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.
They apparently arrived in this country on the Mayflower to be planted as herbs, but the rise of the great American lawn turned them into despised refugees: uprooted, poisoned, banned from the very land they helped colonize. They were labeled weeds, though in fact they’re classified as flowering plants, members of the very large Asteraceae family that includes daisies and sunflowers. With the growing awareness of the dangers of pesticides and over-fertilization, their reputation is bound to be restored. Soon, one hopes, their bright, happy faces will once again be dotting suburban summer neighborhoods from to sea to sea.
A Dandelion for My Mother
by Jean Nordhaus
How I loved those spiky suns,
rooted stubborn as childhood
in the grass, tough as the farmer’s
big-headed children—the mats
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe.
How sturdy they were and how
slowly they turned themselves
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars
barely visible by day, pale
cerebrums clinging to life
on tough green stems. Like you.
Like you, in the end. If you were here,
I’d pluck this trembling globe to show
how beautiful a thing can be
a breath will tear away.
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.
by Tess Taylor
We unstave the winter’s tangle.
Sad tomatoes, sullen sky.
We unplay the summer’s blight.
Rotted on the vine, black fruit
swings free of strings that bound it.
In the compost, ghost melon; in the fields
grotesque extruded peppers.
We prod half-thawed mucky things.
In the sky, starlings eddying.
Tomorrow, snow again, old silence.
Today, the creaking icy puller.
Last night I woke
to wild unfrozen prattle.
Rain on the roof—a foreign liquid tongue.
It’s neither red
It doesn’t melt
or turn over,
break or harden,
so it can’t feel
I’ve long admired the fearless, even reckless way Emily Dickinson flings metaphors around. “It sifts from Leaden Sieves” is a perfect example. This short poem about snow which never actually mentions the word throws together leaden sieves, alabaster wool, wrinkly roads, unbroken foreheads, and celestial veils —
all within the first three verses. Each metaphor makes sense when taken apart and examined on its own, and the accumulation of them — four or maybe five more follow — piling up one on top of the other, results in a blizzard of symbols that somehow cohere. The poem sounds and moves like a snowfall — the quiet repetition of “it,” the unhurried pace, the echoing rhymes and slant rhymes “face” and “east” and “room” and “them.” The last two lines are a brilliant sleight of hand, whipping the rug out from under all the poetic artistry that went before and leaving us alone with the hushed beauty of freshly fallen snow. Continue reading
One recent morning around dawn, I spotted a family of deer picking their way through our back woods. Deer tend to blend into the background this time of year, their coats the same color as the bare trees and fallen leaves. I probably would have missed them in the half light if it hadn’t snowed the night before. They moved slowly and silently, glancing warily up at the house from time to time as if they knew I was watching. Then they disappeared from view. It wasn’t until an hour or two later when my husband said “look at that!” and pointed to the woods that I realized they’d come back.
Now they were curled up under the trees. There’s been a lot of construction up on the mountain nearby, and I suspect the deer were refugees from some safer and more secluded habitat. I’m not sure why I found their still silhouettes so moving. But I sensed they were exhausted from scavenging for food, and they had no choice but to let us see them at their most vulnerable: asleep, right before our eyes. Continue reading
Did you manage to scrape together a decent reason why you were grateful on Thanksgiving? I trotted out, as I probably do most years, some platitudes about poetry, mainly because poetry offers such an effective antidote to the mundane and obvious. Oh, and it can stave off loneliness and transform despair into irony, all while sitting quietly on the printed page. These Continue reading
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, Continue reading
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
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