Readings — From the January 2019 issue

Life’s a Beech

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From Casting Deep Shade, which will be published by Copper Canyon Press next month. Wright (1949–2016) was a poet from the Arkansas Ozarks whose 2010 work, One With Others, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Casting Deep Shade is the last work she completed before her death.

Now that I am in California for a few months, my attention is easily diverted by the live oaks, redwoods, sycamores, junipers, cypresses, pines, yews, firs, buckeyes. At the ranch of a friend I said a bit about the beech and she asked whether any grew around here. She knows her trees. I said they didn’t like the salt in the air or the soil, and I said I didn’t expect to see a beech in California. Her carpenter said, “Everything grows in California.” Almost: there is that wild-looking bunya-bunya (false monkey puzzle tree) in front of the historical museum. I don’t know what it thinks it’s doing here. The cones weigh ten pounds (the size of bocce balls); so if you are walking under the drop zone at the wrong moment, you will be taking the long-term dirt nap.

I don’t know the difference between the false and true monkey puzzle, except the true is from Chile and the false from Australia, and the former is endangered. They have been around since the late Permian—250 million years.

Thinking of exotics: I was driving a big-finned De Soto back from the Arkansas Delta. It broke down in Salem, Arkansas. A bona fide shade-tree mechanic towed that cruise ship of an automobile to his airplane hangar after he got home from the stock-car races. Once it became obvious I was not going anywhere anytime fast, a policeman drove me to the station, and then to a motel run by a nice widow lady. It was a timing-chain job. I remember a cork tree in front of the library. Could have been the only one in the state. The only cork tree I ever clapped eyes on. Not so impressive but different enough to my way of seeing I had to inquire at the checkout desk, What is that freaky-looking tree out front.

I texted a poet in New York who grew up in California. Her late mother’s Berkeley house had a beech tree in the front. She sent the address on Tanglewood Road; I Google-Earthed and zoomed in. There she/he was. Privacy is an easily perverted issue. You can create a record you do not want, no matter how good you are going forward. You can pay to eradicate a record you did not want, no matter how ruthless you have been and will be going forward. You can invent a convincing case history. For the moment, I can locate you, whosoever you are, or reimagine you, in a keystroke. I can see the tree that cast your lawn in deep shade when you were wearing a linen dress, a string of seed pearls, and no underpants.

There are some coppers living in Berkeley, sometimes as a street tree, which is a wicked thing to do to a Fagus sylvatica ‘Cuprea’.

Still, California beech trees in my North Bay environment were looking unlikely. I took off on a slo-mo neighborhood run the morning the track and bleachers were streaming and screaming through their high school graduation ceremony. When I plugged a ways down I Street, I spotted one. Not just one of the few cultivars I have seen so many of, but a tricolor (‘Roseomarginata’). Lacking the full supplement of chlorophyll, a delicate pink trimming the leaf. I come back later on my scooter and talk briefly to the owner. She tells me they have lived there for thirty years. They came from the Midwest. The tricolor was about as big around as an ankle bracelet when they moved in. Now it is three-footish in circumference. It would be bigger if not hemmed in by the neighbor’s driveway and three big buckeyes. The owner keeps it pruned and inoculated against beech-blight aphids (Grylloprociphilus imbricator) that also encourage a fungus, a sooty mold (Scorias spongiosa). For good measure the aphids poop honeydew, bringing on the ants.

(Yet another encounter yesterday, on a hike up to the trails behind us, a large stucco house embalmed on the hillside with a small fortune in plantings, including a purple fountain and a purple-beech arch. They are young. A little time will tell whether they can manage the environment.)

(And another, at the Luther Burbank home and garden in Santa Rosa. He developed hundreds of plants, including a spineless cactus to feed cattle. The one in his garden is as big as a shed. Many yummy fruits, russet potatoes, hearty grasses, and the Shasta daisy, a quadruple hybrid, were of his making. He was absorbed, sweet as a plumcot [also his creation], easy on the eyes, and a copper beech continues to extend its lovely limbs across his front yard. Everything grows in California.)

The owner of the tricolor on I Street said people used to stop on occasion and request a small branch for some sort of celebration. No, they were told, you cannot go breaking branches off that tree and don’t come back at night because I know your face. What kind of pagan business would entail removing limbs from the only tree of its kind around.

A minimal search turns up: use a beech branch as a wand to open channels for communication with spirits and Gods/Goddesses. It will enable you to quickly draw down divine energy into your circle. Californians are given to making wands of branches. The woman who cuts my hair said a friend of hers was earning big enough money with her smudging feathers to quit her regular job. This would be ill-advised back East.

Toronto, June 3, 2014:

(I must first acknowledge the thirty-sixth anniversary of the death of poet Frank Stanford. As a land surveyor, he took a chain saw to many a tree in the dense woods of the Ozarks. His friend Willett would often be furious with him if he didn’t know what he was taking down before revving up.) But jogging in the park, at my sluggish tempo, near the hotel, I slammed smack-dab into a pretty copper. I wanted to pluck just one leaf (I am an addicted plucker, self-limiting to one leaf). The one I happened to flip over was wall-to-wall with the beech-blight aphid (Grylloprociphilus imbricator). Their sole self-defense is to raise their hind ends and sway in unison. Little fuckers.*

* “Little Fucker[s]” is also the title of a song by Vic Chesnutt and Elf Power. Also known as “LFs.”

In Toronto, I met a physically vulnerable, emotionally spirited En­glish poet with a rare, agonizing disease, developed from collodion ichthyosis. When drugs offered no relief or necessitated tapering off, NATURE, she vowed (in all caps), was the only healer. Afflicted since birth, she recalled suffering greatly one day as a child, going outside and lying down on her back in the grass. When she stood up she beheld a glimmer of blue silhouetting her body that quickly dematerialized. She ran inside to tell her parents, who were watching the telly, and they told her not to worry about it. The phenomenon never recurred, but lying down next to the earth continued to soothe her. It was not enough to sit in the shade on a bench. Total physical contact was essential to receive the succor offered.

I would lie in the duff of a fern leaf in Warren, Rhode Island, were distress, mental or physical, to guide me there.

Never a hanging tree: but Joan of Arc was thought by her examiners to be receiving satanic messages from a Fairy Tree, a beech, alas.

The tree was on the grounds of Bourlémont Castle, the château upon which the villagers of Domrémy toiled for their grindstone lives. This was the Fairy Tree L’Arbre des Dames or Le Beau Mai tree, whereupon extra-ecclesiastic celebrations were staged.

It stood near a healing well in a grove of oaks. The tree was deemed the source of the voices she heard. She denied all this crap.

Joan of Arc dressed like a (demonic) guy.

Heard (demonic) voices.

The Fairy Tree, a (demonic) beech, was a pagan site (demonic).

Joan heard (demonic) voices under the tree (demonic).

The (demonic) tree was by a (demonic) healing fountain. (Demonic.)

Joan did not believe in the (demonic) healing fountain.

Joan had never heard the (demonic) tree speak.

Not in the fields when the church bells rang.

Saint Joan was a virgin.

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