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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Hallowed Earth

My friend was double-digging a garden bed next to her house when she dug up the bones of the rabbit.  She had lived in the house for nearly a decade and had never owned such a pet herself, so spirit and skeleton had long since separated.  Someone had loved the rabbit enough to bury its body in the garden.  Maybe it had been a child's first real grief, or possibly a loss less heartrending, but it had been a loss nonetheless.  She dug a deeper hole, and reburied the bones.

Some months later, her old cat died.  She buried him next to the rabbit, spreading fresh flowers over both of their graves.

I didn't mark the grave of my sweet orange cat.  He had lived indoors all his life, and so I buried him in the rough meadow beyond the fence, near a wild rosebush, not far from the creek.  His spirit can do what his body never could, and terrorize the rodents living in the woodpiles, stalk the snakes in the old stone wall, slip unseen through the grasses.

I didn't mark his grave.  Instead sometimes I still call his musical name out the back door after dark, into the rain.  He is nowhere and everywhere in the meadow now, part of the soil, part of the rosebush, part of the worms and the birds and the mice and all of the other beings who together make up that living web I call the meadow.

So it has ever been, and so may it ever be.

Somewhere on the flanks of a hill nearby, the last of the native peoples buried their dead and tended the graves.  The site is no longer public knowledge.  I think about this as I walk the paths that encircle the hill, now forested with thick stands of Douglas fir that are overtopping the oaks.  It's been well over a hundred years since the last burial there.  Likely even the bones are gone now, dissolved and picked up again by the tangled mat of roots that makes up the top layers of the ground.  The original place of burial is now moot. 

By this way of thinking, both the forest and the meadow are sacred ground.  By this way of thinking, all ground is sacred, for through the ages every inch of it has received the bodies of the dead and the dying, received back the carbon, the nitrogen, bone and hair and nails and teeth, skin and water and calcium, received it back and mixed it in the guts of earthworms and bacteria, made it ready for root and shoot to offer again the same stuff of life for the next round.  In the soil, past and future generations lie together beneath the blanket of leaves and grass, joined by the arc of those now living in that brief space between.

So it has ever been, and so may it ever be.

If we remembered this, if we remembered how we are beholden to the sacred ground, would we be so quick to treat soil like dirt?  Would we bury our dead embalmed in steel boxes lowered into concrete crypts, as if to cheat them of that final journey of renewal?  Would we think that burying toxic waste in the ground is a travesty?  Could we bring ourselves to dig strip mines, pave parking lots, strip land bare and leave it naked under the staring sky?  After all, we wouldn’t think of digging up the bones of our own ancestors, grasping at grave goods with hands of careless greed?  But we have done even this.

Why do we think it is only one day of the year that the spirits of the dead call on the living? Who are the dead?  All Saint’s Day, All Hallow’s Eve, the Day of the Dead.  They have become us, and we will one day become one of them. 

Better to take a picnic to share among the stones engraved with the names of those mostly forgotten, remember that they too once knew the warmth of sun on skin, the feel of a kiss, how good it is to be alive on an autumn morning as the leaves go down with one last flash of gold.  Better to spread flowers over the earth, offer compassion for forgotten grief, call the names of those we have loved out over the hills, and tend all as carefully as we would our own grave.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


When European settlers first arrived in this region nearly two centuries ago, they planted fruit trees.  I don't know if this is the first thing they did, but the trees are the last signs of those early settlements.  A trained eye knows where to look for the remnants of an old homestead by identifying the trees the settlers planted.  Hauling young fruit trees  along the Applegate Trail took an act of imagination, a belief that the new life could have some of the same comforts of the familiar, even in a new land very far away.  The reward of that hope comes due every fall, when the woods are full of wild apples.

We went for a walk along the creek above us the other day, spotting feral fruit trees as we went.  There is an old row of apple trees along the road, continuous across current property lines.  Possibly once this whole section was tended by a single landowner.  Near the end of the paved road, the achingly red fruit of a forgotten tree hang like bright holiday ornaments.  Although the tree doesn't look like one of the original settler trees,  it appears to have escaped the notice of the people who own the property.  It isn't visible from their house, but it is separated from the road by a deer fence, discouraging trespass and sampling of those gloriously bright apples.  A pity.  I'm tempted to knock on the door, but we have an abundance of apples ourselves.

Farther along upstream, signs of an old orchard exist in a number of battered old apple trees, and we also found a pear tree and a stand of plum trees that were first pointed out to me by my dog, who loves the soft golden fruit that falls to the ground. 

The old fruit trees kept growing, fighting for sunlight against the swift-growing, light-greedy Douglas firs and the bigleaf maples that quickly overtop them.  They've remained even after the pastures have grown back into forest and the buildings completely rotted away, leaving only faint traces that the small farms ever existed here.  In fact, the strongest signature of former human habitation in these woods is the presence of these fruit trees, now the oldest in this section of forest.  They've woven themselves into the ecology of the place, offering habitat and food and hanging on to the patch of soil they were first given by the people who planted them.

Our land supports a few old trees as well, possibly planted at the same time as the apples up the road.  A young beaver moving through the area girdled one last fall, but somehow the tree survived the horrific damage and even produced a few apples this year.  The other trees are more like thickets because of the root suckers and bent, dragging branches, creating hidden lairs for the bobcat who comes along the creek now and then, visiting in hopes of a chicken dinner.

When we finished building the house, we planted an orchard.  It contains pears, plums, cherries, a peach tree planted as a whim and a wild hope because peaches often do poorly here.  We also planted three apple trees, carefully planning out a long season of fresh fruit with a Williams' Pride, producing apples in August, a Liberty, whose crop comes in late September, and a Gold Rush, whose golden fruits blushed with rose ripen a month after that.  "Mature fruit trees" seems a selling point in real estate, even though most of the time the fruit is never used.  It seems an almost instinctive desire to have some apple trees all the same.  Perhaps it's just another  way of putting down roots in a place, tying ourselves back to the land we live on.

The impact of our activities is so pervasive now it is hard to quantify, in the sense that no spot on our planet is unaffected by our species.  Often we think of this only in the negative, and to some extent, perhaps we should.  But the apple trees bear witness to another kind of influence, where we weave our lives into an evolving landscape, not always harmoniously, but managing nonetheless to create a complex story where our own points of view are present but not dominant.  After all, the Earth is our home, and we are as much creatures of this world as the deer.  In a more enlightened world, let this be the knowledge brought to us in the fruits of the woods and fields.  If this were so, perhaps we'd take better care of them.