Grandiloquent and Riotous Whimsy. Sunday July 10

Imagine if you were a house plant, attuned to musical vibrations, terrified about getting fried as the planet heats up, suffering from neglect as humans fall like skittles from the Covid-19 epidemic. Imagine the ecstasy you might then experience when you are given the opportunity to attend the magnificent Barcelona Liceu opera house which reopened its doors for the first time in over three months on 22nd June to hold a concert – exclusively for an audience of nearly 2,300 house plants.

Is this not the most grandiloquently whimsical image imaginable? It summons the sense of isolated dislocation we are all experiencing as concert goers or audience members in these times of prohibitive social distancing. But also the untetheredness that performers of all sorts must experience without live audiences to play to. What a magnificent response to this dilemma, a response moreover that manages to speak at once to individual plants, to the perils of climate change and to thousands of people around the world looking and listening, but not expecting this.

About this “Concert for the Biocene” executive producer Eugenio Ampudio said, “Nature advanced to occupy the spaces we snatched from it.” After the concert, the plants were donated to frontline health workers.

The last month, the first month of this year-long CLL treatment, has been slow and tough. Weighted down by lassitude, attached to a magnet that inexorably tugged me back to bed or the couch or anywhere my body could find horizontal relief from the world of active doing.

In the garden so little achieved by me and so much by my enemigos, the Squarreling Critters. Though nothing so heart breaking as the destruction of Steve’s beautiful pond and water lilies and lotus – just on the verge of blooming – by the Marauding Racoons. As he says, well that’s gardening, but he needs some time for mourning before beginning again, taking more precautions. 

I did manage to slowly, with an immense sense of achievement, relocate a few small plants. About four years ago, on a whim I bought a lime nicotiana and planted it in the veg garden, thinking it might provide

an enchanting color contrast to the range of greens and yellows in the veg garden

Though perhaps the truth is it was just the smell and then the sticky tactility of the leaves that enveloped me in nostalgia. The tobacco farm I grew up on was, at a certain time of the year, filled with fields of tall plants festooned with pink and white flowers. Though it wasn’t the flowers that mattered. Stronger than the memory of the flower scent is the memory of heat and the acrid scent of the curing tobacco leaves in the big barn edged with flaming furnaces. The best known garden nicotiana is the white flowered variety, with a strong and delicious scent, often planted in night gardens. The lime hybrid has no real scent

but it grew into a spectacular plant, crowding out some of the veg. 

While searching for these photos I came across this one

The vivid yellow, thrown into relief by the purple kale leaves, is a bolting bok choy or cabbage, those flowers preserved for the seeds they will produce which will turn into more edible plants. The flowers are short lived and not prized as flowers. But look at them!

Recently when weeding the garden paths in the veg garden I almost pulled two small plants which had seeded themselves, inconspicuously, up against a raised bed. I would have considered them weeds

but for the fact that, as tiny as they were

they were struggling into bloom.

There is one more established plant in the front, though it is inhospitably located, so I moved this and transplanted the two babies in the hope of a drifting splash later in the season. I check on them everyday, willing them to survive. Then I read my weekly bulletin from Maria Popova, Brainpickings, and, in her quoting of  Rachel Carson I’m warned against the excessive projection of hope onto individual plants:  “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.” 

I also managed to plant out some of the beautiful large white cosmos, Psyche, some marigolds, and a chimayo chile pepper from New Mexico. And a week or so later some red zinnias. I asked Craig if he could pick me up some from the nursery. I love the word, the sound of it, love saying it – zinnia – and I love the flowers, especially en masse. But this is what dominates the nursery market now: plants that have been bred to be polite, and charming; they are short and stubby, lacking all the tough brashness of  I associate with zinnias.  But actually they are tougher than they look and introduce a bit of spotty color to the front verge.

This makes it sound like I just upped and gathered the plants and tools and got on with the job, but not so. The fatigue in these first intensive weeks of infusion is intense. I was unprepared for how incapacitating. I suppose it is because this immunotherapy is working hard to kill off the tumors, or swollen lymph nodes, it’s harnessing the body’s own immune system to work overtime and to flood the body with dead cells. So the easiest thing to do has been to do nothing. Which anyway is a covid-inducing activity. But I have found that I can get into a kind of rhythm where I work in the garden for a short time, not too strenuously, come in and rest (i.e. stretch out on the couch, watching The Final Plate or the Big Family Cooking Showdown or Killing Eve) and then go out again, re-energised, and achieve some miniscule task like bringing a small bucket of compost from the back to the front yard. 

Just as I’m pacing my gardening endevors, so too with cooking. Actually cooking is easier because I can spend the day intermittently harvesting, washing, chopping, grating, peeling, roasting, sauteeing, blending or whatever, interspersed with television rest. 

More rather flat-footed flights of fancy with zucchini and tromboncini. Such as zucchini fritters with spicy tomato sauce which looks dull but tastes scrumptious (those curling crispy fried frilly edges)

and zucchini chocolate cake which looks delicious and could be considered dull only if you consider chocolate cake slathered in a rich ganache to be dull. The zucchini, which you can’t taste, makes for a very moist cake.

The centercut tromboncini has been a revelation. It is much tastier and also more robust than zucchini (or indeed the traditional tromboncini). You can grill or roast or braise it and it keeps its shape, as here, with chicken and turmeric rice

and it’s equally delicious delicious raw. as a salad, shaved and tossed very simply with olive oil, lemon, seasoning and dill.

It can also take a sturdier dressing – with garlic, anchovy, mustard and olive oil. It also loves mint.

But my epic adventure with tromboncini drew on almost everything growing in the vegetable garden, nestled in a velvety chèvre custard. In fact it was the chèvre which posed as the provocation and inspiration for this pie. There was a huge bowl of creamy tangy goats cheese in the fridge. Where did it come from and how would we ever eat it all? It came about through a gift from my friend and cheese-making buddy, Curt Wittenberg. He and Nan came for a distance visit, bearing two magnificently stinky oozing bloom rinded cheeses, made by Curt, as well as a gallon of fresh goats milk. To see and talk with them was a great pick-me up. You think your social aptitude might have crumbled into dust during the shut down. Somehow I managed to not photograph Curt’s cheeses, but here is triumphant proof of the cheeses made on a marathon day we spent at the end of last year in his and Nan’s kitchen

making a variety of cheeses.

My chèvre was the first provocation; the second was some pure butter phyllo in the freezer. Never having used phyllo before I really mucked it up, but otherwise it was a fun concoction. Not ideal for a hot kitchen, but it worked well for my rhythm of working and resting. Used a sheet pan (too big, as it turned out, for the amount of pastry). The onions – cooked slowly on top of the stove until perfumed and languidly caramelized – formed the base layer. The other vegetables I roasted separately (tossed in garlic-infused olive oil) in a very high oven for a fairly short time. Tromboncini – cut about a quarter inch thick on the bias – were laid over the onions. Sprinkled in between: eggplant diced in half moons, potato diced into a similar shape, and grape tomatoes dotted here and there for a splash of color, likewise some roasted red pepper found in a jar in the fridge. Finally, some olives. The custard I made by whipping 8 oz of chevre with three eggs and enough full milk to get the right consistency, seasoned, and added a good handful of chopped herbs from the garden – basil, sage, oregano, chives and tarragon. Why not rosemary you ask? It escaped, slipped out of view and out of mind. This is what it looked like before going into the oven

And this is what came out …..

Talking of rhythm, I’ve found great solace in the long long hospital days in audible books. Particularly the rhythmic syncopation of Mrs Dalloway. Read with amazingly sympatico verve by Juliet Stevenson (thank you Steve F), it has transported me into another world entirely. Put the headphones on, close your eyes, switch on the audible app, and all the hospital fluster and shennanigins and beeping and moaning subsides and disappears as you segue into London on one long day shortly after the end of the First World War. You sail forth from the house in Bloomsbury with Clarissa Dalloway, in search of flowers for her party, sharing the pleasure of walking in the city early in the morning. Perspectives shift to other characters encountered in her day, what is so marvelous, and marvelously amplified in the reading, is the cascade of memories, colliding and interspersed with acutely observed details of things, things in the park, on the street, in a shop, in the house. The words flow breathlessly, rhythmically propelled, and propelling the listening you into an active engagement of all the senses. The almost intolerable deliciously painful experience of unrequited love, the acute wounding of a slight tossed off so nonchalantly, the happiness of buying flowers, the smug stupidity of the upper class, how intolerable to feel nothing, trauma submerged, suicide. I recently read a more contemporary instanciation of this kind of stream of consciousness: Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newbury Port. I loved the playfulness, the way aspects of contemporary life insinuated themselves into observations ranging from the self-consciously profound to the trivial, but I gave up a third of the way through and in the end (the end of reading which in truncating the novel, gives it an ending unasked for) the language wasn’t charged enough – the words and their stringing together lacked rhythm or atonal dissonance, or resonance, something anyway. Perhaps it is Juliet Stevenson’s voice and reading, surely this works to the advantage of the novel, but I think too it is Virginia Woolf’s conjuring and orchestrating of words. I felt, lost in listening, like one of those plants in the Barcelona Opera House.

Turning raw ingredients into something delicious and unexpected (albeit rough around the edges) is a minor achievement, albeit less of an achievement than that of my squarreling enemigos. All the green grapes: gone! All the beans: razed to the ground! And the largest most juicy tomatoes, just beginning to ripen – turning from yellow to red – but not yet ripe enough to pick:

Our harvest has been gratifying

so I cannot grudge the enemigos a few bites. But am putting precautions into play as regards Paul Robeson, one of the very best of the dark heirloom tomatoes – a smoky rich taste that stays in your mouth – but not as plentiful on the vine this year, so every one is precious.

Paul Robeson, the great African American singer, actor, internationalist and activist was asked at the McCarthy HUAC hearings why he had not remained in the Soviet Union since he had an affinity with its political ideology. He replied, “because my father was a slave and my people died to build [the United States and], I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it!” He was hounded by the FBI and his passport confiscated. But it did not stop him. In an episode inspirational for us, today, he sang by telephone for a concert in London where 1,000 tickets sold out within an hour. Later he performed a telephone concert for an audience of 5,000 in Wales.

A grandiloquently whimsical gesture.

So it seems fitting to end with a whimsical botanist, by no means grandiloquent, but certainly riotous. Richard Brody lightened my world in these past weeks by a video presenting a handful of clips from “films of riotous whimsy.” His choices are inspired, they include short segments from A King in New York – Chaplin, Play Time – Jacques Tati, the Nicholas brothers dancing up a storm, and the mesmeric and brilliant Elaine May in a film she wrote, directed and starred in, playing a botanist, with Walter Matthau as her foil – A New Leaf. Standing alone, the word whimsy runs the risk of erring on the side of cuteness and archness – attributes which threaten to smother the primacy of wit. But when it is yoked with “riotous” you can feel the performative force of the whimsy, the energy. I was inspired to watch A New Leaf again last night and what an immense pleasure it was, and is still today, as the pleasure continues to ripple through me, erupting in gurgles, giggles, snorts and guffaws.

8 thoughts on “Grandiloquent and Riotous Whimsy. Sunday July 10

  1. Lovely to sit down at my desk in the morning and read an update from you first thing. A New Leaf — what a film! “My hope is to discover a new variety of fern that has never been described or classified. I don’t know what my dream is.” Ugh! Sending love xx

  2. So good to spend a little time with you. It looks like you made beautiful use of that goat milk. I expected no less because, despite your fatigue, it seems you can never be kept from creation of some new edible delight! We will be sharing food and conversation again in due time. Until then, it will have to suffice to feast on your prose and photographs.

  3. I love all your words Lesley. Festoon I think is my favorite. Also how are you so productive?! Also I love A New Leaf and Elaine May. There’s a good Mike Nichols documentary on nexflix(?) we just watched with some great clips. Anyway, I applaud! XOX

  4. Beautiful. I must see A New Leaf. I’m so happy you had some giggles, snorts and guffaws, and greedy me wants some too! I hope you recognize that rest is also an accomplishment.
    Much love,

  5. The Enemigos! Here is the desert our nascent garden (really Edie’s endeavor as I get discouraged so quickly) has been attacked by jackrabbits, an influx of non-native black rats, hornworms, and been thrashed by the wind. We keep trying! I will share the Rachel Carson quote. We are sending love to you and J and hoping some time we will get to see each other again.

  6. Les, I had two blogs to read in one go today. Immersed myself. I feel so very grateful and relieved to know you as my close friend. I had an image of you gardening, cooking, tending your writing with other kinds of rakes and weeding tools, and all of us, your fortunate friends, among those plants awed by the music of your writing. And of course, in better times, literally gob-smacked by the food that you and J conjure up for us with such generosity. Thank you. Love you lots.

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