Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Rightful Duke of Cordova, in Spain

Effects of the wind in a nearby village

Once years ago in England I had to fill out a form on which it was required that in addition to my name I list my “titles and appellations”. This demand was traumatic, as of course I had no titles and, as for appellations, only ones that were informal and unflattering if not unprintable. I thought about claiming to be "the rightful Duke of Cordova, in Spain", but thought better of it. I date the beginnings of my acute “title envy” to that experience. I revel in what I can get. For example, as I recently boasted on this page, I am the Orator of the Fellows of the Medieval Academy of America. That’s pretty good, but everything is relative. The subject of one of my brief obituary orations this year was the recently defunct Corresponding Fellow Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler. Cardinal Stickler was “Pro-Librarian of the Holy Roman Church and Titular Bishop of Bolsena”. Now that’s a real title, though still not the object of my most intense envy, which is reserved for one of the titles and/or appellations of my old friend and Oxford classmate Michael Nicholas. Nicholas is among the most distinguished church musicians in the world, having held such posts as “Organist of Norwich Cathedral” and “Chief Executive of the Royal College of Organists.” But in the earliest years of our acquaintance he held a title more imposing yet: “The Organ Scholar of Jesus”. If you can’t get no respect with that title, you can’t get no respect, period.

Downed trees on the Common Ground

But the title of the moment, and the one that just blew up in a storm of trouble for me, is “Co-Chair of the Grounds Committee of the Gray Farm Neighbors Association”. The Gray Farm is a faculty housing development in Princeton, New Jersey, that dates from about 1960. It consists of about seventy houses nicely distributed along three curving roads on an old lakeside farm. In its center is a large plot (probably fifteen or twenty acres) of permanently undevelopable fields and woods called the Common Ground. Many of the houses back onto the Commons, and all have easy access to it along well-established paths.

Daffodil cultivation raised to an entirely new level

The original Gray Farmers had something of the spirit of kibbutz pioneers, and they cultivated a strong sense of community cooperation and participation in joint projects, especially the maintenance of the Common Ground. But practically all of the founders are dead or in nursing homes, and “newcomers”—meaning now most people in the neighborhood—have little or no sense of the original vision, which was already mostly a tribal memory when I myself moved in a little over twenty years ago. During the last two decades the Commons—originally carefully planted with flowering trees, evergreens, and shrubs—has been doing its best to revert to the semi-jungle conditions that characterize untended woodland in central New Jersey. Under these circumstances the Grounds Committee—meaning yours truly and one or two other septuagenarians—have mainly concentrated on trying to keep the paths cleared of arboreal debris and rampant vines, though I am proud to say that under “my” regime we have started a fairly ambitious bulb-planting program.

Some of the new daffodil plantings survived

Georges Lefebvre described the state of the French peasantry at the dawn of the Revolution with a striking image. The peasant, he wrote, was like a man standing in water up to his lower lip. So long as things remained absolutely calm he could continue to subsist, barely, but the slightest perturbation of the water was for him fatal. That roughly describes the condition of the Grounds Committee about March 10, 2010. On the immediately following weekend a violent windstorm, accompanied by flooding rains, ripped through our area. There were protracted power cuts over a very large terrain. In the Common Ground of the Gray Farm Association more than a dozen large trees, most of them shallow-rooted pines, were flattened. The main path through the woods was completely blocked. Our so-called “picnic area” was particularly devastated although, miraculously, the actual picnic table and benches were spared. I note that all the trees fell in the same direction—westward—suggesting that a blast of hurricane strength had come out of the coast.

Until yesterday, this tree was blocking the main path

Mr. Pedro Chavez and his crew of landscapers have made amazing progress with the first part of the necessary cleanup. But the costs of addressing the devastation far exceed our modest committee resources, and this means that I, too, have been out there with a chainsaw and will be again, off an on, probably through the winter. It is, as they say, an ill wind that blows no good. Mr. Chavez is smiling, and even the co-Chairman of the Grounds Committee has a unique opportunity to play a poor man’s version of Capability Brown. At least I might be able to plant a couple of dogwoods. But I have to say that the pain being inflicted on the Grounds Committee dwarfs any faint exhilaration of possibility. Just at the moment I’d give anything to be the Organ Scholar of Jesus, instead. Even “Titular Bishop of Bolsena” would be a huge promotion.