In the place of the sweet trees

with thanks to Denise Krebs for encouraging “multiple languaged” poems for today’s Ethical ELA Open Write and NCpedia for shedding a little more light on name origins…

In the Place of the Sweet Trees

Long ago, the first People knew the river.

They named it for the trees growing there
where spice-bark and great white flowers
perfume the air. 

In this place of the sweet trees
along the riverbank
a vine began to grow. 

It bore fruit in the shape
of spheres
of the Earth itself
as yet unknown.

Thick-hulled green-gold
pearls of the vine
that the People named
for the blackwater river
in the place of the askupo,
those heavy, fragrant trees
rooted in swampy soil.

The People, standing in the cool shadows
of the sweet trees by the river,
tasted the askuponong,
the scuppernong,
and understood
the Divine.

Scuppernongs getting ripe. -Mandie-CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

September = scuppernongs

I write about them every September: scuppernong grapes.

A dear lady in my church picks them from an old, old vine that belonged to her mother-in-law. She brings the grapes to me, knowing how I love them.

It’s not just the divine sweetness. That’s only part.

In these thick, green-gold husks are memories as rich and sweet as the fruit itself.

I pop a scuppernong in my mouth, whole, splitting the thick skin against my teeth. Inside the hull lies a cool primordial pulp, a velvety experience…

It is the taste of my childhood, of my grandfather, whose vines grew lush and thick by the ditch bank of his country home. It is the taste of belonging, love, sacrifice, survival. Of wars won, losses mourned, marriages that endured. It is the taste of reward. Of dirt roads, tin roofs, earth as black as night, crops in the fields, glittering with morning dew. Of dense forests, timbered yet returning denser, again and again, still retaining their secrets, bearing silent witness to generations rising and falling. It is the taste of seasons, centuries, epochs in their turning.

I grow older, savoring my children’s children, the sweetest thing I have ever known.

September. The month of my grandfather’s birth and my father’s death. The month of scuppernongs, ever a reminder of my Carolina roots and my heavenly home.

Dinnertime guest

He comes to dine each evening
between four and five o’clock
resplendent in his crimson cravat
in an emerald flash, he’s gone
breathless, I await his return

A female ruby-throated hummingbird giving the feeder over to a male: If you look closely, you can see his tongue lapping up the sugar water. A hummingbird’s tongue is forked, like a snake’s, with edges that trap nectar. During my impromptu summer study I’ve learned that males are the minority. They are fewer and never linger as long as females. So many days have gone by without sighting a male that I wondered if they’d all migrated; they are the first to go. Then this fellow began arriving every evening for dinner. He’s quite punctual. I’ve been reading that hummingbirds may not leave my central North Carolina neck of the woods until winter. We shall see… in the meantime, I watch and marvel over nature, its rhythms, its endless curiosities.

Something about September

Sunlight
still bright
takes on an amber tinge
the sky
day by day
almost imperceptibly
deepens its blue
still hot
in Carolina
but now she’s rolling up
her blanket of humidity
to put it away at last
there’s the first
tiny delicious trace
of coolness in the breeze
cicada choruses fade
day by day
a vintage time of year
I think to myself
remembering
how September stands
as a paradise paradox
regal in earth’s greatest finery
stitched with threads
of her greatest losses

September morning. rkramer62CC BY 2.0.ran

The cicada

Yesterday I tried to rescue a cicada that had fallen on the pavement in the bus loop at school.

I didn’t see it fall. I only saw it on its back, wildly fluttering its wings, unable to right itself.

As cicadas are huge insects, many of my colleagues preferred not to get near it.

But I have loved cicadas all my life. Their summer song, that choral buzzing swelling from the treetops, sends my spirit spiraling skyward. I find it among the most comforting of Earth’s songs.

And so I went and picked it up.

The cicada beat its wings in a frenzy, for a second clinging to my dress with its hook-legs.

I placed it, right side up, in the mulch at the roots of a crape myrtle.

It flipped over on its back again.

This is what cicadas do, what most insects do, when they are dying. Their legs can’t support them anymore.

I figured the creature would be gone by the time school dismissal was over. All I could do was provide a dignified passing for it in the mulch under the tree versus being flattened by the wheel of a bus.

But it was still alive, moving its legs a little, when time came for me to leave.

So I put it in a cup and brought it home.

It was still and silent for most of the ride, except for one episode of weak wing-beating against the cup.

I placed it, right side up, under some ivy in a planter on the back deck.

A couple of hours later, it was on its back again, still feebly moving a leg or two.

I don’t know how long it takes cicadas to die. I don’t know if they feel pain, anxiety, or fear. I know they live the greater part of their lives underground (up to 17 years, some of them) and their time above is short (a few weeks). I start listening for their song at the end of May, the month of my birth, and I hear the last strains sometime in September. Cyclical, symbolic creatures, cicadas. Across cultures and legends, they’re most often associated with immortality and resurrection.

Yet this one was dying. I couldn’t help it or save it. I couldn’t tell it how grateful I am for its kind, and it couldn’t care. I couldn’t give it peace.

In the end, it gave me peace to let it play out here at home with honor in the ivy-sheltered planter. As night drew near, dozens of other cicadas called from the trees…a fitting requiem for a fellow northern dusk-singing cicada.

Maybe it could hear. Maybe the song was a comfort, a blessing, a benediction.

It was for me.

My northern dusk-singing cicada

Something sacred

Summer evening
after dinner
the three of us
are riding home
through the countryside

late-day sun
is amber-bright
when giant raindrops
begin to slap
against the windshield

Raining while the sun shines,
says my husband
from the passenger seat
(I’m in the back;
the boy is driving)
—there’s got to be a rainbow
around here somewhere

The boy makes the left turn
—There it is, he says

wide shimmering bands
hanging in the air
like a gossamer curtain
touching the road
right before us

breathless, we ride
right through it
to find another
and another
just ahead

so many rainbows
gleaming down through
the trees
over the fields

heaven’s glory bending
to caress the earth
a prismatic promise
poured out

all along
our way home

At the end of the rainbow. Mara ~earth light~. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

I didn’t get photos, alas, but the rainbows touching the road before us yesterday evening happened to be near the spot where my husband and I saw an eagle sitting majestically by the roadside back in early 2019. In this picture the background is dark whereas our scenery was vivid green in the amber-gold light of late day… but there’s an eagle, and the sojourning child carrying solace and security in the form of a teddy bear in a backpack speaks to me.

Something sacred is in this place.

Hummingbird observations

It all started last month when I saw one hummingbird in the backyard, out by the pines.

She appeared from nowhere, hovering stock-still in the air across the yard, directly facing my son and me as if to consider what manner of beings we are before she darted away—poof. Perhaps it’s just my overactive imagination, but I felt like some sort of message was in this magical appearing. Something the bird wanted…

I bought a feeder.

In a day or so, I had a bird. Or two.

Then there seemed to be three. All females.

Eventually a male showed up with his gorgeous fiery throat. From a distance he looked like a flying ember. He preferred coming early in the morning or around suppertime. It’s almost like His Tiny Royal Highness was letting his Royal Nectar-Tasters go before him to be sure the stuff wasn’t tainted. I cannot say, however, that he was any match for the females in regard to which was most vicious in the dive-bomber approach of driving all others away from the sugar water.

Hummingbirds are contentious creatures. Terribly territorial.

I’ve learned there’s a scientific reason for this: Their metabolism requires them to feed almost constantly. Hummingbird hearts have been recorded, I read, at 1200 beats per minute.

I bought another feeder.

As of mid-August, there’s a squadron of hummers at my feeders, so much so that the original feeder hanging on the kitchen window has to be refilled daily; I had to buy more sugar. I know that ruby-throats (the only kind of hummingbird that breeds in the eastern U.S.) are supposed to start migrating to central Mexico. The males go first, in early August, which explains their current scarcity, I think. Females wait a while longer. I’ve also read that some hummingbirds stay in residence all year. We shall see… I have learned to recognize some individual females by their different markings: one with black speckles all down her pale breast and belly, one with a pure ivory belly and a brighter, iridescent green back, one with a darker head, one with a lighter head and pale stripe on top, and one with a precious, tiny dot of red at her throat, like a lady bedecked in a ruby pendant. When I opened the blinds one morning last week, there was Little Ruby, hovering in the gray dawn; we were so startled by each other that we both froze for a split second in mutual awe (wonder on my part, likely fear on hers) before she zipped away.

At this point I must mention my grandmother. Hummingbirds and cardinals were her favorite birds, perfect symbolism for a woman named Ruby. I saw my first hummingbird by the spirea bushes in her yard one summer. The loud buzz of the beating wings alarmed me—was this a big bug coming after me?—but Grandma Ruby’s childlike delight quickly allayed my fear. And then there was nothing but enchantment for this tiny, dazzling fairy of a creature, glittering like an emerald, my own birthstone, in the sun.

Perhaps that is why I took my six-year-old granddaughter out with refilled feeders yesterday:

The hummingbirds hide in the crape myrtle and cheep at me whenever I take their feeders down.

They do? Why, Franna?

They just want their nectar. They are saying ‘What are you doing with my food!

I haven’t ever heard them cheeping.

Today you will.

And so, for just a moment, I held the favored window feeder out at arm’s length as my granddaughter stood by, very still. Two hummers appeared instantaneously, cheeping competitively before hovering, suspended in the air, eyeing me, uncertain, their whirring wings as loud as electric propeller fans. Each took a tentative drink before whizzing off to the pines out back.

I hung the feeder and my granddaughter said, Quick, let’s go in before all those wings come back!

I chuckled, remembering my first experience with the intimidating sound when I was about her age. We darted for the door. As we entered the house, she said: I heard them cheeping!

And then, before I could reply: Franna, look!

She pointed to the window, where a hummer was perched on the very top of the feeder.

Well, that is something new, I said. I haven’t seen any of them sitting up there before.

My husband, sitting at the kitchen table preparing a sermon, said: That bird was perched on the feeder hanger the whole time you were fixing the sugar water.

I am sure she was one of the two who dared to take a drink when I was holding the feeder.

For the rest of the day, this little bird perched, fed, flew off in skirmishes with other tiny feathered Amazons, and returned. Whenever I looked at the window, she was there, looking in, occasionally fluffing her feathers. I am not sure if she’s nominated herself Queen of This Feeder or if she’s simply curious—hummingbirds are known to be extremely so—and is watching me as I play with my granddaughters and cook supper.

I suppose the ultimate question is who’s observing whom.

And what we are learning about each other in the process.

Didn’t realize, until I reviewed the day’s photos, that I happened to catch her with her tongue extruded. Every minute with hummingbirds filled with absolute wonder. I have christened her Lilibet, the nickname of Queen Elizabeth (since she seems to be reigning over the feeder) and also in honor of my great-aunt Elizabeth, Grandma Ruby’s sister. I wrote about Aunt Elizabeth’s hummingbirds a couple of weeks ago: Solitary existence.

Next goals: 1) Get a good photo of Little Ruby and 2) Invest in hummingbird feeder rings for my granddaughter and me to wear…can we stand still enough for them to come drink from our hands? Will they actually do it?

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge

Nurturing the summer soul: Spiritual journey

Peace

Last day at the beach
I wake far too early
but I make the coffee anyway
and take a cup to the top deck

I sit in the chair
facing east
drinking in
the deepness
of solitude
the blessedness
of silence

Earth stirs a little
and sighs
like a baby in its sleep

Just ahead, high over the sea
Venus glitters and winks

I am the bright and morning star
I know you are

My waiting soul
cannot think
of anything else it wants
or needs
as black silhouettes
of pelicans
fly soundlessly by
against the sky
pinkening with light

Sunrise
signifying the end
of night

My view this morning: Venus over the Atlantic just before sunrise

Pelicans, while not in this particular shot, are plentiful here. As the sky grew lighter they appeared in silhouette, gliding gracefully against it. The pelican is an ancient symbol for Christ, often depicted in Christian art.

Revelation 22, the last chapter of the Bible, references the River and Tree of Life, the healing of the nations, the end of night, and the return of Christ with the words “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last…I am the root and offspring of David, and the bright and morning star(13; 16).

The best I can do is to describe this morning scene. The sense of peace, so often fleeting or not to be found when Earth is wide awake and churning, was honestly too deep for words. I shall hold these moments in my mind for returning to when my soul needs more nurturing, long past summer.

—with thanks to Carol Varsalona for the theme and for hosting the Spiritual Journey writers on this first Thursday in August.