Monday, May 31, 2010

5.28 Everything Looks Good From a Distance

Even the laurel bush has assumed the status of an old tree in the forest, the lower limbs dying and falling off, but the canopy fluffing up against the sky. The view is improved because the pink-edged blossoms on the bush have arranged themselves around the tree’s curved surfaces. From the perspective of my window, at least, it has a relaxed, graceful contour and a flowerful future. A couple of foxgloves have sent up their spires, visible from the same perspective – that would be mine – so now we have something like a skyline developing. A few gleaming towers, promising to be white – white towers – will share the upper story with the white and pink florets of the laurel.
The forest-loving laurel – one of our traditional favorites; we have tried to grow them other places – has struggled since I planted it five years ago; the evidence is those old, graying, quite dead lower branches. It doesn’t win any prizes close up but – as I say – from a distance it’s holding up its end of the viewspace.
Or viewscape. In the environmentally sensitive future, I suspect, the property value determinant will not be plot size, which is to say abstract “flatscape,” but the view from plein aire. It’s what we see from our homes that matters.
When we lived in Plymouth, the luxury empty-nester development called The Pinehills ran with this concept by offering people small lots within a thousand acres of surrounding open green space. Everybody’s widows looked out at an attractive landscape. Everybody had a view.
Someone should come up with a way to test this theory: what matters to us is what we see, rather than what we own.
There is pride in a big spread, I’m sure, and value – if you’re a cattle rancher. Or a landlord to a small, suffering multitude of tenant farmers. Or if you plan on riding to the foxes. (Or is “to the hounds?”) I’m sure riding, for whatever purpose, is a pleasant occupation, and I know from experience that walking to no other accompaniment than your own thoughts stimulated by a green, living environment is an entirely gratifying experience – one of the few things in life that you don’t get tired of no matter how much you change and grow old… but to do either, to walk or ride through open space, what you need is for open green space to continue to exist. You don’t need to own it.
We do own our “property.” It is our own piece of “nature.” So, it follows – at least to me – that what we can do with our home properties is to treat them in a way that will bring us some of the satisfactions that we find in nature. Wild nature.
That is to say, when we make a garden, it is not just, or even primarily, the desire to make something beautiful, but to make an environment – micro as it is – that nourishes us as nature does. It’s mini-nature. It’s a small bite of the wilderness that, as Thoreau says, preserves the world.
Contact with green nature nourishes some part of our brain, or senses – or soul. Here’s a stipulative definition: by “soul” we mean the part of our being that responds to nature as it does to love, art and kindness. That has, in some true measure, over the eons, been formed by nature.
Frankenstein’s monster walks among the trees and is soothed by the sights, sounds and smells. He delights in bird song and the swaying of the branches. It’s people he can’t stand…. That’s the way Mary Shelley, who wrote the book, told it, and I think she’s right. Or more right than wrong.
So we need to be “surrounded” at least some of the time, by a non-manmade environment. We don’t live in the woods. We don’t even live in the suburbs. People need to walk among trees – that’s the job of parks and wooded public lands. But we don’t live there, we live “here.” But if we want to, we can have a little bit of “there” – here. We can make a little green world just outside our door.

5/27 Morning Light, After a Rain

Somebody has scrubbed the world. And cleaned up our vision. All the shapes and forms are clearer. Fine edges and color tones emerge. Shade is full of light. Full sunshine can be a little blinding, but half-light, semi-shade is alive and at work on our senses.
The laurel is blooming. We ate our first strawberries, one each, this morning. Foxgloves have opened in the back garden for the first day. Purple irises are struggling to emerge from the grasp of the peony which has expanded startlingly into their breathing space. The first blue spiderwort flowers have crooked their elbows over the stone path, adding an upper story of color to that promenade. The lamium has shot up some dark pink rockets, lighting up the dark greens and the rusty red of the Japanese maple.
The air is cleaner after last night’s downpours and smells of nothing but air. The back garden feels like it’s drunk on water, or, to use the old cliché, high on life. It’s like, to fall back on another hoary but still useful expression, failing to see the forest for the trees. Don’t lose the garden for the plants. Don’t lose the morning for the hours, or the things you have to do, or the interruptions, or the thoughts in your head.
And don’t try to hold onto to the perfect moment by trying to find too many words for it.

Haiku: Now

May morning, after rain
Light beneath the shade of trees
Empty of desire

Monday, May 17, 2010

Things Change

Things change year from year. Once again, as always, I think there’s a message here for the nature of us.
Among the many differences from one garden spring to another: Last year the Labrador violets spread everywhere and bloomed vigorously. Their dark, purplish tiny flowers were a light motif of the early season. This year, many fewer of these violets, and – most puzzlingly – no flowers. They don’t show up in any of the pictures I have taken this year The attractive, purplish foliage is there, though reduced, but no flowers. I keep waiting for them to bloom, but their time is well past.
The ajuga reptans died back, in the back garden as well as front. They were under the flood waters in March in the back. Is that a cause? Other early perennials in the same back, behind-the-patio section have suffered as well. The delicate aceana has died back and is barely holding on. The pincushion flower that bloomed there successfully for several years has disappeared; just gone.
On the other hand, the vinca (both front and back) and the sweet woodruff (back and side of house) – early blooming groundcovers as well – came back very strong and gaining ground.
The expansion of the blue-flowering forget-me-nots, the biggest star of the early spring, was enough to seal the border of the steppingstones in the back all by itself. Their name, I’m told, comes from their habit of spreading everywhere. Very ironic (and humbling) for me to re-learn this name the other day. I had forgotten it. I knew it well last year. It is a plant whose name says “forget me not,” and I forgot it. Maybe all the plants should be named “flower,” and then I’d be okay.
But a disastrous year for columbines. The dark pink columbines in the flower island in the back, which I nursed for years, have died back to almost to nothing. Only the strongest survived. Too much competition back there? Too dark a spot, or just a bad winter. The columbines have lost ground in the front too, and are slow to get going.
But a new performer, the mullein – finally up! winner of the “best surprise of the spring” category – has sent up flower spikes for the first time this year and is beginning to bloom in the clock circle in the back garden. (Need a photo). The delicate blooms have a light pink tone in otherwise white flowers on the spikes rising from those thick, leathery tongue-like leaves which lay pressed flat against the ground last year. And which I had despaired of ever producing anything worth looking at.
I even dug one up and replanted it out front. That one, though smaller, is also beginning to bloom.

So Beautiful, So Brief

I know the date the first flowers on the tree peony opened this year because it was my birthday. I appreciated the compliment. I knew the dark pink blossoms had swelled and were close to bursting their buttons but the day, a Monday, was a dark one and it surprised me the plant would choose that day to open the show. All the blossoms pretty much open at once, making for spectacular color. I remember that from last year, but this year there were about twice as many. The plant is growing.
Shooting your bolt all at once, it occurs to meis an expensive pleasure. As soon as blossoms that size open they begin to fade. We had a hot sunny day two days later, and I could watch them change in front of my eyes. They were all gone in a week.
One perfect week from a tree peony. It’s a metaphysical choice. Make a very big splash, or try to last. It seems an almost human dilemma. This peony is a Jimi Hendrix or a John Keats among flowering plants.
Keats wrote almost all of the poetry he would be remembered for in one year. Both is mother and younger brother had died from tuberculosis; Keats had cared for them both. He was not surprised when he began to show the symptoms of the disease he had seen in them.
William Wordsworth, on the other hand, another of my favorites, lived to the good old age of eighty. But all of his great poetry came in the first half of his life. Are the gifts of lyric poets like flowers?
Of course, these patterns of creativity are not really chosen by anyone. Poets, rock musicians, and plants are not fireworks planners, deciding whether to set off all their rockets at once or tease them out one or two at a time to make them last.
The peony tree doesn’t “plan” its flowering strategy, though I wonder if nature, or evolution, does in fact have a plan for it, since of course flowers are the reproductive organs of green plants.
And poets, whose greatest works are flowers of their human nature, have frequently remarked the fundamental truth that the most impressive phenomena don’t last. The perfect moment passes quickly; by definition. The perfect flower at its height begins at once to decline.
This was a great theme for the Elizabethans and Renaissance artists everywhere, who took the great risk of loving the world, instead of the otherworldly.
“When I perceive that men as plants increase,” Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 15, “Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,/ And wear their brave state out of memory…”
There’s another metaphor in Sonnet 23, which nails the transient nature of the perfect – a perfect moment, a dream come true – with the apt (not to say perfect) metaphor of a perfect sunny day, “Kissing with golden face the meadows green...” And then, little darling, here come the clouds.
The poem brings the metaphor home in its same half: “Even so my sun one early morn did shine…” We all have something, some prized moment, we can tie to the transient, beautiful “my sun” of Shakespeare’s poem. Something close to our heart. It might mean a peony tree. It really means some version of the way things oughta be.
But, “alack,” as the poet says, “he was but one hour mine.”
Here’s the whole of Sonnet 23:
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Sky Above, the Weeds Below

I lean back in the lounge chair and contemplate the sky. Some of my best memories of making a garden in Quincy have happened this way. The odd thing is they are promoted by the ability of the lounge chair to lower the back and lift the gaze: Look upward, man.
I have been looking downward, at the ground, all afternoon, a pursuit I find fascinating to an extent not easily explained. Armies of tiny plants have invaded everywhere. My job is to find them, identify them if possible (ah, ha, you were here last year in this very spot, weren’t you?), and then make the crucial decision of whether to leave them there or send them on to second life in the mulch pile.
When I take a break to drink something cool – not so simple, we can’t drink the water here today – and settle into the tilting chair, there it is above me. The roof of the world.
Much of the upward perspective from this patio is absorbed by the trees. Since it is mid-summer warm today, I sit back and once more realize the pleasure of looking up at big trees. I have done this in past years, though later in the season when the big oak tree is fully leafed. The oak has merely new, thin, pale yellow-green leaves today, but birds work among them. They tweet and call each other, a pack of 20 or so little black ones, flitting through the branches, occasionally stopping to pick at one of the leaves. Caterpillars would be my guess. Though if they’re up there, they’re too small for anything bur a bird’s eye view.
It’s restful to look at trees and sky, and sometimes there is action is up there too. I’ve watched squirrels chase each other, presumably squabbling over territory, from the farthest extending branch of the oak, an archipelago of dwindling form in the sky, to the maple tree on the other side of the yard. The last branches sway under a squirrel’s weight and there’s a little hop needed at the end, but nothing to cause them a second thought.
What did bother the squirrels was the blue jay that had a nest up in the maple one year. Squirrels most fast and freely in a tree, but birds have even more agility. The bird came at the squirrel from his blind side to get a peck in or make a credible threat; after a few moments of this, the squirrel ran away to another branch. The bird lifted, floated, and dove at him again, once more from somewhere above and behind. The squirrel flinched and jumped a few branches lower, the bird repositioned and attacked again. They circled the tree this way. The ferocious resolve of birds, creatures which weigh nothing, possessing only hollow bones and a few sharp points, is often overlooked. I’ve seen crows and much smaller birds as well drive away a hawk from this vantage point as well.
When my vision returns to earth, my gaze is refreshed and my eyes fill with green. I’m in a midsummer state of mind because it’s one of those sudden heat-spike days in New England, but also because the early season garden profile has a summer heft to it as well. The color is mostly low to the ground, from the first round of spring-flowering groundcovers – vinca, violets, mazus, all hues in the purple range, and now joined by the white blooms from the thickening colonies of sweet woodruff. Along the stone path the sky blue flowers from a low, thick-leaved plant I planted two years ago and whose name I have since forgotten took off this year. This nameless blue lines one side of the stepping stones. Yesterday I added some new plants which flower in the hot color range, pink, red, on the other side.
Today I heighten the color, by getting close to the earth and searching out the weeds. It’s addition by subtraction.

New Performers

We can officially say it. It was a warmer than usual April. Unless I’m imagining things, I can’t remember seeing so much color so early. The last week of April brought in new blossom-performers from some more than usually lush groundcovers in the front and back gardens, several of which will remain anonymous because I can’t figure out what to name them.
In the front, the low green spearmint-looking groundcover which I transplanted from the back and, possibly, if I have my genealogies correct, from Plymouth before that, opened up its little clover-shaped baby blue eyes last week. I took its photo on a warm day last weekend, in between shifts so to speak; plenty more blossoms on these plants today. The same plant has weeks to go before flowering in the back garden, where it gets less sun.
The Mazus (that’s the name; one company calls it “Amazing Mazus”) is another plant I started in back and transplanted last year and the year before to the front garden. It’s blooming along the sidewalk in front of the house, a neat, full line of bright pinks flowers, and similar white flowers close beside. The flowers – which I have not succeeded in taking a decent picture of – are a small, intricate construction which look like they were designed by someone making accessories for a Lego set. They’re just starting to bloom in the back garden, where the biggest patch of them was seriously damaged either by winter cold or the March flood. They root shallowly and expand – and, apparently, contract – with great volatility. The back garden patch was much bigger at this time last year. They are a nice shiny bloomer around the edges of bigger, greener plants.
Finally, the pale blue speedwell flowered in the front garden as well. This variety is more substantial than the other groundcovers, their flowers spike up, and there’s a delicacy to the form and color of the faintly blue-tinted florets that’s very satisfying to contemplate.
This year’s project is to keep better notes of what we have and how they’re doing. The photos will help.

Turkey a la Fence?

The early bird catches the turkey. I was still in bed when Anne was alerted to the presence of this latest avian visitor to the back garden. He had wings, but (according to her account) moved more like a weighted-down land animal which only under duress attempted levitation. She grabbed the camera, went around to the back, and started snapping. Eventually, the visitor became slightly alarmed and hauled his bulk up to the neighbor’s fence, with a labored airborne hop. He posed for a while on top of that fence. I’ve had such moments; what next?
He gathered his little wit about him, made his flight plans, ruffled his wings and flopped over into the next yard. His visit, however, will endure on the record of these days since Anne immortalized it in digital form.
The turkey is not the first unusual visitor we’ve had to the garden, here in the city of Quincy. We’ve had hawks, woodpeckers, orioles, humming birds, and butterflies landing on the toe of my sneaker. We had a squirrel sitting on a white plastic chair, as if expecting tea to be served shortly. A muskrat, raccoons, and I don’t even know if a skunk could be considered unusual. But the turkey, I think, was the biggest one. It made me wonder what he was looking for. What do turkeys eat anyway?