November 6th, 2018

 

I woke up the other morning to a genuinely yellow sky: the kind of pale amber light that seems to only come in the autumn, and when it does, tells you that a change is coming in.

Within half an hour the rain started.  I went out on my deck and stood under the eaves. It was remarkably but not surprisingly soothing to stand there, listening to the rain; I’m far enough away from urban density that I actually hear the sound of it, not just hitting the leaves that are still left in the trees, but the rain itself, the water breaking out of the clouds, beads of water rushing and rattling down to the ground. It was the same when I went out to listen to the wind coming up the night before, long strands of whining air flowing off the bay and back up—and apparently blowing in this front.

The rain was steady, strong, and very clearly beyond  the control of anything human: it was the planet bathing itself under its own power and circumstances and in its own timing.  The rhythm was even but the rain was coming down hard, that rattling sound that suggests it might even be a prelude to hail.

The fact that I can be so aware of the weather out here is deeply gratifying to me, because it reminds me what the planet is really up to, rather than the human-created nonsense we all become so obsessed with.  Right now, in the face of the Midterm elections, each side is convinced the other is causing all the evil in the world, and also convinced that attacking them for it will make things better.  Social media is filled with falsehoods, friends all ginned up by writers or bloggers or media stars who really aren’t journalists but who want to proclaim a furor and raise their ratings. The end is near.  Act now and follow this line of thought or we’re all doomed. Honestly, if we are all doomed, I am close to genuinely believing that every one of us deserves it.

I do what I can, and here I can vote early, which I did. I can also turn off the media feeds of friends who are for whatever reasons momentarily poisoned by righteousness.  I can choose music instead, or, when I do want to know what’s going on, use the technology handed to me to select as many different perspectives as I can find, read what lets me feel like I know the basics, and then go on with whatever else I need to be doing:  working, writing, taking care of my animals, my household.  Standing outside, listening to the rain.

I don’t know when it occurred, but somewhere in the nine years of volunteering with wildlife my misanthropic view of humanity shifted a notch further. I remember one afternoon when a carload of us were off to release several juvenile cormorants, young black water birds the size of bowling pins who were rehabbed after either being booted out of nests by siblings or picked up by misguided, well-intentioned humans when the adolescent birds were just messing around on the ground, trying to figure things out. Somewhere along the way to the release site one of the rehab staff began describing the human population as a virus, and another joined in to say it was a species that had gotten out of control;  someone else suggested that the planet needed a flea bath.  When we got to the release site some of the little birds were so confused they tried to run back up on land, and we had to chase them into the water, but pretty quickly their connection with their element seemed to snap them back into reality, and off they went.

I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and say that if we really do care about our families and their futures, we really do need to learn to calm down and stop terrorizing them with our politics.  My experience is that family and friends are not given to us for extended, guaranteed periods of time, and we should all spend what time we have together with something better than social harassment.  I’m going to crawl out farther on the limb to point out that unless we pay more attention to the planet and its condition, it’s all going to be moot, anyway, and sooner than most people want to recognize.

So I focus on the weather.  I check how this limb is holding up, and back off  when it feels like it’s got too much play in it.

Human beings, really, are a pretty nasty species, sometimes seeming closer to jackals and wild dogs than to the larger primates we’re supposed to be most closely similar to.  If one wants to go to ancient and Biblical interpretations, we’re definitely more mud than we are God’s breath.  Ancient philosophers believed our challenge was to overcome that duality; most religions argue the same. Compassion.  Kindness. Doing what we can for others who have less than we do. Recognizing our powerlessness in the face of larger forces.  Those books call us again and again to these lessons because we need so much reminding that this is the higher calling.

Politics are human created sports, methods of trying to make sense of ourselves, and like so many things we do as humans, we get so much of it snarled. For whatever reasons, modern politicians and the media that reports on them has gotten mired again and again in the graphite and dirt, even as they’re insisting they’re only making this mess because they want to be part of the solution.  Within hours of me posting this, the election returns will be coming in, and there will undoubtedly be more noise: unending discussion of what has just happened and why, and how it will affect the future.  One could also put a pot over one’s head and bang on it with a stick.

Classical scholars point out that in The Illiad, Homer referred to the sky as bronze and the sea as the color of wine, and those sorts of references carried on all the way through the Old Testament of the Bible. There was no discussion of blue skies; one theory is that they really didn’t have a word for blue: the color rarely occurs in nature, and it was tough to get it as pigment for dye or paint—it just wasn’t something that came up much, something they needed to express. There are also theories that the colors looked different because people saw differently.  Early landscape painters often had as much yellow and gray in the skies as the crystal blue we think of now, and artists weren’t even attempting to paint realistically until as late as the 15th century.

So much of what we believe or what we take as fact is actually shaped and affected by how we’re trained to perceive things, by what we’re told, and where our attention is pointed.

I know many people who find this time of year a little disturbing, because the days are getting shorter and the light is changing noticeably almost daily, especially up this far north.  It’s interesting to me how seasons take on different associations.  I know people who have an autumn sadness, often associated with dread of going back to school, or the shortening of the sunlight. But the barn dances and hay rides and Oktoberfests of autumn happened because this was the harvest time: the results coming in from the hard work of summer, back before summer meant trying very hard to do nothing.  Autumn was a time of bounty, for enjoying the fruits even as you were putting them up to help you through the winter.

The concept of feasting and settling in is hardwired into us: recently a friend of mine on a relatively suburban part of Bainbridge island looked outside in the evening to see her summer bee hives being raided by a large black bear. 

Neighbors were aghast—what were bears doing on Bainbridge Island? There were plenty of noisy posts on local websites.  But the next day my friend installed a hotwire around the bee hives and the bear has since left them alone, foraging elsewhere. Wildlife hates noise.

 

 

Harvest time is for bringing good things the from the earth and the trees back indoors with you, to keep them throughout the darker months, to continue to enjoy.

Will the elections make a difference?  On some scores, certainly, but these scorecards go back as far as written record and the tallies continue shifting. Will we all be any less awful to each other?  It’s up to us, I think.

Is this the rainy season, darkness and impending doom, or a time for savoring, and reflecting about things and people we care about?  Is the sky blue, or is it yellow?  Which is better?  Which is true?

I say stand outside in the weather with an open mind and try to come up with language that reflects what you see. I hope we all find and create words that will genuinely express our experiences and our hearts.

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On the Evening of the Equinox

It may be rare to be exhausted by summer, but this year I was definitely there.

In the Pacific Northwest, summer pretends to start in May: warming temperatures and clear sunlight, but the weather will cool and even drizzle throughout June, ironically getting colder through the first half of July. Normally, though, August visitors are stunned by the wonderful summer temperatures and the crystal blue sky; they can’t believe they’ve heard so many stories about Seattle rain. If you aren’t interested in these particular visitors considering a future summer place near you, this is when you tell them the weather they’re experiencing lasts for about six weeks, and they really ought to plan their next vacation here in February.

But this year, instead of the usual nearly two inches of rain in May, we had less than twelve hundredths; in June, we had a third of our regular precipitation, and for the entire month of July we registered five one hundredths of one inch.

And it was hot.  Meteorologists are tangling over the details but most report this has been the hottest summer on record for the Puget Sound area, and records started in 1894.

There was a lot to love at the start: the sun, the green, the chirps of baby ospreys in a new nest down the road from me.

I was teaching a class on line and writing, and all of that was fine; in the relative cool of the mornings I could even say this was really a beautiful summer, a wonderful time of working at home.

At the same time, early in this very dry summer I also entered into a significant battle with dust. I swept the floor in the morning, wiped off tables and windowsills. By afternoon, though, when I crossed the floor I could tell it was back—and when I looked across a table I could see it—all back again, all over everything again.

Then, the temperatures usually reserved for mid-August showed up in July.

I found myself obsessively checking weather apps, to see if the temperature would drop enough at night to be able to actually rest, since like two thirds of the houses in the Puget Sound region mine does not have air conditioning—which meant leaving windows open, the windows and French doors open during the day, which meant more dust.

By late July, when the dogs started chasing each other out in the yard, a cloud of dust rose up six to eight feet above the ground and then just hovered there, suspended in the air.

August brought the addition of several weeks of smoke from regional forest fires, a creeping, sulphurous quality to the air, blue skies looking like they’d been lightly washed with turmeric. Mid-month we got a brief reprieve—enough of a pressure change off the ocean to clear it, and the temperatures dropped back to the low eighties. But apparently the winds changed, because I walked out a few days later to air that once again smelled like I lived near a pulp mill.

And because I was outside so much, because everyone was outside, there was more local hum: from neighborhood gatherings, groups of bathers scampering down to the beach, cars travelling up and down the dirt road raising still more clouds of dust. The young osprey were getting bigger, now screaming throughout the day because their parents, in an attempt to work them out of the nest, to get them to the water, were bringing less fish, and the fledglings were not having it.  By August they were out of the nest, all over the area, but still screaming. I was surrounded.

The dogs were hot and agitated. The large dog, getting older, practically grimaced with the effort to raise his body up off the deck, before he charged off to the perimeters the property, working overtime to keep his eye on all that was going on around us.

Spending as much time as I do alone, it’s possible to become too lost in the processes and meaning of living.  And any of us, these days, can get too caught up in the news, politics, the business of arranging something in our lives, even the business of business.  It’s no secret to anyone these are challenging times, and often it seems like everything and everyone is picking up the tension and conflict. The turbulence seems global;  maybe it is—but it’s also definitely another type of exhaustion.

And then came September One.  The temperatures had dropped some, but almost on cue with the turn of the calendar page, we began to get rain. It was very light at first, so with the incredibly dry ground it made almost zero difference to the plants, to the dust problem, to the animals.

One evening in the first week of September, I was thinking through a rough decision and went out to sit on the deck, where I became distracted, watching the season come in.  The sky suddenly developed a ceiling: we went from the flawless blue of summer, which had, frankly, started to seem sinister to me, to moody sheets of clouds drifting in, covering portions of the visible horizon, bringing night on faster. That night, the sky was slate-gray, with a slight breeze which had been completely absent over the summer.  It was also notably quiet; all the neighbors, all their children, seemed to have disappeared. Just the sound of the cooler, damper air moving through the high branches of the trees.

Nights like this it can be easier to remember I’m actually on the surface of a large ball, rotating through space. With no streetlights in the neighborhood, something about the night sky opens to look as limitless as it truly is; it’s easier to see how far the trees and buildings of our world reach up into space–how far we do not reach. Sitting with my problems I was aware that at the same time, through the tree canopy, along the ground, all over the skin of this planet, organic life is going on—and almost certainly unconcerned with our human issues. Plants are responding to the change in daylight; some creatures in the tree canopy are building winter nests; the night skies are streaked with clouds of migrating birds–the osprey, just now heading out for South America. They all move to the earth’s magnetic fields, to its rotation.

The contrast of the enormity around me and the smallness of my house, my deck, my chair, reminded me, somehow, that there have been very hard times before in human society, even in the recent past. Today of course we believe our own problems are more significant than the ones before, but at the time, those people believed the same. They felt the world was going to end, was ending—sometimes it may actually have come close.  Still, as I sat there then, as I write this now, the other life of the planet, the earth, goes on: creatures live, move, die, with all the ambivalence of the natural world. Ocean tides are coming in and going out; waves are rising and crashing, or rolling, like green or gray silk, not breaking, not making a sound.

The ball, the organic earth, is what keeps us: without it, without it breathing and growing and living the way it needs to, honestly, none of our issues matter. The seasons change because of the planetary tilt—and the light shifts, and we bring in harvests, and risk becoming ever more insular.

Watching the autumn come in, I reminded myself to take the time to be distracted by the trees, the wind, the changes of seasons and real changes they bring.  For all our complexity and conflict and self importance, the earth is what actually keeps us alive.

Step outside. Look up and detach. And roll with it.

 

 

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Wild Cherry: Some Thoughts on Mother’s Day

When I was a teenager, for a lot of reasons and not unlike others of us, my relationship with my mother had become somewhat fraught. In fact, through those years I spent a lot of my time away from my family, at a barn on a three hundred acre YMCA camp in lower Michigan.  I and a small band of comrades who also were not living the perfect teen lives tangled with the horses, mucked around cleaning stalls and repairing fence and tack, and hung out with the tougher women there who stood in for mother figures as needed.  I also remember smoking a lot of cigarettes while playing a midwestern card game called euchre.

On one Sunday in May, sitting in the tack room I discovered from the others that this particular Sunday turned out to be Mother’s Day—which I had totally forgotten.

I tried brainstorming something to do for my mother when I returned home later. I have no idea why it didn’t simply involve going by a drugstore for at the very least a card and a box of chocolates.  Instead, one option we came up with involved trying to get one of the Shetland ponies into a friend’s pick-up truck and taking it home and putting it in the garage for Mother to discover, but we all knew  it really wasn’t really safe for the pony to travel in an open truck.  I don’t remember when I thought of going out and digging up a plant of some sort to take back home, a more typical gift and possibly perceived as a positive display of the holiday.

I went out into one of the back fields with a beat up metal five-gallon bucket and a shovel, to a stand of wild cherry trees.  I dug out a small one, probably sucker growth. Ever since I could remember my mother had been in a garden club, she loved working the garden borders in our frustratingly shady yard.  And she’d ecouraged me, when I was an adolescent, to plant fruit trees, though the hard winters wiped out my dwarf apple. The cherry tree made immediate and expedient sense.  Problem solved.

When I came back to the tack room, lugging the sapling in the bucket which had to weigh about thirty pounds with all that dirt in it, my boss’s friend Jo was sitting by the door, and asked what on earth I was doing.

“I forgot it’s Mother’s Day,” I told her.  “Thought I’d take Mom a tree.”

Jo was a cutting horse trainer who had seen a lot; one of those wonderful, calm women with a dry but essentially kind sense of humor.  “I see that,” she said mildly, nodding at me. “I’m not so sure I’d be glad to have one of those in my yard.  Wild cherry is basically an invasive weed.”

I must have shrugged and obviously I recognized what she was saying, but I did put the bucket in the back seat of the car I was driving—my mother’s—and took it home with me.

Mind you, I always came back from the barn relatively dirty:  sweat, grain bits or strands of hay, smears of manure, or I dragged my saddle home to take apart and clean.  One time we fit several bales of straw in the back seat. Mother had recently blown up at me:  “I got into my car Sunday morning,” she barked, “and it was a mess!”  I could just see her darting out in her church clothes, thinking she was just going to hop in the car and go make the 8:00 service, to find when she opened the door her seat was strewn with God only knew what.

Which didn’t stop me from putting the rough cut metal and dirt with the tree in behind the driver’s seat, and going home.

When I produced the cherry tree, Mother didn’t miss a beat:  she was delighted.  She told me she knew just where she was going to plant it, and plant it she did.

 

Our relationship improved tremendously after I got my own life in order a few years later, which took a lot of tolerance and insight on both our parts, and at some point in my twenties after I’d moved away I thought to ask her about the cherry tree.

“Of course I knew what it was,” she said.  “And yes—they’re awful:  the fruit is small, it draws a lot of birds, they’re basically dirty and tough to keep from spreading.”

“So why did you plant it?”

“Because you gave it to me.  Besides, I knew how to keep it small:  I prune it back every year, and so it’s just a lovely little shrubby thing on the windy edge of the house.  It’s still there.”

 

All that is a long time ago now, and I do not know why I woke up thinking about it this morning.  It’s a beautiful sunny day, here in the PNW, and I will call a couple of mothers I know and wish them a good day.  Then I plan to get out in my yard and rid myself of a few invasive trees that have popped up here: wands of big-leaf maple poking up through my rose bushes, some hawthornes back by the fence that keep spreading.

 

Motherhood is happening all over the place;  I like that if you study it you learn that motherhood in the broader natural world can vary—a lot.

For instance, mother opossums have their babies growing in a pouch.  They often birth more than they can actually provide for, and somehow, it isn’t an issue.  The babies will emerge at some point, and spend more and more of their smallest weeks riding around on their mother’s back.  Then, at the right moment, they will either be shaken off, fall off, or jump off, and simply wander out into the underbrush, to become more opossums.  She doesn’t go looking for them and they don’t check in.

On the other hand, there has been a strange eagle drama going on around my neighborhood for several months. I keep hearing a voice calling on the opposite side of where I know the nest to be.  It might be answered from the nesting site, but it makes no sense that one of them would be where I hear the voice coming from, unless they’re building a new nest, which it doesn’t look like they’re doing.  Then a week or so back I saw a large, dark bird shoot across the sky in that direction—at first I thought it might be one of the ravens but it was way too big, and then I noted the brown body, yellow feet.  This may validate a theory a friend and I had been speculating on:  a juvenile, maybe even from this nest, come back to wonder if maybe he might not get another year of hanging out with the adults.  But the resident pair aren’t having it.  They’ve been there for at least twenty years, and while I’ve heard babies in the past I’m not sure they did produce any offspring last year.  Despite continuing the routine of coming to the nest, sprucing it up and defending it to the death, they may no longer be able to make viable babies.  Doesn’t matter.  They have clearly planned on another set of eaglets this year.  Regardless of whatever its relationship is, this brown guy is not being allowed to get anywhere near the nest, though it periodically still turns up in the area, only to be chattered at and run off.  Of course I wonder if the juvenile is sulking.

Mothering is a varied thing.  A family of raccoons might hang out together in a pack for several generations.  If you reach in to touch a pet dog’s puppies she might try to take off your hand, though within the year she will not seem to recognize them.

Obviously, humans being primates brings a whole different set of child rearing techniques.  But our own organic practices are exactly the same biological drives as other animals, we’ve just happily dressed them up as cultural virtues:  feed the young, keep them safe.  Defend them against predators.  Make sure they launch in safe places.

But obviously there are significant differences in being human.  There are all those choices we can make, if we’re paying attention.

When my stepfather retired, rather than move to a comfortable locale in a warmer climate like most of the people they knew, he and my mother relocated to an island off the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  My stepfather told me he had to reason with Mother from going even farther into the woods. She was incredibly happy there.  They’d call with reports of bobcats in the driveway, hibernating bear within range of the house, three feet of ice on Lake Huron in the winter.

So the fact that I live my somewhat rangy life outside of the city, doing what I can to pay attention to the other wild things around me, I attribute in part to something I’ve come by honestly, maybe even biologically.

 

I have occasionally wondered if the cherry is still at the house in Indiana, what the people who are living there have done about it.  I was there in 2001 and did see the house and walk through the yard, but I was distracted by all kinds of things and forgot to look.

As I started writing this I wanted to double check about Midwestrn wild cherry, to see if what I remembered and had been told seemed correct, so I looked around at some internet sites at species information.  The University of Michigan says this:

“A common tree of fencerows and borders of fields and forests, almost anywhere that birds have deposited the seeds; can be very scrubby in rocky ground or dry open jack pine or aspen savanna, a fine tree in deciduous forests (oak, beech-maple, or others), attaining considerable size in rich hardwoods.

Several species of Prunus, especially P. serotina, are known as stock-poisoning plants, because of their cyanogenic glycosides that produce dangerous amounts of hydrogen cyanide, particularly in the succulent young leaves and slightly wilted ones and in the pits, which may fatally poison children.”

O-kay!

I also found a website for Porcupine Hollow Farms, somewhere on the northwest side of lower Michigan.  The farm grows Christmas trees and landscaping plants, and hardwoods for flooring and furniture. I like their description of the wild black cherry, which could very well have been be what I dug out:

“The leaves are simple, oval or oblong, tapering at both ends, wavy-margined and fine toothed, thin, shiny, dark green, bitter and aromatic when crushed, 2.5” long turning yellow in the fall.  The flowers in May-June are white, in long, close-flowered facemes, small, flowering later than other wild cherries usually when the leaves are half grown.  Fruit is pea sized berries, bitter when crushed, can be used in pies, ripening in August, fruit for birds and other game and also useful for yanking off by the handfuls to use as ammo when playing with the kids.  It can be messy in some yards.  It is a fast grower.”

They also point out it is a favorite tree of the eastern tent caterpillar, another good reason not to have one anywhere near things you care about.

 

As I go about my time in the yard today, and think about the various mothering going on around me, I will add one more determining characteristic to the human variety.

Mothers are creatures who will willingly take what is essentially plant vermin, given to them by reprobate daughters, and they will put it into their manicured, well-loved garden beds.

And they will make it work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interlude: Jellybeans

It is spring.  That weather again. Blossoms are starting to fire off throughout the neighborhood—the plum trees, the cherries, the fragrant daphnes, short pink tufts of early rhododendrons visible against the gray spring sky and the very green leaves.  And the eagles are doing amazing things: high parallel passes in the air, then picking up speed and then dropping, unbelievably accurately, one right after another into the nest hidden high in the neighbor’s Grand Fir.

But as far as seasonal thoughts go, right now I want to discuss jelly beans.

Around this time last year I was in a Bellevue drugstore with my friend Ruth. She was back in this Washington from where she lives now in DC, and just at that moment we were helping out her aging parents by running some errands.  While Ruth shopped for the very specific things her mother had on a list, I wandered the drugstore aisles, winding up as if by magic among the seasonal candies.  For all kinds of reasons, I find I rarely go through a spring without at some type of Easter candy.

Marshmallow Peeps are a subject unto themselves I won’t go into here;  I got involved with them later in life.  But standing in the aisle I gazed over choices that definitely were the building blocks of the 1960s baskets of cellophane grass that materialized outside my bedroom door on Easter morning.  Foil-wrapped bunnies and small chocolate eggs, speckled blue malt-balls, and jellybeans, which happened to be on sale at that moment. I don’t often buy jellybeans but I thought why not, so I scrutinized types.  The mystery flavors that started showing up in the ‘80s hold little allure for me, but the package of Brach’ s claimed they were “Classic” so I picked up a bag, nabbed two packs of peeps, and met Ruth at the checkout counter.

Many people have aversions to Peeps, but jellybeans aren’t strictly a seasonal candy anyway, and they seem to resonate with most of us.  I showed Ruth the jellybeans and was delighted when she immediately began discussing the flavors and colors.  I was not surprised that Ruth, like any sensible person with a memory of childhood, has strong opinions about which color jellybeans are the best.  But I honestly did not expect her choices: she hates the orange ones, is only lukewarm to the yellow, and has always preferred the white.  In fact, she was quite enthusiastic about the white ones.

I was stunned.  I think the orange ones are just fine—and I think I quite like the yellow ones, for that matter.  But the white ones, I said calmly, have all the allure of old moth balls, and I’ve never been sure what they represent.   Ruth answered very reasonably that it doesn’t matter what flavor they’re supposed to be, and that green jelly beans are poisonous.  We briefly discussed the issue of the purple ones, and I stated that the pink ones really aren’t any recognizable flavor besides pink.  We talked about that further:  what can they be meant to taste like, cotton candy? Strawberry?  Nothing we came up with seemed correct, but Ruth emphasized again, so what?  Who eats jellybeans to expect them to taste like anything but jellybeans?

Ruth and I hugged goodbye in the parking lot, and the Peeps and my bag of classic beans and I got into my car, where almost immediately I got into the cellophane.  Peeps have that exterior crunch of sugar and the totally strange marshmallow softness, and then disappear about the moment you realize you’re eating one.  I put the car in gear.  Before I got out of Bellevue, I opened the bag of Classic beans.

First, let me say that if you haven’t eaten the classic flavors in a while, or really any jellybeans, this is a sugar blast almost alarming to the adult palate.

Once in your mouth, a random handful of jellybeans produces the immediate sensation of smooth round things that crush quickly into a sugarfied paste, a mouth blur of sharply sweet flavors identifiable only as ‘candy.’  We are not talking about anything like a natural flavor.

And, almost as immediately, as I merged onto the freeway, I experienced a tension between my eyes that expanded into a light headache, apparently the sugar overloading my circuits.

But truly, these are the food of time-travel.  Like Proust and his madeleine, at the first taste of the jellybeans it is suddenly 1962, and like Alice, I’ve shrunk to under three feet tall.

Because for all their good intentions, and they were very good, what were our parents thinking? If your family did such things, Easter is the culmination of forty days of Lent—an observance where most children are urged to give up something they love, like candy, or at least chocolate.  So Easter morning arrives, and, depending on your church, you may have been supposed to have an empty stomach before taking communion.  But kids having seen their Easter baskets, my parents, anyway, couldn’t completely resist our pleadings, so we were allowed one or two pieces of candy before we left for the service.

Communion was an act I did not participate in until the age of ten, but there I was with the rest of them, empty and starving–except now surging highly refined sugar through my five year old bloodstream as I faced a full High mass: processional and recessional hymns, the whole choir leading the acolytes and priests, one wearing white-gloves swinging the burning censor,  bowling us over in the pews with thick waves of  the ancient-smelling, dusty, liturgical incense.

Empty body, queasy stomach and a slight tension headache, in the alien dress and little Easter socks and shoes, and even after it was all over when we walked out into the into the damp, possibly cold but still humid Midwestern spring morning, pausing to wish other parishioners a happy Easter before heading home to my grandmother’s brunch food—I still had that strange, floaty feeling crimping in my head, my stomach—you’re a child in new clothes standing beneath the waists of a group of chatting adults and all of a sudden you hate everybody and you really just want to lie down.

I haul myself back through the sugar portal and finish driving home, still trying to understand how such an excellent person as Ruth could prefer the white ones.

 

Now to be honest, at this point in my life I eat a lot of dark chocolate.  But a quick scan of ingredients tells me that gram for gram, jellybeans have three times the sugar content of dark chocolate, and the modern bag of jellybeans even comes with warning of a choking hazard.

 

After a high-protein meal, I get out the bag and sort through the colors.  It is time for a systematic adult analysis.

I lay them out in my own hierarchy:  Red, of course, yellow, orange, black and green—then the questionable ones:  pink, purple, white.  Classic.  I pop a red one in my mouth.

These truly are the flavors of the MidCentury.  While trying to discern what flavors they actually are supposed to be, I realize it will take more than one bean for assessment, so I lay out another complete row.  It might not sound like much but I don’t eat much straight candy at this point in my life, and a part of me looks at them all there on my dining room table, all sixteen beans, and something in my nervous system shudders.  

Red is, of course, the best.  Maybe cherry?  Whatever that red flavor is I’d say it has little in common with any actual fruit.  Mostly I’d just say it just tastes ‘red’.  Not overly sweet but certainly sweet; good body, nice bits of sour afternotes.

Yellow does have a distinct flavor of lemon candy:  very sweet but some tartness to it and a satisfying, gritty texture; definitely the same flavoring as lemon drops, or even lemon furniture polish.  What it has in relation to actual lemons is another question, but with this particular jellybean, at least we know what the intention is.

Orange is sort of fascinating.  Like the yellow ones, there is a clear memory of other orange candies—orange slices, for instance, those strange jellied wedges coated in granular sugar.  Is it anything like an orange?  This one may be the closest to an actual fruit flavor, but it’s still a stretch.  Which makes me think of Tang.  Apparently Tang originated in the late ‘50s, but I remember when it really hit its stride after John Glenn successfully circumnavigated the globe in a space capsule, and it became The Breakfast Drink of Astronauts.  (Just thinking about this has me jonesing for a bowl of corn flakes and whole milk)

Ruth is right:  green tastes something like sugared Pine-Sol.

Black.  Now here is something that truly is Classic.  The black jellybean tastes like absolutely nothing else but a black jellybean:  you know as soon as you’ve hit one that that’s what you’ve got.  Unlike true black licorice, these things are remarkably sweet, with that strange, tarry aftertaste.  My stepfather adored them, and sometimes fed them to our poodle.

At the purple jellybean we begin to markedly deviate.  Waxy, immediately artificial, and then there it is:  the unmistakable artificial ‘grape’ flavor, bearing no genetic markers whatsoever to anything from produce departments.  This is the grape of grape soda, of grape Kool-Aid, of Fizzy’s, which I once threw up (it might even have been the grape flavor.)  A purple jellybean is totally identifiable when it hits the tastebuds, but really, can you associate it with anything that isn’t the color of crayons?

Pink is another mystery.  I still have no idea what flavor it’s supposed to be, but boy, is it ever nostalgic.  It’s Pink.  Incredibly sweet, with strange hints of teenaged perfume.

After a sip of coffee to clear the palate, I pop in a white one.  Again, this is immediately recognizable as just what it’s always been–a sort of mystic, stale pineapple flavor with a hint of wax.  (Ruth, really?) I have never been able to understand this one, possibly because it was usually just the bad end of the sugar crash, since I would leave those and the pink ones, and the purple ones, too, now that I think of it, as the low residue of the Easter basket.

Yes, of course, I realize that there are other types and flavors of jelly beans. Famously, in the 1980s, jellybeans were the Food of Presidents, responsible, Ronald Regan claimed, for helping wean himself off smoking a pipe.  He was sent probably quite literally tons of   Jelly Belly’s—often in simple red, white, and blue themes (‘very cherry, blueberry, and coconut) but he claimed to like all flavors.  The Jelly Belly company proudly lists fifty flavors, and claims that the favorite flavor of all jellybeans in the US is buttered popcorn.   I refuse to believe it.

These exotic flavors didn’t start showing up until flavorists began to get them right, somewhere in the early ‘80s, and from then on jellybeans got more and more outlandish, even alcoholic.   There are cantaloupe and kiwi. Pear (pear?  Honestly, who ever wants a pear-flavored jellybean?) I scan the list past jellybeans flavored strawberry daiquiri and pina colada. I ask, why not tequila?  That certainly could have helped a few of us through Easter mass.

In the early ‘90s JK Rowlings started her first novel about Harry Potter, with the mention of Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, which memorably include earwax and vomit.  Certainly not ones to miss an opportunity, the flavorists at Jelly Belly are reproducing Bottie’s beans, and I see flavors include grass, earthworm, and rotten egg–actually, a nice post-Easter medley.

But analyze anything too far and you wind up splitting atoms.  A few happy, headache-inducing jellybeans really don’t hurt anyone in the spring, and probably match up nicely with the discomfort of allergies.

The question is whether eating jellybeans is about having some random candy, which the modern flavors constitute for me and which is why I completely leave them alone, or whether it is checking in and reconnecting with very young parts of ourselves, who often remind us that simpler can be better.  In fact, can be delightful when you leave it as it is.

 

 

 

Sometimes life offers us really nice moments of return motifs, and two days ago Ruth texts to say she’s back again for another brief visit with her parents.  In planning to get together I mention I am writing about jellybeans.  I want to give her the opportunity to clarify what cannot be correct in my memory.  In return, I receive this:

“White, pink, purple, and pink are best.

Red are acceptable but inferior to the above.

Yellow, orange, and green are not fit to be eaten unless one is starving.

Black are equal to the ‘best’ category, but they’re in their own category because it is forbidden to combine them with any other colors, whereas the four colors in the other “best” category may be combined if the eater wishes.”

 

I look into the bottom of my bag after all this exhaustive research.  What’s left?          Purple, pink, and white.

 

I will take them to Ruth.

 

 

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About the Light

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve been heading into it for weeks, now.

I hear it from friends who’ve moved here from California, I hear it from acquaintances with seasonal affective disorder.  I am reminded of an afternoon with my old friend Annie, a Seattle native, as we drove back from a late lunch in December and she growled,  “Right.  It’s that time of year again.  Darkness at noon.”

It’s been coming on since October, of course, but especially since passing Thanksgiving the sunsets are more notable and the twilight begins shading in early: hazy dark at six, or maybe five thirty.  Then five.  Then four.

As I’m writing this right now, here in the PNW we’re in the 8 hours, 24 minutes period of actual daylight, and we will be until Christmas–at which point we will all be given the gift our first full additional minute.

It is now black when I wake up at 7 and it is full dark again by 5, and I do understand that for some people this is horrific, or at least disconcerting.  I have to be honest, though.  I love this time of year.

I think I always have.  I remember it when I was a kid in the Midwest: noticing the streetlights coming on earlier, or walking through the neighborhood to a friend’s house and seeing the glow from the windows of the houses.  The air could be full of the smell of leaves and smoke, or the neighborhoods banked in snow—which brought its own particular brittle, almost sweet bite of winter air, and silence of all but the crunch of footsteps.

Out here in Western Washington, of course, we’re snowless and often very wet, but the darkness is also markedly more pronounced.  The reason is simple and geographic:  where I grew up in Indiana was the 41st longitudinal parallel of the Northern Hemisphere.  My little town of Indianola sits at 47.6.  Depending on things like axial tilt, these five and a half degrees can make a big difference in how much light is visible, and for how long.

You live long enough and you hear all sorts of repeating noises from other humans, and reaction to the early winter dark is a seasonal theme.  For me, though, this darkness is enormously comforting.  It’s a deep, almost velvety darkness, as opposed to summer nights which seem to me, somehow, a thinner, more transparent black.  When the darkness starts to drop in the late fall I feel safe, autonomous, and for some odd reason, deeply happy.

I once wondered if it was a biological thing, since I do not disbelieve those who find this time of year genuinely depressing and hard.

I thought about my family, the various nationalities that went into my four grandparents, for instance, and found an intriguing thing:  the Germanic sides came from anywhere from 47.3 degrees latitude in Bavaria, to the Prussians who might have been as far north as 52.  (The second cousin who did that side of the family’s genealogy was still not clear what part of Prussia we came from, and I cling to his repudiated research that suggested it might have been Pomerania.)  My Bohemian great grandmother from outside of Prague would have been born at the 50th latitudinal line, and the Scots could have been as far north as 56.  (White Americans can be stunning in our ancestral obsessions.)

So depending on the shakedown of genetics, this may, as I suspect, be organic.

Except that can’t be the whole story.  My sister was never fully comfortable until she moved to southern California.  Maybe she got more of the Bavarian genes, who knows, and not everything can be nature.  Still, my brother’s daughter, born in St. Louis, calls me from where she lives now in San Diego, remarks on the blue skies and temperature at this time of year, and weeps.

This season is also when so many cultural traditions face and respond to the darkness, and those Germans, again, are considered responsible for the tree-thing: possibly going back to the 8th century, but certainly by the 15th they were hauling trees into their dwellings, and by the 16th century, adorning them with lights, and later, blown glass baubles.

Was it because evergreen represented life throughout the winter—or that some regional folklore believed the branches warded off witches and evil spirits?  Given the seasonally recurring nostalgia, I cannot believe that Christmas trees keep away ghosts.

The tree celebration did not immediately transfer to the colonies, by the way:  the Puritans were totally opposed to it (a ‘pagan mockery’).  It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Christmas trees in the US started catching on, first showing up, no surprise, in German settlements in Pennsylvania.

For myself, I have no desire to haul in a tree.  Live tree?  Chopped tree?  Are they environmentally sustainable?  Should it matter?  What about an artificial tree?  (what are those made of?)  What about one of those fine, aluminum Christmas trees of the ’50s and ‘60s, like the gold and silver number my grandmother insisted on, with the weird round lights that looked like electron microscope photographs of pollen?  The lights were elegant enough, she said, that the thing didn’t need ornaments.  It was fancy enough on its own.

City lights and stoplights blinking a bright red and green, yes, I may put up lights, why not? They’re beautiful, and the colors are wonderful against the dark night sky at the windows.  And there are all sorts of other ways to get light, this time of year.  Full-spectrum bulbs in the home, tanning booths, if anyone still takes that risk; firing up the houselights inside, or, if necessary, taking the rash act of migrating south:  New Orleans at 29 degrees latitude, Miami at 25.  A New England friend has moved to Costa Rica, and now rocks happily at 10.

When I lived in Houston (29.7), one year my neighborhood in the Heights held a Mexican Posada that passed through several blocks, mapped out in luminairias.  Never mind that the weather was warm enough we didn’t need jackets, the candlelight through the paper bags looked magical against the December night, and even to this agnostic, joining in with the crowd of neighbors, all following the path to find a safe place for the birth of the Christ child, was beautiful.

In the largely unseen world, this time of year the creatures have their own organic practices for facing darkness.  Many animals are less active, some have reduced metabolism and heart rate.  Their body temperatures drop, and this can be pretty intense: I do see squirrels still hopping alongside the road, but chipmunks and other rodents have gone into hibernation, as have insects and snakes.  Bats and bears settle into torpor—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a state of mental and motor inactivity with partial or total insensibility,” which isn’t far from the symptoms I hear a lot of people describing.

This time of year something in me settles; becomes quieter, moves less, but it’s more a centering than a sleep.  And it rests there, even as I work and live my life and walk the dog and all that, and watch everyone around me doing all they can to capture and revere light.

December brings oil lamps to remember, candles to set aflame.  We look to the solstice, with its plea for us to trust the gradual gains in daylight.  Whenever Christ was actually born, humans have coupled that event to the darkest time of year, starlight falling on the baby that would later claim to be the light.

I step out on my porch and off through the evergreens I see small blues and reds and greens and gold, sparkling on my neighbor’s houses.  Then I hear the faintest rustle of something moving slowly along my fenceline.  Whether deer or something less endearing, I can’t tell.  In the dark blue of the early morning sky I hear the eagles calling, I have no idea what they’re up to, but I do know that they and the owls are already building nests, obedient to instincts that are certain of the next season.

Ultimately, I suppose, for any of us it is an inside job, this need for illumination.  It can fire on the warmth of memories or from a spiritual core, or emanate from astronomical forces that don’t need our conscious minds to understand.  It is the radiance of our own interior furnace, the unseen glow of being alive, even in this season of darkness, and believing that will continue.

It’s all about the light.

 

 

 

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Beginning the Season of Gratitude and Endings

photo: Jay Wiggs

 

Such a strange time of year—the beginning of a holiday season, tilting toward gatherings of community and lights and feasting, even as, and of course because, the daylight is diminishing, and the natural world goes lean.

I can never tell exactly when it happens, I just notice at some point the area songbirds have finally gone.  It doesn’t seem that many days ago I had a tree full of migrating robins and was hearing the single-note Keystone Cops whistle of the varied thrushes, throwing some sort of late-season territorial fit.

Suddenly I realize I’m down to Steller’s jays:  three or four of them have moved in on the evergreens around my yard, hopping along the roof of my outbuildings, clearly taking possession of the newly vacated space.  The flocks of crows that live down along the waterfront are also still in town, of course.  And then the local pair of ravens, who normally live a bit north of my home, thought they had it going on:  I would hear what sounded like the bark of a heron, or maybe a rattle, coming from the tops of the trees across the road from me, then see them jetting across the sky, peppering the neighborhood with still more prehistoric vocalizations.  Until the salmon runs started to wind down in the upper north rivers—the Elwha, the Dungeness spit, the Skagit—and the local pair of eagles returned from their seasonal, opportune feasting.

Now we have a morning sky ballet:  the ravens land, thinking they’ll spend the day in the treetops hassling the crows and jays—until a slow, large shadow drifts in, several thermals higher in the air, and everyone takes off:  the ravens shoot back to woods a quarter of a mile away, and the eagles, they almost seem not to be moving, holding their casual cruising patterns in the thermals above the neighborhood.

My old dog is fading, though for all cognitive purposes she’s still in there:  still delighted by touch, wild for meals and for treats.  She just can’t get her back end to cooperate.   So she sleeps much of the day, then totters around the house, looking for things the bird has tossed onto the office carpeting, or to see if she can shake me down for another biscuit.

Tonight I carry her out to the yard in a dry moment, after a week of rainy nights.  I put her down on the grass and she stands there, frozen, as if she is unsure how she suddenly happens to be outdoors.

She lifts her head and sniffs the wind.  For the moment she is reading the breeze, picking up what I cannot imagine, a chord mixture of dampness and earth and wet evergreen, and god only knows what else.  I watch her sorting it all out, making mental notes, her muzzle quivering, creating narratives.  Then she coughs.

She ambles to a different corner of the yard and another scent takes her attention until she bumps into the wiry branches of a now leafless thimbleberry.  She pivots, unsteady on her back left, and gradually weaves her way down the hill to the bottom of the stairs.  Going down the stairs on her own has been beyond her for some months, but up until a few weeks ago she would insist on making her own way up.  Tonight she stands, waiting for me to come and carry her.

I look around for a moment, thinking of the Novembers when I was young.  The Midwest landscape had its visuals down:  the colors drained to pastel skies, thin blankets of November snow or maybe just heavy silver frost, but the trees were now empty of leaves, very stark grays and browns, blacks and whites.

One morning I was driving up country roads in Indiana to do chores at a small barn in Michigan.  It was still dark but there was a beautiful sunrise, hot pink and deep purple at the horizon while three quarters of the sky was still night blue.  Across the frost of a farmer’s field and against this sky, the thin trunks of his windbreak streaked up against the growing light:  black trees, their empty branches still reaching up.

photo: Patti DeGolier Cripe

 

We do have the ability to hold two things in our minds at the same time, though it takes practice.  Moments can be both sad and resonant.  The impending season can be energized and busy, even as the earth around us is going dormant.  The darkness comes early, but houses warm with lights and cooking and familiar voices now all contained together inside.

This being the time of year she died I will miss my mother, and at the same time feel my heart open at the memory of a late afternoon in December, just home from the airport, hours before dinner and the arrival of my stepfather from work:  the two of us, glad and comfortable together, a pot of tea in the living room, the windows full of blue winter sky and reflected light from the Indiana snow.

The Pacific Northwest has an amazing ability to display several types of weather at once:  wind in the sunny summer, cold mornings in July, rain falling under otherwise blue skies, or like tonight: after heavy rains for several days, I stepped out to hear water running down my eaves, siphoning heavily off the leaves and the cedars to find nothing more than  a light mist falling.  And I looked up to see stars—and off to the east, clouds, with the moon just visible behind them.

I carry the dog up the stairs and we come back inside.

 

It is a season of endings, and a season of warmth, if we reach out to it.  If I let go of my mind and look around me, I get what I need.  The natural world can read it all back to us.

photo: Jay Wiggs

 

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Midsummer afternoon, 2017

It’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon in what’s turning out to be an unusually sunny, rain-free summer in the Pacific Northwest, and my yard is a mess.

Once upon a time I was a landscape laborer, so I actually do know how to take care of a these things.  When I moved out to Kitsap County I even spent a great deal of the first few years moving plants around and making plans for what to do in the future:  lists of new types to consider bringing in, timelines for relocating more of the trees and shrubs the previous owner had surrounded the house with, what appeared to be an elderly woman’s attempt to sock herself in.  It was a pretty great yard with some nice details: I found a good-sized bleeding heart under my office window, hellebores around the trunk of a hemlock tree, clematis along the fenceline, and then in June, some scruffy things I hadn’t noticed started putting out flowers and fruit:  raspberries.

As time has gone on, though, neighbors’ tree removal, excavation of my septic system, my own distractions and the added help of a shrub-eating Boston terrier, have turned my property into looking not much different from the abandoned cabin’s yard down the road.  Some good things, like genuinely native plants such as thimbleberry, have sprung up where they weren’t before, but so have morning glory and Himalayan blackberry.   I don’t have a lot of time for yard work right now, so I live with the snarls and brambles, until something comes over me or I am avoiding grading papers, and I rise up to find myself out tearing out bindweed and ripping out blackberries and redefining all the coordinates of the yard that have been rearranging themselves when my back has been turned.  Some are pleasant surprises.  During the septic mess they had to remove an old flowering plum tree I loved, to make way for the drain line.  A small start of the plum turned up on the other side of the yard, seeded by some appreciative bird, and I meant to move it to a better location.  Now, though, it’s a good ten feet high and lanky as a teenaged boy.  It stays.  Some invasive type of upright hypericum has showed up all over the place, golden leaves and round, black berries, and a nasty root system that requires more than a good yank to get out of the ground.  I narrow my eyes, waiting for the moment to take it on.  Meanwhile, it sort of holds off the vacant lot look that has been coming on for a while.

And the red elderberry–sambucus racemose, a lovely pair of words–a wild, weedy native shrub that typically grows about seven to twelve feet high.  I had two huge ones in the front of my yard, close to twenty feet tall.  They remained there happily for years, developing woody trunks, waving their long stalks of compound leaves.  In spring, seemingly overnight I’d come out to find hanging clusters of of  foamy white flowers draped among the emerald leaves.  Given a few more weeks, the flowers dropped off, replaced in early summer by clumps of small red berries, favs of thrushes and robins, adored by band-tailed pigeons, those heavy-winged bowling pins of the sky.

Anyway, for reasons I have not discovered, one of these two big red elderberries simply died two winters ago, so I took down the other one, which was looking peaked.  Now I have even more sun in my yard, more exposed dirt, it is less lovely than ever and I haven’t had time or energy to figure out what to do.  My large dog seems to have run over a rhododendron in the back, so on one impulsive grading break I moved it out front and that’s looking pretty great.  Instant landscape.  But on the other side,  in the stand of neglected raspberries, a new red elderberry came up this spring and decided it might try to take over.

The raspberries are a mess.  I’m not being generous.   I’ve neglected them for several years.  I think of my friend Seppry, who used to hang out and offer to help me in my yard.  He’d grown up with his family’s berry farms on Bainbridge Island, so he had reasonable and professional opinions.  He’d quietly shake his head and then smile at me:  “You’re not working your laterals.”

“I’m not working anything.  What are laterals?”

He’d walk over, pick a leaf between his fingers, look at me.  “The part of the plant that actually bears the fruit?”

Seppry belonged a distinctive Bainbridge Island community, Filipino and Canadian First Nation families who stepped up to care for the crops when the Japanese who owned those farms were marched off to the internment camps.  He referred to himself as India-Pino, and both cultures were strong with him.  When an eagle flew over my property he’d stop from whatever we were doing and watch it. Then he’d say to me, “That’s a blessing.”  He meant it as an active thing, not just a pretty chance.  His mother’s tribe was particularly connected to trees (he loved the huge cedars on the back of my property) but when I’d be heading to the wildlife shelter he’d say, “Go take care of my birds,” meaning the eagles that blow in to the shelter, needing rehab.

I am teaching on line this summer, another blessing, and very grateful for the rhythm that has occurred:  a day at the wildlife shelter, days of grading, defending the time set aside for a manuscript I’m trying to finish.  Doing these things means a lot of other things do not get done.  It’s a useful excuse for the condition of my yard.

Today I became gripped and decided to pop out that volunteer red currant bush with a spade shovel.  It was over four feet high by now but it gave up pretty easily.  Then standing in those neglected, pitiful raspberries, I saw some that were actually ripe.  So I stopped, picked them—enough for tomorrow’s breakfast, it turns out, easily a couple of dollars’ worth at the grocery store.  Free, and without any effort on my part, a generous offering from my otherwise totally out of control yard.  

Seppry died this past spring, only two years older than I am.  I have missed him tremendously.

His memorial was at the Filipino-Community Hall: food, talk, and a group of Native drummers who chanted about eagles, sent his spirit on. They’d already done this a few days before in Canada, his other home. Driving back up my road afterwards I couldn’t believe what I was seeing:  high in the air, holding their place in a thermal, were the two local bald eagles, but they were joined by four more—six bald eagles, all slowly and gracefully seeming to hold a pattern, wheeling in the sky.  I called a friend from the shelter.  She said it was likely that this is the edge of the territory for the local pair, so they’re not threatened by the others, who might be juveniles scouting for a location.

A couple of weeks ago, going out to my car in the morning on my way to the shelter, I found a large, dusty, chocolate colored feather, laying in the grass.  It looks to be a plume feather.  It’s from a good-sized bird.  Could be a heron’s, though it’s not really the right color.

We go about our lives.  We complicate them, then deal with the hell that humans create so effectively.  We might even interact with the nature, pruning it, shaping it to our specs, telling ourselves stories.

What I know is that there was a lot of eagle noise through the spring and early summer, early in the morning and on through the day, even after the light had gone. I have totally ignored the plants in my yard and still they offer me fruit—albeit raspberries.

The natural world can be forgiving and there’s much in it to restore one’s faith.  And this isn’t just a charming analogy:  if this weren’t the case, we’d be tremendously screwed.

Pay attention, I tell myself.  The tangle of plants, the casual remarks and smiles of friends, the spirits in the sky.

Blessings, so long as I’m willing to pause, recognize them, and gratefully accept.

 

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmgVEys6TdU

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