A gigantic cumulonimbus cloud shaped like a parasol mushroom serves as the canvas for the setting sun to play with purple, gold, indigo, orange and fuchsia. To quote Mary Oliver: "No sky could hold so much light." In the dried up wetland, a thriving stand of chromatic yellow rosin weed glows brightly against the surrounding dark foliage. As I drive home, the cloud slowly spreads out and flattens. Above the cornfield it looks more like an orange shelf mushroom. By the time I reach the hay field with its row of white plastic-wrapped bales, the cloud looks more animal than vegetable, perhaps an endangered copper-scaled pangolin searching for ants.
Every year in late summer I'm always astonished when the squadron of surprise lilies pop up through the hard clay soil on sturdy naked stems like green lances topped with multiple pink spear heads. The long leaves appear in the Spring and then, having absorbed the sun's energy, wither and die away. The plant vanishes into the vault of the earth, lying dormant through the drought of summer, only to be resurrected in August. Still, I'm amazed that they can bloom at all after the months without rain that we've been having.
The leaves below this clump of resurrection lilies are actually the remnants of day lilies that have finished blooming.
This troupe of magic lilies form into a circle of ballerinas in pink tutus en pointe, dancing to the music of a light breeze playing through the leaves of the shagbark hickory.
Within the delicate pink petals, long lavender filaments topped with golden anthers surround the even longer purple style crowned with its sticky stigma, awaiting a visitation from a winged pollinator. All parts of Lycoris squamigera are mildly toxic, so deer and other animals leave "naked ladies" unmolested. Only proper suitors may approach!
When the mating game has ended, the green fruits containing seeds swell at the narrow end of each pink trumpet and the blossoms of the mystery lilies begin to shrivel and fade.
As the blooms dry out and collapse, they hang from the seed pods like long brown tresses. Yet even in death there is beauty in their graceful convolutions.
Among the four baskets of perfect pears, it's the wabi sabi pears that catch my eye. Marked by asymmetrical concave curves on their convex surfaces that look like eyes, mouths, dimples, belly buttons, these random quirks give them far more character and charm than their unmarred companions. My attraction to the natural imperfections of these unique pears reminds me of Edward Weston's fascination with bell peppers, especially his most famous black and white image, Pepper No. 30. In Daybooks, II, 225, he comments: "I have done perhaps fifty negatives of peppers: because of the endless variety in form manifestations, because of their extraordinary surface texture, because of the power, the force suggested in their amazing convolutions. A box of peppers at the corner grocery hold implications to stir me emotionally more than almost any other edible form, for they run the gamut of natural forms, in experimental surprises."
Cloudy but no rain, wide cracks in the ground like thirsty mouths. Mid-August, but already leaves are starting to turn yellow and red and drift down. A few days ago I saw a line of wild geese, strung out like a line full of carefully spaced clothespins, heading west. Today I find a pear on the ground, half eaten by a deer. These are Kieffer pears, with greenish gold skins and crisp, white flesh. The red blush and the fact that they're starting to fall from the tree means it's time to harvest. It's easy to reach the pears hanging on the lower branches but I have to climb the wobbly wooden ladder to reach the pears dangling at the top of the tree. Being careful not to fall myself, I lean and stretch from the top step to gather each firm fruit with a twist of the wrist and drop it in my basket. This is the first year this pear tree has borne fruit and I'm pleased to collect four baskets full. I will slice and dry some of them, but the rest will keep all winter in the bottom bin of the refrigerator.
On a walk around Bonnefield Lake, in the prairie restoration area I come across a small patch of teasel in bloom. The flowering heads look like Dr. Seuss characters, with spiky hair and frilly white bands on top of stiff collars. On some flower heads, the blossoms are growing on top, while on others they form one or two bands. From the dried flowers, it appears that they emerge in the middle and grow up and down. Honeybees are busy gathering nectar from the tiny tubular blossoms. The spiny stalks stand nearly twice my height. Along each stalk march pairs of lance-like leaves, which form a cup where they meet. The cups collects rainwater and act as insect traps, though I can't imagine an aphid attempting to suck sap from the rigid stems and prickly leaves. In one cup I find a miniature flower head, like an untouchable baby in an impregnable cradle. Cut-leaved teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus) is a perennial herb that flowers once and then dies. The first year it forms a low-growing rosette and the following year it becomes a 3-8 foot (1-1.5 meter) stem. Each head produces massive amounts of small seeds, which are eaten by birds, especially goldfinches. Historically, the dried seed heads were used in textile weaving as a comb for "teasing," that is, cleaning, aligning and raising the nap of wool cloth. A tincture of the root is widely used as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic in the treatment of Lyme Disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. However, teasel is an invasive plant that threatens prairies in the Midwest. The seeds can lie dormant in the soil and then sprout. In order to rid an area of teasel, the first-year rosettes may be dug up, making sure to include the entire root. The stalks may be cut down, but only after they have begun flowering to prevent new flowering stalks. Even after cutting, the seeds will continue to mature, so the cut stalks must be removed. Another good reason to conduct a controlled prairie burn every few years.
A windfall peach gouged by deer teeth is my signal to start picking our peaches. The laden branches are bending nearly to the ground, making it easy for both me and the deer to reach the fuzzy golden orbs. I quickly fill two bushel baskets. In the process of transferring the ripe fruit into a smaller basket to take inside, I notice a small white spot on the blushing face of one of the peaches. Bending close, I see that it's a tiny crab spider, furiously waving four of its legs in an attempt to scare me off. This makes me laugh. I must be thousands of times bigger than this minuscule organism, but nevertheless it's defending itself against a perceived threat. When I pick up the peach, the spider dives for safety, lowering itself on a silken dropline from the peach face to the ground and the obscurity of grass. These particular crab spiders (Araneae thomisidae) are ambush predators, sitting on a giant peach, ready to grab a visiting insect and such out its insides. They come in a variety of colors, from pure white, to black with a white bottom, and brown with a black bottom. Each crab look-alike reacts to motion in the same way: flap four legs frantically, scuttle sideways, skydive.
Bumper crop of black chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa) this year, the 12 foot (4 meter) high bushes bending almost to the ground with their burden of purplish-black berries hanging in clusters. I don't need a ladder to reach the highest berries, as I can easily pull the branches down to bring the fruit within reach. The berries are so ripe that a whole cluster comes off in my cupped palm, sometimes as many as 32 pomes at a time. So far I've picked 6 gallons. Half went into the freezer and half are being dried, slowly shriveling up like small raisins. The seeds are so small that they might as well be seedless grapes. When dry, they look like large black peppercorns. Of course, aronia berries don't taste anything like raisins or fresh grapes. Their common name, chokeberries, refers to the reaction you have when popping even one in your mouth. They are extremely astringent, like unripe persimmons, so your mouth instantly puckers up. This astringency deters pests and diseases. I have found quite a few spiders making white egg nests on some of the berries. Do the baby spiders hatch out before the berries fall off and/or shrivel up? I haven't noticed any berries being eaten by deer, though they do browse on the leaves and stems. Even our summer tanagers, who favor all sorts of red berries, have only pecked on a few berries, as if one taste as enough. While I'm picking the berries I bravely pop a few into my mouth straight out of my purplish-red stained hands. Sometimes I chase the fresh berries with a teaspoon of honey or sprinkle them on yogurt or cereal. Why bother eating something so unpleasant? Because aronia berries are a super-antioxidant, extremely high in anthocyanins and flavonoids. They can, of course, be made more palatable by adding some kind of sweetener and canning, juicing, or processing into jelly or wine. But that's way too time-consuming. Air drying the berries is easy and space-saving, since one gallon of fresh berries shrinks to one quart. Furthermore, the dried berries, which look like large black peppercorns, lose their astringency.
Waking at 4, I open the shoji for my first view of the day. In the pale blue crepuscular light before the sun peaks over the mountains at my back, Fujisan seems to be sleeping under a white cotton sheet, bare crown emerging above a bank of clouds girdling her base. Midsummer, only a couple of white smears of snow, like a streak of white hair, lie in a crevice along one slope. The white-garbed pilgrims, climbing through the night to reach the peak by dawn, stand breathless, awaiting the first brilliant burst of sunlight.