Implicitry \im-‘pli-sət-trē\ noun L. 1. the study of the implied lives of trees. 2. the connection, at cellular or unnamed levels, between vegetable and animal entities. 3. involved in the nature of nature. 4. archaic: entwined with trees.
THE PHONE RINGS. An unfamiliar Florida area code; it could be an alligator or a mouse with four-fingered gloves. I set the phone down on the porch step and take up my Blackfeet Indian pencil. The factory has closed down, so I must not squander my fragrant cedar-wood pencil to careless doodling of winged things. I touch pencil to paper in the company of my tree.
A bent old man teeters up the next street and totters down ours. The boys next door have noticed his right-angle bend and say he’s looking for a lost penny.
The old man sees me, stops, considers, and says, Your tree may be the biggest one around here. He means the oldest. It’s a trap. If I respond, he’ll stick there on the sidewalk, sticking me to my porch, keeping me from my pencil and paper.
The silverleaf maple is indigenous to this continent but not this far into the arid west. Also known as river or swamp maple, once found along riparian forests, it is praised as a fast-growing ornamental by the US Department of Agriculture. However, their fact sheet cautions, Its use should be limited as it becomes a liability with age, an assessment familiar to the old man.
Sometimes, he says, sometimes, when I go by here….
I wait for him to finish his sentence.
He waits to see if I am waiting for him. Then he says, I just give her a pat.
He may not be a wise old man, but he’s a sly old man. Before I know it, I am admitting, gushing, oh, yes, I pat the tree all the time; I put my arms around it as far as they’ll reach. (I wouldn’t say hug. My very old man and I will not be accused of dendrolatry.)
There’s nothing remarkable about my tree. It is not the tree of life or the bodhi tree or a James Cameron hometree. Though once an angel got lodged like a ball in my tree’s high branches and hung there all night, its ragged garment rustling with leaves. Daylight made it invisible again and the next night it was gone. My tree is not the axis mundi, it’s just a tree; it’s not botanically special or splendid, it’s just a tree; it is not a desirable girl metamorphosed, it’s just a tree; yet this unremarkable silver maple is among the great loves of my life.
The very old man, I learn while he’s got me pinned to my porch, graduated from college in 1934. He went to work testing the safety of bridges and dams, finally returning to his college town to walk to campus and back, up one avenue and down the next. He tells me how he and his friends walked this way to go to the store to get something to eat. He can almost recall hunger, almost recollect desire. I wonder what he would have purchased. Not an apple, which he could snitch from a backyard tree. I wonder, did the Eden story have to turn on a theft of fruit, on a private property violation?
Where was the store? I ask.
It puzzles him.
My tree and I can see the corner store from here, which was converted long ago to a house architecturally between shotgun and cracker box. Maybe the old man, then a hungry young man, would have groused about discovering a thistle in his can of Peas that Please. The grocer would have told him it was the prize, like a Cracker Jack whistle. My young old man would have purchased a five-pound cotton sack of Bon Ton flour, milled across town near the pea cannery. Maybe a pack of ready-mades; he would have stopped to light one up with the boy candling the eggs. And how big was my tree?
What a comfort to the old man to come upon a tree that had been a substantial being in 1934 still flourishing, still loved, still pattable. If the old man is telling the truth, then he’s a hundred. He must be confused. If he were a hundred, wouldn’t he brag? Wouldn’t he be a news item? We admire sequoias and tortoises, even a front-yard tree that’s older than we are. Humans are among the old ones on the planet, yet we are ephemeral. As Job said, He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down. Or Homer: Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Our animal pulse aligns with vegetable rhythm.
I ask the man how old the tree might be.
He looks hazily skyward. If you ever let anything happen to this tree, I’ll come and, he hesitates, really bawl you out.
I promise vigilance and testify to how I had pulled off tent caterpillars one by one, that poisoned and stained my hands, the year they all came, eating the neighborhood.
He’s not sidetracked by tent caterpillars; he repeats how he would bawl me out.
He asks me how old the tree might be.
Hey, that was my question.
A car pulls up.
That your family? he asks wistfully.
I’d better go before your husband finds me here with you, he says with a phantom smile.
I wonder again, if all the trees in the Garden had been edible, would Eden’s curse have been to keep us alive?
I admit I’m pleased to learn that the Forest Service ranks the silver maple at the top for sequestering carbon. I want to give my tree a gold medal for going after climate change.
One day I see the old man, bent like an overturned L, trying to catch up with the tree. He walks three steps, reaches toward the tree, but does not touch it. In my guilt I run out and pat the tree and say good morning to the man.
FDR had given him his start, planting trees for shelter belts to stop the drought from blowing the earth away, to reforest America after all the George Washingtons, invading the land they thought was new, had chopped down the continent. We talk of copper until I retreat up my porch steps. He turns, turns back, and heads down the street, so bent he might be looking for a penny. If he would happen upon one he’d talk with it, not with the newly minted coin, but the copper from the mines he once inspected, copper older than the trees.
Where was the old man when we needed him, that time in the nineties when the sisters came roaring into town in an ancient Cadillac from the seventies, the color of ashtrays from the sixties, thinking back to the neighborhood in the fifties, when they were in their thirties, pretending their twenties? To claim a loss on their Montana property, the house they were born in, the sisters needed receipts to prove their absentee land-lordly undertakings. Their dad must have planted the linden tree by their house. With no one to bawl them out, the sisters sent for a man and headed back to California with their Chihuahuas.
Their man showed up with a chainsaw and a woman. He trashed the magpie nest and amputated the linden tree into a shamed stick. I didn’t run over and throw my arms about the tree. Their music reverberated against the houses as loud as the scream of their saw against the rigid flesh of the tree. How long did the felling of the linden tree reverberate through the cells of my silverleaf maple? They punctuated their progress mouth-to-mouth, hand up an old sweater, exchanging thighbones, looking like the sound of the saw. The woman caressed the man’s buttons and hauled the carnage to the truck. The man went back for more and severed the tree into stove-length logs. He cupped his hands to the woman’s bottom and lifted her from the earth. They jumped in their truck and pulled away, spewing heart-shaped leaves. What if this couple had been planted in the Garden, knowing they were naked, and had pulled down, not just the fruit, but also the tree?
The neighbors’ cat placed his paws against the slab of stump where the linden tree had been and narrowed his yellow eyes. The neighbors came home, blinked and sat down with the cat to mourn. The next day the tree assassin and his assistant returned to pour chemicals into the stump and heap sawdust. Would my old man have bawled them out? Or me?
Would Linnaeus have bawled them out? Linnaeus arranged the world in binomial order, but lived under the vegetable name of the linden tree. His father had chosen as the family name the species linden, the tree that protected the home. Linnaeus’s name jumps his taxonomical system, breaking down the primary classification to put his family in the same category as the old tree on his father’s farm. Linnaeus’s name weds the kingdoms animalia and vegetabilia (never mind regnum lapideum, the mineral world growing at a stone’s pace). Linnaeus named and divided the world, but by the poetry of naming, he hugs his tree.
My Blackfoot pencil has a melancholic inclination and has taken to listing the loss of trees. I hope the pencil will last through the naming. I can’t list the cedar of this pencil; I have only known this splinter of its carcass. I must not forget to name the weeping birch on the corner, taken out by a drunk driver. Lightning claimed the elm in the next block. New campus buildings replaced a grove of centenarian Douglas fir and bur oak. Up on the tree line whitebark pine can live a thousand years, showing up our brittle-wood, town-bound trees as mere grass. But climate change favors the mountain pine beetle over the twisty whitebark pine or the grizzly that eats its seeds.
One summer starlings invaded. At each day’s descending light, they whirled up into a cloud like the cape of a departing god. My father was among those who call starlings ugly and dirty, though they have an iridescent sheen, beaks that turn yellow when they turn amorous, varied stolen songs, and will even say, Kiss me, sweetheart. My father liked to tell about the man who in 1890 famously released dozens of starlings into Central Park as part of the obsessive, encyclopedic aim that all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare would find a home in the New World. That gesture toward making a book of nature had finally reached our town. A friend said, come and see where they roost. He explained how starlings overpopulate and foul their nests to devastation. We went to a patch of woods the developers had missed, where the cloud of starlings churned and plunged each night to sudden, simultaneous rest. We walked through the woods like walking from a watercolor into a charcoal drawing. Their roosting trees were bare, blackened, and almost glowing with their droppings. The starlings killed the heart of the woods and moved on. I add those ruined evergreens to my list of the departed. Shall I add the sacrificial Christmas trees?
Our tree buckles the sidewalk, chokes the pipes, worries the roof. My granddaughter and I took the tape measure more than twice around; our tree is 128 inches in circumference, astounding to us but nothing remarkable (we read that in Michigan there’s a silver maple with a girth of 347 inches). It collects our sentimentality and is older than anybody going up and down this street. Our tree is the tall guy in the back row in first-day-of-school pictures. Evening grosbeaks fly in for the fluttering samaras; the squirrel comes close to talk about them. In autumn the weather translates silver-backed leaves to soft gold. The tree drops a few leaves, like notes, then its whole library. Several leaves come to rest on the porch railing as though my tree has picked out the best ones for me to admire. I hold my hand against a leaf, palm to palm.
Suppose, as I sit on my step biting my pencil, collectors from another galaxy show up to capture specimens for their cabinets of curiosity. Species divisions would not make sense in the taxonomies of interplanetary investigators. It’s not just that chimpanzees and humans would be collected in the same bottles, it’s that Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae or Noah’s ark would perplex them. These natural historians traveling on their Beagle or Enterprise might consider the tree and me—plant and animal—as one being, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide. They follow Joseph Priestley, who, in the eighteenth century, sealed a sprig of mint, roots and all, into a jar and it died; he put a mouse in a jar and it died; when he placed mint and mouse together in a jar, they survived, and western culture took a breath.
So those intergalactic tourist-scientists, clever as Joseph Priestley, might uproot me and my tree to bell-jar us together. They would bundle symbiotic partners, Clark’s nutcracker with the whitebark pine. The nutcrackers cache pine seeds to retrieve and eat later; seeds they leave behind sprout more whitebark pine. Alien researchers couldn’t leave behind the three pounds of biota that an individual human hosts and expect the human to survive—or to be human. Or, maybe they would treat the humans as vessels, as oblivious pack animals for colonies of bacteria, which they would assess as the primary residents of the planet. Who knows how the galaxy-hoppers would clatter their wings over the riddle: How do you take an example from a planet without taking the whole planet? When they put us like a shell in their cupboard, would they take a few representations or would they display a whole, spinning, blue and white marble? Earthly eighteenth-century collectors were fond of exotic eggs. Perhaps these alien explorers would go home to fill their cupboards with planets like great speckled eggs.
I follow the same miniaturized pilgrimage route of the very old man, up one avenue and down the other. One day I had come upon an outbreak of forest tent caterpillars. They shimmered along the sidewalk like ruffles looking for a dress. I let a charming worm shuffle onto my finger: three sets of legs, two limbless sections, four sets of stubby legs, three more legless segments, a rear set of legs on a bustle. When I invited the caterpillar to return to the tree, it stuck to me like ardent Velcro.
Then there were more. And more. They basked on their silken comforters (not tents).
We pulled them from our clothes, our hair. They rode on the dog. Colonies spread out from their gauzy trampolines. Ahimsa, I said, do no harm, and tried to keep my promise not to injure sticky strings of dangling bugs. They freckled the house; before we could get in we had to pick them off the doorknob. There were not many starlings that year to eat them; most other birds were put off by their spiny glamour. Was I wishing for starlings?
Desperate neighbors called the exterminator, who warned them to keep the animals in the house while he stood bareheaded in shirtsleeves under his shower of poisons. The caterpillars waited a decent ten minutes for the poison to dry and resumed their picnic. A miserable few lay at the roots of the trees. We foolishly belted trees with duct tape, smearing oil on the tape because we had heard it would be too slippery for the worms to pass through. They slogged through the olive oil toward the tender leaves.
They dragged pencil shadows in late afternoon. They festooned and feasted upon a tree until they left behind the veins of leaves like chicken bones. Linnaeus used the term larva to mean mask, as the caterpillars hid what they were to become. Caterpillars spun ghost-gowns for the branches and trunks; earlier the word larva had meant malevolent ghost; they wove ghosts as tall as trees. The caterpillars ran out of their favorite ash trees that had been planted along the boulevards by the city in the late forties, fostering what planners call an urban forest, neighborhood trees held in common.
The variegated pillagers were headed for my old silver maple. I made a deal with them: take my lilacs, leave my tree. They didn’t much like the taste of lilacs. Although I could come back as a starling, I took up killing. The sound of caterpillars devouring leaves was counterpointed by the crunch of caterpillar fatalities under our shoes. The sidewalks and streets were slippery with their green guts.
Despite their beauty, the caterpillars taught my skin to crawl. When they reached my tree I pulled them from the bark and dropped them in a yogurt carton. They rose up and swayed. They were good dancers. I shook the container to keep them from climbing out, thinking I could stop a plague one worm by one. I gave them a non-sequitur funeral: Do not fear, you worm, Jacob, you insect Israel. Their toxins stung my skin and my eyes. Everyone was ashamed of me—not for turning murderous—for turning stupid.
Then one day there were fewer. I thought I was getting them, but the larvae had finished eating and were spinning themselves into tight little packages they glued to the crevices of tree bark and even our windows. I looked up pictures of the small moth I could expect. When the colorful caterpillars metamorphose into moths they look like old sepia prints. Though voracious as larvae, the imago, the full, sexual, winged adult moths have no mouths; they just live for the good times, copulating and egg depositing. Moths appeared, floating folded powdered papers, beating against the glass.
What is nature but change? What elm- and ash-intelligence makes possible a repeated springtime? While I had been murdering caterpillars, the trees were already sending forth another budding, blooming, shedding, all in time for winter. By July the caterpillars were unobtrusive moths; by August the trees had regenerated a full second round of leaves in plenty of time for them to get painted and fall.
The following season I was wary, but just a few tessellated caterpillars appeared in their black-rimmed white tiles, bands of blue and gold, designed for the Alhambra. When I did see the occasional caterpillar it was, once again, beautiful.
There’s a long, contentious argument about whether or not sacred traditions inadvertently contribute to ecological distress. Do stories affect (as well as reflect) culture? Yes, stories and images are forces real and potent as acorns or hurricanes. Do the stories and images that dominate the biblical tradition have a negative impact on what we call nature? Just as with any scriptural dispute, it’s easy to roll the scrolls to fit your position, but the puzzle of nature surreptitiously underlies other theological and symbolic riddles.
My silverleaf maple’s not a goddess banished by Deuteronomic reform; it’s just a tree. Biblical stories and prophecies have been hard on trees—as well as beasts—in two primary ways: they are associated with rivals to the Yahwists, and they bear the sins of the Yahwists. The path to monotheism has involved the clear-cutting of high places. There are grand exceptions, though, where we might not expect them, as in the story of the earth drowned and left to dry. The flood story in Genesis, from its sources in Mesopotamia to its materialization in nursery toys, is both cosmogonic and apocalyptic—it re-creates the earth out of the depiction of its end.
Noah gathered into the ark all the animals as monogamous couples. And then it rained. Sealed up in the ark were the in-laws and the pythons and the darkness; they tossed in the storm until the ark came to rest (Noah means rest) on a mountain peak. After forty days Noah opened a window and sent out a raven. The bird searched the expanse of corpse-saturated waters and went forth to and fro. The Bible is miserly with details, leaving post-biblical gossips to speculate that the quarrelsome bird kept circling the ark in fear that Noah had designs on his raven wife.
Then Noah sent out a dove who came back exhausted, for she found no rest for the sole of her foot. On the second trip the dove brought back an olive leaf. Think of those wives and sons in the dark of the boat, passing around that olive leaf, pressing it to their noses, their foreheads, their breasts. Noah sent the dove a third time. She did not return. Between the raven’s ambiguous flight and the dove’s disappearance is the olive leaf. Between the tree immersed and the tree reaching into the air, is the leaf emerging from the water. After the waters receded Yahweh borrowed Ishtar’s necklace studded with fly-shaped jewels, and in that second-chance cosmogony, hung it as the rainbow promise in the sky. But the tree, unnamed, unnoticed, is not like the rainbow holding back a future deluge, but rather a present-tense joy of the olive leaf in the dove’s beak.
My silver maple tree is a presence of the absence of that implicit tree, rooted and blooming in the face of a dualism that dispels nature, or in biblical terms, the creation. Though the implicit tree of Genesis 8 centers the story, it refutes it too: the tree does not ride in the zoo—the boat; the tree does not escape nature; the tree is inseparable from the earth. The implicit tree invisibly centering the flood story is not like the central tree of Eden. Between the taboo tree of Eden and the instrumental tree of the crucifixion is the deluge tree, unnamed, which, though never seen but for a leaf, bears the same watery suffering that the earth endures.
The man I’ve been hugging for years tells me old jokes, reassuring me that it’s good to hug trees as long as trees don’t hug back. But we could be like Linnaeus and take the name of our tree, move in on the genus and species of sharp and sugary, Acer saccharinum, the silver maple. I try the name with my pencil, sign it as my own. We still use the convenience of the Linnaean system, though the world is more permeable and mutable than he knew, yet implied in the pleasure of his arboreal name.
There’s that Florida number on the phone again. Maybe it’s an invitation. Maybe I’ll go to Florida and read these words. I will have to censor the slight to alligators and gloved mice. It’s good that I’ve crossed out the part about dogs peeing on the tree. I won’t tell what my neighbor told me, about when his wife, long, long ago, was a child in trouble for being unladylike in her little dress and climbing this silver maple. The tree has always been a giant in her life, but there’s no way a five-year-old could scale this tree. I must imagine the tree as small enough for a little girl to reach the first branching yet strong enough to take it. That neighbor loves this tree too, which gives him a glimpse back to the time before he knew the woman, back to the time before the little girl could imagine the woman she’d become, back to the time she was unashamed, climbing the tree. It’s another version of Eden, perhaps as troubled as the story we know so well.
The voice in the phone recites my address and asks me Is that where you live?
Is this a new version of Is your refrigerator running? Maybe it’s the opening line of the script, I know where you live.
I say yes.
The voice on the phone tells me I’m Google-Earthing your house. The porch is changed, he says about a house he’s never seen in person. I feel naked in Florida though I’m blanketed in Montana.
He virtually walks down this avenue and stops before this house, talking sweetly about his grandparents as he sorts chipped and faded photographs.
Is there a big tree? I ask. Impatient with his genealogy, I want to get to my beloved, the silver maple. Do you have a picture of my tree?
No, no tree.
It has to be there, directly in front of the house.
No, no tree.
Where is my tree?
The caller scans old snapshots and forwards them to me. I look for a long time at each one.
The first picture is my caller’s grandfather as a toddler wearing a homemade romper. Who set him in the wagon and pulled him down the walk? Maple or oak, the wooden wagon with spoked wheels and long handle was the after-life of some anonymous tree sliced and assembled as a child’s varnished toy.
A man stands in the front yard of this little 1916 pattern-book bungalow. I must have looked at the picture five times before I noticed his wife, not showing up on camera, but her view of things. She’s the photographer behind the Brownie taking in the man in his wide-ribboned fedora, vertical as a tree.
Two girls in knitted sweaters and caps are pushing their wicker doll buggies, little girls who got old and died, little girls who once swirled through this place.
My favorite picture is the back yard, where a boy in overalls and beanie poses beside a spotted cow tethered as close to the house as a dog. The camera snapped just as the boy’s eyes shut. The cow’s eye is open. It is a picture of things changing; in the distance is a haphazardly parked roadster.
Another picture shows that between me and the park, where dogs have parties every day, had stood a barn for the Holstein and for the Dodge. The park had been set out by the city before the houses that surround it were built; trees were planted for the park before the row of houses with sidewalks out front were in place.
I look again at the photo of the toddler and his wagon. The print looks as old as the boy looks new; that unstable spanning of two points in time is the color of moths.
Behind the ancestor in rompers, in the negligible background, is a spindly sapling. There. It finally comes to me. There. It’s my tree’s baby picture.
I look back at the snapshots of first householders who had no shade. They had set out a seedling and sent forward a tree. I never once had been grateful to these planters, these futurists. How long did it take for that stem, planted and watered and sweet-talked, to spread and preside over this place? So my tree is not older than the old man who passes by. How lonely it is, in this young town, to be an old man. Even the trees are kids.
This tree is a boundary dweller, not just on the borders of public and private, but on the edges of malleable definitions of nature. It receives my admiration like imperceptible gusts of weather, though hugging a tree is as good for us as petting a dog.
In 1880 Darwin published The Power of Movement in Plants, in which he described an acacia tree. The acacia is mythologized in Moses’s burning bush as well as in the tree that grows around the body of Osiris. But Darwin mythologized the acacia—granted it a sacred story—simply by his technique of close observation:
…every one of the innumerable growing shoots is constantly describing small ellipses; as is each petiole, sub-petiole, and leaflet…. If we could look beneath the ground, and our eyes had the power of a microscope, we should see the tip of each rootlet endeavouring to sweep small ellipses or circles, as far as the pressure of the surrounding earth permitted. All this astonishing amount of movement has been going on year after year since the time when, as a seedling, the tree first emerged from the ground.
My tree rushes to springtime before the crocuses, races past other trees in its early growth. It’s a live-fast-die-young sort of tree that may have another thirty or so years, that stands here, looking old, serene and still, but is drawing spirals and ellipses from root to crown with no need for pencil and paper.