Feb 19, 2012

Arboreality


Would they?  Were they...?  But, could they...?  All was confusion and madness.  He couldn't understand what they were saying, couldn't focus enough to figure out what was going on.  Words like "dig" and "root ball" were being used about her, but he hadn't heard the language of the walking things enough to know how they put sentences together, even if he had been calm enough to do it.  Even if he wasn't so emotionally knotted.

This story concerns not you and I, but those who give us our oxygen to breathe.  Trees, you see, aren't accustomed to things happening quickly.  It only makes sense, when you think about it.  Why should they, those giant plants?  Our lifetimes can- for some of their species- be only their "childhood".  It's not a judgement to say they're 'slow', unless you are comparing them to yourself.  Rather, it's a fact.  Trees do things at a much lower rate than humans do.  Is a glacier slow?  A tectonic plate?  A sand dune?  No, these things just are.

There's not a whole lot of reason to hurry when your feet and legs are buried in the dirt, with no ability (or desire, it should be said) to move about freely.  Because that's what the roots of a tree are.  The stance that lets them stand firm.  So with that as your day-to-day reality, it's completely understandable why you'd be in no rush to get thoughts finished or jobs done.  Dropping leaves, sure- but that's not a rush to them, so much as a relief.

With that understood, then, you can better appreciate how the confused tree felt.  For our brains, it would be like some hummingbirds flying up to a loved one at a high rate of speed, circling around them, and talking at the rate of speed we imagine for chipmunks or small mice.

The walking creatures began to dig, and the watching tree began to sway and tremble.  Leaves which were quite green and alive began to fall.  But the men were too involved in their work to notice swaying and falling leaves.  After awhile, they brought in a large machine, and it dug much faster than the men had.  The leaves increased their speed too, but were  unnoticed.

That night, after it was over, and he'd seen the truck drive away (though he didn't know that's what it was), he was better able to think.  Long, wandering strings of thought, the way a tree does.  To try to explain the uncomprehended thing to himself, and to the sapling that grew between him and the hole in the ground.

He re-inhabited a time before that sapling had even been a seed, or the notion of a tree.  A time when he stood on this hilltop alone.  The storms would come regularly  from the sea then, and though he enjoyed the view, and was glad of his strong trunk and thick branches, why did it matter?  He had stood on that hilltop for hundreds of years, alone.  As you might imagine, this made him honored in the town nearby.  A tradition, they called him.  An institution.  But how could he know that?  Just like George Bailey, none of us ever knows what he means to others, and it was no different due to arboreality.

But one rainy spring, a seed blew onto the hilltop.  The tree noticed it, but what was it to him?  There had been other seeds.  There had even been sprouts from time to time.  But the salt air and the storms were too much for them each time.  So when this seed sprouted and grew into a small sapling, he noticed, but didn't think much of it.

Years went by.  The old tree grew to have a begrudging respect for the small sapling that was growing on his hill.  Many times he was certain a snowfall, or a thunderstorm's high winds, would surely be the end of the small tree.  Still, year-by-year, it grew.  He even began to enjoy conversing with it.  The Sapling that was growing brought a new perspective to life on the hill.  Without even realizing it, the old tree saw, he had become set in his ways.  His roots were deep, that was obvious.  But a less obvious rootedness had become a part of his soul, and he would have never noticed, if it was not for the wise young tree.

Now, by this time, the "sapling" couldn't really have been called "young" precisely.  It was 75 years old before the old tree began to converse with it and it was 80 before he noticed the merest hints of her wisdom.  But once again, as trees go, this was young.

And so, for the first time in hundreds of years, the old tree began to think deeply about what it was that he felt and believed.  He began to think of how years of storms had gradually changed him and perhaps made him feel that life consisted of nothing but storms.  The Sapling didn't see it that way.  The storms came, she agreed, but she pointed out that there were in fact many more sunny days than storms in the course of the year.  He had to admit she was correct.

And time went on.  Seasons circulated through their appointed steps like clicking gears in a fine old clock, and storms came and went.  But what changed things was a particular storm.  It wasn't the worst storm he had ever seen.  Far from it.  But it was a different kind than the others.  For it brought with it something the old tree hadn't seen in hundreds of years:  a visitor.

The way it happened was one of those sequences of events that make perfect sense while you see them happening around you, but when you look back, seem so far-fetched as to make no sense at all.  After weeks of rain, enough so that the old tree began to wonder if the ratio The Sapling spoke about was in fact true, the rivers that led to the sea began to overflow, for lack of anyplace to put the water.  And the tides from the sea began to rise higher and higher during high tides.  When the full moon rolled around, the flood waters and the sea tides aligned in such a way that the flood crawled up the sides of the hill higher than the tree ever remembered water coming before.

Floating through those waters came a small tree.  Smaller than The Sapling, and uprooted.  It came to rest on the hill.  And when the tides receded, there it stayed.  And then came the winds.  Such winds.  It was not enough that the storm would be given a name, like tornado, or hurricane, but the winds were enough to drive the new visitor up the hill til it rested beside the old tree.  And there it stayed when the winds died down.

And the visitor had fresh new opinions too.  They were also thoughts that the old tree remembered having long ago, but they were different than those of The Sapling.  They were in many ways more like the thoughts which came naturally to the old tree.  This was probably because the uprooted visitor was the same species as the formerly solitary old tree.

But the visitor had no roots in the ground, and was not a very big tree to begin with, so in a short time, some people from the town came up the hill and took her away.  The old tree never knew what happened to her, and he didn't much think about it.

That is because the visitor had helped him to realize something.  Anyone- any little tree that blew by- could offer him perspective.  Would offer him thoughts different than his own.  In fact, if he just wanted thoughts, he should have loved the visitor.  And yet he didn't.  Because.... because...

He wasn't sure.  He thought it over for a few months.  In other words, for him, a very short time.  And then like a lightning strike, it came to him.  He didn't just value The Sapling's different thoughts, he loved her!  He did value her thoughts, but it was more than that.  So much more.  He hadn't stopped to realize that he was no longer alone.  Or to think about how profoundly his life had changed since The Sapling (100 years old at this time) had begun growing on "his" hill.  And why did he call it his own, anyway?  Sure, he'd grown there for awhile by himself, but clearly, this "little tree" was there to stay.

And that was when and how the two trees had begun to intermingle their branches.  It was- you guessed it- a nervous, patient process, on the part of both trees.  Weaving your branches together makes you vulnerable.  If the large tree were to fall, it would likely take The Sapling with it.  And the old tree began to realize that though the reverse might not be literally true, it would certainly tear the living heart out of his trunk if she was taken away.  And so the years went by.  Until it happened.  But we'll get to that.

The most profound thing of all took place a few years after the intertwining had begun, and the vines which grew on each started to cross over onto the other.  Because something happens when two trees love each other very much.  And that something was a very tiny sapling which started to grow between the two large trees (for "The Sapling" was now, in fact, nearly as big as the old tree, reaching to what we might figuratively call his shoulders).  And for reasons that neither understood, it was the most beautiful tree either of them had ever seen.  They told each other that surely they thought this simply because the young tree was 'theirs', but then they would look down at the sprout, and agree once again that yes, this must be the most beautiful little tree that had ever been seen.  It seemed to glow with beauty.

The townspeople felt the same.  They'd actually understood quite clearly what this little tree represented, and as such, they took the little one to their hearts in a diminished but still quite clear imitation of the feelings the two large trees had.  They would gently decorate the little tree for each season, and would sometimes bring fertilizer and composted soil as the best gifts they could think of for a tree (these were, in fact, fantastic gifts and helped the little tree grow quickly).

But then something began to happen which the people of the town also understood, but which it was not within the realm of trees to understand.  What was happening was that the smaller of the two large trees was being invaded by an imported, non-native beetle called the Lavoro.  It had been brought years before from Italy by well-meaning but misinformed farmers, and by chance, ate at the core of the younger trees'  species until their sap ran out like tears and they eventually perished.  So as the year passed it became clear to those who cared:  this bug must be eradicated from this tree, or there would be a lone old tree on their hill again.  Some mused whether the big old tree would be lonely, with its new sapling growing close by.  They laughed:  such anthropomorphizing!  Trees don't share our feelings!  But drastic though it sounded, they decided that The Sapling needed to be taken from its spot and put through a special process of fumigation to save it.  For any other tree, they wouldn't have done it.  But this one had become special.  And so, it was dug up and taken to a special temporary building made for the process.

Which brings us full circle.  The unthinkable happened.  They came and took away the tree once known as 'The Sapling', and for all he knew, were slicing her into logs.  He wished with his pith it could have been him, instead of her, if that was what had to be.  But there he was, alone with the little sapling, doing whatever's a tree's version of praying, that she was somehow OK.  They had taken her roots along, after all.  Perhaps to plant her somewhere else?  It was possible...  But was it probable?  The old tree thought not.  But he had the little sapling to think of.  A small tree the community had taken to calling the 'tree of light', since it was so interesting to them that a brand new tree would come from something so ancient.

The weeks and months passed.  Both the old tree and the Tree of Light hadn't given up hope, precisely, but they had buried it.  They thought of the sea.  They thought of each other.  But they tried not to think of her.

It was when this mood had sunk in deepest that an odd thing happened.  One morning, the old tree was roused from his meditation (trees never really sleep, but they do get rather lost in thought), by trucks.  His first thought felt like an axe to his trunk:  they'd come to take the little one now!  But this panic soon passed, when up the hill came another truck, carrying a full-grown tree.  Wait- was it?  Could it be?!

But indeed it was.  His beloved Sapling was being returned.  After all the excitement of being replanted and surrounded by mounds of composted soil and fertilizer, the people of the town went away.  And the two trees talked.  The tree of light talked as well, but she was still very young.  The Sapling described all that had happened, but the images made no sense.  There had been lots of people she called 'Arborists', and she described the building she'd occupied.  But she never could say why they'd taken her there or why they brought her back.  It was just something that needed to happen, it seemed, and then she was returned to those she held dear.

Our story ends by not dramatically, but simply by fading away.  Since in the best of times, love can never be understood or described or pinned down.  Since neither the author nor the reader knows what trees feel that might compare to or parallel love.  But all three were together, and that was enough to understand.  There would be time to think about all the rest.  All three, together.  On a hill.  Overlooking the sea.  And the fog rolled in, and our story was no more.

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