Trees of our lives

There are innumerable things we tend to take for granted after awhile…indoor plumbing, toilet paper, clean air, spouses, electricity, grocery stores, bananas and shoes, to name only several.

And while everyone in the southwest corner of Minnesota may be tired of hearing more about trees after scores of ours were mangled in the ice/snow storm of two weeks ago, they remain very much on my mind. Earth Day was Monday, after all, and Arbor Day is due to arrive Friday (along with more springlike weather?), so consider this a tribute to some of the trees I’ve known–and arguably too often taken for granted–in my life.

Trees have always been integrally entwined with my experiences. A plum tree in the backyard of the house where I lived from about age 4 to 7 was the site of countless playtimes–and the ground underneath it became the burial place of my prized Malibu Barbie, who woefully failed to live up to her beachside billing when the battery-aided mechanism that allowed her to talk gave up the ghost with a tragic gurgle after 5-year-old me took her for a swim in our birdbath. Worried my parents would be angry I had silenced the new toy, and convinced in any case she had “died,” I gave her a hasty but surely reverent funeral beneath that forgiving plum tree.

A few blocks away and a few years later, at our “new” house, I was fascinated with the two towering pines in either corner of our back lot. I distinctly remember climbing one with a notepad and pencil in hand and writing a short poem–before descending, covered with sticky pine sap, and deciding that maybe pines weren’t the best climbers, after all.

Another favorite tree was the Chinese elm, situated only a few feet from the house and my older brother’s bedroom window. It had a V-shaped nook, a perfect place for perching with a book. That was terrific, because I wanted desperately to imagine myself as Betsy Ray, the fictional personification of Maud Hart Lovelace and heroine of Lovelace’s “Betsy-Tacy” series. And Betsy/Maud, who spent her own childhood years just a few short miles from my home, albeit on the Mankato (rather than North Mankato) side of the Minnesota River, constantly talked about wanting to become a writer as she penned short stories and poems while sitting in her backyard maple on “Hill Street” (actually Mankato’s Center Street–another grand coincidence, as my home was on North Mankato’s Center Street). The Chinese elm also had the advantage of being an excellent place from which to spy on my brother.

Kitty-corner from my house were the giant cottonwoods of Wheeler Park, under which there seemed to be perpetual summer shade and an enchanted world for a child–and later, a privacy-seeking teen. The fast-growing birch tree outside our side door also provided cover for furtive 16-year-old kisses, while the two hackberry trees on the front ┬áboulevard made barefoot walking a tricky proposition in certain months.

An oversized weeping willow tree in a neighbor’s yard was magical, and brought to life for me a photo illustrating Christina Rossetti’s “What is Pink? A Rose is Pink” from a beloved children’s poetry book. A natural arch in some wayward cottonwoods on Monroe Elementary’s playground was the altar for impromptu recess “weddings” conducted by my kindergarten and first-grade classmates (a scenario in which the giggling girls captured doomed boys to serve as very reluctant grooms).

And is it too late to seek forgiveness of the trees my teenage girlfriends and I thoroughly decorated by moonlight with toilet paper? Or perhaps we should apologize to the parents of the boys in whose yards those trees resided…

My memories of trees stretch endlessly, like branches to the sky, but the quintessential “tree” poem–written in 1913 by Alfred Joyce Kilmer, a poet and journalist who died from a sniper’s bullet at age 31 during World War I’s Second Battle of the Marne in 1918–still says it best.

“Trees,” by A. Joyce Kilmer: I think that I shall never see; A poem lovely as a tree; A tree whose hungry mouth is prest against the sweet earth’s flowing breast; A tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray; A tree that may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair; Upon whose bosom snow has lain; who intimately lives with rain; Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.

May we learn to appreciate all the people and things around us that are too easily, and too often, taken for granted.

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