Saturday, April 19, 2014

Xylotheque: "Living at Tree Line"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I will post here an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. I begin with the opening essay, “Living at Tree Line,” which is about working at a cemetery and bristlecone pines. This essay, published in 2004 in North American Review, was the first essay in the collection that I wrote.

Excerpt from “Living at Tree Line”

I am at the cemetery, waiting for my nine o’clock appointment to arrive. The two women are thirty minutes late. The cemetery is peaceful in the chilly October morning. A squirrel digs with frantic speed in a pile of brown leaves; jays twitter politely in the evergreens; a fat groundhog snuffles at the earth around his hole. If I am very still I may see a timid deer emerge from the woods and bask in the sunshine among the old bone-white headstones, streaked with rust and black from a century of rains. My fingers, grown numb from the cold, are curled tightly around a manila folder containing my color-coded cemetery maps, which I designed on a computer using a spreadsheet program. I walk, kicking at the drifts of crackly, dead leaves, and read headstones.

The two women, who are selecting a space for their father, are very picky. They are Caribbean and Catholic and think that we bury people too close together. Each site, I tell them, is ten feet long and forty inches wide. They think their father needs more space, but they are unwilling to pay for it. They do not like any of the sites I have shown them. The first ones were too near the parkway. We have since moved away from the parkway. Now they say they don’t want a site with dead grass. It is fall, I tell them, all the grass dies in the fall. It will grow again in the spring. They don’t seem to be paying attention. They point to a large oak tree—the only tree of any size in this section—and they ask if there are any spaces available under the tree. No, I say, everyone asks that. Everyone wants to be under a tree. And I repeat what I’ve heard my boss, the cemetery manager, say: that tree won’t be there forever.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.