The Universal Notebook: Fade to bittersweet

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Drifting into the dark depths of December, the loss of color is profound. The wet, cold, lifeless browns, grays and whites of winter have overtaken the landscape such that even the evergreens seem colorless. Where color does exist however, it is as conspicuous and incongruous as a loud tie with a gray suit.

Several of the large white pine in our new backyard are choked with bittersweet. The vine has been allowed to attack the trees so long now that at its base it is as thick as a wrist. It twists its strangled course up the trunks and along the limbs, slowly killing the host with color as it goes.

But when I look out the back window I am grateful for the orange and yellow parasite up in the trees. The constellations of bittersweet are bright in the morning sun, subtle and fading in the thin afternoon light.

We had several large trees removed just before the snow fell in order to get a little more sun into the overgrown backyard. Where the maples were there is now mud and scraps of periwinkle encased in ice. The bramble that separates our house from the public playing field is thick with bittersweet and prickly barberry, and along the walkers’ path there are wild rose bushes. Carolyn snips small bunches of tiny rose hips to punctuate the arrangement of dried hydrangea in the kitchen. The great, showy white hydrangeas beside the garage blush pale pink and purple in death.

I am so starved for natural color this time of year that I keep a pair of boots and some pruning shears in the car to poach winterberries from roadside swamps. The vivid red, round berries make beautiful holiday wreaths, but I just clip enough for a spray here and an accent there. I know some folks harvest winterberry commercially, like tipping spruce, but the wonderful thing about this lowly wetland shrub is that it is both worthless and desirable, like sea glass and sand dollars.

Usually I can count on the birds to add a few touches of color to the somber Advent season, but the birds have disappeared. In Yarmouth, I had grown accustomed to daily gatherings of chickadees, nuthatches and tufted titmice at the feeder outside my office window, with the occasional cardinal and jay for a splash of color, and seasonal visits by brilliant goldfinch.

But for the first month we lived here, I worried there were no birds in Brunswick at all. I would spot a few sentinel crows now and again, but it took six weeks or so for the squirrels to lead the chickadees and titmice to the feeder outside the kitchen window.

Over Thanksgiving, as pies were being baked, there was a commotion in the kitchen. A hawk, shocking in its size and proximity, suddenly appeared in the snow beneath the feeder. Before I could heed the excited calls to come see the great bird, it had burst into the air, a chickadee in its talons, and swooped off into the pines.

I find it hard to believe that all the birds in Brunswick know to avoid our feeder, the scene of a raptor’s crime, but there has not been a bird at that feeder since. The squirrels, meatier meals for a hawk I would have to think, have returned, but not the birds. For now, the site is marked by Charlie’s Angel, a golden lawn ornament from the garden of Carolyn’s late brother. It’s about the same size as the hawk.

Last winter, my father’s final winter, snow drifted halfway up the nursing home windows and icicles hung to ground. I would sit with him in the dining room, looking out the window at the little woods that screen the building from the highway.

“What’s that?” he asked me, not once, but every time we sat there over tea and silence.

“You tell me what it is, Dad. I told you yesterday.”

My father’s rheumy eyes always seemed to light on the erect clusters of red berries, now gone rusty and velvety, that constituted the only color left in what was left of the world.

“I don’t know.” He would shake his head.

“It’s staghorn sumac, Dad,” I’d say, but he couldn’t remember minute to minute, let alone day to day.

Satisfied that the eye-catching spikes of color had a name, he would relax and be content until the next time he needed to know.

“The most lively thought,” David Hume, the great Scottish empiricist, wrote “is still inferior to the dullest sensation.”

Hume believed that our thoughts and moods begin with our senses. This time of year, I tend to agree.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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