Monthly Archives: November 2012

Forest nor the Trees

Up north, the leaves have been off the trees for weeks, helped by a heaping handful of Sandy. But, down south a couple of hundred miles, the leaves were happily attached to their mother ships, showing no sign of giving up the host, until a few days ago, when, overnight – whoompf – bare limbs and the anguished cries of leaf-rakers who’d just filled bags of the stuff, thinking that they’d have some days’ respite before the next necessary round of gathering.

Back up north, where we have a new place to call home, trees surround the house and then roll on to the distance, so that, in spring and summer, there is no horizon, only the tops of massive pines and maples and ash, and all the bushy undergrowth. All of it – the tall, the short, the great variety of green, the hard and soft and prickly, the native and the invasive – creates a kind of cocoon, or a force creeping up on what humans have carved out from it, a sure but subtle approach, like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane; indeed, behind every tree, within every dense brush, on every leaf-shrouded limb, creatures live, many of them, yet so few that we actually see or hear. And you can’t see neighbors’ houses, either – they’re there, somewhere, but behind and beyond, and out of mind. The foliage acts like a buffer, and a sound muffler, and it is, when you first start looking to live in these parts, exactly what your urban heart gladly surrenders to: unbridled green, like a warm mitten, granting you privacy, and ease, and basic things, even a kind of security, tenuous and fragile though it may be.

So, when the sky changes, and the wind blows cold, and the leaves start swirling down like confetti at a political convention, the newbie fears that all of nature that is good is gone, and that fall and winter will be times that are not to be loved but endured. What was green is brown and grey; one feels exposed, as if he’d walked out of a shower to discover that the walls had disappeared and an audience was enjoying the view from box seats.

Yet, that’s all wrong. This is an astounding time, perhaps even more so than when the force through the green fuse drives the flower. Thinking as I was thinking was simply getting it backwards: This is not a time when one is exposed, it is the time when the world is revealed. Where once there was a clump of green, now I see the close, middle and long-range depths of the world around me. That house I was trying to avoid seeing? It’s a lovely counterpoint to the natural world that now unfolds it to me. That ravine, that hillock – both seemed like soft cushions and springs, but are now clearly places of sharpness and mystery and secrets, not monochromatic but full of shadows and dappled areas of browns and tans and orange. Suddenly, I see something red, so red that it would seem impossible to not be a constant beacon, and yet I have no idea what that could be, because in my spring and summer days in this place it has never been visible to me. A short walk informs me that it is a canoe hanging on the side of a small shed – a canoe and a shed I didn’t know even existed.

And then – on going across the road to check the mailbox, I look back at my remarkably ungreened house, so open to the eye that it seems like a landmark, and I see, where just a few short weeks ago there was nothing but tree after tree … I see the mountains, less than a mile away, that look over (hence the name of one) and guard (hence the other) our little village. The real-estate brokers call this having “seasonal views,” and tout it as a selling point, or, rather, a buying opportunity. But it is not so crass – the surprise appearance of the rolling, sinuous and nearly feline mountains is nothing less than a gift, and a comeuppance to any who believe that this time of year is only about huddling and shelter, about losses and not gains.

Discovery is everywhere, in every place, in every direction, if only one moves with nature and time and does not cling to easy beauty, or fears sleep or death. Renewal is yet to come; epiphanies are here right now, for the taking.


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Tree Graveyard

Where do trees go when they die? Some just stay in place and become their own ghostly markers. Others topple over, sometimes taking along near-neighbor trees or human-made objects or structures with them. They live their lives and end their lives in the same spot, unable to move away from danger.

Two weeks ago, during the surprise of Sandy (now referred to as Superstorm), thousands of trees were lost on the East Coast. Thousands. The kinds of numbers that are all-too-familiarly reported in human casualties during wartime or plagues. Of course, trees have had their plagues, too. But in proportion to the frequent tree damage that occurs in various disease- and storm-related events throughout the seasons, this was huge in scope.

In New York City alone, roughly 10,000 trees succumbed and, also, multiple thousands were felled on Long Island. These shocking numbers were reported by state and city parks administrators. And in New Jersey, utility companies logged more than 113,000 irreparably damaged trees, many of which up until this particular storm had survived a hundred years or more of natural assaults.

I am walking through a trail on the eastern edge of the Catskills, and, let’s remember, it is two weeks after the record-shattering hurricane. It is usually a silent place, entirely wooded by white pines, oaks, birches, hemlock. There is an outdoor cathedral quality about the landscape, with the towering arboreal columns that allow sunlight to ricochet off the trunks, or to glint through the empty spaces as it would through clerestory windows above a cavernous interior space. Filtered light sprinkles through the veil of pine needles above – what is left of them, that is.

In the distance I hear the constant buzz of chain saws. I have been hearing that sound every day since the storm. Sometimes it is loud and close, now it is low and soft. Although it is somewhat like the riling sound that a fly or mosquito makes, an annoying, persistent and alarming noise. The ever-present buzz echoes off the mountains and hovers like fog over the valleys. It could be miles away but its droning is solidly felt. All around, it is the familiar sound of sadness and loss.

In this special place, a heavily wooded parcel of just under 80-acres, this municipally owned land protected by a conservation easement for the town around it, is shocking evidence of the devastation. It feels like wholesale slaughter, a massacre. Trees lying down, feet in the air. Trees splintered off twenty feet above the ground. Trees piled on top of trees, much like Pick-Up Sticks if the game were played with thousand-pound sticks. Trees that now resemble an exploded view of a tree. Many of the victims have now been cut away for the trail by those same persistent chainsaw flies. It is a heart-wrenching sight, both terrifying and mind-boggling.

Everything seems topsy turvy. Trees should not lie horizontally on the ground. Or be split and cut with their innards exposed – their dignity and life removed. Yes, some of the lucky ones still stand, the survivors who look on helplessly at their fallen fellow creatures. Trees are the very thing we need most in this climate-changed world, yet here I am, and you are, standing in a tree graveyard caused by our own selfish interests, unable to comprehend how, in the scheme of things, they are more necessary to the world’s well-being than we are. Look what we have wrought.

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Timing is Everything

In case you hadn’t noticed, we turned back the clocks not too long ago. If you seem to be waiting an awfully long time on the platform for your train, turning up for dinner even earlier than usual and Jimmy Fallon strangely has been looking a lot more like Jay Leno than he used to – well, that’s the reason. Or could be. Turning back the clock in the fall gives us an extra, or earlier, or later, or at least different hour than we’d been having, although nothing really has changed except our tacit wink-wink-nudge-nudge agreement that things have changed – it’s just darker when you don’t want it to be, and lighter when you can’t take advantage of it.  Writers have plumbed the possibilities of this misplaced or displaced or confusingly lost hour – it’s 2, then, blammo, it’s 1, suddenly – in sci-fi, or ingenious “Groundhog Day”-like fictions.  That is, stories in which one has an hour to live over, or is given the unexpected gift of time to arrive at some profound realization, to undo a regretted deed, to have an additional 60 minutes to live …

For those whose clocks and watches are of the digital variety, this time-change event is hardly momentous – in fact, it’s practically negligible. A push of a button or two, and the number easily flicks from one to the one before. No biggie. But we who take our time in analog doses (see Time Piece and Tick Tock) are prisoners of and are seduced by the process – it is precisely the process that gives us a sense of time. In spring, the process is an easy one – you merely move the hands forward a turn. New time; lost hour. A light twist of the wrist. But, because experts suggest that moving the hands backward on an analog timepiece can hurt the works by forcing the machinery to move against its forward, clockwise intent, it is recommended that, when the autumnal change occurs, one move the hands forward all the way around the clock face to the new number: from 2 to 3 to 4 and so on to arrive at 1. A less easy task, especially if one is reconfiguring a clock that has chimes; with every quarter turn of the hands, one has to stop to permit the bells to gong. It can take a while.

But it’s a “while” that’s worth it, because the very slow and tedious process of moving the hands gives some sort of heft and significance to the task, and a meaning to the result: Time is a stream that carries you along with it; time takes time, and time takes its time. Time is like money: to gauge its value, you have to spend it.

I am not one of those who are fascinated with the fantastical chance to gain or relive or reshape a magically gifted hour. After the slow and careful twisting of a knob to get the hands around the face of a clock (you want to get the time just right, because if you pass it, you have to go all the way around again), I find myself lingering, hesitant to put the hand where it needs to be. That last minute, that final second – I hold it back, and there is not only power in this, as I stop time, or fool myself into thinking that I do, but there is also, in that small slice of clock, in that sliver of a sliver of time, the creation of an entity. For that moment before the hand slides or snaps into place, time somehow becomes not a fluid conceit but a place. That little hair’s breadth of signified time on a ticking or whirring machine becomes a location of some magnitude because, for that moment, or for however long I want to withhold the final demarcation of the “right” time, that is a valuable piece of real estate that I own; when I place the hand where it needs to go, I am deeding that real estate to a force that has little interest in nor acknowledges the temporal fragility of me. I am done with it, and it with me. And life and time move on. Time is a place, one where memories and plans dwell, simultaneously, and equally. There is no past, no future, merely the thing we call the present moment. Clock or no clock, no matter how much you turn that knob, there is no turning back. But why should there be? Time is not a direction, but a location. Time is wherever you are now, and placeness is the currency of the land.

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Prelude to a Storm

For two days before the arrival of the hurricane called Sandy, it was unusually gray and overcast. Dense cloud cover, thick heaps (cumulus) resembling dryer lint, so much so that they made us land dwellers feel like the central portion of a sandwich. There was pressure in those log-jammed clouds, enough to have a physical presence rather than the usual visual one. Sometimes you could smell the salt in the air – and the ocean is 50 miles east of where I am standing. I couldn’t help but think of Ray Bradbury’s  “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and also “The Wizard of Oz.”

Extreme weather can be exhilarating, in an adrenaline-pumping way. And it can be deadly. I remember seeing the tornado that destroyed Xenia, Ohio, in 1974, from a safe distance of about 50 miles. It crossed the horizon and looked to be about three inches high from my vantage point – but it was awesome at that size, swirling like a disturbed and desperate hornets‘ nest.

In June, 2010, I was driving across Ohio and through lower Michigan and witnessed several tornadoes crossing my path – eight were confirmed in the area. From my perspective, in a car, the sky went black in a diagonal line and I was pelted with hail. Pulling off the interstate was the only option. And there were moments, sitting in the flimsy metal car, when I saw distant trees almost double over. I can’t help but wonder about the other fellow creatures caught in the storm, the ones without weather channels.

The day hurricane Sandy was supposed to put its evil eye on our region, I felt an  urgency to rake leaves that had already fallen, before the rainfall. The wind was getting stronger, and there were pauses I was forced to take just to wait for the swirling to subside. I looked over, during one of these pauses, at my front porch and there was a squirrel lying flat on its stomach, legs out like a flying squirrel. His eyes were open and seemed to be watching me. Since my tendency is to speak to all animals, I explained that I wouldn’t bother him, I would not be cleaning off the porch just yet, and that he could rest there as long as he needed. I went on with my work.

About an hour or so later, after having worked my way around the other side of the corner, I revisited the porch. The squirrel had not moved. I spoke again, “Are you okay?” It wasn’t that I expected a reply, I just thought that, given normal circumstances, squirrels do not sit still and they do not stick around to listen to what you have to say. Oh, dear. I went into the house to seek out another opinion. My partner looked at the squirrel, unmoving, and noticed that he was not breathing.

A squirrel died on my porch that day, right before the hurricane hit. He was plump, rotund really, perfectly healthy looking, an unharmed animal who either fell out of one of my trees – but wait, he wouldn’t have fallen flat on his belly in a posture like I have seen squirrels assume while resting – or perhaps, he wasn’t feeling well and had a heart attack right there. Or, maybe, the impending storm caused untold stress that sent him over the edge. I felt incredibly sad. And I started to think about how you never see dead squirrels anywhere except on roadways. It was so puzzling that I looked it up on the Internet – why one never sees dead squirrels anywhere. Apparently, the reason is that they are eaten fairly quickly by other animals who find them before we do.

In addition to my sadness, I felt somehow honored that he chose my porch as his final resting place. Let me explain. When I moved into this hard-surfaced city neighborhood, I don’t recall that there were any squirrels within sight. I cut away concrete and planted street trees and, one day, the squirrels started to appear. Looking out our second floor window, there is a lovely horizontal limb that was a favorite spot for many generations of squirrels; bringing nuts or crusts of pizza up onto the branch and snacking, then lying prostrate on the branch for a quick squirrel nap. So I had seen them sleep.

I am happy to have provided habitat for these amazing and amusing creatures, since all around us their habitats are being obliterated. The fact that this chubby (perhaps it was the pizza) squirrel lived his life here, found placeness here and died – the long squirrel nap – here on my porch, makes me glimpse the circle of life and of nature, in the throes of a terrible storm. Maybe he felt safe on my porch, safe enough to die there. I never expected this to happen, and it had never happened before, but I come away feeling that, despite the sadness of this event, and aside from it being a portent of the looming storm, in the universe of the unexplained and the inexplicable, this fellow creature had come home to roost.

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