Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for March 2nd, 2023


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I went down to Great Hills Park on February 21st for two main reasons: to check out the damage the ice storm had done three weeks earlier, and to see whether tokens of spring had appeared in the recent warm days. Just as at our house half a mile away, the weight of ice had felled many tree limbs and even entire trees, particularly Ashe junipers, in the park. I almost didn’t recognize a few places, so heavy was the damage.

At the same time, the sub-freezing temperatures had quickly given way to mostly warm days, with temperatures on a few of them even climbing above 80°F. The calendar notwithstanding, this was already botanical spring. One sign of it that I sought out was an elbowbush I know, Forestiera pubescens, a reliably early blossomer in Austin. If anything, I proved to be on the late side, with the bush’s flowers already a little past their prime. And speaking of blossoms, if someone asked you to think of a typical flower, you’d very likely imagine one with petals. Don’t all flowers have petals? Actually not, as the elbowbush proves.

Sometimes a plant has more of something than you expect: I just learned from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website that other vernacular names for this species are stretchberry, spring herald, desert olive, tanglewood, devil’s elbow, spring goldenglow, New Mexico privet, and Texas forsythia. Elbowbush is the only name I’ve ever heard anyone in Austin use.

Even if the elbowbush in Great Hills Park had passed its flowering prime, I was still happy to find it doing its thing. So was a juniper hairstreak butterfly, Callophrys gryneus.





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The other day I came across a collection of essays by Theodore Dalrymple called Our Culture, What’s Left of It. I found it not in a bookstore or on the website of an online bookseller but in my living room. When and where I bought the book, and how I’d first heard about it, I can’t recall. Sic transit memoria mundi. Call me a literary squirrel, stashing away written acorns to be dug up and devoured in another season.

In any case, I randomly read several of the essays, and I quickly learned that the guy knows how to write and to think. Here are a few quotations:

From an essay comparing the art of Mary Cassatt (favorably) to the late works of Joan Miró (unfavorably): “In the history of art, unlike that of science, what comes after is not necessarily better than what came before.”

From the essay “How to Read a Society,” written in 2000, which includes a discussion of the long history of despotism in Russia, first under the tsars and then under communism: “If it was difficult for a visitor to find anything to eat impromptu in Moscow, Havana, Tirana, Bucharest, or Pyongyang, it took little effort to understand the connection of this difficulty with the vulgar anti-commercialism of Saint Karl [Marx] and Saint Vladimir [Lenin]. Indeed, it would have taken all the ingenuity of the cleverest academics not to have understood it.”

In the next paragraph, discussing the Marquis de Custine, who visited Russia in 1839: “Writing before the development of modern ‘scientific’  sociology, whose achievement has been to obscure by means of statistical legerdemain the importance of human consciousness, Custine analyzed Russian society by reference to the psychology of the individuals who made it up. His work is a supreme example of the subtle interplay between the abstract information about a political system and the imaginative entry into the worldview of the people who live in it that is necessary for the understanding of any society.”

Writing about how Custine as a boy had lived through the excesses of the French Revolution: “No doubt Custine’s family history and upbringing had heightened his acuity. His grandfather was a liberal aristocrat who became a general in the revolutionary army, but whom the Jacobins guillotined as not sufficiently devoted to the cause. Custine’s father went to the guillotine for having tried to defend him. Custine’s mother, imprisoned as an enemy of the people for having tried to defend her husband, narrowly escaped execution herself, largely because one of the revolutionary fanatics who arrested her fell in love with her. Astolphe de Custine was brought up for a time by a faithful servant, living in penury with her in the only room of the Custine home that had not been looted and sealed off by Jacobin zealots and thieves. Such a background was likely to produce a man aware of the deep subterranean currents in life and not easily deceived by appearances. The evils of envy and hatred masquerading as humanitarian idealism had darkened his life from its outset, stamping him as a man quick to search for the reality behind the expression of fine sentiments.”

Look at that 20-year foreshadowing of what’s taking hold today: “the evils of envy and hatred masquerading as humanitarian idealism.” Dalrymple goes on to compare Custine’s writings about Russia to those of his contemporary confrère Alexis de Tocqueville about America. I see that Dalrymple’s whole essay is available online, so you’re welcome to read it. In fact many more of his essays are available on the City Journal website. Probably that’s how I first heard about him.



© 2023 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 2, 2023 at 4:28 AM

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