Falling Away

Small, golden leaves drift and spiral into the front garden from the honey locust trees, sentries in the median round the flat corner lot. Wearing long pants and short sleeves, I brunch on the aqua vinyl cushions, seduced and recalling snow. It is well into the seventies, and most of the neighborhood’s canopy is only hinting at their coming display. By the grace of some long-ago planter and the last-come, first-go nature of locusts, I have a private autumn.

A stab of trepidation surprises me as I discover the look of contorted, soot-black branches against the moody sky. Is this how a prophet feels when a vision of the yet unknown asserts itself? I could post a warning on the fence: Look up! Emptiness is coming! Practice letting go before it’s too late!

Round back, the largest Siberian elm has lost a limb. A turbulence of cloven hooves and leather wings leaped and swooped through the neighborhood at pre-dawn last Thursday, and carelessly tumbled it. The descent must have included an acrobatic bounce, because it landed across the fence even though it once extended across the sidewalk in the opposite direction.

The limb was one of three which formed its broad crown, rolling shade across the back yard in perfect counterpoint to the sun’s arced passage. I always knew the tree would have to come down some day. It’s warily branched and weak from disease. Now, missing the streetside limb, it seems to list toward the power line to the house. I will have to consult someone. I love the tree too much to make the decision too hastily and on my own.

I couldn’t deal with the limb the day it came down, nor the next day for that matter. I had too much scheduled, some things I couldn’t change. Work. Appointments. Taking my dad to see a behavioral therapist and his doctor. A much anticipated evening of laughter with friends.

When I got home the second evening, the sidewalk was passable, and there was a note on the front porch: “I will be over in the morning to help finish cleaning up. Jim”. I darn near wept. And sure enough at 8:20 AM, I grabbed loppers and gloves, drove the pick-up round to the mess, and he was already whittling things down to size. In a couple of minutes, Jim’s wife, Jo, joined us, and we had the limb stripped, bucked, and stuffed in the pick up in just an hour.

“How’s your dad?” They wanted to know.

“Not so great.” The honest answer.

All the report said was “significant cognitive impairment”. A full neuropsychological evaluation was recommended. For an 87-year-old guy, he’s quite physically well. His spirit still sparks, too. But his mind is falling away.

Today, though we drove just blocks from the gardenhood, to another appointment, I avoided the temptation to detour and show him the place. The drive had been confusing enough, and a diversion might have stressed him to the point of losing the clarity we’d been granted to share. As we got nearer his place, descending a hill, Dad sang. “Down in the valley, the valley so low.” I joined him. “Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.” We sang two verses, and those blue eyes, now the color of autumn sky where it pales to meet the horizon, caught mine in recognition. We still have time to practice.

We might try this old hymn:

For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies…

For the beauty of each hour of the day and of the night, hill and vale, and tree and flower, sun and moon, and stars of light…

For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind’s delight, for the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight…

For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child, friends on earth, and friends above, open hearts both sweet and wild…

Holy All That Is we raise this our song of grateful praise.

For Cynthia

Look up anywhere in this neighborhood, and you’ll see a varied canopy. Green waves in every shade from chalky jade to emerald city to key lime. Forms stitch a crazy quilt –spiked  spires, rounded domes, and broadleafed pyramids — all bordered, with a changing sky.

Fruits appear in all sizes, too: brown papery cones dangle from the top-most branches of blue spruce (for who would plant a regular old spruce in Colorado), lapis berries snuggle in juniper fronds, crimson and gold orbs ready to shower from the crabs.

Here, volunteering on the fenceline between my house and Cynthia’s, an  American plum. Its flowers took no notice of May freezes, and now it’s hung all about with olive-shaped fruits, the only uniform feature of its wild form. The fruits, more pit than flesh, have turned a tempting orange-yellow, their next to last stage of ripening. When they show a bit of ruby, we’ll find out who sees first, the squirrels or me.

These are the burnishing weeks, leaves achieving their most mature verdancy before shutting down chlorophyl production and letting their autumn colors show. A few twigs on the honey locust guarding the medians of the flat corner lot, already flash a brilliant amber to signal the coming riot of hues.

Chatting next to the plum, Cynthia and I ignited an anticipation for the glory to come — especially on the corner where Bea used to live. There, an autumn purple ash arches in all directions. An unassuming green on a typical deciduous tree form, by month’s end it will be a car-stopping wonder, spangled in vermillion, rust, and burgundy.

Then, Cynthia extended an invitation I couldn’t refuse: Would I take a group of friends on a walk through the neighborhood, naming trees, and join them afterwards for a celebration of our woody neighbors? Heck, yeah.

This past Sunday, me walking backwards down the alley to the north of our houses and up the walk to the south, we took our tour. From her backyard we could see already seven different species. Down the alley, peach, apricot, and plum growing without human attention, astonishing everyone. It’s almost always enchanting to take an intentional look at what is all around.

I composed a list of things I so deeply appreciate about trees, and offered it during our celebration as a call and response. Following each appreciation, there was a collective intake of breath, and we exhaled thanks. You can, too, if you like.

For pausing us in our labors, lifting our eyes to the sky…

For agreeing to grow where humans, birds, bears, squirrels, and wind plant you…

For playing with light and making shade…

For bearing fruits and seeds, feeding all the mobile creatures above and below…

For letting the fox dare to climb and giving the squirrel a chance to climb higher…

For your steadfast presence through night, storm, and winter…

For your innocent part in the darker lessons humanity must learn…

For your suffering that humanity might awaken…

For dropping your leaves, limbs, and trunks that the seen and unseen might feast them into humus…

For partnering with the stone people, brother wind, and sister rain to make soil…

For sending your roots far, mingling with each other, that we might feel community under our feet…

For all who perch, prowl, reproduce, forage, sleep, sing, and travel in your bark and branches…

For breathing out what we breathe in and breathing in what we breathe out…

For dancing, subtly and in wild abandon, while staying in place…

For giving every part of yourself that we might have fire, furniture, houses, boats, tools, toothpicks, spoons, sponges, paper, and clothes…

For throwing apples at the little girl and her friends, somewhere over the rainbow…

For turning sunlight into every shade of green, whispering to the calm in our souls…

For your many forms, all beautiful…

We give thanks.