‘Tis the season for the pious and pagans alike to celebrate the light of the world in metaphor and in fact. The December 21 winter solstice marks the day when the tilting axis of the earth offers the full underbelly of the southern hemisphere to the sun, giving all of us here in the north the dark, cold shoulder of the season. We crave light – any light. So we put lights on trees. We put lights in our houses. We put trees in our houses and then put lights on them. Still, the margins of the day draw tightly around our working hours so unless you are some kind of slacker who is late to work and early to head home, dawn and dusk are your commuting companions.
The silver lining in all this December astronomical gloom is… well, a red lining. More people get to watch sunrises in December than at any other time of year. It requires no extreme early rising. On December 21, the sun will rise at 7:16 am. Many of us are already on the road by then, or at least sitting at the kitchen table looking out the window. The new day starts with a rosy glow at the horizon, overhung with the banners and buntings of clouds pinking up against the brightening sky. And there are moments in the most spectacular sunrises when the unseen hand of physics fiddles with the hue and saturation dials so that the whole sky ignites in reds and oranges and then quickly fades like burning tissue paper tossed on the fire. Continue reading »
FROM THE ARCHIVE: Make a list of our monuments to the dead. Start small with the headstones in the village cemetery and move to statues in the public square and civic buildings with great names affixed above the door. Then add the obelisks and marble mausoleums and Rushmores and pyramids of presidents and kings.
It is an impressive list. Yet it is dwarfed by monuments we see every day that stand in testament to one of the most heroic and back-breaking construction efforts in history: New England’s stone walls.
In November, after the curtain of leaves has been drawn from the woodlands, we once again see the old stone walls tracing the boundaries of lives lived long ago when our forests were the pastures and fields of our ancestors. The walls stand pretty much as they stood 250 years ago when they were built to specifications defined by property rights and the wanderlust of livestock. And what a construction project it was. Continue reading »
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
So begins “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. Rereading this poem is, for me, the perfect way to unwrap the winter season. Start with the ribbons — great flocks of blackbirds twisting in the early November sky.
Nothing brings stark definition to the pale light on the cold side of the equinoxes quite like blackbirds. Stevens, himself an odd bird with a poet’s heart stuffed inside a lawyer’s dark suit, stuffed inside an insurance office in Hartford, saw this so clearly. He got it all down in 13 quick stanzas — an odd dark number — that perfectly captures the strange dance of animus and bleakness that is winter. Some of it is achingly beautiful. Continue reading »
Autumn is the season of surrender. Yet on our tallest and most impressive standards, our hardwood trees, we do not run up white flags. They would be lost among the billions of leaf banners already signaling capitulation boldly in red, orange, yellow, and bronze.
Leaves seeking release from the outermost limbs of life tend to make a spectacle of their surrender and inevitable demise, especially here in New England. There is no shame in that final separation. Their brief communion with the wind above the rooftops, their prolonged commission as compost beneath the hedgerows, and their return to earth is an honorable journey that deserves a showy send-off. As fall bears down with frost and darkness, the least breeze can unhinge legions of leaves simultaneously, and you can hear the applause as they hit the ground.
Winter is a compelling presence at our latitude. It is the beautiful little sister of death who imposes a measure of loss on all living things still connected to nature: loss of light, loss of food, loss of liquid, loss of heat. Survival in the plant world is a matter of letting go, shutting down, temporarily folding up those big plans for increase written in the tiny hieroglyphics of DNA. Continue reading »
Yellow swallowtail on a buddleia.
When the weekend chores and errands are done and there are some unscheduled moments to fill before the dinner hour’s kitchen contra dance begins, Kate and I often end up on the back terrace in a state of recumbent sloth on a couple of long chairs, sipping whatever beverage we’ve been fantasizing about in our garden labors. And we look at the sky.
The broad sweep of blue framed by the proscenium of treetops and our cap brims rolls out to the southeast, where at that hour of the day high, silent airliners bound from JFK and LaGuardia to Heathrow traverse the slo-mo swirls of horsetail clouds. We speak of nothing in particular and everything in general in this mind-wandering phase of the day. And as if to etch the illegible signatures of two weary householders on a pact with a quiet evening, a yellow swallowtail butterfly jitters its way from some unseen place beyond the peak of the house to the bending blossoms of a buddleia looming near the kitchen door. Continue reading »
When we bought our place more than a decade ago, Kate and I had some set ideas about how we would inhabit the property. While it is relatively small – just an acre and a half – the parcel sits at the nexus of three separate and sprawling ecosystems: 20 acres of open fields to the south and east, a few hundred acres of woodland to the west and northwest, and a typical suburban neighborhood delineated by mailboxes and driveways ticking off along the road to the north. Our little lot has blended the elements of each of these areas, and as is common in transitional habitats, it is busy with wildlife. Our plan was to live in concert and accommodation with the inevitable churn of birds and critters, counting them as part of the “appurtenances thereof” mentioned in our warrantee deed for the premises.
We have come to realize over the years, however, that our high-minded, live-and-let-live attitude presumed that we actually had some administrative authority over the place – that we were running the show. Yes, we put in some gardens, ripped out some monster shrubs, planted some trees, and fixed up the house and barns. But over time we have learned that we are mere extras in the cast of characters that have brought a very long-running show to life in this place year after year. Each season is a new act with a new set of headliners – it might be juncos and coyotes in winter, black birds and chipmunks in spring, raccoons, dragonflies, and butterflies in summer, turkeys and Canada geese in fall – with special guest appearances by pheasants, foxes, bobcats, and the occasional bear. There’s even a Greek chorus of crows. And deer stand in the wings as understudies, always unappreciated and waiting for their big break among the tender shoots of opportunity. Continue reading »
You could make an educated guess that it is the end of May by watching my dog, Boon. He is a skilled napper, adept at finding the perfect spot for snoozing after a few moments of nose-in-the-air assessments of time of day, position of the sun, temperature, and untold intangibles carried on the breeze to the olfactory oracle residing in the throne room of his bloodhound brain. For ordinary days, he has his favorite spots on the lawn and in the garden beds, contoured and worn thin by his world-class weariness. And for days of rare or unique circumstance, including strange or uncertain shifts in the weather, or too many motorcycles on the road, or the intolerable taunts of snarky crows ensconced in his favorite shade tree, Boon will take refuge in special back-up hideaways under a shrub, in the crook of a stone wall, or in his rarely used but closely guarded dog house. But at this time of year he is peripatetic in his pursuit of rest. He never quite arrives at where he needs to be. The sun is too hot; the shade is too cool. There is a great unsatisfied need in him for a place in between. Continue reading »