A Little Bit of Osage Knowledge

Where to start this tale?     

Photos courtesy of Mr. NYer

In a car.  Driving down Narrow Lane Road next to the Montgomery Country Club and seeing what seem to be … tennis balls? … moss-covered softballs? … hybrid softballs with neon green tennis ball covers?    

No! By Jove, they’re osage oranges, and they are all over the place. So that’s what those hedges are!   

My first encounter with an osage orange was in Staten Island.  Although I biked throughout the South Shore as a teenager, I must have skipped the osage season, because the first time I saw one it was sitting atop one of the lunch tables in the faculty room of  the high school in which I taught.    

A student had brought it in and stumped the science teacher, who brought it to the rest of us as a challenge.  Never one to resist, I examined the item carefully, noting its brilliant green color, convoluted  surface, and slightly citric smell.  Slicing it open revealed yellow pulp with tons of seeds inside.  It appeared to be a fruit. I was stumped.      

Next I called the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences and talked with Ed Johnson.  “I’m trying to identify what looks like a fruit,” I explained. It took Ed no time at all to tell me it was an osage orange and to advise against eating it.     

Ed explained a few more things about the osage orange.  It isn’t native  to the Island, nor is it usually found this far north. (It originates in Texas.) The reason it’s on Staten Island at all, he said, was that it was introduced by Frederick Law Olmsted.  And it could only be found in a few spots on the Island — most likely from a row of hedges on Seguine Avenue. I have a feeling Ed knew the specific trees.     

Mention of Olmsted’s name piqued my interest.  I knew he’d lived on Staten Island and that his farmhouse still stood–albeit enlarged and somewhat transformed–not far from where I lived.  Long interested in Island history, I had been encouraged by a college professor to apply for a grant to document the history that was still standing in photographs (and oh, I wish I’d followed through on that).      

Olmsted's Staten Island farmhouse as it appeared in 1924

My research included an interview with Staten Island historian and preservationist Loring McMillen in his office in the old court house in Richmondtown.  I asked about the Olmsted house and can still see him sigh, shake his head and advise me not to bother. “Yes it’s there,” he said, “but its in terrible shape … ” In residence then, according to McMillen, were Carleton Beil–a naturalist and cicada expert who learned at the feet of William T. Davis–and his wife.  McMillen shuddered when he leaned forward and told me they had refrigerators and old appliances on the porch.     

Having identified the osage orange, I was bitterly disappointed to find that, although she had framed the challenge as a contest,  my science colleague did not in fact offer a prize.  What kind of a contest doesn’t offer a prize?!     

Didn’t know about the Olmsted-Staten Island connection?  Olmsted was Yale-bound when he contracted an intense case of poison sumac that affected his vision (and you though poison ivy was bad). So, he knocked around for a few years, went to sea, that kind of stuff, and then he decided he wanted to pursue “scientific farming.” After not doing well in Connecticut, he bought a large farm on Staten Island in 1848, when he was 26 years old.  He called it the Tosomock Farm; later Erastus Wiman bought the land for development and named it Woods of Arden. As far as I know, the house still stands. For the next seven years, Olmsted practiced scientific management of crops, developed a tree nursery, and planted non-native species, including the osage orange.  He also managed to travel extensively through the South for the New York Daily Times and his writings on the conditions under  which both slaves and poor whites lived helped solidify northern anti-slavery opinion.  He left the farm upon his marriage to his sister-in-law (his brother had died), but they returned to it later in life and his son, Frederick Jr, was born there in 1870.   

Anyway, I hadn’t really thought much about osage oranges again until we began seeing them everywhere.  I asked Mr.  NYer to take some photos. He took a few  environmental shots (above) and then brought some specimens home for a still life.  I think they look like something offered for sale at Pottery Barn.    

As it turns out, a fair number of people do indeed bring these colorful fruit into their homes at this time of year, though not for decoration.  A folk belief holds that they repel spiders and insects.  I’ve even found a place online where you can buy them if you don’t happen to live in a place where they fall by the roadside.    

They are known by an array of names: hedgeapples, bois d’arc (the wood supposedly makes dandy bows), bodarks (an Americanization of the French one imagines), or horse-apple.     

Although not technically poisonous for humans, I have read that they are not really that tasty, except for the seeds. These are as easy to extract as cotton seeds from the boll, so don’t look for little snack packs any time soon.  Squirrels don’t seem to mind the effort though.  Horses and cattle sometimes munch on them, but unwisely.  They are a choking hazard.    

The trees from which they droop rather pendulously make fine hedgerows.  If you come on down to visit us in Montgomery, I can show you some.


Autumn? In Alabama?

Lifelongnewyorker is confused.  It’s  September 20, school has resumed, people are wearing fall colors.

But it’s 97 degrees at noon.  What season is it, anyway?

According to the weather–and to the calendar–it’s still summer.  But Labor Day is past, and with it went the sense of summer. 

For one thing, it’s getting darker earlier, and we’ve sometimes been emboldened to cut the air conditioning in the evenings and open windows as the nighttime temps dip into the low 70s, or even the high 60s.

Leaves are drying up and dropping off trees, with no sign that there will be a change of color (other than the fade-out to yellow/brown).  We went kayaking on the Coosa yesterday, with temperatures near 100, but saw plenty of brown leaves floating along as well. 

Kids have gone back to school, but that happened ages ago.   I wonder if the school buses are air-conditioned?  They must be.

Meanwhile, though, certain changes have been noted in the office.  Fewer women are wearing sandals, and some have checked the calendar and donned pumps.  Fall colors are proliferating, along with fewer shorts and sundresses. 

Lifelongnewyorker really wants to wear those white jeans she purchased on sale during the last week of August, but fears breaking the “no-white-after-Labor Day” rule.  And anyway, it really doesn’t feel right.

Actually, nothing about this season feels right.  In September we should still be enjoying the annuals in the garden, the vine-ripe tomatoes, but ours are long since fried and exhausted.  The days should be glorious, dry and in the 70s, and the nights crisp, but it’s still too hot for me to walk three blocks at lunchtime and register to vote.  It should feel like the first month of school did when I was a student and then a teacher, but it does not.  And I should be thinking about clearing out my summer clothes from the closet, but why?

Instead, our garden long since dessicated, it’s yet too hot to plant either pansies or mums.  I’m wondering if one day I’ll wake up and all the leaves will have dropped.  And when should I start plan to wear suede and corduroy?

Forest Avenue with Glasses on

So Lifelongnewyorker was feeling very pleased with herself about Forest Avenue-plowed.

First of all, she made the decision to acquire it and surprise Mr. NewYorker. Then, having gotten it on the wall, she promptly wrote about it.  She uploaded the photo, checked spelling and hit publish.

Upstairs, Mr. NewYorker got a ping on his email and saw a new blog from Changing Accents.  In about 10 minutes he came down to set the record straight.

“It’s not the morning. What makes you think it’s the morning?” he asked.

Discussion ensued, with barely suppressed eye-rolling on each side.  Because, I pointed out, the sun rises in the east.  Over Grymes Hill.  And that, I pointed to the end of the road, is the east. 

“No,” he responded, “that’s the west.  It’s the sun setting.”

What?! I arose and hurried over to the painting. In an instant I saw he was right — I’d been seeing it completely wrong, imagining that the perspective was from someone looking east, with Silver Lake Park on the right.  The road curves were wrong, I had known — that’s why I had wondered about the perspective.  But now, the scales taken from my eyes, I could clearly see this was from the perspective of Randall Avenue, looking west up Forest, with the Temple on the right.

In some ways, it changes nothing.  It’s still after the storm.  It’s still a car following the sun — and this time going west, which is the direction in which we traveled when we set out to Alabama.  And it still has a bus stop I used, once I realized that it was easier to walk downhill than up.  Oh, and it’s even closer to the house.  But still.

To make it worse, Mr. NewYorker pointed to a small figure in the lower right hand of the canvas.  “And that,” he said, “is me, going to buy some milk after having spent six hours shoveling snow.”

But why did my brain insist on seeing it from the other direction, even though I knew some things were wrong?  The curve was wrong.  There was no bus stop sign where it should be? 

I suspect it’s because I drove up Forest Avenue, toward the sun, every morning for over 20 years.  When I was teaching, I drove to Victory and then took a right uphill onto Louis Street and was blinded by the sun, especially in the winter. I always prayed that no one was jay-walking ahead of me.

It’s actually commonplace,  what happened.  We know what we know–or think we know–and we interpret new information with a slew of past memories, assumptions and experiences in place.  It makes it hard to see anything from a different perspective.  My work is all about this, and yet here I succumbed myself.  What a great tale.

With a moral at the end, supplied by Mr. NewYorker:

“Maybe, before you  post a new blog, you should send it to me for fact-checking.”

Forest Avenue in Montgomery

For the literalists out there, yes, there is a Forest Avenue on the Montgomery map.  But that is not the Forest Avenue in the title. 

The Sarah Yuster painting hangs on my living room wall in the morning light.


Forest Avenue-Plowed, the painting shown here, is what the title’s about.  This Forest Avenue is on Staten Island, around the corner from the house that Mr. Newyorker and I lived in for 26 years.  It’s captured in oil on canvas, and now hangs in Montgomery, Alabama

Its creation, our acquisition of it, and its journey all seem tied together with our journey from New York to live in the South. 

I love Sarah Yuster’s paintings and the closest I’ve come to owning one is having a print of her iconic painting of Victory Blvd from the intersection with Forest Avenue — the one that shows Manhattan and the twin towers from a perspective that’s a revelation to anyone not from Staten Island. 

We’re generally small-time art buyers who will spend a couple of hundred dollars on an etching, but generally don’t even consider something like this.  Anyway, in Staten Island we didn’t have the room. 

But back in the spring, Sarah posted this on Facebook and I was smitten.  It’s an image of Forest Avenue in the lee of a winter storm, most likely the following morning, right after it’s been plowed down to the pavement.  The storm is past, but Sarah captures its power in the clouds.  The sun at the crest of the road ahead promises that the storm is indeed past; a single car travels uphill.  It’s that time between the storm and the resumption of life as usual.   

I’ve tried to figure out exactly what her vantage point was–I suspect a ladder in the middle of Forest Avenue just below Silver Lake Park Road.  Just two short blocks up from our house, and there, on the right, is the bus stop at which I’d waited many morning for the R48 to take me to the ferry or the X31 to go all the way to 57th Street via New Jersey. 

And when was it taken? There were a couple of big  storms this winter, one of them began on the very day that we closed on the Staten Island house; the day after the movers had left the Island–did they make a left onto Forest Avenue?–with all of our worldly goods bound for Alabama. 

Sarah sent me scans which I had printed in color.  I pinned  them to my wall at work, and decided that the painting would tell me if it should come down south. 

Colleagues who saw the print urged me to get the painting. One pointed to the car making its way uphill and said, “That’s you two leaving and coming here, coming to the light. You HAVE to get this painting.” 

So, I did.  I let Sarah know and then I let Mr. NewYorker know (on our anniversay).  And then we waited, for the exhibit to be over, for vacations to be done, and for the weather to cool down a bit. 

Sarah investigated shipping options, and we agreed that it could be entrusted with FedEx as long as we were here to sign for it.  Only Sarah can really tell the story of the countless hours she spent researching packing materials, consulting with various experts, and finally spending an hour hovering outside the “secure room” into which she was not allowed but into which she could see the actual packing taking place. 

And then we tracked it, especially on the final day.  Guaranteed to arrive by 4:30 pm, it arrived at 4:27.  All day I worried about its baking inside a FedEx oven in the 95-degree heat.  So did Sarah, but on one of her multiple calls to FedEx she was assured that both their trucks  and their holding facilities were air-conditioned. 

It arrived and Mr. NewYorker’s clear instructions were to cut and peel the plastic from the painting.  He confesses that his hands shook as he imagined taking the pigment with the plastic. 

But all is well.  I walk out of my bedroom in the morning and, as I enter the dining room, look to my right to see this luminous story in oil.  I see that the weather clears after storms, that we travel on, and that sometimes our travels are far away from where we grew up.  But we can keep those places with us, in our hearts and on our wall.

Encounter with the Law

Lifelongnewyorker has had a variety of encounters with police officers in New York City.  There have been the teenaged close encounters, the rueful parking violation encounters, the comic encounters.

But there’s never been the security encounter that we had in Montgomery.

At least all evidence points to having had it.  It was not a face-to-face encounter. On Wednesday after Labor Day, I spotted a piece of yellow paper–a ticket?–tucked under my windshield wiper as I pulled out of my garage on the way to work.

Pulling it out from bondage I saw that it was, indeed, the yellow copy of one of those pressure-sensitive forms.  It was dated from Monday, Labor Day, and was most likely written while the car was parked in the Publix parking lot, where Mr. NYer had gone to pick up a few staples.

They write tickets in supermarket parking lots?  What the heck … and then I took a closer look.

Turns out it was less a ticket and more a report card.  We got an A+.  Apparently, the Montgomery Police do random car security checks.  They look for three major chinks that can, they warn, lead to crimes of opportunity.  The chinks are:

  • Leaving doors unlocked
  • Leaving windows open more than four inches
  • Leaving keys in the ignition

Each of these had a little check box next to it.  None of ours were checked.  Instead, we were congratulated for having passed the inspection and commended for making Montgomery a safer place.

I feel all warm and fuzzy.

A new season

We heard it on our way home from vacation, as soon as we hit Alabama. 

Because we needed the room, we had taken the Escape.  We’d managed to avoid a family van when the Abandoned One was growing up, but turned to the SUV when he went off to college with six guitars.  It comes in handy to haul bikes, bales of peat moss, and on a driving vacation. 

It has lousy gas mileage and fails entirely in the entertainment department.  For years, CDs would get stuck in the player, but we’d  be able to insert a foreign object and trigger the eject function.  Now, one lives  inside permanently and the player refuses to function.  The Escape was purchased before cars came routinely equipped with an auxiliary input jack for the iPod, so that’s out too.  I might add that Lifelongnewyorker’s efforts to encourage family singalongs often go to nought.

So we’re left with radio and have learned to use the scan feature to separate the wheat from the chaff.  There’s plenty of chaff between here and Georgia.  Every other station is a Christian music station.  But there are quite a few public radio stations, often broadcast out of  colleges, that aren’t operating at 50,000 megawatts.  They have a short range, so we’re hitting the scan button frequently

Shortly after finding a station acceptable to both of us, the announcer came on to talk about the end of summer and the beginning of “Southern College Football Season.”  Yes, she said it like that.  With capitals.  A proper noun.

On my first day back at work, I was trying to find a mutually acceptable date for a meeting with a professor at Auburn, about 40 miles from Montgomery.  What about Friday, September 3? I suggested.  No, the college was off that day.  No, not because it was Labor Day weekend.  Because the first football game of the season was the next day.  They cancel classes the day before the football game.

That’s when I remembered the signs on I-85 near Auburn — they have three exits for the football traffic.

Meanwhile, pairs of flags began to sprout from cars in Montgomery.  The most common are red with a large A in white.  The first time I saw this I was confused that there were so many California Angels or Oakland A fans out here, but it turns out that these are University of Alabama fans.  Many of them have “Roll Tide” license plates.

Well, sure, Alabama and the Crimson Tide.  Even I have heard about them.  The Tide’s arch-rival is Auburn, whose color, I believe, is orange.  I’ve been told that one’s allegiance cannot be to both teams and that more than one new acquaintance is stopped dead  over the question: Alabama or Auburn? 

But wait, there’s more!  Local colleges Troy University, Alabama State, Tuskegee, and Huntingdon also play football.  I’ve checked online:  They all won this weekend.  

We’ve all heard about college football towns and how on football weekends the population swells by a million people.  That seems to work favorably for Montgomery, as the really big games–and stadiums–are in Tuscaloosa and Auburn.  All last week, one could see people preparing their cars for the big game, adding the flags, affixing stencils, stowing the coolers.  And sure enough, this weekend there seem to be very few cars, or people, left in town.

I’m not sure how this will all play out in the office tomorrow.  Lifelongnewyorker grew up in a household where the only male, my father, was seriously outnumbered by females.  When he was young, he said, he had followed baseball,  but he stopped when he came home from World War II because he no longer knew the players. He really missed Carl Hubbell.  Mr. NewYorker is a very serious  baseball fan, and, in the early years of our marriage I made an attempt to be companionable by attending to baseball.  It didn’t take.

So I’m one of those Americans who has no interest or knowledge of sports.  This was tough even in New York, and I understand that if I were male it would deny me access to the power structure and eventual world domination.  I have a feeling it’s going to be harder here. Last night, I asked a friend to explain the color system (I wanted to be sure those red flags were really crimson) and to give me some insight into what might lie ahead.

“Just be careful about what you wear,” she advised.  Apparently, it’s easy to innocently pick that orange sweater thinking you’re dressing well for the fall, be mistaken for an Auburn fan, and alienate half your colleagues.

Let’s see: yellow, orange, red, maroon.  Looks like I’ll be wearing a lot of blue and green.