The Tree That Stands Alone

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For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves.

And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk:
in the rings of its years,
its scars,
all the struggle,
all the suffering,
all the sickness,
all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written,
the narrow years and the luxurious years,
the attacks withstood,
the storms endured.

And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is.

That is home. That is happiness.
~ Hermann HesseBäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte

 

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Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.
~Winston Churchill

 

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A wind has blown the rain away
and blown the sky away
and all the leaves away,
and the trees stand.
I think, I too, have known autumn too long.

~e.e. cummings

 

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Trees are Earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.
~Rabindranath Tagore

 

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Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
~Walt Whitman

 

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I don’t know why, of all the trees that peppered this hill over a century ago, this one was spared.  Perhaps she was the tallest at the time, or the straightest, or just didn’t yield to the ax as the others did.

She has become the sentinel on our farm, a focal point:
the marker by which all else is measured.

She is unchanging as the backdrop of clouds and seasons, color and light shift and swirl.

Visitors climb the hill to her first before seeing anything else on the farm, to see the expanse that she surveys.  Her branches oversee gatherings of early Easter morning worship, summer evening church services, winter sledding parties, and Fourth of July celebrations.

This one special tree stands alone, apart from the others, but is never lonely – not really.  She shares her top with the eagles and hawks, her shadow with humans and other critters in her century-long vigil with people all around the globe in these photos.

Never lonely — no, never.

This is her home.  This is happiness.

 

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Thunder Made of Whispers

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A poem is a spider web
Spun with words of wonder,
Woven lace held in place
By whispers made of thunder.
~Charles Ghigna

 

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I wander the barnyard
studying the complexities of web design,
marveling at a tiny creature’s creation
of connection by the slenderest thread.

Through words and pictures I whisper
from my own corner of the web
and wait patiently for the shimmer of connection:
my rumbling thunder has been heard.

 

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Watch Where I Step

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I watch where I step and see
that the fallen leaf, old broken glass,
an icy stone are placed in

exactly the right spot on the earth, carefully,
royalty in their 
own country.
~ Tom Hennen, “Looking For The Differences”
from Darkness Sticks To Everything: Collected and New Poems.
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If the pebble, the leaf, the walnut shell, the moss, the fallen feather
are placed exactly right where they belong,
then so am I
~even when I may rather be elsewhere~
even when I could get stepped on,
even when I would rather hide in a hole,
even when exactly right feels exactly wrong.
I’m placed right here to watch where I step
for some reason beyond understanding:
a simple peasant
asked to serve a royal purpose.
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She Breathed Me

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…and there was once, oh wonderful,
a new horse in the pasture,
a tall, slim being–a neighbor was keeping her there–
and she put her face against my face,
put her muzzle, her nostrils, soft as violets,
against my mouth and my nose, and breathed me,
to see who I was,
a long quiet minute–minutes–
then she stamped her feet and whisked tail
and danced deliciously into the grass away, and came back.
She was saying, so plainly, that I was good, or good enough.
~Mary Oliver from “The Poet Goes to Indiana”

 

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photo by Lea Gibson

 

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photo by Emily Vander Haak

 

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Our farm has had many muzzles here over the years–

Pink noses,
gray noses,
nondescript not-sure-what-color noses,
noses that have white stripes, diamonds,  triangles,
or absolutely no marks at all.

Hot breath that exudes warm grassy fragrance
better than any pricey perfume,
lips softer than the most elegant velvet.

Noses that reach out in greeting to:
blow,
sniff,
nuzzle,
caress,
push,
search,
breathe me in
and breathe for me,

smudge my face and
shower snot.

I’m just good enough
to warrant
such a baptism blessing.

 

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Feeling Bereft

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Silence and darkness grow apace, broken only by the crack of a hunter’s gun in the woods.  Songbirds abandon us so gradually that, until the day when we hear no birdsong at all but the scolding of the jay, we haven’t fully realized that we are bereft — as after a death.  Even the sun has gone off somewhere… Now we all come in, having put the garden to bed, and we wait for winter to pull a chilly sheet over its head.   
~Jane Kenyon from “Good-by and Keep Cold”

 

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Every day now we hear hunters firing in the woods and the wetlands around our farm, most likely aiming for the few ducks that have stayed in the marshes through the winter, or possibly a Canadian goose or a deer to bring home for the freezer.   The usual day-long symphony of birdsong is replaced by shotguns popping, hawks and eagle screams and chittering, the occasional dog barking, with the bluejays and squirrels arguing over the last of the filbert nuts.

In the clear cold evenings, when coyotes aren’t howling in the moonlight, the owls hoot to each other across the fields from one patch of woods to another, their gentle resonant conversation echoing back and forth.    The horses confined to their stalls in the barns snort and blow as they bury their noses in flakes of summer-bound hay.

But there are no birdsong arias now,  leaving me bereft of their blending musical tapestry that wake me at 4 AM in the spring.   No peeper orchestra from the swamps in the evenings, rising and falling on the breeze.

It is too too quiet.

The chilly silence of the darkened days is now interrupted by all percussion, no melody at all.   I listen intently for early morning and evening serenades returning.
It won’t be long.

 

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When Worry is a Terminal Disease

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Considering myself a Dr. Doolittle of sorts, always talking to the animals, I reached out to pet a stray cat sitting quietly outside our barn one evening while doing barn chores.  This is a grayish fluffy cat I see around the barns every few months or so–he doesn’t put in frequent appearances and reminds me of a kitten we raised on this farm a few years back, though his markings are a bit different,  so I know it is not our cat.

We have 6 cats to pet here who claim “us” as their home and family, so there is no lack of fur balls to love.  There are probably that many more who hang out,  now and then,  considering our farm fair game and looking for an occasional free meal.  This cat just seemed to need a reassuring pat at that moment or maybe I needed the reassurance.  Wrong.

I found myself with a cat attached to my wrist by teeth and claws.  It took a bit of an effort to shake him off and he escaped into the night. I then surveyed the damage he inflicted and immediately went to wash my wounds.  They were deep punctures near my wrist joint–not good.  Lucky for me I was up to date on my tetanus booster.

By the next day the wounds were getting inflamed and quite sore.  I know all too well the propensity of cat bites to get badly infected with Pasteurella Multocida, a “bad actor” bacteria that can penetrate deep tissues and bone if not treated with aggressive antibiotics.  After getting 6 opinions from my colleagues at clinic, all of whom stood solemnly shaking their heads at my 12 hour delay in getting medical attention,  I surrendered and called my doctor’s office.  I pleaded for a “no visit” prescription as I was up to my eyeballs in my own patients, and he obliged me.  I picked up the antibiotic prescription during a break, sat in the car ready to swallow the first one and then decided to wait a little longer before starting them, knowing they wallop the gut bacteria and cause pretty nasty side effects.  I wanted to see if my own immune system might just be sufficient.

So the bacterial infection risk was significant and real but I was prepared to deal with it.  For some reason I didn’t really think about the risk of rabies until the middle of the night when all dark and depressing thoughts seem to come real to me.

I don’t know this cat.  I doubt he has an owner and it is highly unlikely he is rabies vaccinated.  My own cats aren’t rabies vaccinated (and neither am I) though if I was a conscientious owner, they would be.  Yes, we have bats in our barns and woods and no, there has not been a rabid bat reported in our area in some time.

But what if this cat were potentially infected with the rabies virus but not yet showing symptoms?  Now my mind started to work overtime as any good neurotic will do.  Last summer a rabid kitten in North Carolina potentially exposed 10 people when it was passed around a softball tournament, no one aware it was ill until it died and was tested.  Lots of people had to have rabies shots as a result.

This cat who had bitten me was long gone–there was no finding him in the vast woods and farmland surrounding us.  He couldn’t be kept in observation for 10 days and watched for symptoms, nor could he be sacrificed to examine his neural tissue for signs of the virus.

I called the health department to ask what their recommendation was in a case like this.  Do they recommend rabies immune globulin injection which should have been done as soon as possible after the bite?   I talked with a nurse who read from a prepared script for neurotic people like me.  Feral cats in our area have not been reported to have rabies nor have skunks or raccoons.  Only local bats have been reported to have rabies but not recently.  This cat would have had to have been bitten by a rabid bat to be rabid.  This was considered a “provoked” attack as I had reached out to pet the cat.  This was not a cat acting unusually other than having wrapped itself around my arm.  No, the Health Dept would not recommend rabies immune globulin in this situation but I was free to contact my own doctor to have it done at my own expense if I wished to have the series of 5 vaccination shots over the next month at a cost of about $3000.   Yes, there would be a degree of uncertainty about this and I’d have to live with that uncertainty but she reassured me this was considered a very low risk incident.

I knew this was exactly what I would be told and I would have counseled any patient with the same words.  Somehow it is always more personal when the risk of being wrong has such dire consequences.  I could see the headlines “Local Doctor Dies From Rabid Cat Bite”.

This is not how I want to be remembered.

Rabies is one of the worst possible ways to die.  The cases I’ve read about are among the most frightening I’ve ever seen in the medical literature. Not only is it painful and horrific but it puts family and care providers at risk as well.  It also has an unpredictable incubation period of a up to a month or two, even being reported as long as a year after an exposure.  What a long time to wait in uncertainty.  It also has a prodrome of several days of very nonspecific symptoms of headache, fever and general malaise, like any other viral infection before the encephalitis and other bad stuff hits.  I was going to think about it any time I had a little headache or chill.  This was assuredly going to be a real test of my dubious ability to stifle my tendency for 4-dimensional worries.

I decided to live with the low risk uncertainty and forego the vaccination series.  It was a pragmatic decision based on the odds.  My wounds slowly healed without needing antibiotics.  For ten days I watched for my attacker cat whenever I went to the barn, but he didn’t put in an appearance.  I put out extra food and hoped to lure him in.  It would have been just be so nice to see his healthy face and not have to think about this gray cloud hanging over me for the next few months, as I wondered about every stray symptom.  No gray kitty to be seen.

Almost a month has gone by now and he finally showed up last night.  I could have grabbed him and hugged him but I know better now. No more Dr. Doolittle.

He is perfectly fine and now so am I, cured of a terminal case of worry and hypochondria which is not nearly as deadly as rabies but can be debilitating and life shortening none the less.

From now on, I’ll be contented to just “talk to the animals” like any good Dr. Doolittle.  I don’t need to cuddle them.

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

Ease Into the Conversation

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My bird, my darling,
Calling through the cold of afternoon—
Those round, bright notes,
Each one so perfect
Shaken from the other and yet
Hanging together in flashing clusters!
The small soft flowers and the ripe fruit
All are gathered.
It is the season now of nuts and berries
And round, bright, flashing drops
In the frozen grass.
~Katherine Mansfield “Winter Bird”

 

 

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Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone…

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
~David Whyte from “Everything is Waiting for You”

 

 

 

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This time of year we sit in silence, waiting for the conversation to resume.

There are hunters firing in the woods and the wetlands around our farm, most likely aiming for the few ducks that have stayed in the marshes through the winter, or possibly a Canadian goose or a deer to bring home for the freezer.  The typical day-long serenade of birdsong is now replaced by shotguns popping, hawks and eagle’s mating chitters from the treetops, with the bluejays arguing over the last of the filbert nuts.

The song birds have ceased their usual constant conversation.  They swoop in and out to the feeders, intent on survival, less worried about mating rituals and territorial establishment.

On the clear cold evenings, when coyotes aren’t howling in the moonlight, owls hoot to each other across the fields from one patch of woods to another, their gentle resonant dialogue echoing back and forth.

But no birdsong arias;  I’m left bereft of their blending musical tapestry that wakes me at 4 AM in the spring and summer. And the rising and falling of the annual evening peeper orchestra tuning up in the swamps is still two months away.

It is much too quiet now, this time of winter bereavement, this feeling of being alone in a cold and hostile world. The chilly silence of the darkened days, interrupted by gunshot percussion, feels like a baton raised in anticipation after rapping the podium to bring us all to attention. I wait and listen for the downbeat — the return of birds and frogs tuning their throats, preparing their symphony to ease themselves back into the conversation, to express joy and wonder and exuberance at the return of spring.

I want to stick around for the whole concert, hoping always for an encore.

 

 

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