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Posts Tagged ‘writing about trees’

By Bob Chrisman


Trees hold a special place in my memory. I planted lots of trees in the yard of the house where I lived for the first 21 years of my life. The poplar trees went along the north border of the yard next to the gravel alley. They grew tall and then split in heavy winds. I learned that not all trees live a long time.

I planted a maple tree in a spot near the raspberry patch. Subconsciously I must have known that it would grow tall enough to shade the raspberry bushes and keep the sun from nourishing them. It took ten years for the tree to grow to a height sufficient to block the sun on the west end of the patch. By then my mother had stopped picking raspberries and selling them to her friends and neighbors anyway so she didn’t miss those bushes killed by the lack of sunlight.

My favorite tree was the Dutch elm that grew in the side yard. It provided solace to me in my childhood. When I was punished as a very small boy I would take my teddy bear which was as big as I was and carry it to a place under the tree, throw it on the ground, and lie down with my head on his chest and cry. The old black cat would come from wherever he was in the neighborhood and sit next to me and the bear until I stopped crying. Then he would wander off. I would pick up my companion and carry him back into the house.

That tree watched over me for many years until it died of some disease. All those years it escaped the Dutch elm disease only to die of some other cause. I sat and watched as my father cut it down and wondered what life would be like without a place to cry.

I read a book one time about the spirits in trees and how each tree has its own personality. My experience tells me that the spirits do exist. We usually aren’t quiet enough to feel them or hear them. No, they don’t talk like we do, but they express themselves through their movement and the leaves.

The cedar pines outside my grandmother’s farmhouse whispered in the slightest breeze. I curled up on the daybed on the screened in porch and fell asleep to the sounds of those trees talking to each other and the background conversations of my family in the living room of the farmhouse.

At the cemetery about a half mile from my grandmother’s house, the shushing of the cedar pines became the voices of the dead buried among the roots of the trees. No matter how hot the temperature in the world away from those trees, the air under those trees was cold as though when the dead talked they expelled the coldness of the world in which they lived.

The sycamore trees that grow in the park not far from my house spread their branches across large areas. The big leaves provide shade and shelter to all different kinds of birds and humans. People, with their bags of possessions, sleep under the trees during the late afternoon and early evening. People picnic at nearby tables. The walkers and runners appear to relax when they reach the shade.

In the winter these same trees with no leaves looks like skeletal hands reaching toward the sky to beg some god or goddess for the return of spring. The bleached whiteness of the branches against the cold blue skies of winter or the gray clouds that bring snow beseech some higher power for the return of warmth.

The sweet gum tree that grows in my front yard shades the house from the intense afternoon sun. The huge leaves provide hiding places for the squirrels and birds. For some reason no birds nest in the tree. Maybe they know that the wood is too soft sometimes to withstand the windstorms.

In the fall a leaf turns yellow, detaches from the branch, and floats to the ground. Soon the entire tree goes from the vibrant green of summer to the soft yellow of fall. Next the leave fall to the ground covering the yard in a layer of golden yellow and leave the naked black branches to hold the winter snow.



-Related to topic post WRITING TOPIC – TREES. [NOTE: This was a Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman joined QuoinMonkey and ybonesy in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.]

-Also related to posts: PRACTICE: Trees — 15min (by ybonesy) and PRACTICE — Trees — 15min (by QuoinMonkey).

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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

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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

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Northern Burr Oak - 333 Years Old - 192/365, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Northern Burr Oak – 333 Years Old – 192/365, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


On Sunday I joined over 100 people in Riverside Park near the Franklin Avenue Bridge to pay tribute to the oldest known tree in Minneapolis. It is estimated that the Northern Burr Oak dates back to 1677. In the wake of the oak’s recent death, Minneapolis Parks and Recreation will be cutting it down in the Fall. We listened to sculptors, poets, neighborhood kids, and Cancer survivors who found solace in being near this tree. It felt to me like I was standing on hallowed ground. The tree has outlived all the humans who have ever set foot here. Imagine what she has seen.

In this photograph from 1941, the ancient Northern Burr Oak seems healthy and happy, her giant crown holding court over the Mississippi River Gorge.  Here is an excerpt from documentation at the site of the gathering:


IMG00354-20100711-1942.jpgTHE ANCIENT OAK TREE  — Perhaps the oldest living thing in Minneapolis is the huge Northern Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa var. olivaeformia) that graces the west bank of the Mississippi in Riverside Park, about two blocks above the Franklin Avenue bridge, an enduring sentinel at the point where River Road West descends down into a most picturesque stretch of river gorge. Estimated by various botanists to be all the way from 150 to 700 years old, this valiant aborigine stands 58 feet tall, with a branch spread of 66 feet and a trunk girth of 14 feet at a point two feet above the ground. Symmetrically beautiful, this “first citizen” of Minneapolis, surviving the storms, drought, and fires that during the years have scourged the area of others of its kind, still remains a picture of physical strength and majestic beauty. Many are those who periodically come to Franklin Terrace to admire this grand old tree and to marvel at its great antiquity. In his little book, Riverside Reveries, published in 1928, Dr. Otto F. Schussler paints a beautiful word picture of this beloved old tree that “with a quiet dignity unsurpassed, and a perseverance unfaltering through the years continued to grow in size, in strength and ever-increasing beauty.”

-from the book Minneapolis Park System, 1941, by Theodore Wirth


IMG00318-20100711-1831.jpg

As to the fate of the tree, opinions were mixed. Should it be cut down and turned into sculptures or pins? Should it remain as it stands, a living monument to all it has seen? Should the tree be felled and replaced with sapling Burr Oaks? What is the best way to honor the life and death of an ancient tree? Let it stand or let it fall.

After I returned home, I started to think about all the posts ybonesy and I have done about trees over the years. There is the giant cottonwood in the courtyard of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, and the Lawrence Tree that Georgia O’Keeffe painted just outside of Taos, New Mexico. ybonesy has written about the cottonwood in her backyard and the carving of the Virgen de Guadalupe in a cottonwood in Albuquerque. She also wrote a piece about the art of Patrick Dougherty who uses the limbs, trunks, and canopies of trees to build his installations.

One year on my travels to Georgia, I visited a ginkgo in Augusta that was supposedly planted in 1791 for the visit of George Washington. And last year, for the first time, I stood under the giant pine where my paternal grandmother is buried. Our guest Linda Weissinger Lupowitz writes about New Mexico cottonwoods in What’s Happened To The Corrales Bosque? And in Fourteen Dozen Roses: The World As The Jungle It Is, Erin Robertson shares her poetry and explains how her tattoo of a ginkgo leaf makes her feel closer to her grandfather.

What do trees mean to you? Is there an oak you visit that brings you peace? Do you like to write under a grove of Ponderosa pines, sketch the bark of the ash in your front yard, run your fingers across the groove of a cottonwood’s skin. Have you lost a tree that was important to you. Are there trees that make you feel closer to home. Get out a fast writing pen and spiral notebook and get started on a Writing Practice My Favorite Tree. Ten minutes, Go!

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