Category Archives: Flora, Garden, and Landscape

Arkansas, America, and Art

Last week I told you about the great restaurant we found in the Ozarks, along the White River bank. But we did more than go to that restaurant. We kept my uncle going every day! It had been decades since we had been to northern Arkansas. When we last visited, there were so many ancient Ozark-style log cabins tucked into the woods on the side of the road that the flavor of the land was everywhere you looked. If you don’t know what those are, they are small slightly rectangular box cabins with a peaked roof and a front porch with roof (imagine a wooden rocking chair and Pa with a corncob pipe just about now). Typically, the cover to the porch is a different pitch than the main roof–and best yet, the roof is generally tin. There aren’t very many left, but the remains of the ones being slowly claimed by the forest can be seen. Also, some have been refurbished with aluminum siding. Some new houses are built in the same style, to reflect the traditional architecture.

The reason I don’t have photos for you is that most of my Arkansas photos are crap, having been taken through a car window. It was too hot and humid to keep rolling the window down–and the so-called highways (NO freeways at all) are winding and long. It’s way out in the country, y’all. Anyway, the gardener drove, and it exhausted him so I didn’t want to distract him by rolling the window up and down–or asking to stop where we could have been run over IF someone else had driven there just then (that’s a big IF).

This part of Arkansas must be well within the Bible Belt. In Mountain Home (population 12,448), the Wednesday newspaper had a listing of churches in the immediate area.

I counted FORTY-ONE Baptist churches. There are also a lot of other denominations, including LDS, Jehovah’s Witness, and even Bahai! There is no synagogue, and I don’t think there is a mosque. Also, there are only two Catholic churches–one in town and one in a nearby town. The one in town is my uncle’s church. You might wonder then how my uncle ended up in Arkansas. He was born and lived in Chicago. After a horrible crime touched his life (story coming tomorrow in thefamilykalamazoo.com) he moved his family to rural Illinois–and eventually to Arkansas. He wasn’t alone–there is a whole “expat” group of Chicagoans who live there. They like being away from the hubbub–and a lot of them like to fish. That–and some Californians who have escaped the west coast–probably makes up the majority of people who attend the Catholic churches.

Let me mention that my favorite church names are the cowboy churches. Notice that this listing shows Bar None Cowboy Church. We flew into Tulsa, OK, and drove to Mountain Home. On the way, we saw other cowboy churches, like the Cowboy Gatherin’ Church in Inola, OK, and Crooked Creek Cowboy Church in Harrison. Apparently “cowboy churches” are a thing and are scattered across the country. Who knew? Well, I sure didn’t.

Speaking of Harrison. It’s only 48.4 miles from Mountain Home, but there’s a big difference. Mountain Home, as I said, has attracted people from Chicago and California and is close to reknowned trout fishing near the Bull Shoals dam which links Bull Shoals Lake with the White River. People think of pretty Ozark country when Mountain Home is mentioned. Harrison’s reputation comes from being known as the most racist city in the country. I got that from Wikipedia. So who knows the accuracy. Apparently, between 1905 and 1909 white citizens threw out all the African-Americans who lived there and established their city as a “sundown town.” That means just what it sounds like: no non-white people in town after dark. You think things have changed?

The city has been dubbed “the most racist city in America” because of its high presence of white supremacist organizations. Kingdom Identity Ministries, a white supremacist organization, was founded in 1982 in Harrison. Thomas Robb, national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, maintains his office near Harrison in the outlying town of Zinc and uses a Harrison mailing address for the organization. Combined with the history of the 1905 and 1909 banishment of unemployed railroad workers and all other African-American residents, this incidental connection to the KKK has given the town a negative image.

The article goes on to say that there are people who are trying to combat that image by speaking up against racism. Of course, all this just made me want to visit. The writer in me, you know. But that’s an easy call as a white woman. As the white mother of Asians, I would not have suggested we visit if they were with us.

When we got to town, I saw the pretty historic theatre where events are still held.

Love the neon sign!

Harrison is quite a pretty small town, and there wasn’t much to hint at a dangerous undercurrent of racism. Then we stopped at an antique shop for the gardener.

My eye was drawn to certain things. I started to feel uncomfortable.

I realize people collect Mammy this and that. Raised in Kalamazoo by my northern relatives, I will never feel comfortable with this stuff. In fact, in Arkansas, I had to keep reminding myself it used to be a slave state. I’ve never lived in a state where slave-holding was legal.

And then there was this little section.

Don’t you love the juxtaposition of items? The Rise and Fall swastika, desperation, a book called Rifles and Shotguns, Rhett Butler, and the fragility of that ruffled porcelain atop the stack. I figured we’d been in town long enough. Time to go!

Next day we visited my cousin’s home in the mountains. He is an orchid farmer by trade, and they live way out in the middle of nowhere (yup, it’s probably even called that). He always loved cacti and orchids, and it’s kind of cool that he’s made a living all these years doing what he loves.

He’s got such cute grandchildren, too. So much fun playing with them!

One day we visited Mystic Caverns. I guess northern Arkansas has a lot of underground caves. Many have probably not even been discovered yet.

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Close to Mountain Home is a tiny town called Norfork. There you can find the Jacob Wolf House Historic Site.

The site includes the main house, which was the territorial courthouse, built 1825, as well as some outbuildings. Seeing how the men “roughed” it even inside the courthouse really made me think of what the settlers went through. During the day, court was in session, and at night, the men spread out their bedrolls where they had been sitting in court earlier.

As we left Arkansas, the gardener and I stopped at the Osage Clayworks because the area has been known for pottery for quite some time. They had some good buys on “seconds,” and I bought my daughter a garlic thingie to use for her rings on her dresser.

 

The Photography of Justin Hamm

If you like seeing small towns and the fading past of America, you need to check out the photography of poet and photographer Justin Hamm. He’s also the editor of the museum of americana. I love Justin’s photos. Rustic images of old cars, barns, that kind of thing. Gorgeous. Click here for his Instagram. Here are the photos on his website. Look at this photograph of an old Ozark barn, care of Justin. He’s been in the Ozarks recently so I am watching for all those shots I imagined but couldn’t pull off.

 

The Art of Len Cowgill

On the subject of beautiful American art, I want to tell you a little update on the work of Len Cowgill.

Many, many years ago, when Len, the gardener, and I were all very young, Len gave us a series of three pieces as a gift. This was before he knew about archival materials, and over the years in the hot sun of California, the drawings faded. Here is one of them–see HOW faded.

Upon hearing about the fading, Len kindly offered to repair all these drawings. Look out great they turned out! In the first one, he changed the static brick wall to Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America” and then followed the theme for the rest of them.

I’m so blessed to have such thought-provoking and breathtaking art in my life. Thanks to Len and thanks to Justin both for sticking with your passions and making the world more beautiful.

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Multicolored ~ nonfiction by Luanne Castle


A big thank you to The Disappointed Housewife for publishing my piece, “Multicolored.”

The Disappointed Housewife

GREEN surrounds me as I enter the butterfly pavilion. The leaves of the trees and flowers create an oasis in the Sonoran desert. All seems still inside, protected from the dry winds, until I notice the undulant motion of butterflies winging above me, swooping down to sip at the nectar of the blossoms. The guide warns visitors to watch where we step, what we touch. Fragile life whirls around us. After all these years, I think I understand how they feel. One has to go through so many changes to get to full flower. Now is not yet the time to die.

BROWN fur nestles under the leaf. I’m here anew, peeling the caterpillar off the green veins and stem which define the underside. I curl up my fingers, cupping the bug in my palm. It tickles me and then plays dead inside the tent of my hand, as I…

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Saguaro Fruit Season

This was the first year that I’ve lived in Phoenix that all  the saguaros blossomed with white crowns. So this is the first year I’ve seen so many white blossoms all turn into juicy red fruit. An animal must have eaten some of this one!

Check out the bird sitting on the top. Birds seem to love saguaros.

Here’s a good article about the harvesting of the saguaro fruit.

A couple of the cacti in our yard, thanks to the gardener.

One of the most inspiring people in my life has been a gorilla–namely, Koko, lover of cats and poet of sign language. Sadly, she died last week at age 46.

This image by a fan of Koko was shared on Koko’s Facebook page with a request to share it, so here it is. RIP dear Koko. I just don’t understand how little her death has been on the news. The people whose lives we celebrate on national television when they die have not done as much for our future and our planet as Koko has done.

#amwriting #writerlife #writerslife I had two beautiful acceptances this week. One publication coming out in a day or so . . . .

HAPPY NEW WEEK!

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From Japan to Lebanon to the Hummingbird’s Nest All in One Day

Recently the gardener discovered the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix: RO HO EN. We visited the other day for the first time. I was so taken with the size of the pond, and this spot of beauty nestled under the tall condo buildings near the Central Arts District (theatres, museums, opera, and arts schools). If you haven’t been to that area, it’s a must see–so active and vital.

 

The garden resembles a lovely park more than it does a Japanese garden of the sort I am used to (Portland, the Huntington, etc.). They offer tea ceremonies to the public on the third Saturday of every month. The fee is $30 ($25 seniors). Imagine living in one of those condos with a view of the garden all year round.

 

 

The pine cones were fun because they aren’t a common sight in Phoenix.

 

The park did not have flowers or too many bells and whistles, so the gardener was not impressed with that aspect. For me, the park-like environment was fabulous. But it did come with a $7 price tag ($6 for seniors, $5 for students, and free for little kids).

 

The pond is loaded with giant carp, and when you check in they ask if you want to buy a little bag of food for the fish. The way they all gather to eat a few crumbs was a little terrifying for me. I thought it might be stressful for the fish. The upside for them is that the pond is so big that their environment is better than that of many pond-living carp.

 

This big guy in the middle was truly enormous.

Ducks live at the pond, too, and the mothers all were watching over their ducklings. One duckling imprinted on us and tried to follow us until we discouraged her. This is a short video of a baby duck, just in case you want to see cute right now.

After the garden, we went to one of our favorites, Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli. The owner Isam is so nice, the gluten-free options are diverse (pita, tabouli, and more), and the Lebanese lemonade to die for.

 

This time a tray of turnovers sat on the counter. They looked intriguing. Isam told me that he makes them for Ramadan every year. He is Christian, and though he makes them on behalf of his Muslim customers, he admits to loving them ;). He explained that on Ramadan, because of the fasting, people need the quick energy this sweet treat provides. He said he starts with a pancake and fills it with a cheese or walnut filling, turns it over, and deep fries it. It’s then covered with a rosewater syrup. I cannot tell you how much I LOVE rose flavored food and drink. I keep two bottles of rosewater in my fridge! I brought home two kataif–a cheese and a walnut. The gardener told me I was consuming 1,000 calories each. Hahaha, I just grinned as he was saying it because these are obviously not a gluten-free treat!

 

Click on the link to find out more: Atayef (Kataif)

Now for an update on the hummingbird mom and her babies.

They are growing up so fast. The gardener watched one fly away already. I wonder if their mother is the child or grandchild of one of the hummers who hatched in our backyard a few years ago.

Since I restructured my memoir, making it more of a hybrid genre in structure and style, I have debated adding a few poems to the book. This week I revised a couple of poems I am contemplating for the book.

Happy week, everyone!

 

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I Love “May” in Blog Titles (with a Publication in Longridge Review)

Desert Rose, Arizona

I give up. OK, I don’t really give up. But I’m cutting myself a little slack. I had all these great plans for May, but we’re already over 2/3 done with May, and I haven’t accomplished the writing I had planned. It just wasn’t possible. I let slip so much other stuff in April to work on #NaPoWriMo, that I had to catch up–or at least try. I’m so excited that Kin Types is a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award. I didn’t dream it would do so well in a prestigious national award like that. But it did take up more time as I had to take it to social media. That’s the way of today.

And then I watched the price of the book slide back up on Amazon to its original price. Funny how that happens.

BUT I haven’t been doing nutten. Today Longridge Review published a short memoir piece, “The Secret Kotex Club.” Their focus is on memoir about the childhood experience–with adult reflection to give it some heft. I hope you enjoy it!

May. I have used it in many blog titles, but I’ve also used it in several poem titles. It’s such a beautiful month to write about. Spring is here. I don’t want to miss it entirely. The gardener noticed that the hummingbird eggs have hatched because he saw the mother feeding them. She has tucked the nest into the leaves of the oleander so well that we can’t really see the nest, but he saw her hovering above and dipping her beak down as if she were feeding. I just watched her defending her nest against three wren-type birds. She chased them away. Pretty amazing to see that tiny fierce mama take on a whole gang to protect her babies.

Every saguaro in the valley is still in bloom. I caught this one in front of someone’s house. I thought they might call the cops on me . . . .

 

We have flowers blooming on the ground, the outdoor tables, the bushes, and the trees.  Perry watched a roadrunner behind our house, content to be inside, safe and well fed.

This one is not at my house, but I liked it!

And it’s not too hot out yet. Hot, but not too hot.

Pretty darn beautiful.

To go with the new season, the gardener has allowed me to throw away his old gardening shoes, and he will wear the new Rainbows that the kids gave him.

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A Desert Spring

Ever since I finished National Poetry Month, I’ve been slammed with too much to do. It’s not all been work. A lot of it has been cat related. And even a genealogy rabbit hole (not even my family haha!) that I fell down.

But I’m devouring Natasha Trethewey’s poetry collection Thrall, and I’m so engaged. You won’t be sorry if you pick up a copy and start reading.

Here’s a little photo show of the prettier parts of the week.

This bobcat was stalking prey in the wash next to my house. He goes along nicely with a poem I think (#NaPoWriMo is a blur) I started last month.

Here is the coolest part of seeing him. He stopped totally still with his left hind leg (you can see the leg here just before) raised in the air. He had visually locked onto his prey. And then what do you think happened?

I’ll be darned if a little songbird didn’t land on a branch of a tree to the left of the photo and sing out a warning. IT GIVES ME CHILLS RIGHT NOW JUST TELLING YOU ABOUT IT.

I can’t even imagine how to put that into a poem without it sounding sappy!

There were some more saguaros in blossom at Mayo. Yup, I had another issue.

See the little hole up near the top? It looks like a mouse hole. It’s actually the entrance to a bird’s home. What I would love to show you are the older saguaros in vacant lots around here. They have lots of branches unlike these ones that were planted by somebody–in this case, Mayo. They also blossom at the ends of every branch. And some of them are absolutely riddled with holes from birds–completely battle-scarred. But there isn’t any place to safely park to take a pic.

(That reminds me, right outside my kitchen window was the most glorious male cardinal ever–smaller than Michigan ones and the red more orangey and vibrant–but my camera/phone was too far away to get a pic in time).

Some of the landscaping at Mayo is now mature enough to produce some shade. Since it’s turned hot again, that’s a good thing.

It’s flower time, so the gardener has been obsessed with planting flowers in the yard. He buys flats and flats of them and plants them all over–in beds and pots. Actually drives me nuts because the flowers come ahead of everything else. (He thinks I act that way about the cats, but of course, that is DIFFERENT).

Do you know how many times I’ve been to the nursery lately?

Perry continues to be the cutest most adorable softest squishiest handsome boy ever who really sets the household on end. Hah. See here. Kana was sleeping peacefully on top of the tree. Tiger was lying in the sun on the bottom. Perry had to take the middle part as he tried to “engage Tiger in play.” I put that in quotes because that is not how Tiger sees it.

When nobody will play with Perry or he gets yelled at by me, he sometimes retreats for a little pout.

I did a couple of submissions this week, so at least something happened in the writing sphere.

My new job at the shelter is contacting people who have adopted cats during the month. I LOVE hearing from them. Some of them send me photos of the kitties all comfy and happy in their new homes. Makes it all worthwhile!

Make it the best week for you and those around you!

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Silly Happy

Blogger Theresa Barker has been posting about what she sees when she looks up (and down a bit, too). We were chatting about not noticing some things that we pass regularly and how we tend to miss seeing the same things over and over. I commented that I want to pay more attention to what is up and down and in the gaps.

That made me think of those things that I actually do see over and over and continue to appreciate. These are the things we miss when they go away.

For years I’ve been passing a house with a big cactus out in the big front lawn. It might be an organ pipe cactus. In the Sonoran Desert where we live, it can sometimes freeze at night in the winter. We usually get warnings, and then we have to cover all our flowers, flowering bushes, and cacti with sheets or other covers. Because this cactus is so large and has so many stems, there are many tips that can freeze. When I first saw this cactus it was in the winter, and each tip was covered with a styrofoam cup, which is the usual remedy.

Then the owners decided to put Santa hats on the tips, and my life was enriched. I love driving past the cactus that has been transformed into many little Santas. My face opens into a big grin.

Last year the house was vacant and being remodeled. I was worried that with a new owner, the Santa hats would be gone. It’s funny how empty I felt when I would drive past the house, thinking it was the end of an era.

But then last week the hats were back. Actually, these are new hats, not the same ones by the previous owner, and I like them even better.

I wonder if the owner realizes how happy people have been made with this simple and whimsical twist on a necessity.

Is there something that you have no control over that you see every week or every day that makes you happy? Something very small that seems to make life a little better.

 

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Checking Out A Silver Lining

Before my father passed away, he and my mother wanted to get rid of their vacation club membership, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it and started to get all stressed out about it. They asked if we would take it, so the gardener said, “Sure.” Later, I told him I wasn’t very happy about that :). I didn’t like the idea of planning a vacation based on where I could stay for free that I had been paying for monthly all along, if that makes any sense.

It didn’t to me.

But it made them happy and, as it turned out, sometimes it’s very useful because the units always come with a kitchen, which is important for dealing with the celiac disease issue. That is what we did in New Orleans last year, and it worked out perfectly. You should see us moving into a regular hotel room with two coolers and four bags of gluten free foods. Not to mention, the air purifier and humidifier the gardener uses to deal with symptoms of his auto-immune troubles. No fear that I might be able to travel light, which is my dream.

We wanted to go on a vacation this year because we visited mom for her surgery this summer instead of taking a vacation, so we decided to use our “points” and visit somewhere on the vacation club map. We settled on Reno and Lake Tahoe in The Silver State (Nevada). The Reno portion was mainly to acclimate to altitude before reaching Tahoe because before the gardener was diagnosed and still eating gluten, he would get very sick at altitudes like Salt Lake City, which is only 4,226 ft!

We spent a few days in Reno, traveling to see Carson City (the capitol of Nevada) and Virginia City. We also had dinner with my cousin (who lives in Carson City and works for the State of Nevada) and his wife at a Persian restaurant. I’ve mentioned before that Persian is usually safe for celiacs, if they avoid the bread and the desserts. This restaurant turned out to be a bit “nouveau” in its cuisine, and while I thought the food was particularly delicious, the gardener was sick overnight. There was probably cross-contamination.

Carson City has a darling Capitol Building. They allow visitors to walk through, looking into the offices of the Governor and other dignitaries. I won’t share the photos I took past the entryway because it seems unsafe to me. But, gosh, it was so nice to be able to take a look at all that beautiful history on our own.

Sorry if one or two of those are a little crooked (@#%^&). The statue when you enter the building is of Sarah Winnemucca who wrote the first autobiography by a Native American woman (Northern Paiute), so I found that pretty meaningful.

I was shocked that Reno is such a casino-driven city. Maybe you knew that, but I didn’t. I don’t like casinos or cities with lots of casinos, but it was interesting to watch the motel outside our window. It was directly across the street and had a reputation for stabbings, shootings, drugs, and prostitution. The new managers were supposedly trying to clean up the property, but it was still a sad and fascinating site for me to observe.

The gardener dragged me to the casino three times, but MEH. I don’t like the cigarette (and cigar!) smoke, the glazed looks on the faces of people who might be ruining their own lives and the lives of their families, or the unnatural outfits those poor servers have to squeeze into.

Judgmental, moi? OK, I am judgmental about gambling, but not about the gamblers. I’ve seen the harm it causes, and I don’t like it. At least the gardener didn’t lose much because he didn’t fall into the trap.

What I did enjoy was the Zombie Crawl one night we were in Reno. The parade of costumes in the streets and inside the casinos was a lot of fun. And Reno has the best gluten free bakery I’ve ever experienced. Wherever we go, we look for gluten free bakeries; many cities have them now. But this one had baked goods and other foods that were the most like what I grew up with. Their frosted sugar cookies were like those of the bakeries of my childhood. All gluten free though! If you’re in Reno, stop by Haven on Earth at 10855 Double R Blvd., Suite A. Here’s their website: www.havenonearthbakery.com. They even have lasagna and chicken pot pies in a freezer case.

To make up for the casinos, I dragged the gardener to a lovely performance of the national tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. We saw it at this cool-looking theater.

Nearby is the Riverwalk.

And a gorgeous old building. I looked it up and now I can’t remember the name of it.

We were happy to move on to Tahoe when we did. What we found there was gorgeous. And October was a wonderful time for visiting because there weren’t the crowds they see in the summer months and during ski season.

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Lake Tahoe is the purest body of water in the world, and it looks it. Just stunning. I could have walked on the beach in my sweatshirt every morning for the rest of my life. The gardener, on the other hand, thought it a bit chilly. He’s more the Caribbean type. While I prefer more deciduous trees in my dreamscape, I couldn’t get over the beauty of this national treasure.

And they had a great burger place that doesn’t get a celiac sick! They have a “dedicated fryer,” which means only gluten free foods go into that fryer. That is important if you want fries with your gluten free burger. I loved their veggie burger, too. CALIFORNIA BURGER COMPANY. Remember that if you go to Tahoe.  They feature live music and art on the walls. And gourmet casual food. Yum!

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BETA READER SHARING? On another note, I have been tinkering with the ole memoir a bit. It’s gone through a lot of versions already and may still have a lot of versions to go through. But it would be helpful to have 2 beta readers look at the dang thing as it stands now as I have too many versions in my head and can’t really “see” what is here any longer.

Do you feel that you have the time, inclination, and a bit or a lot of experience with a full-length manuscript (I think a novel would be fine, as well as memoir)? I’ll warn you that it’s approximately 280 pages.  I am happy to trade manuscripts with you and give yours the same careful reading with comments.  I am only interested in reading complete manuscripts in draft, though. No manuscript where you are sure you are done and just want confirmation. No manuscript that doesn’t have an ending yet. If you are interested, please email me at luanne.castle[at]gmail.com. If I get more than two offers, I’ll choose the two that seem the best fit, but will save names for the next version haha. If I get no takers, I’ll try to find readers through some other channels. Thanks for listening!

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Time Warp

We’re back from a trip to Michigan. Mom had heart surgery in Grand Rapids at the heart center, and she did so well she was out of the hospital in 48 hours! So we were able to bring her back to Kalamazoo and get her set up at home. This was really a medical miracle because she had a 6th stent put in and a new heart valve without having to undergo open heart surgery. I am not impressed easily by modern medicine (though I probably should be), but this knocked my socks off.

While she was in the hospital, the gardener and I went for a drive one day and visited both Saugatuck and Holland. We really wanted to stare at Lake Michigan, so when we saw the sign in Saugatuck we started walking.

Walking without asking. Now, mind you, I have a reconstructed foot. This was a rare surgery done because of damage by a rare tumor. So even though I almost always wear my orthotic-adorned New Balances, I never know when the foot will start to hurt like crazy and I will have to stop walking.

Before we had gone too far I asked a woman who was passing by how long the trail was. “About a half mile,” she said. “But it’s very hilly.”

Yes, ma’am, it was very hilly. But it warn’t no half mile.

I looked it up afterward. 2.5 miles each way. HEH

I was lucky that my foot didn’t seem to mind and see where we ended up.

Worth it? MUCH.

A beach and a view with very few people.

After that we drove to Holland because the gardener had an antique store to check out, and I wanted to visit Windmill Island as I had as a kid.

Back to my Dutch roots ;).

These shoes would need some magical orthotics for me to wear them haha.

We found a restaurant the gardener could eat in without worry. Celiacs note: Persian restaurants are the next best thing to completely gluten free restaurants! Usually, only the bread, desserts, and a few appetizers have gluten.

Chicken koobideh and a rice dish with barberries.

My mother looked great after her surgery, and the only real hitch was when the discharge nurse told mom she can’t drive for a certain period of time. That made her really unhappy. Next day, she said she wanted blueberries from the blueberry farm. Which, of course, was way out in the country. And we had lots of errands and chores to get her settled in. She even pouted/whined a bit. “I can’t drive myself there.” Sniff sniff.

So we took her. When I walked inside, the smell of blueberries was overpowering. She bought 5 pounds and gave my brother and sister-in-law some of them.

The blueberries seem blurry, and I don’t know why. But we also walked around the farm a bit to give mom some exercise.

Yup, that’s me driving the tractor.

Last year we had Mom’s retirement community plant a plum tree in my father’s memory. We used to have a plum tree in our backyard growing up and Dad would take a pic every so often–as it grew and as we grew. So a plum tree seemed right.

The tree is on the outskirts of a woods that abuts the retirement community. The gardener drove us in Mom’s golf cart through the woods.

When we came out of the woods we saw the beautiful gardens planted by the residents of the community. Flowers and vegetables–so lovely.

It was also my birthday on the day we took my mother home from the hospital. My uncle, my dad’s twin, did what he did last year: called to sing “Happy Birthday” to me. That’s what my father used to do every year we were apart. I love that my uncle is carrying on the tradition.

The gardener and I checked out a few of our old houses, visited his parents’ graves (Dad’s is not in town and there wasn’t time), and appreciated the wild flowers (Queen Anne’s Lace, Chicory, Day Lilies, Ironweed). We left Kalamazoo 27 years ago, and at our last house, we noticed that they still have the same drapes in the living room. That was astonishing because those drapes were actually hung 32 years ago, and they are made of massive amounts of off-white sheers. I can’t imagine them lasting this long. But what I do remember is how much work I put into designing them and finding someone to make them–and how much I loved them! I wrote a poem about them and put it in the portfolio of poems I submitted to Western Michigan University for my application to the MFA program. The last stanza goes like this:

Through shadowed glass,

with guarded eyes,

my neighbors wait

for me to swoop my fingers

through the sheer

and clutch the volume

to my chest.

The poem is called “New Drapes,” though these are far from new, and none of the neighbors could still live there any more. Just one of the many time warp experiences I had.

And so it goes.

 

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One Wacky Western Landmark

For years, whenever I traveled on the 202 freeway loop and saw a strange wedding cake shaped structure in the distance I wondered about it. Then the gardener saw a program on TV where the place was identified as Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights. I googled the castle and discovered that there were tours of the property. When we decided we wanted to go check it out, I found that I needed to book the tour many months in advance. So about nine months ago I bought the $15 tickets for two. In the amount of time it takes to develop a full human baby, the gardener and I finally were allowed to visit and learn about Tovrea Castle.

Our tour group traveled across the property and up to the castle in two golf carts driven by our two orange-attired docents, each named Nancy. I’m not sure if the tour guides have to be called Nancy or if it was a coincidence they were both named Nancy. (OK, I’m kidding).

The castle and acreage are now in the middle of the city with industrial and commercial zoning all around. It’s not far from Sky Harbor Airport either, and I saw several planes overhead. Other people on my tour saw roadrunners, squirrels, and a jackrabbit with big ears, but I didn’t catch a glimpse of anything with a heartbeat outside of our tour.

What looked like a castle from afar actually wasn’t that large up close. The entire building is about 5,000 square feet, and that includes the basement, which is the largest floor. The second and third floors have small hotel rooms. We were not allowed to go up there, but were told that there is only one bathroom per floor. On a 360 degree iPad tour, the rooms looked quite nice and ready for move in. I might call the architectural style cheesy, but maybe I just don’t appreciate it properly. The light fixtures and other accessories were all in the art deco style, which is definitely a style I like very much.

The castle is painted in its original colors. The front door was remarkable for its plainness. From every floor of the building it is possible to get a 360 degree view of Phoenix.

The bannister is made of terrazo and the columns marble. Terrazo is a compound of granite and concrete.

Before the castle was ever built, F.L. and Lizzie Warner established a homestead on 160 acres in 1907. They built their house (no longer in existence) on a rocky knoll, overlooking . . . desert. Scrub is what I call it. Eventually they added to their property and when Lizzie (after F.L. died) sold the property to Alessio Carraro in 1928 there was a total of 277 acres.

Carraro was an Italian immigrant who made a fortune in the sheet metal business in San Francisco. In 1928 he moved to Arizona, wanting to develop a desert resort and luxury housing subdivision. The “castle” was built as a hotel and completed in 1930. Because of the Great Depression, Carraro had to sell the property in 1931 at a great loss to get cash. Maybe he also sold because his wife refused to move to the desert. Or maybe it was another reason . . . .

While Carraro owned the property, a lot of construction was completed. He hired a Russian gardener, called Mokta, who built an enormous cactus garden. The garden still exists, in a way, but some of the sahuaros (the sentinels of the Sonoran Desert) are dead or dying, and it does not look as rich and thickly planted as shown in the old photographs. What my gardener noticed (that was not mentioned by the tour guides) was that in the old days the property was completely irrigated, whereas today it is not. Even sahuaros need some water, I guess.

Mokta, Carraro, and Carraro’s son Leo planted over 500 species of cactus and lined the property with white river rock from the Salt River. They also created two concrete-lined pools, a horseshoe area, and a game court (for a game that was a combination of bocce and pool).

At this point, the history of Carraro and the “castle” meets the history of the Tovrea family.

Edward Ambrose (“E.A.”) Tovrea was born in Illinois in 1861 and moved to Kansas at the age of 10 where he worked on a cattle ranch. He started a freight company that transported goods between western states and eventually settled in Arizona where he built and owned butcher shops throughout the state, founding the Arizona Packing Company, later known as the Tovrea Packing Company.

In 1931, E.A. and his second wife, Della, purchased the castle with 44 acres from Alessio Carraro. Now this is not part of the official story, but I found it online and maybe it’s the real reason Carrara had to sell the property:

Carraro’s dream of a resort hotel and a subdivision of fine homes ended a few months later. For some time, Carraro had tried unsuccessfully to buy 40 acres adjacent to his land that would serve as an important buffer between his property and a stockyard and meat packing plant. When the acreage finally was sold, it went not to Carraro, but to the owner of the nearby packing company E. A. Tovrea.

Tovrea promptly put up sheep pens on the land. That was it for Carraro, who figured few people would be interested in buying a nice home next to a flock of sheep. In June, 1931, Carraro accepted an offer from a real estate agent for the hotel and much of the property. Unknown to him was that the buyer was Della Tovrea.

What rotten luck. I’ve seen photos of the descendents of Carrara and Tovrea together in a friendly manner, but this must have been such a blow to Carrara.

That stockyard came to be part of the Tovrea Stockyards. Can you imagine the smell in the heat of the summer?

E.A. passed away within a year, leaving behind a son who took over the family businesses. Della Tovrea resided in the castle until her death in 1969. During the time the property was owned by the Tovreas, features added to the gardens include a large concrete patio just east of the castle, a rose garden, an aviary, and a reflecting pool. The pool reflected an enormous sahuaro. The sahuaro is now a skeleton only 1/3 its original height.

There are a lot of small outbuildings on the property, but most are completely falling apart.  The well house is one of the few that still stands. You can see it below.

Near the well house is the dovecote which is completely fallen apart. The dovecote was to keep pigeons to feed the many workers.

Another outbuilding was a little kennel for the dogs. It was just a large free-standing cage. The guide explained that this was built for the protection of the dogs because of the dangerous predators in the area. Hello! So the dogs are inside this cage the size of a small bathroom and the bobcats, mountain lions, javelina, coyotes, and God knows what else, are LUNGING at them from the outside. How many dogs ended up with heart attacks?!

Della Tovrea was a very important person in the Arizona Democratic Party and the only woman representative for Arizona at the 1936 convention.  In her later years, she began sleeping in the kitchen. I have no idea why she slept in the kitchen. She had developed a fear of being locked in her huge bank-type vault in the basement by burglars and had had the lock disabled. One night while she slept just feet away from her beautiful blue kitchen sink two burglars did break in and force her to take them around the house pointing out the valuables. There are two different stories about how a bullet hole was made in the kitchen ceiling that night. In one version, a burglar shot his gun. In another version, it was Della herself and her old Colt. When the men left in their pink Cadillac (no relation to Mary Kay or Elvis, to my knowledge), she had no way (in 1969!) to contact the police or the caretakers who lived in a cottage on the grounds and had to make her way to their house in the pouring rain. She died two months later, possibly of pneumonia.

The cast of characters in the story of Tovrea Castle would make for a picaresque novel, to be sure, and I think Della was the greatest piece of work of all. I have a soft spot, though, for Carrara who was a dreamer who repurposed creatively (the blue sink might have come from elsewhere, as did the maple floors and other features of the building and grounds). He took risks and couldn’t withstand the machinations of “bottom line Tovrea,” as I like to think of him.

Today the basement is a tiny museum of Carraro Heights. The ceiling is the bird’s nest style (with hidden eggs throughout). And there are tunnels leading outside.

The Boy Scouts made and installed green ladder stairs around the property. These are views far away and up close.

In 1993, the Castle and the 44 acre Cactus Gardens were purchased from the Tovrea Family Estate by the City of Phoenix which now maintains the National Register of Historic Places property and runs the tours. But at some point somebody else must have run tours here because in the basement there is an old sign.

When I asked why it’s necessary to buy tickets so many months in advance, the tour guides explained to me that they don’t have enough docents. I’d almost swear the one lady looked at me pointedly and hopefully at that moment.

The thing is that while the combination of history and garden and architecture was great fun for both the gardener and me, the desert leaves me cold (you know what I mean). I can’t blame Carrara’s wife for not budging from San Francisco. Are you KIDDING me? What was he thinking? We probably lucked out and got the last beautiful weather for the next three months or so. From now on it will be HOT.

On the other hand, plenty of people love the desert. Identify yourself right now!

And, like Tevye (I like musical theatre references), I can always repeat on the other hand: have you ever seen a bluer sky than ours?

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Filed under #writerlife, Essay, Flora, Garden, and Landscape, History, Liminality, Sightseeing & Travel, Writing