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Why every writer needs a tree

Mine is just outside my window. Without it, I’d be forced to stare into a blank computer screen instead.

Sparrows perch on a willow in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Kham/Reuters/File
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  • Murr Brewster

The most important tree in my garden is dying and needs to be swapped out for a new one. And I know exactly what I want. I want a tree that will grow to 25 feet overnight and then stop. Also, there should be birds in it.

It can’t get any taller because otherwise it will shade our solar panels. It has to grow fast so I can look into it from my writing room on the second floor. That’s what makes it important. If there were no birds directly outside my writing room window, I would be forced to stare at a blank computer screen, and that is not restful.

It might sound fancy to have one’s own writing room, but it’s not. All you need is a small guest room and no friends. Plop in a word processor and you’re good to go. But there must be birds.

There’s always something going on. There’s breeding season. There’s the annual molt, during which even the crows are disheveled and pencil-necked. There’s the constant patrol work of the hummingbirds, each one enforcing a no-fly zone over the nectar. Finches, jays, and bushtits round out the usual clientele, and warblers and tanagers pop in for cameos.

After spending five years looking out the window of my writing room, I can report that new chickadee manufacture takes about three months from when the grass bassinet is moved into the birdhouse to when the fuzzy finished products roll off the line – easily enough time to jot down notes for a novel. 

The parent birds look ratty by the time the kids have fledged, but a few months later they’re all turned out in fresh feathers. By then a tentative plot outline has begun to emerge. Heading into autumn, which is the very best season to work up preliminary character sketches, it’s hard not to notice that even more of the tree is now dead, and the development of the story arc is put on hold while I ponder the possibility of starting a new tree a foot away from the old tree.

By Christmas, that idea has been scrapped, along with an oversufficiency of adverbs and a plot point that could be described as derivative. 

But a downy woodpecker has set up shop in the old tree, and the chickadees and nuthatches are working over the bark something fierce. They’ve been wedging sunflower seeds into the crevices in the bark for months, and I briefly envision the entire tree bristling with sunflowers – the subject of a short, ironic essay at most, or possibly a poem – but the birds retrieve them all, one by one, through the course of the winter. It seems likely the nuthatches raid the chickadees’ cache and vice versa; everybody looks kind of smug.

The new year brings a golden-crowned sparrow and a boffo opening line, the line that will surely draw in readers and set up the whole novel. Both are admirable while they last and both are gone by the time new growth appears in the tree. There are still a few viable branches; leaves bunch like cowlicks at their tips. The rest of the tree is a working bug factory and, for now, the birds are enthusiastic. I don’t know. I can’t bear to take it down.

Maybe it just needs a light edit.

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