Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

The cherry trees surprised me this year, which they do every year. The dead branches erupt in impossible light, and the blossoms throw off a scent that wraps around your brain. Within hours, I believe the blossoms have always been here, and I believe they will always be here, and what I believe is true.

For an eternal day or two the ground is covered with petals, the trees are covered with petals, and I'm so buzzed with life I forget to fear death.

And just as true, a wet northeast breeze comes through and washes away the petals, as it has the last couple of days, and the eternal blossoms are replaced by a mortal tree, and I cannot remember how spectacular the blossoms were.


This Saturday musicians and farmers and writers and barkeeps and drivers and all kinds of folks who pay attention to things will gather at a garden center in Ann Arbor and honor the spirit of my sister Mary Beth. There will be dancing and a costume party and maybe even a parade, and it will be fun.

The last time I touched my sister, early summer not so long ago, a few rough pieces of her stuck to the wheat straw I had been nibbling on when what was left of her sat on my lap as David and I trucked through the dark orchard up the hill to where she would be scattered.

We drank from the bottle of wine that had survived the crash, poured the last bit for her, then headed down the hill.

I chewed on the straw, as I will, and was momentarily puzzled by its grittiness.


Today is Earth Day.

Fritz Haber invented the process of fixing nitrogen in air with hydrogen from methane to make ammonia, allowing humans to make ungodly amounts of fertilizer and bombs. He won a Nobel Prize, and his technique has "freed" humans from natural cycles that once limited food production.

Fritz Haber is also the father of chemical warfare; when chlorine gas was first used in battle in the Great War at Ypres in 1915, he was there to witness it.

Today I talked to my students about Haber's deeds, including his work with poisonous gases. His work with nitrogen is indirectly responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Life gets tricky that way.

We are responsible for what we do, and we are also responsible for what we choose to know. Mary Beth gently reminded me of that many times before her death, and continues to remind me now.

It is easy to forget the cherry blossoms when they are no longer here, but that does not make them any less real. It is also easy to forget where your oil or your water or your beef comes from, but forgetting does not make them any less real, either.

The cherry tree photo is by Amanda Brown of the Star-Ledger--we live near one of the most beautiful collections of cherry trees in the world--Branch Brook Park, Newark, NJ.

(No, I won't be there--give me a few more years.)


Kathryn J said...

The picture of the cherry tree was stunning; your sister's story also. The gathering this weekend sounds like a wonderful way to honor her!

So true about the need to teach students both the scientific discovery and the cost of knowing. It's important for them to learn not just the reactions but the relationship to the ecosystem.

momomom said...

Falling petals and the fragility and the beauty of life


Unknown said...

Like many holidays, Earth Day is hard for me. It's hard for me to avoid the guilt, to feel that I'm somehow unworthy of the celebration.

I know that when you celebrate something, you take better care of it. I know that when you get to know it to the point of personification, you think twice about how you're damaging it. And I know that guilt will only make me give up. Still, on Earth Day, I found myself far less celebratory than I would have hoped.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

I love that photo, too--local tree, local photographer.

I will likely miss the gathering this weekend barring a fugue state--I need to get to Tipton, Michigan, but I need to get there quietly.

Dear momomom,

Indeed. Thanks for listening.

Dear John,

Guilt's not going to do much good--the key is to remember that you are worthy of the celebration, that the Earth is for us (is us), and that losing hope can be liberating.

Mary Beth knew that if things continued as they are going, we are, well, doomed. She recognized that the actions of a few may not change this, but she also believed that what we do matters.

And it does.

Celebrate what we have. Fight like the dickens to keep it. We need more folks like you around.

You are right, guilt will only make you give up--let it go.

Mary Beth danced. A lot. And then some more. Just about everybody in Ann Arbor recognized her whirlwind dancing.

Dance instead of grieve--it's what we did at her wake. Some days it's about all we can do anyway.

So dance.

Chris Chin said...

Great Photo. Here in Brooklyn, we have a Botanical Gardens that has Cherry Blossom Trees and when they're in full bloom, it's almost snowlike (especially when the petals fall).

Wouldn't you think that everyday should be Earth Day?

I'm afraid that our (meaning humans) capacity for self destruction is too big of an instinct to overcome. That's nature I guess...human nature.

iceowl said...

To the memory of Mary Beth. Last time I saw her she was sitting on the sofa in the living room on Bayberry. Low-fidelity Kinks music was burbling from the speakers perched on cinder blocks. Joe Leifheit was hitting on her in that awkward teenaged way us men rapidly learn is ineffective liquor to women, and takes decades to figure out why. She was therefore ignoring Joe and talking to me about some such item I don't remember, as I was experiencing one of my life's two drug induced moments, freaked out and unenjoying the effects of some chemical Joe of which Joe and I had partaken (I had previously collapsed on the front lawn - Mary Beth had dragged me into the living room). I remember it was summer and it was cooler in the Bayberry house, all windows and doors open, humid breezes sifting through the screens, McCoy the dog, still odorous from his last skunk spray, banished to the outside, Mary Beth saying to me, "You have to think good thoughts, or you have a bad trip."

It's very true. All of life. We get the life we make, and whether we like it or not, we're responsible for all of it.

Kate T said...

Doyle - I do so wish that I could have had the privilege of knowing your sister.

A beautiful day like today might just lure the apple trees into bloom here. When they do, we will dance for Mary Beth.

doyle said...

Dear Chris Chin,

I love the cherry blossom snow fall image.

While I agree we have an amazing capacity for self-destruction, I would argue that it's cultural, not instinctual, and therefore something we can change.

(I do have my doubts that our dominant western culture will change before catastrophe befalls us; it already has proven catastrophic for many peoples who happened to have what our culture wanted.)

Dear iceowl,

Thanks for the words--which reminds me, I need to write back to riverrun. You're welcome to join him--I'll make clammers out of both of you.

Dear Kate,

The strawberries just started blooming here on Thursday as the cherries were hanging on to their last petals.

There's a reason to dance every day. And there's no reason to dance every day.

I will miss the dancing tonight.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A E Housman