I take some pleasure in the way our house looks so radically different from the front and the back. From the street, it looks like the post-colonial 1840 house that its origins make it. It is right on the street as older houses are, and it is surrounded by its newer neighbors: 1850 on one side, 1880 on the other.
From the water on the pond behind it, however, it is hard to recognize it as the same house. The modern casement windows and French doors, the small windows at the top of the cathedral ceiling in Madalene’s studio, and the deck all give the house a contemporary look. The unpainted cedar shakes are both old and modern. The hill, which is mostly covered by the high canopy of maples and elm, slopes steeply to the pond. Stairs and retaining walls, a mix of wild and domestic plants, and the pond and its wildlife connect us with a more natural landscape, fed by the river that feeds the pond through its forested course.
So our Janus house embodies its place, and encourages us to also live in both worlds: the old and the modern, the built and the wild.
Last Friday, Madalene and I set out for a walk along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in the Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. This is about a fifteen minute drive from our home. We parked our car in the small, empty parking lot, and climbed the few steps to the railingless boardwalk that gently wound its way over the dunes toward the ocean. By the time we reached the shore’s expanse, we were half a dozen steps above the edge of a dune that we padded through with the slipping step one does on damp but not firm sand. While we stood on the shore deciding which way to go, Madalene spotted a dark shape near us among the scattered weeds and driftwood. On its back, its neck extended and its beak closed, was a dead cormorant. There could have been blood on its abdomen. We studied it for a while, since we don’t get to see them up close that often, though a dead cormorant does not contribute nearly as much to the experience as a live one.
Nevertheless, I had never expected that some day, setting out for a short walk not far from home, I might come across a dead cormorant. A change in place is an experience that engenders other experiences in a way that few other changes can. Even if subtle changes between our life in the Appalachian Mountains of north central Pennsylvania and our life on the North Shore of Massachusetts elude my observation, enough big ones keep waking me up and refreshing my senses.
Winter is not as flashy as the other seasons, but its spare beauty allows us the chance to look more closely and see more clearly. We can see the subtle variations of grays and browns, the undulations of the land itself, hidden in other seasons by mounds of plant life. Winter clears things off and smooths them out, cleans the palate and prepares the way for the messiness of spring. We are in for it now, the austere flintyness of January ice.
Sugar Maples are especially noticeable as they prepare to shed their leaves in the fall; with the proper conditions in the mountains of Northern Pennsylvania, they glow gold and red. “The Tree of Appearances” wonders whether the leaves hide or reveal the tree.
Maple 2 Cross Sections reflects on the connection between one of our sugar maples, the efforts of a Flicker and a CAT scan. And death. It talks about death.
The Tree of Knowledge is the first essay in the collection Thirteen Sugar Maples. It begins the exploration of the space between our internal response and the external activity of the natural world around us by looking at my relation to a specific tree.