Category Archives: Summer

No better day

It got cold enough this morning for me to awaken and pull a blanket up over me. The night was just changing from dark to gray. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up, ate breakfast, and decided to go walk at Great Meadows. It was five forty-five; I kissed Carol and left.

The moon, a couple of days past full, hung bright in the blue sky. It was higher than the sun. I stood on the dike in between the mud flats and cattails and pools of water looking at the swarms of sandpipers and plovers. Everything — mud, plants, birds, trees in the distance, one small puffy cloud, moon — could be seen with utmost clarity in the early sunlight and the cool dry air. Nothing seemed far away, not even the moon, which faded and sank towards the horizon as the sun rose higher. I turned my attention only to what was there, no stray thoughts or nagging memories of things I had to do, nothing existed but for marsh and birds and sky above and trees in the distance.

By nine, other people appeared, some with binoculars and some with cameras. Two men carried big cameras mounted on tripods, with huge lenses mounted on the cameras. They stopped to photograph a snipe that was less than a hundred feet from the path, poking its long bill into the mud. I talked idly with another birder. He said he wished he had worn long pants. I said it had been downright cold when I first arrived, even when I was standing in the sun, and there had been a chilly breeze from the north-northwest.

I walked along the old railroad embankment through the woods, and heard a the plaintive whistle of a Wood-Peewee: pee-ah-wheee. Back in the sun along the mud flats and cattails, the land had warmed up enough that anything seen through binoculars at a long distance shimmered from rising heat. But it was still chilly in the shade. Birds started up and flew madly in all directions, a dark shape twisted and turned just above the tops of the cattails: a Northern Harrier cruised over the marsh, hunting for breakfast.

On the way out, I ran into Dad. We went and got sandwiches and sat outside on a bench overlooking the river to eat them. The shadows moved around us, and finally I said I had to stand up. We had been sitting and talking for the better part of two hours, not conscious of the time going by. There can be no better kind of day than that.

Fishing Guide to Middlesex County Rivers

If you want to know about a river or stream, and you can only ask one person, best to ask an angler who fishes it regularly. Anglers will know what fish live in the river, and a good angler will know what those fish feed on. A good angler can tell you about water quality, vegetation, and the extent of annual flooding as well as how low the river gets in dry months. Best of all, an angler will know how to access the river or stream: where you can put in a boat or carry in a canoe, where you can walk along the bank or wade.

David S. Kaplan has fished every river in Middlesex County himself, and talked to experienced anglers who really know certain parts of each river. Even you you’re not an angler yourself, his book, Fishing Guide to Middlesex County Rivers, can tell you things you should know about the Assabet, the Charles, the Concord, the Merrimack, the Mystic, the Nashua, the Nissitissit, the Shawsheen, the Squannacook, and the Sudbury.

Take the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers, which I was canoeing on just a few days ago. “The Sudbury has fertile, brown water stained with tannin from decaying vegetation,” Kaplan writes. “Water transparency averages about 2 to 3 feet but varies from 1 foot over muddy bottoms after a rain to over 8 feet at the stony headwaters.” I was canoeing over muddy bottoms in the Sudbury, and could see barely a foot into the water. Turning into the Assabet from the Sudbury led to a distinct change in the water: stained more heavily with tannin, but because of the sandy bottom the water was fairly clear and I could see down as much as six feet.

I paddled up the Assabet towards Spencer Brook, and passed the outlet from Macone’s Pond. In one of his rare errors, Kaplan misspells it “Macoun’s Pond,” like the apple — Peanut Macone, who used to live next to the pond, probably would have been amused. Kaplan says this about the river at this point: “Fish-holding cover includes deadfalls, islands, a brush island, some big midstream boulders and undercut banks.” The water level was high enough that I had a hard time seeing the boulders and deadfalls, but I knew they were there, not just from years of experience but from the turbulence disturbing the surface of the water. I had to dodge several downed trees and submerged logs, and circled the one main island in the Assabet. Even though I wasn’t fishing that day, Kaplan’s 16-word description covered much of what I saw, although it missed the Kingfisher who flew within twenty feet of me, and the two kayakers beached in a backwater, and the deer fly. A little further upstream on the Assabet Kaplan describes as “lightly fished,” and indeed I didn’t see another soul although I spent a quarter of an hour pulled up to the bank of the river.

Kaplan also describes things I couldn’t see. Larry Thorlton of Billerica once caught a Northern Pike which weighed in at 18 pounds and 2 ounces. I never caught one that big, but once I did catch (and release) a big pike in the Sudbury that I knew was a solid 36 inches long because it stretched from gunwale to gunwale of my old canoe, which had a 36 inch beam. Its teeth were impressive, and you bet I used long-nosed pliers to release the hook from inside its mouth.

Worse things than ferocious Northern Pike lurk in the Sudbury’s waters:

Water chestnut infestation grows more severe every year, as in so many of our local rivers. Boaters must inspect trailers, boats, and motors to avoid spreading the nutlets of this plant and small pieces of fanwort that could introduce these virulent, exotic plants to other waters.

Water chestnut has gotten so bad that it has to be removed periodically, or it would choke out the entire ecosystem of the river.

Tragically, environmental clean-up of the Sudbury cannot boast the success of the Charles or Nashua. Toxic chemical pollutants still leach through the south bank at the infamous Nyanza site in Ashland. Despite enormous efforts to clean up this toxic mess, dangerous levels of mercury continue to contaminate the water…. The remaining 25 miles of the Sudbury suffer mercury contamination that makes their fish unfit for human consumption.

And there is not much that can be done about the toxic chemicals: the rivers may be permanently damaged.

The book is now ten years old, and has become outdated in places: for one example, when I went canoeing a few days ago I found the Town of Concord had upgraded the Lowell Road boat ramp with hard-packed stone dust, the ramp about which Kaplan writes: “During low water or when rain has softened the bank, you may need a 4WD tow vehicle to take out a trailer.”

Nor is this book any literary marvel. If you’re not an angler yourself, you won’t buy or read this book. But for those of us who are anglers, we can travel the entire length of a dozen small but remarkable rivers and streams in our imaginations; I’d rather read about the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in this book than in Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.


According to the National Weather Service for Boston Logan Airport: High temperature on July 31 was 80 F. Lowest temperature last night was 84 F. Yesterday, temperatures did not get below 90 F. until after 8 p.m. Temperatures today expected to top 100 F. A good day to do nothing but sit and read.

Boston set a record warm minimum temperature for August 1 of 77 F. — the old record warm minimum was 75, set in 1969. For today, August 2, the past record warm minimum was 74, set in 1980, and unless the temperature drops lower than expected before midnight tonight we will easily top that record.

Still, we’re better off than Indiana.

Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell

Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell by Deborah Solomon (Boston: MFA Publications, 1997).

Unfortunately, I was introduced to the artist Joseph Cornell by Rick, foundrymaster at the college where I worked as factotum for the fine arts department for a year. Rick’s take on Joseph Cornell was that he was this guy who lived with his mother in a house in one of the outer boroughs of New York City, and he had a workshop in the basement filled with all kinds of junk and found objects, and he would hire young women as nude models and after he drew them he would try to sleep with them. The sculptors I hung out with at that time liked to dwell on the odd personalities and sexual proclivities of famous artists.

Nina, a Chicago socialite whom I got to know at college and who went to work for one of the New York galleries before moving back to Chicago and opening her own sculpture gallery, was the one who introduced me to Cornell’s art work. She invited me to visit her in the New York gallery where she worked. I dropped in on one of my weekly trips to the city, and there stood a bunch of Cornell’s boxes in one of the back rooms. I remember I actually got to touch one or two, but I no longer remember which boxes I saw. Nina’s Chicago gallery lasted a few years, then she dropped out of the art world entirely, opting to work in the “hospitality industry” — which is to say she began working for one of the big hotel chains.

Since then, I’ve grown fond of Cornell’s assemblages and collages. I was never particularly interested in Cornell’s life, but when I ran across Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, I idly read a few pages and was instantly hooked:– Cornell led a far stranger life than I could have imagined from Rick the foundrmaster’s distorted account.

Idle facts about the artist Joseph Cornell:

(1) He couldn’t draw. Late in life he audited a life drawing class at Queens College of the CUNY system, taught by Mary Frank…

…Cornell attended her class five or six times, and apparently made an effort at drawing. He would sit on a stool at the side of the classroom with a sketchbook in hand — “the kind you buy in Woolworth’s,” Frank said, “smaller and cheaper than everyone else’s.” As students passed the session sketching from a male or female model, Cornell appeared to do the same. However, when Frank glanced at his page one day, there was nothing inscribed on it beyond “a curving line that crossed over itself.” Cornell insisted she keep the drawing as a gift.

(2) In the latter part of his life, he appeared to subsist entirely on sweets: those cheap supermarket cakes with the thick heavy frosting, bags of cookies, boxes of glazed doughnuts, etc. Solomon reports that “in later life, he was rumored to subsist on nothing but doughnuts.”

(3) Despite what Rick the foundrymaster told me, Cornell did not engage in sexual intercourse with the young women whom he cultivated. Solomon said one of those young women, Leila Hadley, was willing to have sex with Cornell, but he wouldn’t:

…[He offered] a rather quaint reason for his abstinence from intercourse. “He felt he would lose his ability to be an artist if he had sex,” she said, adding that he made this remark to her several times.


The oddness of Cornell’s life seems to have had something to do with the way he perceived reality. In letters, he described the back yard of his house in Flushing as a sort of pastoral haven where he could sit under a quince tree and watch the birds. But, Solomon reports, the back yard does not look so idyllic in photographs taken in 1971…

It [the back yard] looks scruffier than one had imagined: an empty patch of grass enclosed by a chain-link fence, with an ugly apartment complex rising up behind it. Tacky garden statues — a squirrel, a frog, and a rabbit accompanied by four little bunnies — rest on the lawn. How many hours had Cornell spent here daydreaming?

It might be safe to say that Cornell’s pastoral idyll in his back yard was more a result of his imaginative and spiritual journeyings than any reflection of reality. Part of his gift was that Cornell managed to find something transcendent in the ordinary hum-drum life of Flushing. Writing about Cornell’s experimental movies made in the 1950’s, Solomon says:

There are a dozen movies from the fifties altogether. They tend to be short, from three to ten minutes in duration, and most are set in the streets and parks of New York. If they share a theme, it is the yearning for transcendence played off against the grubbiness of city life.

If that’s true, I differ from Cornell in looking for transcendence in everyday life, rather than seeing them as separate. Or you might argue that the fact that Cornell made physical art objects meant that he remained involved with the physical world — perhaps so, but I’d have to say that his involvement was a fairly strange involvement.

Summer dreams

Standing in front of the stove, stirring the chopped chinese cabbages and carrots and garlic and ginger in the biggest frying pan, I think to myself: Oh I remember that place where I…. But it was a dream, not a memory: a dream place in which I wandered sometime last night while lying in bed.

Books make dreams even stronger in summertime:

A hymn to Agni, god and priest of fire, that I read in the Rig Veda comes back as people in a mysterious place that is part building and part woods.

The story about a library with no end becomes a waking dream, a poem that makes me interrupt cooking in order to write it down.

Perry Mason the amazing attorney is in my dreams, or is it his secretary Della Street, or I am detective Paul Drake.

The dreams fade into the early morning light that I never see because I stay up late into the night reading.

The dreams return at the oddest moments, a flash, then they fade. Sometimes I have to put down a book because of such a strong thought, which I think I should write down, but then I don’t, and when I next think of it, it’s gone; or was it only a dream thought that I thought I had thought?

Summer is rooted in the earthy carrots, grounded in the solid chinese cabbage that we bought at the farmer’s market in Davis Square. But summer fades into the nothingness of airy dusk when dreams return to you as you sit nodding there on the front porch reading.

Hot summer night

A hot summer night in Harvard Square. The usual crowd of upscale teens and suburbanites is missing. People have gathered around the window of Cardullo’s gourmet food store — in the store window is a large screen TV, tuned to the Red Sox game, with the sound piped outside on a hidden speaker. This is a real public service, since you can no longer watch the Sox on broadcast TV — it’s cable only.

There’s maybe thirty or forty people, much more of a mix than you usually see nowadays in Harvard Square, sort of like the Square was twenty or thirty years ago with academics and regular working people. Some fans actually brought lawn chairs to sit in. A couple of motorcycle cops sit astride their Harleys nearby, pretending to not look at the game. These Red Sox fans take up the whole sidewalk, and spill out onto the street. We walk around them, in the street — it is not wise to walk between Sox fans and a TV screen at this point in the season.

Something good must be happening in the game, because the fans all cheer and the motorcycle cops look up.

Swallows and Amazons

In the book Swallows and Amazons, four children from a 1930’s upper middle class English family spend their summer holiday on an unnamed lake in England’s Lake District. Roger is the youngest at 7, and John is the oldest at about 12; Susan is about 10 and Titty (an unfortunate name for today’s readers) is about 8. Their father is in the Navy, and their mother lets the four of them sail off in a small sailboat named “Swallow” so that they can camp out on an island in the middle of the lake.

Soon they meet two other children, the sisters Nancy (age 13) and Peggy (age 12), who fly the Jolly Roger from the mast of their own small boat, which is named “Amazon.” The six children become friends, although their friendship includes skirmishes and a naval war, and the rest of their summer is shaped by the boats they sail.

One of the highest values these children hold is to be good sailors. The younger children, Roger and Titty, long to be allowed to take the tiller of “Swallow.” The crews of the Swallow and the Amazon watch each other’s ability closely, and of course they race each other. The next highest value these children hold is self-sufficiency. They camp out on the island, cook for themselves, and do their best to take care of themselves. It may be that these two values, self-sufficiency and good sailing, cannot be separated for these particular children: to have the responsibility of sailing a small boat is to learn self-sufficiency. At least one organization in Boston, Community Boating, believes this to be true, and offers children (even those who can’t afford it) the opportunity to learn how to sail on the Charles River Basin.

No need to tell you all the adventures the children have. Suffice it to say that all their adventures, while fictional, could be true; everything they do is something that children of their age could manage, including living on their own in the outdoors for a week. These are not carefully protected children of 21st C. North American suburbia; these are children who are expected to learn how to take care of themselves. You can’t help but notice the influence that the ideals of British Empire have on these children, and some will reject the children’s self-sufficiency on that score.

(More astute readers might suspect that Empire is living on in these children’s play in the same way that the ravages of the Plague live on in the game “Ring-around the Rosy.” Better to play at departed Empire, if it leads a child to self-sufficiency and a love of the outdoors, than to play at video-games, which will be a useful skill once the child grows up and joins the United States military, but which will ultimately lead only to dependency and slothfulness, and a lack of competence at living outdoors.)

Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, wrote a dozen other related books with the same characters. Speaking of the ones I have read, Ransome’s books seem to me to encourage children’s self-sufficiency without resorting to the pyrotechnics of, say, Harry Potter. If you have children, have them read Swallows and Amazons now, and deal with the longing for small boats later.

The book is still in print, and I found my paperback copy in the “Harvard Book Store”: Link. Another bookstore, “Curious George Goes to Wordsworth,” tries to keep all twelve volumes of the series in stock in their Cambridge, Mass., store (but call them for mail-order, because not all their books are availabel through their Web site): Link. One of the mangers of “Curious George Goes to Wordsworth” told me that the distributor thinks the books look “too old-fashioned” and doesn’t always keep them in stock, so the bookstore may have to back-order individual volumes now and then.

There is also a fan club for those who like Swallows and Amazons: Link.

Post revised August 20, 2006.


On Friday, I pulled the broccoli out of the refrigerator. Abbie had given it to us when we were up visiting in Maine. “Take this home with you,” she said. “I have plenty and I can always go get more.”

We had stopped in to visit the Four Season Farm on Cape Rosier, in Maine, just a few miles from Jack and Abbie’s house. Eliot Coleman had purchased the land from Helen and Scott Nearing for thirty-three dollars an acre in the 1970’s; that’s what the Nearings had paid for it in twenty years earlier. The farmstand wasn’t open yet, but we asked if we could look around anyway. “Sure,” said the pleasant young man with the disheveled hair and beard.

The market gardens were stunningly beautiful. The plants were larger than seem possible, they all looked incredibly healthy. We went inside a greenhouse. It was immaculate. Even the weeds looked like they were supposed to be there. Squash and eggplants and tomatoes were tied to string and grew up to the top of the greenhouse ten feet up. The pepper plants weren’t as tall, but were just as spectacular.

Eliot Coleman walked up as we walked back to Abbie’s car. Abbie and Carol knew who he was because of his pictures in his cookbooks. I knew who he was because he walked around like he owned the place. We said hello, and he responded politely.

A small apple orchard grew outside the greenhouse, perfectly cared-for trees growing in a mix of clover and grass. The farm spread out around us, green, fecund, orderly. They grow perfect vegetables all year round in coastal Maine’s unforgiving climate.

Our mother used to say that the essence of good cooking was “good goods.” If you start with good ingredients, it’s easy to wind up with good food.

I rinsed the broccoli, cut the florets off the main stalk, dropped it in the boiling water. After five minutes, I drained the water off, a light but brilliant emerald green. The broccoli tasted like green, it had a buttery after-taste, it was sweet, it tasted like broccoli but it tasted like more than broccoli. I like to read while I’m eating, but this broccoli was so good I couldn’t. Instead, I said to Carol: “It’s so good!” I looked out the window at the brilliant green trees along Rindge Avenue and thought: That’s what the broccoli tastes like, the green of things growing in the heat of summer. It really was that good.

The Case of the Amazing Attorney

The Hero has to wend his way through the snares and traps of untruthful witnesses, past clients who would throw him to the Wolves, and find the path that leads to Truth and Justice. With him is the Heroine, always calm and capable, ready to do battle beside the Hero at a moment’s notice. They are accompanied by the Sidekick, never as brave as the Hero but competent and completely honest. Cornered by the bear-like Adversary, the Hero triumphs at the last minute, finding truth and saving the Beautiful Maiden from disgrace and death.

It sounds like something Joseph Campbell might have written, but of course it’s only a description of the typical Perry Mason novel. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 85 books featuring the amazing attorney, his saucy secretary Della Street, and the dogged detective Paul Drake. The books are potboilers so devoid of literary merit that they are unlikely to ever be assigned in a high school English class. Yet millions of copies have been sold, starting with the first book in 1933 and continuing to the present day.

Two days ago, I went down to the Harvard Book Store to browse through their used book section in the basement, and I found a paperback copy of The Case of the Crooked Candle first published in 1944. At the cash register, the young woman checking me out looked like the typical bookish person who works at the Harvard Book Store. But she didn’t comment on the Daniel Pinkwater young adult novel I purchased, nor did she notice that I had the classic two-volume Sources of Indian Tradition, nor did she say anything about The Cornel West Reader.

When she got to The Case of the Crooked Candle, she looked me in the eye and smiled. “Perry Mason!” she said delightedly. “They say that they’re going to put out the entire television series on DVD!”

“You mean the original one, in black and white?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said. “I hope they do put it out on DVD, I’m going to buy it and watch them. I love Perry Mason!”

The literary snobs may turn up their noses at Perry Mason, but book store employees don’t give John Updike that many exclamation points. The literary snobs relish stories of grim truth and reality that reflect the sordid life that they believe we all live. Little do they know that most of us live partway inside the Realm of the Collective Unconscious, where they take part in the eons-old battle against Evil, and against Untruth.

I have tried reading Updike’s novels, but find them inexpressibly dreary. Indeed, I have mostly given up on reading fiction. Why should I read something someone has made up? — I’d rather read about things that really have happened. Maybe that’s why I continue to read Perry Mason novels:– they’re fiction, but Perry Mason is also the Hero, the Jungian figure who stalks through the Collective Unconscious righting wrongs and saving the day. That’s about as true as you can get.

As for The Case of the Crooked Candle, suffice it to say that the murder takes place on a yacht that is moored in shallow water. The crooked candle lead Perry Mason to unravel the true solution to the murder. And at the end of the book, after Mason reveals the solution to Della Street, Paul Drake, and his clients Roger and Carol Burbank, the phone in his office rings….

Mason nodded to Della. She picked up the receiver, listened a moment, then placed her hand over the mouthpiece.

“Chief, there’s a blonde woman out there with a black eye who says she has to see you at once. Gertie [the receptionist] says she’s terribly upset and she’s afraid she’ll have hysterics if…”

“Show her into the law library,” Mason said. “I’ll talk with her there. While I’m doing that, you can get a check from Mr. Burbank payable to Adelaide Kingman for one hundred thousand bucks. You’ll excuse me, I know. An hysterical blonde with a black eye would seem to be an emergency case, at least an interesting one — The Case of the Black Eyed Blonde.”

So the Hero ends one adventure, and immediately sets out on the next one….