Sunday, December 18, 2011

Winter Comes to Quincy

I step outside today, it’s late morning, the sun is shining brightly, and my breath immediately forms a steamy veil that covers my face. It’s shockingly cold. Impossibly cold. Not really, of course, since it’s December and the thermometer reads a seasonable 28 degrees. But it feels like another world to me, after a month of forties and occasional fifties.
But it’s not only me. The leaves of the rhododendron bush lose their greeny soul to a deep, sub-freezing night and droop. Warmer temperatures will bring them back; colder nights will cause them to pull all the moisture in their cells inward to try to preserve it from freezing.
Cold nights mean big days at the bird feeder too. After putting the feeder away for the summer we’re back to buying bird feed again, black-shelled sunflower seeds, which so far have drawn a busy tribe of little brown sparrows. One of them has a patch of red on the back of his head, but he flocks with the others. A couple of tufted titmouse too today, gray and crested and swooping in to take their chances with the others. Underneath, the squirrels are busy and multiple.
To combat squirrels climbing up the feeder this year, we’ve come up with a mixture of oil and hot pepper which we brush on to the metal baffle and the curve of the pole right above it. Some squirrels fly – no other word for it – right over the baffle, brace their back feet on the pole, lean over to the feeding ring and suck the seed out of the feeding tube. Their oversized presence on the feeding ring scares away the birds, leaving us with the prospect of watching fat squirrels feed instead of happy, chirpy birds. So far an application of cayenne, chili pepper and sunflower oil seems to chase them away for a couple of weeks before wearing off.
So the winter routine begins.
But if the nights aren’t achingly cold and the wind’s not searing my lungs, I like to walk in them. Here’s a poem about early winter nights.

Winter Transit

Anybody know where this world is going?
On a chilly, brilliant winter night,
Chinese spices smarten up the air
The city bus hums nostalgically into my sight
Ten, twelve faces frozen in the light,
The very same ones every night
A rumble from behind, a second sighting
– a two-bus astronomical transit! –
Passing like ships in the night
Catty-corner, a calligraphed tree imprints its shadow
On the speechless pavement, while from on high
Jupiter’s celestial eye casts an unwavering gaze
On the first night of the first month of winter…
Only one hundred more such tales to follow
Everything changes the same

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Old American Elm Tree Awaits Execution

They live among fools.
The tree grew not far from our house, but a ways back from the main road. It had long grown on a considerable estate, shading a mansion which was taken down before we moved to town in preparation for a college expansion that was never built.
Recently the city bought the land where the tree still grows, shading the earth, cleansing the air, moderating the temperature, absorbing heat through the pulp of its tons of tree-matter. The city also bought a few other neighboring properties and knocked down an empty parochial school that stood on one of them, in preparation for building a needed new middle school. They city, or somebody working for the city, decided the job would be easier if they cut down the century-plus old tree American Elm Tree growing there in defiance of the Dutch elm disease plague that had taken almost all of its cohorts.
And so they said, the city’s spokesmen did, that the tree was dying and would have to be cut down. The tree does not appear to be dying, but perhaps a fool would not know what a healthy tree looks like. It grows a canopy of green leaves in the summer; it sheds them in the fall. In winter it holds its many limbs against the sky, one of nature’s more enduring candelabras of life.
But the city’s spokesmen aren’t really looking at a tree. They are saying what they have been told to say.
Then comes the cover-up. Who determined that the tree is dying and needs to be removed? It’s an obvious question. The answer comes that an arborist hired by someone working for the city said the tree has heart-rot and fungus and is dying.
The next question is also obvious. Who is the arborist? Can we see the report? The spokesmen don’t know. They say they will produce the report.
They produce a document written yesterday or the day before by someone who is not an arborist and does not evidence a professional knowledge of trees. The report does not say the tree is dying, but has some fungus, and is too close to the school and will probably be killed by the construction.
Obviously (again), this document is not the “report” on which a decision taken months ago could have been based. The likely inference is there never was a “report” by an arborist certified by the state of Massachusetts or any other one.
It’s just a story to fend off complaints. Sorry, couldn’t help it, had to cut down the tree. It’s diseased, you know, dying.
It’s a red herring.
The real reason? They want to cut down the tree, which plans show is located is the intended parking lot because it will be in the way when the builders start bringing in their machines. They don’t want to work around it. The real problem is the city doesn’t really have enough land to build this school.
This explanation sounds a little crass. It sounds better to say, too bad about the tree. We’d like to save it, but it’s sick. In fact it’s dying. Nothing can be done. It might fall down on the school. We have report, from an arborist (who? Wait a minnit, I must have the name here somewhere), which says so.
Here’s a poem called “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer, who died in action during World War I:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

It’s one of the best-loved poems of the American people.
Stylistically, this is greeting card verse. If you analyze its workings, simple da-dum rhythm, end rhymes, breath of vocabulary, it’s nursery rhyme simple. But every red-blooded American has liked this poem since its publication 100 years ago, particularly if they don’t like poetry in general (which was almost every red-blooded American for the last 100 years hasn’t).
Why do we all like it? Because it’s so obviously true. Because it speaks to something deep in us.
But not only are poems made by fools like me, so are political calculations, city hall press releases, building plans, and even needed schools.
For well over a hundred years, perhaps a hundred and fifty, the American Elm on Hancock Street has lived among fools, whom it tries to protect from the excess carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases our fossil-fuel driven society has put into the atmosphere. We overheat the atmosphere. The tree takes CO2 out of the air, which cools it, and releases oxygen, which we breathe. Its roots absorb runoff. It’s shade lowers the temperature. Its beauty raises spirits and, by the way, property values.
Now it is condemned to die among fools who fail to recognize its value.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Indoor Fun

Now that’s December and I don’t have much to do in the garden any more, indoor activities assume greater deal of importance. For instance, one activity I’ve grown particularly fond of is asking myself why am I sitting at my desk so often staring absently at a screen.
Do I think my computer screen is a garden? Do I think it will start “blooming” if I look at it long enough?
Windows, I mean real ones, not the virtual/digital/computer meaning of “windows,” a term that encompasses the ever-increasing universe of “pictures” or “pages” or “screens” (or, redundantly, “windows”) which do in fact, in some sense, “bloom” on your computer once you start playing with it and saying “Yes! Yes! Yes!” (click, click, click) to the options, opportunities and offers afforded to you by the determinedly (even ruthlessly) indoor world of the internet….
So, no, that’s not what I mean by windows…. Windows, the real ones, become increasingly important the more time we spend indoors.
But don’t you, btw, love the digital, virtual vocabulary that has grown in our Age of the Screen? “Virtual” (along with “windows”) may be the best and most searching of these new usages. We can now have virtual lives. Virtual used to mean “sort of the real thing” or “close to the real thing” or “you really can’t tell the difference, can you?” That’s what we mean when we say something is “virtually the same,” isn’t it? But when we take a “virtual tour” of some place where we’re thinking of staying, for example, is it really anything like the same?
I suspect many people in our increasingly indoor lives have already figured out how to ‘grow’ a virtual ‘garden’ on a screen – a notion that’s just occurred to me. I’m about to say how pictures are great, I take them all the time, but a picture of a garden, or a plant, is not virtually the real thing… (but I think I’ll stop right there).
As for the real garden, it’s a very quiet place these days; and too cold for someone of my delicate sensibilities to spend much time in these days. When it comes to cold, I wish I were made of sterner stuff. Instead…
Windows, as I started to say, those actual glass portals on the world beyond, have assumed a centrality to my days that goes beyond their many valuable uses such as letting in the light, and the solar heat (especially now). They also have the practical use of allowing me to spy on our neighborhood. I can put this more positively by saying “check up on” or “keep tabs on” the neighborhood, with the implication that somebody might some day need our help. But mostly we’re looking for stimulus, sensory information. I may not want to go out there right now, as I would have up to a month ago, but I sure as heck want to see those birds outside our kitchen window competing like mad for a peck at the bird feeder. (The squirrels? Not so much.)
Even when there’s “nothing going on” to our fight-or-flight programmed, motion-detection senses, the greater world outside our window companions us. The sun shines, and we miss it if it doesn’t. The wind chimes sing through the seasons – until the gusts of winter storms make us bring them indoors. The rain threatens; or lets up. The traffic bounces over the “sink hole” in front of the house caused by the last repaving.
And for the last three weeks or, one of our national energy monopolies has cooperated by staging a long-running performance of “Let’s dig up the streets and plant new gas lines!”… a traditional neighborhood favorite any time of year.
It’s a garden of machines.
So now when I step outdoors to take in the sunset, every December day’s greatest show, I can get a photo of “Twilight over the backhoe.” Or the dump truck. Or the dirt pile with funny orange cones. Or the little tent with the plastic roof cleverly erected to permit digging tie-ins on a rainy day.
Yes, the world beyond my window is virtually a garden of enchantments. It’s just not the same.