Garden, Home, Nature

A Walk with Mr. Bell

Earlier today, the cat and I went for a walk around the yard under a gray late December sky. He’s an old boy, Mr. Bell, approaching 15. Fifteen cat years equals 76 human years various charts tell me so the old guy and I are in similar life stages right now, feeling our age but still eager to be out exploring.

I walk slowly down the east side of the house, scanning the wooded area ahead of me for deer, owls, turkeys. Over the years, I’ve seen the occasional fox, bobcat, and coyote but not usually at this time of day or this time of year. Those sightings have been early in the morning and later in the winter, when prolonged snow cover makes hunting difficult. I wonder if the owl will appear again this winter—it seemed to favor the big pine tree that sat in the northeast corner but was dying and felled this past spring. Now there’s just a stump surrounded by saplings. I hope the remaining tall conifers that mark the back boundary will provide owl refuge.

The ground is strewn with wet leaves. I step carefully, skirting around the swampy area where sump pump runoff has created a small wetlands. I look behind me. Bell is mincing along on the wet grass. He sees me pause and takes off at a run to thunder past me and then screech to a halt. Silly boy, I say.  

We continue on across the back of the yard. I pause a couple of times to watch the action in the undergrowth—lots of squirrels and robins around today. Mr. Bell nibbles on a small patch of catmint that escaped from one of the garden beds.

He butts my leg with his head then goes into full alert pose and stalks to the edge of the tree belt. What do you see? I ask and wander closer to where he stands in quivering anticipation. Phantom mice? Voles tunneling underground? An insect rattling the leaves? He holds his hunter’s stance for a short time then pounces, on nothing.

I admire his persistence, his total absorption in the sights, sounds, smells of the present moment. On Twitter this morning Irish farmer and writer Suzanna Crampton wrote that instead of New Year’s resolutions she chooses a word to live by for the year. I like this idea and, watching the cat, I tuck a few words away to think about: notice, present, awake, breathe.

I walk on, the ground hardened into uneven ruts under my feet. Dried brown stalks fill last summer’s garden beds; seed heads rattle in a slight breeze. There’s beauty here, I think, something pleasing in the mess and tangle, the detritus of summer.

Bell is still poking around in the underbrush but stops his exploration to follow me. I’m headed south down the western edge of the yard now, just at the point where my yard flows into the neighbor’s yard. Bell takes off at an ears’ back run into the neighbor’s yard and shimmies halfway up the wooden swing set post, his exuberant inner young cat briefly erupting.

He clings there for a few seconds then leaps off and trots over to the bed of pachysandra planted around their foundation where he hunkers down to wait and watch. I wander along the west side of my house on a tree root rutted path shaded by an old spruce then cross the driveway and head inside for a cup of tea.

Home, Nature

Silver maple

Early, early the cranes arrived, the chippers and trucks, the team with chain saws and helmets and steel toed boots.

The tree was dying. Silver maple, swamp maple, weed tree. Tree that anchored the front yard, shaded the house in summer, that rose from a sea of day lilies and Siberian iris, sent whirl-a-gigs flying each spring, papery thin leaves each fall, tree that sheltered squirrels in its knots and crevices, birds in its canopy.

Tree that spread its roots under the driveway and pushed up cracks and humps in the blacktop, that outgrew its suburban landscape, just like its cousins the yellow pines and the spruces that line up across the back of the yard and tower on the corner across the street, like its brother maple in the neighbor’s yard that split in half and crashed down in a wind and snow storm, brought down power lines, blocked the road.

Tree that should have lived out its span in a forest, its canopy joining others in a network of leaves and branches, a community of green until a storm or old age felled it and the wood rotted into the forest floor, became dirt, a seedbed for new trees.

The tree was dying, each year its canopy grew thinner, more small branches came down in high winds although a cable across the crutch had so far prevented a high wind catastrophe. This spring a third of the tree didn’t leaf out. Arborists came to assess. In decline. A threat to the house, to the neighbor’s house. Too big. Ready to split apart. Cable won’t hold. Imminent peril, one said.

Early on a bright fall day the cranes arrived, the team with their saws and chippers, and piece by piece, with rasping, screaming efficiency turned the tree into wood chips and log pile. Inside the house, I paced, tried to work, paced some more, paused frequently to watch out the window with amazement and sorrow, flinched with the bite of the saw. And I watched as one of the crew, I think her name was Julie, wrapped a cable around the last of the trunk and it looked as though she was hugging the tree and I imagined her comforting it before the final cut that would take the tree down to stump.

Garden, Nature

October light

On warm fall days, with their golden light, I make my way outside as often as I can. I wander around the yard, looking at the garden beds that are mostly past flowering, tall stalks gone to seed, bladed foliage flopped over, hosta leaves nibbled, edges turned brown. The garden looks tired, except for the butterfly bush, which still shows spikes of deep purple, a late-blooming cleome, and the nasturtiums and zinnias that continue their colorful bloom. 

I look for the beauty in this dried up, past-its-glory garden. I pause to study the seed pods on the Siberian iris, the small delicate cups filled with tiny black seeds. I pick one and scatter the seeds over a bare patch. 

I used to cut much of this foliage back in the fall and pile the beds high with chopped up leaves for winter protection in case we have a low snow year. But in recent years I’ve left most of the stalks and foliage in place so the seed heads can feed birds and the flopped over foliage can provide protection for beneficial insects and other little critters. That means more to do in the spring but I’m ready for garden work then, eager to chop and rake, see what surprises lurk in the newly revealed beds. 

But back to that golden light. I wander the gardens, sometimes several times in a day, just wanting to soak up the light and warmth. In the late afternoon, I sit on the sun-warmed front porch with a cup of tea; sometimes I move to the blue chair in the back, where I sit facing those bright flowers. I could live in this light forever but it’s so fleeting. Days grow shorter, colder, soon I’ll seek warmth and light from furnace and lamps, wrap blankets around me, and wear many layers to step outside where I look from afar at the foliage that pokes through the snow cover and I breathe toward spring.

Family, Home, Nature

New Harbor and Pemaquid: Familial Echoes

I recently spent a few days in New Harbor and Pemaquid, Maine, a favorite get-away spot. Every time I make this trip, ghosts and memories ride along.

Mom and Uncle Bud, 1930

My mother’s family spent summers near Boothbay, which sits at the end of a neighboring peninsula. She and her siblings regularly came to Pemaquid Point and I have pictures of her and her brother and later of her with my dad or with friends picnicking and playing on the rocks. Later in her life, she wrote about the delights of those summer visits, including excursions to Pemaquid:

When Cap’n Newell Gray could leave his haying he would load his boat, the Osprey, with people of all ages and take us to places like Damariscotta or Center Heron or Pemaquid and there we would scramble on the rocks, explore, and gorge ourselves on picnic fare. I was always amazed at the fact that Cap’n Newell could find his way home in a thick fog without any trouble. He would stop the boat and listen and he could tell by the sound of the water just where we were.

Mom and me, early 1970s

I first came here with my parents after a long drive east from Ohio when I was 9 or 10, then again as a teen. In the 1970s and early 1980s my parents spent extended summer/fall stays in New Harbor and I’d come for regular weekend visits from my Massachusetts home. 

Since then, I’ve come up every few years, sometimes alone; sometimes with friends. My last two visits, in 2015 and 2016, were with my sister. We rented a cottage on a cove with its quiet light and birds darting and swooping.

I haven’t been back since Barbara died; I expected to feel some sadness as I moved through spaces I’d shared with her. And I did feel the prick of tears as I drove north on the Maine turnpike, crossed over the bridge from Wiscasset to Edgecomb, continued north on 1 to the Damariscotta turnoff. But mostly I eased into—and was eased by—the familiarity and a sense of coming home.

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Boothbay Harbor

I spent a leisurely few days, revisiting favorite places and exploring some new ones. A highlight was a visit to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, where I spent several hours immersed in color, texture, and scent. 

And each day I made my way to Pemaquid Point—a big pile of rocks spilling into the sea, a lighthouse, a small cafe.

Pemaquid has long had power for me. I remember many years ago sitting for long stretches huddled against a sheltering pile of rocks, shutting out the sounds of other visitors and sinking into the crash of waves and the smell of salt and seaweed. I came there one evening when I was in my 20s and caught up in some sort of tumult—there was a full moon and a high tide—magic, an easing of spirit. I came again the spring that my dad died and 10 years later, the summer my mom died, needing the touchstone of a place that has familial echoes. 

On this visit I sat on a bench at the top of the rocks and watched the shifting moods of sky and ocean, the sun glinting a path across the water and as I sat there I imagined my mom and dad, my sister sitting with me, taking it all in. 

Garden, Home, Nature

A lazy, meandering month

I’m sliding in just under the wire with my August blog post—but that’s August for you, a lazy, meandering month, a doldrum month punctuated by storms. I’m sitting on the back porch; Mr. Bell lolls on the chair next to me. The overhead fan spirals the air down on us. Sun, high puffy clouds, just hot enough to still feel like summer.

We’re emerging from another heat wave—I think this was number four for the summer—last week’s temperatures were in the 90s with high humidity. I spent most afternoons indoors where it was stuffy but cooler. I felt resentful, caged, knowing that long indoor winter days are not that far off; brief ventures out to the garden quickly sent me back inside. A cloudy cool weekend brought relief and the local weather guru promises a more fall like pattern once we navigate the tail end of Ida when she sweeps through later in the week. 

August is a bittersweet time, a month of paradoxes, contradictions. Slow indolent summer lingers but days grow shorter, nights cooler, a few leaves show fall colors. I feel sluggish and irritable in the hot days but I also grasp at that summer heat; I long for autumn briskness and regret not savoring the long light of July evenings; I want time to speed forward and I want to grab hold of now, not let go.

The garden is weedy, phlox and clethra and cone flowers fade but still provide food for pollinators, asters and goldenrod are not quite ready to bloom. The overgrown cutting garden is the one spot of bright color—orange and scarlet nasturtiums overflow the raised bed, zinnias bloom hot pink and orange, Lemon Gem marigolds are a haze of bright yellow. I could harvest the nasturtiums and marigolds for salad garnish but I leave them be. 

I make the rounds of farm stands gathering peaches, blueberries, corn, greens, tomatoes, vegetables. A month of BLT indulgence, buttery corn delights, peach crisp, pasta with fresh tomato sauce, tender new potatoes. But peach season also opens a seam of sadness. I imagine my sister exclaiming over the juicy wonder of a sweet ripe peach or my friend Jean savoring the peach salsa I made for her August birthdays. To honor these peach scented ghosts, I slice up a peach, add some blueberries, warm in the microwave, top with sweet lemony ice cream.