Hydrangea in shade

We’re having a heat wave here in the Boston suburbs, with 90-degree days forecast through the end of the week. I walk Toivo in the mornings, before the heat of the day, but we still had the neighborhood almost entirely to ourselves this morning, as even then it was too humid for all but the most intrepid dog-walkers.


Toivo and I walk a bit more slowly on steamy mornings, and I try to steer us into the shade as much as possible. We’ve walked to the place of pines two days in a row, and we’ve had the trail to ourselves: just me, Toivo, and a cloud of mosquitoes hovering like a veil before my face.

Our backyard hydrangeas are blooming and looked a bit wilted in this afternoon’s full sunlight. A neighbor has a different variety of hydrangea planted in a shady corner of their yard, and I stopped Toivo long enough this morning to snap a few photos. In the middle of a New England heat wave, you have to take any excuse you can to linger in the shade.

Freezing rain on hydrangea

Today I’ve spent the day inside grading essay portfolios while outside, the clouds have sputtered freezing rain. Grading is always the last thing to check off my holiday to-do list: after cards have been mailed and gifts have been purchased and wrapped, final grading awaits.

Freezing rain on hydrangea flower

This year, grades are due on December 26, but I make a perennial promise to submit grades before Christmas so I can unplug for the day. I like to imagine all the other college professors (along with Santa and his elves) toiling steadily on the 23rd and 24th, a looming deadline providing focus after much procrastination.

Freezing rain on dead hydrangeas

Today after lunch, I ventured outside to take pictures of our backyard hydrangea. Grim voices on the radio warned that we might lose power, and authorities cautioned residents to stay close to home because of slippery roads. I don’t often look forward to paper-grading, but it can be downright cozy to spend the day with student papers and a bottomless cup of tea while the world outside is gradually encased in ice.

January hydrangeas

Late afternoon’s long-slanting sun gilds the remaining hydrangea petals with golden light: winter’s most precious currency.

This is my day two contribution to this month’s River of Stones, where writers around the world will make a conscious effort to notice and record some small thing every day during the month of January.

Frosted hydrangea blossoms

Dried hydrangea

Emily Dickinson knew that in the winter, afternoon light has a particular quality–a certain slant–that sets it apart. On winter afternoons, the light angles low on shadow-strewn snow, and the landscape is shot with hues of blue and gray. Dickinson felt the heft of those certain slants; she deemed them an “imperial affliction” whose imprint is indelible. On winter afternoons, those certain slants are enough to slay you, the warmth of spring seeming as unattainable as the glaring white sun.

Dried hydrangea

And then there is the afternoon light of autumn. I can quote no poet who captures it, this light that burns warm like gold or copper, filtered through a veil of lingering oak and maple leaves. Whereas Dickinson’s certain slant of winter is the light of loss and longing, the burnished brightness of autumn is intrinsically nostalgic, the whole world tinted like a forgotten sepia-print.

On winter afternoons, you mourn a sun that’s already gone; on autumn afternoons, you rejoice in a sun that’s in the process of going: a Now that’s hastening toward Then. Autumn light lingers long enough to break your heart, looking back as it leaves, tossing golden beams over one shoulder as a radiant reminder of its passing. Autumn light loves the look (as I do) of dried hydrangea blossoms, each petal outlining in vein and line the arc of afternoon’s exit.

Dried hydrangea


Sometimes if you surrender to distraction on the way from backdoor to car, you’ll discover so many marvels in your own backyard, you’ll wonder why you ever leave it.

Click here for more pictures of the pollinators I saw working our backyard hydrangea bush yesterday afternoon. Enjoy!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine