Sunday, July 22, 2012

Second Season Stress

Every year around the second week of July, this year starting soon after July Fourth, the garden suffers the heat wave and long dry spell that wipes out the high tide of “solstice crop perennials” – the native day lilies, the ornamental lilies, the red bee balm, the whole cohort crop of June bloomers that peak around the end of that month and the first of July.
The “first” season in the perennial garden has peaked and passed. The second season has begun, generally opening with a dry and difficult patch of weeks to get through before nature makes things easy on the garden, and the gardener, once again by supplying some water.
For the last two weeks I’ve spent all my garden time watering, trying to pump the Quabbin Reservoir dry.
I’ve been critical of outdoor watering to keep lawns green in mid-summer, July mainly: lawn grass is a mix of an annual, non-native species that naturally turns brown in hot, dry weather. Basically, the problem is people pump their local water supply to dangerously low levels in a losing battle against nature, and to the detriment of the rivers, streams, marshes, wetlands, ponds and groundwater reservoirs which hold our supply of drinking water, in order to keep their lawns looking “pretty.”
However, when my perennials start wilting under the same hot, dry conditions, I hypocritically do the same thing. Only new plants are in real danger; even wilted perennials will bounce back when they get some rain.
It’s just they look so “sad” when leaves wilt and flower stalks droop. No pictures. I don’t take any pictures of classic midday wilters – the butterfly bush, the morning glory, some of the tomato plants, the chocolate plant, young hydrangeas.
When they look sad, I feel sad.
I want them to look good, even in bad times. So I walk around with a hose, sometimes for an hour at a time, soaking plants and whole beddings, while clipping away dead stalks, brown leaves, essentially the whole rapidly declining native daylily patch, and gone-by perennials such as the yellow primrose.
Temperature approaching triple digits?
I’m out there with the soaker hose and the watering can in crisis-management mode, addressing trouble spots by watering at the wrong time of day (having failed to get up at five in the morning to do it at the right time), with the sun still in the sky, thick air blanketing my every move, ignoring the natural human tendency to wilt in the heat along with the green stuff, and fighting the good fight.
I will keep this up, regardless of how much water I have to pump out of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, and pay for, because given the powerful illusion (however false) of endless abundance, there is no incentive outside of cost to conserve water. The MWRA gets its water from a huge watershed created in the 1930s by flattening six small towns to create a basin and damming a couple of rivers. There is no practical limit to how much water the MWRA can supply customers like me. And the authority prospers by selling water, so even it if advises us not to waste water, it doesn’t really mean it.
The short-term ethic (or emotion) that governs my actions and those of most other gardeners is you can’t let good, health plants down. And while most will recover naturally, recent plantings may need steady watering to get them through a dry spell. The same applies obviously to transplants and, determined not to learn my lesson, I keep trying to transplant in summer because this is the time I get around to it, instead of waiting to late August or fall when conditions are better.
Ordinarily I’m a believer in letting things be, not too much micro-managing (in life, as in the garden)… until I don’t like what they’re becoming. Then I crisis manage under the sun.
After peaking a week ago with a threatened triple-digit day, however, which wasn’t quite that bad because a breeze kicked up, we got thundershowers, a good soaking rain, and an cool, cloudy day today.
Things are looking up already.

The French Tolstoi

Here's my review of "Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirvoksy. Posted yesterday on Amazon.

The only limiting judgment you can make about this novel, the best literary treatment of what it was like to be a civilian on the ground during World War II I have ever read, is that French novelist Irene Nemirovsky did not get a chance to finish it. The book we have here is only the first two parts of an intended four-part “suite” that would give us a panoramic view of society under the stress of war – an ambition similar to Tolstoi’s treatment of Russian society during Napoleon’s invasion in his “War and Peace.” Nor did Nemirovskyi have the opportunity to revise the earlier sections in the light of what was to follow. Finally, she was writing with an eye to the headlines as France collapsed militarily in 1940 and suffered its first year of German occupation. Generally a worthy literary treatment of a national trauma takes a decade or more to produce – the first American Civil War novel of note, The Red Badge of Courage, was written in the 1880s. But Nemirovsky was writing, literally, under the gun.
It’s not military history, or politics that’s on stage here. It’s how a full range of social classes and types behaved in the panicky retreat of June 1940 when their country fell apart more quickly than anyone could imagine. Nemirovsky had a sharp eye for the privileged, the wealthy, the clever, the “beautiful people,” the kind of people who bargain hard with their servants while indulging their every personal whim – call them France’s 1 percent. The 99 percent exhibit the full range of human virtues and vices when their own survival is at risk. It’s the novelist’s eye for the telling detail. The bank manager who throws his workers out his touring car to make room for his mistress’s wardrobe and warns the working class employees that if they don’t make it to his place of retreat in time their jobs are at stake. The parents’ whose hopeful philosophy of life collapses when there’s no news of their son at the front. The maltreated orphans who loot and vandalize a wealthy home when the reins of authority grow thin. The boy whose romantic fantasy leads him to run away and join a remnant of the broken French army defending a bridge only to discover that he’s completely useless. Those who share their food with others; or share it up to a point.
The second section, titled “Dolce” after the musical notation, covers life in an idyllic – which is to say boring, narrow-minded – French village after the “armistice” (or surrender) and the arrival of a German occupying force. The author’s fair-mindedness is astounding. The Germans are polite, cultured, more educated than the villagers. They sing loudly, but well, and stomp around in their heavy boots but take pains not to insult the sensibilities of the defeated French. Equally astonishing, and frankly refreshing, is how seldom we come across the words “Nazi” or “Hitler” or references to the Third Reich’s racist, murderous ideology… The French, common and rustic to a man, exhibit a closely observed range of responses. The chauvninstic hate the Germans on principle. The poor hate the rich, and make accommodations to the their occupiers, while overcharging them for the wine and other luxuries. The rich fear the village’s disgruntled laboring class and are perfectly happy to see their conquerors keep order better than they can. Most interesting is the plight of the intelligent woman, hemmed in by “respectable” society at every turn (and her mother-in-law), whose brutish husband is a prisoner of war. She finds the German officer billeted at her farmhouse much better company, though she must hide her feelings from everyone. Nemirovsky’s repressed, stingy, materialistic, cold-hearted villagers remind one of the characters in her novel “All Our Worldly Goods” – a more perfect book written on a somewhat smaller scale, but equally Tolstoyan in its ambition to paint a realistic portrait of a society at a certain time. The books begins at the turn of the 20th century. Apparently things haven’t progressed much by 1940.
On finishing this book you can’t help yearning after what else Nemirovsky would have been able to tell us about life in a defeated country, especially as every aspect of life grew harder, more pinched, and violent. What a loss to literature and the world that Nemirovksy, a White Russian immigrant of Jewish ancestry, did not survive the catastrophe she was writing about.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summer Night Lights


They light the tree tops
Far below we walk the country road darkness of unoccupied spaces
Broken only by the solar flares of approaching motors
That fly toward us with the recklessness of comets
And disappoint with the pointlessness of unknown quantities,
the solutions we missed in calculus class or particle physics,
Taking only our night vision in their wake

We begin again, carefully, neophytes of rustic night,
hugging the road’s edge
listening for the midnight murmurs of tanglewood trees
Our eyes hooded, our senses bagged by the unsophisticated dark,
We loop our artificial eye, a sloppy laser sword inexpertly wielded,
A likeness, perhaps, for some giant insect signboard of steadily emitted come-on
An ignorant offering to those with big ideas on their little minds

They flood toward us, drawn to the sly inducement of something big,
Cruising at treetop level, far above the little disturbances of plodding folk
They dip their lights toward us, a herd of tiny flashing eyes,
A Cyclopean race of night miners following the vein of generation
Sorry are we to disappoint so rich a flight of eager lantern-bearers,
our mineral light mere blindness for your affections
Lift up your lights, Fireflies! shining through our ruse

The Return of the Slate Shingles

The path so far.
Last fall while walking a nature trail along the Neponset River we came across a couple of workers tossing slate shingles off a roof (stop me if you’ve heard this before).
We stole the discarded diamonds out of a dumpstered slew, Anne descending into the maw to steal a trunkful of the dragon’s cache of largely unmarred roof slates. Me waiting on solid earth below, ready to play Orpheus to her Eurydice if circumstances warranted. Happily, they didn’t.
Our first thought was to replace a gravel walk in the front of a house. But we gave that up when it appeared that the roof slates, fetching though they are, would soon crack under heavy-footed use. We used thicker slate flagstones for that walk. You may have seen a photo.
Then we decided to use the rooftop slates in the back garden to replace some gravel paths in our maze of circular walks. The gravel is rather rapidly going back to nature and you can spend the whole summer picking weeds out of it.
So, before it got really hot, and sometimes when it was, beginning on one memorable occasion well before breakfast on a triple-digit-leaning day (afternoon session cancelled on account of perspiration overload), we dug out the gravel and a modest depth of soil. Then replaced the dirt with the gray stone dust and worked in the slates. I did the digging. Anne handled both the stone dust and the slate work. I’m planting some of the new borders now.
Here are some photos of the first loop. Since July has caught us in her hot-eyed web, I’m not sure how many more will follow this year.
But the results so far make me happy. Stone and plants love each other. I admire from a little distance.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Mixed Nuts and Animal Crackers

Somewhere high above an undiscovered country of burned grass
Record temperatures speeding us forever hence
From the world of good manners and one hundred-four, no breeze by the bay
(bad manners and we’d be killing each other)
We know ourselves as air walkers, bargain-hunting consumers of miracles
Lightweight packers, book nosers, smartass phone addicts double-checking reality in the seat behind us,
Sitting tight inside a winged miracle, absurd on its face,
packed with items our captain with unintended accuracy calls “distractions” –
sleep, some sort of in-air TV, virtual games, a magazine full of products no one wants,
But none of these can match the appeal of the ultimate intimate temptation:
“Mixed Nuts and Animal Crackers”

We ascend, descend, re-send, disappear in the mist of overheated molecules,
The earth takes a deep breath and clears its throat below us,
spitting the dull smoke of humidity like a smoker’s cough
We find ourselves in a clarified world, the sea blue once more
the green trees cohere and reclaim their appetite for color
We’re blue and wild for the wonderfully seductive yonder,
glued to the windows, the hackneyed beauty of the reforming earth
admiring itself in the mirror of our admiring eyes,
blue-green Terra looking herself again
after the bad-hair anomaly of one hundred-four
Or we would be, surely, except for the altitudinous distraction of
“Mixed Nuts and Animal Crackers!”

They come to us on bended knee, on silver salvers
Borne by jeweled cherubim passing among the communicants
(You may choose one or the other,
Though neither is what it seems)
No single mind among the strapped and stimulated airborne
disputes the arrival of the elevated munchies,
The hostess with the host, the steward with the harvest,
Open-handed Ceres passing among us
The animals get cracking on their crumbly creature comforts
flying with the grace of winged beings from the bearer’s basket
The nutters get busy, they shake their trees, fruit falls upon their tongues
For we are the sons and daughters of the flesh-riven skies
We know who we are (all together!):
“Mixed Nuts and Animal Crackers!”

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Day Lilies and Companions at High Tide

The end of June is a high tide in the flower gardens of these latitudes.

For us the crest is a combination of the native orange day lilies, red bee balm (monarda), the new low to the ground day Stella d’Oro lilies, the still-blooming yellow primrose, roses, and remainder of the month-of-June portfolio still blossoming by the time this peak of solar energy arrives.

After a heat-spell week last week, followed by a rainy spell brought on the by thundershowers that cooled the heave wave but kept dosing us with rainy episodes for three days, today is a rare sunny, mild, dry day. The ground full of water and the air full of sun.

So, changes at this point in the summer from last year this time.

The old-fashioned roses transplanted into the back garden have the deepest red of any roses I have ever grown. The bush stays small and the flowers get darker.

More fence-line shrubs and various plants are breaking the fence line at the back of the garden, the bamboo fence dividing our little secret garden world and the rest of the world.

The butterfly bush which I cut back more radically last year, trying to get it thicker and less leggy, responded enthusiastically, growing wider and making deep purple flowers. And despite the trimming, its leading edges have shot up tall.

Almost all the bushes to one side of the butterfly bush have gone over the top as well, including the Rose of Sharon, and the “Winterthur” viburnum, which gives little white flowers making it resemble a privet hedge in summer and a deep blue berry fruit in winter along with its reddish leaves in fall. Three conical evergreens bushes are close to going over the top as well.

The Euonymus fortunei, a variegated cultivar called “emerald and gold,” has plastered itself up the bamboo and incurred into the neighbor’s side of the fence as well.

A bicolored tall phlox is growing taller, putting its neighbors in the shade. You have to peer around it to see some of the day lily blossoms.

The Threadleaf Coreopsis has spread wide, a fat mistress putting on weight to look even more imposing, opening its halo of yellow flowers.

The purple pentstemon we planted last year (either “beardtongue” or “purple passion”: the plant inspires lurid names for its cultivars) combines dark purple leaves and and light violet flowers from tall stalks dominating its area for a couple of weeks.

And a new batch of red bee balm in a new setting, rubbing shoulders with the lily stalks and pink guara. Let’s hope the bright red signal of the new batch calls in some hummingbirds, like the old ones used to.