The leaves are such a rust-red that I almost expect them to creak on little hinges. Instead they teeter silently, precariously. At a breath, one of them falls, making just the slightest hiss as it strikes home. Autumn has taken hold in earnest now, and the sand cherry's rich russet warms its niche in the garden. The color is an arresting testimony to the season on its own, but it also lets the deeper chestnut of the stems speak more clearly. As I approach to enjoy their resonance, I am struck unexpectedly by the tangential suggestion of spring. Even as the leaves die, the buds are swelling. For some reason I find these preparations for the coming year, this faith in growth, oddly touching.
Ipheion, or starflower, is a spring-blooming bulb with pale blue flowers atop grassy stems. (The flower in Microcosm's header is an ipheion.) Its leaves come up early in September and linger throughout the winter months. They look more like grass than the actual grass in this neck of the desert—they are kelly green rather than sage, and they grow in thick, spreading tufts. When bruised, they give off a slightly fetid smell, like chives that have gone over to the dark side, but they are pleasant to look at all winter. In spring the leaves have the decency to wither soon after the flowers do, since they will gather all the nutrients they need the following fall.
I still have Alison Krauss's Steel Rails running through my head:
Steel rails, chasin' sunshine 'round the bend,
Winding through the trees like a ribbon in the wind.
I don't mind not knowin' what lies down the track,
'Cause I'm lookin' out ahead to keep my mind from turnin' back.
That phrase "lookin' out ahead" has stayed with me all week. I've been thinking about the contrast between my little road trip last weekend, with its own take on looking ahead—a mixture of adventure, the chase, and escapism—and the garden's preparations for spring. Generally when I think about plants heading for the shady side of autumn, I think of them as battening down the hatches—hauling in all the paraphernalia of growth and hunkering down in their roots to ride out the storm. Since my garden is too small for generalities, however, we are left with particulars, and they don't always bear that image out. Instead we find plants actively preparing for spring, laying in stores, and looking beyond the fallow period to the next season of growth and bloom. They are not only caulking the windows; they're also plowing the ground.
This expectation of goodness to come is not "chasing sunshine's" elusive dream—a quest for that better world always just around the bend—but solid, reliable optimism based on the gene-deep knowledge that seasons turn; on the certainty that spring will, in fact, come again.
I have often thought of gardeners' forward-looking tendencies as a kind of denial of winter deadness. As I've been slowly getting bulbs planted this fall, I've come to see that tendency instead as a way of laying the groundwork for spring; ensuring that dearth will give way to abundance, to crocuses, Siberian squill, starflowers, lady tulips. It's about knowing yourself, about looking ahead to your longings for growth, and taking the steps to meet those longings while you can. It's yet another of gardening's lessons in hope, but also a lesson in realism, in preparation.
On the other hand, marking off the days on the calendar until the seed catalogs arrive in about six weeks—that's denial.