Monday, November 22, 2010

When the Year Grows Old

I cannot but remember
   When the year grows old—
   How she disliked the cold!

Those lines by Edna St. Vincent Millay remind me of growing up in Idaho and of my grandmother, who in her later years seemed to get much colder than the rest of us (today my mother says the same thing, and that it's just part of aging).  Yesterday a friend posted pictures of her house in Ontario, Oregon, just a few miles on the other side of the Snake River from where we grew up.  The snow on the roof and blanketing the yard was so clean and fresh and beautiful. 

Oh, beautiful at nightfall
   The soft spitting snow!
And beautiful the bare boughs
   Rubbing to and fro!

But the roaring of the fire,
   And the warmth of fur,
And the boiling of the kettle
   Were beautiful to her!

     Both of those stanzas express my own feelings - it's not either/or, inside or outside. I love it all, and I miss winter, real winter, though even here in Tucson we don't have to go too far to find snow to play in, just up Mt. Lemmon on the northeast edge of town, or for a weekend, Flagstaff is only 4 hours away.
Things change as the year grows old, and I love watching those changes.  There is a beauty in decrepitude, in fading, in the graceful death we see in nature.  The fallen pomegranates in the picture at the top shrivel and dry but first they nourish the ants and the other little things that live in the soil, and the soil itself.  This picture shows three stages in the life of a morning glory: the shrunken, dried blossom, its earlier bright blue beauty unimaginable unless you've watched the plant and know its processes; a plump green seedpod that will soon mature into a crisp fawn-colored case for the precious product the plant has lived and died for - the hard black seeds that will grow into next year's flowers.
     Our milder desert winters aren't all about death or, as in the story of Persephone and her pomegranate, about putting the world to sleep for half the year.  The cooler temperatures revitalize some things and fall is the best time for planting others, like native plants - cacti, mesquite and palo verde trees.  It's also the best time to start a vegetable garden, and I love being able to grow my own salad and cooking greens, snow peas, turnips, and other things.  We're much more limited in summer, which can feel more like a survival marathon, especially when the monsoons don't come, as they didn't this last summer, when the only crop that really did well was okra.
     Roses thrive here - that came as a surprise to me - and this bud was just beginning to open yesterday.  It's on the climber my friend Charlene gave me when she moved from Tucson, and it's been very happy up against the old gray fence that separates the area where we hang out the laundry and store unused plant pots from the rest of the yard.  Unfortunately, the red climber she gave me at the same time didn't do so well and I finally gave up and took it out a few weeks ago when I gave the roses their September pruning, though the white JFK is doing very well.  This climber produced flowers all summer but they faded quickly, going from bud to falling blossoms in two or three days.  But now they last over a week and some are pushing two weeks, and as this next picture shows, there is still great beauty in their decrepitude.
Isn't it wonderful how they change colors?  I wouldn't have imagined this would happen, and yet right now there are half a dozen like this.  It's like having three or four different rose bushes all in one!  The only constant is change, they say, and we must embrace change or die.  The only way to keep this rose from changing would be to deadhead it before it comes into full bloom, and that would certainly be a shame.
      When I lived in Idaho we were very conscious of the seasons and the harvests, much more than most people are now, I believe.  And when I took my mother on vacation up there I was sad to see that almost all the orchards that filled the Emmett valley are gone, as are the fruit packing sheds where my grandmother worked during the Great Depression, and off and on for years afterwards.  Here's what's left of one of the only two of those sheds still standing, that was once filled with the sound of conveyor belts and women's talk and laughter as they sorted and packed the fruit for which the valley was famous.
At first it made me sad to see it like this, but when I stopped and got out of the car, walked around and went inside, it was also peaceful.  I remember going there with my grandmother, and one of her friends picking out a red Delicious apple and polishing it on his sleeve for me. I remember the simple pleasure of honest labor, and of hands moving quickly and gently over the fruits of the earth, and it makes me smile.
      Apples and some other trees aren't the best choice for our particular micro-climate (though there are wonderful orchards over in Wilcox, less than two hours away) but citrus trees love it.  I noticed last night (after the opera - a delightful student production of Britten's Albert Herring that had the audience laughing out loud in appreciation of its broad humor) that the kumquats are nearly ripe around one of the parking lots, and I'm having fantasies of "liberating" some.
Our little Meyer lemon tree has two big, beautiful fruits nearly ripe.  We expected more given the explosion of blossoms it produced, but we're grateful for these and will, when the time comes, put them to good use.  That's what I hope for all of us as autumn turns to winter, that we will put our time and ourselves to good use.  Stay warm.  Appreciate the season.  Be well.

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