“I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” Willa Cather, from O Pioneers!
“The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.”
Will Cather, from One of Ours
“Nathless I have been a tree amid the wood/And many a new thing understood/That was rank folly to me before.” Ezra Pound, from “The Tree”
I do not talk much, but then again there are very few who come to see me, very few who would want to try to listen. That is fine. I do not feel the need to speak, but I wonder if perhaps you have the need to hear, if only to know that what you are considering has happened to others before you. But it has happened to very few in recent years. Now that I have time to think, I find it strange that there are so many people and so few exceptional things happen to them. Of course, I do not know what happens in China or India or Africa where there are many people who are very different from the way you are, the way I have been, and it may be that such experiences are more common in other places. And it has been a very long time since I have been out in the world, so perhaps things are changing. In any case, you did ask me how I got here, and I will try to tell you what I remember.
My destiny probably started when, as a young child, I learned to love the woods. We lived in the countryside when I was very small, and the blueberry bushes and I were only starting to be the same size when my family began moving to other places. But even as I grew much taller in places far from the forest, I remembered the blueberry bushes and the large boulders in the forest with overhangs that you could crawl under and paths through the woods that were too faint to have been made by people. My father said they were deer tracks. I would follow them as far as I dared until all the noise of my brothers and sisters was far behind me. Sometimes I would be afraid to go farther and then I would just stand still until I heard someone coming after me. I was very small and parents are supposed to be worried about their children, so they brought me back. And then one day just after I started school they began moving me to new places – to the cities, to the grass in the suburbs, and far away from the blueberries and the deer tracks. But I never forgot.
I did all of the things that everyone did. Went to school, learned about sex, found a job, got married, made a home, had children. When the babies arrived I wanted them to have what I had in the country, but the house we bought was soon surrounded by other new houses, and I do not think it was the same for them as it had been for me. Children were so busy, and I was busy too. When I was not working or doing laundry or cleaning or cooking, I was driving my two children from one activity to another. And it was so loud. The television was always on, or the phone was always ringing, or someone was talking or crying or whining. Only when I would wake up to the stillness of the early, early morning would I realize how much I missed the quiet, longed for the quiet. But then I would hear the furnace start up or the refrigerator start humming or a child would cry out and the moment would be shattered.
But this all happened long ago, long before you were born, and I only remember parts of it. And I am not sure any of it made any difference; it all seems so far away. Even when I look back it seems like it happened to another person. I was someone else when this all started. And when it really started for me was when my younger child, my daughter, started to play soccer.
It wasn’t that I did not like watching my daughter play soccer. If I could have sat on the sidelines with my lawn chair and my book in my lap without talking to anyone I probably would not have started taking the walks. But it was the noise. Not the noise of the kids on the field: that was a joyful sound and blended into the background like the sounds of the cardinals and red-winged blackbirds and the chrrrrs of the red squirrels. But just by being there it seemed that one had to be open to talking to anyone who wanted to produce words, even to people one did not know. It wasn’t just soccer moms, either. There were dads and grandparents; the only people who stayed away from me were teenage babysitters. And the other adults really had nothing to say. Weather, sports, cars, children’s schools and allergies – there was a very small universe of topics. And the tape kept recycling. When my elderly grandmother used to tell the same story over and over again, we used to think that her arteries were hardening. But at least it was a good story and we loved her. We were willing to listen. But these people told the same story, asked the same questions, every day and no one thought there was anything the matter with them. They had more variations in their stories than my grandmother did (allergies changed, cars were traded in), but they were such poor stories to begin with that I would rather have heard the same story from my grandmother over again word for word than to listen to the blonde woman complain about her husband one more time.
And it wasn’t that I did not like people; when I was home with my first baby I would have done anything for an adult conversation. But that was the problem. The talk that went on at these games was not really an exchange between people, not the kind of communication I was starved for. I did not want to talk about schools or pediatricians or birthday parties or even how the kids were doing on the field. I spent most of my life thinking about those things and they were slowly rotting away my roots. I wanted to talk about things that no one wanted to talk to a soccer mom about, and I wasn’t even sure what they were. As my husband and my mother often reminded me (when I expressed any kind of discontent with my seemingly idyllic existence), I didn’t know what I wanted. It was true. I do not blame anyone else for my discontent. Even if a genie had come out of one of my table lamps when I was dusting, I would not have known what to tell him to produce that would make me happy.
Is the soccer field still at the end of Hansom Road? That was where the games were that fall. It was beautiful then, ringed by beautiful old sugar maples which were just beginning to change color. The grass was perfectly flat, deep green, well-cared-for and well-fertilized; Glenmeadow was always an affluent community, and it probably still is. The Volvos, Saabs, and minivans were lined up in the parking lot. Behind the field was the conservation land, the forest. For the first game of the season, the sun was out and the air was cool for September, but still warm enough to take off your sweater and shoes in the sun and bury your toes in the manicured grass. But by the end of the game, I would have given anything to find a quiet place to hide. In the middle of a conversation with the pastor’s wife during the next week’s game, I asked whether there were trails through the conservation land. It turned out that the pastor’s wife had no idea, but someone who walked his dog back there overheard and said if I just went out in back of the storage shed behind us, I would pick up a trail. There were apparently a series of loops leading from in back of the field, each a little further than the last.
So, fairly desperate by half-time, I decided to try the path. I started out to the right and took the first left loop back that I came to, not wanting to take any chances that the game would be over and April would panic when I was not there to drive her home. It turned out to be even nicer than I anticipated. There were oaks and maples, and lots of knee-high ferns. You know what it is like. The path was easy to follow, and I never got so far away that I could not hear the sound of the game. I was back long before the game was over, and neither April nor anyone else seemed to notice that I had been away. I told my husband at dinner about the path, and he told me to be sure to take my cell phone if I were going to walk in the woods. My cell phone had been where it almost always was – in the glove compartment of the car and in desperate need of recharging. I did not need another way for people to talk to me.
The next game was three days later. Again I waited for the second half, but then walked to the second left turn to make my loop back. These woods were even nicer. There were more large trees – oaks and ash — and a great deal of glossy mountain laurel. At one point, the path followed a small stream and I saw some bright orange salamanders. The stream and the breeze in the trees made wonderful sounds so I could no longer hear the noise of the soccer field. Once again, I made it back in time, but with less time to spare. Again, April did not notice I had been missing. I felt bad not telling her about the salamanders, but I just could not. The path was my place, my only place.
It was drizzling for Friday’s game, but they played anyway. Some of the mothers sat in their cars, and I was afraid that if it started pouring they might call off the game, so I did not leave. I sat in the car for the first half, and then watched the game from the sidelines in my slicker. The kids ran up and down and up and down. I wanted to be out in the woods. At the last possible moment I slipped out behind the shed and took the short walk, the first loop. Unfortunately, I arrived back while the cars were starting to back out of the lot. The coach was packing up and April was unhappy. I can still see that pout on her face with her eyes cast down and her bottom lip stuck up over her top lip. She demanded to know why I had not been there when the game was over, but she did not ask where I had been. She made a lot of noise about it on the way home in the car though.
Luckily, by the time her father came home April was preoccupied with plans for a neighbor’s birthday party and so said nothing about the incident at the soccer field. I washed April’s uniform and cleaned the mud off her sneakers. I realized that I was looking forward to Tuesday’s time at the soccer field more than I was looking forward to the weekend. I asked my husband if he would like to go for a walk in the woods, but the lawn needed tending, it was football season, and we were scheduled to go to a barbecue at his brother’s house on Sunday. He told me I should get a dog if I wanted to start going for walks.
The next Tuesday was a beautiful day. I left soon after the game was underway and took the third loop. This path was fainter and covered with a mat of moist leaves. It reminded me a little of the deer tracks. There was much scurrying among the brush and ferns, and I was glad that I did not have a dog, as there were very tame chipmunks and squirrels and even a couple of rabbits. The rabbits were unusual; instead of the brown bunnies with white tails I was used to seeing, these were white bunnies with brown tails and very large. When I stopped and stood still for a minute they would come quite close. One of the rabbits stopped in the path right in front of me and was strangely unafraid. I remember wondering if rabbits got rabies and whether I should be worried. Then the rabbit started to talk to me, and I stopped worrying about rabies. I stopped worrying about anything else but whether I was losing my mind. But you must know that feeling by now.
The white bunny asked me “Why are you here?” He sat on his haunches with his front feet pawing at the air, and looked up at me in a demanding way.
“You can talk!” was all I could think of to say.
“That doesn’t answer my question.” He put his front feet down and peered up sternly.
I told him about the soccer game and the path and my life. He did not look surprised.
“It’s better here. You should stay. Hardly anyone ever talks here as you can see. And thank goodness you don’t have a dog. If you had a dog, you’d be talking to yourself. I would not even talk to you now, except that they asked me to find out about you.”
“Who asked you? And obviously I can’t stay; I have a little girl back there.” This is what I told him.
He sneezed twice, which I have since found out is something that rabbits do when they are utterly disgusted. He told me that the owners of the forest were the ones concerned about me. And he told me that I was foolish to worry about my daughter. He said that he had been to the soccer field and that there was practically one adult for every child, something that wasn’t good for the children or the adults and certainly was not the way that rabbits did it. One less adult was certainly not going to be a problem. I did not know how to answer him. I did tell him that this was conservation land and that there were no owners and that I had to get back. He sneezed again and hopped off among the ferns.
I guess I should have been confused, but I was very calm. I got back to the field in plenty of time, and when April asked me where I had been at half-time, I simply did not answer her. I was hoping the next game was on a nice day so I could do the farthest loop in the woods. If it were a warm and sunny day, it would not matter so much if April had to wait a few minutes for me to get back. I would not have minded talking to the rabbit again, but I was not sure he wanted to talk to me.
The next game got cancelled. In fact, it rained for days in the way it can in October once it gets started. The rain mixed with fallen leaves, and it was cold and raw. I began to fear that I would not get back to the path. I contemplated going back to the path after I dropped off the kids at school, but I worked in the morning and there were countless errands to do in the afternoon – and, of course, it was raining. I was calm in the way you are when you know exactly what you are going to do but have to wait to do it. I imagine that criminals waiting for a scheduled heist feel like I did, or nuns about to take their vows, or someone who has determined to end their life on a certain day. I ached for the day to come when I could take the longest loop, but I knew that I had to wait.
Finally, the sun came out and the next day the field was dry enough for a make-up game. I left for the woods as soon as April joined her teammates around the young coach. I went past the turnoffs for the first, second and third loops. The trees were older here, gnarled and scarred with the signs of age and accidents. First, I could hear nothing but the birds and the wind, but soon I started to hear a murmuring among the trees.
“Is she, is she, is she ready?” the trees murmured. These were mostly ashes and sycamores. As I moved farther into the woods, there were fewer trees but most of them were large beeches, gnarled and ancient. They also spoke, but slower and lower than the ashes and sycamores.
“Are you, are you, are you ready?” they moaned at me.
Ready for what? I did not know how to answer. But they seemed to read my thoughts
“Ready, ready, ready. Ready to join us. Ready to stay, to stay, to stay.”
I stopped in front of an old copper beech that had a large black scar where a limb had fallen off many years ago. The face of the tree seemed to be in that scar and so I talked to it. I told the tree that I could not stay. I had children and a husband and a job and a house. I had a life. The tree told me that I did not have a life. Life had me. Life was tugging me here and there and that was no life at all. I needed a life where I could sit in one place and be quiet and finally live. I told the tree that she was right.
The tree asked me if I had talked to the owners of the forest. I told her that the forest was conservation land and owned by the town. She laughed and all her branches shook.
“You will learn many things when you are a tree.”
I stood for a long time and then realized that I could not move, but I was not upset. My feet grew heavier and heavier until I had such a firm foundation under me that I did not think that anything could move me. I got taller and fuller, and my body started making rustling sounds. “Yes, yes, yes” was the music that whispered from the ends of my arms as the wind blew through my fingers. I soon realized that it was night. I wondered for a few minutes about April, but no one in Glenmeadow was going to let a child starve or sit out in a parking lot alone for long, and her father would be home from work by now as it was getting dark. I would ask you what happened to them, but it was very long ago and you probably do not know. I do not even remember their full names; I do not even remember my name. I only remember that my younger daughter was named April, and that must be because I was still thinking about her when the change happened. In any case, I am sure they are all gone now.
You might have read all the stories about spirits living in trees. The Romans called the nymphs of oak trees Hamadryades; they said that when someone cuts down an oak that the nymph of that tree dies. But that is not true. The spirits of the trees do not die; they go into the earth and then move to another tree. I have done so once myself. It is painful, but it does not happen often; even when they are hurt, trees take a long time to die. There were also myths I used to know about young women being turned into trees to escape the lecherous gods. They said that Daphne was turned into a laurel tree to escape from Apollo. But that is not true either. The gods are not lecherous and being a tree is a way to get closer to them, not farther away. There was also one about an old couple that did not want to be separated when they died. Philemon was turned into an oak tree and Baucis into a linden tree, and they stood side by side. I have not seen this kind of thing happen, but it might be true. This is what I would imagine good marriages would be like – two different trees standing side by side and only touching when the wind blows.
I am very old and you look very young. I will ask you the same question that they asked me. Are you ready? There are not many chances to change; the metamorphosis is not offered often and usually not more than once to the same person. I can tell you that I did the right thing, the only thing. But you are looking at me strangely. The young do not listen to the old and they are right not to. Listen to yourself. Stay where it is quiet so you can hear. Stay here. Stay here. Stay here.