I seem to be writing on trees these days. This morning, I happened to notice this photo I took a month ago, rainbow colored leaves of the white oak. I want to share it just because it is beautiful. May there be beauty in your life today, and may you have the grace to notice it!
In the spring, I learned that acorns of the white oak were less bitter–and were more widely used for food–than those of the red oak. At that time, I was walking through thousands of acorns in our neighborhood, and thinking how great it would be to use them for food. I also walked through thousands of dried-up oak leaves, but never saw any white oaks. You can tell the difference because the leaves of the red oak are pointy and the leaves of the white oak have rounded lobes.
This fall, there were barely any acorns. Oaks do that. They choose certain years (mast years) to collaboratively put on a full production of acorns, and others years, not so much. This may be a rough winter for the squirrels, who grew their families large on last year’s bounty. But imagine my surprise when I saw these leaves on the pavement during my morning walk. You might have to look closely.
Amidst the pointy ones are some small round-lobed leaves. The tree is about two blocks from my house, a smaller oak right next to a big red oak, standing in someone’s front yard. I am going to guess that it might be a white oak. I look forward to the next mast year for acorns, to see if I can distinguish them from each other, and maybe try making acorn flour.
Meanwhile, this was a beautiful autumn for oak trees. Usually, it seems, the oak leaves hang on the tree and go from green to brown without much fanfare. But two weeks ago, they were a translucent gold to rival the maples. Today, we had our first snow storm, but the snow is spotted with oak leaves everywhere, pulled from their branches by the wind to land on top of the snow.
It must have been a big machine that cut down the grandmother pine tree. I found no disturbance around the stump when I climbed up to it to offer my grief and respect. The weeds and small brush nearby were there as before, with only fresh wood shavings and pine sap falling over the edges of the stump. Nothing huge crashed to the ground when they took her. So it must have been a big machine.
I discovered her absence on my walk near Capisic Brook the day before, but didn’t have the strength to approach her while there were lots of workmen in the Rowe school construction zone nearby. Ironically, they were making a children’s playground, spreading wood chips and such–perhaps that was that her wood they were using? But why?
I met this tree last winter when I was measuring old white pines around my neighborhood, after I discovered that our white pine was definitely over 100 years old, and perhaps even 160 years, according to her circumference. At that time, I was also mourning all the cut pines for the construction of the new elementary school. I found this pine with a yellow tape around her trunk. She was one hundred and two inches in circumference, just like the white pine in our yard. That is when I knew she was one of the grandmother trees. I made an inquiry on the school’s Facebook page, but the person who responded didn’t know about the situation of the tree.
And now the white pine is gone. I went to the place where she had stood, and expressed my sadness, and I did the best I could to honor her. I counted her rings, making small markings after each 25. (You can see those marks if you look very closely at the photo above.) I got to 100, and then the outer rings were too difficult to see clearly–but I guess there were at least 20 more–so 120 years old? Maybe even 130? That would mean she was likely a small sapling in the year 1897 when both of my grandmothers were born. She observed a century of animal and human life from her vantage point above the brook.
People in U.S. society are still thinking of trees merely as resources for our needs and wants. But we have to begin opening our minds to the idea that the trees have their own lives, their own being-ness. Scholars are learning that the forest is a living community of trees and other plants and animals and fungi, all interconnected in a network underground, supporting each other and all of life.
Recently, I had a chance to read The Overstory by Richard Powers. The novel tells the story of several people, all with some significant connection to a tree or trees, who come together to protect old growth forests in the northwest United States. Powers borrows from actual science and activism in telling his fictionalized version. I especially loved the character of the woman botanist whose research suggested that trees were communicating and caring for each other. Because of that hypothesis, she lost all her funding and academic connections. Eventually she found her way into work as a forest ranger, until decades later when other scientists caught up with her insights. Two other characters spend a year living in one of the oldest redwoods, to try to protect it from the logging company.
Of course, the forest between the Rowe School (formerly Hall School) and Capisic Brook is already badly degraded. It is not old growth or pristine. It is encroached upon by invasive plants and runoff pollutants. But it is still a living system, a wetland, a wild community in the midst of city streets and buildings. And so I walk along its path, I cherish it, I pick up litter. I try to bear witness.
Life holds a strength that will not be extinguished, that will crack open the most oppressive of constraints. When I was in Tenant’s Harbor, a few weeks ago, I saw this spruce tree growing out of a huge boulder. Its roots were literally embedded in a crack in the rock itself. I wondered if a seed had found a tiny patch of soil within a crack, or if in fact, the seed, rooting, had created the crack in the rock. But however it first took hold, the roots were now literally splitting the rock in two.
I don’t mean to reduce a boulder to a metaphor for something bad. I love these boulders that populate our landscape from the time of the ice age. They also harbor all sorts of life in the forms of lichen and moss. But just for a moment, I do ask its indulgence to borrow a possible metaphor for hope in these times of despair.
There is so much about which to feel despondent right now. Migrant children confined in tent prisons away from family. Trans friends being erased from official acknowledgement or protection. People in Gaza and Yemen being starved and bombarded with weapons made in the U.S. Misogynists and racists gunning down innocent people in sanctuaries for prayer. Leaders who belittle other people and stir up hate and destroy the earth for profit and greed. I could go on and on. We are facing dire futures, caught in the grip of suffocating destruction.
Tomorrow there will be a vote in our country. Things will get better or worse. I will vote. But I don’t put all my hopes in the vote. As we saw in the election of 2016, elections can be interfered with. (Our own government has also interfered in the elections of other countries.) There has been a concerted effort to suppress the votes of Black citizens in Georgia, Native Americans in North Dakota, others. There are voting machines that cannot be trusted to report votes accurately. I hope that in the vote, things will get better. I hope that so many people vote that we can overcome the suppression. But my deepest hope is not in the vote. My deepest hope is in the power of the spruce to crack the boulder, the power of the earth to restore itself, the power of the love we hold in our beating hearts.
There was one more thing about the spruce. It was not alone. There were two trees growing the crack in that boulder. You can just barely see the second smaller trunk behind the first in the photo above. But here is another photo, a close-up from behind. Two trees–both of them might be said to be caught in the boulder. But they are not caught. They are growing strong, green, full of life and energy. They are cracking that boulder together. And so we humans, too, must not face these despairs alone, must find each other and join our strengths together.
A boulder seems to be hard and unyielding. Roots seem to be gentle and soft. But the rock does yield to the tree. Remember that.
I had almost forgotten about the incredible doom of the draft lottery of 1969 and the years following. But recently, I happened upon two fictional accounts of lives being undone by this lottery, and it all came back to me. One came in the television drama This Is Us, in an episode about the back story of Jack’s time in Vietnam. (Spoiler alert!) Jack and his younger brother Nicky are at a bar on December 1, 1969, waiting to see what birthdays will be chosen for the draft call-ups. Nicky is portrayed as a gentle, glasses-wearing kid, not tough, not cut out to fight. Jack is his protector. Nicky’s birthday, October 18th, is chosen as number 5, which means he is sure to be inducted. Their dad tells him only, “Make me proud.” Jack and Nicky consider options, maybe Canada, but Nicky succumbs to the pressure and joins up. We learn that Jack himself had had a deferment because of a rapid heartbeat condition. But when Nicky writes from Vietnam that he has gotten himself into trouble, Jack finds a way to enlist, so he can watch over his brother.
I had almost forgotten about the lottery. The feeling of foreboding, its random terrors. My own age peers were affected by the lottery of February 2, 1972. We were freshman in college, then, and my male friends would have received college deferments, but if they dropped out, or when they graduated, they would once again be vulnerable to being called up. My friend Tom’s birthday was September 16th. He was sorting out what options he might have as a conscientious objector to the war. When his number was above 200, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
Before watching that episode of This Is Us, I had been reading the novel, The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman. She introduces us to a family of young witches: two sisters, Franny and Jet, and their younger brother, Vincent. Their history included an ancestor tried for witchcraft back in the 1600s in Massachusetts, and continuing suspicion towards their magical family. Vincent is an artist, a singer, and a young playboy, though he eventually comes out as gay and finds true love with a man. He has eerily known for years that he faced doom: it comes in the form of the number 1 pick in the draft lottery of 1969. His birthday is September 14th. (The actual number 1) The family is devastated and knows he cannot serve in the military–a witch must “harm none” lest it come back three-fold. They try to figure out a way for him to escape, but ultimately it means that he is forever cut off from his family.
Hoffman compares the lottery to the witch hunts of earlier times, and writes the most haunting description of its effects. Her words stirred that memory in me of our fear and our relief, of the randomness of horror cast upon the lives of young men and those who loved them. How we were divided into the lucky and unlucky. How we almost took it for granted.
It came on the wind, the way wicked things must, for they are most often weighted down with spite and haven’t the strength to lift themselves. On the first day of December 1969, the lottery was held. Men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six would be drafted to fight in Vietnam according to their birthdates. Lives were interrupted and fortunes were exchanged. A cold drizzle hung down and flurries of snow fell in swirls. There were no stones thrown or drownings, no pillories or burnings. Those chosen were computerized, their fates picked at random.
Life went on in spite of the lottery: traffic headed down Broadway, men and women showed up for work, children went to play. The world breathed and sighed and people fell in love and got married and fell out of love and never spoke to one another again. Still the numbers drawn had the weight of ruin and sorrow; they turned young men old in an instant. A breath in and a man was chosen to walk on a path he’d never expected to take. A breath out and he must make the decision of a lifetime. Some would leave the country, some went to jail, some were ready to take up arms and die for the country they loved despite the heartbreak of leaving families and friends. All were torn apart. It was said that fate could not be altered, except by one thing, and that was war.
After Vincent watches the lottery, he gets drunk, and is brought home by two veterans, who “pitied him the war of his time. Theirs had been terrible, but it had also been just and worth fighting.” From Vietnam onward, I believe that none of the wars fought by our country have been just or worth fighting. In each war, so many were wounded, so many broken in body or spirit. And always, some resisted. So strange to recall these old tragedies that linger beneath the surface of so many new tragedies. And as always, some resist.
I have been in a circle of people deepening our relationship with the forest. One of our practices was to become the trees and listen and share what is revealed. I feel the language of trees as compounding, simultaneous, neurotransmission from all over at the same time. Many words in any order creating multiple meanings. The trees speak through the mycelial networks in the soil. The center of intelligence in the trees is in the roots. All the trees are speaking and listening at the same time.
We notice the part of the trees that is above ground but they are more attuned to the below ground where they are linked to each other. If we want to hear we must listen through our feet. And they say we can never fully understand their mysteries… but we must try.
We are related to the trees. We are like their children. They teach us community and reciprocity, giving and receiving as life.
After, we created pictures of our experiences and this was mine.
Today I set out on my usual walk around the neighborhood. When I got to the newly paved way that leads over Capisic Brook toward the new Rowe school, I saw a fox cross over at the other end, and slip into the path into the woods (before I could catch them in a photo). So I felt invited to walk that path along the brook as well. I couldn’t see the fox anymore, but I could hear squirrels doing their alarm chatters, and guessed they might be warning others about the fox.
I hadn’t walked that path for at least a week, and along the way, I noticed that someone had been upgrading the trail, with logs positioned on the edges, and a gravel/sand mix spread out over the trail. That made me smile. I like to see the evidence of other people caring for the trail.
It is a beautiful sunny day today and I was enjoying the trees and the shifting colors in the leaves. We’ve learned to speak about the weather in our Wabanaki Language class. “It’s sunny” would be “Kisuhswiw.” The word for sun is kisuhs. It’s pronounced starting with a hard “g” sound, and a “z” sound for the first “s.”
On my walk I was thinking about Findhorn, the community in Scotland that was founded by Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean. The three had been living in a caravan park, with few material resources, so Peter started a small garden. During her meditation, Dorothy began receiving instructions from the spirits of the plants, showing how best to grow them. The plants thrived, and became so huge that they attracted international attention. I was thinking about the possibilities for communion between myself and the plant beings. Even as I attempt to learn about gardening, the plants are actually my best teachers. Yet, in our materialistic society, it is easy to doubt or forget that communication.
When I reached the river of rocks, I wondered if the path workers would have built a new bridge over the drainage area, but it was the same. Then, further down the slope, I saw the fox! I think they were eating an old dead squirrel. This time I was able to take a few photos, before they decided to move on with their day. I felt blessed. Anytime a wild shy creature lets you spy them, you know it is a blessing. May you also be blessed today!