The Bark of a Venerable Cottonwood

My name is Gail and I sniff bark.

Where this began, I can’t begin to know. Being a literal, as well as figurative, tree-hugger, it likely started while getting up close and personal. Regardless, one day I discovered the warm, syrupy, cozy fragrance of cottonwood bark.This led to me to check out the aroma of an ash tree–lighter and (not surprisingly) woody. Willow–astringent. Elm–lightly astringent, woody, cool. And so forth. Then I sniffed a dying elm–it carried the sour sad smell of illness.

Trees are corporately and individually precious, and not only within the context of their value to humans. In primary school, we learned that trees are important for shade, oxygen production, lumber, nuts, etc. Nowhere was it suggested that we can have a relationship with trees, or that they have a good of their own. Generally, they are viewed as utilitarian, inanimate objects.

Researchers are now discovering that trees communicate with each other in various ways. Healthy trees benefit ailing neighbors. They do better in forests, surrounded by other trees, plants, and fungal communities. Back when I studied forestry at the University of Minnesota, these relationships were little understood, if at all. The focus was on the management of forests for timber production and in some cases, wildlife production, meaning species that humans like to hunt and kill. Being a pacifist vegetarian, some of this didn’t sit too well with me, and eventually I switched career paths.

What is my point? Pick a tree. Sniff the bark, observe it through the seasons, get a sense of its energy, note the birds, mammals and insects that visit or inhabit your tree. Become friends. Your life will be enriched.

Life is But a Dream…

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.

The travails of the Tibetan people under Chinese rule are explored in the 2020 book, Eat the Buddha, by Barbara Demick. Covering the period of the 1930s to the present, we learn of of the destruction of Tibetan culture, Tibetan Buddhism and its monasteries, along with the murder and detention of countless people. Their suffering is reminiscent of what the American Indians experienced during the destructive westward expansion of the European invaders.

Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, is central to the story. An anathema to the Chinese leadership, he has lived in exile since 1959, ceaselessly traveling the world with a message of peace and non-violence. Ever-smiling, compassionate, he refuses anger and violence in the face of the destructive cruelty done to his people and his country. 

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Let’s say the boat is our body and our life is the stream. What are we to? Float passively? Flailing around bashing heads with our oars? Row in a gentle manner, says the song. Life isn’t a boat race or a war at sea,, but a uni-directional journey of peace and purpose.

The Dalai Lama is an active pacifist. He never stops rowing. He never stops advocating for his people, while teaching us the ways of peace. We can contrast his approach with those who approach injustice with anger and violence. There are no easy answers, but in my way of seeing the world, violence inclines to violence while kindness inclines to kindness. 

Row gently and merrily. Picture the Dalai Lama’s smile. He laughs often. Being perpetually outraged is corrosive to our body and soul. Live lightly. Be merry. Row gently. 

As the song says, life is but a dream. On the day when we truly awaken, this life-dream will fade into nothingness.. For now, with gentleness, row your boat down the stream. Trust in the flow. Pay kind attention to the dream of waking life, as well as to the dreams of slumber. All are one and the same.


Super-Sized Pink Moon

Rising this evening in the southwestern sky is the Pink Full Moon. Know as “Pink” not for the actual color, but for the season in which it appears. Spring. The time of blossoms emerging on trees, in gardens, and in the woodlands. The time when color returns after a winter of whites, grays. browns, and blacks.

Those who came before named the April Full Moon to honor the return of color. What a joy!

Looking out my South Minneapolis window I see emerald grass, chartreuse shrubs, and tangerine tulips. The ash trees, although always late to leaf out, swell with the promise new growth at the tips of each branch and twig.

As if the Pink Full Moon is not enough, this is also the first Super Moon of the 2021. Our beloved moon is passing slightly closer to earth, making the disc appear 12-15% larger than average.

My readers outside of Minnesota may get a chance to view this natural wonder. Here, clouds will likely interfere. But fear not! Twenty-eight days from now, the moon will once again be full, and will once again be super.

I encourage you to observe yourself month to month as the lunar cycles pass. Do you feel a difference in energy or focus as the moon moves from new to full? Personally, I tend to dream more vividly around the new moon. Around the full moon, I am more distracted, misplacing things and generally being klutzier than usual. Let me know what you experience. If the oceans are affected, why shouldn’t we, who are watery, salty creatures, also feel the pull of the waxing and waning moon?

Get out tonight and do you best coyote howl!

“Waterfall” by Mary Casanova, University of Minnesota Press, 2021

Reviewed by Gail Nord

A waterfall is a relationship based on topography. The erosional energy of water creates a channel through which water moves by gravitational necessity. A sudden decline in topography results in a waterfall. Falling water produces energy. In addition to sightseers, a waterfall may draw entrepreneurs who understand that this power can be harnessed to propel industrial production. 

Judged by the standards of her wealthy parents, Trinity Baird is a too spirited for her own good. An artist, she’s talented enough for the Sorbonne. A young woman with sexual desires, she has a long-term attraction to proto-environmentalist Victor Guttenberg. After making an overt play for him, and being roundly rejected, her emotional reaction causes her parents to commit her to the St. Peter Asylum. Set in 1922, the book examines conditions at the asylum, especially as pertaining to female inmates.

As the novel Waterfall opens, Trinity has been released from St. Peter, and will be spending the summer on a family-owned island on the northern border of Minnesota. She is, in a real sense, on probation. If she behaves herself, she returns to Paris and continued study at the Sorbonne. If she shows signs of instability, her parents have the power to have her recommitted.

Covering the span of a summer, we see a parallel between a dammed waterfall and Trinity’s present-moment life. She sees herself as trapped, being financially at the mercy of her parents (studying at the Sorbonne is not cheap). The central question of the book explores the power dynamic between Trinity and her mother, as well as Trinity’s growing sense of herself as an independent woman capable of self-determination.

Trinity’s strength is tested as she faces a fire, a storm, a boat crash, her sister’s alcoholism, her mother’s laudanum addiction, her parents’ anti-Semitism, her father’s cruelty to impoverished Natives, her attraction to a young architect, and her ongoing longing for Victor. In the process she meets author Sinclair Lewis who promises to buy a painting from her, which would finance her studies.

Mary Casanova, with 39 published books to her credit, is familiar with the landscape she evocatively portrays in Waterfall, her first adult novel. This is the third of a series of interconnected books, each of which focuses on a different main character. Trinity Baird is loosely based on Virginia Roberts, the historical figure who graces the book jacket.. I would suggest that readers begin by turning to the last few pages of the book where fictional versus historical aspects are spelled out.

If you enjoy an exquisitely drawn natural setting, have an interest in the social mores of the 1920s and the issues of women then and now, pick up a copy of Waterfall. It is a compelling read and will provide an excellent springboard for book group discussion.

Worm Moon

The time has come, I decided, for me to pay closer attention the cycles of nature–the monthly waxing and waning of the moon, the equinoxes and solstices, the apparent movement of planets and stars, daily sunrises and sunsets, leaf unfurlings, floral bloomings, bird migrations, meteor showers, and so much more.

Since the beginning of humanoid existence, we lived in intimate relationship to our natural surroundings. Now that most of us dwell in homes with roofs, move from place to place in enclosed conveyances, and do our work indoors, that connection has loosened. And with that, we have lost a sense of true kinship with other living creatures of the myriad plant and animal varieties.

The March full moon is commonly known as the Worm Moon, presumably based on the emergence of earthworms. It is also referred the Sugar Moon, pertaining to the flow of maple sap. Coming up April 26 the Pink Moon will grace our skies as one of two 2021 Super Moons,, referring to an appearance of somewhat larger than normal sized disk. The designation of the April full moon as pink is said to relate to the blooming time of pink moss phlox.

Renewing a connection with the natural world reminds us that we are nothing more and nothing less than creatures among creatures, dependent on the earth for nutrition, water, and air. We humans have taken an extraordinary toll on the well-being of our planet and its denizens. Only we, person by person, can turn this dire situation around. We all know the steps–buy less, drive less, eat less (or no) meat, plant trees, lobby for the preservation and restoration of wild areas, buy organic and local, to name a few possible steps.

As you gaze at a sun-glinted lake, or see a tiny wild flower in bloom, give thanks for the beauty of the earth and for the opportunity we each have to effect healing of the environment we share with all other living beings..