If there has been a personal theme this Covid spring, I would call it “seeing but not seeing”. This sounds mysterious, but I often see things, and yet don’t really take them in. Catkins are a great example. Most years, I love to find the first catkins, bring some in to enjoy, marvel at their softness. Sometime later, I may notice how the willow trees look lacy at a distance, and how pretty that looks. But really, before this I have considered the appearance of the pussy willows to be the main event.
With more time to explore this spring, I have visited the pussywillows and catkins just about every day, noticing not only their great variety, but how also lovely (and sometimes unlovely) they are at each stage of development and in every weather. I have photographed them with my phone, and have observed that the pussywillows most amazing to me I can’t photograph at all – these are the tiniest ones. On a rainy morning, they remind me of twinkle lights, small jewels bedecking the curves of the willows, hundreds of them. There are no pictures of them here!
This may be one of those posts I put together mostly for myself. Now that I have taken time with the pussywillows and catkins, I don’t think I will pass them by again. Even so, behold the variety of expressions of the catkin!!
Pussy willows are dioecious, meaning there are both male plants and female plants. The pussy willows act as insulators, for the flowers (catkins) that will eventually bloom. I am glad to know this because I saw my first pussy willows in January, during a thaw.
Usually the male catkins grow first and release their pollen. Then the female catkins grow and open shortly afterwards to receive pollen. By releasing and preparing to receive pollen at different times the tree has less chance of receiving its own pollen and a greater chance of receiving pollen from other trees. The pollen from other trees can produce stronger offspring. Willows do not spread their pollen via the wind. Instead, they rely on insects for pollination, despite having less than gaudy flowers. What they lack in visual cues, they clearly make up for in olfactory ones, producing large amounts of strongly scented nectar. Bees and flies are readily drawn to pussy willows in full bloom. One of the advantages of flowering early in spring is that there is very little competition for pollinators. The willows gain the full attention of the many bees and flies that also awaken early in the spring and are desperate for food.
Source: Johnny Caryopsis, The Biology of Pussy Willows, Nature North
I have been intrigued by how many quotes I have been coming across which connect Covid-19 to lungs, and trees to lungs, and lungs to grief, and trees to staying put. My love of trees has been life long. In recent years, I have enjoyed more intentional time with and among trees. This shift stems from the tremendous loss of so many wetlands and small bluffs of aspen on the prairies in recent years as farmers make way for more crop land. Some of those small bluffs of trees have very dear to me. I may not be able to change the decimation of wild areas on the prairies, but I can become a better friend to the trees I do encounter each day. For these reasons, I pay special attention to anything I read concerning trees.
My personal connection to lungs (besides the fact that I use them every moment, every breath I take), is that my mum died of lung cancer at age 65. Before she died, her greatest fear was losing her breath or choking to death, but fortunately her last breath was a peaceful one. She was a sensual woman, taking enormous pleasure in the scent of salt air when we approached the ocean after a long time away. She found the spring smell of thawing horse manure just as beautiful. Which has me thinking of her daily, as our horse pasture begins to thaw!! In either case, she breathed in deeply and rejoiced!
So, we begin with lungs. I appreciate the writing of Kate Woods, a doula from the UK active both in doula training and Doulas without Borders. She has recently survived Covid-19, and was especially vulnerable due to scarred lungs from a childhood illness with pneumonia. She recorded “Virus Musings” day by day on her Facebook page. Kate’s description of how the virus felt helped bring this home to me: “This virus is all about the lungs. I can feel the pressure, like a baby elephant sitting on my chest. Breathing itself seems to be on the ’to do’ list and the lungs don’t seem to be that fussed about organically filling. It is an effort. Whole sentences are off the table now, as the air is needed for more basic things. I communicate with hand raises, nods and few words. I can now feel the glue-like substance at the bottom of my lungs. So this is what she’s made of. Hello Ms.Corona: she’s a sticky, thick, unmoving mass which fills pockets up in the lungs that should have air in.”
Take a breath.
Kate Wood continues, “The deeper medicine which I feel arising through this personal and global experience, seems to be about grief. The lungs have long been associated with grief and Ms.Corona invites, no, demands, us to sit very still indeed (even walking across the room is like scaling a mountain) and try to breathe through the ‘pollution’ deep in the lungs.”
I take a breath before I type. Breathe in, breathe out.
It has taken me a while to recognize and acknowledge my own grief about Covid-19, all those affected, and the implications of being in isolation. My own situation, after all, is hardly grievous, especially when compared to that of so many others. (I know – it is never wise to compare.) Sometimes my grief feels like being overwhelmed – I cannot listen to one more news report, I come home from a rare outing feeling exhausted, I can talk to maybe one or two people outside my home each day. Grief slows me down. Sometimes my grief is expressed as confusion, uncertainty, awkwardness, frustration, unknowing. Sometimes it shows up when I watch something lighthearted and maybe a little cheesy on Netflix! Other times my grief is expressed in tears – when John Prine died, I was able to cry. Hearing stories about elders dying alone has also opened the floodgates. It seemed like John Prine and stories about elders were acceptable portals that gave me permission to cry.. To just sit with whatever way I am feeling.
Then I read this beautiful poem by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, an amazing American poet, who sends a new poem to my inbox each day.
This morning, after the blizzard,
after the sun came out,
there was a moment when the shadows
of the empty cottonwood trees
patterned the snow like tree-sized lungs—
the trunk was a bronchus,
and the branches, bronchioles
that split into twiggish alveoli.
And the tree seemed to say, Remember.
I often neglect to be grateful
for lungs, for breath—
such a simple, forgettable gift.
But in the dividing silhouette,
I saw into myself, a divine branching,
an inner tree, an invitation
to sit and breathe. Remember, it seemed
to say, and I followed the lines until
they disappeared into the light.
I am grateful for the gift of breath, and for Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s gift of reminding me so eloquently.
Nicolette Sowder, founder of Wilder Child (nature based learning), makes the connection between staying at home – our present “groundedness” – and trees, who are grounded all the time. We now know that trees can communicate sending nourishment, messages and support to other trees. We are like trees at the moment, communicating over distance, sharing love in new ways from the root of our beings. This is so true. Who do I turn to when in need of solace? Often, I turn to trees.
Kate Wood writes, “Ironically now and only now, the lungs of the world are beginning to fill, as the skies and the roads, the rivers and the seas clear of our rushing about. Somehow, the tables have entirely turned. The earth takes a nice deep breath and we’re now flapping about, gasping and flailing, like fish on the shore.”
And finally, I came across this beautiful poem written by Nadine Anne Hura, a writer of Ngāti Hine and Ngāpuhi whakapapa based in Porirua (North Island of New Zealand). This poem has been shared widely by Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.
🍃Rest now, e Papatūānuku
Breathe easy and settle
Right here where you are
We’ll not move upon you
We’ll stop, we’ll cease
We’ll slow down and stay home
Draw each other close and be kind
Kinder than we’ve ever been.
I wish we could say we were doing it for you
as much as ourselves
But hei aha
We’re doing it anyway
It’s right. It’s time.
Time to return
Time to remember
Time to listen and forgive
Time to withhold judgment
Time to cry
Time to think
Remove our shoes
Press hands to soil
Sift grains between fingers
🍃 Gentle palms
Time to plant
Time to wait
Time to notice
To whom we belong
For now it’s just you
And the wind
And the forests and the oceans and the sky full of rain
Finally, it’s raining!
Ka turuturu te wai kamo o Rangi ki runga i a koe
This sacrifice of solitude we have carved out for you
He iti noaiho – a small offering
People always said it wasn’t possible
To ground flights and stay home and stop our habits of consumption
But it was
It always was.
We were just afraid of how much it was going to hurt
– and it IS hurting and it will hurt and continue to hurt
But not as much as you have been hurt.
So be still now
Wrap your hills around our absence
Loosen the concrete belt cinched tight at your waist
With thanks to these women – Sylvia (Frith) Bland (my mum), Kate Wood, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, Nicolette Sowder, Nadine Anne Hura, Jacinda Ardern and Vera Saltzman.
Sometimes, small changes in routine or the weather alert us to new beauty just around the corner or across the road. In my case, right across the road! Our aging and arthritic dogs are no longer content to sit and watch me skate on a winters morning, and I imagine that it is not very good for their sore old hips to sit outside on a cold day. So, before a skate, we go for a walk, and have discovered a treasure trove across the road. For years, we have called this area the “Mooney Trees” after the Mooney family who planted the shelterbelt and once had a farmstead here, but the area includes a small wetland as well as woods. For the dogs, there are so many wonderful smells, tracks to follow, holes to dig. A veritable feast for the nose!! This small area is alive with grouse, partridge, owl, mice, foxes, deer, and coyotes – to name only a few.
Last week, Southern Saskatchewan was bathed in hoar frost for several days running. As I explored the Mooney trees with the dogs, I was amazed at each turn, each new vista and view. The Smart phone photos do not do my morning’s walk justice, but will give you some idea of the beauty that is right here (but that I almost missed!)
I was reminded of my discovery of artist Emily Carr in my teen years. Reading a book about Emily Carr, I came across a few pages describing “the ache”. As I remember it, Emily Carr would often be silenced and stilled by beauty, her hand going to her heart. Sometimes tears would come. She was often overcome. Something she called “the ache” filled her, and oftentimes after experiencing the ache, she would paint or write. As a teenager, I read about Emily Carr’s “ache” with recognition and also with great relief knowing that somebody else felt this way at times when experiencing beauty.
The dogs’ excitement is expressed in wagging tails, alert ears, noses to the ground….moments where they forget about arthritis as they bound energetically through the snow. As for me, I feel achingly alive and alert, rapt in wonder.
As a small girl, I loved to wrap my arms around the trunks of birch trees and look way up, way up their slender trunk, through the canopy of their green leaves to the blue sky above.
East of our farm, a particular aspen bluff caught my attention years ago when a neighbouring farmer tried to burn it down. He set the bluff on fire twice, and after the second time, it appeared the trees would not recover. I felt heartsick. I noticed yellow lady slippers growing beneath the trees. I wanted to write the landowner but an older neighbour told me that the trees would come back. The trees did recover in time and the farmer stopped trying to burn them down. It took three or four years, but those trees began to leaf out and thrive once again.
Recently, the land changed hands again. Last fall, when my daughter and I walked down the road we were in no way prepared for the sight of a bulldozer parked by this same grove of trees which were partially knocked down. We went and had a look. Our hearts were heavy. My daughter was taking auto mechanics – we halfheartedly joked that she now knew what she could do to stop this bulldozer in its tracks.
A few days later, the bulldozer finished its work. Piles of uprooted trees, roots and brush dotted this field, and other fields around it.
The next spring, some of the trees tried to leaf out, even though their roots were in the air.
Late this fall , my neighbour set the brush piles on fire. Gas was poured around the circumference of the trees, then lit on fire. Huge bonfires dotted the landscape. I cried as I walked that morning. When the tears subsided, I sang. Songs of lamentation.
Over the next few days, I visited each pile of smouldering trees and thanked them for their marvellous presence over the years, for all the animals and creatures and wild plants they had sheltered, for all the seasons they had lived through, for all of the life in their root systems which we could never see, for their beauty and their mystery and their steadiness.
A few days later, a larger semi truck arrived with a back hoes and a bulldozer. Large holes were dug in the earth and the trees were buried. The piles were gone. Not one wild spot was left on this field. It was as if the trees had never been there.
Each time I walk in that direction, I walk a circle around where these trees are. I feel their presence. The bulldozer missed some willows stalks in one of the tree graveyards. I urge them to grow. Willow doesn’t need much urging!
I wondered what to do. How to express my grief and distress in some way that mattered? How to speak out? It just so happened that the burning and bulldozing was taking place during the week of Donald Trump’s election win. I was feeling very aware of the “echo chambers” many of us live in, especially those of us who are active on social media.
For this reason, I decided to call my neighbour and talk to him directly. I wanted a respectful conversation. I wanted to tell him about my grief and distress. I didn’t expect my call to change him. He has invested hundred of thousands of dollars in equipment meant to alter the landscape. I wanted him to listen to how I felt. My call unnerved him I think, but we did have a respectful conversation. When I mentioned the lady slippers, he told me he hadn’t known they were there, that he had never visited that bluff of aspen. He told me it was better that I get this off my chest and not keep my feelings bottled up. He thanked me for sharing my thoughts as a neighbour. I invited him to hike with me the next spring, so he could see all the richness of life held in these aspen bluffs and wetlands.
I wrote a letter to our local newspaper. I am writing this post, a little more personal than the letter to the editor. I need to learn about the rules for cutting trees on Crown land which includes the road allowances. That will lead me to more conversations – with those we have elected to represent us.
I think about the beauty of aspens, a tree we so easily overlook. I recall building a sweat lodge with Melody McKellar and how we asked each aspen tree for permission before we chopped it down. How we offered tobacco as thanks. How we warmed up the trees by rubbing their trunks, so they would bend more easily as it was autumn, when their sap was flowing more slowly. How we bent them gradually so they would not snap. How it felt to work with the aspen, to get a feel for their flexibility. How the aspen protected and held us as we prayed and sweated and sang and drummed inside. I remember what the aspen taught me about the ability to bend yet remain strong.
My friend Shirley tells me that the word in French for chopping down trees is “abbatre”. It is related to the word “abbatoir” and literally means “to slaughter”, to “cut down”, “to fell”. It refers both to animals and trees. My friend Philip explains that as a ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐤ nêhiyaw (Cree man), he sees the trees as his relatives.
In contrast, in rural Saskatchewan, we use the term “cleaning up” to describe the act of removing aspen groves, bushes and wetlands. It is as if these wild lands are a larger version of “weeds” (defined as valueless plants growing where they are not wanted.) Those of us who live in the “aspen parkland” may feel as though there are aspen bluffs everywhere we look. In fact, the aspen parkland has seen a huge reduction of wild pockets of land (including both aspen bluffs, native grasslands and wetlands) in the last 40 years mostly due to the piecemeal removal I am writing about. A little bit here, a little bit there. It adds up.
Farmers, including my own farm family, have been altering the land since settlement. What has shifted is the scale and magnitude of the destruction of wild places as both farms and farm machinery get larger. What has also shifted is our collective fragility in the face of climate change, extreme weather, and other indicators of ecological vulnerability, such as declining bee populations.
What has not shifted is our attitude towards the earth. We continue to mistakenly believe that we are in charge, and do not understand how much we rely on Mother Earth. We often travel far distances to enjoy natural beauty and miss the beauty that is right down the road, or in the nearest coulee or ditch. Thankfully, there are still some farmers who take very seriously their responsibility to keep some wild spaces on their land. But, it is up to all of us to speak up about the “ecological deficit” that the removal of wild lands is leaving us with. We can all insist that governments create and enforce proper regulations. We can ask our governments to provide farmers with incentives and financial support to ensure that more wild lands are left intact.
Each trembling aspen tree removes up to 65.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during each year of its life.* Not only do their root systems help regulate water during flood or drought but they are an important refuge for the wild things, whether they be yellow lady slippers or other wild creatures.
We can begin by exploring the small stands of aspen to get to know the richness of life that they support.
These small pockets of wildness may save us.
I would like to thank Colorado textile artist Patty Hawkin for permission to use her beautiful images of aspen on this post. I am so grateful to have discovered her. Something artists can help us to do is see what is right in front of us in fresh ways. Thank you Patty for your exquisite responses to the aspen. Thanks also to Saskatchewan artist Cathi Beckel, whose love and stewardship for the earth around us is unflagging and inspiring. Her beautiful images in watercolour and batik always help me to see the world around me with new eyes. This post is a companion piece to Tree Hugger(1).
- +Trembling aspen do need to be controlled or removed sometimes – they are considered an invasive species in native grasslands for example.