The Aspens

Every Saturday night I stop off to see the aspens. They are exotics, just like me, flourishing where they were planted, not knowing or caring that they’re not where they “belong.” They line a tidal estuary and create a tiny wild place in the heart of the city. On Saturday nights the lights for the tennis courts across the path from the water stay off, and so it’s possible to stand, wrapped in shadow, at the water’s edge. Seabirds do the same, and it’s possible to see night herons, egrets, and the occasional blue heron as well as seagulls.

The trees are bare now, sleeping in the cold and dark, their leaves mulching their roots. They no longer crackle as they did a few months ago when they first fell. I wheel my bike over them to rest against a tree near the water and we both disappear. As I stand there, watching the wind ripple across the water, my night vision improves and the forest reveals itself. Only one tree thick in many places it still stretches, bowl-like, around me as I stand there. In a few places I can look at the forest and not see through it. The illusion of impenetrability is comforting, here in the urban core. I can, for a moment, see a whisper of the estuary Jack London knew.

When it’s cold, as it was this week, the cars and the occasional throbbing stereo are the only sounds I hear from the street. No one passes along the sidewalk or the blacktop behind me. The tennis courts and the college beyond are silent. Warm it up even a few degrees and people are added to the mix. From where I stand I can’t be seen, but I can see everything that goes on once my eyes adjust. As a lone woman standing in the darkness, I’m supposedly in danger, but I know better. My mother taught me from my teens to “keep my wits about me,” and I know full well that I can now see better than any light-dazzled human passing through this place. No one has seen me in all the time I’ve been coming here, and no one will till I have wheeled my bike back to the blacktop and turned my lights on. Even the reflective tape on my bike helmet is invisible in this dark, welcoming place.

I look up through the tracery of branches at the sky. The reflected glow of the city shows me the gray sky and dances on the ripples on the water, always in the process of becoming, different every moment. I let my eye follow one ripple and am carried across the water as it speeds towards the concrete. The quiet enfolds me and I let myself drift, one with the pocket of forest.

I’m still safely in darkness, the night still comes early enough to allow me this protected time. In another month or so I’ll be in twilight, and soon after that, I’ll pass by day. The grove will change, the aspens will leaf out and the stillness will be later, and different. But the grove will still be there, and so will I. And winter will come again.

The story is always true, even if it’s told differently.

My step dance teacher told us that set dances were always the same, unchanged. But she’d go on to say that “this is the way the step was done when I was a girl,” and she’d demonstrate, quick and clean. Though she was past fifty and round, her feet were still sure of themselves. “But up north it would look more like this.” And again, a step. “But it’s the same step.”

I didn’t get what she was driving at for many years, but I always remembered what she said. Around the same time, I sang occasionally with a woman who insisted that her version of the song was the only “right” one. I found it a little limiting, but I can hold more than one version of anything in my head, and when I sang with her, hers was the version we used.

I heard an interview on the radio years later where a traditional singer said that the tradition is a river. You can’t take a slice out of that river and say “this is the tradition.” My mother long ago taught me that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” It’s as valid for a song, or a myth, as it is for life.

Is Pandora the giver of all gifts, spilling her jar across the hillside, bestowing the knowledge of all good things on humankind, or is she the silly girl who can’t keep her hands off her husband’s box? Is Arionrhod the independent, self-assured woman—the “virgin” in the old sense, or is she a lying slut? Is Medb the bestower of sovereignity, or the original swinger?

As my grandmother might have said, “it depends on whose ox is being gored.” Every teller of tales, every artist or writer has a point of view. Many have an axe to grind. The bard who said that “it is the usual thing for a herd led by a mare to be strayed and destroyed” wasn’t just talking about Medb, now was he? what did that tale look like a century back? Five centuries? What did it look like when it was first told? We used to make statues and paint portraits of people as god(desses) or historical figures. Today we have Presidents dressed up as fighter pilots. I ask you, what’s the difference? And the fact that people react to these images tells us that there is truth in them, or at least power. The way the tale is told is at least as important as the tale itself