Saunterday: The city’s noise, the candle’s light

The Great Blue Hill trail map, courtesy of MassAudubon.

The Great Blue Hill trail map, courtesy of MassAudubon.

 

The noise has been getting to me.

It started last month, spending so much time in Downtown Crossing. My days down there were mostly spent hanging balsam wreaths and setting out other Christmas decorations. The sound there is endless, all engines and heavy gaits and voices. It’s not the nicest part of Boston; there’s a lot of misery and a lot of seediness. At first I took pleasure in bringing green to the grey, planting spruces and spring bulbs, reaching the bowed wreaths up ladders. But as December darkened the noise grew too heavy to bear.

Nearly everything else in my life is quieter and less crowded, but that sound has stayed with me—the drone and the colors. And the shapes of humans, sometimes hardly anything but a harsh shadow. There are a lot of shelters, a lot of drained eyes, a lot of bedrooms made of cardboard.

That is hard living and, guiltily, I’ve shirked away from it. I’ve only been downtown twice since the holiday madness ended and was struck by the darkness, the crammed decibels. I’ve been longing for spaces, for long ones humming gently in human-free life. I’ve longed for the companionship of trees, of plants not so tame as to live in buildings, or so dead that they’re twisted into a wreath and hung to dry.

Yeah, well. The city is where I am. It takes more than a song to get out of here, especially on a Friday when rush hour starts early. And I’ve had work to do, words to write and spreadsheets to create. I’ve felt crazed with restlessness. The memory of sounds, the misery of stillness.

So finally I escaped to the Blue Hills.

I’ve written about that edge of town majesty elsewhere but, strangely, not here. It is a refuge to which I go in order to escape myself and find myself in turns. It is to me what the ocean is to Ishmael:

                  Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping to the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

To sea for him, to trees for me.

I parked at the Great Blue Hill, which rises alongside I-93 in pines,oaks, maples, and ski trails, and began climbing the road to the weather observatory. It had snowed all morning and the trees and forest floor were white, but my soul still felt pretty bleak. 128 runs right along the hill and the noise of it moved right up the road—fuzzy mufflers, rasping engines, heavy tires, the occasional pitch of a horn. The drivers below were hurtling along in their aluminum cans, heading home and picking up kids, and doing so Loudly.

Eventually I came to a path that rose into the woods, veering from the paving with steps made of the sort of perfect logs that build a cabin. Hungering for the uneven embrace of the earth I left the asphalt and carefully ascended the logs. They were slippery with the sneaky ice that lives in shadowy places and I took my time, feeling a tender rush of accomplishment after stepping off the last stair.

(Here I must admit that I pictured myself as Reese Witherspoon during this little hike, meaning that I pretended that this was a Very Great Journey instead of, um, an hour’s jaunt. So there I was, Hauf as Witherspoon as Cheryl strayed, grunting and humming in satisfaction, not wearing hiking boots or a pack, but feeling satisfied.)

The path was close with branches and trunks and I walked, surrounded by life. The nearness of it eased me as I carried on up the red dot path and on to the blue dot, feeling a communion with the sweet green colors carrying nourishment below all the rough creases of bark around me. As I often do in the woods or gardens of winter I remembered Dickon in “The Secret Garden:”

“There’s lots o’ dead wood as ought to be cut out,” he said. “An’ there’s a lot o’ old wood, but it made some new last year. This here’s a new bit,” and he touched a shoot which looked brownish green instead of hard, dry gray. Mary touched it herself in an eager, reverent way.

“That one?” she said. “Is that one quite alive quite?”

Dickon curved his wide smiling mouth.

“It’s as wick as you or me,” he said; and Mary remembered that Martha had told her that “wick” meant “alive” or “lively.”

“I’m glad it’s wick!” she cried out in her whisper. “I want them all to be wick. Let us go round the garden and count how many wick ones there are.”

I didn’t count all the wick ones in the reservation, I just walked among the ones skirting my path. A quiet joy was spreading within me. I felt like I was strolling in the light of candles, ones that weren’t fussy and blown out by a breeze. felt like a candle, glowing and warm.

Eventually I came to the old building with a roof and two walls for picnicking. From there it was a short tripto the hill’s summit. When I arrived at the top I moaned a long, honest, appreciative Ohhh of appreciation for the haze below and beyond, for the hills and valleys and forests dressed in the lovely grey blue. All of it blended together perfectly, all those colors of New England that have lived here for centuries.

As I went back down the hill, more patient now with paving, the snow filtered from the canopy like gilded motes, shining in the slanting sunlight. I walked in bliss and, when the traffic again began licking at my ears, kept on going. I had to join it, to go back home, to get to work.

This post is devoted to sauntering, a rare art espoused by Henry David Thoreau which I have resolved to embrace in this still new year. Saunter posts will hearby be tagged Saunterday, so keep an eye out for them! 

 

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MudSong 30: Green fires lit on the soil of the earth

A pine letting loose its pollen.

A pine letting loose its pollen. Source

 

The Enkindled Spring
—D.H. Lawrence

This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up and the watery, flickering rushes.

I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.

And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.

MudSong Fifteen: What spring does with cherry trees

LOVE POEM XIV

—Pablo Neruda

Translated by W. S. Merwin

 

 

cherry

 

Every day you play with the light of the universe.
Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water.
You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.
Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars of the south?
Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

Suddenly the wind howls and bangs at my shut window.
The sky is a net crammed with shadowy fish.
Here all the winds let go sooner or later, all of them.
The rain takes off her clothes.

The birds go by, fleeing.
The wind. The wind.
I can contend only against the power of men.
The storm whirls dark leaves
and turns loose all the boats that were moored last night to the sky.

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
You will answer me to the last cry.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.
Even so, at one time a strange shadow ran through your eyes.

Now, now too, little one, you bring me honeysuckle,
and even your breasts smell of it.
While the sad wind goes slaughtering butterflies
I love you, and my happiness bites the plum of your mouth.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.
So many times we have seen the morning star burn, kissing our eyes,
and over our heads the gray light unwind in turning fans.

My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.

I want
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

MudSong Thirteen: A change of mood

 

Dust of Snow
— Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

 

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), as illustrated in Trees of Indiana, by Charles Clemon Deam.

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), as illustrated in Trees of Indiana, by Charles Clemon Deam.

 

For more of March’s MudSongs, featuring poems by Cummings, Dickinson, Neruda, and others, click here.

 

MudSong Four: The shadows have their seasons, too

Beech buds. Source.

Beech buds. Source.

 

Penumbrae
— John Updike

The shadows have their seasons, too.
The feathery web the budding maples
cast down upon the sullen lawn

bears but a faint relation to
high summer’s umbrageous weight
and tunnellike continuum—

black leached from green, deep pools
wherein a globe of gnats revolves
as airy as an astrolabe.

The thinning shade of autumn is
an inherited Oriental,
red worn to pink, nap worn to thread.

Continue reading

How to Meet a Tree

http://flippetyfloppety.blogspot.com/2011/01/tulip-fever.html
A tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Source

The falling of leaves, that shedding of the suddenly unnecessary, undresses an urban beauty usually draped in colors that go beyond the relatively  monochromatic shades of bark. As foliage starts to shiver and shake and pigeon-fly in earnest, the limbs sway in the slow dance of an autumnal Salome. They unveil until finally naked, muscularly curving and dangling, scrolling woodily across bright, cold mornings.

In November we see not only more of the unfettered tree but also settings and props forgotten or heretofore undiscovered. Views obscured in satiny emerald and warm copper clear and come into focus, revealing fire escapes, painted doors, next-door neighbors and hibernating gardens. The leaves remaining transform to peppering accents, flicking faded maple reds and russeted elm onto concrete, sidings, attic windows and brick.

Trees are bizarrely delightful and surround us on nearly every terrestrial surface. Despite our close quarters, most of us don’t know trees as we know the rest of our neighbors. Often we hardly acknowledge their beautifully ubiquitous and stories-tall forms. I feel that it’s time we took a look and got on a first-name basis.

There are a lot of ways to acquaint oneself with a tree.  First of all, I suggest you take a walk. Most cities have parks; go to your favorite one or visit their website to see if they offer guided tours.  If they do, sign up. (You can also look to your city’s parks and recreation department, urban ecology centers, and universities.) Bring a friend if you’d like, or go alone and devote your whole self to the place and plants within. Ask questions. If you’re good at remembering things, remember them: the nomenclature, the shapes, the colors and textures of bark, lingering leaves, berries, and nuts. If you’d like you can write notes or take sketches, but if you’re on a first date it might be best to just spend some time together to see if you click.

A wonderful thing about trees (and other plants, as well as just about anything even some humans) is that you can name them to your liking. This is especially useful when you’re starting out. While it is often helpful and even imperative to know scientific names, it’s almost never necessary in the beginning. I used to work with kids at the Arnold Arboretum and we would call the beech trees “Elephant Trees,” much more for their grey and stretch-marked skin than for their size. If you remember “elephant tree” rather than “beech tree,” that’s fine, and even lovely. There’s no need to be formal about anything; this is all casual. A first date is not a wedding (though at certain times of the year there may be flowers). If you are hoping to eventually become a botanist wholly and microscopically devoted to beeches, no one’s going to care if you started out calling a tree that looks like an elephant a tree that looks like an elephant.

Purple European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’), photographed at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Source.

Purple European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’), photographed at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Source.

If you can’t find a guided tour, take yourself for one. You can stroll with the sole intent of making your own independent observations or print off a street tree guide and go a-hunting. Grow Boston Greener has a truly guide for the greater Boston area. Other city-specific web guides include those for New York CityRichmond, California and Dallas, Texas.  There are also some handy ones from Cornell and The Virginia Urban Street Tree Selector, as well as real live books like Lelsie Day and Trudy Smoke’s Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York Cit, and Peter Del Tredici’s brilliant Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide. (I’ll elaborate on Del Tredici’s in a minute). If a search for a resource specific to your city yields no results, never fear; plenty of street trees, like the Norway maple and horse chestnut, are regionally ubiquitous. Get an idea about what you might find in your neck of the country and see if it’s there. You’re certain to find something, whether it’s what you were looking for or not.

http://natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic14/trees.htm

Arboreal winter habits. Source.

If you decide to get a little more serious I recommend a good field guide. Sometimes you can take them out of libraries, an opportunity to be taken advantage of, especially when you’re looking for one that will suit your needs. Some are illustrated with photographs while others are drawn by hand. Some focus on leaves and others on bark. Regardless of the guide you get you’ll want at least one with a good key. Keys can be frustrating to use, especially at first, but they are indispensable. The instruction on how to use them is indispensable, too; far too often people complain that a field guide is faulty before admitting that they have no idea how to utilize their key.

Since winter is nigh I’m going to share a few of my favorite guides that are most useful for ID’ing in leafless conditions. (While there are also apps that serve many of the purposes of a paper-made field guide, I’m pretty old-fashioned and don’t know enough of them to suggest one over the other. Please free to opine on them in the comments.)

bark_cover-190x300

BARK                                                                                             

This is a very enjoyable book. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the author and photographer, Michael Wojtech, and found him to be a delightful, quirky young naturalist who quotes Dillard and designs cool t-shirts. The key is not quite infallible, but bark, the wonderfully varied skin that shelters and encases everything within—cambium, phloem, heartwood and the like—is not only varied from species to species but, quite often, from specimen to specimen. Our native sugar maples, for example, go through so many transformations in a lifetime that they are nicknamed “the chameleon tree.” Because of this variability a field guide that relies so heavily upon bark for purposes of identification is bound to give you a taxonomical hiccup here and there. Luckily it also includes illustrations and descriptions of other parts of arboreal anatomy—leaves, seeds, etc—so a positive ID is always within your reach. BARK is a meticulously researched field guide from a lover of forests and aesthetics. It’s a wonderful, slim guide for new and seasoned tree-lovers alike.

john laird

The  Trees of the Northern United States and Canada

This book is a classic, and as field guides go it is almost biblical in scope. Hard-covered and a buncha pounds, it’s not exactly something that one would enthusiastically carry through the streets and parks on a frigid winter’s day. However, it’s amazing and definitely worth carting about (though I do recommend that you have a backpack so your hands can be free).  Of the field guides I have known and researched, this one seems the best all-in-one package for winter identification. (The best that’s under 30 pounds, anyway.) Every entry features wonderfully detailed photographs and occasional drawings illustrating species’ buds, bark, leaves, and mature size. The images of buds, those miniature gift-wrapped packages of gorgeous and varied life, are especially helpful for winter ID.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide

While the above books are wonderful, both independently as well as in tandem with one another, their one flaw for the cosmopolitan tree-gazer is their emphasis on natives. Many of the most common street trees, such as Tree of Heaven (of  “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” fame), Japanese Maple, and Ginkgo, are fairly recent migrants to North America. For these trees, Peter del Tredici’s “Metropolitan Field Guide to plants and trees of the Northeast” is unrivaled for detailing the botanical life that twines and thrusts through our cities.  Del Tredici’s book also features dozens of herbaceous plants, thus offering as thorough a census of street plants as you can get without its turning from paragraphs to charts. He also includes cultural uses for plants (ie, whether or not they have been been used for culinary or medicinal use), and little biographies that tell how the non-native plants came to be in North America.

A note on living botanical collections

The species entwined in our botanical gardens and arboreta are another thing altogether. Here in Boston we have Dawn Redwoods from China, mock oranges from California, and a teeny tiny Bald Cypress bonsai, all alive at the Arnold. Though these trees are far from native and atypical to the urban habitat that they’ve found themselves in, they are richly wonderful living things to spend one’s time with. Not only are they beautiful, regal, and impressive for their existence in a place so different from, say, rural China, they also help us to better understand the abundance of diversity within the botanical world. The Arnold, along with many other professionally tended public gardens, carefully dog-tags their plants with labels that include common and scientific names, the botanical family the specimen belongs to, provenance, and other information.

Do you have advice for meeting the trees in your neighborhood?

This post is lovingly dedicated to Kelli Korducki, who recently announced her desire to know trees and asked if I could be of service. Cheers and happy walking to you, Madame Duck! Let us know how you’re arboreal discoveries go.

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