From my front window the street is cloaked by trees. The Caesalpenia paraguariensis, commonly named Tranquility Tree, has finally emerged from its awkward adolescence and now drapes its wide canopy across my view. It has delicate compound leaves like feathers made of feathers. The tiniest component, a leaflet like a flat grain of rice, repeats to create an intricate lace of greens and light.
The branching of Tranquility Trees follows its own peculiar geometry. New shoots in spring or after a strong summer rain will grow straight down towards the ground so walking under the trees feels like moving through a tropical rain forest, a hand always up to brush away the urgent growth that seems to want to fill the air. Any minute a tendril may grab hold of a passerby. Other branches will grow for a while in one direction and then U-turn back and stitch their way through to the other side of the canopy. Trees don’t usually do this.
Guided by light, most tree branching tends outward and upward, since branches exist to hold leaves up like open mouths to the sun. Trees eat sunlight, a risky business. The stronger the sun, the more cautious the trees must be when dining. In the intense desert heat, they need to nibble from a multitude of tiny leaves. However the meal goes, trees generally waste little energy sending branches back through the canopy. Not so with the tranquil. They eat like my son used to, jumping up to run between bites or simply throwing himself off the bench where he perched like a bird refusing to sit still. He burned more energy during a meal than he consumed. It’s a wonder he or the six trees in my front yard have grown at all.
Tranquility might seem a misnomer since each tree when examined up close reveals an internal turmoil about where to grow next. The canopy from afar looks organized, gently drooping and softly shifting in the wind, but on the interior is a tangle of conflicting branches. Is that what tranquility is, the appearance of calm in spite of internal chaos? I know the feeling well. When I wonder about a word, I seek its origin, its early meaning or context, which is why my Oxford English Dictionary is so often off the shelf. A Latin word for quiet, tranquil has a cluster of synonyms―calm, serene, placid, peaceful―as expected, but what I find intriguing are the quotes from the early texts, most of which link tranquility to its opposite. It is the calm that has richer quality because it precedes the storm. It is a feeling of peace more deeply felt because it comes after turmoil of heart or mind. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his essay Nature: “I am glad to the brink of fear.”
Tranquil often describes seas or broad landscapes that have a way of calming a person. This last idea of tranquil reveals the connectedness of nature to the human spirit, what Emerson observed: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” I look out my front window to these trees, my version of Emerson’s “tranquil landscape,” the wide horizon across his neighbors’ farms, and wonder if it might work the other way round, that perhaps I can learn to wear the colors of this tree’s spirit, how it can offer such tranquility to the landscape despite the inner chaos of its branching.