A bristlecone pine is a resilient tree, strong and long-lived, determined in its nature of limb and branch to press against drought, harsh aspect, and country. The bristlecone is no ordinary tree. In the Great Basin, these pines are the longest living things on earth. At high elevations, these trees root themselves in shallow dolomite or limestone, alkaline soils not rich in tilth for growing anything but carbon and sage, and despite this condition, these trees advance. They hang on. The bark is thick, resinous, and resistant, existing for centuries without decaying from rot or fungus, eroding over time into shapes buckled and strange, old and new embraced in handsome arrangement.
Methuselah, one of the oldest bristlecone pines, is 4,849 years old. No one knows where Methuselah lives. Its location is secret for reasons we all know: someone might take its wood, strip it, cut it, or mark its limbs. Methuselah was born in 2833 BC. Methuselah was born a very long time ago, germinating in uncertainty and caprice. Methuselah is extraordinary, producing bristles of dark purple cones the color of night, that propagate in spite of the political world, or because of it, who knows what conjecture we might put on its muscularity and honor.
5,000 years after Methuselah, my son was born in the spring of 2007, at the hustle of planting time on a small farm we had just begun. He was a tiny little thing, delivered to me in the evening, roaring out of me with a force and strength of an anvil. My son arrived with an old man’s expression and gesture and a spirit as something to be reckoned with, still is: resolute with a pluck of courage. There was no way to halt the might of this small boy, who insisted on doing everything his own way right from the start—not to feed from my breast, not to sleep at all, but to screech through the night, to demand attention direct from emergence. “I am here,” he declared. “Look at me.”
To become a mother is to shift your identity from a single and discontinuous solo to a property of two: a dualism of individuals, a pair like mittens or boots, a fork and spoon, cuff links, dice, two cherries on coupled stems, Jack and Jill. It is a loss of self and a securing of self. It is both known and unknown. Inherent and disruptive. An incongruent adjustment of reality: one for so long, and now two. At the rim of a seasons’s revision, in fall, I held my son against my chest securing him as part of me with a special heart we didn’t know needed fixing until ten years later when the doctor said, “Oh, his heart.” At the time though, this tough kid just wanted to be and do and make and see.
To begin a farm is to invest in risk or perhaps, longevity. What can we endure or produce or become in the span of a season, years, or decades? To farm is to be slightly insane, resilient in fact, one has to be crazy enough to think a farm might work when all the sensibilities tell you no. In 2007, we had just enough ambition to put our hearts into unlikelihood, and storms, and failure, and hazard and chance. So much new. So much yet to occur.
Now and then, October is a relief. Even a tinge of change in the air draws an exhalation, liberation from the intensity of summer, of the long days that never quit, of the heat and work and harvest. On my farm, in October, we celebrate small ecstasies: the lilac sky, the rich crimson of autumn spoken in the leaves, the pile of debris by the barn where we light matches, burn wood and watch smoke spin in the velvet air and consider the rebound of next year’s circumstance, and the boy who will come of age here, work alongside us perhaps, or read a book in the live oak balanced high up on the bark overlooking the fields, or become a defender of good things I hope, or at least, to some extent, cultivate a patience with the hard things we know to be true of his future world.
Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, Mid-American Review, River Teeth, Bellingham Review, VIDA Review among others. Her work has earned an AWP Intro Journals award and has been listed as notable in Best American Essays. She holds degrees from UC Santa Cruz, University of Montana, and Vermont College of Fine Arts. She currently teaches writing at Southern Oregon University and runs an organic vegetable farm.
Melissa urges you to get to know the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. KS Wild's mission is to protect and restore wild nature in the Klamath-Siskiyou region of southwest Oregon and northwest California. They promote science-based land and water conservation through policy and community action. Visit www.kswild.org.