Lead Photo Credit: William Milliot via Unsplash
A Japanese maple, in colors of scarlet, flame, crimson, and rust, its lace edged leaves delicate and just a little ragged, was sitting in one corner of the garden store, shoved to the side with a disdainful air of insufficient, and imperfect, and injured with a large yellow tag that proclaimed clearance in large black letters, but we were young and money was tight, and we were just starting out in our house, and if it did not fit not our aesthetic, at least it fit our budget, a poor broken thing in a damaged pot, but for all its ragged roughness there was something that appealed. It had three main trunks, but one had splintered at the base, cracked off in a sheer of broken bark and white wood but the others were still alive, still hanging on, still reaching upwards towards the sun, and there was something poetic about it, something that said dogged, and dauntless, and determined.
We bought it; we loaded it into the back of our minivan; we took it home and so carefully, so gently, so meticulously cut out the dead wood, and watered it, and fertilized it, and planted it in a shady corner by the back of the house, and held our breath and hoped.
Of course it did, for most things will if given the chance, trees and weeds and children, springing up before your eyes until you hardly remember the broken branch and clear plot of land and soft downy head of a newborn, until you forget the record of things as they were and see only the leafy bower, the overgrown garden, the cast off toys and habits and clothing that belong to a different age, lost to an unfamiliar stage, put aside in favor of a future we did not imagine when we first knelt and planted roots deep in the fertile ground, left behind as we reached towards something new, something miraculous, and something holy in the alchemy that is time.
It all started with a tree, and I used to love laying in a hammock underneath the gently waving branches that grew taller every year, the soft subtle shadows and soothing sounds, the slide and shush and swish and shiver of leaf on leaf and the squeak of the hammock’s rope and the rustle of the wind overhead, until the day the hammock broke, its sturdy steel support no match for a metric ton of teenagers plus a handful of babies and a dog, all rocking in it at once like an oversized cradle, or maybe a fairground ride, or like a rocket launcher all ready for takeoff until the moment it shuddered and gave under pressure and weight and gravity, bodies tumbling to the grass in a cacophony of giggling shrieks that broke the air, and I have not replaced that worn blue hammock, although I think I should, but I hold close the memories of swinging after Sunday afternoon picnics on hot days, or sitting on a late night when we roasted s’mores over a fire, beset by bugs in the dark, and even swaying through the occasional crisp fall morning with just the hint of snow in the air, settling in under the tree as its leaves budded and grew and faded and fell, a yearly dance that marked the passing of seasons, one after another in the same way that our family grew, and maybe that is what still draws me to this tree, the way it marks the life of my family, the transmutation of a young couple with a handful of babies playing in the dirt of an unplanted yard to a tall, majestic trunk rising over a patio that has hosted birthday parties and tea parties and graduation parties and farewell parties and the appearance of more than one grey hair on my head, the way it sends out new leaves every spring, an act that made of its rough edges and broken parts the kind of hope that speaks love and dedication and renewal.
It all started with a tree, and I can’t help but think of the things that trees represent, the roots tied to the past and the branches tied to the future, all their changing roles from seedlings to spindly sprouts to the rangy, reaching matriarchs of old forests to deadfall and decay and a return to the ground from which it came, a symbolism in seasons, and we have continued to plant trees in our yard, my husband and I, almost one a year since we moved into our house 22 years ago, small trees and tall trees and fruit trees and fir trees; delicate lacy maples and wide reaching catalpa and apple and pear and peach and nectarine (which are both the name of the tree and the name of the fruit), and we learned things along the way–that a pear tree needs to be planted in a pair, with another pear in order to bear pears, it cannot be planted in solitude, although who of us can, really, and that a catalpa will come back bigger and stronger every year no matter how strenuously it is pruned, and that a fruitless ornamental plum is not truly a plum, nor ever really fruitless no matter what the name implies, and most of the trees we planted have thrived, although one or two have not, and that’s a lesson in itself, that not everything will grow, even if we still see the evidence of them in our yard, stumps left behind as a remembrance of their absence, and pictures with a tree in the flower beds where no tree now stands, and we look at them, those ghosts of the past and remember the way things were, and the way that they are, and the way they could be again.
It all started with a tree. That’s what they tell us, anyway. Leafy desire and forbidden fruit. A welcome and a banishment. A choice between ignorance and knowledge. And it might be a myth or it might be true, but no matter what it is, it speaks to me, the stories and sagas and scriptures, of a tree of knowledge and a tree of life, of sacred groves and dedicated ground, even of the burning bush, for a bush is a tree, if you turn it sideways and squint just a little.
There is something sacred about a tree, and maybe this is why I am drawn to writing about them, why I love to walk among them, why I see the metaphors in them, and why I love the stories and the myths—the parables of finding yourself lost in an enchanted forest, and the tales of the world tree, Yggdrasil, that dwells in three worlds, with roots planted firmly in the underworld, and branches reaching out across eternity into the unexplored vastness, a giant, leafy link between the heavens above our heads and the solidness of the earth beneath our feet—a connection between the past, the present, and the future, and it makes me think of family trees and family orchards and the time my cousins and I climbed the silver maple in my great aunt’s backyard, swaying in the thin branches near the very top, a sense memory so striking I can feel the bumpy bark under my palms, and I hope that my children have those same memories, of clinging to limbs, and looking for footholds, and feeling the wind on their face, for it is sometimes our memories that connect us, not only as families, but as human beings in a larger community, our experiences, our beliefs, our roots and our branches, our plantings and our pairings and all the ways in which we are broken and yet take root despite our injury or our neglect or the way the world would discount us and would set us to the side.
It started with a tree, and that same tree is old now, not in the the timekeeping of trees, for I have seen the giant trunks of the redwoods, have tried in vain to wrap my arms around their circumference and my mind around their massive maturity, so it is not ancient in the ways that trees become ancient, but like myself it is no longer young, and this last fall was dry and then the winter was cold and this spring too wet and one of the remaining two trunks died and needed to be pruned back, and I have felt unsettled by the loss, even while I know, have seen, have experienced the process that can heal a wound with care and pruning and patience and the passage of time, and so I have hope—which is all we can have, really, in this adventure that is life—hope for living and loving, and family and faith, and kinship and community, and it might have started with a wilted Japanese maple in a cast off pot, but at the end of the day, and even after all of these years, I still think there is nothing as beautiful, as mysterious, as gracious, as amazing, or as lovely as a tree.