Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Keep walking

At Pier 6, Crataegus "Winter King." At least, I'm going out on a hawthorn limb and calling it. I should check the park's plant list (and point out some typos). The fruit tastes a little like apple, and is very seedy.

The water- and landscapes of Brooklyn Bridge Park are still changing. Pristine floating docks have appeared. Not too many of those, in New York

Asters are still in bloom.

A wild black cherry turns bright.

And a beach rose - invasive Rosa rugosa - burns with rosehips.

The Piers that walk into the water offer river-wrapped views.

The Frenchman had not been here since we moved to Harlem, and he offered complimentary murmers. That doesn't happen often, either.

There are the death stars, of course: the apartments that have risen like fungi between the water and the BQE, fruiting from the mass of everpresent and swarming mycelia beneath the paving, offering high-cost living spaces squeezed irrepressibly between park and highway.

The city is change. The homes on the Promenade, below, sigh in relief, knowing that only a green berm lies between them and the million dollar view. Others have not been as lucky.

But access to these waterways is for everyone. And I think that in some ways little has changed there from the time of Whitman, and Melville - the men with words and water in their veins.

I love this park.

We walked to what we used to call thenoisiestparkintheworld, between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, where the trains rage overhead, and wolfed a late-afternoon Shake Shack burger each (my first - fast food is interesting). Bridal parties, engaged couples, and quinceañeras groups posed around us. White and turquoise dresses, retinues, Manolo Blahnik stilletos.

Fortunately, we did not have to resort to a white stretch Hummer to get home.

We turned and walked back into our hood, heading down Court Street and pausing outside Moo Burger to appreciate the 5pm-rush stroller parking. This neighborhood has more strollers per capita than any other. We fantasize about buying one, and putting our fullgrown tiger in it. Leaving him parked outside Union Market with all the leashed dogs...

Monday, November 23, 2015

66 Square Feet goes wide, and long

Well, there it is. My third New York garden: The one in the middle. Let's call it #1, after our apartment number. Rose's lot is on the left, our condo neighbors' shared garden to the right.

A top-floor neighbor moved out and I was invited to take some pictures.

It needs some structure. A fat boxwood or five (I know, it's an addiction). I might river-gravel the path around the earth patch as I don't  like those rough pavers, very much. And the concrete slabs that the table and pots are sitting on are just something we must live with. I had two seconds of a hot pink (or turquoise?) fantasy, but surely one would regret it?

Maybe. One. Wouldn't.


And I would love a bigger table. Oh dear. I just noticed the sheep fell down. See the sheep?

What you can't see on the earth edges are the bulbs planted (Allium, lilies, Camassia), or the perennials, waiting for next spring and summer. At the back are many North Americans: Solomon's seal, sweetfern, Joe Pye weed, my three blueberry bushes, foam flower, asters and golden rod, agastache; plus Alpine strawberries, calamintha, the existing day lilies and violets, divided and transplanted, and my herbs, scattered about.

The viburnum in the top right corner has been hard-pruned - it was a thicket of very old, vertical suckers, and I removed about a third. It was fed, probably for the first time in its life. And I removed a lot of crushing wisteria from its crown, The wisteria originates in the hedge on the right, with an ancient English ivy.

The earth patch is designated edible-only: right now the few rows are arugula, fenugreek, red mustard and lambs lettuce (mache) that has at last come up, in the cold weather. In the spring I'll plant much longer rows. And I have sent off four cups of soil to Cornell for heavy metal analysis.

The thing is, right now? Not a drop of sun. Not a drop. So I remember August when it baked in sun-heat, and when I hauled out armfuls of weeds and cursed at squadrons of mosquitoes. And I pray that there are enough hours of sun to support what I have planted. I think it will be fine - but the shadow for these long months is a hurdle. I do miss the sunlit heights.

Because up there, there is this view:

Same house. Forty feet up.

But...garden or top floor, garden or top floor? I chose garden.

And we shall see.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Grey Brooklyn

I walked a lot, last week.

The proximity of the water is wonderful. While Harlem trained me to leave the house and head for Central Park's North Woods when the narrow days grew too dark for me, Carroll Gardens offers Brooklyn Bridge Park within ten minutes.

And here you find the harbor, the slapping wakes and the rising and falling tides of this great estuary, the Mahicantuck, the North River, the Hudson, the great waters in constant motion, the river that flows both ways.

The Freedom Tower hid.

The berm between the park and the BQE has greened over (I spotted wild mustard growing on it).

Bayberries (Myrica pensylvanica) were covered in fruit - boil enough of them long enough and the floating wax will make candles for you, if you are desperate for light.

And dozens of winterberries (Ilex verticillata), newly planted, showed off their raison d'etre.

Heading home I saw Eshete's cats - he is their Ethiopian boss, a familiar figure in these streets, swaddled in layers of fabric and riding a bicycle, often spending hours at a time with his street pets, who wait for him, and are fed and watered.

I did not see him this day - it was damp, but the cats were waiting.

Yes, I know.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold

Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Courtesy of PoetryFoundation

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Neighboring hoods

The sidewalk of the Gowanus Nursery on Columbia Street in Red Hook is pretty with late annuals and perennials. The nursery is still well stocked with plants, and very good ones for shade, especially. I was very pleased to find sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina), there. This is a good time to plant. Open weekends only.

In the Carroll Gardens streets it is still fall, and ginkgos are like beacons in the darkening afternoons.

Boerum Hill, below.

It is also clamping season, for pacifists:

Gowanus, a block from the canal:

And on my walk to Whole Foods (where I buy three things: organic chicken, Meyer lemons and ...wait. OK, two things).

The Venice of Brooklyn. One day.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sourdough, and Sarah Owens

We arrived early to Sarah Owens' Sourdough book party recently, and watched the baker-gardener-author arrange some extravagantly fetching flowers.

I'd like to use the picture above to illustrate to the gluten averse that...it's OK to eat bread, people. Unless it actually makes you sick. And it does not make most people sick, nevermind the Banting-Noakes fundamentalism that has swept South Africa, the Paleo cults everywhere, and the 'eat clean' phobes. Check in with a therapist, but Eat Good Food.

You will be OK. Until you're not. Cos we're all gonna gettit in the end, right? Right.

But that is part of Sarah's point. How fermentation of grains makes all the difference. You'll have to buy the book to see.

Sourdough is a beautiful book. Ngoc Minh Ngo's images are compelling. And after baking my beloved ole boule for a year and a half I am ready for some fresh instruction and inspiration. Sourdough is filled with both.

Extra appealing? The botanical emphasis. Beets, kale, rhubarb, sweet potatoes, roses, elderflowers, nettles, fiddleheads and walnuts. And from lemon madeleines to pizzas, tacos, scones and Dutch pancakes (above - that might be the one I try first, the recipe inspired by Fort Defiance, in Red Hook). The book is arranged seasonally, so now you can dive right into fall.

Sarah has a gimlet eye for beauty: its composition, structure, and texture - as her groaning, detailed Dutch master snack table at the Sourdough book party demonstrated. These qualities are essential for heavenly bread, too. Her beet bread is dark red, earthy, beety (of course), and I will never forget my first bite, one hot summer in her top floor Brooklyn apartment, with a sip of cold cider and slick of black currant jam. The story I wrote for Edible Brooklyn is credited as being one of the inspirations for the book which followed. That is a very happy thing.

One of the many appealing qualities about Sarah is that, for a woman who knows a lot (she is the former Brooklyn Botanic Garden rosarian), she is always learning. While she was in town from Kentucky, where she moved from Brooklyn, she was taking a pickling class. Guess who ate the pickles? We did!

Thomas Brown, an ice sculptor friend, contributed the drippily beautiful centrepiece for the smorgas table. There was bread, of course, cut into dozens of bite-size pieces for the many-many spreads and marmalades and chutneys and cheeses and compound butters and compotes.

And there was dessert, also from the book - honey rose cake and chocolate port.

The author with her book.

Cocktails being discussed.

A Frenchman (what is he hiding behind his back?).

Begonia leaves in Dead Horse Bay bottles, with conversation.

Book buyers.

And book signers..

And finally, harts with darts. Because it is Williamsburg.

Excellent evening, better book. Sarah is my friend, but I am not steering you wrong when I say, Buy it. You will not be disappointed.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Skilpad Flower Camp

The road to Skilpad Flower Camp

I wanted to show the Frenchman the flowers in Namaqualand. When I read about the pop up "luxury tented camp" at Skilpad I booked in a flash. Tents in the flowers, just for as long as spring lasts. Let's splurge for our first two nights on the road. (We did not have the time to prepare for a self equipped camping trip. Time has become very precious.)

We could have stayed at Kamieskroon, the hamlet 20 minutes east via a dirt road, but although their hotel is quaint in a 1971 kind of way, the food is not good and the accommodation is very basic (I have stayed there several times, with my mom in previous springs, and once with the Frenchie, en route home from Namibia).

Being right in the flowers sounded special.


And it was. The location was perfect, with a bonus of grazing Dorper sheep and lambs.

Staff tents, Skilpad

If only Chiefs, the camping outfit that runs this concession within the Namaqualand National Park had not attached that word "luxury" to the experience. It created expectations. And expectations,  as I learned from my friend Marijke, must be managed.

Spot our tent

Our assigned tent closely resembled our own tent, the one we have used in Namibia, the Kgalagadi, the Karoo, the eastern Free State and Eastern Cape - large enough to accommodate two camp beds, in this case, and high enough so that you can stand upright in the middle. Here, the beds were made up nicely with good linen, and the electric blankets were indeed a luxury in the context of any camping experience. The first night was very cold, and I needed mine.

Vince has already written about the first teething problems: obtaining ice for the obligatory sundowner. Ice is a surprisingly ubiquitous commodity in the driest of South African camping experiences. But here we were given a grudging glassful when we asked, about 5 cubes, and it was made clear by facial expression that this was a very special favour.

We could (should, said the face, which belonged to the young lady-host) have had drinks in the communal dining tent - zipped tightly shut into its dark space while beyond it the sun set over a sea of flowers and granite outcroppings. We chose the view outside our superbly situated tent, using our own traveling bottle of good gin, and tonic in small cans.

But we had incurred a black mark.

When we went up to supper in that large tent, still zipped against the wind, its rigging was singing in the gale. We already knew that we were not permitted to bring our own wine (we offered to pay any corkage they liked) and I surveyed the luxury wine selection without enthusiasm: a grand total of two reds, both Rhebokskloof, an inoffensive and unexceptional wine, and a young vintage. What was exceptional was our small collection of carefully chosen (and only slightly shaken up) bottles in the Landcruiser.

Among the modest offerings of bog-standard liquor bottles on the bar table I spied Old Brown Sherry, a nastily sweet fortified wine best known for keeping surfers warm inbetween catching frigid Cape Town waves.


Why not offer handcrafted, small-batch Stilbaai gin, Swartland vermouth, Calitzdorp tawny red (what South Africans call port) and just a few of the best wines South Africa makes?

Manulea altissima . You can buy it at Annie's Annuals, I kid you not.

Dinner arrived.  We did not know what it was, and the kind and silent man who put it before us did not elaborate; we'd missed the small chalk board menu in a dark corner. But we enjoyed the mysterious piece of tender meat (I thought it might be mutton), while I was perplexed by the pesto'd heap of orzo beside it (not exactly the traditional braais or potjies advertised, nor is basil in season in September). A token piece of broccoli rounded things off. That was dinner.

Later came an exceptionally small and uninteresting brownie. To be fair, few desserts turn me on. Brownies just happen to be at the bottom of the heap. But we perked up as coffee was announced.

The first hint of trouble came from fellow guests milling near the coffee table. "Instant coffee! Where is the moer koffie?" asked a man, referring to an old fashioned country method of brewing coffee, where the grounds are suspended above the boiling water in a muslin bag, percolator fashion.

"If you had wanted real coffee you should have paid more to stay at the beach camp," snipped our young hostess, in response, referring to the other Chiefs tent location, right on the coast (it had been full, so we booked inland, which turned out to be a good thing).

O-K. You lost me right there.

Are you serious? Telling a guest he should have paid more, when, by local standards, he has already coughed up a sizeable sum. Telling a guest he is wrong to demand something better than instant coffee. Telling a guest - an explanation followed -  how hard it is to create a camp out of nothing? What the...


ID need - a succulent and furry rosette beneath

Ja nee, as they say in those parts.

In Brooklynese: Whaddaygonnado?


So the next night we ate out, in the hamlet. The food was really not good but our hosts were so genuinely warm and gave Vince so much extra custard with his dessert that it didn't matter. On the way home in the dark we saw owls, a hare, a small buck, flying, dashing and darting out of the headlights and into the Namaqualand night.


The only running water in camp ran from the bucket showers, filled to order (3 minutes per shower) by the same silent, kind men, who first had to heat it in drums over a fire. For drinking, there were two small bottles of water left in our tent. One each, about 250ml. They disappeared fast. At dinner we grabbed two each, from a bucket on the drinks table. We needed them for drinking and tooth brushing, as our little canvas wash basin had no water in it. The next morning we collected more at breakfast, and so on. That was the only water available.

On checkout, we realized that we had been charged for every bottle.

I get that water is precious. But if there is no water on site, you prepare people for that fact, ahead of time. You give them the opportunity to bring water. And how about filling covered glass carafes and leaving those in tents, rather than these dinky little environmentally unfriendly plastic things?

Bug people?

We were not permitted to carry coffee mugs to our tent and its view, so after breakfast in the dark tent - instant coffee and rusks (and the sugar packets had run out) we walked, and that was wonderful. And then we drove, which was wonderful, too, until it wasn't, but that is another story. We visited the beach camp, and sniffed the air hopefully for its coffee.

Very handsome caterpillars

The experience at this camp rattled me because hospitality fascinates me. How easy it feels when flawless, how awkward when it is not. It is Tolstoyan, where every happy experience is happy in the same way but where every unhappy one is unhappy in its own way (to misquote from Anna Karenina).

What it is to be a guest and what it is to be a host. The fine, fine line where things go wrong.

Flower shadows at the foot of our tent, sunset

The desire to be pleasing, and the anticipation of need are at the heart of genuine hospitality, and where they are missing, a meanness of spirit infects the experience. What was wrong here was attitude. Maybe it was the wind. It can get to people.

Preparing to fill a shower with hot water

It had the potential to be exceptional. The landscape is so beautiful. The misses are near-hits.

But this pop up was a fizzle.

I guess we will have to stick to our own style of luxury camping, in future. Where the espresso, sundowners and wine flow. Where we never run out of ice. And where service comes with a smile. 


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