Sunday, October 2, 2011

Under a shady tree

My favorite tree in literature is Francie's tree, the eponymous (A) Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.... 
That was the kind of tree in Francie's yard. Its umbrellas curled over, around and under her third-floor fire escape. An eleven-year-old girl sitting on this fire escape could imagine she was living in a tree. That's what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in summer.
I probably met Francie around the time I was eleven. I didn't have a fire escape but I had a diseased apple tree that littered sweetly pungent, wormy premature fruit. It had a wide trunk but no low branches. I couldn't climb it. It was terrible, really, as trees for imagining in go.

I had a lilac bush, so overgrown that people who didn't know lilac bushes always thought it was a tree. It was fragrant and its blossoms lovely but its branches were spindly and pliant. It offered no cover and couldn't be climbed.

I had a maple, a Norwegian red-stemmed lollipop tree. You know lollipop trees: straight trunk, perfect circle of leaves. I could climb it a bit, but it didn't matter; our quiet street wasn't captivating enough to watch for long.

My street ended at a concrete wall, and if you jumped the wall and ran across the four-lane but almost always almost empty highway, you came to what looked like a thin strip of park. In fact, it was thin only because it was the upper lip of something deep and ancient. The gorge that connected the two lakes by a famous river didn't look like much until you looked down, but you couldn't really love it until you climbed in, and looked back up and out. There were steel cables for climbing straight down, or a meandering stone-cut staircase allegedly carved made by Boy Scouts in the 1920s, and there were dirt paths along the water, just above the whirlpools. There I would climb trees.

I think I had Francie aspirations, plans to people-watch and journal-write and create versions of worlds for versions of me to inhabit. But there were often no other people in the bottom of the gorge, and I could never write. Just listening to the birds chirping and the water gurgling and tracing the rock formations on the other side with my eyes was a whole world.

It's been a long time since I've been alone in the canopy of a tree.

This post was inspired by Deborah Reed's debut novel Carry Yourself Back to Me, which follows heartbroken singer-songwriter Annie Walsh as she digs into the past to exonerate her brother from murder. Annie's character is tied up with the nature that surrounds her, and she made me reminisce of all the outdoor places where I've loved to let my mind wander. As a member of From Left to Write book club, I received a copy of this book for review. You can read other members' posts inspired by Carry Yourself Back to Me on book club day, October 3, at From Left to Write. And then you should go find this book, because it was the the kind of so-good that I cried at its end.

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