Monday, October 31, 2016

The Hallow

The leaves have largely left the trees yet there hasn't been much of a freeze. A few weeks ago I wouldn't have thought this to be, after that first bitter morning gave us the shiv. My projects continue, in fact some have come to flower, not a moment too early, like the sage, better late than not at all. Things have turned around through early mid November.

Broccoli laid out last April, still in bed, dreaming up florets. It's both in flower and production, an odd duck in brassica land.

Whereas summer planted broccoli is beginning to form heads that should never set flower.

October came with a few freeze warnings but has chosen a different path. Just once did a clear night after a warm day provide a frosting for the garden.

Eggplant is an impressive plant -it takes long to establish but is one of the last to go. Its tolerance of light frost is likely due to the insulation provided by its pubescent leaves.

Starbursts of fennel, they did not produce meaty bottoms or seed.


Halloween is the Christmas of autumn (see that the box store has both decorations on display simultaneously). It was named Hallowmas long ago (Shakespeare: "like a beggar at Hallowmas"), and stems from Hallow evening (Hallow e'ening). All Hallow's Eve, the 31st of October (it used to be in May), the evening preface to All Saints Day on November the first. On November the second we have All Souls Day because you cannot mix the especially good with the rest of us. We speculate that the Church ordained these holy (hallow) rites on these autumnal dates to commingle with the rites of the pagans. Remembering the martyrs and saints and even the common dead must have had a very different tone in the warm growth of spring.

The emotions and attitude of growing darkness, chilling air, graying, stormier days, and the browning of plant life despite plentiful harvests could lead a mind to superstition and omen. Superstition leads us to an awareness of sin, that our darkening days in the face of so much good fortune must be accounted for, and that we account for it by accusing ourselves of the darkness that we confront at the cold edge of autumn. What else could have been offered, holy or pagan, to salve the confrontation with the portent of one's death from cold, disease, or starvation? Think of the dead -the saints and the rest as you enjoy today's plenty in the sweet of a soul cake.

"A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

 Down into the cellar,
And see what you can find,
If the barrels are not empty,
We hope you will prove kind.
We hope you will prove kind,
With your apples and strong beer,
And we'll come no more a-souling
Till this time next year."

By Christmas, as the larder dwindled from plenty to rations at the grim precipice of the full course of winter, the attitude of holy or pagan rites change to the spirit of hope, to the growing light as the earth begins its tilt toward the equinox, but also the superstition of redemptive suffering through the depths of winter. Why do I suffer? Because you are a sinner. Be mindful of this, suffer, and you will find redemption. The experience of spring is so wholly positive, so ineffably discordant with the experience of winter that our psyche again seeks superstition in the redemption rites of spring.


Several years ago a woman wearing a patterned skirt, equally of deep red and bright white, sat across from me on the subway. This color combination was visually captivating and I thought about why these two colors, put together, had such power. I considered things that come in red and white and two that came to my mind were Santa Claus and meat. Yes, fat marbled red meat. I thought about the promise of fatty red meat at the precipice of winter. I thought about venison at winter's solstice, its winter fat, but also of flying reindeer pulling Santa Claus in a red and white outfit. This fat, jolly piece of marbled meat or at the least sheathed in the colors of meat. What a gift to anyone trying to survive the winter, at its outset, when hope, hunting, the preservation of meat in freezing temperatures, and the ash-covered, fire-cooked meat (the irony that industrial era Santa comes down the chimney) are a bulwark against the longest season. Of course, I'm mixing histories and rites, but the psyche and the imagery so specific leads me to, at the least, wonder about such things.

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


The breath of autumn is now well upon us. It scatters the leaves as well as my mind, and puts the quick into my step. As in life and age, autumn has a way of shifting the unimportant away. In our cold clime that first freeze can be an icy slope. One descends from warmth to frozen in a day or two. No lollygag of a New York City autumn -there is terminus.

The paper wasps have finally crawled deeply into buildings and the ants have long left the work atop their mounds. There is a grasshopper on the garage wall, but no longer in the garden. Flies find their way in as do lady beetles and what remains of the mosquito swarm has descended into the basement stairwell.  A woolly bear and a large wood spider hastened from the unfinished studio. A week ago I heard the frog's last chirp.

Last week we had our first frost, and tonight, should the skies clear, we will have our first freeze. We can now accept bringing in plants, out of sympathy for them, as we do with our pets. Will the lantana come in? Will the begonia tubers be saved? Should I unearth the rosemary and pot it?

Despite better planning, the fall vegetables have not gone as hoped. Cauliflower was a wash, and the broccoli too. Green beans just a week or two too late and nibbled. Brussels sprouts have more leaf than sprout thus far. Spring planted broccoli continues to flourish. Eggplants always do better until they just can't and I have yet to harvest the majority of potatoes.

Although it is nearing winter (it comes earlier here), there are still several outdoor projects to complete. I need to replace a porch balustrade, cedar plank the utility room landing and replace several mossy and rotted plank ends on the porch. There is a window frame to repair -it should not go another winter, but it is on the second floor and I don't prefer ladders. A brick walkway has remained a gravel trench. The gutters continue to fill with leaves -this can wait, but not beyond snowfall. Warmer temperatures are required to apply a second coat of paint to the alcove where siding, sill, and door were replaced by the height of summer. The studio has much remaining, but there is now power and today the concrete contractor is placing the insulation foam. Progress. Should I call the mudjacker for the sidewalk that cants to the house? Is there time? Is there money?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Milkweed Zoo

Milkweed growing has been a great success for most of the six (or was it seven?) varieties I sprouted last spring. Doing particularly well is A. incarnata (swamp milkweed), A. verticillata (whorled milkweed), and A. tuberosa (butterfly weed). Take a look at those hardy roots on that sixteen inch tall swamp milkweed. The five inch deep cell trays that were terrible for vegetable starting were great for milkweed because I could leave them to develop strong roots without worry about setting them out too late.

I've planted out in the yard and woods a majority of the plants, and all that remain in cell trays are only unplanted due to the continual and relentless mosquito attack this late summer. We've had a highly unusual, severely wet and humid August and September which has had a deleterious effect on some of our vegetables, our studio building progress, and even our mood. It's even bringing on an early, brown autumn as wet Septembers are prone to instigate.

But enough about that. We did have a couple of dry, sunny days, one of which had me near the greenhouse bed of giant Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed in mid August. The milkweed, leaning from height and heavy rains well into our potato bed needed to be put back in its place. Being milkweed and August, I anticipated finding Monarch caterpillars, but there were none. What I did find, however, is a startlingly rich collection of other insects. Some were feeding on the plants while others were feeding on those feeding on the plants, and still some feeding on the litter of those feeding on the plants.

Black-legged Meadow Katydid.

Possibly a Blue Mud Dauber or maybe even a Steel-blue Cricket Hunter, and of course -an ant.

Mating Lady Beetles -likely the good, bad, and ugly kind otherwise known as Harmonia axyridis because they eat plant pests (good), were introduced by us humans (bad), and enter the house by the thousands in autumn (ugly).

And their offspring meeting an ant.

But what of this offspring, with its yellow coloration, different patterning, black legs, and little or no spines? After much digging, I'm going with the Ash Grey Lady Beetle, Olla v-nigrum -I do recall seeing a wine-colored 15-Spotted Lady Beetle earlier this year, submitted to BugGuide and identified. We'll see what the insect community has to say about this guy.

A Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus.

Paper Wasps.

Red ant. Which kind? So many kinds...

Flower Crab Spider

Another kind of flower crab -notice the chunky hind quarter? The females change color to match their surroundings.

Yellow Jacket.

Had I spent even more time I would have found even more creatures; frogs, crickets, grasshoppers, moth larvae (Tussock Moth comes to mind). Check out this good post on the merits of maintaining a balanced ecology of the butterfly garden. Yes, we plant milkweeds for the Monarchs, but nature has its own way and we have ours. It's likely better to let nature take its course while we do what we can to better the circumstances of all living things.

I like the moment when the ant meets the paper wasp.

The monarch caterpillars do not seem to be fond of the old, possibly tough, Common Milkweed near the greenhouse and vegetable garden. No, they were found of a young A. syriaca, the butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) and the Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata). I prefer the last two, myself, for their nicer flower, form, and spread and so it is that these species, butterfly and plant, are in our flower garden.

It was only a matter of hours between these two photos.

Chrysalis still intact, metamorphosis nearly complete, and because it is late in the season, we wait for what some call the "super Monarch" -the one that flies all the way to Mexico and then breeds next year's northerly migrating offspring.

Plenty of nectar nearby.

To kick off the long flight.