The Colors of Snow

January 2, 2017

Last Thursday we got a big, heavy snowfall, twenty inches or so, the sort of winter weather wallop that we haven’t seen for a few years.  There were strong winds and some underlying ice conditions too, so for some the storm brought the suffering and hardship of travel accidents and power outages. For just about all of us it brought the hard work of cleaning up and shoveling out.  So, it certainly wasn’t unmixed good news for us humans, but the landscape the snowstorm left behind was and still is beautiful.

It’s the kind of snow whose top layer is comprised of billions of intact crystals that reflect the winter sunlight in sparkles, here and there refracting it to flashes of lime green or fiery red. It’s the kind of snow that’s so deep that a hole poked by a ski pole–or, as is more likely for those still busy with cleanup, the handle of a snow rake–will create a small cavern the same otherworldly blue of glacier ice (and for the same reasons too: crystalized water absorbs more red light than blue, allowing the blue light to bounce and scatter back).

These are conditions that can and do change daily as the temperatures rise and fall and new weather patterns roll in. Rain is forecast for tomorrow, so it seems important to notice some of what greets our senses now.

Not our living world,
but I would gladly travel
those blue snow spaces

Version 3

A Harvest of Leaves

oak-leaves

 

December 12, 2016

Oak leaf harvest time—
what seems like so much litter
will be soil wealth

It’s been two weeks since I wrote this haiku, but in that short interval the weather has transitioned sharply to winter.  We are not at the solstice yet, but the ground is hard and snow covered, more snow is falling, and the temperatures have held to below freezing for days.  There is no going back now; it’s winter in central Maine.

The haiku is set in late November—the 28th to be exact–in that brief period when all the leaves are finally down, even from the late-shedding oaks, but there is, as yet, no snowcover.

Knowing that snow is just days away from settling in for good is a strong incentive for getting final winter-prep chores done.  For my husband and me that means gathering in a final harvest of the leaves—mostly oak— that lie strewn about the lawn and drive.  We rake and blow the leaves into piles, shred these piles with a mower, and then spread the contents of the resulting heaps— now much diminished in size—as a mulch on the vegetable and flower beds.  It’s hard, but satisfying work.  Shredding the leaves encourages the decomposition process; when the snow melts in the spring the leaf mulch will be a good compost, in place and ready for turning under.  Working with the leaves gives a feeling of abundance.  Oaks are generous trees.

Winterberry Magic

Version 2

November 17, 2016

It’s mid-November.  Even the oaks have shed their leaves.  Of all the birds that were with us in summer only a few–the chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches–remain to visit the feeder.  The landscape is now a study in beige, brown, and gray.

But this spare, subdued world is not without moments of astonishing vibrancy.  On the verge of a dark, leafless stand of woods, or across an expanse of wizened marsh grass, one suddenly becomes aware of floating, cloud-like clusters of brilliant, red-orange berries.  These are the fruit of the winterberry (Ilex verticulata), small, vivid globes of cheer that cling to the shrub’s smooth gray twigs long after its leaves have dropped.  Their appearance in this season of ebbing life can seem pretty close to magical.

Red winterberry—
Will your fire disappear
if we rub our eyes?

First Nor’easter

October 29, 2016

Its name might be the creation of the 19th century press rather than a genuine holdover from the salty dialect of Down-east Maine, but a Nor’easter is a very real and powerful meteorological phenomenon, a gale-force wind cycling in from the North Atlantic to dump its heavy burden of moisture (rain or snow) along a wide margin of the coast. Nor’easters tend not to occur in the summer months, but as the autumn deepens and temperatures fall, Maine, and most of the East coast of the US becomes vulnerable to these storms.  Our first Nor’easter roared in yesterday.

Our house is a good twenty-five miles from the ocean, but when a northeast gale blows, it always seems to me that we are right on the coast, face-to-face with the powerful gray North Atlantic itself.

It’s a humbling feeling.  Suddenly, staying warm, dry, and out of the wind, and keeping those you care about in that same condition, becomes the primary concern.  Glowing hearths, roofs that don’t leak, tight windows, water-proof parkas, a decent pair of boots, all now are items of great worth.  Life itself seems to draw inward.

 

Even the high heads
of the stoutest oaks are bowed–
first Northeastern gale

 

noreaster

 

Autumn Morning Glories

October 24 2016

morning-glory

 

Most of the morning glories that climb up the strings I tie for them each year are low maintenance and reseed themselves, but the Heavenly Blue variety are an exception.  Because I do not want to leave their appearance to chance, each May I buy some seeds for planting.

When these morning glories start to bloom in mid-August it is always gratifying to see that they are indeed as extravagantly large and enticingly blue as the pictures on the seed packets promised.  And they keep on blooming through September and October, unfurling fresh buds each morning with big-hearted ease, even when the purple and white morning glories have stopped and the nighttime temperatures have slipped from cool to pretty chilly.

It is now, after the first light frost, that I admire them the most, the deep blue of their fragile trumpets an echo of the clear October sky.

Wind and early frost
turn the sky its truest blue—
final morning glories

Color in the Changing Woods

maple-sugar-leaves

Sugar maple leaves

October 9, 2016

The past week has been a good one for fall color in central Maine. The days have been mostly sunlit and even warm and the nights cool enough to trigger the deciduous trees’ colorful transition to winter dormancy.

Most of the red in the autumn foliage here comes from maple trees, especially the native red maple (Acer rubrum) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum).  The red maple is a truly red tree; it is red in its buds, its twigs, and its autumn leaves, which might entertain a hint of orange for a while, but end up deepening to a pure, deep scarlet. The sugars also turn red, but they tend to hold onto some gold as they do, acquiring a rosy blush that can melt your heart.

In the beautiful weather last week, I spent hours  walking through the nearby woods. I became curious as to how many red maples there were, in comparison to sugar maples, and did an informal check.  What I found (not surprisingly given reports of their expanding numbers in North America) were plenty of reds–mature trees, saplings and small seedlings too.  The sugars were far less abundant and no matter how much I looked, I couldn’t find a single young sugar sapling or seedling. Instead, what I discovered in large numbers was another kind of maple altogether (albeit with a leaf shape similar to Acer saccharum’s), the Norway maple (Acer plantonides).  There were individuals of different sizes, and especially numerous were seedlings.  A couple of times I even found three or four of these seedlings growing directly under a mature sugar maple.

Norway maples are a fast-growing, non-native, pollution-hardy species originally introduced from Europe.  For a while they were planted in Maine as urban street trees.  That practice is now discouraged, but the trees have meanwhile made their way into the woods around many cities and towns.  The Norway maple is a lovely tree, usually with sunny yellow foliage in the fall, but discovering it in robust numbers in our woods has left me concerned: what will the future of the sugar maple be?

 
Of autumn maples
the sugar’s fire burns sweetest—
honey in the rose

May your autumn flame
warm us for ten thousand years,
Acer saccharum

maple-red-leaves

Red maple leaves

A Mast Year for Acorns

September 25, 2016

Mast year acorns

For weeks now the rain of acorns has been falling with its unique staccato beat…first a crack when the acorn hits a branch or two as it plummets thirty feet or more from the oak tree’s crown, then a thud as it strikes the ground, followed by a soft “phish” as it bounces and settles.  Acorns seem to be everywhere these days, making walking crunchy underfoot. They pile up quickly on the forest floor, but also on lawns, decks, porches, and stoops. 

2016 is a mast, or boom, year for red oak acorns in Maine. The acorns of red oaks require sixteen months to mature, so whatever conditions helped make this a good year for acorns were in place two springs ago.  We don’t know why oaks produce a superabundance of fruit every two to five years but we do know that the boom years have a reproductive advantage for the trees.  The production of more than enough acorns to satisfy all of the many animals that feed on them, from chipmunks to wild turkeys, means that a sufficient number of acorns will be left uneaten.  This makes it highly likely that some will end up in the right conditions for sprouting next spring… a strategy of success through surfeit.

 
With no wind they fall,
when the wind gusts still more fall—
Year of acorn feasts

Red oak/acorn