More On Trees

Are trees intelligent? We are how we define. In this week’s New Yorker (23 Dec), Michael Pollan takes a fresh look at the compare and contrast conversation over animal versus plant kingdoms: “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.”

At what cost do we hold the brain primary in a hierarchical view of consciousness, problem solving – in short, life? Picture two planets. On one, life forms with a torso and five appendages have evolved to invent marvelous technological tools, but the essential nature of the life form does not appear to have improved. Persuasion remains the name of the game. On the other planet, a similar life form appears to live in symmetry with the planet’s plants and animals (and, by extension, with one another), in a positive symbiotic relationship made possible by the nurturing of life sustaining partnerships and the recognition that all life contains the same kernel of consciousness, a kernel that may or may not be located in a central control system called a brain. But the artificial technology remains rudimentary. Is one planet smarter than the other?

In perhaps the most persuasive part of Pollan’s discussion, he asks, in response to the criticism that plants can’t think because they don’t have brains, no command center, where in the brain is the brain, where in the brain is this command center? It appears that the brain may function in much the same way as a plant’s root system.

In other news, the Toads Dec. 6 piece, titled “Trees of Christmases Past,” has been posted at the Berfrois site. Have a happy holiday diversion at Berfrois!

Meantime, we celebrate Christmas with this more on trees photo gallery. Click on any pic to view the gallery.

Trees of Christmases Past

One year, living near the ocean in South Bay, we got a fake Christmas tree. The metallic silver needles, like tiny confetti mirrors, reflected shades of yellow, blue, and red, emitted from a rotating electric color wheel placed beneath the tree. The colors turned almost as slow as a sunset. At night, with the lights in the room all off, the colors from the wheel flickered through the spaces between the thin tree branches and splashed neon paint over the walls and across the silver glittered stucco ceiling. It was our first and last psychedelic Christmas tree. The next year, we got a real tree, and the fake tree stayed boxed in the attic. Maybe it’s still up there, awaiting a psychedelic rebirth. One of these days, someone will find it and haul it off to Antiques Roadshow.

Another year, living in an apartment on the other side of town, now less than a mile from the water, and just under ten miles along the bike path from my first teaching gig, in Venice, Susan and I bought a live tree, a small pine, rooted in a five-gallon bucket. After Christmas, we planted the pine in my parents’ front yard. Before I went on the Facebook wagon, some time ago, I posted a pic and mentioned the tree to a few ES locals. “Who knew Joe would wind up so sentimental,” one said. The tree has grown to a height of 20 feet or so. It’s not shaped like a Christmas tree. It looks more like a thick, wind tossed, but healthy, lone cypress. It leans out toward the street, between the house and a fire hydrant next to the sidewalk.

In the Northwest, folks still drive out of the city to cut a fresh tree. In the wooded areas outside Portland, U-Cut Christmas tree farms are as common as surf spots along Santa Monica Bay. One year, up on a tree farm about twenty miles east of Portland, a full fir roped to the car roof, I suddenly discovered I’d locked the car keys inside the car.

Another year, Susan won a Christmas tree, in a name that tune oldies radio contest. The only problem was that the tree was in a lot across the Columbia River in Vancouver. Christmas tree time in the Portland area is often cold and rainy and windy. We drove across the bridge to Vancouver, the East Wind scouring the Gorge with elbow grease, picked out a tree at the lot, petted the farm animals, visited the gift shop, where we drank some hot chocolate, and drove off for the return trip to Portland. By the time we got back to the bridge, the winds were kicking up with 40 mile per hour gusts, and with the wind cutting across our eight foot fir tree tied to the top of our little Honda, the river crossing was like windsurfing on a sailboard. I held the Honda to 40, and we blew sideways into Portland.

Our cat likes a Christmas tree. She won’t bother it, claw at the ornaments. She’s at an age now where she just sleeps under the tree, on the white cotton blanket that’s supposed to connote snow. This year, I’m thinking it’s a good place to be, for me too, under the tree, but the cat prefers sleeping solo. Outside this morning the snow is more than a connotation. Those are denotative flakes blowing in a new east wind. If I let the Scrooge hiding in my soul emerge this year, I’m likely to wind up in the snow bed outside. Check it out – click on the photo gallery above. I’m off to find a tree. One year, I walked down to a local church and picked up a tree there, not quite a mile from our place, and carried it back home on my shoulder. You don’t see this sort of thing much anymore, I thought, self-complacently, slipping and sliding on the snow-muddy shortcut path up to our street. Maybe this year I’ll surprise Susan with a fake tree. Won’t she be surprised?

This is Portland for Christmas

I asked Eric if for Christmas he might like a couple of books. It was a busy week, with the Christmas baby on her way, and so Susan and I found ourselves in Powell’s on Hawthorne two days before Christmas looking around for things we thought Eric might find interesting, not an easy chore, since we have trouble usually identifying things that even we might find interesting. It’s not easy finding the right book at the right time for someone. Choosing a book is like picking a campsite. But Susan’s a genius at this sort of thing, and found Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs, perfect, and Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low-wage USA, by Barbara Ehrenreich (the perspicacious reader will pick up on the perfect pairing these two books make).

Then, waiting in a long Powell’s last minute Christmas line with a hundred other Portlanders on Hawthorne, I spotted what appeared to be a little, homemade paperback, This is Portland: 13 Essays About the City You’ve Heard You Should Like, by Alexander Barrett. Three of the essays are only one sentence long (illustrated, to give them a bit more heft), and I liked that he still called them essays, and that you could read an entire essay standing in line at Powell’s on Hawthorne and that by the time you got to the counter, you could finish the book, and if you didn’t like it, you could just put it back. But I did like it, and I thought Eric would dig it, and the essay that cinched the deal (two pages long, still standing in line), was “Hawthorne V. Belmont,” about the supposed value clash between the two alt-commercial Portland East-side strips.

The author of This is Portland had only moved to Portland eight months before the writing of his book, but the book’s undated, which we find a bit weird, but Portlanders are supposed to value weird, so there you go, but a bit of Toads sleuthing and we came up with an on-line version of the book ($5 at Powell’s, but we’re more than ok with that, see below), and not only that, but we discovered (ok, this was actually pretty easy, the sleuthing part, since Alex the brief essayist included his website address at the end of his book) an amazing website devoted to himself, the Portland essayist, apparently hosted by his parents.

About being ok spending $5 for something available on-line for free: obviously, emailing somebody a link doesn’t make for much of a gift, but beyond that, we continue to support hard copy whenever we can, and Alex’s little hard copy book has already been shared and read by at least six others, folks dropping in on Christmas day to visit and share-alike. It’s a wonderful Portland.

Related: “Portlandia“; “Portlandia Portraits

Christmas Platterful

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been filmed again and again, but one must read it to savor the chef’s cloves of exclamation points that spice the prose of the platterful Cratchit Christmas table: 

“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” 

Yet this is nothing compared to Joyce’s engorging in “The Dead,” the last story in Dubliners. Here he sets the stage for a food fight good and large: 

“A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.” 

Hemingway, reporting from Switzerland for The Toronto Star Weekly, in a piece entitled “Christmas on the Roof of the World” (December 22, 1923), tells how, after a day of skiing, they 

“…hiked up the hill towards the lights of the chalet. The lights looked very cheerful against the dark pines of the hill, and inside was a big Christmas tree and a real Christmas turkey dinner, the table shiny with silver, the glasses tall and thin stemmed, the bottles narrow-necked, the turkey large and brown and beautiful, the side dishes all present, and Ida serving in a new crisp apron. It was the kind of a Christmas you can only get on top of the world.” 

Meantime, at the bottom of the world, Faulkner’s people eat a Christmas dinner of “possum with yams, more gray ash cake, the dead and tasteless liquid in the coffee pot; a dozen bananas and jagged shards of cocoanut, the children crawling about his [Bayard Sartoris’s] feet like animals, scenting the food.” 

We are neither at the top nor the bottom of the world this Christmas eve morning, but we are where we have chosen to be, with the smell of a fresh cut tree mixing with coffee and the sound of jazz and family filling the air – our platter is full.