John Muir loved trees and so do I.  Remember reading how he would climb up to the top of a sequoia and sway back and forth with the tree in the wind. He never saw a discontented tree, he said. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast-rooted they travel about as far as we do.

There are no trees in sight from where I now sit at my computer. I can get a glimpse of sky, see a moving cloud. Maybe a bush, but no trees. Yet in my head I have countless trees. I can see them, hear the wind rustle their branches, smell their fragrance.

I can perhaps divide my trees into a before and after. A before crossing the Atlantic, trees of when I was a child, a girl. And trees after I had crossed the Atlantic and was a woman, no longer a child.

My earliest “before” trees included Joyce Kilmer’s tree, lovelier than any poem.  There was Johnny Appleseed and there was the majestic elm tree by the pasture, passed on my way home from school. It had not yet become a victim of the Dutch elm disease, and like all elms, it now exists only in memory. There were countless apple trees (I wonder what my teacher, Miss McCormick, did with the armfuls of apple blossoms I would bring her in spring), and one large welcoming sour cherry tree into which I would climb and eat cherries until my teeth hurt. The maple tree that sheltered the rhubarb stalks rose over to one side of my farmhouse. Half of the tree was blown down by the big hurricane of 1938, sending fragments of limbs through the window of my bedroom.  That was also when my father anchored the tall hickory in front of the house with a cable and which we also remembered because our guinea hens had flown into its branches the time it snowed unexpectedly and my father had had to get a long ladder to climb up and get the stupid birds, as he called them, down. At the end of the road, there was a hemlock grove past the barn and the peach orchard, but it was a crowd of trees and not just one that told me it was special.

Then I crossed the ocean and I now saw trees as Giotto and Piero della Francesca had seen them. In the distant hills, dark cypress spires were reaching to the sky, marking the dwellings of the dead, or of the living, as they bordered the roads winding their way to someone’s villa. Later on my way south, watching from my train window, I almost expected a blue-smocked peasant to appear along the railroad tracks, hoeing the ground under the bare blossoming branches of Van Gogh trees. In Sicily, the arid stony landscape of the month of February was softened by drifts of white almond blossoms.

I would have to wait for Caspar David Friedrich to once more enter into the soul of a single tree, or to be entranced by the magic of Kiarostami and his installation of Forest without Leaves at the Victoria and Albert in London, a forest of bare tree trunks, mirrored in what you might take as the sky.

It was, as the Iranian poet Mehdi Akhavan-e Salis called it,

“The garden of leaflessness.
It was alone”, he said, “day and night,
with its pure, forlorn silence.
Its instrument the rain, its anthem the wind.
Its cloth is the cloak of nakedness.
And should it need a garment other than this,
the wind has woven many a flame of gold warp and weft.”

Spring came into the countryside and into my heart.  Eventually, there was a granddaughter, and A Tree grows in Brooklyn, a book I had read when still a child, was now given to her. In browsing the shelves in a bookstore in New York for another gift, I found The Giving Tree, but it was too depressing, and I returned it to its place.

Of the other trees in my life, I wept for the one behind the house where I lived when my children were small and which my landlady had had cut down.

Some trees though were more fortunate like the one my woodsman Francesco refused to cut. I can still see him laying down his chain saw and stomping off when the owner said the tree blocked his view of the town and should be felled.

In late winter, the linden trees along the road leading into town, drastically pruned, raised their naked branches to the sky, shrieking in echo of Munch’s iconic image (which I find is called The Scream but which I had always called The Shriek – I’m still not sure what the difference is between a shriek and a scream). I was ready to forgive the city fathers in June when clusters of inconspicuous flowers inundated every lane and alley with their fragrance. In March, the poplars with their feathery plumes had been a harbinger of spring. Later, drifts of white seedpods deceived one into wondering whether it had perhaps snowed.

There were fig trees with their sticky purple fruits and maple trees around which the grapevines twined. Chestnuts with their rope-like efflorescence that turned into prickly burs in autumn and which as trees were the perfect “parents” to support the swing for children playing Tarzan. The gnarled olive trees showed one that age was more fascinating than youth.

Then there was a tree along the road to town where my husband used to walk, about which I wrote a poem. Or is the poem more about the man I loved – perhaps both, for I do miss both.

“Each spring, come early March,
the almond growing on the curve before the fork
bursts into bloom,
a cloud of pink
against the misty sky-blue sky.
And each spring
you walk along the road
cross carefully the way,
lean over the embankment
and break off a flowery branch.
Each year the tree unfolds its glory,
each year you beggar but one little branch.
Even though it’s years now
that they’ve cut it down
and years since you’ve been gone,
each spring, come early March,
the almond growing on the curve,
blooms once again.”

3 thoughts on “Trees

  1. Grazie. Cara Erika. I love everything about this post and identify with your reverence for beloved trees. Thank you for the depth with which you Observe, remember, and write. Love always Jhan


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