by Josh MacIvor-Andersen
[This is the first chapter from On Heights & Hunger, a memoir by Josh MacIvor-Andersen. Available in print and ebook.]
I see a universe animated by appetite.
All history the story of hunger. For sustenance, shelter, and sex. The hunger for power and love. For fame and gold and vengeance. For a capital G God, or at least some lowercase substitutes.
I see ancient Xerxes war-hungry and on the move, the great Persian Shahanshah, king of kings, surrounded by a million, let’s say two million soldiers marching west to crush Greece, washing like a murderous wave across the river Maeander. Herodotus said their numbers were so vast that the soldiers not only crossed rivers but drained them with their thirst.
But then Xerxes saw a solitary plane tree on the horizon, majestic and sprawling and mottle-barked, with wide palmate leaves rustling in the breeze. He fell in love with that tree on his way to crush a civilization, and with the lifting of his hand, he screeched his entire war animal to a halt beneath its dappled shade. I see, then, how hunger cloaked as history stretched westward, setting sunward, Europeans searching for slaves and fame. Devouring. Satiating. Hungry for liberty and space and everything under the whole sky. What, other than raw appetite, could lure so many bodies over a vast, unknown, tempestuous ocean in rickety boats made of cork-oak and pine?
Once ashore, all that appetite scratched and clawed at new earth, a new continent, a spiked horizon of trees.
I heard somewhere that before the North American tree hunger a squirrel could have scampered limb to limb for 728 miles, all the way from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground. Early explorers ran out of appropriate nomenclature to describe the magnificent tangle. The tree adjectives stalled on their tongues. The forests only lasted, though, as long as settlers were sufficiently terrified of the immense, damp darkness. Fear only froze them momentarily. It didn’t take long for awe and early puritan dread of the woods to turn rapidly to need, to greed, and suddenly the trees—interlaced canopy to canopy, dense jungle from ocean shore carpeting endlessly west, a thick skein of branches and roots and leaves budding, unfurling, needles falling into decay—began to recede.
Tree hunger cut a swathe around each homestead, gnawing at the once 950 million acres of forest for fuel and for space to grow, for raw material to build walls and boats and kitchen tables. Raw material to sate a British Empire ravenous for lumber. Raw material to not die from the cold.
Every burgeoning American industry fed on trees.
Down the eastern seaboard the old-growth pines disappeared. The earth opened. Horses attached to thick-braided hemp ropes yanked over the trunks and tore out the roots. Then the saws got sharper, the arteries for transport wider. Down the eastern seaboard and through the interior hardwood forests of Daniel Boone, clawing for the great longleaf pine belt of the south where 237 billion board feet of timber swayed in the wet breeze, the hunger cut in every direction, inland, stretching further west, always west, great holes opening in the canopies and the dirt turned. Along the Cumberland Plateau settlers ripped out the trees and erected their forts. Trees sharpened into pillars of defense, funneled at their tips into giant piercing spears.
And the cabins. South of Nashville, deep in the valleys, close to water and hunkered down among the curve of rolling hills, a man and woman broke a wooden wagon wheel one day, just passing through, and decided: What the hell, this place looks as good as any other. It was 1797. Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman was concurrently tromping through the Allegheny Mountains sowing apple seeds, one of the few trying to replant, when William and Sarah Nolen staked their claim down south, started yanking hickory and poplar from their roots. They stacked cedar trunks into a cabin, mud between the rounds, carved a space amidst the trees and lived mostly warm, safe, and well fed. More settlers arrived, more trees toppled. A half-acre in town went for $55, then a hundred, eventually a thousand and then ten more. The precise Nolensville acres that would someday sustain my family passed from owner to owner like a playing card. The Stovalls, Johnsons, Mayfields—to the Brileys in 1912 under the condition that a fourth of an acre up by the house not be touched, as it was a gravesite, some said, for slaves. The weathered, broken headstones will still be there when we arrive a hundred years after the sale.
But I trace all this history to arrive at a singular seed, a red oak kernel that around 1912 plunged into the soil, adrift from its origin tree, and then ignited, and after rain, after sun, a tiny sapling began to cling to life along a slope that rose from an oval pond, a flickering of thin, silver branches along a small ridge wrapping around water and field. The tree grew. Each year a few inches higher, a few inches thicker. The rings multiplied, each season imprinting the tree’s inner flesh with a ring of triumph or challenge. It was all there. A circular, concentric atlas of a life lived. The tree grew and grew—each winter and humid, slippery summer it reached up and out.
And in 1949 the acres passed again, this time to an old army chaplain, one of three captured by the Japanese during World War II and the only one to survive, who finally came home, looked for land and, God bless him, saw the tree.
“A long search ended at the dead end of an un-named road in Nolensville, Tennessee,” he writes. “My wife Vi and I spent the next forty years there, most of it trying to restore the place to a livable condition.”
His name was Sam Donald. He bought the few hundred acres surrounding the tree and started working endlessly on the old house in the oak’s lanky shadow.
It was a good life there. Livable. A kind of delicious freedom.
By the time Sam Donald died there were neighborhoods eating through the forests around his acres. Tree hunger reshaping the landscape, taking more and more. The farm’s new owner posted a For Rent sign down by the road, which had garnered the name of the old chaplain himself.
The tree arched now over the pond, seventy, eighty feet in the air. The old house was empty and cobwebbed. My mom and dad saw the sign during a meandering trip through the countryside: Nolensville farm house for rent: $700, plus utilities.
We had been looking for a place to move Mom’s sheep and llamas and goats, a basement to store Dad’s paint cans and drop cloths, a field to throw up temporary fencing, occasionally electrified. We were tired. We were transient, having drifted south from upstate New York along the same hunger lines as the old eastern seaboard loggers only to move into a condo in a sea of asphalt.
We found the farm, the tree, the soil, and suddenly felt we could put down some roots.
My big brother and I shared a room in Sam Donald’s old house even though we were grown up enough to live on our own. Our sisters down the hall, Amanda and Danielle. Mom and Dad the next door down.
My brother, Aaron, was wild and volatile and mutant strong. I was anxious and inward. Aaron’s appetites were mostly physical. Insatiable. Mine centered on something I couldn’t quite find the language for. Spiritual, perhaps, although by then I had fallen far away from that five-year-old admission of faith. “Backslidden,” my dad said. Lost in a thicket of sin.
Our sisters prayed for our souls and our parents prayed for our souls. My brother and I slept each night with the windows open, regardless of season. We slept in adjacent twin beds to the hum of an oscillating fan and the sound of each other breathing.
We woke each morning with fresh hunger, every morning voracious as hell. Each morning we got up and went together into the trees.
Excerpted from On Heights & Hunger by Josh MacIvor-Andersen. Available at bookstores nationwide. Or buy directly: On Heights & Hunger – paperback $16
Josh MacIvor-Andersen is editor of ROOTED: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction and author of the memoir On Heights & Hunger, an award-winning writer, teacher, and competitive tree climber. He lives in Marquette, Michigan with his family. He also curates contributions to the site ROOTED: All Things Arboreal.