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.