A Year in Trees

Illustration: Rebecca Mock
Illustration: Rebecca Mock

(Originally published in the NY Times)

SOMEONE asked me the other day how I had gotten over the sudden death of someone I loved. What I wanted to say but found myself unable to explain (for it would have sounded too strange) was that I learned a good deal about moving through grief from some trees I once knew. They were not my trees. I didn’t plant them. I lived in an apartment surrounded by them. The only tending done was to give them my full attention over the course of four seasons.

When I moved in it was April, still cold, and the branches were bare. Facing northeast, my view of Manhattan was unobstructed, seen through a latticework veil. There were five trees, each distinct. They were not beautiful. My next-door neighbor, a landscape designer, told me that the species, Ailanthus altissima, is an urban weed. But I never expected beauty. That they were tall and strong and present was enough. I found that Ailanthus derives from an Indonesian word meaning “tree of heaven.”

I didn’t cover the windows with shades or curtains. I would wake with the sun and lie in bed and watch the tree limbs for a minute. Some mornings, the branches looked as if they were floating on wind drafts, as light as leaves. With a stormy sky, they turned black and spindly, like shot nerve endings.

Two years had passed since my longtime partner’s death, and though I had largely adjusted to his absence, I still experienced intense pangs of grief — painful unpleasure, in Freud’s exquisite phrase. At times, I’d be tempted to take out old photos, just to look, just one picture, just for a minute, like a junkie on the verge of relapsing. But I resisted. I had seen the trees stand up to strong winds and hold their own against the elements.

By the end of May, buds had sprouted and turned to leaves. I lost my view completely but gained a lush green canopy. Along with the leaves came another development: rustling, in countless variations, soft, sharp, gentle, syncopated — like a quintet doing vocal exercises in anticipation of a command performance. Privy to melodies out of earshot to those on the street below, I tried transcribing the rustling but to no avail, the letters of the alphabet proving insufficient somehow.

The summer was a rainy one, perfect for watching Tree TV, as I came to call it. Once, during a ferocious thunderstorm I’d just managed to escape, I found the boughs being tossed about like rag dolls. The branches thrashed violently — whipping back and forth, slamming against the windows with a thud, then sliding down slowly before being lifted aloft again. I was riveted. The trees, clearly overmatched by the combination of winds, rain and lightning, were not fighting this storm but yielding to it.

This is just how they were built, how the species had evolved: to survive.

I am hardly the first to note that trees are at their loveliest when the leaves die. Correction: can be. My trees’ leaves turned a sickly yellow and emitted an odor reminiscent of cat urine. In a way, having a new frame of reference was for the best. My partner had died on an October morning, and even if I were somehow to forget the actual date, I will always associate it with walking home from the hospital under a bright blue sky, the air crisp, trees lining the streets in their full glory: autumn, unmistakably. When it came time to scatter his ashes, my five sisters joined me at a forest preserve where the trees were ablaze in gold and russet. I buried his ashes at the base of a redwood.

With winter, the trees finally began shedding leaves. Background became foreground; my view returned. One morning as the sun rose, I caught the Chrysler Building casting its shadow on the Met Life building, a slim dusky finger drawn across the striated facade, as if tickling it awake. I felt I must be the only person on the entire island of Manhattan seeing this.

The trees took weeks to shed completely. Their limbs were covered till Christmas with what looked like dried corsages from a hundred high school proms. Birds came. Whether or not they were actually migrating, I don’t know. I wanted to think so. They rested and preened, reminding me of myself finding refuge here.

That the trees were resilient no longer surprised me. Still, I marveled at how they took blows during the season’s first serious snowstorm. The wind boomed like kettle drum rolls, the snow fell hard — hard — piling on limbs till they threatened to break. How is it that snowflakes, tinier than tears, can carry such weight? By midnight, Manhattan was gone. In its place, a peaceful new world, camouflaged as a cloud. Ailanthus, I would call it.

My lease-renewal letter arrived in February. Had my landlord not raised the rent, tipping it into the unaffordable, I might have stayed another year or two. But then again, maybe not. What I could no longer romanticize was how small it was, too small to have even one person over. I found a bigger, cheaper place and made plans to vacate.

I had a good cry the night before leaving; I would miss this place. When I woke the next day, I found the trees outside my bedroom window not moving at all, as if frozen solid in the night, an eerie reminder of my last image of my partner. I pushed the thought away. I threw back the bedcovers and put my hands to my stomach. I want to be as still as that tree, I said to myself, and stayed there until the feeling took: limbs not moving. Trunk barely rising with each breath. Neither yielding nor resisting. Just being still. Just being.

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