Dark branches stretch out in relief against a pale sky. All is silent, an exhale after the holidays. I stopped listening to podcasts on my walks, letting my thoughts go free-range, being aware of my surroundings. The walks don’t go as quickly without the distraction of a story but the payoff is better and I come home feeling less scattered.
“There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.”
― Richard Powers, The Overstory
This week I’m looking to see or hear what the trees are trying to tell me, having recently read The Overstory. The trees are stark and dramatic now, and their personalities revealed without the extravagance of leaves. The trees’ rain-darkened bones stand out clearly, accentuated against the skies’ lighter backdrop.
My attempts to learn tree names have failed with few exceptions, as I glaze over at the details. I just accept the over-broad “tree” or if I want to get fancy I might say “conifer.” There are just too many to learn, in contrast to the ones I spent most of my life among: Eucalyptus, Oak and Palm. Even fruit trees confuse me, unless there is actual fruit on them.
“The question is not what you look at, but what you see. It is only necessary to behold the least fact or phenomenon, however familiar, from a point, a hair’s breadth aside from our habitual path or routine, to be overcome, enchanted by its beauty and significance.”
― Henry David Thoreau
Branches weep, or climb skyward, or sweep out capaciously, veins proliferate, thinning as they grow further from the tree’s heart. Others are a tangled mess, branches helter skelter, turning in on themselves. Some look confused – bushy below but bare unadorned branches above – but maybe it’s two trees growing together as one. Portland is a temperate rainforest; anything you cut down or prune back relentlessly re-emerges and spreads, tenacious and fierce.
Birds sit up top telling me something important, but I haven’t figured out what. I’m just a dumb bi-pedal human, pacing the neighborhood streets round and round, a never ending circuit with no clear goal. Crows the size of chickens act like they own the place. Which I suppose they do. They are the bad boys of the neighborhood. Not felons, merely miscreants; annoying, loud, messy and territorial.
A melange of scents drift by. A lovely scent of unseen wood smoke wafting overhead, or sometimes the stench of burning trash from a neighbor who does not seem to know better. I banged on his door once to complain, but there was no answer and still the smoke spews out, malodorous and no doubt lethal. Otherwise the constant is the smell of damp leaves and needles, damp bark, damp grass, damp breeze, damp asphalt.
I at first mis-take a leafless persimmon tree’s brilliant fruit as Christmas ornaments. I’m reminded of a house I lived in on Seabright Avenue in Santa Cruz for just a season in 1978. Our bedroom window faced out on an overgrown jungle of a backyard where a persimmon tree showed its glory all fall. One morning, two colorful parrots, bright red, green, and yellow, perched in the tree whistling and squawking loudly. Their origins remained a mystery, but it was the kind of lovely surprise that makes your day.
“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”
― Ann Patchett, The Dutch House
I‘ve lived in this neighborhood for five years, and the seasons and years are starting to meld together into one variegated memory that floats back to me in pieces as I tromp the same streets, season after season. I recall the year pears dropped to the ground and a sign in the yard said “help yourself.” Or the years passing the beautiful lot full of blackberry brambles, and now people live in three large houses there, landscaping all grown in. Or the December when snow piled up and cars slid backward down our hill. The year Annie put in her front garden with waist high beds and failed veggie starts, but now the slender espaliered fruit trees along the front fence look like they might bear pears and apples next fall.
The neighborhood changes, and the people change too. One neighbor developed MS and we don’t see him out front much anymore, his wife and daughter do most of the gardening. Another got picked up by an ambulance one early morning last week but she’s back to her busy social life, pushing her walker ahead of her. Four different neighbors walk by at various times with their dogs, though one broke his leg recently when he put one foot up on the edge of the bathtub to wipe off moisture, and lost his balance. Let this be a warning to us all. Another brings by a baggie of Christmas goodies, as she does every year. Another had a bunch of junk hauled away today, though he’s only lived here for about as long as us. Things pile up, things break, things grow, change is incremental or sudden, and then we mend and heal in some fashion, and keep on.
by Jane Hirshfield
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.
When I get home my shoes are muddy, proof that I expended energy, and achieved my goal of getting out and about instead of endlessly hibernating. I tell Alan I feel virtuous for having gone out for the second day in a row after months of resistance. He just returned from the gym where he’s been going regularly all fall, and I told him I couldn’t let him be better than me. Oh great, he said, a competition. But maybe that’s what it takes to get me out the door.
Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.
― Patti Smith, The Year of the Monkey
I’ve been reading Patti Smith and her stream of consciousness narrative of dreaming and traveling in Year of the Monkey, and before that Leslie Silko’s Ceremony, with lush evocative descriptions of the southwest and life. In between was Ann Patchett’s Dutch House about the lives of a family and their relationship to their house, the house as detailed and alive as the people. I have no such stories in me, but their language has entered my bloodstream, circulating through my body. I’ll keep walking, ruminating, keeping an eye out, and find something to say about it all. It’s all I have really, the small details that make a life.
by Molly Fisk
How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.
Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.
We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.
The way we stand there, soaking in it,
mittened fingers reaching.
And how carefully we gather what we can
to offer later, in darkness, one body to another.