Driving home this morning, I was once again worrying about writing. Intimidated by a story that isn't going well, shrinking into something that barely holds together, and needing a break from all that internal yammering, I stopped at Mercer.
It's a Sunday morning, early. There are just a few other cars in the narrow parking lot and the sound is the sweep and pop of rubber on Aldine Westfield, the wake of engines and speed sloshing the quiet of the empty parking spaces. It smells like gas. I am reminded of pulling into Port Arthur, the dense smell of hydrocarbons pressed against the flatness, the sky seeming higher because of the thick air. Port Arthur is good, the right angle into the past as I worry at the story.
The cold has been sharp and rare, but the entrance shows me that many of the plants have succumbed, bare branches and wilted leaves. I hesitate, but I need to keep moving, keep the clog in my head loose enough to keep moving. The first color that strikes me are the tiny pansies, catching the rising sun in a corona of dew. Sunrise is clear and bright coming through the tiny windows of the purple and lilac flowers. It brings me down to my knees, close as I can get to the light running down from the trees, across the grass.
Birds flit across the paths and I follow the main path toward the cottage garden section. There aren't any birds in the feeder and the bushes and trees around here are line drawings of themselves, with no cover. Water echoes from the fountains and I find one of them drained of its usual water but still running. The stone tank echoes with the fall, a hollowness that seems to indicate further, hidden open areas. The main fountain is full of pale blue water, edged with bubbles. Perhaps an algae treatment? It blinds the pool milky.
Following the path around the pool and toward the shallow pond, I pass the outer edge of the Yew maze and encounter a thousand fuzzy seed heads rising from a plant that is labeled as smelling sweet. I lean into the stiff fuzz, but they have no smell now. The sky is deep blue and the entire plant seems caught in a moment of fizzing away into it.
Continuing along this back edge of the arboretum, I take the path that curves away from the trees beside Cypress Creek and instead follow the lines along the inside edge. Where the path encounters a crossroad, I lean against the curved iron rail and watch the oak leaf hydrangea. Quatrefoil flowers look as if they've been cut out of craft paper and stuck to brown wire brushes above sharply-cut leaves bent gently into red and pink skirts. These are beautiful in summer green and white and remain so as the leaves deepen into red and the flowers follow the leaves into a winter tan.
Not far from here is a magnolia tree, branches curving up to soft catkin points. Standing beneath it on a Sunday morning, I'm reminded of a Christmas eve service, pews full of people with small white candles, as yet unlit, waiting for the pastor to take the Christ candle down and spread a soft light throughout the church. A soft wind lifts the catkins, but it will be weeks before the sun tips enough warmth through the park to open them into thick white bowls.
Plants that have shriveled with the cold seem to point to camellias and magnolias, blooming and preparing to bloom, the entire arboretum waking and falling asleep in the cool quiet of this Sunday morning.