The Ancient Tool of Understanding

Magie - NYC, New York
Entered on January 9, 2008

A friend gave me a toolkit this Christmas, an unopened hand-me-down with a yellowed label. But it was new to me and I’ve been dreaming of owning a house in the mountains, so owning a toolkit was a step towards that end. Mountains and trees.

An ancient Rousseau-like tree once grew inside a private courtyard next to my apartment building. Branches spanned entire buildings. Wind rushed through branches and made whooshing sounds, like surf, and I imagined an ocean somewhere in the distance. People sat beneath branches, in candlelight, and the clink of their dishes blended with sound of rustling leaves. Some trees live inside maintained gardens; others wither on sidewalks. Some live a life of Russian roulette. I wrote about the tree’s autumn blaze, the pigeons resting like old people in rockers.

Its branches were mammoth arms, an unconditional friend on unforgiving days. One year I had a terrible accident and spent months recovering from facial reconstruction; the tree changed right along with me. The courtyard was bordered with benches and manicured flowers.

The flowers reminded me of my mother. For years, my mother was severely depressed with bouts of rage and darkness. But it was the 1940’s and peoples’ needs were unattended to. Nothing was discussed. She was happy on holidays and decorated the house. There was always a tree at Christmas. But she was happiest in her garden, alone amid pansies and dahlia. Inside she was a madwoman. Outside she was an ecological genius and knew everything about leaves and roots and water systems. I tried to remember her with trees, to cherish that memory and release the others. And for that I needed the tools of love and understanding.

The week, following my mother’s death, I returned to New York, carried my bag and my mother’s ashes up four flights of stairs, put water on for tea, walked to the window, and looked out to complete emptiness. The tree had been chopped down. A sawed-off stump stood in its place. I yelled, why? to no one. It was the middle of the night and there was no one to ask.

In the morning the man who looked after the garden was checking something in a flower bed.

“Can you hear me?” I called down.

“Yes,” he said.

“Why was the tree chopped down?” I asked.

“Because six weeks out of every summer it drops things and no one can sit here,” he yelled.

I was too heartbroken to ask why they couldn’t sit somewhere else; the courtyard was the size of a building. A bird flew in a path toward where the tree once stood, then stopped short and landed on a hedge.

There’s a theory that plants communicate with one another, and may eventually communicate with humans. Plants may one day testify at a trial. That they respond to care and love is proven. Plants in my apartment witnessed the tree’s destruction. Only memories remained. The same remained of my mother. In one weekend they both vanished. Probably together. She felt safe with trees.

I chipped away at the memories of my mother’s madness. It took years of working with dozens of tools. Eventually, I realized that the ancient tools of love and understanding were the best ones I could ever use. Tools, however yellowed, meant to be opened.

It’s true, trees can be messy. They shed leaves. Strong winds tear away limbs. They’re noisy; branches creak at the end of a day. They’re unpredictable, changing color, growing, adapting. Weather and hardships determine their shape. Trees are constantly bending toward the light. We can learn a lot from trees.