the thing with feathers

It’s been a long grey week. The rain, the news of the British referendum, the aftermath of the murders in various parts of the world (that ask us again and again to think how we are implicated, whether our silence serves or distracts or ignores), our radio and television airwaves filled with the noise of that awful man south of the border, a more personal sorrow, and the images of fires in California, flooding in many places: you wonder where to place your hope, if you have any left.
This morning, around 6, I woke to light. Not just morning light but a sky without clouds. Blue as a book of hours. In the trees, a pair of western tanagers, so brilliantly coloured that I wondered (as I do every time I see them), why they chose our green landscape for a summer home. They spend their winters in Central America and find their way here, to the bigleaf maples below the house (I think that’s where they nest; they always come from, and head back, to those trees). And listening to a recording just now of their call, I realize that’s what I’ve been hearing the last few mornings. So maybe their young have fledged and they are teaching them about territory, food sources (elderberries, salmonberries, huckleberries…), and dangers.
And when I got up and came down to my desk, I watched the robins gliding in and out of the nest just beyond my vision, around the corner of the house, tucked into an elbow of grapevine. I’ve been thinking that the young must be about ready to fly but I’ve stayed away from the nest out of superstition. (The last robin nest we were watching with hope was raided by a weasel…) But I did go this morning, just to see, and yes, there are at least two young’uns. When they saw me coming, they quickly hid. But I waited and was rewarded with the sight of two eager beaks poking over the side of the nest, while the parents watched from the arbutus. Here they are, just barely visible. Like hope.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
                           –Emily Dickinson

Ombra mai fu

Readers of Mnemonic: A Book of Trees might remember my adventures in learning — in trying to learn — to sing, inspired by the beautiful aria, “Ombra mai fu”, from Handel’s Serses, or Xerxes, in which the Persian king Xerxes I sings of his love for a plane tree.

Ombra mai fu
di vegetabile,
cara ed amabile,
soave più.

A shade there never was,
of any plant,
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.

The opera was a failure but this particular aria lives on. And I’ve been humming it these days as I move about my day, watering, turning on fans, thinking about cool things to make for our dinners. Exactly a week ago, friends came for dinner and we sat on the deck for our apertif, shivering a bit in the unseasonal weather, and John and I decided it might be time to have the tall firs to the west of our house limbed and maybe one or two of them taken down. For years it was too hot in summer to eat on that deck — we tended to have our dinners on the patio which faces northeast… We built a pergola over it and planted wisteria and grapes which didn’t do much for four or five years. Then they took off, filling in between the beams of the pergola, providing green shade. And was it too much shade, combined with the firs which have also grown substantially since we moved here 30 years ago? Last week it seemed that it was.

Now we have true summer heat. That deck is a welcome haven from it. Tonight we sat with a glass of Portuguese gazela, a light bright wine with a bit of animation, and ate tarragon chicken with tiny roast potatoes, dusted with La Chinata bittersweet paprika, prepared first thing this morning before the sun was up, and a favourite summer salad of watermelon, feta, fresh mint, dressed with lemon and Greek olive oil:

“Let’s leave the firs,” I said. And John agreed. Their shade so welcome, so beloved. I thought of Herodotus, who commented on Xerxes’ adoration of the plane tree in The Histories: “While [he] was traveling along this road he discovered a plane tree that so impressed him with its beauty that he endowed it with golden ornaments and entrusted it to one of the Immortals…” For the past few weeks, these firs have been the training trees for the young sapsuckers, a family of western tanagers, robins, and even a pileated woodpecker with its vivid head.  A shade there never was…more lovely, or more sweet.