Pampas Grass in Autumn

The pampas grass stands tall and proud in the late fall fields and gardens,
strong still before the bitter winds of winter come.
Deceptive beauty its game,
the feathery silver plumes wave softly in the breeze.
Its razor-sharp leaves send a message defending against a truth
that it will be dormant soon after the frost comes.

Thriving both here in a northern garden
and in the pampas of South America,
it’s oblivious to damp soil or rocky areas,
adapting easily to all surroundings,
its height only part of its power.
Clinging in tussocks, it gains strength in unity.

It’s a mixture of good and bad, they say,
like so many of us.
Praised for its ornamental beauty,
(the female plant showier than the male),
but maligned as a prolific, invasive spreader,
it has learned to survive despite adversity.

Subtle weapons ready,
the filmy plumes of the pampas grass
offer to mankind a silent lesson in resilience.

Photo Elwood W. McKay III


Spider Web Artistry

One recent morning while enjoying a cup of coffee in the living room, I suddenly saw what looked like a string hanging from the ceiling.  Then I noticed the small black spider dangling from the bottom.  If you have never watched a spider spinning a web, you should.

If my elderly mother had been present, she would have jumped up in panic and run for her shoes to whack it one.  She has an incredible fear of all things spider-like.  Recently, she saw one in her bathroom, a spider she claims was enormous in size and apparently deadly.  She raced out of the bathroom to get a shoe to attack it, ran back in and chased it around before slipping on the bathroom rug, falling, and hitting her head on the edge of the sink.  She was ecstatic at her kill and nonchalant about the huge bruise on her forehead.  I made her go to the doctor who tried to impress upon her the danger of a fall at her age.  He filled her in on the horrific consequences of a broken hip, the required stay in a nursing home and inevitable death from pneumonia.  Did any of that impress her?  Not a bit.  She just smiled and repeated her story that this was a huge spider that had the potential to kill her more quickly than a fall involving a head injury.

That morning as I pointed out to my husband that a small spider was in the process of spinning his web downward toward the coffee table, he quietly got up, went into the kitchen to get a paper towel, walked back to the living room and wrapped up the little critter before he reached the table.  My husband then carefully and slowly walked over to the sliding glass door, opened it up, and gently laid the spider down on the deck.  I have no idea what might have been going through the mind of the spider at the time.  I don’t even know if spiders have a mind, at least maybe not the kind of mind that would question a sudden interruption in the spinning process, or wonder why his nice, warm environment suddenly became the cold autumn air and the solid wood of the deck beneath his legs.   I’d like to think he just shrugged his shoulders (I don’t really know if spiders have shoulders either) and went about his day.

This spider was certainly luckier than that huge, ugly, black toxic spider in my mother’s bathroom that morning, although he did manage to achieve a certain insidious revenge by causing my mother’s fall.  I am really convinced that all life is worth sparing, and the artful spider who spins a delicate web so gracefully in our presence can add a sense of wonder to our days if we only allow it.

Snow Fell Too Early in Upstate New York

Before the first frost iced the few remaining garden flowers, before the maple leaves could finish changing from green to red and orange, before Halloween was over with its smashed pumpkins and toilet paper tree décor, snow fell in upstate New York.  It was far too early and not exactly as predicted, since our local meteorologists forecast snow mainly in the higher elevations.  So now I feel a little more unsure about the next predicted storm tomorrow afternoon into Sunday, one of those coastal storms that occur usually after Thanksgiving and sometimes not even before Christmas.

The thing is, I really like the first snowfall of the year.  I like the way the snow weighs down the pine branches, forming a canopy over the roads.  I like when the sun shines on the powdery surfaces of the ground and sparkles the edges of the pines.

But I’m not ready.  I’m not ready to let go of autumn just as I was beginning to enjoy the falling leaves, the pumpkin patches, and the apple crop.  The stores seem to be ready, however, having displayed Christmas trees and ornaments during the last few weeks.  I don’t know why we rush the seasons.  I don’t know why we don’t get to immerse ourselves completely in each one before the next arrives.  I don’t like being unprepared.

Still, I’m not going to put my wreath on the front door or buy my Christmas cards yet.  I’m not going to be drawn in to the beautiful ornaments adorning the trees in Michaels or A.C. Moore or Macy’s or the malls.  I have yet to think about a turkey for Thanksgiving and I have no idea where my snow brush is or my scraper.  I would rather sit looking out my sliding glass doors at the squirrels racing around the garden and the woodpeckers searching for bugs in the dead pine trees.  I like watching the snow melt into the still-soft ground, uncovering the leaves waiting expectantly to be raked up into piles.  I long for autumn to linger a while.  I want it to rage against the onslaught of winter snow and icy mornings.  I want to hear the crunch of leaves under my feet and smell the first smoky fires from neighborhood chimneys.  I want to hold tightly on to the remaining October days before I am thrown headlong into the frenzy of the holidays.  I am not ready yet for winter in New York.

The Magic of Milkweed

Memories connect to current moments in unexpected ways.  This week as I was driving on the rural roads near my house, I noticed the fading colors of the autumn leaves and the fields of milkweed along the side of the road, the pods splitting open to reveal their silky fluff within.   I suddenly remembered the first time I discovered the magic of milkweed.

My sister and I were walking through the fields near our house one Saturday morning in October when we spied among the drying weeds some plants with pods on them.  We opened the pods and discovered the fluffy white fibers inside.  The milky liquid from the leaves was sticky on our fingers.  We pulled out the fluff and scattered it in the wind.  We were children discovering the magic of milkweed for the first time.

Like nearly everything in nature, there is so much more to learn about milkweed beyond a first encounter.  Its name, Asclepias, is from the Greek god of healing and the roots were used as medicine.  The leaves are arranged in a specific pattern.  Each pair of leaves is at right angles to the next pair, so if one pair points east and west, the pair above and below point north and south.    The leaves are the only food of the caterpillar of the monarch butterfly.  The milk is bitter and one drop can make your thumb and fingers cling together like rubber cement.  The blossoms turn into pods with a seam along one side which pops open when the pod becomes ripe and dry.  Inside is a “parachute” of silky fibers, often used by birds for their nests.  The seeds are carried away by the wind to become new plants.

During World War II, the milkweed had some surprising purposes.  The liquid from the leaves and stems was used when there was a scarcity of natural rubber from rubber trees.  The silky fluff from the pods was gathered by children and processed as a substitute for kapok to pad life jackets and flying suits.

I didn’t know any of this as a child.  All I knew was what a miracle it was to walk through the dry fields in October and discover the milkweed growing there.  What a miracle it was to split open the dry pod and pull out the white fluff inside, feel the softness and the lightness of it, and watch as the winds of autumn carried the threads away in the crisp fall air.  Whenever I see milkweed now, when I see the pods partly open, their insides spilling out, I am a child again, innocent of the ways this weed contributed so much to mankind during wartime, innocent of the ways it gives life to the monarch butterfly and soft nesting to birds.  I know only of the miracle before me that can transform the chaos of every day into one moment to treasure.





A quiet sadness settles into the garden this morning,
A forlorn, end-of-life grief.
Roses once entwined in the trellis,
Their crimson petals peeking through the openings,
Now stripped of their beauty.
Impatiens with their salmon, deep rose, and pale pink petals
Have  thrived all summer in the shade under the pines,
Now close to gone,
Green leaves hiding a few lingering blooms.

But there, anchoring the edge of the garden,
There in the corner remains the glory of the coleus–
Painted nettle–
Its burgundy, velvety foliage outlined perfectly in pale green,
Determined, strong,
As lovely now as in its summer beauty,
Surrounded by a blanket of rusty brown pine needles.
No need for colorful blooms,
Its foliage all the show.
Not ready yet to let go,
Like the way we all hang on at the end,
Reluctance within our veins.

The coleus will die with the first frost.
It most likely knows that will come.
But for now,
For today,
On this cool October morning
Mid the languishing remnants
Of summer heat and cooling rain showers,
The coleus brings a moment of hope
Into the dying of nature.

© Barbara Flass 2011

Ladybug, Ladybug

Ladybug, Ladybug

The jar sat on the kitchen counter
Surrounded by sippy cups,
Coffee receipts, stray barrettes,
Small dolls and parts of toys,
The paraphernalia of daily life
With two small children.

During breakfast the jar
Was a nauseating distraction from
Bowls of cereal and
Glasses of milk
And cups of coffee,
Fifteen hundred ladybugs
Crawling around inside
Moving up and around each other
As they sought out the food
At the bottom of the jar.

The conversation several days earlier
Between the two six-year-olds
Probably went something like this:

“Do you like ladybugs?”
“I love ladybugs!”

And so the birthday gift emerged,
A jar of ladybugs to be released
Into the garden at dusk
To eat the aphids,
To move along the damp earth
To freedom.

Freedom also for those within
Whose breakfast would now
Involve a less squeamish sight–
A view from the wall of windows
Of the sunrise over the mountains
That surrounded the gardens
Where the ladybugs now moved
And did their work.
Nature as it should be.

© Barbara Flass 2011

Autumn Visit to California: A Lesson in Today’s Frantic Parenting

The week we just spent in California was different from a week at home in New York in ways too numerous to mention completely.   The weather was definitely better since it apparently rained in New York every day we were gone.  When we walked out of the Burbank airport, heat hit us immediately, the bright sun and pure blue sky replacing the grayness of New York.

I love the beauty of California, but I knew we would be returning to cool autumn mornings and the brilliant oranges and reds of falling leaves.  Still we managed to experience a bit of fall during our visit in California.

While we were there, my daughter and her husband threw a birthday party for their oldest daughter who had just turned six.   Sixty-two guests came to the event at a local farm where there were hay rides, pony rides, corn mazes, and an animal feeding area with goats and sheep and other farm animals.  There were games and bouncy houses and the never-to-be-forgotten cow train.  Late September and early October in California has a lot in common with New York.

What is very different is the pace, a pace that is a challenge for retired grandparents whose days are more leisurely.  My daughter’s schedule is frenetic.  She has to drive her oldest daughter to school every day and pick her up.  Her two-year-old has music class one morning, Gymboree one morning, and a mommy and me class two mornings.  Her six-year-old has dance class once a week, karate twice a week, gymnastics once a week, a religious education class once a week, and soccer every Saturday.  Every day is a mad dash somewhere.

While I was rushing around with my daughter, I tried to remember how I managed with my own two daughters when they were the same age.  I know they had swimming lessons, dance classes, piano lessons, religious education classes, gymnastics, t-ball, Indian Princesses, and Brownies.  I obviously ran around just as much.  What I remember now that time has passed is not the fatigue and frantic need to get somewhere on time but the way the activities helped my daughters develop physical strength, coordination, discipline, and confidence.  I think the sacrifices I made to get my daughters to all these activities helped them become successful, mature adults.  The goal of parenting for any generation seems to be to offer to our children as many opportunities for success and fun as we can cram into each day.  It’s a lofty goal.  It was probably more fun for me to watch my granddaughters at these activities than it was for my daughter who was most likely thinking of errands she still needed to run and what she could make for dinner.  Still, watching my oldest granddaughter play soccer and excel at karate and watching the little one play with Play-Doh and paint at an easel for the first time lifted my heart and also made me sad that these moments are all too rare.   California is just too far from New York for many visits.

Parenting today seems so much more stressful than when my daughters were young.  I had my parents, grandparents, and sister nearby to help when I needed it.  My daughter has no family nearby.  She and her husband are on their own, and every day is exhausting for them.  Maybe grandparents become even more special when they are seldom seen, at least that is what I am telling myself.  I can still feel my youngest granddaughter hugging my arm as I sat next to her in the car and coming up behind me in the kitchen, wrapping her arms around my leg, and resting her head on me.  I can remember the way it felt to lie next to my oldest granddaughter and read to her every night, giving her a hug and kiss before bedtime.  I remember how she ran into the house the day we left and threw herself on her bed crying hysterically because we had to leave.

There may be miles and miles between California and New York, but there is very little distance between my heart and the hearts of my granddaughters.  Our visits may be far apart, but love knows no distance.  I love autumn in New York, but I was so grateful for the chance to experience the same season in California, even if there wasn’t an orange or red leaf anywhere to be seen.  And the best part of all was experiencing a California autumn with my grandchildren by my side.