The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Venus of the Woods

October 4, 2016 | by

Celebrating the history of the beloved ash tree.

Charles May, The Old Ash, photograph, 1863.

Charles May, The Old Ash, photograph, 1863.

As a small child, my mother was taken to the Lake District, in the hope that she would have a better chance of survival under the shelter of the northwestern hills than at home on the flat, overexposed coast of Lincolnshire. It was early 1940. It would have been a grand adventure, were it not for the constant reminders that things were not as they should be. It was not just the absence of fathers, uncles, brothers, but the presence in the hotel grounds of oddly damaged things: a blind cat, a broken wheelbarrow, a man who had been at Dunkirk and did not seem quite like other grown-ups. What my mother remembers most vividly is a young woman, pale in face and dress, who spent her days sitting outside, staring up into the branches of the tall ash tree and drawing what she saw. When the sun came out, her pencil lines darkened, turning the tracery of tiny branches into black lace veils. She never spoke, but day after day she looked up and re-created the impossible patterns on her large, flat sheets of paper. What did the ash tree mean to that unknown woman? Or to my mother, in whose agitated, impressionable mind it took root and has remained ever since?

The ash tree is known as the Venus of the woods, and it seems to stir powerful feelings in those who gaze on its graceful form. Whether it is standing in spacious parkland or in an unkempt, November hedge, or rising naked from a sea of bluebells, the ash’s curvy limbs taper to an end with tips pointing to the heavens. A young ash is often like a half-open peacock’s tail, not quite ready to display its beauties; the branches of a mature ash, once fully fanned out, will slope down toward the earth, before sweeping up again, as if to send the buds flying. Through the summer the boughs cascade in all directions, wave-shaped and covered in green sprays. There are no angles on a young ash tree—everything is rounded and covered in fluttering foliage, soft as the feathers in a boa or the fur of a chinchilla. The boughs gain a few inches and furrow with the passing years, but with maturity come striking attitudes. In winter their silhouettes stencil clear skies like a row of unframed stained glass windows. The ebullient black buds stand proud, as if impatient for the spring, but in fact the ash is usually the last to come into leaf and the first to shed its seasonal foliage. The uncovered form of the ash, though, is just as compelling as the full-dress splendor of more eye-catching trees. Read More »

Upon Knowing I Must Soon Depart

September 28, 2016 | by



No, not dying. Not just yet.* But already, still at home, the feeling of jet lag begins. Time seems omnipresent, yet too brief. Birthday presents are opened early. I stare at the bag from the pharmacy. Is this any time to try the antipsychotic? (Prescribed for sleep. All doctors hate Ambien, and respond to hearing the name of the drug the way bushmen respond to the scent of wild boar, unless they’re otherwise occupied by appearing on a reality show.) Required reading has been abandoned; already playing hooky by substituting reading one writer for another. I believe myself to be the only writer now reading John O’Hara instead of Peter Taylor, which says nothing about either man, much about me, and has nothing to do with the antipsychotic, as I have yet to work up the courage to ingest a pill.

Fondly, I observe the hummingbirds in the garden: “Greenie” has been feinting during its swirl upward, plotting its faux midair crash into “Blackie” (we aren’t very original in our nicknaming). They sink rapidly, like floaters in opposite eyes, then rise again, in a complex spiral. We’ve been stumped about what to call the almost equally dark hummingbird who has two white spots on its back wings, if you call them wings. This one, we merely call, “the one with white.” (Move over, Wilkie Collins.) Read More »

Summer Hours, Part 3

August 24, 2016 | by


Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 of Vanessa Davis’s column. Read More »

It Stinks

August 4, 2016 | by

The corpse flower’s indifferent, cosmic energy.


A still from the New York Botanical Garden’s live stream of the corpse flower in bloom.

As I strolled through the midmorning dumpster efflorescence of the west Bronx, I thought to myself, Summertime in the city is a contact high. It has less to do with sun and heat; it’s the sweet-sour reek of parboiling garbage that signals the height of the season is here. I breathed in summer as I skipped past wide, still puddles left by Friday’s A.M. showers.

North of Fordham’s campus, I joined a long line of people buying tickets at the entrance to the New York Botanical Garden. I’d been waiting for days, watching the YouTube live stream, assiduously refreshing the NYBG Twitter feed when, finally, it happened—on Thursday night, the Garden’s nine-year-old corpse flower, its Amorphophallus titanum, started blooming. It was the first specimen of this famously gorgeous-yet-also-rank-as-hell flower to bloom in the Garden since July 7, 1939. That day, in a “tribute to the salubrious climate of the Bronx,” the Amorphophallus titanum was proclaimed official borough flower, a distinction it held until 2000. Read More »

The Museum of Broken Relationships, and Other News

July 7, 2016 | by


  • Public service announcement: be around trees. I say this not as some kind of granola-crunching hiker-guru type but as someone with a body of hard data to back it up. A new study by Marc Berman, a University of Chicago psychology professor, “compares two large data sets from the city of Toronto, both gathered on a block-by-block level; the first measures the distribution of green space … and the second measures health, as assessed by a detailed survey of ninety-four thousand respondents. After controlling for income, education, and age, Berman and his colleagues showed that an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. ‘To get an equivalent increase with money, you’d have to give each household in that neighborhood ten thousand dollars—or make people seven years younger.’ ”

Me and My Monkey

May 19, 2016 | by

Frank Buckland wanted to save—and eat—as many animals as possible.

Buckland with his pet monkeys.

This is the first entry in Edward White’s The Lives of Others, a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history. He has previously written for the Daily on Carl Van Vechten and rugby.

Every now and then, even Charles Darwin was dumbfounded by the mysteries of the natural world. On those occasions, he reached out for enlightenment to a repertory cast of scientific correspondents, one of whom was Francis Trevelyan Buckland, a raffish, tousle-haired star of the natural-history craze that befell Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. The two made for unlikely pen pals: if Darwin was the dour, sincere prophet who transformed humanity’s appreciation of its place in the universe, Buckland was a professional eccentric, as much showman as scientist. Although he did groundbreaking work in pisciculture (the breeding of fish), Buckland was perhaps best known as a lecturer, beguiling huge audiences with his left-field takes on botany, zoology, and human anatomy. As a general rule, the weirder the subject, the more likely Buckland was to have something to say about it: the fighting behavior of newts, the cannibalistic propensities of rats, the best method for killing a boa constrictor, gigantism, walking fish, flea circuses, conjoined twins (he was a good friend of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins), the uses of human hair as manure, and pagan burial rites. Tellingly, it was Buckland to whom Darwin turned to verify a claim that a dog and a lion had successfully bred in rural Russia. Read More »