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Trying to be Quiet in a Noisy Time
‘I. Don’t. Support. Either. Side. Politically. Not the left, not the right. I’m about supporting people and restoring local communities. Now, go breathe some fresh air and relax. Please? :) I’m not worth obsessing over, I promise. Go spend time with your loved ones.’” [italics mine]
—Oliver Anthony, singer-songwriter of Rich Men North of Richmond
Yeah, I’ve been feeling that way, too, especially the fresh air part. Indeed, after reading the Mary Oliver poem below, I resolved to take a break from the spiritual migraine that is Donald Trump and write about the magnificent elm in our front yard (picture above). It is an old tree; it has a plaque affixed to its trunk describing it as a “historic tree,” though there’s no mention—the plaque predated us—of what that history might have been. Our house is also historic, dating from 1690 or thereabouts, the birthplace of Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Freeman. The house and tree fit each other; they are comforting, solid, perfect as a phone call but understated. They keep me anchored to this place and its heritage; they work—not always effectively—to keep me humble. They are the opposite of a McMansion; they are the opposite of Donald Trump.
But about the tree: It survived Dutch Elm disease, which, in itself, makes it notable. It survived, most likely, because it stands alone; there are no other elms nearby, and the plague was passed from tree to tree. We’re told that it is 130-140 years old. But that’s not as important as this: it is shaped like a chandelier, with a thick truck, and long branches spreading in all directions like candelabra. I try to spend a little time with it every day, moreso earlier in the summer—before the tree people gave it a hygienic trim—when the low branches, fecund with new leaves, bent low and brushed the top of my car. I will touch the trunk from time to time, which is as close as I’ll get to tree-hugging; I doubt this Puritan bower would appreciate such a flagrant display of affection. But I do murmur thanks, thanks for the calm it brings, the shade it grants, the munificence of its beauty.
We have other fabulous trees—and some new ones we’re nurturing (I worry about the pink dogwood sapling across the yard from the elm, struggling to dig its roots)—including two grand English oaks in the back yard. Sanity Goddess did some research, as is her wont, and found that in the 17th century packing crates from England used acorns as buffering, the way we use styrofoam peanuts now. We like to imagine that our oaks are the children of those acorns, just as we are the beneficiaries of the values—most of them—that the Puritans brought with them: a sense of civic responsibility, of egalitarian justice, of independence and, yes, propriety. I do not feel we “own” these trees; it would be absurd to call them “mine.” We steward them, grateful for their company. They live here; we’re just passing through.
I am in a phase of reading right now where beauty matters. I’m reading Beverly Gage’s magisterial biography of J. Edgar Hoover, but that’s work. For fun, I’m lost in three gorgeous books, which I’ll have more to say about when I’ve done reading them. They are A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry, A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib, and Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit, the last of which gave me the idea to write about the elm. They are three very different books, united by the elegance of their words and rhythms. Reading them, which I do at night, before bed, is an aesthetic narcotic—even if the subjects of all three are uncomfortable: war, race, the itchy brilliance of Orwell’s intellectual odyssey. The gratification of reading them is similar, somehow, to the sense of peace that shimmers from our cohabiting elm. They make me feel—well, sorry—rooted in a tradition; words are what I do for a living. I find catharsis in perfectly structured sentences, perfectly chosen phrases. I don’t build them very often myself; I kvell when others write them.
Writing Sanity Clause these past six months, I’ve been exhilarated by the pleasures of playing with words and ideas. Trump is almost a guilty pleasure. His unabated evil revs me up, as does the myopic self-righteousness of the left. But the elm tree—which will still be standing, I hope, when I'm long gone—reminds me of the importance of revving down, decelerating, appreciating. We need more of that, I need more of that…and so, Mary Oliver:
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don't hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that's often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don't be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
And yes, as September 1 approaches, please pledge your support: