By Susan L'Heureux
Ohio — 2005
There is an enormous oak tree outside my bedroom window whose branches spread up and out over my neighbor’s house and mine. The tree’s roots stretch out under our backyards and are threatening to uproot his garage. The spring he moved in, my neighbor had some tree people come out to give him an estimate for cutting it down. It’s on his property and some of its branches were becoming a real danger to my roof. One of its substantial branches could, after all, crash through my attic in a storm or could bean any of us sometime when we are outside. I guess he is afraid of the liability, though it’s never bothered me. I love that tree. When he learned it would cost him five thousand dollars or more to cut it down, he gave up the idea. He simply had them prune some of its more obviously problematical branches and now it stands there still in all its ancient glory.
I cannot imagine my house in Dayton without the oak, so I rejoice in Patrick’s inability to raise the cash to chop it down. First thing in the morning, I open my blinds and it is there. In winter it is like chicken scratches against the winter sky. In spring, soft fragile buds emerge. And a full-blown cloak shades us in summer. It’s so grand it lends distinction to our little cottage, reminding me that I live in a home that’s 90 years old next to a tree far older than that. My house was built when trees were not bulldozed to make room for construction. I have placed our bed so I see it as I drop off for my afternoon nap. The tree soothes and connects me to the world and to myself and I relax fully under its sturdy, intricate presence.
Much of the time I’m unaware of it, but it is very good at making itself felt. There are always branches to pick up in the spring or anytime it’s been windy. Its soft, pollinating buds cause me weeks and sometimes months of a stuffy nose and runny eyes. The pollen sifts down over our deck and yard in the spring and for weeks they are coated with brown, crumbly stuff that needs to be swept from the floors inside the house and the driveway and walks outside. It’s impossible to grow a nice, carpet of grass out back because its roots poke up everywhere making the back yard lumpy and uneven. And all of this is nothing compared to the major removal task we have in the autumn. The oak is always the last to let go of its leaves and after we have cleared all the leaves from the front and sides of our small home, it still drops more sometimes as late as after the first snow.
And yet I would rise up in fury to protect this tree and use all my powers of persuasion should my neighbor ever find the money to take it down. There’s something here about attachment and work, love and commitment, a thread that twists its way through so much of my life.
Colorado — 2009
In the summer we live in the middle of an aspen grove in Colorado, 10,000 feet up, across from the Indian Peaks wilderness. Aspens, white and sinuous in the afternoon sun, twist with the least pressure of air. Their gold and gray leaves like the tiny flags of a fairy nation, catch the light and throw it back bringing the whole mountain to fluttery life under a shifting pattern of sun and clouds. These trees with their silver boughs, and their glistening, waving leaves add grace and fragility to our otherwise rugged mountain clearing.
Every summer when we arrive the clearing is a mess. Our pine trees sitting in a winter wind tunnel grow short branches on one side. Near them lie mature dead aspens, their whitened, gray trunks and lifeless branches stretched out like ghostly carcasses. This disturbs my sense of order. In between hiking, carrying water up from the spring and preparing meals, reading and taking naps, I spend many hours of my first few weeks here hauling them away. Most are easy to uproot and brittle to snap into manageable loads. Lightweight, I can drag them to the edge of the ridge and toss them over. My husband, Conrad, laughs at what he calls my tidying up the forest. I’m pretty sure he’s only teasing. But for me there’s this equation in my head between love and work that I get to act out here every summer.
Sometimes in the morning, I carry my up of coffee and a folding chair up the hill behind our cabin to sit on a quartz outcropping and watch the sun come up in the east. Gradually it lightens the valleys and foothills that stretch north towards Estes Park. The aspens are glorious as the first light reaches them. I marvel that they can survive even one winter on this ridge where winds can reach ninety miles an hour. Yet, when I look out over the valleys, I see thousands of them stirring on slender stalks, bending and swaying in the spaces between the peaks, surrounding the lakes and dancing up to the tree line. It is not that they are indestructible. It’s that they are prolific.
Most afternoons when we return from hiking, I climb the ladder to our loft room, open the wide window facing west into the mountains and I drift for several hours among the aspens and the scent of pines and the vision of snow tipped peaks on the horizon. Nowhere else in my life do I experience such stillness, unnerving when I first arrive each summer but, after a week or two, lifesaving.
California — 2016
We live at the edge of a golf course where we are encircled by trees that mark the boundary between the clubhouse fairway and the putting green below our windows. I have loved this apartment from the first moment I laid eyes on it. The natural beauty always in sight has been a daily, no, an hourly pleasure for me.
Some days the fierce, red light of morning rises through the branches of the pine trees to the east outlining their sharp needles, projecting energy and strength. Morning breaks like the first morning and sun floods my room. Other days, fog or mist cloak the dripping trees, mysterious and ghostlike, inviting quiet meditation and slow beginnings.
As I sit here writing, I find myself humming, “…from the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters,” and I know this land was made for me. I never imagined I would retire to California. Though I should have known that when our daughter, Suzie, started fantasizing many years ago about how wonderful it would be if we could live near them, it was very likely to happen. The call to be with her and her family has been strong. As has been my sister Barbara’s need for me as she began to travel into and finally lost herself in Alzheimer’s.
Now we live beside a glorious coastal redwood that stretches and grows outside all of our south facing windows. I remember how often Barbara noticed it whenever she came for dinner. She would say the tree was getting bigger all the time, a point of conversation for her, an attempt at small talk required somewhere in the recesses of her failed memory by the ritual of sharing a meal with us. I would nod and agree with her though I discounted what she said in my head. How could she possibly remember its size from week to week? How could she, who couldn’t even remember the end of her sentences, know that the tree was growing? What miracle of observation was still alive in her?
After a year of being confined to the house for days on end and living with the tree, total observation, near dependence, I know for certain that it is growing all the time. The needles it loses are its older ones and the light green fingers it raises towards the sun in the summer swell its bulk and widen its girth. Semper Viridis — always green.
I have been absorbing this redwood with my eyes and heart for only eleven years, though it has been here for 500 to 2,000 years before I arrived. Its branches are home to the humming birds which hover like tiny helicopters above my porch railing, to crows who charge squawking through its branches, to squirrels racing up and down its trunk, and to the larvae of small insects infesting its bark. It cycles carbon, nutrients, and water in the small forest outside my window supporting the life in and around it as it now supports me.
The October night comes early, mild and soft. There’s the faintest touch of humidity in the air. It’s almost like a midwestern fall. I hear the cricket streaming sounds of the night, take in the faintest shadow of my tree, breathe deep, and relax.
And then, there is this other thing going on, about life, energy, and oneness with all of it. Carl Sagan says, “This oak tree and me we’re made of the same stuff.” I say, “This redwood and me we’re made of the same stuff.” Energy, strength, and the power of life flow through me, sustain me, and make me whole, just as they do through its sturdy trunk and delicate branches.
This year has been difficult in the extreme, yet every morning when Conrad opens the blinds, I catch my breath as I take in once again the what lies just beyond my window. My heart releases, opens, and knows without words how lucky I am.
The subject of needing to leave this apartment has come up now and then throughout the year. The only rooms I have access to are my bedroom, the living room and kitchen area. I have no way of getting into our bathrooms or our second bedroom. But how can I ever leave this place which enables me to live in a park full of trees and which uplifts my spirit from the beginning of the morning through the day and into the evening?
Back in 2012, Allison, my gestalt teacher, came to visit me. I had undergone some kind of statin attack on the muscles of the upper half of my body and been largely housebound for months. She brought with her flowers and youthful energy, friendship and intuition. We sat and talked about what was going on with me. Then we began a sensory awareness meditation. In the sharing which followed, my redwood loomed large. Allison suggested entering it to explore what it might tell me. I was able to walk then so we opened the doors to the porch and stood in front of it. I noticed that my tree was swaying and bending, moving back-and-forth, back-and-forth. The wind was coming up from the Bay pretty strong that day. It was so tall and so strong, and yet so flexible, it seemed to be dancing with the wind. Pretty soon we were dancing, too, doing the hula feeling silly and happy. And I was filled with the most delicious feelings of power and joy. I felt strong enough to get through what was happening in my body, flexible enough to accept and move with whatever was possible. I’ve been dancing with it ever since.
There has been plenty of caring and maintenance to manage these past eleven years living as we have near our daughter, two small children, and a sister who has Alzheimer’s disease. But, unlike the other trees in my life, this glorious redwood growing outside my window requires nothing of me but admiration and pleasure in its being. I give it gladly and rest in its presence. It has my unconditional love and appreciation, unhampered by the need to do anything for it. It’s the perfect tree for this stage of my life.