Happy trees and a sad one, too


You’d have to have a wooden heart not to appreciate flame trees, coconut trees, breadfruit trees, and ironwood trees. I like them all, even though I grew up around other types that I appreciate just as much. We had maples and elms in one area, and willows and pines in another. There’s no need to get too involved with categorization, though. With all the simple pragmatism of youth, I had only one criterion for trees: how good they were for climbing.

It seemed to me that my time was better invested climbing up trees than sitting in classrooms. This outlook didn’t endear me to the People Who Knew Better. So I endured many finger-wagging lectures about how there was no future in climbing trees, especially if I kept neglecting my cursive lessons.

Well, those lessons remained neglected, but I found that trees had some lessons of their own to offer.

One lesson came from an early example of theory vs. reality. On a crisp autumn day (and autumn is a very good season for climbing trees), I remember being confined to a stuffy and overheated classroom, gazing out the window at the colorful leaves of the maples. We were being lectured on, of all things, trees.

In this regard, a tree wasn’t something to be climbed, but was just something to be described on a chalkboard, and in the driest possible terms. We learned fancy words like coniferous and deciduous, which, I suppose, said something about trees, but which said nothing about treeness. There’s nothing wrong with this unless you start to confuse the two. And, in a broader sense, such confusion strikes me as a hallmark of the modern age.

Anyway, back to trees. Treeness is a very important thing. There were entire businesses that capitalized on that fact. An apple orchard in Wisconsin provided ladders and baskets to families who would pick their own apples. Parents would maintain a tired vigilance, arms folded, while their kids picked apples and scurried around the trees. For my family, this activity was rivaled only by Christmas as the highlight of every year.

I’d often think of that orchard when I worked in the tourism industry. It showed that one person’s labor is another’s recreation. If you grew up on an apple orchard, I’d imagine that picking apples might be the last thing you’d want to do in your spare time. There are, by contrast, other people who will pay for the privilege.

I’ve had favorite trees just about everywhere I’ve been, although I sometimes didn’t think about them as favorites until after I moved somewhere else.

Some trees that couldn’t be climbed still had their charms. My grandparents in the south lived on a property full of pine trees. Those weren’t much fun to scale, but they’d drop big pine cones, which my sister and I would decorate with glue, sparkle, felt, and anything else that struck our fancy. There’s probably an app for that now.

One of my favorite trees was dubbed the “thinking tree.” It was at a small airport in the arid, brown hills of the American west. My friend, Sparky, had a repair business at the field. The tree had a picnic table under its shade. The peaceful setting was conducive to clear thinking, and I’d often do some paperwork while we ate cheeseburgers and fries, talked about flying, and while Sparky smoked cigarettes and soldered radio circuits.

Eventually, some genius chained a Porta Potty to the tree, employing the singular logic that the tree was the most convenient place to tether the thing.

There’s certainly a lesson in that sad little episode, but I don’t really know how to present it. Why bother trying? Some things just speak for themselves.

On a happier note, the sages of the East had some things to say about trees. One of my favorite stories is about big old tree that was gnarled and consequently no good for lumber. Other, nicer trees were cut down for their wood, but the gnarled tree enjoyed old age by virtue of its very uselessness. This story resonates with me for reasons we need not contemplate.

One of my pals built a large tree house on Saipan that he camped in while he built his concrete house on the property. The tree house had a large platform as a floor, but the roof was merely a tarpaulin. The arrangement was surprisingly cool, I guess since it was up off the hot tropical ground. At the time I had a visitor from the mainland, a bishop, no less, and he later told me that the tree house was a highlight of his visit. That was enough for me to consider the tree house sanctified. Well, kinda’ sorta’.

But for a guy like me, someone who can’t even write cursive, kinda’ sorta’ is as good as things are likely to get. That’s OK. Just leave me in peace with some trees, and I’ll be all right.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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