Cutting back

I’ve spent the last few days taking down the garden, cutting back the ranks of shasta daisies and phlox that stood sentinel all summer over the more free-spirited orders of pulmonaria, anemone, and bleeding heart. They’re mostly stubble now, except for a few stands of echinacea that I left for the birds to finish off.  It was cold work.  But satisfying, too, harking back to the age-old practice of bringing in the sheaves.  As the leaves fall, the contours of the mountain we face take shape again — an enormous iceberg emerging from the fog.  We’re getting back down to the essentials, and soon we’ll be surrounded by the monotones of winter.

“Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones,” lines from the American poet Elinor Wylie, kept drifting through my mind as I worked.  She was a contemporary of the far more famous Edna St. Vincent Millay, also beautiful and tempestuous, but dying young and leaving behind a scandal-scarred life and eight novels and books of poetry.  Most seem archaic now, but this poem (here are the first and final verses) from her most successful book Nets to Catch the Wind, still resonates.

Wild Peaches
by Elinor Wylie


When the world turns completely upside down
You say we’ll emigrate to the Eastern Shore
Aboard a river-boat from Baltimore;
We’ll live among wild peach trees, miles from town,
You’ll wear a coonskin cap, and I a gown
Homespun, dyed butternut’s dark gold colour.
Lost, like your lotus-eating ancestor,
We’ll swim in milk and honey till we drown.

The winter will be short, the summer long,
The autumn amber-hued, sunny and hot,
Tasting of cider and of scuppernong;
All seasons sweet, but autumn best of all.
The squirrels in their silver fur will fall
Like falling leaves, like fruit, before your shot.

4
Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There’s something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meagre sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.

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Hummingbirds

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 Continue reading

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The Zucchini Festival

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

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Summer rain

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

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More Than Enough

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

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A bird at the window

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

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Bird Song

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

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A Landscape

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

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Funny valentine

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

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The House

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

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Lemon Oil

 

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

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It’s a word!

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

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Fall, falling, fallen

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

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The heat of autumn

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

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