Trees

The catalpas are blooming, really putting on a show this year–huge crowns full of white blossoms. I suppose the climate this year contributed to this show somehow, but my research says catalpa speciosa is drought resistant and requires little water compared to other tree species.

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catalpa in bloom

Eastern Pennsylvania has not had drought lately, and two wet springs in a row have meant burgeoning iris pseudacoris and particularly floriferous honeysuckle vines in my yard. The river birch seems happy with its feet all wet; the firs–though in a slightly less waterlogged area of the yard–are, by contrast, miserable.

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I’ve been thinking about trees because I’m reading Peter Wohlleben’s 2016 book The Hidden Life of Trees. The text reads like a friendly forester inviting readers to learn what he loves about trees and their encounters with us, with the environment (soil, air, sun, water, pollutants, pests, fungi), and with one another. I have to say I remain somewhat skeptical about the scientific veracity of his source material, but I do enjoy his warm enthusiasm for his subjects and his reminders that we humans don’t know even the smallest fraction of what goes on in the planet’s interconnected and unplumbed depths.

Although some critics object to what they see as too much anthropomorphism in Wohllebehn’s book, his use of the analogy of the human and the tree “bodies” makes his information about how trees and forests work easy to grasp.

For science nerds, there are other texts. The Hidden Life of Trees is meant to make the less scientifically-inclined reader more aware of his or her environment, to convince the average human being to consider plant life more consciously.

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I take many photos of trees; and they appear in my poems pretty regularly, not as main characters but in supporting roles–not symbolic, but actual. Wohllebehn’s book may influence my work somehow…possible inspiration? But then, the trees themselves, especially the oldest ones, are inspiration enough.

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This 200-year-old sycamore resides at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia

 

 

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Reverie, with interruption

On the first warm, sunny, not-horribly-humid day in a long time, to reward myself for marking up a pile of student essays, I lay in the hammock and looked up at the clouds. The clouds are amazing today, shifting, fast-moving, likely thanks to Hurricane Florence far to the south.

I wanted reverie, but I got spotted lanternflies instead, which interfered with my admiration for the clouds. Dozens of the creatures were aloft on this mild afternoon.

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They are a recent invasive species to our region; their appearance causes concern because they use fruit trees, mast trees, grapes, and hardwoods as host plants when they cannot find their traditional host, ailanthus. We have no ailanthus on our property, but we do have oaks, hickories, maples, beeches, and many scraggly cherry, walnut, and mulberry trees along the hedgerow and into the woodlot. Development in the valley–housing developments, business plazas, parking lots–coupled with stress from climate weirding, has been hard on trees. We already have diseases that have damaged the Pennsylvania ash, hemlocks (PA’s state tree), and dogwoods. I notice weakened bark on many trees. The droughts and the too-much-rain cycles, and unusual, high winds with storm fronts, plus road-widening, contribute to considerable loss of trees.

I lay in my hammock under the trees and worried about the lanternflies. Which accomplished nothing (I think of a James Wright poem at this point…).

What was there not to despair about? So much anxiety surrounds me. Even the damned bugs. If only starlings were to take a liking to spotted lanternflies, I mused.

A butterfly went past. I looked down at the zinnias blossoming their stems off in the garden and felt pleased to count four monarchs there. It has been a good year for monarch butterflies in my yard, and green darners and other dragonflies, and hummingbirds–which used to be quite uncommon visitors here. The little brown bats are returning each dusk, recovering slowly from the decimation of white-nose virus.

The balance may seem off in many ways. But there are restorative moments.

Even if “I have wasted my life.”

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Monarch on tithonia blossom

 

 

 

Clouds & trees

One benefit to living where I do is the way the sky looks in early autumn. Another is the brilliancy of leaves as they change color.

This time of year, even my commute to and from work offers moments of beauty. There are sunrises as I get ready for work, sunsets as I drive home each evening. The skies have been so glorious lately that a friend of mine posts photos on his social media account every day. Autumn arrives, and I wish I were a painter.

Cloud textures: yesterday morning, stippled so densely I could easily imagine ice crystals clustering together in the atmosphere a thousand feet above me. Bouncy puffs, striations, streaks. Today, a more consistent palette of repeated half-rounds. A stream of grey, white, and slate blue overhead, highlighted with thin bands of yellow.

Meanwhile, the trees–first the hickories going golden, then other tints. Today, I noticed the scarlet of a tupelo aflame at the edge of a field and the first big sugar maple shifting to orange. Many of the smaller ornamental trees take on burgundy hues. I can’t describe these landscapes in words! I want words to be pigments. I feel stalled. Maybe I am just making excuses for why I have not been writing poetry lately–(I don’t want to confess to writer’s block, as obviously I am writing!)

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Here’s a nice video from Slate that speculates, based on recent science, about why there are more red colors in North American trees than in European trees. Click here!

 

Love. Poem.

A beloved member of my family will be marrying in June, and I was asked to find a poem apropos to the celebrants and the occasion. I have written two epithalamiums (or epithalamia) and can testify to the difficulty of composing a good poem that is also a marriage poem. Anyway, in this instance, I wanted to find a suitable long-term-love-commitment poem by someone other than myself. Talk about abundance of choice!

Knowing the celebrants’ interests and tastes narrowed things down a bit, and the poem had to be “short & sweet.” The ceremony will be out of doors on a trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which made me inclined to look for natural imagery in the poem–but nothing so dense as to distract from the place itself.

What a splendid task! I allowed myself the luxury of looking at poetry books randomly, paging slowly through anthologies, browsing handouts I’ve collected for and from classes over the years. Just flitting from poem to poem over the course of weeks, occasionally marking something that seemed particularly likely…no pressure…

When I came across the poem “Tree Heart/True Heart” by Kay Ryan, I was startled into admiration.

It doesn’t start off like a love poem. It offers little in the opening imagery to suggest romance, or life attachment, or promise.

It is breathtakingly brief, revolves around wordplay and connotations, sounds lovely when read aloud.

The last two lines clinch the “commitment” in the poem; and the three lines preceding that final, spare, achingly-sweet sentence made me gasp when I re-read the poem, trying to figure out how Ryan managed all this in 16 lines, not one of which contains more than five words.

Love is all you needOkay, now you want to read the poem, right?

It was published in The New Yorker on September 26, 2011 (p. 116), and I am certain that I will be violating some sort of copyright if I reproduce it on this blog.

I hope Ms. Ryan forgives me, though if The New Yorker or her publishers find out, I may have to take this post down. It seems likely to me that The New Yorker has bigger fish to try to catch, however, so here goes. And I am putting in a plug for Kay Ryan’s books. Go buy them, preferably not second-hand, because poets make hardly any money from book sales and no money whatsoever from second-hand sales.

 

Tree Heart/True Heart

by Kay Ryan

The hearts of trees
are serially displaced
pressed annually
outward to a ring.
They aren’t really
what we mean
by hearts, they so
easily acquiesce,
willing to thin and
stretch around some
upstart green. A
real heart does not
give way to spring.
A heart is true.
I say no more springs
without you.

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My beloveds–who are an ocean apart at present and miserable about it, and who aim to make sure that each has “no more springs/without you” –agreed that this poem suited their intentions, their personalities, and the leafy stretches of the hiking trail.

Thank you, Kay Ryan. Thank you, human beings, whoever it was who invented the arts, and poetry.

Trees & tombs

On a brisk and clear autumn day, I visited Brooklyn’s magnificent and park-like Green-Wood Cemetery. Established in 1838, the burial grounds were planned as a gently-rolling landscape of hills, winding paths, ponds, and specimen trees in what was then rural Long Island. The “History” tab of the National Historic Site’s webpage says:

By 1860, Green-Wood was attracting 500,000 visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction. Crowds flocked to Green-Wood to enjoy family outings, carriage rides and sculpture viewing in the finest of first generation American landscapes. Green-Wood’s popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks.

These days, US citizens feel far less connected to death, and the concept of picnicking among gravesites may seem creepy. The organization devoted to keeping up the cemetery as a historic site (it is, by the way, still an active cemetery) offers tours: visitors can tour the catacombs, visit graves of famous people, take an architectural monument & mausoleum tour, and see the sculptural highlights of the cemetery.

The sculptures are largely figural pieces and tend toward the Gothic sentimentality of the late 19th century: draped urns, weeping maidens wearing Greek chitons, triumphant angels, busts and full-length portraiture, columns and more columns (Corinthian being far and away the favorite). If such monuments appeal to you, Green-Wood is decidedly worth a visit; it is also a favorite among history buffs. A Revolutionary battle was fought on those grounds, and there are some early graves from the Dutch pre-Revolutionary era, not to mention the inherent historical interest of a major city mortuary established in the 1830s.

Here’s a flickr site devoted to images of Green-Wood.

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While history and art interest me a great deal, what most arrested my attention at Green-Wood were the trees. Seldom do I get to see dozens of 170-year-old oaks, 100-year-old weeping beeches draping their boughs over paths and tombstones, large female gingko trees that drop their smelly orange fruits on the ground, old elms that survived Dutch elm disease, enormous cedars and firs of every description, majestic walnut trees (the woodlot at my house sports only some weedy black walnuts). Three tall, long-armed people embraced the circumference of one of these old oaks…

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Loving up the trees at Green-Wood.

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There are hundreds of species of trees at Green-Wood, aptly named; and in fall the colors are handsome. I can imagine the pastel colors of the flowering trees there in spring!

So I think of the place of the dead as a fantastic terrarium of living things encased in city streets, a bubble of micro-environment–470+ acres–wherein thrive trees, a wide variety of birds, ornamental grasses and flowers, shrubs (too many hydrangeas, perhaps), squirrels and, judging by the dug-up divots evident in grassy areas, skunks, opossums, and possibly raccoons.

And yes, I recognize that cemeteries have a reputation for good soil because the plants are “fertilized” by human remains–undeserved reputation in modern times due to sanitation requirements and at Green-Wood, where many of the interred are not even in the ground. Even if and when human decay complements the soil nutrients, the idea doesn’t bother me. I am enough of a scientist, and enough of a Buddhist, to appreciate the biocycle.

Lost trees

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Herewith, some photos of neighboring tree damage. There is an environmental aspect to huge devastating storms…some of my neighbors’ houses have been standing for over 150 years. Some of the trees are 50-90 years old.

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Not old by, say, Asian or European standards. But pretty mature and historic for the USA.

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New Jersey and Staten and Long Islands were hit much worse, as they also got sea-water surges and flooding. Here, we mostly had tree-down damages. Wires snapped, pulling out transformers and knocking down utility poles and wires.

It was a different type of storm from the ones we experienced last year at around this time (see my post from 2011).

Things are gradually returning to normal. I wish to thank, whole-heartedly, the men (and a few women) who work on the utility and tree crews and who came from all over the USA to help out. Convoys of utility trucks have been greeted with joy by all of us in the mid-Atlantic states. May we never have to return the favor–may you and your loved ones remain safe, sound, and connected! But if you do need help at any time, I hope we can return the favor.