Up a Tree


“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

– Nelson Henderson


When this season of panic/pandemic is a memory, I will sit in the shade and tell of the time when I was “up a tree”.  “Up” is an exaggeration, as is the size of the shade, since the trees I mention are still saplings. But they have taken root and produce green evidence of life so I will start the story now.


Our Delaware yard was not treeless before we arrive, far from it. A giant white oak shelters birds and shades our deck. in a neighborly way. There’s a tall sugar maple that extends its welcome over the fence to the right, backed up by sky-touching white spruce. Then there’s the black walnut tree that dominates three yards with its green assault weapons. Several branches loom over the back fence and Hannah dodges the rain of walnuts to do her business. I check their whereabouts after every storm. As Frost wrote, something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  It’s only a matter of time.


So, all our trees are borrowed.  I start to read Isaiah as the quarantine descends and when I reach Isaiah 55:12 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands,” I realize what I need to do. Plant trees. I want to hear clapping when the all clear signal comes.


I get stern instructions from Wangari Maathai: “Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.” That sets me on a search for what might survive the old black walnut toxins in the soil.  I plant three redbuds to redeem the disheveled shed of our Walnut neighbors.  A cherry tree takes root where it may throw shade in all the right ways. I have no idea how beautiful a crepe myrtle will be, but I like the sound.


An unexpected tree presents itself to the search. I find an Eastern red cedar struggling to survive in a crack by the trash can. I transplant it and visit every morning to celebrate its green immigrant life. I now have a trove of trees, a rooted treasure according to Martin Luther: “For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.” Martin Luther. I count the trees like coins:

  • Red cedar
  • White oak
  • White spruce
  • Silver maple
  • Cherry
  • Redbud
  • Black walnut


I unearth a Bristlecone Pine seed germination kit in a can, saved from a trip to Ellis Island 14 years ago. A Bristlecone is one of the earth’s most ancient living organism. This pine can “make its home in an extremely hostile environment, but also its astounding longevity and amazing hardiness makes it perfect for ornamental planting in a diverse range of climates”. I consider the invitation: “Grow a Tree: world’s oldest living thing.” Should I add to my treasury of trees?


I decide to wait until another season when there are immigration laws that honor Ellis Island and all those transplanted lives that help to green this nation. The ecology of trees makes the political personal.  “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” Franklin D. Roosevelt


I swear I can breathe easier now.  “Trees exhale for us so that we can inhale them to stay alive. Can we ever forget that? Let us love trees with every breath we take until we perish.” Munia Khan.   With every breath, then. Every breath.