Friday, September 30, 2011

Death of a spruce

Call me a tree hugger if you‘d like, but I’m a person who hates to cut down a grown tree.  I figure by the time a tree has grown to stand ten times taller than me (or thereabouts), it has a right to exist as much as I do.  
Brings to mind a line from one of my favorite movies, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman:  Jane, a 100+ year-old former slave, still kickin’ in the early 1960s, is talking with a magazine writer about her long and storied life.  The two are sitting underneath an old oak tree.  Jane says she comes down to sit under the tree now and then for the counsel it gives.  She lifts her cane slowly, taps the tree, winks, and says, ‘It’s just the age that one respects...’
That said, we had a tree fatality in our yard recently that has me thinking today about its demise.  It’s a spruce.  Don’t know if it’s a Colorado or a Norway, but it is a spruce.  It stands just off the back porch, down on the decline toward the back property line.  
When we got here fifteen years ago, as far as I know, it was doing fine.  The crown has looked a little weird for years, though.  Couldn’t figure out what happened to it, but it was a little contorted and didn’t seem to grow any taller.  Still, the branches were long and lacy and it was a good companion in that place where I like to sit three seasons of the year, temperatures willin’.  
Two or three years ago I noticed a major needle fall late summer/early fall.  I didn’t remember it dropping needles before, but this was really something.  Then I heard about how vulnerable spruce can be to dry conditions.  Hmmm.  Didn’t like how that sounded.  I tried to water the thing, but didn’t know exactly where to put the hose.  I mean, the ‘drip line’ of the tree (the radius of the branches, from tip to tip) must have been thirty or forty feet.   Where do you put water to help something so extensive?  And what about all the other trees in our little back yard forest?  I  eventually dropped the hose at the spruce’s base and let it run for a couple hours.  I hope it helped.  The other trees were on their own.
But then we had another dry summer spell.  And another.  And the annual needle drop began again.  The bad thing about a spruce needle drop is that once the tree has decided a particular branch is unworthy of pumping fluid out that far, there is no tomorrow.  The tree gives up on that limb and, I guess, tries to plan for the future in new growth somewhere else.  
Unfortunately, those water abandoned appendages took on a macabre view from out dining room window, just above the porch.  Back in this last spring I did what I could to lop off the deadest looking branches so we saw more green from other trees out the window.  Still, dead spruce branches were prominent and I knew my friend had seen its better days.  
Years ago I remember hearing from Paul Knoop, now-retired Aullwood naturalist extraordinaire, that when one is going for firewood, not to cut dead and dying trees.  Instead, cut healthy timber that may be crowding out other trees trying to make it.  Give the trees a little more light room, in other words.  Besides, the dead and standing stuff make great homes for critters that woodpeckers and other bug eaters need.  Made sense.  
So, even though the spruce was effectively dead, I thought it best to let it stand.  Still, every time I drove up to the house I could see it’s dead crown sticking up over the house.  Didn’t like it, but I was willing to sacrifice appearances for Nature’s People in the neighborhood.  
Then last week a young man stopped by in his beat-up SUV, wife and two kids with him, asking if he could take the spruce down for a moderate fee.  He was a laid-off brick layer from up north a county or two, with no real chances of a better job in this economy.  He took to tree trimming some time ago to keep food on the table.  I had considered potential trouble with having a dead tree standing so close to the house.  When he gave me his price, which was a lot lower than I knew my regular tree guy would be, I said Do it.  
And so the presence of spruce off the back porch has been eliminated.  Pretty much, anyway.  Since it stands right on a chain link fence line, Nate couldn’t reduce the tree to a short stump.  I told him to leave it stand just high enough so that I could put a bird feeding platform on what was left.  
In the last week, I’ve had three major fires in the ‘pit’ on the patio trying to reduce dead limbs from said spruce.  (See action photo above.)  Lots of stuff remains.  Trunk chunks, cut in fireplace length, are now stacked in front of the garden house waiting to be split.  Branches have been trimmed and burned, while a large pile of heavy limbs awaits further cutting and stacking.  Oh, and by the way, the ashes from all three fires have been scooped up into a galvanized bucket and sent flying back over the floor of our Wild Grace back yard. 
I notice, too, that sun now shines on that section of the woods more brightly.  With all of the rain we’ve gotten this September, I know those smaller trees trying to make a living back there will have a better shot at good health next growing season.   
So it goes, and good for the kids.  But I’ll miss the spruce.  Made me think about Colorado pretty often.  
Today’s Elder Idea:  The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber.  The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky. 
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Prayers fly unimpeded
just beyond the reach of taxus --
soaked on a wet September afternoon --
witness to hosta bloom, 
hummingbird battles, 
walnut bombs, and
the fading of summer. 
late summer 2011
Here is some of what I’ve learned about prayer flags this week: 
A prayer flag is a colorful panel of rectangular cloth often found strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas.  They are used to bless the surrounding countryside and for other purposes.  
Traditionally they are woodblock-printed with texts and images.  
These flags of bright, solid colors are believed to have first flown in one Buddhist sect’s healing ceremonies.  They have since been embraced by many.  
Prayer flags are often tied to the high point of a building or nature, even mountain peaks.
Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras of the flags will be blown by the wind to spread good will and compassion into all pervading space.  
Prayer flags are flown in a specific order of five colors that many think represent the physical elements:  blue (sky/space), white (air/wind), red (fire), green (water), and yellow (earth).  
Some flags bear ‘prayers’ with one of the following wishes:  longevity, knowledge, prosperity, love, wisdom.  
Some believe that when air passes through the flags, the air is purified.  
Many believe these flags promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom.
Special prayers of long life and good fortune are offered for he or she who mounts prayer flags.  
New prayer flags are flown beside weathered and faded ones to show the renewal of life and the young standing beside the old.  
Today’s Elder Idea:  Believers hold that prayer flags bring benefit to all creation and all beings.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Getting old ain't for sissies

As most of you faithful readers know, my mother celebrated her 90th birthday last February.  I’d like you to know she is still doing very well and living a full life down at St. Leonard retirement community in Centerville. 
It hasn’t been a terribly easy year, just the same.  And such is why I wanted to focus on aging parents this time around. 
Mom and Dad had seven kids, which along with spouses, puts a lot of folks on the committee deciding how to proceed in our efforts to best keep Mother safe and thriving.  We don’t always agree, which I would imagine does not surprise you.  Sometimes I wonder which behaviors we exhibit have roots all the way back to when we were kids.  My guess is much of it does.  But I’ll save that reflection for another day.  
Back in February, just before Mom’s birthday celebration, six of the Magnificent Seven sibs met to discuss what to do for Mom that she might not be able to do for herself any more.  We decided that some in-home assistance every week would be a good idea, along with ‘meals-on-wheels’ which would deliver nutrition right to her door.  
After months of considering the best way to go, we selected a service that would get Mother help two days a week, five hours at a crack.  Mom would be responsible for picking up the tab.  Since my sister is now handling the checkbook, Mom really wouldn’t have to do anything except enjoy the aide’s company after directing her to the tasks she had selected for the day.  Food prep was one of ‘em.  
Just to make all this a little more interesting, Mom was diagnosed with a meningioma (a benign tumor) located deep in her brain, a few months ago.  The little bugger might make her a little unsteady on her feet now and then, but overall, the neurologist said that it really shouldn’t impact her safety all that much.  He encouraged her to continue using her walker regularly.  No problem with that. 
He also diagnosed Mother with the onset of dementia.  Problem is, when he explained to sibs present at the appointment with Mom what that meant, Mother’s hearing failed her and she missed the whole discussion.  So it wasn’t until a couple weeks later that one of my sisters told her about the dementia.  Mother was floored.  
As a result of the neurologist visit, Mother was put on a drug that is designed to help aging brains.  Since that time, I think her behavior has brightened up a bit.  She still isn’t happy about everything in life, but she talks about reading at church, enjoying Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune every weeknight, and recalling an interesting passage from a book she is currently reading.  
And so, into this mix, enter an in-home aide my Depression-era Mother has to pay for to the tune of about $160/week.  
To make a long story short, a certain brand of family hell broke out just about then.  Sure, Mother doesn’t want to pay for the help.  But, damn it, let her spend some money on herself.  
Or:  Mother needs the help to stay safe and it’s just her dementia talking.  Or:  We all decided on this course of action.  Let’s all give it time.
Just the same, Mother wasn’t happy with arrangements.  She explained to me that it felt like we were ‘putting her out to pasture,’ letting somebody else do the work she does for herself.  We were ‘crippling her’ and putting her in a position ‘not to be me....  I am not in bad shape,’ she said.  ‘Maybe in two months or six months, but not yet.’ 
Well, we sibs weren’t all happy with the concept of giving up on in-home care after just a couple of weeks.  But we did.  The program was cancelled the other day and Mother, at age 90, is on her own again to do her own laundry, take showers, and make meals.  That’s the way she wants it. 
All of this wasn’t easy for us kids.  I’m pretty sure some of us aren’t talking to others because of how things developed.  
And I guess that’s the point of today’s blog:  It is so important to empower folks, including 90 year-old seniors, to be in charge of their lives.  Mom said after the cancellation that she felt like she got her ‘home back again.‘    
Mother may need help one of these days.  I suspect she will.  And though we sibs did what we felt was best, it didn’t work.  As I wrote my brother, ‘Great idea.  Wrong timing.’
We’ll be keeping an eye out for Mom’s well-being.  In the meantime though, she knows she’s still in charge of her life, as difficult as it may have become.  Losing gifts to aging isn’t any fun and, in fact, can be damned depressing.  
Still, is it not the point that senior friends and family members know they have been listened to and are in charge of their lives -- for as long as they can be?
Today’s Elder Idea:  When I reflect on my own personal physical fitness -- I know I’m not in as good a shape as I could be -- I think that lots of folks never lived long enough to be 61 like me.  Sure could be worse.  Life is good.  
Your humble blogger

Friday, September 9, 2011


One thing I reflect on at this point in my life is a feature that, though I truly treasure, feels like a major failure in accomplishment. 
Fact is, as much as I wanted to be a mountain hiker/backpacker/scenic river rafter, it never really happened.  
I dreamed about it often enough, though, and did a few things to reach those goals.  I can remember buying my first pair of Vasque boots, complete with heavy Vibram soles, in the early ‘70s at the old Wilderness Outfitters in Eastown shopping center.  Then there was the shedding of the canvas tent for the 4-person one made of rip stop nylon -- a portable dwelling that would house the whole family and still be light enough to carry up a mountain trail.  And, of course, there was my first borrowed backpack built on a metal frame that promised to carry everything we needed, even if we had to tie stuff higher than my head.  Balance was the thing. 
And I did backpack.  A bit.  The first big event was the 1977 trip up the Roaring River Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park followed by a night a few days later in the backcountry at Grand Teton.  Jennifer was 4 years-old then while Chris was a tough and spunky twenty-something.  
And, yes, I did raft on the Clark’s Fork in Montana and on the Colorado near Moab.  I expect some summer soon Cindy Lou and I will take grandkids rafting the Arkansas in central Colorado for a day trip. 
Still, I don’t get the sense that my personal spirit drives me to explore and go and move out into places I don’t know for the sheer adventure of it.  I really thought the spirit of adventure would be more of a guiding force in my life.  Never really got there, though. 
Life seemed to get in the way.  Family.  Kids. Responsibilities.  That kind of stuff.  And now I sit on my back porch where the extent of wildness is cardinals bathing in the birdbath and hummingbirds challenging each other for ownership rights of the sweetwater feeder.  A barred owl swings through Wild Grace now and then, stirring up the worries of mom and dad birds.  I don’t mean to say there is no danger out there, just not for me.  
As disappointed as I might be about a road taken that diverted me from wilderness expeditions, I still feel mighty good being in the presence of wild Nature.  I love walking along the Little Miami in John Bryan State Park for its rugged beauty.  Getting to the Sangres the last few years was amazing.  Pop-up trailer camping with my grown-up girls at the Smoky Mountains has proven to be really good.  All these experiences, though, seem pretty tame in comparison to the real-life adventures I read about first in Mariah magazine, then in Outside.  
So where does that leave my dreams of being a modern-day John Muir or a Jerimiah Johnson?  Long gone.
Still, though, I love being in the presence of moving water, rugged mountains, and a sky that fills an imagination.  I love to just be with such energy.  I love to just be present and feel what wonders Nature has stirred up for the day or for that hour.  
Such behavior is pretty zen, after all.  I am beginning to accept that just being aware is enough.  Being witness to Nature as it moves through its myriad mysteries is a lovely and rewarding practice that is, in essence, a practice of mindfulness.   When all is said and done, serving as witness to Nature doing its thing sounds true, good, and beautiful to me.  
And as different as all this might be from what I once dreamed, I’m still looking damned forward to hiking to South Crestone Lake next time we’re at the Sangres.  The dream is alive and well in my heart.  
Today’s Elder Idea:   It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s not knowing where you might be swept off to.  
Bilbo Baggins
from J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing
image:  On the Rio Grande Scenic RR / by Cindy Cooke (summer 2011)