We don’t imagine a tree’s end when we bring it into our homes and adorn it with lights and ornaments. Indeed, if we think about the life cycle of trees at all, it’s to admire their permanence and endurance; the name “evergreen” itself implies longevity. We hope that our plants survive — but we expect our trees to endure.
As soon as my Christmas tree finds its way to the sidewalk each January, I miss it. Growing up, I spent virtually every afternoon living in trees. Swinging, climbing and eating or reading in my treehouse in the woods behind our suburban house: These times tied me to trees forever. I etched my initials into my favorite climbing tree, and although I don’t know whether it’s still standing, I’m sure I could find those initials easily if it were, so close was my connection to that old maple.
Sometimes, I think back to initialing the bark, or nailing a plank of wood into the trunk, or breaking a branch by accident. Whatever I did to the tree, I did so assuming that it would renew itself and keep patiently adding rings to its trunk. “The tree gives shade,” reads a quote attributed to Sri Chaitanya, “even to him who cuts off its boughs.”
A gardener’s fall ritual: Swapping flower bulbs and dreaming of spring
Trees rooted me to the land as a young girl, and they root me to the land now. When our family moved into our new house, I needed to feel connected to the land again, so I decided to plant trees tied to each of my family members. For my late husband, Don, we chose an American beech, a stately tree that provides both shade and ornament. It gives to others and radiates a beauty of its own, which was true of Don as well.
For my son, there was the oak tree — like him, towering and strong. For my daughter, I chose the lilac, tall and spirited. I would have selected an olive tree for myself, but it would have struggled in our northeastern climate. So I chose a crab apple instead, a reminder of my earliest tree memory — indeed my earliest memory, period — which was of a crab apple with pink blossoms.
These choices of trees and where to place them were made with care and attention. “There can be nothing casual about planting trees,” wrote the American artist Clare Leighton. “After today, the place will never again look the same. We shall have changed the shape of the landscape.” Leighton’s maxim has proved true: Our home has never been the same since those saplings went into the ground. The trees are among the first things I notice when we arrive at the house, and some part of me knows they’ll last longer than the house itself.
In planting them, I experienced something distinct from planting flowers or vegetables. “To plant trees,” observed landscape architect Russell Page, “is to give body and life to one’s dreams of a better world.” It was an act of hope and patience. The pleasure of shade, the promise of branches to climb, the possibility of treehouses to come: All of that could take a generation or two to pass.
Watching these trees slowly grow in my garden has been a source of contentment and calm. Animals may raid my flower beds; a storm may knock down a freshly planted hollyhock. But short of a catastrophe, Don’s beech will continue providing comfort and delight, and the oak will remain standing and climbing.
As the old English foresters’ proverb goes: “Great oaks take 300 years to grow, 300 years to stay and 300 years to die.” It’s hard to think ahead a few months, let alone a few centuries. But this year, I intend to not wait 11 months to have more proximity to trees. During this season of resolutions, I’ve resolved to study trees more carefully and to appreciate their variety and stamina all year.
Above all, I won’t take trees for granted, and I will recall the wise words of the poet Hermann Hesse, an ardent tree lover himself. “In their highest boughs the world rustles,” he wrote, “their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.”
Catie Marron is the author of “Becoming a Gardener: What Reading and Digging Taught Me About Living.” Find her on Instagram: @catiemarron.