I’m trying to track down some Iris missouriensis, a.k.a. Western blue flag, for a friend. If anyone has a clump that needs divided, holler. Thanks!
Stop up my ears with willow wands. Sage for my eyes: its seeds will send out roots into the wet and vitreous. Its thick, soft leaves will billow from beneath my brow.
For my heart, a stout angelica, a stem four inches wide, broad leaves like canopies sheathed fast to it.
Let my fingertips sprout basil leaves, my nails fast-rooted to the soil, a sweep of anise succulence where my hands had been.
My head ablaze in borage, my soul in mint’s insistent tendrils. Let me fade each season into the earth and sprout up new-restored.
Looking on my shelves for a piece of information on bishop pines and not finding the book I wanted, I came across my copy of Peattie’s The Natural History of Western Trees. I hadn’t cracked its spine in ten years. Curious, I pulled it off the shelf and opened it at random. The random page I found, page 113 of 750, was the entry on the bishop pine.
So many books here, my repeated purges notwithstanding. My arms were bruised for weeks when we moved into this house, dented by book box corners.
By the time the bruises faded I had already planted the bishop pine. It had already near-succumbed to the summer’s first hot spell. I ran a hose to it, fearing the worst, and then that same week moved every box of books a second time to fill the shelves I’d just put in.
In the move before that one, a friend offered to shelve the books by subject in the new house. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get to it when we get settled in.” That was in 1998. Now Peattie sits between a biography of Lincoln and a book on PHP. Research in my library has its serendipitous aspects. It requires a mental map of disjunct and shfting territories. I tend to land in places I hadn’t expected.
Peattie recounts the disdain with which 19th century California loggers regarded the bishop pine. Its wood is heavy but weak, short-stemmed and full of knots but coarse-grained, not good for much besides holding up squirrels. Lao Tsu’s gnarled tree, it has offered nothing and has thus survived.
The bishop pine thrives in shallow, hostile soils, in salt spray and on dim north-facing slopes. It is a closed-cone pine. When fires overtake the forest, when black-tail deer run panicked and the aplodontia roasts in its burrow and the smoke column hugs the coast for miles, the cones begin to open. The heat coaxes them, and seeds set fifteen or twenty years ago fall to the ground, sprout in the blackened duff.
Three moves ago I walked beneath the plume as the last of the Oakland Hills Fire smouldered. Shards of paper ash, near-consumed and fragile, fluttered to the pavement. The ink was still visible. Three thousand incinerated libraries were cast into the orange sky. Blackened leaves fell from the sky for days, ashen prose in English and Spanish and German and Chinese, Hebrew and Arabic, mathematics and love letters, sonnets and wiring diagrams, whispered, blackened memory to float through miles of air and fall apart at a touch.
Ecclesiastes 2:11 face up on the curb at Broadway and 29th Street.
The bishop pine grows from here north to Humboldt County. It grows from here south to Lompoc. There are a few isolated groves in Mexico, on Cedros and Guadalupe islands and on the coast of Baja. Despite its extensive range it is not widespread. When glaciers capped the Sierra Nevada the bishop pine grew in broad forests up and down the coast, on the floors of interior valleys now far too warm for them.
The seedling stage is the most vulnerable to heat. Where the climate has warmed and there is no gardener to run hoses to thirsty trees, mature trees will scatter their seed in vain. Their progeny fail to profit under the sun. When fire eventually kills the older trees, the species is extirpated from the site. Twelve thousand, fourteen thousand years of change and damage and retreat, and the pines now live in pockets along the coast. They have evolved in isolation. They reflect their surroundings. They are wind-sculpted bonsai in the Channel Islands, chest-high dwarves in the Mendocino White Plains, pleached arbors on the leeward slopes of Inverness Ridge.
In my garden they are one six-year-old seedling, planted from a gallon can in a fit of optimism, a desire to reinhabit a piece of land bladed half a century ago by the developers. After the first thirsty summer it grew wide and I pruned it hard, cut off the leader, chose one of a few lateral stems for a trunk. The joint will be a picturesque low kink in twenty years, I thought, and it may break down the wall behind it then but best not to borrow strife against the future. I will sit in this tree’s shade, I told myself.
Thirty-two times I’ve moved in this life, and in all but the first took books with me. The bole of the bishop pine is an inch and a half across. I have planted trees before that I did not expect to see grow for long. I have lived in houses that are now gone, trees growing among their foundation stones. One day the ground here will shift and trees will sway, will bend or break. They say within this generation the earth will move. I always thought I would plant saplings in the rubble. Bolt your shelves and you will live, unburied in an avalanche of words. My back sore with the thought of carrying them a thirty-third time. I would have leaned my aching back against the bishop pine’s broad trunk. I would have felt its sticky amber in my hair and laughed at the still turning of the years.
Branches like salmon bones drop off at the touch of the saw. Four seasons this tree turned air to flesh, rain and rock into leaves to carpet the ground. Each branch piled on another, cut end toward the wind. Rain-soaked gloves caked with sawdust. In summer, a thousand bright hands would hang from her stems. It was a short-lived tree. Water courses down my cheeks, but only rain. I expected this soon, though not this soon.
Five strokes and the trunk is halved. I trim the branches from the severed end. Water runs down the small of my back. I cannot see through these full-wet eyes. I should be sadder. This familiar work is a comfort.
If my heart would open up like this sundered bole, if this clamp around my heart would loosen, send leaves out of my fingertips, I would grow a thousand bright hands in summer. My hands in wet black make the next cut and the next. Garbage cans go skidding uphill for blocks.
I cannot hear my heart. This roar in my ears too loud, the storm too great. It ties rocks to my shoulders, splinters my lower back. I consider changing my name, so tired of this weight. I have no hope of defeat. I lean into the wind. I lean into the wind. It strips my shirt from me, sends it aloft.
My blood diluted. My sap watered down. I am pruned back a branch at a time and my roots lose their grasp on this patch of earth. A thousand bright and upturned hands in summer, faded fallen on the path to be trodden on. If I could loose this tightened chest, if I could vomit out this pain from fingertips, pieces of my limbs fallen to root somewhere and grow, I would crack open my trunk and grow out from inside myself.
Branches in neat piles against the storm. Leaves stacked up on branches’ ends, and the storm still tears at them. They lose their grasp and leap into the gray, and vanish.
[Comments closed, see this post for explanation. Thanks for your responses!]
There has been of late an argument, advanced in online political sniping, that criticism of a few relatively popular bloggers constitutes jealousy of those bloggers’ success. It’s not a new argument. It shows its ugly head all over the place. It popped up here almost a year ago, in comment number three in this thread. The argument has been popping up elsewhere these days, that last example with a heavy gloss of anti-idealistic cynicism.
It’s a poisonous conceit, really, at least when expressed by people presumably past high school age. It’s a convenient way of insulating one’s self from the discomfort of self-examination. Never mind that the “success” at issue is the literary equivalent of winning a video game: satisfying within certain strictly limited bounds that have essentially nothing to do with the actual world, actual work to make the world better, or actual effects on people’s lives other than raising ire. I have played a few video games in my day. I understand that they can seem compelling, even important, in those moments before “game over” appears on the screen and your life resumes, exactly the same as it was before, except with less time remaining in your life to do useful work.
I just wonder how those people explain me. Because I’m in the general group of writers charged with being envious of other bloggers’ “success,” and yet some of the people making those accusations know full well I repudiated exactly that kind of “success” in the last year. I found it puerile and dishonest, unsatisfying, and ultimately useless.
Some of you may not know to what I refer, and so hereinafter, some quick specifics. I beg the regulars’ indulgence of my self indulgence. After all, it’s my birthday week.
A year ago a very prominent liberal blog invited me to come onboard as a writer, along with a few other quite talented folks. I will continue to self-indulge my self long enough to say that the announcement of my joining that blog was met by very generous acclaim among the commenters, and much of my writing seemed to strike a chord with the blog regulars. It was a period in which that blog achieved flavor-of-the-month national notoriety, not because of me, and some of the things I wrote there nonetheless attracted attention that briefly outstripped the flavor-of-the-month traffic, at least in terms of incoming links. (Here’s an example, reprinted on another site.)
The reasons I left that blog are complex. Some of it was the nastiness dealt out in response to the politics I expressed. (The only thing liberals hate and fear more than fascists? Leftists.) Losing Zeke deprived me of a lot of the emotional energy I could have used to buck up under the assholery. Some of it was seeing a change in myself toward greater assholery, a tendency to fly off the handle more quickly, to react more uncharitably to disagreement. A lot of it was the personal specifics of the situation, manipulation, condescension, lying. I’d given someone the benefit of the doubt who turned out not to merit it.
The biggest thing, though, was that writing there was a distraction from doing real work. Work that makes a difference. I could have overlooked all the other negatives, written more incendiary cleverness to whore for links, written slightly offbeat takes on the political blog subject du jour just novel enough to be taken for what passes, among “successful” bloggers, as “insightful.” I could have cultivated a fractious and troll-infested readership, on the theory that nasty arguments spur repeat viewing of blog ads, and actual discussion be damned. And let’s get real: I could have done it without breaking a sweat. It’s not work. It’s following a formula. The majority of readers of those blogs expect no more. Hell, they demand no more.
But when I took a step back from that shit to catch my breath in the wake of that “nastiness” thread, when I looked at what I had done at Pandagon, the applause with which writing that showed the worst of me was greeted, and the utter yawning indifference, or hostility, to my writing there that expressed nuance or challenged people to think, I was repelled.
Is that “sour grapes,” as Puchalsky put it in that old CRN comment I linked above? Sounds enough like it that some people will probably dismiss what I’ve said here. Those people would find some reason to dismiss me anyway. “Bitter” is closer to the truth than “sour.” I wasted time and energy and credibility and in fact love on a literary video game. I walked away from it. I burned a bridge.
And this is a much better blog, as a result. My writing is better, as a result.
And I’m supposed to envy that shit I walked away from. Of what, precisely, am I supposed to be envious? Money? I left a political writing job a year ago that paid more in a year than most “successful” bloggers see in three years of their day jobs. Recognition? The Earth Island Journal just won the Utne Reader Alternative Press Award for 2007 due in large part to the work I’d done there in the previous five years. Site traffic? Technorati standing? Recognition is lovely, it’s true, and yet that Blog Awards win reminded me that traffic brings with it people whose only aim is to vandalize.
Vandalism seems an appropriate concept here. I wrote this week, if obliquely, of vandals throwing beer bottles at ancient geoglyph intaglios in the Mojave. I actually saw this first with the figure of Mastamho, not far north of Blythe. Look at aerial photos of the intaglios and you’ll see that before they were fenced off, people were apparently in the habit of doing donuts on the gravel atop them, defacing the figures permanently with tire tracks. Who could do such a thing? People who assume their desires, their comfort, their fun, their egos are the most important things in the world. When the existence of something outside their experience hints that there is a rich, diverse world with a varied history, they start to feel insignificant and powerless. They get angry. They deny that the thing that made them feel this way has value. Sometimes they deny this so thoroughly that they fool themselves into sincerely believing the things do not exist. If they do admit the things exist, that admission is usually made with visible resentment. There follows the deliberate attempt to deface.
Meeting sincere criticism with charges of envy is, I think, a form of vandalism.
Among the critics lately accused of “envy” of “successful” bloggers are people whose writing has won prestigious awards. We include people who have crafted careers for themselves while raising families alone. We include young people who take time out from building their lives to offer the world their creativity, their opinions, and who are repaid with hostility, and nonetheless keep writing. We include people like me for whom blogging is a distraction from existing success. We include young people with brilliant careers ahead of them in that small portion of the human cultural world that is not indexed in Technorati. We include people who speak eloquently from distinct personal and cultural and political points of view, who represent a glimpse of the intellectual richness available outside the confines of the ridiculously-defined “mainstream.”
And that limited, insular, self-referential “mainstream,” made to feel smaller, more ephemeral by the richness that confronts them, would vandalize our work by charging us with envy of “success” at mere blogging, to spray paint insults over the tapestry, to deny that there is anything of value outside their puerile, self-aggrandizing snark and sanctimony.
Sometimes people tell me I have written things on this blog that have influenced them on a deep level. Sometimes people tell me I have written things here that have made them cry. Sometimes the responses to my writing here affect make me cry. Sometimes people find a sentence I write, or a phrase, so well encapsulates a thought for them that that sentence or phrase gets cut and pasted to heck and back. Sometimes people find my writing here so off-the-mark that they take me to task, and sometimes they persuade me that they are right. Sometimes I change their minds. Sometimes each of us moves closer to the other’s position. Sometimes I read old posts and find bits of writing about which I’d forgotten, of which on rereading I am proud.
Sometimes, in the process of writing on a topic I thought I knew well, I learn something that shakes my world view to the core.
That is success.
And it is a manner of success not pervious to envy, because it is available to anyone who wants it and tries hard enough. It requires a willingness to admit that you may be wrong, and further a willingness once you have admitted being wrong to try to stop being wrong in that same way in the future. The brittle and the sociopathic may find that is too high a price for them to pay, and that’s their right.
But that’s their flaw, not ours.
It was a little shrub when I planted it. I thought it would grow about eight, maybe twelve feet in a few years. Certainly not forty feet in three years.
A hybrid of the California native Fremontodendron and the Central American “hand tree” Chiranthodendron, my Chiranthofremontia utterly outgrew its space in a few months. By two years ago it was taller than the house, feeding the soil with a thick carpet of fuzzy leaves. And in June, or thereabouts, it would cover itself in bright orange blossoms.
We have wind gusts up to about 70 miles an hour right now. It’s the New Years’ Storm, a few days delayed. The windmill out back, which I staked firmly and which has ridden out a dozen huge storms intact, is canted slightly northward this morning.
And the Chiranthofremontia is down.