wall of foliage

hiding from Google Street View

I’ve been hearing this sound like maybe a tree bough is rubbing against the house, intermittently when a breeze picks up. I went outside and tried to spot where it might be, but the shrubbery and spiderwebs got the better of me. I decided it would be better to get up on the roof and look for it from above, so that’s what I did Saturday morning.

I hauled loppers up there with me, and a sweatshirt to kneel on because the shingle was already painfully hot. There were four or five big trees encroaching on the roof in various places. One bay tree, two maples, plus some hazelnut and walnut all threaded together with clematis vine. And a cedar that’s maybe getting ideas.

I snipped and lopped and heaped the branches on the roof until I’d made enough progress that maybe the roof won’t be such an ideal freeway interchange for rodents– my other objective. Then there was the problem of where to throw it all off the roof– in most places, it would get caught in other greenery long before hitting the ground. I pretty much pitched half of it down from above the back door, and half of it down from above the front entrance to the porch. (Later when Sanguinity went to cut it up, there was way too much for the yard debris bin, so a big pile is waiting for next week.)

I liked the diagonal view across my block from the roof– all the other roofs plus antennae and outbuildings and a jumble of fences, like a Miyazaki cityscape.

Of course, the sound I’d been worrying about is still there, exactly the same as before.

Once, years ago, in a job interview (with people I didn’t like) when asked, “what’s the next thing you’re working on?” I said: “A biography of the trees in Karstula, my grandfather’s village.” That did the trick, the lights went out in their eyes. Boy do I know my trees.

Stephen Kuusisto

Batman, cupcake reading, trees

The middle day of a three-day weekend is a beautiful thing. Sanguinity and I went to our favorite coffee shop and ate this:
breakfast sandwich and lunch special from Pieper Cafe
and I drew Batman (a bit Loki-ish now that I think of it):
Batman as drawn by Holly in a spiral notebook
Last week I started reading Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and did not want to stop til it was (sadly) over! (But there’s going to be a sequel!) It has a bit of a Little Women vibe, with three close sisters and the boy next door. It’s about family and friendship as well as romance, and the characters were likeable, good kids just trying to figure stuff out. Even the mean girl was not that mean and had an understandable motivation based on the characters’ past interactions. It’s the kind of sweet comfort reading I call a cupcake, light and well written.

I was a little taken aback at how much of my pleasurable sigh as I got into this book was based on the setting of universal affluence. I mean, starting on page two, the characters are talking about a possible trip to Paris over spring break. And when they decorate their Christmas tree, it’s “We run out of lights, so Daddy goes to buy more at the store.” (I grew up middle class, but you unwind the lights and redo them with more space between the rows!) It’s not a gossip-girl type thing where conspicuous wealth and glamour are what the book’s offering; it’s a shiny, normalized wealth where teenagers have cars and no one thinks twice about ordering pizza delivery once a week. I love it when books show working-class families (Ramona and her Father, Please Ignore Vera Dietz), but apparently I love this too, in a different way. Maybe it’s nostalgia for Nancy Drew and her roadster, or the baby-sitters in Stoneybrook? Some kind of relaxing escapism going on.

At the same time, I happened to have also just started Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life in a desultory way. (It’s my backup bus book, in case I finish my book on the bus, or don’t feel like reading my regular bus book. Not an exalted position in my book hierarchy.) Weirdly, the unremarked-on affluence in that book made me grouchy and resentful! She buys a pricey chaise longue “covered in an antique Tibetan blanket” because why? Because “although I have an office in my home, it had grown stale. My desk was piled high with papers, mail, and various forms that had nothing to do with my writing life.” A few pages later, she’s like, “I can’t imagine what my UPS delivery guy thinks when I crack open the door to sign for a package. There’s that weird lady again.” Um, he thinks you don’t have to go to a job. Right? By this time I was pretty much hate-reading (“On my desk, propped between two Buddha-head bookends,” grrrr), until on page 47 I came to: “my friend Peter Cameron.” What? Really? Well. Just in case they really are friends and I am missing something, I will quit with the judgey and keep reading to learn something. I’ll let you know.
Yesterday Sanguinity and I went on a Heritage Tree Walk down in Sellwood. The rain was coming down like it meant business, but there were still about a dozen of us there, led by an arborist and an AmeriCorps volunteer and someone from the city’s street tree program. We saw a gorgeous pair of American Chestnuts that escaped the blight, a big Oregon white oak, and an amazing huge European Copper Beech in a big yard. But one of the coolest things was when one of the leaders started measuring the trees that were on public property or in the planting strip between sidewalk and street with a diameter tape!
diameter tape for measuring trees
It’s a cloth tape with a little crank for winding it up again after use, and each “inch” on the tape is actually 3.14 (or so) inches long. So you measure around the tree and the number on the tape is the diameter. I wish every kid learning about pi and circles could play with one, it is so pleasingly concrete.

At the end of class we got a booklet with maps and descriptions of every heritage tree in Portland. And an application in the back in case you know a tree you think should be designated. (They’re pretty choosy, accepting only about 25% of applicants.) So we are equipped for a project if we ever want to go visit them all. :)

Drifting away, and climbing trees

Yesterday morning I went for the first run in a long time. I realized when I pulled my water bottle off the shelf that it had been a long time since I’d held it in my hand or filled it with water! (Then I realized that weird black stuff had spotted the inside, and I found another bottle.) I did four miles omg. Could be I’m back to running and still on my way to 100 miles. Not this season, but maybe next year. If things go great this season, maybe I’ll try for 50 miles at Autumn Leaves. Hard to know.

It’s so easy to drift away from things. In high school I was a musician, getting first chair in statewide orchestras and working up short piano recitals. There didn’t seem to be any difference between me and the kids who went on to be music majors and professionals. But once I went to college I didn’t audition for anything, didn’t play anything on the piano that I didn’t already know, and pretty much left performance behind. I don’t really know why.

And so with running. After recovering from the PCT 50-miler, I never got back in the groove. Then the winter weather made it very easy not to run. I missed it sometimes, I guess, but not enough to pull on the tights. I could always walk instead, in my regular clothes and carrying stuff if I wanted. I still don’t know that it’s not just a fair-weather blip that’s got me running again. Have I tipped over the line of doing what it takes– for example, running on workdays when time is tight?

I was grateful to read Evan’s post today about the “I just HAVE to write!” crowd. Because that’s not me either. Weird but true: the thing I am most disciplined about is going to work at my job to make money. If I’m low on energy, running and writing and most other things (not reading though, hmm) fall to the wayside, but I almost always still catch that bus downtown to the office. I often wonder what it would be like for writing to be that bottom-line for me.

Makes me glad for those one-time fun things that I don’t have to worry about or get attached to– like goalball, and tree-climbing! Last Wednesday, Elizabeth and I finally cashed in her Christmas present, a one-day tree-climbing class out at a farm in Oregon City. I didn’t know if there would be other students, because since I’d signed up the website had changed and it seemed to be just the lead guy doing stuff on his own now, but there were six of us students. Plus a French intern who had only been immersed in English for a couple of weeks and asked charming things like “comfy, that okay to say in a class? You should be comfy?”

We got to climb almost first thing, supervised and using ropes they’d placed before we got there. Then with that out of our systems, we learned knots so we could run things ourselves. Oh, knots. I’d seen many of them before, but knots and card games don’t stick in my head for long. There was lots of cheerful “good! Untie it and tie it again!” from the instructor.

We picknicked out of the breeze, and strolled around. It was cool and overcast, and the ground was muddy. One student’s car had gotten stuck on the way to the grove. We were sharing the field with cows, but they stayed picturesquely in the distance. The trees were oaks, a hundred years old or a little more–not common to find a whole grove of them intact so close to Portland.

After lunch we learned how to throw a thin line over a high limb, with a little weighted bag, and how to replace it with the real rope. Then we got to climb one more time, on ropes we’d placed ourselves. Here are E and me (I’m in purple, with my helmet ridiculously askew, I know!)

Three of our classmates were coming back the next few days to learn how to move around in a tree and from tree to tree; they’d be sleeping in hammocks aloft at least once. I know I’d love that “spiderwebbing” part, because it’s really fun to stand and move freely on the limbs knowing your harness will catch you if you fall! But I was fine with calling it a day and driving home for pizza. Hello, sore muscles!

Nabokov Again

#omgyouguys! In today’s surf I found What Kind of Tree Is That (mis)attributed to Nabokov! Here it is via Robert Day in the September 5, 1993, Washington Post (Mr. Day notes that it’s probably apocryphal):

Nabokov. Vladimir. American novelist and literature professor who once had something like the following conversation with a student at Cornell University:

‘Mr. Nabokov, I want to be a writer.’ Nabokov looks up from his reading he points to a tree outside his office window.

‘What kind of tree is that?’ he asks the student.


‘What is the name of that tree?’ asks Nabokov. ‘The one outside my window.’

‘I don’t know,’says the student.

‘You’ll never be a writer.’ says Nabokov.

It’s like my literary dead boyfriend sent me a love note.

I’m also reading Cleaning Nabokov’s House, by Leslie Daniels. It has that extravagant, “throw it all in yes the kitchen sink too!” energy that I associate with some first novels (Virginia Lanier’s first bloodhound mystery Death in Bloodhound Red is a great example). And at least in stretches it’s stuffed with wit and wry insights at such a pace I have trouble taking them all in.

It’s a new release, but I ran across it by chance, so there’s that little thrill of added value too. Well, “by chance” with respect to Nabokov. I had been thinking about Diana Wynne Jones and how much I like to read about housecleaning, so I did a keyword search. I’d already read Esmerelda Santiago’s America’s Dream and the Blanche White mystery series by Barbara Neely; I put another mystery, Maid for Murder by Barbara Colley, on my library list.

Apparently Leslie Daniels really does live in a house the Nabokovs rented. I expect he’s her literary dead boyfriend too.


I’ve been paring back activities for awhile now. Last week I was fighting germs, and just barely had the energy to get through the workday. But even before that I went into hermit mode in the hopes of getting my IPRC final project underway. I’m not training for any races. I’m not taking any new classes. I really don’t like to be busy, don’t like the feeling of wow this is a busy week even if I like each thing in it. I think it will be a net gain to give up the busy.

But still, something is driving me to go to the weekly Morning Birdsong Walk at Mt. Tabor. Maybe it’s another iteration of What Kind of Tree Is That? In any case, I got on the bus at 6:12 this morning to rendezvous with refgoddess and M and listen to birds.

The 6:12 bus is a quiet bus. I get the feeling people are sitting there quietly contemplating their lives and the circumstances that lead them to be on the bus at that hour. By contrast, when we join the bird nerds at the park gate it’s quite chatty. I’ve been twice now, and there have been a couple of dozen people each time. Almost all of them are real birders, with binoculars and lists. There’s a pair of teenage twins who have lived near the park since they were small and are respected experts on the birds of Mt. Tabor. They could easily be E.L. Konigsburg characters. The leaders talk about the local listservs, recent bird sightings around Oregon, and the new storm-petrel species one of them helped discover on a repositioning cruise between Chile and Alaska, which is apparently a lovely way to check off lots of seabirds from your life list.

People were excited today because the spring migrations are underway in earnest after a late start. We stood for half an hour, probably, facing a big-leaf maple and watching ruby-crowned kinglets and about twenty other kinds of birds zip around. This was great for the jaded and knowledgeable, but less convenient for us beginners. On my first birdsong walk I learned what a robin song sounds like. Today I learned that juncoes go tick-tick-tick.

I peeled off long before the walk was over, and caught another bus to work. It was very noisy: after standing on the curb while 20 minutes’ worth of cars snarl by, I got on the #4, which is standing room only already at 52nd Avenue. Rush hour and construction were both underway. I was glad to get to my desk.

“What kind of tree is that?”

It may well be that when I did get started writing I chose to inhabit the ignominious swamp of children’s literature because I knew I was just not good enough to write real books about human relations and sex–not good enough because I don’t know my ash from my elm.
–Daniel Pinkwater in Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights

That’s from one of my favorite parts of the book– Pinkwater recounts Isaac Babel’s story “The Awakening,” in which a boy who wants to be a writer despairs because he doesn’t have a “feel for nature” or know any names and facts about the natural world. In the bad biopic of Gustav Mahler that Pinkwater was watching, that bit was stolen wholesale and plunked in, so that suddenly little Gustav is being lectured by the Wise Old Man: “How can you be a composer when you don’t know the names of trees?”

Pinkwater thinks it’s ridiculous in both cases. I’m happy to join him in the ignominious swamp, but I do want to know, and I was excited for Tree Identification class at Irving Park this morning. The prospect of fast-food breakfast on the way sealed the deal.

We got to the park at nine a.m. and followed some likely-looking tree nerds (rain gear, knapsacks) to the picnic shelter, where we got handbooks and doughnuts and reflective VOLUNTEER vests so no one would run us over or call the cops as we gathered in front of their houses to inspect the “street trees” in the planting strip. I saw two looks askance at my McDonald’s cup, but it wasn’t all Concerned Progressives. One guy was barefoot and informed us that lindens are one of the rare trees with edible leaves, which have a pleasant, mild flavor. Indeed they did.

Other tidbits:

  • Honey locusts don’t grow that well here; they’re always a little thin and spindly. Therefore, they’re planted in front of the Portland Building so that people can look up through the leaves and see Portlandia!
  • The wood of dogwood trees was used to make skewers called “dags,” and the tree was called “dagwood,” which morphed into “dogwood.”
  • The dawn redwood is Oregon’s official state fossil. It grew here for millions of years, but was thought to be long extinct. In the 1940s, Chinese scientists found them growing in Hubei province in central China. A team from Harvard brought some back to the U.S. in 1948, and today I saw one in somebody’s yard, looking sassy.

So watch my stories for tree names– maybe I’ll become a bona fide regional writer yet. ;)