Friday, June 28, 2019

In the Tree House at Night

On this second Friday of summer, I'm still reading The Overstory, by Richard Powers, and while perhaps that first ecstatic response has cooled, I'm still enjoying it quite a bit. I'm about one hundred pages in. At this point, the novel feels like instruments in a symphony warming up. I don't feel like saying much about it at this point, so I give you a lovely tree-ish poem instead:

In the Tree House at Night

by James Dickey
And now the green household is dark.   
The half-moon completely is shining   
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees.   
To be dead, a house must be still.
The floor and the walls wave me slowly;   
I am deep in them over my head.   
The needles and pine cones about me

Are full of small birds at their roundest,   
Their fists without mercy gripping
Hard down through the tree to the roots   
To sing back at light when they feel it.   
We lie here like angels in bodies,
My brothers and I, one dead,
The other asleep from much living,

In mid-air huddled beside me.
Dark climbed to us here as we climbed
Up the nails I have hammered all day
Through the sprained, comic rungs of the ladder   
Of broom handles, crate slats, and laths
Foot by foot up the trunk to the branches   
Where we came out at last over lakes

Of leaves, of fields disencumbered of earth   
That move with the moves of the spirit.   
Each nail that sustains us I set here;
Each nail in the house is now steadied
By my dead brother’s huge, freckled hand.   
Through the years, he has pointed his hammer   
Up into these limbs, and told us

That we must ascend, and all lie here.   
Step after step he has brought me,   
Embracing the trunk as his body,
Shaking its limbs with my heartbeat,   
Till the pine cones danced without wind   
And fell from the branches like apples.   
In the arm-slender forks of our dwelling

I breathe my live brother’s light hair.   
The blanket around us becomes
As solid as stone, and it sways.
With all my heart, I close
The blue, timeless eye of my mind.   
Wind springs, as my dead brother smiles   
And touches the tree at the root;

A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;   
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir   
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?   
When may I fall strangely to earth,

Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?   
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?   
My green, graceful bones fill the air   
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Overstory: First Impressions and "Wild Orchard"

I’m afraid this won’t be a very rational post. I started reading Richard Powers’s The Overstory this week. I’ve read twenty-three pages: a prefatory section called “Roots,” and the first chapter, “Nicholas Hoel.” I read these twenty-three pages over two readings, with a few days in between, because it was so good I waited to pick it up again until I could give undivided attention. Twenty-three pages. In them: a saga that stretches over almost a century. Four generations of a family and a story about the chestnut tree brought west as a seed. Twenty-three pages full of characters and yet, I cared about each one. I cared deeply about that tree. Actually, I cared, already, about all trees. There were so many wonderful things happening in those pages and as I read, I couldn’t believe the things that were possible with words: descriptions, humanity, rhythm, emotion, so many universal, a-ha moments. Really. And at the end of the first chapter, I cried. I know that sounds very dramatic but I did. Like the way you’d cry if you saw a baby born, or a particularly impressive natural phenomenon your mind almost can’t process. Or an exquisite painting. Or how you'd cry if you just read fiction that fuels the part of you that believes in the boundless ability of words to touch hearts and souls, that part of you that has always believed but sometimes forgets, for a while.

I don’t know if the next 480ish pages will be able to maintain this level of wonder for me, but for now, I’m loving The Overstory, irrationally. Obviously.
This chapter also deals with the history of the chestnut blight in America, which you can learn about by watching this brief video:


And now, as promised, your first tree poem...


Wild Orchard

by William Carlos Williams

It is a broken country,
the rugged land is
green from end to end;
the autumn has not come.

Embanked above the orchard
the hillside is a wall
of motionless green trees,
the grass is green and red.

Five days the bare sky
has stood there day and night.
No bird, no sound.
Between the trees

and the early morning light.
The apple trees
are laden down with fruit.

Among blue leaves
the apples green and red
upon one tree stand out
most enshrined.

Still, ripe, heavy,
spherical and close,
they mark the hillside.
It is a formal grandeur,

a stateliness,
a signal of finality
and perfect ease.
Among the savage

aristocracy of rocks
one, risen as a tree,
has turned
from his repose.


Friday, June 14, 2019

All About Trees: Summer Reading Project, 2019

Readers of this blog may know that every summer, I like to have some sort of reading project. Last year, I read only novels by Michael Chabon, for better or worse. One year I read several short story collections and another, I tackled the Hilary Mantel series. My idea for this year's annual event started with a chunky novel on my to-read shelf, The Overstory by Richard Powers. The winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, it's "a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world." And from what I understand, it has much to do with trees. I bought the book and was very interested in it, but then it arrived and it was very long (500 pages) and so, because it was a hectic, non-summer time, I put it on the shelf. I'm quite excited about this read, which I know several of my friends have enjoyed.

Then I remembered that once I had really wanted to read a non-fiction title: The Hidden Life of Trees. So I bought that and suddenly, the All About Trees summer project was born. This book by Peter Wohlleben "makes the case that the forest is a social network," and claims "a walk in the woods will never be the same again."

After I decided on theme, things fell together. I already had an arc of Jessica Francis Kane's recent release, Rules for Visiting. This novel is a summer buzz book, about a middle-aged woman who is "more at home with plants than people" but decides to set out on a journey to reconnect with old friends. The book has lovely tree illustrations by Edward Carey, such as the one pictured here and so, more than qualifies for my project.

The final entry, Meetings with Remarkable Trees, I discovered online once I started looking around, and it's a gorgeous, illustrated book originally published in 1996. From the inside jacket: "With this astonishing collection of tree portraits, Thomas Pakenham has produced a new kind of tree book...The sixty trees are grouped according to their own strong personalities: Native, Travellers, Shrines, Fantasies and Survivors." And I think that last bit - the grouping titles - is what got me to buy the book. Not sure what a fantasy tree would be, but I intend to find out.

For those who have expressed interest in joining me on this reading quest, I'll read the books in the order listed above, with no particular timeframe other than to try to finish by Labor Day. If you need quantification, it's over 1200 pages of tree-filled goodness. I hope to post an update each Friday, starting next week, along with a tree poem or two. Join me! Spend some time embracing nature (at least, thinking about it) and learning about trees.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

About My Grandmother

I had a long dream about my grandmother’s house last night. I can remember every detail of this place that meant a great deal to me. And I woke up remembering that she passed in June, twenty years ago now.
My dad’s mother was Frances Ellen (Rivers) Vensel and we lived near her my entire childhood. I got my middle name from her—Frances—and although I thought I didn’t like being called Mary Frances growing up, I miss it now. I gave my only daughter the name Frances too.
When we were very small, there were many of us granddaughters and when she’d get our names mixed up, she’d call us Genevieve in exasperation. And this is partly where Geneva got her other name, from this imagined granddaughter. Grandma Vensel was kind, smart and funny.
Her house was immaculate, as my mom would say. Her bathroom shelves held amazing powders, creams and perfumes, and she was always put together—clothes, makeup, hair. I’d go to her house by myself and sleep until noon, then we’d play pinochle for hours. After a surgery she had, she didn’t like her voice, but she sang in church anyway—softly, a beat behind everyone else.
She showed her disapproval in quiet ways, and her affection and loyalty was matter-of-fact. She was a steadfast support and great friend of my mother’s. She loved my grandpa and I believe she missed him terribly every day after he passed.
She was the only person I ever saw stand up to my father. She loved golf—especially  Chi Chi Rodriguez—also Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and when I asked who her favorite singer was, she’d say Engelbert Humperdinck to make me laugh. Sometimes, she’d have a drink or two and be a little boisterous.
She secretly smoked in the garage, where she kept the 1972 Chevelle she truly loved. The car was also immaculate. She wore driving gloves and sometimes, scarves tied expertly around her throat. And she loved me, and all of us, and showed us how to be strong, dignified and true.
There was more to her, of course, much, much more, but she was very important to me, and still is. I keep the last picture nearby, to remind me how fun she could be.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka