To know a tree is to know something. Possibly, the knowing is not of the greatest order of intelligence, tinged as it often is with the mystery and immediacy of childhood memories or sensory experience. Though it is not always so, sometimes a tree grows with you through adulthood or as your children grow. Regardless of how a tree becomes a part of your life, it conjures feelings belonging to dreamtime. It seems the wise anthropomorphize a tree, relate to it as a being. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” counsels William Blake. Whether actually or symbolically a tree is necessary to the human psyche. Everyone feels they know a tree and is responsible for one.
Trees still hold appeal and awe even to those prone to rational thought, experimentation and ordered systems. “Through the process of photosynthesis, trees make matter, seemingly, out of thin air,” says a scientist, as if he were referring to a magical process, not one described by his profession in terms of formulas and chemical reactions.
Fir trees begun as mere saplings now tower and give shade. To have grown up with them as they have reached skyward, tall and proud, is to know all the branches where birds perch and sing and flit, the places where squirrels frolic and hoard their cones, the nooks where once a woodpecker obsessively hammered, and where magpies’ stoop. Those in more temperate climes may have had a swing suspended from a tree, afternoons whiled away in their hypnotic lull. There are the Sequoia, dignified and quiet, whispers alone seem appropriate in their presence. So integral is a tree to life and community that in Kenya, the preservation of an old fig tree in the face of highway development was celebrated as a victory like that of Olympic glory. In Puglia the devastation wrought by Xylella fastidiosa on centuries’ old olive trees and the subsequent culling is met with tears as if at a wake. Pilgrimages are made to Angel Oak in South Carolina for selfies and picnics nearby, its expanse too large for an ordinary image, only panoramas can capture it.
Above all, in terms of abundance, and the lesson of the energy of eternal delight pouring forth into this world, nothing can cap the fruit tree: cocoa trees, leaves of jewel tones; apple trees whose crimson delicacies lie tantalizingly far from reach; citrus laden to dropping with a scent no perfume could match.
In fact, a landscape of backyard or neighbourhood fruit trees becomes internalized. “I know that tree, I grew up with that tree,” says the Irishwoman of a damson tree which she gives pride of place in a fruit tart. The eating is somehow both of the past and present or maybe a present continuous. It is common in the West Indies to inquire about a tree as though it were a member of the family. “How is your mango tree?” a conversation may begin.
Perusing the newspaper, a story about an old guardian maple tree in New Hampshire seemed to make the point. First planted as a wedding gift at the threshold to a family home, now towering to 100 feet, it had been alive for at least the last 240 years. The tree had to be cut down because it had become a safety hazard. “She is finally being euthanized. It’s unsafe, and it’s not fair to her to let her stand out there and not be as beautiful as she always has been,” the AP reports of a woman who had grown up with the tree. Everything the woman describes about the tree is put in human terms – it is given a gender, even the way the tree will be cut is given a deep, visceral, strong human word.
Tell me what you see when you look upon a tree and I shall wager to say you have told me who you are.
This original editors letter first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.