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.