Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Garden of the Seasons: Looking at Winter, Shelley Had Big Plans for Spring

       It's looking wintry out there. 
          As somebody who makes a big fuss out of fall, I really need to be taking these changes in better stride. Autumn is indeed the 'fall of the year.' 
           Not just leaves. Temperatures are falling. And daylight is diminishing daily, nightly, before our eyes. 
           The world grows quiet. Where are all those crickets and cicadas that made that enchanting 'Change is in the air/ Hurry up!/Hurry up!' music at the close of each fading day, singing us into the softer beauties of the autumn eves?... Well, don't ask. 
          So, with these facts well in possession by anybody with experience of a few go-rounds in a temperate climate, what did we expect to come next? 
          And did I say 'quiet'? Where are the birds? Some are still with us, bearing up with their animal pluck in nature's Hotel Winter, not audibly complaining (more than I can say for us two-legged types).
          Some of the feathered friends that are often still with us this time of year, and checking the place out for daily meals, have apparently made the decision to look elsewhere this year, since we were so late to begin filling the feeder. We filled it for the first time just last Sunday. 
           Score so far: handful of chickadees.
           Such observations on our wintry outlook, abetted by cold and damp each day this week, lead to the state of mind in which (quotes start here) we "We look before and after,
And pine for what is not" borrow a few words from the poet who will supply us with a good deal more shortly.
            As for looking back, this is a fond occupation (I am told) of advancing years. 
           (Laughter off.) 
            Perhaps even more universal is our tendency to look forward to the next desired status. Having "something to look forward to" seems to be a pretty universal desire. My mother used to say of one or another prospective gathering: "it's something to look forward to."
            Even in our happiest best of days, we keep an eye on something fun, desirable, or at least distracting -- coming up. See you, we say to friends or relations, at (or on) such and such.
           And pretty universally in the countries of our climate, when winter is full in the mirror (not yet, of course, in the present case) we look ahead to that something better that goes by the name of spring. 
          Here's the line of poetry that for most of us pretty accurately expresses that common feeling: 
"If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" 

That oft repeated sentiment -- a one-sentence encapsulation of humanity's fundamental need for hope -- comes at the end of the poem, "Ode to the West Wind," written in Italy in 1819, when Percy Bysshe Shelly and his wife, Mary -- famous as the author of "Frankenstein" -- were living in a town near Florence, Italy. 
         The West Wind of the poem's conception is a cleansing autumn wind, taking away the "withered leaves" of the old year and preparing the ground for the birth of a new spring. 
          And in Shelley's poem it's an allegorical wind, driving away a despair that the poet strongly associates with the political decadence and injustice of  his own country, England. He has fled England, where his works have been censured and he is liable to prosecution for "blasphemy" -- by criticizing orthodox Christianity -- and "sedition" in condemning both his country's form of government, a monarchy dominated by the upper class, and particular politicians who serve the ends of the entrenched status quo and are blind to the needs and aspirations of the great mass of the common people.
          His sonnet "England in 1819" bluntly summarizes his view of the English political system at that time:

"Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know
But leechlike to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow"...
          I find a bitter satisfaction in reading these words about another time and place, the England of exactly 200 years ago, and transposing them to our own top rungs of government:
          "rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know"...? 
          Yep, sounds about right to me. 

          The final section of "Ode to the West Wind" best expresses the poet's root notion of a strongly cleansing wind, imploring the West Wind to make use of his own sad thoughts (equated with falling leaves) to achieve "a deep, autumnal tone,/ sweet though in sadness... Be thou me, impetuous one!" 
            And, in the following lines:
            "Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
             Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!"

Then in the ode's very last couplet the cleansing wind becomes "the trumpet of a prophecy!" 
          "O Wind," the poem appeals in its famous final line, "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"

As I take Shelley's meaning here, Spring -- and all it means: new birth, new season, new growth, flowers, green leaves, crops, food for the whole of earth's population -- doesn't just arrive by itself. 
            We have to clean all the crap out of the way first. The deadness -- physical and moral -- doesn't just disappear by magic. 
             That's why we need the cleansing West Wind. That's what the fresh 'wind' -- a word suggesting spirit, urge, energy, a strong popular movement (or whatever other interpretation we wish to give it) -- does. 
              And that's why this West Wind of Shelley's poetic conception speaks to me so strongly at this particular time in this sorrowful, sickening land of our own, stewing in its corruption, decadence, cruelty and blatant cold-heartedness toward those in need. 
              Also, frankly, it feels good simply to read, and re-read, a poem about hope.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Garden of the Seasons: "That Time of Year" -- Shakespeare's Sonnet and Our Novembers

This is Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 (posted in full below the photos) known to me and to others by its first few words "That time of year," one of those simple phrases that because of the genius of the poem to which it is connected is now iconic.
          Well, now we are at 'that time of year.'



Here's Shakespeare's Sonnet 73:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

      When we discussed this poem in a graduate school course taught by the estimable Helen Vendler, widely regarded as the country's best critical reader of contemporary American poetry (and possibly on everything else written in English as well), she asked us to pin down precisely what time of year the poem was evoking -- pointing out the exactitude with which Shakespeare identifies it:  "When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold."
          We are given three depictions of the state of the autumnal "turn" -- yellow leaves, or  none, or few. And this is in fact the stage of late fall that we all observe. Some trees still hold at least a few of their "autumn" tinted leaves -- yellow, orange-yellow, reddish orange, a few true reds. But there are many fewer than were there a couple of weeks ago. We're at the end of the season that many of us find glorious, the 'crowning' of the year, a spectacular natural show in fortunate realms such as New England and, I suspect, parts of Shakespeare's old England. 
          But now the landscape, our world, feels different. We're cold and walk faster; wear heavier clothes. All the oaks' acorns are on the sidewalk. Neighbors have had their -- I almost said 'rakes' -- but of course what I should say is 'leaf blowers' out. While some lawns are 'raked' clean, patches of sidewalk here and there are mounded high with leaves.
           But they never come down all at once. Some trees are bare. Some trees are still turning. And many are holding on to the poem's a "few" leaves. 
            The exactitude of this portrayal is important because this is a poem not about the height of glory, and not about defeat, death, or the symbolic 'death' of winter's frozen landscape -- but about the transitional, or transitory, period of time when we know all that is coming. Here is a persistent truth about life -- human, and natural: it's always in transition. Always transitory.
            Yet this is the time of a year when we can least well avoid noticing it. It's not 'autumn' any more. It's late autumn; winter's eve. We can't help feeling the change and understanding what it means.  
            So then the poem's speaker makes what now feels like an inevitable comparison between 'that time of year' and himself. 
             He's in the twilight of his maturity. The speaker doesn't, with delicacy, go into details of personal appearances. But we can guess them: He's losing his hair. Flesh sagging. He prefers metaphor to physical description:

"In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west...
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie..."

Twilight is of course beautiful, but you know it's not going to last that long. So, the poems appears to be saying, you may still like what you're seeing, but you know it's not going to last. It's like the late glow of an expiring fire. If you've made any fires in a fireplace you know this is what you see. And, as the poem shows through this comparison, our own span of existence is "Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by." 
        We die, in the end, from living. We are the fire.    
       And still, as we read in the poem's great coda -- those final two lines -- "which thou" (a stand-in, I believe, meant to apply to all of us human creatures) 
"...perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long."
          Actually, I feel that same way about "that time of year" -- November. I hate the coming cold and the steady loss of daylight, but I love the world's fading beauty and those profound, nostalgic November twilights.             

         I can't remember what more there was to analyze, explicate, or even talk much about in this short masterpiece, except that every word is perfect.
         ...Except, on second thought, one interesting historical note: In line 4, the poem compares the leafless branches of the late autumn trees to "the bare ruin'd choirs." 
          Unlike today's understanding of the word "choir," the choirs the poem is speaking of refer to the spaces within churches -- a place, not the people -- where the church's picked singers (today's 'choir') would sit or stand ready to sing the psalms or chants or other musical passages that we now call "hymns" -- in Latin. Everything done in church was in Latin when England's churches were built with places for the choirs often high above and behind the altar -- to sing the church's beautiful music, until the Protestant Reformation came along, modestly in some respects under the aegis of King Henry VIII's establishment of the Church of England. Henry's plan was for an English Catholic church. The king would rule it; would own the property; would "dissolve" the monasteries at will if he wanted to take possession of their land and other wealth.
           The militant Protestants, who later became the Puritans, took things much further. They banned the Latin, the choirs, and they removed all the music until in the time of Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare's England held hundreds of old churches where the places for the "choir" singers -- had been pulled down, ruined. 
           Happily, however, nothing has ruined those leafless trunks and branches, symbolized as "bare ruin'd choirs" by Shakespeare, in the woodlands and shade trees in our lovely late autumn world -- ...yet. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Garden of the Seasons: At Home With November

The November Sublime. The tender November light, autumn's second self. 
          Every season has its characteristic, signature state of mind, emotion, nostalgia, and no doubt regret. Its time-borne expectations. It can be cold, this final month of fall (according to the meteorologists' calculation, if not the astronomers'), but it hasn't been cold yet this year. The season lingers. It's late phase fall. Today's newspaper ran a wonderful panorama photo taken from some elevation high enough to catch a strip of fabulous tree-line through the heart of Boston called the Emerald Necklace.        Wonderful, I thought. That's the news. I have a friend who says "for every hour you spend reading or watching the news, spend two hours looking at trees." Sometimes he says "ten hours." This year is shaping up as one of those ten-hour times. 
         Anne and I logged some happy hours last week walking with trees through some of our favorite Eastern Massachusetts haunts, paying two visits, from separate starting points to the Blue Hills Reservation, a state park that is one of the great treasures of the Greater Boston region. 
          You can hear the traffic when you begin the dirt path into the forest -- (shown in the second and third photos down) and then, in a matter of few minutes, you can't hear it any longer. Our 'real world' is out there in the traffic. The planet's 'real world' is in here, among the trees. Its soundtrack is subtle. Silence, or almost silence, at times. The occasional bird this time of year. Something of an insect sound; a last cricket somewhere? (Nobody tell him it's all over.) It's squirrel time, of course, but less obviously in wild places than in our neighborhoods, where competition breeds chatter. In the woods, there are plenty of trees for everyone. Trees don't speak much, unless the wind is up.     

That the wind has spoken this season, considerably on occasions, is clear. We see evidence of that on the news, and see the footage of trees that came down to cut power or, sadly, cleave roofs. We see the signs in the Blue Hills forests as well, where occasionally a great old trunk, or simply a once-strong branching has crossed the path. If the fall is recent, and of significant weight, it's likely that no one has cleared it, and so we make our own paths around these blockages, no great nimbleness required. The photographic footage of trees falling on our houses or power lines may give the impression that nature is a destructive force. Unfortunately, many of our neighbors appear to think this way. They want trees around their houses cut down. They search the city's street trees for signs of age, weakness, disease; an excuse for removal. It's like pulling your teeth out to prevent cavities. 
          But trees, and great nature itself, are not a destructive force, but a creative force. We wouldn't be here without them. Trees created our world; they made the atmosphere breathable for the 'higher' (or more complex) animals, such as ourselves. They take carbon dioxide out the air and return oxygen to it. Their roots force seams through the rock, helping to make earth. Without plants and the microscopic allies turning rock into soil for a billion years, we wouldn't be able to grow food. We would have only the ocean to feed us, and how soon would we eat all the fish? (Oh, yeah, we're all ready doing that.) 
            And they beautify the face of the planet. Most of the other photos on this page came from the face of November as it appeared in the Arnold Arboretum in Boston on Sunday, the first day of the return to standard time. The arboretum is a living laboratory for the Harvard University forestry school, and an amazingly curated collection of world-class trees.
Spending time among the trees -- whatever the apparent motivation: exercise, fresh air, aesthetic appreciation -- helps us understand their story. 
            Yes, the trees are talking to us. It costs absolutely nothing to listen.  

Anne is seen is this photo examining a plant which I've certainly never seen anywhere else, called, fittingly enough "Purple Berry Bush." The tag says it's from Korea. It also bears of course a Latin botanical name, but I didn't recognize any of those terms.
We were looking for Larch trees on our visit to the arboretum, having learned from previous visits that the Larch is a member of the conifer family whose leaves turn orange in the fall and then fall off, like deciduous trees. That is, it's an "evergreen" whose leaves are not 'evergreen.' You can glimpse one in the middle distance of this photo.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

By the Numbers: An Album of October Moments

Here's a poem I wrote last year in an attempt to capture the feeling of autumn as a homeland of the human heart. 

Searching For Home

We pass through two fields,

but it feels like more,
like all the fields in heaven and on earth,
because our path has been gilded by golden light
on golden fields
Butterflies, monarchs of the open meadow,
pass among the goldenrod,
and twine around one another,
and spin off on their own quests
Above: the fertile green of a lavish region
Hillsides extend their flanks
like the green man of the forest reaching for the sky,
embracing the valley in which we proceed
on our regal, healing progress
And higher still, beyond the deep and furry green of the treeline
the rich blue vault holds the sun in its place
while evolving nuances of air
linger like forgiveness,  
teaching us to be as we are and should be,
Creatures who breathe in
and let it out.

This year I'm trying to use this space to compile a photo album for the weekend of Oct. 12-14, in four parts:
1. The boardwalk in Parson's Marsh, found off Under Mountain Road (in Stockbridge and  Lenox). Pictured in the top photo, the boardwalk allows you to walk into a wetlands without damaging the environment or needing rubber boots (which also damage the wetland). It leads through the trees, past the dense shrubbery and out to the cattails and sword-grass, where a railed viewing platform gives you a view of open water, water fowl, the woods and hills on the other side of the water, and the bare trees at the water's edge where we saw nests last year.

2. Photos of Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox. The first of these images below depicts fall colors reflected in the water of Pike Pond. Then two images of the sanctuary's Beaver Pond: some open water with surface vegetation; and a view of how the steady year-after-year incursion of wetland plants narrows the remaining coves of surface water. Finally a view of the mountainside, at the bottom of this page. For more about Pleasant Valley, see the previous post at

3. Photos of Bullard Wood, which wraps around a carefully maintained path that takes visitors down to the banks of Stockbridge Bowl and the along the lake, linking up with another lovely preserve called Gould Meadow.

In a bright, late-morning sunny stroll, Anne and I got off the main woodsy, shaded path and explored a long grassy meadow we've somehow overlooked before. We found lots of color in the woodland margins, as shown in the images below. The meadow lead us eventually down to the lake, where we stared hypnotically at the lovely, light-splashed water.  

4. On Monday evening, with the sun declining, Sonya and I walked through the a favorite conservation area across the road the Tanglewood, called Gould Meadow. Them we turned into the woods, got a little lost in the gloaming trying to follow a new path that leads visitors to a piece of property owned by Kripalu -- where a prominent sign forbids entrance into private property. We retraced our way back to a path that tooks us down to the Stockbridge lake at a particularly quiet point. 
          Twilight outdoes itself on this evening: Purpling the night, as the trees sing in the soft exhalations of a seasonal apex and then shake loose a gentle rain of leaves that coat the surface of the lake, like tiny boats on an ancient harbor. 
        Driving home, just to wrap up the evening, we surprise a black bear on the side of the road. No photos of this encounter. (Unfortunately? Fortunately?) Both bear and humans are happy to go their own way. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Autumn's Garden: More Light on October

The pond in the picture above is found along the first trail -- there are many -- within the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, a woodland preserve of hundreds of acres that we visited many times when our children will still, well, children. As you can tell from the photo of Sonya looking at the map to plot her next adventure, that was some time ago. For a while, as the kids grew and discovered their own mountains (and cities, and rivers, and preserves, and countries), and we explored new sites in Berkshire County, an ongoing ambition despite all the year we've visited this region -- especially in autumn, occasions that are treated in my household as pilgrimages.... well, the point is we sort of lost track of how much we loved the place. 
        How varying its landscapes. Woodland walks, ponds, hillsides, little wooden bridges over brooks shiny as they ambled through shaded needle-strewn forest floors. Also paths that run up mountain sides, zig-zagging through mixed deciduous and conifer woodland floors to sites such as the intimidatingly denominated 'Fire Tower,' and whatever you expect to find at the end of the Hermit's Trail. 
           You can pick your elevation. Last week we stayed low, Anne and I restricting ourselves to circuits around two substantial ponds, Pike Pond and the one we call the Beaver Pond.
Pike Pond has narrow, winding trails that pin you close to it low-land banks. The even-leveled footing is good for both young children and unsteady elders. For the second year in a row I was amazed at how much variety in woodland and water and hillside perspective this little trail offers.  The top photo, with foliage reflections on the surface water was taken here.
           The body of water we call the Beaver Pond was the site where we were first introduced to the unmistakable works of beavers behaving wildly in the wild. Chewed logs and tooth-marks on trees. Those unmistakable humped-up beaver lodges, made of thick limbs and mud and branches with the leaves still on them. And the crowded wetland creations of downed trunks amid broken branches, leaf piles and growing stuff in various stages that serve as the 'dams' the creatures throw together (with their teeth) in the never-ending challenge to create deep-water pools surrounding their lodges and sufficiently expansive to deter predators. 
          We glimpsed the occasional beaver head back in the day, as I recall, but mostly we saw their works. And now, the decades having mounted, we see those beaver works overtaken by nature's implacable "succession" strategy and turned into wetlands. When we circled the pond this time, we saw more plant-life incursions than open water: Huge pockets of Phragmites lining the banks at several places. Water lilies, a few with ducks sunning themselves in the autumn sun among them; and other wetlands species working away at the earth-creating job of turning water into mud. 

         It was all quite beautiful.
When we made our way clear of the shade of the trees, the views of hillsides and surrounding woodlands opened for us, as in the photos of the bottom of the page.
         Last weekend, when we visited, lots of other folks had found their way here too.