Essay: We Are Still Here

We Are Still Here

I watched the late afternoon light moving across the back yard at that hour when it begins to turn golden and shadows develop a violet hue. The neighbors’ houses funneled it through the tall standing pine trees into long, bright beams moving more quickly as the sun began its descent below the houses, the hill, the horizon.

Like a spotlight a few of those beams quietly searched across my back yard and touched first this, then that, a dried stalk of asters in the garden, a sprig of yellow forsythia, as if each thing it touched was equal and deserved its literal place in the sun.

The daffodils had finally had the chance to bloom in full. They are early, ambitious old daffodils dug from a long-abandoned farm years ago growing in clumps along the road to the upper pasture, likely planted decades before that. Untended they had bloomed at will, and thrived. The alternating summer-like days and single digit freezes with ice and wind in my back yard this spring were nothing compared to the many springs they had risen once again from the soil, pushed aside the leaves and raised their doubled blossoms high above their slender green fronds exposed to wind and storms on the edge of a hill.

I photograph them each year, looking for a new interpretation each year, but this year open blossoms and good light hadn’t come together in a moment that inspired a good photo.

The blossoms were a bit tattered around the edges from beginning their bloom and then stopping when the temperatures dropped below freezing for a few days, but the warm gold of their petals now that they had fully opened was undiminished. I could see the one of the sunbeams moving across them and decided the moment to catch them was now.

By the time I got to the main clumps with my camera the sunbeam had passed, but I could see by the pattern of light and shadows on the periwinkle just pushing up above last year’s fallen leaves that another one or two sunbeams were headed toward these daffodils, a set of four blossoms. I would capture their proud gold tatters touched by golden evening sun rimming each petal and its curves and tears and browned edges in bright light.

A spotlight of sun passed near them, but did not touch the flowers. I could see that another one was near, and if I could wait five to ten minutes I would likely get my photos.

Should I wait? I had planned just a minute or two outside. It was a busy day and I had work to do. I had, after all, photographed these daffodils annually for at least the past 20 years. What if I was wrong about the sunbeam, if the sun dropped behind my neighbor’s house before the sun moved into position through the pine tree? Would I waste my time?

I would see to it that even if I didn’t get the photo I had in mind, my time would not be wasted. I could sit there and think, I could plan my garden, I could write a poem, I could plan my eventual photos and get ready because the sun would be moving quickly. Five or ten minutes would be gone like the sunbeams moving across the yard.

What did I want for the daffodils in this year’s photos? I thought of the daffodils and their history, and how each year they’d bloomed so early they were sure to freeze, and they did, and then they thawed and went on their way. Not knowing how long it would be until the freeze lifted, they simply paused, and waited as long as it took. I really had no idea now long I would wait for the sun to move over them or even if it would line up with them as I envisioned. A break from my work to turn my thoughts to something unrelated, with a creative spark, was just what I needed to actually finish the job at hand. I decided I could wait too.

While milling these thoughts I watched another long spotlight, not as bright as the others but full and warm, move toward the daffodils and stretch itself out, and knew this was the one. I planned three angles, turned on my camera and waited.

I took one early photo as a portion of the sunbeam touched the daffodils, one of the ideas I’d had. It was nice, and if it was all I got it would do, but it didn’t really capture the battered daffodils warm with sunlight. I would try again.

I photographed as the beam of light reached down to touch the edges of three daffodils, I shifted a little, then all four, then it filled them all with light. It was nice from those two angles, but too literal, still not really expressing the warmth and life I felt from these daffodils.

I moved on the other side of them so that I could capture the light falling through them, instead of on them, and then it was magic. The contrast of the flowers glowing golden, even orange like a flame in the deepest areas, darkened the background of the leaf litter, twigs and branches, and even the daffodils’ fronds. I felt I’d captured the ageless warmth of these vintage daffodils. Time well spent.

Until next year.

~~~

NOTE: The six photos in this post are in the order of the six photos I captured while waiting for the sun to move into the best position. The photo at the top was the one I felt was most successful. And when I came inside I took notes on my thoughts to share.

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Essay: The Cats in My Garden

Daffodils
Daffodils
Daffodils

The re-emergence of life in my garden this spring is tinged with sadness as I picture two of my best friends, in spirit, wandering among the green and daffodils and last year’s leaves.

I have a whole household of cats and I never permit them outside to roam, although I take them outside with me while I work in the yard, retrieving them when they wander. Many years of finding and rescuing cats and kittens who have been abused, abandoned or injured makes me keep them inside except for these brief forays, but one of the things I love most about cats is just watching them be cats.

Last autumn, I lost two of them to cancer. The first was the love of my life, Kublai, a handsome, social and affectionate black cat who I met and fell in love with while was in college. More intelligent and sensitive than many people I know, he had enough love to give away and filled a void in my life while big-brothering every stray kitten and adult cat I had since brought into the house. The other was a big, quiet and gentle orange and white cat named Allegro who loved people and whose life was made complete by the presence and guidance of Kublai and me.

Kublai, tough as nails, held out against his cancer for a year with every treatment and remedy I could find for him. One of the best treatments was a trip into the yard more than once each day in my hope that the life in the garden and flower beds would help support him, but as my garden flourished I watched him decline. At the end of September, Allegro was diagnosed with a quick-moving internal cancer, Kublai died two days later, and Allegro followed him two weeks after that.

Now every spot in the yard has a memory of each of them. I have reinstated the bird bath top on the ground that Kublai used to drink out of every day right after I cleaned and filled it, and in the new columbine foliage I can almost see him lying in the shade under the trees. The new green garlic fronds remind me that I only had four more days with him and only suspicions of Allegro’s illness when I planted them. All the bulbs are up and ready in the little garden outside my dining room window that I arranged with Allegro, suddenly frail, at my side in the warm autumn sunshine just the day before he died. And as I rake up the leftover dry leaves I remember Allegro, just before I noticed any symptoms, chasing and trying to catch the first ones as they fell.

I cleaned up last year’s garden through a blur of tears and neglected many of the things I usually do and forgot things I had done, and I am almost surprised that anything is growing this year. After they died I had them cremated and sprinkled their ashes on the spots they loved best. I think it’s an expression that their love still exists that the iris, like Kublai nearly black with mahogany highlights, sprouted early and is thriving, and the carefree field poppy which is very orange, like Allegro, has already begun to spread and no doubt will bloom freely.

And in time I will forget the illnesses and in my garden I will picture Kublai lurking between the cornstalks and Allegro catching leaves with careless abandon.

~~~

I first published this essay on my cat-centric website The Creative Cat  in 2013, though it was written for publication in 1988. Some of the references might be more clear in that context, but the sentiment is probably clear even without that knowledge. I included more photos of the subjects in the post on The Creative Cat if you want to see what everything looked like.

Years ago, while I was still working in my day job, I also did a fair amount of freelancing in design, art and writing. One place I’d had a few short pieces published was Organic Gardening Magazine in the late 80s and early 90s, mostly concerning gardening but also an essay. While sorting through old files I found this essay I’d written and submitted along with another they’d agreed to publish. It seemed as if the magazine’s readers and staff were all animal lovers and even gardening stories were full of cats and dogs and rabbits and chickens who were pets, and I’d read a few essays about the losses of pets as well. Though they accepted it this was not published; commentaries such as this were usually held to be used whenever there was a space for them. Magazine staff and format changed soon after this.

But it surprised me to find this story of my household from 1996 and my thoughts in March of 1997 which I’d forgotten I’d written; behind all the correspondence about an article that had been published I saw the title, “The Cats in My Garden”, and it all came back to me. Now, as I review photos from previous years and see all those of Cookie out there with me, and Cookie and Namir in my garden and how grand those years were, and how Kelly enjoyed her visits to the yard in her last few months, I think how my household has changed through the years. Now, beginning another gardening year, I read about another spring emerging after losing two of my cats, and I watch the daffodils, crocuses and squills I planted in 1996 under Allegro’s supervision sprouting and blooming now. Kublai and Allegro were my first two losses of the cats I adopted as an adult.

There have been so many since these two, and yet the flowers we planted and the yard we loved continue to flourish, and just as the flowers inspire me to photograph and paint each spring revisiting how I’d represented them in the past and still finding something new about them, so Kublai and Allegro and all the others continue to still inspire me to create with their image, and still finding things to learn about them.

Poem in Progress: Spring Tonic

Spring Tonic
Spring Tonic
Spring Tonic

Dead nettle,
bittercress,
wild garlic,
once healing tonics
taken in spring,
today only weeds,
unwanted,
except by me
for my eyes and palette
served in a bed of vivid fresh greens.

A poem in progress ©Copyright Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Just getting a little sentimental about my garden.


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Poem: Angelic Morning

Angel Wings
Angel Wings
Angelic Morning

So much is wrong
So much is sad
So much cannot be fixed
The detritus of the past lies all about
But I find also diaphanous angel wings filled with eternal sunshine
Bright smiling eyes of faerie flowers
Reflecting the tranquil blue of the sky’s protective arch
The old daffodil has stories to tell
And joy appears in the most common of things
Beauty, good, exist in every moment
Like the stars in daylight
Always shining
But only seen in the darkest hour.

poem “Angelic Morning” © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Winter is finally is beginning to give over to spring after a few false starts, and I am finding flowers in my yard. We all walk through difficult times and feel as if spring as a metaphor for relief, healing, rest, or morning after a long night will never come, but it does because in fact is always there hidden by what we expect to see. Sometimes all we need to do is look around us, and there it is.

The words came to me inspired by the beauty in a humble spring morning in 2015. At that time this was a poem in progress, but now it’s graduated to a finished poem. Below is a slideshow of other photos that inspired these words.

Please feel free to download and share this graphic I made for social networking.

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Poem: To Come Again in Spring

Tiny Spider

In this sepia scene
of late-winter twigs and matted leaves
I found the small tattered orb she had built that lasted the winter,
this tiny creature no larger than a grain of sand
now curled in the center, her spirit long
gone
from her desiccated body,
yet her tiny children,
awakened by a warming spring sun,
will emerge from all the crevices
in the plant she chose as their birthplace
and find that her final creation
helps provide their first meal,
delicate strands catch the earliest gnats,
though these too be
the children of other mothers
full of hope for the generation of children
they will never meet;

and so the returning songbirds will catch
the tiny spiders as they leave their web of safety
and find sustenance to begin their families
all life toiling through the year to grow and thrive
to prepare for the dark of winter
and to come, again, in spring.

Poem To Come Again in Spring © 2011 B.E. Kazmarski

As the spring unfolds with longer days and milder temperatures, we remember what has passed.

It was the tiny spider in the delicate, worn web that inspired this slideshow from 2009 and poem from 2011.

Each year I leave the plants in my garden standing for the birds, insects and other residents of my garden to use for winter accommodations. In spring of 2009 I began preparing the garden section by section and happened to see this spider and her delicate web outlined in the spring sunshine. She had died long before but continued to cling there all winter long, and her web held up against any number of storms.

Her eggs would have been laid on the stem adjacent to her web which would catch the first insects in spring, and when they hatched the little spiders could have their first meal of the insects caught in the web and use her web as a launching pad. I found it so moving that on that bright early March afternoon I went through my garden looking for other such images.

All the other native plants had left behind their skeletons, and the effect of these was haunting, like finding a ghost town or an unknown world.

I had to let them say their last goodbye. I photographed each desolate construction with attention to extreme details you might never notice to show the intrinsic, transient beauty of these empty shells. The sepia tones are the natural coloring of the plants in the stark spring sunlight, that interim color palette between the blues of winter and the greens of spring. Here is a link  to the original slideshow of photos taken that day; when you view it, you’ll see that many of the plants I’ve photographed are criss-crossed with tattered little webs.

I read this poem at my 2011 poetry reading at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, but did not set up a web page for that reading, and it is not included in my poetry book.

In 2017 I found another inspiration in these “Winter Leftovers”: What Stays With Us.


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