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.

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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.”

garden

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.

lake

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.

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.

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.

Weather Reports or Emily Makes Cakes

Watering pansies, ruffled deep blue or purple, and Elizabeth, my neighbor, recites the names of all the flowers–“panzee” like a chimpanzee.

The squirrel and I have a battle on the succulent wreath. She pulls out bits of moss and dirt. I put them back.

Magnolias blooming (show offs) and the tiny green blush of trees. On the river the shiny cormorant dips into the water and pops back up.

Emily Dickinson was a cook, I learn from Aife Murray in Maid as Muse, who made all the cakes and bread for her family. Her kitchen was a place to write–it’s the last place that I’d think about writing, and yet sometimes the little blue tile counter works–the place where I read student papers. She sat in the pantry, the green blinds on the window tilted so she could look outside. She was also a gardener: “With the banking and burying of the garden, with the splitting and storing of bulbs, saving seeds, turning the soil, digging in, replanting, weeding out, snapping off, tying up, and pinching back–in those seasonal knowns, Emily found, as Adrienne Rich would have it, what she didn’t know she knew.”

I just chopped up vegetables for soup–tomatoes from Italy, zucchini from Florida, potatoes from Idaho. Dickinson’s ingredients would have come from closer to her home. She worked in an “open enclosure,” Murray writes. separating eggs, sifting flour, listening to the conversations of her family and their servants in the kitchen or the yard. Her work was social sculpture “cognitive, creative, and boundary crossing.” Poems and recipes written in her slanted writing on chocolate wrappers and envelopes.

Dickinson’s recipes exist along with her poems and letters. Here are two:

rice cake

One cup of ground rice.

one cup of powdered sugar.

Two eggs.

one -half a cup of butter.

one spoonful of milk with a little soda.

Flavor to suit.

 

And a letter and recipe to a friend who sent some bulbs (I suppose like the bulbs blooming right now in my garden):

Dear Nellie

Your sweet beneficence of Bulbs I return as Flowers, with a bit of the swarthy Cake baked only in Domingo.

Lovingly ,

Emily.

2 pounds Flour—
2 Sugar—
2 Butter—
19 Eggs—
5 pounds Raisins—
1 ½ Currants
1 ½ Citron
½ pint Brandy
½ — Molasses—
2 Nutmegs—
5 teaspoons
Cloves—Mace—Cinnamon
2 teaspoons Soda—

Beat Butter and Sugar together—
Add Eggs without beating—and beat the mixture again—
Bake 2½ or three hours, in Cake pans, or 5 to 6 hours in Milk pan, if full—

Bloodroot

A couple of weeks ago I went walking along the Wissahickon Creek with Scott. I’d been feeling cooped up and it was a pretty warm day. I hoped that some miracle had happened and the bloodroot flowers–pure white and waxy–would be blooming in the leaf matter under the tall tulip poplars. Forbidden Drive was littered with the seeds of the tulip tree, opened chalices of gold petals, but there were no flowers in the woods. I was thinking about a formal garden behind a house called Druim Moir up the hill from where we were walking. It was made by one of the developers of Chestnut Hill in the early 1900s. I have copies of the photographs taken at that time. An Italianate garden that cascaded in terraces down the edge of the slope above the river. In one of the pictures five beautiful children with shiny hair pose around a spouting fountain. I found the photos in a collection of photographs in an old album at the Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

I’m not even sure the walls that bordered the fountains and terraces are still there. The house is split up into three condos. I know this because one of my students lived there once, before her family moved to the Caribbean.

As we walked near the split rail fence above the river I could have been far out in the country on an old road. There were no cars, only the heavy swish of wind in the hemlocks and poplars and the rush of the river flashing silver below the bare trees on the hillside. Along the road the curled, cold leaves of rhododendron shimmered.

It’s April now and I know the bloodroot is in bloom. Time spilling itself like the white petals opening more and more to the far corners of the universe. My striped tulips are bound to open once the sun warms up their bed.