One man’s hope is another man’s nightmare

Nine days from Thanksgiving and the leaves still cling to the trees, many of them, even the half-shorn maples still gold and rusty, the oaks just dipping the edges of their leaves into copper. I confess to being buoyed by the sight. Once the leaves are on the ground, once I rake them into piles and see them vacuumed up by sweet sweepers, gone to someone else’s compost, fall is over, whatever the calendar says, and winter, minus the frequent snows of my northern youth and the really biting cold that forces you to remember you’re alive, dammit, is a dreary brown season of freezing rain and mud, its challenges dull, its joys slippery and its comforts of the could be worse variety: “To rest contentedly beside the hearth / while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.” If the great maple outside my study window wants to cling a little while longer to its glorious past, I won’t complain.

Then again, the times being what they are and the internet bringing the world’s facts and fancies instantly to my fingertips, I’m painfully aware why this autumn has such a long tail: The world is growing warmer. Anthropogenic climate change. Impending disaster. My fleeting pleasure at avoiding the annual fate of every human being who ever lived in a temperate climate, the cyclical suffering endured by billions of people over tens of thousands of years, is granted by the same forces threatening to end civilization as we know it and plunge the world into chaos and hot darkness. So I’m told.

It’s hard, on a gorgeous fall day, crisp and clear and sixty degrees, to worry much about what the weather will be in a thousand years. It’s also hard to enjoy the day to the fullest nagged by thoughts of dying honeybees and failing crops and flooded cities and millions upon millions more refugees than we already have in the world. The existence of one truth doesn’t make the other false. To call the one a silver lining cheapens both, and to speak too freely of God’s grace seems flip. At the same time, to don sackcloth and ashes, or to pull my shade and worry up a tweet-storm, does nothing to feed and house the people of 2116 — or of 2016, for that matter.

Better, then, to take a walk and enjoy the day. If that walk can carry me to the grocery store or to church or to eat or have a beer, and thus save a trip in the car, then I’ve avoided a trifling contribution to the thing I’m worried about. If not, I might have the chance for a conversation with a neighbor. At the least I won’t have done any harm, and surely taking the trouble to appreciate the good in what’s here ought to be the starting point for asking what needs changing.

I think, though I am not quite sure, that this is the sort of observation that might begin to help us out of the mess we’re in politically. It is not an end point, but it is a starting point. I don’t expect to find universal salvation in taking walks. But if we don’t know our neighbors and our neighborhoods, all the policies in the world won’t save us. And if we can’t enjoy the days we have, we won’t enjoy the better ones we think we deserve.

26. The redbud

The redbud lurks all year at the edge of the woods, quiet and unassuming. He wakes with the dawn, puts on his business foliage, kisses his wife the dogwood goodbye, heads off to his office in the understory and shades the brambles in a comfortable deep green. He keeps to himself. He doesn’t make any trouble. Then once a year in spring he leaps forth possessed like a prophet from the roadside, shrieking magenta jubilation to all who will listen. He mocks the elegance of cherries, shouts down buntings and cardinals, drowns the murmur of violets. His words fall like rain upon the grass and are forgotten, and reluctantly he settles into another year. He goes again about his business, a model citizen of the woods. Biding his time.

24. Unintended shelter

For unintended shelter. The winter’s assaults of ice tore twigs from branches, branches from trees, trees from the earth, and some of us who could not abide the chaos chopped and raked the refuse into piles. Some of us who cannot abide the chaos even raked and piled would no doubt have burned it, had the tinder been drier and less resinous. Instead the quick-sawn trunks and browning needles sit like a Christmas massacre, sinking imperceptibly into the woods and into memory. Sinking, that is, into our memory, and rising into the life of others. Today a cardinal perched atop a storm-pile, a sienna slash of straw in her mouth. When her mate returned they disappeared into the brush and danced, as it seemed from where I stood — danced for hope or for joy, danced their own continuing. Danced the spring into existence in a bed of winter’s trash.

23. The changeability of trees

For the changeability of trees. Some days I walk deep into the woods, up strenuous hillsides where the trees are ancient — ancient, I mean, by the measure of my own days, and older than the memory of the oldest people I ever loved. Oaks that sprang from acorns fallen into the same earth but a different world, now grown unembraceably broad, that have stood continuous to shade the paths of a myriad changeable passing lives. Today I am in a different place, small and fenced, where also there are trees, small and carefully arranged. But I remember long ago here other trees, tall enough to shade a hasty lunch or passing thought and not by nature purple in the springtime. I remember myself here, shaded, and with that boy seem to have been continuous. But the trees have proven changeable, and it is I who feel ancient in their presence.

5. Mud

For mud, that dank cacophony of death and life from which all life and death comes new. All the leavings of forgotten seasons, entombed as one, consumed and voided, long returned to elements. Carcasses of spiders. Beetles, grubs. Wings of moths. Eggshells, snake skins, apple cores. Fallen limbs and mottled leaves. Lichen, moss, and petals. The body of a sparrow, broken. The blood of a squirrel. A wine-dark stew of humus, rot, decay, detritus, death. And now into this sacred ooze, this primal muck of first creation, the ancient oak tree, dead the winter, sinks his toes. Drinks in the warmth, accepts the blessing of the earth. Tomorrow he’ll unfurl his limbs, turn his face towards the sun: and live again.

The thicket

One afternoon in early fall, a couple of years ago, I walked out over a piece of land I had thought about buying. A two-story house had once faced the road, and a barn had sat somewhere behind it, and tobacco fields and pasture and gardens ran most of a mile down to the river. Now it had been ten years since the family had given the place up, and the house had been torn down and the barn too, and back of a brief yard the land had grown up in fresh woods, pines and skinny poplar and sweetgum. All that remained of the house was a well that might yet be hooked to a hand pump. For two hundred yards the woods were — littered would suggest too sparse a treatment of refuse; I could hardly walk a straight line anywhere without stepping over or around a beer bottle or a condom wrapper or a lumpy-full garbage bag or a moldy couch or the rusting hulk of a washing machine. If the human beings of Alamance County could purchase a thing and cast it aside, one or another of its kind surely made it into those woods. How many dumpster loads, I thought, would it take to clean up this mess? And how many months, or years? For how long would I be unearthing the flotsam of present-day consumer culture, like the world’s sorriest archaeologist?

But I had driven forty minutes to get here, and the owners’ agent was meeting me to show me the place, so I waited and tried to imagine what the place had looked like, a decade or a generation or a century ago when it was half a small working farm, and what it might therefore look like again. It required a good deal of imagination. I needed to see what was under those woods, how the land lay, how much was level and how much had been or could be cleared.

The agent arrived, late, in his full-sized pickup with a bumper sticker about how he’d rather be hunting, wearing camo-print cargo shorts and a machete holstered at his side, carrying a plat map and a topo map. His outfitting did not give me hope, but we set off into the woods, he telling me what he knew of the family, I wishing the children who did not want their parents’ land had made up their minds sooner to sell it. There was a way down to the river, he said; he’d found it before, though it was a couple of years ago. We picked our way through the trash, through the first scrim of pines. And then we came to the brambles. Continue reading “The thicket”

In their naked frailty, unable to block the light

In December the sun rises through a copse of trees I can see through my front windows where I sit for morning prayer. Eleven months of the year I see the day dawn only indirectly, as the sun appears nearer due east or northward behind houses or thick pines, or not at all, in the height of summer when the sun is up long before I am. But at the failing of the year the trees stand bare and thin, invisible in the night until the sky lightens behind them, pale at first then golden, the silhouetted branches growing imperceptibly starker until they stretch strong and firm to greet the day. In their naked frailty, unable to block the light, they let it shine through and are strengthened by it. At the failing of the year the dawn is framed for me thus by my window, a promise: The light will ever return, if only we let it.

The river slips softly / into the dusk of the year

The Eno River at dusk in autumn

Looking eastward down the Eno River, somewhere along Holden Mill Trail, about four-thirty in the afternoon in early November.

On certain autumn afternoons there is a brief passage — if you are lucky you may get ten minutes to appreciate it — when the sun has drifted low and the afternoon breeze has calmed and the light reflects off the surface of the river as from a mirror, doubling the trees and the intensity of their lingering color, and the earth gives the illusion of brightness. The season and the hour have so muted the wood’s palette that the russet of late-hanging leaves calls louder than crimson in June. The sudden splash of gold away downstream beckons like summer’s lost oasis. But the bare arms of sycamore and ironwood make a stark fence against it, and it recedes from my approach — the light, the afternoon, the year. The vestigial warmth of summer dissipates like a mist; winter seeps from the earth and fills its absence. Continue reading “The river slips softly / into the dusk of the year”

A crumbling sanctuary of dawn-lit leaves

The east window of my study looks out through a scrim of trees to the neighbor’s golf-green yard and the street and, further on, a young wood of mostly pines. The trees close by appear only as vertical trunks, their leaves cropped out by the window’s frame, but a dogwood leans out low from their shadow and shelters the view with its foliage. For a few short weeks in early fall, when the leaves of the dogwood blushed but still clung to their limbs, the morning light set their edges glowing red-gold, and past their brilliant outlines I could see only the fuzzy blue-green shadow of distant pines. The study became a sanctuary enfolded by copper light, beyond which the world was made misty, unfocused, irrelevant.

That effect lasted only an hour each morning and for two or three weeks. By mid-morning the sun had climbed high enough to light the leaves of the backdrop woods; by the second week of October the dogwood’s leaves had thinned and let the world through in too much clarity. The sanctuary is crumbling now, and what remains is only a relic, like the cracked foundations of an ancient church now open to air and birdflight, in which I sit wondering if God really lived here once.

I got a lot of work done during those weeks.

On fallen leaves

A carpet of decay, as finely woven
As any ancient treasure dearly bought,
And lovelier for being more ephemeral:
All the artisans of Kublai Khan
In all the workshops of a mythic continent
Could not invent geometry so fair
As seven fallen oak leaves. Yet no one sees,
So none stand guard to make me wipe my feet
Before I walk on it.