toni mcnaron's garden

“Stage Beauty”

I recently watched the 2003 movie “Stage Beauty” for the third time. It is about theater in mid-to-late seventeenth century England when women were not allowed to act on stage. Female parts were played by young male performers called “boy actors.” One of the most famous of these men was Edward (Ned) Kynaston who played many of Shakespeare’s female characters, most especially Desdemona from “Othello.” His dresser was a young woman named Margaret (Peg) Hughes. In the movie he is played by Billy Crudup and she is played by Clare Danes. Peg had a huge crush on Ned, sometimes watching his acting from the curtain while mouthing what he was saying to the spellbound audience. Other nights, she ran as fast as she could as soon as Kynaston was on stage, going to a scruffy playhouse where aspiring actors staged Shakespeare and where she played Desdemona. Then she dashed back to the big theater in time to help Kynaston take off his gown and put on his men’s clothes before going out to find his lover who was also a boy actor.

The movie is about what happens when King Charles II, egged on by his mistress, Nell Gwynn, issued a giant proclamation saying women could play female parts and abolishing boy acting as a career choice. Needless to say, Kynaston is devastated since he does not know how to perform maleness. Eventually, Margaret Hughes finds him acting in a seedy vaudevillian playhouse where he had to raise his skirt to show the gawking audience that he really was a man in drag. She takes him away and helps nurse him back to health.

In a pivotal scene, she tells him she will just lie down beside him while he sleeps. Once they are under the same blanket, she asks him “What do men do?” when they are lovers. Kynaston, played to perfection but Crudup, tells her a little before she begins touching him and asking first “who are you now” and eventually also acting “who a I now” as she assumes various postures in relationship to his body. I find this scene amazing for its radical bravery in staging it and in what it asks me to feel and think about. They each become both “male” and “female” as their sexual palates are enlarged by how they touch and interact physically, and how they talk about which gender they occupy at any given moment in their embrace.  As I watched this scene, I thought what a template this movie is for our current understanding of nom-binary and trans approaches to gender and sexuality.  But mostly I just reveled in the tenderness between the two actors and the bravery of the director, Richard Eyre.

As the movie comes to its as they rehearse the scene in which Othello suffocates Desdemona,  shouts at Kynaston that no woman would die as passively as he has portrayed that moment in his performances.  Sensing that she is right, Kynaston says he will play Othello with her and I watch spellbound as they wrestle and scream/grunt before Othello throws Desdemona on her bed and viciously attacks her with his pillow.  The audience in the film is as frightened as  am, so we all breathe a sigh of relief when Hughes reminds us that she is not dead and we have one more scene in which Emilia laments the loss off her Lady and excoriates her vile husband for ruining two splendid people.

If I ever teach this play again, I will assign “Stage Beauty” because Eyre’s production and Crudup’s and Danes’ performances have altered my understanding of what Shakespeare was trying to tell and show us about a third way of understanding gender and sexual performance.

Deep Space

The James Webb telescope is sending back amazing images from deep space, changing our whole approach to the universe and our place within it. Recently I saw ten of those photographs and was mesmerized by them. The colors and amorphous shapes drew me in to the unknown, suggesting movement and change and something beyond. Those of actual planets (xo planets, I was to learn) awoke my imagination and stirred my intellect. I just sat at my computer screen and gazed at what the marvelous instrument was showing me.

While I was so engaged, I began to think about Creationists who truly believe God created the world as we know it in six days and then rested on the seventh. I wanted them to look at the same ten photographs I was looking at, since the longer I stared at them and the closer I let them get to my innermost being, the more I felt I was looking at creation as it was occurring so very far away from me and my tiny world called Earth.

If a creator could form our planet in all its wonders and glories, why would that force be content to stop creating once “earth” was set in motion? Wasn’t it just possible that the process of creating forms in an unending and incalculable universe IS “god.” And might these images from the Webb telescope not make visually clear that science and faith need not be set against each other. Rather it is science that is allowing us here on our created planet to experience the wonderful reality of planets and sounds and stars beyond number and imagination. That in itself is a miracle, surely, showing just how amazing the human brain can be even as it renders unarguable just how tiny we humans actually are in relation to all that is “out there.”

Speech after long silence

This is the first line of a poem by William Butler Yeats that I have liked for many years. It’s written to a woman he loved when very young, but I have brought it to mind when I’ve been out of touch and am re-engaging with myself or a friend. It’s been quite a while since I’m written a blog, so I’m pleased to here typing these words. It’s high summer so I’m in my yard a lot, weeding or watering because we’re in deep drought. That means all my flowers/bushes/trees call out as I walk past them, so I move the hoses to help. Weeds thrive in dry weather so I can’t stay ahead of them with a garden as extensive as mine.

My water bills are exorbitant, but my garden is full of living, blooming life.  My front yard has not a single blade of grass and the back has a patch of green grass-like things, e.g., creeping Charlie, clover, little wild violets.   I have that patch because people tell me if there is NO grass or a fence, some prospective buyers don’t look seriously at your house if they have a child/children and/or a dog/dogs.  The front is mostly perennials (day lillies, hostess, bee balm, salvia, butterfly bush, hyssop, bergamot) and a few bright annuals (begonias, impatiens, petunias, pansies).  

The back garden used to be another mix of annuals and perennials, but I’m listening to naturalists who say everything we plant in our gardens should support some other life form, so I’m letting the back go native.  Scads of milkweed that I used to cut back or even yank out of the ground; plain old white daisies that I dug up but they kept returning; wild columbine that I never used to keep because it was just a dull bronze that faded fast.  I’ve keep the long row of indigo bushes because I see lots of bees and worms near them.

When I am in my yard, I can lose track of time–Audre Lorde once said her definition of the erotic was anything we engage in where we lose track of time.  She went on to say if we are lucky, some of those times may involve sex, but most will not.  My reliable”erotic” activities, then, are gardening and painting walls.  When the former president was doing one horrible thing after the other, I retreated to my gardens as often and time and weather allowed so I could forget him for an hour or so.  

These days of increasing climate crisis, sometimes even my garden can’t let me escape the reality because there simply is not much ground water under the surface.  So when I water with hoses or the universes waters with rain, you can’t tell in a few hours because the water going into the ground is not echoed by ground water that receives it and increases.  But I persist because the alternative is unacceptable.


The first words I read about trees was the much-panned poem by Joyce Kilmer.  My mother had me memorize and recite “Trees”  when I was about ten.  I remember the opening and closing lines–“I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree,” and “For poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree.,”  Though I was a generation before Maurice Sendak’s books, I was drawn to his powerful trees when reading his poems to children.  And of course I adored J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents, heroic trees who helped the good guys elude the bad guys in the Ring Trilogy.  Even Shakespeare gave me important trees in “Macbeth,” when Macduff disguises his army to look like the woods of Dunsinane.  

I have my own experiences with trees, three of which I will share.  I was encouraged to learn to amuse myself as a child and one of my favorite outdoor games was with my fleet of tiny cars/trucks.  I’d take them into the side yard and put them on adventures around and through open spaces of a huge old sycamore tree.  My game was “getting away,” so I’d hide them from an invisible enemy intent on forcing them back into their tiny, dark garage.  The tree was both protection and helper.  When I rested from trying to escape, I’d hide myself close to the gnarly trunk and feel hidden.  As an adolescent, I had learned to garden with help from my mother who was on her knees in the dirt as often as time allowed,  She let me plant tiny bulbs one fall–snowdrops–telling me they would be the first things to show life in the spring.  I chose to put my bulbs at the base of our adolescent magnolia tree in the back yard and in early Mlarch, I’d run out and see if there was even the tiniest show of pale green.  Again, I’d sit next to the magnolia’s sleek trunk for long stretches, perhaps hoping I’d be on site the moment first-life showed itself.  That never happened, but I loved the tree with its huge, shiny leaves and magical white blooms.

My ;third tree story happens decades after my childhood ones.  When my then-partner and I moved into our house–where I still live forty-seven years later–we enjoyed a big elm out back near the garage.  When Dutch elm disease began ravaging trees all over town, we signed up to get biannual treatments of a chemical researched at the University of Minnesota that protected injected trees from the dreaded beetles.  That tree still is in the back yard but lost a giant canopy about ten years ago in a straight-line storm.  It broke my heart to watch the caring group of men come and saw her branches into portable segments and take her away.  She now has a solid metal cord connecting her two remaining segments so storms can’t tear them off the major trunk.  My arborist and I know that the open wound means her life is ebbing, but he supports my wish not to lose this ancient tree– an Ent of my own, I like to think.

In the last decade, several germinal books have been published documenting how much trees communicate with other trees, support offspring of their own kinds, watch out for other trees that are having trouble, and, of course, keep temperatures where they exist measurably cooler as we heat our planet to dangerous levels.  The OverstoryIn Search of the Mother TreeThe Island of Missing Trees, and Entangled Lives are just a few of these fascinating works.  Whereas I used to think of trees as fundamentally different from creatures of the earth and the sea and the sky because they were stationary, I now understand that underground, trees live an active and sentient life, grounded in cooperation and community and defying Darwinian thinking based in competition and mere survival.. 

So Kilmer’s words come back to me, fresher and truer than before.  And I no longer join in judging them as  sentimental.  He wrote his lines because he had gleaned  their majesty and mystery.  We could do well to follow his lead before we clear-cut more old-growth forests, and before we destroy some of the noblest works of creation.,


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