Nature & animals


Already peonies

The weather in New England has been crazy. Last week was beautiful, with a string of sunny days with temperatures in the 70s: perfect weather for walking, reading on the patio, and dining alfresco. Saturday was overcast and humid with afternoon thunderstorms, Sunday was warm and sunny, and Monday spiked into the upper 80s: suddenly summer. Yesterday started warm until temperatures dropped into the 60s–spring again–and today has been gray and drippy after overnight thunderstorms.

It’s hard to tell, in other words, if it’s spring or summer, so I’ve taken to calling this time of year spring-into-summer. It’s a transitional period marked by indecision and mood swings. May is clearly spring, and July will truly be summer, but early June can’t make up its mind. Some days are reminiscent of April showers, and others hearken ahead to summer sultriness.

This might explain why I’m always surprised when any of the neighbors’ peonies bloom. I associate peonies with summer, so I’m always surprised when they bloom out of the blue, before I’m ready. Peonies flower in their own good time, and I’m always out of step, muttering “Already?” under my breath.


Orchard oriole

Last night Leslee and I went for a walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery, just as we did almost exactly one year ago. Mount Auburn is a pedestrian paradise, with wide, meandering roads and little traffic: a perfect place to take in the fresh air.

Sunning turtles

In the spring, Mount Auburn is in full bloom, with birds buzzing or whistling from the trees, turtles sunning themselves on the banks of quiet ponds, and chipmunks darting through shaded undergrowth. Last night, Leslee and I saw an orchard oriole we would have walked past if a couple hadn’t been standing on the path, aiming their phone at a bird singing almost invisibly from a willow tree. “The app says orchard oriole,” they explained, and the bird called to mind a Baltimore oriole Leslee and I had seen at Mount Auburn in May, 2017.

May apple

Apparently Leslee and I meet at Mount Auburn for a placid walk almost every May, after I’m done teaching but need a break from grading. Every year, it’s a welcome respite to take a leisurely stroll among flowers…and this year, after another semester of pandemic teaching, it’s a relief to visit the cemetery as a survivor, not an occupant. In this age of airborne illness, walking in the fresh air feels healthy, healing, and restorative. I’m looking forward to doing more of it.

Plein air

CLICK HERE to view more photos from yesterday’s walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Enjoy!

Oak leaf

Each November, I admire the obstinate oaks, which are the last trees to leaf in spring and the last trees to drop their leaves in fall.


Ginkgo gleaming golden

Yesterday at Babson College, I spent my office hour preparing today’s classes at Framingham State University. Today at Framingham State, I spent my office hour preparing tomorrow’s classes at Babson. This is how my semesters unfold: prep, teach, repeat.

The ginkgo tree outside the building where I teach my morning class, on the other hand, has suddenly erupted into gold flame: no preparation needed.


Pokeweed on drippy morning

This morning I photographed the tiny pokeweed blooming on the edge of our driveway. I was walking back from taking the trash out, and I had my head down, watching for puddles.

Pokeweed is usually a bushy, expansive plant, growing and sprawling into every inch of available space: an opportunistic weed. It grows everywhere, bearing bright green leaves and inconspicuous white flowers with green centers that eventually ripen into purple-black berries on hot pink stems.

Pokeweed is a showy, eye-grabbing plant that is photogenic at every stage of development–one of my favorite weeds. But the pokeweed growing next to our driveway is less than ankle-high: a sprout hoping nobody notices it is there, unobtrusively doing its weedy thing.

I know this poke won’t last the summer: J will trim or uproot it when it gets too tall. But in the meantime, it is doing what weeds everywhere do. Having sprouted, I presume, from a seed excreted by a bird sitting on the fence, this miniature pokeweed is growing as tall as a slender strip of soil between the fence and pavement permits while furtively following the advice to Bloom Where You’re Planted.

Backyard cardinal

It’s a hot and sunny day, with clear skies, so J and I are hoping to see Comet NEOWISE tonight, either in our backyard, which is fringed with trees, or at the neighborhood Little League field, which provides a broad, less obstructed view.

In advance of sundown, I’ve gotten my binoculars out, and in doing so, I realize I can’t remember the last time I used them, which is a shame since they are a nice set of optics–Nikon Monarchs–with a pleasing heft in the hand.

Birding is something I used to enjoy, which is to say it is something I enjoyed when I made time for it. There is a hushed expectancy that birding inspires–you train yourself to be quiet and attentive, honed to notice anything that looks or sounds usual.

This watchful demeanor is something birding and meditation share–both require you to intentionally focus your attention. When I used to go on Brookline Bird Club bird walks at Mount Auburn Cemetery, I’d practice the art of selective attention, peeling back the layers of conversation among the birders around me to focus on the faint chirps and whistles in the background, like removing a song’s vocal track to focus on the bass line.

When you go birding, you aren’t necessarily looking for any particular bird–or at least, I’ve never had much luck looking for and then finding a specific species. Instead, you keep your eyes and ears open for anything that seems different from the norm–a sound that doesn’t match the ambient noise, or a movement that runs counter to the usual grain.

In this sense, birding is as much about looking for clues as it is about hunting down specific species–or at least, that is how it usually works for me. The most interesting things I find are usually the things that appear by accident or surprise, like an unexpected eruption of mushrooms after summer storms.

This is why looking for wildflowers underfoot is a great accompaniment for listening to birds overheard. While you occupy your fidgety mind with one thing, you create an expectant opening for something else to appear.

Lyman Conservatory

Both today and yesterday have been unseasonably warm: well above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is all but unheard of in Massachusetts in January. Yesterday I met Leslee and A (not her real initial) at the Smith College botanic garden in Northampton for a belated holiday celebration, and it was warm enough I could sit comfortably on a bench outside the Lyman Plant House before the two of them arrived.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

It was strange–unsettling–to go inside the plant house on a mild day: usually, the whole point of going to a greenhouse in winter is to experience a moment of tropical weather as a respite from the cold outside. These days, however, the world itself is a hothouse: Australia is burning, Indonesia is flooding, and everywhere denial and indifference rage rampant.

Lyman Conservatory

When the world is on fire, you save what you can, starting with your sanity. Every year, Leslee, A, and I meet for conversation and cocktails at, after, or around Christmas, New Year’s, or my birthday: a chance to catch up, exchange gifts, and feed our psychic fires.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

On yesterday’s drive to Northampton, I listened to Paula Cole’s This Fire, a CD that invariably takes me back to the rage and restlessness I felt in the 1990s, when I felt trapped in my first marriage:

Where do I put this fire
This bright red feeling
This tiger lily down my mouth
It wants to grow to twenty feet tall.

These days, I feel rage and restlessness for different, more global reasons. Right now the earth herself is raging through an unsettled spell. At the inaugural Women’s March several years ago, I overheard one woman compare global warming to the Earth experiencing hot flashes, and a half-dozen women of post- and perimenopausal age perked and turned at the comment: you talkin’ to me?

Inside Lyman Conservatory

When the world is on fire, you save what you can. Spending time with friends is one thing that soothes my spirit; spending time with plants is another. Those of us of post- and perimenopausal age have weathered our share of literal and figurative fires, and our hard-fought wisdom is tempered by flame.

Lyman Conservatory

As Leslee, A, and I looked at a chart of the various evolutionary epochs up to the present day, Leslee mentioned Rebecca Solnit’s “Letter to a Young Climate Activist on the First Day of the New Decade,” an essay that describes hope and rage as complementary sides of the same coin:

We need to love the earth as it is now and to see how worthy it is, now, of our greatest efforts. To look for that beauty and to treasure it is perhaps a crucial part of the work we have to do. This is what reminds us that the world is still full of things we love and want to protect and the effort is worth it. Galicia, the fury you feel is the hard outer shell of love: if you’re angry it’s because something you love is threatened and you want to defend it.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

Rebecca Solnit is a woman of a certain age; not accidentally, the various activist groups I’ve joined since the 2016 election largely consist of middle-aged, post- and perimenopausal women who like me are mad as hell at the state of the world these days. Where do we put this fire, this bright red feeling? We pour it back into our friendships, our passions, and our determination, again and again without fail.

Roxy wants a cookie

In late July, a week or so after Toivo died, J and I adopted a white pitbull named Roxy. (My friends, family, and social media followers have seen plenty of pictures of Roxy, but this is the first time I’ve mentioned her on-blog.)

Roxy's bedroom eyes. #SNELovesPets

If I had my way, I’d spend months, years, or more mourning a pet, but J belongs to the “move on quickly” school of pet bereavement, and I’m coming to see the wisdom of his approach. When you lose a pet, you have a dog-shaped hole in your heart, and although you won’t ever find another dog to perfectly fill that void, you can distract yourself by finding another creature in need of a home.

Roxy nests on laundry day. #SNELovesPets

The goal isn’t to replace the dog you lost: that can’t be done. The goal instead is to drive out the Phantom Dog–the almost hallucinatory sense that the Dog That’s Gone is still there–that arises when you’ve lost a pet. For the first week or so after Toivo died, I habitually looked for her on the bed every time I walked into the bedroom, even though I knew she wasn’t there. When making the bed in the morning, I habitually put Toivo’s chew-bone in the center of the bedspread even though she wasn’t there to chew it, and at night I automatically latched the door to her crate even though there was no one inside.

One of the first things I did after Toivo died was to gather and put away the omnipresent reminders of her presence. I put away the pet steps she used to climb into bed when her hind legs weren’t working, the cone she wore during and after her hospitalization, and the long lead I used when we sat outside on the patio or porch. But I purposefully didn’t dispose of Toivo’s biscuits, treats, or rolls of poop bags, knowing I’d need those things again, eventually. Keeping the accoutrements of daily dog-care close at hand was a way of keeping my heart-door open to whatever dog might choose to wander in, and that’s how Roxy arrived.

Both Djaro and Roxy prefer my side of the bed. 🤔

Now that Roxy has lived with us for a few months, it’s abundantly clear she isn’t Toivo. Physically, Roxy looks nothing like Toivo: when it comes to appearances, a white pitbull is almost the exact opposite of a black Belgian Maliniois. Whereas Toivo was slim and sleek, Roxy is solid and muscular: a sturdy girl. Toivo spun like a top when she got excited, and Roxy bounces straight in the air. Toivo liked to sprawl when she slept, and Roxy likes to curl into what J and I call a pitball.

Roxy says she'll miss me terribly while I'm on campus teaching today, but I'm not so sure. 😊

Roxy now sleeps in the crate that used to be Toivo’s, but whereas Toivo loved to sleep atop a thick, fleecy bed we bought to fit her crate, Roxy will destroy anything with stuffing. Given Roxy’s predilection for hiding under blankets, we’ve learned to line her crate with two repurposed bedspreads: one for her to sleep on, and one for her to burrow beneath.

We still sometimes (often) call Roxy “Toivo” by mistake, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Although Roxy never met Toivo, Roxy wouldn’t be with us now if Toivo hadn’t been with us then. In this way, the two of them will always be linked, like sisters from another mother.

Hillary above radiator

Because she is queen, Hillary has claimed the warmest spot in the house for herself. And on a cold and blustery day like today, with temperatures that feel more like January than mid-November, I can’t say I blame her.

Reflected

Several weeks ago, on my way home from a medical appointment in Chestnut Hill, I stopped at Hammond Pond to snap a few pictures of the mute swans there. Hammond Pond sits directly behind a busy shopping complex and directly abuts a parking lot. The mute swans don’t seem to care, however. They just mind their own business, paddling and dabbling in the calm water while busy humans like me zip and hurry past.

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