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.