“Fresh, vibrant June passes to a languid, slow July. Then comes a turning point, when summer suddenly feels utterly tiresome. Some years, late summer weather is kind and merciful, indulging the gardener in a quick turn to cool nights and days filled with a mellow, amber sunlight that actually feels good on the face, totally unlike the prickling and piercing rays of high summer. Other years, the wait is interminable, summer’s heat oozing on well into months traditionally autumnal….
“Just as fall is a time for letting go, for riding with the slow, melancholy yet beautiful decline toward the inevitability of winter, it is also a time for loosening up rigid color rules. What may jar in the May and June garden is a welcome sight in October. Colors have richened and deepened with the cooler temperatures and golden light. The sunlight of autumn softens the boundaries that in spring and summer define orange, red, magenta and purple…. Nature combines cobalt skies, red and yellow leaves and purple asters; the gardener does well to take inspiration from these stunning scenes.”
The first day of autumn was a few weeks ago, yet here in the Southeast we have our own transition from summer to fall that I’ve designated as a new season. It’s called Summerfall.
Summerfall’s most notable characteristic is that it’s cold enough in the morning to crank on the furnace, but warm enough in the afternoon that you need a bit of the air conditioner. Temperatures will swing as much as 30 or 40 degrees between dawn and dusk, before they settle into a narrower range that presages winter.
Summerfall only lasts a couple of weeks — usually winding up in late October — and it’s only toward the end of the month that the leaves around town start to shed their greens and reveal all their fall colors before they need raking and sweeping and bagging up. With the sun tilting toward its winter angle, all those green leaves look super-saturated right now — which in part accounts for how early fall can seem so emotionally soothing after the long, hot months of July, August, and (here in the south anyway) early to mid-September. The galleries below are a recap of the lily photos I’ve posted so far; and I’ll be using this tween-season to finish up my summer photos in a few final posts while I also begin photo-hunting for the first appearances of fall color among the plants in my garden and the surrounding neighborhood.
For those interested in what I’ve written (see here and here) about the upcoming general election in the United States, below are two websites I’ve recently been visiting to keep tabs on early voting, and one I’ve found that describes the ballot processing rules for each state. That third site is useful (note the column “When Ballot Processing Begins”) for an important reason: it undermines the false idea that we will not know the results of the election for many days, weeks, or months (as the president and his campaign have tried to claim) since many states start processing ballots well before November 3.
From My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (quoting her Senate Confirmation Hearing Opening Statement, July 1993):
“Let me try to state in a nutshell how I view the work of judging. My approach, I believe, is neither liberal nor conservative. Rather, it is rooted in the place of the judiciary, of judges, in our democratic society. The Constitution’s preamble speaks first of ‘We, the People,’ and then of their elected representatives. The judiciary is third in line and it is placed apart from the political fray so that its members can judge fairly, impartially, in accordance with the law, and without fear about the animosity of any pressure group.”
From My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (quoting her speech “The Role of Dissenting Opinions,” July 2013):
“My remarks concern the role of dissenting opinions in U.S. appellate courts generally, and the U.S. Supreme Court in particular. It is a subject I have been obliged to think about more than occasionally in recent Terms….
My experience confirms that there is nothing better than an impressive dissent to lead the author of the majority opinion to refine and clarify her initial circulation….
Another genre of dissent looks not to a distant future day, but seeks immediate action from the political branches of government — Congress and the president. Dissents of this order aim to engage or energize the public and propel prompt legislative overruling of the Court’s decision…. “
“[A] governing political coalition has an incentive to prevent changes in the existing balance of voting power….
“When voting is racially polarized, efforts by the ruling party to pursue that incentive ‘will inevitably discriminate against a racial group.'”
I’ve been away from blogging (and photography) for a few weeks, after I decided to educate myself on some political issues that have gotten a lot of attention since earlier this summer. I was triggered, I think, by hearing the president of the United States float the idea of delaying the November 3 election because, ostensibly, of the pandemic. You may not have even noticed that that idea didn’t get much traction — since it didn’t get much traction. It held our attention through a few hours of news coverage, then dissolved of its own failed logic: the president can’t delay elections that are run by states; he behaves as if the pandemic is barely real so he can’t use that as a reason; and, more psychotically, the whole point was to just throw out a trial balloon to test reactions and stir up some chaos and confusion. The president then flipped to denigrating electoral procedures — focusing, if you could call it that, on unproven assertions about absentee ballot fraud — a theme he reiterates almost daily and will likely continue to do so well into November.
You see, it’s like this: intentionally creating confusion about election procedures and insisting in advance that an election is fraudulent are classic examples of voter intimidation — potentially illegal if you or I tried to do it publicly — and that’s what got me interested in setting aside a few weeks to learn more. I’ll come back to that in some future posts — I’ve been surprised at how little I knew about voter suppression in the United States — as I try to organize and write about what I’ve been learning. For now, though, just keep this in mind: prior to the railings of this madman, you probably didn’t find yourself worrying about whether there was integrity in elections you participated in — largely because you were (intuitively, perhaps) aware that state and local governments and election boards were quite accomplished at managing election procedures that they continuously seek to improve and have followed for decades.
Back in the early twenty-first century when I was working on my history degree, I took a couple of courses on constitutional interpretation that occupied me for the better part of a year. I don’t lay claim to any inordinate expertise because I took those classes — but I will say that the experience of studying the United States Constitution and deeply reading dozens of Supreme Court opinions was singularly valuable, the kind of learning experience where you realize you’ve been forever changed by what you learned. If you’ve never read a Supreme Court opinion, you’re missing out: embedded in the Court’s writings you’ll find the history of this country — in a literary and narrative form unlike any other — and with it, the history of the struggles of millions of people as they worked toward greater justice, for all. The American Bar Association has a short summary describing how to read a Supreme Court opinion — though I would personally shorten that even more to say that the syllabus (which states the facts of a case), the main opinion, the disposition (or judgement rendered), and the concurring and dissenting opinions are the most relevant to someone reading an opinion without legal training.
Coincidentally (the coincidence is inconsequential), I was reading in Carol Anderson’s book One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent in the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder when I heard she had died — which is why I chose her quotes about that case and the importance of dissenting opinions to lead this post. The Supreme Court’s majority decision in the Shelby County case invalidated provisions of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states with a history of disenfranchising voters along racial lines to get permission — or pre-clearance — from the Department of Justice before changing their voting procedures. In her dissent (which you can read here), Justice Ginsburg discusses the problems of ongoing voter suppression in some detail — providing a summary of contemporary and typical examples — and is certainly still relevant since the Trump administration and campaign have launched over 200 lawsuits that potentially interfere with voting access, procedures, and ballot counting for the November 3, 2020 election.
In a season when we seem politically unmoored, with many normal frames of reference out of reach or completely gone, we would do well to remember Justice Ginsburg’s belief that dissent could be used to spur legislative action and even challenge the very court she served on. And, as we try to move forward, to remember that dissent in itself has a way of creating clarity about uncertain times. As Sarah Wainwright says of her in In Defense of Justice:
“Ginsburg reads the Constitution for the principles it espouses, she looks at society for what it is, and she sees the yawning gap between the two. With every dissent, she fights — if not to fill it, then to light the path for those who follow….
“To the fight, she brings nothing but a pen….”
Rest in peace, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Your memory, and your work, will live on.
“We have come a great distance as a society, but we still have a great distance to go. The progress we take for granted today brought on by the ‘successes of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement is just one more step down a very long road toward the realization of our spiritual destiny as a nation of ‘freedom and justice for all.’ There is still much more work to do….
“Remember how we thought the election of President Obama meant we had finally created a postracial America, a place where the problems that have haunted us for so long were finally silenced? Nobody says that anymore. We no longer dwell in that daydream. We were shaken to realism by the harshness of what we have witnessed in the last few years — the vilification of President Obama, a drive to wreck his legacy and undo the progress we have made as a nation in the last hundred years, a disdain for the sick and the poor, militarization of the police, and the weaponizing of government not to serve as an advocate, but as an agent of oppression and compliance….
“It’s taken a long time, but finally the people are awakening to the truth: the truth of their responsibility for the democratic process…. The people are gathering their forces, reengaging, and applying pressure….
“I have seen this restlessness among the people before. It was in another millennium, another decade, and at another time in our history, but it pushed through America like a storm…. This mighty wind made a fundamental shift in the moral character of our nation that has reached every sector of our society. And this history lends us one very powerful reminder today: Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society….
“What is the purpose of a nation if not to empower human beings to live better together than they could individually? When government fails to meet the basic needs of humanity for food, shelter, clothing, and even more important — the room to grow and evolve — the people will begin to rely on one another, to pool their resources and rise above the artificial limitations of tradition or law. Each of us has something significant to contribute to society be it physical, material, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. Each of us is born for a reason, to serve a divine purpose. If the structures of our lives do not contribute to that purpose or if they complicate our ability to live, to be free and to be happy, or even worse, if they lead to the confines of oppression, then we seek change, sometimes radical change, even revolution, to satisfy the yearning of our souls….
“Each generation must continue to struggle and begin where the last left off. The sprouting of activist groups and angry sentiments represents a growing sense of discontent in America and around the world. These human beings represent a growing feeling of dissatisfaction that the community of nations is spending the people’s resources on more bombs, missiles, and guns and not enough on human needs. People are crying out. They want to see the governments of the world’s nations humanize their policies and practices. They want to see business leaders and their corporations be more humane and more concerned about the problems that affect the whole of the world’s population, rather than just the overrepresented rich….
“The most important lesson I have learned in the fifty years I have spent working toward the building of a better world is that the true work of social transformation starts within. It begins inside your own heart and mind, because the battleground of human transformation is really, more than any other thing, the struggle within the human consciousness to believe and accept what is true. Thus to truly revolutionize our society, we must first revolutionize ourselves. We must be the change we seek if we are to effectively demand transformation from others. It is clear that the pot is being stirred and people are beginning to breathe in the essences of change that will lead the soul to act. Who will emerge at the forefront of this struggle in the twenty-first century? Perhaps it will be you….”
“Much of what appears to be reform in our time is in fact the defense of stasis. When we see through the myths that foster this misperception, the path to genuine change will come into view. It will once again be possible to improve the world without permission slips from the powerful.”
“Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.”
Uh … hello … is anybody out there??? All of a sudden … it’s summer!
This morning I noticed that two wall calendars in my house — one above the phone in the kitchen and one next to a bookcase in my office — were still on pages for May … which might have something to do with my-self getting sucked into the TV and watching too much news since a few days after my last post. I finally hacked my way out from inside the flat-screen this past weekend, slightly disoriented but not really confused or surprised by all thathas happened. I then started wondering if I would write something that, despite inadequacies, might reflect on the moment we’re in — and decided that I would and could, but not quite yet, I’ve got some work to do first. It’s a little bit funny at times — sort of like writer’s block, or maybe that restless feeling I get when I do the same kinds of updates to my photos over and over again — to have a blog that I’ve focused almost exclusively on photography for a nearly two years, but feeling the urge to split off in other directions. Meanwhile, spring has marched on, summer’s already here … and even with afternoon humidity approaching 150% (exaggeration alert!) last week, I’ve still been spending some cooler mornings hunting down more irises, hydrangeas, lilies, and other fresh flowers making their way into the southern sun.
My adopted state of Georgia made national news a couple of weeks ago, with images and stories of long lines and day-long waits at voting locations for the twice-delayed June primary election — followed by finger-pointing and blame-slinging from people in various leadership positions who seem hard-pressed to recognize that the roles they were elected to or appointed for are supposed to mean that they’re actually responsible for doing something, not just talking about someone else doing something. Whether these failures represent intentional voter suppression or incompetent voter suppression doesn’t matter that much: the effect is to discourage and ultimately reduce voter participation, a problem getting more serious national attention in many states because of the challenges of voting during a pandemic. The fact that we’ve been here before is one of the many loops United States politics is always getting stuck in — where the only consistency we see is the conviction that problems like this are too big to be solved.
I mention this along with a polite suggestion: if you live in a U.S. state that permits you to vote by absentee ballot, it’s not too early to make sure you know how that process will work for the general election in November. I voted absentee in the Georgia’s June primary on purpose this year, because I wanted to learn the steps required. For Georgia, that included verifying that I was registered (on the Georgia My Voter Page); getting an absentee ballot request form; filling it out and submitting it by email; tracking it on the My Voter Page so I knew when it was received and that the actual ballot was mailed to me; then tracking that my completed and mailed ballot was received and accepted. Though thousands of people in several Georgia counties reported not receiving their ballot despite requesting it (which in part accounted for the long lines at polling locations), I did get mine — but with only a few days to spare before I needed to complete and return it. Check with your county government or your Secretary of State’s web site, or start with the National Conference of State Legislatures summary of states with absentee voting options. You might also try the ACLU in your state, which typically has detailed information on how voting (including absentee voting) works, what to expect, and even how to properly fill out and submit your ballot request or ballot. Also, I’ve found that Balletopedia is an excellent starting point for learning more about candidates, as it’s frequently updated with backgrounders on local and national elections.
A hunter fires a gun shot in the forest, his quarry falls, he hastens forward to seize it. His foot knocks against a two-foot anthill, knocks down the dwelling place of the ants, and scatters the ants and their eggs far and wide. The most philosophic among the ants will never be able to understand that black, gigantic and terrifying body, the hunter’s boot, which suddenly invaded their home with incredible rapidity, preceded by a frightful noise, and accompanied by flashes of reddish fire.
The protagonist of Stendahl’s 1830 novel The Red and the Black speaks these words aloud toward the end of the story. He’s learned that his attempt to inject himself into the upper strata of French society — using deceit, political maneuvering, and coattail relationships to try and hide his poor background — has led to failure and, worse, it’s turned him into a hypocritical, manipulated tool of the aristocracy. His social experiment didn’t end well, in other words; and he’s left with only those kicked-down, empty-husk feelings of being somebody else’s fool.
I read the novel back in the 1990s, when I had just started working toward a degree in philosophy (a degree I later converted to history), and remembered nearly three decades later that the book contained references to ants in a pivotal bit of dialogue. The original context of the quote is cultural, a statement of the character’s failed effort to penetrate the upper crust of a society entrenched in aristocratic concrete. The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and capitalism are alleged to have swept all that concrete away, of course; but it may be more accurate to say that aristocracy has simply changed forms while using revised theories to explain itself. Unintentionally, I suspect, the quotation also expresses human anxieties about our relationship with nature, since we’ve barely progressed from acting as commanders and manipulators of nature to understanding our connections to a complex set of natural environments. Kicking out the ant’s nest — in a moment of indifference — may seem like a single, unsurprising, largely irrelevant act; but its implications (even as a social and cultural metaphor) are consequential. The natural environments we don’t understand and protect will eventually fail and take us down with them.
With the most recent weeks of head-spinning political news in the United States — which I’ve spent way too much distracted time trolling — it’s easy to overlook so many of the other stories that don’t get nearly enough attention, mostly because media coverage of the antics of our highly impeachable president and his cohorts drown them all out. Of interest here — because I like to puzzle about our place in the natural world — are the continued efforts by the current administration to roll back environmental regulations, reduce wildlife protections, and open public lands for private development. I found that the New York Times is tracking the rollback attempts — some successful, many legally challenged multiple times — here…
… both of which provide a lot of detail on individual regulations and the impacts of reducing or eliminating them. I discovered these sites after reading about the administration’s challenge to California’s automobile emissions standards — which got me wondering what other climate and environmental regulations were being targeted for reversal. These sites are good ones to keep tabs on — because someday, somehow, someone will need to begin rolling back some of the rollbacks.
Ants, however, have their own less blatantly political concerns. Almost every late summer or early fall, I’ll see an entire colony relocating from one section of my garden to another. Most typically, the ants move from tunnels underneath a large pot or some barely visible spot in my English ivy to a location they consider more desirable. Earlier this year, I watched, fascinated, while hundreds of ants — most moving triple-file in one direction with many carrying their egg-luggage while a few sentries kept things under linear control — marched away from one side of the garden. They followed the outline of my brick courtyard, past stairs at the back door, along one of the hydrangea beds, up one side of a Japanese Maple, then down the other side of the same tree, to finally disappear beneath a thick section of ivy and into the ground.
Here are three photos of one of the ants, one that broke from the ant-pack and made its way out of the formation and up a wisteria vine:
I tried to find a music video to accompany the ant photos; you know, something like Flight of the Bumblebee, but more like March of the Ants. No luck, unfortunately; but I did find this one, a mesmerizing hour of ant motion and birdsong:
While searching YouTube, I came across this fine interpretation of the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, often referred to as the Pastoral Symphony. Beethoven wrote it as a nature study — not intending necessarily to imitate nature with music, but to express his feelings about nature in the framework of a symphony. The fifth movement follows evocation of a thunderstorm in the fourth movement, and musically represents the emergence of sunshine and peaceful feelings following the storm, combined with the appearance of birds and wildlife on the scene as clouds subsided. Even if you aren’t accustomed to listening to symphonies, give this bit a shot, and here are a few thoughts on enjoying it.
Regardless of your personal musical preferences, your appreciation of music relies, at least partly, on your memory of the melodies and how they evolve as the music progresses. For this piece, note how the melody changes at three minute-markers: 2:10, 4:00, and 7:30. Now listen again, but this time pay attention to how a few seconds of the preceding melody lead to these same three minute markers. On subsequent listenings, you can expand how much of the leading melodies you focus your attention on, resulting in a deeper understanding of what you just heard. Segregating bits of melody to hear how they relate to the rest of the performance becomes more automatic with practice, and can be swapped for following one or more instruments as their melodies travel through the piece — through a single movement, or even across the movements of an entire symphony.
I often use this trick to get accustomed to music I’m not familiar with, and it works equally well with symphonies, other forms of orchestral music, rock music, jazz, or any other kind. With vocal music — a song, a ballad, or an opera — the words tend to pull your mind forward through the music; the approach I describe here simply replaces the momentum you experience hearing the words of a ballad, for example, with focus on a snippet of melody or an instrument. The key to the trick is to let your mind latch onto something you can easily follow, then let your brain’s natural ability to organize concepts over time create an integrated musical experience.
Here is the piece:
Okay, now, just for fun, try this:
Start the first video of the birds and ants at a high volume; then start the video of the symphony — turning the volume down to about half. While playing both at the same time, you won’t hear the ant sounds that much, but — especially in softer moments of the symphony — the bird calls will come through clearly, and they’ll seem to line up with the symphony’s melodies. An audio illusion, possibly; or maybe a reflection of Beethoven’s genius: he constructed a series of melodies and rhythms that so accurately reflected an abstract feeling about nature, that they align indistinguishably with (what we think are random) natural sounds.
So … there you have it. In about a thousand words, we’ve traveled from 19th century literature, to a bit of environmentalism, to a poke at politics, to gardening and insect behavior, to classical music, then to (a version of) music appreciation. I think my work is done here for now, and autumn photo-blogging begins in earnest in a few days. Unlike last fall — when we were soaked by days of rain that quickly stripped away most of the fall color — the trees are full and only about 20% turned in my neighborhood, yet I already have about 500 photos (eeks!) to work through. Urban Atlanta has a reputation for its tree canopy (see Atlanta Tree Canopy by Trees Atlanta for a neat interactive tool), a nice sample of which you can see in this map image covering areas within walking distance of my house….
Imagine this neighborhood now, in the yellow, red, and golden orange colors of autumn!