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Island Life

Well, for those who have been counting, or reading what goes on here, I have to say that so far the whole exercise thing has been a bust. I would say that in part, I have been avoiding the physical side of things because I’ve been trying to finish up other projects in deference to all those pre-resolution day sales and specials- the ones where if I finally edit the lectures I’ve been recording at the VCA for the past year, a certain local station will send me a check. I won’t say that it is a big check or one that will fund my holiday, tropical trip that was never happening. But I am happy with how they are turning out and it will be a relief to say that they are finally done, and then on to this year’s collection, and perhaps to some exercise with all the spare time I will now be freeing up. I will just have to figure out how to stop our pit bull from trying to chew on my bike shoe whilst pedaling inside on my trainer. I suppose I could do it on the porch, but then she would either just stick her head out the cat door and bark at me like some disembodied demon, or continue the destruction of the bottom glass panels on the door by incessantly scratching until I stop. In truth, a bit of that is just excuse making on my part.

The one thing I cannot put off with the holiday and birthday celebration fast approaching this week is the making of a card for one of our visitors. The taking of photos and printing of any kind of card is always a welcome break from most anything. It is one of those things that I look upon as being a gift of these modern times. I did many years ago also make cards and postcards from my photographs, but they were at times somewhat crude and mostly long in the making. I just find it a bit magical to be able to grab a camera and wander out into the yard and find some vision of intrigue that might easily move from digital image to digital print, sometimes in a matter of minutes. And with pre-made, folding cards and matching envelopes, it is a bit like having a Hallmark store in one’s own studio, hopefully without  the banal quotes and soft focus schmaltz.

One of my favorite outdoor subjects that barely requires a few steps out the back door is the gangly Viburnum x bodnantense that has been surviving in ever deepening shade next to the house for nearly thirty years. Even though it has now stretched so far that a few branches have tipped partly over and blocked a good bit of the back steps, I have resisted cutting it back in anticipation of it doing its thing, which is to flower in fall and early winter bloom. As it is, the white with pink clusters of buds have begun popping, and the branches that are over the steps and in much more sunlight than the rest of the plant, are dotted with these small bouquets. There are a few pink buds on the Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ that have started to open at a house up the road, but what they don’t have is any fragrance, which is always what I wait for with the viburnum. At this time of year especially, a new scent on the air is always welcome- what tends to keep it at bay though is the lack of warmth in the ambient air. Between the dumping rains and the chilly temperatures of the moment, one is hard pressed to detect any fragrance at all out there. But on the chance of a slightly warmer, drier day, one is rewarded with an aromatic, seasonal surprise as one passes underneath or nearby. While I have thought that cutting a branch with these flowers and bringing it into the relative warmth of the house would unleash a flood of fragrance to any room it is brought into, I have found that the best aroma production comes from a warm, spring-like day out of doors.

Of course, we do not get many warm, spring-like days around these parts this time of year, so I’m often left waiting for a viburnum fragrance window to appear. On the other hand and on the other side of the yard, the hybrid Oregon grape relative, Mahonia ‘Charity’ is now just starting to deck out its multiple clusters of six inch flower spikes with medium yellow flowers. Over its dark, spiny foliage, this mahonia seems to make its own sunshine, although it has no discernible fragrance. Another thing it does is attract any local hummingbirds that are still around to feast on a bit of natural nectar as an alternative to all of those red sugar water dispensers. Besides providing a stark tonal and textural contrast to these yellow spires, the dark and prickly foliage of this mahonia tends to snag any of the bright yellow, narrow lobed leaves of the Russian maple next to it that I grew from seed many years ago. Normally its yellow leaves tend to stand somewhat alone in the sequence of fall turnings, but it seems that this year the yellow chorus has been coaxed by some unseen force to all raise their leafy voices in unison. The same is usually true of the seedling snake bark maple next to the northeast corner of the house. It is normally the last to turn a brighter shade of yellow from a dark green in a matter of a few days, and usually later than its varied neighbors. But as I look out the north facing kitchen window, the dark columns of the towering firs are all interlaced with sweeps of salmon berry, birch, maple and alder, all turning at once.

While I had been kind of making note about what seemed to be a much more concerted fall foliage display around the house, it wasn’t until I went out for a drive around the Island the other day that it struck me how uniform this change has been this year. It helped that it was cloudy and raining, so instead of there being bright sun spots and dark shadow, everything was evenly lit, and the yellow bands and masses of yellow foliage tended to weave and blend through the greenery of the fir and cedar, as opposed to standing in stark bright golden contrast next to the nearly black green of the forest on a sunny day. As I drove and wound through Cedarhurst and along the Westside highway I was reminded of a day almost twenty years ago when I was coming back across the country on my motorcycle after riding the other way to New England. I was somewhere in Colorado on a winding, elevated highway that snaked over and along side a riverbed at the bottom of a fairly tall and steep canyon. What I recall is that it was just before sunset and the light was a warm tone that made the turning aspens along the river glow an intense yellow. It was one of those things that I wanted to stop and photograph, while at the same time knowing that if I did there would be no way it might convey the feeling of flying along a river on two wheels in that warm colored, reflected fall light of a Colorado sunset, so I kept going. As my current circuit found more bare trees along its course over the top of the Island, it was apparent that the timing of this ride had been fortuitous, as the yellow wave seemed to be quickly passing, even though the yellow that flows through my north woods seems like it will persist till spring.