New England Garden Notebook: Forget Me Nots and Other Things I Forgot

Forget Me Nots
Forget Me Nots

The last garden post overlooked some moments and photos so I’m backtracking a bit. I planted these Forget Me Nots years ago and they’ve always done okay but this year one of the plants in a part-sun location bloomed as never before, and I managed to capture the true blue, which is often elusive with a digital camera. Also having a good year is the only peony bush I planted myself. SONY DSCIt’s taken a few years but now it blooms almost as much as the plants that were here when we moved in. I thought that the flowers would be orangey red but they turned out magenta, which is fine with me. It is an exact match with the magenta in the Crayola Crayon box, which my best friend and I fought over as if it was the most important thing in the world. It must have been second or third grade, and when I think of us sitting in their breakfast room off the kitchen it seems almost quaint to think of us, coloring and arguing so earnestly. My own girl hoarded the red crayons as a toddler, flatly refusing to share, a fierce scowl on her face. We clearly have a gene that predisposes us to jealously guard art supplies. I still love to color with crayons.

IMG_4796And the astilbe – it’s a monster that gets bigger every year and I love it. There were several in the garden when we arrived, but the rest of them are tepid at best while this one now dominates and has practically swallowed up the dephiniums next to it. I didn’t really appreciate the delicate beauty of this plant until I visited Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox, MA, last year, The Mount. There’s a lovely labyrinth below the house that is completely made up of white astilbe and we happened to visit when it was in full bloom. Spectacular.

SONY DSC
Edith Wharton’s garden at The Mount, Lenox, MA

Not everything is growing like gangbusters. The hydrangea has been giving us fits, because it is bigger than ever but not blooming like everyone else’s. SONY DSCAfter much consulting and cajoling and applying copious amounts of water, fertilizer and coffee grounds, it finally squeaked out some blossoms. I did so many things I have no idea which, if any, of them, did the trick. The blooms are beautiful at every stage and they last for so long, changing slowly from green to white to blue.

Susan's Grad Cape Cod June 2005 091
MIT garden

Astilbe and hydrangeas are part of our present – plants I’ve only come to appreciate recently –  while the peonies and lilacs and always pull me into the past.  The rhododendrons span across the decades, reminding me of the enormous ones in the gardens at MIT and the even bigger ones that bloom for graduation on the perimeter of  Killian Court. It’s quite a sight.

Grief That is Coming of Age

SONY DSCI found a new diary app call Day One that makes it simple and fun to record moments on my phone and attach a photo. It’s a wonderful, quick way to capture images and events that otherwise get recorded in my many random notebooks. The images get buried in my 30,000+ photo library and the words and pictures seldom come together again in the same way I felt them at the time. All the entries can be downloaded en masse as a PDF on my computer if I ever want to do anything more with it. It’s brilliant.

This morning I was waiting for a child to awaken and took a moment to look at the pouring rain and remember this, the anniversary of our Dad’s death, 21 years ago today. I opened the Day One app and I wrote this:

It set off a chain of events that have influenced every moment since.

It was as though the words typed themselves, without my knowledge or permission. It is absolutely true, though, and even though it may seem like a surprise to me now, I knew even then that something fundamental had changed with Dad’s passing. I felt it on the train home that day, knowing as I stepped off that when I left Cambridge he was alive, and when I arrived in Concord, he was not. When I got to the house I called my brother and told him Dad was gone.

“How could you possibly know?” he asked.

“I just do.”

My brother was in New Jersey, I was in Massachusetts, Dad was in Saint Louis. It didn’t matter. A long chapter in my life, in all of our lives, had closed and we were free to look back and forward in ways that were not possible before that moment. It’s when memories and myths and mysteries all start to form and weave together ways that are different for every person; truth matters for a while but then becomes so complicated and elusive that you give up, only to go looking for it again later.

It happens this way for plenty of people, I’m sure, when they lose someone so influential to them. The absence of the reflected love, hate, or diffidence changes the image in the mirror and adjustments must be made. In my case it marked the start of the transition from being a child to being a parent, and the quick realization that even that traditional and expected path was not as straight or simple as I thought.

Libraries and hard drives the world over are full of the stories behind this revelation – that life seldom is what we expect it might be and what happens to us brings us unheralded joy, pain and wisdom. It just so happens that on this day back in 1992, my life took a turn in a new direction – if it were a movie there would be a map with a prop plane and a dotted line moving across continents with great zigs and zags, still going forward but making its way around the globe again and again, flying repeatedly over that point where the journey began.

Photo Essay: A Stop at Walden Pond on Thoreau’s Birthday

Henry David Thoreau would have been 196 today. We were in Concord, MA, anyway so we thought we’d stop by Walden. It’s a lovely spot, though there are a few features that might give the old naturalist pause…

Within a stones throw of this, a replica of the cabin where Thoreau lived and wrote for two years,you can see ...
Within a stone’s throw of this, a replica of the cabin where Thoreau lived and wrote for two years, you can see …
...this.
…this.
And you can look at this...
And you can look at this…
... from here ...
… from here …
... or here
… or here.
There really aren't that many places anywhere that you can expect to watch ducks feed and also see someone teach themselves to juggle.
There really aren’t that many places anywhere that you can expect to see ducks feed while you watch somebody teach themselves to juggle.
But if you want the real Walden you can walk the perimeter of the pond here ...
But if you want the real Walden you can walk the perimeter of the pond here …
... or stalk a kayaker here ...
… or stalk a kayaker here …
... or contemplate here.
… or contemplate here.
But this might be the best view of all.
But this might be the best view of all.

The Sugar Mill

I want to live in this picture for a while

Sit in that chair

Watch the shadows grow long through the archways and windows

Eat salty sweet food

Drink sparkling water

Wear practically nothing

Let the sun and sea air dry out my skin

Listen to Italian music but only after dark

Join in with the tree frogs

Watch my memories wind themselves around the vines

Lanterns are lit and people walk by

They cannot see me

I am a ghost

Another Glimmer of the Gilded Age, and then some

The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, is a rare find, a time capsule preserved and put on display for we, the generations that followed. What’s more, it is just down the road from Springwood, the Roosevelt home that is birthplace and burial site of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself was instrumental in keeping both homes intact and open to the public, donating his own home to the National Park Service upon his death and persuading the Vanderbilt heirs to do the same when it was clear that no one would buy the estate and its Italian Gardens even at a tiny fraction of its value. It was the foreclosed McMansion of its day, even though it was by far the smallest of the Gilded Age mansions built by the many grandchildren of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, it didn’t even last through its own generation before it became impractical to live in or care for in the economic devastation of the Great Depression.

Two seasons of the above and below stairs drama of Downton Abbey (and a knowledgeable young guide) helped to bring this gently faded and stuffy house to life for us as we walked through. The windows are closed and shaded to preserve the furnishings and keep it cool, but he reminded us that the home was intended as a summer cottage and in its day the windows would have been thrown open to the sumer breeze off the river and every room filled with flowers from the row of greenhouses just across the lawn.

And while its contents are largely intact, the gardens are only now being revived. Having only come recently to gardening I understand now that it is always the garden that is the first to go when a property loses a caring, resident owner. Architecture may take time to show wear, but it only takes a single season to destroy a garden – and in a year like 2012, punctuated by drought and torrential rain, even tended gardens can be decimated. The Park Service had an interest in preserving Sara Delano’s rose garden – FDR’s and Eleanor’s burial sites are situated next to it – but the Vanderbilt’s more elaborate tiered Italian garden with it vast greenhouses did not merit thefunds for preesrvation – the current restoration is funded by private donations, and the volunteers were hard at work when we visited. I didn’t expect it to be so romantic, with heart-shaped beds of pink petunias and so many of the trees flowers I recognize from my own garden, but then I remembered that even then they had to cultivate plants that could survive in New York rather than the warmer climes of southern Italy.

I don’t know if it is a sign of the times or my own skewed sense of history that fuels my current fascination with the early Twentieth Century. Sometimes there are too many parallels, sometimes too few. From my admittedly untrained perspective, Hyde Park reflects the convergence of the styles that dominated the previous and coming centuries. The old money, sober Dutch influenced but early American style of the Roosevelts at Springwood (their walls adorned with family portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart) looked down its nose at the Gilded Age, with the decadent, new-money European obsessed opulence of the Vanderbilts (their walls covered with tapestries of the Medici family crest) and finally followed by the more eclectic, earthy arts and crafts style adopted by Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill (very little fine art on the walls, decorated almost exclusively with photographs of people and events of their own time).

 

The house at Val-Kill itself is a harbinger of trends to come, a factory building converted into a home, and it’s dropped ceilings, galley kitchen and folding chairs are testament to the fact that not all progress is forward. Part of all of these styles endure, their longevity or re-emergence dictated by the changes in the American way of life. Just like the start of the last century, war and excess are steering us back to the small-is-beautiful after many years of bigger-is-better. Contraction and preservation in the face of uncertainty is not such a bad thing, if such appreciation brings wisdom and, with it, hope.

Restless in the Heat

Our heat wave is nothing compared to what they are suffering in the Midwest, but it’s been a few weeks since a good rain and this is the first time I have seen birds fly directly through the sprinkler’s spray. The early spring brought the bears out of hibernation ahead of schedule and they are showing up all over the place – the most recent within walking distance of our house. Local naturists say that the bears’ feeding schedule has been disrupted and this has somehow sent them in search of alternative sources of food. It is hard to say whether the foxes roaming the neighborhood every evening are part of the trend or the usual order of things. All I know is that I find fur and tails (squirrel, rabbit) and feathers (chicken, hawk, and mourning dove, I think) in the yard almost every day. And last weekend when I went out to see what the kids were doing down the street and it was dark, I heard such a commotion in the woods from all sides when I opened the door that I turned and went back in the house, grabbed my car keys and drove to find them. Our neighbor told me that when he takes his dog out he shines a flashlight in the woods and counts the pairs of eyes that look back.

I don’t know what it means – the drought, the snowy fall and snowless winter, the collapsing glaciers – but part of me wonders if while we are inside on our screens trying to make sense of it we can find a way to save the world crumbling outside. And so I move the sprinkler around systematically to sate each corner of the yard, standing each time for a few minutes, mezmerized by its tick tick tick, and hope that it is enough.

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