Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Art of Change - The Christmas Tree

In 1980, my grandmother – the original Maryjane – gave me a few boxes filled with some of her favorite Christmas tree ornaments that she had collected over the years. It was my first Christmas away from home. Most of the decorations were metallic, colored balls with frosty glitter – some with scenes, others with traditional holiday greetings and my favorite ones had musical notations.

At the time that she gave me these ornaments, she was obviously deeply involved in felt craft. She included an assortment of little Santa and Elf mice with jiggly button-like eyes. I think that she may have made them for a church function where she and other older women sat around in the frigid church multi-function room beneath the sanctuary, toting glue guns and scraps of material, making things for their fairs while eating cookies and drinking strong coffee from an oversized urn.

I never really liked the felt mice, but felt obligated to take care of them, place them on the tree and carefully pack them away every year. At first I bothered to re-glue the eyes when they fell off, but after nine or ten years I just hung the one eyed rodents on random branches to fill in the gaps, paying tribute to my grandmother who passed away in 1989.

The decoration collection grew enormously when I became a mother. Not only did I honor my grandmother’s ornaments, I maintained a collection for each of my three children. Decorating the tree was a joyous yet serious event; we always enjoyed homemade sweets, eggnog and music, which was the pulse of our family during this activity. Each child had his or her own box of decorations and with careful deliberation they hung them on the tree. My grandmother’s ornaments were a part of the tradition. Even when a mouse did not make it onto a heavy bough, they were acknowledged in some way – through conversation or finding a lost eye in the bottom of the box. I still have them or at least most of their parts.

One by one, my children grew up and one by one they left our cozy nest. I tried to keep our traditions alive while they were out in the world so that when they returned home for the holidays, they would be able to celebrate with everything as it should be.

The transition from motherhood to crone is one that requires patience, love and acceptance. At first I worked tirelessly at trying to keep everything the same, or at least recognizable. I am relieved to report that after a few years of a somewhat difficult, white knuckled approach, I acknowledge the fact that change is inevitable; I embrace it.

Something as basic as a Christmas tree provides a fine example of transition and positive growth. It takes a great deal of effort to decorate and un-decorate a Christmas tree alone – especially using mementos that represent my entire life including the raising of my family. After my children went away, I began to dread lugging heavy boxes and feeling overwhelmed when I unpacked each ornament that came with an abundance of touching memories.

When my kids returned home from different corners of the world, they loved seeing the familiar twinkling tree. We sat down and enjoyed all of our customary home baked sweets, played music and celebrated our family love. After the holidays… when they left... it was just the tree and me. I dreaded the task of dissembling the mass of memories. Whether or not you have help, it is a chore. It is especially haunting when you are doing it alone. In the past I did not mind packing away holiday stuff because we were in the midst of our busy lives. That was then; this is now.

Last Christmas, when I was taking down the tree, I faced the reality that it had become a burden. I was going to great lengths to maintain tradition, even when its face had become quite different. Until this year, I was unable to look into that face.

Last week it just happened; I did not plan it. When I stood before the plain balsam fir tree, I decided to try something different. The previous week, I crafted many arrangements out of berries, twigs and bark. I try to walk in the woods every day; I tend to revert to my ancient ‘gatherer’ roots. Our house is adorned with natural d├ęcor and it was time to extend this art to the Christmas tree.

With pruning shears in hand and a cloth sack draped over my arm, I set out on my usual path in the woods and began harvesting. Before I came into the house, I stopped by the remnants of my herb garden and cut mugwort and grapevines. I did not take anything that showed promise of thriving.

After stringing small white lights on the tree, I embarked upon a new creative adventure. First I tied bunches of grapevine, mugwort and an assortment of small twigs to the entire length of the trunk of the tree so that they looked as if they were a part of it. From there I added milk weed pods that had released their feathery seeds, along with freshly fallen, pitch coated, pine cones. I even stuck clumps of burdock on the ends of tree limbs. I threaded hemp through oyster mushrooms that look like angels and made trees out of lichen covered bark, topped with a birch bark star.

Nothing was wasted. I crafted snowmen out of birch bark and constructed nests from various mosses and grapevine. I dried apples and oranges and made stacks and garland with cinnamon sticks. I also used dried apples as a base for moss covered wreaths. I strung fresh cranberries with hemp for garland. I created angels in flight using pine cones for the body, birch bark for the wings and head, twigs, hemp and moss hair, and bark for facial features and a partial berry for the mouth.

This project took several days to complete. I rifled through bags and piles of natural offerings and continued to create. The only tradition on the tree is the angel on top that my daughter Anna made when she was four-years-old.

At first I was in conflict; I thought that my family would be expecting the customary Christmas tree laced with a lifetime of memories. I don’t want to disappoint them. I decided that they are welcome to get the boxes and add whatever they wish to the tree.

In the future, if we have an opportunity to be together before Christmas, I will enjoy going through the boxes and decorating the tree with my family. In that case, it will not be a burden. I will probably save a few of the decorations that I made this year, but for the most part, the tree is organic and I will place it outdoors with ease. The birds can pick at the cranberries, apples and oranges and I will hang suet from the boughs. After they strip the goodies, it can go into the fire pit for a raging bonfire later in the season.

Life changes. Everything that is important cannot be tucked into boxes and then unpacked to bring back the past. It is important to preserve memories, but it is more important to accept change and be in the moment.

The tree is a symbol of how I live my life every day, here and now. I honor the tree and I honor life, which is well worth celebrating.

Journal - Periwinkle

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Perfect Christmas Tree

The snowflakes drifted down from the pinkish gray skies, lingering long enough on my red snowsuit for me to marvel at the intricate fractals. They were the kind of snowflakes that prompted me to throw my head back and catch them on my tongue, and made me dizzy when I stared upwards into the endless passageway to the enchantment of winter.

I held on tightly to the sides of the wooden Speedway sled, jerking with each tug as my father trudged through the deep snow, into the woods beyond the old covered bridge that led to my Uncle’s cabin. Every time we approached Durgin Bridge, my father told us to close our eyes and make a wish and then he would toot the horn of his 1958 Buick.

My father spoke sternly to my two older sisters as they wandered dangerously close to the banks of the raging waters of Cold River. I focused on their brightly colored stocking caps – like our mittens and socks, knit by our mother – bouncing along behind them. Their laughter blended with the melodic rushing river, resonating throughout the otherwise silent woods. A part of me longed to frolic with them, but even back then I was wise enough to know that the snow was unmanageable.

We had a ways to go until we reached my Uncle’s land. My father – a true woodsman in his customary red and black checked wool coat with his tree saw slung over his shoulder – blazed a clear path through the virgin snow. For an instant, I let go of the sled for a taste of snow mixed with wool from the tip of my mitten, but quickly grabbed the edge of the sled again when almost toppling over the side.

We stopped abruptly when we reached the top of the knoll and pondered the possibilities sprawled before us. Black-capped Chickadees and Nuthatches flit excitedly in and out of the nearby woodland garden of Evergreens and abundant Winterberries.

My sisters climbed onto the sled and my father gave us a push. We sped down the hill, narrowly missing saplings and rocks, finally stopping at the edge of a cluster of burdocks and managing to get a few stuck hopelessly on hats and mittens.

My shiny red boots quickly filled with snow as I followed my sisters rushing from one tree to the next while my father explained his reasoning for why we could not take each one home. He taught us to leave the trees that had hopes of flourishing and growing to be healthy amongst the others in the woods. It was vital to find a tree that would not thrive and that cutting it down would help not hurt the future of the grove.

We finally decided upon a charming, wildly imperfect, Balsam Fir. It struggled courageously, wedged between another heartier pine tree and enormous rock. I stood by examining a pitch covered pine cone as my father sawed the tree and my sisters made snow angels and repeatedly sang Jingle Bells.

The snowfall increased greatly and the wind blew hard. My father held the tree with one hand and pulled the rope on the sled with the other and we headed back to the car. My sisters walked beside me, teaching me the words to Silent Night and trying to pull the deeply embedded burdocks from their mittens.

The light of day was quickly fading as my father tied the tree onto the top of the car. Shivering and with reddened cheeks, we climbed into the car, eager to bring the tree home to our mother who we were sure was waiting with hot chocolate and fresh baked cookies.

Without our father’s prompting, we closed our eyes and made a wish while he did the traditional toot of the horn and we crossed Durgin Bridge with our Christmas tree tied firmly to the roof.

I didn’t realize until many years later that when we crossed Durgin Bridge, it wasn’t really about wishes, but to warn possible approaching vehicles. However, to this day, I continue to toot the horn when I approach the bridge and I tell my own children to make a wish.

** Historical Note

“The current bridge is the fourth one on this site, the others being washed away in 1844, 1865 and 1869. In 1869, the freshet was so violent that iron bolts used to connect the great bed pieces of the middle pier to a large rock were twisted and broken. The iron bolts were two inches in diameter. The existing bridge was built by Jacob Berry of North Conway. Berry claimed that the bridge was so strong that it could be filled with wood without causing it to fail. There is no evidence that anyone ever attempted to prove his theory. The bridge is named for James Holmes Durgin who ran a grist mill nearby. The bridge was also a link in the underground slave railroad from Sandwich to North Conway. Milton Graton and his son Arnold repaired and strengthened the structure in 1967-1968. It was rehabilitated in 1983 at a cost of $48,000. The Durgin Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tree Pulse: The Art of Tree Hugging

In the past when I hugged a tree, it was for an entirely different reason; the pulse is new to me. Of course I did not plan on becoming an expert in the art of tree hugging. However, I am what one would refer to as an authentic tree hugger.

It happened unexpectedly one morning when I was overcome with emotion while standing in the middle of a shady, deep, well established, pine grove. I didn’t know what to do. I thought of screaming (a good healthy scream), but decided against shattering the peaceful dawn chorus.

Suddenly, I found myself embracing a giant pine – well over one hundred years of age – my arms didn’t come close to reaching the halfway point. I gained a new respect for the forest and will never view a tree the same way again.

There is a gathering of young trees in a clearing behind the house. I first became a part of this sacred circle when I felt the pulse of the smallest tree, which I believe to be a Silver Maple. When leaning with my back against it, I sensed a strong, throbbing, rhythm. It reminded me of my childhood days when we dared to touch the electric fence, only without the painful jolt.

I tried to understand where this pulse was coming from. I considered that the young tree was absorbing water from the nearby, swollen, pond that had been dry for the past few months. Then I imagined that it could possibly be the heart beat of the Earth and that tendrils from the tree’s woody roots were woven intricately around a vein, tapping into Gaia’s life source.

The cluster consists of a mix of Ash and Maple with various smaller plants such as High Bush Cranberries and an assortment of Evergreens along the border. I approached each tree within the circle – also young, but bigger in diameter and a bit taller – and pressed against them in search of a pulse. I did not detect any pounding whatsoever. Perhaps Bach was inspired by such a phenomenon when he composed his Cello Suites or Violin Sonatas and Partitas, as the Silver Maple was unaccompanied.

I am an artist, historian, and naturalist… not a scientist. In the wild, I operate on past experience, pure logic and trust my intuition. Being inquisitive is a trait that I honor and it often leads to a great deal of research. However, this time I didn’t rush to the computer or bookshelf immediately in an effort to comprehend why the tree had what seemed to be a heartbeat. I preferred to simply relish the possibility instead.

About a week later I returned to the circle and leaned against the young tree. The pulse was reassuring. I wondered what it would feel like if I pressed my own heart against the rough, greenish speckled, bark. I sensed the rhythm, but for some reason the sensation was more pronounced through my spine.

Again, the other trees – without a distinguishable pulse – stood by as silent witnesses. Pondering the tree, I returned to my walk in the woods. I decided that I didn’t need to know; it is more significant to accept it and be grateful.

It is uplifting to see the tree outside of the window. When I go out to visit the pond and walk in the woods, it has become a ritual to pay my respects to the sacred circle and unite with the tree. At times the pulse is minimal, yet always detectable. I have related it to the underground water flow as this region is abundant with aquifers. It may or may not be the source.

When I feel the heavy hand pressing down upon my chest (as I do from time to time), I find myself amongst the inner circle. One afternoon as I stared at the crown of the youngest, at its wiry, leafless branches waving against an unpredictable sky, I knew that I mustn’t become dependent on the comfort, hope, or surge of energy that I experience while in unison.

When I approached the tree this morning, I embraced it with my own heart beating against the slender trunk. The others remained steadfast, nodding quietly in the mild, damp, wind – awareness emerged from grayness. It is human nature to grasp tightly onto the good things – things that we think that we love, not wanting to let go in fear of losing it and tragically not realizing the power of the ultimate grip of death, which does not only apply to living organisms, but to thoughts and dreams as well.

I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that if I rely on the tree, I am not honoring the experience for its worth. We are to be mutual in our existence.

Journal: Scarlet Lily – Babies Breath
                (Higher Souled Aspirations - Nature)