HIDDEN LIGHT, WOODEN LADDER, BUCKET OF CLAY, PILLAR OF WATER
IT TURNED OUT TO BE A DAY FOR a late winter snowstorm when I tapped a maple tree for the first time. A two-week stretch of February sunny days in the fifties abruptly ended on the appointed day with fat clumped flakes of snow falling from the white sky, peppering it with their shadows. Well, the inevitable was happening behind the bark anyway, even with this snowy setback. While the snow settled and stuck and climbed up the flared flanks of the maple’s roots, one inch, two inches, three inches. . . , I made my preparations.
I gathered the drill bit, the buckets, the lids, the shiny spiles, and the drill my friend Sylvan let me borrow. I collected the incense, the incense bowl, the water bowl, the candle, the image of Jizo Bodhisattva. I felt like it was important to mark the making of this moment. Isn’t that what ritual is, the making evident of what is already real, the sharing that is this world? Being Buddhist, my way of marking this action began with the inaction of meditation. I sat still and silent inside, watching the snow fall outside. I sat to watch the inside, silent and falling like snow. Inside, I sat outside of my ordinary self and watched.
I was uneasy about the violence of drilling holes into a living tree. It felt important to acknowledge the taking and the giving that was about to occur. So, in the mounting snow at the base of the tree—now four, five, six inches high—I set up an altar with Jizo Bodhisattva as an image. In Buddhist tradition Jizo (Earth Storehouse) is a being committed to alleviating suffering especially in places of transition. Having lit incense and offered it at the altar, I made full bows to the altar and the tree, bending awkwardly in my heavy winter coat to touch my forehead to the scattered gravel and woodchips in the driveway in a small spot by the recycling can where the snow hadn’t yet collected. I chanted the Heart Sutra. I chanted the Jizo Shingon Dharani. Then, while pouring from a glass bottle my urine collected over the past few days on to the ground at the drip zone as an offering (my own nitrogen-rich nourishing liquid for its), I circumambulated the tree chanting, “Buddha recognizes Buddha, and Buddha bows to Buddha.”
It sounds theatrical and contrived and self-consciously performative, but in the moment it felt very natural. The ritual opened up a space for me to really see this tree, and to see it as a fellow being in a shared world instead of just a background piece of scenery. And seeing this tree, I saw its immensity. I began to pay attention to the great plates of bark I was about to drill through, the placement and arrangement of the major limbs, the two squirrel nests near the top standing out against the gray-white sky of the snowstorm. The “fake” language of ritual can sometimes force us to perform the very “real” language of address, the language that acknowledges shared space. By the time I was done, there was nothing “extra” about the ritual I performed.
In a way, this ritual had begun a month earlier when I started collecting my piss and shit rather than flushing them down the toilet. For years I have gestured at this radical act by having students in my Soil Conservation course read selections from The Humanure Handbook, a veritable tome of sage wisdom on the art of composting human shit (“humanure”), but I hadn’t ever followed through with my own prompt. This year I decided to put up or shut up, not flushing it “away” into the unseen but collecting it and really looking at it. Peeing into glass bottles I saw the light-yellow-almost-chartreuse tones of a daytime piss. First thing in the morning, my piss is a deep gold with shades of russet orange. Sometimes cast-off semen plumed and hung weightless in the gold sky of the bottle. My apologies if my language offends (isn’t it funny—and telling—how the body and its excrescences have such power?), but I looked and I saw what was always there. This is my report.
Into a five-gallon bucket, I shat. It turns out your average five-gallon bucket is the exact height of your average toilet. I placed a toilet seat on top of one and felt right at home though initially I had hoped the bucket would be lower, allowing me more of a squat. I lined the bottom with cream-colored curls of pine shavings, like a tender bed for a pet or a woodland creature, and kept a pail of more wood shavings close by. The first time I shat in this bucket I was surprised by the heft of the sound of my shit coming to ground. So used to the watery splash and weightless rebound, I was caught off guard by the simple fact that shit exists. It truly exists, with its own mass and weight and volume and density, its own momentum and afterlife and consequence. This body makes shit and that shit exists in the world. I am responsible for my shit.
And in this experiment of taking responsibility I have felt a reassuring freedom, the kind of freedom to engage with the rest of the world that comes from taking a risk and participating. I had been hesitant about tapping the maple tree in my driveway. It seemed such an exploitive act of taking. But in my bucket of shit and my bottle of piss there was a giving as well that felt like a gift.
I picked up the drill and with one last “thank you,” began to press into the flank of this great being, first through the powdery cinnamon-brown of the trunk and then into the blonde-bright wood beneath that spilled out of the hole in curls. Almost immediately, clear liquid welled up. I hammered in the spiles and hung the buckets. Tap. Tap. Tap. Continuous ribbons of sap flowed down the bright metal of the spiles and at the lip dripped patiently but inexorably into the buckets. During most of a tree’s life, sugar-rich sap flows down from leaves through cells called phloem to its roots. But during the transitional time of winter-turning-into-spring the direction is reversed and sweet sap rises up through phloem and xylem both. Xylem cells divide and grow, at first soft and filled with the goo of life. As they mature their cell walls thicken along the sides and thin at the top and bottom. Their innards diminish and dry out. Tops and bottoms completely disintegrate, the cell dies, and what is left is a tube with its counterparts above and below through which water is sucked up by a billion little mouths, stomata on the undersides of leaves. This death, this transit: their purpose all along. Tap. Tap. Tap. A maple eucharist. “This is my blood. . .” passing through the death of xylem cells into the life of spring. The three drilled taps, each 7/16th of an inch wide on a tree with an eight-foot circumference, were three detours in the flow, three little sacrifices, but through the rest of the tree sap was rising like a sheath of hidden light.
Ritual can bring forward what is normally left behind, bring into relief what is generally invisible. We live in a world of membranes. Ritual presses from this side or the other and with its marks solicits transaction. Tap. Tap. Tap. In the morning, I wake up and first pad to the corner of the bedroom, where I half-consciously light a candle on an altar for my ancestors, a small shelf cluttered with increasing numbers of photographs of family members and friends who have died. I light a stick of incense, touch it to my forehead, and set in a small bowl filled with the ash of previous offerings. I bow and snuff the candle, having touched the membrane of time lightly. Then I make my way to the bathroom where first the bottle and then the bucket await. I pee until my bladder runs dry, the last few drops tapping against the glass. Then I sit down. After wiping myself clean and dropping the paper in the bucket, I stand up and turn around to look. Some days my shit is a deep brown and smooth with the barest hint of fibers running through it where it broke or was pinched off. Other times there is a ferric red cast to it or an orange clay appearance. Sometimes it is slurried or yellowish. To look at your shit each day is a chance to gauge what kind of person you are, who you are leaving behind and who you are putting out into the world, and to know the way in which nothing is left behind. Animals shit and then turn around to look at and smell themselves in their shit. When done, a handful of shavings covers it up. There is this visceral need not to look too long, to cover up what is us, to bury what is no longer us—a kind of mourning, a daily funeral, a little ritual of remembrance of the left behind that brought me here.
I am a tube that eats sunshine at one end and produces shit and piss at the other end.
After twenty-four hours, the three buckets together had almost five gallons of sap in them. Every pot in the house was enlisted to bring it indoors. The liquid seemed to glow against the stainless steel in the overcast light. To drink the sap is a rite of transition from winter to spring in many parts of the world. What water is purer than that straight from a towering tree? After a straitened winter feasting on hunger, this blessed water bearing sugar and minerals is a tonic. The first day, I drink some sap and it sparkles, sweet and sharp at once. I am alive and this tree is alive. We are alive together.
This tree is pouring into me. Last year’s sunlight is pouring into me. The energy carried in photons from 92.9 million miles away is pouring into me. This is a wave of energy passing through me. It leaves me in bottles and buckets, and moves on to merge with compost and knit into the guts of worms and the underground gardens of ants in the great traffic.
Relentlessly, the glass bottle fills and the five-gallon bucket fills, like an incense stick burning down into a bowl of ash. Every few days I trudge with the bucket in one hand and the bottle crooked under the other arm. The pine shavings and shit, along with my cats’ litter, get dumped into a special compost pile. I pour the piss around the driplines of trees or it gets added to the compost pile (gardener apprentice-boys in eighteenth-century England were instructed to piss onto the compost piles to speed their decomposition). Just like any other animal’s bedding, my compost pile is made of nitrogen-rich feces and urine mixed with equal parts of carbon-rich dry material (straw for a chicken or cow, pine shavings for me). It will sit for at least a year and probably two. I will probably run worms through it, and only then apply it to ornamental shrubs and trees, my body pouring into another body into another body into another body.
I set to boiling the sap down. Every stove burner on high coaxed the water to curl and then roll into clouds of steam. They poured out of the kitchen into the dining room, where a crowd of houseplants by the large windows luxuriated in buoyant humidity, humidity once congealed and living in the veins of an outdoor cousin. Now it caresses the leaves and collects in condensed drops on the winter windowpanes. Three hours later, the roll turns into a gathering architecture of bubbles and the crystal light of the sap has darkened to amber. A spoon dips in and emerges coated, releases liquid into the pot but a drop clings for just an extra moment. Syrup.
Every day there is this ritual of visiting and thanking, of outside and inside, of turning water into gold.
A sheath of pure crystalline-bright mineral-sharp sweet water is climbing to the sky on ladders made of wood. The rising heat of the day is calling to the lurking cool of the night ground, and the night ground at dawn shares its stores. Sap in the roots lifts out of winter sleep and springs up: a well endlessly drawn. In every tree right now the sap is rising, hidden traffic in a busy world. There is merging, and there are detours, exits, and rotaries. At the foot of the tree, the Junebug grub noses noselessly through February ground in the slow lane. In the compost pile of my shit, the worms glide on pulsing rings and bacteria hitch a ride in the moist pink ridges. Other bacteria pay their way in the roiling sand-pits of the worm’s gut doing the work of digestion for the ship they travel in. Ants feverishly work the fast lane. I walk like a god in the clouds, thundering my footsteps through their world, harrowing this underworld. My foot touches the ground; my hand taps against rough maple bark. They are unseen; I am unseen. Yet we share either side of an imaginary line, this sheath on either side of which sap is running. The ritual of tapping just reminds me of what already is: this shared world.
In the morning, my remembrance sinks down with the burning eye of incense into the ash. In the afternoon, the tree remembers me with its offering spilling from its roots. In the evening, the present distills in billowing clouds of steam into gold kept for the future.
MARCO WILKINSON has had his work appear in Assay, DIAGRAM, Kenyon Review, Seneca Review, and Terrain. He teaches writing and sustainable agriculture at Lorain County Community College and Oberlin College. He is also the managing editor of FIELD and Oberlin College Press.