a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Seeing the Tree for the Forest
I didn’t think she’d be strong enough to climb it. When my mother told us about the leukemia, she said that Steffi would probably be tired weak and bald from the chemo, that when we went back to visit, she probably wouldn’t want to climb that big tree in our old backyard. Steffi was bald, all right, but when we went back to visit and all of us kids were told to go outside and play, she was the first one out the door, the first of us kids to reach her arms up into the branches, hook her legs over a thick limb, and muscle her way up into a crook of the trunk. When she scooted out onto the branches, the sunlight pouring through the canopy made a vibrant crown around her naked head, igniting the few golden wisps of hair that remained.
In the Midwest where I grew up, the trees in our backyards were just another means by which we ranked and ordered ourselves, like running races and riding bikes. The more you conquered and the higher you climbed, the more important you were. My neighbor, Sandy, and her little brother, Andrew, were the most important on our street. They could climb so high that their bodies would disappear into the leaves, and your neck would hurt from looking up at the zig-zagged tread of their running shoes. One day, when I was eight or nine, Sandy jumped down from a giant maple in our backyard and told me that Andrew had carved A.S. + H.B. into the bark way up high. I had to see it to believe it, and when I came back down, I’d become important, too.
In high school, I took an ecology class where we had to learn and identify all the trees found in Northeastern Ohio. We stood outside the school, sneering at the kids still stuck in classrooms while we clustered around the maples and oaks right outside their windows. Here, we’d take notes about the differences between pin oaks and white oaks, sugar and silver maples. Our teacher would eventually move us toward the second-growth forest beyond the baseball fields, where we’d sketch pictures of double-serrated hophornbeam leaves and study the graffiti messages carved into thin gray trunks of American beeches. That’s where we learned that the evergreen branches of the Norway spruce look like your mother’s nylons hung over a shower curtain rod, and where we discovered that sassafras leaves smell like Fruit Loops when you crumble them in your hands.
After I graduated high school, I promptly forgot most of the identifying features of the trees outside my high school. But I still remembered the act — the act of learning them, touching them, loving them. Five years later, when I returned for my younger brother’s graduation, I discovered that the town had widened varsity baseball fields, expanded the high school parking lot. The curtain of trees that had educated me was gone.
I studied geology in college and took my field geology courses in Utah. Mapping rock outcroppings is much easier in the desert, much easier to make inferences about the past and subsurface when there aren’t any trees standing in your way. When we got there, my classmates and I gawked at the audacity of the naked landscape, the unusual beauty of the bold and barren red. But for some, it was too much exposure, too much vulnerability, like an acquaintance who shares too much and you’re left standing there, not really knowing what to say. I personally liked the freedom and the openness — but most Midwesterners, we’re used to keeping our emotions under wraps. “I can’t wait to get back home,” one of my classmates said toward the end of our stay, “I really miss the trees.”
I understand that now. My family and I live in the high desert of Central Oregon, where there aren’t many climbing trees. We climb mountains instead, hiking through forests of ponderosa and lodgepole pines, trees that grow indignantly straight and tall, withholding needle-tipped limbs from curious hands, trees whose only gesture of hospitality is in their scent of chardonnay. In the fall, my children can’t watch squirrels collecting acorns around the base of a great white oak, or jump into piles of rainbow-colored maples leaves like I did when I was young. Ours are piles of long brown needles and prickly, sappy pine cones — piles that must be removed quickly and completely lest they become tinder for fire season.
Out here, trees have always been the business, the original industry. In our parks and traffic circles, we have bronze sculptures of horses pulling logs measuring four or five feet in diameter. We have memorials to the big-wheeled equipment used to haul trees from the forest to the lumber mill, the mill that has since been converted to a shopping mall. People out here are proud of this town’s logging history, the black and white pictures of the smoke-filled valley, the dirt roads, the river choked with logs. But then when you drive over the mountain pass and see patches of clearcut in the thick green fabric of the Cascade foothills, I don’t care who you are — you will gasp and you will grieve.
I wonder about this sometimes. Wonder about raising my daughters in a place where the trees do not cradle them, where the history between man and forest is wrought with contention. Will they ever know trees the way I did? Will they love them the same way I do?
When I was little, we used to fold maple leaves into triangles and sew them together with their stems. We pretended they were fish, pretended to catch them with twigs and eat them in our tree houses. I try to instill this affection in my children the best way I know how. When we fly back east to visit family, we collect handfuls of acorns and pick sycamore leaves as large as their faces. We make leaf rubbings with crayons so we can bring their veined ghosts back home in our bags. At home, we use ponderosa pine cones to decorate fairy houses in the yard. And in the fall, we rake modest piles of small purple crabapple leaves, pick the ponderosa pine needles from them and jump. It’s not the same as the broadleaf piles I sank into when I was young, nor have my daughters ever enjoyed the feeling of really sitting in a tree. So I keep the binoculars close, for when a Northern flicker or a family of quail chooses our pines to roost. We have to love and experience our trees through them.
A few summers ago, the flowering crabapple trees that had been planted in our backyard when our house was built became infested with aphids. They were adolescent ornamentals, and I can’t say whether it was my denial that they were in real trouble, my reluctance to spray chemicals, or some combination of both, but they died. They didn’t survive the winter after the aphid attack, and the following spring their brittle branches only offered a few scattered clusters of tender rosy buds. I arranged to have them removed; the chainsaws came while my children were at school.
By the time my oldest daughter returned home, the crabapples were gone. Just the empty face of the stained wooden fence and an unfortunate view of our neighbor’s house in the void of their sickly canopies. She stood on the porch, rigid with shock, and suddenly started to cry. Not quiet little girl sniffles, but big tears with rapid, panicked breaths like the ones she cried when we had to put our terminally ill dog to sleep a few years before.
Normally, it pains me to see my children cry. Normally, my throat feels thick and involuntary tears spring to my own eyes when my daughter is under duress. But this time, underneath the pang of sympathy I felt deep beneath my sternum, I was relieved. Because something in that moment told me I’ve been doing something right.
Mary Heather Noble is an environmental scientist, mother, and writer whose work focuses on environmental issues and the intersection of the natural world, family, and place. Her writing has appeared in The Sun, OrionMagazine.org, and High Desert Journal. Noble is a student of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing Program in Maine, and serves on the Board of Directors to The Nature of Words literary organization in Bend, Oregon. She lives in Bend with her husband and two daughters.