I think about a tree, once a great friend to me, an essential element of my daily life, close, close, close within my hands, tactile beneath my fingers and toes, a loamy odor up my nose. Does it still stand, straight and tall, incrementally shading the emerald grass carpet of a suburban backyard some ten miles from where I sit now, remembering? Does a loose-limbed child yet scale its elephant-skinned truck, so finely creased and wrinkled? Do ants draw their fine ribbons along its sturdy boughs, leaving chemical traces of their intent? What about the birds that nested annually in its crown – do they keep a home there even now, half a century later? How many lizards, cocoons, webs, and pods litter its branches?
Suddenly, I remember a photograph I captured several years ago, when I took my husband on a visit my old neighborhood to see the house I grew up in. Scrolling back through my phone’s photos, I stop at the façade of my childhood home, immediately registering the blank space in the upper right-hand corner beyond the roof – no tree. How could I have missed that when I took the picture? Failed to register the chasm rent in my past, yawning blue and blank as the sky now nakedly revealed? MY tree, the keeper of my secrets, witness of my heartaches, companion to my tears. Gone. A life extinguished, a body drawn and quartered, roots wrenched from clinging soil, leaves raining down in grief. How long ago had I lost it? Why hadn’t its absence redounded in my soul?
Every child should have a tree, it seems to me, of substantial girth and deep roots, with accommodating boughs that will support the scrambling of bare feet and toes. Mine was a beech, already thirty feet tall when we moved into the three-bedroom, yellow stucco, ranch-style house on Ranney Street in 1965. At four years old, I was initially too small to reach the long, straight branch that jutted out at like an Ent’s perfect elbow four feet above the ground. And so, I played among its roots, gnarled hardwood fingers pushing up through the dirt around its base, perfectly delineated arenas for my plastic animal figures longing for respite from shag carpeting and furniture legs. What a cornucopia of animal feed – twigs and frass, pulled weeds, grass clippings, leaf litter, and scattered seeds. My horses and goats and giraffes and elephants were at home there in the silty dirt and so was I, concerned not for dusty knees or hemlines. Pill bugs and earwigs, snails and ants, caterpillars, spiders, moths, bees, wasps and butterflies – all were abundantly extant, accepted without prejudice. My world was close and dear, familiar to me as my own skin, which was slicked and furred with its detritus. I belonged among this organic stuff, breathing in its scented oxygen, long blond hair littered with sticks and leaves, toenails and fingernails packed with peaty earth.
As soon as I was tall enough, I would hook my right knee around that long straight branch and spin myself to sit upright, the branch almost the same width as my spindly thighs. For months, this was my perch, five feet above the ground, a new vantage point from which to view my animal kingdom nested placidly below, a veritable god among the leaves. Wrapping my arms around its substantial trunk, I’d press my cheek against its cool bark and feel the green pulse of sap, invisible but present. The tree was a body, just like I was a body, with mysterious inner fluids and resilient flesh. A much larger, older body that could hold and contain mine, which felt insubstantial and pliable compared to it. I felt the tree abiding through starlit autumn nights and sunbaked summer days, breezes rustling among its branches, soft summer sprinkles moistening its leaves. Without ascribing it words, I was aware of its subtle, diffuse consciousness. Amidst the profligate foliage of that suburban backyard – which seemed so wild and untamed to my childish eyes – my tree was the undisputed king, the tallest, broadest component among herbaceous borders, fanning palms, clipped lawn, and trimmed hibiscus.
Growing up the oldest of five children, all born within seven years, I was desperate for a space to call my own. As soon as I could make the climb, I claimed the topmost limbs of the tree as my personal den, an aerial retreat lofting above the chaos and din of an 1100 sq. ft. bungalow mushrooming human
bodies. Wedged in the deep vee of its split trunk, I would survey my realm, peering into the neighbors’ backyards, noting the dads’ departure to and arrival from work; marking whose bike was flung on which friend’s lawn; calling out to scratching dogs sprawled on cement patios; watching the clouds drift, swirl and separate like cotton candy against a tonal backdrop of baby blue. Here, I would inscribe the initials of a decade-spanning crush, my best friend’s brother, four years older, inhabitant of an unfamiliar universe of baseball cards, ten-speed bicycles, driveway basketball, and Beatles’ singles on the record player. I loved the golden blond bangs that swooped across his forehead, hiding one eye; his bronzed arms with their gilding of platinum hairs; the loping ease with which he rounded the sandbags thrown into the cul-de-sac to serve as bases. I loved his deepening voice and the confidence with which he teased his sister and me. I loved him with the blinding, unrequited passion of prepubescence and the tree was my only confidant, lending its invisible ears to my ceaseless suffering, seiving my salty tears through its toothed leaves, soothing my heartache with its gentle green caress. I read countless books nestled in its green halo, my limbs entwined with its, my spine supported by the iron column of its trunk. It was a clear space where I could read words aloud and feel the timber of their inflection.
At night, in flying dreams, I invariably launched from my tree’s crown: first I would stand, both feet wedged in the deep vee, then I would spread my arms and fall, soaring, hands spread, body undulating, hair streaming back. Through my winding, circumscribed flights, my tree would orient me, a beacon of feathered green, shimmering in the moonlight, a silent sentinel, peaceful and approving.
I never ventured out from neighborhood, fully entranced by the dew-spattered lawns, the curtained and shuttered windows like a line of sleeping eyes along the blacktopped corridor of Ranney Street; cars slumbering curbside; sidewalks chalk white and empty; hoses curled like cobras on hooks flanking garage doors. The incongruity of darkness costuming the mundane and ordinary captivated me, misting my neighborhood with a portent that wasn’t accessible in daylight. I was aware of conversations happening on different frequencies, invisible embroidery that laced and looped between fauna and flora, knitting the world together, infusing it with intent. Buoyed by an intense recognition of home and well-being, I would wheel and plummet, circle and dive, assured of my absolute safety in the nightscape.
I miss my tree. Even more so now that I’ve realized it’s physically, not just geographically, gone. Within its penumbra I once embedded with nature. Seamlessly integrated, absorbed by my environs, I played and dreamed and cried and read and didn’t hold myself within edges, outlines or borders. Awareness percolated within me, rising like sap within my veins. Thinking was diffused, unstructured. Undisturbed, I could focus on the voice inside, rather than those outside, my head. The episodic drone of airplanes overhead, children’s voices punctuating birdsong, tires whirring over asphalt, dogs barking, the occasional siren – these aural layers blanketed the ambient stillness, enhancing, reinforcing my arboreal cloister.
It’s been a long time since my boundaries have blurred; I rarely go barefoot outside or get really dirty. I don’t fondle pincher bugs or discover twigs woven in my hair. My knees are never scabbed. Play is something I do with letter tiles on a tablet screen; reading, curled up in a papasan chair with the lamp on. Ants are, in general, to be avoided. I haven’t had a flying dream in 50 years. I’ve lost my physical connection to nature; though I still appreciate the palette of a brilliant sunset, the whistle of wind rushing through trees, the sharp note of fresh grass clippings, the eely feel of a slippery river stone, these days they reach me across borders and edges, corralled within outlines that delineate their separation from me. I can no longer hear sap rising, in me or a tree.
I saw my childhood crush – that best friend’s brother – at my parent’s golden wedding anniversary almost ten years ago. He was puffy in that way former military men get when they retire to the couch. His sweeping bangs had been domesticated into a crew cut, his skin now pallid, his voice husky and phlegmy from what may have been years of smoking. I avoided him completely, my heart beating like a drum within my chest, not wanting to taint the sanctity of my years-old passion. Somewhere I keep his initials within the outline of a heart, carved into the uppermost branches of a beech tree that no longer exists. I no longer sense invisible networks of pheromones or lose my edges to waves of passion. I am contained within borders, stranded within my own treeless plain of consciousness.