Ode To A Tree

In the 1980s my father decided to build a log house. We’d just moved from farmland to the woods and with no money, we decided to make a house the hard way.

The first tree was a tall, straight Douglas fir. I didn’t know that at the time. It was just a big evergreen. Dad was experienced and cautious so it took a long time to cut the notch and make sure the tree fell in the right direction. I was bored, holding my field guide to North American trees. Looking around, I realized I also needed a field guide to native plants. My father eventually said that I needed a field guide to field guides. Because stepping into those woods opened a whole new world.

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Huckleberries

My first task was to lean way back, craning to watch the far-away top of the tree for tiny tremors that said the tree was thinking about giving up. When I saw those minute movements become more defined, turning into swaying, becoming a distinctive lean, I was to warn dad so he could get out of the way.

Except that he had a chainsaw running and ear protection on. I remember jumping up and down, waving the field guide, screaming, ‘it’s going!’. He heard in time to get away.

When it hit the ground, the fall was the sound of thunder rolling up through the canyons, bouncing off the ridge, echoing back. It was the avalanche explosion deep into the ground that hit the soles of your feet and slammed upward through your spine. And that was just the initial impact. The tree bounced upward over six feet high, coming down to earth again with the thunder and echoes and impacts.

The air was full of the sharp smell of crushed needles, torn bark, sap, and flattened salal, ferns, and Oregon grape.

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Japanese Cedar

While dad took a break to smoke his pipe, I climbed onto the trunk. With a tape measure, I walked the length of the tree, hanging on to and weaving among upright branches. There was a whole micro-universe in those branches. Bird nests and spiders and squirrel holes and woodpecker marks. Moss that made the trunk slippery. Licorice root in its symbiotic relationship with moss and wood, and adding its anise scent to the air. Lichens that hung like gray beards.

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Silver-back Fir

In a small notebook I recorded the length of the tree. I measured the width of the butt end. And I flipped through the field guide until I found the name.

That first one. A Douglas fir. With the limbs cut off and the tree bucked into lengths, we got three long, straight logs.

With the old truck and a winch, the logs were laboriously pulled out of the woods where I then had to peel them. I quickly learned to do that immediately after felling. If the tree sat even a day, the bark dried and tightened and then you had to chip it off.

But fresh, the bark slid off in long strips, exposing a layer similar to snot, which is why the bark came off so easily. As I worked, that inner layer changed color. Reddened.

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Fir, cedar, alder, big leaf maple, vine maple, spruce

That first tree taught me to see my surroundings, to identify the differences in needles and bark and foliage. To name what I touched. To watch for those first small tremors. To mourn.

We cut a lot of trees for that log house, that never came to be.

Dad

That bottom log was the first one. Dad with dreams.

And then I started planting trees. Fir and cedar and oak and sequoia and shore pine. I moved on from evergreens to plant filbert and hazelnut and prune trees, sourwood and cascara, willow and dogwood. To will them to grow tall and strong.

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The first sequoia many years ago

Back in those woods, there are now trees reaching thirty feet tall. Northern flickers and woodpeckers bore holes for bugs. Brown creepers run up and down their trunks chirping their autumn songs. Moss catches on. Roots sink deep into ground. Branches reach for the sky.

I wonder if, in their long, slow, dreaming seasons, they forgive.

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Las Vegas Shooting Question

I know we’re going to be swamped with articles and thoughts on this horrific shooting. Normally I don’t post about things like this because there are a lot of people out there who can say things much better.

But I was just there with my family. I got home last week.

We stood crammed shoulder to shoulder with strangers in the heat of the night in front of the Bellagio watching the hotel’s water show. The Strip was packed with cars inching along. The sidewalks were so full of people it was difficult to stay together in the family pack. And at the time I wondered why there’d been no mass shooting there. It was a scary thought because in looking around, I realized this. There was nowhere to go.

I had to forcibly turn off those thoughts. Tell myself ‘it won’t happen here’. Turn back to the family and all the laughter.

You never think it will happen to you.

I know politicians are now going to get their names out there by talking up for and against changes to gun laws. Once again they will spout opinions on both sides of the argument until the shooting is no longer in the news. Then those politicians will go back to whatever else they can come up with to keep their names in the public eye.

But here’s the question I keep asking that I want answered. Isn’t there anyone versed in society, some therapist, some anthropologist, someone, who can tell me this?

Why is it almost always men?

I know there are the rare female mass-murderers or serial killers. But the key word there is ‘rare’. I also know that those who rush in to save people are also mostly men, although there are a lot more female police offers than there used to be. I know my friends who are police officers would head straight into the line of fire, without thinking about it, if we were in danger. So this isn’t a post about hating men or making generalizations.

Yet, I think of news photos after disasters when people are looting, burning cars, etc. It’s almost always men, and most often young men in their twenties.

Why?

Maybe instead of listening to useless politicians gain their five minutes of fame by spouting off how they want to change, or not change, gun laws, we should have someone stepping up to explain this.

Because maybe, if we can figure out the ‘why’, we can figure out an actual solution.

So someone, please tell me why you think this is. Otherwise we’re all going to continue having our hearts broken as those we love are gunned down in senseless mass shootings.

A Tense Topic

I’m editing a young adult novel and the author tells the story from two points of view in one character – one from the character’s diary (present tense), and one from the character’s interactions within the world (past tense). This adds depth to the character development because the reader gets to see the ‘self-view’ and the ‘world view’.

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My world view

One of the discussions we had concerns the difference between past and present tense. This author felt she struggled to understand tense because she had some passages where the tense overlapped. I believe she’s actually struggling with transition between tenses. As in, writing in one voice and then transitioning to the second voice, while managing at the same time to stay true to the point-of-view character’s voice. Sound overwhelming? It can be, but this author is doing a much better job than she thinks she is.

The process has me thinking about tense, obviously. Past tense as in ‘I sat’ and present as in ‘I sit’. I’m not going to get into all the sub-categories of tense here.

Few people can write in present tense and do it so well that the reader isn’t aware of it. Author Ellie Griffiths is one.

So why is present tense so difficult to write, and a lot of times, difficult to read?

Past tense is invisible to a reader. This might be because it’s so common in everything we read, but I think it’s more than that. It’s how we tell stories. By the time we’re telling someone about something that happened, the event is past. We’re not narrating our story as it happens. Well, with social media, some people do. ‘I’m walking through the freezer section!’ ‘I’m eating pasta!’ But I’m sure you get what I’m saying here.

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I’m crocheting!

Past tense also, oddly, feels more ‘present’ and more intimate to a reader. This, again, is probably because it’s so familiar. Readers don’t have to adjust; they simply become immediately immersed in the story.

Present tense does take some adjustment on the part of the reader, who has to be convinced that the action is happening right now, right in front of them. That can be a stretch. And present tense is difficult to write, I think, simply because it isn’t as familiar. Additionally, having that action happen right in front of you is like watching a movie, not reading a book. There’s distance between a movie and a viewer, while a reader loses himself in the story world and becomes part of what is happening.

As with all rules of writing craft though, it comes down to neither way being right or wrong. A writer finds the voice of the story and that’s the right voice to tell it in. After all, aren’t rules made for breaking? Just be sure you know the reasons why you choose your tense, that you’ve thought about intimacy between the reader and the story, and that you feel it’s the right style for the type of story you’re telling.

And now I’m off to sit in my chair and drink tea. Which, by the way, isn’t present tense in spite of ‘sit’ and ‘drink’. Confused? It’s because I’m saying something that hasn’t yet happened. The phrase ‘now I’m off’ implies something yet to come. For present tense, the kettle has just boiled and…

I sit in my chair and drink tea.

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