THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 3

7 Sep

SEPTEMBER 7, 2009 :: THE MEANING OF EPHEMERAL

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FORECAST: hot, with a 0% chance of precipitation

TOPICS: Rosebushes like Jacks-in-the-Box for Christmas, becoming an environmentalist at age 3, watering 50 Taxodium distichum and reading an unfinished fantasy series, the war between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Andrew Bird, 33-hour work days, picking the writer to finish your dead husband’s book, ACME GIFT, delivering flowers on bikes, Asteroid B-612, endangered ways to love, old friends like dead butterflies

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1. MY PARENTS, PLANTING

When there’s no one living in a house—it’s all boarded up, waiting to be rehabbed or sold or demolished—and there’s a sea of daylilies pushing their sharp, orange petals through the fence, it’s proper protocol to pick a few stems on your way home from work.

And if I hadn’t followed protocol, our neighbor, Diane, wouldn’t have known I liked flowers and wouldn’t have given me a rosebush a few days later. It was a yellow rosebush, still wrapped up tight in its plastic, like a Jack-in-the-Box under the Christmas tree that had accidentally popped open. As I planted it later, I thought about how my parents had yellow roses at their wedding.

It’s impossible to be around flowers without thinking of my parents. My dad is a soil conservationist, which with a switch of two letters would be a soil conversationist and an entirely different profession altogether, and my mom is a landscape designer.

I often say I became an environmentalist at age 3, which is only half true. I didn’t have the respect for nature my parents had until later, but it is true that the acres my parents reseeded to native grasses to provide habitat for quail and other Kansas fauna have had a profound effect on the way I continue to view farming, hunting, development, and the sanctity of life.

When I was little, every spring, my mother and I would plant pansies underneath my tree. “My tree” was a redbud by the sidewalk to our back door. It was a picturesque thing—perfectly round and covered in fuchsia blossoms in that time between winter and summer. Beneath the tree, my favorite pansies were the purple ones with yellow or white centers, like starburst-pattern guitars.

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2. THE APPLE TREE

The most pivotal memory of our small Kansas farm/nature preserve is the summer my parents decided to plant 50 Taxodium distichum, or bald cypresses, the official state tree of Louisiana and known for its love of wet, swampy areas. To an 11-year-old, planting 50 trees is not the ideal summer. However, I was more into it than most soon-to-be 6th graders, and I remember not minding the planting process—watching the foot-tall, feathery gnomes form a single-file line in front of the cedars, which were dying on account of the wetness—hence the “swamp cypresses.”

[A quick note before moving on: I was very lucky in finding out pre-installment that cypress the tree is spelled differently than Cyprus the country. I did a study on the war between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the 1960s (the war was in the 60s, not the study; I’m not over 40), and assumed the two were spelled alike. My dad informed me of the difference. Speaking of Greek Cypriots, the ethnic group appears at random in Andrew Bird’s “Tenuousness,” along with a lot of other words and references (proto-Sanskrit, coprophagia, etc.) that caused some bitterness for music reviewers.]

Back to cypress the tree, I thought it was over once all 50 were in the ground. Oh, I was wrong. My work had just begun.

It was a particularly hot summer that year—not nearly swampy enough—so I was recruited to help water the newly planted conifers. I don’t remember the specific details, but it was something like five minutes on each side (N, S, E, W), two times per tree. So I’d put the hose on one side, climb up the apple tree, read for 3½ minutes, climb down the apple tree, and move the hose to the next spot. Eight spots per tree. 50 trees. That’s 400 hose-positions total. Five minutes per position makes the job a 2,000-minute (or 33.3-hour) workday.

By the time I got to the end of the row, the first ones were drying up again, their soft needles yellow, threatening to turn brown if I didn’t do something. It was an all-summer task.

Luckily, I had the apple tree.

The apple tree isn’t there anymore, but that summer I must have rubbed the bark raw with how often I made my way up (starting at the middle where the three largest limbs arched upward), and made my way down (usually swinging down like a little Tarzan of the jungle). I was reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series that summer, making my way through books 1-4, a total of 3,280 pages. The fantasy series dulled the drudgery of the watering, transporting me instead to places like the Three Fold Land, a hot, dry desert like the one in which we’d decided to plant our swamp trees.

Like the apple tree, Robert Jordan is no longer around. He died just before he finished the twelfth and final book of the series, A Memory of Light. Using notes Jordan had prepared, his widowed wife chose fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson to complete the last installment in three volumes, the first of which will hit stores this October, 25 years after the inception of the series.

That summer, reading The Wheel of Time and watering bald cypress trees, is one I will never forget. My parents’ love for nature is instilled in me, and it shows. In college I worked at a small gift store called ACME GIFT. We didn’t sell backfiring contraptions to wily coyotes. We sold flowers, among other things. My favorite part of the job was going on deliveries. They weren’t from me, but I got to witness the exuberant joy of someone who’d just gotten an unexpected gift.

In Chicago, though there are hundreds of community gardens, dozens of enormous parks, and a massive amount green space (the EarthLab Foundation named it the greenest city in the country), somehow I still feel dwarfed by the concrete, steel, and asphalt. So, some friends and I thought maybe we should start randomly delivering flowers to the smattering of friends we have in the city.

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3. ALL FLOWERS ARE EPHEMERAL

Getting older, in huge, one-year leaps and yet also rather seamlessly, flowers have become a metaphor for my life. In The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint Exupery, a rose lives on the Prince’s island moon, Asteroid B-612. The petulant but loving flower becomes the reason for the Prince’s journey to other planets. On one of the planets he finds a geographer who tells him roses—and indeed all flowers—are ephemeral. The Little Prince asks what that means. The geographer answers, “that which is in danger of speedy disappearance.”

I find my life to be quite ephemeral.

We are all in danger of speedy disappearance in the most literal sense. But our friendships, relationships, plans for graduate school, plans for travel—these things are even more precariously balanced on the edge of the future. And dreams, ideas, ways to change the world, ways to love—they are the most endangered of all. It doesn’t take a magician to make them disappear; they often just go, whisked away by unforeseen challenges or stepped over out of duty. Sometimes they just crumble before us, and we can’t stop it.

There are days I believe certain actions are eternal, or at least have a longevity that will outlast my lifetime. But other days even the oldest buildings in Chicago seem in danger of disappearing to make way for something else. There’s no preserving every meaningful thing in life; you can’t store old friends in shadowboxes, pinned like dead butterflies, under your bed.

Flowers know this: the lucky ones bloom, wither, and half-die, hibernating underground, keeping only their earthy souls warm, and then they grow again when snow turns to rain. But others last only one season. And the gardener doesn’t mourn the loss of the annuals, doesn’t make up a headstone for the patch of pansies he planted last year. He just goes about replanting.

Replanting.

Seeding a life with friends and dreams and things that you know will perish in a short time. But seeding them anyway, for a single season. Participating fully in the ephemera of life.

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READ: The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupery.
RESEARCH: The Climate Group + Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid.
LISTEN: “Tenuousness,” Andrew Bird.

The_Little_Prince_by_ewick

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