My father lives on Crataegus lane in Alaska. Crataegus is the latin name for Hawthorne, according to a dusty book I found in the library. There are three types of Hawthorne in the book, which catalogs a section of Pennsylvania representative of “all of the trees from Virginia northward into Canada and westward to the Mississippi Valley.” The kinds of Hawthorne in the book are Scarlet Hawthorne, Cockspur Hawthorne, and Dotted Hawthorne. In pre-columbian times, the Hawthorne trees were understory plants in the virgin forests. Now, in Pennsylvania, they form impenetrable thickets. According to the dusty tree book, the members of this genus are typically “low, bushy trees” with “strong, tortuous, spreading branches armed with stiff, sharp-pointed thorns”.
In Pennsylvania, the showy flowers appear in April or early May. The five petals are “usually white”. The fruits are like small apples, dry and mealy, with large, bony seeds. They are an important winter food of the ruffed grouse.
Most Hawthornes will thrive in the poorest of soils. There are an infinite number of different kinds of Hawthorne, on account of the fact that they are “very unstable, and hybrids are apparently very numerous”. This frustrates taxonomists, who cannot agree on what kinds of Hawthorne exist, since they are always hybridizing and changing, and looking like each other. In Portland there is a Hawthorne with small, red fruits, like berries. You can make jelly from these, although I have never done it.
When I return to Portland in September, there will be fruit on all the trees. The blackberries will be over but the apples and pears, both members of the rose family, will be clustered and heavy above the sidewalks. The light through the branches will be yellow, hazy and humid. Green walnut husks will pepper the ground. Time will go faster than it does in the woods, and days will blink by in an instant. I’ll ride my bike in the evenings when the shadows are long and let all the nostalgia wash over me, all the emotional memory of the season, of last year and the year before and every September that has ever happened, until it washes all away and instead becomes what is happening now, in this moment.
My birthday is in September. I don’t ever know what to do on my birthday, I feel bewildered and confused and can’t ever think of things I’d like to eat or what I do for fun. What do I do for fun? Read, laugh, have sex. Eat ice cream and blueberries. Swim. Sit in the forest and watch the ants wear paths in the dirt and wait for animals to come walking up. Make up stories in my head.
I think that, this year, all of September will be my birthday. It’ll be like a birthday present to myself, September. I’ll be back in Portland and getting ready for school and moving and I won’t be working my kitchen job anymore. I won’t be washing dishes and peeling cucumbers and cooking soup in the heavy-bottomed ten-gallon pot. I won’t be kneading bread and punching bread and baking loaves of bread in the oven that hums ferociously and whose hot sheet-pans burn your upper arms in stripes, called “earning your stripes”. I have one stripe and one half-stripe. I have been here five months. If I lived hear a year or two years I would have more stripes, the way the other cooks do.
I like to cook. I cannot think of many things more satisfying than preparing food for one hundred sixty people in four hours from scratch, with one helper, making the big pot of soup and cutting the crusty new bread and roasting the zucchini for spread and slicing the onions and snapping the ends off the green beans and then sitting and watching the people eat, your black apron dusty with flour, a mason jar of water in your hand. It is satisfying and I give everything to it and in the evenings I feel restless and empty. I run in the woods on the dry trail until I am hot and sticky with sweat and then I take off my clothes and lay down in the stream and then jump up sputtering in the icy water, new again like I have just woken up.
When I am not working or running I spend a lot of time on the phone with Corinne. She is always very far away. We tell each other about the worlds where we live, like writing letters home. I ask her what she eats. Sausage, she tells me. Avocado. Eggs. I tell her that after running I ate raspberries and sheep’s cheese and coconut ice cream. I tell her that it was all I thought I ever wanted to eat, but then after a few hours I was hungry again, so I ate sautéed green beans and split pea soup and wild rice and romaine. And then later I ate some orange chocolate. After we get off the phone I eat some chocolate peanut butter cups. The sugar is not good for me but lack of good company sometimes drives me to it. It will be easier in September, when I am not in the woods anymore. Unless, of course, for my birthday I want an icecream cake or an icecream sundae made of coconut icecream and melted dark chocolate and berries, in layers, icecream first and then chocolate and then icecream and then berries and then icecream and then chocolate and so on, like an enchilada. I would like to eat that in a stemmed glass, so I could see all the layers. The chocolate would be mixed with coconut cream to make it softer, although it would solidify just-so in the cold icecream. And then while I was eating my beautiful, infinite sundae that was like the wanting of icecream and the memory of icecream and the having of icecream and the icecream you are saving for later, I would pull the beautiful wrapping, made from 1970s national geographics, from a small square box, and inside would be a brand new pancreas. The note card would read- “love, from the trees.” And I would gasp in delight and try out my new pancreas immediately. It would fit exactly, and I would put my old pancreas in the freebox on the porch, where someone will find it and make it into a costume.
And that would be the Very Best Birthday. An infinite icecream sundae, and long life from the trees. Or maybe instead of a sundae it would be an icecream cake. Or maybe instead of icecream I will have sex instead, because I don’t need a new pancreas for that. I would like to be able to have sex Right Now, in the woods. I would like to open the freezer and find Sex in there, instead of gelato and cold peanut butter cups that someone had the foresight to put in there. But there is no sex in the woods. Sex is in the city, because that is where the gay people are. Only straight people live in the woods, and deer. And a few shy bears I have never seen. And the steller’s jays with their screaming alarm-clock voices. And the soft-bellied squirrels. And tiny, svelte chipmunks. And the crows that live on the compost heap. And the odd bunny rabbit. And low-flying bats, who criss-cross the paths at dusk. And fantastical cougars, who make no sound and who I imagine always watching, from the rhododendrons. And a strange family of creatures, perhaps raccoons, who break sticks for fun around my tent at night and chortle softly to each other in small, congested voices. And various other stick-breakers, too shy to be seen, who run errands in the woods after dark. Some of them walk carefully, tensing each muscle and startling and the smallest movement, and some of them are clumsy, tumbling through the undergrowth as if drunk, lost and looking for the path. None of them bother me, tho, no matter how flimsy my nylon walls and how elaborate my imagination, or how often I leave beef jerky in my tent, and so I have grown to trust them.
Now it’s late. It’s dark and all the stars are out, the big dipper and the milky way, which is like melted icecream in the sky. Corinne wrote a poem today for her grandmother, who was there one day and then was not there, while Corinne was up in the sky in a plane, crossing the country to get to her. It had been eight months since Corinne saw her grandmother last, and she lost another three hours going east in a plane, against the setting sun. Corinne’s grandmother was there and then she was not there, the way things happen, mysteriously. Also, besides grandmothers dying, babies are born. Babies are not there and then they are there. I cannot make heads or tales of any of it, birth and death. The stuff in the middle makes sense to me, the Being. It is the transition in and out of Being that seems so inexplicable. Corinne was Being, in the sky, and her grandmother was Being, on the east coast, in a hospital, and then immediately she was Not. She waited until all her five children were clustered around her, and then she was Not. Corinne visited her body, the next day, on a table in the funeral home, in a room with candles. Corinne looked for her behind the heavy drapes, but she was gone. She told me about it on the phone, while I sat at the picnic table beneath the incense-cedars, methodically dismantling the fleur-de-lis seedpods that had gathered there. A thing like a tree, I thought, ceases to be much differently than a grandmother. A tree is made of wood, half dead, and surrounded by other wood in various states of decay. It pulls water hundreds of feet up its pithy core, and throws down cones in the summertime. When a tree “dies” it simply stops drawing water, stops dropping cones, and becomes, instead, part of the trees around it, who use its wood to grow helpful fungus and more small, new trees, and as a bridge over streams for deer, and as a place for small, bumbling stick-breakers to live. And the “dead” tree sort of melts into the spongy forest floor, and continues to “Be”, in a great mat of things that “Are”, whose borders are fluid and indefinite and yet unarguably alive.
The first rule of thermodynamics is that energy cannot be created or destroyed. If this is true, where do “people” go after they die? Is it because we do not have visible roots, like a tree, and so it seems as though we are tethered to nothing, and we are incapable of comprehending the ways in which we actually exist? Because if we could see our existence, all twisted up with everything, the way I can see the trees’ existence in a forest, which eats itself and lives forever, then maybe we would understand more clearly what happens when we die, and what happens before we are born, instead of just the middle part, which seems to us like a spark from a campfire, flying away into the dark and then going out, for no reason whatsoever.
We are different from trees, but if you draw us in a chart the chart will look like a tree, the family tree. A family tree does not have stray bits, broken pieces, sparks that fly off into the dark and go out. A family tree is like a friendship bracelet or a braided river, coming apart and going together again, forever and ever, all the way back, way back hundreds and thousands of years, to thatched cottages and lean-tos, to Europe and Asia and Africa, to when we were early hominids, to apes, to single-celled organisms floating in the briny warm sea. And trees came from the sea, too, and stumbling stick-breakers, and bats at dusk, and eavesdropping cougars. And all the creatures braided together and came apart, and braided together and came apart, forever and ever and ever, and a branch from the family tree never broke and fell off and sputtered out alone or appeared spontaneously from the ether, not even once, not even one single time. And the beginning was in the briny sea or it was somewhere even farther back, farther back than we can comprehend because we are small and because we are made from it. We are made from the friendship bracelet of the creatures, and just because we walk on two legs and do not have roots does not mean that we ever begin or that we ever end- because we, like the great mat of plants called the forest, cannot be created or destroyed, only moved and branched and shifted like a river in its bed. And so Corinne’s grandmother never really stopped being, because there is Corinne, and Corinne will never stop being, as long as there are cougars, and soft-bellied squirrels, and owls that call out at night, mysterious and low, with immense wisdom and patience. I want to go into the forest and I want to stand abreast of the biggest oldest tree, and I want to put my fingers in its bark and say that I do not want immortality, I only want patience. Because my roots go back in time instead of down into the ground, and my heart beats like a hummingbird, and I want everything. And the wind whispers and the trees say that I can have everything, in time. In time.