La Bella Fontana

Report from Bellefonte PA, by Helen Fontana Bechdel

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Tree are a key part of landscape

When I hear the whine of a chain saw cutting down another tree in town, I think of New Hope wood sculptor George Nakashima's belief that every tree has a soul.

But when shade trees that grow in the right-of-way must be removed, the borough replaces them. The real tragedy would be treeless streets.

When I had to have a sugar maple taken down a few years ago, I waited impatiently for a new tree until, finally, I asked someone on Borough Council, "Who do I see to get a tree?"

The answer came back like a shot: "Joe Masullo."

Joe, who was on borough council for many years before his death last summer, had the tenacity of a terrier and the chutzpah of Gen. Patton pushing through the German line. One day after calling him, I had my tree, a pretty crimson maple, 8 feet tall. I keep checking the terminal buds, eager to see this little tree leaf out for its second season.

Bellefonte people are proud of their trees, but some stand out more than others. A stately ginkgo tree at the corner of North Spring and West Linn streets recalls its origin in the temple gardens of China.

The Japanese cherry trees flanking the entrance to the library will soon burst with pink blossoms. Walking under their branches last spring was like walking into a sunrise. There are a few copper beech trees left, one on the corner of North Allegheny and East Curtin and several on East Linn Street, but their ancestor, the giant copper beech at 420 N. Allegheny St. had to be cut down in 1993. Heart rot was the cause, but heartache is more like it. The tree was so huge it lifted a heavy crane right off the ground.

Last fall, a man in a pickup truck stopped to take pictures of a large sycamore on my street. Even though its leaves had fallen, the twisting branches and mottled bark created a stark pattern against the sky.

This time of the year, I stumble over gumballs that fall from the sweetgum trees, but soon I will shuffle through the golden fluff of the lindens that line High Street.

Last summer, an ancient maple fell over from a front yard on Linn Street. As if aiming for the perfect spot, it landed between two buildings with no damage to either. One of the last things Joe Masullo did was to make sure the borough would cover the cost of removal.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Writers make mark on town

London had its Bloomsbury district, famously inhabited by Virginia Woolf and friends. But Bellefonte also has a writers' colony, presided over, perhaps, by the benevolent spirit of Sylvia Beach, who spent summers here at her grandmother's home on Spring Street before moving to Paris in 1919.

As owner of the book store Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia nurtured many writers, but her greatest contribution to the literary world was publishing James Joyce's "Ulysses," a manuscript that no American publisher would touch. She closed her store in 1945 after a Nazi officer tried to buy her last copy of "Ulysses."

Of working writers in town, the most prolific must be Millie Ragosta, who, when I first met her in the late '70s, was under contract with Doubleday. Although she has edited her father's memoir and written a weekly column and countless articles, her specialty is historical and romantic fiction. At last count, her novels numbered 13.

I treasure my copy of Millie's "The House on Curtin Street" because of its ties to local history and its stated purpose: "For the people of Bellefonte ... and for all women who dare to attempt great things."

Minerva Stewart, the heroine of the novel, is based on the real-life Minerva Parker, the architect of the actual house on Curtin Street. Real names and places add an element of pleasant surprise.

Award-winning poet, essayist and biographer Julia Kasdorf teaches creative writing at Penn State and maintains an intense writing schedule of her own. Much of Julia's writing draws on her Mennonite background and is infused with themes both earthy and ethereal. Among her works are "Eve's Striptease," "Sleeping Preacher" and "The Body and the Book."

Cecil Giscombe, winner of the Carl Sandburg Award for Poetry, recently moved to Bellefonte and, like Julia, teaches creative writing at Penn State. He also writes with a strong sense of place, in collections such as "Here," "Into and out of Dislocation" and "Giscombe Road."

And then there is the Bellefonte Writers' Group, which now mostly meets online, but for years got together every month at the Hofbrau. Of the original members, the most esteemed would be Rob Gannon, whose death ended a brilliant career in science writing.

Chuck has moved south, Bird has flown west and, when last heard from, Linda was levitating in India. Amy, Lindy, Karen and I keep each other posted on our latest projects.

Sylvia Beach and I crossed paths briefly in Paris in 1960. Though she died in 1962, I like to think her spirit here is still alive.