The breeze is drawing little crosshatch patterns on the tidewater like skin seen from close up.
The Sound is so inaccessible but this gap feels like infinite breathing room. Big splooshes of invisible fishes nearby, and waterfowl and bald eagles. We’re still in view of housing developments but we all get a respite anyway.
There’s the universal smell of saltwater and damp ancient rocks.
In March, I started walking almost daily in it. There was no sign of spring yet, just brown and gray hillocks clustered with bare trees.
It took weeks for the small weeds clustering the floor to leaf out. This made me ecstatic. Tiny signals of spring. Little neon fingers of yellowest green began peeking out at the tops of the trees, in time, but I could still see straight through the forest to the sky, through the park to the houses.
I don’t know when it happened but the forest changed.
Maybe I walked in it less frequently for a few weeks in April, or maybe April zipped by me while I napped. But this week, I got lost several times on paths I came to know well in their brown phase.
Curious signposts were all I had to anchor me in the riotous expanse of green that was just yesterday an austere expanse of brown. A tree cut off about ten feet high, its stump shredded like a Troll doll’s hair, was my surprising signpost yesterday. I’m here? And there I was. Without that tree I would have thought I were a mile away from where I actually was, because all the other trees are masquerading as strangers. Or maybe their masks are off, now. I’m not sure which.
I’m not a parent but this must be what it’s like to watch your child grow up. Day by day, minute by minute, change is imperceptible. Then all of a sudden, the infant is running and speaking in full sentences.
Change is like that.
Today I walked six miles in sandals, which I don’t recommend, but in fairness I didn’t plan it. Once I got to the trees I turned the wrong direction on purpose and kept going. I needed it.
The wind was sowing pollen everywhere like snow, and it was gusting every which way, a mercy in the sudden summer heat today brought. Whenever I am in the trees and I feel the wind, I think of Elijah:
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13
The problem is, I stubbornly remember this passage wrong. The Lord was not in the wind, it says, but I think he often is. He’s in the silence too, and sometimes the earthquake and the fire. Wind, definitely. The Lord is in the wind. So are allergens. It’s all part of it. Having a humble, sneezy, blister-footed body is part of it.
The creek was calling to me, and I’m usually in too much of a hurry (officially running, officially walking, must get back, no time to spare!) but today, not so much. I bushwhacked a few yards and sat on a rock to soak my feet in it.
God’s in the creek, too.
The last several miles were through neighborhoods, where kids biked around in swimsuits and neighbors sat on many stoops drinking and talking at a distance. Men armed with spatulas and spray cans of OFF faced their barbecues. Groups of friends sat in large circles on lawns.
It’s coming to seem as though socializing outdoors is a lot safer than we’d thought, and indoors is more dangerous than we’d thought. The rule of six-feet doesn’t apply evenly because of airflow. Indoors, you might have the same sickly air passing you by for hours. Outdoors, it all circulates globally and winds carry it in all directions, and it’s hard to get to a dangerous concentration.
There’s something poetic about this, although I’m wary of ending with a trite, privileged optimism. But I can’t help it: I love the idea that we can all, maybe, sit outside together, even this summer, under the trees. Golden summer can still happen.
WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
I’ve started to recognize this mountain like a human face. This strikes me as odd somehow and deeply intimate, although I am not sure why. I am able to recognize city streets, freeway off ramps, curves in a trail. But the mountain, too, has a face. Each of the hulking volcanoes along the Cascades has her own face, and I start to know them all.
Rainier is the one I see daily. At roughly 8:34 in the morning as I descend St. Helens Avenue, late as always to work, there’s a moment at the old car dealership where Rainier appears. If the morning is even a bit clear, the mountain bellows from the hollow in between the buildings over the Puyallup River. I only have a few seconds of the view before the road again dips between the buildings and it is lost. But temporarily it is a riot of gold, haloed in a cloud or—on the rarest of days—crisply visible to the tip.
This is how I have memorized the ragged top of Rainier. I now recognize it instantly in photos, distinct from Hood or Baker. Rainier has that odd rounded top settled into a crevasse. Is that right? I can’t be sure. Perhaps this knowledge is partly cheating, as I see the mountain on every license plate around me daily. But I also can distinguish it from Hood – that one, a simple triangle.
It surprises me that it surprises me that I should become aware of my surroundings like this.
When I am already grumpy is when my clothes don’t fit right, when my shirt gets stuck around my ears somehow. My pockets hook around door handles, yanking me backward when I’m already rushing around. The neighbors shout and turn their TVs up and my brain can’t tune out the wah-wah-wah noises. The tea is too hot. I spill boiling water everywhere. The weather goes bad—sticky and hot when I want to run, giving me a headache, but turning chilly and clouding over when I try to sit outside with a book. Every car lays on its horn. My stomach hurts. My headphones glitch. My hair falls across my face and into my ears, feeling exactly like ants. I can’t get comfortable because the bench is too straight-backed. Even the goddamn bird song is loud and piercing.
Then I let the tea cool a bit, and I drink it down (Earl Grey with honey and milk, perhaps the best beverage). I read a paragraph over and over again, unable to absorb it because that woman in that one apartment keeps laughing, and someone else appears to be learning how to play the drums.
More tea. I finally make it through the paragraph and something in it inspires a fun detail for Book Three. I write it down. The breeze is starting to feel very nice. Birds are zooming and cooing. I think about how some people are very energized by living in a city, precisely because of these things that so often set my teeth on edge: the unpredictable, chaotic, joyful, tense, terribly human sights and sounds.
In spite of myself, I relax and I decide I’m going to make it through the afternoon.
On an unrelated note: how can we city-dwellers let out some good bloodcurdling-scream energy without having the authorities called on us?
I thought I was going to get away scot-free. It was nothing like last year yet, when I’d have coughing fits so strangling that I would be stuck with my eyes streaming until the pollen let go of my throat. It’s been rainy and cool. The trees leafed out without incident.
I thought I was safe.
But no, this allergy season is merely delayed, my friends. The pollen is falling in a thick powdery blanket of menace. It’s my fourth spring in DC, and I know what’s coming based on how grumpy and itchy I am. This is just the beginning.
My kidneys itch. My liver itches. My emotions itch. Every inch of my clothes itches every inch of my skin. It’s as though someone has sprayed quite a lot of corn starch into my throat, and put sand all over my body.
Why would they do this?
Maybe it’s the plants’ revenge, or maybe just their triumphant aria, the price to pay for how quiet they go all winter, the celebration that WE’RE ALIVE, BITCHES. After being cooped up like that, battening down the hatches in the cold and wind, I totally understand the desire to let your hair down and scream a little bit.
I just wish they wouldn’t demand that I scream along with them.
Plants, listen: you want us to be able to breathe free and clear. We exhale that yummy CO2 that you love. Let us do it freely, please?
But, really, whatever you need. I’m just glad you’re still around. I guess I can choke a bit for a few weeks in exchange for all the oxygen you make, keeping me breathing otherwise.
You’re right. I’m sorry I complained. Confetti the world with your gifts, friends.
The first thing that struck me about this place was the greenness. Remember that one afternoon hugging the bluffs over the Potomac in late July when I was 24, how green it was? I imagined God creating this place in a frenzy:
This is where He smashed His hands on the keyboard that is GREEN, playing all the notes at once and letting a thousand shades explode all over the trees.