MAY 2009 – NO. 33
Trees write, and we read
When I was a child, my parents would take me and my brother and my sister to spend a day with my grandfather, my mother's father. We would go once a month or so. It was a way for my mother to get back to the East Texas pine forests in which she grew up, to check on Dad, her father, and to stock up on fresh vegetables from his farm.
I remember the drive not as specific roads, not as directions. It was a gradual shift from Beaumont to Lumberton to Hemphill to Milam, the relative importance of the Dairy Queen in each town increasing as we drove. And the roads changed from concrete highways, sections clicking under the wheels, to blacktop forest roads, to the red dirt road up to Dad's house.
We'd always return late at night, after dinner and talk and dominoes. They were the kinds of trips that ended with my father carrying me into our house and to bed from the car, the kinds of trips that made me believe that the moon was following me. As we drove back to Port Neches, I could tell where we were in our drive by the changing sound of the road and by the light. At first there were smooth, blacktop forest-service roads and tall shadows of pine trees looming up around the car. Then as the roads became larger, the trees would move back away from the road, making more room for stars and the moon. By the time we reached real highways, the trees would be gone and the lights along the road would send shadows from the back of the car to the front as we passed under them.
I knew we were home, though, when the trees returned. And the trees of home were not pines standing tall off to the side of the road. They were oaks that reached from either side of the road, blocking out the sky. The only light I could see came from the sides, lampposts or porch lights.
The last few times that I've been back to visit my parents, I miss the trees. Hurricane Rita came up the river that's a few hundred yards from my parents' house before shifting to the east and Louisiana. It blew the roof off of my sister's house and shifted my parents' house on its foundation, cracking brick walls and roof beams. That's all been repaired. But the trees are still gone.
Standing at the back of their house, I can see houses that I could never see as a kid, and there seems to be so much more sky. And now I can see the river. I knew it was there before, but I couldn't just look down the street and see it. My parents bought their house because it was near good schools and because it was in the middle of an oak grove. My mother loved the trees. I think they reminded her of where she grew up.
The trees of my childhood have what Gerard Manly Hopkins called a "knowable inscape," the inward quality every object manifests to some degree and which is each object's reason for being. Every natural object writes its being and its meaning for us to read, if we simply pay close attention. And paying attention and making sense seem to be our purpose.
Trees write, and we read. A landscape shapes our experience: living in the character of a landscape gives our life meaning and richness. Over time, the shape of the horizon, the sound of the trees in a storm, the way they play with moonlight become part of who we are living in that place. It shapes and becomes our character. Perhaps that's why I've never really understood why so many childhood narratives depend on the audience's fear of forests. They seem safe to me. It's so much scarier to be out in the open, exposed with no cover.
My mother mourned the loss of her trees as she mourned the loss of her father. With their loss and with his loss, her world became smaller. When I return home (and it's just a return), I miss the trees. It doesn't seem like the place I grew up. I wonder what it's like to wake up in the back seat of a car driving the streets of Port Neches, Texas. I know it's not what I remember.
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