The rain storm

The average annual temperature in St. Louis, according to Wikipedia,  is 56.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The average annual precipitation is just a hair under 39 inches; compare that to Seattle,  which gets just a hair over 37.

It doesn’t sound bad at all, if only it were  spread out across the seasons. The problem is that St. Louis weather specializes in extremes: cold in winter,  hot (and sticky) in summer,  with torrential rains that swell waterways and despoil basements,  too often followed by pitiless droughts that threaten crops and rosebushes,  and turn lawns into spiky brown wastelands. (This message was not brought to you by the Chamber of Commerce.)

We’ve had three enervating weeks of triple-digit heat indices,  three weeks of mercilessly blazing sun and barely a cloud in the sky. Our efforts to keep our plantings watered have kept them alive,  but nothing is really flourishing except weeds and strangler vines. The number of blossoms on the Rose of Sharon bush outside the kitchen window, usually covered with blooms at this time of year,  barely numbered a dozen.

Then clouds piled up in the western sky. The sun was briefly blocked, and we enjoyed a blessed hour of steady rain.

It cooled things off for a span. More than that,  three hours later I glanced at the Rose of Sharon,  and discovered,  to my amazement and delight,  that it was suddenly covered with tiny green flower buds,  swelling almost as I watched.

The weather is back on its sauna setting,  and more triple digits are forecast. Still,  the plants are making the most of this brief respite,  greening up and taking strength from the soaking. Faithful care and resilience have their rewards,  and the Rose of Sharon will bloom again.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Pride goeth…

I spent a pleasant afternoon and early evening Saturday at an oddly scheduled (4 p.m.? Really?) but thoroughly enjoyable two-person stage version of C.S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters, currently on tour but usually based in New York City. Max McLean is the debonair veteran demon, well-placed in the Lowerarchy, with his secretary Toadpipe (the versatile Elise Girardin) promoted to a decidedly active, highly vocal – if not exactly speaking – role as amanuensis, supple visual interest and model.

The show lasts 90 fast-paced minutes, and hits most of the high points in the book; my ear stumbled over only a few edits.

Screwtape is an old friend. I first picked up my mother’s well-read paperback at the age of 11 or 12, intrigued by the striking image of a fiery quill pen on the cover. I’ve read it about once a year ever since.

It bears re-reading, for Lewis packed a lot of good homey truths into this slender volume: the law of Undulation (“the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks”), the finer points of temptation, and brief riffs on various forms of sin: another angle on gluttony, a dark spirit’s thoughts on lust, and the danger of tempting to spectacular sin – it can lead to equally spectacular repentance. Better to take the slow, gradual path to Hell – it’s far more certain.

But the one which struck me in the performance was McLean’s enhanced speech on Spiritual Pride (“By Jove, I’m being humble!”), the besetting sin of what Lewis called “theocrats,” but a real danger to all of us who call ourselves Christian.

We see it in all denominations, and in those who deny that their particular church body is a denomination at all, but in fact Christ’s one true faith. From the Biblical fundamentalist who condemns all others to the Orthodox most tightly swaddled in tradition, everyone who points to another tradition that in fact holds to the millennia-old basics of the faith and says, “They’re not Christians” is guilty of it.

I suffer from it sometimes, when I get smug about my Anglicanism – our liturgy, our tradition of great language and great music, our combination of Apostolic Catholicism and sensible Reformation, our ability to put on a really great show. Surely everyone would sign on with us, if they only had the good sense and good taste.

Screwtape would delight in that attitude, as much as he would all the various exclusionists’ own blinkered world views. Screwtape and his fellows don’t care about our particular loyalities, as long as they can blind us to the need for understanding, appreciation, and – most especially – love for our sisters and brothers in Christ’s flock. Any sin will do.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Death of an oak tree

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…
He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 11)

It’s one of the things that drew me to this house: A huge white oak tree, standing at the top of the hill and dominating the lot. Its enormous branches arc gracefully over the hillside and the back driveway; their furthest tips grow all the way to the feeders next to the kitchen window, providing the perfect staging area for birds.

An acorn took root on this ridge when this area was still a French colony, around the time that Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It was an impressive tree by the time of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and survived all the ills that wood is heir to, gaining recognition as  the largest of its kind in our suburb a century later.

Now it is dying.

Maybe the construction of this house a quarter century ago started its decline, quietly, secretly. Perhaps neglect by other owners contributed. One arborist concluded that an ill-timed, poorly executed tree trimming by the power company killed it; the die-off started on the side where they whacked its branches one hot summer day. (“You can’t prove anything,” said the electric company’s chief tree man.) Perhaps it just wore out, as people do, but on a larger scale: Nothing lives forever.

Nothing lives forever, but I had certainly hoped that this great tree would outlast me, its steward for the last decade. Now I find myself in charge of scheduling its execution: in winter, when no birds are nesting in its spacious branches, and the price is a little lower because the tree service needs the work; now, before more pieces of it come hurtling down in a windstorm, perhaps to cause serious damage to house or car or retaining wall.

It will take time to absorb the loss of the tree, the shade it gave the house, the habitat it provided. Little grew below its branches once they leafed out; instead of grass, I planted hundreds of narcissus bulbs – jonquils, bright daffodils, delicate paperwhites – that flourished in the unimpeded light of early spring. Will those survive the workmen’s rough careless boots and heavy equipment?

“What will happen to the swing?” my daughter asks; she once delighted in gently rocking, and in standing atop it (when she was pretty sure no parents were watching) to climb the big branch that curved seductively down to where a little girl could grasp it. What will take its place, fill that gap, catch our eyes and pull our vision upward as it did?

Nothing lives forever, but this parting tears at my heart. In time we will adjust, just as we adjust when someone we love has died, while never ceasing to feel the loss. The flickers will find other trunks to peruse for insects; the owl will find another lofty perch for her nest. Life goes on. Our lives have been brightened by sharing them, for a while, with this mighty tree.

– sbm