Breathe Beauty

This spring, I go from “hard work in the garden” days, to “collapse on the couch” days. With so little sun and so much rain, I feel an urgency on those good days to do as much as possible.  Monday, for example, I was able to inoculate the orchard with Wine Cap mushroom spawn.  That involved shoveling and hauling lots of wood chips from the pile, via a wheelbarrow, over to the trees, laying layers of wood chips in patches near each of the four trees, then spreading the spawn, then more wood chips on top.  (This is on top of old wood chips that are already around the trees.) I also put some compost in patches that I had missed last week.  I also planted chamomile and sunchokes that I had received in trade at the Plant Swap on Saturday.

Then, after, while I am taking a hot Epson salt bath for my aching muscles, I imagine that I will blog about it the next day–but I just haven’t have the energy for much more than Netflix for two days after any garden work days.  So I haven’t blogged about the Fedco tree sale, or about repurposing the garden bed behind the garage for three new blueberry plants, or about spreading seaweed mulch near the trees, or adding compost, or planting kale and more peas.  I haven’t blogged about any of it.

Meanwhile, between the work and the collapse, it is easy to miss the ephemeral beauty of it all.  The other day, I noticed I was missing something. I stopped to sit on the deck, and then walked around the yard, not working. I just looked at bushes and flowers and ferns, paying attention to what was there, appreciating the miracle of plants and their growth.

Violets

These violets came up on their own in a crack in the pavement near the bulkhead.

Fiddleheads coming back!

I thought the fiddlehead fern I planted last year had died, but here they are coming up again near the big old pine tree.

Golden Seal coming up

And here is the golden seal that I planted last year, also coming back after seeming death!

I finally sat down again on the deck, and after I had been there awhile, the hummingbirds boldly flew in to drink from our feeders.

It is hard for me to have so little energy this spring.  I wish I could do much more in the garden, and not be so exhausted every time afterwards.  I guess this is my new reality, this balancing act. But I am reminding myself to appreciate the beauty around me, to notice the color purple on the patio (as Alice Walker might say), to be grateful, and quiet enough for the birds to fly around taking no notice of my presence. To breathe slowly enough for shadows of joy to sneak in.

Hummer shadow

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May Day the old way

May Day treeYesterday evening, eight of us danced around the pitch pine in our yard, dressing it up with rainbow ribbons for May Day.  Did you know that the original Maypoles were not cut wooden poles, but live trees?  It makes sense to me, coming from people who worshiped among the trees, who honored and revered the trees. And so what better way to celebrate the full arrival of spring, the arrival of the May, than to celebrate the tree with an ancient dance?

Earlier, I had attached eight ribbons to a small metal ring, and then Sylvia tossed a rock-tied string over a branch so we could lift the ribbons to a good height for dancing. Margy went to a field close to where we used to live to pick forsythia branches to decorate the bottom of the tree. In this time of the earth awakening, we joined our life energy to that of the earth, that we might all be full of life and regeneration.  It was a magical moment to be weaving in and out between each other, with our bright colors, dancing on the earth, and finally surrounding the tree, hands joined in a circle.

After a rain-filled night, I took photos this morning. We keep hoping for more warmth…it is only in the 40s today.  But we’ve finally finished planting all the bushes. I set up the rain barrels (by putting in their spigots and re-attaching their overflow hoses), and yesterday I found smaller containers for storing a big bag of Kaolin clay (an organic product used for certain orchard pests). Tending and planting and tending.

When I pay attention to what is happening to our planet, I feel so much despair, I feel overwhelmed. I know it is better to plant trees, than to cut them down.  I know it is a good thing to tend this small plot of land.  But even with many of us planting trees, or protesting, or changing our lives, do we have the power to stop the destruction?  No, I think not.  But what came to me the other day was this.  If we are out there, planting a tree, putting our hands in the soil, watering a seed, dancing on the ground, or even lying in a hammock under a pitch pine, perhaps we can learn to hear the voice of the earth.  Perhaps she will see us there, and take pity on us.  Perhaps she will open our ears and hearts and guide us into regeneration and healing. This is my hope.May Day Pitch Pine

Planting and grafting and rain

Winterberry bushNewly planted baby bushes are not as photogenic as old trees, but this week I’ve been excited to be planting bushes that have been waiting for two weeks for the ground to thaw. We’ve had so much rain, that on the few non-rain days this last week, Margy and I would be outside for as long as our energy would allow.  So far I’ve planted four witch hazel bushes and two winterberries (that is one in the photo, with a mulch from its shredded paper packing material) and three of the spice bushes.  Two more of those to go.  Margy has been planting clover in the front yard where she did a major crab-grass clearing last summer and fall.

I also took down the winter protection circular “cages” for the orchard trees, and did their first seasonal nutritional spray–a concoction I had learned about from the Holistic Orchard book. (It includes Neem Oil, Karanja Oil, a bit of dish soap, molasses, Fish Hydrolysate, Liquid Kelp, EM-1 microbes, and water, and helps to strengthen the trees own disease prevention and growth.)  The orchard trees have their green tips poking out! I am also seeing new shoots of asparagus, sea kale, licorice, rhubarb, elderberry, and lots of chives.

I haven’t had a chance to mention the apple tree grafting workshop I attended at the Resilience Hub on April 7th.  I won a ticket to the workshop in a raffle the day before at another event, along with a grafting knife.  So, do you remember learning the story of Johnny Appleseed, when you were young?  He went across the land, supposedly, planting apple trees in every town and countryside?  It was news to me to learn that the apples we eat don’t come from trees that grow from seeds.  Rather, they are created from branches-“scions”-of particular varieties grafted onto various root stock.

I did feel pretty clear on the concept of apple tree grafting before I actually went to the workshop–mostly from ordering our apple tree last year from Fedco.  But it was harder than it seemed it would be–the actual cutting of scions and root stock, I mean.  The basic idea was to form a diagonal cut on the root stock, and a matching cut on the scion of the variety we wanted, and then to form a smaller v-shape cut on each of those bare wood parts to help wed them together.  We practiced on spare wood for at least 30 minutes before we started on the root stock and scions.  When the cuts matched (the green edges of the bark needed to meet each other), we’d put them together, tape them with grafting tape, and then cut the scion wood to leave just two buds to grow.  I am summarizing a bit here.

In the end, I brought home four apple trees that I had grafted, albeit poorly. My chosen root stock was M-111, a semi-dwarf variety, and my scions were Black Oxford and Blue Pearmain. I also learned that they could be grown in a kind of nursery bed, and transplanted to a permanent location next year.  So this week, I dug them into our newly designated nursery bed, the one unused circular bed in the orchard, in which I am also growing peas, kale and lettuce (in the photo, the bamboo and string framework are there on the left to support snap peas, and the four apple trees will go in the area to the right.) Now we wait and see if any of them grow!  And just for fun, I brought home some more scion wood, to try and graft it onto our ornamental crab apple trees–sometimes that works, and you can get edible fruit from the new branches. Now if it would just stop raining every day.Pea supports

 

Sacred Trees and Resurrection

When I was looking through some old family photos, I wondered, what is this picture of a tree?  Then I saw my grandfather Heie Johnson almost hidden up in its branches.  I don’t know where it was taken, or by whom.  (Any Johnson relatives know the answer to that?)

Heie Johnson in a tree – Version 2

1930s

I’ve been doing a lot of research about my ancestors, trying to understand their legacy in me, trying to understand colonization and the possibilities for a different way of being. I came across a story concerning the missionary efforts of Christians in early pagan Germanic lands.  It said,

The favoured method of showing the supremacy of the Christian belief was the destruction of the holy trees of the Germans. These were trees, usually old oaks or elm trees, dedicated to the gods. Because the missionary was able to fell the tree without being slain by the god, his Christian god had to be stronger.

This is a sadly perfect example of the colonization forces of Christianity–that part of its history which is about domination, conquest, and empire.  But since today is Easter, I wanted to go back to something I learned from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book, Saving Paradiseabout another force in the history of Christianity, a force that moved against domination on behalf of equality and interconnection.

They researched the visual world of early Christian worship, and what they found were beautiful mosaics: a deep green meadow under a blue sky, flowers, a tree with four rivers flowing from its roots spreading out over the land. There were sheep in the meadow and a figure of a man who was the shepherd of the sheep, with a kind and radiant face turned toward the people. There were men and women, all with radiant faces, each one holding in their hands a laurel wreath crown.

Each week as part of worship, after the readings and hymns, after the sermon and prayers, there was a communal potluck feast for all the members of the church. As people sat down together, those of the upper class were sitting next to workers and servants. Special attention was given to widows and their children, and to all the elders. At this holy communion meal, all brought what they had to share, and partook of its bounty together.

According to Brock and Parker’s research, this would have been the experience of Christians in the early centuries of Christianity. Most people were unable to read, but the symbolism of the images around them would be immediately apparent: the Garden of Eden, the original Paradise. The tree in the meadow was the tree of life described in the book of Genesis.  At the center of this early Christian worship was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. He was the radiant man tending sheep, the Good Shepherd, a living presence in their midst. They believed that by his resurrection, he had restored the original paradise, and reestablished the presence of the divine spirit within the whole created earth.

The Christian community was meant to be the living embodiment of this resurrection paradise. In the midst of a world controlled by the harsh realities of the Roman Empire, they came together to celebrate a new earth, imbued with the beauty and grace of divine blessing. They were an oasis of care and connection. Their vision of radical equality undermined traditional social status, and they operated a vast social welfare program that offered livable options for the poor and enslaved. When someone became a Christian, they dedicated all of their material belongings to the community. Christians were not allowed to kill or become soldiers in the army. They were striving for life in Paradise.

One thing that Brock and Parker did not find, in the visual world of the early church, was any representation of Jesus being crucified on a cross. Early Christians acknowledged the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many of them had probably seen actual crucifixions, since the Romans carried out this brutal form of execution in public places, to terrify the populace and reinforce their imperial control. But for the followers of Jesus, the church itself—their communal gathering—was not a place to be filled with images of torture and cruelty. It was the place to remember that love was stronger than empire, and that heaven was possible here on earth.

It was only much later—nine centuries later—that the church first created images of Jesus on the cross.  Brock and Parker asked, “Why did Christians turn from a vision of paradise in this life to a focus on the Crucifixion and final judgment?” In their book, they trace the complex changes—century by century—that could account for such a development. Their trail of clues led to the 8th century, when the Frankish King Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, attempted to conquer and annex the Saxon people’s lands along the Rhine River. (Some of my ancestors lived along the Rhine River.)

The Saxons had practiced a hybrid form of Christianity, a blending of the Christian story with their earlier pagan practices—Thor and Woden and Jesus were all acknowledged, and their worship was held in sacred groves of oak trees or around holy springs. The Franks justified their expansionist assaults by claiming that the Saxons were not true Christians. They cut down the sacred oaks, and deforested the whole countryside. They baptized the Saxons under threat of death. The Saxons kept rebelling decade after decade, but ultimately lost the wars. And, sadly, it was their descendants (also my ancestors) who eventually carved that first image of Jesus on a crucifix, and carried out the first pogrom against their Jewish neighbors.

Christianity, once offering hope for those persecuted by the empire, had become the official religion of empire.  By the middle ages, paradise had been relegated to the afterlife, and the communion feast had been turned into story of death and sacrifice and judgement. It was in the 11th century that Bishop Anselm of Canterbury created the “theology of atonement.” This interpretation of Christianity, still haunting us today, claimed that humanity’s sins had so offended the almighty God that it required the sacrifice of his son Jesus on a cross, to bear the punishment for all of our sins. (If you thought that this was what all Christians believe, did you realize it only started in the 11th century?)

Worship was no longer a communal gathering of peace and love, but became visually and ritually punishing, intended to stir up fears of future horrors. The priest at the communion table was said to be re-enacting the death of Jesus each time, and this sacrifice was an indictment of all humanity. This death-focused theology found its natural counterpart in the Crusades. While up to then, Christians had been forbidden to shed blood without doing penance, now the boundary line was drawn at the church doors. Soldiers were promised heaven if they died in battle killing Muslims, Jews, or heretics. And so the process of colonization continued.

Decolonization is about learning the stories of our history, and rejecting the beliefs and practices that involve domination, conquest, and subjugation.  But decolonization also includes uncovering the liberating threads we might find in the midst of the forces of domination.  The stories of the early Christians around a communal shared meal are stories that give me hope. The stories of the people of the Rhineland worshiping in groves of sacred trees give me hope.

And here’s a new question:  the Christian missionaries thought their god could conquer the old gods, because they weren’t immediately killed when they cut down the sacred trees. But maybe they just got the timeline wrong. Because now, after too many trees have been cut down over the last many centuries, we are all in danger of losing our lives.  The destruction of the forests threatens the whole planet. I think we need to bring back the sacred trees.

The picture of my grandfather in a tree gives me hope.  I think he knew that the divine was present with him in that tree.  And these days, my own worship includes planting young trees in this place I call home.

Read this book:  Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, (Beacon Press, 2008), I quoted from pp. 263-271, and pp. 224ff.

Hawk Neighbors

I was sitting at the kitchen table, and glanced out the windows to the back, and saw a big bird perched right on our deck railing outside.  When I moved to get a closer look, s/he flew up to the trees nearby to the right, in our neighbors yard.Coopers Hawk in Tree

A few moments later, s/he flew around behind the garage, and then this bird (same one or not?) appeared walking in the grass over to our hazelnut hedge.

Coopers Hawk in hedge

Finally, another bird flew from around the back, and landed in a tree to my left.  A juvenile, even though it was bigger than the first one.  Turned out they are Cooper’s Hawks, and they like to prey on small birds and mammals. Everyone’s got to feed their babies.

Coopers Hawk Juvenile

Now it is time to go outside and plant our new bushes.  The ground is finally unfrozen enough to dig holes.

Local Beauty

When we moved to our current neighborhood we were surprised and delighted to find so much natural beauty within walking distance of our home.  I felt like a kid again in those first morning walk explorations of the surrounding terrain.  I learned that we are nestled between small brooks that feed into Capisic Brook, and that there is a path through the woods between the brook and the Rowe (formerly Hall) school. I learned I could walk into the woods that were part of Evergreen Cemetery, up to the ponds where turtles, frogs, and birds abound.

But one treasure I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t learned about it first, and then tried to hunt for it.  It is quite hidden, except to those who are hiking on the Fore River Trail, which is just beyond my usual strolling adventures.  But if you know where to find it, you can also access it off the side streets on the other side of Brighton Avenue. This is Jewell Falls, and I walked there yesterday morning.  Can you imagine?  A waterfall in my own neighborhood in Portland! The spring snow melt and rain gave it a great flow and the rushing sounds were like music, morning sunlight dancing to its rhythms. Gratitude.

Jewell Falls

“Remain in the land and nourish it”

One of my hopes in exploring the stories of my ancestors is to see what cultural wisdom I might reclaim from everything that got lost in translation, especially regarding their relationship to land.  Today I was diving deep into internet stories about East Friesland, the ancestral land of my great grandfather Henry Johnson. His parents and grandparents had traveled from East Friesland to Illinois via New Orleans in the 1850s.

His father, Heye Broer Janssen traveled to the U.S. on the ship “Fannie” with 16 total family members including his parents Broer Janssen Martens and Geske Alber Schoen, arriving in New Orleans October 28, 1851. (The name Martens was dropped in the U.S. and they were called Janssen and then Johnson. Previously in East Friesland, people took the first name of their father as their last name.)  Henry’s mother, Helena Hinrich Janssen arrived in New Orleans on November 8, 1854 with her parents Heinrich Johann H. Janssen and Esse Classen Beckman. Her parents died a few years later, and she and her brothers and sisters were cared for by relatives and neighbors. Heye and Helena (Lena) married in 1862, and Henry was born in 1865, the second of ten children.

I must offer thanks again to my cousin Jim Pattyn for all his work in exploring the genealogy of our common ancestors.  In my search for their relationship to their land, I found myself recording all the towns in which they had lived in East Friesland, in fact for many generations prior: Firrel, Grossoldendorf, Kleinsander, Kleinoldendorf, Hesel, Moordorf, Schwerindorf, Strackholt, Remel.  These small towns are all within about 30 miles of each other in the center of East Friesland, somewhat near the larger town of Aurich.

625px-Ostfriesland_Verkehr-de.svg

East Friesland Map: Photo by NordNordWest – own work, using Ostfriesland de.svg by Enricopedia., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5273792

In a letter dated April 16, 1846, from Alton, Illinois, one of my distant relatives (Heie Keiser) encouraged his family back in East Friesland to come join him. He praised the opportunities in his new home.  I was struck by one of his closing statements. He wrote:

And also think not as the old wives used to say, “Remain in the land and nourish it.” We agree much more with the poet, when he says, “Hail to you Columbus, glory be to you, be highly honored forever.’ You have shown us the way out of hard servitude.”

The East Frisians had a deep love of independence and freedom, and they resonated with the “American dream.”  I appreciate their love of freedom, but in my study of the process of colonization, I cringe at their praise of Columbus–one can see that they jumped at the chance to be part of the settling of this land that was new to them. They were able to work hard and acquire their own land to farm and to cherish.

But as a feminist scholar, I also like to notice wisdom that is hidden by being contradicted.  I wonder, who were the “old wives” who had offered this different sort of wisdom that was being rejected:  “Remain in the land and nourish it.”  That is a heritage I want to claim today, the heritage of the old wives, the ones who stayed.  (I think it also filtered into the ones who came to the U.S., because from what I can gather, the East Frisians were careful farmers who took care of their land so that it might continue productive for long years.)

I also heard about another custom of German immigrants (not sure from which parts of Germany) who carried in their pockets across the ocean some of the soil from their homes, so that at least they might be buried with some of the soil of their own land.  In this exploration of the ancestors and their relationship to land, there is something to grieve and also something to be thankful for.  I think that what Margy and I are trying to do with our land here in Portland might fit into that old wives’ wisdom–remain in the land and nourish it.