Category Archives: Nature

Back on the Cape, One Constant in an Ever-Shifting View

Last summer, the pandemic interfered with our annual trip to Cape Cod.  For the first time in twenty years, our family failed to spend part of August at the modest little cottage complex in Truro that we love so well. My husband began going there with his parents and siblings when he was a little boy.  Our journey to the Cape is not just a vacation; it’s more like a pilgrimage.  That narrow ribbon of land, curved like a hook into the bay, is, to us, if not quite the promised land, then something quite close to it.  Certainly it’s a second home.  We have no financial claim to any bit of real estate there, but we’re loyal renters.  More importantly, as pilgrimage sites do, the place has claimed us as its own. 

When we return, we go back to the same waterfront cottage, at the same time every year. We reconnect with many of the same families. We look out to a vast expanse of sand that leads to Cape Cod Bay, framed on each side by islands of sea grass and wild roses. The spare, simple skyline of Provincetown, about a mile away, appears to float atop the water. Its most distinctive feature, appropriately, is the tall, granite bell tower that commemorates the arrival of the original Pilgrims to the area, in 1620. Five weeks before landing at Plymouth, the Mayflower docked at what is now Provincetown Harbor. Due to rough weather, the ship had missed its mark in Northern Virginia. Anchored far north in Massachusetts, where the contract the Pilgrims had signed with the Virginia Company was deemed void, the group determined “to covenant and combine . . .together into a civil body politic,” to maintain order and the common good. So it was in Provincetown that the Mayflower Compact, an early and largely successful attempt at democracy, was written and signed. The Pilgrim Monument, now the symbol of the town’s warm, accepting and all-inclusive spirit, reminds us that great things are possible when we work together. For residents and returning pilgrims like our family, it’s a welcoming beacon. I love it that the tower is the anchoring feature in the ever-changing view from our little cottage.

The Pilgrim Monument was completed in 1910. Its design was based on the civic symbol of Siena, the 14h century Torre del Mangia in the Piazzo del Campo, the town’s main square. Other features of Provincetown’s narrow silhouette are two water towers, several church steeples, and the Town Hall tower.

Our view toward the bay varies minute by minute with the shifting of the light, the play of the clouds and the passage of the hours.  The ethereal, transformative quality of Cape light has long made this area a favorite destination for artists. Above, around noontime, the sun glints off sparkling blue water, and a line of clouds hugs the horizon, in an otherwise clear sky.   

On partially overcast afternoons, the water tends to turn silvery, like a sea of mercury. It’s often on days like this that the wind picks up, and my husband, and also now our daughter, may be out windsurfing.

One evening toward sunset, a sky resembling orange sherbet settled above the town’s dark silhouette and a bay of molten lead.

The color of the sand is changeable, as well. In early mornings and late afternoons, it may take on a peachy pink cast, as in the photos above and below. The dark patches of seaweed that litter the beach no doubt seem unsightly to some. But we’ve grown so used to it that it’s no longer remarkable. It’s just more evidence of the abundant life that thrives in and around the bay.

Windsurfing boards await my husband and daughter.

Occasionally, as a storm or dense fog moves in, all the towers of Provincetown are rendered completely invisible. 

To me, the loveliest time of the day is just before sunset, when the shadows in the sand turn a magical, brilliant blue.

Sunset itself, on every clear day, is an event that brings our small, enduring community outside in admiration and awe. The sky often glows with streaks of increasingly fiery red, orange and yellow. And then, as the brilliant colors gradually dissipate, and Cape light fades into Cape night, the Pilgrim Monument is illuminated. Its white granite glows clean and bright against the dark sky. The tower is typically the last thing I see before I close my eyes at night. How comforting to know it is there, a reassuring beacon at all hours, in all weathers and seasons.

Oh What a Beautiful Morning!

On the 5th of July, had my dog not needed walking, I might have missed the spectacular beauty of the morning.  There are days now when Kiko sleeps in, curled contentedly in his fluffy bed, oblivious to the sunlight flooding in around him.  But on Monday, he was up early and ready to step out.  Maybe he was feeling cocky after having finally realized that the terrible Fireworks Monster is not a big deal.  This year, he wasn’t traumatized as in the past by the crackles and booms of our neighborhood celebration. Gradual hearing loss may have its good points.  The noises seemed to make him marginally uneasy, but not nervous enough to pace the house in a restless search for consolation that is perpetually out of reach.  Instead, he remained settled in his bed even after the fireworks began to pop.  He seemed sufficiently relaxed so that I decided to join my family and friends for the show for the first time in years, instead of cocooning myself with my quaking dog in a curtained room with heavy blankets and a loud TV.  On our return, Kiko greeted us with what I interpreted as an air of studied nonchalance.  “I’m cool,” he seemed to say.  “But no thanks to you.  I know you left me alone.”      

For whatever reason, Kiko was up early the following day, with a particular pep in his step, and so I was up and out, also, in time to witness the sparkling glory of the post-Independence Day morning.  A golden haze suffused the air, and the sun’s rays were clearly visible, as in a child’s drawing.  Kiko found it annoying that I kept stopping to take photos, which can’t quite capture the radiance of the morning.  As we walked down our neighbor’s front walk after bringing the Washington Post to her door, the glowing light streaming through the trees resembled an image of the entrance to heaven.  In the unusually peaceful quiet of the holiday morning (no rushing traffic, no typical suburban summer sounds of lawn mowing, tree cutting, leaf blowing and power washing) it could be appreciated without distraction.

Kiko’s interest, as always, lay in scents instead of sights.  The fascinating smorgasbord of smells kept him briskly on the move as he led the way, with purpose, toward his favorite little park.  By that time, the shimmering mist was dissipating, but there among the woods, it lingered still.   

Kiko maintained a quick pace on our return.  My elderly, slowly meandering dog was temporarily replaced by his former puppy self.  When we reached the home stretch, he began to run.  My knees resisted, but I did my best to keep up. 

Once home, Kiko was soon cozily snuggled in his bed.  The dog who emerges revived and invigorated after a long night of fireworks certainly deserves his rest. 

For Brood X, Mission Accomplished

The cicadas of Brood X have fulfilled their mission.  They’ve done their part to further the species.  The seventeen-year cycle has begun again, and the proof is all around us.  It’s in the hanging patches of brown leaves appearing at the ends of tree branches, every day, in greater numbers.  The oaks seem to be especially popular as Brood X egg incubators. 

The reproductive success of Brood X is evident in the clumps of silver maple leaves that dot our front yard. 

A close look at the fallen branches reveals a series of incisions in the young bark.  These were made by the female cicada as she deposited her eggs, using a swordlike abdominal appendage called an ovipositor. While it’s often noted that cicadas do not harm humans or animals, this evidently depends on the mama-to-be not mistaking a living creature for a tree.  If I’m still around in the summer of 2038, I hope I remember not to sit or stand perfectly still outside for an extended period.  One female may lay as many as five hundred eggs, in batches of five to twenty, among several trees.  When the eggs hatch about six weeks later, tiny nymphs emerge, fall to the ground and begin tunneling into the soil, launching the next seventeen-year subterranean phase.  

Brood X has gone silent and still, but their physical presence will be with us for some time.  Cicada bodies, often perfectly intact, are strewn along the ground and nestled into foliage.  The cicada above, though deceased, appears to be napping comfortably on its back in a pleasant rhododendron hammock.  The insects’ wings and body parts, frequently snapped off cleanly like 3-D puzzle pieces, are all around.   The discarded exoskeletons will remain for quite a while, as well. 

I’m glad that Kiko got to experience the cicadas of Brood X.  They gave our old boy the rare opportunity, in his own little mind, at least, for successful hunting.  Many of his fellow canine colleagues immediately recognized the big insects as tasty treats and gobbled them up as soon as they began appearing.  My dog, dainty and fastidious in eating as in every activity, took his time to warm up to the idea of snacking on Brood Xers.  The mob was on the wane before he developed a taste for their flavor.  We would watch as he slowly approached a cicada, stared intently at it for a while, before moving in quickly and decisively to devour it.  As far as we could tell, he never ate a live cicada, but he clearly thought he was participating in the thrill of the chase.  My daughter noticed that he seemed to relish rooting around for them in the grass like a truffle pig.  A cicada wing dangles from his mouth in the photos above and below. 

The cicadas of Brood X have accomplished their goal.  While tangible evidence of their brief existence will fade, their legacy endures.  Soon, their progeny will be underfoot everywhere in our northern Virginia neighborhood, invisible in the above-ground world, but nevertheless thriving as intended.  We can read countless philosophical insights into the brief appearance and long apparent absence of these periodical cicadas.  I can imagine the question appearing on SAT and ACT essay prompts.  One lesson from Brood X that strikes home with me is this: what we see in everyday life is only a small slice of that which is real.  And, even more importantly, a shift in perspective may render the unseen visible.  As I age, I’m becoming increasingly aware that some things are not what they seem, or at least not the way I’ve previously understood them to be.  I’m learning that, to see more clearly and understand more comprehensively,  a new and occasionally uncomfortable viewpoint is sometimes necessary.

Brood X also reminds me that the imprint we humans leave on our world and on those around us, for good or bad, may not be immediately apparent.  The fruit of the cicada’s short life is long delayed.  But with the fullness of time, its effect is significant.  And while human actions and  words may not produce instantaneous and seismic changes,  they will indeed have consequences.  May we work for good even when we cannot expect to see the products of our labor.  May we strive to build bridges with the blocks at hand. And may better building blocks and methods be developed in the future, by our children and our children’s children, if we consciously choose to guide them in that direction.  Our days of toiling, buzzing and flying, like the cicada’s, are relatively brief.  May we use them well.    

Brood X, At Peak

The loudest, craziest days of Brood X are behind us now in Northern Virginia.  Peak cicada activity occurred here during the first two weeks of June.  When we left for Rochester over Memorial Day Weekend,  we hadn’t spotted a single cicada in my mother’s back yard. When we returned, even that area was a teeming hotbed of Brood X action. 

The big insects were everywhere. Perched, with plenty of company, on trees, flowers, foliage fences and outdoor furniture. Slogging through the grass in droves. Struggling on their backs, trying to right themselves on every paved surface. And flying, flying, flying. Careening clumsily into people and pets. It was the rare dog walk that didn’t require stopping to detach multiple cicadas from clothing or skin. They dotted car tires. They caused mechanical problems in the airplane that was to fly the White House press corps overseas for President Biden’s first European trip. And oh, the noise, noise, noise. It was especially loud in the heat of bright sunny days. It cascaded in great waves, building to a crescendo, then diminishing. Rising and falling, again and again. The most apt comparison is probably the rapidly pulsing sound made by UFOs in old sci-fi movies. Except instead of one small spindly flying saucer, there were millions. In the midst of the corporate choirs, nearby individual cicadas could also be distinguished.

We oversaw and enjoyed a wide variety of cicada encounters.  My daughter and I watched a cicada face off with a skink atop a pillar in our back yard.  As the striped lizard lay poised and motionless, the insect plodded over with typical Brood X unhurried determination.  Once a hair’s breadth of being nose-to-nose, the two eyed one another with what appeared to be careful consideration. Friend?  Foe?  Prey? Potential sex partner? Perhaps none of these options, the cicada calculated, then made a painstakingly slow three-point turn and proceeded in the opposite direction.  The skink remained perfectly immobile. 

I found one cicada with eyes of golden yellow instead of the usual bright red.  In 2004, a rare blue-eyed fellow dropped by our front porch, but we saw none this year.  A blue eyed cicada is statistically a one-in-a-million occurrence.   However, considering that up to 1.5 million members of Brood X may emerge per acre, encountering a blue-eyed one is more common than it sounds.   

One tree in my mother’s yard, a maple with leaves of greenish purple, hosted a veritable Brood X traffic jam.  During the first week of June, the insects were making their way up the trunk and into the bigger branches.  The next week, they were higher up in the smaller limbs that could be more easily sliced open by the females as they deposited their eggs. 

Our attempt at cicada-proofing the crepe myrtles.

These cicada-made slits at the ends of narrow branches cause them to weaken and break. Mature trees typically suffer no permanent damage, but younger,  smaller trees are more vulnerable.  We were concerned for the health of two crepe myrtles we planted a few years ago by my mother’s back deck.  Before we left for New York, my husband constructed a wooden framework around each tree that could be covered with screening, if needed.  Maybe it wouldn’t be necessary, we reasoned.  But when we returned to see the pronounced cicada activity on the adjacent maple, we proceeded with the screening.  As we see brown patches developing on surrounding trees,  and clumps of maple leaves littering our front yard, we’re glad we did. 

Brood X is still with us, but now in numbers that are drastically decreased.   The roar of the crowd has vanished, but the buzzing of a tardy few can still be heard.  These are the days of the stragglers, the late-bloomers, the procrastinators.  I have a special appreciation for the last of these awkward winged visitors.  After all, they won’t be back again for a long time. 

Looking at Brood X, Seeing Ourselves

Temperatures are climbing into the 90s here in the DC suburbs , and the cicadas are getting the message:  it’s time. The pace of their emergence is accelerating.  Each morning brings a bigger crowd of Brood Xers in various stages of their short above-ground lives. Yesterday, for the first time, we noticed that their characteristic buzzing could be heard in our neighborhood.  At first, it might be mistaken for the roar of highway traffic a few miles away, or heavy machinery droning in the distance.  Today it’s much louder.  Our daughter could hear the sound over the phone as I stood on the porch talking with her.  We were discussing the logistics of our attending her graduation ceremony tomorrow in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia.  The last appearance of Brood X coincided with her Kindergarten orientation.  Taking stock of one’s life in seventeen-year spans is a daunting exercise, one I may attempt in a future post. 

As our yard fills up with more cicadas, I notice that they seem smaller and more delicate than I remember.  Was it just because in our daughter’s little five-year old hands, the insects looked larger in 2004?  I don’t think so, because I saw them in my full-grown hands, then and now.  Is it that our our memories naturally tend toward exaggeration and hyperbole?  I don’t know.  I only know that I was expecting bulkier, more substantial creatures.  Those I’m seeing now seem almost dainty. 

Today in 2021, I’m struck by their vulnerability.   Maybe I feel this way simply because I’m older.  Or because the covid pandemic has kept reminding me, and all of us, for over a year, of life’s fragility.  I certainly don’t remember encountering so many struggling cicadas.  Repeatedly, I come across those having difficulty emerging from their shells.  They appear to be stuck, not quite in and not quite out.  Did the long spell of cooler-than-usual weather adversely affect their ability to molt?  Others have successfully exited their exoskeletons, but they’re physically challenged in various ways.  A wing is twisted, folded, malformed or too small.  I found one that appeared to be miniature in all aspects except for its head and eyes.  What a cutie it was, with a short body and tiny wings that looked to be edged with frills and coated in golden dust.  And all around, I see cicadas that appear to be perfectly formed, yet having considerable difficulty adjusting to the new life phase.  With every glance at our front porch, I see one or more flipped on its back, legs moving frantically in the air.  I see some that have lost half their body to a predator, yet continue, doggedly, to crawl.  Our lawn teems with nymphs and the newly molted attempting to maneuver through a hostile terrain of grass blades. I avoid walking through the yard, even though I want to check out the cicada action around our silver maples.  My husband debates how best to time his mowing of the lawn.  When will the  massacre it entails be less pronounced?    

A cicada with abbreviated body and wings.

I’m hoping that once the Brood X onslaught is in full force, there will be so many cicadas around that those facing hardship will be less evident.  With temperatures expected in the high 80s over the next week or so, we should soon be entering peak emergence.  Until then, though, I’ll continue to commiserate with all the struggling cicadas I see.  I will attempt to rescue some, just as I occasionally move a worm from the middle of the street.  It’s not that I place such an extraordinarily high value on the lives of these insects.  It’s not that I deem them more important than people.  Quite the opposite.  It’s that, in their struggles and frailties, I see those of humankind. In their vulnerability, as well as in their persistence, I see the human condition.  

This afternoon, on a very slow, hot walk with Kiko, I came across a cicada in the road. It looked healthy. I picked it up, and it buzzed vigorously in my hand. I took the perky little guy to a nearby tree, where he left my finger easily and began walking up the trunk with confidence. I saw, or imagined, a peppy spring in his step. This one would seize his hard-won day in the sun. I returned home feeling optimistic, for Brood X as well as for my human brothers and sisters.

Cicadas, Slowly but Surely

The cool weather here seems to have slowed our Brood X emergence. Since my initial cicada spottings on Monday, I’ve encountered only a few of the newly hatched insects. Yesterday evening, as I took one last walk in the yard before closing up for the night, I heard a rustling nearby on the silver maple. Two brown exoskeletons were attached to the bark. Just above them, a young, pale yellowish cicada was ever so slowly testing its legs. It bore the hallmark of the recently emerged, the two oblong black spots behind the eyes that suggest sunglasses or a carnival mask. The sound I heard, though, was coming from one of the skins. A closer inspection revealed that another insect was in the process of gradually freeing itself from its exoskeleton. It appeared to be a slow and laborious endeavor. No progress was apparent while I watched.

As the other cicada inched its way up the tree, the scratching sound continued, and the brown shell convulsed.

This morning, both shells were empty, and a newly winged, pale insect was beside them. The temperature is rising. This youngster should be in good company soon.

And They Emerge! Brood X Sightings Begin

They’ve been underfoot outdoors, all around us here in Northern Virginia, for seventeen years, leisurely sipping the sap from grass and tree roots. Most of that time, they’re in cozy tunnels eight to twelve inches below ground. About a month ago, they moved up closer to the surface, where they wait until the ground temperature feels right. I saw my first representatives of Brood X yesterday morning on my neighbor’s front steps. I spotted several more on our iron fence this afternoon. Today, there will likely be more. I know from past experience that our immediate area will soon be rich, almost beyond imagination, in cicadas.

In the next several weeks, it will become close to impossible to avoid the orange-veined brothers and sisters of Brood X. They’ll be everywhere, looking out onto this bright new world with their bulging red eyes. They’ll be moving slowly, if at all. Their large wings don’t seem to be quite big enough for their lumbering bodies, and their flight is awkward and haphazard. They apparently don’t spend enough time in a winged state to master the art of flying. I’m reminded of a new driver making a first clumsy attempt to drive a car with standard transmission.

Look down in non-grassy areas and you may see the perfectly round, dime-sized holes the cicadas leave when they emerge from their subterranean long-term leases.

You may see some cicada “chimneys,” as well.  These are the domed cylindrical mud towers the insects build atop their holes as protection during wet weather. 

Near dusk, you may see milky white, ghostly cicadas crawling across the ground.  These are the newly emergent nymphs, with as-yet undeveloped wings.

The nymphs find a perch on which to anchor themselves as they gradually shed their exoskeletons. These copper-colored shells will soon be omnipresent on tree trunks and branches. And then they’ll start to pile up around the bases of trees.

For a while, still, we can enjoy our friends from Brood X a few at a time, when they are at their endearing best. Appreciate this early stage. It won’t last long.

Applause for Spring’s ensemble Cast

As May begins, spring’s high quality production design continues unabated here in Northern Virginia. The season’s talented ensemble cast rarely misses a cue, despite unpredictable working conditions such as drastic shifts in temperature, a sudden hailstorm, and recent wild, gusty winds. The players function together beautifully, keeping the audience amused and all senses invigorated.

The Appalachian redbud by our back porch brought out a striking profusion of bright fuchsia jewel-like buds, just as we’ve come to expect.

Looking a bit like tiny pink chili peppers, the flowers glow with near iridescence in the afternoon sun.

The redbud takes an inventive approach to her adornment, sprouting small bouquets of varying sizes directly from her trunk. 

The little sassafras tree in our front yard was damaged last year by a heavy branch that fell from one of the silver maples. Nevertheless, she produced the annual show of frilly pale yellow flowers. Their lemony scent is subtle yet pervasive.

The camellia tucked into a corner at my mother’s house played her part with exuberance.  Her limbs were gracefully bowed down by an abundance of ruffled, boldly colored blossoms.  

The taller, grander daffodils in our front-yard patch took their time in blooming, letting the miniature Tête-a-têtes set the stage and enjoy their time in the limelight. When the big girls arrived, they were elegantly dressed in their Cinderella ball gowns.

The azaleas, among the season’s dependable stars, are just past peak bloom.  A coral pink variety is luminous in the early morning light. 

As heart-shaped leaves replace the blooms on the redbud, the spent flowers fall onto the creeping phlox below. 

Creeping phlox is known and admired for its carpet-like effect.  Together, the many little flowers, popping out from wiry foliage, can create a lovely cascade over a low wall in a rock garden.  But each bloom in itself is a miniature marvel.  Each flower has five delicate, double-lobed petals and a center resembling a tiny star or snowflake, with a ring of double markings surrounding bright yellow stamens.

And then there are the lilacs, the signature flower and fragrance of mid-spring.  I love lilacs. The petite, perfect, four-petaled blooms remind me of icing flowers my daughter and I used to squeeze out of a pastry bag to decorate cupcakes. I love the way they cluster together to form larger entities.  Each lilac bush is composed of communities of small flowers working together.  I’ve written before about my sentimental appreciation of lilacs.  They carry me back to childhood and my grandparents’ beloved old Kentucky home.  They remind me of living outside Princeton when my husband and I were newly married.  They’re a token of a dear friend, long gone from this world.  To me, they evoke home, happiness, and the warmth of belonging.   When I realized that lilac leaves were sprouting from the long gray stems of a previously unidentified shrub in the front yard of our house twenty years ago, it was another sign that we had moved to the right place.  That old lilac bush has had its ups and downs, and this is a down year.  With luck and a substantial pruning, it may be revitalized, as has happened before.  Two years ago, we planted another lilac in the back yard, and it has flowered beautifully.  A third near our porch is a later blooming variety.  A house surrounded by lilacs is truly home sweet home.

Spring’s final act will soon begin.  All around, the roses are budding, preparing  for their big scenes.  The peonies will follow shortly.  And this year, a special insect guest readies itself for an historic entrance.  For the past seventeen years, Brood X cicadas have been waiting underground in the wings (and for their wings), rehearsing for the literal role of a lifetime.  With each warm day, their emergence draws closer.  The season’s dependable cast of unique characters will take it all in stride.  The show must go on. 

 

For an earlier post on a favorite flower, see Lilacs, Lyric Hall, and June Bliss, May 1, 2012. 

Out with Kiko, as Morning Breaks

My dog Kiko turns fourteen this summer.  His face is now mostly white, but otherwise his appearance has barely changed since he reached adulthood.  He’s as lean and trim as always, and because of his small size relative to the Labs and Doodles prevalent in our neighborhood, he’s still occasionally mistaken for a puppy.  But recently he’s begun to show his age.  When descending the stairs, his back legs move stiffly, as though tied together with an invisible cord.  On walks, he’s considerably slower, especially on the way home.  Walking with our usual pack means little these days, because we’re quickly out of step and far behind.  Kiko has always set his own pace, paying scant attention to the fellow canines he sees regularly.  He’s a very social animal in that he wants to greet every new dog he meets (or even glimpses at a far distance) but after that initial encounter, he’s off on his own.  For many years he typically led our pack, despite frequent stops for extensive sniffing, but now, more frequently than not, he dawdles and dithers.  He rambles, he meanders, he doubles back, then stops absolutely, as though gripped by indecision. And once home, he spends the greater part of the day in a sound sleep. 

Kiko, sampling the copious smells of a vinca patch..

Kiko’s hearing seems to be less keen.  Has his sense of smell become more acute, to make up for the other loss?  Sometimes he appears overcome by the sheer volume and variety of aromas he’s attempting to untangle.  He has always preferred smells to the actual dogs or humans associated with them, but now the preference is more pronounced.  I’ve heard that as long as a dog can smell, a dog enjoys life.  According to this measure, Kiko is enjoying life immensely.  I find this thought comforting. 

Usually now, Kiko and I head out alone.  We’re a pack of two, just as we were during his puppyhood, before I had a number of friends with dogs.  We tend to walk early, soon after sun up.  We go then because the day is at its loveliest, and because it leaves me the option of joining my friends later.  If it’s socializing or exercise I want, it’s best to leave Kiko behind.  Of course, he doesn’t like this.  If he’s home, he wants me there, particularly after all the togetherness we’ve shared during the last pandemic year.  After we return from a walk, he eyes me suspiciously, like a jealous boyfriend.  I pretend to settle in at the computer, and soon he hops up into his bed.  I sneak out quietly if I go.  

I’ve come to appreciate walking alone with Kiko in the early mornings, though.  There is little to divert my attention from the pervasive beauty around us.  I’m attuned to the springtime world, which often glows in a rosy, golden light, especially when filtered through deep pink cherry blossoms and tangerine-hued maple buds.  The birds are at their most active and celebratory.  Kiko lingers, his nose at the base of a clump of daffodil foliage, takes a few hesitant steps, then pauses again, and again.  There is no point in rushing him.  I summon patience, and breathe in the sights and sounds of the sparkling new April day.   If I surrender to the moment, and release the urge to speed things up, I can sense the natural world regenerating and rejoicing.  I can be part of all this daily morning glory, because my odd, old dog brought me to it.  Together, we’re fellow creatures basking in “God’s recreation of the new day.”  The words and melody of Morning Has Broken* seem to float in the sweet-smelling air:

Morning has broken like the first morning;

Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.

Praise for the singing, praise for the morning!

Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!
 

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from Heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning;
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s recreation of the new day!

Kiko, sniffing, and sniffing, and sniffing some more.

*While Cat Stevens made this song famous, the words were written by Eleanor Farjeon in 1931, inspired by this verse of scripture from Lamentations 3:22-23: “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies begin afresh each morning.”  The tune is a traditional Scottish Gaelic one called “Bunessan.” 

Spring arrives. . .and time warps

These recent March days here in Northern Virginia have been cold, windy and sunny. It looks like spring but still feels very much like winter. This is the March I remember from Easter trips to visit my grandparents in Kentucky during my childhood. How different it was from March in Atlanta, where it usually had felt like June, humid and overly warm, off and on since February. I loved the Kentucky version. I remember the white and green speckled look of the slowly awakening grass, the clumps of daffodils dancing in the bracing chill, the fast-moving clouds against a brilliant blue sky. It felt exotic, yet it also felt like home.

And that’s why it feels so right to be here in Virginia during these frosty March days. As I sit at my desk, decades later, I look out on a landscape that evokes happy times long ago, of memories glimpsed and sensed, not fully seen. Much as when I look at my daughter and see both the little girl she once was and the young woman she has become, the co-mingling of past and present is especially tangible in the bright briskness of early springtime.

Spring in Virginia is typically slow-moving, a deliberate and measured progression. Each development can be fully appreciated in its own time. The first tiny green shoots among tangled vines stand out against winter’s dominant palette of brown and gray.

The aptly named Lenten roses have been blooming, amidst their lush green foliage, since February, impervious to the cold. With their bowed heads and subtle coloring, they’re the perfect floral expression of humility.

Crocuses, another early herald of the season, have been popping up for a couple of weeks now. Their small size and delicate appearance contrasts with their hardiness and stubborn determination. They push their way up into the light, through layers of dead leaves, and through the snow if necessary.

The first of the daffodils to bloom in our yard are always the tiniest ones. These spunky miniatures test the waters for their taller, grander sisters.

On a recent morning walk with our pack, we noticed a fresh, lemony fragrance in the air. The source was the yellow bell-like flowers of spiky mahonia, a plant I know well from Atlanta. By the time my mother relocated to Virginia, what had begun as a couple of isolated plantings in our back yard near the garage had developed into a veritable and formidable mahonia hedge. This is a shrub that requires no encouragement before seizing new territory.

Kiko enjoys these cold, sun-filled March days because they offer a wide variety of cozy choices for inside napping. This week I found him in a new spot. Until recently, the carpet beneath him had been rolled up in storage in my mother’s basement. For forty years or so, its location was the dining room of our Atlanta home. It was a favorite resting place of Popi, my childhood dog. (See here and here.) During family meals in the adjacent kitchen, Popi would lie on the rug, his head facing away from us, partly because we taught him not to beg at the table, and partly because he had too much pride to do so. Because I’ve noticed that Kiko, as he ages, tends to slip on bare hardwood floors, the carpet is now in our Virginia dining room. Seeing him lying there on that old familiar rug, I see sweet Popi, as well.

Popi in the dining room in Atlanta, December 1971.

The earth turns and tilts on its axis. Spring comes. The past is alive within the present. I can feel it outside in the chill of the breeze and the warmth of the sun. See it in the radiant grass around the old silver maples. Smell it in the fragrance of mahonia. And sense it in the calming presence of my sleeping dog. Is it 1971 or 2021? Somehow, it’s both.

Popi enjoys a rawhide from his stocking on Christmas morning 1970. Our family rarely took photos except at Christmas.
Popi, at his endearing best, 1970.