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.