September 25, 2017
I’ve been watching the new moon set for the past two evenings. You will have seen it too over the lip of your western canyon. I took up my binoculars on Saturday to watch its descent in detail. Why don’t I do this more often? It was transformed. Its smooth surfaces rendered rough and lacy through the magnification, the shadowed disc clearly visible.
The evening field still hums with insect life especially in the early and late parts of the day. Since the days have been hot…hotter than it was during the calendrical summer, the katydid voices are strong, and at the peak of the day, cicadas whir high up in the maples.
The maples have lost most of their leaves prematurely this fall. I called the town tree person and he came to give them a look. He also does chimney sweeping and tree fixing up “on the side” and so we wandered the property and tested various apples and talked about our dislike for hunting and, in general, hunters, the good hiking trails in town. And we talked about trees. Although our visit was pleasant, I was left with a sense that the trees in New England (and worldwide) are in trouble. Edward Thomas called wood the ‘fifth element.’
I grew up in an old farmhouse on a road where no houses had been built for centuries. I was spared the sight of disturbed land. The land was what it was, and changed only in its own time. When my father dug, or my mother troweled, they pulled clay marbles from the earth and once a tiny rusted horseshoe that had been worn by a pony or a burro; past suffused the particularity of the present.
Across the road, a small road whose contours followed, as many roads once did, the contours of a valley cut by water, there was a stone wall, a field, woodland and a brook. When you are small, and walking across the road is a big deal, then jumping down from a wall, crossing an unkempt meadow, finding one’s way into the woods and then coming upon the stream is a huge and wondrous journey. Remembering that walk through my child’s eyes, I feel my father’s hands helping me jump down and I feel the unevenness of the hummocked ground. At the wood’s edge, where the meadow became boggy, ephemeral trout lilies bloomed each spring. We would kneel down and take in their scent, examine the speckles of their leaves and petals, the structure of their flowering.
But it was the hemlocks that brings my mind to this place. When I was little, the forest was largely “virgin.” * The mature hemlocks stood massively above a place where the brook spread out into a braid of rivulets and deep pools. Their trunks and roots growing out of the cliff as if stone and wood were one. Cookie and I would run as fast as we could down the almost sheer slope, and allow the sturdy trunks to keep us from plunging onto the sharp rocks of the stream below. And then we would each lounge on our own particular hemlock seat, our mossy thrones high above the water. Sometimes there would be a fisherman. The brook was then home to the native brook trout. We fancied ourselves to be invisible, kin to the fairies that lived under the mossy knolls. We threw pebbles to scare the fish and hid silent behind our trees until the fisherman gave up and left.
Nearby, in a flat place where the forest had reclaimed a place field, stood a small forest of hemlock saplings. This I called my enchanted forest. And this is where, when I was very young, my father first let me walk “by myself” as we both headed towards a designated meeting spot some yards away. What I remember most was the softness of the hemlock needles against my face and bare arms, the blue shade of the place, the soft moss beneath my feet.
The connection hemlocks have to water is magical, their ability to grow straight out of ledge and cliff. They like deep stream valleys and sharp slopes. We are losing them fast now, thanks to the inexorable spread of the Woolly Adelgid. The northern forests will never be the same.
But for now, in spite of these worries, the day is a perfect Indian Summer one. Tree frogs and crickets, an occasional snort from William the pony, a very noisy chipmunk rustling in the leaves below the porch. The crickets provide a kind of a sound-peace to the day in the way a quiet river might. A backdrop against which the individual sounds of a flicker, or a blue jay, or a cow calling from down in the valley are heightened and made even more evocative. I am right now listening to the sound of a pheobe’s wings and the toc toc toc of a distant tree frog. The phoebe family is playing in the lilacs, hunting in the eaves of the barn and have been joined by some warblers. This morning, down by my very own “smiling pool” I watched a pair of common yellow throat warblers hunting bugs in the alders.
The field is still full of blooming goldenrod. The asters are in their glory, wood and field, creamy white, deep purple. Wild animal paths are reveals as the field flattens and settles into fall. A lion mane mushroom is growing on the spot it did last year, along a rock wall on a rotting stump of maple wood. Perhaps tonight I will harvest half of it and eat it as I did last year this time…a ritual! But it will be hard to pick because it is so glorious: a fairy castle of shining white.
The garden is in autumn chaos. Dying pumpkin vines reveal bright orange globes. It is a season of tall golden blooming things. The sunflowers were a wild success and reign over all else, a forest of burnt orange, yellow, gold, rusty red. The geometry of their blooms is a mathematical mystery. A universe unto themselves, they jiggle and vibrate, alive with bumblebees and small brown sparrows. Below these giants are more giants. Bright yellow coreopsis and copper yarrow. The yarrow is flopped over the basil which must be rescued for eating. Nearby the pink echinacea blossoms are now fading a deeper mauve. The bright white hydrangea blossoms have blushed to a color that reminds me of antique turn-of-the-century flower prints. In the evening I pick cherry tomatoes, deep red, yellow, orange and dusky brown. They are like jewels in the dusk.
Monarchs fly by, but singly only. We used to see whole flocks of them pass over vast fields of goldenrods and asters on their way south. They paired with the long V’s of geese as harbingers of cold. Now the sight of one is cause for excitement. Their intrepid and mysterious migration has always been a miracle. Now it is all the more so when one considers the dangers and obstacles these beings face. In Cheshire there is a chrysalis hanging in the wild cucumber vine. If you have ever seen one, you know that they are set with sparkles and are a pale green which hides an unfolding miracle. How can it be that such transformations take place at all? Why do we not fall down on our knees in awe when we see such a thing?
On Saturday night, I watch through my binoculars as the giant moon, the northern crescent of which is lit golden, moves slowly down over the mountain. The black leaves of the forest canopy climb up its glowing side like rapidly growing vines. Soon the entire moon is covered with leaves, only glints showing through. Then it is gone.
*An interesting word to use for a woods not yet cut or managed, eh?
This forest is now gone. There were native beeches there too that five people could have not encircled. The hillsides have eroded, slapdash houses built, the old wagon trail, the spring well, and two stone bridge foundations obliterated. The brook runs with silt. The day that forest fell, I drove to Wellfleet where my father lived and we cried together.