There is a tree in my yard that died a while back. (Can you guess which one it is?) It is largely stripped of its bark, long ago lost all its branches, and so stands bare and denuded even in the most glorious spring. While in the winter it can pretend to blend in with the starkness all around, in the summer it stands apart, a skeleton amid the fleshy forest.
What to do with it is the question. I must admit, we have been tempted to take it down, to remove what some see as an eyesore in the vibrant woods of new growth, with herds of deer, squirrels, foxes, hawks and more. For the most part, only laziness and procrastination have saved that tree. But in Tom Wessels’ lovely book, Reading the Forested Landscape, I learned about the value of what are called standing snags.
Wessels is a consummate teacher. After years of leading people through the forested landscape of New England, and showing them how to read a place’s history through the telltale signs of the woods, he gathered together in this book a series of virtual walks that offers the reader the second best thing to being with him.
As chance would have it, a year after I bought the book, I had the privilege of accompanying Tom on a walk through the woods at a retreat in the mountains of New England. What he could see, what he could learn, from a mound, a stump, a crack in bark, a rock outcropping, was nothing short of amazing. He is a Sherlock Holmes of the woods. How much richer the world would look to us all if we could see the way he sees.
He tries to give us some of his vision in his book. It was there that I learned that standing snags should not be seen as the end of a tree’s existence, should not be disposed of to make room for others, but are yet another part of a tree’s life-giving life-cycle. Snags provide homes and shelter for birds and small animals, easier and more accessible food sources for woodpeckers and nuthatches, useful perches and outlooks for all who desire.
Depending on how you look at them, snags have a beauty all their own. Stripped of their bark, their inner wood is exposed, revealing the qualities and textures that were, of necessity, covered over during their active lives. In death, through these snags, the full strength and nature of a tree can be revealed. Why it looked the way it did, why it leaned or bent or knotted when and where it did, can now be shown.
A fitting metaphor, it seems, for people. The snag is akin to our legacy, the life-giving remnants of our well-lived lives. If we are lucky, we are able to enjoy robust years, full of growth and splendor and vitality. If things go well, in our lifetimes we will seed and experience many adventures, anchor a community, refuel its resources, offer it shelter and safety, be held close and cherished by those around us.
But if we are luckier still, even after we die, our gifts will not cease. Like the snag, we can leave a life-giving legacy. For some of us, it may be through our wealth; for others, through our songs, our inventions, our discoveries, our words. It may be through our stories, our laughter, our recipes, or our kindness. And in death, perhaps, the reasons for why we were the way we were, and the impulses for why we acted the way we did, will be able to be seen a bit more clearly, and if necessary, compassionately.
That, in a way, is what a yahrzeit is, the annual remembrance of a loved one’s life marked on the anniversary of their death. It is the celebration of their snag, their remnant and memory that continue to stand in our presence, giving us shelter and comfort, the reminder of all their many gifts, a better understanding of who they really were.
I will leave the snag standing in our yard, adorning our woods, blessing our home.
My home-office window faces east. I like tracking the north/south migration of the sun through it over the course of the year. It is an awesome experience to remember that months ago, as I sat working early morning, the sky was dark. Not even the earliest rays of dawn broke the loosening strands of night. And when the sun finally deigned to make its appearance, it rose behind my back, over my left shoulder, and stayed low on the horizon.
But today, the morning is already bright, the sunlight brushing the tops of the trees in my neighbor’s yard. Sunlight is peeking into my living room, off to my right, which has a northern exposure. I cannot even see the sun from my office window (an extension of the house hides it). It will be a few hours before the sun makes its way far enough south to shine on me.
We all know this phenomenon, but it was only recently that I learned of the extraordinary path the sun traces in the sky as it makes it annual trek. The sun does not, as I imagined, follow a single arc, north and south, retracing its steps as it reverses direction. Rather, for reasons that are quite beyond me (though you can find lots of friendly explanations on the web that lull you in to a meadow of understanding for the first few paragraphs and then abruptly thrust you into a forest of confusion, with numbers and concepts that darken the mind; well, my mind at least), the sun traces a route that looks like a lop-sided figure-eight.
The image at the top of this post is a year-long, time-lapse photograph, showing the annual path the sun. It is called an analemma. The shape never ceases to amaze me. Yet for the very first time, this year, just today, it conjured up something new in my mind. This year, it looks to me like a ribbon tied up in a bow. It is as if the whole earth were a present, with the sky its wrapping, and the sun the bow that ties it all together. It is as if a celestial being so treasured and cherished us, and the world we live and depend upon, that we all have been made into a gift. Everyone of us, all together, on this planet which is our home.
This question then calls to us: a gift to whom, from whom, for what purpose? I guess that is the mystery we are here to discover.
Unexpected music accompanies me at the moment. The rain tapping on the roof echoes my fingers tapping on the keyboard. Or perhaps it is the other way around. An improvised jam session of writing and raining. An intertwining of nature and culture through these accidental, gentle sounds. Pretty neat.
Avram and I had planned to go to Longwood Gardens to see what late spring brings to those who work hard coaxing glories from the earth. It was to have been a belated celebration of my birthday. But then it decided to rain. We have rescheduled our trip.
A while ago, for my fiftieth birthday, we had planned to take a week off from work, five day-trips, touring around the mid-Atlantic, checking out parks, hiking and spending all our time outdoors. It rained. All week. Non-stop.
Not to be stymied or bested by nature, I decided to put that week in the bank, safely deposited in the vaults of time to be withdrawn and celebrated sometime in the future when the sun is shining and we are able. It is still there, waiting to be redeemed.
Many years ago, my husband and I were to be married outdoors, in the biblical garden of a synagogue, under the shining dome of the heavens. We weren’t. It rained. Poured. The wedding was held indoors.
This seems to be a pattern to the celebrations of our lives. We even had a favorite book in our family, about a pig, a parrot and a potto who lived in a tropical rain forest. Every day they tried to have a tea party at 4:00 pm. And every day their tea party was rained out, ruined. The book was called, appropriately, And It Rained.
But Judaism knows how to comfort us: rain is a blessing, it tells us. Time and again at our wedding, people sidled up to us, put their arms around us, leaned in close and whispered, “Rain is a blessing.”
And indeed it is.
The Bible speaks of the blessing of rain, earth’s nourishment, conferred as a gift from God in return for our faithfulness. “If you listen obediently to my commandments that I command you this today, to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, He will send the rain (matar) for your land in its season, the early rains (yoreh) and the late rains (malkosh), that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. He will give you grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 11 and the second paragraph of the Sh’ma.)
This theology of causality, imagining that human behavior determines the weather we experience, seemed more far-fetched, even quaint or primitive, a few decades ago. But with human behavior now affecting the earth’s climate, Deuteronomy’s theology reads like a cautionary tale. We cannot control the ways of rain, but we can influence them. Not on such an immediate, day-to-day basis, to be sure. But our collective behavior is affecting the weather as climate changes over the course of time.
What, then, are the commandments we are bidden to obey so we may reap the blessings of rain and not its curses? What shall we do to earn the gift of abundance, know an end to hunger and enough for all? It is this: to live justly within the bounds of earth’s renewing capacity; to be sated with enough; to avoid waste; to share with those who are in need the wealth bequeathed to us by living well. Yes, also, we must study and learn the ways of nature, discover how to safely resist pests and rebuild the soil, how to produce bulging harvests without poisoning the land, how to get the produce quickly and safely to the market. Like the rain and my typing, nature and culture need to work well together to yield the greatest blessing.
If we can learn to do that, then, hopefully, the rain will come in its due season, yielding the fruit of the earth, and not fail to come, or come too often or be too much. And may it always be the background music exciting our creations, urging our souls and enabling our bodies to dance.
Less than a mile north of my home a tributary flows. It is a stream really, a creek, just a few feet wide, one you can easily miss if you pass it in a car, driving over it, as I usually do. But 2 or 3 summers ago, I decided to brave the narrow, sidewalk-less, shoulder-less, tree-flanked road that passes by my street and then dramatically plunges into Greenspring Valley, and walk around in the valley for a bit. It was only then that I discovered the stream. And it was only this year that I learned that it feeds directly into the Jones Falls River.
This little bit of our watershed, where the rains from my neighborhood gather, runs eastward, passing through a series of private properties, many of them several acres large. The valley is sparsely populated here, with some of the land still zoned and used to raise crops and animals, echoes of the dairy farms that once flourished here. There is no public access to the stream that I know of, which is a pity, for the stream is cool and gurgley, and relaxing to be beside.
Things were different a century ago. In 1917, Isobel Davidson, then Supervisor of the Primary Grades in Baltimore County, enlisted the aid of schoolchildren to produce a book entitled, Real Stories from Baltimore County History. Interviewing family members and neighbors whose memories went back before the Civil War, these children captured snippets of real life lived in the valley among the early clusters of white settlers.
Some of their stories are charming; some less than flattering. (Slavery was, sadly, alive and well in this neck of the woods. But while the book doesn’t mention it, local lore has it that the farm where my house now sits served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. I hope that is so.)
The book tells the story of an area in the valley called Chattolanee, located about a mile and a half upstream. For almost 30 years, Chattolanee was the site of a country hotel, built in the 1890’s, with over 100 rooms and 13 cottages. It was a health resort, of sorts, a refuge from the hot and crowded city, serviced by a railroad that ran alongside the stream. (I know of two of the old railroad stations still standing. One serves as an office for an architectural firm, one as a private home. There is something irresistible about old railway stations. The faint echo of all those comings and goings. The contradiction of stillness and movement. The ghosts and stories of people passing through. But more on that another time.)
Near the hotel ran the fresh, clear springs that gave the valley its name. To service the people who couldn’t come to the springs, a water-bottling company was set up to bring the springs to the people. At its height, it processed 700 gallon-bottles an hour (in re-usable glass bottles, of course), loaded them on the train and sold them in the city. (A harbinger of a whole, contested industry to come.) No doubt, a more sophisticated history of Baltimore county could tell us more.
I love knowing these things - all of it, the good and the bad - about the place I call home. I love learning about the natural and cultural history of the land I occupy.
Once upon a time, people knew the land directly. They walked it, worked it, drew food and fuel and water from it. Today, we skate upon the land, glide above its surface. For most of us, the only way we can know the land is indirectly, through memories and stories, like the ones in this book.
That’s not the best way to become intimate with place, but if that’s the best we have, let’s run with that. If we work the stories the way people used to work the land, if we draw meaning and nourishment from them the way people used to personally draw sustenance directly from the earth, we too will find ourselves grounded, connected and caring for the place we call home. That seems like a good deal to me.
(I took the above photograph at the entrance to Greenspring Station, beside the Jones Falls River, which is visible in the background.)
Every human transaction comes bearing a lesson. Every acquisition brings with it a tale. Every purchase or gift, every exchange or glance, is a leading edge of some desire. Large or small. Fleeting or enduring. Frivolous or profound. Our lives, our passions, are displayed in our actions and our things.
So it is that Charlie asks me about my chain saw acquisition. (The saw was a welcome gift from Sid.)
After urging safety precautions, and sharing a power point presentation on safety tips, Charlie challenges me with questions. Not to dissuade or disenchant me, I am certain. But rather to encourage, strengthen and teach.
How will using this technology, he asks, affect my relationship with my wood, my trees, my neighbors, my sense of self?
How will this chain-saw bind me to those who use it for a living, help me see what they see, feel what they feel? How will this little chain saw change me, teach me, surprise me?
What will this technology contribute to my well-being and the well-being of others?
Will this technology reduce my footprint? help me be carbon neutral? enhance the place I live?
Truth be told, I don’t know. I just thought having and using a chain saw would be fun (it has raised some eyebrows and gotten people’s attention), and help me cut logs for my stove that are otherwise too big for me to manage.
But I appreciate Charlie’s thoughtful urgings. For indeed, as human transactions are windows on our desires, so our use of technology reveals the nature of our values.
To see what we believe, to see what we truly value, we need simply to watch what we do. Increasingly, though, we are discovering, as individuals and as society, that the habit of our behaviors is lagging behind the change in our values. What we do and what we value are increasingly mis-aligned.
We now know that we cannot live in a disposable society, that the concept of waste itself is unnatural, that our manufacturing and consumption habits are degrading the world, that the condition of the earth that we are handing off to our children is perilous, and that it is now time, indeed past time, that we do something about it.
So what does my chain saw have to do with this? Charlie’s questioning reminds me that everything we do, every breath we take, every move we make impacts the world. We cannot try to live on this earth leaving no trace. Everything leaves a trace - an ant’s foraging for food, a bacterium’s processing of matter, a whale’s breaching, a leaf’s falling. Genesis 2 tells us we are bidden to work the world, as well as to protect it. The commandment to observe Shabbat is coupled with a call to work six days a week.
We cannot leave the world untouched. What we can do is be mindful of the kind of traces we leave, be aware of the intentional and unintentional wake of our actions, and act in accord with our beliefs.
That is the gift of Charlie’s questions. I should carry them around in my pocket, put them on my keychain, as a constant reminder that prods me to ask: what is the impact of what I am doing?
Intentional living. Mindful living. Not a bad way to pass through one’s days.
In his enjoyable, informative little book, The Hidden Forest (given to me by my dear friend George), Jon Luoma writes the following:
“[F]orest ecosystems are as much about disturbance as they are about stability… the rich, even explosive diversity of life in a forest landscape often relies on what can seem like catastrophe to the human eye, or human spirit… [M]any kinds of ecosystems can only be reinvigorated and renewed when visited by a major disturbance.” (p. 130)
Some wetlands must endure drought so their aquatic species can germinate, despite the transient devastation such dry spells bring to local wildlife. Some old-growth trees must fall, taking with them everything in their way, creating vast swaths of loss in the forest. But in doing so, they open up the woodland to the necessary sunshine and space where saplings grow and flourish. Some forests must experience blazing fires that consume their accumulated debris and burst open the cones that release the seeds that will repopulate their aging timber.
I believe this is true for people as well.
Sometimes we grow stale, in ourselves and in our relationships. We fill up too much of our own space, are too set in our ways, take too much for granted to let in new light, new air, new life. So we slowly age, without anyone quite noticing the frozenness, the stagnation, even the decay that settles in. We slowly stop inspiring and stop nurturing the necessary change that we all need, in ourselves and those we love. Growth and vibrancy no longer stir.
It can happen in our work; it can happen in a friendship; it can happen in love. Reliable for and proud of our constancy, we fail to see that what we take for stability is easing into lethargy, and so our roots begin to rot and lose their hold on the land.
Then, a surprising, though perhaps threatening, gift comes our way: a disturbance so powerful that it ignites but does not consume us; that challenges but does not destroy us; that blows us down but does not break us up. It may be an illness, the loss of a job, or a natural disaster that upsets the way we have carefully constructed our lives. It may be a temptation, a dalliance or an unbidden love that pulls the rug out from under our feet.
No matter what, we are thrown for a loop. Our world becomes topsy-turvy.
But miraculously, what seems in the moment like a disturbance bringing destruction in its wake turns into an opportunity for much-needed renewal. We may never have sought it, never have asked for it, never even wanted it. But it is here nonetheless, and it is a gift.
And this happens not only in our personal lives, but in the lives of businesses, organizations, and nations as well. Upheaval and disturbance can be as necessary a part of life as security and protection. Remembering that may help us all get through the hard times.
My brother and I have this recurring conversation:
Me: Why can’t corporations and businesses act more responsibly? Why can’t they pay their CEOs less and their workers more? Why do they seek the cheapest off-shore or out-of-state labor, abandoning those places that require (or seek to require) better minimum wages, real environmental protection, corporate tax fairness, decent working conditions, and appropriate benefits?
Him: Because they’d be sued. Corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the profits of their shareholders. Period. End of story. Money - as measured in quarterly profits and dividends - is the premier arbiter of the corporations’ and officers’ performance.
Me: Okay. That is just wrong.
Him: Well, that’s the way it is.
End of conversation.
But now, things are different, at least here in Maryland, due to recent state legislation that legalizes B-Corporations - Benefit Corporations. These are hybrid business/social concern entities that build the mantra, the mandate, of doing-good-by-doing-well into their operational definition.
In the words of Little Green Submarine:
“When a corporation incorporates in Maryland as a Benefit Corporation, their expressed social or environmental purpose must be written into its bylaws. The Benefit Corporations must create a material positive impact on society, consider how decisions affect employees, community and the environment, and publicly report their social and environmental performance using established third-party standards.
The law does not give priority to one stakeholder over another – in many states shareholders are considered the primary stakeholder and decisions are based predominately on what is in their best interest. This law considers equal stakeholders to include: shareholders, employees, suppliers, customers, community, and environment.”
In other words, now, if a company incorporates as a B-Corporation, it can be sued if it does NOT bring material benefit to those designated stakeholders it seeks to assist. Making money will always be part of the equation. No one wins if businesses with good intentions fail. But B-Corporations proclaim that business should not only be about making money. It should also be about being a good citizen and contributing to social well-being.
It’s about time. In this next round of sustainable activism, we will need business more than ever to take a leading role. Sustainability cannot come about by intentions and mindfulness alone. Nor can sustainable innovations and leadership be bounded by sector. Green-minded consumers need green products to purchase. And green-minded businesses need green consumers to support them.
But even more than this very practical contribution that B-Corporations make is this essential gift: B-Corporations will begin to change the narrative, the way we think, about the role of business in society today. This is the re-telling of an age-old concept of fairness and equity, mutual care and responsibility embedded in the way we do business that many of us have been waiting so very long to hear.
Hurray for Maryland for leading the nation.
Maryland is leading the nation in two subtle but paradigm-shifting ways. Yet it is getting few kudos in the general media for either initiative, probably because they are a bit geeky and certainly technical.
Still, underneath all the technicalities, these innovations are founded upon the belief that money should work to make this world a place where the environment, the economy and the human spirit are all able to thrive. These innovations change the way we think about money and the marketplace.
They are the adoption of the GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator) and the legal recognition of B-Corporations (Benefit Corporations).
I do not pretend to be an expert in either, but will tell you what I know, why I am a booster of both, and give you links to explore these concepts more.
Currently, states (as well as most nations) measure their well-being by the flow of money through the system, specifically, “the market value of all final goods and services made within the borders of a country in a year.”
This is measured as the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The more stuff we make and the more services we offer, the better off society is. Or so current mainstream thinking goes. (Again, this is coming from a person much more comfortable with letters than numbers, so I encourage you to refine your understanding of these concepts by pursuing additional research.)
The problem with the GDP is that it is indiscriminate. That is, it measures the flow of money to pay for society’s ills as well as its goods. If you break your leg and go to the hospital and have surgery to set and fix it, that is good for the GDP.
If cities have to pay millions of dollars for metal detectors and security guards in the schools because the level of youth violence has turned the arena of learning into a war zone, that is good for the GDP.
The GDP is not a bad measurement if you want to measure how much a society is producing in goods and services. That is a useful and helpful tool. Where it fails is as an indicator of social well-being. But that is what it is mistakenly being used for. It does not tell us how healthy people are, how happy or well-paid or under-paid they are, what resources people have access to, how equitably the goods, services, or wealth are distributed throughout the society.
This model measures many kinds of goods and bads of a society, in monetary terms. Or as the wikipedia article puts it, it is as if the GDP measures the gross profit of society and the GPI measures the net profit. That is, in addition to the income side, the GPI will place on the expense side of the balance sheet the loss of productivity for the time you are in the hospital and loss of learning and freedom in the schools. It will calculate the monetary value of non-monetary jobs and exchanges. So, housework, voluntarism, the benefits of the environment in scrubbing the air and water of our pollutants, etc. are included in the GPI.
Then it will wrap this all up in numbers that tell us how well we are doing as a society, not just as a marketplace.
Wonderfully, this past winter, Maryland became the first state in the nation to incorporate GPI measurements into its official state evaluation. This is helping us change the narrative of, and thus our cultural attitude toward, the place of money in our society, and how we measure its goodness and value. Ultimately, after all, our economy should serve to enhance the welfare of the people, not the people serve to grow corporations.
The GPI is immensely useful, and despite the geekiness of its metrics, its story, its underlying message, is one we should all work to understand. Here is the MD GPI website that gives us a headstart:
So as not to make this post too long, I will write about B-Corporations in my next post. Know for now that Governor O’Malley just this week signed into law a bill making Maryland the first state in the nation to recognize the legal status of B-Corporations. That bill passed unanimously through the Senate and 135-5 in the House. It will change the way businesses can do business. Kudos to all.
Two weeks ago, a tulip poplar fell on the transformer near us, knocking out the power to our house. BGE came and sliced down the offending tree, limb by limb, segment by segment, until the trunk of the tree cleared the wire and was a threat no more. The bulk of this tree now lay scattered about in chunks upon the ground. It will be my inauguration, my initiation, into the joys of a chain saw.
While I have been waiting for that dear acquisition (a friend, seeing my difficulty in acquiring one in my last outing, has graciously offered to give me his, so my search may be over), the tree has been busy blooming. It is perhaps charitable, if not indulgent, for me to call it a tree still, for it is, as I said, mostly pieces of lumber strewn about the ground.
Still, remarkably, despite its amputated condition, this tree, or several of its branches at any rate, have refused to die. In the two weeks since they hit the ground, they have brought forth leaves (that was painful enough to see) and then, in an act of reckless abandon, put forth delicate yellow blossoms. It is indeed a sad sight, or depending on how melancholy you are feeling at the moment, a heart-breaking sight, like reading a story about a hero who dies too soon, or a love that cannot be.
To put an anthropomorphic twist on this (which is not to attribute human characteristics to the tree, but to attribute the tree’s characteristics to us), we can ask: is it benighted innocence that allows a dying branch to burst forth in color? Or stubborn denial of the inevitable end? Or defiance, which says that af al pi khen, despite it all, despite the end that was never contested, only hastened in this falling, I will bring beauty into this world for as long as I can?
If it were up to me, I would choose defiance. For it seems to me that it is this sense of defiance that serves us best. The world can be dark and challenging, even as it can be brilliant and joyous. But because we choose to believe in the triumph of joy and goodness, we must seek to vanquish the urgings of darkness through acts of defiance both large and small.
When we are weak, down and out, on our last legs, even with our last breath, we must still strive to bring forth small bursts of beauty as our one last hurrah, our final legacy.
It might cheer our loved ones, and help keep them going. What else can we do?
My youngest son asked a great question yesterday: “What would you feel like,” he mused, “what would you be like, if you were the tallest thing around?” He was thinking about growing up on the Great Plains with no trees, no mountains, no skyscrapers in sight. Nothing to interrupt the view from your eye all the way to the drop of the horizon. Nothing taller than you to squelch the very powerful sense of being, and presence.
Would you feel a sense of mastery? vulnerability? connectedness? exposure? oneness with the prairie? loneliness in such vastness? all the above?
His question shook loose a fragment of a line that I once heard someone quote from Saul Tchernikowsky, an early 20th century Hebrew poet. Or at least, this is my translation of what I think I remember I heard: “the landscape of our childhood shapes the contours of our souls.”
I believe that is so. Just as in some ways we are what we eat, and we become how we act, so the land and vistas and spaces around us must somehow shape who we are.
When my middle son was in high school, he read The Forest People, an ethnographic study by Colin Turnbull of the Mbuti people of the Belgian Congo. If I am remembering correctly, this fascinating and peace-loving people, besides being small, lived their entire lives nestled in the thickets of the forest. Not only were lots of trees much taller than they were, lots of trees constantly blocked their view. Or rather, from their perspective, the trees surrounding them were their view. That is all they saw, ever.
Their sense of distance, depth, perspective was honed on this reality: that the world around them was thick, tall, and very close.
Once, Turnbull took one of the tribesman up in a plane. Looking down, he pointed out the Mbuti’s forest. The tribesman could not understand. The things he was looking at were small, tiny. They could not be the trees of the great forest he lived in. He could not adjust this aerial perspective and translate it into his ground perspective. He had no point of reference to enable him to do that. He never saw - either in real life or in pictures - the world the way he was seeing it from the plane. It did not compute.
So if somehow our brains are affected neurologically by the landscape of our childhood, so must be our spirits.
Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods) writes about this psychologically. Here, we speak of it spiritually.
How are we affected by the sights that greet us as we step outside our homes each morning? by the sounds that envelope the night as we sleep? by the music we play, the air we breathe, the quality of light, the climate of our town?
The experience of place is not immaterial to the building of our spirits. We might not study the enduring impressions of place on children; we might not see articles in the newspaper or specials on television about it. But we know that intuitively the place of our childhood somehow imprints itself on us, and we in turn reflect its shape.
For those of us who are parents and grandparents, this is something we need to remember. And do something about. Today, my husband and I planted an orchard. Or the beginnings of one anyway. We now have five apple trees in our front yard. (Okay, so the word “tree” may be a bit grand in describing them, given the small size of the three newest additions. But if all goes well, trees they will be. Three more are in planters deciding whether they want to live or die.)
Eventually, I hope to have 8 - 10 trees in my orchard. I hope to live long enough to enjoy seeing my grandchildren run among the branches, climb upon the limbs, harvest the fruit, and sit with me reading books out loud in the cool shade on a warm summer’s day.
And I hope that the power of that place imprints itself deeply on their souls.
I worked on my wood again today. Not out of pleasure, or leisure, or obligation. I worked on my wood today because I needed to.
I needed to feel the saw in my hands, watch the wood melt into dust beneath the blade and fall gently to the ground. I needed to work with the wind whipping up before the rain and the scent of the cherry blossoms hanging heavy in the air.
It was one of those days and I needed the respite and comfort and hope of the wood.
The two apple trees that I planted last year, all five feet or so of them, were blossoming. Perhaps this is the year they will begin to bear fruit.
I cut 18” logs from a six-inch diameter fresh pine branch with George’s bucksaw. That was the biggest round of wood I have yet attempted to cut. And because it was still live and sappy, it was hard. It was only my mood that allowed me to even try, and my tensed up determination that allowed me to succeed. I might not be able to do it again tomorrow.
Amid this day I had a conversation with a wise woman who loves gardening and loves trees. While many people speak of environmental justice in terms of the inequitable placement of power plants, the disruptive and dislocating location of train tracks, of food deserts, lead paint, energy costs as percent of household income, and the like, this wise woman also spoke of environmental justice in terms of access to nature.
Why is it that the privileged, those who can afford to own property (she owns five acres) and those who are able to live near forested parks and well-tended gardens are the only ones who can regularly, casually, enjoy the gifts of nature? Why are there streets without trees and roads that pave over and bury once visible, audible, enjoyable streams?
How can we expect people to care about nature if they feel alienated from it, hardly know it? How can they enjoy the restorative gifts of nature if they don’t have access to it? How can they manage their anger, frustration, sadness, loneliness, annoyance, you-name-it, without it?
I am working with a nascent organization devoted to re-treeing Baltimore City. Most people would imagine that is a matter of aesthetics, like Lady Bird Johnson’s effort to beautify America. And of course, in one way, it is. Trees are beautiful and beauty lifts the human spirit.
But trees offer much more than beauty. They offer relief, refuge, escape from the human world. They offer visions of strength, endurance, fortitude, even defiance. They offer, in a word, healing. And everyone deserves that.
There are two sorts of perfect weather. One kind is when the elements align and the boundaries between outside and inside fall away. You know those days: perfect humidity, temperature, light and air movement, as if your thermostat were controlling the whole outdoors. Inside, outside, it all feels the same. It is almost too familiar, too nature-mimics-home to be fully appreciated.
The other kind is stunning: fresh, cool at times, occasionally breezy, high 60s tipping over into the low 70s, bright but not blinding, clear, clean, alive. More brilliant and vibrant than any indoor climate can ever be. That was the kind of weather we had today.
It was hard to think of anything but nature, hard to do anything but be swept up in the gift of the earth. I was lured outside for three hours, tending to my woodpiles: gathering, sawing, hauling, arranging, stacking when I should have been working on any one of a number of presentations I have to give in the next 10 days, or cooking for the next onslaught of holiday meals.
Instead, I was outside. It was totally meditative; totally absorbing. It wasn’t exactly that elusive, transporting moment of “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about. It couldn’t have been. The bucksaw that my dear friend, George, my geologist, loaned us kept seizing when deep in the sappy, green pine limbs I was cutting.
George had come by Friday to help us with our yard work. He graciously brought his saw and cutters and a small arsenal of tools with him. As I sawed, he held one end of the limb, opening the cut so that the saw had the room it needed to move freely. Without his leverage, sawing was much more tedious.
Still, the wood, like George, was a patient teacher. The more it resisted, the more it forced me to devise a strategy that would serve both our needs, its and mine. With a chainsaw, I could have used force, but without it, the wood and I had to negotiate. And it was in these moments of resistance, when I needed to mind the needs of the other, when success lay only in understanding the ways of other, that I learned, and grew, the most.
Have a joyous end of Pesah.
The man with the chain saw has come and gone and now the wood lies strewn about our yard.
Mostly pine, it is fresh and sticky and heavy. It is too green and too laden with sap to be used immediately. In fact, it will need to dry for two years before it is ripe enough for firewood. For several reasons: fresh wood doesn’t burn as well or as efficiently as dried wood; and I imagine that fresh sap cannot be good for our chimney.
I grab our Hechinger wheelbarrow (too historic to replace though it has one dented leg and is a bit metal-fatigued, but it still hauls just fine; I should only be so functional when in such shape), round up the logged loot and begin to build a new wood pile that will lay there til the winter of 2011/2012 (we should all live and be well!).
As I did so, it occurred to me that here I was, working hard to store away goods that I will not touch, and will not use, for at least two years. How odd that feels in a world of immediate gratification, instantaneous communication, and 24/7 access.
Waiting, it seems, is a fading art. Where else, I wondered, do we labor so hard only to then sit and wait?
A good meal from our oven. But that is only a matter of minutes or hours at the most.
College acceptances (the last throes of which my youngest son is now experiencing). But here too that is at most only five or six months, albeit excruciating ones.
Business. Turning a profit. But we don’t actually totally wait. We labor over it every day and sometimes take advances, unrealized future profit, to tie us over. Indeed the inability to occasionally defer this quarter’s gains is part of the national malady that prevents us from making the green investments we need.
So that brings me back to nature. Nature forces us, teaches us, to wait. We plant a field and wait for it to ripen. We plant a tree and wait for it to bring forth fruit. We throw things away and wait for waste to become humus. We wait for the seasons. We wait for the healing to be complete. We wait for the pregnancy to come to term.
We may have microwave ovens and high speed transit and instant communication. But nature cannot be rushed. It will move at its own speed. We cannot force time, or do so only at our distinct peril.
Though waiting was the norm in times gone by, it has become a spiritual discipline that we must re-learn today.
Faith teaches us about waiting. Waiting for blessings, waiting for redemption. The Psalms speak about waiting, yearning and waiting. Shabbat teaches us waiting, resting and waiting.
There are six other days of the week we are to labor to bring the redemption, to make our food and tend to the needy. Shabbat is a day of deferring our work, of celebrating enough, of sitting, of being and waiting.
Waiting teaches us that not everything is in our hands. Not everything can be forced, not everything can be scheduled, not everything comes when it is bidden.
So we must learn to wait.
And if we can allow ourselves to settle deeply into this waiting, if we can breathe with the seasons, slow into time, then perhaps a sweet and restorative portion of peace will be ours.
America is at an economic as well as environmental crossroads. We can either stagnate and retreat to become a second-class world power or we can do what we have done so well in the past: innovate and lead the world in creativity and wealth.
Regrettably, and frighteningly, led by corporate short-sightedness if not outright greed, we seem to be choosing stagnation. Two recent developments reported in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun have local impact that point us in this wrong direction.
The first is the news that President Obama is reversing a 20-year old agreement and opening the east coast from Maryland and Delaware down to Florida to off-shore drilling exploration.
Whether this is a strategic political move on his part to wrest green energy concessions from green energy opponents or a tactical decision to help secure America’s energy needs, it is misguided.
His right wing opponents have already indicated that this decision does not go far enough to assuage them or win concessions from them. And besides, continuing to pursue the very last dregs of liquid fossil fuels from our imperiled earth only delays the inevitable, at great cost. We need to move away from fossil fuels as our primary energy source.
For all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is economics. Green energy is the gold mine of the future, and right now, China is surpassing us in renewable energy production.
Maryland should be concerned about this because of the second recent alarming development: BP Solar, based in Frederick just announced it was closing shop, shutting down 300+ local jobs. We hear that the manufacturing part of their solar business is being off-loaded to China.
Inconceivably, the United States, the nation that prides itself in being the world leader in technological development, is lagging behind China and Europe in the creation and use of renewable energy. And the gap is growing every year. This is at the same time that the solar energy sector, among other green efforts, is booming, even in this difficult economic climate.
“The European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) released figures (March 30, 2010) showing that the global solar photovoltaic industry had a record year in 2009. EPIA reported that global installed capacity increased to 20GW last year, an increase of 6.4GW. It is expecting another increase of at least 40% in total installed capacity in 2010.” And modestly, a 15% increase every year after that.
So why aren’t we chasing solar, and why are we fighting against windmills offshore but in favor of drilling? The worst argument against windmills offshore is aesthetic. The worst argument against drilling offshore is potential environmental devastation in the event of accidents and spills during operations, plus continued atmospheric degradation, climate change and global meltdown in the burning of those fuels.
The choice seems obvious. We need to choose the right path both for the well-being of our nation and the health of the world.