We Have Always Been Right Here
The Perfect Opportunity

The Understory


In 1999 my dad planted a tree. He marched himself into the forest and carefully selected a mostly straight sapling. It was a yellow maple, not to be confused with a sugar maple because it turns yellow, not red in the fall. These are important notes of distinction. It couldn't have been more than three feet tall because he managed to successfully rehouse it without benefit of large machinery. 

These days we ask ourselves, just how big is that damn thing anyway? And nobody knows for sure because the only engineer has forgotten how.  The general consensus is 12-24" a year so we call it fifty. Regardless of stature, the tree has served its purpose. The man wanted to live somewhere long enough to watch a tree grow and he has done that.

I'm reading a book called The Overstory which is about a lot of things, but mostly about our relationship with trees. I think. At the beginning, there is a story about a man who carries six or seven chestnuts from New York (City, somewhere) to the wilds of Nowhere-Quite-Yet and plants them on what becomes a family farm that spans six or seven generations. Not too long after the chestnuts sprout in the wilds of Nowhere-Quite-Yet, the blight most of us have forgotten wipes out the American Chestnut. 

One tree survives, but one tree cannot make more trees by itself, so it was the last. At some point somebody started photographing the lonely Chestnut which became a landmark as it was the tallest thing in the county. This somebody, a son, or grandson, photographed the tree on the same day in March, every year, from the same knoll.

Every year a photograph went in a box and this odd bit of OCD compulsion was passed, son to son, until the last son (everybody else long dead and gone) left the farm.  The tree was dying anyway but there was that history in a box spanning not just the life of the tree, but the life of everything around it.

I wish I had annual photographs of my father's tree. I wish I had a memory trigger with the consistency and accuracy of an Ent. I wish I had one photo for each year to lay out on the table so I could watch him remember, chronologically or otherwise, the moments contained within those twenty-three years. Because those memories, they slide through his fingers like raindrops. Sometimes they stick on the way down, and sometimes they're just gone.


On September 16, I have every reason to believe there will be a 6.05 acre parcel at my disposal. An irrigation ditch bisects the property neatly. On the front half is a building envelope and fallow land that could use some goats. The back half is an active hayfield, and what does a girl from the Northeast want to do with an open field? Plant a tree! Just one tree. 

About eleven years ago, on my own personal Road to Damascus, which is mostly situated in the lower left quadrant of Virginia, I saw a tree which I mistakenly believed (very briefly) might be my tree. I pulled over, got out of the car, crossed the road, and read the sign. The sign read (more or less):

Go awayEnough magic to require a warning. Think about it.


I haven't noticed oak trees, of any sort, in these parts. Lots of maples for sure. A smattering of birch and a plethora of yet to be identified by me conifers. I asked about oak trees but nobody could say. There's always just been what you see, they said. I shrugged and bit into another early road apple. Not a windfall apple, those come in June, knocked down early by late spring wind. These are early roadside apples that fell at the end of July, halfway and then all the way ripe for what should be painfully obvious reasons. 

I don't know if it's right to import a tree that can't be found within hiking distance. The sadly responsible me says, it's dead wrong to do a thing like that. Even though I think, in another twenty years or less they'll be here anyway. For what should be painfully obvious reasons.

But that's the overstory. The understory is about my tree, about my father's tree, and about the moments we only believe are ours and ours alone.