St. Valentine’s Day Ski

I’ve been skiing on Thomas Penn’s garden. It’s a ballpark now, but once it was filled with sparkling ponds full of goldfish and painted fences and a wild wood where imported deer nibbled flowering bushes. So long ago in the eighteenth century. He had a greenhouse where a giant aloe plant grew tended by his gardener, Virgil. People would come out from town to take a look and then stroll in the grounds. I circle the park at least five times, the icy rain coming down softly on my shoulders. I try to go as fast as I can. There’s hardly anyone out. A man and woman sheltering under an umbrella. Kids sliding down the tiny slope on the edge of the field.

My husband breaks trail, and then we have a slick path all around the edges, along the parade of trees with wet buds under their hard scales, past the bullpen and the bleachers, down along the parkway where three yellow trucks plow, and salt, and move the snow.

It’s almost St.Valentine’s Day and Scott says, I know you’re thinking about old boyfriends.

No I’m not, I say. I’m thinking about snow. He’s dreaming of the Haute Route starting in Verbier, where we spent our honeymoon years ago. We’d need new skis, he says.

A man who usually sleeps in the park walks around the edges on the shoveled sidewalk. Around and around and around. Trying to keep warm in the chilly rain. It’s been a cold winter and I’ve been wondering about my trees in pots, though snow insulates. The daffodils along the side of the house are poised to break open. Just as soon as the weather warms a bit. Thomas Penn’s stream still runs under the ballpark. A bubbling sparkling thing during his life. Wild flowers grew along the edges. A marshy spot on his land where willows grew. So many things run under my skis as I come around again, the bricks of houses pulled down to make the parkway, the dirt from Penn’s gardens, the brittle glass from the greenhouse.

King Frederik’s Garden

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I’ve been reading about French gardens, but I spent the winter in Denmark. Spoiled by water. Reading water, listening to water, smelling the salty brine of water. French gardens are all about order and illusion, or they were once upon a time. Allés leading into the woods, fountains spouting jets of sparkly water. “A sense of infinite space.” Even in Versailles there wasn’t enough water for all the fountains to be on at once. The gardeners would signal each other with whistles when the king was touring the garden with friends like John Locke. So the silver water was like a dance.

In Reading the French Garden, Denise Le Dantec and Jean Pierre Le Dantec have all sorts of interesting things to say about the massive gardens that once surrounded castles and villas. Mark Laird in The Formal Garden illustrates the history of these gardens in his book. Three towns were emptied for one of the most famous, Vaux. Hundreds of men moved earth around to make the garden designed by Le Nôtre. Intricate knots of flowers bordered by boxwood. Bushes in tight formation spilling over onto crushed stone. Grottos where very rich people ate elaborate dinners all dressed up. It was magical even as the Wars of Religion tore the countryside apart.

One famous gardener, Olivier de Serres, came back home after years of fighting (with sword and pistol) in the late 1580s and made a fruitful series of gardens surrounding his home. Orchards, fields fallow some years, flowers and vegetables in straight lines in a series of rectangles. He had “apple and pear trees, vines, and cherry trees. One saw lavender there, and rosemary, peas, broad beans, long trellises, and beautiful bowers. And “a menagerie containing boars, parrots, and several lions, large and small, whose roars terrified the gardeners working nearby.”

He invented a mechanical seeder and cultivated silk worms, “established wide parallel canals, paved at the bottom, in which clear water ran continuously.”

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I saw a garden in Denmark, beautiful in late winter, surrounding King Frederik’s castle. People called this place the Danish Versailles. Formal, perched on the edge of the lake that lapped up against the turreted building where the portraits of all the kings and queens of Denmark hang in a long hall. A series of steep slopes, slippery in the cold, terraces, bosquets, parterres, ramps. The lime trees very still and bare in March.

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In Troense the gardens are snug against the half-timbered houses, miniature formal gardens in their plots of clipped boxwood. And in all the towns on all the streets, fists of hyacinths in little pots about to bloom. Fritillaria arching their speckled faces high over the rims of miniature pots. Chairs with a spectacle of spring bulbs. Sidewalks full of daffodils in the dim light of a northern winter.

Here it’s summer. I scoop up a very tiny slug, or is it a snail without a house? And it arches its antennae resting on my finger. “He’s been eating the dahlias,” I say to my neighbor, George, “but how can I kill him? I’ll just deport him here,” and I slip the tiny slug under a rash of chocolate mint, near the elm on the sidewalk. It’s morning and the cardinal is hollering in a tree somewhere. The pink lilies with yellow stripes just opening their mouths.

Some miracles: bitternut hickory, map turtle, the Schuylkill

 

Blazing yellow bitternut hickory leaves, kingfishers darting up and down the river ten miles or so out of town, a week later, gone—the dry smell of autumn after a liquid world of late summer. Once the river was high and brown racing along in the glinting sun. Once the hickories were used for all sorts of things: “crunched green nut husks…to poison fish for food.” And the wood is good for burning. Good for barrel hoops and skis, wagons, gunstocks, chair backs and baskets, my guidebook, written in the last century, tells me.

Other apparitions of late summer and fall: puff ball mushrooms on the ball field, a praying mantis on the screen, cicada carcasses, a shiny spider with brown legs calm in the center of her huge web, strung from the umbrella to the door. Here and then gone, the liquid quiver of the earthquake.

I’ve been thinking about turtles and the river, the silky wide river that flows past my house to the ocean. Two hundred years ago you could see the water from where I sit typing. A couple of weeks ago I was walking by the river on a paved path that curves past the boathouses, north to where the river starts in the little hills called the Blue Mountains. A young woman was holding something as I circled back toward home. It looked like a small camera with a telephoto lens. When I got close enough to see her, I saw it was a turtle.

“I found her,” she said. “She was in the middle of the path. I was afraid she’d get squished.”

“How did she get here?” I asked.

“Maybe she got washed out here by the storm. Or the water was so high she crawled up that pipe.”

“She’s beautiful, or he’s beautiful.” I realized I didn’t know much about turtles. “Let’s put her here,” I said, and pointed to a wedge of brush filled with trash. “Not so great for a turtle, maybe, but at least she can get to the water from here.”

“You want to hold her?” she asked.

And I stuck my hand out and carefully held her on my palm, her smooth yellow plastron, cool and hard. My hand must have been warm. The turtle stuck her head way out, green streaked neck and amber eyes, her legs popping out from the shell. I put her on a pile of sticks and leaves and she just sat there. “I don’t think she likes it,” I said.

“How about over here,” the woman said and picked her up and placed the turtle on a little path that went down toward the water.

“That looks better.” The turtle thought so, too, and started moving into the thicket. Soon she was running all the way down to the high rough water under the bridge.

“I guess she’s a water turtle,” she said.

Later, I found out from Charles Fergus in his book Wildlife of Pennsylvania that Graptemys geographica has an olive brown carapace. The map turtle is shy and leaps off logs into the water. She likes snails and clams, crushes them with her jaws. And eats insects, crayfish, carrion and plants. She walks on the bottom of the river, avoids swift currents. The young hatch from mid august to September. The map turtle doesn’t leave the water except to sunbathe or lay eggs. She hibernates in deep slow water. Sometimes, if the frozen river is transparent, you can see the turtles move under the ice in the winter.

 

 

 

Composing: October Garden, blooms & words

I’m writing a novel. I’ve never written one before. I’ve started this one several times.

First there was a man fishing in a river in the far north. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to kill him off. One scene had his foot being pulled into a narrow northern boat by another fisherman who might have been the murderer. In another that man had vanished. One beginning has a girl at a tea table with her grandmother. She was in love and had left her lover.

At one point all the characters seemed to speak at once. I started out with the girl who was me and changed her name over and over until she was someone else. Now the book begins with a girl who’s now a woman looking at the village, seeing herself in the little northern settlement where she fell in love. This version has a detective and letters. Each time I came up with a different focus, the way the characters spoke changed. I wanted a simple story and now I have several versions. The detective and the girl in their own tale.

The novel was so tiny at first. Short pieces that fit into another book of short pieces, characters speaking to the camera. Before that, I think it was an essay, a series of poems, notes in two notebooks. Before the story was a novel, it was real. And that was one of the problems. That witches’ brew of salmon soup: eyes and silver skin; the sound of the gravel crunching as someone walked across the road to fetch milk in a white jug from the dairy; the smell of the vidda in the spring; the soft hands of a tiny baby.

I feel like an imposter writing this book. I’m not supposed to write a novel. I don’t know what I’m doing. But certainly, my good angel says, you’ve read lots of novels, you’ve even studied them, for goodness sake. Sure, but I’m not really a novelist.

I wanted to write a girl’s book, but suddenly there was the detective, tall and fair—so predictable, I thought, so much like a prince in all the old stories. And he was stuck in his own mystery, reading a book his great-uncle had written: Muittalus Samid Birra. His uncle was a wolf hunter in the far north of Norway. I had all these stories. Some were true and some were not.

The book the detective was reading was one I’d been carting around for thirty years. The translator was a woman called Emilie Demant Hatt, I noticed one morning as I worked. Her name jumped out at me from the worn cover of the book. Why didn’t I notice that years ago, I wondered. Now I had another character who spoke to me from her cabin near where I once lived in Finnmark. She was prodding Johan Turi to tell her about his life. What did the reindeer eat when the snow was so deep they couldn’t get to the succulent moss?

You must be courageous and impulsive, my friend Karen, who read the last version, said. How do I know what that means, I said to my husband. Does it mean I have to kill off a character I like, or expose some secret I don’t want to expose?

It’s like a spit cake, I read about it in The New York Times, you just keep dipping the skewers into the batter and then toast it over the flame until you have the thickness you need, another friend, Elaine, said. Both agreed my novel was not done yet.

Did you think you were finished? Karen asked.

Before all this, there were meetings with my friend Mary Ann in my small hot office at the university where I teach.

Why was she on the river? Why was he fishing? There has to be a journey to find something. Why don’t you just follow the plot of a classic tale? A band of buddies searching for the grail. Challenges, reward.

You’re going down another rabbit hole, my husband said yesterday. I was reading about Carl Nielsen, the famous Danish composer and his wife, a sculptor, and their three children and Nielsen’s two “out of wedlock” children. He was in love with  Emilie when she was 16. I know because she wrote her own version of the story when she was an old woman, too sick to travel. The manuscript sat in the Royal Library in Copenhagen for over 50 years. A bundle of letters and jewels, musical scores, “All of the gathering shadows,” and her “Spring Torrents.” Hidden treasure.

But it’s really interesting, I said. Anyway, I think I’ve filled that rabbit hole.

Sometimes, it feels as if I’m trying to erase myself from the book. There I am with my grandmother in England. I’m wearing that awful striped sweater. Look, there I am again like Where’s Waldo, peaking around the corner of the sauna, a pile of bottles in a pail from Father’s night out. There I am in the garden at Portmeirion looking out at the sea.

Sometimes as I write I’m trying to see the edge of the waterfall now so many years later. The thundering water and the flat stretch of land going out to the north. I’m trying to call forth the taste of his mouth. The blood on the snow, the bodies of willow grouse torn apart by the eagle. But I can’t. The world is a different place. There are two men talking below the window. I can hear them as I pour tea into a cup. My grandmother is dead now. One of many deaths. The milk is so cold it cools the tea down so I can almost gulp it quick.

You’ve got to cut that scene at the club, Karen suggested when I talked to her on the phone.

It went something like this:

She sat across from Mrs. Carlson at a table in the club. Rose poured water into the goblets, sloshing a bit on the white tablecloth. “You always do have something there on your chin,” Mrs. Carlson said and pointed at Kathryn’s face. “Always some kind of problem there.”

“Yes,” Kathryn said and frowned. She had noticed this morning that a pimple had appeared overnight. She knew Mrs. Carlson would say something.

“They were really worried about you. They’re always worried about you,” she said and sipped the water.

“I know.”

“Was it fun, all that adventure?”

“It was great,” Kathryn said. She looked closely at the menu. She knew she’d order the tuna sandwich with tomato and lettuce, but she didn’t want to look at Mrs. Carlson right now. She was beautiful and wore her long hair up in a knot on her head. Her mother was from Hungary and taught her how to make delicious tortes. “I remember seven layers of that torte all spread out on the tops of tables and chairs in the dining room and the thin dough for napoleons,” she told her the last time they had lunch.

Today she had a shining necklace around her throat. “What did you eat there? Your mother said you put on some weight.”

“I was eating sour cream with berries and didn’t know it was sour cream,” she said.

“That’s funny,” Mrs. Carlson said. “You know you’re old enough now you should think of something to do, like a profession.”

Kathryn could see Mrs. Monahan with her bridge group behind them. Some of the women were turning around in their seats and looking at her. Or maybe they weren’t looking at her at all. She wasn’t sure about that.

She steadied her glass against her left fingers as she brought the water up to her lips. Her hands were shaking and once the sandwich arrived she knew she’d have trouble swallowing. She didn’t want Mrs. Carlson to notice.

“You know,” she said, “you should stay home now and find a job.”

“I have a list,” Kathryn said. “A friend of Dad’s sent me a list of places in New York that might have openings. Or at least some kind of internship.”

“That’s good,” Mrs. Carlson said and started to eat her chicken salad, piled high on a bed of pale lettuce.

It’s after the story you’re writing, Karen said, and she was right. So I sliced and diced, chopped and cut, piled all the slivers into a pile in some folder on the computer and here I am. I have almost 300 pages. Long enough for a novel, I think. Everyone seems to be in the right place. The cake is pretty fat now. This week I’m going to look up someone in Criminal Justice at the university and ask him how long it takes for a body to decompose and what one would look like if it had been torn apart by wolves.

You’re having fun, aren’t you, my husband says now and then to remind me.

Yes, I respond.

City Notes

I’m back now from the country. Down the street there’s a cauldron of hot tar cooking. I smell it on my third floor deck. The roofers stir it with big sticks. Evening primrose is blooming along the river. Gold finches chatter in the sculpture garden.

I admit it. I’m depressed. All my goodwill gone after a few months away. First hiking in Wales, and then as companion to my mother in Vermont. My neighbor sold his garage to a developer, another roofer, who’s eyeing the place trying to figure out how much money he can make. I’m afraid he has plans to add another story. There’s a rumor his company almost killed two students living in an old house, next to where he was building new townhouses. I don’t think he has a very good record.

The geese are rooting around in the very green grass along the riverbank near empty concrete pads where there used to be picnic tables. A bloody tampax is almost hidden in the bushes along the restored walks of the nineteenth century waterworks. Something that looks like a canna lily, spotted on the stem, is coming up in the garden along the house. I have no idea what it is. A broad winged hawk calls out now and then. My son has two weeks before he goes off to college.

An Eastern carpenter bee lives in the lattice on the deck, throwing sawdust into a little pile. A miniature sand dune. She excavates tunnels for her brood, spending the winter encased there, snug in the wood. “Adults,” my guide book tells me, “emerge in late summer, each waiting in line toward the end of the tunnel for its turn to leave.”

Dogtooth Violet or Trout Lily

I waited weeks for the lemon colored dogtooth violet to bloom and then it did. The silky leaves came first, light green and floppy, and then the thin stem perched in the middle of the two large leaves, and then the bud snapped shut like lips. The flower popped from its case—clown-like, the petals furled up in points. Anthers hidden under the heavy weight of silver drops of rain. Now the green wave tulips have opened, the last in a procession of tulips. Green petals rimmed in frilly white—pretty spectacular. And the yellow iris with egg yolk yellow fur. An iris that’s usually stolen each year—too beautiful to resist.

In the newspaper one morning not long ago, there was a picture of a gray wolf, her eyes glowing even in the black and white photo. She’s off the endangered list now in Montana and Idaho—the casualty of some finagling in Congress over something else.  These states can now hold “controlled hunts.”

I just finished teaching What Species of Creatures by Sharon Kirsch in one of my classes. She inhabits the voices of seventeenth and eighteenth century explorers, and priests, and famous people who encountered the curious animals of the new world. By the end of the book these voices are silenced. Man is just part of an ABC of animals. The contact between the human animal and rest of the creatures is almost never a good thing. The fox gives up his life, as does the beaver, and the elk.

My favorite chapter describes Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe who traveled, in 1791, with her husband, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, her infant son Francis, and her toddler, Sophia, from England to Quebec. She left four older daughters behind in Devon with their guardian. During their journeys, she reveled in the wildness of the new place, pitching a tent when they stopped. Elizabeth loved the animals of the new world and made drawings of “beautiful “butterflies and snow birds. She sent moccasins home to her older daughters. On a trip from Quebec to Niagara, she “Gave birth to Katherine, a sixth daughter, in a canvas tent.”  The “Canvas House” was a present from her husband who got it from “a sale of the effects of Captain Cook.” Mrs. Simcoe decided she liked eating black squirrel and was charmed by the birds of the new world. She sent May apple seeds to friends in England “the prettiest plant I have ever seen.”

When Katherine died “the sweetest tempered pretty child,” she “did not record Katherine’s death in her diary. Of York she wrote, I found a green Caterpillar with tufts like fur on its back I accidentally touched my face with them & felt like I was stung by a nettle; & the sensation continued painful for some time.” After five years she returned with her husband and two surviving children to England. They sent a birch bark canoe from Canada before they left. When they got home the four girls left behind in England “quickly set it afloat in the River Wolf.”

April

I helped do the flowers for Holy Thursday this week in our church–deep pink snapdragons with soft mouths and half opened lilies. Easter’s late this year. Once, I spent Easter in Ireland with my sister a long time ago. She’s six years younger than I am. She lived one winter in Dublin working as a consultant for an American company. Her musty apartment was in a block of new buildings on an old street in Dublin. There was an impressive church across the street, a small shop where she bought peat and next to that, three bars, and farther along at the crossroads a bank, a butcher, and a bookstore. I visited her in spring when she had lived in Ireland for almost five months.

She hated Ireland. I thought Dublin was green after a long muddy New England winter when I lived in a cottage. I admired the bright orange and green doors, the little front gardens that looked like illustrations of medieval gardens, one primrose here, a daffodil there.

When my first husband was sick, Mary Jean had a hard time dealing with everything.

“It was those marks on his head that really bothered me,” she said as we drove out to the country from Dublin. “We wanted to design a way that they wouldn’t have to leave the ink on like that.”

She’s always been the one in the family who could fix things. She knows how to read directions and how to put things together. She works as a consultant and rearranges systems that have misfired. Her house is meticulous. She doesn’t like disorder. She’s always been a kind of gift in the family, born with collapsed lungs, not expected to live the night, baptized as soon as she was born.

She was the only one who couldn’t help us when Steve was going through radiation therapy for brain cancer.  She stayed away. She refused to get involved. As we pulled up the hills to the country outside of Dublin she said, “They all figured I didn’t want to go to the funeral, they left without me.”

She followed a day later and walked with me down the streets of Monroe, Iowa while we waited for my friend Chris who was driving Steve’s body across the farms of Iowa to Monroe.  We stood together and watched as the long white hearse pulled into town, streaked with red mud from the journey.  It was April, and fitfully warm. There were tiny leaves on all the tress along the Mississippi. Later, we looked for my father who was missing.  We walked the empty streets of the town, our long black coats hunched up against the cold spring, searching for my father, afraid that we had lost him, too.

“I went to get a milkshake,” he said, “in honor of my father.”

We drove on narrow roads. “I wish we were Italian,” Mary Jean said as we swerved to avoid a man on a bicycle, “I like the Italians so much better than the Irish. I really don’t like the Irish.”

The landscape was flattening as we watched, in canal country on our way to the west, which we heard was wild and spectacular. It was Good Friday.

Wherever we drive in Ireland the land reminds itself of what it was. Stones and water. Stones and rain. Wind and water. Dirt and rain. Wind and leaf, green and wind, wind and rain.

I read the map and guidebook. Mary Jean wouldn’t let me drive. I looked up from the description of a Celtic cross in Sligo and saw Jesus perfectly still, the cross resting on his shoulder, blood dripping down his face from the crown of thorns. It was raining. Around the next corner, Mary Jean said, “Look.”

There was a crowd of people gathered near another Station of the Cross. This Jesus looked worse than the first. “It all gives me the creeps,” she said, and we drove out of the little town.

It’s Good Friday again now and my daphne is blooming sweetly pink in the bed in our courtyard behind the narrow house.