This is a newsletter by Haley E.D. Houseman, full of nature writing. Thanks for your support, always, whenever. If you like this newsletter, please feel free to forward and share. And you can always say hi directly at @hedhouseman.
It snowed a bit last weekend, and while I’ve been patient in not planting out anything that’s not frost hardy, it feels like spring might never come. I’ve stalled out writing several dispatches of this newsletter because the knots of climate change and gardening and cut down trees seemed too tangled to wade into. Everything feels a little raw, which I suppose should have been the first indicator that winter was already over. The stacks of gardening magazines and endless rain were another.
But Sunday was sunny, and I came out of Mass singing that morning, unexpectedly light. It was Palm Sunday, which is my favorite, one I looked forward to every year despite generally loathing Mass. My mother and I listened to the liturgy in a plain church and wove palm crosses which we promptly gave away to anyone who looked curious. It seems like no one weaves crosses anymore, a bit of folk knowledge lost already, just one generation removed. Who can blame people for walking away? I haven’t attended that Mass, or any other Mass, in years, and the same goes for a lot of people. The small and beautiful rituals don’t trump the context.
I’ve gone to church more in 2019 than I have in any decade since I was a hellion, disbelieving altar server. My feelings about the institution of the Church remain relatively uncomplicated, since we disagree on pretty much every point, and have long gone our separate ways. But I can’t account for the experience of Mass, the joy of making crosses out of palms with my mother on Palm Sunday. The rituals of Mass, writ larger and small, are part of how I always welcomed in spring, though never consciously. Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, Easter: they line up so neatly with breaking out the trowels and the first yellow green burst of forsythia.
I intended to send this yesterday, and instead I watched the Notre Dame burning, and thought about what a clumsy, complicated metaphor we’ve been given, the burning of a beloved, tree-ladened monument to human craftsmanship and institutional power. I did not expect to feel so sad, but I also did not expect to think so hard about all the old growth forest felled for the construction of “The Forest,” a nickname for the cathedral I was only passingly familiar with. I did not know before the burning of the church that the oaks of Versailles were planted to eventually provide replacement wood in case of disaster and ruin. I hadn’t realized the long span of its construction, not just in human hands, but in the growing of the things that made it possible. A thousand years went into a roof that burned in hours.
Everything these days feels like a metaphor, too spot on to be quite real. We are fascinated by beautiful things, living or created by human hands, but we don’t know how to save them. We don’t even remember how to plan for destruction, and we have lost the thread of how to plant seeds and build miracles for generations to come. We arrive in forests and cut them down to build cathedrals to remind us of forests. Instead of planting new forest, we mourn the old dead trees and what they’ve come to represent. We try to sent aside the difficult parts of the legacy, the parts that are destructive and ugly. We lose track of the years. If we planted new trees in Versailles today, could we guarantee they’d be tended to until the fire next time?
My neighborhood is cutting down trees, too. And every one I talk to has a sad story about how there’s one particular tree that was so old, or that made things so private, or that dropped black walnuts onto their car, denting it. The trees are just background, something that fades into static when unless we’re forced to mark its absence or its life. I’ve grown a habit of touching trees as I walk past them, especially the old ones. I don’t know how else to tell them that I see them, I see them living. After reading about trees all winter, I now know they are so much older, so much more alive than I had ever let myself see.
Trees are not rocks, or dirt, or even vines and blooms. They are something altogether different, prepared to outlive us all, planning careful for each seasonal with rituals of their own. Setting buds invisibly in the fall, dripping sap in the spring. Cooling every inch they touch, not just raising property values or damaging human infrastructure. Every breath they take gives, and each moment they live is one of profound connection in cycles large and small. I used to mock my dad for being a tree hugger, talking about making friends with trees in the old forests he grew up in. Now I’ve come face to face with the legacy of seeing living things as commodity or incidental, and am grappling with the shame of recognition.
So much will have to change if we want the world to stay the same, for it to breathe and flow the way it has always done. We’ll have to do the changing, and we’ll have to make plans. The future can only bloom when we see it.