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Posts Tagged ‘Wildwood’

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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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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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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Roger Deakin, Cottage, and Cat (Hamish Hamilton Publishing)

I first came across the writer Roger Deakin three years ago, when I read an essay about him  and learned that he had compiled 45 notebooks about life on his property, Walnut Tree Farm, while he wrote a book about trees called Wildwood. I loved this quote from the essay:

Much as I enjoy the process of writing, the exercise of my own skill and craft in getting it right,’ Roger wrote in one notebook, ‘nonetheless I would often prefer to be a jotter. Jottings, in their spontaneity and complete absence of any craft, are often so much truer to what I actually feel or think at a given moment.’

I prefer jotting, too. I recently came across an old grocery list with a note on the back: “Ernesto has discovered the word ‘nincompoop.’ He keeps saying it to himself, then he laughs quietly.” That’s the kind of writing I love—it can’t be improved upon. It evokes a fall morning when I was planning to make Brunswick stew and pumpkin bread (the grocery list side of the paper includes the proper ingredients), and Ernesto was joyfully expanding his vocabulary. It isn’t a story, it’s a moment in time. Drafting a story requires so much effort, and even then I am seldom satisfied with the result. Moments in time are already perfect.

But what can you do with a roomful of jottings?  I really need to know. If only they were solid enough to stitch together—I would love a coverlet made of jottings.

I suppose I simply need to be patient and learn how to wrangle my fragments into shape, as Deakin did by writing Wildwood. Like my own writing the book is not perfect, and sometimes I don’t understand what the heck he’s trying to say. But it’s like a trunk filled with amazing and wonderful things (and the occasional piece of unidentifiable flotsam).

Wildwood introduced me to the painter Mary Newcomb, for starters. Later, when I tried to find examples of her work online to see what it actually looked like, I discovered a blog called That’s How the Light Gets In. The blogger, Gerry, once wrote about a Newcomb exhibition and posted several of the paintings, including the one I used for my post titled (like the painting) “There Is No End.” He also included a long excerpt from Wildwood of Deakin’s meeting with Newcomb.

Discovering Gerry’s blog has given me the perfect complement to Wildwood. His August 18th and 19th posts about walking through the English Dales are very much like stepping into the pages of the book and seeing the countryside that inspired Deakin to jot.

I expect I’ll have more to say about Deakin later. I’ve certainly been jotting down plenty of notes….

[Updated to correct Gerry’s gender. What can I say? I’m sometimes woefully unobservant.]

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