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31 March 2009

YUM: Roasted Strawberries on a Snowy March Day


Outside, Old Man Winter makes a last March stand. Chilly and overcast, as another snow melts, the drips in my bungalow’s metal gutters sound like incessant snare drumming.

Inside, it's a good day to turn on the oven, so I'm roasting strawberries.

That’s right—(a drumroll from the gutters)—I’m roasting strawberries.

When I mention this preparation to people, they seem aghast. So was I. I first read about this in Martha Stewart Living way back—long before Martha did her stretch in jail.

NOT HOME GROWN, THO' I DID MAKE AN ATTEMPT

Pssssst: This is not politically correct cooking. It’s 30 March in Colorado, so these berries did not grow locally, sorry to say. Last year, I tried growing strawberries in a hanging container. I bought a healthy plant from a local, organic grower. I potted it up, tended it, treated it to compost courtesy of the red wiggler worms in the bins. I watered and watched as the runners grew and formed a few dainty, white flowers. And I harvested exactly five strawberries all season.

The strawberries were tiny, about the size of my small fingernail. But these petite fruits tasted at least 100 times better than the berries I buy regularly in the grocery store. These miniature strawberries packed the biggest whallop I’ve tasted in years.

THE TASTE OF LOVE ITSELF

As I kid, I savored the flavor of sun-ripened strawberries. I remember going as a wee one to pick the heart-shaped fruits at Furleigh Fruit & Vegetable Farms in Clear Lake, Iowa. Eating sun-warmed berries while picking was the best part—that is, until the berries appeared on our dessert plates in my mother’s strawberry or strawberry-rhubarb pies that to my little palette tasted of love itself. My mother also made delicious strawberry jam, and a couple of my sisters still do, but I've never tried.

The strawberries now roasting came from California. But they are not California’s best berries. I’ve tasted delicious strawberries in California, where they are grown and can be eaten fresh. Ripe berries in California are significantly better than ones in Colorado. So much better that I once carried on a flat of strawberries when I caught a flight from Santa Barbara to Denver. The hassle was mitigated by prolonged epicurian enjoyment of those juicy fruits.

SWEET & ACIDIC CALIFORNIA STRAWBERRIES

On assignment each year for the last 11 in Southern California, I’ve many times passed the wide open strawberry fields in various seasons. Making a visit with one’s family to pick strawberries as a kid was something of an adventure with a treat. However, stooping to pick berries day after day in the hot sun is horrendously hard work—especially given that the labor is not only stooped, therefore back-breaking, but also hard on the hands. I once interviewed a school principal in Oxnard, California, who told me that when field workers came to pay their children’s tuition, she noticed their hands damaged from the acids in the strawberries and the chemicals on the berries.

Strawberries have complex flavors—but when picked too early and shipped long distances, they arrive woody and have little flavor at all. Fresh produce tends to begin the process of breaking down as soon as picked. Some fruits will ripen on the kitchen counter, but not with strawberries. If serving for dessert, I generally coax nuances out of them by macerating them in a drizzle of Grand Marnier or Amaretto. Sometimes I sprinkle sliced berries with balsamic vinegar from Modena.

Or I roast them. Roasting has a surprising way of plumping fruits in their juices and enhancing their flavors. I roast plums, too, and can barely eat them raw anymore. The fruit is all too often not ripe, hard-fleshed, and tasteless.

MORE READING: The 19 August 2002 issue of The New Yorker published a fascinating profile titled “The Fruit Detective” about a stone-fruit fanatic who searches the lands far and wide to find flavorful peaches, plums, apricots, and the like. I Googled the title, and it came right up.

But roast strawberries, and you’ve got a mouthful of flavor. I vary from roasting berries with a bit of butter and a bit of honey, or a spill of liquor. Today, I happened to have on hand some Devon butter, obviously not local.

To enjoy roasted strawberries, allow them to cool a bit, but do try them warm. On a snowy day like today, a warm, roasted strawberry seems a bit of the divine. I had
The good fortune to have some French vanilla goat yogurt. Eaten with the berries rendered something sweet and slightly sour, creamy and fruity—not unlike cheesecake. Yum!

P.S. Best to buy organic strawberries because this fruit ranks high among produce most laden with toxic pesticides. See the post AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE FOR ALL: A Primer on Produce and Pesticides. Another odd fact: I read somewhere that strawberries had been genetically engineered with salmon to increase their susceptibility to cold. Yuck!

29 March 2009

GARDEN GATE: Snow claims snow crab blooms


Having a garden is asking for heartache. Due to the unseasonably warm weather, the four miniature snow crabs planted two seasons ago were ahead of schedule with their buds, which now dangle brown—victims of last week’s Front Range blizzard. (The “snow” in their common name obviously refers to their white color, not their ability to weather actual snow.)

At least the blizzard wasn’t a branch-breaker, not uncommon in these parts. My house, situated in a Denver historic district, sits a block off a parkway populated with all old trees. One spring—or was it late autumn?—snow fell so heavy and deep that through the night and into the morning, I could hear large limbs snapping and crashing.

Takes a romantic fool to plant deciduous trees here—especially flowering trees. Fortunately, I have the photo above, taken last year, when snows spared the sweet blossoms during their inaugural Spring in my landscape.

Nature is powerful and largely unpredictable. Gardening is emotional. Anytime we're dealing with life, I suppose we're dealing with death, as well.

There's still hope for the cherry tree on the side of the porch--which has several times been downed by heavy snows--and the huge, old crab apple tree, which I believe was planted in the backyard around the time the house was built in 1921. Once, many years ago, I woke up and looked out my bedroom windows to see that a heavy snow had fallen. The venerable old tree in full pink bloom was burdened with heavy snow to the point that the branches bowed down to rest on the fence and garage, created a giant, flowered parasol over my secret garden.

27 March 2009

GARDEN GATE: Forcing Blossoms on Branches


Do you need to prune your cherry tree or your quince shrub? Do you have a forsythia about to burst open into lightning-bug-yellow blooms? You can hasten Spring if you cut some branches from a flowering tree or shrub and bring them indoors. It's easy:
• Cut branches. (I've forced cherry, quince, and crab apple, but you might also try dogwood, gooseberry, or forsythia.)
• Place them in a vase of warm water in a sunny spot.
• Watch the buds fatten, and the blossoms and leaves unfurl.
• Get a whiff of early Spring!

At first, the branches look a bit bare. My friend Lori called it "the Addams Family bouquet" when I first presented her with an armload of cherry branches, but now she's a fan. Just toss the branches in your compost heap once the blossoms start to brown or fall off.

26 March 2009

COLORADO COLLEEN: Daffodils Bloom in Blizzard; It's Springtime in the Rockies!

Outside, daffodils in full bloom duck a blizzard. It’s Springtime in the Rockies! Eager to take advantage of this rare precipitation, I got out to shovel during a lull in the storm. Heavy snow with about an inch of watery slush underneath--great for the thirsty landscape. I do hope others will get out to do some snow mulching rather than just letting it all run off.
Moved a bunch of containers with pansies, Swiss chard, dianthus, ornamental kale, and primroses into the garage. They're hardy, but know they'll appreciate being in out of the winds. Worrying about my new trees-- 4 Snow Crabs and 2 volunteer peaches -- already leafed out and almost in blossom. This morning, as the snow started to fly, I went out to cut some elegant white hyacinths, brought them in and have them in vases around the house; one bloom can perfume an entire room. Such a juxtaposition--this whiff of spring and the winter storm outside the windowpanes.

NAMASTE': My 3-Part Series on Yoga for Life's Stages

In case you missed it, here are links to my 3-Part series on yoga for various stages of life. This series appeared in the Fitness section of The Denver Post this Spring.
Namaste'! (That's Sanskrit, translated as "The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you.")

Yoga for Seniors

Yoga for Youth

Prenatal Yoga

25 March 2009

ALSO TO COME: More Garden Posts, Yoga, Celebrities...

In case skiing is not your cup of tea, please note that future posts will include other topics, including links to interesting interviews I've conducted with luminaries like Garrison Keillor, Elizabeth Gilbert, Nobel Prize-Winner Wole Soyinka, Judy Collins, and others.

COLORADO COLLEEN: Spring Snow Report & Blogs To Come

That storm I blogged about yesterday dumped 20" of fresh snow on Vail, 15 inches on Beaver Creek, 11 inches on Breckenridge and Keystone. Hallelujah! Stay tuned for more mountain posts on these topics: pinecones, bighorn sheep, stimulus money supporting wildlife crossings to protect Colorado species including Canada lynx!

24 March 2009

COLORADO COLLEEN: Spring Snow

Just because the Vernal Equinox has come and gone doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last from Old Man Winter. Over the weekend, skiing Vail, a storm kicked up. Saturday started out a bluebird day without a cloud in the sky. Skiers and riders alike searched for the promise of snow. The forecast called for 8 to 10 inches. We crossed our fingers, if not our ski tips.

Yesterday, the weatherman delivered. Snow fell all day. We skied the storm, catching the last rides on several chairlifts. We ended up downloading (riding a chair down rather than up) at the very end, due to no visibility. Since Vail Pass was closed, we settled down for a leisurely supper, then passed a few hours—thanks to the hospitality of Holiday Inn Apex—in comfy leather chairs near a large fireplace.

On the treacherous drive home, we reviewed the day’s runs and spoke of snow.


The word “winter” derives from the Gothic “wintrus” and, probably, the Old English “waeter” or water. In Colorado, winter water tends to fall in the form of snow. Snow is Colorado’s white gold recreational natural resource, the preferred precipitation for those who “frolic and play the Eskimo way.”

Snowfall transforms the landscape, shrouding drab winter beneath a mantle of gleaming white, muffling sounds and reflecting light. Whether falling silently in gentle flurries or blown horizontally on the howling whiteout winds of a blizzard, whether sublime snow angels or disdained yellow snow, this solid form of precipitation brings to bear an enormous influence on the environment and the creatures that inhabit snow country.

Snow covers as much as 23 percent of the total land surface of Earth. Snow forms when water molecules freeze into crystals. At temperatures above -40 F., snow crystals form around foreign particles: automobile exhaust, industrial smoke, sand or any airborne particulate.

SNOW CRYSTALS

Scientists classify seven types of snow crystals: plates, stellars, columns, needles, spatial dendrites, capped columns and irregular crystals. Snowflakes are six-sided aggregates of ice crystals--as many as 100 individual crystals.

The downy delicacy and intricate, almost infinite patterns make snow as pretty as precipitation gets. A commonly held myth about snow claims that no two snowflakes are alike. However, in 1988, researchers documented two snowflakes with no discernible differences. Scientists also claim that many column snowflakes are much alike due to the simplicity of their prism shapes.

If utter individuality isn’t the signature of a snowflake, no matter. After all, no two pine trees are precisely alike, nor two columbines, nor two stars. Snowflakes demonstrate how one individual--a single, lacy snowflake--contributes to the cumulative effect--snow cover.

SNOW CONDITIONS

The shape of snowflakes and the density of the space between them determine snow conditions. Skiers long for champagne powder, but children out to build a snowman require condensed snow for plasticity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson noted “the frolic architecture of the snow.” An ethereal form ever in flux, snow melts some, freezes again, melts again. Snow can squeak like Styrofoam underfoot one day, and squish into slush the next. Winds can whip snow into drifts and the wavelike ridges known as sastrugi. Along with temperatures and winds, snow’s own weight rearranges itself.

Fresh snow appears white because the crystals reflect the entire spectrum of white light. But when the infamous Cat In the Hat turned the snow pink, Dr. Seuss’ drama wasn’t altogether fantastical. Red, black, blue or green snow--though rare--occurs when snowflakes contain colored fungi. If you've had the good fortune to visit Alaska, you know that some of the snow and ice appears blue. A few winters back, when a major blizzard buried metro Denver and much of the Front Range, I dubbed it the Blue Blizzard of St. Patrick's Day because we had so much snow that it took on a pale blue tint. I notice this color in the High Country, too, sometimes when I plant my ski pole or when snow forms a collar around a tree trunk.

Snow reflects as much as 87 percent of the sunlight shining on its surface, accounting for the need for both sunscreen and sunglasses even in winter. When bright snow reflects ultraviolet rays, unprotected eyes can suffer snow blindness. Colorado’s high altitudes increase the likelihood of the condition.

Because snow reflects sunlight and also uses some solar radiation in melting, less solar energy is available to heat the surface of Earth. Consequently, snowy days stay cooler, as do snowy nights, when snow readily gives off heat. Paradoxically, snow can act as an insulating blanket for vegetation. Snow cover stunts plant growth, but also protect plants from extremely cold temperatures.

SNOW PLAY

The nature of snow calls certain people out to play. At the top of Colorado’s long list of snow activities is world class alpine skiing. Colorado’s resorts situate the state at the summit of the nation’s ski industry.

Obviously, the ski season depends on snowfall. Depending on snow, ski resorts can open as early as October and close as late as early August.

When snow accumulations are less than desirable, ski resorts resort to making synthetic snow. First used in 1951 in the Catskill Mountains of New York, snow-making machines atomize water and compressed air to create snow when the temperature falls below freezing. Seeding cold water clouds with silver iodide also induces snowfall with flakes up to four times larger than natural snowflakes. Once, I saw some of these snowflakes in just the right conditions--the slant of light, the temperature--and they looked exactly as if somebody had tossed a handful of colored, metallic confetti shaped like snowflakes. Super magical! I've never noticed it since, but I keep looking, just as I keep looking for lynx.

WHITE STUFF’S DARK SIDE

For all the innocence of an untrammeled quilt of snow, for all it’s glittering beauty and brightness, snow has its dark side, too. Snow can be as deadly and devastating as it is delicate when marshaled in the forces of nature’s snow storms, blizzards, snowslides, avalanches and glaciers. Snow is very dangerous in the back country because of the Rocky Mountains and our climate. Only three other places--the Alps, the Andes and the Himalayas--have more extreme and more variable snow conditions.

Snow can render road conditions treacherous, contributing to fatal automobile crashes or slips into snowbanks that leave drivers stranded. Last year, the son of one of my high school friends lost her 21-year-old son to exposure after his car slid into a ditch in Northern Iowa, and he died of exposure. While skiers and shredders, sleigh riders and sledders welcome deep snowfall, others face the costly and problematic aspects of snow removal. Even residential snow shoveling notoriously brings on heart attacks, not to mention other strained muscles. But in Denver, and along the Front Range this winter, we've not had to worry about that: We've had no winter to speak of this year.

Fortuantely, the High Country has snow. Completing a cycle, as winter melts into spring and solid snow turns to liquid, dangerous--even deadly--flooding can result.

Springtime in the Rockies equals unpredictability, but it seems likely we'll see more snow. March traditionally has been Colorado's snowiest month. In the city, spring has sprung. In the mountains, winter sports enthusiasts-and perhaps students and employees jonesing for a snow day--keep in mind a mantra from a common Christmas carol refrain : “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”

THE WRITTEN WORD: Snow fires the literary imagination


Colorado is home to two types of winter people: those who describe snow in such poetic phrases as “champagne powder,” and those who say “that white s___.”

Since Old Testament times and Homeric oral tradition, snow has drifted into poetic process. The Prophet Isaiah claimed that “...though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” Homer wrote of “words like winter snowflakes...” and the snowless Elysian plain untouched by winter’s heavy storms.

Perhaps you’re not a skier or a shredder or even a sledder. Perhaps you’ve lost your childlike adoration of winter’s magic, or perhaps you never found it. Maybe you have Spring Fever, but if you tend to groan when the forecast calls for snow, catch the drift of writers who found inspiration in the pretty precipitation.

“Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.... The same law that shapes the earth-star shapes the snow-star. As surely as the petals of a flower are fixed, each of these countless snow-stars comes whirling to earth...these glorious spangles.”
-- Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Jan. 5, 1856

“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”
--Sanislaw Jerzy Lee, More Unkempt Thoughts

“At Christmas I no more desire a rose
than wish a snow in May’s newfangled mirth’
But like of each thing that in season grows.”
-- Shakespeare, “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

“The hiss was now becoming a roar--and the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow--but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”
-- Conrad Aiken, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”

“It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.”
-- Boris Pasternak, “Dr. Zhivago”

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
-- James Joyce, “The Dead”

“The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.”
-- Robert Frost, “Dust of Snow”

“In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen on snow, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.”
-- Crinstina Georgina Rossetti, “Mid-Winter”

“The snow had begun in the gloaming,
And busily all night
Had been heaping field and highway
With a silence deep and white.”
-- James Russell Lowell, “The First Snowfall”

23 March 2009

COLORADO COLLEEN: Soundtrack for Skiing

Psyche Songs for Skiing: Uptempo tunes from Snow Patrol & Cold Play

Colorado artists for the Drive Up: Dakota Blonde, Jon Chandler, Chuck Pyle

Instrumental Music to Buffer the Re-entry from High Country to City: Mozart

22 March 2009

GARDEN GATE: Back Yard Swiss chard

Yesterday, on the Vernal Equinox, I bought a 12-pack of Swiss chard, one of my favorite plants.

My mother—an Austrian immigrant—husbanded a vivacious garden, harvested and served vegetables other kids shunned: Brussels sprouts and broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. And we ate some vegetables other kids had never even heard of: kohlrabi and Swiss chard. Safe in the confines of our dining room, my five siblings and I were anomaly children who jockeyed for the last of the spinach or asparagus. No doubt, without knowing it, we savored the freshness of the vegetables, pulled out of the Iowa soil that Robert Frost once complimented as looking good enough to eat without first putting vegetables through it.

My parents, from time to time, enjoyed creamed vegetables, but not us kids. In fact, we were inclined to eat many of them raw: wedges of squeaky cabbage and plates of peeled and sliced cucumbers, crisp carrots cut into wavy sticks, crunchy green beans. Kohlrabi hearts.

Away from the family table, however--and surrounded by friends who ate the TV dinners that my mother scorned, canned or frozen peas instead of fresh raw pods, and Oreos instead of homemade strudels--kohlrabi could be the source of shame. I sometimes got the feeling my family’s sustenance was some sort of foreign peasant food: fried—red, not green—tomatoes and eggplant, mustard pickles, not to mention pickled Black Angus tongue and heart. But that’s another story.

ARTISTIC SPINACH

I acquired a taste for Swiss chard. Something like artistic spinach, it’s the sort of food that would never translate if served slimy and tinged with a metallic flavor from a can. Fresh from the garden, though, the steamed greens smacked of the essence of good health itself.

As it turns out, Swiss chard is highly nutritious. In fact, the George Mateljan Foundation, which promotes nutritional information, includes chard on its list of the World’s Healthiest Foods. A cruciferous vegetable, it’s a good source of vitamins A and C, as well as iron. A form of beet—Mom grew those, too, and pickled them—chard is grown not for the root, but for the leaves and stalks. Washed and wrapped loosely in paper towels, then bagged, chard keeps well in the refrigerator for a few days.

While Swiss chard’s status as a side-dish was well established with me, I’d never considered the plant decorative until I visited the French-style kitchen garden at Denver Botanic Gardens on assignment a few years ago. My mother’s chard had a presentable appearance—pale silver stalks and crinkly, verdant leaves—but I’d never considered it a thing of beauty. This potager’s chard, however, benefited from complementary colors: ruby red veins lined the pine green foliage ruffled at the edges almost like a smaller, more elongated version of rhubarb. With luminous magenta stalks, the plant held enormous design appeal; and I relished the notion that I could have my plants and eat them, too.

So two springs ago, I purchased an innocent-looking 6-pack cell of ‘Bright Lights,’ a chard mix of greens with stalks of red, orange, magenta and taxicab yellow. I poked the bedding plants—about the size of my thumb, in a small window box—the first plants I put out for the season. Despite some late spring cold, the greens took root and took off.

HOT AND COLD HARDY

Once they began crowding the window box, I transplanted the Swiss chard plants to a hot spot in my back yard. And I do mean hot—almost incendiary. During Denver’s drought a few years back, I gave up on grass and created a mini-garden in this microclimate. Where the turf had burned and turned to dirt, I formed a river stone circle about the circumference of a Hula-Hoop. In the center of the rock ring, I added a terra cotta pedestal topped with a verdigris sundial. Once, during a July heat wave, I leaned my thermometer against the ring of rocks, and the thermometer read 124 degrees Fahrenheit.

Around the sundial, the chard grew curiously well and mixed nicely with existing boxwoods and thymes. Once the frost danger passed last May, I put down a few one-gallon orange zinnias to keep company with the hot colors of the chard. The plants filled in the circle and made for a pleasing palette so attractive that the mini-garden resembled a sophisticated floral arrangement, something you might find on a table inside a grand lobby of an upscale hotel.
Chenopodiaceae, as Swiss chard is botanically known, probably originated not in Switzerland, but in the Mediterranean. Even if you are not well versed in the mysteries of vegetable husbandry, chard is an easy-to-grow biennial often treated as an annual. Along with full sun, plants require regular water--which was no problem since the sundial garden catches the regular sprinklings for the patch of lawn in my shoebox-sized back yard.

COLORFUL GREENS

After a growth spurt precipitated by precipitation, the chard’s leaves had grown large and lush, and I cut enough for a meal. I washed and dried the greens, mesmerized by their exotically colored stalks—yolk yellow and clementine orange and a beefy red. I hauled out my mother’s hefty cast iron skillet, added some olive oil and some fresh minced garlic, then tossed the chard, sautéing until the stems were tender, seasoning them with a pinch of fleur de sel and a few twists of the red pepper grinder.

Cutting back the plants only served to encourage their growth. The Swiss chard came on strong. The leaves grew tall as the sundial, and I could barely keep up with them. Hail battered the large leaves, and when I chopped off the tattered ones, more foliage seemed to spring almost instantly into place. The plants yielded all summer and into fall and--unlike spinach--did not bolt to seed. Once I’d had my fill, I simply let the leaves grow unchecked, and before long they stood taller than the pedestal and began casting rippled shadows on the sundial.

Like all veggies, the plants worshipped the sun, yet at the end of the season, the Swiss chard’s delightful colors intensified in the cooler temperatures. Visitors to my garden stopped in their tracks upon seeing the rainbow greens. I sent several friends on their way with sacks of fresh chard. The more I cut them back, the more the plants thrived.

Those six plants grew on and on, not even daunted by the first couple of blizzards that paralyzed Denver last December. Finally, when week after week the snows piled higher and higher, even that hot spot in my yard was buried beneath the white stuff, and with it the colorful chard. I figured those greens deserved a long winter’s nap and was sure I had, at last, seen the last of the tender chard.

Denver endured one of the worst winters on record that year, including seven weeks in a row of snowstorms and with them blinding cold during December and January and into February. But after a few warmer February days whittled away at the drifts around the sundial, the Swiss chard in the back yard was revealed and was—to my utter surprise—incorrigibly growing, new orange and yellow shoots surfacing. Biennial indeed!

Whatever your climate, make room in your garden and on your dining room table for Swiss chard—eye candy good enough to eat.

20 March 2009

COLORADO COLLEEN: Urban Aspens

Aspen trees don’t fare well in city environment, where hot temperatures and heavy clay soils prove detrimental to their well being. Plus, they can’t filter air pollution effectively. Injury by hail, pruning and other elements render aspens susceptible to fungus, and other diseases readily set in. Quaking Aspen is the most typical species. Big Tooth Aspen can be found, but is rarely commercially available. Aspens don’t make good street trees, but can make nice accent trees in yards.

For those who want urban aspen, note the following considerations:
* First, make sure you’re selecting and planting a tree with a well developed root system. A lot of aspens are collected from the mountains, and sometimes the trees don’t have much of a root system.
Ask questions about where the aspens came from and when. If the trees are in containers, look at the bottom of the container to see if you can see roots. Sometimes, the aspen are collected with they’re much younger, but if they’ve been growing in the nursery for a year or two, they would have a more developed root system.
* Another key factor in successfully growing aspen is finding the correct site. Don’t plant them on the south side of a house or anywhere the tree will get a lot of reflective heat from the street, sidewalk or buildings. Aspens are prone to sun scald.
* Amend the soil. Aspens typically grow in decomposed granite. The key to successful growing is well drained soil. Local soils tend to be heavy clays, but they can be amended with organics.
* Water slowly and deeply. Aspen growing in their native habitat get a lot of moisture. Aspen in the city need a good watering regime. Water every couple of days after the soil has dried out--about every three days during summer. Like all plants, aspens need water, but also oxygen. If the site is constantly wet, the trees won’t get the oxygen they need.
Other caveats:
* Due to the big, woody roots that connect trees, aspens tend to produce sucker growth, especially when placed close to lawn areas. Aspen can fill in, so keep them in isolated beds filled with other plants or heavily mulched and you’ll have less of a problem. Do not mulch with cedar.
* Aspens are the shortest living tree species in Colorado. People growing aspens in the city should view them as 20-30 year plant. Some live longer, but not many.
* Be aware that aspens are prone to twig gall disease and leaf spots, both fairly difficult to control.
* For information about aspen trees, visit Plant Talk.

COLORADO COLLEEN: Phoenix of the forest


Native Americans called aspens “the tree that whispers to itself.”
It’s no secret that each autumn, when their green foliage changes to gold, aspen trees shout. These popular poplar trees call droves of people to drive to the high country to witness the mountainsides warmed by the wondrous amber aspens. Aspen colors coupled with Colorado’s bright blue skies, evergreens and mountain backdrops create the scenic stuff calendars are made on.
The species populus tremuloides is commonly known as quaking aspen. Some locals call aspen quakies, an allusion to the trees’ shimmering leaves. The quaking comes from a hinge attaching the leaf that allows the leaf stem to flex and flutter in even a slight breeze.
Aspen is one of the most readily identifiable trees, and the aspen leaf’s simple shape--not unlike a heart--is a symbol synonymous with Colorado. Aspens are not exclusive to Colorado. In fact, they’re the most widely distributed tree on the continent.


BRANCHING OUT

Identity is a question at the core of a friendly debate concerning aspen. Individual aspens are either female or male. Only the rare aspen forms from a seed. In a process known as suckering, most aspen clone from laterally spreading root suckers with identical DNA. The stems rise out of the ground and appear as individual trees; but one theory holds that they actually are all attached.
In 1992, a 122-acre male aspen clone was discovered in Utah. The clone includes 47,000 trees and weighs about 13 million pounds. University of Colorado biology professor Michael Grant nicknamed the clone Pando, a Latin word meaning “I wander.”
Pando gained notoriety when the CU professor suggested the aspen clone could be the largest living organism on the planet.
The theory that Pando is the largest living organism on the planet relies on the definition of a clone as something with the same DNA, but not necessarily physically connected. Another hypothesis suggests Pando is ancient, up to one million years old—not the wood, itself, but the clone wandering across the mountains.
In North America, Aspen is the deciduous tree with the largest range: from the mountains of Mexico to Alaska, and almost from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. Colorado’s average aspen stand ranges from 110 to 120 years of age, with a few rare stands approaching 200 years of age. Even more rare are young stands under 40 years old, which occur only where fires have burned or trees have been harvested.


ASPENS FORM FIRE BREAK

Colorado’s aspen woodlands exist at altitudes between 7,000 and 10,000 feet. Aspen groves tend to form on sites disturbed either by natural activity such as forest fires and avalanches, or human activity such as logging.
Over the eons, aspen have adapted well to dealing with periodic fire disturbances. Pure stands of aspen don’t burn because green, wet grass grows beneath, preventing a natural fire break. And after a wild fire, the aspen acts as the phoenix of the forest, rising from the ashes. Aspens will immediately sprout as the first new growth on the site.


ASPEN PROMOTE BIODIVERSITY

The nature of aspen trees provides biodiversity to the ecosystem. Aspens allow light to flow through branches, supporting a rich and abundant under story of smaller trees, shrubs and grasses.
Aspen habitat is home for a number of cavity nesting birds: Mountain Bluebirds, Red-Naped Sapsuckers, Tree Swallows, House Wrens and owls. Gray Jays and American Robins flock to aspen woodlands, and Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Goshawk can be seen hunting near aspen stands.
Deer and elk eat aspen bark in winter and young trees in summer, sometimes to a devastating impact on aspen groves. Cattle also graze in aspen forests.
Aspen also benefit the environment by consuming less water than conifers, and the trees could be used to promote water retention.
As precious as water is in the West, that’s key.

19 March 2009

GUEST BLOG: Natasha Richardson/Ski Helmets

A burning question from a blog by Ben Sherwood about Natasha Richardson's tragic death featured today on HuffPost.


4. Could a Helmet Have Saved Richardson?

The answer is maybe, but it's too soon to tell. In general, helmets are helpful, but they aren't perfect. "The sad fact is that we now have 45-50 percent of the snow sports population using helmets," Dr. Shealy explains, "but the fatality rate has not changed." Over all, the rate of head injury has declined 35 to 45 percent, he goes on. That's because helmets are very effective at preventing head lacerations and other less serious head injuries. However, helmets "are less effective for more serious head injuries that typically involve greater kinetic energy and/or speed."

Most fatalities are the result of relatively high speed impact (probably greater than 27 mph) with a fixed object (like a tree), Dr. Shealy notes. "Under those circumstances, it will probably take more than a helmet to save your life," he says.

"I agree with the proposition that everyone should wear a helmet while engaging in a winter snow sport," he concludes. "If you hit a tree at typical maximum skiing speeds, you will still probably die, but if you fell on hard-pack snow (a much more likely scenario) and hit your head on the hard surface, a helmet can likely change what would likely be a serious head injury into a minor, less serious head injury."

In addition, Dr. Shealy's work suggests that helmets may actually encourage riskier behavior among some skiers -- because they feel safer -- and lead to more severe injuries. However, Dr. Shealy says that's not a good reason to skip wearing a helmet. "I encourage everyone to wear a helmet, but ski (or snowboard) as if you were not wearing a helmet. I don't know if realistically anyone can do that, since I suspect that the increased level of risk-taking is sub-conscious."

18 March 2009

IN MEMORIAM: Rest In Peace Natasha Richardson

Just learned that Natasha Richardson passed over today. Seems such an unfair loss of a lovely, talented, involved woman: wife, mother, daughter, sister, Tony-winning actress. Utter devastation for her family. Too tragic for words.

I do hope her high-profile, tragic tale will initiate more conversations about the benefits of wearing ski helmets. Since I published the post above, I have read that head injuries are decreasing due to increased use of ski helmets; but one claim stated that neck injuries are up for people wearing ski helmets.

Imposing laws demanding skiers wear helmets seems too extreme, but I do hope downhillers who do not don a helmet will reconsider this important piece of equipment.

Does anybody out there know symptoms to watch for after a fall?

COLORADO COLLEEN: Buckle Up Your Brain Bucket

Alpine skiing involves inherent risk. Danger. But the recent tragedy that befell British actress Natasha Richardson while taking a lesson on a beginner’s trail at Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec, Canada, might have been avoided had she worn a helmet. We’ll never know for sure, but the odds would have been in her favor. As is, sadly, current reports indicate that she has been taken off life support systems.
I live in Colorado, and I love to ski. For me, skiing ranks up there among the few activities that offer peak experiences without being illegal, immoral, or fattening. Skiing challenges the body, focuses the mind, and frees the spirit.


SKIING WORTH RISK

Ask any passionate skier, and he or she will tell you that a day of great skiing can feel like the equivalent of a week’s vacation. Maybe it’s the rarified air up there. Maybe it’s the breathtaking alpine vistas. Maybe it’s the joyful sensation of flying or floating.
Or maybe it’s the fact that while downhill skiing, one must be, as they say, in the moment or be imperiled. Every turn is a decision; and skiers must remain present, considering this turn, then the next turn. Start thinking too much about the next deadline, or patients, or clients, or plummeting portfolios, and you stand a good chance of falling.


FLYING, FLOATING, FALLING

Falling, needless to say, can be dangerous. Even deadly.
Last Monday, skiing Beaver Creek in Colorado, I took my most dramatic fall ever on Grouse Mountain. Beaver Creek’s ski terrain is legendary, as the trail map boasts; it’s the only North American mountain to host regularly the World Cup.
A formidable peak, Grouse Mountain’s runs parallel the World Cup downhill course. As Vail Valley real estate broker Betsy Edwards points out, Grouse Mountain sticks up like the ridiculously exaggerated peak on which the Grinch makes his home in Dr. Seuss’s story. Atop Grouse Mountain’s geographical spire, at the ear-popping summit elevation of 11,440 feet, there’s precious little space for skiers and riders to pause to admire the stunning views of abundant aspens and the distant, snow-capped range jagged as shark’s teeth. On Monday, we paused and posed for iPhone photos. The sky could not have been bluer without going purple.


COLD-COCKED BY SKI MOUNTAIN

Yet on Monday, some runs were skied off, hard-packed, and slick. Warm days combined with frosty nights left some icy spots, but I was feeling the hubris of a hot shot. Inspired by the World Cup racers, I gave it my best. (In my dreams, I ski like an Olympian. In my dreams.) Making my way down the black diamond (expert) portion of Raven Ridge, skiing probably faster than I should have been, I set my intention and my edges. Carving turns, I felt in control, getting gravity and my Rossignols to work for me. Hubris welled up.
Then, suddenly, I got cold-cocked by the ski mountain.
Sometimes, one knows one is about to fall. Sometimes, a bit of flailing of the arms or a quick adjustment of the feet or the hips or the core can help regain balance.
Other times, spills give no warning. This was that sort of fall. Before I realized I had bit it, I felt myself spinning. The slope is steep enough—pitched at about 45 degrees---that once I had fallen, I continued to fall, sliding down and down and spinning round and round—long enough to have several thoughts pass through my consciousness. One: Whoa! Two: I’m falling! Three: I’m glad I wore my helmet.
Fortunately, once I stopped spinning and sliding, I was able to stand. I had snow up my ski sweater and down ski pants, snow inside my rose-colored goggles. I tumbled so hard that my ski boot came unbuckled. I had some ringing in my ears because I’d had my bell rung. I had fear in my throat, but I was fine—a little shaken and much humbled, but uninjured. Thanks, in part, to my helmet.


STICKING WITH MY HELMET

I’m not crazy about wearing a helmet. On a warm spring day like Monday, my head gets hot under that black plastic dome. Wearing a helmet, I lose the wonderful feeling of wind in my hair. The colorful ski hats are infinitely cuter. It’s hard to make a fashion statement with a dorky helmet, though designers are working on that with new shapes and colors. In the few photos I have of myself on the slopes, I always wish I’d bothered to take off the nerdy helmet. Vanity! Vanity!
To make my helmet more fun and expressive and less resented, I’ve added stickers from various resorts I’ve skied. One of those stickers now bears a scuff from my recent scrape with Grouse Mountain. If the plastic took the impact that hard, I hate to think of what would have happened to my unprotected skull.
My ski partner Dr. Joel Cooperman--an osteopathic physician who specializes in sports medicine at Denver Osteopathic Center--said Richardson probably suffered a subdural hematoma. Such a grave fate played out while trying to have fun is a bitter consequence even if you do not happen to be a feature film actress and the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and the wife of Liam Neeson. Even if you do not happen to be Michael Kennedy. Or Sonny Bono.


HELMET HEDGES BETS


A helmet probably won’t save a skier or rider’s life if he or she smacks into a tree or collides with another skier, but on any given day, protective headgear can make a difference. Rockymountainnews.com reported that the 2007/2008 ski season claimed 17 lives in Colorado—a new record, breaking the one set in 2001/2002 at 16. http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/apr/07/a-random-record/
In a sport that claims lives each year, it’s best to hedge one’s bets and buckle on a helmet—also known in the parlance of ski bums and riders as a brain bucket. To say wearing a helmet is a no-brainer seems an unfortunate turn of phrase that happens to be true.

My heart goes out to Natasha Richardson and her family.

17 March 2009

GARDEN GATE: Head Down The Primrose Path


PRIMROSE PATH --
At left, photo shows my short primrose path from back door to side gate.

PERENNIAL PRIMULA--
Harder to see in this photo above, but the bright red and yellow blooms are primula purchased for about a buck at a big box store. They look hot house, but are actually hardy and act as perennials in my secret garden's microclimate, which tends to be at least a couple of weeks ahead of the rest of the landscape, thanks to heat from brick house and garage and wind shelter from fences, and a southern exposure. Primroses don't want too much sun. Those above are in a shade garden and the primrose path gets shade from fence. Once sun gets too high in the summer sky, tho', I pull out those along the path and add them to shadier beds or borders.



HEAD DOWN THE PRIMROSE PATH


You're jonesing for early spring color and itching to plant anything green, but you're also well aware of manic-depressive springs that swing wildly from blizzards to balmy sunshine. Ever-popular pansies aren't your only fix.

Head down "the primrose path." Shakespeare coined the phrase in Hamlet to describe pleasure, and primroses deliver plenty.
Chaucer mentioned primroses, too; and many primroses hail from the British Isles. In fact, the British obsess over primroses and competitively grow hundreds of species.

PRIMROSES AREN’T ROSES

The common name "primrose" means "first rose," though primroses really aren't roses at all. Wild European primroses sprang up as harbingers of spring and symbols of first love, blooming—as love is wont to do—suddenly in unexpected places.

There's a growing interest in hybrid primroses, available in big box stores for as only about a buck—a big value considering the little darlings take two years from seed to flower. Like little nosegays, the hybrids sport groups of small flowers surrounded by tongue-shaped, scalloped-edged leaves. Cheery, colorful hybrids come in inky purple, mustard yellow, magenta and red. Many have bright yellow eyes. They resemble African violets, but are much hardier.

HOW TO PAMPER PRIMULA

• For quick color, purchase hybrid primroses, then harden plants off, allowing them to spend a few nights on the porch or patio so they can adjust to radical change from greenhouse to outdoors. Group primroses in a hanging pot or use them to fill your windowboxes or containers. Later in the season, transplant them to the garden.

• Primula grow close to the ground, so they do well rimming a container or starring in the front row of a border.

• Primula fare well down to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but cannot tolerate intense sun. Situate them in beds or containers in shade or part shade. Plant primroses in the right spot in your garden, and these little plants with hot house looks will deliver perennial pleasures in some growing zones.

• Once established, they require dividing every couple of years. When plants start looking weak, dig up the crown, split it apart, amend the soil with compost, then replant.

• Primula require regular watering or they quickly wilt and often won’t bounce back.

• Primula appreciate compost-enriched soil. Since they flower vigorously, they're heavy feeders. Try fertilizing with liquid seaweed, which is organic and won't burn.

• Hybrid primroses come in a variety of colors: yellow, red, pink, violet. The violet ones are the weakest, and the yellow hybrids tend to perform best.

This article appeared in a slightly different form last spring in the GROW section of The Denver Post.

HAPPY ST. PATRICK'S DAY: All About Shamrocks

This article appeared in The Denver Post in 1998 in slightly different format.

SHAMROCKS
By Colleen Smith

Each spring, in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, millions of merry-makers--Irish and otherwise--will don shamrocks. Celebrants will be decked in shamrocks knit into sweaters and embroidered on hats. They’ll sport shamrock lapel pins and T-shirts with shamrocks. They’ll paint shamrocks on their faces they’ll stuff with shamrock-shaped cookies and cakes all under a shower of green foil shamrock confetti.
Shamrocks are etched on Waterford crystal and delicately painted as the signature of Belleek, the fine Parian China of Ireland. Shamrocks adorn Celtic crosses and Rosary beads.
But the most charming of all shamrocks are the real ones.
Providing, that is, that one can call a shamrock real. Look for the true, live shamrock, and begorra, you will find telling evidence of the Irish imagination. Sure the problem lies in identifying what, exactly, a shamrock is.

A SHAMROCK BY ANY OTHER NAME

The word shamrock is the Anglicized derivation from the Irish “seamrog,” translated as “little, young clover” or “summer plant” and used to classify both red and white clover. Unique to the Emerald Isle, a tiny green trefoil grows wild, and many insist this is the shamrock.
Here in the United States, different plants stand in as shamrocks. Most florists stock two quasi shamrocks, including oxalis. A member of the wood sorrel family, oxalis has three leaves, albeit more angular the traditional shamrock. The green-leafed oxalis has white blossoms; a purple-leafed variety has lavender flowers; and a new cultivar has green leaves and lavender flowers.
Trifolium repens minus is dwarf form of white clover with small, round leafed shamrocks. But don’t confuse the four-leafed-clover with the shamrock, though this faux pas frequently occurs.
The shamrock is clover-like, but always with leaflets in threes. The luck of the Irish bears ties to numerology, and in Celtic belief, three’s the charm. A simple Irish blessing--“May the strength of three be in your journey”-- reflects this belief.
Even the rhythm of Irish storytelling hinges on threefold repetition that builds, intensifies and embellishes that quintessential quality of the Irish tale: exaggeration.

SHAMROCKS’ EARLIEST ROLE

As in contemporary Ireland, divisive politics played a heavy role in day to day life. The earliest known role of the shamrock as a St. Patrick’s Day badge was referred to in 1681.
In the 1770’s, the Irish Volunteers wore the shamrock as their emblem. During Queen Victoria’s reign, the wearing of the shamrock was considered a rebellious act, and the Irish regiments were forbidden to display the plant. Irish civilians then took up the custom of wearing small, red and green paper crosses, instead.
Lo these many years later, on St. Patrick’s Day, tradition holds that a member of the British Royal Family presents shamrock to the Irish Guards regiment of the British Army.

THE SHAM BEHIND SHAMROCKS

In many an Irish mind, the number three conjures the Holy Trinity. The Irish are a people with a love of lore and legend, the one about St. Patrick and the shamrock being one example.
Irish historians have unearthed no reference to shamrock in the writings of St. Patrick. The first written correlation between the plant with the teaching of the Trinity dates to 1726, and is attributed to an Englishman, a Protestant dissenter, no less. A cleric and physician, Reverend Doctor Caleb Threlkeld published a small book about the wild plants of Ireland in which he wrote of shamrock: “This Plant is worn by the People in their Hats upon the 17 Day of March yearly, (which is called St. Patrick’s Day.) It being a Current Tradition that by this Three Leafed Grass, he emblematically set forth to them the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.”
Even Irish scholars, when pressed, will admit the sham behind shamrocks and St. Patrick. In his foreword to “Shamrock”--an entertaining Irish book by Dr. Charles Nelson--Bernard Loughlin writes, “...thank Christ for St. Patrick who invented the whole shamrock industry in the first place. Or did he?
“We will never know, but then who needs to know anyway. The excuse for drink and revelry is enough.”

ST. PATRICK’S MONEY

Fanciful legends notwithstanding, the shamrock took root as the unofficial symbol of Erin. The trefoils adorned medieval Irish tombs and ancient copper coins known as St. Patrick’s money.
The first reference to the shamrock in written English dates from 1571, from the Boke [sic]of the Histories of Ireland, by Edmond Campion. Like many an Irish story, the tale of the Elizabethan Jesuit is convoluted. Campion seems to have journeyed to Ireland, where he chronicled the habits of the Irish. He noted that the Irish ate shamrock. Probably erroneously, he linked the plant with watercress, creating an enduring red herring in shamrock lore.
In the 1600s, seamrog began cropping up in Irish dictionaries.
For a people linked hand, heart and soul to the very soil of Ireland, the symbol of the shamrock serves as a natural national emblem. Eventually, shamrock grew as Orange as Green, and the plant served as likely an emblem for Protestants and Catholics.

IRISH TOURIST BOARD

However, in 1996, the Irish Tourist Board met with controversy when their new marketing strategy suggested scrapping the shamrock as Ireland’s worldwide symbol. The suggestion didn’t go over well. Politicians and citizens alike perished the very thought, and the plan fell by the wayside.
The shamrock sustained its status as the unofficial symbol of Ireland. The nation’s official emblem is the harp, yet many commercial concerns prefer the shamrock. Aer Lingus, for example, brandishes its fleet with shamrocks on every plane’s tail. And each St. Patrick’s Day, the airline flies fresh shamrocks to Irish Embassies around the world to ensure that the global wearin’ of the green includes the national treasure.

SHENANIGANS & MALARKEY

Irish superstition reputed shamrocks to possess supernatural powers. At the very least, shamrocks sprout as a heartwarming harbinger of this transitional season, the melting of winter into spring, the greening of the earth.
And yet we’re left to wonder, is shamrock red clover or white or purple? It it wood sorrel or water cress? And what of St. Patrick? Are shamrocks essentially nothing but blarney? The shenanigans of leprechauns spreading malarkey?
These questions are impossible to answer without a wry wink to Ireland, the land of little people and tall tales about little green plants.

15 March 2009

COLORADO COLLEEN: Ski Eavesdropping


Overheard in an apres ski hot tub, one high school student to another, discussing the terrain park: "You have to face your fears."


COLORADO COLLEEN: Bighorn Sheep & Lynx

Yesterday, on the drive from Denver to Beaver Creek, we spotted some bighorn sheep grazing along I70. Despite their camouflage, we see some of these amazing creatures almost every time we head to the mountains. My friend Darrell is an avid hunter and fly fisherman who drives to the Western Slope regularly. He pointed out that he never sees bighorn sheep as roadkill. Maybe those odd horns that resemble the headdresses of Cinderella's stepsisters have some sort of radar in them!
For years, I've been dreaming of spotting a lynx. This might seem akin to wanting to see a unicorn; but my friend Paul, who owns a place in Vail, saw one; and I trust him because he is a veterinarian. When we checked in to the Christie Lodge in Avon, I saw a lynx, alas, in a glass case as a taxidermy specimen. The lynx was killed illegally, and was thought to be one of the last ones in Colorado. But research indicates lynx are still here. Hair and scat have been collected. When I mentioned to the woman at the check-in desk that I appreciated that the lodge supports research of lynx, she mentioned that near her home in the Tennesee Mountain area, the development of a new hut was stopped because of infringement on lynx habitat. She said it was the first such stonewalling of a development project in the Vail Valley due to wildlife habitat.
For me, one of the joys of skiing is getting to terrain that unless one skis, one would never see. On the chairlift, I enjoy seeing all the animal tracks. Last time we skied Vail, we had the good fortune of seeing a red fox below, and it was vocalizing--an eerie yet thrilling sound.
It should be noted that Vail resorts advertise that they run on wind power and lead in recycling, all of which helps offset the black carbon footprint we create getting to the white stuff.

14 March 2009

COLORADO COLLEEN: Spring springing too early?

The volunteer peach tree in the back yard opened its first beautiful blossoms yesterday. In the front yard, the dwarf white snow crabs have unfurled their little leaves. Crocus and daffodils bloom. Hyacinths are up. Down the block, forsythia shows a few firefly-yellow flowers. My sister told me last night that in Canon City, the lilacs are about to burst.
But it's not even St. Patrick's Day! The landscape is ahead of itself.
Denver has had virtually no winter and precious little snow. Now I can only hope we won't have one of those late season storms that dump heavy, wet, branch-breaking snow.
When I first began gardening in Denver, nearly 25 years ago, September roses were rare. As years went on, I'd see roses in October. Last autumn, I had November roses.
I'm already watering, and I watered half a dozen times over what passed for winter, or nothing would have survived. The trade0ff: All the plants help the environment, but require water.
This year, the discipline will lie in having mostly non-thirsty succulents in my containers.
Turn off that faucet when you're brushing your teeth. Install your low-flow shower head. Looks like we could have more depressingly dry days.
But there good news is that there's snow in the high country. Vail and Beaver Creek got 14" mid-week, and we're heading up to ski.

13 March 2009

THE ARTS: Irish Arts & Culture

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day,
Google these names, terms and titles for more about Irish arts and culture:

IRISH DANCING
Irish jig
Irish stepdancing
Kerry waltzing

IRISH DESIGN
Waterford crystal
Belleek fine china
Irish lace
Aran sweaters
Irish tweed
Book of Kells
Irish interlock
Celtic cross

IRISH or IRISH-AMERICAN WRITERS
John O’Donohue
Nuala O’Faolain (see post of interview)
Flannery O’Connor
William Butler Yeats
Frank McCourt
Eugene O’Neill
Seamus Heaney
Sean O’Casey
Msgr. John Sheridan
George Bernard Shaw
James Joyce

IRISH MUSIC
“Danny Boy”
Irish pennywhistle
Bagpipes
Bodrhan (Irish drum)

IRISH OR IRISH-AMERICAN ACTORS and ACTRESSES
George Clooney
Rosemary Clooney
Peter O’Toole
Andy Rooney
Maureen Sullivan

OTHER IRISHMEN & WOMEN (or names that sound Irish)
Pat Riley
Georgia O’Keefe

IRISH MOVIES
The Field
The Quiet Man
My Left Foot

MORE IRISH MUSIC
Snow Patrol’s lead singer Gary Lightbody is from Ireland
The Priests
Irish Rovers
Irish Wolf Hounds
The Clancy Brothers
James Galway

IN MEMORIAM: Nuala O’Faolain

Colleen Smith interviewed Nuala O’Faolain for The Denver Post in 2005, prior to O’Faolain’s visit to Aspen Summer Words. A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in July 2008 in The Denver Post following O’Faolain’s death.

She had that lyrical, quintessentially Irish name: Nuala O’Faolain. A native Dubliner, she eventually split her time between Ireland and Manhattan.

“Writers,” O’Faolain had written, “are the nearest thing the human community has to spokespeople.”

In 2005, on assignment for The Denver Post, I had the good fortune to interview this writer, this spokesperson, this feisty conversationalist with the charming accent, the capacity for searing honesty and the vocabulary that included words like “gobsmacked.”

O’Faolain had a reputation as a gritty firebrand, but during our exchange, I found her courteous and funny, even warm—every bit the force I’d admired in her books’ pages. After our interview, as I drafted my piece, favoring one radiant quote over another proved my biggest challenge.

“Women of my generation in Ireland--I’m amazed that we came through. It’s so recent that women have had jobs and money of their own that Ireland doesn’t know what to do with women,” O’Faolain said.

“There is no role model for lippy, middle aged women. Women of my age are supposed to be apple-cheeked grannies.”

Which wasn’t an option for O’Faolain, who had no children—and no regrets at the end of her life about that choice. O'Faolain, second eldest of nine kids, endured a turbulent childhood. Her father was a journalist, a minor celebrity and a philanderer. Her mother fortified herself with gin, shortbread and books.

O'Faolain had earned a postgraduate degree in 19th-century literature from Oxford University, taught literature at University College Dublin, launched a journalism career embracing both broadcast and print. She authored columns, and eventually novels, a biography and two unflinching memoirs, including "Are You Somebody?” which topped The New York Times best-seller list in 1998.

O’Faolain wrote with vulnerable candor, presenting less than flattering facets of herself and her homeland. She came clean about everything from her woefully dysfunctional family to her flabby physique to her tempestuous love affairs with members of both sexes.

“There’s a reason why more autobiographies aren’t written, especially in small, watchful countries,” O’Faolain told me. “People have too many hostages to fortune.” She realized that her lack of spouse, lover, judgmental friends or close family members left her free to be unaffected when she began writing her first memoir.

“It was a wonderful thing that my life was so mismanaged and empty; there was nobody to stand in my way. I could afford to be reckless,” she said. “And I was under the absolutely sincere impression that nobody would read it.”

But read it they did, and in droves. Yet O’Faolain claimed to me that being set among the Emerald Isle’s literary crown jewels came with incredulity.

“I didn’t think of myself as a writer,” she insisted. “I had no literary ambitions at all, though I’m very literary. I’ve taught literature, and I’m an extremely snobby reader. I love the most demanding writers, but I never saw myself as part of that world and don’t still. It’s inconceivable to me.”

O’Faolain acknowledged her cultural link to melancholic memories and lilting language. We touched on Joyce and Yeats and Shaw, on Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh and Galway Kinnell. And when I asked this Dubliner how tiny, impoverished Ireland came by such huge, rich literary clout, she answered with a huff: “We had nothing else. Everything else requires something: paint or a musical instrument. The Irish were much poorer than anyone cares to remember, bitterly poor, and under political oppression. All of us were oppressed. All of us denied. England conquered Ireland and discriminated against the native Irish in education, religion, commerce, every possible way--all of us,” she said.

“The one thing they had and nobody could control and they didn’t need any money to buy was what they say. The Irish are good talkers.”

O’Faolain most certainly was no exception. We talked fast and long, meandering from one topic to the next, including a heartfelt discussion about our aching love for our ailing, aged dogs—her Molly and my Friday—and our trepidation over the reality of soon losing them.

“I must be there for Molly,” O’Faolain said, fierce.

Having established our common love for canines, the interview morphed into a spirited conversation that seemed to delight her as much as me. She valued discourse.

“Even today [in Ireland], social status and money are not as important as personality and personal charm. In America, people don’t feel the need to tell good stories and use language vigorously and with originality. Americans are confident enough to be boring,” O’Faolain said.

“The Irish are always insecure, always trying to win over people listening to them with charm. The Irish have a different approach to truth. They play with language. They use words differently. They ask more of the listener,” she said.

“There’s a loquaciousness and joy in language, but also a peasant caution. You can talk away, but you use the talking to hide; and you don’t let any real information out.”

With her revelatory memoirs, O’Faolain broke rank with that tradition. At one point in “Almost There”--her second memoir--she confessed to feeling 17 years old. When I pressed her about this admission, she said she actually felt more like eight.

“I’m not grown up. I’m hopelessly immature,” she blurted. “Scrabbling is a reflex. I don’t even want what I’m fighting for, but I’m forced to fight because I was always a child in too big a family. It’s me back with my sisters and brothers with not nearly enough resources.”

“Almost There” includes a poignant case-in-point. The author recalled when a neighbor gave the O’Faolain children a whole block of ice cream. Ignorant of the concept of refrigeration, the kids cached the treat in a cool culvert they called The Secret. Upon their return the next day, the ice cream, of course, had melted.

Such disappointment was grist for O’Faolain’s mill. Though adept at pastoral riffs and colorful yarns, she best translated sorrow. Which is why I thought of Nuala three summers ago when my dog Friday died. I still had her email address, but decided against sharing the sad news--not that she could not take it, but she’d shouldered more than her share of grief. I wondered about Molly.

“Melancholy is a conversion of anger,” Nuala had said to me during our interview. “I’m more angry than I used to be.”

Aware that her books had labeled anger as the Irishwoman’s disease, I asked her, “What gets your Irish up?”

“Right Wing Republicanism does,” she said without missing a beat. “Sneers and insults to women, the idealization of children with all innocence attributed to children. Injustice. Waiting for dinner. Cruelty to animals.”

Despite all the misery she’d survived in Ireland, and all the troubles of Eire, O’Faolain defended her homeland.

“The people are gifted in living,” she said. “They risk themselves all the time. They drink like fish and dance and stay up late. They live intensely. It’s a way of life I’m very attracted to and admire.”

And a way of life she profoundly regretted losing at the not-so-advanced age of 68. Last February, after working out in a New York gym, O’Faolain suffered partial paralysis. Later that day, a doctor diagnosed her with terminal, inoperable lung cancer. O’Faolain underwent radiation, but then rejected chemotherapy. On May 9, after some travels around Europe, after visiting New York one last time to take in a performance of Schubert's “Death and the Maiden,” after checking herself into a Dublin hospice days earlier, O’Faolain died.

In mid-April, just weeks prior to her passing, O’Faolain did an interview with an Irish radio station. By then, cancer had metastasized to her liver and also to her brilliant brain, rendering her unable to concentrate enough to read.

In the tearful and jarringly bleak interview, O’Faolain said, “…twice in my life I have read the whole of Proust…. But I tried again the week before last and it was gone, all the magic was gone from it.”

She said, “It seems such a waste of creation that with each death all that knowledge dies.”

In the despair surrounding dying, she said that even nature had lost its allure: “It amazed me how quickly my life turned black."

No surprise, Nuala’s death has left me blue.

In “Almost There,” O’Faolain wrote, “It is not what you have but what you have lost that links the reader and the writer.”

Reading the online account of the funeral Mass, I noted that O’Faolain’s family had brought her dog to the Dublin church. The dog’s name was not Molly, but Mabel. I wondered whether Nuala had been with Molly at the end, as she had demanded of herself. Whatever the case, the fact that she’d opted for another round of uncomplicated dog love bared her tender heart and evidenced her hope.

Word has it that Nuala O’Faolain’s next book will be published posthumously, in September.

THE ARTS: 17 Questions About Irish Arts for St. Patrick's Day

Credit the Blarney Stone, a lively pub life or all that romantic mist: The Irish tend toward expression. Given the diminutive size of the Emerald Island, perhaps no other nation is a larger powerhouse when it comes to gifting the world with art--particularly music and literature. ‘Tis the test of your knowledge of the influence of the Irish imagination.

1. Enya originally sang with this band:
a) The Commitments
b) MacNamara's Band
c) Clannad
d) Black Velvet Band

2. The following Irishmen won the Nobel Prize for Literature:
a) Samuel Beckett
b) Seamus Heaney
c) George Bernard Shaw
d) William Butler Yeats
e) All of the above

3. This Irish actor was nominated for an Academy Award for his first film role and received four subsequent Oscar nominations:
a) George Clooney
b) Mickey Rooney
c) Andy Rooney
d) Peter O’Toole

4. Van Morrison launched his career as lead singer for this Irish band:
a) U2
b) Them
c) The Commitments
d) The Shamrocks

5. This singer/songwriter wrote the song “I Would Bring You Ireland” in gratitude for hospitality extended on the Emerald Isle to her and her band, the Blue Moon Orchestra:
a) Rosemary Clooney
b) Sinead O’Connor
c) Loreena McKennitt
d) Nancy Griffith

6. Although Irish, this actor plays James Bond, the quintessential Englishman:
a) Sean Connery
b) Roger Moore
c) Timothy Dalton
d) Pierce Brosnan

7. One of these men is not counted among great Irish tenors:
a) Frank Patterson
b) Dennis Day
c) James Galway
d) John McCormack

8. The following artists have recorded with Ireland’s preeminent traditional band, The Chieftains:
a) Marianne Faithful
b) Jackson Browne
c) Elvis Costello
d) Rickie Lee Jones
e) All of the above

9. The writer and wit Oscar Wilde’s full name was:
a) Oscar Guinness Stout Wilde
b) Oscar Flannigan Maddigan Milligan Wilde
c) Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde
d) Oscar Jonathan Swift Wilde

10. An Irish rock band that recorded “Zombie,” “I Can’t Be With You” and “Yeats’ Grave” takes their name from the following fruit:
a) The Raspberries
b) The Strawberries
c) The Loganberries
d) The Cranberries

11) For his performance in “My Left Foot,”--a film about the Christy Brown, a Dubliner afflicted with cerebral palsy who wrote with his left foot--this actor won a Best Actor Oscar:
a) Carroll O’Connor
b) Daniel Day-Lewis
c) Mickey Rourke
d) Eugene O’Neill

12. This Irish band’s signature song was “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” a song about violent strife in Northern Ireland:
a) The Irish Rovers
b) The Boom Town Rats
c) The Screaming Banshees
d) The Clancy Brothers

13. This Irish rocker was knighted for his humanitarian efforts after he played an instrumental role in organizing Band Aid for Ethiopian famine victims:
a) Sir Bob Geldolf
b) Sir Paul McCartney
c) Sir John Gielgud
d) Sir Elton John

14. This Irish chanteuse with the shaved head and strident politics landed the #16 spot on the Rolling Stones/MTV list of top 100 pop songs for her cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U”:
a) Flannery O’Connor
b) Sinead O’Connor
c) Sandra Day O’Connor
d) Georgia O’Keefe

15. This year, this Irish band performed at the Super Bowl and subsequently won four Grammys:
a) The Black and Tans
b) U2
c) St. Brendan and the Navigators
d) The Dead Kennedys

16. Irish monks, whom some credit with salvaging Western Civilization during the Dark Ages, lavishly illuminated this manuscript when? kept in the library of Trinity College in Dublin:
a) The Book of Kells
b) The Book of Bells
c) The Book of Shells
d) The Book of Wells

17. These were the original colors of Ireland:
a) Black and tan
b) Green and orange
c) Green and white
d) Saffron and blue

ANSWERS: 1 c; 2 e; 3 d; 4 b; 5 d; 6 d; 7 c; 8 e; 9 c; 10 d; 11 b ;12 b; 13 a ; 14 b; 15 b ; 16 a ; 17 d

This quiz appeared originally appeared in March 2002 in The Denver Post in slightly different form under the headline “Big Contributions from a Tiny Island.”

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