Friday, April 27, 2012

'All's right with the world'

It was a most unusual sound. I awoke to the music of falling rain rhythmically pelting the rooftop.

It had been a long time.

Springtime in New England is the stuff of rain interspersed with occasional sunshine, but this year is different.

The past winter brought us mild, dry days; and nature reacted. There were buds on the daffodils as early as February at the summer house. The azaleas were in full bloom on Easter in the front yard. Barren tree branches burst with blossoms and greenery in April instead of May.

“Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night,” wrote poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Yet despite the intense beauty of the season, we know that something is amiss when a significant amount of time passes with little or no rain.

Grabbing a handful of soil in my kitchen garden, I notice that it sifts like sand through my fingers.

The songbirds are regular guests at our birdfeeder, instead of fending for themselves on fat, juicy earthworms after a rainstorm.

When will the early morning dew that clings to the grass and vegetation disappear altogether?

So this morning I welcomed the rain like a long lost friend.

“I love the rain,” wrote short-story writer and poet Katherine Mansfield. “I want the feeling of it on my face.”

I imagine the foliage awash with life sustaining sustenance, dry roots soaking in a basin of fresh, cool water.

Standing at the picture window, I watch streams of water running down the street and hear the wind whipping the flag by the front door.

Oblivious to the onslaught, a woodpecker lands on the stump of an old oak tree. The black and white-spotted bird with a red patch on his head starts tapping on the weathered wood and dines on insects in the soup.

Later, I look through the bedroom window and see a wild turkey pecking in the wet grass. Intent on a turkey shoot, I grab my camera.

Quietly, I head out the back door and tip toe around the dog kennel, but the turkey scampers into the woods before I can aim and is gone without a trace.

As I walk back to the house, I notice the springy soft cushion of bright green grass and inhale the earthy scent of a world washed clean.   

I recall the poetry of Robert Browning.

“The year’s at the spring / And day’s at the morn; / Morning’s at seven; / The hillside’s dew –pearled; / The lark’s on the wing; / The snail’s on the horn; / God’s in His heaven   / All’s right  with the world!”
A wet world surrounds the summer house in every season.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gardening is a labor of love

A rare 80-degree day in mid-April in New England, my husband searches for the blue wheelbarrow in the barn and ambles over to our kitchen garden. He begins to clear away the remains of last year’s crop in the raised eight-by-eight bed and uncovers bright green shoots of chives and thriving strawberry plants inching to cover lost ground.

He wants to add another raised bed this year, more space for tomatoes. Last year I canned about 20 bottles, and I can imagine even more Mason jars filled with huge tomato chunks swimming in juice lining up on the basement pantry shelves.

My husband hoes, while I find my planner, a spiral-bound journal where I record every detail of my gardening experiment.

I smile when I read: “Purchases – 16  tomato plants (Goliath) and 4 dill for $11; Burpee Dark Seeded Early Perfection Pea, $1.79; and Burpee Bush Blue Lake 274 Garden Bean for $1.59; May 1 – Planted 2 rows of beans near fence, east to west for maximum sun.”

I learned from the best.

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau built a cabin at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., where he lived for two years, two months and two days. There he worked his small plot of land and recorded his observations of the natural world.

“It was a singular experience that long acquaintance which I cultivated with beans, what with planting, and hoeing, and harvesting, and threshing, and picking over and selling them – the last was the hardest of all – I might add eating, for I did taste. I was determined to know beans.”

I chuckle when I read his expense list: “For a hoe, 54 cents; plowing, harrowing, and furrowing, $7.50 (too much); beans for seed, 12 cents; potatoes, $1.33; peas, 40 cents; turnip seed, 6 cents; white line for crow fence, 2 cents; horse cultivator and boy three hours, $1.00; horse and cart to get crop, 75 cents; in all, $14.72.”

His investment and labor would yield 9 bushes and 12 quarts of beans sold for $16.94; five bushes of large potatoes for $2.50; 9 bushels of small potatoes for $2.25; grass for $1.00; stalks for 75 cents; in all, $23.44, leaving a “pecuniary profit” of $8. 71.

At our Fogland summer house in Tiverton, R.I., we are surrounded by gardens.

My mother plants a tiny garden behind the shed that in some years yields more produce than my kitchen garden. The fertile soil and moist sea breeze combine to provide the perfect environment to grow tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers and herbs.

Our yard also backs up to farmland that in some years sprouts potatoes and pumpkins or just lies fallow.

Every neighboring cottage contains a flower or vegetable plot.

Gardening is a labor of love in these parts, according to the master.

“Meanwhile my beans, the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted, were impatient to be hoed, for the earliest has grown considerable before the latest were in the ground; indeed they were not easily to be put off,” wrote Thoreau. “What was the meaning of this so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted.”    

Gardens stretch to the sea near our summer place in Tiverton, R.I.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

'April in New England is like first love'

“Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear upon the earth; the time of the singing of the birds is come.”

These lovely poetic strains from the “Song of Solomon” speak of springtime.

The earth warms, and the signs of the season are everywhere: green foliage, swelling buds, birdsong.

Writing about the changing seasons from her seventeenth-century farmhouse in Connecticut and its beautiful environs, Gladys Taber said it succinctly: “April in New England is like first love.”

An early riser, I watch the sun come up behind my neighbor’s farmhouse slowly scaling the hundred-foot pines, and my home fills with natural light.

I listen for the voice of my beloved red bird and his pleasing clear whistles, which sound like “wait, wait, wait, cheer, cheer, cheer.” He sings to me, this northern cardinal, who never strays far from his mate, a brown bird with a black face and red bill.

I always hear him before he makes his grand appearance, dressed in crimson finery perched on the bird feeder or dutifully standing guard at the nest.

A red-bellied woodpecker taps insistently on the oak tree in my front yard, and I am glad to find him happily employed, his red forehead bobbing back and forth. Not too long ago, he or one of his kin knocked with a vengeance on the wooden gutter of my house, a most unwelcome sound.

It is another dry, sunny day, so unlike New England springs of recent memory.

“April weeps – but O ye hours! / Follow with May’s fairest flowers,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, but there has been little rain this month. I welcome day after day of golden sunshine, but I am starting to miss the rain as I did the snow this winter. Somehow, it signals a sort of imbalance, and hopefully nature will adjust its course.

Driving to the summer house in Tiverton, I turn onto Pond Bridge Road and inhale the familiar earthy scent of freshly tilled soil and sea. As I stand near the dam, I am sandwiched between the sparkling fresh water of the reservoir, the brackish water of the salt marshes and the ocean waters beyond.

Arriving in April or early May, schools of silvery herring will shortly go up the ladder, jumping and splashing at the base of the dam on the final leg of their journey to spawn in the pond.

It is still too cold to awaken the hibernating summer house. I sniff the air, which smells of growing things, and survey the sea sparkling in the noontime sun.

It is a season of promise.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Easter at our house

There is a flurry of activity around us. Buds bust out of tree limbs, birds make nests, insects buzz by.

”Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime,” said Martin Luther.

 In preparation for Easter, I wash windows, hang summer curtains, dust furniture, shop for groceries, cook for days, set the table for 17, affix a bunny to the front door, put up a bright red geranium flag, and tie colorful plastic Easter eggs to the trees.

Two tables will be pulled together to accommodate family and friends. We are all believers: Roman Catholics, Protestants and Mormons.

Instead of the traditional Easter ham, I will serve turkey with all the fixings, beginning with a fresh fruit cup topped with rainbow sherbet, homemade chicken soup filled with three peppercorn fettuccine, mixed greens with homemade French dressing, roast turkey, Mom’s green peppers stuffed with Grandma’s chourico dressing, mashed potatoes, Dawn’s green beans, carrot matchsticks cooked in broth, pickles and olives, cranberry sauce, and for dessert, Joey’s birthday cake with ice cream.

The Mormon missionary will say the blessing.

“Of all the victories in the chronicles of humanity, none is so great, none so universal in its effects, none so everlasting in its consequences as the victory of the crucified Lord, who came forth from the tomb that first Easter morning,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in “Images and Testimonies of The Living Christ.”

It is Holy Week; we carried palm branches through the streets of Jerusalem, ate the Last Supper in the upper room, fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, wept at the foot of the cross, and now rejoice in the presence of the Resurrected Christ.

Holding a tiny hand, we will walk outside in search of colored Easter eggs. Yellow daffodils wave in the breeze. Pink azalea bushes are in full bloom, while the rhododendron buds strain in their casings.

The eggs will be unearthed: tucked in flower beds, inside oak tree roots, planted in the kitchen garden, hiding under pine needles. The basket will be brimming with blue, green, yellow, pink and purple eggs. The toddler will grab an egg with his tiny fist and scream with delight as it opens.

“If we attend to the witnesses with listening hearts and open ourselves to the signs by which the Lord again and again authenticates both them and himself, then we know that he is truly risen,” said Pope Benedict XVI in “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.” “He is alive.”