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May 30, 2005

Sophie and Liam

My niece is becoming one of my favorite photographic subjects, for what are probably rather obvious reasons.

It's just too bad she hates having her picture taken.

Her brother Liam celebrated his third birthday yesterday. He and I have been having better and better conversations these days, as his vocabulary grows (and mine too.) Executive summary of yesterday's discussion: his favorite noise is "moo."

Here's something I wrote after meeting Liam for the first time. Odd: it seems far longer ago than a mere three years.


In late spring, my wife Becky and I went to Palo Alto to visit our nephew Liam, in residence at the Lucille Packard Children's Hospital, where he had been born a few days previous. His parents were tired and inordinately happy. We took turns in the nursery, dancing around the two-visitor maximum, Becky's sister Lisa practicing at feeding her son, husband Michael chatting outside with the overflow relatives.

Liam is big and fit, with black hair. His hobbies include eating, sleeping, and attempting to swallow his right hand. I introduced myself as the uncle that buys the good beer; he squinted at the light and sleepily stuck his face in the crook of my elbow.

When he'd finished eating, we took the new parents out for dinner. Heading for the car I noticed for the first time that the lot was fringed with western redbuds, planted every ten feet or so in big concrete containers. Each tree bore a full crop of seeds, which hung from the branches in dry, crackly pods. I grabbed a handful and put them in my shirt pocket.

The western redbud, Cercis occidentalis, is an admirable little deciduous tree — a maximum of 25 feet tall — that ranges from the coast as far east as Utah and Texas. Adapted to the semiarid foothills and low ranges of the west, it's a deceptively lush tree that can withstand lengthy drought. Like the other species in genus Cercis, it blooms blinding red on bare wood a month or more before the first leaves emerge. Around here, redbuds bloom as early as February — feeding hungry winter-resident hummingbirds — and hold that bloom until April or so. Eventually, cool blue leaves the shape of hearts emerge in a loose canopy. Plainly visible under the leaves, leguminous seedpods start out magenta and dry an appealing brown, food for ranging goldfinches.

Despite the redbud's perfectly fine appearance post-bloom it's the flowers that named the tree. Brilliant reds at the end of winter are few and far between in the wild, even in this temperate clime. Redbuds have gained ardent admirers. The species has become a seasonal totem for many in California's dry, rugged hills. There's a Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society in Placer County, and Lake County's Audubon chapter named itself after the tree as well.

Other Cercis species in other places are admired just as much. Take Oklahoma, for instance, which has adopted the eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis, as its official state tree. The Eastern species is substantially similar to the western: a bit taller, its flowers more pink than magenta. My grandparents in rural New York had an eastern redbud in their garden, a day's drive north of the tree's native range: each year it blazed deep pink before the apple trees had quite roused from their winter slumber.

One morning a number of years ago my grandfather woke up, put on pants and a white button-down work shirt, cinched his thin tie up around his Adam's apple, walked down the stairs to the living room, and died. It took some time to collect his eight kids, spread across the country, and grandkids spread even further. The house was full after the funeral, and eventually I went outside. I don't know whether the redbud had picked that day to bloom, or whether I was just noticing it now with the ceremonies out of the way. Every branch, every airy twig was cloaked in deep rose.

I see blooming redbuds nowadays, and my grandfather arrives with a jolt. Their blossoms smell of his Prince Albert tobacco, and of the burning solder in his workshop.

They say gourd seeds germinate best if the planter curses them loudly. Basil is the same way: the French phrase semer le basilic, "sowing basil seed," is a quaint idiom for using hostile language. Western redbud seeds are made of sterner stuff. Curse at them all you like, and yet they remain inert. As is true of many other chaparral plants, redbud's seeds are hermetically sealed in a tough coat, proof against the fickle false springs and summer rains that cause more eager seeds to sprout too early or too late. It takes a season or two of harsh weather to cajole the redbud's seeds to open, and maybe more than that.

Or fire. Redbud is one of those native plants that revegetates burned-over areas: a seed an inch or so below the burning duff finds in the inferno the stimulus it needs to start a new life as a tree. One method of sprouting redbud seeds for the home garden involves a paper bag. Place the seeds in the bag, set it on fire, let it burn all the way down, and sow the roasted seed. If that seems extreme one can bring a pitcher of water to a rolling boil, remove from heat, let cool for five minutes and then add the redbud seeds. Once the water has cooled the rest of the way to room temperature, plant the seeds in pots, and keep them moist. In a year or two, perhaps three, some of them will germinate.

The process is called "scarification," the same word used to describe the making of permanent marks on human skin. I suppose it's only fair for me to scarify the seeds I collected from those parking lot redbuds, as the tree has certainly left its mark on me. And if the remembered scent of pipe tobacco is now mixed with that of disinfectant and my newborn nephew's scalp, well, my grandfather will just have to get used to having a little company up in that tree.

Posted by Chris Clarke at May 30, 2005 10:00 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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This is a beautiful post. I love how the tree seems to run its roots through the lives of your family.

And those are some gorgeous children!

Posted by: Rana at May 30, 2005 11:13 AM
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I suspect your grandfather is happy with the way things have turned out.

Posted by: tost at May 30, 2005 07:13 PM
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Very cutie pie niece and nephew!

I'm going to start cursing at my herbs. I wonder if it helps tomatoes too...

Posted by: Rurality at May 31, 2005 03:31 PM
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