a rare pleasure

Not quite in the Victory Garden, but just five paces from the edge of the path, these beautiful seeds are falling to the ground beneath the dogwood tree.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I love this tree.  Well, not this specific tree, although I do love the one that dropped this seed, and part of the reason I chose this house was after ascertaining — in the dead of winter, no less — that the property had four dogwood trees on it.  One of them has been bent over into a naturally weeping form by the weight of a dying tree coming down progressively on top of it and the two have formed a lovely bower over the years, with a carpet of ivy beneath, tendrils of wild grapevine dangling down here and there to catch the wind like streamers, and the encouraging sight of an incredibly healthy flush of bloom in the spring despite all the discouraging weight of circumstances.

But I didn’t mean loving a specific tree in my yard.  I mean that I love the Dogwood.  I’ve grown up with it as part of the design of the background fabric of my life.  And even if it is not familiar to you where you live, I feel sure you would fall in love with its form, its grace, its unpretentious beauty.

I love the bark in winter, the buds as the rains arrive in March, the blossom form as it goes through several distinct phases in spring, first alone and then joined by the tiny leaves, the golden-green of those early leaves and the way they are held on the stem.  I love this tree right through until the appearance of the bright seed clusters in fall.  I’ve been particularly enjoying them the last few weeks as their leaves take on a barely perceptible blush, then go bronze-pink-with-gold-highlights, and finally progress to a deep burgundy shot with scarlet and pink that seems to perfectly set off the brilliant jewels of the seeds held high in a joyful finale… just before they fall to be buried and born again next spring.

As I walked in the garden this afternoon, I felt that shiver of regret skitter down my spine.  So many moments I spent doing other, less important things, so many moments when I ignored the beauty before my very eyes in favor of worry or other mental busywork — and now the cicadas, who will always be my auditory memento mori with their strident calls that seem to say, “Live now, summer is fleeting!”, now they have died or gone underground.  Now the leaves are shriveling up and letting go.  Now so many sights and smells and everyday beauties I took for granted are being stripped away, leaving the sharp bones of the landscape exposed.

And I do want to learn that lesson well.  Appreciate what you have while you have it, in this moment.  You never know how rare a pleasure it may be.  Tears filled my eyes as I contemplated the simple beauty of a scarlet seed on the forest floor today and I wondered at being given the opportunity to experience this particular rare pleasure, which future generations may never know.

The Dogwood is threatened with extinction.  Probably within the next 50 years, say the scientists, unless some miracle is discovered.  A disease which had been around for a long time has gradually become almost certainly lethal to every tree it infects, and it is spreading very quickly among the dogwoods in the forests.  Climate change is probably playing a role, as forest conditions in its native habitat have become more cool and damp for longer periods than the tree is used to enduring.

There is, of course, no way to isolate a single “cause” of the death of this glorious tree of the forest understory.  What is sure is that it will be missed, and not just by humans used to watching the Appalachian forest wear bright ivory highlights in spring.  This tree is responsible, among other things, for adding calcium to the soil of the forest.  Its demise is likely to have far-reaching consequences on our bioregion’s ecosystem, perhaps sending ripples beyond its native range.

We are all so interconnected.  In a way that’s what the Victory Garden is all about.  Trying to raise some of our food in a different way, a way that does no harm — not to a single bird or insect, not to a visiting deer or raccoon, not to an inch of the earth, nor the earthworms in it, nor the microbial life that sustains us all, nor the air we all breathe, nor the groundwater percolating beneath.  It may be a foolish dream.  Industrial society may have done too much damage already, for all I know.  Some self-reinforcing feedback loop may have already been triggered.

My idealistic efforts may turn out to be too small to have any discernible effect at all.

But then, I am pleased to sometimes wear the title “foolish dreamer” … and to try, and keep trying, to live in accord with my own cherished ideals.  I know so many, many of us are gladly taking up this challenge now, to try and bring our whole lives into alignment with our own highest values, and it is absolutely awe-inspiring to witness.

This winter season may be a time of contemplation for many of us, as we rest and decide which aspects of our lives are not yet lived with full integrity and how we will try to change that next year.  Certainly, the end of the harvest season has me looking over my shoulder at the changes I tried to implement this year, internally celebrating what worked, analyzing what did not… and sometimes even wondering why I did what I did.

I’d love to hear about any of those areas you’re considering changing to bring wholeness to your life and to live up to your own cherished ideals, either in the comments or in a link to a blog post.  Consider it my challenge to you this week to ponder the changes you’ve already made, celebrate how far you’ve come, and recognize the blurry contours of where you want to go.  Even if you don’t blog or comment about it, give yourself 15 or 20 minutes to freewrite about a day in your ideal life as you envision it at its peak level of fulfillment.

(Note:  that freewrite is a fantastic mood-lifter if the shorter, darker days of autumn have got you feeling a little down.  I don’t know why that should be so, as sometimes the distance from where I am now to my ideal is seemingly impossible to traverse.  It ought to make me despair.  But I do know that actually envisioning it must have some power, because things that seemed impossible have come to pass in my life — and in the lives of others I know.  Try freewriting with a single repeated phrase at the beginning of every sentence until your hand is moving easily over the page and you no longer need it.  If you feel stuck and the ink stops flowing, return to the phrase.  I like to use “In my ideal life” or “On this day.”)

5 Responses to “a rare pleasure”

  1. it’s as though i was walking with you. i would love to fall back on this, as the days become shorter, dark comes quickly. what lovely post.

    • Thank you, christina 🙂 One day maybe we will be able to walk together… but for now I love walking with you through your blog posts, too. It is a wonderful way for us to share!

  2. This is, indeed, a beautiful post. I, too, have a dogwood tree that I adore…and I was just out today looking at the beautiful red seeds it is shedding as the leaves turn that wonderful copper color. And then–shockingly!–today we went through a SNOWSTORM! Yes, in October! Nothing more jarring than to realize that winter is really coming, and that we have to seize all the moments possible. Snow when there are still green leaves on the trees: can there be any more potent a reminder than that?
    Thanks for stopping by my blog, Meredith, and for leaving such a lovely comment. Your blog is wonderful, and I love the way you write.

  3. The dogwoods are pretty. I planted one in the garden two years ago and it is settling in happily beside the elderberry. I hadn’t heard of the disease afflicting them. That’s tragic. So many species on the planet trying to adapt to a world that is no longer hospitable.

    I always think of autumn as a time of reflection and winter as the season of prepartion. I’ll be doing more reflection after reading your beautifully written post.

    • Talon: That’s wonderful that your dogwood is settling in happily! One paper I read held the opinion that at one point all that may be left are “stand-alone” trees in sunny spots not within the forest canopy. In other words, the suburbs and cities may soon be the only places we see the dogwoods, in spots where they stay warmer and drier than their native range and are not closely spaced enough to pass disease spores among them. Sounds crazy, but it’s almost as if their futures are now linked to the humans — and Michael Pollan’s ideas about humans and plants co-evolving start to sound even more plausible. Even so, you’re right, it is tragic.

      sandi: Glad to know you enjoyed the post — and keep enjoying that dogwood tree! I can’t imagine a snowstorm now. I’m whining about how cold I am and it hasn’t quite frosted yet at night. I do enjoy your blog very much. You’re too kind with the compliments. 😉

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