A Song of Home for a Heart that’s Breaking

What I’ve written below may look like a list of plants.

In my taxonomy work, I have been for several months in conversation with one such list. It has been a many-layered joy: because I enjoy the puzzle of taxonomy, because I know many of the plants, and because I rejoice generally in the kingdom Plantae. The names of plants are dying in our language. I like to speak and write them as a counterspell.

My list is derived from many sources, but its best inclusions come from the catalog of a particular Oakland nursery, East Bay Wilds. I’ve never set foot there, but I love them. Their species list contains the raw ingredients of a powerful incantation.

Last afternoon, my cat companion died. She was old, and it had been expected. Still, it was a shock to see her husk: her eyes sunk in and fur in ragged clumps, the muscles gone slack that had held each piece minutely, the pattern that had made her starting to unravel. For a dozen years, she was my friend, my little owl, my Gwenhwyfar. I will never speak with her again.

Our present times are overfull with heartbreak. It helps me to work, and I’m lucky to do that with good folks, who know when to speak their sympathy and when to ask distracting questions about attributes and values. It also helps to reach out to my community, gathered all about, as ordinary and miraculous as a bowl of stars. I did both those things today, and both have held me up.

I had marked out for my work today this list of plants to finish wrestling with. Grief – not just for Gwenners – has loosened my self-consciousness of late. So I didn’t stop when I realized I was speaking aloud the genus and species and cultivar names that pleased me. They felt cool and soothing, the way it feels to gain admittance to an ancient grove. Merely listing them was not what I heard myself doing; I was punctuating. So I wrote them down, and I stopped and paused and drew out these names the way they shaped themselves to rhythm, and what I have on paper is…a prayer? A poem, a paean, a mourning song. Beautiful words from the woods and hills of my first beloved home, chanted or whispered or sung to meet the hurt in my heart, to lift the memory of my loved, my lost small friend.

You may share them, if you like. I do not think their magic is particular to me, or to my loss, or to loss at all. Speak them, if you have a quiet place. I hope that they might bless you, too.


Lace-lip fern & leafy reedgrass, lily-of-the-valley.

Leather root, lotus, living stone.

Oceanspray & olive; owl’s claws.

Pacific Mist manzanita. Pearly everlasting.


Pink-flowered buckeye, Point Reyes bearberry, prickly pear & purple moor grass

     — Quail bush. Radiant kinnickkinnick!


Rushrose & Sandhill sage, sapphire ceanothus.

Sea buckthorn & serpentine sedge, sequoia.

Sorrel, snowdrop, slender-footed sedge.

     — Shatterberry manzanita.


Spearmint, spicebush, southern silktassle. St. Catherine’s lace buckwheat.

Staghorn, stonecrop, strawberry tree;

Sweet pea & sycamore, tarragon & teak.


Thyme & tickseed & tiger lily. Torrent sedge & toyon.

Twinberry honeysuckle, water lettuce;

     Wax myrtle, & weeping fig.


Wild ginger, wishbone bush, windflower, wisteria…

Witchhazel, woodfern:

     Wright’s buckwheat bastardsage!



Yerba Santa.






Ghosts of Summertime

Half an hour ago it was too hot to be outside. The edge has curled up off the day now, just about 8pm, and a soft freshness pushed up from underneath. I can smell it, unfurling like a frond of fern.

I have not been content today, nor free of heavy cares for some months. So much is not right – with the weather, with my home, my life, my country – and my ability to affect change is so limited as to feel non-existent. But the towhees buzz as the breeze comes up before nightfall. It does help.

Summer in the Willamette Valley is the beloved season. We wait for it, discuss its late starts and occasional rains with an affronted air that recalls nothing so much as sun-spoiled Southern Californians. Which is what an increasing number of us used to be.

I carry a preference for mists and overcast, morning chill and fresh cool air at midday. I like to be outside and alone, but all my neighbors are up and out in this season, keeping me company from dawn until well past dusk. There’s a reason I’m no longer in Southern California myself.

Even my sleep is more populous in summer. Vague dreams keep me hovering near the surface, aware of my cool cotton sheets. A few nights back, I was dipping in and out of some large unsettling mystery, in no hurry, for once, to find how it all fits. Dreams are unknowable, but that hasn’t stopped our species from confident interpretations. I decided mine was my subconscious speaking to my daytime unsettlement: slow down, this is all you have.

In which case, what to do with the dream that followed, featuring an invisible force I was either playing or contesting with, while half my family looked on? I banished it aloud at the end, with a sense more of theater than conclusion. It’s normal to wake from dreams of the supernatural with a pounding heart in the darkness. This time I felt only a vexed wish for unvisited sleep.

The lack of actual darkness surely plays into this. I live in a semi-urban downtown, where night is just a dimmer switch. From my darkening porch, I wish to find the night, to move through its other-textured streams. Evening is a great consolation near midsummer, and I long toward its liminal softness. Here, where street lights are loud and too-revealing, neighbors chatter freely at daytime volume, and music of the canned variety ruptures the boundaries of car and home, I lose heart for evening walks. I also find some of what I seek, when the night is cool: the wind coming up as the sky fades, as though it disperses the light. The flittering of tiny bats, the white roses’ last late glowing.

Mornings are the quiet hour: five or six, before the sun clears the foothills. When the sky is a blank blue page, a bit darker each week. When the city and the hills disappear, enshawled in a drift of sunrise cloud. On the bay, the mallard kids are nearly grown. The men paddle about in lonely eclipse while the women give every appearance not to need them. It’s a brief reprieve: the fancy suits and the strutting and the casual violence of the mallard love scene will return.



Supposedly summer is waning by September. Everyone’s keen to stuff in two more backyard parties, one more camping trip in the mountains. These last few years, though, August and September have brutalized the Northwest. Glance at a map showing wildfires, and it’s lit up like a city skyline. Rain might have never existed. In our supposedly temperate valley, the air doesn’t cool below 70 degrees for days at a time. Drop that number to 60, and you can extend the time to weeks. Meteorologists call this “poor nighttime recovery.” When 70 is the low, the mercury is climbing to the 80s by mid-morning, peaking near 100 in the breathless five o’clock hour.

I have to walk very early to get outside in this season. And I see things I would otherwise have missed. In the second week now of September, I’m out the door in darkness at 5:30. By seven the sun has vaulted the horizon. By 8 or so it’s struggled up, stained in blood, through the haze of smoke that walls the valley in. You can feel the air catch in the instant the sun breaks free.


Last week, the smoke-flat sky was dim at twenty after six, the sun still crouched and readying to spring. The glorytrees in bloom smelled like someone’s vision of heaven: rich and sweet and heavy like a cross between perfume and preserves. Bruise a leaf and the scent of peanuts rises into the sweet. I’d been listening for some minutes to a ruckus of crows, moving westward roughly parallel to my route. Turning the corner at the scent of peanut butter and jelly, I was hearing something else as well, a screechy-brakes squealing, overwhelmed by indignant caws. Suddenly a large, distinctly flat-faced owl shot of the dougs on one side of Berwick Road, taking immediate cover in a tangle on the other. Its wings caught the light off the glorytree’s creamy blossoms. Barn owls are common, but I’d never managed to see one wild. I followed this one’s escape through the neighborhood, invisible but for the crowd of shouting corvids. Exit, pursued by crows.

In the remnant oak woodlands on bluffs above the river, dawn means I’m the first to greet the spiders. Webs crackle as they break across my nose, drape limply on the brim of my hat. There’s Oregon white oak up there, a rarity, and some much scrubbier variety, and rocky, seeping meadows drying out in the long rainless months. I’d never been up there before. I know the plants but they arrange themselves differently, and they make space for the sky. I played a game where I named every plant I passed – snowberry, toxicodendren, big-leaf maple, sword fern, thimbleberry, Indian plum – until I met one I couldn’t and I had to stop for one full minute and listen, utterly still. One time, the birds went silent too. I stood tall and tried to look either intimidating or invisible. I didn’t break my silence. In retrospect, an odd sort of game.

Tryon Creek breathes tangibly in this blanketing heat. Standing 20 feet from the trailhead at Andrews Road this morning, I felt it as an invisible rising river. Beneath the heavy summer maples, the green-boned alders reaching, wrensong watered the understory. The creek itself is small, of course, but running fast and clear, busy with water striders treading against the flow. Two ravens skimmed the treetops, a rare presence in this city-shouldered wood. It didn’t feel urban, though, today. At the wood’s heart, at dawn, as ravens quorked above, it was wild.

Even my little urban bay seems wilder just before daybreak. Endless tiny fish backflip out of the shallows. Airborne insects caper, and the last bats snap them out. Yesterday I sidled up to three Canada geese on silent patrol, and in so doing startled the shy green heron I have seen here only twice. A great blue glided low above my head, startling me in turn with his single, growling kraaaaaaak. I followed them both around to the marina, empty of boats this early. The green flew from my presence but the blue ignored it, stalking along the docks under sunrise clouds. A  blue heron’s eye is huge and fluorescently yellow. I imagined myself the object of its hunting gaze.




Returned from my sunrise ramblings, I seal up the house, with myself inside. As a child I read about house arrest and thought it a very light penalty. Septembers in Portland have caused me to reconsider. Evenings on the patio are scarce, and the noontime sky some days smells like a campfire and sags down heavy as lead, leaking sulfurous light. It looks like a storm about to boil, but there’s no rain coming to save us.

I woke last night to the scent of falling water. No breeze, so the rain dropped in silence, misting onto the maple and dripping from its fingers once when enough had gathered. Coolness rose and padded in the window like a cat.

I woke again and reached, and my fingernails clicked on glass. Rising, I slid the window back and thought I smelled the rain. The moon, my companion on these long hot nights when the smoke recedes, had dropped behind the trees. Instead, the neighbors’ porch lights tangled in the maple trunks with the orange shine of over-lit streets.

In the morning I got up again with the first faint seafoam glow in the eastern sky. Only some spent brown seeds dripped from the maple. Beneath the hydrangeas, mulch and soil were dry. The rain, if it had been here, had found the veil too thick to cross last night. I walked into the fitful semi-darkness, my heart a small, confused, insistent hammer.