by Lori Brack
I was born the day my parents planted two pines, balled roots dropped into two hopeful holes just before the labor pains came. I grew up knowing tree words (bark, branch, needle, trunk), as a toddler grows up pointing to parts of her body and naming them elbow, nose, knee. As I grew, so did the lexicon until by the time I was in school I could say from experience cottonwood borer and poplar, leaf vein and sparrow.
Trees litter a life like long pairs of dropped needles I loved to pick up from the ground and split at their woody connection to feel the joints give. Trees taught me how to look closely and how to separate, how to emerge for a season and then regrow. But it was the Norway pine dictionary I took with me – the tree I grew up under with its colorful bark and oval cones. Each new tree and its terminology never grow quite as fleshly as the first book of the world from which the pines and I sprang.
Psithurism: sound of wind in branches
The two birthday pines grew tall and straight and I can’t remember a time before my mother’s death when needles did not scent shade, when shade was not stickied by sap. I have studied the pictures of me at 2 or 3 buttoned tight into winter coat and hood, standing in a back yard bare of tree shadow, and logic tells me that at least for awhile, the pines I thought of as mine must have been shorter than their eventual shaggy height. We lived inside the daily sound of wind-brightening trees, rare out there on the cold and dry plains, a shushing made of branches and needles bobbing outside the window, enticing me to believe I could see the gale.
Evergreen: an adjective and a metaphor
When I was 5 or 6, before my mother cut my hair, she washed it every Saturday in the kitchen. I would crawl onto the countertop and lie flat on my back, hang my hair into the sink. Because I was impatient, she distracted me by singing the parts of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” she could remember. Though it made reaching every part of my head more difficult, I would turn to look through the kitchen window and stare up into the pine, wait each week for my favorite line: “a nest of robins in her hair.” Her fingers scrubbed my scalp and then pulled a comb through the tangles while I looked hard for that nest, the one I imagined was there but obscured by long-needled branches, the nest that was simultaneously being composed against my head, the one that meant I somehow was also the tree.
Malus: genus of small apple trees
When my son needed room to grow, I chose a house with a flowering crab outside the bedroom window. The spring we moved in, the tree was covered in white blossoms, faintly sweet, or maybe only my imagination of sweetness. I spent afternoons on a blanket holding and releasing my son’s squirmy or sleepy toddler body, looking up into branches that drew shapes on the sky from a Japanese print. Grass grew right up to the trunk, the crabapple’s branches loose enough to let in light. In fruited summers, a neighbor would drop over to eat the small, sour apples straight off the tree, and a stranger sometimes called to request picking, pausing to apologize for her jelly longing. Each year, inside a smooth hole high up the trunk, starlings’ raucous mouths to feed punctuated the afternoons.
Resin: sticky tree ooze
My first cat, tacky with pitch and smelling of pine, slept on my bed, leaving tree scent behind. One year, the pine gained a redwood bench around its base, partly the work of my father who nailed each section in place. When I sat there, my pants came away with sticky spots, needle debris glued to my thighs.
Like a spyglass, the pine lengthens and contracts in the telling.
After some years of growth, one pine was cut down to make way for my mother’s dream of a screened porch. The porch gave our Kansas prairie home the air of a vacation cabin, shaded as it was by the remaining kitchen-window pine. As long as that last pine oozed gummy gold beads, sifted winter snow, sheltered black-capped chickadees my mother called “snowbirds” and remained, my life was vouchsafed. Even when I roamed far from the center and lived in the desert or the city, I imagined I felt it out there standing strong in January and sending roots deeper in July.
Hardiness: ability to survive temperature changes
As it turns out, Kansas is the only state in the lower 48 that does not have a native pine. I see only two possibilities: the seeming illogic of maps means something to trees who refuse to creep over borders, or this place makes a pine tree shun it. One Kansas horticulturist believes the reason is weather extremes – frigid winters followed by hot, windy summers – that test a pine’s resilience. Pines, it may be said, can adapt to either, but withstanding both is out of the question.
I was born with pine trees, but my son knew only the crabapple, storm-felled when he was seventeen.
My mother didn’t want trees in the front because each evening, barring clouds or blizzard, she would open the dining room curtains onto the west and watch the sunset blaze or fade against the long horizon. Even though I never picked up her ritual, she taught me to pay attention to the sky. In some of the weeks before her death, I stayed with her, taking on little tasks she gave me while she spent her days drowsing or staring into the middle distance from the couch. She gave me a big job, too, in her last summer – to arrange for the dead pine, its branches dry and needles brown, to be cut down before it attracted fire or fell on the roof. The day the tree men came, I stood alone on her screened porch and watched them rig up, saw off the lower branches, disassemble the redwood bench. As they readied the chainsaws for the trunk, I went in to invite my mother to come outside to watch. Her response was a gentle roll of her head propped on the couch’s arm.
I asked her again as the saws started up their loud growling. She shook her head once more, passing on the undercutting of trunk, the snap and boom of limbs. Alone, I watched the end of the last birthday tree. Between the men’s trips to their truck, I slipped out and rescued one branch the circumference and length of my arm, three brown pine cones, and one spray of needles. I keep them still, put away in a box that my son will come upon one day. On the outside in black marker: Pine Tree. I’ve never unfastened the lid.
Komorebi: leaf-filtered sun
He has directions, my son, to put me beneath a tree as I’m dying. He’s to roll a cot under a fall or spring tree and let leaf shadow play over my blankets, let needles fall on my hands, let me look up.
I say the nouns: cot, fall, spring, tree, leaf, shadow, blankets, needles, hands. One afternoon I stitched through leaves with sharp pine needles, tearing dashes into the green flesh. My palms itched with stringing, suturing leaf to leaf, the pine – or the space in air it once took – in control of what can be said, that desire to pierce, to dis/connect.
Lori Brack’s essays and poems have recently appeared in The Fourth River, Gingko Tree Review, Superstition Review and its blog s[r], Another Chicago Magazine, Mid-American Review, and others. Her 2010 chapbook, A Fine Place to See the Sky, is a collaboration with her grandfather’s 1907-1919 farming journals and serves as a poetic script for a work of performance art by Ernesto Pujol.