“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb
When I lived in the Seattle suburbs it seemed that every wind brought a power outage. Young, fresh, evergreens toppled like stemware at a toddler’s birthday party.
Spoiled by soft living in saturated soil, the roots never reached deep enough to hold their ground.
Replanted in clear-cuts, the emerald trees glowed in the dawn’s light off my back deck. They were certainly beautiful and they drove up property values, but there was something lacking –untested– in these feathery trees adorning housing developments.
The towering Douglas fir I saw on a hike high in the Cascades lacked their symmetrical grace. It was bony and naked from where the shadows began up in the canopy down to where I stood on a cushion of dry needles. Its was pocked by beetles and blackened by memories of forest fires. Leaning eerily into the steep slope of the mountain, most of its branches jutted off to one side. It and sister trees grew out of a long, narrow ridge, the earthen remains of an ancient sequoia corpse, a “nurse log,” returning it’s nutrients to the next generation.
The suburban trees were likewise more sleek than the massive tulip poplar that stoically haunted my front yard in Missouri. A dark wound gaping from the massive trunk oozed bees. Late at night I imagined it home to demons. One jagged branch careened over the neighbor’s house like an unfinished freeway off-ramp. Leprous bark crumbled in chunks. It was a rough tree that had lived through rough times — tornadoes, droughts, ice storms, lightning strikes.
No one writes poetry about pretty suburban trees. Naked Douglas firs, scarred by forest fires, living off death, and homely tulip poplars possessed by demons, those are more romantic.
Today my wife and I celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, the wood anniversary. We live high on a hill where the wind always blows. There is nothing smooth or lush about either of us. Rather than topple, we lean into the wind – or more often into each other.
JJ is strong because she has been abused, scarred, burned – by relationships, circumstances, tragedy. Her face is creased by wind and sun and sorrow. Her eyes sparkle with a joy that only someone who has experienced despair can know.
JJ and I both are among the 51 percent of Americans whose first marriage ended in divorce.
We both came out of that experience damaged, dried up, our trust eaten away. We lost friends. I lost family. Some might say we nearly lost everything.
I’m not sure if it matters which tree is JJ and which tree I am. I’m from the Midwest so I guess I’ll be the Tulip Poplar, the battered tree with the bark falling off. I’m bi-polar so a few bees buzzing around inside is an apt metaphor. Wind and ice and drought and lightning out of nowhere have made me patient. I know soft rain and warmth outnumber storms. Children eventually gather around, and one day the exact right person comes along to see beauty.
JJ is lovely like the fir high up on the mountain, straining for light. She is damaged by memories, secretly alone at times even in a crowd. She leans into life, sheltering everyone around her. Haunted as she is by it, she still finds nourishment and transformation in tragedy.
There are many discussion about the state of marriage in our country. The statistic above is quoted often. Social change is blamed for stealing the institution’s sanctity.
Today, none of that matters to me. Not today. Today is about wood. It’s about miles of roots that hold true when wind and rain and lightning blast from all sides, roots that find sustenance and water when there’s none to be found. And bark toughened by time, elements and those who would do harm. And heart, soft but enduring.
It’s about broken branches and nakedness and dark places inside.
It’s about poetry.
Our marriage is not easy. Finances, unemployment, addiction, sickness, fear.
Drought, tornadoes, forest fires, lightning, pestilence.
The problems have always been there. They will be tomorrow.
So will the trees.