Confessions of a Tree Murderer

Paper is trees.

How many times have I heard this said since the first Earth Day in 1970? So Yay! for the digital revolution. As a writer, I can now do my part to save the planet by penning everything without a pen…or paper. Yeah, right…until I need to edit. I have yet to find the digital equivalent to scratching out stupid things I’ve written and then scribbling less stupid ones in the margins, and using copious arrows and asterisks to instruct me later when I’m typing in all the changes and have no idea what I had been thinking. I edit on paper and, because I can always find flaws in everything I write, I work multiple drafts.

Observe my stack of tree bones, the horror of it. I could recycle it all once the book comes out, but think of the dissertation potential that would be lost for an eager future doctoral student examining the writing process of a then-dead famous early 20th-century novelist. Of course, that’s presuming I become famous…and die. Immortality is not completely off the table in terms of future possibilities. Sure, I could scan all these drafts and store them in a cloud, but who has time for that? (Immortals) I could insulate the attic, but the R-rating of plain bond paper is probably not as good as the soybean foam we’ve got up there already. So, I stack them on my desk, a paper trunk, as proof of both my productivity and environmental sins. Then someday, like a scene out of E.L. Doctorow’s novel Homer & Langley, I’ll be crushed to death by this constructed tree of hoarded paper. I guess I can live with that.

Drafts of my YA novels guarded by an origami boar my son made.

Drafts guarded by an origami boar my son made.


An Uphill Climb

Some days it feels like every step forward is an upward one. Sure, I guess this could be tiring, but consider the view from the top. Last weekend I hiked up to 10,000 feet with my family, the highest my kids have gone with their feet still on the ground. Before getting out of cell phone range, I had down-loaded HRC’s photo ap for imprinting pictures with the red version of the logo. Using it along the trail, of course, colored my thoughts as well as my snapshots of the quaking aspens. How could it not occur to me that I was hiking with my family, a small gaggle of four individuals who, because of the gender differences between my husband and I, were recognized, legally, by the Nation as a family.

I imagined what it might feel like if this weren’t the case. . .Sure, I might be able to still enjoy a hike (on federal land by the way), but I wouldn’t feel like the constitution had my back.

I’ve been mad at the United States Supreme Court ever since they decided the Gore/Bush presidential election, but today, by striking down DOMA, I get to remember why I had admired the court in the first place. They ruled on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. I’m happy, because I agree with the decision. I believe every loving couple in the United States should be able to enjoy the federal and state privileges my husband and I do. But I feel proud of the governmental process, because the Supreme Court did what they are called upon to do by the constitution. Decide of the constitutionality of laws.

And, in the time it’s taken me to write this post, the California case ruling has been announced. So, Yay for my home state!

photo (1)

For the Love of a Tree

Anyone who has been in a high school creative writing class knows one snapshot tells multiple stories. The image below could be a tragedy in the way it conveys the tenuous grasp humans seem to have on the natural world. Like in a Shakespearean tragedy, no one is left standing on this dreary stage, except that annoying guy who emerges from behind the curtain in the end to say “alas.” If I tell the story of this picture as a tragedy, I have to be the annoying guy.

No thanks.

I’m much more fond of love stories, dark and funny ones that reveal the length a person will go for the love of another…person, usually. This image tells a story of the love one guy (okay, so I see this character as a guy. I’m fascinated by man love) has for a tree, the length he  will go to sustain a relationship with his beloved long after everyone else can see it’s over. Friends will come by and shake their heads. Some might say “perhaps it’s time to think about…you know…getting another…tree.”

He’ll tell these heartless friends to get the hell out of his yard. Then he’ll pat the foliage that he’s lovingly trained around the dead palm’s stump and mumble things like “don’t listen to them. They don’t know you like I know you.”

Ah, love.

And, yes, I can hear the theme song to Love Story playing faintly in my head right now.

And, yes, I can hear the theme song to Love Story playing faintly in my head right now.


Trees in Melbourne

I’ve been in Melbourne at the NonfictionNow 2012 writers conference for two days. The conference, which is excellent BTW, is in the downtown area where trees aren’t too prevalent and are a bit overshadowed by the quirky architecture. The building where the conference sessions are being held looks like it’s being attacked by a green virus. That being said, I sat on a panel in the Green Brain (that’s what it’s called) yesterday and it is the nicest space I’ve ever presented in. The view to the street and the light was lovely.

I did get a chance yesterday to walk through Carlton Gardens nearby. If trees could grow this majestically in Phoenix, I’d imagine they’d be everywhere. I’m surprised I didn’t walk into a pond for all the time I spent stolling with my head tipped back so I could see the light grace through the canopies. Simply magnificent. The trees in my region have to hover close to the ground to suffer the heat and aridity. To enjoy the same canopy view, I’d need to lie on the ground looking up.

awesome branching

an allee in Carlton Gardens, Melbourne

Cities as Habitats of Trees.

Every plant has a story to tell. This string of words drifted into my mind as I drove home this morning after dropping my daughter at school. I emailed the sentence to myself at a stoplight, before it had a chance to drift away as quietly as it had entered my thoughts. I can’t stop thinking about plants, trees in particular. I’ve spent the last four days surrounded by thousands of landscape architects and as I drove along the wide arterial, I noticed the trees more than I normally do. This is noteworthy, because I normally spend most of my drive-time noticing trees.

This five-lane road is so vast no desert or exotic species can reach across far enough to mingle canopies with the neighboring trees on the other side. And any that try have rectangles the size of city buses pruned out of them for their efforts. Still, the trees seemed bigger this morning, more a part of the street than they had appeared last week. Landscape architects have that effect on people’s perceptions. They remind us that trees matter. It was landscape architects who at one time or another bent over a drafting table (or in front of a computer screen) and decided what trees to use on the streets I drive down each and every day. I’m grateful to have chosen a career path that surrounds me with landscape architects and those aspiring to this profession. They remind me to notice trees.

In one of the talks I attended during the 2012 ASLA National Meeting and Expo that was in Phoenix this weekend, the panel discussion turned to the importance of the woods as places for children to roam and play. A member of the audience seemed to favor going out of the city to enter the woods.  “The woods can be in the city,” said Walter Hood, a panelist, professor and principal of Hood Studio in Oakland, a place named for its trees. “There are things beneath our feet,” he added. I thought of Whitman and the essays I’ve been posting on this blog. That’s it. That’s what needs to be remembered and celebrated, what lies beneath our feet even in cities…earth.  It’s what often gets forgotten by urban dwellers. Trees remind us of this.

At another presentation about urban planning and design in Chihuahua, Mexico, I was reminded that even when thinking at a scale as big as a city one can make small changes that ripple out and up to meet the grander schemes of urban designers. “It starts in our own garden,” said Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, an assistant professor and partner for LABOR Studio, “the beautiful can be small.” I thought of Emily Dickinson and how much poetry spilled from her in response to her own garden. Or how the sight of one tree can be enough to lift my mind from mundane thoughts.

On my way to the conference on the last day, I pulled over to check my camera battery before committing to the freeway on-ramp towards Phoenix. As I reached for my purse, I looked up and saw a mesquite tree sprawling across the lawn of an office park across the road from where I had stopped. I have lived in this town for nearly twenty years yet had never turned down this particular street. It is an unremarkable road or so I thought before I saw this tree.

“Why are there trees I never walk under
But large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Green Room

I didn’t know the name for it at the time, but my dream bedroom growing up was a courtyard. When I spoke of it, I would describe how the ceiling could be pushed aside like a sheet and open the room to the sky. Or how the floor was made of earth, so plants could grow free from the confines of pots. I would sleep in a hammock draped from trees. Of course, my favorite story book was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I wanted my room to sprout like Max’s, only more so. His was a tidy forest full of unruly monsters. My imaginary bedroom had walls built to keep out the monsters while I slept. I still suggest cutting holes in the concrete floor slab of my home from time to time to plant a garden. My husband, a practical man, usually counters with bugs, knowing he can keep the discussion brief and in his favor if I am made to think about bugs. “Besides, the plants prefer living outside,” he’d add, knowing I always go along with any plan a plant would prefer. It’s true too. Air-conditioned desert houses make lousy plant habitats.

So instead we’ve built a courtyard in the front of our ranch style house with a floor cobbled from the old driveway concrete. When we ran out of our supply, a neighbor let us pick through the remains of his old driveway before trucking it off to the dump. The trees just outside the courtyard have been extending farther each year, fashioning a ceiling from their canopies that fills with leaves each spring and shades the court and then drops the foliage in winter to let the slant sun in. A better system then the sheet I imagined as a kid. Unlike my dream bedroom, this garden court has walls only three feet high, enough to hide the cars parked on the street and give the plants shelter. The fountain echoes against these low walls, masking the traffic that hums along a busy street nearby. We built a wall and bench from river rock unearthed when we tore up the drive, remnants of a landscape design buried under sixty years of dust. When those stones ran out, another neighbor let us quarry his fake dry stream that ran through his front yard in exchange for trimming his tree. I’d revise the old edict twice quoted in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” to say that good gardens make good neighbors.

My childhood dream bedroom emerged from an early love of plants, a desire to make my room into a habitat for things with roots. Perhaps that’s the attraction, the roots. How plants, for the most part, figure ways to stay put. A few species drift about in water, but most plants anchor themselves to the earth and then make do with what comes their way. I admire that level of commitment, especially in trees since they outlive everyone. The oldest living thing on earth is a tree, the ancient bristlecone pines that cling to the rugged slopes of the Inyo range in Eastern California. Methuselah, the eldest in this forest of ancients is thought to be nearly 5,000 years old. Groves of clonal trees, vegetation’s version of the Borg, have had their DNA traced back twice that long, but as single living things the bristlecones take the longevity prize.

The last time I had a chance to walk among these old trees, I carried my daughter on my hip. I was making the final field visits while finishing my book A Land Between and had brought my daughter since she was still nursing. My husband had built a corral of sorts in the back of my truck to keep her from crawling off while I wrote in the field. It might have worked had she not just learned to scramble out of her crib and been actively seeking any and all opportunities to hone her free-climbing skills. When I carried her along the bristlecone trail, she waved at each old tree we passed. Much more social than I can ever hope to be, my daughter recognized a life akin to her own in these trees and so greeted them as friends.

That was nearly fifteen years ago, a blink for Methuselah. I’m more treelike these days, tending to linger in one place and make do. It’s my daughter now who conjures her own dreamscapes, one’s far away in exotic places like Sweden, where unbeknownst to her the oldest clonal tree, a spruce named Old Tjikko, has lived for nearly 10,000 years. My daughter has outgrown waving hello to old plants, adolescents have far more subtle greeting gestures, but it gives me comfort to know she dreams of places friendly to trees nonetheless.

on a day before the dichondra decided it was too hot, image by me

Squirrel Heart Beats

Have you ever wondered how your life might have turned out if you had done one thing differently? Of course you have. You’re human after all and we tend to ponder what ifs. My what ifs are rarely huge. Like this morning while driving my daughter to school I couldn’t help but notice the intricate patterns of mesquite tree shadows on the gymnasium walls as I pulled into the school parking lot. What if, I wondered, while turning onto the road and heading back home, what if I had gotten glasses as a kid instead of waiting until my first year in college? What more would I have noticed? What would that have done to shape my view of the world? Then my favorite George Eliot line from Middlemarch came to mind:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

As a young adult I spent a lot of time being pissed off at the things I missed during my tween and teen years― regular eye exams, parents in town, dinner. Now I’m not so sure. For instance, what if I had worn glasses and could at twelve see every leaf on every tree with discrete clarity? Even now my stimulus filters are scant, but as a kid they were more inadequate at sifting through sensory inputs. If I had worn glasses all the extra visual data might have made my head explode.

I remember the day I picked up my first pair of glasses, how it felt to ride my bike along the tree-lined streets, every leaf visible, each break in the canopy a sharp shaft of light. It was like I had spent my life reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and was now handed Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The thick clarity of the world around me distracted me so much I could barely keep pedaling. I had to stop many times between the optometrist’s office and my apartment just to study the trees.

So perhaps it was for the best that I lived my entire adolescence in a blur. Those years have so many more squirrel heart beats than any other time in one’s life, the roar might have been my undoing.

My favorite image of the many I’ve taken of my front garden courtyard, the only as seen in my son’s eye. He also wears glasses.

Tranquility Trees

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.

tranquility tree, images by me.