Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Indian Summer?

I want to protest the brevity of this year’s Indian summer.  I have looked forward to Indian summer each fall. When the days become short and chilly, though the leaves are gorgeous, I must fight sadness and the urge to hibernate. Knowing there’ll be that reprieve of warm days before true cold sinks in keeps me hopeful until the holiday excitement takes over.

Some people told me we were having Indian summer in October. Nonsense!  I learned as a Girl Scout that first we needed a frost.  The Farmers’ Almanac says, “The time of occurrence is important: The warm days must follow a spell of cold weather or a good hard frost,” and that it comes after St. Martin’s Day, November 11th.

Most years that frost is a snap of cold one night that kills the late tomato and pepper plants, the begonias and nasturtium, and the delicate herbs like basil.  This year’s frost was colder, harder and longer, wilting even the hardier vegetables like kale, carrot tops and parsley and fusing dead tomato stems in the earth.  
And worse!—this year’s Indian summer lasted merely one glorious day and one day less lovely, but nevertheless warm.

But it would not be fair to protest to Mother Nature. She has every right to give us only a short respite after the first frost. After all, we've taken the carbon out of her earth, sent it into the atmosphere and upset her carefully balanced weather. Until we find a way to appease her, we’ll have to accept what she sends—including today’s dumping of snow, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

My Favorite Acorn

          On the table in front of me sits a tiny, tan object that fell from an oak tree. It reminds me of pictures of medieval battle helmets worn by the Huns or perhaps the Mongols. An array of triangular bumps protrudes in alternating circles from the top center, forming a diagonal pattern as they descend, to end in a fringe.
          Most acorns lie about the ground sporting their own, made to order caps. But this—cap?—cradles its seed that, when released, is hatless. It became the dull, tan color only as it dried, cracked, and released the acorn. But when first I found it, it was a glorious chartreuse with waving threads hiding its treasure.

          I know there are many different varieties of oak, white, red, black and even live. Long ago, in Girl Scouts, we learned a song with hand moves, “Love Grows Under the White Oak Tree,” and I was told you recognize different oaks by their bark.  The Internet now tells me that the name “oak” can be used for 400 varieties of trees and shrubs, and lists 15 common types.  My acorn belongs to the Bur Oak tree.  This type, with so distinctive an acorn, has become my favorite and is certainly worthy of mapping tree locations.  There’s one in Glenfield Park, Montclair. So hurry over there, if you’d like to capture one of the burs for yourself.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Old-Fashioned Spring

We’re having a real old-fashioned spring this year. The kind that starts slowly, high winds whistling in a hint of warmer temperatures, then, just as you are soaking up the sun’s rays, a new wind blows the chill back and temperatures rarely climb to 70o. It’s the kind of spring when the blossoms unfold a little each day unveiling ever-changing color, beginning with the yellow daffodils and forsythia, the purples and pinks of hyacinth and cherry blossoms, followed by the varied colors of tulips, while the trees over-arch with chartreuse blossoms. Now that they have filled out in deep greens, we enjoy shades of violet and purple of the wisteria and lilacs and irises.

It’s the kind of spring when you need a spring coat. When I was young, spring was like this. Just before Easter, our mother took my sister and me shopping for new clothes and, when we grew too fast, a new spring coat to wear to church.  We got to employ that coat throughout April and much of May, then again in the fall.  Seasons behaved themselves in those days. Summer was hot, winter cold and spring and fall took time to transition.

This year I've discovered that I don’t have a spring coat for church because I haven’t needed one for years. I wear an informal jacket as I wonder if I should buy a light coat, or if future springs will revert to the pattern they've taken for many years till now—jumping from a windy March to a hot, don’t-need-a-coat, April. There had not been a single day, or night, below freezing in April for the five years prior to this one.

I've welcomed and enjoyed the slow transition this year. I relished the past autumn too, the trees clothed in brilliant color well into November. It was a joy to be outside. As is this spring. I’ll gladly invest in a transition coat if it will guarantee another old-fashioned fall, followed by another sweetly slow spring. But I fear I’ll be tempting fate, as well as Mother Nature. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Nature’s Call for Simpler Times

When it snowed again yesterday morning I decided to walk the mile to the library for our weekly Write Group support meeting. I figured walking would be better than driving on new fallen snow and I’d also avoid pulling into a poorly plowed space to park.
Our beautifully landscaped terrace

This was about our fifth snowfall (but who’s counting?) since the new year. We’ve had other snowy winters, but in every one that I remember, except the winter of ’92-93, the snow melted between snow falls. This year it hasn’t and there is no place to put the snow. Consequently snow barriers a yard thick and equally high line all of our curbs reducing most streets to one and a half lanes. When there are cars parked, they protrude into the middle of the street; opposing traffic must take turns slaloming down the block. 

View from the bridge
My walk includes an old cement 
bridge over the railroad and a 
section of the Second River—
there enclosed within “the Glen”
—always picturesque, especially
 in the snow, and Glenfield Park. 
At the time I went out there was 
no traffic on those streets. Nature forced humanity to revert to simpler ways. I saw only two other walkers. We waved to each other as we walked in the street facing traffic, like on a rural road, because you could get to the semi-shoveled walkways only by scrambling over yard-high mounds at the corners.

Passing some beautiful Victorian homes, I was certain the scene would have looked little different when they were newly built. I imagined and wished for a horse-drawn sleigh to drive out from one of them. In Time and Again, a book by Jack Finney that I’ve several times reread, the protagonist goes back to an earlier time by imagining himself in that time just after a snow fall.  But unfortunately, that was not to happen during my walk; a motorized Parcel Post Truck coming down Woodland Ave. quickly destroyed the illusion of times past.

I trudged on, occasionally on sidewalks, but moving back to the street whenever homeowners had neglected their shoveling, passing newer homes and apartment houses that could never take me back in time. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Musing on a Snow Day

Water is such an incredible substance. When it evaporates it creates interesting cloud formations. In its solid state, instead of condensing, like so many other compounds, it expands, allowing it to cover the surface of a lake while letting fish and other water creatures survive below. 

And then there’s snow. It’s like whipped water—fluffy, soft, malleable, beautiful and quiet.

Today’s snow has forced a holiday on me and many others. Sadly, most adults forge ahead with their plans while grumbling about the weather. They ignore Mother Nature’s advice, “Step back, reflect, enjoy!”
The view from our window

Kids know better. They get out in the stuff—building, tunneling, sliding, getting happily soaking wet.

Since we moved to an apartment in October, I have not missed having a yard. Until today. I miss my neighbors’ children who, on a day like today, would ring my doorbell and invite me to help them build a snow fort or make a sculpture of their favorite cartoon character.

There is snow on our terrace. Maybe I’ll go build a snow Sponge Bob.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

House Hunting for the Birds

                Found among the trash and treasures when we took over the summer lake house in early spring, was a simple birdhouse with a small round opening. It was easy to miss at first exploration, hidden as it was beneath the work bench.  It was covered with dust and its bottom lay apart on the floor.  I washed it off, fitted the bottom in place, and decided to brighten it up with a coat of paint before welcoming a feathered family.  It was late in the day and we were not staying, so I parked the birdhouse on a cement ledge that held a pillar of the deck in place, making a mental note to bring paint next time we came.
                We returned after two weeks, following a spell of wind and rain. I found the birdhouse on the ground at the foot of the pillar. Its bottom and top had come apart in its fall. With a sigh, I picked up the pieces, and was astonished to find a small, broken nest within the house. Though there were no eggshells, still I felt sad that I had not fastened the house to the pillar. Either the wind, or my neighbor’s orange cat, Morris, must have brought it down and shattered the hopes of a bird couple.
                I nailed the roof back on, refitted the bottom and put the nest material back in the box.  Since somebird was already interested in the home, I decided not to paint it, but considered tying the box to the same pillar.  The ledge of the pillar was only a yard above the ground—low enough to attract Morris, perhaps for a second time.  So instead, I secured it with wire to a hook on the bottom of the overhanging deck.
                Then I joined my husband by the shore. After a
swim I spotted a swallow gracefully swooping over the lake.  He was a cute, sparrow-sized bird with iridescent blue and black on its back, a black beak and a white breast.  He landed on a branch of the straggly tree rooted at the water’s edge. Looking back at our house, I saw his mate sitting on the pillar’s ledge where the birdhouse had been. She sat with head bowed, wings hanging limply at her sides. The male tree swallow, for that’s what he was—swooped over to her, chirping, but she remained the picture of dejection.  He returned to the tree and called to her again. Still she did not move.
                “Look!” I said to my husband, “She wants the box and her nest. But it wasn’t safe there.”
                “Tell that to her,” he said.
                The male flew toward the house again. This time he passed the birdhouse. He flew by it again and again. Then, landing on the perch, he tilted his head to look inside.
                He called to his mate. I was certain he was saying, “Look, sweetie, here’s our home. Come up here and take a look.”
                Sweetie did not budge.
                The tiny male flew back to the tree and made repeated sweeps toward the birdhouse, calling excitedly all the while, “Sweetie! It’s our house! It’s up here. We can build another nest.”
                Sweetie turned to look at him. She shrugged her wings but made no move to leave off her mourning.
                “I hope she changes her mind,” I told my husband. “They’re so pretty. I’d love to see them raise a family here.”
                The male continued his swoops and chirpings. I admired his grace and the iridescent flash of his feathers. But the female would not change her mind. With what I interpreted as a last sigh, she lifted off the ledge and flew past us toward the other end of the lake. The male followed. They did not return to our house that summer though I did occasionally see the male’s graceful acrobatics over the lake.

                I left the birdhouse fastened to the bottom of the deck. I hope next spring somebird will take possession of it. Perhaps I should attach a sign, “For lease—cozy, convenient and safe from cats. Ready to move in.” 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Weather Swings

I remember the last verse of a song about climate that I heard as a child. It was sung to the tune of “Sweet Betsy from Pike.”
                “But we poor unfortunates live in a clime
                That calls for at least three full suits at a time-
                A thick one, a thin one for days cold and hot,
                And a medium weight for the days that are not.”

The song is true for the north east. In the summer we wear the lightest possible clothing, in winter, the warmest.  And, at least when I was young, you wore a light jacket or raincoat for spring and fall. There were some transition days— Indian Summer and “Pilgrim Winter”—when the weather, heading toward the new season, took a few days off to remind us of the previous.  Once into winter, you could safely store away your summer clothes. And after taking your light clothes out, you pretty much stuck to them. Seasonal change was predictably gradual.

But last year and this one, all bets are off. I stored away my light jacket right after Thanksgiving. I took it out a week and a half ago and again yesterday, when, just for one day each, the temperature soared toward the 60s. Then the thermometer dropped again.  This morning it was 2o!

Mother Nature is very angry and she’s letting us know.  I wish, if she’s mad at decision makers who refuse to abandon fossil fuels for renewables, that she’d make some accommodation for homeless humans as well as birds and animals living out doors.  But we are all in this together for what appears to be a long haul.

I hope it’s not too late to appease Mom.