the cassandra pages

writings on place

Some Thoughts about "Place Blogging"

I haven't thought of my blog as being strictly a "place blog" since I do write about many other subjects. I used to be a naturalist and outdoor educator, and earlier in life spent a lot of time writing and illustrating trail guides, planning and constructing exhibits, writing articles and planning programs, leading nature hikes. Nature has always been a big subject in my writing, and one thing I've been grateful for is that blogging about nature and my surroundings has made me get out more and turn on that mental recorder - that's very welcome, from the perspective of this chair and desk, especially after the longest and most inhospitable winter I can remember. In my poetry and essays, nature is often a metaphor and a vehicle for me to talk about something else, and it's helpful to get back into a more constantly observant frame of mind.

I like the idea of having a central place where people who do this can post particular entries about "place"; potentially creating more interest in the subject, seeing it from a wider viewpoint (not just blogs from the "beautiful and unspoiled", for instance), and creating more traffic back to the originating blogs.

Which makes me think about what I'm doing here. I think what I am trying to do in my blog, as it evolves, is to talk about "place" both from an intimate and a broad perspective. It seems to me that everything I write is somewhat about "place", if we extend that definition concentrically to be one person's place in her locality, her region, her country, her culture, the world's culture, the life of the spirit. On another axis you might also say I'm writing about one person's place in time, extending forward (into questions of technology, science, human impact on practically everything) and backwards (toward a greater understanding of myself in history). I think this is all "place", and I'd like to see if there is a place in the blogosphere for this sort of searching and conversation but perhaps grounded in writing about our most fundamental "place" relationship - with nature. For years, we were devoted readers of Whole Earth Review/Co-Evolution Quarterly - I think they were forerunners in this sort of holistic and undefined conversation about place.

It's just like medicine or any other specialized field - if people focus only on one part they may miss a fundamental, underlying element on which the entire problem hangs. (Which is not to say one of the very best things about the internet is exactly that it's perfect for minute specialisation and exploration of any topic.) Without a sense of the natural world and who we are in relation to it, we are not fully aware of ourselves as human beings - and yet our lifestyle makes this increasingly difficult, as well as "unnecessary" for most practical purposes. Even worse, we are missing one of the great gifts of life - the solace and meaning that comes from seeing something we are, I believe, very much meant to see: the beauty, intricacy and wonder of the natural world, and the awesome awareness of being a human being with full powers of perception to see, hear, touch, taste, smell and consider these gifts.

Requiem for a Tree

While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Wordsworth, “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey”

The big willow is being cut. I’m upset about it, know it has to be done, but it’s such a great and beautiful tree, worthy of being mourned. I’ve looked up into its branches for twenty years now, especially on summer evenings, when the only light was from the moon, to see stars shining through the leaves so far above my head, and fireflies dancing among them. It always felt like its own world, up there, in the bowls formed by those great dark branches, populated by things of the air and heights. A pair of orioles nested in the tree each spring, serenading me as I turned over the first soil in the garden; later their purse-like nest swayed above me. And it was home to many smaller birds: chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, feeding no doubt on a vast colony of insects. Kneeling next to the garden beds I’d feel drips of water raining down on me all summer, even during dry weather, and wonder whether willows really wept, if that was how they got their name.

Branches fell continually, especially in spring storms, and I used the long supple tender ones to make woven fences and supports for herbs and other plants. It was a high-maintenance tree for us, and we didn’t even own it, but I never minded. I drew it many times, painted a watercolor, wrote a poem --trying unsuccessfully to capture that mysterious, secret world suspended in the sky.

When this hill was a pasture, a stream flowed between our property and the neighbors’, and along its banks a line of willows grew up. Ours was the first house cut out of the farm proper, near the turn of the century. Over the last twenty years, the hillside, divided and subdivided, became house lots. The willows -- streambank trees, never intended for shade -- were left in one back yard or another, sending their shallow roots into basement walls and dropping branches each spring. Homeowners, sympathetic at first, grew tired of taking care of the trees and worried when major damage occurred in thunderstorms. It’s understandable. But as is always the case, it doesn’t matter that the trees were here first, that we are, in fact, the ones who have encroached on them.

Last night, after dinner, the chain saws in the neighbors’ yard were finally silent. I went out on the back porch and looked over at the willow. The tree stood there still, its great wide crown shorn, one main trunk remaining with all its branches and leaves, the others amputated into huge logs that lay around the base. It was a horrible sight but heroic in a way; the tree, still alive, retaining something of its nobility and the strength emanating from that huge solid trunk, easily five feet in diameter at chest height. Yet it was doomed; this would be its final night, the last time those branches reached toward sunlight, leaves stretching a few new millimeters in length. I came back upstairs, drew a basin of water for the dishes, and started to cry, filled with sorrow for mankind, for being alive at a time and in a culture which values the safe, the cheap, the fast solution: whatever fits easily into our lives and causes the least inconvenience. I cried rueful tears for myself, made so sad by a tree -- how out of step I am, and how painful it is to stubbornly refuse the cries of a culture that would gladly give up Bach for the sitcom-of-the-moment; where artists, musicians and poets eek out a living and developers get rich.

I’ll remember the willow best on those nights, years ago, when I was trying to figure out if God existed. After I’d meditated for an hour, the incense burned down to ash, candle extinguished, I’d come out into the night, and to my polished mind, open, newly innocent, every sensation appeared fresh, important, astonishing. The Milky Way had never seemed so vast, the air so exhilarating, the snow under my feet so white. And there the willow loomed: hugely alive, pulsating with being-ness and a quality of home that strangely did not feel closed to me. I stopped trying to paint it or write about it, but just stood there, night after night, as if it were part of the meditation ritual; looking up, not thinking, I let it tell me whatever it had to say.

Faith and Potatoes

My grandmother and I carried on a long correspondence from the time I went away to college until a few months before she died. Our letters were always full of garden talk, from the January recitation of seed orders, to the seedlings lists in March, and the major articles on spring planting. My grandparents’ vegetable garden declined in size as they grew older and the big maple in the backyard shaded more and more of the old plot. Grandma still insisted on a few tomato plants, a row of green beans and some lettuce, and right up until 90, when he died, Grandpa dutifully carried out her orders. He was strong, even then, quite capable of digging up a rose shoot or a clump of daylilies for his granddaughter to take back to her home.

In one of those last years, my grandmother wrote, “What I’d really like to grow again before I die is a hill of potatoes.” When I asked why, she said, “It just reminds me of being that little girl on the farm in Beaver Meadow. While Mama made dinner, Inez would be reading, and Minerva playing on the floor, so Mama would say, ‘Beth, go out and get me some potatoes.’ And I’d take a basket and run out to the garden and reach my hand in there under the plant, and there they would be! Like buried treasure. I just loved to pick potatoes, and I suppose I’d like to do it again.”

Before she told me this, I never grew potatoes. I had mentioned the possibility once to my husband in the early years of our marriage. Not a gardener himself, he had gone to an organic farm boarding school as a child, and spent lots of time in friends’ hippie homesteads later on. He cast a dubious eye in my direction. “Are you sure you want to grow potatoes?” he said. “Nothing gets more bugs, and they’re prone to all those blights and things... and then you have to store them, and they rot.”

“How do you know?” I retorted.

“Because at school, we grew potatoes, and stored them in a root cellar, and they fed them to us all winter. Every month they’d get worse and worse. By spring, they were black.” He looked revolted, thinking about it. No wonder he’d always preferred rice!

However, I was more easily dissuaded when I was younger. That spring, after my grandmother’s letter, I went down to the local feed store and wandered out back, past the peeping chicks and ducks in their pens, to where the barrels of seed potatoes were kept: Red Bliss, Kennebec, Yukon Gold. You could buy them in big burlap bags if you were planting a whole field. Since I had modest intentions, I scooped out a couple of handfuls into a small paper bag. “Potatoes,” I said to the man at the counter, the one who always wore overalls and a striped railroad hat. He peered into the bag. “You can just take these,” he said, handing it back to me with a little smile. “Planting one row, I guess?” I nodded and thanked him, not sure whether to be embarrassed or not.

That year I planted my potatoes in two hills. Jonathan and the cat watched, skeptically. Several times during the summer, I peeked, and thought I could detect round tubers growing, but I was reluctant to pull up a whole plant. Somehow, after all the ribbing I’d taken, I wanted to prolong the suspense. Sure enough, the plants attracted potato beetles - how did they know? - and many of the once-green leaves withered and turned brown. In October, before the first frost, I announced I was going to harvest the potatoes, my brave march to the garden belying the trepidation I felt. But with the first careful forkful of soil, out tumbled six big red tubers: clotted with dirt, but unmistakably familiar. I picked one up. It was heavy and cold; it smelled like the earth itself - like minerals and water and soil. I brushed off the dirt. The flesh was firm, unblemished, the skin tight and glossy. No mold, no fungus -- just a perfect potato. “Honey,” I called, “you’ve got to come out here!”

My grandmother never grew those potatoes. Grandpa died before spring, and without him to do the heavy work, her gardening world began to shrink toward the porches and window boxes. But I told her about mine. Each year, as I perform this absurd ritual, cutting shriveled old potatoes into pieces that, by any logical standard, should simply rot underground, I think of the family farm that lives on through her stories. I imagine my great-grandmother preparing a supper of trout, laid in a moss-lined creel by her father, while my grandmother runs out to fetch potatoes she helped her father plant that spring. My mouth waters at the thought of fresh potatoes with butter and thick cream, eaten guiltlessly and happily, because you were hungry and had spent a long day outdoors. I suppose I grow my row for her as much as for myself, but as I get older I also appreciate the rare surprise life occasionally offers. Potatoes, more than any other garden crop, have that element of delight and discovery, even after a long season of tending and growth. I understand why she loved being sent out to the potato patch as a child, and why, as a very old woman, she longed to reach her hand under that plant into the cool darkness, just to see what she might find.