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.

I’m a pretty open-border type of gardener.  Well-behaved and attractive migrant  “volunteers” such as mountain bluet, splurge, and blue lobelia are always welcome and free to stay as long as they like. But bishop’s weed is a “bad hombre”, a bully that sucks up territory and nutrients and strangles the life out of anything around it.

Here’s a recent mug shot: Please be on the look-out.

Weeds

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

White with daisies and red with sorrel
   And empty, empty under the sky!—
Life is a quest and love a quarrel—
   Here is a place for me to lie.

Daisies spring from damnèd seeds,
   And this red fire that here I see
Is a worthless crop of crimson weeds,
   Cursed by farmers thriftily.

But here, unhated for an hour,
   The sorrel runs in ragged flame,
The daisy stands, a bastard flower,
   Like flowers that bear an honest name.

And here a while, where no wind brings
   The baying of a pack athirst,
May sleep the sleep of blessèd things,
   The blood too bright, the brow accurst.

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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.  The American nature poet Mary Oliver (who died this past January at the age of 83 and who lived for a time at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Steepletop just over the mountain from us) had a remarkable ear for the harmonies of plants and animals. Here’s a poem of Oliver’s about peonies that seems to encompass, as does so much of her work, all of life and death.

Peonies

by Mary Oliver

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open —
pools of lace,
white and pink —
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities —
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again —
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

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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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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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