5 writers go into an arb …

En Plein Air Writing

In July, I had the distinct pleasure of leading five writers in the experience of writing en plein air. We met just behind the Mahany/Meininger Senior Community Center of Royal Oak—on Marais Ave., just north of 13 Mile Rd.—under a perfect sky. Do you remember those quintessential grade-school-summer-vacation skies that signaled a day stretching ahead full of adventure? That kind of sky. A perfect forecast for this unique writing workshop.

The objective of the workshop was to allow writers to experience the benefits of writing outside, which I suspect might include the same real long-term benefits which have been proven to result from the Japanese practice of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku):

. . . reduced stress, improved mood, improved creative problem-solving, improved immunity, lower blood pressure and accelerated recovery from illness or trauma.

https://www.forestholidays.co.uk/activities/forest-bathing/benefits/ (See abstracts of research studies.)

But, for writers, additional benefits may accrue writing en plein air. Here’s one take on the practice of writing en plein air (with comparative samples of writing on the same piece done indoors and out) by Australian writer Fran Macdonald.

Thanks to the Royal Oak Nature Society, local writers have several lovely places to retreat to outside, and that day we wrote our way through two: the Royal Oak Arboretum and Tenhave Woods. Over the course of two hours, the five workshop participants wrote beginnings of three new pieces by choosing one of three prompts in a series of three writing prompts in three different outdoor settings: in the clearing behind the Senior Center, in the Arboretum, and in the Woods.

The area, still drying from recent rains, invited a mosquito or two to make an appearance, but in addition to waving those few pests away, the writers successfully skirted the occasional “leaves of three,” hats and sunblock provided sufficient shields against the indulgent sun, and water was consumed by all as the temperature rose. Our focus was on writing from within an off-the-grid green, and writerly camaraderie—as well as inspiration—appeared to be had by all.

Workshop Process and Products

In the following week, three of the writers submitted pieces to be published here (see below), pieces which they began outside that day. A fourth writer wrote a testimonial to the power of writing outside:

“I really REALLY loved the writing workshop outside. . . . I actually got a little weepy in the woods during one of the writing prompts because it centered me. I absolutely love my life, my kids, and the beautiful chaos . . . but writing has a way of showing me I’m still my own person with thoughts and ideas outside my daily life . . . [the] workshop pretty much reminded me I can accomplish a lot if I just try.”

— Writer Anne Grogan

“Elm” by Jan Hunt

            I am Elm. Tall, broad, protective, even my name sounds stately and paternal. I am aspiring to be a protector. It takes many years to reach the status of protector. On my way there, I will take care of those smaller than me. I am thoughtful and take decisions seriously, always approaching any situation with care. I spread my branches wide, feeling a responsibility to watch over others as I gain protector stature. Patriarchal, staid, stoic, careful. Steeped in long-standing tradition, once a year I produce as many seed pods as I can and release them to the wind, watching them soar off to find their own life. To become like me. To become Elm. 

An American Elm (Ulmus americana) in Brattle Brook Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts with a diameter of 50 inches. This elm is healthy (due to its isolation in what was, originally, a farmer’s field, it did not contract Dutch elm disease). It is “between 150 and 160 years old, meaning it was probably a sapling during the Civil War.” — From “Elm Watch works to save trees,” by Scott Stafford of The Berkshire Eagle, published in The Times Record August 11, 2016. https://www.timesrecord.com/articles/living/elm-watch-works-to-save-trees/

The Pussy Willow Tree” by Theresa Nielsen

I ask myself, how is it that I could love a tree? Almost thirty-five years ago, I planted a pussy willow tree in my backyard. It came from one stem that I had purchased at the farmer’s market. The tree grew big and tall with large limbs, which provided lots of shade on hot days.

That tree still stands in the backyard although it is a mere shadow of its former self. That tree has been through a lot. In fact, so have I. Just like it was yesterday, I remember sitting under the tree on the bench when the baby died. The one I had been expecting, the one who I was over-the-moon excited for. Our young son was going to be a big brother; I wanted to buy the baby everything I saw. But the joy I felt was over too soon. I sat under my tree for hours. At one point, someone asked if I would come into the house. But I didn’t respond. Between the smell of the gentle rain and the fresh daisies blooming, I couldn’t move. Under my tree, which surrounded me with its loving branches, is where I felt safe.

When the tree was about ten feet tall, I gave some of its stems to my mom and a few of my friends. But no one ever came back and said how their tree was growing or if it grew at all. I’ve always found that interesting and have felt blessed to have mine be so lovely.

When my father died in 1987, I found peace sitting under the tree in the wintertime. Being out there was so cold but only to the outside world. I was warm sitting there, talking to my Dad. And through tears stinging hot on my face, I asked God why.

When my grandchildren climbed up in the tree to reach the highest branches, I knew that my tree would live forever. I quilted my first quilt under that tree while the sweet smell of my mom’s rosebushes tickled my nose and the blue jays chattered. The sight of the long branches of the tree warmed my heart.

During a major snowstorm one freezing cold November day, my tree took a big hit. Many of the large limbs on one side split in half. I was devastated. I told myself, through tears, that it was only a tree, but it was my tree, planted all those years ago. Those old feelings, the loss of my baby and the heartbreaking loss of my father came rushing back, forcing my tears to fall again.

My husband said the whole tree would have to come down. Like a madwoman on a mission, I stood my ground. The tree wasn’t tall and majestic anymore; it wasn’t beautiful to anyone but me. But, it was my tree, and I loved it still.

One day this past spring, when I looked out my window in the early morning, the first thing I saw was my tree because there appeared to be little butterflies swarming about it. I hurried outside, and sure enough, what I saw were butterflies that I soon learned were Red Admirals. There were new branches on the tree and new growth all over it. I was so excited. The butterflies were moving about in clusters, flitting here and there on the blooms. In a word: amazing. I cried as I ran into the house for my camera.

The butterflies stayed in the tree most of the morning while I sat on the bench near the tree and watched them until the sun faded into the clouds and my coffee went cold. I looked up to the skies. Was this a sign of rebirth, a gift from God, or just a blessing? I may never know the answer. The butterflies never returned, but the new branches have grown. My tree is still a thing of beauty to me, and I will love it forever.

Theresa Nielsen’s Royal Oak Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) with one of the cloud of Red Admiral butterflies (Vanessa atalanta) that visited the tree in Spring of 2019. Photo by Theresa Nielsen,

Here’s one more piece from one of the writers who went into the arboretum and found a new way of writing:

“To a Dogwood in Suburbia” by Elizabeth Brent

Tree, do you dream?
Or is it enough to bud, blossom, shed blossoms,
leaf out, and drop leaves,
hibernate until a new spring?
Tree, do you dream?

Tree, do you dream under summer’s bright blue sky?
Above the verdigris birdbath and the myrtle bed,
With branches bare in winter snow,
Patient with the passing years,
Tree, do you dream?

Tree, do you dream with your roots,
Pushing them deeper into the earth’s secrets?
Would you extend your limbs beyond the yard?
Here, fenced-in, with only lilacs for company,
Tree, do you dream?

Tree, do you dream as you bloom?
Each blossom a wish for more, or for other.
In your rapture, you become
A great, rooted cloud.
Tree, do you dream of drifting away?

. . .

I dream that life comes to me, as I cannot go to life.
My life is and is and is, and I must wait.

I dream of those creatures passing in the night—
Possum, coon, rabbit, rat.

I dream of the birds who came when I held the feeders,
Proffered suet, seeds, fruit.

I dream that if the wind lifts my branches and lets my leaves murmur,
And you are here, you might hear and understand everything.

I dream this: you will rest for a moment in this shade, this chapel I have made,
And, in that moment, you will consider me,
and, perhaps, ask me about my dreams.

“Old Dogwood Tree” (Cornus florida) photo by Scott Robinson https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearlyambiguous/140049010/

Serendipity and Synchronicity

As is often true when you endeavor to shake things up a bit, you may discover, through serendipity and synchronicity, that your small act is, perhaps, a part of a larger play by the universe:

  • The week of July 22nd, I began this post, blogging from Durham, North Carolina, more specifically from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, where my eldest daughter is Director of the Rachel Carson Scholars program.
  • A dear friend and wonderful writer, Harah Frost, posted a piece on July 21st apparently written en plein air, “Summer This Time” on her Harah Frost blog.
  • The blog connected to my Goddard College program (Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, ’96), “The Writer in the World,” featured a posting by Sherri Smith on July 23rd: “Activism for Introverts“.
Royal Oak’s Tenhave Woods, by Corey Seeman https://www.flickr.com/photos/cseeman/44653378402

When the “Day Before” Isn’t

I typed the heading above this afternoon. But, it’s been 10 days since I wrote most of what follows, except for the photo credits and the update at the end. . . .

So, I’ve gone from 13 trees to 3 others, from an almost-decision of Catalpa and Ginkgo to a consideration of the Swamp White Oak, the Tulip-Tree, and the American Basswood.

The Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

A member of the Beech family–as are all varieties of oaks I was surprised to learn–the Swamp White Oak appeals to me because a particularly magnificent specimen of this species led to the city I live in being named Royal Oak. (And, yes, if I pick this tree, I’ll finally share the story as I’ve heard it.)

Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)
Photo Credit: T. Davis Snydor, Ph.D., Ohio State University

The Tulip-Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

A member of the Magnolia family, the Tulip-tree caught my attention because the same week that I was switching from my original Plan A to my current Plan A, my mom gave me a tree book (Trees: The visual guide to more than 500 species of trees from around the world by Allen J. Coomes, originally published in London in 1992) that she’d recently unpacked from their move wondering if I’d be interested in it. When we opened it, out fell one dried unusually-shaped leaf someone had tucked in its pages in the past. When I looked up a tulip-tree after it became one of the possibilities for planting, I realized that the unusual leaf was a tulip-tree leaf. Should I pay attention to this serendipity?

The only response I’ve gotten from readers to the three new possibilities for planting was Susan H-B’s remark “Tulip trees leave a disgusting mess when their petals fall off.” However, I’d gotten a similar response regarding both Catalpa trees and Magnolia trees, so I’m not entirely put off.

Tulip-tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Photo credit: Jean-Pol Grandmont (http://commons.wikmedia.org)
Tulip-tree flower and leaves
Photo credit: Jack Spruill (https://www.ncwildflower.org/plant_galleries/details/liriodendron-tulipifera)

The American Basswood (Tilia americana)

A member of the Linden family, the Basswood is known as the Lime tree in England and the Linden tree throughout the rest of Europe. I do like things that are known by multiple names, but what really attracts me to this tree is that its creamy yellow flowers are honeybee magnets. And, honeybees seem, like many of the rest of us these days, to be needing as much help as they can get. In addition to being known as the “American Linden,” the Basswood is also called the “Bee-tree.”

Here’s something interesting I came across on a nursery website selling Basswood trees:  “[The tree] is often planted on the windward side of an orchard as a protection to young and delicate trees.” Double delights in that arrangement for bees, I imagine!

American Basswood (Tilia Americana)
Photo credit: Herman, D.E., et al. 1996. North Dakota tree handbook. USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database https://plants.sc.egov.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=TIAM
Heart-shaped leaves of the American Basswood
Photo credit: John Hagstrom (https://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-plant-descriptions/american-basswood)
American Basswood (aka “Bee-tree”)
Photo credit: Bill Harms (https://www.marylandbiodiversity.com/viewSpecies.php?species=1372)

The Potential to Get Big and Be Old

All three of these tree species can grow quite large and live long if the conditions are right:

  • Swamp White Oak: 40 – 60 feet and 150 – 200 years
  • Tulip Tree: 80 – 100 feet and 100 – 150 years
  • American Basswood: 50 – 70 feet and 150 – 200 years

They all like moist soil. My front yard was a flood plain–still looks like one–but now that the Red Run is beneath the center strip of the Boulevard in a 15-foot drainpipe, what has that done to the soil? Is it still moist?

Seeking Expert Advice

I thought it might be helpful to hear from an expert or two if any of these three trees species are really wise choices my front yard or for another Royal Oak location.

I e-mailed Tim Travis of Goldner-Walsh Greenhouse and Garden Center in Pontiac. Tim was out at my house a few weeks ago, giving me some ideas for backyard screening (Green Giant Arborvitae). I’ve been watching his Tim Talks on YouTube about mulch because I’m interested in mulching all of my trees this year instead of having a tree-care company “deep feed” my sycamore, ginkgo, and beech with their patented nitrogen-phosphorus-potash fertilizer.

I also have gotten interested in the variety of trees on the Goldner-Walsh website that they grow in their nursery.

When I asked Tim if he’d ever planted any of the three and what he thought, he responded:

“Yes, we have planted all three of these trees.  I’m not a big fan of the Tilia [Basswood] because it is very dense.  The swamp white oak is a huge oak that would fit in the area and somewhat hard to find.  The tulip tree is a cool tree with interesting leaves.  However, they do not flower until the tree is about 25-feet tall, and they are fairly small.  They are also somewhat weak-wooded and tend to break apart in ice storms. Where are you thinking of planting them?”

Would that I knew where! Or which.

I also thought it might be a good idea to talk to people who are actually caring for and planting additional trees in Royal Oak soil. I sent Bob Muller, the Royal Oak Nature Society member responsible for programs, an e-mail inquiry a week ago Tuesday asking if specimens of these three species grow in any one of the spots cared for by the Royal Oak Nature Society:

Heard right back from Bob, ‘We have Swamp White Oak and Basswood in both nature parks and Tuliptrees in Tenhave. . . .”

When I responded that I guess I’d give my identification skills a workout this weekend, Bob replied, “Let me know when you can take a look. If I am free, would like to show you around the Arb.” I was hoping to make the field trip [Saturday], but the rain and cold put me off. Next week’s forecast looks much better for getting acquainted with the Royal Oak Arboretum. We’re on for Monday!

April 25 Update

. . . Turns out Monday was the day I noticed dark spots on the mortar on both sides of our indoor brick chimney wall. Dark spots indicating moisture. The day I discovered that the almost-six-month-old expensive new rubber roof had not kept the monsoons of Friday and Saturday from leaking into our house. Not–it turns out–because there was a problem with the roof. But because small cracks in the bricks of the portion of the chimney that sticks up above our roof were letting in the water, had apparently been letting in the water all along. The good news? No visible mood contained in our ceilings. To discover this good new, of course, involved opening the ceilings up yesterday. The only thing related to a “tree” I was thinking about this week, until today, was the lumber in my ceiling and how wet or how dry it might be.

Tomorrow is Arbor Day . . . if I’m not ready to plant, I can, at least, make up my mind about what to plant where. Stay tuned!