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  • Joan Schweighardt

Five Directions Press Authors Dish: Trees

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

It’s Arbor Day, and of course we’re thinking trees: specifically, beautiful Russian birches, an unholy oak, and a tree that sprouts love!

C.P. Lesley: I’ve always loved trees, although as with most plants I can barely tell one from another. So when, during my second or third year in college, I briefly dated a budding botanist, it’s easy to see why I might have considered myself at a disadvantage. Even I, however, cannot mistake a birch tree for a beech—or a silver birch tree for a white one.

The tree story in question went something like this: hauled out to the mountains of western Massachusetts on one glorious fall day, I walked with Mr. Botanist through a forest as he opined on the unique nature of these particular trees. “Only in New England,” he told me with great solemnity, “does the white birch exist.”

Now I had studied Russian for at least five years at that point, long enough to have some acquaintance with the literature as well as the language, and I was pretty sure that this statement was untrue. But he was Mr. Botanist, and I couldn’t tell an oak from an elm, so I kept my mouth shut.

Fast forward ten years. I traveled to Russia to research my dissertation. And lo and behold, I couldn’t walk three feet outside the cities without falling over a white birch. Russia is famous for its white birches, which in olden times people believed contained the souls of beautiful maidens. For centuries those trees kept people alive during famines, got them drunk on birch beer, and put shoes on the feet of the poor. I wanted to call up Mr. Botanist and say, “See? I was right!” But by then I couldn’t remember his name.

Which just goes to show: sometimes we know more than we think we do, even if we can’t tell an oak from an elm.

Gabrielle Mathieu: Perhaps twenty years ago now, I had a friend, D., who was active in the American Indian spiritual community and attended sweat lodges. She studied Reiki as well. We first bonded because of our emotionally inaccessible lovers; in our sweet and deluded New Age way, we were quite sure our love was singular and would prevail over obstacles such as that unappreciative frigid wife and never-ending workload.

D. and I went through a phase where we visited each other several times a week outside of the hospital where we both worked. She referred to me as a sister, a designation I was to lose when my romance imploded, throwing a shadow on her own difficult relationship. In my eagerness to share with my “sister,” I suggested we drive to the boarding school where I had endured four years of churning competitiveness, choking depression, and, not incidentally, a damn good education I’m still grateful for. It felt like a statement of independence to take my soulful friend, with her tie-dyed clothes, wild hair, and patchouli perfume, into this bastion of preppiness. Once, the constraints of Izod shirts and SAT scores had run my life. But now I was free to visualize perfect love and have soul sisters.

It was a pleasant spring day, not too hot yet. I led D. past the school cafeteria, the kindling for the anorexic manifestations of my fellow students. I wanted to show her the field of blue bonnets that had soothed my troubled adolescent soul. I hoped they would be blooming now. On the way, I caught sight of a Burr oak tree, with a single pine cone dangling from a string. Set off by a background of soft green oak leaves, the stark hanging cone was incongruous and arresting. I ran toward it.

As I came closer, I halted. It now seemed a sharp warning. Just then, D. called out for me to be careful. In my recollection, these events happened simultaneously, and one did not influence the other. D., despite her ethereal inclinations, was an experienced ER nurse, hard to unsettle. Yet we were both shaken. Our visit came to an abrupt end as we fled back to her truck and drove off.

What had the warning been? D. and I talked about it once we felt safe. The pine cone was a symbol of death. Someone had placed it there. Was it in memory of a student who hung himself? A sign that a pupil was considering suicide? I felt responsible, as if I had witnessed a cry for help. I searched for reports in the news but found nothing.

Perhaps there was nothing to find—nothing tangible, at least. Not all damage is visible.

My boarding school was a place of prestige, where we were led to believe we were the best and brightest. But not all stars can shine equally bright. Despair has a way of finding the fissures in the most magnificent edifice, creeping in to burden a heart preoccupied by appearances, desperate for belonging. We were just children after all. So easily hurt.

Joan Schweighardt: Over the summer that marked my transition from junior high to high school, I fell in love. So did my best friend Sarah. My boyfriend, Dan, was on the football team. He had a hearty laugh and shirt collars that smelled of the starch his mom used in ironing them. The classroom where he had English was the same one where I had History the following period. We sat at the same desk. It had a drawer, and he left me one love note daily—folded up to the size of a blueberry—at the back of it. Charmingly, or so I thought then, Dan didn’t punctuate. He strung his words of love and information about school and classmates together in a long chain that sometimes required multiple readings. His father was a carpenter by trade and a hunter by hobby, and thus Dan was able to obtain two small silver bullets into which his father had drilled tiny holes. I wore them on a chain around my neck.

Sarah’s boyfriend was different. He was in the drama club and appeared in some school plays. He was quiet and dreamy and incredibly handsome. Instead of leaving her unpunctuated notes or gifting her slugs, he hand-delivered unimaginably long love letters and bought her fresh flowers.

Love love love, that’s all we talked that summer. Sarah and I absolutely believed that what we felt for our boyfriends was the kind of love that, if only everyone could experience it at once, would wipe out famine and bring about world peace. And perhaps we also knew it could not last. And so we buried it—not the love, of course, but a glass jar containing her letters, my notes, her flower petals, one of the two bullets, and other mementoes that symbolized it—five paces out from the tallest tree near the soccer field behind the high school we would soon be attending, deep in the earth, where no one would ever find it. And we believed—and maybe we still do—that the love in our glass jar would be gratefully ingested by the roots of the tree we’d chosen to protect it (for what can be more responsive than a beautiful, strong oak), and that love would spread up its trunk and nourish its branches and leaves, and that anyone who walked beneath our tree, or even came close, would be changed ever after, leaning more toward kindness and matters of the heart.

Images: Russian white birches © voltan1/Thinkstock; pine cone and oak tree from Pixabay (no attribution required).

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