Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Garden of Remembrance

In a small room in a beautifully restored armory (The Center for the Arts at the Somerville Armory), we gather to read and to hear excerpts from the "Wising Up Anthologies."
I reach back into the Garden of Memory to read from my short story, "The Five A.M. Inquisitor," published in this writers' collective's first anthology, entitled Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation.
Here's the story.

     The Five A.M. Inquisitor

“Morning,” he said.
But I had watched the night forever.  I was out of mornings, I had used them up.  I was out of everything.
“Morning,” I echoed, doubtfully (suppressing a laugh: it would hurt), turning the statement into a question. 
“What?” he said, responding to this tone.  “Do you have something against morning?”
“But is it?  Morning?  It doesn’t look any different from the last eight or ten hours...”
An appraising glance.  “What do you mean?”      
“I mean the watches of the night are all the same.  Dark, solitary, voiceless, indistinguishable one from the next.”
The gray-eyed resident blinked and looked at a shoe; he had gone sleepless for this? 
“How are you today?” he asked.  His one question; all he wanted to know.
The one question I couldn’t answer.  “I hardly know.”
My reply was not very helpful to medical opinion, and we began the old game of prying, trying to tease the body into giving up its secrets.  Did I eat, did I drink?  Not enough.  Hardly anything.
I was sick.  Nauseous.
“I’m not really in favor in using drugs to counter nausea,” the resident said, frankly.  “We’re just masking a problem.  I think maybe you should try to eat through it.”
Eat through it?  Like a rodent?  An insect?
Eat?  I could barely tolerate liquids.  A few drops at a time, a few halting sips, after a sustained, conscious effort — is the citadel still standing? the shaking stopped? all right, then take a few more sips, even though everything tastes like paint remover — were all I could manage.  Eat through it?  Easy for you to say.  It wasn’t your cities that would fall, your fields and villages that would lie in ruins.
The five a.m. inquisitor blinked; sometimes (I’d noticed) one eye developed a little fit, a little rebellion of sleeplessness all its own.  He looked across the bed to the clutter piled on the tray.  “Music too,” he commented.
I held the headset in my lap.  My hands rose automatically to the moisture in my own eyes (a characteristic gesture since the surgery), before I checked myself.  “I just listened to Brahms’ Third,” I told him.
It was a confession, but a complicated one: part declaration, part challenge.
“So sad,” I added, in case he didn’t know.  Why would he?  “So incredibly sad.”
The inquisitor smiled, as if at some weakness, some childish display, and delivered a mild reproof.  “Maybe you should be listening to something different.  Something a little more upbeat.   Something lighter.  Mozart—“
“Mozart”— I could not believe my ears —“is not light.”
“A concerto,” he suggested, ignoring me. “Something—happier.”
Let me tell you, I thought, about the clarinet concerto.  “Yes,” I said at last, replying to his suggestion, “there is delight, liveliness, cantabile — even light-heartedness —to be found in music.  But do you not hear the deeper song?”

That day I started on a regime of liquids.  I had ginger ale for breakfast, ginger ale for lunch, ginger ale for dinner.  In the morning — the real morning, when the sun climbed above the neighboring building and flooded my window — the blue-suited food staff brought me a large tray loaded with plastic-covered comestibles.  Without moving from my chair (for I could not move once the tray was in the room: it held me, paralyzed me, like the totem of some hostile deity), I could see that the tray contained oatmeal, juice, a ceramic mug of recently heated water that I was supposed to turn into tea, a small bowl of a greenish liquid that was sweating noxiously down the lip beneath its clear plastic covering — something clenched in my stomach at the smell — and several other plastic-housed items less easily identified.  I could not bring myself to touch anything, and the glowering idol of the breakfast tray still dominated the room when the resident board of examiners made an appearance and delivered the inevitable request.
“We want you to eat,” the head of this body, a red-toned man with a serious face, gentle manner and slow, plains-state style of address (solid earth, big sky), told me, “but if it’s difficult just take a few bites of something.  Anything... It’s a start.”
 I nodded vaguely.      
He turned his slow gaze to the intimidating accumulation of comestibles on the tray.  “So what’s with the lumberjack breakfast?” he asked.
I nodded, vigorously, in reply.  Took the words right out of my mouth.
“I don’t want any of that stuff,” I tell the red-headed resident and his board.  “There isn’t really anything I can imagine wanting... except maybe...” I shrug. “A pickle.”
They look at me as at one deranged.

The day passed and I failed to eat anything at all.  Even the few bites of the team’s recommendation escaped me.  They wanted me to get going, at any price.  I wanted to survive.  The regime wobbled, it held by a thread; I did not want to be underneath if it toppled over. 
Please, I begged, no violence.  I implored invisible captors with fear in my eyes.  A kind of dreary, timeless stalemate ensued, like a hostage event in a cop series.
Ginger ale for breakfast; ginger ale for lunch...  I could not swallow more than a sip.
They told me, they warned me: either drink more liquid or we will have no choice but to bind you once more to a cross of tubes.  I stared past the warnings, bound fast in the land of no speaking.  I attended not to the well-meaning, though somewhat smirksome night nurse Naomi, spellbound as I was by the vision, invisible to others, of the fierce and horrible god Nausee.  Why have you come for me? I whimpered. Why me?  What do you want?  Why do you linger, unsated, hour after hour?  I begged for relief.  I begged for a spell of abjuration and release: get thee hence, demon. 
What will make you go? 
Nurse Naomi held a hypo high in her hand.  Nurse Naomi intended to spell relief in her own way.
Later in that long black night of the body, the charcoal executioner appeared in his surgical garb, his head wrapped as if for battle, his tunic opened across the chest, his face a strange dusky color.  He said his name, but I missed it.  I had never seen this man (if man he was) before.  He had a different, slightly bullying aura about him: cool, detached, intimidating.  With a glance at my prone dysfunctional form, the charcoal investigator reached for the plastic envelope that contained the waters of life and shook it, disdainfully.  He muttered some figures, using terms and numbers (milligrams, maybe? something smaller?) that meant nothing to me, and whether these calculations were intended for the nurse’s confirmation or to convince me, or merely for his own satisfaction I could not discern.
He shook his head, displeased.  “That’s not enough to sustain life,” he warned, looking down on me as if I were the unsatisfactory answer to a long and complicated equation.  Yet these were merely words.  His silence, his stance, the way his hands gripped the plastic bag told me much, much more:      
“You are in the hands [these wordless speakers warned] of an angry god.  Without our intervention — without mine — your transitory existence will come to an end.  You will dry up like a withered leaf and blow away with the first cold breeze of winter.”
The eyes of the charcoal investigator went on examining the pitiful no-eat, no-drink slacker before him.  He seemed to require some kind of reply.
Bad enough to be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, I reflected, but it adds insult to injury to wake from surgery and find oneself entrapped in the broken body of a fifty year-old infant.  Give me a better body, I protested inwardly, and I’ll give you a better recovery.
“—milligrams,” he repeated, gesturing to the bag, calculating its value.  “That’s about two Cokes,” he remarked, a hiply technical comparison that seemed to throw my condition in a still worse light.
“I would like to drink those Cokes, doctor,” I replied, sincerely, “but I can’t.”
“I’ll give you this bag,” the charcoal inquisitor concluded, “and maybe one more, but after that...”

That night I am attacked by terrorists.  They sneak up through my dreams, the most unlikely of visitors, now that sleep has been banned by constitutional decree.  In my mind I play again the “relaxation tape” that has brought me this far.  “Find a comfortable position,” the tape begins—okay, so much for good advice: no such thing as a comfortable position.  The bed goes up and down all day, all night, spreading the stress around the sore spots.  The place that holds me together is the sore spot.  Many cunning shifts involving four pillows and eighteen sequentially married manual steps (lean left, grab pillow, place pillow, flex leg, lean back, scrunch rear, etc.) are instituted in strict order, lungs breathing hard from the exertion of trying to get comfortable, but still the fond repose that is sleep’s begetter escapes me.  The ratty sleeve of care remains unknitted.
What state of unlooked-for oblivion overtakes me then –  when? – some time in the still dark hours?  I know it only by its sudden terminus, when violence breaks out on the bed, and I am coughing — well, chuffing: my cough is a pitiful thing — and lurching, pinned down on my back, across the wasteland of raveled blankets, sheets and pillows to the place where the mind last remembers secreting unemptied paper cups of detestable liquids. 
I am desperate.  Unslaked, the urge to cough will tear me apart.  Even in my dazed condition, I recognize the origin of the surface tickle in the deep right-hand quadrant of my throat, a place where the unseen enemy has established a beachhead.  By day I have aimed elixirs at this point of irritation, but nothing seems to quell it.  Now its alarm has been activated by the dream’s violent incursion — there is a bomb at the airport, I think, and a bacterial agent has been loosed on the city.  I envision this secret killer in the midst of my flipped-tortoise struggle toward the imagined relief of the partially filled paper cup: it is white and gritty, like chipped paint.  It is everywhere, it is inside my mouth.  Unlikely, I think (or dream?), that anyone should bother to rescue me, an old man stranded in a foreign country by the collapse of his schemes, a failed visionary, one of history’s dust bunnies, but I struggle on.  I reach the cup and drink my pitiful few sips, vowing never again to let myself slip heedlessly into slumber.  I breathe hard, remembering myself.  Perhaps someone will heed my warning; perhaps the commandos will not find me here.
But when I nod off again, the inner foe seizes his chance to foul the works.  He makes a subtle raid from the deep sewers of the watery intestines, climbing upward through the esophagus  until he can lob his foul incendiary into the root cellar beneath the tongue.  I start awake, envisioning the brilliant chemical explosion in my mouth: its golden flares and maroon coronas are like the death of a star.  I taste the bitter coating that spreads over my mouth and tongue, covering it with tiny sticker-stars of yechh.  I pull myself bolt upright — a hopelessly deformed act without stomach muscles, requiring the balanced application of force from both arms and a hideously long time — with a single word on my filth-encrusted tongue:

Five a.m.  My faithful inquisitor explains to me why I must eat.  In order for us to send you home, he says, we have to see you’re capable of eating normally.  “To arrive at eating normally,” he argues, “you must begin by eating something.”  I agree this logic is unassailable.
“All right,” he says, a commander laying down his strategy, “you go on regular food today, and we’ll think about sending you home tomorrow.”  My morning visitor is seeing a bridge that has not been built, I fear.  I would walk across it if I could.  In actuality I still can’t even drink the charcoal investigator’s two Cokes.  “Even,” I begin, hesitantly, “...even after I threw up yesterday.”
He frowns.  “You threw up?”
“It’s on the chart,” I reply.
“All right,” he says, despondently, “just a liquid diet today.  Maybe you’re just someone who will take a little longer.” There is sadness in his tone, I sense.  I watch him step quietly out of the room in his black inquisitor’s shoes.
Another day — of sleeplessness, endless shiftings, button-pumping the bed up and down, formal rotations from bed to chair, chair to bed, slow rolling sweeps down the corridor (the Ancient of Nights, leading the little dog “I.V.” behind him), contemplations of the dark, whispered bargains, dream treaties, breathless fallings-off cruelly interrupted by annunciatos of the heating system...
One more liquid day followed by one more sleepless night.  At last I am determined to try the final ascent: food.

To implement my plan of escape I must beg the personal care attendant to purchase food for me from somewhere beyond the precincts of the hospital — that vast, multi-storied, vassal-ridden, slow-grinding city of the sick.  I have swept away too many offering trays of greenish liquids dripping withered smiles down the lips of their bowls, brown concoctions of gravy and despair fogged with the peculiar odor of mass-concocted food, unidentifiable liquids frosted with icy crystals and tasting of the chemical factory.  I have gone too far along the path of institutional rejection to turn back now; I have internalized revulsion.  I will never re-educate the soul to eat that gunk; I need food from a happier kitchen.
Zora, the personal care attendant, once offered to go out to get me a newspaper.  So now I rummage through the old clothing of my long-anticipated escape, scare up a few rumpled bills, and murmur my request.  Zora sighs and looks into my eyes, shakes her head once, then mutters, “All right, Mr. Reese., but you better not get me into trouble.”  In the hour after lunch the girl returns, having scoured the town for the last baked potato in hospital row.  She has also brought lean roast beef, a puffy roll, a stunted banana with brown spots shaped like the continents, and a huge, gnarled, knobby, toad-skinned pickle.  I thank her, gratefulness tearing my eyes.  I press her to keep the change, but she refuses.
I unwrap the baked potato and break off the meagrest corner.  I maneuver some whitish substance onto a white plastic fork  (is this act familiar? do people do it every day? did I?) and plunge it determinedly into my mouth.
I chew, teeth moving like miniature glaciers.
Absolutely nothing inside me celebrates this act or relishes this gift of life.  Nevertheless, some of it disappears down the gullet.  Wrinkled potato skin lingers on the plate; the pulp must have gone somewhere.  “Enjoy your lunch?” nurse Mel asks me later.  Oh yes, I reply, reciting proudly the names of my accomplishments — the roll (some crumbs), the potato (a quadrant), a thin slice of roast beef, a few skinny diameters of banana.  I omit mention of the pickle (which I have wrapped in a napkin and stuck in a drawer), deciding I’m not quite ready for it yet, waiting for the hour when this strange craving will unambiguously declare itself. 
And I am not sick.  Hours pass; I am still here.  Likewise at dinner time (do healthy people so affix their time? do they look forward to it?) I perform the same faint disappearing act with a cup, or some portion of it, of the noodle soup generously prepared for me by Mel in the staff kitchen.  I munch a bite or two of leftover roll and cold cut too, just so I can add them to the victory list.  Oh yes, I rehearse mentally, listen to these my great deeds: noodle soup, bread, beef — no pickle… Behold, world, and marvel.  The nurses drift away; the hours run down.  The old man on the other side of the curtain rumbles into sleep.  The sum of my day’s mastications sits in my stomach.  Just one more night, I tell myself: don’t blow it.
Some time during the watches of the night I am visited: a presence, leaning over my bed.  Not, I realize, the five a.m. inquisitor.  Nothing so well meaning.  Something old, I think (something slight in me sensing something powerful outside of me), something that speaks without words and yet is very emphatic about declaring its presence, about wanting something.  Something refusing to depart until it gets what it wants.
It is Bal. 
I whisper the name, fearfully.  I feel it shudder and laugh deep inside.
“All right, Bal,” I say, “what do you want?  Can we make a deal here?”  Bal leans closer in the shadows, impinging on the inner organs.  She whispers her desires in the ancient and irresistible tongue.
Bal wants something, all right: simply everything.
“No, Bal, not ‘everything.’  You’re in for a fight, Bal.”
Bal knows how to fight.  She sends me running straight to the bathroom, once, twice, three times.  I lose count, before I stop running.  “All right, Bal,” I say, panting on the bed, chilled, extra blankets pulled up tight around my neck, “what do you really want?  Realistically.”
Bal leans forward.  I feel a shroud-like silence, smelling of earth, draw round and whisper in my ear. 
I listen.  Bal wants the history of the world rewritten, in her honor. 
Who or what is more important than Bal, goddess of digestion?  Who deserves place before her? 
“Not realistic, Bal,” I reply, though I see her point.  “I don’t think I can do it.”  But I know I have to appease her somehow.  What good is the approval of the doctors if I can’t get along with Bal?  “Take what you want,” I urge.  “Everything.  Just let me keep down what’s already there.”   Take pleasure, Bal.  Take the fatted calf.  I’ll get by on a few leafy greens and sesame seed.  All I want is my simple, earth-bound, short-ranged existence back, comesting comestibles, masticating, swallowing – just enough –  moving the load downward, acid-washing it, dissolving it, breaking it down, pushing, always downward (don’t you come on back now, you hear?), deconstructing—in a word, eating.  Also digesting.
Gotta eat, Bal.  Please.
Bal’s not placated.  She amuses herself by making cement factories in my intestines, clogging the works, backing up production.   And that’s not even getting into elimination.  Okay, let’s not get into elimination.  What can I offer?  What will she take?
I shuffle out of the darkened bedroom into the brightly lit corridor, passing the bathroom with a calculating glance, and once outside the door make my familiar rounds, plowing past the various work rooms, each with its own totally unbearable odor.  The burnt gravy of death by cuisine dominates longer than any of the others, even the chemical rage of the disinfectants.  Don’t blow it, I tell myself.
I rest.  I try to rest.  One last long dark night of the soul, I encourage myself, before the promised day of release. 
Providing, that is, I can hold my cookies.  Providing I can hold together: don’t get sick  (I self-counsel), don’t collapse, don’t let nurse Naomi come marching in with a sharpened hypodermic to rescue you from a fugue state of despair, nausea, insomnia, and weakness woes; don’t fall off the bed and rip yourself open, don’t wake up screaming (at least not too loud), don’t wake up coughing gasping for air convinced some pack of bearded terrorists has chased you over the sands of your rasping throat to settle a long-standing grudge over an oil bill… Tell me, Bal, better to wake or to sleep?  Perchance to dream?...
Be careful; be moderate.  Drink enough liquid; float a moat on the bloat.  Prepare a plan for breakfast.  Prepare for the inquisition of the five a.m. physician.  Walk, piss, move bowels, keep  cool, keep warm, keep covered, keep the floppy ends of your sickrobes out of the toilet bowl, keep your pants on, keep your toes from cramping (you’ll need them to walk out of here), your knees flexed, your head elevated, your back supported, and your wounded gut cradled in the nervous extenuation of these your old appendages, your aching bones.  Bal, I murmur, at the edge of self, you’ve taken enough already.
When the light of morning comes — blasting in like a floodlight triggered by a burglar’s toe — I am, astonishingly, asleep.  So late? Morning already? something in me wails, dream-stuck, half-born, caught between worlds, neither here nor there, neither customary self nor the feisty old man with the oil bill nightmare.  Why had there been no five o’clock inquisition?  I’d counted on it.  I feel disoriented without it.  In its absence morning comes, abruptly, like the beam of a flashlight aimed in the eyes of a three-toed sloth, and I discover myself flat on my back, headphone plugged in my ears, staring up at a full panel of white-robed examiners.  Who stare down at me. 
Dreams, dream impersonations, dream struggles, ancient dreams of going back.  Dream gods and goddesses and — Bal?  Where did she go?  She has left me alive, apparently; what’s left of me.  I feel reasonably whole, though confounded, transfixed, speechless, counting the inner organs.
“So how did the night go?” asks the red-haired young posse chief in his plainsy drawl.
“The night...?”  I blink at the daylight, trying to get a handle on the question.  Does this serious-looking young man and his panel of white-gowned playmates really want to hear about the wrestling angels, the gaseous vigils, the long insomniac speculations while orderlies stockpiled equipment for the poor soul beyond the curtain, god’s face moving over the waters…?  About Bal?
Don’t think so. 
I cough.  “Uh, I don’t know – I’m having some trouble...” 
Remembering, for one thing, who I am.
“Waking up,” the team leader suggests. 
“Yes.”  I struggle to make myself vertical against the pillows, to stiffen to the light. 
“What I mean is — what I want to know is — did you eat anything more last night?”
I should know the answer to this, I know, but the concepts throw me: eat? last night? You guys mind if I shower and shave first and get back to you later?  But in my hour of need, as I am about to slobber out some confused reply, the necessary clue is provided by the fresh-faced five a.m. inquisitor, who has snuck into the room behind the others.  He clears his throat and I notice him for the first time squeezed behind the semicircle posse of residents, a surprising back-bencher in this congress of appraisers.  He catches my eye and says, “Didn’t the nurse make something for you?”
Yah; it all comes back.  “Ram-Dass noodles,” I pronounce, authoritatively.  “I had a bowl of Ram-Dass noodles.  Uhm, also some roast beef...”   I tell my tale of proud, tiny victories.  I watch the morning team take this in, hoping they don’t quiz me too closely.  If I eat enough to keep a pigeon alive, I will bob when I walk and coo in the dawn.  I nod my gratitude to the five a.m. inquisitor, the bringer of morning, med-chat and Mozart-lite.  How did he know, anyway?  “All right, Mr. Reese,” the red-faced leader concludes, after a silence, in his slow-speaking, feet-on-the-ground manner, “we’re planning on cutting you loose today.”
I pick through the contents of the room, throwing out newspapers and paper cups with teeny puddles of liquid in their bottoms, gathering my clothes, tapes and books into a plastic bag.  I open the drawers in the nightstand — nothing, nothing — then come upon what looks like the oozing remains of a knobby-skinned, ritually sacrificed bullfrog.  It exudes a bouquet that puts formaldehyde to shame.        
The pickle, I realize.  Half-eaten.  Who?  Why?
Somewhere in the shadows, perched on a window beside the sickbed of some new casualty, Bal munches on her share of half-life, half-death, and licks her fingers when it’s gone.  A disease too savvy to consume the host. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Machinery of the World

Sixty degrees in the not so late afternoon. Another benchmark surrendered to time when we were – what? Doing something else? Not watching? Would it have mattered if we were?
You need a jacket, or some other layer, before you go outdoors. The wind comes straight off the ocean, you can smell it. So it’s a chilly, though stunning day when you go to walk the marsh path. In the sun-filled stretches it’s still summer, and I go here to feel the sun on me. Too warm in my sweatshirt, but I leave it on. In the places exposed to the sea breeze it’s chilly, and on the still shady places the path feels like another country, the land where night comes in the afternoon, and night is another word for winter, a country I have not visited in a long time.
            Almost nothing stirs. Small brown birds; don’t know what kind they are. They flock in one of the thickets and when I approach, -- fighting my way through the overgrown marsh elder and other tall weedy things that swallow the way, linking branches over the top to protect their roots’ expansion below --  they raise a shout and flurry, cutting paths through the air like a posse of rabbits scattered by a fox. I am the predictable, path-walking tooth-less fox, the last pedestrian. The path will close over me one day.
            No large creatures. I see the great white egrets again, but they are not near enough to be surprised anywhere in the places where the path allows me to intrude. They are on the opposite sides of my waters. Some near the water gate that lets the tide from harbor race under the bridge into the marsh. I saw four white leaning figures there last week, two today. I see more on Black Cove this afternoon, too far to photograph.  
            The sunset comes before seven p.m. The shadows are unusually dark. They are eloquently dark. The sunset color dims brilliantly in the fading twilight. From safe haunts  indoors it’s all very stirring and autumnal. Very moving; strange.
            It grew warm last week, with sultry beer and ice cream sort of days; so a day like this is a bracing, startling change.
            In the marsh the goldenrod has flowered.
            The machine of the world keeps rolling. Is it glad that someone is watching?

The Machinery of the World

Formed of porcelain light
High blue skies
Chalky thumbnail of a moon at four o’clock
Salt wind off the water turning the gears on September
Four great white egrets lean over the flats like open parentheses
A smatter of small birds scatter at my approach,
More in pleasure than in fear,
As if rehearsing their parts in a play called “Timid Little Things”
Marsh elder, annually resurgent – my brother, my rival – leans over the path
All the goldenrod in the world fills my purse
The machinery of the world keeps rolling
Does it need our love to grease the wheels?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

View from the Ground

I sit and groom the garden, like a horse. It’s meditative.I only truly appreciate the garden this time of year when I am down on the ground. 
            When I work on this level, pulling wispy leaves of intruder grasses out of the Scotch Moss, ubiquitous invading violets out of the Mazus patch, and multitudes of other weeds, volunteers, and wandering plant-nations out of the various groundcovers I have established as the privileged species for certain vaguely defined homelands, I am very close to the ground, thinking very small, and making what is likely to prove only the minutest difference to anyone looking at the place other than myself.
            Is that why I like it?
            This is fully-fledged amateurism, loving the little things. I know where the lime-green mosses, both Irish and Scottish, are fighing for centimeters of turf against the persistent encroachments of the nameless large-leaf, restless-runnered neighbor with about 100 times the expansive firepower of its vulnerable neighbors. The mosses grow very slowly, and die back very easily.
            Their tiny little filament-like leaves – if that’s the right word – are an exquisite color and texture. You’d like them to fill all the ground around the stepping stones where you’ve planted them, and even spill over the stone itself, but you’ve known them long enough now to know they’ll be shaking their tiny fists at the universe before they manage to do any such thing.
            But the view is somehow refreshing, enlivening, head-clearing, from down this low, this minute, this insubstantial. It’s liberating to know that no one will ever suffer much over their failures or establish holidays to celebrate their successes.
            When I look at the garden these days – late summer, through September – everything appears to have slowed down. Aside from a few late bloomers, the big perennials are all in a rut. They’ve done  their bloom and, for the most part, don’t have any repeat blooms left in their system. They’re drying out, dying, some noticeably, some by largely inconspicuous degrees. My decisions are all about when to cut the old growth back, and how much. Take the black seedheads off the cone flowers? Pull the plug on the fading cosmos? Clip the tall stems of the meadow rue, whose wavy pink blooms have come and gone in August?
            Down on the ground, thinking small, I can still farm my small-holdings. Pull the intruding creepers of the big-leaved groundcover that keeps trying to retake a gentle slope where I transplanted Stronecrop Sedum last fall. I put in some stones too, for the stonecrop to climb over, and it looked pretty nice this spring… even though, as I eventually conceded, the sedum didn’t flower. Hmm, what can I do to give it a better chance next year?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Monarchs pay royal visit

Sonya took these photos in August and early September. We had been remarking the continual presence of butterflies on a couple of butterfly bushes in front of our house in Quincy throughout her visit. Two, three, four, five at the same time, on the same bush. They mostly congregated on a rather scrawny shrub in front of the house, planted in partial shade. Some of the leaves show bite holes, but its purple blooms are big and lush, while they last. We have two taller bushes with bi-colored leaves, they have a better appearance, but their flowers are smaller. The butterflies found these too, but less often and in smaller numbers. Conclusion: butterflies like big blooms.
A spot of insect-on-insect drama broke out after we became aware that one of the butterflies would simply linger on the blossom no matter how close we came. Usually they sense your approach, fly up, and circle around before landing on a bloom again, generally a different one. This orange-flecked, black-rimmed, white-dotted creature simply hung on the flower while we snapped photo after photo. Sonya figured this out and got up close and, and in a Lepidoptera fashion, personal for the best shots.
It looked like a monarch to me, but I’m no expert.
The next day, however, when a similar creature perched on the same blossom, another insect appeared to be bothering it. Again we got very close and had to separate the image of twig-like creature from his camouflage: a praying mantis. A very large praying mantis. I am told they bite the heads off their prey.
I ordered the mantis to go find some mosquitoes, and removed the butterfly to a proper burial place in some lower foliage. But the praying mantis continued to lurk until my wife and daughter staged an intervention, removing it in some receptacle (I didn’t see this; possibly actually working) and releasing it in a wild area at the end of the block.
Two evenings later a very large praying mantis – the same one? a mate? – planted his six legs on the outside of the picture window well after dark and looked in at the lights and the people inside. Was she delivering a message? You think it’s that easy to get rid of me? Go find your mate, I thought, and bite his head off.
I should have gotten a picture of this mysterious visitor, nose pressed against the glass.
The butterflies continued to find their way to our bushes. I have another in the backyard, a semi-shade area, and that one drew some traffic too.
We’ve had all these bushes for a number of years. They’ve drawn visitors in the past, but nothing like this year's level of attention. I have no idea if there’s any reason for the difference. I hope we’ve made it onto some kind of migrating monarch butterfly list of hotspots and roadside attractions, and look forward to seeing them, well their species-mates, again next summer.
And I promise to keep a sharp eye out for praying mantises.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Blue Moon

An August dedicated to the backyard grilling, Berkshires hikes, and blue moon watching.
We’ll start with the last. On the night of the recent full moon, the second of the month in August therefore qualifying it for the title of “blue moon” – an explanation that does not in any way account for the notion of "blue" – we are driving into the city center to check out the new Indian restaurant when a large round circle of mysteriously reflected sunlight nosed up from the rooftops and smacked us in the eye. (Supply the rhyme here.) We parked the car and went inside the restaurant, but the image remained in our minds, or, perhaps, our “mind’s eye.”
The next night, hard upon another vacation-month restaurant experience, three of us watched sunset darken into twilight, shading the windows, and roused ourselves from our postprandial stupor to drive down to the Wollaston shoreline and look for our big, round orange friend. I was guessing when it would appear. There is a notation in the daily newspaper called “moonrise” that would have given me a darn good guesstimate, but I preferred relying on experience.
Experience guided us to the right place along the waterfront to see the moonrise and enjoy the moonshine reflecting off the ocean water. But I was somewhat late on the actual unveiling moment, and la luna was a couple of moon-size circles up over the South Shore horizon by the time we glimpsed it.
No matter; stunning. A clear night. We hoisted ourselves up on the wall, sat and gazed.
Passersby doing the beach sidewalk perambulation kept stopping, leaning on the wall and pulling out their cameras. Phone cameras; bigger fancier cameras – these folks came prepared. While others snapped, we debated whether the moon looked winsome, shy, self-conscious, or a little sardonic. Or some combination of mental states that only four billion years of looking down on the earth and its confusion of inexplicable doings could produce.
Things go up and down with us. The moon is more reliable.
Traditionally, of course, the moon has been regarded by as mutable – both the poets and the ancients agreed – in contrast to the sun, which doesn’t change its shape from day to day. But the moon’s habits are obsessively regular. These constantly remarked upon shape-changings can be predicted with great success.
Unfortunately, however, most of us don’t understand the behavior on which these fabulously accurate predictions are based. After all, you have a flashlight glowing on an orange, which airborne fruit turns around itself like a third-grader trying to make himself dizzy (“No, Marvin, you’re the sun!”); and another orange, or is it a grapefruit, also spinning around itself (how exactly is it possible to spin around one’s own middle?) on its axis (“Class, can we say axis?”) – as if that explains anything.
Do you have an axis? Do I? Neither my house, my car, my computer or even my dizzy cat appears to spin about on an axis, defined as an invisible line running down its middle. Astronomy, it appears, is the science of invisible lines. However it happened, the moon is different from you and me – appositely defined by the poet Donne as “dull, sublunary beings” – and is subject to heavenly forces we can only imagine.
Okay, back to the flashlight and the oranges. One of the oranges, pretend it’s the moon, is pirouetting around its own middle (unlikely story though that is), while simultaneously tiptoeing around a much large body, which somehow turns out to be the earth (heaven knows why); which body (the earth) is also turning around the middle of itself, elsewise we would not have night and day. Remember what we said about the “axis,” class? Well, think how tired you’d get if it was always daytime and be glad of this axis, whatever it is.
Besides, since, as we’ve established, night happens, we have plenty of time to appreciate the moon, which lately is beaming down at us hour after hour these end-of-the-month nights all full of itself. This, of course, returns us to the questions of why we get the full picture of lunar contentment sometimes (though exactly predictable times) and only half of it others, and only thin little slices at still others, called “crescents,” as if they were French pastry.
The answer, as I recall being taught, has to do with the reflection – uh, the angle – or the earth’s shadow – I mean the dark side – oh, well, with lots of other invisible lines whose relationships to one another, eerily predicted by big cosmic factors whose names I can’t remember, and finally to little old you and me who are standing on a continually rotating celestial object, not to mention a revolving one as well – and, well, no wonder the whole thing makes me dizzy.
My daughter and I stare up at the full moon making orange-glow moonshine on the ocean waters, each of us absolutely sure that we have competently addressed this phenomenon on a written examination in our respective Astronomy classes many years ago (in my case; a considerable time ago in hers). It’s a humbling thing to realize how little of one’s expensive education actually stays with one.
We make up for this lapse of academic insight by sitting on the stern of the Provincetown ferry all the way home the next evening, staring up at the stunning and still pretty damn full moon. There are other kinds of wisdom.