Zinnias are the clowns of the late summer garden.  Wacky, sporting mis-matched and often outrageous color combinations, they bob  behind the ranks of chic perennials on stalks as long and sturdy as stilts. They’re just too silly to be taken seriously by any self-respecting gardener and yet, by the end of August, they’re often the only colorful things left standing in the border.  I’ve come to depend on them over the years and, after discovering Queen Red Lime zinnias, have grown to love them, too.  This double flower variety starts with a deep red core, then daubs on shades of lime green to limey pink to a deep purplish red as it grows.  It also offers up an entertaining repertoire of shapes: frills, scallops, pin cushions, and a dense intricate center that looks almost crocheted. It dies beautifully, too: its colors muting as though dipped in tea, the flowers turning rounded and mop-like.  In the end, its head droops suddenly like a child falling asleep after a long day.

Here’s an excerpt from a poem on the subject by Mona Van Duyn, the first woman to serve as the country’s poet laureate (1992-93).


A Bouquet of Zinnias

Mona Van Duyn

One could not live without delicacy, but when
I think of love I think of the big, clumsy-looking
hands of my grandmother, each knuckle a knob,
stiff from the time it took for hard grasping,
with only my childhood’s last moment for the soft touch.
And I think of love this August when I look
at the zinnias on my coffee table. Housebound
by a month-long heat wave, sick simply of summer,
nursed by the cooler’s monotone of comfort,
I brought myself flowers, a sequence of multicolors.
How tough they are, how bent on holding their flagrant
freshness, how stubbornly in their last days instead
of fading they summon an even deeper hue
as if they intended to dry to everlasting,
and how suddenly, heavily, they hang their heads at the end.

In any careless combination they delight.
Pure peach-cheek beside the red of a boiled beet
by the perky scarlet of a cardinal by flamingo pink
by sunsink orange by yellow from a hundred buttercups
by bleached linen white. Any random armful
of the world, one comes to feel, would fit together.

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The heat this past week was no joke.  It wasn’t the sticky neck or blurry glasses stuff of most mid-summers. Iced tea on the back screen porch was no remedy. Or a fan in a darkened bedroom. This was a mean heat, an in-your-face heat, and its brutish intensity just kept coming.  It’s gone now, but it’s the kind of bully that will circle back, pumped up and eager for another round.  It made me think of this poem by the late Denis Johnson, an award-winning and highly acclaimed novelist (Fiskadoro, Tree of Smoke, Jesus’ Son) who was also a disturbingly powerful poet. To give you a preview of his tone, he once said “my ear for the diction and rhythms of poetry was trained by—in chronological order—Dr. Seuss, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and T.S. Eliot. Other influences come and go, but those I admire the most and those I admired the earliest (I still admire them) have something to say in every line I write.”


By Denis Johnson

Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
It’s beautiful Susan, her hair sticky with gin,
Our Lady of Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover,
streaming with hatred in the heat
as the record falls and the snake-band chords begin
to break like terrible news from the Rolling Stones,
and such a last light—full of spheres and zones.
you’re just an erotic hallucination,
just so much feverishly produced kazoo music,
are you serious?—this large oven impersonating night,
this exhaustion mutilated to resemble passion,
the bogus moon of tenderness and magic
you hold out to each prisoner like a cup of light?


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Though both moths and butterflies are classified as Lepidoptera and are often confused with one another, there are several anatomical ways to tell them apart.  Their antennae, wings, pupae, and eyes are different, though it might take an advanced degree or microscope to notice the minuscule distinctions. Over the last few months, I’ve been developing a Continue reading

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Familiar faces

The snake is back in the vegetable garden.  I heard him this morning, slithering through the dead leaves between the compost bin and the sprouting raspberry canes.  I haven’t seen him yet, but I know what he looks like: a sinuous foot or so of black checkerboard skin with bright yellow racing stripes running down the length of his body. Generations of garter snakes have staked out Continue reading

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Color of the Sky

Spring is arriving in the Berkshires in fits and starts. It’s a slightly disorienting, in-between time. The sun is higher and stronger, but the trees are just beginning to leaf out, and the harsh bright light can be blinding. It’s cold enough some nights to have a fire, but it’s often still daylight when we sit down to dinner. Except for the bright chrome yellow splashes of daffodils and forsythia, nature’s palette is pretty much limited to shades of dried brown and timid green. Incremental changes are easy to overlook: the road, filled with muddy ruts a week or so ago, is hardening again, and there’s a soft reddish haze in the underbrush. At night the spring peepers fill the air with their high-pitched choruses — like the ringing of tambourines. It’s coming! It’s coming, they seem to say.

Here’s a poem by the late, great American poet Tony Hoagland about a moment like this.  The New York Times wrote that “his erudite comic poems are backloaded with heartache and longing, and they function, emotionally, like improvised explosive devices: The pain comes at you from the cruelest angles, on the sunniest of days.”


A Color of the Sky

by Tony Hoagland

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
when you pass through clumps of wood
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.

I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?
And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,
the very tint of inexperience.

Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

Last night I dreamed of X again.
She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
I never got her out,
but now I’m glad.

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It’s been doing that all week:
making beauty,
and throwing it away,
and making more.



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The night migrations

I woke up in the middle of the night and heard the wild geese overhead. Their cries seemed to go on and on. This is the time of year when hundreds of thousands of birds are migrating across the skies under the cover of darkness. The Berkshire fields may still be a sodden uniform beige, but everywhere around us life is stirring. The witch hazel has been in gaudy bloom for almost a month now. Daffodils and alliums are wriggling their green fingers up through the earth. Phoebes are building a nest under the eaves of the barn.  This morning, I noticed that the frog pond, covered in ice just a few days ago, had thawed.  The water was rippling — as though someone had tossed in a handful of pebbles. Looking closer, I saw half  a dozen small green frogs bobbing on the surface and serenading each other with their strange croaking songs.

Here’s a poem by Louse Glück who, among a lifetime of poetic achievements, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Like so much of her work, this seemingly simple meditation has the power and complexity of a Buddhist koan.

The Night Migrations
Louse Glück

This is the moment when you see again
the red berries of the mountain ash
and in the dark sky
the birds’ night migrations.

It grieves me to think
the dead won’t see them—
these things we depend on,
they disappear.

What will the soul do for solace then?
I tell myself maybe it won’t need
these pleasures anymore;
maybe just not being is simply enough,
hard as that is to imagine.

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The Dead of Winter

It snowed last night.  It’s snowing now.  It will snow through the afternoon. There’s been a rhythm and repetitiveness to this winter’s weather that’s a bit like a Latin conjugation: amo, amas, amat.  Though there’s been very little to love about these past weeks of dead batteries and leaking roofs. Despite Valentine’s Day, there’s no sweet-talking February. Its language tends to be blunt and monosyllabic, composed of mostly Old- and Middle-English words of Germanic origin: sleet, ice, hail, wind, drift, slide, fall. The poem below by the late American poet Samuel Menashe is constructed almost entirely of such words. A review in the New York Times of his collected work said, “each poem reads as if it’s been handblown, filled with an exactly measured dose of Wisdom and then polished 9,000 times by the world’s most precisely folded chamois.”

The Dead of Winter
by Samuel Menashe

In my coat I sit
At the window sill
Wintering with snow
That did not melt
It fell long ago
At night, by stealth
I was where I am
When the snow began

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I sensed her — a blur in the woods, a fresh set of tracks in the snow — before I saw her.  At times, when the feeders were usually aflutter with activity, the birds would suddenly vanish.  I had the unsettling sensation of being watched.  And then one morning, hunger or familiarity emboldening her, she trotted out of the woods: a red fox with black
socks and the triangular facial features that marked her as a vixen.  She skirted the house with cautious fluidity, slowing to a stop in the front yard where a pair of gray squirrels were scavenging obliviously under the birdfeeders.

She attacked with lightning speed, driving one up into the eaves, the other scurrying to safety. Gray foxes have hook-shaped claws which allow them to climb trees after their prey, but the red fox is more earthbound. The vixen’s lunch made a flying leap into the trees and escaped.  The fox lingered in the yard (in the photo she’s watching the feeders from behind our long border) until another fox — larger, seemingly older, probably male — approached and they circled each other for a time, then ran off together into the woods.

I’m not sure why foxes seem so magical, but there’s something otherworldly about their gaze (like cats, red foxes have vertical pupils to enhance their night vision).  Ancient lore holds that foxes bring good luck — and news from the afterlife — both of which were true, it seems to me, for our lucky squirrel.

Here’s a poem on the subject by the great American poet W. S. Merwin. As is so often the case with Merwin’s work, the meaning is amorphous and shapeshifting, like some strikingly beautiful creature you might have seen — that just vanished.


By W. S. Merwin

Comet of stillness princess of what is over
      high note held without trembling without voice without sound
aura of complete darkness keeper of the kept secrets
      of the destroyed stories the escaped dreams the sentences
never caught in words warden of where the river went
      touch of its surface sibyl of the extinguished
window onto the hidden place and the other time
      at the foot of the wall by the road patient without waiting
in the full moonlight of autumn at the hour when I was born
      you no longer go out like a flame at the sight of me
you are still warmer than the moonlight gleaming on you
      even now you are unharmed even now perfect
as you have always been now when your light paws are running
      on the breathless night on the bridge with one end I remember you
when I have heard you the soles of my feet have made answer
      when I have seen you I have waked and slipped from the calendars
from the creeds of difference and the contradictions
      that were my life and all the crumbling fabrications
as long as it lasted until something that we were
      had ended when you are no longer anything
let me catch sight of you again going over the wall
      and before the garden is extinct and the woods are figures
guttering on a screen let my words find their own
      places in the silence after the animals

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Good bones

This is the time of year when the contours of the Berkshire hills once again dominate the view. Gentle and curvaceous, they recline against the winter landscape, silent as the snow that often covers their flanks. Melville imagined Mount Greylock which filled his vista to the north as a white whale breaching the surface: Moby-Dick in all his ferocious beauty. Harvey Mountain, which looms above us can seem like an enormous wave about to break, its spume of snow whistling down through the hemlocks. The Berkshires ­are among the oldest mountains in the world, first formed when Africa collided with North America creating the Appalacian range, then gradually weathered and carved into their present shape — earth’s good bones — over the last 500 million years.

This poem by the American poet Maggie Smith went viral after the Orlando nightclub shooting five years ago and has now been shared hundreds of thousands of times.  Though dark, I share it here as a fitting way of closing out this dismal year.

Good Bones
by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.


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First snow

The heavier snow was supposed to fall north of us.  We were to get just a light dusting. The long mild November had managed to keep the idea of winter at bay. Only a week or so ago the oaks and beeches were still golden, and moths fluttered against the windows at night.  It seemed almost possible to believe that the unseasonal warmth might last forever. But then the snow began to fall, and this magical thinking was slowly buried under the inches that kept accumulating.  How is it that, year after year, the first real snow comes as a surprise?  Surely, we should be used by now to waking up one morning and finding that the world has turned white overnight.  But even our snowplow guy seemed caught off guard: “Can you believe this?” he asked, as our shared new reality settled in. Then he backed up, made another pass, and, metal scraping against gravel, careened back down the drive.

by Maggie Dietz

Show’s over, folks. And didn’t October do
A bang-up job? Crisp breezes, full-throated cries
Of migrating geese, low-floating coral moon.

Nothing left but fool’s gold in the trees.
Did I love it enough, the full-throttle foliage,
While it lasted? Was I dazzled? The bees

Have up and quit their last-ditch flights of forage
And gone to shiver in their winter clusters.
Field mice hit the barns, big squirrels gorge

On busted chestnuts. A sky like hardened plaster
Hovers. The pasty river, its next of kin,
Coughs up reed grass fat as feather dusters.

Even the swarms of kids have given in
To winter’s big excuse, boxed-in allure:
TVs ricochet light behind pulled curtains.

The days throw up a closed sign around four.
The hapless customer who’d wanted something
Arrives to find lights out, a bolted door.

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Yellow landscape

It’s been a muted fall in the Berkshires. The spring plague of gypsy moths followed by endless weeks of rain (July was the wettest on record) did a number on the leaves. Some just seemed to drop en masse overnight as if too exhausted to hold on another second.  The hot crimson reds and burnt sienna oranges that usually light up our hills each October are missing for the most part from the autumnal Continue reading

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This is the time of year when clusters of small daisy-like blooms dot the landscape. Some are tiny and ghostly white, more froth than flower; others the size of half dollars with bright periwinkle petals and chrome yellow eyes. The Berkshires alone boasts more than 20 species of wild asters (Latin for “star”) and there are several hundred known varieties around the country. Like Japanese Anemone and Sweet Autumn Clematis— other late bloomers — Continue reading

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Joe Pye Weed

Its pink, furry florets shoot up along roadsides and in fallow fields, the tallest kids in the class. Though a little ungainly, Joe Pye weed is reliably sturdy just when other showier plants are starting to wither and fade. For centuries, it’s been used by herbalists to reduce fever. Legend has it that an Indian named Joe Pye shared it with the settlers in Continue reading

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Romano beans

I’ve always loved them. Long, broad, and flat, Romano beans look like  professionally ironed versions of their string bean cousins. They were called “Italian beans” when I was growing up, only available frozen and always on a hit and miss basis. They’re still hard to find fresh, except for a few weeks in late July and early August when they briefly put in an Continue reading

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