Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ode to the Madrone

            When I first came to the Siskiyou Mountains, almost fifty years ago, I, like everyone I know who first comes here, marveled at the beauty of the tall, red-trunked trees throughout the woods. I thought them so beautiful! But I quickly learned that long-time residents didn’t think so highly of them. “Madrones,” I was told dismissively, “– they’re weed trees.”
            Now I, too, am a long-time resident, and I see that madrones do sprout around cut trunks like weeds and that maybe if you’re in the timber business, you think they take space in a forest that would be more useful for growing Douglas fir. Some people think the only good madrone is a dead madrone, since it makes the best firewood – longer burning than fir, pine, or cedar; cleaner than oak (less ash); less deadly hot than manzanita. Nonetheless, I love madrone trees, with their four-star beauty – visual, tactile, olfactory, and audial.
            No tree trunk in the forest is more beautiful the madrone’s. The shaggy old bark, found mostly at the lower end of the tree, dark brown, sometimes almost black, contrasts with the smooth skin growing under it that is replacing it, pushing it aside, leaving it behind as the tree stretches upward.

This new skin is orange-red in one tree, orange-green in another, pink in another, sometimes almost white. The old bark splits and recedes to make way for the new, a woolly coat over silky-smooth shoulders. To run your hand down a madrone trunk is a journey of textures: smooth as silk, scaly as a lizard’s skin. Some new skins blend pinks, oranges, reds, browns, and greens so thoroughly they run together as in an oil painting. While hiking, I entertain myself for miles trying to find words for these colors.

            The madrone is the ballet dancer of the woods. Its elongated trunks dance around other trees and themselves; its sinewy limbs stretch into pliés and arabesques. 

Sinuous limbs bend with ease and grace into chevroned shapes, stretching for the light (scientifically) or for the joy of being alive in the forest (anthropomorphically). Sometimes the skin of the madrone is stretched so tight, I can see the muscles underneath, sinewy and rippling. Sometimes the tree demands ritualistic homage for its shape, its color, its textures.


            In early summer Madonna-white blossoms on female madrones emit a tropical scent. By autumn those blossoms have given way to Christmas-red berries. I have decorated a holiday table with madrone berries. I have strung madrone berries as beads. I have seen bear scat on the trail full of seeds of madrone berries.
            Many trees produce music when the wind whistles through them or rustles their leaves. Sometimes on a windy day, the tall firs and pines seem to talk to each other with their creaks and squeals as they rub against one another. But the madrone is the only tree I know that produces music all on its own.
            I heard this delicate serenade one hot, dry day in September, when I was standing in a wood of mixed conifers and madrones and heard a thin crackling, like a shower of very fine, broken, crystal glass or the violins at the beginning of The Rite of Spring: ch-ch-ch-ch. If the crows’ feet that break out around smiling eyes made sound, it would be like that. But nothing was moving. As though in an enchantment, the tiny music seemed sourceless. Suddenly, then, I broke through the veil of mystery as my eyes focused on the madrone trunks in front of me, with their layers of older, darker bark, shaggy and brittle, curls that had dried and hardened, and the newly split, green bark beginning to curl back, exposing the beautiful red underneath. What I was hearing was the tinkling music of madrone bark splitting.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Spring Snow Surprises

              I awoke this morning to a beautiful snowfall whitening the world outside my window. Snow had been predicted at 5000 feet, but here I am at 2600 feet, surprised and delighted at this last gasp of winter.
           However, it hasn’t made me recite the Lord’s Prayer, as another mid-April snowfall did, in 2007. I was in graduate school then, and I was driving across the mountains to Lincoln City, on the Oregon coast, to give a lecture for the AAUW. As bizarre as it was to be making a slow and treacherous way through a snowstorm in April, it was equally bizarre, to me, to be reciting the Lord’s Prayer as I did. My professor in Old English had given his students an assignment to memorize the Lord’s Prayer in 10th century English. He wanted us to learn to pronounce Old English with the inflections and rhythms of native speakers, as though Old English were still the living language it once was, with all the beauty of its intonations and vocabulary. Memorizing the Lord’s Prayer, with its gracious prose, he thought, was a good place to begin.
            The Lord's will, which I had asked to be done as I drove over the snowy hills, must have been that I arrive safely at my destination, but not necessarily that I arrive on time. I was supposed to be at the meeting place at 6:00 for dinner, but the program chair had estimated I would begin my talk around 7:15, so it wouldn't matter if I were a bit late, or so I told myself as I watched the minutes click by faster than the miles. Later and later – past 6:00, past 6:15, past 6:30, 6:35, 6:45, 6:50. Finally, at 7:05, I walked into the meeting. People were so relieved to see me they broke into applause. With that sympathetic an audience, my talk went well.
             I stayed the night with my host that night and awoke the next morning to a thicker snowfall and three inches of accumulation. I left early, anxious about treacherous roads and about arriving in time to teach at Rogue Community College, but not so anxious about the roads that I couldn't enjoy the beauty through which I was driving and not so anxious about the time that I couldn't stop at a viewpoint to stand in the snowfall and watch the ocean foam white onto the beach. With the rocks and seaside vegetation also white with snow and a white sky hulking overhead, I was looking on as monochrome a landscape as I have ever seen. But the roads were as dangerous as before and the hills as steep, and, again, as I drove, the Lord's Prayer rose to my lips:
            Fæder ure, thu the eart on heofunum. 
            Si thin nama gehalgod. 
           Gewurthe thin wylla on eaorthan 
           swa swa on heofunum. 
            Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf sylla us to dæg. 
            And forgyf us ure gyltas 
            swa swa we forgyfath urum gyltendum. 
            And ne læth thu us on costnunge, 
            ac alys us of yfele. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Cliché of Spring

            Spring is a cliché. Spring is such a cliché it makes me laugh, makes me shake my head in wonder that it happens every year the same, as though Nature has no tricks up her sleeve (the wily old woman; she has plenty): nothing new for this year, just the same old beginnings to tell us again that life is new.
            First the manzanita begins to bloom – tiny snow-pink bells ringing their silent peals between the evergreen leaves of the bushes: spring is coming, spring is coming, spring is coming; take heart, take heart, take heart. Winter and spring have been playing hide-and-go-seek for a month or so, but spring, inevitably, will win the game.
            Then the frogs begin to sing. Sing? Croak, crrrrreak, rivet, beroomp. Is that a song? Call that monotonous, unoiled, joyful croaking a chorus, maybe, a choral reading, the rhythmical combination of voices, but there is something undeniably unmusical about it. Far from the sweet strains of the violin, far from the dips and flights of the flute, far from the primitive evocation of the drums, this music can surely only be music to the ear of the frogs. But they revel in it, and so do I, so I’ll take their part and call it a song.
            And then, a few days ago, to complete the cliché, I saw lambs frolicking in the pasture – lambs, the tried and true symbol of spring, life recurring, life recycled.

            Clichés became clichés because they are true, because they hold in their almost hidden depths some essential truth of life, of human nature, of the quality of being and living. And so it is with spring. Summer, autumn, and winter are accepted as they come, one after the other, as the inevitable recurrence of the seasons, but somehow with spring the very cliché itself is that we are startled anew each year. The stillness of winter gradually passes into the activity which is the trademark of spring: bears begin to stir into life up on the ridge, sap rises in the trees, and my own blood runs with renewed force, my senses awaken to some primitive stirring of life in nature to which my being responds. My eyes look up. I stretch my muscles as I crawl out of hibernation and step outside the house into warm sunshine. I come to life. My heart expands with the warming weather like the swelling willow branches. My spirits rise with the new bird song, and I laugh at the frogs. I sing with them. I burst into life with the cliché of spring housecleaning. I wash the windows and beat the rugs. I bring out the shovel and the wheelbarrow. I put peas in the ground. Renew, renew, renew; the cycle has begun again.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Beastly Behavior

            I was in a shop the other day – no need to name it, but any woman who has been in it might recognize which shop it was – looking at some attractive serving trays painted with designs of olive trees, lemon groves, vegetables, and so on, when the proprietor of the shop approached and to my utter astonishment put his arm around my shoulders in an intimate manner and whispered in my ear, “It’s melamine.” He chuckled, tugged tighter, and whispered, “You remember melamine. All of us who were around then remember it.”

            I mumbled something incomprehensible, although to tell the truth, I had no idea what melamine was and I was so astonished at the intimacy of his salesmanship I didn’t know what to say. He whispered something else about the product, then was gone. Later, when I was looking at something else, he again scurried up and hugged me close to whisper something about it before darting off again.
            I mean, really! Hadn’t he been listening to the news? Wasn’t he aware that those are not socially acceptable behaviors towards women he doesn’t know – and even, depending on the woman and the circumstances, to some he does know? What right did he think he had to put his arm around me, a complete stranger, and whisper in my ear not only things about the product he was selling, but insinuations about my age? Incredulity was so great it blocked anger at the insult.  
            The man’s wife (I assume she was his wife) was watching him from behind the counter, eagle-eyed. Had she never said to him, at home, while she was preparing dinner, “You really shouldn’t treat our women customers like that,” to which he would have replied, “Oh, I’m not doing any harm. They like it.” And how would he know I didn’t like it? Would he have noticed my slight shrinking from his chummy arm? Maybe he thought I would be flattered by those attentions. I saw him put his arm around another woman customer, but I doubt he would do that to a male customer. When he chatted with a young couple also looking at items, he proved the salacious nature of his gestures with me by not putting his arm around this young woman. Her male companion was a barrier.

            I could have made a scene by demanding he take his hands off me (“You beast!”), and I probably at least should have turned immediately and walked out of the store, but I continued to browse, and in the end, because I liked it, not because I had been flattered into buying it by the selling techniques of the store owner, I bought the melamine tray, the one with a large olive tree spreading its branches over half the plate. Every time I look at it, I see, in the thick olive-green branches, a pruriently peering, luridly lurking satyr.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Lion and the Lamb of March

            Oh, how the March lion roared last night, flexing her muscle and exhibiting her power as the wind hurtled down the ridge. This morning she must be sitting satisfied on the mountain, licking her paws, letting the rain fall thickly, watching the snow deepen on the ski trails.
            What has happened to the lamb? He was here earlier this month, several times, bringing to the valley daffodils, primroses, and pink blossoming trees; to the woods fawn lilies, shooting stars, and hound’s tongue; everywhere sunshine, warm temperatures, and blue skies, only to be chased away by the lion again and again. He must be hiding in the trees at the edge of the pasture this morning, shivering with cold. He only has a week to reappear, if he is going to usher March out.
            But maybe I shouldn’t put too much faith in the wise sayings of old. It’s true that March came in like a lion this year, but there’s no guarantee the lion won’t see March out, too. There’s no more assurance that March will come in like a lion and go out like a lamb than that a groundhog's shadow on February 2 means there will be six more weeks of winter. How can we believe the saying, anyway, since Alaska will surely have more than six weeks of winter, whether February 2 is a clear day or not, and spring in Pennsylvania, where the saying originated, surely comes later than it does in Georgia?
            “Red sky at night: sailors’ delight. Red sky in the morning: sailors take warning” is a proverb I pay attention to, and, apparently, there’s some truth to it, as meteorologists explain with details too complex to go into here. However, on a camping trip long ago, when I was still naïve about backpacking and about weather, too, I guess, as I had depended on Oregon’s fair summer weather and hadn’t packed a tent, I looked at a pink evening sky, repeated the proverb, and went to sleep in the open air instead of setting up a tarp for shelter. Later that night I woke up with a light rain pelting my face. At that point I added a verse to the proverb: “If the sky is pink, better think.”
            The new moon in the old moon’s arms is supposed to indicate fair weather, a conclusion easy to understand, since visibility is good when there are no clouds or fog, whether we’re looking across the mountains or into the sky. My delight in seeing this phenomenon doesn’t have anything to do with knowing the weather will be fair tomorrow but because that shimmering silver crescent with the thin rim of light around the black bulb that is the moon is so beautiful. The astronomers tell us we are seeing the dark part of the moon, but what I am seeing is the new moon in the old moon’s arms.  

            The lion of winter will come as she will, then she will leave and let the lamb have the day. I have known years when I’m building a fire in the stove in June. Snow on Easter Day is not unusual in southern Oregon. A long, wet spring might sound dreary, but foul weather is beautiful when we know it’s helping a 50-percent-less-than-normal rainfall catch up to normal. And, inevitably, the lamb will chase the lion away. Spring always comes.