Sunday, February 19, 2012

First Plum Blossom!

The first plum blossom in our backyard inspired some haiku thoughts:

Spring makes a bargain
With the cold air of a bright day:
First white plum blossom.

Buson, when dying,
Hoped for plum blossoms of
Eternity's dawn.

Where every morning
Is the first morning and the
Blossoms never fall.

Buson, the cherished 18th century Japanese poet and painter, is said to have composed his final death-bed poem hoping to see the first iconic blossoms of early spring before he died and comparing them to what he hoped to see after he died.

Perhaps he was making up for an earlier verse with a less transcendent message:

"In nooks and corners
Cold remains:
Flowers of the plum."

(Translated by R. H. Blyth)

It's true that a large part of the haunting beauty of the fragile white flowers that spring suddenly from dead branches arises from their vulnerability and fleetingness. Storms may come; there might be frost. The brave new blooms could be littering the ground as quickly as they appeared.

But they also hold a promise of more beauty to come. Slow, hidden processes are coming to fruition and even though the petals may fall, life goes on and, perhaps, like a poet's prayer, merges with eternity.

That's why, although there have been blossoms all over town for several weeks -- flowering cherry, quince, tulip magnolias -- the first pale plum flower in our own backyard stopped me in my tracks. It's a surprise even when I know it's coming. Usually I'm not looking for it but just happen to notice it while walking by with other tasks in mind.

Something always impels me to note the occasion. I used to jot it down on my calendar. Now I take pictures with a digital camera that records for posterity the date and time.

According to my informal data of the past several years, the first plum blossom appears sometime around Valentine's Day, mid-February, when the seasons are shifting back and forth from day to day. The data is very informal since the "first blossom" is the one that I happen to see -- i.e. it's more or less at eye level, not way up on the high branches.

Let the record show that the first plum blossom of 2012 was photographed on February 17.

First blossom of 2011: February 13.

First blossom of 2010: February 7.

That's as far back as my photographic evidence goes.

Each year this momentary "first" seems more momentous.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Tweet Mob of Robins

All day long the robins have been in a state of high excitement. This morning the neighbors' redwoods and eucalyptus were shaking and fluttering with hidden activity and the sunlit air was alive with loud, rowdy birdsong. It took me a while but eventually I figured out what was going on, based on previous experience with robins and ivy berries.

I've seen it before. When the ivy is fruiting, the robins go crazy over the myriad clusters of small dark berries packed with nutrition and quick energy. The continuous twittering of the first arrivals seems to draw others and soon there are crowds of them swooping here and there. A tweet mob for sure. Occupy the ivy!!!

I could see thick twining vines of ivy snaking up the tallest redwoods -- that's where most of the activity was centered as fat birds dove in eagerly, dislodging others who flew up onto nearby eucalyptus branches.

Because neither redwood nor eucalyptus drop their greenery in winter it was hard to see the birds except in flight. But when I went back out in late afternoon the action had shifted to our yard. The skies had clouded over and, in the bare branches of the locust tree by the garage, plenty of plump, chesty silhouettes were visible against a luminous grey field of light. 

The mood was much quieter. Most of the birds were too stuffed to do more than chirp -- or perhaps burp -- contentedly and wait politely for their turn to fly over to the small, ivy-covered plum tree.


Just a few birds at a time held sway in the spindly branches of the plum tree, occasionally dropping down into the mass of ivy for a few last tidbits. A fine closing to a fine day.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Glorious Gloom

It seems churlish to complain about a long series of bright days with clear skies, but that's what's been going on on the West Coast as farmers look to their water tables, planners measure the reservoirs, and skiers long for snow. With a dry December followed by a dry January the Sierra snow pack is at 30% of normal and the big ski resorts have resorted to trucking in machine made frozen white stuff that isn't really snow. Where are the winter storms????

Let me add a gardener's voice to the chorus. It feels odd to have to water the backyard at this time of year. I'm even watering the weeds. The patches of volunteer miner's lettuce, usually lush swaths of green-gold splendor, are sparse and pale. Yesterday, therefore, was a welcome respite from the relentless blue glare overhead as a dark cloud cover swept in and released not nearly enough rain for the big picture but plenty for the enjoyment of the moment and a brief pick-me-up for the plants.

This morning I tried to take some pictures of the glorious gloom before the mists dissipated. Hooray for a grey day!!