If a Tree Falls in a City….

Today the city cut down one of our boulevard trees. It wasn’t mine, it was my neighbor’s, but only a few feet from my property. I feel the loss keenly. (Ach! I have realized we have an uncommon use of the word boulevard in Minnesota. The boulevard refers to the space of grass [usually about 3’ wide] that separates sidewalks from streets.)

It was a big tree, a majestic tree. A tree of spirit. I will miss it dearly.

But it was dying, and had been for several years. Last Friday (a day of no wind to speak of) I was on the front porch and heard a loud crack and a thunderous crash, quite close to the house. A very mighty limb had given up the ghost and fallen to the ground. I was first on the scene, and the large branch was blocking the entire street. I tried to move it (fat chance!) and was happy to see three neighbors arrive (the crack and crash really was quite loud) and we moved the branch and cleaned up the debris in a couple of minutes. So we knew the tree was a goner. But seeing it dying and seeing it gone are two different things.

I watched the removal almost from the get-go. The noise woke me at 7:00 and I was on the front porch by 9:00. In spite of myself, I was absolutely fascinated. How do you cut down a tree that spreads over several houses, without causing damage?

First, you post no-parking signs. Then you close the street at both ends of the block. Then you unload the equipment (which included something very like a bobcat except it was designed to move logs—it completely fascinated me), park the equipment (truck for the logs), and move the equipment into position (the cherry picker—I’m sure it is not a cherry picker by name, but this is the lift that gets the sawyer up in the tree).

And while I mourn the tree, watching these men (I saw only men) work was almost like watching ballet.

(And I must say this just as an aside: Many people complain about lazy government workers, long breaks, and a lot of standing around. I am sitting on the front porch reading the paper, waiting for them to take a break. I don’t think they ever took a break.)

The linchpin seemed to be the guy up in the cherry picker. I have never seen an entire tree dismantled (I do hate to use that word for a tree, but it is still most appropriate from this perspective). There is a complete and total science (possibly also a bit of intuition, but I am only intuiting here) on taking down a tree. Some limbs you can let free-fall (this is what I saw mostly when I first arrived). This freaked me out for a bit until I realized that they only did it when they (the sawyer, actually) knew that it would fall directly on the road. He was never wrong.

So while I sing the praises of the sawyer, there was also this amazing ground crew, the rest of the ballet (because really, a ballet with only one person is hardly a ballet). When a branch dropped, the souped-up bobcat swooped to grab and move the logs; others gathered smaller branches and debris; and I kept waiting for them to take a break, to just stop for awhile, but they never did.

Back to the sawyer. I was particularly keen to know how they made sure these huge limbs don’t fall on people’s houses (having one hang above my very own house). It took me a little time (and a little coffee), but I finally realized they were using ropes. I watched one large branch, in particular, and as the sawyer made his final cut, I could not imagine how this would not damage something (my house, my neighbor’s house, or foliage at the very minimum). But I watched the limb, and the ropes, and it landed exactly in the middle of the street.

After all the limbs were cropped, the cherry picker moved, and they started sawing from the bottom. They sawed and sawed. The rest of the workmen were around, cleaning up bits of this and that, sweeping and raking up debris. One even sat down on a brick wall, for a moment. A bit of a lull. But the bobcat was moving and workers in the picture (though always at least two watching the tree and the cutting, which I found very reassuring). And then, the street is empty. No workers.

At the same time, spouse comes home and says the street might be blocked off all day, just as I say they’re almost done taking down the tree. Nah, he says, and goes out the front door to check it out. He gets 10’ from the door, and is warned back by the sawyer himself. The rest of the tree was down less than a minute later.

Right in the middle of the street.

I will miss the tree greatly. I’ve cried (several times now—it was very nearby and quite old, and I have a particular fondness for trees) and I have put flowers and some fresh currants (that the birds must have spared for this exact purpose) on the stump.

But I must also give kudos to the crew that arrived this morning and removed a tree that needed to be cut down, being in the city and dropping limbs as it was. They didn’t just take the big parts of the tree; throughout the process, they went around and picked up branches and twigs in the street and on neighboring lawns. One of the workers picked up a chunk of wood the size of a baseball. And then they swept the road and sidewalks after they were done.

Except for some sawdust and a few leaves and a stump, you’d hardly know they were here.

I will miss the tree, but I am thankful and slightly amazed at this ballet team that works together so well to do something so difficult.

In Search of New Life

A new month and a new book-reading theme. The June theme is celestial objects. I have a lot of fiction books that are calling to me: Shoot the Moon, by Billie Letts; The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold; Leaving Earth, by Helen Humphreys; Walking to Mercury, by Starhawk (loved her book, The Fifth Sacred Thing); and Turtle Moon (as well as Here on Earth) by Alice Hoffman.

I thought celestial objects would be much broader (Alpha Centauri?) but mostly I am finding sun and moon and a very few stars. I have a galaxy and a few universes, a satellite, and two planets so far (Earth and Mercury).

In the world of fun, I have a Star Trek graphic novel: To Boldly Go. Good silly summer porch reading.

I was most surprised at the sparsity of nonfiction on my shelves. On the bright side, most of them are quite intriguing and I’m not yet sure which I will start first.

The Accidental Universe, by Alan Lightman, I will read for sure (as I am discussing it later this month in the world’s smallest bookclub with my friend Sheila). Although now that I’m looking at this book I am wondering if I haven’t already read it. But then again, if I did, it was several years ago, and it might make a completely different impression now than it did then (if indeed there was any impression at all), and reading a book to discuss always adds a nice element of interest.

Also among the few but valued celestial nonfiction books: The Universe in a Single Atom, by the Dalai Lama; Earth Democracy, by Vandana Shiva; The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family, by Jeanne Marie Laskas; and Walking Gently on the Earth, by Lisa Graham McMinn and Megan Anna Neff.

It’s odd to have so few nonfiction books and such a plethora of fiction books (most especially as I’m mostly in a nonfiction place these last several months). But it’s June, and at least at this moment, a light novel sounds appealing, so who knows?

As for the May reading theme (land/terrain), I will report that I have learned a lesson: Never place a reading theme that you are Most Particularly Interested In during the peak of bird migration. One would think I would have learned that by now.

Nonetheless, I managed to read myself through a gorge, a field, a prairie, the shore, a couple of landscapes, a point, a quarry, and your basic land. The one book I most wanted to read for this theme I have not quite finished, but will do in a day or two: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

After reading this book, I am finally starting to understand where the tea party (and other hard-core conservatives) are coming from. This is not to say I agree, but I am beginning to understand.

I don’t often talk politics on this blog, but I am all in favor of at least Trying to understand the other point of view. I think it’s a little hard-headed to have a blanket opinion that the “other side” (are they really?) is wrong. Why do they think that way? Sometimes (not always, but sometimes), when we talk about why we disagree, we find that we in fact agree on many things. This can provide a path to resolve the things we disagree on. But even agreeing to disagree is not a bad thing. (Granted, it’s a low bar, but compared to open animosity, it seems to be a small but achievable goal.)

I am going to be very local for a moment and say that I favor cooperation and compromise (among people in general and government in particular) and am appalled at the sandbox fight taking place right now at the highest level of our Minnesota government. I don’t appreciate our Republican Legislature starting it, nor do I appreciate our Democratic governor massively upscaling it.

The anarchy model of government is starting to sound good. Oh oh. Was that left wing or right wing?

The May Basket Project

Two years ago I left May baskets for three of my neighbors early in the morning on the first of May. It was a lot of fun. Candy, flowers, a book—leave the basket on the doorstoop, ring the doorbell and run.

Just like I did as a kid.

It was great fun, both then and now. The making of something purely for someone else’s pleasure (hopefully anonymously) is hugely gratifying, for reasons I haven’t quite divined.

An unfortunate confluence of events kept me from May baskets last year, but this year I am back in the game.

I planned 7 of them—a significant increase from last time. I’m kind of hoping this thing will catch on in my neighborhood.

This morning I woke to rain, and when I thought of the books and dog biscuits in some of the baskets, I decided a belated May 2 delivery might be the wiser choice.  Who doesn’t like to sleep in on a rainy day? After newspaper and coffee, spouse and I went out for a late lunch. Halfway through lunch, the rain changed to snow. As we finished, we had a very decent snowfall going on. Too warm to accumulate, but very fun to walk through.

For sure we won’t deliver May baskets now, I thought; but the snow stopped immediately after we got home, and turned into a slow drizzle. I was putting finishing touches on the baskets (leaving only the flowers to add last-minute) when I realized that the rain had stopped.

Do it! I quick got the flowers and added them to the baskets (confession: One set got left behind on the counter, and another fell out en route—clearly we have a few kinks to work out). The first delivery was a total success: after running away, we saw the door open and the basket taken in. Next we did two neighbors to the north, and then two to the south.

As I was wrapping things up, our doorbell rang.  What? A shadow of someone running away.

A May basket! Truly! Flowers (magnolia and tulip), Shakespeare sonnets, and far too many chocolate candies. (Spouse counters that “far too many” is an overstatement.)

Later this neighbor stopped by, and I found out she gave three May baskets in the neighborhood. Perhaps it will catch on after all. I love this idea!

I don’t know if it is my small-town roots, my introvert nature, or simply the appeal of giving someone something unexpected that draws me so to the May baskets. We learned to do it as kids at school—we made them out of construction paper and hung them on our neighbors’ doorknobs.

I’ve ratcheted it up a notch, forgoing construction paper and staples for actual baskets (often free from friends and family who have piles of them in the attic/storeroom/basement), and trying to apply at least a nominal personal element. Dog biscuits, comic books, poetry, puzzles.

Whether it catches on or no, I plan to continue May baskets to my neighbors. It’s simply too fun, and why not?

Orchard Exuberance

The robin is singing in the backyard, exuberant. Nudging me. Having nothing to do with this post (already titled before the song), the song has finally put my hand to the keyboard, as I was stymied how to begin.

It started when we went to a neighborhood event, and among all the various opportunities, my spouse wanted to volunteer to help with the neighborhood orchard. Sign me up, I said.

I am not particularly fond of getting together with a lot of people I don’t know, especially if all we’re doing is sitting around and chatting. I opted out of an initial planning meeting, but when the opportunity for actual orchard maintenance came up, I was definitely interested. Our first activity: pruning.

We started at noon on Sunday (earlier, if you got the message that coffee and snacks were being provided by the church across the street). And this was one piece of the magic, or exuberance, of the day. When we arrived, there was fruit, breads, cookies, and coffee, spread out on a table in front of the church. Spouse introduced me to people he knew (from the meeting I avoided) and I was stunned.

I was totally comfortable.

It is pretty much completely unheard of for me to be comfortable in a group of strangers. I’m still processing it.

There were about 25 of us (way more than expected), mostly guys (which surprised me). I have never in my life felt comfortable drifting from small group to small group, but unbelievably, I did. I don’t know if it’s the common goal, or that all these people love trees, or if it’s the trees themselves. Perhaps all of the above.

When we moved across the street to the orchard, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves: neighbors across the street, people in the neighborhood, a bunch of people knowledgeable about fruit trees, a bunch that didn’t know so much, and a whole lot of enthusiasm.

One of the older men in the group suggested that if you really want to get to know trees, here’s your chance. Stop by the orchard at least every two weeks. Not a drive-by visit. A stop and park the car and spend some time with the trees visit. It is not so often you get the opportunity to shape a young orchard, or even to engage in its long-term growth. I plan to visit the orchard frequently. I have a great fondness for trees, and while I find most trees grounding, there’s something about fruit trees (even very young ones) that makes me a little giddy.

We spent a bit of time as a group around a tree, discussing pruning, examples, try it yourself, questions, etc. Again, I felt so comfortable. I asked several questions and was also able to just let go of social stress and think about what would work best for the tree.

Aha, there it is. It is the tree after all. I love trees and I have happened upon a community of tree lovers. It was a lovely contagious afternoon—trees, joy, purpose, camaraderie, and a good bit of fun.

The pruning of these little trees was a bit more challenging than I had expected (learned a lot). We will have a mission regarding blossoms in the later spring, watering through the summer, and mulching in the fall.

I like tending an orchard. This little orchard is an experiment in Minneapolis. If we can make it work, just imagine: neighborhood orchards everywhere. Why not?

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name

9781565125247I finished my favorite book of February on the penultimate day of the month. If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska, by Heather Lende, is a lovely blend of nature, musing, philosophy, spirituality, and small-town pragmatism.

It’s a good primer on small-town living, and it’s also a decent introduction to Alaska (though I am admittedly much more of an expert on the former than the latter, having grown up in a small town and visited Alaska only once, and on a cruise at that).

A blurb on the front cover calls Lende’s book part Annie Dillard and part Anne Lamott (I found that quite appealing as I like Lamott and love Dillard). By the time I got to the end of the book, I certainly understood the references to Dillard and Lamott, but Lende also brings her own chemistry into the mix.

The passage that first grabbed my heart was her conversation (did I mention the book feels like a conversation?) about furnishing their house in Alaska. Both she and her husband “like to be surrounded by old things that wouldn’t pass as antiques and aren’t valuable to anyone except us.” She mentions her grandfather’s rolltop desk, a worn Oriental rug from her mother-in law’s house, a crystal pitcher that came from Norway with the first Lendes.

I put the book down and looked around me, and the sentiment resounded: I was sitting at the small blue table that held my chemistry set when I was 12. Behind me is my aunt’s copy of The Joy of Cooking. Our everyday dishes include three of my grandmother’s everyday dishes (there were four but I recently broke one) and several plates that somehow made it through my entire childhood. I have my grandmother’s cedar chest, and a beautiful blond buffet that belonged to my dad’s sister. (I call it beautiful possibly because it’s so functional, with three good-sized drawers and a little side door with shelves.) I have a fine old library desk left in my care by a dear friend more than 25 years ago (along with a good wooden plant stand, which holds a fern of my mother’s, in a pot that I think she might have found when she moved into the house I grew up in). And I have hardly started. I walk through my house and feel surrounded by love.

Much of what I enjoyed so much about If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name is that the author and I share some common values and interests, as noted above, and also with nature. At one point in the book, she is at a funeral, and during the talking she looked through the open door at

two eagles circling in the warm breeze high above the water. Although I’ve seen thousands, the sight of an eagle in flight still moves me in a way I can’t explain. It’s like a prayer.”

I know exactly what she means. I see eagles often, and while I haven’t seen thousands, I’ve seen hundreds (close to the Mississippi, after all), but they never get boring. Always I pause, and watch. In reverence or awe, I’m not sure. As the funeral continues, Lende, pondering eagles and spirits and mountains, wonders,

Do we feel God’s presence because we are looking for him, or do we feel it because he is looking for us?”

You see, this is the thing. She leads us down some roads. I went down a road of gratitude, and I went down a road of awe, and I went down a road of resolve. I resolve to appreciate what I have just a little bit more, and I resolve to try harder to see and understand the other person’s point of view.

There were many things I loved in this book, but these rose to the top. I expect other people will take away different things. But one thing I’m pretty certain of: There is something in this book for just about everyone.

What Can I Give You?

I had lunch with a friend the other day, and she brought me a gift bag—a couple of magazines and a few bottles and jars that she knew I would find useful in my herbal work.

We had a good long lunch, including a discussion of South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami. We have a bit of a tradition of meeting and discussing a Murakami book at Pepito’s in Minneapolis in February.

Murakami stretches your mind. Or maybe it’s your imagination. Or maybe he prods the id. It leads to good and sometimes far-ranging discussion. If you like odd fiction, you might like Murakami (start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). If you don’t like odd fiction, you might like Murakami (start with Norwegian Wood). Murakami is one of the few authors whose books I will read and reread. Always something new, something—huh?

We skirted around politics. Not that we have major differences, mind you. But rather because last time we got together we did get into politics, and it felt like we were swallowed by a whirlpool and two hours later spit out the other side. Not that we disagreed or argued, but almost like a two-hour vent. Or even a two-hour rage. We were both disquieted by that.

Our get-togethers are usually very happy making, with talk of books and food, writing and friends and family, and possible personal concerns we might want a bit of help working through. Usually I go home all relaxed and happy and feeling like my soul has been nourished (corny but true, so there). But not after the politics for two hours. Even agreeing, it drained us. So we have put a moratorium on talking about politics. (Although since we make the rules, we can make exceptions if we think it’s important.)

As the conversation moved into other areas, my friend mentioned her upcoming Lenten project (she does a Lent thing every year; I kind of like the idea, but I’ve not yet done it myself). Okay, I’m just going to very pridefully say that she told me that I inspired her Lenten project.

Specifically, she said the occasional things I send her in the mail (I love using snail mail; I visit the post box several times a week) are a special moment in her day (personal mail being relatively rare these days). So she’s decided to send a card to someone on each day of Lent. A friend, a relative, a mentor, someone she admires.

Can we focus on this most excellent idea for a moment? Okay, I am not of the Lenten variety, but don’t most people typically give something up for Lent? And I guess my friend is doing that, in that she is giving up a bit of time in writing the notes. But more importantly, at least to my wee mind, it’s like she’s turning the idea of Lent inside out. Instead of taking away, she’s giving.

I love it when my friends humble me.

She mentioned that she probably needed to get cards for her project, and being rather Lent uninformed, I asked when (soon) and how long (40 days). I knew I had a few cards I could give her and I passed them on after our long lunch.

But later in the evening as I was reading, it niggled. I have so many cards. I have a huge variety of cards (lots that I receive free in the mail from charities, but also just a lot of cards accumulated over the years). And then I remembered a gift that a different friend had sent me a couple of years ago, when I was rather early into my postcard project. She sent me a package of 50 unique postcards. I was awash in delight—so many new possibilities for matching message to postcard.

So I went through the card drawer and pulled together a package of cards. A wide variety that I hope will cross a variety of folk. And I remembered the gift economy—giving what you have when you can. You want, I have, I give.

I have so much more of so many things than I need. Sometimes I latch onto things simply because they could be useful some day. In the gift economy, if my friend needs cards and I have cards, I give her some of mine. Maybe she’ll like them, maybe not (I ask her to return the cards she doesn’t use) but she doesn’t have to go out shopping, and I’ve gotten rid of a bit of my surplus of cards.

But the gift economy is more than that. When I was at my best with it, every time I got together with someone, I tried to bring them a gift. Something small usually—a jar of ginger jam, a magazine, or some rhubarb. A poem. An article from the newspaper. It’s a way of saying, I value you. I think about you. It’s nice to give people things—sharing what you have, or just thinking, what might they want or appreciate that I happen to have?

It feels good. I have a couple of friends who do this occasionally, and I always feel very special. I feel lucky, and blessed. And when I give something to someone, I always feel happy and a little bit lightened.

Note: The gift doesn’t have to be something physical, it could be a service, or a favor. The most common around here is shoveling walks. Minimally one tries to do at least a few inches over the border of the neighbor’s walk, but copying my neighbor across the street, last year I started shoveling both my neighbors’ sidewalk up to their personal walk (about half the full sidewalk). This year, someone shoveled our front walk three times. That has never happened before.

The gift economy: I swear, it’s contagious.

Speaking American

9780544703391I love language. I love language differences. I particularly love regional variations in language use.

When I was growing up, I ordered a pop if I wanted a Coke or a 7-Up. I didn’t find out that this was not universal until I went to college. There I learned that some people who get what I call pop call it soda. To me, a soda was a pop with ice cream in it. I have learned since that most of the country considers this an ice cream soda. (We did have a version of this soda—the root beer float: two scoops of ice cream in a large glass, slowly pour the root beer over the ice cream, add straw, go back to horror/James Bond/Hitchcock movie.)

Speaking American, by Josh Katz, is the book I’ve wanted to read for years. Here’s the soda score:

the-midwest-calls-carbonated-soft-drinks-pop-the-northeast-and-the-west-coast-call-them-soda-and-the-south-is-really-into-brand-loyalty

I had been under the impression, until I read this book, that only we Minnesotans were clueless in the pop definition thing. I am happily surprised to see that Iowa, both of the Dakotas, Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, and the most sensible parts of Wisconsin all use pop. Even Washington State largely uses pop. Hmm. I think henceforth I shall eschew soda, and use pop exclusively. I love regionalism. Linguistically speaking.

Here’s a fun one. I grew up totally and completely saying car’-mel, two syllables. Everyone says it that way here. Then I get married, and my New York spouse says care’-ah-mell. What? Really? It sounded so pretentious to me. And then I find out that it’s purely a regional thing:

the-pronunciation-of-caramel-starts-disregarding-vowels-once-you-go-west-of-the-ohio-river

The yard sale takes up several pages. Or perhaps I should say garage sale; they seem equally common. But in Connecticut you have the tag sale, and in southeast Wisconsin you have a rummage sale. In Brooklyn they have stoop sales.

I learned (should I be admitting this?) that a frying pan and a skillet are the same thing (a skillet more common in the central south, a frying pan more common everywhere else). I had always thought a skillet was cast iron, and a frying pan was anything else. Oooh—maybe that’s a Minnesotan differentiation. (Doubtful.)

Who would think icing and frosting could have a regional rift? But they do: In the South, people suggest you can use the two words interchangeably. The north says no, they are not interchangeable (icing is thin, often used on cookies and for a very thin coating of a frosting—like a glaze; frosting is thick and often fluffy; icing doesn’t fluff). You see? You see how we get into our regionalisms? I think it is great fun.

I had no idea that everyone in the world didn’t call the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk the boulevard. I grew up in my small town calling it the boulevard. I think that’s pretty much standard across Minnesota (but I should do some research before you take it as fact). Turns out that about three-quarters of the country doesn’t have a word for this strip. I find that hard to believe! Seriously? Is it possible that most of the country has no word for that strip between the sidewalk and the street, that many of us in Minnesota plant with flowers and other fun plants (I have a neighbor on the corner that has blessedly planted raspberries on their boulevard—can you imagine anything more generous?).

A lot of the food differences are fun. Here’s one:

united-states-dialect-map-language

Yep, they got it right. I grew up calling them crayfish. (I wonder how many people call them anything at all anymore. Are they still common?)

Other fun things I learned:

  • Most people call athletic shoes tennis shoes (I call them tennies), but in the northeast and also southern Florida, they say sneakers.
  • Some regions celebrate the night before Halloween. They call it Mischief Night (South Jersey and Philadelphia), Devil’s Night (Michigan and Pittsburgh), Goosey Night (a small bit of North Jersey), and Cabbage Night (New York and Vermont sides of Lake Champlain).
  • I am in the minority when I pronounce aunt ahnt. Except for most of Minnesota and North Dakota, northern South Dakota, and the Northeast (and a standout in Virginia), everyone else says ant.
  • There are also regional pronunciation differences in pajamas, often (no, I don’t pronounce the T), crayons, quarter, coupon, lawyer, grocery, route, and been.
  • A groundhog and a woodchuck are the same thing. (Yes, I should have known that.)
  • While most of the country has no word for when it’s raining while the sun is shining, some areas in the northeast, Florida, and Minnesota (disparate!) call it a sunshower, while the deep south calls it “the devil beating his wife.” Who knew?

This is a purely fun book, great maps, informative, interesting, and beautiful. Did I mention fun? Usually I regift my books, but I think I will do this one on a loaner basis. I want to share it with a lot of people.