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Monday, March 21, 2016

Toni Morrison's Home and Aspen

Look to yourself. You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you. Seek your own land. You young and a woman and there's serious limitation in both, but you are a person too. Don't let Lenore or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no devil doctor decide who you are. That's slavery. Somewhere inside you is that free person I'm talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world. - Tony Morrison, Home
The other day I was looking through some pictures and came across a photo of an aspen stand. Have you seen one of these? I'm sure I have a picture somewhere and I'll find it and put it under this paragraph sometime before publishing this. It will probably have some pithy smile-but-not-laugh joke underneath it in italics.

Whose woods these are I do not know
I'm prob'ly poopin in 'em though
-A particularly literate bear
Anyway, the picture was very lovely, as photos of aspen stands often are, and I got to thinking. In 2-dimensions an aspen stand looks like a painting. A wall of those white trunks with the black spots and the light green canopy. Looking at that photo gives you a sense of peace, doesn't it? I'm hoping the picture I find is very pretty. I could just go find one on the internet but maybe I won't have the rights and I'll get sued someday when this blog really takes off.

Aspen stands aren't two-dimensional, though. If you look in there you can see it's kind of dark. The canopy is keeping out the light. Did you know that if you're in the right part of the west there are maybe wolves roaming around amid those aspens? You might be looking at it and feeling peaceful while there is a terrified elk running through there, hoping not to be eaten. Or, just as likely, a pack of tired and hungry wolves enjoying their kill.

This is not to mention the constant carnage of owls devouring little tweety birds and little tweety birds devouring insects and those insects boring holes in trees. It doesn't include the hawks who feed on little mousies and voles. In October, arguably the aspen's fanciest time of year, you may find a human with a rifle slung over his or her shoulder, gutting a deer.

Here's a thought, though. What if that is also beautiful? At its healthiest, an ecosystem is a bloody, gory mess. Not to mention hot. Aspen stands, especially those with conifer neighbors, depend on regular fire to stay healthy. Without fire, they eventually get taken over by evergreens. Walk through a stand and you'll find evidence of past burns on the trunks of the older trees. These scars look ugly, but actually these trees are adapted to fire. Looking at it all connected as a food web is arguably even more beautiful than just the stark visual from the outside, looking in.

Let's look the same way at a human being. One may appear tranquil on the outside, yet boiling with internal violence. There are scars on the trees within that tell of fires that raged through in the past. There are skulls on the ground and blood on that bright white bark. You guys, there are wolves in there. Sleeping bears. Owls and hawks and tweety birds and mousies. There's a sweet little momma doe and her little Bambie in there. And bunnies and skunks and twitterpation. It's a whole thing, is what I'm saying.

So much twitterpation

The difference between what we see on the outside and what's inside is vast and the more you learn about it the more beautiful it gets. Not in spite of the crazy, grody, and sometimes traumatic things that happen within, but because of them.

Now don't get me wrong, you guys, I'm not saying that people who do terrible things to each other are doing them a service. I'm not a what doesn't kill us makes us stronger kind of guy. I'd like for lions to lay down with lambs as much as the next person. I'd much rather we take our lumps from attempting rad snowboard jumps than overcoming abuse and violence. But it's a nasty world out there and stuff is going to happen. It's going to happen to us and people we love and people who we don't know but still grieve with.

We're not broken, though. None of us are. That doesn't mean there isn't something in there that doesn't need fixing. Forests need fixing, too. There are lots of policies and human behavior that have screwed up that balance. Too many elk and cows eating up the new little aspens before they can grow, for example. Or fire suppression creating tinderboxes just waiting to go up in a catastrophic blaze. We try to fix these. There are smart people figuring it out. A lot of the time it just means leaving them alone long enough to fix themselves, but forests, like people, need some outside help sometimes.

It might not surprise you that it was tough being black in the South in the 50s. Not that it isn't anymore. But it also was back then. There's some dark stuff that went down, guys. And Toni Morrison doesn't shy away from the dark stuff. Home isn't a long book, but it's got enough in those 145 or so pages to really get in there and sit in your gut a minute.
Whose house is this? Whose night keeps out the light in here? Say, who owns this house? It’s not mine. I dreamed another, sweeter, brighter. With a view of lakes crossed in painted boats; Of fields wide as arms open for me. This house is strange. Its shadows lie. Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?  
Frank's a Korean war vet who has seen some stuff and suffers from PTSD. The authorities' response is to tie him to a bed in a mental hospital and forget about him. He escapes to see to his sick sister. What she's going through, and what caused it, is gnarly and that's all there is to it. And yet there's beauty in there, too. The way she's taken care of in her home town. The way she knows her brother will rescue her. And the way in which she realizes she no longer needs rescue. All of that is just as lovely as it gets.
Come on, girl. Don't cry," whispered Frank. "Why not? I can be miserable if I want to. You don't need to try and make it go away. It shouldn't go away. It's just as sad as it ought to be and I'm not going to hide from what's true just because it hurts." Cee wasn't sobbing anymore, but the tears were still running down her cheeks.
Everybody in Home is carrying around something nasty, or many things nasty, and it comes out in their behavior. There are folks who need rescuing, and rescuers who don't realize how bad they need it themselves. I'll be honest, some of it is unforgivable. But even someone who has done awful things can also do good things. It's almost like people are complex and messy and nobody gets out unscathed.