Not-Dead Wood — The Autobiography of a Tree

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By Elizabeth Speth  

“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

So said Ram Dass, and I love the quote.  I love the way we accept — and love — a tree for what it is, and the elements and factors — some of which are harsh — that made it.

Sometimes, alas, a tree is harvested.  Often, unfortunately, though many of us love them best when they are stretching between an earthy tangle of roots and the clouds.  We love them in the silent cathedral forests, in parks crawling with  happy children, or sheltering a favorite spot in our yards, shading our cups of tea and our books.


But a tree gets harvested.  Say, oh, a redwood, and it begins a different sort of life, and it is shaped again by the elements to which it is exposed.  It is formed to look like something else, and scarred, and marked.

Say the redwood is dragged from its fragrant forest, from the dappled, wild light, and it is first cut and planed and raised to form the foundation of a house and a barn, somewhere in California. Farmington, for instance, on a rural homestead, sometime in the 1930s.

Say the house turns a weathered color, and shelters a generation or two of children.  Say it is cared for lovingly, or not, but that it eventually falls into disrepair, an abandoned structure.

Say that young lovers stumble upon it, out there in the lonely open.  Maybe they shelter there for an hour or two, and they surely carve upon it with a knife, initials joined together for the life of the wood, if not the life of the carvers.

Say the old redwood structure is a silent witness to some drunken firelight revelry, overhearing hunting stories and bar-room brawl tales, and late in the night guns are fired by the beer-soaked story-tellers, and say a few bullets lodge in the old redwood, which absorbs them  stoically.  Another part of a visible history.

And then say some day my artist friend, Kermit McCourt, comes to look at this wood, with an eye toward turning it into something else.  He sees the square nail holes, where someone has hammered wallpaper.  He sees the knife slashes, the bullet holes.  He sees the original grain of the wood, the beautiful whorls.  He rests his hands on the wood, and feels all of its lives, the derelict, the sheltering, the forest.  And Kermit takes a hammer and gently begins to harvest this wood yet another time.

He stores it in his shop.  It watches him work for a year or two, until I write to Kermit and I ask him to make me a table, a big table, for my kitchen, where all my family can be together and have conversations and meals to remember.  I ask him to find some scarred, old wood.  Kermit recycles everything — he uses nothing new to make his paintings, furniture, jewelry, metal sculptures, so he is the guy to ask about scarred and old.  He is not the guy to ask if you want to separate a freshly-harvested tree from its venerable kin in the forest.  Kermit doesn’t operate that way.

Kermit says to me:  “I have this wonderful wood…  I will do it.”

And, because Kermit is a conduit for beauty that remains unknowable and unseeable to the rest of us, until it passes through his eye and his hand, he does.

He uses that beautiful old redwood, re-births it into a fine, big, strong table, held together with bolts reclaimed from a flatbed truck.  He does not stain it.  He knows the wood’s own face is beautiful, and it’s what he allows the world to still see.  He rubs it with teak oil, and layer after layer of wood wax, until it glows in candlelight and in sunlight.

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He leaves the bullet holes, and the scars, the nail holes.  He runs his fine, talented, work-roughened fingers over them, to show me, and I could weep with the beauty of it.  I do, a little, because the entire life of this wood is laid open before me.  The entire history, lovingly polished and, well, published.  Kermit has just put forth the redwood’s autobiography.

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We load the table into my horse trailer, so carefully, and I can’t believe I will take this wondrous thing home, memorize its topography, touch it every day.

As we are closing the trailer door, Kermit tells me to put my hands, from time to time, on the wood. On one level, I think he means to point out that the wood is a beautiful thing to feel, with its deep, smooth gloss, its soft, thick strength.

On another level, he is reminding me to seek those things which cannot be derived via our mere senses.  Because beauty has a feel, and so does history.  He is reminding me to step away from my judging mind.  To turn people into trees.

And we put the table in the kitchen, and it begins its next life.  A life of holding candles and fresh fruit, hot plates and soft napkins.  Bearing up under sad conversations, and serious, and silly.   Our gratitude will change the shape of it here and there, a little, maybe.  Maybe my someday grandchildren will accidentally scar it with a pair of scissors, or stain it with a marker, or glitter will become permanently stuck in some of the cracks.

That will be life, and the redwood will allow it.

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In Which Angus Gets What’s Coming to Him

By Elizabeth Speth

Every morning Angus and I meet at the front door for a standing date to do chores together.

Now, the thing about Jack Russell Terrorists — what endears them to their humans despite all the crazy behavior, shrill barking, general mayhem and destruction — is that they are joyful dogs. Those frantic, furiously busy little bodies house enormous reservoirs of happiness over the simplest of things.  A wide open place to run.  A puddle of water.  A morsel of food to bury.  A daily appointment to scoop manure and terrorize the horses together.  He’s all in.  Every ecstatic, wriggling square inch of him.

So, as I was saying, we meet at the door, and we wish each other good morning with a dignified handshake.

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I gather my boots, stuff my pockets full of whatever cream, medicine, ointment or pills I’m administering to the horses that day.  I put on my hat.

Sometimes, to shake things up, I pretend to forget my hat, because it is fun to see Angus boy-oy-oing into the air to knock it off the rack with his nose.  Then he looks at me pointedly as if to say:  “Okay, Forgetful.  Pick it up, put it on, let’s get going.”

Angus likes his routine.  All of it.  You can’t skip even one part of the ritual.

Lately, though, our smooth, calm scooping of the morning poop, wheeling of the barrow, filling of the troughs, throwing of the hay etc. has been marred by the presence of a bully.

I’m talking about the neighbor’s enormous, fluffy, blindingly-white cat.  Hereafter I’m going to refer to the cat as (S)he, because there is no way I’m getting close enough to narrow it down any more than that.  This cat is terrifying.

S(he) first strolled out to the middle of the pasture a few weeks ago.  S(he) stood out like an ice floe in a field of dirt, and basically look-dared Angus to come over and mix it up.

And Angus wanted to.  Angus saw S(he), and his jaw dropped.  He snapped to attention as the cat began to grow, arching to twice its size, all that glorious white fur now standing on end, a scattering snow flurry.

“Angus, heel!” I commanded, because I did not want a gory felineocide on my hands.  That cat was positively suicidal, sitting there like that, a creamy challenge to the poor, whining, blood-lusting little warrior that is Angus.

Since then, chores have become very stressful, because every day that damned cat is out there, big and fat and blinding and insolent in the middle of our field.  I should be working, occasionally looking up to see Angus trotting around happily, exploring and stirring up trouble.

Instead, I am constantly anxious, shouting:  “Angus!  No!  Heel to me, Angus!  Stop it!  Angus! Get back here!”

And he is constantly sneaking off, only to be called back, darting away, only to be sharply reprimanded.  He is a yipping, yelping, squirming misery of longing to get at S(he) and show that interloper what is what.

I’ve tried leaving him inside.  His sharp, high-pitched protest was shattering eardrums in the next county.  Authorities were summoned.  The cat situation was explained.  No sympathy was elicited. Noise ordinance violations were handed out.

I’ve tried varying the times we venture forth, to no avail.  S(he) watches for us, and comes sauntering out of the blackberry bushes, all menace and attitude, at the first rattle of the gate.

I tried scaring the cat off with a wave of my arms and rake, and the cat winked at me.

And then this morning it all got away from me.

I lost focus for a moment, I guess, my mind on manure.  Maybe the tines of my pitchfork got snared in a weed.  Maybe I was dozing.  Maybe I subconsciously wanted it all to end.  Whatever the reason, I looked up and Angus was halfway across the pasture, streaking at the fast-swelling S(he), who spat loud and long, screamed hellishly, and then charged right toward the missile that was Angus.

I was frozen in shock and horror.  Angus’ name died a futile death on my tardy lips.

They collided like two white-hot stars.

The cat went over the top of Angus, slashing at him with an impressive arsenal of claws, which sent the poor dog tumbling once, twice, three times.  He crashed into a post.

He wasn’t down for long, though.  Nosiree.  In less than a second Angus’ feet scrambled and found purchase in the witnessing dust.  And he got the hell out of there, tongue and ears flying behind, just trying to keep up.  He streaked past me with a large-eyed, humiliated stare, and then he flung himself under the fence and thoroughly out of the pasture, unmistakably ceding it to the cat.

Who strolled back into the blackberry bushes and, point made, has not been seen since.

Once the cat was gone, Angus, still on the other side of the fence, began running up and down the line of it, barking ferociously at the section of greenery that had swallowed the cat.

Loosely translated, because I’m leaving out the profanity, what Angus was saying was:

Why, you dirty cat!  If it weren’t for this fence between us, and the fact that you’re not even here anymore, why, I’d tear you limb from limb.”  

He did this until the greenery moved, rustled by a passing breeze.  That’s when he ran inside.

Later, he showed me where he thought he might have hurt his paw in the battle.

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He’s been sticking close to the house today, keeping an eye out for that damn S(he).

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I think he will be haunted for some time to come.  When his eyes look out into the horizon, unseeing, he will go back to this terrifying morning.  When a kitten meows softly he will start, and then retreat inward.

There are no support groups for Angus. (I checked.  He asked me to.)  No words of comfort.  It’s his burden to carry.  His and his alone.  Poor fellow.

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Confessions of a Tevis Volunteer (Or: Why I Keep Coming Back)

By Elizabeth Speth

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Volunteers meet a weary rider at the gate into Francisco’s.

The annual Western States Trail Ride, popularly called the Tevis Cup, is a grueling 24-hour horseback ride over 100 miles of exceptionally beautiful and punishing terrain.  Sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference, it is a horse-centric event, designed around the safety and well-being of the animal.

It’s an amateur race against the clock, no cash prizes, only a coveted buckle.  Started in 1955, it is considered the  founding event in endurance racing, and is still known as the most difficult.  Over the years, it has evolved into something that requires nearly a thousand people to make sure up to 200 riders and their horses make the journey safely.

The psychology of the riders — why would they do such a thing? — is the subject of another blog.  They are a breed apart.  The training of their magnificent steeds for such a trial is also another discussion entirely.

All I’m qualified to address is the volunteerism aspect of this.  For a large handful of years — I’m fuzzy on the exact number out of sheer fatigue — my husband and I have braved miles of rocky, narrow roads to report for duty in the early afternoon at the rugged Francisco’s outpost, at Mile 86.  We remain there until the pre-dawn hours of the morning, sometimes pulling out as the sky begins to lighten.  This is where we put the exhausted horses and riders back together, hydrate, refresh and encourage them, and send them on to the last part of their journey.  This is where we marvel at the freshness of the front-runners, who breeze in and out and look as though they are in the middle of a leisurely ten-mile trail ride. All of them have come from the high peaks near Lake Tahoe, and will end their journey in Auburn, CA, if they make it that far.

A lot has happened in the years I’ve volunteered, and I’ve loved every minute of it.  The following is a list of things I’ve been privileged to do, and so I feel qualified to say I will happily do them again — and again — year after year, until fate and a good horse and the aligned stars finally put me at the starting line.

Here, in no particular order, is my list of proven qualifications and skills:

I will be happy to see you at one a.m. in a remote place, with the moon rising over a tree-fringed canyon, as the air is turning cold.  You have been riding nearly twenty hours, give or take.  In temperatures that exceeded 110 degrees.  You’ve had a long day.  We’ve left the light on for you, because you still have a ways to go.

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I will sponge your horse with cool water as his heart rate slows.  I’ll stake out a little spot for him to eat a nourishing bran mash and clean hay, as peacefully as possible.

I’ll pay attention when you explain her little quirks and preferences, how to best get her to eat and drink and relax.

I will check your gelding’s pulse with my stethoscope, count his respirations, tell you when you are clear to see the vet and get on down the road.

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I will fill your water bottles with cold water, gatorade, lemonade — whichever you like — and I’ll make sure they are safely tucked into your saddlebags.

I will make you sandwiches.

I’ll go find carrots for your horse, a rump rug so he doesn’t cramp, and watermelon because I remember you from last year, and I know your mare loves it.

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I will stay with you while you throw up, wretchedly, exhaustedly, on the ground in front of your chair under the gas lamp.  Riding in the dark for hours gave you motion sickness, and your dehydration didn’t help.  You are too tired to be embarrassed, and I’m glad, because you shouldn’t have to worry about that.

I will hold your horse and look discreetly the other way while you pee on a bush not a foot away from me.

I will share my antacids with you, my Tylenol and my sunscreen.  I’ll rub your bad knee, if you ask me to, or your shoulders or your horse’s muscled rump.

I will run five miles down a trail in my boots, in deep darkness, because your horse stumbled and you both went over a cliff.  My fellow volunteers and I will be overjoyed to find you alive, clinging to a steep hillside, seriously injured but with humor and graciousness intact.  Your horse will have made his way back to camp by then, in better shape than you.  I will sit with you for a few hours while the moon pries the black sky open, and we wait for rescue folks to arrive.

I will follow the rescue crews out as they carry you back over those five miles in a stokes basket, and I will resist the urge to kiss you on the forehead because, for all you have been through, you are still in for the ambulance ride from hell over miles of rough road to get out of this canyon and to help.

I will call your wife as the sun rises, and your helicopter lifts off for the nearest trauma center.  I  will assure her that I’ve seen you with my own eyes, that you were awake and alive.  I will listen to her stoicism and bravery on your behalf, but I will hear her finally break down when I mention that your horse took the best care of you that he could in the accident.  She will say that she loves that darn horse.  What is understood but not said is how much she loves you — enough to let you do this crazy thing.

I will make you brownies.

I will give your horse electrolytes, and trot him/her out for the vet for you because you are tired/throwing up/too lame to do it.  Your horse will, miraculously, be sound at 86 miles because you have spent the day attending to him, monitoring him, reaping the benefits of months or years of careful preparation.

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Both riding and crewing Tevis can be a family affair. My daughter helping out a junior rider.

I will check on you several times while you wait three hours to get your horse trailered out after you are pulled for a lameness because some damn rock in the road had your name on it.  I will marvel that you are sleeping on the ground almost between your horses’ feet, and I will admire both you and the horse for that relationship, and your journey together.

I will envy you as you pile your tired body in the saddle for the last fourteen miles, so delirious you have to ask me which way the trail lies.  I will watch you until darkness swallows you up.  I will think you are very brave.  I will think your horse is a miraculous thing of beauty.

My thoughts will follow you to the finish line.  You started out with a 50-50 chance of making it, and you’ve come so far.  I am willing you to get there.

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My husband Neil and me. Tevis 2014.

Me, I will  be thinking longingly of bed, and also about clearing my schedule for next year.

And likely you are thinking the same thing.

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In Memoriam — Tragedy Strikes on a Friday Morning

By Elizabeth Speth


RIP, little lizard floating in the water trough, your pretty blue belly turned up to the sky.

I’d seen you around the neighborhood, under-supervised.  I feared you might become a statistic.

We’ll never know if it was suicide, an accident, or murder.

Did one of the horses push you in?  You can tell me.

Maybe you had a heart defect.

Is there a history of sudden death by heart attack in your family?

I am deeply sorry that when I tipped the trough and you flowed out, Angus the Jack Russell Terrorist snapped you up and started chewing you.

I was sorely grieved when he spit you out and began hacking disrespectfully.


He is in deep disgrace. Also, he is unrepentant.

I’m sorry I gagged as I dropped your several little pieces into that small hole in the ground, and covered you with hot, impersonal dirt.

I should have held it together better.

It was with acute regret that I saw Angus immediately begin to dig you up again.

I hoe you understand why I just had to walk away at that point.  It was too much tragedy to bear.

A couple more days of these 110-degree temperatures, and the winds will be scattering your ashes.

RIP, little lizard, floating in the water trough.