Spring Fling

Spring is the horniest season, horticulturally speaking. One day it’s nothing but dirt the color of an ashtray left unattended at a casino slot machine and the next—shazam! Nature is all heavy-breathing and green tumescence. Tightly coiled buds pulse, eager for release like sweaty teens awkwardly pawing each other on the basement couch. No judgment. Spring is all about the freaky fling, horticulturally speaking.

The randiest seasonal offender is, without a doubt, the magnolia tree. Even before they bloom in earnest, they get you with this come hither move. Their buds look like fingers drawn up together as if rubbing something achingly fine between their tips. And when they bloom in full: shameless. Creamy pink, white, or yellow tea-cup sized blossoms audaciously unfurl themselves on the edge of branches, gleeful in their wanton arbor lust. I do believe they would make even Monsieur Toulous-Lautrec blush.   

I had never really experienced magnolias until I moved close to Boston. What in the world would a tree synonymous with southern belles and sprawling Mississippi estates be doing in the almost unseasonably cold Northeast? The short answer: science. Though originally acclimated to the southern states when they were brought to America in the 1780s, magnolias have spread and bred up the northeast corridor from Virginia to Maine. Then again, these saucy minxes are wired for resilience. They’ve been around for more than 90 million years (so, only slightly younger than Keith Richards). They existed before bees. Though we’re rapidly approaching an alarming moment when we might make that statement true again, it’s still mind-bending to think about. The trees we see today form a direct line to a world that included duck-billed dinosaurs and, of course, Keith Richards (just ringing every drop from that joke). That’s some serious staying power. Maybe we’ve done at least a small thing right by our weary earth.

In the early-1960s, a woman named Laura Dwight began a beautification project in her Back Bay Boston neighborhood. What began with planting a handful of magnolias around Dwight’s street grew into a large-scale effort to plant the trees throughout the Back Bay neighborhood. As a result, for a precious few weeks each spring, the magnolias drape themselves over the doorways of stately Boston brownstones. They caress the sides of buildings. They lure you underneath splayed canopies, your face upturned like a hopeful young thing waiting to feel their soft pink lips graze your cheek. At least that’s been my experience. The magnolias are the joyful riot and the sweet exhale of Mardi Gras. They seem to show up every year just when you need them most. Attention must be paid.

I recently learned about floriography: the language of flowers. A cryptology crafted from genus and species, a conversation conducted through petal shape and color and variety. “There’s rosemary,” wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet, “that’s for remembrance.” The enduring powers of folklore and myth given to us in stems and leaves and roots and fruits to help us say what we can’t easily say ourselves. This seems worth hanging onto, especially in the spring when the harsh edges of the world start to soften, when our own selves become more pliable and we feel capable of gentleness again, and we find ourselves stopping in front of a luxurious cascade of pink and white and yellow blossoms that seem to murmur. And we find ourselves listening.  

Into The Mystic

The first snowstorm of the season came on hard and fast. Streets became slalom courses. Trees dripping with meringue. The world finally hushed and stilled for all the right reasons instead of for all the strangest ones.

Snow needled my face as I carefully made my way through the slippery, thickly carpeted streets down to the Mystic River. Named “missi-tuk,” which means “large estuary,” by the Algonquan first nation tribe, the Mystic originates north of Boston. It snakes through various communities like East Boston, Chelsea, Charlestown, eventually cutting across Medford, where I live. In addition to being an old waterway, the Mystic has historical significance. That’s one of the things I love about living in New England—you can’t get more than a mile in any direction without running across a house that belonged to a Puritan shoemaker or, if you’re in the historically sexy town of Salem, Massachusetts, the park where they hung witches. New England still pulses with the heartbeat of generations past.

Touching upon so many towns, the Mystic quickly became a major artery in the new colonies. In 1774, 260 British soldiers rowed from Boston up the Mystic to an area in Somerville known as Winter Hill. They marched about a mile to an old stone building where the Puritans stored the largest supply of gunpowder in the region: The Powder House. The British raided the supply, touching off a regional skirmish that came to be known as the Powder Alarm (the colonists were not known for clever branding). Later on, the Mystic supported a thriving shipping industry. The creation of the Middlesex canal joined the Charles and Mystic with the Merrimack River that bypassed Lowell, a center of industrial revolution in the 1800s. Schooners cruised the watery highway transporting timber and molasses for rum distilleries between Medford and the West Indies. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refers to Paul Revere galloping along the Mystic on April 18, 1775, warning patriots against a British attack. The Mystic has seen some action or, to put it another way: if these riverbanks could talk.

Despite its importance, or, at least, former prominence, the Mystic is missable. It’s not very wide or pronounced. Trees and houses line its banks along with the depressing cache of litter. Its waters are the color of dirty, boiled laundry. Swans, ducks, and geese make homes in its reedy shoreline. For all of its former prominence, the Mystic has made itself quietly unobtrusive in the midst of urban sprawl. Kind of like an elderly retiree.

It’s possible to feel sorry for a field, to pity a patch of woods, to have remorse for a river. I know this because I feel bad for the Mystic. And I’m not ashamed of my sentimentality, which in these parts is usually spent on mourning the loss of a beloved dive bar or pining away for world championship banners. It’s our lack of empathy for nature that has put us, in some cases, literal hot water.

In the many months of staying close to home, I’ve gotten to know this part of the Mystic and appreciate her humble beauty—the way the water mirrors a Tiffany blue sky in May, how the trees along her banks explode in golds and oranges in the fall, turning the landscape into a Bierstadt painting. Resilient. Generous. A place, like a person, contains multitudes.

Reaching the overpass where the Mystic flows under, I sunk in the snow up to my shins, enjoying the quiet, deserted atmosphere. Maybe it was like this in 1630 or 1790, nothing to obscure the river or detract from her power. Patches of ice and snow spread out from the shoreline, the water turning a lethal blue under the stormy sky. The Mystic resting like a sapphire necklace against a pale neck—luminous and precious and enduring.

Tree Song

At first I mistook the high-pitched keen for the sound of a distant chainsaw. But the woods stretched for at least a half mile to the nearest house. And it was early February with snow on the ground and the kind of bracing cold that locks your lungs in a vice. The only people hearty enough to be out cutting wood on this kind of winter day are survivalists and serial killers. I stopped along the dirt road, listened, and sent up a short prayer that if there were someone near by, it was the former.

The wind picked up and the sound came again, louder, eerie like a Middle-Eastern string instrument, accompanied by the faintest clacking of board on board. I looked up to see the enormous, slender pines gently swaying in the breeze and that’s when I realized where the sound was coming from. The trees were singing.

This is a thing, science told me months later when I Googled “sound of wind in the pines.” I come up with several articles along with YouTube hits that consist of hours of audio of the sound of wind in the trees. I think briefly that might possibly be the best job in the history of job creation. The young audio tech who thinks she’s going to be a hot shot engineer recording the next Taylor Swift instead finds herself blissed out beneath a massive oak for hours with nothing but her microphone and recording gear. They should make a Grammy category for that kind of album. The articles state that the correct scientific term for the sound wind makes as it moves through trees is psithurism (sither-ism). It’s derived from an Ancient Greek word meaning “whispering.” Several sources mention that the word first came into usage in the English language in the 1800s, but I can’t find any direct references to the term. I expect to find record of it in the journal of some obscure botanist from Devonshire in 1823 named Ellsworth, the sort of lonely chap who can’t wait to bust out his new ten-dollar word sitting around in the parlor after dinner sipping a glass of port. Nothing. It’s as if the term took a cue from its own etymology, presenting itself softly, slyly, appearing seemingly out of nowhere to settle anywhere.

Tree sounds aren’t new to me; I grew up spending a lot of time on wooded trails, in fields and yards ringed with trees, on lakes feeding the thirsty roots of willows and birches. I still do. I’ve heard the wind whistle and rip through the trees on rainy and sunny days alike. I’ve listened to branches pop and splinter under the weight of snow and ice shaken free in the gale of winter nor’easters. I’ve spent many sleepless nights curled tightly against the primal roar of winds battling with the gigantic copper beech tree looming over our house. The sounds of what can feel like an epic struggle of wills is terrifying and awesome in that true sense of the word. Is it a feud or maybe it’s a wild dance, a whirling dervish between brethren expressing a kind of ecstatic joy that lives beyond the scope of our human consciousness. Even so, I flinch, hunker down beneath the covers and root for the trees.

Tree song is something completely different. Not long ago I read Peter Wohlleban’s The Hidden Life of Trees, about the sophisticated and beautiful ways that trees communicate with one another. Wohlleban’s research garnered its share of detractors and eye-rollers, those who are very willing to die on the “never anthropomorphize nature” hill and generally think it’s all a bit too conveniently eco-woo-wooish to get behind. I am not one of them. I guzzled Wohlleban’s Kool Aid, ordered a second pitcher, and signed the lease on a whole damn factory of the stuff. I regret nothing. I’m more than happy to entertain ideas about the impossible, the far fetched, and those belonging to a cosmic plain outside of our own. It warmed my heart to think of trees warning each other in times of danger or sharing resources in a kind of elementary school buddy system: “Here, you take half of my peanut butter sandwich.” Adorable. Recently, we’ve been going Thunderdome on one another for toilet paper and flour. I think the trees have a few more things figured out than we do. They sing, too. Why not?

John Muir agreed with me. He was the early-twentieth century naturalist and environmental activist. Muir’s tireless efforts were responsible for helping to establish and preserve many of America’s national parks that are currently under siege by the dolphin and tree-hating soulless rock snot of the Trump administration. An accurate aside. John Muir: environmental super human and tree defender.

Muir believed trees expressed themselves uniquely, “singing [their] own song, making [their] peculiar gestures.” He went on to write that pines were particularly resplendent as musical orators: “They are mighty waving golden-rods, ever in tune, singing and writing wind music all their long century lives.” Muir devoted himself passionately and effusively to not just preserving the wilderness, but being in relationship with it. I know. Eye-roll. Hippie. Judge if you must, but it doesn’t change the fact that Muir had the cojones and conviction to pull on his Lorax pants and fight for what he held sacred. He took action on behalf of organisms that were speaking for themselves, they just weren’t being heard.

There’s so much we’re ignorant about regarding the beings that allow us too much of their precious breathing room on this planet. There are many paths to knowledge, some are the least conventional and the most rewarding.  

You can go your whole life never hearing tree song, and that would be okay. Or you can go for a walk on a brutally cold winter’s afternoon and stand perfectly still right where you are when you do hear it. You can let your eyes strain as hard as they can to see the dizzying tops of the trees, so far from where you are, their crowns rocking to a sweet harmony passed along from epoch to epoch, telling a story for each other and an unexpected audience, which, if you’re lucky and open enough, might be you.

What The Magnolia Knows

The first week when the world unraveled I went for a run as if it were any other March day. I pick up the bike path where it intersects with my favorite, go-to café. This was back in the care free days when our governor was restricting gatherings to 50 people or less. The café was open with a lot less life inside than there would be on a typical weekday morning. Just passing by, I could feel the tentativeness of the people inside, uncertain about what it meant to be doing something as ordinary as grabbing a cup of coffee while funnel clouds collected on the horizon.

Mid-March in New England can be a mean stretch of days. It’s not unusual to keep the snow boots by the door and the shovels within reach until April. That particular day felt pretty typical in that respect. It was grey and raw with a damp, gnawing chill impossible not to take personal regardless of what was unfolding in the world. I was still clinging to familiar routine, performing my own magical thinking: If it’s business as usual for me, the rest of the world will follow and maybe tomorrow we’ll go back to arguing about how to pay for health care and hate-watching The Bachelor in Paradise.

About a half a mile in, the path bends around two soccer fields, one on either side. A magnolia tree stands in the crux of that junction. For eleven months of the year it blends in with all the other trees near by with its ashy trunk and soft crown of green leaves. But for a few precious weeks each spring, the tree bursts in a squall of luscious white petals. It’s a narrow window to catch these show stealers, and if it’s really rainy, that window hinges close even faster.

I was guilty of passing the tree by without really seeing it for the first year I was jogging on the path until one day that spring when I rounded the corner and was met with a shock of white against the blue sky. I felt sheepish as I stopped and stood staring up through its clouds of blooms. The brown paper wrapping never tells the whole story.

Magnolias look delicate, but they are incredibly rugged, surviving for more than 20 million years. Over the course of centuries, horticulturists have bred and spread different kinds of magnolia from more temperate climates, where they originated, to more challenging environments like New England. These trees are not messing around.

It was way too early in March for magnolias to bloom. But as I came upon the tree that day, I saw that it was dotted with fat buds. Maybe we were all out of sync, but nature was keeping her faithful rhythm. A new season was getting ready to arrive. I stopped and walked around her. A few buds were gingerly loosening, the hint of white petals opening like palms coming apart after prayer. The rest of the tree was a twisted riot of branches and nodes, order masquerading as chaos. Like now.

©SheilaMoeschenPhotography

If there ever was a time to stand nose to nose with the truth that we have so little control over (checks notes) not a damn thing, it’s now. The man-made world has jumped the tracks and a different reality will inevitably take hold. We can’t know what that will look like or how it will feel, but I hope our humanity plays a bigger part in it; I hope our compassion, empathy, and creativity will form the helix of its DNA. I rested my hand against the cold bark of the magnolia as if to say, “hang in there,” but then again she doesn’t need any encouragement from me. This ancient being is a pro at doing what matters: evolve, adapt, persist, and eventually flower. Nature is schooling us right now and we’d do ourselves a favor to pay attention and take notes as a new season gets ready to arrive.  

A Little Light in Fall

I had no idea why Dad was so grumpy. They were just leaves–piles of them that he had spent the last hour raking onto a big, blue tarp and hauling off into the woods at the edge of our yard. While my father raked, my brother and I chased each other around the yard, diving, jumping, and rolling around in those same piles like a couple of Collies. You’re welcome, Dad! We tore after each other, laughing, scooping up armfuls of leaves to dump on each other’s heads and shove inside the backs of our jackets. How are you not enjoying this great, fall day, Dad? To us it was pure kid bliss. It was the same attitude that helped us shoulder through every New England season—all six to twelve of them, give or take: every day a blank canvas, already primed for fun.

Decades later, the source of my father’s sourness revealed itself when I had my own yard with just enough deciduous trees to make me beam with joy as the leaves burned scarlet and orange and curse with irritation as the relentless hours of raking set in. The magic of fall superseded by minutia of seasonal chores and upkeep that Judy Blume never bothered to tell us about. She prepared us for expanding bust lines and reproduction, but not adulty things like taxes and dental appointments and winterizing the patio and scheduling gutter cleanings. She didn’t warn us that there would be work seriously getting in the way of our play.

Though, truthfully, for me, fall had become my least favorite season long before I reached the point of homeownership. By the time I was in college, I actively dreaded autumn. It was not only about putting away the beach bag and pulling on jeans and sweatshirts. It signaled the time to pack up and leave. It meant casting off a sense of freedom and ease and returning to what felt like a life on lock down, first as a type-A, overachieving undergrad, and then later as an ambitious graduate student. The autumns of those years in particular were some of the rockiest. I cried as I left what I knew to be home in the rear view mirror or boarded planes, steeling myself for another cycle of semesters where I was habitually stressed and suffocatingly lonely.

Endings. That’s all that fall spoke to me. The last words printed on the last chapter of the last book of the series written just before the author drew her last breath. I had heavy (and dramatic) feelings about fall that I took the liberty to share with anyone within beleaguered (and dramatic) sighing distance. Accepting change has never been high on my list of priorities. I associate it with loss that feels gutting and permanent even though I know it’s a necessary cleaving. The white hot pain of transformation, shedding, and clearing is part of the alchemy of the Universe, it’s the evidence of grace that comes with the privilege of becoming.

Even so, I typically want no part of it, like I have a choice. I do not. Just when I think I’ve successfully lied to myself that I have somehow gamed the Universe, fall busts me. I hold grudges for much less. So it went with me and fall, settling into an uneasy, wary relationship. After many years in transit, I finally got to set down roots, which helped with the feeling of despondency as the September light thinned to the shade of pale honey. I allowed fall a few concessions like cider doughnuts and apple pies. Most autumns I greet with resignation, like that coworker that always approaches you for their kid’s school fundraiser: Well, here we are again already, Ted.

Several weeks ago a violent northeaster rain storm passed through the region. It sent leaves scattering, trees arching, power lines failing, and ushered in a stretch of damp, soggy days. I went for a walk on the bike path not far from my house. Leaves carpeted the pavement, slicked down and trampled upon like confetti following the end of a parade. A bright red maple leaf caught my eye. I leaned down and picked her up. She glowed a nearly obscene cherry red. I held her fragile stem and twirled her a bit, letting the grey light reflect off her wet surface. I looked closely at her veins, tiny highways of life, a design marvel.

I couldn’t remember when I had last held a leaf like this that I wasn’t stuffing into a collection bag. I flashed on an image of myself as a little girl walking around the edges of our yard. My head bowed, I scanned the ground for not just any leaves, but ones I thought were perfect or special, that were particularly bright or comically large. I saw myself picking and discarding with the fussiness of an old woman inspecting each piece of fruit at the market. Serious business. I remember going on this hunt for the purpose of taking them inside and pressing them onto paper to make leaf collages or leaf portraits. It was a silly craft that we did each fall, no doubt partly designed to send us out of the house and out of my mother’s hair for a half hour. But it was one I looked forward to. It was a ritual like so many others that felt so critical at the time, but with distance and perspective seem trivial or embarrassing. At the time there was nothing more natural to do than to fill your arms with every inch of fall.  

On the trail that day, I felt like that little girl again–curious, excited, greeting the world like an old friend. It started to drizzle and I just stood there smiling down at that leaf, letting myself remember the pure, kid-joy of autumn, feeling lighter than I had in years even as the world moved into its season of darkness.