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October, 2001


Originally written in 1991 for In Celebration of Trees: a book of collected poems and essays by various authors, as well as drawings and writings by Val, presented to Larry on his birthday.

fallen oak branch from our back yard in Austin
original drawing that accompanied the essay
Feel the bark of a tree. Touch the rough furrows of an oak, explore the patchwork design on a sycamore, or caress the velvety smoothness of a birch. Some bark peels away in strips or flakes, or falls off in chunks. Some pines have jigsaw puzzle pieces and some locust trees have six-inch branched thorns that look like miniature deer antlers. Bark can feel spongy or brittle or slick. The beech is smooth with pimples; the cherry has long horizontal scars all around. Redwoods have deep canyons running up and down their lengths. The madrone is covered with orange peeling paint. Sometimes trees wear a luxuriant carpet of fungi, lichens, mosses, and ferns. Within this miniature forest lives yet another world, on yet another scale.

Halloweens Past

by Valerie

Of all the holidays, Halloween is unique in the use of costumes as one of the principal aspects of the festival. This allows for all sorts of creativity and fun, along with the wonderful art of pumpkin carving, another uniquely Halloween tradition.

Our family always grew or bought pumpkins during the latter part of October. The excuse was to make jack-o-lanterns; but the real reason was to harvest the seeds. We all loved pumpkin seeds. When cleaning out the insides, we carefully saved all the mess containing those tasty little nuggets, then washed and soaked them, boiling them in salt water. After that we dried them on large cookie sheets placed over our hot water radiators all around the house. There is a particular technique to opening the seeds quickly and cleanly, involving biting down on the sides, starting at the tip and splitting the husk with several evenly placed nibbles. The husk, which is still in one piece, is then discarded, leaving the delicious green center. I've tasted the commercially available pumpkin seeds and they can't compare to those that are home processed.

Anything that was done with the pumpkins after removing the seeds was an afterthought, but, as with all the art media I've ever tried, I couldn't resist applying my creative energies to carving those big gourds. Equally interesting, though, was how the pumpkins would rot and deteriorate over the next few weeks. They always seemed to develop different colors of molds and bacteria colonies, and would collapse or wrinkle in different ways every year.

Growing up in Illinois, Halloween was a cool-weather holiday, and we would often have already had a freeze or two, or even some snow. I remember having to wear several layers of sweaters under my costume in order to stay warm while trick-or-treating during the dark evening. While many years' costumes have faded from my memory, a couple still remain.

When I was in K through 4th grade, we lived in Manhattan, Illinois, a small farming community of about 1,000, located south of Chicago. There was one grade school and every year they held a parade for the students to show off their Halloween costumes. The weather was always surprisingly pleasant for this time of year, and we would walk through town for several blocks, giving everyone a chance to see our creations, even if they lived out in widely dispersed farms. One year, I dressed up as a Tyrannosaurus Rex and my sister, Vicky, was a Trachodon. We both loved dinosaurs. I was once a majorette, with a pretty blue and white satin costume and little white boots and a proper hat to match. My mother had sewn the dress and jacket part; I believe I used that costume for two years because I didn't outgrow it right away. Both my sister and I were in Girl Scouts (Brownies) and we sometimes made costumes as a group project. These often consisted of the usual paper bags decorated with crayons or paints. Val & Krikit, Halloween, 1965

The outfit that was the most creative was one that we made in 1965, when I was seven years old. That year, our Brownie troop made costumes by blowing up balloons, then applying papier mâché in strips to make large round "masks" which were then provided with holes and painted. These fit over our heads. Taking this one step farther, we got really big balloons and made a body form as well. This only worked because we were little kids at the time - the balloons weren't all that big. With my mother's help, we turned my costume into a black widow spider, complete with extra eyes, red hourglass, and extra legs (to make the requisite 8). The real clincher, though, was the fly costume we made for our dog, Krikit, a miniature schnauzer. Krikit loved to wear costumes, and had already been dressed up as a Santa Claus for Christmas, as well as wearing various stylish coats and sweaters when it was cold. She continued to have this preference to be dressed into old age, when she always wanted to wear a baby's jump suit. Krikit and I were a real hit as we canvassed the neighborhood with our unique costumes.

As an adult, I would often attend Halloween parties at the universities at which I was enrolled. Mostly, my costumes consisted of the usual black cape or white sheet, but one year I decided to be a little more original. My mother had used a gorilla costume in a parade recently for a float designed by the real estate company for which she worked. This float consisted of a miniature version of the Empire State Building on a wagon, and my mom impersonating King Kong in a gorilla costume. She was glad that nobody could recognize her. She had gotten this homemade costume at a garage sale and it consisted of a black faux fur shirt, pants, gloves, and a papier mâché head created over chicken wire, also covered with black fur. She added real teeth to its mouth (using deer molars) and spruced it up a bit. At my request, she sent the costume to me when I was at Florida State University in Tallahassee. I told nobody about it and, in spite of the 80° heat, kept the costume on for at least a couple hours at a big Halloween party. Nobody guessed who I was and my costume was voted the best.

Now, to celebrate Halloween, we mostly just get the candy ready for the procession of kids that will invariably come through our neighborhood. Sometimes we put a horse skull or two, or perhaps some masks with spot lights made from lamps, in the windows; but it is a much more low-key sort of celebration now. Halloween is definitely a holiday for imaginative children.

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