A small walk through memories of the family tree and the trees that keeps those memories rooted.
Sometime in the 1940s, a biplane flying over central New Jersey lost control, dropped to a few dozen feet above ground, barely dodged a house built before George Washington crossed the Delaware, smashed through the top of a giant walnut tree, and then rolled into a graveyard where it all ended in a tumbling ball of fire, gravestones and debris. The pilot’s body was never recovered but the town erected a small granite marker anyway.
The unlucky walnut tree had a trunk that divided like a wishbone. The impact pushed the limbs apart and cracked the central trunk with the violence of a lightning strike. One half listed over my grandfather’s small, boxish house, the other teetered over a narrow country road. With stubborn defiance to gravity, the halves held together.
My grandfather was advised to amputate at least one half, if not take the entire tree down. As a gardener by trade, he understood when to mend a broken bone and when to sever a lost limb. As a frugal and tenacious product of the Great Depression and WWII, there was no way anyone else was touching his tree.
With two large bolts, five feet of ship-grade chain and no ceremony whatsoever, he literally yanked the tree back together.
Fifty years later, his grandson stared up at a perfectly healthy, wishbone-shaped walnut tree that had black chains as thick as wrists mysteriously sprouting out of the bark.
For evidence of divinity, I suggest a late September hike in the Adirondack mountains. This year I had the opportunity to spend a day climbing the modest 2,513 ft Jenkins Mountain, which is less a “climb” and more a really long walk through beaver-dammed wetlands, flood-washed gullies and house-sized boulders carelessly dropped by glaciers 13,000 years ago. And trees. Millions of trees. Gently blushing yellow, orange, red, brown and every other glowing shade of autumn.
The golden-green canopy from the endless groves of hardwoods—beech, birch, ash, maple—is so dense that it feels like an intermittent heaven. The sky beyond is a kind of jewel-tone blue. The silence is so complete that you can almost hear the sunlight washing over the leaves.
Jenkins Mountain is part of Paul Smith’s College, where my dad graduated with a degree in forestry. He knows everything there is to know about trees in the northeast United States: where they grow, why they die, which to burn, how to saw and sand them into beautiful furniture.
I don’t know why, exactly, but this is important to me. I often feel disconnected from nature, and seek those connections. Perhaps that’s why significant trees often appear in my timeline as shadowy but influential cast members. I wonder if others feel the same way, or if they anthropomorphize mountains, or streams, or sand dunes. Everything has a face if you’re patient enough for it to show itself.
Before my parents moved to the Adirondacks a decade ago, they lived in an ancient house in New Jersey surrounded by acres of rambling lawn and then acres more of our neighbors’ farmland, all of it criss-crossed by patches of scruffy woods. For deer, it was idyllic.
Right behind our house was a triptych of apple trees. Not picturesque, leafy, cartoon-like apple trees, but ancient, squat, sprawling, thick, twisting, grumpy old men apple trees. Every spring they shed a thousand whip-like branches. Every fall they dropped a million apples. Some years, when the apples were sweet, we made applesauce, apple crisp, apple-rhubarb pie and apple butter. When the apples were bitter, the worms and yellow jackets had their way.
A few years after my son was born, I took him to the garden shop where we bought a small apple tree sapling. We spent the morning in our Kansas backyard plotting the location, digging, planting, watering. At first, it grew nicely. But when we moved back east a few years later, the apple tree had stubbornly grown only a few inches and was drenched in a sickly, wilting brown discoloration. I never could get anything to grow in that yard—berry bushes, sunflower plants and tomatoes all fell—but the inability to grow a simple tree was particularly tough.
Someone later told me that apple trees grow best when they’re close together. This makes sense. It precisely matches the ethos of my family. We pollinate ideas and feelings and experiences, and we stand together in the most perfect summer afternoons and the bitterest winter snows.
Between my dad’s woody ways and a stint in an active Boy Scout troop, I’ve collected bits of treeish knowledge over the years. I can identify some trees by their leaf, some by their bark, and I know how to make great campfires from pretty much nothing. I don’t have a good reason for holding onto this knowledge except that it occasionally impresses my wife.
Her prowess is more in the social environment. She deftly reads others’ emotions and intent as easily as tracing the veins of an oak leaf. This is mighty handy, because when it comes to navigating a social environment, I have all the grace of a log.
After we married, we spent ten years in Kansas. Work, kids, etc. Not a bad place, but tough for people that brag about being born in New Jersey. When we moved back, I often joked it was “for family, food and the ocean, but not necessarily in that order”. It’s taken me a long time to understand I should have added trees to that list. Kansas is truly flat: geographically and ecologically. The prairie, if you haven’t guessed, is not for us.
After my grandparents migrated permanently to Florida, my grandfather’s sister moved into the boxy house underneath the walnut tree. A bit of a spinster and old bitty, she kept to herself, a bit Ms Havisham without the dramatic backstory. Our visits to the house were few.
My mom and dad found her dead in her basement from a brain tumor the size of a tangerine that had never been diagnosed. With no husband and no children, her branch of the family tree ended abruptly in a small ceremony in the same graveyard hit by the biplane decades earlier.
I don’t remember the funeral. I don’t recall much except weird licorice candy and watching 3-2-1 Contact on her tiny black and white television. But I do have a postcard-crisp memory of sitting with her on a cement bench underneath our bosomy cherry blossom tree whose vast limbs puffed up into a towering frozen firework explosion of the softest pink every April, and then in the second week of May, exhaled every petal at once to bury our garden under a snowy, rosy carpet.
Most trees are quite mortal and pass away without fanfare. Walnuts, for example, commonly grow well beyond 200, but are anything but immortal. Most birch trees have a humanish lifespan and fall before 100. Age becomes a liability as the inner core decays and the height and bulk grow more susceptible to wind. By rot or by force, nature collects its due.
Hurricane Sandy’s true damage was not from flooding, but wind. Tyler State Park in Pennsylvania lost hundreds of trees in one night—almost all of them several stories high and hundreds of years old.
After the storm, my wife and I, with our kids, walked the inner paths of the park, along the main creek and over the steep ridges, where astounding stretches of trees had been laid waste by 40 mph winds sustained across almost 12 hours. We talked about the trees’ death, what it meant, what would happen next. It was weirdly emotional, like visiting a war memorial that bore names from your family.
Today, the shells and skeletons of the lost trees remain where they fell, spidery grey monuments that will decay over decades. Saplings have sprouted where sunlight finally has an opportunity to reach.
A tree’s growth is dictated by myriad vectors of genetics and environment. DNA promises potential, context limits that potential. Each apical meristem, housed in the buds in the tips of each branch, is the seed of a new branch, a tiny nub of possibility. Most wilt to nothing. Many grow into shoots and sticks. A few expand into branches that give life to countless more possibilities.
Every forest has a unique complexion of tree species. There are males and females, groves and clearings, clusters and individuals. Every tree has a unique branch pattern. Every leaf has unique vein markings. Every cell carries unique DNA. Every atomic facet is unique until the very end.
My wife and I married almost 13 years ago. We have produced two loud, competitive, sensitive, creative balls of genetic offspring. My son has his mom’s hair, builds a lot of Lego spaceships, literally runs away when his girl-crush gets close but is a habitual cuddler with his mom and dad. My daughter is the tallest girl in her grade, has the knock-you-on-your-ass fire of a linebacker but loves playing with stuffed animals, and writes elaborate stories of sleepovers and birthday parties. I don’t know how they could be more different and I cannot imagine them apart.
I don’t know how they’ll grow in this world of sun, soil, decay and beauty, or what new branches of life their future holds. But I do know that we’ll spend a lot of time consulting the trees along the path.