A life embraced by evergreens

From childhood winters to Indiana summers, I’ve found solace in pines.

For as far back as I can remember, I have had a deep affinity for evergreens – the stalwart sentinels of my childhood in upstate New York and the only green things visible across those long, deep winters. Hemlocks and Austrian pines were prolific in the city park by my grandparents’ home in Rochester, and I have never felt safer or more at home anywhere than I do among them – old and giant living things that my father and grandfather, aunts and uncles knew with the intimacy of daily views out the window and of walks to school and back beneath them. I would also come to know them, playing and reading in the shady groves, admiring and even revering some individually. 

Sunday drives with my family south of town left the scent of fir and hemlock forever associated in my mind with the clean shores of the glacially sculpted Finger Lakes. And those childhood vacations in the Adirondacks and on Cape Cod? More inclination added to my lifelong leaning toward evergreens.

When I married and moved to Bloomington, Ind., with my geologist husband, I passionately lobbied for a small bungalow a few blocks north of the university. We could well afford it as a starter home, and, more important, an enormous hemlock (rare this far south) graced the side yard. Nothing grew beneath the tree, though gardens flourished in neighboring yards. No matter – I loved that hemlock, down to its broad blanket of needles, and so did Kiska, the husky that a colleague left in our care one hot summer. Often uncomfortable during such weather in her thick fur coat, she’d plunge into a large tin basin of water we placed under the tree, settle in, and zone out. We left the yard to its ample shade and bought our vegetables from neighborhood grocery stores and the farmers market.

And each summer we’d head to the rock outcrops in the deep forests of hemlock and fir along the Connecticut River Valley to map some geology. I’d sit happily among the needles with our dog and a notepad and record the readings that Rob, wielding his Brunton compass, called down from some knob of outcropping gneiss.

Back in Indiana we eventually upgraded to a larger home south of campus. It was still a bungalow, but it had two floors, and it captivated me even without evergreens. Still, feeling the loss of the hemlock outside my window, I lost no time in planting two white pines in the little side yard, each just two feet high, financed by my father as a housewarming gift. To say they tower over the neighborhood today is a testament to Midwestern soil and time – some three decades of it – amid myriad personal changes, including a divorce. Every time I walk or drive by the house that I no longer share I still celebrate those majestic trees.

A dairy farm just north of town was my home for the next 25 years. I relished the beautiful thick stand of cedars east of the milking barn – the perfect place to camp out with my young son and the cows’ favorite outdoor bivouac.                                     

But the farm has also passed as a primary home base as a new generation moves in, new cows, new grazing rotation systems, and all.

The British poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) seems to have shared my penchant for evergreens. During one of his own life’s upheavals he penned “Pine-Trees and the Sky: Evening,” four lines of which I have always treasured during my own transitions:

I saw the pines against the white north sky,

Very beautiful, and still, and bending over

Their sharp black heads against a quiet sky.

And there was peace in them....

I first read those lines on a dairy farm in England as a very young and temporarily heartsick woman, and they have stayed with me through thick and thin ever since with their quiet reminder that it is not all about us.

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