Both Are Main

I finished reading Michiko Aoyama’s What You Are Looking For Is In the Library (2020) a couple of weeks ago, just as we in SW Virginia were crossing over into regreening season. The book was a rewarding digression at the end of an otherwise steeply-stepped semester, steep due in part to a heavy reading load for an awards committee I agreed to serve on, and due in part to the added-on role of interim PhD program director, a ‘yes’ whose reassigned time pays forward in Fall 2024. Structurally, What You Are…Library is a lightly interstitched episodic, with each of the chapters following a character from their life’s path maze to a local library where an aloof but intuitive librarian abides serendipity as a finding aid for recommending books. The recommendations are usually a combination of the patron’s at-directed line of inquiry and the around-explored one-off, which, in each case, turns out to deliver greater meaning than expected. WYALFIITL was an enjoyable read, and I appreciated especially the hodology of it, in that it is a pathfinding book whose characters are on mundane journey’s, negotiating the small uncertainties that come with career paths and life’s choices. She also felts small gifts, handing them off as pin-crafted tokens; each of these elicits added meaning, as the wayfinding plays out.

I don’t have an immediate, obvious connection in mind bridging this passage to anything I am working on, but in this excerpt, Aoyama captures the interwined character—for plants—of the aboveground and belowground. I was reminded of it while at Compost Fest a couple of weeks ago. While on the native plants tour, the guide said something like, “Trees are people, too.” It wasn’t such an outlandish or unexpected humanistic refrain, and yet with this passage from Aoyama in mind, we have what we need to fathom trees as more-than-human:

The third chapter is entitled “Below the Ground,” with subsections such as How do worms work? Where do roots grow? How much of a plant is in its roots? I find this chapter deeply fascinating. As I gaze at an illustration of a tree and its root system, with the earth the dividing line between what is above and what lies below, I am struck by a thought: most of the time we humans only look at the flowers or fruit of a plant, because we live aboveground. We switch our attention to belowground only when the roots have a particular interest for us, as in the case of sweet potatoes or carrots. Yet from a plant’s perspective, aboveground and belowground are equally important and in perfect balance.

Humans only see what suits them most, and make that their main focus, but for plants…

Both are main.

Michiko Aoyama, What You Are Looking For Is In the Library (2020), p. 95-96

Two Years ?

Here’s that same photograph of the bungalow and front shed from two years ago, around the time of closing on this 5.84 acres near Craigs Mountain, on the Pilot side of Montgomery County in December 2021.

Heaps have happened in the two years since closing on 2537 Rosemary Road, a closing that signed off two years ago today. To mark the anniversary, I thought I may as well attempt a short rewind, recollect some of the moments and fragments:

  • The biggest of upgrades so far amount to attic foam and crawlspace encapsulation. There are fewer mice (two in 2023) and no snakes on record in the attic, and the crawlspace is no longer exposed dirt. It is lit, sealed in plastic, and fitted with a remote hygrometer, so that from the up-above we can monitor conditions in the down-below. Without crawling under there. The next biggest of upgrades are the front shed foundation waterproofing and the back shed attic critter mitigation. The front shed would run rivulets of water after rain storms, so we found someone who would excavate below grade, inlay gravel and drain tile, and refill. It still needs better landscaping; recent rains have led to settling in a few spots. But the garage floor is dry (and coated, too, on the inside with Drylock), the foundation effectively patched, tarred, re-sealed. As for the back shed attic, we found someone who would pull the abundance of chewed insulation, squirrels nests, and black snake skins, and who would then block gappy edges with hardware cloth. The job was difficult, and the results were uneven. One squirrel was trapped, so we had to undo the hardware cloth, let him escape, then put the mesh back. And the backside hardware cloth was so poorly done that I spent a day on the roof in October reworking it, repairing the repair, so to speak, and buttoning things down so there is no abovehead critter activity and, although rustic, the meshed eaves don’t call attention to themselves.
  • There was a load of slate rocks for the side shed, and lots of clean-up there, too. Eventually, with the cleanout and painting of the upper shed, we ordered a haul-off, though that, too, ended up being over-priced. The market here is damned tricky when it comes to getting bids on things that can then be punctually and professionally executed. Our projects are peanuts-scale compared to the mcmansion mimeography happening on the other side of the county. And, fair is fair: there is beaucoup contractor payload to be made nearer to Blacksburg, whereas we’re out here on the quiet end of a dirt road and without all of that engineering and computer science money to really vie for priority. Description, not complaint.
  • The Wonder Hollow Six, a mixed flock, have been among the highlights of 2023. Chickens are free ranging here and loving it, though they do sometimes wander to distances and places we’d prefer they avoid, like the middle of the dirt road (Fluffy’s favorite spot, lately) and the foot of our nearest neighbors’ tree, where they will scratch until interrupted. Two planting cycles have in the garden taught us much about what stands to thrive, how to manage insects, watering schedules, and so on. This past summer was excellent on the front end, but iffy and eventually bug food on the tail end.
  • A couple of days ago we hosted an arborist for an hour-long consultation, walked the holler and noted a few of the trees: the massive white oak that sends acorns aplenty down the right of way, the catawba whose trunk is hollow and see-through yet it regreens and fruits as if all is fine and good, the pair of black walnuts nearest the house that have been pollarded like a bad haircut but that are healthy otherwise, pending some touch-ups, the cedar who is crowded by a few tree of heaven saplings that will soon be cut out, the various ornamental redbuds and dogwoods and witch hazels, and the massive stand of mature white pines that will, in the next 50 years, topple or suffer disease or die standing up or all of the above and in any order.
  • The black walnut in front is, if we estimate by trunk diameter times three, somewhere between 75-90 years old. Might’ve been a sapling when the house was built in 1948 (easy to remember because that’s the same year my mom was born in Ogemaw County, Mich.). And although the trunk has a weeping spot, it is solid and appears to be healthy to an arborist’s eye. He also spotted a vertical seam that suggested a crisis on the order of a lightning strike, a vehicle strike, or a life-threatening hard freeze at some point along the close-to-a-century it has witnessed.
  • The to-do list is still long and pricey. We’ve made repairs to the control switch for the pump, but the pump is old, and the water system would do well to be upgraded and have filtration added. I drink from the tap, and we get the water tested, but hard water corrodes lines and stains metal surfaces like faucets and sinks. The roofing and siding is 25 years old and aging. The roofs of the back shed and small addition to the front shed need cool seal or tar recoating, respectively. I’ve made strides in the front shed to replace missing insulation and to fit openings where wallboard was missing for who knows why. The electrical all checks out, and with any luck, if I can get my day job to cooperate, I’ll be able to get the rest of the front shed interior into shape so it will be more hospitable to mycology, the worm farm, and a small workstation where I can spot up for writing sessions or for working on the Wonder Hollow Six micro-documentary.
  • In these two years, we’ve learned a lot about infrastructure, too. The Verizon copper network did disappoint, as the land line was as likely to spit static as to connect for audible phone calls. Adding to that, HughesNet was terrible, too, in that the signal was intermittent at best. We’re on Starlink now, and it’s solidly consistent, yielding only to occasional lapses in quality, usually due to cloud cover. The DIY in-ground irrigation system sprung a leak last summer, as well, which meant no water feeding to the back shed or the midyard spigot. With the foundation repair we ripped that half of the system all the way out, figuring above ground hoses are adequate and another solution will eventually come around. We also bidded out a couple three minisplits, and although the units are under 2k apiece, the bids came in between $13k and $17k, and for that price we can no thank-you and instead get a couple of nice sweatshirts and long johns for holding heat in those spaces. The out buildings all have heat, and we can probably update the window AC units if absolutely necessary, even though we don’t have a clear or consistent need for that right now. I’m still thinking about a mini-split in the Moon House, but it isn’t today’s problem.
  • The day job I mentioned has also been the site of spirited flux in the two years we’ve lived out this way. I was administering the writing program, but the fevers were rising heat and no breaks (seriously, the midnight enrollment panic emails from an asst. dean in July were too too much), so I decided it best and necessary to step back, salve to the comb, like we do with the chickens when one of them gets pecked at more than they deserve. English Departments I’ve worked in have tended to be corrosive like volunteering for gout. Wonder Hollow has been a quiet and slow offset to workside flare-ups, and time will tell what is next, though I only know it has to involve more self-set reading and writing rhythms, more walks and swimming, better boundaries from the all-hours emails about unnecessary crises, and stepping back from corrosive forces like back-biting, or suspicion, or sniping, and so on.
  • By the end of year three, I hope to have the bloom room fruiting mushrooms well enough to learn about the local farmers’ markets. I’d like to get the rest of the rocks from the excavation work into place along the creek. Plant some red buds and learn to propagate from cuttings some of the dogwoods and witch hazel. Do better to harvest and freeze the baby bok choy in June. Plant a deep purple lilac near the front shed. And some bamboo, just enough for what we hear is a great playground for the chickens. Mightcould stack a Davinci bridge over the diverter pond. Get a 3.5 gallon cauldron for Big Soup get-togethers. Green house dreams. Al fresco meditation platform at mossy ledge. Sunflower patch. Asparagus and rhubarb, too. Outdoor pizza kitchen, crafted so as not to entice the family of bears to visit unwelcomed. Wood stove for front shed. List goes on.

Sweet Maple

Roothold, or When a Few of the Trees That Never Really Left, Returned; A Before/After of Lakeview Estates, Superior Twp., Mich. (faintly Shaker gift drawing-style; fuchsia baskets) #procreate #procreateart #illustration

Michigan neighbor, K., asked if I take requests for drawings, and I hadn’t before, not really, and so I said yes, sure, because even though was born under a Taurus sign I do sometimes like to do things I have never done before. Yes, sure.

The friendly request presented a set of conditions: draw our community (referring, I assumed, to the condominium complex known as Lakeview Estates, a set of approximately 130 units organized in four-unit buildings, built beginning in 1974, and occupying several acres just on the north edge of Ypsilanti, sort of between Clark and Geddes, Prospect and Harris, if you’re into Michigan’s baseline-meridian mile by mile grids). Where was I? Draw our community. Incorporate a before/after timespan. Include fuchsia. And title it with something she’d have to look up.

In 2009, I first happened up on the condo unit as a renter, referred to its owner’s adult children by an EMU colleague who knew them through their common interest in horses. The place was freed up as a rental shortly after its elderly owner died. Having moved from Syracuse, we rented for two or three years before buying a house in the next neighborhood over, same square mile as I described above.

I resumed occupancy at the condo after purchasing it in August 2014. It’s not that all of this is a dullish story as much as an account tiptoed around for uncertainty about demarcations about whose experiences constitute any story to tell and what, after all, as indefinite futures play out, do stories told bear out as consequences for ambient subjectivities–contributing without harm to an oikos, its ecology, the distributed house-logic extends neighborliness and stewardship erring always on the side of unknowns, the unforeseeable.

In 2018 I took a job 500 miles from Ypsilanti. Navigating that transition was in the top ten of stressful adulthood navigations. It meant moving away from my then-11-year-old daughter, for one. It meant wayfinding financially such that I could keep the condo as a place to visit and stay for long periods of time in Michigan while also finding a place to live in Virginia. But it also meant sorting out an incredibly trying series of obstacles introduced by the then-president of the condominium association whose inflexibilities and malfeasances led to my being sued. Twice. The details of the cases amounted to attempts to evict where I believed I was standing up for my position that “single family dwelling” met the standards of the township so long as no more than three otherwise unrelated adults share a house/condo with continuing domestic intention (sharing meals, for example). I’m leaving out a lot of the details. There was no rental agreement; no complaints, either. And I was stepped through legal proceedings that cost about 6k to defend for a pair of lawsuits that were ultimately dismissed. It’s challenging as hell to defend yourself against a condo association when the association dues you pay each month underwrite the efforts of the board president and a legal firm whose values seemed most of all to revolve around keeping a steady stream of revenue.

In the midst of the lawsuits–letters I wrote pleading with them not to pursue things further, which they ignored after the first suit was thrown out, summons delivered with the loud, intimidating knock of a flashlight handle by a county sheriff after dark one January night, the snarl of one attorney, who, at a board meeting called me an asshole and told me to shut up–among the worst of the behaviors I witnessed had to do with the sugar maple in the front and the cedar hedge in the back of my place. The cedar hedge was left to grow, untended and unkempt, eventually reaching heights that blocked my first floor window view. The maintenance requests were accidentally missed, and I was told they would get to it next time the tree trimmers were on the grounds. For a year and a half, the hedge grew. Only when other neighbors started to complain did the hedge get taken down. Meanwhile, a 30-year-old sugar maple that stood in the front of my unit was culled. I came back from Virginia in December 2019 and found in its place a pile of sawdust. They’d never told me they were going to do it, even though the tree was clearly inside the bounds of the garden area attached to my unit. I let them know I would have appreciated advance notice; it was a tree Is. climbed on when she was younger, a tree that hosted birds and squirrels outside the kitchen window. A mature tree. A tree giving no hints of being unhealthy, no roots troubling the foundation walls. What can you do but bid it gratitude and move on? Moving on for me meant asking if there was a plan to replace it. No, no budget for that, they said. Oh, gotcha and no problem. I will pay for it. But no, not allowed was the board and management company’s response.

I suppose some of the follow-through on my part was motivated by sunken costs. It was super expensive to defend those needless, frivolous lawsuits (lawsuits that could have and should have been dealt with instead through direct communication and, if necessary, mediation) and at a time when I was scraping a bit. Money, fine. Whatever. But to fuck with trees out of vengeance or spite then to block their replanting? We’re gonna do this this way? Fine. So it is.

Several neighbors took interest in these and other questionable and combative events. Word–stories–rippled across the property. Kicked out of the pool stories. Lore of bluster, antagonism, and targeting in the most passive/aggressive ways possible. A few people thought it was time for a change. And then more than a few. And they organized. Is there a lesser status form of government than a condo association? But neighbors put their names in. We spread the word about a better, fairer platform. We gathered proxies. And in early September, we voted. The board turned over. And things changed for the better.

The walls of this brownstone have been good to me–a space of quiet, of rest, of learning the difference between loneliness and aloneness, of healing. An old furnace gives heat. An old stove gives flame to soups. Plenty of counter space for fermenteds, which is important, since my neighbor, P., brings me bags full of vegetables from Detroit gardens in late summer. Neighbors look out for the place. The meandering streets nearby are familiar. The squirrels and birds are still around, a few trees over or maybe in the park on Norfolk, a block away. I see them there when I walk. With the new board, a board voted in a couple of months ago, I now have approval to replant a tree. Gonna do that in spring, imagining its roots will find and hug near as they can the underground rootpaths forged before them by the sweet maple.

Inventorying Trees

Nick Paumgarten’s short article in the January 31 New Yorker reports on a census of Central Park’s trees undertaken by Edward Barnard, a “retired book editor,” and Ken Chaya, a graphic designer. Together they inventoried and mapped more than 19,000 trees, several of which they consider Very Important Trees (VITs) now having completed the project. VITs stand apart from the forest; they amount to the distinctive and curious exceptions worthy of noticing, touring on foot (binoculars in hand), and pausing to dwell upon. About the map, Paumgarten writes,

In December, they published their map. It’s five feet tall. It has nineteen thousand six hundred and thirty trees on it, about eighty per cent of the Park’s estimated twenty-four thousand trees, all of them identifiable according to a leaf-shape key. It is a beautiful and meticulous artifact, as full of captivating detail as the M.T.A.’s new subway map is devoid of it.

Trees stand up especially well to this map-treatment, since they are uniquely rooted and living. I read this brief article with an interest in what generalizes from these methods, from this project. City-dwellers, particularly NYC-dwellers, might be more fascinated with trees than we who find them abundantly surrounding us in more open Midwestern spaces. Yet, this also means for Midwesterners that we risk resting without noticing them in their seeming ubiquity.

To generalize from Barnard and Chaya’s impressively geeky inventorying, then, what becomes possible out of this for a course like Writing Ypsilanti? Map the campus’s trees? Map a local park’s trees (e.g., Frog Island, Prospect, Normal, Candy Cane)? In tentatively posing this, I am thinking, maybe not. Nothing here. Then again, I think of Denis Wood’s public utility map and jack-o-lantern map, and something here blends inventively into other noticings: Attending to trees that grow and change almost invisibly, what else might we accidentally find? Possibly a related tree-inventorying experiment could function as a heuristic then for yet other object-oriented census maps, which, like Barnard and Chaya’s project, might change our manner of dwelling or our routes simply by resetting those fields of attention that have gone stagnant.