When Lilacs Last …

Lilacs are flowering everywhere in the Berkshires now — in front yards, along the roadside, in a fallow field where a house once stood. Though seemingly delicate and fragile, lilacs are quite hardy and can live well into their seventh decade. Every spring, their blossoms fill the air with a potent fragrance that’s infused with longing — the mixture of “memory and desire” T. S. Eliot wrote about in the Wasteland. What is it about the sense of smell — the strongest of the human senses — that can transport us so quickly into the past?  Lilac was the signature scent of an elderly aunt — a stern, accomplished pianist who brooked no nonsense —who returns to me every spring with the first whiff of syringa vulgaris. Lilac. The name itself is lovely, with those two gentle vowels nestled in the arms of the three protective consonants. The roots of the lilac are sunk deep into the heart of American poetry, with Walt Whitman’s elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln the most famous.  This long, glorious poem which, like so much of Whitman, contains multitudes – the planet Venus, the hermit thrush, the Civil war, mourning, death, and “ever returning spring” — to name just a few. Here are the poem’s first and final verses.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

by Walt Whitman


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.


Passing the visions, passing the night,
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands,
Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,
Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.

I cease from my song for thee,
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.

Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

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A Wing and a Prayer

Acadian Flycatcher, relative of the Eastern Phoebe

The phoebes are busy setting up housekeeping under our eaves.  All day long they swoop and whistle to each other — phoebe, phoebe — and pick through the dead grass to line their nests. They’re usually the first of the migratory birds to return to their breeding grounds, harbingers that another spring has arrived, that nature’s ancient rhythms are quickening again.  It’s a moment to cherish. Especially now that we know birds across the globe are vanishing from our skies in staggering numbers. Over the last fifty years, one third of the birds of North America alone have disappeared.

Barred owl

How did this happen?  What can we do about it? In A Wing and a Prayer, published this month, my brother Anders Gyllenhaal and his wife Beverly, both veteran journalists, take us on a fascinating journey to the front lines of the fight to reverse this terrifying trend.  During the pandemic, they packed up their Airstream and traveled more than 25,000 miles to interview the scientists and foresters, researchers and farmers who are employing age-old practices and fascinating new technologies to save the birds. The result is a book that Susan Page of USA Today called “a soaring achievement, beautiful and compelling.”

Anders and Beverly are back in their Airstream now, wending their way up the East Coast on a book tour.  They’ll be giving a talk, including a slide show of more of Anders’ photographs (shown above) on Thursday, July 6th at 7 p.m. at the Old Town Hall in West Stockbridge, MA. A reception and book signing will follow at Shaker Mill Books. For more information on the book and to order a copy, please visit: https://flyinglessons.us/our-upcoming-book/

Here’s a poem by the American poet R.T. Smith which beautifully captures how the most common of birds in the most familiar of situations can remind us of the “shadowy bliss we exist to explore.”

Hardware Sparrows

by R. T. Smith

Out for a deadbolt, light bulbs
and two-by-fours, I find a flock
of sparrows safe from hawks

and weather under the roof
of Lowe’s amazing discount
store. They skitter from the racks

of stockpiled posts and hoses
to a spill of winter birdseed
on the concrete floor. How

they know to forage here,
I can’t guess, but the automatic
door is close enough,

and we’ve had a week
of storms. They are, after all,
ubiquitous, though poor,

their only song an irritating
noise, and yet they soar
to offer, amid hardware, rope

and handyman brochures,
some relief, as if a flurry
of notes from Mozart swirled

from seed to ceiling, entreating
us to set aside our evening
chores and take grace where

we find it, saying it is possible,
even in this month of flood,
blackout and frustration,

to float once more on sheer
survival and the shadowy
bliss we exist to explore.

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Wild thing


Early one recent morning, I looked out the kitchen window and saw an enormous cat sitting in the breezeway between our house and garage. Its back was towards me, but I could tell that it was watching the bird feeders, no doubt sizing up the breakfast menu.  It must have sensed me there, because it suddenly swiveled its head and stared straight at me with yellow eyes. I felt that I was gazing directly into the wild.  I was five feet away from a bobcat.
A second later, it slipped away around the side of the garage but not before I noticed that it had a bobbed tail and little black tufts on the tips of its ears.  Its fur was a blur of dots and stripes. Though the bobcat is the most common wildcat in North America, it also tends to be the most elusive – solitary, territorial, hunting primarily in the twilight and dawn hours.  I felt lucky to have seen it at such close range, to have shared a moment – and a look – with something so untamed and beautiful and free.

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


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Month of despair

It seemed for a time, for most of January actually, that winter had passed us by. We racked up weeks of mild weather when the occasional rain segued into snow which melted politely away by morning. The daffodils started to push up.  The witch hazel shimmied with its gaudy gold and crimson tassels. Surely spring was right around the corner?  It was our year of magically thinking that we’d dodged the cold dark bullet that is February. Then the wind kicked in. The temperatures plummeted.  The muddy road froze solid with ruts as deep and hard as luge tracks. The rain turned to sleet. We woke up yesterday morning to a world made of glass: every tree and shrub and left-out lawn chair glittered with a thick coating of ice.  So lovely! Until an old cherry at the bottom of the drive collapsed under its icy armor. And the power went out. It’s in the single digits this morning with snow in the forecast and two winter storms brewing on the horizon. I don’t think anybody has addressed this month of the year with more finesse than Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist (The Handmaid’s Tale), essayist, environmental activist, and award-winning poet.


by Margaret Atwood

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,
declaring war. It’s all about sex and territory,
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here
should snip a few testicles. If we wise
hominids were sensible, we’d do that too,
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it’s love that does us in. Over and over
again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bedsheets, ambushing the pulsing
eiderdown, and the windchill factor hits
thirty below, and pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.

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Snowfall in the Afternoon

I love the way snow transforms the world around us in mysterious and beautiful ways. How the mountains disappear into the sky and the fields swell with drifts.  How the limbs of the spruces become draped with ermine and the last of the oak leaves — high up in the crown, gloved in white — clap wildly in the wind.  Snow lends itself to imagery — from Emily Dickinson’s “leaden sieves” and “alabaster wool” to Robert Frost’s extended metaphor of suicidal thoughts in “Stopping by Woods”—with, no doubt, thousands of other examples in between.  One of my favorites comes at the end of this poem by Robert Bly who died in 2021 at the age of 94.  When I was studying at Iowa, Bly was one of our gods, along with Theodore Roethke and James Wright — Midwesterners (all men, of course!) who wrote muscular, musical free verse that was unabashedly American and packed a powerful emotional punch.


Snowfall in the Afternoon

by Robert Bly

The grass is half-covered with snow. 

It was the sort of snowfall that starts in late afternoon
And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.

 If I reached my hands down near the earth
I could take handfuls of darkness!
A darkness was always there which we never noticed.

As the snow grows heavier the cornstalks fade farther away
And the barn moves nearer to the house.

The barn moves all alone in the growing storm.

The barn is full of corn and moves toward us now
Like a hulk blown toward us in a storm at sea;
All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.

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Harbinger of happiness

William Leaman/Alamy Stock Photo; Audubon Songbirds Calendar

I still depend upon printed weekly planners and wall calendars to keep track of my life. There’s something so satisfying about noting down all the important coming events in red ink by hand on actual paper at the beginning of each year. Something childishly exciting about thumbing through the neatly lined Filofax pages to discover what day of the week your birthday or anniversary will fall on. You hold your future in your hands in a way that I just don’t think is possible with digital versions of the same.  What I love most, though, is opening the Audubon Songbird wall calendar every year and seeing which birds will be featured in the twelve months ahead.  I was delighted to discover that the Eastern Bluebird, one of my favorites, is the bird of the month for June (which includes my birthday) in 2023.  A harbinger of happiness in many different cultures, a blue bird just yesterday landed in our window box and proceeded to snack on the winterberry branches there.  It was a rare sighting for late December and a sign, I hope, of good things to come.  Speaking of birds and good things ahead, on April 18, 2023 A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds by my brother Anders and his wife Beverly Gyllenhaal will be published by Simon & Schuster.  More to come on this important, dramatic, pathbreaking book — so mark your calendar. In the meantime, wishing you much happiness in the year ahead.

December 31st

by Richard Hoffman

All my undone actions wander
naked across the calendar,

a band of skinny hunter-gatherers,
blown snow scattered here and there,

stumbling toward a future
folded in the New Year I secure

with a pushpin: January’s picture
a painting from the 17th century,

a still life: Skull and mirror,
spilled coin purse and a flower.

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In this in-between season, before the snow falls, when the light slants at a lower angle, the eye is drawn to what the foliage and flowers had kept hidden: the almost otherworldly beauty of lichens. Splayed across stones, spreading over old walls and rotting wood, lichens thrive in the most unlikely places. From sea level to alpine heights, lichens can grow in Arctic tundra, sandy deserts, rocky coastlines, even toxic slag heaps. Though they sometimes look moss-like, they’re not related to moss — or any other plant. Lichens are actually composite, symbiotic organisms: a combination of a fungus and an alga.  The fungus gives the lichen its structure and the alga its ability to perform photosynthesis. There are over 20,000 known species, covering an estimated 6 – 8 percent of the world’s surface. Some lichens are believed to be among the oldest living things on the planet. They take on many different shapes and colors and textures and can be difficult to correctly identity. But I believe the silvery, leaf-like lichen in the photo above that’s been growing for years on the wooden gate of our vegetable garden is a foliose variety. Here’s a poem on the subject by one of my favorite contemporary American poets.

For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen

by Jane Hirshfield

Back then, what did I know?
The names of subway lines, busses.
How long it took to walk 20 blocks.

Uptown and downtown.
Not north, not south, not you.

When I saw you, later, seaweed reefed in the air,
you were grey-green, incomprehensible, old.
What you clung to, hung from: old.
Trees looking half-dead, stones.

Marriage of fungi and algae,
chemists of air,
changers of nitrogen-unusable into nitrogen-usable.

Like those nameless ones
who kept painting, shaping, engraving,
unseen, unread, unremembered.
Not caring if they were no good, if they were past it.

Rock wools, water fans, earth scale, mouse ears, dust,
Transformers unvalued, uncounted.
Cell by cell, word by word, making a world they could live in.

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First Fall

“We look at the world once, in childhood, the rest is memory,” Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück wrote in her poem “Nostos”.  I’ve been thinking about the wisdom of those lines these past few golden weeks in the Berkshires. Working in the garden as the last of the leaves drift down from the maples, I realize how much of what I feel is filtered through the past. The smell of woodsmoke. The honking of geese at night. The full Hunter’s moon rising over Harvey Mountain. All these moments have a feeling of déjà vu, memories piled on top of memories, smoldering like the fires my father built along our driveway to burn the leaves when I was a girl. That was the world I first saw, the autumn I first remember, the season against which I’ve measured all the ones that have come after.  Here’s a poem on the subject by Maggie Smith who writes so beautifully about motherhood.

First Fall
by Maggie Smith 

I’m your guide here. In the evening-dark
morning streets, I point and name.
Look, the sycamores, their mottled,
paint-by-number bark. Look, the leaves
rusting and crisping at the edges.
I walk through Schiller Park with you
on my chest. Stars smolder well
into daylight. Look, the pond, the ducks,
the dogs paddling after their prized sticks.
Fall is when the only things you know
because I’ve named them
begin to end. Soon I’ll have another
season to offer you: frost soft
on the window and a porthole
sighed there, ice sleeving the bare
gray branches. The first time you see
something die, you won’t know it might
come back. I’m desperate for you
to love the world because I brought you here.

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These early Autumn mornings often arrive cocooned in mist — beautiful, mysterious, and somewhat haunting. There’s nothing necessarily poetic about mist; meteorologically, it’s just the result of longer nights and the warmer earth interacting with the cooler air, causing water droplets to form close to the ground. But it’s hard to look out over a shrouded field, the hills a ghost of a silhouette in the distance, without feeling a sense of wonder. What’s out there? With a kind of abracadabra flourish, the world as we know it seems to go up in smoke. Though it will burn off by noon, these mists offer a glimpse of what’s to come: the lush greens of summer enveloped by the grays and whites of winter. Here’s a poem on the subject by the English poet Alice Oswald.


Alice Oswald

It amazes me when mist
chloroforms the fields
and wipes out whatever world exists

and walkers wade through coma
and close to but curtained from each other

sometimes there’s a second river
lying asleep along the river
where the sun rises
sunk in thought

and my soul gets caught in it
hung by the heels
in water

it amazes me when mist
weeps as it lifts

                 and a crow
calls down to me in its treetop voice
that there are webs and drips
and actualities up there

and in my fog-self shocked and grey
it startles me to see the sky

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Zinnias are the clowns of the late summer garden.  Wacky, sporting mis-matched and often outrageous color combinations, they bob  behind the ranks of chic perennials on stalks as long and sturdy as stilts. They’re just too silly to be taken seriously by any self-respecting gardener and yet, by the end of August, they’re often the only colorful things left standing in the border.  I’ve come to depend on them over the years and, after Continue reading

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The heat this past week was no joke.  It wasn’t the sticky neck or blurry glasses stuff of most mid-summers. Iced tea on the back screen porch was no remedy. Or a fan in a darkened bedroom. This was a mean heat, an in-your-face heat, and its brutish intensity just kept coming.  It’s gone now, but it’s the kind of bully that will circle back, pumped up and eager for another round.  It made me Continue reading

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Though both moths and butterflies are classified as Lepidoptera and are often confused with one another, there are several anatomical ways to tell them apart.  Their antennae, wings, pupae, and eyes are different, though it might take an advanced degree or microscope to notice the minuscule distinctions. Over the last few months, I’ve been developing a Continue reading

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Familiar faces

The snake is back in the vegetable garden.  I heard him this morning, slithering through the dead leaves between the compost bin and the sprouting raspberry canes.  I haven’t seen him yet, but I know what he looks like: a sinuous foot or so of black checkerboard skin with bright yellow racing stripes running down the length of his body. Generations of garter snakes have staked out Continue reading

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Color of the Sky

Spring is arriving in the Berkshires in fits and starts. It’s a slightly disorienting, in-between time. The sun is higher and stronger, but the trees are just beginning to leaf out, and the harsh bright light can be blinding. It’s cold enough some nights to have a fire, but it’s often still daylight when we sit down to dinner. Except for the bright chrome yellow splashes of daffodils and forsythia, nature’s palette is pretty much limited to shades of dried brown and timid green. Incremental changes are easy to overlook: the road, filled with muddy ruts a week or so ago, is hardening again, and there’s a soft reddish haze in the underbrush. At night the spring peepers fill the air with their high-pitched choruses — like the ringing of tambourines. It’s coming! It’s coming, they seem to say.

Here’s a poem by the late, great American poet Tony Hoagland about a moment like this.  The New York Times wrote that “his erudite comic poems are backloaded with heartache and longing, and they function, emotionally, like improvised explosive devices: The pain comes at you from the cruelest angles, on the sunniest of days.”


A Color of the Sky

by Tony Hoagland

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
when you pass through clumps of wood
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.

I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?
And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,
the very tint of inexperience.

Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

Last night I dreamed of X again.
She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
I never got her out,
but now I’m glad.

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It’s been doing that all week:
making beauty,
and throwing it away,
and making more.



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