The Frayed Waistcoats of Winter

A white sky steals color. In still air, the wet mists of winter take advantage of a sun that’s gone missing for several days and settle down for a spell, polishing leaves that are already forgotten.

They erase distance and seamlessly fold onto our plot, reflecting still water and shadows of trees.

Shorn of color, isolated by mist, the rangy bones of the garden, the storm-scars and misshapen ancestry of former seasons emerge.

Over there is the crushed canoe and near it, the pop-up trees, bowled over by wind, crowns and limbs chain-sawed off, now reaching tall like wacky headless soldiers.

A winter garden is stripped of its frippery.

There are some exceptions. Still in full dress, this native red maple, by virtue of its stature, presides in glory dimmed by the mists. After a peel-off and a short nap it will be first to bloom in spring.

And the camellias, fall bloomers fading, spring bloomer in the wings. That single blossom on an aging ‘Yuletide’ is especially satisfying, since the plant lost most of its girth to a cold winter.

Sho a no saki is but a shadow now, resenting puddles at her feet on rainy days, but still she adds grace to fraying edges.

Birds take full advantage of the fraying, happy that I don’t trim the tatters, leave remnants for them. Silent, practically invisible, they dart from thicket to thicket, mining for berries, seeds, bugs.

Small flocks alert to trespass, noiselessly explode into the dark safety of a crowded windbreak of camellias and azaleas watched over by our whimsical Puck,  long-ago carried home from England swaddled in a duffel bag.

Even the brash Carolina wren is put off.

The chatter is gone from the garden.

The ramrod tulip tree, whose seed germinated the summer we built our house, stands like an emperor blending quietly into the woods behind.

An eon ago, barely remembered now, spring called out to us, Watch me! Watch me! And we did, will do so again, captivated. During midsummer madnesses we reveled in, though we complained, too, about hot wild colors dancing under a hot wild sun.

Even gentle autumn was extravagant with flames and fruits, and the wheelbarrow was not idle.

But misty-gray’s winter wardrobe has no sparks or crackle.

And that’s why we ignore a winter garden. There is no noise. After all, it’s only an interlude between acts.

Of course, there are those certain days when snow mantles frayed petticoats, when crystals ricochet sunshine, and we rejoice in a perfect wonderland that crackles with icicles. We adore snow pictures. (Until we wreck them with our footprints.)

And sometimes, in the blue light of a stormy sky there is a dramatic entr’acte. In this year-old picture, the pittosporum shaping the beds still live. They will be lost a few months hence.

But mostly there is a certain peace that attends aimless wandering in a faded garden. The conscience is quiet. (Must not disturb those birds picking at cast-offs.)

The wheelbarrow waits. Raking. Pruning. Chopping. They can all come later. The garden bids us trespass, poke around its tattered tapestry of bleached stalks and russet seed heads.

Didn’t someone once talk about the world standing still? Perhaps he or she one day walked in a winter garden with a patch of sprawling spent chrysanthemums and an empty wheelbarrow and a lonely bench and unraked leaves.

Of course the garden isn’t truly standing still.

Invisible to us, it’s primping for spring, when the dressing room becomes a full-blown stage and curtain calls are lavish with standing ovations that we can only give a nod to, because we can’t stand still for very long, what with the need for all the planting, weeding, and cutting the sunshine brings on.

Yes, as I write, the sun nudges and the wheelbarrow needs exercise and the wren calls and the hellebores are nodding and taking bows for their first curtain calls. Time to get cracking and quit lollygagging.

(Photos taken over a two-year period)

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