Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snow Garden

The world is growing snow.
We wait for the snow all day. It’s the event of the season. Sure it’s been nasty cold for most of a week, but a big game-changing storm is something else. We walk to the windows again and again on Saturday, peeking to see if it’s started. We buy and decorate a Christmas tree, molding our schedule around the anticipated arrival. With the car gone through the most of the day, Anne and I walk to the store for the final holiday ritual item, the cranberries we use for garlands, interleaved with popcorn. Immediately there is the feel of snow in the air. Would we say this if we didn’t know a snowstorm has been forecast? It starts just as we are getting ready to go to bed. Indoors, the tree is decorated with the trophies of youth, kid crafted items, along with handmade ornaments from my cousin’s wife given each year the children were still children, pickings from the old cardboard boxes of ornaments inherited from my parents, the few we bought along the way, the mysterious visitors we find in the boxes that no one can account for – and, of course, this year’s version of our annual popcorn and cranberry string-art.
Outdoors, wind swirling, the storm quickly blankets the streets. Small, serious, dense flakes. In the morning it drifts and piles up on the porch, a difficult wind angle. We have a concert to go to, The Revels, but no one is in a hurry to put the first shovel-blade into the natural installation of the finely drifted snow.
Birds clutter around the feeder and perch on the nearby lattice of branches. We have our cardinal moment: the persistence of nature red in crest and feather framed by a mineral white world.
The garden, a clutter of greenish, brownish, grayish surfaces disappears, swallowed by a new occupation. An invasion, a top-down regime, the cold hand of martial law. The plants must think we’ve abandoned them to the alien invaders from the sky. They’re right. I can’t spare a thought for anything alive out there, because I’m not ready for the smack in the face that greets each day. It’s not the snow, it’s the days of wind chill that follow it. Too much snow to walk in the woods. Too much wind to walk by the shore. I tromp disconsolately around the neighborhood, inspecting the sidewalks — a noticeably improved performance in clearance, even at the corners, over last year. Did everyone get the memo? (Even though we never sent it.)
I lose the outdoors. But less than a week later I get it back, when warmer temperatures bring rain and turn the snow to melt water.
We come back from the annual holiday stay in New York to a changed vista. I can look out the windows again. Snow has its beauty, but snow glare kills my eyes. I am astonished to find the world still alive, at least to appearances. Even plants that were green and deciduous when the snow struck are right where we left them. They may be dead (what plant doctor/lawyer decides when plants are legally dead?), but the color of the blown leaves is still green. My ground-level collection of low ground covers mixed with a large helping of dried brown leaves appears unchanged. A few late perennials look like they’ve spent a week in the refrigerator, but hold up at a distance.
Death, where is thy sting?
Of course it’s wicked cold again, and I’ve avoided freezing my fingers and toes even at simple jobs like taking the garbage out.
And in the matter of those still unopened buds on the rose bush, I’m not sure we’ll ever see them do their stuff. But the green world has survived.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Case of the Disappearing Radio Station

It was a cold December morning, so cold the radio dial was stuck in place like a CEO’s fingers on his annual bonus. In the quiet bedroom community of Fuzzydale, a woman woke to the sound of voices babbling about market prices and faraway places, using words that sounded like varieties of pasta spelled backwards. She clapped her hands over her ears and looked for help.
In a fifth floor office of the Acme Building in a city that keeps its secrets, a world weary private eye answered the telephone: “Nuit here.”
“Sy Nuit?”
The voice of a troubled woman, the lonely detective thought. He had been hearing voices like this for more years than he cared to remember, but something told him this one was different.
“Yeah, Miss, that’s me. What can I do for you?”
“You gotta help me, Mr. Nuit!”
“Sure, sure, I’ll help you, Miss. What’s the matter?”
“Somebody stole my radio station!”
“Your radio station?”
“It’s the only station I listen to. This is terrible, Mr. Nuit! I don’t know what to do! I’m lost without it! I can’t eat a spoonful of my cereal. It just lies in the bowl accusing me! It asks me where the music is!”
“All right, all right, now just calm down, Miss. Start from the beginning. When did you hear this radio station last?”
“Last night! I’m sure it was right there on the dial where it always is when I went to bed.”
“Uh-huh. I see. What were you listening to?”
“Music, of course! What else would I listen to? I listen to classical music all day. I listen to jazz every evening. Folk and blues on the weekends. It’s wonderful! You’ve gotta try it, Mr. Nuit. It’s different from all those other stations, you know, with nothing but talk-talk-talk all day, yada-yada-yada! If it’s talk I want, I can listen to my husband!”
“All right, now, take it easy, Miss – what did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t. It’s Misty. Misty Signals.”
“All right, Miss Signals. I got an idea. I think I know what happened.”
“You do?”
“You must have turned your radio to another station.”
“I never touch my dial! I wouldn’t think of it. Never!”
“I see… Well, if you’re sure your dial is in the right place, maybe there’s something wrong with your radio. Give me the frequency number of this station of yours –“
“Eighty-nine point seven!”
“— and I’ll try to tune it in on my radio. So that was—?”
“Eighty-nine point seven!”
“Aw right, aw right, I hear you… Wait a second there.”
Sounds of static; stations whizzing by; a radio dial tuned to a frequency. “There it is,” the aging detective says. “I’ll turn it up and put the phone up close to the radio and you can listen.”
“… Meanwhile in Greater Phillupistan negotiators for People Out Of Patience Yikes!, known as POOPY, met in marathon sessions with representatives of the Consortium of Irreconcilable Moderates over the issue of chronic currency manipulations and the inexplicable multiplication of health care proposals…”
“AHHHH! My ears! Turn it down!”
Silence. “I take it that wasn’t your station, Miss Signals. All right now, get a hold of yourself, Miss. That frequency was definitely eight-nine point seven. I have very up to date technically sophisticated equipment in this office. The latest stuff – very high-priced equipment. I got it cheap as surplus goods from some people who were opening up a new studio at – let me see – it was One Guest Street. A swell place, Miss – a real palace, everything top of the line.”
“I see… Well, my radio may be a bit old-fashioned, Mr. Nuit, but it’s brought in my station fine for years. And there’s nothing wrong with it!”
“Okay, okay. Let’s see. If there’s nothing wrong with your radio, then the only other explanation is – they must have moved the station to somewhere else on the dial.”
“Moved the station? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of! This is a famous station, Mr. Nuit. It has a very strong signal. It has loyal listeners. This station’s listeners are so loyal they even send in their own money just to keep the station on the air doing exactly what it’s always been doing! –“
“They send in money? No kidding. How do you get into a racket like that?”
“We do it because we like our favorite station just the way it is!”
“Yeah, yeah, hard to believe anyone would mess with a sweet deal like that. So maybe it’s one of those astronomical things, you know, solar acne or something.” He fingers the dial on his radio. “Maybe something from outer space, some alien power or something, has messed up the frequencies. I’ll just go down the dial a little bit here and you tell me if something sounds familiar…”
“"Freu-de, schö-ner Götter-funk-en“—
“That’s it!”
“That’s it? That’s your station? Okay, good, good. It must be some freak interruption of the natural order of the universe and I’m sure everything will be back to normal tomorrow...“
“Ahhhh….” She sighs.
“Lemme see the number here. Okay, if you want to find your station it’s on ninety-nine point five.”
“That’s wonderful. How can I ever thank you?”
“I’m just tuning in that frequency on my own radio now. I can’t wait for things to get back to normal around here....”
The sounds of a radio dial being adjusted. Static. More static. “You said ninety-nine point five?”
“Yeah – what’s the matter, Miss? What’s happening over there? What do you hear?“
“Static. Just static. I hear nothing, Mr. Nuit. No music.”
Silence. “Gee, Miss Signals, I’m awfully sorry. There’s really nothing more I can do.”
“Yes, there is. I’ll be right over, Mr. Sy eighty-nine-point-seven Nuit. You’re going to loan me that fancy radio of yours.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A bird garden

The earth wore its winter whites for the first time last week. Wet snow began falling Saturday night. It never covered the streets and was gone by Tuesday, except for occasional rectangles of shady lawns. Monday, a gray day, had the full been-through-winter expression. It smelled, looked, felt, and sounded like winter. It felt like it was raining, or spitting thin slivers of icy moisture (does that qualify as rain?), even when it wasn’t. The air smelled as if it were about to snow.
Life, these days, is for the birds. Anne filled the bird feeder with a bag of black-jacketed sunflower seeds about a month ago. But the seed level didn’t go down. No early birds livened up dark morning breakfast scenes. Fat gray squirrels gathered hopefully underneath the feeder, waiting for the birds to shake down the seed.
We had birds all last winter, but somehow the word had not gotten out this year. Weren’t the sunflower seeds dressing in black this year? It took the season’s first snow to trigger their arrival.
How does that work, exactly? Oh, thinks Starling Robin, when the green earth turns white we find our way to the berry path on North Central Avenue. Seed will cover the snow there surely. Starling Robin proves correct. Birds small, medium and very small found their way to the feeder, and the seed line dropped precipitously.
Actually, we had spied a few birds there for the first time this fall a day or two before the snowfall, as if scouting the location. Never know when we might need it; better make sure the thing’s still working.
Small creatures first, including sparrows with tiny, but dashing red patches around the head or shoulder. The next day blue jays appear on the feeder ring above, and pigeons glean below. I’m not sure where pigeons live around here, but this is a city.
Birds play a big part in the life of the calendar in this climate. In addition to entertaining us in the winter by bringing color and life to our window watching, they eat our berries in the spring, getting to the ripe blueberries a day before I do, and spreading mulberries all over the walk. They also succeed in depositing enough of those sunflower seeds in various precincts of the garden that we always have a few unplanned sunflower plants maturing the following high summer.
Bird life in the garden makes me happy all through the growing season, and I want to grow plants that encourage them to come back every year and stay though the fall and winter. The bee balm attracts humming birds, and the purple fruit of the mulberry tree draws all comers in June. I look forward to growing enough blueberries and raspberries to keep both the birds and us satisfied next year. (Fat chance.)
For the time being we grow cold days and snow fields and look forward to counting the cardinals at the feeder. The shock of red visitors against the snow is a winter gift each year.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Roses under snow

Roses under snow/
Headlights steam through a white night/
Storm has come and gone

Snow floods the windows at rising time Wednesday morning. Filling the backyard, turning the green world white in all directions. Even covering the streets a little, though you can tell it’s a fluffy, almost sponge-like consistency. The snow falls like small handfuls of some sudsy material, flakes clumped together, the kind of snowfall that looks impressive when it’s falling because “flakes” are so big, but you know won’t last. Eating breakfast, I hear a voice on the radio tell me five inches are expected in Boston area, but turning to rain at 2 p.m. But the voice is reading from a script not written by shoreline skies. The snow, never more than that soft sudsy rolling inch, is over about twenty minutes later, and the precipitation turns to rain. Not much white left by later in the day.
These are the make-believe snows. Warning shots of things to come or just passing fancies; it remains to be seen.
However, when the snow hung on the plants yesterday morning, the light red December roses still blooming on the all-weather plants out front gave the odd, almost unearthly effect that reminded me of the hushed glow of Christmas lights wrapped up in wet or wind-driven snow. As sometimes happens. Under snow, the red of the roses looked more filtered light than color.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In the dark

Early dark, long dark nights – hours of dark, dark, dark! I find the dark time of year “challenging,” to use the current weasel word.
The early darkness shuts down on my brain, making it hard to concentrate. I stand up from my desk, because the window has turned distractingly into a puddle of black ice.
It looks like it’s been dark for hours. When I check the time, it’s about a quarter to five. Gee, in only fourteen more hours it will start to get light again.
I don’t mind the daytimes this time of year, and I adore the twilights; it’s what happens afterwards that gets to me. What is it though, exactly, that “gets to me.” I recognize its return every year – that little vampire moment when something awful has crawled up out of a tomb somewhere and sucked something out of me – and thankfully forget about it the rest of the year.
Sunday, a delightfully sunny day that wandered in from some other latitude to show us what we’re missing, I visited the remains of the garden and moved a rake around for a few hours. It was cold or rainy most of the week, so I hadn’t spent much time in presence of living things – or dead ones, for that matter – to speak of. Color is getting scarce in the late fall garden. The pink mums have grown wan and leggy and laid their heads down on the sundial, like offerings on a funerary monument. Nearby a tiny bright red English violet, which apparently failed to receive its North American schedule, has blossomed out of its bright, textured, chunky leaves. It’s a brilliant, miniscule impersonation of spring, surrounded by a sea of brown leaves. I let the leaves lie where the plants and the breezes have contrived to deposit them. A layer of brown leaves is like a winter sweater for the plants that grab hold of them; at least that’s the theory. They won’t break up into soil-enriching humus without a lot of help, so I rake them all off, delicately, in early spring. It takes weeks.
Sunday I removed them only from paved surfaces such as the patio and the driveway, where they don’t do anything any good, and raked them back from our brick and gravel walking paths (though the wind will soon spread some of them back there).
Out front we still have roses blooming on the all-season rose bush; and a few rose buds on an older rose bush on the side of the house are about to become December roses. Meanwhile, on the sidewalk strip the pansies I planted in September are now going great guns, with big floppy orange flowers. Don’t ask the pansies what to do in the dark season; they don’t recognize it.
But what about everything else? What do my perennial plants – the ones I expect to see again next spring, dancing up a storm with a red dress on – do when cold and dark have shut them down for the season? Maybe the can teach me something.
They go “dormant,” I am told. They hibernate, like animals sleeping away the dead-earth months inside trees or caves. They send “nutrients” only to systems vital to sustaining life. In short, our plants aren’t “dead.” They’re well-adjusted.
That sounds like the approach I’d like to take to the deep, dark arrival of darkest five o’clock if I knew how.
Looking for further explanations of what these nutrients are, what this dormant state consists of (is it sleep? do plants dream? we do in our dormant states), and other hidden matters, I come across the somewhat more detailed explanation that plants store lots of “sugar and salts” in preparation for winter, because these substances lower the freezing point of water and resist ice formation. This may tell us something about surviving winter, but not much about the nature of dormancy.
The real question: Is there something going on in winter’s depths, when the ground has frozen solid (far from where it is now) that is necessary for the plant’s health and longevity? Does dormancy revive them the way a “good” night’s sleep undeniably does something for us? (Even though to my knowledge science has never pinned down exactly what sleep does for our well being.)
It seems to me that dormancy – whether in daily sleep periods or the wintry hibernation – is a physical state with a metaphysical purpose. It allows something to happen in living beings that’s essential for change and growth. The perennial plant comes back again in spring but it’s never the “same” plant, not exactly. It’s grown anew. And somehow we wake up from even an adequate night’s sleep with a new outlook, even though it’s the same old us looking back from the mirror.
It seems clear the cold dark time of year serves some physical needs. Winter cold kills some of the bugs, microbes, and parasites that prey on us. The short days slow down our activity, encouraging us to give our bodies the prolonged rest certain kinds of healing require.
But darkness, lots of it, also tells us to go inside our heads. Short days and long nights have always put the story tellers in demand. We sit around the fire and dream with our eyes wide open.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Precious November

The days grow short. The light begins to fade in the mid-afternoon. Everywhere we look things we love are passing away, but they are almost more beautiful than ever because of the impending loss. It’s the psycho-dynamics of fading light. November light touches us someplace deep.
Declining light at day’s end makes the sky come alive all year round. But in November’s slow, climactic run-up to the shortest day of the year, the sun is so low in the sky it appears to crouch all day in a low, slow approach to its descent below the horizon – to falling off the end of the world. It sits there, like the last leaf hanging in the branch. November’s sun disappears earlier in the day, but takes a longer time doing it, lingering at the end, inviting us to share the moment. From midday’s zenith, when even at its highest point the sun leaves much of our built urban world in shadow, to afternoon’s early sunset is barely enough time to lose ourselves in daily indoor pursuits (“work,” to those of us still lucky enough to have it). When we look up next, the light is fading.
If we can afford a few moments to look at it, the picture is heart-breakingly beautiful. A halo of sky pinks over, then slowly darkens its tone. The color foregrounds by contrast to the brilliant black silhouettes of the newly bared trees.
Sunset is beautiful as well in May and July, but the ambience – everything in nature, that is, reflected in our minds – it wholly different. We aren’t hearing birds chattily busy at building their world these days. We probably aren’t hearing anything because our windows are closed. It’s cold.
In big office buildings, the glass is thick, and the windows are never opened. We wouldn’t hear the birds in these precincts ever, but in spring we imagine them; our brains import the vernal context. In November these big picture windows concentrate our attention on the visual. The spectacle of red-gold sky crowns our piece of the planet. We see the headline news of the day: it was beautiful, and short. Time and space are still in the driver’s seat. We’re just passing through.
That sort of news makes some people sad (or, as we now say, SAD). All things end, and our days end a lot sooner in this post-daylight saving time month when an act of state has sliced an hour of sunlight off the end of our afternoon. The end of days has been hurried up, fast-forwarded. We confront our endings when we are still awake; possibly on the move, outdoors. The workplace releases us, we head for the parking lot. If it’s five o’clock, chances are the sun has already drained from the sky – or maybe twilight is lingering. If we’re earlier sunset is in medias res or, if we are lucky, just about to begin.
Because in that case we get to see it.
Time passes inexorably from minute to minute, second to second, micron to micron. It is always now, but now is always disappearing on us before we can put our finger on it. When the sun sets, darkness advances, new colors coat the western sky – we can see time passing. We can see the difference. Something tangible is representing the passage of time. It’s time in color.
A part of our November self still thinks it’s summer. Some trees still have their leaves; some trees have half of them, or some of them. The weeping cherry outside my study window has only one-tenth as many leaves as a week ago, but each is an incredible bronzed color, a little darker in some spots, lighter than others. I can practically count them. Each one is precious now.
I still have flowers; not so many. Some snapdragons hold their candles in the wind. The back garden mums, a color somewhere south of lilac, have dropped their branches to the ground (or to the jumble of fallen leaves and foliage I leave on the ground to mulch it). The blossoms are there, but receding into the background. The green of the day lilies has been two-thirds replaced by yellow with brown overtones; some of the shrubs have denuded in the last week or two. The ornamental grasses are shades of brown. There is still green in the groundcovers and my few pointy evergreen bushes.
I still have color, variety, texture. But more gaps. November light shines through them. And the long November night is on its way, to darken things down an hour and more sooner than a month ago. It will get darker, yes, and much, much colder in the months to come. But these November days are filled with reflections, both forward and back.
April may be the cruelest month, but November is the most philosophical.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Postmortem on a Poor Harvest

If I kept an organized garden notebook, instead of the usual jumble of notes and reminders tossed into a manila folder, I would have an accurate record of which vegetables I planted, how many plants of each variety, and maybe some other useful information (added fertilizer? when? how often watered?). And I could now record how well each variety had produced. What a bummer that would be.
A season-long string of disasters. For months I blamed my veggie garden’s problems on the weather’s unaccustomed failure of solar energy in the crucial months of June and July. But there’s another reason: the human factor.
I tried to pack too much in. The crucial mistake was letting the wild pumpkins loose in the squash patch. The whole larger half of the garden quickly became the “squash patch,” or actually the uninvited pumpkin patch, to the detriment of everything else. The invader squash seedlings began appearing shortly after I mixed some compost from the compost bin into the soil of the oversized sandbox in which I play with the idea of growing edibles vegetables when I want a break from the perennials. I had decided to grow cucumbers and zucchini this year for my squash plantings, reminding myself that limiting the mounds to a couple of plants would reduce the mildew fungus this family of plants is prone to in my vegetable plot. Too much dampness, perhaps, not quite enough sun. And yet, as I have told myself in prior years, the tomatoes do fine.
But then the wild, unmannerly squashes began popping up, two or three here and there, and I greeted them like free food, or gifts of the gods, or simply a benevolent byproduct of composting (our first year of that). Then the twos and threes became half dozens and dozens. I had visions of an unholy abundance of “free” produce. I kept transplanting the seedlings, moving them around, “finding space” for them. Such are the wages of self-deception. I was taking space from other plants. Sticking everything too close together.
It turned out to be a bad year to try to tease too much production out of the earth. Given a cool, cloudy first half of summer, after I pinched off the sucker vines on the tomato plants, very few little in the way of tomato action took place on the branches which remained. Few flowers and fewer tomatoes resulted, the tomatoes staying green, waiting for the sun to shine. The green pepper plants looked in August just as they had in June. Is suspended animation possible in green plants? My “classic purple” eggplant plants are still waiting for summer.
The squash vines did, possibly, worse. Competing for space, sunlight, nutrients, whatever, with all those semi-wild cousins from the compost bin, the zucchini plants made two, count’em two, zucchinis and called it a season. The cucumbers delivered one small cuke and one delicately formed two-toned miniature, suitable for the knickknack shelf.
Basically, everything which grew miniaturized.
But, as I say, it wasn’t just the weather. The perennial flower and shrub plants took a look at the succession of cool rainy weeks and said “hey, this must be England,” and went about their business with their usual panache. I spent the season pulling weeds and trying to keep the overly enthusiastic perennials out of each other’s way, the groundcovers from overrunning the paths.
But in the vegetable garden, I had said yes to life too often. Sometimes life needs to hear no.
The invader plants turned out to be pumpkins. I wasn’t completely sure of that even as they leaved and flowered – pumpkins had been a strong contender from the start, but so were zuccs and winter squashes, all of which had contributed seeds to the bin. These anonymous squash plants grew big leaves and vines. They produced bright yellow flowers in abundance. And did those flowers turn into fruit? No, in almost all cases, they did not.
One certifiably small pumpkin formed amid a row of the tomato plants it had embraced and tangled with its vines, grew a thick green skin and matured into authentic orange. A few other mini-pumpkins formed, suitable for display as non-conformist gourds.
The lesson? Be less greedy next year and try to do a few things well.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Kingdom Falls

The leaves drop from the trees and spread their wealth of color, shape, and texture on the ground. They fall on the sidewalks, the roads, the green-grass lawns, the little car park spots along the streets of close-packed houses where we don’t have garages. They fall on the front walks, on the unroofed porches and decks, on rose bushes and rhododendrons, and on the ships at sea. Well, maybe not that last, unless there’s a strong land breeze blowing. Rain brings the leaves down in a rush, and I’m sorry to lose the multi-colored canopies of the trees, just when the autumn show has reached its visual climax, but fallen leaves carpeting the ground have a special, all too brief season of their own.
It’s an annual “Cristo project,” wrapping a hard-edged manmade surfaces in the look and feel of living things. The colors carpeting the ground are warm and bright. We don’t have yellow, orange and red tones on the vast cantons of urban pavement at any other time. The effect of all these leaves riffling in the breezes, shifting with the gusts, blanketing lawns and sidewalks is a little chaotic, a little state of nature anarchy, turning city blocks into forest floors and woodland streams. The leaf fall covers the little sins of surface blemishes – most old sidewalks are nothing but blemishes, many side streets nothing but patches. It takes the organic wealth of the canopy and spreads it on the floor, matching the color of the ceiling and extending summer’s leafy days to autumn’s fleeting hours. It wraps us up in nature.
So, or course, we can’t wait to get rid of “the mess.”
We attack with rakes. We advance on the enemy with machines that burn unrenewable energy, producing artificial wind.
The city announces it will collect the leaves on a seasonal schedule up to a certain date – extended a few weeks this year, in a subtle bow to climate change – and so we rush to pile them up, put them into bags, and get them safely hauled away.
Why exactly?
It’s true that leaves on the ground won’t hold their color for long and stay as beautiful as they were in the trees, but they will soften the manmade landscape for a few weeks, or maybe a month or two, and why are we in such a rush to get down to our bare northern winter esthetic? Bare trees we can’t help; and they provide an interesting winter calligraphy against a twilight sky. But bare lawns and yards?
Leaves on pavement can be slippery when wet, and we do have to rake them away from drains; but the official and widely shared urgency to get rid of them suggests that the deeper, psychological motive is that fallen leaves on our streets and yards violate notions of “clean” streets, walks and lawns, and blur clear lines of human order. We behave as if our yards were extensions of our houses, our lawns carpets, and leaves some form of noxious “dirt.”
Personally, I am going with the let-it-be approach as much as practical circumstances permit. I let the shrubs and perennial plants wrap what leaves they can catch hold of around themselves. Leaves are nature’s free, all-purpose winter mulch. Many plants (clematis, crocosmia) need a protective mulch over their roots in winter’s down time to keep them warm. You can turn fallen leaves into a usable humus mulch for lawn grass by running your lawn mover over them. You don’t want last year’s leaves to layer and sit on a grass lawn permanently, depriving grass from light and water in the spring, but mincing them into little piece helps the soil digest them.
Since we don’t have a lawn mower – or a lawn, for that matter – I simply let the leaves cover garden spaces like a warm blanket for the cold days ahead.
After the wind blows for a few weeks and the rest of the street-lining trees finish de-leafing, I’ll make decisions about what has to be removed for the convenience of neighbors, mainly. I don’t want my leaf piles to blow continually onto the raked lawns of others. I’ll build up some piles so they get wet and pasted down quicker, bedding down for winter.
Last week after a rainy night, bright orange and yellow leaves from the maples filled our front-yard “cottage” garden, obscuring the shapes and small remaining patches of color on the low-growing plants. A few last red roses rise up above the sea of level. We enjoy the natural carpeting and enjoy the flowers (mostly red annuals this year: snapdragons, verbena, zinnias) that poke up above them.
In the back garden, the fallen leaves become a natural part of the autumn landscape, designed by forces too powerful to be quibbled with.
It’s an autumn-color land as it is, vividly seasonal when rare sunny hours light up the natural gold and yellow of shrubs and perennials, which are likelwise shutting down their leaf-energy factories for winter. Plants ranging from young rose of sharons, to a wide oversized hosta, PG hydrangea, wild grasses, spears of lilies and occasional last-gasp perennials are doing their harvest gold impressions.
The top leaves of the weeping cherry turn bronze as well. The other day a jay sat on top; he comes this time every year.
This is my study window view; I study it quite a lot.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

October flowers

The ones we know: mums, asters, Montauk daisies, some late bloomers (like the roses out front), dahlias, a flame-up of hardy annuals such as snapdragons. And then, in a class of their own, the toad lilies.
It’s sixty-one degrees at midday today, but it’s been cold. Thursday’s 46 degree high was the lowest since 1884. Friday, christened a northeaster, rain overnight, some showers in the morning, then just cold, wet and windy for the rest of the day. Went to the farmer’s market, nobody there, a couple of farmer-marketers wearing coats, hoods, and two pairs of gloves. We discuss the weather. Saturday merely chill and dark. Sunday was a complete washout; retrieving the Sunday paper from the front porch was as far “outdoors” as I made it. It’s the talk; mid-October should be leaf-peeking time in glorious sunshine.
But the cold rain and chill winds bother me a whole lot more than it does the plants. It’s not yet cold enough to get into their bones. Morning glories are the exception, their leaves froze and flopped and wrinkled up, and that’s probably because we have them growing from pots on the patio. Perennials with their feet firmly in the ground can get blown around, lose blossoms and break few stalks, but remain oblivious to cold air. They sway in the autumn breeze, burnish their seed tips, turn colors in their foliage, and otherwise assume an attractively seasonal sang froid. The garden has fewer bright spots; more subtle shadings and textural effects. The leafy shrubs, wild grasses, lilies, daisies and ground covers make for a subtle complement to the stronger colors of the big trees above them. The garden is just wild enough to suggest a bronzed autumn meadow discovered between forested ravines on a woodland hike.
The back garden’s wild grasses – maiden grass and northern sea oats – wait until fall to send their seed tops up to the fence line. Against a bamboo fence the color tones, copper brown, yellow brown, tawny, resemble the marsh and beach grasses of the imaginary shoreline. (The idea, speaking grandly, is to do all the natural landscapes in miniature. We planted a “flower island” and I circled it in a slightly bluish gravel path to serve as inland sea. Now the challenge is to keep the weeds from overrunning my too shallow sea.)
And out of these autumn colors and textures the occasional, unexpected, half buried treasure. That’s one way to think of the Tricyrtis hirta – or “toad lily.” The leaves are green; or green and white striped (like hostas) and probably bear some relation to the more common lilies. The flower is white with lots of purple or pink markings; spotted, I suppose, like a toad. I bought one and put in the ground the first autumn we were here, about four years ago, knowing nothing about it, and was pleased when it blossomed. Any plant that blossoms in October gets a good rating from me.
This year I bought a couple more, finding them at a good price at a Home Depot. What does it say about our world that you can buy Tricyrtis hirta at Home Depot, a store I once swore I would never go into? Maybe it says we have a growing hunger for flowers, fascinating little creatures that make themselves at home in our real estate and smile, sometimes, on cue.
Toad lilies certainly don’t take their cues from me. I put them in the ground, fertilize the ground around their roots when I get to it or when something else puts me in their neighborhood. Certainly garden plants need some help; we can’t let weeds or neighboring species take over their piece of earth completely. But, in my view at least, they shouldn’t be a continual source of anxiety. I can’t stand the style of garden disciplinarian advice-writers who insist you have to do this or that right, at the right time, or terrible consequences will follow…
If you don’t pull up the “offsets,” or baby plants, that spread from some flowering species (for example), the special color tones of the blooms will decay into something normal. It sounds like a screed against racial impurity. You have to figure out which of three main kinds of clematis you have planted in order to know how and when to prune it, and since the time restrictions all three advisories have lapsed and I still haven’t been able to figure out which brand we have, I will simply do what feels right and endure the mediocre flowering season we’ve been threatened with.
As we endure some bad weather in autumn in order to enjoy the good. And I will try to remember which perennials to prune when I put the gloves on and get my head under the sunshine this afternoon, but I won’t worry too much about it. Taken as a whole, the plants appear to be finding their own way to harmonize and buddy up and stake out their space in the conditions allotted to them. And when we walk around admiring the waving wands of the maiden grass and the bright-eyed mums (wondering, on the side, what approach to take with the leaves this year), occasionally we come across an inexplicable little treasure like a toad lily.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We live in the trees

We spend four days in the Berkshires. We hike every day, deep in the woods – or
at least deep enough to put the thought of bears in your head – and stare deeply into wood fires at night.
It’s different being home again, but when I see the orange leaves on the maple tree just outside the door I’m aware of a deep continuity between country and city life. A little patch of orange is autumn. Columbus Day weekend in the woods, followed by Columbus Day week in Quincy, the week trees begin to show serious color here. Quincy, a state naturalist once told me, is the “asphalt jungle”; more pavement keeps temperatures a little higher. Our growing season starts earlier, probably lasts a little longer, than it would without all this heat-trapping, heat-emitting development. Global warming begins at home….
But so does autumn. If you can see the universe in grain of sand, you can see a forest in a patch of orange. The sun comes out this morning, after a rainy day, putting me face to face with the brilliant colors just beyond my kitchen window.
And while the asphalt jungle will keep some garden plants blooming longer – though not long enough to turn the tiny developmentally delayed white flowers on my pepper plants into table-pleasing green peppers – I realize another fine landscape-hopping term has an even greater claim our attention: the urban forest. It’s a habitat; our own. The trees live here, on our quiet residential streets; we gather around their roots. From an upper-story perspective ours is a planet of trees. At least New England is.
Get far enough out of town, any town, get some elevation, and when you look down at the world mostly what you see is trees. This is true, to a surprising extent, even in a place as densely built as Quincy, a city with only the foggiest notion of what is meant by “open space.” Most of the trees here elbow in beside us in the built environment. We have, regrettably, some single family houses without a tree out front or even in the back, but mostly the urban forest hangs on, and in many places flourishes.
The blocks in our urban neighborhoods where the tree coverage is thick, long fingers of oak and maple reaching toward one another over the roadway, are the blocks people want to live on. These are the places that look like “home.” For people born in this part of the world, who like what they’re used to (as most everyone does), living in a loosely grown woodland, a semi-natural environment, is what we expect. It feels “natural.”
We live almost within the classical notion of a wooded park – a place where the trees are spaced far enough apart so that people can easily walk between them, or ride in their carriages, on their horses, or run their dogs (or hunt, but let’s not go there); and are allowed to grow tall overhead.
It’s part planned, mostly accidental (or, we could say again, natural). The developer plots the shade tree in front of the house; everybody in my childhood home’s straight-line Long Island development got a sycamore tree in the front yard. Thirty years later, when the landscaping grew up, I was shocked to find my parents living in a lush green world where the locusts screamed in the summer night. In Quincy, the city plants trees along the roadways in the little strips of green space between the sidewalk and the road – if you ask for one. City planners know that trees are good for cities, even in dense commercial districts where they soften the look, cool the asphalt jungle, absorb the carbon dioxide, shade the sidewalks, and eat up some of the noise and over-stimulation simply by giving the senses something else to focus on. They exude calm. Persistence; endurance. Strength, fertility, acclimation.
They have a message for us. Do we want to survive, evolve, grow, thrive – live – in the world? Then be like the trees.
No wonder we still seek at times to live within their physical, and metaphysical, shelter. In the autumn we go to the forests, or the forested highways, to look at the leaves. We say we are going to take pretty pictures with our eyes, but we may also be paying an unconscious form of homage. We want to get close to the building blocks of our universe. The trees hold up our skies and shelter our lives beneath their roofs.
And each autumn they perform a glorious finale to the season of growth and then drop their leafy light-seeking lineaments to earth without complaint, in the annual sacrifice the climate demands. We thank them for preserving the world for another year.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Don’t give up the fight

October arrives and right on schedule, it’s cold. Under fifty when I get out of bed. Not too cold for the plants yet, which look the same as the day and the week before as I regard them from the other side of the window, but too cold for me to want to step outdoors before breakfast and take a closer look. That’s the difference. I miss my morning garden service. The freedom of just opening the door and (without “dressing for the weather”) taking the slow walk through the front and then the back gardens. A tour of inspection at some moments; but more fundamentally a physical, sense-based reconciliation to fleshly existence. Sealed in the book of life once more! The gift of life (or lucky accident: choose your metaphor) in a beautiful world! It’s still here, and we’re still in it. What luck!... Yet somehow I just don’t have the urge to go out and experience all that for the simple reason that I’ll be – cold. Forty-nine degrees is not my friend. It works for others, but not for me. I want all outdoors to love me. I want to feel the sun, the heat, the light. I want those molecules jumping.
The other day, when some at least of those conditions were obtaining, I was out front performing one of my little late-season maintenance chores, re-staking the zinnia for the third or fourth time. We had had wind and rain, and the top heavy, heavily-flowered, thick-stalked annual had pitched to the side at a forty-five degree angle, hanging on its supports. The plant is about four feet tall. Its flowers are red and round and very large. The remarkable thing about the size is that it is our only zinnia, grown from seed, under this year’s innovation, the cold frame. Of course I did not set out to grow one zinnia. I must have transplanted about thirty seedlings. But the weather was terrible in June, rain or clouds every day, not enough sun; I watched them all weaken, develop holes in their little leaves, fade away like – spilt milk, words writ on water. Some seedlings do not prosper; it is the way of things. I took about a half dozen of the most likely survivors and transplanted them to the front, where the sun is steadiest and, after a couple of weeks, only one remained. I don’t know why. Did it consume all the usable nutrients, suck the life out from underneath the others? As in some sort of fable, all the other seedlings sicken and die, and one boffo bonanza oversized flower grows tall and colorful and eats sun like air.
So, as everything slowly fades, even the perennials that held their banners high through the late declining season, our one zinnia continues to add biomass and flowers, and weight (evidently), and strains against the bamboo poles I use to hold it up and wants to come crashing down like a redwood under the ax.
I grab a few more bamboo stakes, thrust them in the ground, tie a few more bonds around the branches to lever up the main stalk, the mast of my autumn schooner, and tie the knot.
As I’m engaged in this struggle, the neighbor from across the street – whose own yard is filled with marigolds and mums, pretty good fall flowers – calls out, “Give it up! It’s all over!”
This is meant as companionable banter, a kind of cheerfully cynical New England-knowing piece of advice. But all I can do is shake my head.
No. Never. Never give up.
I will keep trimming, deadheading, watering, and otherwise manipulating plant material to see what I can keep alive, what sort of show I can maintain, for as long as I can. I remember annuals blooming in December some years; flowers under the snow: pansies. I think I’ll go get some pansies.
As for the red zinnia, the new support system has held. It’s tall and straight and blazing. And now the sun has come out. What a beautiful world!

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Scripture of Nature

The calendar turns the page to autumn, and the weather responds with a few warm days, sultry even, reminiscent of summer. You need to go outdoors first thing and walk through the soft, shady air of the back garden in shirtsleeves, thinking of nothing in particular, with no need to analyze what’s doing well (or isn’t) and what needs watering. The mood is gentle. The sun is low; it’s a semi-shade garden now that the sun is low. The morning glory, as if responding to the late warmth, has one of its spectacular days, big light blue and pink flowers; some smaller dark ones, a minor key complement. Other fall flowers: the asters are peaking. The garden mums (“garden” apparently meaning perennial) are just about to open. The toad lilies (the flowers are spotted) not quite; they are true late bloomers and will wait for October. I walk the path, and the day has a soft, reclusive, in-a-quiet-way ambience. No construction rumbles, no lawn machine noises anywhere, no kids, no traffic, I can’t even hear the trains from the square, so after a moment or two I become aware of the natural sounds. One cricket, probably the kind of green-winged thing I see continually hopping out of reach as I walk among the plants (so possibly some kind of grasshopper?) keeps up a tenor solo as I take my solitary walk through the garden maze. It’s a late summer song. Give him a few more degrees, and he’s back and still at it: here I am, here I am, still at it! (Though it’s hard for an outsider to see what the purpose can be this late in the year.) He quiets as I draw near, within a couple of feet, then starts up immediately when I take a half step away: gotta sing, gotta sing… The next voice is less attractive. Up in the arboreal highway, the place where the branches of the oak tree leverage over to the branches of a maple tree, squirrels can handle the crossing, easily, no sweat. The squirrel perches on the oak tree side of the bridge and beeps his barking little horn. Generally, this scolding signals squirrel confrontation. But I look, and I can’t find another. Is he barking at me? Oh, the cat is underfoot. Does her bland and indifferent presence merit this display of dissuasive noise?
Plants – natural places – are thought “sinks,” emotion sinks, agitation sinks. They absorb the agitations of the world, the way on the chemical level plants, forests, salt marshes, etc. are “carbon sinks,” absorbing excess carbon dioxide. This is why – the mental side, not the carbon – gardens have always been planted all over the world. Why the monks worked in them, walked in them. Walking in a garden is a little prayer.
But who invited that tacky squirrel?

The phrase “the scripture of nature” comes from watching the first part of the Ken Burns documentary on the National Parks last night. The idea is that wilderness must be preserved because in experiencing it human beings who spend their lives in a manmade world “come home” to their own beginnings in the wild. It was a spiritual notion for the park system’s founders because nature is “creation.” Experiencing the world in its wild, original state gets us close to God; we need untrammeled nature to feel divinity in our bones.
No one would call our little yards and gardens wild or untrammeled nature, but the same forces live here, close to home, as they do in Yosemite and Yellowstone. The Big Nature of the parks is creation on the grand scale; our gardens are miniatures. As the poet says, we can see the universe in a grain of sand.
Another phrase stayed with me too – the description of Yosemite as “a grand landscape garden.” Creation, whether divine or purely material, works on a big canvas, gardeners work on a little one.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sacred seasons

We went to services to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish High Holidays, last Friday. By a coincidence of calendars Ramadan, the holy month of Islam during which believers fast each day until nightfall, ended Saturday; we had attended a Ramadan iftar (the evening meal that breaks the fast) a couple days earlier. By a coincidence that has nothing to do with the calendar, we added a third stream of spirituality to sacred September by taking part in a triple gong meditation and yoga session at a yoga center in Plymouth the previous Saturday.
It’s always intrigued me that Rosh Hashanah marks the new year in the Jewish calendar. In fact, you can make a good argument for placing the start of the year in September. We start our school years then; we go back to work after summer vacations. It’s the season of renewed energy following the relaxation and idleness of summer. Admittedly when spring comes around, it will look to me like a season of new beginnings as well. The larger point may be that we give our annual journey various starting points because beginnings are important to human beings. Life, if we’re lucky, runs a long course. We are almost always in need of renewal.
For the most part, things are dying back or otherwise declining in the flower and vegetable gardens this time of the year. After working to get plants to grow for three or four months, now I spend most of my time outdoors helping them age gracefully. I go around with the clippers in hand, trimming off dead foliage or dead-heading flowers. I cut down stalks whose blossoms have long faded, just for looks: Let’s put the spotlight on the good-looking stuff by cutting the decaying plant matter out of the picture. The garden’s height, certainly as measured in biomass, is long over. Plants which extravagantly exceeded their allotted space at the height of the growing season, channeling a rainy summer into an opulence of green foliage on long leafy branches and tangled vines were trimmed months ago. The rain forest look of midsummer has retreated to a more austere and temperate aspect; the garden puts on a different face for summer’s final month.
Some perennials collapse steadily after a June bloom, giving you nothing to look at. Columbine retreats to a few low stems and leaves; spiderwort turns brown, decays, and leaves nothing of itself but a ghostly outline on the soil. Even the sturdy evening primrose dries up before your eyes; the foliage browns at the edges and looks increasingly like something you threw in the rag pile. You wonder whether you should slice the whole colony down to the roots; or transplant some; or find some way to get a later blooming partner to share the space.
But some plants, as if fighting inevitable senility, revive after a mid-summer swoon. They like the cooler weather; their foliage doesn’t dry and wilt in the sun. Day lilies, at least the old-fashioned kind, die back almost to nothing in August after finishing their July bloom, but stage a greenly vigorous September resurrection. They don’t flower again, but their vivid color perks up the neighborhood.
Some perennials do give a late round of flowers. The overly abundant spirea, extensively pruned simply to allow access to the circular path around it has presented us with a new, though smaller blanket of red flowers (cutting off all the dry brown flower heads probably helped). Other plants, some of our lavender and salvias, enjoy a second, modest retrospective flowering. The word they used to use on record albums, reprise, captures it – a shorter version of a smashing tune. Let us have a reprise! declare the stella d’oro day lilies, the catmint, the roses, and even the clematis – which sends forth a few sky blue offerings, pieces of recollected heaven, three months after the last of its full early bloom.
And some plants are only now coming into flower, as if to give the annual fruit and vegetable harvest a floral accompaniment, like flag wavers at a festival. They walk along the parade route bearing colored ornaments while the harvest wagons, the apple pickers, the potato diggers, the pumpkin fields, and the nut trees do the heavy the autumn lifting.
We have some of these late flowers, asters, mums, the anemones (which I’ve mentioned before), plus an oversized Montauk daisy that needs pruning after its day in the sun this year. And, oddly, a few plants you expect more out of in summer are doing much better now than they have all year. Butterfly bush, a summer-long bloomer, is making stronger blooms now, with time running out. I’m used to this pattern in annuals that don’t produce enough blooms until September because the plants took all summer to get big – a problem I usually attribute to tool little sun or some failing on the gardener’s part (like buying cheap annuals). But this year the back garden’s butterfly bush not only has more flowers this month but their color is deeper – or is that a trick of the light? In the clean, but slanted light of summer’s end, all the darker colors of the garden seem more intense. Tall phlox, stalky violet asters, purple loosestrife vibrate in September light (maybe because the competition has been cleared away?).
The other butterfly bush, the one in the front garden, is making more flowers now too, but here I know the reason. I transplanted it there in June (one of the season’s good decisions) from a semi-shade spot in the back where for several years it did not get what it wanted and sulked continually. Now it can’t stop smiling.
So is that the lesson – take advantage of that cool September energy? At least that’s what the yoga master said before sounding her three healing gongs with their utterly unearthly music of the spheres. Clear away; focus. Get down to business.
Spend your energy now, the garden seems to be telling me as well. Plenty of time to sleep later on.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Glory hound

This year we planted morning glories. All summer we waited for the glory. A few flowers here, a few there. Today: very many.
The tale begins not in spring, exactly, but when we finally got around to doing something with the bare concrete foundation that borders the patio after talking about it for about four years. We took some light-weight lattice pieces left over from the front porch built last year, whacked them into shape and got them planted into the dirt against the foundation. There was some discussion over what kind of shape our whacking had left these structures in. (She: they’re not straight. Me: so what?)
But at least we had something for plants to climb. Since we were planting in flower boxes and pots instead of deep nourishing earth, we decided perennials were too risky and bought some morning glory seedlings – an annual – from a local florist. We were well into June. The plants started to grow, the tendrils found their way onto the thin cross-hatchings of our support structures and headed on up. We waited for the flowers. We got a flurry starting some time in July and continuing into August; mostly small, soft pink flowers; some pink and whites ones. But these seem to run out without ever producing much or a show. We got a flurry of classic sky blue flowers, the best of the blossom bunch, because they were about three times as large as the others and made a better show against all those green leaves.
I had also started some morning glory plants from seed in a cold frame, knowing they would be much later to bloom. The leaves produced by these are different, but when the vines tangle it’s not clear who’s making the flowers. We began to get flowers from these much later in the summer, though the vines looked stronger. The overall look was complemented (or at least varied) by some pots of ornamental bean plants I also started from seed. In mid August they put out neat purple blossoms which give way to a deep purple seedpod – the beans, I suppose. They hang there like happy angels, adding color to the effect.
On the good dry days of summer weekends we breakfasted on the bistro set under the oak, we had a good view of the vines on the lattice. Those big blue flowers were particularly appreciated then, when we had them.
So we have some good days, some bad days with nothing to speak of blossoming, and most days just a couple of flowers. But nothing that really screams “morning glory!”
Now here we are, mid-September, and today I see twenty to thirty flowers, more than I can easily count. (I go out and count: thirty.)
The irony of unpredictable New England weather, one reflects. The developmental delays of a rainy summer. The questionable back of the house site, with its midday sunny window, the shade pulled down on both ends of the day. The choice to plant in window boxes and plastic containers. The underlying question of an amateur, try-anything approach. There were no guarantees they would do well.
But today, when it is too dark to appreciate them truly, and rather cool, and quite nastily windy so that you don’t really want to be outdoors, people hurry from their cars to their errands downtown without lingering, the flowers live up to their names: glorious, in pink and blue. A different, darker blue and smaller than the classic big blues we had earlier, but lending a nice dark color contrast. A “statement,” as we might say of a work of art.
The morning glories have made a statement. However ironic the context.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

September challenge

The weather is cool and cloudy. I take it as a personal insult. It doesn’t make you want to throw the door open and invite the outdoors in. it’s not room temperature outdoors. It’s not, at first glance, beautiful. Does this mean the good times over? Is that why I’m not grilling the food on the patio at night and listening to the crickets as the twilight deepens. Am I turning into a wimp? This quickly? Where are my winter clothes?...
After scowling around the kitchen for a while, I finally open the door and step outdoors. Not so bad. Strangley evocative. Is it that back to school feeling? The world is lying low, but has not exactly gone away. There may be some life in the old globe still…. I stand on the porch judging existence until the cat finds me. when she realizes it’s really me, and not perhaps some cleverly disguised imposter seeking to lure her to her doom, she scampers up the steps and meows. That means I am supposed pick her up and personally carry her back indoors, which she believes is her only means of getting through the kitchen door. I do it. Kitty has already turned up her tail on this day. She’d rather go back to bed. She has flunked September.
What about me? Will I rise to the challenge of these darker days? Find a sweatshirt or two. Adapt to change. Tune in…

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

September flowers

Anemone. It’s the name, in part, that attracts me. I heard it spoken in a poem about a year ago. I had planted an anemone and waited a year and nothing much happened. Then last fall, after everything else had bloomed and faded and passed its little moment on the stage of time – which makes me think:
When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment
(that’s a different poem; Shakespeare) – and there wasn’t much color left in the garden, my single anemone, up till then a little ordinary vehicle of green, began to flower. A rich pink, daisy shaped; soft pink ears around a clock face of yellow. Coming so late in the season, they are like a message from another world. The buds are round and puffy before they open. With some flowers you can’t tell that the buds are about blow up into blooms. But with these September flowers there’s a kind of sensuous unfolding, a kind of prolonged anticipation of the moment. Erotic, maybe? Don’t make too much (something is telling me) of a little flower.
But it’s the time of year that gives them that extra punch. The ambience of September. It’s cool and stirring; then it’s balmy and nostalgic. It’s the transitional month, the “turn” in the course of the year, the way a certain line about two-thirds the way through the poem becomes the “turn” in the poem.
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight –
that’s the turn in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15 (the poem quoted from above). And the anemone, my September flowers, are about to have their turn in my garden.
I look for more color this time of year, unrealistically, like the child who doesn’t want to go to bed. Exhaustion – the garden’s, if not mine – is clearly close at hand. We can’t stop it. The lilies are long gone, so too the daisies, the roses are wearing out; the spring and early summer bloomers (purple salvia, violets, dead nettle, primrose, foxgloves, spirea, laurel, lilac, lavender – all the ‘L’s – and most everything else I can think of) have been gone for months. In some cases the foliage remains and looks respectable despite the wear and tear of weather’s vagaries and garden pests. In other cases (hosta, Asiatic lilies, bleeding heart), the foliage is withered, shredded or wholly withdrawn back into the earth. Some fall flowers are still on the horizon; asters beginning to bloom, mums about to. And some late summer black-eyed susans and tall phlox are still holding their heads up and making their love-light shine, but on the whole there’s relatively little new under the sun.
But anemones are taking their turn. “Even so my sun one early morn did shine,” Shakespeare says in another poem (Sonnet 33). And to arrive at this moment for their share of the spotlight they have come from somewhere so modest, so hidden and off stage you forget they are lurking in the garden’s lower story, squeezed in between the featured acts, waiting there all summer. They keep their heads down. No one calls them “showy.” The garden books don’t call them “cheerful, sun-loving” flowers. To me they are deep-feeling, hearty, September-loving flowers. They don’t laugh a lot, but they smile meditatively. They soak up a lot of feeling.
And maybe it’s because of that turn-of-the-wheel bloom time, popping up in the perennial garden when the other perennials are mostly sinking down, that poets have looked at them long and deep and seen themselves or their predicament.
This was my impression, anyway, when I heard the anemone referenced in a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died just last year. The poem is known by its first line, “The beloved hemorrhaged anemones.” The beloved, here (forgive me if you’ve figured this out), is the land.
Oh people of Cannan… [the poem says] It’s your good luck that you chose agriculture as a profession
it’s your bad luck that you chose the gardens
near god’s borders…
It concludes:
The first of our songs is the blood of love
that gods shed,
and the last is the blood shed by iron gods . . .
(I found the poem on… You can read the rest of it there.)
So, unconsciously, I suppose, these valiant, late-call flowers have since been connected in my mind with certain ideas and feelings. But that’s the way it is with flowers. They are nature’s poems.
To me the meanest flower that blows [Wordsworth writes in the Immortality Ode, the greatest of the nature-loving English Romantic’s poems] can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Happy Trails to a vanishing path

9/1/09. The trail through the marshes, my trail, is disappearing. I speak of it possessively because as far as I can tell no on else ever uses it. That’s why it’s disappearing. The marsh grasses and their suite of accompanying weeds spilling over from a small wood have grown up and over the path, and no one is helping me tramp them back down. This was once an official path; the metal posts are still there and so are the wooden squares which once held plastic-coated information plaques about the plants and the salt marsh habitat. No information now; soon no path.
I haven’t walked here myself in nearly a month. It’s been a wet summer, and the overgrowth trend I’ve been noticing for a year or two has simply accelerated. A month is long enough to make me lose my way on the narrow track in the places where the tall thick-stemmed weeds are thickest – a slender, ground-level clearing my feet used to find automatically. Is this a tipping point?
The salt marsh has proved a remarkably good place to see plants and winged creatures, especially in a densely populated near a busy road (Quincy Shore Drive) and a city center. You hear the traffic in places; you hear the metallic squeak of the swings from the schoolyard on the other side of the broad, flat apron of tidal marsh where the egrets hang out – in pleasingly dense populations of their own. The big wading birds don’t seem to mind being this close to what we optimistically call civilization.
Still, sticky trekking or not, this was my best session for seeing water birds since the spring migration. Stunning white egrets, to start with. I’ve seen them fishing in the estuarial stream that flows inland from the marsh this summer, but seldom near my path, and not nearly in the numbers of the past two summers, when I found clusters of the young lounging away the afternoons in a backwater while dad (or mom) was out hunting. Today a white body glides into a channel just as I round the first bend in the trail loop. I miss seeing the head, but it’s an egret. I find another in classic wading bird posture in the shallow end of Black Creek. It knows I’m watching but I’m too far away to bother it. Its long slender, reptilian body is stock still, waiting for a fish to mistake it for a reed and become dinner. I see the profiles of a half dozen other fishing birds along the edge of a shallow channel toward the school, in the area where broods of egrets summered last year, but as I get closer their color does not lighten. Dark bodies: cormorants. One lifts off and flies toward the center of the creek. As I turn into the homestretch – the marsh path is roughly elliptical, like a race track – I discover another white egret stock still in fishing posture. Then, almost out of sight of the creek, I take a final look back and see what I haven’t seen in a long time: big, dark, rail thin neck and beak, stunningly long neck and body – a great blue heron. I wonder if he’s passing through; a seasonal visitor. Is it passing time already?
A word on plants. Autumn is a great time for wildflowers in the marsh, especially along the somewhat more official, wider foot path that leads to the Union Sailors cemetery. Many flowers have already bloomed and passed their season along this summer stretch: beach roses, Queen Anne’s lace, even golden rod (though more of these along the overgrown loop path), and a large bushy shrub leaving behind mounds of spherical burrs. Wild asters are still to come. What's blooming now is a tall plant with fern-like leaves and flower heads consisting of tightly packed mustard-colored buttons; found the name of this plant last year, forget it now. The seasons are marching quickly this year. Soon I will be looking for the color in the underbrush and the blood red fruits on the scrub trees, hard as oversized marbles.

9/3. Two days later I go back to the marsh again, only this time I have my binoculars. And I scare the birds away before I can focus the big black glasses on them.
It’s a sensational season-slicing September day. Warm in a patch of sun-heated air, then cool a moment later when you turn a corner and get washed by cool, salty air. I'm just beginning my marsh trail and meditating on this sparkling seasonal ambience when a squawking erupts somewhere close and something white and large passes through my peripheral vision. First white egret of the day. It is past me before I realize it and when I raise the glasses and try to focus on a fast-flying bird – a lot harder than watching with your own eyes – the second egret blasts past me, much closer than the first. I put the glasses down and watch it fly. I’ve never heard them flush and scream a warning like this. Educating the young? Let me show you what to do, Junior, when you get a guy snooping around with binoculars. I’m not used to producing this kind of excitement in wading birds.
A turn in the course later, a great blue heron pops out from the plain of short marsh grass, once more to my utter surprise, and flies (also squawking) inland toward Black Creek. I get a binocular focus on its flight and enjoy the end of his flight when he lands in a tree line on the cove’s other side, admiring the elegant crook of the neck when he settles down on a topmost branch. Closer to the cove, I see a line of birds in exactly the same spot where I saw them two days ago. Cormorants, one two three. Just behind them, an egret stands in wading position in the shallow edge of the cove. I put the glass on the egret and only then see what I had not observed with naked eye, a dark brown heron directly behind it, body aligned in the same attitude. Glassing back across the cove a thin, reed-like presence turns out to be another egret, which the eye alone would not have detected. Rounding the turn I scan with the glasses and find two more wading birds, an egret and another brown heron, close together as spouses. Something unnatural going on?
Once more in the homestretch, bushwhacking through some tall marsh weeds, I flush an excitable brown heron that comes bursting out of what appears the edge of the woods – what was it doing in there? It circles over the lower marsh grass to pick up lift, then curves back over the woods and is gone from sight.
Oh, and one other charismatic fauna: a guitar player. Playing by himself in the Union Sailors Cemetery. He’s gone there to work on his repertoire; to sing as loudly as he wants without worrying about anyone hearing. He doesn’t notice my presence, until my trail loops back from the creek and cuts so close to the wrought iron fence around the cemetery that he can’t help hearing me trample the brush. He exclaims; then shuts up and sings no more. Poor guy; didn’t mean to spoil his solitude. He put a lot of time and effort into one song in particular. The song, I’m sorry to report, was “Margaritaville.”

Sunday, August 30, 2009

8.28.09. The curtain falls

It feels like the day the circus left town. Cool, cloudy, silent.

The temperature is in the sixties. It’s been a couple of weeks since we saw sixties once the sun was up. Now when I get out of bed, my first act is to pull down a window. Other factors add to the mood; Kennedy’s death, the end (some say) of an era. But I live closer to home, as I suspect most of us do. Yesterday was dry and clear, low seventies, but almost unbelievably sun-filled. If you walked in the sun you felt warm, even hot, though the humidity had vanished. But today somebody has turned the lights out. I get up, close the windows, and all day walk under a cloud on what feels like an emptied stage. Everyone has stepped back. No one is in a hurry, not the way they were. No one is shouting. School is in the offing according to the calendar of the world; that’s part of it too, I suppose. But every year there is a day when summer is over; hot, sticky weather has slipped off the stage, to the regret of some, the cheers of others; the season is over.

We will miss it, because there is something special about “warm” weather in a cool climate. The state and quality of the air itself, the element we breathe and wear on our skin, is what mean by “it” when we ask, “what’s it like?” (It’s hot; it’s going to rain; it’s lousy again.) The vaguest and most universal references are carried by “it.” Generally, it’s the weather.

For several weeks the weather was warm, sometimes hot, sometimes sticky; now it’s not. It may not be back. Today I salute its passage.

During a spell of classic summer weather you wake up in the morning knowing it’s warm out, the day’s first sensation, because the windows are open and the air feels like – room temperature. You know it’s warm “out,” because “out” is in. Warm out (summer, to most of us) is when room temperature has moved outdoors. It’s easy to be there, it’s easy to be here, it’s easy to be anywhere because everywhere is warm. Something in your body relaxes. Something that wants to be outdoors.

This leads to the phenomenon one of my garden books calls “outdoor living.” A marketing slogan, but there’s something to it.

We make of the outdoors another room. A big room if you have a big space, an ordinary room if the space is small. You decorate it, you make it comfortable. You make a place to sit. A place to eat. A place to cook, if conditions permit.All this works best if the weather is right. So you wait for the weather to get warm. Warm is the desirable state if you are going to sit outdoors. Warm is “natural.” Natural leads you out of doors, and outdoors you have plants. Even if you don’t mean to, you share your space with some kind of plant life, because they just grow there. They come in uninvited.

If you are a gardener, or become one, you want to work with your plants. You want to make a difference. You do something so they do something. There is a cooperative feel, a connection. In some of us the connection “grows” – it’s impossible not to use garden metaphors; they’re everywhere – into something more elaborate, more conscious. We have dirt under our fingernails.

Even if we don’t have the time or the inclination to get our hands dirty in our own outdoor living space, we want to sit on a deck (or a patio, or a lawn, or a flat space of some sort) and stare at something green. We might decide we want some color, a blossom or two, in which case we are lured into that interconnection with the nutritive, generative, “naturally” growing world I referenced above. (This way to the universe!)

All this because the weather is ‘nice.’ It’s the ‘right’ weather to go outdoors. It’s room temperature out there. It’s warm; it’s what we mean by summer. You don’t want to waste a moment of it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Poor harvests and other disappointments of the soul

So let this year be known as the year without tomatoes. That’s what they told me at the garden center when I offered my lament on the unwonted sparseness of my garden’s tomato crop: “Nobody has tomatoes.” Businesslike shake of the head. “This is the year without tomatoes.”

I did have many squash plants, which turned out – in a chastening demonstration of the foolish bravado of my ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ philosophy of anarchistic gardening – to be all pumpkin plants. Which plants proceeded to take over the garden, string themselves from tomato pole to tomato pole (not that the underpopulated tomato plants were particularly in need of support to hold the weight of their nonexistent fruit), and develop the easily foreseeable rash of spotted white mildew disease which has spoiled my previous efforts to grow squashes in this garden. We do have a half dozen petite pumpkins, about the size of hardballs, only the largest one – smaller than a gym class spud ball – indisputably saying pumpkin to the casual observer. These winter squashes will ripen, but will get no bigger since their plants are succumbing to the white mildew epidemic, so I am working hard to stimulate a cutting edge fashion for decorator petite pumpkins.

I cut off the silky leaves of the squash plants when they develop chalky white spots, leaving behind the maimed yellow stalks which look like cracked piping to nowhere. I have changed the geometry of the vegetable garden several times already this summer, adding new seedlings, new rounds of bean seeds, encouraging the squash runners to use the metal funnel-shaped pea supports, then cutting them back when the leaves diseased. With dead or non-productive foliage removed, more sun gets in now, but for late August the pickings are thin. The basil plants, freed from competition for sun – once summer sun arrived in the very last days of July – have rebounded, growing bushy new leaves. My culinary daughter Sonya is here and harvests them aplenty. The skinny, mostly naked sweet pepper plants have begun to set tiny peppers, the largest maybe two inches long. Some are mere tiny green circles emerging from white flowers. But the tomato plants are not making new flowers and so to all appearances have closed the book on their miniscule haul of round red fruit.

So yesterday, finding myself in a local garden shop in search of herbs for our expanded “spice garden” (Sonya’s literary term for it), I came across vigorous, healthy potted tomato and pepper plants for a dollar apiece, already bearing more fruit on thick leafy branches than a dollar will buy in the grocery store, and snapped up a few. The two new tomato plants are ‘beefsteak,’ a variety I would not ordinarily choose because of its hubristic name, but their fat green offspring are a welcome sight. I looked forward to popping them in the ground and trusting in nature the rest of the way.

Now here’s the problem. I planned to pull out the current, moribund inhabitants of and re-use their stakes. However, when I give said post-productive plants a close, last look before yanking them, my tender heart imagines I spy new growth, a greener green, near the top of the main stem and reasons if there are new leaves then surely there may be new yellow flowers, and if flowers then fruit. Never mind we are speaking of Aug. 23, and when will this prophesied new fruit mature? I am a holdout for late season comebacks. A late-life daydream believer.

The old ones stay. I fit the three new fat plants in between. Sports writers would call it a late-season acquisition.