The Cinderella of Flowers

“Like fairy sausages.” — Through The Woods

At long last, I bring thee catkins.

I’ve been waiting for the catkin season to begin. My woodland walk the other day yielded, at last, a few sightings, glimmering from a hazel tree. I have been longing to see them in the wild since reading H.E. Bates’ nature book Through the Woods, and his lovely, evocative descriptions.

Well, perhaps his likening them to ‘fairy sausages‘ is not so lovely, but it is captivating. And strangely evocative. I’m not sure why, given the fact that fairies don’t exist. And if they did, as we imagine them in their wee, weightless, frolicsome days of dancing hidden in tall grasses, does it not seem even more fanciful that we would come across them devouring greasy, heavy sausages with a side of mustard?


Unlikely…yet ‘like fairy sausages‘ seems so right a description of these lovely pendulous flowers.

‘No poet that I can call to mind has put himself into ecstasies over the ruby blossoms of the elm or into half the state of singing over the purple catkins of the alder that he keeps for the cherry and the rose. The catkin is a sort of Cinderella among flowers, not so much unwanted as unnoticed. The poet who lifts his eyes to the stars or lowers them for the flowers, the stars on earth, often misses as he does so the flowers that hang between earth and heaven, the delicate and unflashing constellations that light up the dark branches of wintery trees.’

I just love the splendid geometry of the design in their tightly budded state. I hope to go back and photograph them in their opening stages through the winter.

(And thank you and your nature books, H.E. Bates, for opening my eyes to this seasonal wonder.)

A side note, given my Curious Word tendencies…Catkins and pussywillows have more in common than inflorescence. A pussywillow is a catkin; a catkin not necessarily a pussywillow; it depends upon which tree or shrub it blooms from. But both names reflect the fact that children loved these manifestations of nature, and gave them names that reflected their endearing quality. Catkins means ‘kitten tails’, from a Dutch word, and pussywillows because they resemble the soft, strokable fur of a kitty.

Or a sausage, if you’re hungry.

As mentioned, my earlier post on H.E. Bates also featured the gorgeous woodcut illustrations by Agnes Miller Parker; one of which I show here.


A Mortal Big Notion


“I’ve only lived here a day, but I like it so well I’ve a mortal big notion to buy the place.” — from The Girl of the Limberlost

I love the idea of having a mortal big notion. Today we might use the expression, ‘I had a radical idea’. Perhaps one could also call the idea that we could learn something today from a prim Victorian lady botanist ‘radical’. Because I just had to laugh when I sat down to my blog this week and read over some of the prompts I’ve missed.

Zing. Edge. Superhero. Radical. Clearly, WP wants to jazz up our posts. Electrify our ideas. Infuse a bit of life into our prose.

Meanwhile, I have been immersed in the late Victorian world and ethos of Gene Stratton-Porter and Frances Theodora Parsons. Exciting, eh? But think about this: While these women may not resonate in history as superheroes, and what they wrote may not seem current–as to that I am not always convinced that being ‘current’ and ‘relevant’ are that exciting, unless you are watching bees pollinate–I was just reflecting yesterday on a recent study from Stanford University:

‘In the study, two groups of participants walked for 90 minutes, one in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs, the other along a traffic-heavy four-lane roadway. Before and after, the researchers measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had participants fill out questionnaires.

The researchers found little difference in physiological conditions, but marked changes in the brain. Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.’

This makes total sense to me, and I’m glad to know the data can finally catch up with what the inimitable Mrs. Frances Theodora Parsons wrote back in 1901.

‘The ideal hobby, it seems to me, is one that keeps us in the open air among inspiring surroundings, with the knowledge of natural objects as the end in view.

The study of plants, of animals, of the earth itself, botany, zoology, or geology, any one of these will answer the varied requirements of an ideal hobby. Often they require not only perseverance and skill but courage and daring. They are a means of health, a relaxation to the mind from ordinary cares, and an absorbing interest.’ —From How to Know the Ferns by Frances Theodora Parsons

Frances Theodora Parsons

Frances Theodora Parsons

‘Courage and daring’, indeed! I love her books. (She also wrote as Mrs. William Starr Dana; more on her to come in a future post) accordingtoseasonbookcoverShe is authoritative, opinionated, and thoroughly readable. Parsons is a strong woman, and no fading violet, to borrow a Victorian era expression. She has not the nuanced charm and silky expressions in her nature writing, such as that employed by Louise Beebe Wilder, but this real-time eager woods explorer had a rugged approach matched with feminine spirit that might have been a bit like The Girl of the Limberlost when she was young.

‘She plunged fearlessly among bushes, over underbrush, and across dead logs. One minute she was crying wildly, that here was a big one, the next she was reaching for a limb above her head or on her knees overturning dead leaves under a hickory or oak tree, or working aside black muck with her bare hands as she searched for buried pupae cases.’  — The Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter

Written in 1909, this passage is from Gene Stratton Porter’s classic. She is not read so much today because people are squeamish. Not squeamish about rummaging around in dead, mucky leaf detritus for buried pupae cases, but because sentimental stories that highlight romantic ideals or values are out of favor. Stratton-Porter’s passion in writing was to chronicle the natural world, but it was her romances–nature with a generous side-helping of fiction–that secured her fame.

accordingtoseasonoldbookFrances Theodora Parsons had a simple remedy for stultified, closed minds:

‘I thanked my stars I had not fallen under the stultifying sway of cards. Much the same gratitude is aroused when I see men and women spending precious summer days indoors over the card-table when they might be breathing the fragrant, life-giving air, and rejoicing in the beauty and interest of the woods and fields.

All things considered, a hobby that takes us out of doors is best.’

To which Gene Stratton-Porter would add:

‘The world is full of happy people, but no one ever hears of them. You must fight and make a scandal to get into the papers. No one knows about all the happy people. I am happy myself, and look how perfectly inconspicuous I am.”

The Limberlost journey is a journey of happiness. To get lost in the swamp, is, in Porter’s world, ‘to find oneself’.

Read good books. Get outdoors. Enjoy the natural world. Take walks and then more walks. If you see someone approaching with a brain scanner and a questionnaire, run. Photograph mushrooms. Keep a journal. Sketch (rather badly). Think about writing more. And then write more. Watch bees pollinate. As radical as that sounds, it’s a time honored recipe for a lot of fun and a continuing supply of happiness. I should know. Look at how perfectly inconspicuous I am.

(writers take note: both of these late Victorian era ladies wrote books that are still in print, and have gone into multiple editions and reprints)

‘We Will Know Where We Have Gone’

“…When we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations…”  — Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

H.E. Bates describes this time of year so beautifully, as the sap is ebbing:

“So… in September, the life is flowing again—back now, really ebbing, like the sap itself. In the woods, especially, life and sap are synonymous. It is that uprising of sap in April and May, and even March, that gives woods their beautiful and stimulating sense of life. It is the flowing back, the slow return to death and the bottom of the pit, that gives them in autumn that peculiar air of soft melancholy, the infusion of sad odors and the sweet death of countable leaves.

In late September the full fruition of things has come.”

It is this bittersweet feeling of autumn, this full fruition, that causes us to pause, think, and ‘recollect what we have seen‘.

Pictures taken at Columbia River Gorge; for ‘Edge‘ photo challenge…

Further reading and delightful essays on Jane Austen and her love of the natural world:

Sarah Emsley blog

Jane Austen’s World

My post on Jane, also here

For my other posts on H.E. Bates, see sidebar tags

Thoughts Like Wild Apples

‘I fear that he who walks over these hills a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man! there are many pleasures which he will be debarred from!’ — Thoreau

Apparently I was grippling here and didn’t know it

Perhaps Thoreau’s idea of having fun, as expressed here, is out of the ordinary. But stretching the bounds of the WordPress Photography challenge is rather fun, in itself. (theme this week: ‘Fun‘)

Reading Thoreau is not generally considered a roaring good time.  But I enjoy doing, learning, connecting with the natural world, and feeling my pulse resonate with history. (That last is particularly thrilling.) Although I am not always a Thoreau enthusiast—and even wrote about it—I respect many of his aims, and enjoy his insights into the natural world.

Sometimes I find him downright endearing, as in his earnest essay Wild Apples. This was his thoughtful effort, written in 1862, to bring attention what he considered to be one of the disappearing treasures of the landscape.

‘The wild apple, which I praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields or woods, being brought into the house, has frequently a harsh and crabbed taste…sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.’

This just might be Thoreau at his liveliest!

I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the tangy nature of these wild fruits would be dimmed if eaten in the tamed air of indoor rooms. As Thoreau puts it, ‘you miss the November air, which is the sauce it is to be eaten with.’

Here, in August, our apples are dropping early. The ground, warmed by the late summer sun, wafts up repeated gusts of spicy cider fragrance. Dreams of caramel apple pie bedazzle the gaze of my husband/photographer, and an earthy bit of cider from a stranger’s apple trees shall accompany the harvest.

On top of everything else, finding new words is fun. Thoreau just handed me another Curious Word. ‘Grippling’…. It’s a lost, juicy, ‘spirited and racy’ wild apple of a word. According to Thoreau, it was a custom of apple gleaning that was practiced in days of yore in Herefordshire.

‘The custom of grippling, which may be called apple gleaning, is, or was formerly, practised in Herefordshire. It consists in leaving a few apples which are called gripples, on every tree, after the general gathering, for the boys who go with climbing poles and bags to collect them.’

(Apparently his resource for this information was Plantæ Utiliores: Or Illustrations of Useful Plants, Employed in the Arts and Medicine, Volume 1, published 1842, and part of the Harvard Library where Thoreau researched)

But you know what would be really fun? To discover the rare treat Thoreau described as

‘better than any bottled cider that I know of, and with which I am better acquainted than with wine.’

It is the ‘frozen-thawed’ apple. Thoreau describes it with great excitement. First you walk the old woods that rim the farmland, where wild apples are left to grow unheeded. It is December, the first snows have fallen. But so comes the first thaw, under a mild winter sun. Wild apples, fallen on the ground, never gathered in, begin to soften in the warmth of those rays. It is then that they find their true potential; the harsh, crabbed taste Thoreau describes is gone, and in its place ‘a sweet and luscious food, in my opinion of more worth than the pineapples…of the West Indies.’

‘Your jaws are the cider press.’

It is only the first freezing and thaw, Thoreau cautions, that creates this prized delicacy of the woodland rim. In fact, here is his recipe for the sweet tang of heaven:

‘Let the frost come to freeze them first, solid as stones, and then the rain or a warm winter day to thaw them, and they will seem to have borrowed a flavor from heaven through the medium of the air in which they hang.’

I think there is analogy here to some of the people I’ve known. Or perhaps myself. Apparently there are no bad apples; just wild ones, who haven’t realized their sweet potential.

Another post that shows I have a particular fondness for apples…and I’m still Looking For Ethel.

Ready, Set, Mystified

Lately, I haven’t been blogging. I have been moving. Or, more precisely, thinking about moving. Thinking of packing up my hundreds of books, once again. Will there be room for my old typewriters? Will be there be a bit of green space for future flower hopefuls? Time will tell, as we do not know yet where we are going to land.

So my concentration is divided, and I do apologize. Coming up, I can tell you, in all bookish excitement, that Margaret Kennedy reading day is approaching, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, so there will be a review here of the most intriguing Kennedy book I’ve read thus far: The Feast. And I have been enjoying Beverley Nichols books again–oh he is funny, and rather ‘twee’!– and I’m preparing some notes for further posts.

But for now, let’s do a bit of a recycle. I have been working on the following subject/article for some time, published some of it a couple years ago on another blog, and, as they like to say in journalism: ‘research is ongoing‘.

How about a ten minute mystery that has taken almost 100 years to develop?


photo credit Marie E. Bryan, used with her permission; it is unique in that it is one of the few pictures out there that actually shows a modern version of the statue in its headless state

This mystery involves a headless statue of Abraham Lincoln that used to reside in Ashland, Oregon. (Less to the point, we also ponder whether or not I will need facial recognition software to identify my great grandmother in a vintage photo.)

Questions about what drives senseless vandalism, why did Ashum Butler commit suicide in 1859, and did Great Uncle Cromwell ever smile anywhere at any time also factor in here, but—we only have ten minutes. And I have to box up my enormous collection of old hardback books…that I keep stopping to read before I carefully place them in their dark recesses for the coming suspension of normal life.


Abraham Lincoln wasn’t headless to begin with. He was respectfully and beautifully carved by Italian artisans from local marble, shipped in 1915 to the United States for the San Francisco Panama Pacific Expo, purchased there for a tidy sum by Gwin S. Butler, and given by him as a gift to Lithia Park in Ashland, Oregon.

The bestowal of this unique gift to Lithia Park was to honor the memory of Butler’s stepfather, Jacob Thompson. Inscription upon the stone base reads:


In circa 1920 or 1921, my great Aunt Alma took this picture. Unwittingly, in a stroke of irony, she cut off Old Abe’s head by the magic of photography. Less brutal than vandalism but just as permanent in its own way.

monument pose

This picture was taken around 1920

For some mysterious reason, Abraham Lincoln has continued to lose his head. The actual marble head. (He has also lost a hand and two fingers, more easily replaced.)

When I first talked to the lady at the Ashland Historical Society (or of similar name) she was excited to think that I actually had a picture from the 1920’s of the original statue’s head.

“Uh, no,” I had to admit, “It was cut off in the photo.”

Oh, Aunt Alma, what were the chances??

Abe was first decapitated in 1958. Repaired and replaced, the second beheading occurred in 1967.

Following the 1967 vandalism, the statue was removed and languished in ignominy on the ground at a sewage treatment plant for years. Complaints were made, and the statue was ‘rescued’ by being wrapped in plastic and buried in a slope near the park playground.

The third beheading occurred in 1973. This time he was repaired with a head from China.

It’s unclear what happened with that head, but in 1988 a local sculptor volunteered to create a new head from Italian marble. He worked at a reduced rate, funding was secured, and Abraham Lincoln was saved once again.

By this time they were keeping ‘replacement heads’.

The last time the statue was vandalized, in 2005, the park authorities eventually removed the body entirely. They were tired of putting out money to restore it only to have to do it again. The money for restoration simply wasn’t there.

So; when I was there in 2014, the stone base still stands empty, yet still inscribed… ‘In memory of…’


How very strange. How very sad.

There is a personal side to this story. Although I grew up in Oregon, had been to Ashland many times, I had not been aware of the statue or its sad history until I inherited an old family picture album around 2009. Most of my mom’s family comes from Texas, and the vast majority of the pictures were taken there during the years of 1900 through 1930. I didn’t know, or have stories attached to most of the people in the album. The truth is, my mom’s side of the family intrigues me. There are many stories and hints of stories that have trickled through the family that both fascinate and unsettle.

I kept returning to this odd picture. I couldn’t stop analyzing it. For one thing, it didn’t look like Texas. There were little baby Douglas fir trees in it. And moisture loving ferns. Do people plant Douglas fir or ferns in Texas? I didn’t think so. At least, not the part where my mom grew up.

The other oddity was the fact that I couldn’t tell who was in it—but had a sneaking suspicion they were related to me. I knew my great Aunt Alma had taken the picture. (that is her trademark hat, lying on the ground.) And from the jawline of the elderly woman, I wondered if it was my great grandmother, Talitha. I only had one confirmed picture of my great grandmother, under a mourning bonnet. But even there, her jawline looked formidable. And was that Uncle Cromwell? The same Uncle Cromwell who would be dead less than a year later?

My mother, by that time, had Alzheimer’s and completely lost in her own world. There was so much I wanted to ask her.

I zoomed in on the photograph, to read the inscription, then did a google search. I was amazed to find that the statue was in Oregon. I was even able to identify the people in the photograph—without resorting to facial recognition software—and confirm my suspicion that it was my great grandmother Duncan and her oldest son, my mom’s Uncle Cromwell. But in Oregon? That explained the baby Douglas fir trees and ferns, but I was baffled to think my somewhat reclusive great grandmother had ever traveled to Oregon.

monument pose

My Aunt Alma’s trademark hat, seen lying on the ground, was a clue that this picture was taken by her. She had moved to Oregon in 1919.

I was then even more amazed to discover the bizarre events surrounding Abe’s statue.

There is more to this story, for isn’t it interesting when you discover an ancestor or relation that you didn’t know existed, or at least anything about, and then, in small bursts of excitement, find out you were actually much alike? Or perhaps they inspired something you thought you had come up with on your own? Well…my Great Aunt Alma, her story, and her old traveling camera may return to these blog pages, but for now:

Notes, sources, and additional reading:

This link has some excellent pictures, and some updates on Abe’s location:

I apologize if any errors or incomprehensibilities in the text exist; I did not take my usual time at editing, so now you get a glimpse into how wacky I actually write in rough draft! 🙂 Thank you for keeping with me this far!