Deciduous Evergreen

Shannon Wardell
It triggers several moods in my brain at the same time, including these: hilarity with good friends after having toasted a round of Gin Martinis before a thrilling off-Broadway show; eager suspense after having received an unexpected package in the mail from someone dear; the sense of arrival after having finally reached the Lookout Point after a long hike.

There is something in the air here. It seems cool, rarefied and filtered thoroughly of all those typical daily odours, from freshly ground coffee beans to stale coffee breath, from bewitching pheromonal-laced perfumes to internal combustion exhaust, from the constant interruption of new smells from block to block to the unchanging stench of backed-up sewers.

The air has a different smell to it here, even a different feel to it. This ain't New York City; this isn't even Long Island. This is 1500 meters above sea level in the alpine mountains in northern Italy. Mountain peaks, some still snowcapped, can be seen dropping down into unseen valleys. These are the natural skyscrapers of our geological reality and this penthouse terrace on the roof of the world looks over a most expansive garden of trees.

Such a perspective effortlessly encourages an “Überblick” above the landscape of our human civilization below.

My thoughts perch over the tree tops on the lookout like a bird - no, not a penguin – a bird of prey whose eyes are aware of everything around. I feel as though I were in some way actually connected to the ground and trees around me. The same sun warms the needles and my fingers. The same wind tussles through the branches and my hair. Time has slowed down, way down, but not at all in the tedious, absent-minded way of a waiting room or waiting through the mounting aggression of a long traffic jam. I am thoroughly present and experiencing life in real time, moment for moment. A clock counts seconds; life lives through moments.

I feel a little tipsy from the thin air rich with oxygen from the surrounding larch trees. Larch. What an uncommon tree and here they are at home. They like it cool, austere and rugged, so you find them only up here in the Alps or way out in Siberia or far up north in Canada. At this elevation, they grow in decidedly individualistic ways, some curving this way or that, not at all like the typical rank and file evergreens standing at attention. Then again, larch is not a typical pine. Deciduous, its needles turn yellowish in autumn. It only appears to be an evergreen during the rest of the year.

My thoughts take flight, winging through rising currents that carry them spiralling aloft with no expense of energy. Larch is also a tree of unusual properties. Being very weather resistant, it is prized for its outdoor hardiness, especially for fences, outdoor furniture, balconies and shingles. The city of Venice, only several hours by car to the south-east, was originally built largely in marshland upon larch pillars set into the solid ground below.

Larch is loved by the lay-line sensitive who claim that it absorbs earth radiations. Certainly, floors made of larch seem warmer than other woods, also because of the reddish hue of the wood and the bold flame-like dynamic of its grain, which can be so passionately painterly. Larch floor boards are the rebels of the wood world and will often bow out despite attempts to nail or screw them in place.

Around me, the sun-bathed larch trees sway gently in the breeze. Months from now, when the extreme cold and snow storms of winter cause rational beings to curl up by their warm Kachelofen sipping brimming cups of hot chocolate or Glühwein, these larch trees just stand there and take it. They don’t catch colds. Instead, their cross-sectional rings slowly grow tight and as hard as many hard-woods. Now though, in the summer warmth, the sap oozes out here and there; its smell is distinctive, woodsy and evocative.

The smell reminds me of two things, the first is oddly that of shoeing horses out in Arizona. On a ranch where I worked years ago, the farrier Jimmy Vance always carried in his gear a tin containing a thick yellow-greenish resin with the consistency of honey. Jimmy used it as a salve for cuts, as well as to dress hooves when treating white lime disease, thrush or other odour-causing bacteria. Lady Lin, a coquettish Appaloosa with a stinky, infected hoof problem, was treated successfully in a few weeks with this substance. While he worked, its pleasant smell would spread throughout the entire stall.

He called this substance Venice Turpentine, prepared from the sap collected from larch trees: another larch-Venice connection! Evidently the name Venice Turpentine descends from those early days in Venice when larch and its sap were present in abundance in this rising harbour capital that would soon dominate Mediterranean trading.

The smell of larch trees also reminds me of oil painting, for Venice Turpentine has been an ingredient used by artists since the Renaissance for several oil mixtures. When added in the right way to oil paint, it not only fills the entire studio with its distinctive smell, but it also will dry leaving a hard enamel-like surface. Regard Titian’s gorgeous painting of Dana?, for example, painted in Venice during the mid-1500’s. The lusciously smooth and creamy look of her naked skin comes from the presence of Venice Turpentine mixed into the last layers of oil.

Soaring above the landscape of our human species, there is more than enough food for thought to be caught, grasped and comprehended. My thoughts find other rising currents as well, some too personal and intimate to present here. Several questions that drained me of energy last week have now either been resolved or they have simply ceased to be relevant, like dark clouds whisked away by the wind.

As the sun begins to set, my thoughts return to me, sitting on a rock beside the gnarled trunk of a larch. No one else is around, yet I do not feel alone at all. In fact, I am somewhat impressed with this large plant beside me whose attributes have been so influential throughout the centuries and around the world. After all, its wood, with its warm colour and beautiful grain is at once tough, individualistic and weather resistant, even as it once contributed substantially and fundamentally to the rise of Venice. Its sap – its vital juice - works wonders both for horses and masterpieces of creative visual expression.

I realize that I am sitting on top of the world in the exclusive company of a tree which has many stories to tell and all of them are permeated with a pungent, resinous smell.

As I make my way inside to the company of my own species, one riddle still lingers in my thoughts: What does it mean to be a deciduous evergreen? Fortunately, I will have some time tomorrow to consider the broader implications of that question.
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