Henry Ossawa Tanner, "Abraham's Oak," 1905, oil on canvas.

Tree Worship

Breathe. Stand. Take it all in. Pearl Abraham's "Tree Worship" is a gorgeously slow, dreamlike window into a life in search of "rootedness."

“When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it long ways, like a road or a horse, or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man.” — William Faulkner, “As I Lay Dying”

Weekends he is outside, tending trees, shrubs, the gardens, the rooted things that stay in place, stationed on the land, as he is not. Rootedness a thing of the past. His Ukrainian-born grandfather, a farmer and miner, who tilled and tunneled in PA. It was selling the farm that did him in. A year into retirement, with nothing to do, he died.

An internal clock jump starts early Saturdays, and he is in the kitchen stirring oatmeal for everyone. P welcomes the homemade, slow made steel cut oats, not the instant kind with no bite. The dog loves her little bowl of oatmeal with milk, has loved milk since puppyhood. He loves doing for them, the girls. During the first hours of the morning, with his cereal and coffee, he reads. Books on plants, trees, animals. Chapters on pruning, mulching, feeding; on footprints, browsing, scat. The footprints, scat and browsed branches on the property inform him: he knows who was here, he knows who visited while he was away. 

After breakfast, they have what they call their walkabout, when they visit the trees and shrubs, noting their shape, their development, were the leaves coming in, did they look healthy, need mulch, water, nutrients. They begin with the oaks on the property line, their best trees, they agree, growing fast, straight, tall, untroubled. Within a few years, they went from saplings to trees, with thickened trunks. Within five years, they provided shade. Ten years in, they are beyond his reach, too tall to spray even if needed. He’d put in two at first, along the property line, because in maturity, they were tallest, taller even than the maples. Seeing how well they settled in, and how fast, he ordered two more saplings, younger than the first ones that went in. They too settled in to a good life. In the fall, their small acorns provide the local population of chips and squirrels with winter forage. These are red oaks, relatives of the sacred ones at Moreh, at Hebron, at Beth El, at Jabal Ausha, Ain Yajus, Suf, the biblical terebinths most worshipped and most denounced. Idolatry, the prophets called it. Upon every high hill and under every green tree, they warned. Still Abraham built an altar under a sacred terebinth at Hebron and dwelt there. Jacob buried his wives’ foreign Gods under it, and Joshua sacrificed there. Pilgrims still visit the descendants of these terebinths and tie rags off their backs to the branches, to attach themselves, become one with it.

To become at one with a tree, with nature, to transcend the self. Tree worship might be his religion if he were religiously inclined. Something to do with their magnificence, their silence, their rootedness. A still equanimity in the face of intemperance. Bare dark bark in hard cold winters, soft young greens when the ground yields, deep green in heat, followed by brittle colorful falls. When bled, they bled silently. When felled, they dropped heavily. It was the 200-year maple that sold him on the house, and as soon as he owned the house, he worried about the tree. If it came down it would crush the house or car or barn. But worrying didn’t discourage him from putting in more trees and shrubs so that now on its way down the maple might also take out the birches out front, or the kwanzan on the north side, or the lilac and viburnum, depending which way it went. It was probably as old as the house, someone said. He wondered about this. Would a tenant farmer and his wife, Sarah and Thomas McMahon, b. 17xx, d. 18xx and 17xx, according to the gravestones across the road, would they have planted this tree or trees this close to the house? Of course people plant trees too close all the time. They’re small when they go in, and they can’t or don’t fully imagine them at full grown girth and height. He’s done it too, even knowing it’s what he shouldn’t do, the stand of pines for example, six when four would have been enough, the bed of viburnum, which required thinning. This maple, two maples grown together, was likely a natural planting, two airborne seed pods landed in the same place, in an area not mowed, and grew undisturbed. Which means there were maples on the property before this maple, ancestors. This ancient’s descendants are all along the stone wall on the south side of the house. They moved one of them, a slender leggy thing shaded by the mature parent above it. Alone, an individual in full sun, it settled in quickly, branched out fully, a healthy specimen. Though he’d made a point of planting it far enough from the barn to give it space, it too will grow too close at some point. But it was likely to survive the barn, considering their ages, the old structure coming apart, the tree young and rooting. 

The farmer who hayed the fields behind them recalled a magnificent old pine that came down one winter, in a heavy snowstorm. This inspired the stand of white pines above the wall, on the south side of the property when of course they should have been on the north, as a windscreen. Even informed decisions are often wrong. He’d wondered why there were no pines in the immediate area, while ten miles north, at the Falls, the oldest pines in the Northeast flourished. He’d purchased three pines at a time, a tight fit in the bed of the old pickup. They were heavy even at five foot tall. Three men wrestled them off the truck and into the ground. He’d watered them through their first season. Wrapped the trunks in the fall. Mulched. They are now over twenty feet tall, shading trees he didn’t want shaded, one of the favored oaks, also the locust. Cutting down two of the pines was probably the right thing to do, but he’d nurtured them a long time, helped them develop new leaders when a fungus took their first ones. In heavy snow, he goes up there with a broom or snow shovel, to shake the branches free, the branches within reach anyway, before the snow hardens. He knows now why there are no pines in the valleys: In higher elevations, gale winds do the work of freeing branches. 

Yes, he’s become a branch freer, tree keeper, care taker. On weekends. During the week he works to pay for the trees, weekends he nurtures them, also work. He has reforested a cornfield, put in hundreds of trees and shrubs. Ten years ago, newly planted, the field appeared as a young Eden, with saplings and all things slender, all needing his attention. He’d attended them: watered, fed, fenced. When the temperatures dropped, he wrapped the tender trunks in burlap; when it warmed up, he loosened the wraps, to let air in, then, when frost was no longer an issue, removed the wraps, folded and stored them for the following winter. 

Now the pines, oaks, and willow are beyond his reach, fending for themselves, mostly. Now he is largely unneeded. He attends anyway, watches, listens, studies, worries. A year into ownership, that is if a 200-year old maple can be owned, he hired a tree climber with some experience in tree service. The kid climbed into the tree, cut out the deadwood, and cabled the trunks, a triangular arrangement for added strength. They considered a lightning rod, read the pros and cons, and decided against it. Two hundred years without one was a powerful argument. Also it grew in a valley, surrounded by higher elevations. If lightning struck, it was likely to strike up there. 

Then lightning struck. It was possible that lightning had struck before, with no one around to see and hear it. This time, the girls were there, they saw and heard; the damage was further evidence. The biblical bolt came through the branches on the southwest side of the tree, slammed into the ground, a loud thick thud. Flames flamed upward, churned up the soil, blackened the bed of pachysandra, then collapsed inward.

This happened late summer, hurricane season down south, but the storms were making their way up here, way north, unnaturally. Nature fighting back, one nature writer wrote. Perhaps. It could also be a cyclical thing, El Nino winds and all that. Or both. He remembers boyhood winters in Pennsylvania with massive amounts of snow, followed by years of milder weather. Recent summers have been hot and wet, winters long and harsh, the intemperance North America is known for.

Now he watches the tree, the crown, where early signs of trouble are said to appear. Is it spare? The leaves on the bulk of the tree seem more or less intact, but this doesn’t mean the tree will live. The death of something huge and ancient would be slow, he thinks, a behemoth dying, long lived, but not immortal. Orwell’s elephant drawing long difficult breaths for a long drawn out time. For now the tree stands rooted, silent, thick and dark, impervious. The unworried equanimity of a God. But Gods, we now know, die too. Which makes Godliness merely an art, the art of the quiet mind, the freedom of fearlessness, of Wu-Wei. Silent and strong in the face of knockabout life.          

He watches. Listens. Hears only his own heartbeat, his own anxiety. The tree is silent, even as he stands beside it, pruning saw in hand.  Fearlessness is its answer, its message. It is fearless and rooted. It doesn’t come and go, as he does. Doesn’t seek experience, eventful life, plot. It stays put. Change comes anyway, in three month intervals, with seasonal rebirth and death as the main events, recursive little lives within the one life, a nested structure. The drama is in the repeat: spring summer fall winter, spring summer fall winter, spring summer — with the added event of the occasional turbulence, the female hurricanes, Katrina, Sandy, Patricia, the male ice storms, Victor, Frank, Fred. 

Its leaves come down in the fall, as always. If smaller and fewer than usual, they are not notably smaller and fewer. Is it showing signs of age, fatigue? He listens hard. What is it saying, if anything? In the meantime, one of the birches needs attending. Two trunks in the clump did not grow in, the third is sparse. He starts with the dead trunks, cuts the outermost branches first, works his way inward. The sound of his chain saw informs him the wood is already spalted, has been dead awhile. It has the bite marks of the birch bore, but it would have survived the bore if the sapsuckers had left it alone. They sucked it dry. And this isn’t the only birch they killed. With the two trunks down, the third looks sad, unlikely to flourish, so he cuts it down too. By the time he hauls all the wood away, the day is half gone. The stump will have to wait for another day, another weekend. He moves on to something else, there is always something else. The bed of blackened pachysandra quickly filled with weeds, broad-leaved and deep rooted. The weed seeds probably shipped in with the mulch, unseasoned, advertised promises notwithstanding. Or the birds he’d fed all winter dropped this particular seed. But it is the absence of the pachysandra that allowed the weeds to flourish. Spring, he will purchase and plant five flats. In the meantime, regular weeding. Some pull up easy, others break off and have to be extracted with a trowel. It is slow hot work. He tries staying on the shady side, and still he is sweating. He pulls off his wet shirt and hooks it onto a low branch. When his back protests bending over, he works on his knees; when his knees say no, he goes inside for a glass of water. He’s cleared maybe half the bed, the rest will have to wait. It might be easier after rain, with the ground softened. An overnight shower is expected. He will run errands during these warmest late summer hours, then mow when the sun is low. He rinses off, feels better. In the car, he runs the air conditioning and gives himself to this part of his weekend life: the grocery shopping, the hardware store, the bakery, walking every aisle so as not to forget things. There are rewards for taking your time, coming across new products he might have missed, the better tonic, the local capricola without nitrates. 

For dinner, a free-range little chicken which he will roast brown on the grill. For flavoring fresh sage leaves from the garden under the skin. In the cavity, fresh thyme and a lemon. The sides, also from the garden: a julienne of leeks, sautéed spinach with garlic. With the groceries in the car, he drives home slowly, a weekender enjoying the pristine country estates immaculately maintained by hired hands. He too is looking to hire someone to do the leaves this year, in November, when they are knee deep. 

They cook dinner together, the prep work part of the ritual, as important as the end result. They take their time with the sides, eat the salad while they cook, sip wine. The dog participates too, watching every move, hoping for scraps, a sliver of bacon, the chicken liver. They are a family of three on weekends. After dinner a fire in the fireplace and a book. The dog alternates between them, stretched long beside one for a while, then curled up beside the other. The heat of the fire spreads warmth through his lower back, her hips, his knees, his stiff neck, the long dog’s spine. His body sinks deep and warm into the rug, a sheepskin. The sheep, he thinks gratefully. The fire is going strong now, burning through the logs he piled up, one from the old apple tree that came down one winter, two from the birch on steroids, which grew faster and died sooner. Trees, he thinks gratefully. Always giving. Clean air, shade, beauty, warmth. Rootedness, rest, repose their message. For now, on the rug, beside the fire, he too feels rooted, at rest, in repose, a tree. He is inside the trunk, in the pale supple interior, past the phloem, in the inner cambium. He is inside, he is tall, silent, rooted, his lower core attached, solid, balanced, his upper half stretched up, toward the sky, reaching high. In this deep stability, deep and tall, his heart is quiet, his mind clear and still. This is what he wants, needs: this stability, this deep balance, this rootedness, this quiet. The surprise, what he didn’t know, what he now feels, is this: the ground isn’t still, it moves, heaves, quakes. And the tree, rooted as it is, heavy as it is, moves with it, silently, minimally. He moves with it. Together they move. All the trees are moving. The pines step north, where they should be, the maples south. The birches position themselves beside the maples, in their understory, the kwanzan moves to the south side of the house, the locust inches up toward the oak. The willow moves across the road, into the wetland, the redbud drops into deeper shade. The crabs rearrange themselves. It’s this ability to shift weight, to move, that keeps them standing, he understands. It’s this flux that makes for eternal being. He feels the movement, the shift. He too must move to survive.

Sunday night, he is back on his sleeper sofa, in his quiet apartment, temperature controlled. No breeze will blow his neck stiff because she is too warm. The windows will be closed to keep out noise, dirt, cold. The covers will stay in place, ends tucked in. They are opposites this way: he likes to be cool in day, warm at night. She likes to sleep cool, stay warm awake. He winds down with the end of a Turner classic, bits and pieces of a National Geographic extravaganza, the Antiques Roadshow. Nothing too engaging, nothing that will keep him anxiously awake, no world disasters, tragedies, complaints. He flips back and forth between channels, pleasing only himself. With the television still on, he checks his email, researches things online: a better trellis, more mousetraps, antifungals, non-toxic toxins. He will order more of that powder for tomato blight, the granules for slugs. He has to research the birch bore problem. Also the best way to discourage sapsuckers from demolishing the birches. Though pristine white in the winter landscape, these birches are the highest maintenance of the trees on the property. And short lived. If he were to do it again, he’d go with the hardier brown river birches. It’s already eleven. He has to make the nightly good night sleep tight call, verify the girls are safe, then sleep. Continuous undisrupted sleep, he hopes. 

When he’s away, he knows, the girls take over.  They sleep splayed on both sides of the bed, his and hers. P aligns the stretch of her spine along the midline, where the mattress remains unindented, supportive, belonging to no one. Come Friday, the end of his sweltering city week, she picks him up at the station, they eat a light dinner, and then he occupies his side, she hers, the middle is the middle again, between them, though now and then an arm or leg crosses over and jars the other awake. Neither he nor she sleep well. Hemmed in by him, she tosses, turns and disrupts his REMs. Or determined to stay quiet for him, she remains wakeful, quietly sleepless, but he feels her open staring eyes and they keep him from dropping off again. When he finally takes his pillow and the extra blanket to the couch, they both sleep better. 

It wasn’t always this way. They once slept better together, worse apart. Then came the weekend house, an escape from the city. At first they went back and forth together, driving up the dark Taconic Fridays, down the dark Taconic Sundays, then she wanted to stay in one place, no packing and unpacking, no more up down up down. She wanted the pleasure of stepping outdoors without the bother of shoes, keys, phone, bag. She could walk the dog in the fields off-leash. Better yet, the dog could walk herself while she worked on the porch. So the girls stayed summer months, stayed for the feel of fall, then for spring, soon they were living at the house full time, and he became a stranger in the bed, a man reasserting himself Fridays, Saturdays, holidays, vacations, making her retreat to her side of the bed, the dog to the foot.

He took getting used to on Friday night, knowing better on Saturday, missing, maybe, on Sunday. By Monday they were back to their usual, the long dog horizontal on her absent master’s pillow, P all over his and hers, on the diagonal, on the vertical, in the no-man’s middle.

The things you most fear will take place, as if the fear itself brings them on, the power of the theurgical mind. It begins as a sort of shedding, comes on with a warning crack. They are upstairs, in bed, with the view of the tree from the windows straight ahead. Several slender branches from up high break off first. He sees the crown buckle and fall. The ground beneath quakes.  The house shakes. He jumps out of bed, gets the girls up. Hurry, he says. This is the worst place to be. They go downstairs and watch. It’s dawn, the day is just beginning, a light soft blue. It’s quiet again, for now. The tree is silent, though beheaded. He steps outside. On the northeast side, the largest of the branches are spiked into the earth, leaving a two foot crater, but they fell away from the house, mercifully. He would have to call a tree service. Cutting this ancient down would be costly, and then the wood. He could try to sell some of it for lumber. And still there would be years of fires, years and years of warm fires.

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Pearl Abraham

Pearl Abraham

Pearl Abraham was raised in a sect of Hasidism that encourages prayer in solitude, in the woods, with trees as listeners. She is the author of, most recently, Animal Voices/Mineral Hum, American Taliban, and The Seventh Beggar. She edits SforSentence, a literary craft-based webpage, and is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Western New England University.

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