Now it’s November and the mercury, if we still had mercury in our thermometers, reached a high of only -9 C today. The wind is sharp. It cuts through fall clothing like shards of glass, seeking out seams to slice between. It’s not that -9 is that cold in Fahrenheit — only just under 16 degrees — but the negative numbers send psychological chills to our bones.
There is no snow, only skiffs sometimes in the morning. It fills driveway cracks and teases small insects into to hiding under garden debris. I make an absent-minded note to cut off the ugly stems of the globe thistles, but I know it won’t get done, and what does it matter, after all? The stark bare stalks, now standing sentinel-erect, will finally bow to the will of winter and, just like the rest of the perennials, return their borrowed nutrients to the earth.
The peonies huddle in the cold. I don’t cut them back in deference to the advice of an old gardener who would know much more than I. He says leaving them standing will protect their hollow stems from carrying rain water and snow melt down to rot their roots. Yet . . . I find myself sometimes doubting old-timer advice — it often doesn’t correlate with the logic I have learned. After all, the winter-broken stems will still be open to let snow melt in come spring, cut down or not.
Another local garden guru advises me to fertilize my Christmas cactus when it is in bloom. This makes no sense to me when I know that plants need sunlight to photosynthesize and use up fertilizers, yet Christmas cactus blooms in the darkest days of late autumn or early winter. Seems to me the time to fertilize them is before they go into semi-dormancy with the darkening of the days which stimulates the output of their flowers.
I awake this morning to find that the snow has slipped silently over the land through the night. It’s very quiet now at day break, the usual sounds hushed by a thin white blanket and the world seems clean and calm.
It is Remembrance Day, November 11, 2014, 70 years after D-Day, 100 years after the outbreak of the first Great War. It is odd how this day stands out in my memory over the years. I think of a day back in school, a warm sunny day in November, when a girl suddenly fainted at a ceremony as we stood silently remembering those who had died. One moment she was standing straight and rigid beside me, the next, she was flat on her back, not crumpling the way you would think one would fall, but falling backward and landing with a thud.
I think of the five Remembrance Days that I served in Parliament, each of them solemn and heavy with feeling as we laid wreaths in darkened rooms and took part in the great theatre of official remembering.
November 11 has also been a joyous day, celebrating the birth of my first daughter, Lori, who is as perfect and as pretty as the poppy that commemorates this day.
Ah, that poppy, Papaver rhoeas, the field popy, the poppy of Flanders Fields, the poppy that is one of the seed bank plants whose seeds can lie dormant for many years until the soil is disturbed by some physical event. During the war, artillery falling in the fields of Europe caused the poppies to spring up, staining the landscape red and inspiring Colonel John McCrea to write the poem whose words are etched in my brain:
In Flanders Field, the popplies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
A shiver runs down my spine as I read. In my mind, I can see what McCrea saw — the scarlet flowers, the white crosses, the birds winging overhead against a cloudless blue sky while the booming of distant guns bears testimony to death and destruction.
At 11:00, I will take that two minutes to reflect, thinking of my father and how the war killed him although he returned physically unharmed. He was just a child when they sent him off to the front, only 18, and what he saw and experienced never left him. My father had a poet’s soul. The horrors of war gouged out deep furrows of sorrow that no amount of singing or playing or reciting nonsense poems could ever erase.
But today, thanks to my darling daughter Lori, is also a day of rebirth and celebration, so after the sorrow at 11, I will go on to celebrate the lovely part of life; that it renews itself, just as in a garden the plants re-emerge each spring from their own particular type of dormancy, whether it be from seed or bulb or from sugars stored in roots. The sun will spread its warmth again. Tender leaves will spring on delicate stems from trees suddenly exhuberant, released from their long winter sleep.The beauty will return.
And yet, in its way, this first day of snow is also welcome, bringing calm, quiet and repose swathed in gentle folds of white. There is a time for waking and a time for sleeping and both are lovely.
Last weekend we asked Dave Lutes of Treewise to help us put up the Christmas lights on our blue spruce tree. It had grown too tall for Glenn to reach the top with his makeshift tool fashioned from a pool brush with an extension and a hook. We expected Dave to arrive with a truck and a cherry picker. Instead he arrived, well-covered, and shimmied up the centre of the tree like some overgrown cat.
Dave is a tree man, extraordinaire. His view is a lofty one from the tree tops, his preferred perch. His affinity for trees is natural and unbreakable. As he climbed our tree, he dislodged insects nesting in its centre and broke off dead branches, removing these irritating things from the tree’s trunk. I imagine it sighing in relief.
We thank you, Dave. And our spruce thanks you, too.