Sunday, December 10, 2017

In the Company of Trees

In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me.                           ~John Fowles

The old maple.

I have always found it very satisfying to be in the company of trees. Their solidity suggests strength, their rooted-ness implies stability, their forms define beauty. They are living breathing entities with whom I have shared a communion for as long as I can remember.

I first fell in love, as a small child, with the locusts and the huge maple that grew in our front yard. In May the two locust trees, one on either side of the porch, dropped their sweet, spring-scented catkins. The sticky yellow cases that bore them split and fell, littering the lawn. The maple was an enormous old tree that had a protuberance near its base that we children used as a seat. A sturdy limb reaching out across the lawn held our rope swing and under the board seat was a dusty circle made by our pushing feet where the grass would not grow. In the spring, the tree would drip sweet, sticky sap. In the fall it was crowned with orangey-yellow leaves and in the winter its bare branches wove intricate patterns against a frozen sky.

In later years, I made friends with all the trees in my neighborhood, with the giant maples, the sighing pines, the eerie black locusts that lifted their twisted limbs to the sky. I came to know the elm that leaned over the board railing at the brook, and the sycamore that dipped its toes into the river where it curved around a broad meadow. I sheltered from the rain under the hemlock boughs in the back yard, planted flowers in the rock garden under the big pine outside the kitchen window, leaned against the birch tree at the edge of the lawn to watch the sun fade in the western sky.

Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve made friends with the trees around me. I can wrap my arms around them and feel their strength and immutable-ness when I am sorely in need of a hug, rest my tired back against a sturdy trunk, send wind messages to my distant children via the leaves and whispering boughs, and understand magnificence from their ability to endure.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Apple Time

Not my mother's apple pie but my daughter's. Just as appetizing and just as delicious!

It’s apple time, and that makes me think of Mama and how the kitchen smelled in the late afternoons of warm apples and cinnamon and buttery piecrust.

Mama was a wonderful cook. Her specialty was a foot high angel cake that always went first at church bakes sales, but what I loved best were her pies. She had a light hand with pastry and a generous one with fruit. Her confections always looked like the one in the illustration for “Billy Boy” (Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?) in my Little Golden Songbook. In the picture, the delicately browned crust rounded up over a mound of cherries and steam swirled enticingly from two large vents cut in the crust. The sight of that pie always made me hungry.

Mama often baked a pie for Sunday dinner. It went into the oven on the shelf over the roast, and as it baked, the fruit juices would drip onto the meat, basting it delicately in apple or blueberry or blackberry juice. Other times she would make lemon meringue, deliciously tart and sweet at the same time, or chocolate cream, my father’s favorite. I could never wait until the pie cooled thoroughly; many a time I burned my tongue on scalding fruit or steaming custard.

If there was an abundance of apples at one time, Mama sauced some of them. Then she would make a second batch of pastry, roll it thin, trace the shape of a saucer in the dough with a sharp knife, and fold it over a generous spoonful of applesauce. She would let me dip a fork in the flour and crimp the edges. I happily sprinkled cinnamon and sugar over each turnover and could hardly wait until they were baked. Cooled and in hand, they were my favorite snack.

It’s been years since my mother and I worked together in the kitchen but it’s apple time, and in memory of her I am baking a pie. I’ve fetched her old paring knife from the drawer, taken my bowl of apples outside and pared a dozen of them while sitting on the dreaming bench in the late afternoon sunshine.

I’ve taken her old china bowl from the cupboard, the largest yellow one, and tossed the apple slices with flour and sugar and cinnamon. I’ve rolled the crust with her old green-handled wooden rolling pin, remembering the shape of her hands as she worked, and the look of her face as she blew a stray hair from her eyes.

The pie sits on the counter, redolent and delicately browned, steam spiraling from the vents cut in the top crust. It looks just like the pie in the “Billy Boy” song illustration. It looks just like a pie my mother might have made…and I have just burned my tongue.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Making Choices

There are times when the going gets so rough we have little choice but to go ahead on faith. An illness befalls us, a death separates us, we lose what we hold most dear. We look around for something to hold onto and there’s nothing solid, nothing permanent - only the beliefs we’ve built into our lives to save us in just such times. Here are some principles I’ve come to recognize as sturdy foundations.

We can choose to believe in the continuation of life despite bereavement. If we look to nature and the change of seasons to reassure us, we can see our own cycles of birth, youth, old age, and death. We learn to trust that spring will always come again no matter how hard the winter. For every body that wears out, or falls ill, or is damaged beyond repair, we trust that another will be born somewhere, keeping the great wheel of life revolving. We come to understand that death and loss are part of life, that no one and no thing on earth is impervious to change. When we accept this realization rather than fight it, we step back into the flow of life and are carried along, buoyed by our acceptance, and protected from the harshest blows by our agreement with life.

We can choose to see beauty in the face of ugliness. The two concepts are so personal, so subjective, that often we can’t label them definitively, but there are a few things most humans agree are beautiful—a child’s smile, the dazzle of sun on water, sunsets that paint the sky in brilliant colors, rainbows, flowers that bloom before the last snow has melted away—and a few that many of us deem ugly; the distress of poverty, the pollution of our natural resources, the results of a casual disregard of another’s humanity. We have only to look at our surroundings and at each other to see that our attitudes control what our eyes see. We tout our free will as one of those concepts that raise us above other life forms. If this is true, then it is up to each one of us to choose our definitions with care.

We can choose to see hope in the face of despair. Bad things happen to everyone; there are no exceptions. We get to experience life in all its manifestations. We watch as natural disasters sweep away everything familiar, witness triumph turn to tragedy and fall from the sky, read of accidents and deliberate cruelties. But we also come to know heroes, those who in times of great distress put their own lives at risk, their own fears behind them, to rescue those of us who can’t do it for ourselves.

We choose to see love in the face of fear. It is fear, not hate, that is the opposite of love. When we work to instill fear in others, we seek to rob them of their power to do what’s right. If, as Gandhi advises, we be the change we want to see in the world, if we choose to believe that our love for each other is a greater strength, and a more honest one, we can achieve wonders.

We can believe in the power of memories, those cherished moments we’ve chosen to keep in our thoughts and recall when our souls are loneliest: recollections of loved ones, of happier times, of days when things felt right.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Day of Wings

This has been a day of wings. Even before the sun had a chance to burn through the dawn mist, flocks of Canada geese made their noisy way over my cottage. I stood on the doorstep in the cool, damp air and listened to what I could not see—dozens of pairs of beating wings.

The geese are gathering on the pond across the road, feeding and resting and greeting each other after a summer of breeding and raising their young. There are hundreds of them. They rise from the pond on beating wings and splash down again, ducking their heads beneath the water. In the mornings they leave for other ponds, and for fields of cut corn, gleaning spilled kernels to nourish themselves for their flight south. Late in the afternoon and into the early evening they return, great vees of them clamoring and honking, filling the sky with their indecipherable handwriting.

Later in the morning, as I was deadheading the last of the geraniums and clipping the rose bushes, I heard a commotion in the top of the huge cherry tree. Blackbirds were gathering there, and as I watched, hundreds more settled into the surrounding locusts and pines, all squawking and chirping until my ears were full of the sound. Then, at some signal I could not decipher, the hundreds rose as one, and the sound of their wings was like a huge secret whispered to the sky.

The cheerful morning wake-up, wake-up of summer birdsong has been absent now for a month or more. The little birds that winter over, the chickadees, a few starlings, the juncos and nuthatches, twitter from roadside bushes and the branches of the lilac near my door, but morning music is now the provence of the crows and the jays. The crows congregate in family groups, shouting news to one another across the yard or from high in the pine branches. The jay’s call is strident, a sound that cuts through the warm stillness of late afternoon like a squeaky porch swing.

It won’t be long before the sound of wings is gone. The Indian Summer days will pass too quickly, and before we know it, the still, cold days of early November will give way to rain and then to blustery winter winds. Instead of wings, the air will be filled with the whisper of snowflakes. But while the golden days last, I will stand on the doorstep in the dawn and listen to wings I can’t see. I will hoard the sounds of blackbird and goose, of crow and jay, to play back in the deep of December.

Monday, September 04, 2017


The plane gathers speed on the runway, lifts and banks, making a deal with gravity. Green rushes by the windows in a blur. Sunlight glints off the wings, trees and houses grow smaller and smaller, roadways stretch long and black, like thick lines drawn with a carpenter’s pencil. Buildings flatten out, lose their three dimensional quality, becoming pop-ups in a child's book.

Go up high enough and things begin to disappear. Cars on the road turn invisible. People on the ground vanish. At 10,000 feet, search as I might, I can see no movement below me, only green forests and brown fields as far as the eye can see. The sky takes on aspects of the sea. Waves of clouds billow and roll creating shorelines with sharp blue edges. Vast expanses of white spread like water all around until it is impossible to tell what is earth and what is sky. When the clouds break, fingers of sunlight reach down to gild lake surfaces or trace river water as it winds its way through the landscape. Our shadow flies below us, an impossibly small, plane-shaped image.

Where there is turbulence, the clouds loom, large, gray-white, and menacing. It seems odd to look at monster cumulus clouds at eye level. They shape themselves to mimic rearing horses, rushing trains, towering cliffs. Even close up, they look substantial, as if they are made of sterner stuff than water vapor. We fly past them and through them, bucking and rocking in the wind.

When I look away from the window the feeling of detachment vanishes. People are reading, sleeping, walking up and down the aisles, talking, eating, drinking—doing much as they would at home, acting as if they didn’t know they were trapped high above the earth in a speeding metal tube. I don’t know anything about them, save that they are traveling from one place to another, and once the plane lands, will all go about their business as if the miracle of flight had not occurred.

I look out the window again. A plane going in the opposite direction sails into view and out again so quickly I wonder if I’ve imagined it. There are no clouds now between my eye and the earth. We are flying along the eastern seaboard, ocean on one hand, land on the other. Boats pull through the water, leaving silvery wakes that glisten in the sunlight. Rivers and their tributaries twist and turn, making patterns like those of ancient cave drawings. I trace them with my eyes, seeing how each one branches in a unique design and yet bears a resemblance to all the rest.

As we near our destination the plane gradually loses altitude, descending in narrowing circles until the runway is in sight. Cars dot the roadways now and buildings loose their flat look, re-emerging as concrete and four-sided. People reappear as ants, scurrying from one place to another. Slowly, slowly, the landscape takes on familiar proportions. The clouds are above our heads again, the earth solid and compact under our feet. The plane brakes, shudders, rattles along the ground and once more we are visible to all except those who fly high above us.