I’ve been living on Ibuprofen. This is my NSAID Lullaby. sad.
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While I was going to work in Seattle and Bellevue, the ivy that clung to the Douglas fir tree behind my house and grew in the bed between the foundation of my house and the lawn, spread over the back of my house. The creeping vine crept over the bedroom windows, crawled over the kitchen window, colonized the gutters.
From my back deck in the bright summer the wall of green seemed somehow institutional to me. Ivy covered the brick of the cookie cutter Collegiate Gothic style. The massive buildings with ornate cornices and perpetual ivy signified the liberal education as much as golden arches signified rapidly produced hamburgers.
Whenever I see ivy I think of the University of Washington’s Gothic style, or the phrase Ivy League. I don’t really know much about the ivy league. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and U Penn, U Penn is an ivy league school. Some of these names have crawled into our vocabulary as a kind of verbal tinsel. These linguistic faux-marbling imply prestige: a development of tract homes in a Cape Cod style named Harvard Heights, a driving school called Princeton Academy of the Wheel, the Dartmouth Grill next door to the movie theater called The Harvard Exit Theatre.
Ivy fills the forests near my house. The vine clings to the trunks of Douglas fir. The vine strangles maple trees and cotton wood trees until they suffocate and become covered in lichen and mushrooms. The vine finally splits the tree into hunks that fall into the bed of ivy on the forest floor. The bed of ivy covers the forest floor in a knee-high blanket of meaty, fibrous leaves. Spiders, raccoon, and rats live under the cover of the ivy. At first, when you enter the forest you feel that you entering a verdant space filled with life, bird song, plants, and the somehow prestigious shape of ivy. The ivy transforms the trees into columns of ivy. Ivy hangs from the canopy.
On my first walk from my house to Puget Sound, I found myself in the bright and green woods. My house is in a subdivision modestly named Pinewood. The division is in a neighborhood with the humble name of Woodmont. The neighborhood is in a city named Des Moines after Des Moines Iowa and distinguished verbally from Iowa by the locals pronouncing the terminal S, as in “Des Moine-sss”. I walked through the fuzzy, vine covered trunks to a steep slope. I could see white caps on Puget Sound and then came out to the rock shore of the sea. The forest stood on the slopes of the hill, a solid mass of vegetation.
Despite densely inhabited strips of apartment buildings, condos, and small lot houses, my neighborhood retains a rural feel. Up until the recent boom in Seattle, much of the neighborhood had green belts required as noise mitigation from Sea-Tac. A constant stream of jets heads north as planes approach Sea-Tac. At other times the stream heads south as planes depart. Around the airport, the neighborhoods seem frozen in the 1960s and 1970s. There are less sports utility vehicles here than in Seattle or the East Side. People drive Ford trucks or newer Toyota Tahomas. There are many Datsun Z80s around. Only recently have the Toyota Camrys from the 1990s given way to Ford Focuses and Toyota Corollas. You find cars with body damage and primer in the parking lots.
The green belts stuffed with all consuming ivy right next to the densely packed urban apartments were dangerous. It is in the green belts that the community dumped toxic trash. It is in the green belts where temporary shelters house meth lab. It is in the green belts where the Green River killer executed his victims and stored (for easy access) their decomposing bodies. The ivy covers these things and gradually gnaws them out of existence. When you enter the forest you feel that you entering a verdant space filled with decay and death.
Occasionally, the community attempts to clear the ivy. Crews cut the veins at the root of the Douglas fir trees. They pull up the sheets of ivy revealing the rat trails, the piles of garbage, the bones of missing people. But within a season the ivy returns.
I realized about five years ago that the ivy was gradually covering my house. It wasn’t going to transform my house into an Ivy League college, but instead the tiny brown roots would finger their way into the siding of the house, crack the cement foundation and rip the house down until I was living among the spiders and rats.
As I cut the vines down, I cut the telephone land line to the house. The land line was no longer in use. I ripped out the copper line. I ripped out the vines. It came back in sheets with the roots clinging to strips of house wood and paint. After a weekend of labor the house was revealed. A few pieces of siding had been ripped up. The window screens held tiny filaments of ivy root that could not be removed. But the house has been restored, sort of, to how it looked when I first moved into it.
But the ivy has started to creep back. It has sent tentative feelers up the wainscoting. It will not rest.
In the late winter at the Snoqualmie Pass, I walked into the snowdrifts under the fir trees. A truck on the freeway sounded its horn, and under that the rush of tires on the frozen concrete whirred and groaned. The crust of snow shellacked with a rain mostly held. When my boot broke the surface, my boot sole plunged into powder, filling my sock with shards of ice and a spray of snow. The snow melted and soaked my socks. The ice shards melted slowly as I pulled my boot back up to the crusted surface and kept moving across the ice.
I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go. I had wanted to go out into the snow and had this image of walking until I came to a creek that was free from ice out in the middle of the current. The flowing water would be black. And around it the white snow and blue icicles hanging from the trees would make it feel as though I had come to a place, somewhere out in the forest, but as I slowly made my way across the ice crush between the trees, the entire forest began to look the same. There was the sound of the freeway behind me, receding, until I could only hear the occasional flump of a tree releasing its snow load or I could hear the whistle of a marmot or the chatter of birds eating whatever they could find. A camp robber had been following me the half mile or mile I traveled into the forest.
A misty fog or clouds depending on how you wanted to look at it had descended to the tree tops and obscured the cliffs and mountain tops that would provide some sense of where I was. I could see how easily I could get lost. I kept breaking through the ice and left a trail back to where I came, otherwise, forward and back were the same sequence of heaps of snow and ice, trees with ice clinging to the bark. To head, back was the same as moving forward. Eventually, I arrived at a creek with free-flowing water in the channel. The water was black in the white landscape. I turned to head back but didn’t know where to return. To head back was the same as moving forward.
I just finished Dark Reflections by Samuel R. Delany, a novel about a black gay lyric poet coming of age just before Stonewall named Arnold Hawley. I saw a reading with Delany, and he read from the book and said he wrote it because he wanted some way to concretely explain the choice that young writers were making when they dedicated themselves to writing. To explain what decades of neglect, poverty, and earnest focus (and it’s corresponding blindness) is like to a young person is nearly impossible. In the book some of the affecting moments include Hawley — who is not just a great poet, but a sensitive and picky reader and someone that any writer would recognize I think as the writer they aspire to be — include a dinner scene in which Hawley has been dragged from his book crammed studio apartment to drink wine and listen to much younger editors argue and talk about things they only half know about. Hawley has no way to provide much to the conversation not because he doesn’t know about the subject, but because he knows too much. Anything he added would sound like a correction, or worse a history lesson. They reference strands of thought that Hawley had deeply read in, participated in, had anticipated before they even developed, as they had happened. Hawley buys donuts in another scene for the warehouse workers who are putting stickers on the hundred books in the print run of his his bestselling title. He has just won a major, although obscure poetry prize, obscure even by the obscure standards of the poetry world. It the only notable prize he will win his lifetime. It results in a modest amount of poetry-world fame and then afterward an even more bitter sort of obscurity since he briefly seemed to be about to rise from oblivion.
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The air is a brown soup. The market smells of lettuce, spinach, tobacco, and brewed coffee. The odor of fish and ice spills down the hallway. The noise of people talking softly to each other, to their clusters of buddies rattles in the din of vegetable sellers naming the places where their onions and yams have come from: Walla Walla, Yakima, Skagit. I can’t hear what the people are saying to each other. No one smiles. A disoriented man in a raincoats and Nor’easter stands in front of Stall 12 waiting for someone to arrive from across town. He glances at me and says something I can’t hear. No one carries umbrellas because the brown murk is not damp in that way. The moisture collects on surfaces without any visible rain drops. The water drools from the canvas awnings. Mosses and ferns grow where they have not cleared the tarp. A root from tree pierces the fabric. Left untended a forest would sprout in the market and grow toward the sky. In the red murk the only thing that registers is the movement of silhouettes, the reflection of sodium lights on damp slickers, the silver of a white Quaker-style beard. If Seattle men didn’t grow ears, there would be no way to tell them from Seattle women. No one walks briskly in the market. Everyone shuffles from side-to-side, a bovine shuffle; now and then a child says baa baa baa, or makes a barnyard sound. Only this place is part of the city rather than the farm. There are the remains of farm life in the market for sale. But in the market you can tell the truck farms in Auburn exist because of the city. The fishing boats leave their haul even in the 1940s on the docks of Portage Bay, and then trucks filled with ice bring the fish to the market. The city eats the country a root, a leaf, a fish at a time.