Tuesday, September 23, 2008


September 24, feast of Our Lady of Ransom (Our Lady of Mercy)

One day a few years ago, I was chatting with a young lady of about twelve or thirteen and happened to mention that I loved hydrangeas. She agreed that they were one of her faves, and we struck up a conversation about flowers. As it happened, we had a lot in common, garden-wise. Besides hydrangeas, we both loved peonies, lilacs, irises and a few other classics.

I mused that these flowers were "old fashioned" favorites, varieties that had withstood the test of time. They showed up in our grandmothers' gardens because they were adaptable, easy care, beautiful in their natural state, and also made excellent cut flowers. To our ancestors, they provided maximum beauty and elegance with minimum effort. They would ornament the outside of your house and property, greet you with perfume on warm spring evenings, and could be cut and thrown into a vase on a moment's notice if you had visitors for tea. Many of them also provided landscape variety when not in bloom because they grew on shrubs or small trees.

Another of my antique favorites is clematis. It doesn't mind some shade, grows happily in indifferent soil, and usually rewards with an abundance of glorious flowers. An added bonus is that it is a climber and will cheerfully cover the ugliest of structures.

"Virgin's Bower" is actually a nickname for wild clematis, also known as "traveler's joy," and "old man's beard," because of the fluffy seed pods that follow the flowers.

In former times, many plants became known by the liturgical feast days around which they bloomed or were harvested. Virgin's Bower blooms around mid-August—right around the feast of the Assumption, which occurs on August 15. If you look at its growing habit, you can see another connection: though the four-petaled white flowers are tiny and slender—resembling tiny crosses—in profusion they look puffy and white. One is reminded of Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary ascending into heaven on billowing clouds.

Here is an old English couplet associating the feast day with the ripening of the seed pods:

When Mary left us here below
The Virgin's Bower began to blow

It is called traveler's joy because it loves to climb around fences and roadside brush; you will most likely spot it along a roadway because it likes the late summer sunlight afforded by an open area.

In fact, the specimen above was found growing wild along our street, though this particular variety is a Japanese import and is usually sold through nurseries. It is called "sweet autumn clematis," and it smells vaguely like honeysuckle. Also called Clematis paniculata or Clematis terniflora, it is extremely invasive and considered a pest in some states. There is a less invasive native variety, Clematis virginiana, which can be identified by its toothed leaves.

According to Jim Fisk, author of "Clematis, Queen of Climbers" (a gem of a book from which the above rhyme was borrowed), the English variety is also scented.

Text and photo © Copyright 2008 High Tor Media, Inc.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Defending Narnia
In case there's any doubt, I LOVED the new Narnia movie PRINCE CASPIAN—and I loved its predecessor, THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. Stop reading here if you don't want details. (Spoiler warnings are kind of silly. Why read a review unless you want to know more than "it's great!" or "it stinks!"?)

Because of the strange reviews I have read so far, I am moved to inaugurate my brand new blog with my take on PRINCE CASPIAN. This past weekend, my kids pursued me relentlessly around the house demanding to know when we'd go see it. I had my doubts. Most of the reviews were vaguely positive—up to a point. I don't like movies in general, and the thought of a two-and-a-half hour stint in a backside-numbing theater seat gave me pause. The reviews even hinted that it might be... boring.

But I caved, and I'm glad I did. This is one movie that I have enjoyed as much as the trailer! As the end credits started to roll, my six-year-old (girl) popped up her head and loudly asked if I would buy the DVD. Now they are all asking when we can see it again. I'm inclined to go for it, jumbo bucket and all. (Skip the Coke this time. Two-plus hours is a long time!)

What really rocks about this film? THE GUYS...ARE GUYS! They are not "juiced up" thirty-somethings with sculpted muscles and steroids to match, nor are they psychologically tortured, identity-challenged, oversexed teenagers. They are young males who are not afraid to spill some blood when necessary for the greater good. They have a kind of masculinity and straightforwardness that is unselfconscious and refreshing beyond belief. (And not unrealistic either: most of Europe was built and defended by young men south of twenty...)

THE GIRLS...ARE GIRLS! They wear sleek, long dresses as if they were born in them, and they do not smart-mouthily boss the boys around. It's not that they don't make a wisecrack here or there, or hesitate to fling a few arrows. But the usual "girl empowerment" pomposity that almost universally plagues today's child actresses is GONE!

I just love watching these kids. They are their characters completely, and have set my standards for what Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan are like. I cannot remember when I have enjoyed watching a movie with child actors so much.

ALSO, THE BATTLE SCENES DON'T STINK! I normally hate battle scenes because they so very quickly get tiresome. Director Andrew Adamson actually seems to have a good idea of real-life military strategy, and it shows in the movie. I wholeheartedly agree with one reviewer who stated that the sword-fight scene was hands down the best he's ever seen in a movie. The well placed martial-arts style ducks, rolls and shield maneuvers kept even me on the edge of my seat.

I DO NOT AGREE with those who say that "faith element" in this movie has been downplayed, compared to the book. If anything, it has become deeper and more eloquent. In the books, the characters, including Aslan, are rather cut and dried. That is not a storytelling advantage. Too much transparent morality begins to make the characters look like something from Bunyan's THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS. Yuck. For example, my kids have not entirely forgiven Lewis for turning Susan into a shallow liar in the final Narnia book, THE LAST BATTLE—a writer's sin that also rankled me as a child. I felt betrayed, and could never bring myself to reread them. They're fairy-tales, for heavens sake! The good guys can have all kinds of temptations and challenges but they are supposed to overcome them and go to heaven, or Narnia, or Eden, or whatever, in the end!

But the movie displays a kind of psychological and spiritual insight that surpasses this limitation. Whereas the books imply that growing up and being concerned with adult responsibilities prevents the children from returning to Narnia, the movie hints that faith is necessary at every stage of the game of life, and constantly needs to be re-awakened and renewed.

The characters are developed with a consistent personality that makes sense in both films:

The scene with Lucy and Aslan in PRINCE CASPIAN makes it clear that she is a kind of mystic. Aslan chides her for staying away from him. It seems clear that it is not just because they need his help to win the battle, but because he has missed her love and company. Isn't that the point of grace? And victory eludes headstrong firstborns Peter and Caspian until they overcome their pride and impatience. For Aslan, victory is easy. But he won't convert a heart that is not ready.

I just love opportunistic Edmund, who has transformed himself from irresponsible traitor at the beginning of the first movie to cunning strategist—in one of the most gratifying scenes of the second movie. After suffering a humiliating and tragic defeat, Peter and Caspian have all but succumbed to the demonic temptation to give the White Witch a drop of human blood (a symbol for human sacrifice?), to get them out of their trouble. Edmund recognizes that there is no point in waiting for the outcome of this test, so he simply plays dirty and gores her from behind while she's in mid-sentence.

The romance between Susan and Caspian—not present in the book—is a bit of a sore point for some. But she's about fifteen and he's cute. He also happens to be a future king, rides a warhorse, and looks great in "Martha Stewart blue" and brown leather armor. What did you expect? I'm only hoping that they change the last book enough so that Susan goes back to Narnia with the others and it ends with a wedding feast.