nineteen

Like graying temples
in the November of life—
orange, yellow, red


While New England leaves are long gone, mid-Atlantic colors only just peaked.

A month, which in childhood I associated with the color gray, is now fringed with neon.

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fears

I lay awake in bed at three o’clock this morning and listened to the wind gusts that left many of my northern friends and family without power today. I could feel a draft swirling through the apartment and hoped the old pecan tree outside wouldn’t disrobe its branches on my frightened little car below.

As a young child, I was convinced the dead tree outside my window would fall onto my room with the slightest provocation of nighttime wind. When I got older and upgraded to the bedroom on the second floor, I dreaded the same thing, but with the ash tree on the other side of the house. In every scenario, the trees, violated by the wind, would crush me in my bed. Sometimes I would die, although more often I would be trapped or my legs would be broken, but the trees never missed. Sometimes I would pull the covers over my head for protection from these scenarios, sometimes for protection from the draft.

I didn’t fear the wind nearly as much during the day. A tall pine that lived behind the stone wall would creak and visibly sway in the wind, but I felt more interested in it than afraid. That’s because the daytime wind has a friendlier sort of wildness, especially when it’s warm and wet and dampens the hair at the base of your head into humid ringlets. Cold wind makes the top layer of snow dance and blows it in your eyes. Though rough, it’s playful. But the wind at night has a wildness that filled me with dread.

Nighttime wind sneaks into the edges of your house, slides under your door, seeps through your window panes. It’s inky and violent. It doesn’t want to play. It wants to fell trees and crush you (and your car) in your sleep.

The weeping willow, which loomed over the back yard, shook wildly in the wind, dropping leaves, whips, and catkins in its wake. When daytime gusts would become too strong for me to continue playing outside, I would race back towards the house, in playful earnest, until I determined I was out of range of the willow tree, were it to get blown over. I knew the day I didn’t make this hustle would be the day the tree crushed me, and I wasn’t about to let my guard down.

However, I was wrong. We were all inside the day the willow tree fell.

In this story, weeping willow is an apt name. When you have a dear friend who is a tree, it is okay to cry when it dies, even if you are fourteen years old and in high school. It had likely been dying for years, as evinced by the shelf mushrooms and spongy wood we found running all the way through its massive trunk; but a tree as anthropomorphized as Grandmother Willow dies the day she falls.

We heard a loud crack, and then a thud. That word thud conjures not only the sound she made on impact, but also a feeling in the pit of my stomach, whenever I remember. Thud has come to mean a dull, heavy sound, but it’s related to an old word that meant “violent wind”. That afternoon the wind had a violent, nighttime streak and knocked down the best tree I ever had the honor of knowing. With a thud, the wind performed a sacrifice that was not its to make.

I still fear the destruction of body and property that a strong wind can bring. At night it still sounds occult, like a wandering poltergeist with a thirst for havoc. The wind in its chaos makes the things you most fear happen when you least expect them to: All those nights of expecting to be crushed by a tree could not prepare me for the thud of Grandmother Willow, bowing under the pressure of the wind one last time.

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RIP Grandmother Willow, October 2006

see

Occasionally, my friend and I take trips to garden centers together. Although we have yet to leave empty-handed, we mostly do it for the fun of browsing. We point out the things that move us, say why if we can, and the other joins in the movement.

During one of these trips he observed to me that the plants and flowers that catch my eye are very different from the ones that catch his. Different colors speak up, different forms stand out.

But this happens all the time. When I take a walk, as long as I’m not looking down (I’m prone to trip), certain things catch my eye that, based on my partner’s responses (or lack thereof), I know are not conspicuous or interesting to everyone.

I walked to work today and decided to remember some things I noticed on my way. Here are a few.

A squirrel eating a pinecone.

The cloudless sky.

A beautiful gate enclosing a shitty yard (a metaphor not lost on me).

Bricks and angles. 

The small weeds that grow in sidewalk cracks.

An old window on a collapsing house.

Chipped paint.

I don’t know why I notice the things I do, but it’s an interesting exercise nonetheless. What do you see? Why do you see it?

friends

Last weekend my partner and I took our first camping trip of the year in Green Ridge State Forest. It was our first time staying at this camping area (we had originally intended to return to the magical Big Run State Park/Savage River State Forest we went to last September, about an hour west of Green Ridge, but it was supposed to be much colder there). Despite cool temperatures and some rain, we were able to enjoy fishing, hiking, a midday hammock nap, off-roading in my tiny but surprisingly adventurous Kia hatchback, and wildlife viewings.

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Polly the Kia got a well-deserved wash and vacuum after this excursion.

We paid for campsite use at the headquarters ($10/night), where two very lovely middle-aged women talked with us and helped us choose a site based on our interests and lack of four-wheel drive. We ended up at campsite #4, the north-most site in the forest and a short drive to some nice fishing spots, although if we ever return, we’ll opt for one of the more remote, forested sites farther south.

The first thing I did after unloading the car and setting up camp was walk the perimeter of the site to observe the nearby land, plants, and small creatures. Under a grove of pine trees, I found an eastern (red-spotted) newt. I had just recalled the other day how my cousins, sister, and I used to find dozens and dozens of eastern newts (although we always called them salamanders) in my grandmother’s yard growing up, until one day we couldn’t find them anymore. I hadn’t seen one in years. But there it was, hanging out in a bed of fallen pine needles, as adorable as ever.

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A small friend

This boded well. The following day, it was sunnier and warmer, so we hiked the Twin Oaks Trail (the purple trail) and looped back around on the Pine Lick Trail (blue), four miles in all. We stopped for lunch where the trail fords a stream, skipped some rocks, and kept going. The loop is described as a moderate hike; there were many ups and downs, but it was never too steep in any one place. At the steepest ascent, my partner saw a small creature scurry across the trail onto a tree. “That was a fast toad.” But it wasn’t a toad – it was a lizard! I’ve never seen a lizard before in the States, having spent the majority of my life in New England. With some research, we determined it to be a female eastern fence lizard and this location to be about the northern-most habitat where you can find them. She was much too quick for us to get her picture.

Here are a couple other small friends I found:

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A gray moth, enjoying the woodland view
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Found this friend drying its wings after some rain
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Whatever the heck these are

We saw many fish swimming in the stocked pond down the road. A whippoorwill sang off and on all night. But the biggest friend of all that we saw that weekend was an American black bear.

It was about 9:00 in the morning, and we were drinking our coffee but hadn’t pulled out the food for breakfast yet – we of course keep all tasty smelling things secured in the car. Suddenly my partner tells me in a serious voice to get to the car. About twenty yards away at the perimeter of our site, a young bear was watching us from the trees. We backed slowly towards the car, talking loudly at the bear (as you’re supposed to do; but it makes you feel like a fool!), hoping it would lose interest. “Hey, bear! Go away, bear! Please leave us alone!” It circled to another part of the site, never getting any closer, just observing our setup. After about five or ten minutes, it lumbered back into the woods.

We didn’t see it again, although we were extra careful with our food and trash for the rest of the time. Both of our phones were dead (and in the tent), so there’s no photographic evidence of our curious Ursus. My hypothesis is that it smelled our coffee and wanted some, too. Coffee is, after all, hard to come by in the forest.

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Needed more tinder… worked on my third attempt
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Fishing spot. If only it was warmer, I would’ve loved to swim!
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Bluets
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Just hangin’ out
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Campsite moonlight
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2017 Camping Trip #1 complete!

horseweed

We all know the old saying. Money doesn’t grow on trees. But when my sister and I were kids, money grew on weeds.

In the summers, on the border of our neighbors’ yard and ours, past the swing set, behind the willow tree, and between Threepinederoga and my mom’s garden, tall, bright green weeds grew. The stalks were covered radially with three- or four-inch oblong leaves that were slightly fuzzy, somewhat floppy, and perfect specimens for make-believe currency.

I never knew what they were called; I never cared until I wanted to blog about it. A cursory web search has suggested the terms “marestail” and “horseweed” and Conyza canadensis, although I can’t verify this with my diminishing visual memory of the plant.

What I do remember distinctly about the moneyplant is the smell it would give off when you tore bills from that primitive ATM. The smell was earthy, sharp, and very, very green. It was so delightfully pungent that I used to rip the leaves up after I was done “paying” with them just so I could smell it again.

In case you were wondering, yes, I did regularly tear up different leaves from around the yard to investigate their odor. The moneyplant is just one of many whose properties I discovered. For example, there was a small, feathery weed you could find low in the grass that smelled minty (but wasn’t mint). Did you know that the shredded leaf of a checkerberry plant smells exactly like its berries taste? You’d be surprised at what you find when you dabble in botany.

But I completely forgot about the scent of the moneyplant until I started cooking for myself a few years ago.

It happened when I was chopping parsley. Olfactory memory is strange because you almost never can identify the origin of the nostalgia at first. This is just normal fresh parsley, so why have I been transported to a childhood summer? After wracking my brain I finally remembered the moneyplant. If that weed really was C. canadensis, I can find no indication that it’s related to parsley (although American Indians did use it as an herb and apparently when dried it tastes like tarragon). However, the memory is reawakened every single time I chop parsley, so I figure there might be something to it. I can’t think of another olfactory trigger that affects me like this does or that conjures as specific and unadulterated a memory.

The money of my childhood and the money of my adulthood bear only a few similarities. For one, I used to keep a stash of moneyplant bills, and I still hoard my money today. (What are banks but professionally-tended hoards of money?) The bills are still green, but I wouldn’t recommend tearing them up and huffing the pieces anymore. Adult money’s harder to come by, but worth more. It can make you more comfortable but not more happy. The memory of the moneyplant’s aroma, on the other hand, offers no material comfort whatsoever, but every time I chop parsley, I smile. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but as it turns out, happiness just might.

fourteen

Suspended, supine,
Inches above earth, dangling
Pendulous suspense


For Christmas this year, and for the sanity of the adults involved, we decided to buy my nephews presents as usual but draw names for each other. My dad was the lucky soul who drew me, and he won the day by getting me exactly what I most wanted: a camping hammock.

The only problem with getting a hammock for Christmas is that there’s still a lot of winter to wait through before you can use it. But, thanks to the temperate nature of the mid-Atlantic, my own temperance soon paid off, and I was able to set up my present last weekend during a hiking trip my partner and I took on Sugarloaf Mountain.

If you don’t have a hammock, get one. You can easily find inexpensive ones that do the job well; no need to get a super fancy one. Then all you have to do is learn a good knot or two, let tension and gravity do the rest, and you’ll be swinging in paradise in under five minutes.

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Relaxing before the place swarmed with teenagers
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Until next time!