Quiet

When I was just a bit older than my son is now, I lived in a cabin in Maine for a month. Or I was supposed to live in a cabin in Maine. My friend Nina and I drove, in early January, to her friend’s cabin in a frozen field. She was going to compose music—there was a piano. And I was going to write. It was our month off from college, something called Jan Plan. I can see the small paned windows of the low shack now, and the dry yellow grasses in the field, and sleet pouring down on hay bales stacked around the base of the house. The woodstove was small and smoky. We couldn’t get the large room to warm up. I think we lasted one or two nights, our hands frozen when I tried to write or Nina sat down to play the piano. We didn’t feel like failures when we drove back into town and picked up a jar of goat’s milk at a farm on the way. I didn’t mind the mice or the cold so much, but I wanted to write.

I’ve just finished Baron Wormser’s wonderful book, The Road Washes Out In Spring, an account of his 23 years in a cabin in Maine—enough time for his two children to grow up. The cabin was a house he and his wife Janet built not far from where I was going to college. I used to walk out from Colby on its hill in Waterville as far as I could walk in a day—about 20 miles or so, and back. I loved being able to walk on a muddy track, and then a narrow road into the country past golden bales of hay and blue winged swallows dipping in and out of barns, and empty fields surrounded with dark fir trees in the cold.

Wormser says he wanted to strip his life of gadgets and noise, and, like Thoreau, “live deliberately.”

“What brought me to the woods,” he writes, “was the prospect of living with nothing between me and the earth—none of the electronic gibber-jabber. I craved directness and quiet. What brought me to the woods was an impulse to get lost, to almost literally be off the map.”

I didn’t want a cabin in the woods, then, just to be able to walk into the wilderness and stay there. Later, I did covet all sorts of cabins, but I never had the spark to actually build one. This made me sad sometimes. Eventually, I got to stay for weeks at a time in friends’ versions of their cabins in the woods.

I suppose now I’m trying to live deliberately in the city. But, often, I’m too busy to pay attention until something jolts me awake.

A couple of weeks ago a purple finch got stuck in our bird feeder. I knew when I put the feeder up in the fall I wanted a new one for some reason. I should have remembered. Last year, a sparrow caught her beak in one of the openings, and we took the feeder apart to free her. This time, I thought we weren’t going to be so lucky. The bird was hanging limp from the tube, his beak caught in a prong of one of the openings. I held the finch in my hands, feeling his heart beating hard against his chest. He didn’t struggle but let me try to maneuver his beak off the prong. There were little nicks from the metal tip. I thought the deep raspberry color of his feathers near his beak was blood. My husband appeared at the door and I said, “He’s stuck.”

“Oh, not good,” he said, and disappeared to get wire cutters. The longer I held the bird, though, the stronger he felt. Scott cut the wire around his beak and unscrewed the bottom of the feeder. Finally, I was able to pry the bird loose. I held him for a minute, then opened my hands. He flew off, beating his soft wings with a couple of swift strokes.

 

 

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Fir Trees

I’ve been skiing in a garden planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression over 80 years ago. Through clusters of fir trees puffy with snow, the clear line of green marching in haphazard beauty down the mountain. Once this was mining country and the trees cut down almost to the top of the mountains at 10,000 feet. In the summer the basin is filled with flowers: Indian paintbrush, marsh marigold, gentian, moss campion. I haven’t been here then, but I’ve hiked in other high meadows where the same flowers grow at this altitude in June.

Now I ski through this sculpted forest in Utah, past cliffs with rocks marked with green lichen and the mix of evergreens: Engleman spruce, bristlecone pine–4,000 years old– limber pine, lodgepole pine. I gather the tight little cones of the spruce, smelling sweet and sticky on my gloves.

One day, a porcupine climbed one of the spruce trees, pulling herself up the slim branches, all pointed and glistening, emerald and gold like the light. A kind of mythical animal with a tail that supported her from branch to branch until she sat peering down at me, poised on my skis.

I plot my line down the hill, sometimes skiing tight turns and other times curving my skies in big loops down the mountain. It’s a kind of cold, fragrant, silent garden.  So I’m really flying through the winter garden, like in a dream where I have wings. Or in a poem drawn from word to word “Burning the Christmas Greens”:

By William Carlos Williams

Their time past, pulled down
cracked and flung to the fire
—go up in a roar

All recognition lost, burnt clean
clean in the flame, the green
dispersed, a living red,
flame red, red as blood wakes
on the ash—

and ebbs to a steady burning
the rekindled bed become
a landscape of flame

At the winter’s midnight
we went to the trees, the coarse
holly, the balsam and
the hemlock for their green

At the thick of the dark
the moment of the cold’s
deepest plunge we brought branches
cut from the green trees

to fill our need, and over
doorways, about paper Christmas
bells covered with tinfoil
and fastened by red ribbons

we stuck the green prongs
in the windows hung
woven wreaths and above pictures
the living green. On the

mantle we built a green forest
and among those hemlock
sprays put a herd of small
white deer as if they

were walking there. All this!
and it seemed gentle and good
to us. Their time past,
relief! The room bare. We

stuffed the dead grate
with them upon the half burnt out
log’s smouldering eye, opening
red and closing under them

and we stood there looking down.
Green is a solace
a promise of peace, a fort
against the cold (though we

did not say so) a challenge
above the snow’s
hard shell. Green (we might
have said) that, where

small birds hide and dodge
and lift their plaintive
rallying cries, blocks for them
and knocks down

the unseeing bullets of
the storm. Green spruce boughs
pulled down by a weight of
snow—Transformed!

Violence leaped and appeared.
Recreant! roared to life
as the flame rose through and
our eyes recoiled from it.

In the jagged flames green
to red, instant and alive. Green!
those sure abutments . . . Gone!
lost to mind

and quick in the contracting
tunnel of the grate
appeared a world! Black
mountains, black and red—as

yet uncolored—and ash white,
an infant landscape of shimmering
ash and flame and we, in
that instant, lost,

breathless to be witnesses,
as if we stood
ourselves refreshed among
the shining fauna of that fire.

Winter Garden

A couple of years ago in early January, I drove north from my mother’s house in Florida to a botanical garden carved out of a scruffy neighborhood in Fort Pierce. I walked for almost two hours through the series of gardens cultivated on the edge of a sandy lot, once a trailer park.

At the entrance to Heathcote Botanical Gardens, a screw pine was thick with gold bees on the fluffy inflorescence. The Palm and Cycad Walk was cool and shimmering. The vivid reds of bromeliads lined the path. Shiny, tall palms from the Amazon and a wild date palm from India rattled in the hot wind. I sat on a stone bench painted bright blue looking up at the spiky trees. I was far away from the hum of traffic along US Route 1 or the grinding bulldozers on Hutchinson Island.

A grey cat followed me as I meandered along the cool path into a thicket of loblolly pines. Fluted yellow elder and delicate pink garlic vine glowed in the soft light. Buddleia bloomed in the thicket. There was a hut thatched with palmetto palms at the edge of the Butterfly Garden. The Seminoles who lived in the area used chickees, the Seminole word for house, as shelter. Constructed with palmetto palms on cypress log frames, they were fast to make and could be transported from one place to another.

Amy Dahan, the director of the garden, told me about a girl from Newark, New Jersey who moved to this part of Florida with her family in the 1880s and wrote letters to friends at home. Later, I found the collection of her letters in the library. Lucie Richards was twenty when she sailed south to meet her father in Florida.

The river, she writes, is a “mass of green forest.” The sky is full of birds. Captain Richards bought a large piece of land not far from the garden, just north of Stuart. His homestead was on a bluff above the Indian River. It is, Lucie tells her friend Mary, a “wild and primitive place.” The tall palms have “tops like feather dusters.”

At first they lived in a hut like a chickee, thatched with palmetto palms. Her father planted pineapples and was one of the first to grow the crop in Florida. He had 45,000 pineapple plants. Lucie describes planting suckers or slips in the sandy fields on Hutchinson Island. They harvested the pineapples in early summer and shipped the fruit north in baskets. As the cook for her family and the men who worked on the pineapple farm, she learns from Seminole women how to “trim out the heart or center of the palm and palmetto.” She writes, “Either raw or boiled these are quite delicious.”

The women also taught her how to smoke fish in a “palmetto covered oven.” Lucie describes her other chores, stitching up her brother’s foot with linen thread and soaking it in turpentine, making soap and scrounging meals. She sees a manatee, peering up from the clear waters of the Indian River. One day there are millions of ducks and coots on the river. She shoots sixty-eight and keeps shooting, lying on her back in a boat. Sometimes the children are so hungry she stews an egret and regrets it later. Her father asks her to cook a rattlesnake.

“We have not forgotten,” she writes, “how near we came to starving.” When her mother finally arrives, Lucy is still the cook–frying up hundreds of oysters for the men.

That day I walked from the edge of the garden where different kinds of pineapples were growing to the shade of an orchid tree, bauhinia blackeana from Southeast Asia, light pink mouths open.

A Japanese garden was a surprise tucked into a corner near a house built in 1922 and moved to the garden in 1967 when it was a commercial nursery. A red and gold kimono moved in the hot breeze. Pink papery petals of Bougainvillea fell on the path. Tiny slivers of silver fish swam in a miniature pool where a small waterfall tumbled into a little stream. Water lilies floated in the heat. A huge tree made the tiny paths of the Japanese garden cool.

When I drove back to my mother’s house along the narrow length of Hutchinson Island past the signs of land for sale and bulldozers and piles of wild grapes scraped off the land, I thought about the cool garden, the red and gold kimono, the open mouths of the orchids.

Masquerade

I just planted the last of my tulips, frilly Green Wave, Blue Spectacle, Foxtrot–a peony tulip with white and pink petals–Analita. I’m soaked, it’s pouring. I’m incredibly happy for one instant digging in the gardens, stuffing the fat pointed bulbs into the soil. I scooped the fallen Japanese maple leaves off the bluestone patio and scattered them around on top of the hidden tulips. The leaves are wet and light and fringed like little gloves.  Something to fool the squirrels, maybe. I see their nests in the Azalea Garden down the street near the river. Messy and full in the bare branches of the tall trees.

The nests aren’t really as useless as they look. In his article for West Virginia Wildlife Magazine, Art Shomo says leaf nests are at least 20 feet up a tree. A “platform of twigs roughly woven together” in the crotch of the tree and a “spherical skeleton of interwoven twigs and vines is erected around the base.” The leaves I see from the ground are a masquerade, hiding the sturdy supports of the nest. Inside is the inner nest, with a soft lining of shredded bark, grass and leaves. The surface holds the babies, only a half an ounce at birth with transparent skin.

All the young men who work at my neighbor’s company come by at nine as I plant each bulb in the cold, wet soil. One with a large, dark umbrella, the next plugged into his ipod, and the third in a fancy jacket over his sweatshirt, soaked through. My son left this morning at six for the train to school, and he looked just like the third man. He’s eighteen in three days. An accounting of the universe.

My mother who couldn’t speak six months ago, after a stroke, is now reading Danielle Steele and Jodi Picoult. When I call her at my sister’s condo south of here, she says, “I just finished my seventh book, so stop bugging me about walking.”

The New York Times tells me this morning that “What we think of as our ‘universe’ may simply be one link in a chain of universes, each beginning with a big bang and ending in a way that sends detectable gravitational waves into the next universe.” Two scientists have described “a pattern of concentric circles detected against the universal backdrop of cosmic microwave radiation generated by the big bang” 14 billion years ago.

When my bulbs grew in gardens in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, they were surrounded by scalloped box hedges and bloomed under a grey sky. The bulbs were treasures from Constantinople transported to Holland at the end of the sixteenth century. Boats came by the small villas with their tiny gardens on the Vecht River. The turrets were decorated with gold to embellish the grey weather. Iron gates were delicate and open so the burger could see who was gliding up the river past his garden. Gilded fountains of river gods spewed water into shallow pools. Sometimes, trees were trained to form tree houses, their trunks stilts.

Tomato

I bought five tomatoes on a vine a couple of days ago at Super Fresh on the banks of the Delaware River. They were bright red and firm. Each tomato cost about a dollar. Expensive, but worth it, I thought. The local Jersey tomatoes looked yellow and spotted, and I knew from the last batch that I’d eaten they didn’t taste anything like a tomato. We got a handful of grape tomatoes from the plants on our deck, but then they stopped growing. Those few were enough to make us lust for a lot more tomatoes. And we were pleased that the mice and rats left them alone.

This time, though, I chose the greenhouse variety grown in Colorado. I imagined the tomatoes growing in one of those high sunny plateaus surrounded by mountains, or on the plains half way to Kansas. The tomatoes were grown by the Mastronardi family—yes I googled the company’s name—Sunset—stuck to the red curve of the sweet tomato. They’ve been growing vegetables for 50 years in greenhouses that stretch over acres in Brush, Colorado and a place in California. Two states with sunshine that pours down day after day. The tomatoes are grown in beds of soil and cuddled in white nets.

Chris Land’s article in The New York Times, in early spring, reported that in Madison, Maine at Backyard Farms there are 42 acres of greenhouses where a million tomatoes “ripen indoors.” The tomatoes grow in a soil less mix “spun out of volcanic basalt.” The growers add fertilizer and the hydroponic tomatoes ripen near the top of the greenhouse. Maine, unlike Colorado, doesn’t have days and days of sunshine. These tomatoes are coddled with sodium lights and pumped full of carbon dioxide. A tomato imported from Spain, Chris Land tells me, is a better choice. The Maine tomatoes “are responsible for emitting nearly four times more greenhouse gases.” I’m figuring that my tomatoes grown in Colorado might be a bit more ecologically friendly, but not much.

Maureen Carroll describes the hanging gardens of Babylon in her book Earthly Paradises. Nebuchadnezzar II built the famous gardens for Amytis, his wife, “homesick for her native Media (Kurdistan) and the mountain vegetation.” The terraced gardens of herbs and vegetables were fed with water from the Euphrates. A painting of Emperor Babur’s Garden of Fidelity in Kabul in 1595 shows water channels dividing the garden of oranges, pomegranates, and flowers. I wonder how the water from the river was drawn to his flourishing garden.

I use water here pumped from the river. When I hold my hand under the mouth of the green hose, the water is lukewarm, like cooled bath water.

A few years ago, a student from Temple University designed a project to grow flowers and vegetables in hydroponic gardens on the rooftops of a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Josh Meyer, then a senior, installed pipes and tubes on concrete walls and on balconies and in courtyards. He taught people to grow lettuce, watercress and chives. They grew flowers, too. The cost was about $25 per garden. The pipes were filled with water and liquid fertilizer. Meyer and his group of students with the help of a local organization, Via Rio, taught a group of residents to grow tomatoes, beans, and other crops to supplement a diet of mostly canned food. I’m trying to imagine the tomatoes grown on the steep hillsides in the poor neighborhoods that cluster above the shinning city and white beaches.

One of my favorite memories is the taste of a tomato in Joan Cloud’s Brownsville,Vermont garden in September, hot off the vine. Sweet and warm in the palm of my hand and then in my mouth, the smell of the leaves, the heat of the garden, the brook just over the bank, cool and green.

Song

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen describes the way songbirds are hunted in Europe. They’re caught on lime sticks “straight switches, about thirty inches long, that are coated with the gluey gum of the Syrian plum and deployed artfully, to provide inviting perches, in the branches of low trees,” in orchards and vineyards. And then skewered and cooked. You can make a lot of money in Cyprus and Malta catching birds. At least a billion die each year.

All summer, as my mother regains her speech after her stroke, I’ve been watching the birds here. Phoebes coaxing their babies out of the nest. Broad-winged hawks teaching their fledglings how to hunt. Yesterday, I heard the hawks calling to each other in the thick trees below our house. They were invisible and electric. Franzen says that seven million song thrushes are killed each year in the bucolic Italian countryside. It’s part of the culture, people tell him, to shoot wild game.

I guess I’ve been naive. I thought migratory birds were protected everywhere. They are mostly, Franzen tells me, but not all counties abide by the laws.

Once I traveled to Dominica to visit a friend who worked in the British version of the Peace Corps. I saw hummingbirds on sticks, sugared and sweet, for sale. I couldn’t imagine eating the delicate, invisible bones of a hummingbird. But I eat chicken. I figure I’ve been sorting out what variety of bird is invaluable and what variety I can eat.

The kestrels wake us these August mornings with their chatter. I miss the phoebes now all flown from their nest near the kitchen window. In Philadelphia there’s a cardinal who sits in the big elm near our third floor deck and serenades us some mornings. And blue jays, robins, purple finches, familiar but welcome.

I can’t imagine a world not laced and entwined with birdsong.

Cedar Waxwings, Aldo Leopold, and the Biotic Community

A man who grows strawberries near here for a little extra cash shot seven cedar waxwings and a chipping sparrow. They were eating his fruit, he said, and it’s part of his livelihood. The wildlife officers said what he was doing was illegal. He didn’t know, he told them, he was just defending his produce. The local paper said they hoped he learned his lesson, you just can’t go around shooting songbirds anymore, but felt that his fine shouldn’t be too steep. (He could have just put a net over the berries.)

I’ve seen cedar waxwings in a bog in northern New Hampshire, where they nest. The tiny babies are as beautiful as their parents, soft grey with a splash of yellow and spots of red on their wings, and a jaunty crest. They’re common birds, the shooter said. How can you call a cedar waxwing common? I barely see them at all. I had to look up a chipping sparrow. Their song is the sweetest of the spring songs. The only birds it’s legal to shoot around here are pigeons, according to the newspaper. We don’t seem to be inundated with the clever birds.

The air cleared this morning, and I inspected the storm damage in the garden. Not bad. The peach colored hollyhock is still standing pressed against its stake. The pink flocks are spewed, bent on their neighbors, and the short blue delphinium is flashy and filled with raindrops. On the edge of the woods, where the deer nibble the hydrangeas, are two wild orchids blooming. The have green and brown blooms that open their tiny mouths to the shimmering air. I found red trilliums growing there, too, early in the spring. None of this is common. It’s a kind of magic show for free.