The sassafras at Agnes Scott took no time to ID — no other North American tree looks or smells anything like it
I’ve been learning to identify trees lately. More than once it has reminded me of my first year in college.
I attended a tiny school in the southern Blue Ridge. There I spent many nights walking and learning the constellations. Under the stars I experienced something I had known in childhood but had nearly forgotten: the wild, boundless rapture of silence and solitude. My insecurities were stilled by the regularity of the night sky. My mind settled, my thoughts became clear, and my emotions, wary of daylight and company, slowly emerged from their hiding places.
I went out at a regular hour and so new constellations arrived piecemeal. Night after night the sky slowly unspooled on the eastern horizon. The Pleiades, indicting the heart of Taurus, appeared in early September. A few days later they were higher up and I saw the bull’s eye, marked by the red giant Aldeberan, for the first time. A week after this I observed the first of the stars of Gemini. Castor and Pollux showed up a day or two after that. And so it went.
At first I was impatient with this. More than once I found myself up on my toes facing east, thinking that if I could just get up a little higher I might see what was hiding behind the horizon. But after awhile I realized that nature was offering me a nightly dose of the familiar and the new, mixed just right for learning. Every night there was plenty to review and a little to learn. I came to like it that way. By early spring I was going out later and I felt myself avoiding the eastern sky. I didn’t want to spoil the pace.
Today I’m in the latter half of my middle years. As a college student I thought I’d have life pretty much solved by now. I thought my faith would be steady and my income solid, that I’d have a strong health regimen, a dependable daily schedule, few anxieties, and no regrets. I thought I’d have worked through all the difficult but standard questions of personal identity and life purpose. I thought I’d be in control.
But I’m not, and it can take a while to really see that and admit it. Since college my days have been filled with meetings and kids’ activities and new jobs and countless logistic and personal and professional challenges. There have been deadlines to meet, dates to remember, articles to write, papers to grade, classes to teach, messes to clean up, forms to fill out, bills to pay, all good and normal midlife tasks. But they seem to me like so many heads of the Hydra. It’s hard to take a breath when you’re fighting such a monster. I can list only a handful of times since college that I’ve been in touch with my essential freedom, times when I have not at some level been conscious of the push of my schedule, worried on some level about What’s Next.
I’m tired and a little bewildered, to tell the truth, and I have miles to go before I sleep.
I was in this mindset when I started on the trees. It was January. The conifers and laurels and magnolias were easy enough, but until lately the deciduous trees were really challenging. For them I had only branching patterns and bark. Also location: sandy soil, slopes, bottomland, creekside. I poked through ground litter and that helped in a few cases, but mostly I was at a loss. So I waited on leaves, flowers, fruit, anything. I checked certain trees regularly. The waiting was satisfying, just as it was for me as a college student under the stars. I stood and looked up at branches spread like fractals against the winter sky while life prepared itself underground, in the atmosphere, behind the bark of a million trees.
Today, for the greater part, the leaves have arrived. I’ve learned maples and oaks and hickories and dogwoods and hornbeams and locusts and many others. But trees won’t be rushed. Many leaves are still new, and new leaves have this in common with new embryos: even across species, they can look a lot alike, and they reach their final forms on their own schedules.
There is a small tree on the bank of Burnt Fork Creek, a short walk from my house. The leaves in the image above came from it. I have been watching it since February and I have found several others like it, some quite a bit larger. I have drawn pictures of the tree and its leaves. I have returned to it again and again over the weeks, and I’m still at a loss. It is neither dogwood nor elm. It is neither hornbeam nor persimmon. It might be blackgum. It might be silverbell. Right now I don’t know. One day flowers and fruit will arrive and I’ll know its name. But today its name is a mystery.
Waiting for this one tree makes me conscious of time’s great stream. It takes my attention away from the ongoing staccato of deadlines and appointments that threatens to fragment my life. Waiting for this tree reminds me that life is not a problem to be solved or a situation to manage. It is not just one damned thing after another. It is an unfolding, a vast rising and falling, a wave of great depth. My job is to ride the wave, to wonder at it, to document it, to say: I am here, I am a part of this and a witness to it.
My mind is settling. My thoughts and feelings are appearing here and there like animals after a long hibernation. The happiness of being outdoors and learning the names of things is once more proving to be unreasonably powerful in my life. And when I learn the name of this one green and particular feature of the cosmos, I’ll be sure to let you know.
Total solar eclipse of November 2012, photographed from Queensland, Australia. Click image to enlarge
THE INTERNETS OVERHYPE everything, and everything includes astronomical events. Take, for example, last month’s full moon-eclipse-comet incident. Online media had a whale of a time with that one, with headlines national and otherwise trumpeting it as a Triple Treat, a Stargazer’s Delight, a Cosmic Triple Feature, a Trifecta, and even a Snow Moon Lunar Eclipse Comet Spectacular!, among other super-exciting boosterisms. But in truth it was a very subtle affair, exciting only to those who spend a disproportionate number of hours examining the far-off twinkly lights. Not only that, but a full moon is required for a lunar eclipse, so that reduces the trifecta to a difecta, and that’s not even a word.
Yes, it’s neat that an eclipse of any kind happened on the same night a comet was visible. But. The eclipse was of the penumbral variety, which means the Moon drifted through the outermost edge of the Earth’s shadow and dimmed just a fuzz. If you were not an avid Moon-watcher you’d not know it was happening at all. And the comet (it’s green! they said) was invisible to the unaided eye. If you had had a good pair of binoculars, had known which blank space in the sky to point them toward, and had been willing to stay up until 3 AM or so—five hours after the end of the eclipse—on a February night, you would’ve been able to make out comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková. But seeing its faint green hue required high contrast with the background sky, and the Moon’s full and no-longer-eclipsed face brightened the sky so much that simply seeing the comet—with binoculars—would have been an achievement, especially for anyone unaccustomed to such work. Color would have eluded you unless you had a large telescope.
So again: there is hype.
But we’re on the leading edge of a vast incoming swell of fresh astro-bluster, and, though the media will certainly find new ways to overdo things, the total solar eclipse of Monday 21 August is something you’ll remember as long as you live. You should start making plans now.
In a total solar eclipse the Sun gets entirely covered by the Moon. The Sun, you will have noticed, is brighter than the Moon, so when it goes out you’ll not be able to miss it. But it will only go all the way out out along a 70-mile-wide swath running from Oregon to South Carolina. The Moon’s circular shadow will make landfall near Salem at 10:15 AM (local), race eastward across the continent at about 1100 mph, and pass into the Atlantic north of Charleston at 2:49 PM (local).
Click on image for high-resolution version
You will need to be within the shadowy band on the map to experience totality, which is the complete coverage of the Sun by the Moon. Along that path the sky will go dark, the overhead stars will appear, the air will cool, and the birds will fall silent. The Sun will appear as a ghostly ring among the stars and for once in your life you’ll be free to stare directly at it. All of this will happen in the middle of the day and will last about two minutes.
Outside the path viewers will experience varying depths of twilight. In Atlanta, for example, 97.3% of the solar disc will be obscured so the Sun will show itself as the slightest of crescents. The world will grow strangely dim but it will not be enough to cool the air or quiet the birds. And the Sun will not appear weird and wraithlike among the stars. You’ll not be able to look at it. Down in Mexico the Moon will eat a bite out of the Sun and sensitive observers will notice a slight decrease in daylight but it will not be dramatic.
But for those who experience totality, this will be an event to talk about all the way to old age. This will be the real thing.
So: pray for clear skies, dear reader. Plan a long weekend and a road trip with family and friends. Take some kids if you can. But if you can’t that’s okay. Go with one grownup or three, go alone, whatever. Whether or not actual children are present is not so important—this eclipse will have the power to draw out the child in all of us.
P.S. Here’s a detail map for my Atlanta peeps. Click on it to enlarge
WE MOVED INTO our present house in mid-2015. Whoever landscaped the place really had a thing for rocks. There may be excellent reasons to have rocks everywhere but sometimes they get in the way, especially during the annual mowing of the monkey grass. We have one bed that contains about a dozen rocks, each the size of a small shoebox. At the time of mowing they’re completely hidden by the grass so I need to raise my mower blade and progress super carefully.
The weekend before last I was performing this task and, with no particular purpose in mind, looked under a rock near the edge of the bed. And lo! There rested a pair of North American brown snakes, each no more than six inches long, and a fine little land snail. The creatures were hibernating. I picked up one of the snakes. It was rigid and sluggish and stupefied. It never did the normal snakey crawley thing. It just sat in my hand and occasionally smelled the air with its tiny black forked tongue.
For days now I have taken great pleasure in this photo. It has been an antidote to the deadly flow of news, fake news, and juiced-up opinion on the Internet, which, these days, I navigate with trepidation. I have tried to trim my sources of information while maintaining a range of perspectives, but even the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic and the Washington Post give me plenty to worry about, even as I call my senators and donate to environmental organizations for the first time in my life. And I am looking for new ways to engage with the world, to do my part in righting this listing ship called America.
In my view the Christian life is a balance of contemplation and action (as Pope Francis said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works”). To be effective, action must be principled, focused, deliberate, persistent, and hopeful. I myself cannot maintain this attitude without a strong dose of contemplation. So I am thankful for the snakes and the snails for helping to settle my frenzied soul over the last couple of weeks.
It is a strange world where such beauty and complexity and organization can be found under rocks. “There is no accounting for a single second of it,” wrote Annie Dillard.
It’s a world worth fighting for. May we all find new ways to do that today.
The South Fork of Peachtree Creek at the crossing near the Old Decatur Water Works
Some books wait for you to be ready for them, then they call.
Elizabeth and I were married in the summer of 1991. When she moved into my apartment in Durham she brought a paperback of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with her. The volume commenced to mark time on our shelves, waiting patiently through twenty-five holiday seasons, seven moves, five job changes, three childhoods, two reluctant arrivals at middle age, the ripening of a marriage, the loss of a beloved one, and all the discussions, arguments, misunderstandings, joyful celebrations, TV shows, jokes, board games, and silences these events imply.
Then, late one night in December, I wandered into the living room, walked over to the bookshelf, and picked it up. Like the One Ring, its time had come. And like the One Ring, it has taken possession of its bearer. I read it in a few days, turned from page 279 back to page 1, and read it again, slowly this time, taking care to stop when fatigued, building pictures in my mind, looking up words, researching creatures.
I’ve always loved nature, but for most of my years that love has been directed toward its remote and alien features: atomic nuclei, distant galaxies, abstractions—the more abstract the better. That ended in May when Dad died. My field of view contracted overnight. Suddenly I had a distaste for abstractions and generalities, and an appetite for all things concrete and specific. I became interested in what was happening in my backyard, and by this I mean my actual backyard, out behind my house: this bird, that tree. The other stuff could go hang.
My field of view has undergone an expansion since then, a kind of rebound, but, given the scale of the universe, not much of one. Several months after Dad died and long before picking up Pilgrim, I began visiting Ira B. Melton Park as often as possible. This is a wood very near my house. The South Fork of Peachtree Creek runs through it, and several smaller creeks contribute to the landscape, as does the CSX Railroad and the Old Decatur Water Works. I’ve not yet finished my initial exploration of all Ira B.’s trails, which show themselves clearly in winter, but I think I’m close (I’m not in a hurry).
My affection for the creek was growing when I picked up Dillard’s book; this is surely what led me to choose it after so many years. But I was not prepared for what it has given me.
And what is that? It’s not Dillard’s prose, which hurts my feelings because it’s so good, so unreachable, transcendent. Nor is it her descriptions of rotifers and moth larvae and muskrats and green herons, which evince a great and infectious love. Nor is it her conclusion, that beauty is real and a sign of holiness, which is true. These are all gifts, but none come close to what Pilgrim, above all books, has granted me: permission.
A thing has been growing in me, a sense that our theological language is dead. It might (or might not) be sufficient in churches and official theological circles, but nearly all Christian God-talk resists translation to those who live and move outside these worlds. This is to some degree unavoidable and even proper: every community has its own words and these words are surely important, linked as they are to the community’s life and practices. But sometimes a language dies, even as it remains in use.
As it has for me. Large parts of the Christian lexicon no longer have any meaning for me, if they ever did. So much of it seems abstract, unconnected, loveless. But I believe in God as much as I ever have, probably even more. Also, I’m convinced (and this is a whole other post, or book) that the God I believe in is the very one to which Christianity points. So you might see my problem.
What I’ve needed, without being conscious of it until I read Pilgrim, is permission to love the woods and the creek and the sky without apology, and therefore to use the language of these things when I talk about God. The language has always been there, ready to be picked up. I have known some of it for years and am learning more every day. Pilgrim has allowed me to start using this language theologically and without hesitation.
Dillard bristles at the label nature writer. “Pilgrim is a book of theology,” she told her editor in 1974, and this is the exact point. God is mentioned in the book, yes, but not often. On its surface it’s more about snakes, seasons, mantises, and horsehair worms than anything else, but the infinite swells and crashes one thin layer beneath these finitudes.
Whether God created the heavens and the earth is not Dillard’s question, nor is it mine. It is, instead, the one given, the statement of faith, the creed that drove her to write Pilgrim in the first place and drives me to Peachtree Creek as often as I can make the walk.
The question Dillard asks, and I’m asking too, is: What kind of God would make a world like ours?