Among the Trees

My zen garden sanctuary

My zen garden sanctuary

The first tree I ever loved was a plum tree, a riot of dense lacy blossoms in spring that morphed into the deepest of purple leaves through the summer. It stood in the front yard of my childhood home and blanketed my bedroom with its lavender tinged shade.

When we left that house and moved across town, I made my first acquaintance with a Hawthorne tree whose early May profusion of dark pink flowers charmed my romantic teenage heart. It blessed me on my wedding day with a riotous display of color, and provided a stunning background for photographs.

Our first home as a married couple was the house my husband grew up in, and it was filled with trees, including an orchard of heirloom fruit trees with origins dating back about 100 years. The dividing line between our backyard and our orchard was a stand of 20 foot tall pine trees my father-in-law brought from Wyoming as saplings.

But of all the many trees on that 300 square feet of proprty, I admit to two favorites. The first a Crimson King Maple planted in 1954 to mark the year of my husband’s birth. I have a black and white snapshot showing him as a one year old, hanging onto the spindly trunk of a tree barely taller than he is. By the time we moved into the house 20 years later, the tree is at least 30 feet tall and spreading dense shade over more than half the yard.

I was even more partial to the ancient Ash tree with its trunk so strong and wide I could barely wrap my arms around it. Our house faced the east, and this tree protected us from the most fierce morning rays. When our son started school, I took his picture every year on the first day, watching him grow strong and steadily upward like the trunk of a young tree himself.

We moved to a condo seven years ago, and chose this particular location largely because it was an end unit surrounded by trees. In the fall, a stately maple whose leaves turn the brightest shade of scarlet I’ve ever seen suffuses our upstairs bedroom with crimson light. In spring, a delicate magnolia’s rotund blossoms appear overnight and disappear just as quickly with the first rainy day, reminding me to enjoy those fleeting moments of beauty before they are so abrutply gone.

Again I have a particular favorite - a slightly scraggly Hawthorne on the shadiest corner of the garden. Each spring we hang chimes from one of its branches. Over the years I laid memorial stones underneath it — one for my mother and each of the little dogs we lost since we moved here. Early summer mornings I wander through the yard, coffee cup in hand, and stand in its shade, listen to the mellow tone of the chimes, and reflect on the three loved ones whose memory I mark in that spot.

One of the pitfalls of condo living is that we don’t control the property our home stands on. And so the Powers That Be decided our Hawthorne tree was creating too much shade resulting in bare spots on the lawn. Yesterday they cut it down, leaving a barren spot in that corner of my garden and another one in a corner of my heart.

Poet and novelist May Sarton wrote in her essay, The Death of a Maple (from her memoir Plant Dreaming Deep): “There is no comfort when a great tree goes. There is no comfort in the dying struggle.For many months I missed something in the air over my head…that branch high up where once the oriole sang.”

I miss my crooked little tree and the zen-like atmosphere it created in our suburban garden. I know the world has far more painful problems to solve, but sensitivity to nature and the atmosphere it creates might be a characteristic worth cultivating if we want to find different ways of solving them. Because trees connect us with the natural world in a unique way, offering us shelter from the sun, a breeze to cool our face, a home for birds and wildlife. They provide a feast for our eyes with the changing seasons, and nourishment for our bodies with their fruit.

The poet Mary Oliver writes this of “being among the trees”*:

They give off such hints of gladness/I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves/and call out, “stay awhile.”/The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say/”and you too have some/into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled/with light, and to shine.

I feel sorry for those who cannot appreciate the beauty of trees, who cannot hear the music in the wind sighing through their branches, who cannot delight in the way sunlight sneaks in and out of the leaves. Perhaps there is a hollow spot in their heart. Perhaps they are missing some key element that connects all living things to one another.

Perhaps they simply do not know how to shine.

*When I Am Among the Trees, Mary Oliver, Thirst, Beacon Press, 2006