I don’t have a favorite tree. Not one — many. When I attended the ritual gathering for the oldest tree in Minneapolis, the Northern Burr Oak, I realized that the relationships people have with trees are varied and complex. One man had fallen in love with his wife under the oak; another woman had gone there to find solace and healing when she learned she had cancer. Two poets read poems for the tree. An artist talked about creating sculptures from the branches. Trees are a life force. Like food, water, the air we breathe. I don’t know why we take them for granted, like they will always be there, always be replenished. Trees are our roots.
When I lived in the Northwest, trees were a constant source of tension between landowners, state government, the U.S. National Forest Service. How many trees to let private companies cut down, who would benefit. What about controlled burns that eat up trees, reduce them to cinders. Ponderosa pines, aspens, tamaracks. In the northwest corner of California, the southern tip of Oregon, live the biggest trees I’ve ever seen in my life. The Giant Redwoods. If we had not created federal and state parks, there would be no trees left. We tore down thousands of acres to make way for the railroad, to clear fields for agriculture.
The trees that mean the most to me? Last year, it was a tall skinny Georgia pine, the longleaf pine growing over the graves of my paternal grandparents. They were not part of my life when they were living. It is only since I’ve started researching memoir that I have come to know these kin, and reconnected to family I have not seen since I was 6 years old. In the South, we called family kin. I don’t know the origin of the word. I like to think it comes from kindred, like Kindred Spirits. My Aunt Annette told me that my granddaddy wanted to be buried under that pine tree. He was very specific about that. My mother wants her ashes scattered over Clarks Hill Lake. At least part of them. Again, very specific. Do I want to be scattered over mountain, ocean, forest, or dale?
I loved seeing the pine that Georgia O’Keeffe painted at the D. H. Lawrence Ranch, Kiowa. I’ve seen it three times, each visit standing under the canopy, or lying on a bench, staring straight up through the branches, dreaming of O’Keeffe. Is she in heaven? Ash mixed into her oils? The stroke of a brush. Could she have known that people would travel to that spot in New Mexico, just to stand under her tree, to walk where D.H. Lawrence and Dorothy Brett and Aldous Huxley and Frieda walked.
Oaks make a half circle around our yard. We are surrounded on one side by old growth trees. Who knows what they have seen: the building of neighborhood homes, the planting of gardens, restless children ice skating in the park across the street. Me, moving my belongings from a tiny apartment in Northeast Minneapolis to this hilly plot of land in Golden Valley. I love the oaks. But the most important tree on our land is the green ash in front of the deck that shades us from the sweltering sun. Last year, we were careful to watch for the possibility of an Emerald Ash Borer digging a home in her bark. We watered the ash, had her branches trimmed to keep her healthy. She seems less stressed this year, bushy and green.
In our front yard in Pennsylvania, where my mother still lives, there is a Royal Red Maple that my step-dad planted when we first moved into the house in 1966. There is an old color photograph of my brother as a child, taking out the garbage — that tree is barely at the top of his head. Now it’s a giant with massive roots which tear at the pavement that makes up the hilly drive where I shoveled snow as a child. Behind the house are acres of forest where we rode our mini-bikes in the Summer, went sledding in the Winter, took long walks in the Fall. They found an endangered species there a few years ago and were prohibited from developing the lots. Relief. Spared from the dozer.
For me, New Mexico is the Cottonwood, Montana the Ponderosa, Oregon the Redwoods, Minnesota the Red and White Pines, the South those skinny little Georgia Pines, the longleafs, where I built tree forts and dug caves to keep cool in the Summer. For all my digging, I don’t have a clue. I only know I feel a kindred spirit to the trees. Shade, oxygen, bark for medicine, needles for walls, pecans for good eating, I can’t imagine life without trees.
-Related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC — TREES