Saturday, October 30, 2010

I Succumb to You, Autumn, Like a Memory

The morning glories have died. Their stems and leaves are wilted and limp this morning. The bright green of those heart-shaped leaves is a mass of forest green, nearly a rich black soil--of which they will now become.

It was not a hard freeze, but it was another 30 degree night. At 11pm I almost went outside to cover them, as I did two weeks ago, but I was tired. I wanted to give in to my body after a long day, a long week. I wanted sleep. It was time to let go.

I move my hand into the damp silk of foliage, no longer careful like I was yesterday when hidden bumble bees would emerge like smoke from the long throats of blooms. In the wind I let one leaf rest on the back of my hand until it lays flat. It is like my grandmother's hand. Clammy, limp, tired, and ready to say something final we don't need to say--the touch is a thousand words, a synapse that fires from neuron to neuron and passes on the memory. And the memory of memories.

Each spring it takes me longer than I'd expect to start morning glories. I plant unique varities after soaking the seeds overnight. I wait for 14 days. Nothing. I soak and plant again. I wait 14 days. A leaf, like a mushroom, here and there. I wait for the vines to wake slowly, as they always do, a millimeter a day. Then an inch. Then one day a foot or three. Which plant will it be?

But the only morning glories that bloom are self-seeded 'Grandpa Ott,' the same dark purple as last year. No chocolate or white, no blue. But they come. The vines come like an olfactory sense and cover the deck railing, then hide the deck, the window, shade a part of the wall. Butterflies pupate in the deep, thick shadows. Tree frogs shelter from afternoon sun. A preying mantis feasts on a skipper, its body parallel to a thin, curled shoot diving out into the negative space of air and sky.

The morning glories have died. The birch leaves are down. The amsonia is sunlight unto itself. The shadows of cedars cover half the garden. The asters are a week gone. Nothing is left, yet everything is here, still, dug in and waiting. Like the purple morning glory seeds I planted only once, years ago, and that will come again in May. I'll wait. I give myself to the winter now so that I might earn the spring and come into the balance of seasons, and if I'm lucky, myself. I remember my mother's morning glories. She remembers her grandmother's. And so the morning glories remember us all.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tour of Fall on UNL Campus

Here are some pics of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus on a chilly, blustery, about-to-be-cloudy late fall morning. Yes, that was a long sentence. English profs have that kind of power.

In the Sheldon Gallery sculpture garden

Crabapple marbles and leaf jacks?


The sculpture through the trees I call "The Flat Canoe"

Roxy Paine's tree outside my office window

Monday, October 18, 2010

Migration--Trains, Mennonites, Bison, Native Americans

Less than a mile north of my home in Nebraska is a main BNSF rail yard, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe lines now one conglomerate who both, in the late 1800s, vied for my family’s business as they and thousands of other Mennonites immigrated from Russia to the Great Plains. In cold winter nights the sound of railcars colliding together is like dry thunder as long trains of Wyoming coal are linked with long trains of shipping containers.

Less than a mile south is Pioneers Park, where on the far west end a few dozen bison and elk roam several acres. Perhaps their migratory instincts have been erased over the generations, or they may simply be latent and suppressed. Behind the barbwire fences that revolutionized borders, they pace around a small pond, rest beneath cottonwoods, stare at a small bit of prairie out beyond a dirt road and hear the same trains I hear at night. Those railroads carved up their world like they did the many Native American tribes. Railroad companies advertised overseas about cheap land for sale near rail lines and new towns, land the companies got for free from the government. Foreign agents visited towns and villages to rally poor Europeans, set up ocean passage, and donate railcars for cedar trunks, wagons, and stone farm implements.

Immigrants poured in from Russia. Almost 20,000 in five years. Some chose the Burlington Northern and settled in Minnesota and the Dakotas, some the Santa Fe and Kansas. All knew distance as a westward trajectory, homesteaders seeking religious freedom along the gridlines of progress. The buffalo fell from 50 million to a thousand in a century. The great Native American tribes were crammed into a dozen or so reservations in Oklahoma Territory—a place with the most diverse intersection of ecological regions of any state in the country.

As I lay waking in the morning I hear the short, sharp calls of a cardinal at the feeder, spaced every few seconds apart. To me they are a winter bird, a sharp holiday red against the faded green of invasive eastern red cedars they shelter in. The birds are home wherever they are, doing what they can in a landscape that changes radically every decade. The houses move out further, the trees move north as the earth warms. The fences and the highways dissect the land and separate us from it, making us no longer migrants but sheltered animals in a world we made without understanding the world of which we are. I hear the train cars colliding eastward toward bigger cities. I wonder if the bison can hear them, and if that call is now a primal fear. I wonder how far the hard echo reaches in the chilled morning of this late autumn, and how latent our instincts are to migrate again, one last time, beyond the lines we imagine hold us safely apart from one another.

* I was born and lived in Oklahoma for ten years before moving to Minnesota. Oklahoma has been a barren place for me full of soul-sapping depression and heaviness once you cross the border--in the red dirt you feel the whole history of the country's expansion sped up into a few decades, a microcosm of insanity. Minnesota has meant freedom and self expression for me, wilderness in every romantic sense. But as I live in Nebraska--almost perfectly between my two homes--I look south and see what the legacy of ecological, industrial, and cultural romanticism in America has left behind, and the strange new power it can provide as we redefine are now native land, for better or worse. And so, perhaps, begins the second memoir. Eventually.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Vanilla Ice on Landscaping

I hope everyone watched The Vanilla Ice Project on DIY. It's more about renovating a mansion with his posse, but tonight he put in some tacky annuals and tiki torches. He did seem to know something about palm trees, and being from the northern Plains, that was like gospel. He also explained why some "bushes" (cringe) were leggy.

Ice ice baby....

If any previous student of my Intro to Lit class is reading this, you will have fond memories of the first day of class and my singing Ice's entire main theme song. Is it literature? Is palm spelled backwards mlap?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Twilight Geese in Autumn

A few evenings ago I made my nightly pilgrimage around the garden and yard. After inspecting and filling the dozens of holes dug by migrating robins and brown thrashers, I made my way to check on the fall foliage of the birches, maple, and willow.

Along the back fence is an opening that looks out to my neighbor's 3 acres, and in the distance--about 200 feet--is a thick stand of mature trees on the edge of their property. Where that stand of trees ends and meets the thin line that runs along the back of my lot, is a small pond which marks the end of a long flyway, if you will, reaching back across many acreages running parallel to my neighborhood.

An autumn dusk is always breathtaking. The air is crisper and drier, the sunlight sharper, the musk of rich decay feeding new soil sweet and thick and reminiscent of the woods I would explore growing up in Minnesota. I am always home when I smell this air, holding it as close and far inside me as possible with each deep breath.

At dusk my chilling body leans against the chain link fence, and I can hear in some great distance Canadian geese--another call home for me. The cries shout far in this air, at this time, and I know they are searching out their nightly place among the cornfields not too far away, or the many small ponds that dot a nearby park. I don't think they are coming closer, but moving south, away from me, as they do this time of year.

But their calls remain constant, neither growing fainter nor louder. It's like my heartbeat, racing north, leaning slightly into the wind and suddenly darting right or left to catch an impulse, a desire.

I can't see them. Behind the cedars and elms is where they must be, but I am so low here, between the trees, a small gap in the line, I'll never see them.

Suddenly one lone call pierces loudly, rushes forward like a warning, a groping in the dark. I hear their wings like someone slipping on a warm coat in winter. Then there they are, no more than 20-30 feet off the ground, mapping the earth in front me. A perfect "V" of two dozen birds, pushing and pulling air, stable in the dichotomy of their actions, pulsing from east to west. I've never been so close.

The edge of the "V" closest to me is missing a bird, and as the formation slides by so low that for a moment I childishly think I can reach up, hook on and be carried away, I believe they have made a place for me.

And they have. The moment lasts all but two or three seconds, but I no longer exist in the same way that I did before. I am no longer the same person. As the calls slide over the horizon chasing the last faint yellow and magenta sunlight, I am here and nowhere, far away and closer to my place.

Stay still. Don't breathe. Be ready. They may come around again.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Monarchs Passing

Four in the garden this afternoon. On a cloudy, calm day, it sure seems strange to have this many monarchs on this date. Clearly, they are late in migrating.

Today our last monarch was set to emerge from its chrysalis, but it only managed a tiny edge of one wing. I presume it's dead by now, or will be shortly. It led a strange life, not eating for many days before it went "J", then when it did go the chrysalis, as the caterpillar, was undersized.

So, to the garden to find monarchs--and other insects--which will see us through the week and into a four day weekend (viva academic jobs and their fall breaks).
Seeing Triple

Synchronized Feeding

Male Monarch by Phallic Liatris Seed Head

Painted Lady on Aster Tataricus

Bees on Solidago

Jeff Goldblum

Sunflower Seeds

Indian and Switch Grass at Dusk

Snow Crocus in Fall

Medusa Verbena

Gratuitous (Gorgeous) Monarch Pic

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is It Ugly, Fall, or My Paranoia?

When I walk in the garden it seems fuller still, likely because I'm in love with tall plants. Yet this view from the deck is much worse than I know it can be, mainly because the sumac--which lost its leaves weeks ago, likely due to the 75 dewpoint we had for 3 weeks in August--isn't turning its usual (breathtaking) bright red and orange:

See? Look at that skeletor of a sumac.

Below are other shots which more approximate how I feel in the garden, vs. how it may really be (gardens may be uglier than they appear). The grasses around the bench are finally screening how I want them to, but being tall prairie grasses on their own, they flop. But I see good winter cover for birds, so it's a wash. I used to have miscanthus there but they quickly gave out--the indian grass and switchgrass do much better. And by the obelisk... next year that will be filled in with a large aster (the spot has tormented me for years!). More asters. Stay tuned for an impending post on my many aster species. Waiting for one more to bloom.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Video of Garden

Tried to capture insects on the asters, gave up for quick (shakey) tour of garden.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

On the Edge of Stillness

We may have our first frost tonight, only 3 days past the average. As I took pictures the last few days, I knew I was preparing, in my own overly nostalgiac / American way, for the end of the best gardening summer I've ever had--and seemingly the quickest. The garden, in its 3rd full year, was thick and lush, harboring insects and birds and mammals of massive diversity. Spiders were more numerous than ever. Butterflies I'd never seen before came in to nectar on plants I forgot were there. Right now, the many native asters are flooded, deluged, bombarded with 6-legged creatures that, backlit by the sun, look like stirred up pollen themselves.

But these images, the stills, are not so still. As the leaves take in tonight's inevitable chill and as the sugars begin to siphon down to the roots, the soil will come alive with the winter rush of expanding roots. And next year will be even better, for the wildlife I have yet to know, and for the person I have yet to fully know through this place. I look forward to sitting on the bench in January, in the cold silence and absence, and fully hear the garden (surely it's impossible to correctly hear the garden in summer, to pick through the mass and confusion of unfettered growth and visible life).

Burnt red sedum, liatris seed spikes, asters, coreopsis

White boltonia, purple and blue asters, sedum, miscanthus

Indian grass spilling out toward asters

Garden entrance

Turtlehead & sweet autumn clematis

Surprise fall crocus

Wild senna seed pods backlit by sunset

Aster bloom closing on sleeping bumblebee at night

Male monarch on 12' tall 'Jonesboro Giant' ironweed

Bees Swarming Grape Jelly

See title. First frost may be tonight and I feel pre chilly. It took a while for the bees to get warmed up today.