When flowers fall

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A single, very hot and humid day – last Friday – was enough to bring the peonies to their peak of blooming, and late that same afternoon, a storm flattened them. Petals covered with age spots litter the dirt. Yesterday, walking through the meadow, I found a dock leaf brilliant with autumn, though the summer solstice is still a week away.

Gazing at Spring

Flowers bloom:
no one
to enjoy them with.

Flowers fall:
no one
with whom to grieve.

I wonder when love’s
stir us most –

when flowers bloom,
or when flowers fall?

(translated by Jeanne Larsen, Brocade River Poems: Selected Works of the Tang Dynasty Courtesan Xue Tao, Princeton University Press, 1987)


Yesterday afternoon the air lightened for the first time in nearly a week of intense humidity. I might have squandered this time in front of the computer, but fate intervened in the form of a pair of red oak trees, roots loosened by two days of torrential rains, that smashed down across our mile-and-a-half-long access road up the hollow. My parents had been heading off for an appointment, but they came back to get me. Clearing a big nest of trees is always much faster with two people: one to cut, one to toss. My mother’s bad back excuses her from this kind of work, so I handed her my camera.

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It’s always a shame to see big trees fall over in their prime, but a little knowledge of forest ecology helps put it in perspective. The toppling of individual trees advances the forest toward a mature condition by introducing valuable elements of structural and chemical diversity. The huge rootball of these side-by-side trees brought subsoil to the surface, and will collect moisture and create a unique microhabitat on the steep slope as it settles and erodes. Fallen trunks and branches are always needed to help restore soils badly damaged by clearcutting in the 19th century. And new canopy gaps provide light for saplings, shrubs and wildflowers.

A little ways beyond the fallen oaks, a tall tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) had shed one of its limbs across the driveway. This was fortuitous for me because, lacking a telephoto lens, I don’t have any other way to get a photo of a tulip tree blossom.

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Tulips, also known as yellow poplars, are among the signature species of the Appalachians. They are similar to white pines (Pinus strobus) in structure and habits: colonizing large openings, especially after fires, they grow tall and straight, overtopping the canopy. Though first-succession trees, like white pines, they can live for hundreds of years. Pioneering forest ecologist E. Lucy Braun described her visit to a patch of virgin forest in Lynn Fork, Kentucky in the 1930s, which culminated with a truly magnificent specimen of L. tulipifera.

The leaves of trillium, bellwort, phlox, spotted mandarin, buttercups, foam-flower and a host of other spring-flowering plants stirred our imagination and painted the hillsides in spring bloom. But dominating it all is the primeval grandeur of a forest. Each changing vista brings to view additional large tulip trees, each larger, it seems, than those before. And then, ahead, rises the majestic column of the “big poplar” – straight, sound and perfect, towering eighty feet to the first branch, lifting its crown far aloft. In reverence and awe we stood and gazed upon this tree, the largest living individual of its kind in North America. Such monarchs of the forest are not grown in decades, nor yet in centuries. Few but the mountain folk had ever seen it, even knew of its existence. If the people of this nation loved and revered this splendid tree as do these mountain people – they once held church service in this cathedral of Nature – its safety would be assured.

E. LUCY BRAUN, “The Forest of Lynn Fork of Leatherwood,” in American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneering Women Naturalists, by Marcia Myers Bonta, Texas A&M University Press, 1995

Unfortunately, this tree, along with the rest of that “cathedral of Nature” in Lynn Fork, was razed shortly after Braun published her impassioned plea for its preservation in Nature Magazine. The young forest that sprang up in its place was logged again a mere fifty years later.

Losses of this magnitude make mourning the passing of flowers, or even of individual trees, seem frivolous by comparison – not that frivolity is always a bad thing. Living in an era of widespread habitat destruction and the extinction of species, ecosystems and cultures, perhaps it’s wise to school ourselves in loss. But I think it’s important to retain a sense of proportion. It’s all too easy to become impassioned at the destruction of human embryos or the cruelty inflicted on laboratory animals, because these events occur at scales we comprehend. It’s much harder to get people excited about the loss in soil biodiversity as a result of chemical-intensive farming, or the loss in microbial diversity within our own bodies as a result of simplified diets and antibiotic use. Conservative commentators decry the loss of learning and refinement among English speakers while all over the globe whole languages are going extinct. And with each language perishes a universe of thought and expression, a unique way of being in the world.

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To get a sense of just how different some worldviews can be – and of how much will be lost if we let them all be overwhelmed by the global monoculture – check out the new Archive of Articles on Peaceful Societies at the Peaceful Societies website. (Since I have just been quoting from one of my mom’s books, I figure I might as well put in a plug for my dad’s site, too!) I was especially struck by Signe Howell’s piece, “‘To Be Angry Is Not To Be Human, But To Be Fearful Is’: Chewong concepts of human nature” (PDF file).

The host of different beings attributed with consciousness that exist within the Chewong universe have structurally similar qualities to humans. With the possible exception of Tanko and keoi, none is perceived as hierarchical, aggressive, competitive, quarrelsome, angry, or domineering. Neither are they brave. Humans and the rest of the conscious non-humans are shy and fearful. Of these, semantically and ideologically the leaf-people and the original people stand closest to the Chewong, while Tanko and keoi stand closest to the outsiders. On the whole, the terms bad, brave, quarrelsome, and angry are associated with outsiders, not with the Chewong or the various superhuman beings who participate in the wider Chewong social universe. The Malays and Chinese represent the prototypes of these characteristics. They are therefore to be feared and avoided. There is very little the Chewong can do to prevent the Chinese and Malays from harming them, except to stay out of their way as much as possible. Not being part of the Chewong social universe, they operate according to different rules but, interestingly, this does not mean that they can be treated in qualitatively different ways — such as be attacked. There are thus no circumstances in which the Chewong may behave in contradiction to their ideologically constructed concept of human nature. To them, the meaning of human is to be fearful, and this permeates their cosmology. Conversely, to be angry, quarrelsome, or brave marks one off as not human. Such characteristics, in effect, either prevent social relations from being established or, whenever manifested through behaviour, they cut them off.

I like the idea of fearfulness playing a formative role in developing character, because to me, fear, awe, wonder and humility together comprise a vital response to the mystery of being. I agree with the ancient authors of the Hebrew Bible that fear/awe of Whatever is the beginning of wisdom. And the complex and nuanced views held by the Chewong in regard to disease and death, the predation of other beings on humans and our own need – as they see it – to kill and eat sentient beings, strike me as far wiser than a simplistic belief in mutually exclusive realms of good and evil.


The first few fireflies have begun to punctuate the nighttime darkness. It’s funny how the addition of blinking lights makes the stillness seem so much more profound.

I remember waking at one point last night and feeling my mind poised as if to ask a question, but no question arose. It was right at the tip of my tongue… which is a fascinating expression, isn’t it? Think of them, all the words we want – perhaps already possess – but can’t quite find: there in the darkness, barely beyond the reach of our impassioned tongues.

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