Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In the News: Nature Trumps the Human Artifice

A recent New York Times article in the "Streetscapes" series of the Real Estate section opens with dramatic lines:

"You want to make building conservators fuss and fume? One word, my friend: ivy. The argument is that as a climbing vine, it can wreak havoc on masonry walls, prying apart mortar and cracking bricks."

So when members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission went to slap violation notices on two 19th century rowhouses in Greenwich Village, it wasn't because the Commission was concerned with disintegrating mortar and cracking bricks. Rather, the ivy was not quite ivy. It was cheap, hobby-shop nastiness: fake ivy.


It seems the owners had drilled holes into the walls to secure hooks on which to hang the ivy. Given that the buildings are located in historic districts, the owners needed permits which they had (conveniently) forgotten--convenient for the neighborhood, that is. Can you imagine staring at that crap?!

Crap be damned. It turns out one of the owners spent "'tens of thousands of dollars'" on silk (not plastic) ivy, which appeared so real that it fooled the author of the Times' piece.

Tens of thousands of dollars on silk ivy?  To be placed outside, exposed to the damaging elements of sun, wind, and precipitation?

Only in New York, I mutter to myself, where one probably finds a higher concentration of "more money than brains" than anywhere else in the world.

Yet it gets better, for the story contains a measure of irony that titillates my sense of justice, er, I mean schadenfreude.

There has been a long running debate about the effects of ivy on buildings. Some decry its use, claiming its presumably destructive power (either making walls damp or sucking out moisture from mortar and turning it into dry dust); others celebrate its beauty. But a new Oxford University report on ivy adds to the celebration argument: extensive coverage of ivy on walls provides protection from the elements, which results in a microclimate that "moderates temperature change and the humidity fluctuation of a wall, with a corresponding decrease in freeze-thaw damage and the migration of salts within the masonry. Ivy was also found to reduce the attacks of airborne pollutants on surfaces."


The owner of one of the Greenwich Village buildings argued that he had installed his silk ivy to conceal a "'beaten and bruised'" facade--perhaps damage inflicted by the real stuff in times past.

But shame, shame, said the Preservation Commission. Down the fake stuff must come.

What is a historic rowhouse owner to do (besides repair said beaten and bruised facade)?!

Plant real ivy.

Apparently the Landmarks Preservation Commission "does not regulate plants in any way."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

In the News: The Low Line

Though we may be inclined to think of barriers or constraints as prohibitive since they limit potentiality, barriers or constraints may prove the spark that ignites an innovation.

I think of the De Lage Landen, or the Low Lands, those near-, at-, or below-sea level areas surrounding the Rhine, Schelte, and Meuse River deltas. The Dutch confronted their environmental limitations and constructed dikes, drained marshes and swamps, and reclaimed land (polder) from the sea. "God may have created the world," an old adage goes, "but the Dutch created Holland."

Or we might think of the proverbial bottom line. Considered a constraining factor--one wishes to see that bottom line not in the red but in the black, and yet there are always costs associated with the productive process, and limits on how much producers can charge for their goods--the bottom line has spurred many a business to innovate whether through technology (which has the negative effect of usually displacing workers), stabilizing operational costs (think of the assembly line as a mode of cost stabilization), or through a combination of other methods.

Or, think of low morale, which is the bane of an organization or community's existence. To remedy, we seek to stimulate a sense of belonging by doing unexpected things.

But gardening underground: well, now, that is a new kind of barrier, a new constraint that simply boggles the mind.

Until now.

If the West Side has its famed High Line, an urban garden scape situated on abandoned elevated rail lines from Gansevoort Street to West 34th, then the Lower East Side may eventually get The Low Line, a subterranean garden to occupy the derelict Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal under Delancey Street. The size of Grammercy Park, the Low Line (at 13 acres!) would offer green space to an underserved area of Manhattan, replete with fountains, pools of water, trees, bushes, flowers, and all things green.



Only in New York, no?

It seems the the Low Line's founders, have developed technology that would use fiber optic cables to channel light from lamppost-like solar collectors positioned along Delancey Street underground to alight the sunless world beneath. The two founders have a video at this website that explains the technology and the vision.

Talk about overcoming barriers. Talk about ingenuity.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

On Persistence

Have you ever encountered the persistent?

I mean, the really persistent?

Persistent as in asking multiple questions about the same thing, bombarding you like some aerial assault over the course of a day or a few days, with the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back that is your patience coming in the form of a most annoying question: "Are you sure?"

That question proves the last drop in the water torture that is persistent nagging. It compels you to dispose of niceties and diplomatic coverings and launch into an assault of your own that is a counterattack of pure, unadulterated, naked, vile truth; nay, it is the nuclear strike that annihilates the persistent.

The counterattack is not delivered in any gratuitously mean way, but as a litany of statements of fact that were otherwise couched in a language of gentility that the persistent clearly does not and cannot grasp. The truly persistent only think and speak in  languages and logics of excess and excuse, of fantasy and blindness. 

Thus, you begin, firmly and somewhat flatly, as if distancing yourself from your self: "Yes, I am sure. Let me tell you the real reasons why I am and why we are sure. First, your X was abysmal, not even competitive. I had to fight for recognition of something so base. Second, your Y was hardly appropriate. Third, your Z made us question..."
All the while your mouth emits a barrage of truths, you mind perhaps rhetorically frames the experience: "this is not me," "this is not my style," "I can't believe I am saying such things," but, ultimately, "you asked for it; you pushed me to to the brink." And then you realize: gosh, this feels so good.

You are not met with counter-resistance, because nothing can really survive your nuclear attack. You encounter an uncharacteristic silence or a meek, now seriously intoned, "I see. I thought that might be a problem."

Well, you just want to say but cannot because gentility once again possesses you, "you should have thought about that before you (a) applied, or (b) you began to assault me with your fantasies and your persistence. YOU made ME speak in terrible truths. YOU made ME be what I think to be rude in a way I am normally not.

Ah, yes, the joys of work this week. There were 4 such persistent encounters. Four.

But it did not stop there.

Gramsci has proven a most pathetic sight: my little garden buddy, surveying the bleak winter-scape, a garden helper without a garden.

We've not been treated to copious snow, or even lasting bits of snow this season, but subjected to a persistent brown (I am not complaining). Thankfully, we've had occasional rains to provide the moisture our hibernating flora needs, but those rains and those browns do not compensate for or assuage the pangs of gardening loss we feel in the way the presence and persistence of snow seems to do.

Snow buries the garden, removes it from our consciousness by covering it from our sight, forcing us to focus on other things. This season's temperance, unfortunately, urges forth the presence of spring flowers (the daffodils, Ornithogalum, Petasites) or the recently hibernated Toad Lilies, coaxes out a sexy green in slowly burgeoning buds: the gardening urge becomes more persistent, more, well, urgent. It is, after all, unfulfilled desire.

That desire is not, of course, helped by the arrival of garden porn: an orgiastic array of volcanic coloration, suggestive petal shots and the leave-nothing-to-the-imagination full frontals.

"Hi, sweety, wouldn't you just  like to run your fingers through my lace-like foliage?!"


"Yeah? You like those stamens, don't you?"

I'm blushing with all of this beauty before me.

Even Gramsci is not immune. He desires, he wants, he needs to garden.

And so he does.

He fertilizes and waters in the only way Gramsci can.

Piles of displaced mulch and topsoil everywhere testify to his persistence.

Several Hellebores did not seem to make it, buried under, remains, but this one (barely) did. And the odor surrounding it is, well, not pleasant.

This poor Big Blue Angel hosta had its roots exposed by a persistent Gramsci intent on watering it--a nakedness unbecoming (and improperly immodest) for an upstanding hosta.

Now: if only I can figure out a nuclear-type counteroffensive to ward off Gramsci fertilization.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Fickle February, and other Peculiarities

Peculiar is an attractive, albeit odd, word.

Say it slowly:  (Phonetically: pi-ˈkyül-yər)

A synonym for "odd" or "eccentric" or "distinctive," peculiar has come to exert worrisome, troublesome, disturbing overtones, as in "my cat is acting in peculiar ways," or, in our post 9/11 securitized world, "his peculiar behavior attracted the attention of the authorities."

But peculiar is originally a pastoral term. "Peculiar" is the English variant of the Latin peculiaris, meaning "of one's property," which derives from peculium, or "private property." Dissected, we discover that pecu means "cattle" (pecu is an adaptation of the Sanskrit word for cattle, pasu), though my search for variations of -liaris or -lium yields only words such as "helium" or "trillium" or, in what might prove to be an interesting if not salient clue to that suffix's origins, the boy's name Liam, which is variously rendered (given its Old German/Frankish, not Irish, roots) as helmut, protection, or guardian.

Peculiar, indeed, no?!

Thus, as a throwback to its original connotation, though nodding to its contemporary import, I find peculiar the remains of last night's snow. For while the warmth radiating from the earth and rocks prevented the snow from taking up temporary residence on them, human artifacts proved willing partners in an artful seduction--perhaps (to personify elements of the garden) to showcase a strength of presence that otherwise gets lost when juxtaposed to and overlaid with more organic forms and shapes.

Human constructs--ubiquitous, assertive--assume a ghostly presence early in the morning: they would disappear if not accented by dint of nature, a dusting of snow to accent a linear fortitude in a sea of darkness. Striking, the human form dominates, but in an unexpected, ethereal kind of way, the accent lost with the melting of the snow.

As dawn inexorably advances, the casting of light upon the landscape reveals ordinary forms in peculiar appearance: circular repetitions

are accented by the sharp promontory of the deck piercing the garden--simultaneously a limitation and an invitation.

And there is the hovering pot and its ghostly shadow... yes, we know what it is and how the image was produced, yet such a rational approach fails to capture the beauty and the essence of what is in the moment.

I can't help but think we live in a world of peculiarities, but not in the etymologically original sense or even in its modern incarnation. No. Rather the peculiarity is that nature seems ultimately the guardian, the protector, the proprietor of us, reducing human construct to momentary apparitions as if to say some thing, something we usually miss.