"Gnarly." A great word. Also, an admirable quality. For people, like you and me. For a town, like Salem, Oregon, where I live.
Some of the meanings of gnarly are powerful, misshapen, difficult, outstanding.
My Tai Chi instructor used the word in telling a story about what happened after he asked a martial arts acquaintance he hadn't seen for quite a while to demonstrate his Yang Long Form.
"Oh, no, you don't want to see it," the guy replied. "My form is gnarly, man, not pretty at all."
Which meant, his Tai Chi had evolved into a practical fighting art, not the smooth, pretty Tai Chi most people are familiar with. His Long Form had bumps and rough edges -- which are needed in real life if someone is attacking you.
I got to thinking about gnarliness today after listening to the Willamette Wake Up program on KMUZ, Salem's community radio station.
Ken Adam's guests were city councilors Chuck Bennett and Tom Andersen, plus former councilor Kasia Quillinan. They talked about proposed revisions to Salem's street tree ordinance, Chapter 86, which include a call for an Urban Tree Commission -- something I strongly favor.
I heard quite a few mentions of how much Salemians love their trees, how people in a neighborhood are shocked and dismayed when large beautiful trees are removed, and how many benefits trees provide us.
The impetus for making improvements to the street tree ordinance came after five large healthy Japanese Zelkovas on downtown's State Street were cut down for no good reason in 2013 by U.S. Bank and the City of Salem.
In my tell-all report about this debacle, I included this photo I took of the Zelkova closest to Commercial Street. Being most gnarly, it was my favorite U.S. Bank tree.
There's beauty in gnarliness. Natural beauty. Wild beauty.
Trees like this one remind us that nature doesn't create with straight lines, or smooth out rough spots. I believe this helps explain why trees are so beloved, and why people feel such a sense of loss when they are removed unnecessarily.
Cities, particularly, need gnarly. Pavement, buildings, parking lots, sidewalks -- these human creations are geometric, regular, predictable. They're constructed, not grown; designed, not naturally arisen.
In the KMUZ radio discussion this morning, I heard talk about how street trees need to be removed if they are causing problems with sidewalks that can't be ameliorated by root trimming. OK, this makes sense.
I live in rural south Salem. My wife and I mostly go for walks on bare earth, not roads or sidewalks. We're in our mid-60's. We navigate paths that are way more irregular and bumpy than any Salem sidewalk I've seen. These paths are -- take a guess -- gnarly.
On my evening dog walk today I mused about the possibility of City officials looking upon trees and sidewalks differently.
What if a sidewalk with some cracks and bumps was viewed as a positive, rather than a negative, if this meant that a beautiful large tree wouldn't need to be cut down because its roots were impacting the concrete?
How many people, even those using a walker or a wheelchair, couldn't make it past the sidewalk's rough parts by slowing down and taking care? How smooth does everything in a city need to be? How much gnarliness can we accept?
No, more... embrace, because gnarly is life-affirming.
Most of us enjoy people with some rough edges. They're more interesting, more attractive, than a man or woman who seems perfectly put together. We like unpredictability, surprises, quirks, a whiff of danger and darkness.
This large pine tree is near the edge of our property, adjacent to a path my wife and I take every day to a nearby community lake. Quite a bit taller than I could capture in a photo, the tree has a marvelous bend about halfway up its trunk.
Again, gnarly. It's my favorite tree on our ten acres. Not because it is beautiful in a lovely graceful symmetrical sense. Because it isn't.
I also like the tree, along with neighboring firs, because they have big limbs that overhang the path. Some of them are dead. In wind storms the limbs sometimes break. I see them on the ground and think, "If I'd been walking here when that branch fell, I could have been seriously hurt, or even killed."
That thought doesn't stop me from going for walks during wind storms. Rather, it encourages me. I enjoy being out in wild gnarly nature. I like feeling that I'm in some danger. It wakes me up, makes me feel more alive.
When I get to the community lake, I encounter another gnarly tree. This old oak is missing at least five major limbs. It has a split down the middle. But it has so much amazing character, such stories to tell about it's several hundred years of living.
If this were a Salem street tree, almost certainly it would have been cut down long ago. Because it is out in the country, it survives. Even thrives, judging by the healthy growth on its remaining limbs.
My hope is that people in Salem increasingly will embrace both their own gnarliness and that of others. Along with the natural rough edges of our city's "built environment."
Everything and everyone don't have to be polished, smooth, risk-free, predictable, safe, perfectly aligned. Without rough-edged wildness, life is too tame, too mechanical, too symmetrical.
We're all broken and misshapen in various ways.
Therein lies our beauty.