Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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Last winter, as often happens in Bellingham, Washington, we got some terrible windstorms. A huge willow down the street from me split in two. The top half fell into the street, and road crews closed off Cornwall Avenue for several hours as they cleaned up the mess. Then a thick old fir smashed through the roof of my friend’s house, landing smack in the middle of her kitchen. The branches punched through the cupboards, reaching in like craggy arms and breaking her dishes. After that I stopped walking my dog in Cornwall Park — a thick grove of old-growth cedars and firs — as every tree now looked dangerous. The tops swayed in long arcs, and I wondered about the sturdiness of all those roots, at what point they might give way.
At home I eyed the trees around my house with suspicion. What about the hawthorn with its wizened, hollowed-out trunk? What about my own willow, the Rainier cherry? The Gravenstein apple stood far enough away from my house and the neighbor’s that it wouldn’t cause harm should it topple. And the copper beech — well, it gave off an aura of invincibility, with its wide trunk and its no-nonsense leaves still clinging to the branches despite the storms.
The two main suspects were the hawthorn — a tree I had never liked because of its thorns, its messy berries in the fall, and its not-quite-beautiful blossoms in the spring — and the Rainier cherry, which I adored. My neighbors had planted it forty years earlier; Dorothy, now ninety-eight, once brought over the receipt to show me what the sapling had cost back then: $7.95. Now it towered over the house with branches spilling out in every direction, a giant presence in my kitchen window every morning and evening as I ate my solitary meals. In the spring, fat cherry blossoms swelled on the limbs, filling both my downstairs window and the upstairs view. In April I could see the crown of my tree from blocks away as I drove home from work, and even after nine years the sight still gave me a flush of pride, an almost embarrassed satisfaction, as if the tree were welcoming me home with trumpets and banners.
I couldn’t imagine living without the cherry tree, but many experts had already given it a death sentence. Hardened streams of sap dripped from every opening in the flaky bark, indicating disease, or parasites, or both. These sap icicles were beautiful in their own way — translucent amber twisted into elegant shapes — but after a while they melted into sticky puddles on the grass. My arborist, Ruthie, told me in a note: “It’s been an honor to work on this magnificent tree, but I’m sorry to tell you that she’s terminal.” The cherry had given up providing fruit a few years earlier, but those blossoms still arrived every spring: heraldic, triumphant.
Decades ago I saw a tree fall in the forest. I lived at Orr Hot Springs then, in northern California, a place situated in a steep river valley leading to the sea. During winter storms the river rose to dangerous levels, coursing in muddy waves below the bridge, and everything stayed damp: woodpiles, shoes, overcoats, hair. Down the road stood an old-growth redwood grove, and I often walked there in the rain to experience the contradictory dryness in the undergrowth.
One day I was walking along the road toward the grove with my lover. I hate the word lover, but it’s the only descriptor for this particular paramour. He was married, to my best friend, but before you judge me too harshly, let me make it clear that my best friend was having a dalliance with my live-in boyfriend too, and we had all agreed to this arrangement giddily, like children making up rules in a treehouse. And this was in northern California, a place to which oddballs have always gravitated. So our little “experiment” didn’t seem so strange. We all lived together in a community that revolved around the hot springs, and a sign on our front gate declared: “Warning: you may encounter nudity beyond this point.” We took turns cleaning the old bathhouse, the swimming pool, and the sauna, and staffing the front desk, an enormous slab of redwood polished to a high shine.
Still we had a lot of time on our hands, especially in the winter. We made clear ground rules, met a few times in each other’s houses after eating good meals and drinking wine from the local vineyards. We did tarot readings and threw the I Ching to divine the suitability of this arrangement, and though the answers were ambiguous (they always were), we chose to interpret them as “thumbs up!”
Only, my lover and I began making up our own rules as we went along. We knew we weren’t supposed to fall in love. We weren’t supposed to have secret trysts without them. But here we were, walking along a deserted road in the rain, holding hands. The drainage ditches filled like moats, and we could hear the evergreens shifting in the wind. The gray air smelled of resin and wildflowers, though the blooming season was still a good month off. Then the rain let up a bit, and we took off our hoods to hear each other better, as we were having a lovers’ quarrel: something about whether we should continue doing what we were doing, whether any good could ever come of it; and what about commitments, what about children, what about our futures, what about, what about?
We heard a crack in the woods. A gunshot? Hunters sometimes came up our road chasing deer, but deer season was a long way off. Then the cracking sound turned into a quavery moan, and we saw the tree falling. A big tree. A tree that disrupted the canopy in a messy shower of leaves and branches, plummeting with a swish and a thwump to the road in front of us. A huge fir tree, a good four feet across, blocking the entire road, its roots upended on the right, its crown lost in the creek to the left, its high branches waving wet needles.
One moment, a clear road ahead; the next, an enormous obstacle flung to block our way. I felt the ground shake, and my knees buckled. I sensed the vibration of the tree’s impact all the way up to my throat. If we hadn’t stopped to argue, if we had kept walking, kept holding hands, kept going down that path, the tree might have smashed us flat.
Even now, years later, I can feel the smell of sap burning my nose, hot and sharp in the cold, as if by falling the tree had set itself on fire. And out of my mouth comes I’m sorry! My lover, his mouth still gaping at the enormous tree, turns to me and asks what I’m sorry for. For everything, I say, and I hurry back up the road, back toward home. I want to tell my friend I’m sorry, and can I brush her hair? I want to tell her everything. I want to promise to keep my hands off her husband. And I want my boyfriend back. My lover trots to keep up with me, keeps asking why. I can’t explain it to him, not yet. But I will. Soon I’ll tell him that the tree was clearly an oracle telling us to stop — stop what we’re doing and go back.
When I bought my house, the cherry tree was laden with small green fruits, an alluring promise. I signed the papers in a flood of adrenaline — a single woman making a huge decision without anyone else as a buffer. It felt a little like I was giving in: finally buying my own house because I still hadn’t married, still hadn’t made a family. Some people told me the purchase would be a death knell for future relationships, that no prospective lover would want to get involved with me since I’d obviously declared my intent to be single forever. I wanted to retort, but didn’t, that maybe buying a home just meant I wanted a roof over my head forever.
When I’d first stepped into that little cottage on Cornwall Avenue, I’d gotten the “feeling” I’d heard so much about from other homeowners: a bodily sense that a house is yours. It descended upon me like a visitation — neither a tingle nor a flutter, but a wave of contentment and desire similar to a blush in the presence of someone you like. Someone you like a lot. I looked inside the two small bedrooms; I peered into the minuscule bathroom; I wandered upstairs to the attic loft, just large enough to stand up in. I peered out that upstairs window into the branches of the Rainier cherry. The house, I could tell, was only big enough for one, but one seemed like enough for now.
All this time my realtor, perhaps sensing the nearness of the Holy Spirit, wisely kept her distance, allowing the house and me a little time alone. Later she sat across the room from me and murmured, “It’s a good buy, such a great location, and what a yard!”
It was true, the yard was long and green, bordered by a field of blackberries and punctuated by both the cherry tree and the Gravenstein apple near the back fence. The city rose garden, visible from the front porch, was in full bloom, as if the town employed a crew of expert gardeners to plant and prune and mulch expressly for my enjoyment.
I signed the papers, cried for days, then set about making the house my home. Everyone who came over said of the cherry, “Great tree,” especially in July, when its fruit started to ripen. The squirrels and the birds took the lion’s share, mocking me by dropping half-eaten cherries on the patio and the lawn. I ate only the ones I could reach simply by pulling down a branch and plucking. I’d had Rainier cherries from the store, but these fruits were a surprise: the flesh so sweet and yet so complex; the firm skin giving way to the textured meat beneath; almost like a golden plum, but small and round and mine. The tree put out too much fruit for one person, so I invited friends over with buckets, bags, and colanders to take whatever they liked.
My friend Bruce clambered into the tree and shook the branches jubilantly, showering cherries down and bruising nearly every one, but we gathered them anyway and ate and ate. I brought baggies full as offerings to my co-workers. My puppy, in her first summer with me, eager to taste anything that would fit in her mouth, delicately took cherry after cherry on her tongue, and later I’d find piles of poop studded with oval pits. Certain this couldn’t be good for her, I maniacally swept up the fallen fruits several times a day, only to have more and more rain down.
Every April when my cherry bloomed, my parents called and asked, How’s the cherry doing? And I would say, It’s brilliant. I told them it made me happy. If you’re happy, we’re happy, they’ve always said, though now I felt an unspoken addendum: But are you really happy? What I didn’t say: The tree made me feel less alone. It made me feel as though I’d done something right.
When I was growing up, we had an olive tree in our front yard, right outside the kitchen window. The waxy leaves stayed green year-round, and the olives didn’t seem like fruit so much as nubs of errant flesh that stained our feet and shoes and left big red splotches on the walkway to the front door. The UPS man probably cursed them on deliveries to our house. I remember my mother perpetually sweeping the front walk, and even sweeping our feet at the front door before we could come inside. Inevitably, though, some splotches made their way onto the kitchen linoleum, the shag carpet — stains that never completely wore off.
It’s funny now to think of it, having a tree that bore fruit no one could eat. We were warned constantly: Don’t eat them! They’re poison! It was fruit that needed to be cured, a word I thought meant the olives had to be healed of some disease, and in a way I was right. Curing involves softening, allowing the olives to release all their bitterness into salt. I thrilled at the thought of it: Poison! Sometimes I would touch a hard olive to my mouth, rub it against my lips.
Why my parents didn’t cut down that tree, I don’t know. What kept them maintaining a tree that only caused aggravation? It must have been those evergreen leaves, or the whiff of the Mediterranean, the mythic fruit, the sacred olive branch, symbol of peace. What is sacred is often messy; I understand that now. What bears fruit always requires some patience, a love that’s loyal and unremitting.
I imagine my mother at her kitchen table, looking at that olive tree day after day for years. She is alone: husband at work, children at school, dog in her grave. The ironing board is set up behind her, a basket of rumpled shirts beneath it. She’s drinking her second cup of coffee, toying with her teaspoon. The clock ticks. Any minute now she’ll turn on the radio, return to her tasks. But for the moment she watches her street through the branches of that olive tree — the sleek green leaves, the treacherous fruit — and enjoys the way that it shades her, keeps her just a little bit hidden.
When I return home from vacation in early July 2007, my cherry tree is putting out a record crop: never before have I been able to grab so many with so little effort, which paradoxically makes me want to expend even more effort, to get the ladder from my neighbor’s shed and climb up into the higher branches, where the yellow-red fruit dangles in fat clusters.
It’s the last crop my tree will put out, but I don’t know this yet. I don’t recognize that this display has all the makings of a last hurrah. I just know that for the first time I want to gather them all, because these cherries make me recall the spring blossoms and lying on the sloping lawn under the tree in April with a man I thought I loved and his three sons. The boys were happy; they pointed up at the branches and noted the way the pink glowed against the blue sky, then clambered into the limbs to feel the blossoms against their skin. I promised we would all pick cherries in summer — a dangerous statement, I understand in hindsight; one implying some commitment, some future that included this man and his sons.
And now the season has turned, and the cherries are trembling in the rain, slowly going to waste if I don’t pick them soon. If the boys were here — as I pictured — I know we would gorge ourselves. The eight-year-old would scramble into the tree’s interior, and the thirteen-year-old would jump at the lower limbs, and the sixteen-year-old would feign nonchalance as he bent a branch and so casually plucked a cherry.
And their father? I imagine him hanging back, arms crossed, leaning against the carport, just watching. Or maybe he would be the one on the ladder, risking danger, passing down handfuls of the fruit to his children, who would look up at him in the branches and shriek, “Dad, Dad, Dad!” and hop around with their buckets and bowls, wanting to catch the full measure of this bounty he’d suddenly be so willing to give. And maybe I would be the one just watching, already tired of cherries and the mess they make on the patio.
Now, alone, I pick the cherries by the pound and give them in zip-lock bags to whoever will take them. And when the cherries continue to offer themselves ceaselessly, I will buy a cherry pitter and spend hours in my kitchen pitting them one by one and laying them out on a cookie sheet to be frozen and preserved. But what I really want to preserve, I know, are those untainted days — the weeks of blossoms, the scent of incipient cherry — before you have to deal with all the fruit, the effulgence of it, the way the first bite tastes so good, and the next and the next, but eventually it becomes something you have to just give away.
My friend from Orr Hot Springs is still my friend. She divorced her husband many years ago (not because of me) and remarried, and she now lives on forty acres high in the dry-grass hills above the springs. She and her current husband have built a homestead off the grid: an octagonal house that uses solar power, spring water, propane. For a long time their only shower was outdoors on the roof, under the canopy of a large Pacific madrone. Whenever I visit, I can’t wait to take a shower there, to undress and step outside and feel the warm water and cool air mix on my skin. I feel vibrant, completely myself in the company of orange bark and glossy leaves. The trees surrounding this shower seem friendly enough; they sway in whatever breeze is handy.
The last time I visited my friend was for her son’s wedding; her boy has been my unofficial godson for twenty-four years. The night before the wedding, she and I walked the ranch road to see the damage from the wildfires that had almost destroyed the entire property a month earlier. She especially wanted to show me the blackened hills from the controlled burns started by the hundreds of firefighters who’d arrived in time to save the community. Controlled burns are meant to stop the wildfire in its tracks, “fighting fire with fire”: a saying I’d never understood until that moment, seeing the wide swaths of burnt hillside sweeping up from the valley. My friend and I both started to cry when she told me how the fire had “jumped the road,” the worst thing that could have happened, and how they all could have been trapped behind a wall of blazing manzanita. They’d spent days and nights clearing trees and brush from around the house to create a firebreak, breathing in smoke. At one point they’d had to evacuate quickly, not knowing if they’d be able to return.
As we walked, the moon rose, Venus trailing at its side, and illuminated the damage, a whiff of danger still lurking in the air. Wild turkeys in the brush behind the house broke the quiet, scrambling into the meadow to look for food.
The next day my friend, her husband, and I traveled an hour south to her son’s wedding. The ex-husband was there, looking handsome, and so was my ex-boyfriend. Whenever the four of us are in the same place, we get sheepish and giddy, still a little fevered from our long-extinguished flame. We all sat together at a table, and though we didn’t reminisce about the old days, nearly thirty years gone, we felt that sense of being a part of one another in a way that ordinary friendships can’t really match.
The groom was tall and self-assured, dancing with his bride like a man who knew how to handle a woman. This surprised me, since I still saw him as a rambunctious three-year-old who crawled into my lap, put his face right up to mine, and kissed me flat on the lips with an exaggerated smack. He used to tell complicated jokes that weren’t funny, then wait expectantly for laughter. We liked to rub noses, didn’t even care about snot.
At the wedding someone snapped a picture of the four of us ex-lovers, and when I study it now, we look so much like our former selves, but with a worn patina on the faces, the eyes a little more tired. It was late, and we were all a bit drunk from wine and dancing, so we look happy, as if nothing has ever harmed us. At Orr Hot Springs we once took a “family portrait” in the nude, the four of us sitting on the floor of my friend’s house in various poses of allure, the flash capturing my shy smile, my tiny breasts. We leaned in toward one another, our heads touching, not unlike this wedding photo so many years later, all of us fully clothed, all laughing.
I never told my friend about that fallen tree, the way the force of it had startled me out of my complacency and made me run to her wanting absolution. I never told her how alone I felt on that walk back up the road, even with her husband beside me; how I knew even then this would mean the end of everything: me and my boyfriend, her and her husband, me and her husband, her and my boyfriend — it was all just so complicated, and I needed my normal life back. I knew I’d eventually be leaving that valley, driving out in a battered truck loaded with books and pillows, looking for a different kind of family. I never told her any of this. I told her only that I was back, that our walk was over, and we had come home.
In December, between windstorms, I decide both the hawthorn and the cherry need to be cut down before they fall on my house or my neighbor’s. I’ve been sleeping uneasily, aware of the wind, of any creak of branch. Many homeowners in the neighborhood feel the same fear, and landscapers cruise the streets, leaving cards with promises of quality tree removal.
I end up hiring a man named Innocencio from Hosanna Tree Service. He wears a big cross, and his business card declares he does all his work as service to the Lord. I figure it couldn’t hurt to have a man of God up in the branches of my trees — and, besides, he quoted me a good price.
In the week before Innocencio arrives with his crew, I try to say goodbye to the Rainier cherry, but I don’t quite know how. It feels like a betrayal to kill this old tree that has persevered for so long outside my kitchen window, kept me company in the spring, poured out beauty even when I was too low to notice.
“These fruiting cherries,” Innocencio said, “they don’t really last too long in our climate. Better to have the ornamentals. They’re hardier; they’ve got stamina.”
I circle the tree. I touch its sticky tendrils of sap. I pick a small branch up off the ground, thinking I’ll enshrine it in a vase, but the branch apart from the tree is actually rather ugly and messy, so I drop it and brush off my hands.
I was hoping I’d be gone when the actual felling happened, but I’m home as Innocencio backs up his large truck with its crane and bucket. I can’t help but watch as they begin, but I stand back just a bit from the window because, for some reason, I don’t want the crew to know I’m watching. In my mind I pictured the tree falling as one unit, a dramatic crash like that one on Orr Springs Road so many years ago, but of course this is a controlled cutting, performed in increments.
With expert speed Innocencio cranks the bucket into the highest limbs, revs the chain saw, and begins to cut in smooth, precise movements. The branches fall to his helpers below, two young men in hard hats who scurry to pick up the limbs, piling them into manageable heaps. They keep their gaze up even as they grab the wood. Too quickly the tree is reduced to an amputated trunk about six feet tall. Innocencio gets down off the bucket and brings out the big gun: a huge chain saw that he muscles into the trunk, reducing it to six equal logs in about five minutes, then planing the remaining stump level with the ground.
It’s breathtaking. And a little sickening. I go out front for some air and find the guys taking a break, going to their truck for water. I tell one of them I feel bad about cutting down the tree.
“If it makes you feel better,” he says, “this job means I can buy Christmas gifts for my kids.”
I know it should, but for some reason it does not make me feel better.
Before they leave, I squirrel away a little chunk of the wood from a round branch, moss clinging to the dry bark. It’s surprisingly heavy for such a small piece, and I place it on my back steps until I can decide what to do with it. Then I write Innocencio a check. He’s a stocky man with a mustache and lots of chest hair; the muscles in his arms tell me that he’s felled a lot of trees in his time. He seems to understand my silence and says gently, “It was good that tree came down.” I nod, thank him, and tell him goodbye.
When I go back inside, the kitchen window is empty. The stump of the tree glares. Sawdust powders the lawn. For weeks afterward, whenever I drive into the carport, I’m startled by the open expanse where my tree should be. I feel a deep guilt. I see that little piece of cherry wood, my souvenir, and have an urge to touch it the way I’m supposed to touch the mezuza on the front lintel of my house: an acknowledgment of blessing, an expression of gratitude.
“I miss my tree,” I write to friends on Facebook. They send me sympathy notes, virtual pats on the back, sad faces. Everyone seems to understand something I could never quite comprehend: how a tree really can be a companion you cherish.
It’s not until a week or so later that I go upstairs — for what, I can’t remember: a book, perhaps; or to look at my meditation cushion and feel guilty for not meditating; or to look at my writing desk and feel guilty for not writing. The upstairs has been taken over by my cat, Madrona; she sits imperiously on the recliner, twitching her tail when I appear. Drifts of cat hair are piled in the corners of the steps. It’s four o’clock, just before sunset on this winter day, and the upstairs seems unfamiliar to me. Then I get it: the light. With the cherry gone in back and the hawthorn gone in front, a new light comes through the windows, clean and undappled. I stop a minute on the landing and look west, across the space that used to hold the craggy cherry branches. I can see almost all the way to Bellingham Bay. Lummi Peak rises on the horizon. I don’t feel so guilty anymore.
Instead I start to plan a new dining-room addition to my house. I’ve been here nine years, and still there’s nowhere for anyone to sit. Though I live alone — and probably will forever — I do love a good dinner party. When I have friends over, we eat Hanukkah brisket on the floor around the coffee table or stand and slurp bowls of soup. The downed cherry tree has opened the whole back side of the house to the yard. I imagine a dining room, light and airy, with French doors leading onto a deck. I’ll cover that stump, or perhaps pull it out; in either case it won’t even exist. I’m already thinking of the flowering dogwood that might take its place. Or an ornamental cherry, so much hardier, without the burden of bearing fruit.
I just finished Brenda Miller’s beautifully crafted essay “The Burden of Bearing Fruit” [January 2011], and I’m surprised by the emotion her writing elicited in me. I too, have found comfort and companionship in plants, especially trees, which have an imposing presence that invites a personal relationship, particularly when they are near one’s house.
At the close of her piece, when she describes the feelings of watching the felling of her beloved Rainier cherry, I laid the magazine aside and cried, transported to a place and time when I, too, had lost a dear and cherished friend.