When we moved to the new house in May of 1954, there were no trees at all in the front yard. My mother hired a big green truck and four muscly men to drive us deep into the nearby woods. The men shoveled, picked, and pulled for an entire day until my mother got what she wanted: three mature trees — a pin oak, a sugar maple, and a twenty-foot Dutch elm.
Early the next morning, the men dug three huge holes in the lawn, then gently lowered each tree with a winch. My mother sat on the front porch in a wrought-iron garden chair, directing the men and the trees as if she were moving furniture.
Late in the day, after many hot hours of anchoring each tree’s enormous bulb of roots and dirt, my mother insisted that the men move the Dutch elm five feet to the right. To her eye, it blocked the view from our dining-room window.
Finally, when the trees were secure and perfectly situated, the oldest and strongest workman drew a circle in the dirt around each tree. “The circle must be one foot wider than the arms of the tree,” he said, “so the tree feels safe.”
He and the other men then dug three-inch troughs, smoothed the topsoil, and enclosed the base of each tree with a foot-high retaining wall of gravel and dirt. “Your job is to fill the circles with water every day this spring and summer,” he told me. “Then, once a week for five years. They just might live if you do that.”
That first year, the leaves were tiny. The color never deepened beyond the lime-colored buds of spring. Still, there was enough to make a dappled shade under each tree. I spent hours filling up the circles with the garden hose. Some days I waded in the cool brown water, squishing the mud between my toes. Other days I sat and sang to myself, feeling the water creep inch by inch up to my waist.
Each circle transformed itself into a unique world: under the pin oak, I was a nurse in an African jungle hospital; under the sugar maple, I was a palomino horse named Sailor Blue; under the big Dutch elm, I became the fearlessly beautiful Perry Rose, solver of household mysteries, modeled on Nancy Drew, Perry Mason, and Anne of Green Gables.
Although I could see out from each of the circles, I believed no one could see in. I was completely invisible.
As the years passed, each tree’s leaves grew. Their color was a deep and shiny green. Eventually, water broke through the retaining walls. Slowly, the circles began to disappear. Tufts of grass climbed over the walls. Finally, after five long years, the softest green fuzz of grass sprouted inside each sacred circle.
I don’t remember when I stopped playing beneath the trees or when I realized that I wasn’t invisible. I also don’t remember when I stopped all the watering. I only remember growing up believing that my mother, with a little help from a few good men, could move trees. There was never any doubt that those trees would live, or that I was completely safe in their arms.
Placitas, New Mexico
When the new people moved in next door, I had the feeling that they were not connected to nature. Perhaps it was the leaf-blower.
Their first project was to cut down two seventy-five-year-old Douglas firs in their front yard so they could grow grass. Two months later, a huge oak fell in their front yard, creating a lot of damage. There was no known reason for this — the tree had a good root system and healthy wood. I think this tree committed suicide as an act of protest against the death of the Douglas firs.
Their next project involved the building of a pool. They felled four large oaks for the pool itself. Two other oaks were cut down because they cast shade on the pool.
When fall came, we experienced Hurricane Hugo. My neighbor had just stepped from his car and into his house. Then the winds knocked our one-hundred-year-old oak right on top of his Mercedes station wagon. It flattened his car like a machine built for the purpose.
I believe that trees are living beings. My heart tells me that these trees were in communication with each other.
The neighbors moved after this, leaving behind the large gaps of sky.
When my mother passed away after a two-year ordeal of cancer, my father presented me with her request to be cremated and have her ashes brought to California. I accepted the request, not knowing how the rest of my life would be shaped by this experience. My soon-to-be husband and I brought her ashes to a land of rolling golden hills dotted with oak, green with moist coastal air. It was a long walk down a well-worn trail through fir and redwood dripping with moss and lichen, past a gurgling creek and lush ferns, and finally out to a broad meadow just before the trail ended at the rocky shore. A ring of large, old pines circles this meadow. One tree seemed to beckon. We dug a hole at the base of this tree, where we placed her ashes with a small ritual and prayer. I knew she would have loved this place and particularly this tree.
A year passed and I returned to the tree, pregnant with my first child. As I sat on the ground, my back against the tree, my hands running over the soil and roots that held her ashes, my baby moved inside me, and I could feel the force of life that is part of us all, as well as the tree. There was a powerful sense of continuity and purpose. Not quite a year later, my father came to visit the tree. He was having his own long struggle with cancer. Knowing that he had just months to live, he wanted to visit the place where his wife was and where he would be. This time I had a little son in a backpack who gurgled and laughed at each swaying tree. The three of us snuggled close, sitting in silence once more at the base of the tree. My father said this was the perfect place and the perfect tree.
Many more years have passed with many visits. A sense of peace prevails. Seven years after the death of my mother, I returned with my family, children running and playing games about the tree. There was a sense of celebration. The tree had dropped mighty cones about the roots. Gathering some up, I realized that there had been enough time now for my parents’ ashes to be taken up into the tree. I felt the tree had given me this gift of completion.
San Francisco, California
A few hundred miles of California’s northern coast contains the remnants of the redwoods. They are usually bathed in mist, with condensation dripping silently into the wet duff, the light subdued, the forest silent. The old growths, towering more than eight hundred feet, alive during the sack of Rome, mature during the Dark Ages, give mute testimony to nature’s will to survive. They fill me with more awe than I can find in any cathedral.
More than 95 percent of the redwoods have already been destroyed. A narrow strip lies along each side of the highways, giving the illusion of endless forests. An airplane ride over the area quickly shows the truth: miles of barren, eroded land fouling the trout and salmon streams and rivers. Mega-corporations tell us of their concern for the environment while they continue their clear-cutting. “Tree farms,” they promise us. A “tree farm” is not a forest. A “renewable resource,” they tell us. Certainly, if you can wait a thousand years.
Lowell K. Pope
For the past five years, I have been living in a treehouse I built in four Douglas firs in the Cascade Mountains. The house is about eighteen feet off the ground and has electricity, running water, a wood stove, telephone, outhouse, sleeping loft, cupola, and an address. At the time I built it, I was an ex-naturalist and new business owner who had never built anything in his life and needed an inexpensive roof overhead. I wanted to be closer to the birds and the wind and farther away from the building inspector. My house is attached to the trees with one-inch threaded rod that goes right through the tree. I covered the holes with pine tar after drilling and the trees have been healthy and happy ever since. Woodpeckers have been drilling holes in trees for centuries without impact.
The basic house took a little more than one year of working weekends and evenings. I built the house for twenty-five hundred dollars and “lease” the trees from my neighbor (who owns the land that houses the trees’ roots) for twenty-five dollars a month. On the deck that goes around my house, I have built a “treehouse peehouse,” as a friend of mine calls it. A long metal pipe delivers wastes to a hole in the ground. I have seen treehouses with flush toilets.
I feed the birds, watch and study the squirrels, and try to tolerate the ants. Living in the canopy of the forest allows you to get in touch with a whole different layer of the forest community. I have nightly visits from flying squirrels and owls, who seem to have no problem with me being in their neighborhood after dark.
Of the many gifts that my husband gave me, one of the most valuable was his love of trees. In winter David sold cordwood, cleaning up the mess left behind by loggers. He took out the “tops” and cut down the sick and bent trees to let the healthy ones come in more strongly.
The cordwood business is dangerous. Sinkholes and unseen stumps and stones can flip a tractor, leaving the driver dead or pinned. A chain saw can rebound off a hidden nail or strand of wire. David was alert, centered, and in his element when he worked in the woods. I thrilled to watch him — to watch what the strength of one man could do to improve his environment while providing warmth for people.
I worked with David in the woods every chance I got. He’d drag out the wood, cut it up, and split it. I’d load the truck, or place the logs for him to split. He’d walk down the row, cleanly splitting sixteen or twenty chunks of wood, without missing a beat. It was the most graceful dance I’d ever seen. Later, he built a hydraulic log-splitter for me, and I split and loaded three cords a day. I loved working with David so much that I’d work till just days before delivering my babies.
He taught me all about the different kinds of trees in our Connecticut woods. The ash, with its straight grain, is the lightest, strongest wood; it makes a great baseball bat. Oak is the preferred wood for burning; it’s dense and burns hot. Birch and maple are the most common; in the spring, when the sap is running, birch is fragrant with a scent like root beer. Maple is smelly when it’s being split, and red maple also goes by the term piss maple, for the obvious reason. It is a sin to cut down a healthy sugar maple, and whenever he came upon one, David cut down some of the surrounding trees to give it a chance for its place in the sun.
David’s health faltered. Our marriage deteriorated and couldn’t be fixed. In November he filed for divorce. In December he suffered his third heart attack. In January I moved to a nearby city, to the freedom I thought I desperately needed.
He had always wanted to die in the woods, near his beloved trees. Of the many things I now grieve, one of the greatest is that he did not have that chance. Instead, he took his life four weeks after I left.
David and I loved beech trees most of all. Their bark is silver, their habit graceful, their leaves either copper or pale green. In the fall they are the last to lose their leaves, which turn yellow. Standing in a beech grove with the sun streaming through the foliage is like being in a cathedral of gold. Native Americans regarded the beech as a sacred tree. In a few weeks, I will go to a nursery and pick out a copper beech. My two little boys and I will dig a hole in the earth, where I’ll place his ashes, and the tree’s roots, and then I’ll say goodbye to the man I loved more than anything, more than all the world in its terrible beauty.
Karen S. Bard
Pomfret Center, Connecticut
My mom’s favorite story involves repeated calls from suburban neighbors warning, “Your son’s in the top of another tree!” These days I do it for money. Uncle Sam pays me ungodly sums to retrieve “superior genetic material” from the firs in the ancient Northwestern forests. Maybe the money is corrupting my view. At the end of a long day of cone-picking, that’s the green I’m thinking about.
Which is not to say that I’ve lost the feeling. I’ll never lose the rush of being forty feet above the forest canopy in the two-inch crown of a two-hundred-foot noble fir, reaching for the very top cones. The sound of the wind builds like a distant jet as it sweeps toward me over miles of needles. When it arrives I’m in for a serious swing. I know I’m just a tourist — the treetops I’m riding have been doing this dance forever.
Some of my best friends lie in front of log trucks, and over the years I’ve evangelized to thousands of kids about the evils of clear-cutting. But clear cedar is our paneling of choice, and straight-grained Douglas fir makes the best beams in our rustic homes; the older the tree, the clearer and straighter the grain.
Right now I find myself rushing to finish planting the last of hundreds of pine and fir seedlings as the winter rains end. It’s tedious work, made less so by the “help” of my six-year-old. He’s only in it for the money — each tree he plants is one more nickel toward the Ninja Turtle paraphernalia his zealot parents never buy him.
What are the seedlings to me? It’s not so simple anymore, but it’s a lot easier than most middle-aged political dilemmas. My son’s children will inherit the chance to choose between a new house, college tuition, or a soaring forest.
Trout Lake, Washington
There are pine trees in Georgia, thin, spindly things, like so many toothpicks with green branches. They stand unknowing, as the troops sweat in the broiling sun of August, or shiver in the chilly winds of January. There are pine trees in Korea. Small, stunted, and thick in the DMZ. Good concealment if you move low and slow, but don’t camouflage the vehicles with their branches as they dry and turn brown much too quickly. They look as if they do not want to be in the path of the cross-fire. There are pine trees in Washington. Great huge fellows north of Ranier, they form a solid canopy to nestle under, safe from prying eyes. Get the nets up, muffle the generators, and no one will find you there. They seem not to notice us. There are pine trees in Germany. Vast, impenetrable tracts, with all the branches cut off from a height of three meters down. They stand picture-book pretty as the tanks roll by. They watch and do not comment.
There are no pine trees in Kuwait.
Robert N. Sulentic, Sergeant
U.S. Army Reserve
Palisades Park, New Jersey
For the last three mornings I have awakened to the sound of cursing beneath my window. Looking down, I see a small man dressed in dark blue, carrying a brown-bag liquid breakfast. He is screaming obscenities at a tree in the park, using his hands for emphasis. The tree is impassive. Soon, he begins to kick the tree, to punch the tree, jabbing, spiking with every bit of his strength, cursing all the while. The tree is unmoved. The man finally leaves, looking back over his shoulder to see if he made his point.
New York, New York
When I was a little boy, I lived with my family in the country. The toilet was outside and there was no running water. I remember baths in a galvanized tub. We carried water from a hand pump across the street and heated it on a wood-burning stove.
The trees around the water pump seemed old and wise. There was also a tree stump where my great-grandfather chopped the heads off chickens, and it seemed to me then that living trees gave life and dead ones took it.
My grandparents lived just across the street, by the water pump, under the canopy of tree branches. Their house was painted. It had running water. The toilet was inside. I liked to stay overnight with my grandparents.
My grandmother’s name was Hazel. She kept a mixture on the beautifully stained wood mantel of the stone fireplace. When it was tossed on the flames of burning wood, they turned into a multitude of colors. When the fire died down, we would put hot embers in a brass bedwarmer with a long, elegantly shaped wood handle and carry it upstairs to warm the feather mattress of the four-poster bed where I slept. My grandmother would put the covers around my chin and snuggle me into all that warmth. In the morning she would make me hot cereal for breakfast, and she would brush out her long white hair in the sunlight.
My grandfather’s name was Lyall. I am named after him. He was a civil engineer and justice of the peace for the county. My grandfather’s study, where the state troopers brought offenders, was paneled in cherry. There was a concealed compartment where he kept liquor.
He sat behind a desk made of deep, dark wood. I couldn’t see over it. When my grandfather sat behind his desk, he seemed so unapproachable. I never went into my grandfather’s study to ask his help unless I had done everything I could on my own, unless I had exhausted all my resources. Then, I would go around to the side of his dark, wood desk and speak with him. “What is it, young man?” he would say. I would tell him my predicament. And sometimes, after I had followed his advice and managed the crisis, he would take me pistol-shooting. We would tack the target to a tree.
Trees, too, have their darker side and seem unapproachable. You must have done all you can on your own before approaching trees and speaking with them.
I hated palm trees when I moved to Southern California in 1969. I came from Fort Worth, Texas, where our house was surrounded by huge old oak and pecan trees. Palm trees, with their long, empty, knobby trunks, and the miserly collection of fronds instead of branches and leaves, looked corny to me, like old tourist scenes of Hawaii.
There were plenty of compensations, though. Not the least were the many varieties of eucalyptus trees. Some have leaves like pale, blue-green coins, some like red or green swords. Some peel their bark away to leave pink, purple, and green maps that look like prehistoric paintings or layers of geologic strata; some strip down to a naked, pink, smooth skin, so exposed I feel embarrassed for them. Most of the varieties smell like eucalyptus, that medicinal, sharp, clean smell, but one smells like lemons. And they drop the most wonderful assortments of brown seed pods, resembling the hand carvings of a hallucinogenic-inspired tribe.
The day after a windy night, the streets would be full of huge brown palm fronds. People make beautiful primitive baskets from them. In a real windstorm, some of the deciduous trees were upended because they were shallow-rooted. The palms, though, goofy as they looked in the strongest wind, would bend as low as need be to avoid breaking or uprooting. Sometimes they almost doubled over. The next morning, near the occasional corpse of a neighbor tree, there would be the palms, shorn of unnecessary fronds, looking well-groomed and refreshed.
A few years ago I decided to move to a place where it was green. I wanted pine and fir trees, moss, ferns, woodland. Now living in Portland, I see a mountain hemlock out my window. Ferns grow everywhere, moss grows on everything, and it rains a lot. Everything is green, tender, baby-spring green to deep, old, dark blue-green. There is something I don’t fully understand that is soothing and reassuring about all this lush green after the desert dryness of Southern California. Maybe I don’t have to bend almost double to avoid breaking now. Maybe, once I get used to it here, I will realize that my drought is over and I can relax and just grow.
When I was ten, my grandmother came to live with us. She was sick, and would lie in bed all day, listening to the sounds of living from the other rooms. She would watch out the window at the wind blowing the day away.
I loved my grandmother and wanted her to get better. I wanted to give her something she would remember always — something that no one else would think of and that would be mine alone.
We lived next to a vacant lot that belonged to my uncle. It was unkempt and overgrown — the perfect garden of treasures. There had to be something there. I went to the garage and retrieved my father’s army-issue fold-up shovel. I took it to the lot and just stood for a moment, my eyes traveling from one wildflower to the next, seeking out the most delicious, most memorable present. My brother had found a dead squirrel once. He skinned it and gave the fur to her. It had been lined with the same blue satin used to make my doll’s coat. My present had to be better than that.
Then I saw it — a small oak, bravely reaching for the sun amid the brambles. That’s what I’ll give her, I thought. I’ll plant it outside her window, and she’ll see it every morning. She’ll watch it grow and think of me.
I ran over to her window, crouched so as not to be seen, and measured out about twenty paces. I stuck the shovel through the grass; the ground beneath was soft and moist from the sprinkler. I hurried because I knew, if I were caught, they would stop my plan. In no time, I had dug a hole deep enough for my prize.
I was excited now. I ran back to my tree and jabbed the shovel into the dirt. It stopped with a thud, a wisp of dust rising from the blade. No matter how I tried, I could not make an imprint. I ran into the house, changed my tennis shoes for boots, and grabbed a full-size shovel in the garage. Little by little, the earth gave way. I dug for hours. My sweat was equaled only by my determination. This three-foot tree had a root system that went on and on. I was never going to get it loose.
I sat in the dirt. As my tears made mudpies on my cheeks, I had a thought: what if I just cut the roots? Not too close to the trunk, of course. I would leave about a foot around. If I were quick, the small tree wouldn’t even notice. I took the shovel and, one by one, severed the roots. The tree fell.
The sun was beginning to make way for the moon. I had to hurry. I grasped the sapling, carried it over to the hole, and dropped it in. As I replaced the soil and the grass, the earth cradled its newest charge. I ran for the watering can.
The next morning when my grandmother awoke, she saw the tree and smiled.
She got better and moved back home. Our house was sold eight years later, but my gift remains, sandwiched between the peach and the plum trees. It is no longer small.
Tarpon Springs, Florida
In 1960, I started seventh grade at Leland Junior High School. It wasn’t like elementary school at all. The ninth graders were big and they sometimes bullied us. After school some of us would hang around the basketball courts, waiting for the older kids to move on. One day I got tired of waiting so I wandered off to the west end of the schoolyard. There was a big stand of pines with one enormous tree in the middle. I needed to climb that tree. I had been up in a few dogwoods and oaks, but this pine was gigantic. I got a leg up from one of my buddies and shinned up the first branch. I remember looking down and grinning.
It was easy. I kept on going. I saw no sky and no ground — just branches. I noticed bugs crawling along the trunk; my hands were black and sticky with sap. I was convinced no one had held these branches before. I started talking to the tree, saying things like, “Boy, you sure are big,” and “I thought you’d have nests up here.” Near the top, where the branches got small and springy and the trunk was thin, I stopped; we just swayed together in the breeze. We were higher than the birds. I saw clouds and airplanes and tiny housetops. I spied my house with the big elm in the front yard. Off in the distance I could see downtown Bethesda. The bank was easy, but I had to search for the hardware store and the old Hiser Theater. I recognized the high school I’d be going to in a few years. Sometimes I could hear a dog barking; I heard no voices. My heart stopped racing; my arms and legs began to ache. I wanted to stay up there longer but my feet hurt and I was cold. I looked down at the thin branch holding me and lost my nerve. Starting down, I held on so tightly my fingers stuck together. I couldn’t stop my arms from shaking. None of the branches looked familiar; there were awkward gaps between them. I kept saying, “This is not the way I came up.”
I took a long time coming down. When I got to the bottom branch, the schoolyard was empty. I didn’t think I’d be able to cling to the trunk and slide down. I just hung from that branch for a moment — then let go. Landing prickled my feet pretty badly and I banged my head on my knee. I didn’t break anything, but I lay there for a while just looking up into that pine with the ground beneath me.
I never climbed it again. I never told my mom. I’ve never stopped talking to trees.
Tarpon Springs, Florida
When I was born, thirty-nine years ago, my parents planted a ginkgo tree in my honor. The ginkgo predates the dinosaurs and first appeared in great swampy forests. Throughout my life I have dreamed of lush, murky swamps, dragonflies with five-foot wingspans, and scorpions large enough to ride piggyback. I have also had nightmares of slogging through rushes, thigh-high in muck.
I have no idea why my parents chose this tree, and since I can no longer ask them, I imagine that my mother loved the delicate fans of ginkgo leaves as they trembled with tenderness in the spring. My father may have loved the Oriental elegance of the tree which he painted with sumi inks. Their love for me was the tree.
The ginkgo with its knobby joints and long shoots sat in a stout pot on the uneven bricks of the patio. A hot Santa Ana wind blasted the tree until its yellow leaves fluttered wildly and tore loose, spinning all over the patio, crowding the steps, and flattening against the door and windows. The late October light made the leaves shimmer as they careened and plummeted. The ginkgo was the only deciduous tree in our Southern California back yard, so the miracle of leaves which turned golden and then were swept up in the light astonished me. It was as if a Mandarin book of golden pages had split its binding and bits of precious paper flew all around me. My mother had been reading Chinese and Japanese fairy tales to me, and now I found myself in the middle of one, a tale which had begun to unfold at my birth. I began to collect the leaves for my dolls. They were unlike any leaves I had ever seen. The fine veins spread from the stem like the spokes of my bicycle wheels. I could put four of the softly curved triangles together to make a full circle, or two for a bow or butterfly wings. By themselves, the leaves were perfect fans for the Japanese porcelain doll, draped in a red and blue kimono. I placed ginkgo fans near her feet clad in wooden sandals, or tried to fit leaves into her white hands sewn to the front of her kimono.
I can’t quite recall when the ginkgo died, but I know it was before we moved, when I was thirteen. Our family was falling apart and many things fell through the cracks, including my dolls, which my mother summarily bagged and sent to Goodwill.
The next time I saw a ginkgo tree, twenty years later, I was visiting New York for the first time and was amazed to see whole streets lined with ginkgo trees. Somehow I never expected to see another ginkgo, and yet here avenues of ginkgoes opened before me, a green corridor of light, doors flung open to reveal an expanse of ancient forest. A wild and deeply rooted hope clenched my heart. I picked up a leaf and slid it between the pages of my journal.
Rancho Palos Verdes, California
The tree was a huge mimosa and we practically lived in it. The big trunk quickly separated into three slightly smaller trunks, each a perfectly good tree in its own right. Years earlier someone, maybe our older brother, had put a brick in the crotch of two of those trunks. By the time we came along the tree had grown around the brick so hungrily there was only enough surface left to hold a size-five sneaker.
We played a game called Apes. It was just a glorified kind of tag, played almost entirely in the mimosa tree. Players could jump out of the tree to avoid being caught, but were allowed only three steps on the ground before having to climb back up. During the summers we played seven days a week, for hours every day.
I was the undisputed King of the Apes. Never mind that I was a girl. I was a fearless climber. I was also the biggest and oldest, by a year or two, of the kids in our neighborhood. Because my legs were the longest, I alone could jump from one part of the tree to another.
I never tired of Apes. I only stopped playing when puberty got in the way: our games frequently ended with wrestling matches to settle disputed calls. My increasingly tender chest left me feeling vulnerable.
Now, some forty years later, I see that old mimosa tree gave me the means to challenge the boys on my street. Whenever my younger brother, who was the next-best climber, did manage to catch me, I’d make him pay dearly. I’d push him to the ground, sit on his stomach, and tickle him to tears with the softest, most fragrant blossoms of any tree in our hometown. The mimosa flower was my favorite instrument of torture. There was no defense against it.
Rose Mary Evans
Hedgesville, West Virginia