Wise November

Wise you are
your leafy drifts
cluster at the base

of endless trees
they mark where time
has passed
and will pass again 

This silken canopy
you, November

will change into
a dark elixir
falling once again
to another dimension

where roots can draw strength
from your richness
Ah November sky
you have opened
new portals onto mystery

it is at your strong bidding that I see
( your steely skies insistent)

these branching traceries
of stark silhouette
promise green days and renewal 

like breezes, a sweet return 
to where now I stand
gazing up
at November
and wisdom


The Cinderella of Flowers

“Like fairy sausages.” — Through The Woods

At long last, I bring thee catkins.

I’ve been waiting for the catkin season to begin. My woodland walk the other day yielded, at last, a few sightings, glimmering from a hazel tree. I have been longing to see them in the wild since reading H.E. Bates’ nature book Through the Woods, and his lovely, evocative descriptions.

Well, perhaps his likening them to ‘fairy sausages‘ is not so lovely, but it is captivating. And strangely evocative. I’m not sure why, given the fact that fairies don’t exist. And if they did, as we imagine them in their wee, weightless, frolicsome days of dancing hidden in tall grasses, does it not seem even more fanciful that we would come across them devouring greasy, heavy sausages with a side of mustard?


Unlikely…yet ‘like fairy sausages‘ seems so right a description of these lovely pendulous flowers.

‘No poet that I can call to mind has put himself into ecstasies over the ruby blossoms of the elm or into half the state of singing over the purple catkins of the alder that he keeps for the cherry and the rose. The catkin is a sort of Cinderella among flowers, not so much unwanted as unnoticed. The poet who lifts his eyes to the stars or lowers them for the flowers, the stars on earth, often misses as he does so the flowers that hang between earth and heaven, the delicate and unflashing constellations that light up the dark branches of wintery trees.’

I just love the splendid geometry of the design in their tightly budded state. I hope to go back and photograph them in their opening stages through the winter.

(And thank you and your nature books, H.E. Bates, for opening my eyes to this seasonal wonder.)

A side note, given my Curious Word tendencies…Catkins and pussywillows have more in common than inflorescence. A pussywillow is a catkin; a catkin not necessarily a pussywillow; it depends upon which tree or shrub it blooms from. But both names reflect the fact that children loved these manifestations of nature, and gave them names that reflected their endearing quality. Catkins means ‘kitten tails’, from a Dutch word, and pussywillows because they resemble the soft, strokable fur of a kitty.

Or a sausage, if you’re hungry.

As mentioned, my earlier post on H.E. Bates also featured the gorgeous woodcut illustrations by Agnes Miller Parker; one of which I show here.


Winter Intermezzo

“There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer.” — Gertrude Jekyll


Today we begin the month of February, and take a winter walk with the prose of H.E. Bates. One of my reading goals for 2016 is to acquaint myself with his fiction. But for now, I am still held in thrall by his nature writing, and this book Through the Woods is a favorite. (The quotations are from this book, pictured here, and most taken from the chapter ‘Primroses and Catkins’. For more on HE and the lovely wood engravings of this book read my autumn post here.)

Bates writes of this seasonal transition we are now in, poised between the dark and light of change, as a time of ‘extraordinary stillness and suspense.’

With such words, February is well described.IMG_9452

In the word-lover’s palette of colors, ‘quixotic’ is useful—it has shades of meaning, but ‘capricious and unpredictable’ would be useful for our purposes today. February is supremely quixotic. Unlike the other months, February has that most feminine of wild cards—the mysterious ’29’—that she likes to throw in now and again, just to keep things interesting. But will it be a 29th day of frozen, heartless glamour, or a 29th day of sunny smiles? We just have to wait and see.

If the months were likened to animals, as they often are, I think of February as a cat. Her purring, fetching ways allure us with warm days of emerging pussywillows, crocuses and tempting primroses in the market…”here, kitty, kitty” plays the siren song….followed by a sudden vicious scratching, as it were; a drastic drop in temperatures, a killing blizzard, and heart-breaking wreckage of all the tender greens and lucent pastels the garden has been encouraged to put forth.

But so speaketh the wounded and wary gardener…we feel this bipolar aspect of February most keenly. It is February that can lure even the most sane minded gardener into, well, quixotic, giddy behavior that has led to the wanton ruin of many an innocent plant.

“There is a sultriness as soft as milk over everything.”

I’ve paired the vigorous nature prose of H.E. Bates with some pictures of my recent winter walks in local gardens and wetlands. While HE writes of the climate and fauna of his English countryside, much of what he describes is not that far off from the Pacific Northwest climate of my home. Chiefly lacking in my picture accompaniment, though…are catkins. Oh, these lovely catkins he speaks of!

‘No poet that I can call to mind has put himself into ecstasies over the ruby blossoms of the elm or into half the state of singing over the purple catkins of the alder that he keeps for the cherry and the rose. The catkin is a sort of Cinderella among flowers, not so much unwanted as unnoticed. The poet who lifts his eyes to the stars or lowers them for the flowers, the stars on earth, often misses as he does so the flowers that hang between earth and heaven, the delicate and unflashing constellations that light up the dark branches of wintery trees.’

I can thank H.E. Bates for giving me a new and exciting pursuit for this mercurial month of February—to go in search of the captivating flowers that hang ‘between heaven and earth‘.


‘And now, after the storm, the sight of the first clearing of the sky from beneath the trees is very fine. Rain-washed, cleared of cloud, it is pale blue, infinitely clear, with a kind of pure morning clarity. The first wintry beauty of trees is enhanced by it. Trees stand out, at last, with their own characters, oak knotty, birch thready, ash spindly and looping. There is suddenly a remarkable grace about them, a laciness, a pattern. Yet together, from afar off, they have the permanence of iron. Frost and rain along changes them, frost to silver, rain to bronze and steel. They give the land a sense of rich solidity even in the deadness of winter; they are living veins of tree-ore running about the cropless fields and the vacant pastures. More than anything they save the land from barrenness.’


In the following, his use of terms such as envy, prodigality, and lavish is revealing; here is a man passionate about trees:

If there is one thing I envy above all others in the mansions and parks of the rich it is the glory of their yews and cypresses, soft green and black and yellow and blue and emerald, impassive and quiet trees, planted with thought and prodigality by someone in another and more lavish age. They stand out with singular life and loveliness against the cloudy sky and the naked deciduous trees and, above all, against the expanses of fox-coloured bracken drenched with rain. And in the still winter air they seem to be stiller than all other trees: dark static columns, funereal but lovely, inseparable and unchangeable parts of the wintry land and the suspended winter silence that seems also as if it can never change or break.



‘On wet rain-dark winter days, when the sheep-pens on the late root-land are still dreary with sludder and the grassland is sodden and lifeless, the birches in the wood down the land come most suddenly and wonderfully to life. The rain, clinging to their delicate twigs and catkins, seems to undergo a transformation. It is as though the buds perform the miracle of turning the rain to wine, for with the red buds and redder catkins shining through tits drops the rain gleams like dim burgundy….’

(I just need to interrupt these lovely nature notes with the side point that a word like ‘sludder‘ is quite distracting to the wordsmith and needs a comment of its own; for more see the Curious Word.)

‘There is a time, just before February, when they hang half-stiff, half-loose, undancing and unbrilliant, no longer green and not yet golden. It is not their loveliest time but it is their most triumphant. They have broken through the winter and the darkness. It is an unpassionate blossoming, not to be compared with the bursting of the wild crab bloom or the rose, but it is pristine, the catkins are one with light, responsive to it and governed by it, the tassels richening and lengthening as the light itself richens and lengthens to fullest spring.’

Engraving by Agnes Miller Parker

Engraving by Agnes Miller Parker, from H.E. Bates ‘Through the Woods’

Yes, he has fired within me a desire to go in search of these catkins beauties, these unsung Cinderellas in the wild. If not today, then tomorrow.

If February will let me.IMG_0470





In Search of Leafless Trees

“A few days ago I walked along the edge of the lake and was treated to the crunch and rustle of leaves with each step I made.
The acoustics of this season are different and all sounds, no matter how hushed, 
are as crisp as autumn air.”  –   Eric Sloane


“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”
-  Henry David Thoreau,  1817 – 1862  

After having recently fulfilled an appointment of my own with a horse chestnut, a sycamore that turned out to be a Stewartiana, (but was nonetheless beautiful) yesterday I went in search of leafless trees. It was time for another of my ‘perambulations’ that sometimes pop up on this blog.

A fascinating bark like a sycamore, but is actually a Stewartiana

A fascinating bark like a sycamore, but is actually a Stewartiana

I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and did not have to tramp ‘eight or ten miles through the deepest snow’ to find them. Though I am a tree enthusiast, I’m no match for Thoreau and his tireless treks.

Along the way, though, I was accompanied, in thought, by Thoreau and the words of other writers who love trees.


‘There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill.’  – Thoreau


“Being thus prepared for us in all ways, and made beautiful, and good for food, and for building, 
and for instruments of our hands, this race of plants, deserving boundless affection and 
admiration from us, becomes, in proportion to their obtaining it, a nearly perfect test of our 
being in right temper of mind and way of life; so that no one can be far wrong in either who 
loves trees enough, and everyone is assuredly wrong in both who does not love them, 
if his life has brought them in his way.” 
-  John Ruskin



“The leafless trees become spires of flame in the sunset, with the blue east for their background; and the stars of the dead calices of flowers and every withered stem and stubble rimed with frost contribute something to the mute music.” –  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Oh, I love Emerson’s idea of ‘mute music’, though in this walk I was more reminded of the above quoted thought from Sloane, regarding, ‘the acoustics of the season’. It was a fine and windy day, so the music I heard was not so mute; the gusts rushed powerfully through the tops of the barren trees, creating deep bass sighs and alto groans. Emerson’s words about ‘stubble rimed with frost‘ provides sweetmeats to the wordsmith so let me digress a moment. Emerson employs a wonderful word—rime—that comes from a poet’s bag of tricks and describes that fine, crystalline hoarfrost that is not quite snow but gives everything it touches a luminous white coating. (If you would like to read more about this sparkling, fairy-like phenomenon, and some fascinating scientific details as to the different types, read this lovely post by Cathy Bell.)

Icy blasts off the river scoured out my lungs—or should I say rimed my lungs, for that is what it felt like—and caused my eyes to stream with what might have looked like the ‘tears of a solitary walker’. Even so, the brisk gait of the indomitable Thoreau looms into view:

‘It is invigorating to breathe the cleansed air. Its greater fineness and purity are visible to the eye, and we would fain stay out long and late, that the gales may sigh through us, too, as through the leafless trees, and fit us for the winter,—as if we hoped so to borrow some pure and steadfast virtue, which will stead us in all seasons.’ – Thoreau

Ogden Nash said something similar, only quite different.


“I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.” – Ogden Nash

It’s appropriate we end with Ogden Nash, because he was parodying what is possibly the most famous tree poem of all.

I hope you enjoyed this November walk, and feel ‘fitted out’ for the winter.