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Abundance

A week before the end of May, summer begins. In the late morning, it is nearly 70ºF, and the air is damp and heavy, weighted with the scent of blossoming crabapples and lilacs and a sharp, green note of mown grass. For the first time in months, my legs don’t itch. Santiago and I are at a large suburban park. As we follow lakeshore and tramp through woods on a wiggling loop of a trail, warm weather motifs present themselves. I see my first hummingbird of the season, darting across a sundial planted in the ground then shooting up into a just-leafed sapling. On a narrow path, Santi tugs me past branches that wet my shirt with lingering overnight rain as a chipmunk scurries in the understory. When I bend to retrieve poop that the dog has deposited, I encounter a toad as black and brown as the weathered leaves upon which he rests, nearly invisible. Beside a dock, a great blue heron stands as still as an anchor in the water then lifts into the sky as we pass, her hunched back and snaking neck like something ancient and sacred.

Humans, too, are in their summer poses. Two men are unpacking fishing gear on a bridge. As Santiago and I cross, making our way to a wishbone of land in the middle of the lake, one of the men–gray-haired and burly–turns from his bags and buckets and squints at Santi. When we near, he bends over and takes the dog by the jowls.

“Nobody gives you love, do they? No, they don’t. They don’t love you enough. It’s terrible,” he says.

The man baby-talks and scratches Santi about the ears, and Santi sashays and wags his tail.

On the island, near the shore where lake breezes will cool them, two women in yoga clothes are doing downward dog. They are mirroring each other, their rumps in the air forming a miniature mountain range. A recording narrates their next moves. We follow two mothers pushing strollers to the end of the island. As Santiago noses for ducks among the reeds, high, childish voices can be heard wondering aloud if they are wearing the right kind of underwear. Moments later, squeals of delight skip across the ripples formed around chubby legs wading in the water. We pass women talking softly in the shade of a picnic shelter and a man nestled in beach grass, a pole in the water. When we return to the mainland, the fisherman’s companion–wearing dark sunglasses under an ice cream whip of white hair–roots around in a sack and gives Santiago a treat. Santi lies down on the bridge, then, and refuses to leave, begging for more. I have to pull him away with both hands.

It is hot. The humidity makes it so. Santi’s tongue hangs from his mouth, and my skin is sticky with perspiration. I want to stop walking–earlier than we would if it were cool–to take Santiago to the car, to ease into this warm weather activity. I want to leave him with the windows rolled down and go into the park building and order an iced coffee and a cup of water. But Santi has more enthusiasm than caution. He has not yet smelled all the smells that are capering in this place, and he resists moving toward the parking lot. So we stroll up to the building and sit outside on a bench beneath an awning and breathe the air.

The world is filled with pairs of women, and two more approach us. One uses a walker. Her hair is ashen, and she seems uncertain behind her glasses. The other has a ponytail that bounces and eyes that crinkle into smiles. They are both wearing masks. They sit down on a bench next to ours. Santiago stands up and greets them, heedlessly weaving himself around the walker, searching for hands to lick and faces to sniff. The woman with the ponytail crinkles her eyes. She encourages the woman with the walker to pet the dog. The woman does, and her shoulders fall. We exchange names, and the women offer to sit with Santiago and breathe the air while I buy cold drinks. When I return with a cup in each hand, Santi licks the condensation from the lid of my coffee. I hurry him to the car to pour his water into a bowl. The women thank me for sharing him.

Summer is like this: a season in which we become visible to one another, and shed our uncertainty, and share.

The yard seems to have flourished overnight. Tiny shoots are suddenly six inches tall and elbowing at their neighbors. Another oak tree on the street has come down, and the morning sun is now ardent with plants accustomed to more gentle love-making; their leaves go limp until the shade touches them in the afternoon. The Kentucky coffee trees–such late-bloomers that a previous neighbor mistook them one spring for dead–leaf out at last, and monarchs begin visiting the prairie garden, flitting from butterfly weed to butterfly weed. The nannyberry blooms with little, white bridal bouquets, and bumblebees buzz loudly as they tuck into purple poms of Virginia waterleaf. Star of Bethlehem that appeared along the garden walk several years ago twinkles in the sunlit mornings, and the first yellow blooms of wood sorrel appear beside tiny, clover-like leaves.

With abundance comes duty. Though Santiago harried from under the front stoop a nesting rabbit some weeks ago, young bunnies nonetheless make their way to the yard. They eat first through slender arms of columbine, then, after I wrap those plants with plastic fencing, through flowering lavender-hued wood phlox. I wrap those, too, until I run out of fencing. It is all right. I am not planting gardens. I am creating habitat: a place for rabbits to live with bees and butterflies.

The honeysuckle has grown, as it does every year, into a small asteroid that threatens to roll through the house. I prune it and sweep up yellow strings of oak catkins that make me sneeze. Meanwhile, samaras fall from a neighboring silver maple like a plague of locusts. They litter the lawn. They are in every pot of herbs and jammed between the slats of the deck. They are under the windshield wipers of my car, in my hair and in my bra, and lying in a fat layer on top of the roof and gutters. They crunch beneath my feet. When I cross the yard or sit on the deck, I am pelted on the head, the back, the arm with seeds. Trees attempt to generate themselves in bowls of yogurt, in glasses of wine. The sweeping will continue for a month. It is a fair price to pay for shade.

Santiago lies in the sun as I work. He is limp like the plants, eyes closed, black back heating like coals, happy. A friend who is a landscaper texts that he is dead-heading flowers at a private residence. With his hands, with his sweat, he sees what others have acquired. I collect branches, pods, winged seeds, catkins–all the gifts of my shadowy places–and offer them to neighbors whose yard is gifted mainly with light. They add the mixture to their compost bin and give me pumpkin sprouts that have come up there. I plant the sprouts among my prairie clover, and water them, and hope. In the evening, I open my front door to find a bottle of blooming peonies left for me on the stoop.

For a short time, summer runs away. I gather all the herbs to the sunniest side of the deck and drape them with a shower curtain each night. The tetchy plants get hauled back into the house: the lemon tree, the ficus, the hibiscus, the tomato plant. I get a worried email from the farmer who manages my CSA, sharing with subscribers the plan to cover crops as, for three nights, temperatures fall into the thirties.

They are beautiful days. In the mornings, the electric fireplace makes quick work of the chill. In the afternoons, open windows let in air that is as light and sweet as cotton candy. I eat my meals on the deck, in slippers or bare feet, watching finches at the bird feeder. Santiago and I take long walks. The milkweed is already high and beginning to form beads of flowers. Beaches that were submerged in the spring sport soft, dry sand and are scattered with smooth driftwood. Salsify and wild rose and wood lupine are blooming, and grackles swoop from tree to tree in a green, young wood, their iridescent plumage glinting. We wander city streets, too, looking at smokestacks and steeples and old, brick libraries, and buying spicy burritos and licorice chip ice cream. In the nights, I get leg cramps.

And then an all-day rain falls, as generous as summer.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I am at my sister’s house, with my parents. It is cool. June bugs and caterpillars sidle across the sidewalks. There are six of us, and a pan full of brats, and for hours our laughter carries out the windows and into the corn fields. It has been nearly a year since I have seen so many people I love in one place.

Not long afterward, summer returns. She is visible on the horizon for several days, walking toward us, whistling. I water the yard to prepare for her arrival. That night, I turn on the air conditioning, and the next morning, Santiago and I are walking beside a lake. It will not be this cool again for a week, not even overnight. Where a road is blocked for construction, an eagle circles a motionless yellow crane that reaches above the trees. Joggers and bikers pass silently, as if fearful of the impending heat. Mallards sun themselves on boat docks, and a deer watches us from a little stand of trees, and the fleabane along the path is the same shade of pink as the sunlight icing the far shore. Wood ducklings skitter across a pond, peeping, as Santiago catches sight of them and lunges. At the beach, the wind off the waves is as pleasant as a dream, and a child’s toy lies abandoned in the sand.

It is perfect morning.

We hit a record high that day: 97º F. I draw every shade in the house. I turn on fans. By evening, the AC can no longer maintain the programmed temperature. Santiago and I sleep on top of the bed, without blankets. Every hour, I awake and blink at the clock, uncomfortable. I cry into my pillow, regretful about the world that I am sharing with generations to come.

In the days ahead, the temperatures will be even more punishing. Summer will unpack her humidity. And when Santiago lingers on a boardwalk, sniffing at a muskrat in the duckweed beneath; when a stranger in a convertible brakes to introduce us to the mutt on the passenger seat, ears to the wind; when the spiderwort blooms its ethereal purple and tiger swallowtails flutter in the sunshine; when Santi rolls in the grass while I watch a snapping turtle creep to a stream; and when I share news of that turtle, as if I have just seen in the next town a man who heals the sick, I will wonder if it is possible for the world to be any more beautiful.

To remind yourself of the staggering beauty of the world–and the bliss of dogs–visit the gallery.

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Landscape

The landscape has changed. At 6:24 on a Saturday morning, Santiago and I exit our house and are met with muted sunshine and the lumber-and-mold fragrance of fresh mulch. Tiny shoots and bundles of green plants reach out of the red-hued slivers and chunks of wood that form a swooping garden bed across our front yard. They reach toward the light in the eastern sky. The first time that Santi encountered this new garden, a week earlier, he peed on it and kicked up the mulch. Now he walks around its curved edge, on the turf grass that remains, or steps through the mulch when I am not looking, his large paws seeming to mind the welfare of the wee, tender plants.

Last fall, I took down a white oak in this space. It was diseased. Two feet away from it, in the neighbor’s yard, its twin had dropped its leaves in the spring and died. Before the truck and the crane and the saw and the grinder came, I stood on the sidewalk before my tree with a pastor and a cantor on an autumn evening, after supper. It was dark and chilly and lovely outside. I read the tree a story. The pastor spoke a blessing. The cantor led us in song. We put our hands on the bark of the tree and gave it our thanks and calmed its fears. I promised that I would do something good for the earth that it had lived in and loved.

Santiago and I head for the lake. Where a mulberry tree has strewn its fruits across the sidewalk, Santi tiptoes lightly through them on four feet like he does the garden plantings, but I hit one squarely under my right heel, and my left ankle is splattered with sticky, red juice. The summer scent is at full green: complex and sharp, immediate and nostalgic. As we approach the baseball diamond, a fox appears, exactly where foxes, over the years, have always appeared in this park. For a long moment, she stops to watch us–her ears comely and alert–before Santiago catches sight of her. She scampers into the woods then. We run after her, but she is fast and well-hidden. We move on.

Beside a bundle of high grass and piled stone at the edge of the lake, a family of Canada geese is sheltering where it always shelters. Concealed until we are upon them, the adults and the goslings–larger, now, and gaining their mature markings–launch into the smooth, blue water as Santiago and I pass along the sandy scrub. A heron, too, lifts off from the same bit of shoreline from which he startles us each week–motionless at first behind trees that the lake swallowed years ago and is not giving it back. The grass is soggy over the abandoned soccer field: sprinklers shower it overnight in spite of the fact that no games will be played this summer. Where patches of wildflowers have been planted, the soil is gray and dusty. There is no water for them. Overhead, acorns and chestnuts and pinecones drip from the branches, and here and there, a flash of orange or red leaves glints in the canopy. At the pinnacle of summer, its passing is present.

The new garden was put in by a friend. Twelve years ago, he worked in finance; the change to landscaping was deliberate. The morning that he arrives, Santiago is ecstatic to see him. There is running across the lawn and lying on the grass with my friend and his colleague as they work. The colleague was employed for many seasons at a hospital. When he couldn’t bear the strain of cancer patients and insurance agents any longer, he got a job outside. The men rub Santiago’s neck and scratch his chest. “He purrs,” says the colleague, with wonder. In the afternoons, I bring out chips and salsa and frozen lime pops, and Santiago moves from person to person, crunching with satisfaction when a tortilla chip falls his way. My friend puts in zinnias for free among the native perennials. They bloom now–pumpkin and safflower and wine–as the natives take their time, establishing roots.

For two days the men work. I am too excited to focus at my computer. Again and again, I get up to watch the stripping of the sod, the placing of the plants, the soil amendment, the digging, the mulching, the watering. I talk with my friend. When he moves a step closer to me under the sweet, morning sunshine, I move a step farther away. I wear a mask. After the garden has been planted, he drives up the street, waving goodbye. We have not hugged. Santiago has wagged his tail and smiled a wide smile over his long teeth and carried sentiment between our hands.

I visit my parents to celebrate Father’s Day. I don’t hug them either. We sit outside before newly planted crabapple trees in their back yard. Deer have browsed away the lowest branches. My father has been going through mementos, and together we look at photographs from his retirement party more than twenty years ago. I remember the great swan carved in ice but am surprised by how much we ourselves have changed: Dad’s waist has gotten smaller; my hair has gotten wavier; there was a time when it was customary for men to wear ties. I am profoundly grateful for the celebrations of recent years, those outings planned in the knowledge that our passing is already in us: a spring picnic at the dam; a glad, fat wander at the State Fair; the Armistice Day centennial with hand-warmers and hot cider and Taps and a flyover; an eightieth birthday party in the autumn at the arboretum with storytelling that made everybody cry. I am sorry for the young who have not yet made their memories, who are stuck in an endless present. They will have to reinvent what it is to seek adventure, to find happiness, to make love.

Heat is coming. But for days on end the weather is like a cashmere shawl across bare shoulders. Santiago and I walk among chipmunks under a sky filled with popcorn clouds. We examine a cairn that has been built in the shallow water where an oak-lined spit of land juts out into a lake. On a cloudy day, we take in the squash blossoms at a community garden and three crows at second base on another abandoned ball field. We catch a water-skier in the early morning, plowing the lake into waves the cause a mallard to bob and quack, and, on a boardwalk that smells of sunburned wood, a woman rides by with a dachshund in her bicycle basket.

In the cool evenings, I water my new garden, and to walk upon its soft mulch is to walk in the garden of God.

I wear mascara when I visit with my parents, and, a day later, I have a stye. My right eyelid is puffed and red and painful. I suppose that the makeup, having spent months idle in a little tin box on top of the toilet tank, has changed and become bad. I spend a week pressing hot compresses to my eye every few hours. The infection makes me tired, and I think about my vanity, about when I will be able to retire it. I think about Ecclesiastes. As buildings smolder and statues are toppled to the sea, I am aware that the new systems that we erect–better systems–will be vain, too, that they will be made in our own graven image, that there is no escaping this.

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

After Santiago and I walk on Saturday, I go to the farmer’s market. It is different. There are fewer people. Everyone is masked. I do not have to pin my elbows to my sides. I do not have to wait in long lines. The air is not heavy with sweat and cooking. When the vendors tell me about their teas and their quick breads and their honeys, I can hear them. The sun shines. The breeze moves. I buy garlic scapes and radishes and an orange-rhubarb pie. In the afternoon, I launder dog blankets, sweep carpets, take out recycling. I repot plants, snipping at their tired roots. I wash my hair. The world feels fresh.

On Sunday, Santiago and I wait out the train. The rail yard splits the loop that we are walking, and the train takes thirty-five minutes to stop and then to haul over one hundred cars on their way. Somewhere in the distance, it is switching tracks. While it sits, it clangs: the noise of change.

We have time. We peer into the windows of the closed library, where chairs are stacked on tables and signs advertise events that were to have happened months ago. In the dry grass near the railroad crossing, a groundhog sits motionless, the sunlight blond across her brown back. When Santiago gives chase, the groundhog disappears into a tangle of pretty pink vetch and creeping woodbine along a chain link fence bordering Canadian Pacific property. We walk through the woods beside a creek, shiny black damselflies fluttering around us, and when we emerge, the caboose is clattering past the rising arms of the gate.

When I pull into the driveway at home, a hummingbird is hovering in the old side garden. She stops to sip at each of ten tall stems of bee balm, their bright red blooms as long and lopped as a court fool’s cap. Santiago lies, contented, across the back seat of the car. I sit behind the steering wheel, engine off, and watch. What has changed in me is that I find it harder and harder to think of things that are more important than watching a hummingbird feed.

In the house, I give Santi a bite of a toasted rice bar with peanut butter in the middle. It’s from a chocolate shop that opened in the spring, during the lockdown. He likes it. I eat the part that is dipped in chocolate. I get a text from my sister. She visited my parents for Father’s Day. Dad saved an illegal hug for his granddaughter.

In the gallery, photos of summer.

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Weeds

It is a perfect morning. Shapely, gray clouds roll slowly across a white sky. The wind is strong. The soughing of it through summer leaves is soothing–nearly unheard but felt in the flesh, like the distant drone of a bagpipe. Tree trunks creak as they bend to it, and their green branches undulate in it like sea anemones under the waves. The air is cool like an autumn evening. A weathered, park staircase is slippery with old mud and last night’s rain, and blooming with mustard-colored moss. It leads to a meadow where bright yellow bird’s foot trefoil, white yarrow umbels, and broad leaves of common plantain are growing. Near an empty dog enclosure, Santiago stops to roll in mown grass popping with shaggy clover blossoms. He catches a scent, and we jog through the woods, doubling back, pursuing, eager, expectant, resigning. A lean-to built from fallen branches has expanded to include an open air porch under the canopy of the young forest. Mist drops from leaves tussled by the wind and I wonder, What would it feel like to own nothing?

It is the kind of day that I have loved since childhood: full of the emotion of nature. The softness of the clouds and of the wet earth follows a period of hard heat. Fans panted throughout the house for two days and could not press the indoor temperature below 76ºF. Outside, it was 97º. I slept on top of the bed, waking again and again, sweaty, in the undark nights that began with fireworks set off on driveways or behind backyard fences. The midday sound of the block was a timpani of lawnmowers, power tools, sirens, and the shrieks of children. One afternoon as I sat working at my computer, a tickle on my shoulder was found to be a wood tick. Santiago had one, too.

When I tell people that winter is my favorite season, invariably they complain about driving, as if freeways and steel boxes on wheels were phenomena of the season. I love the compressed light of winter: the way that evening and morning twine into one, long braid and twilight hugs from both sides of the day, inviting us inside ourselves. I love walking as night falls atop snow so cold that it crunches, looking in on warmly lit kitchens where human beings cook and drift and nestle. I love the frost that etches intricate patterns on my drafty windows and the icicles that drip like jewels from the eaves. I love rabbit tracks in the snow. I love shoveling when the night is silent and I can see my breath on the air, and I love a long scarf and a fat pair of mittens. If there is an act of the natural world more breathtaking than the slow cosseting of all that is with falling snow, more mystical than the transformation of ordinary objects into wondrous white sculptures of frozen, crystalline dust, more blissful than the reminder that we are not in control, a more generous expression of pure Soul, I do not know what it is. These things are winter. Driving on snowmelt and black ice is a foolish thing that people do instead of listening to winter.

Before the heat, there are blond-haired, blue-eyed days–days with sunny skies and bare arms and sweet breezes, the kind that others consider perfect. Santiago nibbles as we walk, gobbling goldenrod and chomping tall grass like cigars. We encounter a snapping turtle on a gravel path above a pond. She is ancient and dusty and unmoving as Santi strains to get a sniff of her and I pull back to keep his nose intact. We wander beside railroad tracks, where yellow goat’s beard flowers tilt their chins to the sun and a killdeer scutters among the pebbles before us and the polka-dot feather of a downy woodpecker floats in a shaft of sunlight from an old oak down to the ground. We give chase one morning to a fox behind a baseball diamond and to a blue heron who takes flight from a lake fringed with fleabane and golden alexander. On a frontage road near the river, Santi seizes a young groundhog, grazing in the grass. He drops her when I squeal and shout the command, and the whistle pig sits still in the clover for a few rattled seconds–then toddles away on short, furry legs, so cute that I, too, want to seize her in my hands and smother her with the kisses of my mouth.

Santiago has given me summer. He has stripped me of my prejudice, my desire to tear the hot months out of the calendar. From his need, I have learned to love sturdy overalls, cool tank tops, and lightweight walking shoes. I have gained fairy gardens in the shade of deep purple irises, cats with striped tails creeping across manicured lawns, and young couples embracing in the lake breeze across a dock. When the heat ascended this past week, Santiago and I walked where the wind blew up from the Mississippi and where a hillside bloomed with the extraordinary blue-purple petals of spiderwort blossoms, and I felt at peace. I did not know summer when I was young. I blamed her for gassy speedboats and beer cans in the woods and shouting on the streets overnight. I avoided her out of fear of prickly heat and spiderwebs in my hair. I was ignorant.

My arms are welted with bumps and patches of itchy, red skin. I’ve been snipping spent blossoms of Virginia waterleaf and pulling bellflower from the yard in the mornings, after our walks, and in the evenings, after working at the dining room table during the day. I’ve been harassed by gnats, bitten by mosquitos, and swollen by the scratch of leaves. I am so engrossed in the labor–the joy of tending to this little plot of land and its inhabitants–that I hardly notice the discomfort. I used to think that it was troublesome on a dewy morning to walk with Santiago in the grass until my feet felt damp in their socks. I used to imagine that it hurt me in some way to have to pick up poop that Santiago left daintily atop a thorny thistle. My agitation was once great at biting flies that clung to his face and ears, so that I swatted at them as we jogged, and cursed, and thought myself deserving of better. But these things, too, are summer. They harm nothing. They do not need to be weeded out.

There is one cow parsnip in the yard. It is as high as a woman and blooming beneath a Kentucky coffee tree. The spring ephemerals have disappeared and the wood sorrel is just beginning to flaunt tiny, yellow flowers. The raspberry plants that were not eaten by rabbits last winter are producing pale beads of fruit that will grow and blush and be plucked for my breakfasts in the coming weeks. One of the neighbor boys asks me, “Have you found any toads in your yard?” He is exasperated by my inattention to toads. He points to a gathering of plants around my front stoop and says, “I’ll bet there’s some in those weeds.”

What he perceives as weeds are Jack-in-the-pulpit and miterwort, wild ginger and common milkweed, astilbe and ligularia, white snakeroot and yarrow. They are mostly shade plants with shy flowers, huddled together in friendship, not the spotlight-hogging blossoms of twentieth-century suburban landscaping. They are of the woodland, though I don’t discriminate in that way either; I will plant an Oriental lily purchased on a whim at the zoo. If the child has ascribed to plants whom he has not met the nasty nickname, “weed,” he nonetheless takes note of the value of my front-stoop soil. I am not erecting gardens; I am nurturing habitat. I cannot say if there are toads, but where the boy points is where spiders crawl and butterflies rest. It is where I found the cracked shell of a cardinal egg, flecked like milk toast, fallen from a nest in a nearby cedar. When the small blooms of these plants unfold, bees visit, and beneath the shelter of their green leaves rabbits hide their young.

The weather cools, and Santiago and I continue to walk, for all days are perfect. We wander an abandoned road where wild roses are blooming in the scrub and take in the graffiti underneath the highway. We zig-zag through our neighborhood, greeting the Dutch girl and St. Francis, the metal goats and the wooden raven, the laughing pigs and the silver dragon that live in the gardens of our town. Beside a railroad track in a beloved park, Santi flushes two deer from hiding. They pause among the horsetails, their cognac-colored coats smooth, their black eyes large and staring. When they run, Santiago cries a pitiable cry of longing. I make it up to him with a beef bone from the farmer’s market. He gnaws it on the deck, at home. The noise of his teeth against the bone and the bone–held in his paws and in his jaws–against the wooden deck, is the noise of summer.

I did not always pull the bellflower from my yard. For many years it made a contribution. It grew tall and bloomed with plentiful, purple flowers that hung, as the name suggests, like bell choirs. It thrived–like the plantain in the meadow–where the earth was sore, where a concrete foundation had lain, where stubborn attempts to grow turf grass in the profound shade had lead to exhausted bare soil. It was a different height and a different shape from the ferns and the violets and the Virginia creeper, and I did not have money for plants that would not take root in the rocky clay. This plant that is hectored as a Midwestern weed was, to me, necessary and lovely–like shifting gray clouds on a June day.

Santiago is snoring. He lies on the bed in the evenings, the pink, princess throw humped under his head for a pillow, limbs heavy and eyes pinched closed as the sun stays out late. The heat is fatiguing, and some nights the long walks that invigorate our mornings have us too tired to remember to eat supper. In my dreams, the world falls apart. I wake to a reality in which I can’t remember when I last got gas or paid cash; a world in which I wear the same clothes day after day; a world in which my work has been categorized as “non-essential” because that is what it is. Talking spreads the virus. I listen. Santi’s snores are the sound of contentment. I want to know what to pluck and what to water.

Pics of early summer with Santi are in the gallery now.