Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Tweed Months

It’s not just the shift from daylight savings time which distracts me at this time of year. There is something else going on, something a lot more subtle. Each year at this time my aesthetic sensibilities undergo a change. Sometime in November, when the oaks begin to color, the autumnal perspective begins to prevail: I think of this time of year as the Tweed months. The broad spectrum and varied intensities of summer color and early fall leaf color are replaced by a palate which is much narrower in scope and generally much more subdued in intensity. Summer is an ever changing piano, early fall a harpsichord, and these weeks before the arrival of really brutal weather a clavichord. And each year it surprises me that these diminished means have the power to evoke such intense feelings. This is the beginning of my favorite part of the year. The improbably lush greenness of Italian arum makes such a fitting contrast to the newly fallen oak leaves, especially after a wet period when the leaves not only take on a richer color but also yield their sweet fragrance. All of my life I’ve loved the fragrance of damp, newly fallen oak leaves. If heaven has a fragrance, this is it. It’s a fragrance which is nearly duplicated in the flowers of Camellia sasanqua, and since the camellia blooms when the oak leaves are falling, the comparison is easy to make.
Just those three elements – the Italian arum, the oak leaves and the camellias - work together to form a seasonal garden as deeply moving as any. The appeal of this combination is not merely visual. You can certainly place those three plants so that they fulfill whatever design aspirations you might have. But that’s not the point. The oak leaves and the camellia flowers have the ability to move me on a much deeper level, as fragrances often do. And there is something very uplifting about the camellia and the arum at this time of year: as the days grow shorter and other plants are closing down for the season, they seem to be defying the general trend by surging into growth or bloom. They are doing something when the rest of the garden is dying. It’s this doing something which makes the difference: there are plenty of evergreen plants both herbaceous (such as Rohdea japonica) and woody (Skimmia and Sarcococca are favorites here) or neither one nor the other (Ruscus and Danaë) which are lovely at this time of year. But they are not doing anything right now (unless you count the static fruiting of the Ruscus and Danaë ). If you look around carefully, you’ll see lots of other little odds and ends which are wintergreen and have taken on a renewed glow as the deciduous trees lose their leaves and the light levels, overall dropping quickly, actually increase under the deciduous trees. Suddenly it seems there are tufts of vivid green mosses and liverworts. Surely they weren’t there all summer?
It’s when I begin to notice these things that I realize that I’ve finally made the transition from summer into late fall successfully.

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