Monthly Archives: February 2014

Let’s Grow Some Weed!

Milkweed, that is.  I know, funny how that headline kinda grabbed your attention, right?  Anyway, my sister, Nora, a wonderful gardener and nature lover, brought to my attention something that has been hovering on the edge of my consciousness for awhile now (planted there by various headlines that I only glanced at);  Monarch butterflies are in danger.  Their numbers are down 90% over a few years ago.  I’m going to cut and paste part of what she wrote to be included in her local horticultural society newsletter on the subject:

The problem appears to have a lot to do with habitat loss, and in particular, loss of milkweed plants, which the caterpillars require to feed on. Millions of hectares have been newly planted with herbicide tolerant corn and soybean or existing farmland converted to these crops in the past 10 years causing the elimination of weeds including milkweed that formerly bordered fields. There has also been a reduction in the area available for overwintering in Mexico and a series of weather conditions in the past few years that have been hard on this species. CBC radio’s Day 6, February 22, did a story on the decline . At the end of the segment, the interviewer asked if there was anything that people could do and the guest, Dr. Karen Oberhauser, said Canadians and Americans could plant milkweed and nectar producing plants in our gardens to promote breeding and feeding of the butterflies. This call is echoed by Dr. Taylor, “Let’s hope there are favourable conditions for monarchs over the next several years. While waiting for conditions to improve, let’s plant milkweed –lots and lots of it.”

So there you have it.  We need to plant the milkweed varieties that are  native to our own regions (apparently planting non-native varieties can mess with the migration patterns of the Monarchs; yes, they are delicate creatures!) and plant them either by seed or by transplantation.  If you do buy bedding plants, make sure they have been raised without insecticide or herbicide, since butterflies are extremely sensitive to them.

Here is a link to The University of Minnesota’s “Monarchs in the Classroom” program and some useful information about what kind of plants to plant in your garden to help the Monarchs and other butterflies, and by extension, the birds and bees.

I did a little research and found a site that describes Swamp Milkweed as a native variety that will work well in moist, sunny areas.  Here is a link to that site, called Wild Flora’s Wild Gardening.  She sounds like a woman after my own gardening heart.

Another variety that looks promising and can be grown from seed after last frost, is Butterfly Weed.  Here’s a link to information about that.  Also, here’s a picture of its vibrantly coloured flower.

One of the Monarch's favourite foods.

One of the Monarch’s favourite foods.

You’ve probably already read my post(s) about saving the Bees, but if you haven’t, the link is there (just click on the word Bees!).  The nice thing about growing milkweed is that it will also attract bees and  other butterflies; and unfortunately, also aphids.  At least aphids provide a nice snack for birds and ladybugs, so that’s not so bad.

I hope you are inspired to find some milkweed in your local nursery or order some seeds from your favourite on-line nursery.

I’m just counting the days until spring.  Despite all appearances, I believe it’s getting closer!

Beauty Will Save the World, Part 2

Winter Garden

Winter Garden

I recently completed a run of Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, an opera that I (and almost everyone else) know a few tunes from (Summertime,  I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, It Ain’t Necessarily So), but I had never listened to all the way through.  The process was both challenging and moving to me.  I can’t remember another opera I’ve played with the OSM that was as difficult for the musicians to both play and put together as this one, and, as usual, on very few rehearsals, but that’s another story.

The history of the piece is compelling: Gershwin poured everything he had into it, and the reaction was disappointing at best.  When it was clear it wasn’t going to be the financial and critical success he had hoped for, he moved to LA to make film music.  Two years later he died during an operation to remove a brain tumour, at age 39, without the consolation of knowing that Porgy and Bess would eventually become an established part of opera repertoire not only in America but all over the world.

This is not a scholarly post, so that’s all the historical perspective you’re going to get.  I mainly want to record my reflections on the experience of playing in the pit for Porgy. Poets have been trying for centuries to describe music and its affect on the world and the human soul. It’s hard to do.  However, I’m going to give it a go.

The music of George Gershwin has always been among my favourites, and I’ve played all of his major pieces for orchestra many times.  Rhapsody in Blue, American in Paris, Cuban Overture, Piano Concerto in F… They’re all wonderful, but Porgy and Bess tops them all.  It’s  a fascinating mixture of styles, and it works, which not all such pieces do.  I can see why it took people a while to appreciate it, since it must have been shocking in its story and avant-garde in its musical composition.

Sitting in the pit, surrounded by the wonderful musicians who are my colleagues, many of whom had put tens of hours of personal practice into learning the difficult score, I was mesmerized by the orchestration and never tired of the melodies.  In order to follow all the tempo changes and key changes, on top of playing the very notey passages at top speed, we were all concentrating like fiends. The conductor, although not always as clear in his beat as we could wish, knew the score inside and out and knew what he wanted from us, singers and instrumentalists alike.  You could tell he loved the music, too, which inspired us to do it justice if we could.  The songs that moved me the most were not previously well-known to me: “My Man’s Gone Now”, and the dirge, “Gone, gone, gone” for instance.  They describe perfectly the sorrow we all feel when a loved one passes away.  The theme of loss is there in this “American Folk Opera” (in the words of Gershwin) as in countless operas in the repertoire.

Another theme of the opera is the common one of the balance of power between men and women.  Here it vacillates between them quite a bit.  Bess has huge power over Porgy, who loves her though her past makes her a questionable bet as a partner.  Other men have power over Bess; first Crowne, then Sporting Life.  Is she a weak character? Yes, probably, but she’s certainly a character we’ve all encountered: a woman who makes poor choices. Vows made and broken is another theme.  (“Bess, You is my Woman Now” is the vow part). Though the setting was new and the music full of the influence of jazz, this opera has many of the familiar themes.

As I soaked up the music, my mind dwelled on the story, the setting, the dialect and the history of the people in the opera.  Why did a man of European Jewish heritage decide to tell the story of a community of poor black people in a tiny (imaginary) enclave like Catfish Row? I guess he was drawn to it because of his admiration for jazz, the music of black people at the time; but also, could he not have been moved by the racism they were suffering under, as his race has also endured for centuries? I don’t think it’s so strange, and after playing the opera, I’m convinced that he wanted to give the people as authentic a portrayal as he could, and from his vantage point as a successful, white songwriter, he could guarantee that the show would be mounted as he wanted: with an all-black cast.

The opera may have rubbed black activists the wrong way, perhaps understandably, since they saw it as a continuation of black stereotypes.  But on the other hand, art tells stories from the heart and not in an idealized way.  In making this portrayal of a small community of people, Gershwin was saying, “Yes, this happens, yes, this exists, all is not well in the world.”  In Catfish Row are people who disapprove of the gambling, drugs and womanizing that goes on there.  There’s a distinct inner policing, along with the obviously racist outer policing by the whites in positions of power.  In fact, the music, the words and the story bring these people to life in an authentic way.  They move beyond stereotypes and become enduring characters that enter our hearts because of the familiar nature of their experience.  Love won and lost, the finality of death; what is more common to humanity?

All is not right with the world, but music like Porgy and Bess make it just a little better. I haven’t described the musical experience I had, but got sidetracked by all the things it made me think of.  I’ll let it speak for itself. I’m posting two wonderful renditions of the songs I mentioned above.  I hope you enjoy them.

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