Artists’ respond, aiming to align wonder, word, and music. They lean into imagining what the tree sees in relationships, in children, and in backyard dreams. Thorburn’s tree is a witness to life in the yard, the house, in the sky above, and the buckling sidewalk below; the whole tree-is-us in our tangled roots and bent branches, our rancors and revelries, and our brittle bark tattooed by the scars of our days.
We are like every tree and its intangible roots beneath the sidewalk, reaching from yard and house to neighborhood and back again. Enmeshed below ground, trees know things and their hidden network chronicles the backyard’s rich saga: kids climbing and laughing in the branches, people in houses looking back at the tree from behind windows, and the green sky of aurora borealis above.
In our winter of pandemic and discontent, the tree is abandoned by yellowing leaves born away by freezing winds, shivering branches, and dropped to their winter-burial grounds “Everything I know I’ve learned from trees,” a friend from Michigan wrote to me the week before Christmas. I love trees too, but not everyone does; and his note reminded me of the politician who said, “When you’ve seen one redwood you’ve seen ’em all.”
I pity those who see every tree the same. It’s a different kind of poverty from the ‘poverty of spirit,’ which the Gospels praise. Bereft of wonder, one is left with a forlorn poverty of being. Such a fool, unable to appreciate music, art, poetry, or trees, may have a heart pumping lifeblood through his/her veins and arteries, but they are dull in their feeling function, incapable of beholding a Christmas tree or any tree in wonder and awe. “The mystery,” one of my professors used to say, “has been edited out,” and what remains is a barren human being . . . one as good as gone.
In The Tree, Englishman John Fowles wrote that “we walk in nature between trees, but trees move through us in imperceptible ways;” and while we may ascend on a flight plan of hope and renewal, in the blinking of an eye, the year has passed and then another takes root and grows.
A New Year creeps toward us, and we’re happy to take leave from the twisted branch of this last. A feather detaches from a wing and flutters on the wind like prophecy, at once holy and not so holy – WE CAN’T GO ON, WE MUST GO ON – we must live on hopes and dreams; and therefore, thrust ourselves heart and head first into a New Year.
Year by year, day by day, thought by thought, the New Year we’ve pined for is suddenly upon us and it’s time to lift a wing, release our tight hold on the branch, and fall toward the ground.
But wait! A backyard convection lifts our panicked descent, positioning us to rise; and because WE MUST GO ON, our hopes and dreams shall fill every budding of the year, day, and thought impending.
———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————In #thebigmichiganbackyard, I used to watch as a pileated woodpecker stabbed into a tall white pine next to Compeau Creek north of Marquette. That tree told me a story, and in exchange, I gave it a name. Euchalyptus trees in the forests of East Hawaii relayed yet another tale. Soon, I will travel and let the redwoods of Northern California, the Estavant pines of Western Upper Michigan, and the “witch tree” on the banks of Lake Superior in Northern Minnesota move through me.