Breviaries of the Ghost
Art is an organ of human life, transmitting man's reasonable perception into feeling. —Tolstoy
This was supposed to be about the dying Western aspen and the long litany of their probable ailments: drought, SAD, leaf rollers, heart rot. And I was going to stand here, the whole time, with a bundle of cut saplings in my forlorn arms in this little forty acre mountain microcosm alongside Phantom Canyon, a winding road where once the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad carried gold the color of frost out of Victor and Cripple Creek mines.
Dog hair—what I am holding. I looked it up. The Forest Service term for the multitudinous sucker shoots that an imperiled aspen colony throws out from its roots and, get this, its “teats” beneath the soil. These sickly half-start saplings I'm holding are the desperate attempts of my little dying forest to re-clone itself—representatives of what is said to be the sudden die off, Sudden Aspen Decline (SAD), of over one fifth of Colorado's aspen trees since our drought of 2000 to 2004.
As I said, what this essay was “supposed to” be about. And then there are my children's shoes hanging from our suburban garage rack, four thousand three hundred and twenty three feet below Phantom Canyon in a place called Columbine Knolls, one mile from the high school where once two boys in trench coats slaughtered the children I read about on the stone markers of Rebel Hill, their parents still bumping against me in the local grocery store. My daughters long graduated from Columbine and college yet still their childhood shoes bang my hip every time I squeeze past them and the car to dump the kitchen garbage.
Can you see the open garage? Moon in the elms for lyrical effect? Its whiteness we all know to be rock that I'll call limpid, barely a veil? Now the daughters trot out, twins soon to be five, and I line them up—curled hair, matching sweaters, pink-laced roller skates—along side the elementary school's chain link fence where I once cried on their first day of kindergarten and then again first grade—their time with us, do you see it, gone faster than the whole circling of the moon, of us?
But that's not the story. I think.
Not even the fact that just four weeks ago, I hired a young guy from Kansas with an elastic hair band wrapped around his goatee and a chainsaw parked on his shoulder. He felled nineteen of my standing dead, my “ghost” aspens, and numbered each rotted stump with orange spray paint so I could pay him twenty-five bucks per tree. By that time, I did not lose even a single tear.
Some 26,000 years ago, or 25,920 years to be exact, plus another 14 or so since the start of the millennial, we had no north star above the wobbling earth, no Polaris to point to along the earth's axis to steady us, to navigate us across seas and dragons hidden at the edge of ancestral maps. “Axial Precession,” the scientists call it, how the gravity of the sun and the moon, even Jupiter, pulls the earth until, bulging at the equator, it shifts. The lesser stars, the blurred ones that the Neanderthals and the Cro Magnons could only see the milk of out of the corners of their eyes, give way bit by bit to the hard stars, the bright ones we eye now as true north. But even these stars will blur, wander off kilter until only absence is true.
This is the story, I think—
Can you tell me, the dead son's mother asked me, if his poems are good?
Scientists ask if time is always linear, always moving forward, everything causality. In their helical model of time, time moves in circles around what they call an “emergent linear time axis,” only, sometimes, pushing off in a new direction, time both forwards and backwards. The dead son's mother had signed up to take my writing class at the community college so that I could judge, she told me, the poems of her son. Hand-written.
My son died. He wrote poems. He was going to take your class. Can you tell me, she asked me, are they good?
For forty-five minutes, she wept in my office telling me the story of her son, a junkie, though she did not say that harsh word and I feel guilty saying it now, the son dead some two years ago in his thirties of an overdose.
Well, murdered, she would say. I would call it that.
Tolstoy said, “It is not the artist who by his knowledge or skill produces the beautiful, but the idea of beauty in him itself produces.” I remember my daughters young, before their leaving, and myself, I see it so clearly now, as if barely out of girlhood, walking out after dinner—our yearly visit to my parents' midwestern farm. Evening spooled from the tree shadows, the sun a gold needle—do you see how memory wills itself into the beautiful?—at the spillway of my father's pond. Behind us, with our each step, the kitchen lights brightened, voices of my mother and father or the clean-up rattle of washed silverware laid out on stainless steel counters punctuating the gathering hush, an insistent farewell to moment instant now before the pines swallowed us. There, here—
All the time the dead son's mother wept, I listened and willed myself to sit still, though I'm ashamed to say, teacher that I am, I kept thinking the whole time how she got her story wrong, the old chronological “then and then this” narrative—that arrow of linear time that the helical scientists tell us does not exist.
“No way,” I told my colleagues later, “is a grieving mother going to take my class for credit.”
When does perception turn into feeling? I ask myself now. The morning my neighbor Tom cut down six trees for me—the most noticeably dead—I wanted him to cut down more, but as Tom said, the chainsaw was “out of gas and tired.” I remember the first tree he cut down, undercutting so he could fell it true and it would not fall back over the stump, “kick back” at him, and how it struck me on the way down instead, the sting of its branches on my cheek still. The cutting done, I walked through the dry fields with their yellow hefts of grass, spring's green elusive, and everything else, the trees, slowly dying. I have been trying to follow the ways of the Buddhists, as I understand them, to let go of all earthly possessions and care, for they are transient. Yet I have been known to cry at the cutting of a tree, the waste of it. I come from a wet midwestern country, a highway of exploding ditch grass, of cornfields edged by the constant gloaming of woods and cyclical cicadas like damp leaf litter, not these aspen shoots ascending, descending, “weeds,” another neighbor tells me, amidst the hard fixtures, permanent I want to say, that I keep naming into being for myself: the glacial granite I walk on, this scythe of the moon, these hard western stars.
Only her images stood out, circled us, the way my own lesser ones keep circling here: her dead son pounding at her front door; his broken car parked on her driveway where he slept and ate, and the train whistle, creeping through every scene, that she and her son listened for, the same night whistle I hear along the far river tracks, tangled up with the wild cry of coyotes migrating our suburban water ditches, or with the small pond of a father—just thought now, memory—bulldozed in as a refuge for the red winged blackbirds gilding the water still.
If we ask our daughters, our sons, will they remember time as we do? Know the feel of themselves beneath the stars, beneath the vast altitudinal sky with its long cycles of drought and heart rot, when they were such a part of us, pure palpitations of love at the pulse point: wrist, throat, thigh, ankle? Will they know the world as we do, then, now, a solitariness that embraces us for its single fleeting moment, and then again, and then, sometimes, if we are lucky, again, the way I am embraced by this moment, writing these words, melding past into present into utterance?
The woman kept coming back to it, the train whistle, the way I keep coming back to stars and trees and grown daughters or the mothers of dead sons, neither she nor I knowing what to do with these images, but knowing they have some kind of under life for us to hold onto, some causality beyond time and its helical axis.
I once read that a neurosurgeon named Susan Hockfield called the process of writing worse than “the squaring of a sphere.” Is this why we write this stolid world, perhaps childless now, transient or permanent, as if we, I'll use this allusion, like the souls of John Donne's A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, could some “gold to aery thinness beat”? Is it beauty then, or the idea of beauty now? The rain in drought we pray for? The train whistle in the dark? Or the bull frogs that boom in chorus from a father's pond, a wheezy thrumming, half heart beat, half exhalation I'll hear again tonight, this woman, who is now part of me, and my grown daughters and even the dead son stepping again and again with me into the gold rushes, determined to see the bull frogs' bulging throats, to touch now and now the thin mucous of their skin?
I live amidst dying trees. In the suburbs, my yellow maple died back branch by branch, withered leaf by withered leaf until I had it cut down. Now the leaves of the sunset maple by the south side of the house shrink, turn dun yellow. I inject the earth around its roots with liquid iron in hopes to stain its leaf veins green again, resuscitate what I know to be hopeless. Every week, for the past ten years traveling to this cabin, I have turned past Deckers, driven West Creek along the Hayman Burn, one of Colorado's most devastating wild fires, human-caused, whole draws of charred Ponderosa and Douglas Fir laying themselves down.
He wrote poetry; he was going to take your class; can you tell me, are his poems good? The dead son's mother keeps asking me.
Why will I not answer her?
I remember one cool evening of stars, my little griefs as I see them now—our daughters away and their father poised at his telescope beneath the drifting galaxies—this image again—while our visiting friends sipped on wine. Then the quiet after their exit—how our shadows deepened as the solid moon deepened, no longer a veil, and far off, so very far off, how the first elks with quickening desire sang out thinly, but sang out.
I want to tell her the story of the gvrini, a dirge sung by men who once scythed fields of hay to honor the dead beneath them, to score our thin mantle of earth as if some equilibrium, some rightness between two worlds could return. Les pleureuses par la voix, they call the song of scything passed onto these men, not by the women at the funerals who “mourn by calling” the listening dead, but by the women possessed, speaking with the tongue of the dead, the dead for the moment of the song finding their “temporary abode,” some permanence, I think, in the transience, this mother already her son's oracle in this shifting landscape of grief, her son sung whole in the lexicon.
“Here,” the caretaker said, this another story, a religious man meditating amidst the ghost snags of Shadowcliff, the Grand Lake retreat for the summer workshop where I once taught. All morning I had watched him slowly clear away the branches of the dead trees he mourned. “Ghost trees,” someone wrongly named the Lodgepole pines in the midst of this pine beetle infestation that has left 4 million acres of the standing dead. The caretaker marked each afflicted Lodgepole with orange tape until he cut into it, made the first notch cut to fell it true as Tom did. He wrapped each one in plastic, so that its swarm of brooding beetles, and their blue stain fungus that stops the tree resin from kicking the beetles out as they lay their eggs beneath the tree's bark, could not fly out, swarm to the next tree to begin their boring.
“Look,” he said, and held my fingers against their blue exacting tunnels, his story, until I felt them.
He was here, you know, the dead son's mother said to me one evening as she stood next to me in the campus art gallery where both she and her son had once worked, turning the lights on and off, checking the security gate, snapping the lock on when the last visitor had left. We were listening to a young man read his poems surrounded by the artists' renderings of isolated worlds—what keeps slipping past us—and she said, right here, a night like this, two years ago, he was here, she said. Here. And I remember Tom once pointing to the worn stump of a pine—do you see the fire, he asked me, and how I could see the grass, and the curve and swell of the underlying granite that held us, and then the charcoal mark from when the tree burned, but I could not see the fire.
In the language of tree cutting, the “felling cut” or “backcut,” what will finally bring the tree down, must never be continued to a point at which no holding wood remains, no story of the living tree. I go out and search the aspens left for black spots of fungus or mold or the small worms that wrap leaves around themselves like tents, shrink the footprint of the colony, let light, horizon, air in.
And you were here, the dead son's mother says to me, right here, a night like this, and I am remembering a voice now, no face I can remember, her son saying to me, my mother will be here, here, and I can almost feel his touch, time in circles, the air above the vanished aspens cool and heavy with what the scientists call virga, those small breviaries of rain that never hit ground.
I sit at this cabin table now, while this mother I knew for only a time listens for the whistle of a train threading through the dark, the saplings I held in my arms long flung down. A house wren carries one frail piece of grass after another past the kitchen window while the late summer hummingbirds pulse at the sugar feeder I've hung from the pine, the one small sweetness I can give.
This essay was previously published in Arts & Letters Issue 30 (Spring 2015)