Monday, September 30, 2013

Light in the Forest

 



Flowers in the Garden of Memory:   
            The light in a grove of trees, while walking the road past Stockbridge Lake. All the trees lined straight and slender with just enough space between them to see their leaves, and all their leaves turned pale yellow or a little brownish orange, or the green thinned out on the way to turning, a pale subtle color adding to the delicate palette. And the light angled, almost flat from the setting or even now fully set sun, shining horizontally through the leaves, so we saw them, trunks and leaves lit from the top and the side and from the bottom up also, the light reflecting and reflections joining from all angles to make a vision for the eyes.

            It was like wallpaper for the world.

            The sunset, a few minutes earlier, watching it across the lake and over the line of mountain (a ridge line, really). A big cumulus cloud hovering over the ridge line like a giant zeppelin, the sort of space ship they use in sci-fi movies to show some other world, some alien super-civilization impinging on our own -- a looming cloud on the horizon that becomes in the end the whole horizon. This one though not so enormous as all that, but dominating the eye for its color, the solidity of its color. A steel gray mass in the center (just tiny cloud particles, we know, densed into darkness), lit up solid from the setting sun behind it.

            The sun has gone over the line of the mountains, but not yet over the edge of the greater convex world. So now the hovering mass is filled with a great ruddy round mouthful of color. Not exactly blood-red, but red-blooded, a sky-incarnadine statement of muscular cloud presence in a still otherwise clear-blue sky. Deep blue now. The cloud can no longer block the sun; the sun is behind and below it. It is only a kind of love game, after all. The light reaches its arms out and surrounds everything. Putting its arms around all that is. It glows, it swallows its own fire... Then, moments later, the accumulated cumulus mass turns a wine purple as the light sinks deeper, and twilight takes its own brilliantly restricted turn.

            The second day is Sunday, a sun day for the best of all suns. A great benevolent light shines on every moment of every passing image as we drive on the country ways where people live among the foliage, and the grasses they have planted, just being there. That's all they have to do, they make no more noise or commotion than the grass, less than the wind in the leaves. We see nobody.We drive along wonderful roadside stretches, miracles of revelation. When we get to the top of our lonely road, to the place where we turn into the forest, a field that is also the happiest of lawns has rolled up its grass for the season. The shorn grass lies wrapped in a spiral around itself, rounded tight in a platterful of grass-on-grass sandwich wraps, its shorn leaves now brown and stored for the winter inside its own labyrinth.

            We see clouds on the wide, silent water of Beartown Lake, the high woodland lake around which we pass in our own good time. The images of clouds are "reflections on a late September day." Grand illusions. Floating continents of appearance. We perceive them, though of course they are not there in body. If we dive into the water we will not find them, though illusions may find us. But they appear there on the surface, they look like themselves, perception is tricked. Lakes are the universe's trick mirrors, doubling the world for us.

            On a hilltop, after a short, sharp-enough and winded-climb, we find a yet higher lake that fills a mountain valley. Somebody says "the beavers." The beavers must be god's water builders then, building land out of water, moving trees to dam rivers and fill huge bowls of earth with water where nobody would expect it. On high we see them: water views, woodland banks, reflections.

            The beaver lake empties downward, falling on rock, and so a strange highland waterfall flowing fast in September drains downward into another beaver-land, a lake made swamp. We trundle down and then rise again around the marsh we thought left behind, and then open a backdoor to the mountains, a view we have no idea was there.

            It's those other mountains.

            Who and where are they? Always receding, a dwindling notion in the sky, but yet offering some silken resistance against the forces that smokily weigh against visibility. They shimmer, mirage-like, at the end of all things knowable by sight, by the senses, like the mind's last ideas.

           

Friday, September 27, 2013

Close Encounter with a Hummingbird: Adventures in Flowerland



It began as usual with something snagging my eye and dragging it after the rapid flight of what my mind took to be an ominously large insect, a maxi-bee or perhaps a dragonfly. And which on closer examination became a creature probing and darting, rapidly and methodically, into blue flowers just a few feet away from where I stood, converted into shadow by the stalwart September sun. My mind caught up and recognized the hummingbird.
            The tiny bird's green tinge was pronounced. I've recently been told what this meant: a female. Ah, so I may properly use the pronoun "she" for this fast-moving, tensely concentrating, all-business creature that manages the business of survival in a subcompact bird-size. Has there ever been another feathered animal nearly this small?
            She plied her trade in the most systematic way imaginable. Something attracted her interest to a patch of plants growing close to the patio pavement where I stood enjoying the late morning sun in a universe of light -- a better place than we ordinarily inhabit, a better place than human beings will ever achieve on our own, and yet it opens its gate, day after day, for those of us willing to stick our head inside and look... But whatever drew her close lost out at once to a pair of flowering "anise hyssop" plants I wedged into an otherwise busy spot that turned green in late summer, their blossom days mostly gone, in my ceaseless appetite to produce more late summer color. As far as the anise hyssop is concerned, it's still summer. Besides, this is one of those Septembers that if not exactly endless summer all the way through (night temps dropping to the forties) most of us would wish to last forever.
            It hasn't been a 'saying-goodbye, back to school' month. It's been more of a 'here-forever' sense-surround month. It's a month of identical dream-like, light-filled days.
            The hummingbird harvested the anise hyssop blossoms (plant photo, top left ) as methodically as a human being, say, would pick berries. It probed and drove her proboscis into each of the funnel-shaped violet blossoms, darting quickly from one to another, from stem to stern so to speak, leaving one thoroughly explored clutch for the next: Here was a bird in a hurry. One gets the impression that the hummingbird is always a bird in a hurry. Maybe  a species of this size feels it's just not safe to linger exposed to view, backlighted by the attractions of a colorful world of flowers. A bird that loves color, but knows beauty is dangerous. It's just not safe to linger and, so to speak, smell the flowers.
            You don't smell them when they're lunch. When your flowers are your food. And you are gathering your nectar where you may.
            As I watched I kept thinking that the bird would give me the eye, demand "what are you doing there?" in a startled tone, and beat a hasty removal. But it did not see me. I was a shadow. A vertical sort of presence, a conical shrub maybe, still rather than moving. Happily, I am good at still. The hummingbird worked up one plant and down another, darted back, back-pedaled so to speak in that copterish hovering way of theirs, to make sure she hadn't missed anything. Then checked out the heart of a neighboring plant, a buccaneer plant with blue flowers, but not the right kind apparently, found nothing to interest her there, and darted away to the other end of the garden where, unfortunately, no late-summer abundance of blossoms existed to hold her.
            Why does the bird hunt and gather and explore so thoroughly? Was she as hungry as she looked? Is she storing up calories (it is hard to say "fattening up" for so tiny a creature) in preparation for a long trip. I have been told, though it is hard to credit, that hummingbirds migrate long distances.
            Afterwards, I was tempted to go to the garden center and stock up on anise hyssop.
            Every mind longs for beauty. The more the creatures that grow or fly, made of earth or feathers, become themselves, reveal their souls to us, the more we long for them.
            They are all our flowers. I bend toward them, in spirit.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Flying Through Autumn

           Two great white egrets came gliding across the flat of the salt marsh just as I cam around the bend of the park's so-called 'nature walk' -- as if there were any other sort of walk you could take there -- and the larger one, flying backup in the two-bird formation, looked at me and groaned.
            I don't pretend to any special knowledge of the vocalizations of great white egrets, but I know when I'm being unwelcomed. Oh god, the egret said to himself, 'there's a guy down there.' Maybe he said, 'that guy.' Or, 'that guy again? I saw enough of him last year.'

            His call was a kind of scold, a honk of despair, a sort of dull warning. As if he knew the biped below posed no real danger, but as a great egret of principle -- and from the need to train the smaller (possibly younger) not so great egret flying before of the protocols for taking evasive action when encountering even a predictable large biped within bowshot -- he reluctantly gave the warning call, or grunt, groan or growl. And bent his flight in a long graceful curve away from my position, adding sufficient distance on this new tack within a few seconds.

            It was a perfect day, a perfect hour in a perfect afternoon, in the midst of a superior week of cool, dry September weather. It was the second time in three days I had gone to the marsh. This day you could smell the salt from the seashore. The sun was warm on your head and shoulders, but the wind that blew the sea smell ashore keep the air cool around your legs.

            Since I'd seen no birds to speak of the previous visit, I brought my small, lightweight binoculars on the chance of seeing them this day. Reverse logic. Now with the two egrets wheeling away but not, as I feared, out of sight, I fumbled with the binoculars case, slowed by removing the lens guards (since I was totally unprepared to actually use them), and by the time I had the glasses ready the egrets were flying S-curves from one end of the horizon to the other and turning back toward my direct line of sight. Since using field glasses takes practice, I had to keep putting the glasses down to find the birds with the naked eye, and then trying to guess where they'd be when I lifted the glasses to my eyes. After several long moments of not-seeing, the larger of the pair flew into my 'ken' just as he was framing himself against the line of trees that separates the salt marsh from the shoreline drive. He disappeared in an instant. 

            So, I thought, concluding that the big birds had apparently changed course and direction, I hope I haven't ruined your plans for the afternoon. I continued walking, hoping to see them come back to the marsh.

            I saw a different water bird fly rather low overhead. A cormorant, I decided. And a few minutes later, a large broad-winged bird flew against the trees in another park just beyond the marsh. With the glasses I caught the white tips of the wings before it settled among the trees. Hawk?

            Then a couple of large birds flew closer to me across the marsh, and even with the glasses, and even with finally getting the glass locked on them and working the focus, I could not identify them. And only then did I finally register the large man-made structure far enough off  the path in the marsh that no one on foot could walk to it (that was the point) and which I had somehow failed to pay attention to before. My brain apparently assimilating it into the category of human junk that sometimes shows up in city parks. But the two intersecting metal bars of the frame were meant to hold something, and that something was pretty clearly an osprey house, a kind of wooden box on a platform.

            A few minutes later I saw a small signpost announcing the construction of a new osprey nest in Quincy and the assertion that ospreys have been observed flying in the salt marsh. Did they just built this thing the day before? Or have I been suffering from some inexplicable blind spot. No matter, it's here now.  

            My apologies to egrets I bothered that afternoon, to he herons and hawks I have spied on for years. But the prospect of annoying some local osprey by peering relentlessly upward on my marshland excursions cheers me no end. 

(Note: top photo, a great egret flying above the salt marsh in Quincy.
Second photo, an osprey, taken earlier this year in St. Augustine, Florida.) 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Glorious, Various, Mysterious



  

          I sat in the backyard watching the September light darken as it passed through the trees. It rallied, finding gaps in the branches, the crowns, and my perspective from the Adirondack chair perched under a big shade tree grew lighter. Then another decline, and the light shadowed once more.

            It's a mystery. Everything, really. A mystery at the heart of things. We don't get any closer to understanding it, but we have to watch it sometimes. Simply stop and stare. How have we come to this point? How is it that in a few days more we will come to another point in time and forget all about the hour in the late afternoon that we sat and watched and found so impeccably beautiful. Words can add nothing to it. People have no role to play. Everything both very alive and perfectly still. Well, one mosquito paid a brief visit. It, presumably, has no capacity for remembering. But we are ultimately in the same boat. Neither of us knows how we got there, or how it -- 'there' -- got away. The plants do not appear to move. I do not see the flowers emerge. Or the foliage grow old. I never see anything "happen" on a plant. Only the wind, when there is wind, moves them. Only in the time lapse of our own movements, our forgetting and remembering, do things 'happen' to plants: flowers, mere buds yesterday, blossom today. I assume they "blossom," an active verb. What I see, and know, is: bud on one occasion, flower some other. Oh, sometimes, if they're big enough, you catch the blossoms half way out. But you see no movement from one stage to another; you simply don't. You see the morning glory gloriously open to the morning sun. Later that day the same blossom is closed. But the process is only inferred.

            I sat outdoors in an Adirondack chair watching all this happen, which is to say watching nothing 'happen,' until at some point in time I stood and went into the house and did something else. Since this 'happened' (my movements) only yesterday I may be able to recollect them with some accuracy; but the clarity of this recollection soon fades. Today in about half an hour I will try to reproduce the experiment -- or do I mean 'experience' -- of returning to the same chair, the same point of view, at the same time of day, and permitting the nothing that is the life of the natural world to happen again.

            Yesterday afternoon: no wind. Nothing moved, though obviously the sun -- by which I mean my position relative to the sun -- moved. That is: the earth moved. Because the earth moves, everything happens. I suppose there is my explanation, the only one I will get.

            But it will not be the same, no matter how much I control the observable conditions. If I am looking for the same conditions to reproduce the same thoughts, the same feelings, I will be disappointed. You can't step into the same river twice -- old Buddhist proverb.

            And (not a proverb, but my own), you can't account for what makes it different.

            We hope divinity has good eyesight, good sense organs, able to see the subtle changes, the "passage of time" -- i.e. able to see time pass -- because if the eye of god is not watching, nobody, absolutely nobody, is seeing the whole show. We see snatches and infer the rest. Causality; connection; story line. Ah yes, that little flash of pink on the edge of a particular branch of rose of sharon extending a casual reach a foot above the fence line; that wasn't there yesterday. Was it?

            Who the hell knows. 'God knows,' as the expression goes. Maybe.

            Maybe, at best.

            I don't know, but I rather doubt any such eye of god exists. That the divinity, or one of his bureaucracies maintains an uber-surveillance every moment on every dimension of space from every point of view on an infinitude of galaxies in a possibly infinite universe. And even if finite, unimaginably vast.          

            And if this eye of god does not exist, then we are god's senses, his physical senses, sense organs, powers of perception. We exist in order that the universe may know and regard itself. I admit it, as I admitted right at the start, it's a mystery to me.

            We live in a mystery, and the mystery is us.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Anemone, Pink Chablis Sedum, and the Startling White Iris



             A toast to September flowers. They're typically far fewer in number than those that bloom in the previous months and they come at a time when a lot of the late summer standards are wearing down: the tall phlox, the black-eyed susans. The echinacea, or purple cone flowers, are long gone. I leave their black heads out there supposedly for the birds, but don't see any birds on them, and the effect of all those withered black seed heads is looking increasingly funereal.
           But some plants do best in the autumn months of September and October. The morning glories; various other annuals. Some blue salvia in front of the house that have taken all year to make up their modest but stylish flowerheads. Some verbena keep putting out  blossoms.
            Among the perennials, my favorite September bloomer is the dark pink flowering anemone (top photo). A lighter pink anemone kept us company all of last month, a welcome late summer bloomer. Its first prolific round of flowers is gone now; I 'm trying to coax a second round out of it. All I know about the anemone flower is that it was imprinted on my memory after I heard its name spoken in a poem by the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish recited shortly after his death.
            I'll plunder here what I wrote two years ago when I last tried to explain this connection. The poem is known by its first line, “The beloved hemorrhaged anemones.” The "beloved" here means the land. Darwish's poem reads:  
Oh people of Cannan… It’s your good luck that you chose agriculture as a profession
it’s your bad luck that you chose the gardens
near god’s borders…
And:
The first of our songs is the blood of love
that gods shed,
and the last is the blood shed by iron gods . . .

(You can read the rest of it on: batcityreview.la.utexas.edu/pdf/Darwish.pdf)
              I'm back in 2013 here, thinking that even those of us who don't live "near god's borders" in the sense meant by the poem can choose to grow anemones on our own beloved pieces of earth. These valiant, late-call flowers, blooming sublimely when so many other perennials have shut down for the season and sent their vitality to winter quarters awake certain ideas and feelings in me every year that I treasure. But that’s the way it is with flowers. They are nature’s poems.
            According to reference sources "Anemone is a genus of about 120 species of flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae, native to the temperate zones."
            Then of course (since names get to me) there are the "Sea anemones," described as "a group of water-dwelling, predatory animals." Only now, as I look them up on line, do I learn the sea creatures are named for "the anemone, a terrestrial flower." If you look at pictures of these two life forms from very different realms you can see what name-giver had in mind -- that tightly gathered symmetry of brightly colored parts. The sea anemones do look gorgeously strange. But if you don't happen to have an aquarium in your back yard, you may find that the flowers are more than adequate substitution.
            Our Pink Chablis Sedum (second photo), described by an online reference as the "scrumptious white-edged [variety] with white-snow buds and vibrant pink flowers," seem to be getting better every year. Another source states: "Broad green succulent leaves have a clean white edge that is well displayed. Pink flowers appear in late summer from white buds."
            They said it. 
            Our plant stays the same size each year, but its blossom deepens its color. I don't know why. It's planted in a "part-shade" spot where some plants thrive and others don't. A couple of its original neighbors are long gone. As a sedum (those succulent leaves) it tolerates the mid-summer drought well. The sources agree this is a "sun plant," so I'll accept its willingness to thrive in our semi-sun neighborhood as a gift from the gods.
            The "startling white iris" (third photo) that began blooming in the middle of September is more like the laughter of the gods, hooting at my inability to do anything with irises. The traditional bearded iris is a sun flower that will not adjust to our low-sun diet no matter where I put it. I transplanted a few under-performing irises to a new site last year but didn't get around to it until October, so perhaps I've simply destroyed this valiant specimen's sense of time.
            Irises bloom early in the year and disappear quickly. They're heart breakers. Maybe we're being set for a fall here by this rare September favor. So be it; I'm still in love.