The Apple Tree Whispers

The apple tree in my backyard has not been well cared for. It is diseased and weak, and when overburdened with apples, branches often come crashing down. The apples are no good to eat.

I can only assume that in the years before we bought this house and moved in, no one took the time to trim the tree, to care for it properly. No one attempted to stop the spreading black fungus which crept along, year after year, eventually covering many of the larger branches. No one tried to halt the invasion of boring insects.

It won’t survive for many more years, this old apple tree, but we’ve done our best to save it by fertilizing and watering it often, applying treatments to heal its ailments, and trimming it back in the spring and fall.

This apple tree will be appreciated in its final years, for I believe there are many lessons to be learned from it. On quiet days, the tree whispers to me with the wisdom of an elder.

I look out over my backyard as I write, towards Lake Superior and this craggy apple tree. It resembles a bonsai tree, with a Zen quality that can only be attained through time. It is still beautiful in its old age, and in the darkest days of winter when the sun rises behind it, the creeping red over the lake horizon casts the tree in a celestial glow.

Clearly visible in that halo of light are the stumps where branches have been sawed off in the distant past, and long, spindly new shoots, jutting in every direction, which must have been hidden behind leaves and apples when we trimmed in the fall. We will cut most of them back in the spring. Those that are strong and straight we’ll leave, to balance the tree where a branch may have broken the year before. When a healthy shoot rises next to a sickly one, a choice will need to be made.

My life often feels like this tree, overburdened, with new shoots coming up every year. There is so much that requires my attention, my time, my life energy, that I must continuously try to determine what to keep and what to cut. If I don’t trim back some branches, I will get diseased and weak, like the apple tree. I cannot sustain them all.

Choices need to be made.

Some shoots fill in areas that are bare. They stretch toward the sun and even out the places where I am vulnerable. They make me whole. They are keepers.

Some shoots are harmful, unnecessary, demanding or negative. They need to be trimmed. Those are the easiest decisions to make.

At times I must cut away branches that I have nurtured and loved, though it hurts terribly to do so. When something has become so toxic that it causes distress, I know in the long run I will be healthier for it. Sometimes a part of the branch remains as a reminder. In bonsai this is called jin, signifying that the tree has had to struggle to survive. How fitting.

When the saw makes the cut–back and forth, back and forth, back and forth–it is a long and tortuous, painful task. Often it’s better when the axe does the job. There’s an abrupt end with the axe, very finite, with little time to ponder or contemplate. The pain is quick and intense, then passes.

Other times the branch simply breaks, splits under the pressure with a resounding crack, and falls to the ground. Afterwards I feel lighter, never realizing until then how much that branch had been weighing me down. Unfortunately, the breaking usually leaves fragments, splintered remains, or pulls off more than it should, tearing away at the bark of the trunk. I have learned to remove those branches before they fall; they can do a lot of damage on the way down. Sometimes they break other branches on the way that I had intended to keep.

In the fall, trimming helps the tree to conserve its resources so it can survive the harsh winter.  After trimming in the spring, the apple tree blooms. It has more to give to the branches that remain, more energy to thrive. It stands taller, is less weighed down, more balanced. Healthier.

And really, isn’t life all about staying healthy and finding balance? How much can we handle? How much can we give? How much can we ask for? How much can we take? How much can this small bit of matter we inhabit actually accomplish in a lifetime?

With each trim and each new growth, my energy changes, what I have to give changes, and similar to the silhouette of the apple tree in the sunrise, the way I am perceived changes.

Looking out over that tree I have realized that there will always be new growth and letting go of the old. And it is good. It’s okay to accept that something doesn’t work in my life anymore. It is okay to move on, to leave behind that which is toxic, to let go of an old dream and create another, and to keep what I need for myself. Because in order for me to thrive and care for what I love, I must be also well cared for. I must be balanced and healthy before I can be fruitful.

“It’s up to you to choose what is important and worthy of your precious life energy. It is up to you to decide the things you need to let go. It’s up to you to be bold and keep only that which will help you grow healthier, find balance, and become a beautiful, craggy tree in your own way, with your roots firmly planted in the Earth, and your branches dancing in the wind, joyously reaching for the sky.”

That is what the old apple tree whispers to me.

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Seiche

Those of us living on the Great Lakes are accustomed to severe weather. We don’t always love it, but we do expect it. At times it snows twenty inches overnight. Other times the brisk winds from the Arctic Circle race across Canada, and if we inhale too deeply, it freezes our nostrils closed. Men come inside from snow-blowing with icicles hanging from their beards. And that’s just the winter months.

Sometimes, a summer storm rolls across the land with so much intensity, so much power, that it  changes the entire lake ecosystem…

When extreme pressure from a storm front pushes down on one side of a lake, this compression can be so tremendous, so strong, that massive amounts of water will flow to the other side, causing the opposite shoreline to flood. As this huge surge overspills the shoreline, the water climbs into the mouths of rivers, washes out low-lying roads, and rolls even the largest, gnarliest pieces of driftwood onto the beach. It causes boats of all sizes to tug desperately on their moorings.

On the compressed side of the lake, the water moves away from shore and mysterious things long buried underwater are exposed — perhaps the skeleton of a shipwreck, or a glistening strip of colored stones, or the remains of a dock that pulled free and disappeared beneath the waves. The standing docks seem to be on stilts, with dry land beneath them, their spindly legs covered in green, dripping algae. Boats on this side of the lake run aground and beaches become vast expanses of sand, littered with curious objects. Maybe even treasure.

One must be quick to discover these treasures though, for once the surge reaches its furthest point, it reverses and the water flows back to inundate this newly barren shore, creeping back with the unstoppable force of water.  After reaching its furthest point in that direction, again it retreats.

This phenomenon, called a seiche, continues for hours, with the water sloshing back and forth, each time a little less intense, until it finally reaches equilibrium. Even though oscillations  continuously move through enclosed bodies of water, they are usually so small that they are not noticeable even to boaters — only when extreme pressure acts upon the water does the phenomenon cause destruction and chaos.

We’ve all felt this tremendous amount of pressure, when the neat edges of our safe, little harbor were askew and overflowing, and all we could do was hold our heads slightly above water to keep from drowning until it was calm again. During those times, we were pushed to our extremes, with emotions overspilling their banks, losing all control, and re-learning what it meant to be vulnerable and exposed to the elements, churning in turmoil.

Even worse, those secrets that had long been hidden deep within were exposed for all to see. Ashamed, we covered them, collected them, hid them. But in doing so, maybe we found a clear piece of rounded blue glass, or a soft pink shell, or a swirling red agate. Maybe we discovered something about ourselves.

After the storm passes, and the surges have settled, the lake resumes its normal ebb and flow. Although the obvious and immediate result of a seiche is destruction, there are many benefits from the turmoil as well. The seiche-driven wave action lifts nutrient-rich sediments, such as decomposing leaves and grasses, from the deeper waters into the sun-lit, surface water where algae can create new living tissue through photosynthesis out of the otherwise stagnant, decomposing material. By whisking those nutrients to the upper levels of water, this disturbance, or upwelling, makes it available for use in the food chain, which in turn, makes the lake a healthier ecosystem.

Even the water rushing onto the shorelines carries nutrients onto land, enriching the soils. When it recedes, it pulls back more leaves and grasses to add to the churning lake, feeding it, making it more whole and resilient.

Looking back at the most difficult events in my life, I realized that like a seiche in the lake, those experiences also enriched me. At the time I only felt the swirling, overwhelming waves battering me, nearly drowning me, but once the storm quieted and I could catch a full breath I felt stronger, wiser.

I was forced to assess where the storm was most destructive, thereby admitting where I was vulnerable. I re-enforced as needed.

I faced my own shipwrecks, and accepted the treasures that had been washed ashore.

I fed upon the upwelling of lost emotions, memories and experiences that had been put to rest on the bottom of my lake bed. They burst forth into new life.

I realized that many small seiches had moved through my life, subtly redefining my shorelines, preparing me to survive, and even thrive, after a storm. And for the first time I was grateful for them.

We have no control over the weather, just like we have no control over many of the events that happen in our lives. We can only control what we take away from those experiences, how we survive them. They can enrich us, or drown us.

And I, for one, am learning how to swim.

Noseprints

If you are a pet owner, you know about nose prints.

They show up on your patio doors, windows, windshield — anywhere your pet decides it’s interesting to watch the world outside. When you have more than one pet, you can tell whose nose prints are whose by how high they are off the floor. Sometimes they’re wet and smudgy, so you know there’s been a lot of snorting and barking going on, and other times they are perfect impressions, like the heart-shaped nose prints the cat leaves on the bay window.

I’ve tried to keep up with cleaning nose prints, but as soon as I wipe them away, they’re back. Sometimes I forget about them, or don’t notice them until a whole strip of window is covered and I think, ‘didn’t I just clean that?’ It seemed to be a never-ending battle, then…

A few years ago, we lost both of our dogs in a short span of time. The first dog, Adora, was sixteen and had been our ball dog, always wanting to fetch, always carrying a ball around the house. She would catch balls bounced off the garage roof, swim after them in the lake, and dig through the snow to find them. Because of her, we went outside every day, rain, shine, or snow. She was an Australian Shepard mix, and though her name was Adora, we mostly called her Ora, Dee Dee, or by her rapper name, Doggie-D.

Our other dog, Jackson, was a black lab/shepherd mix who took off hats, no matter what kind. When someone came over with baseball hat, a winter cap, anything, he would gingerly step his front paws into their lap, gently take off the hat, then hand it back to the owner with a big wag of his tail.

If you rubbed the side of Jackson’s face, just along the whiskers, he made a snarly face like Elvis. He also barked at the bust of Elvis our friends had at their house, so we called him the Elvis-spotting dog. We also called him Bilbo Beggins, Mookie Bobo, The Black Panter and many, many more.

Jackson died somewhat quickly of kidney failure at only nine years old. He’d been losing weight, but since we’d just lost Adora we didn’t realize he was sick. We just thought he was sad; that he missed her. She’d been there since the day we brought him home from the animal shelter at ten weeks old.

We gave him water infusions under the skin. We gave him medicine. He threw up a lot. The fur on his face turned gray. We did our best to save him, but in a short amount of time he faded away.

After he was gone, whenever I would sit in the living room I would see those nose prints on the patio door. He would never make another. He would never ask to go out again. He would never press his nose up against that door, transfixed, watching the fat squirrels run across the top of the fence in the back yard.

Never.

For months I couldn’t bring myself to wash them off, and neither could my husband. I would run my fingers across them and think to myself that I would wash nose prints off windows all day long just to have him back. All day and all night.

I look at everything I love from that perspective now. All things we love leave nose prints.

I love where I live but the winters are so darn long and cold — nose print. My husband is amazing, but never fills the ice cube trays — nose print. He lets it go that I leave my socks all over the house, just like those pesky nose prints.

We need to learn to let the small things go, because in the great scheme of things, it isn’t what really matters. What matters is that we love what we love while we have the chance. Everything else is just nose prints.

For a long time after losing our dogs, the thought of getting another dog made us feel miserable and guilty. No dog would be able to compare. We would never love another dog like we had loved those two.

I still think that’s true, no one will ever love two pets the same way; because no two pets are the same.

And by loving them we are not the same.

When we decided to get another dog, we needed something different, so we found someone who had a litter of ‘oops’ puppies, and brought home a four pound mini-dachshund. Then we began another journey with another set of nose prints, this time much daintier and much closer to the floor.

After many months I finally wiped those tall nose prints off the patio door.

They returned in full force a year later, when we rescued another mini-dachshund, Frank, who was two years old. He’s a bit taller than Penny, so now we have two parallel nose print lines across the bottom of the patio door, one a slight bit higher than the other.

And I can’t express how much I love seeing them there.

What I Know about Pine Trees

Pine trees are all different.

Pines growing on the rocky outcroppings around Lake Superior are often stunted, crooked, and twisted into unnatural shapes. They perch on ledges, balance precariously on top of boulders, or cling desperately to cliffs, parallel to the earth after part of the rock beneath them gives way and crashes into the lake. Their roots, bare to the elements, finger their way into cracks, pulling minerals from the rock and water from the shallow pools in small indentations. These trees have to endure the cold, long winters, northern winds, and the frigid spray of crashing waves which form icicles on their needles and branches.

They are survivors. They are the watchmen of the lake. They are the old ones.

On the beaches, pine trees thrive in the sandy soil. They carpet the ground in a blanket of needles in burnt oranges, dark reds and golden yellows which release a chemical into the soil that hinders growth in other trees. The forest consists only of a carpet and canopy of needles with straight, uniformly sized trunks in between and crisp, blue water in the background. In the sand, pines grow straight and tall, their limbs jutting out at right angles in whatever arrangement that suits them.

I have never seen a symmetrical pine tree.

White pine once grew from one end of Michigan to the other, covering the landscape in old growth boreal forest. Logging over the past few hundred years has changed that…for better or worse who can say? After pine trees are cut, other species grow back in their place: oak, maple, poplar, beech–all of those beautiful trees which change color and lose their leaves in the autumn.

Yet the remnants of those majestic pines still remain. Eagles often make nests in their upper-most branches. Crows use them as watching posts.

These trees are the protectors of the forest; they tower over the other trees and become lightening rods in thunderstorms, often meeting their fate when a bolt of electricity splits their trunk.

There comes a time when even the hardiest of trees must let go.

All along the shoreline are trees that have given in to the elements. They lie on their sides, roots exposed. Pine trees have no tap root; their roots twist and turn and creep and crawl, crossing back over each other, looking for every drop of water, every bit of nutrient near the surface. They are shallow and extend in all directions in a tangled web so when the tree falls over a gnarled, woven tapestry arises.

Every exposed root bed of a pine tree I have ever seen has a face; some have many. They are the wizards of the tree. They keep it safe from harm, and when the time has come for the tree to die, they rise up and watch over it, keeping vigil over the grave where the sleeping tree lies.

Pine trees are all different.

Yet, they are also the same. They all do their best to stand tall, be majestic, and protect who is around them, being strong when the storm comes. They may not live in perfect conditions, but find a way to survive, defending their home if necessary. They are susceptible to their surroundings and cannot control their environment–the wind, the rain, the sun–but they do what they can with what they receive, and thrive where they are planted.

So can we.

Listening when the Lake Sings

What is the song of a lake? What is lake music?

Most noticeable, of course, is the waves. Combine their rhythm with the distant sound of power boat motors, all humming different pitches, like bagpipes. Then add in seagulls, squawking intermittently, and laughter from shady picnic tables where families have gathered to barbecue. Follow it up with the wind shaking and rustling the beach grass and the soft sound of sand moving beneath bare feet. Finally there are the foghorns, those melancholy harbingers of cool lake mist.

Then we know it’s time to go home.

In the winter it is a different song. There are no barbecues or boats, no bare feet walking across the sandy shore, no grasses waving, adding percussion. It is quieter. It is a hibernation song.

Yet, still the lake sings.

In early winter, when night comes, the air cools and a thin layer of ice forms on the surface of the lake. One  morning as I walked along a path near the harbor I heard a tinkling sound, like an uncountable number of small bells ringing. It took me a moment to notice it; it was so soft, so delicate. That thin layer of ice which had formed during the night was being broken up by the gentle wave action of the lake. The symphony I heard was millions of thin slivers of ice moving in rhythm with the waves.

I was being serenaded by the lake, and the ice was dancing to its own high-pitched, ethereal song of nature as it performed.

The ice reflected the rising sun, dazzling me with sparkling lights. The ore dock reflected the chorus back to me. It was a tune filled with such sweetness, such longing, that I felt the lake sensed there was only a short amount of time for it to sing.

And so it did.

Listening to the lake music I realized that I only have a brief window of opportunity to sing as well. And I decided that I would.

But that was not the lesson I took away from this experience…

I’ve thought of that lake song many times since. How is it that one moment can stay with us? One moment where nothing really exciting happened–except we were somewhere and something made us feel a certain way. I didn’t plan for the lake to influence me that day with its music; I was just out walking and enjoying the early morning sunshine. But it did influence me–because I was observant enough to notice the moment.

So often we pass by things that could help us, lost in thought, remembering what we need to do, planning how we’ll do it, or chastising ourselves for what we’ve forgotten. We’re focused on giving ourselves a hard time for not doing something every second of the day and not accomplishing more.

We’re preoccupied with those who’ve hurt us.

What are we missing? Life could be singing for us and we wouldn’t even hear it. Life could be coaxing us to sing our songs and we wouldn’t even know it.

I’m grateful I was an attentive audience for that lake song, because even though those notes are still out there somewhere, ringing forever outward into the vast expanse of space, they are also living on in my memory. For all I know I was the only person to hear the lake sing that morning. I’m sure by the afternoon the thin layer of ice had melted.

I wasn’t there to see it go. I didn’t want to tarnish the memory by hearing the music fade away. I remember it at the height of its beauty, with the sun shining down on a million glittering shards of ice, and a million watery voices singing the morning into being.

The Traveler

In my hand, I hold a traveler.

It is a traveler who has not been exposed to sunlight in thousands of years, who has come a great distance along the bottom of a cold, cold lake. It is a traveler who has been continuously dragged and pushed and beaten upon by waves, sand and stones, finally making its way to the light, rolling upon the shore and showing its color to the world, its uniqueness, its beauty.

All along Lake Superior, as waves caress the beaches, tumbled stones are swept and hurled out of the water and onto shore:

The basalt, perfectly shaped into blue ovals, so zen, so serene, lying in the sand as if they have nowhere else better to be, as if they have arrived at their destination and are now on a long vacation.

The colorful agates, swirling of reds and oranges and yellows, well hidden in plain sight, rare, created in the formation of the land. They are so hard that only diamonds will cut them.

The Kona Dolomite, with its soft pinks and reds, nearly fading into the colors of the sand beneath them.

The milky white quartz, those perfect ovals with hidden shadows and streaks of gray smoke, containing unknown treasures within.

And the granite, easily overlooked, grey flecked, impenetrable, rounded like eggs, fitting perfectly in my palm.

Some have deep cracks. Some are irregular, rolling randomly, zig-zagging across the sand. Some are perfectly round. Some have holes right through them. All of them are unique, and together they create something even more beautiful than the individuals alone.

The stones on the shore have been scraped and shaped by other stones, their corners rounded and their edges softened through the long passage of time. They have been smoothed by the gentle caress of waves and polished by sand over countless years. Their rough edges are gone and they roll easily upon the beach.

Some people are like that. They are easy to spot; they maneuver effortlessly through every situation, even when things don’t go the way they had planned. They roll with it. They have softness in their face, especially around the eyes. They shine with unique and beautiful color. Their mouths curl up a little in a sly smile, as if they know a secret — a secret which even if they confided it to the rest of the world, we wouldn’t understand. When we’re around them, we’re calmer, more content. Their smoothness rubs off on the rest of us, almost as if they were polishing us, smoothing our rough edges, pulling us farther upshore and away from the tumultous waves.

There are some people who crack and chip. They are forceful, too large, too hard, or too strong. They leave a path of destruction in their wake that will take time to wear away. Yet sometimes they can be helpful, crafting the shape of other stones in a way the gentle polish cannot. They can be exactly what was needed.

What kind of a stone am I? Cool colored or warm? Small or large? Am I rounded, flat, oval or irregular? Am I uniform? Am I cracked? Do I have a hole that goes straight through me? Do I have a secret shadow within?

How I long to be smooth! How hard I work at it. How long will it take me to become that way? How many trials, tribulations, storms and tumbles? Rather than chipping or cracking when hitting another stone, I want to be more like those rounded stones at the lake, with each scrape, with each rub, I become smoother, more well-rounded, and help the other stones to do the same. I want to roll easier with the waves. I want to be smooth enough to be kept as a good luck charm in someone’s pocket, or on their desk as a reminder.

But I lose my temper, lash out, smash others, causing chips and cracks which leave marks on them, and on myself as well. I always regret it.

I also allow others to chip away at me, breaking off pieces that are well-worn, having to start over with fresh edges to soften.

Yet I keep on trying. I have to. A single stone on the beach seems so lonely. The chance meetings with other stones craft what it becomes. And so it is with us.

I rub the traveler in my hand, then put it in my pocket. It will not be a worry stone, but a reminder to keep going, to keep trying, to keep learning from nature and that perhaps one day, I, too, will be able to just roll with it.