Posts Tagged ‘Truman Capote’

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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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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Little red velvet cakes

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

“I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”

That passage from “A Christmas Memory,” by Truman Capote, is offered in place of something original because I have had no time to write, having spent so much time in the kitchen. Last weekend it was Rocky Road fudge, Nutella cookies, wreath cookies, and helping Ernesto make our first batch of homemade sausage. This weekend it was spiced nuts, more sausage, and red velvet cake in 8-ounce Kerr jars. Cute? I’m here to tell you. But slightly exhausting, and every surface in three rooms is sticky from flying powdered sugar.

I can’t imagine making 30 full-sized fruitcakes, and if I did I would have nowhere to send them because I don’t know 30 people who like fruitcake (or need bookends). But because it is, indeed, fruitcake weather and the giving season, we have worked hard to create a plethora of treats. A 10-pound box went to Miami this past week to be divided among 15 people, and a significantly lighter box went to North Carolina yesterday for two.

My red velvet jarcakes are going to the office with me. Want to make your own? My adventure began with Not Martha. And if you’d like to read all of “A Christmas Memory,” it is available as a pdf here. I hope you love it as much as I do.

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