Is my passion worth an hour a day?

By Neva Knott

My life has been a frazzled mess for a couple of years. Or five years, to be specific. Or the last decade since I made a huge career move not knowing the recession was coming and having not yet totally gotten back to full-time, professional employment. Or for the last twelve years since Adam died. He’s not the only one… my mom died in 2012 and left a messy house and decades worth of crap for me to deal with, and then my lover–the man I’d fallen in love with in 1984 and just recently entered a relationship with–was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2016. The glue that has been holding my life together is a toxic concoction of loss, grief, and despair.

Yet I believe in the future. I believe in positivity, and I struggle to put my belief in myself into action. In this messy timespan, I have completed two Master’s degrees, both of which I cherish. I finally got hired to teach at a college–my life-long dream. I keep adding amazing people to my life, and I have reconnected with long-lost, important friends and family members. I have learned to ask for help, I have learned a lot about my deeper, private self. There have been moments of extreme beauty in between all the big failings.

All of this is the backdrop for this hour this morning. A friend asked me yesterday, “What are you doing tomorrow?” I replied, “I don’t know… just home stuff I guess until I come to work. I keep trying to find time to write, but I don’t.” He said, “You just have to do it. Every day. One hour a day.” As an English teacher, I’ve told students that so many times. I’ve told myself that so many times. I’ve made that hour a day my practice so many times–when I feel settled, and until some next life tsunami knocks me ass over tea kettle. I told my friend that I’d read somewhere that no one made time for Wallace Stegner to write. Stegner was prolific in both fiction and non-fiction, founded the creative writing program at Stanford, taught full time for decades. And I’m sure he had his messy timespans; don’t we all?

So what do I want to write about today, in this hour?

1. I returned from Iceland on Thursday. A short trip, just four days, to celebrate my birthday. I met my aunt & two of my uncles there. We drove the southern coast, saw a varied and mesmerizing volcanic landscape–some of it barren, some of it lush. In Reykjavic, the urban forestry caught my eye. Here at home in Portland, Oregon, I volunteer for Friends of Trees, an organization that works to grow the urban tree canopy of our city. (I’ve written extensively about the science-y aspects of the program on my other blog, The Ecotone Exchange). Iceland is an un-forested country. What timber was originally there was cut for human settlement. The patterns of planting in Reykajavic are thoughtfully done. Stands or copses of a variety of species, a different pattern that the usual city streets lined with mono-species planted more for ornamentation than what trees have to offer. Along the countryside I noticed that farmers had surrounded their property with similar planting, stands of trees that can grow to accommodate lumber needs.

2. When I think of trees and air travel, and all of the natural disasters going on right now, I think of climate change. Ok, truth be told, I am constantly thinking of climate change. Not only do I think about it, I evaluate everything I do in relationship to it. Climate change is directly related to–caused by–human activity. Flying is a huge negative, and I am one who has been flying to travel my whole life. Iceland is my only plane trip this year, and I know soon I should stop flying all together.

When I travel, I practice what I call “trash-less travel,” (also the title of a post on The Ecotone Exchange). I refuse as many single-use plastic items as I can. I take a fork and spoon in my cosmetic bag, I carry a reusable drink bottle–that I used on this trip for in-flight wine, coffee, water, and tea. During my Iceland trip, I only wasted one plastic plate at the airport–I thought the food I ordered was going to come in a paper box like the display–and one plastic smoothy cup/lid/straw. Everything adds up.

3. The third thing on my mind this morning is why it is so hard to find this hour each and every day for my passion (s)–writing and photography. Simply, I get distracted. By the strong and ugly emotions that I awake to in my mess of a life, by the stress of not feeling settled, by the story I tell myself that I have to write something good and clear and meaningful, and sometimes I am distracted by sheer exhaustion. These are all bad habits, signaling that I don’t put myself or what I know to be my meaningful work as a priority in my life. I’m glad my friend gave me such a good reminder yesterday. Today, I put words and images on this page.

 

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The Oldest Tree in Edinburgh

July 21, 2012

The city wends its way from Saturday morning neighborhoods under crayon blue skies and clouds. Row houses stand guard with their uniformity in structure, with personality and uniqueness shyly sneaking out, posing as a red door, blue door, snare drum for potted flora, intricate stick configuration in a tree. Park tree leaves swaying, children swinging.  Down increasingly busier streets layered in the architectures of time. Slate of old melds into quick construction of new. Churches anchor geographic blocks, stake claim to quadrants of spirit and place. Trees tucked in, filling the negative spaces between street and bridge, bridge and steps, sidewalk and wall. The busiest streets scream butcher, pharmacy, tailor, barber, bar. In the bakery window, a reflection of it all. Human landscape. Hard, worn smooth.

Fashion, bridges, flags and feathers, commemorative benches, ballet studios, charity shops, trash, prams, the smells of it all.  Movement, it is the heartbeat of the city.

Pass through this juncture; two bridges, a railway, an through-fare converge.  The city calms. Richness increases, in lushness, style and scale. A meadow lies just over a stone wall. The Leith meanders. Hillsides forests flourish. Look back across the rooftops to take the city in full view. The hard human landscape recedes and the trees continue to climb.

Enter Corstorphine village. Find the hidden side-street and walk it back in time. Pass amongst the grave stones and find what you’ve come to see. There it is in majesty, the sycamore tree. Take a moment to touch it, to feel the cool smooth of its leaves. Feel the life it embodies and honor the lives past it guards in this churchyard.

Turn and wend back, but not along the way you came.

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Sitting in a Church Basement, Learning to Plant Trees

Sitting in a church basement, surrounded by people in rubber boots and every variety of raincoat. Drinking coffee out of small church cups, eating donated baked goods. There is even something that looks like pink whipped cream Jello on the food table. Boy Scouts of America Troop 64 meets here, as I can tell from their 4’ by 4’ bulletin board on the wall. There is a rolling bookshelf of Bibles near the water fountain.
On tarps set out around the room are two displays. One has a leafy tree in a black plastic pot, its boughs bound by twine; two 2” by 2” stakes, a shovel, rake, and a post pounder; hard-hat. The other display holds all the same goods, except the tree is barren. These are the tools of this simple program.

It’s cold and drizzly outside. Fall is turning to winter soon. It’s tree-planting season and the Friends of Trees Crew Leader Training begins, here in this warm basement that is abuzz with the caffeinated chatter. This is a pretty multi-generational event, an uncommon characteristic to most Portland things. These are shiny people, all here in good cheer and with a simple purpose.

Friends of Trees here in Portland, Oregon operates in partnership with The Bureau of Environmental Services for the simple purpose of increasing the city’s canopy cover—the portion of the city covered in trees. Last planting season, 3700 volunteers planted about 4600 trees in 80 neighborhoods. Friends of Trees operates as a volunteer, organization. Residents purchase trees for a small fee, participate on a planting crew for a day, and weekend after weekend, the city becomes more lush and leafy.

A couple of hours are spent inside, learning the procedures to teach our volunteers. Then the neighborhood homeowners arrive, and everyone shares a potluck lunch together of warm soups, macaroni and cheese, cookies, and lemonade. Again, all donated. One of the tenets of the program is to build community while planting trees—by bringing neighbors together.

As the meal ends, people are divided into small work groups and tromp outside. Each crew has a set of houses in the neighborhood to visit. Trees have been delivered by the pre-planting day crews, and the holes for them have been dug. On my crew, I have someone from Environmental Services, a guy who just moved from Las Vegas and is studying horticulture, two young college students, four Hispanic teenagers from a high-school service club, and the homeowner of one of our planting sites. Three hours later, eight new trees are in the ground. Now dirt-covered and exuberant we laugh and chat our way back to the church, wash the tools and call it a day.

As I wash my hands and watch the dirty water swirl down the drain, I realize a few years’ worth of “I should…” have crumbled away, Today I joined an organization that plants trees to slow climate change, to improve air and water quality, to enhance horticultural diversity and watershed health. For inspiration, those who run the program have looked to the work of Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai, who started The Green Belt Movement in Kenya. These are her words, “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope. We also secure the future for our children.”