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The Trees

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree


A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed

Against the earth's sweet flowing breast


A tree that looks at God all day

And lifts her leafy arms to pray


A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair


Upon whose bosom snow has lain

Who intimately lives with rain


Poems are made by fools like me

But only God can make a tree.


Joyce Kilmer - American Poet  1886 -1918 


I think too much. About everything. It never stops between my ears. It’s always just sort of whirring away in there, like a thought-generating machine. 24/7, 365, year after year after year. My mind often feels like one of those industrial-sized popcorn machines the the larger chain movie theaters employ. But mine’s a broken one that can never be switched to off. My incessant thoughts often resemble the pieces of popcorn belching out of those massive poppers. Spit out, looping, directionless, never-ending. And just like the movie theater popcorn they often pile up in huge messy drifts. And yet the thoughts just keep flying out. Hot. Salty. Scattered. Frenetic.


But it's not all bad. It's just tiring sometimes - for me and the people around me. Just the other day while driving in a car in Florida I was overheard muttering to myself by my long-suffering spouse. “What was that?” he asked me. “It’s just appalling” I repeated. “I mean, what must they be thinking?” “Who are THEY?” he asked. “Them.” I pointed out the windows. “The trees!  They must be in shock. It’s so sad.”


“What?” he asked again, a mild frustration playing around the edges of his voice. “The trees” I repeated.“They must be so sad. I wonder if they talk about it amongst themselves.” At that utterance I knew I had lost him but I continued anyway.


“Look! There!! That's what I’m talking about! Right there!” I almost shouted as I pointed out the window and toward two kids, boys, who were seated on the ground, both leaning their backs against a gorgeously majestic banyan tree. They were heavily involved, nay, lost in their cell phones. They looked stunned, transfixed, hypnotized by whatever it was they were each watching, separately, on their phones. They were together but alone, completely lost in their screens. They slumped there, frozen, glued to God knows what internet nonsense they were looking at, while that gorgeous tree, arms outstretched in supplication, was just (in my mind anyway) praying that those boys would “put those infernal devices away Goddammit and climb me already”.


I felt so sorry for that banyan tree. That gorgeous magical tree, a tree that is considered sacred in many countries and religions, and which is absolutely perfect for climbing, was being ignored. And although the internet will tell you that hardwood trees like oak, sycamore, mature maples and pines might be the very best trees to climb, my money rests firmly on the banyan as the best climbing tree in the world by far. All those smooth roots that grow miraculously down from the tree branches and into the soil below are strong and robust, making excellent handholds and footholds. The nooks and crannies where the branches meet are curved and spacious, perfect for curling up in with a book or simply as a comfy spot to rest high above the ground. A peaceful place to stare into the leafy canopy above and daydream. But does anyone daydream anymore? Have cell phones effectively destroyed everyone's ability to simply sit still, lost in thought? Is daydreaming yet another fine art lost in the empty void and wasted time of the internet? As the art of tree-climbing is fast becoming?


I imagined the trees' pain at having those boys so close and yet…why weren't they climbing? What in the world could be more interesting for those two young boys than that tree they were leaning against. Did they have any idea that this was the perfect climbing tree? With strong yet supple branches reaching out in a green leafy diameter of at least 100 feet? It made me sad. I found so much joy tree-climbing as a child. The trees for me were a safe space, a quiet space, a refuge. In fact, a chorus of my childhood soundtrack was “That’s too high. Get down!” Usually from some concerned neighbor when I would dare myself to climb higher than anyone else, boy or girl, it didn't matter. 


I only had one bad tree-climbing experience in my life, that day when Maggie Fenton came over to my house when we were both in 4th grade. “Let’s play squirrels” she said and started to run furiously around my backyard collecting acorns. “Fill your pockets!” she shouted, “we need to prepare for winter!” And so I did. Once our pockets were full we scampered up my favorite pine tree (which abutted a small and seldom traveled street). All the way to the top we climbed, where if a strong breeze blew you would be thrillingly tossed to and fro in the more flexible yet weaker upper branches. “What now?” I asked Maggie. “Now we wait” she said. After about five minutes, a car drove by and Maggie simply unloaded. She just started hurling, with all her 9 year old might, the acorns in her pockets at the unsuspecting driver below. I was horrified, terrified actually. The acorns, sounding like rocks, pinged all over the car and off its roof and windshield. We were about 25 feet in the air so they had some time to gather speed and ferocity on the way down. This was naughty at a level I had never before encountered. The car immediately slammed on its brakes and a man opened the driver's door. “Run!” Maggie screamed, and so we did. We slid right down the tree like the squirrels we were still pretending to be, and ran to my back porch and sat there, acting for all the world to see as if we were absorbed in a board game that we had left sitting there before we had started playing Maggie's terrible game. 


The man approached us, furious, and shouted “were you kids throwing acorns at my car?” I was so scared that I was speechless. But Maggie came to the rescue. “What? Acorns? No! we would never do that” she said with her big blue eyes shining bright, and with so much sweet and childlike innocence in her voice that I almost believed her myself. But the man continued. “I know it was you" he screamed, looming over us and appearing to be at least eight feet tall. "And I’m telling you both here and now that throwing acorns at cars is a stupid and dangerous thing to do. So don’t do it!” “We won’t ever do it again” I said, tears welling in my eyes and falling down my cheeks once I blinked, as Maggie gave me a furious look. And I never did. But even that terrifying experience did not dissuade me from tree-climbing…although after what I now refer to as “squirrel-gate” my friendship with Maggie was effectively over. 


But back to the banyan in Florida. I imagine the tree calling out to its other friends in the park, alarmed and quite sad. “Hey, Buddy” I imagine the call going out. “When is the last time a kid climbed your branches?” And as the call goes out to the other banyan trees in the vicinity and then gradually to every other tree all around the world the trees confer and realize that it has been weeks, actually months, honestly years since any of them have been properly climbed. And that's such a loss for the trees (as I imagine they adore being climbed) but even more so for the children who will never learn to climb them. 


“That’s a tragedy” I said a few minutes later into the car's silence to which my husband replied “Ah. The trees again? They're sad because no one climbs them? And you're sad for the trees because they are sad? Is that today's tragedy?” And at that I had to laugh. Because although it does make me sad that kids are not climbing trees today, I am so grateful that I grew up in a time where there were no phones to distract me from climbing trees. No internet to distract me from daydreaming. No technology to keep me from spending hours simply sitting high in a tree, enjoying the view, and telling stories to myself. I had to keep myself entertained in those years and so I found ways to do that, tree-climbing and drawing and reading being the three activities that took up most of my hours in those early elementary school years. 


Because I have a hard time turning my mind off I simply couldn’t stop thinking about the trees not being climbed and about how that might make the trees feel (abandoned I imagine). And what about those gorgeous fresh impressionable minds being corrupted and distracted and scrambled by the internet? With no empty space in there, with no uninterrupted periods lost in the simple art of creative thinking, of "spacing out", what will become of this new generation? A generation that seems increasingly incapable of practicing the gorgeous art of sitting still, undistracted, with one's own thoughts.


I am distressed trees aren’t being climbed the way they were in my generation. But I have faith that tree-climbing may become “a thing” once more. Tree-climbing is a challenge, a physical activity, and a wonderful way to commune with nature. All things that are “in theory” widely encouraged today. But I can’t make everyone head for the nearest tree and start climbing. All I can do is try the best I can to stay off my phone unless necessary, have several hours throughout each day without it, and encourage any kids that I do see leaning against a tree lost on their phone that their time will be so much better spent in the welcoming branches of ANY tree than it will with their nose fixed four inches away from a phone. A phone that promises its user everything that the world can offer - but in truth simply steals our attention, clutters our minds, and offers us not all that much of real value in return. 

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