Trees


Tree of heaven

After spending too much time this week glued to my bad-news feed, on Wednesday afternoon I stepped away from my desk to do some errands in West Newton. There, in the deep-slanting light of a summer afternoon, a sprawling tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stood, its boughs brimming with clusters of yellowish, pink-tinged seeds.

Tree of heaven fruit and foliage

I’ve seen trees of heaven before, but I’ve never been stopped in my tracks by one. The species is invasive and often grows in places where other trees can’t, like urban alleys and streets: the tree that famously grew in Brooklyn was a tree of heaven. But a gangly “ghetto palm” sapling in an alley is quite different from a full-grown tree setting down roots next to a grassy ballfield, with ample room to spread an expansive crown.

When I got home, I looked on Google Maps to see if the playground in West Newton has a name, and indeed it does: Eden Playground, a fitting place for a tree of heaven to grow. Female trees of heaven bear samaras, which are winged seeds that spin like helicopters as they fall, and right now the tree at Eden Playground is heavy-laden with them. Whereas maple samaras have twin seeds with wings shaped like rabbit ears, trees of heaven bear clusters of single-seeded samaras, each one twisted like a egg noodle.

Tree of heaven fruit

Before setting out to do errands on Wednesday, I started reading Strong for a Moment Like This, a collection of daily prayers and Scripture meditations the Reverend Dr. Bill Shillady emailed to Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. (A more sensational title for the book would have been “Hillary’s Emails.”) I became curious about Rev. Shillady’s book after reading his oft-shared (and, unfortunately, partially plagiarized) email to Hillary the morning after her defeat to Donald Trump. I suspect I’ll need lots of prayer and devotion to get through the next four years, or however long it takes our country to jump off the Trump Train.

Trees of heaven are quick-growing but not long-lived: who knows how long the one in West Newton (or her forebears, since this tree spreads via suckers as well as seeds) has been quietly growing in an edge of forgotten soil behind a gas station. What ballgames has she witnessed, and what playground dramas? How much car exhaust and human angst has she absorbed, exhaling oxygen to the clouds? With her toes in the earth and her arms spread toward the sky, this tree of heaven enjoys the best of both worlds, rooted in the dirt but stretching toward the heavens.

Tree of heaven fruit

These days I genuinely wonder how we can collectively spread our limbs toward love, the only counter to hate. I struggle with this personally, as my grudge-holding heart sometimes feels as twisted as a spinning samara. Is more prayer necessary, or more devotion? If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d still be doubled-over with rage, as I was the morning after the election and still sometimes am when I scroll my bad-news feed. How can we sprout from the dirt of division and expand into the flower and fruit of love?

There is, I trust, no hate in heaven, not even righteous indignation; I believe hate gets stripped away in the wash of God’s love. But here on earth, where meanness rages, lies are perpetuated, and the evil and greedy reap great rewards, where does the God of justice hide?

Into this life a little light falls, as do spinning samaras, and occasionally trees have ample room to spread and shine. Perhaps that is the only taste of heaven we’re presently permitted.

Notebook-finishing day

Today while writing my almost-daily journal pages, I filled one Moleskine notebook and moved onto the next. Notebook Finishing Day always feels like a special occasion: just by keeping at it, the pages fill.

Snow on the ground, new leaves on the shrubs. #signsofspring

I’m reminded of the story I re-read in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street this morning: “Four Skinny Trees,” about the four city-planted saplings on Esperanza Cordero’s street. They teach her “how to keep” by sending down “ferocious roots.” These trees, she says, “grown down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with their violent teeth and never quit their anger.” It’s an image that could have been written only by a girl who had watched trees twist and toss their leafy heads in summer storms: a girl like me, or Esperanza, or Cisneros.

Almost spring

The four skinny trees give Esperanza hope when she is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks.” The four skinny trees grow “despite concrete,” and so does Esperanza. Like the trees, she “reach[es] and do[es] not forget to reach.” This is how we all keep and keep keeping.

Emergent

I write my journal pages on paper, a product made from trees. This is, I think, part of why I like to write by hand. The touch of the page reminds me of all the trees I’ve known, like the big, branching maple tree in the courtyard of my childhood home, in whose leaves I’d play every fall: one of my closest childhood friends. Every child should have at least one tree–a big branching one, or several smaller skinny ones–to teach her how to stand, how to hold the sky, and how to keep. That last one is the most important: a lesson to last into adulthood.

Spring green

Tree at my window, window tree–why are there so many songs about rainbows, and so many poems about trees? Trees just keep keeping their quintessential tree-ness; there is no running away when you have roots. Day by day, page by page, I keep writing, most days not knowing what I want to say until the words appear under my pen: thoughts about the weather, worries about work, complaints and quibbles. All these are uttered page by page, leaf by leaf: baby leaves becoming big leaves becoming insect-eaten leaves becoming fallen leaves becoming compost. Leaves gathered in bushels and pages contained in books: this is how we keep keeping, “our only reason,” as Cisneros says, “is to be and be.”

Oak boughs

All semester, I’ve been eyeing a cantaloupe-sized knothole in one of the sprawling oak trees on the quad at Framingham State. The fifth floor of Hemenway Labs provides an eye-level view of this hole, and I keep hoping to see an owl, raccoon, or other critter peering out of it, as it looks like a perfect animal den.

Gray squirrel in oak tree

Good real estate doesn’t stay empty for long. On Thursday, I watched as first one and then two gray squirrels carried dead oak leaves into this hole, presumably making a nest for the winter. Gray squirrels, I read, often construct multiple nests in their home territory, typically using them as solitary shelter but sometimes sharing a den in cold weather. Apparently even squirrels appreciate cozy companionship when the temperatures drop.

Norway maple gleaming golden

The neighborhood sugar maples have largely lost their reddish orange leaves, but the Japanese maple in our front yard has burst into flame, and the Norway maples in our backyard are glowing golden against a backdrop of pine boughs. In autumn, trees bloom and ripen like flowers in a well-planned garden, with each species turning in turn.

Willow tree in bloom

Only after spring arrives and the trees burst into flower do I realize how much of the winter I’ve spent looking down. In winter, I trudge around in a bulky coat, hat, and scarf; on the coldest days, I top it all with a hood. Thus bundled, I keep my eyes down, my attention focused underfoot on the treachery of ice and snow. Like a mummy, my view of the world in winter is just a slit through swaddles.

Oak catkins and leaves

Spring sets my feet free in sandals, the sidewalks finally clear underfoot. In spring, you appreciate anew the miracle it is to walk the earth. In the spring, you don’t have to watch every step; in spring, your whole body feels as light as shirtsleeves. Walking at the end of an interminable winter feels like freedom, your ankles liberated from boots and the sinew-testing challenge of knee-deep snow drifts.

Dogwood flowers

Come summer, after the trees have finished leafing, their crowns will contain my view like a cap and I’ll look to the ground once again, searching for flowers and ground-creeping plants. But in early spring, the world’s inverted, with an ephemeral fury of flowers high overhead: blooms against blue.

Japanese maple on foggy day

The Japanese maple in our front yard is currently at the peak of its autumn color…but whereas last year this tree caught fire on a brilliantly sunny day, this year, it turned red beneath a veil of November fog. Sometimes maples erupt in a flash of red brilliance, and other times they smolder in a smudge of subtle color.

This is my Day Twelve contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Crabapples

Yesterday I had a spare half hour between my last class at Curry College and a Friday afternoon meeting in Boston: a spare half hour I should have spent grading papers. But it was a glorious fall day–sunny and unseasonably warm, shirtsleeves-and-sandals weather–and I knew I’d hate myself if I spent the whole day inside. There will be plenty of time to catch up with grading, I told myself, when the weather’s cold and dismal.

Green Dot trail

It had been years since I’d gone walking at the Blue Hills, which are just down the street from Curry College. Years ago when my then-husband and I rented a house in nearby Randolph, MA, I frequently walked Reggie at the Blue Hills: those were the days when Reggie was young and full of energy, and seemingly no amount of walking could tire him. That was, in other words, a literal lifetime ago, when I was still married to my first husband and Reggie was still alive.

Nest box

Autumn is a naturally retrospective time: seeing so many living things wending their way to their eventual demise naturally gets you thinking about past autumns and the things you’ve lost in the interim. Autumn is a naturally retrospective time that sometimes leads you to wonder how many more seasons you have in you and what, exactly, it is you’re doing with your life in the meantime.

Distant color

But yesterday, as I said, was perfect walking weather: no ghosts of autumns past could distract me from that. I pass the parking lot for the Blue Hills’ Trailside Museum every time I drive to or from Curry, and usually I don’t have time to stop, much less go walking: usually I’m hurrying to campus to teach or hurrying home to tackle an endless to-do list: so many papers, and so little time. An adjunct’s work is never done, so I always feel a bit wistful when I pass by the Blue Hills, remembering past walks there and wondering when I might find a spare half hour to return.

Autumn landscape

Yesterday was my chance, and I took it. I didn’t have a map and couldn’t remember exactly where the Green Dot trail from the Trailside Museum’s parking lot goes; I just set an alarm on my phone to tell me when I’d need to turn back to my car, and I let my feet lead me where they would. Where I found myself, I figured out later, was the Carberry Path, a side trail that dead-ends at the edge of the Blue Hills’ property…but before I found myself facing a No Trespassing sign that turned me back toward my car just before my alarm did, I spent a short but wonderful while in a fall field reigned over by a regal old hickory glowing gold in the afternoon sun.

Golden hickory

Next Page »