Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Sex Lives of Plants

Do I have your attention?

 On Sunday, my husband and I walked downtown to the Yale Center for British Art to take a guided tour of Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. This exhibition recounts the fascinating life and times of Mary Delaney (1700-1788), in conjunction with numerous examples of her work. The details of Mrs. Delany’s most interesting life are too involved to recount here; suffice it to say her circle included Handel, Jonathan Swift, and the Duchess of Portland, the richest woman in England.

Accomplished in the arts of drawing, embroidery, and paper cutting, Mrs. Delaney is most known for her nearly 1000 botanical collages, 24 of which are on display in this show. She created the first of these collages at the advanced age of 72! These intricate ensembles of tiny pieces of paper, cut without guides, then layered and glued, are brilliant in color. Yet they are well over 200 years old. To put this into perspective, Mrs. Delany was making her “paper mosaics” during the American Revolution.

A revolution of another sort was also taking place during her time. Taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus (neé Carl von Linneé, 1707-1778) had introduced the system of binomial nomenclature, assigning a two-part Latin name to each organism, the first part its genus, the second its species (e.g. Homo sapiens.) Linnaeus was a keen observer of plants, and he fervently adopted the newly re-introduced, and scandalous at the time, concept that plants had sexual lives. In fact, his plant taxonomy was based on the number and arrangement of a plant’s sexual organs.

Elderly Mrs. Delany also embraced this line of thought as she dissected and examined her plant specimens in preparation for creating her art. Upon completion of each collage, she would list on the back its Linnaean classification, who had donated the specimen model, where she was and the date on which she had created it, and the number of male and female parts it possessed.

The docent certainly got my attention. I’ll be back for another look at Mrs. Delany’s work before the show closes on January 3. And I’m so intrigued about Carolus Linnaeus and his obsession with plants, that I hope to find time to read one of the books about his life.

Check out the exhibition if you are in town or later at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London in Spring 2010.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

December 26

Well, here we all are on the day after Christmas. Survivors of another holiday with our families, or without them.

Today we face both the need to clean up yesterday’s debris and the temptation to shop. The living room is strewn with boxes and bows. The inbox and the airwaves are overflowing with bargains.

Try to keep the three Rs in mind as you go about your day, whatever you decide to do.

REDUCE: There’s not much you can do about the gifting that’s taken place. But you can keep this “R” in mind if you go about stimulating the economy today.
1. If you always decorate a tree and don’t have LED  Christmas lights, maybe you can pick up a few strings for next year at a post-holiday sale.
2. Perhaps you are planning to snag some bargains for yourself or as late gifts to others. As you shop, the correct question to ask is NOT: Do I or does he/she need this? The answer is most likely “NO.” Ask rather if the item is useful, whether it will last a long time, if it has hidden costs, and if it will it be appreciated.
3. If you have a new gift that needs lots of batteries, consider getting rechargeable ones.

REUSE: As you pick up the mess under the tree, salvage and store those bows and gift bags for next year. Gift bags are one thing you should definitely re-gift. They have a surprisingly long life span, and and you will find the bag in which you gift is quite likely to come your way again.

RECYCLE: Be certain to recycle all those cardboard boxes! And if you have already used up some batteries, make sure they end up in your hazardous waste collection center.

Go out and have some fun. Look for future blog posts on Reducing, but not today. I am in the mood for some bargain hunting.

Nobody’s perfect.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2 Days Until Christmas

And this is a post I meant to write weeks ago.

The topic is shopping. Some people are born to shop, have the means, and have been acquiring gifts for 12/25/09 since 12/26/08. For those of you who do not fit into this category, here are some ideas to consider.

Most of us do not need more random “stuff,” but almost everyone appreciates receiving a thoughtful token during this season, whether it is a special gift from a loved one or a “thank you” in recognition of extra effort for a job well done.

The societal pressures of this season are immense, with both the expectation to have a “great holiday” and to bestow the same on others. My guess is that most of you readers are opting in and hoping to spread a little cheer to others.

How does a “green” person do this? Here are some suggestions:

1. Think carefully about the person you plan to gift. Is there anything you can give them that might make their life better? Several elders on my list will be getting Yaktrax this year in the hope that they will not slip on the ice when they venture out this winter. An Ove Glove is another good choice.

2. Does the person have a special hobby or interest? Consider a book. Here are two suggestions for cooks you may know: Simply in Season, a compilation of recipes by Cathleen Hockman-Wert and Mary Beth Lind, published by the Mennonite Central Committee, or The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. A new option for a foodie on your list is Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire in the original book format or as a DVD of the recent PBS program.

3. Support your local merchants. Particularly in these tough times, the smaller merchants are struggling. Check out the new stores in your neighborhood. And if they offer services as well, consider a gift certificate. A bike store like New Haven’s devil’s gear offers tune-ups, a yarn store – knitting lessons.

4. Perhaps you need a small gift. Bake your own cookies and package them in a reusable basket or holiday tin. Or you might consider gifting coffee, chocolate or tea. But look for the “Fair Trade” label before you buy. Fair Trade is an organized movement that aims to help producers in developing countries and promote sustainability. You can find such items at some local merchants or at 10,000 Villages if you are lucky enough to have such a store in your city. Or online at equalexchange and other vendors.

5. Support the holiday sales of your local arts groups. In New Haven we have the Creative Arts Workshop’s Celebration of American Crafts, where you can choose gifts by over 300 artists from around the country while supporting the school’s largest fundraiser. Or patronize the gift shop of your local museum.

6. If you know someone who loves old things, check out your local secondhand shops or antiques stores. You know what they say, “One person’s junk is another’s treasure.”

7. Give a night out to someone who would appreciate it: a gift certificate to a local restaurant, or theater, or musical performance, or dinner and a movie…you get the idea.

8. It is getting late, so if the person is far away, you might need to consider shopping online. Check out http://www.etsy.com/ for the green person in your life.

9. Offer a service if the person lives nearby: babysitting, snow shoveling, a meal of soup once a month…

10. For the person who has everything, consider a gift in their name to a group that “does good.” Some of my favorites: Doctors without Borders, Greenpeace, Heifer International, Oxfam International, and World Wildlife Fund.

Time’s running out for me. Gotta go. Good luck with your shopping.

And happy holidays.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Perfect Thursday

I received an unexpected gift this week — a 65°, sunny, December day.

I finally found the time to walk with my friend to Beaver Ponds Park, which had been reclaimed by Pam and her neighbors with the help of students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The volunteers had cleared a path along the water and made it visible from the street. They had pulled out invasives, planted trees and perennials, and constructed rustic stone benches. Some of the perennials were still in bloom.

The far side remained wild wetland with the phragmites in control. But you had to admire the phragmites that day, whether or not they belonged there, as they rustled gently in the breeze, a beautiful golden brown sea of color.

Other park invasives, an extraordinarily large “herd” of Canada geese parked in the path, looked particularly regal as we circumnavigated them and tip-toed through the minefield of their droppings.

Pam told me that sometimes you can see herons roosting in trees on the opposite shore. There were none that day. I would like to see that.