For the second meeting of our Women Writing group, six of us gathered in a new comfortable space with a wide wooden table. We opened with a warm-up from Orlew, who asked us to look at a beautiful nude reproduction from the Kimball’s upcoming exhibit, Renoir: The Body, The Senses. Her instructions: Describe this image in 2-3 sentences, using no adjectives. Her exercise forced us to concentrate on the nouns and verbs that are the mainstays of good writing, without explicitly telling us to do so. I found myself writing quickly, but editing to choose just the right words. As each of us read her response, we were reminded not only of the importance of naming specific things and actions, but also of the myriad responses that can result from each creative perspective. Tina went straight to establishing a story. Orlew named a character. We all went straight to orienting a body in space.
Eileen bravely stepped up to share her work first. Almost written a letter to her mother, this start also sought to unite the generations through memories. Eileen included beautiful images of her mother sharing the first ripe tomato of the season and began to explore the inherent contradictions that made her mother such a fascinating woman. In many ways, Eileen was attacking one of the most difficult topics any writer can address, trying to capture in words the essence of the one person who may have influenced her most, her mother. (Eileen’s piece reminded me of Annie Dillard’s “Terwilliger Bunts One,” adapted from An American Childhood.)
Next it was my turn. I already knew I needed to work on tightening up my essay — the basic structure and meaning were there, but I had gotten carried away with the language. And Orlew’s exercise reminded me that I needed to be less enraptured with modifiers and more focused on what mattered. But I was eager to hear what everyone else had to say. Their comments helped me see what to keep and what to cut back on, where to help the reader stay with me and not get lost, how I might learn from Eileen’s piece to include more simple declarative sentences and even fragments, rather than loop into sentences that one of my grad school teachers called “positively Jamesian.” I’ve revised and shared my essay below.
I’m sorry I’ll miss the next meeting as I’ll be traveling for work. If someone from the group wants to share a blog post reflection on the meeting, I’m happy to post it in this space.
Among the Trees: A Love Story
This past summer, walking through the ancient forest of Seward Park in Seattle, I was oddly struck by the information shared by our guide that “Mayan women would marry trees, pledging their lives to the trees’ care.” Our guide, a woman named Julie, and a self-proclaimed Tree Whisperer, spoke in delightedly reverent tones as she poked her way along the half-neglected path ahead of my husband and me.
I imagined these women from the Mayan past. How they would take solemn vows and then nurture friendships with their chosen trees. How they would carry water to their roots and check them for infestations. How they would experience the loveliness of sharing with their companions everything they encountered, from the news of the day to the deepest of secrets.
You might say I have serially married several trees over the course of my lifetime, even as I likewise took up with a string of lovers who then became my husbands. That is, I committed myself to these trees in some immeasurable way, have considered them mine as I would a dear friend, and sadly bid them goodbye when I moved on. Even visiting some of them in later years, I still felt a humming connection.
The first tree that I called my own was a sturdy mimosa in the backyard of our rented tract house on Polk Street in Huntsville, Alabama. A lovely little tree, it separated itself into limbs at just the right height for climbing. This little mimosa became a refuge for me, just as school had been for the brief months I attended The Little Red School House, a short walk from the converted barracks of the Brooklyn Navy Yard where my family of five and then six crammed into a tiny apartment.
Having moved mid-year, I no longer walked eagerly to school every day, but instead clambered up the branches of my mimosa. Soon I was cupped into boughs that sighed gently in the Alabama springtime. And I felt lifted up into the sky, newly invited to join the living, breathing universe, as I crouched amid blossoms that filled the air like pink stars.
The next September I would be back in school again, my love for my mimosa eclipsed by my love of learning anything Miss Berry could teach me. Then my family moved again, this time to a cinder block base housing two states away. In Florida, the trees behind our house formed a jungly mob held in check by a chain link fence. I never went near them, for they were entangled with eerie vines, and I worried they might shelter the coral snakes my mother taught me to be afraid of. Surely, I believed, they housed the army grasshoppers my little brother used to regularly send me screaming onto the kitchen counter.
But I still smile inside whenever I see mimosas in bloom. I fill my lungs with their cloying scent and rekindle the magic that simmers in my blood.
After Florida, my childhood was subsumed in a blur of low-country pines. An undeveloped block of pine trees and palmetto bushes ran the length of the houses across from ours on the Navy base in Georgia where we now lived. We called this forest simply the Woods. It was where all the children in the neighborhood set off to play every afternoon if we could get away from homework or washing dishes or anything our mothers might want us to do.
My friends and I used sticks to dig at the sap that oozed from underneath the bark platelets that formed the tall trunks of the pines. We stripped the cones we found at our feet to see what we could find inside. We pantomimed sword fights with the serrated edges of the palmetto stems that formed the forest’s undergrowth.
The Woods were where I practiced writing symbols in the dirt with stones to earn my Indian Lore badge in Girl Scouts. It was where I once lured a half-feral cat out of the darkness with bread soaked in milk. It was where I sought refuge from the demons of loneliness that came with growing up in a household uninterested in my unique perspective on the world. The Woods knew me and welcomed me without question.
I don’t remember a single tree in those Woods that claimed my heart. In those early years, I was really in love with all of them.
When I was thirteen, my father retired from the Navy and moved our family to Beaufort, South Carolina. There we inhabited the first house we ever owned, a brick rancher with a big backyard dominated by a huge magnolia which, when in flower, was blanketed in white blooms as big as soup tureens. Behind our house lay a snarl of scrabbly shrubs, sticker vines, and gum ball trees. Boys with dirty faces, my brother among them, played war in the shadows of those trees, and once when I took a shortcut along one of its narrow paths, a boy named Mike from down the street tried to put his hand up my shirt. These trees never called to me, never sheltered me, the way that others had.
As I grew older and earned the privilege of riding my bike to the Beaufort Public Library three miles into town, I explored the moss-covered live oaks hugging Bay Street between ghostly antebellum homes and the inlet that lapped at their feet. Ultimately, I settled my eye on a grand old fellow who gazed across marsh grass and lazy water with a sense of benevolent ownership and staying power. He’d been there for some time, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
I visited this tree on a fairly regular basis throughout my teens. He was just down the road a ways from where I played guard on Saturdays with the church basketball league. Later, when I established a regular routine of library pilgrimages, I stopped by just to think and watch the gulls and listen to what was going on in my mixed-up, adolescent brain. Leaning back against his broad trunk, I felt somehow grounded in the earth just as much as he was.
Sometimes I would invite my human friends to what I came to call “my spot,” and we would try to make sense of confusing world we inhabited in that way of idealistic teenagers. It was a comforting place, somehow inviting trust and truth-telling amidst fireflies that rose up into the branches to form a galaxy of eyes quietly blinking against dense foliage and indigo sky. But mostly I chose to visit my spot by myself, so could just be.
When I headed off to college, I kept a photograph of my tree with me, posting it on the bulletin board above the desk where I studied poetry and played records by Joni Mitchell.. When I returned to Beaufort decades later, I paid a visit to my old friend; he was still there, quietly watching over the coming and going of the tides.
At the University of South Carolina, I gravitated toward the Horseshoe, an inviting cobbled lane circling a sumptuous lawn that seemed to me the epitome of what college was supposed to be. One September, as the afternoon sun filtered through the not-yet-turning trees -- several kinds of oaks, their Swamp Chestnut cousin, an American Elm -- I was sitting on the grass, shredding the stems of lush green, as I told my human boyfriend that no, I absolutely would not marry him one day.
For four years, I would claim the paths along the Horseshoe, sometimes literally running from my classes in the Education Building past the McKissick Library to the concrete monstrosity where I took classes in literature and Women’s Studies. The trees of the Horseshoe were my constant throughout all those years of intellectual and personal turbulence, and when I made my first ridiculous leap into marriage (not to the freshman year boyfriend, however misguided I may have been) during the spring of my junior year, I found myself against the backdrop of those trees on the Horseshoe once again, posing for pictures before the gaping mouths of a Yulan Magnolia that offered a kind of gaudy commentary on my rash determination to tie the knot.
More trees would come into my life, and new relationships with humans would unfold as well. There would be the ropey entanglements of the too purple wisteria at Duke University and a wild romp in the forest nearby. A move to Washington, DC with the man who would become my second husband,would introduce me to Dumbarton Oaks, where I discovered the giddiness of being transported to the landscaped elegance of an Italian giardino. I would need to reclaim this place for myself, evergreen by evergreen and oak by oak, when that marriage died fifteen years later. In the meantime, I would learn the ins and outs of the beech-lined bicycle trails of Rock Creek Park all the way down to the Black Locusts and Buckeyes of Mount Vernon. Later, in yet another reinvention of myself, I would discover Thomas Jefferson’s horticultural genius at Monticello, a few hours drive west to Charlottesville, Virginia, with the man who would become my third husband and my co-explorer for the long haul.
Husband number three and I have loved a few trees together. There were the other-worldly Rainbow Eucalyptus in our little corner of Kaneohe, Hawai’i, and the banana, breadfruit, and coconut trees off our lanai, where, especially at dawn, the many birds of our paradise carried on like the world was just invented. And the shady cove of a tree, I have no idea what kind, at the fringe of our favorite beach in Kailua.
Now we have taken up residence is the mostly treeless rolling hills and plains of north central Texas. Oh, you see the occasional thicket of mesquite, and the pecan tree that shades my backyard these days is shedding its bounty prodigiously, making me grump at the yard clean-up it requires while I also feel a bit like a proud grandma. As we look to our next move, possibly to become city-dwellers back East, I insist that I must have trees to look at every day in order to be happy.
* * *
Strolling among the ancient Douglas Firs, Alaska Cedars, Madrona, and Coastal Redwoods of Seward Park, Jule the Tree Whisperer, my husband, and I do what the Japanese call “forest breathing.” We find ourselves simply in awe of something that is so universal that it can renew the sap of life in us if we let it. We sense the invisible web of roots reaching out to touch, connect, and support us. We feel sheltered as only walking in the quiet of an old forest can make us feel.
Then Julie the Tree Whisperer fishes a contraption out of her parka and connects it to her mobile phone. She gently attaches its probes to the wide branches of a plant I cannot name in the undergrowth. “Listen,” she says, “You can hear it singing.” Larry, my husband now for nearly half of my life, touches the plant gingerly, and the sound that comes from Julie’s phone transforms itself into something like chanting -- or like a woman trilling at a wedding, or a birth. I touch the same leaf to tune the sound higher and faster, as we breathe in the harmony of this crazy universe.
I am no botanist, nor even an amateur dendrophile, so I must give due thanks to the many resources online that helped me name the trees in this essay.
Dumbarton Oaks Garden. Website.
Historic Trees of Mount Vernon. Website.
Italian Gardens. Master Gardener Program. University of Wisconsin - Madison.
Meditative Old-Growth Forest Walk. Tree Whisperer (Julie Ratner, Ph.D.). Website.
Native Plants of Rock Creek Park. Explore Natural Communities. Website.
Seward Park Tree Walk.
Trees on the University of South Carolina Historic Campus. Brochure.