Sunday, April 26, 2015

Garden Hunger in the Spring of 2015: I Remember April

            The photo for April on our calendar this year -- we produce a calendar every year from our garden photos taken the previous year -- shows the weeping cherry tree behind the house in full bloom, wearing its delicate, but fulsome white wig (top photo). It's a fashion the tree can maintain for about a week, maybe a few days more if the weather stays cool; but still one of the annual highlights of spring.
            With six days left in April this year, we have started to see the white dots on the cherry tree that show the blossoms are on their way.Will it still be April when it blooms?
            Some other comparison points. A fat spring litter of grape hyacinth appears under the maple tree in front of the house in photos from mid-April 2014. This year the grape hyacinth has produced the green leaf-spears (they look like long floppy chives), but the flowers are still tight little buds. I don't blame them; a lot days this month not breaking sixty.
            This week we got a fairly good return on the daffodil bulbs (bottom photo down) Sonya and I planted last fall (we may have lost a few to the squirrels). Some of the bright, showy hyacinths we planted in the front yard struggled to get out of the overhanging lea of the boxwood hedge, which suffered a downward spread from piling the shoveled snow on top of them last winter (second and third photos). We're going to need a new winter measurement: condensed snow weight per square foot.
            Little blue stars flowers are spreading on their own in a shady spot where the other perennial groundcovers always take longer to get going in the spring.
            And some of our vinca, the most successful (or greediest) of our spring flowering groundcovers are putting out their blue five-petaled flowers in various place both in front and behind the house. (fifth  photo)

            The birds, however, think it's still March. They're still rooting around the feeder, spreading the seed, or rather the black shells of the sunflowers we feed them, all over the ground in our raspberry batch. Are the berry plants all right with that? We'll find out soon.
            What I can't get a handle on yet this year because spring is so late is which plants are not coming back at all this year. And which colonies have died back from their previous spread. Perhaps others will rush in to claim the available space.
            By May 2 of last year (a date that will come around on Saturday, this year), my photos show a pretty strong spring bloom. The Japanese primrose, for instance, a low, small plant with a very striking flower already peaking: pink and violet petals around yellow centers. (fourth photo)
            I'm already working on a state of anticipation that I might as well call 'I remember May.'

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spring 2015: Just Showing Up Means a Lot

            So this is the week things are starting to show. The maple tree in front of the house opened its red buds. The hyacinths in the front yard poked up from under the the boxwood hedge. And the daffodils Sonya and I planted in the back last fall opened their big yellow faces in the hopes of some decent weather. Maybe a couple of days of sun; some highs in the sixties.
            April has always been daffodil month. It's that earlier generation of bloomers, the avant-garde, that got stuck in the snow for a month. March bloomers, forsythia, crocuses, hellebores (or 'Lenten roses,' top photo), were all a month later or more when they showed their smiles in April.
            Last weekend we celebrated a sunny Saturday by taking a walk in the woods, the near-to-Boston forest park of the Blue Hills, to look for signs of seasonal change there. Signs were few and far between. No trees in bloom. No new green leaves up in the trees or down in the undergrowth. No wildflowers. I saw a butterfly with dusky moth-like colors flit by.
       It was that in-between season. The ground was dry, the snow was gone, and the vernal pools were alive with peepers.

            Peepers are tiny tree-frogs. Birthed in pools free of fish, tiny black bodies consisting mostly of voice, amphibians the size of quarters. They call and respond, banging out a percussive chorus in the above-freezing temperatures of March. Up to their vernal tricks, only this year in April. We haven't heard their shouting-in-the-season voice in years, our own neighborhood too far from the woods.

             Still, we looked for something fresh and green-growing -- here we are, after all, well into third week of April -- without success. We should at least be able to spot some skunk cabbage, I thought. They we came to a pretty spot where a stream, full after the snow melt, was rambling clear and happy as it dipped beneath our well-used walking trail, its watercourse dotted by low rafts of bright green: the still enfolded leaves of the skunk cabbage (third and fourth photos).
                 One other sign -- not of spring -- so much as endurance: The smiling face of the 'green man' cut in a hollowed out stump along the trail (second photo).       
            We noted other late starters, back home. The Lenten Rose finally showed its color, a dusky pink; some years we have seen it in February. A few blue star-flowers amid the thick mats of vinca in the front garden; the vinca, a sure April bloomer in ordinary times, still holding fire. (I saw the first of their tight purple flowers in the back garden this afternoon).
            And, tonight, the birds on Exeter Street. Houses close together, modest lots, but we are not too urban for bird calls. They were loud, melodic, percussive -- jamming -- varied. I don't know how many different voices (at least four), putting the day to sleep in the age-old fashion.
            It was that the sort of spring twilight when the tiny birds of eastern Massachusetts consist entirely of big voices and a few feathers. When the twilight faded, the sky darkened, we saw the crescent moon with a single silver star beside it.
            A spring sky, a promising sky. And the ancient vernal chorus of the birds of April just beyond the doorstep.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Sixth Extinction: The Snake in the Garden is -- Us

            The Sixth Extinction: This one is on us.           
            Almost everything we're likely to know about human life, society, history, our own lives and times is simply useless, irrelevant, when we consider the history of the planet Earth. That's the underlying premise of "The Sixth Extinction" by New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert.
            We're still just a blip on the radar screen of the geological history of the planet. But when we disappear from that history, we will have left a mark on the geological record (visible to who or whatever comes after) that tells of a period of widespread species extinctions. The massive die-off of life forms, already apparent across the globe, and across all the branches of the tree of life, has a single, traceable cause: the human species.
            The fossil record goes back roughly 600 million years. Taking the long view, one authority quoted in "The Sixth Extinction," concluded that most species "are at a low risk of extinction most of the time" except for "rare intervals [of] vastly higher risk." Thus the history of life on planet Earth can be described as "long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic." 
            Right how, human beings are putting an end to the boredom.
            The officially recognized extinctions came at the end of the Ordovician Period (marine life only, 60 percent of invertebrates disappear) 450 million years ago; in the late Devonian, 370 million years ago (most extant fish die; cause unknown); the end of the Permian, 252 million years (the worst extinction, taking 96 percent of marine species plus a mass extinction of insects and vertebrates from a runaway Greenhouse Gas effect); the late Triassic (most  dinosaurs disappearing, possibly from climate change and massive volcanoes), 201 million years; and the end of the Cretaceous (three-quarters of plant and animal species gone from an asteroid impact), 66 million years ago.
            So now, as "The Sixth Extinction" reports from the author's visits to numerous ongoing biological projects and the studies they generate, we can add to such calamities as asteroid collision, heavy atmosphere-darkening volcanic activity, wobbles in the earth's orbit caused by the moons of Saturn, continental drift, and the rise of the Himalayas, the widespread domination of Earth by a single species, homo sapiens. The Earth welcomes plain old us to the ranks of the major extinction causes.
            Our role in rapidly increasing species loss goes back to the swift spread (by geological time reckoning) of our ancestors from Africa to Asia, Europe, and all the other continents.We arrive and the woolly mammoth, the giant sloth, sabre-toothed tigers and many other mega-fauna dwindle and ultimately disappear. A process that may take a few thousand years is a snap of the fingers in the fossil record. Human beings, Kolbert's authorities hypothesize, may not have intended to wipe them out, but survival mechanisms that worked well in the past -- growing too large for attack by predators -- proved helpless against our weaponry.
            Other mammals and birds, like the wolves of North America, were simply in our way once we had moved into their habitat. The buffalo were consciously exterminated by a conquering, imperial breed of humans (now called 'Americans'). Other species lost their hold on existence because we saw them simply as a resource: the fate of the passenger pigeon, treated as a cheap protein source.
            Large animal species that disappear around the same time that human beings spread into their territory include other branches of the hominid family from which we emerged. Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with the Neanderthals, the first Europeans. We took over the caves, shorelines and hunting grounds where they lived and left a record, making tools from flint in the same way for tens of thousands of years. Besides the Neanderthals, a branch of smaller cousins tagged "Hobbits" disappear from the fossil record shortly after our arrival. Lately remains providing evidence of still another hominid species called Denisovans have been discovered. Where are they now? "Hobbits," Denisovans -- We hardly knew ye!
            Smaller species fall victim to the unintended consequences of our dominance. We cut down trees, we turn grasslands to farmlands: local plants, insects, higher animals and invertebrates disappear. We burn hunks of the rain forests to make room for more people. But simply breaking up a tropical habitat by a road or a utility line directly correlates with a sharp loss in biodiversity, according to Kolbert's on-the-ground sources. Species that made it in large areas can't survive in small, chopped-up ones.
            Our farming and animal raising, mining and factories, change environments. Pollutants, chemical run-off, agricultural pesticides, suburban lawn fertilizers all destroy biota. Expanding populations hunt third-world forests for body parts of elephants, gorillas, tigers sold for profit.
            Other species simply diminish and go extinct in consequence of our unique mobility, moving ourselves and our goods from region to region, continent to continent. The minor pest from one continent, hitching a ride on trade good, becomes a killer plague in the land across the ocean.
            "What life's history reveals, in its ups and downs," Kolbert writes, "is that life is extremely resilient but not infinitely so."
            The implications for the survival of the species that is causing the disappearance of so many others remain to be seen.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ground Zero in the Garden of Seasons

            The snow departs, a month later than ever before. The freezing rain, mixed with flurries and some hail, along with the steady 36 degree temperatures of last week finally drift off to torment somewhere else (the ocean maybe). I get to work on the back yard, raking off the winter covering of fallen leaves which have lain like a (hopefully) protective blanket over the earth the embedded roots of the perennial garden. How does it look? 

            Frankly, god-awful. It's the starting point in the great green drama of the growing season. I call it ground zero. (Top two photos.)
            Not much green to see. The English ivy surrounding one of the big trees back there, last year's leaves still on the vines, offers a dull dark-greenish patch. Some vinca in spots; vinca is always green, but it doesn't start growing and blooming until the earth warms up a little. Pachysandra pretty much the same thing.
            Since there is so little new life showing, and I want to give anything even vaguely considering growing all the sun and warmth April can offer, I start to rake off the blanket of old brown leaves. Not much to show from first couple of attempts. I wonder if a time will really come when the amount of green in this 'picture' will equal of exceed the amount of brown I'm seeing there now. Has it ever really worked?
            The days are a gloomy progression last week, a cold wind still at work. Thursday is the worst day of the month: cold rain all day. At this time of year it's harder to bear because of the expectations of better. Friday the rain stops, and I get going, clearing out a few spots where bulbs, crocuses, tulips, a few daffs are stemming up.
            Then the weekend comes and the sun shines (the first weekend, the local meteorologists tell us, without any form of precipitation since early January). A lot of wind on Saturday; but the sky is blue. The birds sings cantatas on the wing. Choirs form on a bare tree limb. Eventually under these happier conditions I find my rhythm, accept how much needs to be done; realize I must clip all the stems that I neglected to remove last fall -- it got cold, I gave up -- remember how to do this work without killing my lower back, and the progress begins to show. Sunday is even warmer. The wind dies, perfect early spring weather. Anne joins in later in the day; now we're flying.
            Still not too much green breaking from the earth, but at least most of the dead leaves and old stems are gone. (Third and fourth photos down.)
             Next week, Anne tells me, we'll really start to see something. It's little like 'waiting for next year' in baseball. In gardening however (unlike baseball) you always do win in the end.

(Last two photos: a green mat of a variety of thyme, thymus albiflora, used as a ground cover.  And a patch of tulips coming up among vinca and some other perennials.)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Garden of Verse: Poems Bloom in the Spring

            April is a poetic month, not merely because in the USA it's officially "National Poetry Month," a designation intended I think to give libraries and other institutions an excuse to hold poetry programs. It's also because April is the month referenced in the first line of "The Canterbury Tales," which itself is often regarded as the first great poem in the English language (though composed in the somewhat foreign looking Middle English). It's a month of beginnings.
            April also famously appears at the start of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," often thought of as the first great poem in the 20th century modernist school of literature. When Eliot wrote "April is the cruelest month," it made sense to anyone living in the northern hemisphere, because we know it's the month when our pent-up desire for balmy spring weather is cruelly, and repeatedly, thwarted by April's regression to nasty days like today (high of 38 degrees, cold rain all day).
            But Eliot was actually going for a different point. It's hope itself that's cruel -- to those who have given up on life.
            The poets who contributed to the April issue of the online literary magazine Verse-Virtual have manifestly not given up. In fact they have given us some of their best in the many pages of this packed journal.
            I'd like to point out some examples. Uche Ogbuji's "At Work in the Foothills" considers the contrasting pulls of work and pleasure on a working vacation:
I should be uphill,
Should be on the downhill rush
Where pow hints at slush.
I'm trapped with my commerce mates
Wise to the profits of spring.

            The apt phrase "Wise to the profits of spring" sets up the very nicely composed conclusion:
Upon livelihood
Comes the why where life is good
Which calls through the churn
So I'm impatient to turn
My back on the marketplace
            Joe Mills's poem "Standing Before Shelves of Cookbooks" turns the enduring question of what to make for dinner into a meditation on a recipe for a good life, drawing on themes already raised in the poem:
...and I will murmur a kind of prayer: May you recognize the wheel
of your days.  May your faith
and friendships be flavored
with tears  May you find love
like a lever and a place to stand
together.  May you have a life as
satisfying as a good Italian dish.
The poem left me with the thought  that love is after all a place to stand.
In Luis Neer's poem "so he really did like me after all," he recalls a high school teacher who edited his list of classroom topics by erasing the name Walt Whitman:
and with one swipe of his hand
America's World Poet
from the list.
          I too think Walt Whitman is America's World Poet and am surprised that more of the world (particularly more of America) doesn't appear to know it. 
            Kenneth Pobo wrote two 'owl' poems. The first one treats an owl blind in one eye, ending superbly: "I catch her eye./ She stares me down." 
            In the other he describes a woman's laugh "as if several owls had gotten loose,/ all hooting at once." Another woman visits her in a hospital and wonders what's happened to that laugh: "She thinks she hears it, sobs,/ starts laughing herself,/ freeing the owls."
            In Ed Werstein's "Anthony's Hands," I particularly loved the imagery and line breaks in these sentences that describe those hands:
While exploring
they offer up acorns, bottle caps
and other found things for identification.
Clenched tightly,
arms rigid,
they are prelude to a scream.

William Trowbridge wrote a poem titled "Stark Weather," beginning with a quote from the long-ago Plains state mass murderer Charles Starkweather. It's a haunting name. It's like a whole poem in a name.

Andrea Potos's poems about Greece come with photo illustrations. They made me want to visit Greece.
Frederick Pollack wrote a  poem about Weldon Kees, a poet I read some years ago and liked his severe, quiet voice. I like the part in this poem where Pollack writes:
 Since it’s always
about me, I sit, late
one night, on the eve
of her departure, listening, half-
listening, the way one does
where response
is futile, observing the furniture
of a kitchen and life.

C.A. Allen's poems have a quiet, sacred feel, abetted by looking at certain moments from unexpected angles. I particularly liked the phrase "rounding it feels like a secret" in "organ."  He describes a church basement:
there is a thin film of light coming
under a door to my left, around a partition—rounding it feels
like a secret.

Robert Wexelblatt's poem brings us back to April:
Plenty of people die in April, the
elderly not so much holding on to
see one last as not imagining the
cycle will stop one daffodil dawn with
sparrows and forsythia, terminal
patients bent in too much agony for
irony, as if to prove parturition
postulates parting, space cleared, that
in the beloved grandchild the old
kiss both abstract immortality and
particular death.

The poems comes back to that cruelest month at the end, evoking:
dreamy young women finally engaged,
fumbling with cell phones, planning for June,
unmindful of some fatal far-off Apri

            All of these poems are easy to find in Verse-Virtual's sensible, handsome layout. Go to You'll find a list of poets' names. Click on the ones you want.