Monday, September 29, 2003

Ah! T'is the season of mellow fruitfulness, indeedy.

Everything has a clear edge to it and there is almost a nip in the air. Time to sort out the sweaters into those that are good enough for outerwear and those that have little holes, but are still good enough for the layered look.

I come from a land where we didn't so much have four seasons as we had "weather". I remember wearing shetland sweaters gladly in August. I also remember the annual freeze-out of my teens and young adulthood, celebrating May Day in a new summer frock while shivering through the final blizzard of the season.

I now live in a place where just about everyone complains about the weather. I continue to be righteous about it, however: weather is meant to be enjoyed, no matter what, seasonal, unseasonal, pleasant or unpleasant. It is the price to be paid for variety, the lengthening or shortening of days, the gradual merging of one season into another, the fruits and vegetables "in season". It will also be the price we will have to pay, and our children, and our children's children, for our shortsightedness in protecting our environment.

Who remembers any more what the proper season is for cherries and strawberries? They can be had, for the money, all year round.

The relevance of geography is another important element we don't pay attention to: latitude and longitude, the equatorial regions, this side of the mountain range or that, this side of the landmass or that, the monsoons, the thaws and the frostings. Going from Europe to Africa on vacation, one of the striking moments for me was the discovery of the almost total lack of twilight. The sun came up, Boom! And went down, Boom! Hardly time for more than one cuppa tea or one gin and tonic. Reading a letter from an African refugee, who had obtained political asylum in Sweden, writing to his cronies, the bulk of his comments were for the weather and the shortness of the daylight hours in winter: "What they taught us in school about geography is true," he asserted, "It is an amazing thing to witness." This was of more consequence to him than anything else relating to his asylum case.

A few years ago, I underwent aggressive chemotherapy for a whole year. Not that I believed in it: I didn't and I still don't. But being in the hands of a mainstream surgeon who told me I had to have it ("Have to?" Well yes, he had had to cut the tumor because he could not scrape my backbone, I had to have chemo because "he could not get it all", as the saying goes), I humored him and went along with it. Part of the reason, actually, is that the surgery had taken all the stuffing out of me, literally, and I didn't have the guts and energy to fight him, and part of it was my Buddhist faith, where we "change poison into medicine". So I went to the oncologist once a week, to the tune of $1,500 each shot, what a lark.

Ah! Those were indeed the days! I myself was so poor, I usually had to walk to and from my appointments. It gave me a certain satisfaction, particularly the return home, because the feeling bad usually started before I had even stepped off the table. I made an elaborate ritual of the whole thing, with my favorite routes, the detours to the best free public bathrooms, the chichi pit stops where I could sit and watch the world go by in front of a delicious expresso, the terrace to the restaurant that served the best creme brulee in town, the whole point was to give it a luxurious feeling, the notion of a special treat. I would sometimes dawdle around for more than three hours before collapsing onto my bed and closing my eyes, sometimes without so much as bothering to take off my shoes. My theory was, if I was going to take this absolute shit into my veins, it behooved me to make sure it circulated to the end of every single little last toe in my body.

I noticed that year that the four seasons were unusually well defined and differentiated, I sometimes wondered whether it was happening that way because I was destined to die.

There was a beautiful, long, cool spring, instead of an overnight explosion into sudden summer, where it took the blossoming trees more than three weeks to unfold into their full glory.

There was one quiet, snowy weekday, the trees in Central Park all black and white and lacy against an all-white sky with a timid white sun trying to burn through, and people strolling during their lunchtime with colored umbrellas, for heavens' sakes! I expected the heavens to pipe in some special music at any moment.

There was an early snow fall in autumn one night, before the trees had shed all their leaves, and in the glowing morning sunshine the trees stood with their feet in the snow, onto which a fresh sprinkling of colored autumn leaves had fallen, and their flamboyant heads stretched up into a cloudless sky, topped off by white snow caps which had not yet melted.

Once, during the winter, cutting across Central Park in my non-waterproof sneakers, I crossed a bunch of people going the other way on touring skis. I stopped one of them: "Do you know anything about birding?" I asked. I pointed to a huge bird, looming very large on a bare branch, with the body language of some great owl on the lookout for small snacks, ready to swoop at any time. Within two minutes, I had a crowd of some twenty people surrounding me, looking in the same direction, absolutely amazed by the sight. "Thank you for pointing it out to us," they said, "We were just looking at our feet." "I know, I know," was all I could say.

I have lived my adult life almost entirely in large cities. This makes me one of the great "ungardening Fenns". My father, on the other hand, was a great "gardening Fenn". He had a small house on one acre of land for some twenty-five years, just outside of Paris, where I used to visit him from time to time.

One spring day, he called me over.

"Come take a look at this," he said.
"What is it?" I was looking at some pathetic small twig, twisting in the wind in a bleak corner of the garden.
"It's a budleia", my father declared, with a pride which I personally considered unjustified.

He dragged me off to the other side of the garden.

"Look!" he pointed.
"Another budleia?" I ventured.
"Yep!" (very satisfied).

We made a few more stops: it appeared all my father's cuttings had taken successfully, and there were a lot of them. That summer, the garden was a riot of purple flowers with monarch butterflies.

I came back, probably a year later, in autumn. I found my father girding up for action, boiler suit, stepladder, bucket, saw, clippers and all.

"And where might you be off to?" I asked cheerfully.
"I'm going to simplify the budleias," he answered.

Gardening for the great "gardening Fenn" was always this: a tentative but determined and self-satisfied beginning, followed by a beautiful garden, followed by a great destructive and authoritarian retribution. Being one of the great "ungardening Fenns", I myself am of the mind that there is never too much of a good thing.

When I lived in Paris I had the good fortune of living in a small studio apartment with a large balcony facing towards the Eiffel Tower. I started a bunch of seedlings on what looked like TV dinners, transplanted them into plastic yogurt pots (collected at the rate of one a day), hardened them out on my windowsill, and eventually had a mass of snapdragons, etc. in tubs. Things did get out of hand in the heat of summer, however, when I actually had to go home at lunchtime every day to water my potted tomato plants (you have no idea how thirsty these things can get), but the effort was worth it, to have friends to dinner and serve them a tomato salad that came from my very own balcony!

When I moved to New York, I lived at the bottom of a well for the first three years. My small, dark studio looked out onto a backyard which never saw a ray of sunshine from year-end to year-end. I felt totally concreted-in. My only ungardening effort then took the form of subscribing to Organic Gardening, a must-read if ever there was one for the city slicker. Now I face south, on a higher floor, and I have two tiny window boxes.

This spring was very wet in New York: it rained practically every day for weeks. Then at the end of April, I had an operation, after which I developed what was probably some iatrogenic infection, so the planting time went by and was gone before I came out of the mists and looked out. To my amazement, I saw green: two large weeds had self-seeded into my little boxes. Also a few small petunias, dwarf phlox and pansies. I topped up the show with a small selection from the weekly farmers' market near me, and had a beautiful procession of color all summer. (One of the weeds grew to 68 inches! The other to 38 inches. Nothing spectacular in the floral department, however: just little white thingies in a bottle brush format.)

My main ungardening these days goes on in the street. My elevator may buzz with comments from the neighbors, in the style of: "It's soooooooo cold!", I come back with a generic: "Yes, but did you notice the forsythia next door is already in full bud? Sap's up!" I always have a comeback, because everywhere, anonymous city-dwellers have planted small offerings in the poor city soil. These sometimes survive the wanton uprootings by feckless passersby, and inevitably every plant has its moment of triumph.

One building on my block stands out especially, at 310. It has a small patch of garden on each side of the door, which is graced with a filigree iron porch, painted white. It was professionally landscaped two or three years ago and boasts an imaginative selection of flowering bushes, ferns, perennials and annuals. Some weeks ago, as I was walking by, I noticed an old man (my age) replacing leggy pansies with what looked to me to be even leggier, overblown and seeding coleus. Many little pots of them, all the same, two shades of fuschia/purple/red.

I've used coleus in my window boxes, it's a successful choice if you want to be sure of color at all times. I'm always careful to keep the blooming under control because in the back of my mind there is lodged the theory that a plant knows when it has fulfilled its purpose, its mission in life, which is to flower and seed, and that when this is done, the plant just ups and dies and is ready for the compost heap. The old man didn't look easy, I didn't dare speak to him, but I did think he had made a poor choice.

How wrong I was! Those leggy little coleus have spread out into the most amazing of ground covers, and on the shady side of the street now glow as an unbelievably bright carpet of color, a riot of vegetable paisley.

This morning, I could see peeking out from the compost at 310 some beautiful little flowers that came out "head backward". They look all the world like cyclamen to me, but where are the leaves? Many, many more small knobs are poking through, promising a profusion of these little flowers in the next few days.

In front of 340, there are a few isolated small black-eyed susans, self-seeded on the winds from upstate New York. Sunny, timid, shy but strong.

Around the trees, some sort of bluish flowers have re-bloomed: they are from the spring, this is their second coming this year. What are they trying to tell us?

I see signs everywhere.

Last night on the BBC internet I found out that in 1911 a dog was killed by a meteorite that fell (or should I say, came?) from Mars. Talk about not being able to avoid one's karmic retribution...
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