Raised by Trees
I was raised by trees.
There were the trees at the edge of the woods at the end of my street. I’d dig them up, the young ones, that is, carry them out of the stifling shade of their elders and plant them in my yard. I’d plant them along the fence and here and there. Notwithstanding my mom’s frequent admonishments of “Jim, don’t you cut down Shawn’s trees!” none of them survived the mower.
There were the silver maples in my neighbor’s yard across the street. I’d catch their pirouetting seeds. Store them. And, come winter, I’d plant them in a pot of soil, stick a stick in the center of the pot and wrap the pot in plastic. Just like a store-bought easter basket. I’d place the makeshift greenhouse on the window sill in the basement behind the washing machine. The seeds would sprout. But, grey winter light at ground-level height wasn’t enough. And, the saplings would grow into white see-through tubular forms that never survived the touch of spring sunshine.
There was the gumball tree in my friend’s yard down the street. It was tall, older than the silver maples that made up the bulk of the trees in our community. It shamed me for what I did to the new life in the nest that it was nurturing in the fork of its branch.
There was the tree down at the other end of the street. It was a good climbing tree. I fell from its branches and landed screaming-hard on my back. Many years later a fortune teller, while using her index finger to trace the lines in the palm of my hand, would reference that day. “You have a guardian angel” she said. “It softened your fall” she said. I doubted what she said. However, I do not doubt that the gumball tree told the climbing tree to shake me from of its branches. I was in need of a necessary wounding.
There were the silver maples at my middle school. One time, Mr. Hershner, my sixth-grade science teacher, walked us out of the classroom and into the landscape. He was pointing out the different leaves of different trees when the wind picked up. “Everyone” he said. “The leaves” he said. “Watch them” he said as he directed our attention to the edge of the woods. The winds stirred and the leaves of the silver maples, all in unison, rolled from green to silver in a sustained flutter. I gasped.
There was the buckeye tree deep in the woods at end of my street. When things got bad, too bad in the house, I’d run to it. Sit underneath it. Look up into it. And, branch by branch by branch, it would pull my gaze skyward. As it did, it would stretch my understanding of myself, my life. It would ask me, challenge me to see more. It would tell that the when and where of my existence, the now of my existence was just one iteration. Of me. Of everything. Many more iterations were to come. Of course, it is only now that I’m starting to grasp that message. But old trees are embodied patience. They forgivingly wait for us to get it.
There were the white pines on the hillside at the mini-mall up the street. As kids, my friends and I would trundle up that hillside on our way to the grocery store. We’d turn our soda bottles into cash and then into candy. And, over time, we wore a path into that steep hillside of fill-dirt. Back then, there were no white pines. Just weeds. It wasn’t until I was in high school that the owner of the mini-mall decided to plant them. I saw them for the first time coming home after football practice. My friend was driving. I was staring out of the passenger side window. Seeing the white pines stirred me. I smiled, subtly. Newly-plated trees are pokes of hope in the landscape.
Now, I did not speak with my friend that day or any other day about how I see trees. But, I did wonder. Did he read the Narnia books? I did. And, talk about transformative. I’m not sure how many hours I spent as a kid deep inside my closet waiting to feel the welcoming touch of snow-dappled pine needles on my face.
Over the ensuing weeks, the white pines on the hillside at the mini-mall up the street started browning. So, I walked up to take a closer look at them. And, even though, from where I come from, a young man should not be caught touching the leaves of trees, I did. A few were getting established, some were already dead and two of them were leaning awkwardly. Their root balls, wrapped in burlap, were more than mostly exposed. Not sure if it was erosion, carelessness or an unwillingness to do the hard work of planting them correctly in difficult dirt that was to blame. It did not matter. I knew their fate. It was all around me. So, late that night, I went up to the hillside at the mini-mall up the street, dug them out, and carried them home. I stole those two white pines. I planted them in my yard, on my hillside. I did not tell my parents. Not right away. And, I waited nervously, for months, for someone, anyone to make the connection between the two pockmarks in hillside at the mini-mall up the street and the two newly planted white pines in my side yard. No one ever did. And, those two white pines are still there. Gloriously growing. Towering over my childhood home.
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Thanks. — shawn
Photo by Mahdi Dastmard on Unsplash