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‘The Country of the Trees…’

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Not that many years ago, this rogue aspen tree sprouted next to the porch, and now fills the window of the upstairs dormitory room with golden Autumn light.  When we scraped the earth of its thin layer of dirt here at water’s edge, in building our house 18 years ago, we tried our best to disturb the native vegetation as little as possible.  We had to bring in additional dirt, and the new plantings were all native species, but after all this time, most everything we added has been replaced by the true native species, which were already here, long before us.  Nature always wins.

There were no aspen trees, though our neighbors to the north had a few, so we knew the environment might support them.  We planted six, and year after year, Don fretted over their lackluster growth, and tended them with extra water, and worry.  Over time, just two have survived.  But, this rogue aspen came to us at the porch, and we’ve so enjoyed its summer shade and late turning to yellow each fall, and the sound of its rustling leaves in the slightest breeze.  Then, this summer, right in the middle of the croquet course on the lawn, big protruding bumps popped up all over.  When green shoots had sprouted across the yard each spring, we did not realize that it was because we are living in an expanding aspen grove, and now, it has become a field of big knotty roots to support the tree colony.

Naturalists refer to aspens as “ancient giants”.  They come from a single seed and each trunk shares the same underground root system that grows horizontally underground for up to 100 feet, to form huge genetically identical colonies.  Here’s what our local NPR station said about them on their broadcast, “Field Notes”:  A single seed gave rise to the largest and oldest known aspen colony. The colony, named Pando, covers 106 acres in Utah and contains about 47,000 ramets. It weighs more than 13 million pounds and is one of the largest organisms in the world. Scientists have estimated that Pando is an amazing 80,000 years old…”

In our ignorance, Don tried to saw off one of the knots in the yard this summer, but said it was impossible to do so.  I felt bad about it at the time…not only because I wanted them gone, but once you’ve read The Hidden Life of Trees, your conscience really bothers you when you hurt a tree.  I know that the huge Douglas fir tree, which died some years ago, and now has a sailboat weathervane perched on its dead trunk, did so because we put a stake into it, to hold up one end of the hammock.

Whilst we wait for the aspen grove to cover all the land, the fragile paper birch tree by the water lost all its golden leaves, while we were in Billings over the week-end.  It was on the property when we built, but looked diseased for years, and given how paper birch trees just suddenly fall over in our woods, revealing nothing but air inside their beautiful white bark, it’s a miracle the water front tree has survived.  In the winter time, it looks old and ravaged and near death, but, come summer, it provides cooling shade to a line of beach chairs on the rocks at water’s edge.  It really is something we always look forward to, grateful for another year.

There is no king in their country

and there is no queen

and there are no princes vying for power,

          inventing corruption.

Just as with us many children are born

and some will live and some will die and the country

          will continue.

The weather will always be important.

And there will always be room for the weak, the violets

          and the bloodroot.

When it is cold they will be given blankets of leaves.

When it is hot they will be given shade.

And not out of guilt, neither for a year-end deduction

          but maybe for the cheer of their colours, their

                small flower faces.

They are not like us.

Some will perish to become houses or barns,

          fences and bridges.

Others will endure past the counting of years.

And none will ever speak a single word of complaint,

          as though language, after all,

did not work well enough, was only an early stage.

Neither do they ever have any questions to the gods–

          which one is the real one, and what is the plan.

As though they have been told everything already,

          and are content.

Mary Oliver, The Country of the Trees from her book of poems called ‘Blue Horses’

October moving along…

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Moving along in the second week of October, each day is more gorgeous than the one before.  If past is prologue, the flame-colored leaves will twirl en mass to the ground within two weeks.  Lucky for us, here on the western side of the state, we’ll have another month of golden Tamarack trees to dot the green mountain hillsides, which are now dusted with snow.  But, there is no denying that this season of dazzling color is moving to its close.

Yesterday, we got the wicker furniture from the porch put into the boat house, and moved the cedar Adirondack chairs up from the lake, for some winter protection under the porch roof.  I put old throws on the chairs so the kitties can make a less abrupt transition from the cushioned, comfortable wicker settee, to their heating pads in the garage.  The screen doors and window screens are stored away, to maximize winter’s low light coming into the living room.  It was a beautiful afternoon for Fall chores.  The lake made a gentle, rhythmic lapping sound and the grebes cooed out to one another in the water.  As satisfying as it was, it felt quite melancholy to be putting away Summer, as I carried the basket of soccer and footballs, bats and gloves and frisbees, down to the basement.  Stored away over in a corner, I spotted a pair of plastic booster chairs, from long ago, back when the grandkids needed them.  Now, the oldest graduates from high school this year, and there will be three more in high school next year.  Time is moving along.

I went to Missoula on Saturday to watch 12-year-old Anna play soccer games.  I joined Joy, under her sport umbrella tent, and wrapped up in one of those sleeping bag contraptions which allows the arms to be free for clapping.  We had hours to catch up with one another, talk about the kids, and lament the dire news coming out of Washington, and our fears for this world of ours.  Dark was closing in by the time we left for the hour and a half drive back up to the lake, and rain came on hard.  But, by the time we reached the lake’s southern shore, the rain had ended, and when we arrived home, we all talked about the beautiful glow of light in the west and the bright stars already reflecting in the water.

Anna’s teammate, and best friend, came home to spend the night with us.  At breakfast the next morning, I asked the girls how school was going so far this year, and what was different about middle school.  They said that in science class, there were real microscopes and that had looked at strands of hair, and skin cells, and it was all pretty amazing.  I told them that I had spotted the Big Dipper over the lake, on our drive home the night before, because I’d read where it would be on, and then I pulled the site up on my computer, and we talked about how amazing astronomy was, and saw photos of the new SETI telescopes in South Africa, and how they listen for signs of ET.  They were convinced there is no way we can be the only humans, with all the universes that are out there.  They appeared to know about the new dwarf planet named The Goblin, and, when I asked if Pluto is back into the category of planets, they were pretty sure it was.

Late in the day, as I sat in the sunshine by the lake, long after they’d gone, I thought that you can really believe in the future, be hopeful, actually, when you have conversations like that, sitting in your breakfast nook, with a pair of bright-eyed and curious 12-year old girls, on a lovely October morning.   It can feel like we are living in the end times these days, but I thought to myself, “the kids are all right”, the kids are all right.   Don and I have just finished watching the second series of the Canadian production of Anne (with an E) of Green Gables–the enchanting story of a young girl who opens the hearts and throws the world open for those around her.  And, as she declared, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”  Indeed.


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We are alone again in our woods.  Our neighbor to the north pulled away in the dark, hours before we turned on our lights.  He had helped Don pull the motorboat out yesterday afternoon, and as we sat with our kitties by the water in the evening, we could hear the crackling of a fire he had made on his back porch.  His wife had left a week earlier, wanting to continue her golf game in South Carolina.  He must have enjoyed sitting on his porch, by the warm fire, enjoying this view.  It felt like he should have had us over for a farewell drink–or we should have invited him to our bench by the water.  I thought maybe he would bring over his remaining tomatoes.  But, it’s not that kind of relationship.  It’s like that with the summer people–you just wave hello from your dock now and then.  Something about that adds to the melancholy this time of year.

There’s been a slow gentle rain today.  I know we’ve had a few passing showers, but it honestly has not rained like this since June.  It smells so fresh and lovely, and feels like another turning of the page into this new season.   On our public radio freeforms program this morning, all the songs were classics about Autumn.  The host said that someone had called in and remarked that the songs were so melancholy.  He remarked that in our listening area of western Montana, we all know what it feels like to enter October–it’s as if the curtain has suddenly fallen down on summer.  He then proceeded to play Joni Mitchell’s classic song, “The Urge for Going”–

…And summertime was falling down and winter was closing in
Now the warriors of winter they gave a cold triumphant shout
And all that stays is dying and all that lives is getting out
See the geese in chevron flight flapping and racing on before the snow
They’ve got the urge for going and they’ve got the wings so they can go
They get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown

Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in
I’ll ply the fire with kindling and pull the blankets to my chin
I’ll lock the vagrant winter out and I’ll bolt my wandering in
I’d like to call back summertime and have her stay for just another month or so
But she’s got the urge for going so I guess she’ll have to go
She get the urge for going when the meadow grass is turning brown
And all her empires are falling down
And winter’s closing in
And I get the urge for going when the meadow grass is turning brown
And summertime is falling down

Well, I got the urge to move all my summertime clothes and flip-flops to the upstairs closet, and bring down the wool sweaters and various boots.  It was a good rainy day activity, part of the process in getting prepared for winter.   But, I hope it comes on slowly.  I wish it could be the way Robert Frost suggests– only one leaf should drop in the morning, then another at noon–slow, slow!

October, by Robert Frost

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.


Autumn evenings

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I was in a photography workshop years ago–or maybe a painting class–in which the instructor told our class that “all sunsets are trivial.”  I think he was trying to say that unless we represented the sunset in some unique artistic fashion, it was just a plain old sunset.  My longest, dearest friend, and photographer, told me, “You need to get another teacher.”  I think she was right.  Like the old saying, “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it really fall?”  If it fell for me, then it truly did fall.  It did not feel trivial the other day,  when I photographed our mooring ball, now solitary and separated from its sailboat, as it bobbed in the foreground of spectacular sunset light, with darkness softly folding over another beautiful Autumn day.

The sailboat would have been lovely, silhouetted by the sunset.  Maybe the light would have illuminated the rails, and it surely would have created golden ribbons in the water.  But, the time had come for her to be sailed south for winter storage.  Don and his sailing friend spent most of that day with her rails in the water, as they sailed in a stiff and steady south wind, down to Dayton.  There were several instances of ’rounding up’, defined as “when the sailboat heels so far over that the rudder no longer engages in the water, to such an extent, that it can no longer steer the boat.”  Whew…I was glad my only job was to drive our car down the west shore, and pick them up when they moored at the marina.  It was such a lovely afternoon as I walked out on the long wooden pier, amidst all the sailboats, waiting for their turns to be hauled from the water.  There was something romantic, slightly ominous almost, about being alone on a wooden pier, jutting out into an enormous lake, surrounded by majestic mountains, and listening to the sounds made by the rigging on sailboats.  You think of the old stories you’ve read about the sea, about Man’s delicate relationship with Nature.  At last, a little white triangle came into my view, and the final voyage for our boat was over for the season.

A few days ago, while driving to our usual spot for a morning run, I saw a doe lying on the side of the highway.  There are so many of them roaming our property, and lining the roads this time of year, but she looked odd, positioned almost like a cat, with her front legs tucked underneath her.  It was only after we passed by that I realized one of her legs was in such an awkward position, that it probably had been broken.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her, looking so peaceful, head held erect and eyes alert, waiting for death.  I hoped a hunter may have passed by and taken his shotgun out of the truck, but, when we drove back home, she was lying on her side, lifeless, no blood staining the dirt.

Autumn is a tender season.  The leaves have given all they have to give, and twirl to the ground in glowing reds and golds.  The animals are ravaging the fruit trees, in a last-ditch effort, before the snow falls.  I saw the black bear, standing totally still in a clearing in our woods, and he didn’t move as I slowly passed by in the car.  After witnessing the deer who didn’t make it to winter, I was crest-fallen that he, too, was injured somehow.  But, he was not to be seen by afternoon.  These are days of darkness moving in, and Time moving on, all in such fragile beauty.

Whatever may be the power behind those dancing motes to which the physicist has penetrated, it makes the light of the muskrat’s world as it makes the world of the great poet. It makes, in fact, all of the innumerable and private worlds which exist in the heads of men. There is a sense in which we can say that the planet, with its strange freight of life, is always just passing from the unnatural to the natural, from that Unseen which man has always reverenced to the small reality of the day. If all life were to be swept from the world, leaving only its chemical constituents, no visitor from another star would be able to establish the reality of such a phantom. The dust would lie without visible protest, as it does now in the moon’s airless craters, or in the road before our door.

Yet this is the same dust which, dead, quiescent and unmoving, when taken up in the process known as life, hears music and responds to it, weeps bitterly over time and loss, or is oppressed by the looming future that is, on any materialist terms, the veriest shadow of nothing.

–Loren Eiseley, The Firmament of Time


Autumn mornings

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As the Harvest Moon beams out over the lake this morning, it looks like fireflies are dancing over the water.  I’ve been up since 5:00 a.m., too curious about what’s happening out my window in all this moonlight.  Perhaps the black bear, who’s been frequenting our property for over a month, is taking a drink at water’s edge.  Maybe the loons I’ve been hearing are silhouetted on the lake, backlit by moon shine.

I’ve always been a morning person.  Most of my life, it’s been because I wanted to stretch the day out as long as possible so I could cram in more activities in a rapid-fire lifestyle.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.  Now, fortunate to live in the grace of my 70’s, I’m remembering how Pius told us, at the start of our hike into Coleman’s Hermitage, “All rushing is violence”, when one is on sacred ground.  Both dawns and dusks are thresholds, between the light and the dark, and are sacred ground in their own right.  John O’Donahue, in Anam Cara, writes of dawn, “When you attend to the way the dawn comes, you learn how light can coax the dark.  The first fingers of light appear on the horizon, and ever so deftly and gradually, they pull the mantle of darkness away from the world.”  Of night he says, “The world rests in the night.  Trees, mountains, fields, and faces are released from the prison of shape and the burden of exposure.  Each thing creeps back into its own nature within the shelter of the dark.  Darkness is the ancient womb.”  And, so, we cross these thresholds every single day, rushing too much to notice their importance in our lives.

All the land is covered in spectacular beauty this last week of September.  The Canada geese are restless and great flocks fly high overhead, or skim near the surface of the water, where you can hear their wingbeats.  I’m washing my wool throws and putting them back on their chairs, and replacing the blue and white nautical striped throw pillows with the tartan plaid ones.  Tomorrow, the sailboat will be sailed down to Dayton Harbor for winter dry dock storage.  Don has been splitting logs for weeks and the wood pile outside the front door is tall and wide.  Bit by bit, we are putting the house to bed for the long winter coming over the horizon.  But, there must be no rushing of this lovely fall season, a hallowed threshold, between the light and the dark of the year.

Morning–by Billy Collins
Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?
This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,
dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

Bumpy Landing

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It was a bumpy landing into home, as I brought back a nasty virus I collected along the way, during my journey to Ireland.  While I was still bedridden, Don caught the bug and joined me in misery during these six days I’ve been back.  Beautiful sunny days went by out my window, and I was morose not to participate.  But, now that I’m back to health, I’m wondering if it wasn’t so bad to have this time-out, this being forced to stay still.  Re-entry from any trip can be hard, but, in the cross-over from Ireland back to home, a bridge of some sort would be useful.  It’s like it feels sometimes, when you finish an enchanting story, and you put down the book, and just walk around your living room, looking out the windows, trying to find your way back into your own home.  To the Irish, there are ‘thin places’– mystical places–“where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin”.  It’s easy to lose your bearings for a while in Ireland, as you walk across the windswept Burren, and consider that new cardinal directions may be coming into your view.   Perhaps, that’s what a journey is ultimately all about.

At last, I was able to leave the house yesterday morning, and I took a lovely walk at the head of the lake, which has always been a thin place for me.  Everything was golden.  The air was cool and clean, the blue sky was dotted with cotton ball clouds, and a pair of Bald Eagles watched me from high up on a tree branch.  The Vernal Equinox is upon us and the full Harvest Moon is coming into all her luminous glory.  It’s the official start of Autumn, a season so beautiful it always breaks one’s heart.   I am home in time for it all.  As I sat by the water on driftwood, and watched a jet fly overhead, I thought of all the individual journeys which were crisscrossing the big blue sky overhead, and how when we think we are leaving, perhaps, we are really arriving.

The Journey, by David Whyte

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.


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By Dorothy Lawrenson

This far north, the harvest happens late.

Rooks go clattering over the sycamores

whose shadows yawn after them, down to the river.

Uncut wheat staggers under its own weight.

Summer is leaving too, exchanging its gold

for brass and copper. It is not so strange

to feel nostalgia for the present; already

this September evening is as old

as a photograph of itself. The light, the shadows

on the field, are sepia, as if this were

some other evening in September, some other

harvest that went ungathered years ago.

I’ve always wanted to sleep up in our guest cabin, where so many friends and family have been over the years.  When I’m cleaning it after someone’s left, I like how the light rising in the east fills the room, and how the sounds of the lake are amplified somehow.   Sarah and Nick were here for the Labor Day week-end, and since she is hobbled on crutches, we wanted them to stay in our master bedroom, the only room on the main floor of the house.  Today, I’ve moved us back into the house, and put the guest cabin to bed for the summer.  It was nice up there, incredibly quiet and dark.  In the middle of one night, I saw the waning gibbous moon out the bathroom window.  It illuminated the long driveway and the trees cast long shadows across it.   I could even make out the shadows of cherry trees in the meadow next door.  I would have liked to just sit in the chair at the window, forever, and watch what happens under the moon of early September.

The end of summer has been painfully abrupt, in my opinion.  The lake has been inhospitable for days with wind and whitecaps, and the temps have been ten degrees below normal.  Burger Town posted their CLOSED FOR THE SEASON sign, just after lunchtime on Labor Day.   Between the all-caps, and closing up even before the day was done, it was as if they had drawn a line in the sand, rudely announcing that summer is gone–just get over it.

The wind gets on my nerves, makes me jumpy when it’s gone on too long.  Maybe, I’m anxious about leaving home, for the long journey to Ireland.  In the rush of summer, I’ve not had the space, the stillness, in which to see the doe’s eyes in the moonlight.  And, all the people we love, who’ve stayed with us this summer, have left long shadows in their wake.  Late in the afternoon today, after I’d cleaned house and hung sheets on the clothesline, the wind finally stopped and the sun was warm.  I went out on my kayak and except for the Bald Eagle up in a tree, and seagulls bobbing in the water, I was all alone as I glided along the shoreline in green-blue clear water.  I could feel in the stillness that I was floating into Fall, and “already this September evening is as old as a photograph of itself”, and it felt like home.