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Is it just me, or is this early summer so many of us in the northern hemisphere seem to be experiencing proceeding at an accelerated rate? The yellow has quickly faded from my garden; the daffodils are already gone, the forsythia is dropping the last of its petals today, and the Jasmine (or yellow bells as some of my NC neighbors call it) bloomed way back at New Years, was nipped by frost, and is gone. The tulips are abundant this week, but will surely be gone by Easter. Last week I noticed the swelling buds in the crab apple that towers above the raspberry patch and thought “that’ll be beautiful for our Easter Egg hunt in two weekends.” Yesterday it was in full bloom, and today the pink petals are already drifting slowly down. They’ll probably be gone by the end of the weekend. Same with the azalea by the back door. I thought it would be brilliant with color in a week or two, but it’s opening now. Hopefully it’ll still be in bloom in two weeks.

Crab Apple in bloom. The camera doesn't really do justice to the vibrant reddish pink of the petals.


Azalea and Geranium. The colors come through better in this as the sun was shining at the time.

Maybe I just feel I’m missing things because I’m cooped up with a broken toe that’s making it surprisingly uncomfortable to take care of garden chores? Working indoors and hearing the birdsong and seeing the glorious days that are in it is not any sort of substitute to being out there getting the hands dirty, planting, pruning, and doing all the other small tasks that become pleasure when accompanied by the constant buzzing of the bees, quick flits of birds scoring nest-building materials or nabbing a careless worm from a freshly watered vege bed (or maybe the pleasure lies in the absence of a clicking keyboard and the ping of incoming emails?). For extra comedy value, our cat is now sporting a cast on his leg after somehow dislocating his ankle a few days ago. (My suspicion is he pursued one of his mortal-enemy squirrels up a tree and landed awkwardly afterwards.) Now he’s cooped up in the bathroom so he doesn’t make the injury worse trying to be his usual big bad self. At least we’re company in our mutual grumpiness.


The unhappy Capt. Jack

While I’m less mobile, I’ve been reading about the early burial practices of the megalithic tombs builders in Ireland, and learning about what they considered precious objects to inhume with the ashes of their dead: very practical things (pestle stones, bone pins, and pottery jars). I’ve also been gardening vicariously through some wonderful blogs (Arigna Gardener and A Place in the Country are top-notch), and picking away at the plot holes of my novel-in-progress. (Lest you think I am able to amuse myself all the time, I will comment that my day job has also been fairly intense lately. There’s a stack of new manuscripts to read for the books we’re publishing in the fall, marketing copy to write, and I’ve been finalizing summer events for our authors up and down the country.)

Actually, it occurs to me that my work may also be contributing to this sense that things are progressing very quickly this year. Working in publishing is a slightly disorienting experience because we work on books that won’t come out for 6-9 months, and by the time they’re arriving on bookstore shelves, we’ve shifted our focus to the next batch another 6-7 months hence. Right now I’m planning events for this October and November, and have actually pitched several things for summer 2013. No wonder time seems to be slipping by at a fast clip.

Maybe that’s why I relax through gardening? It grounds me in the now, in the dirt. Does this plant need water? Do I need to weed, fertilize, mulch, or divide? What’s ready to pick today? All this resting, icing and elevating my foot is keeping me indoors too much, and I’m feeling a little out of touch with the now. Maybe the solution is simply to take one of those manuscripts out into the sun and find a good spot to get some work done?


Cairn T, on Carnbane East, near Oldcastle, Co. Meath. The entrance is locked in this picture, but guides are present for much of the summer months.

About 6000 years ago, construction began on a large complex of passage graves atop three hills near Oldcastle, Co. Meath. Known as Loughcrew or more picturesquely as Sliabh na Callighe/The Hills of the Witch, these are relatively small cairns (in relation to the famous passage grave sites at Brú na Bóinne), but what they lack in size they make up for in number (30), several of which feature carvings and contain triple (or cruciform) chambers. One of the largest, known as Cairn T, is illuminated by the sunrise on the spring and autumn equinoxes. The passage is very short, the back of the chamber a mere couple of meters from the entrance, but this tiny chamber is heavily carved, and the slab illuminated by the sun contains many enigmatic images and symbols.

As well as the usual circles surrounded by rays (often thought to represent stars or the sun), and groups of semi-circular lines and various shapes (which some have suggested may be calendars or some form of scale) there are what appear to be child-like depictions of flowers and leaves, perhaps trees. Alright, that’s my own theory; but, given that the equinoxes represent the pivotal points in the natural cycle (spring for planting and autumn for harvesting) it makes sense to me. However, there are probably as many opinions as there are observers, so I’ll reserve judgement until I have a chance to watch the carvings emerge from the darkness with the sunrise on some future equinox.

The rear of the chamber at Cairn T, in the Loughcrew complex in Co. Meath. Somebody seems to have used chalk to better outline the carvings, and the green may be some mold or lichen growing due to the damp conditions in the cairn.

Today, Loughcrew is off the major tourist trail and definitely one of the lesser-known passage grave complexes, but it’s thought that at one time it was extremely important. The hills on which the main cairns are located are called Carnbane East and West; in Irish, that translates as white-cairn. There are walls of white quartz running around some of the fields on these hills, stones that are believed to have been taken from the cairns when the English passed laws requiring the enclosure of agricultural land. As we’ve seen at Newgrange, some passage graves were covered with white quartz, which would have glittered in the sun and drawn the eye for miles around — in the same way that Renaissance Christians built cathedrals to inspire awe at first glance. Perhaps these tombs enjoyed a similar level of importance in prehistoric society? Cairn T is also known as the Tomb of the Ollamh Fodhla, the learned judge who codified Ireland’s ancient Brehon laws, and was presumably an important man who could conceivably have had his ashes interred at a significant site.

The blessing of Loughcrew’s relative anonymity is that anyone can show up at sunrise on the equinoxes and watch the illumination take place. It apparently lasts for almost an hour, and as the rear of the chamber is clearly visible from just outside the entrance, there is no need for a lottery to get inside. In the summer months, an official guide is resident on Carnbane East to admit visitors to Cairn T and tell them the history of the site. I hope whoever manages to be there for the equinoxes enjoys the show, and the rest of us can use the equinox illumination as a reminder that it’s time to get on with our planting or harvesting.

The first daffodil (surrounded by emerging campanula).More campanula erupting around the crocus.First phlox bloom.And, a volunteer I think might be speedwell. [Note: the larger scalloped leaves in the center belong to an althea zabrina which went rogue.]

The last two (frost-free!) weeks have seen the emergence of many, many perennials, and the first few blooms. As the squirrels search everywhere for their hidden nuts, they scamper through a tall forest of daffodil leaves and thick clumps of the darker green star of Bethlehem.  They’ve been digging all around the trefoil leaves of my new trillium, but thankfully seem disinterested in it.

While the first few spots of color are welcome after the winter, the real beauty in the garden at this time of year lies in the tiny, perfect shapes of the emerging perennials. The minute pale green scalloped leaves of the columbine push through the mulch assertively, while the sharp-toothed heads of the gladioli slice through the dirt like knives. The couple of small campanula plants I put in last summer have been busy spreading their roots throughout the surrounding beds, and tiny new plants are erupting all over the place. As these plants didn’t flower last year, I hope they’re going to put on a show this summer.

A fiesty gladioli.First rhubarb leaves.The thick snouts of the hyacinth always make me think of the sand worms of Dune as they emerge, reach for the sky, and open like hungry mouths.

Certainly not much to look at now, but these weak pink sprouts will soon grow into rather large and lovely bleeding hearts.

All in all, it’s an exciting time in the garden, the first hints that all the work that goes into maintaining it is going to pay off yet again. Going by all the leaves emerging, I’m hoping we might have a very good year for tulips (due to careful dividing and transplanting over the past two years) and my rather bare, ugly front beds might actually approach the sea of tall blooms I envisioned over the last two years when I planted dozens of tall plants (gladioli, iris, peony, foxglove, hollyhock, lily, poppy, and delphiniums). I was afraid most of these had died over the winter, but now I see new shoots emerging from the brown husks of some of the hollyhocks and foxgloves, so they might be more resilient than I thought.

Fingers crossed we’re spared a prolonged arctic blast to stunt or kill all this budding lushness.