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I am not the first person to have a relationship with a certain kind of tree, not the first to observe a tree as a friend. The Giving Tree. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Secret Life of Trees. All testaments to the reciprocity between trees and humans. I recall a friend from Israel, speaking at length of the fig trees of his childhood, and how, to sit beneath a fig tree was to be blessed by the shade of its foliage, and also by its fragrance, the sweetness of earth and fig and sunlight. He was clearly moved by the memory. And I think of Naomi Shihab Nye, who I consider to be my Fairy-God-Poet, (if there were such a thing), writing about her Palestinian father planting fig trees, unbidden, in his neighbor’s yards, so that they could be so blessed. A rogue gardener! The nationalities of the two men is not lost on me: the figs each would have savored on the opposite side of a boundary. And, come to think of it, though I don’t remember the figs, and may not, as a city-dweller, have experienced them, I too, am somewhere in that story: a young girl living with her family in Beirut, not far from the town where my friend from Israel lived.
There are so many things that divide us, as humans, and so many that bring us together. There are things, in other words, that we love in particular, and there are things that most of us love. A tree is such a thing. As is fruit. It is simple to love a fruiting tree and to savor both its boughs and the fruit that it offers.
And though it doesn’t fruit, my tree friend is the redwood. It is a tall and somewhat regal friend. Not one to offer low branches to climb, nor one to provide fresh fruit in spring. The redwood is simply majestic. Mature trees reach a height of about two-hundred feet, and are protected by fire-resistant bark. When I walk through a redwood grove, as we sometimes do in the mountains near where we live, I feel as though I am walking through a two-thousand-year-old church—the spires reaching up into the heavens. And I am. The trees, as the diagram of a split trunk at the entryway of a certain park tells us, are (many of them) older than Christ. Meaning you can see it in the rings, the birth of Jesus, the Dark Ages, the renaissance, the colonization of the North American continent. All of it happened since the tree was a mere sapling.
So, if there is a tree I am most prone to speak to, to address directly when in need of counsel, or a simply good listener, it is the redwood tree. In fact, I found myself just yesterday, recently returned from a trip across country, and walking through the redwoods, calling out to them, “Hello redwoods! Thank you for being here. For welcoming me. I’m home!” If I found myself far from my homeland for any length of time, I would find myself describing the redwood to a new friend, or a stranger. There are many things to miss when leaving one’s country, some replaceable, many not. You might be able to prepare some of the dishes you are accustomed to, or listen to some of your favorite music, or buy, at a market, some of the flowers, but you are unlikely to be able to replace a tree. My mother, who lived for decades in Half Moon Bay on the foggy coast below San Francisco, tried, in vain to grow a Casuarina tree in the corner of her yard. It’s an elegant tree, easy to find in Barbados, A kind of pine with long, draping needles and curved branches. Think willow mixed with your favorite Christmas tree, and you’ll be in the right neighborhood. Needless to say, the tree did its best, but suffered, its branches thinning a bit more every year. It never looked like the trees from home. And though she knew this, she couldn’t bring herself to cut it down.
I have thought about moving to other places, farther south or west, but always wonder what I would do without redwoods, if I could adjust to their absence. It is, I realize, both a limiting criterion and a narrowing one given their current range, from Southern Oregon to Monterey County. How the trees will fare with the ever-hotter seasons is a question scientists are observing, and one with a discouraging prognosis. But maybe we will overlap, the redwoods and I, in this narrow band, for whatever time we both have left. And maybe the greater “we” will find a way forward with less harm. One that allows these trees, and the universes they contain, to stay right where they’ve been for eons more.
Thank you Danusha. I am so grateful to live in close proximity to Redwoods. Even in Emeryville where I live redwoods grace our small city. At least a few days a week I walk one of the delightful greenways to a friends where I pass a group of redwoods I call Three Sisters. More often than not I stop reflexively and put a hand on a trunk to connect with something ancient and timeless.
Danusha, I just read your poem "Night Bird" in the May edition of Poetry Magazine. It is haunting, mysterious. I will be pondering its beauty all day! Thank you.