About Place Journal, Volume II Issue I
Calisthenics for Trees
I remember reading somewhere, maybe a dozen years ago, that wind is like calisthenics for trees: the motion strengthens them and makes them grow better. For this reason, it’s important not to stake young trees too tightly or for too long, or they’ll become brittle over time.
This struck me as absurd as I stood in my dining room window one night, looking almost straight up at the dozens of huge trees towering over the house, watching them whip around like blades of grass in a strong breeze. The rain hadn’t even started yet, but there was an almost constant growl of thunder and lightning flashed intermittently. The sky was that creepy shade of gray-green that tells you a vicious storm is on its way. And the trees looked anything but strong.
When I was a kid, this kind of weather gave me a thrill. Now that I owned a house surrounded by house-killer-sized trees, it scared the crap out of me. Sure, I had homeowner’s insurance, but I could imagine in gory detail the nightmare of it—of so many things destroyed, of trying to cover precious possessions with a tarp in the midst of a storm, of contractors and hotels and itemized lists of waterlogged everything…assuming the tree or trees that fell didn’t simply kill me outright.
But how likely was that, really? Were those trees really so fragile?
I watched leaves and small branches fly, and thought about all that surface area catching wind. I wondered about the last few years of drought we’d had, and about construction damage…and then I finally noticed what I’d been looking at—for months, at least, if not for years: the scores of dark circles on the two gigantic pine trees that stood closest to my house. A surge of terror washed through me.
The charming tapping of those beautiful woodpeckers? There were so many near my house, and I loved to watch them. I thought I was lucky to have them—lucky for all of the diversity of life in my small patch of forest. But there had clearly been a whole horde of insect life in those trees, followed by a descent of woodpeckers with full bellies.
I scanned upwards and realized those trees had no pine needles on them. No pine cones. They bristled with abrupt stubs where branches had broken off. The trees were dead, and the wind was blowing–hard. And it was far too late to do anything about it before the hurricane rolled in; it was already there.
I went into the living room and sat in my comfy chair, which was angled away from the widows that look out on those trees. It was getting darker and I couldn’t see anything outside anymore, except when the lightning flashed. I could almost guarantee the power would go out. There had already been a couple of flickers.
The power flickered again and I shouted: “No!” Over the next hour, every time the lights dimmed or went out, I yelled in outrage, frustration, denial: No! No! NO! And it worked. It worked. My fists were clenched, my whole body straining to maintain the integrity of a few dozen miles of power lines. My magic kept them whole, through seven brown-outs.
The eighth time’s the charm, though, as no one ever says, and the darkness settled in. I held myself tense, as I had for hours–or perhaps days, or months, or years—waiting, hoping, bargaining with the universe. Denying reality, or at least the permanence of it. Until, at last, I had no choice. The power was not coming on again—not anytime soon.
Angry, tense, coiled, I lit candles. I called and reported the outage. This was a futile act; repair people wouldn’t be dispatched until the wind died down and the lightning passed. But still, it’s what you do. What you’re supposed to do. It’s all part of the magical ritual you follow and hope that it keeps you safe.
And then, I sat and read in the flickering light of the candles. I waited and I had hope, blended with a sense of despair. Hope alone is dangerous, you see—the despair is what keeps me safe.
I felt somehow responsible for the outage. I hunched my shoulders, listening and waiting for a tree to fall and crush my life, if not my body. The power stayed out all night. The power stayed out for days.
Trees fell, though not on my house, and in the morning, some part of me believed that it was my unwavering attention and worry that kept them upright—even though I knew this was impossible, and maybe even a little bit mad.
It’s years—years—before I finally figure it out: the sheer, destructive futility of those beliefs and actions. While the trees were bending in the wind—even those huge pines that were riddled with insects and woodpecker holes, stripped bare of their needles—I was holding myself as stiff as I possibly could, driving my stakes into the ground, holding the world at bay, and making myself so horribly, uselessly brittle.
And, my god, did the wind blow some of those years. Fierce, cutting winds, whipping into me so hard that I could hear my brittle wood creaking and feel my twisted, anemic roots tearing loose from the soil. Sometimes it felt as though a good gust of wind was going to rip me from the soil and send me toppling over a cliff.
It wasn’t until I read something somewhere, about a year ago, about post-traumatic stress and this thing called resiliency that I began to understand how utterly wrong I’d been. All these years, I’ve known intellectually that worry and fear don’t genuinely keep trouble away. And now another article—and suddenly, a whole lot of other things I read—were telling me that learning to adapt to change was the whole secret. Terrible traumas can wash over you without breaking you, without causing lasting damage, if you’re used to bending with the wind.
Now that I knew this, now that I finally understood, I could put this wisdom into practice. I could heal myself. Couldn’t I?
I was driving through Harrisburg, PA recently, on my way to visit a friend in upstate NY, and decided to stop and visit my grandmother’s house. My grandmother, who was the most important person in my life for many years and who made my childhood bearable, had lived in a pretty white house in Harrisburg for nearly all of my life, until she died in 2000. I had been back only once, to scatter her ashes with my family. The thought of seeing her house again was simultaneously terrible and impossible to resist.
It has been many years since she died at my home in Virginia. I have cried, and have missed her terribly, but as when my father died, I got back to work as quickly as I could, pushing the grief away with both hands, because I feared it would overwhelm me. I still think of her often, miss her often, but I turn away from those thoughts almost as soon as they come. I have audio tapes of her, from when I interviewed her about her childhood, but the thought of listening to them has always been so utterly horrible to me. Unbearable.
As I neared the exit to her house I began to cry, and found myself sobbing as I passed landmarks both familiar and changed. I continued crying as I parked and then walked around the house and down the alley, took a few pictures, remembered my grandfather’s beagles, and the garden I planted, and the time we were all evacuated because of a bomb scare that turned out to be nothing more than a piece of pipe with a wire in it. I got back into the car and cried more, and harder, until I was a few miles out of town.
I do not cry in public, or at movies, or in front of other people. I am in control of my emotions. I keep my grief contained. I stand tall when the wind blows. I do my best to pretend it’s not really there and that it can’t touch me. That obviously hasn’t worked for me at all, and I know it. I know about resiliency and how important it is. But still, so little has changed.
This latest demonstration of the futility of my approach has finally shown me that mere knowledge is far from enough. I have to actually act on it—not once, but daily, hourly, minute-by-minute—in order for the lesson to have any effect. Calisthenics, whether for people or for trees, aren’t done only once, or once every so often. It’s a practice that I must maintain in order to strengthen my ability to bend with the wind, and both survive and thrive in my natural habitat.
I begin by contemplating resiliency, by reminding myself to relax, by breathing more, by recognizing that bracing for the worst won’t keep it from happening, and repeating all of these things—again and again—and at last, at last, I am beginning to feel strength in places and at times I’ve never felt strong before. Every day, I look at the trees around me—especially the huge willow oak in my backyard that’s enveloping an old, rusty basketball hoop into its trunk—and I remind myself to sway, sway, sway with the wind. It feels so much better when I do.
Meriah Crawford is a writer, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and a private investigator. She has also been a horseback riding instructor, library page, programmer, prepress tech, graphic designer, technical editor, software tester, systems analyst, program manager, and has even been paid to put M&Ms into little baggies for bingo. Meriah’s published writing includes short stories, a variety of non-fiction work, and a poem about semi-colons. For more information, visit www.mlcrawford.com.