Saturday, March 31, 2012


March came in like a lamb and is going out like one, too. I raise a silent cheer for lambs, then, and for spring green, pileated woodpeckers (just saw a huge one on our wood pile), fresh mint (sprouting in our garden) and a backyard still in progress.

The double-barreled tree trunk by the fence, it can still be turned into a funky water feature. And the day lilies we transplanted, they may still bloom. Springtime has many charms, but chief among them is potential, the light and the growing season that lie ahead of us. Would that I could always feel the promise of each day.

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Room with a View

When I was a kid, I liked to climb trees. Not as a daredevil would, not to the highest branches, but high enough that I could see our house and yard from a new angle. It was like standing on my head, something else I liked to do back then.

Now I dream of a cabin on a ridge. Mountains will rise in the distance, a ribbon of river binding them to earth. And beyond them, clouds will pile plump as pillows. It will be hard at times to tell the mountains from the clouds, the soil from the sky. But I will know the horizon and my place in the world.

Is this the allure of views, then, that they help us belong? Or is it the opposite: that they teach us to escape?


Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Grace of Good Company

It's springtime in Washington, which means we host friends we haven't seen in years. They come from the city and the suburbs, from the Midwest and the West Coast. And they bring with them a whiff of the way things used to be, of the pre-suburban me. They remind me that there is a grace that flows from good company.

Last night there were 12 of us in our small kitchen, friends and kids of friends, eating and laughing and talking about everything from the Supreme Court health care debate to the plethora of Chicago microbreweries.

Roots and seedlings aren't the only things being stirred to life this time of year.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012


The rains fell and the winds blew and now there is a new palette in our woods. The brown of autumn and winter, of crushed leaves and dry twigs, has given way to green.

Not just one green but many. There is the iridescent hue of new leaves sprouting on the cottonwood tree. The dark sheen of skunk cabbage and may apple as it sprouts in the lowlands. The verdant tips of new hedge growth. We live not in monochrome but in kodachrome (and probably something much more up-to-date that doesn't rhyme).

As the green grows, the brown recedes. We no longer pad upon a bed of leaves but a carpet of grass.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lamp Light

Our neighborhood has no street lights. The night walker's way is lit by the diffuse glow of lamp lights, porch lights and garage lights. To make our way through the darkness we depend upon each other.

Though I grew up with street lights (and measured time by them), I have always liked our neighborhood's softer, more individual, approach to pedestrian lighting.

But recently something has happened to our neighborhood light. It's no longer the fuzzy yellow halo I've come to count on. It's a bright white interrogator-like glare. And that's because more homeowners now use compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, which cost less, last longer and are better for the environment (in the long run).

As for our environment in the short run — the mellow-lit porches and lamps as faint beacons along a garden path — that is endangered.


Monday, March 26, 2012


Last night, a stroll through the spring twilight. The street was quiet; only a few last-minute mulchers still covering their garden beds. (Tonight we will be covering tender plants against the predicted freeze.) To the west, the sky was streaks of brightness and a smudged contrail. To the east, a gathering darkness. In every direction, a softness born of moist soil and budding trees.

Tulips are up, dogwood is blooming and Bradford pears waning. The Kwanzan cherry in our front yard has erupted with its double pink blossoms like big greedy fists.

What was stark and monochromatic has become pliable and pastel. I left an empty vessel, and with every step I was refilled.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Left Behind

A dawn chorus draws me outside. Bird song, crow caw, the rat-a-tat-tat of the woodpecker. I walk without earphones, content with the music of the morning.

On my way I spot a herd of deer. Three leap across the road in front of me, but with that finally honed sense of suburban wildlife presence, I have a feeling there are more. And soon I spot another herd, five or six of the little guys, grazing on new plants and leaves.

As the two groups merge and bound into the woods, I spot one little fellow who's been left behind. Forlorn and nervous, he paws the ground with his small hoof. I realize suddenly that I'm the one who's cut him off from his kin, that he can't get to the others because I stand in his way.

I pick up my pace so he can catch up with the others. So that I no longer have to see him surrounded by basketball hoops and mulch bags, a creature as out of place as I am.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Leaves Beginning

As spring proceeds at warp speed I strain to catch the hedge in front of my office as it erupts with new growth. I've written about this hedge before, about the moment in its unfolding when the pink of the bud and the green of the leaf are in equipoise.

This year it caught me by surprise, but I'm glad I noticed. It's important to see the hedge at its beginning, to travel the journey of the growing season together. To be able to say, I knew those leaves when they were born; heck, I knew them even before they were born.

They are tender at this point in their emergence, with all their young leaf life before them. Later on they will undoubtedly be hot and tired and weary of being green. If only they could remember how they look now, the rosy splendor of their emergence. That's why I look and linger. I'll remember it for them.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Once Again

The cherry trees blossom on their schedule, not on ours. So you rush to them after work, even if it's cloudy and threatening rain, even if you know there will be a crush of people there.

Maybe, in fact, it's because of the people. Their faces as careworn and hopeful as last year, their picnic baskets and cameras in tow. They are here, as I am, for renewal.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wild Places

A few days ago I wrote about Robert Macfarlane's book The Wild Places, how the author sought remote mountaintops and bogs as comfort and as challenge. I'm almost finished with the book now, and Macfarlane has learned something.
-->He talks about the wildness that is all around us, the simple views of field and fern that may be recorded in a journal or a letter or may not be recorded at all but simply held in mind.
Most of these places, he says, "were not marked as special on any map. But they became special by personal acquaintance. A bend in a river, the junction of four fields, a climbing tree, a stretch of old hedgerow or a fragment of woodland glimpsed from a road regularly driven along — these might be enough."

A few paragraphs later, Macfarlane says this: "It seemed to me that these nameless places might in fact be more important than the grander wild lands that for so many years had gripped my imagination."

To take Macfarlane's idea one step further: These nameless places are what attach us to a place, what make us feel bound to the land around us. This morning, I think about my own "wild places."

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Heart With Pleasure Fills

I’m thinking of that poem, the one we learned in elementary school, the one that seems jaded and obvious — until you stumble upon it in real time.

The other day I rounded the corner of a paved path and there was my own "host of golden daffodils.”

Or not my own, actually. That was the beauty of it. They were for everyone, were wild and free, glorifying not just a single backyard but a widespread and well traveled community woods. Tucked among the oaks and maples and just a few feet away from the skunk cabbage.

I slowed my pace as I strode beside them, wanting to savor their beauty as long as possible. Other amblers did the same that sweet spring morning. There was a hush in the air, a reverence for the blossoms.

I did not wait for “the inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude.” I took no chances. I used a camera. And now, as I look at the photograph, I remember the flowers' surprising presence in that parceled suburban landscape. The words flow into my mind before I can stop them: “And then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils.”

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Monday, March 19, 2012

In Their Glory

On Saturday morning I took one of my favorite walks — through the Franklin Farm meadow, around a lake, through a woods and back home. It is a varied terrain of shade and sunlight, and the day was so warm I could feel the old earth turning and sending its shoots skyward. Geese were grazing on deadnettle and other early spring flowers.

I've walked this way for years now and no longer see just the path ahead of me, the rough fields on either side. I see what has been and what will be again, the tall grasses of midsummer, the chicory and Queen Anne's lace. I hear the crescendo of cicadas. The meadow soil has a memory, and so do I.

The walk was so lovely that I went back later with my camera. The setting sun slanted across the pond and lit up the cattails. I found a spot under a Bradford pear where I could snap meadow, pond and woods. All these humble sights that I look on in my wanderings, that have made me feel connected to this place, they were transformed in the mellow light of early evening. I saw them in their glory — and captured them that way.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Walk in Ireland

The walks we took in Ireland: along Grafton Street in Dublin, through the arch in Galway City, to the ends of the earth at the Cliffs of Moher.

The walk I remember most: An ordinary one in Donegal, fuchsia hanging along the hedgerows. The fuchsia surprised me. I thought of it as a hothouse plant, something to be coddled. But in Ireland it thrived on neglect — along with rain, mist and the soft Irish air.

This walk I remember with the fuchsia was down a small lane. The sun seemed never to set, and our summer would never end. This was a long time ago.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Wild Time

A walk can be a passage out of time, a way to move from the world of clocks and calendars into a suspension of schedule and duty, so that I attend only to what is under my feet and before my eyes.

Today, reading The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, I found a poet's explanation for why this is so. Macfarlane seeks out wild places, moors and islands and ridges that are remote and dangerous to reach. He plumbs them for their beauty and lessons. In a valley on the Isle of Skye, he finds a sanctuary, "the allure of lost worlds or secret gardens."

"Time in the Basin moves both too fast and too slowly for you to comprehend, and it has no interest in conforming to any human schedules. The Basin keeps wild time."

The reason, he reckons, lies in a quotation by a nameless source: "Landscape was here long before we were even dreamed. It watched us arrive."

Even in the suburbs, the deep creek beds and tall oaks predate our arrival. I seek them out for their separateness and their nonchalance. They put my world in perspective. They keep their own wild time.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

New Neighborhood

Yesterday, a walk in a new neighborhood: Strolling down a paved path that flanked a busy suburban byway, I crossed under the road through a pedestrian tunnel, automatically plugging my nose as I learned to do in New York, but unnecessarily, since the only whiff I got was of concrete.

The path wound along a creek, where gangs of loose-limbed kids sifted the water, looking for tadpoles. I could see the road I needed to be on, but took a chance that the path would bring me back where I'd begun.

I passed willows that gleamed with the first green of spring. And farther along there were more kids, careening down the path on too-big bikes or too-small scooters. A playground sign that said "For children ages 5-9" had been altered: "For children ages 5-59." Young mothers threw back their heads and laughed. No one seemed to have a care.

I know that the homes along the path sheltered bankruptcies and infidelities, rebellious teenagers and addled grandparents. It was just that, in that early spring light, these didn't seem to matter. It seemed like a new beginning, like an Eden.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

First Things

Has it come to this then, writing a post about not writing a post? Or, I should say, writing a post about not writing a post first thing in the morning and hence being waylaid, side-stepped, distracted and otherwise shut off from those first pure moments. It's not yet 10 a.m., but on days I come into the office, I usually write before 6. Four hours later, I can see how easy it would be to not write at all. Let this, then, be a post about finding time, about deciding what will be automatic and what will not.

"Make it as much a part of your day as brushing your teeth," say the gurus of exercise/meditation/daily writing/morning prayer. But how many automatic elements can one day hold? Aren't our days already full to bursting?

All the more reason to plan carefully how we begin. To decide what will come first; to consider what, at the end of the day, we will most regret having not done.

I choose to begin with writing. Most days, I follow the plan. When I don't (like today, for instance), it doesn't take long to remember why I do.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Borrowed Time

This morning's drive was a return to darkness, and yesterday's walk was strangely lit. The shadows slanted more steeply and the sun hovered closer to the horizon.

It was surprising for a moment until I remembered we had set our clocks forward. Mornings are inky now and after dinner-walks a distinct possibility. We have taken matters into our own hands. We are living on borrowed time.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Good Fences

The fence was built but it needed reinforcing, so on Saturday I helped my brother hammer chicken wire into split rails. A small task, and gladly done. Now his dogs will be free to romp and play in their new home. The fence will give them freedom.

"Good fences make good neighbors," Frost wrote. But these words are spoken by the neighbor; they appear in quotation marks. The poem begins:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun ...

And, later:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors?' Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall...

Something there is, true. But that doesn't stop us from building them.

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Saturday, March 10, 2012


The woods awakens, sends green shoots from leaf loafs, muddies ponds with tadpole eggs, raises our hopes — only to dash them in a brisk wind or a sudden chill. At this point, spring is more a whisper than a promise, the slim strong arms of a young girl.

I hold my breath that it will once again unfold.

Photos: Tom Capehart

Friday, March 9, 2012


The solar flare did not disrupt airplane travel or satellite communication, but it did create enough gravitational pull to allow our broom to stand up on its own. I missed seeing the real thing, had to content myself with this photo that my family took yesterday mid-afternoon.

It brings to mind the movie "Fantasia," the dancing broom that Mickey used to help him fill the well. His broom becomes manic, demonic, as it spins and dances to the music of Dukas' "Sorcerer's Apprentice." I can hear the melody in my mind now, its accelerando and crescendo, its sense of abandonment, of spinning out of control.

Our broom didn't dance. But it did stand. That's "Fantasia" enough for me.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Wood Pile

We don't own a farm — but we do own a backyard, and our greatest export is firewood. The tall oaks through whose branches the wind chatters and sighs, the second growth forest that has shaded us in the summer and given us pause in the winter (how many more wind storms and ice storms can that one stand?) is not healthy these days. We've lost a lot of good trees. And at least two of them have been lying for months (even years) in large chunks in the nether regions of our yard.

So on a wind-whipped morning last week, Tom rented a wood splitter and set about the task of turning logs into firewood. He had done this once before, but the wood wasn't seasoned. This time the logs split quickly, crackling as they went. The hum of the machine and the hiss of the great logs as they gave way lent our yard a lumber-yard excitement. It was an all-hands-on-deck family chore. We were part of an endeavor that has kept humankind busy since the beginning of time — building a fire, creating warmth, staying alive.

It took two days but the heap of logs is now a pile of firewood, some stacked, some not. All the summers and winters the trees spent upright on earth are now pent up in split, brown, burnable parcels. From life to death and back to life again.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Afternoon Light

The late-day walk is sun-scorched, quick-timed. The cars don't see you coming. In the lengthening days of new spring, it is still raw and cold, so I don't linger on the path. The point is decompression. The jingle-jangle of the subway, the pressure of the deadline — these will slip away in the balm of foot fall. Or at least that is the hope.

But afternoon light is desolate. It lacks the comfort of the morning. I find no explanation for this in science, only in poetry:

There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Miss Dickinson to the rescue. She understands.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Marquez and Memory

When I read this morning that today is the birthday of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, born in 1927 and still living, I thought of his best book. Not 100 Years of Solitude, which took me almost 100 years to read (though I did eventually finish it). But Love in the Time of Cholera.

It has been several years since I read this novel, but I still remember the transcendent last chapter, when the beautiful but aged Fermina and Florentino, the man who has waited 50 years to be with her, take a steamboat voyage down a river bloated with corpses.

Love triumphs over death is the theme, but I can remember little else of that last chapter, only that I held my breath from the beauty of the language and the depth of the thoughts. This morning I've looked for quotations that might give a hint of this book's grandeur and I found this one by Florentino: "Love becomes nobler and greater in calamity."

But I'll leave the last words to Thomas Pynchon and a review of the book he wrote for the New York Times in April, 1988:

There is nothing I have read quite like this astonishing final chapter, symphonic, sure in its dynamics and tempo, moving like a riverboat too, its author and pilot, with a lifetime's experience steering us unerringly among hazards of skepticism and mercy, on this river we all know, without whose navigation there is no love and against whose flow the effort to return is never worth a less honorable name than remembrance -- at the very best it results in works that can even return our worn souls to us, among which most certainly belongs Love in the Time of Cholera, this shining and heartbreaking novel.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Hidden Island

An early morning walk today revealed an island I'd never noticed before. Hidden, but hidden in plain sight. Hidden only in that from the pond's shore it wasn't, at first, clear that the knoll was surrounded by water.

Once I realized what I was looking at I stared more closely at that piece of earth, its small tree and the moss that ringed its banks. How dignified it looked, its solitary state more noticeable in the quiet, gray morning.

An island offers peace and retreat. A stillness that flows from location. More than wanting to be on the island, I wanted to be the island.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Stepping Out

The rain had stopped, but the wind had not yet come up when Copper and I left for a walk. He was restless, pulling on his leash. I was content to trot along behind him. The sky was gray, but I wore sunglasses.

Water was pooled in low places, and the trees were darkly drenched. The air was warmer than it ought to be. No longer a false spring; now it is the real thing.

I thought about how good it is to step out of the house, how the air can coddle us, can wipe our minds clean.

By the end of our walk, the sun had broken through the clouds.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Landscape, Still

"Landscapes are, in general, one of the few predictables we have."
Deborah Tall, From Where We Stand

As I walk and write and think about the place we live, about its texture and topography and my ability to bond with it, I enjoy collecting the thoughts and experiences of others who have made similar journeys.

Deborah Tall moved to Geneva, New York, to teach, and From Where We Stand is the story of her becoming connected to that place. She does it through coming to know and love the landscape, particularly the lake, and she does it through learning the history of its people.

The Finger Lakes Region has made her its citizen by throwing her back on the land, she says, "instead of distracting me with urban amenities."

In the suburbs it is easy to be distracted with urban amenities. Here we are only 10 minutes drive from one mall and 15 minutes from another. Our landscape is mostly hidden from view by large houses and strip malls.

But get out of the car, cut through back yards, find the hidden trails, and you will find landscape. It is still here.


Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Call of the Wild

We live in a tame world that is full of wild things. Deer run and play and graze in herds of a dozen or more. They scamper away when they sense us nearby — but not before they have taken all the blooms off our lilies or hostas. Bears have been spotted as close in as Falls Church and as close by as Loudoun County, a few miles west.

Sometimes at night we hear a fox. The sound is piercing, unnerving, otherworldly. Easily mistaken for a riled up cat or any animal on its deathbed.

We heard it a few nights ago, a keening cry that made Copper bark and me leap out of bed. It took a few minutes of waking up and orienting myself before I realized what had caused the ruckus.

Ah, it's a fox, I said to myself. That which was once alien and unknowable is now familiar — in a wild sort of way.


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