A Tree in Winter

by Brooks Riley

Winter treesIf I could hug a tree a day without seeming a complete idiot, I would. Trees matter to me now–how fast they grow, how full their crowns, how tall they are, how odd their leaves, how extraordinary their shapes, how thick their trunks, how nearby they are. This late interest has crept up on me, and taken hold in ways I am trying to understand.

It’s not as if I’ve taken leave of humankind, the animal kingdom—or my senses—to go live among the stately green giants. I haven’t given up all that for something else, far from it. But there are aspects of trees that seem to harmonize with what I need: Silence (I don’t need to communicate with them.); Design (The complexity of a living organism achieving its biological destiny is somehow reassuring.); Color (The range of hues, from green to orange to yellow to purple to pink, is a technicolor packaging triumph); Variety (The aesthetic intricacy of their bare black branches against a grey sky, or the hoarfrost that turns them white overnight like an old crone); Progress (Those bare branches look a lot like dentrites, reminding me that mine are still growing too); Stillness (They don’t have to move to be going somewhere.). The appeal of a tree is almost metaphoric, heralding a time when I too will fall silent, cease to move, and return to the same earth they already occupy. No hooded figure with a scythe will knock on my door. I’ll be knocking at the door of their kingdom when the time comes, a willing Philemon with or without my Baucis.

I don’t anthropomorphize trees the way Peter Wohlleben apparently does in his recent bestselling book. I am happy to learn that trees are just as social as we are, but this news has no bearing on my solitary appreciation of a tree.

ScreenHunter_2486 Jan. 02 11.24Across the street from where I lived not long ago, a row of trees was felled to make way for the annex to a home for the disabled. Three of the four trees were justifiable victims of inevitable progress in a big city. But the fourth, a large chestnut with a trunk nearly a meter wide, could have been spared, and should have been spared. It was at the end of the lot, on a swath of grass still there today, untouched by construction of any kind, the annex now long completed.

For weeks after its felling, I would walk past its stump on my way to breakfast, and mourn that tree cut down in its prime, so magnificent in recent memory, as I gazed down at the senseless open wound, a sawed-off trunk that had expanded so slowly and so long over the many years of its lifetime, ring by ring. And then one day, it too was gone, uprooted by a specialist who came and forklifted the remains from the earth and carted it away.

To mourn a single tree may seem fatuous in the face of escalating human tragedy, not to forget the wholesale destruction of tropical forests in the name of progress. But the mourning of a single tree may be necessarily emblematic of the mourning we would all like to be feeling, but can’t, over the global misery we are informed of on a daily basis.

They say that with age, childhood memories come flooding back, as though they’d been waiting in the wings for their encore. In my case, it is an old childhood love that has been rekindled.

Most of my childhood was surrounded by trees, lots of them—beeches, birches, elms (before Dutch elm disease), oaks, Japanese magnolias, poplars, chestnuts, sycamores, maples, mimosas, dogwoods, weeping willows, mulberry trees, apple trees, spruces, and one special favorite known to me only as the cigar tree (it had fatcat leaves and seedhusks that looked like cigars). I knew every one of them personally and climbed quite a few during the long afternoons after school, left on my own to search for the signs of life that mattered to me then—a bird’s nest (‘How did he build that thing with no hands?’), the seventeen-year-cicadas who left hundreds of discarded cocoons on the trunk of a single copper beech, the red cardinal flushed from a bush as I approached, the possum languishing in the wisteria, the mole under the lawn, the gray squirrels dashing up and down a maple, the woodpecker I could hear but never see, the bats who flew down the chimney on a hot July night, the starlings who settled en masse in one very large spruce. It was a jungle out there and I was Dr. Livingstone, presuming endless discoveries. We already had a menagerie: two cats, a dog, horses, a pony, chickens, a black bunny and two white ducks (no partridges, no pear trees). But they were domesticated, extensions of my own civilization, whereas I was in search of wildlife, that other civilization, much of it inexorably implicated in the glorious presence of those trees.

The judge who had designed and built the house where we lived, had also planted those trees many years earlier, more for my enjoyment than for his as it turned out, now that I know how long it takes for such a landscape to emerge. I once saw an old photograph of the house right after its completion. Without a tree in sight, the naked construction loomed like an eyesore on top of a barren hill. By the time we moved there, many years later, the house had become an afterthought embedded in a vast arboretum. If there was artistic intent when the judge went a-planting, I do not know. For me those trees seemed to have dropped from heaven, landing just where they should. I would not have moved a single one of them, unlike Luzhin in Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defense, who saw trees as chess pieces on a broad green board to be moved around to please his own strategy, with no regard for strategic beauty in its own right.

Like most lucky children, I didn’t realize how lucky I was, but I did take full advantage of my environment, exploiting it to satisfy my curiosity. Now those trees have returned to haunt me with their effulgence, their steadfastness, their endurance. I’ve googled the former homestead and seen many of my old green friends still standing, continuing to grow at their own leisurely pace to ever greater degrees of maturescence.

When I grew up, I left trees behind and moved to New York City where I rarely ventured into Central Park. Those trees, noble tokens of Frederick Law Olmsted’s imagination, didn’t interest me: They were growing in spite of the city, not because of it. Trees ceased to matter to me at all for most of my adult life—until now.

In a recent New York Times survey of famous people’s favorite 2016 books, my somewhat older contemporary, the writer Margaret Atwood, was the only one who cited books about nature—a book about water, another about weeds, and the Peter Wohlleben book about trees. Maybe there’s something to be learned from her choices: That childlike wonderment doesn’t completely disappear with childhood, but returns full force as we age, to ease, embellish and illuminate our earthly denouement.