Close to home


White snakeroot

It’s been an unusually warm October: today the temperatures were in the mid-seventies. Apart from a few clear, brisk days, the month has been soupy, with warm temperatures, rain, and unseasonable mugginess. Although it feels like bad luck to wish for cooler days, I’m looking forward to the end of summer humidity…assuming, that is, that October eventually starts feeling like fall.

Mumkin in afternoon light

Even when the weather doesn’t feel like October, however, the sun always knows what time of year it is. Late this afternoon on my way home from doing errands, I had my car windows down while the setting sun illuminated the street, sidewalks, and neighbors’ yards with a metallic sheen. Even at high noon, October light feels belated, and on an October afternoon, the world feels downright antique. Although today’s temperatures still said summer, the low-angled light of late afternoon was tinged with the same bronze hues that ripens every year in October: the witching month, when the earth leans into an approaching chill.

New school for the new school year

Today on our way home from lunch, J and I walked past Newton’s brand-new Zervas Elementary School. Since Zervas is within walking distance of our house, we’ve watched its construction all summer, just as we’d watched the demolition of the old building last year.

Brand new playground

Curious to see the inside of this brand-new school, J and I peered through windows at the gym, cafeteria, lobby, principal’s office, and one festive-looking classroom. We obviously weren’t the first to have done this, as the new windows were already smudged with finger- and nose-prints from other curious passersby.

Newly built

Although J and I don’t have kids, Zervas is “our” school insofar as it’s in our neighborhood, and we’d voted “yes” to the tax increase that funded its construction. Anything that makes a neighborhood more desirable, like a new school, improves the lives and property values of all residents, so J and I were happy to support that.

Zervas sits on a larger corner lot with two separate playgrounds, an octagonal climbing structure, and a grassy field for soccer or other outdoor games. Today as J and I walked around the grounds, we saw several older kids on bikes peering into windows while a handful of parents watched their preschool children try out the new swings and slides. At the start of a new school year, there’s nothing more alluring than a new school even if you’re the wrong age to attend it.

Golden

There is something magical about the hour before sunset, when the sun sinks deep toward the horizon: a time photographers call the golden hour. Vertical surfaces glow as if gilded, and every grassy head is highlighted and haloed. The very ground seems hallowed, illumined with a metallic sheen. There is no magic, no shenanigans, behind such shows: it’s simply the sun casting everything into its best light.

Cattails

Last night Leslee and I walked at the Minute Man National Historic Park, saying farewell to August by walking into the sunset then back to our cars. Classes start next week, and already the days are growing shorter. A month ago, it was too humid for walking, and once winter descends, the evenings will be too dark. Yesterday, though, the weather was perfect: clear but cool, with the sun playing peekaboo behind intermittent clouds.

Hayfield

They say you should make hay when the sun shines; instead of making hay, Leslee and I walked alongside stonewalls, over a cattail swamp, and past an old hayfield, stopping by Hartwell Tavern to admire a small flock of pygmy goats and sheep. A woman in colonial garb tended the animals, pulling out an iPhone to see whether her shift was done: time to head back to the 21st century. During the golden hour, it’s easy to think time stands still as the sun lingers low, but everywhere, eventually, life becomes history, casting a long shadow on shortening days.

Countless steps

On my way to a meeting at Framingham State last week, I stopped to take a handful of pictures. Behind one of the academic buildings, a green vine was climbing a brick wall, and below that was a tall, lush stand of Asiatic dayflower abundantly blooming.

Climbing

Dayflowers are so named because each blossom lasts for only one day: bloom today, gone tomorrow. But you’d never know that by simply looking at any given cluster of dayflowers, as each plant blooms with fervent, verdant abandon. Tomorrow, there will be new dayflowers to replace today’s: one cohort arriving as another retires, a rolling legacy of bloom after bloom.

Admiring a patch of dayflowers is kind of like teaching first-year college students: every year, a new crop of youngsters arrives, the whole world new and full of opportunity. College campuses stay evergreen through a continual influx of new students, and this is one of the things that keeps me from becoming too jaded. What’s old-hat to me is new and exciting to my students.

Asiatic dayflower: blooms for only one day.

The strange thing about teaching, however, is the simple fact that I grow old, but my students never do. The freshmen I teach today, more than two decades after I started teaching, are just as young and green as the ones I’ve ever taught. Whenever I grow frustrated with the feeling of having repeated myself over and over and over on some incredibly basic point, I remind myself that this is the first time my students have heard this lesson from me, or possibly at all.

Butter and eggs among clover

I wonder if dayflowers have any idea how short their flowering lives are, or if they have any idea of anything at all? Is any blooming day a good day if you’re a dayflower, or are some days simply better and more sunny than others?

Today was, I’m guessing, a good day to be a dayflower–sunny and warm, but breezy and comfortable in the shade. If you bloom for only one day, what basis would you have to compare your life with any other? Any day is a good day if you’re young, green, and open to the sun.

Bee on Clethra alnifolia

Classes at Framingham State start the Wednesday after Labor Day, so I have just under two weeks of summer left. During that time, I’ll cram in all the semester prep I’d intended to do over the past two months: just like my students, I invariably leave everything until the last minute.

Ripening bittersweet nightshade berries

The prelude to back-to-school conveniently coincides with my favorite part of summer: late August, when the sun is starting to lean low toward the horizon. The days are still warm, but the nights have a touch of chill, and both the cicadas and crickets are amping up their summer songs, squeezing as singing as they can into waning days.

In June and July, summer seems as endless as the days are long. In late August, however, you’re reminded that time is slippery and the summer short, and that makes every day that much sweeter.

Yes, we'll be watching.

Yesterday was the much-awaited Great American Eclipse, a celestial event that spanned the continent and consequently garnered a great deal of media buzz. Although New England was outside the path of totality, partial solar eclipses are interesting in their own right, so months ago I bought eclipse glasses, looking forward to an opportunity to let my inner science nerd shine.

One of the things that struck me about yesterday’s eclipse was its (literally) universal aspect. The sun shines on rich and poor alike, white and black, left and right. Everyone looks funny and feels foolish wearing eclipse glasses, and everyone’s first remark upon seeing a bite bitten out of the sun is some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Eclipse watching

Eclipses are wonderful but not surprising: these days, we know far in advance when, where, and to what degree an eclipse will occur. But much of the wonder of any eclipse is the very fact that it happens just as predicted. We say “Oh, wow” because the bite nibbled out of the Vanilla Wafer sun happens just as expected and right on schedule. It’s the wonder of holding a newborn infant and counting her tiny fingers and toes: exactly ten of each, just as it should be.

It comes as news to no one that we are a divided nation, but as soon as we step outside and look up, we find something we all share. Yesterday here in lush and leafy Newton, neighbors spontaneously gathered at the local ballfield, each of us drawn to its wide, unobstructed sky. And just like that, a set of suburban Little League bleachers was transformed into an observation platform peopled by armchair astronomers.

Colander crescents

Some of us had eclipse glasses and others had homemade pinhole viewers made out of cereal boxes; everyone shared. One boy showed off a richly illustrated National Park Service booklet about eclipses, and I held aloft a kitchen colander I’d brought, casting a constellation of pinhole crescents onto a piece of cardstock. It was, I’d guess, the kind of ragtag gathering that happened in lots of neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces across the country yesterday: a spontaneous gathering of strangers that fell into place because word had gotten out that something special was happening. All you had to do to join was go outside and look.

And here’s the shocker: the sun is there every day, and so are your neighbors. Yesterday offered a rare and special light show, but every day there are weird and wonderful things happening in place you might not expect, but can readily see if you’re outside and looking.

Cicada killer

Yesterday as we were sitting on the bleachers gazing skyward, an enormous bug suddenly zoomed and buzzed us. It was an aptly named cicada killer wasp carrying a cicada that looked twice its size. Nobody could have predicted a two-inch wasp carrying an even bigger bug would fly by at exactly that moment, but we shouldn’t have been surprised. Cicadas, like the sun, are almost ubiquitous in August, and so too are the wasps that sting and paralyze them before dragging them underground to serve as living larvae-food.

Cicada killer

It’s a weird and wonderful world out there: sometimes we’re expecting signs and wonders, and sometimes they shock and surprise us, buzzing right by our upturned faces. As the sun gradually grew back into its usual round shape, J and I walked toward home with a neighbor, startling a pair of strolling turkeys before meeting up with another neighbor walking the other way.

He’d viewed the eclipse at home with a pinhole viewer with his kids, he said, but he hadn’t seen it directly. Leaving him with a pair of eclipse glasses, we told him to wait until the clouds cleared and then look up. Although we left him there alone, I can predict what he said the moment the clouds parted: some variation of “Oh, wow!”

Stickwork

Today J and I drove to Salem, MA to visit the Peabody Essex Museum. Before we went inside, we took a detour around the block to see What the Birds Know, a stickwork installation by Patrick Dougherty.

Exploring

Dougherty is the same artist who created The Wild Rumpus, a stickwork installation I’d seen at Tower Hill Botanic Garden (and subsequently blogged) last October. Although the two pieces are crafted from the same materials and share a similar whimsical vision, their markedly different surrounding make for two distinctly different impressions.

Huddled

The Wild Rumpus is located in the woodsy shade alongside a sunny field: the “middle of nowhere” if you’re a child walking with your parents. Inspired by the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, Dougherty’s Tower Hill installation feels wild, or at least woodsy. Looking through its wicker-like windows, you half expect to see deer or other shy forest creatures staring back at you.

Together

What the Birds Know, on the other hand, is at the corner of a busy intersection in downtown Salem. Tucked into a tiny yard next to a historic house, What the Birds Know is surrounded by neighboring buildings and receives lots of visitors. (J and I had driven past it last October, when Salem was thronged with Halloween tourists, and we didn’t even try to photograph it.)

Dougherty’s Salem installation doesn’t feel wild, but cozy: a cluster of neat little houses tucked right alongside human habitations. What the birds of downtown Salem presumably know is how to make a tame and tidy nest right alongside the comings and goings of preoccupied human beings.

Next Page »