Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Bird Garden of the Marsh

            I walk these days in the salt marsh off Quincy Shore Drive, even though last month I came home with a tricky black tick that ended up attached to my thigh before I realized it was there.
            In other years I have pursued the big wading birds who hunt for fish in the twists of water that curve through the tall marsh grasses, especially the two kinds of Spartina cordgrass (high and low). They shoot off ahead and wait for me as I turn a curve in the path used by pretty much no one but the two of us and flush the big birds heedlessly around the bend. Not this year. No big birds in the shoreline marsh this year. Was it something I said? No great blue heron or great white egret, or hawks such as the pair I spotted here a half dozen times last fall.
            I hunt the little birds instead. The black-capped hedge hoppers that make chick-a-dee-dee calls, chiding, going for the piercing effect rather than melody, the chick-a-dee-dee-dee sounding metallic and warning instead of a mere call-of-myself, an identity song, the way it sounds in warmer months. These chickadees, if that’s what they are, have a yellowish cloud in the breast area. A different variety from those we're accustomed to seeing in Massachusetts backyards? The Carolina version up here already?
            A platoon of them hop to the next elder thicket when I come close, as if observing some 10-foot-separation rule. But sometime one forgets, I get about six feet away and try to snap pictures of a little bird in thick snag of half dead clump of wild thicket with colors that mix amazingly well with these interesting little birds. You can barely see the bird in the resulting image: another snap of wild autumn thicket.
            A big flock of brown-feather, larger birds, starling size, keep an even stricter distance between us, zooming into the tree cover at the sound of my approach. What crimes have these birds committed that they are so sure the approach of a large, loud walking figure means someone wants to shoot at them.
            I come unarmed, though they all seem to take offense at the camera. They do not like to see objects raised to my face. Are they genetically predisposed to see bird-shooting slingshots everywhere?
            Though I don't see any charismatically big birds this fall, it may be because I am looking in the wrong places. When I walk on the road side of the marsh the next afternoon searching the cordgrass and tree line from another point of view, I spy nothing but a hurrying crow. Squawking all my himself, he clearly has something to say. But for long moments no feathered fellows rush to his side to take up the story.
            Sometimes squawking crows have something to squawk about. Even though only one has raised the cry, eventually I lift my eyes to the cloud-blown blue sky above and spot the high sailor, riding the air currents far above the marsh and every other little piece of earth below.
            It's a hawk, and he really is very high in the sky, though not high enough to escape a crow-eyed sentinel. It's gratifying, somehow, to know that he's back in the neighborhood.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Breaking the Fence

I gaze out the window behind my desk and a leaf falls. They fall one by one now.
The big autumn unleaving -- which gives us our age-old picture of "the fall of the year" -- is long over. We have had a Halloween hurricane -- a monster from another age of the planet dressed up as today -- this year followed a week later by a rocking Northeaster (business as usual in coastal New England), to give the trees a better than good shaking weeks ago.
Some beautiful yellow-gold weeks followed in eastern Massachusetts as the wind and the cold winnowed down the survivors.
Now when a leaf falls in the slanted light of late morning I'm not sure where it comes from. The big oak tree, generally a month behind the others, is down to a few score of leaves. Maybe a few still fall from there. The weeping cherry tree is down to its last few days of rusty bronze foliage. Those last leaves falling one at time float down past the increasingly bare umbrella skeleton of the cherry tree's branches.
After the leaves go, the view of the back garden is the view I will have for most of the next five months, to some time in April. Three or four years ago, in the early spring, three intrepid garden-makers went out to the back yard property line and threaded a bamboo fence along the old wire fence that separated us from our neighbors. Adding wood to the back fence was simply a matter of aesthetics -- a better background to set off the shrubs we have planted along the fence line.
I asked myself then how long it would take for the first plants we put back there to break the top of the fence line.
Well, the answer was not very long. The bi-colored (called "gold splash") Euonymus we planted our first summer in the house hovered by the ground for four or five years, thickening its roots perhaps in the mediocre soil, mostly fill we inherited here, enriched by wheelbarrow loads of purchased humus. But it was only after the bamboo fence went in (or so it appears to me, pretending as usual to read the mind of a plant) that the climbing branches got their fingernails into something that would hold and shimmied straight up the wood to the top. Now the light green and yellow leaves wave a good twelve inches over the top of the fence, as if still optimistic that the next handhold will show itself if they keep climbing. Some climbers have broken tiny creases between the bamboo slats and slipped onto the neighbor's side of the fence. They may tangle up the wire fence visible on their side of the line, but no one seems to mind.
The butterfly bush has topped the fence several years now. That hardly counts because it doesn't keep its leaves in winter and, besides, the bush is long and leggy rather than full as its kind is supposed to be because in the first summer's rush I planted it in soil too poor in a place of marginal sun for a shrub that likes full sun. Still it sends tall shooters up in the summer, blossoms repeatedly, and snares the attention of a few butterflies.
The best winter show of the fence line shrubs belongs to the black-fruited viburnum. The leaves turn a maroon-violet color in October and purple berries swell beneath them. The leaves darken and mostly hang on the shrub all winter, as the berries turn black.
Winter berries make an aesthetically delicious contrast against the snow, when they particularly stand out because most everything else steps aside in that season. The leaves fall, the skeletal branches retreat. The deep colors of few wintry sentries, holly, laurel, the maiden grass, and the bare branches of the rose of Sharon, and a few hardy evergreens shine out, along with the viburnum. Even now, as autumn's color goes underground, they hold forth against late November skies -- our bold enduring patriots in the country of cold.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Still Too Early

            I wrote this post almost exactly a year ago. The earth turns around the one sun one complete evolution and, one year later, it's remarkable how little has changed.     
            November sunsets are different (and special) because we've turned the clocks back. The time change means sunset catches us by surprise each day. It's too early. Each day's early dark is a shock to the system.

                                     "November Sunsets"

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. We live mostly indoors, instead of outdoors, like our ancestors. Few of us note the change in position of a sunrise from one season to the next, or 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. (DST) on the summer solstice.
            It’s the sudden loss of that 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 from work 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, 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 time we spend indoors, the more the spectacle of nature is reduced to one simple, remarkable, all-important fact: sometimes light, sometimes dark.
Sunset -- twilight -- early dark: it catches us in traffic on the way home. Or we pass a big plate glass window walking the corridors of some temple 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: hibernation recommended.
We’re still natural enough beings to feel 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 not-so 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 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.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

“The Keats Brothers: The Life of George and John” by Denise Gigante

The brothers lived their lives under a cloud. The cloud, the disease we now call tuberculosis, took their mother when they were children (it may have taken other family members too) and with their father out of the picture, the Keats children were on their own. The eldest, John, nursed his mother to the end, probably picking up the infection then. The third brother, "poor Tom," died in his teens with both brothers John and George taking turns at nursing, John once again there at the end. When you nurse somebody who's dying from a failed respiratory system and struggling for breath, as the author points out, you're almost certain to be infected. If you're susceptible (clearly not everyone was), you get the disease. Sometimes it's slow, sometimes quick.
Today we have inoculations and treatments, but in the early 19th century you couldn't even rely on doctors to diagnose it correctly. Even well into the 20th century notables died from it - try D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell.
John Keats, who would become one of the "immortals" of English poetry, though only (the words themselves pile the irony on) after his death, diagnosed his own "death warrant" when he saw the color of the blood he was expectorating after a particularly cruel turn of fate. On a warm winter's day he rode into London but left his winter coat behind. The weather turned cold and he took an ill-chosen coach ride, sitting outside the box to save money and arriving home in a feverish state. We shake our heads when geniuses make tragic mistakes - earlier, a walking expedition to Scotland (a notoriously cold climate even in summer) left him with a throat infection he never got over; but John Keats always expected to die young.
George Keats, the second brother, and the person in his life that John relied on more than anyone else, lasted into his early forties. But George, when barely twenty, goes to America to make his fortune at a time when the American frontier was regarded as boomtown.
A more tantalizing subject (despite the unfortunate pairing of first names in the subtitle, which suggests an early attempt at the Beatles) can hardly be imagined.
Poetry freaks, English majors everywhere, and followers of the geniuses-die-young school of celebrity worship - we all have a soft spot for John Keats. Being great in your early twenties leads to what-ifs? How would Jimi Hendrix be playing in the 21st century? Harvesting golden oldies in Las Vegas; or escaping to a mountain somewhere to conduct secret recording sessions with the locals?
John Keats' poetry writing career lasted only a few years, and genius flared to its heights around the time in fell (tragically, of course) in love. It's a set-up that has people like me craving all the details I can get, and Gigante's book delivers more than I knew before.
Her book also delivers all sorts of details about George's life in the rude, crude American frontier (a place we have longed tamed into the Midwest). This is an intriguing tale as well, though here we have too many details for my taste, the fruit of the author's exhaustive research of everyone and every place that George rubbed elbows with (or might have) in his pioneering quest for a financial utopia. First on the "English prairie," a tantalizing name for a place so lacking in infrastructure and basic civility that it was hard to imagine anyone there reading a poem or for that matter getting out of the rain. George takes his investment capital (some of which arguably belonged to his brothers and a younger sister stranded with an unloved guardian) down river to Cincinnati and Louisville, first getting ripped off by local entrepreneurs (including no less an eminence than John James Audubon, who also went bankrupt); then persevering and getting rich when the frontier boom caught up to his neighborhood; then going bankrupt in the panic of 1837. A truly American story.
Just how bare and dirty and opportunistic (also drunk and lazy) the American frontier was at this time is an eye-opener and a compelling subject. I was a little put off when first reading the snobby English perspective on the USA. It was like England, John Keats thought, but lacking in the poetry and romance. He imagined it as an endless store counter with everything in the world for sale. In fact, Gigante's's portrait of the place backs it up. Fine English goods, we learn, were rushed to newly planted frontier towns before there were buyers for them.
George Keats, a man of culture and intellect in a land of the unlearned, becomes a conventional pillar of his community. He's married, has seven children, a few slaves, and seemingly sound business interests; and a lifelong sadness over the loss of his fantastically gifted brother.
John suffered the loss of his brother to the new world as well. George was family, companionship and security for much of his too short life, a life in which he knew only that he would die young and believed - as he once put it - "when I die I think I shall be among the English poets."
God, is he ever.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hurry Up Please, It’s Time

            I’ve taken a long vacation from hands-on management of the garden.        
            After putting off the chore for a month or more, I finally begin the chore of putting the flower gardent to bed. This is a moment fraught with decisions.
           As the weather gets cooler and cooler in autumn, I stop spending time out there, standing, staring, squatting, being in the garden.

But you don’t have to do a lot this time of year to enjoy a garden. The seasonal changes that plants go through take care of themselves. When you have a lot of plants living and dying together, a lot of interesting colors and shapes are produced by forces set in motion by time, in the form of the seasons, itself.
            Time – the revolution of the earth around the sun, the seasons produced by the earth’s axis, the effects of this constant cosmic journey made manifest in the growth cycle of plants, trees, and all green things; the human art of cultivation – all of these come together as they do all the “time,” but with a concentration of dramatically visible impact this wonderful time of year.
            In short, the cosmos is doing all the work, and the anxious monkeying I’ve been doing in earlier months, especially the late declining months of summer to keep the show entertaining has come to its natural and inevitable end. I watch, happily, generally from indoors, as colors change, final blossoms emerge, dry out and fall away, or are vampired by cold on that first frosty night, the stuffing sucked out of them… It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful anywhere and everywhere that people haven’t torn up the last growing things by the roots.
            So I take a holiday. Several storms of autumn roar through, causing consternation elsewhere but luckily doing nothing much here except knock a few green tomatoes off the vine; and then, one silent but much deadlier pair of sub-freezing nights rolls through like a gang of marauders determined to prey on the weak and vulnerable: so much for those pretty annuals you’ve planted in late summer…
            And so, looking at the blackened branches of once lovely flowering plants, I realize at long last there are tasks I should be doing. For example, maybe cut down those dead stalks?
            Saturday rolls around. I try to take an organized approach; I go back to my notes from previous years. But a funny thing happens to memory. Those facts well set in stone from earlier years remain in place arrive with with ribbons on them when you go digging for them. Those later details, names, advisories, notes-to-self, resolutions, fine points, and veteran pointers you have accumulated in more recent years have all turned into fly-by-night operations. Gone when you look for them, driving down the street, honking the horn, looking for some action.
            The operative questions – when do you cut back the butterfly bush? (answer: later winter, early spring; or really whenever you’ve a mind to); or how much of the peony bush do you take down and when (basically all of it, leaving “cigar” sized stubs of the roots, and now’s a good time) don’t necessarily stay put in the mind’s top drawer filing cabinet. Especially when so many oddball subjects, data points, and individual plant types are tossed into the mix and no standard rules play across the entire garden-facts community. Trim the lavender? Well, from the shorn looks of it I’ve already done the trim. Hope it wasn’t too soon!
            Prune the lace-cap hydrangea? Sounds like a good idea because the leaves withered and flopped at the first touch of frost and the plant looks like hell, but I’d like to be careful since I want it, or a least a good part of it, back in the spring.
            Still, I squat down beside the beds, take out the clippers, begin with the easy stuff.
            It’s good to get a day’s work in. From November late morning sun to November sunset, it’s all good. And however much you accomplish or leave undone, in the end you’re happy for another excuse to spend a day with the elements and the elemental forces that turn green plants into compositions of wonder and of art.

Hawk on a Pole

When the sun’s out in the dark season – and we are now firmly in the dark season, with sunset at 4:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time – you just have to get outdoors.
            I see more people walking along the Quincy shore these days. I think they’re driven as I am to appreciate our opportunities to look at the world because the window of opportunity is narrowing. The day shutters down before we know it; another picture of our life gets snapped and goes to the darkroom (well, we bypass skip the darkroom these days, but it’s still a good a metaphor.)
When the sun’s out in the dark season – and we are now firmly in the dark season, with sunset at 4:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time officially – you just have to get outdoors.
            I get cold indoors even with the heat on when I’m sitting at my desk for hours. The blood slows. The way to warm up is to do something active. It’s colder out of doors but you feel warmer simply by moving.
Note to self: the way to get through winter is to get moving whenever you can. Second note: the way to get through the dark season is to go bask in the sun when you can see its smiling face. Don’t tell me it’s just a ball of fantastically overheated gases; it’s my smiling, energetic friend.
            Last week, with the sun shining in between storms, I went down to what the state calls a beach but is more accurately described as a shoreline with a good long sidewalk for walking, bordered by a four-lane roadway with too much traffic. As I often do, I chose to walk on the in-land side of the road, farther away from the pretty blue harbor. Like everybody else, I’m drawn to stare at open water and the geo-morphed shapes of various harbor islands and the works of man that connect some of them to land or to each other. But I’m even more drawn to scan the salt marshes on the other side of the road and look for birds.
            Birds take to the harbor, but these are generally gulls, winter ducks, occasional Canada geese and sometimes, but rarely, the waterbirds I look for the in the marshes: Great Blue heron and the pure white great egrets. A night heron visited over here one summer. The marsh also draws owls and hawks, especially in migratory seasons.
            I haven’t seen any of these big “charismatic” birds this fall. The closest I came was a stroll a couple of weeks ago when I noticed a crow whip across the marsh toward the walking path, land in a nearby tree, and begin jabbering. Crows jabber for lots of reasons, but these squawks drew other crows, and in half a minute a half dozen were hanging out in the same tree above my path.
            I had been watching the trees on the edge of a wood that rises slightly above the marsh. It’s a good place for raptors; they can scan the marsh and the treetops. I raised my gaze higher now and found what the crows were caucusing over. A raptor, most likely a hawk, circling high in the warm drafts over the marsh. After a minute it disappeared behind a cloud and I lost it. The crows, I expect, kept a more faithful vigil.
            During yesterday’s sunshine stroll, I scanned those same trees again and saw nothing. Turning back, I glanced toward the ocean and saw a creature – human – that got my attention. A woman, standing still, staring upward. I followed her gaze. On top of a tall sleek street lamp perched a very large bird, a thick-bodied red-tailed hawk. The woman peered a few moments longer, then kept walking. One or two other pedestrians walked past, but didn’t bother to look up.
            I had my camera out, snapping at the hawk from across the street. Not surprisingly, the big bird zeroed in on me right away (camera shy? Or doesn’t like people pointing things at him?) and did not take his eye off me as I crossed at the nearest intersection, hurrying against the traffic, trying to get closer to my – “prey”?
A good hawk-faced profile faced in my direction, but he’d had enough of the attention.
            The final blow was the seagull. The gull kept his distance, about 25 yards, but kept circling around the hawk, squawking in seagull to whoever needed to know that there was a hawk in the neighborhood.
            Between the two of us, the hawk had had enough. I raised my camera, he stepped neatly out to the edge of the lamp, opened his wings, and made that graceful sky-king departure available to lords of the blue.
            I couldn’t believe how quickly he lost himself among treetops without any particular effort or sense of urgency.
            The thing about flying is it’s – fast.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Storm Blows Through the Centuries

The day after the election a northeaster struck the same piece of the globe that super-storm Sandy hit the week before. We were lucky with Sandy. We were lucky again.
But I don’t like feeling like a target for storm winds. The back of our house in Quincy, Mass., faces toward the shoreline, so we get pretty direct blows from winds coming off the ocean, and they came pretty good yesterday. Staring at this computer screen I got a face full of wind, rain, lashing trees, bending branches, premature darkness for hours yesterday (which is, of course, nothing like any creature human or otherwise would face out in the storm), and the final-phase autumn garden back there got blown around good.
All this wind and rain gave me a certain, no doubt exaggerated impression of a day so bad that I dreaded my late afternoon appointment in a shoreline town about three-quarters of an hour down the coast. Do I really have to go out and drive through this stuff? I asked myself. I kept checking my email, hoping somebody else had cancelled.
When I looked out the window faces north, the branches of the mulberry tree were bouncing in the wind but not so histrionically as those out back, and the storm didn’t look quite so bad. When I went to the kitchen and looked out front, the still orange-leaved young maple planted in the sidewalk strip was swaying rather delicately in the wind. Nothing much happening there. The house itself had blocked the winds, creating a zone of calm.
So it was hell in the back of the house, and just another day out front. It’s good to look at life from both sides now.
Nobody cancelled. Since it was my appointment, I had set it up, I could hardly cancel it without a really good reason. Except, as I now realized, by 4 p.m. on an overcast, stormy day it was going to be wicked dark. I had arranged for a photographer to be on hand to shoot the subject, and now he was going to be dealing with really terrible light.
I drove the three-quarters hour of rainy highway, everybody going about three-quarters speed, but traffic kept moving and I found the place with uncommon ease (I usually get lost going someplace new out of my wholly unfounded optimism that whatever location I’m looking for should announce itself in some conspicuous, hard-to-miss fashion: maybe a big flashing sign saying “Over Here, Bob!”)
I met my source in the parking lot and we trooped through the rain fifty yards or to the old, tired -looking shed enclosing a remarkable surprise inside, an 18th century workshop with an intact interior.
As I feared, though sunset is officially 4:30 p.m. EST, with a northeaster is squatting in your sky it’s pretty dark at four. Inside the 16x32-feet shed, light bulbs hang from the ceiling, but the power has has long been shut off. My source, and his friend, have flashlights and, happily, the photographer arrives and says, let’s go in while there’s still light. I am overjoyed with his optimistic, can-do attitude, because if it were me behind a camera I would be cursing the darkness rather than lighting a candle.
Inside we find a beautiful white-painted fireplace surround, a big wood frontispiece with carved moldings resembling the ornamental designs on Greek columns. In the workroom, among other 18th century joinery charms, we find a faded colored image of a man sketched on one of the walls; he stands, back leaning against a wall, one knee lifted, hand extended. The painting was never finished and the color has dulled, but much remains. Nearby, pencil drawings appear open on the old pineboard wall: a bird, a goose maybe, sketched for the design of a weather vane. Cross-hatchings over a door sill show the tallying of some quantity: bags of supply, boards, days of work?
In the store room, a date is written in big, blackish lettering on a ceiling joist: 1789. Do the workshop’s origins go back to that year?
My source tells us stories of this place, read from the physical evidence, and the photographer shoots a great many photographs, playing with the available light, at one point telling the man holding the flashing “point it at me,” and concluding that the darkness would give the results an old “historical” effect. And so all comes out well in the end.
It was good to keep our appointment and do our work, even though the storm made me want to cower at home. And, frankly, once I got back there I had no appetite for venturing out again.
The storm blows, but we walk through it. Though, in my case, only as far as the car.