Saturday, June 29, 2013

Home Sweet Home

Today is the culmination of  "Old Home Week" in our village, which includes the best parade you can get hereabouts.. Sadly, it's looking like a washout. It's been pelting down with rain for  - oh I don't know, weeks and weeks. Four years ago, it was a much sunnier day, so here's a report I did then.....

  I just love American parades.    Our village of Allegany was advertising something called “Old Home Week”. I was a bit hazy about what it meant but there was going to be a parade, on the Saturday evening, right through the village. “C’mon”, I said to hubby “we’ve got to see this”.  He looked slightly reluctant, as an American brought up on parades of every shape and size would be, but he relented and off we went to take up position on the high street, which, in America is called “Main Street”. Ours still has some nostalgia value, with quaint, flat-fronted shop fronts in pretty colours, now mostly bars catering for the students at the Franciscan university, a white-fenced war memorial and a town hall topped by a cupola.
    People were already lining the streets, well-prepared, as Americans always are, in their camp chairs with the holes in the arms for drinking cups, one chap with an alert Jack Russell  sitting on his lap. 

Children perched along the kerb. A balloon-seller with armfuls of inflated snakes, frogs and jet planes walked up and down, passing a lady dressed as a turquoise Statue of Liberty. Everyone’s eyes were fixed to the bit of Main Street between the cemetery and the university, where the parade was due to start from and where a perspiring cop was patiently diverting traffic.
  Next thing, there was a choir of police sirens and police cars came crawling along, their contents smiling and waving and throwing sweets to the children, followed by a fire engine, all scarlet and chrome and gleam, followed by another fire engine and another and another.  Every fire engine from every village for miles around, from Humphrey, from Portville, from Franklinville, from Eldred Township and Clarksville was in the parade,  all full of volunteer firemen (and women) and their families, flying banners proclaiming “Pride is our Pay” and all raining sweets. Like flocks of birds, kids rushed in waves into the road to grab their booty, revelling, for once, in officially sanctioned hazardous activity. 

   Then came the pipes and drums of a local police band, resplendent in kilts and sporrans, puffing away at “Scotland the Brave” and the Marine Hymn. 
  Then more firemen, marching this time, in white uniform caps and little Irish dancers in ringletted wigs, teetering precariously on a tractor trailer driven by a boy who didn’t look much older and the Williams Antique Tractor Pulling Team and  the band from the Kinney Hose Company of Weston Mills. The parade stalled for a moment as parades do, then “Hup!” said the band leader and they were off again.
    There were people walking an assortment of dogs of every shape and size, each mutt sporting a Stars and Stripes bandana.  My Jack Russell neighbour jumped up and pricked his ears.
    Then, inexplicably, came a clutch of grizzled men in tiny go-karts, buzzing frantically to and fro like wasps. They stopped in a neat line at the war memorial and saluted.
  Then more fire engines and yet more fire engines, from Limestone, Great Valley, Hinsdale and faraway Cuba  (Cuba, New York, that is) – and the token banner from McDonalds.
  And lastly, a bunch of cowboys on skittish horses, with two little girls called Courtney and Chardonnay, riding bareback on a chestnut pony with hearts and arrows painted on its sides.
  Everyone was still throwing sweets. The kids next to me were saturated, their mother trying to palm off handfuls of tootsie rolls to another family, “No really thanks, we’re done!”

 I still wasn’t much the wiser about Old Home Week. Perhaps, in the past, it meant people coming back from the city to their home village. These days, for Allegany at any rate,  it’s become a fundraiser for the volunteer firemen who provide their unpaid services for many of rural western New York’s outlying villages. Anyway, what the hey, it’s a chance for a bit of heart-stirring, along with hot dogs, toffee apples, a water rodeo (a water fight to you and me but sadly we missed it) and some village gossip. I don’t know why America does this sort of thing so well but it does - and even hubby enjoyed it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Garden Horror Show Part 2: Caterpillar Update

** Those of a squeamish disposition, look away now ** 

   Meanwhile, back home, not all is rosy...
   It’s been a constant refrain with me, after coming from London to these rural American parts, “Nature always wins in the end”.   Let’s see. Slugs munching the petunias,  rabbits nibbling the daffodils, squirrels excavating bulbs,  bees drilling holes in the porch roof,  woodchucks digging tunnels,  turkeys stealing the blueberries, chipmunks stealing the  blueberries (and digging tunnels),  deer eating the rhododendrons, no, hang on, deer eating everything and mosquitoes biting my limbs off.  
   I thought I’d seen it all.   I hadn’t.  You see, with all those minor nuisances,  something can, in theory,  be done. There are nets, there are traps, there are sprays, there are high fences, there are invisible fences, there are slug pellets, there are dogs, there are, not to beat about the bush, shotguns.  Except in the possible case of the latter, none of these actually work very well but at least you can have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re  doing something, however pathetic.   It’s still a losing battle but you can put up a fight and somehow keep things going till the end of the summer.
    This is not the case with Gypsy Moth caterpillars.  As I wrote previously, we are in the midst of a plague,  one of such gargantuan proportions that even those poor saps in the Bible would quake at the sight of it.

The misery of a nearly-naked oak  tree
    Since I last mentioned it, things have only got worse. Having stripped the oak trees, they've moved on to the poplars.

Up we go, lads!
 Everywhere, they're shinning up trunks, tightrope-walking branches, hanging down like hairy mobiles from long threads and every last, sad leaf still clinging to life harbours at least three of the brutes, systematically chomping away. I've seen them on the flowers, the fruit trees, the ground, the walls,even inside, trying to get into my bed. Exit the front door and you collide with them, swingling from the gutters. 
   We've also found that in America, the land of hard work and free enterprise, not one local business was prepared to come and spray our trees.   We talked to our neighbour, who owns a lumber company and knows something about trees.  “I saw it coming last year”, he said helpfully, “There were eggs all over the place”.  And he added, even more helpfully, “There’s nothing to be done. Except spraying from the air. And even that doesn’t work.”  Apparently the last time they tried it, the caterpillars just brought reinforcements.
  And our neighbour the bison rancher said he'd been on the blower to Cornell University to get some advice. The only thing they could tell him was that the moths "blew in on the wind". Well we have had a lot of wind.
  A website I looked at suggested putting some sticky goo on the trees. But if you got any on you, that was it. It would never come off. Ever.   In the end, hubby rigged up something with the hose,  so we could at least spray the lower branches. And there's the burlap trick - wrap some burlap soaked in insecticide and watch the beasts walk on it to their doom. In theory.  So far, the only change is that the caterpillars are getting bigger.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Western New York Idyll: Roadside Scenes

Our lane, early on a June morning, capturing the sun's rays and a glimpse of the ubiquitous overhead cables that dot our neighbourhood in Heath Robinson-like complexity. That's part of the reason why we have so many power cuts.

Down in the valley, a layer of mist hangs over the Five Mile Baptist Church, so-called because it's on the Five Mile Road, so called because it runs alongside the Five Mile Creek, which is American for stream. The creek so called, I'm told  because it's five miles from the next creek intersecting the Allegheny River. Lost already? It was a while before I learned that; I used to puzzle over the road because it goes on for a lot longer than five miles. As for the church, it's got a flourishing congregation, the large car park impressively full for Sunday services. In the background, hills where there was once a ski area, now closed and overgrown.

Some encouraging new growth. That delicate green is one of my favourite botanical sights.

These roadside flowers, an elusively delicate scent, are disappearing now, making way for buttercups and daisies. In May and early June they were quite glorious, though of course the best patches - whole banks of them - were by the motorway, where it's hard to take a photograph. They are the subject of some dispute;  Hubby says they are phlox, a friends insists they're called dame's rocket.

I've tried in vain to dig some up and plant them in the garden but they won't be told what to do. Sometimes, though, they appear of their own accord.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

And Family Day in the Garden


..... and today

Wow! I wonder what they're on!

NB "Garden" in the British sense. I wouldn't like you to think I'm eating 'em.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Family Day at Buffalo Marina

And the other day a huge gaggle of them flew over our house - we're used to this as we're under the flight path but this lot were lower than usual and seemed to be a little lost. They disappeared over the trees, then banked and turned and came back and then back again before they decided where they'd like to be going. Perhaps they felt like giving us an air show.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Beautiful Moon

Taken outside our front door at about 9pm last night, on or around the longest day of the year and proof to my British friends that our summer days are indeed shorter and winter days longer than back home. With our much harsher winters here, I often forget that we're actually further south.
   It's muggy weather at the moment and at night, the fireflies are out in force, dancing in the dark, whirling and twinkling, dashing and flashing on and off, appearing and disappearing and appearing again somewhere else - a fantastic show, worthy of some swanky art installation at the Tate Modern. Apparently, close to, they are ungainly things, so better just to imagine them.  A neighbour tells how, they would call them "lightning bugs" and as children, they would catch them in jars and use them as lanterns. 

Update:  Caught on camera!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Oh Deer

    Spot the difference. Is this the same fella/gal? The ears look similar. Nice to see a deer eating someone else's greenery for a change, in this case on the Allegheny River Trail (I still can't get used to that strange American word for "path"), which is a good bet for a pleasant saunter around our local town, Olean.
  I have a love-hate relationship with white tail deer. The first time I visited then-to-be hubby in Western New York, one snowy January, we drove through the State Park and watched a bunch of them romantically cantering through the snow alongside the car. Probably ordered by hubby specially, along with the crisp, white, picture-postcard snow itself, to persuade me that WNY may not be Manhattan but has its bright spots.
 When I go for my morning run up our lane, I always sort of hope to see one popping out of the mist and tap-dancing across the road, little hooves clicking. Once, on the Allegheny trail, we saw a mother with triplet fawns obediently following. Nothing could be sweeter. nd I'll never forget the stately, antlered buck who took refuge in our back garden one hunting season, strolling nonchalantly through as though he owned the place. He knew full well, of course, that you're not allowed to shoot near a house.
  But when they crash into my car or eat all my bushes, I want to throttle the beasts. There are, in truth, far too many of them, not just in Cattaraugus County but in America. They are even infiltrating the Washington suburbs. And I suppose you can't blame them for being hungry.  I have a vague idea that the fact that you can't buy venison in the shops unless you shoot your own under severe restrictions, may have something to do with it. It's an arguable point that the deer are being protected to death.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

At Last Some Good WNY Gardening News

Handsome, eh?

And the bleeding heart's flowered for the first time. Well only one row but still......

Monday, June 17, 2013

Adventures With a Boat Part 2

 This year we got to Buffalo Marina without mishap. Titanic ll quite likes her summer home, though she has to sharea berth  with a rather overweight speedboat. While hubby does the technical stuff (I do help to haul the mast up), I go for a wander along the marina.  The marina should be one of the most beautiful places in Buffalo but it's actually a Lost Opportunity. Hundreds of people converging every summer weekend to laze in lawn chairs and watch the boats and the world go by and nowhere to buy a decent coffee. The one small, greasy spoon has a bleak, never-changing menu and stops serving breakfast, its only decent offering, at 10.30. There is one restaurant that rejoices in a monopoly and blares out obnoxious loud music all day, just when you're trying to communicate with your spouse at the boat ramp.  What this marina needs is a bit of free enterprise - a few stalls selling good coffee, barbecue, baked potatoes, even ice cream. Anything that would provide competition. But in New York State, places run by the government (Niagara Falls park is another) things are tightly controlled. You might as well be in the old USSR.
Speaking of which....

 This building, further along at the end of the marina, is probably the ugliest sight in Western New York. I can't imagine what kind of lunatic designed it and what other lunatics allowed it to be built. But hey, it's our tax dollars at work!
  But from the top, up several sets of grim, concrete steps, redolent of a London sink council estate, there is a rather nice view.  Of Buffalo's city hall in the haze. Far too big now for the declining city. Stalin gothic crossed with art deco but it has a certain magnificence. To the right of it is the second ugliest building in Western New York. According to hubby, who's been in there, the long thin, narrow, inset windows harbour legions of spiders and are impossible to clean.

In another direction, you can just see the skyway, another misconceived gem of city planning, which hampers  any kind of attractive development along the lakefront. There's talk of it being pulled down. A very good idea. In the foreground nestle our boat docks.

And from another side, you can see Canada. The brown water is mud churned up by the river which flows into the lake.

 And from the fourth side - that's where we'll be once hubby finished the rigging.

 We have to share the marina with all and sundry...

 And boats with peculiar names like "Sea's The Moment", "Knot Work" and this one, which raced us out.

 But once out, we're free as birds, except for the occasional powerboat shooting across our bows. This one was polite and slowed down. A rare occurrence. Miscreants have been warned; they will be named and shamed on these pages.

Typical Lake Erie chop but a beautiful day nevertheless.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Adventures with a Boat Part 1

 Our annual springtime ritual was very late this year, due to complex travelling and nasty weather.  We take our little sailing boat, which I have named Titanic ll, up to Lake Erie for the summer. (Hubby doesn't know that this is the boat's name; he calls it something else. The reason for the moniker is because he has assured me several times that it's unsinkable. "I've heard that somewhere before", I say. It does have a lifeboat though.)
   We don’t live in an ideal spot for a frustrated mariner. The nearest expanse of water is our neighbour’s pond but it’s not quite big enough. Lake Erie is pretty big – it can take a week to sail from one end to the other. But Lake Erie is an hour-and-a-half away. 
  The journey, started very early this morning, took us through misty country lanes, dodging a few deer, scampering across the road.

There were fields...

....and roadside streams...

.....and little Western New York towns that have seen better days.

They have names like Holland, Sardinia, Wales and Yorkshire - quite a world tour. And ruined barns and a .
drive-in cinema, which I keep trying to persuade hubby to take me to before it closes. Amazing that it's still in business.

I'm always relieved to see the boat still following our venerable Volvo estate, bouncing doggedly over the potholes like a dowager hanging onto her hat.  Eventually we got to our destination, Buffalo, on which more later.

     All in all, it was much less eventful than the same journey a couple of years ago. That occasion too, started OK.  Until we stopped at a lay-by, to check that the boat hadn’t come adrift, got back in the Volvo (a previous incarnation) and started it up.  It wouldn’t move.  Unhitching it proved that the trouble wasn’t in the cars brakes, which squealed terribly but usually worked – but in the trailer’s. They had totally jammed.
   Inevitably, I’d forgotten to charge up the mobile phone. Leaving the boat and trailer in the lay-by (this is Western New York, not the Bronx – they’d be safe) we made for the nearest village to look for a mechanic. It was a holiday weekend but, this being rural America, where most hamlets have at least three car repair shops of varying stages of decrepitude, of which at least one will have signs of life, we finally commandeered a rescue vehicle. 
  The chap got out, looked at our trailer, scratched his head, gave it a kick and lo-and-behold, it moved. Typically, this good Western New Yorker turned down a chance to make a fortune from insisting he’d have to tow away trailer, boat and possibly car as well. Instead, he assured us we’d get to Buffalo just fine, with the small proviso that, if the brakes seized up again, we’d have to reverse a yard or so and then go forward.  The catch is that western New York roads are full of bumps. There is a bump every few yards.  And every time the trailer hit a bump, the brakes jammed. And every time the brakes jammed, we had to stop and reverse. You get the picture. We finally made it to the lake by late that evening. The rest of the operation of huffing and puffing and heaving and winching was a breeze in comparison. Well I suppose it helped me grasp what the old pioneers had to put up with.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Update: Goodbye Washington

For now.  I leave you with more stately buildings...

More oddities.... The Carnegie Library undeservedly getting the finger.

More old and new..

Benjamin Franklin outside the Old Post Office. I wonder what he'd make of the times we live in.

The Washington Monument still not quite recovered from the 2011 earthquake

And a piano in a swimming pool.

In our conference hotel. All is not what it seems. This is rather shallow to be a swimming pool and I think is meant to be a Blue Lagoon, where you can dine on extremely small portions of extremely healthy food while getting ill through the back door, shivering in the air conditioning. Unnecessary air conditioning - blasting out an arctic gale when it's a normal pleasant warm day outside - is one of my few real beefs about America. That and waiting staff who don't leave you alone. I noticed that in the other restaurant in the hotel they're actually given training on "interacting" with the customers. Other hotel staff smile so much that they can barely talk through it.  As in most expense account places they blithely charge ten dollars for the most basic internet but when hubby begged for a microwave to heat up his breakfast porridge the whole gargantuan building, which goes down as many floors as it goes up, getting colder all the time, couldn't come up with one. Stay in a cheap and cheerful motel, where people are actually paying their own bills and you get a virtually identical room, free Wi-fi and free breakfast. For half the price. That's America, the land of opportunity.

Update: On my return I wrote the following for my regular column for the Catholic Times in Britain. I've abridged it slightly ....

  It may only be a short flight away but Washington DC  is light years from our home in rural Western New York.
  The  nation’s capital bristles with monuments,  embassies  and grandiose government buildings on  spacious streets .........   Where there was once a mosquito-ridden swamp, there are now neat, green parks and earnest, smartly-dressed people, many in comfortable government jobs, riding to work on the  “Metro”, the stark, clinical underground train system, which couldn’t be more different from the cheerful, smelly, chaotic  London Underground if it tried.  Tourists converge in gaggles,  visiting the great museums of the Smithsonian Institution. A recent report said that some of the Washington suburbs are now among the most affluent parts of the country. The beltway – Washington’s version of the M25 around the city - certainly has the worst rush-hour traffic  I’ve ever seen.
   I first visited Washington in the 1970s, long before I met my American husband and came to live in the States.  I remember that it was relatively easy then to do the tour of the White House. No one got too uptight about security.  (And in the even older days, Presidents would have a regular “open house”,  letting every Tom, Dick and Harry who wanted to come in and petition them.  Not very practical, as they eventually realised).
   Downtown Washington is still an enormously popular tourist destination. Crocodiles of schoolchildren are everywhere, in identically coloured T-shirts,  presumably so they don’t get lost. Marshalled by harassed teachers, they’re learning about their nation’s heritage.  One of the biggest queues I saw was outside Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Opposite is the house where he died, next to it souvenir emporia and “Lincoln’s Waffle Shop”.    Presidential assassinations,  successful or attempted,  are unfortunately  recurring landmarks throughout America’s story.
   But some things have changed since I first saw Washington. There are spanking new museums, including one, the “Newseum”, which, I’ve noted, manages to recount the history of newsgathering while hardly mentioning the BBC but that’s possibly just my British prejudice.  The Newseum has,  emblazoned in giant letters on its fa├žade,  the words of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  You know, the one that talks about Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion.  America, after all, is known as a bastion of freedom.
   So it’s ironic that the other big difference I’ve noticed from my first visit to Washington,  is a massively enhanced security presence.  Police cars are everywhere. The White House, these days, is a virtual no-go area. And walking past one government building, I was astonished to see  a man with a mirror on a stick, checking the undersides of cars as they drove in.  I had no idea that happened in America.
  And indeed, while I was in Washington last week,  the debate over  freedom and security was very much in the news, with the breaking story that government agencies had been hoovering up swathes of  private individuals’ phone and internet records, allegedly  in the interests of national safety. 
  Whatever the rights and wrongs, many people I spoke to were shocked to hear about it and some were very angry.  It may help fight terrorism, they said, but at what price? Was it really the “American Way”? While others bemoaned that it was simply a sad reflection of our times and the  American Way had to move with them. The rumpus is unlikely to go away any time soon.
  The same goes for recent revelations that the Internal Revenue Service, America’s taxman, deliberately targetted for special scrutiny conservative groups that opposed the Obama administration’s policies.   
    The big debate is how all this squares with the words of the Constitution  so proudly displayed on the Newseum.    Is America still the Land of the Free – or just the Sort of Free?
     As I walked through Washington, I noticed the Washington Monument, the tall obelisk damaged in the earthquake of 2011. It’s still shrouded in scaffolding.  And I wondered what the first President would make of the days we live in now.