When you move into a pine forest, occasionally you won't see the trees for the trees. In the remnant of old woods where we spend our summers, this happens now and then. It's in the spring, mainly, when the lower trees – the maples, sassafras, water oaks, and sweet gum – are rushing against some secret deadline to push out their leaves, and, in that glacial way of theirs, stretching themselves a few inches up closer to the sky. During the distraction of this refulgent display, it is easy to forget the forest that was here first, the forest above.
Our house is made of wood – cypress, mostly – and framed entirely with genuine two-by-fours: studs actually two inches thick by four inches wide, unlike those sold these days, which don't reach those dimensions. It's all wood – floors, walls, roof – without a piece of sheetrock in it.
It is a house of modern design maturing into its 40s. It goes back to that brief period in America some decades past when architects, some at least, sought a future beyond dormers, conventionally pitched roofs – what I call the "Cape Cod Imperative" – and other traditional styles of dwellings.
It is spare in design and full of windows, most of which follow the rising line of the roof. These windows, all trapezoidal in shape, drink deeply of the sunlight.
When you look up, you see the columns of the pines, spare of superfluous branches for the most part, as they spread their crowns like dark green clouds against the sky. They and the lower trees form the seasonal canopy that keeps this house cool in the summer.
We have only a half acre, but I can count 20 grandfather pines around the place, and others of similar magnitude on the neighbors' lots. It's an aging cohort: Old aerial photographs reveal the presence of these pines near the ocean long before people started coming here to live year-round, not just for the summer, as we do.
There are those who look unkindly on the pines: They don't care for the shadow these giants impose. They chop them down to make room for their cars. They accuse these trees of mortifying their deciduous cousins by literally overshadowing them, taking the sunlight all to themselves. They don't like the dusty pollen the pines exude for a few weeks of the year, tinting every nearby object bright yellow, even though it washes away with one rainfall. Sometimes these people even seem to fear them.
"Imagine if one of these trees fell on your house," said a visitor one day, his head awkwardly tilted upward, his face screwed up like a man facing into a strong wind.
"I'd rather not make such comments within their range of hearing," I replied, trying to lighten the moment, thinking all the while of the bad taste of my neighbor's remark.
In truth, it has occurred to me, usually when the big trees are in the grip of a high wind off the sea – or during those uncomfortable hours when we are brushed by a hurricane. The first time I experienced that, I was standing by the kitchen counter looking up through the north-facing windows and saw three of the truly old ones swaying so far off the vertical that the possibility was brought home to me they might be in trouble.
But they weren't.
One of these pines rises about a foot from the projecting roof of the house, and when it gets to swaying, I become attentive. Then I look for reassurance: How many tropical storms has it survived? How many fierce nor'easters?
It's been growing there for maybe three-quarters of a century – long before the house was planted near it, so why should it decide to chuck it in now? And if it did, well, of the 360 degrees of space that surrounds this tree, why should it decide to come down on that part of the ground occupied by our house?
Actually, the old pines usually provide me more comfort than the opposite: They recall that brief period when, as a child, I decided to become a recluse.
I was about 5 years old when I discovered the value of personal privacy, which I sought every day under my mother's dining room table. It was a large space for someone my size, a secret place within the milky translucence of the overhanging tablecloth.
So why should those pines recall this experience so far away and long ago on a narrow, treeless street in west Philadelphia? Because of the legs. The legs of all the big people in the house – my father, my brothers, and my uncle Charlie before he went off to win the war in France, when he stood by the table talking to my mother, his sister. From my hideaway, all I saw were his combat boots facing her open-toed shoes, and their legs rising like trees in an Amazonian forest.
A forest of friendly legs.
Recently when I was driving back to the city after a weekend at the shore, I came up behind a car with a bumper sticker that read, "Tree Hugging Dirt Lover." Is that me?