A small congregation of jack-in-the-pulpits sprouted up seemingly overnight in a patch of newly spread pine bark mulch. I’m not sure whether they traveled as stow-aways in the mulch bags or transplanted themselves from our own woodlands, since these North American natives thrive in moist thickets from Nova Scotia to Florida. They reminded me of the Emily Dickinson poem about going to church by finding heaven in your own backyard. Of the many things I admire about Dickinson, her determination to eschew organized religion is right up there on my list. Though I found the recent movie about her life — “A Quiet Passion” — overly somber, there was a terrific scene near the beginning where she point-blank refused to join the Calvinist revival sweeping through New England at that time. “I am one of the lingering bad ones,” she told a friend. That same spirit of proud rebellion is evident in this lovely poem:
One Sunday when the world was still teetering between winter and spring, we drove east with friends through the Berkshire hills to South Deerfield, Massachusetts, home of Magic Wings Butterfly Conservancy and Gardens. From the outside, the building looks something like a large community sporting facility — a skating rink or bowling alley, perhaps — but inside it’s heaven. This is the year-round home of some 4,000 exotic and domestic butterflies and moths, surrounded by a tropical paradise of hibiscus, ferns, bamboo, palm trees, lollipop plants, and an astounding variety of orchids. There’s a koi pond, a waterfall, and several generations of quail, some newly hatched, that scuttle around your ankles as you make your way along the curving pathways. But mostly there are butterflies — floating above your head, brushing against your cheek, landing on your shoulder. Many, raised from larvae right on the property, have never known life anywhere else. Which may explain why there’s no sense of captivity at Magic Wings, only that of wonder and welcome.
I saw my first butterfly this week in the Berkshires. It was light blue, about the size of quarter, clumsy as it fluttered around our still winter-weary garden. I think it might have been a very young Eastern Tailed-blue, but it was gone before I had a chance to get a better look. Still, a wonderful harbinger of wings to come.
by Robert Frost
It is blue-butterfly day here in spring,
And with these sky-flakes down in flurry on flurry
There is more unmixed color on the wing
Than flowers will show for days unless they hurry.
But these are flowers that fly and all but sing:
And now from having ridden out desire
They lie closed over in the wind and cling
Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire.
Shore birds are a tenacious lot, foraging for survival between the unforgiving sea and mankind’s ever-encroaching footprint. They’re adaptable, too, and clever. On Captiva Island a few years back, we watched a Great Blue Heron, standing in companionable silence next to a fisherman at the shore line. The heron, whose gaze was directed unconcernedly out to sea, appeared to be merely intrigued by his new friend’s surfcasting skills, but when a cut of the catch was eventually tossed his way it disappeared in a flash.
Despite the fact that their habitat is monotone and open (unlike the multi-colored and camouflaged homes of their country cousins), shore birds are among the most difficult groups of birds to identify properly.
There are at least 50 different species, some very similar, and — to make matters even more difficult — their plumage often changes color in the breeding season. My brother Anders and his wife Beverly, who have become ardent birders, generously shared their expertise with us in Florida this past week. These are just a few of Anders’ dazzling photographs.
And here’s a delightful poem on the subject.
By Elizabeth Bishop
The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.
Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
‘Paterson’, the new movie by Jim Jarmusch, is about a week in the life of a poet/bus driver whose poetry is inspired by such every day items as a box of matches. The movie’s poems were actually written by Ron Padgett whose work has brilliantly straddled the every day and the absurd for decades, but I’ll save him for another time. With Valentine’s Day approaching, I hasten to bring you this poem by Continue reading
I inherited a beautifully seasoned cast iron skillet from my mother who very likely had inherited it from her mother. It’s an 8-inch Wagner Ware Sidney O model, and a little on-line research into its lineage indicates that it was produced in 1922 by the Wagner Manufacturing Company, based in Sidney, Ohio. There’s something Continue reading
I had the good fortune a few years back of hearing the former U. S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan argue for the importance of clarity in poetry, a concept that would seem to go against the grain of contemporary poetics. That’s just one of the many reasons I admire Ryan, whose short, dense, powerful poems often remind me of Emily Dickinson’s. Reading a Ryan poem is like unpacking a Christmas stocking; each is loaded with treats and the joy of discovery.
Ryan’s not afraid to say what she thinks. Like her poems, though, her ideas are often more nuanced and complicated than a first Continue reading
As the days darken, both literally and figuratively, and the cold months loom ahead with unexpected bitterness, I find myself seeking solace in poetry as never before. Like so many others, I’ve turned to such masterworks as W. H. Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/september-1-1939) and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/dover-beach) which ring with truth and meaning. But lighter fare can offer sustenance, too, such as this wise and witty poem by the contemporary American poet Ellen Bass. Continue reading
Last fall, I was given some milkweed pods by a fellow gardener who had turned over her entire garden to plants beloved by birds, insects, and butterflies. It was, as you can imagine, a magical place. I’d been hoping to plant milkweed to help sustain the struggling Monarch population, and I proudly took my prize home and opened up the pods at the top of the wild flower field. I watched the seeds drift like an army of tiny parachutes over the brown stubbled landscape. Winter soon descended, though not much snow, and I assumed the milkweed had been blown away when nothing sprouted up this spring. Continue reading
This long stretch of hot dry weather has left me with an embarrassment of cherry tomatoes. Though nothing’s quite as satisfying as a ripe tomato hot off the vine, I’ve discovered a pesto that freezes beautifully and keeps the cherry’s bright summery taste alive right into the winter months. The recipe (from Bon Appetit) calls for walnuts, anchovies, and basil (and luckily I have bushels of lemon basil on my hands right now, as well). I’ve also made it without the anchovies, adding extra salt to help balance the tastes. Continue reading
Morning glories shoot up like something out of a fairy tale — Jack’s bean stalk or the roses that twined around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. One morning they’re a tiny cluster of heart-shaped leaves, the next they’re cresting over the garden gate — a wild tangle of blue trumpets and tightly twisted vines. Once they get established in a place they like — they’re not picky about soil, but tend to like sun — they’ll come back year after year. Continue reading
After a slow start, my nasturtiums are finally hitting their stride. I love these bright, happy flowers! They’re versatile, even-tempered, and ever-willing. Toss them into a salad — “no problem!” you can almost hear them say. Add them for color and drape to a window box or planter, surrounded by more hoity-toity annuals, and nasturtiums will find a way to fit right in. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with pestos. Parsley, arugula, tomatoes have all gone under the Cuisinart knife. And wouldn’t you know it? The spicy nasturtium turns out to be the perfect foil for pine nuts, garlic, and parmesan. Fold it into a seafood risotto or spread it across a fresh baguette for the base of a wonderful sandwich or — what the heck, it’s summer! — just lick it right off the spoon. Continue reading
The poppies are in bloom in what I call my sun garden. Though it’s actually more a haphazard collection of flora, thrown together on a stretch of land that’s half hill and part swamp. It’s a cutthroat kind of neighborhood for plants, and only the intrepid survive. But those that do — monkhead, monarda, shasta daises, blue lobelia, goose-neck loosestrife — tend to thrive. Like most toughs, they’re constantly angling for more territory, and I tend to just let them fight it out. Continue reading
I spent most of the weekend on my hands and knees planting seeds in our vegetable garden. I’m a firm believer in the “square foot” gardening method developed by the late Mel Barthelme who advocated the use of raised beds and planting in tight rows inside 12 x 12 inch grids. Over the years, the grid has given way to a more relaxed and larger planting swath, but our eight raised beds — each about the size of a twin mattress — still yield enough lettuces, beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, and cutting Continue reading
Here come the ferns again! At this point they look like bunched, slightly hairy yellow knuckles punching their way out of the ground. Within the next week or two they’ll be a foot high, grouped in small green pods, facing inward, like close-knit families of aliens.
There is something otherworldly about them. They reproduce from spores and have neither seeds nor flowers. Their fiddleheads unfurl into fronds as they grow, delicate as butterfly wings. Despite their seeming fragility, ferns Continue reading