Friendship with Trees


Last winter was particularly hard on this plum tree and the skeleton frame has had me worried.  But I see that she is back to her best, plums coming along everywhere.  Maybe she will leaf out and be as lovely as usual.The plush greener leaves in the background are on a neighbor’s tree (unfortunately shading an aspiring elderberry bush).

This tree has been remarkable. It has survived ice storms, fierce winds, and high temperatures, yet each summer produced hundreds of beautiful and delicious plums.  Since I don’t know how to can and don’t want to learn, we have eaten the plums, given them away, and invited friends and acquaintances to come unburden the tree. University students passing by our house have plucked low hangers or leapt to pull down a bigger bunch.  Once, a young girl from the elementary school across the street climbed up and tossed plums to two waiting friends.  I had to warn her that her mother wouldn’t want her climbing a tree–it was dangerous. I offered to give her a bag of plums.  She shook her head No, jumped down and they took off, not too hurriedly, eating plums.  I used to climb trees.  I wouldn’t mind if the girl thought she was stealing plums.  She had a personal drive in any case.

Some of my favorite passages in literature are little asides about relationships with trees, like this one in Willa Cather’s My Antonia.  “Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons” (21).  Actually, it’s not really an aside, since land, and plants, and animals are a vital part of Cather’s fictional and real world.  I talk to trees—spirea bushes and other plants, too. I have friends who do the same and I suspect many, many people do.  I have saved seeds from an apple tree for so long they must be dead.  They’re not useless, though, since they remind me of a person and a time and a tree that used to be in a particular back yard.

After reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben I’m aware of how complex their lives are and how ignorantly I admire and consort with them.  They have a social structure–family, friends, defenses, enemies.  Feelings. And they communicate, in their own way.  That kind of knowledge I can enjoy so much, and appreciate.  But the sight and smell and feel of them is easier and more immediate. And fiction weaves them into my social structure.  I do wonder if they understand my comments, or absorb the tone, and if they pass on our conversations.



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Black Lives Matter Near My Hometown

I’m proud of these protesters near my hometown for acting on their convictions and wearing masks, too. Bless them. The article is by Ben Matthews, with the Southeast Missourian.  

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Judging Fiction Contests

March, when the COVID19 pandemic descended in our area, was also the month for submissions to Pleiades’ R. M. Kinder Realistic Fiction Prize (I didn’t name the contest.  I just judge the entries).  I began reading them almost immediately, as is my common method, and took notes. During the month I reread stories and revised notes. When the final entry had been added to the group, I left the stories alone for a few days and let them settle in my memory.  When I returned to them, I looked at each one again and began ranking them from one to 10, with 10 the highest.  Then I began ranking those 10.

It sounds like tedious work, but it isn’t.  It’s serious and important but also pleasurable and rewarding.  Here is work by current writers, whether emerging or established; here is new form, new format;  new issues; new approaches to old issues; new words; new subjects; new street language; and the old and familiar and traditional.  I love it. I breathe it in.

The truly difficult part of judging is also the most rewarding. Reading toward and for the best of the best, giving in to what a story tries to be. Though the best realized stories always surface, there are always contenders so vital in one way or another that I can’t easily leave them behind.  A voice can be so engaging, so can an eye for details, so can a conclusion, a sentiment, a thought, an image.  I have fallen in love with someone’s style or goal and wanted to introduce that writer to the world.  Usually it’s not one writer, but many, for a different skill or thought.  These writers stay with me.  I remember certain story lines or characters for years.

Giving honorable mentions might seem to relieve the tension of selecting only one, but that, too, is hard.  “Mention” means a brief statement and so many writers deserve at least that.  At least. The ranking would be near impossible.

The winning story has to be one brought fully to its promise.  Each element of fiction employed contributes to the core message.  If details are too abundant (say in a search for realism) the setting can overpower the plot or character; too much action can shallow the thought; too elevated language can credit the author but lose the story. The story must take the reader in and keep her suspended without being aware of artifice.  At the end, the judge should feel grateful to have read the story; to wish she could write that way; to be glad someone can and does.  That may sound like an impossible feat for any story.  Not impossible at all.  I recall such stories and know I will encounter others.

What happens when there’s more than one such story? The criteria sharpen to match the entries. Suppose there’s a story wonderfully entertaining—it’s delightful and fresh, and is meant for a broad audience, accessible to many; and there’s also a story immensely touching, elicits understanding and compassion, meant also for a broad audience. How to choose, if each is just as artful, just as complete?  Then which has the greater depth of meaning, intellectual and emotional involvement, and a moral stance?  The better the competing entries, the better the winner must be.

A friend occasionally chides me for judging contests without pay, but the compensation is so great. I’m honored to be asked to judge and don’t want it to be easy.

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Bird Bouquet

On a recent spring-like day, I went into the back yard and was stunned by a change in our hackberry tree.  It was like a bouquet of birds in the wind.  They lit on branches singly and in clusters and only momentarily. They flitted and soared and whirled, fluttered, hopped here and there and away.  I believed it was a vision or hallucination. I began crying, not from fear, but from the startle and beauty of it—and joy.  It seemed real. I wanted to preserve it as long as possible, and without my phone camera had only my memory.  I tried to memorize the kinds of birds, but I’m not a birder and recognized by type only a few.  Robins galore, with different shades of breast color, from pale pink  to dark red; robin-like birds with white patches; doves (only two) , starlings, finch, brown sparrows, tiny birds with at least three colors—red,  green, and yellow—and very tiny birds with bright yellow bellies and dark green or brown tops.  All moving in and out and up and around and down.  Impossible to count. I finally inched back to the door, sped into the house, grabbed my phone, and, at the door again, inched out.  All but a few had gone. I should have stood still until I couldn’t bear it.  I should have kept the sight as long as possible instead of wanting a photo.  Now, writing about the event, I know my prose can’t capture it. Likely a photo couldn’t either. Maybe not even a video.  The sound was wind-swept bird song, bird talk,  tree rustle and sway, and a vast silence everywhere else.

Leafless, the tree’s twigs held thousands of hackberries.  They were a delight for the birds and the birds were more than that for me.  I was exceedingly happy those few moments, and I feel a bit of that happiness every time I think of them.


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Tiny and Powerful: Stephen King’s Elevation

This is a very welcome message from a creative mind and good heart.  Scott, the main character, models making a difference where you are, and accepting the part of life you can’t understand with hope and bravery.  We all share, or will, this coming to the end, and have a personal vision of it.  The vision in  Elevation, a novelette, isn’t obscured by heavy plot or angst or horror or even length.  And it’s actually not a surprise coming from Stephen King. In his works,  people join together to fight evil.  They care for one another and are stronger for it.  That’s central to Elevation.  Even the small size seems part of the message—tiny and powerful.  It’s a very good read.

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Grasshopper Doings on Grover Street

When I parked in our driveway yesterday, a huge grasshopper lighted on the car hood, then hopped-flew to the top façade of the garage door. If there was a spider web there, I couldn’t see it, and it had to be fairly flat against the surface of the wall. In the second after the grasshopper landed, a spider ran from a white metal trim to the grasshopper, hit him or bit him, and darted back into the pipe. The grassphopper began struggling against either toxins or web—I think toxins. In a about 30 seconds, the spider zipped again, hit again, and hid again. The grasshopper, who had all my sympathy now, still struggled but more slowly, a whole body shifting, no real leg movement. He was parallel with the horizonal edge of the garage-door opening. A couple minor shifts and he rolled off the edge, his wings opened, and he flew away. He escaped. I thought he was dead for certain but he knew what to do—or his body reacted in the right way. I believe he’s still alive. I hope so.

Today, I saw a different (I’m sure) grasshopper on the deck railing. He was holding and eating a piece of cat food. (Our female cat, Pearly, likes to eat her first breakfast in the house, on the dryer, and then have a snack on the railing.) I happened to have my phone with me and got a video of this grasshopper but I can’t post a video here. I have a fairly good photo.

This may not be an unusual incident to many people, but it is rare to me, and so I’m sharing.


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Thoughts on Reading

I recall reading in Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction that we retain only a general sense of a book unless we read it more than once. That memory was sparked again by Joseph Epstein’s “The Pleasures of Reading” in which he shares a response to some works:

What I consciously take away from many of the books I read are scenes, oddments, bit and pieces. I am somehow less interested in the final meaning of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” than I am in the fact that so many of the phrases from that poem have stuck in my mind for more than forty years. From an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, I recall the earlock of a yeshiva student, flapping in the wind; I remember the little finger of Father Sergius in Tolstoy’s story of that name, twirling in the air after he has chopped it off….

It’s reassuring to know that the fleeting hold I have on some books is a common response, as are the selective details that may, surely do, reflect my personal reading.

Usually I remember my feeling about a book (a no-no in scholarly writing).  Sometimes it’s affection, sometimes resistance, maybe a shudder. But if the book moved me, I’ll remember vividly some image or line or a choice, something specific. I think they’re telling details, important to a particular theme or issue, but they’re access points to memory.  Here are a few of the many that have lasted: The choice of endings in The French Lieutenant’s Woman—the slight dismay I felt discovering that the ending I wanted wasn’t merited by the strength of the character; the “planting hands” of Elisa in Steinbeck’s “Chrysanthemums” and the “speck” of flower in the road; the casting away, in Cather’s My Antonia, of Mrs. Shimerda’s gift of mushrooms, the only food she has; the mute love of Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; the bit of lard in Sula and the miserable choice of using it as food or lubricant; the Faulkner lady fallen from high station and allowing herself to take from her neighbor’s garden only what she can reach through the fence.

Morrison’s Sula was a hard book—so much suffering, but much life, too, bold and vivid, something precious always at risk. I was afraid to come to the end of the novel. I didn’t see how anything positive could rise from such betrayal and loss. But one line turned my near despair to a kind of joy—tearful, admittedly. An I’ll-be-damned moment. Morrison changed my perception of the character. I loved the end. I celebrated Sula.

A recent read is still very close: Where the Crawdad’s Sing. It’s a kind of delicate book, satisfies at so many levels. The situation tests belief but becomes increasing believable. This young girl—Kya, Catherine, the Marsh Girl—is a survivor. She grasps opportunities and works unflaggingly. She loves the world and people, even if she’s wary. She’s practical but filled with wonder. There’s a murder mystery all along, and the resolution of that is an of-course one. Of course. This is an honest author, no tricks. But what hooked me most and makes me think on the book again and again, are the poems pieced here and there. Tidbits. The resolution to that authorship mystery is perfect, about art and realism, and thought and touch. It’s a full circle book. One thinks (I think) of the character, the author, women and the Word. I suspect that years from now, even if I forget the murder, and the love, and the lyrics themselves, I’ll remember that I loved the presence of the poems and what they meant.

Epstein, Joseph. “The Pleasures of Reading.” Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Houghton-Miffline Harcourt, 1999: 207-209.

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Stone, Cold, Sober, Thought

A friend, very bright and keen about language rules, recently advised me that “stone” is a noun and can’t be an adjective.  The reason: there’s no comparative form, such as stoner, stonest, more stone, most stone.  The proper designation for the word is either noun adjunct or adjectival.  I checked my oldest and newest dictionaries at home—neither identified stone as an adjective. On-line sources were divided but seemed to favor only noun and verb as functions. My own sensibilities told me that noun adjunct was a better—more accurate—term: stone statue, stone foundation, stone jar. The noun in these phrases wouldn’t be complete without the added word. My friend was, is, right.

I enjoyed a brief search trying to establish “stone” as an adjective, but eventually I just reviewed  types, proper order, and rules for punctuating a series of adjectives.  Can one insert the word “and” between each? If so, the adjectives are coordinate, and a comma separates each except the one before the noun. If cumulative, then one adjective may belong with another and thus no comma separates the two.   In the preferred order of adjectives, shape and color precede material.

I couldn’t resist a test. Only the last one is correct. (Maybe)

One doesn’t see a stone, blue, round, jar.
One doesn’t see a stone, blue, round jar.
One doesn’t see a round, stone, blue, jar.
One doesn’t see a round, stone, blue jar.
One doesn’t see a blue, stone, round, jar.
One doesn’t see a blue, stone, round jar.
One doesn’t see a round, blue, stone, jar.
One doesn’t see a round, blue, stone jar.
One doesn’t see a round, blue stone jar.

I very much value clarity and rules that lead to it. There’s a pleasure in deviation, too, experimenting, or just searching for that special feel or sight, or speaking from the heart. Rules must be held lightly then, if at all. That’s an old rule, too.  Here’s an “introductory hint” found in  Reed & Kellogg ‘s 1895 English Grammar and Composition. “Arrangement—Transposed Order.”

The common and natural order, spoken of in the preceding Lesson, is not the only order admissible in an English sentence; on the contrary, great freedom in the placing of words and phrases is sometimes allowable.  Let the relation of the words be kept obvious and, consequently, the thought clear, and in poetry, in impassioned oratory, in excited speech of any kind, one may deviate widely from this order. (94))

Yes, such deviation from the natural order gave us and will continue to give us schemes and tropes and phrases we could never form by the rules. “Lend me your ears.” “I will fight no more forever.” “Every goodbye ain’t gone.”

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That Turtle Dove

Turtle doves are in the neighborhood for the fourth year in a row.  One is huge and slow, the other dainty and somewhat quicker.  Sometimes they’re side by side on the power line and sometimes stepping around on the parking area next door, almost invisible against the gravel. I keep my camera handy for a closer shot, one not blurred by a wire fence. Often the big one, which I assume is the male, sits on the high wire above our rear gate, and the smaller female finds seeds inside our yard. Sparrows hop around and she ignores them, but some movement or sound will startle her up to her mate. Always I’m hoping to see the two of them, because I know they mate for life and I don’t want that life to be short.

I’ve heard that their call can be loud and harsh, but that’s not borne out by my experience.  It’s a sweet sound, distant and yet intimate, soft and hollow. It can be sad.  One line about the “mourning” dove is so common that its call must have touched the hearts of many people.  This line, for example, appears in myriad folksongs: “Yonder sits that pretty turtle dove, it flies from pine to pine, mourning for its own true love, as I once did for mine.”  Today, trying to find the original source of that line, I found Ralph Vaughan Williams’ lyrics for “The Turtle Dove,” his arrangement of “Fare Thee Well,” a much older ballad.  Here’s the pertinent verse:

O yonder doth sit that little turtle dove

He doth sit on yonder high tree

A making a moan for the loss of his love

As I will do for thee

“A making a moan.”  Now that sounds mournful.  But when I hear doves in my neighborhood, especially in my own yard, I don’t hear moans, just a gentle greeting. I feel a good nostalgia and a fondness–for the doves and their traits and what they symbolize.


Source for lyrics by Ralph Vaughan Williams:,p01145936


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A Kind View in Ryan’sThe Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

At first, I didn’t quite believe Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (set in 1940 England), mostly because of the epistolary form It seemed unlikely that people could or would quote lengthy dialog exchanges verbatim. Also, the father was too villainous, the mid-wife’s crime too easily effected, and the happy ending unrealistically inclusive.

And yet, I like happy endings and I applaud authors who love humans and credit them with good reasons for their actions (or forgive them) and grant women the power they actually wield, even in some horrendous circumstances. Romance, mystery, history, danger, high values (loyalty, sacrifice, bravery, tolerance, kindness) made it overall a pleasant and upbeat read. So did music. The ladies sing beautifully and gain some recognition.

One passage is particularly worth noting, because the sentiment it reveals underlies the whole book.  Mrs. Tillman observes privately  that though one partner in a then illegal intimate relation had died, “fragile kindness in their love survived this poisonous war.”  It’s a wonderful line, positing that kindness is a part of love, is itself fragile. That a trait of love is a real fact, perceivable by an outsider, present at least in one person, and perhaps in tone and atmosphere for the rest of the world, or those willing to see it.

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