Wednesday, March 30, 2011

3.24 Lenten Rose

The flowers are sort of yellow. Maybe a yellowish green. But mostly sort of white. They come so early in the season you forget to look for them. I think I probably forgot about the Lenten Rose after planting one a couple of years ago.
When I discovered the blooms, low to the ground, disguising themselves among the foliage, last spring they had probably been open for a week or more. They hug the ground among the stems and leaves of their own and other plants which emerge in early spring and hide them. The cup-shaped “rose” flowers do not necessarily turn their face up to the sun. So you have to get down to their level.
Getting down to their level, I pick out the dry leaves by hand. It’s a sensitive time of year to look for surprises from the garden. My job this month is removing the dried, brown leaves of last autumn from the flower beds and groundcovers where we leave them all winter to provide a mulch cover which, we hope, is appreciated by the recipients of this effort.
A lot of snow sat on top of those leaf-covered beds last winter, especially during the coldest period. But when the snow melted away and the weather slowly got warm enough for me to stand outdoors, though that’s still a work in progress, the perennial groundcovers were already showing their green – as if a New England winter, snow or no snow, had not made an enormous difference one way or another. As for my leaf mulch, I’m not smart enough to figure out whether that makes a difference either.
But the leaf mulch does take time and labor to remove. You’d like to rake it off, which is easier to do in beds where only the roots of the perennials or a strong skeletal branch-frame remains. Among groundcover like vinca it’s trickier. Rake with vigor and you inevitably pull up some vines. The tangled small leafed and delicately-vined low thymes and other stoppable, groundcover plants are even harder to clean out. You either rake and accept your losses, or hand-fork; or simply pull out the dull brown leaves with bare (or gloved) fingers… one or two at a time.
So you spend hours down low, interviewing patches of foliage on a one-to-one basis. How are you this year? How was your winter? What are your goals and aspirations?
With some of these fellows, it’s hard to read the body language. You look pretty good – or don’t you? Is this where I left you last year? Where are your friends?
It’s still too early to know what to expect from most of these families of plants. The hardy survivors – pachysandra, day lilies, stand up and bow – are present and accounted for, lining up for attention. But I have a long mental list of marginal performers, which make me fret. They may be slow getting out of bed, or they may not get up at all. Time, the answer to most of these question, will tell me something. But it won’t necessarily tell me why.
In this delicate and sometimes uneasy transitional stage, it’s heartening to be rewarded by something you don’t see every day. You get down to the ground, pull away some fallen twigs and old leaves and there are the happy bells of the Lenten Rose.
The color is very, very pale – modest and thin, like, I suppose, the Lenten diet of late winter.
But it feeds some very deep hunger inside.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

3.20 We’re All Back

The big hand of the seasonal clocks is the warming of the earth. When the earth warms, whether it’s late February or middle march, the green plants wake.
I pull off the top cover of leaf mulch spread over the groundcovers last fall, and find, to everybody’s delight, that we’re all back. The crocuses are here, the tulips are fingering out of the earth, the pachysandra is as bright and bouncey as it gets, and some of the steppable thyme patches are in mid-season form. And here I am, waxing philosophical over our familiar, re-imagined landscape as I rake off, or lift off or cut away the old skin of the old year, winter’s wrinkles giving way to the snipping of a new sky and a bright laser light of the turn of the year.
The spring equinox means the equal division of the day into light and darkness, which means a big gain for the light side over the narrow-eyed winter months. When you add daylight savings to the end of the day, where most of us live, it’s a big change from a month ago when it was still dark at five p.m. Now the light lasts until seven p.m. (and all we need to make life livable is some sunny weather, dammit). The light sits higher in the sky this time of year, making the late afternoons glow when the sun shines, and the bowl of sky find still new shades of twilight blue when the sun finally fades.
We remember all this and rejoice.
I pick among the detritus that the long snow gathered and froze and dirtied on the sidewalk strip and reveal the tiny green spears of the crocus, more or less where I left them. Dogs have walked these thin precincts, a spume of litter from overturned garbage cans made its way down to the earth, who knows how much road salt, sand and dust may have insinuated into the snow that baked itself into a cold gritty omelet of ice crystal, silt, and sad gray corruption – still, the green shoots poke their way upward.
We excavate through layers and reveal the remains of the old civilization of spring.
That’s the first afternoon. The second morning the crocuses are showing their yellow faces. The rest of the front yard need a facelift as well. We walk the ground inch by inch… Red-streaked tulip leaves. Fat narcissus, opening like upside-down umbrellas.
Old stalks which need clipping. Brown leaf bags filling up like fat babies.
On Sunday, I stake out the first circles in the back garden. The little green ears of the mini-daylilies under the cherry tree need a trimming. I rake around the patch of purple crocuses in the lee of a dogwood tree. These doughty fellows required no help from you or me to find the sun. But raking off the chaff emphasizes the color, set off by the old-new-renewed green of neighboring groundcovers.
They’re there again. They’re there just where they were, as they were. They’re a renewable energy source because looking at them makes us feel green inside.
I work my way around the wide flower island: lady’s mantle, purple salvia, bare semi-sad hydrangea, a tuft of hearty columbine, dry stalks of aster, and over to the achillea, the garden geranium, and the variegated carpets of familiar ground-hugging green back beneath the dogwood.
I move in a circle. We too are winding up the clock of the seasons, the clock of the green world.
It winds me up as well.

Monday, March 7, 2011

2.21 White Light in My Mind

White too bright to see
My eyes seek tree trunk shadows
White light in my mind

While snow sinks into the ground or goes up in smoke in coastal New England, the wild wintery frontiers of the Adirondack Mountains grow only whiter. We traveled up there on the Presidents Day weekend to stay at Gwen and Dave’s lakefront camp.
The snow gardens of northern mountains were freshly whitened by a fall of several inches of powdery white on Friday night as we were sloshing through a vicious February thunderstorm on the eastern half of the Massachusetts turnpike.
More snow swirled on the road Saturday morning, when we drove north after a night Albany. I woke in the early pre-dawn hours that night to a wind-maddened snow frenzy that seemed more dream than reality. Reality however turned into snow squalls on our windshield the next morning.
And new snow again on the plowed private road that winds along the lake in Inlet, where my sister’s camp is located.
Snow showers in the afternoon and again after dark, whiting out the moon. Turning the frozen lake and the white-washed landscape into a brilliant and dazzling monochrome.

Fresh Powder

Snow crystals, millions
of tiny mirrors multiply
daylight made of ice

Next day the color of the sky is a deep, improbable azure above the blazing white snowscape. Why is the sky so deep, so dry? Mountain air is drier, perhaps. The temperature drops but does not sting like our moist, coastal freezes. So much reflected snow-light turns the sky a photo-shopped blue.
Against the hillside, the thin bare trees make cooling shadows, interruptions of snowlight. Little slashes, secret hideouts where the eye may escape bedazzlement, for an instant or two. Then we are back to our improvised Arctic.

2.11 Old Snow Has Some Crust

We are snowbound (mentally, at least) another week. It doesn’t snow, though the temperature drops down to extremes on several evenings. The snow, which melted last weekend and on a Monday that elevated to 40 degrees in the afternoon, crusted on top.
I began going back to the waterfront on Tuesday, having avoided the area for weeks because of the deep snow and inaccessibility of my favorite path. Few footsteps pack down the snow on my path around the marsh. I try it anyway this week. Sometimes you can walk on the top of crusted snow without breaking through with each heavy step. At other points you fall into some sort of repetitive clown act. I remember a girl friend heavy-footing through sun like this in Connecticut while I walked beside remaining magically on the top. Ah ha, I think, the trick is moving faster.
This day the snow played a game with me. I could go a few steps, almost get up a head of steam, then I would lose my gravity-suspension license and plunge through, going up almost to my knee. Then I would be all right for a while, then a succession of false – or falling – steps. A kind of walking roulette. Shadowy spots made for a thicker crust. Sunny spots a minefield of inevitable blunders.

Snow Field Jaunty

Walking in the air
I feel free said the joker
Falling through the crust