Overstory

Over the waning days of summer, I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a novel about trees and interconnection. It’s a big, fat book, and I read it slowly, at a tree’s pace: page by page and leaf by leaf. Trees outlive us–at least the largest, long-lived species do–and thus they have much to teach us about time, patience, and the virtues of rootedness.

Looking up

This past March, one of the tall pine trees that fringe our backyard fell directly onto our neighbors’ house after a heavier-than-usual snowfall. Last month, we had an arborist come to look at our remaining trees: not just the tall pines out back, but also a slowly-dying ash near our back door. This particular arborist had never seen the pine that fell, but he examined the slivers of stump that remain. Could we have predicted, we asked, whether this tree would fall, or in which direction? The arborist suggested the tree’s trunk was sound, but its root system had been compromised by some nearby driveway work. But could construction work done nearly two decades ago have an impact on a tree today, J asked, incredulous, and the arborist said yes, of course. Trees live according to a different timeline than we do, our hurried scurrying looking like a blur when viewed from their ponderous perspective.

Five-fingered maple

Trees can teach us much about steadfastness and resilience, but we need to slow ourselves down to hear them. The most resilient trees tap their roots deep, while the wide-spreaders hug shallow soil and are easily uprooted. My mind branches widely and wildly with distraction, and I quickly grow discouraged by superficial trifles: I’d do better with a deeper taproot. Trees and the people who understand them best know a decade is the mere wink of an arboreal eye, and for a tree centuries pass like days. Marriage is easy, my grandfather used to say; only the first fifty years are hard. This is a statement to make a tree chuckle.

Dying ash

The arborist we hired will cut down the dying ash in our backyard, as it is growing too close to both our house and our neighbors’ garage, and he will grind the stump to sawdust, as its roots are far from any nearby trees. But the arborist suggested we cut but not grind the stump of the fallen pine, as its roots are tangled up with its neighbors’. I close my eyes and imagine the grief of trees: when one falls, his fellow forest-friends tremble down to their subterranean toes.

The Overstory is a fat book because it tells a complex web of a tale. The stories in the initial section are branched like roots, and later, they connect together in subtle and surprising ways: an ecosystem of individuals whose roots touch and tangle. The whole time I was reading the book, I found myself looking up on my daily dog-walks: who, exactly, are these quiet creatures who live their woody lives in our midst, silent and swaying, overhead and too often ignored?

Rocco in window

On Friday night, J and I put Rocco the cat to sleep after a two-year battle with small cell lymphoma. We’d lost our cat Groucho to the same disease in November, 2015, so we were familiar with the typical progression: weight loss leading to diagnosis, sudden improvement and weight gain with chemotherapy, then a gradual and irreversible decline when the drugs stop working. In our experience, feline chemotherapy works very well until it suddenly doesn’t.

Rocco resting

Although Rocco had been gradually losing weight for the past few months, until Friday he hadn’t acted sick. All through the summer, he was still eating, interacting with our other cats, and pestering for attention. But on Friday, Rocco was lethargic and aloof, and when he finally defecated on himself and didn’t even try to clean himself, we knew his spirit had given up before his body had.

Rocco reads

This is the third pet we’ve euthanized this year: we put Cassie the dog to sleep on New Year’s Day, before the start of spring semester, and we euthanized Gumbo the cat at the end of April, as the semester was ending. I don’t know why so many of our pets die at the beginning or end of my academic semesters or why their final throes so often happen on nights and weekends, when only emergency vets are on duty. As another fresh-faced vet–we never seem to see the same one twice–prepped Rocco for the procedure, she asked if we’d ever been present for a euthanasia. I had to stop myself from saying, “We’ve probably been present for more pet deaths than you have.”

Rocco on window sill

The passing of a pet is an emotional and even spiritual experience: a journey to the border between the Here and the Hereafter. Watching a pet slip away at the quiet push of a plunger makes you realize how tenuous and ephemeral this mortal life is, and the quiet absence you face when you get home reminds you of how outsize even the smallest creature’s soul can be.

This is no longer a litter box. #catsofinstagram #roccothecat

Rocco was the last remaining pet that J had when I first met him in 2007: the end of an era. When I met J and did not (due to allergies) think myself a cat person, it was Rocco who helped win me over.

Anyone who thinks cats don’t have personalities should have met Rocco, who was positively dog-like in his gregarious, goofy, and (yes) dogged demeanor. Rocco was not a shy or retiring creature; like a dog, Rocco would come right up to anyone who entered the house, walking on bowed legs that made him look like a hockey goalie in leg pads. When Rocco reached you, he’d collapse in a furry heap right under your feet, forcing you to either pet or push him away. One of the final signs that Rocco was not long for this world, in fact, was his complete indifference when I dried the dishes on Friday afternoon. Healthy Rocco would have pestered me by rubbing my legs, flopping at my feet, or trying to climb into the dishwasher, curious.

Rocco helps unload the dishwasher

People who have never euthanized a pet sometimes wonder how you will know it’s time, but in my experience it it always abundantly clear when an animal is ready to die. If you know how your pet usually acts–if you know their most basic and obvious joys–you will notice when they no longer are interested in those things. If you listen deeply to your pet, you can’t fail to notice when their spirit leaves and it is time for you to help their body follow. Throughout his life, Rocco pushed and pestered for affection, and on Friday night we gave him the last dose of love he needed to cross to the other shore.

Mormon heaven

This weekend J and I went to see The Book of Mormon at the Boston Opera House. The only thing I knew about the show beforehand was that it was written by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, so I fully expected it to be foul-mouthed, irreverent, and funny. What I didn’t expect, however, was for this zany story of young Mormon missionaries proselytizing in rural Uganda to be sweet.

Boston Opera House

Stone and Parker get away with lampooning Mormonism and offering a cartoonish caricature of Ugandan village life because the characters they create are essentially likable. Mormon missionaries Cunningham and Price are young, idealistic, and naive…but so is Nabulungi, the young Ugandan woman who is the first to accept a particularly warped version of traditional Mormon teaching. The degree to which Elders Cunningham and Price have been sheltered from anything but First World Problems is apparent the moment they arrive in Africa, and they never entirely lose their cluelessness, with one running gag focusing on Elder Cunningham’s complete inability to remember Nabulungi’s name even though he’s clearly smitten with her. The Book of Mormon lambasts Cunningham and Price for their naivety, but the audience can’t help but root for them.

Boston Opera House

When faced with trouble, people can either curse or bless God, and The Book of Mormon demonstrates both approaches. One toe-tapping, wildly NSFW musical number, for instance, features the Ugandan villagers teaching the visiting Mormons a phrase they utter whenever things go bad, and while the missionaries assume the phrase means “No worries,” it turns out to be pointedly blasphemous instead. Both Cunningham and Price try to convince the villagers to find solace in God, but this approach falls flat when the previously-pious Price has an epic crisis of faith the first time he faces true hardship. Initially, the missionaries’ message falls on deaf ears because its otherworldly idealism is so far removed from the harsh realities of life.

Mormon humor

But because The Book of Mormon is a comedy, it cannot end with existential dread. Although Cunningham, Price, and their fellow missionaries travel to Africa with the intention of teaching the villagers there, of course they end up learning more than they’d anticipated. Mormons, it turns out, believe a lot of crazy things…but so do Christians, Muslims, Jews, and optimists of all sorts. The Book of Mormon is a sweetly uplifting story–despite more than two hours of irreverent humor, crude jokes, and obscene language–because it suggests the metaphors underpinning religious faith are ultimately helpful and worthwhile if they lead ordinary people to treat one another more kindly.

I don’t know if God has a sense of humor, but if he does, I’m guessing he’d approve that message.

Science Center

Today I drove to Framingham State for the English department’s annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: the first time I’ve been on campus in months. Every summer, the first-year writing retreat feels like a dry-run for the start of the semester: a reminder of what it’s like to get up early, scramble to get ready, and then commute to campus for morning classes. Soon enough, my teaching-day routine will be a once-again familiar habit, but today I felt like I was fumbling through a forgotten dance.

Ripening horse chestnut

I’ve taught at Framingham State long enough now that I recognize the grounds’ own seasonal cycle. There is a horse-chestnut tree I regularly pass on my way from the parking lot to my office, for example: in September when classes start, it will drop buckeyes, the culmination of the flowers that appeared as classes ended in May. On my office windowsill, I have a collection of dried horse-chestnuts I’ve gathered beneath this tree. During the early weeks of Fall semester, buckeyes emerge from their hulls round and shiny, but over the course of the term they shrivel into misshapen lumps and lose their sheen.

Ripening horse chestnut

I suppose this is a metaphor for the school year itself. The start of Fall semester is a round and shiny time when one’s supplies are new and ample, one’s intentions are strong, and anything seems possible. In time, the sheen of a new school year will fade and enthusiasm will wane and wither. But seeds aren’t designed to live on a windowsill forever. Buckeyes are built to be buried, and only then do they open and emerge into the infinite promise of tomorrow’s trees.

Popping up like mushrooms

Monday was a gray and damp day, with thick fog and misty drizzle in the morning. For the first time in a week, it was cool enough for the dog and me to walk to the Place of Pines and back. Few dog-walkers were out because of the threat of rain, and it was too cool for bugs.

Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) fruit forming

There’s a solitary American wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) I see blooming every year near where the trail forks toward Puritan Road, just past Beethoven Street. Right now, this shrub is done flowering and is forming green fruit that will in time ripen to red and burst. I stopped to take photos of these fruit in formation, but it was difficult given the paleness of the hanging globes and the lack of a contrasting background.

Solitary ghost pipe

I also photographed a solitary ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora). It was odd to see just one blooming, as they usually grow in clumps. But I know now to look for others: if there is one blooming, there are presumably more, and the first appearance of ghost pipe always comes as a surprise, a reminder that it is later in the year than I think.

Mostly, these moist and steamy days are good for fungus and fern. There is a sensitive fern spontaneously sprouting by our back door, and dead stumps along the Aqueduct Trail are frilled with shelf fungus. Today there is a stand of mushrooms where there were none yesterday: a bit of fungal magic brought about by weeks of almost-tropical humidity.

Lime Bikes

Dockless bike-sharing has come to Newton, Massachusetts, which means our neighborhood is dotted with eye-popping green and yellow LimeBikes that people can rent via a smartphone app and then leave anywhere, with no need to return to a central location.

Needham Street Lime Bikes

When the city’s LimeBikes were first deployed, they were seemingly everywhere, prominently placed in front of stores, banks, and City Hall: anywhere people are likely to congregate. Now that people have been (presumably) riding them, the bikes are less visible. Instead of being parked in prominent packs, they now have scattered singly: a bike here and there, parked in front of houses or at residential intersections where riders have left them for their next hire.

Needham Street Lime Bikes

This means my daily dog-walks and routine errands have turned into a kind of Easter egg hunt: where, in a word, will I spot another Limey?

Although it’s been years since I’ve ridden a bike, I used to ride regularly. When I lived in Cambridge in the 1990s, my then-husband and I didn’t have a car, so my chief modes of transportation were my own two feet, the T, and my bike. Back then, I was young and fearless, riding in Cambridge traffic with nothing but a helmet and my own confidence to protect me.

Avalon Lime Bikes

These days, I wince whenever I drive past a cyclist, their bodies seeming so fragile and small. But I remember from my biking days that my sense of personal space was different then: as long as I could find an open area to maneuver my bike and myself, I felt shielded from larger, more lumbering vehicles, zipping in between cars and looking out for my own safety since I (accurately) assumed no one else was looking out for me.

City Hall Lime Bikes

Part of me would love to hop on a LimeBike: is it true when they say you never forget how to ride? But my older, creakier, more settled and sturdy self observes that I don’t have a helmet nor a definite destination: I have no need, in other words, to ride a bike when I can either drive or walk anywhere I’d like to go.

Hyde Playground Lime Bike

Recently, LeBron James explained how having a bike changed his life when he was a poor kid growing up in Akron, Ohio: “If you had a bike, it was a way to kind of let go and be free.” I remember the rush of freedom I felt when I was old enough to ride my bike to the library, pool, or even a movie all by myself. Remembering that breezy freedom of being on two wheels, I wonder whether the sassy confidence of decades past would reappear as soon as I straddled a seat.

Skyline from Scioto Audubon Metro Park

It’s been over a week since I’ve written in my journal, and two weeks since I’ve posted here: busy days. The week before last, I had jury duty and ended up serving on a two-day trial, and this past weekend, I flew to Ohio to visit family.

Scioto River

Before and after any trip or commitment, there is the necessary work of prepping and debriefing. Before I leave, I hurry through long to-do list to make sure J and the pets have enough food, medication, and supplies to last while I’m gone, and after I return, there is laundry, unpacking, and yet more laundry.

Egret and distant blue heron

I arrived home from Ohio yesterday morning after my flight the previous evening was cancelled, and both yesterday and today have been devoted to re-entry. I’ve resumed the household chores J did while I was gone, and I’ve re-acclimated myself to the daily routine that had been interrupted.

Under the bridge

All day today I’ve felt like a fish that has breached the surface, flashed quickly in the alien air, and then splashed back into its liquid realm. The ordinary world with its regular routine of laundry and chores is where I live, so returning to it is like (literally) coming home.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a quick walk at Scioto Audubon, a new-to-me Metro Park that skirts the Scioto River right near downtown Columbus, Ohio.