Monday, December 20, 2010

12.16 Not Ready For Winter

There is a lot I didn’t get to.
I feel bad about the pots of hardy mums I never got to transplant into the ground. There is limit to how hardy mums can be when you leave them inside the pots where the soil freezes hard after a few nights in the twenties. They do a lot better in the earth, which holds out some hope against a sudden, deep freeze.
Some plants and shrubs that should have been pruned were not. How far down do I want to take a butterfly bush or an autumn joy sedum? I didn’t decide quickly enough, put the decision off, so now they’ll winter in their current unkempt condition and straggle in the snow like their cousins in the wild wood. Actually, I’m looking forward to a snowy background for that straggling.
I did not make much progress on the spreadsheet we started on plant care, which, if I ever do find the right information and plug it in, should remind me what to do when. I have notes from previous years, a bundle of loose papers. Redaction is required.
Am I violating the social contract with my perennial plants, the ones I’m counting on to perform again next year?
Or is the green world with its own let-it-be, let-it-go response to winter’s bitter cold showing me the way? The Tao of winter may be just this: give up, the fight is over. For a season. You can go back to hands-on management in March when the sprouts of the survivors begin pushing up again.
The naked branches of a lilac or wiegelia or the new little viburnum I put in in October may look cold and bare, but I don’t think they’re suffering. If they are, it’s too late for me to do anything about it. I had my chance in the now balmy-by-comparison days of short-eared November. Nothing is gained by feeling guilty.
Learn by example, the garden says, rest and go back to your roots. In my case that mostly means reading, plus a fair bit of lying about.

12.15 Closed for Winter

Shut down. I contemplate (through a window) the garden. No greening urge manifests.
Was December always like this? The cold is colder than it used to be. I look at the numbers on the thermometer, thirty, twenty-something, and I feel worse than I think I used to when I experienced those numbers. Clearly, you have to make your peace with a little cold weather. When I feel shocked by it, instead of prepared for it, or gradually accustomed to it – acclimatized (there’s a word) – or whatever I imagine I used to feel, I think something’s wrong.
Follow the Tao of the seasons, I tell myself. When it’s too cold to be out of doors, crawl down into some low, warm place and huddle in your furs. Maybe keep a couple of large, warm-blooded animals around for additional body heat. Hopefully, the food stores are in, because you eat a lot between bouts of unconsciousness. Most of your food intake goes to fueling your body temperature.
Does winter cold always come this quickly? This absolutely?
I have assumed that perennial plants like deciduous trees go down to their roots to the vital spirit alive and survive the winter. But the ground itself got hard in a hurry this year. Do the roots get down deep enough to feel the earth beneath the crusted layers? What part of them stays alive, to receive the signals of warming earth and lengthening light next spring?
What are the winter dreams of plants?
Frigid, windy nights are punishing. It’s a struggle to stay outdoors long enough to put the garbage out.
The next morning the garbage man picks up the newspaper barrel, bangs it repeatedly against the jaw of the refuse truck to loosen and tumble out the contents, succeeds also in loosening the layer of ice on the barrel’s bottom, and then tosses it to land upside down on the pavement.
A couple hours later when I go outside to retrieve it, putting on my winter parka even for so momentary a chore, I can’t move the face-down barrel. It’s frozen to the pavement. I have to kick it a few times to loosen it. The glacial bits that crack and fall out of the barrel remain frozen days later on the street.
It’s only December. Winter doesn’t even begin until next week.

Stuck Up

Barrel upside down
Pavement locked by lips of ice
What dreams hide inside?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

12.2 Stumped

One of the items on our running list of long-range lifestyle improvements for several years is (or, I can now say, “was”) a tree stump. More accurately, a piece of thick tree trunk cut straight enough to serve as a low, rustic-looking drink table for our woodsy retreat beneath a tree, already furnished with two gracefully varnished Adirondack chairs and bordered by thick green ivy, purple-flowering vinca, a shade plant with fuzzy blossoms called goat’s beard, pink-flowering bi-colored lamium, and our usual supply of volunteer violets and ferns.
It had for some time been our plan to furnish the wood-chip floor between those two comfortable chairs with a stump table. How we would acquire it was another matter. But trees do come down, even big ones, and people sometimes cut thick trunks into usable, though barely movable hunks. We had seen some candidates in a wood in the Berkshires after a sudden global-warming freak storm had taken down a range of trees. But the Berkshires are a long way away, and the place where we found the table-size trunk-chunks was a good distance from the nearest road. And they looked very, very heavy.
Two possibilities: We would figure out how to maneuver some intimidatingly heavy object back to our house from not too far off. Or someone would somehow sense our need and deliver one to us. On our list of needs and desires, it ranked somewhere in the “cross your fingers and wait for the right circumstances to come along” category.
And that’s sort of how it happened.
A neighbor who remembered our wish for a table-sized stump – pretty amazing that anyone would remember such a thing about little old us – and who makes a practice of walking the neighborhood regularly with her dogs happened to come upon a large tree felled and sliced into what appeared to be usable sizes just a few blocks away. She raced over with the news.
Some days later our home-for-a-visit daughter Sonya and I took a walk through the neighborhood to get some air on a gray afternoon. I decided it was a good opportunity to check out the goods. A few blocks away, thinking aloud, I said, “Maybe when some guys come with a truck to take the pieces away I can persuade them to drop one off at our house.” What sort of inducement should I offer, I wondered. Probably more than a couple of beers.
As it happened, just as we approached small apartment complex where the tree had been felled I saw a pickup truck parked in front and a couple of guys standing around a lawn generously spotted with fat hunks of tree trunk.
I picked out the guy I thought looked like the boss and said something like, “Do all those pieces have a home?”
“Do you want one?”
How did he guess? Before I could formulate my request – “what would it take to get you to drop one off?” – he said, “It’s yours if you can take it away.”
Generous. But problematic.
I stared at the thick circular slabs of tree trunk, deciding to try to pick out the one I wanted first before moving on to the considerably harder question of how I would move it. Go get the wheel barrow? Go get the car? Could my daughter and I lift it into either of these?
The tree boss watched me dither.
“You could roll it home,” he said. Then he made the choice for me. “There,” he pointed, “take that one.
Suddenly the thing was decided for me. He helped me lift the slab up onto its diameter. I pushed it forward. It rolled, bumping over a low curbstone barrier and onto the neighborhood’s lumpy asphalt sidewalk, where it wobbled but didn’t fall, and so – even more suddenly – we were off. We shouted thanks. Then the three of us (me, daughter, stump) began rolling in what was happily the right direction because of a gentle decline in the elevation.
We rolled it into the street because all the sidewalks here have bumps. We were mildly fortunate in that no cars were coming; these are quiet streets and I thought it was even money we could make it home without encountering a moving vehicle.
But I would never have made it without Sonya. The slab’s diameter wasn’t perfectly circular, of course, so the thing rolled a little one way, then a little the other way, and it became important to make sure it didn’t encounter a parked car too solidly.
After the first block, the street leveled out, and without gravity to help keep it going I was soon winded. Sonya volunteered to take over and took it the next two blocks. Then we somehow together steered into a right-angle intersection that led directly to our driveway.
We were lucky that our trunk-rolling journey encountered no real checks – save for the moment a door flew open and an older woman with an authoritative look stood in the doorway and demanded, “Did you get permission to take that?”
A remarkable question. (Why? Is that the one you wanted?) What would she have done if the answer were no?
Our assurances that the men with the truck had given their blessing satisfied her, and we made it home at no greater cost than a certain shortness of breath.
Our new “table” now sits under the garden tree awaiting the attentions of warmer weather. I hope it feels at home.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Down to the Parsley

It’s cold the day before Thanksgiving. And it’s time to say goodbye to the faded round of lilac mums I picked from the garden, matched with a few bright yellow and burnished orange ones. I dispose of them in one of my various mulch-pile resting places for old plants, but when I go out to the garden to search among the remaining mum blooms for a few that haven’t lost their bloom the wind is blowing too hard and the low afternoon sun has gone already to shadows. I give up the job after half a minute or so without picking any new ones. With only one near-white blossom preserved from the previous group of blooms, I let it stand by itself in the vase.
A single flower. “Very Japanese,” I say.
But “lonely” is the adjective Anne provides for my single-blossom arrangement.
Thanksgiving morning a delivery car driver calls the house saying she has a delivery for Anne from a Milton florist, but is hopelessly lost. We try to give her directions. Suspense builds over the next twenty minutes, the driver calling back once more for help, until she finally arrives at the front door with a bouquet of harvest-looking blooms – gold and yellow blossoms, some of them mums or overfed daisies, accompanied by sprays of interesting round little berries not resembling anything I see out of doors. The Thanksgiving bouquet is bright and bountiful looking.
Before we go through the woods for grandma’s house, or in our case up Route 95 to Uncle Joel’s, Anne goes out into the garden and finds a few branches of still shiny light-violet mums to join the single white in the vase.
But the big story is the pickings are thin. We have nothing homegrown for the Thanksgiving dinner table (except the kids). The cranberries Anne uses for the cranberry sauce are locally grown because I bought them at the farmers market, and the pumpkin for Sonya’s pumpkin bread was locally acquired from our local supermarket in a canned condition.
Cold weather, especially the windy sort we got for the weekend, keeps me from wanting to meditate in the meditation garden. Outdoors I desire only to keep moving. We go for walks. Saul and I take in the sunset with a quick circuit of the marsh walk one early evening.
“It’s still not five o’clock!” he says, shocked, as we arrive back home in the dark. Where he lives, in Cincinnati, at the western end of the Eastern standard time zone sunset clocks in at almost an hour later.
We hike in the Blue Hills quarries one day last weekend, and traipse through the Arnold Arboretum in Forest Hills the next one. Still thankful, by the time Monday night rolls around we have eaten everything in the house, leftovers included.
I remember, however, my last vegetable garden resource, the redoubtable parsley, which has grown slowly all summer and fall and shakes off cold weather like the Canada Geese and other local waterfowl turn their tail feathers on the icy skim which wrinkles the ponds of the arboretum.
I clipped a couple of handfuls to bring inside – along with a few buds of broccoli – when the wind died down on Sunday. Monday night Sonya mixed the parsley into a simple sauce for pasta, and garnished the meal with the last garden tomato slices on toast with pesto made from our basil.
The garden is passing, but the children are home.

New Wrinkles

The geese do not mind
The skim of ice which threatens
To wrinkle us all.

Monday, November 29, 2010

11.26 The Season

I recently discovered the real reason why we love this time of year. Like most so-called discoveries, it was really the recovery of something forgotten and it came by accident – sort of like Columbus running into America when he was looking for Japan. Not that I’m any Columbus.

It had been a dark, almost smoky afternoon, going to full black of night by the time I pulled into the misshapen urban hole of angry traffic and scattered, frightened pedestrians the center of the small city where I live routinely turns into at this time of day. Rush hour; end of day. Only an important mission would bring me here at this hour: I was having trouble with my eyes. I needed new lenses, in order – nota bene – to see.

I pulled into the first curbside parking place that presented itself, even though I was unsure of my destination, because parking can be especially difficult this time of day. Commuters vulching over your taillights eager to grab the next millimeter of forward progress, incredulous that anyone would want to go somewhere in this place rather than through it to somewhere else. And one wrong move in the irrational world of city center streetscape, as I have discovered to my sorrow, can mean long minutes of regret, frustration – and the boiling claustrophobic anger road failure breeds in the hardiest of spirits.

So, with this experience in mind, I took the corner spot, stepped out of the car, and stuck my hand out to feel for rain. We had already been through some weather that day – the sudden flurry of thickened precipitation, raindrops growing cold and sticky, bumping and clumping together on the way down. The misty, vaporish rain, less like precipitation than somebody continually ringing out damp sponges over the city, accounted for the air’s violet tinge. The air was very damp; it was also soaked in a wet smoky clinging umbra that was both theatrical and silent.

Somehow day had become night. There is not much late afternoon left in the last week of November, of course, so a dark afternoon becomes night in a soul’s whisper.

No real rain moistened my extended palm as I stood on the solitary sidewalk, though dampness coated the air like sweat on a glass; so I relaxed, knowing I could proceed at any easy pace. I took a few steps in what I hoped was the right direction and, suddenly, with no warning, utterly unexpectedly, the wonder of it was…

Everything was beautiful. Irrationally, piercingly, the way only something seen fresh because it is also completely remembered can be. Founded, I decided, on a unique moment in solar time: twilight hour in early winter, helped along by the slow advance of early, wet, wintry gloom.

This is what we mean, what we really mean, by “the season.” The way I parse the moment’s warm but lonesome poetry, the effect stems from the conjunction of lighted shop windows over dark streets. The world goes dark, shockingly early; the lights go on. This conjunction – nature darkening, city streets lighting up – takes place only at this time of day at this time of year: darkness before five o’clock, a time when it’s still “business hours” on commercial district streets – and therein lies the magic. After five o’clock, those shops and small offices start turning off their lights; employees go home. The effect weakens.

As the year advances beyond the winter solstice, the sky stays lighter longer and the commercial blocks have no need to beam their contrasting windows of light into the world’s darkness.

It’s the poetry of the lighted shop windows – irrespective of what may or may not be in them – that wakens our nostalgic love of “the season.” And it’s this hour of the day, this moment of darkness’s heart-stopping arrival in a time of dwindling daylight, that opens the “season” to our senses.

Winter days begin to lengthen after Christmas. We all feel the change in January, it’s already a different season then. Still winter, but the world is growing lighter, an effect heightened by snow cover. Soon daylight lingers beyond five o’clock’s closing time, and we no longer have the crucial conjunction of dark sky and lighted storefronts. Only businesses that stay open nights, restaurants, bars, tattoo parlors, light up the city streets – it’s not the same. It’s another season then (cabin fever winter, maybe); it’s not this one.

This brief, once a year overlapping of light and dark is what makes the holiday season. These are the physical sensations that trigger the memories, a conditioned response to light and dark (probably colder temperatures play a role too) that releases the flood of sensations and associations built up over the course of our lives. Routines: rushing home in the dark; getting off the bus; driving a tired highway to make it home for Christmas; the glinting low-angled sun, even at midday, when we round a familiar bend and look at a stand of bare trees; when we smell the smoke of someone’s fire place or the pinch of someone else’s pine tree, taste a liquor on the tongue we virtuously avoid the rest of the year, see a round of familiar faces. Older; but still familiar…

I wander down the city center street, into the evocative gloom, interrupted by geometries of human light. Cars drive past the holiday lights and the nativity scene where “Baby Jesus” was stolen from the manger two years ago and the local paper blared the “story” on the front page day after day. Pedestrians double-time halfway across main street to the traffic island, a desert isle where they wait, stranded, desperation straining their features, for the change of the light to rescue them.

But the violence of crazy machines flying through downtown is assimilated this season into the wild fluency of the looming love-hungry urban dark, as the clock nudges past four thirty. A mother and a daughter walk slowly on a shop visit of their own. Clerks stare from the temples of their lighted interiors at the few passersby, registering a solitaire like myself without expression, counting the day’s last minutes to close-up maybe, or hoping to reel in a last fish. The wider lighted interiors of the furniture showroom; a bare martial arts studio. The towering urban mall edifice with floors of offices inside, doctors’ offices, talkers’ offices, many of these lighted, some already dark, some to stay lighted for hours.

The heavy beasts of the metro buses panting with fatigue and contained fury as they hang in the intersection, judging the moment of the lunge into the main way; the gritty smell and scraping rattle of the engine.

The season is not these things, which are always there, though somehow transformed this time of year. It’s not the department store music, which we’re tired of. It’s certainly not shopping, though some people claim to enjoy it (I’m skeptical, personally). It’s not what we think it is.

It’s something more universal. It’s the light; and the darkness. It’s the universe calling us, buttonholing us, making us pay attention.

I am going the wrong way, I realize at last, after a skeptical reading of street numbers. I turn around and walk back down main street until I come to the store in front of which I have fortuitously parked my car. It’s the shop I wanted. I go inside to get my new lenses. I have remembered how to see.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

11.17 Spare Beauty

The garden has a spare, glinty beauty today. It rained last night, and the sun flared out suddenly this morning. Some more leaves have come down. I was sorry to lose them from the trees, but they glistened on the ground, the orange maple leaves from a volunteer tree sheltering under the oak lending a color patch next to a fence and the burnished cherry tree leaves circling around the garden’s focal center.
Big dark-blue berries on an evergreen planted in front of the evergreen fence. The caramel leaves of the chocolate flower decaying into tissue paper, soft material against the still solid foliage of the grasses, the evergreens and a butterfly bush which for some reason maintains its green as if it were July. The deep red foliage of the Japanese maple bush full at its own feet like flowers tossed before royalty.
Flattened yellow spears of the day lilies mingle with brown tree leaves. The spirea holds its foliage. The leaves of the plumbago have a deep rusty-iron red. The low, light-green thyme groundcover mats are still bright – like grass, like the parsley in the vegetable plot, they like this time of year – but are striped now with brown leaves.
I cut down some stalks last weekend – perennials, cone flowers, balloon flowers, everything that had given up the ghost and was wearing out its gaunt, harvest season welcome. Removing that layer of fading foliage and stems spared down and sharpened the look of the back garden landscape.
The space has a composition as a whole because, like a wild place, there’s enough variety. The colors and textures and different shapes and sizes weave together in a natural way. The garden is a miniature park. I wander along the maze of the curving paths, getting lost – mentally, that is – for a few moments here and there. That’s what you want. That’s the point.

11.16 November Cool

It’s a gray day. A little flash of mostly sunlit sky earlier this morning, highlighting the autumn colors in the garden, but now we’ve settled into a kind of a mild overcast. But the gold and bronzed colors still stand out. The weeping cherry tree hangs at its peak, a lighter yellow-orange mingling with darker bronzed-orange leaves.
It’s not cold. It’s not “a beautiful fall day” – words which suggest deep blue sky and a crown of October-yellow trees. There will be no blue sky today.
But what we have is perfect in its own way. It’s the perfect “cool, gray day.” Not cold. Not windy, no wind at all. Very still and meditative. The world keeping a low profile and mulling things over.
Walking down a street, any ordinary residential street, on a day like this is evocative. It evokes all the other such days – and there are a lot of them. Walking home at lunchtime in elementary school. After school in junior. Is there a school yard nearby, the sound of a basketball? The cool gray days of childhood, youth, middle age.
The day is redolent of all other such days, which if you add them up, would probably produce a very high total. The days before winter starts; the days when winter ends. This one reminds you of things. What it mostly reminds you of is being alive.
I start in my own garden, then walk around a block. Add a few more blocks, turning the world into a garden.
The empty sidewalks, silent houses, quiet landscape tell their story. It’s a story about a still, cool, comfortable, palpably thoughtful mid-November day. And nobody, which is to say everybody, is telling it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

11.10 Acquainted with the Twilight

A day passes, then another. I’m still staring out the window (well, with breaks).
The western sky turns gold at four-eighteen today. There’s hardly been any sun all week, but this evening there’s just enough to smear a partly clear sky with a golden and pink haze of November sunsets.
All months have great sunsets, but in no month are they more important than in November, when we are re-acquainted with The Dark. I am one, Frost tells us, who is acquainted with the night. But really, Robby, we’re all pretty familiar with those dark nights of both soul and body. And in the northern latitudes those nights come very soon in November.
November is the shock month for sun-worshippers – or dark-cringers (for whom declining sunlight gives a case of the SAD) – because of our quaint, civilized habit of screwing around with the clock. Since we run our lives by the clock – it’s pretty much the most important tool we have (after language, maybe), for millions of us the clock says when to go to work and when we can leave – lurching back an hour precisely at the time of year when sunlight is dribbling out of our daily quotient at a rate which made primitive folks “light beseeching fires” and which still worries our inner savage with the dim possibility that we may be running out of it altogether is something of a shock. It’s a wake-up, so to speak, when what we want to do is go to sleep.
People who make a practice of staring at the western sky at the end of the day do so this month at an abruptly earlier time of “day” – to use the word loosely – because we’re used to thinking that our labors run from “sun to sun.”
At the moment, however, now 4:37, the crimson tides of the heavens have taken over half the visible firmament above our heads, a virtuoso display by the Early Evening Painters of November Skies. As if to prove something.
I think it’s proven. I am astonished, shaken to my roots. Cosmic influences really do run the show. Light and darkness tell us what to do. And when we mess with the rhythm, our psyches scurry like un-hilled ants.
Admittedly, we’ve loused up the original signals by the invention of artificial light. And our profit for it, to paraphrase Caliban, is we know how to work. Long days in the office, at the computer, minding the shop, caring for kids, continue regardless of nature’s signals. (One thing, though, aside from scraping away at some leaves there’s not much to do in the garden.)
Peasant farmers knew what to do in the winter. They rested up. They took it for granted that by mid-summer day they’d be working sixteen hour days once again and feeling rather good about the prospect of having a crop. But in winter it was time for the farmer to drink up his cider, as one of those childhood rhymes had it. Time to climb under a forgiving haystack and sleep away dull hours. Increasingly there will be less to do (and less to eat) as the cold months deepen, then wear away at the edges.
We’re supposed to go with the flow, but these days we have to go against it. Not so hard to do in brilliant October, the Disney season of psychedelic nature, but suddenly we’ve been short-weighted in a bargain we didn’t know we made.
Nevertheless, sunset’s earlier arrivals, its importuning twilights, make us pay attention to the big picture by the simple device of arriving so much earlier.
Sunset’s pink-lavender extravagance (at four forty-four) has been rolled up by a sudden accession of cloud bank, except for a deepening glow-field banding the horizon and putting a dark pink background behind the black silhouettes of bare trees.
Now look at it, a few minutes later, suddenly a stunning violet-dark, everything Flemish tinted, a Rembrandt in every window. It’s almost worth that extra hour.

11.8 Bare Statements

November is the hardest month of the year, because it gives us the best part of the day before we’re ready for it. It’s happening in the fours this week, as most of the country turns back the clocks to daylight standard time. It’s happening now, right now. My windows darkening, perceptibly, by the minute, as I sit in an artificially lighted interior. Every time I glance over there is less definition, less to see (I suppose, since we prefer to see distinctions, not undifferentiated planes), darkness filling in more of those shapes still visible. Trunks of a tree; of course; what would there be in the sun-short months of the northern latitudes? The fa├žade of a neighbor’s house, dimming around the lighted rectangles of two well-set windows, like eyes cut carefully in a jack-o-lantern.
Above, between the branches, the sky is a single shade of inky purple, the foreground nothing but a darkening blur. Soon reflections of those lights from inside the room will eat up all there is in the visual field of a darkening window.
It’s the big change, which takes place at the end of each day (some days a lot more clearly than others), the cosmos big-footing in and defining our condition. It’s astronomy’s big statement, and it’s easier to catch it when sunset comes so early in the course of clock-driven “day” – which is of course, not over, though the magical closing hour of five o’clock is fast approaching.
It’s not easy to appreciate, however, because in the human-measured time of day, we’re still on the job; or, worse, gob-smacked in the commute. Where did the day go?…

Monday, November 8, 2010

11.1 Cold Front

Once again tearing a page off the calendar has correlated with a pronounced change in the weather. Cold and clear, thirties this morning. I worried about the Mandeville rose, a conspicuous but exposed annual, sitting in an oversized pot on the corner of the patio. But it looked fine. The deep red tubular flowers, which age and drop in the manner of all flowers, are still doing their thing.
Our plan, or rather intention, is to take this plant indoors before the first real-frost day. But the pot is very big, filled with heavy soil, plus a wooden arbor frame for its climbing, twining branches, and doesn’t give much when I tried an experimental drag… We all know about good intentions.
Then, a few days later, we get a couple of rainy days. Not particularly cold, but a steady enough rain to bring down the colored leaves of October. Half of the orange-red leaves of the maple shade tree out front fell one day; the other half the next.
The rain stopped, but the leaves continued. The mulberry tree on the side of the house, which I risked life and limb trimming this summer, waited until the last week of October to turn, then went totally yellow on a long golden day as I kept turning my head to watch. One breezy, brighter day in the first week of November all those pale yellow leaves began slowly pouring out of the great pitcher of sky.
I went back to the salt marsh along the Quincy shoreline. Pretty much all the leaf-bearing plants there stripped bare too. Color in the marsh lives in low shrubs, saplings, and viney crawlers. Those deep reds and yellows I had enjoyed last week were passed now.
It grew cold, and clear. But breezy. I looked out the study window into the golden midday light to see a flotilla of brown leaves sweeping down. The oak tree? Even the oak, this soon? Memory suggests that the great oak out back held onto its rusty red-brown leaves a lot longer than the other trees in other years. What does it know that we don’t? (Well, a lot.)
November so far is a succession de-leaving days. It’s the opposite, I suppose, of succession planting in the spring.

November Rain

Beautiful trees, birds
Their calls falling through chill hours
Yellow leaves like rain

Friday, October 29, 2010

10.23 Late October, Home and Away

We didn’t bring the camera.
The sky was gray, the air cool, the atmosphere – melancholy.
Romantic melancholy, full of all that had passed.
The woods were sere, brown leaves thick on the paths below my feet. Red-leaved shrubs fired up along the roadsides.
The trees had a different look. Tightening up for the serious season. Toughing it. Letting go of superfluities, all of those light, fluttery, lacey sun-catchers. Summer stuff.

Late October, Berkshire Hills

A new look, sere, bare
Full of all that was passing
The trees? Fortitude

There are always two ways (at least) in the woods. Behind Stockbridge Bowl, the path off of Olivia’s Outlook, called the Walsh Trail, breaks time and time again. I take the first one toward the ridge. The red blaze on the tree looks thirty years old. Who has come this way and not returned?
Alone, with the chance to get lost by myself, I watch my step carefully. I will be gone long enough, but not too long. The trail is tricksy. I break off and reconnect time and time again. I find the view from the “Ridge Trail” which I remember from previous visits. Go a little further, a little higher. A second, relaxed sort of summit with a cleared top, where someone built a rude wooden bench long ago. I stand on the bench to get the best view. In one direction I am impressed to see a hillside about seventy percent bare of leaves, stands of evergreen interrupting stretches of bare branches. In the other direction the trees are still turning, with few or even no bare trees.
We drive home Saturday night, and on Sunday, back in Quincy, a city, discover more of the same business happening here among the trees.
The maple in front of the house is peaking. Orange-leafed, orange-red, some reddish spots too. Some plants in the perennial back garden show autumn colors as well. The leaves of the green-leaved evening primrose turn dark red, then drop. The blue-flowered balloon flowers turn a pale, ripe yellow, almost like beech trees in the wood. The ornamental grasses have tossed up their seed heads. A grass called Northern Sea Oats makes thin, flat-sided delicate seeds – like stamped coins in the shape of arrowheads – tiny embryos bared without much cover, and let their leaves fade to a dull gold.

Who hath not seen thee [Keats asks of Autumn] oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor…

He’s here too, all around us.

10.29 Carpet of Leaves

Orange leaves with red patches among them cover the walkway between the driveway and the house. The big maple fighting for space with power lines, beautiful for weeks, is now on its season-ending half-life for autumn color. Peaking, earlier this week. Then a rainy night; not a bad rain, a soft rain, but coming at just the wrong time for leaf maintenance. About half those perfect color orange leaves lay on the ground in the morning. They make a bright carpet around the house.
Now it is well known feature of the fall season that many people get in their automobiles and drive scores or even hundreds of miles into the “country,” to look at the color compositions of the New England woods. They drive and look, adding their share of carbon loading to the atmosphere, and stopping occasionally at designated view points.
Meanwhile back in the cities and towns of the same New England, folks can’t wait to wrap up every last fallen leaf and stuff them into bags, black plastic mainly though some have adopted the recyclable paper bags, and have them promptly removed. Hooray! they say, We’ve done it! Bare pavement once again!
What is this haste to reveal the impervious surface, the asphalt underpinning of settled American life?
Why not leave the still colored leaves on the ground where nature put them and enjoy the effect? The novelty will last at least a few weeks, then wear off as the leaves dry and turn brown. Then you can remove them, giving yourself good reason to spend a few hours outdoors in drear times.
Right now, though, while trees are thinning overhead, bald patches appearing here and there, the thick blanket of orange and yellow on the ground reflects the burnished orange in the cherry tree in the back garden and enlivens the scene from bottom to top.
The leaves of a pair of young rose of Sharon bushes turn yellow, the top-heavy structures looking like two lemon-yellow ice cream cones, the rusty-tawny leaves of a big hosta beside one of them complementing the color. The leaves of a recently added plumbago have turned a coppery red-brown, and the drying blossoms of a low hydrangea offer slashes of carmine.
But the biggest color field stretches from the crowns of the shade trees to the carpets of color those trees spread beneath their thinning canopies on the ground.
Why is anybody in a hurry to get rid of that?

10.27 Great Blue Herons in a Quincy Marsh

10.27 Great Blue Herons in a Quincy Marsh
First, it was beautiful. More beautiful than it had been in a year.
Where wild low vines crawled over the earth, their leaves had turned maroon, charging the landscape with dark red patches. Where the marsh grass stood up, the late afternoon light had caught the bronze autumn coloring of the grasses and burnished them with gold.
And wherever the marsh cordgrass (spartina patens) lies flat – which is most of any salt marsh – on what is generally dry ground, water had submerged the surface, shining in pools amid the grass.
Maybe it was a recent rain, or the unusually high water level in the marsh, but all the colors in the marsh were shining. Along with pale yellow leaves in the bordering wood, reddish scrub and vines, bronzed two-toned marsh grasses consisting of waves of reddish-brown crossed by lines of golden-tawny.
And then the stick figure of the wading bird. For a bird its size, the folded-up stock-still version of the great blue heron can be hard to see. I am walking straight toward before its image materializes in my vision. Even then it looks like a sapling stick, a little bit twisted up besides the tall grasses. It’s also perched in an unusual place at very edge of the narrow walking trail, a normally dry surface. But today that that part of the marsh is half afloat.
Now the thing is, because the day was cloudy, the light unpromising, when I left the house I considered taking the camera but decided, no, don’t bother. So I have no camera. Now the sun, which has apparently been hiding itself by the shore, is gold-sharp and shiny with watery reflections.
Fortunate heron, free of undue stalking by me. But since the path is taking me directly toward him I have no choice but to approach. A few steps later, the bird uncoils his anatomy, opening his enormous wings to increase his body surface by about 800 percent, and takes off around the bend.
He doesn’t know the trail will round that bend as well and bring me straight toward his new hiding place.
This pas de deux happens twice more as the trail curves, bringing the out of sight intruder back into bird’s eye view. I approach, he looks askance, considers, then opens his lithe grey-blue sky-finders and glides away. At the third sighting I realize there’s another great blue, identical battleship coloring in the marshes directly behind him, about two hundred feet away. This one sees me first and even though I’m keeping a considerable distance is the first to extend wings and lift off. He/she (matey?) flies all the way across the marsh and is lost to sight.
The first bird takes a shorter hop, in response, but as I draw close once again a tall colony of marsh grass intervenes between his silent wading perch and my slow trail so I get within fifteen feet or so before he realizes someone’s popping up again. This time he takes off without a backward look, grabbing more air, and disappears from sight. I go back to marveling over the great color in the marsh grass.
It’s wet underfoot in places where I usually walk without fear of wet feet. After a little squishing, I take some detours, and finally get back on trail in the second half of the loop, well on the way to returning. Then the heron explodes, though silently, out from some trees and flies low across my path over the marshes before disappearing over a distant tree line.
I can’t count how many good shots I’ve missed.
So the next day, of course, I bring the camera, and the sun is shining. But it’s too much sun. The colors aren’t the same, beautiful by any standard and only failing to measure up the heights set the day before. And the marsh is no longer wet and shiny; maybe that takes some of the luster off. Whatever happened to the tides or the tide management at the watergate has drawn off the water.
I do see one of the great blue herons. It’s a long away off, though, across the flattened grass, a place not interesting to a fish-hunting wading bird because it now has no water, and even then gives me a fish-eyed glance as my trail comes round and leads me toward him. He’s still a long way off when he lifts off and I start clicking.
It’s too far. The perfect happens only when it chooses, and never on schedule.

The Perfect Moment

Great blue in the grass
Red marshes shining behind
Camera at home

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

10.22 A Buzz on My Thumb

More adventures with my little friends. I’ve been sorry to see the abundance of summer life die off this time of year. I leave a pair of thick, rubberized garden gloves on the front porch under a chair. The weather gets colder. I do no outdoor work for several days. The sun comes out. But the wind is strong on a Friday afternoon, and since we are going away the next day I want to pick any tomatoes with enough red on them to make it possible for them to ripen on a window sill before we go. It may soon get too cold for the remaining fruit. I may be running out of time. So I pick up my gloves, mostly because my hands are cold, and go out to the veggie garden to pull off cherry tomatoes and hopefully something bigger.
As I work there’s this odd sensation in my left hand. It’s like a nervous tick, or the slight spasm of an overstressed muscle… in a funny place, though. The surface of the large knuckle on my left thumb. A nerve twitch? A muscle spasm – on the edge of my thumb?
I go into denial. Busy. Not really feeling anything. Sometimes you imagine a mosquito on your arm or leg because you know they’re around. You have just felt them; you have just killed one. You skin pickles, it writhes with imagined insect presence. Imagined ants crawling on your stomach and back. Sitting on Crane Beach when the greenhead flies arrive. Who has not suffered imaginary (or real) insect attacks? … Let’s not go there.
I need both hands to pick the tomatoes. Hold the branch with one hand, detach with the other, drop the little red ball into the bowl. But I feel it again. Ignore it. Feel it again.
A light turns on. Oh, damn. Something inside my glove? I rip the glove off my left hand. Shake it hard. Something seems to happen. But it happens fast, and I can’t really see what.
I look on the ground in front of me. I look at the front of my sweatshirt. I shake the glove again, but now I’m convinced something was moving in there and I simply refuse to put it back on. I drop the glove in the corner of the container, among the little red tomatoes, and go back to picking. My eye falls on a dark spot on my shoulder.
It’s a bee.
I brush it off reflexively.
…So that’s what the buzz of a bee feels like on your skin. The tactile equivalent of the buzz, the shaking to life of the half-frozen honey bee. What it’s like to have a bee, warming back to life after too much cold, buzz itself to life on your skin.
I don’t know if the bee made it back to the land of living sufficiently to find his way to winter quarters’ warmth within the hive before the cold wind of late afternoon slowed his motor a final time. But I kind of hope that he did.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

10.20 Off the Shelf

It’s the time of year when I haunt big box stores for plant sales. This year it’s a Lowe’s in a neighboring town that I would never imagine going out of my way for – except for noticing on an unrelated errand that the store boats a “garden center,” half open to the elements, the way they are at all the big box stores. We went there looking for stone to beef up some of the paths in the back that get overrun by weeds over my thin layer of blue-gray pea stone. I like pea stone, and I don’t even mind overgrown paths, but that’s another story.
Having filed in my memory the intelligence that a plant sell-off of leftovers was taking place, I snuck back there the other day when the sun was shining on the chance that prices would be better than at the Home Depot stores I’ve already checked out. They were. I had a concise mental shopping list. Something for “winter interest against the back fence.” Some more shade-loving but flowering plants, a rarer combination to come across by accident, intended for the shady side of the house along a stone path made of irregular blue granite. We’ve already invested, both money and muscle, in this area, so I’m determined to keep improving it.
So far we have spring flowering groundcovers there, but not much for the rest of the season. By late summer it gets dull and this year a little barren along the path’s shady border. Worse, the long dry season this year took a toll on some of the groundcovers. The pitiful October roster: Violets that dissipate by autumn, with weather-bitten leaves. Hosta that begins losing interest in life as soon as their flowering season is over. Lilies of the valley that have done a vanishing act long before fall begins. The sweet woodruff which this year executed a classic bubble, to borrow a term from the still depressing dysfunction in the financial services sector, expanding at a stunning rate in the spring and dying back spectacularly in the hot months, leaving browned out patches where factories have shut down, main streets rolled up, whole families fleeing to the edge of cities to live in shantytowns. Someone should investigate, really.
So I need revival, renewal. I need to attract new industries. Or buy them, actually (which is why gardening is better than economic planning); and while fall is reputed a good planting season, October is running down, and the plants you can find on sale in plant centers have for the most part spent months growing root-bound in undersized plastic homes.
Location: a strip mall in Weymouth. In the near-empty garden center of a Lowe’s, one woman going round the joint with a shopping cart and a rather dashing hydrangea, no other evident customers, I find some good stuff, what might be just the stuff I’m looking for, and am confronted almost at once with a choice of generously under-priced holly shrubs to buy for the “winter interest” spot along the back fence. Where I can gaze at it all winter and be thankful for something green. There are hollies with red berries and then something called a “blue holly.” The blue holly have small berries in the formative stages of existence which currently appear whitish with a patina of what looks like freezer-fuzz but almost certainly isn’t. I am intrigued. It will give me a cold weather occupation, going out back every once in a while to check on the status of the freezer-fuzz.
So I settle on the blue. But how to choose which blue holly plant?
Oh sure, the best or healthiest looking. But I’m taking the longer view here. Most, even possibly all – at this time of year – of the rest are likely to end up in the dumpster. Or some sort of “recycled” equivalent adopted by a supplier; dumped on a mulch pile, perhaps. I suppose suppliers may take back some of the bigger, costlier products, the trees, if the investment in them justifies further costs, and winter them over, re-pot them in the spring, and give them another season of shelf-life.
But – shelf-life, think of it. What kind of life is that?
They wait in the garden center all season hoping someone will come and say, oh that one’s cute, and buy and take it home and release it into its proper element – the earth, I’m thinking here – and maybe give it a little water at the start and then basically get out of its way.
So now here I am, the last chance shopper, choosing one holly bush off the shelf – just one from a whole extended family of imprisoned plants -- to sit by a back garden fence and give me visual company. I’m playing god. It’s a customer selection which is different from most kinds of shoppers’ choices because after all I’m dealing with living things. And almost all the other aspiring trees, shrubs, and perennial flowering plants in the joint are likely to end up in some version of a trash can.
How “contingent” are the lives of living, natural beings! Contingent, the word I learned in philosophy class back when everything in the world was about to change (but didn’t), means dependent on chance. On the unpredictable, on breaks; on forces larger than oneself.
People are living, natural beings too. We’re part of the game as well. We take our chances. Someone picks us off the shelf and helps us grow, or doesn’t. Gives us a job or a scholarship, or gives it to someone else. All our constituent parts come together properly to form a healthy little unit, or they don’t. Some families function well; some don’t.
We make choices as well, certainly. We’re part of that greater “contingency” – and our choices affect others. But only those under the sway of the ruling American mythology, and truly only those when young, really believe that the course of our lives is up to us.
Stay healthy. Sure, but health is not always within an individual’s control. Work hard. Yeah, but you might get laid off or any number of macro-economic contingencies can pop up to constrain your prosperity. Survive. Good idea – so don’t smoke, drink and drive, text and drive, take drugs, have unprotected sex, chew and talk, put a slippery rug in the bathroom, or find yourself in a war or on an icy road. Clearly, there are a lot factors which may come into play, if you look at the big picture.
So mostly, understandably, we don’t look at the big picture. We look at the view close to home. At a garden, perhaps. At a small blue-holly shrub, which is now planted against a fence.
Odds are that bush isn’t thinking about all the others left behind in the store… I, however, may go back and buy them all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

10.10 Sunday in the Park

10.10 Sunday in the Park

We find a new land today in a state forest that has been here all the
time and ignored by us for no apparent reason. No one is there in the
guardhouse, so we save the $2 entrance fee. In the parking area
children investigate brook-fed pond with a waterfall, watched by a parent with a camera.
The trail head is just across the road. The trail goes up up up, gradually, steadily…while the stream that fed the pond follows at a lower elevation. Yellow
leaved trees, beeches; a few brilliant reds with small leaves. Between
them streaks of moving water in the stream flashing through the trees,
louder in hearing than seeing. At some point the water disappears from sight while it grows in the silence of the wood. We find a slightly slower path that brings
us closer to the ravine where the stream twists amid
rapids. We listen and look down and snap a few photos.

The Stream Spoke Truth

Its roar follows us
We have seen its happy end
Ripples flash through trees

Later when the path, still ascending, comes to a fork, we try the inland path, moving away from the stream in hopes of finding the trail loop to take us back to start. But this fork wanders, still rising, maybe to the so-called Honee mountain, from which there is no reported view; but it lacks markings or indications of any sort.
Without certainty that we are on a loop back to a known destination,
growing a little weary in the climbing muscles though the route is
beautiful, we call a halt, turn back and retrace our steps. We find the lower path that takes you close to the rush and shine of the rapid stream again and make a picnic there: orange, bread, cheese, a chocolate cookie each.
The way down is easier, but still dazzling, winding gently through shadows shot with light. Tree tops parting the sky. The sky perfectly blue, a deep unreasoning blue, though later Anne notices a few chalky cirrus swirls against the blue, the shape of wind. A few birds skipping ahead. Absolutely no one else crossing our way.
We drive a paved forest road that leads past the Azalea Wood to an off-road lookout from a bald summit over a wide sweep of horizon-filling mountains. North, toward Greylock? We’re not sure. We see a trail that starts up here behind the turnoff on the summit, the skyline trail. We think of trying that one next time.
That evening we watch the sun set and twilight deepen from a sensible place with a great view: the dining room of the cottage.

What to Make of the Moon

It hides among trees
A pilgrim’s light among hills
Bringer of new time

10.9 Paradise Retreat

Classic fall day in the Berkshires. We drive to a nature conservation
property we have visited many times, probably every Columbus Day
weekend for the last dozen since we first discovered the site far enough away that, when you look down from the high point (Hurlburt Hill) on a spectacular tree-lined mountain view you have your backside on the Connecticut line….
It’s the annual October retreat. Three days without work, TV, mail, internet, almost anything but nature and the family summer place called “the cottage.” The evening activity is looking at stars or making a fire. We don’t go out to eat. We bring a bottle of wine, make simple meals featuring lots of bread. We go for hikes.
So on Saturday, a classic cloudless mild October day, we go to Bartholemew’s Cobble, a nature preserve located on the – take a wild guess – Housatonic River and which we have visited enough that I almost know the way. Here’s the report.

What the Trees Think

Roots sunk in rocks, you
Wait for winter winds to shake
Your heart is evergreen

Geese Flew Overhead on a Perfect Autumn Afternoon

Fighting the wind to
Keep their ranks in order like
Soldiers on parade

Where the Current Flows

The river moved slow
Brown the tint of memory
Shallow lies the soul

The Forest Tribe Thrives Together

Grow high, if at all
Lean in on one another
Falling, feed the roots

First Fall Twilight

First blue, then pink, the
Sky turns black above the hill
Painting in the cold

10.7 A beautiful day

After three cool, overcast, rainy days in which all I think about is
whether I’m cold and how much work I have to finish when, the sun comes
out on a Thursday afternoon and I am suddenly unreasonably happy for no known cause. The time and place of this happiness is, oddly enough, getting into the car and driving down streets I regularly drive in order to bypass a traffic light; finding more after school
traffic where it usually lurks; fighting through that and arriving beneath a gloriously sunlit cosmos – October blue sky, turning trees, a bend in a
local stream, bizarrely affecting music on the radio (a version of
Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, everybody’s favorite guitar music, but without guitar and with vocals instead – sung in French!) – … at yet another busy intersection and pushing my way through and over to the fly-by-night outdoor plant vendor plunked down on a parking lot between a supermarket and a new car sales lot.
They paved paradise, put up a parking lot, then put a little bit of paradise back on top. Hundreds and hundreds of hardy mum plants. I don’t
need mums. I have plenty of perennial mums in the back garden, and I bought some new ones in pots for the front steps somewhere else the other day. I want
asters; here at the poetically named Route 3A Artery Plant Center there are only some blue ones in large pots for $20 each. Ahhh… no sale. However they also have music, loud FM radio piped-in rock music that I ordinarily detest. Yet on this occasion, while walking between rows of hundreds of mums to enjoy a last blast of color, I am captivated
by an even more deeply affecting piece of music than the Frenchified Rodrigo – a high energy and emotionally supercharged rock song from (it can only be ) the late
sixties because why else would I care? It’s as if I hadn’t heard it
since then and am immediately transferred to some earlier careless day. Why does it fill me with such piercing joy?
Well, I am ready to go home at last since the universe is still a beautiful
place even if I can’t find my asters, but I decide, what the heck, to check out a place
I’ve already checked on before on this quest. I see the owner’s truck, know he’s in,
cross the street brazenly in front of traffic, nobody wants to kill
anybody in the sunshine, right?, and find some barely serviceable blue asters
with the dead leaves trimmed off, squeezed into square-shaped pots that I don’t
remember seeing there before, or else they were also discouragingly overpriced. I go
inside the shop, ask Alan, the owner, how much are the asters – he says he doesn’t
have any – then remembers – he’d given up on selling these ones – and gives
them to me for $1 each since he was only going to stick them in the ground himself.
I take five, go home and in the still enchantingly autumn-lovely late afternoon light find places, dig in the dirt, soak, cut up the pot-bound roots, fertilize, plant, and admire my new acquisitions. The one with the brightest remaining blossoms lines up behind last month’s happily acquired pink guaras to continue the new fall color zone. Yes! Life is worth living.

10.4 It’s Cold

October. First full month of autumn. The classic fall weather month begins on the rough side. One nice day. Then it turns windy, cool, and rains.
Everything changes in October. It’s the obverse of April, freezing you with hints of winter, teasing you with nostalgic reprises of summer warmth.
I stop worrying about watering all the potted plants – and all the “sensitive plants” – and worry instead about turning on the heat, pulling all the storm windows down, finding warm socks and long-sleeved shirts. Other seasonal preoccupations: keeping my feet warm, making tea in the afternoon. Hoping it will turn warm again so we can breakfast outdoors a few more times. Wondering what I will find to do outdoors when it gets too cold to simply wander among the plants and, well, contemplate.
Outdoor lovers have nowhere to go. The honey bees begin stiffening on the flowers, caught in the act by the season’s unseasonable weather. Bees – as I have noticed when trying to take their picture – are always in motion when they’re on a plant. They don’t ever simply take five while digesting the nectar from, say, a fat red bee balm blossom. There is no balm for busy bees. When you see them stuck on a mum blossom after a cool rainy day, it’s a sign that the days of buzz and honey have come to an end.
Nature is changing the guard. The crickets have mostly been silenced. I see the grasshoppers still on occasion atop the flower stalks but they are reluctant to hop away; they let me get close enough to cup my hands around them. Moths seek the indoors, hanging some days against a newly lowered storm window. Only the spiders, a wary and resourceful tribe, are still at work. They suspend from a single strand attached beneath the shingles. When I turn the hose lazily in their direction, they ascend their rope ladders instantly like special forces in a training exercise.
The bird world is changing too. A woodpecker comes through and knocks away at the mulberry tree one afternoon, but after a day he is gone. Hawks are passing through as well. Crows gather at the exposed lip of the highest branches of a neighbor’s trees and bark away, behavior I take for the raptor early warning system.
At ground level the furry-tailed rodents are busier than I like to see. Where I disturb the ground, transplanting small migrants to new homes, they follow, digging up the loosened soil to see what I might have hidden.
I wait for that other, mellow face of autumn –

“Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness,
close bosom-friend of the maturing sun…”

-- that Keats depicts in the ode addressed “To Autumn.”

“Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; \
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep…”

It’s the season of satiety, the poem suggests, among its various aspects. I’d agree that we’ve had enough of growing too, if only we could see a little more of that friendly, maturing sun.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autumn Mums

Mums the word/haiku

Autumn mums the word
Lips of color set to part
Psalmists to the sky

It’s fall, so I buy some hardy autumn flowering mums. Who hasn’t? I get one rather large one, which fills a spot near the front steps where previous annuals have failed to prosper, and three much smaller ones. When I line the short ones up on the porch steps, their size seems just right. They look like happy little dots at the end of parallel clauses.
But a strange warm, wet wind hasn’t got the word and keeps blowing them off the porch steps. Today my short squat potted mums look like little boys who keep getting knocked over on the playground.
Eventually I give up and move them up to the top of the porch where the wind can’t get at them, the blowhard still manages to knock them off their feet. Eventually I line them up close behind a low wooden-box planter, as if seeking protection from the big kid.
New stuff. Shorter days. The season’s September song. Once again the end days of months are liminal moments this year, and this month has gone out with two unseasonably warm days. More outdoor time for summer’s lovers.
It wasn’t the weather, or at least not the recent weather, but autumn’s bloomers have brightened up the place considerably. The back garden’s perennial mums have started to open, the first big white flower heads on my overgrown Montauk daisy opened earlier this week, and now the toad lilies – probably the last of the fall perennials – have offered up their intricate, oddly spotted flowers, bringing new life to “quiet’ corners.
I helped things along by a planting a few more of next year’s perennials now, two discounted members of family called “pink guara,” which I have just learned is a native of Texas, spreads widely, has spikes 2 to 4 feet high, and delicate dancing pink blooms. I am almost ready to hire an orchestra.
I wasn’t aware of the Texas connection when I bought them, but the shop owner did advise me to “mulch” them over winter. Since I mulch everything, I take this to mean mulch especially well. I will buy little fur coats made of squirrel hair and organic leavings and button them up tight.
It’s an odd thought that plants which did well in spring and pooped out completely in the summer, are willing to take a chance at flowering again now. We have second rounds of roses, a few blue clematis climbing the front porch, a range of fuzzy pink spirea clusters, a few small foxgloves, and one perky pink pincushion flower.
Petunias, as I have learned other years, come back and bloom now if you manage to keep them alive through the heat.
Some annuals take all summer to get good, and some others I acquired late in the season when we needed an infusion of late-season color and the specimens looked like they were strong enough to survive a late-season transplant are adding color. In some cases they didn’t survive the transplant.
And asters. You don’t think about planting them in the spring. When they are doing nothing but green, and some produce tall leggy spikes regardless of pruning, you think you must have enough of them. But when they start showing deep purple in September (or, this year, in August), you wish you had planted more.
Flowers tend to get planted in their flowering time by short-sighted gardeners like me.
But instant gratification has its claims as well – just ones, I would say. After all, it’s always now.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Happened to the Sunflowers

What happens to a very tall sunflower when you bite its head off? It grows lots of little new ones.
A couple of sunflowers planted themselves in the vegetable garden this year. They looked good there, so I left them, and one in particular grew very tall and picturesque with classic yellow-petaled, sun-like seed heads. The squirrel first tried climbing up the smaller of the two, perhaps to get at the seeds in its fat round flower-head – do squirrels even know about sunflower seeds? (I’m not a follower of rodents.) I found its big fat seed head detached and lying on the ground after the deed.
Next time I saw the crime take place, from indoors. The squirrel climbs the taller sunflower stalk, then appears to fall off when the stalk finally collapses under his weight. I knew at that moment the flower head was minced meat. Later in the day when I looked at the damage, the fat, round flower head was nowhere in sight. He may have dragged it off to one of his favorite chewing sites, like the arm of one our chairs, and minced it into plant mush there. The decapitated stalk was still standing, though now clearly missing something.
Though they looked like a crime scene, I left the bare flower stalks in the garden as a memorial to sunflower ground zero. A few weeks later I saw a curious round bulb forming on the smaller of the two stalks, and a while after that was surprised to see it morph into a classic round – but very small – sunflower.
A little later, the tall stalk began forming not one, but about eight new bright-yellow, little round sunflowers at various points in its upper story. Their little yellow petals catch the sun. Will they make new seeds that ripen before winter? I don’t know, and suspect it’s beside the point.
How much smarter are plants than people. Somebody bides their head off and they just go to plan B. Instead of one big one sitting-duck head, a bunch of little ones.
The sunflower’s strategy is mirrored of course by other plants. After I pick the first big broccoli seedhead (the part you eat) off the main stem, the plant diversifies. New slender stems, new small offerings of edible broccoli. With luck, the plant keeps producing these through November. Crop your petunia’s first bloom-bearing stems – so they tell you – two-thirds the way back down the stem for a thicker, better, more flowerful plant. (Personally, I can never bear to do this.)
When people get their heads bitten off, on the other hand, we go straight to re-thinking the meaning of life and brooding. Which may not be the best state of mind in which to ask the big questions. A better approach to thinking about the meaning of life would probably be some disciplined approach such as meditation, religious practice, keeping a journal, or holding a focused philosophical conversation with a friend.
A better approach to getting your head bit off might be to spread your energy in a half dozen useful ways – whatever needs doing, really; there’s always something – and store up some seeds while you’re at it for the long, cold winter.
You probably had too big a head, anyway.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

September Planting

I go for the low-hanging fruit. A space by the fence needs a shrub: I’ve been planning it for a year. I take myself off to the big box store when it’s season left-over sale time and find a forsythia for some starkly low price. While I’m at it I see what else is for sale, and find two blue-flowering Plumbago for the price of one; and an attractive late-summer plant with tall purplish stalks called a Culver’s Root. These are plants I have known only from books. I end up leaving with the four perennials, two bags of dried manure and one heavy number of granulated lime for about the price of a decent forsythia. This sale business only encourages me. There’s hardly anybody else in the garden section. They must think the season’s over.
After a doldrums period, my plants – or my spirits – have picked up. The bicolored “garden phlox” – a medium tall perennial with light pink blossoms that keep on coming – has far outshone my earlier predictions and forms a center for a late-summer, early-fall flower focus. Beside it is a much lower daisy of the mum family, different from my other standard “garden mums” in its pale wild, scattered-looking leafs and its small pink flowers, which bloomed half-baked in August but are now coming in fully formed. It looks like the kind of plant you’d see in a rare sunny spot on a woodland path (if the deer didn’t eat them first). Between them the last of the bright red lobelia blossoms are hanging on. The color is extended by a late season floxglove, with a low stalk bearing white and pink trumpet-shaped flowers.
Gratified, I decide to work on this area, finding a place first for the Culver’s Root, in a spot where I cleared some ground a month before for some mistimed annuals. Out come the annuals, I dig a root ball hole, tossing out old roots – violet and queen anne’s lace among them – and settle in the new player. I liberate another spot next to the lobelia from the standard mix of overgrown ground cover, thick viney carpet cover and violets mostly, with some strands of vinca (but not enough to carry the space), and plant the two Plumbago side by side, adding a note of blue to the largely pastel ensemble.
Our two rose of Sharon bushes keep pushing out a few blossoms each, four on the pink plant today (I’ll stop predicting the end is near); and the violet anemone in full formation now is being joined by the first orange blossoms of one of those regulation garden mums.
That’s enough to keep me going for now.

Artemisa: Gray Symbol

Artemisia gray
That aged silver flower
Reminds me of care

I like it when it grows tiny marbles at its fingertips. And clumps together silver-gray on silver-gray.
It’s a background plant. The blossoms, even when they finally come, in September, never really open. You can’t say what color they are. Since they don’t open, they are the same color as the rest of the plant. A silver gray so thick and uniform you think you can scrape it off with your thumbnail.
They stand up (at least at the start). They last all summer. They spread. They fall over in the wind, they collapse, they lie on the ground until you gather them up and tie them around a stake. When you’re just about ready to give up on them, you see the upward ends of the stems have produced a texture. Is this what these guys call flowering?
But they make a statement. They get fuzzy and take up space. They gentle the eye.
They stand out by a kind of uniformity, a plainness. They are the garden’s backup singers. They stand behind, between, the dark pink roses. They whisper, making the brighter colors speak up.
We think about them when other voices go quiet. They endure, making small claims on our attention. They won’t go away, unless we make them. Why would we ever do that?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September Breezes

Every new page of the calendar puts us through changes, but September’s winds of change blow especially hard. The weather turns cool in the evening. I’m closing windows. No more sitting by an open window to catch a delicious breeze after a hot day; listening for the wind in the trees, for the hot, tense voice of summer crickets. Looking for different clothes in the morning: Where have I put my socks? Long pants; long sleeves. Slippers, instead of barefoot. What provisions have I left in my closet for the day I knew would come? It’s come, and I don’t feel like rummaging around in the upstairs for my cold weather clothes yet. Instead of slipping out of bed to step outdoors to feel the sun on my skin and see if the morning glory is blooming, I drag myself out of bed to close a window.
September is a psychological transition. Old changes tug at us. The once familiar start of a new year of school, the bitter-sweet end of summer vacation. The culmination of the harvest season. These old stirrings wake within us.
This year August concluded with a heat wave, which climaxed on the first two days of September with the hottest weather since the week of July 4th. So as the last month of summer (and first month of autumn) begins, I’m back to my hot season routine of watering first thing every morning and wondering why I bought late season annuals to plant in the sunny vulnerable places (the answer: a crying need for more color). Not only do our annuals, potted and groundlings, need constant water, one hot, dry day is all it takes for some of our sensitive perennials to wilt; so I am taking out the sprinkler too to make the artificial showers for back garden plantings I’m tired of watering by hand.
We’re promised a hurricane to douse the heat wave, but Earl fizzles like a country fiddler with too much to drink and no sense of direction. The mists and sprinkles of diminished, hungover Earl give way to a run of clear, dry, sunny days, perfect late summer weather for the Labor Day weekend – that official, game-changing end-of-summer holiday. One last party, and then the party’s over – that’s the societal message.
In the garden it’s time for an end-of-season reckoning too. If I’m going to make any changes this year, now’s the time. If I want to transplant, clear some space, try something pack in some new, showy high-colored perennials – without of course any assurance whether they’ll be happy where I’m putting them – this is the last chance at good planting weather. I put this case to myself, but I can’t gear up for a big push.
I’m caught in the changes. The days grow shorter. Midday is hot when the sun is high, but cools quickly when the sun gets close to setting. Tomato plants are climaxing, but I learn I have to my tomatoes in as soon as they show red, so the veggie-sampling squirrel, this year’s new young demon, doesn’t have a chance to sample them. Teeth marks on the pumpkins; spoiled tomato scattered on the Adirondack chair. One morning I look out the window and see a squirrel climbing up the taller sunflower plant which has made it this far with multiple yellow heads. Disaster! The weight of the squirrel’s effort snaps the stalk up around neck level and whatever happens after that to the seedheads doesn’t leave a trace of evidence behind.
I look away from the carnage. This, too, I think, shall pass. I am in an odd senescent state, my energies fading away with the final blossoms on the summer bloomers. The tall phloxes are quitting too soon. The Rose of Sharon bushes, which started too early, keep up a strange tattoo of one or two new blossoms every few days. The roses out front have revived with a second course of happy pink flowers after taking most of August off, but the morning glory seems to have given up long before its allotted span.
Even the honey bees are slowing down, some falling asleep (or collapsing) on the blossoms, having lugged themselves to a final beckoning bloom and lacking the strength, apparently, to set their course for a new destination. Is there a new destination?
The bees and I have long had a common interest: flowers. But it appears to be time for us to part company. Whatever may be next for nature’s humdingers, I’m being told by September breezes to move on.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

9.5 Garden Party

First we move the furniture around.
I decide to use some potted cosmos to cover bare spots in the back garden, clearing more space on the patio for chairs. I will not move the potted Mandeville rose off the patio, because that is the one plant that absolutely belongs there, with its tropical red flowers and thick green vines climbing up a trellis. Anne cleans up the barbeque grill and breaks out some more of the all-purpose plastic chairs. She pushes the metal picnic table against the house to use as a sideboard. She makes a crop of weeds pushing their way up through the cracks between the patio blocks go away.
I busy myself giving the garden foliage a company trim, brush, and shampoo. I cut off the tops of a lot of spent flower stems. I pull out a lot of volunteers. I sweep up pieces of fallen, broken acorns. I get close to the green mats of low steppable groundcovers, each colony in its own frame, more or less, some significantly less. Maybe because it’s September now, and cool this weekend, they seem revived and healthy and victorious in the battle over the persistent intruders which would break up their formations and obscure their uniformity. I cut off a lot of faded black-eyed susans. I trim some tall phlox, which are also, sadly, in their in the sunset of their pink florescence.
Even the purple loosestrife have declared an end of bloom-time, and we are now awaiting the garden mums and purple asters, tall and leggy as they are, and the Montauk daisies, ditto, to make a brilliant appearance. Of the designated fall bloomers, only the anemone – deep reddish-lavender buttons – have unveiled themselves with surprising promptitude. Other years they are the last of this group.
The guests arrive, the party begins, and various plant lovers take little walks around our curving brick paths. This gives me the opportunity to remember what everything is called – the dense, grassy northern sea oats, the pink Chablis sedum (typically an August bloomer, but looking good now), the cat mint (a little second growth), ditto for the spirea (tall and thick and rust-reddish on its dusk blooms, which no one notices), the long-gone red bee balm (monarda), the last pincushion blossoms (looking like tasty purple candies), the yellowish faded achillea (yarrow) standing up beside baby-blue balloon flowers…
“Do you have an herb garden?”
I walk her over: the spears of garlic-chive have pretty little white flowers, the oregano has tiny white flowers, the parsley is dark green, and the rosemary is decent, but I forget to point out the mint to anyone, though it is growing wild everywhere
In the end it is not about the garden. All sorts of people are perfectly happy to crowd together on the patio in our plastic chairs and some of our neighbor’s, and sample each other’s dishes and figure out who all lives in which house. Darkness falls, the twilight is beautiful and then swiftly gone. A crisp brilliant afternoon yields a cool evening, and we have no more light to see by, and no artificial light to shine on the public square when it’s time to break up and many guests volunteer to carry our countless odds and ends back to the kitchen. But people have brought their own light, their own better angels, and make of our dark hour their own pluralistic, peaceable kingdom.
Well, who knows, we can’t see them in the dark any more, but maybe the plants had something to do with it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

8.25 Rainy Season

The rains came. The rains went. Two poems pop up in their wake, the first a haiku, the second a somewhat longer effort.

Downpour (haiku)

Three days in an ark
Turn the barrel upside down
Send it to July

Three Days’ Rain, but No Monsoon

Rain in the interstices.
I can’t see through the screen,
The garden misted to a greeny blur.
Surely this is some message from
The folks who teach us primal events
Catastrophes, floods, creation stories, death and resurrection
We are the aging cohort
The rain will clear… and grow us back.
Some of us.

I wonder if this rain will fill up the garden. And the answer is yes, for three days. On the fourth, a Sunday, I am back to watching the top layer of soil stiffen and gray.
Since I cannot go gracefully into that good night of no more flowers, I have acquired at season-end prices some flats of annuals and plugged them in, here and thee. That gives me something new to worry about, something new to worry about. I decide the season is late enough to dig up and transplant some perennials, I put a shovel to a colony of evening primrose which are bright and happy yellow in June but increasingly gray and skeletal as the weeks pass, especially this dry year. I decide to clear a row of them out, transplanting them to a shadier spot, and put in a flat of petunias as a temporary fix.
This means I now have transplants to worry about keeping moist in their early vulnerable days just as the weather turns dry and hot again. Four days of ninety degree weather forecast for the last days of August? It would be an anomaly except that now, increasingly, everything is.
So go back to hand watering, once again, with new seedlings to worry about. Also red salvia, portulaca and coleus in the front garden. I’m not sure how well any of these will do.
At the very lest, it’s a way to toss a few more ingredients into the mix of earth, stone and cellulose, and stir the pot. What we get is pot luck. As always, larger forces are at work.