Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Is there any yellow more intense than the bright, explosive yellow of a forsythia in bloom? A passionate yellow so brilliant it almost hurts the eye to stare into a mass of it's deeply four-lobed flowers. Not so orange as a dandelion and more yellow than a buttercup, it towers on slender stems up to a dozen feet long, each festooned with countless dazzling blooms—a luminous yellow spray, like a mix of fire and lightning.

One of the first things I did when I moved in here to this stone cottage beside the river was plant a couple of forsythias. My only regret is that I didn't put out a dozen. In the few years they've had, that pair of forsythia bushes have grown substantially, and now dominate the edge of the drive just below the road. In summer and autumn, they're just another large clump of green. In winter they become a massed scribble of tall, gently curving lines. But in early spring…oh, my! The forsythia pair overnight transform into a vivid vernal fountain—extraordinary, powerful, a potent seasonal cadmium yellow announcement that lights up a dark corner in the garden and simply dominates the landscape.   

My old friend Frank used to say that spring wouldn't arrive until you'd seen snow on the forsythia's blooms. Here in Ohio, more years than not his dictum proves true. Typically, the forsythia begans blooming somewhere between the crocus and the daffodils. And in a normal year, you can expect at least a blustery snow or two—winter's last hurrah—to arrive during that period.

But not this year! Not when we've had no real winter, only an extend autumn. Not when most of March and a good deal of February sported temperatures in the seriously unseasonable 60s to mid-70s˚ range. Not when we've set record highs for days running, and may wind up experiencing the warmest winter on record. Not when we've already had days—before the equinox and thus still officially winter—topping 80˚F!

Nope, this year the daffodils beat the forsythia in the bloom race. Snow is not in the forecast, though sunburn this afternoon is quite possible. But it doesn't matter, not in regards to the great, uplifting delight—the sheer seasonal joy!—I receive every time I look up the hill and see that sensational yellow. 

Forsythia yellow. The brightest yellow in all of spring!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Myladylove discovered this little queen snake when we were giving the yard a spring clean-up Sunday. It's the first snake I've seen this year—and I've been looking, considering the incredibly warm days we've had, many in the mid- to upper-70s˚F. 

Queen snakes, Regina septemvittata, are are small, shy, and completely harmless creatures. If you elect to handle one, about the worst they can do to you is discharge a rather malodorous musk. I picked this one up after taking a few photos; it wasn't exactly thrilled, but wasn't upset enough to give me a shot of stink. As snakes go, they're pretty docile.  

A big specimen might push two feet, but most will measure between a foot and eighteen inches. This one was probably close to sixteen inches, and no larger in diameter than my ring finger. I think their color and pattern is quite lovely. They look a lot like garter snakes, but unlike garters, have dark, ventral stripes. 

A type of water snake, queens are never found far from clean-running streams that have a stone or gravely bottom. That's because they feed almost exclusively on crawfish, which themselves require rocky, clean running water. They're therefore a good indicator species of high-quality water—and speaking as an Ohio stream fisherman, a good indicator of a potentially excellent smallmouth bass stream, since crawfish and bronzebacks are practically inseparable. The queen snake Myladylove uncovered below a pile of leaves in a flower bed, was perhaps thirty feet from the river. 

I was glad to see this first queen of the new year—not only as another indicator of just how far the season has progressed, but because I appreciate and enjoy having queen snakes around. And I'm always happy to know my neighbors have made it through the winter.

Monday, March 19, 2012


I wandered lonely as a cloud 
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd, 
A host, of golden daffodils…

William Wordsworth, "The Daffodils"

I think there's a literary rule somewhere that says it's obligatory to begin any piece on daffodils with the above quote from Wordsworth. Indeed, these first few lines from one of the English's language's finest nature-cognizant lyrical poets, are counted among his best-known works, and have been quoted for generations around the globe. 

A couple of posts back I mentioned that the daffodils are starting to bloom around the cottage. Friend and frequent commenter, Astra (AfromTO) said she'd like to see some daffodil shots to better put her in a spring mood. I agreed to deliver. I have lots of daffodils just starting to bloom, with many more to come, in a dozen different sizes and colors, since every autumn I plant a few hundred additional bulbs. 

Yet while the beloved old bard of the Lake District is not the only one to have written about daffodils, an astonishing number of poems by other well-known poets employ these lovely spring flowers as a symbol of loss, sadness, heartbreak, death. After reading a dozen or two of these depressing works, your first impulse might be to dash outside and rip every flower and bulb from the earth, fling them into the trash, and replace each with some alternate object at least as cheery as a lump of coal. I did consider scrapping the quotes notion. Then I remembered that a poet's job is to be introspective which, given the somber nature of much of life's view, should probably cause you expect many of their subsequent literary results  to be gloomy, desolate, haunted. Truth is a tough mistress, and it take an unusually unquenchable and indomitable spirit to not not wallow in the darkness and mess whenever you finally put pen to paper.

Let the poets deal with the bleak and somber, the heartbreaking and melancholy, the dire, dismal, and doleful. I trust the photos show that I'm of the glass half-full perspective—the bubbly, cheery, can't-keep-me-down-for-long school who delights in the vernal beauty of these lovely flowers. I tend to agree with A. A. Miline: "A house with daffodils in it is a house lit up, whether or no the sun be shining outside." 

Daffodils shout spring…and spring is my favorite time of year. 

When a daffodil I see,
Hanging down his head towards me,
Guess I may what I must be:
First, I shall decline my head;
Secondly, I shall be dead;
Lastly, safely buried.

Robert Herrick, "Divination By A Daffodil"

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain'd his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.

Robert Herrick
, "To Daffodils"

What matter if the sun be lost?
What matter though the sky be gray?
There's joy enough about the house,
For Daffodil comes home to-day.

There's news of swallows on the air,
There's word of April on the way,
They're calling flowers within the street,
And Daffodil comes home to-day.

O who would care what fate may bring,
Or what the years may take away!
There's life enough within the hour,
For Daffodil comes home to-day.

Bliss Carman, "Daffodil's Return"

That come before the swallow dares, and take 
The winds of March with beauty…

William Shakespeare, "The Winter's Tale" 

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, 
and quiet breathing.…Such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make…

——John Keats,"The Necessity of Poetry"

in time of daffodils (who know
the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why, remember how...

e.e. cummings, "in time of daffodils"

Then the face of night is fair in the dewy downs 
And the shining daffodil dies.

Lord Alfred Tennyson, "Maud"

O Love-star of the unbeloved March, 
When cold and shrill, 
Forth flows beneath a low, dim-lighted arch 
The wind that beats sharp crag and barren hill, 
And keeps unfilmed the lately torpid rill! 

Sir Aubrey de Vere, "Ode to the Daffodil"

Thou yellow trumpeter of laggard Spring!
Thou herald of rich Summer's myriad flowers!
The climbing sun with new recovered powers
Does warm thee into being...

Amy Lowell, "To an Early Daffodil" 
What ye have been ye still shall be 
When we are dust the dust among, 
O yellow flowers! 

——Henry Austin Dobson, "To Daffodils"

There is a tiny yellow daffodil,
The butterfly can see it from afar,
Although one summer evening's dew could fill
Its little cup twice over, ere the star
Had called the lazy shepherd to his fold,
And be no prodigal.

Oscar Wilde, "The Burden of Stys"

The daffodil is our doorside queen;
She pushes upward the sword already,
To spot with sunshine the early green.

——William Cullen Bryant, "An Invitation to the Country"
It is daffodil time, so the robins all cry, 
For the sun's a big daffodil up in the sky, 
And when down the midnight the owl calls "to-whoo!"
Why, then the round moon is a daffodil too; 
Now sheer to the bough-tops the sap starts to climb, 
So, merry my masters, it's daffodil time.

 ——Clinton Scollard, "Daffodil Time"

Friday, March 16, 2012



Nature holds many lessons…and two of the most profound are the fleetingness of time and the overlooked beauty of the commonplace. Both can be observed in a lilac bud. 


I've been making images of the buds on a small lilac bush at the corner of the cottage for a couple of weeks. It's astonishing how they've changed in so short a period—and to me, astonishing how beautiful these fingertip-sized buds can be when you take a moment to look close. 


The first three photos are all of the same bud. The top (1) was made today. Image (2) was made two weeks ago. I shot the one on the right (3) last week. Dormant, greening, opened—all in the space of a few days. Amazing.


All the other shots—(4, 5, 6)—were taken today. I may make more before it's over, because I want to keep pounding the lesson into my own foolish, neglectful head…that every day I miss far more than I see, disregarding the wonders of the commonplace and failing to see their beauty, though they are there in abundance, practically at my doorstep.

I hope you like the photos—but even more, I hope you get out and take a few moments to look at a bud or two yourself. Because that's the other part of the lesson…time never waits.


Thursday, March 15, 2012


One of my favorite hellebores growing in a nearby garden. 
I've just rolled the trash toter up the hill to the road for it's pickup later this morning. Though it's not her chore, Myladlove, who finds it near impossible to waste a moment when she knows there are tasks to do, had already carted the recyclable box up while I fixing our breakfast. It's still dark out, thanks to last weekend's switch to daylight savings time, and Moon-the-Dog's white coat glowed like foxfire on an old log as she sat in the middle of the driveway, patiently watching my progress. One practical blessing about a mostly white dog is that you're less likely to trip over them at night. 

There were clouds in the sky, though it wasn't as fully overcast as I'd expected, given the prediction of rain throughout today. A neat half-slice of moon, like a pale section of citron, rode high overhead and here and there a star winked above the sycamores. Birds, just awakening and still on the sleepy side, twittered and tried snatch of song.

If the rain doesn't materialize, or isn't too heavy, I'm going out for a photo ramble within the hour. The soft light will be great for close-up images. I want to check a patch of woods just up the road for early wildflowers, and then drive another half mile to a woodland garden to make a few shots of the hellebores and daffodils which carpet the steep hills. My own daffodils are popping out everywhere around the yard. Plus I'm thinking of planting hellebores on the shady slope below the road.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


The sun has just made it over the hill up the road from the cottage. Yellow-gold light is now varnishing the high tops of the tall sycamores on the island. There's not a cloud in the sky and the weatherman says we'll reach 77˚F this afternoon!

What a glorious day!

I've been up since 4:45, took Moon-the-Dog out, made coffee for me, tea for Mylady, fixed our breakfast, and by 6:00 a.m. was here, at my desk, plugging away at the first draft of a column. It was still dark beyond the window, but even so, the robins were beginning to stir. Every so often one would cut loose with a few swinging bars of their distinctive morning song—and while night lost its hold and black turned to gray as the burgeoning dawn found it way, the song of the robins became louder, bolder, longer, the building light being magically translated and poured out in their reflected joy.

I love robins, love their straightforward, joyous song. They sing with such unbridled enthusiasm! As if their hearts have simply swollen and finally bubbled over with pure melody—too glorious to be held back and contained until dawn. And so they sing their good news into the darkness, a boisterous proclamation of vernal triumph. A singing robin is truly spring personified, lyrical proof-positive of the season's arrival.

Friday, March 9, 2012


Okay, you real bird experts…I need help. 

A few minutes ago the above hawk flew in and paused a moment in the big box elder tree near the door. I was sitting at my writing desk finishing up a column, grabbed the camera I always keep handy, and managed to squeeze off only a few frames before the bird departed. 

The image above—cropped from the original—is the best of the lot…and I'll be the first to admit as a diagnostic portrait, it isn't much good. Certainly not good enough that I can be sure of calling it right. (The pix should enlarge when you double-click—not that a bigger view helped me much.) 

It was definitely one of the buteo species, large and typically bulky. I'd say—having seen numerous Cooper's hawks in the same tree—an overall length of 20 inches. The eye was definitely red rather than yellow. The feather coloration was quite reddish, as you can see in the photo. The tail was as oddly short as it appears. 

My best guess is a red-shouldered. Somehow it just didn't quite look like a red-tailed, though I'd be hard-pressed to explain why. And it seemed a bit too burley for a broad-winged, and too reddish. But I'd like to know what you think.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Yesterday, which unfolded into a glorious day drenched in sunshine with balmy temperatures that felt more like May than March, I visited a favorite riverine woodland a mile or so up the road. The freshet-full stream nearby hummed merrily along. Bankside willow tangles seemed filled with whistling cardinals. A stately heron wade-fished the murky shallows. 

Yet it wasn't birds that drew me. Rather, I came here, as I do each year, because of the winter aconites which carpet the earth in cadmium yellow.  But this time around I'm late, because the flowers have been in bloom for at least a month. 

Winter aconites always bloom early—before the crocus in my yard, before the skunk cabbage at the corner of a nearby bog, and weeks before the snow trilliums in the hillside woods a few miles from here. The only common garden flower that rivals their precociousness is the snowdrop, though its milky-white flowers blends in with the season and can seem rather a part of the winter landscape, while the aconite's gleaming yellow-gold seems, like Dorothy's road to Oz, to be leading the way to a more exciting place.         

I don't know who planted the original bulbs, or when—though it must have been long ago, for the low-growing plants and their bright cupped flowers have now spread to encompass several acres of moist, humus-rich floodplain. But whoever it was, and whenever they did it, I now give thanks for their farsighted gift.

Some years, when the winter has been harsh and shows no signs of relaxing it's grip upon the land—my visits here are all that keeps me going; the well from which I draw my cup of faith. It's annual attraction for me is as a place of reaffirmation to the eventual certainty of a changing season. Other years, during that fitful interregnum when winter is reluctantly turning to spring, the yellow blooms serve to simply reiterate the looming equinox and better days beyond.  

However, this strange year, when winter atypically failed to materialize, the impetus to visit was obviously not fueled by any sense of seasonal desperation or need to bolster my waning faith. Which is why I've been slow in making my rounds. Instead, I wanted to wait for the perfect day to heed the vernal desire to again walk among the huge old sycamores on this cheery aconite mantle. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Snow swirls as the river rises.

Early March wouldn't be its predictable gnarly self without delivering at least a few final displays of wintry bluster. That's what we've had this morning—little snow-squalls of thick-flying oversized flakes that might cause newcomers and alarmists to think we've suddenly taken a u-turn back to mid-January. Or I should say the mid-January of a typical winter, though certainly not the mid-January of this particular winter's unseasonably-warm incarnation.

Anyway, it was all a ruse, a ploy designed to deceive us into believing spring's fair maiden is way off beyond the distant horizon…when it is, in fact, she is already sashaying down yonder hill—hips swinging, tresses flying, verdant green dress shimmering in the gleaming sun.

Nope, March's old trickery has lost its credibility; the gambit fails. Those of us who've been making this same circular journey for more years than we like to think are not in the least fooled by such weather chicanery. We recognize a last hurrah no matter how fervently it sputters and spits. Even now, merely an hour after all those blizzardy histrionics, the sky has cleared and every flake that fell is now melted into watery oblivion. Not a shred of would-be setback evidence remains. Moreover, by Tuesday the temperature will be in the mid-50s˚F and they predict we'll see 61˚F on Wednesday.

Nice try, March—but no sale.