A Pessimist Plants A Tree

[papercut art by Anna Brones]

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“All we can do is breathe the air of the period we live in, carry with us the special burdens of the time, and grow up within those confines. That’s just how things are.”
—Haruki Murakami, Abandoning A Cat

I had been stuck up in the ash tree for probably a half-hour, a kid looking down and trying to figure out how to get myself out of the situation, before my dad came out. I had dragged our ladder out of the garage, leaned it against the trunk of the tree, and climbed up, not realizing I would not be able to reverse my climbing moves to get back down later. So there I was, half-squatting in the crotch of the tree, where its big trunk split in two before splitting into more and more branches, finally topping out 35 feet above our grassy backyard in the town of Red Oak, Iowa.

For whatever reason, I had gotten really into tree climbing that summer, pulling myself up into every tree in our yard, a few in neighbors’ yards, some at friends’ houses, and any that were on public property and had a low branch within reach of my six-year-old arms. Sometimes I’d grab a rope or two that my grandpa had “borrowed” from the Emmetsburg Fire Department and use them to hoist myself up higher. At some point, I had some pain somewhere in an arm or a leg, and my mom took me to the doctor, and the doctor took a look and prescribed a few days off of climbing trees. For a few years, there was always a kid at school who had broken their arm falling out of a tree, but I had somehow avoided catastrophic injury. So far, anyway.

The finer details of how I got stuck up in the tree escape me now, but I imagine my dad had been sent out back by my mom, who was trying to finish cooking dinner, you know, Please Go Get Your Son Out Of The Tree Or We’ll Have To Start Eating The Lasagna Without Him.

So there we were, him on the ground, me up in the tree, too scared to jump all the way into the grass, too heavy to jump into my dad’s arms (which would honestly probably have broken something and put him out of work for several weeks), and unable to get back onto the top of the ladder. We went back and forth for a while, trying to figure out a way, him moving the ladder out of the way, then putting it back, suggesting this idea or that idea, but I was frozen. My feet were probably seven feet above the ground, maybe a little higher, but from my vantage point, it looked like 20.

Finally, Dad just calmly said, Bud, I can’t do anything for you—I think you’re just going to have to jump. I said OK, and he turned and walked into the house.

A few days after finishing grad school at the University of Montana in 2004, I headed out of the town of Missoula, heading south and eventually landing at the base of the peaks of Colorado’s Front Range. Missoula was beautiful, but I was more interested in Colorado’s sunshine, accessible rock and hundreds of high-altitude summits close to home. For almost a decade and a half, I lived for the times I could spend above treeline: technical climbing routes hundreds of feet high where I tied into anchors and watched birds ride thermals directly across from me and above my head as I belayed my partner, ridge traverses looking out on ocean waves of mountains that seemed to go on forever, and hundreds of summits where I’d sit for just a few minutes before hiking, rappelling, or skiing down.

I wrote stories, always focusing on the adventure, action, big picture, or what it all meant, instead of focusing on the details of the scenery around me. After thousands of hours of romping around the mountains and desert, I can probably confidently name only about a dozen plants, and a handful of birds. In the proofreading process for a guidebook I wrote for Rocky Mountain National Park, I scrolled through dozens of wildflower websites trying to name the flowers on all the trails I’d covered. When an editor asked me to specify what types of evergreen trees were on a certain trail, looking back at my photos, I had to admit I couldn’t 100 percent say if the trees were lodgepole pines or Douglas fir. I’m just not much of a plants guy, I would tell myself.

In August 2020, 18 years after I’d left to live out west, Iowans learned a new weather term when something called a “derecho” ripped through the central part of the state, causing $7.5 billion in damage in its east-to-west path. The Washington Post, in an effort to explain, cited a definition of a derecho that said it “must produce ‘continuous or intermittent’ damage along a path at least 60 miles wide and 400 miles long, with frequent gusts of at least 58 mph and several well-separated gusts of at least 75 mph.”

My parents’ hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa, still recovering from a 2018 tornado that brought 99-mile-per-hour winds and took down the county courthouse dome and spire, was hammered by the derecho. One of the big trees in my parents’ backyard came down, fortunately missing the house and their bedroom window 20 feet away. The wind ripped a section of siding clean off the south side of the house. I talked to my mom and dad on the phone, listening to their stories: tree removal crews were slowly making their way across the state, neighbors were helping cut up fallen branches and haul them to the curb, insurance companies couldn’t send someone to assess damages for weeks because they were so backed up. As the derecho was hitting the edge of town, my dad had decided to drive home from the golf course, and had stopped at the end of the block to get out and walk up to the house, and then decided to get back in the truck and wait out the violent wind that was pulling down trees left and right.

On the phone, my dad sounded down. Five months into having their retirement interrupted by a worldwide pandemic that kept them isolated at home, half of the tree cover in the backyard was gone. I mentioned planting a new tree in its place. Dad, not usually one to get philosophical or talk much about mortality, matter-of-factly pointed out that at 69, he probably wouldn’t have time left to see a newly-planted tree grow to much maturity.

tall trees papercut by anna brones

That summer, I came back to the Montana town that I left in 2004. A few weeks after the derecho, my wife and I closed on a house in Missoula. A listing real estate agent might have called it “funky,” but you might have more objectively called it “a tad neglected for a decade or two.” A Florida developer had bought it, hoping to scrape it and put up a four-plex, but had given up, so we were able to snatch it up, to the relief of many of the neighbors on the block. The house itself was a bit ramshackle—the shop roof leaked, the roof of the house sagged a little bit, and the front door had been walled over but the concrete front stoop remained, accented with moss. But the property had five huge, mature oak trees, the kind only rich neighborhoods had in the city we’d left.

And also, one jack pine tree that had been growing toward the southern sun, pushing the ancient back fence over since probably the late 1990s. My dad’s heartbreak over his tree fresh in my mind, I decided to save the tree instead of the fence, and ran a reciprocating saw sideways, chopping the fence panel in half to allow the tree more room to grow. It was not a classy move. But I felt it was an opportunity to save a piece of nature or a piece of man-made architecture, so I righteously hacked through the fence.

It took a few months of being back in Missoula for me to stop seeing everything in the town as it related to a memory of when I was in grad school—oh, that used to be this place, or I knew someone who lived there, or I used to go there when it was a coffee shop. I was no longer an excited young man trying to climb every peak within a four-hour radius; I was now enamored with the trail systems that seemed to begin on every side of town and provide hours of wandering through evergreen forests. I still didn’t know the names of most of the trees, but was happy to learn that we now lived around Western larch trees, deciduous conifers whose needles turn gold and drop to the ground in the fall.

In the fall, I discovered a trail system in a canyon fifteen minutes’ drive from our house, with gentle trail grades perfect for our senior dog, Rowlf. In the spring, it became our regular destination for evening off-leash walks, cool, quiet, and calming when the evening sun streaked through the pines and painted everything a glowing gold. Slowing to the pace of my 10-year-old dog, I finally took the time to look around and take it in. Every time I slid my hand into my pocket to grab my phone to take yet another photo of the trees in the evening light, that small section of evergreens scored another point to secure its spot as my favorite forest. Which is to say, I guess, that I was finally old enough and calm enough to notice the trees and have a favorite forest.

The 2020 wildfire season became the worst in California’s history and the second-worst in Oregon’s. Smoke from fires in the west moved into Missoula in mid-September, giving us several consecutive days of Unhealthy air quality. A few hours south of Missoula, a Labor Day wind event ripped down hundreds of trees in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. A thousand miles away in Iowa, my parents’ street was lined with branches and entire trees dragged out of backyards after the derecho, awaiting pickup and transport to the county compost facility.

The signs of climate change have appeared more and more strikingly over my lifetime, first a murmur of “global warming,” and then more stern warnings of “climate change.” You listened to Al Gore’s message in an Inconvenient Truth, or you talked shit about him flying on planes or having a big house. I was pretty sure Al Gore wasn’t jerking our chain for fun. To me, climate change always seemed like a thing we should be dealing with, but of course weren’t, but that the real havoc would come later in my lifetime. I’d read warnings that started, “By 2100, the world will …” or “By 2050 …” which felt like a long time away. If a doctor tells you that you have six months to live, you wake up right there. If a doctor tells you that you have 40 years to live, you shrug and go about your life as usual, probably changing nothing.

Summer 2021 could not have been more on the opposite side of the spectrum from my carefree tree-climbing summer 1985    in Iowa. In Missoula, we had record heat all of July, with only one day in five weeks with a high temperature below 90 degrees. My parents, with the shade of their big backyard tree gone after the derecho, had to run the air conditioner more. In our weekly phone calls, I reported to my mother that I’d only been able to exercise outside when our air quality index went down to Moderate, and she’d tell me that she didn’t go for a walk in their Iowa neighborhood that day because the smoke was there, too. I’d read the news and find out that smoke from western wildfires was blowing all the way to New York, and it was visible from space. Our trees from the West are traveling now, blasted into bits by fire, turning into ash, and blowing all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

A few months after I cut our back fence in half to accommodate the sprawling jack pine tree, I realized my error in judgment. The tree, given a few inches of leeway, had taken several feet, and was back to pushing on the remaining fence, bending it into the alley. Every time I took the trash out I looked at it, and realized its upper branches had grown into the alley, to the point where the garbage truck would probably soon start running into it as it passed on Monday mornings. Begrudgingly, and feeling like a complete traitor, I took a saw and cut down branches, destroying a third of the tree. For several weeks, it bled sap where I’d cut it, a visceral reminder of my betrayal. I couldn’t do anything but water it and hope it survived.

My wife, Hilary, and I talked about trees, and how even if you could afford to buy a brand-new house somewhere, you couldn’t just buy and plant mature trees around it. I don’t know who planted the maple trees in our yard, or how big they got before that person or family moved out of the house, or died, or whatever. I am just grateful that they planted trees, maybe not entirely for themselves, but also for future people who might live in the house long after they were gone, people they would never know. Us.

So Hilary and I bought and planted a pine tree in the back yard. Like my dad, I don’t know if I’ll still live here when it gets big enough to provide a significant amount of shade. I’m still not a plant guy, but lately, I am starting to be a guy who appreciates a good, mature tree when he sees one.

Trees papercut by Anna Brones

In the late 1980s, right around the time I was climbing trees all summer in Iowa, R.E.M. recorded a song called “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” and Billy Joel recorded “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Both are songs with rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness lyrics name-checking events and historical figures, capturing the frantic anxiety of the speeding up of the news cycle and the creeping dread of the then-four-decades-long Cold War. Both songs used to give me a specific feeling, that the world moved fast, and was going to move even faster, not necessarily in a good direction, and all we could do was try to keep up. I haven’t pressed play on either one of those songs in a long, long time, because I get that feeling nowadays every time I check news feeds or social media on my phone or laptop. It’s been a challenging time to hang onto hope, let alone make art, or feel justified in dreaming about something like going on a bike tour or skiing.

Plenty of days, when daily life has to include considerations of wildfire smoke, record heat, a pandemic, a drought, and continued violence, I have to remind myself that people have gone through hard shit before, and in other parts of the world, people are going through hard shit that’s different than mine, and likely way harder. That the flu pandemic happened during a five-year world war. I read Man’s Search for Meaning and other holocaust books, and imagine what it must have been like to survive Auschwitz, not knowing how long it would go on for, months or years, knowing that any day a Nazi soldier could take your life on a whim, and even if you survived the camp, Nazis might rule the world. I know you’re not supposed to minimize your problems by comparing them to someone else’s, but some days, remembering that perspective helps me a little bit.

I used to wonder how people could have kids at a time like this, and then I would wonder how long people had been saying things like “how could people have kids at a time like this?” It seems like society, essentially, has always been Going Through Some Shit. Maybe in the past, when news traveled at a much slower pace, it was easier to blissfully forget about everything for a while and focus on what was right in front of you. For a couple years, I had my favorite forest near town, where I didn’t get a cell signal, and my dog, who slowed my pace, and lowered my blood pressure when I watched his tail wag, nose shoved into a bush, sniffing hard. When we lost Rowlf, it took a few weeks for me to go back to my favorite forest without him, and even longer to not be sad as I walked the paths there. But it still beat the shit out of scrolling through Twitter.

When Hilary started talking about maybe having a child, or at least “trying,” as people say, and seeing what would happen, sort of putting it in the hands of the universe, or biology, or whatever, I had lots of thoughts about it: How it would change my daily life, how I would manage to balance being a dad along with everything else I was doing, how I could mess it up pretty much every hour of every day for the rest of my life, the fact that I didn’t exactly gravitate toward kids, or ever even really try to hold babies. It was the boldest thing I could imagine doing, and I felt underqualified for the job, and maybe unjustified in applying for it. But if I turned off the worrying part of my brain, the ideas of assembling a library of kids’ books, introducing a tiny person to the music I love, and walking around in the woods at less than a mile per hour with a dawdling kid sounded like a kind of fun I didn’t necessarily want to miss out on.

Lately I had been feeling like I might be starting the descent of the U-curve many people experience in their 40s, whether that was from two-plus years of a pandemic, midlife, a feeling of “is this all there is?” or something else. I wondered if my parents, in the late ’70s, had worried about having kids at A Time Like This. I wondered if after you have a child, you just wring your hands about it less because you’re too busy trying to keep a kid alive—or maybe you become less pessimistic about the future, because you have some not-so-metaphorical skin in the game, and you have no choice but to hope for the best. The kid has no choice about coming into the world, after all. I wonder how in, say, 2045, a hypothetical child of mine and Hilary’s would feel about our decision to create them. What would the forests look like when the kid was my age? Would there be any trees left? Or was I thinking about it the wrong way, and the kid would be a metaphorical tree we planted, in hopes that it would make the world a little bit better?

When I emailed my friend Devin that Hilary and I were expecting a baby boy in mid-2022, he replied with enthusiastic congratulations, and wrote, “I think having a child is the most optimistic thing a person can do—at least it was for me.”

Thirty-some years later, all of my tree climbing memories from that summer in Red Oak are limited to a couple flashes of visuals—a pattern of branches, looking down at the ground from high up in the canopy, my grandpa’s rough rope wrapped around a limb. All except that afternoon my dad walked into the house, leaving me to figure it out on my own. I’ve long been aware of the obvious metaphor about parenting in this memory. I’m also aware of the fact that my dad knew all of our neighbors, and he probably knew which neighbors had a tall ladder that he could have walked over and borrowed to get me out of the tree. But the lasagna was a few minutes from coming out of the oven, and he probably looked at the distance between me and the ground and figured I had a pretty low chance of getting injured.

I don’t remember how I landed—tuck and roll, or on my feet and then staggering a few running steps before sliding to a stop, or like a cat. But after my dad walked into the house, I took another minute or two, or five, and I jumped, limbs flailing, hoping for the best.

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