An ode to the trees of America
By Summer Edward
I first started going to the river to run. Later I would sit on the grassy bank by the water’s edge and write, or else indulge myself in reveries; but in the beginning it was not inspiration and respite I sought, but exercise and exertion.
I ran in the mornings. From my row house apartment, it was a mere five minute walk to the river. I started out early, before the sun came up. Before, when I lived in another part of Philadelphia, I had visited Fairmount once or twice, and then, it only held the fleeting lure of an excursion. But jogging along Kelly Drive, the Schuylkill flowing beside me, Fairmount became the place where I lived and I began to take an active interest in the lay of the land.
I have always felt a kinship with trees; in truth, most of my proclivities come down on the side of nature. I set this down to a combination of temperament and a childhood spent on a Caribbean island. As I ran along Kelly Drive, looking past the restless human activity to the immemorial habitus of the land, my gaze moving from the sakura trees lining the running trail, to the forests of the Schuylkill hills, I began to look at the trees with real curiosity. I noticed them as individual, living things. As the seasons changed, I saw patterns and routines in the lives of sycamores and poplars, and kept my eye on a venerable box elder near the West River Drive Bridge. I noted which trees lost their leaves by October, and which species held on longer. I saw how trees fought to survive the extremities of a temperate climate. The self-governance of trees is mysterious and moving, though not always elegant.
So it was that running beside the river, I discovered the secret life of American trees. To find that here, a stone’s throw away from Philadelphia’s city center, was this teeming hinterland of wooded life, was a welcome boon in my metropolitan existence, and though I had a clear view of the urban skyline, a cluster of skyscrapers, as I ran along the river — the view that had first attracted me to Fairmount — those towering buildings soon lost their attraction as I gave myself over to a childhood’s lore: the lore of American trees.
One of my earliest introductions to American trees was through the charming vistas of Sesame Street. Growing up in Trinidad as a child, years before I migrated to America, I spent many a hot, dry or rainy, warm tropical afternoon watching the show, and one of the various reasons I was enamoured of Sesame Street — the actual street where Oscar the Grouch lived in his trashcan that is — was that it was lined with trees.
Living on an island, I was inured to a fearsome wildness of trees. Everywhere in an island, even in the cities, the bedlam of nature encroaches; trees grow, bloom and die fiercely wherever they please, untended by human agency. But on Sesame Street, vernal trees, growing at uniform intervals, sprouted duteously from the pavement with all the spruceness of a bellhop standing outside a hotel. Watching Sesame Street as a child, I first saw documentary footage of the Chandelier Tree, a colossal redwood in Leggett, California with a hole cut into the trunk big enough for cars to drive through. We had nothing like it in Trinidad, at least not that I knew of.
From shows like Sesame Street, and other American children’s programmes I enjoyed as a child, I constructed idealized visions not only of tree-lined inner-city American neighbourhoods, but American parks and suburbia as well, and I became utterly convinced of the utopian arboreousness of America. America was not merely one large, civilized pleasure garden where perpetually fresh trees grew in orderly fashion, but American trees were also superior, if only because you could not find them in Trinidad. These were the conclusions of a child’s impressionable mind.
Formally, I was introduced to American trees during geography lessons back in the 90s. Sitting in my high school classroom in Trinidad, I looked at photos of faraway temperate forests in my textbooks. “In the child’s reverie, the image takes precedent over everything else”, Gaston Bachelard wrote. In geography class, as we poured over remarkable photos of national parks like Yellowstone and ecoregions like the Atlantic coastal pine barrens, we did not know what we were looking at, which is to say, we did not know that large portions of the American forests pictured in our books had been afforested or reforested, and we knew nothing of decades of large-scale human interventions in the American landscape. As such, our received idea of American forests was of something entirely produced by nature, without the imprint of civilization.
To a West Indian teenager like myself, the aerial shots of American coniferous forests were especially interesting. There are species of coniferous trees native to Trinidad, but North American conifers, illustrated renditions of which grace the cover of many an imported Christmas card, and the pages of many an imported childhood storybook in the Caribbean, were a part of the imagistic reverie of Trinidadian childhood, and had all the appeal of the exotic. I had seen similar photos of American forests in the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ set my mother bought me, but to learn about them in a classroom alongside my peers added authority to what I knew. Thus, when, as a teen, I belatedly discovered children’s novels like ‘ A Wrinkle in Time’ and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories, and fell to picturing the pine forest behind the Wallaces’ house or the Big Woods of Wisconsin, I drew upon those textbook photos of Yellowstone and the Rocky Mountain forests.
Years later, when I left Trinidad and settled in America, whatever knowledge and sentiment I initially had about American trees was deeply tinged with the nostalgia of school days, childhood and Sesame Street. Even my bookish knowledge was tinged with the romance of childhood envy, and when I first moved to Fairmount, I brought romance and nostalgia to my contemplation of the trees I saw on my runs along the river, which is to say, the childhood fantasy of American trees, planted in my imagination while reading books and watching television in Trinidad, now had a real stage to play upon.
But there was also a new vision that unfolded during those runs by the river. In spring, I noticed seed pods littering the trail and stepped around them where I would have trampled them before. The spiky seed pod of a sycamore looks violent, like the striking head of a medieval flail. Many of these seeds are trampled by people or eaten by birds. Still, the sycamore catapults its seed to the proverbial four winds, a blitzkrieg of plant fertility. Such a fierce campaign of survival waged by American trees. The sycamores, still denuded of their leaves in the juvenescence of the year, only looked feeble and inert. Even the breathtaking pageant of the cherry blossom trees in bloom along the river was deceptive. What I had once thought of as an effortless recrudescence, I now saw was a great battle the trees were fighting, vying as they were with the forces of natural selection.
Later in the year, the cherry blossom trees along the trail wore a different aspect. In spring their branches had been buoyant with blossoms, and they had had all the elaborate splendour of a cotillion; but if spring was a cotillion, now, these same trees looked as forlorn as a stag line. These were the dog days of summer and a pall of listlessness hung over the city. Looking at the becalmed trees along the summer river, one got the feeling that they were burdened by their task of providing shade. The leaves had wilted and the branches, which in springtime had been uplifted as though in prayer, now drooped languorously. In the summer, the branches of American trees, laden with stored moisture, often snap and fall, sometimes causing injury to humans and animals. It was another thing that surprised me. I realized I had thought of winter as the tidy death “which nature hath provided.” It was the fanciful notion that all the degenerative processes of American trees were confined to that cold season; otherwise, American trees were somehow a prelapsarian species, immune to the natural world’s curse of decay. Now I saw that Bradstreet’s poetic line “trees do rot when they are grown” could easily have been penned in the summer. So, here too, was another blind spot of the imagination.
This impression I had, of seeing for the first time, only grew stronger during my first autumn in Fairmount. In my early years in America, I had enjoyed the solemn requiem of autumnal colour as trees prepared for death, but I had never seen this flamboyance of autumn trees as the veil of death itself. Then one day in late autumn, walking through the wet, silent woods of Lemon Hill after a brief cloudburst, I was heralded with the vision of a songbird. It was a windy afternoon and overhead, bare, spindly branches moved with careening energy against the tenebrous sky. I paused, neck craned, mesmerized by the distressed movement of the branches. Suddenly, a bird burst into warbling song. I am no authority on bird vocalizations, but in the bird’s melody, which had the quality of a fantasia, I thought I detected a grace note, as if the creature were flaunting itself. Somewhere along the footpath of crushed stone, a twig snapped. I looked both ways along the path, but there was no one.
The bird stopped singing and in the fresh silence, my senses sharpened. I smelt the heady rot of dying trees, and as though it had just appeared, I saw the detritus on the ground, a mixture of shed branches and dead trees that had collapsed. Some of the fallen trees looked as old as Methuselah. Plant litter, damp brown leaves and decomposing twigs, clotted in the mud beneath my feet. There, in that half-light beneath the tree canopies, I felt I was in some charnel house of nature. It was the unseen bird, which had sung so spiritedly, that had shown me this deathly vision of the autumn woods; there was so much life in its ebullient outburst, that when it stopped, I could see death clearly for what it was.
It was a time when I could not see what my life would be in the offing. I was working from home, taking editing jobs now and then, and seeing very little company. Most of my days were spent alone, sitting at my desk trying to write poetry while battling a growing sense of inanition. I was also trying to decide if I should move back to Trinidad; in short, I had found myself in life’s doldrums, a place not entirely new to me. That day, before coming to the woods of Lemon Hill, I had worked at my desk all morning. Writing can stultify the mind, and whenever I was daunted by the rigors of the expressive life, I sought rejuvenation in the ministrations of nature. “The seasons can make a mistake, develop badly, overlap or fade. But during our childhood, they never make a mistake with signs. Childhood sees the World Illustrated…in our reveries we see our illustrated universe once more with its childhood colours”. This insight from Bachelard had proved as true for my fantasy of American trees as it had for my vision of youthful life. The seasons had not materialized as I had imagined, and standing still in the autumn of my youth, the herald’s call quivering my soul, I did not know if I should wake or dream again.
Around that time, I had begun to harbour an interest in nineteenth century lithographs. Pouring over Christian Inger’s ‘Birdseye View of Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, with the Buildings of the International Exhibition 1876’, John T. Bowen’s ‘A View of the Fairmount Waterworks with Schuylkill in the Distance. Taken from the Mount’, and similar archival prints, I received the historical idea of a Fairmount in the first throes of industrialisation, the novelty of the tiny steam locomotive and steam-powered ship encroaching on the panoramic, Arcadian landscape. Here was the estate village prototype: Fairmount as a domesticated park of idyllic groves, stately dwellings, and patrician leisure, with the flourishing arboretums and campestral fairgrounds of the Centennial Exposition, that dazzling watershed of civilisational pomp and glory to which Fairmount forevermore lays claim.
It was this prototypal nineteenth-century Fairmount, preserved in lithographs, which answered at last to my childhood reverie of the American continent as a fresh, civilised pleasure garden. To find that this vision of Arcadia was a relic of the American past was clarifying, for now I had a context for the tree-lined American street, a way to understand the American impulse to citify the French allée. Then I discovered Michel-Jean Cazabon’s lithographs of Trinidad’s colonial sugar estates in the nineteenth century, and was able to connect Trinidad’s sugar plantations to the landscape history and industrial developments of America. The pastoral estate village, so noble an ideal in the story of Euro-American civilisation, was barbarous when transplanted into the West Indian historical situation.
So much was my childhood reverie of American utopianism disturbed that now, on my afternoon walks on Lemon Hill, passing by Lemon Hill mansion, its windows aglow with sunset, I was haunted by a cosmic sense of pathos. The rustic, Federal-style mansion, which had at first satisfyingly animated my pure and simple childhood reverie, now sullied and complicated it. I had learned that the mansion partly owed its beauty and longevity to the upkeep of black slaves who may have very well been deracinated from the Caribbean. That the ironies of my birth and my upbringing had brought me to Fairmount and placed me in view of this larger history felt significant in my immigrant’s search for meaning, and when I left Fairmount I did so with no regrets, for I felt that I had not lived in that neighbourhood in vain.
I remember a particular weekend in the winter when I took an early-morning bus ride out of the city to join a hiking group at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Located on the outskirts of Philadelphia, the Center offers three hundred and forty acres of woodlands, wetlands, meadows and fields to the outdoor explorer. My group, with our guide, set out to discover over three miles of hiking trails. In a group of European Americans, adults and children both, I was an anomaly; and yet I found I could be more at ease than I might have been in another setting, all of my senses being engaged by the forest.
Earlier, in the still dawn atmosphere of my apartment, I had bundled myself in layers, but out there on the forest trail the air cut through my clothes and only the exertion of my walk kept me from shivering violently. I had never been in the American woods in the winter and the specter of the winter forest, disrobed of its leaves, was something altogether new. There was no snow on the ground, and what I was seeing bore such little resemblance to the textbook and storybook renditions of American forests from my childhood that I was swiftly disappointed. At first, I found the snowless winter forest underwhelming; there was a demolished quality to it, so that I had the impression of a razed village. These trees were not the snowflake-speckled evergreens of the halcyon Christmas greeting card illustrations. Here, in the deciduous winter forest, the trees were like ghosts, or war-torn men. Once I had given up my preconceived ideas however, I began to see the beauty in it. There was something in the arid emptiness and vast crystalline silence that brought one to a place of humility, of awe even.
In college, I had taken a Survey of American Literature course, and had been endlessly fascinated by a landscape painting on the cover of an edition of ‘The Norton Anthology of American Literature’. In the painting, titled ‘Kindred Spirits’, by one of the Hudson River School artists, was the idea of the aboriginal American landscape as a pristine wilderness, an almost mythical ecological tabula rasa preserved by the artist’s vision. Sitting in the college lecture hall, thousands of miles away from my old familiar life in Trinidad, I found great comfort in such a utopian pastoral scene. Later, I would learn from the writings of Steven J. Pyne that the Native Americans’ extensive use of fire and surface burns in woodland areas served to greatly modify the continent’s landscape before the arrival of European settlers. And so the pristine myth was just that: a bit of mythopoetic license.
Standing in the frigid, desolate woods of the Schuylkill Center, I had become aware of my naivety and now I found it laughable; and yet I did not burden myself with self-reproof. I understood the conditions which had bred such naivety. I found too that I had no regrets about the childhood reveries I had harboured, for they had, in their way, given me a kind of hope, a belief in the possibility of a world fashioned anew and redeemed from Chaos, which is perhaps all the American Dream really is.
One summer, two years after I moved to Fairmount, I joined a nature walk, one of those things you sign up to do online, which is how I learnt the names of all the trees along the Schuylkill. The guide, an excitable old gentleman with a pedantic delivery and telegenic charm, carried copies of a book called ‘Report on the Trees of Fairmount Park’ and I purchased one out of curiosity. The book, first published in the early twentieth century, explains the characteristics of different types of trees growing in the district and how they came to be part of the Fairmount bioregion. Studying this book, and even taking it with me on my walks, for now I walked and did not run, was the final stage of my naturalist’s education.
I had known of the geography of America in an intellectual sense, but to see it unfold right there along the Schuylkill was a different kind of education. The romantic view of American trees planted in a classroom in Trinidad years ago had matured to an appreciation of the reality. The reality had become meaningful, and endurable, for I lived in America now, and the trees were a part of my life.
Summer Edward was born and raised in Trinidad and spent a decade in Philadelphia, USA. Her work has been published in a number of periodicals in print and online. She was shortlisted for the Small Axe Literary Prize, nominated for the Pushcart Prize and was recently one of the invited “Who’s Next?” writers at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad.