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.”