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.