The Summer Affair

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Purple bean blossom, with mature bean behind.

I had wanted more beauty in my life. Isn’t that often the way affairs go?

More specifically, I yearned for beautiful flowers in my garden. I craved a break from what sometimes felt like workaday vegetables and their attendant chores. I enjoyed the healthy produce but after four summers of effort, desired a relationship that was independent, required nothing past superficial attention, and gave me more than I gave it.

Later summer bounty.

Summer bounty, hard-earned: beans and carrots.

***

Back in April, from the bin of donated seeds at the community gardens office, a hand drawn packet from the company Renee’s Garden shone out at me. I’d heard of something called borage oil, which sounded medicinal and icky—like cod liver oil—but I didn’t know anything about borage flowers. The front read “Kitchen Herbs,” pictured five-petaled blossoms and promised, “pollinators love the flowers of this fast growing plant.”

The back panel assured that in addition to bees and ants, children adored blue borage and further, the blooms could be frozen into ice cubes or sugared as cake decorations. Traditional herbalists gushed that borage was thought to “lift the spirits and inspire courage.” Visions appeared in my head of feathery green shoots and midnight blue petals that skipped up and down on the slightest breeze.

When the sprouts came up, I fell instantly in love, in spite of their appearance not matching my fantasy.

Early buds of blue borage.

Early buds of blue borage.

No leggy stalks and stems–instead furry, silvery, thick-trunked bushes emerged. From somewhat more delicate branches, clusters of stems drooped. The flowers sparkled at the tips. Like Jack’s magical beans, more and more plants germinated and grew tall, taller. They crowded out of their designated plot and into the peas, the tomatoes, the carrots, the peppers.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Borage bloomed a lighter and yet more intense blue than I had imagined. Many individuals budded pink-blue, then deepened into a pale ultramarine. Once in a while a flower stayed vivid cotton candy color through maturity.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

My eyes could not get enough of them.

Makes my heart ache.

Borage in the morning–

Borage in the morning.

–makes my heart ache and sing.

***

The best time was early, when dew still hung like drops of cool moisture on warm lips; early was when the light came from all angles. Before dawn, I would roll out of bed, slap a baseball cap on my flattened dirty hair and hurry on garbage-strewn sidewalks to unlock the garden gate.

Early sun on borage.

Early sun on borage.

Blue borage accepted me as I was. It patiently waited as I stumbled in, half awake. My own tendency to be thick-stalked and overly prolific was not important. I, in turn, accepted its prickles, which never worked under my skin like the hairs on cucumber vines.

Morning after morning, I slow danced with blue borage, marveled the way a new lover does, at its beauty in the light, its shy loveliness in shade. The color softened through petal edges, like a misty photograph. I melted at the sight of these sweet little flowers, stars happily star-gazing, in the dazzle of dawn.

Bee flirting with borage.

Flirting with borage.

The bees and the ants could visit, but these were my flowers.

***

Over time I discovered that to harvest borage, I didn’t have to pinch hard on the open flat flowers. If I waited just a bit longer for full ripeness, the petals would pull slightly away from the fuzzy sepal, like a forward fold in yoga. Then the blossoms could be teased off with gentle pointed fingers into my cupped palm.

Ready for harvest.

Ready for harvest.

On the seed packet, the flavor of borage was advertised as mild, like cucumber. It was a change from the peppery orange nasturtiums from personal gardens past, or the vibrant but grassy-tasting pink and white orchids on restaurant plates.

To me they were strangely reminiscent of the Catholic communion wafers of childhood. Those dry, pale, wheat colored rounds from Sunday Mass had barely a flavor at all. Yet borage was herb-crunchy too, the petals, intensely white center and black stamens, and all that aching blue-pinkness.

Exotic and yet familiar. I smiled at their oddness.

I nibbled borage as I weeded and harvested vegetables, and collected tiny floral gifts for later. They were snuck into salads, with their unapologetic blue, and yes, into ice cubes for sexy summer sangria.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers in salad.

***

Half-way through July, my beloved bushes were trounced by a woodchuck. The pushy rodent sneered at my floppy fence and leapt it with ease. He burrowed and jumped and thumped onto my blue borage plants, beating them up, breaking their juicy stalks, crunch! on the way to strip the tricolor beans of their own deep purple beauty.

Willful woodchuck damage.

Willful woodchuck damage.

But borage would not disappoint me.

A week later, I found shoots coming up from the stomped stalks. Bunches of fuzzy leaves, short perhaps but strong, determined—courageous even.

Like a steady love, the plant grew up from the ground once again. Its resilient arms reached out for me and soon bristled with color.

New growth, after disaster.

New growth, after disaster.

By early September, fewer and fewer flowers nodded on the stems, until I went out of town and was surprised not to think about the borage while I was gone—or even when I came home. I’ll need to put the garden to bed this week, and I know that now, since the first frost, what is there will not resemble my summer infatuation. I already feel a tinge of sadness.

Is this the way things always end? I ask, and then answer: Of course. Annual flowers are always destined to live but a few short months.

In addition, I realize it wasn’t just a meaningless or superficial affair; instead, it was one of many gifts given to me, when I have paid attention and let myself fall in love with the natural world.

Winter approaches and along with it, the inside loves of my life. I must return to the hardy, four-season relationships that have patiently awaited me while I tarried outside.

Perhaps blue borage and I will dance again some future June.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return next summer.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return, next summer.

***For anyone in the New York Capital District, please come over to my business website for information about my first nature photography show, at the Bethlehem Public Library in Delmar NY, running for the month of December 2015.

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The Day of Slow-Moving Bees

Morning bee warming up at Partridge Run.

Uncoordinated morning bee at Partridge Run.

The morning of August 15 was cooler in the Helderbergs than it had been in months, only in the mid-50s by 10 a.m.

Bees at Newt Pond clung to the goldenrod, languid movie stars on incandescent chaise lounges. After the drama of previous weeks’ nectar gathering and pollen dispersing, they barely crawled around: aware they had scenes to perform, but disinclined to rise just yet.

It was The Day of Slow-Moving Bees.

Slow-moving bee.

Slow-moving, and decidedly fuzzy.

***

Queen Anne's lace, not yet open.

Queen Anne’s lace, not yet open.

A beaten down path through thigh-high wild bergamot and Queen Anne’s Lace led us to the dock on Tubbs Pond. My hiking partner and I were slow-moving bees ourselves, as we drove from pond to pond instead of walking, only gradually warming our muscles. The yellowing of trees across the water became obvious as we sat with tuna sandwiches, garden tomatoes, and a huge tub of cut up watermelon to energize for a trek into the woods.

Reflections of red at Fawn Pond.

Reflections of red at Fawn Pond, before lunch.

***

It is of course the season to gorge on watermelon and tomatoes—and blueberries and corn on the cob and peaches, until we are sick of them and welcome apples and squash and cabbage.

Full summer now slides into September. The angle of sunlight is shifting again. On some days, like this one, air blows up cool from the ground while our scalps still bead with sweat.

Cherry tomato from my garden, amongst late season yellow and green beans.

Cherry tomato from my garden, amongst late season yellow and green beans.

***
By afternoon, the bees had thrown off their weariness and the back leg pollen baskets plumped like egg yolks. They zipped around like heavily caffeinated actors, investigated each flower briskly and flew off faster than I could focus my camera.

The dull gold behind the bee is pollen on in its "baskets."

The dull gold behind this momentarily still bee is pollen on in its “baskets.”

As we hiked after lunch, we gathered our own nectar for winter, visions and experiences.

Thus that Friday also became known as The Day of Glorious Pink Joe-Pye-Weed and Glowing Blue Chicory.

Boneset, in the same family as Joe Pye Weed-- Eupatorium

Boneset, in the same family as Joe Pye Weed– Eupatorium

The Day of Burdock Opening Its Deep Purple Thistles.

And wild oregano flowering.

And wild oregano flowering.

The Day of Orange Slugs on Moss.

And on dirt, too.

On dirt, too.

The Day of White, Violet, Black, Brown, Orange, Yellow and Turquoise Fungus.

Yes, turquoise.

Yes, turquoise.

And The Day of Finding Variously Colored Aspen Leaves Every Few Feet.

Variously colored, yes.

Variously colored, all on one leaf.

Unexpected variations, at that.

Unexpected variations, at that.

***

Back in April, I mourned the coming of summer, the loss of bug-free walks and crunch of snow.

Here in August, I mourn the coming of jackets and long underwear, the loss of flowers and bees and green-green lushness.

However, the new season’s gifts will reveal themselves: leaves that burn then drop, an opening of the view when trees have slimmed to only trunks and limbs, crinkles of frost on chilly mornings.

Eventually I’ll mourn the fall passing, then the winter, and next spring.

Gray skies alternated with bright blue that August day.

Gray skies alternated with bright blue that August day: coming to the end of the best summer ever for chicory and purple clover and Queen Anne’s Lace.

***

For now, the theatrical bees know their lines, how the plot develops—this is the falling action. Autumn approaches. Steady drumbeats toward the denouement. No wonder the aspen leaves, the changed light, the final frenzied putting up of nectar.

Flowering before dying.

Here I am! Hurry up! the flowers call to the bees.

Lions and Tigers and Peaches, Oh My!

Orange newt in thick mud, August, Partridge Run

Orange newt in thick August mud at Partridge Run, Berne NY

Over two months ago, my buddy C and I hiked an overgrown path at Partridge Run, south of Albany. Like two girls in a fairy tale, we hopped and skipped and lolly-gagged, cameras instead of baskets-to-Grandma in hand. Small frogs surprised, bursting up with powerful rear legs from well-hidden spots in the mud. Orange newts appeared and disappeared, foreshortened limbs squiggling their torsos in cartoon fashion. We moseyed along, but then were stopped short by encroaching poison ivy and, smartly, turned around.

On the trail back to the car we spied something. A dark thing, in the middle of the path. A rock? A tree limb? An ailing creature? Cue the scary Little Red Riding Hood music.

I kneeled down to examine it. Looked up at my hiking partner, concerned. Looked down to take in the evidence again. Squinted up as we nodded simultaneously.

Yup.
Looks like it.
Bear, huh?
Yeah, see the blackberry seeds in it?
It smells musky around here–must be pretty fresh.
Oh. Look here in the mud. A claw print.

Straightaway we realized we should have been alert in the woods for something other than late summer wildflowers, amphibians, and butterflies. We quickly re-oriented to the aqua paint on the trees—Long Path “blazes” that marked our exit out.

Bee on the wing in late summer

Bee on the wing, before.

Only once before I’d been close to a bear in the wild (and known it), and that was a few months earlier at Kripalu. One early morning as the sangha gathered around a guest speaker, he noted drily: “You may want to look out the window.”

Across the back lawn, a youngster Ursidae was galumphing and gamboling, presumably drawn by the smell of our breakfast cooking. Since we saw the bear through glass, it was much more like a zoo encounter than a live one, though it made us all think twice before taking the paths alone at dusk.

Bears have also shown up in my nightmares, though not recently. Terror comes from a sudden smothering attack in the dark, from the inability to escape a creature so much larger and more powerful than me.

What I do know outside of nightmares: Black bears live in this part of New York, but not brown bears or the subset of brown bears known as grizzlies, which have a reputation of being more aggressive than black bears. The advice: Don’t hang out near rich food sources like fruit. Don’t get between a mother bear and her cubs. Hibernation starts in October and if you see a bear in January be very careful: it is likely a female, in labor, the most inclined to attack.

On the other hand, I have heard many stories of fairly peaceable bear-human encounters, where everybody just backed away.  Because, very importantly, bears are reclusive, prefer not to run into humans, and so we hikers should proactively announce our presence by making noise, shaking bells or singing.

***
Therefore, back in the woods, my helpful hiking mate, who was aware we should not be silent in case we came upon the depositor of the dung, began to shout.
Oh Mr. Bear, Mr. Bear!
SHE’S the plump and juicy one. I am the old stringy one. (Pause, as if listening.)
Yes, the one with the baseball cap, that’s her.

Only half-laughing, we sped our legs to cover territory fast, then faster. She continued:  Oh Mr. Bear, Mr. Bear! We had a lovely visit but we’re leaving now!

Arriving unscathed at the car, we weren’t ready to give up on our day in spite of run-ins with poison ivy and bear poo. We drove south, arriving at a more civilized path, one that led to Tubbs Pond.

I remarked as we sat down by the water, Glad I didn’t stop to eat my lunch in the woods.

Then it dawned on me the horrendous portent of what I carried in my bag, into what had proven to be active bear territory—cue more sinister music—as my fellow hiker hollered gleefully into the trees nearby,  Oh Mr. Bear! Mr. Bear! 
She’s got A QUARTER OF A PEACH PIE in her bag!

I whispered: And (more dawning, a veritable sunburn of realization) a sandwich, peanut butter and–

Whereupon she added with relish to her public service announcement:  AND HONEY!

Peace pie, water and sky on the Tubbs Pond dock.

Peach pie, water and sky at Tubbs Pond.

In the sunlight of the Tubbs Pond dock, safely consuming my late-summer pastry, I thought: Huh. In our hurry to get the heck outta there, fresh bear scat in our noses, I did not stop to take pictures.

And was beginning to regret it.

I ventured to my partner: Can we go back? I’d love to get a picture maybe of the tracks…is that crazy? My heart thumped in my throat like our legs had moved: a little fast, then faster. Without too much hesitation, she acquiesced. Only twenty minutes of walking, we figured…

Of course I was afraid. It would be a calculated risk. End of summer, blackberries obviously nearby, recent proof right in our footsteps of large alarming creatures–at least one of them.

But if I let the fear beat me, I might regret it forever, I thought. I really wanted photographic evidence of what we’d seen.

And lately I’m tired of being afraid of things, always stopping with “Maybe I’ll hurt myself, maybe I’ll look stupid, maybe I can’t be A+ at anything.” My new more honest self says: “Of course maybe I’ll hurt myself doing new things and of course I look stupid sometimes and yes, maybe the bear will return to the scene of his crime—er, droppings”—but should I let that keep me away?

My pulse continued to increase. I noted and then ignored it, as we climbed back into her vehicle.

After all, it was with some knowledge that we were deciding to proceed—to make noise, and look up and around while hiking, not just at our feet. Aware that if the wind is blowing at your back, the bear can smell you up to a mile away; if at your face, you can stumble on them because they can’t smell you at all.

Not out of the car a minute, hand cupped around her mouth, my buddy started:
The peach pie is in her belly, if you’re looking for a treat.

Jingling keys and singing, we found the path. She mumbled under her breath: Can’t believe we are going back into bear infested woods to get a ratsa-fratsa picture. I thought to myself—If I get attacked by a bear I’m gonna not only feel stupid, I’m going to have BEEN stupid.

Off to the side, something dark and thick swam forward in the woods; my eyes bulged and attention narrowed sharply–Oh my god, there’s a bear!

–Oh, a burned stump. In pseudo bravery, an aside to the cutthroat hiking partner: Here is where in the scary movie they say: Don’t do it! Don’t go back! You know there are bears in there!

Heart still thumping hard, I slowed my inhale, slowed my exhale. It didn’t help.

Maybe this IS a scary movie, I thought. Maybe I AM part of a fairy tale, but I can’t think about it now; I’m busy paying attention to my surroundings I shook my keys louder.

We walked quickly, one ahead, one in back.
I will stay behind you and have my camera ready, so I can take pictures when the bear comes out to greet you. She snickered mercilessly.

I hoped she knew it’s ok to take pictures with a small camera, but not one with a big lens because the bear interprets that as a large and very aggressive eye. I did know that when you encounter a bear, you look sideways at the ground, and back away or circle around.

Joe Pye Weed, with a non-lethal creature.

Earlier we’d passed Joe Pye Weed, visited by a non-lethal creature.

We arrived at the fated spot much more quickly than we thought we would; fear definitely distorts your sense of time. Involved in looking for the prints again, we walked along the path identifying deer and raccoon in the thick mud, and others, including the horse’s hooves we’d seen all over Partridge Run.

Then there they were–round, small, but bear’s prints, definitely not dog, definitely not people or coyote…click-click the camera went. I neglected to check the woods every second or two. In fact, the more bear-free minutes that passed, the less afraid I felt. We finished and hurried back to the car, the distance even shorter this time.

On our final steps:
A granola bar, Mr. Bear, I think she’s got one of THOSE still.

In the car, we giggled in relief. I had faced my fear AND gotten the pictures.

***

I am glad I had a hiking partner who was willing to go back, even if she was (verbally anyway) also willing to throw me to the omnivores. Glad I got to enjoy my peach pie, and the fairy tale lesson did not involve being swallowed and cut out again, or some outside hero saving me. Glad I’ve learned to not live without fear but to feel it and choose my action.

Having a wicked-funny friend along sure helps.

***

Postscript: At home I analyzed the photos. The ground was so wet and gravelly, it was hard to capture the details of the prints that were visible three-dimensionally, in person. You can’t see where we saw that nails and claws had dug in, versus just some other animal’s pads displacing the mud. But the dung was delightfully clear.

Yup, there it is.

Yup, there it is. The pile of scat was not large, hence the bear wasn’t either. Which is just what the size of the prints indicated as well.