A squirrel buried a butternut, it sprouted, and grew into a promising seedling, the start of a tree. We discovered it when we went to repair the stone wall. This was improbable enough an event—a lot of nuts get buried and don’t sprout—I didn’t want to cut short this miracle of new life. Besides a fungus was overtaking butternuts in the northeast and this was a chance to help the species survive. We were also in a tree planting phase—we had purchased the cornfield behind the house and were bringing in shade.
It will need watering and protection, a workman said. Otherwise the deer will demolish it, a young tender seedling.
I had created a small French parterre vegetable garden just above the wall, the only fenced area, and decided to temporarily transplant the seedling in a corner inside this protected area until I could think of a better location.
That first year, with the help of a delivery of soil called black gold, my little garden flourished and gave us the best heirloom tomatoes: black krims, Berkeley tie dyes, and Prudens Purples. Our poblano peppers were a shiny black green and made fantastic Chile Rellenos. The following year, we decided to move the garden where it would have more sun and space and better fencing.
At first, the small garden continued as a place for herbs, then we moved that too. We pulled up the rotting sticks that had served as fence posts, tilled and seeded the small area, and were mowing it by mid summer. By then the butternut seedling was a cute baby tree. We left it where it was. The only sign of the garden that once was are the chives that continue to grow up amidst the grass, their tell tale fragrance when cut a reminder.
The landscape around the butternut evolved. We had a patio installed, planted trees and shrubs to shade it. A red oak and some birches behind the patio. A pretty weeping cherry on the northern corner, a couple of pink crabs. And shrubs, lots of shrubs. The trunk on the butternut thickened into adulthood, flourished, but for some reason the pretty crabapple nearest to it looked sickly every year, especially the side facing the butternut. Walking past it one morning, I recalled reading something about not planting nut trees near gardens and a quick online search informed me that butternuts were indeed on the list of nut trees harmful to other plantings.
Then the black fungus appeared on the trunk, disfiguring one side. Perversely the tree dropped an inordinate number of nuts that fall, more than the squirrels could manage, which meant we had to do the management. I thought the excess nuts might be an attempt to propagate its species, a will to live. However I no longer wanted this butternut, any butternuts. For one thing, with horses on the property, they were no longer a desirable tree. And its shade or the toxicity of its nuts were hurting the crabapples. Possibly also the weeping cherry. Walking under the butternut one morning after barn chores, I realized that though I had transplanted this tree, cared for and harbored it for twenty-three years, I would now have to cut it down. In the house, I mentioned it to my partner who still doubted that the butternut was hurting the other trees.
I was not at home when our tree guy took it down, and carted the wood away. It was early spring still, before flowering season, and walking up to where it once stood I experienced the relief of open space, air and sun. I was glad for the crabs and cherry. For the grass beneath. It’s August now, and the crab apples have filled out, looking better, the weeping cherry is a deep green. The horses are chewing up the clover we seeded.
The universe has been trying to communicate, but unlike Gods who speak in tongues, it has used no words, nothing called language anyway. Instead it has delivered a series of attacks in the form of action, plot, a then and then and then without a reasonable why. If you want eventfulness, I say, listen to seven-year-olds as soon as they get off the bus because wait much longer and the what and what that happened vaporizes into white noise. Failing to get my attention, the universe raised its decibels the way an irritated boss raises his voice and repeats, slower, louder, to make his stupid employee understand plain old English.
Early attacks were minor, an unnecessary toe-stub, the lingering burn of a stinging nettle, a sudden out-of-nowhere painful bee sting, a midnight misstep on steps, all easily dismissible as mere dailiness, life in the country, etc. Then I got on my bicycle for an early evening ride on our winding country road, and the brakes seized. I had some warning that they were flaky—it’s an old Walmart bike—temporarily, I assumed, since they’d been dysfunctional before; in fact, the back brakes haven’t worked since last summer, but this time, feeling the front brakes suddenly completely unresponsive when I went into a turn, I hopped off just as the bike went over. With one foot more or less on the ground already, it was not the kind of full-on over the handle bar toss that such a balk could produce. A car was coming and the driver, seeing my troubled attempt to make it to my side of the road, slowed. Her brakes fortunately worked. The truly terrible had not taken place. Still, I refused to get on the bicycle again, even after we untangled the brake lines. But I also didn’t think much about it though I was raised to pay attention to such things, seek meaning. At age twelve, laughing hard when my older sister tripped suddenly, and fell comically, I went tumbling after, Jack and Jill style, I had no doubt that this was retribution, immediate payback, much like the quick flick our mother administered (she was from another era and culture) when we got out of line. But that was fifty years ago. I’ve lived with an unbeliever, someone raised on science, for whom the words sin and fate and karma are practically obsolete, and went about the next days the usual ways, thinking only that I would need another bicycle.
A week later, on the Taconic, a tree dropped in front of my car. Too late to stop and no where to swerve, still on cruise control, I crunched over and through the pile of trunks and branches. The car swayed drunkenly, I held on to the steering wheel to stay straight and upright. It did not stall, a Subaru, and then the rain really got going and I postponed stopping to see the damage. At some point, a lighted message came on to tell me the wind washer fluid was low, so the line must’ve broken. When I turned off the Taconic, getting closer to home, a message about headlight steering unavailability came on. By the time I pulled into my driveway half an hour later I realized I could’ve been killed. If I had tried to stop. If I had swerved. I could’ve lost control of the car. I could’ve caused a pile up. Staying the course probably saved my life. When I called the insurance company, the agent asked whether the airbags had deployed, and I realized I hadn’t even thought of them. There had been no direct impact. The car had not been stopped. We, the car and I, had kept on.
This was on the July 4th weekend. Body shops and car rentals would be closed until Tuesday. I was going no where for a few days. I felt some aches and pains and planned on a chiropractic session to set me right. More significantly, I was asking questions, wondering what this was about. What was I meant to hear or know or learn? Had I wronged someone? Was my time on earth used up? Some weeks later, when I told my sister about the tree incident, her first response was you must have done something really good. Perception is everything. Though we were raised in the same family, with the same Old Testament God, hers is somehow gentler: she acknowledged the miracle of what didn’t happen rather than the punishment of what did.
I could’ve been killed, but I wasn’t killed. I wasn’t even really hurt. So was this a warning that I was nearing an end? We are always moving toward some end: entropy begins immediately after birth. Our cells grow and age from hour one. I’m nearing 62, fully cognizant of the signs of age, aware of what I can no longer do easily, but since I did not die, my time and entropy, continue for now.
Tuesday morning, the car was towed to a local auto body shop and a rental arranged. In the afternoon, I drove south on the Taconic, looking at the tree tops, where they leaned toward the road, over the road. I changed into the left lane, then seeing overhead branches leaning on my left, switched back into the right lane. It wasn’t until my return, a few hours later, that I looked for where exactly it happened, some signs of the branches, if not on the road itself, then on the side of the road. There was nothing.
I drove past the location again the next day—the Taconic is on my commute— and found no sign of the fallen limbs, not on the road and not on the grass beside it. Seeing nothing, I suddenly had a strange momentary feeling that the “accident” had never happened. If no one hears a tree fall in the forest, epistemologists once asked, did it fall?
For early philosophy “nothing is not;” for metaphysics, the concept of nothing is difficult. Genesis delineates the state of the world before creation as tohu vavohu, and Midrash explores the phrase as the concept of nothingness. But the verse opens with earth as subject (“And the earth was without form and void”), with the presence of earth, which means we are already beyond nothingness. Even Sagittarius A, the black hole recently seen on camera, exists, which is to say it is something. It may be chaos, it may be without form and void inside, but it is not nothing.
And I did see the tree, if too late, and heard and experienced going over and through the pile of limbs, and felt the aches and pains, having been jostled. I also had physical proof: the front end of the car was damaged; cost of repair was estimated at $10,000. However the silver Toyota rental that replaced the silver Subaru usually in my driveway was not damaged. Human perception is so ephemeral and subjective, the senses so impressionistic, it was possible for me to doubt my own experience, my memory, if only momentarily. Momentary memory. Now the event of the accident, which happened in a moment, is layered over by the momentary erasure of the event. Both are true in their ways, both were felt, experienced.
Then a deer sideswiped the right hand front corner of my rental. I didn’t see the deer come or go. It must’ve been small and the SUV is bulbous, with multiple blind spots built in. I knew it was a deer because some of its hair was stuck on the broken bumper. The sound of the collision was hard enough I hoped the deer died right away, that if its time had to end, it was at least mercifully quick.
Filing a new claim with the insurance company, scheduling the tow, arranging and picking up another rental—this second time around had a feeling of routine about it. I knew what to do. I knew what would happen first, second, third. I was on repeat. This second event was so close in time, only two weeks after the first one, memory was still sharp and it made me efficient. The collision happened Friday afternoon. By Saturday afternoon, the damaged rental was gone and parked in my driveway was a Ford, also silver, smaller, better-made.
The ease of replacing one car with another was both relief and horror. I was feeling jinxed, afraid to drive again, afraid of my destructive capacity. I spoke of burning a sage bush, performing some kind of exorcism.
Bad things happen on the Taconic, several friends said, and I too now avoid it. Built in 1940, a scenic parkway through the rural Hudson Valley, it was not designed for volume or high speed. The posted speed limit remains at 55. I had been setting my cruise control to 60 to avoid speeding, and still every car on the road passed me despite the multiple cops on the lookout, ticketing daily, not just at the end of the month. Even 55 doesn’t allow for a quick stop when you come upon a tree sprawled around the next bend, or a startled deer on the run. Animals, I read, have a tough time surviving habitats broken up by roads and other human interventions. Fragmented forests and wetlands, it turns out, are also not effective as carbon sinks, which is to say making the world less habitable for wildlife puts us at risk too. The natural world, we know, will survive in one form or another; it will not return to nothingness, but it will more than likely continue without homo sapiens on earth. The extinction of human life on earth rattles some more than others.
Several evenings later, the sound of cracking wood on my left made me turn and look. In the wetland across the road from my house, a branch in full leaf peeled off a large maple. It was not raining, it was not even windy, and no one was in harm’s way, but I was there to hear and see it. It could just as easily have happened without my being there to hear and see it. Knowing what we now know about the wood wide web, the interdependency of young and old trees, the way they provide for each other in need, makes the question of whether the unseen and unheard really happens seem absurd, way egocentric, too centered on human life to qualify as any kind of truth. Even if I had not heard the branch fall, the tree and the surrounding trees would have felt it, or known it, in their own version of consciousness, whatever that might be. Things happen all the time, whether or not a human is there to hear it.
The following Sunday, after a brutally hot day that required two dips in the pond for me, showers and spongings for the horses, a second shower for me, suddenly around five, a cooling wind blew in, the temperature dropped, but the predicted thunderstorms didn’t arrive. Not here anyway. Across the river, I heard the next day, a tornado ripped through some towns, felled trees. Posts on the Commuter Taconic Parkway FB group I joined reported multiple trees down, one on top of a car, crushing it, making my experience feel less extraordinary, almost everyday given the frequency of sudden thunderstorms. Still, I opened my drawer of ribbons and tied a red remnant from Christmas around my wrist. The real thing, a piece of the blessed red string purchased at the tomb of Rachel, is on its way to me, via snail mail.
Some days later, on Salt Point Turnpike, a deer came sprinting across the road in front of me. Seconds later, her fawn skipped after her. I was doing 40–I’m keeping it slow and local these days—and braked easily. No one was hurt.
The road is long, winding, shaded by tall black cherries, sugar maples, the occasional surviving butternut. Busy abelias, the weed like shrub whose berries attract raccoons, grow faster than they can be cut down. Cattle once grazed the lower level fields; the steep upper hills are still hayed. This valley rests between two ridges of the Taconics. Snow melt from the hills above runs down the mountain through culverts under the road, into the stream on the other side. Sounds of rushing water accompany the cruising cyclists who favor this rural stretch, woosh of tires on macadam. Bikeathon weekends bring snippets of the things they say into the house, to my bed, or desk, or front porch, wherever I happen to be working that morning, their voices arriving ahead, then trailing behind.
I have been doing my regular mileage on this road, on foot, these last 20 years. Winter weather is limiting and makes early spring sprints celebratory. After months of stark white, fresh pale green shoots bring joy. Last spring, a mile or so down the road a green too dark for May caught my eye, and seeing it again on my return, I stopped to look and pulled out a 3-part plastic christmas tree with strings of lights still attached, the electric wires and plugs trailing after. Also several white kitchen appliances. I dragged all of this up roadside, and eyed the pile. One or two recycling bags should do it. At 50 cents a bag, a cost of one dollar. I would stop on my weekly trip to the dump.
I picked up running again, but the spring in my legs had gone. Who would do such a thing? What kind of person? How angry would she have to be? A mile later, still trying to understand, I found myself resorting to the fiction writer’s craft: a switch of point of view, the perpetrator’s. I was trying for ten good reasons to dump that plastic tree over the berm. I had the first one: This land is my land. My ancestors farmed it.
Of course counterarguments were readily available: the Mohican tribe that once lived in these parts could say the same thing. I decided not to go there. I was trying for a second, third, fourth reason, but they all came down to the same thing: We were here first, though this required dismissing the first firsts.
It was a busy spring and I didn’t get around to doing the dump run right away. When work on the old barn on my property began, we rented a 30-yard dumpster for the accumulated trash that had come with the place: old iron headboards, twisted aluminum rain drains, rusted machinery, rusted cans of dried paint, rusted lamp stands, tires, rotted wood, rotted hay, and more. The concrete floor that had buckled under some weight more than twenty or thirty years before had to be jackhammered to pieces. More refuse was discovered underneath the crumpled concrete, inciting plenty of disgust. The Christmas tree, I told the workmen, would also have a place in the dumpster.
In the old days, one workman said, farmers buried trash they didn’t know what to do with. Whenever we dig on our family farm, we find something. An old alternator turned up in the garden.
I have heard this anecdote often enough to understand it as a trope rather than fact.
The excavator who arrived for a meeting informed us that it is still legal to bury your trash. Plastics, metals. Any household garbage.
We were appalled. He confirmed it. Personal experience. Though he owns a Kubota and could easily bury things on his property, he paid to have his own trash removed. His neighbor, however, buried a junk pile and an inspector he called informed him it was still legal on one-family farms.
This information revived my stalled list. I added reason #2: It’s what our fathers did.
The next day, running again, I noted that the christmas tree and appliances had been tossed back into the field, probably by the town highway department, mowing roadside. They didn’t mind or at least didn’t protest this inappropriate junk in the field. I considered the deer and fox, possum and hogs and skunks, the locals who live here. They weren’t losing sleep over this pile either.
We all know by now that plastics are killing marine life. A new kind of rock material formed by melted plastic trash mixed with sediment has been discovered on Kamilo Beach in Hawaii. Geologists are calling it plastiglomerate or clastic. Reports of a flotilla of plastic garbage the size of France, estimated to weigh over 80,000 tons, afloat in the North Pacific appeared in a variety of media. A Dutch group is said to be raising and spending millions in an effort to collect this flotilla. The non profit Ocean Voyages Institute raked in 40 tons of fishing nets and consumer plastic garbage from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Townships and counties everywhere outlawed single use plastics only to have to bring them back this Covid-19 spring.
At some point it occurred to me that the Christmas tree and tangled lights and appliances might be safer here, in our nearby fields, a blight that hurts no one. Collecting and dropping it off at the town dump, meant sending it onward, to a fill far away, to pollute elsewhere, a place less advantaged, where the locals are likely too poor to purchase such throwaways. Given the costs and compromises involved in the recycle program, I started questioning whether the town dump itself still makes sense. Without the town dump though we’d be back to the old farmer’s way: burial. But if everything we throw away has to be buried where we live, we might begin living more responsibly, begin buying less. Consumerism shouldn’t be easy. With these ideas, my list of ten was flourishing.
This Spring, when the snow melted, I picked up running again. It’s May again now, we have been staying home to stay safe, and the country is thinking about how to open. In the meantime I have been seeing the Christmas tree and its tangled company in the field. Soon it will be camouflaged again by the splendor of green that spring and summer bring.