Sunday, November 8, 2009
The land we live on was logged like much of Western Washington. Near 90% I read recently. We have 2 old growth cedar stumps in the back of our property, that attest to the giants that once stood here. They are now “nurse stumps” and support nearly full sized cedar trees along with ferns , shrubs and perennials. Nature wastes nothing, especially time. Trees that fell 2 years ago in a tremendous wind storm are covered in a pelt of moss from which sprout young ferns, perennials and even little trees. I adore these trees as much as I adore the ghosts of the giants that once stood here, their knuckled stumps like monuments to fallen heros. I wonder where that wood went, if it exists in any form: a shake roof, a fence, a garden shed.
Sufi mystic Serif Catalkaya, who Michael and I had the good fortune to spend some time with, used to say that a tree was not useful until it became a chair. This riled the hackles of this wilderness adoring and protecting American. How can he say that? It was a metaphor I know for human nature, it needed to be sawn and hammered and sanded and varnished into something useful, something of service. Though I bristled at the metaphor I had to admit I have a lot of wooden chairs, a wooden floor and a wooden house. And a wood burning stove.
And lately we’re burning on a daily basis again. Alders that had dieD on our land, a cedar that a friend removed to get more light, and an old apple tree from a client’s garden.. It drives the damp out of our lives in this foggy valley. It gathers us all --2 dogs , 2 cats, 2 men -- into the living room each evening, where I nod off earlier and earlier each night. I like to blame it on the wood fire sucking all the oxygen out of the room.
Michael laughs, “ In this drafty old house?”
I don’t want to admit I ‘m getting older. A day of hard outdoor work this time of year wears me down a lot quicker than it used to. I must admit I’ve been a grumpy old man lately. Nothing seems to fit right, to work right. I hate these moods that come in with the darkening days of October and set up camp in November. They require a different diligence than the busy sun-filled days of summer. On the prompting of my yoga instructor, Kelley Rush of “Two Rivers Yoga”, I am doing a thankfulness practice. I have been introducing thankfulness into my small daily activities. When I make the morning pot of tea for Michael and I, I remember the woman at Pars Market who sold us the tea, I imagine the many hands that brought the tea to us. I think of the small delicate Ceylonese hands -that’s how I imagine them, because I dated a Ceylonese man who had the most brilliantly delicate nature and the smallest hands I had ever seen on a full grown man- that picked the green leaves of the tea tree (Camellia sinensis).
This probably seems like a lot of thinking and thanking for a cup of tea. Part of the magic of this process is that it all happens in a flash of thought, in a nano-second pause in the doing. This morning I took it a step further, thanked the living tree that captured the sunlight in Ceylon, where I bet it is like summer all the time. I even thanked the sun, which we rarely see these days, but which enters and energizes me like it were here in this cup of tea.
Then I returned to the fire. It’s a rainy cold Saturday, so we’re having a morning fire.
“What is fire? “ I asked Michael once. Thinking him more the scientist than I, I was sure he would have some good explanation. All I got was a dumb-founded look and, : “What kind of question is that?” He paused never feeling comfortable with not having an answer and then continued, “Fire is fire.” He didn’t know.
I have a stubborn 3-year-old sort of mind, So I decided to ask someone who might know, Google. This what I found:
"Fire is the rapid combination of oxygen with fuel in the presence of heat, typically characterized by flame, a body of incandescent gas that contains and sustains the reaction and emits light and heat."
It sort of takes the magic out of it. I like to think of wood as “bottled sunshine”. After all the trees are absorbing energy from sunlight - fire- and converting it to cellulose. (Do your own google search on photosynthesis). On a day like today when the sunlight is spongy and gray we can release, like the genii in the bottle, the summer sun in our living room.
When I think of the generosity expressed, I return to Sherif Catakaya’s metaphor of a tree becoming a chair. Of a tree becoming fire, becoming warmth.
Serif Catalkaya once asked us, “Do you think the sun is a ball of fire?”
We sat mute. Was this a trick question?
He pointed out the window on that particularly sunny spring day filled with blossoms and birds, “ It is the love that makes all life possible.”
In my parsimonious Lutheran up-bringing, sun-worshippers were the enemy, look how the Egyptians are portrayed in the Bible. In our modern parlance a sun-worshipper is some one who tans a lot, or vacations in Mexico. I,myself, cursed the sun this summer as it pelted us with hotter and hotter rays, sapping the very life out of my body. I don’t know how people live in deserts,or why so many religions were born there.
I am not a religious man, though I find religions fascinating. I do believe in one unitive principle, whether you want to call it God, or Allah, or Quantum Physics, is up to you. And though I believe this, these humongous concepts are bafflingly unapproachable to me. That’s when I become a pagan, or a least long for the time when everything was a deity, when the world was magical, alive.
I love thanking the tea leaves each day. And as I crouch next to the wood stove prodding a log into flame, as I release the suns energy from this seemingly inert piece of matter I feel I am involved in a ritual, coaxing a small god to offer comfort. Maybe I am a fire-worshipper, a Zoroastrian.
When we were in India a few years ago we went to Varanasi, where the Ganges turns north for a few miles. It is a high holy place for Hindus. Not far from where we watched a rather theatrical “Agni Pooja” in which both the sun and fire are worshipped, are the burning ghats. Hundreds of bodies are brought there each day for open air cremation. Michael and I watched as attendants prodded burning bodies with long poles coaxing flames into what seemed more like smoking and smoldering logs than bodies. Bodies are burned there continually, 24 hours a day, for thousands of years. As we watched body after body being burned a strange beautiful tranquility came over us as if all our earthly worries were being sent up in that smoke, like temple incense, like the plume from our chimney.
Though I know some of you would disagree I like to think of myself as a quiet, inward man.” A bump on a log” is what my mother used to call me when I would stay on the sofa all day reading books. So I developed the habit of going for walks very early. Slow, quite walks along the railroad tracks, or to Jacobus Park along Honey Creek in Milwaukee. Now I am lucky to have landed in a park-like setting where I can easily slip into boots and walk. I walked today around our little farmstead, petted the moss pelted logs that fell a few years ago, called it green flames in my head knowing the kinship between digestion and fire. I walked along the swollen river, once a loggers highway from the Cascades to the Sound. I was thankful it wasn’t flooding, and to lend poetic justice to the moment the sun broke through the clouds and ignited the golden poplars into flame.