August Fragrance

My car stunk of shit when I arrived in Vermont’s capital city Friday afternoon, the debris from an enormous manure spreader I’d passed on a dirt road in Calais jammed in the undercarriage. Add to that, the fat stalk of garlic I’d nabbed from the school’s garden. I’d tugged it out to see how near (or late) to picking it was, and the pearly head, beneath the crumbling dirt I’d thumbed off, smelled so fragrantly delicious I decided to bring it home for dinner. Manure, garlic, and someone’s running shoes left in the backseat.

This past month, fierce thunderstorms have deluged us, and our piece of Vermont fluctuates between sodden and freshly-dried, smelling of wild blackberry vines and the pine bark mulch I gleaned from the town garage. Yesterday afternoon, my weeding interrupted, I read Adam Gopnik’s line in his article about Buddhism in The New Yorker – “…the things we cherish inevitably change and rot…” – which is likely the entire, unvarnished sum of human suffering.

The kids complained about the co-mixture of odors in the car – naturally. And, inevitably, I laughed off those complaints. Even with this early morning rain, I think we’ll swim today.




Flowering Knotweed

Biking in Stowe this afternoon, my daughter and I passed enormously large thickets of Japanese knotweed, blooming with tiny, delicate flowers – an invasive I studiously avoid. No knotweed rooting on my terrain!

I was reminded of a line from Sophocles my father mentioned this summer: Nothing great enters the life of mortals without a curse. Biking fast to keep up with my 11-year-old, darting around tykes on training wheels and a contingency of strollers, I thought of that phrase’s inverse. I’ve always been particularly annoyed by the adage to squeeze lemons into lemonade, as if an impromptu tea party solves anything, but might a curse also have a slender thread of goodness?

Poor Japanese knotweed: so maligned and despised in my Vermont world. In a profusion of flowers, I bent near and inhaled its sweet fragrance, the petals trembling with pollinators.

Poverty’s child –
he starts to grind the rice,
and gazes at the moon.

– Matsu Bashō


Stowe, Vermont


In my weekly commute to Burlington, some mornings I hit traffic, and some mornings I don’t. Today, waiting in a long line, I listened to Garrison Keillor read poetry.

“Despair” by Billy Collins

So much gloom and doubt in our poetry—
flowers wilting on the table,
the self regarding itself in a watery mirror….

Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to the great
tenth-century celebrator of experience,

Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
could hardly be restrained…..

Sitting alone in my little Toyota, I laughed out loud.

It’s the fragrant apple blossom season in Vermont. Dandelions are rampantly blooming. My teenager daughter texts me at work of her misery, the stark unfairness of the world. Of course, I text back, but go for a run. The ten-year-old skips on our evening walk. I’m just so happy, and I don’t know why.

How many decades has it taken me to relearn what I knew when I was ten? And to laugh about it? The black flies are out and biting fiercely, but the sparrows are singing mightily.



Before I’ve barely begun planting the garden, wilderness has taken hold of this ground. This afternoon, with my weeding tool and hands, I dug in hard. The younger daughter came to see if asparagus tips had emerged, then wandered away. On this Saturday afternoon, I listened to the frogs rocking  out in the hidden woodland pond.

Maybe this reclamation via weeding should be a battle. But it’s not. Surrounded by woods, the wilderness spreads into my garden through an infinity of ways, in a weed I can’t name, a wildflower I’ve never seen. Every year, my obscure patch of this earth surges with life – the geese winging overhead, the peepers’ chorus, ten thousand variations of green that shift and mutate daily. Not so long ago, I planted a garden with my baby cooing sweetly, laid on her back on a blanket spread beneath an apple tree, her bare toes stretching out toward the sun. This earth is so much larger then me and mine, and that knowledge is as steady as the tool in my hand, a knowledge to take comfort in.

When we marvel at that blue marble in all its delicacy and frailty, and resolve to save the planet, we cast ourselves in a very specific role. That role is of a parent, the parent of the earth. But the opposite is the case. It is we humans who are fragile and vulnerable and the earth that is hearty and powerful, and holds us in its hands. In pragmatic terms, our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely.

– Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything


my garden/Woodbury, Vermont




Rave On

For days, I’ve inhabited the post-root canal world where a sledgehammer banged my jaw. This morning, my young daughter made me coffee and noted, You’re laughing. You must be coming back to life.

This first of May, a steady rain is muddying the woods, jamming the streams near to full, washing clean every bit of green in the garden. Bring it on, I think: frog eggs, emerging salamanders, the ephemerals untangling from the matted forest floor. New England winter is spare, stripped down to straight lines, but spring is all wild, unfurling mightily and messily.

Yesterday, in my broken tooth stupor, I drove to Montpelier to hear poetry. Dede Cummings, of Green Writers Press, read Birches extraordinarily well in that quiet, sun-filled room. Like numerous people, that poem has risen many times in my life, from the first I read it, in 8th grade, to most recently a few summers ago, when my friend Tim Smith had my daughter read it aloud before dinner one gorgeous Colorado evening.

This afternoon, my body unknotting from pain, the neighbors’ boy turning ten this very day, the children enmeshed in their imaginative worlds, our kitchen filled with the fragrance of baking cinnamon, I think, what sheer luck to live in a world where Birches is possible. What sheer luck, this down-pouring day.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

– Robert Frost, “Birches”


May 1/Woodbury, Vermont


Last evening, walking along our dirt road with my daughter, she chattered about our shadows in the lingering daylight, how the sun had merged us into one person, and we appeared to be one being with four legs and a curious kind of goose neck she had made from her hands.

While we were standing there, I suddenly realized I had been listening to the robins singing in a nearby maple tree, without any particular consciousness – and yet on some level I must have been listening keenly. Just recently returned, a whole flock of red-chested couples are nesting in the maples around the garden.

When we first moved to this house, we had two bird-stalking cats and the field was wooded then: the songbirds are not prolific as they are now. But, as all things go, our terrain has changed, and one benefit is this spring melody. How funny is the human mind: winter and cold has now fled our immediate memory, and it’s spring and seeds and the garlic pushing up through a mulch of rotting leaves.

We don’t have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.

– Andre Dubus