Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ode on a Saw-Tooth Oak

The nest is delicately balanced between two branches of one of the saw-tooth oaks Adam planted at the edge of the yard eight years ago. At just-about eye-level, I have to ease up onto my tiptoes a bit for the right angle to see into its depths, to make sure that it is empty. It could not be more symmetrical if its avian architect had used computer-aided drafting – a cup-shaped scoop of twigs and thread-sized roots perfectly built for what? two eggs? three?

The ends of some of the twigs are clean-cut, sliced flat and even, and I wonder if they are the remains of logs trimmed with the chain saw and stacked up to be burned. Most of them, of course, are raw and ragged, broken by wind or rain or squabbling squirrels. I can identify some of the twigs by their bark – sycamore, scrub oak, no pine. Others have had their bark stripped away to reveal striations that look like veins pumping brown blood.

Caught in a fork in the outside edge is a leaf, bruised bronze and veined white. Dew drops, fat and tremulous, reflect the winter-morning light that is at my back. A tiny ruffle of pale green lichen trims one of the larger outside twigs, a surprisingly stark contrast to the browns and grays of the other building materials. Birds recognize colors, don’t they? Was the pastel accent intentional?

It is late. I should have already left for work and I’ve spent long enough staring. It is, after all, only a nest. And an abandoned one at that.

I walk back across the yard, prizing my 3½-inch heels out of the soft ground with some effort. The image of the nest – the colors and textures, the way it seems to hover – shimmers like the after-flash from an old Instamatic camera and as I get into the car, one leg in, the other still balanced on its thin heel, I grasp the thought that has just raced across my mind like a news bulletin: Abandoned. The nest is abandoned.

Like a rusted-out car, a falling-down house, a foundling on a doorstep, it has been left behind, carrying the weight of ending and loss and unrealized potential. Whatever eggs were laid there are long gone. It will not be used again to nurture fledglings. Eventually the elements will weaken the careful mechanical engineering employed by its builder and the building materials will scatter on the ground beneath the tree.

Yet, it has captured me. Captured me like nothing has in days. Beauty captures. And the nest, with its delicate roughness, its flawless imperfection, and, yes, even its emptiness that feels like nothing so much as anticipation, is beautiful.

I shake my head at the paradoxical thought, that something abandoned can be beautiful. That something forsaken, no longer wanted, damaged and/or worn could possess a particular loveliness. That something unobtrusive and easily missed, something without obvious value could be aesthetically pleasing.

Plato thought that all beautiful objects incorporated proportion, harmony, and unity. The universal elements of beauty, as perceived by Aristotle, were order, symmetry, and definiteness. I doubt, as I drive into the rising sun, that my nest (I have, in an unconscious act of benefaction, assumed guardianship.) qualifies as beautiful under the Greek ideal.

It doesn’t matter. I have learned that beauty is an idiosyncratic concept. The eye of the beholder and all that. What the eye beholds the heart answers and my heart has answered that this object, this fragile creation by an unidentified artisan, this nest – this abandoned nest – is beautiful.

This morning, this bright and clear January morning, that is all I know on earth and all I need to know.

Copyright 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Order and Rhythm and a Fistful of Seeds

Order. The arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method. A state of proper readiness or preparation or arrangement.

Rhythm. A strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound. Movement or variation characterized by the regular recurrence or alternation of different quantities or conditions, as in the rhythm of the tides.

Order and rhythm, the compass and sextant of my days.

So now the holidays were over. The tree had been struggled back into the corner of the attic where it would lie peacefully in pieces until next December. The refrigerator and pantry, the cake plate and cookie jar had been cleared of the food that appears only once a year. The green-leaved and red-berried branches, dried into crumbling tinder, had been tossed into the edge of the field to further fade and decompose. Order had been restored.

Rhythm, however, was still eluding me. The days and nights of holiday activities that disrupt, however cordially, the tempo of life had ended, but I remained off-balance, out of kilter, emotionally and mentally disoriented to the new year.

I decided to go to the gym. On the treadmill, my feet would adopt a stride of hard and steady steps, my lungs would draw in air and force it back out, my elbows would move back and forth like side rods on a locomotive. I would actually feel my heart beating inside my chest. Exercise would be my metronome.

But I got detoured. Two big diesel trucks and an excavator had arrived at the farm to remove the burned-out shell of the cotton picker that, for the last week or so, had stood sentry at the exact spot at the edge of the field where it had flamed then smoldered. Every morning and afternoon I’d passed it, stopping a couple of times to take photographs, changing my mind about what it looked like – a prop from an apocalyptic movie set? a prop from a dinosaur movie set? – and feeling a bit forlorn that I hadn’t been there to see the conflagration.

With a somewhat childish delight I noticed Daddy standing just off the road in the bedraggled rows of picked-over cotton observing the reclamation. If he could watch, so could I. For a few minutes. And then I’d get to the treadmill.

The two of us, arms folded, gave a respectful distance to the two men whose job it was to clear all evidence of the fire that had triumphed over 70,000 pounds of metal. There was a lot of incremental raising and lowering, pushing and pulling, stretching out and pulling back in of the excavator arm, making the whole process look like nothing so much as a Pixar movie projected large across the January sky and underscored by a soundtrack of diesel engine and hydraulic pump. The power line strung directly over the picker added the dramatic tension.

At the two-and-a-half hour mark, with not much apparent progress having been made, my attention wandered. I reached down to break off an unpicked cotton boll, swaying in the unseasonably warm breeze at the end of its brown chopstick of a stem. I pulled the boll from its star-pod and began rolling it between my fingers, felt the hardness of seeds hidden in the whiteness. Dividing my attention between the men wrestling with the machine and the seeds bound tightly in the soft white fibers, I extricated one, two, three ... fourteen seeds.

"So can these be planted?" Daddy interrupted his careful supervision of the two men and glanced quickly over at my upturned palm, cupped to hold the fuzzy seeds.

"Oh, yeh." Ginned and cleaned, he explained, those very seeds could eventually make their way back into the ground to start the cycle all over again. A cycle with a rhythm that is old and enduring, sure and certain, regular and reliable. A rhythm that allows for drought or disease or a cotton picker that catches fire and lights up the sky like the county fair, all without missing a beat.

The gym could wait for another day. I closed my fist on the cotton seeds, took a deep breath of warm winter air, and felt the gentle pump pump pump of a heart in rhythm with its world.
Copyright 2012

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Not A Resolution

It was early. The sky was a solid gun-metal gray. The rain smelled like summer rain, light and a little musty. It fell softly and met the concrete lip of the carport like the skirt of a ball gown lowered over satin shoes. A womb outside a womb, the morning pulled me from the warmth and stillness of the house into the cool and stillness of the day.

It was early. Only one set of tire treads caught the headlights in the slick mud of road ahead of me. Only one set of tire treads, one set of eyes had come this way before me in the early dawn. I felt the pull of the siren ditches – subtle and slight – beneath my hands curved like C-clamps around the top of the steering wheel.

It was early. And wet. Too early and wet for deer to be moving, but vigilance is not easily loosed and so my eyes watched the edges, all the edges, alert to the slightest twitch of tightly muscled flank or the slightest glint of doe eye.

Ahead and to the left, through the lace of bare-limbed forest, I saw light, artificial light. Blue-white halogen. Cold and clear. Unnaturally bright. Too high to be headlights. Too low to be a plane. Shop lights, that’s what they were. Shop lights at the farm on the highway. Of course.

Except that if anyone had asked me, in the exact moment before the lights broke through the almost-day, to point in the direction of the shop, of the highway, I would have pointed straight ahead. If someone had asked for directions I would have said, "Stay on this road and go straight ahead."
But the road isn’t straight. It curves sharply to the left at a spot known as the beaver pond or, more usually, the bad curve. The curve where, in weather like this, cars and trucks driven by the most careful and experienced of drivers have slid into the ditch with the smoothness of butter melting on pancakes. The curve where years ago Daddy was one of the first to arrive at an accident that left three people dead and two more seriously injured. The curve where, no matter how many times you’ve navigated it from either direction, you always catch your breath and feel your heart clutch when you meet another car.

This time there was no other car. This time I maneuvered my traction-less vehicle across the skim of mud through the curve to the straightaway where the lights were, suddenly, directly ahead. Funny how that happens.

I don’t, as a general rule, think much of New Year’s resolutions. Declaring, in the high tide of a celebratory moment, that I will henceforth do something that no previous moment has motivated me to do or no longer do something that no previous moment has motivated me to discontinue has always seemed a little self-righteous. Pronouncing that I will become a better something-or-other invites judgment from pretty much anyone as to whether I was any good at the something-or-other to begin with and also whether my efforts at improvement amount to much. Proclaiming that I will engage in some action or behavior with more or less frequency begs me to elevate the manifestation over the impetus, the form over the substance.

And, yet, on this late December morning, another year fading in the rear-view mirror that reflects plumes of red-brown mud spraying up into the blue-gray morning, I find myself making promises, if not exactly resolutions. I promise that the road I follow will always be the road straight ahead, but with all the curves and detours and dead ends that aren’t yet visible. I promise that I will watch out for the places where the deer are daring and the ditches are deep. And I promise that, no matter how many times I find it necessary to travel any given stretch, I will never try to navigate by memory alone.

Copyright 2012