Monday, April 30, 2007

Mesmerized by Trees

Here's a the first half of my May column for Flint's East Village Magazine. The town is almost exclusively notorious, but the trees in my neighborhood are lovely. For the rest of it, check out

One of my first great losses was not a person, but a tree. It was a maple in the front yard of a parsonage in Ohio. The tree was about 25 years old, with a series of satisfying saddles, and I climbed it with increasing strength and skill for about five years. I vividly remember getting as high as I could on summer days and hugging the trunk, riding a breeze or simply blissfully hanging on, smitten by green. Much later, when I encountered Federico Garcia Lorca’s luscious poem ‘’Green,” I thought of my hours in that tree — “Green, I love you, green.”

Unfortunately for my spiritual development, I blamed the church for the tree’s demise. Denominational bureaucrats in the optimistic boom of the 1950s decided to add on an educational wing. They actually moved the parsonage up the street a block, and my beloved tree was uprooted and chopped up to make way. Seeing the huge hole where the tree had been was my first experience of grief, and I’ve never quite trusted organized religion since.

So I learned a dual lesson quite early — not only that one can have a specific and individual relationship with a particular tree, but that trees can’t be taken for granted. There are always people around who’ve got a better idea than a tree. And they are usually wrong — obscenely wrong.

And here we are 45 years later, experiencing not just global warming but global melancholy, the zone for maples, for example, seemingly moving northward, and the trees that we’ve come to love in peril from all manner of blights, wasps and compromised habitats.

This is all to get to an ode of praise — a tribute (I desperately hope not a eulogy) to the trees of our neighborhood. In my frequent walks from Woodlawn and Burroughs Park east across Sunnyside or Calumet to Pierce Park and back, I’ve fallen in love with a dozen trees.

Some were planted by design, part of a “tree plan” of a city once more gracious in its priorities. Some are there by “accident,” volunteers from seeds dropped by birds or carried by wind. Like the houses and residents on our leafy blocks, the trees have character and individual histories to be known and cherished.

Take for instance the immense silver maples providing the beautiful arbors over Beard, Maxine, Blanchard, Kensington and Linwood. According to Mike Keeler and Sherry Hayden, longtime environmentalists and neighborhood activists who took me on a fabulous “tree walk” recently, these trees are at least 60 years old. They were planted in what former Parks Director George Liljeblad calls the “tree lawns” between the sidewalks and the curb about the time the houses were built, mostly in the mid-1930s.

(Sherry notes that cicadas love the old maples. If you walk along Maxine on July or August nights you can hear them chirping out what, as a poet, I’d say are long summer spondees, aural neon advertising “SEX-SEX-SEX” or iambs like “Love ME. Love ME. Love ME.").....

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