What are my wildflowers trying to tell me?

When I was a child, lilies of the valley bloomed prolifically along the side of my grandmother’s house, tiny pure white bells hanging from enormous green leaves, a wild weed to some but loved by my grandmother and me.

Abundant iris and gladiolas bloomed in my other grandmother’s garden, tall spikes of purple and white iris and multi-colored gladiolas along the rock wall between our houses, blooms that became gifts to my childhood teachers, wrapped in wet paper towels and aluminum foil and carried proudly in my small hands to school.

Roses bloomed everywhere in my mother’s garden, pale and deep pinks, light yellows, brilliant reds, their fragrance wafting in the summer air and through the screen door of our kitchen.

I have no talent for growing and tending flowers.  Dead-heading, watering, feeding are all sporadic activities for me.  Yesterday just when I was awaiting the blooming of my climbing rose, I watched as a squirrel climbed the trellis and chomped off the lone bud as his breakfast.

My best success as a gardener requires little from me.  Years ago my daughter bought me one of those blankets of wildflowers.  I put it in the backyard, expecting little of it.  I neglect it every year, and every year it surprises me with its abundance.  There are white Shasta daisies and tall, spindly pink flowers, yellow buttercups, and blue chicory.  They bloom in succession, new colors every few weeks throughout the summer.  They spread from their origin into my neighbor’s yard, fortunately someone who loves them.  Nothing holds them back.  They ask nothing of me except my appreciation for their independence.  They seem to have a gentle strength, a confidence that they will be there for me year after year.

They compensate for the once beautiful pot of white-edged deep purple petunias on my front porch, now nothing but a pot of green leaves.  They make up for the hanging basket of deep pink impatiens, only temporarily in full bloom.  They give me hope as I watch the squirrel chomping on the lone bud of my climbing rose bush.

Nature teaches us lessons.  I like this one.  Wildness covets neglect.


The Swans in May

It was May when a pair of mute swans came to the lake, making their home in a marsh along the northern end.  This was a rare appearance for upstate New York, normally too far north for such birds.  ( It was later thought that they were instead trumpeter swans, but they are so close in beauty and majesty, it hardly matters.)  They were lovely, pure white, majestic, graceful, and a little out of place in the swampy water.  The lake was named after its shape–Round Lake.  Two-thirds of the lake is rimmed with trees; along the remaining third is a two-lane highway that runs along the base of the Victorian village of  Round Lake.

A small boat launch and pebbly beach draw a few swimmers and boaters, but most of the time the lake is quiet.  In May it’s too early for much activity.  In autumn, sunrise over the lake brings bright rays of orange filtering through banks of fog.  In winter ice and snow bring skaters, snowmobilers, and ice fishermen.  In spring the ice begins the break up into patches of inky water which soon changes to deep blue and then clears into smoothness.  I love the lake.  I’m fortunate because for years I had to take the road past the lake to get to work.   It always started my day with beauty and ended it with peace.

A few years ago the peace gave way to lines of cars parked along the guardrails and spectators–men, women, families with children, the old and the young– all looking out over the lake at something I could not see.  For days I watched curiously from my car as I drove by, but on the fourth day I knew I had to stop.  I edged close to a young man holding a child in his arms and pointing eastward.

“See?  There,”  he whispered in the child’s ear.  “Between those clumps of weeds.”

I followed the direction in which he was pointing.  There was the most beautiful white swan I had ever seen, resting on what looked like a muskrat den.

“There are four eggs in the nest,” the man explained to me.  “There were five.  She’s trying to hatch them.  And out there, through those trees, is the father.”

Sure enough, out on  the lake swam another swan, not far form his mate.  I was unable to leave.  I wanted to watch this forever, but after about ten minutes I pulled myself away from the rail and walked quietly back to my car.

During the next few weeks, I stopped every afternoon after work.  There was always someone there, and they seemed to know exactly what was happening.  An officer from the Department of Environmental Conservation was apparently filling everyone in on the drama unfolding on the lake.  There was a problem with the eggs.  So far none had hatched.  The number dwindled to two, and then to one.  Matched for life, these two swans were joined together in the greatest miracle of all–creating new life.  They were also joined in one of life’s greatest sorrows–life that would never be.  No eggs hatched.  The next week the swans left the lake.

The following spring I began to look for the swans again, long before white ice melted into the jagged-edged circles of black.  I longed to see them.  For some reason they represented hope to me.  A few miles north of the lake my father lay dying from cancer.  The pair of swans, mates for life, reminded me of the kind of love my parents had for each other.  Just like the eggs that never hatched, there would be no more years ahead for my parents to share.  If only the swans would return, I could hope for a miracle.

But the swans did not return and no miracle came.  In May, the same month I had first seen the swans, my father died.  I still search the lake in spring, slowing down when I get to the swamp where the muskrat den had been.  I’m not ever sure what I am looking for anymore–maybe the swans, maybe something else.  The lake seems lonely without them, even though they were there for a brief time.  Somehow the loss of my father and the absence of the swans in May have become linked in my memory, and I cannot drive by the lake any longer without a twinge of pain and regret that the joys of life are always mixed with sorrow.

(See post “Trumpeter Swans,” April 6, 2011)

Orange Flurry

Orange Flurry

Butterfly wings slice the air
moving in the softness of a breeze
black-edged orange blizzard in indigo sky.

Fragile wings velvety bold
defying the enemy
seeking sweetness.

A blur of wings
soft maneuvers against all odds
a flurry that sings.

A touch on skin can bring
to souls that seek elusive peace
hope for the journey yet to come.

© Barbara Flass 2000

The monarch butterfly goes through four generations in the span of a year.  The life span of the first three generations is only two to six weeks, but the fourth generation that flies south in the fall to warmer climates lives six to eight months.  The migration north of this fourth generation in the spring is a miraculous journey.


Yesterday’s Wind

Yesterday’s Wind

Yesterday’s wind pushed on by the cold front moving through
Changed the character of the woods I walk through every day.
The dirt road leading from the paved one to the reservoir
is quiet now,
Devoid of utility trucks
Or wild youth on dirt bikes
Or dog walkers like me.

I know these woods well,
Once a place of beauty,
Now spoiled by human touch.
A plastic Pepsi bottle rests in the muddy runoff from yesterday’s storm.
A worn orange sofa missing one cushion
is toppled on its side.
A piece of broken white plastic pipe sits on the path that veers off to the right.
Yesterday a navy blue t-shirt lay in a heap by the Pepsi bottle.
Today it’s gone.

Mystery lingers here in the woods.
Minuscule changes in nature have occurred since yesterday’s storm,
Changes not human.
A branch, alive yesterday, clinging to the strength of the tree trunk,
Rests today loose on the ground, leaves drying.
Above it, a curly strip of birch bark is wrapped incongruously around
A pine branch,
Wind driven, now isolated, detached where once it had a purpose.
Chipmunk holes open up to the cool morning air.
Life underground and above ground continues along its own path.

Changes came in on yesterday’s wind
And the woods are not the same,
Familiar yet not,
Like the daily flow of one’s life.

© Barbara Flass 2011


A Minor Key

One spring a few years ago, a bird outside my bedroom window sang his morning song in a minor key.  It was six notes–three and then another three–with a quicker rhythm in the second set.  I never again heard this song sung in exactly the same way, but I listen for it every spring.

Robert Frost in his  poem “A Minor Bird”  regrets shooing away a bird whose song is not as sweet and melodic as others.  Music in a minor key, such as some of Beethoven’s sonatas, usually evokes sadness.   I think we need to connect to that sadness at times.  It helps us deal with our hidden emotions that we may try to cover up in the course of our day.

What’s interesting to me about poetry is the way poets write about the world around them in metaphor and the way they use their heightened powers of observation to enable others to see the world in a new way.  I used to tell my students when they claimed they had nothing to write about that a poet could see an ant slowly crawling across a patio and create an unforgettable image about it.  The rest of the world might not even notice the ant or might just step on it and go about their day.  The poet would make us stop our frantic pace in life and be inspired by the determination of an ant to carry a crumb of food to a far destination.

Spring comes every year for me accompanied by the hope that I might once again hear the bird’s morning song in a minor key the way it was that one April morning when waking up was made so much more joyful by the music outside my window.


Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans

Every time spring arrives at the lake,
I glance at the tall reeds
along the swampy shore
looking for the swans.

There were once there,
a pair of them and their nest,
waiting for the eggs to hatch,
waiting for new life.

I remember it well
because it was the spring you died,
and I remember how no eggs hatched,
how new life did not come.

I remember how the swans left
soon after you left me fatherless,
before I could say to you
all the words I wanted to
but after all the words I regret.

The swans never returned,
but still every spring I watch for them,
waiting for forgiveness,
for a sign that new life will come again.


February Turkeys III

By now you might be tired of hearing about turkeys.  I am becoming obsessed with them.  Today we are getting a blizzard, creating a very difficult time for the turkeys.  They arrived in our backyard at their usual breakfast time, only to discover the snow had covered any remaining seed on the ground.  They huddled together, snow covering their feathers at a rapid rate.

I couldn’t stand to watch them.  I put on my boots and coat, grabbed a shovel and a bag of seed, and went out to the back yard, slogging through six inches of newly-fallen snow.  As soon as they saw me, they headed back into the woods.  I shoveled a path and scattered the black sunflower seeds on the ground in several places along the path.   Then I went back inside, hoping they would return.

After an hour, I checked the yard and there they were.  The problem was they were too far back in the woods.  They didn’t find the seed, although they seemed to be looking for it.  Then they headed back into the woods again.

I guess turkeys aren’t particularly intelligent, but I was truly disappointed that my efforts were for nothing.  The rapidly accumulating snow covered the seeds within the hour, and there was nothing more to do until the snow stopped.

Winters in upstate New York can be dreary and depressing.  This winter has been one of the worst ones in recent years.  Still I’ll take my entertainment wherever I can find it.  I have learned quite a bit about wild turkeys that I never knew before.  When the snow disappears, hopefully in a month or so, we will stop feeding them and let them seek  their own food.  That is when I suppose they will no longer be around for us to watch.  But I will certainly be on the lookout for them next winter, and I’ll be prepared with an adequate supply of food for all our woodland creatures.