Five flavors of happiness

Friday I submitted a piece of writing an hour before my deadline, and Brooklyn and I took the opportunity to wander through Maple Grove. I was a little dazed from the previous few days of writing and meetings. Results of the election weren’t in yet, and I was in a fog about that as well. We all were. I stopped repeatedly to watch the straggling leaves gyring downward from the maple canopy. Each senescing leaf is a community of lives—leaf cells of all kinds, mitochondria and chloroplasts, fungi, insect chewers and borers and gall-makers, bacteria, inert spores of mosses and ferns—who know their leaf like we know our neighborhoods. Some never step off the edge of the leaf, but arrived unwittingly or were born there. They may release their progeny to another place. If so, they “know” only as species or lineages can know things what the vastness of the world is. As individuals, they cannot know, even less than I could imagine what the world beyond my neighborhood was like if I were to walk to the perimeter to shop, always cook in my own kitchen, stand by St Joseph Creek in the evenings and watch the water flowing by from I-could-only-imagine-where, on to I-could-only-imagine-somewhere-else, and wonder about all the lives in the commuter trains passing by at intervals. And my children would go off to college, come back and tell me about the world beyond the edge of my neighborhood, and I would translate it all into the shapes and sounds I knew from this place. I would know more than a fungus living inside the leaf that falls and piles up on the forest floor, vastly more in a sense: but only as far as rationality could take me, rationality and imagination.

Brooklyn is not given to these kinds of thoughts. She watches me when I do not move for long and is anxious, I imagine, but probably only because of how she is connected to me and our family as a good social animal. I don’t really know what she thinks. But I see how she behaves. She roots in the leaves, and the worlds rustle around her snout and are dispersed by her and given oxygen as she moves them around. The leaves pile dry and as thick as a down comforter. I lie on my stomach to look through the edges of the duff and consider, as I often do, my life if I were a mouse, and I were making my home for winter. This is what I would know: the edges of leaves, the blue sky beyond, the cracking of a tree at night, dark sky with stars, the dark warmth of the nest like the warmth of my brothers and sisters curled up beside me, hunger, satiety, the silence of night, the soft wind of morning waking me up.

The colors are still changing in Maple Grove. I notice above all the yellow of honeysuckle, most of it Lonicera maackii I believe. In some parts of the woods, this is all the color you see at firest, and the globes of yellow scattered across in the open understory have a beauty that belies what this shrub can do untended. Saturday we spent much of the day cutting Lonicera out of a wooded edge at Lyman Woods, and the effect was magnificent: the trail, once daylighted, looked out on a lake blanketed with geese, clouding over with smoke from the woods burning across the way. The election results rolled in as we worked, and this, like all such changes, sharpened the margins of everything in view. Stopping work and looking, I had a feeling like that of stepping out of the car in the northwoods or in the mountains, turning off the engine, and breathing. Everything feels different, and everything seems possible.

The sedges are yellowing. The blackberry leaves are red. The carrion flower is yellow. The burning bushes glow a fading pink. They are alone and out of place and seem not to know it; perhaps they will not be out of place in 10,000 years. Zig-zag goldenrod leaves are red, or yellow, or green, or yellow with green veins spreading through them like a map of channels spreading out through an estuary. An unexpected slime mold bleeds orange on a rotting log.

A sugar maple has broken off at 15 feet up and cracked open against the ground, bleached xylem spilling out and filled with white-rot, soft and nearly as resilient as sponge-rubber, stringy-white, a red shelf-fungus clinging to a shard of bark that had torn off on impact. The standing bole was split open. Mouse castings spilled out through a crack expanding to about an quarter-inch in width at eye level, and inside were tangles of caterpillar silk and crumbles of rotten wood, still structural, but breaking into smaller and smaller blocks, feeding the woods, relinquishing the past, rolling time backward. They are decomposing manuscripts. They become useful in new ways.

The joy in accomplishments is fleeting, and appreciated best as you continue working. We have from our work the joy of our work. Trees rot, works rot, civilizations crumble. But we get to be human for almost a hundred years if we are lucky, and in our work is so much happiness, the joy of accomplishing something on our own or together. Here’s to the next four years.

13 thoughts on “Five flavors of happiness”

  1. May I read the portion of this about the “world on a falling leaf” — the community of organisms on the senescing leaves passage at my upcoming Forest Therapy walk at the Arb on Monday. So cool! I would credit you of course!

  2. Again, this is beautiful, Andrew. What a gift for me, reading this intimate insight to the minute wonders of nature. Yes, here’s to the next four years! Thank you so much.

  3. Garion and I have been exploring the world at mouse level lately, and in doing so I’ve become his age again. It’s reminded me of the infinite angles in which we can observe nature, and as a consequence, life itself. Over the years my relationship with nature has ebbed and flowed, but it has always evolved. I think as children we’re instinctively close to nature, at least in a basic sense. But then, for a time, we drift from it, and the eternal song of the thrush fades beneath man-made din, its effect lost in our busyness. In a way, we no longer sense the universe inside us. Lately, as I’ve gotten back to the “things that matter,” I’ve started to see and hear more thrushes again, and those infinite angles are popping up everywhere. I guess I’m reabsorbing of the universe, so to speak. With that, and with the tension of the last four years beginning to dissipate, I think I’m happier than I’ve been since childhood!

    P.S. – Great post. It (obviously) got me thinking!

    1. Jay, thank you so much for your thoughtful words. I think you’re right: we are born with eyes open, and little by little we focus on this thing or that, and we stop seeing as much as we grow older our view narrows. We could all stand to reabsorb a little more of the universe.

      Thank you again. Take care, and enjoy the weekend.

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