Wednesday, October 31, 2012



It's Halloween night, and I think I've seen a ghost.

I'm not sure; the sighting defies logic, and I could be totally wrong, but I can't think what else it could be. And here it is, so Yes, it's a plant.

We've come through the hurricane quite well, although some of our neighbors have had some minor flooding and damage. One woman lost her satellite dish into the tide-swollen creek. But mostly the only memento we have of the storm is a lot of fallen leaves, needles, and twigs--yes, a lot of our leaves are still green here. Autumn is in progress, but it's not too far along for leaves to be ripped green by a storm.

Anyway, I was walking the dogs this afternoon, and I figured this was an excellent opportunity to take in informal survey of the neighborhood of trees. Familiar trees I can ID by bark, mostly, and I do have the Bark field guide, but it covers New England where I am not. My other guides are all based on leaf and twig characteristics, which of course are forty feet up in the air. I don't know why you don't see tree geeks wearing binoculars all the time, given this ungainly standard. But today, a lot of the leaf and twig characters are scattered all over the ground, so I picked up a big, mixed bouquet, dumped them all in a laundry basket, and dug out my Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Trees. 

I had deliberately focused on grabbing oaks, first because they were the ones that had fallen with their twigs (identifying a tree by leaf alone rarely works unless you are already familiar with the species), and second because I thought it would be easier and more interesting to focus on one group, and third because I kind of like oaks. So I sorted all the twigs into groups corresponding to the three relevant oak sections in the book (there is a forth section, but none of mine fell in it), and got to work. I found southern red oak and eastern black oak, I found white oak, and I found two groups of oak twigs I could not clearly place. And then I found one that isn't an oak.

I'm sorry if this is boring you, I know you aren't a plant person, but I'm kind of jazzed up at the moment and I've got to share. Pretend they've got feathers or something, if it helps.

The reason I knew it wasn't an oak is that oak buds are all clustered toward the end of the twig, and these buds aren't. The leaves are sort of wavy, not deeply lobed like a classic oak leaf, and while there are oaks with wavy margins, as though the lobes had all gone shallow, the crests of the waves are  always smooth--so says Peterson's. The crests of these waves are sharp, with little bristles, like vegetable white-caps on a storm-tossed photosynthetic sea. I looked again and again; the only thing that matches this piece of tree, bud, leaf, and twig, in the American chestnut.

Chestnuts are the ivory billed woodpecker of trees, a magically liminal species, almost extinct, but maybe--oh, please, do miracles happen--it can come back. There are a number of them around, though; stump-sprouts, resistant individuals, lucky pockets here and there...even a new, blight-resistant cultivar. I've seen a sapling of such a phoenix myself. But that almost isn't the point, because what died in the blight a hundred years ago was not so much a population of trees, for many still exist, but a type of forest, a way of being green. Chestnut forests were entirely normal, generations ago. Chestnut forests defined normal. And they are gone. Maybe they can come back, but neither you nor I will ever see a chestnut-dominated landscape. Maybe my nephew will. So this what I mean when I say an individual chestnut tree is like a ghost. It's a living tree but an ecological ghost.

But what would a chestnut be doing here? It's not their territory, not their range. One could have been planted as a specimen tree, but this area was farm field and woodlot until twenty years ago; who would have planted a specimen tree here? Why? And why a chestnut?

I could be wrong. I'm probably wrong. But it's Halloween, and I've got my ghost story, and for the moment I will stick to it.

I like the thought of an ecological ghost. I like the thought of mourning species, of taking a day to honor the ecological dead. I like the idea of honoring the emotional and cultural losses, noticing the ghosts and gaps on the land where animals and plants go on behaving, for a little while, as though the missing species might come back. Maybe presenting the names and pictures, in silence, the way they honor fallen soldiers, would help somehow, help us notice what is happening. I wouldn't put the chestnut on that role-call yet, of course; it is not that sort of ghost.

Tonight and tomorrow are properly the Day of the Dead, a holiday Celtic as well as Mexican. I don't really celebrate Halloween as such anymore; I find its morbid Bacchanalia anthropologically interesting, but basically without meaning. I do not enjoy being frightened or grossed out, and I am not afraid of skeletons, anyway. But I do celebrate the Day of the Dead. I put out food for the Beloved Dead and light a candle, and I think of those who have passed on. There are a lot of awesome people who have died, and they deserve a day of their own to be remembered and loved again. I don't see why it should be scary; these are people who loved us when they were living.

I think it would be interesting to celebrate all sorts of dead on Samhain, the Day of the Dead, not just human beings, not just organisms, not even just species or ecosystems that have gone. What about dead hopes and dreams? What about dead expectations? Dead and departed fears? What have these things given us? What have they cost us? It might be good to acknowledge them. Not that I've ever been that organized about celebrating anything.

My favorite Samhain thus far was pretty simple and haphazard, but meaningful enough. That was the year I was banding saw whet owls, and that night was one of the few I was at the banding station unsupervised. Chris had given me a whole pile of candy, and I'd toasted myself some pumpkin seeds. I think I had some raisins, maybe some nuts. I put some of each out in little wooden bowls and built a fire in the wood stove. I sat on the floor drawing pictures in between checking the nets for owls and bringing back bags full of the patient, feather-headed beings, their bodies soft and sweet-smelling as human babies. I always wondered what they felt and thought about being measured and banded; I fancied I saw thought and feeling in those immobile faces, those lantern eyes. I thought I saw everything from long-suffering patience, to bewilderment, to understanding, but I know so little about birds, I was probably projecting mammalian prejudice over their essentially alien but obviously intelligent minds. They flew off into the night and vanished, like ghosts.

It would have been so cool to have a small party there. The bander I worked under traditionally has his Thanksgiving Dinner at the banding station, and his children spend their holiday along that raw and wild beach. Some years they swim there then. I would have liked to have founded a similar Samhain tradition, but with whom? My friends are scattered, and their migratory paths do not cross over Assateague much.

It's odd to think that I did not know you then.

-best, C.

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