Saturday, August 29, 2009

Risk and ruin in the fields

The rainy fringes of the big loose jellyfish of a storm that was Danny descended on the Springs yesterday. It hadn't rained since August began, so the soaking felt welcome, exactly the right kind of rain for the garden: steady, not too driving, going on for hours. (And what does that sound like? Well, you can't talk about gardens without talking about sex, although the rather starched tone of gardening books on the whole would seem to suggest the opposite. Sex, death, time and regeneration are the gardener's great subjects. Also food.)

That last word has me thinking about this difficult summer, and the strapped circumstances of our CSA, Quail Hill Farm. June and July were very cool and wet, and then the heat burst out. If those climactic stresses weren't enough, the deer fence around the hill where many crops are grown -- a double row of stretched white string, following the theory that deer don't like double barriers that prevent clear jumping, and will work to avoid them -- failed. They made a feast. But the saddest of all was the blight, the virus that seems to have taken most of the tomatoes on the East Coast this season.

The vines looked incredible at first, sprawling and heavy with fruit, with a haze of that pungent green tomato-vine smell around them that seems just indescribable; it smells like nothing else. And then came the blight, the stems turning to mush, the fruit tumbling in a heap to the ground, and the ones that weren't already rotten at the bottom didn't have the lush, complex flavor of high summer tomatoes; they were more tentative, not full-bodied, disappointing.

A sadness, the rows of collapsed plants, the treasure all decaying at their feet. They seem to stand for the failures of human aspirations. All that tending, nurture of the seed, water, sun, cultivation, intention, vision of harvest. Heap of ruin. Of course every garden has failure in it (another thing to add to the list of the gardener's themes above), but in my garden failure doesn't loom so large. Some chard destroyed by voles, a mallow turned to ethereal skeleton by beetles: small disasters. At the farm, you can't just cover up the spot or turn away from the rows of voided hopes.

So I am working on remembering that it's a good thing to be face to face with this, the risk that growing anything is. It comes with the deal, part of the contract with earth. And though you might go buy tomatoes grown someplace else, or chemically protected from the blight, that doesn't erase the fact that, on the local level where we all live, ruin abides, waiting to happen. It's strange to think this is the same virus that drove my ancestors out of County Cork, in the 1850s; I'm not sure if my great grandmother Nancy O'Cochran was born here or in Ireland, but I know that she rode in the back of a covered wagon from Georgia to Tennessee, when her parents heard that General Sherman had turned around, and was marching back from the sea, and now they'd have to hide from that terror all over again. They turned their back on one kind of blight, and of course later they'd face others in the millet fields they'd cultivate in their new home.

Meanwhile, here in the East End, there are beets with beautiful concentric spirals inside, squash, peppers and cabbage, big-headed sunflowers from the field on Town Lane, every sort of herb, and garlic with a fierce, untamed, nearly metallic tang.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

the hummingbird principle

I have been seeing an ochre and green hummingbird in the garden since midsummer -- at least I think it's the same one, always solitary, hovering around the bee balm, dipping into the butterfly bush. Sometimes I hear him before I see him, that quick startling vibration somewhere near my ear. Dickinson called one a "route of evanescence" and that seems exactly right -- here and gone, a path of sudden iridescent appearance and quick, gone again. The day before yesterday I spent a good deal of the day working outside, and he seemed to be everywhere, and I started to think of him as a very small and very energetic muse. That night, I bought a hummingbird feeder at KMart, the least offensive one on display -- no huge plastic flower shape, no "art glass," just a clear tube with small red plastic flowers on the bottom to dispense the nectar.

Since hanging it up first thing yesterday, no hummingbird. When I'm watering or weeding, I keep looking; inside, I keep checking the kitchen window. No sign of one. I know it's magical thinking, but I feel I've expressed my desire for the hummingbird, and that did it: whatever we say we want loves to go buzzing spectacularly away. I am waiting for the one-inch wonder to refute this observation.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

If life gives you lemons, paint that shit gold

That headline is from the best t-shirt I saw on sun-hammered 14th Street today, that and (on a short, older man with a dashing white beard) I AM A LOVER OF ALL WOMEN.

Below, NYC scenes: immense Heidi Klumm on the side of the tour bus, corner of 7th Avenue, and just down 14th, the biggest, loneliest fish, in a lighting store. He's about a foot long, though you wouldn't know from this picture. He has two long trailing whiskers which don't show here either. His only companion in his tank is a small white eel; they seem to live in different worlds, though.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The burial ground at Orient, continued

A little while back I posted a photo and a bit of text about a moving burial ground at Orient, at the tip of the North Fork of Long Island, where many slaves who'd worked the oyster ponds there where buried, in graves marked with un-inscribed stones. The white couple who owned the oysterworks, as well as the slaves, were buried there, too.

So I was startled, just today, to come across this poem of Amy Clampitt's. It's one of those vast single sentences of hers, the poem held together through a single, forward-rolling, accumulating act of attention, She uses the Native American name for Long Island as a title -- Whitman's word for the place of his birth, too.


The humped, half-subterranean
    potato barns, the tubers
like grown stones, wet meat
    from underground a bused-in
moved-on proletariat once
    stooped for, where Paumonok's
outwash plain, debris of glaciers,
    frays to a fishtail,

now give place to grapevines,
    their tendency to ramble
and run on, to run to foliage
    curbed, pruned, trained
into another monoculture -- row
    after profitable row
on acre after acre, whole landscapes
    strung like a ither

where juniper and honeysuckle,
    bayberry, Virginia creeper,
goldenrod and poison ivy would
    have rioted, the wetlands
glistening at the margin, the reed-
    bed plumes, the groudsel's
tideline windrows a patina of
    perpetual motion

washed bh the prevailing airs,
    where driven human
diligence alone could, now or ever,
    undo the uninstructed
thicketing of what keeps happening
    for no human reason,
one comes upon this leeward, mowed
    and tended pocket,

last resting place of slaves, each
    grave marked by a boulder
hardly more than a potato's size,
    unnamed but as dependents of
Seth Tuthill and his wife Maria,
    who chose finally to lie here
    with their sometime chattels,
    and whose memory too is now
        worn down to stone.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A descriptive felicity

The garden writer and plant collector Reginald Farrer had a profound effect on English gardening by popularizing plants that thrived in high places. Now Nicola Shulman has published a short biography of him which includes this very pleasurable evocation of his character. Farrer, she writes, was "touchy, reproachful, extremely demanding, painfully solipsistic, disposed to view the rest of the world as a deficient source of comfort. This made him wretched most of the time, but it also allowed him to sympathize to an unusual degree with the exigent requirements of alpine plants."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fifty-six years on the face of the earth

My birthday, a steamy day, the hottest of the whole summer. I worked in the garden, picked up my taxes in East Hampton (extension, delay, etc.), bought a new sprinkler and an elaborate blue wand for watering, sprinkled and watered, worked on an essay about Whitman's tomb I've been pursuing and thought about his deep fascination with death -- it never dawned on me before that, for a soul with so few borders, restlessly pouring into everything, death must have seemed the deepest respite. If you're everyone and everywhere, what would you lack except being no one and no place? Then, presents from Paul: a cookbook from our local organic farm, a handsome new black and white plaid summer shirt, and a lavish gift certificate from a beautiful nursery in Bridgehampton. Ah! Then we were on the way to the beach when the oddest thing happened -- much shouting and commotion across the street, and I wound up stepping into an assault, one neighbor attacking another. I won't narrate the scene here, as it led to an arrest, and I guess we'll all wind up in court. But it was the strangest outbreak, in our peaceful neighborhood where it's so quiet that, if you walk outside at night, you can hear another neighbor's clock chime as if it were a cathedral. A long process: waiting, talking to the police, giving a statement, waiting some more, signing the statement, feeling shaken by this unexpected eruption. We never made it to the beach. We went out for my birthday dinner, where we had to work a bit to shake off the afternoon. But we were helped by a deftly run and quite delicious Mediterranean restaurant reviewed in the Times yesterday. I had bacalau with the most delicious lentils I've ever tasted. I asked the waiter what was in them; he said, butter sauce. I think there was a little more to it than that, but it remains one of the day's better mysteries.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Visitors number three, four, five and a returning guest

Yesterday our friend Marie arrived at the train station mid-day with her daughter Inan and Inan's friend FeiFei; the house and garden have been filled with eight- and nine-year-old energy. At one point the head of a neighbor girl appeared over the fence; she was standing on her mother's shoulders to peer over because they'd heard the two little girls far in the back of the garden crying Help, help! It was no emergency; they needed a broom or something to sweep spiderwebs out of the playhouse. It was nice to know that, if you screamed, someone would indeed hear you.

All day and evening, the vibrating dyad made me remember aspects of childhood I'd forgotten: very precise needs when it comes to food (clear glass from which to drink milk, no mixing of different sorts of foods, a certain number of ice cubes per glass of water, etc etc), much exchange of dominance, concern with who's copying who, an all-day-long working out of friendship's alternating pleasures and struggles. Tears laughter pleasure frustration all moving freely from one to another. At the bay beach, much concern with sand in the bathing suit, crabs, the possibility of being nibbled on the toes by fish. By ten o'clock I could barely keep my eyes open.

This morning, when we were just waking up Paul looked out the bedroom window and called, There's a deer in the garden! It was the first time we've actually seen one inside the fence. I went running out, and she startled and ran up toward the back, under the big oak. Big liquid dark eyes,a good-sized doe, maybe pregnant? She ran forward again, jumped a stone wall, and then squeezed herself under the gate through a space the size of, well, two shoeboxes, then took off down the lane toward the woods.

She ate the rest of the daylilies, some apparently really delicious black-eyed susans. Impossible to be annoyed.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Visitor number two

Early August and the garden's been filled with very hot color: a tall deep orange daylily with gold centers, beautiful deep raspberry bee balm, bright helianthus and more daylilies in various yellows. I've mostly been an afficionado of paler colors in the garden, but these are inherited plantings, mostly, from the fellow who gardened here last. An interior painter/finisher by trade, he has a really nice color sense, and so I've been liking the carnival energy of these shades even if I wouldn't have chosen them myself.

This morning in my first-cup-of-coffee fog I went out to feed the fish, and was sitting on a bench contemplating the garden when I found myself noticing how calm it looked; maybe we'd moved on past the torrid colors of July and early August? That could be nice, just now, just a complex tapestry of green. But then I woke up enough to realize that two thirds of the daylilies were missing, or their heads snapped over, and it didn't take long to discover the hoofprints in the garden. Eaten in the night: the tender leaves of a Constance Spry rose, some raspberry vines, a prize new daylily whose flowers are nearly white. Early this spring, we built an eight-foot fence in the front of the garden, where deer used to walk in and browse. But a gate, out back, has a two-foot opening beneath it we hadn't deal with yet -- and sure enough, at its base there were hoofprints and indentations. Was it one doe, or several? The degree of damage seems to suggest one hungry culprit -- well, not all that hungry, as she chose only her the things she really relished. We slept through the whole bandit operation, even though that new rose is right beneath the open bedroom window. I admit I like the image, her out there dining surrepititously in the dawn light, while we slept away.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Graywolf is just about to publish EDWARD HOPPER, a book of poems by the contemporary Catalan poet Ernest Farres (imagine an accent over that e, which my keyboard doesn't want to provide you). Farres has written an entire volume of poems based upon Hopper's paintings, and Lawrence Venuti's translation of them has been chosen by Richard Howard (himself a superb translator) as winner of the Robert Fagles Translation Prize.

The brilliant strategy of Farres' poems is to spend very little time describing the image which has triggered the poem; he wants to enter into the inner life of the painting. In this moving, deeply disconsolate poem he does what no painting can do: move in time. The result is a kind of spiritual x-ray of the picture in hand, one that sees deep into Hopper's darkness.


At the hotel a woman in her underwear
pores over a train timetable. An hour later,
in low spirits and bone-tired,
she'll start to pace around the room
leaving a fruity fragrance in the air
that reeks of mustiness.
A week later there'll be no
tangible results. A year later
she'll be the object of caresses.
Another four and no lullabies.
Another ten and the delicate balance
between youth and age will be gone.
Another twenty and she'll cling
to an expansive ethics of listlessness
and Triumph of the Will.
Another century and nobody's
going to remember a thing about her.
In two centuries there'll be
no polar ice caps. When five
billion years go by,
there won't even be a sun.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


I was doing something or other in the house today when Paul came rushing in from his study and said, You've got to come outside, there's a turtle in the pond! To my astonishment, there was a very young box turtle in there, about the size of a red delicious apple, swimming around. A few weeks ago I stopped and rescued one from the middle of Old Stone Highway, and a bit later Paul found a large one way back in our garden, at the base of a large oak tree -- but I had never seen one in the water. I thought maybe he'd slipped in and couldn't get out, so after some discussion I bent down and picked him up. He was completely unfazed, and didn't even withdraw his head and legs into his shell. I set him down on the grass; he turned around back toward the pond,
and jumped in! Very clear what he wanted. He spent the morning swimming, yellow and tobacco-brown shell poking up above the water, his small head held high, then hiding under a shady lip of rock at the edge, dog-paddling a little in place. I built a stairway of stones on the water's edge, as there's no simple way out for a creature that small. This afternoon, when we came back from the gym, he was gone. I would like to have seen him climb the stairs.

After five PM, deposit brains in this slot

Readers of the previous post might be interested in knowing that Whitman's brain is the only part of his body not in the Camden tomb. Since it was "abnormally large" and of obvious interest, it was removed for study by the American Anthropometric Society, an institution that would have interested Whitman, with his interest in phrenology; the Society's intent was to study brains of the finest sort. There it's said to have been dropped and destroyed by a clumsy lab assistant. (Thus sparing Whitman the fate of Walt Disney, whose frozen head, I understand, awaits a technologically-enabled resurrection.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Do I contradict myself? Very well then...

What a strange place, Walt Whitman's tomb. It's massive. Big granite plinths set into a shady (well, gloomy) hillside, with a huge stone door set ajar through which you can see a group of crypts, six of the Whitmans to be exact, though only Walt's name is chiseled on the stone outside for the world to see. Sometime, thirty or forty years ago, to judge by the style of the stone and the already-worn engraving, somebody placed another stone in front of the tomb, carved with some of the final lines of "Song of Myself":

I depart as air . . . . I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

This had to be an attempt to resist the monumentality and finality the tomb seems to suggest. But it's a little disquieting, to think that the poem of the 35-year-old Walt sits so uncomfortably beside the tomb the 72-year-old poet commissioned. No grass is drawing nourishment from that chilly chamber, unless it has mighty tenacious and powerful roots indeed!

He is more under our bootsoles, sure enough, than he is in that stony vault, but I might make a temple of granite, too, if I were afraid of disappearing, afraid of my work vanishing with me. Maybe. It's hard to imagine wanting to memorialize oneself in this way. He knew better, the Whitman of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," but how could the man in Camden, stroke-shattered and tired and never-quite-recovered from the War, how could he know that, too?