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