Thursday, May 28, 2020

New oaks

    “Life," Mary Shelley writes in Frankenstein, "although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”
     That elegant phrase the 21-year-old author puts in the mouth of her monster, who tends to speak in "thees" and "thous" and praises life while explaining that only his miserable treatment has prodded him to violence. "Misery made me a fiend," he says. "Make me happy, and I will again be virtuous."
    He's onto something, though I'd suggest it's the other way around—be virtuous and it'll tend to make you happy.
    Either way, human life does sometimes require vigorous defending. Though any gardener knows that botanic life, while perhaps low on the anguish scale—it's not like we can ask plants—can benefit from a helping hand as well.
     Every autumn though this year is an open question, I join my buddies and head to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to cook thick steaks, drink cold beverages, take long saunas, and jump in the frigid lake. No question that our lives are defended in the process.
     Returning, I bring back memories, sometimes Held's deer jerky, though people complain ("It smells like a burned down house," Ross once said, which makes me a little sorry he's becoming a lawyer and not a writer, because that's a perfect description).
    And saplings. A good half dozen. Pines, firs, and, if I'm feeling ambitious, oaks. The first year, I planted them in the fall and they just vanished. The snows came and I never saw them again. The second, I put them in pots and set the pots on the back deck. I wanted to observe what was happening. What was happening, I decided, was bunnies. Because they were fine up to one point in winter. And then they vanished. So we do not know if plants feel anguish, we do know that bunnies find oaks delicious. Or maybe they were just really hungry.
     This year I took extra precautions, securing a roll of chicken wire and constructing little cages around my saplings.
     For a month I gazed hard at those little bare sticks, six inches tall. Scrutinizing their ends—as if we weren't all scrutinizing our own ends enough during this crisis. A bud? No. Maybe? No. How about today? No.
    Then one day, something. I clomped closer, leaned forward, looked close and hard. A very small but unmistakable sprouting.
     "LIFE!!!!" I cried, in a very Dr. Frankenstein-like fashion, arching back and fluttering my hands to heaven. "It's alive!!!"
     Now all I have to do is wait a few decades, and I'll really have something. But I am nothing if not patient; being a writer, you sorta have to be. 
     Until then, only one question came to mind. How do oaks figure into "Frankenstein"? Easy enough to find out.
    One sentence, early in the book: during a thunderstorm storm that our budding teenage doctor watches  boiling out from the Jura mountains. 
     "As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump."
     If you've paused at the have the lightning "issue from" the oak, remember that lightning comes from the ground up as well as from the sky down. 
     And a good place to end, being reminded that, as T.S. Eliot writes, "In my beginning is my end." Even the grandest trees die, and my happiness at my pair of saplings surviving their first winter might be echoed by some future owner mourning their passing. If there is a future, and if we care about life in it, which right now is an all too open question.


  1. The hardest part of gardening for me was the playing God, the choosing to let a random weed die to let an intended plant live.

    One of my favorite times in the garden was the season I let a weed grow into an amazing, ponderous and noble beast of the garden.

    But I do water my wife's houseplants, even if they begin to crowd me out sometimes.

  2. I have to admit that I let my wife's lemon tree that she had nurtured for ten, fifteen years die. Though, I still have hopes; it's only been a few weeks since I brought it outside and I daily expect a small green bud to emerge where dead, withered leaves now flourish. The damned thing has thorns, sharper and better hidden than any rosebush I've ever encountered. And it very well may be that my negative thoughts about it caused it to perish. Worse comes to worse and I'll buy another tree from Home Depot and hope she doesn't notice when she comes back from Florida.


  3. Planting trees is both fun and frustration; exuberance! (when they survive and grow) and a kind of grief when they don't (sometimes for unknown reasons.) Plant lots of trees if you can, so that at least a few will make it.


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