Holiday Lights On Holiday Nights: A Visit To The Edison/Ford Estates

BanyanTree:edison

[The Banyan tree with a bronze of Edison standing guard]

We arrived about thirty-five minutes before sunset.  Heading for the admission window, we passed the largest Banyan tree in Florida.  There was a family on the path in front of us.  I heard the mother:

“Isn’t that amazing that this is one tree?”

“Not really,” said the sulky teenage daughter.

Teenagers…

We walked past the tree and I nearly stumbled over four people.  My attention was directed at this tree, this 3/4 acre tree, this alien-like plant that looked like it came from a moon that orbits a planet we haven’t found yet, this wonder of God and Nature.  It’s hard to put words on paper that would accurately describe the feeling I had when I looked at this tree.  The longer I stared, the more I saw…and felt.  If the Nymphs, the Dryads, or the Lauma live, they live in the Banyan.  To say that it “blew me away” sounds trite and immature.

And, the Banyan trees walk!

We’re down to nine days before we depart Fort Myers.

“Let’s go see the Holiday Nights at the Edison/Ford estates,” I said to Mariam.

“Ok.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and other extremely wealthy shakers and movers of industry, had winter homes here in Fort Myers.  These estates have been lovingly and intelligently restored and it is possible to stroll among the gardens and pools and ‘cottages’ that spoke of a time in the past when a heated swimming pool was a rarity.

Me&Mina

[Mina Edison and me.]

Henry Ford made cars, in case you haven’t heard.  I drive a red Ford.  Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.  But he was also intrigued by botany.  He planted the Banyan tree in 1927 as an experiment.  He was looking for a material that could be a cheaper method to produce rubber.  No wonder Ford and Firestone wanted to hang out with the guy.

ClusterFigTree

[A Cluster Fig]

We walked the paths and poked our heads into the dining rooms, libraries, kitchens and pantries of the Ford and Edison homes.

EdisonQuote

I bought two “Welcome To Florida” postcards, done in the old style of the 1940’s.

We left the parking lot and drove down McGregor Boulevard, keeping an eye out for a nice restaurant.  I thought about the teenage girl and wonder if anything she had seen that night impressed her.

Maybe the 1,200+ patents that these two men held?  Maybe the thousands of lights on the palm trees?  Maybe the museum with a working model of a Model T (or was it an A)?  Maybe the dolls that were on display in one of the family rooms?

Maybe nothing impressed her.

Me, I pushed the button on the radio of my Ford Escape and began to listen to my favorite country music station.

We were just approaching the restaurant on McGregor when I heard another memorable song:

“Prop me up beside the juke box if I die.”

This guy’s main concern about death was that he had a stiff (no pun intended) drink in his hand and was left against a juke box.

Now, that was impressive.

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[Photo:Edison/Ford Estates Website]

 

Crossing Whiskey Creek To The Banyan Tree

BanyanTreeFortMyersCemetery

I had my plastic cup of iced coffee from the Java Cafe nestled nicely in the container holder next to the gear shift knob on the red Ford Escape.  This time I was going to try something different.  I was going to locate and take the rear entrance (or is an exit when you’re leaving?) of the Outlet Mall.

Soon I was on McGregor Blvd and listening to the country radio station.  The song was “Shall I Go Home or Shall I Go Crazy?”  Apparently the singer had some serious issues with his girl friend at home.  I wonder how things turned out for him.

I worry about people.

But this was not a day to just drive around Fort Myers looking for a Starbucks (remember I already had a coffee).  No, I had a destination.  I was going to Fort Myers Cemetery to visit the grave of Edgar “Bloody” Watson.  You may wonder what is drawing me to see this alleged murderers burial plot.  Well, I’m reading Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen.  It is over 900 pages of a fictional treatment of the “Legend of Chokoloskee”.  Watson was an interesting character but there is a fog of doubt about who he really was and what he really did.

Details?  You can Google Watson if you’re desperate, but I would suggest waiting for my blog on him and…well, it’ll be far more entertaining and fascinating than the Wikipedia entry.  Or, go buy the book by Matthiessen.  But don’t expect to rejoin the family and the real world until sometime after Easter.  It’s a serious read.  Trust me.

So, I was driving north on McGregor, passing the walled enclaves of the moderately rich people.  The really wealthy folks are about thirty miles south, in Naples.  There is a small bridge ahead.  I’m passing an Irish Pub on the right.  I’m crossing Whiskey Creek.  I had just read an advertisement about the Whiskey Creek Country Club.  Membership?  For a single golfer for one season, the fee is just shy of $1,500.  If I had that kind of money to spare, I’d join just so I could carry a card that had that name on it.

Whiskey Creek.  It begs to be a metaphor.

“I overturned the kayak of my life and I swam in Whiskey River for too many years.”

I think I have the beginning of a country song.  Or, maybe a dark Irish short story of misspent youth.  I don’t know a thing about writing country songs, but I’m Irish and I over spent my allowance of my younger years.

I make a few turns before I find Michigan Ave.  Another two miles and I’m turning into the cemetery.  The old headstones, from the early 1900’s are mostly under oak trees that are draped with Spanish Moss.  Nothing makes a southern cemetery more spooky and sad and lonely than Spanish Moss.  It’s the essence of southern gothic.

There is a fellow riding around on a backhoe.  I stop him and ask where “Bloody” Watson’s grave is located.  He says he’s only been there a week and doesn’t know where anything would be.  I troll the narrow drives.  Acorns pop under my tires.  Just because I felt like it, I make a left turn.  There is a large gray stone: WATSON.  I get out and walk around the car.  There is Edgar’s stone.  Someone had placed an old penny on top.  I thought it was a strange thing to leave at the grave of a guy with the nickname of “Bloody”, but, hey, I was here.

As I was driving back to Michigan Ave. a pickup truck blocked my way.  On the door was City of Fort Myers.  A cemetery worker, a genial black man with salt and pepper hair got out.  He knew where Watson was buried, but I told him I already found it.  It didn’t matter to him–he wanted to talk.  Fifteen minutes later, he points to the beads of sweat on his forehead and says: “It’s too hot out here for me.  I’m going back to the AC in the truck.  Good luck.”

He told me a great deal about his life in those fifteen minutes.  I should have been expecting it.  After all, he spends his working day in a field of dead people.  Who do you talk to?

Just before he slammed his door, he called out: “Did you see the Banyan tree?”  I said that I did, which wasn’t a lie.  I just didn’t know what the tree was when I first saw it.  I drove back to it to get a photo.  I stood looking at a tree that I thought was really five trees.  You wouldn’t believe the size of this enormous plant!  A person could live inside it’s base. I found out later that it was the “sister tree” to the one on the Edison and Ford estates.  It seems that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were good friends and each had a very large home in Fort Myers.  The two historic houses are side by side.  Edison planted the first Banyan tree in America on his property.  Ford thought it would be a cheaper way to produce rubber for tires.  They planted the tree as an experiment.  It was only four feet tall.  Today, the one tree covers an entire acre.

I need to see this tree.

In Hindu myth, the god Shiva (in the incarnation of Dakshinamurthy) is always depicted sitting quietly beneath a Banyan tree.  The confusing tangle of its extended root system are thought to be symbolic of eternity.  It just keeps growing.

The afternoon sun was getting intense.  I decided to drive back to the Siesta Bay Resort and take a swim.  It was 89 F.

It’s December 2.  What else could you do on this winter day?

It was a good day.  The grave of an alleged killer, a gentleman who dug graves on hot days and a mind numbing tree the size of Rhode Island.  It was only 2:49 pm.  I had plenty of time.  Perhaps I’d find the public library where I could write and post this blog.

But first, I had to cross Whiskey Creek again.

banyan

[The Banyan Tree at the Edison House. Source: Google search]

 

Every Grain Of Sand

“There lived a singer in France of old

By the tideless dolorous midland sea.

In a land of sand and ruin and gold

There shone one woman and none but she.”

–Algernon Swinburne

“I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea

Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.

I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man

Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.”

–Bob Dylan “Every Grain of Sand”

HandOfSand

Once upon a time–it seems like long ages ago–I taught in an independent school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  My job was to introduce wealthy kids to the amazing world of science.  It wasn’t a hard job.  If you lit a candle, the 5th grade boys would “ooh and ahh”, so much so that I would tell them to get out more often and see a show once in a while.

In the back of my classroom, in an oak cabinet with a glass door, I had a row of small bottles with black caps.  Each container had a label.  I think I had about twenty.  The bottles were half the size of a typical test tube.  This was my collection of sand.  Yes, I collected sand.  It makes more sense than a ball of string, rubber bands or empty beer cans from brewers that no longer exist.  I had an advantage that most sand collectors would envy.  Most of my students went to the warm places during the holiday vacations.  Some went skiing in the Alps or Aspen, but it’s hard to collect snow.  I would give my south-bound students a zip-lock bag and ask them to bring me some sand from wherever they went.  I had black sand from Hawaii, pink sand from Bermuda–I had sand from the shores of the Dead Sea and sand from Ipanema Beach in Rio.

Needless to say my sand collection was quite impressive–if you’re impressed by such things.

I think sand is as beautiful and thought-provoking to look upon as a crystal of Rhodochrosite, Halite, Calcite, Serpentine and even Garnet.  Notice I didn’t say Diamond.  I do have some sense of value.

Sand is the stuff of poets and philosophers.

“To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.  Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”

–William Blake

These poets and philosophers have a fair grasp of the sublime nature of sand, as a physical substance that you can hold, and as a metaphor for human existence.

The ancient hour-glass is impossible to look at without thinking of the ticking of life’s clock.  How many poets have reminded us of this?  How many images are there of The Grim Reaper who carries a scythe and an hour-glass?  The message is simple, when your final grain of sand had fallen through the narrow glass, the flow of time needs to stop for you.

Hourglass

I am in Florida.  Sand is what keeps this state from sinking into a chasm between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.  [That isn’t quite the entire scientific story, but I have time restraints.]

We saw the small sign indicating a beach.  Turning right off the main road, we arrived at a tiny parking lot.  Even with sunglasses, the sun reflected from the white sand with a glaring intensity, it made you squint, it made your eyes water and it made you want to run naked along the narrow beach while singing an aria from Puccini.

That probably would have resulted in an arrest and a fine that I had no wish to pay.

Some say that if you see one beach, you see them all.  There is some truth in that.  The elements of sand, or pebbles, or  shells, the washing of the waves, the palm trees, the pine trees, or the coconut trees are present along many beaches.  Some, like those in Maine, add a rocky aspect to the mix.  But the beach I stood on just outside Fort Myers, in Florida, was almost pure white.  It made me blink.  It made me reach for my tube of SPF 45.  The sun’s intensity was turning my forearms brown as I stood and watched.

This was the Florida I came to see.  This was just one of the beaches I intended to visit.

And, beaches never fail to set my mind to wandering and wondering and thinking, about life, death, endless motion and the ultimate victory of the sea over the land.

Beach1

Yes, sand is one of the most powerful metaphors for life and change.  I’m hard pressed to think of any natural substance, so common, so varied and so beautiful that speaks to so many souls and poets and painters, about the transitory life we lead.

Every grain of sand, whether its common quartz, feldspar, weathered basalt or bits of sea shells, owns its own particular intricate shape and luster.

It’s just like what’s been said of the individuality of snowflakes.  But, snow is not on my mind these days.

Sand-Grains-quartz-Hyams-Beach-Jervis-Bay-Australia

My Three Palms

My3Palms

It’s the second morning, the second sunrise, of our third day–at our winter home.  I just got out of bed, it’s 8:56 am and the thermometer on the wall over my head reads 85.6 F.  Mmmmmm.  Should I read something into this?

The sun set yesterday on our first full day at the Siesta Bay Resort in Fort Myers.  My tan line is getting defined, my sweat glands are getting an exercise in functionality and I’m feeling my age.

After arriving on Sunday afternoon and were led to our site (I actually backed the Rpod in myself, thank you) we began the ritual of unhitching, balancing, adjusting the supports (that’s RV talk for those of you who fly to a resort), hooking up the water line and plugging into the 30 amp box, we were overheated and as sweaty as those pro basketball players you see on ESPN.  Two hours later, as we sought out a Barnes & Noble, a Starbucks and an RV Camper Store to make a few necessary purchases, we were even more sweaty and hot.  We both took a quick shower and I tuned into the World Series on my TuneIn app.  The game was great (and interesting to listen to rather than watch), until the late innings.  My heart didn’t bleed real blood, I’m a Yankee fan, but I felt sorry for the Mets fans out in the boroughs, in places like Queens and Kips Bay.

But, first we had to get the interior cooled off just a little.  I would have settled for about fifteen degrees cooler and 35% less humidity, but you work with what you have.  What we had was a small fan.  Actually, it’s a really small fan.  It’s about the size of a compact box of Kleenex tissues.  If you put a candle three inches in front of said fan, the flame might wiggle a little–maybe not.

We had to bring out the “big guns”.  It was time to turn on our AC.  The last time we used it was in October, 2013 when we were in Death Valley.  It does a fine job in cooling off the limited living space in our RV.  In reality, this AC unit could easily chill the interior of a Greyhound bus.  Soon, I could see my breath.  An hour later, my core body temperature was down enough to consider turning the thing off.  We did and were stunned at how we had been shouting at each other over the noise from the fan.  There is no Low/Medium/High setting.  It was ON or OFF.  The neighbors probably thought the Yanks were having a tiff.  It would have been a logical guess–scenic traveling can be stressful.

I looked up at my indoor/outdoor thermometer (digital) that I mounted with velcro to the wall above my head. It was late at night–the temperature was supposed to go down after the sun set. But, I noticed the indoor temperature was 1.6 degrees warmer than the outdoor temperature. It must need new batteries.

Then the real heartbreak. I had been staring at a blank wall when I would lay down to read or play Scrabble. It’s an empty space above the window where my feet are during the night. I had plans to make that wall my (our) Postcard Wall Of Memories. I was going to put up a typical postcard from all the interesting places we visiting on this road trip. It would be a visual reminder of favorite places, fond memories. My first card was a sepia toned photo of the Chrysler Building at night. It’s a famous photograph. I put a long strip of double-sided tape on the back. I found it two days out of New York City–sitting at the foot of the bed. It fell off. The second card what called “Rainbow Row”. It was a beautiful color picture of the amazing houses in Charleston, SC.  It stayed on the wall.

PostcardsInRpod

We were both up early so we could enjoy the cool morning air.  After that twenty-five minutes was over, Mariam had to find a shady place to use her laptop (she works three days a week and all her business can be done with emails and phone calls).  She had a nice shady spot in front of the camper.  The mid-morning sun was getting serious so I had to seek out some shade so I could write in my journal and read a few chapters of a very thick book.

I found a place of shade provided by the middle tree of trio of palms in “our” yard.  Or, someone’s yard.  I put my chair in place and settled in.  Then, seven minutes later, I had to shift my chair.  The sun moves across the sky just like at home–in the North Country.

Later, in the afternoon, Mariam had moved her “office” to the breezeway, which is a common room open to the breezes.  So, if the air ever did move, there would be a breeze.   I came prepared to use the pool.  I went into the gate and was confronted by about twenty elderly people taking half the pool to play volleyball.  I looked around and counted the number of people in the water, those playing the game those just treading away in the deep end.  There were twenty-seven.  I made a fair estimate of their average ages and decided that 71 was an appropriate assumption.  Not counting me (I was about to be the twenty-eight), the aggregate age of the pool population was 1,917 years.  Calendar-wise, that goes back to the beginnings of the major religions. That made me take a step back.  I prayed that I would skew that number by a few months.  This pool needed it.

Pool Volleyball

After a few laps, I retired to my lounging chair to watch my sand dry in the sun.  Don’t ask.  It’s a long story and another blog.  If you must know why I have a zip-lock bag of damp sand, send me a message or email and I will tell you the whole truth).

Back at our site, which is #143, in case you were starting your holiday shopping early, I noticed a tree about thirty feet from the front of the R-pod.  It’s too perfect.  I have strong suspicions that it’s a cell phone tower like the kind they use when local populations force Verizon to make things look “natural”.  I think this helps to explain the constant vertigo I’ve been feeling since we left Rainbow Lake.  Maybe I should do a Google search for a local Pilates Class for Seniors.

So, what have I learned in my first day and a half at the place where we will celebrate New Years Eve ’15?

I was quick to notice how ubiquitous the golf cart is to the folks who stay here year after year.  They are everywhere.  And, I think that is very understandable and hip in a way.  They are quiet, non-polluting, and can get you to the pool in just a few minutes.

GolfCart

Then there was the warning we were given about the picturesque pond just beyond the tennis courts.  The woman who checked us in said that we can’t swim there.

I asked why.

She said something about alligators, two of them, who live in the pond.  At least that’s what I think she said.

We’ve been in Florida now for four days.  I’m pretty sure I heard correctly.  After all, the northern end of the Everglades are a mere one hour drive away.

While I’m here, I fully intend to obey all signs say: No Swimming.

NoSwimSign

 

 

 

The crickets are chirping in the foliage and the cars speed by on the highway to and from Sanibel Island.