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 recent springs, the bright gleam of its thickening wands seemed duller, more a tired yellow than the almost phosphorescent green-gold of its glory days.  And branches kept dropping.  When one large one crashed down within a foot of me in late March, I knew it was time.  Perhaps it was even a sign.  One spirit calling to another to do the brave and difficult thing. We cut it down as low as the chainsaw could go, though its moss-covered roots remain, sunk deep and I hope forever into the greening world.  Here’s a poem that delves far deeper into the subject by the American poet Dorianne Laux who brings humor and humanity to everything she writes:

The Life of Trees

Dorianne Laux

The pines rub their great noise
into the spangled dark, scratch
their itchy boughs against the house,
that moan’s mystery translates roughly
into drudgery of ownership: time
to drag the ladder from the shed,
climb onto the roof with a saw
between my teeth, cut
those suckers down. What’s reality
if not a long exhaustive cringe
from the blade, the teeth. I want to sleep
and dream the life of trees, beings
from the muted world who care
nothing for Money, Politics, Power,
Will or Right, who want little from the night
but a few dead stars going dim, a white owl
lifting from their limbs, who want only
to sink their roots into the wet ground
and terrify the worms or shake
their bleary heads like fashion models
or old hippies. If trees could speak,
they wouldn’t, only hum some low
green note, roll their pinecones
down the empty streets and blame it,
with a shrug, on the cold wind.
During the day they sleep inside
their furry bark, clouds shredding
like ancient lace above their crowns.
Sun. Rain. Snow. Wind. They fear
nothing but the Hurricane, and Fire,
that whipped bully who rises up
and becomes his own dead father.
In the storms the young ones
bend and bend and the old know
they may not make it, go down
with the power lines sparking,
broken at the trunk. They fling
their branches, forked sacrifice
to the beaten earth. They do not pray.
If they make a sound it’s eaten
by the wind. And though the stars
return they do not offer thanks, only
ooze a sticky sap from their roundish
concentric wounds, clap the water
from their needles, straighten their spines
and breathe, and breathe again.

 

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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 wormy smell that so often follows rain. And something else: a sense of bated breath and expectation.

Here’s a poem that touches on this elusive, almost mystical feeling by the American poet James Wright who wrote with haunting lyricism about the vast lonely stretches of America, especially the Midwest.

A Blessing

James Wright (1927 – 1980)

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness   
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.   
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.   
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me   
And nuzzled my left hand.   
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

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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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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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