They’re gone now, the families of ruby-throated hummingbirds who spent the summer with us. The males, with their natty bright red waistcoats, flew south at the beginning of September, leaving behind the females and young. I was puzzled, at first, to see no young males among the crowd that continued to zip from flower to flower in the sun garden and dive bomb our feeders. But it turns out that the young males “masquerade” as females until their first winter in the tropics where they start to don their distinctive red plumage. It’s amazing to think that these birds — 3” high, weighing in at around 11 ounces — are en route to Central America, many flying 28 hours straight across the Gulf of Mexico. Amazing, too, to know that these same families will return next year, again across continents and seas, to the very hemlocks above the little white farmhouse in the Berkshires where they fledged. It’s their birth place and summer home and, some time toward the end of next April, we’ll hear a whir of wings overhead and know they’re back. Few things in life, it seems to me, are as predictable and heartwarming.
These lovely photos were taken by my brother Anders right after the males departed.
And here’s a poem by the American poet and critic Robin Becker which, I think, perfectly captures the bird’s almost otherworldly beauty.
I love the whir of the creature come
to visit the pink
flowers in the hanging basket as she does
most August mornings, hours away
from starvation to store
enough energy to survive overnight.
The Aztecs saw the refraction
of incident light on wings
as resurrection of fallen warriors.
In autumn, when daylight decreases
they double their body weight to survive
the flight across the Gulf of Mexico.
On next-to-nothing my mother
flew for 85 years; after her death
she hovered, a bird of bones and air.
For a decade, our little town of West Stockbridge held a Zucchini Festival every August. The brainchild of the local Cultural Council, it began as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to that most underappreciated and, by the time August rolled round, largely unwanted garden vegetable. Lenox had its Tanglewood. Becket its Jacob’s Pillow. West Stockbridge? Continue reading
For the rain it raineth every day — from Twelfth Night
It’s been a month of on and off rain. Dull steady downpours. Wild wind-driven tempests. Lukewarm, almost weightless morning mists. Thunderstorms have been in the forecast nearly every day — for weeks on end. More often than not, the clouds that billow and darken into a mountain of threatening postures Continue reading
The tissue-thin poppy petals have scattered to the ground just as the dart-shaped buds of the clematis unfurl before our eyes. New shapes and colors are emerging in the garden every day now— and this year, because the spring was so cool and damp, everything seems bigger and brighter than usual. I had to trim dozens of marble-sized pears from the espaliers this week as the branches were already bowing under the weight of so much Continue reading
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure in the windowpane.
I was reminded of those opening lines of Nabokov’s poetic masterpiece Pale Fire recently as I watched a female cardinal batter herself against the window of our barn. She’d perch on the branch of the flowering pear espalier between bouts — then fling herself up against the glass with the messianic fervor of a true zealot. In the case of our cardinal, I’m sure the nesting season brought out her territorial instincts, and the reflection in the window looked to her like a predator. She was attacking Continue reading
One morning a couple of weeks ago when patches of snow were still scattered across the backyard, we heard the first real sign of spring: the Peter, Peter, Peter of a tufted titmouse. Soon, all around us, the birds who’d lived so quietly in our midst through these last brutal months — cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, and woodpeckers — burst into song. It didn’t matter to the birds that a snow squall had swirled through the Berkshires earlier or that the ground was still frozen. Apparently, it’s the light — not the temperature — that acts as an hormonal trigger and prompts our fine feathered friends to start whistling for a mate. As the migrating birds return, I know these first tentative love songs will soon swell into a mighty chorus of such passionate intensity that, by early June, we’ll need to shut the bedroom window in the morning to get a little sleep. For now, though, the cardinal’s Cheer, Cheer, Cheer seems the perfect toast to welcome a season we were beginning to fear would never come. The beautiful photos of a cardinal (above) and piliated woodpecker (right) were taken by my brother Anders.
Here’s a poem that features birdsong by the American poet Timothy Steele whose formal mastery is often cleverly disguised by a keen sense of humor. Continue reading
George Inness, Home at Montclair, 1892
Tucked behind the magisterial Winslow Homer gallery at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, sits a small quiet room of landscape paintings. One could easily walk right through it— en route to the more Continue reading
I came upon it recently while looking for something else. Of the dozen or so keepsakes that I claimed when my five siblings and I divvied up my mother’s possessions after her death, this one was easy to overlook: a small, yellowing rectangle of paper upon which was scribbled: “Each day is Valentines Day.” It was written in my father’s often un-decipherable hand, but a certain amount of care had been taken to Continue reading
The American poet Richard Wilbur died last October at the age of 96. He’d served as Poet Laureate and, over the decades, had had all the usual literary treasures strewn at his feet, including the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes. But he was never as well known as his teacher and mentor Robert Frost or his contemporaries Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. He was a formalist in the age of the Beats and free verse; restrained and subtle during the heyday of the “confessional” poets. Along with his own eleven collections of poetry, he Continue reading
Christopher Columbus seems to have been knocked off his pedestal lately, but, to his credit, he did bring lemon seeds with him when he landed in Hispaniola in 1493. This bright hard sour little fruit has been cultivated for medicinal purposes for millennia and has curative powers that range from alleviating scurvy and dissolving kidney stones … to fighting colds, flu, and some claim even cancer. It’s also a workhorse in the kitchen. I use lemons almost daily: Continue reading
As Thanksgiving approaches, I find I’m needed in the kitchen and so have asked my occasional guest blogger to step in this month:
The other day, wandering lonely as a cloud through the recesses of the Strand Bookstore in New York City, who/whom should I exchange elbows with but Henrietta “Etty” Alogos, considered by many linguists to be the doyenne etymologist of our time, a woman who when she gives you her word expects you to preserve it in amber.
“My word,” she exclaimed, “it’s you—Bennett. Or, in French, Benet, a silly little country bumpkin beloved by all.” Continue reading
Summer has lingered far into this strange, dry autumn. It was a welcome guest at first, especially when it came to lawn work, the spade sinking easily into dirt that is often frost-crusted this time of year. But then, seasons never come and go the way they’re supposed to. Like the calendar, they tend to be just a comforting conceit, an attempt to organize the unpredictable. This is perhaps especially true in the Berkshires. Winter can often seem as epic and interminable as a Tolstoy novel, a siege state of endurance, a long hard retreat through enemy territory. Then, spring brief as a chaste kiss. Continue reading
It was such an unusually cool, damp August in the Berkshires, I think most of us gave up on summer before Labor Day. The trees were already starting to turn. It was too chilly to have dinner on the porch. Every once in a while, the furnace would kick in — a familiar yet ominous sound, like a phone call late at night. And then last weekend summer came Continue reading
The honey bees were back in force this summer, especially in those early weeks when all the world was in fragrant flower. The last few years, their numbers had thinned— making us worry about colony collapse — but, like so many things in nature, their absence seems to have been just part of a larger cycle, at least in our neck of the woods. It’s such a joy to observe bees at their busyness — the meticulous combing of every pollen-dusted pistil, the hoovering across the seed-roughened face of a sun flower. Continue reading