Zebu and Daisy bounded forward, pulling on the braided bailer-twine connecting them to an old runner sled. They bleated small frosty clouds. The light dings of their bells resonated across the snow-covered hayfield. Alfalfa lay dormant below.
Dottie and I trailed the goats. Feeling like a boy from a Currier and Ives scene, I sang jingle bells as we headed out to cut a Christmas tree. We’d found an old two-man crosscut saw in the basement. I’d never even seen my grandfather use it, so I was excited to give it a pull.
Zebu’s mostly dark chocolate body stood out against the snow. She was an Alpine-Nubian mix. Daisy was a Toggenburg with her typical light fawn coat and appeared more like a pale shadow. They were both does, just a couple of years old. I was a husky twelve-year-old boy, and my sister a thin eighteen-year-old. Bundled up against the cold, we both looked bulky.
We’d followed the road along the east end of the hayfield where the Minneapolis-Moline pulled the hay wagons and crossed through the gap of the faltering fence that bordered the Old Pasture, then more scrub than grassland. We paused by the spring that never seemed to freeze over to give the girls a drink. Glancing across the logging road, I stared at the glaucous black raspberry briars that grew under a large elm surrounded by leafless honeysuckle and briefly wished it was summer, but the chime of the goat bells urged me to pull the goats away from the water. We had a tree to find.
As the road veered eastward, we passed the orderly rows of white pines my grandmother’s brother had long ago planted. They were way too large for the living room, and their boughs too flexible to hold our ornaments. The road turned north again and began to rise. Through the bare trunks of yellow birch, sugar maples, and beech, I spied the stand of hemlock that grew along the steep slope circling back to the ravine that ran at the back of our family’s property. We took a northern fork in the road and began to scan among the mountain laurel and rhododendrons along the slope for just the tree we wanted: six to seven feet tall, less than five feet wide. It needed to fit in the space in front of the silent grandfather clock, between my grandparents’ color television and the roll-top desk where my grandmother kept wrapping paper and tags from my father and aunt’s Great Depression childhood.
Leaving our sled at the road, we climbed up to the hemlocks, holding onto branches and vines. We discovered an irregular oval area where the snow was thin and the evergreen leaves of the partridgeberry could be seen against the brown mat of the surrounding deciduous plants’ winter debris. We had discovered a deer bed among the protective low branches of the hemlock. A trail of their two-toed prints marked the surrounding snow, leaving a trail of upside down hearts. Following an intersecting rabbit trail, I spotted our tree midway between the hemlocks and the road below. I didn’t know exactly which kind it was. It wasn’t a white pine. Its needles where too short, and it wasn’t a hemlock, but it was definitely fuller than Charlie Brown’s tree on the television special.
“Look there, Dot.” I pointed to the tree rising near the base of an outcropping rock on the hillside.
“You really want that one? It’s too steep to get there.”
“Not if we slide,” I said, plopping myself down on the snow and pointing my boots towards the goal of the tree. I drug the saw behind me. Dot soon followed. Just before the desired tree, I pressed my boots down and reached out for surrounding branches to slow me. I swung the saw away from my sister.
We had a hard time working a way into the trunk past the lower branches, but the intoxicating smell of the needles encouraged us. We pocketed our mittens and grasped the handles at either end of the saw. Hhhckk. Hhhckk. We pulled back and forth. Foolishly having started on the downside of the trunk, our blade was getting bound by the weight of the tree. We moved to the topside of the trunk and periodically pressed its trunk down towards the road. The tree toppled with a crack at the base. A stubborn strip kept it attached to its stump. A final couple of cooperative strokes set it free
Rotating the trunk towards the bottom of the hill, we pulled it down to the sled, centered it along the slats with its top hanging off the rear. We secured it with old twine I’d brought in my pocket. Tired from sawing, Dottie and I guided goats who pulled the sled, happy for them to do the work.
The afternoon had nearly escaped us as we headed back along the road, past the white pines, past the spring, and through the gap in the fence of the Old Pasture. The sun was setting behind our family’s farmhouse. If we didn’t hurry, I would have to put the goats back in their pen in the barn in the dark. We picked up our pace with the house in sight.
We had to drag the tree through the back door, through the kitchen, and through the dining room, and across the living room to get it to the traditional location for the tree beside the grandfather clock. My mother’s initial pleasure in our find, turned to concern as the challenge of maneuvering an unbound tree through the house became repeatedly evident with each turn.
Finally positioned in the living room, we tried to place it in the stand. The base of the trunk was simply too wide. We had to cut off numerous low branches and cut more than six inches off the tree to get it to fit. Stepping back from the tree, screwed at last in the stand, I sighed in frustration. Starting two-thirds up, the tree bowed to the right. Who wanted a crooked tree? The tip tilted towards the radiator pipe that usually went unnoticed. It ran up in the corner behind the clock to the second story, but now stood out like a pole in a fire station. I twisted the tree so it curved toward the back and anchored it with a string. I hoped now no one could see the radiator pole. Somehow cutting your own tree didn’t seem so simple anymore.
“Oh, David,” said my mother. “Don’t worry. Go ahead and cover the tree with ornaments, run the garland at crossing angles, and tilt the star just so. No one will notice the tree’s top. The focus at Christmas lies at the bottom where once lay a manger and soon will lie your presents.”
With all the extra work of setting up the tree, I ended up having to go out in the dark and feed the goats. I prayed as I stomped loudly in the barn and rattled the feed drum to scare off the rats I feared. I thought of Jesus as I placed hay in the goats’ manger.
I got back to the house just in time to be my mother’s tall boy to stretch up and adjust the star. I knew then what I know now. My mother was right. Christmas is more about giving than looking just perfect, and most about the humblest boy who came to lie in the manger to bring the world light.
Tuesday, June 19th may have been a typical hot day in Riverside, but I escaped the heat with over twenty of Celena Diana Bumpus’s poetry students and guests at the second reading in the Tuesday Literary Series at the Janet Goeske Center in Riverside, California.
Ms. Bumpus leads a highly engaged group at the Goeske Center for an hour-and-a-half long workshop each Tuesday afternoon from 1:00 to 2:30, one of the Center’s many free lifelong learning options.
I shared forty short poems from my current manuscript, including “Riding the Flexible Flyer,” which tells the story of a memorable childhood sled ride. You can see my splayed hands and bent knees in the photo above as I describe the launch of my sled. Nothing like a fanciful winter poem and a well-airconditioned room to help one forget the wilting temperatures outside.
My poems explore nature, time, and family relationships with images from my rural childhood in Northeastern Pennsylvania and from Southern California’s Inland Empire where I’ve lived for nearly twenty years.
After reading I enjoyed conversation with the group about my poems and the craft of writing.
I look forward to hearing Michelle Gonzalez read on July 10 at the third presentation in the Tuesday Literary Series organized by Bumpus’s Islands for Writing Publishing. Tim Hatch will read on August 7.
Recently, I’ve been exploring the use of a commonplace book for myself and for my students. My Inlandia Literary Journeys column for this morning appeared in The Press Enterprise, The Inland Valley Bulletin, and the San Bernardino Sun.
Since my plans to travel this weekend had only recently changed and I had not signed up to read, I went to the reading for the 2017 Writing from Inlandia today to listen to other local writers and not to read myself. However, just as the last scheduled reader was preparing to read, I was urged to follow her at the podium.
I shared three of the five poems I have in this new anthology:
Rest in the Grove
Two Hollows on a Hill
At Last a Black Lily
“Birdie, birdie, birdie, / calls the cardinal,” I chirped out as I began “Standing Ground,” which features the territorial calls of a cardinal perched above a hanging carcass. My mother loved cardinals. She would have hated this poem. “Why write about such a gruesome scene?” she would have said, but she was not there. She and my father were interred at Hickory Grove Cemetery just two weeks ago. My mother passed early in January and my father less than a year earlier.
I struggled to lift my eyes to face the audience. Maintaining periodic eye contact while reading is a part of my daily routine. I’m a teacher. But I found myself desperately struggling to maintain composure as I thought of my parents.
As I read the dedication, “for Benjamin Mileham Stone,” I felt my voice begin to waver. I came close to crying, but made it through the poem. “Rest in the Grove.”
I hadn’t introduced the poem, but after a deep breath at its end, I shared about the recent loss of my parents, feeling a need to explain my quavering. The compassionate faces I saw in the audience, many who I have known for years now, steadied my nerves and voice as I read through the four stanzas of “At Last a Black Lily,” which reflects on the death of a raven from the West Nile virus. Rest and beauty came for the bird in my poem as courage and peace came for me. I am grateful for the community of writers I’ve come to know through the programs of the Inlandia Institute.
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My father lasted
until the time changed.
The world has lost
so much more
than an hour.
RIP Benjamin Mileham Stone (December 22, 1929-March 12, 2017)
I just finished reading Margarita Engle’s Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir. Engle magically describes her childhood and early teen years as she travels between California and Cuba just before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In light of the current attack on media, I was heartened by the closing lines of her poem “Secret Languages”:
“Right wing or left wing, tyrants always
try to control communication.
Charlotte Davidson’s March 2nd column in The Press Enterprise, “Get busy writing if you dislike today’s political situation,” also gave me courage to continue to write.
Whatever one’s perspective in these fast-moving tumultuous times, the opportunities to make or to record history present themselves daily. I need to write more. Thank you, Margarita and Charlotte, for reminding me of the pendulum swings of history and the importance of communication.