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The Trees This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


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I remember a winter afternoon in Southern California. The kind of day when sunlight settles on wooden floorboards like a hard yellow frost. The happy, constant drone of drills and saws filled the air with slivers of other days, older construction built and dissembled to a similar rhythm.

Sunny winter afternoons like that one demanded a foray into our backyard, rich with trees. Those who walked the adjacent block could see the stark branches of our pines and the sweet-smelling limbs of our eucalypti towering over a landscape of mansions and bungalows.

Wandering among these trees was akin to partaking in an ancient meeting of wise ones. I felt the magnificence of their spirits in the width of their trunks. Pine needles littered the ground like sacred materials, to be woven into bracelets and tiny crowns. I wore them as amulets, otherworldly protections from reality. The acorns of the oak and the yellow-fringed seed pods of the eucalyptus were gifts; I would pound and press them into the inedible fare of the many lives I imagined in the yard's farthest reaches.

As a child building forts and collecting gifts, I had the sensation of being watched by a quorum of powerful beings. I felt an affinity with the trees of all places that I visited, but these trees were mine; they knew me. And not as humans know one another, when to love is to claim a piece. The trees asked for nothing, laid no claims, gave me a peace that I would neither expect nor ask for in another human. They lent a certain majesty to my activities, a taste of the ritualistic. Entering the backyard was like stepping into another realm, where the trees guided my senses to currents of time and knowledge.

The power of the trees fell silent and implacable over the yard. It was their dominion, a place of careful greatness, unyielding to actuality. I clung to the certainty of their being as an untouchable magic. But I also had a sense of the fragility of this power. I was fiercely protective of their growth, even as they protected me from the turbulence of life. My soul took form in their green hollows and contours, but another soul could find satisfaction in chipping that green into a human creation. My father often said that our long backyard was a developer's dream; for years I believed it was my family's duty to stay in our home forever to protect the trees from harm. I saw that other humans could usurp my love for the trees with desires of their own, desires to destroy. I knew that my trees were in danger because others valued mansions more. I often dreamed of ripping down For Sale signs on our front lawn, of writhing and shrieking on the grass as the realtors parked their cars.

As time passed, I learned to let go of the trees in my soul. Or so I told myself, realizing that there is no room for absolutes in adulthood. I learned that things would run their course, with or without my consent, in spite of my love.

That one winter afternoon, I found axe wounds in the trunk of the Chinese elm that grew close to our back window. The elm possessed a singular talent for producing small pieces of bark in odd shapes – circles, curlicues, half-moons. I used to furtively pluck my favorite pieces from its trunk, engaging in a small act of loving destruction. To see it hacked into by the head of an axe was to watch the great and the beautiful fall into the hands of the morally bankrupt. I learned that my stepfather was the wielder of the axe. This knowledge fit with the vision I had of my universe, one in which my stepfather's role was that of the ignorant, the callous, the disdained. I was almost relieved to find a worthy scapegoat, an easy target to blame and upbraid.

But I was truly dismayed to find out that my mother was complicit in the decision to cut down the tree – that she, in fact, had authorized the cutting in the first place. She was justified in making this decision, for the roots of the tree apparently posed a danger to the foundation of our house. To me, such rationalizations did not matter. Our house was nothing without the trees. I felt as though she had ordered the execution of one of my beloveds.

I ranted, raged, and cried at the injustice of the situation. Who was she to decide that the beautiful being growing in our backyard should die? How could she ask my stepfather to dispatch the elm without first consulting me? And how could they cut down one of my precious trees so casually, when so many people have none; when so many people have, in fact, no land, no sacred place? I couldn't understand how the death of a tree, of my tree, was an event of any less gravity than the death of a human.

Miraculously, my stepfather never finished cutting down the elm, that day or any other. He found that the task was too hard. Today the tree still bears the scars of the axe, which have slowly healed. A ring the color of old blood circles its trunk, a reminder of battles won. But the elm won no battles. It was through human whim that this tree lives; its fate was determined by the follies of man. In its life, and the lives of other trees, we are all-powerful deities of arbitrary, highly imperfect natures.

I think of the trees today, of my newly developed reticence toward their future. I do love them still, and I seek them out, feel their loss at a great distance. But, as is the nature of learning, I have become hopeless. I feel I know too much – too much of humans, of our staying power, our ability to endure without understanding. This is how I know humans today; drunk with the power of Mount Olympus, unappreciative of true mountains, of the great tree giants that imperil our sense of invincibility. Frightened, as ever, of being outshone by the wonders of the world.

But then, I watch as we begin to doubt our prior wants, the need to destroy. The land, possessed of sudden weakness in our hands, exerts no less a pull on our imaginations. And so we wonder: what is it that we asked for, and why? As Italo Calvino wrote, “Desires are already memories.” I notice the weight of the axe growing in our hands, the metal blade drifting toward our feet as we lose our grip. I wish for the elm to grow strong and steady. Waiting, and watching, in a continuum, hoping my trees will not fall. I try to learn this hope steadily, to bloom in recalcitrance, to once again rage and rant and cry and expect a change for the better.

Now for mercy, for compassion toward ourselves. Because wandering through a backyard devoid of green is not victory. There is nothing for us to find there, nothing for us to say in that place. I will always have more to say to my trees. We will always have more to say to the land.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.





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roxistar_561 said...
Mar. 31, 2010 at 10:56 pm:
i love this poem!! great job!!!
 
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AnneOnnimous said...
Feb. 25, 2010 at 7:57 pm:
i love this; it is so beautiful!! and I always felt the same way about trees, the ones where I live in Canada :)
 
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