and especially, it seems, when they stand sentinel along the New Jersey Turnpike. Every day I see a big old hawk on a big old tree along the highway. The perfect spot for waiting to catch your supper. Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. Jonathan Swift said that.
When I first started working as an arborist, I felt all the trees along the road should be alive and magnificent, and I was almost offended if I saw a bare branch sticking up out of the canopy.
Now I know that trees cope with their living conditions in different ways. Cladoptosis is the process by which trees shed their branches or “self-prune” as part of their normal physiology or in response to stress. All large trees will have some dead branches, it’s part of their life cycle. There’s even a phenomenon known as Sudden Branch Drop, first identified in 1882 by a botanist named Kellogg, who wrote of trees “said to burst with a loud explosion, and strong limbs…(which) unexpectedly crash down, the fracture disclosing not the least cause of weakness.” Of course when you drive along the highway you might be seeing the effects of emerald ash borer or beech leaf disease, two current scourges of the forest. Not good.
But sometimes in nature death and life intertwine, as is the case with one of my favorite phenomenons, the manzanita, grey and red braided together as the plant grows.
Hawks’ habit of perching perfectly still, making use of those bare branches, impresses me. They are doing anything but nothing. It’s so hard to maintain that kind of patience. I’ve observed it also with seagulls that hang out on the secret bridge at Ellis Island.
Sometimes as I drive across a gull will fly over with a crab, but they usually just pose with drops of harbor water hanging from their beaks. They are intensely focused, gazing out with that reptilian look they have, waiting, waiting.
It’s hard to be patient. The gulls and hawks teach us that patience is an art. It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing. So said Gertrude Stein. Hard to stay waiting for someone to return.
Waiting to consume the pie until it cools from the oven. Waiting for the soup dumplings to cool so you won’t burn your tongue on the delectable broth inside.
Waiting for the coffee to brew. For beauty to unfurl.
For some special someone to smile. I feel that all the time on my tours, as I wait for a visitor to crack a smile, to respond. Waiting for my daughter to have children. Drop your babies already! You know you’ll be happy when you do! But no, it’s on somebody else’s timeline, not mine—as it should be.
Waiting to grow up. We’ve all been through that. And then, later, you wonder why you wanted to hurry.
The patience to wait before opening a present. Or even (especially?) an envelope when you know there’s a holiday check inside. I love presents but you can’t rush it.
Waiting for the Bartlett pears to ripen, the pineapple. Hard to fathom when a pineapple will ripen, or an avocado. You cannot rush it. Waiting for a book to find a publisher.
The patience you need when someone is slow to forgive you. The patience you need to begin forgiving somebody. Patience is not learned in safety, says Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.
Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I’d have never found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest, wrote William Least Heat-Moon. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of my father’s—believing as he does that anyone who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get—that people become what they pay attention to. Our observations and curiosity, they make and remake us.
Soon the trees will lose their leaves, and we won’t even know which branches are dead and which ones aren’t. When snowfall comes, the pristine white that coats every branch will be just as beautiful.
The age of the bristlecone pine called Methuselah, which stands in Inyo National Forest in California, has been gauged at 4,600 years. Somehow it seems to be both alive and dead, a natural miracle.
I am paying attention.