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Poems, warmth bloom under the poet tree

Ruth 'Uncle Ruthie' Buell's giant Chinese elm tree is a place where passersby can come to sit quietly, meet neighbors and put pen to paper.

June 04, 2013|Steve Lopez

Ruth "Uncle Ruthie" Buell, who lives in L.A.'s Pico-Robertson neighborhood, had a thought one day. Actually, the thoughts are always bubbling over with her, but this one was particularly inspired.

Why not replace the rotting tree stumps in her frontyard with benches as a way of inviting neighbors to take a breather, talk and get to know one another?

That was Part One of the idea, which took shape about two months ago. Part Two was a note to visitors from Uncle Ruthie — who has graced the planet for 82 years — encouraging them to take pen and paper from pouches pinned to the tree and share their thoughts.

Or, as Uncle Ruthie wrote:

Welcome, neighbor, king or clown

Weary walker, sit you down

Tired queens or winsome wenches

Silent bards or poets true,

Share your words

Both old and new

Or if in silence you would stay

We welcome you with love today

"What happened is so magical I am still wondering if I am dreaming!" Uncle Ruthie wrote to me one day. "People are writing poems, tacking them on the tree (it does not hurt the tree), and helping themselves from the basket of free books I provide.... Neighbors are meeting neighbors, dogs are meeting soul-mate dogs, and I am having the time of my life."

Uncle Ruthie, you should know, is the kind of person who could have the time of her life just walking to the store, or growing tomatoes or listening to the wind rustle the leaves of the big Chinese elm in her yard. She's just that way.

For more than 50 years, she's hosted a family radio show on KPFK-FM (90.7), coming up with the stage name "Uncle Ruthie" because men who hosted children's shows always called themselves Uncle this or that. Uncle Ruthie also teaches at the Blind Childrens Center, and she's taken in a former student, named Milagros, who has written haiku in Braille and pinned it to the tree.

"I think it's wonderful," neighbor Howard Green said of the daily commotion around the elm, with its broad branches raised to the gods of poetry. "It's amazing how many people just casually walking down the street are drawn to it. They don't know Ruthie, necessarily, but they've just got to sit down."

Uncle Ruthie has had to remove poems to make room for new ones, pasting the older ones into a book. Ella Roark, age 10, is a prolific contributor. Once, all she wrote was:

Share, Care, Everywhere

But that was followed by an ambitious commentary on materialistic excess:

More, more, more, more, more, more, sure! More, more, more, more, there isn't any more

Someone named Kristie wrote:

Your tree is lovely

As is my stroll

What a clever idea

To feed the soul

An anonymous author wrote:

I went for a run to escape my need for money and romance. Instead I found fun, books and words, poetry on the plants.

For those who have trouble with the transition from thoughts to words, Uncle Ruthie offers samples of great poetry, but reminds everyone that they don't have to be Emily Dickinson to play this game.

"I tell them to begin with, 'When I am quiet, I think about…' and the words and poetry just flow," she said.

One day a sad-looking woman wrote:

I cannot rationalize being alive anymore. According to 27 years of data analysis, my existence is worthless. It may be so that my true worth exists in death.

The woman was out of work and despondent about family matters. Uncle Ruthie offered some practical suggestions, as well as something more valuable — comfort, compassion, understanding.

"Why don't you postpone that," Uncle Ruthie suggested, and she's hoping the woman returns some day.

Another woman shared an emptiness that inspired Ruthie to post this observation to the tree:

"The tree tells us what she sees and hears, but not what she fears … Someone start her tears flowing before they drown her."

Uncle Ruthie, as you can see, has a way with words. In one posting, she said that visiting the tree is "a way to be more quiet than you have ever been, wrapped in bark."

That same entry included this:

"It isn't really about poetry. It's a way to touch the tree. To compost your words inside its heart and then follow them until you are deep inside the tree for a time that is as short as a sob and as endless as the minute before death."

Uncle Ruthie was thinking in part about her late husband, sculptor Stanley Schwartz, when she wrote that. The last minute of his life, she said, was filled with an eternity of emotion.

Monday afternoon, a car stopped in front of Uncle Ruthie's house and Tarah Davis, a 16-year-old neighbor, got out to thank Ruthie for the tree.

"There are days when I've been down, and I went to the tree and read something and felt better," Tarah told me later that day. She even wrote something once, about a traumatic experience she suffered when she was 12.

"I wrote about strength," Tarah said, "and how I got through it."

Uncle Ruthie has one rule, which is posted to the tree in bold letters:

"Please do not use cell phones or any electronic devices near the poet tree."

We're all too busy with artificial connections, Uncle Ruthie explained. Nobody knows how to slow down, have a genuine conversation or be alone with their thoughts. She thinks people stop at her tree on Sherbourne Drive because of a hunger "to crawl inside something else."

Maybe there's even some jealousy involved, she added.

"Here we are, dashing around everywhere all the time. And here's this tree, having another very peaceful day."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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