Saturday, May 1, 2010

My father teaches me about trees.

Looking back on it I guess you could say I was six before I ever saw a tree. The house I grew up in had a tree in front of it, as did all the other houses on the block but those were store-bought trees, trees that were planted when they were about four feet tall, neatly one in front of each house. A great row of assembly line trees.

I had seen trees in books of course or on the television. I knew kids in other places climbed on them, swung from swings on them and carved their initials in them. But those trees weren’t like the trees in the sorry little corner of Yonkers where I grew up. Those were trees that were as fantastic as King Kong which we watched one rainy Sunday at 8PM on our black and white RCA Victor television set when a local channel played the movie during a show they called “Million Dollar Movie.” They were huge and Paleolithic. They were as much like the trees in our neighborhood as King Kong was like the squirrels who had appropriated the electrical wires to travel since there was no connecting foliage.

Then one day we took a trip to the country. My father was shooting some commercials in Maine and he and my mother decided they could combine his work and our vacation. We would drive up there in our Ford Country Squire with the plastic wood sides and stay in a cabin. On one side of the cabin was the sea, on the other were trees the likes of which I had never seen.

Maybe because they were so alien to me, trees always seemed threatening to me. The way country quiet seems eerie to city people. The most frightening element to me of The Wizard of Oz was never the witches, or the flying monkeys, it was the anthropomorphic trees, those gruff and grumpy guttural-voiced growths that pelted the Scarecrow and Dorothy with apples and rebuked the pair for their insensitivity. That scene, which we’d see annually when CBS TV replayed the movie was burned in my memory. It led me to see faces in trees. Not in the trees in my neighborhood in Yonkers, they were too skinny to have faces, but when I saw these trees in Maine, large and gnarled and knotty. Could these trees steal me from my bed—I’d eaten apples before, would they come and get me?

We stayed in small cabins in Maine. My mother and father in one and my brother and me in another one, one just a few yards away from theirs. One night as we walked back from dinner in the twilight, I saw the first frog of my life. A real live frog, it hopped on the path in front of us and as it did, I hopped down onto the path to capture it. I got it, cupped it in my grasp just as it was about to find safety under my parents’ cottage. My father brought out from his cabin a cigar box. He had emptied his remaining cigars out of it onto his dresser so I could keep the frog. I kept the frog in that tobacco-scented too-small home until my mother persuaded me the next morning that the frog probably had a frog family somewhere and that frog family missed him. I didn’t really mind giving up the frog. I had a feeling it had pissed on my hands and that had dampened the appeal, somehow, of frog-ownership.

That night my brother and I lay in our beds. I looked out the windows and saw the brightness of the night. The glow of the moon and the stars silhouetting the height of the trees against the sky. The trees were long and reached like fingers into the sky. From my bed, I looked up at their tops, through the window high above me. The coastal Maine wind was blowing and the trees swayed. To me it looked like there was a colossal storm outside, yet the was no lightning, no rain, no thunder, just the wind blowing the tops of the trees until it looked like their tops were taking bows like an actor in a stage play.

I lay in my bed looking at the trees, convinced that at any moment the wind would blow one or more of them over and they would crush me and my brother in our beds. Their branches would reach in a grab us like I had grabbed my frog. Our cabin would be like a large cigar box, us trapped inside with holes in the roof for us to breathe through. The trees were swaying, blowing, whipping in the air.

The wind was worse at the first light of dawn. I had somehow survived the night but now to my eyes my future looked dimmer. The trees were blowing around worse than they had all night. I felt sure that they would get me. I got out of bed and went out on the little porch at the front of my cabin. I saw my father sitting in a chair smoking a cigar. I picked up my frog cigar box and went over to my father and sat on the chair next to his.

“What are you doing up so early, Sport?” he asked me. Sport was one of about 100 different names he called me. I told him I couldn’t sleep for fear that the trees would crash in on me, killing me in my bed. He recited, from memory, Kilmer’s “Trees.”

“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”

Before I could focus on hungry mouths and leafy arms (or even on the word bosom) he quickly switched to Ogden Nash’s doggerel version:

“I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all.”

Then he finally turned to calm my fears and improve my knowledge of botany. “When trees sway in the wind,” he said “it strengthens their roots. When you have to worry,” he went on, “is when they stop swaying.”

I don’t remember much more about our time in Maine, except on one particularly nice day when my brother and I climbed down the cliffs to the cold water of the ocean. In the little tide pools the waves left behind were hundreds of little snails—another creature I had never seen before—and the smoothest snail-like like black stones I had ever seen.

I think when I was down by the water was just about the only time I felt absolutely safe from the trees. There was plenty of wind down by the waves and neither trees nor my father were anywhere nearby.