Listen! I will speak of the sweetest dream,
what came to me in the middle of the night
This week I walked about the mountain where I live. There are dozens of Judas Tree (redbud) seedlings all around. I’ve lived there nearly a dozen years now. There are 29 mature redbud trees—5 planted by me about 6 years ago—24 planted by my predecessor. They line the drive. Never have they set seed like this before. I have found an occasional seedling here and there over the years.
Early this spring, I planted three immature specimens—saplings about 7 feet tall including the root ball. I bought those at a hardware store.
But tiny redbud seedlings are everywhere. I first discovered them as I was cleaning up fallen leave last autumn.
First one. Then another. Another. More. More and more.
Something in nature caused so many to germinate and spring up in this particular year as tiny treelings from the forest floor.
Perhaps it was the Plague.
When I owned an old pre Civil War stone farmhouse quite close to the Mason Dixon Line, some years there would be a plague of rabbits. The yard would be filled with rabbits and bunnies eating all my gardens. Perhaps their predators had died off the previous year. Perhaps their population explosion was caused by something else.
Whatever caused an outbreak of ornamental trees on my mountain happened last year while the world was experiencing the outbreak of a disease that has altered all our lives.
Last week’s story has an image of a limited edition hand illuminated The Dream of the Rood.
I chose it because it was a beautiful book and evocative and part of the story of how a dead minister’s “William Morris” collection was delivered here—much to my surprise and joy.
His books are now my books as they will someday be someone else’s books—IF—if I do my job, my mission, to preserve them until they are placed into the next caring hands.
The Dream of the Rood was planted in my mind that day—via that serendipitous find. I had not read the story since college English. I wasn’t ready for it then.
It is one of the earliest surviving (Old) English poems and a quite difficult read for a 20-year-old.
At this point, this time in my life I am ready.
I walked around the mountain Wednesday evening, marking the tiny seedlings with handfuls of black mulch.
This was so they would standout on the forest floor—to protect them from being scythed or trod on or driven over.
Some are planted by the maker in perfect places, and I will leave them there to grow.
Others I will need to transplant—though redbuds do not happily move.
The Rood (Old English for “rod” or pole) in the poem is the tree cut down and brought to Golgotha (the place of the Skull.) Christ was hung upon that “Rood” until he died. The tree—the “Cross”—is the narrator in the poem.
Here’s the wikipedia on the story, if you want a shortcut to what I’m getting at.
Legend has it the tree that was used for “The Cross” was a Dogwood Tree.
In Jesus’ time, the dogwood grew
To a stately size and a lovely hue.
‘Twas strong and firm, its branches interwoven.
For the cross of Christ its timbers were chosen.
Seeing the distress at this use of their wood
Christ made a promise which still holds good:
“Never again shall the dogwood grow
Large enough to be used so.
Slender and twisted, it shall be
With blossoms like the cross for all to see.
As blood stains the petals marked in brown,
The blossom’s center wears a thorny crown.
All who see it will remember Me
Crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree.
Cherished and protected, this tree shall be
A reminder to all of My agony.”
I have also planted dogwoods up where I live—though not for any religious reasons. It is a beautiful ornamental (small) woodland tree.
The legend of the redbud tree—or Judas Tree—is that it is the descendent of the tree that the “Betrayer” hung himself upon.
Legend has it the redbud was also once a mighty tree. When one was used by the false Apostle for suicide, all its descendants were cursed with smallness—so no one else could ever be hung upon one.
So, these two beautiful small trees have roots in Christian lore.
My mountain became littered with Judas Tree seedlings during the COVID year.
I will preserve as many as I possibly can. Each spring, the mature trees on my property dot the woods with their bloody blossoms.
If I live there long enough, there will be dozens more blooming by my hand (as well as the staying of my hand.)
One cannot have too many redbuds in a forest. They are glorious in bloom.
They are attractive in shape, size and color the rest of the year. They supplement the much taller oak, ash, poplar and maple in the forest.
Here is a poem about the Judas Tree:
In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days’ time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first
So, in the past week, the book, the poem and tree and the trees all came together in a confluence in my life.
I set them here before you in a rather disjointed way.
Why did this book catch my heart?
Why is home littered with baby redbud trees in this Plague year? I’d like to think it might mean renewal, redemption, resurrection… recovery.
Here’s a reading of a translation of the Dream into modern English. It takes about 10 minutes if you’d care to listen. I’ve appended the text at the bottom in case you wish to read along.
And here are a few more images of the rare book executed by hand by Carmelites half a century ago.
A cold rain drips outside in the dark. It is in the 60s. September 16th. Black outside in the predawn.
Last night driving home, a thunderstorm that had been brewing to the west broke, and the sky opened. Gray, white, nearly charcoal black clouds roiled above me as I drove home from an old friend’s house.
We’d had a little late afternoon cocktail hour and picnic in his backyard. It is a stunning place with fountains and pools and sculpted flora, flowerbeds, vines, stone statues, potted miniature beds for fairies’ homes. Another retired doctor joined us. We sat on a flagstone patio, around a table and chatted—sipping highland single malt scotch. We spoke of old times and times we are planning to come.
A platter of cheeses was between us.
I’d picked up a caesar and chef salad to contribute.
Squint your eyes a bit and it could be in Pompeii 2000 years ago. Simple yet civilized.
That is, until my friend suggested we add the Plane Finder App to our phones. It took only seconds, and soon we could identify any plane in the air in the US. Of course, we concentrated on those overhead. You put your finger on the plane icon and the screen identities it, its origin and destination. Its altitude—and other data if you wish to dig deeper.
It was a quiet comfortable early evening respite, despite threatening dark gray clouds massing to the west.
Then it was time to bid adieu. I was in my pickup only a few minutes before large drops splattered hard on my windshield. It intensified as I headed west toward the forested mountain ridge I live upon.
The dogs, Merry especially, don’t like thunder. I let them out of their pen (one leashed.) They quickly relieved themselves and were anxious to go inside the house.
Did I do enough to justify the breath and space I occupy?
I did keep pretty busy.
But there were things missing.
I rescued tens of thousands of books. That occupied most of my time.
Did I spend too much life on that?
If I hadn’t, I’d be even further behind.
I’m not ready to look back too closely at summer yet.
Soon the—too many—potted plants will begin their migration indoors.
Soon the cold weather clothing will begin migrating upstairs from the cedar closet.
The black cast iron rings for firewood will come to the porch from the barn and be filled.
What date will I light the first fire?
I will guess October 17.
Nothing has changed up here during COVID beside about 8 new stone-bordered COVID gardens and a few rock wall terraces. The seasons have changed in the past 18 months, just as they’ve changed my whole lifetime—and countless lifetimes before.
But those months have had the plague motif playing always. Sometimes a soft drumbeat tapping, pulsing in the background. Sometimes a booming timpani drowning out everything else going on.
Still, it is there. Always with us. A constant thumping rhythm. And there is no sign its beat will soften and disappear any time soon.
It is part of life now. Masks have returned to the dashboards of my vehicles. I keep one in my pocket if I am out and about.
I took a couple dozen cotton shirts to the cleaners. It is run by an Asian couple. They two are the only ones I’ve ever seen working there. And I’ve never seen one without the other. 6 days a week. Pulling up in my Explorer, I guessed they’d be masked. I could discern a mask sign taped to their glass door. I put my mask on to avoid any embarrassment. I wrapped my arms around half of the shirts and headed for the door. When I got to the counter, neither were masked. He rose to meet me at the counter. She stayed seated at her sewing machine in a corner close to the high broad plate-glass window.
I mumble the excuse, “I never know what people want.”
I went outside and got the rest of the shirts. When I went back in, my mask was below my chin. The couple were now both masked.
I would have laughed, but I was afraid they might misunderstand.
I pulled my mask up, and we counted the shirts I was leaving with them.
He pushed a button, and a conveyor with thousands of pieces of clothes hanging from its chain rattled around until my cleaned shirts appeared.
Old friends appeared shrouded in plastic. I can’t recall ever wearing a shirt out. I can’t recall the last time I bought a shirt.
Life has gotten much smaller for me in the last few years.
Smaller still during the pandemic.
Except for the books. There are more of those than ever.
I had company over last Saturday.
It is the first entertaining I’ve done since March 2020. Oh, I have had the occasional tradesperson up, but I can’t recall getting out plates and planning a meal for anyone.
It was very difficult to unhermit myself and prepare the house and grounds.
As is so often the case, the fretting was far worse than the execution.
I thought mightily about finding an excuse to cancel the event.
I knew it would be therapeutic—healthy—for me to rejoin domestic society at home.
Plus, they have had me to their place a few times.
I owed them.
And I wanted to see if they would be amenable to a visit to their archaeology work in Luxor, Egypt. They go every year for six months. (Except last year—COVID.)
Over wine and grilled salmon, small potatoes, mushrooms and even grilled romaine Caesar salad (try it!) we discussed it. So, I booked a flight and hotel. They will find me a guide there.
The meal was a gustatory success as well. Grilling is simple, and my technique returned flawlessly. (I did test the grill ahead of time to make sure it worked.)
So, I’m traveling, Inshallah, and if COVID protocols permit, to southern Italy in November, Luxor in January, Sicily in February. I’m working on the rest. COVID stole more than a year of planned travel. I will try to make it up.
I’m not traveling much locally.
I’ve lost the desire for that.
I rarely stop for a beer on the way home. Happy Hour? What is that?
I’ve no interest in dining alone and sadly have gotten used to cooking—such as that is—at home.
I heard on the radio yesterday that DC Metro is having its first ever pass sale. Daily, weekly, monthly passes are up to 50% off. They’re trying to help with the “COVID Blues” which is suppressing ridership.
I used to love to go downtown to restaurants and shows and museums and beautiful sites in the city.
Now I view it as a frightening dystopian place where many awful things have happened—and continue to occur—at record setting paces.
Then maybe an Orioles game? They’re on pace for another record-setting year. As of today, 99 losses. 43.5 games out of first place. I’d like to walk from Cross Street Market after oysters and beer, through Federal Hill and cross the bridge and vast parking lots to the stadium.
Like I often did with my other best buddy, John Adams, who died suddenly just over a year ago. (Not COVID.) But we had decades of good times, although at opposite political spectrums.
The week flew by in a fog.
No big projects.
We did meet to start the next steps on the warehouse building project.
Waiting for the next wave of permits to go through.
I will be excited when the big machines arrive, and we begin grading and digging for drainage and water pipes and electrical inlets, laying foundations, pouring slabs, tilting up concrete walls…
Next year we hope. Ideally not far into next year.
My friend who owns Smoketown Brewery had asked a while back if I could get him a lot of LPs for a 70s event at the Creekside location. We pulled about 5000 from the three stores that he can sell for $1 apiece this weekend.
Larry dropped off a beautiful Darwin in addition to thousands of other books.
I am amazed when we find a book that has withstood the travails of time in nearly perfect condition.
I know my weekend plans.
Book carts. Transplanting redbud seedlings and hosta babies… and bleeding heart, lungwort…
Melting something foil-wrapped from the freezer.
Maybe having one too many Old Fashioned—currently made with Old Granddad, Pimms and frozen black cherries.
Wondering what comes next.
And finding a place for treasures that arrived from my visit to my hometown—Buffalo—and my old friend Ron Cozzi’s magnificent bookstore—Old Editions.
And yes, I acquiesced on the William Blake Job.
My brother Jimmie wrote “The Song of Job” in the 70s.
The Blake scene is when God descends from the whirling winds and chastises those who claim to know things (there are a lot of people doing that in this world now—about a lot of things.) In this instance, Job’s cruel detractors claim special knowledge.
That young man lectured Job until Job’s poor heart near broke,Jim Roberts
And from the whirlin’ wind, God Himself spoke,
Sayin’, “Who’re these who claim to know my workings and all my ways?
Job has proved his faith and shall live joyous days.”
Yes, Job lived joyful days. Oh, yes, he did.
And other stuff…
The Dream of the Rood
Listen, I will tell the best of visions,
what came to me in the middle of the night,
when voice-bearers dwelled in rest.
It seemed to me that I saw a more wonderful tree
lifted in the air, wound round with light,
the brightest of beams. That beacon was entirely
cased in gold; beautiful gems stood
at the corners of the earth, likewise there were five
upon the cross-beam. All those fair through creation
gazed on the angel of the Lord there. There was certainly no gallows of the wicked;
but the holy spirits beheld it there,
men over the earth and all this glorious creation.
Wondrous was the victory-tree, and I stained with sins,
wounded with guilts. I saw the tree of glory,
honoured with garments, shining with joys,
covered with gold; gems had
covered magnificently the tree of the forest.
Nevertheless, I was able to perceive through that gold
the ancient hostility of wretches, so that it first began
to bleed on the right side. I was all drenched with sorrows.
I was frightened by the beautiful vision; I saw that urgent beacon
change its covering and colours: sometimes it was soaked with wetness,
stained with the coursing of blood; sometimes adorned with treasure.
Yet as I lay there a long while
I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,
until I heard it utter a sound;
it began to speak words, the best of wood:
“That was very long ago, I remember it still,
that I was cut down from the edge of the wood,
ripped up by my roots. They seized me there, strong enemies,
made me a spectacle for themselves there, commanded me to raise up their criminals.
Men carried me there on their shoulders, until they set me on a hill,
enemies enough fastened me there. I saw then the Saviour of mankind
hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me.
There I did not dare, against the word of the Lord,
bow or break, when I saw the
corners of the earth tremble. I might have
felled all the enemies; even so, I stood fast.
He stripped himself then, young hero—that was God almighty –
strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom mankind.
I trembled when the warrior embraced me; even then I did not dare to bow to earth,
fall to the corners of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King,
the Lord of heaven; I did not dare to bend.
They pierced me with dark nails; on me are the wounds visible,
the open wounds of malice; I did not dare to injure any of them.
They mocked us both together. I was all drenched with blood
poured out from that man’s side after he had sent forth his spirit.
I have experienced on that hillside many
cruelties of fate. I saw the God of hosts
violently stretched out. Darkness had
covered with clouds the Ruler’s corpse,
the gleaming light. Shadows went forth
dark under the clouds. All creation wept,
lamented the King’s fall. Christ was on the cross.
Yet there eager ones came from afar
to that noble one; I beheld all that.
I was all drenched with sorrow; nevertheless I bowed down to the hands of the men,
humble, with great eagerness. There they took almighty God,
lifted him from that oppressive torment. The warriors forsook me then
standing covered with moisture; I was all wounded with arrows.
They laid the weary-limbed one down there, they stood at the head of his body,
they beheld the Lord of heaven there, and he himself rested there a while,
weary after the great battle. They began to fashion a tomb for him,
warriors in the sight of the slayer; they carved that from bright stone,
they set the Lord of victories in there. They began to sing the sorrow-song for him,
wretched in the evening-time; then they wanted to travel again,
weary from the glorious Lord. He rested there with little company.
Nevertheless, weeping, we stood there a good while
in a fixed position, after the voice departed up
of the warriors. The corpse grew cold,
the fair live-dwelling. Then men began to fell us
all to the ground: that was a terrible fate.
Men buried us in a deep pit; nevertheless the Lord’s thanes,
friends, discovered me there,
adorned me with gold and silver.
Now you might hear, my beloved hero,
that I have experienced the work of evil-doers,
grievous sorrows. Now the time has come
that I will be honoured far and wide
by men over the earth and all this glorious creation;
they will pray to this beacon. On me the Son of God
suffered for a while; because of that I am glorious now,
towering under the heavens, and I am able to heal
each one of those who is in awe of me.
Formerly I was made the hardest of punishments,
most hateful to the people, before I opened for them,
for the voice-bearers, the true way of life.
Listen, the Lord of glory, the Guardian of the kingdom of heaven,
then honoured me over the forest trees,
just as he, almighty God, also honoured
his mother, Mary herself, for all men,
over all womankind.
Now I urge you, my beloved man,
that you tell men about this vision:
reveal with words that it is the tree of glory
on which almighty God suffered
for mankind’s many sins
and Adam’s ancient deeds.
Death he tasted there; nevertheless, the Lord rose again
with his great might to help mankind.
He ascended into heaven. He will come again
to this earth to seek mankind.
on doomsday, the Lord himself,
almighty God, and his angels with him,
so that he will then judge, he who has the power of judgment,
each one of them, for what they themselves have
earned here earlier in this transitory life.
Nor may any of them be unafraid there
because of the words which the Saviour will speak:
he will ask in front of the multitude where the person might be
who for the Lord’s name would
taste bitter death, just as he did before on that tree.
But then they will be fearful and little think
what they might begin to say to Christ.
Then there will be no need for any of those to be very afraid
who bear before them in the breast the best of trees.
But by means of the rood each soul
who thinks to dwell with the Ruler
must seek the kingdom from the earthly way.’
I prayed to the tree with a happy spirit then,
with great zeal, there where I was alone
with little company. My spirit was
inspired with longing for the way forward; I experienced in all
many periods of longing. It is now my life’s hope
that I might seek the tree of victory
alone more often than all men,
to honour it well. My desire for that is
great in my mind, and my protection is
directed to the cross. I do not have many wealthy
friends on earth; but they have gone forward from here,
passed from the joys of this world, sought for themselves the King of glory;
they live now in heaven with the High Father,
they dwell in glory. And I myself hope
each day for when the Lord’s cross,
that I looked at here on earth,
will fetch me from this transitory life,
and then bring me where there is great bliss,
joy in heaven, where the Lord’s people
are set in feasting, where there is unceasing bliss;
and then will set me where I might afterwards
dwell in glory fully with the saints
to partake of joy. May the Lord be a friend to me,
he who here on earth suffered previously
on the gallows-tree for the sins of man.
He redeemed us, and gave us life,
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
with dignity and with joy for those who suffered burning there.
The Son was victorious in that undertaking,
powerful and successful, when he came with the multitudes,
a troop of souls, into God’s kingdom,
the one Ruler almighty, to the delight of angels
and all the saints who were in heaven before,
who dwelled in glory, when their Ruler came,
almighty God, to where his native land was.