Lovely, Dark, and Eternal

Bare tangled branches up against a cerulean blue. That’s all I see when I raise my binoculars and search for the Pileated Woodpecker I keep hearing. The woods, especially unfamiliar ones, can have tricky acoustics. Is the sound  bouncing off the small peak that I just summited? The noise was ahead of me, and now it is behind me. I sigh and squirm on the mossy rock where I am crouching.

The early spring woods are reinforcing the lesson I seem to keep learning in other facets of my life. Patience. Patience while my left foot takes its long, circuitous journey to complete healing. Patience while I wait for another book idea to fully blossom. The never-anticipated need to be patient while my mother continues the “long goodbye” that is so emblematic of dementia (that phrase was the title of Ronald Reagan’s daughter’s memoir about losing him to Alzheimer’s disease). Mom is in her bed with the remarkably life-like artificial tulips I brought her yesterday. I am out here in the woods, thinking of her.

The woods remind me to be still, to listen and remember that all is well, in the sense that the beauty of the world and its workings is a constant, that it can bring me comfort. I remember that time will, eventually, bring peace and healing. Thinking about mom, I am brought back to young childhood, when I sat on her blue flowered bedspread eating tangerines. She is reading me part of Pippa Passes by Robert Browning.

The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn
Morning’s at seven
The hillside’s dew-pearled
The lark’s on the wing
The snail’s on the thorn
God’s in his heaven–
All’s right with the world.

It’s a simple stanza and I can just about recall the whole thing. More than the words, I remember the cadence, which sounds to me like a conversational and optimistic list, the poet making a convincing case that spring is, indeed, here. I muse about how, more than once, I have called these words up to help me cope with losing mom.  She couldn’t have known when she gave me these words that I would use them in such a way!

Today I saw thorns, but there were no snails on them. I heard a far-off, high bird call, but probably not a lark. But after I settled into the forest, so much looked and sounded right, just as it was for Pippa. The woodpecker’s rhythm sounded almost thoughtful for a while. The birds, too, were not as excited as I’ve heard them on many mornings amid the tall conifers in my yard. The long spaces between their chirps and chortles helped me hold longer spaces between my thoughts. I start to look and listen and feel and smell instead of simply thinking, instead of planning ahead, instead of worrying, even instead of grieving. This is a welcome oasis, a place from which I can draw quietude and strength.

Trombidium

My new Trombidium friend

I am taken with a fallen tree whose once loamy root ball has now eroded into a spiky, dinosaur-armor-like projection. Termites have been busy here, breaking the aged wood into inch-long, roughly rectangular chunks. I am startled to see, crawling on the base of a nearby tree,  the most fluorescent orangey-red insect I’ve ever seen, about the size of my pinky nail and quite lively and leggy, zooming up, down, and sideways. I muse about how mom would love the color—she often wears bright colors like this. I try to capture his image, even shooting a crude movie with my phone. How I love not knowing the exact kind of bug this is. I wonder about his life, his day-to-day tasks. (When I look him up on iNaturalist later I am pretty sure he is a Trombidium, a genus of mite that is apparently quite common. Despite so much time spent in nature, I’ve never seen one before).

hornet nest

Hornet’s nest from last season

There is so much to take in as I follow Camille’s Way, a trail in the Highlawn Forest property adjacent to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association building. The prize of an old hornet’s nest overhanging the murky green pond. The long, refrigerated corridor of conifers that smells like incense and feels like a wise, old friend. The birdsong that becomes more elaborate when I close my eyes. When I am still I realize that the now-noisy Pileated Woodpecker is not the only bird in town. Others are chiming in, too, more subtly, more gently.

conifer grove

Conifer grove

When I start to see Route 66 off in the distance, and some houses and such., it makes me feel like I’m in a secret realm– still close enough to entertain thoughts of civilization, and removed enough to treasure my solitude.

When I rejoin my group at the nature writing retreat I am facilitating, we talk about the nuances in nature, and how sometimes it’s good to notice and record the less “pretty” aspects of nature—the dead tree; the random, unexplained bone on the trail. But today, maybe because of what I need most, it all looks quenching, uplifting, hopeful to me. I see beauty even in the termite-destroyed tree, and in the sometimes nearly black, wet leaf litter that appears to block out all life.

new life 2.jpg

New life

I know that life thrives below the dark surface, and that many small creatures have overwintered there. Pushing some of the sodden leaves aside I see green sprouts trying their best to emerge. I give them a head start by clearing a space but know that even without my help they will, with time, find a way. I know that all these flora and fauna, all of us, go back to the earth. Our lives give rise to more life, and I mean much more beyond birth and the whole “dust to dust” thing. I have learned so much from mom and will always carry her grace with me, hopefully passing some of it down to Gavin and distributing the wealth of it among all I encounter.

The woods are where I learn to be patient. The woods are how I come to believe in resurrection. As mom so often used to say (quoting Frost), they are “lovely, dark, and deep.” How glad I am to visit them again.

skyward.jpg

Skyward

Indian Summer: Just 9 Days

Web photo (mine)I’ve tossed the term around since first hearing it in childhood: Indian Summer, indicating a surprisingly warm period after we’ve already had a cold snap. Well, I got the general idea right. But according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Indian Summer must technically fall between November 11 and November 20. So as I write this, we’re almost at this very specific window, although I do wonder if the Almanac people do any adjusting in light of climate change! There are more criteria than just dates, though:

“As well as being warm, the atmosphere during Indian summer is hazy or smoky, there is no wind, the barometer is standing high, and the nights are clear and chilly…The time of occurrence is important: The warm days must follow a spell of cold weather or a good hard frost.”

Why the term “Indian?” The Almanac’s prevailing opinion is that it refers to how the Native Americans could have “one more go” at the early New England settlers when the weather turned warm again. I prefer the story about the early Algonquians’ belief that the warm weather was sent by their southwestern god, Cautantowwit.

lichenWhether or not it’s fallen into the prescribed time period, creatures great and small here in Connecticut have been enjoying this reprieve from the autumn chill. Just a couple of weeks ago I awoke to find our porch begonias dead from the overnight frost, their rosy blossoms “bleeding” onto our yellow railing. But then it turned positively balmy again. Over the last week or so I’ve seen bees lingering over the asters. I photographed a jewel of a spider’s Web on our front hedge. And I’ve walked through the Cockaponset (conveniently located behind my home), admiring its generous décor of mushrooms and lichen. These moments, usually grabbed after Gavin gets on the bus and before I have to drive to work, are deeply appreciated as the days get shorter and the trees shout out their gold and orange songs.

One day, I was in a cranky mood and was positively stopped in my tracks by the gleaming gold in the afternoon sunlight outside. I really felt that I was being shouted at, reprimanded by beauty: how bad can it be when I’ve got this display right outside my door?

gold leaves

Robert Frost said it best: nothing gold can stay. But isn’t that why we treasure it so?:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

A Trove of Seeds

Chestnut Oak acorn, courtesy of U of Kentucky's Department of Agriculture page

Chestnut Oak acorn, courtesy of U of Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture page

Last week, a coworker gifted me with a jumbo-sized acorn. She’d wanted to work outside for a little while, but had to come in because the oak tree above the picnic table was dropping these plump seeds in an urgent and generous rain. Even walking across the grass had become a challenge, as if navigating a small sea of ball bearings. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but a quick Internet search told me there are quite a few kinds of acorns—I think this one was a chestnut acorn. (Here’s a link to an iconic chestnut oak specimen in Clinton, CT–I hope it’s still there!). Our local oaks seem to be having “mast years,” dropping huge volumes of their offspring after a season of favorable weather and ramped up production.

Seeds buok imageMy acorn research coincided beautifully with my latest read—Seeds by Richard Horan. The author traveled around the country, visiting trees that inspired famous American writers as well as other notables. He scooped up samples of many trees’ progeny, sometimes on a solo journey, sometimes with family or friends. I’d like to ask him what became of the resulting plantings. Is there, somewhere closer to home than Monroeville ( Alabama’s literary capital), a Harper Lee chestnut that I can visit?

Chilly Walk photo from Chris Ford on Flickr

Chilly Walk photo from Chris Ford on Flickr

I liked what one of Horan’s friends said: “You know, when you initially arrive at a site, you think there’s nothing there, but after spending a little time looking around, trees begin to appear.” Of course, our silent observers are always there, often assuming a strictly background role. Many precede us, and many will survive long after we are gone, so I regard them as wise and infinitely patient, owing to their long lives and inability to walk away. I like what Willa Cather (one of the many authors featured in Seeds) had to say about them, too: “I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” I am not so sure (forgive me, Willa!) that I would have chosen the word “resigned.” Maybe, after all these years the resigning has evolved into accepting. John Muir was more optimistic: “I never saw a discontented tree.”

This season is often thought of as a time of winding down, but time outside reminds me that so many creatures are hurriedly proliferating before the cold and stillness of winter wreaks a time of suspended animation for many. I’ve noticed gypsy moth pupae in the trees around my office park, a bit concerned because I don’t think it’s the right season and I know they can fall prey to all manner of infections. I’m fully aware that these insects are considered pests, but observing them in recent years has made me more sympathetic. I like the moth-like shape of their felted egg masses and wonder how many will survive the winter.

Gypsies and their kids at Trail Wood

This, too, is the time for planting bulbs—something I too often forget to do. I am especially taken with one advertised: The Poet’s Daffodil. I like the haiku-like description on the American Meadows site (line breaks inserted by me!):

Flowers are pure white with
a yellow cup edged in red.
Sweet fragrance

Poet's Daffodil, from Klasse im Garten on Flickr

Poet’s Daffodil, from Klasse im Garten on Flickr

Of what poet was this bulb’s namer thinking? I’ve no idea, but it just so happens I have a Robert Frost anthology beside me. My mom, whose memory and hearing are so very poor now, came alive when we took turns reading from it last Tuesday, this treasured corner of her mind not unlike a bulb that’s overwintered finally flowering. I’ve flipped to this Frost poem today. It reminds me of the inevitability, and often hibernating gifts, of bleaker seasons:

 

In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above,
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove.

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.

BUMPER CROP of Tree Circles

Molly.ROTATE

Fully aware that Molly is sideways (blog options not cooperating), but even from this angle you can see she’s got a taste for burgeoning spring

 

What joy—enough snow melted so that Molly and I could foot the mile to town without fearing the need to dive into tall snowdrifts should 2 cars come down the narrow street simultaneously! Yes, there they were—a bumper crop of tree circles where before there was only a scant sprouting.

TreeCirclesBridgeSt

As I walked I found myself feeling sorry for those in eternally temperate climes, because they can’t experience the happy release that comes with the long-awaited start of spring thaw. It’s a tenuous joy that comes, because there may be more snow, but maybe that makes the first moderately warm moments even sweeter.

I thought of the Dar Williams song Sometimes Southern California Wants to Be Western New York, and also of my favorite Robert Frost Poem, My November Guest (excerpts from each below):

There’s a part of the country
Could drop off tomorrow in an earthquake
Yeah, it’s out there on the cutting edge
The people move, the sidewalks shake

And there’s another part of the country
With a land that gently creaks and thuds
Where the heavy snows make faucets leak
In bathrooms with free-standing tubs…

…And it wants to have a snow day
That will turn its parents into kids

And it’s embarrassed, but it’s lusting
After a SUNY student with mousy brown hair who is
Taking out the compost
Making coffee in long underwear

 

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist…

Both of these bards remind me of that part of me that loves and welcomes the coldness and barrenness of winter. It is a time for hunkering down and thinking about things and venturing into inner space, and there certainly is a quiet beauty to the bare tree branches and making coffee in long underwear. That being said, it gets OLD for most of us–to the point of familiarity breeds contempt!. And as hardy as I tried to make myself this winter, my natural instinct was to stay off the ice and keep the chill away by donning layers of baggy sweaters and eating warm things.

How lovely to see the world waking up as I am, again alert to what’s going on beyond the confines of my snowed-in street. Long live tree circles, their widening embrace, and eventual disappearance as all the melt goes underground to feed their budding source.

Woody Guthrie, Robert Frost, and The Mountain

cattleAt long last, we managed to get ourselves down to southern Virginia this summer, a trip vastly overdue and a time to reconnect with family. There are other chapters to be written about ties that bind and family history, but this one is about the land.

When we woke, whether we looked out the front or the back window, there were cattle, and, once, a young buck grazing among them, pretending at being a steer. Aunt Norma, dealing with medical issues and unable to take the journey herself, emphasized the importance of going up the mountain, and cousin Mike took the men on the long drive up. Cattle were fed; pictures were taken. I remember going up there as a child and picking wild strawberries, and turning strong lights on at night so we could see the deer. Mike’s father, and the grandfather we share, raised cattle, too. I’m told my father cowboyed out west, summers, and it helped pay for school.

I didn’t go up the mountain, but I sat overlooking the hills in the mornings, and one day walked up the dirt road—more cattle to visit but also the hum of crickets and birds, tangles of wildflowers, and unfolding curves that beckoned me. Trees waved in the gentle breeze and I thought of my father, who also loved this land. I visited the cemetery, where he and many of my other relatives’ tombstones nestle in the green grass, the markers weathered and hosting lichen and moss, not far from the mountain.

Woody Guthrie was right—this land is our land . But so was Robert Frost in The Gift Outright —“the land was ours before we were the land’s.” His poem, an inaugural one for John F. Kennedy, talks of nations and war, and my people were part of that story, too. But this part makes me think of the mountain, and how it owns us all now:

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

I’m told there are some cousins, most of whom I’ve never met, who aren’t especially attached to our family’s mountain. But I am so glad for those who have given themselves to it, seen the grace that it holds; longed for, sought, and found wordless connection there. We are the land’s as much as the land is ours. And the connection we feel comes with responsibility; if you spend enough time in nature this realization becomes unavoidable. Teddy Roosevelt, another lover of mountains, said it well:

The Mountain (Hampton)Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.

And Gary Snyder has summed up the way that many feel; the way that I felt in Virginia although I was hours away from my house and usual environs:

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.