To be human is not to be a tree.
I must have been seven, spring, 1958; our car was a Nash; Dad was filling the tank. Pulling the door latch, I sidled around to stand near, my head just above the fuel cap.
“Don’t come close,” he ordered.
“I like the smell.”
“It’s poison!” he said, pushing me away. “Damages the brain.”
“Then why do you use it? Everyone breathes it when it goes into the air.”
“Trees clean the air, through their leaves.”
When we drove on, trees glided by. One, twenty, seven hundred. Cars came toward us. One, two, forty, three hundred. Days and weeks of cars.
“Daddy, don’t trees get sick?”
“They breathe different stuff than we do, carbon dioxide, and they give us oxygen.”
“So the smell is carbon dioxide?”
“No. It’s lead; trees collect the bad stuff in their needles and leaves, but they turn the CO2 into oxygen for us to breathe.”
Poison in their needles. Trees were many, but they could die; I had seen trees dead. Where in their needles would the lead go?
To be adult is not to be a child.
Decades later I remembered those trees. No rain the summer I was pregnant with my second. The earth congealed and cracked. Lining the drive north were sickening trees. The southern edge of the pine forest seemed to fall, the trees closest the freeway anemic. Whole swamps stood with bare tamarack and spruce. Could my driving be causing this drought?
An earth of dying trees is no place for young life.
In the city, boulevard saplings dropped their leaves. Crazed by my audacious pregnancy in time of drought, I loaded my two-year old and a bucket onto a wagon and pulled them along the sidewalk, dumping half a pail of water at the base of each trunk. Passers-by asked if I should be lifting water in my condition. My condition? What more essential in pregnancy than the watering of trees?
By the early 90s the world had spun out of control. Winter did not settle into its time. Young birches died, crown down. Army worms chomped leaves in a speeded-up cycle, no winter freeze snapping the world clean. The uncovered earth offered small creatures no where to hide, no snow to burrow beneath.
Does only a child of the forest know that people and trees are close kin?
Elsewhere the message was other. Trees are resources. Renewable. Trees, like owls and beaver and snowdrops, are for the pleasure of man. Humans reason, humans speak, humans have opposable thumbs. Humans, the teachers and textbooks assured, are different, above.
Walking among trees teaches that we are together. We are individual and one. All of us, one and alone.
Through those 90s and early 00s, incipient insanity woke me each morning. Seasons had slipped. Seed-time and harvest could no longer rock the nursery of life with a regular planting then picking, planting then picking. White pines yellowed; moose lost life to liver fluke. And no one, no human, screamed. People waved greetings: “Another beautiful day! Can you believe this excellent winter?!”
Could it be human not to feel gut-connected with life? Is awareness only a matter of disposition and chance?
My five-year old son pinched spruce sprigs from branches, laid them one-by-one into a stream that ran through moss and cedar trunks, over the rocks, into the lake. The sprigs sputtered out sap that propelled them wildly in circles, motored by a pitchy fuel. He set one twig afloat and another.
“Now stop,” I told him. “Ask the tree. Ask the tree if you can take yet another.”
“Trees don’t talk,” he replied in his best adult voice.
He faced the tree and moved his lips, nodded, then pulled down a sap twig. It riffed off on a watery ride. He turned to the tree. Paused. Asked again. Spun toward me dismayed—”It said no!”
We walked home.
This is an academic journal. I cannot write here that trees and humans are one. I cannot tell you that together we speak.
A winter ago, pondering my daughter’s life, I walked to a scraggly, crowded part of the woods, plopped down in the snow, leaned into a hefty white pine. After some moments, I felt the massive trunk moving against my back. Looking up, I saw the top swaying, just so much, bending to wind. I spoke to the tree.
“Will you watch over my daughter? When I am gone, will you keep standing here, caring somehow for my girl?”
I didn’t expect words from the tree, but they came.
“If you will take care of mine.”
Young pines rarely thrive in crowded woods; cones don’t open without flame. Still, I stood and searched for an unlikely child of this tree. To the east, behind a young fir, hemmed in by two scrappy poplars, stood a slender white pine, crowded and gasping, but there.
After we buried my father this fall, my nephew walked with me to the woods. “We’ll cut down the fir,” I told him, “the two poplars, and even the birch that’s too close. We’re going to give this pine space.” We did it, cut them all down.
To be human is not to be a tree.