To live my life like a tree,
to grow steadily from small beginnings,
fervently when possible, and quietly adapt when necessary,
stand in peace and harmony with my neighbors,
bear my fruit appropriately,
bring shelter and comfort to others indiscriminately,
and when my season is over
graciously give my gift to the earth
for the benefit of myself and all around me,
and without fear
patiently wait for my moment to return
I came home from work one day when I still worked my day job, but was heading for working freelance at home, within the year. On my deck enjoying dinner and feeling expansive in the late summer lushness of my yard I faced my wild black cherry tree, my favorite, big, mature, graceful and beautiful in all seasons. This poem came to me line by line as I scrambled for something to write on and write with. I tweaked a few words, and included it in my very first solo art exhibit in June 2000.
Autumn has arrived as usual, and each day the colors of the season appear in new places. Here in Western Pennsylvania with our miles and miles of tree-covered hills, more brilliant reds and yellows stand among the deep olive green as if someone had stippled a single wide brush stroke here and there on the hillside, just for effect. Because I am compelled to photograph and paint these colors I know that while we see some colors even in September, the leaves don’t begin to turn in earnest, in that big wave of change, until mid-October, yet many hillsides are already halfway there. This year our warm and wet summer is said to produce a spectacular autumn leaf show.
Because I paint Western Pennsylvania, nearly every one of my landscape paintings contains a tree, usually more than one, and often the trees themselves are the subjects. I have gigabytes of photos of trees, just for the trees’ sake, not to mention ones where the trees are the supporting cast. The other day I ran an errand entirely on winding back roads so that I could drive 10 miles per hour and photograph the beauty unfolding at every turn, even if they weren’t particularly good photos; the change had come so quickly that I was completely distracted and it was either that or have someone drive me or I’d wreck my car.
This weekend many leaves have fallen, the light has changed and I see more sky through graceful or gnarled branches.
I think of the trees around me as I think of my friends, those constant presences that are more a part of us than we know. The tree that actually inspired this poem almost 20 years ago has fallen, and I sincerely miss that huge old wild black cherry tree, but she lives on in my memory.
Dedicated to the people and places of the Chartiers Valley after the flood of September 17, 2004
After a day of rain
the creek has been rising
and by night it thunders down its channel
writhing around its curves like a medieval dragon,
pulling at its banks and anything overhanging,
carrying whatever it can grasp along the way,
and I have seen this creature before
in the creek’s rise and fall,
now tamed by engineering,
filling its channel to the brim, then receding
each spring and summer
and not felt threatened but fascinated
by its power, power not of humans,
power to change absolutely to a form
unrecognizable from its usual character,
yet always returning to the quiet,
sleepy nature which I had explored from childhood.
But I am remembering another night
when the creek refused to stop at its brim
but spilled over and over and over,
thundering down all the hillsides came its sustenance
tributaries filling their valleys as never before,
rushing to join with the writhing creature,
mixing and turning and thrashing and smashing anything in its path
so drunk with its own power
that it forgot all those who loved it,
who lived on its banks and in its valleys,
listened to its soft murmuring voice in the darkness of a summer night,
but even as I pleaded with the creature to stop, it had gone too far,
my friend, my refuge, how could you betray me,
I knew that the creek would not listen,
it was no creature gone on a rampage
it was simply following its nature, and this one time
it defeated our intelligence with its simple power
and all our homes, possessions, lives
were nothing in its path.
The next day the beast no longer raged,
the sun shone and the air was mild,
and the autumn continued like any autumn before,
but we were changed, all of us,
the long journey ahead, longer than we knew
and our place here will never be the same.
On September 17, 2004, Hurricane Ivan stayed a little too long in our valley, dumping torrents of rain on our hillsides, already sodden from the visits of three other hurricane remnants in the month prior.
I’d watched Chartiers Creek flood from the time I was a child, and not only did I go to the Catholic school just blocks from the creek but my father’s family lived in the flood plain and nearly every spring there was water in the basement and in the streets, and we would drive to the bridge over the creek at Carothers Avenue and watch the thundering brown water writhe just below our feet on the walkway of the bridge.
When I was young, I was near enough to a bend in this creek to leave our house on the hill and run down through the old pasture to the valley below, along the road and the railroad tracks and to the creek, walking alongside its rippling path or even in the creek bed in the dryness of midsummer. In the late 70s an engineered solution to control the floods dredged and widened the channel, and for 35 years, there were no floods at all, the pollution in the creek from all the industries along its banks cleared up, and we watched the native flora and fauna return as we canoed the channel. Those ramblings with my friend, the creek, have been the inspiration for much of my creative efforts in landscape painting and photography, my poetry and stories, and became the theme for my series of poetry readings and the title of the very first, as well as the folio of my poetry, Paths I Have Walked.
So this flood was a huge shock. We heard later the flood control plan had protected us up to a “100-year flood”, and many of these had passed with no flooding, but the flood we’d experienced was a “500-year flood”, and indeed in all the memories and records of floods in Carnegie, the water had never been this high, rising in a matter of hours in the afternoon and into the night to fill the first floor of some homes on low ground, and as high as eight feet in some areas of Main Street, wiping out nearly every business along Main Street for up to three months.
The flood changed us all. Many people and businesses took years to recover, and some of them never truly recovered at all. My godparents lived in the family’s fine house that had weathered so many floods but floodwater had never entered the first floor, and at their age they were trapped on the second floor with no power, their portable oxygen running low. Though they were rescued and lived with a daughter for a month while we cleaned up the house for them to move back, it was temporary as they realized the house was difficult for them, and they moved to an apartment a few months later.
I first posted this as a poem-in-progress with my daily photo on my photo blog Today in July 2017 and knew I’d end up drafting a poem. I shared it here, and let it sit until it spoke to me again. Here is the finished poem.
If the sunlight illuminates a flower in the woods but no one is around to see it, is it still beautiful?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if no eye beholds it, is it still beauty?
I photographed this scene for the obliquely backlit combination of bold yellow coneflower and delicate wormwood with all the varied patterns and shades of green in the background, silhouettes, shadows, blurs and bokeh, and titled the photo “Backlit Bouquet”. But the image had more to say.
I walked along the trail as the sun set and could see as it moved that features were randomly highlighted—a cluster of leaves, a flower, the bark on a tree, and in watching the process it almost seemed intentional, as if some force or the sun itself wanted me to notice these things. As each thing was featured it did appear beautiful to me, but the one coneflower in the group that was highlighted gave me a new perspective. I would not have noticed them otherwise, and the one that was highlighted indeed seemed more beautiful than the rest because of the highlight of its graceful fall of petals, bold yellow color and soft rounded center, and all else seemed to be a backdrop to its special prominence.
When I shared the photo I scribbled the first draft of a new poem.
delicate, ephemeral, eternal; had I not chanced by as setting sun journeyed deep into the autumn woods to touch your face you would still have been as beautiful.
I knew it wasn’t quite right. “We’ll see what it develops into some time in the future,” I said then.
A few weeks later the poem was still with me. Once I’d written the rest, I found I just didn’t need those two first lines, they felt heavy and formal, and without them I found I could reorganize the lines of the poem, especially that really long one that I couldn’t split before. I also changed the word “journeyed” to “reached” because it was more of what I’d intended, remembering the sunlight that day as it moved down toward the horizon and reached and touched different spots deep in the woods. Added a comma too, and it became the finished poem above.
Aside from being in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I am nowhere near New York or Washington DC. I am, however, barely an hour away from Shanksville. On the hot sunny morning of September 11, 2001 I was just finishing early morning work in my garden and yard when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking it was an unfortunate accident I continued listening to the radio for details and shortly thereafter heard that a second plane had hit the South Tower and knew instinctively, as I’m sure we all did, that it was no accident.
My radar for tragedy was sensitized; just a few months before my mother had unexpectedly nearly died after lung cancer surgery, held on for six weeks then miraculously awakened from a near-coma one day and gone on to recover, rehabilitate and return home. The previous year my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident. I was integral to their recoveries and care, and my carefully-planned self-employment was unraveling.
When I heard the news just before 9:00 a.m. that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I was out on my garden patio by the basement door, putting another coat of paint on some vintage wooden chairs I used on my deck before winter would peel the last of it off. I always worked in my garden and did small projects early in the day to make sure they got done before I hit my computer, and to make sure I didn’t hit the computer as soon as I got up and stayed on it all day long. It was a hot, sticky late summer morning, my verdant garden a green jungle, birds twittering everywhere stocking up for migration and winter, and work waiting for me indoors. The first report was that it was likely an accident, planes had hit buildings in the past. Then the second plane hit the other tower, and even though we had no proof it seems we all knew it was intentional. Everyone in the area was looking at the towers at that point and saw the direction, the turn, the increase in speed prior to hitting the tower, and suddenly a perfect morning had turned unreal.
After the plane hit the Pentagon, I put Moses, my garden cat, inside the basement, much to her consternation, as if she needed to be protected from what might be happening, and as the story grew I thought of my mother and brother and if I should get them and put them somewhere just to make sure they were safe too. Everything seemed suddenly slightly askew.
Jets fly overhead all the time. I have lived in the flight path for Pittsburgh International Airport all my life and close enough to an Air Force base and not only do they fly overhead, they circle and slow down and make noise and fly at crazy angles as they come in for a landing. A noisy plane flying low overhead is something I didn’t even notice. But two planes had just hit the two towers of the World Trade Center and a third had hit the Pentagon. I suddenly noticed that the sky was very quiet for that time of the morning.
Then in the growing quiet, in that empty perfect clear blue September sky, a single plane went overhead and my hackles rose, a cold tingle running to my fingers on that warm morning as I watched it seeming to struggle through the sky overhead. Shortly thereafter we heard about the crash in Shanksville and I imagined the comforting familiarity of perfect green rolling hills of my Western Pennsylvania home bathed in morning sun, now wrenched open and strewn with the wreckage of violence.
I hurried inside, no longer feeling safe under that warm blue sky. I thought of my mother in her home about a mile and a half away, just back from several months in various hospitals after lung cancer surgery that unexpectedly nearly killed her. She was still weak and needed daily assistance for most activities, many prescriptions and home oxygen. If all this was suddenly disrupted, what would I do? Should I go to her house now? Should I try to get her to a more secure place, like a hospital?
And my brother was in a nursing home 30 miles north of me, continuing his recovery from a traumatic brain injury the previous year, also requiring a lot of daily care, medications and supervision. Should I try to move him closer? What if I couldn’t get to him?
And my sister a few miles away with her younger daughter and grandchild? And my niece and her three babies, one of them just six days old, a few miles in the other direction? Should we all find a place to go?
Anyone else would have run for the television, but I didn’t have one then, and I don’t have one now, so I never got to see the very first images that showed up on CNN that morning, heard the fear in the newscasters’ voices. I listened to the familiar voices of the local and NPR reporters describing the events on my radio, feeling calmer listening to their words and being able to move around my house than I would have being trapped in front of a television.
Did any of us know what to do in those first hours and days, even those of us so far from the terrible scenes of death and destruction more horrible than we could imagine?
It wasn’t until the gentle, perfect beauty of September 12 that the effects of what had happened became reality. I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport and at the intersection of two interstates right outside of Pittsburgh, and hear the noises of all this traffic every day, especially in the morning. The next day, with travel restricted on land and in the air, was so eerily quiet. The beauty of the warm sun and clear blue sky, the peaceful twitters of birds and hum of bees we could rarely hear with traffic and daily noises, the clear views of the tree-covered hills made the morning seem like paradise at first but became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor know the extent of the damage and death as it was still unfolding in all three areas.
Perhaps those perfect September days were given to calm us before we learned how our lives had changed.
Today looks no different from yesterday but forever against the backdrop of a blue September sky we will now remember the loss of our innocence.
September 11 was a blur of images and fears and unknowns, and for me it wasn’t until September 12 dawned and brightened into another seemingly perfect September day, blue sky and all, that what had happened, and the permanent change it brought, really settled in.
I’ve always loved the language of the sky. I grew up on top of a hill where I could see lots of sky in all directions. Though we lived in a suburban development the open sky was freedom from all the congestion below, and I watched them march overhead, across the valley, in all seasons. Watching the sky was like watching the facial expressions of a deity.
When I had my first solo art exhibit, in addition to the artwork, I worked my writing into the exhibit by pairing images with poems or essays or statements to make little flyers that I could print out on 8.5″ x 11″ paper and mount on the wall. Even though no line in the poem describes the painting, I used the poem Clouds with the purple clouds of an autumn rain looming over the bright trees surrounding a waterway in “Autumn”, part of the four seasons series of paintings.
Whispering together high overhead
against a cloud-riding sky
the gentle patter of leaves in the wind
of a coming storm
is to be remembered as they are
at the height of their fullness
before the blaze of autumn color
marks the beginning of their end.
A weather front often affects the conditions far above the earth. If you listen you can hear the leaves in the treetops whispering of the change to come long before it will affect us, and sometimes I seem to hear actual words, though I know it’s just my human senses forming the sounds into a familiar pattern. But these trees know it’s an autumn storm to come, and soon their green leaves will turn to gold and red and bronze. We are enchanted by autumn colors, but they find their true identity when they are still green and strong.
There is always more to another’s life than we know in our experience of them.
There used to be a house here
snug against the hill
and steps to an upper terraced yard
in this impossible spot.
Breakfasts, dinners, Christmas trees, hot summer nights,
births, deaths, first days of school, graduations, conspiring teenagers,
changing colors of paint and people.
That was before the road was this busy
and its door opened right into traffic.
Now all that is left is a limestone foundation
and broken plastered walls with faded pink paint
embedded into the layered shale hillside,
and a chipped whitewashed alcove where the Blessed Virgin Mary
once spread her hands and watched over the home from the upper terrace.
Soon even that will be gone
and a new road will carry away
the last memory of the founders of this place,
but foundations are beyond physical presence,
and ours to build upon.
I am always sad to see old neighborhoods decay and fall to the wrecking ball, buried under with the backhoe. I’m not against progress, and sometimes a neighborhood has lived its span and is ready to be removed. But for better or worse, those old neighborhoods carry memories of individuals and the collective, people lived and died there, and they are the foundations of what we are today. Without them we are in danger of forgetting both the good we’ve done, and the bad, at risk of forgetting our roots and also repeating the same mistakes we made in the past.
This photo was taken in a city neighborhood, obviously on the top of a hill with an incredible view, a Victorian-style house that fell to decay after standing empty a decade or so and needed to be taken down for the safety of the neighborhood.
The poem was written as I watched what had been a two-lane road out of the city, which had at one time been a thriving neighborhood all on its own, wither as the road became busier and wider, and the homes and businesses closed and stood unused. Seeing the stately old houses, some with lace curtains still in the windows, fall apart and be removed, revealing the pastel paint colors of the walls, faded flowered wallpaper, the structures of what people had made their own home place, thinking of the lives and events that might be forgotten in the process, I wrote a reminder of what might once have been there.
It rained this morning, softly whispering in the trees all around the house, and I have been remembering my little Kelly and this poem inspired by her and a certain drizzly summer morning in 2009. I could have no better tribute to her gentle and loving personality than a poem that also touched many others and won an award. August 11 was the day she left us in 2012, an abandoned or former feral kitty with a long story to tell.
Pawprints and Raindrops
in the early morning, still dark
and little Kelly, sensing my awareness
hurries over and steps on my back;
I feel her tiny cold paws dimpling the surface of my skin
as I drift off in the murmur of her purr and the rain
I think of raindrops on water,
I am the water, my skin the surface
and I can look up and in the increasing daylight
see the circular ripples of contentment
mingling on my own surface.
You can listen to the poem too—see the link below.
About the poem…
Kelly really did this one early Saturday morning in 2009. I listened to the rain in the blue light of early dawn and she knew I was awake and came over and walked all over my back, purring. We were the only ones awake. Kelly had tiny paws and they were always cold, something that was uniquely her, and picturing those tiny paws dimpling my skin through the sheet as she walked on me was what connected the rain, the water, Kelly and me. I remember visualizing the lines of this, images first, descriptive words later.
I’ve been working on her story as a book inspired by the five-part rescue story I wrote about her, “A Little Bit About Kelly”, which is what it started out to be, before I realized how much she had to tell.