American Forests magazine,
Winter-Spring 2016 issue.
(Click on the image to see the
whole magazine.)

Melanie's story is on pages 16-23.
Copyright 2010 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley
The Proverbial Word to the Wise
Copyright 2002 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley (first published in The Washington Post)
The Proverbial Word to the Wise - A Sidebar
Copyright 2002 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley (first published in The Washington Post)

An Old Dog and Some Blackberries
Copyright 2003 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley (first published in The Washington Post)

Check back soon for more essays and accompanying photographs.


Copyright 2010 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley

            I pull my iron down from the top of the clothes dryer, where it’s been idling for weeks. After dusting it off and checking for bottom-gunk, I carry the iron to the kitchen sink, push the red plastic steam valve down—as I learned to do as a child—and fill it from the tap with a thin stream of water. As water trickles into the chamber, I feel a stab of affection for this simple appliance that I rarely rely on anymore.
            I head to the basement where I have to hunt for the ironing board. It seems that my husband moved it to hang some suit jackets encased in dry cleaner bags from an overhead pipe. Hoisting the board over my shoulder, I carry it up to the dining room, where I open the metal legs with one swift hand motion, setting off the signature ironing board screech.
            Encircling the board with the sage green cotton dress I will wear this evening to lead a tree tour at the botanic garden,  I pick up the now plugged in and steaming iron. Wetting my finger with spit, I lightly touch the bottom to elicit that little readiness hiss my mother taught me to test for so many years ago. I lift the steam valve, place the iron on the creased hem of the dress, and begin to move it slowly back and forth, applying just the right amount of pressure. The iron makes its comforting hiss music, my wrinkled dress becomes smooth and steam rises around my face. I turn the dress several times on the board, and soon I’m holding aloft a freshly pressed dress.
            Do women always do this?  Hold up our freshly ironed garments? Are we simply examining for the stray missed crease, or is this a small moment of celebration?
            Ironing the dress comprises the most relaxed minutes of my day. My husband and grown daughter are at work, my teen-aged son is off recording music, and the house is quiet.  The familiar ritual, now so rarely performed, involves communion with heat and steam, soft fabric and an appliance that doesn’t require electronic commands. It’s a break from cramming my head with botanical and historical facts that I will hopefully later be able to recall effortlessly as I lead my group through the botanic garden.
            This moment on a summer day is a far cry from my first experiences with ironing. I grew up in a household where ironing was an extreme activity. My mother was a fanatical ironer and housekeeper and although she no longer has three young children constantly soiling clothes, she still has her “ironing days.”
            As a child I sensed that ironing lay at the heart of many unspoken things in our household. While my dad went off to teach, coach sports and later headmaster during the day, my mother stayed home to wrestle with the messiness of the domestic scene. There were rugs to vacuum, floors to wash, basins to scrub and endless piles of pre-synthetic deeply wrinkled clothes.
            Most of the jobs were done in a flurry of haste with kids afoot – my sister, brother and me and our noisy friends. But the ironing was different. The ironing was solitary. There was a zone around the ironing space, a shield almost, that we instinctively knew not to penetrate.
            There my mother would be, in one of the rooms of our dormitory apartment or even an empty dorm room, her “spit curls” swept back with a colored kerchief, her board, her iron, her bowl of water for stubborn creases, and her pile. The pile seemed to arise from the earth itself, spilling everywhere.
            Her face was usually pinched, she wasn’t talking, but she was ironing, yes she was ironing, hour after hour. It was spectacular to peek in and see the way the mussed piles morphed into shaped outfits hanging on hangers. My little brother’s razor-creased shorts and pants and shirts, my sister’s and my identical dresses, my dad’s outfits down to his underwear.  In later years my brother would tell me that Dad was the talk of the school locker room with his creased “skivvies” and ironed t-shirts.
            There was something else about the ironing zone. Music flowed from it. Some days it was the staticky AM station from Springfield, Vermont, which made me feel nauseous and headachy. But it wasn’t always fitful pop music from Springfield. There were days when Mom listened to her vinyl recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. There were days she listened to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.  I still picture ironing when I hear music ranging from “Purple People Eater” to Tchaikovsky’s fateful lyricism.
            I sensed the volcanic nature of the laundry pile and I tried to help. I ironed myself, from the age of six or seven, and until my head ached. When I babysat the faculty neighbor children, I tried to relieve those moms of their ironing and housekeeping duties too. I’ll never forget the puzzled look on a young mother’s face when she came home to find not only that her three wild children were sleeping soundly but also that all their clothes were ironed and hanging on the bathroom door.
            I’ve never had a real conversation with my mother about ironing, although she’s deflected her share of good-natured barbs from the family about her ongoing zealousness for perfect creases and her shunning of commercial cleaners. I’m not sure I’d want to because I’m not sure that— despite the often pinched look on her face and the metastatic nature of the laundry pile—those moments with iron in hand, children elsewhere, didn’t represent her most uninterrupted  moments of communion with her inner life. Perhaps they still do.
            Later in the summer I help my daughter pack up and move to Chapel Hill to start a PhD program. Her clothes always hang smoothly on her slender body and she never seems to need an iron. As we cruise the aisles of her local box store for kitchen and cleaning supplies, I think about how glad I am that she won’t have to make space in her new apartment for a clunky board and a rarely needed appliance. But, as we fill the cart with such necessities as a food processor and microwave, I’m also secretly hoping she finds some meditative moments of domestic ritual to clear her head after hours spent in her busy lab and on-line.
            A few days after returning home, I receive a message from my daughter, who is still shopping: “Today I almost bought an ironing board. There was a pretty light blue one at Target with white flowers on it and I suddenly thought it would be fun to own one. Then I remembered that I don’t know how to iron.” 

Bio: Melanie Choukas-Bradley is the author of three natural history books, including City of Trees (University of Virginia Press), and a long-time contributor to The Washington Post. Her stories have also been published in Washingtonian Magazine, Bethesda Magazine, The Bark, The Audubon Naturalist News and many other publications. She has been a guest on The Diane Rehm Show, All Things Considered, and many other Washington, DC radio and television programs. Melanie is a naturalist who leads tree tours and field trips for the United States Botanic Garden, the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Nature Conservancy.

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The Proverbial Word to the Wise: Where There’s a Will There’s a Cliché
…and the Voice of the Ages

Copyright 2002 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley
First Published in
The Washington Post, January 21, 2002

            The best things in life are free and there’s nothing new under the sun. One of these adages is thousands of years old and the other is a product of the twentieth century but could you tell which is which?
            Were you ever told that a watched pot never boils or warned don’t count your chickens before they hatch? Probably about a thousand times. We learn these and other hackneyed sayings at our mothers’ knees and repeat them throughout our lives, in conversation, in print, and perhaps most frequently, silently to ourselves. So simplistic and cliched are the proverbs and aphorisms of our daily discourse that we never stop to recognize them for what they are: nothing less than the distilled wisdom of the ages and the unconscious underpinnings of our every day lives.
            A little digging has taught me that the body of knowledge encoded in common proverbs represents a rich oral and written tradition spanning many centuries and cultures. These time-honored sayings embody universal truths honed by generations around the world. But every culture has its own proverbial spin so it’s no surprise that many of the adages that have thrived on American soil have a distinctly American flavor.
            Benjamin Franklin popularized proverbs gleaned from a wide variety of sources in his “Poor Richard’s Almanack” which was published for 25 years beginning in 1732. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise exemplifies Franklin’s emphasis on clean living and thrift. Thrift is the theme of many proverbs that have thrived in this country: a penny saved is a penny earned; waste not, want not; neither a borrower nor a lender be and a fool and his money are soon parted. Promptness is another topic of oft-used proverbs: the early bird gets the worm; you snooze you lose but also better late than never.
            Business before pleasure may approach the status of a national mantra but we are reminded that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
            Many proverbs address the importance of setting priorities (don’t put the cart before the horse and first things first) and persistence (practice makes perfect, if at first you don’t succeed, try try again and where there’s a will there’s a way). Taking timely action is also urged in aphorisms such as: a stitch in time saves nine; don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today; there’s no time like the present; and strike while the iron is hot. Anyone who saw the movie Dead Poets Society will never forget Robin Williams admonishing his students to seize the day (carpe diem).
            Patience, humility and caution are extolled in many maxims. Haste makes waste, pride goeth before a fall, better safe than sorry, don’t play with fire, look before you leap and curiosity killed the cat. Learning to accept our own limitations is another rich proverbial vein: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink; you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip; a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; you win some, you lose some; don’t cry over spilled milk.
            Who could argue with the sage advice an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, an apple a day keeps the doctor away or laughter is the best medicine?
            Many proverbs urge kindness and respect for karmic laws, including the biblical “golden rule”: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself, one good turn deserves another, live and let live, forgive and forget, you reap what you sow, what goes around comes around and people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones represent age-old global wisdom. Honesty and integrity are urged in the sayings honesty is the best policy, practice what you preach and actions speak louder than words.
            Experience as teacher is another universal theme: Live and learn; seek and ye shall find; when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Adversity can be especially instructive: necessity is the mother of invention and when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In dealing with life’s challenges we are urged to keep our perspective: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.
            Our popular culture may enslave us to image over substance but our old chestnuts urge the reverse: don’t judge a book by its cover, beauty’s only skin deep and all that glitters is not gold.
            Proverbs have a lot to say about the complexities of collective energy. No man is an island; two heads are better than one; united we stand, divided we fall. However, too many cooks spoil the broth and one rotten apple spoils the barrel. Birds of a feather flock together but opposites attract.
            On matters of the heart we readily acknowledge that love is blind and love conquers all. However we may only grudgingly agree that all’s fair in love and war and while we hope that absence makes the heart grow fonder we may worry about the implications of the contradictory adage – out of sight, out of mind.
            In this country we are in the unexpected position of having to come to terms with war and related uncertainties. Even in the information capital of Washington, the phrase no news is good news suddenly resonates. People in tough times have drawn comfort from the time-honored phrases this too shall pass, the darkest hour is just before dawn and time heals all wounds. Those of us who are desk-bound may want to contemplate the wisdom of the aphorism – the pen is mightier than the sword. In response to the bleakest news many of us are finally learning to stop and smell the roses.
            Getting back to the phrases the best things in life are free and there’s nothing new under the sun – the first is a baby among proverbs, dating to a Broadway musical of the 1920s, and the second appears in the Old Testament of the Bible. Their timeless appeal is the common link. An unscientific survey of familiar proverbs leads me to conclude that most of our old chestnuts date back several hundred years. The Bible, Chaucer and Shakespeare are among the richest literary sources of proverbs and several available books identify origins and compare proverbs cross-culturally. In the current French film, Amelie, familiarity with proverbs is presented as a test of character and the sayings featured are several of those that are favorites here.
            However, from when and where these helpful phrases come matters less than how they come to you. Just pluck them from the air; like all the best things, they’re free.

The Proverbial Word to the Wise

Copyright 2002 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley

Splitting Semantic Hairs. The words proverb, adage, maxim and aphorism, which are used interchangeably here, are pretty much synonymous. A proverb, according to my dictionary, is “a short wise saying used for a long time by many people.” The definition of adage is nearly identical. Maxim is defined as a “short rule of conduct” with a stitch in time saves nine and look before you leap given as examples. The dictionary defines aphorism as “a short sentence expressing a general truth, piece of practical wisdom, or the like.”
Digging Deeper. To learn more about these pithy phrases, whatever you choose to call them, visit a local library or bookstore. The Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman and the Oxford University Press A Dictionary of American Proverbs edited by Wolfgang Mieder and others are excellent resources that trace the history of common proverbs. Local libraries have books on traditional sayings from many cultures that range from simple picture books to in-depth texts. Some are available in their native languages.
            The trail of the old chestnuts is a never-ending one that can carry you around the globe, through time and, appropriately, drive you a little nuts. Still waters run deep, where there’s smoke there’s fire, a rolling stone gathers no moss…the metaphorical highway rolls on and on but since space does not may I simply observe that all’s well that ends well. – Melanie Choukas-Bradley

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An Old Dog and Some Blackberries

Copyright 2003 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley
First published in The Washington Post as “An Old Dog, Blackberries and Joie de Vivre,” August 13, 2003
Also published in The Bark Magazine and The Valley News

            A high summer morning with a break in the humidity. Everything important and pending will have to wait. I grab a leash and call for Honeysuckle, our fourteen-year-old golden retriever. She doesn't come. I call again, shrilly, on old-dog wavelength. No response. I round the corner of the house and see her sitting in a patch of sun. I call again and she looks around, trying to pinpoint the sound. Her deafness seems more pronounced since last week. Is that possible?
            Once she sees the leash, though, she's up and at em, prancing toward the wooden gate. She knows where she's going and what she'll find and this important business can't wait a minute more.
            I leash her, briefly, as we cross the busy road, and then I let her go. She is a golden streak in the morning sun, high stepping and wagging her way down the farm road as butterflies flutter up from everywhere. She doesn't look a day over seven.
            I watch her dive into the tangle of multiflora rose, bedstraw, thistle and poison ivy. The first time she comes up dry. But when she dives again, she gets the reward she seeks: blackberries. Succulent, sweet, growing up and down the arching canes along the roadside. Honeysuckle is both passionate and systematic in her quest for the ripe ones. Her sniffer is going a mile a minute as she nibbles up and down the prickly stalks, passing over the hard green, pink, and red fruits, saving herself for those that are shiny and black and ready to fall from the vine. She nips them off deftly, quickly swallows and then nips off another.
            This seems nothing short of miraculous to me. Here is a dog whose siblings all are dead. A dog who once chased deer for twenty minutes at a time, gave me heart attacks thinking I'd never see her again, and then returned to the precise spot on which I was standing and frantically calling her. This is a dog who now spends up to 22 hours a day  asleep. Yet here she is, energetically harvesting blackberries as if it's the job she was born to do.
            Life. What more can we do than establish rituals for each stage of it? How did this old dog get so smart and figure that out? Surely she'd rather be chasing deer. Maybe she does so in her dreams. For now these blackberries seem like the only prey in the world for her.
            An indigo bunting sings from a dead branch in a treetop. The wild snapdragon called butter and eggs and the sky-blue cups of chicory flowers bloom along the roadside. Just over the hill I see my neighbors in their straw hats, cultivating their garden with their 1940s' tractor. A line of oaks and hickories hugs the farm field, densely foliated with all the rain. I breathe deeply and take it all in.
            When Honeysuckle was born my daughter Sophie was three years old. Sophie named the puppy. This weekend she will drive herself to the beach. What rituals will I devise to fill the time while she is gone? Gone to the beach, and then, next year, gone to college? Honeysuckle moves on to a new blackberry bush. This one is loaded with fruit. How is it possible for that many blackberries to have ripened since yesterday? As the old dog continues her blackberry binge, I walk slowly down the farm road, watching dragonflies alight and fly, alight and fly. For now it seems like the job I was born to do.

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