11.04.2012

autumn in Portland

ginkgo tree, Portland, Oregon

My friend Dan asked the other day what I do on the bus, since I now spend so much time on it. Sometimes I stare out the window at the city. Occasionally I knit. Often, I try to ignore loud teenagers or random crazy people, like the one who interrupted my reading this week on MAX to say I should trust my gut, something about rainbows, that I was a good friend, and that I'd be a good mother. (That makes three near-strangers in a month at separate times who've said I should become a mother: two seven-year-olds and one crazy woman. Sadly, for these advisers, even if I had the impulse to procreate, I'm what they call geriatric in mommy terms.) After a few minutes of my nodding, smiling, and mumbling things like "Oh" and "Hm" while waiting for the crazy lady to stop talking (she didn't), I asked her if she'd like a seat and got up and moved down the train car, which was admittedly rude but so is interrupting a reader in public to give her unsolicited advice about childbearing. She called down the car, "Thank you, sister!" I half-waved and ducked back down into my book.

Mostly on the bus I read, my number one method of escapism ever since I learned how—zoom, right into someone else's life, a voyeur sitting on the sidelines, watching, avoiding her own life but also learning, always learning. Books are how I learned in elementary school from Trixie Belden, vintage tomboy girl-detective, that apple seeds contain trace amounts of cyanide. So every so often I'll eat one, a bite of almond-flavored poison feeding an underlying extinction wish.

For weeks, because the book's over 400 pages, at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday I've been on the bus reading Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, a naturalist-geographical memoir and history of the Arctic that won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1986. I figured that since so much future talk will center around the melting North Pole, I should bone up. From Lopez I've learned that Portland's eight or so months of gray, drizzling doldrums are nothing compared to perlerorneq, the "extreme winter depression" of certain Polar Eskimos, some of whom run amok, knifing up their own fur-and-skin clothing, or running shrieking out into the night, or eating dog shit, before being gently led to bed by family members. The Eskimos (not necessarily Inuit) define the state as feeling "the weight of life," "sick of life" after envisioning what's coming and feeling too tired and angry to endure another round of 24-hour icy darkness, month after month (paperback, p. 243). And who could blame them? Northwest Oregon weather is depressing enough, and maybe why the city has such a high per capita number of microbreweries and strip clubs.

Per Lopez, in the Arctic, "[n]o summer is long enough to take away the winter" (p. 244). Since I already feel that way about Portland, I couldn't handle living farther north. The three weeks I spent in Norway one December years ago taught me that, the sun up at 10 a.m. and down by 3 p.m. Lately, I've been daydreaming again of moving south. But where, and how?

In front of my apartment are two ginkgos, an ancient—as in dinosaur ancient—species and one of my favorite trees for their yellow fans, though Portland ginkgos never reach the brilliance of those in South Korea, with its drier, sunnier autumn climate. One tree is male, the other female. Whoever planted them apparently didn't know that a female ginkgo's salmon-colored fleshy seeds drop and smear all over a sidewalk and smell like dog shit. I wrinkle my nose and walk around the mess on my way to and from the bus. As if to apologize for soon going bare, all the deciduous trees around Portland this time of year glow like sunsets.

The weekend has been quiet. In fact, I never left the house: a little cooking, some laundry, much green tea drinking, and a lot of reading, namely Laurie King's thick Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Language of Bees, in which I came across the following aside: "how the soul craves sunlight in the depths of a northern winter!" (hardcover, p. 324). It appears to be a theme this week, threading through my library selections. Next up is Richard Ford's Canada. And who knows what I'll learn therein?


Edited to add: "And, of course, [in Montana] the winters were frozen and tireless, and the wind hurtled down out of the north like a freight train, and the loss of light would've made anybody demoralized, even the most optimistic souls." —Richard Ford, Canada (p. 10)

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