In rain and light

© Gary Joe Wolf

© Gary Joe Wolf

 

Send me a leaf

 

Send me a leaf, but from a little tree

That grows no nearer your house

Than half an hour away. For then

You will have to walk, you will get strong and I

Shall thank you for the pretty leaf.

 

—Bertolt Brecht

(Translated, from the German, by David Constantine)

 

Tonight, tonight. The streets are slicked in rain, smooth like a bathing elephant’s skin. There’s the sweetness of being alive in the wet, the beautiful feeling of washed air magically coupled with the rich wildness of fall colors. Honeyed yellows deepening to red. Marmelade. Occasional veins of magenta. Some chartreuse, even paler than usual in the street lamp glow. Leaves.

Downtown there are ashes everywhere. Not from fires, per se, but the leaves of those street trees are lit in a burning yellow, loosing halos to the earth below. They lay in crowds around the tiny squares of soil surrounded by cement. I love the young things lining sidewalks and medians, dappled in their golden leaflets, but here in my neighborhood I am lucky and rich with ancient oaks and sugar maples instead, all shimmering in chiaroscuro.

The aesthetics of rainy nights never fail to floor me. The shine, the sounds, the solitude. Tonight I walked, wearing heels from a night out, click clacking down one street to another. A skunk was out–my sole companion, glowing white as it browsed one of the area’s larger lawns. It was a quiet, quick, nonchalant creature, not remotely interested in me or a car that sped and splashed by. They die that way, thinking that they can fend off station wagons by spraying them. But this skunk just stayed on the lawn, nibbling in the headlights as I watched under my hood with hands in my pockets. Eventually I turned away, my mind in the night, my heart and soul rinsed in warm weather and beauty.

I’m riding with the trees through transition. Last week I left Allandale Farm, the place where I’ve spent the last three years of my life. In August I’d begun my new position as the horticultural manager at Flora Explora, a landscaping company that deals primarily in Chinatown and Southie properties. It’s a big change, and I’m grateful for it. Leaving the farm and taking up with Flora is giving me the opportunity to learn about botanical entrepreneurialism as well as the space to hone my landscape design skills. And it’s given me a sweeter schedule, one that leaves me feeling more solidly on my feet. I wake up remembering my dreams. I’m alive in phases, in the changing moon and lengthening nights.

This evening as I strolled I stood below a ledge-grown maple whose roots bulged hiphigh. I felt a gnarl and raised my face, my eyes climbing crevices and arms toward the canopy. I listened to the sound of leaves, green but brightening toward yellow. Fallen raindrops fell again to lower leaves and limbs. My eyes were full of light, of the chlorophyll that, come morning, will keep working until it is all shut down and captured within wood til spring’s great bud break. I looked up, my chest full of light, my mind racing with life, rushing with the knowledge of all the ecology seen and unseen before me. My heart felt like the set of Ferngully. I felt like Ferngully. It was magic, and it was a tree, and it was two blocks away, and it is October.

Things that fall from the sky

One of the many Elecampane (Inula helenium) plants that I started from seed last year, now blooming in Boston.

One of the many Elecampane (Inula helenium) plants that I started from seed last year, now blooming in Boston.

 

I began this post from my steamy bedroom a few nights ago, in the aftermath of the neighborhood’s Roman candle blasts and even louder late night party cackles. Summer, that grand doozy of a season, had spent the whole week sitting on this city, stifling everything and exhausting me as I did anything. I’d go for days in a wilt before some kind soul would grant me a blessing spun with lemon, lime, or watermelon. Naked water sat within me uselessly, my body stubbornly refusing hydration as it tsk-ed me for having such a lousy electrolyte balance.  All was irate and fecund and full of color.

Arthur broke the everlasting sweat with his billions of raindrops, and now I can sit here in the backyard, an umbrella stretched over my little patch of sleepy, breezy afternoon, and feel pleasant and not at all sunstruck.

As I last wrote, June was a month of herbs. I taught several classes at Herbstalk, Allandale, and the Fenway Victory Gardens (of which there is YouTube proof). Herbstalk was especially amazing. I sold hundreds of plants and talked myself hoarse while trading ideas, tips, and techniques for growing and using healing plants with folks from all over the northeast.

Farmside, I sowed tulsi and am now watching it flower tinily, enjoying its fruity, spicy, sacred self as it wafts around the garden center and through the greenhouse.

 

The lovage and elder umbels in my victory garden.

The lovage and elder umbels of my victory garden.

 

In my own garden everything is amazing, or at least vigorous and vivacious. My favorite part at present are the umbels. Those beautiful wheels of infinitesimal blossoms are anchoring the space in the white of elder, the chartreuse of lovage, and the firm red (lightened with sweet little pale centers) of ornamental yarrow. I also had valerian, started from seed and glorious in its tiny blushing blooms, but something—rabbits, I’m sure—trampled it and now it’s tenaciously starting over again, about six inches tall after its towering 48, photosynthesizing and fattening sleepytime roots for the winter and fall.

I’m possibly busier than I’ve ever been before between the farm, landscaping, beekeeping, gardening, and general around-the-house-ing. And occasional socializing. And very infrequent resting. The living madness of my schedule has kept me from seeking out too much wildlife as of late, but I’m seeing tons of it incidentally which, really, is what I prefer.

The best bit of wilderness that I’ve lately encountered fell from the sky, tumbling suddenly into a tray of pots being carried by a coworker. It was a tiny, scowling, perfect fledgling of a swallow. The little bird, only slightly tousled, looked at us as we ogled and oohed, admiring its jaded gaze and amazing wings. Its wings were clearly its best feature. They were  so clearly those of a barn swallow—dark and beautifully preened in an almost violet, parallel tilt that met elegantly in a point.

The tiny thing was clearly startled and shook slightly but its stare was steadfast, so fierce for such a miniature thing. Eventually we set the tray down on the ground, or started to before, without warning, the bird took flight. Its downy self, so squat and crabby, was instantly gorgeous as it flew through the wide open air, taking a pretty, curved path to its nest along the garage. What a pretty Independence Day.

Tiny swallow staredown

Tiny swallow staredown

 

My Life as a Turkey

A west coast wild turkey. Source.

A west coast wild turkey. Source.

 

I created just a handful of resolutions this year and I think that they are all pretty attainable. Writing more is, as ever, one of them, but when I was mulling over what else to improve upon embracing the wild turkey wasn’t exactly at the top of my list.

This was before I spent New Year’s afternoon having a lazy, prolonged brunch of soda bread and butter with two of my favorite ladies from Milwaukee–Kat, mentioned in the last post, and Erin, who was a guest-blogger in 2013. We were sitting around discussing creatures we have known when Kat asked if I’d seen My Life as a Wild Turkey. I laughed and said no–it sounded like some coming-of-age comedy starring Steve Carell. But Kat insisted I find it. “This guy becomes a turkey mother!” she said. “The birds have their own language!” she added.

It’s impossible for me to say no to any episode of Nature, much less one that purportedly proves that turkeys can talk. So I made a note to watch it and told a few turkey tales of my own.

An amazing shot of a Boston bird by @Treasure_MA.

An amazing shot of a Boston bird by Nick Wilson, aka @Treasure_MA. More wonderful images of our urban turkeys here (with an invitation to submit your own!).

 

In my first draft of this post I mused that I didn’t know why I hadn’t written more about wild turkeys in the past few years, but now I understand their absence perfectly. In my full-time country farmer days I had some negative experiences with domesticated turkeys which I allowed to foolishly color my appreciation of their cousins. This confession leaves me feeling like Ben Franklin’s summation of the bald eagle: a creature of “bad moral character.” My prejudice was completely uncalled for; anyone that’s worked on an animal farm, or visited one, or ever learned anything about domesticated creatures, knows that intelligence is not something typically selected for in the barnyard. The turkey you had for dinner in November was likely the member of a variety honed for its pure white feathers and capacity for girth. Unless you chose your bird meticulously from a Portlandia episode it wasn’t prized for its high-functioning brain or, for that matter, given a healthy, sunny, non-stressful place to live.

But Wild turkeys. They’re fascinating. And, despite my lousy experiences with their watered-down cousins, they’ve manged to have a hold on me ever since I moved to New England in 2003. There I had friends who told me of the gaggles roaming their lawns and driveways, jogging and strutting through the grass like the Maine State Dinosaur. They sounded bizarre and wonderful and I longed to see some of my own. Eventually I did, but only briefly from car windows while riding shotgun.

The first time that I truly saw them I was on a bike trip in southeastern Wisconsin. I’d been pedaling along, lost in the aimless bliss of a long ride, when suddenly we met.

Wild turkeys are one of those creatures that really embody the eastern woodlands, and I saw them not for the resemblance to their agricultural relations but rather for that forest within. Their feathers, scalloped like mushrooms and smooth like a leaf-littered floor, were the colors of venerable bark and marked in an iridescence like foxfire or beetle shell. Their beaded eyes took in everything–us, the steel curves of our bikes, the roadside knit in prairie remnants and field weeds. The flock was about 15 deep, pecking and wandering in the autumn air. The  sun gilt on the tips of the soybean fields we sidled complimented the catching prisms, like petrified wood, wrapped within the wings and tails. I was starstruck.

Looking back, I recognize my time with those Waukesha, Wisconsin turkeys as one of those mystical first time experiences; a sudden, happenstance meeting between two species which for one was illuminating and, for the other, utterly ordinary. (But, you never know. Maybe I really blew those turkeys’ minds with my over-packed messenger bag and bright, red, long-gone bike.)

* * *

Here in Boston I see turkeys fairly often. They’ll walk down the sidewalk, along the river, around the hospital. But my favorite interactions with them occur while working in my clients’ gardens. Most recently I’ve enjoyed watching them wander a sweeping Brookline property. I was pruning a Siberian cypress with a friend when I found a Tom standing on a  small cliff that bordered the backyard. An exploratory group of hens surrounded him at distances. They’d cock their heads, lift a tenuous leg, and let it go along with their neck, streamlining their upper bodies for the epicurean rapture of some succulent slug or morbidly obese grub. Gazing at them I was tickled with the exhilaration of being allowed to observe another living thing. You see, turkeys let you really look at them. Unlike many creatures who are easily put off by humans, they’ll kindly allow you to keep an eye on them as long as you also keep your distance. This is a gift that I accept readily and enjoyably, watching their strangely wonderful forms swagger around the city.

 

Or, if you’re Joe Hutto, you can just snuggle with a turkey and it’s no big deal. Source.

 

If you’re interested in learning about turkeys, visit The National Wild Turkey Federation. And if you want to hear a deliciously cautionary tale as to why you should never, ever feed a wild animal*,  do yourself a favor and listen to one of the best This American Life stories of all time, all about Tom, the psycho killer of Martha’s Vineyard.

As for “My Life as a Turkey,” it’s wonderfully thoughtful and thought-provoking.  If you’re on the fence about whether to want to watch a few dozen minutes about a guy hanging out with a bunch of large birds, just think: this is a man obsessed. Joe Hutto raises the turkeys from scratch and, once they’re old enough to venture into the wild, follows them through backwoods Florida. He rarely leaves his property for fear that something could happen to the precious brood. Hutto learns how to coo the language of the jakes and jennys and finds love and brotherhood in the little flock. And…he’s a man; a human who seemingly longs to transform himself wholly into one of the surprisingly elegant and innately wild birds that he so admires. Aren’t you curious to see what happens to a grown man who attempts to fully integrate himself into a gaggle of woodland turkeys? Answer: Yes, yes you are. So watch, enjoy, and tell me what you think.

A second request: the next time that you see a wild turkey, or some other bird that you take for granted and make assumptions about, consider who that creature really is. How does it operate? Does it get by? Consider whether you really have any idea what this living being is all about. It may appear undeniably silly, but the bird before (or above) you may also be able to teach you something about themselves, their environment, and how you tie into all of it.

Wild Turkey by John James Audubon. Source.

Wild Turkey by John James Audubon. Source.

 

* Don’t worry, you can still have a bird feeder. Just not a turkey feeder. Seriously, don’t make a turkey feeder.

Love in the time of mosses

I’ve been thinking lately and often of miracles. Not the sort brought in flashes of fire or tears where there had formerly been only porcelain. Rather, my mind is in large part consumed with natural miracles that are abundantly commonplace.

Snails on a mossy wall. Muting of plinky piano music optional. 

Much of this preoccupation has been brought on by my obsession with Elizabeth Gilbert’s new(ish) novel, “The Signature of All Things” (recently deemed a New York Times Notable Book of 2013).

Gilbert’s heroine, Alma Whittaker, is a brilliant botanist. Specifically, she is a bryologist–a devotee and biographer of mosses. She dedicates quarters of centuries to the spongy green, taking wonder and delight in the knowledge that the quickly overlooked plants in miniature, so often ubiquitous and so easily unseen, compose fairy forests; tiny greenscapes that glow and endure despite being trod upon, ignored, and sometimes despised. (See the “moss killer” section of any garden center.) Alma takes comfort in “moss time,” the perception of time that occupies the space between geologic time and human. Mosses live slowly…not quite so much as rocks, but endlessly moreso than humans.

 

One of the many marvels in which Alma indulges is the way in which dried moss will spring back to life after a baptismal dunking. Specimens which had laid dormant and seemingly dead for decades will inflate themselves with water and suddenly pulse again with infinitesimal breath. In her study Alma pours through the tiny, desiccated plants that were used to cushion the journey of botanical specimens from the meridian of the earth. She’d soak them and suddenly find herself able to study and fawn over a resurrection.

I was, and am, inspired by this. It brought about the realization (or, retrospectively, the hypothesis) that my bedroom terrarium, an old rectangular fish tank filled with pebbles, sphagnum, charcoal, dirt and, of course, plants, could perhaps be a haven for the mosses that I’d always had trouble growing there. Shortly after tucking them in from the outdoors they would (and will) unhappily falter. Perhaps, I thought, it was simply too dry.

And so a few weeks ago, after spending hours in bed with Gilbert, I slaked the soil. I let nearly an entire watering can pour down into the spongy habitat’s air plants, ferns, and Venus fly trap. It licked and glazed the yellowed and browning plants. Satisfied, I went back to bed.

 

The next morning I awoke in a room cleanly cold. Moving from beneath the layers of blanket and sheet I went to futz with the radiator–a true puzzle that I only seem to champion at the end of every winter. I turned and twisted the enigmatic knob and dial before standing, feeling the distantly warm grate, and sighing. The terrarium was beside me; I peered in. I was still somewhat asleep, so it was with half-shut and dreamy eyes that I happened upon an unbelievable sight.

I always for a glance of Moby Dick, a beloved, molluskian member of this household for two years. S/he–for all snails are hermaphrodites–moves through the glass case, traveling on its long foot over glass, lichened bark, and (too often dried-up) moss.  I find Moby to be at its liveliest after a relative immersion of water. Snails, with their sliming skin and adoration of decomposition, love the wet. When I’d watered the previous day I’d thought with some anticipation of how much my Mister Ms. would appreciate the humidity.

I wasn’t surprised, then, to find Moby on the wall of the terrarium. I was, however, wholly amazed and flabbergasted to find Queequeg as well, very near to Moby Dick. Both snails were reaching to each other, caressing each other’s faces with antennae and eyestalk, circling coquettishly before rejoining each other in caressing cuddles.

I was flummoxed. First of all, Queequeg had not been seen in the terrarium since the start of summer and I’d assumed the snail dead and gone or, by some miracle, something else. However, here it was, with its gloriously brilliant golden shell and amazingly amorous gestures.

Queequeg and Moby Dick moved over each other’s bodies. When they’d slide away from each other I would fear that I’d scared away their courtship, but they’d always return, spreading and reaching out their tiny, amazing antennae, feeling and certainly seeming to enjoy the other. They nibbled and bit, and not only on each other’s faces. These were erotic bites, beckoning a coupling. On occasion I thought I saw something breaking out of Queequeg’s head, but I wasn’t entirely sure. Given the sudden collaborative collection of snail parts slowly unfurling before me, I could hardly tell what my eyes were being presented with. Were these the typical appendages (eyestalk and the like)  or the usually hidden and intimate ones: the penis, the vagina, the curious “love dart” (all which, in sexual adventure, emerge from the snail’s neck)?

As I stared, now fully awake and agape, Moby again moved away from Queequeg, its frilled foot fluttering against the glass. It then made a graceful turn, sliding back toward Queequeg, and, as it neared,something certainly did slip from the side of its body–a tiny penis. It pierced into Queequeg’s waiting body, leaving the snails suddenly still, sidled head-to-toe, copulating in a stillness notable for the absence of biting and the presence of sustaining sexual concentration.

Leopard slugs mating, as narrated by David Attenborough

The sex lives of snails (as well as snugs, as seen thrillingly and surprisingly beautifully in the above clip from Planet Earth) are composed of breathtaking, kinky, and sometimes fatal affairs. While my terrarium snails weren’t quite so transcendentally graceful as the leopard slug, they mated beautifully and, in the manner of I think all mollusks, marathon-style. For hours. I kept tiptoeing over (luckily this was my day off), only to find Queequeg and Moby remaining in their carnal clasp. I texted a friend with updates and told my mom about it on the phone. Eventually, in the mid-afternoon, I peeked to find the snails nonchalantly separated, one by the water dish and the other in a bed of fronds.

Fascinated (and more than a little titillated), I researched the acts that I’d been lucky enough to witness. Here is what I learned.

snail anatomy

Snail anatomy. Source.

 

Land snails–all the ones that you find in your garden or crossing a precarious sidewalk–are well-known for their elaborate courtship dance. After the caresses and sensual explorations, the tender and transparently aroused snails, manifestations of desire, stab each other. Not with a sexual organ–not yet, anyway–but with a harpoon in miniature, a weapon built in the mature snail’s body from calcium.

harpoon

The action of these instruments is described by Wikipedia:

Prior to copulation, each of the two snails (or slugs) attempt to “shoot” one (or more) [blogger’s edit: OR MORE??] darts into the other snail (or slug). There is no organ to receive the dart; this is more analogous to a stabbing, or to being shot with an arrow or flechette. The dart does not fly through the air to reach its target however; instead it is fired as a contact shot.

A contact shot. I thought this was the same as point-blank range, but no. Point blank makes for a projectile shot from a distance of three meters or less. Conversely, for a contact shot to be true, the barrel of a gun (or the wet, moving skin of a snail) must touch its victim before loosing the hot bullet.

Contact shots make for vicious and often fatal injuries. In humans,

…Wounds caused by contact shots are very devastating, as the body absorbs the entire discharge of the cartridge, not just the projectile. Even a blank cartridge can cause lethal wounds if fired in contact with the body…

Oh, sweet daggar. Source.

Oh, sweet dagger; one snail stabbed with another’s dart. Source.

 

But humans snails are not, and the small stabbed creatures typically survive the violence visited upon them by their consorts. In fact, a victimized snail not only endures the assault, but answers with “a flirty fléchette of its own, at which point the dueling Cupids will copulate,” as described by Natalier Angier in a Times article about gift-giving animals.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A still from “Gone With the Mollusks.” Says Scarlet: “Oh, Rhett.”

 

And so, there you are: Snails have a more riotous lovelife than you. Watering an open terrarium can lead to many wonders. And while all snails may go to a lush and humid heaven, it may take awhile to get there; as of this writing, Queequeg and Moby remain happily in the terrarium, nibbling lichens and apple flesh, and liking things a lot more in all the wet. The moral of the story is to keep your environment well-watered, for you never know what it could lead to. But beware the dangers that lurk within your lover’s neck.

The dark, the grainy, the as-unobtrusive-as-possible; the evidence.

The dark, grainy, and as-unobtrusive-as-possible evidence.

Looks and Gazes

purslane

Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea). Source: Wikipedia

I gazed at starlings pecking across the grass beside motorous Washinton Street, next door to Forest Hills Station. It’s always my favorite place to watch the little, iridescent things. They skitter around, bright-eyed and yellow-beaked, grazing in the grass like rabbits.

At work a tiny toad scampered between our feet as we weeded purslane from pea gravel. I watched a red-tailed hawk glide down the sky.

Then there were the humans. A beggar on Mass Ave who could imitate a duck to perfection. The sweet teller who complimented Kira and I on our braids, hers French, mine Swedish. Roofers in life-saving suspenders kicking debris from concrete-colored shingles. Lastly, the operator within the bulldozer knocking out a building of dust along the Neoponset. I’d never know of the deconstruction if not for the lone spectators draped over the Fairmount bridge every morning, staring wistfully at the shovel as it hit the walls and ceilings, the metal and brick and plastic, while someone from below would hose down the dusty din with the arching water of a fireman’s truck.

Saturday Silflay

watership down

A robin pranced around the skullcap patch.

I cut a bouquet of hydrangeas and found a cricket, its antennae at least as long as its narrow, translucent body.

A mockingbird again snacked in the elderberry.

Half a dozen rabbits enjoying a good silflay throughout the gardens and slim meadows of the Fens.

Also, I don’t want to be too redundant, but I somehow woke, right around four thirty, without a bit of cricket, katydid, or conehead in my ear. Was it too cold? Or were they merely weary?

Divine Days: A log of a Cape Ann jaunt and the return home.

Wikipedia.

When last we met I was bidding you adieu so that I could continue the lovely, long weekend that my boyfriend and I were luxuriating in. Now, a quick swing back in time.

On Friday the heavens rained upon us from the moment we left the little studio apartment we were renting to the second we entered a distant cousin’s Gloucester bed and breakfast, The Inn at Babson Court, and fell into cups of coffee and a million stories. 

It was wet enough that, again, the majority of wildlife experienced was in the perfect haddock that I had for dinner. We were surrounded by so many secrets, though, as we soaked up rain along the sea: the jellyfish, the right whales, lobsters, clams, mussels, and sharks. There were hidden tidal pools with hermit crabs, fluttering barnacles, and cities of unbelievable microscopic shapes and means of living. Even when marine life shies away from me I am awed by its certain presence. I grew up on fresh water and visited with it intimately in my youth. Saltwater, of course, is a whole different ballgame. The dead jellyfish floating in Boston Harbor, the tiny, vivacious pools in low-tide Gloucester; they thrill me again and again, even on a day spent without a view of anything marine aside from waves through a window, models of ships, and a whole lot of gulls. Continue reading

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