To All the Trees that I Have Loved

posted in: Journal, Nature | 3
Tree Dolmen Denmark
Tree watching over a dolmen, Funen Island, Denmark, 1988 (I’m not sure what kind of tree this is. I think it’s a beech, but if anyone knows, I’d be grateful if you’d inform me)

This is the fourth installment in the ongoing online essays series at Ecotone, this time on the theme “Trees and Place” Please drop by and have a look at what other people are writing, or possibly contribute your own essay if you like.


Love knows no bounds, so the saying goes. At times I wonder about the cogs that spin around upstairs in my attic, because most of the emotions that have twirled and waltzed me around to that indescribable music seemed sourced to some transmitter on another planet, completely disconnected to any wires in my own little control panel. I’ve had my share of relationships with women and each time some tugging force manifested itself without my say so. Each of the women were different in so many ways, and each went their own way with vestiges of wonder, joy, and sadness. Without having known each of these women, the steps that I have taken so far through my life would have left me that much further behind in my unsteady progress across the stepping stones in the river. Men have, of course, played significant roles in the drama, but none with the intimacy and intensity of what I have known with women, to whom I have both completely opened the gates, while at other times letting out the monster. Love has turned me inside out, lifted me to where no man had gone before, and dragged me kicking into the open.

So it has been with trees, too. Perhaps it is their seeming immoveability, their tendency to be there when you get back. When you look up, there they are. They can usually be counted on to take you as you are, without comment, and to listen without prejudice. And unlike so many friends, perhaps, their stationary nature provides a pillow against time, somehow creating the illusion that nothing changes and that you can rest easy in their infallible devotion to one place. They are the friends that preserve the substance of memories when you return home.

The first tree that arises in my own memories was a venerable old Weeping Willow that stood in the back yard of the Parkway Village housing complex in New York, back in the 1960’s. It was a craggy old stick with crooked branches and a wide gash in its abdomen where mud dauber wasps found refuge. The long strings of its leaves cascaded from the scant branches that clawed at the sky and swayed in the wind. A grey squirrel resided in a crook in its cranium, dashing out along the limbs to chatter at me as I sat playing among the roots, or tightroping out to the ends of the branches when I clambored among the boughs. For four summers that tree and I grew together, and when my family moved to a new apartment that looked right out at the backyard, I would greet the Willow every morning from my bedroom window.

Then, in the winter of 1968, a great blizzard hit, turning the night blue and the wind screaming across the window panes. In the middle of the night a great crack woke me and when I ran to the window I witnessed, through the indistinct blurr of snow and darkness, the great form of the Willow lying prone in the yard. I cried that night and still grieve for the loss of a great friend.

My family moved to Japan the following year. New trees that I had never seen before stood watching as I took my first tentative steps in the new country. Among them I discovered new creatures and fresh adventures and as I grew the visions that they evoked seeped into my making. One particular tree, a Camphor Tree, five stories tall and just as wide, with a trunk as wide as a Volkswagen, stood behind my junior high school building. It was a place few students ventured and where I loved to retreat to when I wanted to be alone. One afternoon I was reading a book at the Camphor’s base, when three boys, Peter from Australia, Marcel from South Africa, and David from America, found me there. There was little talk. They were big and strong and thorough. Afterwards I lay sobbing between two huge roots, blood from my nose spilling across the wrinkled bark. I lay there until night fell, clutching the great roundness of the tree.

After high school I moved alone to Oregon, on the west coast of the United States. In all the ten years that I lived there, no single tree stands out. Rather it was like walking into some grand banquet hall of giants, 30 meter tall Titans, the Douglas Fir, standing at attention at every corner and every open space. The mountains were covered by them. The university campus ran like a green carpet under their legs. When I looked up at their faces their eyes were far away, as if contemplating the sea to the west. They never looked down. And so for ten years I scuttled among these mighty sentinels, getting smaller with each day. When I left Oregon I was no more than a mouse, but my eyes had learned to consider the horizons, and the distant clouds, and the wind.

Boston was my next stop. After Oregon it seemed as if walls had closed in. The company of trees dwindled to what the verges allowed, but I was grateful for the Plane Trees around Harvard. And one sunny spring day I stared amazed during my first encounter with a weeping tree, a Sugar Maple leaking sap with the first warm spell of the year, a delirious joy at the retreat of the cold of the northern winter.

I had found a woman I loved in Boston, but could not love Boston itself and I felt I had to leave. So I forsook what I had started there and returned to Japan. The distance was great. The telephone bills ate half my paychecks. The one who was waiting for me couldn’t bear the strain and left. In my sorrow I took to the mountains around the small town at the foot of Mt. Fuji, every weekend walking farther and harder, till my feet ached and I would sing Beatles’ songs at the top of my lungs as I descended in the evenings. On one small and almost unnoticed mountain that pitched itself right at the knees of Mt. Fuji and commanded a wide perspective of the entire waistline of the great volcano, stood four aging Japanese Cedars. They reminded me of my beloved Douglas Firs in Oregon, standing in the same regal straightness and also looking away over my head. Many afternoons I fell asleep at their feet, bees buzzing in the grass and crows cawing in the distance. One time I decided to camp there and I sat all night listening to Racoon-Dogs, Red Foxes, and Sika Deer shuffling amidst the underbrush. The following morning I stood naked beside one Cedar trunk, watching mist rising from the valley, as Mt. Fuji rose like a golden queen in the rising sun.

And so the circle made a full turn. Tokyo is my home again. The trees that I have loved still stand behind me along the long road, and I wonder if they will be there if I were to return to give them my regards. Tokyo is cutting down much of its tree kin. It is a lucky gift if you can open your window and hear the leaves sighing. And in that perhaps I am lucky. For, outside my window, for the past three years, I am able to rest my eyes upon a big chested Magnolia Tree. In spring she bursts her corset and waves at the sky with a thousand white gloves. The first bird of the dawn, the Brown-eared Bulbul, heralds the light with his piccolo screech, from atop the highest branches. And in strong winds, such as the big blow earlier today, all the fat leaves turn up in prayer, asking only for another day. Just another day. I watch and smile and nod in agreement.

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for this wonderful memoir. No wonder you shared my grief atthe loss of that willow. I especially appreciated your writing about the majestic Douglas firs with their faraway gaze, and the Japanese cedars. Many of us see to be commenting on the “protective” quality of trees for us, in addition to our need to care for them, and if that’s so, it makes sense that we feel dislocation, grief, and even anger when we lose them.

  2. My earliest memory about trees was that of seeing an orange grove near our home bulldozed, piled, and burned. The ashes fluttered out of the sky as we came out of a bakery and my mother told me to cover them so that I wouldn’t catch one between the lids.

    That’s behind all the landscape here in Southern California for me now. That and dairies that are no more.

  3. The rootedness and permanence of trees providing landmarks to come back to, versus their being plowed into heaps and burned, or our grief when they fall victim to storms… this is a tension that recurs in Ecotone posts where we look at the things that contribute to our grounding in place, and your essay is a wonderful contribution to this subject. Thanks.

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