Bloom and Bust Cycle

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.

Vocabulary Lessons

Some housekeeping first:

This is a new newsletter by Haley E.D. Houseman, full of nature writing. If you signed up for a previous incarnation of my work, please feel free to unsubscribe, no hard feelings! Thanks for your support, always, whenever.

This morning when we left the house the air was the dead kind of silent that I dread. The sun was ribbed over with clouds as it rose, lighting up the dark skeletons of trees. For a span of 10 yards or so down the front walk, the silence was deafening. Then I heard the smallest voices with the very back of my ears, and then it all flooded in: whistles, trills, screamsongs. When the woodpecker drilled, I let out a lungful of air.

Some too-quiet winter mornings never break into a chorus, and the sense of unease follows me around all day. And there are days I admit that I am too preoccupied to listen particularly well. But for most, I say good morning to the jays and chickadees as the dog and I barrel out the door. I spend a lot of time breaking my own heart imagining a future without them as we walk in circles around the neighborhood.

When a whole flock does appear, it’s unusual enough that we stop and stare, the pup’s nose in the air. He’s not much interested in them as snack, but seems to like to watch the birds fly all the same. A real murmuration lifting off above the trees feels like a benediction. It’s a strain to remember regular and unremarkable flocks of birds, though I know they were common when I was small, like the thick buzz of insects on a summer night, or winters that snowed from November to March. There are days even in the winter where the sparrows explode from from the lilac shrubbery with an angry chorus. Those are my favorites, even if it’s blustery and gloomy, as it is today. 

Every interaction I have with the natural world is marked now with a remembering, a nostalgic tinge of what is already gone. If you aren’t familiar with the word “solastalgia,” you will be soon. My phone’s dictionary doesn’t recognize it, but it’s already permeated my perception of nature, and colored how I approach writing about the environment. The word is loosely defined as “the distress caused by environmental change,” and encompasses both the cataclysm of a wildfire and the slow disappearance of the reliable pattern of the seasons.

If you live in the northeast, as I do, the past two weeks have included snow, rain, ice, below zero temperatures and at least one mild, 60 degree day. The unease you feel in a t-shirt in February has a name. Now I just need a name for mourning the bugs and the birds and the deer, a name for the unshareable and enormous loneliness of living in a world with fewer non-human compatriots. 

The potential of a sweeping silence is the most unnerving thing to me, though there are plenty of other dire consequences to fret about. I can fill my apartment with plants, but I can’t invite the trees and their inhabitants inside as a helpful measure. My bird feeder only goes so far. And sometimes I wonder if other people can feel the beating heart of the alive things outside our windows, or if that feeling is just in my head, that alive and connected sense of community. 

This feels like a dire start to the Morning Report, but it’s important to me to speak plainly about why I tweet those observations as I walk. This is the conversation lives between the lines when I am celebrating the squabbling jays and fancy cardinals. It’s all very tender and earnest, I can’t help it. And it makes no sense to not own it, especially not now, when even the dirt feels so important and fragile. There will be other future dispatches full of seed planting and fresh green things. I hope you’ll hang out and enjoy them with me and the birds.


Tune into the Morning Report

Seasonal woods-walking observations from the Merrimack Valley

Get ready, because here I come… as soon I finish getting set up. For now, feel free to subscribe if you love The Morning Report, twitter version. This will be an occasional, barely scheduled longer version of those nature observations.

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