Nature

The Trees I Planted


The best time to plant a tree is ten years ago. The next best time is today.

Fifteen years ago I dug a hole in the ground and planted that tree in the picture. It was a tiny little thing that I had to defend from the children and the potential ravages of weed whackers. There was one spring where aphids threatened to kill the entire tree, so we released legions of ladybugs on it. We planted many trees that first year in the house because we knew that someday we wanted to have shade. Life changed and shifted. We spent less energy landscaping and far more creating books. While we were not paying attention, the trees grew. They got big enough for Gleek to climb them. The shade spread to cover most of the lawn.

Yesterday I went in search of a hammock for Link. He’s wistfully asked for one more than once, and given his current doctor’s instructions to avoid sitting as much as possible, it seemed like a good time to add lounging space in the back garden. I’d seen the hammocks and stands at IKEA, they still had the hammocks, but not the stands. I brought the hammock home and strung it between a pair of trees. That tiny maple sapling now bears the weight of two kids without bending. The act of fifteen years ago blesses our lives today because I planted a tree in the right place.

Here at the Tayler house this summer represents a pause before things finish changing. All of our lives will look quite different ten years from now. I could drive myself crazy trying to figure out which things I should plant in our lives right now so that they’ll bless us later. I remember agonizing over where to plant the trees all those years ago. I pondered bush placement. I paced off expected shade radii. Some of the trees that we planted later died. Other trees I could wish in slightly different locations. It is hard to know what our lives will need ten years from now. Instead of trying to plan all of it, I just need to plant many things and see which ones flourish. Also I consult with the master gardener and listen to His instructions.

For now I’ll be out back in the hammock, breathing the scents of honeysuckle and mock orange, while swinging gently in the shade of my trees.

The World is Big

Sometimes I am so focused on the happenings inside the walls of my house, the hearts of my people, that I forget how big the world is.

It is big and wondrous. Skies like these can absorb any stress I care to throw at them.

Of course, under skies like these and with such views to see, it is hard to remember any stresses at all. Two more days of vacation. I think some of my stresses are lost in those skies forever and I’m bringing home the memory of sky instead.

Antelope Island Again

A week ago today I ran away to Antelope Island. When I got home I Gleek was very sad that I went without her. We talked it over and decided to have a special outing today. Unfortunately for us, the fog rolled in last night and it lingered this morning.

This was the view for much of our trip.

We thought that the day was going to be a disappointment, but the fog lifted in patches and we ventured out to walk in the snow. Every step crunched through a thin layer of ice and into the fluffy snow beneath. If we were walking down a slope then fragments of ice tobogganed down the surface with a skittering noise. It was a day for melancholy photography, but we felt happy.

We even manged to spot a herd of buffalo.

We stopped by Fielding Garr Ranch to say hello to the owls. I wanted to take a hike to go see the place where bald eagles congregate for the winter, but Gleek was feeling tired and wearing overlarge borrowed boots. A long hike would not have made her happy and this was her outing. Also there was the question of whether we’d even be able to see the eagles at the end or if they would be hidden in fog.

Instead I let her get a trinket from the visitor center gift shop and we stopped by the northern point of the island to bid it farewell before heading home. We have plans to come back in the spring when the island will be green again.

Running Away to Antelope Island

This afternoon I dropped all my responsibilities to go walk in knee-deep snow on Antelope Island. I have a good life full of good things, but sometimes I can’t see them as good until I run away from them for a little while. So my friend and I went to a place where the snow was covered in animal tracks and very few people tracks.

Even out at Fielding Garr Ranch, where there were people structures, most of the tracks were supplied by four legged critters. We walked out on the beach where all the sand was covered in snow. Some steps we walked along a crust on the top of the snow and it crunched under our feet. Other steps found us knee deep in fluffy flakes. We plowed our way through heading toward the water. It was only when I looked back at our tracks and they were wet that we realized we were already beyond the water’s edge. We’d walked out onto the ice.

The silence is something I always notice when out on the island. This time I only noticed it when I stood still. The rest of the time the crunching of snow and my own laughter filled my ears. It is hard not to laugh when trying to walk in the tracks left by a buffalo. His ambling steps required me to make over-long strides which probably would have qualified me for the Ministry of Silly Walks.

It was cold, a mere twenty degrees, but it did not feel cold at first. We were having too much fun exploring and making tracks. Later we felt cold, because our breaks in the car to warm up allowed the snow gathered on pant legs and socks to melt and make the fabric wet. Even then we did not mind. The cold was worth it to crunch through glittering snow, see a great horned owl roosting in a tree, see a barn owl out hunting, look at little mouse tracks across the snow, read in the circling tracks how a fox caught and ate a rabbit. We saw the fox himself later as he paused to make eye contact with a passing buffalo. There were other cars on the island, but we were the only ones to venture forth knee deep in snow.

When I close my eyes I can see the glittering snow, I feel the cold on my face, and I know I have to go back again.

Stories of Today

There have been many impressive photographs today, scenes from Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey. I’ve never been to any of these places, so I view the photos abstractly, without any personal grief attached. Before the storm I never walked that crumpled boardwalk, I never shopped in the below ground shops that now resemble a salty swimming pool. I see the subway and can ponder the feat of engineering it will take to pump that much water back into the ocean, without also having to wonder how I will manage to get to work sans functioning mass transit. Yet I look at the pictures and my brain tells me those stories. Part of me wants to capture in a story, not a description of the storm surge, but the emotion of one. This huge force beyond human control sweeps in and rearranges the lives of millions. I, three quarters of a continent away, can ponder these things because I have light, heat, health, a place to sleep, and normal work in the morning. As do many of the east coast residents, even in Manhattan. That last is a miracle of modern meteorology. We knew the storm was coming and so the people prepared.

Along with the disaster stories, today has other ones. The guy on twitter who deliberately spread misinformation during a natural disaster and then discovered that the internet had the power to unmask him. Criminal charges are likely to follow. Nerds and Geeks everywhere reacted to the news that Disney bought Lucasfilm and there will be another Star Wars movie. Thus Princess Leia becomes the newest Disney princess. The publishing houses of Random House and Penguin are merging, causing yet another round of laments (or rejoicing) that this is sign that publishing as we know it is changing forever. Some news cycles are busier than others. Stories that would normally dominate all the conversational space for days or weeks are only getting a passing glance. Ordinary stories pass untold because people were too busy focusing on the extraordinary.

My story of today had a bright blue sky and sunshine. I followed my task list, accomplished goals, and was able to appreciate how my kids are continually growing into amazing and responsible people. Today contained pieces of larger stories, some of which don’t get told on the internet because my children do not deserve the experience of having their friends read all the embarrassing things their mother wrote about them. I’m just grateful that there were no storms for me or the kids today. Instead we talked costumes and Halloween. I baked cookies.

I have cookies and three quarters of a continent away there are people who had houses yesterday but don’t anymore. Life is not fair. But I hold the memory of other stories. This is not the first hurricane, nor the first storm surged city. Years from now this will be another survival story in a city which has weathered much deadlier disasters. During next few days smaller stories will emerge from the massive damage. We will get to hear of heroes and courage. We will see people work hard overtime hours trying to put everything back together. Some small scale tragedies will emerge and somehow because the size of them is comprehensible, these small tragedies will drive home how big this storm was. There will be laughter, ride sharing, and people gathering in the street next to electrical outlets so that they can charge their cell phones. These things have already begun. This storm is done. It has left behind story fodder, whether we assemble stories of hope or despair is up to us.

The Final Day of Writers Retreat

As writing goes, this was not my most productive day of the retreat. In part my brain is tired. It is not used to having so much time allotted to writing, thinking about writing, reading research for writing, and talking about writing. It just fizzled a bit. Also a very large portion of my brain remained determinedly focused on the fact that I get to go home tomorrow.

The day did include several lovely conversations and I feel like I’ve finally come to know most of my fellow retreat journeyers. We acquired in-jokes and a shared lexicon of references. It no longer feels odd to walk into a room, sit down next to someone and just start writing without speaking first. I noticed this fact because there was a new visitor today and I found myself reluctant to intrude on him, which let me know I’d gotten comfortable with everyone else.

I did do some writing math, which is the sort of thing I do when I’m trying to remain focused on writing even though my brain is tired.
During this week I’ve written 4211 words of blog posts and 2109 words of fiction. Averaged over 7 days that gives me about 902 words per day. These numbers feel pretty paltry when most of the writers here are aiming for 2000-3000 words per day. But even before I came I knew I would not be able to measure the success of this retreat by word count. I actually had an exchange with Mary pre-retreat where she suggested I define success for the retreat.

I count as my first success that I came with a secondary success that I did not leave early. This was a seriously scary trip to take for reasons that are not logical and which I’m still trying to parse.

I got to hang out with Mary, which is always a win. I will extend that success to cover everyone who was here. I’m glad to know all of them.

I hoped to finish my draft of Strength of Wild Horses. I haven’t.

I saw a cardinal. I only saw him for a moment and only on the first day. It was like a little promise of hope. And I now know why they’re often referred to as redbirds.

I walked in the woods every day, usually more than once. I took lots of pictures.

The last measure is observing what opens up in my head when I’ve put away all the business, household, and parent thoughts. I wasn’t able to fully put them away, but I was also able to begin creating fiction. I don’t think this one is complete yet. I need to go home and step back into my usual routines in order to be able to tell what has shifted around in my head.

So tomorrow I go home. Until then, here are a last set of forest pictures taken right after a rainfall.

The vines in the forest continue to fascinate me. I was explaining to Marilyn that we don’t have vines in western forests and she answered “Oh really?” as if she could not imagine a forest without vines and moss everywhere.

Mosses also fascinate me. Especially when I got up close to them.

When you get even closer you can see all the tiny fronds.

This mushroom made me think of a dancing skirt. I could imagine it frozen mid-motion.

When I arrived almost all of the leaves were green. By today leaves are beginning to turn colors and fall. I suspect next week the whole forest will change colors. I’ll not be here to see it.

I’ll be sad to leave the forest. I’ve walked all the paths into familiarity and yet I find something new every single time.

Bits of Stories all Around

One of the reasons I like walking in the woods is because I see things that beg to be made into stories.

This little clearing was completely covered by this round leafed plant. My brain wanted to explain that the ground was somehow sacred and that I must tread lightly.

These mossy holes in the river bank look like a fairy apartment complex to me.

The structure of these mushroom caps make me think of terraced alien life forms.

I passed by this log and immediately thought of troll skin, or perhaps the skin of some long sleeping mountain giant.

And nearly running into this web across the path reminded me of the spiders and webs in The Hobbit. I’m pretty sure Tolkien met some actual forest spiders before writing that one.

A friend in a writer’s forum mentioned how good it was for writers to do right brained things, like tromping the woods or drawing pictures, instead of always being tangled up in words all the time. I agree. I need to spend time filling up my idea well. Of course a forest is not the only place to find ideas. The jug pictured below is in my room at the retreat. I’m in “Dr. Walker’s room” which used to belong to an actual turn of the century doctor. Many of his medical texts line one of the benches. Seeing them fills me with thoughts about historical medical practices. But the jug also drew my attention. I thought it was kind of cute. Then I got up close for a look. I think those may be human teeth in the jug’s mouth.

Surely these are simply baby teeth that some artist collected after they fell out, but my brain assures me that there are other stories I could tell about this jug. This is particularly true since at the moment I’m reading Mamma Day, a book which has voo doo as a plot element. For now I’m trying not to think about the story possibilities inherent in that jug since most of them are creepy and I sleep in the same room with the thing. I’m sleeping in the same room and the house is over 100 years old. The possibilities for ghost and horror stories abound. But I’ll ponder that when I’m far away back home.

Speaking of home, I miss it a lot today.

Walking the Woods

Behind the house there is a table and chairs for eating. We’ve been taking our lunches out there to sit. This is what I see from my preferred seat.

The forest beckons me, and several times a day I go wandering through it. I can label it research if I want. I’m sure that many of the photographs, sensations, and sights will make it into my fiction. The real truth is that this forest makes me happy. I very much want to take it home with me. Sadly, it will not fit into my luggage, so I’m just trying to spend as much time out walking in it as I can. Memories are easy to pack.

The variety of life here is astounding. I wish I could photograph the birds, but they do not hold still nor let me get close. I would need a camera with a more powerful magnification than what I have. Instead I capture trees and rocks which will hold still. Some of the life looks really alien.

I begin to understand “parasitic” in new ways looking at the vines climbing up these trees. Though some trees do not mind, or have grown to the point where they are too big to be bothered.

If I lived here, or if Gleek lived here, that mossy giant would end up with a name. So would dozens of other little curves of creek and dells created by dead falls. I half want to name them anyway. I can picture in my mind Gleek running out the door and calling “I’m going to the fairy glen!” Perhaps this evening the lighting will be better and I can capture that place.

I did see one forest dweller who reminded me of home.

The yellow jackets here are less aggressive, smaller, and friendlier than the ones I encounter in my garden. Perhaps this is the result of them being part of a fully-balanced ecosystem rather than the oddly misbalanced ones found in suburbs. This guy was content to ride his leaf boat while I got close to take his picture.

Now I need to settle in and write words of fiction, while trying not to be too distracted by the pair of mockingbirds who appear to be playing tag through the trees over my head.

Woodthrush Woods

Mary Robinette’s parent’s house has a name: Woodthrush Woods. I love the idea of naming a house. It gives the place an identity separate from a container inside which people live. It is obvious that this particular house has been beloved for multiple generations. People care for their houses differently when they expect their grandchildren to live in it. It makes me want to be more conscious of the choices I make for my own home, even though it is extremely unlikely that my children or grandchildren will settle there. When my house passes out of my hands, I want it to feel like a place where people were happy. Because that is true. I’d just like that happiness to manifest in more careful repairs and fewer broken drawers and dinged plaster.

Around Woodthrush Woods is a forest, which I presume is how the name came to be. I arrived in the dark last night and I knew that one of my first tasks this morning would be to go wandering in the woods. I wanted to get a feel for this place where I’ve landed. I wanted to see what the trees and birds had to say to me.

For the most part they were unconsciously beautiful, not really having much to tell. These trees have stood here a long time. The birds are more ephemeral, but they have still been here longer than I have. I was very interested in the birds since I’ve lived my whole life in the west and many of these are exclusively eastern birds. I immediately regretted leaving my bird field guides at home. I was trying to save luggage space and weight. I looked up the birds on the internet, but there is a satisfaction to flipping through pages and finding the winged creature who just flew by. The woodthrushes were the first I saw. Then I was delighted by an eastern blue jay. Eastern jays, cardinals, and eastern bluebirds are the iconic backyard birds, along with american robins. I’d only ever seen robins. When I came back east one of my big hopes was to see a cardinal.

I wandered through the trees until I chanced on a trail. It led me to a creek.

I knew there was a creek somewhere nearby and I was pleased to find it. I even hopped my way out onto some rocks, nearly dunking a foot so that I could photograph what would have been an ideal spot for pretend games or a fort.

My children would love these woods.

As usual I was fascinated by some of the tiny details of the forest.

There is a bush which has these berries. I’m fairly certain they are not good for human consumption, but the song birds do seem to like them. Walnuts cracked under my feet from the wild trees. It explained why blue jays like it here. Also under my feet was moss. We don’t get moss in Utah, not enough water in the air. This tiny growth feels magical to me and has me considering placing the house for my magical realism book in an eastern forest instead of a western one.

More thought is required, because I’m far more familiar with the feel of a western forest. Except this one feels more alive and magical to me. I wonder if it is or if unfamiliarity just makes it seem so.

I wandered my way back to the house and saw a flash of red in a tree next to the lawn. A cardinal had stopped by, like a wish of good luck for my week-long visit. I hope I see him again before I leave, but once is enough. I love being able to look up from my computer and see birds swooping from tree to tree. This is a lovely place.

Things of Today

Wake up earlier than I wanted to fix breakfast. Birthday boy requested waffles.

Drop Kiki off to take the ACT test.

Harvest two giant batches of grapes. Realize that there are just as many left on the vines.

Put first set of grapes into sink full of water to find all the hiding bugs.

Mow lawn.

Abandon lawn mower and flee when bumping Winston our gargoyle reveals that yellow jackets have taken up residence in his hollow interior.

Warn all family members and neighbors to not go near the infested gargoyle.

Retrieve lawnmower and finish all the parts of the lawn that are not near Winston.

Pick grapes off of vines. Smash grapes. Boil grapes. Strain grape juice out of skins and seeds. Put jars of juice into fridge.

Repeat.

Let kids eat left overs for lunch and microwaved frozen food for dinner.

Figure out that tying a rope to the gargoyle’s head will let us tip him over from a safe distance. Declare that 8 pm will be the killing hour for yellow jackets.

Contemplate picking more grapes. Decide not to.

Wander over to watch the yellow jackets. Think how cool and amazing they are and how they really can not be allowed to nest right next to the kids play area.

Pick two boxes of pears so that they can begin to ripen. Plan to make pear butter next week.

Stare at nothing for awhile.

Make sure all the kids are indoors, then pull the rope to tip Winston over. Go inside to observe the cloud of angry stinging bugs from behind glass. Watch Howard spray them from thirty feet away.

Summer score: Taylers = 3, Stinging bug nests = 0 Hope we can just call that score good for the summer.

Run to store for more wasp spray. Also because Link’s Sunday pants no longer fit.

Realize on the drive home that I am perhaps more tired than I ought to be while driving. Arrive home safe anyway.

Finish straining the last of the grapes. Realize our fridge is now completely full of jars of grape juice and that I’ll have to make jam very soon. But not tonight.

Tell kids to put themselves to bed.

Wander outside with a flashlight to view yellow jacket carnage. Notice how beautiful the nest is. Really a marvel of nature, which one can only observe once all the winged defenders are dead.

Tell kids that while going to bed and reading in bed are similar, they are not the same thing.

Write words about the day. Eat food. Go to bed.