Trees

The catalpas are blooming, really putting on a show this year–huge crowns full of white blossoms. I suppose the climate this year contributed to this show somehow, but my research says catalpa speciosa is drought resistant and requires little water compared to other tree species.

casp8062

catalpa in bloom

Eastern Pennsylvania has not had drought lately, and two wet springs in a row have meant burgeoning iris pseudacoris and particularly floriferous honeysuckle vines in my yard. The river birch seems happy with its feet all wet; the firs–though in a slightly less waterlogged area of the yard–are, by contrast, miserable.

~

I’ve been thinking about trees because I’m reading Peter Wohlleben’s 2016 book The Hidden Life of Trees. The text reads like a friendly forester inviting readers to learn what he loves about trees and their encounters with us, with the environment (soil, air, sun, water, pollutants, pests, fungi), and with one another. I have to say I remain somewhat skeptical about the scientific veracity of his source material, but I do enjoy his warm enthusiasm for his subjects and his reminders that we humans don’t know even the smallest fraction of what goes on in the planet’s interconnected and unplumbed depths.

Although some critics object to what they see as too much anthropomorphism in Wohllebehn’s book, his use of the analogy of the human and the tree “bodies” makes his information about how trees and forests work easy to grasp.

For science nerds, there are other texts. The Hidden Life of Trees is meant to make the less scientifically-inclined reader more aware of his or her environment, to convince the average human being to consider plant life more consciously.

~

I take many photos of trees; and they appear in my poems pretty regularly, not as main characters but in supporting roles–not symbolic, but actual. Wohllebehn’s book may influence my work somehow…possible inspiration? But then, the trees themselves, especially the oldest ones, are inspiration enough.

sycamore

This 200-year-old sycamore resides at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia

 

 

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Swarms of dragonflies

September pretty much ushers in the season of southward migrations. I have already noticed some gathering and flocking action among birds in my region. Certain insects, short-lived though they are, also migrate. Studies show that, like monarch butterflies, several species of dragonflies also fly south in fall, north in spring (here’s a link to a brief National Geographic post on the phenomenon). The Dragonfly Woman is one of several entomologists tracking dragonfly swarms. I recommend her site; I’ve learned a great deal about my own back yard (the insects in it) from her blog.

I just witnessed a dragonfly swarm. Probably green darners, as they were large and as darners are one of the species known to swarm and to migrate.

© 2009-2015 C. L. Goforth

© 2009-2015 C. L. Goforth

This evening, around six, I watered the remaining tomato and cucumber plants; we have had not one drop of rain in three weeks, and daytime temperatures have been consistently above 85º F. The earth beneath my feet feels like cobblestone. I try to conserve water, but there are still a few fruits on those vines and I’d love to harvest them. So I was out with the hose, enjoying the slow movement toward twilight and listening to birds and brown crickets while dousing the roots of the vegetables.

In June and July, barn swallows liked to dip in and around the sprinkler at the evening garden shower. I haven’t seen them for a few weeks–perhaps they are early migrators. This evening, I looked up at a cloudless sky and saw: dragonflies, at least two dozen of them, high above the rooftop of the house and darting in wide circles over the garden and lawn.

I was curious whether they’d be attracted to the water, so I directed the hose upward. I couldn’t reach them with the spray, of course, but I wondered if they would notice the droplets and be attracted to them–they are aquatic insects, after all. And due to this region’s lack of recent rain, many of the little streams and smaller ponds have dried up. Mostly I just watched them, their fast-moving, translucent wings fanning either side of their dark, elegant bodies. I tried counting them, but they’re small and quick and additional ones kept appearing from the treeline.

A darner dived toward me and passed through the sprinkles, and some of its fellow migrants moved closer, tightening the circle around the vegetable garden. A spiral of fliers–some of them a smaller species–flew down and up again, playing with the stream of water. Okay, I know I’m anthropomorphizing an insect; but it was pretty startling. My husband thought so, too–he was observing the action from our back porch. The…group? flock? gathering? swarm, I guess…stayed in our back yard for about 20 minutes, then vanished.

I have observed swarms like this once or twice before in my region, but the only time I witnessed a huge swarm of dragonflies was when I was a child in southern New Jersey. That time, there were hundreds, and the experience was almost frightening–awesome in the truest sense of the word.

Drought

I hate droughts. I’m a gardener who lives in a temperate region that, on average, receives about 1,150 mm of precipitation annually (45″). Here we are, in the middle of springtime, blooms on the dogwoods and azaleas, peonies beginning to bust out; and I haven’t heard the welcome noise of rain on the roof for over 5 weeks. Generally, May brings this region 2-4 inches of rain. I miss it, and so do the birds and the deer and the insects and the salamanders and toads…and the few remaining farmers.

I water my vegetable garden daily, but I cannot water the whole lawn, the perennial beds, the hedgerows where the larger trees grow. So the grass becomes crisp. And I worry that a strong wind, or a sudden downpour (please?!), might topple a weak-wooded tree that’s been gasping for nourishment.

Drought is also so metaphorical. It signifies lack. A lack of ideas, a creative drying-up, a kind of writer’s block where words harden into obstacles–those things are droughts of a kind that stop thinkers into stasis. If you don’t move, you end up mired.

Not too distant a stretch from the concrete phenomenon of drought to the existential phenomenon of an artistic or emotional “dry period.”

There are several ways to contend with droughts; some require large-scale changes in industry, agriculture, population centers. On the smaller scale, I practice a version of xeriscaping; after years of experimentation, I have learned which plants hold up best under extremes of dry periods or deer depredation. I am alert as to which seedlings are hardiest, which plants can contain themselves in a sort of dormancy until the rain comes. That means I have to let go of my desire to grow certain species and cultivars no matter how envious I am of the way they flourish in someone else’s garden.

And it’s the same with a droughty period in my creativity. Certain things I let go of; I work instead with what struggles along in the mud cracks, what creeps under the brickwork or waits for the next real rainfall. There’s often surprising beauty in those hardy emotions and ideas that stay around when the going gets tough, the things that manage to find shade or that–like cacti–prefer a drier clime.

Being adaptable is important if one wants to make art, to write poems, to compose. Because life isn’t always going to offer ideal circumstances for the creative or aesthetic effort.

~

I hate droughts not only because they hurt my plantings but because they signal a potential disaster in terms of global climate change, and because thousands of people die for lack of that essential element–water. I recognize, though, that suffering sometimes motivates human beings to make changes, to create new approaches…even to make art.

Life is complicated. We evolve through change.

Meanwhile–let it rain!

Water thoughts

This weekend brought some rain to our valley. Gratitude! The rain softened the soil and the air, bringing haze and drizzle and greening up the parched grasses. Nonetheless, a little searching of weather-history sites revealed that this March was the fourth-driest on record, with only .92 inches of precipitation; the average precipitation is 3.4 inches. The region is also 6″ below average for the first quarter of 2012. As a gardener, I take my “stewardship” of the earth and its resources seriously; and water is one of the most valuable resources that we take for granted here in the United States. I can conserve water at home through many means–and I have established fairly resilient plants in my ornamental gardens (if it survives drought and flood and the deer don’t eat it, I find a way to make it look pretty in the yard). There isn’t anything I can do to change the weather patterns, though.

Given my deep concerns about cyclical drought, long-term equitable distribution of water, potable water and clean waterways, I thought I would use this post to share the title poem of my upcoming collection, Water-Rites. The publishers at Brick Road Poetry Press will be bringing the book out this spring. If the year continues to be a dry one, then it’s strangely suitable for this particular collection: I wrote many of these poems during a serious drought cycle. Some of the poems deal with the loss of a close friend, too. For me, drought and grief are metaphorically closer than “floods of tears.” Loss felt more like the numb, dry absence of drought than like the gift of rain.

For some soothing photos of running natural waters, I recommend Don Schroder’s series taken at Rickett’s Glen. Meanwhile, I’m grateful for the rain.

Water-Rites

I.

I take my shower
lean into water’s hot stream
too many minutes
lathered in steam, guilty skin,
greedy pores

knowing the well empties
and the earth’s in drought.
II.

Off Nova Scotia’s south coast,
small islands spring fresh water
surrounded by sea. We hauled
the pine-brown but potable
stuff from the well in buckets,
heated it on the woodstove,
dabbed at our bodies, and dried
in the sea wind. We drank it:
pine-water coffee—water
sprung from nowhere, gift of rocks,
glaciers, lost to eons.
III.

The Mideast erupts again.
Retribution. Religion. Water-rights.

Oil will get you water;
water will buy you oil.
Barrels and tanks,
tanks and barrels—

each has a meaning
for water and warfare.

I reach for soap.
IV.

On the Caribbean volcanic island,
rain’s the only source. Rock
carved into cisterns. Water
hauled in like gasoline, by truck.
V.

We do not need to be so clean.
The industry of soap cajoles us—
promoting glycerin, methyl paraben
and the lauryl sulfates—
exposes our filth and offers
deliverance from evil.
Lye and tallow. Better to wallow.
The cost is less. Think:
Were we not formed of clay?
VI.

Tap
like sap
provides
sustenance.

Water
up root and
down:
taproot.
Soil            unsoiled
needs rain

silt       sand       loess—
water-loss

water’s
lost,
VII.

runs down my body,
thirsty skin, down drain
into pipes, tanks, drainage field
where ryegrass covers meadow,
percolates through sand, loam; disperses—

if it should rain
I will run out, arms wide,
mea culpa, mea culpa,
so many parched human beings
desiccating earth and I—
I thought to wash
my trespasses away
in something other
than rain.

© 2012 Ann E. Michael

Early blooms

photo by Ann E. Michael

Quince blossoms.

The strangely warm weather around this equinox has sped spring along. Above, one of my favorite ornamental shrubs, a quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) in the named variety “Tokyo Nishiki.” I love its pale blossoms that lack the orange-y hue of the more common varieties of chaenomeles.

While it’s lovely to see the sun, blue skies, and so many flowers, it is worrisome because an open winter requires–in our temperate region–a rainy spring to make up for the lack of snow-melt. Instead, we are three inches below the average precipitation for March. It is unusual to have to water the spinach bed; usually, I am instead dealing with sprouts that pop up far from the intended rows because heavy rains have dislodged them.

Of course, everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it, as the old saying goes. I am just going to wait and see what happens. Will we get our blackberry frost? Will it be a hard frost that kills off the redbuds and damages the early blossoms? Will we get a freak April blizzard to bookend our freak October blizzard? Or will we have a dry, too-warm spring that means the daffodils wilt early, few blossoms in May, and a tough summer for food crops?

I have some thoughts about gardening in drought years, but I am crossing my fingers that maybe we will get spring rains after all.

Anyone know a rain dance, chant, or prayer?