Dancing Trees

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The Gnome has enjoyed playing a woodlands game with our grandchildren during their respective toddlerhoods. He’ll pick them up, hold them in his arms, and place their ears next to one of the large trees in our small forest. “Shh,” he’ll say, in his own hushed voice. “Listen.” After a few pregnant seconds, he asks if they can hear the tree.

Inevitably, they do. Is the unfettered imagination of childhood innocence at work, or are the sounds real? Whatever, watching a small child’s eyes light up, a grin spreading across a lollipop-cheeked face—such moments are pure magic.

On these spring days and nights when the wind skims across the peaks of our mountains in its furious attempt to get who-knows-where, it leaves a few things in its wake.

The crack of still-bare limbs clanging against each other as if they’re engaged in some ancient battle, wooden branches as swords, breaks the silence. Sometimes, one cuts the other to the quick, sending it crashing through other branches on the way to its final destination below.

The wind has an entirely different effect on other trees. Norway spruce and Fraser firs we once imagined growing into a profitable Christmas tree business overwhelmed us—and everything else around. Today, they are jolly evergreen giants, having grown to eighty feet or more, long branches drooping under their own verdant weight.

Wind bends, but never breaks, these resilient trees. Instead, they nod their heads to each other in rhythmic time, their outstretched branches bowing and swaying as if in some sort of complicated old folk dance. It seems they’re almost smiling, wordlessly saying, “It’s okay. I’ve got you covered.”

And they have, in a way. In such close proximity, each supports and shelters its neighbors from the wind’s potential danger. Even more, they create a haven for the wildlife that give us so much pleasure: deer, bears, the squirrels who race through branches in the height of their springtime romantic frenzies, hoppy rabbits, stripey skunks, and of course, the myriad songbirds who seek solace and grow little bird families in the protection of their branches.

 

The long, graceful, ballerina arms of our tallest neighbors wave at me through the glass door that defends me from wind’s ravages. They invite me to join their happy dance. And I do, if only with a smile as I wave back.

Summertime

(Well, this is embarrassing. For reasons too complicated to explain here, I’m not sure whether the following piece is mine or if it’s a compilation of some of my fellow writers. Logic dictates it’s mine, yet it doesn’t feel as familiar as it should. But since summer, in all its fullness, is officially just around the bend, I want to share. So, here goes—with sincere apologies if I’ve inadvertently plagiarized.)

Summertime

Summer is the most voluptuous season.

Summer is like

. . . a rainbow, bright and colorful after a dark storm;

. . . . wide open spaces with no boundaries;

. . . imagination with endless possibility.

Summer is like like the blinding light of a camera flash, the scent of singed skin, the music of Beethoven; it’s like life at full maturity—gone is the perky innocence of youth as hints of age peek through its brilliance.

Summer is like lemonade—sunshiny bright, sweet and tangy, liquid in a sweating glass.

Weeds Are Flowers, Too!

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” ―A.A. Milne

I love this quote, and it’s so true. Another equally true saying is “Weeds are plants whose virtues we haven’t yet learned.” Many decades ago, The Gnome and I discovered that the hundreds of wild purple violets popping up in our back yard could be turned into jelly, as delicately eye-popping as it was tasty.

Dandelion is the bane of many a gardener and lawn-lover, but it is actually an herb worthy of respect—a cheery little plant with more uses than you can count on all your fingers, whether culinary, medicinal, or otherwise. You can use virtually all parts of the plant, though you’ll want to avoid the sticky stems.

Dandelions are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. With the leaves, you can make everything from salad greens to classic Irish colconnon to quiche.

Did you know dandelions aren’t native to the U. S., but were imported by European immigrants for their culinary and medicinal uses?

Last year, we made the most exquisitely subtle syrup from the flowers. I’d have been hard pressed to tell it apart from honey. Dandelion tea and wine are other favorites. Dry the root for a coffee substitute. Fresh roots can be used instead of or alongside other root crops. Make a hand lotion or moisturizer from the flowers. Pollinators love dandelions.  And who can forget the sheer joy of blowing on a dandelion puff?

Lamb’s quarters fill the fields with buttery yellow blossoms in springtime. Just before they get to that stage, the stems can be harvested and eaten as a broccoli substitute. And the young leaves make an excellent addition to a green salad.

Chickweed, invasive as it can be, is another nutritious green. Add spinach-y chickweed stems, flowers, and leaves to salads or cook them up like other greens.

Star chickweed is only one of  twenty-five varieties of Stellaria, a member of the carnation family. All are edible and all except the mouse-eared variety can be eaten raw. 

By looking at so-called weeds through a different lens, we can find beauty, peace of mind, and functionality. Not to mention a veritable grocery store in our own back yards.

* If you’re thinking of joining the foraging movement, find yourself a good field guide that will also alert you to similar-looking but unfriendly plants. You’ll also want to (1) ask permission before foraging on private property; and (2) avoid areas that have been exposed to chemical pesticides or herbicides as well as roadsides. They retain automotive emissions you wouldn’t want to ingest.

 

 

 

A Mountain of Wildflowers

 

The early July day we drove onto our property for keeps is a day I’ll never forget. The four-acre meadow was white, covered with native oxeye daisies—my favorite. There were enough black-eyed Susans thrown in for variety, but not enough to take away the impression of snowy summer field.

At that time, we had no idea how many different wildflowers would grace us each year. We had to live through a full year to see it all. More, actually—a few, like jack-in-the-pulpit, can be hard for the novice to spot in a wooded landscape.

We didn’t know the following May and June would bring rhododendron blossoms throughout these mountains or that June-blooming flame azaleas dotted our property with mountain laurel following close behind. We’d never heard of fire pinks, which are actually blazing red. Red bee balm and both yellow and orange-spotted touch-me-nots are summer-to-fall natives.

Milkweed, Joe-pye weed, and ironweed (none of which should have the word weed attached to them) add varying hues of purple to the landscape. Open fields turn yellow when wild mustard, common ragwort, and evening primroses bloom.

The list goes on from March’s trillium to October’s purple asters—not to mention the many varieties of ferns, mushrooms, mosses, and lichens that share this land with us. But we all know pictures tell a story much more eloquently than words. Enjoy the two slideshows below.

 

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Evensong

Evensong*

I sit on my deck,
cup of lavender tea in hand
and listen to the plangent call
of mourning doves.

I hear the wind roar
through our towering
Norway spruce
and stand in awe.

I see the lambent end of day
as sun descends behind mountain’s crest,
morphing our valley’s verdant concavity
into opulent ambers and golds with its radiance.

I watch as crows
fly into the forest to roost,
their incantatory cawing
calling the rest of their crowd home.

I ruminate on the meaning,
the purpose, of life.
This is the moment
when my mind oscillates

from doubt to faith,
from faith to doubt,
and back again.

Nature’s wisdom
obfuscates my skepticism;
the concatenation of human suffering and natural beauty
overwhelms me.

*Note: I participated in a phenomenal writing workshop a while back. Our facilitator presented us with a list of fourteen words—some common, some not so common—to incorporate into a story or poem of our own making.  See if you can identify them in my poem. (Hint: look for 4 adjectives, 4 verbs, 6 nouns.)

Trees

Trees

“I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” —Joyce Kilmer, “Trees”

It may not the be one of the world’s great poems, but the sentiment rings true. Poems are just . . . well, poems. But trees! Trees are magnificent. The oldest known non-clonal living tree is a Great Basin bristlecone pine. At more tan 5,000 years old, it resides in California.

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It may not look it, but this 5,000 year-old bristlecone is still living. (Public domain photo by Mark Wilson.)

As old as many bristlecones are, they’re not all that tall, ranging from 16 to 49 feet. The award for tallest tree goes to one of those gargantuan redwoods we grew up learning about. There’s a Coast Redwood, also in California, that’s just twenty feet shy of being 400 feet tall.

Then there’s the General Sherman giant sequoia in—you guessed it—California, the largest known living tree by volume, at more than 52,000 cubic feet. A wild fig tree located in Mpumalanga, South Africa has roots that go down 400 feet—that’s a deeper root system than the above-ground height of the General Sherman.

Honors for the tree with the largest diameter (38.1 feet) go to El Arbol del Tule, a cypress in Oaxaca, Mexico. Its circumference is a whopping 137+ feet. It would take about 25 adults standing in a circle, arms outstretched, fingertips touching, to reach around that tree. To put that in perspective, it would only take 18 of those same people to encircle our home, with its 24 x 26´ footprint.

About those clonal trees. If you’re like me, you’ve never heard of clonal and non-clonal trees, so here’s a lesson in a nutshell, so to speak. A non-clonal tree is an individual tree, just like you and I are individual people. A clonal tree, though, is a colony of genetically identical trees. The individual trees originate vegetatively from a single ancestor instead of sexually. So, when we talk about the age of a clonal colony, we’re really talking about the root system. Since the entire colony is part of a single root system, the whole is considered in determining age and weight. Pando, a colony of single Quaking Aspen located in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, is at least 80,000 years old (by some estimates as much as 1,000,000 years old) and weighs an estimated 6,000 tons, making it both the world’s oldest known clonal tree and its heaviest known organism.

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Pondo Quaking Aspen colony, Fishlake National Forest, Utah (Public domain photo, US Government)

These are the exceptions, of course, and there’s more to trees than their age or size or weight. Trees provide shelter and food. They cool us with their shade. When they’re downed, they provide heat in stoves and fireplaces. And let’s not forget that they absorb carbon dioxide and provide life-sustaining oxygen for us humans. Remember those 18 people surrounding my home? An acre of trees produces enough oxygen to let them breathe for an entire year.

See? I wasn’t exaggerating when I said trees are magnificent. Yes, poems are just words. Trees are the real poetry.

Here’s some tree poetry in photographs (all photos taken by the Gnome or the Crone).

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(Note: The statistics referenced above came various crosschecked online sources. Occasionally, there’s some contradictory information out there, but the point remains the same.)