Monster or member of the family?

My most recent reading about tamarisk trees was in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, which is about two French missionary priests serving in New Mexico in the 19th century. In Santa Fe their house has a garden, with poplars and tamarisks:

On the south, against the earth wall, was the one row of trees they had found growing there when they first came, — old, old tamarisks, with twisted trunks. They had been so neglected, left to fight for life in such hard, sun-baked, burro-trodden ground, that their trunks had the hardness of cypress. They looked, indeed, like very old posts, well seasoned and polished by time, miraculously endowed with the power to burst into delicate foliage and flowers, to cover themselves with long brooms of lavender-pink blossom.

Father Joseph had come to love the tamarisk above all trees. It had been the companion of his wanderings. All along his way through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, wherever he had come upon a Mexican homestead, out of the sun-baked earth, against the sun-baked adobe walls, the tamarisk waved its feathery plumes of bluish green. The family burro was tied to its trunk, the chicken scratched under it, the dogs slept in its shade, the washing was hung on its branches.

Father Latour had often remarked that this tree seemed especially designed in shape and colour for the adobe village. The sprays of bloom which adorn it are merely another shade of the red earth walls, and its fibrous trunk is full of gold and lavender tints. Father Joseph respected the Bishop’s eye for such things, but himself he loved it merely because it was the tree of the people, and was like one of the family in every Mexican household.

You know how people are always trying to figure out just what the manna was, that God gave the Israelites to eat in the desert? Some think it was the sap of the tamarisk tree, as Wikipedia tells us: “At the turn of the twentieth century, Arabs of the Sinai Peninsula were selling resin from the tamarisk tree as man es-simma, roughly meaning ‘heavenly manna.’ Tamarisk trees (particularly Tamarix gallica) were once comparatively extensive throughout the southern Sinai, and their resin is similar to wax, melts in the sun, is sweet and aromatic (like honey), and has a dirty-yellow color, fitting somewhat with the biblical descriptions of manna. However, this resin is mostly composed of sugar, so it would be unlikely to provide sufficient nutrition for a population to survive over long periods of time, and it would be very difficult for it to have been compacted into cakes.”

But honey that bees make from tamarisk nectar — that’s for real and you can buy some right now. Rusty on her Honeybee Suite site calls it a “dark secret,” and says it tastes like “malt and molasses topped with overtones of horehound and citrus—and not excessively sweet. It had a lingering, smoky, slightly bitter aftertaste.”

Honey that is not excessively sweet? I guess it’s all relative. Emily Heath on Quora explains: “Nectar, which honey bees collect to create honey, varies considerably in the types of sugars it contains – some nectars are mainly fructose, some mainly glucose, some mainly sucrose, others roughly equal mixes of the three. This causes variation in the sugars present in the honey, depending on which nectars the bees collected… An average honey which has not been tampered with by humans might contain 17-19% water, 38-40% fructose, 31-35% glucose and 1-3% sucrose.” Here is another interesting site that compares many varieties and benefits of honey: Honey Varieties.

Wedgwood “Tamarisk”

It was when I began to look for photos of tamarisk trees that I found warnings about their invasive and supposedly thirsty qualities. People say they take more water from the ground than native trees, and also crowd them out. After searching for a deeper analysis of their current place in the arid ecosystems of this area, I was thankful for an article in Discover Magazine, “The Battle Over the Tamarisk Tree,” a few paragraphs from which I’ll share below. It explains about the complex interrelationships of the flora and fauna, including the current dependence of the Southwestern willow flycatcher on the tree. At first, local and federal agencies attacked the trees with bulldozers, herbicides, fire and chainsaws; then they found an also non-native insect pest to help with eradication.

I should mention that the genus Tamarix includes 50–60 species of flowering plants. The one that is of most concern in the Southwest seems to be Tamarix ramosissima.

Southwestern willow flycatcher

“In 1930, [the tamarisk] was a cure-all for erosion concerns in the West. Before long, it was vilified as a water-hogging monster. And by the 1950s, federal and state agencies had galvanized to bring the monster down.

“But tamarisk isn’t quite the monster it’s been made out to be. Sure, it’s highly flammable, and it may salinate the soil when it drops its salty leaves. But water hog? Turns out, it uses roughly the same amount of water as native riparian trees like willows and cottonwoods.

“Since the middle of the 20th century, humans have dramatically altered western rivers and made it harder for native trees to compete. We’ve built dams and diverted water, and we’ve tamed the periodic floods that once spilled over riverbanks to sprout new generations of willows and cottonwoods. As we engineered the rivers, tamarisk increasingly had the upper hand.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture began searching for a tamarisk biocontrol in the mid-1980s. By 2001, they’d launched the tamarisk beetle program, releasing the insects at 10 different sites with the caveat that no releases would be permitted within 200 miles of a known flycatcher nest.

DSC-NT0318_05“But by 2008, after an unsanctioned beetle release in southern Utah, Diorhabda carinulata reached the Virgin River: flycatcher habitat. Ecologists worried the beetles would destroy the tamarisks that this unique bird had come to rely on for nesting. And in 2010, the USDA ended the program.”

The beetles did not go away, and some people are still monitoring their numbers, hoping that they will help to restrain the tamarisks a bit. I guess the flycatchers don’t eat beetles that munch away at their homes; they like winged insects best.

Flycatcher nest

An older article at Terrain.org, “The Thirsty Tree,” explains in more detail how our human impact on rivers created the situation in which the tamarisk, also known as salt cedar, could dominate:

“Groundwater pumping, overgrazing, and the construction of dams altered the natural pulse of a river’s seasonal cycle. Was it possible that salt cedar, well-equipped to deal with salt and drought, simply moved into niches where native trees could no longer take root?”

“Water savings—that goal meant everything to the politicians and resource managers of the Southwest. To ‘save’ water meant not to conserve it, but to rescue it from rivers and aquifers and make it available to humans.”

“The old idea of ‘plant as machine,’ a monster of our own making, imagines salt cedar roots drinking from a deep bucket of water, easily reallocated to human use. The reality is much more complex. Stark numbers ignore the intricate workings of tree, rain, soil, river—not a machine whose parts can be scrapped for other uses, but a delicate dance of interrelationships.”

The history of water use in the American West is fascinating and depressing. If you want to understand more about it, Cadillac Desert is a must-read. More primitive peoples didn’t use water the way we have in the last couple of centuries, so there was no reason to see the tamarisk tree as anything but a blessing. Our holy forefather Abraham was of this mind.

The tamarisk tree is mentioned more than once in the Bible, but maybe the most striking reference is in Genesis 21:33, where we are told that “After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.”

Botanists and scholars think it was probably the Tamarix aphylla, or athel pine, that Abraham planted, and I have read in some places that it takes hundreds of years to get to its full height. It takes several generations, at least. As has been noted, you don’t plant it for yourself, but for your grandchildren, and beyond.

Abraham truly had the long view. No doubt his friendship with God, and the truth of things that he could know from closeness to his Creator, gave him the ability to look toward the future and make provision for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he planted more than one tamarisk tree in his life. And it seems likely that after the Israelites endured 400 years of slavery in Egypt, and wandered in the desert another 40 years before entering the Promised Land, they were very glad to find tamarisk trees waiting for them, and to sit down in their shade.

Tamarisk in Beersheba

We have needed just such a drink.

…the grace of the Spirit takes possession of the quiet soul, and gives it a taste of the unspeakable good things to come, which no passionate and negligent eye has seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of such a man (cf. I Cor. 2:9). This taste is the earnest of these good things, and the heart which accepts these pledges becomes spiritual and receives assurance of its salvation.   -St. Gregory Palamas

Today we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas. Frequently I am so scattered that I forget to look at any calendar: my wall calendars or my everyday planning calendar or the church calendar. But today I did, so I noticed. Last year I attended the most enriching retreat during which we were taught much about the spiritual life, understanding and practices that are our inheritance from St. Gregory, but I never managed to process it in a way that I could share here.

Nor could I look it up in my notes, because of not being able to find them in the remodeling upheaval. So I read what St. Nicolai has to say about him in his Prologue. Here is a bit of it:

St. Gregory Palamas learned much through heavenly revelations. After he had spent three years in stillness in a cell of the Great Lavra, it was necessary for him to go out among men and benefit them with his accumulated knowledge and experience. God revealed this necessity to him through an extraordinary vision: One day, as though in a light sleep, Gregory saw himself holding a vessel in his hand full to overflowing with milk. Gradually, the milk turned into wine which likewise spilled over the rim, and drenched his hands and garments.

Then a radiant youth appeared and said: “Why would you not give others of this wonderful drink that you are wasting so carelessly, or are you not aware that this is the gift of God’s grace?” To this Gregory replied: “But if there is no one in our time who feels the need for such a drink, to whom shall I give it?” Then the youth said: “Whether there are some or whether there are none thirsty for such a drink, you are obligated to fulfill your debt and not neglect the gift of God.” Gregory interpreted the milk as the common knowledge (of the masses) of moral life and conduct, and the wine as dogmatic teaching.

Also I mused on quotes from him that I found online, such as the one at top. Here are three more that give me courage:

Life of the soul is union with God, as life of the body is union with the soul. As the soul was separated from God and died in consequence of the violation of the commandment, so by obedience to the commandment it is again united to God and is quickened. This is why the Lord says in the Gospels, ‘The words I speak to you are spirit and life’ (John 6:63).

Prayer changes from entreaty to thanksgiving, and meditation on the divine truths of faith fills the heart with a sense of jubilation and unimpeachable hope. This hope is a foretaste of future blessings, of which the soul even now receives direct experience, and so it comes to know in part the surpassing richness of God’s bounty, in accordance with the Psalmist’s words, ‘Taste and know that the Lord is bountiful’ (Psalm 34:8). For He is the jubilation of the righteous, the joy of the upright, the gladness of the humble, and the solace of those who grieve because of Him.

Given that we desire long life, should we not take eternal life into account? If we long for a kingdom which, however enduring, has an end, and glory and joy which, great as they are, will fade, and wealth that will perish with this present life, and we labour for the sake of such things; ought we not to seek the kingdom, glory, joy and riches which, as well as being all-surpassing, are unfading and endless, and ought we not to endure a little constraint in order to inherit it?

-St. Gregory Palamas

Gifts from earth and oven.

I’ve never seen this before, a tomato that looks good enough to eat, but when you cut it open, its seeds are sprouting new tomato plants! This one was grown by my neighbor, one of my favorite orange varieties, and why I didn’t try to eat it sooner I don’t know… I left it on the counter, saving it, I guess, for a special lunch…? But then I stopped really seeing it, until yesterday morning I decided to eat it for breakfast. Whoa! What a surprise.

This morning a friend saw the picture and said, “Plant it inside, quick!” and I realized that that is exactly what I wanted to do, so I dug it out of the trash and planted the whole thing just under the soil.

Neighbor Kim took me on a walk this morning to a house where she wanted to pick persimmons, with permission, the Fuyu variety that I’ve mentioned before.

And yesterday I visited Mr. Greenjeans’ place to see the updated garden and how his trees have been pruned. I gave him some Painted Lady Runner Bean seeds, and when we were looking at his Chaste Tree, he gave me seeds right off it. I didn’t know about this tree, but his has been living in a 5-gallon pot for many years and is perfectly happy. Where I found this picture just now it says they don’t like their roots to stay wet, so that sounds ideal for my garden! I will plant them this month.

He also has a new apple tree, a Winterstein, developed by Luther Burbank. It bears its fruit in December! That’s why it’s still looking fresh and green, though it seems to be a little young yet for fruit-bearing.


In my own garden I have fresh and green ornamental cabbage just planted, bok choy sprouts coming up between the rows of peas, and the Painted Lady bean that will not give up until the frost kills it. Being stripped of all its foliage and ripened fruit (dry bean pods) and cut back nearly to the ground does not take the urge to grow out of this perennial runner bean; it just starts climbing up again. The white flies like the new leaves it is putting out.

Back to yesterday – I was happy to be in the church kitchen and to get my hands in the dough, as another parishioner and I baked Communion bread. I also made these five loaves that are traditionally eaten during the Vigil service we have in the evening the night before any of the Twelve Great Feasts.

We often end up with several sets which we keep in the freezer to have on hand, but this week we spared only enough dough (4 oz. each) for one set of five, because we were focusing on the holy bread for the Eucharist. While we are shaping and baking the dough we do not chat but always try to keep in mind Jesus Christ, Who is the Bread of Life…

…and Who feeds us soul and body by many gifts every day,
which He has blessed the earth to give.
Thank you, our loving Father!

Their great audacity.

Poet and critic Dana Gioia devotes a whole chapter of his recent book to Elizabeth Jennings, whose name I did not recognize. She is “not the average professor’s idea of a modern poet.” Jennings was one of the Movement poets (and no, I don’t know enough about poetry to have known about them) but the only woman of her group.

She was Catholic, which also set her up for mocking. Gioia writes:

“Catholic iconography portrays martyrs in their heavenly glory displaying the instruments by which they were tortured and killed…. By the same method, is it possible to understand Jennings’s achievement by considering her supposed liabilities as defining virtues? …

“Jennings was a lyric poet. She mastered short forms. She wrote from an educated woman’s perspective. Her work is personal but not blatantly confessional. In a literary era obsessed with style, she focused on content. Her poems cluster around a set of recurring themes — love, religion, art, and relationships. Her poetry reflects her Christian worldview. Her stylistic approach was not to innovate but to perfect. When free verse represented the vanguard, she crafted her signature poems in rhyme and meter. She wrote prolifically.”

I haven’t read all of the title essay in the book yet, but that chapter is available here on First Things if you would like to read it online. It’s worth reading if only for his understanding of what characterizes a Catholic world view.

After reading about Jennings I wondered how I had completely missed her — but I hadn’t, only forgotten her name. Somewhere I’d run across “Friendship” and posted it on my blog. My library doesn’t have a single hard copy of any of her books, which is not surprising. This one below I found online.

ANSWERS

I keep my answers small and keep them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

The huge abstractions I keep from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.

But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.

Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, I still hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow

And all the great conclusions coming near.

-Elizabeth Jennings