Royal terns

IMG_3046We watched the royal terns on Captiva Island last week gather in a group on the beach, facing the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. They clustered together in a loose V-shaped formation, alert and somewhat pensive. It was as if they were waiting for someone or something that was long past due. The thick black caps of royal terns grow patchy in the winter months,

Photo: Nicholas Atamas

Photo: Nicholas Atamas

making them look a little like grumpy old men with comb-overs that lift in the breeze. They eyed us suspiciously as we walked past, shifting from foot to foot, muttering amongst themselves. We’d seen them in groups like this before and remain puzzled by what they were up to — neither feeding nor breeding — but forced together like strangers on a train platform. Continue reading

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Darwin’s Finches

IMG_5300In another month or two, the families of birds who have kept us company through the long winter will disappear once again into the canopies of green. Black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, red-breasted nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, junkos, woodpeckers, and a variety of finches — these birds of winter are often the only signs of life in an otherwise frigid and monotone landscape. Chattering at the birdfeeders or swooping in long, graceful swags across the fields, they have brought movement, color, and song into the darkest months of the year. In the spring and Continue reading

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Winter Landscape

IMG_2927I thought of John Berryman’s poem about Pieter Bruegel’s painting ‘Hunters in the Snow’ as I walked through the winter wonderland this morning. Transforming the every-day, a snowfall makes you see the world more clearly — or in a new way — at least for a little while.

Bruegel’s paintings do the same thing, I think, which is probably why they’ve inspired so many poems over the years, including W. H. Continue reading

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Winter Morning

IMG_2554.JPGIt’s been an oddly snowless winter in the Berkshires this year. The storm that is barreling up the coast will bypass us for the most part. All remains quiet, the ground a patchwork of tired brown and white. But winter is a state of mind as much as anything, a season of inwardness and contemplation. And so I woke this morning, thinking of this poem by the prolific and versatile American poet William Jay Smith who died this past year at the age of 97. Continue reading

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Angel Slices — the most heavenly of Christmas cookies

IMG_2812When I left home after college, my mother gave me two books which I think she believed would fully equip me for life on my own: The Holy Bible and Irma Rombauer’s original edition of The Joy of Cooking. In those days I wasn’t much of a cook — and even less of a baker. So I was lucky to stumble upon a particular recipe at the very start of my baking career. It was in The Joy of Cooking for a bar cookie called Angel Slices. Continue reading

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Paris — a love story

IMG_4276Along with so many others, I’ve been in love with Paris for as long as I can remember. I lived with Madeline “in an old house in Paris that was covered in vines” and I was there with Gigi “the night they invented champagne.” Victor Hugo, Colette, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald, they all added to the grand city that began to take hold in my imagination. A place of glowing interiors — Degas’ ballet studios and Vuillard’s wall-papered living rooms — and sweeping grandeur — Seurat’s public parks and Pissaro’s wide boulevards. I danced with Gene Kelly and turned a tearful face away from Bogart at the Gare de Lyon. A little later, I found myself torn between Jules and Jim. Continue reading

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Hard frost

IMG_2720The temperature dipped into the twenties in the Berkshires the other night, and we woke to a world glazed in white. Though beautiful from the window, up  close you could see the devastation wreaked on anything still growing: shriveled stalks and drooping heads. Each hard frost is like a stroke — a shock to nature’s cellular system — and this one seemed to be the final blow.

The crystalline skies the night before actually served as something of a frost warning. Without a blanket of cloud cover, Continue reading

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The end of summer

IMG_2617It still feels summery in the Berkshires, though there are signs of change everywhere. Most of the butterflies and many of the birds have already started their long journeys south. A family of strident blue jays has taken up residence in the willow which the hummingbirds leased during the summer. As dawn was breaking this morning, I heard the plaintive call of the barred owl in the woods: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”  But, for the most part, the mornings are much quieter now, except for the refrigerator-like hum of crickets and cicadas. Continue reading

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It’s a bird!

Here′s a guest post that I hope will add a smile to these last bittersweet days of summer:

ImageWalking along a Berkshire country road the other day, whom should I bump into but the god-like ornithologist Bert Humbert, whose colleagues have long believed that his eye is always on the hummingbird even if the hummingbird has yet to fall.

“Professor,” I said, “I see you’ve been taken to task by the Scandinavian magazine Hohumn for denying that a reclassification of hummingbird sexuality is long overdue.” Continue reading

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The Healing Power of Echinacea

IMG_2427My echinacea is in its glory now, a couple of weeks early, as are so many flowering plants and shrubs in the Berkshires this summer.   This beautiful North American native — also known as purple cone flower — is a magnet for butterflies, bees, and dragonflies. It was first employed by the Great Plains Indian tribes as an herbal remedy and later adopted for medicinal use by the settlers. In the first half of the 20th Century it was actually listed in the U. S. National Formulary as a remedy for colds and flu. With the introduction of antibiotics, echinacea fell out favor with mainstream medicine, though it’s always remained a mainstay of alternative healing.  Today, however, with the frightening rise of antimicrobial resistance to antibiotics, the scientific community is once again taking a look at the natural healing power of echinacea. Continue reading

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The Wildflower Field

IMG_3956Our house came with a field of wildflowers. There were mostly daisies that first summer. Then fewer daisies the next. It took me a few years to realize that you need to reseed every five years or so, especially after golden rod insinuates itself into the mix — like a stealth army — and soon has literally rooted out everything else. Then it’s time to mow, kill the old turf, plow under the field, and replant with new seeds. Continue reading

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Arachnophobia

I’m not alone in hating spiders. According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute arachnophobia ranks third — right behind fear of public speaking and fear of death — among the country’s top phobias. Approximately 30 percent of all Americans are plagued by it. I won’t go into detail about when my fear of arachnids began — though it involved my first night away from home and a top bunk inches from a ceiling where I was told “all the spiders lived” — but I still recoil at the mere suggestion of anything with eight legs. Continue reading

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In Praise of Allium

IMG_1867I planted Globemaster alliums three or four years ago. They’re the largest and most majestic plant from the ornamental side of the large allium family which includes chives, onions, shallots, leeks, and hundreds of wild and cultivated species. (Not surprisingly, allium is the Latin word for garlic.) In full bloom, Globemasters form 6 to 8-inch perfectly rounded heads which look like purple scepters reigning over the late spring garden. This year was a particularly good one for alliums — with the chives running rampant through the vegetable garden — and the Globemasters coming into their glory in late May and holding their color and shape right up until now. Continue reading

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Tulips

IMG_1834It’s been another passive-aggressive spring in southern New England. Showing up weeks late, spring arrived in a tremendous rush this year — trailing swarms of insects and rapidly pushing the temperatures up into the eighties. The daffodils and tulips which had been dozing under a blanket of snow were shaken rudely awake and forced into flower almost overnight. As a result, my spring bulbs which usually are given the chance to take individual turns on the red carpet had to share the spotlight this year with all the other beauties. Continue reading

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