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.) Their flowering is a performance art: tightly furled blossoms that unwrap themselves in a tantalizing, slow motion striptease. They prefer snug spaces and indirect light and not being fussed over — like cats (who, by the way, leave orchids alone). Scentless for the most part, their beauty is all about form and balance.

Here’s a poem on the subject by the late American poet and publisher Sam Hamill who, together with Tree Swenson, founded Copper Canyon Press, one of the country’s finest poetry houses.

The Orchid Flower

by Sam Hamill
(1943 – 2018)

Just as I wonder
whether it’s going to die,
the orchid blossoms

and I can’t explain why it
moves my heart, why such pleasure

comes from one small bud
on a long spindly stem, one
blood red gold flower

opening at mid-summer,
tiny, perfect in its hour.

Even to a white-
haired craggy poet, it’s
purely erotic,

pistil and stamen, pollen,
dew of the world, a spoonful

of earth, and water.
Erotic because there’s death
at the heart of birth,

drama in those old sunrise
prisms in wet cedar boughs,

deepest mystery
in washing evening dishes
or teasing my wife,

who grows, yes, more beautiful
because one of us will die.

 

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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 palace.  It’s animal cold — raw, rough, and hungry.  It bites your nose and squeezes the blood out of your fingers and toes. Then it follows you back into the house, clinging to your clothes.

Here’s a poem on the subject by the American poet Robert Francis who lived very frugally for over 60 years in a house he built for himself in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Little known in his lifetime and even less so now, he was a great admirer of Robert Frost who paid him the very Frostian compliment of being “of all the great neglected poets, the greatest.”

Cold

Robert Francis

Cold and the colors of cold: mineral, shell,
And burning blue. The sky is on fire with blue
And wind keeps ringing, ringing the fire bell.

I am caught up into a chill as high
As creaking glaciers and powder-plumed peaks
And the absolutes of interstellar sky.

Abstract, impersonal, metaphysical, pure,
The dazzling art derides me. How should warm breath
Dare to exist – exist, exult, endure?

Hums in my ear the old U-father of freeze
And burn, that pre-post-Christian Fellow before
And after all myths and demonologies.

Under the glaring and sardonic sun,
Behind the icicles and double glass,
I huddle, hoard, hold out, hold on, hold on.

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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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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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