revere Beach sand isn’t the proper consistency for towering sculptures. I know, too, that none of these sculptures contain any internal structures or supports: they are constructed entirely of sand, water, and a huge dollop of creativity. Even when sprayed with a fixative, sand sculptures are an ephemeral medium: like sand mandalas, these works of artistry don’t last long.

Detail from It's a Small World

Because we headed to Revere Beach a full week after these sculptures were created–and because there had been several nights of drenching rain during that time–J and I weren’t expecting much from whatever leftovers might remain. We were surprised, then, to see so much detail had remained on several of the sculptures, our outing feeling a bit like a trip to Egypt, where the grandeur of a ruined Sphinx or pyramid inspires you to wonder what the structure looked like in its heyday.

It’s interesting to contemplate crumbling sand sculptures on a beach visited by working-class folks whose bodies are seldom look very sculpted themselves. Walking along Revere Beach before or after a belly-bursting lunch at Kelly’s Roast Beef, you see folks who for the most part can’t afford gym memberships, Botox, or liposuction. These are folks whose bodies, like my own, have settled and sagged under gravity’s influence; these are folks who are too tired from full work-weeks to spend much time or energy fighting the Battle of the Bulge. Among the lithe youngsters and tattooed muscle men striding the sand at Revere Beach, you’ll see swim-trunked grandpas with pot bellies and heart surgery scars walking beside wide-middled women whose bikinis reveal stretch-marks and cellulite. These are battle-scars borne by full lives, not flaws to be hidden due to insecurity or shame.

Spheres of Influence

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives…and like sands through the hourglass, so do human bodies give way to gravity, slipping through the wasp-waisted present to land in a rounded heap called “it happens to all of us, eventually.” Sand can’t afford Botex or plastic surgery; sand doesn’t have the willpower for dieting or Pilates. Even a meticulously sculpted body will eventually sag: there is no fixative all the world over that can reliably and permanently fight the pull of time.

“Life’s a beach,” one bumper sticker warns, “and then you die.” The lesson of crumbling sand sculptures and sagging but sun-kissed beach bodies is to enjoy your days while you can, regardless of the shape you’re in.

Click here for a photo-set of images from this weekend’s trip to Revere Beach, including more photos of crumbling sand sculptures. Enjoy!

Grapevine with shadow

When I saw today’s Photo Friday theme, In Shadow, I knew I’d have a difficult time choosing one image to share. J and I have an ongoing joke about my fondness for taking pictures of shadows; whenever we go walking, J knows that if I stop and aim my camera down or toward an otherwise unremarkable wall, I’m probably shooting a shadow.

Shadows

I’m so fond of light and shadow, I have an entire blog category, a Flickr photo tag, and several photo sets devoted to them. I admire the way shadows simplify objects by streamlining them into mere shape; shadows, like photographs, condense three dimensions into two. I also marvel at the way shadows define presence through absence: because light isn’t here, some sort of object must be there. I love to watch the shadows of overhead clouds, for instance, roll across a landscape, and I’ve spotted more than a few overhead hawks and crows because their shadows have passed beneath my earth-bound feet. I’m intrigued, too, at the multiple meanings of the word “shade,” for the dark shape cast by slanting light both embodies the essential shape of a given object but also its transience: shadows, like the bodies that cast them and the ghosts they leave behind, are here today and gone tomorrow.

Three umbrellas

Yet, shadows are even more transient than that, for anyone who has spent an entire day meditating inside a well-lit Dharma room knows how oddly entertaining it can be, when you have nothing to do but sit, to watch your own shade–the upright shadow cast by your torso as it sits centered on your cushion–move around you like a sundial’s hand: here in morning, there in afternoon. Just like your thoughts, ephemeral shadows cast by clouds race across the floor before your downcast eyes: who knew that a quiet wooden floor had such daily dramas played upon it, unnoticed?

Due to a congenital quirk, J has trouble perceiving visual depth: to him, the world looks flat, not contoured. Rather than seeing the world in three dimensions, he sees it in two, with both shadows and objects looking like flat patches of color. Given this optical oddity, it makes sense that J is an excellent photographer: whereas the rest of us have to imagine how a three-dimensional scene would look when flat and framed, J’s eyes already focus on the bare essentials of color and line. Shadows, too, simplify a scene by eliminating the extraneous details of depth and distance. The sun is millions of miles away, but right here, underfoot, she announces her presence in shadow.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, In Shadow.

Pokeweed flowers turning to fruit

Whereas my favorite pokeweed in Newton is still barely budding, at least one pokeweed in Keene is rapidly progressing from white flowers to still-green, tiny pumpkin-shaped fruit.

Pokeweed fruit

Ice wine martini garnished with frozen grapes

If you ever, on the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, find yourself in the Italian enclave known as Boston’s North End, don’t bother with a map, guidebook, or other source of guidance. Boston’s North End is such that anywhere you wander, you will find delightful surprises, and any restaurant you enter will serve you the meal of your life.

I’m convinced you can’t make a bad choice if you head toward the North End on a Friday afternoon with “food and drink” held gently at the back of your mind. First, you’ll aimlessly wander streets filled with history, personality, and charm. You’ll probably walk down Hanover Street, and you’ll probably remark about the Christmas-like tinsel decorations spanning narrow side streets: remnants from the last (or preparations for the next) Catholic saint’s day festival. You might climb up Copp’s Hill to overlook the harbor, and you might stop by the burying ground to pay your respects to the Reverend Mathers or to leave a coin atop patriot Robert Newman’s grave. However long and in whichever direction you walk, the distant landmarks of Zakim Bridge and the Custom House tower will be visible over one or the other shoulder. You can’t get lost in Boston’s North End, so let your feet take you where they will.

Homemade

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, your thoughts will turn toward dinner, and you might briefly worry about finding a “good” place to eat. In a word, don’t. There are no “bad” places to eat in the North End, so let your choice be governed by whim and fancy. Does this place look alluring with its family-sized tables, or does that place look romantic with its tables for two? Do you prefer to compare menus, which in most places are prominently posted outside? Or are you adventurous, entering an establishment that doesn’t have a menu, just a chalkboard description of whatever someone’s Italian mama happens to be cooking today?

If you enjoy your food al fresco, you might choose one of several restaurants with open front windows, and if there are only two of you, your waiter might sit you right up front, where one of you can watch passersby in the street while the other watches the cooks in the kitchen. Either way, you’ve chosen well: in the North End, it’s impossible to choose poorly. Your handsome Italian waiter will present you with menus, but you won’t really need those, for this dark-eyed god of appetite will then regale you with velvet-voiced descriptions of tonight’s specials: cocktails you never dreamed possible, antipasto and pasta you couldn’t have hoped for, and entrees whose preparation, it seems, has been painstaking days in the making.

Processing

At first, all you’ll choose is whatever elaborately described cocktail your velvet-voiced waiter says he prefers…then under its powerful spell, you’ll pay heed to his other recommendations. At first blush, you’ll hesitate to order the three full courses of a traditional Italian meal: considering the sequence of antipasto, pasta, and entree, you wonder how stuffed and uncomfortable you’ll be by meal’s end. Immediately cast these thoughts from your mind. Your dark-eyed waiter makes his living from food–being Italian, he lives for food. He will not misguide you, so heed him. The three full courses of a traditional Italian meal are intended to be eaten slowly, with ample time for conversation; those entrees that have been painstaking days in the making will be savored over a glass of wine (chosen, of course, by your god of a waiter) only when the time is right, after other gustatory delights have been leisurely enjoyed in full.

When, at last, you’ve proclaimed “just right” over your vanished meal, the check will arrive…and you should refuse to bat a single eyelash. Now is not the time to think of budgets and economic downturns: this is the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, and for the cost of a subway ride and exquisite meal, you’ve traveled to Italy, been loved by a dark-eyed god, and slowly savored the flavors of heaven itself. What you have experienced is priceless, so calculate a generous tip, split the total, and offer silent thanks that in these days of budgets and economic downturns, both you and your friend are employed and deserving of occasional luxuries. Why should romantic restaurants filled with tables for two be reserved for first dates and anniversaries only? First dates are fleeting, and friendship is forever: budget accordingly.

Italian-American Band

After dinner, you and your friend will resume your rambling, stopping at any of a number of Italian bakeries where you will enjoy a scoop of gelato while buying cannoli for loved ones at home. There are no bad bakeries in Boston’s North End, so both your gelato and cannoli will be superb: the best you’ve ever had. The magic of the North End, especially on the occasion of a good friend’s birthday, is that you can’t possibly find bad food anywhere. Any restaurant you enter will be the best, regardless of its name. “Best” is the only way they serve food and drink in Italy and all those enclaves inspired by her.

The first of today’s photos comes from last Friday night; the rest come from Saint Anthony’s Feast in 2007, which I’ve previously blogged. There is a reason why Catholic saint’s day celebrations are called “feasts”: despite everything you think you know about dour-faced ascetics and fasting pilgrims, Italian celebrations both spiritual and secular are always about the food.

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