Wisdom from My Tree

Yesterday I hung out to the end of the newscast for the “the good news” clip. It was worth it to see Greta Thunberg smile. The seventeen-year-old climate activist had just won the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity and pledged the million-Euro prize to help with projects that will fight climate change and increase sustainable living. I love her fight. I love her connection to our Earth. I learned while teaching high school that seventeen-year-olds often carry the wisdom of the ages.

During COVID my backyard has become my refuge. I love the quiet. The fountains. The gaura blooms. The hummingbird feeder and the “ta ta” of the hummingbird who has marked it as his. I love to sit alone on the patio and eat salads that seem noncaloric but that I smother with chipotle ranch. I love the cactus wren who often joins me, perching on the nearby wall to sunbathe. Last night the sky was so dark I could see traces of the Milky Way and was filled with wonder.

This morning I arose to walk by the canal but even at dayspring the sun beams cut a harsh path across my trail. When I returned, Siri announced that morning temperatures had slipped into triple digits. Sweat trickling down my back, I unlatched the gate to water and to check on my Tipu. Her leaves are returning, and I think I see a bubble of yellow blooms. I am relieved.

I planted this Tipu twenty-two years ago when the yard was young, freshly carved from the Dobson farms, odd-sized chunks of land because the owner did not want track homes dotting his former fields. The Tipu was not the first tree in the back corner of my trapezoid lot. There was a Blue Palo Verde who nursed the seven Golden Barrel cacti who grew from the size of coffee cans to the size of wheelbarrows. Each spring the Blue Palo reined as queen of the yard when she burst forth with dazzling yellow blooms, danced in the sunlight with grace, and spread her yellow magic dust to every corner of the backyard. But the Palo’s roots were weak, and she was felled after six seasons by a wicked monsoon storm that spun through the yard and split her open before ripping her roots from the ground. Each spring I still miss the yellow coating of her dust across the yard and the perfumed smell

The Tipu tree, little more than a twelve-foot twig, arrived shortly after the Palo’s limbs were hauled away. The nurseryman promised me “strong roots.” The Tipu was a modest tree, not showy like the Palo. She hid at the back of the yard. Discreet. I watered her and she grew tall and lanky. While I buried my nose in student stories and memoirs, the Tipu made friends with a Ficus on the other side of the fence and together their arms would touch as if dancing. Many evenings I saw their branches swaying together as if to a waltz or jazz melody.

I became busy with a book. With travel. With workshops. Much ado, and I forgot about the Tipu. For years. But when events cascaded off my calendar last March, I took solace in the quiet of my yard. There I rediscovered how to be in the moment with the cactus wren, the hummingbirds, and the gaura—and as I transitioned into this new life, I noticed the Tipu.

At the age of twenty-two, she looked like an old, old woman who was hunched over and burdened by the sun. A huge deep gash, a scar of nature was sliced up her side four feet long and two or three inches deep. I placed my hands in the gash. The skin of her bark was covered with shards. Sharp pointed splinters. I touched them gingerly for these wooden needles were brittle and ready to snap.

Over the years the Tipu and the neighboring Ficus had reached across the fence and embraced each other with many branches entwined. Together they had grown into a beloved sanctuary for birds filled with early morning song. While I had been out-of-town for a book event, the city had tacked a notice on my mailbox that the Tipu and Ficus trees could not hang over the fence into the alley. I was promised a hefty fine if I didn’t comply. My well-meaning neighbor texted me, “I called tree-trimming Travis!” I replied with a thumbs up.

When I returned home, I peered up the Tipu’s trunk and it stopped me short. Her backside had been ravaged. Pillaged. Dozens of branches on her back and fence-side had been hacked and chopped heedlessly. There was no back. No fence-side. The Ficus had met with a similar fate. The two trees no longer touched. No longer danced together. They were eerily devoid of birds and songs. At the sight of it I felt nauseous.

Later that afternoon I climbed the ladder in the shed, teetered for a moment, regained my balance, and successfully tugged the hose from the highest shelf. I was formulating a plan to save my tree, but all the while I muttered words that I swear I never say. The anger simmered within in me that afternoon and well into the next day. Not rage with my well-meaning neighbor or with tree-trimming Travis, and certainly not with the tree. I was angry with me. Angry that I had ignored my trees. Fearful I had been self-absorbed and not attentive to what matters. My trees, my yard, and this Earth are my home. They are our home. They reach out to us when we need to listen—and we need to listen.

In the coming weeks I watered, pruned, fertilized, weeded, and attempted repairs to my sprinklers. Even in the heat. Early in the morning I learned to talk to my tree and share a litany of gratitude when I entered my yard.

The Tipu has returned. She even has a baby sprouting in her shadow. I realize both my tree and Greta Thunberg have become my best COVID teachers. We all need to pause and work to honor this Earth. Amid this pandemic, this may be one of the most important gifts I carry forward. I hope you will join me.