Spring snow

It snowed in the Berkshires yesterday. Thick lazy flakes drifted down through the late afternoon sky— too wet to stick. We went to bed with the ground outside the color of old shoe leather and woke to a blanket of white. A thin blanket, though, one riddled with the stubble of last season’s garden and pierced by the first green shoots of spring.  Still, it felt like a respite of some kind — like manna, the bread of heaven that supposedly fed the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.

Poetry is such a sustenance, too.  Here are two wonderful poems that touch on this unseasonal moment.  This section of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ starts the fourth and final sequence to his magnum opus, the ‘Four Quartets’.  William Matthews’s poem, though more modest and personal in scope, seems to me to address the same unanswerable questions of life and death, time and memory.

Little Gidding

T. S. Eliot

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?

 

Spring Snow

William Matthews

Here comes the powdered milk I drank
as a child, and the money it saved.
Here come the papers I delivered,
the spotted dog in heat that followed me home

and the dogs that followed her.
Here comes a load of white laundry
from basketball practice, and sheets
with their watermarks of semen.

And here comes snow, a language
in which no word is ever repeated,
love is impossible, and remorse. . . .
Yet childhood doesn’t end,

but accumulates, each memory
knit to the next, and the fields
become one field. If to die is to lose
all detail, then death is not

so distinguished, but a profusion
of detail, a last gossip, character
passed wholly into fate and fate
in flecks, like dust, like flour, like snow.

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Skunk hour

http://www.birdphotos.com

One night a few weeks ago, just when we were getting ready for bed, an odor drifted up from the basement — one that is instantly recognizable and universally despised: skunk.  At first we thought the cat had unwisely cornered a member of the mephitidae family (a close relation of the polecat and weasel), but when I went downstairs to investigate, I encountered nothing but that overwhelming smell — as eye-wateringly potent and punishing as teargas. I’ve since learned that the skunk’s noxious scent and teargas are, in fact, both lachrymators — chemical substances designed to irritate the eyes and nose.

The next morning, we discovered a pane of glass missing from a window below our dining room — one that opens to a crawl space with a damp, dirt floor. A skunk’s spray contains thioacetates, that are initially dormant, but that can morph into smell-producing thiols when they come into contact with water or humidity — such as a damp, dirt floor. It’s the thioacetates, we’ve learned to our chagrin, that give skunk spray its staying power.

Skunks have very few predators, except for clueless dogs and speeding automobiles (skunks also have very poor eye-sight). We’re not the only mammals who don’t want to risk getting sprayed. Wolves, foxes, and badgers all turn tail when they spot a skunk coming their way. That’s why skunks can sashay around the countryside, flaunting their eye-catching black and white furs like Park Avenue socialites at a PETA rally. We never did actually see our home invader, despite the traps that were set up outside around the house.  The smell is finally starting to fade.  Though on damp days such as this one, you can still catch a whiff drifting up the stairs. An olfactory reminder of the wild world that exists just outside our door.

Here’s a poem by Robert Lowell, nominally on the subject, though its true text is madness which he came to know all too well.

 Skunk Hour
by Robert Lowell

For Elizabeth Bishop

Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop.  Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she’s in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue.  His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl,
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull,
I watched for love-cars.  Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,
‘Love, O careless Love . . . .’ I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

 

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Forcing bulbs

Photo: Patricia Aakre

There’s nothing quite as welcome in the middle of winter as the sight of blooming paper whites or hyacinths on a sunny windowsill. These bulbs, along with daffodils, tulips, narcissus, and others are easy to force into flower — though what you’re actually doing is tricking them into thinking that winter’s over. And who doesn’t wish for that about now? Watching sprouts push out of the homely little bulbs, shoot up, and explode in a fireworks of musk and perfectly formed flower heads — is to have a front row seat for one of nature’s most accomplished magic acts.

I purchased paper whites in bulk from my favorite on-line nursery (https://www.longfield-gardens.com which also has an excellent newsletter) and gave them away over the holidays with simple instructions: settle them in a tray or bowl filled with pebbles or dirt, give them some sun and water — and then practice patience, as they take several weeks to flower.
Hyacinths can be grown directly in water by using a forcing vase (shown below), kept in a cool dark place for Continue reading

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Journey of the Magi

Murillo's 'Adortation of the Magi' fragment

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’

Of the many subplots of the Christmas story, I’ve always been most drawn to that of the wise men. The bible doesn’t actually specify that there were three of them, just that they brought with them three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We don’t know for certain how many there were — Eastern Christianity has twelve or more in the caravan — or where they came from, though an Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthazar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar Continue reading

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La Serenissima

Venice has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s a city I know well enough to be able to find my way along its cobbled streets and across its marbled bridges with the aid of memory alone.  There’s the Rialto rising out of the mist. A vaporetto puttering into its stop in front of the Accademia.  We spent many Christmases there —  when darkness fell like a velvet curtain and the lights of old palaces glittered in the inky waters. Though outwardly ostentatious and mercenary, Venice has always been a secretive and mysterious place. Many of its most stunning treasures are tucked away in unexpected places: the Carpaccio paintings in the tiny Scuolo San Giorgio degli Schiavoni; the tesselated marble floor, rich and intricate as an oriental carpet, mostly overlooked by the hordes being herded through the Basilica di San Marco; the mismatched pride of lions that guard the entrance to the Arsenale. At every turn, Venice is a visual feast, an alchemy of stone and light and water. And now, of course, far too much water. Continue reading

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Taking down the trees

They were dead. Or dying. Two crab apples that had been strangled by vines.  A great old dark cherry, standing astride our back woods, that had been riddled by insects and then jackhammered by woodpeckers and sapsuckers for so many years that its insides had been Continue reading

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The Light of September

As the days grow shorter and shadows lengthen, the contours of the newly mown field and the sloping shoulders of the mountain ridge come into focus again. Summer’s exuberant abundance — the drifts of phlox and unruly ranks of wild flowers — has given way to a stricter, more measured order. Change is everywhere, though still as gradual as the shifting sunlight. It’s warm enough for the cosmos to keep blooming, but they’re aging beauties now, their desiccated flower heads nodding on thinning stalks. The morning birdsong — Continue reading

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Japanese eggplant

Sleek, thin-skinned, and mild, Japanese (Ichiban) eggplant is an entirely different animal from its larger, fleshier Italian cousin. Obviously, it’s not an animal, but eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and potatoes, and therefore classified botanically as a fruit. I put in half a dozen Japanese eggplants early this summer and have been rewarded with a sweet, succulent, almost seedless harvest ever since. Their leaves are a lovely dark green with purple veins, their stems a sticky dark purple, but it’s Continue reading

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Local peaches

These days you can consume most kinds of fruit any time of the year —apples in May, strawberries in November.  Many are shipped in refrigerated trucks and airplanes from around the world and can pass for fresh and edible. But peaches, the most delicate and succulent of stone fruit, don’t travel well.  It’s true that they can be trucked up from Georgia during July and August, but even then they’ll suddenly turn airy and tasteless as paper towel.  The best peaches are local (ours are coming from Germantown, New York), and we’re in that sweet spot— Continue reading

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Bishop’s weed

Look carefully at the photo to the right and you’ll see, nestled between the proud crimson plumes of the two astilbes and surrounded by the delicate leaves  of epimedium and heuchera, the innocuous-looking face-in- the-crowd that is bishop’s weed. Also known as goutweed and snow-in-the-mountain, bishop’s weed is hiding in plain sight in every shady nook of my garden.  It’s a shape-shifter of a plant, insinuating itself into a gaggle of ladies mantle, hovering in the shade of astrantia fronds, trying to fit in — and almost, but never quite — pulling it off.  But pulling is what you’ll do if bishop’s weed gets a foothold in your garden.  Not only does it spread by seed, but it quickly establishes large underground networks of rhizomes, strong as plastic netting and almost impossible to rout out. Continue reading

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Peonies

It’s that wonderful moment in the garden when everything is possible again. The damp chilly spring meant a slow start to the growing season.  But now the freshly minted grass, dew-laden in the morning, is thick and spongy as a bathroom rug. Even the finicky continus shrubs and rugosa roses are showing signs of life— their rows of hard red bumps erupting into leaf overnight.   The great classical orchestra of perennials is assembling, each starting to keep time to an inner music that a gardener, looking out across the greening world, can almost hear. Continue reading

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Dandelions

I’ve always loved dandelions. As a child, I thought they were named for dandy-looking lions — with those round yellow heads and shaggy ruffs.  Though, in fact, the name apparently derives from the French dent-de-lion or lion’s tooth, referring to their jagged leaves.  That doesn’t take away from their whimsical, almost magical appeal. They can be both food (my father
used to pick them for salads) and drink (dandelion wine and as an ingredient in root beer), and they’ve been used for medicinal purposes by the Chinese for thousands of years. Along with forsythia, witchhazel, and daffodils they play in nature’s proudly loud brass section, blaring the news of spring. Continue reading

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Mud time

Mud time arrives in the Berkshires like a bout of anxiety. The clearly defined whites and blacks of winter give way to a queasy beige.  There are downed branches everywhere, hummocks of gravel spewed up by the snowplow.  Everything seems slightly off kilter in
the unforgiving light that lingers too long into the afternoon. The frozen dirt road with its well-defined runnels turns overnight into a quagmire — more dangerous than ice.  One road over from us a car sank to its bumpers in the muck.  It’s impossible to imagine that the world was ever green  — or will be again. And then the first of the chives, thin as cat whiskers, push through the dried mat of last year’s bounty. Continue reading

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Heart to Heart

It’s neither red
nor sweet.
It doesn’t melt
or turn over,
break or harden,
so it can’t feel
pain,
yearning,
regret.

Continue reading

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