My husband and I sit in our living room with all the little still-intact dairy barn windows showing flakes falling as if we are on ship at sea in a snowfall. Except for the high ceiling the living room has the feeling of a ship cabin, our converted dairy barn, and I think it is most beautiful when the snow is falling.
The glass doors at the pentagon of the far end of the barn gives us perfect view of the suet bird feeder. The bird feeder in winter is our television. We watch male cardinals, bright red in the stark white, feed and contend with the beautiful, bullying blue jays. And the more modest and gentle little juncos and sparrows touch our hearts with their humility.
Like many barns, ours was built near the road so we do get some traffic noise. But in the meadow out back beyond the marsh and stream, we are far removed from the road and from all. And when it snows, it is so beautiful in the quiet, looking at the animal tracks and feeling the spirits in the nearby now-graveless graveyard. Our secret little piece of Paradise. And to stand there in the silence, in the virgin white, and see the abstract patterns of the snow on the surrounding hundreds of trees is Divine.
Every year what budded in autumn blossoms full blown in winter– my love affair with trees. Trees that were drop-dead gorgeous in their fall colors are now bare, with the exception of evergreens and a few stray deciduous trees that refuse to relinquish their leaves. Now the trees are stripped down to their souls and their souls sing a siren song to the universe.
The tops of trees lift my spirit; brushlike they paint the sky the baby pinks and blues of mornings, and the majestic magentas and violets of day’s end. Each tree has its signature shape against the sky, like a fingerprint or a snowflake, similar yet each unique. Some treetops in their bare state are shaped like a fancy coiffure; others look like wrought iron filigree. On distant mountains, against the snowy ground, some look like stubble on an old man’s unshaven face.
It is the colorful winter sky showing through, and showing off, the bare branches that woos me. The bare curvaceous branches are stark, dark lines against the bright of day and the inky sky of night. These resplendent creatures are living lines that explode. Branches tangle like the lines in a Jackson Pollock painting. Others curve in the sensuous lines of a Brancusi sculpture. Buxom tree trunks stand strong surrounded by their dead blossoms and their burgeoning offspring like a Renaissance Madonna. In truth these trees are not like art at all. Rather art imitates them– their beauty provides the timeless inspiration for artists, writers and poets of all ages and styles.
Trees not only inspire, they themselves are paragons of diversity. One look out of a car window while driving on the Taconic and one can see squat pines alongside towering majestic firs, birches interspersed with maple and oak. And together the different brown and tan barks interspersed with evergreens create not only a mosaic of contrasting colors, but display an example to inspire humans to live together in peaceful unity.
These beneficent beings carry the heavy, dark grey clouds of winter. When it snows the tree trunks become canvases for the abstract patterns of windblown-snow, while the serpentine branches are outlined in white. In ice storms their branches become chandeliers, each enveloped in glassine ice. While in the melancholy of a winter rain, the branches become oiled skins of snakes weeping to the ground below. And finally, in the night sky, the branches hold the stars in their arms, those with leaves holding them in their hands, as they nurse the moon.
All trees, no matter what their species, age or height, stand tall in proud humility, their arms reaching up to the Heavens to our Creator in prayer– soft-spoken beings of peace and tranquility towering over us, while the little creatures race around distractedly below.
“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree… a tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray.” The opening lines of the poem,“Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer. Indigenous peoples through the ages have talked of tree spirits and trees as wise ones. Trees are striking as they permanently lift their arms to the Heavens in seeming prayer, day and night in communication with the Creator, their outstretched arms reaching for the stars.
Reaching for the stars. The image calls to mind a dance of the Kalahari Bushmen who were featured in the movie “The Gods They Must be Crazy.” The Kalahari, the last men born of the Stone Age culture according to Laurens Van Der Post, have no sense of individuality and so share all they have. They have a dance of gratitude which Van Der Post describes in his book entitled “A Mantis Carol”: “I never see their dancing without feeling deeply moved and utterly irreverent and blasphemous because of our own incapacity for acknowledging what life will give if only we will let it in.” And then there is their dance of the “great hunger,” a dance that says we do not live by bread alone, a dance at life’s end fraught with longing, with arms outstretched taughtly towards the Heavens as they reach for the stars.
My grandfather reached for the stars. He came to the United States, a 16-year-old peasant stonecutter from the mountains of Sicily, knowing no English. He wound up carving the Lincoln Gettysburg address at the Lincoln Memorial in DC. While working on the Gettysburg Address he studied English at night school. I remember him telling me how he was the laughing stock of his fellow stone cutters because, inspired by Lincoln’s words, he carved his initials at the top of the monument, “A.L.” for Anthony LaManna (and, of course, for Abraham Lincoln), followed by: “Attorney at Law.” Working his way through school, he actually did eventually become a VA lawyer. He reached for the stars and touched them without ever forgetting where he came from. And he was childlike as he took care of me, as we danced to records on the victrola or as he played the mandolin and sang to me. I always think of him with a tinge of sadness, for more than anyone, he taught me to reach for the stars.
Reach for the creator– that is what the trees say. At this time of year I yearn for the days of childhood in which God seemed close. This yearning fully ripens each year at Christmas/Hanukkah when the people brighten their houses with festive lights. It is a time of year in which we light up our hearts and look to the heavens and sing songs of love to a babe born not so very long ago, or in which we give thanks for the oil to light the lights of the temple for eight days. We are all really seeking the love that motivated the Kalahari Bushmen to do their dance. We are seeking a savior, and yearning for the Light in this overlit, commercialized, complicated world in which the inspiring simplicity of the Bushmen, the peasant, is rapidly disappearing. And the trees touch my heart in their upward reach for the Heavens. For at this time so many millions of them are sacrificed as they have become our Christmas trees and Hanukkah bushes, to be discarded after the holidays are over.
May we experience this holy season with a simpler yearning, not for presents and parties and hoopla, but with our hearts full of gratitude, taking lessons from the trees, from the Kalahari Bushmen, from our ancestors, and seek Love, in whatever form it takes in our souls.
December is my favorite time of year. In this month of darkness, in this the darkest month, the light of the human spirit shines forth in a fullness shown by so many, in so many ways. As the days grow shorter, houses and trees are decorated, and snow falls. In the hushed silence of the nights, lights shine in windows, and the beauty is shared by all. For this season of giving brings the festivals of lights: Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza. Each tradition incorporates light in its ceremonies and decorations.
A neighbor friend of mine who lives down the road, a donkey in his stable, reminds me of the story of another manger 2000 years ago. And seeing him snug in his stable with snow on the ground gives the illusion that all is right in the world. But all is not well. Thousands know no peace in any season. Yet even those living in the worst conditions show the light of the human spirit and celebrate the season of light in personal ways. For the human spirit is indomitable.
In December’s darkness we light lights. For we are beings of light. A light glows within each one of us. And, at the most basic level, we are beings of light because we are made from stardust. Perhaps that is why the stars hold such majesty for us– we are made from star material.
Einstein said: “A human being is part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe”– a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest– a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” We are all cut from the same cloth and our inner light unites us.
And in this holiday season we behold the night sky as shepherds did two thousand years ago on the birth of the holy infant, in a stable like the one down the road where my donkey friend lives. That night a star lit the whole sky to guide the shepherds, and on these deep, long, silent nights as we light our houses, our candles, our trees, let us look inside ourselves and find the glow that may guide us to The Light.
It is late afternoon and spring by the calendar, although still quite cool. I have just spent some time at our neighbor’s pond, listening to a form of music that some have likened to the sound to bells. Others liken it to bird song. And still others with unimaginable disdain, to “some kind of nature noise.” For me it is one of the happiest of sounds– the act of creation transformed into sound decibels for all to hear. A sound that comes from the earth and resounds to the heavens, unwittingly praising the Almighty. It is a form of ecstasy when the sound surrounds me totally, filling my ears every evening with perhaps the single-most highlight of spring for me– the siren song of the Spring Peepers counterbalanced by the deeper sound of wood frogs.
How have they cast their spell over so many? I cannot say except that their song is uplifting and filled with hope despite the natural perils they face daily. For, as true of all of us, they may die at any moment– say as a meal for a nearby perching crow or underneath murky waters eaten by a snapping turtle. They call for a mate without ceasing, without fear, single-mindedly, without a thought for their own safety. This is nature at her most elemental, in her most singular scope. The peepers all sing out vying to be heard– an a cappella choir of voices. In some spots, I am told, their song is deafening. How nice to be there; I cannot get enough of their sweet music. It moves me to tears– these tiny creatures singing out their heart’s desire.
As I return home to family “situations” and domestic duties, I yearn for the simplicity and total fervor of their song. For if they sing then all is “right” in at least that small part of the world. Progress has not paved over their pond. Disdainful humans have not drained a “vernal pool.” David M. Carroll writes about vernal pools in his books on turtles called The Swampwalker’s Journal. As the title suggests, Carroll walks such places in search of turtles and other amphibians. He defines a vernal pool as a pool of water that fills up in Fall and Winter, swells in the Spring and often dries up by end of Summer. But a vernal pool is utmost a place of magic, not only where turtles lurk, but where mating frogs deposit gelatinous eggs which turn into tadpoles first, and there, later become frogs. And after a requisite series of warm days, followed by spring rains, on the first dark night, vernal pools become the site of the “salamander night.” Salamanders leave their hibernacula to go for a night of endless mating and then return to leaf litter in the woods to disappear for the rest of the year. Some people who know nothing of vernal pools and their function deem them a nuisance, a big puddle to be filled in or drained. Some people know little of spring peepers and wood frogs except that they are “noisy,” “like some sort of insect.” Poor insects are made out to be the pesky lowest of the low. The natural symphony of hormonal, harmonic sounds sometimes falls on deaf ears.
After finishing my evening chores, I try reading, but find the haunting sound of the spring peepers and wood frogs digging deep within my psyche, making me restless, wishing to be part of that pond, surrounded on all sides by the sex song, inebriated with the unbridled joy in the air, submerged in the utter power of nature manifesting in one of her gentler forms. For the song of the Spring Peepers nature celebrates life-to-be rather than the taking-away of life. Most of all, the song of the Spring Peepers is a song of tremendous faith, faith in love, faith that love will propagate, and faith that new life will emerge.
Sitting in the sun, acclimating to the gentle June heat, swatting away an annoysome fly who keeps returning over and over, I know this swatting is definitely wrong—a stirring of the killer instinct. I remember naturalist artist and writer and turtle man, David M. Carroll, keeping his hand steady, while being bitten by hordes of mosquitoes, so as not to scare away the turtles as he paints them . Clearly he is a superior soul in his patient endurance of being bitten and as his, almost spiritual, beautifully poetic, writings and drawings reveal. I remember, too, the words of Pema Chodron, Buddhist teacher and nun, who teaches and preaches practicing compassion on little things, learning not to “bite the hook” of anger.
So I let the fly alight on my ankle and he seemingly happily stays on my leg and does not bite. I begin to try to image feeling kinship with this fly who likes my leg, fighting the idea that he is laying eggs in my skin. Pema Chodron has clearly inspired a city girl, afeared of bugs, to make friends with a fly as I watch the universe of insects beneath my feet. A Daddy Long legs crawls on my camera bag, hitches a ride to our bed when I go inside the house. I bring him back to his home outside.
This compassion things feels right, start small and grow big. As if to reinforce this point a butterfly lands on my chest when I return to my contemplation spot in our back yard. But all is not sweetness and light. Later the same fly (I swear it is) who landed on my leg now activates karma for my earlier murderous impulses towards him. He lands on my toe and bites me. A cautionary tale against getting too carried away with being virtuous. Still worse, later as I walk in the coolness of early evening, a bug lands on my arm and attempts a vigorous bite. In an instant, a reflexive smack smooches him dead.
So it would seem I have to start even smaller with my acts of compassion. How much smaller can one start? I wonder with daunting discouragement about the many, many more lives I will have to live to learn lessons of compassion and no anger. I contemplate the prospect of how many, many more films I will have to view in this movie house of Maya we call life. When, oh when, will I learn all my lessons? When, oh, when, will the sun set for good for me on this circle of life so I can exit the orbit and rest beyond the stars??
A chill wind blows the yellowing leaves off the trees. They drift down to the ground like giant snowflakes. The air is pregnant with the feel of the coming holidays. Fall has truly come, with the sudden drop in temperatures, a full 10-20 degrees cooler than a few weeks ago. This is the real Fall, no faltering Fall, but a Fall that will guide us appropriately into winter. November appears as a mirror image of March with its vibrant color of decay, while March is the decaying color of about-to-burst-forth Spring.
The birds are at the bird feeder all the time now. They are not stopped by our presence when we come to fill the feeder or blow leaves under it. Nothing stops them. They swoop around the feeder and the surrounding trees like Kamikaze pilots, darting here and there recklessly. The squirrels are in a frenzy as well, stock piling acorns and walnuts which they will retrieve without fail in a month or so in a snow-covered land.
To me, the trees are most beautiful at this time of year, when many of them are bare and a scattering of leaves remain on dark brown branches. The leaves that remain quiver daintily in their precarious positions on the tree limbs. Yet these are the survivors. The other leaves have fallen and gone the way all living things eventually go. Most trees have lost all their leaves and they stand in stark contrast against the blue sky, the stormy sky, the grey sky. But I find them most beautiful against the night sky, with arms reaching up to the darkness, trying to touch the stars twinkling between the branches, as moonlight dances on their limbs.
November holds the last glimmer of color. A carpet of yellow lines the woods now– and one can see inside the woods that are so dark and impenetrable in summer. Some forests have carpets of oak leaves– dark brown tan in color. Others are paved with variegated colors– vibrant crimsons against yellows and faded greens and tawny tans. The un-mown lawns are now taken over by the spiders covering the fields. At precious moments, one can see a world of webs that only appears in a certain slant of sunlight and reveal a silent take-over by the spiders in webs that sparkle secretly, mirroring the infinite web of creation.
The yellow, brown, and crimson leaves are complemented by the ubiquitous yellow, brown and crimson mums that appear on the roadside near mail boxes, on porches or along driveways. These tough little flowers withstand frosty chills and stand tall throughout most of November– hearty, generous souls, so giving in their colorful, velvety splendor.
Halloween pumpkins begin to sag a bit or shine with wetness as if encased in glass. They will soon be tossed– pine combs, wreaths and fir swags to take their places, and the season of lights will begin. Anticipation hangs in the air. Autumn seems the fastest season to come and go. I try treasuring each moment, but the minute/hours/days just sift through my fingers like so many grains of sand. Then Christmas/Hanukkah comes and fades in a flash and we are into the Nor’Easter blizzards of January. Another year is gone and a new one has come. Would that we could be in forever in the season of love, but it is also a season of loneliness and loss and darkness. It is good we are defenseless against time.
Now, at Thanksgiving, it is our time to give thanks. Inspired by the Native Americans, let us thank the earth. Let us give thanks to the trees for their constantly changing beauty, to the stars for their piercing presence in the night sky, to the leaves for their inspiring colors, to the sun for its life-giving power. Let us thank the Spring for its awakening hope, the Summer for its warm, thriving growth, the Fall for its beauteous bounty, to the Winter for a time of renewal. Let us thank the soon-to-come snow for its hushed, white silence that transforms our world, to all the animals for their pure souls, to our families and friends for their precious love, and, lastly, but mostly, to the Higher Power of our belief for the macrocosm of creation.
Happy Thanksgiving and may you each be blessed with the all-embracing, pervasive, pulsating Love in Nature.
He wasn’t the only one who spoke of these things. I spent much time in grammar school at the house of my Polish friend whose mother was an artist. She told us about trees talking and, she used to say, talking to them made her feel happy. At the time I did not think much of it. But now, many years later, on walks, occasionally a tree will say something. Utter a benevolent greeting. And now, I find myself so in love with trees, I shoot portraits of them constantly, singly or in groups, with their “friends and relations.”
Any doubts I had about trees communicating were put to rest when I read in this paper, in J.Gordon Douglas’s column in the now defunct Dutchess CountyRegister Herald, about how trees in an area communicate with one another in planning their reproduction strategies for the season or warning each other chemically about caterpillar infestations. Scientists are not sure how. Maybe through the roots.
Not only do plants have feelings, they can also generate energy. See the website by artist, Caleb Charland. He used apple trees to generate light. Perhaps one day we will use plants for alternative energy– just another amazing aspect to nature’s ways:
Of course, hearing them “talk” is a little different. However, Valerie Wormwood, one of the world’s leading aromatherapists, in her book entitled The Fragrant Heavens, tells us not only does the earth hum but it emits a low frequency radio signal known as the ‘Shumann resonance” and this signal can be detected coming off trees. She relays that researchers in America wanted to know if this signal could be altered by human thoughts or feelings. They had a group of people circle a tree and say Native American prayers, sending the tree love. They attached electrodes like those measuring human brain waves to the tree. A response not only registered but the sensors went off the scale. Clearly some form of communication went on, confirming my Polish friend’s mother’s belief and many others as well. When trees are cut down we are not only destroying the tree we are cutting down and giving it a terminal sentence as firewood or worse, but we are also upsetting all the trees around the “victim.” The surrounding trees must witness their friend and neighbor being chopped down. Do they feel outrage, fear, sadness?
We do know now that they feel something. Wormwood tell us that in 1966 Cleve Backster, a lie detector expert in New York, had a group of students go into a room with 2 plants next to each other on a table. One of the 6 students was chosen to “murder” one of the plants, hacking it to bits and then they all left the room. After the attack Backster attached the lie detector to the “survivor” and had the students enter the room again one by one. The sensors were quiet as the “innocent” students entered but when the “attacker” entered they started jumping “wildly.” I think of this as I weed the gardens in the summer. Sometimes we are forced to cut down a tree and we must pick vegetables to eat. And we have to weed the gardens. But perhaps it is in how we do it. If we can express gratitude and appreciation and maybe an apology. Or if we could ask permission perhaps, as the Native Americans do. When they take from the earth they give an offering as well.
The Native Americans had the real idea for giving thanks, for thanksgiving. It was not about stuffing oneself with sweet potatoes and gorging on gravy and turkey. They gave Thanksgiving to Spirit in the earth, in the trees, in the animals, for whatever they took. Flowers “giggle” and trees “talk”. If only we would be attuned enough to listen. Sentient beings surround us and we must follow the lead of the Native Americans at Thanksgiving and give thanks for what we take from the earth, and, of course, from the animal kingdom, and give back something in return. Even if it is only words, but words with heart behind them, words that understand the sacrifice made by sentient beings for us, words that capture the true spirit of Thanksgiving.
After awaiting September all summer, the month of the Autumnal Equinox came and is almost gone. I try desperately to stop time, clinging to each day, to no avail. These next few months, my favorite time of year, go by in a flash, like sand sifting through my fingers. Poof! In a flash the trees turn beauteous, with variegated flames of color. Poof! The leaves are gone.
First, there is the change in light. The sun, still hot in mid-September, does not pack the punch it did in July, when one could be outdoors for an hour and come in with a change in skin color. Temperatures cool. The grass starts to stop growing. The “blood” of the trees starts to flow back into the trunk, causing leaves to change color. Walnuts, acorns and apples fall. Butterflies, so rampant outdoors in August, have gone inside the stomach of many a child as they go back to school. Even adults are not immune. Many feel the flutter of “back-to-school” anxiety come Fall. Summer vacations are a memory and it is time to “honker down” at work. Fall offers a new beginning but there is a tinge of anxiety in facing some thing new.
And most of all, Fall is a time of riotous color, when a walk in the woods finds one reveling like a drunk, besotted by the yellow, orange, crimson, russet world which our eyes imbibe like a hefty cocktail. It is a time when Italian comes to the lips in a loud “Que bella!!” The green of summer is bucolic and raises the spirit, but the many colors of fall intoxicate. People start talking of peak color, and leafing becomes the pastime of many. It is the time to plant bulbs and endlessly rake blowing leaves.
But Fall is a time of melancholia, too. Flowers die. Reptiles go into hibernation. Insects die or overwinter. Songbirds migrate. Trees eventually loose their leaves. And the end of the lazy days of summer brings with it shorter days, longer nights, and concomitant depression for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Moments of sobriety seep into intoxication with the new world of color as we may remember loved ones who can no longer share the beauty–who can no longer enjoy those coveted, cooler, crisp days of September when coolness kisses the cheeks. For autumn is a celebration of endings, too, perhaps best described by the French poet, Guillaume Appollinaire, in his poem Autumn:
“A bowlegged peasant and his ox receding
through the mist slowly through the mist of autumn…
Oh the autumn the autumn has been the death of summer
In the mist there are two gray shapes receding.”
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