Thursday, June 26, 2014

Presence of absence

One salient experience I have with place is walking my dog.

We have several routes, variations on each other. We typically leave the house and turn right, or north, along Pearson Drive. On occasion, when we’re feeling radical, we turn left.

These walks, over days, weeks, months, and years, have introduced me to the wider neighborhood. Each walk is at least a mile, several are two or three.

We know the dogs. Rita knows them by their odors. She stops and sniffs at predictable trees, bushes, fire hydrants, and walls.

We both know the dog owners, if not by name, at least by face. We know which ones have treats, which are friendly, which cross the street to avoid us.

We know the fortunes of households, which have grown shabbier than before, which have gotten overhauls.

There is a new garden on Panola. The chickens were loose on Cumberland. I know several back yards with bee hives.

A pair of Cooper’s hawks patrols the northern corner by the urban forest along Broadway.

There are service berries along the green way. In spring we stop and gorge. They’re a bit like blueberries but watery, not so sweet.

I know the sites of homeless camps in forgotten woods. I know the benches where the drunks sleep it off.

The neighborhood is rich. Here and there are pockets of poverty. One old man I know used to ask me for spare change with which to buy booze until I convinced him that I hardly ever carry money. Now he just shakes his head and laughs with me when we pass. Once I found a five dollar bill on the sidewalk and gave that to him. It was good day for both of us.

I’ve known trees, some large and admirable, like senators. They’ve watched the fortunes of the neighborhood rise and fall and rise again.

Being projective and empathic, I like to imagine what those trees have witnessed, what they feel. Over time, I come to know them (though it is more myself than them I learn, which be true of all we know of others, but that is another story).

So when one of the old trees falls, or is felled, I mourn its passing.

One that stood on Zillicoa across from the big yellow mansion and above what the neighbors call “green cove,” was a wide oak.

The ground around it was otherwise clear, and must have been for a century or more, for the tree spread out as far or farther than it rose, and it rose pretty high. I always felt embraced by that tree.

It occupied a great deal of space. One of its lower branches reached out across the grassy slope that fell away beside the tree. I used to jump up and swing on that branch.

I remember how it eventually seemed dead, for it lost its leaves, and I wondered whether it would hold me. And then, after a year or so, I quit swinging for fear its arm would crack and drop me to the ground. I don’t think my swinging killed it. I think I gave the tree company.

But I am not an arborist. The tree came to be my friend.

Then one day after we'd returned from a trip, Rita and I went for a walk, and coming up the hill through green cove, we found the tree had been flattened to a stump.

I don’t know what happened. Perhaps it was dead and decayed and the owners put it down like an old dog. Perhaps it fell in a storm and they cleared the corpse away.

Two years later the tree remains big even in its absence. Each time I come out of the grove of walnuts at the bottom of green cove I look up to see the tree and see its absence instead.

That’s what I see: absence. Curious thing. One can see the lack, an emptiness where once was substance. It is the ghost of the tree.

A place doesn’t need to have a presence to be present: the missing oak is there in mind and memory. And it is gone in my mind and memory. The space it occupied, a great big cloud of extended green branches in summer, gnarly arms in winter, remains, glowing.

Places have unnoticed dimensions that are part of their presence even if we are unaware of them.

Perhaps only a few dog walkers and tree lovers have noticed the absence of the oak. There are all sorts of aspects of familiar places we overlook.

Yesterday, blessed with a new pair of binoculars, I walked Rita and looked for birds. They were singing in the tree tops, nearly impossible to see for the leaves. I wondered if I would even see one of the warblers that I knew from their singing were up there.

Imagine my pleasure then to discover, unseen like the taken-for-granted roof inside a circus tent, the wind-born bustle of the tree tops.

We live a sort of short-hand experience, catching outlines, broad brush strokes, missing specific details: Not just perfume but lilac or an English rose. Not just a bird but a towhee with white flash amid black and orangish brown. Not just a shrub but the euonymus and abelia.

And then there are other dimensions. I confess I overlook much of what sits below four feet and above eight. Beyond that in either direction, not so much. And yet when I do notice, much is there.

Like the blowing tree tops, dancing beyond notice.

This makes me wonder about the space of wind itself: how the landscape is made up of wind as much as anything else, but how heavy things like us hardly notice it.

Surely wind has shape. The birds and insects must notice and attend to it. They know the flow of wind, its currents and eddies, the still pockets behind obstructions – such as the old oak, the house, the pine. The free runnels of air in open fields. These are as much a part of a place as its horizon, a crossroad, and yonder hillside, but they are for the most part outside our consciousness.

I did not see even one singing warbler yesterday. I did see a couple of marvelous blue birds. And I saw the wind in the leaves.

No comments: