A version of this entry was originally posted at Nature Writing on January 15, 2012.
During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and will be moving away from this place soon, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”
I lean against one of the six or so trees of heaven that have claimed this part of the North Side for their own. Sun-softened snow covers a layer of ivy and decaying leaves, and my feet slide on the ground at the base of the slope of my backyard. The trunk feels solid against my back, but its smooth, gray bark offers no resistance when I shift position.
The hill curves up into a retaining wall, stones crumbling. In front of the wall, a massive trunk, five or six feet in diameter, rises from a tangle of its own fallen branches and chopped-up pieces of fence that have been pushed against the hillside. A brick staircase from the yard’s lower, flat surface leads directly to this wall of impenetrable plant debris. I imagine it used to lead to a terraced garden.
Decorative ivy, gone wild from that garden, falls like a curtain over the lower half of the tangle. Its leaves change from black-green at their center to forest-green at their edges. A yellow fungus forms shelves on sections of log that were thrown up here when part of the massive tree fell and took the neighbor’s fence with it, but now it looks frozen and as dead as the wood it clings to.
Behind me and to the right, on the flat part of the yard, the spines of a dozen more tree of heaven saplings stand branchless, like support poles for a house that was never built. Dried, stalky weeds, probably the remnants of stinging nettle and goldenrod, hold out their seed pods, waiting for someone like me to brush by and knock them to the ground where they can wait for spring.
I, too, can see the beauty in winter, the beauty of multitudes of five-pointed seed pod stars clustered in small galaxies, light brown specks against the whiteness of snow. But I do not believe that nature, as Emerson wrote, is a channel by which we can connect to some higher being. Nature is that higher being. Emerson felt alone when he looked at the stars, but I feel connected to everything, and everyone.
Somewhere to my right, a bird starts singing, and that surprises me, though I’ve seen plenty of birds out here. A man who lives on the street above interrupts his bush trimming to take a phone call. The bird changes tone, but continues. Through the thicket I see a flash of white and brown, but nothing more. I want him to be some rare or exotic bird, but I have to accept the likelihood that he’s a house sparrow. I never realized how beautiful they sound. A few crows interject loud caws into the sparrow’s refrain.
When the sparrow stops singing, I lean forward to examine the ground in front of me and find a miniature frozen waterfall. The man has stopped talking on his cell phone and presumably gone back inside, leaving me with silence. The sun slips behind gray clouds and that, more than the lack of sounds, makes me feel alone. The sound of my camera lens opening and closing makes me jump and almost lose my footing, but the tree of heaven holds me steady. Honeysuckle vines, still clinging to some rapidly fading green leaves, twist around the fence that marks the end of this yard and the beginning of the next, and I wonder how long that fence will stand.
This nature is not, as Emerson wanted to believe, bending to man’s dominion “as meekly as the ass on which the Savior rode.” It is slowly eating everything here. The trees of heaven, a widely invasive species that love disturbed urban spaces, have no doubt sunk their roots deep and spread them wide. Even if you leave a small piece of one in the ground, it will sprout up again.
I turn to retrace my steps through the stalks and saplings, and see how heavily I’ve trampled the ground. Blackish ivy and wet brown leaves peek up through the woman-sized boot prints in the disturbed snow. At the bottom of the yard, I grab a tree trunk to steady myself and look over the sheer retaining wall that holds the hillside away from my patio. The roots of two more trees of heaven push on the rough-hewn rocks. The wall will break, eventually, and the trees will take the whole hillside.