Category Archives: trees

Earth, sky, and symphony.

It’s a wonder, all the fascinating things I get to discuss and learn about, inspired by reading books to boys who range in age from two to six years old. Before they’d even shed their pajamas this morning they brought me a book found on the shelf here at the temporary house, a worn 1966 school discard by Isaac Asimov titled The Moon.

What instantly got my attention was the picture on the first page, a closeup of the moon showing its topography, with many names of craters, valleys and mountains. Where did these names come from? When were they given? Who is Piccolomini? Astronomy has never exactly sparked my interest; maybe because of my inability to grasp the spatial arrangement of bodies and trajectories in the Universe. But show me a map, and names that carry historic or literary or philosophical meanings as these seem to, and I’m intrigued.

Mr. Asimov doesn’t get into all that. He goes right to theories of ages and descriptions of orbits. Liam was happy to stay with me a while on the names — remember, we both love words — and pointed out that Piccolomini has two words in it: piccolo and mini. This name is significant to our other “studies” as I will come back to later.

Before we could turn the page of this book, we had to sit down and eat the breakfast I’d made, and then the rest of the household who weren’t at work went to visit another new friend, and as I was simultaneously working on some oatmeal muffins for lunch I read about lunar topography. The man who came up with the first nomenclature for the moon, much of which is still used, was a Jesuit priest of the early 17th century, Giovanni Battista Riccioli. Riccioli considered himself first a theologian, but spent the vast majority of his long life researching and teaching about astronomy, as well as logic and physics, especially pendulums. What a learned and productive human, who lived in a challenging time for a natural philosopher. People debate about his possible secret beliefs, based on how he chose and arranged names of lunar features.

“He said that once the enthusiasm for astronomy arose within him he could never extinguish it, and so he became more committed to astronomy than theology. Eventually his superiors in the Jesuit order officially assigned him to the task of astronomical research. However, he also continued to write on theology…”

Will I integrate these evocative moon names into the tangled web of my mind’s musings? Perhaps the only thing I will have gained is another name for what’s in my head: “Sea of Vapors.” That name is from this newer map, featuring the waters of the moon, which I will leave at closing of this subject. Oh, and Piccolomini was an Italian poet and astronomer.

Soldier and Joy did bring along a big bag of their own books for the children, including several titles I wasn’t familiar with before, like this one about orchestral instruments. It made me think of the song I used to sing with my children, “Nous Sommes à la Musicale.” (“We are at the musical,” in French.) I couldn’t remember much of it, but Pippin came to my rescue and sent me a cute video of herself singing it. It’s ultra simple and catchy — there are no other French lines other than the names of the instruments — and you can hear a clip of it on this Folkways recording. Perhaps I borrowed the LP from the library once in the distant past.

More singing: here is Liam sweeping while singing “I love the mountains, I love the rolling hills,” etc.

I wanted the children to be able to hear the sounds of all the instruments pictured in the book above, and  I found quite a few good videos on YouTube, including a half-hour performance without any lecturing, from Benjamin Britten’s Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra. I loved it because it showed nearly every instrument and closeups of the musicians playing, and the conductor was fun to watch as well. There were many shots of the piccolo player!

The boys had heard “Peter and the Wolf” many times, but never seen it played. I found a charming ensemble of seven musicians from Qatar performing to a backdrop of a sort of shadow puppet show of the story, and that was a hit.

Browsing the library shelves last week with Laddie, I came across this beautiful book, Behold the Trees, by Sue Alexander, illustrated by Leonid Gore. It is a simple telling of the story of “living, life-giving trees” in the Holy Land, from ancient times when they were plentiful, to the 20th century when Jews all over the world contributed funds for planting trees to replace those that had been over the centuries and for various reasons cut down.

 

“They grew in stands and groves and great forests. They held back the sea, cooled the air, and protected the earth for the people and animals who lived there… So it was, for hundreds and hundreds of years….”

But then, people needed cleared land for farms and doors for shops; armies “cut down trees to build fortresses and palaces, shrines to their gods, cities and towns.” Whole forests were burned to remove hiding places for enemies. Eventually “the land became salt marsh and sand,” and animals disappeared.

I love the illustrations in this book showing these events and the people planting trees. And the names of the trees listed simply, and as elegant as a poem. I wanted to know more about the history of this re-greening effort, and I learned a few things online that were fascinating and encouraging.

As recently as the 1960’s the project was begun to plant Yatir Forest on the edge of the Negev Desert. A long Wikipedia article tells much about this “living laboratory” that is the largest forest in Israel, and on another site I found a succinct explanation of one way that the trees survive the climate that they are not suited to:

“Partial results of the research by Professor Yakir and his team show that the forest’s trees have adapted themselves to arid environmental conditions by naturally smart use of the high level of carbon dioxide in the air.  Professor Yakir explains that because of the rise in the level of carbon dioxide in the air, the trees absorb all the carbon dioxide they require without needing to fully open all the stomas (apertures) in their leaves’ membranes. Partial opening of the stomas reduces the evaporation of the water on the leaves and so a tree uses less water without any damage to its development.”

The last of the recent book discoveries was one I found at a used bookstore just yesterday. I was headed straight toward Target, but when my eyes saw a sign declaring “BOOKS,” my feet veered that way. When I finally escaped I had bought several used books for me and for the children. The illustrations in Once There Was a Tree are rich, and do justice to the beauty of the forest, where the main character is a tree stump, and the questions are philosophical.

It might have been titled “Whose Tree is It?” or “Who owns the earth?” The fundamental message is gently told, of how countless numbers of us creatures benefit from as humble a piece of earth as nurtures a stump in the woods, and we should share. I intend to write on the end page Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.”

Because truly He is the beginning and end, the source of all the wealth of gifts and resources that surround us, and of which I have been partaking by means of the sharing of so many of His creatures, from tree-planters to musicians, from a scientist-priest to a children’s book illustrator.

The world — my world — His world — is full of delights.
And I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s offering.

Rabbitbrush and butterscotch.

Last week was full of rocks and trees and even flowers. Joy and I took the children to Garden of the Gods, where red sandstone in ragged forms towers above the walking paths. Even the littlest guy walked more than two miles among the juniper and mountain mahogany, and wildflowers mostly gone to seed. The Gambel oaks, also known as Rocky Mountain white oak or Colorado scrub oak, had probably displayed more varied shades of orange and yellow a few weeks ago, but when we encountered them the leaves had aged to a rich, mellow gold.

We saw the rabbitbrush in many forms and places, but didn’t know what it was until just before we left the park and saw its picture in the visitor center. I have known of rabbitbrush for decades and I hope that after this extended encounter I will not forget it so easily. We saw its flower, two sorts of galls on the plants, and noticed its needly leaves and how they are softer than conifer needles. One of the galls is cottony gall; the other I haven’t been able to identify.

The very next day the whole family drove up to Woodland Park; it’s less than an hour to this town that lies at 8500 feet. We walked along Lovell Gulch Trail, among several species of conifers and groves of aspens. We suspected they were aspens, but we knew that birch have similar bark, so when we got home I googled around and it became clear that yes, what we saw were aspens, so plentiful in the Rockies and in dry places high up, while birches like floodplains and shade. And the few leaves that we saw  — most had fallen after turning bright yellow — matched the pictures of aspen. I only saw one bright leaf, of another species.

We admired the bark of other trees, especially one that had lots of texture, and fresh sap flowing. Soldier had a sudden thought, came close to get a whiff, and concluded, “Oh, it must be a Jeffrey pine — they smell like butterscotch.” Indeed. Oh, that was delicious! I made up a mnemonic story for myself about a boy named Jeffrey who was walking down the trail and discovered a butterscotch drop on a tree trunk.

The view of the mountains is striking from there, a different perspective from our daily one. We have seen Pikes Peak from several angles now, and don’t know the names of any of the other peaks visible from here. Soldier just read that Colorado has more than 50 peaks over 14,000 feet. Colder temperatures are coming this week, and yes, snow is on the forecast, too. So our views will grow even more spectacular.

The air moves, the trees wait.

Myriah and I were standing on the shoulder of Gumdrop Dome, looking across the lake to the other shore. She said that the trees rising in ascending rows from the water’s edge reminded her of a choir standing straight at attention. I made a note to include that image in a blog post if I could.

Later we were talking about age and getting old and what is youthfulness? and I was looking up a poem by Wendell Berry that I posted here once, when I found this fitting one:

What do the tall trees say
To the late havocs in the sky?
They sigh.
The air moves, and they sway.
When the breeze on the hill
Is still, then they stand still.
They wait.
They have no fear. Their fate
Is faith. Birdsong
Is all they’ve wanted, all along.

-Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems

 

 

 

The thought of the trees listening to the birds comforts me. I don’t see half the birds here that I see at home, though as Myriah noted, “I’ve heard more birds than I’ve seen.” Yesterday I got the idea of putting some  berries on the deck and railing in hopes of attracting a Steller’s Jay. Nope. Not even a chipmunk has found one yet.

But a blue dragonfly just now graced my field of vision with his blue whirr.

On Pentecost, trees clap in church.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the human will to live, and how it is a gift of God, and not a mere “survival instinct,” as scientific materialists might term it. We do not bring ourselves into being, and we can’t keep ourselves alive; and yet, most of the time we try to survive. It’s because God has given us LIFE. I also think about trees most days 🙂 so these words of Fr. Stephen Freeman are a joy to me, as we prepare for the Feast of Pentecost.

I had fun searching for photos of trees in church. The first photo I believe is from the author’s own parish church in Tennessee. The snippets below, which were included in our church bulletin this week, are from his blog post several years ago on Pentecost and Creation.

PENTECOST and CREATION

There is something about life, at least in our earthly experience, that is inexorable. Any individual case of life may be fragile, but life itself endures. In the Genesis account we are told that God blessed this planet and said:

Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth; and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:11-12 NKJ)

The Feast of Pentecost…focuses as much on the Holy Spirit’s work in Creation as it does on the Spirit’s work in the Church. The Church is decorated in green. In Russian tradition, branches of birch are brought into the Church; fresh green grass is placed on the floor; flowers are everywhere. In Soviet times a secular version of the festival remained, called the Day of Trees.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church is not something separate from Creation—nor are the trees a distraction from the Church. They are, together, a proper reminder of the role God’s Spirit plays always, everywhere. He is the “Lord and Giver of Life.” Just as the Spirit moved over the face of the waters in the beginning of creation, so He moves over the face of all things at all times, bringing forth life and all good things.

Though I am frequently assaulted with bouts of pessimism, despairing over various aspects of our distorted civilization, the truth is that like the planet itself, civilization with its drive for beauty and order seem inexorable. The history of humanity is not the story of a fall from a great civilization with increasing instances of barbarism and cave dwelling. Great civilizations have risen and fallen, but civilizations continue to occur. Some may already have begun in the ruins that surround us now. The story told in Scripture is not the story of collapse and decay. There are certainly dire warnings of terrible trials and great catastrophes. But these things do not reveal the mystery of God’s will. These things are cracks in the pavement while life continues to burst forth:

God has made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him (Ephesians 1:9-10).

What appeared as tongues of flame upon the heads of the disciples at Pentecost was a manifestation of this Divine Purpose at work. With the sound of a mighty rushing wind, the Holy Spirit filled the room. The fullness of the Church burst into the streets proclaiming the Gospel in a multitude of languages. Being birthed in Jerusalem was the New Jerusalem, where there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female. Instead there is the fullness that fills all things bringing forth all things in one—in the One Christ Himself. The voice of Pentecost is the voice of creation’s groans being transformed into the “glorious liberty of the children of God.” Stones cry out, trees clap their hands and the song of creation rejoices in the One Christ.

—Fr. Stephen Freeman