“It takes a very long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso
Late in June of 2014 we moved from the Providence home in which we had lived for almost thirty years to Middletown. Riding our bikes yesterday we saw cottontail rabbits again—four of them in a field adjacent to Oliphant Lane along our regular route. On rides earlier in the month I wondered if they would be so numerous as last June and why we had yet to see any this year: a matter of timing as it turns out. At least a year is needed to begin to know a new house, a new locale, a new life: four seasons, weather, and changes slow and sudden, the idiosyncrasies of house upkeep.
We missed the spring last year here: the wild palette of color that catches our eyes and our breath. Soil is rich on Aquidneck Island; many small farms, a couple of large nurseries (one across the street) and at least two commercial vineyards attest to its fecundity. So do our gardens and the diverse flora, both wild and somewhat tamed. After a challenging cold, snowy winter, the spring came “on little cat feet,” tenuously with false starts, and later in all its finery. Early the forsythia, then lilacs, cherry blossoms pink, horse chestnuts white, our pear and apple trees, purple azaleas, rhododendron, and more recently both pink and white dogwood with the Rose of Sharon yet to come. We hung bird feeders and planted flower beds, raised vegetable beds, three blueberry bushes and a moderate sized twenty by twenty garden. Last year we planted little, as we were late to the task.
The bird feeders drew a large crowd: goldfinch, red winged blackbirds, mourning doves, pairs of cardinals, winter wrens, and downy woodpeckers, some unwelcome grackles and gray squirrels. Gianna, now seven, fashioned a bird house from a half gallon cardboard milk container after getting a lesson at the local Norman Bird Sanctuary; one of the wrens moved in. The smaller female squirrel fed on the ground underneath the seed feeder from some that we scattered and some that we and our guests dropped. She remained unmolested by me although a red tailed hawk noticed, but as yet has not made a dive for her. The male squirrel, undeterred even after we hung an unjustifiably guaranteed squirrel proof plastic hood, required some discouragement with a few stings from an underpowered (one or two pumps) BB gun. The rabbits so far have left our garden alone, but the blueberries needed some netting while they ripen. We share with the birds a good mix of seed and suet from the Agway store, but draw the line on the blueberries.
We have lived rural, and we have lived urban. Middletown is a mixture, but tends toward rural, which taken as a whole is better. The shrubs and trees in Middletown are for the most part less hacked than those in the city. City folk’s drive to tame untamable things mars the landscape with shaped, shorn, unnatural shrubbery and trees cultivated like the gelled, fashionable hair of a vain, just past his prime news anchor on a small market local broadcast. Here, there is less of it.
“Gardeners may create order briefly out of chaos, but nature always gets the last word, and what it says is usually untidy by human standards.” Diane Ackerman
The second tree climbing job I had was for Allen Tree Experts in 1968 between living in Northampton in Western Massachusetts and moving to Colorado. Ellis Allen was a third generation tree warden for the Town of Medfield, Mass. President of the Mass Arborists Association, Ellis was the most knowledgeable of any the many people I worked for in the trade. In his private practice, we worked for the wealthy who could afford him in nearby towns like Dover and Sherborn on estates and gentlemen farms. Boston high-rise buildings were visible from the top of tall oaks and elms. Customers included ex-governor Frank Sargent and former U.S. Senator and Governor Leverett Saltonstall. Ellis was exacting in his instructions and standards; he would suffer no shears—electric or manual. Shrubs were to be pruned precisely with hand snips: no grotesquely mangled Andromeda or Japanese maple, cropped azaleas; no shattered yews. Cuts were made one at a time by skilled hands, angled back into the center of the plant so they didn’t show with casual observation. The objective was a gently disciplined planting that retained the natural shape of its residents. Ellis would fire someone who could not learn the technique and artistry, or he would consign them permanently to chain saws and stump grinding.
We worked for several weeks in Dover on the eighty acre estate, now long since subdivided, of Mrs. Adams, a direct descendent of John and John Quincy. She was elderly, kind and, while self-possessed with the poise of aristocracy, unpretentious. Her chauffer driven 1938 Plymouth caught her spirit. On the farm estate was a smaller house for the butler and another for the groundskeeper, who directed all the comings and goings of arborists. Mrs. Adams would overlook all; she and Ellis were kindred when it came to all things green. She was the president of the garden club and had been since The War. A large greenhouse adjacent to one of the barns protected award winning orchids and roses. Each day at break time, the cook would bring out fresh coffee and still warm rolls for the staff and the visiting tree climbers.
Once Ellis sent me to find a hundred and fifty year old pin oak that towered thirty feet above the canopy of the surrounding trees fifty yards from the house. Mrs. Adams observed it every morning from her breakfast balcony; several minutes of dead reckoning were needed to find it in the woods. I trimmed just the protruding top most of the morning, leaving the cut branches on the ground where they fell. Another afternoon, I fine pruned a forty foot linden–not like a city chopped lollipop linden, but retaining its innate figure. I used hand snips without a bucket truck. Climbing skills out at the end of the branches were important working for Ellis.
“In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.” Aldo Leopold