Darn. There’s a word for that.


March 19, 2023

I recently learned there was a word for the kind of leaves that ‘hung around’ after the others fell. “Marcescence” is the phenomenon, and trees such as oak, beech, and hornbeam are known to participate. These trees, with marcescent leaves, don’t drop them until spring, when a bud forces the separation at the abscission zone.

Frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about this new-found knowledge. Before this, I used to call them “ghost leaves” or liken them to the wings of moths. Much more creative, I think.

  • From Absent:

“Oh, look! We’re almost there.” She pointed ahead to a group of nearly imperceptible rooftops. RT strained to see the outline of buildings. They were as soft as the surrounding fog, though edged in a slight glow. As the two of them approached what appeared to be a small city, he noticed the streets were paved with crushed shells like those on the driveways on Cape Cod. Along each side of the road were trees of equal height, bark white as birches, with leaves that resembled the dusty wings of moths.

“I can’t help but notice there is very little color here,” RT remarked. “Do you not find it difficult to distinguish things?” he asked.

“On the contrary. We prefer a neutral palette. That way we can augment with whatever colors we want,” Astral explained.”

Likewise, I love going outside after it rains, when the air is filled with ozone, and everything feels fresh.  I always thought of this as a comingling of earth and sky, a lung-filling indulgence. I’m not sure “petrichor” has the same impact. In a short story I’m working on, I describe this kind event through emotions, with ‘petrichor’ inserted only as an afterthought.

  • From Oliver and Odetta:

“Odetta let go of Oliver’s hands and reached hers into the air. She took a small, forked branch out of her apron pocket and swept the horizon. The clouds continued to billow, and soon there was a streak of lighting, followed by the growl of thunder. A second crack of lighting hit – a sizzle, it seemed – and then, a deafening boom.

The foursome stood there, dwarfed by the magnitude of a raging storm.

The first splats of water landed at their feet, exploding into puffs of dust. The next splats pelted the soil more aggressively. No one moved as the heavens opened. Sheets of water poured from the sky, drenching them, and obscuring their vision. Puddles formed on the parched ground. The smell of ozone and earth – petrichor – filled their nostrils and their lungs. They laughed until they cried, giddy with joy and hope. They forgot their differences and danced in the rain.”

Add to this list, the word “Brocken Spectre” because it is such a strange phenomenon. In this situation, an image is reflected from a bank of clouds. While I’m not currently using the phrase in what I’m writing, I’d much rather be enticed by an enormous shadow rising on the hillside, the sight of an airplane diffused by an aura, an elongated version of the observer, standing splay-legged on the horizon. Mystical. Magical. Elusive.

Ditto for “Pareilodia,” which prior to being assigned a scientific term, was to me, the wonder of seeing animals in the clouds… the dragon that morphs into a dancer, the turtle that turns into a bird. In this instance, I’m not sure terminology adds to the experience but rather, detracts from it.

Not to disparage science. I love science. But often, the words we invent allow us to imagine and interpret more freely. We opt for the less obvious, call on the senses, develop a unique perspective. Without the ‘correct term,’ we have greater license to be creative. Thus, the wonder of writing — and reading.



Summoning the Genie

I hadn’t thought about the literary significance of polishing an artifact. We usually leave patina intact. But as I decided to clean our brass doggie doorstop, which doubles as a nutcracker, I was filled with memories and unanswered questions. With each layer of tarnish that I wiped away, I seemed to recede deeper into my past, remembering this doorstop in my family home, holding open a porch door in summer. I was told it had belonged to my mother’s father, who died when she was young.

Not having met the man, I began to wonder about him and why he would own an item such as this. It seemed somewhat frivolous for a father of five, but perhaps it was a symbol of manliness or economic success. Maybe it was a gift or traded in barter. No one ever said. And in thinking about the acquisition, I realized, I had no idea what this man did to earn a living.

I recall a sepia-toned photo of this person, sporting a moustache, in which he appeared tall and dapper, and I have fond recollections of my petite grandmother telling me how she flirted with him in the “Old Country” by ‘stealing’ his cane, while in a park. But other than that, I know little.

As I polished the surface to a subtle shine, I sensed what rubbing Aladdin’s Lamp might feel like and wondered if I should proceed. After all, that action carries the caution of “getting what you asked for.” Would I uncover details I didn’t want to know or facts that would only lead to more mystery?

A bit of research put me in touch with the realm of genies and jinns (a word I’ve always wanted to use in Scrabble, in its alternate spelling of ‘djinn’.) I guess I never realized the balance between malevolence and generosity in the jinn/genie world.

For me, much more an innocent, this polishing exercise was all good. It was tactile and therapeutic — and it let my mind wander. How did my maternal grandfather come upon this item? When did he get it? How did he use it? And why did my mother end up with it?

My mother had shared certain anecdotes from her youth, but I know there are things she didn’t say. I wondered if this dog could tell me more. After all, generations of family hands had lifted its heft to move it. Someone likely used it as intended, raising its tail to accommodate a nut in the mouth and bringing the handle down with force, to feel and hear the crack of a shell. (In thinking of this, I remember a bowl of walnuts sitting, every fall, on our living room table, accompanied by metal, hand-held nut-crackers and thin, silver plate ‘picks’ … just the kind of detail a writer craves.)

As I let my hand glide over the dog’s tail, sloping and smooth, I wondered what this critter might have seen. World War I? The Great Depression? The daily lives of a large, loud family growing up in New Jersey, among other immigrants, before grabbing a piece of the American Pie?

This dog has been a good companion. He doesn’t bark, doesn’t need to be fed , doesn’t require a walk. Instead, he’s a patient observer and collector of invisible things. He’s solid in composition, strong in stance, and durable in demeanor. Now, more than 100 years later, he’s hardly aged a day. In polishing him, the task peels back time – revealing, with each layer, a story that could be told. Might I tell of a man who came to America on a big ship, with his young bride, having only a few coins in his pocket? Might I write of my grandmother, who lied about being married, so she could get a factory job when they were being given only to men who “needed them.”

But with this dog … the curiosity lingers. Where was it made? What did it cost then? What is it worth now? I can find a few clues about vintage door stops online. Apparently, there is quite a selection of brass doggie nutcrackers on eBay, and according to some articles, many are fake. (Thankfully, this one does not have Phillips’ head screws in the base, and I know the provenance). These doorstop nutcrackers, it seems, command only a modest price, but the worth to me, is not in the mechanics but in its ability to unlock secrets. I notice examples in photographs, though, that are not as refined, with a snout cut short or a hole in the side. This leads me to believe there was considerable thought (and maybe savings) given to this selection by my grandfather or the gift-giver.

As I continue my research, I learn more about nutcrackers in general. Who knew there was a nutcracker museum? Truth is, I’ve never given much thought to nutcrackers at all, but here we are, in Nutcracker season, and ballet troupes are streaming their performances.

Like so many things, choosing to polish this nutcracker now, after years of neglect, is probably just a random gesture, but maybe it’s trying to tell me something. I return the heavy, brass dog, spiffy and clean, to its place of honor near a bedroom door, and each time I pass, its glint catches my eye. Surely this is merely a shiny object from a past I’ll never know, but then again…maybe it does contain a gentle genie trying to get out… a genie bearing creative gifts a writer can use.