The Great Conjunction

In a year that had so little to look forward to, it promised to be a once-in-a-millennium celestial spectacle. Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest worlds in our solar system, would appear almost as one in the night sky. And not just any night sky: the event would take place on the Winter Solstice. The combined planets would form a star so bright that many believed it was the one the wise men had followed to the city of Bethlehem two thousand years ago.  The name itself — the Great Conjunction — promised a kind of togetherness that has been sorely lacking on our woebegone earth for almost a year now.

I cut a path on the afternoon of the Solstice through a foot of freshly fallen snow to the top of our upper field. Later, about an hour after sunset, I set out into the frigid dusk. A half moon followed me through the trees and cast an otherworldly sheen over the fields as I climbed. When I reached the top of the hill I stopped, adjusting my binoculars, and faced southwest above the tree line where I was told to look.  I found clouds instead.  Not even storm clouds.  Just a blanket of everyday condensed water vapor thick enough to obscure the horizon.

Directly above me, though, stars gleamed.  And through the trees I could see the distant lights of my neighbors’ windows.  Somewhere, as might have been the case in Bethlehem, the planets were aligning. In the darkest night of this darkest of  years a kind of miracle was unfolding. Just one that not everybody was destined to see.

Here’s a poem on the subject with a final stanza that I particularly recommend.

Toward the Winter Solstice

by Timothy Steele

Although the roof is just a story high,
It dizzies me a little to look down.
I lariat-twirl the cord of Christmas lights
And cast it to the weeping birch’s crown;
A dowel into which I’ve screwed a hook
Enables me to reach, lift, drape, and twine
The cord among the boughs so that the bulbs
Will accent the tree’s elegant design.

Friends, passing home from work or shopping, pause
And call up commendations or critiques.
I make adjustments. Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days.

Some say that L.A. doesn’t suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake;                          
The desert lifts a full moon from the east
And issues a dry Santa Ana breeze,
And valets at chic restaurants will soon
Be tending flocks of cars and SUVs.

And as the neighborhoods sink into dusk
The fan palms scattered all across town stand
More calmly prominent, and this place seems
A vast oasis in the Holy Land.
This house might be a caravansary,
The tree a kind of cordial fountainhead
Of welcome, looped and decked with necklaces
And ceintures of green, yellow, blue, and red.

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

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Daylight Saving Time

It gets dark a little earlier every afternoon now. The shift accelerated a few weeks ago when we turned the clocks back. Our house, tucked into a rise on the side a long hill, falls into shadow even sooner than for our neighbors up the road.  The sun snags on the top of the tree line some time after 4 o’clock most afternoons and then collapses like a spent balloon, brightness bleeding out into the Continue reading

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Reluctance

It’s time to come inside.  Time to put the gardens to bed and stow the flower pots and outdoor furniture away. I’ve already disassembled the tomato supports (with dozens of green laggards still  clinging to the vines) and harvested the last of the arugula and lettuce. Except for the oaks and beech trees, most of the leaves have fallen, and the mountain — hidden for so many months behind the foliage — emerges from the mist, an enormous Continue reading

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The pear thief

I looked up from weeding the vegetable beds a few weeks back to see that half the pears on our espaliered pear trees that we’d trained against the side of the barn were gone.  Branches that had been drooping with fruit just the day before had been stripped bare, a bountiful harvest of Bartlett pears vanishing into thin air overnight. Occasionally, in the past, we’d find a half-eaten, partially ripened pear on the ground under the trees, the work of the chipmunks who’ll try anything once, even the eggplant I discovered, still on its vine, covered in disgruntled t0othmarks. But the pear theft was more like a heist, a clean, professional sweep of the goods with no sign of the culprit or how the sting was pulled off.  Interestingly, though, only the Bartlett pears were stolen.  Our tree of Asian pears was left untouched. Continue reading

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Blue hydrangea

 

In late August, hydrangeas take center stage in the Berkshires. And in a summer with so little live music, dance, or theater, they’re putting on a welcome show. Our “Pinky Winky” paniculatas are exploding in the back garden, setting off rockets of deep rust and white surrounded by bursts of tiny sparklers. On a drive through town as dusk descends, the hooped skirts of a row of Annabelles — snow white and otherworldly in the fading Continue reading

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Raspberries

The garden has always been a place of refuge, but it seems especially so this summer. To be able to walk out, unmasked, across the dew-laden grass in the early morning to pick raspberries is to know peace.  The news alerts come by way of the blue jays hectoring a squirrel in the hemlocks. Though our social lives remain meager, never has nature seemed more bountiful. The tomato vines and espaliered pear trees droop with ripening fruit. Overnight, the tightly packed pale beige raspberry buds swelled and softened. About the size of Continue reading

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Scattered blossoms

The rain has left a trail of rose and peony petals across the lawn —fresh and fragrant — as though just strewn by a flower girl at a wedding. It’s always heartbreaking to see these first fragile blooms of summer scatter to the ground.  We waited so long for their arrival, checking daily through the long, chilly spring for signs of progress. Then one morning we turned Continue reading

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Nesting

We’ve been watching the birds return to their summer homes these past few weeks.  One morning, an explosion of bright orange hit the living room window as a pair of claws scrabbled at the iron mullions, trying to gain a foothold.  It was a Baltimore Oriole, come back to the place that had offered free orange halves the year before.  I quickly nailed fresh oranges to the porch post and soon both a male and female (not to mention a sapsucker and red squirrel) were pecking at the fruit. Continue reading

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Soft rains

It’s been a long slow wet spring in the Berkshires.  Temperatures struggle to get out of the 50s by day and sink into frost territory overnight. We’re still waking up to a dusting of snow some mornings. It feels as though we’re stuck in Ground Hog Day and will keep rebooting this unremarkable moment in mid-February forever. Though there is some comfort in the predictable rhythm of repetition right now, the sense of time passing homogeneously within the same four walls for the most part, between the same two people, protected from the jarring dissonance of change. Continue reading

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Spring snow

It snowed in the Berkshires yesterday. Thick lazy flakes drifted down through the late afternoon sky— too wet to stick. We went to bed with the ground outside the color of old shoe leather and woke to a blanket of white. A thin blanket, though, one riddled with the stubble of last season’s garden and pierced by the first green shoots of spring.  Still, it felt like a respite of some kind — like manna, the bread of heaven that supposedly fed the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.

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Skunk hour

http://www.birdphotos.com

One night a few weeks ago, just when we were getting ready for bed, an odor drifted up from the basement — one that is instantly recognizable and universally despised: skunk.  At first we thought the cat had unwisely cornered a member of the mephitidae family (a close relation of the polecat and weasel), but when I went downstairs to investigate, I encountered nothing but that overwhelming smell — as eye-wateringly potent and punishing as teargas. I’ve since learned that the skunk’s noxious scent and teargas are, in fact, both lachrymators — chemical substances designed to irritate the Continue reading

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Forcing bulbs

Photo: Patricia Aakre

There’s nothing quite as welcome in the middle of winter as the sight of blooming paper whites or hyacinths on a sunny windowsill. These bulbs, along with daffodils, tulips, narcissus, and others are easy to force into flower — though what you’re actually doing is tricking them into thinking that winter’s over. And who doesn’t wish for that about now? Watching sprouts push out of the homely little bulbs, shoot up, and explode in a fireworks of musk and perfectly formed flower heads — is to have a front row seat for one of nature’s most accomplished magic acts.

I purchased paper whites in bulk from my favorite on-line nursery (https://www.longfield-gardens.com which also has an excellent newsletter) and gave them away over the holidays with simple instructions: settle them in a tray or bowl filled with pebbles or dirt, give them some sun and water — and then practice patience, as they take several weeks to flower.
Hyacinths can be grown directly in water by using a forcing vase (shown below), kept in a cool dark place for Continue reading

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Journey of the Magi

Murillo's 'Adortation of the Magi' fragment

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’

Of the many subplots of the Christmas story, I’ve always been most drawn to that of the wise men. The bible doesn’t actually specify that there were three of them, just that they brought with them three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We don’t know for certain how many there were — Eastern Christianity has twelve or more in the caravan — or where they came from, though an Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthazar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar Continue reading

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La Serenissima

Venice has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s a city I know well enough to be able to find my way along its cobbled streets and across its marbled bridges with the aid of memory alone.  There’s the Rialto rising out of the mist. A vaporetto puttering into its stop in front of the Accademia.  We spent many Christmases there —  when darkness fell like a velvet curtain and the lights of old palaces glittered in the inky waters. Though outwardly ostentatious and mercenary, Venice has always been a secretive and mysterious place. Many of its most stunning treasures are tucked away in unexpected places: the Carpaccio paintings in the tiny Scuolo San Giorgio degli Schiavoni; the tesselated marble floor, rich and intricate as an oriental carpet, mostly overlooked by the hordes being herded through the Basilica di San Marco; the mismatched pride of lions that guard the entrance to the Arsenale. At every turn, Venice is a visual feast, an alchemy of stone and light and water. And now, of course, far too much water. Continue reading

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