New England Garden Notebook: May 22 – June 21

When last we checked, the azalea was on its way out and the rhododendrons, peonies and irises were on their way in. With a dizzying combination of cool days, sunshine and torrential rain, it has been a changeable, wonderful spring for flowers.

SONY DSCThe butterflies made the most of the last of the azalea blossoms. For once I pruned it right on time, as soon as the last flower wilted. I hope that the trimming will save it from the ice damage the extremities seem to suffer each winter.

SONY DSCDown the hill the white rhododendron bloomed almost overnight, its blossoms delicate and quick to wilt in the stormy weather, like a lady’s summer linen dress. SONY DSCWhen I look at the June sun through white blossoms it seems so right that it’s the season of weddings, graduations and first communions. IMG_4744Our charter school established a lovely tradition of families bringing in flowers and branches from their gardens to decorate the school indoors and out for its high school graduation. Buckets of water await at morning dropoff and people unload a dazzling array of plants and cuttings. Parent volunteers spend the whole morning making arrangements large and small for the podium and receptions tables. Every year is different, but we agreed that this year the weather provided a flower bonanza.

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The pink rhododendrons are a bit of a mystery – one towers over the rock garden, loaded with blossoms and buzzing with bumblebees, the others in the deeper shade offer only a blossom or two, if any at all. We will fertilize in the fall and see what happens.

The scent of the white and whisper pale pink peonies outside the front door brings a rush of memories of springs past, when our mother sent us outside to clip flowers for the dinner table. The only thing missing is a purple lilac bush; we have a white one down the drive that is barely hanging on because the towering pines block the sun it needs. We just don’t have enough sun near the house to sustain a lilac, but that shade is what keeps the rest of the garden green in the dog days of summer.

SONY DSCI wait all winter for the deep blue of my favorite irises – they shift from blue to purple in the changing light all day long. I visit them each time on my way to and from the car, taking time to prune and check the progress of the later peonies to the left that will bloom just as they wane. The larger varieties of irises are less vibrant and droop so quickly (they need to be staked), but they also pop out when the garden is viewed from a distance. This looks like it is the first year there are so many irises we will need to split them. That didn’t stop me, however, from buying more at the garden club sale – these teeny ones are just right at the front border, and they bloomed right after I put them in. In the few weeks since they bloomed the leaves have filled in nicely, leaving me hopeful for a beautiful border next spring.

Next up: lilies, astilbe, delphiniums, cone flowers, coreopsis and some maddening hydrangeas.

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Cranwell Window

Like the rest of the world, I fell in love with Downton Abbey.  And after 30 years in Massachusetts I finally had a chance to drive through and make an overnight stay in the Berkshires.  Now is see what all of the fuss is about.  I expected the spring beauty of the rolling hills but I was not prepared for the diverse and breathtaking architecture of Western Massachusetts and Eastern New York.  This window is the Downton Abbey moment of my first – but not last – journey to Western Massachusetts.  It was taken at Cranwell, a gilded age property with a provenance that includes Harriet Beecher Stowe.  The pastoral and architectural beauty of the property was matched only by the graciousness of the people who worked there.  A real gem.

For Mom.

When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d

by Walt Whitman

1
WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,          5
And thought of him I love.
2
O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!   10
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!
3
In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle……and from this bush in the door-yard,   15
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.
4
In the swamp, in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary, the thrush,   20
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat!
Death’s outlet song of life—(for well, dear brother, I know
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)   25
5
Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes, and through old woods, (where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris;)
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes—passing the endless grass;
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprising;
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards;   30
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
6
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags, with the cities draped in black,   35
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil’d women, standing,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit—with the silent sea of faces, and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn;   40
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—Where amid these you journey,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang;
Here! coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.   45
7
(Nor for you, for one, alone;
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring:
For fresh as the morning—thus would I carol a song for you, O sane and sacred death.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death! I cover you over with roses and early lilies;   50
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious, I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes;
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you, and the coffins all of you, O death.)
8
O western orb, sailing the heaven!
  55
Now I know what you must have meant, as a month since we walk’d,
As we walk’d up and down in the dark blue so mystic,
As we walk’d in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell, as you bent to me night after night,
As you droop’d from the sky low down, as if to my side, (while the other stars all look’d on;)   60
As we wander’d together the solemn night, (for something, I know not what, kept me from sleep;)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west, ere you went, how full you were of woe;
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze, in the cold transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul, in its trouble, dissatisfied, sank, as where you, sad orb,   65
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.
9
Sing on, there in the swamp!
O singer bashful and tender! I hear your notes—I hear your call;
I hear—I come presently—I understand you;
But a moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain’d me;   70
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.
10
O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?
Sea-winds, blown from east and west,   75
Blown from the eastern sea, and blown from the western sea, till there on the prairies meeting:
These, and with these, and the breath of my chant,
I perfume the grave of him I love.
11
O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,   80
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?
Pictures of growing spring, and farms, and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air;
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific;   85
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there;
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows;
And the city at hand, with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life, and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.
12
Lo! body and soul! this land!
  90
Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships;
The varied and ample land—the South and the North in the light—Ohio’s shores, and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies, cover’d with grass and corn.
Lo! the most excellent sun, so calm and haughty;
The violet and purple morn, with just-felt breezes;   95
The gentle, soft-born, measureless light;
The miracle, spreading, bathing all—the fulfill’d noon;
The coming eve, delicious—the welcome night, and the stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.
13
Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird!
 100
Sing from the swamps, the recesses—pour your chant from the bushes;
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.
Sing on, dearest brother—warble your reedy song;
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.
O liquid, and free, and tender!  105
O wild and loose to my soul! O wondrous singer!
You only I hear……yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart;)
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.
14
Now while I sat in the day, and look’d forth,
In the close of the day, with its light, and the fields of spring, and the farmer preparing his crops,  110
In the large unconscious scenery of my land, with its lakes and forests,
In the heavenly aerial beauty, (after the perturb’d winds, and the storms;)
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the voices of children and women,
The many-moving sea-tides,—and I saw the ships how they sail’d,
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy with labor,  115
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages;
And the streets, how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent—lo! then and there,
Falling upon them all, and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail;
And I knew Death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.  120
15
Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle, as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night, that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,  125
To the solemn shadowy cedars, and ghostly pines so still.
And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me;
The gray-brown bird I know, receiv’d us comrades three;
And he sang what seem’d the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.
From deep secluded recesses,  130
From the fragrant cedars, and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.
And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held, as if by their hands, my comrades in the night;
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.  135
DEATH CAROL.16
Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,  140
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;
And for love, sweet love—But praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.
Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?  145
Then I chant it for thee—I glorify thee above all;
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
Approach, strong Deliveress!
When it is so—when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee,  150
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.
From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee—adornments and feastings for thee;
And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread sky, are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.  155
The night, in silence, under many a star;
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose voice I know;
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil’d Death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.
Over the tree-tops I float thee a song!  160
Over the rising and sinking waves—over the myriad fields, and the prairies wide;
Over the dense-pack’d cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O Death!
17
To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,  165
With pure, deliberate notes, spreading, filling the night.
Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist, and the swamp-perfume;
And I with my comrades there in the night.
While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed,  170
As to long panoramas of visions.
18
I saw askant the armies;
And I saw, as in noiseless dreams, hundreds of battle-flags;
Borne through the smoke of the battles, and pierc’d with missiles, I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody;  175
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in silence,)
And the staffs all splinter’d and broken.
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men—I saw them;
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war;  180
But I saw they were not as was thought;
They themselves were fully at rest—they suffer’d not;
The living remain’d and suffer’d—the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.  185
19
Passing the visions, passing the night;
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands;
Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my soul,
(Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,  190
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth, and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,)
Passing, I leave thee, lilac with heart-shaped leaves;
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring,  195
I cease from my song for thee;
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous, with silver face in the night.
20
Yet each I keep, and all, retrievements out of the night;
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,  200
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of woe,
With the lilac tall, and its blossoms of mastering odor;
With the holders holding my hand, nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I keep—for the dead I loved so well;  205
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands…and this for his dear sake;
Lilac and star and bird, twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim.

Roots & Bulbs

Spring is a month early and I am not complaining even though we have had precious little rain.  Having come late to the gardening party I have noticed only in recent years that each spring things sprout and bloom in a slightly different order.  This year the change is more dramatic:  the peonies are well on their way, even as the forsythia is in full bloom.  The tulips seem visibly annoyed to being pushed aside by the busy peonies; they are used to having the front garden all to themselves. The azalea, battered by autumn storms and with no snow cover to protect it from the winter wind, seems to have given up in exhaustion and pushed out only a handful of blooms from nearly bare branches.

I am always particularly glad to see the tulips. The red ones are the first to appear and the first I ever planted.  I put the bulbs in shortly after September 11, 2001.  Before then, my attempts at gardening were halfhearted and largely unsuccessful; our yard is so shady and the soil so sandy and acidic that no perennial I planted ever came back the following spring. But the previous owner clearly knew what to plant and so the garden she built always filled in nicely.  But there were a few spots near the driveway that got a little sun and seemed a little bare, and the events of that fall got me to thinking that I’d been living in our house like a renter – doing precious little to show any kind of long term commitment to a family home now buzzing with three young children. The crazy world (remember Graydon Carter announcing the end of irony?) and the empty skies of that September made me look up from storybooks and changing tables and brought me outside, and made me want to plant something beautiful, something hopeful, for the spring.

So I did.  And they bloomed, and have bloomed every year ever since (provided I remember to put out soap to keep the deer from nibbling the bulbs).  When the trees at the front of the house grew too big we had to take two of them down and that gave me more sun and soil to work with, and my perennial track record improved:  sedum, cone flowers, delphiniums, daffodils, iris, bachelor buttons, phlox, creeping thyme. A few years ago hyacinths appeared out of nowhere and they seem to be proliferating.  The original daylilies are stalwart and dependable as ever.  The hydrangea and the poppies are dubious and bloom sporadically.  The hollyhocks are a total failure. The shady areas still baffle me; the ivies are anemic and I am the only person I know who can’t grow hostas.

Last spring I took an inventory and ordered more tulips and daffodils to supplement my reds – I wanted orange.  The box showed up in late August for fall planting, at which time I promptly broke my foot and was relegated to the couch for 4-6 weeks.  My plan was to get them in just after Halloween, but when I went to plant them the box was in the recycling, empty.  My husband had come upon them and handed the box to my daughter and told her to plant them, which she did, grudgingly, with little attention to where.  So all winter long I waited to see if and where they would come up.

This week, they emerged – a few here a few there, some in groups, some in rows, some in places where the deer dined on them so I don’t even know for sure which ones they are.  It isn’t the way I would have done it – it is better, creating a haphazard path of blooms up the front walk, starting with my 2001 tulips.  Nothing at all about this whole operation went according to plan but it all seems so right – this is her senior year, and these are her tulips that she planted at the only home she has ever known. Next spring I will cry when they come up and send photos of them to her at college which will delight and exasperate her.

It is only now, as I type, that I recall my own mother hovering over her tulips in our back yard in Saint Louis, and how the entire city seemed to be swimming in them the last time I went to see her in hospice. Saint Louis sees spring much sooner than New England so that visit was, for us, like Dorothy emerging from the back and white of winter to full technicolor spring. It was an intensely sad and joyful time, punctuated by tulips. Every time the deer snack on them I swear I will not plant any more, but I don’t think I can stop. Not now.

Home Windows – a reading spot

It’s been a while since I posted any window photos, though I have taken many.  This one is in the house where I grew up, looking much the same now as it did then.  We used to climb though the windows on the left and right to sun ourselves on the warm tar roof during cold April days.  It was a sign of spring. The vantage point from which the photo was taken was where my mother kept her cedar chest, and I imagine it full of  wool blankets and linen and lace wrapped in brown paper – to be honest I am not sure if that’s what was really in the chest or I am just channeling all of those Laura Ingalls Wilder books I read on that landing, my body wedged between the radiator and the window.  But I do still have lace and linen wrapped in paper from that house, that much is certain, and I wonder now when I will ever have occasion to use them.  They’ve been waiting for their  moment for so long.

Steve Martin: Pied Piper with a Banjo

I work out to Steve Martin‘s banjo music.  I imagine he would be appalled to know that, but then again maybe it’s a marketing idea.  I sort of admire people who can go the gym and work out regularly but I am not one of them.  The idea of getting in my car and driving somewhere to exercise just seems wrong, not to mention embarrassing for someone who refuses to wear sweatpants anywhere, ever.  If it’s too cold to walk outside, looking out the basement window and listening to The Crow gives my mind something wonderful to do while my body is busy being miserable. It’s perfect.  Forget Katy Perry, Michael Jackson and the rest of the thumping-base workout music – it all only reminds me of how young I am not.  But banjo music brings out the young in everyone.  It is inherently happy, endlessly sunny and an invitation to love life. The winter melts to spring, the rural roads stretch before me, and when I am finished I can go and write.

Speaking of which, a while back my daughter and I went to hear Steve Martin himself talk about his life and play a little banjo.  At the end of the interview by insipid entertainment reporter Joyce Kulhawik (I am loathe to even give her a link), Mr. Martin took questions.   One person whined to him about writer’s block and asked him how he kept himself creative and he was blissfully bemused.  In effect, he told her that, having worked so hard to get to this point in his life that he can now pursue his ideas whenever the mood strikes him.  No pep talks, no tricks of the trade, just a very candid glimpse of someone who has earned the right to do nothing and thus pursues everything.  Think about it – writer, comedian, actor, director, playwright, poet, collector, musician.  Even if you did have writer’s block how could you think someone like Steve Martin could provide you with any more wisdom than he already has?

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