Maple Grove, 13 February 2021
We’re in the part of every winter that is so cold the furnace kicks on in the middle of the night, no matter how low you’ve set the thermostat. Hackelia is spread over the snow spiderlike. In spring, its broad and bright green basal leaves were suspicious, so healthy so early. In summer, it was beguiling with infinitesimal flowers of singular beauty, no more than a couple of millimeters in diameter, each with five petals, thick at their bases with nectaries, alternating with needlelike sepals that you barely notice. In fall, the plant showed its hand, tugging gently at your arm as you walked past, leaving a line of stick-tights in your sweater and socks, sometimes hardly seen against the carpet of brown leaves even if you know better. Your jeans may still be in the basement waiting for an evening to pick the burs out individually; they won’t come out on their own. But now, in winter, it is alone, arms extended, and it has either given up its fruits or is lone like a bur oak, and has run through as much as it can do in a year, has grown old and brittle in a growing season, somehow still retains its form, not pressed but freeze-dried. This is a weed’s way of becoming old and wise.
With the leaves fallen and the plants dark against the snow, the diseased ashes and maples are obvious, and the old oaks overgrown with brush that 150 years ago stood out in the open with fire running under them every year or two. The trees need us, in the way that we need bacteria: they need us to be good. We have failed to do so, have spent 20,000 years on this continent hunting enormous mammals to extinction, managing forests at times well, at times miserably, always self-interestedly. We have not been good to other species that we know well, the maples and ashes and oaks and mammoths, which might be understandable if you took Genesis at its word. But I don’t, and most of us don’t, yet still we’ve done such a poor job. We haven’t even done all that well to one another: enslaved and expelled our distant cousins, passed on smallpox, passed over in conversation. We’ve been given one small job as humans that makes us different than all the other animals: be good. One job. And we’ve failed to do it all that well.
Saturday morning before my walk out to Maple Grove with Brooklyn, I read an interview with Maya Angelou from 1990, the year I was 20 and knew so little but thought I knew it all.
I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad.
That’s how it is, isn’t it? I walked through Maple Grove with Brooklyn, and she was being a pill. She wouldn’t keep walking, kept sitting and looking backwards, rolling over onto her back instead of walking. And I was a short-sighted, miserable human being for much of our walk, tugging her and impatient, though I really didn’t have anything I absolutely needed to do, so what was my hurry? None. But I wanted to hustle along, and she didn’t, and so we found ourselves near the end of the walk at odds.
At some point, we ended up coming down slope and weren’t quite on the trail yet, the snow being deep enough that I wasn’t quite certain whether we were on the footpath we typically take, and I realized that we were standing in front of the most beautiful sugar maple bole I’d ever seen in my life, a magnificence of texture and color. It was tectonic beauty, architectural. I could have disappeared into that bark.
That was all. We walked home.