The trouble with some trees

Quite frequently, the more beautiful the tree, the more trouble it entails. In my parents' small Pennsylvania town, main streeters chopped down the magnificent horse chestnuts because they made ''dirt'' - in other words, one needed to sweep up the blossoms and rake up the leaves. And not a thought was given to the beauty of those blossoms, or the nuggets of highly burnished fruit, shiny as if polish had been applied, that spring out of the spiky burrs.

When I was a child, visiting that town at horse chestnut time, I'd be up early and down the brick sidewalks and brick streets (now, alas, covered with concrete) searching for the shapeliest and darkest nuts, some almost mahogany in color. The eye in the chestnut's center gives it a numinous quality, such as might be ascribed to a whorled aggie, or the eye in the pyramid in the dollar bill. I still pocket them on Pennsylvania visits; there is something comfortable about a chestnut in the hand. Tactically it is pleasant, like the worry beads the Turks constantly fret, or an elongated acorn which I picked up years ago on the Pincian Hill and which, in a dish with four found marbles, a satin-smooth worry stone from an Indian ruin, and two chunks of black obsidian, I still lift out and finger, as if by its touch I could be back on that Roman hill on a bright December day.

The catalpas of the west, which rival the horse chestnuts for a fine show of blossoms, have no such pocketable fruit. Outside my studio window I can see one of the two that tower in front of my adobe, bearing among the blossoms and enormous heart-shaped leaves some dried bean pods from last autumn, like long parentheses or scimitars bent nearly straight. The word catalpa comes from the Creek Indian word katuhlpa, which makes me wonder whether the trees found their way abroad in the early days, for someone on Mykonos told me how during the war, when food was scarce in the islands, the catalpa beans were pounded to make a kind of flour. Certainly, the catalpas seem at home in our desert climate, like that of the Greek islands. Here, in June, every street in the less posh parts of town has its rows of catalpas, loaded with white blossoms like showers of small white orchids. My two are part of an original line of eight, the larger one a tu y yo tree (in Spanish, you and I), so called because the trunk divides to create a twin. Standing beneath it, looking up some fifty or sixty feet through double tiers of black branches and white flowers, one feels in some fragrant Eastern temple, for the tree's architecture creates a space that is habitable for the eye.

Oh yes, there is work, too, with a catalpa - hours of sweeping up crumpled blossoms, and the leaves that dry to cardboard; and the danger of being swatted by a low-hanging bean pod, which may run a good twelve to fifteen inches in length. But it's all very much worth it. I look back in my journal to another June and find this unpolished entry:

''A catalpa is imposing simply with its leaves, or stripped down to design of branch and trunk. With the flowers, it takes on the fabled dimensions of a dream. The blooms make it more enormous. As I walk down the street, there it looms like an iceberg made diaphanous from its transition from winter to summer. It borders on unbelief. I stand beneath and look up - branch after branch, cluster upon creamy cluster, infinite, a vista of mirrors. Like a saint's day, it is a special celebration in a particular season.''

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