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The curious case of Uncle Sam’s missing head. August 19, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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No, in case you’re wondering, this isn’t a political commentary. Longtime readers and fans of lawn art may recall previous posts in which our friend Ben chronicled the bizarre behavior of the folks who live at the end of our road. To recap:

* First, they literally chained a two-dimensional wooden depiction of Uncle Sam to the base of their flagpole. The sight of Uncle Sam weighed down with more chains than Marley’s Ghost struck our friend Ben as a trifle unpatriotic, to say the least.

* Then, someone came by and chopped off Uncle Sam’s head. (How could poor Uncle Sam defend himself, chained as he was?)

* Next, the homeowners left the decapitated Uncle Sam figure chained to the post.

* The next development was even more disturbing to our friend Ben. Driving past the house, Silence Dogood and I saw that a second Uncle Sam figure was leaning unobtrusively against a side wall of the house. We speculated that this was an impostor who had killed off the real Uncle Sam and was lurking there, surreptitiously planning to take his place for his own inscrutable but indubitably evil ends.

* This, however, never came to pass. Instead, the homeowners moved both the ersatz Uncle Sam and the decapitated Uncle Sam up onto their porch and secured them both (we shudder to think how) to the wall. Months, perhaps years later, they remain there, an ominous reminder of the unfathomable nature of our fellowmen.

Our friend Ben, who travels this route daily, never passes the house without wondering what the hell its owners are thinking. If the vandals stole poor Sam’s severed head, why not give the body a dignified burial, or at least, put it in the burn pile or out for the trash? If the vandals left the head, why not reattach it with a strip of wood nailed discreetly to the back? In either case, why keep the decapitated body on display like some patriotic version of the Headless Horseman?!

As appalling as it is to think that someone would invade someone else’s property and mutilate their lawn art, it’s even sicker—in our friend Ben’s opinion, at any rate—to leave the mutilated lawn art (now safely out of reach) on display. And our friend Ben still finds it disturbingly unpatriotic. If you’re going to put a patriotic symbol, be it the Stars and Stripes, a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, or Uncle Sam, on proud public display, surely you should treat them with the dignity that your admiration warrants.

Our friend Ben says: Uncle Sam has, clearly, already suffered enough.

Uncle Sam takes a hike. June 7, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben would like to reassure faithful readers who were as disturbed as we to see a headless Uncle Sam lawn-art statue in our end-of-street neighbor’s yard, his pitiful body still chained to a flagpole, that things have taken a turn for the better, or at least a turn. (See our earlier posts, “Uncle Sam in chains!” and “Uncle Sam loses his head,” for the whole, appalling story of our tacky lawn art-addicted neighbor and his two-dimensional Uncle Sam statue.)

Silence Dogood and our friend Ben were relieved to see that Uncle Sam seemed to have retrieved his head. At least, he now has a head. Thing is, it’s not the same head as before. Silence and I have both observed the head several times and confirmed this fact. Uncle Sam’s expression now looks, please forgive us, stoned. We’re convinced that this is once again due to the nefarious dealings of his evil clone, “Bad” Uncle Sam, who was previously noted skulking around the side of the neighbor’s house, obviously up to no good. No doubt he’s been providing the helpless “Good” Uncle Sam with doctored brownies as a supposedly innocent treat to relieve the tedium of being chained to a flagpole for one’s entire life.

And now, things have gotten even more bizarre. We were returning from taking our puppy Shiloh for a walk in a nearby park yesterday when Silence suddenly shrieked—sorry, Silence, I meant to say “remarked”—“Omigod, Ben, look at Uncle Sam’s hand! He’s got his thumb out like he’s hitchhiking!!!” A stunned look revealed that Silence was correct: One of Uncle Sam’s arms was outstretched, with the thumb in the classic hitchhiking position.

Our friend Ben and Silence know that this is a new development because previously, Uncle Sam had no arms. Or, let’s be clear, no doubt the poor plywood figure had arms, but they were indistinguishable from the rest of his body. Now the one arm was definitely sticking out with thumb upraised.

We would, mind you, be the last folks on earth to blame Uncle Sam for trying to flee. First of all, he’s still chained to the flagpole—most unAmerican behavior on the part of the homeowner!—but more ominous still, a large lawn-art bear has suddenly appeared immediately behind him. The concept of being set upon by a large bear while chained to a flagpole would make the stoutest heart quail.

Poor Uncle Sam! We feel for him, we really do. But given the look on his face, we wonder when he’s going to start wearing a Keep on Truckin’ tie-dyed T-shirt over his red, white and blues and start scrawling “Kilroy was here” all over that flagpole. So please, if you happen to turn down our street and see a stoned-looking Uncle Sam with his thumb out and a huge bear looming behind him, won’t you give him a ride? We hate to think what his evil clone is planning next.

Gazing ball triumphant. November 19, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has been a little (ahem) behindhand about rounding up our lawn ornaments and hauling them into our toolshed for the winter. We have a huge mustard-colored Vietnamese urn, an antique clay chimney pot topped by a silver gazing ball, a small concrete pillar topped by a gorgeous handblown glass globe-cum-gazing ball, and a lovely seagreen ceramic pillar holding another silver gazing ball, distributed judiciously around the property here at Hawk’s Haven. We also have a huge stainless steel gazing ball that nests in our shrub border, along with certain other extremely discreet surprises, but, being weatherproof, these remain out all year. The others, however, need to come in out of the cold before they freeze and crack.

Alert readers may recall from a post this past spring, “Gazing ball grief,” the sad story of how Silence Dogood had found a beautiful silver gazing ball for the seagreen pillar in the front garden and how, the very day after our friend Ben had set the new gazing ball out, a great wind came up and smashed it. A subsequent post, “A good day for gazing balls (and water gardens),” related how Silence had discovered a very reasonably priced stainless steel replacement when we went to get fish, snails and plants to stock our water gardens at our favorite local water-garden store, Aquatic Concepts. Admittedly, this ball lacked the brilliant reflective surface of its glass predecessor. But spending $60 (the cheapest price our friend Ben could find) for a replacement glass ball that could itself be smashed at any moment seemed a bit much, especially when the durable stainless ball cost $22.

Our stainless steel gazing ball has sat peacefully on its elegant pillar for months, admittedly looking a bit like a giant ball bearing rather than a luminous lawn ornament. Then, this past weekend, a violent wind swept through our property, bringing bitter cold in its wake and bouncing our gazing ball from its perch. And behold! It rested peacefully on the ground with nary a scratch, happy to resume its former position and live to shine another day.

Should you go in for stainless rather than glass gazing balls? If your property is as windblown as ours, it’s worth considering. Most of the stainless steel balls we’ve seen (and we have two others that fall into this category) are considerably shinier than the one in our front yard, competing much better with their silver glass rivals. (Though their price also approaches or even surpasses that of the glass balls, unlike our homelier front-yard find.) And certainly, in our experience, nothing dents, dulls, or otherwise damages them. It’s nice to be able to leave them out all winter and admire them glowing in a drift of snow. And unlike the copper gazing balls we drool over in catalogs, stainless steel balls will never tarnish or develop a matte seagreen patina over time, gorgeous to behold but somehow not quite what one’s looking for in a reflective orb. Stainless steel: no muss, no fuss.

Silence and our friend Ben are proud of our homely little gazing ball for standing up so defiantly to the storm. We feel that it’s like the klutzy kid who’s always picked last for the baseball team and then unexpectedly hits the home run that wins the game. Will we set it out so prominently in the front yard next spring? In all honesty, probably not. That pillar is the focal point of the entire front yard, and something more dazzling is, frankly, called for. But we’ll find a place of honor for our stainless gazing ball in our huge backyard, which offers many tempting spots for display. And we hope it shines on for us through all the years to come.

Uncle Sam in Chains! September 14, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Those of you who know Poor Richard’s Almanac might, from this post’s title, expect it to be a political rant from our friend and blog collaborator, Richard Saunders (the original Poor Richard of Poor Richard’s Almanac), about the sorry state of American politics. But no. Once again, our lawn-art-loving neighbor at the end of the road, whose gross excesses our friend Ben has chronicled in an earlier post, “Knights in shining armor,” has committed an act of violence against tasteful yard ornamentation.

This time, however, good taste is not the only thing under attack. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were shocked and appalled to see, on our way home a few minutes ago, that the lifesized statue of Uncle Sam that had previously been loitering in the vicinity of the ubiquitous Mexican man and donkey, a few bears, and a pig, was now chained to the flagpole in the front yard. Uncle Sam in chains! There must be a law against this.

Our friend Ben and Silence aren’t going to blow the whistle on our end-of-road neighbor, however, because we don’t think it’s his fault. You see, as we slowed down to get a better look at this latest development, Silence pointed out that there was a second, identical figure of Uncle Sam leaning unobtrusively in the shadows against the side of the house. In other words, lurking.

Obviously, the evil twin of the original Uncle Sam had captured the hapless icon of our country and chained him to his own flagpole, the better to go out and commit atrocities in his name, or at least hold up a few convenience stores, drink too much cheap booze, and end up on the cover of The National Enquirer: “Uncle Sam on the Lam!!!” Can’t you just see it?

Poor Uncle Sam. It’s no fun having a black-hearted clone. Our friend Ben is tempted to sneak over under cover of darkness and unchain the original effigy so he at least has a fighting chance against his nemesis. But I fear my selfless actions might be misinterpreted by the extraordinarily obese basset hounds who are usually to be found waddling around the yard, which really wouldn’t deter me were it not for the little matter of their gun-toting owner.

So for now, “Good” Uncle Sam remains imprisoned and “Bad” Uncle Sam remains at large. I suggest that you keep a weather eye out and the floodlights on while awaiting further developments.

Knights in shining armor. August 18, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Stuart Robinson, founder of that excellent and useful compendium of garden-related blogs, Blotanical, recently wrote a great post on his own blog, Gardening Tips’N’Ideas, called “Why most garden statues suck… and how to fix them.” Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood had been chuckling over this post when we noted that our end-of-road neighbor had once again violated the statutes of good taste with another tacky addition to his inanimate landscape features. (I should add that there are no animate landscape features on his property, unless you count lawn grass and the fat, sagging basset hounds that occasionally drag themselves across it.)

This gentleman’s property was impossible to overlook even before his latest addition. A lifesize statue of Uncle Sam stood beneath a flagpole worthy of a government building, surrounded by statues of the iconic Mexican man and donkey, several pigs, and assorted bears, rabbits, and cows. His wraparound deck, in addition to containing five large barbecue grills (and those were just the ones visible from the side Silence and our friend Ben could see in passing), has large pseudo-palm trees stationed at regular intervals between the grills. His house is sizeable, but it’s almost dwarfed by the industrial-sized garage that runs beside it. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the windmill (decorative only, of course) in the front yard. And the toy train engine that’s bigger than a car. 

But I digress. The new addition that Silence and our friend Ben noticed was an outdoor entryway leading to the main door. This entryway was completely glassed in, giving passersby a clear (pardon the pun) view of the two gleaming, full-scale suits of armor guarding the door. Oh, no.

Mind you, our friend Ben and Silence do not, as it happens, live in London’s White Tower, where one might expect to find suits of armor hanging about. We—and our neighbor—live surrounded by cornfields in the scenic middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. We can also state with confidence that our neighbor’s claim to fame is not that he is descended from dukes or earls, but rather that he established the first public water-park in the area. If his veins run blue, it’s because of pool paint and chlorine, not blue blood.

Thus, we once again find ourselves asking, what is he thinking?!! Suits of armor staring blankly out at field corn and cows. It’s enough to cause the tractors that use the backroad past our house to wreck. If ever the lawn police needed to make an arrest, it’s now. (See our earlier post, “The lawn police,” for more on them.)

Our friend Ben and Silence are privileged to live in an area of stately old stone farmhouses, magnificent stone barns, and fascinating stone outbuildings. If we won the lottery, we’d be on the phone with a realtor tomorrow asking him or her to find us such a property, preferably with a great view and a pond and stream. Surely the essence of taste is matching your place to its surroundings. And here’s this man with enough money to buy our whole township, building a big ranch house and giant garage, then filling his yard with trash and setting up knights to guard his door. Yet more proof, if any more was needed, that money and sense—or, in this case, taste—don’t always go together. To think, he could have given some of that wasted cash to us.

But we’re not bitter. In fact, we have some knights of our own. They’re in our chess set, and our friend Rob is teaching us how to play. Now, if Silence would just stop referring to them as “horses”…

The greatest lawn art. July 13, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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If you read my post “The lawn police” the other day, you may have concluded that our friend Ben hates lawn art. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our friend Ben positively revels in clever, amusing, or unexpected (in a good way) lawn art. The key is to remember that little word “art” that comes after “lawn.” And of course, when it’s lawn art, humor plays a very large role. 

One of my great delights in visiting Tony Avent’s Plant Delights Nursery years ago was a tour of his on-site Juniper Level Botanic Garden, which featured a wealth of rusting junk, each pretentiously placed, labeled, and priced (“Great Balls of Wire,” a bale of rusted barb wire, $3,000). Junk: pricey. Humor: priceless.

So it was with great pleasure that I read Steve Silk’s post “Got Whimsy?” today on one of my favorite blogs, Gardening Gone Wild (www.gardeninggonewild.com). Steve, a fine photographer as well as a garden writer, captured some of his own whimsical lawn art and also some inspired lawn art from a friend’s garden, including Easter Island-style statuary and Adirondack chairs carved into trout. Thanks, Steve!

Those trout chairs made me think of the ca. 1909 washboard that Silence Dogood found at an antiques mall years ago. To most people, it would have looked like a really heavy piece of wood with corrugations for scrubbing clothes, a fork at one end to make it easier to stand it up in the wash basin, and a triangle at the top so it was easier to hold on to. But Silence took one look at that washboard and saw a fish. It’s been hanging on our kitchen wall ever since, sideways, of course, so everyone can now see the fish. Silence even had a local blacksmith make a special hanger to support its weight.

My point is that lawn art, like all art, is in the eye of the beholder. And sometimes the greatest lawn art just happens. Our friend Ben takes a backroads route from Kutztown, the nearest tiny town to our rural home, Hawk’s Haven, to our CSA, Quiet Creek Farm. Our pickup day at the CSA is Friday, and Silence and I tend to make an occasion of it. We go to our local feed store and get chicken feed, outdoor cat food, wild bird food, straw bales, and other necessities. Then we head on into Kutztown and go to the bank, the library, the used CD/DVD store, the grocery, and the farmers’ market. Finally, we head out of “town” towards the CSA, passing such local establishments as the boarding house with a big sign out front, “SPIDER PLANTS FOR SALE,” and two fabulous stone farm complexes we plan to visit if we win the lottery. (Actually, we plan to send a realtor to visit, pound on both doors, and say the magic words: “How much will it take to persuade you to sell this?” Hey, we can dream!)

But back to lawn art. Along this route is a tree. This tree, like many of its kind, extends over the road. But unlike any tree that our friend Ben has ever seen, this particular tree extends a perfect alligator head over the road. Izod, eat your heart out! For some reason, a large branch on the tree must have died and broken off in such a way as to form the precise head and jaws of an alligator. (Okay, maybe it’s a crocodile. You’re entitled to your interpretation. But our friend Ben is sticking to the alligator.)

Our friend Ben has taken to watching for the appearance of the alligator while driving this route—much to Silence’s exasperation—and breathing a huge sigh of relief to see that it’s still there, especially after another brutal winter that could have destroyed its alligatorness, making it just another broken branch. Each week, our friend Ben examines it in passing to verify that I’m not imagining things: it really does look like an alligator head. (Even Silence agrees.) It is, in short, wonderful.

In the course of my travels, our friend Ben has had occasion to observe all sorts of manmade wooden lawn ornaments, from quite wonderful gnomes carved in treetrunks by a highly gifted carver in the New Smithville area, to some obviously authentic totem poles that must have been brought home to PA from the Northwest Coast in the days before it was illegal, to the ubiquitous chainsawed bears and eagles topping stumps from here to Lancaster County. But not one of them has given me the pleasure I’ve found in the alligator head. Our friend Ben would give all my gazing balls, my antique chimney pot, and even my huge mustard-colored Vietnamese urn to have that alligator head hanging out at Hawk’s Haven. I’d give my very favorite plant, the one I refused to divide for our friend Cole. (Ouch!) I’d even give my first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary.

So listen up, lawn-art lovers! What’s already on your property that could become lawn art? What’s already on your property that could be tweaked, shaped, or spray-painted to become lawn art? Imagine a tree hung with dried, silver-painted gourds like exotic fruit. Imagine a teepee made with tall, straight branches, with morning glories and/or scarlet runner beans growing up the supports and arrowhead-shaped stones forming a path to the “door.” Imagine setting out a grapevine wreath, made from your own grapevines, and having a robin build a nest in it. Look at your property as if for the first time. You may see marvels. You may even see an alligator.

Necessity is the mother of, um, something. April 22, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Faithful readers may recall that our friend Ben had a rather bad day a couple of weeks ago, when I’d finally decided the weather was settled enough to set out the lawn ornaments, and a high wind promptly came up and smashed the silver gazing ball in the front island bed. Now, this bed is what passersby see as they drive past my home, Hawk’s Haven, and it’s definitely at its peak in spring when it’s literally awash with color from Siberian squill, chionodoxa, crocus, daffodils, ranunculus, trout lilies, bloodroot, toothwort, and Dutchman’s breeches.

So of course our friend Ben was mortified to see the beautiful seagreen column on which the gazing ball formerly resided sticking up out of the island bed like a latter-day Greek ruin. (Silence Dogood had quite a bit to say to our friend Ben on the subject as well, yet again belying her name.) As a result, last weekend saw our friend Ben trundling off to the local garden center to buy a replacement gazing ball.

Sticker shock! Even the plainest of gazing balls cost a mind-numbing sixty dollars. After an unfortunate encounter with my income taxes on April 15th, our friend Ben was not inclined to cough up $60 for lawn art, which after all is a discretionary item. (I suspect the IRS would take a somewhat dim view if I attempted to write it off as either a dependent or a business expense.) But returning empty-handed meant still looking at the topless column every time I looked out the window or went into the front yard, and it also meant a rather biting ongoing series of one-liners from Silence. Frankly, our friend Ben could see her point.

Finally, after several days of mental paralysis, our friend Ben had what a friend’s mother immortally called a rush of brains to the head. Our friend Ben’s sister, who fortunately not only lives far away but is even more of a Luddite than I am, never even going near a computer, is a big fan of local potters in her hometown in Alabama. Unfortunately, she attempts to show her support of these struggling artists by bestowing the fruits of their labors upon our friend Ben on every possible occasion.

Now, our friend Ben loves handmade ceramics. I attend every pottery show in my area, and can’t seem to stay out of crafts shops, whether they’re local or, like the Allenstand Craft Shop at the Appalachian Folk Art Museum in Asheville, North Carolina, are an integral part of a vacation elsewhere. From historic Pennsylvania redware to exquisite Pueblo and Mata Ortiz pottery, our friend Ben enthusiastically loves and purchases these marvelous pieces. In fact, no trip to visit friends is complete without a visit to a local craft gallery (or many, in the case of Asheville and Charlottesville, Virginia).

But my sister’s taste is not mine. Our friend Ben is partial to pieces with an evident usefulness: pitchers, vases, bowls, platters, even (and especially) humble mugs. My soap dishes and toothbrush holders are handmade; so are my birdbaths and cat and dog bowls. My sister, by contrast, loves large, imposing, and totally useless ceramics, which our friend Ben has attempted to integrate into the small cottage venue of Hawk’s Haven with dubious success.

So it was with real joy that our friend Ben recalled a huge, melon-shaped turquoise ceramic piece that had been hiding since its arrival in a dark recess in the pantry. Said piece is now proudly centered on the seagreen column, adding a beautifully contrasting color and the appropriate shape, if not the reflective quality that gave gazing balls their name. Thank you, Elizabeth! Pondering this further, it dawned on our friend Ben that we also have a gorgeous, palest primrose yellow pumpkin that formed an integral part of last fall’s harvest display and is still entirely intact in the mudroom. (Our friend Ben had never seen a pumpkin of that color, and of course could not bear to compost it or feed it to the chickens while it was still intact.) It, too, would have been exquisite on the seagreen column.

Those of you who have read my post “The gazing ball thief” will know that I have more than a passing interest in gazing balls. If you happen to have an unused silver gazing ball lurking somewhere in storage on your property, please think of our friend Ben and that seagreen column. But until someone kindly bestows a gazing ball on us, the turquoise ceramic will fill a void.        

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