Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Leaf of Orange

There have been a few times in my life when the stars have aligned,
and I have witnessed creation's more magical gifts.
Not the big ones we can all name.
No, I'm referring to the small, quiet ones that come out of the blue.
For example...

One morning many years ago, I was standing miserably outside in the cold,
scraping the frost from the back window of my car.
My mood was dark, as I was facing an unhappy day.
As I cleared one patch of frost,
I noticed a very small, very bright light appear inside the car.
But this was no ordinary light, it was an image. 
It turned out to be the reflection of the morning sun
on a white sea gull as it flew high overhead.
That the two events would intersect:  me at the window,
the sun on the bird, seemed incredible.
I took it as a message of encouragement. 
Another time, I was sitting at my desk in a soul-less office building,
feeling a bit caged up since the windows couldn't be opened
and leaving one's desk for fresh air was frowned upon.
And suddenly there appeared on my desk a tiny little rainbow.
Where did that come from, I asked myself.
The rainbow came compliments of a small drop of water
on the window acting like a prism.
And there I was in exactly the right place,
at exactly the right time, to see the rainbow.
Very soon the water droplet evaporated and the rainbow went with it.
And I took it as a message of compassion.
When I was a child, I loved orange:
Orange popsicles, orange lollipops, orange ice cream.
And as an adult, I still love orange:  
Orange marigolds, orange lilies, orange pumpkins.
 And late afternoon yesterday, I looked out my window
at exactly the right moment to receive another ineffable gift.

I noticed a bright orange leaf illuminated by the setting sun:
And that I took as a message of beauty.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Sloth and the Wisteria

Sometimes posing a simple question can lead to a number of interesting coincidences
and form a unique tapestry of information that is related by degrees.

Take my query on the name wisteria for example.
I've said before how much I enjoy seeing it,
but my knowledge of it was limited to its appearance along roadsides,
 its graceful habit on arbors, and the fact that my wisteria never blooms
because it doesn't get enough sun.

So here is what I discovered,
thanks to,,
and the online encyclopedia,, and

To understand why sloths and wisteria are conflated in this blog,
we will need to begin in the 19th century with Thomas Jefferson,
one of the most creative and inquiring minds in Virginia history.

According to Spamer and McCourt on the Lewis and Clark website,
Thomas Jefferson had received fossilized bones dug up from a cave by saltpeter miners
(who knew that was a 19th century occupation?)
who were working in Greenbriar County in what was then Virginia, now West Virginia.

Jefferson, being of well-earned reputation as a Renaissance man,
was their first choice to have the bones.
Jefferson called in his friend, Caspar Wistar,
renowned physician, philosopher, and anatomist, to help him identify them.
As it turns out, they had in their possession  the fossilized remains of a megalonyx.
(A very Dr. Suess-y kind of name, for sure.) And what is a megalonyx? A giant sloth.

Now one may still wonder how a fossilized sloth has anything to do with wisteria?
Stay with me.

We have to thank for this next bit of information:
Dr. Wistar was an important man in his day, so when he passed away in 1818,
the English botanist Thomas Nuttal named
the vining, lavendar-flowering Asian cultivar he had been working with a wisteria. explains that Nuttal purposely named it a wisteria, and not a wistaria,
because he also wanted to honor his close friend Charles Jones Wister
(Mister Wister, if you will).

So, we have a giant sloth and a beautiful purple-blue flowering vine
often planted in Japanese gardens and near Shinto and Buddhist temples.
This is a fitting location because the wisteria is revered
by Japanese Shinshu Buddhists as a symbol of humility and reflection.
The Buddhists chose the wisteria because its flowers hang low, and they
consider that symbolic of modesty, humbleness, and meek submissiveness

Now, what could be more humble, meek, and submissive
than a sloth engorged with leaves hanging from a tree?
If sloths move at all, it is only to position themselves in the warm sun for an extended nap.
Coincidentally, wisteria will not bloom unless they are also positioned to soak up the sun.

So let's sum up:
Jefferson, a Virginian, investigated sloth bones with Wistar,
the man for whom the wisteria was named.
 In full sun, the wisteria hangs low, the sloth hangs high.
The humble wisteria blooms with bluish-purple blossoms,
the meek sloth's fur blooms with bluish-green algae.

It all forms an interesting pattern, this mix of human, flora, and fauna.
It makes one want to reflect on the connections further.
Perhaps while lazing in the Virginia sun after a heavy meal,
breathing in the wisteria's perfume.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Catkins and Dog Tails

The oak leaves began dropping off this week,
falling to the forest floor, driveways, and decks.
In yesterday's blog, I showed a photo of oak leaves
nestled in a tangle of string-like seeds.
Here it is again:

I call those seeds strands catkins, although I think a true catkin
is more of a branch with bracts, like on a pussy willow.

These stringy, tangly seeds
seem rather exotic when still on their tree,

but once they drop, they quickly lose their charm.
It's not because they are so ubiquitous,
covering sidewalks and piling up along curbs.
And it's not because they are full of pollen.

No, my feeling about the catkins is
that they quickly become a nuisance much the way chewing gum
on the bottom of one's shoe does.

These particular catkins are sticky. They are light.
And bushy dog tails are their favored mode of transportation.
As in this photo:
The catkins attach and entwine themselves in puppy fur,
unaware that their destination is not fertile soil
but the inside of my house.
Well-intentioned seedlings, these catkins are.
They're only trying to reach their full potential, I realize.
But they are delicate. And unlike the oak leaves that hang on
with both hands, feet, and tails through rain, sleet, snow, and wind,  
catkins hang on to the thread on which they are born not at all.
The slightest touch or movement causes them to separate from their string
and burst into a thousand little seeds that end up a thousand different places.
And probably, some of those are back out the door to fertile soil. 
I think this is a good plact to paraphrase Mark Twain: 
If you hold a catkin by the tail,
you learn things you cannot learn any other way.
It seems like there should be a life lesson in there somewhere.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Last Drop

For weeks and weeks, I have looked out my breakfast room window at this sight:

Now we are in the last days of March;
we have had rainy days followed by warm, sunny days.
And yesterday I looked out my window and
all the oak leaves had dropped, save for a few tenacious souls.

Although you can't see them in the photo,
tiny new oak leaves are about to announce their presence.

And where are the fallen leaves?
Some of them landed on the deck.
Join me tomorrow to find out what cushioned their fall.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rain on Water

Recently we have had rainy days. The sky turns dark and gray and the wind blows.
Thunder bolts rumble and lightening flashes.
But the storms are not that unique unless one is near the bay or the rivers here.
Then the rain on the water makes for a very dramatic effect.

Here's a recent stormy Saturday over the Chesapeake Bay.

On Saturday last, the weather began warm and sunny, hot actually,
so we decided to go to a local restaurant on the shore of the Lynnhaven River.
We planned to dine al fresco, outside on the pier
so we could see the pelicans and sea gulls and boaters while we ate lunch.

As soon as we sat down, the sky turned gray and dark.
And then rain began.
 The wind whipped the rain around, driving it onto the pier.
All of us patrons on the river side scooted our chairs over,
and then a little more, and a little more
until we couldn't move away from the rain any further.
A thin layer of water pooled under our chairs
as rain dripped steadily from the roof.
The restaurant staff lowered the tarps and zipped them shut,
and even before they zipped the last one closed,
the sky gave the first hint the rain was clearing.

Here's a photo right before they closed the tarp next to our table.

It  turned chilly and several people asked for a table inside.
We didn't since we had our food by then.
March weather. I think that sums it up pretty well.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Avenue of Pink Snow

Yesterday I drove past the crabapple trees
whose blossoms were so white and branches so strong.
And the blossoms were all gone.
Where did they go? Here they are:

And the tree shows hardly a trace of its former glory.

Driving home, I was thinking of how quickly
the crabapple blossoms had come and gone,
and how their snowy white blooms had turned a soft gold,
and how people had driven right through them without even a second thought. 

Then I glimpsed something I'd never seen before
even though I have driven through the same intersection a thousand times
over the last decade. Through the rain on my windshield, 
I saw an avenue of pink snow.

It was breathtaking, this hush of pink blossoms wafting down from the trees.

I drove further into a beautiful setting.

Returning the way I came:
Meeting beauty in the midst of the mundane, 
along an avenue of pink snow.
Now that's encouraging.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Root of the Matter

When I initially decided to watch the fig tree,
I walked around it and took note of some of its features.
Before, I had not noticed the old wound on its lower trunk
because I usually view the tree from the opposite side.
However, I had noticed the bizarre serpentine root
squirming up out of the earth--who wouldn't?!
And I definitely noticed the chew marks
after a mystery creature had gnawed on it
under the cover of darkness some time ago.
I just pray it wasn't some loathsome rodent
that would give me the shudders had I seen it in action.
  The other odd thing about the root that had missed my attention was
that it also extends across the surface
in the other direction, looking like some critter's tail. 

I love the twists and turns of any tree root,
but the fig's are a little too creepy crawl-y
to warrant my full affection.
Still, they are the most memorable roots I have seen.
I read they can spread 50 feet out and 20 feet deep in the right climate.
It will be interesting to see how these grow in the future.
Let's hope they don't go too far.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Watching the Fig Tree 2

The fig tree has made amazing progress lately.
Here it was a few weeks ago, in mid-Feburary.

Last weekend I noticed that a few green curled leaves and
tiny green figs had appeared.
The fig is the little round ball. Its shape reminds me of a hot air balloon.

 With the warm temperatures this week,
the leaves have begun to fully open. That seems very rapid progress to me.
 The leaves aren't as visible in the last photo,
but the blue sky is so dazzling for March, I thought I'd include it.

Tomorrow I'll show something interesting
I noticed about the roots.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What I Wait For

I always like this time of year
because it seems a new spring plant or flower emerges every day.
Every spring, there are flowers and plants that I wait for.
For example ...

I wait for the pine seedlings to drop,
knowing they will completely cover the ground and
find their way into the house by hitching a ride on puppy paws or our shoes.

This is how small they were just a couple of weeks ago.

And here they are yesterday.

I also wait for the wisteria.
I noticed some lovely purple wisteria vining throught the trees yesterday.
A few years ago I planted some next to my arbor,
but it doesn't get enough sun to bloom,
so I'm always glad to see it gracing trees elsewhere.

In winter the Carolina Jessamine is practically invisible,
 but in spring, its bright lemon yellow trumpets cascade down the trees.

And the one sight I wait for with the most anticipation every spring--
the palest of pink cherry blossoms in this picturesque scene.

That's when I know spring is really here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Unexpected

It didn't take long for the year of the dragon to yield the unexpected.

I saw today the violets I have been waiting for had already bloomed,
and I hadn't ever noticed the stems coming out of the leaves
or a tiny hint of purple on the buds.

This picture is from last spring.

Here they are this spring, a bit rain-soaked.
Another unexpected note was
that the blossoms were open in the sunshine,
but later closed up against the rain.
I didn't know they would do that.

The Japanese red maple was also a surprise.
It seems like one minute it had no leaves, and the next
it sparkled scarlet in the sunshine.

I think the loveliest surprise is the profusion of blooms
on the two legacy redbuds I wrote about March 15.
They have never been so beautiful.

And when I catch sight of them through the window,
it's always an unexpected delight.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Dragon in the Woods

In the Chinese lunar calendar, 2012 is the year of the dragon
and the last year in the 3-year wood cyle.
Wood is one of the five elements of life energy
and is associated with Spring and familial relationships. 
According to Chinese legend, being born
 or starting a business enterprise in a dragon year is very auspicious
because the dragon is a sign of great fortune.
Dragon years are also said to bring the unexpected.

I bring all this up because while out walking the other day,
I came upon a tree that had fallen over in a storm
and the broken part looked like a dragon to me.

When I was little, my mother would take
my brothers, sisters and me on walks in spring and summer.
She had a wonderful imagination
and noticed things most people would miss. 
Sometimes a cloud that looked like something or 
a red-winged blackbird on a fence post
would catch her eye and she would point it out to us. 
I guess that's why I like to look for the unexpected in nature.
I particularly like interesting tree trunks.

Like this gnarled round one

or this tall split one that looks like it could walk away

or this ruddy crape myrtle trunk, so smooth to the touch.

This middle trunk is one of my favorites
because of the pattern the lichen makes on the bark.

 Usually this tree reminds me of a stoic Indian with paint on his face,
but it also makes me think of little puffs of smoke.
Maybe from a dragon in the woods. Now that would be unexpected.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Welcome Spring!

There is an interesting theory that the European Dark Ages coincided
with a bitterly cold weather pattern that created a perpetual winter.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do describe
bone-chilling freezes and overcast skies that seldom cleared.
And some authors refer to a "Little Ice Age"
although they don't agree on the estimated time period for that unusual cold,
marking it over various centuries from the 1300s into the 1800s.
During that time in places accustomed to four seasons,
spring sometimes never arrived.  Regardless of when it occurred,
that kind of cold must have made for a wretched time.
We once travelled from our Shire to Quebec one year in late May.
Here, spring flowers and trees had long since finished blooming by then,
but when we arrived in Quebec
snow was still visible in shady parts of the gardens 
and the daffodils and hyacinths were only beginning to bloom.
And signs announcing the availability of fiddleheads
(nascent ferns as yet unfurled) were enthusiastically posted in grocers' windows. 
It was the one year in my life when I got to experience the arrival of Spring twice.
Last night the sun officially set on Winter

And when it rose this morning over the Bay,
we all awoke to Spring.
Considering the weather alternatives, that's cause to celebrate March 20th.
March 20th has always been a very special day for my family,
but this year, it is especially lovely! 

Monday, March 19, 2012

March 19th and the Return of the Swallows

March 19th is the feast of St. Joseph in many Christian traditions,
and it is the day when the swallows make their legendary return
to the mission at San Juan Capistrano.
But it turns out the swallows no longer return there
in the numbers they once did.
Indeed, many people report seeing only one, two or none at all.
Apparently urbanization has pushed them into the nearby mountains
in search of a better food supply.
Or perhaps the swallows were merely unenthusiastic
about the ritual clanging of the mission bells,
the multitudes of tourists, and the raucous Swallows Day parade;
so they set off for greener pastures, so to speak.
I read a quote once that said
institutions established to preserve ideas usually ended up destroying them.
An irony that seems to have happened here.
But the swallows are still appearing elsewhere.

Here is a video link showing them building nests near Capistrano:

and here are some returning in Apollo Beach Florida,
probably a good indication of what it once looked like at the mission:

We had barn swallows where I grew up, and of course, purple martins.
And we have purple martins and other swallows in Virginia,
although here along the Elizabeth River shoreline,
the trees are probably too thick for most swallows to feel welcome.

Even so, it's reassuring to know that on St. Joseph's Day,
the swallows are still returning somewhere, and
 they are beautiful harbingers of Spring.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Watching the Fig Tree

I read a book once called "Watching the Tree" by Adeline Yen Mah.
In it she recounted this story told to her by her Buddhist grandfather:

            Once there was a boy who was told by his master to catch a hare.
He went into the woods and looked around ... .
At that very moment, he saw a hare running along at full speed.
As he watched in astonishment,
the hare ran smack into the tree and knocked itself unconscious.
All he had to do was to pick it up.
For the rest of his life, the boy waited behind the same tree
in the hope that more hares would do the same thing. 

Although I understand the moral,
that people often spend their lives "watching the tree,"
expecting that conditions will always be the same,
the story also made me think that it would be fun
to closely observe a tree as it goes through its seasons.
So I chose a tree to watch, a fig tree that grows at the edge of our woods.
I am hoping I will find the unique as it unfolds in the familiar
--but I'll try not to expect it.

This is the fig tree I will be watching.

Look for future blogs about Watching the Fig Tree :-)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Clover and Moss and the Shamrocks of Ireland

St. Patrick's Day is an interesting holiday, but I realized
I didn't know a lot about it besides the more obvious
cultural pursuits associated with it. So I did some research.
According to, Patrick was a wealthy British boy
who was kidnapped by Irish Raiders
when he was in his teens.
Taken to Ireland and held captive for several years,  
 he managed to eventually return to Britain.
Patrick had been very lonely during his captivity and had turned to
the Christian religion for comfort. And after returning to Britain,  
 he had a dream in which an angel told him
to become a missionary to the Irish people, so he entered the priesthood.
As an Irish missionary, he honored Irish traditions
by incorporating them into Christian ones. In that regard,
he is credited with developing the Celtic cross
by adding the Irish symbol for the sun to the Christian cross.
And according to, he demonstrated the trinity by
holding up a 3-leafed clover, a seamrog 'shamrock.'
But sorry, these sources say he didn't drive any snakes out of Ireland.
He died March 17 in the 5th century.
And as it turns out, St. Patrick's Day parades are purely Irish-American, 
the first having taken place in the 18th century in New York. 
Even so, when I think of St. Patrick's Day,
 I don't really think of corned beef, revelry, or even St. Patrick,
I think of green clover and and soft carpets of moss.

This first image actually shows "lemon clover" wood sorrel, a type of oxalis;
although not a true clover, its three heart-shaped  leaves are beautiful
and very shamrock-like.

 I also think about my Irish great great grandmother, Mary O'Brien.
She was born in Limerick, Ireland and travelled alone to the US
in 1853 to join her two sisters Elizabeth and Ellen, 
who were already here and married--
Elizabeth to a man named Patrick, Ellen to a man named John.
And I imagine there were times when,
 in their hearts, Mary and her two sisters
secretly longed for the emerald green seamrogs of Ireland.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Among their Sweet Blossoms

After the snowdrop blossoms are spent

and the daffodils near their end; 

but before the dogwoods, hydrangeas, and azaleas bloom,

the flowering crabapple trees 
frost the landscape with their snowy white blooms.

People love them for their profusion of flowers.
But up close, they are even more beautiful,
with sturdy branches that beckon us in
and invite us to climb up
and sit awhile among their sweet blossoms. 

And that reminds me of the story "The Selfish Giant" by Oscar Wilde.
It's the story of an ogre with a beautiful garden,
but he didn't want to share it with anyone.
He chased the children away so he could have the garden to himself.
But one year, Winter stayed and Spring never came.
Snow and ice clung to the branches of the trees,
the cold wind blew,
and no flowers emerged from the grass.

Without Spring, the selfish giant grew old and sick. He knew he was dying. 
One day he looked out and saw a small child
standing in the cold and ice, trying to get up into a tree.
He was overcome with sorrow for what he had done,
so he ran out and lifted the child into the tree.
And suddenly ...

"Through a little hole in the wall the children had crept in,
and they were sitting in the branches of the trees.
 In every tree that he could see there was a little child.
 And the trees were so glad to have the children back again
    that they had covered themselves with blossoms ... ."

Here's to the gladness of Spring.