Tuesday, September 22, 2009


When we moved into our house four years ago there was already an established bed of fountain grass (Pennisetum, also known as Feathertop) growing close to the front porch.  I planted another clump of it closer to the sidewalk because I love it so much.  In late summer and into the fall  it blooms, carrying spikes of fuzzy and feathery flowers that can double the size of the plant. I suppose it's called "fountain grass" because its structure is that of a fountain; the clump grows from a central area and the grass falls in a lovely curve outside of the center. 

Fountain grasses are interesting for lots of reasons--they offer striking contrast to flowers and other shrubbery, they have these provocative and irresistible spikey fronds that come out in late summer/fall, and they turn a gorgeous orange/beige color in the fall.   I appreciate all these qualities of fountain grass, and I especially appreciate that once they are established they need almost no care at all.  Both of mine are thriving though I do nothing for them.

Mostly I like fountain grass, though, because it is a hardy grass.  When I lived in the midwest, Iowa and Illinois, I fell in love with the hardy prairie grasses that dominate what is left of the prairies there, and in general I have come to appreciate hardiness in a plant over traditional beauty (more about this when I talk about the swamp rose in my front yard).  There's also something almost subversive in planting a grass in your yard that you never intend to cut. OK, well, I do cut it back in Spring to give the new growth room, but there's none of this constant trimming that most people do with grass:  I am in charge you will never seed or flower, not on my watch.

I live in an urban neighborhood so my lawn is very small.  When we do cut the grass it's with a rusty push mower.  Everywhere there is fountain grass, I don't need the mower, which pleases me.  I admire how strong it is--deep rooted, almost impossible to pull up, resistant to disease, at home almost anywhere, and yet it has a graceful, arching shape that feels like a kind of sacred perfection.  They are the sturdy angels of the plant world, and they are everything I would like to be as woman.

Friday, September 11, 2009


The tree that I look out at every day from my porch, the tree that is mostly likely about 80 years old and shades both the porch and the house, is a Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis, family Platanacae).  It is one of the largest broadleaved trees in the state, and its massive trunk is wider than most other trees one finds in Pennsylvania.  It's also known as American Sycamore, American Plane Tree or Buttonball Tree (for the buttonball-like fruit)  There are 10 species of sycamore, and this is one of three that can be found in the U.S.   It's native to Pennsylvania, and it's said that there are sycamores here that date back to the days of William Penn.  They grow rapidly, and I have read that they can reach 70 feet in the first 20 years.

The leaves look something like the leaves of a Maple tree, triangular, triangular, prominent veins, but seem to me to be smaller than Maple leaves.  You find this tree planted a lot as a landscape or park tree; today my husband and I went to a fair in Mellon Park, and the first tree we saw was a sycamore.  What's most distinctive about them, though, is their peeling bark, which has a unique "camouflage" quality to it, as you can see a bit in the photo above.  I haven't been able to find out why the bark peels like this; it would seem logical that it is to discourage predators, insects or others, who might want to bore into the heart of tree or hide underneath its bark.  When I walk the dog each day, I often will stop at this tree as we get started and pull off a section of the bark that I'll carry with me during my walk, turning it over as I would a page, looking deep into its patterns as if they were poems.  

I'm interested not only in the natural history of trees, but in their mythology.  As I sit on my porch, mid-afternoon, on a cool fall day, I can feel a breeze, I can see the leaves of the tree moving in the wind, and I also hear the melody of the wind chimes that hang from the porch ceiling, and the motors of cars passing by a half a block away on Penn Avenue.  A small reminder of the ways in which nature and culture almost always exist in intimate relation.

I like to come out on this porch to think and to write when the weather is good, and my husband and I also come out after dinner to eat ice cream and do crossword puzzles in the evening.  When I really want to think or reflect, though,  I stop whatever it is I'm reading or writing, and look up at the tree as if it had some answers for me.  Or maybe just because it seems to be the wisest thing around, certainly the oldest.  

In Egyptian mythology sycamores were associated with the goddesses Nut, Hathor and Isis, each of whom carried the epithet "Lady of the Sycamore."  Trees are often considered sacred in ancient religions because they seem to be connectors between the underworld and the heavens:  their roots reached to the underworld while they branches brushed the heavens.  Those that lost their leaves in winter seemed to die and be reborn in spring, thus many trees are associated with birth and resurrection.  

Trees also provide nurturance. I love the Egypitan image above in which a tree is suckling a human.

I know that I feel nurtured and comforted by this tree.  When I'm sad, lonely or feeling hopeless, a strong, massive tree reminds me of longevity, of what it takes to survive--both roots and ambitious striving upward as well as a doggedness, a quality of not-giving-upness.

Soon this tree will lose its leaves, but its fruit will remain until spring when it will provide a feast for birds.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Front Porch

I've asked students in my Nature and Environmental Writing class to keep a blog about a special place, and I'm committed to doing that myself for the fall.  

The place I've chosen is my front porch, which looks out on my front lawn as well as has a view onto much of the rest of my neighborhood. I live in Bloomfield, a few houses off of Penn Avenue.  I can see, from my porch, the store/gas station we call the "ghetto store" because we used to think it was a haven for drug dealers (more about that in a later post), and my neighbor's homes and yards, (more about those later, too).  Most importantly, though, I see my front yard.  There is a large shade tree with very interesting peeling bark that is probably about 75 years old.  It keeps the house cool in summer.  I have looked up the name of this tree many times and I keep forgetting it, but I will look it up again for my next post, and maybe this time I'll remember it.  

In  my yard is also a wild swamp rose, which I planted two years ago.  It is a large, hardy rose bush that hardly looks like a rose bush because of its graceful, arching branches.  In summer it will bloom once, fragile small roses with a fragrance of sweet lemon and rose.  There are two large fountain grasses that are just getting ready to put out their beautiful feathery fans, three azalea bushes, two foxglove plants in bloom.  Poison ivy that I keep pulling, Boston Ivy that also threatens to take over.  A couple other plants I haven't identified yet, that my neighbor has planted.  I'd like to spend at least some of these posts lingering over each living thing in my yard, doing some research on each one and learning more about it.

Porches are really a Pittsburgh thing, and I love mine.  I have a wicker swing and a daybed on my porch so I can sit out here as often as I like.  Potted plants surround me on the porch, spider plants of different colors, an umbrella plant, a philodendron, begonias and some petunias.  I can hear the neighbors' dogs barking, can hear the girls on their cell phone next door, and a man waddles, maybe stoned, down the street.  We live in a mixed neighborhood, right on the edge between a "good" area an a "bad" area, and it makes for lots of interesting sites sometimes.

I can hear the bells of the church around the corner telling me it's time to stop for now.