First snow

The heavier snow was supposed to fall north of us.  We were to get just a light dusting. The long mild November had managed to keep the idea of winter at bay. Only a week or so ago the oaks and beeches were still golden, and moths fluttered against the windows at night.  It seemed almost possible to believe that the unseasonal warmth might last forever. But then the snow began to fall, and this magical thinking was slowly buried under the inches that kept accumulating.  How is it that, year after year, the first real snow comes as a surprise?  Surely, we should be used by now to waking up one morning and finding that the world has turned white overnight.  But even our snowplow guy seemed caught off guard: “Can you believe this?” he asked, as our shared new reality settled in. Then he backed up, made another pass, and, metal scraping against gravel, careened back down the drive.

November
by Maggie Dietz

Show’s over, folks. And didn’t October do
A bang-up job? Crisp breezes, full-throated cries
Of migrating geese, low-floating coral moon.

Nothing left but fool’s gold in the trees.
Did I love it enough, the full-throttle foliage,
While it lasted? Was I dazzled? The bees

Have up and quit their last-ditch flights of forage
And gone to shiver in their winter clusters.
Field mice hit the barns, big squirrels gorge

On busted chestnuts. A sky like hardened plaster
Hovers. The pasty river, its next of kin,
Coughs up reed grass fat as feather dusters.

Even the swarms of kids have given in
To winter’s big excuse, boxed-in allure:
TVs ricochet light behind pulled curtains.

The days throw up a closed sign around four.
The hapless customer who’d wanted something
Arrives to find lights out, a bolted door.

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Yellow landscape

It’s been a muted fall in the Berkshires. The spring plague of gypsy moths followed by endless weeks of rain (July was the wettest on record) did a number on the leaves. Some just seemed to drop en masse overnight as if too exhausted to hold on another second.  The hot crimson reds and burnt sienna oranges that usually light up our hills each October are missing for the most part from the autumnal color palette. This is the year of yellow. Beeches, oaks, birches, apples, even some maples are sporting the same look, as if bowing to the dictates of this fall’s fashion trend. But in a year of painful stops and starts, yellow is perhaps a fitting color, signaling: slow down or proceed with caution because who knows what may be coming?

Here’s a shaggy-dog poem by the award-winning Midwestern poet Keith Ratzlaff which features two actual dogs I would very much like to meet.

Yellow Landscape

Keith Ratzlaff

I’m walking through goldenrod
in new shoes, shoes I got for a song—
like the one I’m singing now
that pleases the cicadas, the one
that would make Schubert cry.
And I love the way the ash
is the first tree always
to turn, throw its hands
in the air and say shoot me
like a tourist on the subway;
or the way Napoleon’s troops
burned the flag rather
than surrender it, then
drank the ashes in brandy.
It didn’t matter. It was still
the same black feather
on the tongue, they were still
the same superior forces.
So I’m singing for the ash
and the cottonwood, then
for the cowardly willow,
for crows dying in their steeples,
for shirts I should have never thrown out—
the ones with destinations on their chests;
I’m singing swansongs and torch songs,
songs of the Chinese Coffin-pullers,
of men standing on one leg,
of the birch outside my window
abducted by bag worms. The tree
has wriggled one green leaf free
and waves it goodbye like a hankie,
waves I’m all right, I’ll be home, 
don’t worry. And I’ve got leaves
in my pocket for company
and I’m walking through the sunflowers
and chicory of the autumnal Midwest,
and I’m singing for my occasional friends—
two Labradors—who come bounding up
and I’m singing for the kid
paid to walk them but who’s always late,
singing because I don’t like dogs much,
but these two include me as if
I were still inclusionable.
This isn’t regret,
but relief that again this year
we will give up the Chateaux
with a minimum of bloodshed.
And the younger dog fetches
cottonwood leaves, carries them
soft-lipped in his mouth
the way I would if I were a dog,
by instinct. And I’m singing
because who else but a dog
could be so happy at finding me here?
And I’m singing because yesterday
I needed something to hold,
and he laid his gold head in my hands.

 

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Asters

This is the time of year when clusters of small daisy-like blooms dot the landscape. Some are tiny and ghostly white, more froth than flower; others the size of half dollars with bright periwinkle petals and chrome yellow eyes. The Berkshires alone boasts more than 20 species of wild asters (Latin for “star”) and there are several hundred known varieties around the country. Like Japanese Anemone and Sweet Autumn Clematis— other late bloomers — Continue reading

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Joe Pye Weed

Its pink, furry florets shoot up along roadsides and in fallow fields, the tallest kids in the class. Though a little ungainly, Joe Pye weed is reliably sturdy just when other showier plants are starting to wither and fade. For centuries, it’s been used by herbalists to reduce fever. Legend has it that an Indian named Joe Pye shared it with the settlers in Continue reading

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Romano beans

I’ve always loved them. Long, broad, and flat, Romano beans look like  professionally ironed versions of their string bean cousins. They were called “Italian beans” when I was growing up, only available frozen and always on a hit and miss basis. They’re still hard to find fresh, except for a few weeks in late July and early August when they briefly put in an Continue reading

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On the forest floor

When I’m hot and tired after working in the garden, I’ll walk up into the woods to commune with the ferns and moss that carpet the forest floor. Cool and fresh-looking on even the most oppressive days, they exude a zen-like calm. Perhaps that’s because they’ve survived on earth for so long, with some estimates putting them at nearly 300 million Continue reading

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Bleeding hearts

Intricate as origami, among the first plants in the garden to flower every spring, bleeding hearts are as cheery and old-fashioned as hand-made valentines.  They seem to appear, fully formed, overnight. Their sprays of blossoms — each a heart-shaped pouch dangling a tiny white fan — float like Japanese lanterns above luminous fern-like foliage. Cultivated bleeding hearts, members of the poppy Continue reading

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Eulogy for a willow

It’s been on its way out for years, scattering branches and bark the way an elderly woman might start shedding her possessions.  A decade ago, the tree was sheared nearly in half when a high wind rampaged through the Berkshires, leaving a tangled mass of shattered branches and willow wands on the front lawn.  What remained, looked lopsided and off-balance, an amputee with a phantom limb. We thought of taking the rest of the tree down then, but something in me couldn’t let it go.  Planted when our farmhouse went up almost 100 years ago, the tree seemed the spirit of the place somehow. Hummingbirds built their nests in its branches every summer.  Flying squirrels took up residence in one of its decaying knotholes. But in Continue reading

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Breaking into blossom

We’re still seesawing between seasons in the Berkshires, the temperatures sometimes swinging 40 degrees in a single day. But there’s a red haze in the underbrush and a thickening in the upper branches of the trees. The brook roars day and night, its banks overrun with snowmelt and spring thaws. The fields remain brown and beaten down by winter, stalks sticking up out of the ground like the spokes of collapsed umbrellas. But something’s in the air — that Continue reading

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Orchids

This is the time of year when a flowering plant can seem like a miracle. Cut flowers just don’t cut it. Kept alive through refrigeration, there’s too often a funereal feeling about them. The heady scent of lilies, the bright smile of Gerbera daisies can’t mask the truth that you’re looking at something that’s been knifed and has only days to live. An orchid on the other hand, even the $20 moth variety sold by the hundreds at Whole Foods, can last for months. (Which is quite a bargain considering that, at the height of Orchidelirium in Europe in the 1800s, a single orchid plant could go for thousands of dollars.) Continue reading

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Cold

It’s been cold, and it’s getting colder.  The first sub-zero temperatures of the year will swoop in this weekend — the kind of cold that’s beyond any given degree or wind chill factor.  Cold that becomes an adversary, slapping your face so hard when you venture outside that your eyes water. Cold that turns your breath to smoke and your ears to burning cinders.  This is Dr. Zhivago cold, only without the snow-swept vistas and tinkling ice Continue reading

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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 Continue reading

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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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