How the asking is the answer
Last week, I received a survey packet in the mail from the Arbor Day Foundation, the kind my dad has been getting for years, it seems. Tucked here and there around my parents’ yard and adjoining woods are the “free gift” saplings that come as a reward for completing the exceptionally brief tree survey, and though the deer eat at least half of every year’s new treelets, some manage to make it.
The briefness of the tree survey surprised me. While I was tearing away the paper strip that holds the survey closed—even while walking up from the mailbox—I was imagining tromping around the house, counting: walnut, walnut, maple, locust, walnut, walnut, red sumac. Imagining wondering if sumac was “tree enough” to count, or the honeysuckle and autumn olive, as tall and thick as walls. I was not imagining fourteen multiple choice questions. I was not anticipating how frustrated I would feel simply filling in the yes bubble for question 4.
I filled in all the requisite bubbles, hoping that at least my three consecutive 10/10 responses about the importance of trees in various capacities conveys at least a ghost of the enthusiasm behind it.
Despite the fact that most of my life has been spent in school in one capacity or another, I have taken very few exams that hinge on filling in bubbles. The requisite standardized tests were, in my K-12 years, relatively rare—certainly not every year. There were the SATs and the GREs, standard and subject, and I’m sure some sections of multiple choice on my biology and geology lecture exams in the undergrad days, but most of what I remember—even in those science courses, even in statistics—was space to work, space to write, space to explain, which offered a chance to at least demonstrate how I was thinking, even if I was thinking my way to something incorrect.
Not, of course, that I think some overtaxed intern should have to wade through hundreds of words about the time my wonderful friends in upstate New York mailed a handful of ruby and orange maple leaves, pressed flat and perfect, all the way to central Wyomingbecause I missed those colors in autumn, and if I find the right book on my shelf, those leaves are probably still in there. But it makes me think about the impulse to elaborate, and where that impulse exerts real force. I tell you, I felt it bodily while filling in these survey bubbles, the want to say more. It’s been more than a week and those words are still there (wanting, honestly, to become an actual essay).
That force isn’t there all the time. When it is, it’s time to pay attention.
I’ll let you know if I get some saplings in the mail.
What I’m making: If I’m going to be honest with you, lately I haven’t made much. As mentioned in the previous installment, albeit with a lot less franticness than I am feeling this week, it’s crunch time. But before the panic set in, I did get a chance to finish this skein of yarn:
The fiber is a blend of Polwarth wool and silk, expertly dyed by Fossil Fibers in a colorway called Alpe d’Huez. I do have two more braids of this gradient loveliness to spin, in different colorways (the next going blue to purple, then purple to orange, respectively). In lieu of variety of projects, have some sheep facts: the Polwarth sheep is a cross between Merino and Lincoln (3/4 to 1/4, if you want to get specific). The Lincoln strain produced a sheep with hardier grazing habits than a pure Merino, one that can thrive in a variety of climates and on rougher forage. The wool is next-to-skin soft, bouncy and a bit shiny. This was my first time spinning Polwarth in any quantity, and it has been a delight.
What I’m reading: The new issue of Ploughshares, 48.2, an all-prose edition edited by Jamel Brinkley, is so good. The opening short story, “Leaving” by Maria Anderson, is a clinic in distinctive character voice that pushes the story forward. Nearly every sentence illustrates the constant friction between the narrator and her mother, as well as the narrator and the expectations of a fixed, capitalistic world. A thin summary of the story’s situation is that that narrator is asked to leave her life as a transient to help her mother raise her dead sister’s baby. Here is a snippet from the moment the narrator first arrives to her mother’s home:
Her black hair has rooted out gray. I have not seen my mother in five or six inches.
“What happened to you?” she says, tapping the skin around my eye. She has always been a big tapper.
That way of measuring, not in time, but distance—it’s a little thing, but so indicative of her world-view, which is about movement. It’s also a detail that invites the reader’s participation: how long is that? How many months and days—a year? Figuring out how long I think “five or six inches” takes allows me to land on the time more gradually than if I’m simply told, which also lends weight to the moment, even though it’s a small one.
Snag this issue if you can. There’s so much gold in it.
What I’m writing: Excitingly, I’m mostly working on edits right now for Heading North. It’s so reassuring to sit down with this book again after all that time away while it was on submission and find that I still love these characters and this story. I can’t wait to share it with you!
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The aspen trees put on a staggering display of yellow each fall, a mesmerizing sun-licked sea of it, but there’s mostly just that one color, and then brown.