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.



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.

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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 have staying power. Among the first plants to
shoot up every spring, they hold their IMG_1203shape and color throughout the summer and only collapse under the weight of late October’s hardest-hitting frosts. They first appeared on the fossil record over 360 million years ago, making them the oldest documented species on earth.

They’re a boon for gardeners as they thrive in the shade where most plants fail. Ours routinely grow to six feet high and create a hedge-like effect along the back of the garage and house. The edible fiddleheads contain more antioxidants than blueberries and are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber. What’s more, when steamed or sauteed with a little IMG_1196olive oil and garlic, they have a uniquely earthy taste — like taking a bite directly out of early spring itself.

Here’s a poem about ferns by Ted Hughes — long-time Poet Laureate of Britain — who wrote some of the greatest nature poems of the twentieth century.



Ted Hughes 1930 – 1998

Here is the fern’s frond, unfurling a gesture,
Like a conductor whose music will now be pause
And the one note of silence
To which the whole earth dances gravely –

A dancer, leftover, among crumbs and remains
Of God’s drunken supper,
Dancing to start things up again.
And they do start up – to the one note of silence.

The mouse’s ear unfurls its trust.
The spider takes up her bequest.
And the retina
Reins the Creation with a bridle of water.

How many went under? Everything up to this point went under.
Now they start up again
Dancing gravely, like the plume
Of a warrior returning, under the low hills,

Into his own kingdom.


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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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I’m not alone in hating spiders. According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute arachnophobia ranks third — right behind fear of public speaking and fear of death — among the country’s top phobias. Approximately 30 percent of all Americans are plagued by it. I won’t go into detail about when my fear of arachnids began — though it involved my first night away from home and a top bunk inches from a ceiling where I was told “all the spiders lived” — but I still recoil at the mere suggestion of anything with eight legs. Continue reading

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