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.