Birthday Cake


My first job out of college was as a graphic designer at a studio in Arlington, Virginia. On my lunch hour I liked to carry a sandwich and wander the small side streets of Clarendon, which is now practically unrecognizable with its spiffy high-rises, marble-and-stainless-steel condo lofts, and hot night spots. Back then it was an edgy, scruffy (and to me far more interesting) neighborhood of funky, dimly lit antique stores, second-hand bookshops, and family-owned Vietnamese groceries.

In a Vietnamese bakery one day I discovered among the unfamiliar and brightly colored sweets a collection of odd plastic toys meant for…cake decorating? Well, I don’t know, but I bought a bunch of them, and our family has made use of them for years, on birthdays and other occasions. One of them is a rather confused-looking Girl Scout in a semi-seductive pose that my husband likes to put on my cake. Hmm. I don’t know what THAT means.



Memorial Day

From my sketchbook. A visit to the gravesite in Epinal of my mother’s beloved, and only, brother, a pilot shot down over France in 1944.


I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My county is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

—William Butler Yeats
CakeWeddingAriel and Sam

Magic House of Music


For two years my daughter has been taking piano lessons from the artistic and ever-cheerful Emily, whose birthday it is today. And so I post a sketch of Emily’s house, one of the secret magic places in the Federal City—a green and flowery bower even in the whiteness of winter, colorful with painting, sculpture, and pottery from her hand and her travels, cozy with paisley and pillows, and suitably furnished: baby grand in the corner, dog napping on his pillow, cat queening it on the windowsill. To repose here through the Wednesday lesson is to enjoy a brief weekly vacation from stress.

Now it’s time for some music: Happy birthday, dear Emileeee, happy birthday to you!


Last Glimpse of Erin

In honor of his birthday today, a poem by Thomas Moore (1779-1852), and a painting.


Though the last glimpse of Erin with sorrow I see,
Yet wherever thou art shall seem Erin to me;
In exile thy bosom shall still be my home,
And thine eyes make my climate wherever we roam.

To the gloom of some desert or cold rocky shore,
Where the eye of the stranger can haunt us no more,
I will fly with my Coulin, and think the rough wind
Less rude than the foes we leave frowning behind.

And I’ll gaze on thy gold hair as graceful it wreathes,
And hang o’er thy soft harp, as wildly it breathes;
Nor dread that the cold-hearted Saxon will tear
One chord from that harp, or one lock from that hair.

—Thomas Moore

Mystery Tree


One of the projects of our homeschooling Botany block, which we began just before the spring equinox (and which looks like it will continue for a year, if we want to get a rounded view of plant life) has been a Tree Study. My daughter chose a tree in its winter state, down the street on the grounds of the hotel, and we sketched its bare branches and made crayon bark rubbings. Spring arrived; we sketched other, now-budding, even flowering and leafing trees; did other bark rubbings. Our Chosen Tree remained mystifyingly and unashamedly bare in a forest of showy blossoms and new green leaves. Good grief! Was it even ALIVE? Yet the reddish branch tips were springy, not dry.

One day the tips seemed a bit longer. The next day more so. Still no green, but increasingly long. Finally each tip gently opened to reveal a glimpse of…GREEN! Then, long clusters of large, fresh leaves unrolled themselves day by day, impossibly, from the formerly slender twiggy tips. In a few days the tree bore a bright and bushy yellow-green crown wider than it was high, well worth the wait. We sketched it in its new glory. Some of you must be familiar with this type of tree, but I only recognize a handful of varieties. Our neighbor Jason, seeing the sketch, revealed its identity: it is a hornbeam.


In honor of the birthday of Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) I post this sketch of my daughter in her ballet costume, drawn about 7 years ago. I was surprised to see how many quick sketches I had made over the years of my daughter dancing, in various costumes, trailing scarves and capes and, in one case, a large feather duster. I don’t think Isadora Duncan made use of feather dusters. However, she really did have a troupe of students named the Isadorables.


CakeWeddingJana and Tom

To Ellen, At The South

A May bouquet from my sketchbook.


Ellen, a poet herself, shares a birthday with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) so it seemed appropriate to post this poem for the two of them today. Except that Ellen is actually At The North.

To Ellen, At The South

The green grass is growing,
The morning wind is in it,
‘Tis a tune worth the knowing,
Though it change every minute.

‘Tis a tune of the spring,
Every year plays it over,
To the robin on the wing,
To the pausing lover.

O’er ten thousand thousand acres
Goes light the nimble zephyr,
The flowers, tiny feet of shakers,
Worship him ever.

Hark to the winning sound!
They summon thee, dearest, Saying;
“We have drest for thee the ground,
Nor yet thou appearest.

“O hasten, ‘tis our time,
Ere yet the red summer
Scorch our delicate prime,
Loved of bee, the tawny hummer.

“O pride of thy race!
Sad in sooth it were to ours,
If our brief tribe miss thy face,—
We pour New England flowers.

“Fairest! choose the fairest members
Of our lithe society;
June’s glories and September’s
Show our love and piety.

“Thou shalt command us all,
April’s cowslip, summer’s clover
To the gentian in the fall,
Blue-eyed pet of blue-eyed lover.

“O come, then, quickly come,
We are budding, we are blowing,
And the wind which we perfume
Sings a tune that’s worth thy knowing.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson


(Maybe by this time next year I can find one for Jeannie.)


Busy Beaver

From my sketchbook (drawn across the gutter; sorry).


On a Memorial Day weekend hike through beautiful Prince William Forest Park in Virginia a few years ago, we saw many tree stumps ending in chewed points, surrounded by piles of wood chips, indicating the presence of beavers. And when we reached the creek, we did see several beavers, as well as a substantial beaver dam. What I couldn’t understand was why the stumps were so FAR from the water. A mystery.

Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 1

This is a drawing of Trifolium repens (Three leaves, creeping), otherwise known as white clover, from our Botany block. My daughter has been growing her very own patch of it in the garden, and it’s doing a lot better than the arugula.

I post this drawing because Trifolium repens was personally given its name by none other than…the Prince of Binomial Nomenclature.


Wouldn’t Prince of Binomial Nomenclature be an awesome title for a work of sophisticated tween fantasy literature? An unknown yet gifted Swedish youth—the future Prince—ventures forth into the wilderness, despite the objections of his parents, to make discoveries that change thenceforth the way we look at relationships among all living things on Earth, and founds the Grand Kingdom of Binomial Nomenclature.

This is actually a TRUE story. Today is the birthday of Carl, or Carolus, Linnaeus (1707-1778), who grew up in Stenbrohult, Sweden, in a village surrounded by farmland, woods, and mountains, a made-to-order environment for a future naturalist. But his father and grandfather were both country pastors, and they expected little Carl would follow in their footsteps, so his parents hired a tutor for his pastor-preparatory education.

Carl, however, showed from an early age a distinct inclination to wander off looking at plants. Exasperated, his family sent him away at age nine to a school in town, where classes ran from 6 am to 5 pm and consisted of studying Latin, Greek, and the Bible. Astonishingly, this did nothing to increase Linnaeus’ passion for school (although the Latin came in handy later, as we shall see). Often he skipped class to explore the fields, examining flowers. The only subjects he liked were logic and physics, taught by the town doctor, who lent him books and persuaded Linnaeus’ parents to let him become a doctor instead of a clergyman—this was an age when almost all medicines were plant-based, so knowledge of them was extremely useful—and offered him anatomy and physiology studies until he was ready for University. A doctor! What a crushing disappointment! But they reluctantly agreed.

Linnaeus enrolled first at Lund University, where his father had studied. No one there taught his real interest, botany, but he was befriended by a professor with botany books in his personal library, from which Linnaeus taught himself. When Linnaeus transferred to the University at Uppsala for its botanical gardens, his parents withdrew their financial support. You’re on your own, you little botanist.

So poor that he suffered from malnutrition and patched his shoes with paper, Linnaeus would have withdrawn from school if not for a fortunate meeting with a theology professor who was so taken with Linnaeus’ botanical knowledge that he offered him room and board and found him tutoring work. Grateful, Linnaeus thanked him with the gift of a paper he had written on pollination. Not your typical present (“Happy birthday! I wrote you a paper on pollination!”), but I guess he knew his recipient.

Why pollination? Well, Linnaeus was troubled by the popular methods of plant classification and had begun to ponder a new system. Classification of organisms was hardly a new concept, dating back at least to Aristotle, but naturalists differed on how it ought to be done, and several different systems existed. Was it to be by form? By function? By environment? (One system grouped beavers with fish, because both live in water. For a while the Catholic church permitted beaver to be eaten on fast days. That must have made the Jesuits’ work easier in North America.) What about the problem of naming? The same plant or animal was given a multitude of names in different countries. And what about the absolute flood of new, unfamiliar flora and fauna arriving from expeditions to the Americas? It was overwhelming.

Linnaeus’ paper explained a theory he had developed about the roles of stamens and pistils in plants. The professor, impressed, had it read at the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, and, although Linnaeus was still a student, he was offered a position as a botanical lecturer. His talks drew hundreds of listeners, many times the usual number. This was partly due to the controversial nature of the subject of plant reproduction (a new, hot topic) and partly due to Linnaeus’ unusually poetic and anthropomorphic descriptions of his plant subjects’ structure and habits. “The actual petals of the flower contribute nothing to generation, serving only as bridal beds,” he said. And, “It is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and surrender his gifts to her.” That’s my kind of botany class! No wonder he brought in the crowds. Nowadays we can usually mention stamens in public without causing a shiver of excitement. (Correct me if I am wrong here.)

Please see Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 2