'A tree is a tree'

One of the many things my maternal grandparents wrangled over during five decades of mainly blissful but occasionally tempestuous matrimony was the importance of trees. The subject always came up, at least obliquely, in the course of their annual debate over where to spend the precious few weeks of summer vacation. Green's Hotel in New Jersey was their usual retreat, but Papa Henry was constantly picking up tips from his language students or real estate clients about some secret spot known only to the cognoscenti, where the greenery unfolded in spectacular waves reaching to the heavens. Grandma Teresa, a born skeptic (and a friend since girlhood of Mrs. Green), would sniff her disbelief. Before disappearing into the kitchen she would turn and pause weightily in the doorway. There, with the authority of a bernhardt (and no apology to Gertrude Stein), she would deliver her crushing curtain line: "A tree is a tree."

Not to Papa Henry. That Gentle devotee of Goethe, Heine, and Schiller (he translated them night and day, to offset the rigors of supporting an enormous family) regarded trees with a reverence positively Kilmeresque. For him they were emissaries of the Deity; their soaring limbs and sheltering boughs were a graceful embodiment of the Talmudic mysteries he cherished.

On the whole, while recognizing the egalitarian virtues of Teresa's position, I tend to come down on Grandfather's side. Over the years I have found trees a major source of pleasure, tranquillity, and -- what looms larger with the passage of time -- renewal.

Even in so-called "semiretirement" (what writer ever really retires?) I encounter vexatious moments when plans fall through, pressures pile up, friends are called away.I suspect there is a human tendency, when confronted by such shifts of mood or fortune, to develop one's private reservoir of antidotes. Some will turn to television, others to shuffling plastic disks across a board; many will seek deeper reinforcement on the spiritual plane. But one man's backgammon is another man's boredom, and spiritual communion is not confined to houses of worship.

For myself, where a quick lift is concerned, my vehicle of first resort is music -- listening to it or making it. My record collection range from Woodstock to Wozzeckm ; I can dip into Beethoven or Broadway show tunes, a Rampal flute solo or Paul Robeson's booming rendition of Ballad for Americansm . Or I may go to the keyboard and ramble through a melange of Chopin, Bartok, and Gershwin.

My second major standby is books. The mere presence of old volumes that have trailed me around since college days -- Steinbeck, de Tocqueville, Whitehead, Millay -- is reassuring. On tap for diversion or consultation and Perelman and Wodehouse, Margaret Mead and Montaigne. And as a bedrock resource I have the Bible and the Psalms.

And the there is the release of stretching: a brisk swim, a bike ride, a few games of table tennis. But for a really penetrating experience that not only enlivens the body but refreshes the spirit and puts mundane matters in proper perspective, there's nothing in my catalog to match a solitary morning walk. And that's where the trees come in.

Like a painter with his sketch pad and portable Easel, I rarely venture on these jaunts without pad and ball point pen. No matter how somber my mood at the outset, I know from past observation that something along the way is likely to trigger a response that will lift me out of myself, stir me to creativity.

From my seaside apartment I have a choice among three routes. The closest is the arbored path winding inland to a bird refuge. The perpetual autumn tang of eucalyptus rises from the leaves strewn on the ground, showers down from airy branches obscuring the sky, curls up from ancient roots splintering the pavement. From the bird pond itself I look northward across the water to the velvet drapery, soft and restful to the eye, of the Santa Ynez foothills: great stands of cedar, live oak, and dense Monterey cypress.

If I choose instead to follow the coast, toward the west, Mexican fan palms play host, tall and lissome as a Balanchine ballet line. Here the reward is in the close-up view: jagged scales encircling slender trunks, thatchlike central sections topped by glorious pinwheel crowns.

I have one other option, perhaps the best: to walk the beach eastward. Quite suddently I am in the shadow of towering cliffs that overlook a secluded cove. Waves wash quietly over sentinel stones at the water's edge. I inhale the silence of centuries and the aura of trees: a fallen trunk, bleached naked on the sand, another split by a lightning streak. High above is the piece de resistancem : a twisting column of dark green Monterey pines and cypresses, some standing at the very brink of the precipice. Wrenched by wind and weather, slanted by sun and shade, they present a myriad of dazzling shapes, a curtain of cool greenery against the hot subtropical sky. At 6:30 of a December morning, with the sun still dim behind the giant pines fringing the cliff, a lone, distant runner imparts to the shadowed beach the chilled, eerie quality of a Dali landscape. In other seasons the ambiance of the cove is more hospitable. But always it is complete, eternal.

Gazing upward at the rugged pines, I am reminded of Papa Henry and his Hasidic delight in nature, his insistence that God dwells in every leaf and sunbeam. Yes, Grandma Teresa, a tree is a tree. For which, as Papa Henry would add, let us be grateful to the Lord.

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