Posts Tagged ‘trees’

Cutting Christmas Trees in the Forest

Hans Andersen Brendekilde (Danish, 1857 -1942): Cutting Christmas Trees in the Forest

The writing process is often a matter of piecing together the interesting flotsam and jetsam that twinkles past in the normal flow of life. What with painting and moving the household to Redbud Lane and preparing for Christmas and trying to find the belt that goes with my brown dress I have had no time for the piecing process, so this is a collection of various items that have floated past in recent weeks, unretouched. It’s not really a piece of writing, it’s more like a glimpse inside my mental cabinet of curiosities.

Designer Castoffs

NPR had a story this week about how clothing donated to Goodwill in America may end up in a bale of clothing shipped to Africa. Having just dumped a load at Goodwill myself, I can certainly understand how that would be necessary; there is no possible way that, with all the good will in the world, any organization could actually process and resell all the crap that gets dumped on their doorstep. Most times I’m ashamed to accept a receipt for what I donate.

Once these bales of truly terrible clothing arrive in Africa, a whole new economy springs up around them. Some of the clothing is sold as-is, but many more pieces are salvaged to create new garments. Plus-size t-shirts are generally too large for most African people, so the shirt will be recut to a smaller size. But the restyle doesn’t end there—the t-shirt may also get colorful new sleeves from a different shirt, or a contrasting collar for visual interest. The result is an original handcrafted design. I think that’s wonderful. You can read about it yourself here.

Reading Trees

I read about a xylothèque in a book called Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama. I’ve only gotten as far as page 175 (401 pages to go, not counting notes) but the book is a marvel. Schama captures the magic of forests and their importance to all of us who live, if we are fortunate, among their leaves. The xylothèque was, if I have understood correctly, invented during the German enlightenment. It is literally a library of wood, a way of chronicling the trees of the forest. Each book about a particular tree is made from the tree itself. Similar to those faux leather-bound boxes for hiding valuables, when you open one of these books you find a hollow cavity for stashing things. A volume in the xylothèque about an oak, for example, would have a cover fashioned from slabs of oak bark, and the hollow inside would hold oak leaves, acorns, and information about the oak tree and the stages of its long life. I love this idea.

I wish that the trees at Redbud Lane came with doors on their trunks that I could open to find similar information. Then I would know if the redbuds need to be trimmed and, if they do, should it be done in spring or fall? We have hickory trees, too, and I am certain that there must be secrets about how to harvest the nuts and when to gather them and how to thwart the squirrels. Those would be wonderful secrets to have.

Speaking of trees, isn’t the painting at the top of this post, Cutting Christmas Trees in the Forest, wonderful? I am grateful to Tail Feather for that one, by way of Parabola. Here are some of our own trees, mostly not suitable for Christmas (although that plump little fir tree on the left has possibilities). Isn’t the light in the woods wonderful (or can’t you tell from where you are)?

Trees at Redbud Farm

Trees at Redbud Lane (October)

Things Truman Capote Said

Truman Capote said a lot, and I enjoy almost all of it. Here are two particularly nice quotes that I stumbled across recently.

The wind is us—it gathers and remembers all our voices, then sends them talking and telling through the leaves and the fields.

Capote also said this at some point, though I’m not sure where or when: “Well, I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy.”

I wish I’d said that.

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Jan 18th


This poem by Ursula LeGuin has been knocking around inside my head for several days. Since this morning started with a light snow in my inbreathing and an outbreath of shining ice, it seemed a good time to let it sing:

Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
and the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
and your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.

 – Ursula LeGuin

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Truman Capote’s story, “A Christmas Memory,” is the best way I know of to launch the holiday season. It is perfectly delightful, calorie-free, and costs nothing unless you buy a copy to give as a gift (you can find it in many editions of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with a couple of other stories). Need a free sample before you make the commitment?  In the following excerpt, 7-year-old Buddy and his friend, an elderly female cousin, go out to select the family Christmas tree:

Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there; can you smell it, Buddy?'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.

And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.”  The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on. Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree, and where did it come from?  “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops, and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Giveya two-bits cash for that ol’ tree.”

Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.”

In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

Having spent this Thanksgiving walking the woods of North Carolina, I can tell you that Capote knows his way around a Southern pine forest. We didn’t have more than a touch of frost in the mornings, and instead of a renegade hog we had the sound of coyotes yipping after dark. Still, nearly everything else was there:  an abandoned beaver dam, briars, burrs, a close call in which Daddy nearly slid into the creek, and a sunset return up the back path.

Things were exciting indoors, too. Evidently there is in my family a genetic inability to place a full pumpkin pie in the oven without sloshing a half-cup of filling into the floor or onto the open oven door. Mama and I laugh too much to do things neatly and properly.

It doesn’t spoil a thing, though. Yes, the side of the pie where the filling spilled over the crust got a good bit darker than it should have. Yes, Ernesto tore his hand on a briar, and one of my shoes got mired up with black creek mud. But it’s so much more memorable that way, to enjoy things as they are.

“You know what I’ve always thought?” [my friend] asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—”just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

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Last weekend the Jehovah’s Witnesses returned, reminding me of my plan to create Tracts for the Pleasant Life that I can force on people who come to the house uninvited.  Tract #1 was a solid success, and it’s time to continue the series—because you never know when the Witnesses might be mobilized again, and I need to update the tracts as often as they update The Watchtower.

Tracts for the Pleasant Life #2: Woodlands in Fall

There are wooded areas nearly everywhere. Even if you don’t live near the country, look for clusters of trees in parks, bands of trees running like stitches behind and between subdivisions, and tiny groves in your own back yard. If all else fails, and you find yourself fenced off from every stand of trees that you’d like to visit, go to a nursery or garden center and pretend the rows of root-wrapped trees are really a forest on its way to a new location.

Scarlet and gold with the fall colors, the woods beckoned me. …

As I walked along and the trees grew more dense, the light became more muted. I relished all the color about me and loved the great thickness of the tree trunks and the pleasing shapes of the oak and maple leaves.  – Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife or, The Star-Gazer

Woodlands do have a different air and light and sound, especially in fall when the leaves lisp underfoot and the sun, no matter where it really is in the sky, seems tangled in the treetops where it burns yellow, orange, and red.  And the scent of the woods in autumn is interesting, like strong brewed tea, tart fruit, and a hint of something like tobacco.

[S]eams of blood-red maple and dogwood shoot through the strata of golden beech, pale yellow poplar, elm and hazel, and the violin-browns of chestnut and oak. – Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

I love that line about the “violin-browns of chestnut and oak.”  I can practically  taste the trees in that passage, and it tastes like I’m munching on walnuts or pecans.

Now That I Am in a Wooded Area, What’s the
Most Pleasant Thing to Do?

There are many pleasant activities that you can pursue while in the woods. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Chase falling leaves, and save a colorful one that you particularly like.
  2. Climb a tree, preferably one with yellow leaves, and pretend you’re sitting in a sunny room. If you don’t care for heights—or if most of the leaves are already under the tree—sit beneath the tree instead. You’ll get the same effect.
  3. Swing—on a vine or on a limb by your arms. Test the limb for stability first, and try not to swing yourself into another tree. (Note: Don’t try this in the temporary forest of your local garden center.)
  4. If there is a creek in the woods, remove any fallen leaves that may be clogging the flow. This is a very satisfying activity, so be warned that you may lose a largish chunk of time while doing it.

Those are just the things that I like to do. You may have other ideas.

Speaking of pecans and walnuts, it seems fitting that I should continue to include a recipe on my tracts, perhaps as a tear-off card. So here’s my mom’s recipe for Spicy Pecans. They are simple to prepare and mildly addictive. They are also a lovely violin-brown and reminiscent of a violin in shape, too, I think.

Best of all, they are a gift from the trees.

Spicy Pecans

Toast 2 cups of pecans in a 300° F oven for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
As the pecans toast, melt ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) of unsalted butter.
In a large bowl, mix 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon of soy sauce and 1 teaspoon of hot sauce into the melted butter.
Stir the pecans in the savory butter until thoroughly coated, then drain them on paper towels.
When dry, place the pecans in an airtight container.
Or eat them while you walk in the woods.

Photo:  The Missouri Botanical Garden, Saturday, October 20th

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Earlier this summer I noticed a natural arched doorway in my neighbor’s side yard.  It looks as if it leads to an alternate reality. I find myself constantly walking past it, looking for it (because maybe I imagined it), and wondering about it. The portal looks particularly nice at about 5:30 in the evening, when the sun angles toward it and illuminates the pale bark.

I recently came across a quote which may help explain my fascination with that little archway and the path that lies beyond it:  “Of all the things I am not very good at,” Bill Bryson wrote, “living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding.”

Me, too.  And given a choice between, for example, achieving a full and true understanding of the finances of potential retirement and walking through a mysterious doorway that leads to a strange path, I’ll choose the mysterious doorway every time. Because that’s where the good stories are.

I have become my own version of an optimist.
If I can’t make it through one door,
I’ll go through another door – or I’ll make a door.
Something terrific will come
no matter how dark the present.

— from “See it for the first time,” by Rabindranath Tagore

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Missouri Botanical Garden

Roger Deakin’s book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees—which I have mentioned before—includes an interesting bit about early 19th-century naturalist, Charles Waterton. Waterton owned a wooded estate in England where he took care to see that the birds were treated with proper respect. 

Waterton did most of his bird watching from inside trees… [His estate] was full of thousands of ancient trees, which Waterton nurtured and protected, even retaining dead, hollow or rotten ones for the sake of the owls, jackdaws and woodpeckers. … He went barefoot about the park and climbed the trees barefoot, reclining for hours in the boughs of the old oaks, reading books or watching owls or foxes. Waterton stood six feet tall, all but half an inch, wore his silver hair in a brush cut, slept on a bare elm floor with a hollowed oak block for a pillow all his life and was double-jointed until his death.

I wouldn’t have thought that double-jointedness was a talent that you lost with age—or even with death, for that matter. It seems to me that your joints would still be jointed exactly the same, which makes me wonder if Charles Waterton could have been folded like a letter and buried in a shoebox. A true preservationist would not wish to take up too much land.  

I was once a bit of a land preservationist, myself. When I worked for the City of Fernandina Beach as a grant writer, I wrote detailed requests for state funds to purchase land for conservation and light recreation. I had to trek through the oak hammock that ran down the middle of the island along Egans Creek, where I took pictures of animal trails, endangered green orchids, gopher tortoise burrows, and areas of degradation. I studied the soil composition, took pictures of magnolia and elm trees, sabal palms, and live oaks and the understory of saw palmetto, ferns, and holly. I never got inside a tree to observe the birds, but I did research the painted bunting, which used Amelia Island as a way station during migration. It was hot, nasty, spidery work, and I loved it.

(One prime section of the hammock that the city wished to preserve was owned by a gentleman called Smiley Lee. Lee owned a lucrative scrap metal business and had served a legendary and, yes, scrappy stint on the city commission before my employment began. Lee’s property unfortunately provided habitat for rather a lot of junked machinery, making its acquisition problematic. I’m not sure what happened to Smiley’s land; perhaps he owns it still. I do know that Mrs. Smiley Lee passed on a few years later, and her obituary included this wonderful tribute to her skill as a cook: “Her specialities, fried shrimp, banana pudding with meringue, and cornbread dressing were served on holiday tables in three states.”)

I wonder if Charles Waterton, who traveled all over the world to observe birds and nature, ever visited Amelia Island. The cover of Julia Blackburn’s biography of Waterton features a painting in which he’s riding an alligator, so I like to think that he did. Anyway, I’m sure he would have approved of the idea of saving the oak hammock for the egrets, painted buntings, owls, ospreys, and mockingbirds that lived in and around it.  Not that he was always wise:  He once went so far as to climb up to a crow’s nest while the crow was away and place two rooks’ eggs in it. The crow tended to the eggs very lovingly and raised the young rooks as her own. Waterton then (meanly, in my opinion) stole the two rooks back to tame them and keep them as pets. This did not go well. They were so tame, Deakin writes, that “they met untimely ends, including one that was drowned by an aggressive chicken.”

But birds survive contact with humans because they are amazingly adaptable. We visited a Lowe’s Garden Center two weeks ago, and the birds have taken it over as a sort of urban forest. The roofed section of the Garden Center is open at the front, where the plants and flowers are able to get sun and rain. Under the roof, the tall rows of metal shelving that hold peat moss, composters, planters, and hoses have become roosts for birds. I saw high nests tucked between boxes, and the birds fly in and out without regard for the people shopping below. The birdsong is constant and cheerful. They have learned to live with us and in spite of us. But surely they would prefer to journey through trees, like I do.

[Updated 5/2/12 at 12:24 p.m. to format Deakins block quote.]

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The view from the attic window.

It’s hard to buckle down and write, because the weather is so nice and everything is blooming. Ernesto and I begin and end each day by taking an inventory of yard and garden. Today we have sunflower sprouts, and visible zucchini plants. The rose bush has seven buds, and I don’t understand why the peonies aren’t blooming already. They are so close.

Yesterday morning we startled a baby bunny tucked into the mulch of the herb garden, next to the oregano. We are already using the oregano, parsley, and rosemary, because they all came back strong from last year with no effort on our part. Lavender and mint are thriving in pots, and my five cheap hydrangeas from Aldi, which were palest pink when I planted them two weeks ago, have turned so dark they’re nearly red. They are evidently delighted to be here, and I am delighted to have them.

Why would anybody want to sit in front of a computer in a warmish attic, with so much happening right outside? 

Besides, this is exactly the time of year that I like to re-read The Great Gatsby just like I used to do every spring when I was in high school and college. I’d sit in my bedroom with both windows up, the scent of new-mown grass (probably I had mowed it), and a view of the pond when I looked up. Perfect conditions for passages like this one: 

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white agaist the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

Or this:

There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girl came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. …

The moon had risen higher, and floating in the Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn.

Of course, Fitzgerald contrasts all that with the smoky gray gardens of the valley of ashes. And in fact, when an April day reaches 90 degrees, you have to wonder what in the world things will be like in July and August. Perhaps by then all the young sunflowers and squash, the herbs and lettuces and unborn tomatoes will have burned to ashes, too. But for now, it’s springtime, and like Gatsby I am filled with hope.

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Artist: Jim C. Brown

The air cooled as we climbed, and the trees began to vary like goods on the ascending floors of a department store. First we passed wild cherries, then tough-looking elms… At 7,500 feet, halfway up the mountain, we found ourselves on a sudden high plateau and stepped on to a desert of pale, silver stones. A single magnificent tree stood at the shimmering center of what must once have been a glacier. It was a walnut, the finest I had ever seen, and in its deep shade lay a whole flock of some 200 sheep. ~ Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

I marked the quote above from Wildwood a week or more ago, and was reminded of it today when we went to the St. Louis Art Fair and saw the ethereal treescapes created by Jim C. Brown, an artist from Vancouver. I didn’t understand everything Brown said about his process, which involves photography and a thin layer of plaster, but I understood this: He told us that he photographs lone trees and collects them in a sort of travel journal. Later he combines them to create what he calls “imagined forests.” They appear as soft charcoal-colored images on the eggshell-white plaster. For some, he paints the surface beneath and then chips away portions of the plaster to reveal flashes of blue in a sky. They are enchanting, just like Deakin’s lone walnut tree near Jalal Abad.

Before we left his booth, Brown showed me a trio of large pieces featuring single trees. “There are three small islands that I visit regularly,” he said. “Each island has only a single tree on it. I like to go boating, and take a picnic that I eat beneath one of these trees. I try to treat them equally, and visit each in turn.”

Trees are like that; they compel us to treat them with special respect. I think this is because they serve as architectural features outdoors, like cathedral columns, while retaining their own wild magic.

The tree in our yard that I love most is the apple. It produced tons of fruit last year, and I made batch after batch of applesauce and one apple cake. Sadly, the tree did not blossom this spring. I am hoping that this is a cyclical thing, and that it will fruit again next year. We don’t have a walnut tree of our own here, but I know one is close by because I found a green-cased walnut on the ground outside this morning, half-gnawed by a squirrel. My own imagined forest would contain several apple and walnut trees, blue spruce, and the pecan tree from my grandmother’s house with the swing still in it.

Ernesto has an imagined forest, too. Some time back he struck up a conversation at the grocery store with another shopper over the fig preserves. As I walked up, I heard Ernesto say wistfully, “I have a fig tree, but it is stuck in North Carolina.” My dad rooted the fig tree for us, but we have never taken it away because we always fly to NC.  No one at either end wants to drive 15 hours for the sake of picking up or delivering a fig tree, so it grows in Ernesto’s mind and produces a fine crop of sweet figs.  He also regrets the loss of the orange tree from his back yard in Florida.

Before we left the art fair today we bought a pot from Jennifer Falter of Springfield, Missouri. We loved the simple black-and-white carved patterns and the texture of her pottery. And in keeping with our imagined forest, it is covered with ginkgo leaves.

Artist: Jennifer Falter

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