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Seasons

It’s the 13th of March, and it’s snowing. The snow started at 1:00 am. The forecast says it will stop around dark. I’ll be ready. The weather forecast on my phone calls for 2 more days of snow next week. Imagine that I had a date with a new garden hand to start pulling bittersweet and digging multiflora rose out of the meadow tomorrow.

To while away this unseasonable  snow storm, I’ve been reading Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies. I just reached a section called “A Pause: On Freezeland Street” where the pages turned a light blue. It starts: “Sometimes, in deep winter, life seems to pause. Snow falls silently, and it muffles the usual sounds.”

This is not quite my situation as a northwest wind has been blowing tree detritus against the northern windows making a jarring clatter. And snow plows have been up and down the street way too frequently for the volume of traffic (none). I looked up from the dining room table to see a crew member of a National Grid climbing over the front wall. He was checking my meter to see whether I had power. Apparently at least some of my neighbors are without.

Back in my reading nook with Weatherland, the author, Alexandra Harris, is about to describe several Frost Fairs on the Thames from the 1600s till 1814. The many piers of the Old London Bridge impeded the river’s flow creating “a very pavement of glass” supporting an alternative world on the ice. Harris writes that visitors came in the thousands. Booths were set up in double rows from Temple Stairs to the South Bank. Since I’m about to be right there next month, this “pause” in the Weatherland tale is particularly compelling.

In 1684, poet-playwright John Dryden started work on the libretto for an opera, King Arthur, by Henry Purcell that according to Harris “would contain one of the most brilliant renderings of frost in musical history.” You can hear  a modern interpretation of “The Chorus of Cold People” here. The stuttering staccato mimics their shivering, writes Harris. (Purcell’s version is here.)

I have missed most of the storms in Rhode Island this winter. I have not lost power. i should not complain. But I saw a pair of mourning doves huddled together on the back of a wrought iron chair under the enclosed but not screened section of the porch. They were whispering “we’ve had it” to one another. I’d concur.

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Last Saturday was a miserable day of snow, subzero temperatures and gray light so dark you needed illumination all day. Sunday morning when the storm was over we had more than a foot of picture-perfect, spotless dry powder. The snow was so fluffy that my snow shoes couldn’t keep me on the surface, but it was impossible to stay indoors. I plodded around the meadow sinking knee deep with each step despite the snow shoes.

A winter sun, strong as it can be in January, tinged the shadows, lengthened by its low arc, blue. That sun’s photons also promptly cleared both solar arrays of their snowy blankets, and popped the electrons in silicon cells of the PV panels into action. My energy factory was fully operational by noon.

If you have to have winter, it should be like the day after the storm. By mid week, warm rain, falling at night, washed the snow away. I’m old enough to know that winter isn’t over in January. But I’m not too old to wish that a warm day with a strong breeze could hasten spring’s return.

Maybe it did. The ground is workable. Despite temperatures under 40, the sun was out. In an hour and a half, I cleared a 15 foot by 15 foot section of meadow of both Chinese wisteria and honeysuckle (Lonicera I presume japonica, i.e., no good!) roots. I’ve let the Lonicera vine get too firm a foothold in that north western area close to the house and under the Maple. It thrives as well  in the section of the meadow behind the western evergreen hedgerow and out to the road, but this is to be the year of trying to control the more open part of the meadow to prevent its escape into the boarder field.

I like to think I slowed the vine’s spread down. Slowing down a weed by pulling it up by its roots is a cherished concept of mine. I know eradication doesn’t work according to this metaphor, but I’ve held the notion so long I can’t remember when I did not use it as a mantra while weeding. Did I inherit this from my father? He preached trying to get all the root out when pulling weeds. But his battlefield was a lawn and his target mostly dandelions. You can slow down a dandelion by removing most of its tap root. Did I invent it myself? Whatever its origins, eradicating an invasive takes lots more muscle than pulling some of its roots.

Let the record show, however, that I found less than 3 feet of Bittersweet root and only one grub. When I’d finished the ground looked not dissimilar to terrain I’d seen in the Hill Country of Texas where wild boars are a nuisance.

Wildlife is reappearing as the days lengthen. Three robust squirrels with fulsome, twitchy tails have been prowling under the bird feeders. I can’t figure out their familial relationships: one seemed perturbed by another; these two ignored the third. A red squirrel has come out of hiding. Though I have not seen two together, its a good bet we have two red squirrels. I scared one down the driveway — that is in a different part of my yard from where I’d seen a red squirrel before; he darted across the road and through a hole in the neighbor’s stone wall suggesting he might live over there. One red squirrel is plenty.

I tried to snap a photo of the FIVE male Northern cardinals who are in residence. By the time I had my camera out (photo of three attached), two males had flown into the Douglas firs. Five couples increases the carry capacity of past years by one pair.

Three of five male Northern cardinals

Remains of a Blue jayThe Blue jays have not done as well. Carrying capacity has been two pairs. Earlier this year a Sharp-shined hawk had a jay for lunch. The pile of feathers was the tip. I had a rare sighting of the hawk recently. It perched atop the bird feeder with its back to the kitchen window allowing me to decide it was Sharp-shined not Cooper’s by the shortness of its tail. Needless to say, the entire meadow was silent of all bird calls while he visited. Had I not been on the phone, I just might have caught the hawk on camera; he sat for longer than I anticipated.

Looking forward to the breeding season, I emptied inactive nests from the four bird houses. One nest had been built by a Carolina wren, two were made by Tree swallows and one was an incomplete effort by House sparrow. I did not remove a sparrow’s nest from a Prairie rose bush. I also just admired the many insect galls attached to the stronger stems still standing in the meadow.

My book dealing neighbor gave me a book on moss gardening. I don’t need another project, but it’s encouraged me to be more accepting of what moss I already have. On my circuit around the meadow today, I photographed the club mosses in the path in the lower field and the moss that has taken hold where I’m allowing sedges to propagate under the three Amelanchier trees.

Was it poetic license or did lilacs bloom by 14 April in 1865? Lilacs may well bloom by mid April in Washington DC where Lincoln was assassinated on that day and where Walt Whitman may have been living. (I think of Whitman as a New Yorker but he worked, I’ve learned, in DC until at least June 1865.) But the lilacs in my New England dooryard are still weeks away from blooming which makes using Whitman’s poem, When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, as a mnemonic device for Lincoln’s death imprecise. For the record, I read Marc Anthony’s “I come not to praise Caesar, but to bury him” soliloquy on the Ides of March and most years I remember Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November — both sufficiently outside the blooming season to come to mind without a flower.

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Lilacs in my dooryard budding…

The observation of bloom dates has new importance to me since I have pushed the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society to participate starting this year in citizen science projects related to plant phenology. That lead to my discovery of Richard Primack, a professor of biology at Boston University, who together with colleagues has used Thoreau’s observations of plant pheno phases as recorded in Walden MA to determine that some plants are blooming earlier now than they did in the mid 19th century. Reading Primack’s recent book, Walden Warming: Climate Change comes to Thoreau’s Woods, is also part of my extended practice of remaining horizontal while my foot recovers from surgery.

Lilacs, whether they bloom in April or May, are icons of spring. Elliot used them in The Waste Land (“April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land…”), Shakespeare doesn’t mention the lilac but they had just been imported to Europe at the end of the 16th century. In that way that olfactory memories can be so emphatic (the olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system with easy access to the amygdala which plays a role in emotional memories as countless newspaper articles report). I do not smell a lilac without remembering a hedgerow of them, now plowed under in Princeton University’s relentless march to build, between Baker Rink (which must be too solid to tear down) and the tennis courts (gone like the lilacs) where I’d go in the spring just to inhale lilac perfume.

Of Walden’s three spring harbingers, the other two — the drooping arc in the Western night sky of Venus and the warbling song of a Hermit thrush — don’t come close to embodying the nostalgia of the lilac. Whitman may have taken license with the blooming date of lilacs, and maybe he wasn’t a birder. The thrush winters over along the Eastern seaboard as far north as Rhode Island so hearing a thrush does not signal spring to me. Maybe that’s why Whitman leads with the lilac. No matter the seasonal veracity, the first few lines of his poem are enough to connect my April budding lilacs to Lincoln’s assassination for an annual memorial. And I’ll try to report to the correct date on which my lilacs bloom to the citizen science project.

 

Winslow Homer, Fox Hunt, 1893

Its face hidden, its ears up, its tail bushy, its fur rufus, the fox by the side of the road had been hunted down by a car not a crow. But its resemblance to Winslow Homer’s painting was otherwise unmistakable.

Possums and raccoons disgorged by traffic are troubling to me only for their gore. I have no further affinity with them. But the past week has been fatal to many of their elk expanding my interest to wonder whether fall is a particularly lethal time for animals with crepuscular habits perhaps because dusk settles in at at the same time as drivers are rushing home after work.

The death of the fox was troubling not for its gore, which I barely noticed, but because I knew it from Homer’s painting. Admittedly, Homer’s fox is not yet dead, but the anticipation of its death is palpable as it struggles through deep snow with crows ready to attack should it succumb. The fox dead on the road might also have been on a desperate mission to find food or shelter — one that drew it out of the relative safety of the meadow and onto the road. As with Homer’s painting, I’ll never know, but I won’t forget the image.

This gallery contains 2 photos.

The cookie tins are red on the sides with pine cones on the lid. I bought 6 of them last winter to store last year’s verbena harvest. Three of them still hold tea. But this year’s growing season is coming to an end, and I’ve not had luck with wintering over verbena. So I harvested …

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“The people who post what they had for lunch — they are the worst.” So said my journalist friend with 1,000 Facebook friends none of whom he knows. He doesn’t read my blog so here’s a photo of a recent lunch with one of the last tomatoes of the season.

Lunch of the last tomato from the garden

15h 13m 16s. 20 June was the last of the lengthening days. Isn’t it odd that “summer” means ever less daylight?

But at the moment I took this photo I could not complain about the light or about the restoration of parts of the meadow. As the seconds of daylight decline, I’ll get back to work on the spray and pray program.

Meadow on an early summer afternoon