Trees


Stump and toppled trunk

Today was a bright, breezy, spring-like day, so after lunch J and I went walking at Newton Cemetery. Most of the snow has melted, leaving the grass bare and blanched: mud season, the awkward pause before spring.

Fallen

Throughout the Cemetery, there were fresh stumps and piles of massive trunks and branches: cleanup from trees that had either fallen in winter storms or had been preemptively culled. It was sad to see massive tree-corpses lying among the gravestones: if these fallen giants could talk, what stories could they tell?

Stump

The lesson of any Cemetery, of course, is that impermanence surrounds us. Seeds sprout, trees tower, and winds wreak havoc: even evergreens can’t stay green forever. A neatly landscaped grave creates the illusion of immortality: as long as a headstone stands, one’s name and memory live on. But aren’t tombstones ultimately like so many tree stumps: dead reminders of a once-living thing?

Toppled

In a few weeks, the earth will erupt in green, landscape crews will have cleared away the last of these toppled trees, and both the mallards and Canada geese that swim the Cemetery ponds will have nestlings in tow. The annual death that is winter, in other words, will miraculously transform into the resurrection that is spring. In the meantime, I like to think the massive tree stumps J and I saw today aren’t dead, but sleeping: their cellulose selves dreaming of sunny skies and chlorophyll-fed days.

November carpet

When I walk in the woods, I spend a lot of time looking down. Maybe it’s because I’m short, maybe it’s because I spend the spring and summer months looking for wildflowers, or maybe it’s because I let my ears alert me to birds overhead. But in November, looking down makes sense, as many of the brilliant leaves up above have already fallen, leaving a thick, crunchy carpet underfoot.

Above

But even these days when the dog stops to paw and sniff, rooting through leaves for whatever treasures she smells underneath, I remind myself to look up, where the remaining leaves shimmer against a sunlit sky. Soon enough, all there will be above will be the veiny lines of bare branches. In November, I remind myself to remember the gleam of golden maple leaves before they fade away.

Honey locust

Maple leaf

Front yard

Once a year, usually in November, the Japanese maple in our front yard turns bright red. The leaves on this tree are reddish year-round, but once a year, J and I are reminded of the huge difference between merely “reddish” and truly “red.”

Maple and maple

Some years, it’s rainy or foggy when our Japanese maple ignites. But today, after days of drizzle, the sun showed up and the entire landscape gleamed. On bright November days, the sunlight doesn’t shine from any particular direction; instead, the air itself seems illuminated, as if the earth itself were a light bulb and each of us a glowing filament.

Bathroom view

This morning while I showered, there was a red glow on the bathroom wall from the maple outside, and when J and I walked to and from lunch, the streets and sidewalks glinted with the golden glow of Norway maples. Soon enough, these tree tapestries will be stripped bare, but for now, an afternoon when both the sun and the trees shine together is a red-letter day.

Overstory

Over the waning days of summer, I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a novel about trees and interconnection. It’s a big, fat book, and I read it slowly, at a tree’s pace: page by page and leaf by leaf. Trees outlive us–at least the largest, long-lived species do–and thus they have much to teach us about time, patience, and the virtues of rootedness.

Looking up

This past March, one of the tall pine trees that fringe our backyard fell directly onto our neighbors’ house after a heavier-than-usual snowfall. Last month, we had an arborist come to look at our remaining trees: not just the tall pines out back, but also a slowly-dying ash near our back door. This particular arborist had never seen the pine that fell, but he examined the slivers of stump that remain. Could we have predicted, we asked, whether this tree would fall, or in which direction? The arborist suggested the tree’s trunk was sound, but its root system had been compromised by some nearby driveway work. But could construction work done nearly two decades ago have an impact on a tree today, J asked, incredulous, and the arborist said yes, of course. Trees live according to a different timeline than we do, our hurried scurrying looking like a blur when viewed from their ponderous perspective.

Five-fingered maple

Trees can teach us much about steadfastness and resilience, but we need to slow ourselves down to hear them. The most resilient trees tap their roots deep, while the wide-spreaders hug shallow soil and are easily uprooted. My mind branches widely and wildly with distraction, and I quickly grow discouraged by superficial trifles: I’d do better with a deeper taproot. Trees and the people who understand them best know a decade is the mere wink of an arboreal eye, and for a tree centuries pass like days. Marriage is easy, my grandfather used to say; only the first fifty years are hard. This is a statement to make a tree chuckle.

Dying ash

The arborist we hired will cut down the dying ash in our backyard, as it is growing too close to both our house and our neighbors’ garage, and he will grind the stump to sawdust, as its roots are far from any nearby trees. But the arborist suggested we cut but not grind the stump of the fallen pine, as its roots are tangled up with its neighbors’. I close my eyes and imagine the grief of trees: when one falls, his fellow forest-friends tremble down to their subterranean toes.

The Overstory is a fat book because it tells a complex web of a tale. The stories in the initial section are branched like roots, and later, they connect together in subtle and surprising ways: an ecosystem of individuals whose roots touch and tangle. The whole time I was reading the book, I found myself looking up on my daily dog-walks: who, exactly, are these quiet creatures who live their woody lives in our midst, silent and swaying, overhead and too often ignored?

Science Center

Today I drove to Framingham State for the English department’s annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: the first time I’ve been on campus in months. Every summer, the first-year writing retreat feels like a dry-run for the start of the semester: a reminder of what it’s like to get up early, scramble to get ready, and then commute to campus for morning classes. Soon enough, my teaching-day routine will be a once-again familiar habit, but today I felt like I was fumbling through a forgotten dance.

Ripening horse chestnut

I’ve taught at Framingham State long enough now that I recognize the grounds’ own seasonal cycle. There is a horse-chestnut tree I regularly pass on my way from the parking lot to my office, for example: in September when classes start, it will drop buckeyes, the culmination of the flowers that appeared as classes ended in May. On my office windowsill, I have a collection of dried horse-chestnuts I’ve gathered beneath this tree. During the early weeks of Fall semester, buckeyes emerge from their hulls round and shiny, but over the course of the term they shrivel into misshapen lumps and lose their sheen.

Ripening horse chestnut

I suppose this is a metaphor for the school year itself. The start of Fall semester is a round and shiny time when one’s supplies are new and ample, one’s intentions are strong, and anything seems possible. In time, the sheen of a new school year will fade and enthusiasm will wane and wither. But seeds aren’t designed to live on a windowsill forever. Buckeyes are built to be buried, and only then do they open and emerge into the infinite promise of tomorrow’s trees.

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