Tree Secrets

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Of winter’s lifeless world each tree
Now seems a perfect part;
Yet each one holds summer’s secret
Deep down within its heart.
~ Charles G. Stater

 

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Enduring the dark and quiet winter months, the trees appear to doze deep while standing stark naked against the sky, roused only by the whipping of the winds and when breaking under a heavy coat of ice.

It is uneasy sleep.

When I look close now, I can tell:
they conceal summer secrets under their skin, the sap flows thick and sluggish, there is a barely palpable pulse in those branches.

A heart pumps within, readying.

 

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Excellent January Partly Cloudies

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Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt,
and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.

~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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After years of rarely paying attention,
too busy with whatever clinic or household or barnyard task needs doing,
I realize there are only a finite number of sunrises and sunsets left to me.

Now I don’t want to miss them, so whenever I can,
I stop, take a deep breath
and feel lucky to be alive,
a witness to that moment of transition.

Sometimes they are plain and gray
just as I am,
but there are days that are lit from above and beneath
with a fire that ignites across the sky.
I too am engulfed for a moment or two,
until sun or shadow sweeps me away,
transfixed and transformed,
ever and forever grateful for the light.

 

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In the Echo of Fog Horns

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new year’s eve-
in the echo of fog horns
another voyage starts
–  Keiko Izawa

 

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I grew up on a small farm located about two miles from a bay in Puget Sound.  When I awoke, I knew it was a foggy morning outside even before looking out my bedroom window.  The fog horns located on coastal buildings and bobbing buoys scattered throughout the inlet would echo mournful moans and groans to warn freighter ships away from the rocky or muddy shallows.   The resonant lowing of the horns carried miles over the surrounding landscape due to countless water particles in the fog transmitting sound waves so effectively.  The louder the foghorn moan heard on our farm, the thicker the mist in the air.  Those horn voices would make me unspeakably sad for reasons I could never articulate.

Embarking on a voyage in blinding foggy conditions, just like starting a new year,  portends both adventure and risk.  Of course I’d prefer to see exactly where I am headed, carefully navigating with precise knowledge,  eventually winding up exactly at my intended destination.  The reality is that the future can be a murky mess.  We cannot see what lies ahead: we navigate by our wits, by our best guess, but particularly by listening for the low-throated warnings coming from the rocky shores and shallows of those who have gone ahead of us.

I am still too easily lost in the fog of my fears – disconnected, afloat and circling aimlessly, searching for a touch point of purpose and direction.  The isolation I sometimes feel may simply be my own self-absorbed state of mind, sucking me in deep until I’m soaked, dripping and shivering from the smothering gray.   If only I might trust the fog horn voices, I could charge into the future undaunted, knowing there are others out there in the pea soup prepared to come alongside me as together we await the sun’s dissipation of the fog.

Now I know, over sixty years into the voyage,  fog does eventually clear so the journey continues on.

Even so, I will keep listening for the resonant voices of wisdom and caution from shore, and at times raise my voice to join in.

Instead of echoing the moans and groans of my childhood mornings, may I sing an anthem of hope and promise.

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

God Was Here: My Soul to Thrive

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But I am done with apple-picking now. 
Essence of winter sleep is on the night, 
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 
I got from looking through a pane of glass 
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough 
And held against the world of hoary grass. 
It melted, and I let it fall and break. 
But I was well 
Upon my way to sleep before it fell, 
And I could tell 
What form my dreaming was about to take. 
For I have had too much 
Of apple-picking: I am overtired 
Of the great harvest I myself desired. 
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, 
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. 
For all 
That struck the earth, 
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, 
Went surely to the cider-apple heap 
As of no worth. 
One can see what will trouble 
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. 
Were he not gone, 
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his 
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, 
Or just some human sleep.
~Robert Frost from “After Apple-Picking”
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This fall I picked up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.

I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.

When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.

It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.

The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.

There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.

What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from Someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?

Perhaps if the Giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this gift of sweetness, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.

We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and how we receive it makes all the difference.

 

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1. The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

2. His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

3. For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

4. I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

5. This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.
~Elizabeth Poston From Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs,
compiled by Joshua Smith, New Hampshire, 1784

 

 

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The Hollowness of the Season

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The way the trees empty themselves of leaves,
let drop their ponderous fruit,
the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log,
the way even the late-blooming aster
succumbs to the power of frost—

this is not a new story.
Still, on this morning, the hollowness
of the season startles, filling
the rooms of your house, filling the world
with impossible light, improbable hope.

And so, what else can you do
but let yourself be broken
and emptied? What else is there
but waiting in the autumn sun?
~Carolyn Locke from The Place We Become

 

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November is the month of windstorms: a few years ago one took down a ninety plus year old orchard tree on our farm.

The old Spitzenberg tree, the favorite variety of Thomas Jefferson, had been failing over the previous ten years. It was rotting centrally with holes that housed squirrels and their treasure trove of filbert nuts, and bearing fruit that was startling red and sweet but diminishingly small and scabbed, dropping to the ground beneath like so many drops of blood. Blue jays loved the branches and quarreled relentlessly with the squirrels over prime real estate and mountain view property in the crown of the tree.

No more. As it was eased on to its side in the night storm, swept up in the torrent of air and rain, it went quite peacefully, gracefully with nary a broken branch as they reached out to touch the ground, almost gratefully, breaking neatly at the base of its trunk, not even disturbing the sod. The roots remain covered underground, still clinging to rocky soil, with no where to pump to any longer. The old tree had simply bled out.

Somehow we needed to dispose of the remains. As my husband made several chain saw cuts through the trunk to make pieces easily movable, the extent of the astonishing hole in this old tree became visible. It was suffering from an extreme equivalent of human osteoporosis with a brittle skeleton that somehow had lasted through innumerable windstorms until this week, even while still bearing apples, still trying its best to be fruitful.

When it fell, the trunk oriented itself so it provided a view right through to the barnyard down the hill, telescoping what the tree had surveyed for so many years of its life. Clearly this had been a holey trunk for some years; within the cavity at the base were piles of different size rocks stashed there by the Lawrence children two generations ago and more recently our Gibson children. There was also a large tarnished spoon, lost decades ago into the dark center of the apple tree and now retrieved at its death. At some point in the last quarter century, a Gibson child playing a farm version of frisbee golf must have flung a bucket lid at the hole in the tree, and it disappeared into the gap and settled at the bottom.

All this, like a treasure trove of history, was just waiting for the time when the tree would give up its secrets at its death. There were no gold or silver coins, no notes to the future like a glass bottle put out to sea. This well hidden time capsule held simply rocks and spoon and lid.

I realized as I stared into the gulf of that empty trunk that I’m hollow too, more hollow than I care to admit. Like so many of us, stuff is hidden deep inside that we’d just as soon not have discovered. Our outside scaffolding braces against the buffeting by the winds and storms of life, as we cling to this mortal soil. It is clear we’d be much stronger if we were wholly solid throughout, filled with something stronger even than our outsides.

But we tend to get filled up with a lot of nothing, or even worse than nothing, a lot of garbage. This is stuff that weakens us, furthers the rot, shortens our fruitful life, doing nothing to make us more whole and holy.

I’m looking more critically now at what fills my empty spots since staring down the barrel of that old apple tree trunk. May the hollow be hallowed.

 

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Apples Plummet Like Rain

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And then there is that day when all around,
all around you hear the dropping of the apples, one
by one, from the trees. At first it is one here and one there,
and then it is three and then it is four and then nine and
twenty, until the apples plummet like rain, fall like horse hoofs 
in the soft, darkening grass, and you are the last apple on the
tree; and you wait for the wind to work you slowly free from 
your hold upon the sky, and drop you down and down. Long 
before you hit the grass you will have forgotten there ever 
was a tree, or other apples, or a summer, or green grass below,
You will fall in darkness…
~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine

 

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We are in the midst of our annual October storms complete with pelleting sheets of rain and gusty breezes.  Along with power outages and an ever-present risk of flooding, these storms facilitate the annual “falling of the fruit” from our trees.  It is risky to walk in the orchard this time of year – one could stroll about enjoying the brisk temperatures and autumn colors and be unexpectedly bonked on the head and knocked out cold.

The apples thud like horse hooves in the grass as our Haflingers race about in the cool wet weather enjoying the last bit of freedom before the winter lock up.  Apples thud like over large rain drops but without the splatter.  Apples thud after gradually loosening their hold on the sky and plummeting to come to rest on a soft carpet of green.

I recognize this call to let go,  although clinging tenaciously when buffeted, my strength waning.  Thought I fret and worry, the time must come for the pulled-forth fall.  I may land a bit bruised, but will glisten golden from the journey.

 

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The Diversity of an Orchard

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I’ve come to give you fruit from out my orchard,
Of wide report.
I have trees there that bear me many apples.
Of every sort:

Clear, streaked; red and russet; green and golden;
Sour and sweet.
This apple’s from a tree yet unbeholden,
Where two kinds meet, –

So that this side is red without a dapple,
And this side’s hue
Is clear and snowy. It’s a lovely apple.
It is for you.

Within are five black pips as big as peas,
As you will find,
Potent to breed you five great apple trees
Of varying kind:

To breed you wood for fire, leaves for shade,
Apples for sauce.
Oh, this is a good apple for a maid,
It is a cross,

Fine on the finer, so the flesh is tight,
And grained like silk.
Sweet Burning gave the red side, and the white
Is Meadow Milk.

Eat it, and you will taste more than the fruit:
The blossom, too,
The sun, the air, the darkness at the root,
The rain, the dew,

The earth we came to, and the time we flee,
The fire and the breast.
I claim the white part, maiden, that’s for me.
You take the rest.

 ~Louise Bogan “The Crossed Apple”
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Today will be applesauce-making day on our farm. The number of windfall apples lying on the ground is exponentially increasing, so I could put off the task no longer. The apple trees in our orchard are primarily antique varieties rarely grown any longer. I selected Spitzenburgs, a favorite apple of Thomas Jefferson, a Baldwin or two, some Newton Pippins, a few Kings, but mostly I picked Dutch Mignons, a russet apple undistinguished in appearance, not at all pretty, and easy to pass by for something more showy.

It took no time at all to fill several large buckets. Sadly, some apples were beyond hope; they lay rotting, half consumed by slugs and other critters. Those I left behind.

The task of washing, peeling and coring organic apples is time consuming. They require a fair amount of preparation: the bruised spots must be cut out, as well as the worm holes and tracks. The apples are cut to the core and sliced into the simmering pot to be stirred and slowly cooked down to sauce. Before long, before my eyes, together they become a pale yellow mash, blending their varied flavors together. However the smooth sweetness of this wonderful sauce is owed to the Dutch Mignon. It is a sublime sauce apple despite its humble unassuming appearance. Used alone, it would lack the “stand out” flavors of the other apple varieties, but as it cooks down, it becomes a foundation allowing the other apples to blend their unique qualities.

So it should be with the fellowship of diverse people. We are bruised, wormy, but salvageable. We are far better together than we are separate. And we are transformed into something far better than how we began.

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