Tuesday, February 24, 2015

This Life, In Terms of Trees

for the bunkheads of Moosehill

This butternut is tenderly fond of me, as I am fond of it. I dip two fingers into my White Russian -- yes, I have carried a cocktail glass, in the middle of the night, right out of the farmhouse and down the dirt road to this reunion. I rub my fingers across its deeply grooved bark, then rest my forehead on its trunk to listen. This is our preferred method of communication. The butternut does most of the talking. Despite the vast responsibilities attendant on its position, the butternut is effusive in its welcome. I am the family’s youngest son, the crooked one. The butternut is a doorman to the invisible world. We care for each other. I feel as though I am the old butternut’s very favorite dog. On the way here, halfway down the dirt road, I stopped to see my friend the willow, arching between the pond and the moon. Years ago the willow taught me its true name, which I still remember and won’t reveal. To say I love the trees is harmless, but people will think you childish, sticky sweet, if you say, The trees love me. The trees love me. Not, you understand, because of anything I have done, but simply because I am their own. After visiting the willow I checked in with the cemetery. I wasn’t afraid. They know me there. I hope it doesn’t sound too conceited if I say the dead were pleased to see me. I was glad to find them well. I suspect that dead, like “reality”, is a word that should always be placed inside quotes: “dead” people. They are not really so dead. The dead have their enthusiasms. They stay current. The living are more measured. As is always the case, as must be so. They have an image to uphold in the town and therefore always appear somewhat strained. There is one dinner at which I am stripped of essential information, like a tree of its leaves. After that questions are avoided, as sensible people avoid a mess. The butternut, however, is unconditional, as is the trellis orchard, the black walnut, the irrigation pond. The briars of the blackberries take every chance to cling to me. I have come home. When I was eight or nine, my father planted a dead tree in the backyard in hopes that I might become a normal boy. It was a large dead apple tree, a Cortland. He planted it in cement. The idea was that I should climb on it, and gain in strength and agility. Naturally this had zero effect. I went on reading. I liked scary stories most, even when they gave me nightmares. I had a particular fascination with the story of a witch who slipped off her skin at night, folded it, put it under the bed and flew off for the evening. There was no way for me to explain to my father that only sporadically was I a timid crooked boy with a limp. My father marches now into the parlor. “I have received some very bad news.” And I brace myself for news of sudden death. It is the widow Cartwell. She refuses to cut down her beech trees. Two purple beech trees have been planted in the cemetery, in memory of her dear departed husband. They are blocking my father’s view of his favorite oak tree. Well, not exactly blocking, since the beech trees are saplings and the oak tree is approximately 70 feet tall. Still, my father insists that the vista he enjoys while driving down the dirt road is now entirely spoiled. “It’s like rape!” he says. When I appear alarmed he downshifts. “Well, it’s like disfigurement.” I remind him that the oak tree has not actually been harmed in any way. I commend him, again, for arranging for lightning rods and visits from a tree doctor. I then try to express, delicately, my opinion that trying to convince the grieving widow, as well as her grown sons, to hack down their father’s memorial beech trees is likely not worth the bad feelings and unpopularity which will surely result. My fathers scoffs at me. He says, “It is totally worth it!” When I was a child, my father planted a blue spruce, on Mother’s Day, for my mother, who was dying. Now the blue spruce itself is dying. It stands like a giant skeleton beside the farmhouse. This is not what was supposed to happen. Blue spruce trees, like mothers, are meant to live a long time. The blue spruce is dying because of a gas leak in the water supply. Though the water was painstakingly treated, the tree cannot recover. I know this because the tree told me, as I rested my forehead on its trunk in the yard and was helpless to console it. My family can’t decide why the tree is dying. Of course I can’t say, The tree told me, so I nod along with everyone else like it’s all some big hairy mystery. This is how my life on the farm has been. I knew, but could not say that I knew. Because I could not say how I knew. And above all because it was obvious. The butternut is dying, too. Of the canker which is slowly girdling its trunk. Who will mind the door when it is gone? How old was I when I knew that the butternut tree was, between worlds, both doorman and door? On knot on its trunk it was possible to knock and gain admittance into contrary, parallel and otherwise. That door will be closing shortly. I remember once I knocked and stepped through -- Only now does it occur to me that I did not come back.   

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