No One Expects Metasequoia Glyptostroboides

I like trees. This fact will not surprise you if you’ve read this or this.

I’m not exactly sure when this relationship began. But I think it might have been in 1970, on a family vacation to California. We flew out to San Francisco and drove down the coast to LA, stopping for a few days in Yosemite, where I took 1000 or so bad photos, which are now bad and unwatched slides. And somewhere around there we also saw Redwoods.

There were many of them, I think, but not a whole forest of them. And I'm not sure but I beieve we saw one that you could drive through. I don’t really remember how they looked, exactly, or what I thought. But I remember how they made me feel. I remember being surrounded by a sense of immense age, impressed with the realization that there were beings on this earth measured in frames outside the human.   

That was nearly fifty years ago, a long time for me, a moment for them. For some reason over the last few years, I have felt a strong desire to see them again. I’m not sure why, or why now. Maybe I hope something so ancient will make me feel young again. Or maybe just a worry that they, along with so much else, may soon disappear, from erosion or drought or acid rain or who knows. Things disappear – I have learned that. But they also appear.

There is a path behind my house where I walk once or twice most weeks, for the last decade or so. The crooked tree is there, so is the straight one, and most of the others I have written about. I was walking a few days ago when I saw this one.

It’s a redwood. Not a California Redwood, but a Dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, an Asian cousin. It won’t grow as tall as Sequoia sempervirens or a large around as Sequoiadendron giganteum. But it is a redwood. A beautiful one. And it had been there, a hundred yards from my home, for years.

So keep an eye out for redwoods. My new motto is: No one expects Metasequoia glyptostroboides.

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A House of Peace

Dateline: January 2010, India

Some dear friends of ours from Delhi we have known for many years invited my wife and I to stay with them. During our visit there, I met a retired general from the Indian army

He was an uncle of one of our friends: a distinguished-looking man with a wealth of stories, a bushy grey beard and an impish sense of humour. This former military figure told me a tale of being posted some years previously to the Ladakh region of India by Pangong Lake (the local name meaning long enchanted lake) on the northern frontier with China as commanding officer (CO) of a contingent of soldiers on border guard duty in this far-away place

This elderly army man described the dramatic landscape he and his men found themselves in surrounded by high mountains and rocky ground. There were no signs of civilisation for many miles where the men were planning to set up camp save for a small roofed dwelling in their midst. It was unlived in, empty, abandoned

The junior officers suggested the general should take this one isolated building as his residence for his comfort to reflect his high rank – the rest of the rank and file would be happy to sleep in their tents but the CO declined

Instead, he proposed that this small building should be used as a divine place of worship and he too would sleep with his men under canvas

While his junior officers welcomed his proposal they politely reminded him that there might be a problem with his suggestion: among all the personnel serving in this group, there were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians – how could they share this building at prayer? It seemed out of the question with four religions sharing the same space and all under the same roof. It had never been done before

“No problem,” said the practically-minded general unfazed by this apparent impasse when he gathered his subalterns around him to give them guidance in how to use this isolated house as a proposed shared place of worship. Following him they all trooped inside and with confident gestures the general responded to their hesitancy. “In this corner, we will have the Hindus” as he indicated one corner of the interior. He turned saying “And in this adjoining corner, we will have the Muslims praying.” His officers exchanged puzzled glances but the CO carried on unhindered by these received ideas turning around to point out the other two corners which would be occupied by the Sikhs and Christians respectively

At this point, the junior officers overcame their understandable reticence in not wishing to appear insubordinate to their CO as they felt that this was pushing social cohesion among the troops too far given the unhappy and bloody history of religions occupying the same space and they made their feelings plainly known. Much discussion ensued. Well-articulated stumbling blocks were raised

The general listened patiently to what they had to say. He demonstrated sympathy to the many points of view expressed. Then, calmly but firmly he overruled their stoutly-voiced objections and his command was put into effect. The dwelling was modified to accommodate these four persuasions and holy books of the faithful and other necessary holy accoutrements were gathered in the four corners assigned to each belief and all preparations were carefully rendered sensitive to each tradition

Life carried on in this army base camp in this beautiful but remote mountainous region

A few days later, the general visited this unique place of worship where two thirds of the nearby enormous Pangong Lake lies within China and the remainder of this stretch of water is Indian territory. The CO went into the small house and he observed that some of the soldiers were inside utilising each of the four corners assigned to their respective religions and all praying simultaneously

All was well, there was harmony. The general confessed he was moved at the display of unity as he joined his fellow men under the roof of this special place

And so it came to pass that I was told a story about a house of peace high in the Karakorum of India

(First appeared on Red Room website, Dec. 2013)

 

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A Crack in the Viewfinder?

Last year, I was at the Easter Sunday service at Norwich Cathedral with a new acquaintance.  In the distance, I noticed a lady in the congregation whose face was very familiar.  "I think I went to College with her," I told my acquaintance.

She didn't miss a beat.  "Oh, that's V. – you know, she had cancer last year."

And I knew that very second that I would never be friends with my acquaintance.  Why? Because I do not want to be friends with someone who can find nothing to say about a stranger except that she'd had cancer.  She could have said that V. was a splendid cook, an outstanding gardener, an avid reader, or even simply that she was a lovely person.  At a push, "Oh, that's V. – you know, she had cancer last year and recovered by using such-or-such treatment/philosophy/herbs/breakthrough surgery etc."  Instead, she chose to describe a person exclusively by her affliction rather than by any personality characteristic she might have.  As though this woman was defined by her illness and nothing else.

It has been my experience that most people find it much easier – almost unhealthily more comfortable – to relate to another person's unhappiness than happiness.  As a literary translator, I know that it is much easier to convey grief, fear and unhappiness from another language and culture than happiness and humour.  Unhappiness travels at the speed of light.  Happiness, for some reason, doesn't.  It's stopped at every corner, questioned, analysed, its visa checked, its motivation examined and viewed with suspicion.  Too much happiness is viewed as superficial, twee, unrealistic, whereas unhappiness is frequently described with such complimentary terms as "profound", "real" and the arts programmes' favourite, "dark".  Happy endings are automatically considered flawed, while tragic or unresolved ones are worthy of respect.  Love stories that turn out happily are chick-lit, but the ones with characters battling each other's demons are more likely to win literary prizes.  When and why did we decide that darkness is worthier than the light? 

A few days ago, some neighbours were expressing their sympathy at my husband and me having to move house for the fourth time in as many years, and asked about our plans for the future.  "It's very simple," I said, flippantly.  "I'm going to buy a lottery ticket, win the jackpot, then buy a house in Norwich and an attic apartment in Rome."

Interestingly, they didn't comment on the obvious flaw in the premise of my plan.  Instead, their faces turned sad and they replied, "Ah, yes, but then when you buy a place you can end up with the neighbours from hell.  And then something always goes wrong and repairs are so expensive..."  There it was – the zooming in on a tiny crack in an otherwise perfect crystal vase.

"Not too bad..." increasingly seems like the favourite British response to the question "How are you?" and people are surprised when my reaction is, "Oh, dear, have you been unwell?"  To me, "Not too bad" implies that things could be worse but, well, they're not good at the moment.  

"A friend in need is a friend indeed" is a saying common to many different cultures, and yet it's much harder to share good news with a friend than bad ones.  People rally around you at bad news, offer help and sympathy with an enthusiasm that (I hate to say this) sometimes verges on a hint of gratitude.  They plunge into the pool of your unhappiness and swim in it for hours.  Give them a tale of success, independence and joy, and, sadly, they'll all too often walk around your pool of limpid water looking awkward, almost afraid of dipping their toes in it.

In a café, I overhear a woman at the next table talking to her sister about her forthcoming fiftieth birthday.  "It's a brilliant age," I volunteer light-heartedly, being two years her senior.  "It's when you find out what you really want." 

The woman beams at me.  "Oh, I really don't mind turning fifty.  In fact, I'm quite looking forward to it."

"Ah, that's what she says now," her sister says.  "Just wait for her to be really fifty and then she'll feel old like the rest of us."

That's what I call toxic.

More and more, I find myself drifting away even from people I love if their default setting is one of pessimism or their focus automatically on the negative.  If I can't tell them about my joy, then I will not give them the satisfaction of wallowing in my unhappiness.  They have their own.  I have no inclination to encourage Schadenfreude.  

Why do so many of us accept only a vision of a flawed, doomed world? Is there a crack in our mental viewfinder that distorts our perception?

What makes us more attuned to misery than to joy? To pessimism rather than optimism? To despair rather than hope? Why is it often easier to sink under the gravitational force of darkness rather than dare to push upwards through the clouds and stand in the sunlight?

In a world that is a resounding "YES" why do we primarily hear a stream of little "no"s?

Scribe Doll

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Enjoying Spring's Beauty

Leaving behind the twittering martins swooping over our lake and the many resting on the telephone line up our lane, Gerald took us on a springtime ride to visit a cousin-in-law and his daughter before they headed back to North Carolina. He deliberately chose roads we don't usually travel to get there.

Seeing the roadside platform placed to view the geese brought memories of a long ago stop there with my visiting cousin Doug and a grandson sitting in back in his car seat with his sister buckled beside him. Somehow unbeknownst to us when we got back in the car, an insect maaged to get under the grandson's little leg. We could not figure out why he was crying although we kept trying to correct any problem. When we finally arrived at the family cemetery where we were headed and got him out of the seat, we saw the terrible red bump on the under side of his leg and the squashed insect. Other memories of that day are more pleasant, including explaining to his not much older sister why she could enjoy but not pick the pretty flower arrnagements off the graves. That wildlife viewing platform reminds me of the sad little story that tore this grandmother up. Fortunately, the grandson survived just fine and is now teaching in Chicago, but I don't think we ever stopped again.


 

Soon we were crossing the highway over the eastern end of Crab Orchard Lake. Flully white clouds in the blue sky rounded down to the edge of the lake, and I inhaled the beauty and the peacful change from the earlier sorry memory. Springtime beauty kept increasing as we drove through the many hills and hollows with roads now lined with the silver-green leaves of the autumn olives.(Or were those shrubs Russsian olives? I don't know the difference.) Behind these short pretty little trees which are now deemed invasive, were the tall dark trees left over from winter with only a few giving us a hint of green leaves forming. The puple-pink redbud, however, was at the height of its glory, and an occasional patch of bright yellow blooming mustard plant added more color. After this bountiful blessing of roadside beauty, we arrived at the hill-top destination home out from Cobden. There we had a long and good talkative visit with Bill, who had recently suffered a serious fall, and with Glenna who was there to make sure he was taken care of as he recovers.

We left going back home a different route of hills. These provoked even older memories of when curvy Old 51 was the only way we had to go to Carbondale back in our college days. Gerald had an errand there at a favorite hardware story, and then we stopped in Marion to use one of our Christmas restaurant gift cards.

Only a couple of days later driving into Katherine's, in addition to all the early-season yard sales going on, there were dogwoods now in bloom adding white delight to the landscape along with the colorful redbuds. Many more tall trees were green with early leaves.

More recently in one of the older neighborhoods in town with its ancient bricked street that I love, I saw a large pink dogwood blooming beautifully in someone's yard. That reminded me of a lesson I learned a few years back. I like simple things, and I like old things. And I am not too good about changes. I had not grown up with pink dogwoods, so I thought pink dogwood had to be a variation some over-eager botantist had created-- just like our food manufacturers are no longer satisfied with plain oatmeal, but must now befuddle us with many variations. This wide array of choices makes going to a modern grocery mind-confusing and time-consuming. So I resented the pink dogwood as a one too many modern variation. Then I found out that I was wrong. It had been around for a long time. I looked it up just now and found that this lovely pink variety was noticed and recorded by a plant hunter named Marc Catesby in 173l.

I am now trying to remember that getting old should not make one croctehety and critical of inevitable changes that will come when needed or maybe when not. I can be grateful for caffeine-free tea for those who need it and the quick-cooking oatmeal or other products for those in a hurry—sometimes me.I can be grateful for healthier choices on our over-crowded long grocery aisles and I need to look at changes with more openess. There is an excellent smaller store with fewer and shorter aisles in town, and I often choose to go there. I am also aware that many people in small villages or poor city neighborhoods have no store that is easy to get to, and that makes my complaints about too many choices seem even more petty.

Rejoice in your blessings. Cope with your problems. And have a pleasant Easter everyone.

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