What the Trees Tell Us

The Trees

by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

The Homely Truth About the Shortest Day

We passed the shortest day of the year last week. It’s the annual drama of encroaching darkness turning to growing light, the grand rebirth, the celestial, uplifting reminder that in any sphere of life, the gloom gives way to brightness.

I’ve always imagined the event as accompanied by an elegant symmetry. I thought that the darkness closed in evenly from both sides, that the sun rose a little later each morning and set a little earlier until the shortest day on December 21st, when the process neatly reversed at both ends of the day. The sequence, I thought, between early December and early January had the shape of a tall hourglass. The left “sunrise” side sloped in to the right during most of December and the right “sunset” side sloped left, each changing by a minute or two each day. On December 21st, they met at the narrow waist and reversed direction.

scienceblogs.com

scienceblogs.com

Well, it doesn’t work that way. Changes in sunrise and sunset times aren’t in synch. The sun doesn’t neatly rise later each morning until the 21st and then reverse course. It keeps rising later and later well beyond the 21st, past Christmas and into the first week of January. Imagine the left side of the hourglass sloping down and right until it’s well below the waist.

The timing of sunsets changes in the opposite way. Sunsets change direction, from happening earlier to happening later, about a week before the shortest day. Imagine the right side of the hour glass sloping inward not all the way down to the waist but only part way. Such an hourglass would have a weird, uneven tube descending from the upper left to lower right. It isn’t until early January that both sides would be moving apart from each other again.

The shortest day is the shortest only because the speed of the changes in the times of rising and setting vary from day to day. In early December, the sun rises later by a sizable couple of minutes every day, while sunset drags on at almost the same time, so the length of daylight shrinks until the 21st. After that, the changes in sunrise slow way down while it is sunset’s turn to pick up the pace, getting rapidly later (by about 7 minutes between the 21st and New Year’s Eve in New York) and lengthening the day.

So the shortest day grows out of a ragged process, not the aligned and symmetrical one we thought we were seeing. The universe spins in ways that we don’t or can’t grasp in detail, but we pull the meanings that we need from our approximations anyway.

 

Summertime Blues

IMG_20150720_090706_367Mid July, and summer begins to turn hotter and drier. The growth of most plants is slowing and their leaves will soon turn a little duller. But it’s the start of the season for the thin stalks of bright, light blue flowers that grow close along the roads and in sun-hardened patches of earth in the angles of intersections. From a moving car, chicory is a tiny galaxy of sky blue dots and wheels pointed in various directions as they hug the road.

Chicory has been pushing its way into civilization for a long time. Its goes back 40 million years, when it differentiated from the daisies and marigolds in its family. Its medicinal uses date back to Egypt and Rome. Today it is still an effective toxin against parasites in animals. Its roasted root substitutes for and is added to coffee in Europe and the U.S. Its dandelion-like leaves make good salad; cultivated varieties of chicory include endive and radicchio.

Each flower blooms only for a day or two. Each plant lives for two years, flowering only during its second summer, after which the plant dies at first frost. Forty million years of fleeting life.

It’s the light blue flowers and their affinity for roadsides and compacted dirt that catch my attention. Chicory is apparently drawn to the warmth of the pavement. The ingenuity of life.

chicory Asteraceae (wikipedia.com)

“Asteracea poster 3” by Alvesgaspar, Tony Wills (10) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –