redux: bringing home the tree

From last year, as we plan this year’s tree cutting…

rosemary trees

There was never much time for thoughtful reflection all those Christmases when my children were young. Baking, making things, cutting lino for our annual letterpress cards, school parties (including at least two for which my children had promised their teachers I’d provide gingerbread boys for the entire class and then forgot to tell me until bedtime the night before…), the Carol Ships party at Edith Iglauer’s house when we’d all stand on her deck and watch fishing boats strung with lights float by with carolers singing over the dark water. I remember sitting on her low couch afterwards with 3 children sleeping across my lap. I felt things intensely but didn’t seem to have time to think about what they meant, what each thing meant when it was happening, and now it’s part of my vast archive of memories, and I have time to summon up those years and remember them.

Today we cut our Christmas tree. We used to do this on December 23rd or 24th, bringing the tree in on the morning of the 24th to decorate. Some years the tree came from our woods, a weedy fir in danger of being crowded out by the bigger neighbours. Other years we downloaded a permit to cut a tree from under the power lines. We walk there fairly often and keep our eye out for likely candidates. The trees grow to a certain height and then the crews come to cut them and shred them to keep the line clear. This is where we went this year, wanting to have a tree home early as there are several events over the days leading up to Christmas. We had a few in mind. I liked this one’s bendy wood near the top:

bendy wood

This one was clearly a favourite of the Roosevelt elk that roam the lines.

chosen by elk

But then we found the one—

the one

—that we knew would be beautiful dressed in all our old ornaments: the glass stars made by our friend June; the wallpaper trees studded with glittered macaroni; the Chinese paper lanterns sent to John’s family from his grandmother in England shortly after they’d emigrated in the 1950s; the felt birds and wooden fish; lumpy angels; string balls formed over balloons, now collapsed. In short, a lifetime of saving, of storing away a season of memories in a box in a dark closet. This year’s tree is in a bucket of water in the woodshed to be brought inside on the 24th so that we can decorate her with Angelica and the ghosts of all those who’ve helped in the past, some of them gone. Last Christmas it was Forrest, Manon, and Arthur, joined by Angie, and the year before, Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly —and the very beginnings of Henry. Yesterday Brendan sent a video of the children decorating their tree and the most poignant footage of Henry trying to find a way to place a piece of a hairdryer on the tree. He’s 1 and not entirely clear on the concept of ornaments yet. But given what goes on our tree, maybe he’s not far off.

I can see our tree waiting as I work at the kitchen counter, so green against the wall of firewood. Already a squirrel has raced along its branches. I kept peeking out as I rolled out shortbread fish and stars and the special ones cut into trees and studded with rosemary leaves (as Ophelia told Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts…”, and she of all people knew about herbs and their latent power). I was listening to satellite radio as I cut and baked and found myself in tears hearing a Richard Thompson song I’d never known:

In the old cold embers of the year
When joy and comfort disappear
I search around to find her
I’m a hundred miles behind her
The open road whispered in her ear

And she never could resist a winding road…

Somehow it seemed to be about our tree as I walked behind John back to the vehicle. You can’t see our Element. It’s beyond the bend in that winding road. Joy hasn’t disappeared but it’s cold out and we need to remember that trees come in during the shortest days to remind us of what comes next. The light returning, little by little, and if we take care of our fires, the embers will last.

cut.jpg

memory

this year

I’ve just been mowing grass and thinking about memory. In a way, grass mowing is an act of memory. You can just let your muscles remember how to coax the mower over the rough ground (we don’t exactly have a “lawn”; we have cleared areas that have accumulated moss and wild grasses and drifts of oregano, so beloved by bees…), you watch for rocks, sleeping snakes, but mostly your mind drifts. You remember all the springs you’ve dragged a mower across the grass, though to be honest it’s usually John who does the mowing. You remember the old vegetable garden, before the septic field gave up and had to be rebuilt, giving you the opportunity to lay out proper raised boxes in a fixed geometry, with paths between them. The old garden had beds that continued to sink, no matter how much seaweed and manure and alfalfa you added to them over the seasons.

One reason I’ve been thinking about memory is because I’ve read several accounts of how scientists have supposedly transplanted memory from one California sea hare (a hermaphrodite sea snail) to another. The experiment involved implanting wires into the snail tails, giving them electrical shocks, inducing a defensive action, then transferring RNA, or Ribonucleic acid (one of the 3 biological macromolecules necessary for life),  via injection, to another snail, where it seems the sensitivity to the electrical prod had been transferred. (Snails who were wired but not shocked did not transfer the sensitivity to the animal receiving RNA.)

Not everyone is convinced that memory is being transferred in this process. In an article in the Guardian, I read this:

Tomás Ryan, who studies memory at Trinity College Dublin, is firmly unconvinced. “It’s interesting, but I don’t think they’ve transferred a memory,” he said. “This work tells me that maybe the most basic behavioural responses involve some kind of switch in the animal and there is something in the soup that Glanzman extracts that is hitting that switch.”

But Ryan added that radical thinking about memory was sorely needed: “In a field like this which is so full of dogma, where we are waiting for people to retire so we can move on, we need as many new ideas as possible. This work takes us down an interesting road, but I have a huge amount of scepticism about it.”

I don’t know, tell me I’m wrong, but this kind of experimentation seems excessive. Why on earth should we be tampering with memory, any organism’s memory? Surely that’s a profoundly disrespectful trespass. Imagine how it could be used in the future (remembering how the tendency to exploit life-forms for the sake of science has been a hallmark of our species). I can imagine researchers making an argument for transplanting or removing memory from humans who have suffered terrible trauma and you might say there’s justification for this in order for those individuals to live lives without that particular suffering but who would decide? Who would be ultimately responsible for determining what memories should be removed and from whom?

In the meantime California sea hares are being wired and shocked and injected in order to make room for new research ideas, “radical  thinking about memory.”

Last night we watched the pair of coyotes in what remains of our orchard and after they left, we watched a black bear sow, possibly the same one we saw last year, and the year before, with her two cubs. I’ve read that bears have quite sophisticated memory maps that allow them to move across a landscape feeding from remembered and reliable food sources. It’s what brings them down from the berry patches to the salmon streams year after year and to our orchard in years past for the apples and pears. I think this mother is helping her cubs to develop their own maps but is probably puzzled by how the orchard has changed. Last May this mother, if it’s the same one, urged her yearling up onto the second story deck where we grow our tomatoes and the young one dragged several big pots down the stairs before realizing there was nothing in them to eat. Not yet. And was it the mother who encouraged the yearling to drag down the mason bee house above the tomato plants tucked against a warm wall?

Right this minute I can hear a robin singing the long beautiful salmonberry song, as complicated and beautiful as a partita. In the moment is every time I’ve heard it, something deep and complicated, not easily transferred via injection to anyone else. Taken. I think of Gary Snyder’s beautiful sequence, “Little Songs for Gaia”, some of them I remember almost perfectly, each of them observant and alert to the paradoxes of being alive at this point in the history of the planet:

The stylishness of winds and waves—
nets over nets of light
reflected off the bottom
nutcracker streaks over,
hollering

Nature calls,
bodies of water
tuned to the sky.

“Find a need and be filled by it.”

bringing home the tree

rosemary trees

There was never much time for thoughtful reflection all those Christmases when my children were young. Baking, making things, cutting lino for our annual letterpress cards, school parties (including at least two for which my children had promised their teachers I’d provide gingerbread boys for the entire class and then forgot to tell me until bedtime the night before…), the Carol Ships party at Edith Iglauer’s house when we’d all stand on her deck and watch fishing boats strung with lights float by with carolers singing over the dark water. I remember sitting on her low couch afterwards with 3 children sleeping across my lap. I felt things intensely but didn’t seem to have time to think about what they meant, what each thing meant when it was happening, and now it’s part of my vast archive of memories, and I have time to summon up those years and remember them.

Today we cut our Christmas tree. We used to do this on December 23rd or 24th, bringing the tree in on the morning of the 24th to decorate. Some years the tree came from our woods, a weedy fir in danger of being crowded out by the bigger neighbours. Other years we downloaded a permit to cut a tree from under the power lines. We walk there fairly often and keep our eye out for likely candidates. The trees grow to a certain height and then the crews come to cut them and shred them to keep the line clear. This is where we went this year, wanting to have a tree home early as there are several events over the days leading up to Christmas. We had a few in mind. I liked this one’s bendy wood near the top:

bendy wood

This one was clearly a favourite of the Roosevelt elk that roam the lines.

chosen by elk

But then we found the one—

the one

—that we knew would be beautiful dressed in all our old ornaments: the glass stars made by our friend June; the wallpaper trees studded with glittered macaroni; the Chinese paper lanterns sent to John’s family from his grandmother in England shortly after they’d emigrated in the 1950s; the felt birds and wooden fish; lumpy angels; string balls formed over balloons, now collapsed. In short, a lifetime of saving, of storing away a season of memories in a box in a dark closet. This year’s tree is in a bucket of water in the woodshed to be brought inside on the 24th so that we can decorate her with Angelica and the ghosts of all those who’ve helped in the past, some of them gone. Last Christmas it was Forrest, Manon, and Arthur, joined by Angie, and the year before, Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly —and the very beginnings of Henry. Yesterday Brendan sent a video of the children decorating their tree and the most poignant footage of Henry trying to find a way to place a piece of a hairdryer on the tree. He’s 1 and not entirely clear on the concept of ornaments yet. But given what goes on our tree, maybe he’s not far off.

I can see our tree waiting as I work at the kitchen counter, so green against the wall of firewood. Already a squirrel has raced along its branches. I kept peeking out as I rolled out shortbread fish and stars and the special ones cut into trees and studded with rosemary leaves (as Ophelia told Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts…”, and she of all people knew about herbs and their latent power). I was listening to satellite radio as I cut and baked and found myself in tears hearing a Richard Thompson song I’d never known:

In the old cold embers of the year
When joy and comfort disappear
I search around to find her
I’m a hundred miles behind her
The open road whispered in her ear

And she never could resist a winding road…

Somehow it seemed to be about our tree as I walked behind John back to the vehicle. You can’t see our Element. It’s beyond the bend in that winding road. Joy hasn’t disappeared but it’s cold out and we need to remember that trees come in during the shortest days to remind us of what comes next. The light returning, little by little, and if we take care of our fires, the embers will last.

cut.jpg

“looking for the best views”

All night rain fell steadily, the sound of it on our metal roof so welcome after the weeks and weeks of drought. There was sporadic rain here and there – a brief shower or two in May, one in June, a short period last week — but never anything sustained. So to lie awake in the night and hear it, after a day of it yesterday, is to imagine the trees drinking deeply, the big pails at the down-spouts filling, the beans (oh, the beans) outgrowing their poles and reaching for the sky.

I was up in the night, working on this essay-in-progress I’m calling “Ballast”. Fittingly, I sent Forrest and Manon off to Ottawa the other day with a little wrapped length of horseradish root for their garden (and of course I’d shown them the tomatillo plants I’d brought home from their garden in May, tiny little volunteers perhaps an inch long which I’d dug and wrapped in damp paper towel, placing each one in a pot almost immediately after arriving home; they’re now 7 feet tall and laden with fruit). And when Angie and Sahand left yesterday morning, they packed a pot of small kale plants, another of arugula, and another of mint, mint from John’s mother’s garden, into their car. They have a balcony garden in Victoria and now know that it’s fatal to mention that they might like some salad greens for it…Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly managed to get away without any roots or greens but their time will come.

Part of the research I’ve been doing for this essay revolves around the plants emigrants brought to the New World. I’m growing “Black Krim” tomatoes , originally from the Crimea, and every time I eat one, I wonder if my grandfather’s family in Bukovina grew tomatoes. I know they grew potatoes. Potatoes were central to their diet and among the tiny hoard of stories I have about my grandparents, there is one I particularly treasure. My grandmother was pregnant with my father and it was October, in Drumheller. My grandparents were digging the last of their potatoes when my grandmother went into labour. (My father was the tenth child she gave birth to.) “Aren’t you going to finish your row?” asked my grandfather. I wish had some small remnant of those original potatoes for our own soil here.

And tomatillos – well, they originated in pre-Columbian Mexico. I love them. In winter we often have a simple supper of eggs poached in green salsa which we eat with homemade corn tortillas cooked on an ancient cast iron griddle I was given many years ago by an elderly woman who had no children herself and liked it that John and I (in her words) “knew what to do with our hands”. (She was impressed we’d built our own house.) I was very surprised to see how many tiny tomatillo volunteers sprouting in an Ottawa garden after the long cold winter but plants, like people, find ways to adapt to new places.

Forrest was able to get me a copy of an article I’d come across a reference to and which I thought would be useful for this essay. The article, by John Murray Gibbon, was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada in 1923, and is entitled “European Seeds in the Canadian Garden”. Imagine my surprise when I read it and discovered it was about literary seeds, not botanical ones. And the literary references are pretty dull. But there are moments when I realize the trajectories of stories, gardens, and memory are more similar than I expected and the article prompted one of those moments:

The peach tree carried into Northern India by Chinese settlers and introduced into Greece by Alexander the Great, now blooms in many an orchard in the Niagara Peninsula. So the seeds of literature share in human migrations from the Old World to the New, and where they find congenial circumstances and proper cultivation, there they flourish.

Yesterday morning, before Angie and Sahand left, I saw John sitting with them and showing Sahand an album of photographs of our early years here, prompted by questions about how we came to build our house. I was in and out of the living room but loved hearing the stories again – how we came with a tiny baby (Forrest) and lived in a tent on weekends, in all weathers, mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow for the footings, using water in a clear hose as part of our method of finding level, deciding where windows would go by walking the framed platforms and looking for the best views.

So now to try to wrangle all this into an essay, a few new lines added to the old stories and the seeds of those tomatillos enriching our compost for future gardens, winter dinners.

nailing the floor