It Builds Character

August 19, 2020 · 4 minute read
It Builds Character

The conditions we have all been going through in 2020, and the fact that Urban Forestdweller was started in part to honor trees of character,  inspired me to dust off this old blog.  I wonder what type of character we are building as a society in these challenging times?

Alongside the turbulent James, much of this tree’s character is in its roots.

In a lot of ways it was a pretty crappy summer job. I dragged branches, picked up and loaded heavy pieces of tree trunk, hustled and sweated, and finally used the last drops in the tank to drag myself home dog-tired. And that was on a routine day. On more noteworthy days I was wounded in the flesh, attacked by beast, reptile, or stinging insect, or poisoned by ivy. “It’s good for you,” my boss would say when the going got tough. And then, smiling knowingly as though he were repeating some inside joke, he would add “It builds character.”

The Boss, Ray Lester, second from right. Author second from left.

I didn’t really understand the smile, and his language often struggled to leap over the chasm separating 55-year earth veteran from 17-year earth punk. Even so, there was something special in this old man that attracted me. I liked the stiffness of his stance, I suppose, and the way his animation increased in proportion with the severity of a frontal assault. I liked the way he talked to his tough-as-nails old buddies we either worked with or encountered in the old dives he would take us to for lunch. Places like the “Cozy Corner” on the south side, and “Rose Maries Inn” on the north. I would eat plates of meat, bread, and vegetable straight from my grandmother’s kitchen while my boss chatted loosely with every cook, waitress and patron as though he had known them all forever.

Living over 100 years in a Richmond alleyway is a certain way for a tree to build character

This Korean War veteran didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink. He didn’t even cuss. He worked, he went to church, he worked some more, and he hunted. I think what I liked most about my teenage summer job was the way it felt to be standing beside this human-shaped force of nature after an episode of tree work perseverance. Whether we had been assaulted by weather, work condition, flora, or fauna, when I was still standing with him afterword I was always tougher. Always stronger. Physical fatigue walked hand in hand with quiet pride in that special, age-old marriage of satiated body with satiated spirit. No, I suppose it wasn’t really a bad summer job. I worked, after all, for a man of character.

Just as this man’s character was being built each time his spirit and will to succeed interacted with a challenging environment, so too the character of any given tree is built according to the weather and micro-environment of its own experience. Two trees of the same species will develop different character if one lives in the sheltered urban forest of Richmond, while the others grows, let’s say, at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s where I found myself trying to identify a tree over the July 4th weekend. The compound leaves looked very familiar to me, and the orange tinge of the fissured bark suggested that I was meeting a Prunus serotina, or a wild black cherry. But the trees of this species I know in Richmond, including the one in my front yard, grow long and slender. This tree in the back yard of our vacation house was short, squat, gnarly, and almost looked to be imitating the shape of the live oak trees that are very common in the neighborhoods along the Virginia Beach strip.

Fallen but not defeated

In certain cases, the best way to get to know the tree you’re with is to move beyond visual inspection to a more intimate, and sometimes even a more canine introduction. I broke a twig and inhaled the acrid hydrocyanic smell that singles out the wild black cherry — also known as the whiskey cherry — from any other tree I have ever sniffed. Yes, wider than it is tall, this crusty old salt of a wild cherry with its roots in the sand has the same genetic makeup as that prissy, tall flower girl standing in the rich, black earth of my front yard.

Though the building materials are the same, the shape and character are molded by the environment. The oceanside tree sticks its face into the wind much more often than does the forest tree, and the sandy beach offers far less in the way of foothold than does the rocky soil where my tree lives.  Even while my elegant wild cherry was enjoying a peaceful, gently swaying 4th of July weekend, the Va. Beach swashbuckler was squatting and bracing to fend off the fierce attack of Hurricane Arthur blowing in from the south.  When the storm had passed, the tree was still there. Tougher. Stronger. Tired and proud. Now an even more interesting character on earth.

Summers can be tough on young girls, too. There are bee stings, hard practices, hard chores, bumps and scratches, mean moms and dads. On this day the 12-year earth novitiate Brooke is upset and discouraged by the heat. “Its good for you . . . ,” says the 46 year earth veteran, and then we both smile at the inside joke as Brooke finishes the sentence I’ve been handing down to her since her earliest earth hardships — “. . . It builds character.” 

Thanks, Boss.

Lines and Hammocks and Swings, Oh My!

April 15, 2020 · 3 minute read
Lines and Hammocks and Swings, Oh My!

Welcome to your own backyard! It’s your own little world, and right now it might be the only world you’ve got. No worries. You probably have friends back there you didn’t even know about. Like trees. It has been reported by a budding young contributor to TreeLife Magazine that due to the coronavirus the Richmond tree population is happier than it has ever been! 

Ok, there’s no such thing as TreeLife Magazine, and trees don’t read or write, but they do love to play. Just as plant lovers will tell you that plants love to be talked to, tree lovers will tell you that trees love to be played with. Trees will hold the rope for your big swing, and do the hard-pulling job of keeping that zipline, static line, or ninja line stretched out. When you get tired from all that swinging, zipping, and balancing, they don’t mind standing watch on either side and pulling down the shades for your big nap in the Eno.  

Straps left on trees can damage the cambium.

Truetimber loves seeing us all out back enjoying our trees, but we have also seen that sometimes without knowing it we are playing a little too rough. A tree literally wears its heart on its sleeve. The living, growing layer of tissue, called the cambium, is just inside the bark, and is where tree growth happens. Around the cambium are tubular cells that carry water and nutrients up and down the tree. Generally speaking, it would be better to pierce this layer with a nail or screw than to wrap something tightly around it. Better yet, there are generally good ways to safely attach playthings to your trees without damaging the cambium.       

Keep these tips in mind when attaching things to your trees, so they will keep supporting your play for many years to come.

  1.  Swings – a running (slip) knot works best. A running knot will cinch to the limb, but be able to expand as the limb grows. Be careful not to create a noose for the limb that is unable to expand.  We’ve seen many dead limbs with chains or wires wrapped tightly around them.
  1. Ziplines, Static Lines, and Ninja Lines – The tension in these playthings can be very damaging to a tree.  If you are putting tight straps at the base of the tree temporarily for play and taking them off, any method is probably ok. Be careful, though, if you leave just the strap on the tree for more than a few day’s play.  If you prefer to set it up and leave it up, blocks of wood separating the strap or wire from the trunk will give the tree a better chance to expand naturally.  Some of these playthings come with a thin, soft cushion to separate the strap from the tree. This is better, but for long term installation, these thin cushions are still not the best protection.  Spaced out blocks of wood are best.  
This is better but not best.
  1. Enos or Hammocks – no worries here!  Dream away all your troubles at a safe distance from the crazy world.  Our only advice about Enos is to get one and use it regularly. If you get a hammock instead of an Eno, consider using straps for the tree attachments rather than lag screws or other hardware that may come with the hammock.   
  1. Treehouses – for our treehouse projects we like to build free-standing structures that incorporate trees but have minimal if any, hardware attachments to the tree itself.  
Treehouse collaboration between Truetimber and Watkins-Garber Outdoors.

If you are worried that you might be playing too rough with the trees at your house, we would be glad to come out and give you some advice, or help you set up tree-friendly play. Silver linings are few and far between in the dark clouds of world events right now, but one that glimmers brightly is the play and joy I see Richmonders finding in their own backyards. 

Blocks of wood are the best option for cables or straps on trees.

Book Review: ‘Tree: A Life Story’

April 13, 2020 · 3 minute read
Book Review: ‘Tree: A Life Story’

Have you really looked into a forest recently? You know, the kind of looking where the casual eye scan is followed by a true effort to relate. Looking, like many of us don’t do enough of these days. I’ll tell you what, let’s rephrase the question.

“Have you related yourself to a forest recently?”

If the answer is “no,” or “not enough,” or even “I don’t know how,” then you may want to pick up a copy of “Tree: A Life Story” by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady, with illustrations by Robert Bateman.  

The authors grabbed my attention early with an evolutionary explanation of my very first relative on this planet — the protocell of a bacterium that was the first combination of atoms to react to its environment.  As that story goes, some 3 billion years or so since cellular sex became the rage, and after millions of randomly mutated offsprings, you get the stiff, 90-foot tall loblolly pine tree standing in my backyard. You also get, inside the house, the soft-skinned and more animated creature wiggling his fingers on a keyboard. More alike, if you look back far enough, than different. 

This blowing the dust off our oldest family album has the desired effect.  When the authors begin telling the story of the 500-year lifetime of a single douglas fir tree in the pacific northwest, I am no longer reading a book about a tree. I am reading the biography of a relative.

And what a biography it is! Though the authors have a proper respect for evolution theory, they recognize that when it comes to living organisms, the total character is somehow more than the sum of the parts. In “Tree: A Life Story” we learn the details of the myriad relationships this one douglas fir makes with its environment. We learn of its immense thirst and the fancy mechanisms it has devised to grab water from the earth. We learn how it ages, and begins to share more and more of itself. We learn how in old age it becomes an apartment complex for the forest homeless, and even after death and collapse it serves as a nursery for the development of the next generation.  

Suzuki and Grady’s douglas fir is not merely the generic output of some universal evolution machine. It is something more.  Something not altogether predictable.  This 300-foot-tall earth-giant is a bravely-struggling living organism with a strangely-inspired living character.  

A Douglas fir tree.

Along the way, the authors diverge into detailed discussions of the history and progression of botany, but they also ramble into wonderful discussions of the plants and animals that share a  place in the tree’s life story. Owls, mice, bears, cougars, woodpeckers, subterranean organisms. These and many more have learned to respect the areas around the douglas fir tree. They respect that life, and prey, are abundant there. The authors awaken my understanding that even while sacrifices of life are made in the forest, rarely are they made to the point of gluttony or species depletion, and always there seems to be a balanced harmony of characters.

I found it almost a shame that towards the end of this tree biography the authors reviewed the alarming statistics about the decreasing area of earth’s forests and made some political jabs.  Not that the blows weren’t appropriate or warranted, but these combative gestures yanked me out of the unspoiled, virgin forest and back into the reality of fear and concern for the future of these places, and these trees. Just a few quick jabs at the end. I guess I can take it, and I guess I can trust the authors of such a wonderful book. If those jabs at a society that seems unable to relate itself to a forest are important to them, they should be important to me. And so I ask again,

“Have you related yourself to a forest recently?”  If not, get this book.

Beautifully Waiting

March 12, 2020 · 3 minute read
Beautifully Waiting

In all things of Nature there is something of the marvelous.  — Aristotle

Our place on earth wobbles slightly away from the sun.  The great provider’s shower of energy is distributed in smaller portions.  The air grows colder. It’s a time to wait.

Sweet gum terminal buds

Sweet gum terminal buds

Winter is the season for hunkering down, not for advance.  The equipment and supplies for the coming offensive are concentrated in a myriad of micro-bases established at the outward limits of last year’s campaign.  These small base camps, clearly visible now that the thick, spent machinery of last year’s effort has been discarded, might be easy targets for any enemy were they not so heavily armored for protection. They gradually bulge with arriving supplies as the season of cold, wind, snow and rain progresses. One imagines there must be great excitement and anticipation inside the armored perimeter of these outposts as the days grow longer again and the early March air begins to warm. The wait is almost over. The time is coming to build on last year’s gains. The time is coming to advance. The time is coming to spring!

This is not the description of the American war effort in some foreign country, although it easily could be. This is the description of what is going on in the sky between you and the upper atmosphere as the deciduous trees (those that discarded their leaves for the winter) above your head get ready for the great spring offensive. These trees are ready to add another layer. They are ready to extend, and ready to grow. And their little basecamps, better known as “buds,” are swelled to bursting at the armored scales.

But why the winter hesitation? Why all the drama. Why “deciduous?” Why not simply “evergreen?”

Terminal bud of the tulip poplar

Terminal bud of the tulip poplar

Only the creator knows. What we do know is that the creation itself is diverse, and in one of nature’s sundry adaptations, many of our trees have developed the behavior of casting off the leaves of the previous year and entering a state of dormancy through the winter months. Their lives become a cycle of alternating sleep and growth synchronized with the cycles of earth as it tilts away and then back towards the sun’s life-giving radiation of energy. The oak, maple, sweetgum, poplar and other leaf-discarding trees do magical things as they participate in this cycle, changing their colors and shedding off parts of themselves that are shared with the earth to replenish its soil. They entertain with their autumn colors and falling leaves in the soft gloaming of the summer party; looking most beautiful, and most giving, in the moments before sleep. Then they wait.

As spring arrives, these theatrical trees are roused from sleep by the increased warmth of a nearer sun. They erupt amazingly to transform tiny buds into large, green leaves and colorful flowers. They grow again, enriching the atmosphere with their exhalations.  Our deciduous trees make a dazzling show of it as they cycle more obviously with the earth and its position in space.

Silver maple flowers

Silver maple flowers

Unfortunately, one of the most beautiful parts of the show, the buds and flowers of early spring, often go unnoticed. Small and mostly above our heads, often overlooked, are the fascinating and varied ways the deciduous trees have to protect the precious supplies in their base camps of growth. Under the outer shell or scales of terminal buds are the jelly-like cells of the apical meristem, capable when called of adding another layer of “tree” onto last year’s layer.  Trees don’t grow by stretching. They grow by stacking layers upon layers, both in the main stem as rings of girth and in the upper canopy as added extension into the sky.

So this spring I hope you will take a closer look at the small miracle that is the transformation of tree bud into leaf and flower. In Richmond you will always know spring has arrived when the forest blushes crimson with the eruption of red maple buds. This is, in fact, the feature for which this native gets its common name.  Flowers on maple trees are small but beautiful, almost suggesting some exotic species of sea coral.

Slow down and take a look.  Seeing the excitement and preparation for spring in the trees around you might just inspire your own great 2020 campaign of growth and expansion.

Did the Wind Get Your Attention?

February 18, 2020 · 2 minute read
Did the Wind Get Your Attention?

Sometimes in Richmond we go for months and months without a significant wind event. Last week we had the one-two punch that was the undoing for quite a few trees in the area. First there was the heavy rainfall for an extended period of time that softened the ground and made the trees more wobbly. Then came the knockout punch for some — heavy wind gusts.

Damage from last week’s wind storm.

So, if that got your attention, or got you looking at your trees, we thought it might be a good time to revisit the basics of visual tree assessment. While summer is a great time to get a sense of a tree’s respiratory health, winter is the best time to check its structural health. For an arborist it’s like having x-ray vision to be able to see the structure cleanly without the interference of foliage. If you are especially worried, or see something you don’t understand, it’s always good to call in an arborist. But here are a few of the things you can look for.   Binoculars might help.    

  • Hollows and Cavities
    • Check the tree out from bottom to top for visible openings on the surface of the trunk or branches. Sometimes you can look for animals entering or exiting cavities in the trunk. While cavities are not always cause for tree removal, they might warrant a closer inspection by an arborist.
  • Sapwood Damage
    • Winter is a good time to see other scars or damage to the sapwood of the trees.  The most vital part of a tree is just below the bark, so any damage to this layer could lead to problems.
  • Broken or Hanging Branches
  • Mushrooms 
    • Anytime mushrooms (i.e. fungal fruiting bodies) appear from the roots or stems of a tree there is some level of decay present.  If you see these, it’s a good time to call for a closer inspection
  • Co-Dominant Stems
    • Two or more large stems competing for dominance, attached at the same point, and heavily side-weighted are often quite weak. This is especially problematic when the connecting junction is V-shaped rather than U-shaped, leaving little wood remaining for strong attachment of all stems.
  • Excessive Lean
    • Leaning trees are always usually more susceptible to failure than vertical trees.  Signs that a leaning tree is in trouble are usually visible at the ground level.  You might find the ground “heaving” or mounding at the base of the tree, or find soft spots in the soil indicating that the rootball is shifting in the ground.

So if the wind got your attention, take a good look around your yard to see if your trees were either damaged by the wind or have signs of health problems that you might want to have looked at closer before the next big blow.

A Few Good Trees

February 11, 2020 · 3 minute read
A Few Good Trees

The James River spills out from the Blue Ridge Mountains like a drunkard from a hillside bar after last call. Wandering, turning back on itself, tipping and swaying towards any and all degrees of the compass dial, the dizzy James makes a serpentine tumble through 145 miles of the Virginia piedmont between Lynchburg and Richmond, connecting the same two geographic points a sober crow would connect with a 100-mile flight.

Though wildly meandering, heavy gravity imposes a general inclination to the drift, and just as the stumbling drunkard eventually finds himself at the base of the hill, the always-descending James finally empties itself into a place where the sun rises from a level sea.

In a shallow passage of water between the island and the north bank of the river.

When Old James has been drinking heavily up there in the hills he rushes cloudy and brown into Richmond, carrying along small pieces of mountain and earth picked up along the way. With a roaring laugh, he hurdles Bosher’s Dam, limbos the Willey Bridge, and a half-mile later bends through a narrow turn north before rushing headlong towards the Huguenot Bridge. After speeding up to spit through the bending restriction, the water slows down and eddies along the northern bank.

It is here, just west of the Huguenot Bridge, that the James drops some of its earthen luggage and writes a comma of soft sand into the flowing story of its journey from mountain to sea.  My daughter’s and I call the place “Long Island.”

But this island of sand would probably have been washed away or moved by changing river dynamics by now were it not for the pioneering efforts of a scrappy little river-loving family of trees known as The Willows.

In this part of the world, the willow is one of the first from the plant kingdom to inhabit a sandy island, and like those recently honored marines of the Normandy Invasion, a landing party of willows takes the open beach and does the desperate labor of holding it fast and making it inhabitable for those more celebrated species to follow.

A sturdy willow tree defends the island’s northern point.

Today Long Island is ruled by two mature sycamores towering above the high ground at the center and an Osage orange that litters the sand with tennis ball-sized green fruits in mid-summer. Surrounding these royals are river birch, sweetgum, and a host of other landed gentry, but it is where island confronts river at the western end that one finds the gnarled roots and mangled lower trunks of the tenacious willow trees that have fought hard to hold the beach and sometimes given all in the effort.

At first glance, it would appear that the dark and drunken James always has the upper hand. Willow wood is soft and light. Twigs and stems are easily ripped and carried away during confrontations with high water, leaving the underdog willows looking battered and beaten. But like the many-headed Hydra fought by the strongest Greek hero, Hercules, from each severed member of the willow there sprouts multiple new green-haired shoots. What’s more, in one of my favorite arboreal adaptations to the challenges of life, this river-loving modern hydra has learned not only to grow new heads from the stumps of the severed but also to grow new stumps from the severed heads themselves. After a free ride downstream, a willow branch can be enlisted to join a new landing party where it will shove roots sprouted from the branch into the soft bank and become a whole new riverbank reinforcement.

Only a few hundred yards to the east the recently remodeled Huguenot Bridge crosses the river, shouldering the incessant motion and drone of car-mounted humans. Yet on the sandy north bank of Long Island one finds himself quite secluded.

The small stream of water between island and mainland is guarded at either end by old black willow trees extending horizontal arms over the passage and dangling light green locks right down to the surface. Once just a small island of sand, thanks to these unsung heroes, Long Island is now a natural paradise of trees and wildlife. On a summer day, if the water level is right, you can set your lawn chair in the ankle-deep northern passage of water, watch and feel the sand crawling past your feet, listen to the faintly whispered response of fluffy willow to river breeze, and write a peaceful comma into your own fast-flowing life story.

Bad Fruit?

February 11, 2020 · 7 minute read
Bad Fruit?

My daughters aren’t very young anymore. Or maybe you wouldn’t agree. They can still tally their earth years using the original abacus — human digits. Shouldn’t one be considered young, you might contend, if in common American parlance that one is referred to as a “teenager?” OK. Conceded. From the vantage of a fully earth-cultured adult, I recognize that 13 and 16 must still be considered ages of youth.

A bright, white present

But these finishing ages for my young ladies only foster in me a greater appreciation for that period of life when ages were still counted without taking off shoes. Adolescent youth. The fewer the digits the better.  Pre-knowledge, still in the garden youth. I refer fondly here to the great “Wow!”-not-”Why?” age of puerility!

I even recall the sense of loss I experienced when my first daughter began to speak. We taught her to apply these secondhand symbols to the manifold sensations of her experience. Then, during frequent adventures into the lowland behind our house, I began to have word questions to answer. Silent but expansive communion was compressed into audible words, and then partly spoiled by communication. “Why is the sky blue?” she began to ask in a narrow, seeking way, where before was only a wide-eyed and wonder-filled gaze into the heavens that celebrated, “Wow!, the sky is BLUE!” And to honor that silent exclamation I had only to piggyback on her wonder, lifting old, green eyes in a parallel gaze that screamed silently, “Wow! It sure is!” In those pre-word or limited-vocabulary days, we quietly revered the quality of our surroundings, and I think it possible that Anna and I will never be as close as we were before stiff-arming our spiritual embrace with words.

Old pictures tell it one way, but in reality, I was the piggy-back rider when my daughters were young, hijacking their spirits to steal glimpses of the creation through youthful eyes. A 2016 January snowstorm reminded me just how different is this “teenaged” stage of youth. A snowstorm used to be one of the biggest things that could happen in our Richmond lives. Many other winters have passed here with hardly a dusting. The 12-inch blanket of white crystals laid over us this past January was an extra big snow, probably the biggest of their lives, and set the stage for a big experience. But my girls are older now, and being cultured to value knowledge over experience.

We tried sledding, but we’re too big now for tandem sledding. Taking turns is not the same, and as we stood around awkwardly between one-at-a-time runs it became obvious that the “together” part had been 95% of our prior sledding fun. Back in the house, we watched a movie by the fire, and then my young adults disappeared into their rooms to chat with friends and get to work. Their teachers had emailed assignments to make sure this rare natural event would not fully interrupt their learning. Poor kids. A snow event was better protection from forced knowledge back in my day.

With the girls in their rooms and me wandering uncomfortably through old snow day memories, the bright, white present was about to slip by without proper homage from the Turner family. But then I saw Cinna sitting expectantly by the door.

Thank goodness for dogs! Ignorant dogs. Innocent dogs. True children of the earth, and reverent garden dwellers. Always available to give an old man or woman a spiritual lift and a piggyback ride. Isn’t that why we love our dogs? Knowledge never interferes with their desire to bathe in nature’s eternal spring. To wallow in it, even. They certainly never miss a chance to play in it. I think we love our dogs mostly because we find their immature mental condition peaceful and contagious.

I call Anna and Brooke from their rooms, we pull on warm clothes, we climb on the back of Cinna the mutt, and we chase off into the lowland bounding through snow up to our chins. Wow! The air is so cold! So invigorating! It makes us run back and forth and around in wild circles until we don’t even know where we’re running anymore.

Brainfreeze! Wow! The white stuff is so bright and so tasty. We eat it until our teeth hurt. We plop down in it, rub our backs in it, stick our faces in it. Wow! We can walk on water! The creek was wet and runny last time. Cold, hard and slippery this time. Go figure! Whoops! Fell right through the hard part and back into the wet. Now it crunches. Now we crunch it under our paws. Did you see me jump all the way across? Ok, not all the way but almost. Watch this time! Wow! Do you smell that!? Do you see that!? Do you hear that!? Do you feel that!?

My daughters and I ride Cinna’s youthful spirit downstream along Rattlesnake Creek, sometimes walking on ice, sometimes balancing on rocks, laughing, playing, and revering. It has become our more mature tradition on snow days to hike the Rattlesnake through the lowlands to its confluence with the James just east of the “Huguenot Woods” section of the James River Park System. There was a time when a canine escort was optional, back when the young ladies provided all the lift. But theirs is a different youth now, more complicated, and slightly heavier in spirit.

The river’s slow crawl

Frowns or sadness once brought about only by fear or physical discomfort can now spawn from bad thoughts or bad ideas. On their bookshelves, “Brown Bear Brown Bear what do you see?” has been replaced by “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Lord of the Flies,” and “Hamlet.” They gain spiritually dangerous knowledge, sometimes, and knowledge that leads to that worst of all human conditions — anxiety. That overcast of uncertainty, that anxiety, brought on by knowledge, begins to intercept the bright experiential sunshine of earlier youth. This is no mere conjecture. I assure you I’ve seen it first hand and studied it closely, and concluded from evidence that the first great loss of innocence comes long before the biological transformation of puberty. My own children were first unsettled during their adolescence, partly evicted from the garden when we began feeding them fruit from the tree of knowledge.

Today Cinna leads us back in. 95% of our laughter relates to our youthful escort and the uninhibited way she bounds down the creek. 95% of our wonder is related to what she shows us in our surroundings. 95% of our playfulness is in imitation of her, and 95% of our contentment is the result of hijacking her spirit, and looking through innocent eyes into a snow-covered garden of immense beauty. Our dog brings us together, and on a snow day, together is 95% of the fun. And so I say again, thank goodness for dogs!

As we move across Riverside Drive and into the narrow “Huguenot Woods” section of the park system, we begin to hear a strange, soft sound. Wow! Odd for me at my age to hear an unfamiliar sound. Like rain on a tin roof? Na. Not gravelly enough. Like light rain on open water? Nope. Not the same consistency. Like river rapids? Almost, but not urgent, white and fuzzy enough. It’s a scratchy, slightly variable, and sandy hiss that we hear. Strange and without compare. Subtle and distant, but also everywhere at once, softly filling the air. Intrigued, we press ahead to where our creek joins the piedmont’s major tributary.

At the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek we find the surface of the James scaled with small plates of ice, all moving gently eastward.  There is only a slight gradient here, and at normal water levels, the flow is almost imperceptible. Today the mottled skin allows us to clearly see the river’s slow crawl. The scratchy hissing noise has grown louder, but only when we follow Cinna close to the frozen edges do we discover its source. Those floating scales are making tiny scratching sounds as they scrape along the frozen edge. Individual scrapes are barely audible, but in concert with millions of other tiny scrapes the sound grows to become a subtle but pervasive hiss.

The untravelled Huguenot Bridge is silent. The woods are silent. But on the first day of the 2016 snowstorm, the James River hisses strangely as it crawls its way through a frozen landscape on its way to downtown Richmond. A sound like no other. Wow!

Back in the house, exhausted Cinna does her post-adventure dead animal impersonation — long and flat prostration. The girls go back into their rooms to gain knowledge. I sit in the armchair by the fire, my head filled with thoughts of gardens, snakes, and bad fruit. And then, because I’m hopelessly human, the thoughts become words.

The Whites of Winter’s Eye

February 3, 2020 · 2 minute read
The Whites of Winter’s Eye

Looking from the south bank of the James River just west of the Huguenot Bridge, I see Canada geese turning their tail feathers to a cool, blue sky as they submarine long-necked heads to feed on silt and vegetation on the river bottom. White buffleheads on winter vacation from Canada twinkle like stars on the dark surface as they take turns diving to rummage for insect larvae. Looking down on this winter feeding is a thick congregation of Virginia’s native trees. From a distance the dense stand of trees on the northern bank form a tangled mass in varying shades of grey and brown. But there is one species in the crowd that seems to want to distinguish itself in the depths of winter even while all the others appear dull and tired. One cannot mistake the great, white monarch of the river’s edge – the glistening, white-skinned sycamore tree.

While Richmond’s native trees typically capture our attention with their clothes on, adorned by flowers, fruits and foliage, the sycamore is best appreciated in winter after its large brown leaves have fallen to earth and its naked white trunk and limbs stand out in stark contrast to the comparatively lifeless forest around them. Hanging from the majestic white frame are multitudes of dangling fruit balls which persist on the tree over winter before breaking up into downy fluff that carries the tiny fruitlets far and wide on wind and water.

The sycamore seems most happy on the borders of rivers and lakes. Anywhere you cross the James in Richmond you will see them gathered near the water. My favorite place to take notice is on the Willey Bridge, where my attention is sometimes dangerously divided between the thick stands of sycamore down below and the path of my truck above. Along with the black willow, the Sycamore has learned to live where many trees cannot, in areas where it will frequently find its lower trunk and roots submerged by a swollen surge of water. Along the James through Richmond, it is common to find either of these trees growing in the space between riverside boulders.

Pioneers properly associated the presence of sycamore with soil fertility, but found various uses for the wood. Though not a suitable wood for home building due to a limited resistance to decay, its wood is nonetheless hard and tough. It is said that the pioneers cut cross-sections of the trunks to make primitive solid wheels for ox carts. Other uses included hogsheads for grain, wooden washing machines and lard pails. Today, though sparingly used for crates and boxes, the most likely place you will find sycamore wood is at the butchers shop since it can be endlessly hacked without splitting.

But I don’t think this tree grows to be used. Along the river’s edge in Richmond this tree is growing to be noticed, and to offer contrast. If your winter becomes too dull and grey, and you find your mood as monotonous as the natural palette surrounding you, amble down to the river’s edge and take notice of one of Richmond’s oldest natives. Look past the grey, the brown, and the dull of hibernating water and earth, and in the space separating the two you will find yourself looking directly into the whites of winter’s eye.

Experiment at the Homestead

January 30, 2020 · 9 minute read
Experiment at the Homestead

Today, I love the feeling of sore muscles.  Sore muscles today means heavily used muscles yesterday. Something so physiologically heavy happened that my body continues to tell the story. I strut around with the soreness as with some invisible trophy of physical self achievement.  The inscription:

  “Yesterday, I lived!”

Spiritual Scientist

And as I have raised two daughters, or at least accompanied two daughters while they were too young to easily fend for themselves on earth, I have often positioned myself to experience another type of soreness.  A spiritual soreness.

It’s a soreness that can throb suddenly, especially when “I”  finds himself doing an activity that “we” were recently doing. But as a spiritual scientist I have often set up experiments to deliberately invoke and isolate this unseen wonder of human existence.  To study it.     

Experimental Apparatus – The Deerlick Trail 

  The worst part of the 4-mile trail run is the beginning. 1.25 miles straight up the Deerlick Trail,  climbing 1000 ft or so to gain a rocky outcrop and a pleasant look down on the Hot Springs Valley and the Homestead Resort.   Another mile traces the ridgeline, climbing even higher, and then a series of steep-falling, short, back-to-back hairpins re-connects the ridgeline to the valley.  Only the last mile, following a few holes of the golf-course back down to Hot Springs, are what I would consider gradient-pleasant for a two-legged creature.   

The “I”

I had run-walk-ed, then run-run-walk -ed, and on the last day run-run-run -ed the four miles of the Deerlick Trail when I was at a business conference here earlier in the spring.  On that first day, when I was beaten into walking submission less than halfway to my goal, the itinerary for I’s next two days was set.  I doesn’t like to be physically beaten.  I challenges himself all the time to be tough physically and mentally and to let challenges like running to the top of the Deerlick Trail inspire him into his next day of life.  I dangles his own fat carrot of self-worth and pride in front of himself on these steep trails of mental and physical challenge, and even experiences moments of self-satisfied euphoria on the immediate heels of accomplishment.  Euphoric was I after run-running all the way to the rocky outcropping on my last morning, beating the sun’s rays to the peak.  Triumphantly I ran along the top of the ridge. Giddily I  tap-danced down the steep hairpins to the valley below.  Pridefully, full-chested, I did my best gazelle along the edge of the golf course as the golfers, I tells myself, looked on in amazement at this powerful force of nature, equal parts mind and muscle, come down from the mountain to strut before the “them.”   

The Catalyst – A Unique and Dangerous Walk

Anna had laughed at me the first time I suggested the hike.  She considers “hiking” to be a mere euphemism for “dangerous walking,” and why would she bring any kind of danger into her vacation?  Didn’t we come here to relax?  She wasn’t even given a vote about coming here anyway.  And!  Anyway, she’ll lose pace with the Kardashians.  Kylie is getting her lips done but isn’t sure she should. A hike? Ha!  In the morning?  Double Ha!

“Hiking is Just Dangerous Walking.” – Anna

But there is a playfulness to her protest that is attractive and promising.   Though it is true that as her teen age has advanced she has lost much of her interest in dangerous walking, part of me knew that she wouldn’t let Brooke and I go without her on this particular adventure.   

You see, we came to the Homestead Resort for the first time as a family to better distinguish this vacation from our countless other beach vacations. This one is different.  After this one, Anna is off to college.  And though she imitates a shallow youth in her protests and some of her guilty pleasures, the Anna I have come to know for 18 years would know how much her life is about to change, and the physical distance these changes will create between me and her.  My Anna would know the value of one last daddy-daughter-daughter adventure.

And sure enough, when Brooke and I walked out of the Homestead towards the DeerLick Trail, the deep and thoughtful Anna I know was not staying by the tv to make sure Kylie’s lips would come out ok.  She was taking one last dangerous walk with her immediate family before striking out on her own.

The “We”

I didn’t have high expectations.  Neither of my girls has been showing the masochistic tendencies of their father.  They don’t beat themselves up physically the way I do, and other than swimming neither has been very active this summer.   I thought that our hike to the summit could become a hike back from the trail to the summit at any moment.   

But the stars were aligned for the Turners that day, which might be another way for saying that each of the Turners on the Deerlick Trail knew that this hike was different than every other one we had ever made together.  There was no, “I can screw this one up, because there will be another one tomorrow” attitude.  There was no getting on each other’s nerves.  There was no taking one another for granted.  

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The “We” on Deerlick Trail

We enjoyed each other.  Joy from each other.  The climb was tough, and two of us weren’t in shape for it, but we helped each other.  When we reached the rocky outcrop, we celebrated with each other.  We took pictures.  We laughed.  We sent pictures to Anna’s boyfriend.(Amazed, he was about Anna’s dangerous walking).  We made fun of Brooke, and Brooke didn’t care.  She fell down like a newborn giraffe in front of other hikers, feet separated from knees, and then did it again when she tried to stand up, and Brooke laughed at herself to help us laugh at her with her.  We thought we would be tired after the climb to the rocky outcrop, and want to turn around to go down, but we were undivided in our decision to take the long way home. To finish the hike.   Anna with another fake protest.  Brooke now feeling her oats.  We walked the ridge, then fell through the hairpins.  The woman working the remote golf course snackbar was happy to see us when we tumbled off the mountain.  Our “we” was putting off a glow, and she was stuck out here all day with nothing but her “I” and some old ladies playing golf to keep her company.   She gave us free water bottles and said she was bored.  Mommy was at the pool now and wondering about us.  We had been gone a long time.   We sent her pictures.  We walked carelessly down the valley-  the most beautiful way to walk.  Without a care, talking about silly things. Finally we landed in the one street town of Hot Springs, Va.       

The “I” Again, And Spoiled Country

The one thing I should never do, as I press my limits and try to make myself larger, is invite others into my solitude.  Once Anna and Brooke had walked the Deerlick trail with me, once we had struggled together to the top, giggled our way along the ridge, and laughed our way down and back to the resort, that 4 miles of trail in the western Virginian mountains was changed forever.

How do I know? I finished the experiment.  I ran-ran-ran it the next day.  

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And when I got to the top, to the rocky outcrop, all I could see was the absence of Anna and Brooke.  No euphoria on the trail along the ridge – only absence. Red-faced exhaustion. And soreness? Yes! Soreness in the hairpin turns, at the place where Brooke and I stopped to do a photography experiment.  Soreness as I imagine the voices and the souls around me, sharing the trail with me. A different feeling in my chest, now, as the golfers see my descent. Hollow. Lonely. Sore. The trail was full yesterday.   Today, just me. Just I. And I knows that if ever I am on that trail again, that soreness will return. The days of solitary euphoria on the Deerlick Trail are gone for ever.  

The Conclusion of a Spiritual Scientist

My wife notices that the screen has my attention more than it usually does.  We are at the beach with our best family friends. I stare at this screen, and in this screen I only see Anna.  I left her in a dorm room at NC State two days ago. I will miss her. She has spoiled almost every physical space I know.  She has spoiled the white space of this screen. Nowhere will ever be the same without her. All is spoiled. I am sore. And yet . . . I somehow realize that I love this soreness even more than I love physical soreness.  I love it for its depth, its intensity, and for the larger sense of accomplishment it represents.    

The Trophy

My journal from 15 years ago reads:

June 3, 2004

As I write these words, I find myself immersed in the chaos of eastern American family life.  I am dug into it, this human life, and still digging. Other human beings around me, close to me, need and depend on me, so that my existence seems inseparable from theirs. Amy, Anna, Brooke and I are linked together, conglomerated, in such a way that to even imagine the absence of one of the parts causes a sinking, simulated pain somewhere deep inside where the bonds with these other humans form and strengthen with no mental effort or special attention from me.  Sometimes I only know the strength of the connections, and the raw, nerve-like nature of the emotional tendons between us by imagining the immense pain of one of the parts being torn away. A gaping hole, with dangling nerve endings, ripped sinews and profuse soul hemorrhaging would be created! 

Well, less imagination needed now.  Though I still have remote access to her, a certain level of extraction has begun, and when I return to my house, a bedroom will be empty.  No experiment. Something so spiritually heavy happened that my soul continues to tell the story. Abrupt, intense soreness!

I love it.  My heart carries it around as one of its greatest life trophies.  The inscription:  

 “Yesterday, We lived!”