Friday, July 12, 2019

Summer of Tree Books: The Overstory (lack of) progress, Grief, Midsommar

Reader, I ain’t gonna lie—I haven’t made much progress this week on The Overstory. But I plan to, soon, and even though I didn't get many pages read, I’ve been thinking about the book nevertheless, and about trees, and lots of tree-related things.
The Overstory is written in a series of stories. Each chapter is a complete branch, if you will, about a unique character or characters, not related (at this point, anyway) to the other branches/chapters of the book. And like any collection of independent stories, I like some better than others. All of them are vivid. An Indian boy of immigrant parents finds his freedom in computers after falling from a tree and becoming paralyzed. A couple’s romantic history takes plant-related twists and turns. This week, my thoughts kept returning to the third chapter, titled "Adam Appich," which tells the story of a family with four children. When each child was born, the father chose a tree to plant:  “Leigh’s elm, Jean’s ash, Emmett’s ironwood, and Adam’s maple.” Somehow, the characteristics of each tree seem to correspond to the characteristics of the children, now grown, and in some cases, to  have directed the course of their lives. And this seemed to me a sort of reverse idea to that aspect of Rules for Visiting I talked about last week—when May and her dad were trying to choose a tree at the end of his life, to represent him.
When I was an adolescent, once I wrote a note to God and buried it under the tree in our front yard. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I’m sure it was something pleading. Like many people who end up being writers, I had many emotions and a flair for drama even then. I think about driving up to see that tree, to see if it’s still there, to see what kind of tree it is.
My mom passed last year and in the worst throes of grief, I feel like I’m floating, rootless. Around the same time she died, I was forced from my home, where we had chosen every element under our feet: tile, landscaping, dark wood floor. I lost that house, other places that felt like home, and my mother, all at the same time. A couple of weeks ago I was missing her, suffering, but also coming out of this latest round, feeling strong and counting blessings, and a thought occurred to me: maybe when all foundations are pulled out from under us, that is when we realize it’s been our own two feet holding us up all along.
I saw the movie Midsommar last night with two of my sons. It’s one of the strangest movies I’ve seen in some time—innovative, with thrilling and disturbing visuals. The main character is suffering from grief; the acting struck me as raw and true. It’s not a film that’s easy to describe and I won’t try. But there are strong themes throughout about nature. When old people in a commune die, the bodies are cremated and their ashes placed into the trunk of a fallen tree. In the surrounding forest, trees seem to pulsate with life and in one scene—I swear—the main character takes mushrooms and as she hallucinates, her shoes seem to be filled with roots instead of flesh and bone. Rooted. Her own two feet.
This week, my friend bought some new plants and I picked up the old ones to plant in my yard. I’m terrible with indoor plants. The only things I’ve managed to keep alive are three braided money trees. They’re a type of bonsai, I believe, and almost impossible to kill, either with too much water or sun, or not enough. They’re often given as memorial gifts, and I received one of them from a friend when my mom passed. Another was a gift from the housekeeper I had for seventeen years, before we parted ways when I moved. I can’t remember where the third plant came from but it’s over three feet tall now. Anyway, I’m hoping my friend’s plants thrive here, that they’re able to find some footing.
And now...a tree poem:
Roots and leaves themselves alone
by Walt Whitman
Roots and leaves themselves alone are these,
Scents brought to men and women from the wild woods and pond-side,
Breast-sorrel and pinks of love, fingers that wind around tighter
than vines,
Gushes from the throats of birds hid in the foliage of trees as the
sun is risen,
Breezes of land and love set from living shores to you on the living
sea, to you O sailors!
Frost-mellow'd berries and Third-month twigs offer'd fresh to young
persons wandering out in the fields when the winter breaks up,
Love-buds put before you and within you whoever you are,
Buds to be unfolded on the old terms,
If you bring the warmth of the sun to them they will open and bring
form, color, perfume, to you,
If you become the aliment and the wet they will become flowers,
fruits, tall branches and trees.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka