Writings about

the many life lessons

unearthed when we dig

in the dirt . . . and pursue

a range of other interests

in the constantly evolving

garden of life.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Now, the In-Between Week

When I was a newspaper correspondent traveling the world, writing about all manner of doings, a week at home was a rare time. I do believe I heard my children refer to me once as "Mr. May."

The constant travel was so deadening and disconnecting, I began a tradition of scheduling myself off from work the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day – partly because that was a slow news week. I would take the time to get reacquainted with my family and friends and to vegetate.

I called it the In-Between Week.

As years went by, that week took on greater importance; it has become not just a time to catch a breath and catch up with people but also a period of reflection, renewal and psychic massage – even though I don’t travel for a living anymore.

Looking back on a year can be exhilarating or harshly honest. In any case the week is a time to digest one year's goodness and badness, and savor the outlook for the next year. This is a time for asking: What did I accomplish during the year just gone by? What will I do differently in the coming year? Am I living the best life I can live?

Questions may come and go, but there is one constant: I resist using the In-Between Week for travel; a life of going has made staying home the perfect vacation.

Never ever have I felt any sadness as I waved goodbye to friends who stuffed themselves into cars and headed for out-of-town gatherings. Even those who fly off to balmy climes and luxurious homes and hotels inspire no jealousy.

No, the in-between week remains a time for winding down and gearing up, getting rid of some old stuff from the old year and getting ready for more stuff in the new one.

No resolutions though; that's an entirely different activity, one I dropped at about the same time I discovered that jogging was not nearly as much fun as a full cholesterol breakfast. So, this week, as I  recover from over-feasting at the groaning board, I get ready to devour the new year with gusto.

Peace, happiness, and Cheers!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Time to Celebrate Winter's Bones

As the Winter Solstice kicked in at 12:30 a.m. Eastern time on  December 22, I turned the corner in the garden, heading toward spring. With the Solstice comes more sunlight with each new day, barely perceptible. Nevertheless, I know it's there; I feel it.

But, first, let us praise winter's bones.

To be sure, this season is brutally frank, when much of my garden strips naked, revealing its structure, unhidden by lush greenery or eye-catching blooms.

At the same time, the garden expands visually as many of the ferns, hostas, other perennials and the houseplants that I re-purposed for the summer die back and the leafless trees and shrubs take up less space.

The resulting winter starkness accentuates the beauty of bark – in my garden and in nature's larger garden; my attention always snaps to as I drive past sycamores clad in camouflage. Or shaggy river birches. Or colonies of white birches, ghostly contrasts among trees dressed in gray. Much like persistent copper-colored leaves on beeches standing out in a forest of naked trees.

Beech Leaves in My Garden Will Hang On Well Into Winter
Cinnamon-Bark Maple Knee-Deep in Last Year's Snow
My cinnamon-bark maple provides bark texture that beckons. As does heptacodium, known as the “crape myrtle of the North.” Both invite touching that rewards: Peeling bark, thin, crinkly, is revealing; it connects me with the trees. Pines, looking fresh and green, seem ancient as well, their bark resembling some long-gone scaly creature.

Aged, Lichen-Mottled Bark of Japanese Black Pine
Sumac More Twisted Than Ever Without Fern-Like Leaves

White Birch, Distractingly Beautiful, Punctuates New England Landscapes
I am fortunate to look out my writing-room window at a tall, three-trunk white birch. Even when snow falls, this tree stands out. Stand-outs also are the lobster-colored coral-bark maple, winterberry, a bird magnet, the sculpted forms of the bare sumacs.

All this wonder gets me through long winters and short days, bridging the distance to spring.

Happy Solstice!

Friday, December 9, 2011

How to Get a Good Cuppa: Make My Own

Call it an opiate of the masses. Coffee soothes and invigorates like nothing else, especially on crisp, chilly mornings – which come and go in Connecticut this year.

Yes, I like tea as much as the next drinker, but coffee – I looove coffee. There's something right about it during daily walkabouts among the plants, or after meal.

Too bad it's so hard to find a good cuppa even in a good restaurant. I can't tell you how many times I've had a terrific restaurant meal, only to have it end in disappointment because the coffee is too weak, too cool or too bland. Or all that.

It took me years to finally swear off restaurant coffee. And, that was years ago; it was then that I began my search for the perfect home-brewed coffee. I tried every method I could think of – except the automatic electric coffee-maker. No need to own one of those, as I get enough automatic coffee from friends and relatives.

Recalling the pleasure my mother and father took in their morning java (and the covert pleasure I got from leftover sips), I bought one of those percolators they used, with the glass bubble on top. I think the pot was aluminum. Never did I   produce coffee that tasted as good as the brews my parents drank. Ahhh, the incomparable satisfaction of forbidden treats.

Just in time, in the 1980s, my wife Lyn introduced me to the French press. I embraced it so hard, I took over the coffee-making pleasure, making the daily routine a coffee ceremony, starting with grinding the beans. Coarsely. I prefer a mix of dark, strong roasts, such as French, Italian, Sumatra, leavened with, say, Ethiopian, Mexican, Costa Rican. The ceremony includes pouring water just off the boil onto the grounds (2 tablespoons per cup) waiting in the press, then stirring with a chopstick and brewing for about four minutes. I've tried a whole lot of coffee roasters, American and non-American, expensive and not. I always go back to Starbucks.

After wasting too much money on expensive grinders, I wound up with a couple of cheap ones that do the job and allow me to control the coarseness. Go figure.
My collection of presses is much like the excess of my plant collection; I can never have too many. Various sizes, they make a single cup up to eight or so.
Some of My Opiate Brewers, With the Chemex in the Center

A few years ago, I decided the unfiltered coffee from the presses just may be unhealthy, so I tried the elegant Chemex. Made of glass, with a wooden ring and strand of leather around its middle, it resembles an hourglass and uses paper cones to filter the coffee. Its design has earned it museum display.

When I told an art-loving friend about Chemex, he quickly rejected the idea of changing from the French press I had introduced him to: "I'd miss the sludge," he said.

So did I. For the last few years, my Chemex has been for display only. I reckon I'm just one of the masses; I know how I like my opiate.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cherry Bridges Autumn and Spring

When just about all the bloomers are gone from my garden in autumn, I can always count on the twice-blooming cherry to give me a flower or a few pinkish-whitish semi-double blossoms.

This two-timing tree (Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis') believed by some horticulturists to be a naturally-occurring cultivar, provides a surreal experience, flipping time back to early spring, when it bloomed this year or forward to early spring, when it will bloom again next year.

If autumn, with its leaves of many colors is the flip side of spring's rainbow flowers, then this tree must be those two seasons stored inside a single tree.

To be sure, it is both a look back and a look ahead. The garden is well past the last hot flush of spring and summer, when there were too many flowers to count. And, winter must be crossed before spring comes again to light up every nook and cranny.

For now, filling the gap, is this sparse bloomer, resembling a night sky with only a fraction of its stars. The better to see each one.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Observed – Paintings in the Sky

Some gardeners have a bad habit of never doing nothing. I have been guilty of that, guilty of always doing something – pruning, raking, watering. Something. Always something.

The other day, I went to the garden and did nothing. Nothing but watch the sky, watching daylight fall toward darkness, which comes before 4:30 in Connecticut this time of year. Sometimes, the sky is lit from below by the sinking sun,  a blue canvas smeared with clouds.

At another time, just days later, that western sky loses its blue and instead glows like an erupting volcano, recalling the old American saying: Red sky at night, sailor's delight.

In the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom the saying goes: Red sky at night, shepherd's delight.

Sailor, shepherd, gardener. No matter how compelling the demands on us all, it's good to know that, from time to time, we stop doing long enough to appreciate a few moments of autumn delight.