In the summer, I begin my morning with a walk about the property, coffee cup in hand, bulldog in tow, boots adrip with dew. Daylight does not suffer lazy fools in the Pacific Northwest or so my inner voice tells me. Dawn slips in early, dusk withdraws on its own accord. The day can be long, the rewards plenty, and the beauty inescapable. When the stingier months of winter arrive and darkness regains its throne, the rooks of rain move in to settle the score. My walk becomes an abbreviated stoop sit from the protected vantage point of a covered porch and a comfy albeit threadbare chair (cue the “Deliverance” soundtrack); but the coffee cup is still in hand, and the bulldog still in tow and the view no less comforting.
No matter what the season, I greet the trees that grace my home property as often as I pass by them. Not with a verbal howdy do, but with a nod or delighted eye, or a smile or sense of wonder. I marvel that they even exist. Whether planted by islander, critter or determined gust of wind, they stand their ground, taking root and reaching for the rain and the sky and the stars, ready to bare witness to the shenanigans of the mere mortals beneath their boughs.
Trees and I go way back, from my first squint skyward toward the loblolly pines and live oaks of South Carolina to the shaggy-barked, impossibly-difficult-to-climb pecan trees of my Alabama youth to the magnificent old-growth fir, cedar and spruce of the Pacific Northwest that often leave me speechless and in awe.
Trees, like people, have stories, though most are untold and lost to the witnesses of time. I can only imagine what they’d say if falling leaves were falling words. The black locust trees flanking the north side of my house suggest the pragmatism of islanders over a century ago—opting for a tree with wood known for remarkable hardness, big BTUs, rot resistance, a blossom that beguiles any honeybee in a ten-mile radius, and a shade that filters light like a wispy cloud. I’m not sure if they intentionally planted the pair as perfect placeholders for my hammock, but I’d like to think that they did, and I thank them them duly with each swing or sway on a summer day.
On the east side of the house, stand three colossal trees: one big-leaf maple and two madrones, or madronas as we say around here. A stark photograph from 1900, shows the maple tree at a height of about twenty feet, which makes sense as the house was about twelve years old at the time. Today it marks my property like a big, bold exclamation point in the front field.
The madronas (the same ages, I suspect) were likely nature’s doing as madronas don’t like to be transplanted nor tampered with by the hand or spade of man. If the maple is an exclamation point, the two madronas share the page as ampersands, twisting and reaching with spiral curves and craggy bends. Known to drop branches with ease and regularity, the madronas inspired me to “build a fence that fell from the sky.”
In a swale beyond the south side of my house, a scrim of cottonwoods filters light through its quaking leaves and tangled scaffolds. Formidably tall and disproportionately lanky, the cottonwoods sweeten each spring breeze with blossoms seemingly scented with honey. My dear friend and neighbor Phoebe (some 90 years young) rerouted her walk each spring, just to enjoy the heady gift of the cottonwood grove. In late summer, winds tease the leaves to perform like softly clapping hands. The cottonwoods have begun to take their final bow, as three have already fallen to strong winds and wet ground. Even in ruin, the trees send up strong shoots from their massive trunks, and start a new chapter of growth.
I may not be able to remember the names of childhood friends (or where I parked), but I can remember every tree I climbed in the front and backyards of my childhood homes. And for this nomadic Air Force kid, the tally was sizeable. As a teenager, I set up my getaway in our third-floor attic. Wavy glass pane windows were framed by the mottled limbs of stately sycamores lining our street like sentinels to the water’s edge of Chesapeake Bay. I was too old to climb trees (so I thought), so stairs provided me easy access to a treetop view. One’s daydreams have a place to soar when gazing through the canopy of a tree.
One summer day about twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of spending a weekend on Lopez Island, in the San Juans. A morning walk led me into town to a smattering of Saturday market vendors. There on a listing card table sat a preponderance of pots with seedlings feeble enough to be overlooked, but not by this plant hound. Upon closer inspection, I was delighted to find one pot tagged “American Chestnut, Castanea Dentata.” The fellow plantsman and I gabbed about this uncommon and stately tree until my friends begged me to conclude the conversation and make way to the bakery. I obliged but with a potted chestnut seedling in my hand and a pocket shy of coffee money.
When I cross the Sound to visit Seattle, I usually make a detour (if time allows) to drive by my former cottage of a house. On the sloped street near Green Lake Park, 57th and Ashworth to be exact, an American Chestnut grows with a vigor long denied its east coast cousins where blight decimated the tree’s range. Folks likely walk by the tree with little thought to its origin or why it’s there, but hopefully do delight in its beauty. Thanks to a weekend on Lopez Island, a rare and majestic tree found a new home on a prominent corner one block away from Seattle’s most popular park?
The little cottage has been enveloped by plantings of fig, wisteria, maple, bay laurel and larch. And there on the corner parking strip stands the stalwart specimen of a once puny chestnut twig, now gloriously verdant, vigorous in habit, and prominently in place. Two decades later, the tree is (even though young) quite magnificent. May pruners, loppers and hacksaws never make its acquaintance, nor ruin the inherent beauty of its habit and framework of branches.
I’ve planted many trees before. There’s something hopeful about the practice. While I know I may be absent for most its life, the world will bear witness to its growth, and vice versa. And the tree will continue to bring shade, fruit, flowers, and beauty to a spot once devoid of such endowments. I often feel that planting a tree is a way of saying thank you to life.
Back on Vashon, I have several acres well suited for additional trees. For me, planting a tree is more joy than job. From gingko, to catalpa, to Chilean fire tree to fringetree, to an oak of many colors, I plant each one in hopes of seeing it grow and flourish and make its mark on the landscape and in the hearts of those who inhabit and visit this home. May one day a family share a picnic under its boughs. May a swing send muddy feet skyward, and a hammock slow things down for a weary weed puller. May fruit find its way to a basket and flowering branches to awaiting arms.
When things seem a little hopeless, or sad, disappointing or without merit, a tree is a fine companion and a good listener, gently soothing the soul merely by its presence and proximity. Perhaps a hundred years from now on this very farm, eyes will look up through a vault of branches supporting the sky, and thank the soul, who it seems just like yesterday, planted a tree for someone else’s tomorrow. And maybe, just maybe, it will inspire that thoughtful soul to do the same.