rise and shine

Today is the first day of summer.

Six months ago we said hello to winter. Within a week, snow buried us snug in our burrows while we waited out the next four three-foot snowfalls.

Three months ago, I tripped over gangly sticks and naked brush, examining just-sprouted leaves and stabbing at identities for newly born things. And spring scurried, pell-mell through her to-do list, opening and closing blooms, shaking out everyone’s summer foliage and featherage, waking the last sleepers. From one week to the next, no place has been the same two visits in a row.

Berries are now swelling on their twigs where I first saw the tight-wrapped buds. Fledgling birds’ new flight abilities have freed their parents from the tyranny of the nest, only weeks after I first heard their courting songs in the cold woods of March. I can’t pass between the bushes anymore; they’ve staked their claims with green flags fluttering. Now we all slow to the speed of abundance, of gestation. The trees and bushes quietly grow their fruits while feasting on the free sun, the heat-unlocked goodness in the soil. The rest of us — animal, insect, et cetera — enjoy the vegetable feast.

It’s been a few years since I first set my alarm for dawn — with the intention of rising to welcome the season, to properly appreciate the opening and closing of the longest day — only to roll over and sleep instead, at least another two hours. I think this has happened more than once over the past five summers, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from myself when I fell asleep last night.

But when my alarm buzzed at 4 a.m. this morning, my first thought was, “Man, this is gonna be cool.”

And it was.

Good morning, summer.

pink

Waking up early has its perks, I’m finding, and this morning’s ramble will hopefully inspire me to rise early another day. The spring woods glow in the early morning light. Here and there, fresh green fronds shiver above their bed of last year’s leaves. Blueberries — I think, summer will confirm — raise their fairy-bell flowers to charm a passing pollinator. Oak saplings dangle fuzzy tangles of leaf and stem.

Now’s about the time of year when the magnolias blast open their pink buds, and people flock to cherry blossom festivals to fuss over those blushing beauties. Every newborn thing here in my woods is infused with a rarer rosy hue. Each velvety leaf shades to red by the faintest of blends. Trees that appear frothy with blooms from a distance turn out to be festooned with fresh foliage.

You’ll have to forgive me. I seem to be channeling my inner rhapsodic gardening columnist. But I’ve never been in the woods at the right time to see this before. I suppose I can let them speak for themselves.

I have always been compelled to know the names for things I find. That plant, that fruit, that color – what is it? I want to file all these details and observations in the right drawer, labeled so I can open the “chokeberry” folder at will and riffle through everything I’ve learned from the plant, go back to the time I first recognized it in real life. And, vice versa, an unfamiliar name in a book is a tantalizing hint that there are new things waiting to be seen. Few things are more satisfying to me than pinning an unattached appellation I’ve been saving since that 2007 magazine article to its subject in real life. I have a lot of those floating around. I’m dying to hang them on some handle in my woods.

All my metaphors are so… indoors. Office-y.

Names imply intimacy. I want to know everything I can about my home. Who and what it’s filled with. How all the trees and bushes and wild creatures live and grow through the seasons. Learning a name for something I met in its first hours, at 6 o’clock on a fresh May morning, christens my relationship to it. The name makes me responsible for it, in a way.

So which name belongs to these? Highbush blueberry? Huckleberry? Fetterbush, maleberry? That’s one of my projects for the year, to identify all my neighborhood plants. So I’ll be formally introduced soon enough. I hope the names will unlock more details, and reveal more secrets. And I hope that, come November, fall’s scarlet leaves will carry me back to a spring morning when they first blushed in the sunshine, the day I learned their names.

this is the place

There’s something magical about getting anywhere slowly, especially by foot. When I’m walking in an aimless sort of way, I stretch the thrill by taking my time to get there, even if I set myself a destination. On a new hike, a new trail, the dry pine needles crunch underfoot, sounding the tempo of my pace, and as I listen to my feet I slow them down. Allegro. Andante. Adagio. One mustn’t arrive at the conclusion too soon. But pine woods can feel monotonous, especially in spring before the scrub oak leafs out, before the birds arrive to sing their claims.

On this walk, I could see the waving tree tops thin ahead, but the tangled underbrush betrayed no hint of a clearing. In early April the blueberries and sweetbriar stake their claim to every sunbeam, filling the forest floor with a tangle of twig and bud, vines and leaves.

In the dense cover of full summer leaf, I’d never have seen it till I stepped in it. But this is spare spring. One step hinted a glint of sunshine, and the next revealed the whole, still pond. My eyes were just quick enough to spy the shining, wet back of a muskrat as it silently submerged to escape.

And then I had the pond to myself. Just me and the white cedars sinking their roots into the water on the far bank. Just me and the leatherleaf dangling its bell-buds in the sun. Just me and the wind, tickling the pond into shimmers of laughter and then soothing it into a mirror for the clouds.

 

Sweet Gale Catkins

Wendell Berry is one of my favorite writers. He’s known for extolling the fulfillment of a relationship to place, a relationship marked by intimate knowledge of the ways and rhythms of the land one calls home. In “The Nature Consumers,” an essay in his collection The Long-Legged House, he describes “the way of Thoreau, who went to natural places to become quiet in them, to learn from them, to be restored by them. To know these places, because to know them is to need them and respect them and be humble before them, is to preserve them.” (My italics.)

To know them is to need them…

 

This place — with its cedars, its muskrat denizens, its still water — is a place I need to know. I’m already sure I need this place.