Friday, February 05, 2021

Even If We've Forgotten

I'm guessing, but we probably planted the tree around 1965 or 1966, but it could have been earlier. What I do know is that the tree wasn't always there. 

This would have made me around three or four when Dad, with my help, dug the hole in our front yard, right through the lawn we kids weren't supposed to dig up. We kept putting the sapling's rootball into the hole to measure its depth. Dad showed me on the tree's skinny trunk how deep we wanted it to be, so we dug and measured until it was perfect. Then we pushed the pile of dark, somewhat clayey soil back into the hole, packing it in around the roots.

It wasn't much of a tree. Our neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina was populated with the towering remnants of a pine forest that had been carved out for our suburban cul-de-sac. This tree wasn't a pine, although it was an evergreen of some sort. I remember thinking it looked a lot like a tiny Christmas tree.

We fertilized and watered, then Dad stood up, leaning on his shovel, and told me we were done. 

I silently told myself that this would be my job, caring for this baby tree. It clearly needed help and protection. I imagined myself tending it day-after-day, raising it, I suppose, in imitation of my own mother and the mothers up and down our street. I would also tend it like my own father and the fathers up and down our street cared for their lawns and gardens, bending over it, on my knees, doing whatever it was that they did. I'd been lucky enough to see a lot of adults raising things, so I knew this is what one did with smaller, weaker, more tender living things.

For a time I went out there every day to check on this tree that we'd positioned near the roadway, right at the corner of our lot. We knew it was the corner because there was a metal spike sunk into ground right there marking the spot where our property ended and our neighbor's began, put there, I guess, by the developer of the sub-division. The original people who had lived there, who I knew of at the time merely as "Indians," were the Natchez, Cherokee, and Iroquois people. I recall looking into the branches of the full-grown trees and wondering if these original owners of the land had planted them.

I knew it took a long time for a tree to grow. Dad had told me that. But I was nevertheless disappointed each day when I could see no noticeable progress. The branches were far too feeble for climbing. It wasn't even full enough to hide behind. I once tried decorating it with a set of colorfully painted croquet mallets, but they wouldn't stay in place. I worried about the tree's lack of apparent growth for a time, but since no one else seemed worried, I let it go, eventually forgetting about it. Or rather, not forgetting about it entirely, but only forgetting it until I saw it, then forgetting it again, the way we do with so much of the world.

I, however, did grow, and with that my world became larger than my house, yard, and cul-de-sac. I made friends, went to school, and then we moved away just before my 10th birthday. I know the tree grew in that time as well, but it did so off my radar, so my only memories are of that sapling we planted.

A few days ago I was playing around with Google's "street view" and decided to travel virtually for a look at our old house, the place we left nearly half a century ago. And there was the tree we had planted. It is still more or less the same shape, just larger, big enough for climbing. There are other trees around it now. Trees I don't remember, pines that tower over it. Dad had obviously chosen a slower growing variety. Even so, it appears to be on the verge of overhanging the next door neighbor's driveway. It doesn't look like it's been pruned to accommodate cars yet, even now, 50 years later. Dad really knew what he was doing when he planted that tree. He had seen into the future, wanting both the tree and the neighbor to have the room they needed. In the street view picture, I can count six smaller trees, two still saplings, that subsequent families have scattered across the front lawn. Some day, there will no lawn, what with all the shade and those giant roots sucking up all the moisture, but that day is still decades away.

Trees naturally live for hundreds of years, so the one we planted is still in its youth. That boy I was when it was a sapling wonders if it remembers me as I remember it. Trees have long memories, longer than humans. 

Every day, we are digging holes and planting saplings. We might not be able to identify them any longer, but they continue to grow and shape the world. We remain connected to them, even if we've forgotten them. This is the business we are in, all of us, all the time. The expression tells us that we reap what we sow, but that only refers to crops. Most of the things we plant in our lives are like this tree, planted, tended for a time, then left behind for others to tend or chop, cherish or neglect. And we too are shaped by what others have planted, tended, and left behind. Trees are connected through their root systems, communicating, sharing, growing together. What we see above ground is merely the illusion of solitary life. We're like that too, connected, communicating, and sharing across time and space, over decades and centuries, even if we've forgotten.


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