Sunday, December 18, 2011

Winter Comes to Quincy

I step outside today, it’s late morning, the sun is shining brightly, and my breath immediately forms a steamy veil that covers my face. It’s shockingly cold. Impossibly cold. Not really, of course, since it’s December and the thermometer reads a seasonable 28 degrees. But it feels like another world to me, after a month of forties and occasional fifties.
But it’s not only me. The leaves of the rhododendron bush lose their greeny soul to a deep, sub-freezing night and droop. Warmer temperatures will bring them back; colder nights will cause them to pull all the moisture in their cells inward to try to preserve it from freezing.
Cold nights mean big days at the bird feeder too. After putting the feeder away for the summer we’re back to buying bird feed again, black-shelled sunflower seeds, which so far have drawn a busy tribe of little brown sparrows. One of them has a patch of red on the back of his head, but he flocks with the others. A couple of tufted titmouse too today, gray and crested and swooping in to take their chances with the others. Underneath, the squirrels are busy and multiple.
To combat squirrels climbing up the feeder this year, we’ve come up with a mixture of oil and hot pepper which we brush on to the metal baffle and the curve of the pole right above it. Some squirrels fly – no other word for it – right over the baffle, brace their back feet on the pole, lean over to the feeding ring and suck the seed out of the feeding tube. Their oversized presence on the feeding ring scares away the birds, leaving us with the prospect of watching fat squirrels feed instead of happy, chirpy birds. So far an application of cayenne, chili pepper and sunflower oil seems to chase them away for a couple of weeks before wearing off.
So the winter routine begins.
But if the nights aren’t achingly cold and the wind’s not searing my lungs, I like to walk in them. Here’s a poem about early winter nights.

Winter Transit

Anybody know where this world is going?
On a chilly, brilliant winter night,
Chinese spices smarten up the air
The city bus hums nostalgically into my sight
Ten, twelve faces frozen in the light,
The very same ones every night
A rumble from behind, a second sighting
– a two-bus astronomical transit! –
Passing like ships in the night
Catty-corner, a calligraphed tree imprints its shadow
On the speechless pavement, while from on high
Jupiter’s celestial eye casts an unwavering gaze
On the first night of the first month of winter…
Only one hundred more such tales to follow
Everything changes the same

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Old American Elm Tree Awaits Execution

They live among fools.
The tree grew not far from our house, but a ways back from the main road. It had long grown on a considerable estate, shading a mansion which was taken down before we moved to town in preparation for a college expansion that was never built.
Recently the city bought the land where the tree still grows, shading the earth, cleansing the air, moderating the temperature, absorbing heat through the pulp of its tons of tree-matter. The city also bought a few other neighboring properties and knocked down an empty parochial school that stood on one of them, in preparation for building a needed new middle school. They city, or somebody working for the city, decided the job would be easier if they cut down the century-plus old tree American Elm Tree growing there in defiance of the Dutch elm disease plague that had taken almost all of its cohorts.
And so they said, the city’s spokesmen did, that the tree was dying and would have to be cut down. The tree does not appear to be dying, but perhaps a fool would not know what a healthy tree looks like. It grows a canopy of green leaves in the summer; it sheds them in the fall. In winter it holds its many limbs against the sky, one of nature’s more enduring candelabras of life.
But the city’s spokesmen aren’t really looking at a tree. They are saying what they have been told to say.
Then comes the cover-up. Who determined that the tree is dying and needs to be removed? It’s an obvious question. The answer comes that an arborist hired by someone working for the city said the tree has heart-rot and fungus and is dying.
The next question is also obvious. Who is the arborist? Can we see the report? The spokesmen don’t know. They say they will produce the report.
They produce a document written yesterday or the day before by someone who is not an arborist and does not evidence a professional knowledge of trees. The report does not say the tree is dying, but has some fungus, and is too close to the school and will probably be killed by the construction.
Obviously (again), this document is not the “report” on which a decision taken months ago could have been based. The likely inference is there never was a “report” by an arborist certified by the state of Massachusetts or any other one.
It’s just a story to fend off complaints. Sorry, couldn’t help it, had to cut down the tree. It’s diseased, you know, dying.
It’s a red herring.
The real reason? They want to cut down the tree, which plans show is located is the intended parking lot because it will be in the way when the builders start bringing in their machines. They don’t want to work around it. The real problem is the city doesn’t really have enough land to build this school.
This explanation sounds a little crass. It sounds better to say, too bad about the tree. We’d like to save it, but it’s sick. In fact it’s dying. Nothing can be done. It might fall down on the school. We have report, from an arborist (who? Wait a minnit, I must have the name here somewhere), which says so.
Here’s a poem called “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer, who died in action during World War I:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

It’s one of the best-loved poems of the American people.
Stylistically, this is greeting card verse. If you analyze its workings, simple da-dum rhythm, end rhymes, breath of vocabulary, it’s nursery rhyme simple. But every red-blooded American has liked this poem since its publication 100 years ago, particularly if they don’t like poetry in general (which was almost every red-blooded American for the last 100 years hasn’t).
Why do we all like it? Because it’s so obviously true. Because it speaks to something deep in us.
But not only are poems made by fools like me, so are political calculations, city hall press releases, building plans, and even needed schools.
For well over a hundred years, perhaps a hundred and fifty, the American Elm on Hancock Street has lived among fools, whom it tries to protect from the excess carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases our fossil-fuel driven society has put into the atmosphere. We overheat the atmosphere. The tree takes CO2 out of the air, which cools it, and releases oxygen, which we breathe. Its roots absorb runoff. It’s shade lowers the temperature. Its beauty raises spirits and, by the way, property values.
Now it is condemned to die among fools who fail to recognize its value.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Indoor Fun

Now that’s December and I don’t have much to do in the garden any more, indoor activities assume greater deal of importance. For instance, one activity I’ve grown particularly fond of is asking myself why am I sitting at my desk so often staring absently at a screen.
Do I think my computer screen is a garden? Do I think it will start “blooming” if I look at it long enough?
Windows, I mean real ones, not the virtual/digital/computer meaning of “windows,” a term that encompasses the ever-increasing universe of “pictures” or “pages” or “screens” (or, redundantly, “windows”) which do in fact, in some sense, “bloom” on your computer once you start playing with it and saying “Yes! Yes! Yes!” (click, click, click) to the options, opportunities and offers afforded to you by the determinedly (even ruthlessly) indoor world of the internet….
So, no, that’s not what I mean by windows…. Windows, the real ones, become increasingly important the more time we spend indoors.
But don’t you, btw, love the digital, virtual vocabulary that has grown in our Age of the Screen? “Virtual” (along with “windows”) may be the best and most searching of these new usages. We can now have virtual lives. Virtual used to mean “sort of the real thing” or “close to the real thing” or “you really can’t tell the difference, can you?” That’s what we mean when we say something is “virtually the same,” isn’t it? But when we take a “virtual tour” of some place where we’re thinking of staying, for example, is it really anything like the same?
I suspect many people in our increasingly indoor lives have already figured out how to ‘grow’ a virtual ‘garden’ on a screen – a notion that’s just occurred to me. I’m about to say how pictures are great, I take them all the time, but a picture of a garden, or a plant, is not virtually the real thing… (but I think I’ll stop right there).
As for the real garden, it’s a very quiet place these days; and too cold for someone of my delicate sensibilities to spend much time in these days. When it comes to cold, I wish I were made of sterner stuff. Instead…
Windows, as I started to say, those actual glass portals on the world beyond, have assumed a centrality to my days that goes beyond their many valuable uses such as letting in the light, and the solar heat (especially now). They also have the practical use of allowing me to spy on our neighborhood. I can put this more positively by saying “check up on” or “keep tabs on” the neighborhood, with the implication that somebody might some day need our help. But mostly we’re looking for stimulus, sensory information. I may not want to go out there right now, as I would have up to a month ago, but I sure as heck want to see those birds outside our kitchen window competing like mad for a peck at the bird feeder. (The squirrels? Not so much.)
Even when there’s “nothing going on” to our fight-or-flight programmed, motion-detection senses, the greater world outside our window companions us. The sun shines, and we miss it if it doesn’t. The wind chimes sing through the seasons – until the gusts of winter storms make us bring them indoors. The rain threatens; or lets up. The traffic bounces over the “sink hole” in front of the house caused by the last repaving.
And for the last three weeks or, one of our national energy monopolies has cooperated by staging a long-running performance of “Let’s dig up the streets and plant new gas lines!”… a traditional neighborhood favorite any time of year.
It’s a garden of machines.
So now when I step outdoors to take in the sunset, every December day’s greatest show, I can get a photo of “Twilight over the backhoe.” Or the dump truck. Or the dirt pile with funny orange cones. Or the little tent with the plastic roof cleverly erected to permit digging tie-ins on a rainy day.
Yes, the world beyond my window is virtually a garden of enchantments. It’s just not the same.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Pocketbook Caper

Dumpster diving was nothing. Last night’s adventure begins with a cancelled meeting. Last minute cancellation, no notification, only a sign posted on a board once we get inside the church building.
We walked back to Park Street station through the Gardens and the Common, sharing an umbrella as a light drizzle grew stronger, then tapered off. We waited in Park Street, took the Red Line home to Quincy, stepped off the train at our station, and Anne announced she was no longer in possession of her pocketbook. We scream at the conductor; the train pulls away.
Downstairs, the station minder made some calls, and then we made some calls, but no one reported finding the pocketbook on the train. Around 10 p.m. Anne gets the idea to call her cell phone number. And a few minutes later we get a call.
“Did you just call this number?” a voice asks. “We’ve got your phone.”
Overjoyed! What a relief! How can we get it back?
But, overhearing the call, I get a funny feeling. The guy on the phone doesn’t identify himself, doesn’t say he’s calling from the MBTA, gives only a first name when asked for his name, and can’t come up with a street address for his building.
He says we can come get the pocketbook.
“Ask him for the street address!” I coach from the sidelines, hopping up and down on one foot in agitation. “How are we going to check it out?”
“Kenmore Square,” Anne says into the phone, repeating some information. “Beacon Street.” She hangs up.
“Please tell me you got a street address?”
“I got an intersection.”
She tells me some street names. An intersection, if it’s a major one, can have maybe 12 or 13 addresses, buildings, businesses, whatnot, on its various corner points, I point out. This one is major, Beacon and Chestnut Hill Avenue. We find it on a map. It’s a long way from Kenmore Square.
Nevertheless we get on the road; drive the expressway, take Storrow Drive to Kenmore Square, turn onto Beacon Street. It’s late enough by now so the streets have little traffic. We fly through the lights, drive through the darkness. It’s still a long way.
I’d been imagining out destination would be some busy T office in busy Kenmore Square. I’ll wait in the car and we’ll be out of there in minute and speeding cheerily back home. Now I think, “You’re not going in there alone.”
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I told him my husband is coming with me.”
Great, we’re safe now. “Did you tell him your husband is packing?”
More dark streets. I begin to have second thoughts about the whole expedition. What I’m thinking is…
So this guy, let’s call him first-name “Pete,” calls up and says he has her phone – which he easily could have acquired in any number of ways – and he doesn’t say he works for the MBTA until Anne explicitly asks him, and when she asks his name give his only first name, and when she asks him his office’s address can only give an intersection, and when she asks him what the building looks like says it’s “a station.” And who also says we can come pick up her pocketbook any time all night…
So while I’m driving down Beacon beyond Coolidge Corner, beyond Harvard Street, beyond any place in Brookline or Brighton where I’ve ever been, the headline I’m seeing in my mind is “Two White Middle-Class Idiots Murdered in Pocketbook Scam.”
I have half a mind to turn the car around.
When we finally get to this promised intersection, driving along the streetcar tracks, Green Line cars scattered everywhere as if suddenly abandoned by drivers who felt a pressing need to do something else, stores and buildings and businesses (as predicted) all over the place, cars parked everywhere with nobody in them and nobody on the sidewalk because it’s late, and no MBTA station anywhere, no T signs on any of the buildings, I ask, politely, “So where the hell is it?”
“I’ll call him,” she says.
I nose the car around a few parking areas; no place to park, and back out onto the avenue, ready to turn around.
A few attempts at dialing. What if somebody else answers the phone?
Then “Phil” is on the phone. Anne says we’re at the intersection; where’s the office?
The light turns, I take the green arrow, drive across the tracks right in front of a Green Line streetcar with nobody in it, and pull over to the side of the road.
“He says it’s near the Dunkin Donuts.”
Oh sure. Likely story. Is there any intersection in Greater Boston that doesn’t have a Dunkin Donuts? I peer out the windshield and say, “We’re at the Dunkin Donuts.”
There’s a narrow lane behind the store. “Is it down the alley?”
Phone: What?
“At the back of the Dunkin Donuts.”
Phone: Where are you?
Anne: “We’re at the Dunkin Donuts.”
Phone says something.
Anne to me: “He says there’s a road just past the parking lot.”
I pull the car around to the other side of the store. We see a parking lot. We see another narrow road just beyond it. Apparently “Phil” has never been to the back end of the Dunkin Donuts. He really needs to get out more.
This narrow road has streetcar tracks implanted down the middle. More cars, and a few streetcars, are parked every which way. A few feet down the road we spy a small, nondescript building with a glass door and a light on inside and an incomprehensible poster in the window, and no sign suggesting the place has anything to do with the T.
“Oh, here it is,” she says. “You can just stay here, I’ll be right out.”
“You don’t want me to go with you?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll just be a second.”
I stay in the car. I watch her enter through the glass door, disappear from sight, and return half a minute later with the pocketbook.
So no scam. “Phil,” she reports, is just as vague as he sounds. The business of his office is inexplicable. Somebody turned in the pocketbook somewhere on the T system and it ended up here. Phil never goes anywhere beyond Dunkin Donuts.
Pocketbook in hand, everything turning out all right in the end, we head light-heartedly home and run smack into a hellacious traffic jam on the expressway.
I think I may be owed something.

November Sunsets

We rake leaves. We go to the store. Commuters drive home from work. I put the perennials “to bed” by drawing leaf mulch over them. Anne cleans up the sidewalks and curbs and driveways and patio and other places where the leaves can’t rustle around all winter without being a problem to someone. She walks home from the train in the evenings.
Whatever we do, wherever we are, once we’ve turned the clocks back, sunset catches us too early each day.
Early dark is a shock to the system.
Change, in the solar sense, happens slowly. The hours of daylight dribble away tiny bit by bit. Minutely might be the word, because it’s a matter of a minute or two each day. It’s hard to register slight daily changes.
Where was the sun yesterday? Where is it today? Our eyes can’t tell the difference. Since we live indoors instead of largely outdoors, like our ancestors, few of us note the change in position of a sunrise, from one season to the next, or note where it sets on the horizon now as opposed to where it set last June (when the hands of the clock climbed toward nine p.m.).
Or how high, or not so high, it stands in the sky at noon compared to where it stood at 1 p.m. (daylight savings time) on the summer solstice.
It’s the end of daylight savings time, the sudden loss of an hour, that puts the difference in our faces. We miss that extra hour of sunlight at the end of the shortened day. For many it’s the difference between coming home in daylight or in the dark.
Coming home in the dark is like saying goodbye to the world, certainly the sunlit world of nature, for the whole work week: “Take it easy, world. I’ll look you up again on the weekend.”
Those of us who work at home or have a more relaxed schedule, whose workday doesn’t hinge around the conventional end of the business day, find it easier to stick our face out of doors during daylight to register the new patterns in the bare trees, count the last orange leaves on the cherry tree, monitor avian life at the bird feeder (I wrote “bird fever”: what am I being told?), or stomp down to the corner store on any excuse to get a mouthful of fresh air.
Some of us watch the light fade from the sky every day, as if obeying a ritual in a private religion. For me sunset-staring is never more important than in the short days of November and December. The more we are indoors, the more the spectacle of nature is reduced to one simple, remarkable, all-important fact: sometimes light, sometimes dark.
Often we are in our car when the fundamental change takes place. It catches us in traffic on the way home, or racing a light to beat the traffic. Or we pass a big plate glass window walking the corridors of commerce, or medicine, or academe. The sky is painting its big message in broad strokes and bright colors. Daytime is over. Prepare for a lengthy period of lightlessness.
We’re still natural enough beings to notice this. The advent of electric lighting changed the human experience of night. Darkness is now more of an inconvenience we can quickly remedy (unless a freak storm takes the power lines down) than the serious barrier to human activity it posed for all the millennia of our species’ existence up to a century ago.
But sunsets still speak to secret places in our minds. Slow down, they say, have a care. Find shelter, warmth, companionship. Maybe a storyteller and a glass of grog.
And the annual plunge backward in time makes us more aware of them now than at any other time of year. Maybe that’s why they seem more beautiful, certainly more stirring, than ever.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Anne Goes Dumpster Diving

I didn’t get a picture of this. You’ll have to take my word for it.
Saturday we found a pile of roof slates, most of them broken, a few still whole, raining down from the roof of a fine brick building.
Sunday we went back for them. It didn’t prove quite as easy as we thought.
We discovered them on our walk through the Neponset River Reserve, beside an estuarial river that runs along the border of the city of Boston. Men were throwing the skin of an old roof off the top of a handsome brick building. What looked at first like a great dark trash pile proved to consist largely of pieces of slate roof pieces. Later, on our way back down the same path, a worker in a hard hat was taking down the yellow caution tape; apparently roof removal was over.
“Do you mind if we take a few of these?” Anne asked.
“Take as many as you want,” he replied. He picked up a few unbroken slates to help us gather a haul. But we could only carry a few each; they were remarkably heavy and the sharp ends cut into your fingers as gravity tugged on their weight during our burdened trek back to the car.
A boy on a bicycle road by. “Scavenging,” he observed.
We made plans to come back the next day, park nearer the building, and scavenge with a vengeance. We wore work gloves. We wound our way through Dorchester streets to Lower Mills and found the business, let's call it “Superfluous Storage,” which had its own convenient parking lot.
Sunday noon. Mostly quiet. A young man raced across the apron on skates, playing street hockey with himself.
We parked, found the opening through the fence, walked down to the path and discovered the roof refuse pile completely cleaned up. They worked quickly, Anne observed. The answer was back up in the parking lot: a large black dumpster brimming with roof debris, most of it brilliantly shaped stone.
We back the car up close to the dumpster. The thing has tall sides, too all to reach inside from the pavement, but the dumpster has been parked next to a loading dock.
Anne walks up the dock, puts her feet on the lower rung of a black metal fence and reaches into the pile. She pulls out a few pieces, piles them on the forward corner of the dumpster. From there I can grab them and carry them to the trunk of the car.
After the surface pieces have been gleaned this way, my wife needs to extend her reach. She climbs a little higher on the fence, extends a foot experimentally into the dumpster and calls,
“I’ve been wondering if it’s safe…” – appearing to make up her mind in mid-sentence – “…to do this.”
The second foot lands with a lurch beside the first on the top of the pile.
She’s standing in the refuse. Dumpster diving.
“If I fall in,” she calls, “I know you’ll rescue me.”
As it happens, I’m simply the mule, carrying armfuls of recovered slate to the trunk of the car. We gather forty or fifty of them, maybe more, I lose count quickly.
The slates are beautiful in the way of strong natural materials worked by human beings into a general homogeneity of size and thickness. I realize I have no idea how rock is turned into roof slates. But whole or broken, they have character. They’re all the same “slate gray” color. Their striation patterns are all unique.
We take them home. It’s time to rebuild the garden paths.
Now we have something to walk on.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Learning to Say Borage

It’s late on a Saturday afternoon when friends (well my wife’s brother and his wife, really, but they’ve been good friends for decades) come to look at the garden. It is the middle of November, and I can point to the autumn tones in the remaining foliage.
We walk the leaf-strewn paths until we get close to the vegetable garden.
Oh, she says, you have herbs.
In a little patch formed by sawed-off logs, I have planted some herbs. Oregano is the most faithful, and we still have plenty of pointy green fingers of chives. Do you have rosemary? Well, I cut the rosemary and brought it indoors to dry.
But there’s another plant flourishing here, with half a dozen stalks of good green leaves.
What’s that?
Borage. I pronounce it with heavy start, as it the first syllable were “bore.” Boring age?
She says, wait, I think it’s “bor- ajjh” with the accent on the second syllable.
“Let’s find out,” she says.
She pulls out her iPad. (Or maybe it’s an iPhone. How can you tell?) She tries some instant magic. It doesn’t work.
He pulls out his Ipad, says, Wait. Nothing happens.
We make a few other attempts at pronunciation: “boor-idge” accent on the “boor.” Another version with a heavy “ahddje” at the end.
Suddenly she thinks of something else to do with the machine, a dictionary site, and sure enough, there’s the word. According to the pronunciation marks, it’s a really short “o’ as in ‘or’ and quick ‘ej,’ Slight accent on the first.
On the screen it shows something like: “/bor-ij.”
I practice saying it a few times, but don’t really get the finer phonemes.
“You can pick the leaves for salad greens,” she says.
Now that’s useful. “Oh,” I say, “I’ll do it for a salad tonight.”`
We move on to look at the wasted canes of raspberries, black berries, the low green leaves of strawberries. I say I am putting lime on the strawberries to sweeten the taste.
We go inside. We drink tea, eat scones. Other relatives arrive, a pre-party for the family event on the following day. Anne roasts a chicken.
I forget to pick the borage leafs for salad greens.
I forget how to pronounce borage.
A week goes by, including a couple of nights diving below freezing. I finally remember to go look for “/bor-ij.”
The leaves look fine; I pick a handful. The plant is even trying to flower. The salad is delicious.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Putting the Outdoors Away

I’m never happy when we put the outdoor furnishings away.
Anne and I carry our garden things, chairs and tables, barbecue grill, back into the shed for their dull winter sleep of thingness. A few of them are heavy or awkward. I strain. I bother my back a little by bending rather than lowering my own center of gravity before lifting, as I know I should. The only lasting effect from the experience is the little flourish of bleeding I get from trying to manhandle a black wrought-iron tabletop and running my finger heedlessly into a screw. I feel it later on when I put my fingers on the keyboard.
I’m a little tense about saying goodbye.
Meanwhile the sun comes out, and the garden bleeds fall color. A last few branches of the weeping cherry still wave their half-golden leaves. I’m weeping now, because most of the leaves fell before reaching this color stage – the overall story of this season’s less than perfect de-leaving. The Japanese maple has concentrated its powers into a brilliant deep red, the final stage on this beauty. I’m hoping these leaves hang around for a while. The dogwood is bare, its spotted leaves slunk away like beaten curs after a rain. I look forward to its blood red skeleton riding the winds this winter in a gray and rusty rain.
The slender Rose of Sharon shrubs are holding on to some of their yellow leaves. They’ll disappear soon. What will last longer are the lacy seed heads of the maiden grass, weaving the wind above gold leaves of these same grasses and those of the neighboring northern seat oats. The thick growing seat oats have their own subtler seed heads that turn a nice coppery color, though this year the color is less pronounced than usual.
And what else? The biennial foxgloves are still green, though they just sat around and pretended this year. I’m expecting more next year. A hearty young hydrangea holds both its color and shape.
I’ve clipped and cut and dug and buried. I’ve gathered woody branches and thick stalks and put them into brown so-called “yard waste” bags, sorry that in small spaces like an urban garden these products represent waste to us.
I pulled up my patch of zinnias with sharper regret, along with the remains of my veggie garden,. These flowers couldn’t hold up to a couple of recent cold nights. I miss them on the following run of winsome fall days they would have enjoyed.
Back indoors after putting away the outdoors, the sun breaks through for a few minutes here and there. I peer out the window and see a lot of greens, yellows, reddish oranges and bronzey-browns still in the untrimmed shrubs and the hardy low groundcovers. Dammit, the thing is still beautiful.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Once More, “To Autumn”

So far November and October have changed places. Those beautiful, mellow, warm-hearted autumn days I longed for in October, we have them now.
It’s the side of autumn Keats’ great poem “To Autumn” summed up as “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
With his “close-bosom friend, the maturing sun,” Autumn conspires:
"To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells."

The bees don’t want to think it’s over, I still saw one today, a yellow-jacket, groveling in the low-lying blooms, and neither do I.
We are creatures of longing.
We long for the sublimely autumnal expressions of our climate, the modulated color tones, golden leaves flowing everywhere, over landscapes both wild and domestic, the year’s final flowers, the scents, the memories, the sense of natural and human satiety. We are fulfilled, we have come through another year, we are well at heart.
All this creates the longing for more life. Sometimes for a different life, or a better one. Sometimes renewal. A time of culminations and closures, autumn, is also a time of beginning. Because now we have to live with our indoor selves all winter.
This year we will remember the sweet, sensual days of the autumn weeks when we’re struggling through days of deep chill and thin light. This year we will remember to count our blessings and figure out how to pick the lock on our memory bank and pull out the beauty of yellow trees and a multi-colored carpet of newly fallen leaves beneath our feet.
Because it’s warm today and easy to linger out of doors and just stare at things, all the living imagery of the garden says “Autumn! Final Days! See it now!” The yellow leaves of the astilbe, the deep red final-stage color of the Japanese maple, the young wiegelia sticking bronzed branches up in the air in front of the older shrub as if waving its hand for attention.
Birds filled the back garden today, for reasons they didn’t share with me. I came outside with my camera, trying to make friends, and succeeded only in pushing them off. A woodpecker started in on a neighbor’s tree. I know this visitor, but I couldn’t spot him because the big hardwoods still have most of their leaves.
I stared upward at the ancestral oak whose leaves turn brown with a touch of maroon, looking a beautiful bronze in Keats’s “maturing sun.”
I am like a squirrel, burying my nuts everywhere. It’s a season to mature our longings and practice making better use of our own harvest of memories.
“Where are the songs of Spring?” Keats’s poem asks. “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.”
Here’s one attempt to catch a few notes:

What the Window Saw

From the window
Or so it seems
The fading Rose of Sharon
Extends a limb
Around the Arborvitae,
Though whether sheltering
Or seeking shelter
The window cannot say

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Solar Collector

On the first day of November I find myself getting in the car and driving toward the sun. I have only the vaguest idea of what my destination should be. The sun is already close enough to the horizon to reach out and hug it, so I won’t have much time to find a place.
I have a dreamy notion that I will find someplace where the sun is still warm and sit in the grass there, warming my flesh, and maybe read a little. This is the sort of thing I have done from time to time throughout my life, generally at this time of year or during the late winter-early spring transition when I am eager for the ground to warm up so I can sit on it.
I head west toward the city golf course. I am looking to find an angle on the setting sun, where there won’t be tall buildings, hills, or a high tree-line between me and sun. I am a solar collector.
It takes only a couple of minutes to satisfy myself that I won’t be able to get into the golf course on the “back” end, which faces the sun and where, I discover with envy, some slopes facing the southwest are still bathed in light. I drive experimentally down a back road but am immediately hemmed in by dead ends.
Abandoning this plan, I find my way back to a bigger road that I know is bounded by neither hills not buildings in its sun-facing direction. I look for places along this route to pull off the road, but I am in too busy a piece of the world here to find quiet, unobserved, semi-public places.
I keep driving, realizing now where I’m heading. It’s only a few minutes away, but I’ve crossed into the next city (Boston, actually), where we’ve found a parking area for a “Greenway” walking path. I park in a quiet place behind an office building, but it’s clear after a few rapid-paced walking that the path heading west will take me into shadows rather than sun. I need a higher spot; a clear perspective.
I run back down the path to the main road, take the sidewalk along it, walk over a bridge and find an unpeopled, semi-abandoned, unofficial-looking marina, with a couple large power boats parked on the earth next to an empty structure. The boats are surrounded by marsh grass turning gold in the setting sun.
I walk into the rough grass, face southwest, stand in the sun, and read most of an article in Sunday’s book review section.
This doesn’t strike even me as normal behavior. I can’t think of anyone else who would do it. But it seems to me that people, being natural beings, sometimes feel a physical craving for direct contact with solar energy. Plants strain toward the sun. I remember that this physical attraction toward a stimulus is called a tropism.
So great is their longing for solar that plants compete with their neighbors to grow tall and get more exposure to the sun. (This growth pattern makes too many of my own plants grow “leggy,” rather than “full.”) They are solar collectors too.
I’m not a very efficient solar collector and can’t power any electric devices (unlike the human batteries in “The Matrix”). But I think filling myself up with sunlight, especially after a period of challenging weather, helps keep me going.
Here’s a photo of a praying mantis clinging to the outdoor light on the front porch. I think he’s trying to store up some solar energy too.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

10.24 Last Call

Some flowers still blooming in the last week of October are pictured here. White Montauk daisies with yellow centers. A reliable October bloomer, but I’ve let this plant grow too tall and leggy. The flower-loaded branches fall to the ground as soon as they start to open. Someone told me the way to combat it is to cut back the branches each month in the spring. Sounds radical, but I may have to try it.
Lots of garden mums, like the lavender blossoms in this photo. They bloom (so far at least) every autumn and last a good while. Again, the branches have grown too long, but I almost prefer them falling to the ground, the way the colored leaves do in autumn, to staking.
The zinnias I grew from seed are still holding up too and making new blossoms. I started to cut and dry some of the blossoms indoors, and plan to save their seeds. Will find out whether the seed lasts over winter and can sprout next year.
The oddly shaped pink flowers are “Spotted Toad Lilies,” a reference to the dark spots on bright blossoms. The species name is Trycirtis. The flower stalks grow about three feet high, and the buds wait until the end of September before they begin to open.
A wild aster grows and blooms this month in a quiet corner in front of the white fence. It’s a true volunteer. The flowers are white until they start to fade, and then for about a week they have a delicious violet tint.
The maiden grass lifts up its seed heads against the front of the house. In full sun the grass grows very tall and very thick, and the seed heads turn a coppery brown color this time of year. The wiegelia in front of it is blooming a fall round of pink flowers; it’s big season is spring. We have to cut it back severely to allow the grass behind it to show off.
After a serious late summer slump, in which they lost most of their leaves to brown-leaf disease, the pink roses are rewarding my pruning, spraying and feeding attentions with a strong October.

A Growing Understanding

With early winter storms headed our way last week, and darkness now falling well before six p.m., nature is telling us it’s time for us to do our growing – growing ourselves, that is – indoors. Film is a great way to teach history, and the arrival of the annual Boston Palestine Film Festival coincides with the coming of the “dark age” of the New England calendar. So we found ourselves standing on the street beside the tracks of Boston’s “Green Line” at 10 p.m. Thursday night with the freezing rain beginning to show white mush in the middle of the always-intimidating “winter mix.”
The film, however, was worth a little cold weather suffering. A lot of the films in the Palestine Film Festival are documentaries, often preceded by a couple of shorts, and many are prize winters at other festivals. The quality is uniformly excellent, and the series is hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts and some other sites, such as local town libraries and a few awkward venues at Harvard.
We saw “Gaza Hospital” Thursday night, a documentary about the volunteer-run hospital that saved lives during the war-torn 80s in Beirut. No voice-over, no narration verbally or in titles, no overt filmmaker’s point of view. The characters, people who were there, sometimes in archival footage, much of it in return visits to the scene in the 90s or later, and some contemporary footage shot in the sites where the Gaza Hospital stood, tell their stories in factual and remarkably restrained fashion. They say things like “it’s been 25 years since my son disappeared.”
Despite two visits to Beirut (where, as you may know, our daughter lives), I had never heard of Gaza Hospital. The film “Gaza Hospital” concentrates on the war-torn, calamitous 80s in Lebanon. I know of no useful, brief written histories of the period (though then-correspondent Thomas Friedman wrote a well-received book called from “From Beirut to Jerusalem”) and am not knowledgeable enough to provide one. But an abstract of the events that form the film’s background goes something like this:
During the horrendous Lebanese civil war (begun around 1975), Beirut was plunged into deeper disaster when Israel invaded the country in order to attack Palestinian military organizations, which held power in parts of Lebanon, including parts of the city, because they were better armed and organized than the Lebanese factions. We see the Palestinian fighters leaving Beirut in the face of the Israeli invasion. We Israeli bombs falling on pieces of the Beirut shoreline where Anne and I have walked, and then we see the burn victims coming to the volunteer-run, bare-bones Gaza Hospital. Its surgeons include an Asian female volunteer, who worked in London and knew nothing of the region until recruited into the humanitarian effort. Other volunteers include a Jewish American nurse.
The hospital appears to be located between or as part of two Palestinian refugee camps, created in the wake of the Israeli takeover of Palestine in 1948. Sometimes the hospital has no water, often no electricity. But care is provided free to all who seek it. Fighters and civilian victims from all factions are brought there. Refugees from the civil war street fighting in Beirut’s neigborhoods or other parts of the country, their numbers intensified by the Isreaeli invasion, live in the upper stories of the fortress-like cement block building which serves as the hospital.
After the Palestinian fighters left Beirut, the refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila were left behind, in the words of one as “hostages.” After the assassination of the leader of the right-wing Christian faction, who’s about to become the country’s president (Bashir Gemayal) in a country whose constitution requires the president be a Christian, the rightwing Lebanese Phalangist faction seeks revenge. Because right-wing factions blamed the civil war and everything bad happening in the country on the Palestinian presence in their country, Phalangist troops entered the camps of Sabra and Shatila massacred hundreds of civilians, whole families, etc. as Israeli troops look on. (One estimate placed the death toll at more than 3,000. The massacre is well documented; Wikipedia has a summary.)
Gaza Hospital’s volunteer staff, including many internationals, are forcibly evacuated from the hospital, threatened with death before being released, and the patients remaining behind are killed.
After all this, somehow the effort and resources are found to rebuild the hospital.
The civil war continues. The Palestinian camps, once again home to refugees, fall under siege, incredibly enough, by another Lebanese faction, Amal, a Shiite group backed by Syria, which seeks to fill the power vacuum in the city. Food is cut off, and the inhabitants begin to starve, but they fight back in what became known as “The War of the Camps.” By the time the siege is lifted, Gaza Hospital has been largely destroyed, its cement block interiors filled with rubble.
The refugees say they will rebuild it once again. But I don’t know what’s there now, since in the film’s later shots returning international volunteers walk through a hell of torn-up walls and piles of broken cement and trash.
People still live in the camps. They sing, dance a little, remember their martyrs. A Palestinian refugee who has lived there since 1948 restores his shop’s electric sign and goes back to business as a barber. His thirteen-year old son was shot to death by snipers during the siege.
We saw two other documentaries at the Boston Palestine Film Festival. “The Kingdom of Women” tells the story of the women who rebuilt their refugee village in southern Lebanon after it was destroyed in the Israeli invasion and the men were detained by Israel. “We Were Communists” is the story of four men now in their forties who were teens when they joined the Communist Party, generally because their fathers had jointed it as the social justice party for all elements of society, and found themselves fighting to resist, first, the Israeli invasion and then to oppose any other Lebanese faction that their leaders told them to fight. Twenty-five years later they think Lebanon still has a long way to go to get beyond factionalism.
There were at least a dozen other films I would have liked to see. The Boston Palestine Film Festival deserves more coverage than it gets from local news media, particularly the major players such as the Globe, a point that has to be made by somebody other than me since I’m guilty of association there. The films presented there are certainly worthy of a look by anyone who cares about our country’s continued involvement in the Middle East.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

10/8-10/10 and 10/15-10/17: Visiting the Trees

Every year around the middle of October we go to the cottage in Stockbridge, Massachusetts to fill up on autumn. This year Sonya went with us, so we went two weekends in a row since she was really low on autumns, having not been in this part of the world for a few years.
There are lots of things we like to do in the Berkshires, but when autumn comes most of those things have to do with trees. Our days have a rhythm: hike the woods and mountain trails during the daytime, and make fires at night. Basically, we spend a lot of time with trees.
One year a visitor from Lebanon came with Sonya and accompanied us first to the Berkshires, and then up to northern Vermont. He called home from the car and announced: “I am in a place where there are only trees.”
While a slight exaggeration (there are a few people around), that description has always struck me as getting to the essence of the Berkshires and northern New England. Especially, in October. What are we looking for? What are we looking at? Places with trees. Where do we find them? Basically, everywhere.
Still, there are favorite places. The lake across the street from the Meyersons’ cottage is known as Stockbridge Bowl. We watched the sky pink over the ridge line at twilight one evening and caught the first house lights reflecting on the water. Geese squawked overhead as they circled at dusk, for no apparent purpose but exercise. These not so wild geese are not going anywhere. In the spring they will fill the little sandy beach with poop.
Leaving the beach behind, we hiked along the wooded edge of this lake one late afternoon, arriving finally at the Place of the Favorite Tree, whose trunk extends over the water and can put up with some climbing. The next day we hiked up from Olivia’s Overlook to a view from a high ridge on a day too hot for October. You can tell because people look sweaty in the photos; is this really autumn?
Then we visited another favorite place, the Sacred (or Hidden) Pond in Kennedy Park in Lenox and gazed at gently spinning leaves, at spontaneously forming concentric circles on the surface of the pond that point to the life below the surface; at the high water levels of a heavy-rainfall season in the hills causing the springs to flow hard around us.
It was colder the next weekend, seasonal temps dipping sharply after dark, so this was a true weekend for fires. We have come to look at the trees’ turning foliage, but now it is time to rely on their substance. Experience proves that even with a purchased package of fatwood, we still need kindling to keep a good flame going in the fireplace. The trees complied. Dried branches waited on the forest floor only a matter of feet from the door.
For the limited needs of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots such as ourselves, the spoilage of the elements provides an embarrassment of riches. Storms, winds, insects, age, and competition for space and sun have culled the woodland.
After we layer up the fallen branch and twig kindling, our fires are a thing of a beauty and utility.
Deeper into the woods, older trees, some with thick trunks, have been brought down by the weather, the wet road-swamping hurricane of September, the occasional local near-tornado force micro-bursts, and the ordinary mortality of bugs and disease. Plenty of wood for the taking by those who rely on it for heat.
We catch a rain storm on our first hike on the second weekend. But we dry out and warm up hot cider, mulled wine, and even a hot tottie, after mincing fresh ginger and adding other spices. The next day is sunny and we explore a new path, a stretch of the Appalachian Trail that leads to fresh views of hillsides and high valley wetlands, before circling the rest of Bear Lake on the border of Montgomery and Lenox.
On the final day we pay a return visit to Kennedy Park, then clean and close up the house. Sweeping leaves off the deck and wiping down the outdoor furniture, I pile the chairs up on top of one another in a vain attempt to reach the leafy canopy above. It’s a tribute to the trees.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

10.1 Suspects in the Conservatory

Krohn Conservatory is where they keep the plants in Cincinnati. You won’t find many of these 3,500 species in my garden – or yours.
You will find a rainforest waterfall and hundreds of exotic plants on permanent display in the Palm, Tropical, Desert and Orchid houses, among other features, in free to the public Krohn Conservatory, located in Eden Park, one of Cincinnati’s well maintained urban parks.
The conservatory’s special collections include the Bonsai Collection, a roomful of mature but knee-high firs, pines and oaks that make you think there should be tiny Hobbits running around underneath them. A true fantasy forest in miniature.
The Desert Garden hosts succulents and cacti with principal families with names such as agaves, aloes, crassulas, yuccas, cereus, opuntia and pereskia – according to the sources I found online; these names are well beyond my competence. If I’ve got this right, a subset of one these families (cassulaceae) includes the sedum plants many of us have in our garden. Some of our Autumn Joy sedum are still flowering in a sunny, streetside spot in front of our house.
Low, spreading groundcover sedum, which flower in early summer, are marketed as “stonecrop” sedum. Stonecrop, I learn, is a term used for all the members of this plant family because of their ability to flourish on stony ground.
As summer was ending this year, I transplanted some well-diffused stonecrop sedum into a spot beside a steppingstone walk and gathered all the smaller stones I could put my hands on to lace in between the plants. So far, so good. Stonecrop sedum just naturally looks rights around stones.
The conservatory’s indescribably lush, credibility-mocking Palm House dominates the building’s 45-foot high central spine; here’s where you find that rainforest waterfall and a goldfish pond with some suspiciously large orange fish. These are not your 99 percent goldfish; these are the gobbling-up 1 percent.
The big canopy trees here are the palm trees, rubber trees and banana trees. The really cute (in a bizarre sort of way) thing about these imagination-stretching rain forest characters is that they also provide homes for “epiphytic” plants – plants that derive moisture and nutrients from other plants – such as bromeliads, orchids and ferns growing from them.
On our visit we found plants labeled “bromeliad” everywhere in this conservatory. It’s enough to make you want to learn something about them. The first thing you discover, to give an idea of the bromeliad’s range, is that the pineapple is one of them. It’s kind of a poster child for a family – “I’m a major fruit, the rest of you guys are just weird” – of 3,000 species native mainly to tropical climates in the western hemisphere.
Judging from the ground-hugging bromeliads we noticed in the conservatory’s rainforest rooms (Palm House and Tropical House), the tightly overlapping leaf structure at the plant’s base appears to be the common characteristic, at least to the unaided eye. The family’s diversity includes something called “tank bromeliads,” epiphytic plants, and a large number of desert-dwelling succulents which means we also found bromeliads in the Desert House.
It was in the Desert house, where the cool dry air creates a world’s-away climate that we found some gaps in the foliage and decided to them with the unlikely flowers you can see in the photo above.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

9.30 A Garden of Song: Saul’s Recital

It’s cold in Cincinnati in the last days of September. Anne and I fly in on a Thursday and rendezvous with Saul at the motel (a Holiday Inn off the interstate we remember from our previous visit), where he gives us his annotated maps with directions to the recital, the university, his new apartment, and several parks and other sights of interest. Then we go to an authentic Cincinnati chili house where they serve chili – over spaghetti – with lots of cheese and few interesting additions such as onions. I get “chili five ways” and the waitress laughs at me when I add, “over spaghetti,” because of course “chili five ways” means over spaghetti. I mean, don’t you speak Cincinnati?
The restaurant includes a collection of characters, black and white, the like of whom you are unlikely to find anywhere in Greater Boston. Traveling is so broadening.
The next morning we are off to one the aforementioned annotated park options (not Eden Park, can’t remember its name). The park’s parking lot brings you right up to a great overlook over the river and a piece of the city, and the air is fresh and full of a great, gray, windy faceful of autumn breeze prompting Anne to exult “Isn’t it wonderful!” just as I burst out with “God, it’s freezing! Why didn’t I bring my winter coat?”
We walk all around the place looking for a woodland trail and never finding one, though we go up and down a side road through a woodsy neighborhood long enough to tire us out.
Then we practice driving back and forth from the motel to the University of Cincinnati parking lot that’s nearest to the recital hall where Saul will perform his master’s solo recital this evening. If you’re not in the habit of driving back and forth from a motel to a parking lot, you may not realize how entertaining this can be, but just take my word for it.
The next plane-party of guests arrives in early afternoon – daughter Sonya and Anne’s parents, Marion and Jack – and we go out to lunch (not to the authentic Cincinnati chili place) before resting up for the recital. Some time in the late afternoon the last party of long-range guests, Walter and his father who lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, arrive and we arrange to meet at the concert hall before stage time. The complete roster of long-distance travelers is as follows: three people from Massachusetts, two from New York City, one from elsewhere in Ohio, and one from Lebanon. Sonya, whose place of residence has a view of the Mediterranean, wins the “came farthest” award.
Our son dresses in a black tuxedo. In addition to his personal fan club, the audience is swelled with the members of the College Conservatory of Music guitar program, some other students and friends, including an incredible singer and a soon to be incredible lawyer, and a family of young guitar students consisting of two parents, two young boys Saul gives guitar lessons too and a friend of similar age they have borrowed for the occasion. It’s a superbly attentive and excitable audience.
Saul performs each of his four pieces – a Romantic Spanish work by Tarrega, a Bach lute piece, a moody 20th century piece by Ernst Brouwer, and a grand climactic classical statement by Fernando Sor – flawlessly, bowing at the end of each to a great burst of sincere and enthusiastic applause, and walking briefly off stage before returning for the following work. With true professional sang froid, he does not speak a single word to the audience at any point in the recital (though he smiles a lot). The guitar does all the talking. It says all that needs to be said, it sings its part, orates, struts upon the stage, assumes the voice of each of its characters, expands each composer’s vision of the instrument, interprets his musical statement, enchants its audience.
Afterwards, there is a great and long-lasting pizza party at a favorite local haunt (Cincinnati pizza, we’re happy to report, is much like pizza in Massachusetts or New York), where an overtaxed oven made us wait for dinner but kept the beer and the appetizers flowing. A range of interests coalesced: Saul’s guitar professor Claire, the Phd. program opera singer, the third-year law student, building master Walter and his nonagenarian chemistry professor father, our New York and Massachusetts contingents, our resident internationalist – experts everywhere! At the end Claire said, “This is a party that wants to get together again.”
By all means let’s do Cincinnati again. But there can only be one master’s solo recital by Saul Meyerson-Knox. And we were there – and it was wonderful.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Oct. 15: Bonus Berkshires autumn weekend

Late Saturday morning we drove to Bartholomew’s Cobble. It rained. I fell. The abstract:
The rain begins, gently at first, as we are walking Spero Trail along the Housatonic, the river that runs everywhere through the Berkshires.
We pause, wait under a pine tree, look for a more thickly leaved tree to keep off the rain – not so common this year – decide to go on. When I say “the rain is diminishing, let us go,” the rain increases. When I say “it will not be cold so long as the wind does not blow," the wind puffs out its cheeks and blows.” Still, we proceed until we come to the loop running through a field where river executes an oxbow curve. I propose double-timing through the open grass to the opposite bank; we start out. Ten seconds later the rain picks up. “Retreat!” I call. We turn back and head for the sparse cover of the half-leaved trees.
Under the trees we wait, hoping again for a slackening in the rain. Instead it comes harder. I’m for a full retreat now, I say. We make a plan to head inland and uphill and hope to find thicker tree cover there.
I run across a half-timbered bridge over a creek, exulting in my still youthful stride. Then it happens. A few strides farther on I take a running, tripping, tumbling, splattering fall in the rain. It happens when I look behind, over my shoulder, to shout some blithe observation passing for wit to Sonya – I have dashed ahead once we decided to outrun the rain, making a game of it – but fail to observe the protruding end of a heavy black branch, downed in some previous storm, sticking its thick finger onto the edge of the path as if determined still to play a role in the destinies of men. Thick and weighty enough that it doesn’t give when the outer edge of my sneakered foot comes into contact with it.
O’erbalanced, flying forward before taking in my predicament, I fend off the ground with both hands as if pushing off an attacker. I roll, pivoting my weight off my hands when the ground doesn’t give way, doesn’t behave like air or water, banging both knees against the earth and bouncing up. Nothing’s broke, I decide; no harm done. On my feet I look back for the cause of my downfall and spot the offending black branch, thick as a pike; first time I’ve seen it. I inspect myself. Mud on my knees and the tops of my sneakers. A stiffness in my hands and forearms.
Also, litter on the ground from my backpack. Somehow the zipper was closed tightly enough; it pops open and our picnic fare, apples and pears, slip along the grease-wet leaves. Sonya catches up and retrieves our goods, as I vouch for my survival.
It rains heavier, the skies lighten, then a sun shower has us looking for a sheltering tree once again; then the shower stops and we find ourselves under mostly bright skies just as we reach the last trail-turning. Do we risk going up to the summit after all? But by now we are wet and decide to take the path more chosen back to the car.
I have fallen in the Fall, but rise again.
Back in the Stockbridge cottage, we clean off our dirt-dusted fruit and eat it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

September Slants

Pink Chablis sedum. Flowers darkening in a dark season. The so-called pink looks purple in this photo. I’m always surprised how late in the year these bloom. Every year they arrive as a strong, timely color surge when their neighbors have shut their eyes and gone to sleep.
The lavender blossoms of the autumn anemone, seen against the returning vigor of the daylily spears. The red blossoms are red salvia, an annual, I transplanted in when clearing out the foliage of faded perennials.
Late season blossoms from a new pink lobelia acquired in late summer to help make a statement in this part of the garden. I planted it next to a veteran red lobelia, which begins showing in July and is now down to its last few petals. Look forward to seeing how these two colors set each other off next year.
Pink guara, another hero of the late summer’s last stands. The stalks are tall and wispy. They probably grow more densely in a true full-sun spot.
Multi-colored zinnias, planted from seed in the cold frame this spring. An annual, they grow tall and start to lean over, especially in these recent sun-starved weeks.
The "rose" hibiscus, a vigorous annual -- at least in these climes -- growing in a large pot. Will we succeed this year in rescuing it in time from the frosts and bringing it indoors?
Intriguing pink (again) turtlehead blossoms. -- they hold this shape; no further opening. First year for this perennial as well. The red blooms are celosia, another fill-in annual.

9.26 There’s Nothing Wrong With Your Eyes, It’s Just Getting Darker

It’s been warm and sticky for days now. But you can’t fool us. It’s not Louisiana in the summer. It’s not anywhere in the summer. If you leave work to go home at six-thirty, when you step off the train, the air may feel like July – but it’s dark.
The clock of the universe keeps moving. I thought I was enjoying my golden late-summer days, the serenity of August, followed by gently brisker, reliably dry days of September’s final summer weeks. But the play of the seasons didn’t follow the script. We got a succession of wet weeks, rolling up the days like a newspaper to slap at the endless supply of small, quick, late-born, in a hurry, blood-hungry mosquitoes. No garden work is attempted without their inevitable, head-buzzing accompaniment.
It’s actually darker more than half the time now. We passed that dividing line between longer days and longer nights when the sun ducked below the autumnal equinox last week.
What happened to those long, lingering outdoor suppers, when the light hung in the sky until nearly nine o’clock?
We move forward through time, gaining natural light, gaining outdoor time until by the same linear process we start to go backwards and find ourselves in a circular universe once more. We’ve had all the long evenings we’re going to get this spin of the globe.
Just as we have “less time,” fewer minutes and hours, that is, of natural light, the unripened fruit in the garden has less opportunity to be kissed by the sun. The unopened buds on the coreopsis have less urge to open themselves to the light. The flowers that have not yet managed to bloom are increasingly less likely to do so. I wait for them to open, but they just sit there, waiting for a Prince Charming who’s not going to come.
I’m not sure what the grasshoppers and crickets think of this development. The bees are if anything busier. The grasshoppers still hop away at my approach down some garden path that brings me too close to their current stations, provoking great acrobatic leaps into the void, or to the next cluster of leaves. The song of the crickets seems as consistent when my windows are open now to the strangely humid weather the newsprint meteorologist attributed to something “pesky” in the upper atmosphere, as they did in the stirring late summer dark of a couple weeks ago.
But I hope they don’t need a lot of natural light to finish their season’s business. They won’t be getting a lot of it.
It’s a good thing the twilights and early evenings this time of year are so beautiful, because we get to enjoy them at an earlier hour.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Secret Lives of Birds

A bird dives down from the Great Beyond, which is to say beyond the view from my window, and rattles the last red flower blowing on my red Lobelia on his way down. Was he aiming for it? The bloom shakes back and forth, then settles, pointed skyward on a doughty stem. (Good for another day? Still a target?)
The bird has disappeared from view. Was he aiming for the dense fluffery of the garden geranium? Does he have an appointment out of sight in the bowels of my crowded plant scape? What’s going on? Whatever it is, or isn’t, it’s utterly unintelligible to me, supposedly the only intelligent life form in this picture. Hmmm, could that be a matter of perspective?
What governs the sudden motions of birds?
What are they saying?
A rustle in the leaves and a slight, but distinct tapping somewhere on the other side of our screen door. I stare into the sunshine of a Saturday morning and spy the quick movements of the bird in the young Chinese elm tree between the sidewalk and the street. He hops and pecks again. The white pattern on his dark back feathers looks like the backbone and ribs design on a skeleton costume. He perches on the tree trunk right side up, medium sized, some reddish tint around the head. Once I realize it’s a woodpecker, I hope he’s not finding good eating in the Chinese elm, which the city planted a few years back in the sidewalk strip because we had put our name on the list for the tree planting program.
Shade trees along the street define a livable city. No single element in any urban, suburban or small town neighborhood says “nice place to live,” “cheerful,” “peaceful,” “good neighbors,” and “cool place to be in the summer heat” than shade trees along the roadway.
Why do the same residential blocks look harder, starker, colder, and less alive in the winter? Because the trees are no longer in leaf.
A few second later the woodpecker, sensing me watching, maybe, flies off from the elm tree into the big maple tangled up with power lines nearby. And from there, quickly, disappears from sight. Didn’t mean to scare him off.
Birds sing, and poets sing.
When human beings imagine divine beings, these superhuman beings fly. Birds fly.
We talk about contact with the “aliens.” Some kinds of aliens are here already.
But, of course, I will be told, once again, we mean contact with “intelligent life.” Perhaps we do not yet fully appreciate the intelligence of other creatures.
I never really know what’s going on in bird land. But we share a world, a space-time continuum, a “habitat.” And we both need trees.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

9.15 Set in Stone

A leaf from the Garden of Memory:
I call in the 3-line “personal sentiment” to Calverton National Cemetery, where Mom was buried on Monday. I am happy that they will take this message over the phone – after all, these words are set in stone – rather than asking for a fax, or something in writing.
So, here goes.
-- First line, I say: “Loving wife and”
-- That’s too long, the voice on the phone says. “And” won’t fit.
-- It fits.
-- Did you count?
-- I counted.
(She counts). -- It just fits.
(Oh, was I not supposed to use the last character? Is there a setback rule?)
-- Next line, I say: “Mother. Colon. Space –“
-- They won’t do that. No punctuation.
-- No punctuation? Why is that?
-- It’s military. It’s a military cemetery.
(Who knew the military gets along without punctuation? That might explain a few things.)
-- Can we have two spaces after “mother” and before the next word, “look.”
-- I can ask the engravers. But I can’t say they’ll do it.

So, we lose the comma in the third line after “homeward” too. Apologies to Thomas Wolfe, whose title for his first and most famous novel – “Look Homeward, Angel” – I borrowed for Mom, desiring it for the connotations of both “home” and “angel.” And to John Milton, from whom Wolfe in turn harvested the phrase, taking it from Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem about the loss of a beautiful youth.
But the voice on the phone assures me the inscription on Mom’s headstone will done within 30 to 60 days. They wont notify us when it’s ready (“because there are so many”).
After those 30 to 60 days we will pay Calverton a visit. Maybe on Mom’s birthday.

9.14 “Tis an Unweeded Garden

The garden is a mess after my uncharacteristically long period of neglect. We were gone for the three-day Labor Day weekend, getting home after dark Monday night. It rained the next day, cold and rainy, but at least that meant no need to water. Also too wet to pick through the vegetable plants. It rained the day after that. I close windows, dig out sweaters.
The next day, a Wednesday, it’s sunny. Mom picked a good day to die.
So I’m away again from Thursday to Monday of this week (Sept. 12). Last Thursday, as I drove away for New York, it poured torrents, worse than the hurricane. So when I finally get a closer look at the front and back gardens yesterday (Tuesday) I’m shocked at the dry earth and the number of suffering plants. I have indoor work to do both Tuesday and Wednesday, two lovely late summer days, a little balmy, a little sticky, clouds in the late afternoon, bright moon at night – good days to live – and my digestive odyssey continues to impinge on outdoor activities. I need to build a public restroom in the back yard to cut down on travel time.
But things will brighten and please yet again.
I’ve added color with annuals forked in amid fading and clipped down perennials, working with a more lavish palette than previous years, a lot of dark reds. The green of perennial foliage sets them off. These are less interesting to me as plants, but keeping them watered and trimmed for the color effect is a September challenge. I’m harvesting color.
And the darker anemones, a rich violet hue, are showing now. And the bordering mums are beginning to bloom.
It’s a pleasure, each day, to walk on the surface of the earth.

9/12 Jean Doris Congreve Knox: 1920-2011

(This is a flower from the Garden of Final Appreciation, which is to say an obituary with attitude. I’ll supply the attitude.)

Jean Doris Congreve Knox was a child of the 20th century. Born at the start of the roaring, expansive, liberated twenties, her early life went up and down like a roller-coaster. Her father died when she was seven. Her family lost the business the entrepreneur, restaurateur, and muscle man John Congreve had begun, called Congreve’s Tea Room. So mom’s childhood visited some temporary addresses before the roller coaster went up again when her mother remarried to a successful recording engineer, known to the family as Dad Cheney, who moved the family back to easy street, a big house in the leafy Long Island town of Baldwin, where Mom grew up and graduated from high school.
Before that happened, however, the crash of 1929 wiped out Dad Cheney’s business and life was once more shadowed by worry over money. These facts are the origin of the house drama in Mom’s early life. Her twice-widowed mom eventually lost “Dad Cheney’s big, beautiful house,” as Mom described it, and the family moved back to the Flushing brownstone where she was born, and Mom took a job in an office to support the household.
What she wanted from there on in was a house of her own. That took a war, the arrival of Dad, Alva Knox, whom she married in 1946, surviving the postwar housing crisis in Flushing where the married couple lived with her mother, her older brother Mark, and whoever else helped pay the rent – and her first born, me – until dad’s income and the postwar building boom on Long Island succeeded in providing one, at 54 Downs Road, Hempstead.
What did Mom want in her life? She wanted a house. A house meant security, stability, the banishment of anxiety – who among us doesn’t understand that?
She wanted other things, of course. She wanted to go to college after earning a regents scholarship to a teachers college, but her family needed her to work. Every life has regrets and sacrifices. Mom looked back some, but she didn’t let it spoil today.
Mom had an easy touch as a mother, no heavy guilt trips, no ill-concealed surrogate ambitions for her children, no intrusive hands-on management style. As her son, I honor her motherhood. She kept the show going at home and did a fair amount of getting out of the way. Mom was also looking to have some fun. So we went to the beach, we stopped for Carvel, we were encouraged to throw ourselves in the ocean and learn how to jump the waves. We got an endless series of chocolate cakes, Mom refining her style over the years to arrive at the heralded chocolate chip, Saturday night special. We ate supper on tray tables in front of the TV when Dad was working late or going to his bowling league. We had had spaghetti with meat sauce on Saturday nights and melted cheese sandwiches with bacon on Sunday nights.
We played games. Mom was a devoted card player for the fun of it. Mom liked people, like socializing, liked having fun, laughed easily over little things. She taught us rummy and kissena. She played cards on the beach with her children and their friends, wind blowing sand through the game and into her plastic bags of beach snacks.
Mom had a gentle way with people. Her daughters-in-law, a set of two, bless the skies for a mother-in-law without a forbidding command presence. In our little way, her kids were going multicultural. Jews, Catholics? Mom was cool. Mom would have been polite if we’d brought home a gorilla, but in the event she was loving and accommodating to new family members as she was with the old ones. It takes some of us more demanding types a good many years to appreciate these qualities.
Mom didn’t want to be the life of the party. What she wanted was the party. People came to her house because it was an easy place to be. She never liked the quarter-mastering and food prep side of the hosting business, but she had her chops down to make you feel welcome.
Sonya, her first grandchild, who’s not here because she lives in Lebanon, recalled these routines from childhood visits: “All sorts of memories keep surfacing, but the ones hitting me most clearly are watching her set up the Ritz crackers and Triscuits and slices of orange cheddar cheese on the wooden cutting boards (carefully all layered up on each other) any time any guest arrived to the house on Downs Road…. And watching her charge out of the surf at Jones Beach.”
Mom loved the ocean so much we went to Jones Beach during a hurricane, rather ironically named Bob.
Mom’s memories, when we pulled them out of her, were of little pleasurable things – pet rabbits and cats in Baldwin (and more cats, plus a few dogs, later in Hempstead), visits to the farms of her older relatives, boat rides in the waters off Queens, the uncle who woke up visitors by playing “heigh-ho heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go!” on his record player at dawn when she stayed at his farm; flowers, and childhood friends, family visits, and bowling leagues with Dad. In my dreams I plant flower gardens at 54 Downs Road – didn’t happen, but Mom planted flowers there and planted the seed of growing things in me.
She took us to church, where the elegantly metaphysical language of the Episcopalian liturgy still rings through my thoughts. And she played the piano like the gifted student she always was – “practicing” as she called it on Tchaikovksy, and Debussy and Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, looking at musical scores that turned the pages black with crowds of flying notes and after a while getting tired and saying, “Oh well, it’s really too hard for me.” A lot of that music stayed inside of us as well.
And you could be the life of the party on the piano, as she was for uncountable family gatherings. We stood around the piano and sang songs because mom could actually play them. She played old songs and new ones, read sheet music at first glance, played background numbers for church fundraisers, accompanied prima donnas, banged out “The 12 Days of Christmas” for yearly gatherings at John’s house so we knew it really was Christmas, entertained at the Hertlin independent senior living center and the Nesconset nursing home, and eventually at age 90 whittled her repertoire down to her swan song, “It had to be you.”
She never made anyone feel bad. She wouldn’t have known how if she wanted to. She rolled with the punches, took what came, found reasons to feel good, found the right thing to say.
We die old, if we’re fortunate. But we live all our ages. We remember the mom, the grandma, the mother-in-law, the neighbor, the friend who mattered to us. I see her laughing and exclaiming how lucky she is to scoop up a pot of pennies by going out in a Michigan Rummy Game. Maybe they were pennies from heaven.

The poem of Mom’s Last Days goes something like this:

Near the end
Mom becomes an angel
Or perhaps merely a weightless, ethereal figure
Quiet, gentle, easy to please
Forgetting all the stress and character acting of mortal existence
Give me wings to fly, her final phase seemed to say,
And I will leave you all behind

Between the Labor Day weekend
And the 10th anniversary of nine-eleven
Mom let go
Picking her spot, not bothering anyone,
Leaving quickly by a side door
Known only to one who covered the ground carefully
And did not take up too much room

9.7 Look Homeward, Angel

So now I get to write Camus’s famous sentence: Aujourd'hui, maman est morte.
It usually rains for funerals. Which day do we want it?
So does this mean we never got to say those meaningful things we never manage to say, even if we have all the time in the world? Even if given an appointment by the lord of death, I’m not sure I would have said them. Or what exactly they were. Would it have meant something to whisper them in the ear of an unconscious, or semi-conscious, old woman. Who was, all insist, not in pain.
Aside from the observation that she was declining, I don’t know what we’ll say she died from. We had frequently observed that her vital signs were good. “It was just time.” Does something in a person know when it’s time? That there was little of life left, or little of the person who lived it.
I’m not sure she knew who we were at the last visit during the summer, though she behaved as if she she did. Her conduct toward me as it has always been in the last years dominated by what we called “memory impairment.” She struggles to listen, and then to make sense, offering occasional murmurs or replies. And if I’ve made an impression, then she asks a question that relates to some aspect of what I’ve said. And who’s that? Where did you come from? You’re staying with John?
That last time, June, when we sat outdoors in the pavilion on the nursing home grounds, I called Sonya over to sit beside her. And so she had a turn of saying things to my mother, her grandmother, as well, and we recalled things. You loved the beach, Grandma. I did? You loved going in the water and jumping the waves. Mmm… Do you remember? Mmm, maybe.
Saul was not there on that occasion, but he was there for the “snowstorm birthday” on Dec. 26. I will say that he had a last visit too. “Last”? “Time”? It’s all relative – and then it’s final.

9.7 Faces Come Out of the Rain

The world wears a sad face. This is a hard season for me. I don’t even want to go outdoors. After days of incoherent weather forecasts I finally read in a newspaper story, a news brief which seeks, helpfully, to sum up what has been going on in the atmosphere – and what’s more important than the atmosphere? – and informs me that the remnants of Tropical Storm Story Lee, which soaked New Orleans, collided with a cold front along the East Coast giving us cool, dark, very wet days. I had foolishly wished for some rain over the weekend before we left for the Berkshires.
Be careful what you wish for.
In Berkshire County, the air was as humid as it had been all summer. Then it rained, really rained, way more than our so-called hurricane.
Back in Quincy Monday night, we opened all the windows and put on the fans and it was still stuffy in the house. Some time in the middle if the night the chill rains found us – somebody pressed the button for the cosmic cold service – whoosh poured in the chill, dank air of some other season, not late summer, not mellow September, the room temperature dropped twenty degrees in wind chill and I got out of bed to close the window.
O where has my late summer serenity gone?
I don’t even want to leave the house to look at the back garden. That’s saying something – something I don’t want to hear. This is not stay indoors time of year. I will find my sweaters. I will find an old hat (I left my good one somewhere) with a brim to keep off the rain, dig out an even older raincoat, and remember that this is the right time and even the right conditions to do the ambitious transplanting, moving some of the groundcovers around for stimulation and esthetic effect, re-arranging the furniture, so to speak.
Ah, I will get back on the job of seasonal beautification.
I will package my sadness in a trekker’s knapsack and get my hands dirty and my feet wet. I will stretch and strain. It will be good for me.
I will peek over my shoulder from time to time, glancing left and right, and look for subtle arrows of the sun.