The moment: Saturday afternoon, May 7, 2008, 2:11 pm.
The place: a house on the top of a hill, not far from the small town of Saxtons River, Vermont.
The view: a southeast facing window in which a vividly green meadow, exclamation-marked with a stand of tall silver-white birches, is framed first by woods, then sinuous curve after curve of ranged mountains stretching twenty miles away into New Hampshire. (Yesterday, a day of pleasant, slightly cool drizzle and mist, the meadow was blanketed in white; I could not see even as far as the birches. The view changes with the moment. The picture shows this same view, as taken by David Koff, last fall).
Close up, below me, is the garden in which I have just spent an hour working, sun-hatted and SPF 55’d to a fare-thee-well. I rarely even go outside in full sun 10:30 am and 4:00 pm if I can avoid it, let alone garden at high noon. I’m protective of my skin, probably to the point of fanaticism. But at this time of year, the black flies, no-see’ums and mosquitoes come out ravenous at the hours before dusk, the time I prefer gardening, and they are bloodthirsty. DEET only seems to piss them off, and I think they view the organic stuff, with citronella, cedar, and oil of geranium, as a condiment. So, because the pole beans and swiss chard needed to get in without delay, just for today I conceded defeat to the insects, braving the UV rays instead.(Pictured: a basket of vegetables from my last year’s garden, prepared for a friend last fall; this is one reason why gardening is so worth it. The basket, by the way, is one of the old split-oak baskets I brought with me from Arkansas; it transported breakfast to many a Dairy Hollow House guest. Photo, David Koff. )
Though I went to work in the vegetable garden, the flower beds also called me. As I weeded them, I thought of one of the slow yearly parades I was witnessing: that of the blue flowers.
The first had been the woods-violets I’d transplanted in here and there into the beds, and simultaneous with them, the pulmonaria, lungwort, its blossoms a pale but vivid blue. Both had their moment, their small short bloomings, and have gone now. The foliage remains; the heart shaped violet leaves, the lung-shaped leaves of the pulmonaria, an almost kelly green dotted with tiny specks of white, as if someone had shaken over them a paint-brush dipped in a pale tempera. "Glory be to God for dappled things," wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in the poem "Pied Beauty"; though Hopkin’s version of God is not mine, I revel with him in the glory of "all things counter, original, spare, strange; whatever is fickle, freckled…"
Lungworts are small-scaled and give the impression of delicacy, but here at least, they are healthy and vigorous, and mark the precise corner of the house where sun turns to shade. This plant is one I was unfamiliar with in Arkansas, though it may well grow there. ( A quick Internet check and I’ve learned that it does; in fact, according to the University of Arkansas Agricultural Extension Service, it’s even "deer-resistant", something that is a non-issue here but was huge back there, where there were no coyotes or other predators to keep the deer population in check. I had a friend whom, whenever we were out driving back where I used to live, and we’d pass a herd of 15 or 20 deer, grazing fearlessly by the road, would roll down the window and holler at them, "Get a job!")
Anyway, to me, pulmonaria is associated with living in Vermont. This is especially true because I bought this particular plant two years ago, at the annual Putney Public Library
perennial sale. Every time I admire or weed around that plant, part what goes through my mind is the unknown book-lover who dug up that particularly vibrant
specimen, and brought it to the library parking lot on the allocated
day. And there I bought it, probably for slightly above-market price, but
gladly so: enriching my garden and the library which has, after all, as its motto says, been
"opening minds since 1793!" (exclamation mark theirs).
So: blue flowers. The pulmonaria, come and gone… so too the deep, midnight blue-black of the emerging wild blue cohosh. They’re not flowers, true (their flowers are yellow, and come later, long after their foliage has lightened to green), but their initial up-shooting curled, finely cut leaves in the early spring woods are almost otherworldly, as you might expect from a plant with such a fine pedigree as an healing herb. Now the cohosh is larger, and green.
I said goodbye to the last few lilac sprays by the front door today, too, not without sadness. This is not only because I love lilacs, but because who is to say whether I will have the privilege of witnessing them again? As A.E. Houseman said,
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
I doubtless have far less than fifty springs ahead of me (though maybe not, considering Aunt Dot’s longevity). Then, too, this is the lilac bush which had only a few sprays of blossom when I moved here. Three years ago, not really knowing what I was doing, I asked around, read, took the advice I got on faith, took a deep breath, and pruned that poor lilac bush within an inch of its life. It finally rewarded me this year for such brutal treatment with lush, thick, fragrant cascades of bloom on almost every branch. This lilac bush and I have a relationship. And while I don’t know anything about feng shui, it has to
be superb feng shui to have a gorgeous, fragrant, flower-covered shrub right by the step as you enter the house, even if it’s only fragrant and flower-covered two weeks out of the year.
(Thought: perhaps we all need brutal pruning now and then for our ultimate growth. This would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?)
As the lilac blossoms depart, the irises are coming into bloom. I have the tall, old-fashioned ones Aunt
Dot left here. They’re royal purple, with soft in-curved white throats and those fuzzy, showy, yellow caterpillar-looking things known as "beards". The iris scent isn’t as wholly seductive and enveloping, almost excessively sweet, as that of the lilacs. It’s more complex, and subtler. When I inhale an open iris — you have to get your nose right into it to do this — the distinctive fragrance is powerfully calming, at least to me. It’s also intriguing, because, what is it? How would you describe it? It’s familiar and yet not. I’d say the scent is something like a combination of grape soda, lemon and talcum powder, but much more delicious than that sounds. David’s nostrils read it as nutmeg.
But there they are, and, being irises, there they very much are: sword-like foliage, soldier-straight stems, those blossoms, larger than my fist and so bold, yet at the same time, in their openness and the tender frill of their petals, so achingly vulnerable. And then, the unopened iris buds, deep purple furled tightly onto themselves, tips boldly, eagerly peering up from their protective green wrapping. Ready, as youth is, to burst.
While the iris blooms display their glorious selves, what may be the most intense, prettiest blue of all is
just about to arrive: that of the bachelor buttons (cornflowers). I did buy this perennial plant at a local nursery, so it has less narrative mojo to me than the pulmonaria. But, I first admired it at the Ozark garden of my friend, the herbalist Jim Long of Long Creek Herbs, so I do have some story-connection with it, which (as you no doubt know by now), in my view strengthens any plant’s own inherent beauty or utility. The sturdy pot of bachelor buttons I bought did so well that I’ve divided them two years in a row, and this year, the divisions are coming on like gangbusters. (Picture: me, Jim Long, and a biiiiiig honking poster of The Cornbread Gospels. This was taken in early 2007, probably by David, at the Unitarian Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. )
Or more accurately — what is a "gangbuster" anyway? — like small cobalt blue fireworks, spread throughout the three different flowerbeds that border the house on the side facing the meadow. I love their color, and that as long as you cut them back, they’ll pretty much bloom all summer. I love them in arrangements and bouquets,too. But bachelor buttons have one major drawback: no fragrance.
I was rinsing out the emptied compost bucket with water from the hose when — but wait! The hose! I have to say something about the hose! It’s back in service! After having been disconnected and drained and lain dormant all winter in the basement! The very hose itself says Spring! Summer! Change! I am so happy to be using it again! All this is part appreciating the extremity of Vermont’s yearly cycle … Anyway, somewhere in there, I began picturing a bouquet of all the blue flowers: the lilacs and irises, the lungwort, the bachelor buttons, the hydrangeas still to come, the curling blue-black foliage of the blue cohosh. How well they would all look together! I’d put them in the white pitcher with the ribbed sides…
And yet, it’s an impossible bouquet, except imaginatively; these blue flowers are simply not in season at the same time.
Their individual transitory natures, their rootedness in a particular moment, makes them more precious, as rarity often does. As we age our appreciation of experiences like brief lilacs, grows greater and more bittersweet: they must go, we know it; therefore, what poignant joy that they have arrived.
(The alternative to this poignant coming and going is something like what we’ve done to the strawberry. That’s a fruit which is extraordinary, simply unbelievable: when eaten in its own time and place, a strawberry is as fresh, local, full of its own essence and juice and flesh and fragrance as anything one puts in one’s mouth could possibly be. But it’s brief, this perfection. In our greed for experiencing the strawberry beyond its brief natural appearance, what do we do? We buy strawberries grown 1500 miles away. Though red outside, they are white, fibrous and flavorless at the core, because they’re usually of varieties selected for their ability to withstand the rigors of travel. They’re picked under-ripe, travel thousands of miles in their small individual small plastic suitcases. Add up the costs: the fertilizers, the underpaid migrant pickers exposed to pesticides, the fossil-fueled tractors and transport, the plastic… all this for the shadow of the ghost of a fruit that bears little resemblance to a true, succulent, wet, red-to-its-heart strawberry. Wouldn’t it be better just to wait? To revel in true strawberries intensely and even excessively, but at what is actual strawberry time? ). Picture: my Vermont pals Albert and Phyllis, and Albert’s favorite dessert, made on his birthday: fresh strawberry shortcake with Vermont strawberries. A shortcake, to him, belongs on yellow cake, not biscuit. This was taken last summer on the screened porch, by David.
I’ve mentioned Albert here before; he kindly tills my garden for me each year (and not so kindly critiques it and much else, that old smart-ass!).
My bouquet of blue flowers exists only in my mind, as does the impossible dinner that Louis and Elsie Freund attend, along with my father, and Ned, and David, and Chou-Chou, and Shelley, and Aunt Dot and Jim Cherry, and Gaelen and Rich, and Jan Brown and Bill Haymes, Hattie Mae, Tori Taff (pictured… just because I wanted an excuse to see her again and smile; taken by David
last December in Nashville Tennesee), KJ and Clary and KJ’s new girlfriend… the living and the dead, the loved, each of whom were here or are here for their brief season, seasons which are not simultaneous and can never be, friends and loved ones who, even when living simultaneously, are scattered.
Those most consistently present in our minds and hearts, our beloveds, at least those who still reside at an earthly address, generally come together simultaneously only twice: once when we marry, once at our death. Ideally, we have one wedding and one funeral apiece. One of which we (presumably) aren’t exactly present for.
The moment is now 4:14 pm. (Later note, in the interest of full disclosure: it was 4:14 pm when I wrote the first draft of this post… But I came back and messed with and edited it it later, several times; I did not write, link, add photos et al, in a mere two hours and wouldn’t want you to think I had.) Though the place and the view are much the same, it is time for me to get a move on. I’m driving South to hear the brilliant James Howard Kunstler, whose writing and thinking I’ve long admired, speak at Marlboro College’s Graduate Center in Brattleboro. He wrote The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century which I have not yet read, as well as Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, which I have, years ago. I loved, loved, loved that book, though it was troubling, as all Kunstler’s work is. It kept me going, "Ah-HAH! Now I get it! Oh, yes, of course!" about all kinds of things that had bothered me but which I’d never fully understood in context. And it brought together my own long-term interest in environment and ecology with Ned’s work as an historic preservationist with a strong background in urban design and American Studies.
Now, it is not lost on me that it will be a 42-mile round trip, by car, to hear a talk given by someone who understands the automobile, and the creation of the suburbs that went with it, to be more or less spawn of the devil and seed of the eventual downfall of our lifestyle as we know it.
But you know (this might surprise, even shock, you) — this is not the first inconsistency I’ve come across in myself and my actions.
That ever happen to you?