This morning, I gave a short talk at the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation’s Rosh Hashana service on Shafarot, a calling to live with greater awareness and purpose, to examine what we need to change or release or summon our courage and strength to do, and to be more of a mensch. I ended up, no surprise given the subject matter and how I grapple with things, writing this poem.
When we went to the Pacific Northwest earlier this month, we had a mission: behold as many big-ass trees as possible. Thanks to our friends Carl and Sara obliging or humoring us, that’s just what happened.
Why the big-ass trees? Why not hang out with big marvels of the natural world at this moment in time when there’s so much human-triggered despair and war, grief and stupidity, encompassing everything from the pandemic to climate change to the big-ass mess in Afghanistan.
Maybe my quest also has to do with my age or old karma, but whatever it is, there are places on this earth that are happy to provide abundantly, particularly in the northwest. Right in Carl and Sara’s neighborhood in Vancouver, WA, there were large bouts of big-ass trees, particularly along a few blocks known as “the grove,” full of sequoias, grand firs, Oregon ashes, and red alders, often well over 80 feet high.
Then there’s Oregon Garden botanical park, a wonderland of lushness and color that also sported a conifer garden full of large, looming trees posing as abstract monsters. We also hiked up and down and down up in Silver Falls State park in Oregon where the trees were especially massive and soaring. I spent a lot of time looking up, then looking down quickly to make sure I didn’t trip on the climbing or winding-down trails.
But the thing about big-ass trees is that there’s a lot to see when you look down. Their root systems are mazes of wonder and time, wrapping around boulders and across hills. In fact, the roots are vivid reminders of how much we need to secure ourselves to something relatively solid to survive and grow (but sometimes it’s easy to trip over our own roots too).
Back home among the more petite trees of our clime, I’m reminded of the vast possibilities all around us, even and especially with cedars and Osage oranges I can wrap my arms around or slim cottonwoods well-schooled in bending in the wild wind. I think about something I once heard about how the trees are just migrating through even if they make their stand for hundreds or thousands of years in a single place. I also think of how sometimes what seems small is far more infinite than we can image. Aspen trees, often just slips of things compared with the largeness of sequoias or firs, are actually the biggest organism in the world, sending forth roots underground to grow another and another and another leg of themselves.
So let’s hear it for the big- and small-ass wonders of this world, no matter where they are, and how much they can bring us home to the shining green and mottled bark all around us. May we, like them, continue to grow another ring around our center year after year, reminding us how we’re big and small all at once.
Kansas roses struggle once summer gets its heat on, but I have found a land where everything is coming up roses: the Pacific Northwest. We were there for Aunt Wilma’s memorial and the family reunion around that gathering, which also included a very special rose garden made from something and by someone Wilma loved very much.
But first, the number of roses in the western Oregon and Washington was dizzying and surely in infinite multiples to rose meccas here. Walking around our friends Carl and Sara’s Vancouver, WA neighborhood, I was dazzled by bundles of blossoms, some tumbling over themselves in excitement and others just standing big and bold in skies that get cool and mildly breezy most evenings. We went to the Oregon Garden, a botanical wonderland of winding gardens mazing together and apart, including a beautiful rose garden. We waltzed to live music in the Portland Peninsula rose garden. Everywhere, there was something to stop me in my tracks and made me bend over carefully, checking to make sure there’s not a bee in the center of the rose before I inhaled it.
But the highlight of the rose tour bloomed in an Auburn, WA backyard, where our cousin’s son Justin, in honor of Wilma, who is his grandmother, created a magical memorial. He finished the Sir Justin’s Rose Garden at the Chase Place just in time to invite all of us to enjoy the three concentric circles of the roses Wilma chose, tended, and loved. The roses were part of a garden she organized volunteers to care for at the retirement facility where she and her late husband Ron lived. The garden was also in the pathway of an oncoming bulldozer that was to way for more housing, so Justin, 21 years old and balancing his college studies, jumped in. With help from his family, he transported a whole lot of big, mature, and sometimes very heavy rose bushes.
The garden circles around a brand-new gazebo Justin and his dad Jim built, finding and rehabilitating some old wood from here and there and finishing it all just in the nick of time for us to step into, shoes off because the polyurethane was still drying, and slide across. All in all, it’s a gorgeous tribute made of wood and flowers, sweat and memory, to his grandparents.
Some of the rose bushes were way taller than me and almost all were thriving like nobody’s business (only one was sluggish but it looks like it’s likely to snap to greater life in the future). Justin created a detailed chart of what’s where and did many hours of research to figure out what each rose was. But whatever each was called, what grabbed me most was the scent, some smelling exactly like rose essential oil and others vastly richer and more intoxicating. I made it my business to smell a flower from each of the 70 bushes.
All those roses took me back to my own grandfather, my dad’s dad who loved growing roses in the tiny backyard of his rental house in Brooklyn. I remember leaning into each flower as a kid, renewed by what I seeing and smelling. While I’m a lover of many flowers, I do have some I especially adore, especially a wildly fragrant rose (or lilac or lily-of-the-valley or iris or hyacinth), which brings me backwards and forward in time at once.
We wandered the rose garden in that twilight time for a long stretch, marveling at them as a rainbowy hot air balloon sailed over. I imagined Wilma walking this garden, so delighted to see her babies — human and otherwise — flourishing, and as nightfall came, we walked the paths between the roses, scattering some of Wilma and Ron’s ashes into the roots of each rose bush.
So that’s what went down with all these roses rising up, reminding me how much a flower can tell the story of a legacy of love and care.
For me, it’s always been the trees and sky, sun wavering on the surface of water, wind making its invisible presence known through the curving of prairie grass, the darkening night sky and the stars that emerge. It’s always been the bluebird on the edge of the field, the katy-did and katy-didn’t call of the katydids, the smell of cedar when I rub a small piece between my thumb and forefinger.
No wonder that when I discovered bioregionalism — a calling to learn how to live from where we actually live — I felt metaphorically and literally home. This movement that came of age in the early 1980s (in concert with my own young adulthood) focuses on how to be “…..lifelong students of how to live in balance with our eco-communities. We recognize that we are part of the web of the life, and that all justice, freedom and peace must be grounded in this recognition” (from a bioregional primer I put together with others some years back).
I found not just a name for what I know in my bones but kindred spirits, many of my closest friends to this day, including my husband. The bioregional congresses or gatherings we trekked to in Maine or Texas, British Columbia or Morelos, Mexico, deepened our connection to the places we left behind so that we could return more informed, inspired, and committed to keep community and make change. My bioregional pals have gone on to start land trusts, restore rivers, protect old-growth forests, manage community garden projects, and make no end of art, music, dance, and poetry that helps us breathe into where we live.
Which is a long-winded way of saying how I met Stephanie Mills and David Abram and conceptualized the focus of my new podcast, Tell Me Your Truest Story. I first spied Stephanie in a big circle of 200 or so people at the first bioregional congress in Missouri in 1984 when, as a way to introduce herself, she said, “I want to learn about my inner wildness as well as the outer wildness.” Me too! I set out to get to know her, a very good move given that she’s an embodiment of wisdom, inquiry, and big vision into the harder and also more sublime edges of what it means to live in eco-community.
In 1988, at the bioregional gathering in Squamish, British Columbia, I met David, who not only did sleight of hand magic, but talked with expansive eloquence about how written language distances us from plants, animals, weather and earth, which also have their own language. I shivered in recognition, and when he moved to Lawrence to work on a post-doc at K.U., I made it a point to befriend him. He was sick at the time, so I would leave containers of soup at his doorstep, an offering of food to draw someone deeply connected to the wild out of his cave. It worked.
0ur bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn those other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
In the land we may find solace for our wounds, privacy for a developing intimacy with a natural surround, an occasion for acting out healing processes that effect inner healing as well; or we may remain unconscious of and oblivious to the living community of the land. Numbed and paralyzed by the degree of damage that has been inflicted on the land, we may be domineering and exploitive toward it, or even blindly destructive. Our behavior toward the land is an eloquent and detailed expression of our character, and the land is not incapable of reflecting these statements back. We are perfectly bespoken by our surroundings.
My first episode, “The World is Made of Story” (taking its title from something David said during our interview), is about starting at the starting ground, right now and right here. What Stephanie and David have to say helps us listen to the stories that dissolve some of the boundaries between the inner and outer, which Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to in this poem:
We are living in a world of rain lately, and according to the weather forecast, this is life as we know it into the foreseeable process. It started a week or maybe months ago, yet it’s also not monolithic. Spots of blue sky, small and angular at times, open up in between the humidity and the deluge. Almost-sun almost shows itself, then any hope fades of that big glaring star coming into view.
Meanwhile, the birds. Meanwhile, the flowers. It’s raining for long stretches and the ground is beyond soggy. A small waterfall has opened up across the slope above our driveway through the gravel to the lower fields. It’s hard to take a step anywhere without sinking. The irises can’t stand up anymore under all this water, sherbet-colored ones collapsing on the purple and yellow ones.
The birds, on the other hand, keep at it, a bouquet of color and motion from the cottonwood to feeder to walnut to ground. A pair of blue grosbeaks. An energetic red-bellied woodpecker hanging with his claws off the edge of the feeder. Two downy woodpeckers head-banging each other in the tree before going back to the feeder. A happy pair of goldfinch. Even a rose-breasted grosbeak for a day or two.
I step outside, onto the relatively not-soggy deck, leaning back under the eaves, a camera hiding in my shirt to keep it from getting wet. Or I step out without a camera and lift my arms to the rain, feeling the drops on my face, knowing I will have to clean off my glasses again once inside. Or I step barefoot onto the wet wood in the dark, the curtain of rain parted for a few minutes, and look out, wondering when I’ll see stars again.
But come morning, the birds again and again, their color more vividly saturated in the blur of air and water, their time right here. It’s more than enough.