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 hollowed out.  Still, I hated to see them go.  They’d been home to who knows how many generations of birds and squirrels. Every winter the deer made a pilgrimage to scavenge for fruit at the foot of the crab apples.  They’d been living on our property far longer than we had and were a part of the spirit of the place.  I’ve long believed in the secret lives of trees. As a child, moving to a new town where I had no friends, I turned to the trees on our property for companionship — and found it there, in the quiet fragrant shadows under the hemlocks. There’s more and more evidence that trees communicate, sending signals through underground networks, alerting each other of drought or disease or insect attacks.  They share water and nutrients and sun. When two trees are closely connected, writes the German forester and renowned tree expert Peter Wohllben, it’s often the case that “when one dies, the other dies soon afterward, because they are dependent on each other.”

I took the photo above from beneath an old maple, one of the trees we had taken down a few days ago. This was its view for many years before it was ever mine. And here’s a poem about trees by our current Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.  Born in Tulsa Oklahoma, she’s a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and draws from an ancient tribal sense of oneness with the natural world.

Speaking Tree
Joy Harjo

I had a beautiful dream I was dancing with a tree  —Sandra Cisneros

Some things on this earth are unspeakable:
Genealogy of the broken—
A shy wind threading leaves after a massacre,
Or the smell of coffee and no one there—

Some humans say trees are not sentient beings,
But they do not understand poetry—

Nor can they hear the singing of trees when they are fed by
Wind, or water music—
Or hear their cries of anguish when they are broken and bereft—

Now I am a woman longing to be a tree, planted in a moist, dark
earth
Between sunrise and sunset—

I cannot walk through all realms—
I carry a yearning I cannot bear alone in the dark—

What shall I do with all this heartache?

The deepest-rooted dream of a tree is to walk
Even just a little ways, from the place next to the doorway—
To the edge of the river of life, and drink—

I have heard trees talking, long after the sun has gone down:

Imagine what would it be like to dance close together
In this land of water and knowledge. . .

To drink deep what is undrinkable.

 

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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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Leaden Sieves

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

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How to see deer

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

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Peaceful Transition

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

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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, Continue reading

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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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