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How to Be Happy When Your Favorite Trees are Dying

My mom just called me to remind me I have a big birthday coming up.

I said, “Let’s celebrate in Mexico.”

If you turn an age in a country in which you were not born, it does not count just as when a forest that has been clear cut down to the earth’s skin doesn’t count as forest. But my mom insisted on noting the birthday just as she insisted that we pay attention to the single old-growth tree stump. Counting is one of the clearest ways to say that we’ve been here.

Granddaughter to polygamists, my great-grandmother, whom we called Nam, had escaped the small town of Chesterfield, Utah to move to Salt Lake City, Utah where she became the most elegant person I or my mother knew. She wore long gowns and her silver hair up in a bun on her head. Although she was my dad’s grandma, my mother loved her elegant ways. Mom took me to visit on occasional weekdays. After serving me Kool-Aid and my mom Chardonnay in red Depression-era glasses, Nam sat on the bench of her baby Grand piano that she and my great-grandfather, Pop, had squeezed into the corner between the fireplace and the big picture window looked that out onto 20th East. Mom and I sat on the couch, sipping our drinks. I ran one hand across a damask cushion and fiddled with Pop’s cigarette holder with the other— all the yellow filters stacked next to each other, the white butts pointing up, smooth as the upholstery.

Nam, who never before had said an unkind thing to me, maybe never even a specific thing to me, me being one of eighteen great-grandkids, looked at me from the piano bench and said, “That is too much makeup for a twelve-year old. You don’t need to grow up so fast.”

My hand stopped smoothing couch cushions. I blinked my mascara blackened eyelashes at her. Who was she to tell me what to do? My mom didn’t care. Why should she? What did an eighty-five-year-old woman know about a twelve-year old girl’s makeup needs? I needed mascara and blue eyeshadow because my sixteen-year-old boyfriend did not want to appear to be dating a preteen. Nammy didn’t know about my boyfriend just like she didn’t know how much I wanted one of the cigarettes from the holder. Pop wouldn’t notice one missing. No one noticed how fast I palmed it.

I no longer am twelve years old, but this year is almost as bad. It is COVID-19 Season. We are at the park even though it’s only fifty-nine degrees in mid-November—too hot to be a normal temperature for November in Flagstaff but too cold to be sitting outside. A group of moms have ten-year-olds whom we brought to play together although the others have five-year-olds as their second child. My other child is my first child, separated from her brother by five years the other direction. At fifteen, she does not come to the Tree Park to ride scooters or to play soccer with her mask on. She wears no makeup, is neither dating a sixteen-year-old, nor a nineteen-year-old, which I find strange, but I’m glad for her sake. I should be working but it’s COVID and the kids have no social life except for this Tree Park moment and the ten-year-old can’t drive, so here I am. We moms sit on the ground, trying to absorb the sun not only for warmth but for the Vitamin D that might help protect from the worst effects of the virus. My friend Juliana sits right next to me.

“Nicole. You will care. You know my tree. The one in my front yard? The one that towers over all the houses in my neighborhood? The one that’s been here before any of the houses in this city were built? Probably old growth? The one that tilts a little? I’ve been worried about it for years. The arborist said, if the ground starts cracking around the base of the tree, then we’ll worry. On windy nights, I have my kids sleep in my and Mike’s side of the house in case it falls over. Last night, the winds were so strong, the dirt all around the base of the tree cracked. You can see the fissures. I am going to die if we lose that tree.”

I asked her why the tree had been fine until now.

“The winds usually come from the west or southwest. Last night, they came from the north. Climate change, I think.”

We measure trees—height, population of, board feet. And we measure ourselves against them: longevity, steadfastness, our ability to see them individually and collectively. There is the metaphorical love of trees and the specific love of a particular tree. As humans log forests for houses, cardboard, toilet paper, to make way for beef cattle, loving trees is like loving the idea of family but not really loving any members of your family. Everyone claims to love forests but not as much as they love the softness of Charmin. Juliana loves her individual tree. But, for the safety of her neighbors and her kids, she might have to have someone cut it down. I tell her, keep the tree, lose the neighbors. I laugh. The other moms are nervous.

Maybe our love of individual trees isn’t familial at all. Maybe we’re just taking account. It’s not like when we’re walking in the forest, we stop and smell every tree. Not even tree huggers hug trees all that often. Some people say Ponderosas smell like butterscotch or vanilla. I scratch and sniff a trunk—I get mostly the smell of pine. I do not hug the tree. I do not pray to the tree. What is it that I’m doing as I’m walking along, counting the trees that are losing their needles, wondering if these big trees, three hundred or more years old, are dying as a group or alone? What we love about trees might be their resilience—how ponderosas and oak bear wind; how, if the fire doesn’t get too hot or reach the canopy, they can even bear fire. They can bear many things but maybe not this twenty-year long drought that the new consensus says isn’t a drought so much as the norm. As the largest trees turn into snags from lack of water, how much time do we have before all the ponderosa have lost their branches, turned into silent telephone poles which we will use to call our family members who live states away to wish them happy birthday in the ways that families, do.

Flagstaff is known for aggressive wind gusts—sometimes 75 miles per hour. Ponderosa trees are used to such winds, their trunks and branches pliable. But things change. Kathleen McMinnis in the Royal Meteorological Society presented research that ‘modelled winds were compared to re-analyses over 1981–2000 and shown to differ most markedly over high terrain areas and where large gradients in wind direction occur such as convergence zones.” [i] Flagstaff, being both a high terrain and convergence zone, distinguishes itself not only as the opposite of Phoenix culturally and weather-wise but also as a climate-change-coal-mine-canary. Juliana’s tree withstood strong winds from the south and west but these faster winds from the north have untucked her Ponderosa’s roots from the ground. The tree had borne the winds so long from the one direction but was not prepared for the gusts from the other way. The roots clenched only in the onslaught from the past. Juliana has called two arborists and two local tree removal companies. Of course, the tree removal companies told her the tree had to go, because cutting down big trees is a fun and lucrative challenge. The arborists weren’t a hundred percent sure. No one who studies trees wants to lose a three-hundred-year-old Ponderosa pine.

But tree time, like human time, is stupid. Mute. Inarticulate. Mindfulness experts and derivations of Zen Buddhism tell us to live in the moment but this COVID moment feels unending. Driving home from Nammy’s was a long moment too. Old enough to sit in the front seat, I hid the cigarette I’d stolen from Pop in the passenger door and fiddled with the radio to distract from the momentness. I didn’t want my mom to see me through Nam’s eyes. When you live with someone every day, you get used to their makeup, their eyeshadow. My mom even invited the sixteen-year-old boyfriend over for tacos. But if she were to borrow Nammy’s elegance and gowns, her bun and her glasses and look at her twelve-year-old daughter, she might see something else. Something she might call, if she wasn’t her daughter, something harsh like “trash” or “slut.” And then, time shifts and suddenly, you, thousands of moments later, look back on that girl to compare yourself to your own daughter. You fiddle with the radio again. You wish for a cigarette even though you quit smoking long ago. It doesn’t seem fair to be on the awkward side of moments both as daughter and as mother, but up in an instant is how the flammable world goes. The longer you’re here, the more opportunity you have to compare flashes of time that shouldn’t necessarily be compared at all.

Just a week and a half later, I saw Juliana asking people on Facebook where she could donate a large amount of wood. Pine wood isn’t great for indoor use because pine trees pump so much sap up their interior pipes that, when burned, hardens soot to chimney like cholesterol to artery. I messaged her on Facebook to ask how she was holding up. She said her daughter, Autumn, who’s in first grade, cried as the crew cut limb after limb after limb. Her husband, a forester, took a core sample. 1765, he dated the tree.  More than three-hundred and fifty years old.

I do not want to give in to my desire to wonder what the tree in its many years had seen. Tree don’t have eyes and even if they did, I would not know what they would choose to look at.  But I do give in to speculation: how many storms the tree buffeted. How many monsoon raindrops it once collected. How much nutritious sun it absorbed. How much snow it soaked from November to June, especially in the pre-climate change times when it snowed here six months straight, averaging 115 inches a year. Maybe trees are nothing but the reification of weather but even so, what do we talk about most every day? Weather, like water, is life. Each abstract weather event reified into the cellulose of a plant. Constancy over time equals investment. Then no wonder we behold, then love, then chop down to convert to new uses, the old, individual tree.

Nam was just a little bit older when she moved from Chesterfield to Salt Lake than I was when she accused me of being too fast. Born Madge Allred in 1903, she left behind the residue of her once-polygamous family and married my great-grandpa, Howard Christensen, whom we called Pop. After they were married, June 15th, 1920, they went to a Bees baseball game to celebrate. In May of 1921, she gave birth to my grandma. Only seventeen when she married, only eighteen when she had her first daughter, I wonder if her accusation that I was growing up too fast wasn’t so much a condemnation as sympathetic outreach. How old does one have to be to wear eyeshadow? To go on dates? She had no idea how old I was on the inside. Boys were always telling me I was very mature for my age. But then, I had no idea how old on the inside she was either.

Perhaps what we like about trees is that they are older than us. Not much that we meet in our everyday lives outlives humans. Because we’ve done such a good job bending the world so that we live longer often means that other entities die sooner, but some trees have escaped our manipulations. Trees still sometimes outlive us.

The forest fires this summer threatened but did not consume the oldest and biggest redwoods in California’s oldest national park. The Wikipedia entry for Cedars of Lebanon in the Middle East notes the way the numbers of cedars shrank year by year: As the trees are among the oldest, they were among the first to go. You could say the history of civilization is built on the backs of these trees. The Phoenicians, Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Arabs, and Turks. The Phoenicians used the Cedars for their merchant fleets. They needed timbers for their ships and the Cedar woods made them the first sea trading nation in the world. Even Gilgamesh supposedly built his city out of wood—the old city in the oldest book made from the oldest tree.

No one would accuse trees of being patient. Or being impatient, for that matter. Anthropomorphizing is not good for any species who would like its own particular way of being. Trees may protect their offspring and communicate their needs to other trees but they are not like us. For example, my mother made me wear my seatbelt whenever I rode in the car. She made sure I was home by 9 p.m. at night. She checked my grades. Because of my boy-crazy status and tendency to lie about where I was, sleepovers were prohibited. But as long as I finished my homework, I didn’t have to account for my every move. If I was having sex in the back of a Volkswagen, well, it’s better that we both focus on the model and the color. Monty’s VW Fastback was vanilla white. Darryn’s Beetle was bright yellow. The microbus they shared was an ugly green. Sometimes I rode in the front seat. Sometimes I rode in the back. My mother asked where I’d been when I got home but unlike a mother tree, she couldn’t be with me everywhere I went. She could take some comfort in the fact that old VWs don’t go very fast. Cars and accidents could be separated in her mind.

The number of descendants of great-grandmothers grows every year, while the number of trees shrinks. I count up my great-grandmother’s great grandchildren. She’s holding steady at 26—the branches of our family tree grow up and out even as the roots have spread far and wide. Do we value things less the more that exist? The fact there are nearly eight billion people on the planet hasn’t seemed to devalue our belief that human life matters more than other life. But we do value other lives, especially if they’re symbolic—like God Trees of Lebanon. And yet, when you value a symbol, maybe you don’t need the thing itself. Although many trees exist throughout the mountains of Lebanon, in the super special cedar area called Bsharri, the numbers have dwindled. Pierre Belon visited the area in 1550, making him the first modern traveler to identify the Cedars of God in his “Observations.” Belon counted 28 trees; Leonhard Rauwolf followed in 1573-75, counting 24 trees. Jean de Thévenot counted 23 trees in 1655. Laurent d’Arvieux in 1660 counted 20 trees and Henry Maundrell in 1697 counted 16 trees of the “very old” type.

As accountants, we can see that few of the civilizations lasted. And at least 16 trees still exist in this special Godly group. So perhaps there is something to be said for the longevity of trees. But maybe we don’t love them for that. It’s hard to love something that ages better than you. No one loves Nicole Kidman. Maybe we love not so much that the trees age but for their ever-rarer numbers. Humans are counters. And trees, like turtles, move slowly. You can catch them before all of them disappear.

Trees that grow fast are sometimes thought of as garbage trees: poplars and cottonwoods and box elders. They’re also the trees that prevail in Salt Lake City—trees with shallow roots, scrounging for water in shallow ponds and ditches that Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders encouraged settlers to grow. The settlers kept watering their fast-growing trees for generations. Nammy had an irrigation ditch that ran along the street in front of the house. Every Thursday, a stopper was released from the water tanks filled by Millcreek River and water flowed down from the mouth of the canyon through the gutters where farmers and homeowners could divert the water to their crops. Nam and Pop weren’t farmers but they did have several apple trees in the backyard. When I was little, I fed the neighbor horses apples. The property lined with poplars and cottonwoods, divided by a ditch which miraculously filled with water every Thursday. Then, I wasn’t little anymore and the neighbors sold their property which was subdivided—horses replaced by houses. I’m sure someone moved the horses but for all I knew, the horses, just like the apple trees, up and disappeared.

Adrienne Rich titled a poetry collection A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. The eponymous poem takes her from pines to a house made out of pine.

The hands that hammered in those nails
emptied that kettle one last time
are these two hands

The poem takes the speaker from boat to that house to boil water in a kettle, to hammer nails in the pinewood, to deliver a woman from a baby with a little assistance from a vacuum aspirator. You can be delivered of a child. Delivering here is both a transitive and intransitive verb—you can do it yourself or it can be done to you. The last line echoes that tautology, “scalding the skin these hands will also salve.” Skin burns. You can burn your skin. Trees grow. You can grow a tree. What does it mean to put something into action versus just letting it be? I apply blue eyeshadow but with or without makeup, I’m a day older anyway.

A wild patience would have been great but as my Nam saw, wild impatience was all I had to smear on my face in blue eyeshadow, all I had was cigarette smoke. But even though her window opened directly onto 20th East, my boyfriend and I did not avoid driving down her street in his VW. We drove in loops around the city, up onto Wasatch Boulevard, which ran through the foothills, turn down 33rd South to avoid the freeway, take a right on 20th, bomb down the hill and drop it into second gear to make it back up. We’d thread through 13th and 13th until we made it to Emigration. Then we’d tumble like stones down the hill to Gilgal Gardens where a Mormon sculptor carved sacred stones into the shape of a fire and brimstone Stake President and the face of a man shaped onto the head of a sphinx. We then kept driving into Memory Grove where there were World War II Memorials, a canon, even, strewn between the trees of this forested park. This is the place where my next boyfriend, Darryn, Monty’s best friend, and I went to hide from my parents and where my still-best-friend Rebecca and her then-boyfriend Trevin rode down City Creek canyon and crashed. She had to have gravel scrubbed from her knee in the ER. This is also where Rebecca performed our marriage ceremony exactly one year after a tornado came and took out a large swath of trees. Sentences go as fast as teenagers. What do the trees that survived the tornado remember of me? Nothing, I am sure. I was only there for a moment.

Trees are great multitaskers—they communicate to each other, the web of mycelium that brings nutrients to tree’s roots can convey the cells from salmon whose bodies have spawned, then died, then decomposed into the soil—the mycelia transferring the nutritious omega-3s over a hundred and twenty miles east of the rivers that serve the Pacific Ocean. Trees stop erosion and exchange the gases that cause climate change into gases that humans breathe. I have a photo taken at least a century ago: three humans stand next to a tree wider than the all of them together. Who knows how tall because a tree is only as long as a lens can open high. The three men stand next to it with a two-handled saw that is also bigger than they. Back and forth two of them go, balancing up on planks planed from some other felled tree. Vigorous sawing leads to heavy breathing. It’s heavy work. The men breathe out buckets of CO2. Even as they cut down the tree, the tree inhales their carbon dioxide and brings it into its body.

When Nammy died, at age eighty-seven, young for a tree, her obituary read that she had five children, seventeen grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren. The three great-greats had been recently born when she died, three of my cousins having had babies at age seventeen. A photographer was called in. Five generations is worth capturing on film: a cousin closest my age with her baby Anthony, flanked by my Aunt Bev, my grandma, and Nam. You can cram a lot of “great-greats” into a lineage if you have kids at seventeen. I longed for it to be me in that picture. So what did my great-grandmother care if I wore a lot of makeup or if it was obvious that I was on the verge of having sex? Five years between me as fast and my cousin having Anthony, in the scheme of things, isn’t that different. I was always one of those kids who were twelve going on twenty-five. What if instead of measuring time by lines and arrows, we measured them like a dendrologist, not worried about the number of lines or circles but impressed by the width of them? In a good year, the ring grows thick. Although, no one ever applauds thickness in a woman, especially a twelve-year old version of one.

Nam could not have imagined me standing at the front door of the apartment complex at the edge of Memory Grove with my boyfriend Monty. I was thirteen and he seventeen. We had been dating a year which is a decade in teenage years. I thought I might be pregnant. My period had disappeared which was why we are at the apartment complex, waiting for the landlady to show us the space. Monty had a job selling auto parts at Checker. His mom rented their house three streets away from ours on Chadbourne. Monty understood rental agreements. First and last month’s. Deposit. I stood under the wide leaves of a maple tree while Monty nodded at the lady. I looked up into the tree like it was a great puzzle above me—I saw the outlines of leaf fitting into the cut of leaf. If I stared hard enough, Memory Grove would piece everything together. I would understand something about how to count time differently. I would learn the difference between what it means to die and what it means to come back as a tree. But the pieces didn’t fit exactly. We didn’t sign the lease. Instead, we headed to the thrift store to check out baby clothes and blankets but in the end didn’t buy anything.

Time only matters because you’re going to die even more quickly than a tree. When I gave birth to Zoe, I was twice as old as my cousin when she had her first baby. Not only did my great-grandmother miss meeting my daughter, my grandmother died the month before Zoe was born. When I called my mom to ask how polygamist Nam’s family had been, my mom said no, maybe her grandfather had been polygamist, not her father. “Nam was into fashion,” my mom told me, as if fashion is the exact opposite of polygamy. “Nam wore a scarf to hide her wrinkles.” To me, Nammy had always been old but to my mom, she was possibility even in Salt Lake City. When Nam was moved to St. Joseph’s nursing home, my mom, her granddaughter-in-law who was in the midst of divorcing her grandson, brought her mini-bottles of bourbon which they drank in her tiny room, not a great-grandchild in sight. One night, she escaped St. Joseph’s. They found her in Liberty Park, six blocks away, where Brigham Young himself planted mulberry, cottonwood, and linden trees. 85,000 trees forest this inner-city park. You can find flamingos in its aviary too. And great-grandmothers smelling the blossoms and tree trunks instead of their bourbon and urine-smelling nursing homes.

Nam died while I was away at college in Portland. Where I had moved and had planned to stay. Do you need to come home for funerals if you aren’t going to live near that body laid to rest? We bury our dead to remind us where home is and no one was sending Nam to Oregon. I didn’t return and thus, I disappeared for her as much as she disappeared for me.

There is a tree in North Carolina older than the New Testament—a black Cypress that grows in a swamp. The tree that is older than Christianity itself, its roots happily rotting while its living parts absorb locally-sourced omegas 3s—probably in the form of catfish—could be chopped down for firewood without researchers being able to stop them. But they didn’t even know about this tree until a couple of years ago. How can we forecast absence when we barely noted presence? If they’d never seen it, the researchers would never have been worried about the tree. I think there’s a song about this, but it’s illegal to print lyrics in an essay, just like it is illegal to fish without a license. But the trees do it anyway.

My son Max asked me if you can “pair.”

“Like pair up?”

“No, like feel good. If you’re sad, you despair. Can you be happy? Can you pair?”

How long does it take for a word to lose its positive? The negative perseveres. What would it take to undo the culling we’ve done? Wouldn’t it be a dream to run through the forest, singing “Dear woodcutter, lumberjack, forest manager, please mantle this forest. It is ready to be put back. This forest will be funct if you leave the trees alone. You know I am hinged and mented. You can trust me; I semble. I will be gusted with your efforts. It’s the only sane thing to do. I’ve got my head together—I’m totally combobulated. Join me in calling for a stump-free, tree-filled, existence. They say to plant a trillion trees would mitigate climate change. Forests are hap and ruly balancers to a world that is often hapless and unruly. As we reshape the land in humans’ image, such reshaping may principate its own neologisms. Desalinate is already a word. To erase evidence of clear cuts, you must destump a forest, turn it to meadow. Or perhaps to destump means to replant. A hundred trees per person would fill in the blank spots.

I don’t drive by Juliana’s house if I can help it. I am happy holding onto the memory of the tree. I don’t like to be reminded of all that’s missing. I like to keep my eyes and head full with images of old trees and new trees, garbage trees and ancient trees—green leaves blocking the vision of empty space, just as they plant a row of crops along the roads in the coast range to hide the evidence of the clearcut behind. Juliana doesn’t talk about the tree anymore. At least not to me. But maybe she would if we could get together and meet at the Tree Park but now it’s really winter and the COVID numbers have spiked and she doesn’t have a Smartphone so even calling her seems impossible.

The bodies of trees are made out of nothing. They are the abstraction of time made manifest, kicking each carbon dioxide molecule into its system, driving the oxygens apart, turning the carbon as palpable as fact. In Lebanon, God lives in the Cedars. Perhaps we love trees more like a deity than we do as an entity. For all their elegance and classiness, they really aren’t very much like humans at all. Even in the middle of a drought, at about four o’clock on a winter afternoon, although it hasn’t rained or snowed in over a month, I can see pine needles bursting with water—small threads that might quench the thirst of small birds or tired air or even its own trunk. The trees aren’t begging, even as they may be dying. They are taking it slowly, teaching us some kind of patience we may never learn. And yet, they forgive us for growing old right before their eyes.

i https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/asl.341

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