Trees have always been a presence in my life. For most people they are something hardly noticed. A part of the background. In contrast, I have always felt a connection to these silent sentinels. A lot of it had to do with where I grew up.
Our home was nestled at the bottom of a wooded hill. Shaggybark hickory trees and ash covered our portion of the bluff, many of them planted by my father. Venturing into the forest was like entering into another world, full of soothing sights and sounds removed from the busyness of the outside. The yard around our house was not nearly so wild. Even so, a myriad of trees dotted the well-kept lawn. Some of them were giants, cottonwoods and birch, basswood and boxelder, towering into the sky and stretching their branches out in shelter. When a terrible storm hit when I was in junior school, toppling many of the mightiest trees I was devastated. How could such seemingly permanent and changeless fixtures be gone? Suddenly, the world was let in. I missed my leafy companions.
When my grandfather died I remember being driven to the cemetery along a road lined with twisting maples, their dying leaves alive with the color and majesty of fall. So close were the trees that they formed a tunnel, nearly blocking out the sun. Later, that same road would give me shivers as I biked along its shadowy lengths in the moonlight after playing D & D with friends. In the blackness of the night the trees brought me no comfort then as I fought the urge to glance behind me in case a headless horseman was hot on my heels. Decades later I picked out my wedding ring; white gold engraved with leaves. The trees were forgiven. They could not be blamed for what I projected on to them. They weren't idyllic or frightening. They were something else entirely.
Trees have always been a mystery to me. They do not speak or move from place to place. They make no demands. Hold no grudges, even though human beings have reduced their number by half. Instead they offer shelter and shade, food and oxygen, silently observing all that goes on around them. Time moves differently for trees, each concentric circle an exercise in patience. They are often slow, playing the long-game. Many are abiding, dwarfing a single human life. The bristlecone pine in California's White Mountain Range are thousands of years old. Some of the most venerable individuals were just entering middle-age when Augustus conquered Judea for Rome. Even though trees have always been part of human history and mythology, we are only know beginning to understand just how really amazing they are. Trees are social beings. They depend on one another for survival. They can communicate with each other through chemical processes. They respond to pain much like we do.
Standing on the prairie, where my family has made our home for twenty years, I would be lying if I said I did not miss the trees in their splendid number and quiet comfort. But the open grasslands and farmlands are not barren. Every landscape has its own beauty. If only we choose to see it. Still, the heart wants what the heart knows. That is why I have planted my fair share, knowing I will not see them mature.
All of this is just a roundabout way of explaining why I care about trees, and why they figure so prominently in my novel Treetops and other writings. In my fantasy book a young girl named Jackie journeys up into an impossibly tall tree and enters another world. The good news is that we can all do that anytime, right here, in our mundane, ordinary human world. Find a park or a stretch of woodland. Put down your cell phone. Get out of your car and walk toward the trees. Listen to the wind as it rustles the leaves like an invitation or a warning. At the edge you may hesitate. That's okay. Step inside and see what awaits.