Some Trees That I Have Loved
A non-exhaustive selection
The crabapple tree in my parent’s front yard
Technically, you were in the neighbor’s front yard, a fact that imbued my constant presence in your branches with a twinge of transgression. If they minded me sitting up high in my superhero garb, caped and booted, or even swinging Jones-style on a cheap imitation bullwhip wrapped round your rough and undulating arms, they never said. Indeed they usually said little. In that time and place the point of modest if tenuous success was to be left alone. Perhaps it always has been. Alone in days and nights, I had you, guarding the cracked driveway and all its decrepit skeletons of cars and all the comings and goings of the age. May Sarton says the fruited crabapple with its bright red stars is the most beautiful of the fruit-bearers. “It has a fairy-tale look about it,” she says. I was never struck particularly by your beauty, and perhaps that was a defect of sensitivity, a trait that would invert in me later when I would become all too easily overwhelmed by such details. But now I can see that you must have added some minor mythological note to my life, set off the more by the staid normality of our suburb, that I would carry with me.
The plane tree in Bryant Park
You were reflected infinitely as in a Borgesian mirror. Alongside the handsome library of books, you were an endless catalogue of life, each page of thin bark a likeness but each one unique. You were a receding portico of dappled shade. I walked under you in lonesome hours and sat and watched the city you guarded with your inexhaustible arms. You were in it and of it but above it. I can still close my eyes and be refreshed by the vision of ecstatic order, of guided light, of playful solemnity.
The trunk I split in the Cascades
I never saw you in your own home, in your glory or your rest. Others had found you on the steep dark slopes of the mountain and judged you worthy. For aeons you grew, straining toward this final fate, preparing yourself to be sacrificed for this small but pivotal role in the human drama of survival. And, so strangely, at the fulcrum under the pivot—me. In the long arc of your life—fires, infestations, howling blizzards, the companionship of moonlight—I was the tiniest day, and the most ultimate. Backed by the unearned ease of civilization I rendered you completely. I did not know your name. But harvesting you I learned something new about the pleasures and agony of work. Under saw and sun my skin burned and my soft hands bled. In the heat we worked together like brothers to store your heat for winter. I was, as in everything, a dilettante, and like a demanding tutor you did not let me forget it. For my naiveté before your stubborn might I was routed to exhaustion, lethargy, aching bones, sleep that dominated me as soon as light fell behind the peaks. This is what you wanted, you said. This is what you came to me for, this is what survival means. Later you would be used to warm the life of strangers: saunas, cabins, kitchens. Neither of us would ever meet them.
Alive, more alive than the living. You have never died. I did not understand landscape painting then. You taught me that the image can transmit the Being, a lesson some learn from holy icons, others from the faded photographs of child or lover. You taught me that the face of the earth is like ours, communicating many things, hiding many things, revealing its essence in hiddenness. Your tree—imposing, sensuous, shy—is always, like the Artist who made it, hiding in plain sight. You were a course in the endless curriculum: that the struggle to love is the struggle to see.
The cottonwood tree in the marsh
I was already thirty-seven the first time I encountered you. Accompanied by children I saw your graceful massiveness through their eyes. To them you were not exceptional or contingent but simply another in the panoply of eternal facts that they every day go on discovering. One of the foundations of the world that neither began nor will pass away. Taken for granted in the paradoxical way only children can, a simple reliance and even boredom leavened by curiosity and affection. We rested in your shade, ate our snacks, bickered over binoculars. Perhaps I had passed you as a child myself, consumed with the aforementioned self-absorption of those years. But perhaps even then you left a mark, a little whisper in my distracted ear, small like a seed that would finally flower for a few minutes on a muggy day in July at an age when attentiveness to the natural world returned to me like a battered boat welcomed home to harbor.
The long-gone lilac
Some will deny your treeness and dispute that you belong among the giants. Such a question is below you and above me, a disoriented chimera wandering mute upon the earth. From you, in part, I learned the power and the treachery of words. What we have to say to each other will not be written; perhaps God created the memory of color and fragrance to reach the places words cannot. Still, in my version of Paradise we are gathered again on stone patios, murmuring in the dusk above cold water, while friends inside open bottles and stir stews.
The eastern white pine near the Connecticut
You tower above all in a sloping meadow. You catch the last gold of the sun on your crown, a good king remained awake for your realm below to relax. Under you, on a bed of needles, a swing installed for children and cones given for delight of dogs and shade given for relief of all. Your gigantic shoulders do not intimidate but are to us the comfort of grandfather to grandchild, those two far poles of experience that somehow understand each other best, made intimate by the mutual strangeness and exuberance of their difference. I came to you once when I needed protection, and the sword in your hand overawed. Your power gathered and intensified the strength of the human warmth that implemented it. I sat each day on that screened-in porch, in high summer or in snow, my shattered eyes slowly recalibrating their world-measure according to you. Your looming size, standing alone in that meadow, represented the calm of vast spaces, the distances between my many selves, a relief from the choking claustrophobia of dead rooms, dead futures, dead ends. There was air again and a slight breeze. Night would come, and tomorrow would come.
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