Weather Report

Just returned from the southern hemisphere where winter is waning into spring: high seas, cold winds and blossoms just starting to open on the fruit trees. I came home to a late summer storm: streets flooded, thunder scaring the dog and my daughter’s school closed for the day due to the weather. A Rain Day. That’s a first and she’s in her last year in high school. The rain gods are stirred up all over the world. Hurricane Norbert even dropped some much needed moisture on parched California.

So, in the hour it took to drop my son at school and get home (usually 20 minutes tops), I rolled down the windows and shuffled my seventies playlist. First song: Allman Brothers “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” with its lyrics about hurricanes and pouring rain, followed by Hot Tuna’s “Water Song.” I love it when small things seem in sync with the larger forces of nature.

The Pacific calmed enough on the last day to get a quick freezing swim in.

The Pacific calmed enough on the last day in Australia to get a quick freezing swim in. That’s not me with the stream-lined free style stroke. I’m the one in the foreground recovering from the shock of the dive in. The pool fills in high seas or high tide and is used on days like this by a group of old polar bear men and strangers desperate to taste salt water.




For the Love of a Tree

Anyone who has been in a high school creative writing class knows one snapshot tells multiple stories. The image below could be a tragedy in the way it conveys the tenuous grasp humans seem to have on the natural world. Like in a Shakespearean tragedy, no one is left standing on this dreary stage, except that annoying guy who emerges from behind the curtain in the end to say “alas.” If I tell the story of this picture as a tragedy, I have to be the annoying guy.

No thanks.

I’m much more fond of love stories, dark and funny ones that reveal the length a person will go for the love of another…person, usually. This image tells a story of the love one guy (okay, so I see this character as a guy. I’m fascinated by man love) has for a tree, the length he  will go to sustain a relationship with his beloved long after everyone else can see it’s over. Friends will come by and shake their heads. Some might say “perhaps it’s time to think about…you know…getting another…tree.”

He’ll tell these heartless friends to get the hell out of his yard. Then he’ll pat the foliage that he’s lovingly trained around the dead palm’s stump and mumble things like “don’t listen to them. They don’t know you like I know you.”

Ah, love.

And, yes, I can hear the theme song to Love Story playing faintly in my head right now.

And, yes, I can hear the theme song to Love Story playing faintly in my head right now.


Happy Pi Day

I love numbers and pie, so this is a good day for me. It all started in my high school sophomore geometry class when the teacher, Mr. K, taught us a proof about irrational numbers. First of all, I liked that a number could be irrational, as though it had a mind of its own and could fly off. . .the number line. . .for illogical reasons.

I could imagine all the neighboring numbers whispering, “Don’t even try to talk sense to Pi right now. She’s being totally irrational.” Of course, it’s a known fact, all irrational numbers are female.

For numbers, though, irrationality means it just goes on and on, like it just can’t ever decide where to sit. So Pi, 3.14 and so on and so on, just wiggles its little number butt endlessly somewhere between 3 and 4. And yet, it is the factor of every circle’s circumference. So for any circle I could draw in the margins of my geometry textbook, Pi was a factor of its girth (2πr).

What does this imply about circles?

For one, they are way more interesting and hard to pin down than squares. There’s a reason people don’t want to be considered squares. So much wasted perimeter for so little enclosed area.

wizard in my circle paper written long before Harry Potter made wizards cool

By senior year, I wrote a research paper on the nature of the circle, for Mr. K who was now instructing me in calculus, and so I became a full-fledged nerd. It began with a quote from my dad’s girlfriend at the time: “The circle expresses the all-embracing, all-protecting womb of nature, the Cosmic Egg of Unity.” I also included this sketch I did of a wizard using a magic circle to ward off an evil demon.  Despite my having calculated lengths, areas and volumes created by rolling a circle around other circles, spinning circles around a line to form doughnuts and generally tickling circles, Mr. K was disappointed and said my treatise lacked the pizzazz I usually threw into my math homework.

Now I can see it was my old high school boyfriend’s fault. He is responsible for most human failures in the late seventies, but at the time he seemed much more alluring than Pi. Had I not been busy making out, I might have written a better paper. It was a short-lived diversion. Pi is just that fascinating and the boyfriend, well, if he were a number, he’d be an imaginary one. Oh he existed, but I tended to imagine stuff about him (like I was his one and only).

I ended up dumping Mr. Cheater-pants and majoring in math in college, but I think my initial attraction to numbers and circles has less to do with math (or infidelity) and more to do with nature’s womb (so thanks dad’s ex-girlfriend. Sorry my siblings and I thought of you as an evil step-mother, but you really were a terrible cook and, well. . . it has to be said. . . irrational). I often hear there are no straight lines in nature. Not true (think crystals) but curves, circles and waves seem more prolific. And more fun. So today is a good day to celebrate nature’s curves. And to eat pie.

One last thing. Pi is also a transcendental number, along with its Zen friend e. Peace out.

poppy circle is the garden

poppy circle is the garden starting to go square

The Auguries of Innocence

It’s my son’s first day of fifth grade, his last year of elementary school, and I just dropped him in the drop-off line and he walked in without hesitation, just a few neck twitches and head bobs to indicate nerves. It seems so long since I had to sit beside him each morning while he made little movies on my phone instead of venturing out into the playground with all the other kids. I’d still be there standing by the door as he lined up and marched into Mrs G’s half-day kindergarten class, his second go at kindergarten after the disastrous try at Our Lady of Perpetual Stress.

Instead I’m home sitting in the front garden courtyard trying to enjoy a little outside time before the heat descends. It’s already too hot, but I’m out here anyhow. There is a romance in the idea of writing in the garden, letting the words tumble out to the cadence of fountain burble, but in truth I’ve been having hot flashes and any spike in nervous energy sets one off. Just now the admission that the reality of a romantic writing session in the garden like I’m Dorothy Wordsworth scribbling in her journal, her famous writer brother at her elbow, the falseness of it sends my body into a flood of heat and sweat.

Still, it’s lovely the way the slant morning sun illuminates the jacobinia leaves, how thick and tropical these shrubs look despite the desert climate. I can almost ignore the airplanes that roar in and out of Sky Harbor or the workers next door who just arrived to bang metal pipes together. Sound torments the moment, the delusion of the moment, but I’m going to sit here and write and pretend for a few more words that I am Dorothy Wordsworth. It is 1803 and William and I just arrived in the Lakes District to amble about in the glow of the countryside. I’ll scout the dirt roads for ordinary travelers, a fisherman perhaps, for William to build a poem around. One of the workers drops a metal pipe onto the concrete drive and I’m back to being me. Sirens sound in the distance. It’s hot even in the shade of the mesquite that drapes over the courtyard. I’m thinking about ways to club the workers with the seemingly infinite supply of pipes in the back of their truck.

I sit out here to try and disprove the long-standing American myth of wilderness promulgated by Thoreau and Muir, this idea that one can’t find nature until he or she has first lost humanity. Whitman didn’t believe that. Neither did the Wordsworths, though they romanticized the poor, the country bumpkins, turning them into images of virtue, editing out poverty or making it seem honorable to suffer. Somewhere a truck is backing up, beep, beep, beep…Am I wrong about where wilderness exists? Do people, as Muir argued, ruin a true connection between the individual and wilderness? Is the wilderness experience only for lone wanderers like him? Thoreau edited out humanity to make the short walk into the town of Concord seem farther, which in turn made his abode by Walden Pond seem wilder. And nature writing enthusiasts have edited his work further in anthologies to make his rather tame countryside version of wilderness more aligned with the rugged lands in the West. What about that great insight of William Blake in his poem Auguries of Innocence, especially the opening lines?

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

This seems to imply a wilderness that can exist in small spaces, like my front courtyard garden, but then the poem goes on to rail against humanity, how each attempt to wrestle nature into domestic control results in the silencing of angels. To anger an ox is to be spurned forever by the love of any woman. Who wants that? Blake singles out war, greed, licentiousness and most of all doubt as reasons human beings stray from God and subsequently denigrate the natural world. “He who Doubts from what he sees/Will ne’er believe, do what you Please,” writes Blake, which seems to me to mean that all the ways in which people destroy nature that Blake called out prior to these lines are problems of lack of faith. The idea that God put all this nature on earth for humans to do what they please is a flawed interpretation of God’s will, so Blake seems to say. Rather consider the innocent vision of children, and damned be those who don’t, as he warns:

He who mocks the Infant’s Faith
Shall be mock’d in Age & Death.
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the Infant’s faith
Triumph’s over Hell & Death.

Jack hammers in my neighbor’s back yard win. And another hot flash has made the warming morning air feel like a sauna right after a fellow naked steamer has poured cold water on the hot lava rocks. I’m going in, which for me has never held inverse truth of Muir’s observation that going out is really going in. Going in is not going out for me. The door will shut and even a view from the window won’t connect me to the dove that just now is tipping its head to drink from the fountain. Romantic, yes, as though it’s sent from Dorothy herself. The automatic sprinklers just clicked on and drenched my laptop. I’ll take that as a sign to go inside to ponder the meaning of wilderness further and wait for school to let out.

hands of me and my son, image by me
BTW all moms have an extra set of hands for just such occasions

Auguries of Innocence
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear.
A Skylark wounded in the wing,
A Cherubim does cease to sing.
The Game Cock clipp’d and arm’d for fight
Does the Rising Sun affright.
Every Wolf’s & Lion’s howl
Raises from Hell a Human Soul.
The wild deer, wand’ring here & there,
Keeps the Human Soul from Care.
The Lamb misus’d breeds public strife
And yet forgives the Butcher’s Knife.
The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that won’t believe.
The Owl that calls upon the Night
Speaks the Unbeliever’s fright.
He who shall hurt the little Wren
Shall never be belov’d by Men.
He who the Ox to wrath has mov’d
Shall never be by Woman lov’d.
The wanton Boy that kills the Fly
Shall feel the Spider’s enmity.
He who torments the Chafer’s sprite
Weaves a Bower in endless Night.
The Caterpillar on the Leaf
Repeats to thee thy Mother’s grief.
Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly,
For the Last Judgement draweth nigh.
He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar.
The Beggar’s Dog & Widow’s Cat,
Feed them & thou wilt grow fat.
The Gnat that sings his Summer’s song
Poison gets from Slander’s tongue.
The poison of the Snake & Newt
Is the sweat of Envy’s Foot.
The poison of the Honey Bee
Is the Artist’s Jealousy.
The Prince’s Robes & Beggars’ Rags
Are Toadstools on the Miser’s Bags.
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.
It is right it should be so;
Man was made for Joy & Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
The Babe is more than swaddling Bands;
Throughout all these Human Lands
Tools were made, & born were hands,
Every Farmer Understands.
Every Tear from Every Eye
Becomes a Babe in Eternity.
This is caught by Females bright
And return’d to its own delight.
The Bleat, the Bark, Bellow & Roar
Are Waves that Beat on Heaven’s Shore.
The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath
Writes Revenge in realms of death.
The Beggar’s Rags, fluttering in Air,
Does to Rags the Heavens tear.
The Soldier arm’d with Sword & Gun,
Palsied strikes the Summer’s Sun.
The poor Man’s Farthing is worth more
Than all the Gold on Afric’s Shore.
One Mite wrung from the Labrer’s hands
Shall buy & sell the Miser’s lands:
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole Nation sell & buy.
He who mocks the Infant’s Faith
Shall be mock’d in Age & Death.
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the Infant’s faith
Triumph’s over Hell & Death.
The Child’s Toys & the Old Man’s Reasons
Are the Fruits of the Two seasons.
The Questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to Reply.
He who replies to words of Doubt
Doth put the Light of Knowledge out.
The Strongest Poison ever known
Came from Caesar’s Laurel Crown.
Nought can deform the Human Race
Like the Armour’s iron brace.
When Gold & Gems adorn the Plow
To peaceful Arts shall Envy Bow.
A Riddle or the Cricket’s Cry
Is to Doubt a fit Reply.
The Emmet’s Inch & Eagle’s Mile
Make Lame Philosophy to smile.
He who Doubts from what he sees
Will ne’er believe, do what you Please.
If the Sun & Moon should doubt
They’d immediately Go out.
To be in a Passion you Good may do,
But no Good if a Passion is in you.
The Whore & Gambler, by the State
Licenc’d, build that Nation’s Fate
The Harlot’s cry from Street to Street
Shall weave Old England’s winding Sheet.
The Winner’s Shout, the Loser’s Curse,
Dance before dead England’s Hearse.
Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet Delight.
Some are Born to sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro’ the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to Perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light.
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in the Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

Tranquility Trees

From my front window the street is cloaked by trees. The Caesalpenia paraguariensis, commonly named Tranquility Tree, has finally emerged from its awkward adolescence and now drapes its wide canopy across my view. It has delicate compound leaves like feathers made of feathers. The tiniest component, a leaflet like a flat grain of rice, repeats to create an intricate lace of greens and light.

The branching of Tranquility Trees follows its own peculiar geometry. New shoots in spring or after a strong summer rain will grow straight down towards the ground so walking under the trees feels like moving through a tropical rain forest, a hand always up to brush away the urgent growth that seems to want to fill the air. Any minute a tendril may grab hold of a passerby. Other branches will grow for a while in one direction and then U-turn back and stitch their way through to the other side of the canopy. Trees don’t usually do this.

Guided by light, most tree branching tends outward and upward, since branches exist to hold leaves up like open mouths to the sun. Trees eat sunlight, a risky business. The stronger the sun, the more cautious the trees must be when dining. In the intense desert heat, they need to nibble from a multitude of tiny leaves. However the meal goes, trees generally waste little energy sending branches back through the canopy. Not so with the tranquil. They eat like my son used to, jumping up to run between bites or simply throwing himself off the bench where he perched like a bird refusing to sit still. He burned more energy during a meal than he consumed. It’s a wonder he or the six trees in my front yard have grown at all.

Tranquility might seem a misnomer since each tree when examined up close reveals an internal turmoil about where to grow next. The canopy from afar looks organized, gently drooping and softly shifting in the wind, but on the interior is a tangle of conflicting branches. Is that what tranquility is, the appearance of calm in spite of internal chaos? I know the feeling well. When I wonder about a word, I seek its origin, its early meaning or context, which is why my Oxford English Dictionary is so often off the shelf. A Latin word for quiet, tranquil has a cluster of synonyms―calm, serene, placid, peaceful―as expected, but what I find intriguing are the quotes from the early texts, most of which link tranquility to its opposite. It is the calm that has richer quality because it precedes the storm. It is a feeling of peace more deeply felt because it comes after turmoil of heart or mind. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his essay Nature: “I am glad to the brink of fear.”

Tranquil often describes seas or broad landscapes that have a way of calming a person. This last idea of tranquil reveals the connectedness of nature to the human spirit, what Emerson observed: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” I look out my front window to these trees, my version of Emerson’s “tranquil landscape,” the wide horizon across his neighbors’ farms, and wonder if it might work the other way round, that perhaps I can learn to wear the colors of this tree’s spirit, how it can offer such tranquility to the landscape despite the inner chaos of its branching.

tranquility tree, images by me.