Cars, Concrete, and Jacaranda Trees


I grew up in New York City where gridlock reigns and where whirring car ignitions, blaring horns and radios, and revving engines sang me to sleep at night and jolted me awake each morning.

As a child I romped through concrete playgrounds and ran through torrents raging from open fire hydrants. I loved a good game of punch ball in the streets where parked cars served as bases. I played stoop ball against the concrete steps of apartment buildings and jumped rope on the sidewalks.

Trees were few and I remember, at an early age, actually believing that real flowers came from florist shops and only on adult special occasions. Dusty, artificial flowers that decorated our apartments seemed as abundant as the cars on the streets and just as natural as the concrete cityscape.

School and socialization changed all that. Biology fascinated me and interacting with people who grew live plants led to my love of flowers and my current lifestyle.

As I grew up, my appreciation for cars and concrete shifted to the utilitarian. Cars became transportation. And the concrete sidewalks, teeming with apartment houses, stores, and skyscrapers necessary to living and working, provided safety from the traffic beyond their curbs.

I live in upstate New York now. Cars abound, their necessity absolute. Not much in the way of concrete, though. A few sidewalks in the one-traffic-light town near my home. A few single-family houses, stores, a library, and a bank grace their presence but there’s no shortage of trees and flowers.

The child I was would have felt strange and unsettled in this environment.

Though there were cars all over the place in New York City, my family didn’t own one. Few poor families did. Our nature trips, when we left our neighborhood at all, consisted of visits to Central Park by subway and bus.

Quite different from my current lifestyle.

Once a year I visit family in Los Angeles. Though I’m now a seasoned traveller, each time I arrive I find myself as unsettled as my city-child would have been in the mountains.

Indeed, my points of reference have changed.

I’m no longer used to concrete cityscapes and unceasing traffic sounds. I live in a town that has fewer than 3,000 permanent residents and my house rests inside six million acres of protected forest. I awaken to silence in the winters and to birdsong during the other three seasons.

And though I manage to visit my hometown without difficulty–it is home, after all– I admit to anxiety each time my plane lands at LAX.

Of course, the cars and concrete in LA link me to a life I left long ago. Yet there are substantial differences. Where New York City is a compact island connected to outer boroughs by bridges and tunnels, Los Angeles sprawls and doesn’t seem to want to end. And though I’ve been here many times, I’ve yet to master the layout of the city.

I get lost a lot.

Yet each June when I arrive, I find myself so willing to set those stresses aside.

Jacaranda trees are in full bloom. Big purple clusters of cone-shaped flowers rest upon soft fern-like branches. They’re all over the place and they fill the air with fragrance and the streets with spectacular beauty.

A heart-warming delight to this flower-lover.

Though second only to my son who always meets me at the airport, the Jacaranda trees are a wonderful, welcoming sight.


Top photo: Under A Jacaranda
Bottom photo: Jacaranda Tree in full bloom
Photos taken with an IPhone 5 by Joann Pensabene June, 2013

Weeds and Wildflowers



Severe thunderstorms and heavy rain for the past five days.

More expected for another three.

Wild strawberry flowers

Wild strawberry flowers

Yet a bit of sunlight peeked through yesterday’s clouds

Veronica persica

Veronica persica

and I went for a walk in my woods and fields

Wild violets

Wild violets

where weeds and wildflowers perked up just long enough to pose for pictures and instill a small sense of peace.

Dandelion flower

Dandelion flower

Dandelion puffs

Dandelion puffs











(All photos taken with an IPhone by Joann Pensabene)






Adirondack Elephant

On Rt 9

The above picture was scanned from a print.
The original photo was taken by Joann Pensabene in April, 2008.

I drove past this spot on Route 9 hundreds of times and never saw anything other than green shrubs and gray rock formations. Of course, I never actually looked for anything more than that. Especially while driving. The 40 mph road is narrow. It winds and climbs and parallels Lake George in northern New York. And except for a scenic overview here and there along the way there’s no safe place to stop and examine specific geographical configurations.

Yet someone did just that and shared this unique perception.

How and when the outline was made is a mystery as is who did the work. The whitewash was not permanent. The sketch disappeared when the rain washed the paint away. The elephant reappeared one more time that I’m aware of, years after I took the above picture.

So, how can one interpret this modern, human-geological interaction?




You decide.

The Sky at Dawn


photo by Joann Pensabene

Dawn through the trees. Red and orange streaks across Wednesday’s sky.

My reaction, strong, the verse, reflexive:

“Red sky in the morning/sailor take warning. Red sky at night/ sailor’s delight.”

A memory fragment. Children’s voices from my past reaching across time, reciting the rhyme by rote during a grammar school lesson on proverbs. The simple saying, steeped in Western culture, secured me to humanity’s past. Definite assurance here. Sky and verse, together, offered me incontrovertible proof that rain was in my day.


photo by Joann Pensabene

Ancient people studied the natural world and predicted weather patterns based on repeated observations. Their predictions guided their decisions in farming, animal grazing, and sailing.

The “red sky verse,” often thought of as a cute, children’s poem today, was actually a cultural tool, a piece of oral history set into an adage. Repeated across generations it lives in our collective memory. Our ancestors used verse to memorize their interpretations of meteorological events as they organized their world and enhanced their chances of survival.

We humans are a creative lot and our observations across millennia connect us. We’re also an expressive lot. We devise incredible varieties of forms to present our gathered data. The “red sky verse” is only one of many. And, just for the record, the British and Australian version of the poem presents a shepherd as its subject rather than a sailor. I sometimes wonder whether early American pioneers might have thought, “Red sky in the morning/settler take warning…?”

photo by Joann Pensabene

photo by Joann Pensabene

An early written account of the red sky phenomenon can be found in the Bible. Jesus says to the Pharisees:

“…when it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky but you cannot interpret the signs of the times ” (Matthew 6:2-3, New Revised Standard Version.)

A sign of our own times, of course, is the evolution of sophisticated scientific techniques we now use to present our observations of natural occurrences. We’ve replaced our reliance on adages with experts who interpret events in ways our ancestors could never have envisioned. All an ordinary, technologically connected person need do is watch reports on The Weather Channel, listen to predictions on local radio stations, or tap on iPhone Apps to find out conditions in any given part of the world at any given moment. And we can track and view the impact of weather on the physical, psychological, social, and environmental consequences endured by our fellow humans in real time and respond with appropriate support.

photo by Joann Pensabene

photo by Joann Pensabene

Such is a result of living in a global-networked culture. It’s wonderful to have electronic data at our fingertips and to feel confident in the high probability of their veracity. Understanding that red sky phenomena are caused by debris and moisture caught in cloud formations as weather patterns move in specific directions did satisfy my intellectual craving about what I saw out my window the other day.

Yet the red and orange streaks across the sky through the woods behind my house was a heart-stopping moment that culminated in pleasure and wonder. Natural art. A brilliant picture that glowed and faded as the sun rose higher in the sky, beauty I could only partially capture with the camera.

And what about the veracity of the ancient verse?* Though actual studies of it’s accuracy have been done, the science jurists are split. Perhaps someday someone may come up with a statistically stable result.

Finally, what did the weather do on Wednesday? I leave you with my own observations compiled by looking out my window and without benefit of reports from the professionals. The day yielded alternating sun and clouds and late in the afternoon, we had a good, soaking rain.


*The links below offer contrasting info re: red sky validity.

Views From Piermont Pier

Visited family and friends downstate in Rockland County this week. The county was my home for more than thirty years. I raised my family, worked, and volunteered in the community here. I watched it grow from a small, semi-rural place along the lower Hudson River into a well-developed suburb of New York City.

One of my favorite places down here is the Piermont Pier. It’s a mile-long structure that juts into the Hudson. The pier is located in the village of Piermont and is part of the Hudson River National Estuarine Reserve run by the Dept. of Environmental Conservation. It’s a great place for fishing, birding, and hiking. There are also places through the marshes where one can launch a canoe or kayak.

I’m well acquainted with the Hudson. I grew up in New York City and spent many hours playing in parks along its shores, walking along Riverside Drive in Manhattan and across the George Washington Bridge to the New Jersey side. These days I live in the southern Adirondacks in a tiny town at the confluence of the Hudson and the Sacandaga Rivers. Over the years I saw the river on the verge of death from pollution, then brought back to life by the Clearwater and other river clean-up projects. And two years ago I witnessed its rage when storms and Hurricane Irene whipped it into a frenzy near my upstate home.

The river, however, is a wonderful body of water that flows 315 miles from a tiny lake near Mt. Marcy in the north to the Narrows at the opening of the Atlantic Ocean in the south. But it does have moods. They’re powerful and I respect them. The Hudson is a living entity that can deliver grief or calm with equal bearing.

I spent a bit of time walking along the Piermont Pier on Wednesday morning. The day was sunny. Gentle winds blew across the river but the river was quiet. I watched the ducks, gulls and other birds at the water’s edge. I took a few photos then sat at the end of the pier and let the tranquility of the day and the gentle temper of the river fill me with serenity.

The Tappan Zee Bridge connects Piermont in Rockland County with Tarrytown in Westchester County








Photos courtesy of Joann Pensabene and Jim Pensabene


Dear Boston,

My heart is with you during this time of terror, anxiety, and uncertainty.

Love and deepest sympathies to all.

Please know that I hold you and those seeking to bring an end to your ordeal in the Light.

Also know that I stand with you as I pray for the city’s safety and for all who live, work, and pass through it.


The Gift

courtesy of Joann Pensabene March 2013

courtesy of Joann Pensabene
March 2013

The icicle descends from the roof’s overhang.

Nature’s Sculpture.

Title: Extended Chicken Leg with Attached Foot.

Given to: ME.
A parting gift from the winter that started late and outlasted its welcome.

Response: Weird, wonderful, exquisite. Unique.

My pulse soared.
I grabbed my camera and clicked.

Next day, the slow metamorphosis–
Ice. Water droplets. Condensation atop my deck’s wooden floor
swept into the windy night’s vast frost,
it’s essence,vaporized, it vanished in the warmth of yet another day’s morning sun.

Honeymoon: A Journal Entry/ Flash Fiction

Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 1973

Camped out 3 nights. Spruce, fir, magnificent. Air, invigorating. Sky, stars, remarkable.

Heavy downpour last night. Part of our old, canvas tent collapsed. We crawled out into the darkness and managed to dive into the VW as thunder boomed and lightning struck close to our campsite.

“Don’t touch any metal,” Rob said.

I guess he was trying to be helpful. I informed him that I had enough sense to not turn myself into a human lightning rod.

He said, “That’s why I love you.”

I scrunched in the Beetle’s back seat and pulled a damp blanket over me. Rob clattered around in front.

“You okay?”

“ Just trying to untangle myself from the gear shift,” he said. Then, “Ouch. Damn. Ah, that’s better. G’night, hon.” He was asleep before I finished my answer.

The storm soon eased and Rob’s snores replaced the thunder.

I tried to sleep but odors of dirty laundry, gasoline, stale cigarettes, and weed combined with dampness and chill caused bronchial spasms which compelled me to reach over the seat and grope for my husband. I grabbed Rob’s hair. He bolted upright, blurting several expletives. I gasped and tapped on the window. He understood and opened it. Fresher air improved my breathing. Rob turned, held me by the neck, and kissed me on the forehead. I think he tried to hug me but missed. Volkswagen Beetles are so unsuitable for lovemaking.

Rob returned to dreamland and I dozed off for a while.

Sand flies struck around 2 a.m. Thousands flew in through the open window. Voracious, stinging creatures, they launched a ceaseless attack against me. I yelled for Rob. He flung open the car door and jumped out. I pushed the seat forward and followed, hitting my head against the door frame as I plunged into the night and joined Rob in a frantic search for the flashlight and insect repellent. An eternity later, we found both items in the trunk under the toolbox that covered the bag of oil-soaked rags Rob uses to keep his engine clean and his ganja hidden. We sprayed ourselves and the car then spent the rest of the night sitting, scratching, and inhaling toxic bug spray fumes.

Exhausted, defeated by nature, yet determined to rise above our unfortunate experience, we broke camp today before breakfast. We found a motel with a laundry room and bought calamine and cotton at a local drugstore. I daubed my insect bites but it brought little relief. My body’s a mass of itchy, quarter-sized, red welts. The Bretons say recovery takes 4-5 days.

In bed now as I write. A light sheet covers my splotchy self. My less splotchy husband is beside me. He’s smiling and just said, “Happy honeymoon, my love.”

I smile back. “Happy honeymoon, Rob. I love you so much.”

His smile broadens. He moves closer.

If he touches me, he’s a dead man.

There Then Here


photo courtesy of Joann Pensabene, March 2013


photo courtesy of Joann Pensabene, March, 2013

A week on the road–nice weather made the drive easy there and back.

Just a few pics this trip. The goal was to visit family and friends across three states. Time was short. Conversation was long. Love ran deep.

Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the heart of the North Carolina Wine Country, Dobson is a place of serene family farms and sleeping vineyards this time of year. Looks a bit bleak now but in a few more months, the vines will be heavy with grapes.


photo courtesy of Joann Pensabene, March 2013

New Bern, founded in 1710, is North Carolina’s second oldest town. Settled by the German and Swiss, it was named after Bern, the capital of Switzerland.


photo courtesy of Joann Pensabene, March 2013

The town is set along the Trent and Neuse Rivers on the North Carolina coast.


photo courtesy of Joann Pensabene, March, 2013

New Bern was home to the First State Capital of North Carolina.


photo courtesy of Joann Pensabene, March, 2013

Home in New York’s North Country. Drove 200 miles upstate and the snow struck just south of Albany. Typical welcome home after the warm, balmy weather of the South.

Ah, yes, it’s good to be home. Haven’t seen the ground up here for weeks. Probably won’t see it for a few more.


photo courtesy of Joann Pensabene, March 2013

Be it ever so humble–

well, it’s heart-warming

even if bone-chilling.

Road trip

Three days on the road
and nearly 1,000 miles of travel,
I arrive in Douglasville, Georgia.
Hotel check-in, short rest,
then a Cajun dinner at Gumbo’s, the town’s culinary landmark.
Good talk and laughter
so far away from home.
It’s a family get-together,
occasional, happy, loving,