Trouble at Menotomy Rocks Park

According to Don Mattheisen’s book, Menotomy Rocks Park; A Centennial History, this area of multiple granite outcrops left by glacial activity was originally a dense woodland with a swamp. Purchasing and transforming “Devils Den” into a usable town park with a pond took a great deal of commitment and effort. The town loved the woodland park and protected it. The pond was dredged after it had begun to fill with muck and weeds. Aeration devices were also installed.

Sometimes off-leash dogs jumped in trying to catch one of the many ducks I saw there last Octobers. Ducks followed me as I walked around the pond, perhaps seeking handouts – a sign explained what was safe to feed them. I preferred to think they recognized me and knew I cared about them.

As winter ice thawed, ducks swam the open water in pairs. A Canada geese couple arrived, They treated the pond and vicinity like it was their private resort. Fearless, they allowed me to come close as they grazed on new grass.

On warm days, turtles piled onto a rock jutting out from a wetland area. A Great Blue Heron alighted briefly on a day I did not bring my camera. A bit later, two swans probed for tender shoots. After the pastel colors turned a darker green, a muskrat swam to hide in plain view under branches at the water’s edge.

In late May, robins and red wing blackbirds seemed as plentiful as ever but I saw few birds on the pond. I wondered if they had left to lay their eggs away from dogs and snapping turtles. Then I saw a notice in a plastic sleeve – sixteen fish had died and water testing had been requested. I was reassured by the fact that if history was any indication, this park would be protected.

As if to ensure I got the message, I saw a squirrel lying by a rock on the side of the road just after I left. It was still breathing. I spoke to it in gentle tones wishing it (and all of us) well.

Only a single duck sleeping high on a boulder in the pond in late May

Many ducks of various species frequented the pond last October

A pair of Canada geese came in early March and stayed for several weeks

Turtles sunning themselves on a rock jutting into the pond on one of the first warm days

Swans probing for tender young shoots in the wetland at the side of the pond

Looking a bit like a small beaver, this muskrat has a narrow tail

The muskrat with its head poking up looks like a rock or log by the edge of the pond

This park is lucky – people care and have the will and resources to work at preserving its health

Moments in words and images

Sometimes I encounter moments that feel like poems. There is a clarity to them that has me stopping to notice. They can be small and quiet, easily missed. Nonetheless, every once in a while, such a moment can leave me breathless.

The first two spoke volumes without words but others inspired me to write haiku.

Heads up, dog coming

Grazing geese splashdown

Safe on Hill’s Pond

Taped to the arm of

A Menotomy Rock’s bench,

Mother’s Day balloon


Warm fall evening


Water tower lantern lit


People drawn like flies

You can see more images of this water tower event, and read about it here.

Spring Transformation

Puffy white clouds made lovely images in the pond this time of year. Now on warm days in late April, turtles gather on a rock that juts into the pond beyond a marshy area (see below).

In early March, when the branches were bare, ducks walked out on the ice heading toward open water. A bit later, tiny buds spangled branches by the pond before the pastel haze moved up the bank and blooms began to appear along the woodland trails.

Weathering the Storm

Recently, I came across an abalone shell that called out to me. At first I looked for abstract patterns in its colorful interior. Then, a wind-blown tree came into view. There was no mistaking the tree that both stood strong and bent with the wind. It feels a bit like that now, I thought. We began to see patterns with COVID 19 that we did not understand. Now we find we are in a storm with no place to hide from the global wind. Is this tree in a storm image a warning, a source of hope, or perhaps both?

Learning to See

This paperweight was on the window sill for a while before I noticed its changeable personality. Two curved layers with outer films of dichroic glass reflected and transmitted light. Now that I looked more closely, depending on the light and the angle, everything changed.

I got out my camera to see what the super macro setting would capture. How could one small object do all of that?

Hydrangea Tea Hut

A tea hut in my backyard was my dream. I had become familiar with variations in layout, window style, and alcove placement from reading about the tea ceremony. One book that was particularly useful was Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony by A. L. Sadler.

I wanted quality in materials and workmanship although I could not afford authentic Japanese tea hut construction, and I did not have the skills to build one myself. Customizing a high-quality garden shed seemed to be a workable solution. Walpole Woodworkers advertised a salt box shed. I liked the idea of this shape with its ties to New England as well as to Japanese tea huts.

A window on the long side next to the door came with the shed. I decided to retain this minus the window box. I also requested two rectangular windows with three panes side by side; one low down behind the tea preparation area and one centered on the opposite wall. Natural lighting is very important in tea huts both for aesthetic and practical reasons.

On a summer morning, leaf shadows fall on the main window due to the angle of the light. During the course of a tea practice, the shadows change continually and the leaves move in the breeze creating a most peaceful effect. The window appears very different depending upon the time and season. It is well worth planning for such effects in a tea hut’s placement and design.

I chose a site for the hut that would allow it to be viewed on edge from my large kitchen window but would provide privacy for the garden. It would also allow the patio under my kitchen window to be used as a waiting area. The small area in front of the shed was well shaded and already had a tendency toward moss.

The hut was small enough to be constructed without a poured foundation. The workmen carefully prepared the sloped site. They had stained the walls and door as requested and raised the door threshold to accommodate tatami mats. It took very little time for them to assemble the flooring, walls and ceiling. The roof was finished with cedar shingles. The unfinished pine interior of the hut, while not authentic, had a nice rustic quality.

A bamboo sleeve fence was added to visually connect the hut to the garden and provide privacy for the area behind. Smaller vertical poles through the larger ones made for a very sturdy fence. I added dried hydrangea twigs to the lower section. There are many possible charming designs for sleeve fences or you can design your own as I did. See The Bamboo Fences of Japan by Osamu Suzuki and Isao Yoshikawa for ideas.

Inside at the narrow end away from the door, I added an oiled maple board to take the place of the more usual tokonoma alcove. It fits perfectly with the three tatami mats at the same height. I found a three panel unfinished pine grid screen to hold the scroll and had a cabinet with many shelves made for storing utensils. Two low benches along the back wall provide seating for those with bad knees. Pegs behind the door hold coats. For a while, an extension cord snaked out the low window behind the tea kettle. Now, the hut has been electrified so I can use it with a small heater in winter.

Since my hut does not have a hearth, I use a kettle set on a furo heater at all times of the year. I often place wood chip incense in the furo (think of the smell of cedar). The “wind in the pines” sound produced when water is heating is central to chanoyu. Delicate steam curls up contrasting with the solid iron.

Normally tea utensils would be brought in from another room by the host, but since my small hut has only one room, I designed a corner staging area. A “clam shell” shelf holds the tea bowl and tea container. A square basket on the floor holds the lidded water jar, waste water container with a lid rest, and bamboo scoop as well as a container of tea sweets. The hot water kettle is left in place where it will be used on the host’s mat.

In the garden, I added stepping stones and a low basin. Guests gather on the patio. They follow the stepping stones to the basin before proceeding to the hut door where they leave their shoes on the large stone before entering.

The hut has been in use for thirty years. The roof has been replaced, and the interior and exterior protected from the elements and insect damage. The garden grew and changed around it.

I named my tea hut, Ajisai-an which means Hydrangea Hut in Japanese. The humble building has gathered many wonderful memories. During its naming ceremony, the crickets began their song as we started at dusk. After tea, we brought in metal lanterns from the garden and wrote haiku by flickering candle light. A “flower arranging” tea started with various flowers and containers as options and each guest’s arrangement was displayed in turn during the practice.

Another unusual tea had a small American quilt instead of a scroll, pottery made at Sturbridge Village, and a Native American basket to hold maple sugar tea sweets.

The hut has also seen many gatherings with old and new friends that were simple, quiet, and restoring. These, together with the excitement of bringing the hut and garden into existence, are perhaps the best memories of all.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Fallen Branches in Snow

The pond was covered with snow during my last few walks. It was popular now that the ice was thick enough to be safe. But the path around the pond had been compacted to ice which made for slippery walking. It was the fallen branches that caused me to pause. There was something about the contrast with the textured white snow that made these complex objects stand out so I could notice them and see that their beauty deserved my attention.

Beauty on Both Sides

I have always been attracted to abalone’s iridescent interiors, but I had no idea about the range of patterns and colors that nature creates on their outsides until I started collecting these shells. Although there are commonalities among the suborders of the Haliotidae family, each individual shell is unique. And the outsides of the shells can change color based on the types of algae the abalone has been eating.

There is often a beauty to both sides of natural objects. In these days of deep divisions, I find that to be a most refreshing idea to keep in mind.

When More Is More

Arranging rocks so shapes, colors and patterns complement can be an interesting and absorbing challenge. In times of dramatic change, that can take me beyond our limited human perspective on time.

All of the rocks in the arrangements below are agates. The first photo shows a bowl with small cut and polished agates from around the world. The next three show specific types of agate – bubblegum, Fairburn, and Lake Superior agates, respectively. For the most part, these agates were left as they were found with colorful patterns natural on the surface or revealed by abrasion. I find the matte finishes and rounded shapes of the natural stones to be particularly appealing.

Take your time with what can be a visual adventure. You can learn something about agates, of course, but also about your particular tastes. Perhaps you will catch a hint of the slower “life” in these stones that might provide a bit of calm in these turbulent times.

Mixed cut and polished agates

Bubblegum agates – you can see how they got that name

Fairburn agates

Lake Superior agates

A Virtual Concert with Quilt Eating Holes

No live Christmas concert this year. It was simply not safe.

Park Avenue Congregational Church’s (PACC’s) Christmas concert had been going on for 29 years now as a gift to the community. Even though contributions were voluntary, it always raised funds for the maintenance of our treasured Skinner pipe organ and music program.   Doing something now seemed all the more important. Christmas music could bring light to this particularly dark season during a global pandemic.

So we two coproducers put our heads together.  A virtual concert might work given we had a great archive of music from past Christmas concerts.  CDs and DVDs have a certain appeal.  They can be given as gifts.  Attending to them feels more grounded than clicking around in cyberspace, even though great music is certainly available that way.

We decided on “A Christmas Quilt” for this virtual concert’s theme; something you could wrap up in while social distancing at home, maybe with a favorite drink by a fire. The quilt image worked for the diversity we wanted and DVD images could be substituted for quilt squares. 

But would people send in enough photos?  We needn’t have worried. Photos poured in;  children making snow angels, pies being baked, Christmas trees and sheep (we needed sheep). There were photos of the church decorated for Christmas, of choir singing, of our music directors playing instruments.  Snowy landscape paintings by the father of a church member seemed perfect.  We also found charming public domain art, period Christmas cards and images of composers and their scores.

The practical logistics seemed to be coming together as well. Or so we thought.

The folks who do such a great job of printing posters and programs for our PACC Concert Series had ordered blanks to print stick-on disk labels for the CDs and DVDs.  The forms they ordered had a large hole that would land plunk in the middle of the square quilt “logo” that was centered on the disk labels. 

With orders still coming in and time slipping away, the coproducers declared the larger hole DVD labels to be fine. But the Concert Committee member who had designed the labels, responded (and I quote),  “We can use the wide, gaping, cavernous, quilt-eating, big-hole labels if you want ;-). I’ll Just close my eyes ;-).

A new supply of smaller hole disk label blanks arrived in time. We also had some of the large-hole labels printed just in case.  The DVDs were proving quite popular.  In the last few days before Christmas, we were still burning DVDs like crazy, and then Christmas eve was upon us. 

I was very touched by the two who volunteered to hand deliver CDs and DVDs around our town on Christmas eve in the middle of a pandemic when they could have been at home with family.  But I will also never forget that wonderful comment about the cavernous quilt-eating holes.