Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Faith Works 4-26-08
Jeff Gill

Blossoms Above and Before Open Up Right Now

Eternal springtime may be some people’s idea of heaven, but if your sinuses have strong opinions about pollen, not so much.

The peak of tree pollen, with grass pollen numbers swinging up as the arboreal count eases down, starts a grim season for a few (many?) of us.

Which doesn’t mean that even allergy-prone individuals can’t appreciate the beauty of flowering trees. The good news for my nose is what makes them so remarkable: their brief span of blossoming. Dogwood to redbud to forsythia (ok, the last is a shrub) splash their whites and pinks and yellows, then fade from the scene.

Right now we have lilac trees and crabapples and ornamental pears, plus the frilled luminosity of cherry blossoms. What they don’t bring to our scenery is any sense of permanence, with a carpet of petals around the trunk showing up almost as soon as the flowers appear.

There are magnolias I watch for each spring who seem to have lost over half their petals before I see them opened up the next day, and if a stiff wind or hard rain come at the right moment, the soft color could be a purely ground level phenomenon.

This year has been a good slow steady season for these otherwise shortlived displays. The hillsides and river valleys around central Ohio are fuzzing up with buds and new leaves while the splashes and swaths of blossoming trees are maintaining the contrast over weeks, not just days.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament, the signs of new life are quite sensisbly attached to imagery of spring blossoms, which are often woody plants given the rugged landscape. Olive and almond usher in the spring as Ecclesiastes notes, then the terebinths Abram and Sarai camped under with their turpentine scented flowers – three times in Genesis we read about the terebinth marking a good place to camp for a nomadic family. Figs and pomegranates have tough but bright blossoms, and the blossom of the grapevine is not on a tree, but is as short lived while still a crucial sign of the season’s decisive turn.

New life is fragile, and trusting the steady progression of the seasons is both certain and terrifying – if you are feeding your family with the bounty of the earth, you learn that summer surely follows spring, but nothing says there won’t be snows after the almond flowers (like our forsythia myths in the New World).

Ask a farmer about how planting’s gone this year . . . never mind, because you won’t find them unless you go out into the field and flag their tractor down. And they may not slow down for you, because they’ve been wanting to get out into the fields for weeks and couldn’t.

So certainly and insecurity, fragility and the foundation of life itself, all resting in the heart of a flower. Georgia O’Keefe spent the latter half of her career painting larger and larger versions of smaller and smaller flowers, like the spring beautys that pop up now on any older, established lawn before the mowers and sprayers do their busy work. The desert flower paintings looked into the hidden secrets on full display if you would stop and look, which O’Keefe tried to help you do by blowing them up to the size of a wall.

Midwestern flowering trees do much the same for us if we let them. The last major florescence around here is that of the tulip poplar, a few weeks from now. 80, 90, over 100 feet above our heads, atop the branchless trunks in their spreading canopies, green spikes are slowly opening up.

Occasionally a squirrel will knock down one of these half-opened orange and yellow flowers, and you kick it idly aside on the path thinking, as you look around on the ground, where are those growing?

In their full glory, pretty much no one sees them, open to the sky above and the bees and butterflies and birds skipping along the upper reaches of the forest. A steady rain follows of petals and a faint scent of cucumber, scattering across the forest as they fall from the heights where they grew.

Some of the greatest beauties of this world appear just beyond our sight, and we can only pick up the hints by watching the ground for what is happening above.

Sounds like something out of the Psalms, doesn’t it?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he hopes to see you all under the tall trees of the Great Circle next Saturday for the new museum dedication at 6:00 pm on May 3 – see www.octagonmoonrise.org for info under “agenda.”

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