“I used to teach just the way I was taught, but now I let someone else do all the work for me. If plants are our oldest teachers, why not let them teach?”
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
I lived in the country for the first twenty years of my adult life, and I have country trees I could talk about, but events of the week got me thinking about two particular trees—of my childhood and now—so much so that I had to try to draw them. I thought I’d tell you about them, though I’m not sure why I need to do this. Let me know if you figure it out.
When I was 11 or 12, I think, my next-door neighbors, Mike and Diana, hired people to come and chop down a weeping willow tree on their property, a tree that had grown to be nearly as large as the house itself. The willow sapling was planted around 1965 in the front yard by the first owners, John and Barbara, who moved to another subdivision around 1970 and who hadn’t really understood that a weeping willow might not belong in a front yard. The weeping willow is a tree I used to see in backyards in the Midwest, often along small creeks. It’s really not a front yard tree. Anyone could see the truth of that, since no one could any longer see the house from the street.
Sitting on my bed beside a window that looked over to their yard, a view nearly blocked by a giant cedar (one of two that framed our house, and which would be cut down and hauled away when I was in my thirties), I sobbed. I’d been standing in the yard when I saw what was happening, and began to protest, wanted to scream, and my mother said, “Oh for heaven’s sake, Lisa, it’s a tree. It’s too big. Get over it.” Something like that. She wasn’t wrong. Still, I ran inside and upstairs to my little room and slammed the door. Even as I type this, I can smell the old paint around my window, the glazing, a metallic dust smell, and feel the texture where my fingers gripped the sill. My runny nose against the chill of the glass, I had to turn away. I couldn’t watch. Still, I sat holding all my concentration on the tree during the chopping process. I felt I owed it to my friend.
How do you explain being in love with a tree? I was in love with many trees in my own yard, sure, but that was puppy love compared to my feelings for the willow. I used to float underneath it, back when the Yanos lived in the house; swim as one might in the sea, though I’d never been to the sea. I remember that I spent most of my time under that tall grass skirt on “my” side, closer to my house, not all around it, like there was an invisible wall that prevented me from complete freedom inside the arch of branches that reached to the ground. But I remember the magic, how deeply scared and amazed I used to feel. I don’t know why. So cutting down that tree was like watching a friend being murdered, everyone telling you it’s just a life. Get over it? How?
There were certain trees, growing up, that I felt belonged to me. I was so lucky to have, and my parents worked so hard to buy, a home, one with a backyard, in a subdivision whose designer left big swaths of old-growth trees across backyards that abutted across two streets, over blocks. Different kinds of oaks in my own backyard are still there, and I visit them whenever I go back to Virginia (touch wood) to see Bernie and Lynne, now in their 89th years. There’s the holly tree by the horseshoe pit. And I still “see” a beech tree that is gone now. I loved climbing it—not very high. I regret that I never really got to know the cedars. I don’t know why, exactly, but I suspect it’s because they were planted for ornamental reasons, and not quite part of the forest that was as much my home as anything inside. And unlike the willow, the Flahertys’ monstrously huge crabapple tree that the Hunnicutts planted across the street survived (Mrs. F. loved the spring blossoms) for years longer; though the next owners, whom I’ve never met, finally had it chopped down, at least I had that tree all through my childhood. And the forest that was my backyard home.
Several years ago now I was out in California visiting friends Anna and Michael, and one of the books in their guest room/office (pro tip: please have a library in any room where you have your guests sleep) was The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohllenben, a German forester. I recommend it.
“Trees can grow in many extreme environments. Can? Indeed, they must!”
~ The Hidden Life of Trees, “Specialists”
The upshot: Trees feel, they know, the connect, they have real lives. Any kid who has loved a tree the way I loved that willow could have told you that, but it’s better to have science to really drive it home, I guess. All of this is just to say the lost trees of my childhood aren’t the only ones I’ve grieved, and the older I get the more deeply I know there are connective threads among all these living things that only my heart understands. And it matters.
In my co-op apartment building in Queens, to take one example, the board has long neglected one side of the complex, the side I enter on, because no one else really sees it, as they enter on another street. A giant mulberry tree (that no one missed) had to be taken out of the fenced “garden” about fifteen years ago, before it compromised the foundation, though the seedlings and shoots keep coming up out of old the roots. (The struggle is constant and will be until we can afford a landscaper to dig it up properly, but you have to admire the tenacity, you know?) But it’s this one other little oddball tree, a blue spruce, on the edge of the iron fence that meant something. With the mulberry gone, it really took off, so I had to trim it a lot to keep the prickly branches from hitting people as they walked past. I did not trim it well, but I did the best I could. It looked like a giant bonsai tree. Okay? But it was our giant bonsai.
Last year, a neighbor in the complex thought he was giving me this great gift by chopping down that one remaining tree, that badly trimmed blue spruce that, it turns out, a few other folks in the neighborhood had also secretly called “the bonsai spruce.” I returned from a weekend visiting friends to see it gone, and I felt I had been punched in the chest. I choked back tears until I could get inside. I’d read an email from this (really very nice) neighbor which said he had “cleaned up the garden” but without mentioning this act of, frankly, vandalism (apparently he’d only cleaned up the garden because he personally hated that tree). People who regularly walk their dogs still ask me why we got rid of it. It’s sweet, though, isn’t it? I was amazed by how much of a touchstone that crazy little misshapen tree was for the residents of a Queens neighborhood. And you think New Yorkers don’t have hearts.
More City Trees
This past weekend I and two neighbors from the complex worked to remove an invasive tree near a cedar on the other side of my stoop, the smaller iron-fenced garden area along the sidewalk. Travis and Vaughn had taken a tree-pruning class when they lived in Brooklyn (!) and had the tools to properly prune a remaining tree (that someday really has to be removed) so the branches didn’t compromise our porch overhang and a couple of windows (should a big windstorm hit). They also trimmed the tall cedar (one we want to keep) way back away from the brick on one side and the sidewalk on the other. The city has been on everyone’s case to clear out anything remotely embowered in order to deter rats, so all this stuff had to go. (And now with all that low growth gone, maybe that weird old man with the red cart will stop pissing on the cedar as he pauses on his walks—at least I hope so.)
My upstairs neighbor, Debbie, who shares my entrance, came down to investigate after we’d finished up. Earlier in the week, Debbie had discovered a dead squirrel in full rigor sprawled out flat on the sidewalk. She texted me—I work from home and was on a Zoom call, but I couldn’t ignore her sad face emoji and “Our squirrel friend is dead.” This little guy has been around for years, digging in my herb pots and frolicking in the trees we’d just trimmed back. But I’d leave water out for him and the sparrows, in a plate on my little kitchen porch over the trash alley; once I left him a plum, which he took. The couple behind me also feeds him—he does get gaunt if we don’t help. The dead squirrel seemed bigger to me, but maybe it was the dead bloat thing. Because the kids were about to get out of school, we couldn’t just leave him there on the sidewalk. “Debbie,” I said, “can you get your snow shovel and sort of scoop him into the garden?” Good idea, she said. I went back to my meetings. A couple of hours later, I texted her and she came downstairs. We looked at his body there, exposed on top of weeds, and we couldn’t leave him like that. I remembered I had a real dirt shovel, left over from the old farm days, and I brought it up from the basement, dug a hole in our shitty old garden (or “garden”), into which hole Debbie scooped that stiff squirrel body. I covered him up with dirt, we said a few words (a shocked little boy saw what was happening as he walked with his dad; “You weren’t supposed to see that,” I said, and Debbie said, “He passed away, it was his time”). Ceremonies matter.
But while Travis and Vaughn and I were trimming on Sunday, Travis noticed there was a (live) squirrel watching our proceedings from all the way over at the other edge of the building. When Debbie came out later to check out our work, I saw that little squirrel again, but this time along the railing by the cedar. I’d noticed a huge nest in the cedar tree but thought it might belong to a family of house sparrows, so little do I know of nests. Debbie said, “He’s a friendly guy, isn’t he?” And then it hit me: That is his nest! This is our squirrel! He was still alive, after all. But man, had we fucked him over.
I thought, suddenly, that maybe Vaughn had cut out the nest, but he hadn’t—there it was, up near the top. But it’s like if the back side of your condo was blown out, and you still had to sleep there. And I grieved that we’d ever trimmed that cedar. Trees are life, and how we measure all of nature in terms of human (in)convenience is really a testament to our planetary tragedy, isn’t it?
So let’s take a page or two out of Braiding Sweetgrass and The Hidden Life of Trees. Life is love, loss, grief. And nature. It’s all nature. Even in New York City.
Love to all.