I’ve always noticed the trees where we’ve lived. Growing up on Neat Lane, we had out front a big sycamore that Dad kept trimmed into a tidy globe of leaves. In my memory, there is a sidewalk under the tree where the itch bombs fall and gather. We pick them up and for fun explode them, throw them with all our might onto the sidewalk.
Except, I’ve been back to Neat Lane several times as an adult, and there is no sidewalk. I think there’s a curb, but beyond the curb it is up to each family to landscape their yard. Some people — like Dad — kept their yards worthy of the street’s name. Others (and again, in my faulty memory I see a washing machine and old love seat on the front porch of the neighbors across the street) did not.
It is the trees that attracted me to the house where we live now. Someone, and I imagine it to be a her, lovingly picked out the many trees and placed them all around the house, knowing that one day they would grow huge and tall and would shade the place, keeping it cool from the summer heat.
There are Ponderosas and an ornamental plum that blazes a deep red you can see from the road. There are poplars, one is now diseased on one side, that grow high without becoming wide. The leaves look like the cottonwood except silvery on one side, and in hindsight I realize the poplar reminds me more of an aspen than a cottonwood, although I believe all three are from the same family.
In our old house there was a locust tree that drew me in, outside the kitchen window. How many times did I sit on the cozy warm tiles in that house and write, pausing to stare out at the small deep green leaves of the locust?
Some trees are invasive, I’m thinking now of the elms that Jim got permission from our neighbors to cut down. The elms were on the fence line, Chinese elms, of the variety a former mayor long ago imported to Albuquerque thinking they would grow well in the arid landscape. When Jim felled those elms (and I like using the word “felled” although it seems unnatural to my language) I mourned them. I looked at them as living things, yes invasive, but they provided shade and privacy. Jim saw them as water mongers, non-native species, and I suppose he imagined a different kind of tree, one better for the water table, in their place.
Dad always disliked certain trees. For a long time he and Mom complained about the large Russian olive out front next door. It dropped tiny leaves and spongy fake olives, causing Dad much consternation. A tree is a tree, I would think. Why in the world, how in the world could they dislike a tree?
Russian olives are in fact bad for the valley and come up like little weeds everywhere. Jim has gotten rid of quite a few, but I look at them and think of the old olive trees I saw once in Jerusalem, in Gethsemane’s Garden, and I see how the trees get gnarly and thick, and each layer must have seen a different scene. If you cut back the bark, you’d find a layer that saw Jesus himself.
That’s what I think of when I think of the Russian olive. Or I think of a family photo I remember that hung in the hallway of Jim’s parents’ house. I would stare at that photo when I first went there to visit with Jim. The trunk grew sideways instead of up, and it eventually did grow up, but the sideways portion made a natural bench on which the family sat or leaned. It was a photo of them long ago, when everyone was young and Jim’s parents were at their most vibrant. Something about that photo appealed to me, like I could see marrying into a family that sits around a tree.
I think of trees like people, and I think about how we want to be like trees. Grounded and firm, with strong roots going deep into the land. Sometimes when I water a tree, I think about how the root system underneath is probably as long and wide as the portion of the tree that grows above the ground. Like a mirror image.
If people are like trees, that means that beneath us we have our mirror images, supporting us as we walk, reflecting back to us whatever it is in the core of our earth.
I couldn’t imagine living in a place without trees, and yet what I love about New Mexico is that the tree is sacred. It is not abundant, and when we see it we seek it out for shade. If I had a patron tree, like a patron saint, it would be the cottonwood. Dark, rough bark that protects the soft wood inside. And deep roots. A sign always when you see it that water is nearby.
-Related to Topic post WRITING TOPIC — TREES