Some Trees: An Incidental Elegy
This essay was a finalist in the 2018 Editors’ Awards
competition here at The Florida Review. We’re proud
to present it here in Aquifer.
Let me be clear: I read the classifieds because I had nobody. Five or six years into the new century, I trudged through Southeast Portland, rented the upper level of a duplex across the street from a bar that served fried chicken all night and $1.75 domestics. I never cut back the ivy that crept all the way over the second floor windows, so the light in my room was always dim. In any case, the sky was invariably grey. The rain was less rain but fine mist.
In the mornings, I waited for the bus with the smell of yesterday’s oil in the fryers. I took the local newspaper from a dispenser outside the bar, then the same seat on the same bus every day. There were poems tacked above the windows as part of a citywide initiative to bring art closer to daily life. Each morning I read the same John Ashbery poem opposite my seat then opened the local newspaper and turned to the classifieds: the personal ads; items for sale or trade; miscellaneous services; missed connections. I never bought anything. I never replied. But I needed the idea that there were people on the other side. And the newspaper let me believe that even though I stayed so isolated. Other people existed, and as they existed they felt, and reached out with their advertisements. Not only did they exist but they were also alone and—since moved to action—maybe even more alone than I was.
Through these grey months, there is a single ad I remember most. It stood out among the used microwaves, gently worn tires, and everyday loneliness. It was exuberant. I could not believe it was real: a man, beneath a name eccentric and rich with consonants, offering formal pinball lessons at a location close to my duplex, and offering them in a tone ripe with awareness that these lessons were precisely what the world needed. “Master the flipper. Amaze your friends.” I tore the ad from the newspaper, circled it with a blue sharpie and tacked it on the fridge. I did not call. To call would invite the possibility that it wasn’t real. And I had to believe it was, that this person existed, offering his service at a time when all I could muster by way of invitation to the world was to drink too many $1.75 beers and in the morning peer into the semi-darkness through the windows of a bus.
A mile or so southwest of Fish Lake, Utah, there is a run of aspen more than 80,000 years old. The dendrologists have given it a name—Pando, from the Latin to mean “I spread.” Although Pando covers over one hundred acres and appears to be a forest containing a multitude of separate trees, it is in fact a single organism with a vast, interconnected root system, a clonal colony of Populus tremuloides or quaking aspen. Pando’s approximated mass of 13 million pounds lands it in the running to be the heaviest organism on the planet, and at 80,000 years old, very possibly the oldest. But even such an unfathomable lifespan may be an underestimation: some dendrologists argue that traditional aging techniques are inappropriate here and in fact Pando is closer to one million years old. One million years. I am thirty-eight. Yesterday I was looking at photographs from the early 1980s and felt a bodily dissonance between the world then and now. But Pando met existence in an era before human language and still exists today, adjacent to our sphere of depleted fossil fuels, snowballing automation, and deceit.
I keep saying “it,” but Pando is a “he.” This proliferation is the result of the asexual reproduction of a single male plant. It seems strange to me that such plurality could be contained in a male organism. I would immediately assume such capacity to be female, although it should be noted that in keeping with a cardinal condition of maleness, Pando has thrived and spread in the most favorable conditions possible. Geographic and climatic variations over the millennia have effectively wiped out competition from species of conifer or other younger aspen.
If there are degrees of solitude then Pando represents an exponential function. He may be prolific, but he is alone and—with only countless iterations of himself for company over thousands and thousands of years—compelled into an everted kind of introspection. It has been 10,000 years since Pando’s last successful flowering. The climate of central Utah is gradually warming, and, despite his monumental proclivity for survival, it has been agreed by the various dendrologists, environmentalists, and biologists that Pando is dying. The experts cannot be certain why. Grazing elk may have depleted new shoots and stems to replace the old. It could be the result of drought, of insect infestation. Or it could be that after multiple epochs, Pando has finally had enough. Regardless of the reason, without new growth the end is coming, and when it comes it could be sudden.
I am interested in impossible writing. As such I am interested in the plural text: how facing the impossible in language may necessitate and birth a text that dwells in the fractured amalgam of two or more known forms. I am interested in the new text that finds form in the aperture that this fracture creates: the text that becomes possible as the imprint of writing into the impossible. Such a work is realized through the multiplicitous capacity of that imprint, which is itself a function of the multiplicity inherent to language itself. Every word is a kaleidoscope of subjectivities, tamed by the socially determined conditions for its usage. The word was not complicit in this agreement. And words are not, by their nature, tame. To assume they are is dangerous. Every word maintains the radical potential for departure, and as such this potential for movement is retained by any sum of these parts. You cannot build a house of mirrors and not expect it to reflect the light.
So then a text that may appear in prose, in service to the form of the essay, may be constructed around an architecture more readily associated with poetry, containing further architectures beneath its surface, narratives that exist independent of the semantic value of the language. I mention this now because these are the ways a singular text might transcend its apparent plurality, how every word leads multiple lives in the air and on the page, and most importantly how a run of trees near a lake in Utah may indeed be the single oldest and most massive living organism on our planet.
This morning I flicked through images of Pando I found on the internet. Some had verses of scripture superimposed on the photographs. Others diagrammed the connection of each tree to its shared system of roots. Almost without exception, the photographs were taken in the annual interlude when the aspen leaves hang golden on pale boughs—that moment of transition, multiplied across acres of forest in singular association. I reread the poem I had read hundreds of times from my seat on the bus, John Ashbery’s “Some Trees.” Here it is again, today, opening in quiet triumph, moving through a quaking order into ordained stillness, deferring meaning toward a reality in which different perceptive realms are allowed to exist simultaneously. In each, the world is reborn: into the collapsed dimensions of space; a new desert music; the ramshackle frames we place upon time; the universe of the poem. “These are amazing: each / Joining a neighbor, as though speech / Were a still performance.”
Several years ago, at a time between the bus rides in Portland and my life here today, I went on a weekend training to become a hospice volunteer. I ascended an elevator to the fifth floor of the largest office building of an out-of-town business park and took my seat in a loose horseshoe of Formica trestles that opened onto a cheap-looking podium. A young woman stood in front of the podium and greeted each prospective volunteer with a cheerful nod. This disposition, complemented by her yellow pantsuit, suggested she was only stopping by en route to a less somber occasion, so much so that when she spoke I was disarmed by the soft attention in her voice. If we had been recently bereaved, she explained, we were encouraged to withdraw from this session and enroll at a later date. She did not specify how much later, how long grief might linger until it became manageable, until we felt able to move beneath it and perhaps take on some portion of the grief of others. Nevertheless, her message was clear: if you think this may be too much, it will be.
Morning sun cut through the Venetian blinds leaving a thatch of light and shade on the Formica. A man in navy plaid cleared his throat. His cat had died the previous weekend. The room mumbled condolence. Nobody left, though soon enough the cheerful woman surrendered the podium to a middle-aged chaplain in a purple cardigan and red eyeglasses. She stayed for the chaplain’s introduction then issued a final smile and nod into the room as she turned and departed.
That morning we made our own introductions, talked a lot, drank coffee from diminutive paper cups, and assembled into various combinations of small and large groups. We watched films and slide shows about the ways people might leave their lives, about the companions who surrounded this passage, how they had begun to find meaning there, the way such rupture could not be closed but could become more familiar. Each table had a small box of tissues and a pale blue wallet folder with our agenda. We worked through it together, establishing a solid but temporary kind of trust. We ate sandwiches in the lunchroom. We did not really become friends.
On the second day, the chaplain led us through what she described as a difficult but important exercise. She closed the blinds and dimmed the lights in the room. She pressed play on a portable CD player: the sound of waves breaking, then piano, a harp. Close your eyes. We were to imagine ourselves in a private room, months after our own diagnosis of an aggressive cancer. There had been many treatments, visits, hopes, painkillers. Over the last few weeks, though, a new weakness had set in. Breathing had become labor. Movement required disproportionate effort. The time was drawing close.
In the midst of this scenario, the chaplain had us compose a list of those we held closest, and at the threshold of our departure from them, to select one name from that list and write. What would we speak on the cusp of speech becoming impossible? How would we locate the language of this transition? What would we say if we could?
Over the next months, I could not shake the idea of this utterance when facing the impossible; the language that originates both with and against death. I read deeply toward and around it. I found an anthology of Japanese jisei—haiku-like poems composed on the verge of death. I read Akutagawa and Edouard Leve. Desiring something more immediate, I found suicide notes collected on the internet and read them, and read them again. I felt suddenly like a tourist and withdrew and returned to the exercise I had learned in hospice training. I selected a name. I wrote toward them. I read. I returned again.
And I still return. Because it is this utterance that forms the center of everything I would write—this text spoken into the impossible, its capacity to contain all that it contains which is the impossible itself, the uncontainable. I want to bring language to approach the unapproachable. I want to bear witness to a singular text that holds these infinite pluralities. I want to watch it buckle. I want to see it fall.
I want the elusive syntax that embodies multiplicity, that collapses the moment and makes “tense” unnecessary, that creates a new pronoun rare to the ear but personal to all such that as I write I might address not only a named individual but everyone I have ever known and loved with no lapse in intimacy.
It wasn’t long after I found the pinball ad that my life changed. The events were as independent as two events in a single life can be. I met my partner in a different bar. The loneliness I had worn as a badge of honor began to subside. I rode the bus less frequently. I took myself and my life less seriously. My need for the classifieds diminished. The landlord’s son came by to cut the ivy from the windows, and it was too bright in the mornings. But the ad stayed on my refrigerator the whole year until I moved out of the duplex, then found a new space on our new refrigerator in our new apartment together. Then the next year when we made the cross country-drive to Colorado and started up again, we started up with the ad on the refrigerator. Master the flipper. Amaze your friends.
More than ten years passed. I don’t know why I googled the pinball guru. I don’t know what it was about that particular day that made me remember his ad, made me want to know. Considering it now, it was something more gradual: coming to a place where it didn’t matter if there had been a person behind the ad, if the man with the eccentric name had not been real. I no longer needed anything from him, and in turn, now feel an almost insurmountable distance between the person I was, drinking and sleeping alone in Southeast Portland, and the physician, husband, and father of two who is writing this.
I typed the name into the search bar and found an article from around the time I’d seen his ad, the top hit, an interview, conducted by the first and only person to take him up on lessons. They were real. I found a photograph of him beside a pinball machine, wearing a black and red shirt, not quite smiling. I found his real name, his photography and artist’s statement. Then I found the news of his death, tributes from the local pinball community, and, finally, posted by close friends on a personal blog, I found his suicide note.
It was long, more than four pages in single spaced ten-point Times. He had mailed it to arrive after he was already gone. And I realized that somebody must have sat and transcribed it, word for word, from the copy that arrived in the mail into the version published on the blog. I wanted to know if it had been written by hand. I wanted to know how. And then I felt stupid and invasive, that this wasn’t mine and could never be mine, and I closed my computer and sat in silence.
I turned over the basement trying to find the ad. I sorted through boxes looking for a scrap of newsprint with a classified circled in blue sharpie. I did not find it.
I came back the next day and clicked through his photographs, many of them arresting and beautiful, one in particular: the corner of a large building in black and white, spindled winter branches reaching over the foreground, silhouetted against grey concrete; pages and pages before the posts stopped abruptly in February 2011. I thought maybe there was another folder in another box in the basement. I continued this way for several days, turning toward him, then away. After nearly three weeks, I read the note.
It opens with love, apology, the blunt necessity of his action. That it would arrive after he was gone was long planned: he admits the prose itself had been through several drafts and revisions. His suffering is palpable throughout. As is the brute fact of his last desire—that he might cease to exist, that he might never have existed, caught in an excruciating balance with a fear of hurting those around him, of whom I was never one. His life touched mine in only the smallest way. It feels close to ridiculous that I need to take this so far.
“Pain is a relative beast,” he writes. And I understand that although sadness exists on a spectrum, despair is a singularity, whose gravity is infinite and cannot be escaped. There is sadness that drinks $1.75 beers alone. There is a far deeper sadness that casts spindled silhouettes over everything we build.
In the basement of the safety-net hospital in Denver is the Correctional Care Medical Facility. It is effectively a jail where patients who are incarcerated or in police custody can receive care. When I started my training there, a nurse told me about two women who had transferred from a regional prison with infected upper extremity wounds. They had cut into their arms and stuffed scraps of food into the lacerations hoping for the very infections they developed, for their transfer to the basement of the hospital where they lay handcuffed to the bed, hoping, because even this was better than where they were.
What I read over the single-spaced pages of the suicide note was that any previous capacity for hope had been absolutely depleted. Not only was it gone, but there was nothing that might bring it back. Not art, nor companionship, nor medication or other drugs: nothing that could imprint upon this pain. I like to think I may know something of distress, and that in turn I am developing a capacity for a broadening empathy. I have tried to place myself in such proximities, to be present and to listen. But I realize I know nothing. Because beside this darkness I have nothing, no true frame of reference for these emotions, no apparatus to understand this despair. It remains, always, around the next curve of the bay, hidden by the rocks and crashing waves, immense and impossible.
Midway through the note there is a volta, away from the devastation of personal struggle and toward the collective failure of humanity to examine ourselves, complicity in the gross disparities that are the engines of capitalism, our shattering capacity for willful ignorance, that cruelty. But it is in this bleak assessment of the world he is leaving that something emerges, that there could be a collective engagement to remedy our failures. “We must all learn to think on a vastly larger scale,” he writes. We must cultivate our capacity for empathy. We must indulge the pure qualities of our consciousness through education, through creativity, and through art.
It is art that has the negative capability to address the impossible, the potential to perform various grammars of simultaneity. The practice of art is an engagement of the imaginative mind at its intersection with the practical and as such a gesture toward simultaneity. In turn, a gesture toward simultaneity is a gesture toward the impossible. I want an art with the capacity to stack our multiple perceptual, introspective, and reflective realms into a simultaneous moment of consciousness, a mirror for the plural activities of thought. I want these moments multiplied across our numerous essays and failures. I want their silhouettes to thatch our daily lives, fading and brightening with the light and shade, for it is these oscillations that are the motor of our transcendence: to breathe, to fail, to return, to create.
When we realize this capacity is when we begin writing the impossible. A poetics of mortality depends on failure just as art is itself both a practice of failure and the persistent return from that failure. In this respect, the only requirements of the impossible are honesty and imagination. We need be nothing but ourselves: luminous beings that somehow occupy bodies, displacing in our own crude echoes the invisible matter that surrounds us, a silence already filled with noises.
On June 4, 1923, Frank Hayes, a thirty-five-year-old stableman, horse trainer, and occasional jockey, won the Belmont Steeplechase despite sitting dead in the saddle. He had been alive when the race began, had suffered a massive heart attack at some point before his horse, Sweet Kiss, crossed the line at 20-1 to win by a head. It was only when the owner and stewards approached him with congratulations that they noticed something amiss.
There is a middle-aged white man at the counter. He orders a cup of coffee. “Small, medium, or large?” asks the barista.
“Medium,” says the man, before the barista can finish the word “large.”
“Room for cream?” she asks.
“No,” says the man, “room for milk. For milk.”
But, I want to tell him, this is an absence that does not specify. It cannot decide on the presence that will take its place. As when god withdrew from the world to make room for creation, there was no specification for what would fill that space. Absence cannot see beyond itself because it has no beyond, the way grief is a kind of gravity: it doesn’t care who you are. What I am trying to say is that we will not be present for our own deaths, only the moments leading up to them. We cannot orchestrate the absence we will leave, despite our best attempts: notes left, debts paid, jockey’s silks pressed, 2% not half and half.
It’s all just around the next curve of the bay: children sleeping under blankets in the back seat of a 1980s sedan; a racehorse at full tilt with a dead man in the saddle; the tremendous quaking aspen southwest of Fish Lake; the moments in which we are able to move, to take on some portion of the grief of others; a man, an artist, in so much pain that he has tragically and meticulously chosen absence over presence.
When I was working the night shift at the safety-net hospital, I admitted a man to the inpatient mental health unit. I admitted hundreds of people for various ailments that year, but this man I remember so clearly. He had been seen in the ER for “suicidal ideation,” sent directly to psychiatric emergency services where upon more thorough evaluation had been adjudged an imminent danger to himself. He did not dispute this.
We sat a table on the acute unit where any means for self-harm had been meticulously removed. There were no door handles from which a noose might be tied. The blue plastic chairs in which we sat had only the softest contours, weighted so heavily as to resist being easily picked up or thrown. He kept his spine straight in his seat. Behind him through the wide windows spread out the condominiums and office blocks downtown. I will not describe his face, the color of his hair or eyes. I will leave unmentioned the particular timbre of his voice, but from this plastic seat with the city behind him, he spoke as an observer of an utterly impenetrable world, not as one who dwelt within that world but as one who had become only witness, removed from immediate experience, envious now of the objects around him: the table in his apartment, the books on the shelves beside it, the quiet trees outside his own window at home, their bare branches, their fallen leaves.
“When my body becomes ashes,” he said, “then I’ll become an object, too.” And he showed me the scars on his forearms, an inch or so proximal to his wrists, on his right side creeping onto his palm. They were mostly signatures of older wounds, years ago, the result of burning himself with cigarettes in brutal but earnest inquiries into whether he might still feel pain, feel anything. Most—aside from one fresh blister, that one seared only days prior to our encounter.
I saw such visceral self-interrogation on a disarmingly frequent basis that year. What marked this man apart was his attitude to these injuries. As he held his wrists out to me, he was not proud or ashamed. He did not wear his scars as medals, as intended testimony to the pitch of his suffering. He wore them with utter indifference, carried them as one would carry only the brute facts that returned him to an exhausting and circular logic: the drive to become object, accessible only through an act of ultimate subjectivity.
For the three or four years that bridged the 1980s and 1990s, after school was out for summer, we packed up the family sedan until it could bear no more weight. My father took his two-week holiday, and we crawled out of the driveway, to the south coast, on a passenger ferry, then along the Autoroutes of France until we came to a campsite by a lake about an hour south of Bordeaux. We unloaded the car into our rented trailer surrounded by maritime pine and spent every day at the freshwater lake. We were children. The water at the edge was shallow and warm, gradually deepening until the temperature chilled and the depth dropped off dramatically. The sudden difference meant you could stand chest high as a ten-year-old and stare out into the dark expanse of open water. We swam into that darkness and tried to find the bottom. We treaded water with no grasp of what might lie beneath. Younger siblings played closer to the shore. Our parents reclined on beach loungers, but my cousin and I, this is where we stayed, close to the darkness, swimming in and out, diving as deep as we could then returning to the shallows.
I have made several resolutions. I will make the journey to Fish Lake, Utah, and I will stand among the aspen. I will return to Portland, ride the same bus route and recite the poem I will have learnt by heart. When I do so, I will speak clearly. My voice will be sure. I will continue to place myself as close as I can to these things that I cannot fathom. I will swim into them. I will establish a new syntax of transition, I will live and write inside it, then I will burn it to the ground.
To write toward death is to engage the impossible. It is to pace the same ground over and over, to initiate and repeat, to mire oneself voluntarily, to sink. But it is also to remember oneself as an embodied being, with a beginning and with an end, capable of touching other lives in unknown or apparently trivial ways, seldom in plain sight, but in an unseen and tantalizing proximity.
You will be with me at the bus stop in the smell of last night’s fryers. You will be with me in the dark, on worn upholstery. You will be with me in the places where language refuses, light thatched on Formica, when breath becomes labor. You will be with me as our silhouettes rise and depart from each other, dappling the tallest buildings, taking leave from our bodies to maunder the city alone. Pinball is dying. Pando is dying. But for this instant, in these golden minutes we are here together, and everything I say to you, I say to myself:
If you think this may be too much, it will be.
Learn to think on a vastly larger scale.
Master the flipper.
Amaze your friends.
You and I are suddenly what the trees try to tell us we are.