Friday, 26 October 2012


 Well thank you all so much for visiting, after my last, rather self-pitying post.  By your hits, I'm inspired to continue.

Gardening soon - but first . . . a post mortem on our amazing American trip.  And if any of it seems negative, that is absolutely NOT intended.  I'd go back and carry on hoofing round that great country in a moment.  And if I were invited to live in San Francisco, I think I'd go.

Now then, ahem,
After a longish trip to any country, it takes time to distil memories of all the experiences and bundle them into a general impression.  So when friends ask 'how was America' the answer is usually a lame retort such as 'fantastic' or 'wonderful' or 'fascinating.'

Cables holding up Brooklyn Bridge.  You can walk over the bridge, but expect to be run down by bicycles.  Click on pix to enlarge.  (There may be a 'pictures only post,' later, when I've sorted the fancy ones.)

 Surprising as it may seem, travel often reinforces prejudices, so you have to force yourself to keep re-opening your mind.  Bumbling along in a series of trains, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, I found myself searching for people, places, attitudes and ambiences that would enable me to say, 'Aha – this is truly America.'   That didn't happen.

 At times, I could hardly believe this was the same country as the one I lived in for four years, back in the 1960s.  I wanted to read the runes, take the pulse, measure progress and note significant changes.  But getting a grip on such a vast and diverse nation is more challenging than knitting a sweater with spaghetti noodles and I came away as perplexed as I was enlightened. 

There's so much paradox!  On the one hand, the United States presents a model of democracy and governance, along with a robust judicial system, that sets a shining example to the world.  On the other, health cover for a substantial portion of the population is hopelessly inadequate.  Libraries, some of the universities – especially one's alma mater Cornell – and museums are among the finest on earth, and yet I was told that some 30 million Americans lack basic literacy skills.  Can it be that many? 

Then there's capital punishment – a barbarous and brutal practice, to most people in Europe. And what about those bizarre gun laws? And the suspiciously hefty influence on government from fundamentalist religions and from big business. That must be a worry.

 A poster in Sonoma, California.  The obvious solution is to have oodles of both.

 You won't want to be bored with too much detail and anyway, this blog is supposed to dwell on gardenish things.   But before returning to rants about cooking apples, badger bashing and other blights, here's a goodie basket of 'impressions' whose flavours still linger on the palate.  I'll give you ten, picked at random...

1.  I love the way good American restaurants take breakfast as seriously as dinner.  Well-made pancakes, maple syrup, thin, crisp streaky bacon, genuinely fresh orange juice and as much excellent coffee as you can take all help to make the day's first meal as pleasurable and sociable as posh wining and dining.  British breakfasts, even when the food is good, tend to accompanied by brutish monosyllables and slurps of coffee..

2.  The Presidential Election is neck and neck.  And yet those who most desperately need a Democrat government, not to mention a healthy dose liberalism, seem the least likely to vote for Obama.  Even the word 'liberal', to the uneducated, is synonymous with Marxist.  Talk about turkeys giving a thumbs up for Christmas!

3.  As in Europe, everything seems to be made in China.

 Retired bikers in Colorado.

4.  Detroit is still churning out the most frightful vehicles – pick-up trucks the size of furniture lorries, SUV's of spectacular vulgarity and still quite a few big, smoochy things which look more suitable for sleeping in, rather than driving.

5.   When your train trundles gently through the mid-West, from Chicago to Denver, you realise what a huge country this is.  But it's surprising to see how few people actually live out of town.  There isn't the dotting of villages that you'd see in, say, Hampshire or Champagne.

6.  America has a staggering diversity of oaks, some evergreen, others deciduous; some less than a metre high, others huge; some with long, pointy acorns, others with snub-noses.  Oaks are a significant landscape feature across the country.

 A tasteful restaurant sign in Silverton, Colorado.

7. Tipping – possibly America's worst vice.  In the 1960s, one tipped waiters etc. roughly 10% of the bill.  Today, you're expected to cough up 20%.  In some restaurants, they helpfully add the gratuity to your bill without asking, as an item at the bottom, but when you pay, your bill will not only list the gratuity but will also leave space for you to add another tip on top of the gratuity.  A TAXI DRIVER will sit in his cab without moving so much as an eyelash to help, while you struggle with your luggage, but he will still expect a tip.  Tips, across the nation, blew our travel budget to pieces.

8. Americans fly an awful lot of flags.  They're everywhere - a bit excessive, but perhaps we should wave ours a little more - and I mean the Union Flag, not that blue thing with a ring of stars.

9. The scenic regions of this continent - the Rockies, the High Plains, the woods in West Virginia and above all, the Californian Sierra Nevada are all movingly beautiful.  See the Grand Canyon if you like – and it sure is impressive – but so much of America is infinitely more lovely and nearly as grand.  And the Mississippi River, which I've now seen at both ends, so to speak, is awfully big.

10.  I think I really have left my heart in San Francisco.  Of all cities, it's the one in which I feel most relaxed, inspired and contented – excluding Fishermans' Wharf.

A squirrel in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

I'm listening to Rossini's Stabat Mater

On this day in 1985  I swept a chimney which had begun to smoke badly, possibly because of jackdaw nests in the flue.  An enormous pile of twigs, string and other 'jackdaw' treasures came tumbling down - enough to fill a large wheelbarrow.  My diary says 'I lit an experimental fire after clearing up – it went beautifully with not a trace of smoke anywhere.'  And to think we'd paid to have a chimney sweep in.  No wonder I bought my own rods and brushes and took over the task myself.

This week's film was La Haine a masterpiece made in the 1990s by Mathieu Kassovitz about fear and loathing in the Paris suburbs. Brilliantly shot, slickly acted and immaculately edited, it's all the better for a second viewing and is one of the privileged DVDs to be stored, not in our general DVD heap but on THE SHELVES, in our telly room.  (To have a place on THE SHELVES is quite something.  Bergman's Seventh Seal, Welles's Citizen Kane and of course Casablanca are also on THE SHELVES.

Oh dear – another hideously long blog.  Thanks so much, if you managed to get this far!

Thursday, 11 October 2012


Well, folks, I think we're getting close to the end of the line in more than one sense.

The PG and I fly home tomorrow morning at some hideous hour so future blog posts – if there are any more – will be back to the usual rants about the exasperations of British gardening, the countryside and whatever else seems of import.

I say 'if there are any more' because readership has slumped alarmingly, since we left the UK.  A total of 43 of you have checked out the last post.  That's a ten-fold drop on earlier, UK-based posts and is the first one that has failed to invite a single comment.  So we'll see how things go, over the next few weeks.  Perhaps I should do more reading, less writing and give everyone a break.

Meadows bordering the Merced River at Yosemite, in the Sierra Nevada.  The colours and background, apart from the mountain, looked exactly as they do in the film Bambi. The trees are mostly ponderosa pine, incense cedar and live (evergreen) oak.  (Click on pics to enlarge.)

Meanwhile, I promised to mention our last big event which was to hike for three days in the Yosemite National Park.  

The forest in Tuolumne County - part of the Yosemite National Park. The big sequoias grow in this area

The Sierra Nevada is a spectacularly beautiful mountain range and the Yosemite National Park has some of the stateliest peaks, grandest rock formations and the most interesting wildlife.  We admired the big sequoias, though the trees are not as massive as I expected, and are certainly not looking in the best of health.  But the forest in which they grow is magnificent.  Sugar pines and Douglas firs grow huge, here and wherever there's a glade or a low-lying spot, lupins, rudbeckias, irises, Veratrum, Smilacina and lots of other familiar American herbaceous species flourish.

The view from near Columbia Rock, below Yosemite Falls.  The sheer rock faces, lining the valleys give the scenery more grandeur than the Alps, in places. 

We stayed at Yosemite Lodge, conveniently close to the fabled Yosemite Falls which, inconveniently, dried up shortly before our arrival.  The whole earth, round here is dry and thirsty.  We climbed the steep ascent to Columbia Rock, close to the top of the dry falls, exhausted but triumphant, at the top.  We trailed to Mirror Lake which has dried up to a sandy beach and doesn't reflect at all, let alone act like a Mirror.

And we wandered along part of the Merced River, passing through meadows which are exactly like the animated drawings in the Walt Disney film Bambi.  We even spotted a doe and her two part-grown fawns, grazing an hour or so before sunset.

A mule deer, near Yosemite Village.  These animals are used to people but further away from human settlements, they're far more wary

Star wildlife species, for us, were the ravens, mule deer, California ground squirrels, acorn wood peckers, a canyon wren and a ravishingly beautiful butterfly like a European white admiral, but with extra colours, called a California Sister.  I think we've also seen the closely related Arizona Sister, too.  You can find these insects here .

Since traipsing about in Yosemite, we've been in San Francisco, eating, going to the California Academy of Sciences, and eating, going shopping for Ghirardelli's chocolate for favoured relatives, and eating, visiting the de Young Art Galleries, and eating, exploring the magnificent Golden Gate Park, and eating, travelling out to the Sonoma and Napa valleys to sample the wines, and eating.  My belts have bust and I think I need to go shopping for a bra.

While the sun sets, at Yosemite, the taller peaks light up like the rising moon, even though darkness has fallen below them.  The effect is eerie but movingly beautiful.

I'm listening to Tony Bennett singing I Left my Heart in San Francisco.  Cheezy, I know, but it sort of fits.

Can't think of a film this week - too depressed about terrible bloggins stats.

This time next month, Silvertreedaze will have had a re-vamp.  It will either live or die.  Meanwhile, I'm off to enjoy my last decent dry martini and to tuck into a farewell San Francisco dinner.

If you've read this far, I love you!  Tell your friends that this blog is quite fun, at times.  Oh, go on! Be a sport!  You know you want to, really!

Monday, 8 October 2012


Hullo from across the Atlantic!
In every trip – even one as exciting, fulfilling and pleasurable as this – there's a low point.  Usually, that first discordant note jars at the point in one's travels when the thrill of arrival has worn off, but when the prospect of going home and sleeping in one's own familiar bed is still too far away to relish.

Trains, in the US tend to be old, shabby and slow - the most comfortable way to see it all.

This trip has been different. The high points have towered so mightily that one has tended to view everything with starry-eyed wonder.  We have immersed ourselves in American history, delved into the fascinating system of US governance, browsed a Founding Father's 18th century Library, gazed across millions of acres of maize and soya, growing in one of the world's biggest and most productive bread baskets - the plains of the mid-West.

We have crossed the mighty Mississippi, close to the Great Lakes; slummed for a night in Chicago where we visited the site of the Valentine's Day Massacre; and traversed some of America's most rugged, awe-inspiring and moving landscapes including the Rockies, the high sierras of Colorado, Utah and Arizona and the Grand Canyon.  

And we have crossed the Mojave Desert to arrive at the low point.  

Los Angeles itself is not a city, as such, but a disturbing dream.  As our shabby Amtrak train crawled through well-watered, neat and appealing suburbs, we could see the yellow-brown pall of pollution marking where the conurbation lay.  Hundreds of elegant, leggy, black-necked stilts and other wading birds were feeding in concreted water courses and along the arid tracks and there were fascinating desert plants clinging to life.  But despite these natural attractions, it seemed clear that Los Angeles was to be 'got through' rather than enjoyed.  

 The incomparable Bogey, reduced to dabbling in wet cement.  Why?

And as soon as we had disembarked, our guide seemed hell-bent in getting us away from Los Angeles itself and into Hollywood.  There's a simple, catch-all word to sum up Hollywood – 'horrible.'  Our guide droned on about films, film stars, property values, and great traditions.  We were dragged out of our bus to see the disfigured concrete paving, outside the grotesque 'Chinese Theatre' where stars pushed hands, feet or other parts of their anatomies into the setting cement.  And we were driven through Beverly Hills which seemed little more than a pretentious suburb with high hedges hiding nasty-looking houses.  Apparently Marilyn Monroe bought one in secret, to escape to when the public were being too adoring.  I wonder why no one suggested that to get away, she could have bought a cottage in Alaska for a fraction the price.

The RMS Queen Mary, at Long Beach.  Majestic from afar, but close-to, she's shabby, flaky and sad.

Thank goodness, our stay in Los Angeles lasted less than 24 hours, much of which was spent aboard the once glorious, now sadly delapidated and abused RMS Queen Mary, the liner (NOT cruise ship) in which I travelled to New York from Southampton in September 1964.

But now we're in wonderful, glorious, delicious San Francisco and have also just had an AMAZINGLY delightful sojourn in the Sierra Nevada.  More on that, soon.

 A San Francisco cable car like this, pulled by underground moving cables, is clanking by as I write this caption.

 Dahlias grow this tall, in the San Francisco Botanic Garden.  Note the correct plant-viewing gear, ie, shorts and stupid hat.

The Golden Gate bridge, painted International Orange which makes it look as though they've done the primer but forgotten to add a top coat.

Not seals – as stated in the some of the publicity blurb – but sea lions, slummocking at Fisherman's Wharf.  San Francisco is almost totally delightful.  But Fisherman's Wharf is vile – a  milling throng of slack-bellied gawping tourists, me included – bewildered by the astronomical prices and dismal quality of the food on offer there.  It's such a shame because you can find superb restaurants to suit all pockets, in this city, often in delightful surroundings. But Fishermans' Wharf is somewhere to keep away from.

I'm listening to clanking cable  cars, outside our hotel window near Union Square.

This time next week I'll be home, tweeting, writing newspaper copy and trying desperately to catch up in the poor, neglected garden

This week's film mench should be Bullit, since we've walked the road where part of the famous chase took place.  But we're also two minutes walk from Union Square where Coppola's masterwork The Conversation was set.

More soon, from the Sierra Nevada where I flirted with an Arizona Lady and trod the meadow where Bambi lost his mother.  Cue tears & happy childhood dreams!

Toodle-ooh, my lovelies. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2012


What ho, my hearties!  And the usual, inevitable apology for being disgustingly late with postings about our perambulations across the big, wide USA.

We've hit the Pacific and thus, have completed our overland coast to coast journey.  It's been bumpy, slow, varied and wonderful.  The weather has been kind, Amtrak – one of America's more creaky institutions – has delivered us safely and we are now basking in California sun

There's no time for a detailed blog – the San Francisco cable car awaits – but I hope the picture captions will say enough, for now.  I may write a detailed story and can assure you it will be a ripping yarn, but that will be for sale, possibly, as an iPad-friendly book.

Meanwhile, click on piccies for a bigger view.

Washington DC.  Seems so long ago, now, but early in our holiday we wandered from memorial to memorial, looking at monuments to America's greatest sons and daughters.  This is part of the F. D. Roosevelt memorial, showing men in the Depression, waiting in dole queues.

If you're a gardener, Thomas Jefferson has to be your favourite Founding Father.  We browsed the books in his library - an eclectic collection from philosophy, politics and science to horticulture and agriculture.  Here, the PG is dwarfed by the massive classic columns in the Jefferson Memorial.

In the Rocky Mountains, scenery is never more beautiful than in early fall, when the aspens change hue from dull green to bright gold and in some spots, burning amber.  Here in Colorado, they contrast superbly with blue Colorado spruce, Picea pungens near the spectacular Red Mountain Pass between Grand Junction and Silverton.

The rattletrap steam train, ancient and creaky but still in working order, takes us from Silverton to Durango, a journey which takes three and a half hours through spectacular scenery.  This ain't the fens!

The Barringer Meteor Crater, near Winslow,  Arizona.  You can find details of this amazing geological event here.

The impact of the meteor would have been equivalent to a 20 megaton nuclear bomb and hurled massive rocks and debris up over the sides of the impact crater.  This is sandstone, at the rim which was originally below ground at the point of impact.

Growing close to the crater, one of my favourite American wildflowers, Castilleja or Indian Paintbrush. These plants, related to yellow rattle and foxgloves, are hemiparasites, sustaining themselves partly on host plants, so are impossible, virtually, to cultivate in gardens outside America.

Despite being apparently barren, the desert teams with life.  This is, I think, a Collared Lizard. 

Monument valley - setting for so many Western films and subject of so many travel posters.  It is virtually impossible to portray even a hint of its majestic beauty. They all rave about the Grand Canyon, saying that it might  move you to tears but for me, these rock formations were the most dramatic, beautiful and, for some reason, remarkably moving.  If I were a primitive man, instead of a de-sensitised, hedonistic, over-pampered modern one, I'd probably feel that big, big deities made this place their home.  There is a Valhalla of sorts wherever you look.  A mighty and literally awe-full place and it's apt that it's situated within and Indian reserve.

And finally, the PG's masterly shot of the Grand Canyon, taken through the window of a deHavilland Twin Otter aircraft at a rather uncomfortably low altitude.

More soon.

I'm listening to the PG, nagging me to catch a San Francisco cable car.

This time last year we were not in the USA.

Today's film has to be Stagecoach, starring John Wayne.  He couldn't act - and walked as if he'd recently had a small, personal accident, but the scenery in the film was as good in black and white as it is in the picture above, of Monument Valley.

Bye bye - more soon, posssibly!

By the way - if you don't know what a Dark Eyed Junco is, look it up!