Thursday, October 28, 2010

Apple Season

Once upon a time I lived in the land of apples. As a college student at SUNY Plattsburgh, I remember picking apples for cash over at least one long weekend, even camping out in the orchard overnight with a group of friends. Then later, in St. Lawrence County, during my first marriage, we owned a farm that had a number of apple trees. What a pleasure it was to stroll from tree to tree tasting their fruit. We dried apples and made apple butter. We also took large quantities of apples to a cider mill.

Well, those days are long gone, but on a recent trip to Plattsburgh, we had the pleasure of visiting Banker Orchard. My husband bought a load of apple wood for grilling. I especially took a liking to Empire apples, a small dark red variety which manages to be both sweet and tart. Reading about them, I discovered they are a cross between McIntosh and Red Delicious. The New York Apple Country web page is a good place to learn about apple varieties, browse recipes and figure out which variety of apple is best for pies.

As a child I had a fascination with Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman, 1774 - 1845). So I decided it was time to sift the facts from the lore of this beloved American folk hero. He did not become known as Johnny Appleseed until late in his life. He never married, and was quite a wanderer. He wore old clothes and often went barefoot. Chapman never married. He established several small apple nurseries in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, but rarely stayed to tend them, preferring life on the road as a missionary for the Swedenborgian Church. Because he did not believe in grafting apple trees, most of the varieties he grew were wild, often only suitable for cider making. He got most of his seeds from cider mill pulp, also known as pomace. Johnny Appleseed was a vegetarian, and was known for his kindness and respect for animals. All in all, an eccentric fellow who truly followed his own path.

Apples are thought to be the earliest cultivated fruit, first raised in Turkey and Asia Minor. Apples came to America with some of the first colonists. Worldwide, there are some 7,500 cultivated varieties of apples. I was surprised to learn that China is by far the world's largest producer of apples, followed by the United States, Iran and Turkey. Eating "an apple a day" is wise indeed, as they are a good source of fiber and antioxidants. I leave you now to go create some sort of apple-themed treat involving apples, cider, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon juice, brown sugar, honey and phyllo dough!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Claude and Camille: a Novel of Claude Monet by Stephanie Cowell

I wanted a bit more painterly insight from this book, but who can really know what went on in Claude Monet's mind as he painted? Claude and Camlle (Crown, 2010) by Stephanie Cowell sets out to tell the love story of Claude Monet and Camille Doncieux, an aristocratic woman who gave up her privileged life to be Monet's model, mistress and wife. Their love story is well worth imagining, full of dramatic setbacks, secrets, reversals of fortune and much passion. Since not much is truly known about Camille, Cowell invents a complex, insecure, beautiful woman who not even Monet could ever be sure he truly knew.

Friendships among the struggling artists who came to be known as the Impressionists are another strong point of the novel. Monet, Bazille, Pissaro and Renoir display their "one for all and all for one" allegiance to each other, sharing paint, food, wine and shelter. For a nonfiction portrait of this group, try The Private Lives of the Impressionists (Harper Collins, 2006) by Sue Roe. When the West University Library Book Club read this last year, we also enjoyed a tour of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, tailored to tie in with the book, an experience I found especially enriching.

I have always been fascinated by Monet's methodology of repeatedly painting the same subjects such as the Cathedral of Rouen or his Giverny water lilies, seeing them anew with each change of hour or season. As a child I saw some of his water lily panels at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and experienced true awe at the scale and totality of his vision. The popularity of impressionism is unrivaled, and is sometimes dismissed or dissed for exactly that reason. But I can't get enough of the Impressionists! Monet led the pack with his serial treatment of subjects, and we forget how uncommon that was. So if you are at all an art history geek and haven't had enough of impressionism yet, grab Cowell's book for a lovely immersion into the world of Monet.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife

In 1991, I entered into a delightful collaboration with two other poet friends, Sharron A. Crowson and Sandra Reiff, wherein we put together a chapbook called The Wives. In 1995 we followed up with The Astronaut's Ex-Wife and Other Poems (both from MetaRaven Press). We told stories of wives in first and third person. Many of mine were historical. Being a librarian, I loved doing research on the wives of famous and not so famous men, including Rebecca Boone (wife of Daniel) and Deborah Franklin (wife of Ben), as well as many women of the western frontier. The poem printed below is based in Galveston.

Lighthouse Keeper's Wife

I am Lillian:
wife, then widow,
to Daniel Ahern,
he the lighthouse keeper
here at Red Fish Bar
on Galveston Bay.

He went to town
on the schooner one day
and fell overboard
and was lost.
"Your husband drowned
last night," a sailor
told me when
the boat returned.

Inspector Mead
allowed me to continue
here at the light station,
so I kept
the light going
for two more long years,
and fed my babies,
kept them tied
to my waist
so they would
not fall over the railings
into the water.

But no more
will I study the waves
for some sign of
my Daniel.
for it is 1889
and I am tired.

Another man has asked
me to marry, and
I agreed.
This morrow
we move to town
I must learn
how to
turn my back on the sea.

- Keddy Ann Outlaw

photo: Cover collage by KAO