Depending on Trees.
--Barry Lopez, "Landscape and Narrative"
When I first took my husband, a Michigan native from the landscape of the Detroit suburbs, back to meet my family in western Kansas, we drove there from Louisville, Kentucky. He had already heard numerous warnings of how flat my homeland was, how treeless the western plains-now-turned-to-eroded farmland were, and even further transmogrified, how strange the once vast farmland-turned-now-to-cattle-feedyards could be. Still. We were just on the western side of Kansas City, about fifteen miles into the far eastern end of the state that would stretch on for four hundred more miles before we would reach my hometown when, mind you, he muttered, his eyes blinking lizard-like at the expanse before him, "yeah, it sure is flat." We were in "The Flint Hills" of Kansas at about that time. And there were still plenty of trees, too.
Somewhere around the middle of the state, in another two hundred miles, the trees just utterly disappear. In about a hundred road trips I've made across the entire state, I've tried to catch the exact east-west point at which this treed absence becomes present. I haven't had much luck. The trees just fade, the way your favorite pair of blue jeans do--they become worn down by wind, washed out, ironically, by lack of rain in this arid environment, laid low by the horizontal pull of the prairie.
In my hometown--Tribune, Kansas on the Kansas-Colorado border--we have one basic tree, the Siberian elm. The Siberian elm is a "nothing much" tree. But in western Kansas, "nothing much" can amount to a big deal. (Any rain, for example, often measured in hundredths, for hundredths of an inch, always receives substantial notice. The birth of a child without a father on the hospital records--nothing of much notice, say, in Columbus, Ohio--marks a phenomenal event at the Greeley County Kansas Hospital.) The Siberian elm is a simple tree--a "lite" version of its cousin, the "large, handsome, graceful" American elm according to my National Audubon Society Guide to Familiar Trees of North America, East. While the American elm, for example, will tower to one hundred feet, the Siberian version never goes beyond seventy at the most. While the American elm was "once abundant throughout the East," the Siberian suits us here on the arid western plains. First and foremost, it is an opportunist in a place where opportunity rarely happens--an opportunist much like the Germans and Dutch who settled most of this land, working fourteen-hour days six months at a time in relentless sun and wind, driving a tractor up and down, back and forth, a square plot as they farmed their own acreage and then also worked the land for rich Easterners who bought "quarter sections" but never came out to see the soil itself. According to the Michigan State University Extension website on "home horticulture," the Siberian elm's liabilities run longer than any other list of its features: "a weak-wooded tree often sold to homeowners as a cheap `instant shade' tree; hard to eradicate once established; easy limb breakage caused by wind, ice, and snow; constant clean-up of branches; considered a trash tree; insects and diseases love this tree: elm leaf beetle, powdery mildew, cankers, aphids, leaf spot; suckers." One almost has to wonder about the suckers who latched onto the Siberian elm as their tree of choice.
But in western Kansas, where trees don't grow easily, a little mess, some constant clean-up (what else is there to do in Kansas, anyway?), some pesky insects and disease for a change of scenery ... all this is worth it for a tree. We welcome any overtaking of the ocean-like horizon, any relief in the sun that hammers down on our houses, any respite from the relentless wind. What's more, the Siberian elm does have one significant evolutionary advantage over its handsomer cousins: while the American elm has, in total numbers "dwindled significantly since 1930" due to Dutch elm disease, the Siberian elm became even more popular out west in part because it was quite resistant to these kind of fungi along with drought and all the other conditions that this rough country can dish out. In fact, my own town planners apparently planted four or five Siberian elms on most lots in town shortly after the Dust Bowl and the drought of the famous Dirty Thirties and watched them flourish while many American elms succumbed to the disease. Overtaking, opportunistic, messy--survivor. Out here it is only the last quality that matters.
The trunk of the Siberian elm tends to stay within the circumference of two, sometimes three, youngster's arms--a dimension I know well from hugging many of them with my sisters. Its bark is a near silvery gray with gouges fairly deep but close together, making it easy to pick the bark off. I remember, in less hugging mode, and for lack of better things to do on lazy summer mornings before the local pool opened in the afternoon to occupy my time, picking pieces of bark from the ten trees in our own yard and using them for thrusting sword-play with my two sisters. I also remember, photographically and physically, standing with my cheek and hand pressed against one particularly large Siberian elm in my first in-laws backyard as I posed for a wedding picture. (This was my first husband--a high school sweetheart, a local boy--and not the later Michigan native.) "Oh, it's scratchy--like you, Alan," I said, and all the wedding guests laughed as the camera snapped. That tree was solid and enduring, a survivor, as he was too. Also messy and overtaking. And that metaphoric merging still sticks in my mind--the tree and the man--every time I am back in Kansas, at my mother's house in Dodge City. On her guest bedroom wall, where I sleep now with my second husband when we visit, hangs the one wedding picture she chose to keep and frame from my first marriage--not me with the man, but me with the tree.
The leaves of the Siberian elm, much like the American elm, grow in clusters of ellipses, iced-tea spoon size, barbed around the edges, dark green above, paler below. These paler underbellies become strikingly evident when a pressure system moves in, promising, although not always delivering, rain. I learned to forecast rain in this way from my grandmother, almost twelve hours ahead of time on the plains--a forecasting that remains with me still, although here in Ohio the barometrically imposed flip of leaves won't always signify rain with quite the certainty I came to expect in Kansas. Finally, within the same few mid-October days, virtually every tree in town goes through its fall change of colors--a quick lightening to yellow, then another brief faint to yellowish-brown. Poof. And then it's over. About the third or fourth weekend in October, everyone--and I do mean everyone--is outside raking leaves together, cleaning up the mess. Granted, there aren't too many leaves, but in western Kansas we don't like to give things extra chances to blow around in our ever-present wind.
If you leave town, you leave trees. Except for farms, of course. You can see a line of trees marking a farm house for ten miles in the distance. I do not exaggerate. My former poet-mentor at the University of Kansas, Victor Contoski, writes in his poem, "Journey into the West," how driving out into Kansas one "encounters the interstellar distances,/the lights of the farmhouses out on the prairie." In daytime, this same distance might be measured by the oasis of trees representing "farm": "human life here!" the dot of green on the horizon declares.
At my grandparent's farm, some eleven miles in the country, grew a veritable forest. Four rows of trees (how else might a farmer plant trees?), each row about two hundred feet long, each row descending in height, planted along the north side of the garage and house where the winter wind would whip worst, and the snow drifts from day-long blizzards might dangerously overcome the buildings. Trees protect.
As grade-schoolers, I and my two sisters and five boy cousins would flock to the farm if there was a "gully-washer" rain; the ten-foot wide spaces trenched out between the four rows of trees were dipped lower and they filled, oh wonder of wonder and thanks to the parched, non-porous soil, with a foot, maybe two, of water if we got a good soaker. We would swim, naked and free in that muddy shaded world while Grandma cut us huge hunks of watermelon. When I was older and not so keen on muddy, sludgy swimming and nudity in the company of my cousins, I would disappear in dry times into this sacred "shelter belt" with a book. It wasn't a forest; you couldn't get lost. But it felt like you could. The possibilities for some thirty trees gathered together seemed infinite for a girl from western Kansas.
Trees mark other possibilities, other moments, in my teenage and young adult life. Some six miles in the countryside there stood, mystery of all mysteries, The Hedge Apple Tree. Known variously throughout America as the "Osage Orange" tree, the "Horse Apple" tree, the "Hedge Apple" tree, and the bois-d'arc (bow-tree) by French colonists because Native Americans used the wood for making bows, and then "Bodark" by non-native Americans who have a way with corrupting foreign terms--this tree occupied as many possibilities in my life as it had names.
As one lone tree in the middle of Kansas farmland, it stood strangely about half a mile from the banks of the county's only creek, the White Woman Creek. This creek had stood dry since the turn of the last century, yet was still the source of infinite arrowheads and an occasional bit of mammoth fossil. You could see the Hedge Apple Tree for miles. A solitary tree. It stood in reality and memory, capitalized. Its branches were far lower, its shape far more rounded and shaggy than the Siberian elm we cultivated in town. It bore fruit, after a fashion--variously called "mock-orange," "horse-apple," or "hedge-apple"--a hard, green, pocked and pimply, sometimes spotted with brown, round thing. This was mythical, forbidden fruit, too. It was here, under the Hedge Apple Tree, that I first got drunk, first inhaled marijuana, first played "Truth or Dare." It was here, under the Hedge Apple Tree, that I lost my virginity. (And no, all these events didn't happen on the same night.) There was something, yes, seductive about that one tree, complete with its imperfect fruit, standing like a beacon on the prairie.
When I moved to Kentucky, late in my twenties, to begin work on a Ph.D., I was eager for the possibilities of camping and hiking in places like the Cumberland Gap, the Red River Gorge, and the Daniel Boone National Forest. The trees beckoned. But I never got very comfortable with them. I'd climb and climb and climb in those places, reach a "scenic overlook," stop to do the designated looking over--and see only the haze of humidity and trees, more trees, endless trees. I was disappointed, anything but seduced. A machete came to mind.
In the late fall of my second year at the University of Louisville, my mother and grandmother, both western Kansas natives, came to visit me in Louisville. For a special experience, I drove them down to the Cumberland Gap to spend the weekend amid the incredible fall foliage. Just three girls from Kansas journeying into the land of leaves. That day leaves literally rained on us, autumn rainbows falling on the car, dancing in the sunny, magnificent "Indian Summer" wind. My grandmother, a western Kansas wheat farmer for most of her seventy-plus years--a farmer for whom trees only stood, at least, as the antithesis to wheat acreage and, at most, as a necessity for sheltering your farmhouse--sat in the backseat, immersed in one of her romance novels.
"Look, Mom, look? my own mother goaded her. "Just look at these incredible colors, all these leaves!"
My grandmother glanced up from her book. She looked out the backseat window. "Huh," she grunted. "If you've seen one tree, you've seen them all." And although her judgment may have been a bit harsh, I know that my grandmother's attitude is in me, too: while singular and simple trees may be a part of the way I see and think about the world, showy displays are not.
Still. It's not that simple. My grandmother's relationship to trees is more complicated than this one story makes it seem. My grandmother boasts--has always boasted--one of the most spectacular gardens, both flowers and vegetables, that you would ever be likely to see in western Kansas. She cultivated her garden on the farm in a patch bordered and protected on two sides by the cow barn and the equipment quonset (a sports-arena-sized, half-domed tin shed kind of building where three full-size harvest trucks, two Ford pickups, two John Deere tractors, and one Allis-Chalmers combine were kept). After my grandfather died, two of my cousins moved out to take care of the farm house and help her with the land, so my grandmother moved into town. In two year's time, she had turned her simple little backyard into a display that could put any full-fledged eastern nursery to shame.
The centerpiece of her backyard is a tree. Not an American elm, not its Siberian cousin either--not one of those "you've seen 'em all" trees that everyone else had (although there is, in fact, also a Siberian elm back there toward the southwest corner)--but a dainty little pear tree right in the middle of it all. My Audubon Society Guide tells me that the pear tree ranges from "Maine to Florida, Texas, and Missouri." Kansas--especially western Kansas--is out of the picture here. But my grandmother likes to take her own pictures, draw her own conclusions. She planted this pear tree she calls her Brandy Tree in July, 1984, a week after her first great-grandchild, now seventeen, was born. Each and every year, when her great-granddaughter, Brandy, visits her in the summer, my grandmother takes a picture of Brandy and Brandy Tree together, then measures and marks the granddaughter's height on the tree's trunk. When the tree bears fruit, tiny but delectable little pears, my grandmother coos over them for days, bragging about their perfection, boasting of their succulence. This past summer she gathered the fallen petals from the tree's blossoms to use as "garnish" on the mudpies she was helping my own two young children make in her garden. Clearly, a tree can hold a special place in her prairie-hardened heart.
When we go camping, as we often do from April through October, my husband and I have "site squabbles"--he heads for the trees, desiring shade and shelter, while I am searching for a clear spot, a spot with a view, a spot with some light. Last mid-September we took in one of Ohio's newest state parks and campgrounds, Caesar Creek, because it was close to both the Ohio Renaissance Festival that weekend and Fort Ancient, a remarkable preserved site of Indian mounds. What began as a beautiful fall weekend quickly became a rather uncomfortable Indian Summer experience since Caesar Creek, a new campground on a newly dammed lake, had only scrawny saplings sprinkled throughout its tent site. All my ravings about the quality of the sunset we were afforded--something we never see in Columbus, Ohio--didn't dent Jim's attitude about the midafternoon sun we couldn't escape. Parked in a lawn chair under the pencil-thin shadow of a someday tree in the late afternoon angled-in-your-face sun, he scowled and slitted his eyes in that lizard-blink again, unable to get even a cool break from a beer or coke that wouldn't stay cool with no shade to put it in. The kids stripped down to just their shorts and with bandannas around their foreheads and a duck feather from the shoreline tucked in the bandanna, they played "Indian" and tried to dig their own mounds. But soon, they too became hot, tired, and whiny and I took them for a walk on the shady, tree-lined shore of the lake a thousand yards away. Still. Even Jim had to admit that the stars that night, unimpeded by branches and the shadows and shelter of trees, made it all seem better.
The front side of our house is made better by a tree--and then the lack of that tree--seasonally. Surely sixty feet tall--the tallest they can grow--a strong sugar maple secures our small front yard. In the summer it keeps shady and cool the living room and the kids' two bedrooms upstairs. But in the winter, when warmth and sun are needed, it adapts and provides both. With no leaves to block the southern-tipped sun from filling up the rooms, light bounces off the mirror in the living room and rains late-afternoon rainbows refracted through the small crystal ball hanging in the window that my grandmother once gave me (she who lives in the land of treeless sunlight), and this same light makes my daughter's bed upstairs the chosen site for sunbeam-seeking cats, curled in their winter balls. Either way, whatever season, this tree is nice.
But its bounty isn't bound by these two seasons, winter and summer, alone. In spring, we can mark the coming by our closeup view from the upstairs windows of buds on its branches. And in fall, oh glorious fall, our sugar maple leaves us with a good foot of yellow, orange, gold, red--and all the gradations between--leaves for raking and leaping. Each year of our family photo album since we have lived in this house, under the protection of this tree, is marked by the fall raking pictures: with Karl, age three, buried up to his almost bald round head and the equally bald and rounded head of his little kiddy-car peeking out from the pile; with Esther, age three, only her legs protruding out after a gleeful head-first dive into a three-foot high pile in the middle of the yard; with Mom and Dad bending over the pile, stuffing and stuffing leaves into a giant paper bag, with Karl and Esther, now ages seven and five, in the middle of a leaf fight, handfuls aimed at each other, remnants clinging to their clothes, and the static electricity from them generating a wispy halo around Esther's head.
At a suburban metro park on the perimeters of the Columbus, Ohio sprawl, I can get a sense of the density and variety, the ornamental and natural importance, of trees in this part of the country--reportedly once the site of the most varied hardwood forest in America. Highbanks Metro Park, north of Columbus, situated between the Olentangy and Scioto Rivers and the site of several ancient Indian mounds itself, offers multiple nature trails, and one of these is specifically a trail that designates and educates about native trees in the area. Early last fall, on the day before they were to start back to school, I took my two children on an afternoon-long hike in these woods, studying the trees on this trail. With my little Audubon Society Guide in my fanny pack--right next to the stash of pretzels, raisins, and chocolate-covered peanuts I needed to coax my five year old through this all-afternoon three-mile adventure--we set off to learn about trees together.
Approximately every one thousand yards or so we came upon a sign and a new kind of tree: magnolia, cockspur hawthorn, chestnut (once abundant but now rare due to a fungus that continues to plague them), buckeye, American elm, beech and birch, witch-hazel, black cherry, shagbark hickory, pignut hickory, white ash, black walnut, honeylocust, basswood or linden trees, sassafras, sycamore, and maples and oaks galore. Different trees told different stories: sometimes the signs would emphasize the tree's relationship to people, its place in the history of central Ohio, or just its natural significance as shelter and food for local animals, its ornamental or natural bearings, its peculiarities or commonalties, its adaptability and abundance, or its scattered and spare existence. Nearing the end of the trail, I doled out rations of chocolate-covered peanuts, with the less preferred raisins laced in, as the three of us sat on a bench near a thicket of cockspur hawthorn that were already beginning to tip and turn toward the magnificent scarlet leaves and berries they would bear in the full fall, ornamental and taunting to the forest animals who couldn't get in past those thorns. My seven-year-old son, Karl, noted, in all the philosophical wonder that is so wondrous in younger children--"if each kind of tree we've seen today is so different and there is a story for it, just think how many different stories each single tree in this forest has." I thought about that for awhile.
About six weeks after, during the height of fall foliage, the kids and I take a "leaf walk" through the central section of Ohio State's huge campus. As a kindergartner and second grader, they've both been assigned to find and bring to school three different kinds of fall leaves. We are cheating a little. Around our own neighborhood there won't be this much variety. But since Ohio State has landscaped all the "usual" central Ohio trees along with plenty of more "exotic" varieties, we are going for more than three apiece and we aren't limiting ourselves to leaves that have fallen on the ground either. We bring a nice pile home and after supper, we set to classifying them with my trusty, now quite worn, Audubon guide. I show Karl, my second grader, the several basic ways to identify trees as outlined in the guide's introduction: by leaf shape, by fruits and cones, and by silhouettes. I explain the central differences between conifers and broadleaf hardwoods, the two largest designations in the guide (and yes, I'm pretty impressed with myself and how much I've come to know about trees as a late-planted Ohioan). I read him the key questions the guide suggests you ask of/about the hardwood tree you are seeking to identify. "Well," I suggest, "given what we've got before us, what questions do you think we could focus on and which of the three key features should we use to try and identify the trees?"
"Oh, yeah--the leaves!" He brightens, relieved that the task has some clearer boundaries now.
We identify four basic kinds of leaf patterns among those that we have. The pinnate compound leaves of the honeylocust tree, tiny yellow almost feather-like pieces, two kinds of elliptical leaves, two kinds of lance-shaped leaves, and finally, in perfect golden glory slightly tinted with orangeish red, a palmate leaf from our very own front yard sugar maple. We tape and label these into a loose-leaf folder (I wonder to Karl about why they might call it a loose leaf folder), and for a finishing, flourishing touch we cut out the cover of a recent catalog and paste it on the cover of Karl's loose leaf folder. The photo is taken from mid-air, about twenty-five feet up, into the heart of a fall-furled forest: in the bottom left corner and standing most forward in the photo are the still thickly green leaves of some lower, hardier, thicket-like tree; moving up to occupy the central and truly foregrounded space are the deep reds and blazing yellows of several maples; then in the background, filtered in what seems to be a fall morning haze, are some ghostly, but absolutely identifiable, gray birches.
This is hard homework for a Kansas girl.
In April 1996, I took part in the week-long Watershed celebration for Earth Day's twentieth anniversary celebration that brought together a number of experienced and new nature writers. Most of the events took place in a seemingly strange setting--the top floor of the Library of Congress annex in the heart of downtown Washington D.C., just an underground tunnel away from Congress. Here on the rooftop of our nation's greatest library, we listened to and asked questions of some two dozen of the most famous nature writers alive. During breaks between sessions you could wander out for a drink of water, passing by the sales and signing tables; you could sit and bide time, reading a book, as I did, or knit, as my friend did; or you could also wander out to the rooftop garden, complete with small trees ("tree signifiers," I heard someone call them) that looked out over not only the monumental splendor that is Washington D.C., but also over the abject poverty of the D.C. slum areas right beyond the shadow of those monuments, and farther out then onto the curious Potomac River, where Congressional sewers flow, mega-millionaires yacht, and poor folk fish.
Despite these oddities and juxtapositions--or perhaps even because of them--there was a lot of talk about place at Watershed, a lot of talk about stories and the need to tell them, a lot of talk about sharing your place and your stories. One session, titled "Writing from the Center," featured Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, and Wendell Berry. But these three writers disrupted the center: they all stepped down from the stage, and gave over the microphone to the audience, telling us that they had been talking for a day and a half now already, telling their stories, and now they wanted to hear from us. For two hours, much like the Baptist revivals I remember so well from the Horn Creek Ranch Baptist Summer Camp I attended in the Colorado Rocky Mountains for ten years of my young life, people came up to the microphone placed in the center of the room. They told stories. And they tended to tell stories about the places they came from--virtually everywhere.
I wonder what I would have said if I had come forth with a story for that center microphone. Would I have talked of Kansas--told a tumbleweed story; described the quality of the fine dust that settled each and every day on our wood furniture; painted verbally the cast and intensity of full summer sun on the plains, unfiltered by trees; measured the horizon running uninterrupted for hundreds upon hundreds of miles? Or, would I have talked about Ohio--counting the number of different trees I can see on any given day around town or when camping; lamenting the depressive drugging of the five months from late fall through winter when mid-Ohio lies under almost constant cloud cover; reveling in the diversity of the Ohio state parks system and the vastly varied landscapes all patched together in this one small state; joking over how the Buckeye is no longer associated with the glossy, dark brown, and fixed eye of the buck deer nor even with the state tree whose nut bears resemblance to the buck's eye so much as it is allied now with the Ohio State University football legend or even those instant-embolism chocolate and peanut butter center candies that fill stores across the state?
Which set of "speculations, intuitions, and formal ideas"--as Barry Lopez calls them--would I have turned to in order to illustrate, for myself there in front of others, how my "interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape"? Which landscape would I depend on? A tree or not?
My interior and exterior landscapes--my sense of self, space, and place--they depend. I am treed. I am plain. I occupy, even create, a narrative that yearns to climb trees, yet one that also wants to see beyond them. My interior landscape reaches into woods, sits on forest-frilled riverbanks, depends on (present) trees. My interior landscape also reaches out to plains, sits on barbed-wire fenceposts, depends on (absent) trees. Either way, I suppose, I am depending on trees.
Brenda Jo Brueggemann is author of Lend Me Your Ear: Rhetorical Constructions of Deafness (Gallaudet UP, 2999) and co-editor of Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (MLA P, 2002).