Poppies

IMG_3219The 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.

The sun garden in August

The sun garden in August

I’m not quite sure when the poppies took over their little corner, though I have a vague memory of being given a free packet of poppy seeds with an order of wild flower mix a few years back. I don’t think they flowered the first summer, but they’ve been a fixture in the June garden ever since: loud and louche, making everything around them look a little tame.

Here’s a wonderful poem about poppies and — like all good poems — about so much else.

POPPIES

by Jennifer Grotz

There is a sadness everywhere present
but impossible to point to, a sadness that hides in the world
and lingers. You look for it because it is everywhere.
When you give up, it haunts your dreams
with black pepper and blood and when you wake
you don’t know where you are.

But then you see the poppies, a disheveled stand of them.
And the sun shining down like God, loving all of us equally,
mountain and valley, plant, animal, human, and therefore
shouldn’t we love all things equally back?
And then you see the clouds.

The poppies are wild, they are only beautiful and tall
so long as you do not cut them,
they are like the feral cat who purrs and rubs against your leg
but will scratch you if you touch back.
Love is letting the world be half-tamed.
That’s how the rain comes, softly and attentively, then

with unstoppable force. If you
stare upwards as it falls, you will see
they are falling sparks that light nothing only because
the ground interrupts them. You can hear the way they’d burn,
the smoldering sound they make falling into the grass.

That is a sound for the sadness everywhere present.
The closest you have come to seeing it
is at night, with the window open and the lamp on,
when the moths perch on the white walls,
tiny as a fingernail to large as a Gerbera daisy
and take turns agitating around the light.

If you grasp one by the wing,
its pill-sized body will convulse
in your closed palm and you can feel the wing beats
like an eyelid’s obsessive blinking open to see.
But now it is still light and the blackbirds are singing
as if their voices are the only scissors left in this world.

Posted in Blog | 14 Comments

Putting in the seed

IMG_3166I 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 flowers to keep us out of the greengrocers from June until early October.

The vegetable garden at the height of its glory

The vegetable garden at the height of its glory in late summer

Most gardeners in Southern New England probably share my belief that the only crops you can consistently count on every year are pebbles, rocks, and stones. Though they don’t entirely solve the problem, the raised beds make it much easier to amend the soil and keep it evenly moist. They also add a comforting sense of order to a process that — due to the vagaries of the elements — remains an iffy undertaking. Already this spring, we lost most of our pear blossoms to a late frost and the chipmunks dug up and carted away almost an entire bed of sugar snap peas.

Sunflower seedlingStill, like Robert Frost in the sonnet below, I am a “slave to a springtime passion for the earth.” And there’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching the “sturdy seedling with arched body … shouldering its way” — or as delicious as freshly picked arugula you planted yourself.

 

PUTTING IN THE SEED

by Robert Frost

You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea);
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a Springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

Posted in Blog | 13 Comments

Ferns

IMG_0994Here 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

Posted in Blog | 9 Comments

Royal terns

IMG_3046We watched the royal terns on Captiva Island last week gather in a group on the beach, facing the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. They clustered together in a loose V-shaped formation, alert and somewhat pensive. It was as if they were waiting for someone or something that was long past due. The thick black caps of royal terns grow patchy in the winter months,

Photo: Nicholas Atamas

Photo: Nicholas Atamas

making them look a little like grumpy old men with comb-overs that lift in the breeze. They eyed us suspiciously as we walked past, shifting from foot to foot, muttering amongst themselves. We’d seen them in groups like this before and remain puzzled by what they were up to — neither feeding nor breeding — but forced together like strangers on a train platform. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 9 Comments

Darwin’s Finches

IMG_5300In another month or two, the families of birds who have kept us company through the long winter will disappear once again into the canopies of green. Black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, red-breasted nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, junkos, woodpeckers, and a variety of finches — these birds of winter are often the only signs of life in an otherwise frigid and monotone landscape. Chattering at the birdfeeders or swooping in long, graceful swags across the fields, they have brought movement, color, and song into the darkest months of the year. In the spring and Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 12 Comments

Winter Landscape

IMG_2927I thought of John Berryman’s poem about Pieter Bruegel’s painting ‘Hunters in the Snow’ as I walked through the winter wonderland this morning. Transforming the every-day, a snowfall makes you see the world more clearly — or in a new way — at least for a little while.

Bruegel’s paintings do the same thing, I think, which is probably why they’ve inspired so many poems over the years, including W. H. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 6 Comments

Winter Morning

IMG_2554.JPGIt’s been an oddly snowless winter in the Berkshires this year. The storm that is barreling up the coast will bypass us for the most part. All remains quiet, the ground a patchwork of tired brown and white. But winter is a state of mind as much as anything, a season of inwardness and contemplation. And so I woke this morning, thinking of this poem by the prolific and versatile American poet William Jay Smith who died this past year at the age of 97. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 13 Comments

Angel Slices — the most heavenly of Christmas cookies

IMG_2812When I left home after college, my mother gave me two books which I think she believed would fully equip me for life on my own: The Holy Bible and Irma Rombauer’s original edition of The Joy of Cooking. In those days I wasn’t much of a cook — and even less of a baker. So I was lucky to stumble upon a particular recipe at the very start of my baking career. It was in The Joy of Cooking for a bar cookie called Angel Slices. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 16 Comments

Paris — a love story

IMG_4276Along with so many others, I’ve been in love with Paris for as long as I can remember. I lived with Madeline “in an old house in Paris that was covered in vines” and I was there with Gigi “the night they invented champagne.” Victor Hugo, Colette, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald, they all added to the grand city that began to take hold in my imagination. A place of glowing interiors — Degas’ ballet studios and Vuillard’s wall-papered living rooms — and sweeping grandeur — Seurat’s public parks and Pissaro’s wide boulevards. I danced with Gene Kelly and turned a tearful face away from Bogart at the Gare de Lyon. A little later, I found myself torn between Jules and Jim. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 13 Comments

Hard frost

IMG_2720The temperature dipped into the twenties in the Berkshires the other night, and we woke to a world glazed in white. Though beautiful from the window, up  close you could see the devastation wreaked on anything still growing: shriveled stalks and drooping heads. Each hard frost is like a stroke — a shock to nature’s cellular system — and this one seemed to be the final blow.

The crystalline skies the night before actually served as something of a frost warning. Without a blanket of cloud cover, Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 4 Comments

The end of summer

IMG_2617It still feels summery in the Berkshires, though there are signs of change everywhere. Most of the butterflies and many of the birds have already started their long journeys south. A family of strident blue jays has taken up residence in the willow which the hummingbirds leased during the summer. As dawn was breaking this morning, I heard the plaintive call of the barred owl in the woods: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”  But, for the most part, the mornings are much quieter now, except for the refrigerator-like hum of crickets and cicadas. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 11 Comments

It’s a bird!

Here′s a guest post that I hope will add a smile to these last bittersweet days of summer:

ImageWalking along a Berkshire country road the other day, whom should I bump into but the god-like ornithologist Bert Humbert, whose colleagues have long believed that his eye is always on the hummingbird even if the hummingbird has yet to fall.

“Professor,” I said, “I see you’ve been taken to task by the Scandinavian magazine Hohumn for denying that a reclassification of hummingbird sexuality is long overdue.” Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 7 Comments

The Healing Power of Echinacea

IMG_2427My echinacea is in its glory now, a couple of weeks early, as are so many flowering plants and shrubs in the Berkshires this summer.   This beautiful North American native — also known as purple cone flower — is a magnet for butterflies, bees, and dragonflies. It was first employed by the Great Plains Indian tribes as an herbal remedy and later adopted for medicinal use by the settlers. In the first half of the 20th Century it was actually listed in the U. S. National Formulary as a remedy for colds and flu. With the introduction of antibiotics, echinacea fell out favor with mainstream medicine, though it’s always remained a mainstay of alternative healing.  Today, however, with the frightening rise of antimicrobial resistance to antibiotics, the scientific community is once again taking a look at the natural healing power of echinacea. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 11 Comments

The Wildflower Field

IMG_3956Our house came with a field of wildflowers. There were mostly daisies that first summer. Then fewer daisies the next. It took me a few years to realize that you need to reseed every five years or so, especially after golden rod insinuates itself into the mix — like a stealth army — and soon has literally rooted out everything else. Then it’s time to mow, kill the old turf, plow under the field, and replant with new seeds. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 11 Comments