Sunday, February 2, 2020

Trees I Have Loved

I am not a January person.

Living in the Midwest, January means the the arrival of truly cold weather and the ice, snow, and bad roads that go with it. I joke that I must be part bear, because hibernation until about April or so seems far more attractive to me than scraping the windshield of my Subaru, crunching down the snow-packed roads to work, and hoping to warm my bone marrow drinking pots of tea in my windowless office.

The hibernation bit is probably not so much a joke as a strong tendency to seasonal blues and depressions. I found out a few years ago that my body is terrible about maintaining enough Vitamin D levels to keep me, well, sane enough to function during the dark winter months. Knowing that and supplements have helped.

So has lowering my expectations. Not in a defeatist sort of way, but acknowledging that I am not at my best in January, and that maybe some forms of hibernation are not only okay, but a good idea. Recent interest in the Danish concept of "hygge," which I think Americans have culturally translated to mean "fireplaces, warm socks, and hot cocoa?" Definitely a good idea. Going back to the actual roots of the word, which mean something like "courage, comfort and joy?" For Pete's sake, sign me up for all three.

In the last year or two my interest in all things green and growing has intensified, and so I've also attempted to embrace the concept of hibernation in that cycle of plant-life sense too-- it's not a season of death, or nothingness. It's a season of necessary rest. I suspect that humans are not as immune to the cycle of seasons as we think, and that winter is the time for me to give in to what my body is pushing me to do--sleep a little more, keep my thoughts and perspective inward so that when the time is right, I have the energy to flourish.

It makes me think of trees. They cycle through periods of necessary rest so that they can flourish later. Their life spans in some ways are similar to we humans; we relate to them in that way. But they also spend their life rooted to one spot, achieve immense size both above and under the earth, and age often through generations of humans. Trees are about as monumental and immortal of a living thing as we'll ever be able to know. I see them as a metaphor for a larger truth about existence that we can't grasp with our small minds. Those are the sorts of things I think about, while hibernating in January (and waiting to write about them until February). It also makes me think about the trees in my life which have brought me "courage, comfort, and joy."

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Like my sweet gum tree. It grew right outside the window of my bedroom in a little ranch house in southern Missouri where I was a small child. I thought that because it was outside my bedroom window, it was "my" tree. And maybe the little girl me meant that in terms of possession, but I like to think of it as the first real friendship I had with a tree. It was young, and so was I, and so we understood each other the way childhood friends do. Every September and October it filtered sunlight into my room in dancing bits of fiery yellow-gold and purple. When playing outside I picked up the spiky seed balls for pretend kitchen cooking, threw them at neighbor kids, and hooked them together into improbable shapes and stacks. Sweet gum tree is a playmate I remember fondly, miss some days, and wonder what has become of it. I hope it grew up, like I did. I hope it belongs to another little person looking out that bedroom window.

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If my young childhood was a sweet gum tree, my tween and early teen years were the backyard ash. It was the 70s, we lived in a duplex apartment full of harvest golds and browns in a university town in Iowa, and I was disinterested in everything life was serving up to me at that time. My parents had split, my mother was struggling to start a new job and a new life in a new state, my baby sister was SUCH a baby sister, and junior high school was SO junior high school. I was outraged that I was not allowed to go to rock concerts, and equally outraged that I was teased for playing with my sister's dolls. I did not feel like I really had anything mastered, except for climbing that tree. I think of ash trees as being the plain vanilla ice cream cone of the tree world. There are fancier ones out there, but vanilla ice cream is better than no ice cream at all. This was true. I could grasp two small lower branches and hold on, walking my rough bare feet up the bark until I could hook a knee over the first large branch, and haul myself the rest of the way up by my hands into the canopy. I often did this with a book tucked under my chin; there was a little crook that exactly fitted my behind and lower back so that I could recline and read. That tree wasn't so much a friend as a necessary shelter from long, boring, hot summers when I was too young to do anything, and too old to do anything, and too confused to know which was worse. I discovered Ivanhoe and Judy Blume and Lois Duncan and Kurt Vonnegut and How to Care for Horses (that I would never own). I hurled a copy of Little Women down to the ground when I grew impatient with it, and then felt guilty about returning it, the spine-end a little grass-stained, to the public library. I owe a debt of gratitude to that tree, for giving me the space to just be.

Magnolia was a tree at the southeast corner of my mother's house, and somewhat of a miracle. Iowa isn't exactly the place for saucer magnolias; they don't thrive in windy frigid prairie winters. And yet, she was elegant and spreading and magnificent--as if she'd relocated to the rough frontier from a garden square in Charleston and simply refused to accept that she wasn't a Southern lady anymore. She was pretty dramatic. When she bloomed we'd all go out into the yard and just stand and look at her and say, "Wow." But the porcelain pink blooms were fleeting, and fell to the grass like breaking teacups in just a few days, even fewer if we had a badly timed windy day. Her satiny leaves shaded a little green cavern of hosta, astilbe, and ferns from hot Midwestern summer sun, and the saucer of water for the birds. Altogether she struck a somewhat ridiculously romantic pose at the corner of the patio, but we loved her for it. It was the best thing about that modest house. Eventually her high maintenance ways and flair for drama caught up with her, and her demise was a hurt that I still feel when I think about her. But I do think about her, for the guts to bloom where planted, and to do it without apology in a foreign landscape.

I say hello to this crabapple nearly every time I take a walk around our neighborhood, where the houses date from the 1910s to the 1940s. It's growing on the backside of a condominium complex that used to be my husband's elementary school. The tree has likely not been there as long as the school, which was built in 1924, but still qualifies as a senior citizen of the tree community here. I am glad she survived the remodeling of the school and grounds into condominiums. I'm glad she hasn't fallen into the hands of people who deem trees like this to be "too messy" for city street trees. I love that she produces her guts out in September, so much so that her branches wobble under the strain of all the fruit. I love watching the birds clamor around her, eager to get every last bit they can before the winter freeze. It's my "way to be" tree, because it seems to understand itself, and glories in being that very thing-- a crabapple tree, the best damn crabapple tree it can be. I wish I could be half so aware of, and accepting, of myself.

I don't often name things. But when I do, it's not because I made it up. It's because they introduce themselves and tell me their name. This is Harald, the patio cedar in my back yard. My relationship with Harald (yes, that's with the second "a", probably because the house was built by a Dane, and I expect that the trees would also have picked up the Danish way of spelling) is complicated. First of all, he's not all that pretty in many ways-- his top was lopped off at some point well before I purchased the house, and so he tends to spread out in all the weird ways that conifers do when their main leader branch is lost.  He likes to snuggle a bit too close to the eaves for comfort and needs a regular pruning back so he doesn't wipe the shingles off. He sheds needles like crazy and we're forever sweeping the patio. But. He shades the table where my family and friends gather all summer. He holds aloft the string lights that make the garden so enchanting in the evening. He protects the back half of the house from the worst of the late afternoon summer sun, and the worst of the northern winter winds. He is a filtering protector of my houseplants, who get kicked out of doors for their own good every May. He has been witness to some of my worst frustrated ugly cries over the years; and the canopy to my wedding day. We grumble about Harald, we sweep up after Harald, we love him anyway. There are actual people like him in our lives, so we should be able to see and accept that best-and-worst sort of dichotomy in a tree. I think. Ask me again when he's dropping his tree schmutz into my chardonnay in July.

There are so many trees on the place my Dad calls "The Hill," that I could forgive people for overlooking the little cedar. He's cuter than Harald, but that's because my Dad keeps him groomed for a string of Christmas tree lights during the holiday season, and it explains his picture postcard shape. He's situated in a picture postcard landscape too, in the Ozark hills where my Dad lives, and where my paternal side of the family came from generations back. It would be too simple to say this landscape and that little cedar are a part of me. They are. But I also had to lose them and win them back, and that part is complicated. I reckon that is a story many people could tell, not just about trees and landscapes, but about the struggle to grow a fully functioning human heart. Maybe there are more majestic trees to symbolize that kind of stuff; but for me, a scrappy little cedar up on a rocky ridge seems just about right.

My children call this the White Tree of Gondor. It's a sycamore, beautiful in summer, but at its best in winter, when all the white branches are bare. While it's spectacular against a clear blue sky on a sunny winter day, I prefer the soft look of it against gloomy clouds and the gentle monotones of the winter landscape. It's in a difficult location, at one of the busiest intersections in town right next to the entrance of our large public university. I'm always driving past it, admiring it, and wishing it was some other place where I could walk past or around it instead of buzzing by on my way to whatever life was dishing out that day. I realized I couldn't write this blog post without getting a photo, and that a photo wouldn't happen without actually walking to it, even though that street corner isn't particularly pedestrian friendly. I ended up parking on a side street during my noon hour, crossing a bridge over the creek, stumbling a bit on the path that hadn't yet been cleared of snow. I had nothing but my car keys and my phone in my coat pocket, and knew I probably should have brought my 35mm camera but dammit, at least I was there.  I was highly aware of all the cars whooshing by. The snow on the side of the road was black with the tiredest kind of dirt. The tree, in contrast, seemed to possess its own clean quiet, even so close to the road. I gave a twig-end a polite little jiggle with my bare cold hand, like a hand shake. Close up, the bark was even more subtle and beautiful, with markings that can't be seen in a speeding car.

January is like that stumbling walk to the corner just for the sake of seeing a tree that I love--inconvenient, incompletely planned, cold, and I hate to admit it-- necessary for the sake of its own discoveries. I'm still working that concept out in more detail, but intend to revisit it next year when I need to. And, it being January and all, I know I'll need to. Until then.


  1. Now I want to come visit all your trees, too. I somehow missed this when you first posted--so glad I found it. The last tree is just magnificent, and I'm glad you were able to get the photo. And every time I see your patio I am filled with envy and wish I could see it in person. I have a big beast of a tree in my front yard, and a similar sort of relationship with it. It sucks all the moisture from a very large swath of ground, which has made it near-impossible for me to grow anything near it (yet--I refuse to surrender), and it drops so very many needles all year round. Except in the winter, when it drops huge things that look like fat brown worms. But, I know it keeps the house cool in summer, and there's something in its scrubby immensity that speaks to me.

    But aside from all the trees, I think what I love most about this piece is the section about you during the years of the ash tree. I would love to see you write more about that.

  2. I thought I left a long comment on this weeks ago. I came back to see if you'd replied back, and it's not here. I'm too tired to try to recreate it, but the main point of it, anyway, was just to say that I really enjoy your writing here and I hope you'll keep doing it.

    1. You did! I apparently forgot to moderate comments for this post; which would be typical of me right now. So now I'm catching up, and thank you for the encouragement. I may get more of a chance than ever now. I wish it were for better reasons.